Thursday, June 19, 2014

THE MURDER OF GUL DORABJEE



At first, Rustom decided not to return to Vincent. That was not his home anyway. He even got into a bus headed for Venkaipalayam to meet his sister. But when the bus took a turn towards Punnur at the Valai Boat Jetty Junction, he changed his mind. He got down and managed to buy a ride in a chicken-carrier rickshaw that was going back to Vincent. He had to scooch next to the driver - a boy barely sixteen or seventeen years old who gladly took all the Gandhi heads that he flashed in his face. The kid apparently offered the ride for free on other days, badly in need for a company for the hour-long journey back home. He usually waited at the Jetty Junction for somebody to ask. Rustom realized in some time as to why. The boy couldn’t keep his mouth shut for long. Not speaking for an hour could drive him nuts. His name was Ali, and he drove a load of chickens down to the Jetty Market once every week for his uncle who had a farm in Vincent.
“You don’t look familiar,” he said when they were well on their way, “Have I seen you before?”
“No.” Rustom said showing little interest.
“I don’t forget faces even if it’s only for a second I saw it ever in my life. So you’re not from Vincent. Meeting someone there?”
He nodded.
“In Old Town?”
“I’m not sure.”
Rustom did not know there was an ‘old town’. Two decades ago when he left, the marketplace in Vincent was just five minutes in spread on either sides of the Main Souk road starting with a Philomena Tailors and Maurya Chits on one end, and terminating with Binny Bakery and Faraz Daruwallah’s shop of captive birds on the other. It was a small sleepy hamlet that collectively grieved the death of a neighbor’s pet with community prayers. He was there for hardly a month. Every time he picked the newspaper to check on ‘The Dorabjee Case’, he did come across the burgeoning new developments with seafood export industries cropping along the costs of Vincent every other day, a boom that was already beginning to spread its roots back in the day when he was around. In fact it was the industrial lobbyists who were responsible for his transfer, and many others’, to Vincent. It was they who steered his life towards that abysmal road of no return, a road even Vincent seemed to have taken at the time. When he left, change was everywhere, in and around Vincent, and the sheer joy of small life was visibly on its way out.
Rustom gasped for breath in the wind, as the boy drove like a lunatic.
“I know almost everybody in Old Town,” he said, “We will find out your guy even if he’s in the Paulo Area. The new district is a mess, filled with all the factory workers and office people. It could be a little difficult to fish out somebody from there. Nobody knows anybody since they're all from outside. What’s his name? The guy you’re meeting with?”
Rustom thought for a minute. Then said, “Farva… her name is Farva Bamji.”
“Bamji… Hmm… I know a Cyrus Bamji.”  He thought out loud, “A guy who runs a cycle repair shop in Old Town. Then there’s a Firoz Banajee, who’s dead now. So that’s out. Parsi people, right?”
Rustom nodded.
“Bamji… Bamji… Let me think. What does she do?”
“I don’t know what she does now. I don’t even know if she’s still alive. About twenty years ago, she worked for this woman called Gul Dorabjee. She must have been about fifty back then.”
“The Murder Case- Gul Dorabjee?”
“Yeah.”
“The dead one, right?”
“Yes.”
“How do you know them? I mean, the Bamjis and the Dorabjees and all. Are you from some newspaper?”
Rustom remained silent, as the boy squinted at him trying to search for clues.
“That one was a nutcase, I heard- Gul Dorabjee. It was a chap from outside town who finished her.”
“He didn’t do it!” Rustom said impulsively.
The boy was surprised at his passive companion’s sudden rush of passion.
“He didn’t do it. He couldn’t have. Killing a housefly made him nauseous.”
The boy frowned. ”How do you know?” he said not taking eyes off of the road.
“He’s a friend.”
“The murderer? I mean, the guy who was tried and sent to jail?”
Rustom nodded again.
“Actually my folks knew this Dorabjee quite well. They might know Bamji as well. Farva Bamji, yes? She must have worked there during the murder then.”
Rustom was silent again.
“I heard most people were happy that she was gone. Dorabjee, that is. I mean, only the non-Parsi people… even the authorities and the city council and all, they all partied afterwards. She was a pain in the wrong place or something. Parsi people of course lost their leader. Now there are so few of them around. Back then she was there to get into fights with everybody who questioned the rights of Parsis- very unlike Parsis, if you know what I mean. They are a peaceful lot otherwise. But she messed up with the Collector and the City Commissioner every week. Can you believe it? Some activism crap and all!”
The boy went on and on about the fabled Gul Dorabjee, the mysteries surrounding whose murder found no end in the newspapers for years. He reminded Rustom of his own young days, when he talked and talked like there was no tomorrow. He used to love talking. If it irritated anybody, no one told him about it anyway. It was the Prison that muted him. Especially being in there for a crime he never committed, being on life sentence for a murder that he had no part to play in.

The long road to Vincent was still deserted except a few structures that had sprung up here and there over the years. Coconut palms lined up on either sides of the road the entire run. He saw as many coconut palms together for the first time only when he came to Vincent. He was twenty-four then, and was newly appointed as assistant engineer at the PWD. Vincent was on the brink of change. New buildings were springing up every day. Every other morning, a new scheme was flagged off. Old roads were widened, and new ones were built. The public sector expanded ominously providing ample infrastructure for the booming private sector. The new posting that brought him into the picture was to take care of a road-widening scheme that was long stalled due to public noncooperation- the controversial road widening of the Church Gate, a road that housed among many others, the humble abode of the firebrand Gul Dorabjee. Things totally spun out of control as Dorabjee who up until then brawled for reasons exclusively pertaining to her community, for the first time rose to save the Holy Trinity Church of the Mother of Vincent. The plan, per se, would not have affected the Church as such, but its course razed all the houses that stood on it, and tore through the church compound splitting the Bishop’s quarter into two. Gul Dorabjee’s fights with the system were numerous. There was an ongoing battle with the city council for procuring landmass to build an Agiary, the Fire Temple for the Parsis in Vincent as “the resident Parsis had to fly as long as Bombay for even getting married”. There was also another tussle for reclaiming land for burial grounds for Parsis. But unlike any of those causes, the movement against the widening of Church Gate road got more mileage on newspapers and other media as she was backed by the Christians as well as the Anglo Indian community of Vincent.

Rustom vividly remembered his first meeting with Dorabjee, when he went to break the news of the road widening and the demolition of the houses. She was very harsh, and extremely abusive. But then, for her, he was just the face of the adversary. She must have been a nice lady who would have welcomed him had the meeting took place in better circumstances. But sadly he only met her once more- but that was on her last day. Things were sour even then, although in a different way.

When their rickshaw reached Vincent, it was teatime. He did not recognize a single building there. If he were just passing by, he wouldn’t even have noticed that it was the same Vincent. That old Church Gate Road now housed numerous multi-storied buildings, owned by the Navrang group and other such corporate giants, which sprung on the houses of late Gul Dorabjee and her erstwhile neighbors.

Ali invited him for a tea, where Rustom met his large family, surprisingly all of who were home at that time of day. There must have been easily twenty of them counting the smallest one crawling on the floor blowing spit bubbles. It was one of his uncles, the one that owned the poultry farm, who remembered Farva Bamji as the faithful maid who had to witness the murder of her own mistress.
Rustom shuddered.
Bamji’s statement was the final nail to his coffin that was already erected by circumstantial evidences including a forced-open-door and his singular presence at the crime scene. When the whole world accused him of smothering and hanging Gul Dorabjee up on her ceiling fan, the motives were pretty hazy. But when Bamji claimed to have witnessed Dorabjee resisting his advances before the subsequent strangling, Vincent spat on him in unison. From a likely foul play of the biggies and the investors, when the motive was patently reduced to a primal instinct, Gul Dorabjee was raised to a post of the first martyr of Vincent for the wrong cause. She was an admirable woman, but her fight against injustice and the lopsided growth of the private sector was all lost in the tidbits of a sexual attack that never took place. And in the process, a clueless innocent was framed.

It was not just Ali’s uncle, but also his mother and few of his aunts who remembered Farva Bamji in the due course of the tea.
“She was a pious lady. She only went crazy after the murder,” reminisced one of them, “I have seen her roaming around the market place on the Main Souk road begging for food. I think she had a brother and a son, not that either of them could have done anything to help her in that state.”
“She must have lived like that on the road for almost a year,” said Ali’s uncle, “Then one morning she was found bleeding and dead outside the fish market having eaten half of her own hand!”
Rustom was speechless. The woman he held in great contempt all his life despite having known she was only a pawn in the big game, had paid her debts and left. He couldn’t see her as anything but heartless up until that very moment he heard of her sad end. She turned out to be the woman who knew the bearing of her sin even before she committed it. Rustom had forgiven the poor woman by the time he took leave from Ali’s house with a box of dry meat his mother packed for his journey. He did not know what he would have said even if he met Bamji anyway.

It was not the corporate companies that killed Gul Dorabjee, he knew. They only forced Bamji to testify in order to frame him when the uproar of her death began to get in the way of their plans. It was not even a well thought of resolve. They just wanted to clear up the mess and move on quickly. They cleaned up evidences that could have proved his innocence. But none of it mattered anymore. Time was served, and parole was granted.

He was the only witness to that murder, and probably the only one who knew who actually killed her, although nobody believed his story. He had tried to stop it even. Everything he testified in court was true to his knowledge. On the afternoon of that fateful day, he had gone to collect signatures from the residents on Church Road for their consent for road widening, and coax those ones that turned hostile. He was alone as Harisharan, the field boy who usually accompanied him was down with flue. Besides, he was always making up excuses to avoid working on days Rustom scouted the neighborhood as he was a resident too, and clearly did not want to antagonize his people.

Dorabjee was in a particularly cranky mood that day. Bamji was off to the neighbor to watch TV. One fact about Dorabjee that he sadly realized that afternoon, and that he had yelled at the top of his voice over and over at the court in his defense, was the fact that she was a victim of acute clinical depression, all evidences proving it however having been cleaned out from the ‘crime scene’ hence. So there was nothing to prove his story as even Bamji refused to concur. Moreover it was a fact that was easy to disbelieve given the vibrant public persona of the victim that stepped on one too many toes every day.

When he approached her on that day, without a word she had banged shut the door on his face, and as he stood watching through the window, she mounted the chair set on the coffee table, tied a noose with a bed sheet on the ceiling fan and swung down from it with great force. He heard the neck break instantly over the rickety fan that groaned for dear life. He yelled out for help and broke open the door. He was frantically trying to lift up the oscillating dead weight by which time Bamji came running in with company. But by then Dorabjee’s rattled soul, oblivious of the upshots of her final act, had escaped Vincent, thereby flagging off the road widening and the big plans that were to follow! Depression claimed her life, and that suicide cost him almost twenty years of his, and yet there he was with nobody to prove anything to after all those years of void restitution. Did anybody in Vincent even care what actually happened to Gul Dorabjee anymore? Not likely, since they all knew for a fact, it was that chap from outside town who finished her.

Rustom took a good long stroll through Vincent, and ended the visit with a nice bottle of Carla Deluxe cashew feni from the so called Old Town before taking the last bus back to Punnur not sure if there was going to be a connection bus to Venkaipalayam at that hour. But he was ready to take that chance, as he did not want to spend another night in that town. As the bus drove away, Vincent stared down at him from behind like a grumbling dark fiend, its eyes blazing fire, without waving a goodbye. He did not care much. It was not his home anyway.
.

3 comments:

  1. That was a well written story right there. You managed to wonderfully convey the settings and the two main characters, that of Rustom and Dorabjee very well.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Gripping! Very well written, I enjoyed the clarity it had in conveying the plot well!

    ReplyDelete

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