Editor: Read Chapter IX here.

‘Not sure when I will return. You take care.’

It was the fourth text message Rajesh had sent to Anjali. He had resorted to keeping his phone switched off to conserve its battery. There were no replies from Anjali, which wasn’t very surprising. When Rajesh finally managed to actually call Anjali, it was already dark. The phone kept ringing, but Anjali didn’t answer. Rajesh didn’t try again since there was precious little he could tell her.

The tip-off was most probably a false alarm. Rajesh had split his team of fifty policemen into five groups and each group was posted at various locations along the trail which Etayya was supposed to take. Rajesh himself had been busy monitoring all five groups and ensuring that in the event one of them cornered Etayya, the others would be capable of rushing in to assist.

At times, Rajesh even felt that the wily Etayya arranged for such tip-offs so that the police would be constantly on their toes looking for him and if someone ever snitched on him for real, they would treat that information too with a pinch of salt.

Rajesh interrogated the informant once more. The man was a tribal shepherd who claimed to have run into an advance party of Maoists. The shepherd claimed that the Maoists had forcibly taken away a couple of goats and some milk from him and paid him a pittance for it.

‘We need it for our big leader Etayya who is inspecting these parts’, one of the Maoists had told him apologetically and the others with him had immediately reprimanded the man for giving away such vital information. Rajesh was skeptical. Even if the shepherd had run into some Maoists and had lost a couple of goats to them, the chances of the Maoists’ victim voluntarily reporting such an incident to the police was not very high. All tribals were wary of the police and kept away from them as much as possible. Was the loss of a couple of goats sufficient to induce a tribal to approach the police with such information? Rajesh didn’t think so.

The shepherd wanted to leave, but Rajesh insisted that he stay.

‘I will get into trouble if someone sees me with you people,’ he pleaded. Allowing him to hide in an isolated spot where no one else would see him, if at all anyone were to pass by was the only concession Rajesh was willing to make.

The next morning found Rajesh still in the jungle. At around seven, Rajesh radioed the SP and suggested they call off the mission. The SP demurred and asked him to hold on. An hour later, the SP called back, doubtless after having discussed with the DIG and agreed that they could call off the hunt. Finally, Rajesh could call Anjali who answered the phone to his relief.

‘Darling, I am on my way back. I will be leaving in another half an hour and should get there by around noon,’ he told her.

‘Darling, I’m also on my way back. Professor Morkar found me a reliable taxi driver who will drive me to the airport. I will be leaving soon and I should get to Nagpur airport by around noon.’

‘Anjali, can’t you understand?’ Rajesh asked, frustrated.

‘Honey, I do understand. Of course, I do. Bye, have a safe trip.’


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