Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Missing Man In Coupe C

Around seven that morning, the passengers of the first-class compartment reported to the Railway Police that the friendly guy in coupe C was missing and that they suspected foul play because the unpleasant man in coupe E was absconding.
The police officer assigned to the case had been waiting to get off the night shift at eight. Though he looked haggard and irritable, he patiently interviewed the passengers. He soon realized that, rather contrary to his expectations, the concerned outnumbered those who preferred to say or know nothing.
A man of about fifty, from coupe B, with graying sideburns and the air of a seasoned civil servant voluntarily, and undemocratically, assumed the role of being the spokesperson for the passengers.
‘When did you notice that he was missing?’ the officer asked.
The spokesperson reported, ‘At half past five, my colleague who got down at Mangalore went to coupe C to bid farewell but found his berth empty. He informed me and we checked around, the toilets too, but couldn’t find him.’ After a pause, the spokesperson admitted the error in their search operation, ‘We should have checked coupe E earlier. We knew there was no one but that man in that coupe…and somehow we missed that coupe till seven, just before Udupi…but, when we saw that he too was not around, we were sure that something nasty had  happened to Arjun.’
‘This Arjun…is that the man in coupe E?’ the officer asked, bleary-eyed and confused with the details.
‘Of course not, how should I know that man’s name?’
‘So, Arjun is the one in coupe C?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘His name is Sree,’ objected the old man from Coupe A. His wife hovered around him and the old lady confirmed her husband’s statement with a nod.
‘That must be his nickname,’ the spokesperson dismissed the intrusion.
‘The name on his ticket is Vishnu,’ the officer muttered, ‘but never mind that. Did you and your colleague know this Arjun – was he also your colleague?’
‘Oh no, we met in the first-class waiting lounge at Trivandrum.’
‘A real nice boy,’ the old man added.
‘Oh yes, a fine chap indeed,’ the spokesperson agreed, ‘he is going to Mumbai to attend a conference.’
‘He is going home, to Nizamuddin,’ the old man interrupted again, his wife nodding vigorously.
‘Yes, he must be going home after the conference, right?’ the spokesperson explained, mildly irritated with the old couple.
‘Ah…’ the old couple reluctantly acquiesced.
‘He is a writer, he told us,’ the young parents in coupe F informed.
‘He does research. He must be a technical writer,’ said the serious middle-aged lady in coupe H before adding wistfully, ‘He lives in Bangalore…near my farmhouse on the Tumkur road…we had planned to keep in touch.’
‘That must be temporary accommodation…his house is near mine in Trivandrum…he gave me the directions,’ the spokesperson said.
‘He works in a bank in Chennai,’ a fat salesman, between frequent calls on his mobile, told the officer without any doubt.
‘How do you know?’ the officer asked.
‘We share coupe C. We talked a lot,’ the salesman proudly claimed superiority. He took another call and gave an earful of expletives to the caller, probably an assistant.
‘Oh…he was such a sweet person,’ the young parents wailed together and then added with much venom, ‘it must be that mean guy…’
‘What mean guy?’ the officer asked.
‘The one in coupe E…’ the passengers said together.
‘He made our baby cry,’ the young parents said.
‘Very rude man…we smiled at him and he just walked past without even a look,’ the old man said and his wife nodded, ‘Sree was not like that, not at all.’
‘That creep told me to switch off my mobile,’ the salesman rejoined, ‘By the way, I saw him outside his coupe at three…I had gone to pee, you see. And, I also saw them arguing at Calicut. Arjun was trying to be nice and the other guy seemed very unpleasant.’ He spat out an expletive and the others mouthed it silently, in total agreement.
 ‘Was Arjun there in your coupe when you went to…pee?’ the officer asked.
‘I don’t think so…’ the salesman said, clearly disappointed that he could not be convincing on that note.
‘Oh God, what happened to him? He showed us the photo of his two lovely kids…twins, you know…our baby loved him,’ the young parents said.
‘He is single…those are his sister’s kids,’ the two American ladies in coupe H corrected, ‘we asked him specifically how a gorgeous man like him, at thirty, is still single…that too in India.’
‘He is married,’ the young parents asserted.
‘He told us that his love died in a car crash…he must have referred to her as his wife,’ the foreign ladies did not give up.
‘She died of cancer,’ the salesman said with conviction putting that issue to rest.
‘Ah…’ they let out a collective sigh of woe. The old couple nodded sadly, the young parents wept openly holding their baby tightly, the spokesperson thought carefully, perhaps about regaining control over the meeting, and the salesman took another call, this time whispering sweetly to a lady and then chatting lovingly to kids, possibly his wife and hopefully their kids.
The officer took down copious notes. He had time to kill, till the next stop at Karwar. He talked to them together and then cross-checked the details with separate interviews too.
At Karwar, the man in Coupe C showed up. They greeted him with a loud cheer.
‘Arjun…Sree…sir, where were you?’ the passengers and the officer asked him.
‘I was with a friend in another compartment.’
The officer closed his book and got off at Karwar to report that the missing person case had been solved.
The passengers escorted their dear companion to coupe C. They shared eatables and stories till he got off at Madgaon, and they parted with tearful farewells, vigorous nodding and many promises to meet again.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Village Parties

On my way back home after the long road-trip, I stopped for breakfast at a tea-stall near the bus stand in a village called A. I took a seat at the long table and bench outside. The jolly tea-stall owner served a plate of hot puttu, kadala curry, pazham pori, vada and a glass of strong tea. Next to me sat a surly guy with bloodshot eyes and, despite being freshly bathed and shaven, made the morning air stale with the stink of old liquor in his breath and sweat. The surly guy read a newspaper aloud and his crony of forty years or so added his two-bits from within the shop.
‘The latest census is out…’ the surly guy noted and continued to mumble the details of which I caught the following, ‘The state’s average population density…1000 people per square kilometer…average death rate…seven per thousand…people 65 years and above…6%...’
The tea-stall owner laughed out loud and the surly guy smirked. That scene was interrupted by a boy on a cycle who stopped there, hurriedly pasted a notice to the electric post outside the shop and raced away to repeat his action ahead. A group of young men crowded around the notice.
The surly guy asked that crowd, ‘Where is it today?’
One of the young men replied, ‘At Rajan’s place, Mashe.’
‘Which Rajan…?’
‘The carpenter…’
‘His house is near the third milestone, right?’
‘Yes, that’s the one, Mashe.’
‘I walked past that place this morning. I didn’t see a white flag there.’
‘It’s being put up only now. Rajan got up late, it seems.’
‘Ah! He must have been at Lakshmi’s party last night…I am still recovering from that myself…’
‘What a bash! Excellent food and foreign liquor…’ the tea-stall owner agreed.
‘I hope Rajan too does it in style.’
I asked that genial crowd, ‘I saw a white flag on the way here…near the bridge…is that the place?’
The surly guy turned to me, ‘You from outside, right?’
‘Yes, driving through…’ I admitted.
‘The party near the bridge was on the night before yesterday.’
‘So, they forgot to take it down…?’ I asked.
‘No, the white flag stays for 14 days.’
‘Why don’t you stay for today’s party?’ One of the young men said to me.
‘Oh, thanks…but I have to leave soon…got to get home by evening...’ I said. Bemused, I asked, ‘Do you have a party every day?’
‘Nearly every day…’
‘And is it open for everyone?’
‘Of course…but not everyone comes. Usually, only those who can party well....try to stay…it starts at seven….’ The friendly young men left after extending that invitation.
I asked the surly guy, ‘Why…the white flag…for 14 days?’
‘Just a custom…’
The jovial tea-stall owner added to that, ‘The villages around raise a black flag. Here, we raise a white one.’
‘But…that’s for deaths, right?’
‘Yes. They mourn and party on the 14th day after.’
They seemed reluctant to offer information without questions from my side. Though I was really curious by then, I felt awkward prying into their affairs and decided to probe in an indirect fashion, ‘This is a small village, right?’
‘Just 15 square kilometers,’ the surly guy replied.
I remembered the statistics. ‘So, a population of 15000 or so, right?’
‘Yes.’ From the way they looked at me, like patient teachers with a pesky student, they seemed to have guessed my line of enquiry.
‘And…if you assume 7 deaths per thousand…that gives only 100 deaths or so per year?’ I presented the finding, rather pleased with my calculation.
‘That’s in other places…we have thrice that many deaths…’
‘But, it looks like a nice healthy village.’ I noted.
‘Oh yes, it is that.’
‘Then…?’ I challenged the two men.
‘Do you remember the figure for the population over 65?’
‘About 5-7%...?’
‘Here, it is less than 1%.’
Thoroughly puzzled, I asked, ‘Is it some genetic problem?’
‘Why should it be that?’
‘Otherwise…?’ I tried to figure out other explanations. ‘So, today…is it this Rajan’s close relative?’
‘Rajan’s mother…’
‘Did she die 14 days back?’ I asked.
‘No, she will die 14 days from today.’
‘What?’ My incredulous cry seemed to amuse them.
‘Today is the first day of celebration…helps the family to accept the situation…before the death.’ The surly guy explained patiently. ‘What is the point in mourning after?’
‘But how do you know she will die 14 days from now?’
‘Oh…Rajan will kill her, of course…’ the surly guy stated as a matter of fact.
The merry tea-stall owner added, ‘Hope he hangs her or dumps her in a well…just for a change…the last two were by suffocation…’
I did not stay for the party.

1.     Any resemblance to real events and places could be a coincidence.
2.     Puttu, kadala, pazham pori and vada – steamed ground rice, chickpeas, banana fritters and common fritter-type snack made of pulses.
3.     Mashe is a respectful, colloquial way of referring to a person as ‘Master’.