By Surender Mohan Pathak
Translated from Hindi by Sudarshan Purohit
THE MUMBAI-Goa Express ran at full speed through the darkness of the night.
It was past midnight and almost all of the passengers slept — depending on their capacity to pay — sitting, or lying down, or else sprawled in the luxurious first class compartment. There was no activity in the train’s dining car. It was not empty, however. There was a man in a denim jacket, sleeping at one table. At another, two men were dozing, facing each other and trying to decide whether to try to finish off the whiskey bottle in their bag, or to go to sleep. Towards the far end of the dining car, though, sat a man who was neither asleep, nor dozing — who was completely alert, and smoking from a freshly lit cigarette. His anxious glances moved restlessly around the dining car, and he shifted nervously again and again.
This was Vivek Dalvi.
Dalvi had managed to leave the hotel as per plan, but the suspicion that he was being watched continued to nag him. Whenever he turned around to look, he found no one, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was following him.
Rather — that some people were following him.
It was just a feeling.
Still he kept trying to blend in with crowds whenever he could. He’d arrived at Dadar station planning to catch the local to Churchgate and from there, go to a friend’s house to hide out. He’d changed his mind at the last moment, and headed towards the trunk line station instead of the local. He’d caught the Goa Express — without getting a ticket — just as it chugged out.
He knew that this train went up to Vasco Da Gama station, and that he could cover the remaining 65 kilometres to Panaji by bus or taxi. He had an old journalist friend there. The friend was a widower who lived alone, and would be happy to let Dalvi stay with him as long as he liked.
Not that he originally intended to miss the court appearance where he was to be the sarkari gawah — the state witness. He had slipped away from New Crown Hotel with the plan of reaching the court directly, the next day at ten-thirty, without the focus of the police protection on him all the time. The appearance of Vimal’s man at his room had shaken him badly and the feeling had taken root that the room was not safe for him. If Ibrahim Batla sent a hitman after him, he could be cornered there and get shot point blank. And by the time he got to Dadar station, he’d felt he should forget all about being a state witness in the cause of social service, and get as far from Mumbai as he could.
And so here he was, on the Goa Express.
The TTE had claimed the train was full, and had taken four hundred rupees extra in order to give him a sleeper berth. He was not using it — he’d been here, in the dining car, ever since the train began its journey. He couldn’t help feeling that he’d get his throat cut in his sleep if he went to his berth.
No one had even come close to him so far, but the creepy feeling of being observed would still not leave.
Who was it?
Was it that denim-jacketed man who was asleep with his head on the table?
He looked like someone he’d seen before.
Or was it one of those two drunks who were nodding off in their seats?
The denim-jacket man was fast asleep, he hadn’t paid any attention to Dalvi at all. Where had he seen him before?
He must have noticed him while getting onto the train, where else! Or maybe that was just a notion he had?
There was no one else here, anyway.
Except that waiter!
Could that waiter be Ibrahim Batla’s man?
Or could one of those other three be the one?
It wasn’t even possible! A few moments before getting on, he himself had not known that he would be boarding the Goa Express instead of going to Churchgate.
This reasoning should have made him feel better, but it didn’t.
Was the tension making him paranoid?
He had no answer to that, either.
His thoughts went to the list that he had promised Vimal’s man. He’d said that he would make sure it got to Tukaram’s hideout in Chembur. But here he was, going further away from Mumbai.
He made up his mind. He gestured to the waiter to come over.
“I want to write a letter,” Dalvi said.
“Can you get me a pen and paper?”
The waiter nodded.
Dalvi handed him a twenty.
The waiter’s lips parted in a robotic smile, then he turned and — quickly — walked away.
Dalvi lit a new cigarette as he waited.
The waiter returned and put a letter pad printed with the Railways logo and a ballpoint pen in front of him.
“Thank you.” Dalvi said.
The waiter nodded mechanically and turned away.
Dalvi tossed away his cigarette and took up the letter pad and the pen. Carefully, he began to put down the information he knew by heart.
It took twenty minutes.
When he was done, the paper had, in two columns, about fifteen names and addresses — in some cases, phone numbers as well.
He nodded, satisfied, and pulled out a five-rupee envelope from the postal department that he happened to have in his pocket. He tore off the top sheet from the letter pad, folded it to size, and, putting it into the envelope, sealed it. Then he wrote down the address of the Tukaram Charitable Trust in Chembur on it, and wrote down his own name as the sender in the bottom left corner of the envelope.
Just then, the man sleeping with his head on the table stirred. He lifted his head up with some effort and mumbled something, as if still asleep and talking in his sleep.
Dalvi covered the envelope with both hands and looked suspiciously at the man. For a second, their eyes met, then the other man turned his gaze away.
Who was he? Why did he look familiar? Where had he seen him before?
If Dalvi hadn’t been so on the edge, he might have figured out the answer.
THE MAN was Haider, who had changed his clothes and stuck a thick moustache onto his lip. At the New Crown Hotel, he had appeared before Dalvi in a waiter’s uniform along with a matching turban, bearing a message from Vimal. Bare-headed, out of uniform, and with a moustache, he appeared a different man altogether.
Ever since Haider had boarded the train, he had been trying to get to talk to Dalvi alone, but he hadn’t gotten the chance. He knew that Ibrahim Batla’s men were after Dalvi. Of the two men sitting at the next table, he recognised one very well — it was Batla’s henchman, Gotya Raje. Haider may have looked asleep, but he was watching Gotya Raje even more closely than Dalvi was.
When the man in the denim jacket — Haider —looked away from him, Dalvi heaved a sigh of relief and took his hands off the envelope. He gestured to the waiter.
The waiter, fortified with a twenty-rupee tip, sprang to his side. He was rather alarmed to see that there was a red spot shining on saheb’s forehead. His forehead was damp with sweat, and it made the mark stand out all the more.
What sort of mark was it?
The room was not safe for him. If Ibrahim Batla sent a hitman after him, he could be cornered there and get shot point blank
The ballpen he’d given the saheb had a double refill — it wrote in both red and blue. Perhaps the saheb had pressed the trigger for the red refill earlier and the ink had leaked onto his finger, and when he rubbed his hand on his forehead, the ink had gotten transferred there.
Just then Dalvi took out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his forehead.
The waiter noted that the red mark too had been wiped away along with the sweat. Now it was visible only if one looked closely at the saheb’s forehead.
That’s what it must be — he assured himself — the red ink from the ballpen had gotten onto the forehead. If he rubbed at his forehead one more time, the mark would disappear completely.
“What was the station we just crossed?” Dalvi asked in a low voice.
“Chiplun,” the waiter answered.
“And where will the train stop next?”
“I want this letter… ” Dalvi showed him the envelope, “posted quickly.”
“I can do it at Ratnagiri. There’s a post box on platform one — where this train stops.”
“It must be posted responsibly.”
“I’ll do it myself, Dalvi saheb!”
“It’s written on the envelope, na? Here on the left — at the bottom!”
“Oh…” Dalvi felt relieved. “It’s on the letter. Theek hai. Post this yourself.”
“I’ll do it myself, Dalvi saheb, I’ll do it first thing as soon as the train stops at Ratnagiri.”
Dalvi handed him the envelope along with another twenty.
The waiter put the envelope into the right-hand pouch pocket of his uniform and, leaning forward, picked up the letter pad and the pen from the table. He salaamed the generous passenger and turned to go.
“Wait!” Dalvi suddenly said.
The waiter hesitated, turned back, and looked at Dalvi with questioning eyes.
“That letter pad,” Dalvi said. “Give it to me for a second.”
The waiter, confused, passed back the letter pad.
He’d made the list using a ballpen. Since a ballpen requires pressure to write, there could be impressions of the writing on the next few pages too.
When Dalvi examined the topmost page of the pad, he found it was so.
He tore off the top two pages and returned the pad to the waiter.
The waiter left.
He was unaware that every one of his movements was being observed by the ‘sleeping’ man, and by one of the two dozing men as well.
As the waiter made his way between the tables and passed by the one with the drunks, one of the drunks — Gotya Raje — yawned and stood up. As the waiter crossed him, he stumbled, as if unbalanced by the speed of the train and the motion of the bogies. He grasped the waiter’s shoulder for support with one hand, and with the other, very smoothly, extracted the letter from the waiter’s pocket.
“Sorry!” he said, smiling vacantly.
“No problem saheb,” the waiter said, and walked on.
GOTYA GESTURED to his partner. The partner stood up. The two walked up to where Dalvi sat. As they approached him, they took up positions so that Haider could not see Dalvi.
What was going on?
The two were behaving as if they knew Dalvi well, they were laughing out loud at something Dalvi said.
Two minutes later, they moved away. They did not return to their table, they crossed it and walked straight out of the dining car.
Haider glanced at Dalvi. He saw that Dalvi’s head was down on his chest and he looked like he had nodded off.
Just then, the train began to slow down. A station was coming up.
Dalvi showed no reaction.
The train came to a halt on the platform.
Dalvi did not move an inch.
Something was wrong — thought Haider — had Dalvi fallen asleep?
He looked at his watch. It was almost one. Quite late.
But why wouldn’t he go sleep in his berth, instead of sprawling here?
Just then, the waiter appeared. He hurried over to Dalvi, and began, “Saheb… that letter… your letter… it… it’s… I mean… saheb! Saheb!”
Suddenly a scream escaped his mouth.
Haider, startled, got to his feet.
Haider leapt towards Dalvi.
The waiter sped away, still screaming of murder.
As Haider approached Dalvi, he saw that his chest was soaked in blood. It was obvious that he’d been stabbed, right above the heart, with some sort of thin blade.
Haider looked behind him quickly, and then searched Dalvi’s coat pocket.
The two folded sheets that he’d seen Dalvi tear off the letter pad were still there. He took them out. He was about to put them in his own pocket, when he paused, struck by a thought. He unfolded the two sheets and separated them, refolded them, then put one in his jacket pocket, and, compressing the other to a still smaller size, tucked it into his right sock.
Why the sheets were important, what exactly was written in them, he had no time to see or think about.
Just then the waiter returned. He was followed by the TTE and a policeman. A cook from the pantry and two other people also arrived.
The dining car was suddenly full of noise.
“Hey!” someone said. “Has anyone checked him? He might still be alive.”
Pushing the others aside, the TTE and the policeman bent over the man.
“Hello…?” The TTE said, “Mister, can you hear me? Hello! Mister…”
“His name is Dalvi.” The waiter said. “Vivek Dalvi.”
“Dalvi saheb!” The policeman said. “Can you hear?”
“Box…!” the word escaped with difficulty from Dalvi’s mouth. “B-box…”
“What box? Where is the box?”
Just then the waiter returned. He was followed by the TTE and a policeman. A cook from the pantry and two other people also arrived
“What do we see?”
“What to see, sir?” the TTE said. “What to see?”
“Diya… Di…Di…ya… Diya…”
“Who is Diya?” the policeman said. “Whose name is this?”
He was trying to convey some critical information, so critical that he was trying to spell out the word.
Then his eyes glazed over.
He was finished.
A silence descended on the cabin.
Which the waiter disrupted.
“I saw,” he declared, “this man taking something from Dalvi’s coat.”
“Which man?” the policeman said.
“This saheb.” He pointed a finger like a dagger at Haider.
The policeman took an authoritative step forward and asked, “What did you take?”
“Maatha firela hai? Are you out of your mind?” Haider said, pretending anger.
“In his pocket,” the waiter said. “He put it in the pocket of his jacket.”
The crowd was increasing by the minute. Whoever heard about the murder in the dining car seemed to be making straight for the scene
“Stand still!” the policeman said. “No moving.”
THE POLICEMAN put a hand into the inner pocket of his jacket and took out the folded paper inside. He unfolded it and glanced over it.
“The Railways letterhead,” he murmured. “Blank paper. Absolutely blank.”
Confusion appeared on the face of the listeners.
“Why did you steal it?” the policeman asked Haider.
“I didn’t steal it,” Haider said, trying to sound normal. “It was lying here on the table in front of him…”
“He took out of his pocket,” the waiter said obstinately.
“And you saw it from way over there?” Haider asked with a sneer.
“This saheb had torn off the sheet from the letter pad. As I was leaving, I turned around once and saw him putting the sheet into the inner pocket of his coat. This is the same sheet. What he took out of the saheb’s pocket.”
“I picked it off the table.”
“Kaay ku? Why?” the policeman butted in.
“Kaay ku? Why?” the policeman butted in. “I wanted a blank paper, I found this one, so I picked it up and put it in my pocket. Now this bastard…” he shot a look at the waiter, “… wants to hang me for it, it looks like!”
“No gaalis, saheb!” the waiter barked. “No gaalis!”
“Mahale, shut up,” the cook said suddenly.
The waiter closed his mouth reluctantly.
“Hawaldar saheb,” the cook said, addressing the policeman, “how does it matter? It’s just a blank paper!”
The policeman thought about it.
“But I’m still keeping it with me,” he said grandly.
“What if it’s a clue?”
“On a blank paper?”
“Don’t you interfere with official work!”
The cook went silent.
Just then another man arrived at the scene.
“Move! Move!” he said urgently. “I’m a doctor!”
The doctor examined Dalvi. It took him half a minute to reach a decision.
“Dead!” he said. “Murdered. Stabbed through the chest with a stiletto!”
The railway guard, a station master, and a few other railway officials arrived just then.
It looked like the Goa Express was going to be at the station for a long time.
“Before he died he was talking,” the TTE said. “I’ve written it down on the paper here. Box… C… Diya…T H E A…”
“But Diya starts with a D,” someone said.
“I don’t know about that. What he said, I’ve written it down here. If it’s useful, we’ll keep it, or else I’ll throw it away.”
The policeman took the paper from his hand and stowed it away.
The crowd of curious onlookers was increasing by the minute. Whoever heard about the murder in the dining car seemed to be making straight for the scene.
“Mahale!” The cook said suddenly. “I happened to look out the pantry by chance once, and you were standing by this man’s head.
The waiter fumbled, then said, “Saheb wanted me to do some work for him. I came back to give him a report about it.”
“What work?” the cook asked.
“He gave me a letter to post.”
“What do you mean?”
“Gave me a sealed envelope and said, when the train stops at Ratnagiri, I was to post it in the letter box.”
“Where’s that envelope?”
The waiter did not answer immediately. The envelope had disappeared, as if by magic, from his pocket. If he admitted to this, it would be like making public his carelessness. Suppose the envelope held some connection to the passenger’s murder, and the loss of the envelope got him into a bad mess?
“Put it into the letterbox, na?” he said stoutly.
“Posted it, na?”
“I was just returning from there to tell saheb that I’d done it, when… he…”
A bunch of uniformed policemen arrived on the scene, including a sub-inspector. The sub-inspector cleared everyone else away from the scene and took control of the situation.
Extracted and translated from the new ‘Vimal’ novel Chembur Ka Daata, to be published by Raja Pocket Books.
Surender Mohan Pathak
Pathak began his career translating Ian Fleming and James Hadley Chase into Hindi. Since then, he has written over 275 Hindi crime fiction novels. His books have sold over 25 million copies, making him, by some counts, India’s #1 bestseller.