The Wandering Burkha

This short story was written and published in Punctum #3. I was basically given a selection of photographs from this delightful series by Thai Muslim photographer Ampannee Satoh. Out of that and the exploits of ACP Dhoble, who was rounding up teenagers for partying in 2012 (that's not even a euphemism) and enforcing laws governing nightlife that most of Mumbai cheerfully and collectively ignored, Inspector Hadpude was born. He's changed quite a bit by the time we see him in Hush A Bye Baby, but this story is where he and Lad were born.

One

The bastards were shutting down early. There were usually at least eight paanwallahs on this little stretch and till last week, not one of them would even think of shutting shop before midnight. The first to fold his stall up would generally be that Tamil fellow and the last would be Babua the Bihari, who insisted he was from Uttaranchal. As if that made any difference. He had a cigarette and paan shop. His paan wasn’t bad but Babua’s popularity came from his timings: he stayed open till about 1.30 am. Even then, it wasn’t as though business slowed down for him. There would be a little cluster of people around his stall, like flies around a drop of spilt dal, and there was a faint buzz of requests and orders.

Except today, it was barely 11.30 pm and the wooden shutters of Babua’s shop were closed. Two boys were standing in front of it, incredulous and disappointed, as though the light had gone out of their world because Babua the paanwallah had gone to sleep. Behind them, a white jeep, marked POLICE, moved down the street so slowly that you’d think it was being pushed rather than driven. The disappointment inside it was no less than what the boys were feeling.

Because for the two policemen inside, Babua had been the last hope of the night. It was Wednesday, the middle of the week. People had to go to office tomorrow. The chances of post-midnight drunken driving were low, even in this posh, foreigner-infested neighbourhood. (Not that you could do much with foreigners. They were off-limits. In any case, most of them didn’t seem to carry much cash on their persons.) So in these circumstances, the paanwallahs were the only ones to whom people like Inspector Hadpude and Constable Lad could turn. Today, however, there was no one to haul up for staying open too late or selling imported cigarettes because every one of the bastards had decided that it was better to not make any money than to cough up a couple of thousand to the friendly, neighbourhood policemen.

Not that Inspector Hadpude was complaining. They’d managed a fairly good haul from the little strip two streets away. Four wine shops, three restaurants and six paanwallahs was brisk business. Plus, he and Lad had caught four tipsy drivers —- an unexpected bonus on a weekday. One of the drivers, of course, had given them his watch instead of cash because this champion, with his American-accented Hindi, didn’t carry cash. Only cards. As if he’s in a Shah Rukh Khan ad for debit cards or calling cards or whatever it was that Shah Rukh Khan was selling on tv these days. The watch’s dial said Omega but who knew if it was real or not? In any case, Hadpude was now too old to go around hawking watches. He’d done all that when he’d been Lad’s age. He was the father of two, grown daughters now. He needed the cash. Lad was young. He’d just had a baby. He liked shiny toys. He was getting the watch.

Two

Stopping at Royale and having a plate of chicken lollipops before going home had become something of a habit. The Shetty who ran the joint was a good, oily man. Over the years, the Shetty and Hadpude had developed something that wasn’t quite a friendship, but was more than an acquaintance. Hadpude didn’t waste his time trying to come up with a word for it because there would never be a situation in which Hadpude had to introduce the Shetty socially and explain their relationship. The Shetty was the man who gave Hadpude chicken lollipops, occasionally a whisky with soda, and the privacy and peace to count his extracurricular earnings. It was as simple as that. Hadpude’s first boss in the police service had taught him that being organised was the most important skill that a government servant must hone. If you weren’t organised, then you didn’t know where things were or how they were supposed to be, and people could catch you out.

So, no matter how small or big the amount, every time Hadpude made some money, he organised it. First according to denomination and then, on the basis of allocations. There was his wife’s share, his fund for the car, the girls’ studies, general savings and the holiday account. By the time he’d figured out how much money was going where, a few notes had fragments of oily, reddish fingerprints on them and the chicken lollipops were usually over. He would put the money in separate plastic bags, all of which went into his bigger bag, and then go up to the Shetty, ask after his family and health, and go home.    

Today, however, the plate of chicken lollipops was virtually untouched. Only one had a bite taken out of it. Inspector Hadpude ordered a second whisky. The money — some folded notes, some half-open and looking like the note was frozen in the middle of trying to do a stomach crunch — sat unsorted and ignored and a few opened envelopes were scattered on the table. All of Hadpude’s attention was on the photographs that he had on the table. He finished what was left of the whisky in his glass. One of the envelopes, instead of having money inside, had spilled photos of some Muslim woman. There was some money in there, but it was small change. Literally. It was chillar, coins with one and two marked on them, and from foreign countries. Nine photos and foreign chillar. Hadpude cursed himself for having given Lad the watch. He bit into another chicken lollipop. If only he could figure out which bastard Bihari paanwallah had given them this envelope, he’d teach the little runt a lesson the bastard wouldn’t forget.

Then again, it may not have been one of the paanwallahs. What paanwallah kept foreign chillar? Maybe it was one of the restaurants or one of the drivers. Hadpude tried to remember who had given them this envelope. There was nothing distinctive about it. It was white, it was creased. All the restaurants and bars in their beat gave Hadpude and Lad their money in envelopes like this because Hadpude had explained that he was an organised man, not some uncouth illiterate who just stuffs cash in his pockets. In fact, Lad was instructed to carry a few envelopes in his back pocket. That way, even if someone, like Babua, didn’t have an envelope, his contribution would still have an envelope to go into. Which made the whole process of bribe taking much more elegant, Hadpude felt. Unfortunately, that elegance was of little consequence at the moment because it meant there was no way Hadpude could tell who had given him photos of a girl in a damned burkha instead of a bribe. He imagined Lad taking that watch to one of those traders who had Saudi connections and selling it for Rs 10, 000. Maybe more. While he had a faceless bitch in multicoloured burkha. Who the hell wears a red burkha anyway? Suddenly, Hadpude couldn’t bear to count his money. He stuffed it all into one envelope and put it in his bag.

“Saheb?”

Hadpude looked up to see the Shetty standing near his table with a glass of whisky in his hand. Great. Small talk. That was just what Hadpude needed right now.

“Shetty,” he replied with a quick nod.

“All well with you, saheb?”

“Yes, yes. And you?”

“God is great, saheb.”

Hadpude grunted.

“Everything ok, saheb?” Shetty asked again. “I mean, you don’t generally take more than one drink.”

“I’m fine, Shetty.” Hadpude looked at the photos on the table and idly moved them around. Shetty looked at them with careful curiosity.

“Are you working on a case, saheb?” he asked tentatively.

And that was when Hadpude’s blood ran cold. He looked at the Shetty’s face and then down at the photographs. He babbled something to the Shetty in his gruffest, most inspectorial voice; something about needing some peace and quiet and another whisky. The Shetty immediately put the glass he had been holding down, nodded his head in understanding, and left the table.

Hadpude looked at the photos again. Slowly, he arranged them into three columns. Even in Royale, where there were more shadows than there was light, the photographs gleamed like jewels. A woman in a burkha. In five of the photos, she stood in front of monuments. One of them was the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was strange to see not Shammi Kapoor or another Bollywood star, but a woman in a red burkha in front of the monument. Hadpude couldn’t place the others but he was sure they were foreign. These photographs couldn’t be in India.

A woman in a burkha. World monuments.

Beads of sweat broke out all over his face, even on the sliver of skin between his nostrils and the start of his moustache. He swallowed, even though the saliva in his mouth had dried up. He didn’t want to put it in words but once you’ve thought a thought, it’s there in your head and you can’t unthink it. In the process of taking bribes on a random Wednesday night, had Inspector Hadpude chanced upon a global terror plot? He looked at the photos on the table again. This time, his finger trembled as he touched one of them, as though hoping it would melt away, like a hallucination. But it didn’t.

Three

The possibility of these photographs having a terrorist angle hadn’t struck Hadpude until the Shetty had asked him if he had brought work with him to Royale. Until that question, they’d been nothing more than traces of a con. He’d spread them out and all they’d said to him was that some little smartass had slipped them stupid photographs instead of money, and got away with it. To the Shetty, however, they hadn’t been stupid. One glimpse and the Shetty had seen possibilities in them that Hadpude couldn’t believe he’d ignored.

A Muslim woman, face covered, standing alone in front of world monuments. Who had taken the photographs? How was it possible that there was no one else in them? Where were these places? What if the monuments were targets? Was it a map? There could be a code in the burkha colours. No one wore yellow and purple burkha. Hadpude had been stationed to Muslim localities. He had a Muslim friend or two. He’d never seen Technicolor burkha like the ones in the photographs.

On his way home, Hadpude wondered whether he should share his fears with one of his colleagues. But who could he talk to? What if they thought he was an accomplice?

Once again, Hadpude wished he had taken the watch and left this bit of the collection for Lad. 

That night, Hadpude dreamt he was receiving a medal for having foiled a worldwide terrorist plot. He saw himself giving interviews. He saw some of the world’s most powerful leaders telling news channels that Inspector Hadpude was a hero and the entire world was grateful that it was he who had chanced upon the photographs that had, thanks to the brilliant inspector’s deduction skills, saved millions of people from certain death.

He also had nightmares in which he was gagged, his hands and legs were tied and he was in a dark place. He could see through a rectangular opening at eye level. Outside was a camera on a tripod. It flashed and Hadpude felt blinded. Someone waved a photograph in front of him. It showed a burkha-clad person and Hadpude knew that it was a picture of him. Under that burkha —- it was red in colour —- was him, trussed up and unable to move. Then everything tilted. There was a horrible sound, like the earth was bellowing in pain. He felt himself falling. He felt his vocal chords tauten and tense as they tried to push out a cry, a wail, anything. But the gag soaked every scrap of his scream and he knew it was a matter of seconds before his body broke into pieces, like a glass being thrown to the floor. 

In short, Hadpude had a terrible night.

His attempts to free himself from the restraints that rendered him immobile in his nightmare resulted in him kicking his wife twice. According to Hadpude’s mobile, it was 4.32am when he gave up trying to go to sleep. He got up and, as quietly as he could, found his bag and the photographs in it. Taking them out, he tiptoed his way to the kitchen where he shut the door and then turned on the light. Hadpude stared at the photos again. He needed to figure out a little more about them before speaking to his superiors, but he needed to do this subtly. It wouldn’t be done to be known as the policeman who goes around carrying photographs of a dubious Muslim on his person. Plus, it was a woman. Who knows what started rumours?

Was it even just one woman? He peered at the photos. Four of them were taken against a backdrop of a sea that was too blue to be Indian. In one, she had her back to the camera. She was wearing a black burkha and looking out at the horizon. Hadpude found himself remembering the story of Kanyakumari who waited for her lover by the seaside and was heartbroken when she realised he wasn’t coming to marry her. A truck honked as it rattled past on the road outside, and shook Hadpude out of his reverie. He slapped himself, both to wake himself up and because it really wasn’t done to see a goddess in a potential terrorist.

Hadpude separated the sea photos from the monument photos. He needed to find clues. He needed to figure out if there were any clues. He would ask Leela, his elder daughter, to help him figure out where the monument photos had been taken. She was a quiz champion and always scored top marks in geography. She would know. He also made a mental note to pick up a few English newspapers tomorrow – no, today – to see if there was anything in them that would help him work out if the places in the photos were targets. Which left him with the sea photos.

Hadpude made his way back to the bedroom and found the magnifying glass his wife kept on the little dressing table. They had bought it when his father’s eyesight started failing, so that he could read the newspaper that he loved. Hadpude’s wife had said she couldn’t bear to throw or give it away after his death so it lived, largely undisturbed, in a drawer next to sanitary napkins and cotton wool. Every scrape of wood sounded louder than the alarm to Hadpude as he took the magnifying glass out, but the women of the house didn’t wake up. Hadpude returned to the kitchen.

Seen through the magnifying glass, the photographs leapt towards him, suddenly lifelike. He could see every blue curve on the waves of the sea. The satiny material of her burkha shone where it caught the sunlight. It stretched, dipped, billowed and moulded against her body because of the wind. The magnifying glass inched down her form, past the arc of her covered head, along the fluid lines of wind-puffed material. Hadpude didn’t blink. He just looked. His eyes travelled from head to toe, from photo to photo. They rested at certain points, lingered over pools of shining colour, slipped past flat sections.

Through the magnifying glass, the figure in the photograph wasn’t tiny. It came up close, almost life-size, almost near enough to feel the slither of the satin of her burkha.

He realised it wasn’t the same woman, at least not in the sea photos. Blue had a slight belly and small breasts. Red had long, slim legs and the wind was pulling at the lower part of her burkha in a way that suggested you could cup her between her legs. She was standing as though she wanted you to do it, to just fit your hand in that darkened, shadowed bit.

Hadpude switched off the light. He wasn’t going to tell anyone about these photos. He didn’t want to give them to his superiors. He didn’t want to imagine them doing what he was doing right now. Maybe it was nothing, just an unknown woman’s holiday photos. In any case, even if it was part of a terrorist plot, the targets were obviously abroad and it wasn’t as though uncovering one was going to stop those lunatics from coming up with another explosive plan.   

Light was breaking outside and it leaked in lazily through the kitchen window. Hadpude switched off the light, put all the nine photographs in one envelope and returned to his bedroom. With the envelope under his pillow, his cheek felt like it was being warmed by the photographs, a comforting caress that was as smooth as satin and filled the darkness behind his closed eyelids with jewel colours.

And just like that, Hadpude fell sleep.