Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Speaking Volumes: Bag of Bones

(Published in the Business Standard, December 13, 2011. This is a longer version of the column that was carried in print.)


It was a measure of the relative innocence of Delhi (and India) in 1978 that the murder of two children would hit the city so hard. In the absence of the noise of today’s TV channels or the feeding frenzy of the tabloids, the deaths of Sanjay and Geeta Chopra felt, to middle-class Delhi, like a personal, familial tragedy.

The brother and sister were killed by Kuljeet Singh and Jasjeet Singh, better known by their nicknames, Billa and Ranga. Geeta and Sanjay had asked for a lift back home; three days later, their bodies were found in Buddha Jayanti Park. Their deaths had not been easy or swift, and for months afterwards, the horror of the murders, the deep collective grief over what those children had suffered before they died, became part of the city’s consciousness. Billa and Ranga were sentenced to death, and hanged in 1982.

The murders were unplanned, and yet they were carried out with a degree of deliberation and cruelty that raised questions about Billa and Ranga. It was easier at the time to see the pair as monsters; the idea that a certain kind of person might comfortably turn to killing, given an opportunity, is far harder for most humans to stomach. The hangings, greeted by and large with satisfaction, as a sign that justice had been done, was also a spectacle of medieval justice that raised larger questions over the death penalty. We know little about Billa and Ranga, aside from the fact that they had small-town roots, and that, after the murders, they instinctively sought shelter back home, not trusting to the anonymity of the big city.

There were no Truman Capotes to ask the really messy, unpleasant questions, nor were there the equivalent of writers like Vikram Chandra, to capture the sense of a city in the middle of change. Three decades later, the city is either indifferent to murders, unless they are suitably bloody – dismembered bodies found in gunny sacks – or its media will descend like hordes of flies on the more sensational deaths, as happened with the Aarushi Talwar case.

Bombay has been more fortunate in its chroniclers, from Suketu Mehta to Meenal Baghel, whose understanding of the city comes from the years she spent on the crime beat, and her time as editor of one of its more robustly sensational tabloids. The murder of a young TV executive, Neeraj Grover, in 2008 held the city’s attention for many obvious reasons.

The chief suspects were an aspiring actress, Maria Susairaj, who had ended a relationship with Grover, and her boyfriend Emile Jerome, a young, handsome naval officer. Grover’s body was found hacked into several pieces, a detail that acquired the sheen of legend in the media retelling: “three hundred pieces”, neither more nor less. In July 2011, Maria Susairaj was acquitted by a Mumbai court, who appeared to believe the version of events where Susairaj was cast as a helpless witness rather than an active participant; Emile Jerome received a 10-year sentence.

In Baghel’s hands, what could have been a conventional, if stirringly lurid, tale of predictable crime – passion, jealousy, a cunning cop pitting his wits against two very collected murder suspects – becomes a much more layered tale of darkness. The murder took place in the tiny flat of an apartment building called Dheeraj Solitaire, a name that speaks eloquently of the aspirations and hopes of those halfway up the ladder. Maria’s films – mostly flops – have contemporary, smart, Hinglish titles: Excuse Me and Ok, Sir, Ok.

The Bombay she and Neeraj move in is the world of smart gyms and parties that take them far away from either Mysore or Kanpur, where they grew up. Maria’s universe is a place where you might meet a possible future husband on Orkut while also hedging your bets on shaadi.com, and where, in the big city safely away from the prying curiosity of family, casual relationships that are all about “having mazaa” are filled with possibility and guaranteed free from judgement.

Baghel never lets us forget the violence of the actual murder; the blood from Grover’s body soaked their bedroom, and she has a chilling description of the effect it has in court when the packet that contains his bones is opened up, releasing the “dank” smell of death into the air. This is what hangs over Baghel’s tale of apparently commonplace aspiration: Neeraj Grover shaking off the dust of Kanpur as he works in the office of Ekta Kapur, the woman who runs a TV soap opera empire built on mothers-in-law, virginal heroines and wicked vamps, Maria holding marriage to a naval officer as a card in reserve in case her film actress dreams don’t come through.

The real darkness, in the story Baghel draws for her readers, is not in the crime that happened in the blink of a moment, with the current boyfriend confronting his fiancee’s former lover. It’s not in the carefully planned disposal of Grover’s corpse, where they might have got away with the murder if it hadn’t been for top police officer Rakesh Maria’s experience.

It’s in what happened in the days afterwards, when Emile and Maria went about their daily affairs with apparent normalcy, waiting for the police to forget about the corpse of Maria’s lover and friend, so that the actress and the navy man could go back to the important, absorbing business of their lives together.

Baghel never lets the reader forget that these two, Maria and Emile, are not monsters or psychopaths. Neeraj Grover's story is a very contemporary one: a young man struggling to get out of Kanpur in order to make something of himself, his ambitions and his successful arrival as a minor cog in Ekta Kapur's television serial factory marred only by his obsession with women: "Girlfriends turned up like finds out of an excavation out of Mohenjodaro."

But so is Maria's desperate and reasonably successful attempts to escape from the stifling conservatism of Mysore, her need to reinvent herself as an actress who's crossed the great divide between struggling and recognised. And Emile, the perfect cadet, who shares his small-town background with Maria and Neeraj, has few issues aside from an occasional burst of temper. Through her interviews with other actresses, psychics, police officers, Neeraj's friends in Bombay, Baghel builds up a compelling picture of a much less glamorous city, a place where those from India's small towns work so hard to fit in that they ignore the fissures and fractures of their divided selves.

Baghel offers no easy answers. Instead, she engages our sympathies, with all three protagonists, and then, as a quiet reminder, offers a list of material evidence compiled by the Crime Branch.

"All the clues to Neeraj's killing--the method and also the malevolence--lay in these items:

1. One bone, one foot long, burnt on one side.
2. Remnants of a burnt bag, red in colour.
3. Reddish-coloured half-burnt cloth.
4. Burnt pillow, pillowcase, burnt cloth, and plastic piece, all red."

And so it continues, down to a pair of bloodstained blue jeans with the label Skinny on the inside, one 13-inch chopper with an 8-inch long blade, one parcel containing bones, one yellow-coloured 5-litre plastic can with the words: Saffola Losorb--The Heart of a Family. These 33 things were all that was left of Neeraj Grover.

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