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Mysterious Disappearances
Chapter 8

By Nirupama Akella

The Police Investigate

This was probably the Matron of the college -- Constable Pathak thought extending his hand and smiling. “Sue Danely,” he thought, “was a presence -- a personality exuding sheer confidence, strength and compassion. She was, probably the most suited person to bear the enormous responsibility of running and managing the college hostel and looking after the welfare of the hostel girls.”

 Now Matron was smiling widely, “Hello Constable…have you found out anything yet?”

“Not yet, Madam…” said Junior Constable Kishen Pathak.

 Sue Danely frowned as Bahadur now hastened to add, “We have already spoken to the family and the neighbors…”

“What about the other cleaning ladies here and in the city hall where she,” Matron paused, her forefinger stroking the tip of her nose. She continued, “I think used to do the evening shift…”

“Yes Madam,” the Junior Constable said nodding. “The City Hall -- she used to work there from three in the afternoon to six in the evening….we have talked to all of them,” he ended.

Matron interrupted, “Please come inside…then we can talk more at ease…Nandita, could you see to some refreshment please?”

Junior Constable Pathak looked with some interest as the girl walked down the corridor and turned a corner. He then followed Matron into the inner hall where there was a long table of rich oak and several cushioned chairs. There were several glass cabinets show casing college trophies, creamish colored walls adorned with heavy lace cream curtains. Here they sat, and Junior Constable launched into a more detailed report of their activities. He shoved forward the notebook for Matron to read and then waited patiently for her pronouncement.

 Matron read slowly. Then taking off her gold rimmed reading glasses, she said, “All this is so strange -- no one knows where she is. She didn’t tell anyone….what are you going to do now…..?”

 Nandita came back with the tea tray and three sugared biscuits. She set this on the table and as she was going out, Matron called out, “Thank You, my dear and I think you can go to your room now!”

She then turned her attention back to the to men saying, “So what  is your next course of action?”

Junior Constable Pathak cleared his throat again, “I was thinking maybe we could talk to the hostel girls -- the rooms which Shanta did…”

Matron arched her brows and said, “But this has nothing to do with the girls….she disappeared before they even came, the previous day…I don’t think it is a good idea.  What can they tell us?”

“Madam….maybe they can shed light on her character!” said Kishen Pathak smoothing his hair.

Matron looked dubious, “Haven’t you talked with Shalu Brar about that, already? She knows everything about Shanta’s character , and….you can always ask me….”

“Good then Madam, I hope you won’t mind answering some questions!” said Kishen Pathak leaning forward.

Matron sighed and leaned back in the chair. Bahadur opened the pad and picked up his pen, and Constable Pathak began firing away questions.

“So, you have absolutely no idea where she could be now?” this was Junior Constable Pathak trying not to sound mournful. He and Bahadur had been questioning the Matron now for nearly an hour.

            “Drat,” thought Pathak listening to the Matron. “Why doesn’t anyone know something. Now,” his not so noble thoughts continued to churn in the windmill of his brain, “wouldn’t it be simply wonderful if he proved that this Matron had run over Shanta Ganshyam in a car! But,” he thought, “that was just his wild dream!”

“If I knew, Constable,’ Matron was saying. “I would not have asked for your help. No, I have no idea!”

Bahadur snapped his book shut thinking, “That does it. Nobody knows anything and this donkey,” he shot a quick glance at his superior, “also doesn’t know anything. Instead of a calling this ‘Disappearance’ case, maybe Chauhan should call it the ‘Not knowing anything’ case.”

He listened to Pathak posing as the supplicant begging for information. “All that was missing,” thought Bahadur trying not to grin “was a beggar’s bowl in Pathak’s hands!”

Junior Constable Kishen Pathak, however had no such thoughts. He merely wanted his wild dream to come true. “Confess you evil woman,” his mind was saying, “Say that you ran over Shanta in your car. Say that it was a mistake – you mistook her for a flower! Say it,” his brain commanded.

Matron had no desire or inclination to mouth such fantastic lies to please the Constable. “Constable,” she said pinching the tip of her nose, “I don’t know and I assure you, no one in my staff does.

Pathak said, “Madam, would it be possible to speak to your cleaning supervisor again…..and maybe with your permission, of course, some of the girls in which Shanta worked?”

“You better come tomorrow then to speak to Shalu. About the girls, I don’t think it is a good idea but maybe you should speak to the Principal first. Sister will be back tonight and you can ask for an appointment and speak to her about this…”

“Thank You Madam,’ Junior Constable got up swiftly. “And what time in the morning will be convenient, Madam?”

“About nine,” Sue Danely said.

They shook hands and went out briskly. Junior Constable Pathak ran down the stairs and waited at the foot for Bahadur.

 When Bahadur finally caught on, he remarked, “So we didn’t get much today. Nobody knows anything -- maybe after another chat with this supervisor we may know something,” Kishen Pathak sounded doubtful as he put on his cap.

 They fell into step walking towards the back door. The pale sky had considerably darkened and lights shimmered in the buildings, casting their yellow pale brightness on the path.

“But why speak to the girls? It is unlikely they will know anything, Saab,” Bahadur voiced his views.

 Junior Constable Pathak also did not feel too optimistic about interviewing hostel girls. “But,” he thought, “he had to do something. He just couldn’t sit twiddling his thumbs!”

 He snapped, “Don’t tell me how to do my job Bahadur….and for God sakes, lead us to the entrance tomorrow.”

Bahadur sighed and followed Constable Pathak through the door into the street. Junior Constable got up and was about to start the engine when he said, “This door is never locked, is it?”

“No, Sahib,” said Bahadur adjusting his weight on the narrow backseat of the two- wheeler.

“Anyone can enter any time! Even people who have nothing to do with the college,” Kisdhen Pathak said ignoring the chowkidaar’s heavy breathing.

Bahadur stopped his adjustment chores and looked with interest at his superior. He failed to see any light! “So what if the back door was kept unlocked all the time,” he thought, “It hardly had any connection with the disappearance of a cleaning lady!”

Junior constable was continuing, in a reflective voice, “That’s pretty interesting…and what day did she disappear, Bahadur?”

“Monday Morning” said Bhafdur breathing a sigh of relief. “This scooter,” he thought, “was a nightmare. Sitting on a lion was far easier perhaps. And now this Pathak was declaring his love for back doors. This was too much!”

“Hmm,” wondered Pathak aloud. “The girls all came on Tuesday… nice new buildings, this college has!”

Bahadur looked clearly bewildered. “This Constable was jumping from thought to thought -- he had been talking of back doors, then the time of the disappearance and now the college buildings! What next?” Bahadur mused mentally, “Maybe horses and cats!”

“New Buildings…..find out the about the construction people who were here! Their names, duration they stayed…..everything, Bahadur,” Pathak ordered.

Bahadur nodded thinking, “Now he could understand what the constable had been driving at all the time.”

 Junior Constable finally started the vehicle and the two- wheeler roared down the street in a cloud of blue black smoke.

Parul Desai, clad in silken white climbed down the steps from the top floor. She had just finished attending her first lecture of the day on Philosophy and now she was free till ten o’ clock when she had a class on Social Psychology in the main building. Sighing she emerged into the open air. She was tired. When she had first opted for a Psychology Major after Junior College, she had known that it would mean hard work, long hours and extraordinary infinite patience. But this was too much. The new session had just started yesterday and already she felt like she was walking on a taunt string. And to make matters worse, she had been selected to go to some slum area in the main city for her assignment in Social Work. She would have preferred to stay in her room and read the chapter on Social Attitudes. But then she had voluntarily chosen Social Work as her primary module.

 She passed the canteen and looked at her watch. Yesterday evening when she had been thinking that nothing else could go wrong, she had been summoned by Sister Prudence. She had been informed that some idiotic police constable would be speaking to all the girls in the rooms in which Shanta worked. And she had been chosen to announce this at roll call before retiring to bed. Parul hated such tasks. She did not like responsibility and giving messages of any sort. A messenger, in her opinion was always the bearer of bad news -- and this had been very bad news indeed! There had been dismal cries and groans as Matron had given them different times to present themselves before the police and speak to them. Nobody seemed to relish the idea of spending their free time in between lectures, with official police people and Matron in her small office in the main building. Only the Junior College girls had been pleased and excited at the prospect of being interviewed by the police about the disappearance of a cleaning lady!

 And now it was her turn. She could still vividly hear Matron’s severe voice saying, “Parul, be in the reception area by quarter to ten, understand?”

“What did Matron think,” Parul thought walking, “was she going to fly away?”

She bought a small packet of chips and munching them crossed the canteen area and went into the main building by the back entrance. She licked her salty lips trying to remember what the names of the two police guys were. Of course, they had not been told. But she had seen them -- a funny superior looking young man with trim black whiskers and, an older looking man in Khaki shorts on a green scooter. They had arrived at nine and she had spied them while making her way to the science building. They had come to interview Shalu Brar. This information had been supplied by Shalu herself sweeping the hostel corridor on the first floor – “And now they are coming again? What for, I ask you? …..useless, that’s what they are! Why, if I had been in the police, I would have found her by now! And now they want to talk to me again -- I have told them everything…” she had said in her rough local dialect.

Parul on her way back to her room had been the ready audience and had silently suffered the ordeal. “Shalu,” Parul now mused crumbling up the empty packet and disposing it off in a nearby trash bin, “it seemed was convinced that the police were looking in the wrong direction and asking the wrong people the silliest questions. Not only Shalu but Matron and Sister were convinced as well as eavesdropping she had heard Sister had sensibly put it, ‘I think the Constable is too eager to make a good impression- interviewing the wrong people- the girls! What will they know? Unnecessary but I must give my full cooperation! So, I guess I must agree! But, you must be there!This had been addressed to Sue Danely who had stood near the desk, stiff and disapproving. And as Parul had been on the point of flee, she had heard Sister casually remark, ‘And do find out if this is his first case? I don’t want young green inexperienced constables making a mountain out of a molehill!”

Parul grinned to herself stepping into the reception. Nandita was sitting as usual, looking at a file. She looked up when she entered and smiled pleasantly. “Your turn?” she asked.

Parul nodded. Nandita shot her a grin and got up saying, “Try to enjoy it!”

Parul shrugged her slim shoulders. Nandita went into the inner hall and then returned saying, “Go in!”

“Thanks!” said Parul and entered the inner hall. She saw Matron seated in a corner, looking quite bored and irritated. There was an older man standing, she noted. The older man in Khaki shorts was holding a pen and pad and looked serious and important. On the chair, Parul saw a young man with police cap on one knee stroking his moustaches in a superior fashion. “Serves him right if they fall off,” thought Parul. “He was probably the Constable and the man in standing pose,” she decided, “had to be the chowkidaar.”

She walked in hesitantly and Matron said, “Sit down, dear! This is Constable Pathak and Chowkidaar Bahadur, who want to ask you a few questions about Shanta’s disappearance.”

            Parul gratefully sat down in the chair next to Matron and stared at the two policemen wide eyed. Constable Pathak cleared his throat, as per his habit and Bahadur who had been with him since eight in the morning wanted to strangle him with his bare hands! He was exasperated of the sound and that well cultured voice of Constable Pathak. Kishen Pathak on his part looked interestedly at the dark attractive spectacled girl in a white silk salwar. He didn’t know whether these girls were good in studies but some of them were natural lookers for the theatre world! He smiled in his superior fashion and began, “You knew Shanta Ganshyam well?”

Bahadur stood alert with his pen poised. “Personally he felt that they should have left after interviewing that tartar of a cleaning supervisor -- they really had no need to speak to these girls who didn’t know anything,” he thought chewing the end of the pen. “The girls could not shed light on anything… maybe tell them about the spicy canteen food and their studies! But, the constable evidently thought that Shalu and the construction people had not told him something, which these nervous girls would!”

He sighed thinking, “They still had to interview ten more girls and then speak to that old beggar woman again who had seen Shanta enter the college that morning. Then, he had to get back to the station and compile a report and file it.” He sighed again inwardly and began to write as the girl answered questions. True to his assumption, the interview failed to shed light on any extra important information. In fact the girl didn’t know anything at all. He leaned towards the constable as both the girl and Matron went out, “Are we near solving the disappearance, Sahib?”

Junior Constable Pathak stared angrily at the chowkidaar. “Bahadur was trying his patience,” he thought. “It wasn’t his fault. After all he had not asked anyone to go missing- but it had been reported and he had to investigate! He was doing his best but it was like banging his head against a brick wall. Shalu Brar had spoken a whole lot of nonsense and complained but had failed to tell any relevant information which would help them! The ABC Construction Personnel Officer had been very cooperative and provided them with all the names of the workmen who had set up camp there! But chats with them had proved unfruitful too. No one had seen anything; some didn’t even know Shanta by sight! And the Construction supervisor had quit his job two days back and left no forwarding address. They had tried to contact him -- first by checking up at his old address and then asking friends and work colleagues, superiors, but this had led them to another dead end- the only information ad been supplied by his superior that he had left suddenly without citing any reason and without a future reference. And then they had become lucky- the Personnel Officer had been very helpful and managed to produce a contact phone number -- which Rajeev Ghosh had given in his employment application. They had in the end, after hours of patient dialing and listening to the infinite static shrill ringing of the telephone, and then dispatching Bahadur to the address which had been empty, he -- Junior Constable, Kishen Pathak  had given up. After all,” he had reasoned, “it was highly unlikely that this Rajeev Ghosh would know anything of consequence at all. And now this idiot, this fool of a chowkidaar was making fun of him. Bahadur should have retired,” thought Pathak.

 He sighed audibly and glanced at his watch. This interview had taken about two minutes. “Maybe the next girl who came in would be able to impart more helpful information,” he thought but he was not optimistic!

Jyotsana rushed out of Lecture room 14 and hurried down the corridor, squeezing past chattering girls to reach the stairs. She had an interview with the police and she felt very important. She reached the stairs and was about to descend when a hand on her arm halted her, “Jyotsana -- remember what day it is?”

She turned. It was Hiran the final year Junior College hostellite. Hiran was saying, “You have to come to my room tonight, freshie!”

Mysterious Disappearances - Chapter 8 continued here...