Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Interview With The Genial Killer


I admit my first impression of him was prejudiced. He reminds me of a History teacher in secondary school–lovely old man to most, great teacher and abuser of boys. The man across the table is in his late sixties, with soft white hair, a pleasant clean-shaven face, smiling dark-brown eyes, a small nose and dimpled cheeks. The full-lipped mouth and firm chin add a steadiness to the cherubic features. He speaks clearly with perfect diction. He rests his strong tanned arms on the table. He still helps out with the laundry, farming and cooking in the prison. When he was free, twenty years back, he loved working with his hands, organic farming on his plot and odd jobs around the house. He is not a big man, medium height and a little over-weight. I searched for distinctive features, fluctuations in behaviour or a lisp or even a tic, but there are none.
There are reams of articles on him. A biographer describes him as ‘a heritage item’, whatever that means. I am not an expert on him, or his deeds. It was he who contacted me. He sent me a note, ‘I like your blog.’ I wonder how since it rarely attracts viewers. He added, ‘I am giving my last interview. Would you like to be the interviewer?’ Curiosity, boredom and a convenient writers’ block got the better of lethargy and wariness. I contacted a cousin, a bureaucrat in the State Home Minister’s office, and enquired if I have to fill some form in triplicate to interview a prisoner. He asked me who I want to interview. I told him. His response was quick, too quick. He told me to find something better to do. The same day, I contacted an old classmate, a fellow-sufferer of the History teacher and now a newspaper editor. I resorted to a bit of blackmail and got my name into a small article in the next day’s paper, ‘Monster invites blogger for final interview’. My cousin was not happy with me but then, is it not true that one is usually happier when relatives are not happy with one. Three weeks later, here I am facing the ‘Monster’.
“What triggered it?” I asked.
“I do not know,” he replied.
Fair enough, I thought. Any other answer would have seemed as well-rehearsed as a fresh MBA graduate’s job interview.
“It was the riots, wasn’t it? Your first large-scale act, I mean?” I could have framed it better. I was hoping the ‘loose, colloquial and ill-structured questions’ would ‘loosen him to give extra details’. I found that interviewing technique in a journal, or pulp fiction.
 “Hmmm…” He looked down at his old watch, “well, not exactly the riots.”
“You were sure setting the train compartment on fire would start the madness?”
“It was a gamble. But, the odds were in my favour, one could say, given the polarized society there and the administration in power then.”
“Why?”
“Good question.”
We stared at each other, not budging from our position for a while. He smiled. I sat with pursed lips. He made me feel like a petulant kid.
“It was waiting to happen,” he offered.
We went through the details–picking out the train with pilgrims returning home, the accelerant used for the fire in the middle of the night, the chained exits and the fifty six charred beyond recognition. He stayed on to witness the quick build-up of rage, hatred and wild accusations, the two-week-long riots that followed and the massacre of thousands. We could have been discussing the weather. I felt a churning in my belly. He stared at me, looking concerned. He reached for the bottle of water on the table and filled a disposable cup. He placed it in front of me. I accepted the drink. He looked down at the table, as if he was apologizing for making me uncomfortable, though not for what he did, I presume.
I changed track after that and probed about his early life. He laughed when I asked about precursors in his childhood, like maimed strays or boiled pets.
“Of course not,” he said.
He continued to laugh, just a good-natured hearty laugh. I laughed with him, feeling rather embarrassed.
“Is it true the death of your wife started…?” I searched for the right words.
“You have not done your homework.” It was a statement of fact, without reproach.
“I know you killed before your wife’s death, but it escalated to mass murder after that,” I argued. “The train massacre, the building collapse…now, what was that for?”
“Shoddy construction,” he replied.
“You just had to point that out to the world by killing innocents in that apartment, didn’t you?”
“They could have died like that, without my action,” he said.
“You have a reason for everything, don’t you? Surely not for murdering a busload of school kids or do you have a bloody fucking reason for killing those hundred kids too?”
“Overloaded bus,” he said.
I raised my clenched fist, pointed a finger at him. My hands were shaking, my head too. I must have been red in the face, probably crying. “How can you joke about this?” I spluttered.
“It was never a joke.” For once, he looked stern, even disturbed. This time, he pointed a finger at me. “Never ever think I did it, any of it, for a laugh.”
We were both breathing heavily then.
“Sorry,” he said, “I should not have angered you so. I should have chosen my words more carefully.”
“Of what use is speaking in a better way? That won’t change what you did,” I said.
“True,” he said.
I wondered if he would clam up.
“I just can’t get it,” I said, “others have wondered too.”
“What?” he asked.
“Why you don’t feel remorse.” I said.
“Will it serve any purpose?” he asked. “Isn’t that like telling I love you to a dear one posthumously?”
“It is not,” I said, “it is about accepting guilt, about changing one’s ways.”
“I have never said my actions were not wrong. But, given another chance, would I do differently? I feel that’s irrelevant after the deed’s been done. If there’s anything relevant, it must be my thoughts then.”
Again, I must have slipped into silence, unsure of how to respond.
He leaned towards me and said, “You are not after some kind of truth and reconciliation charade, are you? Of what use is that I-am-sorry-I-did-it-now-let-us-be-friends-and-think-about-the-future?” He paused. “I have never asked for freedom or for a lesser punishment.”
“You have not been hanged!” I retorted.
“Is that what you want?” he asked, smiling.
“Well, you seem to be living happily ever after and that too with poor taxpayers’ money,” I pointed out.
“True,” he admitted. After a long pause, “Maybe, I asked for this interview to give you what you want.”
“What do I want?”
“My death, didn’t you say so?”
“Are you going to commit suicide?” I blurted out.
He laughed at my startled expression. “No, of course not,” he replied.
I understood then the purpose of the interview. Nervous excitement shared space with fear. My initial wariness in meeting him must have had something to do with that fear.
His case had gone on for years, like every other high profile case, from the trial court to the High Court and finally to the Supreme Court, with the customary delays and adjournments. At first, the public and even the media thought it would be a quick affair. Who would defend the Monster? Then, there were questions about the investigation. Legal experts raised questions about procedure and rights. There was lobbying against the death penalty for him. Even then, no one thought he would get anything other than a meeting with the Grim Reaper. Many wondered why he did not share the fate of lesser monsters–a fatal clash among inmates or the other common end, ‘hanged himself in his cell’. Doubts about some ‘hold’ on people in high places were confirmed when a newspaper reported about his ‘five-star life in prison’. It was actually nothing other than normal prison fare for him, but then anything other than death seemed like luxury. Reporters and biographers tried to make him reveal his trump card. There are professionals, like my friend the news editor, who would kill their mother to get the first bite on that scoop. I was not sure I wanted to be the chosen one.
I let him speak. I listened and kept an eye on the recorder. The last thing I wanted was a goof-up in recording his words. He kept his head down, looking at the table or the lines on his palms.
“After my wife’s death, I quit my job in an investment bank. My two young kids, they were in their early teens then, needed me. I joined an educational institution, as an accountant. That campus with schools and colleges was run by a religious cult.” He mentioned the name of a popular, and financially successful, priest. “I minded my own business and even adjusted to their style of functioning. From nine to five, I worked, bowed when required, participated in group prayers, kept a low profile and accepted the priest’s ‘holiness’. Are you religious or connected to one of these cults?” he asked me. I shook my head. He continued. “The power these jokers enjoy might amuse one at first but, sooner or later, one can’t escape the grim reality. The blind faith of the believers or the unquestioning servitude of the low-income lot one can understand. There was another group there and it is that large lot who give you an idea of the power and the fear in such places. They were faithful slaves and they lived there without complaint, probably not even realizing their loss of freedom or their inner fear. How did they manage to get such dependents? I haven’t figured out that one. Even the worst dictators can’t attract slaves like them.”
“It took me a while to realize that most of the teachers in their schools belonged to that lot. They were mostly ladies, married, in their thirties, their kids studied in those schools, and they lived in quarters on campus. At times, the servants seemed to get better treatment than those teachers. They could be summoned by the priest at any time. They were made to wait for hours outside the priest’s office. They would stand meekly, head bowed. Within, they knelt in front on the priest. They were shouted at, abused, made an object of ridicule in front of other staff and visitors. That was not all. When politicians of every hue, intellectuals, the movers and shakers of society start congregating in one place, what do you expect? The priest provided all–money, drugs, power and sex.”
“When that busload of kids died, I thought I succeeded. Some of the teachers lost their kids, they left the place, the schools faced investigation and the public questioned the priest’s influence. Sadly, that did not last for long.”
He raised his head and looked up at me. “The riots you mentioned, the building that collapsed, I thought it would change the administration. That too ended the wrong way.”
I was shaken by what he told me but I was in no mood to give him comfort. There is no monster worse than a devil that sounds like god.
“Every guy like you ends up saying it’s for some greater good.”   
“True.” He thought for a while. “When some countries do the stuff I did and say the same, people fall for it. Isn’t that true too?” He smiled, not a smug smile, just a genial smile.
That smile reminded me of a question I had while preparing for the interview. Before coming to that, I wanted to wrap up his confession.
“So, I guess you have some evidence of the abuse in that place. Is that your keep-head-out-of-noose card?”
“You guess right.”
“Why have you decided to come out with it now?”
“The perpetrators should suffer a bit before they die,” he paused, “before I die.”
“You are not worried that I might get harmed, are you?” I asked.
“No,” he admitted. “Do not worry. You will get your five minutes of fame and then, people will forget you.” He looked at me kindly, “Of course, I leave it to you. You know how the system works. It is possible they will still come out of it squeaky clean. They usually do. My fate would be sealed, of course. Tough to speculate about your fate, fifty-fifty chance if you play it right, I think.”
“Not very reassuring, are you?” I said with a weak laugh.
“Maybe, you will be my last victim.”
He laughed. It was infectious. I laughed with him, quite hysterically. Anyone listening in must have wondered if we had traded places, if not sanity.
I remembered his smile. “I have one final question.”
“Good. Out with it.”
“It’s about the way you got caught.”
“Ah, that…”
For more than ten years, the police and other investigative agencies had no clue about the monster behind the mass-murders. Then, some wise guy came across something unusual when he was going through photos and news reports. There was a common feature in the photos with the minister who turned up at scene of the crime to reassure the public with their statement, “We will give funds to the victims and we will find the perpetrator…” There was at least one photo with the same smiling face in the crowd around the minister at each crime-scene.
“Why did you do that? To enter the photo-gallery of the famous…?” I asked. “The Hitchcock touch–the creator entering his creation?”
He smiled. “You do not have to lay the sarcasm so thick, do you? Is that your final question?”
“Was it you who tipped off the police? To look at that smiling face in the crowd…?” I asked.
“Why would I do that?”
“How do I know? Sick of your own actions, maybe, or you wanted the glory and attention.”
“Maybe…”
“You talked about taking care of your kids earlier. Didn’t you think of them when you did all this?” I asked.
“They were adults when I got caught,” he said.
“Being the monster’s kids must have affected their chances in the world,” I said.
“True.” He paused. “I managed to write a novel here in prison, about a crime I would have committed outside, about a killer who does not get caught. It sold well. That money must have helped improve my kids’ chances in the world. Anyway, I am sure they have the wits to make money on their own too. Is there anything money can’t improve?”
“A good life…? A life with their father…? Can money get them that?” I asked.
“They visit me. Even if I was outside, I would not have expected more frequent or longer visits. They must think of this as an old-age home,” he smiled.
I sat back and stared at him. “You are so sure about everything, aren’t you?”
“Let me ask you a final question,” he said. “You must have gone through the evidence that put me here. Are you sure I am the monster? Think about it well. Other than the crime of smiling at the scene of these crimes, did the police have conclusive evidence, that is, if you forget the evidence they fabricated?”
I must have looked like a fool, staring at him, mouth open, my eyes round and unblinking.
He laughed.
“Don’t worry. It was just a question. I am the one. I couldn’t let you go without pulling your leg.”
We laughed.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Act 120


The main clause of Act 120 is: ‘Those with reduced life can and should be allowed a way out.’
As always, the pedantic were the first on the scene, diverting attention to the least ambiguous, that being ‘reduced life’ in this case.  Who, with all their senses still intact, has any doubt about that? Then, it was the turn of the do-gooders insisting on a humane ‘way out’. They were as cantankerous as trade unions and as amenable to amicable settlements via generous gifts to the leaders. The amicable, and reasonably humane, ‘way out’ was not difficult to decide.
The person availing the Act can choose from a wide range of pick-up vehicles–a limo for the rich or a shared van for the eco-friendly–and also decide whether to keep the final journey public or private, with a select or no crowd. There is no choice about the destination though; it is the waste-to-energy plant on the city-outskirts. Contrary to the expectations or prejudices of many, this remarkably clean, modern and efficient unit can rival the corporeal and spiritual purposes of the best graveyards and crematoriums.
Till date there has been only two glitches, in the process and not in the Act per se. The first was an identity crisis. The online application was filled out by well-meaning or not-so-well-meaning others on behalf of one. Stringent checks were put in place, including an online test to make sure one had most of one’s senses. The second involved logistics and metaphysics. A few wanted to withdraw their application. Even if processing and collection costs are minimal, the important question remains: how can a fickle or feverish mind make a reduced life less reduced? It was decided that one cannot change one’s mind after applying to be a zero.

Contact


Thanks to an airlines’ pilots’ strike, I had eighteen hours to kill in the city of transit. I checked into a hotel; went online, found five contacts in that city; picked a guy, my old school our common feature.
He replied instantly.
“Of course, let’s meet,” he wrote.
“Lunch…?” I asked.
He hesitated.
“My treat,” I clarified.
“Of course,” he paused before adding on the next line, “Can I bring my wife?”
“No problem…” I wrote.
We met at the restaurant.
“We had a great gang in school, didn’t we?” he exclaimed.
Between anecdotes of that era, he fitted in his wife. It’s tough when people sing paeans of their spouse, much worse when they ridicule. Her inefficient ways, her easy life, her bad cooking, he went on and on.
Between courses, when he went to the restroom, his wife asked me, “You don’t remember him, do you?”
“No,” I admitted.
We let him talk. She and I had time to waste.  

Arranging Love


In early 1990, I told my parents, “I love a woman. I want to marry her.”
They said, “Wish you two the very best.”
They did not even ask, “Have we met her?” They had not.
My love experienced the same in her camp.
The parents did not offer any assistance. They expected us to arrange everything–from the invitations to the honeymoon. Our friends offered zero-interest loans but they wanted a grand party.
In mid-1990, we told our respective parents, “The marriage’s not happening.”
They shrugged.
End of 1990, my parents told me, “We have found a girl for you.”
I shrugged.
In early 1991, I got married. I did not have to do anything. The wedding was grand. Friends had a great time. The gifts were lovely–especially the honeymoon package. Even the bride was okay–my old love. She too had milked her folks dry.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Prey


‘Was the door of the compartment open when you went to the toilet?’ the police inspector asked.
‘How many times should I answer that?’ I grumbled, sounding tired and exasperated.
‘I haven’t asked you that before,’ he said with a smile, looking smug.
He was right. He had asked variations of the same. ‘Was the door open when you returned to your cabin?’, ‘Was the door closed when you went around midnight?’, ‘Was the door open when you got out of the toilet, what did you say, ah yes, after half an hour in the toilet, that’s a long time in a train toilet?’
‘I don’t know, I don’t remember,’ I replied, the same for the fourth time.
‘Ok, let’s leave that for the moment. Please bear with me,’ he said, the quintessence of the apologetic good cop, ‘just want to get the report right, you know. There’s a lot of attention on this case. Everyone, even the Home Minister, wants to know how that old man fell off the train around midnight.’ He paused. ‘Let’s go through your account once more, shall we? How about from the moment you boarded the train yesterday?’
I went through the account again, on automatic mode, hardly listening to myself speak.
You should have asked me to start at the hotel, you fool, I thought. A week back, not yesterday. It started then. It…
I must have smirked, or flinched. The inspector looked at me. He should have asked me to share my thoughts. Maybe, I would have obliged.
I would tell you that I checked in around noon, last Friday. I was tired after the day-long onward train journey but real glad to start my annual vacation. I had a shower before going to the restaurant. At the entrance of the restaurant, on a blackboard, ‘Deal of the day – 1 bottle of beer free with burger.’ The ‘1’ was underlined. I wanted to tell the manager that the ‘free’ should be underlined instead.
I sat at a table facing the pool. I decided to have a burger and the ‘1free’ bottle of beer. If you had asked me, ‘When did it start?’ I would have told you, ‘It started with that 1free beer.’
The waiter stood near while I went through the list of burgers.
‘I will have what you will have,’ I told the waiter, a young fair man, boy really, not more than twenty.
‘Sir…?’ he said, bemused, shy.
I thought, God, did it sound like I was flirting?
I clarified to the boy, ‘Help me choose. What would you have?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘Come on, which is your favourite burger in this list?’
‘I haven’t had any of those, sir.’
I felt foolish. Did I expect restaurants to feed their waiters the stuff on their menu?
I went through the list quickly and ordered, ‘Creole chicken fillet burger.’
I avoided him during my meal. I left a tip larger than required.
On my way out, I met him near the door. He wished me, ‘Wish you a wonderful stay, sir.’ He has a lovely smile. I smiled, nodded and left.
I did not return to that restaurant for the rest of my stay. But, I met him on the second evening. I was on my way to the City Centre. It must have been around six, the end of a hotel shift. He was leaving by the exit used by the service staff.
He saw me and waited.
‘How are you, sir?’ he asked.
‘Good. How have you been?’
‘Very good, sir…’
We walked together to the main road. We spoke at the same time.
‘Are you going home?’ I asked.
He asked, ‘Are you going out for dinner?’
We laughed.
‘Sir, I haven’t seen you at the restaurant. I hope you were not disappointed with the food,’ he hesitated, ‘or anything else?’
‘No, not at all,’ I replied.
‘Please feel free to ask, sir, if you need anything.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Sir, can I give you my personal number? You can call me, any time.’
He told me his number. He leaned towards me when he told me his name. I pretended that I was adding his number to the contacts list on my mobile. I thought of asking him if he was free, to have dinner with me, or just to talk. I decided not to prey on him.
The next day, Sunday, I checked out of that hotel and shifted to another. I tried not to think about that waiter-boy but that is a logical impasse. The harder I tried he took over me, replacing me in old terrors. Even news items reminded me of him. On Tuesday, the papers reported about a heavy-handed police crackdown on unlicensed spas and massage parlours. I should have been thanking my lucky stars for not getting caught in one of those police raids, instead of thinking of him.
That evening, I got involved in a fracas at a casino. I needed that distraction.
I reached the casino early, around seven. Four middle-aged men who arrived in a dark-tinted SUV were ahead of me at the counter. They wore heavy gold rings and neck chains. Open shirts displayed sick rolls of fat. They leered unabashedly at the female staff and commented lewdly. No one objected. They played at the tables with high bets. I stuck to the slot machines.
The incident happened when I was returning from the gents’. In the badly lit hallway leading to the toilets, one of those uncouth men made a pass at a lady customer. That led to a loud verbal brawl. The bouncers turned up, but before they could throw the two parties out, the lady phoned her husband, or the police. She claimed to be the wife of some big shot. She refused to let her offender slip away and threatened legal action against the casino if they allowed that. The prey and the predator had reversed their roles. He was visibly well-shaken and stirred. His flagging bravado leaned heavily on his cronies’ support. When the police turned up, the lady accused him of physical assault.
She pointed at me and told the police, ‘He saw it.’
I nodded. What I saw is a moot point; maybe, the man made an offer she could refuse. It just seemed right to nod.
That affair went on for some time at the casino; and at the police station most of the next day, till they reached a fair settlement. The lady slipped me, and probably the police too, a percentage of those earnings.
I ended my vacation the next day, Thursday, yesterday. I got to the station by noon, and while waiting for the train, which was delayed by an hour, I thought about the boy again.
Now, that could be of interest to you. You should ask me about my thoughts then; before I boarded the first-class compartment; before I met my companions in the cabin, the young mother with a child of three or four and the old couple. If you are bothered about the motive, you might want to know my thoughts before I met that old man who fell off that train around midnight.
I heard myself tell the police inspector that I do not know the names of those fellow-passengers. I told him that we never introduced ourselves and that we did not engage in idle chat, which was true. I did not tell him that I had noticed ‘Shanthi Biswas, Female, age 28’ on the chart pasted near the door and not the other names, not that that really matters.
I was the last to enter the cabin. The others had already settled down, their luggage tucked beneath the seat. The old couple and the young lady seemed to be acquaintances. I gathered that they are from the same neighbourhood. The kid was a brat, and allowed to make a racket, spit sticky sweets and scatter torn paper on the floor. I scowled at the boy and the young mother caught me doing that. I was persona non grata from then on to that group.
I was seated near the window, with the old man facing me and the ladies near the door of the cabin. The kid demanded a window seat.
‘Sit next to Appuppa (old man affectionately called grandfather),’ the mother told her boy. The way she spoke and pointed out the place next to the old man made it explicit that the kid should not go anywhere near me.
I kept myself to myself, and concentrated on the book I bought at the station, ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’. How many times have I bought that book and read it on such trips?
The old man told the boy some story. The kid was more interested in loudly counting the electric poles the train passed. The two ladies talked about their vegetable gardens, the rising cost of foodstuff, the pesticides and poisons used in the market, and by tea-time they were planning to start a women’s co-operative society. After tea, the ladies stretched their legs and napped. The boy finally tired also dozed off, leaning against the old man. The old man sat silently, looking outside. I closed the book and my eyes, but I could not sleep. The old man’s hairy left hand was around the boy’s shoulder and his right paw on the boy’s lap.
Around half past five, a middle-aged lady came to our cabin. The three ladies seemed terribly excited about their ‘surprise meeting’. The newcomer urged the other two to join her in her cabin, which had ‘only one other passenger, and more space for serious talk’.
‘Oh, I can’t leave him,’ the young mother said, pointing at her son.
‘Don’t worry, he will take care,’ the old lady said. Her husband gave a gruff assent, and indicated that they should not disturb the sleeping boy. The ladies scooted off without any further prompting.
 I returned to my book. My thoughts drifted away from the plight of Miss Blandish to the young waiter-boy at the hotel, to my earlier thoughts while waiting on the platform for the train. I wondered about his past, and my past. It can’t be different, I thought, otherwise, he wouldn’t be offering himself to men like me. I also thought about the future of the kid in front of me. I felt bile rise to my mouth. I nearly retched. I felt the chill of sweat in the air-conditioned cabin, my hand and jaw clenched tight. Some get to enjoy daydreams, my kind suffer nightmares, awake or not, repeating, never-ending, too often.  
The kid woke up at six. He was not too disturbed by the absence of his mother, and readily accepted the old man’s explanation that his mother was just next door, and that she would be back soon.
‘Now, don’t get upset over that,’ the old man cooed to the boy who seemed hardly upset. The old man lifted the boy onto his lap, his hairy arm around the boy’s waist, rocking the boy against his groin, laughing, talking some nonsense. Quite engrossed in their play, they did not even look at me.
After a while, the old man got up.
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he said.
The boy did not want to leave his window seat.
‘Come,’ the old man stood at the door and said sternly. The kid followed, holding the old man’s hand.
They were gone for fifteen minutes. The boy returned to his window seat and peered outside. The old man sat close to him.
‘Don’t tell your mother. She won’t like to hear that you made me take you for susu and that you took out your nunu in front of me,’ the old man whispered to the boy. ‘Let it be our secret that we susued together.’
He looked up and saw me staring. He winked at me.
The ladies came back around seven. We were served dinner at eight. By half past nine, the train staff had made the beds and the passengers settled down for the night. I offered my lower berth to the old lady. Her husband took the other lower berth. The young mother and the boy climbed onto the upper berth opposite mine. She resolutely kept her back towards me, shielding herself and her kid. I lay awake and waited.
Around eleven, I stepped out of the cabin. The passageway was dark except for light in the cabin close to the exit near my end of the compartment. I looked in. The ticket examiner occupied the otherwise empty cabin and he was going through receipts and tallying it with the list of passengers.
I knocked at the door. The ticket examiner looked up. Though he seemed taciturn, he turned out to be fine company. I told him that I wasn’t feeling sleepy. He did not mind the chit-chat. When I brought out my hipflask, he smiled. We drank slowly, silently, alert about any footfalls. He had a job to lose and me my plans. None of the passengers even got up for a leak during our drinking session, but given the chill of the air-conditioner, I expected a few to wake up during the course of the night, especially guys like the old man. My drinking partner and I shared a few pegs, even smoked near the exit door beneath the sign ‘Smoking is prohibited’. Around midnight, the ticket examiner decided to catch forty winks before the next train station at 4 am. I told him that I planned to sleep till my stop at 10 am. I went towards my cabin, waited outside for ten to fifteen minutes and then retraced my steps to the exit. On my way, I checked out the ticket examiner’s cabin. He was lying on his back, snoring beneath a blanket covering him from head to toe. I was not too worried about him. Even if he saw me, he would have assumed that I was finishing off the contents of my hipflask or having another smoke. I was quite sure he would deny seeing me, unless he wanted to lose his job by admitting to drinking and smoking with me.
I waited near the door, and watched the dark passageway. I knew that that’s all I had to do, wait; and, of course, steel myself to take a risk or two. The old man had waited that afternoon and taken risks. Someone somewhere must have waited for the young waiter when he was a lot younger, that’s the way with predators, including the one who preyed on me when I was not even ten. Around quarter to one, my wait came to an end. I saw the old man step out of the cabin. He came towards me, head down, shuffling, groggy with sleep, a hand already fumbling with the zip of his pants. I slipped into a toilet. I heard the old man enter the other toilet. I stepped out, opened wide the exit door of the compartment. The night air was fresh, the biting wind refreshing, the area dark and uninhabited, and on either side, the compartments were dark, the train a large black snake slithering forward.
The old man came out of the toilet. He was surprised to see me at the door.
‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you sleeping?’ sounding very much the affectionate old man he wasn’t.
‘Looking at the moon,’ I said, ‘it’s lovely.’
‘Really…?’ he made a move to get past me to the inside.
‘Take a look,’ I said, beckoning him to the open door, blocking the way inside. He obliged, shuffled to the door and leaned a little to the outside.
‘What moon?’ he asked.
‘New moon,’ I said. Then, it sounded like a good joke.
All I had to do was push his back.
I left the exit door open and went back to the cabin. The ladies and the kid were sleeping. I climbed onto my berth and slept soundly.
At six or so, the old lady woke up to find her husband missing.
The old lady told the police inspector, between loud sobs and fainting bouts, that she had not heard her husband, or anyone, get up. She mentioned that her husband had the habit of relieving himself once or twice during the night. But she had not heard him, she kept on repeating, crying. She protested loudly when the inspector asked her if her husband had had any reason to commit suicide.
The inspector did not interview us separately when he was gathering the initial statements. In fact, he seemed to be in a rush to get it stamped as a suicide. I told him that I had used the toilet around midnight, and that I had seen only the ticket examiner. I chose to be vague about the time. The ticket examiner confirmed that he had seen me going to the toilet, adding that he had been going through the receipts then. The ticket examiner placed me there well before midnight.
The young mother told the policeman that she had seen me go out of the cabin around eleven. I wondered how she had managed to see me with her facing the other way. She seemed disappointed when unable to add anything to her account that could inconvenience me.
No one had noticed the old man during the night, in the cabin or near the toilet.
The police did not question the boy. Whatever his experience with the old man remained a secret.
Even later, at the station, I kept my account to the bare minimum. I told the inspector that I sat near the window most of the day, read a book, had tea and dinner when served, used the toilet before midnight and that was that.
It was probably the smell of liquor on my breath, or on the ticket examiner, that made the inspector probe more. That must have made him wonder why I had left that out from my account. If pushed, I was ready to admit the drinking session with the ticket examiner, though the poor chap might lose his job. Maybe, it was not my bad breath that made the inspector focus his attention on me. He had looked at my book and exclaimed, ‘Oh! James Hadley Chase!’ It is possible he thinks that a guy who reads Chase cannot be totally legit. Not that I really care about his suspicions.
‘So, did you see the old man before or after you used the toilet around midnight?’ I heard him ask, trying the fifth or sixth variation.
I smiled and replied, ‘I did not see him, sir.’
The inspector was beginning to lose patience, never a good sign if you are a predator after a prey.

Monday, September 21, 2015

#MurderInRaoMarg


Nine years back, in a courtroom, Sandeep got to know that he is crazy. This year, close to that October day, about a kilometre from that courtroom, members of the Tigers Club (the Rao Marg branch) discovered a crisply burnt corpse in a park. There was no evidence or reason to connect the two events.
The Rao Marg (Rao Boulevard before nationalist fervour effected the change) is a sedate area, colourful perhaps but not accustomed to the macabre. At the west end, there are the courtroom and other government offices where the hoi polloi and the hoity-toity voice their grievances, not really expecting that to be settled there. Moving east, there are the affluent gated communities which house the Tigers Club and its kind. The neglected park where the corpse was found comes next, followed by a lively market. At the east end, there is a ghetto of the middle and lower income lot, a tightly-packed beehive with queen bees outnumbering worker bees. The Rao of Rao Marg was initially an eminent scientist of the pre-independence era, given the honour of a street bearing his name even before his death. In the post-independence era, there were not enough streets to carry the names of honourable men and Rao, still alive, had to share the honour with a politician with the same name. The two in fact died on the same day many years later but only the politician was deemed a martyr. The generations that followed never learned about the scientist, aided by a liberal education and a concise curriculum. The martyr became the sole proprietor of the honour. It was in memory of that Rao that the Tigers Club had arranged a Cleanliness Initiative on that fateful October day.
Tigress Mrs Dr Sethu (the ladies, gents and kids of the club are addressed as Tigress, Tiger and Cub, respectively) was guiding her new protégé Ms Swathi in the cleaning endeavour. The latter, a recent entrant to their gated community, was from some suburb of New Jersey, USA. Mrs Sethu had ‘visited many relatives and friends in those parts many times’, and so, she was the obvious choice as mentor. She enrolled her ward in the gym, salsa and cookery classes, monitored attendance and performance, and prepared the younger lady for the full-membership of their august club. But there, in that park, the mentor was at a slight disadvantage.
‘Oooh, it reminds me of New Jersey. I used to rake our lawn,’ Ms Swathi swept gleefully.
‘You had to do it?’ Mrs Sethu posed the rhetorical question (she did not expect others to have answers that suited her). She had four servants – a strict follower of equal opportunities, she had two maids for cleaning and cooking, and two man-servants to drive their three cars, and to take care of the needs of her Cubs and husband Tiger Mr Sethu.
Mrs Sethu handled her broom carefully, and the ground even more gently. She kept a lookout for the club photographer. She wanted perfect photos of the event in the newspaper and on her social networking website.
It was the over-enthusiastic Ms Swathi who disturbed overgrown shrubs in a corner undisturbed by lovers, and discovered the corpse.
‘Oooh,’ Ms Swathi cried.
‘What is it?’ Mrs Sethu responded. Her tone expressed disinterest in any answer. She went to the younger lady’s side and eyed the disagreeable object with distaste.
‘Oooh,’ Ms Swathi cried louder.
‘Hush,’ Mrs Sethu suggested, ‘let it be.’ Definitely not the stuff for her photos, she decided.
The others heard Ms Swathi’s cries. They formed a grave circle around the intrusion. Not before long, their hyperactive moral compass pointed out the right direction. Someone called the police. At the same time, another posted on their club’s webpage, ‘Tigers find dead meat’ along with a photo of the group and the fried object. That trended well on social networking sites under ‘#MurderInRaoMarg’. It was Ms Swathi who pointed out that it could be the club’s tribute to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous story, and that earned her the full membership.    
The police wrapped up their case quickly. The body was charred beyond their limits of investigation. They could barely ascertain that it was a male, probably in his thirties or forties. An erudite inspector suggested dental records and DNA analysis; he opined that realistic books and TV shows on crime suggested that. A constable noted this point in the report, with a question mark in brackets. The police first established that the body was not that of any from the west end society. They then went through the records of missing people. They conducted door-to-door enquiries in the east end for three days and updated the files with new names. The same learned inspector noted with exasperation, ‘everyone in the east end seems to be missing’. That was not an exaggeration. There were many, criminal or not, who liked to slip into anonymity. The singles shifted frequently like gypsies and were difficult to track. There were also a sizeable number with kith and kin who remained forgotten for too long. There were migrants too. The privileged were missed, the majority just slipped through the net occupying no memory space. The police recorded too many instances of, ‘I haven’t seen him for a long time…’ On the fourth day, observing that the case generated little interest, online or offline, the case was closed ‘till further developments’.
There would have been further development in the case if the police had reason to focus attention on items number 7 and 23 in the list of missing people. Item number 7 mentioned that ‘Anand must have shifted to a place better suited for his expertise’ and item 23 carried the statement, ‘I saw Sandeep after a long time but he did not stay for long’. The police should have probed about Anand, given his background, but they cannot be faulted for allowing Sandeep to fall off their radar.
Sandeep and Anand were born in the ghetto at the east end. Sandeep’s father was a gazetted officer in the Secretariat; Anand’s a watchman in the same office. Their paths rarely crossed in office. Both were in the temple management committee. They also met in the bar close to office. They were not friends but treated each other with mutual respect. Anand’s mother was a maid in Sandeep’s house till she got the secure position of sweeper in a government office, but even after taking that job, she used to help Sandeep’s mother when there were visitors or functions. For Sandeep’s wedding, she took leave for a week to assist in the cleaning and cooking.
Anand used to bring the morning milk to Sandeep’s house. Anand and most of their gang studied in the government school. Sandeep and the middle-class kids attended a cheap private school in the ghetto. The standard of education in both schools was roughly the same.
Anand was a few years older than Sandeep, and he had the stature of the wise guru in the gang. Anand was the captain of their local cricket team. He gave the reviews of every movie that ran in town, first day first show. He was a storehouse of information, about the temple, the legends, and the goings on in the east end, and the west end. Sandeep suspected that these accounts had a liberal amount of fiction, but the stories were too good to doubt. The guru knew about the prostitutes in the area, and the ministers and the film stars that came and went. He even knew what went on inside. He claimed that he lost his virginity at thirteen to a young virgin prostitute. The local lads had their first puff with Anand, their first drink too. He got them blue movies. He knew about every rape, murder and robbery in town. He had ethics too. He insisted that his gang should consist of gentlemen. They could ogle at girls, but never bother them. One young boy boasted about pinching a young lass’s bottom and Anand thrashed that boy till the young one promised that he would never again do or think of such stuff, not even with his wife in the distant future.
Sandeep had one more reason to be in awe of Anand.
When Sandeep was fourteen, a troublesome family rented the house next door. They were a constant source of bother – borrowing utensils which they never returned, complaining about the coconut and jackfruit trees that encroached into their airspace, and laying claim to any fruit that fell in their compound. Their daughter studied in Sandeep’s school and she had never-ending heart-rending tales of woe about Sandeep and his friends. The parents had slanging matches, and nearly came to blows. In that same period, Sandeep suffered frequent bouts of fever and also falling grades in school. Sandeep’s father mentioned this worry to his cronies during a temple committee meeting. After the meeting, Anand’s father approached Sandeep’s father.
‘I do not know if you believe in astrology and related sciences. Do you?’ Anand’s father asked.
‘Not really,’ Sandeep’s father said.
‘I have studied it a little, mind you, just a little,’ Anand’s father said.
‘Really...? I didn’t know that.’
‘Ah yes, it is only known to a few I have had the good fortune to help.’
The two men studied each other, as if they were mentally agreeing to a contract, and to take their trust and respect to a higher level.
‘Can you help my son?’ Sandeep’s father asked.
‘I can try.’ Anand’s father touched the other’s arm gently. He nodded his head slowly. Sandeep’s father felt a comforting calm.
They walked silently to Anand’s house. They sat in the small drawing room. Anand’s mother came to greet the visitor, enquired if they would like tea, which they declined, and then withdrew to give the men privacy.
‘I feel a spell has been cast on your son,’ Anand’s father said.
Sandeep’s father sat upright, his body tense, eyes filled with worry, anger and quiet desperation.
‘Do not get agitated, that is what the spell wants. We can beat that,’ Anand’s father said.
He described what had to be done. Sandeep’s father listened with full attention.
Sandeep observed fast for two weeks – he ate freshly-cooked vegetarian food; had cold-water bath before dawn and dusk and went to the temple; stayed away from menstruating women; he had to think purely, slept on the bare floor, gave up his twice-weekly masturbation and read only his textbooks. His mother observed that he developed a glow, even in such a short span.
On a Thursday, around half past seven in the evening, Sandeep and his parents went to Anand’s house. They gathered in a small thatched outhouse at the back. Anand and his mother were also there to assist. Anand sat next to his father. Sandeep’s parents stood outside watching with faith and trepidation. There was a large abstract pattern on the floor, drawn with vibrant colours and natural powders. Sandeep sat in the middle of that pattern, facing the fire in a brick-lined hearth. There was no electrical light in that room. The shadows danced on the whitewashed walls. It was an intense serious affair. Anand’s father gave stern instructions during the procedure, and Sandeep followed it to the word; whenever he faltered, Anand with equal seriousness showed the right moves. That went on for an hour.
After it was over, Sandeep swooned, experiencing a strange but sweet mix of light-headedness together with a surge of confidence. When he regained consciousness, he saw Anand’s father staring at him kindly. Anand took him outside, handed him a glass of fruit juice and a sweet offering. Sandeep felt an increasing closeness to Anand.
‘It was remarkable,’ Sandeep whispered to his guru.
Anand looked at him, as kindly as his father, but did not speak.
‘Why didn’t you tell me about this before?’ Sandeep asked.
Anand turned to his junior, his face serious, eyes eerily cold and dark, ‘Do not ever speak about it. Just pray. We are trying to remove the spell on you and we are also trying to hit back. Unless we do it right, our efforts can boomerang and hit us, ten-fold hundred-fold, to destroy us, you, your family, me, my family.’
He turned away and refused to say another word.
Meanwhile, within the room, Sandeep’s parents thanked Anand’s parents profusely. They tried to offer money. Anand’s father refused that offer.
‘We are family, we are in it together,’ he said.
Sandeep continued fasting for two more weeks. He was definitely glowing then, with robust health, confidence and vastly improved grades in school. After the fast, he ate meat but he continued to pray hard, visited the temple twice daily and studiously avoided any thought that might trigger masturbation. That went on for three months. Anand observed that Sandeep paid more attention to trees and birds than to his stories.
‘Take it easy,’ the guru told the pupil, ‘operation successful, patient rescued.’
Sandeep reverted to his normal self. His grades dropped again but that did not bother his parents too much because their son was free of the recurring fever, and the troublesome neighbours had shifted from their area.
Time did what it does.
Sandeep did reasonably well in studies and got a job in a private company. He went abroad for a few years. The old government jobs were still in demand, among the lower classes, but the middle-class aspired for more. Sandeep was working abroad when his parents found a suitable bride for him. He returned home, to the ghetto, married a lovely girl and they should have lived happily ever after.
Two weeks after the wedding, a friend from his days abroad visited the newly-wedded couple. The friend, another lovely girl, wanted to treat the couple in a chic restaurant. Instead of going in a car, they decided to be eco-friendly and walk the short distance of two kilometres to the restaurant.
The friend, without giving her actions much thought, walked arm-in-arm with Sandeep. He had not got a hang of this during his stay abroad. Every time, that activity brought constant worry, whether he should be on the left or the right, or if he should let the traffic or muddy puddles decide the side. Despite these problems, he never refused a woman his arm. Thus, on that day, he was rather engrossed in his usual problem of deciding the best side to walk arm-in-arm; and, he did not give much thought to the other woman, his wife, walking without any arm of his in hers. Even if he had thought of her, he would not have known which arm to offer her.
He and the two lovely ladies, sans expression sans emotion, walked in that fashion, so strange to those parts, on the narrow lanes of the east end. The college students at the tea-stall studied the procession, and they too were confused about the right side. The liquor shop guy paused his rapid covering of bottles with newspaper and the long polite queue followed his gaze. They did not have much choice. The government, ever mindful of the health of the ignorant masses, had shifted every other outlet to the west end. The impeccably dressed middle-aged man who used to be the area’s supplier of smut books and magazines in the pre-Internet era winked at Sandeep. The barber stepped outside to admire. His customer, with one arm raised like the Statue of Liberty and an armpit well-lathered for a shave, followed the barber outside to appreciate the lovely sight. If only the participants knew how they were admired.
After that dinner and after the friend left, Sandeep’s wife confronted him. She came to the point quickly and accused him of emotional infidelity. Sandeep was not sure what that meant but he was sure that he had not enjoyed anything to feel guilty about. So, he told her that she is crazy. He should have known better. She decided to show him how crazy she could be; and, not to be left behind, he matched her efforts. The next three years had short periods of nerve-wracking calm separating long stretches of confrontation. When they were calm, they met counsellors to sort out their problems. If they had used that time to talk to each other, they could have figured out their problems. That remained unclear, even at the end. That was nothing new. Gone are the days of abuse, insanity, infidelity or impotency being the cause of marital breakdown. In their case too, the real problem remained fuzzy. Maybe, his wife had expected a life abroad; maybe, it was because they were still in the east end ghetto and not getting any closer to a life in the west end; maybe, they just started off on the wrong foot and remained on that. Who knows? It became another case of incompatibility but did they go for a no-fault divorce? No, they were too bitter to let go without an attempt to destroy each other.
The divorce case went on for three years. Neutral observers in the legal profession noted that that was hasty justice. They were still handling cases that had started in the last millennium, and milking their clients dry.
In their second year in court, the judge ordered them to meet a marriage counsellor appointed by the court. Sandeep and his wife talked to the counsellor about their fights and also about their earlier efforts with other counsellors. For the first time in his married life, Sandeep felt that he was being understood. He opened up. He joked about the arm-in-arm walk with another woman and his wife; he admitted that he was not too happy with his job and that he felt insecure like most men in such troubled times; and, quite gallantly, he told the counsellor that he was sincerely sorry if he had hurt his wife. After an inordinate delay of nine months, the marriage counsellor filed the report on the mental and physical health of their marriage.
The judge opened the confidential report in court and had no choice but to label Sandeep crazy. Their case ended then when Sandeep’s wife got what she wanted.
Sandeep managed to get a copy of that report by bribing a clerk. It was a concise report, about five or six sentences. The report said that Sandeep had admitted to an extramarital affair. It mentioned that that crazy affair had left him impotent, and that they had had to seek psychiatric counselling for his craziness. The report noted that Sandeep seemed insecure about his job and everything else; and that he was insincerely apologetic without comprehending why he was apologizing. It was so damning that even Sandeep for a moment wondered if it was true. Later, he wondered how that marriage counsellor had been got to. He asked his lawyer who made light of the matter. Too easy, the lawyer said, it is very easy to label a person crazy, just a matter of a few bucks.
After the divorce, Sandeep should have tried another alliance, and carried on with life. Instead of that, he committed the blunder of thinking too much about life, his in particular and in general terms too. That affected his career. He lost his job in two years. For the next two to three years, he flitted from one job to the next, till he decided that enough is enough. He changed track and decided to do something different, to do some good work in the east end ghetto where he grew up.
He became a teacher and took tuition classes for underprivileged children of the area. That went well for a few months. After one class, he saw a group of boys ganging up to bully a girl. Sandeep saw red when one bully fondled the girl. He thrashed the boy, like how his guru Anand used to. The boy’s parents reported that to the police. For obvious reasons, the girl and her parents decided to lie low, and never came forward to back Sandeep. The media had a field day. Some enterprising journalists even dug up the court report labelling Sandeep crazy. The police wanted to believe Sandeep but they could not. Fortunately, for Sandeep, the boy and his parents decided to drop the complaint before it reached the trial stage. Sandeep left the area and the state.
He was away for four years. It is not known what he did then or where he was.
Nine years after his divorce, he came back to the east end ghetto and took a room in a cheap hotel. His parents had shifted from the area after his divorce, to escape the double shame and stigma of a crazy divorce. He did not meet any of his old acquaintances. Anand’s parents had died in an accident. There were rumours that it was not an accident, and more a result of their son’s deeds.
Every morning and evening, Sandeep went to the temple. He lived a simple, nearly austere life. After two weeks, he met his guru Anand there on the steps of the temple. They went past each other, and only a keen observer would have noticed that they acknowledged each other with a slight nod.
Two days after that meeting, Anand slipped into Sandeep’s hotel room around midnight. They hugged each other, like long-separated brothers. Anand had not changed much, physically fit, simply but well attired even at that late hour. He had done well as a hit-man for hire. In the local parlance, he was known as a ‘quotation killer’. Given a ‘quote’ for limb or life, he got the job done, without any questions asked, and without any trace to his client. It was a lucrative business. People found the judicial system too cumbersome, and it was easier and quicker to raise a ‘quote’, for a reasonable amount of money, to settle deals and disputes. During the divorce case, Anand had offered to handle the matter, for free, for old times’ sake. Sandeep had declined his offer then.
Nine years after that case, Sandeep wanted blood for being labelled crazy. Anand agreed to ‘hit’ Sandeep’s ex-wife. She still lived in that area, happily settled with a second husband and couple of kids. Sandeep offered to pay the going rate for the ‘quote’, or even more.
‘We are family. We are in it together,’ Anand said when he accepted the base rate.
They decided to meet three days later, around midnight, but not in the hotel room. They were to meet in the park on Rao Marg.
The next morning, after placing the ‘quote’ on his ex-wife’s head, Sandeep woke up feeling a sense of dread. He thought about what he had arranged, and he realized that all his rage towards his ex-wife had dissipated during the night. He went to the temple but could not enter, feeling guilty of a heinous crime. He wanted to contact Anand but there was no way to cancel the ‘quote’.
Three nights after their meeting, Sandeep waited in the desolate park at the appointed hour. Anand came on time. Unlike their previous meeting, they did not hug each other. They did not even greet each other warmly. There was wariness on either side.
Anand, looking sheepish, said, ‘Sorry, Sandeep, they raised a larger quote on you.’
He was surprised when Sandeep mumbled with relief, ‘Thank God.’
Anand was even more surprised when Sandeep took out a thick iron rod from a carry bag and brought it down on his head with considerable force. It was a quick end for Anand.
Sandeep had not forgotten his guru’s old words, ‘Unless we do it right, our efforts can boomerang and hit us, ten-fold hundred-fold, to destroy us, you, your family, me, my family.’
Sandeep looked at the dead body of his guru with compassion. After all his trials and lessons, in court, and in life about which he had thought a great deal, he would have seemed totally daft if he had not been prepared for Anand’s betrayal, and the reverse-quotation. Sandeep dragged his guru’s body to a distant corner of the park, doused it liberally with petrol that he had thoughtfully brought in a few large bottles. He walked away after lighting the fire.
‘Operation unsuccessful but patient survived,’ he chuckled.
Sandeep left the state once again, promising never to return to the area around Rao Marg.