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.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Public Chat


There used to be a phone kiosk close to my Department–three booths with table-fans, standing space and, walls of fiberglass waist-up and plywood below; set up with Government funds for the disabled and run by twin brothers, both deaf and dumb. They kept the place clean, managed the queue and billed exactly. Some tried for a nod or a smile. The brothers never responded. ‘They can lip read,’ people warned. That troubled none. Anyone could listen. With three callers at most times, it was tough to keep track of one’s own line.
There, I declared my love for the first time. I got the middle booth, between a postgraduate in Aeronautics and a lecturer in the Mathematics Department. 
‘Surprised?’ I asked.
‘You listen to me…’ the postgraduate insisted.
‘Are you wearing the black bra?’ the lecturer whispered.
‘Are you going to listen to me or to your father?’
‘Stop worrying about your husband, he’s taking Number Theory.’
‘I’d this urge to tell you that I love you.’
‘Come on, it’s just the two of us.’
‘That bastard is ruining our life.’
‘Your father will kill me? Tell him to go and hang.’
‘You decide…me or him?’
‘Why should we do this face-to-face?’
‘Why aren’t you wearing it?’
‘Witch…’
‘Itch…?’
‘Bitch…!’
One couple lived happily ever after; another preserved the status quo; and the third drifted apart.
I miss that place. Those lip reading brothers must have understood all. Snoops these days just aren’t that good.