We were six men, apart from Sona. Four of us and Sona started playing cards to kill time. The other two did not know the game and went out for a stroll instead.
Back then, Indian rummy was the game to play. The version we played that morning was Syndicate Rummy, in which the player that scored the least and remained in the game, until the rest were knocked off, was declared the winner.
We were playing for a syndicate of two hundred and fifty points. We played three games and Sona won all three, raking in Rs 6000. Of course, we had decided even before we started that we would let him win. The cards seemed to favour him too, but he still played well enough to win without any help. For someone who was soon going to be killed, that is.
After playing some more games we got bored and put away the cards. The rest of the men went out leaving behind only me and Sona sitting on a mat on the floor, leaning against the wall. He was serving the deck of cards to himself and playing solo.
I was watching his every movement, with a heavy heart. Suddenly, without lifting his head, he asked calmly, “Why did you make me win?”
I was shocked and at a loss for words.
“You had good cards and you won. Who likes to lose?”
“Isn’t it natural to lose when one gains more by losing?” he chuckled.
“What do you mean?”
“Look, I was watching when counting the points. Even when you needed the cards that I had discarded, you did not pick them up.”
I merely looked at him silently. I didn’t know what to say. I was not prepared for such questions.
A couple of times he tried to say something but failed. I knew he wanted to say something but I could not guess what that could be. Finally, he asked, in a steady voice, “Why didn’t you finish me off last night?”
I stared at him, suddenly aware of my heart thumping madly.
“Come on, I know you are going to finish me. But I don’t know why you are delaying.”
I was not a novice by any measure; I was already carrying the baggage of several murders. But something like this had never happened. None of those I had killed had known, even half an hour in advance that they would be killed. But this man...!
“Look, I don’t know what you are talking about. The boss has not discussed your killing with me. That is the truth, whether you believe it or not,” I said with a firm voice, hoping he would believe it.
“Of course, he has, Sreedhar anna! And I know he has discussed it only with you and nobody else! But I can understand that you are unwilling to share that information with me,” he said firmly.
I was shocked, you could even say, spellbound. My mind refused to accept that Sona, who was sitting playing cards with us all this while, knew he was soon going to be killed, not by some strangers but by the same people.
I was riddled with questions. If he knew he was going to be killed, why wasn’t he making any attempt to escape? Why was he not even pleading for his life?
“You are surprised, aren’t you, Sreedhar anna? When the police stopped you, I could have screamed. But had I done that I would be a coward. Sure, I could have escaped from you, but I would not have gained freedom. I would be caught. In Mumbai, I am wanted for several murders. The police would have killed me on the pretext of an encounter and got medals for it. Before that, they would have tortured me to reveal names and other information. Isn’t it better to be killed by men like you, from the same profession, than the police?”
I did not trust his words. Every creature on earth, from an ant to an elephant, fights for survival when faced with the threat of death. He was a veteran in the underworld. Surely, he knew that anything could happen as long as one was alive. He must know many people.
Once he escaped, someone could help him, maybe even speak to the police to spare him. I have known instances when a man targeted for encounter has been spared at the last minute. Also, Sona wasn’t just another ordinary underworld killer. He had sat face to face with the likes of Ibrahim Dawood and Sharad Shetty. Even in the underworld, not many got such opportunities. One word from either of them could make him invincible.
Also, there could be a possibility that the same Mumbai people who told my boss to kill him could help him. Who knows, anything and everything was possible! This was a world of innumerable possibilities. But how could I make him understand this? How could I really tell him his hunch was right?
Just then, another thought crossed my mind. Since Sona was an accomplished criminal, with an “impressive” history, he may have guessed, judging by my behaviour, that my background was more refined. I come from a background of education, literature and philosophy. That’s why he was trying to gain my sympathy.
This could be a plan to fool me. Perhaps, he was trying to get me to reveal the plan or attempting to play the sympathy card with me, all the while looking for the slightest chance to escape. Maybe he was trying to convince me that he would not attempt to escape even as he made plans to fool me...fool us!
I decided that I needed to be on guard and watch him more closely. I had to be careful and not slip up.
But then even if he tried to fool me it wouldn’t be easy to escape; we were in the middle of nowhere. As I had realised, I couldn’t even get my newspaper here.
There were five of us and no one else. The entire stretch of land with its thick dense forests was under the control of my boss’s people. It was an unknown terrain for Sona. He could not escape. Even if he tried, he would be caught within no time. Besides, I was in charge. I concluded that I could not be fooled.
However, I decided I should be on my guard. He may be from the Mumbai underworld but I operated in a way very different from them. Don’t you dare play tricks with me, Sona, if you do you will pay a very heavy price for it, I kept telling myself.
Finally, I blurted out, “Look, you are thinking and talking utter rubbish. If we wanted to finish you, we could have done it in Bangalore. It is our playground. It is my place and my boss rules the place. We can do anything there and get away with it. Why take the risk of moving you all this distance by road? If you were killed in Bangalore, it would be a child’s play for us. Who would lodge a complaint? If we had killed and thrown your body in the gutter, the police would record it as an unidentified body and forget about it. Nobody would have claimed it. We could even make you go ‘missing’ there and your body would not have been found at all. Just ten kilometres away from Bangalore, the job could have been done. Why take the risk of bringing you 250 kilometres away from Bangalore? What you are suggesting is sheer nonsense!”
Even as I was saying all this, I had a feeling that I was overdoing it a little. I wondered if he was making me reveal the plan. One small slip of the tongue and he would be warned. I kept a straight face. My mind started racing: I must finish the job today; I must not let him escape. He will be alive only for tonight. Just another ten or twelve hours. Not a day or a week.
By the time the sun goes down and darkness falls, this man will go missing. This flesh-and-blood human being will be lost forever, become a dead wood to be discarded as quickly as possible. He will be nothing more than a trace in our minds. Soon, we will forget even that.
He laughed dismissively.
“You are trying to silence me with your logic, Sreedhar anna. But both of us know what the truth is. Anyway, you are a free man without any obligation and I won’t insist on you telling me what I already know: that I will be killed tonight. The reason I am asking is because, if you confirm it, I want to share some personal matters with you.”
I did not know what to say. No matter how intelligently I responded, even a small clue could reveal our plan. However, I was also curious to know what this man, who had less than ten hours to live, had to share with me. I must give him a chance, I thought to myself.
He could ask me to convey something to his mother or to his wife or child. If it was not important to him, he would not have offered to share it with me. It might be worthwhile to first listen to him and then decide if it was worth helping him escape or not.
“Look, as far as I know we are not going to do anything to you. I am sorry, I am not the boss. I take orders from my boss. I may be close to him but only he has the right and responsibility to make decisions, to spare your life or not. But till now he has not discussed you with me. I am least bothered if you don’t believe it. Underworld or not, who can give any guarantee of life? We can achieve anything, but can we prevent death? Don’t think I am being philosophical but that is the final truth. Okay, if you want to share something with me, please go ahead. If there are unsolved questions, riddles or confusions, I will try my best to clear it. I hope I can give you a satisfying answer based on my experiences and instincts. Assume you are dying tonight and tell me what you have to say.”
He laughed out loud.
“So, finally you are accepting the truth! You are revealing the truth. Nobody can prevent my death today. It is my fate, my brother. I have only tonight to live. Now, let us first eat. Later, I will give you an assignment. No...no...not to protect me, but a different kind of personal favour. It’s up to you, Sreedhar anna, to either do it or not.”
He ate with a great appetite. “Very tasty,” he said of the fish, relishing it.
But I had lost my appetite. A stray thought flashed in my mind about his escape. Even before that sank in, I began to think about how I could help him escape. The more I thought about it, the more possible it seemed to me. I did not think of the consequences. I thought I could come to that later.
I had to share this with someone. After lunch, I took my boy aside and carefully confessed that my conscience was not willing to kill him. I waited anxiously for his reaction. He just stared at me first and then slowly said, “Think again. Don’t decide in a hurry.”
My boy was a hardcore gang member and was not tormented like me by the assignment given to us. He just gave it to me straight.
“It is easy to make him escape. But have you thought of the consequences? He does not belong to Bangalore, but to Mumbai. He will definitely one day reveal that you helped him escape. What then?”
Excerpted with permission from The Gangster’s Gita, Agni Sreedhar, translated from the Kannada by Pratibha Nandakumar, Eka.