Vikram sat on the rickety wooden bench at the tea shop near the Lanka Police Chowki. The sweltering May summer had been interrupted by a few days of sparse rain and cloudy weather. It was a welcome break for the people of Varanasi, and Vikram, who hated the summers with a passion.
A cool breeze blew quietly as Vikram sipped tea and smoked his cigarette. Like the other police officers who were huddled around the tea shop, he too enjoyed the pleasant weather.
Vikram had been born and brought up in Varanasi or as his father used to call, Banaras. Many of his friends from childhood, some even in the police force, had ventured to bigger cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. Despite despising the farcical arrogance of some people in Varanasi who considered the city ‘a paradise beyond reproach’, Vikram’s love for the city was derived from its complexity and relative solitude.
The only thing he hated about Varanasi was the unforgiving summer. When he was a child, he had made up his mind to live in a hill station such as Shimla or Manali when he grew up. Like most aspirations of childhood, this little dream of his faded over time.
‘Arre Kandpal sahab, here you are!’
Sub-inspector Sharma was smiling at him, perhaps a little too widely for Vikram’s liking. Before Vikram could say anything, Sharma promptly sat down beside Vikram.
‘So Kandpal sahab. Enjoying the tea huh?’
Vikram didn’t respond. Even though he was just an overweight constable, most COs and sub-inspectors in Varanasi unequivocally called him ‘sahab’. The term wasn’t added out of respect, but purely because of Vikram’s clout in Varanasi. While he behaved like an isolated figure most of the time, he happened to be a childhood friend of Aman Rana, the MLA from the southern district of Varanasi. Despite being outranked by most SIs and COs in Varanasi, Vikram was arguably the most powerful policeman in the city.
‘Kandpal sahab, I had a favor to ask’
Vikram didn’t respond this time either, and simply continued drinking his tea. This caused the wide smile on Sharma’s face to twist a bit as the SI tried to find a way to put forth his request in a face-saving manner.
‘OK. I’ll just say it’ said Sharma as he grinned. ‘Last week I went to dinner with some friends from Noida. They had come down here for some training exercise. They told me there is an opening for a CO in Ghaziabad. As you know, I’ve served in Varanasi for such a long time. I believe I deserve the position’
Vikram lit another cigarette, took a drag and said, ‘If you deserve the position, SI Sharma, you will get it. Why have you come to me?’
Sharma tried to hold his forced smile with great effort. ‘Vikram sahab. You’re such a senior member of the force. You know as well as anyone that deserving people don’t get promoted in the force. You are a prime example’
Vikram frowned. ‘Is that so? You think I deserve a promotion?’
‘Oh, of course’ said Sharma. ‘You deserve it more than anyone’
Vikram was enjoying himself now. ‘Then perhaps I should apply for that CO post in Ghaziabad’
Sharma’s smile disappeared like a ship in a storm. Lost for words, as his lips moved inaudibly. He finally arrived to a response. ‘But you are retiring Vikram sahab. How could you apply?’
Vikram laughed heartily for a while. ‘Arre yaar I’m joking. So you want to be a CO in Ghaziabad. I ask again, why have you come to me?’
‘Well, everyone knows that you sit down with vidhayak sahab. If you could tell him then..’
‘Stop right there’, interrupted Vikram. ‘Have you ever seen me help someone get a promotion?’
‘Then why have you come to me. Go to the MLA and ask him yourself’
‘I’ve shown you great respect Vikram ji. I would advise you to lower your tone’
Vikram smirked. ‘Advise me? You came to me Sharma, begging like a bitch for a transfer. Get lost!’
SI Sharma stood up in a sudden motion, ‘Be careful Constable Kandpal!’ warned Sharma, dropping ‘sahab’. ‘There is a CBI investigation going on against you. If you go around shouting at people, someone might just say something to that Dilliwala’
‘What are you going to say, huh? That I shot a thug! I already told that idiot from Delhi that I shot him. Go make your stupid threats somewhere else!’
Sharma smiled, this time in a weird devilish manner. ‘You don’t know then’
‘Don’t know what’, grunted Vikram.
Sharma bent a little closer to Vikram’s ears and whispered, ‘That man you killed, Krishna Pratap Singh, he was innocent. You were part of a fake encounter. If you don’t help me, I will tie you up in the case of his son’s disappearance. Now cooperate or I will blow the lid on you. I will even ‘
Vikram froze, unable to process what he had been told. He was convinced that Sharma was lying. He left the tea shop abruptly and stomped his way to the CO’s office.
The CO was sleeping when Vikram barged in, and his sleep was broken by the intrusion. ‘Arre yaar Vikram’ yawned the CO. ‘What is it?’
‘We need to talk’ said Vikram as he closed the door.
‘Something serious?’ asked the CO in a sleepy tone.
‘Sharma just told me that the Krishna Pratap Singh was innocent. The man you specifically told me was a known drug-dealer and child-trafficker’
The drowsiness on the CO’s face was overcome by complete seriousness. ‘Vikram, sit down’
Vikram’s eyes widened, as he had his answer. ‘So he was innocent’
‘Vikram, you have to understand. These things are complicated’
‘Actually, they are not. You made me kill an innocent man!’
The CO slid back into his leather chair. ‘Are you going to take a moral high ground now? Don’t act as if you haven’t done such things in the past’
A cold sweat trickled down Vikram’s forehead. ‘I never killed an innocent man’ murmured Vikram. ‘I took money and used connections, but I never killed an innocent man’
‘OK. You were corrupt. I am a murderer. Fine?’
Vikram was too stunned to respond. He only had one question. ‘Why? I’ve never done anything to you. I helped you get this post all those years ago. Why have you done this to me?’
The CO got up from his cushioned chair and walked up to Vikram, putting an arm around his shoulder. ‘I know this hurts you. I don’t like killing people either. You have to understand yaar, the order came from above. If I didn’t do it, someone else would have’
Vikram coughed up a laugh. ‘How much did they pay you?’
‘They paid you, right? How much?’
The CO removed his arm of comfort from Vikram’s shoulder. ‘You’re too close to crossing the line’
‘What if I reveal everything to that Dilliwala? What then?’
The CO gave Vikram a chilling look. ‘The people who gave me this job Vikram, they won’t tolerate such a thing. Especially if I tell them about your wife in Brindavan’
Vikram stepped back and flung his fist on the CO’s nose.
The CO fell to the floor as he clutched his face in agony. ‘VIKRAM! You will pay for this, you asshole!’
Vikram wanted to hit him a few more times, just to make sure he didn’t have to hear another word from his mouth. He left him wincing on the floor.
‘Two weeks suspension’ shouted the CO as Vikram walked away while policemen of Lanka Police Chowki stormed into the office to tend to their wounded patriarch .
Too many emotions warped his mind as Vikram rode off on his scooter. All thoughts led to a succinct sigh, ‘I need a drink’.
Vikram was at the English Wine Shop in Susuwah. It was 7:30 in the evening, the wine shop brimming with people coming in to get their share of liquor for the weekend. The faces of most men coming to the wine shop were serious and focused, but their hearts rippled with excitement and enthusiasm.
A wine shop in India was a great place to conduct a social study on Indians. General middle-class tendencies included quarreling with the shopkeeper for the best price. Infact, in a fair world Indians would have been the best negotiators alive.
However, this tendency was often non-existent in a wine shop. If the price quoted by the attendant at the wine shop was too much, they would compromise and simply buy a cheaper brand. No haggling, only compromise.
Vikram was not one for haggling at the wine shop either. Unlike most days when he bought his bottle of Royal Stag and drank on the terrace of his house, Vikram simply sat down on his scooter parked outside the wine shop and drank alone. The people passing by didn’t dare to give him a bad look or a sly grin. He was a policeman and people in India normally didn’t go out of their way to confront law enforcement officials, even if they were brazenly drinking in a public place.
There was much he pondered camped outside the wine shop. For some time, he sought to take refuge under the garb of blaming the CO for the murder. That didn’t work for long. He pulled the trigger, an act he committed without any thought or conscience, simply because he deemed it as a part of the job. He never took time to ask to CO about the target, to demand evidence which irrefutably proved the target guilty.
The image of the widow, Aarti, kept forming in his mind.
He took a large gulp from the Royal Stag bottle. Guilt had never been a stranger to Vikram, a feeling he had carried for thirty years, but that day. the burden seemed too heavy.
‘I have killed an innocent man’ he kept whispering to himself. His hands shivered as he clutched the bottle close to his chest. ‘I just killed him like that’
Every time he remembered the widow and her missing son, he was reminded of the dream he had that night. It was still emblazoned in his mind, every detail and every word. For a time he had tried to put it on the side. In his heart, he was convinced that Vishnu had been shipped to some child trafficking cartel. There was nothing in his capacity which could bring him back.
‘I have killed an innocent man’ he whispered to himself again. ‘Will I give up on his son too?’
As the guilt seeped deeper into his heart, Vikram considered his option. Suicide seemed interesting. No one would miss him, no one would care and no one would mention his name again. It was a safe choice, even though one stenching with cowardice, but a choice nonetheless.
‘There is another choice’ Vikram said feebly. ‘I can look for the boy. I can look for him until I die’
Vikram took out his standard Nokia mobile and called Chaubey, the junior constable.
‘Hello’, said Vikram as he fumbled through his words.
‘Arre sahab! Where are you?’
‘I-I am-m somewhere’ stuttered Vikram in a whimsical tone.
‘Arre sahab, you punched the CO!’ goaded Chaubey. ‘Badiya sahab! Bahut badiya!’
‘Abbe chupp’ murmured Vikram. ‘I c-called you for something’
‘Tell me sahab’
‘Aarti madam’ sighed Vikram. ‘W-where does she live?’
‘Sahab, are you drunk?
‘Abbe oye!’ chided Vikram. ‘Just tell me where she lives’
‘Sahab please don’t do anything stupid’, pleaded Chaubey.
‘JUST TELL ME’
Chaubey asked him to wait. A few moments later, he promptly told him where she lived. Vikram threw the bottle away and charged away on his scooter.
It was half past ten when Vikram reached Aarti’s home. He had a full speech ready in his mind. He wanted to tell her he was genuinely going to look for her son. He knocked on her door and stood with a straight face, trying desperately to hide he was drunk. He popped a few mints to suppress his boozy breath.
‘You!’ exclaimed Aarti upon seeing Vikram on the door. ‘Is it about my son? Is he alive?’
‘I-I’ fumbled Vikram, forgetting his speech. He realized she was already expecting him to have begun his search, and not to wait for a moral epiphany.
‘I am trying my best’ said Vikram in the least whimsical tone he could muster. ‘I-I just wanted to check if you ever got a call from someone, about Vishnu’
‘No no’ replied Aarti. ‘I never got a call. Do you think he was kidnapped?’
Vikram was now trying desperately to come up with credible answers. ‘I-I’ he stopped. ‘We are still investigating. We are talking to many people. We will find your son’
The wife nodded. ‘I think you should leave now, Mr. Vikram. It is getting late’
‘Y-yes of course’ Vikram sighed. ‘Did you tell him about your son, the CBI wallah?’
‘I did. I met him yesterday’
The wife’s face grew pale. ‘He doesn’t think the kidnapping and my husband’s death are related’
‘Oh’ breathed Vikram. ‘He must be right. I will call upon you again madam. Just one more thing: can you give me a picture of your son?’
Aarti frowned. ‘I gave you a picture when you wrote that complaint’
Vikram clarified. ‘I know, but that picture is for official purposes. Do you happen to have another?’
Aarti went inside her home and immediately came back. It was a picture of Vishnu with his mother and father, the man Vikram killed.
‘Madam. I know I have never said this’ sniffled Vikram. ‘I want to apologize for your husband. It wasn’t my intention to kill him’
Vikram was shocked. ‘You do?’
‘When I met the CBI officer yesterday, he told me that you were simply doing as you were told. Mr. Vikram, I can never forgive you, but you must find my son. You have to’
Vikram nodded swiftly and slowly walked away. He got back on his scooter, rode back home and sat on the terrace again. This time there was no bottle. The Ganges was illuminated by small lights shone from the ghat.
In his hand, he held the picture of Vishnu.
‘A final hurrah’ he whispered and smiled. For the first time in twenty-nine years, he looked forward to the next morning.