BOOK EXCERPT

Detective Arjun Arora returns in Ankush Saikia’s new book to find the murderer of a young Naga woman

‘More Bodies Will Fall’ is the third outing for the intrepid detective.

After the game, Arjun drove back to his flat in Chittaranjan Park, took a shower and had his breakfast, then settled down on the sofa to watch the repeat telecast of an English Premier League game from the previous night. 11.00 am came and went, but there was no sign of Roy’s friend. They must have met when Roy had been posted in Nagaland, Arjun thought. He went out to the balcony and lit a cigarette. Down in the park a group of boys were playing cricket with a worn tennis ball. November, but Delhi was still warm during the day. It seemed to take longer and longer with each passing year for the chill to set in. The man from Mokokchung...Arjun wasn’t superstitious, but he wondered why he had had that dream this morning. He hadn’t been told what help was required, just that it was a “serious personal problem”.

At 11.35 am the doorbell rang, and when he went and opened the door there was a stocky, middle-aged tribal man with close-cropped hair standing there. He was wearing a white shirt, the sleeves rolled up, and grey trousers, and was holding a green file folder in his thick hands.

“Bendangtoshi Longkumer,” the man said, extending his right hand. “Sorry I am late.” There was real strength in the man’s calloused grip.

“No problem,” Arjun said, “please, come in. You don’t have to take your shoes off.”

In the sitting room, with the light falling on the man’s Mongoloid features, Arjun saw that he was old, the leathery brown skin scored with lines, the short hair an iron grey. His posture, though, was erect, his eyes bright – that was why he had seemed younger at the door.

“Colonel Roy called me this morning,” Arjun said. “How can I help you?”

The man placed the folder on the table and wiped his face with a handkerchief. He cleared his throat, fixed his eyes on Arjun and spoke.

“I know Roy from many years ago, when he was posted in Wokha district. He suggested that I contact you. My youngest daughter Amenla was...she was killed here in Delhi. Last year. She was murdered. The police haven’t been able to catch anyone so far.”

The man spoke haltingly, even making allowances for the topic he had brought up. Arjun could guess that he wasn’t often out of his home town, nor required to speak in English much. He found himself softening towards the man, towards the loss suffered by a father. He vaguely recalled something in the newspapers from the previous year about the death of a young Naga girl. But still, after a year...

“When exactly did this happen?” Arjun asked.

“Twenty-second September, last year. She was just twenty-nine years old.”

Time seemed to have dulled the loss for him. Arjun couldn’t help but think of Rhea.

“But, Mr Longkumer, after an entire year...”

“I waited one year, hoping, praying. But nothing. I am desperate now. Please help me. The room where she stayed is still the way it is. I’ve kept paying the rent. I just want to know who did this. She was such a kind-hearted girl...” His voice trailed off and he looked down at his scarred hands.

Though Mr Longkumer appeared composed, Arjun had seen the sorrow in his eyes. To lose one’s daughter...

“What exactly happened?” he asked.

With his stubby fingers, Mr Longkumer untied the cord securing the folder, took out a photo from within and handed it to Arjun. It showed a young tribal woman in a white blouse and a wrap-around shawl woven in the style of the Ao tribe, red with blue stripes. Amenla Longkumer. She was of medium height, with long, straight hair falling over one shoulder and a black book, probably a Bible, in her hands. Her face was fair and long, with well-defined cheeks and jaw bones, and a direct gaze like her father’s. The ironic half-smile on her lips caught his attention most of all. She was standing alone, a tree and part of a house with a tin roof and some other people behind her.

Mr Longkumer said, “her elder sister took this photo. Just after church service, the last time she had come home. She was going to come home for Christmas last year, but then...” He took a deep breath before going on. “Amenla was working here in a call centre. She stayed alone in a barsati in Safdarjung Enclave. On September 21 last year she called me at night. My phone was at home and I had gone to a neighbour’s house to discuss some matters. When I came back I tried calling her but she didn’t pick up. I thought she was busy or had gone out. Then in the morning there was a call from her landlady.”

Here he paused, and looked away. Arjun had questions, but he knew when to wait.

“They found her body in the morning. She had been strangled.” Mr Longkumer’s voice was choking, and he took another break. “Me, my wife and my son – we managed to reach Delhi the next evening. By then the post-mortem had already been done. So we decided to bury her here. That was done the next day. Some people from our community arranged it at the cemetery in Paharganj. The Delhi police had registered a case but even now, after one year, nothing has happened.” He paused again. “Can you please help Amenla get justice, Mr Arora?” he finally said, in a small but firm voice.

A proud man from the hills, Arjun could see, not used to asking for anything, except now, in this situation. He needed time to think, and asked Mr Longkumer if he wanted tea or coffee, to which the visitor said he only wanted some water. Arjun went to the kitchen, poured out two glasses of water, placed them on a tray. He usually avoided murder cases because the Delhi police would be involved. But the father in him recognised the man’s distress. And his dream that morning about heading to Mokokchung...was there something more to it?

He went back to the sitting room, where Mr Longkumer drained his glass in one go.

“So you’re from Mokokchung?” he asked.

“Yes. But our original village is Longkhum, it’s nearby.”

Had he been in the army, or in one of the insurgent groups? There was something martial about the man. Then again, they were tough people, especially the older ones.

“How many children do you have?”

‘Three. Amenla was the youngest. I was forty-two when she was born. My eldest daughter is in Kohima, and my son in Dimapur. There’s only me and my wife left at home now.”

Forty-two years – the age he was now. Arjun could see that the man was still waiting for an answer to his question.

He said, ‘I do want to help you. But a year has passed...and the Delhi police is involved too. Just give me some time to think, please. I’ll let you know by tonight.”

Mr Longkumer bowed his head. Arjun didn’t know what more to say.

“The police had arrested a friend of Amenla’s,” Mr Longkumer said, looking up. “An Indian boy. But then they let him go.” There was a pleading look in his eyes. “Colonel Roy said you grew up in the north-east, that’s why I came to you. You are our last hope, Mr Arora.”

Indian. It had been a while since Arjun had heard the word used in that context. “Give me some time to decide,” he said.

After Mr Longkumer left, Arjun went out to the balcony and lit a cigarette. On the other side of the park he could see the elderly Naga man walking slowly towards a small white taxi. He was going to do it; he was going to take the case. He went back inside and opened the folder with the clippings and photos Mr Longkumer had left with him.

“North-east girl found dead in South Delhi” was the headline of one story in a national daily, the newspaper where Poppy Barua worked. The story corresponded to what Mr Longkumer had told him. The girl’s body had been found in her room by the landlady in the morning, after she had noticed that the door leading to the terrace was ajar. The previous day had apparently been Amenla’s day off at the call centre, so she was at home that evening instead of at work. The landlady had told the police that there had been a quarrel between Amenla and a male friend of hers a day earlier, just before she had left for work. Was he the “Indian boy” Mr Longkumer had mentioned? Arjun went through the rest of the articles, a photocopy of the FIR filed by the police at the Safdarjung police station against “unknown persons”, and photos of Amenla, one which appeared to be on the terrace outside her room and another in her office.

But it was the photo of her at home that he returned to, with that enigmatic half-smile on her lips. There seemed to be something hidden there...

One of the newspaper reports mentioned one Rohit Chaudhry, a Delhi resident, being picked up by the police, and then released. Another quoted Oyum Tagu, president of the NESAD (North East Students’ Association, Delhi), as saying that the police were “racially biased”. Arjun made a mental note of both names as he tied the cord of the folder. There was something immeasurably sad about the father’s attempts at chronicling the aftermath of his daughter’s murder. What hopes and disappointments he must have had to endure in this city far from home. Putting the folder aside, Arjun went into the kitchen to make his lunch.

Excerpted with permission from More Bodies Will Fall, Ankush Saikia, Penguin Random House India.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.