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27 The Truth

I COULD TELL you the name I gave the police, but you wouldn't recognize it. A better clue might be the outfit I was wearing. It was a red waistcoat with brass buttons, worn over a white shirt and complemented by pleated black trousers and patent leather shoes. Don't forget those shoes.

No one really took any notice of me. I was deemed to be one of those faceless service people who unobtrusively keep a big party going. I could just as easily have been one of the hordes who fill the streets when there is a big political rally or religious procession, that blur of colour when the TV camera pans over the stands in a cricket match, or in the anonymous queue which forms in front of polling booths during elections.

You want me to be more specific? OK, I was the bearded waiter at the party. I was standing next to Vicky Rai when the lights went out. And I shot him at point-blank range.

If this comes as a shock to you, I apologize. There is something gruesome about murder, about the forcible ending of a life, which doesn't sit well with our conscience and our criminal-justice system. 'Thou shalt not kill' is a biblical injunction, after all. But there are occasions when murder is not only justified, it is necessary. And I am not referring here to legally sanctioned murder: the State executing a terrorist or an enemy soldier killed in war. I am talking about murder as a ritual of righteousness. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna had a duty as a Kshatriya warrior to fight the evil Kauravas on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. I am also a warrior, fighting a righteous war against the forces of evil in society. In killing Vicky Rai I simply did my duty, upheld my dharma.

Please believe me, I had no personal score to settle with Vicky Rai. I am not related to any of the six homeless people he mowed down as a teenager. I had never set eyes on Kishore Rajput, the forest ranger whom he got killed. Ruby Gill was neither my colleague, nor my sister, nor my lover. I didn't know her, never met her.

I presume my action will be seen as vigilante justice. The act of a citizen who takes the law into his own hands when the actions of established authorities are insufficient.

And the actions of established authorities clearly were insufficient. Vicky Rai broke one law after another and received one acquittal after another. The final straw came when he was even exonerated of the murder of Ruby Gill.

Our great epics tell us that when evil becomes all-pervasive, God comes down to restore goodness. With all due respect, that's nonsense. No one comes down from heaven to sort out the mess on earth. You have to clean up the shit yourselves. You have to take off your shoes, hitch up your trousers and wade into the sodden muddy pit.

That is what I did. My conscience left me no other choice.

The middle class is supposed to act as the conscience of the nation, an ethical beacon guarding against the excesses of the upper class and the defeatism of the underclass. It is the middle class which challenges the status quo, which brought about the great revolutions of the world – in France, China and Russia, in Mexico, Algeria and Vietnam. But not in India. Our middle class believes firmly in the preservation of the status quo. Unconcerned with the declining standards in public life, apathetic about the plight of the poor, it indulges in rampant consumerism. We have become a nation of voyeurs, hooked on inane soap operas about scheming mothers-in-law and suffering housewives, feeding on the carcass of others' misfortunes, salivating at the break-up of a celebrity marriage, mesmerized by flickering TV images of politicians caught accepting bribes on camera.

I have nothing against voyeurs. I admit, in my younger days even I was tempted occasionally to peep into my neighbour's house, hoping to catch a glimpse of his young daughter taking a bath. But what if instead you catch your neighbour choking his middle-aged wife to death? What do you do then? Do you slink into your bed like a half-guilty thief or do you rush into the neighbour's house and put a stop to the crime?

This was the dilemma I faced when I listened to the tapes of Vicky Rai's conversations. You see, I had been tapping his phone for the past two years, just as the Chief Minister was tapping Jagannath Rai's phone.

When I first began the phone tap, I had no idea what I was getting into. It seemed like a harmless way to ferret out information and it was easy. India is an eavesdropper's paradise. Nobody is bothered about infringement of civil liberties, privacy rights and data protection. All you need is some electronic equipment which can be bought off the shelf from any shop in Palika Bazaar and some connections in the phone department and you are all set for some freelance tapping. I currently have seven intercepts running all the way from Jammu to Jabalpur.

For two years I listened to Vicky Rai's voice on a daily basis. I listened to the favours being exchanged, the bribes being paid, the frauds being perpetrated, the girls being seduced. I heard earnumbing accounts of how laws were broken and subverted, how evidence was falsified, how justice was trampled upon, raped, pillaged and sold to the highest bidder. Every infraction was like a band of iron squeezing my heart. Every injustice was like a nail being driven into my body.

And then, on 17 March, I heard a conversation which set me on fire. I will play you a small clip from that tape. Listen carefully.

'Hello, Vicky baba, recognize me?'

'Is it Mukhtar?'

'Yes, Vicky baba. I am sorry to call you so late, but-'

'What's the matter? You sound very worried.'

'You remember, Vicky baba, how we used to play together in Lucknow? You would sit on my back and I would race to the peepul tree and then you would say "Take me to-" '

'I am sure you haven't called me at one o'clock in the morning to reminisce about my childhood. Come to the point, Mukhtar. Are you in some kind of trouble again?'

'No, Vicky baba, you are in trouble.'

'What do you mean?'

'Boss called me to his house an hour ago.'

'So? Who did Dad want bumped off this time?'

'You, Vicky baba. He gave me a contract to kill you.'

'Have you gone mad?'

'No, Vicky baba. I swear on my dead father. This is exactly what Boss asked me to do.' (Long pause.)

'I still don't believe this.'

'I couldn't either. I have seen you grow up in front of my eyes, Vicky baba. How can I take your life?'

'When did Dad tell you to carry out the hit?'

'On 23 March. When you are going to have some big party at Number Six.'

'I see.'

(Long pause.)

'I don't know what's happened to Boss. He is not the man he used to be. This fight for the Chief Minister's chair has warped his brain.'

'Mukhtar, will you do a job for me?'

'Hukum, Vicky baba.'

'I want you to kill Mr Jagannath Rai. On the same day, at the same place. I will pay you one hundred times what Dad would have paid you. Will you accept my contract?'

'Vicky baba, how can-'

'I will send you ten lakhs right away, and the balance on completing the job. You don't need to do any more hits after this one. Do we have a deal?'

'I don't know what to say, Vicky baba.'

'It will be your easiest hit, Mukhtar. I will keep the service entrance unlocked. You come in through there with your gun. I will be at the bar in the big hall and I will ensure that Dad is in the other corner, next to the bay window which opens on to the driveway. At exactly five minutes past midnight I will get my trusted servant Shankar to switch off the mains. Fireworks will already be going on at the time. You finish off your work as soon as the lights blow and race out through the service gate. Can anything be simpler?'

(Long pause.)

'Do we have a deal, Mukhtar?'

'Yes, Boss.'

'Good. Then I suggest you disappear for a while. Do not take any calls from Dad.'

'Yes, Boss. I will hole out in Sarai Meer, and then come to Number Six only on the twenty-third.'

'Fine. I will have your advance sent to Azamgarh.'

'Meherbani. Khuda hafiz.'

(Disconnect.)

Something snapped in my brain when I heard this tape. How long can you see what is happening around you and remain unaffected by it? How long can you pretend you are not a citizen of this country, not a thinking, feeling man? And I said to myself, 'Enough is enough.' I decided to kill Vicky Rai, mete out my own justice to him. If the corrupt father was going to die, then so would the depraved son.

To kill a man you need three things. A powerful motive, strong nerves and a good gun. I was motivated and steady, all I required was a reliable gun. I went for a country-made pistol, a compact semi-automatic.32 fabricated in Bamhaur; cheap, dependable and completely untraceable. Then I paid a visit to Akram Bhai, a wizened old cobbler who owns a small shop behind Jama Masjid, specializing in custom-made footwear. He made me a pair of patent-leather shoes which, once you lifted the insole, contained a hollow compartment in the heel big enough to secrete a wad of cash. Or a bar of gold. Or a compact gun.

So on 23 March, I, too, was in Number Six with a pistol in my pocket. Getting inside the farmhouse was child's play. I slipped in through the unlocked service gate wearing a fake beard and the red-and-black uniform of the waiters from Elite Tent House, who, I knew from an earlier intercept, were doing the catering at the party. I picked up a tray and hung around the garden, watching the guests laughing and the booze flowing. It was a typical Delhi party of the rich, with the usual air-kissing and pointless hugging, the ritual exchange of business cards and the predatory circling of women flaunting their bodies.

Just before midnight, a fireworks display began. Rockets screamed, crackers burst, bombs exploded in celebration of Vicky Rai's acquittal. At the stroke of midnight I moved from the lawn into the big hall. I saw Vicky Rai making a speech in front of a mike. Then he asked his father to speak and went to the bar on the far side of the hall. As he began mixing a drink, I edged closer to him. The room was chock-full of people, including the film star Shabnam Saxena, and it would have been impossible to shoot him and not be caught. My muscles tightened and a knot formed in the pit of my stomach. I waited for the lights to go out. At precisely 12.05 a.m. they did and I whipped out my gun. A shot rang out and Jagannath Rai screamed. Thinking that Mukhtar had done his job, in that very instant I shot Vicky Rai at point-blank range. He was standing directly in front of the open window and my bullet must have passed clean through him. Coincidentally, another loud cracker bomb burst at that very second and camouflaged the sound of my gunshot.

Shooting a man is the easy part. The tough part is keeping your nerves in control after the act. My hands began shaking and my heart started hammering so violently I thought I was going to have a coronary. The gun almost slipped out of my grasp. With trembling fingers I took off my left shoe, lifted the insole and deposited the pistol in the hollow compartment. I had just about managed to retie my shoelace when the lights came back on and the police rushed in. They asked for my name and address. I showed them a fake ID identifying me as a waiter. They frisked me from neck to ankle and didn't find anything. They let me go.

Would I have done things differently if I had known that Mukhtar Ansari was not going to keep his appointment? I don't know. It was only when the lights came on and I saw Jagannath Rai very much alive that I realized something had gone wrong. Now, of course, it is clear that it was Ashok Rajput who fired the first bullet, also a.32 calibre from a locally made improvised revolver. It narrowly missed Vicky and got lodged in the wooden bar. Vicky Rai was actually killed by the second bullet – my bullet. If the police had searched the premises thoroughly they would have discovered a spent.32 cartridge in the garden outside.

I hope you see the irony – Vicky Rai was acquitted in the Ruby Gill murder case because the police said the two bullets were fired from two different guns, but Ashok Rajput has been arrested because this time the police are loath to accept the two-gun theory! If only he had not confessed, a smart lawyer might have been able to get him off.

Many years ago I saw a film – I forget its name. It was one of those arty movies in which people don't speak much and the camera pans slowly, settling on minute details of everyday life, such as an empty swing creaking back and forth for two minutes. The film was about a village full of poor people being exploited by a feudal landlord. Most of the film is a blur to me now, but I still remember its last scene. It showed a small boy throwing a stone at the zamindar's mansion, breaking a window. I was too young then to understand what that stone meant. Now I do. Great revolutions begin with a tiny spark.

I have lit that spark. A revolution is now underway. Youths like Munna Mobile are the foot soldiers of this revolution. They are vociferously demanding their rights. They will no longer tolerate injustice silently.

Just as every revolution has a hero, it also has some collateral damage. I feel a tinge of regret for Ashok Rajput. I genuinely mourn Eketi's death. I did try to help him, but it was a case of too little, too late. His death will forever remain on my conscience, a cross that I have to bear. But his sacrifice was not in vain. Vicky Rai is dead. Jagannath Rai is as good as dead. Justice has been done. Henceforth the criminal rich will no longer be able to sleep easily. They know now that retribution can return to haunt them at any time.

I suppose I can take some pride in carrying out the perfect murder. No one has any inkling about what I have done – neither my wife, nor my colleagues at the newspaper. I still go to the office at the usual time and stay late. I share a meal with the other reporters during the lunch hour, laugh at their corny jokes, join in their silly discussions on politics and promotions. Their petty gossiping and shallow concerns nauseate me. Their smugness and complacency amaze me. Am I the only one with a sense of what it means to be a committed investigative journalist? Am I the only man with a mission?

I know I plough a lonely furrow. But I shall soldier on. Because there is still a lot of filth out there. I am still listening to phone conversations which make my blood boil and start a buzzing in my brain.

And even murder can become addictive.

Acknowledgements

This was a difficult book to write, and not just because it was my second one. The very ambition of the novel – to tell the interlocking stories of six disparate lives in a tightly schematic space – made it a daunting enterprise. That I was able to reach this page owes a lot to the generous support of my friends and colleagues and the patience of my family – my wife Aparna, to whom this book is dedicated, and my sons Aditya and Varun.

Jane Lawson, my editor on Q & A, and Peter Buckman, my agent, were early and enthusiastic supporters of the concept and encouraged me to go on. Thereafter it was my new editor Rochelle Venables (Jane having happily pushed off on maternity leave) and the team at Transworld who shepherded the project with admirable vigour and commitment. I must thank Kate Samano, in particular, for her meticulous copyediting.

Even though Eketi is an entirely fictional character, my research on the Onge tribe was aided greatly by Madhusree Mukerjee's lucid book The Land of the Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders (Penguin India, 2003). Vishvajit Pandya's ethnographical inquiry into Andamanese rituals and customs (Above the Forest, OUP, 1993) and Badal Kumar Basu's study The Onge (Seagull Books, 1990) were also useful sources of information. For those wishing to explore this subject further, I would wholeheartedly recommend George Weber's website (www.andaman.org), a veritable treasure trove of information on the tribes of the Andaman.

I am indebted to my colleagues Navdeep Suri and J. S. Parmar for many valuable suggestions. I also wish to place on record my thanks to Damon Galgut, Chris Copass, Avinash Mohnany, Manoj Malaviya, Sarvagya Ram Mishra, Captain Subhash Gouniyal, R. K. Rathi, Lopa Banerjee, Uma Dhyani, Rati Bhan Tripathi, Vakil Ramdas and Roland Galahargue. Google, as always, was an invaluable tool.

Finally, I must record my gratitude to the wonderful people of South Africa, the fertile ground where this novel took shape on weekends and holidays.


CONFESSION | Six Suspects | Vikas Swarup



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