A Post Modern Murder by Anjali Deshpande
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Khilawan Singh trembled a little with nervousness, cleared his throat and looked around at everything he had already stared at for three minutes. This was his first murder. He had no experience but he knew that could easily be covered by the authority that the three brass stars on his shoulder strap conferred on him.

 

‘ChotuRamji,’ he said, ‘do the needful.’

 

Which instruction the elderly Constable Chotu Ram instantly began to implement. He walked up to the body, lifted its eyelids, held his hand before its nose and pinched its wrist between his forefinger and thumb. He returned to his superior’s side and whispered conspiratorially, ‘Janab, it is dead’.

 

The Inspector tapped the palm of his left hand with his baton, and poked the body in the middle of the stomach. ‘Yes, dead. It is not smelling much, so not killed very long ago. May be last night.’

 

‘Wah, Janab, wah,’ responded Chotu Ram.

 

Everything was so neat. Even the trees appeared to have shed their few leaves hesitantly and a little distance from the benches. The benches themselves were the neatest of all, white marble stones describing a rectangle with small arms jutting out at the end of each, the shape of which reminded him vaguely of something.

 

‘We will interview all the witnesses’ said Khilawan Singh with quiet authority. There was nobody in the courtyard. A low building flanked one side of it. This was the examination branch of the university. Only academics and staff would have access. ‘Dekho, who is inside.’

 

*

 

The room had one small window, high up in the wall, studded with iron bars. A man sat at a computer behind a paperless desk with a chipped paperweight. He looked up at the uniforms, frowned and got slowly to his feet.

 

‘Who are you?’ asked Khilawan Singh.

 

‘Sharma, Bhuvan Chand Sharma. I am UDC, sir.’

 

‘Ah, so you are the typist.’

 

‘I am Upper Division Clerk,’ said the man bristling all over, ‘not typist. Do you have the Dean’s permission to come here?’

 

Khilawan Singh tapped his left palm with the baton in his right hand. ‘There is a body in your courtyard,’ he said.

 

Bhuvan Chand Sharma stared at him uncomprehendingly.

 

‘Saheb said there is body,’ said Constable Chotu Ram walking up to the clerk belligerently.

 

The man dragged his swollen ankles to the door, moving excruciatingly slowly.

 

‘You see the body now?’ The constable ran out and around the cluster of benches and gestured.

 

Bhuvan Chand Sharma took in every detail impassively, from the corpse’s thinness, to the torn mustard coloured sweater stained maroon somewhere around the mid point. The colour had spread to its dark trousers and painted the pristine white marble bench red. There was a small pool of congealed blood on the pale yellow patch of earth below where grass did not grow.

 

Khilawan Singh waved his baton. ‘You did not see the body when you came in this morning? What time did you come?’

 

‘Around ten o’clock’.

 

He asked Sharma how he had missed it when it was visible from the door.

 

‘Only if you look. I go straight to work. I do not look here and there. I look only at my feet when I walk and I really don’t see anything. My knees and ankles hurt all the time. I have rheumatism, you see. The other clerk has been on medical leave for three days now.’

 

The Inspector asked Sharma to tell him who had come and what had happened in the office the previous day.

 

The peon was the first to arrive at the office and had waited for him outside the courtyard. Then he had himself arrived and gone straight to the Vice Chancellor’s front office a little distance away, fetched the key, and handed it to the peon who opened the door for him.

 

‘There is a chaiwalla … he brings us tea’. Sharma interrupted his narrative to look hopefully and thirstily around the room. The absence of the chaiwalla being ruefully confirmed, he continued his story.

 

‘There is a sweeper … he sweeps the place. His job is to do this early morning, but have you ever heard of that class of people arriving on time and doing their jobs well? Never has that fellow been here on time. Yesterday, he came around noon and most definitely there was no dead body or he would have noticed it. He has to sweep the courtyard, how could he miss it?’

 

At four in the afternoon there had been a meeting of some teachers.

 

‘How many? In the meeting?’

 

Sharma counted on his fingers and said, ‘Five. Came in together and left together.’

 

‘Give me a list of the professors,’ said Khilawan Singh. ‘And call the chaiwalla and the peon.’ The clerk obliged, stepped to the door and hollered ‘Lalit? Lalit Joshi, oye Joshi, idhar aao jaldi,’ and turned and told the police that the sweeper would be here any time to sweep considering how it was approaching noon.

 

Then he scribbled a name on a piece of paper and handed it to Khilawan Singh.

 

‘You,’ said Khilawan Singh pointing with his middle finger at Sharma to ensure he understood he was talking to him and none else, ‘stop acting smart or I will cart you off to the police station. You said there were five people in the meeting here and now you give me the name of only one?’

 

‘The other four were lecturers, not professors,’ said Sharma with a supercilious smile.

 

‘I will make that smile permanent for you, in the lock up, I will tear your lips so far out you will always smile at everyone. Take him to the thana,’ said the Inspector standing up.

 

‘Sorry, Sir, Sorry, it is my habit. You see when they come for their TA, I have to give the names of different categories, it is only habit. Forgive me, for as you know human beings are bundles of mistakes.’

 

*

 

Walking out into the courtyard Inspector Khilawan Singh decided that the time had come to move the body. Chotu Ram rushed out and returned in a rickshaw, another one following. When they saw the body one of the rickshaw drivers ran to the edge of the grass and bent over to throw up. The yellow mess stank.

 

‘You have seen the body before? You know him?’

 

Before Chotu Ram could finish asking his question the rickshaw driver’s head began to shake in the negative. ‘Saale, nautanki karta hai? Why did you vomit then? You certainly know him.’

 

‘Ganga kasam, Saheb, I don’t,’ he said with folded hands. ‘I have bad stomach. Last night my wife, she put tomato in the dhal. It is hot Saheb, tomatoes make things hot as you know, mai baap. I don’t know who he is what his name is. I swear by my mother, I swear by the holy Ganga I don’t.’

 

‘That is what they do, always, shake their heads in denial before you even ask your question,’ said Chotu Ram and turned to the men. ‘If I find out you did I will beat the stuffing out of you, bahanchods, you won’t be able to have any children ever.’

 

That is when the sweeper arrived with a bag to pile the garbage in. He began to back out when he saw the scene. Chotu Ram ran after him shouting.

 

The sweeper repeated the sentence they had heard since the morning: he had never seen the man on the bench before, neither dead nor alive, but particularly not dead.

 

‘Yesterday I came here around noon to sweep and clean the bathroom and water the garden. There is no use asking why I am late. Everywhere people make me do more than my share of work. I am on contract and these motherfuckers with secure jobs never do any work. That gardener, he comes only on the first of the month for his salary and then he mows the grass. I do everything else. And I don’t have the time to go sitting in one place and watching people getting killed.’

 

‘Pick up this body and cart him to the thana,’ said Chotu Ram, dipping into his pocket for a beedi and lighting up. The men walked gingerly to the body, folded their hands in a gesture of last greeting and with averted eyes took hold of the two ends and carted it off, stumbling. Chotu Ram spat a ball of spittle on the neat lawn in their direction. Apparently he liked the glint of the sun on the slime ball and spat another close to it.

 

Inspector Khilawan Singh himself supervised the cleaning. The sweeper, following orders, fetched the gardener’s hose from the storeroom next to the VC’s office and washed the bench thoroughly. He made sure all the blood was hosed down into the earth.

 

When the chaiwalla finally arrived he said, no, of course he had not seen the body.

 

The peon having materialised behind the chaiwalla was summoned. Had he seen the body when he opened the courtyard door this morning? Lalit Joshi was sullen and spoke through a barely open slit in his face, cheeks roundly swollen with pent up annoyance.

 

He had opened the courtyard door and then the office room door and gone and sat outside. He never sat at his designated place near the steps to the office. He sat outside the courtyard and did not look here and there, and if anyone thought he snooped around looking for examination papers and notes to sell to bidders lurking around he would get the union to defend him. Everybody knew his integrity. He was a member of a great cultural organisation and he went every morning to do his exercises and learn self-defence arts. He was a good, practicing Hindu, went to the Sai temple every Thursday and Hanuman temple every Tuesday and if they wanted he could tell them which temples he went to on other days of the week.

 

‘Did you see anyone coming into the courtyard or leaving it?’ asked the Inspector cutting him short.

 

The peon said he did not have the habit of seeing anyone, or else how could he do his job? With everyone  asking him to fetch water, bring samosas, order tea, carry files, wipe down tables ... he had to have the skill to not see anybody so he could neither hear them nor have to do their bidding. No, of course he had not seen the body till these people came poking him in the eye making him see things best left unseen.

 

*

 

The next day the Inspector  set off to question the men and women on the list he had acquired. ‘You see, ChotuRamji, by this evening the case will be cleared up. These low class people, they never tell the police anything, they are scared. But the lecturers, they are different. They are the hope of the future.’

 

Chotu Ram did not respond, only concentrated his gaze on his right foot rubbing the floor with his toe.

 

Inspector Khilawan Singh smiled at him and tapping his right shoulder with his baton said, ‘You don’t have to come, if you feel out of place. I will do this on my own.’ Then he pushed off on his motorcycle.

 

*

 

Asghar Qureshi taught philosophy. Khilawan Singh admired his quick step and his confident head held high on a slim neck, although his punctuality left much to be desired.

 

‘Did you see the body, Sir?’ he asked as his right leg began to shiver on an auto drive.

 

‘Body? I assume you mean a human body, not a water body, which I dare say you will find with great difficulty in this city or even the country...’

 

‘Yes, yes, human body...’

 

‘Ah ... proved right!’

 

‘You tell great jokes Sir. Did you see the body?’

 

‘Where?’

 

‘Here’

 

‘Here? That is a perfectly contextless word. I notice nowadays that when youngsters say ‘here’, they mean in New York and when they say ‘there’ they actually mean this country in which they are born and that they find quite undesirable or just too many steps short of what it ought to be...’

 

Khilawan Singh, now growing impatient, cut dead the nervous rhythm of his leg.

 

‘Sir, Sir, I mean...’

 

‘I am sure you have been to college young man, but you seem to have got no foundational course. You say ‘here’. What do you mean by here? On this table? In this room?’

 

Asghar Qureshi got up and took a small turn and looked at Khilawan Singh from head to toe.

 

‘Here I see a body, I see yours and you need some shaping up. I always tell my students to work out, some Pilates. Yoga is in high fashion, but you can’t lose weight with Yoga...’

 

Inspector Khilawan Singh banged his fist on the table. ‘A man was killed and we found the dead body on that Swastika bench.’

 

The banging of the table had no effect on Qureshi who smiled pityingly at the man in uniform.

 

‘You call that a Swastika bench? What is this country coming to? That is a fascist bench, a bench after Hitler’s design, it is not the Swastika that Hindus hold so dear, we never sit on it...’

 

‘Did you see the body or not?’

 

‘I told you, I did not, assuming there was one and the basis of that assumption being your statement that one body lay there on that bench...’

 

‘You say I am lying?’ Khilawan Singh stood up.

 

‘I say there was no body as far as I know. Esse is percepre...’

 

‘Let essayist perspire, I am going.’

 

Khilawan Singh left.

 

*

 

Shobhawati Singhania taught English.

 

Khilawan Singh began introducing himself but she stopped him. She was an educated woman and did he think she did not recognise a police officer when she saw one? Of course she did, she knew he was an Inspector, one who was paid by taxpayers to never file any case, especially those of sexual harassment.

 

He interrupted her, ‘Ma’am I have come to ask you if you have seen the body?’

 

The lecturer looked right and left to check if anyone was around and said, ‘Male or female? Another MMS is it?’

 

‘There was a murder yesterday in the exam branch and you were there’.

 

‘Oh my god! Killed for the body? I don’t understand this mentality. You get the body first, without its soul, mind you, that is what rape is. Then you kill it too, when you know whether she is alive or not you won’t be convicted of rape. Shame, I tell you.’

 

‘Ma’am there was a dead body in the exam branch. Did you see such a body lying on that bench? In the courtyard?’

 

She had not seen anybody except the clerk and her colleagues. ‘I try not to see anyone, even when I know there are others. I know some colleagues who have chai, chat with people. I don’t. I am a very dutiful woman, do duty at work then rush home and do duty. Duty defines life.’

 

Khilawan Singh persisted with his questions. She had been to the office and when they walk out of that place they have to cross the bench, the fascist bench, he hastily added, and the body was there.

 

‘How do you know it was there? Were you there?’

 

‘No, but seems he had been dead for quite some time. You people were the last to leave, the peon closed the door after that, so how is it you did not see it? It was lighted or not? The courtyard?’

 

She vehemently shook her head.

 

'So many andolans, dharnas, discussions in the media about how essential it is to have light for security and yet the courtyard is never lighted. There are two electricity poles, but the bulbs are not there. They either broke or got stolen and now Sharma has got approval of budget to buy another two, after three months. Sharma said he will float the tender tomorrow. We may get the bulb in another fortnight or so .'

 

*

 

Varsha Chatterjee taught mathematics.

 

‘I would like to ask you some questions about a body…’

 

‘We are not paid to listen. We are paid to talk. Same things day after day, year after year, talk unstoppingly...’ said Varsha Chatterjee with a sunny smile, pulling her red shawl tightly around her and calling out to the peon to get her two cups of tea. ‘And bring it hot.’

 

‘A man was murdered in the examination branch.’

 

‘Kee bolcho? That section clerk? I knew one day he would meet a bad end,’ she nodded her head sadly. ‘Every time there is a meeting he gives so much trouble handing out the cash. Always warming his hands on those notes. Always saying, tomorrow madam, tomorrow. Means we make another trip, spend more money to get the money we already spent. The Travel Allowance, TA, you know, in case you are wondering what money I am talking about. Sharma never paid us the day we presented the bill. It is not much, even collectively. They pay a miserable rate of ten rupees per km. You know what? The economics lecturer, Sudha, she has the economic sense to live on the border of Delhi. She always claims the maximum amount, actually more than the ceiling limit of four hundred rupees one way. Makes a good profit for she travels by metro and claims ‘own car’ travel allowance. She said the rates are a shame it should be at least fifteen rupees a km.

 

‘That Sharma, he is a sadist. I am telling you that rheumatism has gone to his head, he is so slow and yet just when he knows the meeting is about to be over he walks out. To buy paan or cigarette or even to use the bathroom. Pucca sadist. Gets a kick out of making people with higher education wait for him.’

 

Khilawan Singh had stopped listening for he was talking on his mobile phone.

 

‘Sad, very sad, to be killed for being made to wait ... motives are getting fuzzier nowadays.’

 

‘Sharma is alive, Ma’am. This was a poor man.’

 

‘Poor man? In the univ? Strange. Strange, is all I can say.’

 

‘When did you leave?’ asked Khilawan Singh with a sense of déjà vu.

 

‘Let me see, the meeting went on till after five and then we had to make our TA bill. We then rushed out. Could have been some twenty minutes after five. I tau baba, got into my car and Rangarajan and Sudha, they got in also and I dropped them at the metro station and I went away. I did not come back till this morning. Who wants to? Even the students don’t want to come here, even though nobody forces them to seek admission...’

 

Khilawan Singh was out. He never did get the tea she had ordered.

 

*

 

M Rangarajan taught Political Science.

 

‘I want to ask you about a man’s body that lay in the exam branch courtyard...’

 

‘Without that of a woman? Or even that of another man? Good. We should like to see our universities clean and decent without sex ... or even sexual organs.’ Leaning forward Rangarajan whispered to him, ‘You know if anyone heard me mention sex I could actually be murdered, there is such a campaign for cleanliness going on, soon they will ban Romeo and Juliet, haan, saying Shakespeare hurt the sentiments of people who kill their sons and daughters in the name of honour, not that Romeo or Juliet were killed but...’

 

‘Sir,’ said Khilawan Singh clearly out of habit of addressing teachers in the classroom, for his voice had actually risen to drive out any residual deference, ‘Sir, listen to me, become serious Sir. This is a murder I am talking about, murder in this university.’

 

‘So you noticed? Bright of you. At least once the police has recognised that universities are built to kill initiatives, creativity, independence of thought ... every day, every day we all do it with a diligence you policemen can learn something from ... we do it, all of us and I am ashamed to say that even I do it, and we are paid for it from the taxpayer’s contributions you know, just like you are.’

 

*

 

Sudha Bansal taught economics.

 

She was on leave and the Inspector proposed a visit to her house.

 

Chotu Ram said Khilawan Singh should summon her to the thana. ‘People expecting the police to talk to them politely and coming to meet them in their own houses instead of ordering them to report to the thana? What do they think this is sir? Amrika?’

 

But Khilawan Singh told Chotu what a good break it would be to travel to the millennium city and stare at all those buildings and walk down some malls. They spent an hour in a mall and were refreshed by the sights. Chotu Ram had to accept that his boss after all was smarter than him. Then they went to Sudha Bansal’s house who opened the door sleepily, sniffled in her handkerchief and called out to her maid to order adrakki chai.

 

‘I am so happy you are in mufti, or what would the neighbours think? I am not involved in any criminal activity. Forget doing anything suspicious, if I had even seen anything suspicious, can you imagine what would happen to me? Of course you can for you are the ones who would do it to me.’

 

‘Ma’am I am doing my duty,’ said Inspector Khilawan Singh as the maid appeared with tea and biscuits. ‘You don’t want to think that a murder cannot be solved. You have already heard about the murder. Tell me if you saw the body?’

 

‘Body?’ she said and retreated into thought staring at the teacup she held in her hand. Then she shook her head.

 

Khilawan Singh and Chotu Ram ate three biscuits before she opened her mouth again.

 

‘Listen, we, I mean we women, are too busy watching the men walking behind us and in front of us and always alert to protect ourselves. We don’t have the time to see dead bodies.

 

‘I carry a pepper spray in my jhola. I carry two bags with me, a purse and a jhola. Can’t put the spray in the purse. It has to be zipped and a molester does not give you time to unzip the purse and take out the spray. So I carry a jhola with the spray in it. One of my hands is always on the spray gun. When the mobile rings I have so much problem, I have to unzip the purse with one hand and take out the mobile. Now I know why all our Goddesses have four hands. It is truly like a battlefront out there, very tough this going to and returning from the college. In the evening it is tougher. Do you think I have the time or even the opportunity to look at anything?’

 

‘She is right, Janab,’ said Chotu Ram. ‘There is too much danger on the roads Janab, very few policemen on the roads.’

 

Khilawan Singh paid no attention to his subordinate. He was now excited. ‘So you walked alone, did you, after the meeting?’

 

‘No, we came out in a group. We always do, one can’t even trust students nowadays. The young, I am telling you, they kill you for marking a paper strictly, in fact even for setting them. We always go out in a group to be on the safe side. But I still keep my hand on the spray. It was evening when we left and bless Varsha she gave us a lift to the metro station.’

 

*

 

Three days later the body came back to the police station with a receipt that Khilawan Singh signed. He then sat back in his office chair and crushed his eyelids on the thorns under them. He had not slept for thirty-six hours. His head lolled on his chest. Then he woke up suddenly. The thorns under his eyes had vanished. He grabbed his baton and walked up to the trolley. The body was still there.

 

‘Chotu Ramji,’ he called. The constable came rushing in from the outer room carrying his glass of tea that he placed on the table.

 

‘Do you also see what I see?’

 

‘Janab, what? What do you see?’

 

‘A body?’

 

‘A dead body? Yes Janab I do.’

 

‘But nobody has seen it. They all say he was not there. He was not killed. So how come we see it?’

 

The Constable looked at his boss. Nodded gravely. ‘May be we are wrong, Janab? We are always wrong, the press says so, TV channels say so, our bosses say so, everybody says so.’

 

Inspector Khilawan Singh nodded. ‘The press has also not seen the body. Have the TV channels seen this body?’

 

‘No, Janab, nobody has seen it.’

 

He looked meaningfully at the constable.

 

They swung the body off the trolley and began to carry it out. All of a sudden Khilawan Singh let go of the body and slapping his head with his hand he said, ‘But our diary, our files Chotu Ramji, they have the body in them.’

 

Chotu Ram already had the register open and his hand hit the glass of tea that spilt over the page. Quickly he grabbed a rag from somewhere and began to rub the pages of the register vigorously.

 

‘Sorry, Janab, accident, Janab,’ he said.

 

‘Chotu Ramji, what will you do with the morgue and its files?’ asked Khilawan Singh looking at him with interest.

 

‘Doctors’ records Janab? No worry about it. That they say is secret. Always secret. Confidential. They never show it to anyone, even when you are alive they don’t show you your file. You think they will show anyone the record of the dead? Forget it.’

 

‘They will only show the court. And tell me Chotu Ramji, is there any case in court about this body?’

 

‘What case Janab? When there is no body what case are you talking about?’

 

Khilawan Singh smiled and jovially slapped his underling on the back. Then they bent and quickly lugged the body to the junkyard in front of the police station where a large number of impounded vehicles, cannibalised a long while ago, lay rusting.

 

They plonked the body down and Chotu Ram fetched a bottle of some oil from inside the thana and sprinkled it on the body and on the junk around it. Then he lit his beedi and handed the matchbox to the Inspector who lit two matchsticks at one go. They both threw their lighted sticks onto the heap and the junk caught fire.

 

They stood watching as the flames spread and then died out slowly.

 

‘Is there a body now?’ asked the sub inspector.

 

‘Nahi Janab.’

 

‘Has there been a murder?‘

 

‘Nahi Janab.’

 

‘Police work is easy, very easy, Chotu Ramji. The people have made it so easy for us.’

 

‘Yes Janab.’

 

‘Brilliant. Now we can go to sleep.’

*


Anjali Deshpande is a free-lance journalist. Her first novel Impeachment was published by Hachette India in 2012. She has edited, translated and interpreted, produced radio programmes, in fact done what she could do and sometimes even what she could not do, learning on the job, doing anything that came her way to scrape a living. Some things she truly enjoyed, like volunteering her time as an interpreter at activist meetings.

Anjali is bilingual and writes in Hindi and English.