The ancient air-conditioner in my room groans and sputters, fighting a losing battle with the sweltering heat. The paint on the walls is peeling, the carpet is threadbare. The towel draped over the backrest of my chair was once white but has now settled into an indeterminate shade of grey. I reach for it gingerly, but Keshav snatches it up before I can touch it and hurries to the door.

“Get rid of this rag and get a new towel immediately,” he snaps. I conceal a smile. He’s learning. I settle down in the chair, which creaks in protest before accepting me. “Okay, Keshav,” I say.

“Let’s review the crime situation here.”

Keshav has a presentation ready and begins reeling off facts and figures. Of course, the case I’m really interested in is the CRPF ambush, but I’m not willing to let anyone know just how important it is to me. I let him ramble on for a while, taking notes every now and then. Then I hold up a hand, frowning.

He pauses. “Sir?”

“Something doesn’t add up, Keshav,” I say. “I’ve been told that this is a crime-prone area. But the statistics you’re showing me are all on the lower side, and even those have been declining over the years. Rape, murder, theft, kidnapping – there hardly seem to be any cases. What’s going on?”

“Sir, ab joh hai woh hai. I’m giving you the numbers exactly as they’ve been recorded. Maybe people have wrong notions about Ambuja,” he says.

“Or maybe people just don’t come to the police for help because they don’t trust us. Or maybe they do come and are shooed away without being given a hearing,” I snap.

Keshav’s mouth sets in a thin, stubborn line. “Sir, I can’t say what people think. I can only tell you what’s in the paper in front of me.”

“You could try interacting with people and hear what they have to say. Anyway, there’s at least one major case that indisputably happened here. So tell me, what’s happening about the attack on the CRPF convoy? Have we begun our probe?”

“There’s a special investigation team of three men on the job, sir,” he responds. “It’s a crack team. The very best guys we have.”

“Oh? In that case, I’d like to meet them now,” I reply.

“I’ll go get them, sir,” he says, springing to his feet.

He’s back a few minutes later, with three men of very different ages, shapes and sizes, who march in and salute smartly. I nod. “At ease. I’m told you’re the investigation team for the Maoist attack on the CRPF contingent. Could you introduce yourselves?”

“Sub-inspector Bhoomi, sir,” begins the first. He’s short, thin to the point of being emaciated, and blinks frequently behind his oversized glasses, which give him a slightly owlish air.

“He’s our tech wizard, sir,” says Keshav.

“Is that so? What’s your area of expertise, Bhoomi?” I ask.

“I can use Microsoft Word. I also know how to operate email, PowerPoint and spreadsheets,” he responds, slightly smug about his accomplishments.

I stare at him incredulously. “What about digital forensics?” I ask.

“Yes sir, that’s in PowerPoint, no,” he says with complete confidence.

I look at Keshav quizzically. He beams back, bursting with pride at Bhoomi’s skills. I suppress a sigh and turn back to our so-called tech wizard. “Bhoomi. You have an unusual name for a man.”

“My parents were villagers. They believed the earth was the most precious entity. They named me accordingly, sir,” he explains.

Oh dear god. Cocky and preachy. Then I notice he’s holding something. “Is that the evidence log?”

“Yes, sir. I thought you might like to see it,” he says, handing it over.

I leaf through it. Spent cartridge shells, slippers, the odd piece of torn clothing. There are pages and pages of the stuff, and the entries span several days, but nothing that looks particularly promising.

“Have we sent this stuff to the FSL?” I ask.

“FSL, sir?” asks the second person quizzically.

As I glare at him, he snaps to attention. “Relax,” I say. “You don’t have to come to attention every time I look your way. You are …?”

“Gayaram, sir,” he says. “Hawaldar Gayaram.”

He’s tall and has the fleshy look of someone who used to be well-built in his prime but has let his exercise regimen slide and doesn’t worry too much about his diet. There’s more than a sprinkling of grey in his hair. Early to mid-fifties, I guess.

“How long have you been with the force, Gayaramji?” I always make it a point to ask for a few personal details about the men serving with me. Doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes, and it makes for a better working relationship.

“More than thirty years, sir,” he responds, a touch of pride in his voice.

I nod. “Family?”

“Wife and two children. Both settled in good jobs and married, by the grace of god. Neither of them is in the police,” he replies.

“You sound quite proud about that,” I say.

The sarcasm is wasted on him. “Ab dekhiye na, sir, I didn’t even get to know when they grew up. My wife keeps scolding me for not having spent any time with my children. The job kept me so busy that they grew up before I even realised how time had flown. But I hope to remedy that with the next generation. The children have their own houses in big cities now, so we’ll go visit them from time to time. But of course, we’ll stay in our own house here. Home is home, after all.”

“Even if it’s in a place like Ambuja?” I can’t help asking.

“Sir, which place doesn’t have problems? Do you think there’s no crime in Delhi or Mumbai? At least people here know their neighbours.”

I’m not sure if he loves his hometown or is just plain delusional, so I change the topic. “You must have seen quite a lot in your long stint here?”

“Absolutely, sir. These old eyes have seen quite a bit,” he agrees. “I used to tell some of those stories to my children. They would say, ‘Baba, you should write all this in a movie script. It will be a blockbuster.’ In any case, all of us are big film fans. We’ve seen Sholay some seventy-five times.”

“So, did you ever write that script?”

“Nahin sir, kabhi time nahin mila,” he mourns. “Though, for the longest time, I used to keep scribbling notes, thinking someday I would organise it all nicely. Maybe I’ll sit and work on my memoirs once I retire.”

“I’d love to read them whenever you do write them,” I say. “So, tell me, you must pretty much know everybody in Ambuja?”

He laughs politely. “I wouldn’t exactly say that, but I do know a lot of people, yes.”

“Anybody who can serve as an informer for us?” I ask.

His cheerfulness evaporates. “Last year, the Maoists pulled out one of our informers from his home and publicly beheaded him. Then they tied his body to a pole with ‘Police ka Kutta’ painted on his chest. After that, who’s going to come forward to help us?”

“What! How come I never heard about this? There should have been national outrage about this!” I say.

“Here someone dies every other day, sir. Kis kis ke liye outrage karenge? If we were to print such headlines, Ambuja would be on the front page every day.”

I’m struck by his matter-of-fact, almost resigned tone as he talks about the number of deaths in the town.

“You went to the crime scene? You saw it with your own eyes?”

“Yes, it was a bad day,” he grimaces. “I didn’t get to go home till really late, and we were supposed to go to my sister-in-law’s place for dinner. My wife gave me a real earful and told me I could go to bed hungry.”

And that seems to have been the real tragedy for you, I think sourly. I bite my tongue and change the line of questioning. “Well, did you gentlemen find anything useful at the site?”

“Not really, sir,” responds the third person, who’s been silent all this while. I turn towards him. “Hawaldar Lokesh,” he says, before I can ask. He’s of medium height and has an athletic build.

“Khilaadi ho?”

He beams. “Hoon nahin, sir, tha. I used to be a middle-distance runner. Represented our state in the inter-police championship a few times. I don’t run competitively any more, but I like to get in some running whenever I can.”

I nod. “And why did you find the site visit useless?”

“It was a complete mess, sir,” he replies. “Our rescue teams had rushed all over the place. Then there were the medics, who were more concerned about helping the wounded than preserving any possible evidence. Quite understandably, from their point of view, I suppose. The bottomline is that the whole place was churned up and any clues were hopelessly trampled on.”

“So we basically have nothing to work with.” It’s as much a conclusion as a question.

Lokesh hesitates. “Well, sir, I did put together a file of news clippings, if you’d like to see,” he offers.

And what will it tell me that Google News can’t? I sigh inwardly. Still, if the man has made the effort to put it together, there’s no harm in taking a look. “Show it to me, please.”

He hands it over with the pride of a mother displaying a newborn baby. It’s quite voluminous – the Ambuja massacre had generated a lot of news reports. It’ll take me several hours to read everything. I leaf through it, speed-reading headlines and the odd item, when my eyes spot something. “Why is there a clipping about a cricket match here?”

“Eh, that’s not possible,” says Lokesh. “Show me, please.” He examines the file, then looks embarrassed. “Sorry, sir. I must have pasted the item the wrong way around. The relevant news is possibly on the other side. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I say, taking the file back. I leaf through a few more pages, then pause. “I keep seeing the same reporter’s name, but in different newspapers. Someone called Devika Doria.”

“She’s a freelance journalist, sir,” says Bhoomi. “In fact, she’s been requesting an appointment with you ever since word got out that you’d been posted here. Just a courtesy call to introduce herself.”

“It’ll have to wait,” I say, flipping through the file. Then I stop. Darshan’s face stares up at me from a grainy black-and-white picture. It’s in a news report headlined “Locals mourn death of popular CRPF officer”. I quickly read the report, then look at the byline. Sure enough, it’s Devika Doria.

“What do we know about her?”

“Tough but fair, sir,” says Bhoomi. “She’s been harsh on us from time to time, but she’s also written extensively on the brutality of the Maoists.”

“Hmm,” I say. “Okay, gentlemen, you can get back to your seats for now. Keshav, stay back please. I’d like to talk to you.”

I wait for the men to file out before speaking. “Is this really the best team you have, Keshav?”

He shrugs. “They’re the best available, sir. One makes do with what one has. It’s not as if Ambuja gets the cream of the talent available to the police.”

If this is the team, I think, I’ll have to do most of the investigative work myself. “One of our so-called star investigators doesn’t know what FSL is. How long has it been since any of them went for training?”

“Sir, people here are going weeks, sometimes months without taking a single day off. When do we send them for training?” he responds.

I shake my head. “There’s a lot that needs to be fixed here, Keshav. I want the word put out. We are to file FIRs if anyone comes to us. We have to make sure that cases get investigated on a time-bound basis and we take legally strong cases to court.”

He looks sceptical. “Things have been this way for a long time, sir.”

“Then things are going to change,” I snap, before adding softly, “in the meantime, you might as well brief me about the CRPF ambush case. It’s a big one and I don’t want it to be said that we messed it up.”

Lal Salaam, Smriti Zubin Irani

Excerpted with permission from Lal Salaam, Smriti Zubin Irani, Westland.