Himesh is fussy about the order in which ingredients should be put into vegetable rice. Butter, followed by equal amount of mustard oil, cumin seeds, chopped chillies and onions, crushed ginger and garlic, minced mint and coriander leaves, a handful of shelled peas and diced tomatoes, soaked rice and the jazz. It is a weekly ritual, and like a musical piece, each note wells up at the precise moment as the condiments and portions tumble in the pressure cooker and roast in the sizzling balsam, dancing at the cue of his wooden ladle. He seems to pause and focus at each slice of vegetable, caressing and caramelising it till it’s the right colour and shape. Aroma wafts about and lingers in the entire wing of the hostel long after the feast is over and the utensils are piled in a corner for me to clean them up, which is part of the agreement. And yet, the legend of Platinum Jubilee Hostel insists that if ever Himesh manages to whisk up a delectable dish, a curse would befall the neighbourhood.
One part of his brain loves to babble while he is engrossed in his culinary commission. I suspect this part of his consciousness is in no way connected to his soul that revels in slicing, squishing, sautéing and stir-frying bits of vegetables and spices. He is again talking about the trip his family had taken to Colombo, much of which is a cock-and-bull ballad. The story is repetitive and boring, it also varies in content each time.
Looking out the window I catch a glimpse of Professor Bhadoria fidgeting around his Gypsy. He is about to begin his journey to the hostel, also a weekly ritual, by driving through the rear gate of his bungalow straight to University Road and taking three left turns, which takes him about seven minutes, instead of taking the unkempt lane and arrive here within a minute. Himesh is about to pour the soaked rice into the pot, and I know how the clanging is going to get hectic for the next few minutes, when he will at last squeeze half a lime, inspect the vent tube and weight of the lid before fixing it firmly on the cooker. I excuse myself momentarily for a trip to the communal washroom, but he is busy blathering about Colombo. He is still telling the story to the cooker when I return and reoccupy the folding chair. He finally turns and is a tad surprised. “You didn’t go?”
“Um —no.” I say.
“When will our warden stop firing blank shots in the hostel? It is not scaring even the frogs on the banyan tree, leave alone Chauhan,” He chuckles at his own joke.
“Frogs don’t live in banyan trees.” I say.
“Some of them do.” He beams.
The truth about the blank shots is equally bland. The warden, Professor Bhadoria, could not expel Chauhan from the hostel for his all his authority. Chuahan is armed and dangerous, and has deep political links. Professor Bhadoria is no saint himself. He is living in the bungalow with a woman who is not his wife, much to the secret admiration of many, and owns a double-barrelled gun that he carries to the hostel each Sunday and proceeds to clean it with great ceremony in the park. He fires two shots into the sky before he leaves. Chuahan is not regular in his replies. His shots vary in count and time, and at times are fired at midnight. At times, he gives the whole thing a skip.
Someone is hollering downstairs. It is common for the hostellers to get angry with the rickshaw-pullers or the canteen folk. We can make out the shrill voice of Sanjivan Bose, Chauhan’s neighbour in Room No 29. But the voices are rising at an unusual tempo. The punk guy who loves to ape George Michael, hairstyle and all, six rooms to our right, pokes in his face and barks, “Chauhan has shot the delivery boy of the video parlour store!”.
Chauhan naturally greets hawkers and washermen with kicks and slaps and waves his revolver at them. The dispute about rentals of video cassettes is also a frequent occurrence and usually flares up at weekends when Chauhan is presented the bill. He had threatened to spill the guts of the delivery boy all over the floor a few months back for a rather steep bill of premium-rented movies.
“Clear off! Clear off the hostel! Police will barge in any moment and cane all of us to death.” A wise guy is yelling along the length of the wing.
There is more wisdom in those words than there are stars in the universe. Himesh hurls one of his smelly pullovers at me since I have nothing on my back except a baggy shirt. “Time to run,” he says with an indulgent smile. Apparently, this is going to get a lot more interesting than cooking vegetable rice. There is a semi-stampede on the circular stairwell. Number 30, Chauhan’s room, is to the left as we hurriedly make for the portico, but none of us is stopping to take a peek. Any compunction I am having is dispelled by a firm push from Himesh who is advising me to forget philanthropy for the day. A pale green scooter is lying on its belly, a bag full of video cassettes is lying in the grass nearby. Someone exhorts us to leave in groups of two or three rather than in hordes. We don’t stop walking as we exit the hostel and then the college gates and as we are ascending the Monkey Bridge, a police jeep with a naked, dangling pair of legs folded over the tailgate races past us. The sickly colour of the legs leave me in no doubt about the state of the owner of the limbs.
It is not before the next hour that we run into another batch of fugitives near Mayfair cinema. One of them is from the ground floor and has left the hostel much after us. He is breathless with the news he has to break to us —it was not the delivery boy whom Chuahan has murdered. It was Chauhan himself who was shot dead by the delivery boy! There was a neat little hole between his eyebrows and the backside of his skull resembled a burst melon.
Himesh’s mouth opens and closes with nothing more than air escaping his vocal chords. His grip tightens on my wrists and I realise he is sweating.
“His time had finally come,” Someone, I don’t recollect who, offers.
Himesh tries to say something but all he manages is a squeak. And then he chuckles mirthlessly.
We talk about other students murdered in the hostel. Himesh recounts how he had run into headless Sanjay Singh near the washrooms last year. Sanjay Singh was slain with daggers many years ago and many students claim having spotted him at about two o’clock in the night. But Himesh is certainly lying. We all know our lily-livered friend can’t live to tell the tale of sighting a monkey in the dark, leave alone a ghost.
By the afternoon, our group has swelled and we go to an eatery that serves unlimited food for a fixed cost with little bowls of desi ghee for ‘free’. Squabbling over extra servings of vegetable curry, various enemies of Chauhan are discovered and invented. Our warden is featured high on the list of vermin and is discussed threadbare, as is his private life which includes his estranged wife and the other woman he is staying with in the official residence. Various attributes of the owner of the video-parlour are also hauled into open, his links with the mafia, politicians and even police to whom he arranges much more than sleazy video cassettes. It seems Chauhan had worked up a huge credit bill on the stuff he had hired over months but was dithering to pay back his dues. No wonder the messenger was a shooter too and was now being hotly searched by the police. Chauhan should have been careful.
In the middle of the meals and brainstorming, someone walks in with the news of the locks of the hostel rooms being broken and room-to-room searches conducted by the police for weapons and illegal stuff. It shifts the focus to the common enemies of the students, the police and the vice-chancellor of the university. As expected, the students’ union is quick to encash the opportunity to blow its bugle. An emergency meeting is called for and all students are summoned to assemble at the university canteen at six in the evening to protest against violence and gross miscarriage of justice.
As we are alighting from a tempo near the steep flight of stairs just before the Gate No. 1, Sanjivan Bose, the guy in whose throat God forgot to put a volume control, pipes in, “Do you know Chauhan gang-raped a girl this past September with the help of another inmate of our hostel? How can anyone forget Shipra? She committed suicide later on and donated her body to the Anatomy Department of the medical college in her suicide note. I am told her brother is in the army who has just returned from an assignment in Sri Lanka and it is his turn to donate Chauhan’s body to the same people.”
Apart from his perturbing vocal artillery, Sanjivan Bose is the ace conspiracy theorist of the university.
“How can you be so cocksure?”
“Because Chauhan also took a photo in which someone in a monkey cap was holding her naked in a vicious grip from behind. Her mouth was taped up and there was a huge cut near her right eye.”
“How did she land up in the hostel?”
“She was drugged and smuggled in unconscious.”
“How do you know all that?” Himesh is incredulous.
“Everyone knows that!”
“You saw the photo?” Himesh asks.
“Everyone has seen the photo,” says Sanjivan Bose.
At least a part of what Bose says is true. I too have seen the photo. I wonder how many people have noticed the slanting cut-mark just where the captor’s eyebrows nearly meet in the middle, apart from the disrobed bust of Shipra. Chauhan was apparently busy fondling the camera.
Sanjeevan Bose loses himself into the crowd of students soon after that.
The meeting of student’s union is laced with fiery speeches and lasts over an hour. Chauhan’s ‘unassailable record’ and courage are hailed. Froth and venom fly freely from the mouths of the leaders. Puppets of the warden and the Vice-chancellor are quickly created, beaten up and burnt. The meeting ends with the appeal to march to the medical college where Chauhan’s lifeless body is awaiting post-mortem in a morgue, to pay him last respects. The procession begins the three-kilometre-long march in a grim mood, led by Mehfooj, another pal of Chauhan, who is hoarse with crying slogans of immortality for the departed soul. Some of the boys have sticks in their hands and they begin yelling at the shopkeepers to down the shutters. As we reach the bridge, Himesh starts picking up stones from the road undergoing repairs and hurls them at the tall streetlights. I am amazed at the power and precision of his throws as the projectiles bore neat holes in the glass covers of the lamps and burst the sodium lamps inside. I creep closer and closer to him, even as I keep looking out for the police vans that are expected any moment. Himesh has passed his childhood in the hills where endless running up and down steep paths to school and the market was an inseparable part of living. I am no slouch myself, jogging five to six kilometres each day, and completing fifty to hundred push-ups. We would prefer to stick together with each other.
Immediately after the rail underpass, the road is fenced for over a kilometre on both sides with the medical college on the left and an entertainment park on the right. If the police were to charge upon us now from behind, the only one way left to run would be straight down the road like a rocket, assuming no police picket runs into us head on. Soon enough, the police does appear as expected, choosing the very stretch of the road strategically. They close in upon us with the headlights switched off, raiding us from the behind. “Stop, everyone!” a stern voice rings at our back. I make out a flashing blue light on top of a car with the barest turn of my neck. Himesh is already running straight ahead. I burst into a mad run too, hurling my legs longer and longer, faster and faster. The wind is whooshing against my ears and it takes me about a minute to catch up with Himesh. There are many sounds at my back, of banging boots, canes and abuses hurled, someone being caught and overpowered. We are not slowing down even if we are going to be shot at. Eventually, the voices at our back drop off but we are still lunging like a missile.
Perhaps the police have their hands full with the excitable mob of protestors. After having run for about a kilometre, we dive to our left into the small entrance to the medical college and run up a steep incline that leads to various departments of the university township. By now, I am ready to fall flat on the ground and my lone companion in the flight looks no better than me. As we approach a darkened building, I point to the crevice under the stairs of its elevated entrance. Both of us squirm in and creep as far back to the base as is possible in the dark and try to hold ourselves still. My heart is bumping all over my rib cage and into my throat, I cover my mouth to muffle the sound of my breathing. A motorcycle whooshes past the road ahead barely a minute after we have ducked in. We keep listening to its sputtering till it eventually fades into the faint voice of the traffic on the roads beyond the precincts.
“Some folks from the plains too are great runners.” Himesh’s voice cracks in the darkness to appreciate my spunk.
“You bet,” I say.
“You should have joined our club,” he chuckles, but stops abruptly.
“Who do you think killed Chauhan?” I ask after a while.
“Someone related to that bitch.” He growls.
“You had fun all night, didn’t you?”
He doesn’t answer this one for a while. Then his round face turns towards me. I cannot make out the slanting cut-mark between his brows in the darkness but I know it is there. I have been watching it over months.
“I prefer it slow, long and hot, like the vegetable rice dish.” He speaks in a thick voice I have never heard him use before.
I had taken up a job teaching mathematics in a small town about three hours from the city. The packet with sixty thousand odd rupees in currency notes came by post a week after she killed herself, with a small message: Buy that bike and drive it to Lake Tso Moriri in Ladakh as you always wanted to. And when the wind caresses your hair, know that it will be me in some parts. I returned to the university instead and bought something more useful than the bike. It had required the best influences I could muster to have me allotted a room in the hostel on the strength of a diploma course in French language alone. Then, over months, in the darkness of nights, I had perfected the feat of leaping onto the coconut tree from the opening near the washroom, landing near the hedge and darting about hundred feet to room number 30 and tracing my way back again till I could do it within two minutes.
I have always hated the heroes in the movies who when they have the villains at gunpoint, launch into an endless speech to remind the killers of their unpardonable sins. It goes on and on till the killer somehow snatches back the weapon, or hits him with a rock or a beer bottle and overpowers the nice man momentarily, sometimes even fatally, as per the convenience of the director. Chauhan was leaning into his video cassette player as I entered his room in the morning. I walked right up to him and before he could figure out what was happening, I put the muzzle of the handgun between his eyes and fired. In the darkness of the spanning staircase, there is not much I can see of the expressions ruling Himesh’s face but the whites of his eyes are good enough pointers to where I should press the muzzle of the handgun again. The noise under the concrete slab is deafening.
There are many bridges over the river in the city but none over the putrid streak of its criminals. As I set foot in the Red Bridge over the quite stream below I have a feeling I have put a lasting cover over a treacherous duo of gutters. I hurl the gun in the brooding river and realise there is something else in my pocket. It is the key of the scooter of the video-parlour guy. Chauhan’s room was just behind the portico and could be accessed from both left and right. As I was leaving his room in the morning, the video-parlour guy had just parked his scooter and was proceeding to Chauhan’s room the other way. I saw the key dangling from the ignition and snatched it before I dashed to the coconut tree. It worked out the way I had imagined. After finding what had happened in Chauhan’s room, the poor fellow raced to his scooter, and unable to kickstart it because of the lost key, he ran helter-skelter towards the gate and vanished.
It will be a while before I will be able to purchase my own bike and ride to Tso Moriri.