'Murder, like all art, generates interpretation and resists explanation.'
Michelle de Kretser, The Hamilton Case
8 The Possession of Mohan Kumar
MOHAN KUMAR emerges from Siri Fort Auditorium at eleven p.m. with a sore shoulder and a splitting headache. He steps into the courtyard and blinks in astonishment at his surroundings. The venue for the Gandhi s'eance resembles a war zone. Wooden desks and chairs lie splintered like firewood. The ground is strewn with clothes, shoes, socks, bags and loops of naked wire. There is an eerie silence all around. The television cameras and protesting hordes have been replaced by police cordons and grim-faced constables, who wave him through the tall iron gates which have themselves been ripped off their hinges.
He walks unsteadily towards the car park, where his silver Hyundai Sonata is the lone private car, surrounded by a phalanx of police jeeps with red and blue beacons.
A thin, gaunt man with a pencil moustache runs towards him. 'Sahib, you have come!' he cries with obvious relief. 'They said a murder has taken place inside. You should have seen the way people were running out. Two died in the stampede. Are you OK, Sahib?'
'Of course I am OK, Brijlal,' Mohan Kumar replies tersely. 'Where is Rita madam?'
'I saw her leaving with another lady in a black Mercedes.'
'That's odd.' He purses his lips. 'She should have waited for me. Anyway, let's go.'
The chauffeur hurriedly opens the left rear door of the car. Mohan Kumar is about to get in when he notices something just below the handle. 'What is this, Brijlal?' he demands. 'How did this big scratch come here?'
Brijlal inspects the door panel with a puzzled look. 'One of the constables must have grazed this with his stick. I am sorry, Sahib. I left the car to look for you. Please excuse me.' He lowers his gaze.
'How many times will I excuse you, Brijlal?' Mohan Kumar asks harshly. 'You are becoming more and more negligent in your work. I should take the cost of repairing the door from your salary – then you might learn your lesson.'
Brijlal does not say anything. He is well acquainted with Sahib's foul temper, which is famous throughout Uttar Pradesh.
He has been with Mohan Kumar for twenty-seven years and treats him with the same mixture of deference and devotion that he accords Lord Hanuman. In his universe, Mohan Kumar is no less than God, a powerful patron who holds the key to his happiness and well-being. It was Sahib, after all, who got him his first job at the State Electricity Board. Sahib then got him upgraded to a permanent job as peon in the State Sugarcane Cooperative. It was Sahib too who had encouraged him to learn to drive, thanks to which he had been employed as a chauffeur in the Secretariat office in Lucknow, a job which carried not only a higher pay-packet but even overtime. For twenty years, he had driven Mohan Kumar's official white Ambassador. When Mohan retired six months ago, Brijlal still had three years of service left, but he, too, took voluntary retirement and joined Mohan Kumar as his personal chauffeur, in the ultimate act of devotion to his Sahib.
In taking premature retirement Brijlal believes he has made a tactical move. He is convinced that there is much Sahib can still do for him and his family. There is one final favour, in particular, he wants from Sahib – a government job for his son Rupesh. Brijlal is of the firm belief that government service, with its security of employment, is the panacea for all the problems of the poor. It is his dream to get Rupesh employed as a driver in the Delhi government. Mohan Kumar has promised to do just that, once Rupesh obtains a driving licence. A government job for Rupesh and a suitable groom for his nineteen-year-old daughter Ranno is all Brijlal wants, the sum total of his dreams and desires. In pursuit of these goals, he will happily suffer insult and abuse from his Sahib.
'Now are you going to just stand there cooling your heels like a fool or will you take me home?' Mohan Kumar demands as he slides into the back seat.
Brijlal closes the rear door and takes his position behind the wheel. Before starting the car, he switches off his mobile phone. He knows how irritated Sahib becomes if it rings while he is driving.
The auditorium blurs in the rear-view mirror as the car moves away. Mohan Kumar has his gaze fixed resolutely outside the window. A ghostly moon hangs in the distance, casting a pale light on the tops of buildings. The traffic has thinned out by now, with even the DTC bus service winding down. They reach the house in just under twenty minutes. As the car enters the wrought-iron gates of 54C Aurangzeb Road, Brijlal's heart fills with pride. Mohan Kumar's residence is an imposing two-storey neocolonial villa, with a white marble facde, a covered latticed portico and a magnificent lawn containing a gazebo. It has an outhouse with three servant quarters which are occupied by Brijlal and his family, Gopi, the cook, and Bishnu, the gardener. But what thrills Brijlal the most is the rent, rumoured to be in the region of four hundred thousand rupees a month. He gets goosebumps just thinking about this amount. To him, it represents the pinnacle of achievement and forms the practical bedrock of his exhortations to Rupesh. 'Work hard, my son, and you might one day become like Sahib. Then you, too, could have a house whose monthly rent costs what your father took eight years to earn.'
Mohan Kumar's wife, Shanti, is waiting in the portico wearing a red cotton sari. She is a small, middle-aged woman with greying hair which makes her look older than she is. Her normally pleasant face is etched with worry lines. 'Thank God you have come,' she cries as soon as the car draws to a halt. 'Brijlal had me worried sick when he called to say you were inside that hall.'
Mohan casts an angry glance at his driver. 'I have told you repeatedly, Brijlal, not to broadcast my programme to all and sundry. Why did you have to call Shanti?'
'I am sorry, Sahib.' Brijlal lowers his eyes again. 'I was really worried about you. I thought I should let Bibiji know.'
'You do that again and I will take your hide off.' He slams the car door shut and strides into the house. Shanti hurries after him.
'Why did you have to go to that horrible s'eance?' she asks.
'None of your business,' he replies brusquely.
'It is all the doing of that chhinar,' Shanti mutters. 'I don't know how that witch has put you under her spell.'
'Look, Shanti.' He raises his index finger. 'We have had this argument many times. You will get nothing by agonizing over it. Has Gopi put ice and soda in my bedroom?'
'Yes,' she sighs in resigned acceptance of an imperfect marriage. 'If you are determined to finish your liver, what can we do? Go and drink as much as you want.'
'I will,' he says and begins climbing the stairs to the first floor.
Nearly three weeks pass. The incident in the auditorium becomes a distant memory for Mohan Kumar. He immerses himself in his former routine, attending board meetings, examining projects, advising clients. He accepts the offer of yet another consultancy on behalf of a corporate house; puts in a round of golf on Sundays at the Delhi Golf Club and spends two afternoons a week at his mistress's house. He wills himself to believe that everything is normal, but cannot shake off a nagging doubt at the back of his mind. It is like a hazy picture trying to acquire definite shape, a finger of memory attempting to push its way into his consciousness. He tosses and turns at night, finding it difficult to sleep. He wakes up on the floor one morning, in the bathroom on another, without any recollection of how he got there. He pauses in mid-sentence during board meetings, sensing words and phrases fluttering at the tip of his tongue but remaining maddeningly inarticulate. Lying in bed with Rita, he suddenly feels like an old, large animal and loses all desire. He knows something is wrong, but cannot pinpoint what.
He goes to his doctor for a check-up, but Dr Soni, his family physician, is unable to find anything wrong. 'All your vital signs are good, Mohan. The MRI scan is perfectly normal. I believe it is simply a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.'
'When someone suffers a traumatic event, like seeing a murder in front of his eyes, the brain tries to cope with the psychological stress. This can lead to symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks and insomnia. I am going to prescribe some sleeping pills. You should be fine in a week's time.'
Four days later, while Mohan is having his breakfast, Brijlal enters the kitchen where Shanti is busy whipping yoghurt. He touches her feet. 'Bibiji, I need your blessings. A boy came to see my daughter yesterday.'
'Oh, so Ranno is getting married?' Shanti asks in pleasant surprise.
'Yes, Bibiji. The boy is also from Delhi, belongs to our caste and, most importantly, is a class four government employee, working as a peon in the Railway Department. His father is also a peon. I only hope they don't demand too much dowry. I have made them my best offer. Let's see if they accept.'
'I am sure things will work out all right,' says Shanti. Taking a quick peek to see if Mohan is still sitting at the dining table, she whispers to Brijlal, 'Today your Sahib will be visiting that witch Rita, won't he?'
'Yes, Bibiji,' Brijlal replies with a nervous grimace, feeling half guilty himself.
'Just keep a watchful eye on Sahib. See that he eats and drinks properly. I am worried about his health. He has not been himself lately.'
'Yes, Bibiji.' Brijlal nods in agreement. 'Even I find his behaviour rather strange at times.'
'If only he had not met Rita,' Shanti says bitterly. 'Sometimes I feel like going to her house and asking her why is she so intent on destroying my family.'
'Don't demean yourself by talking to her, Bibiji,' Brijlal counsels. 'In God's kingdom, justice may be delayed, but is never denied. You will see, she will be punished eventually.'
'I hope you are right, Brijlal.' Shanti looks briefly towards the ceiling and resumes her whisking.
Mohan's office is a depressingly grey building in Bhikaji Cama Place, a chaotic warren of offices and shops. Finding an empty parking slot is a daily headache for Brijlal. Today he is forced to park in the narrow alley behind the Passport Office. After securing the car, he loiters, chatting with the other drivers, playing a game of rummy, sharing his discontent at rising prices, falling morals. At lunchtime he receives a call on his mobile phone. It is the boy's father, saying that he approves of Ranno, and demanding an extra twenty-five thousand rupees as dowry. 'I accept,' Brijlal says and rushes to a nearby temple.
Mohan comes out of the office promptly at three p.m. for the afternoon tryst with his mistress. As soon as he gets into the car, Brijlal offers him a box of laddoos.
'What are the sweets for, Brijlal?' he smiles.
'As a result of your blessings, Sahib, I have managed to get an excellent groom for my daughter Ranno.'
'That's good. Shanti told me that you were looking for a boy.'
'He is a government servant, Sahib. But there is only one problem.'
'Yes?' Mohan responds warily.
'They want an extra thirty thousand as dowry. I was wondering, Sahib, if you could lend the money to me.' He shakes his head. 'Brijlal, I've already given you fifteen thousand as advance pay. There is no way I can spare any more.'
'God has given you so much, Sahib. I am asking for very little.'
'Giving you any more would be to your own detriment. Why do you people need to spend so much on weddings anyway? There is nothing to eat in your houses, yet you want to ape the rich when it comes to marrying your daughters. Now don't disturb me. I have to read this report.' He opens his briefcase and takes out a ring-bound manila folder. Brijlal's face falls.
Near Vasant Vihar, the car is briefly held up by a small wedding procession crossing the road. A rag-tag band leads the party, tuneless trumpets blaring a filmi tune. The twenty-odd guests are dressed rather drably, with some even sporting slippers. An anaemic-looking groom dressed in a gaudy sherwani sits astride an equally anaemic-looking horse. Brijlal looks at the procession with the peculiar contempt the poor have for the poorer. His own daughter's wedding will be a lavish affair, he imagines. He will somehow manage to raise the twenty-five thousand and then he will get Sahib to book the Officers' Club on Curzon Road as the marriage venue. There will be a uniformed brass band as well as a live singer. A row of orderlies will carry Petromax lanterns lighting up the night. He can already see the groom's wedding procession walking in through the hallowed gates of the Officers' Club. The hall is glittering like a palace. The melodious sound of shehnai pours into the night. Inside, the elegant pavilion is loaded with sweet-smelling jasmine and marigolds. The guests enter the venue and look around in wonderment at the finery and luxury. The groom's father shakes his head. 'Where have you brought us, Brijlal? Is this the right address?' 'Yes,' he says. 'This is the right address. This where my Ranno is getting married to your son. All thanks to the blessings of my Sahib. There he is.' He points out Mohan Kumar, looking regal in a cream sherwani suit and a pink turban. As if on cue, the band begins playing a song, but for some reason Sahib is screaming at him: 'Look where you are going, you idiot… Stoppppp!' and he finds the big brass trumpet almost blaring in his face, shattering his ear drum and knocking him down.
By the time he wakes up from his reverie, it is too late. His head is lying on the steering wheel and the car is up against a The Possession of Mohan Kumar 91 lamppost which is now bent at an impossible angle. There is a small spidery crack in the left corner of the windscreen. His fingers touch something sticky on the steering wheel. He raises his face, looks in the rear-view mirror and discovers blood oozing from the corner of his mouth. He has cut his lip. He shakes his head vigorously, as if to clear it, and steps out of the car to inspect the damage. The front of the Hyundai has taken the brunt of the collision. There is a deep dent in the front fender where the metal has been scrunched up. He suspects the radiator may also have been hit.
Brijlal begins shivering. In twenty years of driving, this is the first time he has made such a mistake. Now he is finished. Sahib will take his hide off. This is the end of his career as a driver, of his dream of getting Ranno married, of a government job for Rupesh.
Then he notices Mohan Kumar on the back seat, eyes closed, looking very still, almost dead. Brijlal's first instinct is to run away, to collect his wife and Rupesh and Ranno and make a dash for the railway station. He will board the Lucknow Mail to his ancestral village, hide out for a few weeks till the matter cools. Then he will settle down in some other city, get another job, look for another groom.
By now the entire wedding party is gathered around the car. The trumpeter touches his arm: 'Kaise hua, bhai? What happened?' The groom also dismounts from his horse and begins inspecting the car. A perspiring constable arrives, parting the crowd with his stick and cries of 'Move! Move!'
Brijlal edges towards the outer periphery of the circle of onlookers, but cannot tear his eyes from Mohan Kumar. He sees the groom open the rear door and sprinkle a few drops of water on Mohan's face from a mineral-water bottle. Sahib stirs and makes a grimace of pain.
'Where am I?' Mohan asks in a weak voice.
'You are in your car, near Vasant Vihar Police Station,' the constable informs him. 'Your car has had an accident. Do you want me to call an ambulance?'
'Accident?' Mohan asks. He gets to his feet groggily and steps out of the vehicle. It is too much for Brijlal. He cuts through the throng and falls at Mohan's feet. 'I am very sorry, Sahib. Please excuse me, I have caused you grievous harm.' He sobs like a young boy.
Mohan lifts up the driver by the shoulder. Brijlal closes his eyes tightly, expecting a hard slap, but finds Mohan gently wiping his tears with his finger. 'And who are you?'
'I am Brijlal, Sahib. Your driver.'
'Has this fellow lost his memory?' the constable asks the groom.
'No. My memory is perfectly intact,' Mohan replies. He looks at the constable intently. 'Aren't you the one who hit me with a lathi?'
'Hit you? Are you out of your mind? This is the first time I have seen you.'
'The use of brute force is not right. Especially from a defender of the law.'
'Has your Sahib gone completely nuts?' The constable looks quizzically at Brijlal.
'It is all my fault,' Brijlal wails.
'It is not your fault, Brijlal,' Mohan says. 'There is a divine purpose behind every physical calamity. Will you now please see if the car is still in working order or whether we should try and look for a taxi.'
Brijlal does not know whether to laugh or cry. 'Yes, of course, Sahib,' he says in between sobs and gets into the driver's seat. With trembling hands, he inserts the ignition key and is surprised to find the engine purring smoothly. He reverses the car, brakes and jumps out. 'It is working, Sahib,' he cries. The onlookers begin to leave, their interest in the car strictly commensurate with the damage sustained by it.
Brijlal holds open the rear door, and Mohan gets in. 'Will you be so kind as to tell me where we were going?'
'To Rita Memsahib's house.'
'And who is she?'
'You will remember everything, Sahib, once you meet her.'