Fiction

Story: A man of principle

By: Yogesh Upadhyaya

inspectorThe left side of his forehead throbbed with pain. He was alternately yawning and belching. Belches that brought a sour taste in his mouth. It was only four in the afternoon and surely they were only a little more than half way through? He must not give in to the pain, Sub Inspector Mahender Singh thought, at least not till they were on way back or even till they had dropped Mr. Shrivastava back at the circuit house. He must fight.

The acidity attack was a direct result of the chaos in his house in the morning. Vijeta, his wife, had gone to Luckhnow to tend to her sick mother leaving their three daughters behind. A fortnight ago it wouldn’t have mattered because Rachana, who had been in charge of the household since their parents died fifteen years ago, would have managed. But his sister had got married and left the house a week ago.

Early in the morning after yoga and prayers when he asked for his almonds, he was told that they had forgotten to soak them in water the previous night. Then, even as his breakfast was being prepared, he received a call from Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Deepak Dube’s office instructing him to rush to the circuit house, pick up a Mr. Sanjay Shrivastava and take him to Budhori. He grabbed a kachori from the sweet shop next door and raced on his motorcycle to the city police thana ten kilometres from his village, where Constable Suraj was waiting for him in the police Quallis. Mister Shrivastava – no rank or even which agency he worked for – turned out to be a thirty five year old man, dressed in a white shirt, black trousers and black leather shoes. Medium height, unremarkable broad face with a thin moustache, he looked very much like a bank officer that Mahender Singh knew, except Mr. Shrivastava did not have a pot belly and Mr. Shrivastava did not speak much. He listened.

They reached Budhori in little more than an hour. The village was located in the small Southern dry part of the district. No irrigation canal reached here and there was no electricity. Consequently, by April many men of the village had migrated to cities all over India. The only pukka structure in the village was a shining new school building and Mr. Shrivastava took it over. Fifty odd men who remained in the village – any male older than sixteen years – were corralled into one room with a fussy fifty year old school teacher in charge of them. Mr. Shrivastava got information about everyone in the village from the headman and put it on a diagram on the large blackboard. He drew lines showing relationships between different families. Then the interviews started.

Mr. Shrivastava would start with, “Kalumal, is there a reason why other people in the village would say that you are involved in wrong activities?

Then he would lean back and listen.

And the villagers talked. They would start with protesting their innocence but quickly move to gossiping about people who they thought had told on them. Soon Mr. Shrivastava and an amazed Mahender Singh were listening to the men telling them about who had stolen grain from whose fields, who had not spent enough on their daughter’s wedding and who was sleeping with whose wives. Mr. Shrivastava listened patiently, taking copious notes in his black notebook, interrupting testily to get clarifications or gently to prod an old rambler to move on from what had happened a few decades back.

It got boring after a while though. Mr. Shrivastava wanted to know the smallest of details and go over an interviewee’s story many times. Worse, he worked without a break. Early on he pulled out a packet of dry fruits, a couple of oranges and a bottle of water from his black briefcase and once in a while he nibbled on a cashew nut or sipped a little water. He offered the nuts to Mahender but there was no way he could take more than a small formal helping from a senior officer. It got hot in the tin roof room and the open windows blew in a lot of dust.

The acidity attack hit him around two o’ clock. It started as a mild pain on the top of his eyes. Mahender Singh massaged the skin around his eyebrows between his forefinger and thumb, hoping that it would keep the attack away but knowing that it wouldn’t. He could not even call Vijeta and distract himself. When they had met at the Circuit House, Mr. Shrivastava insisted on leaving all their mobile phones behind. ‘A matter of national security’ he said.

They had talked to only fifteen people till then and Mr. Shrivastava did not seem like a man who would rush through as time went by. Couldn’t really blame him – it was not every day that a national leader decided to spend a whole day and night in a village as small as Budhori and Mr. Shrivastva’s agency was probably responsible for the security of all top leaders in Delhi. They had to be careful. At that level, even one mistake resulted in a transfer.

The last four hours were terrible. Mahender Singh couldn’t remember the last time he had such a headache. He yearned to cradle his head in his arms and close his eyes. At six he had succumbed to Mr. Shrivastava’s insistence and had eaten half an orange and taken a few gulps of water but it had already been too late. Each throb in his head created bright spots in front of his eyes. The calls of koel on mango trees outside seemed like harsh shrieks of women in mourning.

All the while Mr. Shrivastava had asked his question

“Ramcharan is there any reason that people of this village would tell me that you are involved in anything illegal.”

And he listened.

It was nine by the time they reached town. He would call Vijeta when he reached home, Mahender Singh decided. Call her and tell her to come back. He had not been taken care of since she had gone. Small things, like not getting a lota of water when he reached home, milk not warmed up correctly at night and this morning – no soaked almonds!

They had turned into the long drive-way of the circuit house when the radio cackled,

“Sub-inspector Mahender Singh report to Nehru Nagar police station immediately, over.” And again, “Sub-inspector Mahender Singh, please report to Nehru Nagar police station immediately, over.”

They dropped Mr. Shrivastava and were off. Suraj rested his palm on the horn as the Quallis raced through empty streets, Mahender Singh praying that he did not get a new duty. When they reached, all the lights in the station were on and it was crowded. History-sheeters and other known trouble makers were being rounded in anticipation of the visit. Mahender Singh could see Inspector Samrat Singh, the Station Officer (SO), sitting in his room talking to three constables. Ten other constables were standing outside getting glasses of tea from Ratnu, the twelve year old who ran between the station and the tea shop across the road all day. Suraj parked the Quallis behind two other vehicles. Mahender Singh got out and straightened his belt before going in and meeting SO sahib.

“Finally he is here,” It was Vijeta’s voice; “Who can rely on such a husband?”

Mahender Singh turned and saw her striding out of the station, her face red with anger. Even worse, her eldest brother Anand was walking behind her.

“When did you come back?” Mahender Singh asked.

“Why was there no vehicle to meet me at the bus station?” Vijeta’s nasal voice got very shrill when she was angry.

“How would I know that you are coming today?”

“I gave you at least twenty missed calls.”

Mahender Singh patted his trouser pocket and realised that his phone was still with Mr. Shrivastava.

“I am on duty since eight in the morning. No phone allowed.” He said, “No food too.”

“No food? Why do you do this? Now you will get a headache. Why did they not pack you lunch?”

That’s what he liked about Vijeta. Her temper was fierce but it rarely lasted long. Mahender Singh felt his headache reduce. Everything would be OK now.

“My sister was sitting at the bus station for an hour.” It was Anand.

A short fat man, Anand had moved to Lakhanpur recently to take care of his family’s printing business. He kept dropping in at the police station and had invited Mahender Singh and his colleagues for drinks many times. Mahender Singh had gone a few times but had resented Anand’s manner. He behaved as if he was doing the police and Mahender a favor.

“Your wife was sitting in that dirty place for an hour Inspector Mahender Singh.” Anand said again. “What is the use of your sarkari job if she is treated like a common farmer’s wife?”

Mahender Singh’s headache came back like an express train. Someone started a Quallis and the noise was very loud, the headlights blinding.

“Let it be bhaiya.” Vijeta said, “He was on duty.”

“Don’t interrupt me choti,” Anand snapped and turned to Mahender Singh again, “My sister lived like a princess in Lucknow. If you could not maintain her standards, why did you marry her?’

“Not now sala ji.” Mahender said. The conversation amongst the constables had died and they were deliberately not looking at Mahender Singh. Suraj had opened the bonnet of the Quallis and was peering inside. Ratnu was not even pretending, he was openly looking at them and sniggering.

“Sit in the car. I will be back in a minute.” He growled at Vijeta, turned around and walked towards the station.

“Not so fast inspector sahib.” Anand blocked his path, “You cannot get away so easily. Tell me why my sister has to live like a beggar.”

“Live like a beggar?” Mahender Singh said, “I give Thirty Thousand Rupees in her hand every month. She buys a new silk salwar suit every month. We eat well. Live like a beggar?”

“Thirty Thousand.” Snorted Anand, “I spend that much on whisky.”

“Anand get out of my way.” Mahender Singh wanted to just go home and sleep.

“Or else what?” Anand smiled at him.

“I will blow you.” Mahender’s Singh’s automatic was out of his holster and in his hand, pointing at Anand’s face. The constables were looking at them openly now. Suraj shuffled towards Mahender Singh and Anand, not sure if he could interfere in a family matter of his superior. He heard the door of the Quallis open as Vijeta came out.

“You are not man enough to do that.” Anand laughed, “Ten years of marriage and three daughters only. The fault is with the man’s seed. I saw it on TV.”

***

SSP Dube took the white napkin from the back rest of his leather chair and wiped his forehead. It was middle of April and already the large fan was ineffective. He was in his chambers in the district kotwali. Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP) Atul Sharma sat on a straight back wooden chair across the table. Dube nodded at his DySP to continue.

“The incidence with Constable Irvender happened on the same morning of April 13th but the events were set in motion a few months ago.” Sharma said, “Irvender was assigned to Shri Raguvir Singh’s security six months ago. In these six months Irvender got attracted to Raghuvirji ‘s twenty year old daughter. Raghuvirji used to offer Irvender a drink sometimes and on one such occasion he broached the topic of marriage with Raghuvirji .”

“Are they from the same caste?”

“Yes sir. Irvender is also from a good family and he thought he had a chance. Raghuvirji however, is very ambitious man. He wants his daughter to marry the son of a party leader in Luckhnow.”

“So what happened?”

“Raghuvirji told him that he was in favour of the marriage but there was only one problem. There was another suitor and his daughter liked him.”

“Did she really like the other guy?”

“Anurag and the girl study in the same college and were very friendly. Raghuvirji thought that if he didn’t do anything they would marry.” Sharma said, “One evening, over three hours of drinking RaghuvirJi convinced Irvender that the marriage was on as soon as he got rid of Anurag. The drunk fool walked into Anurag’s house and shot him dead. Fortunately the only witness is their servant. The family had gone to a wedding and Anurag had stayed behind because he was not feeling well.”

SSP Dube massaged his temple. It had been a tough week and it was not over. He sighed, “So we have a drunk fool of a constable with no witness and a hard working Sub Inspector who shot his brother-in-law in front of fifteen people.”

“Yes sir.”

“Ok.” DSP Dube nodded, Sharma was dismissed. However, he did not get up.

“Sir..” Sharma swallowed and continued, “Everyone thinks that both of them should be saved. One of them was provoked and the other one was fooled by a politician. They are our men sir.”

“Thank you Sharma.”

He liked Sharma, had liked him from the time he had been transferred to the district and they had found out that they shared a love for English novels and that John Grisham was their favourite author. But, it was not so simple. There had been a lot of media attention on the district because of the visit of the leader from Delhi and the two murders by policemen were national television news. Three camera crews were waiting in the next room for an interview. He had been on phone with the District Magistrate (DM) and his Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of police for the last two hours. Even the Inspector General (IG) had called him. It was with great difficulty that he had been able to make the case for saving at least one of his men. And now it was his decision. Should he save a fool or a hard working policeman with a very strong case against him.

“I suppose Mahender Singh used his service revolver?” He asked.

“No sir.” Sharma smiled. “He used the automatic you gave him.”

That was the first good news he had had the whole day. A few months ago, a constable had flagged down a truck on the highway for a routine stop. When the driver sped away, a message was sent on the wireless and Mahender Singh and his constable responded. They had taken their SUV next to the speeding truck and Mahender Singh had shot the tires of the truck. When they opened the overturned truck they discovered a cache of twenty assault rifles, a few semi-automatic hand guns and two cartons of ammunition. When Dube reached the scene, Mahender Singh had his big hand around a Heckler and Koch P30.

“Like the gun Mahender Singh?” He had asked.

“Yes sir. Most pistols are too small for my hand but this one fits so nicely.” Mahender Singh had saluted but his eyes had not left the gun.

“Keep it.” SSP Dube told Mahender Singh. He liked action oriented officers.

“Sir, the channel people are waiting.” Sharma reminded him.

SSP Dube got up. The gun was a sign, he thought. He would do the right thing whatever it took.

***

Sahib, without you the chowki is not the same.” Suraj said.

Suraj was driving him back from Allahbad jail. It was eleven. They had started only at eight in the evening as the bail formalities had taken a lot of time, the magistrate and then the jailer making sure that the paperwork was pukka. His maternal uncle or Mamaji, who lived in Allahbad, was in the back seat. Mamaji had a fruit business and had visited Mahender Singh every day. He was traveling back with them to introduce him to Pratap Singh. Pratap Singh ji was a cousin of Rachna’s father in law and had moved to Lakhanpur recently. After talking non-stop for two and a half hours, Mamaji had finally dozed off.

“How is the investigation proceeding?” Mahender Singh asked.

“Very good sir. We started with sixteen witnesses. Eleven were our men and one was Vijeta Bhabhi. Of the remaining four, the two history-sheeters were most happy when we offered to make their files disappear. All of them have gone in front of a magistrate and sworn that you were not even in the station when Anand babu took his own life.”

“That is fourteen witnesses. What about the other two?”

“Ratnu, the tea boy, has gone away. We cannot find him.”

Mahender Singh raised his eyebrow and Suraj continued, “He has gone to Manali. The tourist season has started and a relative of SO sahib has a restaurant there.”

“So, who is the last witness?”

“Head of the government hospital sir. He took the dying declaration of Anand babu, signed it, stamped it and submitted it to a magistrate before our enquiry started.”

Under the Indian law the dying declaration had significant evidential powers. It was taken as the voice of the victim and was given a lot of weightage by the courts. The courts also required the person who had recorded the dying declaration to testify that the words on paper were those of the dying person and that the person had been of sound mind.

“Has he been interrogated?”

“He is at the station right now sir. Our team picked him up a couple of hours ago. He did not even know that the case was being re-investigated! They are interrogating him right now.”

“Will you talk to him?”

“Of course sir. I am going to the station as soon as I drop you.”

Witnesses interrogated by Suraj did not change their testimony later in court. He was the best interrogator in the station. Best except for him.

“Take me to the station now.”

“I can handle it sahib. Besides, there was a lot of media attention…”

“Who will be there at eleven in the night? Anyway, I am going there only to meet SO sahib.”

When they reached the station, there was only one tube light on. There were no vehicles in the compound and the compound was deserted. SO sahib was sitting at his table alone and he hugged Mahender Singh warmly when they went in. Mahender Singh had always liked the SO. He allowed Mahender Singh a lot of freedom as long as he kept the arrest numbers high and did not take credit in the local newspapers.

Soon Mamaji and the SO were in a deep discussion about the merits of Allahbad guavas and how the quality had deteriorated over the years. Mahender Singh half listened to the conversation, trying to pick up sounds coming from the next room. Eventually SO sahib said to him,

“Mahender Singh why don’t you go and see the progress of the case? You can stay there only for ten minutes however. Go home and rest after that. Leave the case to us.”

The interrogation room was a bare white washed room with a wooden window which was kept tightly shut. The only furniture in the room was a chair and a table for the constable who recorded the witness testimony. When Mahender Singh went in, the interrogation had evidently been going on for some time. Suraj was shouting at the tall bearded man whose clothes and hair were dishevelled. He still looked defiant though, not backing down from the three constables who were shouting and pushing him around.

Suraj came to Mahender Singh and said, “Tough witness sahib.”

“How long have you been talking to him?”

“Satish and Jaikrishan have been talking to him for one hour and I have myself spent twenty minutes.”

“Why haven’t you slapped him a little? Told him what we can do?”

“We have sir.” Suraj explained, “He has three daughters sir. He cannot put his government job in danger. There was a recent government order that said that any doctor turning a hostile witness would be instantly suspended.”

Mahender Singh relived the frustrations of the last ten days in the next one minute. The frustration of not being able to do anything for his own defence. The frustration of being locked with common criminals and getting looks of amusement and even sympathy from them. Most of all the frustration of waiting for Vijeta to visit him and being disappointed every day.

He snatched the bamboo stick from Suraj and went at the doctor. He hit him on the legs and hand. Slapped him and kicked him in the stomach. He even kicked him in the groin. He could hear the others including Suraj pleading with him to go slow but it was as if they were in a different room. Far away, their voices very faint.

And then SO sahib was there, pulling him away, Suraj and the others helping SO sahib and holding him by his shoulders and arms. No one spoke for a while and the only sounds in the room were his pants and the whimpers of the doctor.

There was a gasp at the door and everyone turned towards it. It was Mamaji, his eyes large and his jaws slack.

“This is police work mamaji. You will not understand.” Mahender Singh said.

“Mahender, this is Pratap Singh ji. Your sister’s father-in-law!” Mamaji said simply.

The lathi fell from Mahender Singh’s hand. What had he done?

***

Doctor sahib sat in an armchair. He was dressed in a white kurta pyjama and Mahender Singh could see a red stained bandage wrapped around his chest through the kurta. There was a plastic bag hanging from the chair and a tube from the bag disappeared inside the pyjamas.

Mahender Singh sat on the floor in front of him with his palms together. It had taken mamaji three days to get doctor sahib to even agree to meet him.

“I am your criminal doctor sahib.” Mahender Singh said, his eyes on Doctor sahib’s feet, “When I hit you I didn’t know that you are my sister’s father in law, but still what I did was a sin. An unforgiveable sin.”

Doctor sahib listened in silence and who could blame him? Words are cheap.

“My life is yours to take,” Mahender Singh said taking out a sheet of paper from his pocket, “I have here a letter written in my own handwriting. It says that I have committed suicide and nobody should be blamed for it.”

Mahender Singh placed the letter at the feet of Doctor Sahib and then took out his service revolver and handed it to him. He then took a pen from his pocket, signed the letter in front of Doctor sahib and closed his eyes.

They sat there for a long time. Doctor sahib on his chair and Mahender Singh kneeling in front of him. Doctor sahib held the revolver in his hand, turned it around and held it by the grip, caressed its barrel. Mamaji stood behind him not breathing. Only Mahender Singh looked at peace. He waited patiently, his eyes closed.

Eventually Doctor sahib stirred and then slowly struggled to his feet, each movement drawing stifled gasps of pain. He bent down and held Mahender Singh by his shoulders and pulled him up. He then hugged him, grunting again when Mahender Singh’s chest pressed against his.

“I will tell the magistrate that Anand was out of his mind, Mahender Singh ji,” he said, “Even it means that I have to go to jail.”

Mamaji started sobbing loudly.

Mahender Singh, for the first time in fifteen years, had tears in his eyes.

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