‘Ask him, don’t ask me’ the star muttered with surprising venom. ‘Just because he’s got cancer—’
I was to remember that outburst much later.
On a misty December evening, I found myself speechless on a podium between two repellent men.
Two hours ago, I had tried rebellion.
‘Shukla will be hurt,’ Savio pointed out the obvious.
Shukla, mending a messily fractured leg, was out for the count.
Savio was over his ears in an even messier case.
Lalli was away visiting a friend.
Mrs Shukla, the last on Shukla’s list of substitutes, was in distant Ajmer where her sister was having the annual meltdown.
Dr Q had gently but very firmly removed himself from the discussion.
It seemed predestined that I would be representing Shukla at the reading. It wasn’t his book, but one of his cases appeared in it.
‘You are natural choice,’ Shukla stated as he was being wheeled into surgery. ‘Find out what kachra they have made of Shukla.’
The book was called Crime Episodes.
‘Mention is on Page 44,’ the faithful Shaktivel put in. ‘Before my time, but you are knowing the case, I think.’
This was his way of letting me know why he had been excluded from Poojya Shuklaji’s list of possible substitutes.
‘Very popular show,’ Shaktivel pressed on. ‘Book contains all episodes.’
And here I was, between the two authors, engaged to read Page 44.
The Chowki had handsomely put up a shamiana on the football ground, but the fringe scatter of constabulary, interpreted as security by the TV crew, had soon vanished under the insult. Just as well. They would have felt terribly out of place once the audience moved in.
I had never seen a crowd quite like this one. The field was jammed with clones.
The men were all dressed in blazers and light trousers. Every man had a white satin carnation on his lapel, and at 7 p.m., sported shades. The women trailed multiple layers of sheer stuff, liberally iridescent and calling for a flash of thigh, sometimes both. Bling was at peak ferocity, right from fake Choodamani to the solitaire stud atwinkle on the toenail.
‘Fan club,’ Shaktivel explained. ‘Gents are Inspector Kumar. Ladies are all bodies.’
‘Each and every episode is having one such. Same uniform, different girls.’
‘Episode has girls. These are all ladies.’
‘Which am I, Shaktivel?’
‘You are not in uniform, so I cannot say.’
And with that he stepped back, abandoning me to the wolves.
‘You are Mrs Shukla,’ the guy to my left stated.
‘No, I’m not!’ My response had shot out before I took a closer look at him.
‘Then why?’ he demanded.
Stalling for a suitable answer, I took my seat and opened the bottle of water.
‘Not Admin,’ he stated flatly, alluding to the more decorative branch of the Force. Clearly, I was not up to scratch.‘Then what for?’
‘Only to read,’ I said.
‘At Inspector Shukla’s request.’
‘Maybe because I’ve written a book too.’
This got me a very disapproving frown. ‘About what?’
Curiously, for a guy in his late fifties, he seemed accoutred for combat, as heavily armored as a medieval knight. His shirt was a starchy carapace, his trouser crease could have sliced a stone. His polished boots had long evolved from mere leather encasements into superior sensors. Their dark mirrors reflected a world that vindicated his worst suspicions. His face was visored with bulldog creases. I had to remind myself that there was a man inside.
The creases deepened under my scrutiny.
‘What’s your book about?’ he barked. Then with the faintest glimmer of a laugh in his canny eyes, ‘Love story?’
‘Murder, actually,’ I said, and turned away to answer the other guy’s question. The other guy was the star.
He had to repeat the question, I was that dazed by his cologne. It wasn’t unpleasant, even if mildly gamey—cedar, citrus, woodsmoke and leather rang out clear and separate—but it was thick as tear gas and about as alluring.
‘Did you enjoy the last episode?’ he repeated patiently.
‘Sorry—the last episode of what?’
I had touched a nerve. His light brown eyes lost their frankness. Recovering rapidly, he laughed as if I had made a witticism. ‘Point made! It is a bad title, especially now!’
The coin dropped.
Last Episode was the name of his show, and this guy was the prototype of the male clones clapping enthusiastically. Inspector Kumar, and as his fans were even this minute busily texting, Mirish Kumar IRL!
‘Especially as the book has so many episodes,’ I said, picking up the copy the compere had just placed before me. Crime Episodes by Mirish Kumar with Oswald Pinto.
It was hefty for a paperback. Four words to the line. Double-spaced, no doubt.
‘Only twenty-five,’ Mirish said. ‘True stories, every one of them.’
‘Each one backed by 500 pages of research.’
‘All Walden’s work. Four years of labour. Wonderful reportage.’
Walden Pinto the armored man, deprecated this with a wave.
‘He won’t take a compliment.’ Mirish shrugged. ‘Being a crime reporter is hard work.’
‘So is being Inspector Kumar,’ I said gravely.
Mirish examined me with sudden interest. His eyes turned toffee brown again. ‘Let’s discuss that over a drink.’
‘I don’t drink.’
‘Dinner, then. Sushi. You love sushi, I can tell by the way your eyelashes curl.’
I had to laugh at that.
‘No fish? No alcohol, no fish. Italian, then. No? Tell you what, good standard dal chawal. My place. Sixty-fifth floor. We can count the stars all night.’
‘I’m not having dinner with Inspector Kumar.’
‘Oh Inspector Kumar’s only for them.’ He blew a kiss at The Bodies. ‘You’ll be having dinner with Mirish. I’m the simple—’
‘—boy next door.’ I finished for him.
‘No,’ I said, knowing he would offer me breakfast next.
And he did too, but luckily the compere interrupted the badinage, quelling me with a jilebi smile.
Mirish picked up the mike.
The audience stopped breathing.
Mirish set down the mike, walked to the edge of the podium and, throwing his head back heroically, flung out his arms.
Applause exploded, catcalls shrilled, and a heavy metal stomping established itself like a demented heartbeat. Through it all Mirish moved his head forward in a slow arc, sinking his chin into his boutonnière. This gesture of total surrender was completed with the arms energetically embracing the air till they came to rest across his heart.
As yet, he hadn’t said a word and when he did, my brain supplied the lines:
How he seemed to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy
What reverence did he throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles.
‘He’s a politician born,’ I said to Walden.
For the second time that evening, I seemed to have said the wrong thing. Only this time it was fear, not hurt that I read in Walden’s bloodshot eyes. Surprisingly, he made no attempt to disguise it.
‘Politics? You think so?’
‘Look at him. Even without Last Episode he’ll have the mob eating out of his hands.’
The creases tightened as Walden contemplated his meal-ticket slipping away.
Now Mirish was pronouncing his name, and I caught a stirring in Walden’s face, but whether that was pleasure or irritation, it was impossible to say.
When it was his turn to speak, Walden turned heavily moral. The book had the most popular stories on the show, every word true, backed by 500 pages of research, and all of them showed just one thing. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, CRIME DOES NOT PAY!’
Last Episode, he reminded them, had been going on for four years, and was on its 1000th airing this very night—
He stilled the applause with a gesture and continued rather chillingly, ‘Who knows, it might be the last.’
Catching at the sudden silence, he added simply, ‘Then it will be up to you, millions of viewers, to ensure that—CRIME DOES NOT PAY.’
There was some weak applause, but Walden had damned himself. The look I caught on Mirish’s face told me Walden was out of a job.
Four lagging winters, four wanton springs
End in a word: such is the breath of kings…
Somebody was chiding me. A sugary voice. It was the compere, pushing the book in my direction.
I caught Shaktivel making wild faces at me from the audience, miming, ‘Forty four!’
In numb obedience, I began reading.
Gradually, the words sank in. It was the most appalling drivel. Worse, it read like libel, (unless it was slander). I stopped short of the line that said Inspector Shukla’s typical middle-class morality failed to suspect a respectable householder, and so the investigation was stalled for a whole year. I skipped the next paragraph too. Nobody seemed to notice. Eventually, the compere grabbed the mike from me, and I shut the book to polite applause.
I turned angrily to Mirish. ‘That was very unfair to Inspector Shukla,’ I said. ‘I happen to know all about that particular case. Shukla got his man. You’ve practically accused him of negligence.’
Mirish shrugged. ‘You should ask Walden.’
‘Your name is bigger on the cover.’
‘Walden has all the facts. I just get them right.’
‘Well you didn’t, this time. What about next time?’
‘Ask him, don’t ask me,’ Mirish snarled. ‘Just because he’s got cancer—’
The next minute he had sprung to his feet, full of bright banalities, delivering each bromide like a revelation.
‘Is it still no to the view?’ he had the nerve to ask me when the circus ended.
‘Won’t be for long. I’m going to buy your book and if the idea interests me, I’ll give you a call. I’m sure the view will interest you then.’
‘Watch me,’ I snarled and stalked off to vent on poor Shaktivel. ‘Why didn’t you warn me the book made an ass of Shukla?’ I demanded.
‘No copy available. Myself was wanting to immediate GBH Mirish Kumar. You left out many parts.’
‘You bet I did. How do I face Shukla now?’
‘Leave it to Shaktivel.’
And so I did.
But not for long. The next morning, we woke to the news that Mirish Kumar had been discovered dead on the lawn by the watchman at 6 a.m. He had landed on his back and fractured his skull, after falling 800 feet from his room with a view.
‘Suicide.’ Shaktivel delivered the verdict crisply, showering us with toast crumbs. He shone this morning. He was always very shiny and aromatic in the mornings, but today the glow was more than aftershave. It was pure gloat. ‘Guilty,’ he said. ‘Guilty suicide.’
‘Guilt over what?’ Lalli asked, still immersed in the file she was reading.
‘Insulting Shuklaji on Page 44.’
Shaktivel stated that with such complete conviction that Lalli shut the file and looked severely at him.
‘Best not tell Shukla about Page 44. Not just yet,’ I said.
‘Best,’ agreed Shaktivel.
Lalli made an impatient sound. ‘How long is this ‘Protect Shukla’ campaign to continue? He won’t thank you for it. He’ll agree with Page 44.’
‘You’ve read it, then?’
‘Sure, I have a copy.’
‘And you still think—’
‘Never ever can Shuklaji be neglectful,’ Shaktivel growled.
‘Oh, he didn’t neglect anything. He just didn’t look close enough.’
‘But that was a low hit about middle-class morality,’ I cried.
‘Perhaps it was, but that was five years ago. I wouldn’t say it today. It’s upper-class morality now that keeps murder so respectable. Then, I meant it literally—’
‘You said that, Lalli?’
‘In an internal review, yes.’
‘But Shukla got his man, I remember. Caught him red-handed on CCTV.’
‘Yes, but it took some persuasion.’
‘Madam, I’m having entirely different story,’ Shaktivel protested.
‘That’s the one you should stick with.’
‘A cover up?’ I was shocked.
‘Oh it was Shukla’s first strike. He’s been near paranoid since then, suspects even the chowki cat.’
Shaktivel left in a huff.
‘Now you’ve really got me curious,’ Lalli said. ‘How did this guy get his material? It was an internal review. Records never get out. But obviously they have. How?’
‘How does it matter, now that he’s dead?’
‘Well, it matters to me. It hurts to see something spoken in confidence used publicly to slander a friend.’
‘I thought it was libel.’
‘Whatever. Give me ten minutes for a phone call.’
‘Where are we going?’
Superfluous question. One look at the sari she swished in ten minutes later told me we were headed for the scene of crime.
My aunt only dresses up for murder.
‘This is suicide, Lalli,’ I reminded her. ‘There’s nothing to solve.’
‘Unsolvable, I agree, but that doesn’t keep me from trying. Anyway, I’ve got the goods on our hero.’
Mirish Kumar surfaced out of nowhere five years ago. He was working as a handyman with the film crew —Last Episode was into its fifth airing when the lead collapsed with dengue. With no substitute in view, at the eleventh hour, the director had caught hold of the nearest possibility—what the hell one guy in a blazer and shades looks as good as another, and they’d dub the lines. But his first performance stunned them. They kept him on, and the viewership rocketed. The rest is history. Soon he took over the show. He brought in his own material, working closely with the crime reporter Oswald Pinto. Within the year he was producing the show.
His personal life was curiously impersonal. There was no visible family. Serial girlfriends, arm candy, mostly. Unlike his Inspector Kumar persona, he was friendly, even chatty on the set, popular with the staff.
But there was no getting close to the guy. He maintained an isolation difficult to breach. Last Episode had made him tremendously wealthy—the room with the view was in the city’s tallest skyscraper. He supported several public charities sparingly. The money trail would show up more, no doubt, but this was all, for the moment.
The perfect actor, tabula rasa.
‘Hardly.’ Lalli read my thought. ‘You seemed to have discovered quite a lot in that brief encounter.’
‘Well, you described a frightened, resentful man.’
‘Not at all. I met a smooth-talking creep.’
I was about to demand what she meant, but the T-junction into Stellar View approached. We were five minutes away from that famous view—the thought brought a stab of sadness that quite distracted me.
If Shaktivel was surprised to see us, he didn’t show it. We found him taking a breather in the foyer, with his cap off. He had recently acquired a new barber and his scalp had been landscaped twice already in the last fortnight. Right now it was a daunting vista of Nazca lines. Only the vertex had real hair, a Hokusai Great Wave, gelled into stillness.
He hurriedly reached for his cap on seeing us.
‘I have full details, Madam,’ he said. ‘Definite suicide.’
After the show ended at around nine last night, Mirish had driven home. Walden accompanied him, but was soon observed to exit the foyer. The watchman reported seeing him get into a cab. About ten minutes later, Mirish had sent out for paan, his usual practice. It was delivered at the gate, and carried up to the flat by the concierge who noted that Sahib appeared to be on his own that night. The watchman at the gate had the lawn in full view. In addition, there was CCTV. The night passed without event. An indistinct shadow on the lawn was noticed at 6 a.m. The watchman left his post to investigate. Within minutes Stellar View was woken by his screams.
Mirish was very obviously dead. The cause of death was equally obvious. He had jumped from his living-room window. It was a very long fall.
The concierge had called the ambulance. It served to transport the watchman who was threatening a heart attack.
We had no business being here, really. This was Prabhadevi jurisdiction, but Shaktivel had sidled past that hurdle and now waved us elevator-wards with a proprietary grace.
It was my first visit to a super tall building, and there was a moment of claustrophobic panic in the lift which whizzed at the speed of light to the 45th floor. We stepped out into a lavishly appointed sky lobby where a gloved concierge conducted us to the appropriate lift—instantly identifiable by the havaldar inside. He looked anxious, so Lalli flashed the badge she saves for sticky situations. It earned us an unqualified welcome past the entirely unnecessary cordon—there were no neighbours, the 65th floor belonged solely to the deceased.
I did impossible sums in my head and still came up short of what the place must have cost. A foreboding spelt out what we would encounter beyond the miniature orchid garden at the very ornate door.
Empty lodgings, unfurnished walls
Unpeopled offices, untrodden stones
And what hear there for welcome, but my groans.
I suppressed a giggle at the thought of how Mirish would have hammed those lines, especially the last. And then laughter fled, as aghast, I viewed the landscape of misery. Whatever else it was architecturally, this was an interior designed for suicide.
The colors—I counted just three—were flat. The contours, severely linear. The patterns, geometric. The walls, loaded with art, abstractions in controlled hues of beige, grey, black, merely enlarged the vista of despair.
It was like entering an optical illusion where everything seems to lead somewhere, but goes nowhere.
Into this cocoon the shining knight had retreated after every mock battle—but maybe he was one of those guys who never lived in the living-room.
The French window let in a wavering light this misty December morning. It was shut now, but it had been open this morning when the police entered the flat. The ledge, presumably Mirish’s launching pad last night, was cushioned in black. The wall around it flickered indecisively in faint ripples of beige and grey. There were no curtains, of course. Instead, sculpted shades of spiraling bamboo and wrought iron hurtled down at the touch of the concealed button that Lalli located with pure prescience.
To my intense surprise, alarm even—there were books. Unread, possibly even untouched, marooned in a far corner, their crowded spines making a constrained rainbow.
A muffled cough announced the concierge. ‘Any help—’
‘Are all the flats furnished the same?’ I asked.
‘Oh no. Mirish Sahib was very particular. He had his own decorator. He liked everything neat and clean.’
Leaving Lalli at the French window, I strolled into the adjoining corridor. To my surprise, it didn’t lead to the interior. It opened on a deck. I had a sudden sick feeling. This, and not the window was his seduction bait.
The city was a gauzy sari spread out to dry, patches and tatters unconcealed, its filthy hem crumpling into the sea. It had floated off me like a discard, leaving me free. The reality of the glass wall around me was hard to accept, so immediate was the sky. Just as well, the wind would have grabbed me otherwise—
Did that happen to Mirish? Had his fall been an accident?
I hurried back to the living-room, but Lalli wasn’t there. I walked past the kitchen, a small octagonal space bee-hived with machinery. Nobody could ever have cooked here, obviously, but even survival foods were sparse. The fridge was bare. There was a jar of almonds and another of apricots on the shelf, a crate of milk cartons, and that was all. The bin had one empty milk carton, and a ball of crumpled foil.
The minibar was well stocked, but looked untouched.
I pictured Mirish Kumar glugging down the milk, throwing the carton into the bin as the doorbell rang with his paan—delivered, I guessed wrapped in that discarded foil.
These actions seemed casual enough.
Yet very soon after that he had made his exit from the 65th floor through the window.
The living-room seemed cheery compared to the bedroom, which was furnished completely in black. The enormous bed (black) bulged like a beached whale on the sandy floor. A huge oval mirror leered knowingly from the ceiling. There was more art, more abstractions, more dissolving dimensions, more black, beige, grey. The small red cushion on a chair was grim as a blood clot. The only other color in the room was Lalli, her green sari vibrant as a new leaf as she drifted through the pages of the dead man’s life.
It was an empty book, though, there was so very little to read.
Clothes enough for ten men, with not a hint of intimacy. Bottles of unguents, cologne and other stuff filled a whole cupboard. Shoes that looked as if they had never been walked in. Props and disguises, the lot. Not a shred that breathed memory. A hotel room would have seemed more inhabited after an hour’s stay, and Mirish Kumar had lived five uninterrupted years here. I wondered why Lalli was ferreting about so persistently. There was nothing to see. A strong odor of pine, emanating from some hidden source, erased the air.
‘Aha!’ Lalli, lost in the closet within a forest of jackets, emerged with a flush of triumph.‘Stuffed behind a suitcase on the top shelf.’
It was a small tight roll of clothing, in a plastic bag. Lalli placed it on the bed, then pulled out the suitcase—clearly empty from its lightness. Not entirely. Slipped under the lining she found a plastic sleeve with a single sheet of paper. The school leaving certificate of Mahesh Kanji Kotwal, aged 16, student of B.K. Society School, Naroda Patiya, Ahmadabad, dated 17th June, 2000.
Naroda Patiya—the name punched me with a sickening colic. Missing a heartbeat, I forced myself back to the moment.
The plastic bag contained a T-shirt, a faded yellow, worn and stained.
‘His only memory?’ Lalli murmured.
‘No, he only put it there yesterday,’ I surprised myself by saying.
It was the smell. Fighting past the overpowering pine, came an olfactory assault I had met before. It was the feral cologne Mirish had worn last evening. Faint, but undeniable, its shrill current wafted off the T-shirt.
‘Of course he might have worn that scent every day.’ I shrugged. ‘It’s hardly evidence.’
‘I’m not sure it isn’t.’ Lalli frowned. She rolled up the T-shirt, restored the package, leaving it there for Forensics to find.
I spotted the cologne in his collection: L’homme mystérieux. It didn’t smell so bad in the bottle.
‘We’ll just have to wait for Dr Q.’ Lalli shrugged. ‘Now, what about the other guy? He’s just as curious, isn’t he?’
‘All that armor you noticed. One man in armor, the other in disguise. Don’t you find it curious?’
‘Lalli, that was just my impression.’
‘Based on facts.’
‘Like Mirish Kumar’s resentment and loneliness. You noticed these things.’
‘Not really. He was just a creep.’
‘And you won’t credit a creep with pathos.’
Her statement brought me up short.
‘My life has been filled with creeps, Sita. A new one every day. I find it—I’ve always found it—impossible to dismiss them as creeps. They always explain. After the act they protest sameness, not superiority. They abdicate.’
‘Abdicate? A curious choice of word.’
‘They refuse power. It exalts them, that moment.’
Again, lines rose unbidden in my brain.
For you have mistook me all this while
I live by bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends; subjected thus
How can you say to me, I am a king?
‘So, the other guy,’ Lalli broke into my reverie. ‘What did you say his name was?’
‘We should see him.’
‘What for? This was suicide, Lalli.’
‘Yes. But why?’
‘You said it just now—loneliness.’
‘Why last night?’
That question stabbed me. I had been with the guy, why hadn’t I sensed his desperation?
‘What did I miss, Lalli?’
‘You? Nothing. You were not in the picture. Oswald Pinto was.’
‘Oswald Pinto has cancer,’ I blurted out.
‘How do you know?’
I recalled Mirish’s outburst. ‘Just because he’s got cancer—’
‘So what did Oswald presume on an ague’s privilege?’ mused Lalli.
As we left, Lalli told Shaktivel to hold off a press release till the next day—and a news blackout if possible.
It was, as yet, only eleven.
The world had not yet learnt of Inspector Kumar’s last episode.
‘Already staff has been instructed,’ Shaktivel said smugly. ‘I have secured all mobiles.’
Prabhadevi, evidently, was almost grateful for being relieved of responsibility. Once things were sorted out they would step in for plaudits, though that could be sparse in a case of suicide.
We headed home to await Dr Q who had promised to drop by after the post mortem.
Dr Q had little to add. The cause of death was evident—shock from extensive injuries and massive internal bleeding.
‘Which suggests he lived after impact,’ Lalli said.
‘Yes. Half an hour at least,’ Dr Q agreed. ‘Hopefully, he was unconscious.’
‘Hopefully—you’re not certain.’
‘No. One expects this degree of trauma to cause instantaneous death, but it often doesn’t.’
I shuddered at the thought of that half hour.
‘Aha. Curdled milk—and the residue of paan. We should get something out of that by tomorrow. And, you won’t believe this—his phone was intact. In his jacket.’
‘In his jacket? He died in his jacket?’ I asked incredulously.
Dr Q gave me that special look he reserves for moments when he thinks the idiot child has said something intelligent at last. Lalli smiled too.
‘In the absence of a note—’ Dr Q said gravely.
‘Exactly. Thank you, Sita.’
For what? I was clueless, but I could use the glow.
‘He made only one call after nine last night—that was to the paanwala. Here’s the number.’
I had no idea why he thought it important, but evidently, so did Lalli. She dialed the number immediately, switching to speaker mode.
‘Hello?’ A man’s voice, very cautious. ‘Who gave you this number?’
Lalli shocked me by giggling sharply, then sinking her voice in throaty confidence. ‘Mirish Kumar,’ she murmured. ‘Can I get it today?’
‘Two o’clock possible. Address?’
‘Oh, same building, leave it with the watchman as usual.’
‘Okay, madam, but cash on delivery.’
‘Cash? Mirish said I could pay on account.’
‘First purchase cash down, madam.’
‘Okay, no problem, just text me the amount.’
When the text came in, I gasped. ‘No paan can cost that much.’
‘Depends on what it contains,’ they said together.
Dr Q placed the time of death around midnight. Which meant Mirish had jumped (or fallen) at or before 11.30 p.m.
In the absence of a note … Dr Q’s comment ran in a loop in my brain.
In the absence of a note, it was vital to reconstruct a suicide’s last hours. Sudden death didn’t get more sudden than a leap from the 65th floor.
He had been home for more than two hours when he took that decision. It had not been taken for him—Dr Q was certain about that. There were no signs of resistance. He could have been pushed—but only if he were standing on the ledge to begin with. The window was perfectly sound. Why on earth did he open it at all? The wind would have slid in its arm and scooped out the furniture.
No, he had opened the window with every intention of jumping.
Whatever the preceding hour had been like, he had kept the jacket on throughout. Now why would he—why would any guy do that? Was he planning to go out later? Still, it is the human urge to slip into something comfortable once you’re home. On the other hand, Mirish could never have been very comfortable in his home. Or did he simply forget he was still wearing his jacket?
‘Depends on his state of mind,’ Lalli said, without looking up from the file she was reading. The table had a small mountain of files and printouts. These kept arriving, and none of them from the police. A brief glimpse had revealed they were all follow-up files on harrowing news reports.
‘Depends on his state of mind,’ Lalli repeated. ‘If one man’s state of mind can drive him to suicide, consider what happens to the nation—which is the state of 1.2 billion minds.’
‘Really? I see only conformity. A dull conformity of apathy and hatred, greed its only nourishment. I don’t know how much longer I can live with this.’
… this dear dear land
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die proving it
Like to a tenement or a pelting farm.
Dr Q called later that night with the toxicology report on the paan.
‘There are some new designer drugs on the street, a new bunch of crazies,’ Lalli explained. ‘Shukla discovered a qat plantation in Kalina recently—’
‘No. That’s Acacia catechu. Qat isn’t endemic—Arabic and African, if I remember right. A mild stimulant. People chew it like paan, fairly innocuous, gives a mild high. But it can be cooked into more dangerous cathinones, and that’s become a kitchen industry. A new molecule pops up every week. We just cleaned up meow-meow and now there’s a new one that evidently gives you the sensation of flight.’
‘Mirish’s paan had that?’
‘And so did his blood. Now let’s see if the paan I’ve ordered has it too.’
‘So he was high when he jumped?’
‘Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps he was just flushed and hyper-alert, which is the usual effect.’
Perhaps he had felt hot and instead of taking off his jacket, opened the window. In a rush of bravado he had climbed the ledge.
What had he seen in the twinkling darkness?
An audience of twenty million, waiting in breathless silence, for him to speak?
And so he had opened his arms to them, as he had earlier that evening.
‘Except for one detail.’ Lalli’s calm voice broke into my fevered vision. ‘He was wearing that jacket when the concierge brought the paan at 10.30. I checked. Which could mean he was already pre-occupied. The arrival of the paan merely urged him to action. It alerted him to hunger. He gulped down the milk, chewed the paan. It takes about half an hour for the cathinone to kick in. And all that time, his preoccupation, anxiety or dread, kept up its charge. And then—’
That was it, then. Mirish Kumar’s death was no longer suicide. It was a drug-induced accident. The case was closed.
‘Time now to open the real case,’ Lalli said.
‘But we know why he died,’ I protested.
‘We also know where he came from, despite his every effort to conceal it. But we don’t know why he lived the way he did.’
‘Whatever the reason, it’s irrelevant now.’
‘To him, perhaps. Not to me. I’m very curious to discover what Oswald Pinto thinks.’
‘He doesn’t know yet?’
‘No. Also, luckily for us, today is Sunday.’
But Oswald was not at home. He was in hospital, reacting violently to chemotherapy.
To my surprise, that got no sympathy out of Lalli.
‘Can’t it wait till he’s home?’ I asked, irritated.
When my aunt’s that terse, I shudder at what’s ahead. But even that prescience, it turned out, had left me unprepared.
Lalli’s illegal badge, flashed at every hurdle, got us into the swank private room where Oswald Pinto was napping between drips while his exhausted wife dozed in an armchair.
The nurse who accompanied us woke her with a whispered introduction. ‘Urgent, important, please.’
Mrs Pinto’s face, lacking Oswald’s bulldog grace, showed an unexpected fear. She actually flinched at the sight of Lalli’s badge, held up this time with visible menace. There was something avenging in every line of my aunt’s still face. Implacable was the word my brain supplied.
Mrs Pinto nodded dumbly, and prepared to accompany us outside.
‘No, please stay. It’s your husband I must speak with.’
The nurse and Mrs Pinto protested together. ‘He’s asleep!’ Their indignation woke him and he opened his eyes and focused his irritation on his wife. The nurse fled.
His eyes travelled with growing puzzlement as he recognised me. He had seen Lalli before. He frowned in uneasy recall.
Calmly she showed him the badge. His face leapt out of its leathery armor as he murmured ‘Deva! Devadeva!’
Mrs Pinto’s silent reaction was even more disturbing. The look on her face told me she was witnessing the end of her world.
Lalli, who had her back to Mrs Pinto, spoke without turning around. Her words seemed totally irrelevant. ‘Mrs Pinto, you have my word that when I leave this room you will still be Mrs Oswald Pinto, still married to this gentleman.’
The effect of those words on Mrs Pinto was remarkable. She clutched my arm hard, quite without realising. Her eyes returned to focus. She nodded with some secret intelligence, and stepped back, subsiding into the armchair.
Oswald Pinto too, seemed alleviated to some extent. His grunt may have been resentful, but it conveyed some degree of trust. He tried to speak, but his dry lips made no sound. Lalli restrained me with a look as I reached for the glass of water at his bedside.
Lalli pulled up the plastic chair and sat down, leaning back. This morning she had chosen a red violet cotton sari, and the rich color flamed up in that grey room, making her an effigy of power. I had never seen her in this cold inexorable role before.
‘I had a great deal of trouble tracking you down, Lakshman Hegde,’ she began. ‘I had given you up for dead. But it was Oswald Pinto who died, I see that now. No matter, one name is as good as another for what I have to say. Do you remember me now?’
He found his voice. ‘Tribunal.’
‘Yes. It was at the Tribunal. I was reading your account yesterday, Constable Hegde. You were our most reliable witness. You gave us names. You gave us phone traces. You gave us leads that we followed to the Chief Minister, indicting him for the massacre.’
‘Massacre!’ My horrified exclamation rang in the still air long after it had ceased.
I remembered where I had last read the name.
Oswald’s lips moved soundlessly.
‘Not a word till I have finished,’ Lalli said. Her voice, low and vibrant, struck terror in me.
‘Massacre. Qatl-e-aam. Kill on sight. Those were the orders. You watched them carried out. You watched the slaughter of one thousand Muslims in Naroda Patiya. On the morning of 28th February 2002 between ten in the morning and again at two that afternoon you watched the mob throw gas cylinders and petrol bombs into Muslim homes. You watched two families burn alive. You watched your fellow policemen throw tear gas at the victims. You watched them turn away from piteous cries for help. You heard your superior officer say, ‘Nahi, aaj to upar se order aaya ke aaj tumhari jaan bachane ki nahi hai.’ You saw all this. But when he ordered you to fire into the struggling crowd of victims, you did not. You said at the Tribunal you ran away because of a woman. You did not tell us more. Tell me about the woman now. What did she do?’
He shook his head. Grey and worn, he was beyond words.
‘Tell me about that woman.’
‘Don’t make him speak’, Mrs. Pinto pleaded. ‘It’s all long over. Don’t open old wounds now.’
‘Who are you to say that? Did these things happen to you?’ Lalli shot back. She turned to the sick man again. ‘Tell me about the woman.’
Lalli offered him the glass of water, but he refused it, and began speaking rapidly in a clear hard voice. I cannot report what he said, so I will let him narrate it.
STATEMENT OF OSWALD PINTO/LAKSHMAN HEGDE
I watched it all. I lived in the hostel just a street away from Noorani Masjid. I was a bachelor from Hubli. I knew the basti people. They were my friends. All of them were Muslims, all my friends. You must understand this. I beg of you, understand this.
28th February 2002.
At about 11 a.m., everything had already started. The mob filled the street, yelling wildly. They were armed to the teeth, brandishing axes and choppers and trishuls, knives, pistols.
We were on one side, SRP men.
Down the road, the mob stopped.
Between us, the empty street.
I caught sight of a man trying to cross the street. I recognised him immediately. It was Hussain bhai. He had repaired my watch only last week. He repaired all sorts of things. He had a small kiosk at the edge of the market, a makeshift tarpaulin tent. We often spoke of a pukka shop.
Hussain bhai. He was carrying a baby, his youngest.
Hussain bhai had three children, always crowding his shop, so I always made certain I had a sweet or two in my pocket when I had to get anything repaired.
Yes, it is Hussain bhai.
I am watching Hussain bhai.
He is carrying his baby and trying to cross the road.
Hussain bhai. Carrying his baby. Signaling across the road to somebody to hold back, stay back, signaling with one hand, keeping the baby safe with the other.
Signaling to his wife. She is waiting there, a child on either side. The children still as stone. The woman straining towards Hussain, held back by his signal.
Hussain bhai darts across the road.
I am watching Hussain bhai dart across the road.
Hussain bhai explodes.
His head is a globe of scarlet, whirling as if it will never stop.
Hussain bhai falls, his arms till clamped on the baby.
The baby begins to wail.
Till that moment, everything is still.
Hussain bhai is still.
His wife and children are still.
I am still.
On either side of me, SRP men, my own company, watching.
Then the baby wails. Like a siren it goes on and on, wa-wa-wa.
The only thing I want is for it to stop.
I feel that want grow in the uniformed men on either side of me. That want grows in the mob before me.
Fingers curl around triggers. Hands clamp closer on broken bottles, axes, knives.
Wa wa wa—
The mother runs into the street, the children stumble after her.
I am still watching.
She is into the street now, trying to get to him, to Hussain bhai.
His head is gone.
Hussain bhai’s head is a pool of red pulp, a smashed watermelon, but his legs are alive, jerking as if he will get up now and walk and the baby is going wa wa wa.
It cannot be borne.
Men from either side of me run into the street.
They stop the woman.
Everybody concentrates on that, even I.
They grab the woman.
She wrenches off their hold and lunges towards her husband.
The children scream. They pummel the men with their tiny fists.
The baby keeps going wa wa wa.
The men begin to hit the woman. They slap her face. They thrash her head. When she falls, they kick her. When she struggles to her feet, they knock her down. One man plants his boot on her stomach to hold her down, and the others hit her with the butts of their rifles.
And I am still watching.
The children are howling. Big harsh screams, but they cannot drown the wailing of the baby. The men thrash the children, now knock them down with the butts of their rifles.
The children are small, so small, like fallen birds.
I know their names. Rubina is five. Abdul is three.
I am still watching.
Then someone runs to Hussain bhai, and we all remember Hussain bhai’s legs are still jerking.
The man who has run to Hussain bhai is a young fellow, little more than a boy. I don’t know his name. From that knot of frightened people all watching Hussain bhai’s legs jerking, this boy runs out and tries to lift him up.
Hussain bhai is twice this boy’s size. The baby is still wailing, so this boy drags Hussain bhai, baby and all. By those jerking legs he drags Hussain bhai towards the edge of the road.
The policemen, all men I know by name, all my company, leave the woman and watch the boy dragging Hussain bhai.
The woman runs like lightning, her sari a flag in the wind, lifting over her head in a white streak, a green stripe, a flash of orange.
I can no longer see her face, but she has the baby now.
She has hushed the baby now.
On either side of me, men slump in relief.
The fellows who had crowded the woman back off.
Intelligence passes through the mob like a live current.
It’s the signal they’re waiting for.
I’m still watching.
The mob surges like a tide towards Hussain bhai.
The young man is seized and flung like a bag of bones on the road. They step on him as they advance towards Hussain bhai and I am still watching.
Someone pushes Hussain bhai’s wife, someone catches her, someone else catches hold of the children. Now she has become part of the terrified huddle at the end of the road—
That’s a siren.
Here comes a jeep.
It’s an open jeep.
Five convoys on either side.
Everybody knows the mad woman, a doctor with a permanent look of poison on her face.
She stops the jeep.
The mob waits, uncertain.
‘What are you waiting for?’ she screams. ‘Kill the Mussalman. Kill! Kill!’
And then she is gone.
As if they had been waiting for her permission, the mob moves forward.
A cycle tyre is planted on the watermelon mush of Hussain bhai’s head.
Somebody does an abhishek of petrol. Kerosene. Petrol. Kerosene. I smell both one after another. Together.
Hussain bhai’s wife screams, screams and screams, worse than that baby, knocking her head on the road she screams, throwing her head back and beating her belly she screams as her husband bursts into a bright blue flame and the mob cheers and breaks into a dance, and I am still watching.
This is when someone throws a stone.
Someone from that helpless huddle, someone throws a stone.
Then one more.
The order goes down the line.
I step back.
Bullets fly. Not into the mob, but into that huddle of doomed Muslims.
It is not difficult.
The crevice between two houses absorbs me.
I am not alone.
That day all the crevices are crammed with people.
In here we are not Hindu. We are not Muslim. We are not Christian.
Fear is the only faith in here.
After sometime there is silence.
Everybody has left.
The police have driven off the mob now.
The basti has barricaded itself as best it can.
The road is empty.
The air is thick with smoke from Hussain bhai’s body, still burning.
His wife crouches next to it. She is feeding the baby. The children huddle against her, watching the flames.
When Oswald stopped talking, the room returned into focus.
It was no longer high noon at Naroda Patiya, but the same hour in a climate-controlled, politely-upholstered and sound-proofed hospital room. But it was the mob I heard, not the sick man who had fallen back on his pillows exhausted.
When Lalli essayed to speak, he stopped her with a gesture.
I followed that woman when she got up at last. I shadowed her to see what she would do. Dragging the children with her, she moved towards the buildings at the end of the road. I followed.
The Society had locked its gates and wouldn’t let her in.
I could see she was close to collapse.
Women looked down on her from the first floor balcony. I heard her beg for a sip of water. They laughed at her. One of them brought a glass of water and deliberately emptied it on the ground next to her.
Wearily, she moved away.
To my alarm I saw she intended to reach the SRP post set up near the big water tank. By then it hardly registered that these men had murdered her husband, beaten her and thrashed her children. All she wanted was that sip of water, and then she could take charge of her life again.
They stopped her. I heard one of them laugh and tell her, ‘You are going to die today, anyway.’
And then I had to hide before they could spot me. By now I was a dead man. I sank back into the shadows again.
‘Your story is far from over,’ Lalli said coldly. ‘I must hear it all.’
‘How did you find me?’ he asked. Then turning to me, he said, ‘It was you, wasn’t it? The moment I saw you, I had a bad feeling. I knew my time was up. You were—what is that word—you were my Nemesis.’
‘She knows nothing about you, but yes, she did give me the book. Page 44 gave your game away.’
‘That Shukla business? Why?’
‘You quoted an internal review verbatim. Unfortunately those were my words. It meant you had an intimate connection with the police. You could access records. You knew the hierarchy. You knew whom to bribe, whom to menace. You were—or had once been, a policeman. And then of course it was easy. We knew within the hour that no large media house had a crime reporter called Oswald Pinto. And we found a man of that name among the dead documented in Naroda Patiya. That’s all I knew until your co-author finished the story.’
If Oswald had looked frightened earlier, it was nothing compared to the emotion he now displayed. He had the look of a man with nowhere left to run.
‘So you see, you had better tell me everything,’ Lalli said quietly.
He tried to bluster, but half-heartedly. ‘Why don’t you ask Mirish, since he has already told you so much?’
‘I would give anything to be able to do so,’ Lalli said in a voice that chilled me. ‘But he cheated me. He’s dead.’
The man almost leaped out of bed in a frenzy of terror. His wife calmed him, glaring reproach at Lalli who continued calmly.
‘Yes, he was found dead on the lawn yesterday morning.’
‘Yesterday morning! Why was I not told?’
‘I ordered a news blackout.’
‘You? You have the authority to do that?’
‘Yes,’ lied my aunt.
A sheen of cunning lit his face briefly. Then he shook his head gravely as if admonishing himself.
‘Give me a few moments, and I’ll tell you the rest of it,’ he said. ‘Go home, Gloria. You’ve heard enough. This is not for you.’
‘Suit yourself, though God knows what you’ll think of me afterwards.’
Again, I give you his narrative.
STATEMENT OF OSWALD PINTO/LAKSHMAN HEGDE (continued)
I did not know then how long I stayed hidden in the shadows. I do now. It was a mere two hours by the clock, but within that span I had erased the life I had lived so far.
I was thirty-two.
My family was Hindu, conservative, religious. I started each day with a prayer, and ended it with another. Shuddha brahma paratpara Ram, Kaalatmaka parameshwara Ram.
And they were singing that holy name as they killed and tortured. What was left to believe in?
I was raised with a horror of even minor infractions. And that morning I had watched crimes beyond imagination being committed by ordinary men and women. No particular mark set them apart. And they had called on Ram to defend these terrible acts.
Let me make this very clear.
I had never known violence before that day, but I was there, wasn’t I?
I too was guilty of violence.
My hands had killed Hussain bhai as surely as if they had fired that bullet or cast that burning tyre on his shattered brains.
It was I who had refused that woman a drink of water. Surely that was a crime even beyond murder?
By doing nothing, I had done everything.
How could I return to my life? I did not belong there anymore.
Perhaps that thought forced me out of hiding. I can’t remember now.
Next I knew I was in the very centre of a mob that carried me on its surge. I was in uniform, but nobody minded that. The smell choked me, it was a stink of diesel. I realized that almost every man in this mob was carrying a keg of fuel. Very carefully, I began to work my way out. Shouting with them, weaving my way in and out, somehow I escaped.
Once more, I watched.
I watched them fling the diesel and petrol on the walls of the basti. I watched them hurl rags soaked in petrol on the roofs. I watched them throw a flaming rag against the nearest building. Then a couple of hefty fellows rolled cylinders of gas right into the basti.
After that, I saw nothing.
Everything was noise. Explosions. Screams. Piteous cries for help. Thud of falling rafters. Long tearing sighs from collapsing roofs.
I still had my phone. I called the fire brigade. I called all my superior officers, one after another, higher up that ladder, rung after rung I went. The response was always the same. ‘Take it easy.’
A relative of mine worked in the Chief Minister’s office. I got through to him. ‘Don’t call me again,’ he whispered. ‘Everybody here knows what’s going on. CM’s orders are strict. Nothing is to be done. Things will take their course. He is congratulating them on their restraint.’
And now there was a new noise, one so loud and furious it blocked off all other noises.
It was my heartbeat.
It was like thunder in my chest, hammering the breath out of me, telling me what I would watch in the next few moments.
You see, the smoke had cleared, and I could see.
I could see women. Babies, children, girls, mothers, grandmothers. To the mob they were all—women. They had escaped with their families through the back of the basti. The mob was lying in wait there, silent, armed. They held knives against the men and marched the women out.
Now they were all herded into the middle of the road. Babies, children, girls, mothers, grandmothers, all, all.
In one squirming mass, the mob fell upon them.
Every man was a rapist that hour. Every single man, save only me.
I stood there helpless, loathing myself for hiding, but I hid still, hiding my shame.
I watched them rape a child till she was beyond screaming. And then one man hacked her small broken body in two.
That gave them fresh impetus. They were worn out now, so they needed a new game.
They let go every woman they had assaulted—then trapped her as she fled, cutting her down brutally limb by limb till someone in mercy severed her head.
And then they burnt her body.
I watched, as they forced down a pregnant woman and bared her domed belly.
I watched, as they plunged a knife into her and cut her open.
I watched, as one man extracted a fetus, bloody and twitching and held it up to the roaring crowd.
I watched, as he dropped it on the ground and stamped on its head.
That bought a moment of silence.
Then they took flight with a roar of triumph, leaving the dying woman in a widening pool of blood.
I thought there could be nothing beyond this, but there was.
A rush of running feet and a girl, fifteen or sixteen, no older, raced down the road. Her intense distress even more than her bloodstained clothing spoke of what she had just endured.
This time I could not watch. I rushed out to grab her and pull her into safety, but just then a boy burst out of the shopfront closest to her.
He was whirling an iron chain.
He hit her with it and drove her down the road, pursuing her, cheered on by his friends.
He slipped off his T-shirt and with a wild whoop, waved it over his head.
And then he caught her by her hair, looped the chain on her neck and pulled hard. She fell in a limp heap, dead.
Someone from the watching and cheering mob flung a petrol bomb at the basti, but it fell short and exploded on the road.
The mob took off, just vanished.
Every vestige of a riot disappeared.
It became just a quiet street with a rag of petrol burning itself out—for it was little more than that, a short fuse in a bottle.
The boy had fallen over the dead girl, but he was merely dazed.
All my hate erupted at that moment.
I ran out into the street.
I had my pistol. I jammed it against his head.
I couldn’t pull the trigger.
He breathed noisily, his nostrils clogged with blood.
He would have died quickly, painlessly.
But I couldn’t do it.
I vomited, a vomit of self-loathing at my cowardice.
I no longer cared if they found me there and slaughtered me.
I no longer cared if the police found me and shot me right there as I knew they would.
I sat there with the dead girl’s head in my lap, not knowing why I soothed her broken neck, only knowing the touch of her dead skin kept me alive.
The boy woke up, opened startled eyes.
I held the pistol against his throat and willed myself again to shoot him.
I could not.
So I knocked him unconscious with the butt of my gun, and left.
Quite without understanding why, I picked up the T-shirt he had dropped.
What was I to do now?
The decision was taken out of my hands.
A jeep drove crazily round the corner and braked next to me. I recognised the driver. He was from my company. I only knew his name, because he had distributed sweets last week, there was a baby coming. Oswald Pinto. That was his name.
‘Get in, Lakshman,’ that’s all he had time to say. I leapt in and he took off like the devil. Like me, he had deserted, but they didn’t know it yet. ‘They’ve been watching you,’ he said. ‘Drop me off at my place, take the jeep and go.’
‘What about you?’ I asked. ‘They’ll get to you too. Get your wife, we’ll make it out of Naroda somehow.’
He turned desperate eyes on me. ‘Can’t. Baby’s coming any moment now. Wife’s alone at home.’
We had barely turned the corner when they started shooting at us. It was dark by now, the alley we entered was unlit and Oswald had no idea where we were going.
‘Tell me your address.’ I grabbed the wheel from him and thrust his head down. If I was shot they would abandon the chase and he might still make it home to his wife.
But it was Oswald who got hit. A clean shot, right through the brain. Felled him in a second.
I let the jeep veer out of control, pulled him up behind the wheel and slid out.
I found my way to his house.
I told his wife what had happened.
When I took her to hospital, the doctor addressed me as Mr Pinto. I did not contradict. Neither did she.
‘And so your new life began,’ Lalli prompted after a long silence.
‘Yes. We left Naroda straight from the hospital and went to Goa. By and by I began a small business in electricals . I’m good at that sort of thing. It did well. I loved my daughter—she was my daughter now. Gloria was kind to me. It was a life.’
‘But you did return in May.’
‘Yes, I came to the Tribunal to give evidence. But I couldn’t continue. It was too much.’
‘You were offered money to stay away?’
‘Of course. If I refused, they would have killed me. So I had to disappear a second time. That was easy, I was Oswald Pinto now. I took the money and passed it on to people who needed it more.’
‘You know they’ve all walked now. The doctor who urged the murders is free. Even the man who led the rapes is free.’
‘On compassionate grounds! Who can consider compassion for such a man?’
‘I should have looked for you myself. I blame myself for not doing that. Why did you stay in hiding? You followed the trials, didn’t you?’
‘Every one of them, every argument.’
‘Yes, I know you’ve stayed in the loop. Once a policeman, always a policeman.’
‘You’re right there. I keep in touch with all the files I can access. Quite a few havaldars owe their promotions to me. But of course they all think Oswald Pinto is a crime reporter.’
‘So why didn’t you testify?’
‘I was afraid.’
‘You were afraid? I am afraid. The whole nation is afraid. We’re crazed with hate because we’re afraid. For the last four years the people who massacred Naroda have been in power, taking massacres into every village, every city, murders into every household, rapes into every street. We have become a nation of murderers and rapists who will sell every truth for just one more rupee, so afraid of the truth are we, so afraid of the face in the mirror. How can I blame you, Oswald or Lakshman? I am afraid too. And yet we must speak out. Afraid or not, you are always meant to.’
His hands rose in helpless denial. ‘No. I just wanted—to forget.’
‘And yet you kept this to remember what you could never forget.’
Lalli placed something on the bed next to him. It was the rolled up T-shirt from Mirish’s bedroom. I was surprised—I distinctly remembered her putting it back for Forensics to find.
Again, a look of cunning washed over Oswald’s face. ‘What’s that?’
‘I found it in Mirish’s house.’
‘What is it?’
‘Why don’t you open it?’
‘No, no, just tell me what it is.’
‘It’s an old stained T-shirt.’
‘What’s it got to do with me?’
‘It’s the T-shirt you picked up on the evening of 28 February 2002.’
‘How do you know that? It could be any old T-shirt.’
‘It could be. But I know that Mirish handled this a few hours before his death.’
‘You have no way of telling that. He didn’t have cameras within the house.’
‘My niece told me. When I opened the package, even though it looked as if it hadn’t been disturbed in a long while, Sita noticed a whiff of the strong cologne Mirish had worn that evening. He had definitely handled it very recently.’
Oswald sighed. ‘Yes. I gave it to him yesterday. I was destined to kill him, wasn’t I? After all these years. It was my intent then. But not now. I only wanted him to face up to the truth.’
‘Why? Did you think he would feel remorse?’ Lalli asked harshly.
‘He killed himself didn’t he?’
‘I’ll come to that. Tell me about the show. Tell me how you met Mirish.’
‘Pure accident. One of the guys I knew told me about this TV program, and I watched one episode. Useless stuff. It gave me an idea. I had accumulated so many cases over the years. Why not try my luck and put my hobby to good use? My daughter was doing very well in school, I had big dreams for her future, I could use the money. Why not?’
‘Why not, indeed. And you landed the job and met Mirish.’
‘No, I didn’t meet Mirish for months. I wasn’t required to be there on the sets. I watched the show, but didn’t recognise him. How could I have suspected he was part of that terrible day? He had gained a lot of polish. Spoke beautifully, dressed even better. Not a hint of Naroda Patiya. And then I went along for a party on the sets. Mirish called me personally. I was flattered. If only I’d known—’ His voice trailed off as his mind travelled the last few years.
Gloria hadn’t moved a muscle. Her intent eyes never left Oswald’s face.
‘After a few drinks—what was it? I really don’t know, but in a flash that boy’s foolish face leapt out of this actor’s mask. It was the boy I had nearly killed. It was that rapist. That murderer. I knew him at once. Making some excuse, I left early.
‘The next day I told Gloria I didn’t want to write for the show anymore. I quit. But Mirish wouldn’t let me alone. He said the show couldn’t possibly go on without me. He doubled my salary. And I thought perhaps this is my chance to do some good.’
‘And make money, doing it.’
‘I wanted to know what had made this boy commit such evil. One question had consumed me all these years: what had compelled ordinary people into such heinous crimes? And they had done it all shouting Jai Ram! The holy name of Ram had turned each man and woman into a rakshas. It had taken no more than a minute for a man to plunge a knife into his neighbour. I had seen a woman pour petrol down the throat of small boy, throw a match at him, and laugh as that little body exploded. This too, I, Lakshman, saw! This too, Ram, in your name!’ He broke down, sobbing.
Lalli stopped me with a gesture, so I fell back, silent.
Gloria was frowning into a small prayer book.
Oswald composed himself and resumed.
‘This question had haunted me for years—what made them do it? How did they go back to their lives? And I thought, now through Mirish, I would finally understand. So I became his shadow. But I found no trace of that boy in this man anymore.
‘He was a great actor. It was difficult to resist him. And it was difficult to know him. I placed all sorts of baits, but he wouldn’t take them. He was charitable in the usual flashy sort of way, but in four years of knowing him, I didn’t get a glimpse of what his actual feelings were. He had plenty of girlfriends. Every time I saw him with a girl, it was that dead girl’s face I saw. Even as I tried to be rid of him, my hold on him increased. I demanded more money. He paid me. It seemed a strange reversal of fortune. His crime tainted my life, but not his.’
‘And then you fell ill.’
‘I was diagnosed with cancer, yes, but it’s an early stage yet. Biopsy’s not bad, confirmed last week. I’m going to beat it, chemo’s working already. But it got me thinking.’
‘You wanted to quit?’
‘Oh no, the show must go on. I told him I had cancer. I told him I was much worse off than I truly am. I thought that would make him listen.’
Presuming an ague’s privilege…
‘How did that make a difference to him?’
‘His first reaction was what I expected. He was eager to get as much material as he could from me before I caved in! I found that funny. Then as I began to nudge him in the direction of his own life, and he started opening up.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He was very affectionate, actually. I was the closest he had ever come to having a family, he said. He told me his real name—Mahesh Kotwal. He had run away from home, didn’t ever want to go back. That gave me some hope. It became my responsibility to get him to face his crime. But he was cagey. I could get him to do things—mainly to contribute money which I diverted to the survivors of that terrible day, I’ve been doing that for a while now. I’ve tracked many of them down. Some have died, either from want or despair. I told Mirish I was building an orphanage. He believed me. Once or twice I brought up the matter of the riots, without mentioning the locality. It was met with stony silence. I began to think maybe he had amnesia — memory wiped clean from shock.’
‘People survive. Somehow people must survive.’
‘The show must go on?’
‘Exactly. But I persisted. He’d bring me whisky, single malt, to cheer me up, and then complain. ‘You’re getting very gloomy Oswald.’’
… of comfort no man speak
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, of epitaphs
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth
‘What happened last evening?’
‘The event upset him. It was not our usual style, very low profile. He did it only to oblige the police, he said. It was Inspector Kumar’s obligation. I was uncomfortable. I had stayed out of sight for almost twenty years. Those policemen and politicians are all in power today—nabbing petty thieves and ruling the nation as if there had been no genocide. It was they who committed those crimes in Naroda that day. Every rape, every murder, every arson was theirs and theirs alone. The mob was only a puppet show. But, however unwilling, I too was a puppet that day. I was in uniform. The thought made me uncomfortable.’ Oswald paused, then without warning he pounced on me. ‘You! I blame you for everything that went wrong yesterday. Yes, yes, you said nothing, did nothing. All the same, I know if you hadn’t turned up— When you spoke, you said what a good politician he would make, and I knew I had run out of time.’
I wasted Time, now Time doth waste me.
‘Mirish didn’t have company that evening, so I said I had something to show him. I’d pick it up from home on the way, and we could discuss it over a drink. I had no plan in mind. When we got to his posh flat, it all got out of control. I refused that drink. I sat him down and started talking about Naroda Patiya. I told him I knew what he had done. I asked him if he remembered seeing my face when he woke up.
‘He denied everything, outraged.
‘Then I reminded him of the girl. I described how he had broken her neck. His face began to crumple. I gave him this plastic packet. I made him open it. I showed him the T-shirt.’
‘And then I left. Suddenly, I could not bear to breathe the same air as him. And yet, for years he has been my oxygen.’
Oswald Pinto subsided into a dull anguish from which it would be difficult to rouse him.
‘What will you do now?’ he asked Lalli.
‘About you? Nothing. I’m not here to judge you.’
‘Why did you come, then?’
‘To understand what happened in Naroda Patiya? For more evidence?’
‘No. To understand how, knowing all that happened, knowing all that was done, our nation voted murderers and rapists into power, and might even do so again.’
‘How can I explain that?’
‘You just did.’
At the door Mrs Pinto said, ‘Jesus will heal him.’
‘Good luck with that,’ said my aunt.
‘What do you think happened after Oswald left?’ I asked Lalli as we drove back.
‘We’ll never know. Definitely, Mirish was shaken up. He probably drifted about the flat in a daze—’
‘Maybe he was amnesic, and Oswald’s revelation opened the floodgates.’
‘Oh, he remembered everything, all the time. Why did you think he lived like that, poised between erasure and flight? In all my years I’ve never seen an emptier existence. He was a hollow man. No, I think Oswald brought up a new fear—justice. Mirish decided to bluster it out. He bundled up the T-shirt and stuffed it as far out of sight as it would go.’
‘But the paan got him.’
‘Something—anything. He’d reached that point when…’
—and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
We found Shukla desultorily popping grapes and reading Page 44. His smile was as dazzling and guileless as usual, practically pain free.
‘So Sita, total kachra Inspector Kumar has made of poor Shukla. Don’t worry, already Shaktivel has reported the result. One author, suicide. Second author, cancer. Nonsense, I told him. Still, he said, it is undeniable fact.’
‘Also undeniable nonsense,’ Lalli said.
‘Correct, Shukla’s opinion also. Also Page 44 is truth.’
Lalli took the book from him and popped it in her bag. ‘You don’t have time for such rubbish, Shukla, not when there’s a case to close.’
‘That qat plantation is still waiting.’
‘Given up. No leads.’
In answer, Lalli scribbled the paanwalla’s number on his temperature chart. And hurriedly protesting a lunch appointment, we left.