MayShortReads16: Crossing Lines
Not a damn auto in sight. And when one turns up, you know it’s going to be a grapple to get him to go to a police station. The furtive look around, the bug-eyed scrutiny as if you might be preparing to report him, for missed red lights, for unlicensed driving and whatnot. And before you can explain that you’re just a systems technician overhauling their computers, he’s zoomed off. Before you can explain.
The sweat is trickling down the back of your neck but you don’t dare swear. Why did you have to get picked for this assignment? But your company thought it would be such a great idea to have the Police force as a client. Well, you could tell them now, it’s nothing like CSI Miami. Not even bloody Crime Patrol. The cops are never that well-synchronised, deputies rushing in just as the inspector makes a menacing accusation, witnesses shuffling in to point fingers collectively as a stylish dude walks on to sum up the case.
Reboot now to check and hopefully, hopefully you’ll be done and ready to move on to the machines in the inspector’s room. Not that those would be easier but at least the room is air-conditioned. Give it a few seconds to breathe before turning it back on. You need to breathe too so you get up and walk out of the dank room.
A commotion outside. Cops running in (see, not well-synchronized at all), people shouting, non-cop people moving aside then getting in the way. And oh God, there’s a dead body lying outside on the ground. A human body with its face horribly mashed in.
You feel a wave of bile rise, till you realize it’s just excitement. It shocks you but you can’t resist walking just a tad taller because you didn’t chicken out and throw up, like a baby. You hang around to watch but you turn your face away. Just in case.
What kind of a man jumps in front of a train? Nothing has moved in the past half hour or so. The commotion has settled down but nothing, including the very important something lying on the ground outside, has moved. There’s been a mix-up. The railway officials sent the body down to the police station. The cops are shouting about the mortuary. The new recruit was made to search the body and he turned up a wallet and mobile phone. The family has been contacted and the body now has a name. Amit Buswala. You wish there was someone around for you to make the obvious joke to – bus collides into train, kills one, amuses many. Even the damn computer is refusing to start up properly.
A woman comes in, shoulders rigid, feet dragging and looks around. Wait a minute, isn’t she….she’s that woman from the second floor flat. The only nice looking female in your building. She’s noticed you and is coming over.
Your eyes stray to the politically incorrect zone and you catch yourself, remembering just in time you’re in a police station. Never do to get pulled up for eve-teasing here. But what man can help noticing that a pretty girl’s shirt is tugging between buttons 3 and 4? So you say,
“I know you. I live in the floor above yours.”
“I didn’t know you were in the police.”
But before you can explain, she turns to the sound of the police siren outside. A hawaldaar shouts to her across the room, to sit down on the bench and wait her turn.
Today is not going to be a day for much work. Damn, and you were hoping it would be done by Thursday so you could be out of this wretched place and on another assignment. There’s just too much noise around and now with the body case, there’s no access to the inspector’s room.
You look up and think, perhaps you should talk to her. You know each other, after all. Well, she acknowledged you. She’s sitting alone on the bench, the next one in line to meet the hawaldaar.
You approach her, wondering what to say. What’s a girl like her doing in a police station? Her trousers and shirt look out of place in the room. She stands out, too shiny in these grim interiors. It might be to report loss of a mobile phone, you surmise but you notice her fidgeting with a phone. She looks up as you sit down next to her. And there’s no need to worry since she starts talking immediately.
“I just got a call from his number. But there was some stranger saying come to the railway station, there’s been an accident. I was at work, right in the middle of a call and I had to rush out. I went there and they told me to come here. I mean, I don’t know. He has not been answering the phone after that.”
Who is he you wonder. But the hawaldaar looks up and beckons both of you over. He gives you a strange glance as you get up along with her. It seems natural to accompany her to the desk but you don’t sit down. She pours out the same speech that she gave you and you wonder if she’s spent the last twenty minutes rehearsing it. She sounds shaky but in exactly the same places. Rehearsed alright.
The hawaldaar says,
“Who are you, madam? Name?”
“Relation? Kaise jaanti hain?”
You don’t know what tastes worse. The sour thought that she’s married or the more pungent bile-spice that you’ve just seen her husband with his face mashed in, an hour ago. You take a step back and wonder if you can sidle away.
But as you turn, a loud gaggle enters. A saree-clad lady, flanked by a sturdy man on either side. She’s leaning from one to another as she strides in, but she seems to be leading them.
“Kidhar hai? Kahaan hain? Mujhe unke paas le chalo!”
“Bhabhi, shaanth ho jaaiye.”
, the man on her right mutters faintly.
You’re just about to step past them, when the other man speaks up.
“Mr.Amit Buswala? We got a call that there was an accident. I am his brother and this is his wife. Please…”
You stop dead in your tracks. And she, Shruti looks up at you, fear, guilt and pain writ in her eyes. She clutches your hand. But the hawaldaar yells at you,
“Kai pahije? Abhi yeh computer nahin mil sakta. Baad mein aao. Chalo hato yahaan se, investigation chalu aahe.”
Nobody is the gaggle in going to lunch anytime soon. Ordinarily, the hawaldaar would have shut his book and taken over his tiffin carrier to the next table to join his cronies. But in addition to the two Mrs.Buswalas, the very dead Mr.Buswala, not to mention the menacing Buswala brothers, the press has turned up to join the merry party.
The inspector is being photographed and interviewed in his airconditioned cabin right now. Damn those journalists! Sitting in the AC while you’re still slogging it outside. And no one will give you any details, even if you’ve been around since it began.
There are two journalists talking to the Buswala trio while the saree-wearing Mrs.Buswala is putting on a full show. There’s the tears, of course but also lamentations of how the family is going to cope and what will happen of her and right back to rhetorical questions of why such a wonderful man would do such a thing.
You’re not buying any of it. For one, Saree-Buswala and her bodyguards sound too much like a Hindi movie. Besides she seems able to switch on and switch off the tears on cue, when asked questions. She has even posed for a picture for one of the tabloids.
You look around for Shruti, who has been getting harangued by a youngish reporter. He seems to be finally abandoning her as realization strikes that the bigger story is with the bigger (literally) Mrs.Buswala.
Shruti stands up and walks to the door. The hawaldaar shouts after her.
“Madam, ruko. Yeh khatam hone tak aap kahin nahin jaa sakte hain!”
You’re close enough now to hear her mutter, too soft for the hawaldaar
“I’m not going anywhere dammit. Where is there to go? I’m not going anywhere.”
She looks up at you.
There’s a hard look in her eyes. And you realize she hasn’t cried or screamed. She shuts her eyes for a few seconds, takes a deep breath and says,
“It’s so hard to get a flat in Mumbai. So you know, we said we were married. You must know how it is.”
You nod even though you don’t. How did you get recruited into being her co-conspirator? Did she know he was married? But you can’t ask her. You’re inadvertently becoming a part of the drama but you don’t know your lines.
“Not married, no. But we are a couple and have been living together for a year now.” She says and after a pause, corrects herself, “Were a couple.”
She pauses and a faintest of gulps is her only admission to the loss.
“He’s been travelling a lot recently. I didn’t even know that he was back in Bombay.”
The hawaldaar shouts out,
“Tu kya jaanta hain isko? Kaam kar na apna!”
That’s your cue out. You convey as much regret as you’re able in a look. She doesn’t even acknowledge it. You walk back to your seat.
The journalist is asking the brothers questions now. One of them keeps looking at Shruti with undisguised venom, the other with unmasked lasciviousness. She stands her ground though and behaves as if they’re strangers, not even linked to the same case.
The body was finally dispatched to the morgue about an hour ago. The girl Shruti is allowed to leave a short while later but she’s been told that the cops may be in touch. She gets up and walks out stiffly.
The Buswala brothers are walking around the police station. Oddly, none of the cops seem to be ordering them to sit down or behave. The red tilak on their foreheads may be a cue as to why.
You’re climbing up the stairs. It’s been too much for a day so you’ve left a little early. As you pass the second floor, you pause to look at the door. Then, despite yourself, you knock.
A wide-eyed Shruti opens the door and you can see suitcases lying behind her.
“You’re going somewhere?”
“You think they’ll leave me now that he’s gone?”
And you know, you just know she’s not talking about the cops but the scary red-tilak’d men.
She hoists the suitcase out and shuts the door. It only occurs to you after she’s gone that you could have offered to help her carry the suitcase down.
You walk up the stairs, shaken. You haven’t seen her cry once. You shut your door and heave to the bathroom to vomit.
A loud commotion outside makes you rush to the window. There are things being thrown out of a window. Utensils, clothes, books.
You come out onto the landing and look under the stairs. Oh God, it’s that Buswala brother, the one with the guttural accent. And he’s brought a couple of big guys with him, who’re emptying out the flat.
They saw you talking to her. They might think you know her. You panic and start back up the stairs. She was right, after all.
You come back into your flat and shut the door. You sit down and force yourself to turn the TV on. An old Shah Rukh Khan movie comes on with a leggy Deepika Padukone mocking that eternal Bollywood dialogue,
“Ek chutki sindoor ki keemat tum kya jaano?”
This is wonderful. The strength of a story is that it doesn’t take side and narrates, subtly nudging the reader to decide his position vis a vis the narrative. This is brilliant in this regard. Loved it
@Saket71: I’m told by someone else who read it, that this neutral stance may work against it. That you liked it, tells me that different approaches work for different readers. So, thank you.
Linear tale. BUt told with so many lovely nuances, that it tugs at all manner of heartstrings.
Three comments on society, disparate but true. And nicely tied up in the lyric.
A few niggling typos here and there, nothing I couldn’t heartlessly ignore. Good stuff.
@febinmathew: The lyric was actually a prompt for a writing exercise from which this story developed. I wanted to try a ‘fly-on-wall’ style so I’m glad it came through okay. Sorry about the typos. Doing a story a day leaves little time between writing, editing & reading to catch those errors.
It’s alright, but you can always go back and fix that stuff up, no?
It is a rather detailed story, and the plot could have gone either way. I feel that you’re unsatisfied with this. It does seem not to resolve. I do feel a little more for Shruti than I did for Ms Busom (or whoever from the previous story). But perhaps not enough. And what happens to her? She runs away? Arrey? Is she safe? Is this another I read it in a newspaper, but my nerves are dead, so i don’t care story. It’s a very long story for nothing to happen.
You must read Gaiman for endings. Now that man knows how to end a story. He can even make a hanging plot seem like a satisfying ending. How neatly he ties things up, he leaves you with the impression that there are no loose ends, and every impetuous move was carefully planned.
@Ronaan Roy: I think the trouble was that it started off being a story about the not-quite Mrs.Buswala but ended up being about the narrator and the emotional roller-coaster he goes on through the day. I’ll be more efficient about this the next time.
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