The Girl In Room 105[CHAPTER 24]



 Chapter 24


‘I can drive you up to the camp gate. However, I have to park half a kilometre away. Army rules,’ the taxi driver said. The journey from Srinagar to Baramulla had taken us two hours. We stepped out of the hired white Innova at the Baramulla Army Camp entrance. Captain Faiz, in olive-green uniform and dark Ray-Ban aviators, waited for us at the gate.

‘Welcome, Keshav,’ he said. He seemed taller than I remembered him from the funeral, maybe because of his army boots. He had epaulettes and several commendation badges pinned on his shirt pocket. We shook hands, or rather he crushed my hand in his.

‘He’s your friend who wanted to see an Army camp?’ Faiz said, looking at Saurabh.

I nodded and introduced Saurabh. I had taken Faiz’s number from Safdar and asked him to arrange a meeting. I mentioned Saurabh as an Indian Army fan, who wanted to see some Army facilities during his vacation in Kashmir.

Faiz took us to the visitors’ lounge tent, located a few steps away from the camp entrance. Inside the tent, we sat on cane chairs, arranged in a semi-circle around a coffee-table. A Kashmiri rug covered the muddy floor.

‘This is our humble abode,’ Faiz said. ‘From here we try to keep our country safe.’

‘Thank you for that. As Keshav must have told you, I am a big admirer of the Army,’ Saurabh said.

‘We are honoured.’ Faiz bowed a little. A jawan came in with a tray of raisins, almonds and kahwah.

‘Please don’t do all this. We are already imposing on you,’ I said.

‘Not at all. It gets boring here. Nice to have some civilian visitors.’

I had to move the topic to Zara, so, sipping my kahwah, I said casually,

‘This is the same place that Zara wrote a blog about?’

‘Yeah,’ Faiz said. ‘God bless her soul. What a bright and positive person she was.’

‘You went to school with her?’ I said.

‘I was her senior. The Lones are family friends.’

‘I saw you at the funeral. We never spoke, but you were with Zara’s father when I came to speak to him.’

‘Yeah, I remember you. Such a tragic day,’ Faiz said. I tried to sense fakeness in his voice, but couldn’t. His sunglasses hid his eyes, making it more difficult to figure him out.

I took another sip of my kahwah. I rubbed my right cheek—our pre-decided cue—and Saurabh took the signal and excused himself to go to the toilet.

‘You know Zara and I used to date, right?’ I said, after Saurabh left.

‘Yes,’ Faiz said. ‘We weren’t really in touch at that time.’

‘When did you last meet her?’ I said, my tone as non-interrogative as possible.

‘Oh, I don’t even remember. Over a year ago, at her house in Delhi perhaps.’

‘You didn’t talk to her after that? Just heard about her death?’

‘Maybe a catch-up call here and there. Nothing major. Why?’

I shook my head.

‘I am still in shock. Just wondering what happened,’ I said.

‘The watchman, right? Awful. What kind of security is this?’

‘Yeah. It’s terrible.’

‘The security of women has become a big issue.’

I nodded.

I felt the earrings poke my thigh from inside the pocket of my trousers.

Saurabh returned from the bathroom. I switched topics.

‘Doesn’t it get lonely here, captain?’ I said.

‘It does. We aren’t allowed to keep our families here.’

‘Where’s your family?’ Saurabh said.

‘My wife and kids are in Dubai right now. My brother-in-law lives there.’

‘Oh,’ I said and sat up straight. Saurabh and I exchanged a glance.

‘What?’ Faiz said.

‘You look too young to be married,’ Saurabh said.

Faiz smiled.

‘Thank you. I am thirty-one. I have twin boys, three years old.’

‘I could not have guessed either,’ I said.

‘The Army keeps you fit.’

‘So your wife lives in Dubai?’ I said.

‘No, she is only there with her brother for six months. After that formal school starts for the twins. Actually, the Army has given us a home in Delhi.

That’s where we live.’

‘That’s nice. The Army takes care of its people,’ I said.

‘Yeah, it is a small flat in Arjun Vihar. But we have the ground floor with a small garden, which is great for the little ones.’

‘A garden is a luxury in Delhi,’ Saurabh said.

‘It is just a small green patch. However, there’s a large community of families from the Armed forces around, which helps a lot. Salma gets to meet many ladies and they complain about their absentee husbands.’ Faiz laughed.

‘You visit Delhi often?’ I said.

‘I go whenever duty allows, which isn’t much,’ Faiz said.

‘You must miss them a lot,’ Saurabh said, grabbing a large handful of almonds from the plate on the coffee table.

‘I miss them every day,’ Faiz said and sighed. ‘Every moment.’

He removed his sunglasses. His light grey eyes looked sad. He took out his mobile phone and showed us a picture of his family. His wife and two little boys stood next to the Burj Khalifa, one of the tallest buildings in the world. Each boy had an ice cream cone in his hand.

‘It’s tough being in the Army,’ I said.

‘Yeah,’ Faiz said. ‘It is hard. But anything for my desh.’

‘You are so inspiring,’ Saurabh said, finishing the last almond in his left hand while using his right to pick up a fistful of raisins. I tried to give Saurabh a dirty look for picking up so much food, but he ignored me.

‘Thank you. It’s just love for desh,’ Faiz said.

‘We should leave. We have disturbed you enough,’ I said.

All of us stood up.

‘No disturbance at all,’ Faiz said. ‘Always nice to have visitors.

Especially those who value our work. Before you go, let me show you the parts of the camp that civilians are allowed into.’

We took a walk around the soldiers’ tents and a firing range. After the tour, Faiz saw us out to the camp gate. He and I walked together as Saurabh went a few steps ahead of us.

‘I don’t have the latest news—what is happening with Zara’s case?’ Faiz said to me.

‘Same. Laxman is in custody. Trial yet to start,’ I said.

‘It is him, right?’ Faiz said.

‘They haven’t found any other suspects. So, looks like it is Laxman,’ I said. I put my hands in my pocket. My fingers touched the earrings.

‘Bastard, I hope they give him the death penalty,’ Faiz said.

‘Did Zara ever mention anything else?’ I said.

The captain stiffened. For the first time in our conversation I saw discomfort. However, he recovered in seconds.

‘Mention anything else, as in?’ he said.

‘Like, did she tell you she had any enemies? Or felt any danger?’

‘Not at all,’ Faiz said, his voice calm. ‘She was normal. Excited about life. Why?’

‘Nothing. Like I said, I am still in shock.’

‘So am I. But these watchmen, I am telling you. They come from villages and are an uneducated lot. Private security guards are no Army jawans.’

‘Of course,’ I said.

We reached the camp gate. The driver had arrived with the car by then and Saurabh was already sitting in it.

‘Did you know Sikander well?’ I said to Faiz.

He put his sunglasses on again.

‘Her stepbrother? No. Zara and I became friends only after she moved to Delhi.’

‘She loved him a lot,’ I said.

Faiz shrugged. ‘She was a loving person. Did not deserve this end.

Anyway, I think your driver is waiting.’

‘Why don’t you just sit on the coals and get cooked?’ I said. We had come to Shikara restaurant, a short walk from our houseboat. The restaurant had outdoor seating on jute charpoys. Every bed had an angeethi, or a portable heater, next to it. The temperature had dropped to three degrees Celsius.

Saurabh sat inches away from the smouldering coals.

He did not respond. Only his teeth chattered.

‘Let’s go back to the houseboat,’ I said. ‘Their dinner is fine.’

‘No, I am okay. I heard the wazwan here is amazing,’ Saurabh said, blowing on his hands.

The waiter saw Saurabh’s dismal state and brought us two blankets. We wrapped one each around ourselves. Ten minutes later, Saurabh had thawed enough to talk.

‘Something seemed odd about the captain,’ he said.

‘I agree. Maybe it is because he did not mention the earrings. Otherwise, a family man, well-mannered, hospitable, polite. All nice,’ I said.

‘Whenever someone is so nice, it is usually fishy.’

The waiter arrived with our food. Saurabh forgot about our conversation for the next ten minutes as he focused on ripping apart sheermal and cleaning out plates of rogan josh, meth maaz and safed kokur. Wazwan is the ultimate formal banquet in Kashmir. Elaborate wazwan meals can have up to three dozen dishes, most of them slow-cooked overnight and served communal style.

‘Do you want to hear my theory?’ I said.

Saurabh burped in response. I took it as a yes.

‘He liked Zara,’ I said.

‘Romantically?’

‘Yes. Zara visits Kashmir. Meets Faiz. She does a blog on the Army.’

‘Fine,’ Saurabh said.

‘Then, one scenario is Faiz had a crush on Zara, but Zara wasn’t interested.’

‘More likely is that she liked him back. They had an affair,’ Saurabh said.

‘What? How? She was with Raghu. Faiz is married.’

‘As if love, or rather lust, cares about such things. Faiz is a good-looking man, bhai.’

‘Zara had an affair? With a married man?’ I said.

Raw pain shot through me. I thought she hadn’t come back to me because she was happy with Raghu. But she did have space for another man in her life after all—just not me.

‘Yes, because I think just a crush cannot create murderous passion. An affair can.’

I didn’t respond, as I was still digesting the possibility that Zara could have cheated on Raghu.

‘Keshav, what happened?’ Saurabh shook my leg.

‘Huh? Nothing. Where were we?’

‘Zara had an affair with Captain Faiz. I am quite sure of this.’

‘So, during the affair Faiz gave her the earrings?’

‘Exactly, before things went bad.’

‘How?’

‘Maybe Zara wanted more and threatened to tell his wife.’

‘No. Zara had Raghu. They had gotten engaged recently.’

‘Fair point. So maybe Zara wanted to end it, but Faiz didn’t,’ Saurabh said, his hands hovering dangerously close to the angeethi coals again.

‘Zara has an affair, regrets her lapse of judgment, and goes back to Raghu. Captain can’t take it. Gets jealous.’

‘Yeah. He sits in his Army camp, sad, lonely and angry,’ Saurabh said.

‘And that’s when he decides to kill her.’

‘Phirni, sahib? People kill for the phirni here,’ the waiter said, as he arrived with dessert.

‘Theory is fine. How do we prove Faiz did it?’ I said.

We were eating breakfast at the houseboat dining table. Saurabh took six slices of toast on his plate and buttered them lovingly, one at a time.

‘We have the earrings,’ Saurabh said.

‘When did it become a crime to give gifts to someone? We need proper evidence. Accusing a serving Army officer is not a joke. Rana won’t even touch this until we get him solid proof.’

‘What do we do, bhai?’ Saurabh said. After applying butter, he proceeded to apply jam on each of his toasts.

‘Can you stop eating so much? What did you weigh last time? Ninety-six kilos?’

‘Ninety-five-and-a-half. Anyway, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. One should eat it well,’ Saurabh said, and took a bite of his toast.

‘Golu, you eat every meal too well.’

‘And you hardly eat,’ Saurabh said, taking a bite big enough to finish off half the toast.

‘I have a plan. It may help us get real evidence. Promise you won’t say no.’

‘Okay, what is it?’ Saurabh said, as he picked up another toast.

‘We need to go back to Delhi first,’ I said. ‘And you need to stop eating more toast.’

‘It’s a mad plan. I will never be a part of it,’ Saurabh said. We fastened our seatbelts. The flight to Delhi began to taxi on the Srinagar Airport runway.

‘It is not so crazy. We can do this. Frankly, it is the only way we can get the job done, of getting the evidence,’ I said.

‘Speaking of jobs, we may not have one when we arrive,’ Saurabh said.

We had extended our vacation to three weeks.

‘You emailed Chandan about my stomach infection?’ I said.

‘I did. He wanted to see a medical report from a local doctor. I’ll make one on a fake letterhead. Take the logo of a Srinagar clinic. Write some gibberish. What will Chandan know?’

‘That’s all he asked for? To extend our leave by one week?’

‘He also wanted a picture of you in the hospital bed.’

‘Who is he? Our hostel warden?’

The airhostess served us sandwiches. I looked out of the window.

Clouds hugged the Himalayan peaks beneath us. From this height, the valley below seemed peaceful. Of course, from here, you couldn’t see human beings, the cause for most troubles on the planet.

‘What do we do about the hospital picture?’

‘I will say I forgot to take it. Or my phone fell into the Jhelum. Or the hospital did not allow pictures. Who cares?’

‘You are right. Screw Chandan.’

‘Yeah, screw him,’ Saurabh said, showing his middle finger. A flight attendant noticed him.

‘Sorry, ma’am,’ Saurabh said and folded his finger. He turned to me.

‘The idea of sitting in Chandan Classes all day after this adventure makes me want to puke.’

‘The adventure has not ended. We still have to go to the captain’s house and get that evidence.’

‘You want to raid a fauji’s home and get shot?’

‘It is an empty home. Arjun Vihar is like any other apartment colony in Delhi. It is not some general’s residence with fifty security guards.’

‘How will we get in? Break a window?’

‘We have to do a recce and see.’

‘There will be some security.’

‘Just at the main gate. Like campus.’

‘If we get caught, we get arrested. We lose our jobs. Nobody ever hires us again.’

‘You are right. Huge downside. Stupid idea. Leave it,’ I said.

I looked out of the plane window again. The view below had turned into flat, dry and brown land. I closed my eyes. Half an hour later, Saurabh woke me up.

‘Can you borrow a power drill from the mechanical engineering department at IIT? Will your juniors on campus help you?’

‘Yeah, why?’

‘I can use that to drill through the lock.’

‘What happened to—“if we get caught nobody will ever give us a job later”?’

‘Well, nobody is giving us a job even now.’






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