Peter walked slowly down Takandas H. Kataria Marg that led to the Matunga Road Station. It was a street he had walked every day for years on his way to the newspaper, and he often came back for a stroll post ‘retirement’ because he missed the aromas. The smell of jaggery and spiced cashews from the Mangalore shop. The gummy reek of a jackfruit cut open by the Bihari vendor. The heady scents of incense and ghee and marigolds from the Saptakoteshwara Temple. The sharp tang of Gauri, the black cow tethered outside the temple.
He stopped to stroke Gauri, and she shifted a little to stand closer to him. He wanted to linger, to savour her friendliness. But he had to go; Shiva would be waiting.
Why had Shiva called him? Why was he going? Most people did not want to get involved with criminal affairs. He could understand why. Go too close and you might find yourself in a witness box or something worse. Should he have simply told Shiva that he was busy? What would have happened then? ‘You can walk away whenever you want,’ he said to himself bracingly. ‘This is not your job. Or your life work.’
Perhaps that was why he did go when Shiva called. Because it was possible for him to say no.
A horn beeped. Even in the morning with a clear road, the drivers of the city felt the need to honk. But he realized that he was at the intersection of Gopi Tank Road and Kataria Marg. As a child, he had spent hours here, hanging over the edge of the well at the Manmala Devi Mandir, peering into its cool black depths, watching a turtle or two dip and glide among the leaves of banyan and mango that had fallen from above. There must have been a level crossing where the road met the railway tracks but Peter could not remember it now. At some point, a pedestrian bridge had been built over the tracks.
Even from the top of the bridge, jammed with hawkers and busy feet, Peter saw where he would have to go. There was a knot of people on the tracks, spilling out from under the bridge where Peter could see signs of police presence. He thought about buying a platform ticket but decided against it; he was on police business. He found Inspector Jende standing at the foot of the ramp that came down off the bridge on to the two platforms of the station.
‘Pittr,’ said Jende. It was his greeting of choice.
‘Ah,’ said Peter. ‘There you are.’
There was a railway official in a battered black coat talking fast, in the hurried way men have when they are out of their depth.
‘On this platform, we have one toilet at the north end with ladies facility and one gents facility for squatting. One gents facility here at the south end, but only gents urinal,’ he was saying, in a mix of Marathi and English.
Jende absorbed this information. Then: ‘Is that one also open all night?’
‘Yes. Means no, means yes.’
Jende raised an eyebrow.
‘Means it has a gate and a lock and key so it can be locked but often it is not and I think last night it was not locked.’
‘No laash there, na?’
So there was a corpse somewhere. Presumably in the toilet under the stone bridge at the end of the station. Peter had used it a couple of times, reluctantly, when he couldn’t wait till he got home. This ‘gents facility’ had no gate; the stalls were ranged against one wall of a passage cut through the slope of the ramp from the bridge.
Meanwhile, the railway official had gone from shell-shocked to aghast at the thought of another corpse in his station.
‘I have not checked.’
The railway official looked carefully at Jende to see if this was a joke. Then he decided not to risk it and hurried off. Peter looked reprovingly at Jende. Jende shrugged.
‘Look at this situation,’ said Jende, waving a hand at the city and switching to his preferred language, a no-nonsense, Marathi-inflected Hindi. He didn’t seem angry, just vaguely irritated. ‘The station is open all night. There is no gate anywhere. Any person can come and go. If you want to climb over that wall’—he pointed east to where low-slung government quarters, painted white and blue, slumped under the weight of clothes drying in the small balconies—‘or over that tree’—he pointed west to where Tulsi Pipe Road ran parallel to the railway lines, ‘you can come and go and do khoon-kharaaba of all kinds, and who will look?’
‘One khoon, at least. Come. You had breakfast?’
‘Good. After this you may not feel like any.’
Together they walked down the short slope that dropped from the platform to the tracks. The sharp smell of urine assailed Peter’s nostrils, that and the smell of the railways. What was it? The tang of iron. It had been on his hands after every strap-hanging commute. But it was also the smell of blood, spilled and decaying. Haemoglobin decomposing, rusting. Blood rusts, he thought, just as the railways do.
They passed what looked like a room built into the bridge, a cave-like room with no windows and which had not been used for decades, it seemed, from the dirt and debris inside. Then came the toilet and inside it, a young man lay on his back, his body sprawled on the half-wet floor.
‘See?’ Jende said. ‘You can come in this side and go out that side. No doors, no gates, nothing. Everything open-air.’
Peter saw what he meant: Matunga Road Station was a policing nightmare. Right now, the dead boy constituted the nightmare. But in his moment at the centre of things, he looked relaxed, one leg crossed over the other, one arm thrown up over his head. He was slim and dressed in knock-off fashion, his hair in an undercut. An earring glinted in one ear. It was easy to see what had killed him. A slash had opened his shirt (a dark colour), his banian (once white but now almost black with clotted blood), his skin (brown), the fatty layer underneath (a bright shade of yellow), his innards (purple and red, what might once have been described as incarnadine). The body had been outlined in chalk. A photographer was walking away, his face pasty.
‘What a terrible place to die,’ Peter said.
‘Dead is dead,’ said Jende.
Two jamadars—what was the term for them now, Peter thought? Class IV staff? Or did the morgue still use the old designations?—came up with a stretcher. The men loaded the body without a word or a sign of emotion. He might have been a slab of dead meat. The dead man’s arm fell off the stretcher. Peter moved forward without thinking and pushed it back onto the body. The skin was cold and wet and clammy. It felt like nothing human.
‘Don’t touch,’ Jende said.
‘Oh yes, I shouldn’t contaminate the scene.’
‘For him? Who will care?’
Peter looked at his friend carefully.
‘Then why am I here?’
‘Same reason I am here. Because he died before his time and I will find out who did this to him.’
Peter looked again at the young face. It suggested relief, in an odd way. Could it only be the way muscles lost their tension in death? Or was it just that his eyes were half-closed, the irises dark smudges against slits of white?
The body was about to be whisked away when the constables holding the public back moved aside, in the manner of those acknowledging their supervisors. Two men appeared and both their faces had, for a moment, looks of shock and horror.
Now, confronted by Jende, both men had almost identical sheepish expressions. Peter guessed that they were also policemen, but off duty. Their polyester shirts were unlined, their foreheads creased with the professional scowl of the city policeman. Almost certainly not constables, but not Inspectors either. They looked to be in their mid thirties—the older of the two perhaps closer to forty. Sub-Inspectors, then? And if they were policemen, were they not hardened by death? Why had they looked horrified? Or could it be that he was expecting uniformed men to be…Peter scolded himself silently for stereotyping.
One of them said, ‘Body?’
Jende nodded. Then he looked from one to the other: ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Like that only,’ said the younger of the two, but it was weak. He was finding it difficult to believe his own excuse. His eyes kept shifting towards the body and back, as if he were doing something he was not allowed to.
Peter had an odd feeling and then Jende voiced it when he asked: ‘Some relation of yours, Pagmat?’
‘Kya sahib?’ he said. ‘He was a chhakka.’
The older cop’s head whipped around. Pagmat looked at him out of the side of his eye and blinked again.
‘Durra?’ Jende asked but Durra only shook his head.
Chhakka, the catch-all word to mean that the dead man wasn’t a heterosexual as they understood heterosexuality. But how did they know he was gay or bisexual or whatever? To Peter he looked like a million other young men he walked among in the city every day. But for the brutal gash that had killed him.
It was the question Jende was also asking.
‘How do you know?’
Pagmat put on the face of a man unjustly accused.
‘Matunga Road, sahib. Famous.’
‘Famous for what?’ Peter asked.
The men looked puzzled, as if unsure about how they should answer him. Then Pagmat said, ‘They come to do gandugiri.’
Another word for homosexuality. If chhakka was ridicule, this was contempt.
‘Look at his clothes,’ said Durra.
Both Jende and Peter turned to look, as directed, at the clothes of the fallen. The young man was wearing a tight black T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up high on his arms and form-fitting, low-rise jeans. Peter thought: half the boys in the city dress like that.
Jende nodded at the men, but maintained his air of being unsatisfied with their explanations.
‘Take him away,’ he said to the men with the stretcher.
‘Did you find his mobile?’ Durra asked. Peter happened to be looking at Pagmat’s face and saw a moment of murderous rage cross it. Some line had been crossed, some agreement broken.
Jende halted the procession and pulled on a glove and drew from the boy’s pocket a blood-drenched instrument.
‘Wow,’ said Peter, to whom the phone looked rather expensive.
Jende was dismissive. ‘China stuff,’ he said. Then noticing the two men’s eyes on him, he raised his eyebrows. Durra flicked Pagmat an apologetic look as they turned to leave.
Jende waited, watching them, his face impassive. Then he beckoned Peter and climbed on to the platform again. He rinsed the phone off under a tap at the water fountain. A passing commuter shuddered and asked, ‘Mara kya?’ but like Jesting Pilate, he did not wait for an answer. Another one asked if the man had been cut fully into two. A man in a white Gandhi cap came up and simply watched the blood run off, silent, thoughtful, almost meditative. Jende ignored all of them and tried to power up the phone. It refused to light up.
‘Put it in a bucket of rice,’ said the meditative man. A train thundered in and he ran off.
Jende gave up. ‘Chalo, we will need experts,’ he said.
Jende hated experts. Of all the experts, he hated experts in electronics and the world of telephony the most. And yet they had led to more arrests than ever before. It seemed as if everyone left a trail across cyberspace, however careful they were in the real world.
‘Do we know who the dead man is?’
‘No,’ said Jende.
‘Maybe the phone will tell us.’
‘If it is his phone. It might be stolen.’
There was a pause as Peter considered this.
‘There is CCTV on MRU,’ said Jende.
‘Really? Since when?’
‘They installed them after the blasts.’
Peter flashed back to that day in July 2006 when a series of bombs exploded on the commuter trains in a coordinated terror attack. In the newsroom, they had debated whether to do a spirit-of-Mumbai story for the next morning. Eventually the story had been carried, although it was written in a deliberately colourless manner, the reporter’s protest against a story that he did not want to do. But if any good could be said to have come of that terrible day, some money had been sanctioned by the Centre on upgrading the trains. The closed-circuit television cameras must have been part of that.
‘For that too we’ll need experts. I will go and deal with experts. But first come, look at this.’
They walked back down into the toilet and Jende pointed to the wall above the spot where the body had lain. Peter saw the numeral ‘1’, written in some dark colour. He went up as close as he dared but couldn’t be sure.
‘Is it blood?’ he asked.
‘We’ll find out,’ said Jende. ‘They’ve taken a sample.’
‘The man who did this is planning more?’
Jende nodded. ‘At least that is what he wants someone to know. Who is this message for, that is what I want to know.’
They walked out of the toilet. ‘I will go and write my report now,’ said Jende.
It was a dismissal. Peter turned his steps home and as he did, the boy faded and his own family came surging back. In vain did he try to fix his mind on the murder. A man’s life had been taken and he was bothered about his son appearing in a tabloid with a caption underneath that declared him gay.
On his way home, he looked at the men he passed. Was anyone of them gay? He remembered India’s first gay rights crusader, Ashok Row Kavi, claiming that ten per cent of India was gay. That was a lot of gay people. On what basis had he made that estimate? And how little it seemed to matter now—whether one of a hundred million or a hundred thousand, his son would…‘What?’ he asked himself aloud, and an elderly woman walking in the opposite direction stopped to look at him with mild interest. Embarrassed, he walked on. ‘Sunil will what?’ he asked himself silently again, and as he answered his own question, his heart constricted: ‘He will suffer.’ And then he dismissed the thought. No. Sunil is not alone. He has Millie, he has me.