I was about to begin hating ‘dodger blue’ cars for years to come but I didn’t know it then. It was morning still and we were swarming the porches of Tagore Block. The air was crisp, tinged with smoke from the bonfires of fallen leaves. A half-clad gardener was trying to haul a squealing grass mower back and forth in the lawns. The doors to the halls wore round, brass padlocks like nose rings. A hastily pinned notice to the board held a terse message, ‘All examinations scheduled to be held on May 04, 1989 stand postponed to May 08, 1989.’
The quirky little shock soon gave way to loud rejoicing. Groups emerged as the ripples settled into picnickers, moviegoers and gourmands. Ruby and Sonia were squeezed together on the base between two pillars. I had rarely seen the two sitting side by side. Suave, chiseled Ruby in her pastel blue chikan suit and svelte, fragrant Sonia in trademark silk tee and denims made a jaw dropping sight. I said something. Or I thought I said something.
‘Say what, Nietzsche?’ Ruby raised an eyebrow.
‘The Last Emperor,’ I found my tongue. ‘Nothing comes closer.’
Robin kept swearing by ‘Dirty Dancing’. This guy was Hemant’s ace sidekick and probably his brains too. Hemant was peeking under the bonnet of a car parked under the palms. Many voted for ‘The Last Emperor’.
‘Sonia and Ruby can go in a car.’ Robin squawked. ‘Hemant’s got a new ‘dodger blue Toyota.’
‘I don’t see him much in the hostel these days,’ I remarked, digesting the byte.
‘He has shifted to his uncle’s duplex flat at G Nagar,’ Robin said, ‘who is back from Japan.’
Sonia grimaced and stood to leave. ‘My brother is home. And I need to brush up those topics anyway. Good it got postponed.’
‘All right, Robin. Show us the car!’ Ruby said in mock excitement.
Within minutes, the gleaming car came to a sliding stop on the gravel. Some girls jumped in noisily, Ruby too. Hemant waved in our direction and swerved away to The Mall. Bikes roared after the car soon after. Four or five of us went to the bus stop hoping to take a bus or an auto. I was amused to find Robin following us, cussing under his breath, his face dark. Soon though he started lisping how his mother, who had ‘Blue British Blood’ in her veins, always prefers to walk, always.
Robin Rana had spun a fine web of lies around him. Few realised his mother was no British citizen, leave alone being a royal descendant. She was at best a very Nepalese dame who had seduced a backpacker of indeterminate origin. Maybe she had managed to keep her pregnancy under wraps for months till it was no more possible to suppress the bulge. In the end, the roamer had vanished into thin air just as he had materialised.
We were late when we arrived at Mayfair. We grabbed our tickets from the window and were shown our way into the darkness by the usher. We had no idea where the others were seated, no one gave a sign. Somewhere along the movie my bowels started twisting and I felt sick. I had been surviving on noodles and coffee for the last six days and it was Nature’s warning bell in the middle of the show. I quit much before the credits rolled and picked a packet of curd on my way to the hostel.
I had already shoved my notes in a box and didn’t feel like ruffling the modern essayists anymore. I pulled out Doctor Zhivago instead and I tried to lose myself in the dilemmas of whom he was a sore captive. At night I tried my luck with another packet of curd, this time assisted with slices of bread and sugar. I lived with the doomed hero as long as I could and then switched off the lamp. Three more days. One more meeting with Ruby. Maybe another when she comes to pick up the results but that need not be collected in person. She may not join the Master’s here, or anywhere. Sleep was light years away in a black hole somewhere.
Someone was knocking at the door with a rock or something. Rising up was like freefalling into an abyss. It took me a while to collect who and where I was. I was sure I was going to kill Hemant this time with a kitchen knife. But I was shocked to find myself staring into the faces of two policemen at the door. A police jeep was parked near the badminton court.
‘Samir Saran?’ The constable read my name squinting at a diary.
‘You are required to come to the police station,’ he told me gruffly.
‘Police station? But why?’ I was incredulous.
‘You will know soon,’ the one with a thick moustache glared at me. ‘It is best if you come of your own accord.’
I knew better than grappling with two sullen constables. The jeep carried me away from my hostel in silence, my tongue sour in my mouth. I hoped fervently I was not being framed into something sinister. They kept discussing a raid on some video cassettes parlour. I mustered up my guts and addressed the one who looked younger and sensible, ‘Sir, at least tell me what it is all about!’
‘A boy was murdered in his car near the airport yesterday night.’ He conceded, touched by ‘sir’.
‘Mur –dered? Who?’ I was stunned.
‘Some Hemant Singh. Was shot dead.’
They resumed the discussion about ‘blue movies’, ignoring my existence.
The jeep stopped outside a flat, grumpy building. A rusting indigo and red signboard read ‘Police Station Chandganj’. The low arched entrance led to a small square packed with bikes and cars. I was shocked to see several familiar faces including Ruby’s in the waiting room next to the reception. Ruby rose up and rushed towards me but they stopped us from meeting till I had met the ‘Inspector’. She had a dishevelled look and the corners of her eyes were red. I was taken to a small, square office where a broad-shouldered man was hunched over a file. He kept writing something without looking up. Eventually, he waived the constables off.
‘ASI Devesh Anant,’ he declared, motioning me to sit.
‘Excuse me, sir, what does this mean?’
‘Is it true Hemant is dead?’ I was thoroughly rattled now.
‘Those are two questions, Mr -’ He checked my name in a small pad. ‘-Samir Saran. But, it is I who is supposed be firing queries. However, I am a good police officer and I am usually a friendly person.’
‘One, it means you have been summoned by the State to state what you know about the circumstances leading to Hemant Singh’s murder. Two, yes, Hemant Singh, son of Mohan Singh, has been killed in cold blood.’
My mouth made incoherent gestures.
‘Shall we start with a brief bio then, your father’s name, your age, the place you come from, when did you join the college and the hostel, etc, etc?’
It went on for half an hour. He put serial numbers against his queries and my replies.
‘So, Mr. Saran, where were you around 12:00 PM yesterday night?”
‘Sir, I was reading a book. Actually, I was reading Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. And then I slept.’
‘Cut that ‘sir’. Never heard of that book! Anyway, when did you start sleeping?’
‘Can’t say. Maybe it was three –or four AM’
‘You are a late sleeper. Even I was like that!’ He paused. ‘Would you want a glass of water?’
‘How do you know Rubia Habib?’
‘She is in the final year of English Literature with me.’
‘What is Rubia Habib to you?’
This one stumped me. What was Ruby to me indeed?
The ASI tapped the table with a pencil. ‘A classmate – a friend –a lover…?’
‘She is a friend, of course!’ I decided.
‘What kind of friend, Mr. Saran?’
I felt my anger surging. ‘How is that relevant to the murder, sir?’
The ASI leaned back in his swivel chair and locked his hands behind his head. ‘Actually, it is! Jealousy is a weird bird; you never know where it will take you. You think you are the only hero of your beauty. Then the villain walks in. He is handsome, he is rich, has got a car and has the time. The scene changes. They get closer than you can admit. You can’t digest it at all and you decide to drill a in hole his chest.’
My blood boiled so hard I started snickering. ‘Look here, Inspector, Hemant Singh’s businesses were a matter of public record. His liaisons with girls were many, fast and hot and many fell for his charms around the college. But everyone found out the crook he was, sooner or later. I am sure a girl like Ruby would have had no trucks with him, regardless of his money and car.’
‘But didn’t she go to a cinema with him yesterday – in the very car he was murdered?’ He said.
‘To tell you the truth, we were a group of twenty odd students who went to the movie together. There were quite a few girls too. He had offered the car ride to them.’
‘Look here Samir,’ his tone changed as he leaned towards me conspiratorially, ‘I spoke to your warden over the phone this morning. He seems to have a high opinion of you. ‘A brilliant scholar’, he said. Now, how about helping me crack this case? I am loaded with a dozen mucked up murders already.’ He sighed.
‘I’d also love to see the killer kiss the gallows, sir.’
‘Perfect! Now assume for a moment you are the man from 221-B, Baker Street.’ His lips curled in a smile. I noticed he had fetching dimples. ‘And you stumble upon this boy with a hole in his heart in a Japanese car…. You read a lot of books, don’t you?’’
Continued in ‘A Polar Bear Remembers’