Ankush Saikia is the author of “Dead Meat” and “The Girl from Nongrim Hills”, a noir thriller set in Shillong. He has worked for India Today magazine, Sage Publications and Dorling Kindersley. He was shortlisted for the fourth Outlook/Picador-India non-fiction writing award (2005). Below you can read an excerpt from his latest book, Dead Meat. Courtesy: Ankush Saikia
Dead Meat: a crime novel by Ankush Saikia
His childhood years had been lonely, his teenage years had been angry, and by the time he reached college in Delhi Arjun was looking for a way to escape all that lay behind him. The Indian Army had appeared to be a way out. But while holding the rank of major he was forced to leave the service after narrowly escaping being court-martialed for assaulting a senior office at their base in upper Assam. Back in Delhi he had tried his hand at several businesses: a security placement agency, a tour operator, and then a restaurant, all three of which had ultimately failed, mainly due to his lack of interest in the enterprises, or rather his lack of interest in running a business. In between he had also travelled to Iraq, when a former brigadier of his in the army had recommended him to a British military specialist who ran his own private security firm. Arjun had been signed on as a middle-rung supervisor at US$ 1,250 a week. Three months into his contract he was kidnapped by insurgents after an ambush in Ramadi, and made to watch the beheading of two Westerners who were fellow captives. He narrowly escaped being decapitated himself when he was freed by an American special forces unit, but he came home with physical injuries and psychological damage, including hallucinations. His marriage to Sonali, a Delhi girl, already on the rocks, fell apart, and she began to talk about leaving with their daughter to live with another man. By then he had entered the private detective business. It had come through to him, as had several subsequent cases, through his friend: the businessman and small-time politician Bunty Chawla.
A little after 10am the next morning Arjun was speeding along the DND Expressway, headed towards Noida. Across the road divider, the heavy morning traffic headed into Delhi had clogged into a slow-moving stream. Whatever the minus points of his job, Arjun reflected, at least he didn’t have to show up in an office every morning. The Expressway curved, and down below to his left were fields with crops, where beside a hut a diesel engine was pumping ground water out of a bore-well into the fields. He came to the bridge above the Yamuna. The waters of the river were a sluggish black, the same water that would seep into the banks and down into the ground. In the distance, through the glare of the sun, he could see the apartment blocks of Mayur Vihar. The toll gate appeared up ahead, and as he tried to decide which lane to take, a bright red Lamborghini Aventador screamed past inches from him. Arjun swore, and chose a different lane from the sports car, even though it had a longer line.
He had been woken up at 6am by the maid ringing the doorbell, and had opened the door for her and gone back to bed. The maid was a taciturn elderly woman whom Arjun and Sonali had simply referred to as didi. She regarded the departure of the women from the house as a calamity, and the way she banged the dishes while washing them and dragged the furniture while sweeping the sitting room showed that her displeasure with Arjun was not something temporary. He couldn’t sleep anymore, but still waited till she had finished washing the clothes in the other bathroom and making his breakfast. Exactly an hour later at 7am she had rapped on his door, and he had leapt of out bed and gone into the sitting room where a cup of tea covered with a saucer stood on the dining table. His breakfast of chappatis and anda bhurji was in a hotcase in the kitchen. He had picked up the newspapers from the balcony, put on the news on the television, and sat down on the sofa with his cup of tea while Didi cleaned up the bedroom. It was a hot day already, with no sign of rain. Of the tandoor murder case there had been no mention on the television, while in the newspapers they said that the body hadn’t been identified as yet and that the missing restaurant manager Suraj Joshi had a prior criminal record connected to prostitution. The didi had left wordlessly—she usually didn’t speak to him unless absolutely necessary—and Arjun had taken a shower after that, pulled on a pair of Wrangler jeans and a polo tee, and eaten his breakfast. At 9.30am Bhullar had turned up for the agreement papers, paid him half in cash and half in cheque, and by 10am Arjun had left the flat.
Now he was driving past the offices and malls and showrooms on either side of the main thoroughfare in Sector 18. He had left Delhi behind and was in Uttar Pradesh. Looking around there seemed to be no end to the growing rapaciousness of the country’s consuming classes. He took out his phone and tried Kuldeep Kukreja’s number once again. The same high, theatrical voice answered, but cut off the call when Arjun identified himself. He carried on past Sector 18, took a few turns, and his surroundings slowly grew less polished as the sector numbers increased. He was looking for one in the 100s, and when it finally came he saw there were slum-like clusters of shacks, run-down warehouses, and dusty little markets. Beyond them, against the colourless sky bleached by the sun, rose up several apartment blocks, most of them half-complete. Even before Arjun had parked his car amidst the rubble in front of Sylvan Heights and then taken the rickety lift up to the sixth floor, he knew it was the sort of place where people booked flats with their life’s savings only to later find leaking ceilings and warped windows.
Sure enough, there was a damp stain blooming high up in a corner of the sitting room. Gaurav Sharma’s father Dinesh, a small, neat man with grey-white hair parted and combed back, noticed Arjun looking up, and said, “There’s always some small problem in these flats. The overflow from the water tanks on top of the building leaks down that side of the wall. I’ve complained to the building supervisor, let’s see what happens. What did you say your name was again?”
“Arjun Arora. I work in the same company as Gaurav. Have you heard from him?”
“Has Mr Makhija sent you? He was very fond of Gaurav, you know.” Having said that the father fell silent for a while, before saying, “He left for work three days ago in the morning, and called his mother that evening saying that he would be late. After that …”
By now the mother, a thin, pressed woman in a plain sari, and a young girl who looked like a daughter, had come into the sitting room and sat down on the divan. It was a spacious flat, but the finishing was rough, and it already looked rundown. On one wall was a MK Infrastructure calendar, and above the television set was a framed photograph of Gaurav standing beside Mr Makhija, both of them in shiny suits, the red-and-green of what looked like a wedding reception tent behind them. Now the mother spoke, but all she said was, “I kept his dinner in the hot case and was watching television till 10pm.”
“His phone was already switched off by then,” the father added.
Arjun looked at the daughter. Why was she at home at this hour? She looked old enough to have finished college. She stared back at him blankly, and her parents looked at one another and then at Arjun.
“We thought he might have gone on a trip with some friends,” Arjun said, “but then we thought that we should check with you. He hasn’t called you since that evening?”
“Mr Makhija said the same thing,” the father said. “But Gaurav wouldn’t go anywhere just like that. Besides, he didn’t have too many friends.”
“Nitin is his closest friend,” the mother said, “but he hasn’t even come to ask about him.”
The daughter spoke for the first time: “He had called me this morning and said he would be coming by today.”
“I called him day before to ask about Gaurav,” the father said to Arjun. “He said he hadn’t met him on the day he went missing.”
“Have you gone to the police?” Arjun asked the father, who just shook his head. They suspect the worst, he thought, looking at their strained faces.
A servant girl came in then, carrying a tray with two cups of tea and a plate of Krackjack biscuits. Her clothes were ragged, and her broad, bare feet were dirty and cracked. The servant girl, the Sharmas, the Makhijas: all links in a food chain. But where did he, Arjun Arora, the outsider, fit in? The girl put the cups of tea down on the table between the two men and left.
“We are an ordinary middle-class family,” the father said, his voice quavering with emotion. “Our son means everything for us.”
“His marriage is coming up in a few months time,” the mother said. “A very nice girl. You know, Gaurav was running the entire house after his father retired. He’ll be taking care of Pinki’s wedding too.”
So Pinki was the daughter, waiting to get married off. Arjun wondered how much dowry they would have to pay.
“Mr Makhija was very fond of Gaurav,” the father repeated. “He trusted him and gave him a lot of important work. We thought he might have gone somewhere on some company business, but when I called Mr Makhija …”
“Was Gaurav left-handed?” Arjun suddenly asked.
The three of them looked at one another, then back at him. The father finally said, “Yes.”
“Did he wear his wristwatch on the right hand?”
The father nodded mutely. He had the look of an uncomplaining lower-level government official, retired now and being looked after by his son who worked in a big company. But where was the son?
“Do you know if he knew someone called Suraj Joshi?” Arjun asked the father, who shook his head, and said, “I told you he didn’t have many friends. He was always working.”
Arjun caught the daughter looking at her father with something like pity. What did she know about her brother? He cleared his throat, shifted his weight in the chair, and said, “Please don’t get alarmed with what I’m saying, but I think you’ve heard of the tandoor murder case?”
“We’ve seen it on the news,” the father said, staring fixedly at Arjun.
“I think, maybe, you should try and identify the body that’s been found. Just in case, do you understand, just to clear any doubts.”
His voice a low whisper now, the father said, “Is it him? Is it Gaurav?”
The mother started weeping, and the daughter moved closer to her and comforted her. What could he tell them? His namesake in the Mahabharata would never have been confronted with a dilemma like this.
“Why did you ask if he was left-handed?” the father persisted, still in a whisper.
The door bell rang just then, startling them all. The daughter rose to open the door, while the mother wiped her tears.
“Nitin bhaiyya,” the daughter said, opening the door. “We were waiting for you.”
A fit-looking man came into the room. He was fair-complexioned with a receding hairline, and was wearing jeans and a blue Rbk sports shirt,. He looked at Arjun, then asked them, “Aunty, Uncle, any news of Gaurav?”
He sat down on the chair near Arjun, who studied him. There was something of an athlete about the newcomer, and he jiggled his right leg nervously.
“Nothing so far Nitin beta,” the father said, then to Arjun, “Can I come along with you?”
“I can drop you till Ashram,” Arjun said. “You’ll have to go to AIIMS.”
That was where the body, or body parts rather, would be kept.
“Why are you going to AIIMS?” Nitin asked him, and when Dinesh Sharma told him, he raised his hands to his head: “Hey Bhagwan! I hope it isn’t Gaurav. Should I come with you?”
“No beta, you stay here with Pinki and Aunty,” the father said, and slowly got to his feet. He headed inside saying he had to put on his shoes. The mother got up too, calling out to the servant girl for another cup of tea. Pinki followed her in, and Arjun was left alone with Nitin. He turned to look at Arjun, and stuck out his hand.
“Nitin Madhok,” he said. His grip was firm and strong.
“Arjun Arora. You’re a friend of Gaurav’s?”
“When was the last time you met him or spoke with him?”
“The day before he disappeared. I spoke to him over the phone. Who are you?”
“I’m from MK Infrastructure. How did he seem to you when you spoke to him?”
“How did he seem … he seemed normal. We just talked about this and that. Are you looking for him? What’s happened to him?”
The father came into the sitting room and Arjun got up.
“I’m trying to find out,” he said to Nitin.
The mother came to the door as they left. The father looked at her, and said, “I’ll call you if I get to know anything.”
She nodded and closed the door, while Nitin Madhok craned his neck and looked at them.
Mr Sharma sat with his hands on his knees looking out straight ahead at the vehicles on the road burning under the merciless sun. This was how he would have sat six days of every week of his life in the bus going to work, earning a few rupees to support his family. Now in the twilight of his life his son had gone missing. Arjun had already given the family a clean chit, based solely on his instinct. He felt certain they knew nothing about Gaurav or whatever his plans might have been. The dowry case he had been called in to investigate a few years ago was still in his mind. The groom and his family had hired a house in Greater Kailash part II along with a luxury sedan, and had tricked the girl’s family into believing they were big industrialists. After the wedding the dowry demands had started, and one day the girl had found herself beaten up and thrown out of her husband’s car. When she had finally returned after a few days at her parents’, she had found the house empty and locked, the Mercedes missing. Her father had got in touch with Arjun through Bunty Chawla, and Arjun had traced the whole rotten family back to a tenement in north Delhi. Unlike that case, here he believed the rest of the family to be innocent.
“I would have come with you,” Arjun said, “but I have an appointment somewhere.”
“That’s all right. I’ll manage.”
He had an uncomplaining resilience that reminded Arjun of his parents.
“Just got to the reception and to the help desk.”
The father nodded.
“You can take an auto from Ashram,” Arjun said. “It’ll cost about 80 or 90 rupees.”
“I’ll take a bus beta,” the father said. Waste not, want not.
“You said Gaurav was going to get married in a few months. To whom?”
“A girl I found through an office colleague. Stays in Khirki Extension with her parents.”
“What’s her name?”
“Meenakshi. Sood is her family’s title.”
An old-fashioned name, Arjun thought, and could almost imagine the cramped flat in Khirki Extension and the demure girl sitting with her head bowed.
“Did Gaurav go to meet her?”
“Yes, they’ve met a couple of times. The marriage is still a few months away. Gaurav is thinking of buying another flat.”
“For himself and Meenakshi?”
So little Gaurav had been planning to move out, spread his wings.
“Gaurav’s friend, Nitin. What does he do?” Arjun asked.
“He works in an event management company. Gaurav was friendly with him right from when we stayed in our old quarters in Sarojini Nagar. There was a big group of them.” The father smiled at the memory. “Always playing cricket. During Holi and Diwali we would have our colony functions.”
Arjun guessed there were no such colony functions now at Sylvan Heights. He was back on the Expressway and stepped down on the accelerator. The road was clear now, and most cars zipped along at over 100km. He crossed the bridge, and to their far left were the hazy, uneven outlines of Jamia Nagar: the location of Batla House and the infamous terrorist encounter.
“He was a good cricket player,” the father said, “even played in the Ranji Trophy.”
“Who?” Arjun was momentarily confused. He had been sketching out the route he had to take from Ashram to get to Natarajan’s office.
“Nitin. But then he had a back injury, then a knee injury, and he had to stop playing. Otherwise he might have been in this T20 thing that’s going on nowadays.”
Supposed to be close friends, and yet Nitin had turned up at Gaurav’s house only today. And there had been something overly melodramatic about his reaction when Dinesh Sharma had told him where he was going.
“Does he have any other girlfriends?”
The question appeared to shock Mr Sharma. “Of course not!”
The traffic swelled as they came off the Expressway onto the Ring Road. Up ahead was the Ashram flyover. Arjun managed to maneuver to the roadside and halted near a bus stop. The father got down.
“Let me know if you … find anything,” Arjun said, and Dinesh Sharma nodded.
As he drove away Arjun looked at his rear view mirror. He saw a small, neat man, waiting patiently in the midday heat for a bus. Arjun was thankful he didn’t have to accompany him to the hospital to identify the body. He took a right from under the Ashram flyover, joining a dense, slow-moving stream of traffic. It was close to midday, and he hadn’t yet heard from DSP Prem Tanwar about the car, or from Computer Baba about the call records, nor had he managed to track down Kuldeep Kukreja. He appeared to be nowhere near the right track on this case.