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!

Ramesh And The Manhunt (Part 2)

Part II: A Holy Terror!

Ramesh and friend are comfortably settled in the Rajdhani Express at New Delhi, about to leave for Kolkata. Suddenly a police patrol boards the train with railway officials, searching for a prisoner who has just escaped fro Tihar Jail. The police have been tipped off that he might be bound for Kolkata. The search yields no sign of the man, so the police circulate his photograph to the passengers and leave, apologising for the delay. Ramesh’s friend settles down to a good read, but Ramesh is sure the convict must be on the train – in disguise, of course. He goes off to search and before long comes back triumphant. There’s a passenger in the compartment further down the train with such a thick beard that his whole face is covered up. Ramesh tells his friend to follow, and plans an exposure of the crook. As the train sways, Ramesh pretends to fall and grabs at the, surely, artificial beard!

For a few minutes, there was utter pandemonium in the middle of the compartment. Piercing shrieks, cries of pain, angry shouts, words of apology and startled comments emanated in quick succession from the centre of action. As I rushed forward, passengers crowded around the spot where Ramesh had fallen. With my nerves all aquiver, I pushed through the crowd and reached Beardy’s seat in time to see Ramesh being helped to his feet by a young man. I stared at Ramesh’s target and saw that the beard was still in place!

Beardy’s face, or whatever was visible of it, was a dark red and his eyes were filled with tears of pain. “You – you --,” he spluttered at Ramesh, who was busy adjusting his spectacles. “What is the meaning of this?” he grimaced with pain. “You nearly tore off my beard by the roots!”

Before Ramesh could say anything, the gentleman in the seat next to Beardy spoke up, “It’s not his fault, my friend! The train swayed suddenly and this boy lost his balance. I saw it happen!”

“All right!” growled Beardy. He looked at Ramesh. “But walk more carefully next time!”

“Yes, sir! Sorry, sir! Lost my balance, sir! I hope I haven’t hurt you very much! I’m really sorry, sir!” Ramesh sounded very apologetic, indeed. In fact, the person I was beginning to feel sorry for was my friend Ramesh. Beardy’s real beard must have been a great blow to him! It comepletely ruled out the possibility of Beardy being the escapee – he could hardly have grown that beard in one day!

Safely back in our seats, I maintained a diplomatic silence. It wasn’t difficult to gauge how Ramesh was feeling, and I did not want to, as the saying goes, rub salt into the wound. Ramesh wore a disintegrated air, as if somebody had removed most of his interior organs. You see the same sort of thing in stuffed parrots when the sawdust has leaked out of them.

After a little while, our meals were served. Ramesh ate his in silence. I did not disturb him. After the meal, I looked at Ramesh to see if he wanted to make conversation. My friend, I saw, continued to look like a dead fish on a slab of ice. I returned to my detective novel.

A little while later, I heard a sound next to me. I turned my head. “Did you say something?” I asked Ramesh.

“I said: I hate beards!” replied Ramesh. “Good night!”

The next morning found Ramesh greatly revived in spirit. When the train pulled into Dhanbad Station at eight o’clock for a fifteen minute halt, Ramesh went for a short walk on the platform and came back looking as revived as a watered flower. He tucked into his breakfast with the zeal of an athlete and made pleasant conversation.

Breakfast over, Ramesh leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes and cupped his hands below his chin. I recognized his ‘Sherlock Holmes’ pose immediately – he always assumes it when he wants to think aloud. “Tell me,” he began, his eyes still closed, “how many hours are we away from Kolkata?”

I knew Ramesh knew the answer as well as I did, but, just to humour him, I played along and lived the role of Watson. “We’re due to reach Howrah Station at eleven o’clock,” I replied. “It’s nine o’clock now.”

“So, we’ve just got two hours!” Ramesh opened his eyes. “We’ll have to work fast!”

I was puzzled. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Do we have a job to do before reaching Kolkata?”

“Of course!” exclaimed Ramesh. “We’ve got to catch this escapee!”

I stared, amazed, at my unpredictable friend. “You mean you’ve still got that bee in your bonnet?” I asked unbelievingly. “Didn’t last night’s experience teach you anything? The escapee is not on this train!”

“I’m not so sure,” said Ramesh. “The policemen were acting on a tip-off when they searched our train. They must have had a good reason.”

“I don’t know about that,” I replied. Ramesh’s reasoning generally goes beyond me. “But, as you yourself have pointed out, this man, if he is on the train, must be disguised. Otherwise he would have been spotted long ago. So, how can we recognise him?”

“Let me think,” said Ramesh, frowning a little. “A thick beard is a natural disguise – but there’s only one heavily bearded man on the train.” He winced at the memory. “And he’s not our man – his beard is real.”

“The only other thick bearded men I’ve seen on this train,” I added, “are a couple of maulvis, three or four sardarjis and a man dressed like a Pathan.”

Ramesh sat bolt upright in his seat, his eyes shooting out of his head like a prawn’s.

“Of course!” exclaimed my friend. “That’s the answer! How come I didn’t think of it!”

I stared at Ramesh in surprise. “Have I just said something enlightening?” I asked.

Ramesh stared back at me, his eyes wide and gleaming. “This escapee must be disguised as somebody who looks natural in a beard – whose beard one doesn’t give a second thought to!” he said excitedly. “He must be disguised as either a maulvi or a sardarji or a Pathan or some natural beardy!”

I slowly let Ramesh’s words sink in. It was a plausible idea, I had to concede. “But there are quite a few such men on this train,” I objected. “How will you locate the escapee among them?”

“Simple,” replied Ramesh, continuing to look like one inspired. You could almost hear his brain working overtime. “Remember the photograph of the escapee which the policemen showed us? Our quarry has a broken nose! Now, how many maulvis, sardarjis and Pathans on this train do you think do will have broken noses? Come on, let’s begin our search at once! We’ve no time to lose!”

“But – but --,” I spluttered.

“No buts, my friend. We’re working against time! I’ll cover the compartments in the forward portion of the train and you cover those towards the rear. Beardy falls in your portion and I don’t particularly want to meet him again!” And Ramesh was off!

I reluctantly got to my feet and began my mission. There were no broken-nosed men, bearded or otherwise, in my compartment, and my spirits began to revive. I would simply take a stroll down the train and return. I had no doubt that I would have to disappoint Ramesh. I certainly did not share his conviction that the escapee was on our train.

In the next compartment were two bearded maulvis. A hurried glance in their direction was enough to satisfy me that neither of the two sported a broken nose. The next two compartments boasted of a handful of sardarjis – all with intact noses. While in the third compartment, behind ours, I kept my eyes averted from Beardy.

The fourth compartment yielded a bearded man dressed like a Pathan. Whether this gentleman actually was a Pathan or not, I cannot with authority state, but his nose had definitely never been broken. I entered the fifth compartment on light feet, quite enjoying my stroll, after all.

There was one young, fair-complexioned sardarji in the middle of the compartment. I briefly glanced at his long, acquiline nose and passed on. I saw no more bearded men in the compartment. I was about to turn back, when, through the entrance in front of me, appeared a bearded man wearing saffron robes and with a grey shawl thrown around his shoulders. His right hand was holding a necklace of prayer beads. It took half a second for the face of this sadhu, or holy man, to register – and then my heart stopped beating.

Overlooking a thick – very thick – black beard on this sadhu’s face was an extremely prominent broken nose! In spite of myself, I recognized that broken nose! The photograph of the escapee was still fresh in my memory – Ramesh had seen to that. And, to remove all doubts, were the man’s pig eyes!

My blood froze. I stood rooted as the sadhu brushed past me. Then, my senses returning, I quickly spun around and saw the saffron-robed sadhu lower himself into a window seat a little ahead.

My feet took off. With a life of their own, they quickly propelled me back through the compartments I had just traversed and, before I knew it, I was back in my seat. Ramesh had not yet returned from his expedition.

I sat there quietly, trying to regain my breath and recover from my shock. Ramesh had been right, after all! The escapee was actually on our train!

Ramesh returned shortly, looking very disappointed. But one look at my face and his gloom vanished. He guessed all. “Where?” he asked excitedly.

“In the fifth compartment behind ours,” I told him breathlessly. “In a window seat towards the rear of the compartment! He’s dressed up like a sadhu...holy man – saffron robes and all!”

“Thanks,” said Ramesh and rushed of, looking like a child about to be taken to the circus.

There was a strange look on Ramesh’s face when he returned a few minutes later. It was the look of a person who has just found himself on the receiving end of a miracle.

“You’re right!” he exclaimed. “That’s the man! Those pig eyes and that broken nose! It can’t be anybody else! He hasn’t even covered up his eyebrow!”

“What eyebrow?” I asked.

“His right eyebrow, of course! Didn’t you notice in the photograph? The escapee has a small scar running through his right eyebrow. This broken-nosed sadhu has the same scar!”

“What do we do now?” I asked quickly. The situation was becoming too much for me.

“We’ll contact the railway official in charge of all these attendants,” replied Ramesh. “He’ll be in the Pantry Car! Come on!”

Together, we rushed towards the Pantry Car, which was located in the forward portion of the train. We were an hour away from Kolkata and all the passengers were readying themselves for the end of the journey. Suitcases were being taken down from the overhead racks, coats and jackets were being put on, and magazines tucked into plastic bags. Ramesh and I had to rudely push past many passengers who were on their feet, preparing for arrival in Kolkata.

We rushed into the Pantry Car and headed for an authoritative looking gentleman in a black uniform with a Northern Railways badge pinned on it. The man looked up from a chart he was reading and stared at us in surprise.

“Yes?” he asked. “What can I do for you?”

“We’ve found him!” exclaimed Ramesh breathlessly, without any preliminaries. “We’ve located the escapee from Tihar Jail! He’s on this train!”

The railway official’s mouth fell open. He drew out a photograph from his jacket pocket. “You mean him?” he asked pointing to the escapee’s face on the photograph.

“That’s right!” replied Ramesh. “The escape is disguised as a sadhu! But his eyes and broken nose give him away!”

The official seemed impressed by Ramesh’s conviction. He turned to an attendant. “Call the guards, quick!” he ordered.

A moment later, the two policemen who were on guard duty in the train appeared, rifles and all. Ramesh and I quickly led them and the railway official through the various compartments whose occupants stared at us curiously, until we reached the one where the sadhu sat.

“In here!” proclaimed Ramesh. We swiftly moved down the aisle, and came abreast of the seat in which the broken-nosed sadhu was sitting. One quarry looked up – and then jumped to his feet! His eyes opened wide when he saw the guards and, with a muttered oath, he pushed past the man in the seat next to him and sprang into the aisle! Before the guards could react, he threw himself at them! As the guards fell away in surprise, the sadhu with astonishingly agility, pushed passed them and began running up the aisle!

Ramesh was the first to recover. “Stop him!” he shouted, and took off after the fleeing man. The railway official, the guards and I followed in hot pursuit.

In a thrice, our quarry had crossed the next compartment, Ramesh at his heels. I was right behind Ramesh. “He’s the escapee from Tihar Jail!” cried Ramesh to the startled passengers. “The beard is false!”

Ramesh and I entered the third compartment behind ours together – and were just in time to witness the climax. Beardy, who had clearly heard Ramesh’s shout, had jumped to his feet. We saw him swing around, stare at the sadhu rushing towards him, and then shoot out a leg.

The escapee never knew what hit him. One moment he was running – and the next minute he was flat on his face! Beardy had neatly tripped him!

Beardy hauled up the fallen escapee and grabbed his beard. The beard came away in his hands! The face that was revealed was unmistakably that of the escapee!

The guards reached the shaken escapee and caught hold of him. Beardy turned to Ramesh and me and grinned. “So that’s why you grabbed at my beard last night!” he exclaimed. “I should have realized what you were up to! I’m Inspector Ram Swaroop of Delhi Police, plain-clothes branch!” He flashed an identity card at us.

“You boys have done my job for me! There’ll be a reward in it!”

Ramesh and I looked at each other and grinned. Trust us to have mistaken a policeman for a crook!

The Rajdhani Express pulled into Kolkata’s Howrah Station a short while later. Ramesh’s uncle was there to receive us. “Welcome to Kolkata!” he exclaimed. “I hope you weren’t bored in the train.”

Ramesh looked at me, and there was a twinkle in his eyes. “No,” he answered. “We managed to find ways and means to keep ourselves occupied!”