Death of late having been much on her mind, it did not seem surprising to Dr Mujumdar that she should, at seven-forty of a December morning, during her constitutional in the neighbourhood park, be the first to come upon the corpse or rather, to recognise it to be a dead body.

Of course, they were all concentrating on striding along on the jogging track – rolling their hips, pausing discreetly on occasion, only for a micro-second, to break wind – and all moving clockwise as per the rules set down and put up by the Residents’ Welfare Association on the signboard at the entrance, and if they had eyes for anything, it was for the odd, protruding pebble in their paths and every now and then, a Johnny-come-lately in his new car outside the gates, prowling in search of a parking slot.

But beneath the hibiscus bushes just before the Children’s Corner, they so stared her in the face, leapt out at her to shout out their presence that she marvelled that no one else appeared to have noticed them – a pair of off-white Bata tennis sneakers, stark against the dark, damp loam, blue socks in a heap at the ankles, khaki trousers that had ridden up to reveal scrawny calves, with the rest of the travesty mercifully hidden by the foliage and a mound of compost awaiting distribution.

For travesty she knew it would be and she did not want to see it; for since when has death not been a travesty of all that holds meaning?

“Something tells me that that is not a drunk Colony guard or municipal gardener sleeping it off,” said she, aloud, to herself, glanced at her watch even though she knew what time it was, and continued silently, “But could I still do my half-a-dozen rounds as though nothing has happened, or at least as many as I can before someone else notices something amiss? Or would that be callous and unfeeling of me?”

She lengthened her stride and began doggedly to pump her elbows in an effort to get away quickly. Her heart though was really not in it that morning. “It does seem shameful for someone who’s almost a medical doctor,” she carried on her conversation with herself, “to run away from a corpse. Waddle away, more accurately. But people must never know. And all this – ”

She looked up and about her for a moment, blinked “ – is going to have to stop pretty soon, isn’t it?” She exchanged a “Morning” for a “Hello, dear” as she overtook portly Mrs Gulati. “I mean, no one can possibly jog or skip rope or stretch or do his yoga and breathe through his anus or laugh his therapeutic Santa Claus belly laugh in the presence of a dead body, can he?” And then, aloud, “Morning, Sanjeev-ji. You are early today?!”

Dr Mujumdar took more than her usual eleven minutes to cross the Children’s Corner, pass the Water-Harvesting Area and loop around the Nano Golf Course. By the time she turned into the straight stretch along the C-Block side of the park, a knot of the regulars, forced to abandon their burpees and their Hanuman pushups, had formed around the hibiscus bushes. Automatically, Dr Mujumdar slowed down, even wondered for a second whether she could about-turn and, disobeying the commandment of the RWA, clump away anti-clockwise.

“Don’t touch anything! Just call the police.”

“Could it be someone we know? Even a member of the Health Club?”

“Doesn’t look as though his membership did him any good. Somebody had better telephone the police, I say.”

“I can’t. My phone needs to be charged.”

“I can’t either, unfortunately. I always leave my phone behind at home when I step out for my exercise.”

“Why don’t you call them? They will respond immediately to your commanding personality.”

“It is the RWA that should phone the police. After all, the dead body has been found in a public place. Just call Tutreja at the Association.”

“I can’t, I just told you. My phone needs to be charged.”

“Why are you carrying around a phone that doesn’t work?”

“To time my rounds, if you must know. The clock works. And how damn nosey you are, if I might add.”

“Is something the matter? I’m a doctor. A pharmacist, more accurately. Perhaps I might be of help.”

The knot of exercisers, three-deep by then, stirred and parted like porridge to make way for Dr Mujumdar and then congealed around her even before she could look down once more upon the Bata shoes and the scrawny calves, the khaki trousers. The press of bodies made concentration all the more difficult.

“We’ll have to pull him out and turn him over. Any volunteers?” The doctor looked about her at the knot, watched it stir and thin. “Backache,” murmured a man with a white moustache, his hand ready to clutch his hip.

With a grunt of annoyance, portly Mrs Gulati planted herself in the hibiscus bed, pushed aside the vegetation and bent to grab an ankle. The shadow of a momentary queasiness crossed her features at the touch of that cold, alien flesh. She was suddenly surrounded by several fellow-residents whom she had abashed. Freely directing and admonishing one another, they lifted the body up and sideways and laid it down, face up, on the jogging track.

The group emitted a sort of collective moan, part sigh, part gasp, on first seeing the face. With difficulty, Dr Mujumdar got down on her knees beside the body. The onlookers, four deep now, gathered about them as though caught in an eddy.

He was dead, there was no doubt about that. The dead do not look like the living. She felt for his pulse. The wrist was cold and stiff. She extracted a large handkerchief from the pocket of her tracksuit and gently dusted the loam and grit off the face. A murmur, a commentary on the vanity of all that is not death, rustled through the group like the hint of a breeze.

Bags under the dead eyes, mouth open in a kind of bewilderment, the lips withdrawn from the teeth in the beginnings of a snarl, a day’s stubble on the cheeks, an extraordinary cross of a scar right between the eyes. It seemed an old wound but unusual in that it was in the shape of the cross that one sees in an exercise book against a wrong answer. It stretched from the inner end of each eyebrow to the opposite cheekbone and seemed to have been executed with considerable skill, for it appeared, at least at first glance, to have left both vision and respiration unimpaired.

An ordinary shirt of tiny blue-and-white checks, mid-to-late thirties, thought Mrs Gulati. A pale indoors complexion, used to dye his hair, a soft, spoilt sort of face, she concluded. She watched Dr Mujumdar shuffle sideways on her knees till she was alongside the shoulder of the corpse, then place her left hand on that lifeless forehead and with the fingers of her right, cautiously lift the chin a couple of inches.

The doctor then bent over and placed her face perilously close to the nostrils and open mouth of the deceased, her eyes all the while fixed like a cat’s on the chest to detect the slightest hint of any movement. Really, thought Mrs Gulati, I’m so glad I didn’t even dream of becoming a doctor.

Though the pharmacist seemed to stay crouched over the body for an eternity, it couldn’t in fact have been more than a minute. Everything seemed to become focussed and silent, so the school bus that, trundling past, suddenly blew its horn, startled them by its stridency and actually made a few of them jump. But then the doctor was up, straightening her tracksuit and dusting her knees.

She stooped yet again to pick up her handkerchief that she had left on the dead man’s chest; she spread it carefully over his face. She looked vacantly at the circle of neighbours. “Death by natural causes it seems to me. Some kind of seizure, I suspect. The post-mortem will tell.” She suddenly sighed, as one does when one has wasted enough time.

All at once, in that weak eight o’clock light, she looked much older than her years. “I haven’t seen him before. Does anybody recognise him?”

The knot rippled and began to disintegrate at its edges; death by natural causes was really no fun at all. Besides, if one wasn’t there, one could hardly be expected to call the police and remain present and all that.

The police arrived a little after nine. In the morning, that is. The chowkidaar-caretaker of the Residents’ Welfare Association had been prevailed upon to telephone them. The body had been lifted off the jogging track and laid out again – this time face up – in the hibiscus bushes. Dr Mujumdar’s handkerchief had been retained as a veil. No guard, though, could be found to stand vigil over it. It was too early for the municipal gardeners to turn up for work.

The chowkidaar-caretaker at last agreed, reluctantly, but at once added, quite reasonably, that he could show up only after his day-duty replacement arrived at the RWA. Someone wondered aloud whether Dr Mujumdar should not have been asked before she left because after all that was her handkerchief.

The police drove up in one once-white Maruti Gypsy and a decrepit, light-green Omni belching smoke as though on fire. One Assistant Sub-Inspector, two constables and a young man in jeans with a camera around his neck got out of the vehicles.


Excerpted with permission from Villainy, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Speaking Tiger Books.