Editor: Read Chapter XXVII here.
When a saree clad, working class woman in her early thirties landed up outside Sampat, the building in Chembur where Tarun owned a flat and in which Yaroslav had stayed, the security guards barely stirred from their cabin. It was very obvious that the woman was from the hinterland thanks to her multi-layered nose piece and other exotic ornaments she wore and the loose end of her saree covering her head. Since the Mumbai police believed that all the attackers were dead, most buildings including Sampat, had scaled down the stringent security checks that had been put in place and gun toting security guards had been removed. On public roads, most checkpoints had been removed and police had even stopped carrying out random checks on military age men, even those moving in groups or carrying large pieces of luggage.
‘Are you new?’ a guard smiled and asked her in Marathi. The woman in question was very slim and not bad looking either.
‘Yes, Flat 101.’ The response was in Hindi and not Marathi. Though not a Maharashtrian, she was definitely a villager who was new to the ways of the big city.
‘You need to make an entry. Here let me do it for you.’ The wider smile indicated that a favour was being done and a return favour wouldn’t do any harm.
The woman walked forward hesitantly.
‘What’s your name?’ The guard held the pen carelessly between his paan stained thumb and forefinger.
‘Speak up. Don’t be shy,’ he cajoled the woman as she mumbled something. Suddenly he found himself staring into the barrel of an Auto 9 mm 1A which the woman had taken out from the old, bulging bag she carried. This particular pistol is standard issue for many Indian policemen and a number of these firearms have fallen into the hands of Maoists in Central India in the course of their skirmishes with the security forces.
‘Nobody should move. I will shoot anyone who does.’ In three rapid strides, the woman had entered the booth and closed the door behind her.
The woman slipped the loose end of her saree over her face, obscuring it completely. ‘You, get up. Go stand in that corner. Nobody should look at me,’ she said.
The empty chair found a new occupant. Even as the three guards wondered what would happen next, a group of four men carrying small rustic cloth bags with long straps quietly pushed open the gate and entered the building. Three of the simple cloth bags worn by the men contained Auto 9mm 1As and the fourth bag on Ravi Avitekar’s shoulder, contained the Colt M1911 pistol which he had been given when he was part of Tarun’s army.
‘Ten minutes at the most,’ the woman who had been the second in command of a large dalam in the jungles of Gadchiroli until very recently and went by the name Teji, told Holambe, Ravi and the other two men.
As the men entered the building, they met another guard who sat on a stool near the lifts. ‘Which flat?’ he asked them suspiciously.
‘Flat 101. First floor. We might as well take the stairs.’
‘Listen, did you enter the register outside? Were your bags checked?’
‘But of course. Tell you what, you come with us anyway.’ One of the men who had a long, bushy beard used his thumb and forefinger to open the simple button that fastened the top of his cloth bag, revealing the pistol inside. As the guard gasped, he said, ‘Make any noise and I will kill you.’
The men walked up the stairs along with the guard.
‘Let’s see how good you are at picking locks,’ one of the men told Ravi, who took out a bunch of keys from his bag.
‘He has been making duplicate keys on his smithy ever since he turned fifteen,’ Holambe, a tall, thin, gaunt man told the others as they nervously looked around to see if anyone else had noticed their presence.
Ravi took out a bunch of keys from his bag and selected one which looked most appropriate for the lock. It didn’t work. He tried another and another. He gave up and returned the keys to the bag and took out two thin L-shaped pieces of metal, one of which he placed in the lower portion of the keyhole and turned to the right. He felt the cylinder move a bit. He turned it in the opposite direction, but there was no movement and so he pushed it to the right again and held it firm. He used the other piece of metal to push up the pins in the lock one by one and suddenly the lock sprang open. He carefully put the pieces of metal back into his bag, took a deep breath and very slowly opened the door.
The men rushed inside, guns drawn. They tied the guard’s hands together from behind and made him sit on the floor inside the flat near the main door. They looked everywhere, but there was no sign of Tarun, save for some of his clothes strewn around. In a way, Ravi was relieved. He had been dreading the confrontation with Tarun, a man whose orders he had obeyed unquestioningly for many months.
‘Where could he have gone?’
They searched the place once again, slowly and thoroughly.
‘Are you sure this is the right place?’ Holambe demanded.
‘Yes, I am sure. I’ve been here three times. Comrade Tarun used to call us over for dinner once in a while, until we started training. He used to be very cheerful and friendly. The same six chairs and table in the main hall. The curtains are the same. Even the carpet.’
They found a small cache of explosives and detonators kept in one of the cupboards in the empty bedrooms, which gave Holambe an idea.
‘Let’s send them a message,’ Holambe suggested to the others who agreed with him.
‘Just the flat, not the whole building.’
‘Should be enough.’
They left, taking the guard with them. Once outside, they went to the security booth where Teji had the three guards cowering with fear. They gagged the three guards, tied their arms behind, just as they had done with the guard who had been taken prisoner from near the lifts, and left.
‘Don’t be in a hurry to raise the alarm. We may return and if we do, you will be in trouble,’
Teji took off all her facial jewellery, which went into her bag.
Once outside the building, they quickly split up and walked off in different directions. One of the men stuck a skullcap on his head, changing his appearance drastically. The man with the long, bushy beard tied a turban around his head and became a Sikh.
A guava seller sitting outside packed up his guavas and trailed behind Holambe. He too packed an Auto 9mm 1A at the bottom of his basket of guavas. Once they had reached a certain distance, Holambe turned around. ‘We didn’t find him inside. Are you sure he didn’t leave the building?’
‘Of course. I’ve been sitting outside all morning and I am sure he did not leave.’
At that moment, there was an explosion and everyone jumped. A small plume of smoke could be seen rising from Sampat.
‘Did your men blow up the building?’ the guava seller asked Holambe as they continued to walk towards Chembur Railway Station.
‘Not the whole building. Just the flat.’
Inside Sampat, the explosion inside Flat 101 caused everyone to panic and rush outside. The building was on fire. What Ravi didn’t know was that Tarun had another flat in the same building, on a higher floor. Tarun joined the residents as they jostled to exit the burning building. Thankfully, since the building had been completed less than four months ago, it only had fifty percent occupancy and everyone made it out of Sampat safely.
Featured Image (Cover): Nisha Joseph
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