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The most honest man in Vasantgaon

Rahul Mitra | Updated on January 19, 2018

Remains of the day: The riots have not just shaped the present, they have actually changed our past as well. -- K.R. Deepak

The peacemakers: Normalcy was restored everywhere — in the newspapers, on the radio and on television; everywhere, that is, except in our hearts. - Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

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Rahul Mitra

Just as suddenly as they had started the riots stopped. There were a few moments of uncertainty, an abrupt pause and then suddenly, without any indication normal life burst out to fill the resulting vacuum. The city which had been ominously silent over the last five days was once again humming with life and activity.

After days of staying at home with the doors locked, even small, everyday things seemed so much more colourful and extraordinary, that a carnival mood seemed to envelope us all. Just walking till VDA Complex was like an adventure. There were throngs of women in the shops, stocking up on essential items, filling the air with their chatter and bargaining. The entire colony was out on the streets and almost everyone you met wanted to discuss the ‘situation’. It seemed like an exciting time to be alive. That evening as we were settling down to our dinners, a smooth-faced, rather grave looking young man sitting in a studio in far away Delhi definitively announced that “normalcy has returned to Vasantgaon” and it was as if the riots had never really been.

In those days, I used to follow the news very closely and as usual would end up disappointed and angry at the state of the world. In all this time, nothing has changed, neither the news nor my reaction to it. Even then, it seemed to me that the happenings of the last few days had all been reduced to talking heads and shouting matches. The riots had changed everything but on the news people seemed to be discussing something unreal, something completely unrelated. Over the next few days, normalcy was restored everywhere — in the newspapers, on the radio and on television; everywhere, that is, except in our hearts. Overnight our town was divided into ‘our area’ and ‘their area’, safe areas and dangerous ones. Very clearly defined boundaries had sprung up and we all knew exactly where they were. Families caught on the wrong side now had to evaluate whether to sell off their homes or whether they were willing to risk living with the ‘enemy/other community’.

My house was very close to one such boundary. It ran in almost a straight line from the other side of Guru Har Krishan Public School, cutting through Indira Market, across the naala and into Munirka. Across this boundary was ‘their’ area and we even jokingly referred to the school as the Line of Control. Of course, one had to go across to shop for certain items or to catch the bus for office in the morning, but at night we would avoid that area as much as possible. Even the cricket matches that we had played as kids with the surrounding neighbourhoods were stopped now, for who knew when an argument over a dismissal might turn into another riot? In such times it’s better to be safe than sorry.

As always, life too slowly settled into a pattern. A few months passed and the media moved on to better stories. Only the unstated boundaries remained, invisible to the naked eye and yet as solid and unyielding as the Great Wall of China. Cricket teams still did not play each other and we were ever conscious of the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

It was during this period that a decapitated head was discovered in the naala near Priya Park. It belonged to a mild looking middle-aged man with a thick beard and a full head of hair. Someone had neatly sliced through the neck, leaving a rather grotesque mixture of horror and apparent surprise marked on his face. Coming as it did after a few months of apparent peace; the head caused a near sensation in our small town.

Who was this person? Why had he been killed? Most importantly, did the murder have any connection to the riots that had taken place a few months back? These questions dominated all our conversations and the mystery was front page news in all the papers. Can you imagine the Vasantgaon of that time, a regular, boring little town, like the thousand others that dot the GT Road? Nothing like this had ever happened in our town before. Of course, when I say that I am referring to the time before the riots took place, a period that you can possibly never imagine. For the riots have not just shaped the present, I tell you they have actually changed our past as well. Bakaiti will tell you one thing and Banne another, and if you listen to both of them together you will just end up getting confused. That’s just how it was with the head as well.

No one had come forward to claim it and no one seemed to know who it belonged to. Some people claimed that this person was one of the leaders of the ‘kacchewaala’ gang, a mysterious gang of robbers, famous for carrying out their ‘work’ clad only in their undergarments. Still others claimed that it belonged to a hardened convict, whom the police themselves had disposed off. In the super-charged atmosphere following the riots rumours spread like wildfire. One of the local leaders from the Munirka area even came forward to claim the head stating that the man was from their community.

This ‘leader’, who had been a small-time rowdy and a known history-sheeter before the riots had miraculously transformed into an important person. Apparently, he had protected Munirka from attack during the riots and helped out a lot of people with the money he made by robbing them earlier. What his constituency or popularity was I don’t know but there is no doubt he was being treated with a lot of deference by both the media as well as the police. However, he could not offer any identification for the head apart from the argument that the man had a beard and so, was obviously from his community. This, of course was hotly contested by the Vishweshwarriyya Math whose spiritual leader Swami Jag Premi ji Maharaj had been claiming that the head belonged to one of the sadhus of the math. New claimants were emerging with every passing day but no one could provide any clinching proof and so the police refused to hand over the head to any party.

Whatever the truth might have been, this news shattered the uneasy peace that had developed in our town. Fiery speeches were given by different leaders and protest marches were taken out as allegations and counter-allegations started to fly. In short, the city was once again teetering on the knife edge of disaster. It seemed as if almost everyday one part or other part of town was shut down. We did not know it then, but the situation was just about to become much worse.

A dead body is bound to attract vultures, and so it is with those who profit from such situations. Suddenly one day we heard that Pratap Singh of the Rashtriya Jaagaran Party was going to visit our town. Now you have to understand the impact this had. Much as I love this place, I have to admit that we have always been one of the most underdeveloped and backward areas in our state. In fact, before this visit, we had never even seen any state-level politician of any standing before; forget about someone like Pratap Singh. I have never seen anything like it — neither before nor since. Overnight, the whole town was suddenly swarming with the media and security people. Keeping in mind the volatile situation, the authorities closed off Mall Road where Netaji was staying and the area right from Tripoliya to Chilkana was literally crawling with security men.

Next day at the Azad Maidan, with the national media in full attendance, Pratap Singh gave a rousing speech levelling allegations of a cover-up against the police and asking for a CBI enquiry. The crowd which had been whipped into a frenzy and with no one to vent their ire on (since the other community had entirely stayed away), started beating up all the media persons they could find. I believe two media persons died in the melee and 13 others lost their lives in the stampede that followed. Pratap Singh left that very day by helicopter, but the fire he had lit was just beginning to take effect.

The fallout was immediate and all of us started preparing ourselves for more violence. Everyday, there were rumours that truckloads of rioters armed with swords and bombs were going to attack our neighbourhood at night. In response, the residents association formed a local defence committee and even started special night patrols to safeguard ‘our area’. This defence committee which comprised a motley group of unemployed youth, English-speaking college students and retired havildars from the army, would roam around the neighbourhood armed with hockey sticks, rods and sundry other ‘weapons’. However, these soon proved to be a pain in the neck for the residents as under the guise of random checks and searches the patrols would enter different houses, ogle the women and polish off food. Moreover, their demands for chanda and chai-paani were getting to be exorbitant and again there was a bitter divide among the residents on the effectiveness and organisation of the defence committees.

Given the situation, however, these committees were a necessary evil for the situation did not look like it would be resolved quickly. The police seemed unable to come up with any clue of the head’s identity and all sorts of parties were threatening to go on the warpath if the head was not handed over. Blood was about to spill on the streets when the police announced a breakthrough.

They had found the body. The police had been dredging the naala for clues and it was here that they found a headless body along with some clothes stuffed into a gunny sack. The entire town heaved a sigh of relief. Some personal items had been found in the sack, and we were sure that the case would be resolved pretty quickly now and trouble would be avoided. But it was not to be, for another controversy now erupted.

You see, while the head had been found in Gandhi Bazaar, the body had been found near Ghanta Ghar. And thus arose a fight between two different police stations regarding the jurisdiction of the case. After Pratap Singh’s speech, the case had assumed political overtones and with pressure coming in from a number of quarters the officers involved wanted to just wash it off their hands. The Gandhi Bazaar Police station SHO even went on record stating to the media that since 75 per cent of the body had been found in the Ghanta Ghar area, it was that Ghanta Ghar Police Station that would be investigating the case. The Ghanta Ghar police too were unwilling to accept the case, as it had already been opened in the Gandhi Bazaar police station and as that was where the trouble had first started.

The deadlock was finally sorted out when one of the biggest businessmen in town identified it as the body of a hardened dacoit and black marketer. This greedy fellow was apparently out and about during the riots supplying essential commodities to locked-up families and charging them exorbitant prices for it. Unlike our business class, who were scared for their property and were carefully hoarding goods waiting for the curfew to lift, this fellow being a criminal and a dacoit himself had no such fears. In fact, he was even greedier than our politicians for he made no distinction between communities when he went to supply his goods. Driven by the lure of money he would visit any locality and apparently operated throughout the city unlike our public servants who had disappeared during that time and would not do anything no matter how big the bribe.

When I read this news, I realised that perhaps this was the most honest man in town. I wanted to go over to the Police Headquarters to salute this brave, misguided soul but then I thought the better of it. Firstly, they would just have demanded a bribe to show the body and secondly, I am a law-abiding educated person — why would I want to get involved with the police? So I really didn’t get to see either the body or the head first-hand and I don’t even know what happened to them for nothing further was reported. Perhaps they are still lying forgotten in some dusty corner of the Police Headquarters. In any case, the media and the townspeople have moved on to other scandals by now.

Lately, a new rumour has come up in town. A number of people claim to have seen a ghost walking around at night with its head in its hands. Before this rumour there were at least a few people who would be going out at night, but now even that has stopped. Ask anyone in town and they will tell you about it. Every Saturday night this ghost walks all the way from Gandhi Bazaar to Munirka and walks back again towards the early hours of morning. They say that this is the ghost of that same headless dacoit who was killed while trying to cross the boundary to do his dirty black marketeering.

The boundaries remain intact today but I guess they are only for the living.

(Rahul Mitra’s novel The Boy from Pataliputra will be published by Fingerprint Publications later this year)

Published on January 22, 2016

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