Around 11.25 pm, Kunju and Chander Pal were patrolling on Ashoka Road. As they approached Ashok Yatri Niwas, Kunju spotted tongues of fire leaping above some adjacent buildings and into the night sky. Worried that this could be the start of a major fire, the pair hastened to investigate. Kunju strode towards the main entry gate of Yatri Niwas, heading to the front of the Bagiya Barbeque restaurant on the left, just inside the main entry gate of the hotel. He could see the flames were coming from the rear kitchen area of the Bagiya. At the entrance, a uniformed security guard stopped him and explained that the fire, he had already been informed, was caused by some waste paper and cardboard that had been set ablaze near the outdoor tandoor. There was nothing to worry about, the guard assured him – all was under control. Satisfied, Constable Kunju and Home Guard Chander Pal walked away towards Janpath Lane.
As they started, Anaro Devi, a middle-aged vegetable vendor who usually displayed her produce beside the Mother Dairy milk booth at the entrance to the lane from Ashoka Road, came scurrying to them.
“Hotel mein aag lag gayi, aag lag gayi! (There is a fire in the hotel!),” Anaro said, her voice quivering with fear. She had already caught the attention of a couple of men nearby, and they were also raising the alarm.
For Kunju, the seriousness of the situation was now as apparent as the size of the fire. Clearly visible from the lane, the blaze seemed to be out of hand, its intensity quite beyond any simple burning of rubbish. Reaching some thirty or thirty-five feet, high above the outer wall of the Bagiya on the Janpath Lane side, the angry flames were sending thick plumes of white smoke into the Delhi sky. Kunju and Chander strode back to the entrance of the closed restaurant.
Kunju was cursing quietly. “These idiots are trying to burn the whole bloody hotel down.”
This time, Kunju proceeded past the hotel entrance and to the canvas screen in front of the Bagiya Barbeque. As he peeled back the screen and peered into the darkened restaurant, he was met by a thin man, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties, around 5’10” in height and dressed in a white kurta.
“Purana poster jala rahe hain (just burning some old posters),” he told Kunju casually. The fire, he said, was under control. Adequate precautionary steps were being taken, there was no cause for concern.
Constable Kunju was anything but convinced. Leaving Chander Pal near the hotel, he hurried to the nearby PCO4 to raise an alarm. Finding it closed, he jogged to the police picket at the rear of the Western Court5 complex, a couple of hundred metres away. There, he flashed an urgent wireless report of the fire to the Connaught Place Police Station and telephoned the Police Control Room (PCR) and the fire brigade, asking for immediate assistance.
Kunju then hurried back to the hotel. To his dismay, he saw that the blaze had intensified in his absence and smoke was billowing high above the hotel complex. He stormed to the entrance of the restaurant with Chander in tow and bluntly demanded admission to enter and inspect the fire.
Again, the men at the restaurant barred his entry. But this time, he would not be deterred. After feigning retreat from the Bagiya, Kunju and Chander Pal shared some furtive words as they walked away together from the front of the hotel.
“Lagta hai ye paagal log aag se khel rahe hain (Seems like these bloody fools are playing with fire),” Kunju muttered agitatedly to Chander Pal.
“Chalo, doosra rasta dhoond lete hain (Okay, let’s find another way)!”
The pair dashed along Janpath Lane and without pause clambered over the seven-foot-high wall at the rear of the restaurant. Pushing aside the bamboo-screen fencing, Kunju gained access to the canopied rear of the garden restaurant. Then they made a beeline for the fire.
The fire was utterly incongruous and quite out of proportion in the kitchen. Fuelled by wooden logs, planks and other material that was piled atop the tandoor, it raged furiously. A slim man, the one who had earlier fobbed off Kunju as he peered past the screen at the front of the Bagiya, was stoking the flames with the help of wooden beams and bamboo poles. Another man, wearing a blue printed shirt, and a well-built youngster stood nearby. Further away, next to the canvas screen at the entrance of the hotel, stood another, solidly built man in white kurta pyjama. The men seemed quite oblivious to the foul odour emanating from the flames.
“Don’t you know your playing with fire could burn the whole hotel down?” Kunju yelled at the man stoking the blaze.
At this, the firebug told the constable that he was a Congress party worker and was simply burning old posters, banners and waste paper. Unfazed by this mention of the governing party, Kunju quickly cast around for a bucket. Perhaps here the young constable began to distinguish himself in earnest. Many lesser men would have wilted at the mere allusion of a political connection, especially to the mighty Congress party, and sidled away after issuing a gentle caution about fire safety. Kunju, however, was undeterred, and alarmed at the veritable bonfire he was faced with. He and Chander Pal grabbed whatever buckets and vessels they could find, filled them from a kitchen tap and began dousing the flames.
Sub-inspector Rajesh Kumar, PCR Head Constable Majid Khan and Constable Rajbir Singh arrived on the scene just as Kunju and Chander Pal were working to subdue the fire. Evidently, no one had the audacity to send a sub-inspector on his way as they had tried to do with a constable a little while ago. Two security guards from the main hotel accompanied Rajesh and his two constables into the restaurant. They all joined Kunju in quelling the blaze. Within minutes, it was extinguished.
The soaring flames had already set some plastic-coated overhead cables alight, however. Taking the cause of this mischief with them – or, at least, the man who appeared to be the cause – Kunju, Sub-inspector Rajesh Kumar and the guards from the main hotel went to investigate the extent of damage to the cables, and to ascertain if the fire had spread to the first floor of the building. They proceeded to the main lobby of Yatri Niwas leading towards the Coconut Grove restaurant. They went up two flights of stairs and onto the lower split-level first-floor terrace overlooking the Bagiya complex.
Looking for the wires that had caught fire, Constable Kunju peered over the edge of the mezzanine roof, only to be met with a blast of scorched air and fetid smoke rising from below. To his astonishment, he saw that the fire above the tandoor, which they had extinguished minutes earlier, was once again ablaze. One of the men he had seen in the Bagiya, the stout man wearing a white kurta pyjama, was now stoking the flames. It beggared logic. Kunju’s alarm gave way to exasperation at these men’s cavalier disregard for safety. They had to be stopped.
Rushing to the rear edge of the roof, with little thought for the sheer drop below, he leapt down, his uniform shoes impacting hard on the paved rear courtyard of the restaurant. Making his way to the fire, he flattened the wicket fence that blocked his path and reached the tandoor from the rear.
By the time he reached the kitchen area, the man wearing the kurta pyjama was gone, as were his two companions, but the fire was still roaring. It was now that Kunju’s nostrils twitched. Along with a pungent, rank smell, a strange waft of roasted meat permeated the air. It was the unmistakable odour of burning flesh.
Excerpted with permission from The Tandoor Murders: The Crime That Shook The Nation, Maxwell Pereira, Context.