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.”
“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.”
“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.


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.