30 December 2007, Sunday

Even though it was a Sunday, Puthiyottil Vijayan, the superintendent of police of Malappuram, walked into the Tirur police station like it was a weekday. It was 9 am. The officers and constables always synchronized their watches with his entry.

He looked worried. His brow was creased and his face wore a scowl. Usually when he walked in, he greeted everybody, shared a joke or two and guffawed heartily. His bushy moustache invariably did a dance of its own during these moments. But today, he just walked in silently and sat down at his desk.

Sarinte mukhathente oru vishamam [Is something bothering you, sir]?’ one of the inspectors asked him, gingerly treading the thin line between diplomacy and curiosity. Vijayan merely grunted and told his team to meet him in the conference room.

This usually meant serious business. There were sounds of scraping desks and chairs against the floor and a low murmur that could easily be translated as – something was amiss.

‘We have three days to get everything under control. I want all our security arrangements to be checked. I want all the suspects who were accused in last year’s incident to be rounded up and put behind bars. And I do not want a repeat of last year’s incident!’

Vijayan spoke in a low monotone. It was in contrast to the frenzied urgency of his thoughts that buzzed like a hundred flies trapped in a jar.

Tirur is a town in Malappuram District that has had a lot going for it since historic times. As part of the kingdom of Tanur (Vettattnad) in medieval times, Tirur was the site where the British laid part of the first railroad. Home of the sixteenth-century poet, Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan, who is considered the father of Malayalam literature, its very sand is held sacred.

Tirur is also known for the appalling Wagon Tragedy of 1921. For over thirty years, the Muslims had dominated the resident Hindus and there were reports alleging forced conversions being conducted by the Muslims. It was a powder-keg situation. Variyamkunnath Kunjahammed Haji vehemently denied this charge and called it a conspiracy hatched by the British to sow the seeds of discord between the Hindus and Muslims.

To add fuel to the fire, land reforms, orchestrated by the British, bestowed land grants to Namboothiri Brahmins and Nair chieftains. Rents were hiked, tenants evicted and the existing Khilafat Movement erupted into a violent power struggle. The uprising, labelled the Mappila Rebellion, initially targeted the landlords and subsequently, the British colonisers.

The British acted swiftly; they squashed the insurgency and packed seventy prisoners into a goods wagon at Tirur railway station. Unfortunately, by the time the train reached Coimbatore jail, sixty-one of the prisoners had died of suffocation. This put Tirur squarely on the map in the struggle for Indian independence as, nationwide, Indians woke up to the news and sympathised.

However, SP Vijayan was not worried about the old incident from 1921. It was the incident from the previous year that was preying on his mind; it wasn’t something the town was proud of. He didn’t want another tragedy on his watch.

Little did Vijayan know that, in the next twenty-four hours, his life would change radically and forever, and that Malappuram would once again find a mention in the history books...but,
this time, daubed with a notoriety of a different kind.

So, what did happen in 2006? He mused as he shuffled the files around on his desk, wondering how to start the meeting: Tirur is a town steeped in history and once in a while, ghosts from the past wake up to cause chaos. It’s a town that doesn’t forget or forgive.

There’s a famous mosque at Perumpadappu where the annual nercha [prayers of gratitude] takes place. Thousands of pilgrims gather every year to pray and the festival includes the distribution of neichor [ghee rice] to the poor.

BP Angadi nercha is held in the memory of a Sufi named Yahu Thangal Pappa. The Ambattu family in BP Angadi always hoists the festival’s flag and the ceremonial lamp for the nercha is carried to Tirur in a solemn procession from the office of the DSP (Deputy Superintendent of Police). People across faiths participate in this communal thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, in 2006, fundamentalist factions in the locality expressed their displeasure at the so-called un-Islamic practices and the involvement of non-Muslims in the functions, completely blindsiding the fact that for the past 168 years, the nercha has always been a secular festival for the masses.

In 2006, a ghost from Tirur’s past, a visitor from beyond the grave from eight years ago, the entity that had been gnawing at Vijayan’s mind, decided to pay a visit.

Flashback, January 1998

Ayyappan, a local goldsmith, who doubled as a priest at the Mariyamman Temple, suddenly converted to Islam, adopting the name Yasir. He then encouraged his family and his friends to convert as well.

Allegedly, the local RSS men rose up in arms, accusing Nasarudheen Elamaram and the National Development Front of paying the priest to renounce his saffron robes and coercing the priest’s family and friends to convert to the Muslim faith.

When nothing came of it, some people attacked Ayyappan, aka Yasir, in broad daylight and killed him. But the sessions court in Manjeri acquitted all the six accused. Clashes followed and the ghost of Yasir was buried. Or so it seemed.

In 2006, the spectre decided to rise and shake up the town. A man named Vinson, who had been acquitted, found that John Dryden, England’s first poet laureate, was probably right when he wrote, ‘Beware the fury of a patient man.’

Just as Ayyappan had been stabbed to death in broad daylight eight years ago, so was Vinson, who was killed in copycat revenge style, on the very first day of the BP Angadi nercha.

All hell broke loose and the festival, once peaceful, turned into a war zone of communal violence. Within a span of four days, ten people were stabbed in Tirur, Tanur and the nearby areas, of which three victims succumbed to their injuries.

30 December 2007

The attacks of the previous year had taken the Tirur police by surprise and Vijayan wanted to ensure there was no repeat this year. His furrowed brow was worrying to his team.

Deputy Superintendent Sri Krishnakumar was also feeling frazzled with the possibility that the previous year’s riots would play out again this year.

‘Sir, we will be extra cautious. Nothing will happen,’ one of the inspectors paused to see if his reassuring words had any effect on Vijayan, who just nodded in a preoccupied manner.

The inspector changed the topic: ‘Sir, tomorrow is Vishnupriya’s birthday. We are all looking forward to the party.’

Vishnupriya, daughter of Vijayan and Dr Beena Vijayan, née Mahadevan, had chosen a unique day to arrive on the planet – 31 December. Two years later, her brother, Vignesh, was born on Boxing Day. The siblings often celebrated their birthdays together.

Vijayan and Beena always threw a lavish party for their children’s birthdays and invited all their colleagues, friends and family. Beena, a gynaecologist, had also passed the civil services examinations with an all-India rank of twelve. She was the district collector of Thrissur.

It was the one day of the year when Vijayan and Beena forgot work and spent time together as a family. This year, too, the preparations were underway. No party hosted by Vijayan
was complete without Umbayee.

Vijayan had a penchant for hanging out with colourful personalities and Umbayee was easily the most colourful of them all. Vijayan had known him long before Umbayee made his foray into fame with Malayalam ghazals.

Born PA Ibrahim, Umbayee had always loved music although his father, a staunch Muslim, strictly forbade singing. This led to altercations between father and son. It was the last straw when Ibrahim flunked his final exams at school and his father shipped him off to Bombay, hoping a change of scene would bring about a change of heart and the prodigal son would mend his ways. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect.

With money fast running out, Ibrahim survived on tea, bidis and charas. It was almost an intervention by goddess Saraswati herself which led Ustad Mujawar Ali Khan to discover Ibrahim. For nearly seven uninterrupted years, Ibrahim studied under Mujawar Ali Khan. He sang in seedy pubs and then smoked up and lay stoned for days. It had been his ambition to learn to play the tabla, until one day, his guru told him to concentrate on his singing. Ibrahim discovered the world of ghazals.

He realized that there wasn’t a similar genre in Malayalam and this moved him to create and popularize Malayalam ghazals. But fame was elusive. He odd-jobbed to survive and even
smuggled watches and perfumes to Mattancherry for US dollars.

He was at the cusp of his stardom when Vijayan heard about the talented singer and asked to meet him. A friendship was seeded when Umbayee sang Vijayan’s favourite ghazal, Bade Ghulam Ali’s ‘Chupke Chupke’ with aplomb.

Every year, without fail, Umbayee telephoned Vijayan in the first week of December: ‘When is the party happening? Have you fixed the date?’ And Umbayee shed his fame to come and perform for a friend.

2007 was no different. Umbayee was slated to perform. For their colleagues, friends and families, it was always quite an experience being up close to the popular singer.

Vijayan liked to take all the stress on to his own shoulders at work. He was very protective of his team and rarely allowed his worries to trickle down to his subordinates and colleagues, unless they were the ones responsible for Vijayan’s acidity problem. Most nights, Vijayan nursed a drink in solitude and
studied the case papers. When he felt a headache coming on, he telephoned Umbayee.

‘Unable to sleep, eh?’

‘Needed to hear a song from you, brother.’

It didn’t matter if Umbayee was fast asleep and had been woken up by the call. Umbayee would immediately respond,

‘Hang on, let me get my harmonium’ and promptly try to soothe his friend’s stress.

‘If it hadn’t been for the saving grace of music, I might have become a master criminal,’ Umbayee often ruminated and chuckled wryly.
And Vijayan would jokingly say, ‘And I would have ultimately arrested you and kept you with me as an official singer, who would sing to me always from behind bars!’

Then, both of them would burst into loud guffaws.

The kids were with Beena at Thrissur, which was approximately a two-hour drive from where Vijayan was.

About 150 people were expected to attend the party. Vijayan’s boss, the deputy inspector of Thrissur range, Vijayanand, knew that New Year’s Eve was the annual banquet hosted by Vijayan and encouraged him to go.

‘You need to spend more time with your family, Vijayan!’

‘Sir, I really like your sense of humour! The nercha is only days away and here you are asking me to attend a party?’

That night, Vijayan telephoned Beena to go over some last-minute arrangements.

‘The stage is almost completely set up. The chairs should be here by 10 tomorrow morning and the caterer will start cooking by 1 in the afternoon,’ Beena launched straightaway into the programme preparations before asking, ‘When will you get here tomorrow?’

‘By noon,’ Vijayan promised, his mind still dwelling on the possibility of an outbreak of riots on 3 January. He needed to prep to prevent this turning into a probability. Beena chuckled, ‘Your noon means three in the afternoon. I get it.’

That night, Vijayan couldn’t sleep. He had a feeling that something huge was going to go down. He could only hope that he was wrong. As he lay tossing and turning in bed, a crime was, in fact, taking place, right under the nose of the Malappuram law-keepers. And they hadn’t a clue!

Excerpted with permission from India’s Money Heist: The Chelembra Bank Robbery, Anirban Bhattacharya, Penguin.