Finding Mala's Killer
by Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, September 2006
I had not seen Mr. Balkaran since I left my company to open up an accounting school on the East Coast. That was nine years ago. We first met when he came to audit the books of the company where I was employed as an accountant. As he was not an avid cricket fan by any means I hardly expected that we would meet head-on at a cricket match at Bourda Green where India was playing the third test match of a five match series. He was dressed in white drill trousers and a white shirt and wore a purple cap as if he were a member of the visiting cricket team.
Hey, buddy, long time no see. What have you been up to these days? I asked as I reached out for a handshake.
Same old work. Nothing new! he nonchalantly replied.
I guess you are all married with children by now.
No! Still free, single and disengaged, man. Why do you think I am wearing this outfit? You see those nice coolie girls in the pavilion watching me? They think I am a member of the Bourda Club. I am ready to put the moves on that one in the blue mini skirt.
Last I heard was that you had some designs on a girl at your workplace. I dont remember her name but I think she was from the West Coast.
Oh! You mean Mala Ramsammy?
Yes! Yes! Thats the girl. You were crazy over that girl.
I guess you havent heard. A sad story, really.
Why? What happened? Tell me!
Have a seat! This is going to take a while.
And so, as we watched the cricketers doing their warm up exercises just in front of the pavilion, Balkaran began to narrate the tragedy of Malas death.
It was a Monday morning, he began. We hadnt quite unpacked our files when the phone in the boardroom began to ring. I answered the phone. It was Claudia, our office receptionist. She wanted us to go back to the office. The only reason she cited was that the partners wanted to address the staff about something of importance. As we drove in from every part of the city where we were conducting audits, everyone was speculating as to what might be so urgent that it couldnt wait until next morning. Suggestions ran rampant, from possible layoffs to a merger with another accounting firm. As we arrived back at the office we were directed to the main staff room. On that occasion the arrangement of furniture was noticeably different. Normally the staff room was set up like a classroom, with desks and chairs for auditors and accountants who needed to work at head office. That day the desks were removed and replaced with chairs, all lined neatly in rows like in a conference hall. We surmised that it was going to be an important and lengthy meeting.
I took my seat and looked at the faces of the office staff around me to see if I could decode their expressions. Rollo sat next to me. I nicknamed him Rollo after he fell from a motorcycle and rolled like a barrel across the street. In fact now I didnt even remember his real name. His father had died some years ago and his mother felt the best way to keep him out of trouble was to send him to work with his uncle who was a senior officer at the firm. But Rollo was continually in trouble with both staff and clients. He sat there, looking around for his friends, and one could see the formation of mischief in his eyes. I was tempted to ask him if he knew what the meeting was about but bit my lip after I realized it was a waste of time. Notwithstanding his connections to management you couldnt get anything serious or important out of him. He was a carefree spirit whose main objective was to entertain the staff with slapstick comedy, often at his own expense.
His partner, whom he nicknamed Klunks, arrived a minute later and when their eyes met Rollo began to tap on the seat of the empty chair to his left. The name Klunks was born out of a funny incident that occurred during one of his weekend adventures with his father. He made the mistake of telling Rollo that while on the fishing trip to the Conservancy he had heard a sound and upon investigation saw a middle-aged man squatting on a narrow plank and doing his business over a stream that fed into the reservoir. As each segment of the digested by-product hit the water it produced a peculiar klunks sound. Rollo related the story to the staff and the name "Klunks" was born. Unfortunately it stuck to the original storyteller.
Behind us a chap named Harry kept shifting in his chair with a grim expression. He was worried that he might be laid off and could not for the sake of a placed bet afford for that to happen. When he was still in high school he had a huge fight with his father about the direction of his life and future. His father was a short, skinny but feisty taxi driver. During one round of argument the old man lost control and made the terrible accusation that his son will never be a man like him. In retaliation Harry was determined to produce more children than his father. He had already sired seven children even though he was barely twenty-five and had plans for another half dozen. His fathers record of eleven children was in serious jeopardy and Harry was determined to go the distance just to show him who was the real man. Unfortunately his poor wife became the vehicle for his foolish enterprise. She was always pregnant.
To my right was Nugget. Hardly anyone remembers his real name. He was a tall and skinny East Indian man from the East Coast. He never spoke unless someone else initiated a conversation, but he was of a pleasant disposition and had a permanent smile as though his facial muscles were frozen with botox. No one could tell if he was worried or happy. He was rather dark. But for his moustache that was hardly noticeable his face was always clean shaven so that from a distance it shone as though it was buffed with Nugget shoe polish. That is how he got stuck with the name Nugget. As our eyes crossed we smiled at each other. In fact, I smiled. He was already smiling. He was not an insider so there was no point in asking him if he knew the reason for the meeting.
The last batch of audit staff came in and took their seats. It was a balmy day and there was no air conditioning in the room. Sweat was still dripping from their faces when the staff partner made his entrance. He was short man, fat and rotund, like the Kingpin in Daredevil, and his bearing was like that of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He kept his eyes on the floor as he walked up to the podium, slowly, reluctantly, as though an invisible hand was pushing him forward against his will. He sported a moustache thicker than that of Inspector Clouseau with bristles that overlapped his upper lips and often trapped the remnants of food. One could tell with a fair degree of accuracy what he had for lunch on any given day. For want of imagination we called him Fat Man.
I happened to work with Fat Man on my very first assignment when I joined the firm years ago. Back then he was a senior accountant. I will never forget how I struggled to maintain my composure when he boasted to me how he was unbeatable at the 100-meters during his schooldays. Maybe it was true but I just couldnt picture him as a sprint champion. In fact it would be an extraordinary feat if in his present shape he could run a hundred meters in under a minute. On another occasion he told me about his sexual exploits as a teenager, and his steamy affairs with a married woman. As expected he was not the seducer but the seduced. Evidently he was well aware that everyone made jokes about him behind his large back and he compensated by using his seniority to pump up his deflated ego. To his credit though he had manipulated his way to partnership in a relatively short time and now proudly sat behind the wheel of a metallic red Honda Civic that he claimed was the only one like that in Guyana.
Fatso stepped up to the makeshift podium alongside a popular senior we called Tall Boy. We nicknamed him Tall Boy for obvious reasons. He was a boy, over six feet tall, and our vocabulary was very limited. Tall Boy swallowed hard, and stuttered, Folks, we are sorry to have to call you in on such short notice but the partners feel it is important that we address the issue of Malas death. Malas death? We all turned to the people next to us and breathed a collective sigh of relief. At least no one will be laid off. Rollo can continue to raise hell. Nugget can smile for real. And Harry can continue his run at the old man's record. Then it dawned on us otherwise selfish people that one of our colleagues had died a tragic death and the mood shifted instantly from relief to sympathy. But the incident in question occurred two weeks ago and was already put to rest. Why relive the tragedy?
The late Mala Ramsammy was one of our typists. She was petite and pretty but very shy. She could not have been more than twenty-one years of age at the time of her suicide. She died and was buried two weeks ago. Since Mala never aired her problems to any of the girls no one was dogmatic about what precipitated her suicide. But we all had a good clue. Well, except for Rohan. He wore a blank expression as Tall Boy commenced his address:
"My friends and colleagues, we are still hurting from the pain of Mala's tragic death two weeks ago. And as if that pain is not enough there are some people among us who have been propagating nasty rumors as to who or what might have pushed her over the edge." Rohan leaned back in his chair and with his hand over his mouth he whispered in my ear, "Whom are they talking about?" As I looked at his innocent face I could not summon the courage to let him know that he was the one. Besides, he was not to blame. After leaving high school Rohan shipped out to England to complete his studies in Accounting. He spent a few years in London and on successful completion of studies returned home and joined our firm. But in the crucible of a lonely existence in England he had forged a strong, independent and outgoing personality. He had learned to appreciate life and not to take it for granted. Interaction with foreign students under similar conditions and constraints made him develop a new respect for all races of people and unlike the typical Guyanese male he was never sparing with compliments, especially to the girls in the typing pool. He always stopped by the pool to say nice things about the girls on their work and dress. He brought them coffee and candies. He flattered them with kind remarks and expressions of awe at how dumbstruck he was by their beauty. Naturally his presence and interaction with them evoked two types of emotions jealousy from the men and endearment from the women.
Unfortunately, Rohan's grace, charm and desire to affirm and encourage his colleagues had a downside. The women in Guyana were not accustomed to flying at the emotional heights to which one is borne by simple words of affirmation. Sweet words of encouragement, gentle whispers of appreciation, empathy and sympathy, these were graces long since buried in a fractured society's struggle to keep it from falling below the base of Maslow's pyramid of needs. Guyanese were accustomed to extended periods of blackouts, undrinkable water, unavailability of basic foodstuff, instability of life due to mass exodus from the country, and the perennial presence of disease carrying pestilence. Under such despairing existence there was little room for social graces. Even when Rohan complemented the girls they would giggle like amused little children. They never knew responses such as "You're welcome," or basic ones such as "thank you." So one might well imagine the emotional chaos conceived in a young girls impressionable mind when she was being bombarded daily with words of grace and affirmation. Mala's sensibilities to such display of goodness were heightened by her alienation from a father's love. Her dad passed away when she was only six and her mother was forced to work to make ends meet. Added to all this she had no siblings with whom she could share her innermost secrets, joys and frustrations. It was bottled up inside her and two weeks ago it imploded with fatal consequence.
After weeks of poetic expressions of endearment and "sweet talk" Mala became convinced that Rohan had an interest in her that he didn't have for the other girls. It was special. It was romantic. It was singular. So she responded in the only way she knew. Day after day she brought him sandwiches, offered to make his coffee, and did little things like brushing off dust or fallen hair from his shirt. When he was out of the office she would stare blankly at her typewriter, daydreaming of an escape from her world of loneliness into his world. Then one day her dream became a nightmare.
Rosalie was the nightmare! She was a tall and pretty girl with eclectic good looks. Like Rohan she also had just returned from England where she studied Accounting. They were not acquainted with each other in London but something had magnetized them to each other on their return home. Perhaps it was the commonality of experience in England. They were now more cultured and sophisticated than the folks who had never set foot in an airplane. Rohan and Rosalie had much in common and the fact that they were both accountants gave them a leveler ground on which to develop a friendship. However, there was no indication their friendship was anything serious and time proved it to be just platonic. Sadly, Mala never lived to make that discovery. She was overwhelmed with jealousy so much that she fell sick and had to take a few days off from work. Since she wasn't the confrontational type or trained in the art of subtlety, there was no way she was going to ask Rohan if he had any feelings for her or for Rosalie. She preferred instead to suffer in silence and bear the blame for the ills that befell her, including the death of her father and the absence of mother's friendship. An extreme sense of worthlessness had overshadowed her entire existence. Then Rohan arrived and hope came alive. She had never felt better about herself and it showed in the way she began to conduct herself at work. She was no longer gaudily dressed and the downcast countenance that was affixed to her like a clown's mask was since overlaid with the exuberance of hope and happiness. Everyone noticed the change but few knew it had to do with Rohan. Not even Rohan!
That fateful day she came to work with the usual group of budding accountants who rode the Demerara River ferry to get to the office. But she was lonely and quiet in the midst of the otherwise boisterous group. She jostled mechanically among them, a disembodied soul on her way to a predetermined destiny. Even when she dressed for work that morning she knew it was a one-way trip from home and from life. Her mother had already left for work. She never had a chance to say goodbye.
At noon the girls in the typing pool broke for lunch and headed for the staff room. Mala told them she hadn't packed anything for lunch and that she was going to check out the nearby market for a bread-and-fish sandwich. She left in a hurry and sped straight for a Drug Store on Main Street where she purchased a bottle of Malathion, a weedicide readily available without any legal ramifications and which was often sold without questions asked. After all, Guyana was a grassy country and resistant strains had to be chemically treated to kill them at the roots. She wandered around Water Street for a bit and then returned to the office about half an hour later when she figured the girls would have finished their lunch and departed for a stroll around the block. The office was situated in the heart of the city and most of the staff could be found browsing around the shops during their lunch break. When Mala returned to the office she found not a soul, except the relief switchboard operator who was giggling on the phone. She said "hi" to him and headed for the mailroom. He raised his hand in acknowledgment and continued his conversation. Mala put her purse on the binding table and locked the mailroom door.
Twenty minutes later the girls returned from their lunch break and settled back into their routine. Mala was missing! They thought she might be a few minutes late. At 1:30 p.m. however the supervisor became concerned. Whenever Mala wanted some time off or if ever she was running late she was always courteous enough to let her supervisor know ahead of time. The supervisor made some inquiries and became even more concerned when she could not obtain any definite leads as to Mala's whereabouts. As fate would have it the relief switchboard operator had taken his lunch break and the regular operator had resumed duties, so when the supervisor checked at the front desk to see if Mala had left a message the operator had no knowledge of her location. In hindsight it is doubtful that Mala took this change of guard into consideration. If she didn't then it would appear that fate had a hand in her demise.
It was only when the relief operator returned half an hour later and was immediately questioned that they knew Mala had indeed returned to the office. He had seen her heading in the direction of the mailroom. A frantic woman hunt ensued. Minutes later Stewart tried to open the mailroom door and was surprised to find it locked. He pounded on the door and called, "Mala! Mala! Open up! This is Stewart!" There was no answer. Stewart thumbed through the huge bunch of keys but couldn't find the key for the mailroom. Then he decided to climb over the wall where there was a three feet ventilation clearance between the top of the wall and the ceiling. By then everyone in the office had gathered outside the mailroom door. The moment Stewart's eyes cleared the top of the wall he exclaimed, "Oh my Lord. Somebody call the ambulance! Quick!" Two of the girls broke out in hysterical screaming and had to be led away. Stewart was by no means a young man but he was fit enough to leap over the wall and into the room. He opened the door and placed his hand across the door to prevent anyone from going in. The weedicide bottle was on the floor on its side. There was barely a drop on the floor. Mala had emptied the contents of a 16 oz glass bottle down her throat and was foaming at the sides of the mouth. Stewart noticed a bit of paper clenched in her fist. He removed it and began to read it in silence. Outside the room all the girls were sobbing and crying. "Tell us, what did she say in the note?" Stewart passed it to her supervisor. "I know this poem, she muttered, Its from John Donne's Love Infiniteness. She sobbed as she read:
"If yet I have not all thy love,
As she concluded the poem two of the girls broke out in uncontrollable wailing and had to be taken away to the girls room. Stewart bowed on his knees and tried all the life saving techniques he learnt as a boxing coach. He was very fond of all the girls and they reciprocated by showering him with gifts on special occasions like his birthday and Christmas. He checked Mala for a pulse. Then he tried CPR and rechecked her pulse for signs of life. There was none! He leaned back, took a deep breath, and said nothing. He knew she had gone. Under his breath he muttered in disgust as one who was defeated in battle, "Damn!"
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