Monday, October 22, 2018

The Complaint

That day, five huge hundred-year-old trees fell in different parts of the city; incidentally, the same parts were flooded the previous night after a light shower; the Mayor assured the people that the filth and garbage blocking canals had nothing to do with the flood or the trees; the price of fuel and onions touched new highs; health services were put on red alert to deal with a viral disease that’s killed scores; an uncle (age 40) raped his niece (age 4); a lady killed her parents and two kids to have more time with her lover, the lover and the lady’s husband absconded from the city; a song’s video featuring the seductive pout of a starlet went viral with a million hits; and, the media protested about the State not allowing some news to be news.
An incident in this category of news happened close to the city-centre, in a congested but quiet middle-class ghetto. In a narrow by-lane, with three houses in that cul-de-sac, the action took place in the house on the left. The two-storeyed house on the seven-cent plot with a jackfruit tree and two coconut trees in front had seen better days. The compound wall and the interlocking tiles in front were green with algae, the courtyard strewn with leaves of the jackfruit tree. Only the gate had received fresh paint in recent years and even that was rusty. It was not neglect or penury to be blamed. Its main occupants, a man in his late eighties who has been in intensive care half a dozen times in half that many years and his wife a decade younger barely managing to keep everything from falling apart, had only that much time and energy.
Around half past ten that morning, they had visitors. Mrs Das and two colleagues opened the gate and walked up to the open front door. The old man, seated in an armchair in the drawing room, remained immersed in a magazine.
Mrs Das pressed the house-bell thrice before shouting at the old man, “Can’t you hear me?”
The wife came from the kitchen, looking flustered, wiping her hands on her old saree. “I am sorry. He does not hear well,” she apologized.
“I am from the Women’s Initiative.” Mrs Das ‘looked official’; a stout lady with a big belly, about fifty-five, her cotton saree crisp and all perfect lines, serious eyes stared over big-frame spectacles, hair pulled back in a bun, not a strand out of place. She waved a sheet of paper and asked, “Did you send this to our Director?” They entered without invitation and sat on a sofa.
The old man realized there were visitors. He turned towards the ladies and smiled.
He was a handsome man once, a quick-tempered one too, now more frustrated with his deafness than with his failing health. His breathing was laboured; hands and legs trembled with early Parkinson’s; needed a hand when he stepped out but otherwise quite independent. His wife was short and slim, pleasant, soft-spoken and preferred to be busy. “That’s congenital, my family is like that, always walking around,” she used to say. He might seem the dominant one but it was a well-balanced relationship.
“What is it? Who are they?” the old man asked his wife.
She ignored him. “What is it?” she asked Mrs Das.
“A complaint against one of our workers,” Mrs Das said.
“We have not complained.”
“Then, how did the Director get this e-mail? It is from your husband’s e-mail account, if I am not mistaken.”
“He has not sent it.”
Mrs Das turned towards the old man. “Did you write this?”
“What?” he asked.
“We write what we want to say to him,” the wife suggested.
Mrs Das frowned, picked up a newspaper lying on a coffee-table and scribbled her question on the margin. She handed that and the printout of the e-mail to the man.
He took time to study both and then said, “Yes.”
“But you told me you had not sent it,” his wife said. The old man looked at her confused. She took the newspaper, borrowed the pen from Mrs Das and scribbled.
“I did not send it,” he said after reading his wife’s statement.
“What?” Mrs Das protested.
He seemed to understand her. “I wrote it and saved the file in the computer. I did not send it. What use?”
“Then, who sent it? Is there someone else using your computer?” Mrs Das asked.
“It’s actually our son’s computer,” the elderly lady said.
“Is he here?”
“He is upstairs.”
“Please call him.”
“He is working.”
“What does he do?”
“I don’t know. He is working.”
“Please call him.”
The elderly lady reluctantly went to the stairs and pressed a switch. A bell rang on the second floor and a door opened.
“What, Ma?”
“There’s someone here. Can you come downstairs?” the mother said.
A middle-aged man, unshaven, a little overweight, freshly-bathed and already sweating, came to the drawing room. He wore an old t-shirt and track pants. In his case, it was neglect. The crow’s-feet by his weary eyes seemed to be a leftover of the genial nature that face was accustomed to before swapping places with quiet anger or desperation. He used to say, “I am all grey, with a memory of sweetness and a sharp tang of something squeezed till death”.
Mrs Das gave the earlier introduction before asking, “Did you send your father’s complaint?”
“Why would I?”
“Then, who did?”
“How would I know?”
Mrs Das sighed, shrugged as if to say she was washing her hands off the case and stared at the three.
“Let me explain the case. Then, you might co-operate,” she said. “This e-mail says that one of our workers Sudha, an area community leader, was your domestic help and that she, what’s the word you use, scooted, yes, scooted with fifty thousand. Did she steal it from you? No. You gave it to her as zero-interest loan in good faith, yes, in good faith indeed. Let me ask you. Do you have proof? Some receipt…any record of bank transfer…no?  I didn’t think so. On top of it, you claim that she feigned a suicide attempt to scoot…suicide to scoot.”
“Are you calling us liars?” the son asked.
“You don’t have to raise your voice. I can hear,” Mrs Das said. “We took your complaint very seriously. We talked to Sudha. After a lot of coaxing, she managed to tell us that all she got from this family was abuse.”
“Abuse…? Oh yes, we should have given her that.”
“Mind your words, sir. Yes, abuse, that too physical abuse,” Mrs Das paused, “sexual abuse! It was because of that she…scooted.”
“Just out of curiosity…when was she abused?” he asked.
“Before she left,” she replied.
“Is she accusing him…this frail old man…of sexually abusing her…?”
“We have heard of worse about frail old men,” Mrs Das said. “What about you?” She paused. “Do you whistle, sir?”
“What’s that got to do with this? Of course I whistle.”
“She said that it started with someone harassing her constantly with whistling and such.”
“I whistle at birds.”
“Birds…birds, indeed!” Mrs Das snorted.
“Look…I want that report of her…accusations!”
“We can get all the details you want. She is still terribly traumatised.”
“I have been out of town, traveling, the last three months. Got back and found them struggling without a maid, and robbed of fifty thousand. In any other place, that…she would have been in jail by now.”
“In any other place, she would not have been abused,” Mrs Das snapped. “As I said, we still have to get all the details from her. We can check if the abuse happened when you were out of town or when you were in town.”
The father looked intently at one speaker and the next, trying hard to make out what was going on. The mother sat down, her head in her hands. The son leaned against the wall. He took out his mobile, searched for a number in the contacts list, cursed, then went to a cupboard and took out an old diary. He flipped through the pages, found what he was looking for and dialled a number. He moved to a bedroom on the ground floor and spoke softly. Mrs Das signalled to her colleagues and they stepped out. Standing in the courtyard, she too made a phone-call. All of them returned to the drawing room after the calls.
“Who did you call?” Mrs Das asked.
“Police,” the son replied. “My cousin…he is a Deputy Superintendent.”
“Do you really want to take this down that route?” she asked.
That was around eleven. Mrs Das asked for something to drink. The mother made tea for the visitors, and served that along with digestive biscuits. They did not speak.
A police jeep arrived around quarter to twelve. The son and Mrs Das, along with her colleagues, met the big burly man in uniform in the courtyard. He introduced himself as Sub-Inspector Ramesh.
“DySp told me to check on the situation,” he said.
“He told me he would come,” the son said.
“He is tied up with more important stuff. What’s happening here?”
Mrs Das smiled. She briefed the policeman about the complaint.
The policeman placed a hand on the son’s shoulder and said, “Let’s talk.” They moved towards the jeep.
“You should settle this,” SI Ramesh said.
“Give them something and make them go.”
“No way….”
“Even the DySp suggested that.”
A brown van came to the spot then, parked behind the police jeep. There were five men in that. It was followed by two on a motorbike. One of them told the men in the van to stay put. He, medium height early forties wearing well-ironed white shirt and white dhoti, approached SI Ramesh.
“I am Councillor Santosh,” he said.
“Sir, what was the need for you to come? You could have called me,” the policeman said.
“Ah! These men…” the Councillor tilted his head towards the men in the van. “They came to me slightly agitated.”
“Who are they?”
“They belong to the Drivers Collective.”
“What did these people do to drivers?” the policeman asked.
“One of them is the husband of the poor lady involved in this sad case,” the politician explained.
The policeman sighed, looked at the son.
“Mrs Das called me to…control the husband and his friends,” the politician continued.
“Is he close to you?” the policeman asked.
“Everyone is close to me, no?” the politician said with a smile.
“Sir, I was telling them to settle,” SI Ramesh said, pointing at the son.
“I too would advise that,” Councillor Santosh said. He turned to the son. “Are you the one who sent that complaint?”
“No,” the son said.
“Then, who did?”
“We don’t know.”
“Doesn’t matter…very stupid thing to do,” the politician said.
The policeman nodded.
By that time, around twelve, people had gathered in the street and in every compound. They stood at a safe distance. A car came slowly through the crowd and stopped behind the bike and the van. The by-lane was totally blocked. The five men in the van got out. Three men stepped out of the car and one approached the house. He too wore white like Councillor Santosh but with a brightly coloured shawl draped on his shoulder to differentiate. They could have been brothers, the same height, build and moustache, even the same look of authority, that of generals with minions to sacrifice.
“Who called you here?” Councillor Santosh asked the new arrival.
“Did you think we wouldn’t be here to defend our own?” the other retorted. He turned towards the son, smiled, gave a reassuring slow nod, and then addressed the policeman, “I am Kadalil Rajappan, the Association’s area secretary.
“Of course, sir, I know,” the policeman said.
“This family is part of the Association.”
“Excuse me, I have to call my superior,” SI Ramesh said and slipped away towards the jeep. He spoke to the DySp. His message was, “Sir, it’s getting political. The Association has also landed.”
“Bloody hell, haven’t you settled it yet?” came the response. “Just diffuse the situation and get out of there.”
“How do I do that?”
“Get my cousin on the phone.”
SI Ramesh flicked his fingers at the son. The latter hurried towards him. “DySp wants to talk to you.” He handed over his mobile.
“When did you get involved with the Association?” the DySp barked at his cousin.
“I am not involved with them,” the son replied. “The first time I have seen these guys, I swear.”
“Your parents…?”
“They must have been tricked into joining. You know my father. He is dead against them.”
They paused for a while as if the last utterance summed up the situation.
“Who informed them? Why are they there?” the DySp asked.
“I really don’t know. First the complaint and now this,” the son said. “Someone’s hacking into our lives.”
 “That is the least of your troubles,” the DySp said. “Look, settle this quickly.”
“Money, what else…?”
“How much…?”
“One might do, I think…given all those groups.”
“One what…?”
“Hundred thousand, what else…?”
“One…one…” the son kept on muttering.
“Don’t act dumb…you’ve put me in a big mess. Get it from somewhere and give it to the SI. He will do the needful.”
“Should I give him something too?”
“That’s up to you. What’s that commotion out there? Give the phone to the SI.”
The SI received the phone and said, “Sir, it’s started.”
“Bloody hell…” He barked some orders to his subordinate who wondered how he would follow any order in that situation.
Within that courtyard, two groups faced each other. Councillor Santhosh and Kadilil Rajappan did not raise their voice but they spoke clearly and forcefully. When they paused, their supporters raised a chorus of slogans in support. One side spoke of class prejudice and abuse against the vulnerable. The other talked about years of injustice and step-motherly treatment their group suffered from the ones in power. Both claimed to be patriots, the only ones defending the borders, the true keepers of freedom and heritage. Both touched on history, from the earliest invaders to more recent riots, from betrayals to acts of oppression. There were no open threats. They avoided any mention of religion and caste. It seemed like they had some tacit understanding of how to conduct the turf war.
The policemen stood near the jeep. The son stood alone. His parents leaned against the front door, the mother in tears, the father dazed. The SI tried to talk to the politicians but he was shooed away. Around half past one, they must have felt hungry.
It took a while for the vehicles to reverse and get out of that by-lane.
The son asked the SI, “Sir, will they be back?”
The policeman shrugged. The jeep hurried away from the scene.
A few neighbours dropped in to get the details they had not managed to fathom. They retreated to their houses, locked their gates and doors as if to guard themselves against some rampaging mob or plague.
The son tried to make his parents eat something. The father lay on his bed. The mother kept fidgeting in the kitchen. The son retreated to his room upstairs and sat in front of his computer but did not switch it on.
Around eight that night, they sat to have a dinner of rice gruel.
There was a loud bang and the sound of sparks. Something had tripped the power line. The lights went out. The son went to the front and opened the door. The whole area was in darkness. Just for a while.
A Molotov cocktail exploded on the courtyard a few meters from the son. Inside, the mother shrieked with fright. The father, with his head down, slurped and continued with his dinner. At the door, the son fell back stunned. Three men raced towards him. He was hacked 37 times. They used what is called ‘country-made swords’, machetes modified with protrusions and jagged edges to pulverize and damage flesh and bones. Post-mortem investigations discovered that he had no defensive wounds, the first blow had killed him or he saw no point in complaining. Another group arrived at the scene. They threw ‘country-bombs’ at the first group. A few hit the house. The two groups left after a brief skirmish, dragging their injured away into the night.
A dark shroud and an eerie silence settled over that battlefield. The police turned up at the scene after half an hour, along with an ambulance. The tally that day, in that quiet neighbourhood: one dead, one unconscious, one clueless.

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