“The shape and size of your hands tells you what sort of person you are,” said the old lady seated on the lower berth in the train, wrapped in black and blue looking ominous and like a rounded cozy hen. Wisps of black hair peppered with white escaped from a straggly hair net as sharp penetrating eyes peered out from underneath shaggy grey eyebrows. Deep furrows outlined her brow while fine crow’s feet illuminated her aging countenance.
The train shrieked passing brown and yellow hay and corn fields heading towards the rice paddies of Andhra Pradesh. There was no wind – just a slight breeze heralding the hot summer months ahead. The windows were left open and beside it sat my twin, Natasha Thakur reading an Agatha Christie novel. Natasha was a great fan of the mystery writer and aspired to read all her novels. Natasha was munching a biscuit and reading, her feet propped up on the berth.
“How exciting,” breathed my cousin, Sonia, and sat down on the opposite berth and held out her left palm. “Manisha, come down,” she said looking at me perched on the upper berth like a monkey. I sighed and swung my short frame down the sides, descending like a languor. I shook my head and sat down next to Sonia. My talkative cousin was older to me by a difference of a year and she considered herself my guardian.
“Can you really tell what a person is like?” my twin jumped into the conversation. Natasha waved her novel aside and running her long fingers through her hair whispered to both Sonia and me, “I bet our neighbors are murderers – look at them.”
I looked and, truthfully the couple’s appearance did appear rather mysterious and frightening. They were Muslims – seemingly uncultured and not well- educated. The wife, Noor, seemed pretty enough, I thought. Noor was my height – which is five feet and three inches – with an olive complexion, high cheekbones and a gentle manner. She was dressed in a loose yellow salwar suit and had her hair tamed into a small bun. She looked to be in her late twenties. I communicated my observations and assumptions to my twin, Natasha from behind Sonia’s back.
Out of the three of us, I was the observant one with a creative mind and a high intelligence level according to the various IQ tests done during my early school days. Unfortunately I did not put this intelligence to use when it came to books. On the contrary, my fraternal twin who was two inches taller than me and a few kilograms lighter than me had a penchant for burning the midnight oil and doing our parents proud.
Sonia was more like me – I thought. I transferred my wandering attentions to the male occupant in our aisle. Noor’s husband was short and stocky – balding with stained crooked teeth. He had a foul temper which all of us had witnessed when he had yelled using abusive language at the tea vendor aboard on the train. He was clad in an ill- fitting dirty white kurta and a dark coloured trouser. Hawaii slippers and a red checkered kerchief tied around his neck completed his attire. He was chewing paan and had unkempt oily hair, curling down his neck.
“Why couldn’t he shave before he got up on the train?” said Natasha turning up her nose like a haughty princess.
I shrugged – frankly his appearance had a jarring effect and I hoped that a situation would never arise during our one day journey when any of us had to converse with him.
“He looks like a prickly hedgehog…” I commented primly.
“I don’t think they are husband and wife though…”
“Really…” I left my sentence unfinished.
“I think she is Muslim… but not he and they don’t seem like a married couple at all…”
“They seem more like lovers…” my twin ended nodding her head.
I shook my head thinking. What did Natasha, a mere fifteen- year- old, know about married couples and lovers? I conveyed this thought to my knowledgeable twin who simply smiled and said, “I read books don’t I? I know. Books are a source of invaluable knowledge.”
“Natasha, please,” said Sonia squirming like an eager fish between the two of us.
“You will be a great musician,” said the old lady gazing keenly at Sonia.
I let out a hoot of laughter. The husband on the opposite upper berth looked down at me with smoldering eyes and said, “Shut up.”
I stuck out my tongue. I disliked train journeys and if one had unpleasant company, it became more unbearable. Why couldn’t this fellow be more like those two men in dark suits looking suspiciously like Mafia men – quiet and pleasantly aloof? The two side berths were occupied by the two men in dark glasses and shiny black boots. They seemed to be reading the morning’s newspapers – one of them, Tweedledee was reading the main section of ‘Times of India.’ While the other, whom I had christened ‘Tweedledum’ after the character in the book, ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ was pursuing the ‘Economic Times.’
But my active imaginative mind told me that they seemed to be watching all of us rather than reading their newspapers. Their windows were down and both of them had placid water- tight facial expressions – so immobile that I was afraid that a tiny smile could cause their faces to crack.
In front of me the old lady continued with her task diligently. I stretched my legs and yawned listening half- awake to the ensuing chatter. Obviously this old lady was joking – otherwise Sonia and a musician! It was laughable – Sonia was not musically inclined at all. I blinked – what was this old lady doing on this train bound for Hyderabad? In a flash it dawned upon me – this whole thing was a set up to fool somebody. The old lady with her theatrical style – the two Siamese twins in their dark suits keeping watch over us. And what about us? The three teenage girls and the highly odd Muslim couple. I yawned again – train journeys make me drowsy.
After Sonia – she saw Natasha’s hand and promised her good money- making skills. Natasha chuckled and insisted that I show mine. The old lady looked and looked and then stared at me without speaking.
“Well?” Natasha demanded.
The old lady shook her grey head and mumbled, “They have to develop still.”
Natasha laughed and said, “That’s not true – you told mine and I am the same age as her. So her hands must be developed too. Come on tell…”
“Please…” Sonia chimed in.
But the old lady remained tight- lipped. I frowned looking at my hands – what had the old lady seen about my character from the shape of my hands? “Hands need to develop” – that sounded like a feeble excuse…
“Here come the others,” said Sonia and gestured towards the group shyly making their way to our aisle. Obviously the skills of the old lady had acquired fame and everyone now wanted to have a bite of the pie.
After us, came the people from other compartments. And soon as evening fell they all scattered like chickens and went home to their berths. She had assigned one with the fortune of a story teller – vivid imagination, she said. She told another that he had the hands of a leader – she assigned another to the fortune of a labourer thanks to the peculiar shape of his hands (he was not at all happy)
“Tell mine,” said the husky well- bred voice of our mysterious Muslim wife. I sniffed – the scent of jasmine came strongly to me. Out of the corner of my eye I detected a faint movement and glanced up. The husband was climbing down to join us. The old lady sniffed and glanced furtively at the two men and then shook her head slightly. I frowned and thought – were they her bodyguards?
“You have small- delicate hands,” said the old lady slowly.
“That we all can see,” snapped the husband. He was now sitting next to his wife and leaning forward. His eyes, I noticed, were small and like slits. He ran a red tongue over pale dry lips and I was reminded of a snake. He reached into his left kurta pocket and pulled out a beedi and stuck it between his lips. I continued to watch as he lit the beedi and puffed revealing yellow paan- stained teeth. I shuddered.
The old lady did not even bat an eye and continued in her monotonous voice. “It means that you are easily swayed by other people – you can be manipulated into doing things which you don’t want to.”
She cocked her graying head to her right and murmured dreamily, “These are the hands of an actress…”
“Nonsense…” roared the husband and snatched his wife’s palm from the old lady’s grasp. “You talk rubbish — acting indeed!”
I thought – wasn’t that a nice prediction? Actresses had money, power and fame but obviously this had upset her husband. He, it seemed, didn’t care for these things at all.
But the old lady was talking still, “Your hands are telling me that you have recently helped someone to perform an evil task – you have acted to give everyone the wrong impression – you are still acting…”
She got no further as the husband had jumped up and was yelling like a maniac, “Enough… you old fool! Stop this nonsense.”
I started and Sonia murmured, “Now why get so upset? Just take it as a joke…”
The wife had gone pale – looking white as a sheet, I observed. Even her lips had drained of colour! She looked, I thought, frightened – but why? Surely everyone knew that this was just a way of passing time.
The husband was waving his hands and threatening dire consequences to the old lady. She remained the only calm entity in the raging tempest! She caught the husband’s hand and looked up with startled eyes.
“Now you leave my hand alone – don’t know where such people come and create havoc?”
“These are the hands of a killer…” said the old lady with her eyes closed.
“Oh Allah!” cried the wife, hands to her bosom. “Akash… she knows…”
The husband turned on his wife with bloodshot eyes and barked, “Shut up – not another word.”
“Your hand tells me that you recently killed an innocent person…” the tirade continued.
“Akash… how does she know?” said his wife, now trembling like a leaf.
“Shut up both of you.” The husband turned to the old lady and said dangerously, “Shut your filthy mouth otherwise you will be very sorry.”
“You are a killer,” the monotonous voice continued. “What will you do? Kill me as you killed him?”
“You…” said the husband and put his square- shaped hands around the old lady’s neck and began to methodically choke her.
“Hey,” said Sonia getting up. “Have you gone mad? Leave her alone!”
She made an attempt to get up but was waved down by the old lady who continued to splutter. Sonia got up and was immediately slapped down by the wife who now looked like a death- stricken rabbit – with her face all white and pinched. Just watching her made my hair stand on its roots. I gulped and clutched Sonia. Outside the sunlight was fading casting an orange violet hue. The husband leaned over and shut the window. He looked at me and said, “Shut the window girl.”
I looked at Natasha – fear writ on my face. Natasha’s face mirrored my own feelings and she shut the window. That is the way with twins – they just know what one thinks and feels. I looked about cautiously – Tweedledee and Tweedledum had vanished into thin air, I mentally began to curse them – where was muscle when you needed it most? True Tweedledum and Tweedledee looked like skeletons but they were men of the soil with flesh on their bones!
Here, we were facing a maniac who was slowly draining out the life of one silly old woman! I closed my eyes in prayer and after a while opened them. The situation had not changed much – Sonia was now crying – the husband was still choking the old lady who still had the energy and the guts to choke, “Killer…”
Silly old hag, I thought viciously – causing all the trouble and still causing it! Why couldn’t she just go to sleep? I continued looking and mentally applauded – Tweedledum and Tweedledee were back smiling like genies.
Silly asses, I fumed inwardly, why didn’t they do something instead of just standing there like lamp posts?
“OK you old bag…” said the husband. “I am a killer and I did kill my friend, Ali, her true husband, a few days ago. Satisfied but now even you are going to die.”
Natasha screamed and fainted as the two men in dark suits came near clapping. One of them held a small tape recorder.
“Thanks Akash… you gave us all the evidence we needed.”
The husband started, his hands left the old lady’s throat and reached for his pocket.
“ No, no Akash,” said Tweedledee. “You don’t want to do anything stupid now with your knife do you?” He reached out and caught the husband’s hand and at the same time the old lady shifted to the far end of the berth gingerly shaking her head and massaging her throat.
Tweedledee had one hand on the husband’s shoulder and with his free hand struck him with the back of the revolver. He fell down on the swaying floor of the train. The old lady pulled off her wig and said smiling, “Catch the wife … she is the accomplice.”
Tweedledee wheeled around and caught the fleeing Noor by the arm and said, “Not so fast Noor Ali – did you think that we would never suspect you and you lover…”
I caught my breath – Natasha had been right after all. I continued to gape as the salt ‘n’ pepper wig came off to reveal glossy black hair cropped short into page boy fashion. The facial mask was slowly being peeled off and a young woman emerged smiling wiping traces of grease.
“Sub- Inspector Diya Chauhan,” she said.
“So you don’t know what the shape of hands signify?” I stammered mentally grappling with the gravity of the situation.
“Sure I do,” said the Sub- Inspector and pulled out a small black coloured book from her blouse pocket. She handed me the book and I stared at the title, “Know Yourself By knowing Your Hand.’
I said slowly, “So what you said was true – about the hands…”
“I think so…” the Sub- Inspector’s voice was tinged with doubt.
I grabbed at her words as my last ray of hope, “You think so – you are not sure…”
Tweedledum let out an impatient sigh and said, “Just read the damn book.”
I glared at him – my heart was thumping and I could the blood pulsating in my ears. I was skimming the pages of the book rapidly – page 100 – where was it – aha! there it was.
I scanned the page – my mouth was dry as the Arabian Desert. Then I saw it – ‘The Square- Shaped Hand.’ I read it and then – time stood still. I was dimly aware of a male voice saying, “Train has slowed down – looks like our station is approaching.”
All I could hear was the eerie echo ringing in my ear, “These are the hands of a killer.”
The book fell from my grasp as I looked down at my hands – they were square shaped!
The train had slowed to a halt and, soon the hustle and bustle of a station and, milling crowds filled the atmosphere.
I just stood looking at my hands – the hands of a killer!
Nirupama Akella is published academic and fictional author and poet, having published her first novel titled ”The Summer Break that” won several awards in Shankars International Competition; She has also participated in many national academic conferences.