Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Kindness of Murderers.

*Some parts of this post deal with graphic descriptions of violence, kindly be warned*

First of all, I must apologize to Kate Adie, chief reporter for the BBC, from the title of whose highly readable autobiography 'Kindness of Strangers' I got the idea to name this post.

I write this with reference to an incident that took place here earlier this week. The heir of one among the most well-established business house-holds, a young and upcoming entrepreneur in his own right, was found murdered by the highway in the wee hours of the night. The police sprung into action, forming a task force headed by a senior officer. To their credit, the gang behind what was obviously a 'professional' job were apprehended within 24 to 48 hours.

I learned the story through the Malayalam media, who had a field day over it. Lest we forget, TV channels gave round-the-clock coverage of the latest developments, repeatedly showing shots of the murder site, a damaged mobile phone, the vehicle that the deceased was driving when last seen, and such.

Also highlighted was the increasing goonda menace. Until recently keralites used to take pride in the law and order situation of their society. Using hit-men to settle scores with rivals, or for parents to secure possession of eloped children, for youngsters to get married safe from goons hired by the parents, or for ensuring smooth functioning of business interests without interference from other goonda groups - all this was not only unheard of, but positively inconceivable. Sure we used to have enough and more of our own special breed of murder and violence - of the political and ideological kind - but precisely because such incidents did not involve the common man going about his business, unless he inadvertently got involved with it, I think we may have developed an unhealthy degree of tolerance to a culture of violence over the years.

So here's how the story unfolded over the days in the media:

Day 1:

The media cried hoarse, and with good reason, about how cheap human life had become. How an up-coming entrepreneur was cut-down at the prime of his youth, and how if even the creamy layer of the society was not safe anymore, what did that say for the rest of us?

And we all joined in our prayers for the deceased, his handsome face and gentle features evidencing a refined upbringing that had now come to a tragic end.

Day 2:

It turns out, that the car he was last seen in, did not belong to the deceased. Further, it is learned to be owned by the leader of one of the dreaded criminal gangs of the state: That there had been two co-passengers with him on the fatal night whom his driver, who was asked to follow in another car, had not seen before. The co-passengers are discovered to have had strong links with many criminal gangs. Questions are now raised regarding the pervasive nature of the influence of criminal elements at even the uppermost echelons of society, and how the business class was openly cavorting with them. New conspiracy theories are raised, that suggest that the victim may have been mistaken for the gang leader, as he was driving the latter's car, AND seen with his associates. Could it have been a case of mistaken identity, after all? There have been other instances too, when the wrong person was assaulted by gangs.

I have had opportunity to interact both with police officers, as well as some of the men involved in such occupation, in the course of my daily practice - and if I might say so here, what was unsettling about the ones I knew was not that they were giant brutes as seen in the movies.

What was most terrifying about them was their ordinariness. How they were not as radically different from the average man on the street as we might wish was the case. These were guys who laughed at silly jokes and still cried out when a simple injection was administered. In fact, If there must be one defining trait to be described, then it must have been an inability to put up with pain, physical and otherwise.

I had a patient once too, who had been bedridden for past 8 years, because he happened to match some else's description, and wore the wrong colour shirt. He still lives on, like the way the other (lucky) chap was supposed to have lived the rest of his days - with daily excruciating pains over both legs. Its not for nothing that these gangsters are called professionals. Whereas the amateurs might take it upon them to simply murder or thrash a victim, the 'professionals' do offer tailor-made services. Sometimes I think its a game played between the doctors and the 'quotation' team as they are called, with the victims life as the stakes. For eg, it might be possible to reattach a limb if brought within a certain time. So as to avoid this possibility the more experienced ones actually see to it that not only is a limb severed, but it is also mangled, so that there is no chance of it being re-attached. It would have been fascinating if it weren't so cruel.

Day 3:

It appears that the young industrialist had once been arrested for possession of narcotic drugs. A ladies' bag and dress is known to have been recovered from the car.

Day 4:

There is one final twist to the story, one that prompted me to write this post.

The police says it was a professional job, alright, in the sense that it was done by an armed 'quotation' gang. But it was done with altruistic intention, and not on contract. The deceased was driving the big SUV on the fatal night, when at a relatively sparse stretch of highway he hit a motorcyclist from the behind, toppling him. The biker who was going home was seriously injured, and was saved only because he had a helmet on.

He did not stop. He sped away, like so many car drivers do under similar circumstances, that has caused so many young men to die on the roads. Lives that could've been saved, had, instead of speeding away, the car or truck drivers had done the right thing and taken them to a hospital. He may have wanted to avoid being seen with the particular company he had that night, or may be he was drunk and didnt care, confident of his place in the world.

As things would have it, the armed gang was resting after a job elsewhere, just out of sight, and they were drawn by the commotion. They rushed the victim to a hospital in one of their vehicles, while in a bout of self-righteousness some of them followed the SUV in another vehicle. They overtook it after only a few kms, and in the ensuing scuffle, drunk to the bone as they were, ended up doing a professional job upon a man whom the law might not have touched for all its long arms. Only one person delivered the fatal wounds, and he was relatively a new member to the gang, with no history of violent crime.

There you have it, the entire incident, as it came to be revealed over the days in the media. I shall not venture to draw lessons or morals out of it, instead, presently I shall stop simply by remembering the immortal words of Alexander Sholtzhenitsyn:

"The line that divides good and evil runs not between nations, but cuts right across every man's heart."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Of Wallets and Bullets

I lost my wallet last Monday, the 17th.

More precisely, it was stolen from my person as I went to temple in the morning, it being the first day of the new year according to the Malayalam calendar.

It had nearly half my month's pay, driving license, identification card at the hospital, and my two ATM cards.

It hurt.

It hurt that I had lost the money, that I'd now have to go through the laborious process of getting another set of documents issued as well as preventing misuse of the original.

But what hurt most was the dent in self-image. The realization that some common crook could pinch it off me and I didn't even know it: That the apparently efficient and competent professional could be outwitted so completely by a professional of another kind. That hurt.

There was not much to do, retrieving a wallet lost in a sea of perhaps a thousand being what the old adage 'needle in a haystack' is exactly about.

'Hope' is a strong feeling. Sometimes, it is all that stands between man and madness. In such hope, for gaining a degree of apparent control over the situation if nothing else, for retrieving a bit of that lost self-esteem, we tend to do something – anything – that might be useful; often, in the face of overwhelming odds and reason that tells us otherwise.

So I go to the police station, report the theft, get a receipt for the same that says my driving license is stolen, and then – wait.

I need not have bothered.

But something did happen. Life went on. It was not as much of a catastrophe as I'd thought at first that it would turn out to be. It hurt still, the actual loss as well as the feeling of being outwitted, but fortunately – and this is important - there was no pressing engagement that I needed the money for.

There was a sense of Deja Vu, though. There have been other occasions too in my life, when something that I thought would hurt deeply, turned out to be not that bad to have happened, after all. It was the fearful anticipation that was harder to bear than the actual event when it happened.

The converse has been true too. Something one anticipates to be infinitely pleasing, turning out to be just one more good thing to have happened. Here I would remember how getting into Medical College turned out to be a mixed bag.

Then there were the times, those things that happened, that brought so much happiness that one could never have thought possible beforehand. Case in point my buying an old, second-hand Royal Enfield motorcycle that leaked oil from everywhere. Life has never been the same after that.

And finally, some things in life, you never know how much pain and hurt they will cause, until the day when finally lost. Ask anyone who's been in love and lost it.

So, it turns out there really is no telling how much something would please or hurt until we actually get there. Turns out it may not be a very good idea to plan your entire life ahead of you, for who knows how we might happen to not really like what we had planned for ourselves, or conversely, how we might actually like something we didn't quite bank upon.

I guess there is some merit to living under the stars after all.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Marital Bliss

The first time I saw her, her face was a bloodied mess. All puffed up under the left eye, a spreading blue over the lips, dried tears cutting through caked blood on the cheek and under the nostrils, like dying rivers across a desert. Smell of stale urine. Torn clothing hastily covered by a bed-sheet. The neighbors that brought her in did the talking: she was far too weak.

"Its the husband". One of the men volunteered, to my questioning gaze.

"Again". Whispered one of the women, talking half to herself and half to no one in particular.

I had a rapid look-over. Detailed examination will have to wait. There was the face, with injuries suggestive of a fracture of the nasal bone or septum. The right hand was bend at an unnatural angle halfway between elbow and wrist, swollen and exquisitely tender; possibly a broken arm. Smell of urine, incontinence probably from a kick to the groin.

The woman was in far too serious a condition to be managed at the peripheral center where I worked. At least for the first 48 hrs, she'd have to go to a higher center. I gave first aid, filed a police intimation, and referred her.

She came again a few days later. There was a cast over the arm, and the nose was in a protective covering too. She had been referred from the Medical College, back to my care.

I could see, then, that she was a young woman, younger than I had somehow assumed her to be, last time. Perhaps younger than I had thought possible to have undergone so much unkindness.

We talked.

"Its usual. When he is home, that is."

"The neighbors tried to help, until he started threatening them too. Then we were left to our own fate. Me and the two kids, that is."

"He was particularly mad yesterday. I had sent the kids away to my relations, where they might have had a chance at schooling."

She hadn't consulted him, apparently. Not that it would've made any difference. As far as he was considered, the kids were an accident, a vague annoyance at most. But to have a decision taken without his permission, that was to his way of thinking an unacceptable challenge to his authority. It didn't matter that he never wondered how and when they ate or whether the roof was repaired before the rains. It didn't matter too, that he was away most part of the year, sometimes for weeks together, only to return in the middle of the night reeking of alcohol. The only times he would be reminded of his family, would be if and when someone tried to help his wife make ends meet, wherein he'd be reminded of his pride that his wife had let down.

Perhaps he was simply mad that the children might get an education.

"I really thought he was going to murder me that night. The neighbors thought so too, probably, for they came looking for me in the morning. I had dragged myself out of the house, but couldn't make it up to the road. I'd have died, if they hadn't come looking for me."

I told her about the police intimation that I had filled, and urged her to follow it up with a complaint at the commission for prevention of atrocities towards women. I must have sounded more confidant than I felt, for she was cheered up instantaneously. She had a face that lit up when she smiled, and even through all the pain, I could see that she was beautiful, once, before all this.

She was discharged a few days later. Not once did he visit her.

I saw her a few times more during the following weeks, seeking to ease the pain of a body destroyed by more abuse than one should have to go through in an entire life-time, and the hard labour of raising two kids all by herself. However crowded the OP was, she'd wait till she caught my eye and give me a smile, which I'd always acknowledge without fail. Then, slowly, she was seen no more, and I forgot the whole episode in due time.

The next time was the happiest I ever saw her. She had come to get a certificate attested, she said. The kids were away at her relations, and going to school. They were both working hard, and she hoped of putting them through college. She was being offered a job as sweeper somewhere now.


She had followed up the police intimation. But even before her complaint could be lodged, he had done everyone a favor by getting arrested for some petty offence, and was sent to jail for 3 months.

That was 4 months ago.

I saw her again today. The light had gone out of her eyes, yet again.

"He came looking for me after he was released. Created such a scene where I worked, that the employers asked me to leave, for fear of having him back. He tried to get me to go back and live with him, but I wont have any of it. Neither will I allow him to get to the kids. He has threatened to hurt me, and I know he is perfectly capable of doing that."

She opened up her handbag, and after ensuring that no one was watching, showed me the kitchen knife she was carrying.

"I've a surprise ready for him, though. He wont hurt me or my kids for long now. I am waiting for him to show up".

I was shocked out of my trained calm demeanour. Too shocked to think coherently, I think I tried to say something. I am sure it must have come out non-sense.

She had a different air now: a confidence that terrified me.

"You are a good man, doctor" she said.

"But you are young. There are things you don't realize quite well as yet"

I knew she was not that old herself, but today was not the day for arguments.

"I know you could call up the police about this, but I don't think you would. Besides, do you think anyone gives a damn if I kill the bastard or he kills me?"

I tried to say something. She raised her hand to stop me.

"Please give me something for the back-pain, it has worsened this past week. I have difficulty getting up from bed in early mornings."

I wrote out an injection, two types of tablets, and one ointment of which I had a sample that I gave to her.

I sat there wishing there was something more I could do.

(slightly fictionalized)