The smell of Indian rose incense crept into his home, almost like a morning alarm blaring punctually day-after-day. Vikram didn’t bother getting up initially, but remembered he had half a bottle of whiskey left. Suitably motivated, he rose from bed.
He grabbed the bottle of Royal Stag from the side table and climbed up to the terrace. It was half past four in the morning, the sky slowly succumbing to the mustard expanse of the sun. He sat on the dusty plastic chair on the terrace and watched the Ganges trickle by. It was a sight he had witnessed a million times, and yet it never ceased to amaze.
Without wasting much time Vikram started drinking what was left of the whiskey. He hoped, like he did most of the time, that the Royal Stag would do its work and cause him to enter a temporary state of bliss. He smoked a few Kings cigarettes along the way to help aid the process.
As the sun slowly gained ascendancy, Varanasi rose from the darkness.
The atmosphere was filled with a curious sense of serene divinity which would normally cause the most staunch non-believers to succumb to accepting the simplicity of believing in a higher being. Vikram, not one for succumbing, merely scoffed at the overblown use of incense and the concert-like nature of the morning aarti at the ghat.
The house was his father’s. It was his belief that proximity to the Ganges would bode well for his family. He had left the house to his Vikram with the same belief.
Proximity to the Ganges had brought Vikram the intended peace his father had imagined, but not exactly in the manner he had hoped. Vikram rarely had time to come to the terrace when he was sober, but almost always found the aura of the Ganges perfect for drinking.
Despite his best hopes, the whiskey didn’t provide Vikram the little moment of bliss he had been searching for. He looked at the empty bottle blankly and rose from the plastic chair.
‘Maybe I should buy more and get up early’ he murmured as he returned downstairs and collapsed on his bed. Bliss was expensive, but sleep was cheap.
The alarm rang frantically, waking Vikram up. He rose from the bed, lit a cigarette and turned the alarm off.
His body had grown accustomed to the hangover a bottle of whiskey brought. He shrugged off the gnawing feeling he felt running through his body and got ready to leave for duty. He didn’t bother bathing and put on his uniform. For years, he had worn the khaki uniform and for the same number of years, he had never forgotten to curse himself for joining the police force. It had been a hurried decision, one which his father had forced him to take.
‘You’ll look spectacular in the khaki Vikram. It is such a natural choice’ his father used to say.
He looked at himself in the mirror, a final customary practice he did before leaving for work. His wife would often tease him when he did so, saying he wasn’t going to become Rishi Kapoor by spending extra time in front of the mirror.
Vikram smiled upon recalling the memory. He held the memory tight as he made his way to Lanka Police Chowki.
He sped through the streets of Varanasi on his rickety LML scooter, cutting through the packed roads filled with luxury cars, SUVs, small cars, rickshaws, autos, street hawkers and the odd pedestrian crossing the road amidst the halo of vehicles. Whenever a driver saw Vikram in his khaki uniform, a little space for him to pass was almost always vacated.
‘They don’t know I’m a constable’ he murmured to himself.
He arrived at the Lanka police chowki at eleven. Junior constable Samarth Chaubey was standing outside the chowki, his face flustered upon seeing Vikram arrive leisurely.
‘I’ve been calling you since 9 o’clock Sahab. Bade sahab from Delhi is here. It is time for your interview’
Vikram seemed unperturbed and said, ‘OK. I’ll be there’
Vikram’s nonchalance came as a rude shock to the junior constable. He started walking alongside Vikram, trying to make sure his immediate superior understand the gravity of the situation.
‘The sahab from Delhi is conducting the interview in the hiding cell. They say he interrogates terror suspects every week. They also say terror suspects shit their pants when he questions them’
Vikram simply kept nodding, utterly uninterested in the warnings being made by Chaubey.
He walked into the holding cell and found the young CBI officer sipping hot tea. ‘Ah, so his highness finally decided to come, huh!’ joked the officer from Delhi. ‘Were you not informed of the timing of your interrogation?’
Vikram sat down and said nothing.
The inspector wasn’t done. ‘Who gave you permission to sit?’
Vikram didn’t reply. He reached for the cigarette in his pocket and lit it.
‘Constable Vikram Joshi!’, screamed the CBI officer as got up impulsively. ‘You’re crossing the limit. This is not your living room. Put the cigarette down!’
‘I have been part of the city’s police department for 35 years. When I was running down thugs, you were drinking milk in your mother’s lap. Sit down and ask your questions’
The CO stood in the corner of the cell. He intervened. ‘Perhaps you should continue, sir. Constable Vikram has been here for a long time and he can sometimes be a little intransigent’
Vikram took another drag from his cigarette and stared right into the officer’s eyes. The steadiness of Vikram’s intense gaze unsettled the officer from Delhi, who turned his face away and sat down.
‘This will go in my report COji. This is not the way’ said the officer as he began to ask his questions. ‘Where were you on the night of the encounter?’
‘I was with the men’
‘Were you informed who the target was?’
‘I was shown a picture. I didn’t know who he was’
The officer grinned. ‘You just go about shooting people without knowing who they are?’
‘I think you watch a lot of movies sahab. In the police department, when the order comes, we go and do our duty’
‘Then what is the difference between you and a dog chasing after a car?’
The CO was a little flustered by the comparison and stepped forth to intervene, only to be stopped by the raised finger of the CBI officer
Vikram shrugged, indifferent to the officer’s line of questioning. ‘A dog never catches up with the car. The police on the other hand is a bit more successful’
The officer’s face stiffened as he resumed questioning. ‘The police report says you shot Krishna Pratap SIngh’
‘Why didn’t you try to arrest him?’
Vikram sighed. ‘We were told he might be carrying a weapon. It was a calculated decision’
The officer turned to the CO for a second. ‘I’m not convinced COji. He could be lying’
Before the CO could reply, Vikram jumped in. ‘What happens if you’re not convinced?’
The officer frowned, surprised by Vikram’s query. ‘You get suspended’
‘I’m bound to retire in three months. What else?’
‘Your pension will go as well. You won’t get a cent from the government again’
Vikram laughed. ‘OK. I won’t get the measly pension. What else?’
The officer wiped the sweat trickling down from his forehead. ‘You could go to jail’
Vikram raised his eyes, feigning surprise. ‘Could? Do you not trust your ability to send me to prison?’
Even the CO was smiling by this point of time. Enraged and humiliated, the CBI officer got up again, his face crawling with anger as he dove into a rant. ‘All of you here, I will shut you down. ALL OF YOU!
The officer from Delhi stormed off, inviting a few giggles between the constables and sub-inspectors who heard the entire conversation.
‘He could send you to jail’ said the CO as he sat on the chair left by the CBI officer.
‘Good. I’ve many friends there’ said Vikram as he got up and left the cell.
Vikram resumed his duty a shanty wooden table at the corner of the front hall. The fan was moving at a slow pace and the AC mounted on the window lay lifeless.
He sat down on his desk-chair and started noting complaints in his register. It was a monotonous job, but one which he was comfortable with. He had no motivation to chase after local goons.
One by one, people came forward with their complaints. Some had come to submit a complaint about a lost mobile phone, some about a missing car while others had come to complain about their landlords, their tenants and any other thing in the world which bothered them. Vikram noted down every complaint in his register and gave the same answer whenever someone asked if the matter would be resolved.
‘We’ll get back to you’
He kept writing down complaints for the entire day, quietly and without any interest in the happenings of the chowki. When he was done, he checked his watch. It was quarter past five in the evening. He walked outside the chowki and lit a cigarette.
Like most summer evenings, there was a sense of lingering frustration in the air. Vikram let his thoughts wander as he enjoyed his cigarette in peace.
The good policemen of Lanka Police Chowki were not as cavalier about the CBI investigation as Vikram seemed.
The reason behind Vikram’s brazenness was clear to most people at the chowki. The other policemen had a lot of things to lose. They had families to feed, coffers to fill and a reputation to maintain.
Vikram on the other hand wasn’t burdened by any of these problems. He had no family to feed, no interest in filling his coffers and no motivation to maintain or in his case, build a reputation.
As he smoked, a yelling woman disturbed his moment of peace. Junior constable Chaubey was stopping her from approaching Vikram as she kept screaming. Her name was Aarti and she was the wife of Krishna Pratap Singh, the man Vikram had shot in the encounter.
‘LET ME TALK TO HIM!’
Vikram told Chaubey to let the woman pass. ‘Yes madam’ croaked Vikram. ‘What can I do for you?’
Aarti was a bit taken aback by the Vikram’s polite tone. Nevertheless, she recomposed her anger and let it out on Vikram. ‘You scoundrel! Was killing my husband not enough?’
Vikram sighed. ‘Madam, the CBI investigation is going on. You will know everything soon’
‘I know that scoundrel. I know everything. The CBI will strip you naked of anything you hold dear. Is that why you took my son too? To scare me into silence?’
‘Oh!’ chided Aarti. ‘So you’re going to act like you don’t know, huh?’
‘Madam, I don’t know about your son. Please tell me what happened’
‘STOP ACTING INNOCENT! I know you have my son’
‘Madam’ insisted Vikram. ‘I don’t know anything. If something has happened, you have to tell me’
Aarti stared at Vikram for a second, trying to ascertain whether he was telling the truth. Caught between a sea of anger and a mountain of fear, she broke down into tears. ‘He’s gone’
Vikram helped her to her feet and guided her inside the chowki. He then ordered Chaubey to fetch a glass of water.
‘I know you hate me’ said Vikram. ‘But you have to understand. I don’t know anything about your son’
Aarti wiped her tears and considered what Vikram said. Despite looking into the eyes of the man who killed her husband, she felt a strange understanding in his demeanor. ‘He didn’t return from school today. I checked with the school and they said he didn’t arrive in the morning either. I’ve looked everywhere. I-I…’
She started sobbing again. Vikram had no words of sympathy for the woman. He took out the register and started noting down the details of the child’s disappearance.
‘What is your son’s name?’
‘Vishnu Pratap Singh. He is just seven years old, my poor child’
‘Which school does he go to?’
Aarti continued to answer the questions timidly as Vikram noted each detail studiously. After the exercise was complete, Vikram called for Chaubey.
‘Drop madam back to her home. Take the jeep’
‘No’ said Aarti glumly. ‘There is no need’
‘Please madam’ insisted Vikram. ‘Please’
‘I said, there is no bloody need!’
He sat there, a sudden sadness gripping his eyes. For a few seconds, Vikram wondered if something could end the pain. Then, he chuckled dryly. He had known for a long time there was no end.
Vikram returned home at nine, dropping by the wineshop first to pick up a bottle of whiskey. Back on the terrace, he smoked his cigarette and drank his peg, watching the Ganges trickle by again. Unlike most nights when he pondered his past, he wondered about the present, about Vishnu Pratap Singh, the son of the man he killed. The child was missing.
A strange sense of guilt crept his heart with every sip of whiskey he took. He kept drinking on and on that night, not leaving any whiskey for the next morning. Remembering the pain of the mother, Aarti, and her watered red eyes made him wince silently.
He passed out on the terrace falling into a deep sleep sitting on the plastic chair.
Vikram dreamed of lying on a lush green field besides a lake. The sun shone brightly, the air smelled sweet and the slight noise of the simmering waters of the lake made him feel pleasant. His wife lay by his side.
It was a dream he often had. Vikram and his wife were both young in the dream.
His wife looked beautiful in the green sari he gave her on their second wedding anniversary. Her eyes were lined with a light tinge of kajal and her lips were painted cherry red with lipstick. She looked him in the eyes, her gaze piercing and true, and then they kissed.
That night in that particular dream, the kiss ended abruptly.
‘Someone is coming Vikram’ she whispered as she cut the kiss short.
‘Who?’ asked Vikram sheepishly as he bent forward to kiss her again. She put her hand in between.
‘The one who lost everything’
Vikram tried to act like he wasn’t listening was, but his wife saw through the facade.
‘You have to find him Vikram. He will not rest until the world has learned what he wishes to teach’
The brightness of the sun started to recede as dark clouds emerged. The light breeze morphed into a harsh wind cutting across the calm waters of the lake. It started raining as well, cutting down the sweet smell in the air.
His wife’s face turned red with anger, as the sound of thunder raged across the grey sky. ‘YOU HAVE TO STOP HIM’ she screamed as she pointed to the lake.
Their son drowned in the lake, barely able to float or swim. He splashed his hand on the water, but the current pulling him down was too strong.
This part of the dream was new. Vikram sprang to his feet, rushed towards the water and dived into the lake. The violent current died as soon as he dove in. He swam underwater and pulled his son up. The boy was unconscious.
Vikram took him to the shore and lay him on the ground. The boy’s heart had no pulse.
Sitting beside the corpse, Vikram wept loudly. The sky no longer growled and the splattering rain fizzled into a light drizzle. He had the same dream many times, but never had his son appeared. It was always his wife, the sun and the peace, and the kiss
He kept his son’s head on his lap and wailed at the top of his lungs. When his throat began to ache, he wailed even harder and broke into a cough.
‘Why show me this? Is the memory not already fresh enough in my mind?’ he muttered.
The dead boy’s eyes suddenly opened and turned to Vikram.