The Girl In Room 105[CHAPTER 9]


 

Chapter 9


‘Hey, Keshav.’ Raghu tapped my shoulder from behind. It was the day of Zara’s funeral.

   After leaving the police station, I had recounted everything to my parents. I had to even explain everything to Chandan Arora, who had been calling me continuously. ‘I am with you,’ he had said, gutkha in mouth, when he spoke to me on the phone. ‘You can say to media that you work for a reputed coaching class company. Chandan Classes. We are going national, you know.’ I had to tell him I couldn’t talk to the media, let alone use this as a PR opportunity to promote his classes.

  Saurabh and I had come to the Muslim graveyard in Chattarpur, near Zara’s house.

‘Hi, Raghu. When did you arrive?’ I said, turning towards him.

   He had his left arm in a cast. His forehead and the back of his neck had bruises. He wore a white kurta pyjama. He removed his black-framed spectacles and rubbed his eyes.

‘Yesterday evening. So, you saw her?’ he said in a soft voice. I nodded.

‘Tell me everything. Please,’ Raghu said, ‘I don’t want to be in the dark.’

  Somehow, after Zara’s death, I didn’t feel as much animosity towards him. I wondered if he knew about the messages Zara had sent to me before her death. Maybe I should tell him, I thought. I had already shared them with the police, who would probably tell him eventually. I wanted to rub it in his face that Zara wanted to get back with me. Scolding myself for thinking such shallow thoughts, I recounted the night of Zara’s death to him in as much detail as possible. However, I toned down the exact messages she had sent me.

‘We reconnected, I went to wish her. That’s all,’ I said as I finished the story.

He nodded, his gaze down.

‘It’s terrible,’ I said into the awkward silence.

  He bit his lip and looked into my eyes for a long time. No words, just this level look.

Did he think I had done it?

‘I went to her room because…’ I began to say again.

  ‘I know. I went to the police station last night. I found out about your chat with her.’

‘She messaged me first,’ I said defensively.

  ‘How does it matter now?’ he said. ‘We lost her. Forever. Because of this godforsaken city. I had told her to move much earlier.’

  I looked away. Zara’s father came up to us then, wanting to speak to Raghu in private. He and Raghu walked away from me.

  Saurabh and I went to the grave. Zara’s body lay wrapped in a white shroud. I had an absurd feeling that she was waiting for me to come closer and talk to her, and that when I did so she would wake up and smile that beautiful smile, a smile that would make everything alright again.

   A few elderly Muslim men nearby were praying aloud in Arabic. Safdar came to stand close by, his face grim, hands clasped. Even though Muslim funerals usually don’t have women present, Zara’s stepmother, Zainab, stood behind him a bit further away, along with some relatives.

   Zara’s father took a handful of mud and placed it under Zara’s head. I saw Zara’s stepbrother, Sikander, who I knew was in his early twenties but looked way younger due to his baby face. I had only seen Sikander in some old family pictures. Zara’s father, originally from Srinagar, became a widower when Zara was three years old. When Zara turned five, he married a widow called Farzana, in Srinagar. Farzana had lost her first husband to militancy in Kashmir. Sikander was her son from that marriage. Hence, Zara and Sikander grew up together as step-siblings in Kashmir. Eight years later, Safdar and Farzana got divorced, after Safdar discovered that her family had militant roots; Safdar hated fundamentalists. They separated, each taking their biological child with them as they went their own ways. Safdar moved his business to Delhi, and Zara shifted with him. In Delhi, Zara’s father married his accountant, Zainab. Sikander, meanwhile, stayed back and grew up with his mother, Farzana, in Srinagar.

   Sikander stood near Zara’s body, fingers interlinked. He picked up a ball of mud and placed it under Zara’s chin. He sobbed as he performed the ritual.

  Zara and Sikander had remained close after their parents’ separation, even though Safdar discouraged the contact. Sikander, from what Zara had told me, was a poor student. She used to help him with his lessons and ensure he passed his exams. When Zara left Kashmir, his grades slipped and he never made it past class five.

‘I just hope Sikander is fine. He is a baby,’ Zara often said to me.

   I noticed Prof. Saxena, Zara’s PhD guide from IIT Delhi. He had come to the funeral along with his wife. Prof. Saxena was also the dean of student affairs at IIT. He went up to Safdar and they spoke to each other for a few minutes.

   As Prof. Saxena stepped away, Zara’s father called Raghu and handed a fistful of mud to him. Obviously only close male relatives performed this ritual and, I guess, Safdar saw Raghu as part of the family. A maulvi recited Arabic verses as Raghu placed the earth in his hand under Zara’s shoulders. My resentment against Raghu came rushing back. Why did he get to be with her at the end? Why was I watching this from a distance, like an imposter? Why was no one calling me to pay my respects?

   The maulvi’s prayers filled the air as Zara’s male relatives lowered her body into the grave. People ahead of me covered my view, so that I had to elbow my way to the front. I whispered to her for the last time.

‘Forgive me, Zara, for not fighting for us.’

‘What, bhai?’ Saurabh said, as he heard me mumble.

‘Nothing,’ I said, my head averted to shield my wet eyes from him.

‘Shall we go?’ Saurabh said. ‘I don’t think they want us here.’

‘Let me offer my condolences to her father and then we can leave.’

   As they covered Zara’s body with more earth, Safdar spoke to a tall man in his thirties. The man stood with his back very straight, and had the typical Kashmiri apple-cheeked complexion. I went to them and waited politely for them to finish their conversation.

‘Thank you again, Faiz. You left duty and came all the way,’ Safdar said.

  ‘What are you saying, uncle? This is family. What happened is just tragic,’ Faiz said.

  Safdar nodded and embraced Faiz before the latter finally left. Then Safdar noticed me.

‘Did you have to come here?’

‘I just wanted to offer my condolences,’ I said.

  ‘You were there. In her room. And now you have the guts to offer sympathy?’ he thundered.

‘Uncle, I loved your daughter. How can you even think…’

He put up his hand to stop me.

‘I told you to leave her alone. Why didn’t you?’

‘I loved her.’

‘That is why you let your family humiliate her?’

‘I can’t control them. Even you didn’t support us, uncle.’

‘I gave you an option,’ he said. ‘And I am giving you one now.’

‘What?’

‘Just leave. Khuda Hafiz.’

   I reached Alwar in the afternoon. I had taken Inspector Rana’s permission to go home for a day. I wanted my parents around, lest I had an emotional breakdown. My mother sensed my pain and prepared all my favourite Rajasthani dishes. Over gatte ki subzi and hot phulkas topped with desi ghee, I watched the afternoon news.

‘Breaking News: Watchman arrested for the murder of IIT Delhi girl.’

Anchor Arijit gave the details.

  ‘Himadri hostel watchman Laxman Reddy has been arrested for the murder of Zara Lone, a Kashmiri PhD student in IIT Delhi.’

  The visuals showed a dazed Laxman being escorted into a police van. Arijit continued, ‘Sources say Laxman Reddy would often stare at the girls sitting outside in the Himadri hostel garden and make them feel uncomfortable. In fact, about a month ago, he tried to shoot an upskirt video of a student while she sat on her scooter. Zara Lone confronted Laxman and they had an argument. Zara Lone had slapped Laxman in full public view at the time.’

   My mother walked into the living room with more phulkas. She picked up the remote and switched the TV off.

‘You have come to get away from this case,’ she said.

‘Maa, what are you doing?’ I said. I pulled the remote out of her hand.

‘They are giving new information.’

  ‘She’s dead. Whatever information they give, that Muslim girl is not coming back. Thank God.’

‘Maa,’ I shouted, ‘stop it. She died less than a week ago.’

  ‘She caused enough trouble when alive. Please don’t let her affect you now that she is gone.’

‘Enough, maa,’ I said. I took a phulka from the plate in her hand.

‘What happened with your job search?’

‘I am trying, maa. Had interviews. Let’s see.’

I didn’t have to see, they had rejected me already.

After my mother left the room in a huff I switched on the TV again.

Arijit was speaking to a reporter.

‘So what else are we hearing?’ Arijit said. The reporter spoke into his mike.

  ‘We are at the Hauz Khas police station. Laxman Reddy is now in police custody. The Delhi Police claims they have solved the case in record time. They have ample evidence to convict the watchman. In fact, the assistant commissioner said that it is high time the media accepted that they were wrong in harshly judging the Delhi Police, which has in fact done a fantastic job in this case.’

  ‘Well, self-congratulations apart, how does the Delhi Police know for sure it is the watchman?’ Arijit said.

  ‘The CCTV footage shows the watchman missing from his post for forty minutes. He had voyeuristic tendencies. Zara Lone, who had slapped him, had also filed a complaint against him. The police said Laxman Reddy comes from a village two hours from Hyderabad, in Telangana. A few days ago, Zara Lone’s fiancé and internet entrepreneur Raghu Venkatesh, who lives in Hyderabad, was violently attacked by local goons. This incident could be connected to Laxman as well. Mr Raghu evaded death, but suffered significant injuries and was admitted in the Apollo Hospital. Back to you, Arijit.’

  The camera shifted to Arijit in his window next to seven other tiny windows with one panellist each.

Arijit made the opening remarks to start the debate.

  ‘So, here we are. A case of a serial stalker and voyeur who was allowed to remain a watchman in a prestigious institute like IIT. On our panel today we discuss: shouldn’t the IIT authorities take responsibility for not acting on a complaint against a watchman for weeks? Did IIT kill Zara Lone?’

  A few panellists immediately began to speak, cutting each other out. I couldn’t understand one sentence, and the loud noise was hurting my ears. I picked up the remote and switched off the TV, restoring silence in the room.

‘Thank God you shut that subzi-mandi debate,’ my mother said from the kitchen.

   I tossed and turned in bed for an hour. I could not sleep. But I wasn’t thinking about Zara and crying like I had been doing every night; tonight my mind was on something else. Did Laxman Reddy actually kill Zara? The question kept ringing in my head. Yes, he had a motive. Zara had slapped him in public. There was circumstantial evidence too. He left his seat that night. He could well have done it.

  And yet, something didn’t add up. I couldn’t specify the reason, but I had a strange feeling in my gut. As Delhi police declared victory and the media created noisy panels to discuss security, something didn’t feel right.

I called Saurabh.

‘Sleeping?’ I said as he picked the call.

‘No, bhai. Watching videos.’

‘What kind of videos?’ I said and smirked.

‘Shut up, bhai. YouTube.’

‘Yeah, right. How’s Chandan Classes?’

‘As screwed as ever. Gutkha man asked about you.’

‘Am back tomorrow. To join you in your misery.’

‘Take your time. I will handle it here. Are you feeling okay?’

 ‘Okay is still quite far. Cried less than three hours today. So that is an improvement.’

‘It will get better.’

‘Hope so. But something else is playing on my mind too.’

‘What?’

‘You saw the news?’

‘They arrested Laxman Reddy. Creep used to make upskirt videos of IIT

girls. What is upskirt, bhai?’

‘If a girl is wearing a skirt, trying to take a video of under that skirt.’

‘How sick and stupid is that?’

‘I know.’

‘Glad they got him.’

‘Yeah. He’s sick, Golu. But did he kill Zara?’

‘What? You heard, right? Missing from his post. Zara slapping him.

Complaints.’

‘Yeah, but…’ I hesitated. ‘I don’t know. Something doesn’t seem right…’

  ‘You are just disturbed, bhai. In shock. I suggest you spend some more time at home. And please stop watching TV.’




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