The Girl In Room 105[CHAPTER 21]

 


Chapter 21


‘Allah reham,’ Farzana said, raising her open palms and offering silent prayers. Over two cups of kahwah tea, I repeated the story of Zara’s death and the investigation so far.

‘So that’s it. We met Sikander because I found a picture of Zara with him. But he ran away,’ I said.

‘They used to be so close,’ Farzana said. ‘Before Zara’s father ripped them apart.’

‘She was always concerned about Sikander,’ I said.

‘They were step-siblings, but closer than any real ones I have seen,’ she said.

I nodded and smiled.

‘But this is life,’ she said. ‘Sometimes people become close even without a blood tie. Look at you. Zara and you separated. Yet, here you are, the only one searching for the truth.’

‘Aunty, will you help us?’

‘How can an old woman like me help?’

She placed the empty teacups in a tray and stood up.

‘Allow me, aunty,’ Saurabh said. He took the tray from her and went to the kitchen.

‘Aunty, we need to talk to Sikander. I am sorry, but if he runs away, the suspicion will be on him.’

‘Suspicion for what?’

‘For who killed Zara,’ I said.

‘Are you out of your mind?’ Farzana said and laughed out loud.

I looked at her, puzzled.

‘And I thought you knew Zara well. Sikander would never hurt his Zara aapa.’

‘He is a suspect,’ I said.

‘He can’t be,’ Farzana shook her head. ‘It’s like killing me, his own mother.’

‘If he didn’t, all he had to do was talk to us. Why did he run away?’

‘He must have felt scared. He’s just a little boy,’ Farzana said. Her eyes began to well up. Saurabh, who had returned from the kitchen, and I looked at each other.

‘He scared us, aunty. He had a gun. He’s hardly a little boy,’ I said.

Farzana got up and walked up to the tiny window in the room. She stared at the apartment complex outside. She spoke after she had composed herself.

‘He didn’t grow mentally. He quit school after class five. Low…’

‘Low IQ?’ I said.

‘Yeah. Everyone called him stupid. He grew in height and size.

Mentally, he remained a child.’

I nodded as she continued to speak, still looking out of the window.

‘And then Zara’s father left. He found that witch Zainab in his accounts department. She destroyed us all. Sikander lost his father and Zara aapa. It damaged him. He even tried to take his own life, twice. Allah saved him, thankfully.’

She came back to sit with us.

‘I am sorry, aunty,’ I said. ‘I understand what you went through. But help us. Make Sikander talk to us.’

‘As if he listens to me. Hangs out with those good-for-nothing fundamentalists. I told him, get a job. So what if you are not the most intelligent boy in the world, you can still open a shop. Nothing he will do.’

‘Fundamentalists?’ I said.

‘These kattar mullah types who call for azaadi. Yes, we all hate India.

But we don’t go around flashing guns. Sometimes you have to accept fate.’

‘Fate? Aunty, India is our country.’

‘But Kashmir is our state. Our identity. Our everything.’

‘Aunty, if every state talks like this, what will happen?’ Saurabh said.

‘Kashmir is different,’ Farzana insisted. ‘We are a problem nobody wants to solve. We are only useful as a political tool.’

I had to remind myself: no getting into Kashmir politics, which seemed too complicated and screwed up to understand anyway.

‘Where is Sikander now, aunty?’ I said.

‘He was here ten days back. Then he went with his good-for-nothing Tehreek friends to Pahalgam. That’s where he called me from yesterday.’

‘Will you give us his number? The one we have doesn’t work anymore,’

I said.

‘He keeps changing it. Anyway, I have nothing to hide. See my phone.

The last call came from him.’

She took out her phone from her burqa pocket; I didn’t know burqas had pockets.

I dialled Sikander’s number.

‘Salaam, Ammi-jaan,’ Sikander said when he answered the call.

‘Hi, Sikander,’ I said. ‘It is Keshav.’

Silence on the other side.

‘Sikander, we need to talk.’

‘Harami, how did you get Ammi’s phone, now?’

‘Farzana aunty is with us right now.’

‘Khuda kasam, if anything happens to Ammi, I will come and kill your entire clan.’

‘We just had kahwah together.’

I handed Farzana the phone.

‘He says salaam to you,’ I said.

‘Jivo, bete,’ Farzana said.

I took the phone back from Farzana.

‘Nothing to worry,’ I said.

‘I should have killed you that day,’ he said, followed by a dozen expletives.

I went out of the apartment and spoke to him in the stairwell, so I could talk in private.

‘Listen, we have come all the way here to talk to you.’

‘Why?’

‘I have a picture of you, Zara, and a machine gun. And other things I found in her safe. Shall I tell my friends in Delhi to hand them to the police?’

I said.

‘What things?’ he said, his voice had become normal.

‘Enough proof to get you into big trouble. So meet us and never curse me again. Or you will be national news tonight, as a terrorist and as your sister’s murderer.’

He remained silent.

‘Sikander?’ I said.

‘Come to Pahalgam,’ he said after a pause.

‘Three kahwahs. Boiling hot,’ Saurabh said to the waiter. The Kashmiri drink, which consisted of green tea boiled with saffron, cinnamon and cardamom, had become Saurabh’s latest obsession. He drank at least six cups a day. He liked to have it just like the Kashmiris did, piping hot with honey and crushed nuts.

‘Okay, enough honey, Golu,’ I said, as he poured a quarter jar of it in his kahwah.

‘Honey is good for you, right?’ Saurabh said, as the waiter left.

‘Okay, Golu, even these “good for you” things are only good for you up to a point. In small portions.’

‘Like love?’ Saurabh said.

I understood what he was trying to say and became quiet. He took a sip of his kahwah and changed the topic.

‘It’s colder than Srinagar here,’ Saurabh said. The ninety-kilometre bumpy and winding bus ride from Srinagar to Pahalgam had taken us three hours. We had come to Dana Pani, a restaurant in the Pahalgam main market.

I wanted to meet Sikander in a public place, preferably with plenty of cops and Army personnel in sight. I could count at least a dozen uniformed men outside on the road, enough for Sikander to not try the stunt of pulling out a gun again.

‘Let’s make this quick. I haven’t told my brothers I am here,’ Sikander said.

‘Brothers?’ I said.

‘My people. None of your business. What do you want to know about aapa?’

I showed him the photographs of the contents of Zara’s safe.

‘Explain all this,’ I said. ‘Where did you take this picture? Why did Zara have Pakistani rupees and SIM card?’

‘We took the picture in Delhi. At my hotel. It is a jinxed picture.’

‘Why jinxed?’

‘Never mind.’

‘Tell us more. How did she have the Pakistani stuff?’

Sikander let out a huge breath.

‘Aapa went to Pakistan. For a book fair or something.’

‘The Karachi Literature Festival?’ I said.

‘Yes. That’s why she had the Pakistani money and SIM card. What’s the big deal?’

‘The big deal is this,’ Saurabh said. ‘Why did she have a dealer-size batch of cocaine? And a bullet?’

‘I don’t know.’ He looked sullen.

I turned to Saurabh. ‘Isn’t he hiding something?’

‘He definitely is,’ Saurabh said.

‘I did not kill aapa, okay?’ Sikander said and banged his fist on the table. The empty kahwah cups danced a little.

‘Tantrums don’t prove your innocence,’ I said.

‘Neither does threatening us with guns. My friends in Delhi will submit all the evidence if something happens to us,’ Saurabh said, a story we had concocted to keep ourselves safe.

‘You brought a weapon again?’ I said. Sikander stood up and lifted his arms.

‘Look if you want. I have nothing. The Army checks people at random in the main market. I am not that stupid.’

‘Good. Sit down,’ I said. ‘And tell us why Zara had all this in her safe.’

Sikander looked around. The nearest customers were sitting two tables away. He said quickly, ‘I have done wrong things. But I didn’t hurt Zara aapa.’

‘If you haven’t, your secrets are safe with us,’ I said.

‘I work for Hashim Abdullah. I’m sure you know who he is,’ Sikander said as if he was speaking about Bill Gates or Mukesh Ambani.

‘Sorry, no. Who is he?’ I said.

‘He is the head of Tehreek-e-Jihad. He gave me a worthy purpose in life.

Taught me how to live with passion. Hashim bhai means everything to me.’

I wanted to tell him killing innocent people or hating your country did not count as a worthy purpose. However, I remembered my no-politics rule and remained quiet. Sikander was saying, ‘Hashim bhai lives in Azaad Kashmir.’

‘Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, you mean?’ Saurabh said.

‘That’s what Indian propaganda calls it. In reality, where we are is India-occupied Kashmir.’

No politics, I told myself again.

‘Leave that,’ I said. ‘Go on with your story.’

‘I started as a junior soldier in Tehreek. Hashim bhai gave me a chance to do something big. That is when I made a mistake.’

He avoided our eyes.

‘What mistake?’ Saurabh said.

‘I tricked Zara aapa.’

‘Be clear,’ I said. Something about Sikander annoyed me. Was he actually dumb or pretending to be?

‘Hashim bhai said he knows people in Karachi who are organising a literature festival. He said they want to invite some people from India, especially bright students. To show efforts at peace. I couldn’t go. Hashim bhai said my passport should have as few stamps of Pakistan as possible. He asked me if I had anyone in mind.’

‘And you suggested Zara?’

‘Yeah. Zara aapa loved reading books. She attended several literature festivals in India. I asked her. The organisers had offered to pay for her flight and stay, as they said they were doing for some other chosen students. Aapa jumped at the offer.’

‘And that’s why she went to Pakistan?’

‘Yes. Hashim bhai met her in Karachi. He sent some gifts back for me.

He gave her a small strolley filled with clothes and snacks.’

‘And?’ Saurabh said, listening to Sikander’s every word.

‘They switched the strolley in the drop-off car to the airport. Under a layer of clothes, they filled it with cocaine. Eight kilos of it.’

‘Eight kilos of cocaine?’ Saurabh whistled. ‘Isn’t that huge?’

‘Worth around five crore rupees. It is one of the ways Tehreek funds itself. It was my first big contribution to Tehreek,’ Sikander said.

I sighed. There are worse places to work, in this world, than Chandan Classes, I thought. Like organisations that fund themselves with drug money.

‘You used your own sister as a drug mule?’

‘I didn’t know it was so wrong at that time. And Hashim bhai planned it

so well. Nobody suspected her at customs. She did bring the goods home.’

‘So that makes it okay? She would have spent her life in jail if customs had stopped her.’

‘A young girl from IIT, coming back from a books festival, nobody would suspect her, Hashim bhai told me.’

‘Are you serious? What if they did?’ I said, my voice rising.

He did not respond.

I took deep breaths to suppress my anger and not slap this overgrown, stupid oaf. Saurabh held my wrist, signalling me to calm down.

‘Okay, so what happened next?’ Saurabh said.

‘I went to collect the bag from aapa. But before I reached, she had opened it.’

‘She found out about the drugs?’ I said.

‘Yes. And she scolded me a lot, even slapped me. I had to tell her who I worked for. I tried to explain that Hashim bhai was doing so much good.’

‘What did she say?’

‘She refused to listen. She said I had to cut off from these people. She wanted me to take the bag to the police.’

‘Did you go?’

‘No. I couldn’t let Hashim bhai down.’

‘And she was fine with that?’

‘Of course not. But I lied to her. I said let me deliver this one bag so they leave me alone, and then I will quit the group.’

‘And you didn’t?’

He gazed at the floor again.

‘I couldn’t quit our great cause,’ he said, whatever the hell he meant by

‘great cause’.

‘You think it is okay to work for someone who sells drugs?’

‘We have no choice. We are fighting powerful governments. To do a great good, sometimes you have to do a little bad,’ he said in a rehearsed tone.

‘Hashim said this?’

‘Yeah. At that time, I didn’t realise Zara aapa had kept a packet.

Anyway, I don’t do drug-related stuff at Tehreek now. I work in recruitment.’

I heard the word recruitment and my instinct was to ask if they were hiring and whether I could apply. I scolded and reminded myself that working here wasn’t an option.

‘Were you in touch with her just before she died?’

‘Not much. Just the occasional call. She asked me to forget all this nonsense and look for a job. In fact, she gave me your example once. Of course, she didn’t know I had not left Tehreek.’

‘My example?’ I said, curious.

‘She said, “Look at me, Sikander, I followed my passion with Keshav and never realised that practical life mattered. It led me nowhere. Finally, I had to make a practical choice in Raghu”.’

‘Practical?’

‘I also didn’t fully understand. She said she did love Raghu a lot now, but had ultimately been practical in choosing him. His family would have no issues with Zara or something.’

‘Why did she tell you this?’ I said.

‘To tell me that sometimes our heart leads us to wrong places. Tehreek is where my heart was, she wanted me to use my head and get another job.’

‘Ah,’ I said. I guess I was the wrong place her heart had led her to. Yet, it felt good to hear that I was her heart’s choice, and not the ‘practical’ one.

‘Fine,’ Saurabh said. ‘Anything else you want to share that could be useful to us?’

‘Nothing I can think of. I haven’t told all this to anyone. Can I go now?’

I nodded. Sikander stood up to leave.

‘Sorry, one more question,’ Saurabh said.

‘What?’

‘The selfie with Zara. When was that taken?’

‘Zara aapa came to meet me in Delhi.’

‘Why do you have a machine gun?’

‘I show new recruits how to use a gun.’

‘Sit down, Sikander,’ I said, as my mind stopped replaying the words‘ sometimes our heart leads us to wrong places’ and came back to the murder case.

‘Why?’ he said. He continued to stand with his arms crossed.

‘You think we are idiots?’

‘What happened?’

‘You said you told Zara you had left Tehreek.’

‘Yeah.’

‘So why is she smiling in this picture when she comes to see you and finds you with a machine gun?’ I said.

‘I need to go.’

‘You also said this picture is jinxed. Why?’ Saurabh said.

Sikander winced. He held his head.

‘I get migraines. Sorry.’

‘We are not done yet,’ I said. ‘And trust me, you would rather we question you than the police.’

‘I need to go rest. Can we talk later?’

‘When? Tomorrow?’

He nodded and sniffled, like a child.

‘Yes, call me tomorrow,’ Sikander said and walked out of the restaurant.

‘We should have brought more warm clothes,’ Saurabh said. He rubbed his hands. The Heevan Hotel in Pahalgam, where we were staying, had set up a campfire on its lawns. Saurabh and I sat there post-dinner.

‘Something is not right about Sikander,’ I said.

‘Relax. Give him some time. He will open up,’ Saurabh said.

‘He is devious,’ I said. ‘He pretends to be naïve and stupid. He is not.’

‘Maybe he is nervous,’ Saurabh said.

‘Nonsense. I think it is time we confronted the truth.’

‘What truth?’ Saurabh said, his round face glowing in the campfire.

‘That he may be family, may say all emotional things, be a little dumb, but the little stepbrother is no innocent baby. In fact, he’s the prime suspect.’

‘What makes you say that?’ Saurabh said. He was sitting so close to the fire, I felt he would combust any moment.

‘Sit back from the flames,’ I said.

‘Fine,’ Saurabh said, moving back three inches.

‘Here is what I think happened. Sikander became a terrorist. Zara found out. Tried to stop him several times, but he didn’t listen. Zara finally lost her patience. Decided to go to the police.’

‘And Sikander comes and kills her before that?’ Saurabh said.

‘Yes.’

‘Possible. Explains why she would open the window, too. It was for her

stepbrother, after all.’

I snapped my fingers. ‘Exactly.’

‘What about the picture? Why is Zara smiling?’

‘She could have felt pressured. Or wait, she could be collecting proof for the police.’

‘That’s why she kept the bullet and cocaine?’ Saurabh said.

‘Bang on. Yeah, that’s it. She was collecting evidence. She wanted to go to the police because the brother wouldn’t stop. Sikander found out and killed her.’

‘But he loved his sister,’ Saurabh said.

‘If Hashim bhai told him killing her was for some “great good”, what do you think this idiot would do?’

Saurabh scratched his cheek before he spoke again.

‘Kill.’

We stared at each other for a few seconds. Everything added up and the theory made things fall into place. We high-fived.

‘We got him. Call Inspector Rana. We will need his help,’ I said. Yes, I had the killer. The glow from the fire warmed not only my face, but also my insides.




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