The moonlight crept through the thin wisps of cloud, casting a pale hue on the sea below. The sound of the waves crashing on the rocks, deafening, majestic. But all this was lost to Vaibhav as he stood there on the 5th floor attic of the main building. His body numbed by the shock and horror of his realisation. “This can’t be” he thought, “How..”. A muffled scream, a soft thud, and a huge splash. It was over.
The dining hall had never before been this quiet. Shocked eyes, excited murmurings and the sound of newspapers crumbling as everyone hurriedly turned over the pages to get the full story. “Another suicide at the IIT’s”, the headlines read in bold character. Below was a description of how Vaibhav Gupta had jumped from to his death from the IIT, Mumbai main building into the rocky sea below. Study pressures and internal trauma were seen as the main cause. The story continued to page 5, where it was all about how brilliant a student Vaibhav had been and how he made it into the IIT on his own merit. Messages and condolences from shocked teachers and friends and lastly, an interview with the IIT director, Professor Saruman. He conveyed his grief at a student having to take such a harsh step and urged everyone to convey any misgivings or troubles of any kind to their friends and teachers or take up the matter with the in-campus counsellor, even, if necessary, come to him for advice and guidance.
The piece of toast in Prashant’s hand tasted like rubber. He never noticed. It wasn’t possible. Study pressure be damned, Vaibhav could not have committed suicide. No way. It just wasn’t possible. They were friends since the 1st week of college. Room-mates, both subjected to ragging together, and sharing many common interests. Lively and fun loving, it was just impossible for him to have taken his own life. He wasn’t doing too badly academically either. It was the IIT, there was bound to be study pressure, but not as bad as to jump to his death. NO, it can’t have been and he knew it.
A tap on his shoulder made him look up. Vijay came and sat beside him. “Still thinking about it?” he asked. “How can I not. The more I think, the more crazy it seems. Its unreal man.”
“I know”, said Vijay. “He was with us that night, playing cards. Who would’ve thought he was going to do what he did. I dunno, there’s something wrong here. Something missing.”
“So he just took off? Just like that, at 1am that too? Nothing suspicious there, or anything he said..?”
“No. Not that we paid too much attention. I mean, you know how he is. Mad about photography. Looked out the window, saw the full moon night and got all poetic about its beauty. Grabbed a camera and told us he’s heading to the main building for some nice snaps. I told him to be careful.The main building being out of bounds and all at night and what if he were caught. But he laughed it off. That was it.”
“There should have been a proper investigation at least.” Prashant said, banging his fist against the table. “The police and the director were so adamant that it was suicide that they never even investigated the thing. They might have missed something. You know what, I have half a mind to go there myself one night and you know, snoop around a bit.”
“Don’t be crazy man”, pleaded Vijay. “You saw what the director was like. I have never seen him so livid in my life. And what with the late night curfew implemented and all, you’ll be deep fried if you’re caught. Anyway, what will you find anyway. Its been 2 days. Its not that the police haven’t looked at all. Let it go man.”
“I dunno. I can’t. Anyway, never mind that now. Lets go to class.”
After lunch, Prashant lay on his bed. The sky glowed red, the setting sun casting its warm rays over the room. He looked over to the empty bed next to him. He’d been told he’ll be assigned a new roommate and had been called in for counselling. But he wasn’t delusional, nor was he over-sentimental. The facts spoke for themselves. There was nothing to suggest or even hint at a possible cause for suicide. It might have been an accident…But how do you fall over an attic window. And why go there in the first place. The 5th floor was out of bounds for students. Exam department offices and a couple of dusty rooms filled with bundles if papers and stuff he’d heard. So why choose that spot of all places for a suicide. Heck, the roofs a more convenient option. Spares one of the discomfort of climbing through a window to die. “No!” he decided, “there’s more to this than that. And for what it takes. I’ll find out. Tonight.”
It was foolishness and he knew it, but he couldn’t just let it go. He didn’t tell anyone, for fear of getting reported. Made a note though, “Gone investigating. Not suicide. If dead, I’d like to blame Enid Blyton and Franklin Dixon for writing the Famous 5 and Hardy Boys and making me believe I can do it too. Also, would be nice if you catch my killer”, and put the note on his bed. “Nice time for dark humour, smartass” he thought to himself. A torch, soft shoes, and mobile phone on emergency speed-dial in pocket, he set off. It was 12.30 am. Curfew was imposed, so no-one was around. He walked out the hostel, up the small lane, keeping a close watch for movement. The neatly trimmed bushes lining the road cast a dark shadow on the path. The crickets chirped, an occasional hoot of an owl. Every twig or leaf that cracked under his feet seemed to make a deafening noise. Any second, he anticipated a loud shout, asking him to stop. The sound of the sea got louder. He was near. Up ahead the moonlight illuminated the façade of the tall white academic building. It was dark. Creepy. Not a soul in sight. Strange, there was supposed to be a watchman on duty.
He walked up to the side, entering wasn’t a big issue. It’s a college after all, full of alcohol guzzling, adrenaline charged geeks. Broken windows are a staple. He found one in the chemistry laboratory and climbed in. It was dark. The pale moonlight shining on the flasks lining the desks provided little illumination. He switched on the torch and made his way past the rows of chemicals. Luckily, the door wasn’t locked. He crept out in the hall. It was pitch dark. But he dared not use the torch here in case someone was around. The darkness and the stillness of it all gave him goosebumps. Already, this felt like a bad idea, but he willed himself on. The staircases up ahead were illuminated by the moonlight falling across them from the glass windows. Carefully and slowly, all senses on alert he moved towards them. Nothing moved. As he reached them, he felt he saw a shadow above him, eyes on him. Ghosts maybe? “No, get real” he whispered. The sound of the sea was all too loud, echoing off the empty hallways. Nerves on edge, eyes darting everywhere for the smallest sign of danger, he slowly climbed up. It was as he reached the 3rd floor that it happened again, he felt he was being watched. He thought he heard a swish of sudden movement, but the sea was too loud to be sure. Was it his imagination? Should he make a run for it? Questions and doubts flooded his mind. But again, he willed himself on, “C’mon you owe Vaibhav this. No backing out now.”
It felt like hours but finally he was there. The restricted 5th floor. It was the same as every other floor. Pitch dark and at the moment to his over active senses, seemed like a death trap. He brought out the torch, with a deep sigh, ready to run at the slightest hint of danger, he switched it on and flashed it around the corridor. Nothing. It was just a regular corridor, minus a blood thirsty mass murderer. The attic from which Vaibhav had jumped was at the very end, sea facing. He moved towards it. He had a lump in his throat, sweat flowed down his face, each step felt like a thousand miles. He reached the door, put a hand on the handle. Closed his eyes, took a deep breath and opened it.
The room was small and dark. But the window at the far end was open. The moonlight staring in, a breeze, moist from the sea poured in. He felt the chills. This was it. This was where Vaibhav was last alive. Transfixed, in a daze he crept over to the window. The vast sea before him, relentlessly crashing against the shore. He was overwhelmed by a sudden wave of sadness, deep pain, he felt choked. And then he froze, a shiver ran down his spine, his eyes widened,shocked, he heard the door behind him lock with a click and in a whirl, he turned around, facing his worst nightmare.
“So, you too huh? It seems I wasn’t discreet enough. Too many people poking their noses into my business. At their own peril I may add”, the voice was a mere whisper, but commanded authority and menace, it was a voice Prashant knew too well, and the speaker. Spluttering and in shocked disbelief, Prashant stared helplessly as Professor Saruman, director of IIT, Mumbai stood before him.
“I..I…I’m…sorry.. very sorry sir. I didn’t mean to.. I don’t know.. I was just….” Words failed him.
“You what? What do you know about this business, and how? Did Vaibhav Gupta somehow leave a message. I thought I’d covered my tracks rather well.”
“You.. sir?”, disbelief growing. “I.. I.. don’t understand.”
“What don’t you understand? Why are you here?”
“I just.. came to look.. to see if I can find something…”
“Hahaha! So, Sherlock, any luck?”
“I.. no, sir..”
“Tsk! Tsk! I expect better of my students. You are IITian’s after all. Anyway, since you are here, let me enlighten you. As you know, I am a fairly educated man, running an IIT on the governments bidding, while my colleague’s of old have all surpassed me with a MBA degree, working at a high end multi-national and earnings a kings ransom. Hence, I started to indulge in a little side business of my own to supplement my meagre government drawn salary. As you may have noticed, this institute is positioned some way off the main hustle and bustle of the city, by a rather lonely part of the sea. In a city famous for its underworld, it wasn’t too hard find a use for such a convenient location. I had some contacts too. Its impossible living here for this long and not know certain kinds of people. Long story short, I got involved in a smuggling ring. Yes, shocking isn’t it and so 1960’s , you would say. Still it pays for my every need and some more, so I’m not complaining. My job is simple. When the shipment comes in, signal to the ships crew when the men onshore are ready to unload. Sometimes, we use the campus for storage. After all, who’d associate an IIT with smuggling eh? Now the signalling process is simple enough. Mobiles or radio you’d think, but no. They can be intercepted. Nothing beats old fashioned methods. Flashing lights, morse codes. For that I use this very room. Convenient isn’t it? All these years, its been going on, and yes, we’ve had a fair share of trouble. But the magic of the IIT is, you can pass off almost everything as study pressure and depression related, even deaths. Don’t you just love this place? Haha! Yes, don’t look so scandalized, you believed them too didn’t you. When you read about these “suicides” in the papers, you think, “Sad! Poor creatures, can’t handle a little pressure. This’ll never happen to me.” Hahaha! If only you knew. But that goes to show how good we were.”
“So… So.. Vaibhav..?” the words stumbled out, his mind, refusing to register the obvious.
“Yes. I was happily signalling for the shipment, when your snoopy friend barged in. He was on the roof, apparently clicking photographs when he saw the flashes. Came to investigate, and well.. sigh.. the rest you know. This is sad though. And bad for business. Two suicides in such short spans. We’ve never had this before. Frankly I expected a few Hardy Boys inspired adventure seekers to be out and about investigating the recent death. So I wasn’t too keen on tonight. But you know, duty calls and this is the last one in a while, so I can lay low, till the uproar about this new suicide incident dies down. Shame! The IIT really can’t afford to lose such bright young minds..”
“No.. wait.. you can’t.. I won’t tell anyone. Please..” Prashant panicked. With a giant leap he jumped at the door, turned the handle. But it was locked. There was no escape. He turned around. Facing his foe, ready to fight. Never before had he realised how tall Prof. Saruman was. He towered over him. Prashant, tried to hit him but he was easily over powered. He struggled. But something came crashing down on his head and he slumped to the ground, vision blurred, unconscious.
There was a furore at the IIT campus the following morning. Police had blocked the main building as students gathered in hordes. Another dead student, apparently fell off the academic building from the same spot as Vaibhav Gupta days before. Prashant Kumar’s body had been washed up by the sea early in the morning. Police sources think its suicide. Unable to control his grief at his friend’s death, he took his own life. That day, as every student gathered in the college courtyard, Professor Saruman, addressed them all. “Please. This has got to stop. I hereby forbid any outdoors activity after 8pm. Security has been increased. Police personnel will be patrolling the campus. Anyone, found roaming outside, will be dealt with severely, including rustication. Death is not an option. Life is too precious to throw away, for any reason whatsoever. If anyone of you, has any trouble, fear or problem, please, please, share. Your friends, your teachers are all there to help you. And anyone, with any information about these recent events, please, come forward. Let me know. It will help us solve this issue once and for all. Please, my door is always open…”
Later in the afternoon, a search of Prashant’s room yielded a note,
“Gone investigating. Not suicide. If dead, I’d like to blame Enid Blyton and Franklin Dixon for writing the Famous 5 and Hardy Boys and making me believe I can do it too. Also, would be nice if you catch my killer.”
The cause of death was deemed an accident.