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NOBODY LIGHTS A CANDLE
He checked his wallet. Only a hundred rupees and some change. He would need petrol. Gone were the days when he could stock up his bike without much thought to the price of fuel. Now he rarely got his tank filled. Two litres or three. That was enough. Even the motorcycle sits on the pavement, idle like him.
He raced through the crowded lanes, dodging rickshaws, grazing one gleaming white car in a crowded lane and hurling back abuses at the nattily dressed owner at the wheel. He felt good. Had been a long time since he had abused some well dressed bugger lustily. He jumped a red light in his hurry, not deliberately, he had forgotten to look at the signal. But he was sure he would not get a ticket had there even been a traffic cop on the kerb. Some perks of the job always stay with you even if the job itself is in jeopardy, he told himself and relaxed on the seat.
He arrived at the police station two hours later, tired by the drive, his back hurting a little. He had lost the habit of sitting astride the bike. Come to think of it, he had not straddled anything in the last few weeks. He chuckled. He must get back into the practice of gripping something between his legs. Truly, without it, how could he feel like a man? He glanced at himself in the rear view mirror, combed his hair, stuffed the tiny comb back in his nearly empty wallet, parked the bike along the wall and walked in throwing a casual hello to the man behind the granite counter and walking left to the room where Nitesh should have been. The room was empty.
The man from behind the counter had followed him.
“He is away, he left,” he said. “He did not call you?”
Adhirath fished out his mobile phone from his pocket. Yes of course, there were three missed calls. Two from Nitesh. One from his landline at home.
He used the desk phone to call home. His mother had called to check whether he would return for lunch.
“Why would I ask father to fetch Varun if I was going to return by noon?” he asked, a bit irritated.
“He never told me. You never told me. Nobody tells me anything. How would I know? You should tell me. I was about to make chapattis for lunch... would have made for you too. Who would have eaten them, tell me? I would have to eat them, those stale chapattis, and they don’t suit me anymore, does anyone care? My knees they hurt so much........
“You could throw them, can’t you,” he hissed.
“Do you even know the price of flour; it is twenty rupees a kilo at the mill...”
He banged down the phone and inhaled deeply.
“When did Nitesh say he will return?” he asked the constable who had taken his place behind the counter and was staring down studiously in a vain attempt at pretending he was not listening in to the conversation. “Gone on a round?”
It seemed like a placid morning, the silence of the day after a rumbuctious Holi. The faintly drunken air induced drowsiness and the police station felt like an old bungalow falling into ruins. There was hardly any traffic on the road outside. The few shops a little ahead across the road in the small local market looked empty. The kind of place where nothing claims the attention of the police. This was one of those police stations that is not even auctioned. No takers. Who would want to buy a posting hre, pushing thick wads of notes under the roughly hewn tables of the Personnel Department to buy a posting here where even the tea stall vendor would smirk at you not salute you? Well, well, perhaps it did have its share of a few rows, some minor scuffles. There always are such quarrels where people ate ganja and drank thandai laced with cannabis. Not really a pricey posting. Nobody would pay to be posted here. No source of income. Bloody rich, each one staying one kilometre away from the other in huge houses or the villagers who sorted out everything themselves and beat up the police if they dared arrive. The police station looked empty. The damned place needs no police, thought Adhirath.
“There has been a murder, Janab. That is where all of them have gone,” said the constable, as if guessing at his thoughts.
Adhirath stared, uncomprehending. He looked around. Murder? In this sleepy place?
“We heard around nine o’clock. Past nine actually. The pradhan of the Chandola village called. A woman... murdered in a farmhouse.”
Adhirath got out of the police station and hauled himself up on his black motorcycle. He should practice sitting astride a little more. He sat and rubbed himself up and down the seat. A truck went past and sheets of tin on its back clanged a harsh note at him. The road ahead was empty except for the truck. There was Gurgaon and its malls close by but he had no money to catch a movie. Even movies are now going out of the reach of the poor. They cost so much. The ticket alone will rob him of 150 and they don’t let you carry even a bottle of water inside. He could simply roam around window shopping. He looked ahead at the inviting road. Under a peepul tree a knot of three men stood smoking beedis. The cut in the divider where he would have to make a U turn was near that tree. He gunned the motorcycle but drove slowly. Near the tree he stopped and gestured to the men. “Which way is Chandola?” he asked.
One of the men separated from the group and came close to him asking him what he wanted. He repeated the question.
“Go straight. You will come to a market. You keep going straight. Then you cross the railway line. Then you take a right turn. There will be a station. There you ask someone. It is not far.”
Adhirath let go of the clutch. There were anyway no longer any chapattis waiting for him at home.
He arrived at the railway station, a small one, having stopped thrice to seek directions. Only then it occurred to him that he had never asked which farmhouse had seen the murder. The village market of Jhandapur adjoined the station.
Surrounded by khurpis, spades, coir baskets, iron taslas and coils of thick rubber pipes an old man with a drooping grey moustache sat on a high takht behind a counter sporting a telephone on its dusty top. He had begun staring at his motorcycle.
“Ram Ram, Tauji,” he said to the shopkeeper whose glance was suddenly alert. “Any idea where the murder took place?”
“It doesn’t happen, not in our village,” said the miffed old man.
“Is this not Chandola village?” asked Adhirath.
The old man pointed to the sign at the railway station that sported the name of Jhandapur. “You can’t read?” he asked. “Where are you from? What is your business here?”
“Ah, how did I miss that? So which way is Chandola? Any idea which farm?” Adhirath wished he had had his uniform on. That would have taught the old man some manners.
The taciturn shopkeeper pointed towards a road in front of the station. From where he sat he could hardly see the road but his moving finger dripped contempt on the strip of concrete that led to places where murders took place bringing villages bad names and police jeeps.
The next village down the narrow and surprisingly good, a pothole free road was the Chandola village. Somebody would be able to point out the farmhouse there. He did not even have to reach the village or seek directions. The farm house was between the two villages, a kilometre or so short of the untidy cluster of houses that went by the name of Chandola that he would discover later. He needed no directions or even to ask which one of the rows of gates leading to farmhouses was the crime scene.
He could see the knot of gaping villagers some distance down the road. Killing the engine he let the motorbike roll down to the spot where he led the animal between his legs to one side and let it rest there. Then carefully securing his helmet to the handle bar of the bike with a lock he walked up to the knot, without bothering to comb his hair. The crowd was gazing at the gate from which a narrow lane led up to a rather pretty house, the kind he had seen in picture frames sold on the roadside bazaars that he had always wanted to buy and hang from the wall in his all purpose room. There was a little rectangular depression in the wall, facing the bed, especially built to hang a scenery in but the frames were always either too small for it or too large, besides not having the kind of picture that called to him. And now he was looking at one such house that had materialised from the scenery sold in the weekly haat. A large iron gate studded the thick sandstone walls of the farm. Two elephants, one on each wrought iron gate, held garlands of flowers in their trunks and must face each other when the gate was closed, he thought, enviously eying the petals of each flower detailed in the garland. This place dripped money. He wondered at the small size of the farm. He had always thought that farms were very large.
He entered the crowd and inched forward towards the open flanks of the gate. Just as he stepped onto the red carpet of the local sand, badarpur, leading inside and laid a deliberately casual hand on the cold iron of the elephant’s hind leg, two policemen came to the gate, a constable and an Assistant Sub Inspector, with a man from the village in an unwashed dhoti.
There was no jeep around so he guessed that Nitesh may have left. He stood there silent, taking in the scene. Nitesh must have taken the body away to the morgue. On his way here he had seen no police jeep, or any handcart or bullock cart carting away a dead body. Perhaps there was another way out of the village or they went through Chandola which lay ahead.
He felt a sudden stab of despair. Here he was, a day after the festival, come to chin with his batch mate about old times in the training college, about the passing out parade and his friend had been called away by the dead. A dead stranger. His mother’s superstitious nature suddenly assaulted and smothered his thought processes. This is my situation in life, wherever I go I only face death, he thought. He slunk away to a side, looking around to see if there was at least a chai wala. There were only silent villagers. He slid a smile at them. Nobody smiled back. It was obvious that Nitesh had left behind an officer to record the statement of the villagers. A junior officer, the lowest in rank, but an officer all right, with a brass star on the shoulder of his uniform, just in case the villagers got offended that they had a murder case, no less, and yet the police found them deserving only a constable.
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Best English Stories
Anjali Deshpande Books
by Anjali Deshpande
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Total Episodes : 46
by Anjali Deshpande
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