"There were other options, Sharmishta." It's only when I'm angry with her that I use her full name.
"Such as what? It was either run away or become one of them. And that's the same as death."
"It's not so bad."
"Of course you would say that."
"But what do you expect me to do? The first thing they'll do is call here."
"So tell them you haven't seen me."
"I can't lie to my own sister!"
"Fine. You want me to go away? I'll go away." She makes a move to get up, but I know it's just an empty threat.
"No, that's not what I'm saying."
"It sounded like that to me!"
"Okay. Stay here tonight. We'll figure it out in the morning."
"No, Maasi. I need an answer tonight. If you don't let me stay here, I'll have to find another place."
"I've already told you you can stay here."
"But you'll give me away, won't you?"
"Promise. Now come on. I'll prepare Anu Didi's room for you. It's two in the morning and I have to go to work tomorrow."
"And that was the last I saw of her. I changed the bed-sheets in Anu's room, and I left her there."
"You didn't check on her in the morning before leaving?"
"I did, but the door was locked. I knocked, but she didn't answer. I thought she must be exhausted from her journey. I prepared her breakfast and left it on the table with a note. And I left."
"When was this?"
"I knocked on her door around seven, and I left around eight."
"And you didn't think of calling her parents?"
"I had promised her."
"Come on, Mrs Varma. Only kids believe in promises."
"No. Sammy and me... She has always trusted me. I couldn't let her down."
"Clearly, she didn't trust you. She wouldn't have left otherwise."
"No... I don't know. I still think that something must have happened that made her leave."
"But what could have happened between two and seven in the morning?"
"No.. I believe she was still in the room when I left in the morning."
"Why? Did you hear any noises from inside when you knocked?"
"No. It's just a feeling."
"And you used the word 'locked'. Was the door locked or bolted?
"It was locked. The door doesn't have a bolt. It's just a latch with a key which is usually on the inside."
"But she could have locked it from either side?"
"Yes, she could have. And that's what she did - whenever it was that she left."
"Okay. So you returned home when?"
"Was that your usual time for getting home?"
"No. I usually return around seven. But I was worried about her. I had tried calling home during the day to check on her, but she hadn't picked up."
"Maybe she was worried it was her parents calling?"
"Possibly. But I do have caller ID on my phone. So she could have seen it was me."
"And she didn't have a mobile phone?"
"No. That was another reason for her rebellion - that all her friends had mobile phones, and that she didn't."
"Okay, so you came home at five, and found what?"
"I found the door still locked. And..."
"Well, I was suddenly very scared. I thought maybe... she had done something. I tried to force open the door, but I couldn't. Then I remembered that there was a common bathroom between this bedroom and my son's bedroom. That door has a weaker bolt. I tried through there, and it gave."
"And the room was empty."
"And the bed had been slept in."
"And the balcony door? Was it open?"
"Yes, it was. But she couldn't have climbed down through there. It's a sheer drop to the ground."
"But you have a ladder in your garden shed, don't you?"
"Yes, but the ladder was down there. How could she use it to climb down?"
"Maybe there was somebody who helped her. Maybe somebody used the ladder to climb up, spend the night with her in the room and climb down again."
"Mr Singh! Please!"
"Okay, okay. But all of you seem to believe she was just a child. You need to realize that she was fifteen years old. And we live in a country where girls get married at eleven and have babies by the time they are thirteen."
"I don't care. She was intelligent enough to know what was good for her and what was not."
"Yes, running away from home seems like a very intelligent thing to do."
"She had her reasons."
"Yes, so you tell me. We'll come to that in a while. So where was it that you found the note?"
"On the bedside table."
"And this is the note? "I'm leaving. I don't want you to suffer because of me. Sammy. P.S. - I've borrowed two books."
"What did she mean - suffer?"
"My sister and her husband are - well, possessive. They wouldn't have forgiven me for not telling them she was staying with me."
"Well, her leaving seems to have had the same effect anyway."
"Yes. I suppose she was hoping it wouldn't."
"Did you find any money missing after she left?"
"No, I didn't. But then I hardly keep any money at home."
"Was there anything else missing - jewellery, other valuables?"
"No. Only the books."
"Ah. The ones she mentioned in the note. Which ones?"
"Anna Karenina. And Pamuk's The Black Book."
"Pretty heavy for a girl her age. Was she a reader then, our Sharmishta?"
"Yes, she loves reading. And she has also recently started writing."
"What was she writing? Stories? Poems?"
"A bit of everything, I think. And she has kept a diary since she was eleven."
"Yes, I've seen them. She has taken the last two with her, though."
"Mira and Ankur showed you her diaries?"
"Are you surprised? They are prepared to do anything to get her back."
"I suppose I'm not surprised. They never did understand her."
"What does that have to do with showing me her diary?"
"She really values her privacy. If I had been in Mira's place, I wouldn't have shown her diaries to anybody."
"They don't really have anything particularly private in them, you know."
"That's not the point. Letting a complete stranger go through them is like..."
"I understand. But obviously I had no choice - going through other people's lives is my job. Anyway, the fact that she took the last two years' diaries proves that she knew somebody would go through them."
"Yes, I suppose that's true. She knew her parents well enough."
"So was that one of her reasons for leaving? This trouble that she supposedly had with her parents?"
"Yes. She was afraid they weren't going to let her do what she wanted to do."
"Read books. Write. Think."
"And who did she think was going to pay for her while she did that?"
"I don't think she had got that far. She was just thinking of the next few years - about what she wanted to study. She wanted to take up Humanities after tenth. And then English Literature in college. Mira and Ankur had other plans, of course."
"Oh please, Mrs Varma. That's the typical Indian middle class story. The parents who want their kids to become engineers and doctors, never mind what the kids want. That happens in thousands of Indian families each year. It happened to me; I'm sure it happened to you. You can't tell me that makes a girl run away from home!"
"You don't understand, Mr Singh. Sammy was an extraordinary girl. She had grit, yes. She could stand up for the things she believed in. But she was also extraordinarily sensitive. The thought of spending the next few years of her life studying biology and medicine must have terrorized her!"
"But surely she must have grown up knowing that was her destiny? With doctor parents and a doctor aunt and doctor cousins? And doctor grandparents, for God's sake?"
"Yes. Poor thing. Imagine how it must have worried her for years."
"Just as it worried you in your teens, I suppose?"
"Never mind. Forget I asked that. Anyway. My next step is to find out where she went from here. Interestingly enough, I have lots of witnesses for her journey here. But none for her journey ahead, wherever it was that she went."
"Perhaps she changed her clothes. People must have noticed her because of her uniform. She must have changed.
"Possibly. One last thing, Mrs Varma. Where do you think she has gone?"
"I don't know, Mr Singh."
"Oh come on. You seem to be the one person who knows her best. Give me your best guess."
"I think she's gone somewhere where she can be herself. She won't come to a bad end, I'm sure of that. She knows how to look after herself. She won't end up on the streets. She'll be somewhere where she can be surrounded by books. Where she has enough paper to write on. And I'm sure you'll hear her name somewhere in the future, Mr Singh. You'll hear her name as a new young author, and you'll remember this unsolved case of yours."
"Well, don't be so sure of the unsolved part of it, Mrs Singh. I'm quite sure I know where she is. Or I know who can tell me, if I ask the right questions. Whether I choose to ask them, and whether I choose to tell her parents - that's the question."
"May I ask you a personal question, Mr Singh?"
"You don't need to ask - I can guess. Yes, I went through the same thing. I did serve my four year sentence in an engineering college. And then I worked at an IT firm for about five years before I started doing what I really loved. And that's when I started living, I suppose."
"So you do understand what Sammy is going through."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Are you going to continue the investigation?"
"I will, for a couple of days. And then I'll tell them I can't find a further trail."
"Thank you, Mr Singh."
"Nice meeting you, Mrs Varma. Say hi to Sharmishta for me."
"But suppose they find out? Suppose they come here and discover me?"
"They won't. Once they get to know that you came here and I didn't call them, they won't even talk to me."
"Won't you be sad about that?"
"I will. But I think I'll be sadder if you waste your life the way I did, Sammy."