The Case of the Missing Bag
(This is a true story. It really happened. Names have been changed to protect identities. Most of the conversations that form part of the narrative are based upon that most unreliable of friends-memory or from conversations after the fact so some literary license has been taken in narrating the precise sequence of events.)
A fancy red Chevrolet smoothly glided to a stop beside us as we waited for the light to turn green at the Dairy Circle cross in South Bangalore. But it was not the car that attracted our attention; it was the pulsing beat emanating from within it. An unknown song of the techno variety was playing. The bass from it throbbed intensely and seemed to overpower our heartbeats into voluntary synchronicity. It was an excellent sound system. I turned to the auto driver and said as much.
“Kya sound hai na? Mast system hai!”
“Arrey, hamare pass bhi hai boss. Main mera system lagaya tho mera auto bhi dance karne lagega!”
I smiled at the infectious enthusiasm of the driver and his obvious pride over his auto. In fact, it was a most interesting auto. Its interior was festooned with ribbons of glowing, multicolored lights so that it gave you the feeling of being in some dingy dance bar.
I did feel like dancing. What had seemed like a bleak and hopeless case initially turned around in a most dramatic fashion at the end. The many twists and turns tinged the whole week with a cinematic quality. Even now, when I look back, I marvel at the amazing adventure it became in the end.
Like most things in life, it started in an innocuous fashion and can be traced back to my insistence to get out of the city for the weekend. I was in Bangalore on a break and was staying with Pavan in his flat, my college friend who was working for a startup and shared the flat with two of his friends, Anand and Vishwas. I was getting bored staying alone in the flat so I kept pestering Anand to plan a weekend trip. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily in light of the events that transpired later, we soon learnt that a couple of our common friends were driving to Mysore for the weekend. They invited us to come along and we quickly decided to follow them there. So the three of us, Pavan, Anand and me took an auto from Pavan’s place to go to Brunton Cross Road to another friend’s place. The plan was to pick up a friend’s car from there and travel in that to Mysore. Pavan was in a hurry. He wanted to be in the car as soon as possible so that he could catch up with our common friends somewhere on the road to Mysore. We quickly packed and started in an auto for Brunton Road. The auto we had taken was one of those old, sputtering and whiny ones. It was going too slow to suit Pavan. So we got down opposite Shopper’s Stop on Bannerghatta Road and quickly took another auto. The auto driver of the first auto saw us take another auto and was not amused. He started cursing us. We were in too much of a hurry to pay much heed to his angry words.
The second auto was new, fast, relatively quiet and smooth. Since we were three people in the auto with two being considerably overweight there was not much space for us to sit comfortably. So Pavan asked me to keep his bag behind us in the luggage space of the auto. His bag contained my Macbook Pro laptop apart from his wallet, cell phone, money, clothes and some documents. I was carrying my camera bag; a constant companion while Anand was carrying his own bag. The rest of the auto ride was uneventful. We braved the horrendous Bangalore traffic and reached our friend’s place on Brunton Cross road. We got off the auto and I started taking out money to pay the fare. In the meantime, Pavan and Anand started asking the auto driver for directions to get to Mysore Road from where we were. The auto driver seemed helpful. I paid him. We then climbed to the second floor flat of our friend to pick up the car keys. We drank some water, checked out the flat, locked it and then climbed down to the garage. We got into the car we had come to pick up. I got into the back seat and Anand, who would be driving, gave me his bag to keep it in the back. Pavan, who was sitting next to him, asked me to keep his bag too in the back.
“What bag?” I asked him.
“My bag re. Don’t you have it?”
“No, I thought you were carrying it.”
Pavan turned to me with a shocked face and cursed in a loud voice.
“Shit! It’s still in the auto man.”
Our lives were not the same after that. We all took a deep breath and considered our options.
“Ok, the auto would not have gone far so let’s go looking for him,” said Pavan.
“Alright, we might have also forgotten it in the flat upstairs so let me go up and check and you two go look for the auto on the road,” I suggested.
Anand and Pavan left in the car while I went upstairs to look for the bag with a thin and already fading hope.
There was no bag in the flat. I went back downstairs and waited for my friends to come back. The laptop was a recent acquisition and as such I should not have had much attachment to it but even though I hated to admit it to myself I had fallen in love with Apple’s sleek design. It was also bought from money that I had saved by foregoing some luxuries and healthy food! And that made the loss acute.
Anand and Pavan returned soon after and one look at their faces told me the full story. We decided to search again over a larger area, as the auto shouldn’t have gone all that far. So I got into the car and we set off. We looked at every auto along the way hoping against hope to find the auto we had taken. As we searched, I asked Pavan to use my phone and call his mobile that was in the bag. There was a chance that the auto driver might hear the phone and answer it. Pavan’s phone kept ringing and ringing for about five minutes before we got the dreaded message. His phone was switched off!
Pavan apparently also had an unknown amount of dollars in the same pocket where his phone was present. We realized that once the auto driver heard the phone ringing in the bag and opened it he must have found the dollars and then the laptop and decided to keep them.
Unfortunately, honesty is in such short supply in contemporary India that whatever little hope we had entertained of the auto driver answering our call shattered in an instant once we heard the message that the phone was switched off.
Still, we searched for the auto all along M.G. Road, Brigade Road and Ashok Nagar but to no avail. We went back to our friend’s place to ask the caretaker of the building if in case the auto driver had returned. The answer was negative.
With a heavy heart we made our way to the nearby Ashok Nagar police station. There we talked to a young Sub Inspector (SI) named Mohan. Mohan listened to our sorry tale and asked us some questions.
“Do you have the auto number?”
“Do you have the police serial number or DL number of the auto driver?
“Do you at least have the name and address of the auto driver?”
“Not exactly sir but we remember reading the license display board of the driver and remember his name and the locality he lives in.”
“(Smiling) What is this sir? Without the auto number or police serial number there is no way to trace the auto. You can register a complaint but to be frank I suggest you stop hoping. 99% of the auto drivers in Bangalore are corrupt. It is next to impossible that you will find the bag now. For your satisfaction I’ll ask the constable to send out a wireless message just in case the auto driver has returned the bag at a police station.”
“You know you should change your T-shirt,” said the SI pointing at Pavan’s t-shirt, which mocked the iPod frenzy at that time with a drawing of a toilet and iPooed printed above it. “These things will happen to you if you wear such sarcastic T-shirts.”
We thanked the SI for his reality check, for stating the obvious and for his gratuitous advice and went and registered our complaint. The constable who registered our complaint was properly shocked upon hearing that we had forgotten our bag in an auto but he also repeated whatever the SI had said and asked us in future to note down the police serial number of any auto we got into or at least take a photo with a cell phone of the license display board. All good advice but which came a little late in the day to help us.
With our hopes slipping by the minute we decided to follow the advice given by a traffic inspector we had met in front of Garuda Mall before coming to the police station to register our complaint. There is a database of all Bangalore auto drivers at the DCP (traffic) East office, Shivaji Nagar Bus Stop. The inspector had suggested that we try our luck there with the limited information we remembered of the auto driver.
So we made our way across town to the DCP office. But by the time we battled through the traffic and made our way there it was already 6 pm, well past closing time. The person who managed the database was long gone. Another person offered to help and with his assistance we managed to narrow our search and get a few addresses based on the auto driver’s name and locality. We were asked to return the next day to seek formal permission from the DCP to resume our search for a needle in a haystack.
I had been harboring some hope still until I saw the sheer size of the auto driver database. There were over one lakh auto drivers in Bangalore at that time! Finding just one in that huge database based on our limited information seemed a Herculean task, an almost impossible exercise in sheer futility. The faces of my friends also bore the same signs of despair as if they were thinking along the same lines.
By the time we got to the DCP office in the afternoon he was long gone. So we spent another fruitless day searching the database and jotting down a few more addresses. We even made our way to the police station in the vain hope that there had been some breakthrough overnight. Our expectations were set right soon. It was time to call it a day, head home and drown our sorrows at the bottom of a beer bottle.
I made my way to the DCP office again and finally managed to meet the DCP. He listened to my tale of woe with grave concern and agreed to give me permission to go through the database at my leisure. But the catch was that I could not take any printouts. I could note down as many addresses as I wanted but sorry, no permission to take printouts. I spent the rest of the morning coming up with more addresses by refining my search parameters for the auto driver’s database which was in the form of an excel sheet. There were photographs too of the auto drivers. However, photos existed only for those auto drivers who had registered or renewed their details within the last 3 years. As luck would have it, none of the potential candidates we had narrowed down had a photograph.
Now, our plan was simple if very tedious and highly hopeful. With the addresses in hand and taking a police constable along we wanted to go knocking on doors in the hopes of somehow ferreting out the auto driver.
Tuesday morning was bright and cool unlike our rapidly diminishing levels of patience. Day after day, going from one end of the city to another was taking its toll. Pavan and I started snapping at each other over small things. Pavan was missing work just when he had an important product release around the corner. I did not have much to do in life then but I did not know Kannada and nor did I know Bangalore enough to do the running around on my own. Still, since this would be the day of knocking on strange doors both of us made our way to the Ashok Nagar police station again to meet SI Mohan. But he was not around. We learnt that the state assembly was in session so he was on that security detail. After waiting for an hour for the SI, we almost gave up and left but the Chief Inspector (CI) suddenly turned up. We met him and explained everything that had happened and requested him to send a constable with us. Surprisingly, he agreed without making any fuss. A constable in mufti from the crime section was assigned to us. Together, we set off to another end of the city-Magadi Road.
Magadi was a chaotic and crowded locality that can be found in any fast growing city in India. Small houses built in a haphazard manner clustered around narrow lanes. As it was early afternoon there were not many people on the streets. As we walked through the locality, we could see through open doorways women preparing the afternoon meal. Our first address was supposed to be in one of the inside lanes but no one could tell where the house was located exactly. A shopkeeper pointed us in one direction but our house number did not even exist in that direction. Someone else directed us elsewhere. We wandered deep into the locality, into lanes we would never see in our life again. People stared at us curiously. We were obviously outsiders. No one wanders in the middle of the afternoon with sheets of paper asking for non-existent addresses. We soon realized that the first address did not exist and moved on to the second.
In one narrow lane we found children in green uniforms playing games. Their cries and laughter gave life to an otherwise deserted street. This lane was where our second address should be located. We walked past the school children to find a father just dropping off his daughter from school at home. The mother was standing in the doorway wearing a nightdress. She was laughing. I was captivated by the brightness of her laughter, her easy happiness. We stopped before them. This was the house. This was the second address on our list but the father did not seem to be an auto driver. The constable spoke to him.
“We are looking for this driver named G.”
“There is no one living with that name here. There is an auto driver living in the house behind us but his name is not G and in any case he drives a goods auto. Why do you ask?” the girl’s father asked.
As we were talking two more people joined us. The constable explained why we were there. Instantly, all of them opened up and offered more suggestions. None of them were practical. Our last little hope was crumbling before our very eyes. As warned by the DCP traffic office earlier, the auto drivers of Bangalore were not known for providing accurate home addresses.
It was 1 pm and all of us were hungry. It was hot. The third address was on the other side of Magadi Road. We decided to break for lunch and resume our half-hearted search. We started walking towards a restaurant we had seen on the main road.
This is when things turned. It was not a clear change. It did not offer any clarity at that time. Nevertheless, we were climbing a crest even if we did not know it then. My phone started ringing. It was Anand, excited and speaking rapidly.
“I got a call from somebody. He claims to have the bag and laptop!”
“Wait…wait…slow down. Who is he? How did he get your number?”
“From Pavan’s cell phone. My name is the first one in his contacts list. Anyway, he has given me a number and asked Pavan to call him back.”
I took down the number. This was a new development. We were more curious than hopeful. Pavan took my phone and called the number. Someone picked up and started speaking in Kannada in an authoritative manner.
“May I know who is this?” asked Pavan.
“Our names are irrelevant. Do you own the green colored bag and laptop?” replied Mr. Kannada.
So there was more than one person involved.
“Yes. Do you have it?”
“Yes. Do you want it back?”
“Then take down this number and call it. That person will give you further instructions.”
Pavan took down the phone number and hung up. The constable looked amused. I was confused but a tiny sliver of hope started to wave its hands. Pavan called the other number. Someone speaking in Hindi picked up the phone. He was calling from Mumbai and tried to speak like a cool and benevolent Bollywood don.
“Who is this?” asked Mr. Mumbai
“I’m one who lost the bag and laptop. I was asked to call you,” replied Pavan politely.
“Achha, achha, so tell me do you want the bag and laptop or not?”
“Of course, bhaiyya. Do you have it?”
“Yes, I do. Since I’ll be returning them to you, you know, I expect something from you in return.”
“No problem bhaiyya. Tell me how much you need.”
“No, you tell me. You know the value of your belongings so it is best that you come up with whatever you think is right.”
Pavan looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I held up five fingers.
“How about five thousand?”
“Nah, nah that is too low. I can easily get more for the laptop if I sell it. You see I’m a decent person. I’m offering to give it back to you instead of selling or throwing it away. You have to consider my position too.”
“Achha, so you tell me bhaiyya. How much do you want?”
“I think 30,000 rupees would be right,” Mr. Mumbai said coolly.
“Arrey, that is too much bhaiyya. We are not that rich. Please think of us too. Let us settle on 10,000.”
“No that is still too low. There is no profit for me in that. I’ve promised to pay the person who brought me the bag 5,000 so that will leave only 5,000 for me. Too small. Too small. I can sell the laptop and get more.”
Pavan looked at me again. I signaled that 15,000 is fine but that would be the maximum. We were haggling with a thief like we were buying vegetables.
“Ok, bhaiyya, let us make it 15,000. Please accept. That is the maximum we can go. You have to consider our situation too. We only want the laptop back because it has important data on it.”
“Ok, ok, 15,000 is ok for me,” he said as if granting us a big favor.
“How does this work then? Where can we meet?” asked Pavan.
“No, no meeting. That is too risky for me. You will call the police. I’ll give you a bank account number. Tomorrow morning, you deposit this money in the account and in the evening I’ll check with the bank. If the money has been deposited I’ll send someone with the bag to your house.”
“That is too risky bhaiyya. What if you run away with the money after we deposit it? We have no way of being sure. Please meet us and we can do the exchange in person. I promise we will not call the police. We do not need the headache,” said Pavan.
The constable who was carefully trying to listen to the conversation seemed amused.
“No, you will say like that only. We have to do this way only. Take down the account number!” commanded Mr. Mumbai
Pavan noted down the account number, promised to tell him about the payment next morning and hung up. All three of us stared at each other. Pavan and I were in equal parts relieved, disgusted and angry. The constable had a smirk on his face as if he saw cases like this all the time. We continued walking towards the restaurant. Over plates of steaming dosas we discussed our options. The popular opinion was not to trust Mr. Mumbai. What if after we transferred the money he simply vanished? We had no leverage. He was simply holding all the cards.
This was almost the same advice we got from my uncle later that evening. I had talked to my parents in the afternoon and explained the situation. My father in turn had talked to his close friend, my uncle-Mr M, who was part of the Indian Civil Services and held a senior position in ISRO. On my father’s suggestion, I had called him up to explain the situation. He asked us to do our best to hold off or make alternate plans while he made some calls.
Pavan called up Mr Mumbai again and explained our position. He requested him to change his mind and look at our situation. But Mr Mumbai was a stubborn man. He refused to budge from his position of not meeting in person. Finally, after haggling for thirty minutes Pavan came up with a mutually acceptable compromise. The new plan was to arrange a simultaneous exchange. A friend of Pavan’s would meet Mr Mumbai in Bombay and hand over the money while at the same time the bag and laptop would be handed over to us in Bangalore.
Pavan started calling his friends in Bombay and late in the night got hold of one. Balu was not entirely convinced that he should get involved with some plan straight out of an underworld film. I did not blame him. He needed some convincing. Slowly, he came around even though he still had a lot of reservation about the whole plan. There ended a long day. A day that brought back a little hope into our lives even if it was mixed with much frustration.
Wednesday morning came with a fresh problem. Apparently, Mr Mumbai wanted Balu to meet him somewhere deep in Dadar at some shady spot and nowhere else. Again, he refused to meet anywhere else. Understandably, Balu was reluctant to venture into unknown territory to meet someone whose name we did not even know. Pavan called Mr Mumbai again hoping to make him meet Balu somewhere in the middle of Mumbai in a crowded place but Mr Mumbai would not budge one inch. It was Dadar or nowhere else. He was also getting exasperated over the delay in consummating the deal. In the end he suggested a compromise. He asked us to transfer 10,000 into his bank account and the remaining 5,000 we would have to hand over to his contact when that person gave us the bag.
Soon after Mr Mumbai’s call my uncle called to tell us that through an IAS friend of his he had managed to get us an appointment with the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Crime of Bangalore at 11:30 am the same day. Hurriedly, the three of us made our way to the DCP’s office where we met my uncle.
After waiting for a few minutes we were ushered into the DCP’s presence. It was a big room with a high ceiling. The usual portrait of Mahatma Gandhi hung on the wall behind the DCP. The DCP himself was dressed simply but he radiated a quiet air of authority. Once you were in his presence you got the feeling that here was a man who could get things done.
After we had made our introductions we began to explain what had happened in chronological fashion. He listened to us intently, interrupting us occasionally to clarify a detail in our sometimes disjointed narrative and made a note of all the crucial points. He then made some quick phone calls and assembled a team consisting of an Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP), a CI and our SI, Mohan. I still remember the shock that registered on the SI’s face when he realized that we had somehow managed to reach all the way to the top of the police establishment when he saw us in the DCP’s office once he came in. The assembling of the team took some time as all three were based in different police stations of the city. We waited in the room while the DCP met other people. Once the team was assembled the DCP briefed the three about the case and had this to say in the end to them.
“This is a simple case. We have cell phone numbers and a bank account. So all you need to do is make a good plan and move quickly. If you plan well this case should be solved soon. Good luck gentlemen.”
The DCP then turned to us and introduced the three policemen.
“All three are very good policemen. They are young and dynamic and they will help you with everything. Please give them all the details, stay in touch with them and I’m pretty sure they will crack this case.”
With that our meeting came to an end and all of us filed out of the room.
The ACP was busy with another case so he talked to us briefly and asked us to give all the details to Inspector Purohit. We sat down with Inspector Purohit and SI Mohan, narrated our story yet another time and gave him all the details. The Inspector was laconic but also radiated an air of efficiency. Unlike the SI who always talked to us with a smirk on his face the Inspector was all business. He directed the SI to get the Call Detail Records (CDRs) for the cell phone numbers of Mr Mumbai, Mr Kannada as well as Pavan’s cell phone, which was in the missing bag. He also promised to send someone to Mr Mumbai’s bank to make discreet enquiries about the bank account number he had given us. He advised us to record the phone calls from Mr Mumbai and anyone else connected with the case by installing special software on our mobiles. We exchanged phone numbers. He asked us to keep him updated of any developments. He assured us that he would do the same and also promised that the case would be solved soon.
To be frank, we were not entirely happy about the new direction the case had taken. We had seen too many films where involvement with the police usually meant immediate disaster and long-term headache. The police are not exactly known for their efficiency and honesty. There were the warnings and threats of Mr Mumbai too. He had warned us that contacting the police would result in the immediate destruction of the laptop and disappearance of the bag and its contents. Yes, he had threatened us too that if the police got to him through us he would make sure that we would be ‘taken care’ of. It was too late. Whether we liked it or not the police were involved and for once we decided to trust them.
Pavan and Anand pushed off to work. It was lunchtime. My uncle decided that we should have lunch together. Since I hadn’t had breakfast I concurred with him. Instead of a restaurant he suggested we go have lunch with a junior IAS colleague of his from Andhra Pradesh who was posted in the Karnataka waterworks department. It was a pleasant lunch initially but it soon turned into an interminable discussion about the inner workings of the Indian bureaucracy and the increasing effects of globalization and privatization on it. Once my uncle got a rhythm going it was difficult to make him stop. He held forth on various projects he had worked on, how efficient even a small African country, in which he had worked for close to a decade on deputation, was compared to India and so on and so forth. I could see that his colleague, who was soft spoken, was getting bored too. I decided it was time to leave. After thanking my uncle for all his help I took their leave and headed for Pavan’s office. There, Anand and I spent the evening trawling the net for phone call recording software. We managed to find one that worked on our phones through some forum. It was cracked software. The irony of the situation, using cracked software to record extortion phone calls, did not escape my attention. Moral quibbling was put aside for the selfish need to get our belongings back. We returned home tired after yet another long day.
Later that night all hell broke loose.
It started with a phone call from an agitated Mr Mumbai. He began accusing us of speaking to the police and setting them after him. He threatened us again with dire consequences. Someone from the bank had come to his house! We were as shocked as him. The inquiries at his bank by the police should have been discreet. Something had gone wrong somewhere. Pavan recovered from the shock quickly and managed to soothe Mr Mumbai’s frayed nerves (Pavan was the one who talked to him always). He assured him that we had never approached the police and had no intention of doing that. We had no idea how or why someone from the bank had come to make enquiries at his address. Pavan again asked him to trust us and assured him that we would pay the money as agreed.
As Pavan was calming down Mr Mumbai on my phone (which was used for almost all conversations) Anand got a call on his phone from Mr Kannada to add another twist to our already complicated story. Mr Kannada claimed that he and some others were coming down from Bombay with the bag and laptop. They wanted us to meet them in Bangalore the next day. They would hand over everything to us and all they wanted in return was a refund of their travel expenses. They made no mention of the 15,000 payment. It was obvious that all of them were nervous and scared. Mr Mumbai again threatened to throw away the bag and laptop if we talked to the police. As both phone calls were happening simultaneously I ran from one phone to another trying to keep track of a fast changing situation. Both calls were being recorded.
The calls ended on a hopeful note finally. Mr Kannada and friends wanted to meet us the next day at a place outside the city (they refused to meet us in the city). Mr Mumbai asked us to coordinate with Mr Kannada and friends for the handover. Even he dropped the demand for money. He asked us to give whatever we thought was appropriate to them.
With that we finally ate and went to bed. We had no way of knowing then how long the next day would eventually turn out to be.
Thursday morning started early with an unexpected wake up call. It was Mr Kannada and friends. They wanted us to set off then and there and meet them somewhere on the other end of the city. They asked us to get out of the house immediately, get into an auto, call them and then give the phone to the auto driver. They would reveal the exact location for the handover only to the auto driver. Of course, there was no way we would set off immediately to some unknown place outside the city. We delayed. From then on they started calling every half an hour wanting to know whether we had started off or not.
In between bargaining with them for more time I called the ACP and explained the situation to him. He asked us to delay the meeting as much as possible so that it would give him time to organize a police team and autos. He also asked me to get in touch with Inspector Purohit. I called him up as well and explained the situation. He asked us to delay the meet until 11:30 am and asked us to meet the police team he would assemble at a hotel on Mysore Road. The next time Mr Kannada called we asked for time citing distance and traffic as issues and managed to fix the meeting at 11:30 am.
We set off immediately to meet the police team. After battling through the interminable traffic we reached the hotel. The police team was already there, waiting for us. All of them were in mufti. There was SI Mohan looking like an executive with one of the tech companies in his jeans, a laptop bag hanging by his side and sunglasses shielding his eyes. There were two constables from the Anti-Terrorist Cell (ATC), two from Inspector Purohit’s police station and another constable who was dressed as an auto driver. They had also arranged two autos to take us to the meeting point. We learnt from SI Mohan that Inspector Purohit had already left for the meeting point area in his jeep.
After brief introductions were made all around we called Mr Kannada and gave the phone to the policeman acting as an auto driver. He gave him the exact location for the meeting point. It would be a lane next to a half finished apartment complex right on the edge of the city. The autos were started and we piled into the autos. Pavan, Anand and SI Mohan went into the first auto with the policeman disguised as an auto driver along with the actual auto driver. In the second auto were the two constables from Inspector’s Purohit’s police station sitting on either side of me. The two ATC constables went ahead on a bike. In this procession we set off. As we were already on the outskirts of the city there was less traffic and we made rapid progress. The hunt was on!
There was not much excitement though. I was more curious about what would happen than excited. I had no idea where we were going so I stared out of the auto looking at all the areas we passed through, localities with wide roads and quasi-slums with narrow streets. After about 30 minutes of driving we reached the meeting point area.
Our auto continued past the meeting point. I had a brief glimpse of an apartment complex with bare cement walls. We went down the road for another hundred meters and stopped by the side of the road. The constables asked me not to get out of the auto. Fortunately, I had a clear view of the road behind me through the small window behind the auto. The ATC constables had stopped behind us on the same side as the meeting point. They got down and one of the constables immediately bent down beside the engine of the bike and acted as if he was trying to fix something on the bike. The first auto had stopped at the meeting point minus the policeman disguised as an auto driver who got down before reaching the meeting point.
It is strange but at that time as I sat in the auto all alone all I felt was boredom and a mild curiosity about what was happening at the meeting point. I was completely cut off from my friends and whatever was happening to them. I did not even have my cell phone as I had given it to Pavan before we all set off for the meeting point. Even if I had had a cell phone nothing would have changed as we were instructed by the police to not make any unnecessary phone calls. I guess in a way I wished I was there at the meeting point instead of my friends but as Pavan and Anand had been the ones who had talked to the various people in this drama who claimed to have the bag throughout, it had been decided that they would be the ones present at the meeting point. Whatever happened at the meeting point I pieced together from conversations I had later with Pavan, Anand and the SI.
My friends and the SI got down from their auto in front of the apartment complex and walked to a small tea shop that stood at the mouth of a lane beside the complex. After a few minutes three men approached them from the lane. All three were in their mid twenties. One was wearing a blue shirt, another was wearing an orange colored t-shirt and the third was wearing a striped shirt. Orange shirt walked up to my friends and asked them in a low tone in Kannada, “Are you here for the bag?”
“Yes,” replied Anand.
“But you are not the third person in the auto that day”, said Blue shirt looking closely at SI Mohan.
“No, he is my brother,” interrupted Anand, “I brought him because you are all strangers. You can’t expect us to come alone to some unknown place to meet you people.”
“Ok, ok, no problem. Did you get the money?”
“Where is the bag?” asked Anand.
“The bag is down the road. You give me the money and I’ll send two boys with the bag.”
“Sorry boss. Give us the bag and we will hand over the money. See here, we have brought the money.”
Anand showed them the money I had given earlier to Pavan and him.
“Since we have come so far to a place of your choosing you will have to do this one thing our way. You give us the bag and we will give you the money.”
The three conferred among themselves and agreed to get the bag. In the meantime, our auto had crossed over to the opposite side. One of the constables left the auto and walked to a tiffin shop a little way ahead. A couple of minutes later he rushed to us barely able to contain his excitement and exclaimed in hushed tones to the other constable,
“There are two kids ahead walking with a bag,” he said.
“Where?” asked the other constable.
“They are coming out of that lane.”
He pointed to a lane that ran parallel to the lane where my friends were. The second constable looked and immediately his eyes lit up. As I was still inside the auto I could not see anything. The first constable rushed into the auto and waited impatiently for the auto to start. The second constable admonished his junior colleague and asked him to keep his cool. Our auto started up the road towards the meeting point. As we passed the lane the constable had referred to I saw two kids carrying a white plastic bag between them. Peeking out of it was Pavan’s green bag!
I alerted the constables on either side of me and confirmed that the kids were indeed carrying our bag. By that time we were about to pass the meeting point. Suddenly, both the constables raised their hands to hold the rod that ran over the auto under the roof. They were blocking my face so that no one at the meeting point could see me. After we passed the meeting point the constables made our auto driver turn into an empty compound. As soon as we stopped the senior constable called up one of the ATC constables and informed him about the two kids with the bag walking towards the meeting spot.
Meanwhile, at the meeting point, Blue shirt, who seemed to be a sharp fellow, had seen our auto pass by slowly and asked Anand in a suspicious tone, “Did you bring the police with you? We warned you what would happen if you did.”
“Arrey, relax. We did not bring the police with us. Now will you get the bag or not?” asked Anand in return maintaining his cool.
“The bag is on its way. It will be here soon.”
The two boys carrying them soon came into view. Behind them were the two ATC constables and the constable who had acted as an auto driver.
Suddenly, someone yelled ‘lock’ in a loud voice. Immediately, the SI and the constables fell on everyone. The constables next to me bolted as soon as they heard the code word. The ATC constables caught Striped shirt and one of the kids immediately. The other constable took hold of the bag. Orange shirt ran down into the lane of the meeting point. SI Mohan set off after him. The second kid ran down the lane and tried to disappear into the area behind the empty compound where I was sitting in the auto.
SI Mohan was in hot pursuit of Orange shirt. The latter ran down the lane and turned left. It was a dead-end! Before he could figure out what to do next the SI came around the corner with a gun in his hand.
“Bastard! Stop! If you try to run I’ll put one bullet into you.”
Orange shirt froze immediately. SI Mohan went up to him and gave him a hard slap across his face. All resistance vanished and a look of utter despair crossed his face.
The first constable from my auto had set off after the second kid. The latter tried hard but he couldn’t outclass an experienced policeman. He too was caught soon and got one hard bonk on his head for his efforts. Tears started immediately and he started pleading with the constable to let him go as he did not know anything. The constable was not moved. He shoved the kid forward towards the meeting point where all the arrested were gathered. They were then shoved into the autos we had come in. Orange shirt refused to get in. With another slap across his face and a punch in his stomach he was bundled into the auto where he doubled up in pain.
It suddenly dawned on everyone that in the chaos Blue shirt had escaped. He was last seen running down the main road. Inspector Purohit who was stationed down the road was immediately alerted. The ATC constables also set off in pursuit.
We waited by the tea shop as SI Mohan recovered from his pursuit. He gasped for breath, sweat streamed off his forehead as he gulped huge amounts of air. In spite of his obvious discomfort he was excited. As excited as a teenager who gets to drive his dad’s car for the first time. It was obvious that this was the first time he had been involved in a chase. Between huge gulps for air he recounted his adventure.
“Boss, you should have seen him running but as soon as I pointed my gun at him he almost pissed in his pants. Did you see Black Friday?” He did not wait for an answer as he continued, “this was just like that chase between the inspector and the terrorist in the film!”
Meanwhile, down the road, the hunt was on for Blue shirt. He had disappeared somewhere. The police were searching the area trying to flush him out. As we were waiting my cell phone began to ring. It was Mr Mumbai!
Pavan answered. For a second he did not recognize the voice on the other end for it had changed so much in tone. Gone was the swagger and confidence replaced by fear and uncertainty.
“Udhar kya hora bhai? Mujhe Blue shirt ka phone nahi lag raha.”
“I don’t know bhaiyaa. He has gone somewhere down the road,” Pavan replied.
“You have called the police right. I know. Please don’t make a case. Please talk to them.”
“No bhaiyya. Nothing of that sort has happened. He has gone to get the bag.”
“No, you are lying. Blue shirt’s mobile is switched off. This has not happened before. Please, please, talk to the police. Here someone else wants to talk to you.”
A woman started speaking. She requested the same thing as Mr Mumbai. To talk to the police and convince them not to make a case. Pavan mumbled something and hung up.
All of a sudden the policemen sprang to life. Inspector Purohit’s jeep was coming towards us. In the back was Blue shirt.
The Inspector informed us that upon seeing the policemen searching for him in a colony down the road he came out of a lane and started running down the main road dodging cars and lorries. Inspector Purohit noticed him almost immediately and chased after him in his jeep. Man was no match against machine and he was soon caught.
It had been a successful outing for the police. Within about a day of being on the case they had managed to nab all the culprits. They were smiles all around.
Even the normally reserved Inspector could not suppress a smirk as he handed over the bag to us and asked us if we were happy. We mumbled our gratitude. He asked us to check the bag to see if everything was in order. Everything was except for about $70 that belonged to Pavan. Even Pavan’s cell phone was recovered from Blue shirt who had been using it to call us. It was minus Pavan’s sim card though. While trying to escape, Blue shirt had taken the sim card out and thrown it away.
It was late afternoon by then. The sun was beating down on all of us. Suddenly, everyone was in a hurry to get back to the city. The five culprits were handcuffed and piled into the back of the Inspector’s jeep along with the two constables who had been with me. The inspector sat in front while SI Mohan and the three of us squeezed into the middle seat. After paying the two auto drivers who had assisted the police in the operation we set off for the Ashok Nagar police station.
It was the quiet after a storm. Everyone was in a reflective mood.
“Crime is such a fascinating subject. The deeper I go the more I’m surprised. You can spend hours studying it but what you encounter in the real world will be nothing like what you expected,” Inspector Purohit observed in the voice of a man who had seen everything.
He lapsed into silence again. We thanked him and the SI again for their prompt help and successful conclusion to the case.
“Oh, do not thank us. Thank the DSP. It is because of him only that this has happened. He is a dynamic man. A great man. He gets things done,” he said.
We reached SI Mohan’s police station. The culprits were taken to rooms at the back of the station. We were asked to wait in the cabin of SI Mohan. Suddenly, there came the sound of a loud whoosh.
It was immediately followed by a heart-rending cry. After that, blow after blow rained down on the different culprits in quick sucession. They cried and pleaded but all to no avail. The blows continued to find their mark. Shrieks of agony reverberated around the station. A hush descended on the rest of the policemen in the station. To say that we were shocked would be an understatement. We knew the culprits were guilty. We had cursed them a hundred times over the past few days for their dishonesty and greed but in that moment when we heard them plead like animals to be spared from the pain we sat in shocked silence as a wave of sympathy washed over us. Pavan was ready to bolt. He had enough of the whole thing. After informing the SI he left.
The ‘interrogation’ continued for some more time. All the gaps in the case were filled. We soon learnt that the whole plan was the handiwork of Blue shirt who was also Mr Kannada along with Orange shirt and Striped shirt, auto driver buddies of his. In fact, Blue shirt was the auto driver in whose auto we had forgotten the bag. He had sold Pavan’s dollars as well. That left Mr Mumbai. Who was he? What was his role in this whole drama? SI Mohan casually told us that Mr Mumbai was in fact Blue shirt’s brother and was studying in Bombay.
Anand and I could not leave even though it was late evening by then. We had to file a formal complaint. The police refused point blank to go easy and not make a big case out of the whole thing. “They have to be a taught a lesson” was the common refrain. But the real reason was something else. It was a successful case that they could proudly enter into their books and show off to their superiors. After all success rate in such cases was woefully low. They had even managed to trace the foreign exchange dealer to whom Blue shirt had sold the dollars and made him pay us back the money. The constables involved would be getting commendations. We could not stand in their way as they basked in the golden glow of success. What if the case ran for another 3 years? What if the culprits including the child were booked under potentially severe IPC sections like extortion? What if we had to attend the court 3 or 4 years down the line when the summons came keeping every article from the bag unchanged? It was part of the process. It was the law.
The bag and its contents would not be released to us immediately as they were evidence. We were asked to come the next day and file an application with the court to release them.
Friday came with a bang. Five in fact spread throughout Bangalore. I narrowly missed one of the blast sites as I was supposed to pass through Richmond circle at the time of the blast on my way to the police station. An upset stomach saved me from whatever might have been in store for me. As I lay in bed and watched the news channels go overboard I saw one after the other all the players from our case appear on TV. There, on one channel was the DSP on the phone reassuring everybody that the police were in control. There, on another channel was the ACP overseeing the clues team. And there, on yet another channel was Inspector Purohit photographing the blast sites with his cell phone.
If our case had stretched just by one extra day there was no way these policemen would have worked on our case. The blasts would have wiped out all hope of recovery. Life sometimes is such a study in selfishness and coincidence.
I suddenly remembered a short conversation I had with the inspector the day before as we were going back to the police station after nabbing the culprits. In the course of other small talk I had asked him on how he would rate the Bangalore police in comparison to other Indian state police. Without missing a beat he had answered, “Oh, we are the best.”
To get the bag released by the court I had to run around for another few days. More applications were written. More forms were filled. More challans were paid in government banks. More running around the court constable who needed money to move the file.
Finally, on a Tuesday afternoon, I got the bag and everything in it, including my ‘precious laptop’. An attention lapse of two minutes had cost all of us so much. Especially the people who were caught. Their life would be living hell as their families made endless rounds of police stations and courtrooms to get them released. If only Blue shirt had handed over the bag as soon as he found it in his auto instead of planning an elaborate extortion game. If only honesty held more value in contemporary India. If only the yawning and ever increasing gap between the haves and have-nots could be bridged in a humane manner. If only…
As I left the police station and soon Bangalore I was reminded once again of Inspector Purohit’s apt observation.
“Crime is such a fascinating subject. The deeper I go the more I’m surprised. You can spend hours studying it but what you encounter in the real world will be nothing like what you expected.”