The Girl In Room 105[CHAPTER 17]

 


Chapter 17


‘Still angry? Eat something at least,’ I said. Saurabh and I were in the staffroom of Chandan Classes at lunch. He had not spoken to me for three days. Our home resembled a silent operation theatre. Like quiet surgeons, we went about our daily lives without talking to each other. I tried all kinds of temptations—whisky, rasgullas, high-definition porn—to get his attention.

However, he refused to say a word. He didn’t even shout, curse or break things. No, when Saurabh is upset, he sulks.

Two other faculty members were eating their lunch in the staffroom, sitting a few chairs away from us.

‘I ordered fresh chole bhature. Have one at least,’ I said. The intoxicating aroma of fried dough and spicy chole hit Saurabh’s nose, but he battled every instinct and ignored the food. He continued to read his five-inch thick Organic Chemistry textbook, which was heavy enough for bicep curls in the gym. He continued to stare at the hexagonal structure of the benzene molecule for no particular reason.

‘I am not going to put us in danger. Come on, aren’t you keen to find the killer too?’

‘Not if the killers use machine guns as a selfie prop,’ Saurabh said.

‘Ah, at last the man speaks. Don’t tell me you are not curious?’

‘Bhai, it is not about being curious. It is about not wanting a dozen bullets pumped into my ass. You are going to investigate a terrorist organisation? People who kill people for fun?’

‘I have no interest in their organisation. I only want to know what happened to Zara.’

‘Why?’ Saurabh said, his voice loud enough for the two faculty members to turn and look at us.

‘Speak softly,’ I said.

‘Get lost,’ he said. ‘I am not going to talk only.’

‘I need closure, Golu. I never had that with Zara. Even when she broke up, she cut off contact all of a sudden. Now when she wanted to get back she is gone forever, with so many questions unanswered. I never got closure.’

‘Sorry, this closure-closure you keep doing. What exactly is closure, bhai?’

‘Forget it.’

‘I’ve never had a girlfriend, so I neither know nor have to deal with all this. Good only.’

‘You said you would help me. Heart-head, remember?’

‘Bhai, you better use your head. Or they will cut off your head. This isn’t just about seeing the dean’s wife in a nightie. This is Taarikh-e-Jumma.’

‘Tehreek-e-Jihad,’ I said and smiled.

‘Whatever. Just hand over all the contents from the safe to Rana. Leave it up to him.’

‘Like he will do anything. He is happy to let Laxman rot in jail.’

‘That’s Laxman’s bad luck, and the country’s misfortune that this is how we solve cases. Nothing to do with us.’

‘I understand. How about this—we do eventually go to the police, but investigate a bit more ourselves. Safely.’

‘How?’

‘I will tell you. Can you please eat the chole bhature first?’ I said. ‘Look, this bhatura is so fluffy.’

I shunted the plate of food towards him. Saurabh looked at the plate like he had found his missing child after several years.

‘I didn’t even have breakfast,’ Saurabh said.

‘Why?’

‘To show you I am upset,’ Saurabh said, and tore into a bhatura. He ate like a caveman, ripping the ten-inch long puffed fried bread to shreds in seconds.

‘Never take your anger out on food,’ I said.

‘What kind of investigation will tuition masters like us do, anyway?’

Saurabh said, grabbing the second bhatura before he had finished the first.

‘There’s nothing big I plan to do. I just want to talk to Sikander. He’s Zara’s family, after all.’

‘The stepbrother? The one who probably carries around an AK-47 like a phone powerbank?’

‘Let’s just talk to him on the phone first.’

‘Hell, no, bhai. Once they know your phone number, they will come after you.’

‘We will call from that Pak SIM. I am sure the contact “S” is him.’

‘Bhai,’ Saurabh said and paused.

‘What?’

Saurabh raised his hand, asking me to wait. Five seconds later, he let out a loud burp. The two teachers looked at us in disgust.

‘Charming,’ I said.

‘Whatever. I was saying, bhai, you can give him a call, but for the record, I told you before, you are taking panga for no reason.’

We sat on the bed in my room, a quilt wrapped around each of us.

‘How do you know “S” is him?’ Saurabh said.

‘We will find out,’ I said. I dialled the number. With every ring, my heart beat a bit faster. Nobody answered the call.

Ten rings later, I cut the call and shook my head.

‘Dead end?’ Saurabh said.

‘Yeah. No answer.’

‘And with that, the Zara Lone investigation ends. Goodnight,’ Saurabh said. He lay down flat in the bed and covered himself with the quilt.

‘I will try one more time,’ I said. I dialled the number again. No response.

‘Keep trying. Nobody will pick up,’ he said, head under the quilt. ‘Bhai, different topic—did you try Tinder like I told you to? Apparently, you get laid for free.’

I ignored him and kept my phone aside.

‘Go to your room and sleep, Saurabh,’ I said.

‘No, bhai. After all this talk of terrorists, I am not sleeping alone.’

‘Golu, look at your size. How can you be scared to sleep alone?’

Saurabh didn’t answer as he pretended to fall asleep.

I switched off the bedside lamp, lay down next to him and stared at the dark outline of the static ceiling fan above me. Thoughts flooded my head.

Did I really not know Zara? Had I been pining for and idealising a girl who was somebody else? Or did she change after our breakup? Did my parents’ insults turn her into a fundamentalist? Why would Sikander hurt her, especially when she loved him so much?

A few minutes later, guilt flooded through me. I thought about what Safdar had said, about how I didn’t see Zara’s deep need for a stable family, and how my family’s lack of acceptance might have hurt her. Confused and lost, I tried to grapple with all the what-might-have-happeneds.

The phone’s loud ring interrupted my thoughts.

‘Fuck. The Pakistani phone is ringing,’ Saurabh said. He sprang out from under the quilt and ran around the room, as if someone had thrown a bucket of cockroaches on the bed.

‘What do we do, bhai?’ he said.

‘Relax. He’s only calling back.’

‘On a Pakistani phone,’ he screamed, as if Pakistani phones could explode and kill you the moment you picked them up. I put a finger on my lips, signalling Saurabh to remain quiet.

I took the call.

‘As-salaam-alaikum,’ a man said on the other side.

‘Hello,’ I said. ‘I mean, as-salaam-alaikum. Sorry, wa-alaikum-salaam.’

The man on the other end went quiet.

‘Is it Sikander?’ I said.

‘Kaun, janaab?’ he said.

‘You have called Zara’s phone, right?’

‘Who is speaking? Where did you get this phone?’ he said.

‘I am Zara’s friend.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Keshav,’ I said.

Saurabh raised both his eyebrows when I mentioned my name. I had to place my hand on his mouth so he wouldn’t shout.

‘Shh, I have to tell him, or else he won’t talk,’ I whispered to Saurabh and went back to the call.

‘I am Keshav. Zara’s friend. Is it Sikander? We met you at the funeral.’

‘Did we?’

Okay, so it was Sikander.

‘You remember me, right? Zara’s Rajasthani friend.’

‘Aapa mentioned you.’

‘She did?’ I said, wondering what Zara had told him about me.

‘How did you get this phone?’

‘Sikander bhai, can we meet?’

I pressed Saurabh’s mouth shut with my hand again because he had opened it to protest against the word ‘meet’.

‘Why?’ Sikander said.

‘I had some questions regarding Zara’s death.’

‘What about it? The killer is in jail.’

‘The watchman didn’t do it.’

‘I don’t know anything about it.’

‘Let’s just meet once.’

‘No,’ he said, and cut the call. I released my hand from Saurabh’s mouth.

Saurabh stared at me with eyes wide open.

‘What?’ I said.

‘You want to meet a terrorist?’

‘He’s part of Zara’s family. Anyway, he won’t meet or talk.’

‘Good. I want us to reach a dead end. So you stop this murder-case obsession.’

‘And do what instead? Teach bored students how to crack an impossible entrance exam?’

‘It’s our job, bhai.’

I picked up the Oppo phone and dialled Sikander’s number again. He picked up after three attempts.

‘I said I don’t want to meet. Don’t ever call me again,’ Sikander said.

‘My other option is to give everything I found at Zara’s house to the police,’ I said.

Sikander became silent. Saurabh waved his hands in the air to demand urgent attention. I muted the phone.

‘What now?’ I said to Saurabh.

‘You are threatening him? A terrorist?’ Saurabh said, panic in his voice.

‘Relax,’ I said, and went back to the call.

‘Are you there, Sikander?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Sikander, I have no interest in going to the police and I have no interest in whatever work you do. I am talking to everyone in Zara’s life only to find out who killed her.’

‘You think I would kill my aapa? Someone who meant so much to me?’

‘I never said that. I just want to meet you. We met her father too.’

‘We? Who else is there with you?’

‘Only my best friend, Saurabh.’

‘Please, not my name,’ Saurabh said loud and clear, so I had to shut his mouth with my hand again.

Paharganj would make a great setting for a video game. Navigating the streets while remaining unhurt could be the challenge. Saurabh and I dodged auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, cows, donkeys, motorbikes, hawkers and thousands of pedestrians as we made our way through the narrow by-lanes.

We finally reached our designated meeting place, the Nemchand Pakoda Shop located between the Qadam Sharif shrine and the Shiv Mandir, an unintentionally secular location.

Sikander, in a light grey pathani suit, was already in the shop. He had grown a stubble, perhaps to make himself appear more grown-up and to hide his rosy baby face. His legs bounced up and down as he looked from side to side, scanning every customer in the shop.

He hadn’t noticed us yet.

‘Bhai, we can still leave,’ Saurabh said. ‘He could have a gun inside his kurta. He might kill us.’

‘Why would he do that?’

‘For anything that pisses him off. Like if we don’t leave enough chutney for his pakoras. Anything.’

‘Chutney?’

‘We are going to eat pakoras here, right? This place is famous for them.’

‘I am going in,’ I said, shaking my head.

‘I am here, what do you want to talk about?’ Sikander said, as soon as I walked up to him.

‘Before we begin, should we order some food?’ I said.

Food would keep Saurabh busy and make him feel less scared. We ordered half a kilo of mixed pakoras, along with three cups of sweet masala tea.

The waiter brought our order in minutes: a sampler of gobi, aloo, onion, chili and palak pakoras, all spicy and double fried. There can’t be a tastier or unhealthier way of eating vegetables than pakoras.

Sikander didn’t touch the food. Saurabh picked up one of each kind.

‘You aren’t eating?’ Saurabh said to Sikander. ‘Try some.’

When Saurabh is scared of someone, he begins to suck up to that person.

‘We need your help. We are trying to solve Zara’s case,’ I said.

‘ He is. I am just tagging along,’ Saurabh said, as he bit into a green chili pakora.

‘How can I help?’ Sikander said.

‘Weren’t you close to her?’ I said.

‘Aapa was like a second mother to me.’

‘Did someone from Tehreek-e-Jihad kill her?’

Sikander stood up at the mention of his organisation. Saurabh turned and hid his face in my shoulder.

‘I need to leave,’ Sikander said.

‘Why?’ I said. ‘We just met. Sit down. Please, just five minutes.’

Sikander looked unconvinced but sat back down. I moved a cup of tea towards him. He shook his head stiffly.

‘Who told you about Tehreek?’ Sikander said. ‘I thought you had no interest other than aapa.’

‘I don’t. When did you last speak to Zara?’

‘Three days before she died. She called me.’

‘What did you guys talk about?’

‘None of your business. Brother and sister talk.’

‘Stepbrother, right?’ Saurabh said, a hot gobi pakora in his mouth.

Sikander glared at him.

‘Step-siblings can be really close too,’ Sikander said.

‘Of course,’ Saurabh said, in his typical sucking-up tone. ‘Try something, Sikander bhai, the chili pakora is too good.’

Sikander ignored Saurabh and turned to me.

‘Aapa just said she hadn’t seen me for a while. And that … I should look for a proper job.’

‘What work do you do otherwise?’ I said. ‘If you don’t mind telling me.’

‘Just odd jobs. Sometimes in Delhi, sometimes in Srinagar.’

‘What kind of odd jobs?’

‘Loading trucks. Helping Kashmiri merchants move stuff all across the country. That kind of thing.’

‘Don’t get upset, but are you connected to Tehreek-e-Jihad?’ I said.

‘I don’t want to answer that. Why do you care?’

‘All I want to know is if Zara was connected to Tehreek. Tell me that at least, Sikander.’

‘Not at all.’

‘So then…’ I began, but Sikander stood up again.

‘What?’ I said. ‘Why are you standing?’

He didn’t answer. Instead, he took out a revolver.

Saurabh’s mouth fell open. Even though Sikander had not told us to, Saurabh raised both his hands up in reflex, a result of watching too many movies. One of his hands held an onion pakora.

‘Sikander bhai, we are just talking. What is the need…’ I said, keeping my tone as calm as possible.

‘Shut up, harami. Enough is enough. I know aapa and your relationship ended long back. What is this jasoosi you are doing now?’

He pointed the gun at my face. I felt like I was having a cardiac arrest. I spread my palms in a conciliatory way.

‘I am sorry I upset you. I only want to talk.’

‘I am leaving. Don’t follow me, understand?’

The waiters, customers and the shop-owner froze in their respective positions as Sikander walked out of the shop. He reached the lane outside and shoved the gun back in his kurta pocket. Within seconds he vanished into the Paharganj crowd.

‘He’s gone,’ I said to Saurabh. ‘You can bring your hands down.’

‘Uhh ouu unn…’ Saurabh said, hands still up.

‘Finish what’s in your mouth.’

Saurabh swallowed and spoke again.

‘What the fuck!’ Saurabh screamed. ‘I have parents. Fuck, fuck, Keshav, I am never coming with you again. We take tuitions, we are not James Bond’s nephews.’

‘We are fine. He’s the coward who ran away.’

‘Screw him. You said, come we will just have pakoras. He would have turned us into pakoras.’

I signalled to the shop-owner for the bill.

‘It’s okay, sahib. Consider it free,’ the shop-owner said, holding his breath until we left.





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