FIND MY MURDERER
FIND MY MURDERER18 mins 230 18 mins 230
When I descended from the train on the uneven stretch of the platform of a small station in the State of Jharkhand, division: the erstwhile - Santhal Parganas, alone, little was I to realise what was in store for me!
The time was 4.45 p.m. that winter afternoon. The sun was playing on the platform. While shielding the gleams with my open right palm, I shivered a little as freezing wind was blowing through the adjoining lush green forest a little away beyond the station. I then looked around; except for a few railway staff moving nearby, there was nobody. Knowing that a man should be there to receive me and not finding him, I picked up my small suitcase and started walking towards the exit gate through the tiny building.
Coming out from the dilapidated gate of the station, which was at some distance from the building, I again made a reconnaissance of the area. The prominent sight, obviously, was the tall green forest directly in front of me, albeit a few hundred yards ahead, the expanse of which was at all sides beyond my vision. At the foot of the forest lay a single-track tar road accessible from that gate and ran parallel to the station boundary on both sides, left and right, further on.
All these I took only a few moments to register, and then my eyes searched for that man I was told would meet me. His name was Dharma Das, and he was the local coordinator for the forest survey duty I was assigned to do here.
But there was nobody as far as I could see, which was surprising since he had confirmed to Mr. Shivaganga Gupta, my boss, at the head office in Ranchi two days earlier that he would personally come and pick me up from the station. That was needed because there was virtually no public transport from the station near the village due to sparse traffic. People preferred to walk in this part of the country, and if they wanted transport, a few cycle rickshaws would probably be available.
However, my destination was not the village but a government circuit house situated in the other direction, about three kilometers inside the forest. The destination was away from the regular route, not usually visited by the locals, so Dharma Das needed to come with his own transport and take me to the circuit house.
Almost 15 minutes had since passed, and still, there was no sign of him. I knew he had a mobile phone and tried to reach him, but there was poor connectivity, and my calls failed repeatedly.
By that time, I walked back towards the station building within its boundary and, finding a concrete bench outside the structure, sat on it in a contemplative mood. I was not able to decide what would be my next step if Dharma failed to come. It was not that I had the option of going back since I had come to this remote place on government duty. And even if I thought of returning, I could not do so immediately since I was aware that the next train to Ranchi was a day later.
As I thought glumly, I realised that the winter sun was setting fast, darkness was creeping in, and the rural area's chill quickly became unbearable. When I boarded the train, I was told there was rain during the past week, so today's cold had a wet feeling.
About half an hour had elapsed, I had become terribly restless and seriously thinking about walking to the village to find a way out, as the station staff also could not be of any help, when I heard a cycle rickshaw enter through the gate and came to a halt a little distance away from where I was sitting.
Dharma came down from the seat with an apologetic attitude.
He was a short young man with a robust physique and muscular arms. He had a noticeable appearance with a weather-beaten and a slight mongoloid feature, curly and well-oiled black hair, and wearing a well-pressed white cotton shirt and trousers. Being an educated and efficient man, he was expected to support me in my government duties next week or so.
"Sorry, sir!" He said, his voice was thick, suiting his personality.
"I have been waiting since last more than an hour, at least you should have informed me over my mobile phone that you will be late," I responded with slight irritation.
"Sir, I was with the local police about the disappearance of a young Adivasi woman; I know her well, and police thought that I could be of some help." Saying this, Dharma picked up my suitcase and lodged it inside the rear part of the cycle rickshaw and invited me to take a seat there; then, getting up, he sat next to me with some difficulty since it was quite narrow and hard.
As we took the road towards the forest, the sun disappeared behind the jungle, but there was sufficient light to proceed. Dharma said that we would reach within the next half an hour before complete darkness set in. There would not be much difficulty even otherwise as this road had temporary streetlights until the circuit house, which also had an electricity connection.
We moved in silence, gradually hearing various noises of insects and small animals emanating from the wooded area.
"Sir, once we reach there, you will find the accommodation at the circuit house a little old but comfortable; please settle in. An aged Adivasi man, Pandu Mahato, lives there; he is the caretaker cum attendant, also, a cook, who will be available at all times during your stay and take good care of you." Dharma said after a few minutes to break the silence.
"What is the story about that Adivasi woman who you said has disappeared?" I was slightly curious in the absence of any other conversation- topic at that time.
Dharma replied, "This incident happened about ten days ago. That woman, Mahua Mahato, has many admirers and perhaps one or two serious lovers. We think she has eloped with some man and would soon get in touch with her father or return on her own. Even if she does not, that will not be surprising as this type of 'missing girls' has happened in many other villages. Anyway, the police think fit to start an investigation."
I nodded absent-mindedly; my thoughts concerned the government duties I had to perform from tomorrow for which I came to this God-forsaken place.
Soon we turned right directly into the deep forest. The evening light was such that I could still see the expanse mainly covered with towering Sal, Mahua, Neem and Banyan trees which, along with shrubs and bushes, virtually made the forest look like a solid mass; more so with creeping plants intertwined around thick tree trunks and the ground below being copiously covered with fallen leaves and other debris of those trees. As the darkness gradually set in, the volume of forest noise increased. The narrow tar road we were travelling, lined by occasional streetlights, dimly lit, cut through the forest in a meandering fashion.
After about fifteen minutes, we saw a relatively vast clear area ahead on the right side of the road at the center of which the circuit house was located; it was an old fashioned, medium-sized bungalow with extended French windows having a low green square hedge around it with a wooden gate in the front. Outside the hedge on the right side, there was a tiny structure, presumably for the caretaker. There were four lampposts alongside the hedge of the circuit house, each on the individual corner. The clear area in front of the building, beyond the gate, had uneven ground covered with dead leaves, although there were no trees in the immediate vicinity.
Seeing us, an old man, very dark-skinned with a shocking maze of white hair, slightly bent, wearing dhoti and Kurta, hurried towards us with folded hands.
"Sir, he is Pandu Mahato, your caretaker. He speaks very little but will take care of you with dedication. Please do not ask him anything about his missing daughter. He will definitely break down and leave us." Dharma said.
Pandu bowed before me, picked up my suitcase and started walking towards the gate. Dharma fished into his front shirt pocket, where he had kept a wad of notes and loose coins, took some money out with difficulty and paid off the rickshaw puller. Then, turning towards me, he smiled and said, "Please make yourself comfortable for the night; I will ask Ramnath Sapru, the survey-supervisor, to come tomorrow morning for your work."
"Where do you stay? How will you go now?" I asked.
"About a kilometer towards the north from here. I will walk through the forest; there is a regular path through it." He pointed at the rear forest of the circuit house and switched on a torch which he took out from his trouser pocket.
After settling down in my room post a simple but tasty dinner, I was relaxing. The bedroom was extensive with a high ceiling and tall French windows at the head side of a double-sized ornate bed and an absolutely bare white wall at the foot side of the bed; other furniture consisted of a bedside table, another round table a little away, two high backed cushioned chairs and an elaborate chest of drawers. The bathroom was attached, and there were two doors, one for entry into the room and the other for the bathroom.
As I lay on the bed with a cigarette to my lips, staring at the ceiling, I was thinking aimlessly about the journey, duties I had to attend to from tomorrow and the case of that missing young woman, Mahua Mahato. What could have happened to her?
As I felt sleepy and switched off the light, my eyes casually focused on the bare white wall before me at the foot of the bed and noticed that a large rectangular spotlight was falling on it, coming in through the French window from the lamppost light situated outside alongside the hedge. There was nothing else to see, so I turned and slept.
The following day was a glorious sunny day; Ramnath Sapru, the survey supervisor, a short and non-descriptive man, came, and after breakfast, I immersed myself into my duties, which took almost three hours of continuous attention. As, later, we casually spoke about the missing woman, he appeared unnaturally unsympathetic and said such women of lax morals could very well meet gory ends.
When the time was past one o'clock in the afternoon, Pandu informed that the lunch was ready.
After I had completed my lunch and was sitting, with a cigarette, in an old-fashioned easy chair on the open verandah of the circuit house, I saw a police jeep reach the gate, and a tall, clean-shaven uniformed man with very short blonde hair, got down and walked towards me.
He introduced himself as Sub-Inspector Nick Dev and informed that he was carrying out the investigation of missing Mahua.
I responded, "I am Khepri Pal, and I have come here from Ranchi to do a forest survey of this area. Can I be of any assistance?"
He smiled and said, "Sir, basically I have come to speak to the father of Mahua Mahato, but I am glad to have met you. Let me interrogate Pandu Mahato, after which I will come and have afternoon tea with you."
When he returned, and with two cups of tea before us, we spoke about the case. He was a friendly man and seemed happy to know and talk to me, although I was a disinterested party.
"Sir, Mahua is a pretty young woman of 19 years, who is intelligent and friendly with almost all in the village. As is normal at this age, she has been close to some young men, particularly a fellow named Bir Bhadra, with rumours of a romantic alliance. That man is a womaniser. When I interrogated him, he could say nothing except that the last he met Mahua was a day before her disappearance, and at that time, she was perfectly normal. But I do not believe him… he is my prime suspect. I have been asking around others too but unable to get any lead."
"What have you learnt by talking to her father now?" I enquired.
"Well, he is of no help except telling us that fateful night she did not return here from the village where she had gone to make some purchases. She rode her bicycle and took the short path through the forest. At that time, the father got drunk, went to bed early, and was in a deep sleep for so long that he did not realise her absence until the next morning when he got up. He foolishly waited throughout the day without telling anyone, but she never returned. As days passed, and she remained absent, concerns were raised; the villagers searched for her all over this area, but that remained fruitless."
"What about her mother?"
"She had died long ago. Mahua has no other family except her father."
"Are you searching the forest?"
"Yes, but it is a sizeable area and will take some time."
"What about her bicycle?"
"Even that is untraceable."
" Ramnath Sapru, who is working with me, has very negative views about the woman. Any idea?"
"Well, he is one of her admirers but was in his hometown, Dumka, when she disappeared. Perhaps he is bitter that he could not get her love. "
"Do you think she ran away with someone?"
"Unlikely; otherwise, we would have found out by now."
"That means she could be dead?"
Sub-Inspector Nick Dev thought for some moments, "Maybe …. !"
After a few civilities, the sub-inspector left.
Later in the night, as I prepared for bed after dinner, my mind was thoughtful. I knew that I had nothing to do with this case, but somehow, I seemed to get involved. Seeing the father doing his chores stoically even after an unhappy incident made my heart go for him. Although I kept myself away from any discussions with him.
At that time, for some reason, I did not feel like going to bed and came out of the circuit house and slowly walked out of the gate to the clear area with a cigarette. Slight traces of winter fog stagnated in the atmosphere, but generally, the place was well lit with four lampposts throwing yellow light around in a haze. The trees around the area seemed to stand tall, a little away like dark sentinels.
Strolling leisurely around, I came back to the circuit house and reached my bedroom. On the way, I noticed that Pandu Mahato had finished his work, switched off the kitchen light, and moved towards the tiny structure where he lived.
I did not know how long I had slept when suddenly my eyes flicked open. My sleep seemed to have evaporated in an instant. I frowned as generally, I was a deep sleeper. Turning, I picked up my wristwatch on the side table and found the time: 2.33 a.m.
Why the hell did I wake up?
I was about to go back to sleep when I again noticed the large rectangular spotlight on the wall opposite me formed due to the light coming through the French window from the lamppost. Last night it was just a clear spotlight, but today I could see a dark shadow of a palm tree on it; the leaves were moving slightly in the wind. This was impossible; there was no tree near the lamppost or close to the circuit house!
What could it be?
I climbed out of my bed with some alacrity and walked towards the window, and peered out. There was nothing unusual. I could, of course, see that a strong wind was blowing, and the trees and leaves around the periphery of the clear area were swaying and moving. I also noticed the palm tree in question quite at a distance at the edge of the clear area; its leaves were also moving in the wind! It was shrouded in semi-darkness, and the visibility was poor.
My sixth sense was telling me that this needed some investigation. I turned back from the window. By this time, there was no shadow of any tree in that rectangular spotlight!
Putting on my slippers and a dressing gown over my pyjamas, then opening the main door of the circuit house, I came out of the gate and stood in the clear area trying to focus on the palm tree towards my left, which I had already noticed did not have any lamppost near it.
There was some mystery about that tree, I was sure.
Without a second thought, I walked towards it, and on reaching below it, I paused; looking up and around, I could see nothing in the darkness. Then there was again a sudden gust of strong wind resulting in the dead leaves and tree droppings on the ground getting swept away, exposing the bare ground below. In fact, the ground of around 25 feet in circumference below the palm tree became clean. Nothing unusual, but I found that the ground on which I was standing had loose soil, whereas the rest of the clean area had hard ground.
I had my mobile phone with me, and switching on its torch, I could see the difference quite well. Still, nothing seemed abnormal, but I thought I would give it some thought tomorrow morning.
The following day, the sun was behind clouds, and fog still hung in the environment. Continuing the last night's weather, the cold wind also blew strongly, making the tall green trees rustle and sway perceptibly.
After finishing my work with the survey – supervisor, I thought for long moments, I was getting a hunch that I should talk to the sub-inspector.
He came soon with a team and met me.
"What you say is unbelievable, sir! But there is no harm in finding out what is buried under the loose soil. Most probably more soil."
When the police team started digging the loose ground under the palm tree, I was unsure what to expect.
Within a short time, after some vigorous digging till about two feet below, there was a shout from one of the excavators. "Sir, we see dark green coloured cloth piece…."
And as the soil was moved away carefully, now, clearly, we could see the body of a woman, facing down, grotesquely positioned, her long hair strewn and solidified in the soil, wearing a green saree with no blouse, the saree was tattered and muddy and drawn up to her thighs … the legs were drawn together; her hands could not be seen since they were below the body which was in a highly decomposed state with insects moving around. It was a gruesome sight.
Pandu Mahato, who was witnessing this horrendous process, suddenly gave a cry, held his head with both hands and sat down on the ground on his hunches.
"Mahua … Mahua, what has happened to you…? Why am I alive to see this? What sin have I done? Why is God punishing me like this?" He started moaning and then prostrated on the ground, curling up in a coma.
The identity of the dead woman was not in any doubt; she was Mahua Mahato!
I, along with others, helped her father to go to his house. The police continued with their procedure, and I returned to the circuit house.
I called Mr. Shivaganga Gupta, my boss, at the head office and gave him the details and the likelihood of the work getting delayed. He gave me permission to decide the best way forward. I tried to contact Dharma Das, but his mobile phone was switched off. Meanwhile, the villagers had learned about the discovery, and they arrived at that place in hordes. The police had a difficult time containing them.
An hour or so later, Sub-Inspector Nick Dev came inside the circuit house and met me. "Sir, I thank you for your help, but now we have to take this investigation forward. I will find out what exactly happened and who is the killer? I will keep you posted."
In the evening, Dharma Das arrived. "Sir, this is unthinkable! We have never seen this type of tragedy in these parts… I feel so sorry for her… I am sure the killer will be found."
Some changes in the arrangements had to be made; more specifically, another caretaker and cook were required since Pandu Mahato was severely traumatised and was taken to the local medical facility.
A couple of days had passed; it was a routine as I continued with my duties.
The time was late in the afternoon when the sub-inspector arrived in his jeep and sat before me. I was studying a government report. Keeping aside the file, I looked at him inquiringly.
"Sir, let me tell you about the developments in this murder case. We got the autopsy done on an urgent basis, and it tells us that Mahua Mahato was brutally raped and then strangled to death. We have yet to pinpoint the killer, but we are working vigorously."
I said, "Did you find any clues?"
He shook his head. "We have not been able to locate her bicycle or the spade which was used by the killer to dig the ground, which had become soft due to rain at that time and bury her. But…," he paused.
"What is it?" I leaned forward; unwittingly, I had become closely associated with this crime.
"We found a ten-rupee coin in her grave. We do not know how it got there! "
"Perhaps it belongs to the killer?" I opined.
"It makes no sense that the killer will throw in a coin in the grave after the crime."
"It must have fallen from his shirt pocket without his realising it," I replied.
The sub-inspector stared at me for long moments. "That is possible, sir; we must check the fingerprints on that coin if that is feasible on such a small surface. And who could have kept money in his pocket?
Then a thought struck me, and I told him. "But first obtain the fingerprint and match with that man's fingerprints, we cannot charge anyone with murder on suspicion."
I did not know that I could play such an important role in a murder investigation. It was not that I was willing to play such a role! But that night's large rectangular spotlight on the wall opposite me showing a palm tree's dark shadow was definitely a supernatural incident. There was no palm tree near the window! That galvanised me!
However, the incidents after that were definitely my actions, to bring justice to the young woman who had to lose her life to lust!
I was told by Sub-Inspector Nick Dev that the killer was Dharma Das, whom I had already suspected and had alerted the sub-inspector!
The reason was not far to seek! When I initially arrived here that evening, I had noticed that he paid the rickshaw puller by taking money from his shirt pocket. Fortunately, during the investigation, his fingerprint matched on the coin which fell from his pocket while committing the crime, and when he was confronted with these facts by the police, he panicked and confessed. Mahua's bicycle was also recovered from the forest near his house as well as the spade.
The case came to an end!
My almost ten-day government duty was also concluded, and I was to leave for Ranchi the next day. As I lay on the bed that night looking at the large rectangular spotlight on the wall opposite me, I suddenly found a dark shadow of a woman glided through it. I got up immediately and went to the window, and looked out. Not that I expected to see anyone, but I knew that the spirit or the ghost of Mahua Mahato had come to me, perhaps to thank me!!