Monday, December 17, 2007

Ramesh And The Manhunt (Part 1)

PART I: The Search

Ramesh and I sank wearily into our seats in our compartment of the Rajdhani Express train. Our two small suitcases were stacked neatly and safely on the rack above our heads. As the other passengers in our compartment located their seats and fought over the luggage space in the overhead racks of our Air-conditioned Chair Car, Ramesh and I tried to relax and regain our breath.

It had been a hectic day.

The time was now twenty minutes to five in the afternoon. After half-an-hour, our train, which was, at present, parked in the New Delhi Railway Station, would begin its journey. If all went well, the train would reach Kolkata’s Howrah Station at around eleven o’clock the next morning. It was October and our school was closed for the second term break. Ramesh’s bachelor uncle, who lived in Kolkata, had invited us over to spend the holidays with him. Ramesh and I had arrived in Delhi that morning from our town and, after a whirlwind sightseeing tour of the nation’s capital, had returned to the Railway Station to catch the Rajdhani Express. Delhi’s magnificence and beauty, its wide roads and stately buildings, had taken us by storm and we were still a bit dazed by it all.

After a couple of minutes, I opened my eyes and looked out of the window next to me. The platform was crowded with people. Passengers, some carrying their own luggage and some followed by overburdened porters, rushed to-and-fro, sometimes bumping into one of the various hawkers who, unmindful of the crowd, pushed their trolleys up and down the platform and kept shouting their wares at the top of their voices. Although I could no longer hear all the din through the sealed windowpane, I could well imagine the noise on the platform, having boarded the train from it not very long ago.

Suddenly, my attention was caught by a large number of policemen who had now appeared. With them were some men in railway officials’ uniforms. They all wore a purposeful air and kept shouting instructions to each other. I grabbed Ramesh’s arm.

“Look!” I exclaimed. “Something’s up!”

Ramesh leaned over and stared through the window. “You’re right,” he said, after a moment. “Those policemen are searching for something or somebody!”

We continued to gaze through the window. “Hey!” I exclaimed suddenly. “The policemen are boarding the train!”

The next minute, our compartment was swarming with policemen. Without so much as a by-your-leave, they began moving up and down the aisle between the two rows of seats, peering into the faces of the passengers. Whoever they were looking for was, apparently, not in our compartment, for the policemen soon moved out and filed into the next one. Ramesh and I looked at each other with question marks in our eyes. What on earth was up?

A few minutes later, the policemen were back. The Inspector in charge stood at the head of the compartment and raised his arms.

The excited passengers fell silent.

The Inspector looked apologetic. “I’m extremely sorry for this intrusion,” he announced – a bit belatedly, I thought. “This morning,” continued the Inspector, “a prisoner escaped from Tihar Jail and, a short while ago, we received a tip that he may be heading for Kolkata!”

An excited buzz of conversation arose from the passengers as soon as the Inspector made his startling announcement. Ramesh gripped my arm.

The Inspector raised his arms again and there was silence. “As far as we can make out however,” he continued, “the escapee is not on this train.” A very audible collective sigh of relief emanated from our fellow passengers in the compartment. The Inspector raised his arms again. He was beginning to remind me of my P.T. master at school demonstrating one of his drills.

“However,” said the Inspector, “as a precaution, I will request you to have a look at this photograph of the escapee and remember his features. In case any of you happen to catch sight of him during the trip, please notify the railway staff on this train at once!” As the Inspector was speaking, one of his policemen began walking down the aisle, showing a photograph to the passengers. As soon as he came abreast of our seats, Ramesh excitedly reached out for the photograph and stared at it intently. I looked too.

The photograph was of a vicious-looking pig-eyed man with a broken nose. I shuddered as I looked at the photograph. Sharing a train journey with such a man was certainly not a pleasant prospect!

Before leaving the compartment, the Inspector had a last word: “My men and I have checked this train as thoroughly as we could under the circumstances, and I’m pretty sure the escape is not on board! The photograph has only been shown to you, just in case… Anyway, have a pleasant journey!”

It was only at six o’clock in the evening as the train finally pulled out of New Delhi Railway Station – fifty minutes behind schedule. Our fellow passengers, one by one, sank back into their cushioned seats to enjoy the trip in the air-conditioned comfort which the Rajdhani Express was justly famous for. All seemed to have forgotten the escapee from Delhi’s Tihar Jail. All, that is, except one. Yes, you guessed it! My bespectacled, tousle-headed friend, Ramesh, the avid reader of detective fiction that he was, could not get the escaped prisoner out of his mind.

Ever since the train left Delhi, Ramesh had been sitting slouched in his seat, brooding. Suddenly, he grabbed my arm and hissed, “Listen, can we really be sure?”

I looked at my friend, puzzled. “Sure of what?” I asked.

“Can we really be sure that this escapee is not on the train?” replied Ramesh.

“Well, those policemen couldn’t find him, could they?” I said, making what I thought was a good debating point.

Ramesh nodded brightly. There had appeared on his his spectacles a glint which I had no difficulty in recognizing. I had observed it on several previous occasions when Ramesh had led me into one madcap adventure after another. I could read its message. It meant that some pleasing inspiration had floated into Ramesh’s mind, and it caused a strong shudder to pass through my frame, together with a wish that I were far away. When pleasing inspirations floated into Ramesh’s mind, prudent people made a dash for the nearest bombproof shelter.

“Ah, but you see,” said Ramesh pointedly, “they had to hurry through their search and, naturally, couldn’t have been very efficient about it! The escapee could easily have kept his face half-hidden in the shadows, or something!” Ramesh began to sound very excited. “Yes, I think I’ll take a more careful look at our fellow passengers!” he announced quickly, and one began to get up from his seat.

I grabbed his arm. “Are you crazy?” I whispered fiercely to Ramesh. “What’ll people think, if you go around staring into their faces as if they were newly acquired, weird exhibits in a zoo?”

Ramesh smiled and pulled his arm away from my grip. “Don’t be silly! I won’t be that obvious!” And, before I could say anything else, Ramesh was out of his seat, a keen, tense look on his face, like that of a tribal hunter stalking a fleet footed deer.

I held my breath as I watched Ramesh glide slowly up the aisle, glancing casually to his left and right. He reached the head of the aisle without any mishap and disappeared through the doorway. He reappeared a few minutes later and slowly glided down the aisle towards our seats. When Ramesh returned to his seat, he was looking a bit pre-occupied.

“Well?” I asked, in spite of myself.

“Negative,” replied Ramesh briefly. “He’s not in this compartment or in the next.”

“I told you so!” I said smugly.

“That proves nothing!” retorted Ramesh irritably. “I’ve been thinking about it and it’s clear that this escapee will do whatever he can to keep his identity hidden. He must be disguised.”

“Good point,” I conceded. “But so what?”

“So I’m going to keep this possibility in mind while I search the other compartments!” replied the self-appointed detective.

“You mean you still persist in thinking that you’ll find the escapee on this train!” I exclaimed, amazed.

Ramesh’s mind is one of those which readily falls into the grip of obsessions. “Of course!” he said. “We can’t allow the escapee to get away, can we?”

I refrained from arguing any further. The experience gained from a hundred battles had taught me that Ramesh always got his way. One might bluster and one might struggle, one might raise hands to heaven, and clench fists and shake them, but, in the end, the result was always the same – Ramesh did what he wanted.

As Ramesh moved away again, I settled back into my seat and flipped open the latest issue of the mystery novel which I had brought along for the journey. It was completely dark outside now and the lights inside the compartment had been switched on. The only thing visible through the window of the train was an occasional lighted window of some obscure hut or the other, which flashed past almost before they could be registered. As the Rajdhani Express raced through the Utter Pradesh countryside, I immersed myself in the latest exploit of Detective Moochwala and his dog Pooch.

I cannot recall how many minutes elapsed before I felt Ramesh’s hand on my shoulder and reluctantly disengaged myself from the murder that was about to be committed.

I looked up to see a flushed Ramesh, excitement oozing out of his every pore. His eyes were the eyes of one who has passed through the furnace, and he was vibrating gently, as if he had swallowed a small auxiliary engine.

“I’ve found him!” declared Ramesh dramatically.

In spite of myself, I felt a stir of excitement within me. “Are you sure?” I asked quickly.

“Yes, yes!” replied Ramesh impatiently. “He’s three compartments behind ours! He’s got on a thick – very thick – beard!”

I was doubtful. “If you haven’t even seen his face ho can you be sure he’s your quarry?”

Ramesh assumed the air of one talking to an idiot. “That’s why he’s got such a thick beard on, silly! So that nobody can see his face and recognize him! It’s a very effective disguise!”

Ramesh can be very convincing when he wants to. “Perhaps you’re right,” I conceded, though a bit doubtfully. “So what do you propose to do? Inform the staff?”

“First, we’ll have to trap and expose him,” said Ramesh. “Otherwise, we won’t be believed – we’ve no proof.”

Alarm bells began tingling in my head. “And how do you plan to expose him?” I asked quickly, sensing trouble.

Ramesh’s specs glinted dangerously. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “That man’s seat is next to the aisle. I’m going to that compartment, walk down the aisle, and, when I come to his seat, pretend to fall. And, as I fall, I’m going to grab his beard. It’s bound to come off in my hands!”

I was aghast. “You’re crazy!” I exclaimed.

“That’s what they said to Columbus.”

“But – but --,” words failed.

I’m going! Come and see me in action, if you want to.” And, with that, Ramesh sprang out of his seat and moved off.

I jumped to my feet and rushed after him. I had to keep an eye on my lunatic friend. I followed his hurrying figure through two compartments and saw him pause before the entrance of the third. Before I could reach him, I saw Ramesh brace himself and then casually walk through.

With my heart in my mouth, I reached the entrance of the compartment and stopped. It was too late to stop Ramesh and I could only look on helplessly.
Ramesh was walking casually down the aisle, swaying slightly with the movement of the train. I ran my eyes quickly down both sides of the aisle and then caught my breath as I saw, half-way down the compartment, to my right, a thick, heavily-bearded man, leaning back on his reclining seat, his eyes closed This sleeping figure had to be the man Ramesh was referring to! As I recalled Ramesh’s words, it struck me that such a thick beard did seem a bit unnatural. Perhaps Ramesh was right after all!

As Ramesh reached the sleeping figure, I suspended breathing. Suddenly, the train swayed rather markedly and Ramesh, taking advantage of the situation, catapulted onto the sleeping figure! His flailing left hand brushed over the man’s face and grabbed his beard!

Beardy woke up with a piercing shriek!

Next time: A careful inspection of beards!