No One Knows Where The Ladder Goes

By: Vikram Shah

The Bombay Reporter

May in Bombay is a hot, but not brooding month. Brooding would imply a sense of lurking, of watching from the shadows. May in Bombay stings you straight in the nape. Sweat trickles like little geckos down the small of your back, leaving a ring of moisture around the waistband of your trousers.  How do I remember that it was in May that I was first put on the Kaleja Khooni case by Rustom Kharabjee, editor of The Bombay Reporter? Well, it’s because I remember there were geckos running down my back when I got off the bus at Fountain, and walked to our dingy offices on the third and fourth floors of Ghazal Chambers. The Bombay Reporter was a smallish publication, but there was one group of Bombay men whose days would not begin without scanning its grisly pages: the film producers. This was the seventies, a time when Russy Bhai’s desi version of gonzo journalism with the Blitz had lost its allure. Rustom’s particular interest lay in sensational crimes. His other particular interest was in blurring the line between fact and fiction. That explains why his pages were a favourite with the men who made movies. The seed for not a few blockbusters was sowed when a producer would peruse the headlines with his morning tea, wicker-chair seated, in a Juhu bungalow.

Rustom

So why was I working for a publication that read like one of the crimesheets that were popular in smaller towns? Well, it’s because no one wanted to give me a job. It’s also because I was deluded enough to be trying to write a novel at the time. I think Rustom humoured me because he saw something of himself in my to-be-doomed literary aspirations. I knew then that if I ever did find my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Rustom would not demand a penny. It probably had to do with the fact that he was from an old-school Bombay bawa family. He’d been sent to Harvard by his father, who hoped he would come back and join the Kharabjee paper-making empire. At Harvard, Rustom abandoned his force-fed dreams of paper manufacturing baronhood, and began seeing visions of himself, scratching away, standing, at a desk, while liveried servants brought in plates of dhansakh and Britannia-style berry pulao. A bawa Hemmingway, if you please. He had a stint on the Crimson, which, in hindsight, was a sign of things to come. There, it became clear that he was more adept at grappling with fact rather than fiction. Yet, not for him the staid monocolours of journalism. He duly returned, and much to Mr. Kharabjee’s dismay, locked himself up in a room of their Napean Sea Road apartment and hammered out a manuscript titled No One Knows Where The Ladder Goes. Cryptically described as a “racy, crime thriller in which the dancer becomes the dance”, it, to put it mildly, did not find favour with publishers. The owner of a newly-established house agreed to publish on Daddy Kharabjee’s insistence, only in return for a year’s stock in printing paper. Rustom did not know of this little exchange until three months later. That is when, finally realizing that it was unlikely that the literary bells would ever toll for him, he took to journalism with a vigour only a failed writer can muster. But he was only about five years too late into the business. Or maybe he just smoked the wrong brand.

Arshiya 

I climbed the rickety staircase that serviced  Ghazal Chambers, expecting a quiet day, since the crime scene had slowed down after a recent Bombay Police campaign encouraging stricter law and order enforcement. The Reporter’s offices were a clutter of desks, populated with sheafs of paper, files and cigarette stubs. Navigating through that labyrinth of what appeared to be representative of the hurried ease that this beautiful-ugly city stood for, I entered Rustom’s office to receive the day’s first briefs and fags. That was where I saw her for the first time. Familiar staccato now, my editor who has smelt blood.

“Ah, Shirodkar, my main man. Come, come. Meet Arshiya Hafiz.  Joined as trainee reporter last month.  She has some absolutely compelling information on the Kaleja Khooni. He’s back.”

Disarming smile, and I hurtle down the rabbit-hole. Through the looking glass, I hear her say, professionally, “Victims have been identified as a young couple who were ambling around a shed, behind the railway tracks in Kurla. Same story, hearts scooped right out of their chests.  Expert use of surgical instruments again.”

I recover just in time to mumble, “Witnesses? Clues? What do we have?”

“A couple of urchins say they saw him walking away from the shed where the bodies were found sometime last night. Matches the description we have from previous cases. I opened the file to check. Average height. Slender. Wild, matted, hair. And the grey overcoat.”

“Shirodkar. We need to latch on to this before the others too, especially those buffoons at The Express. Drop that Khorpude-Fernandes story for now, and work on this full-time. Arshiya will help you out. Feature for tomorrow’s edition.”

I was not entirely pleased. I’d been working on the Khorpude-Fernandes story for a while now. It was shaping up well, and it was almost nearing completion. But it’s not every day that one gets to trail a crazed serial killer who kills lovers and keeps their hearts as mementos.  I could always come back to the story about a love-hate relationship between the city’s most dreaded gangster, and its most famous cop.

Smoke

Kaleja Khooni’s next victims were found, heartless, on Juhu Beach. On the sand adjacent to the building in which Arshiya’s parents owned a flat that contained a bedroom in which she and I had made love to each other for the first time only hours before. If I remember correctly, her surgeon parents were away in Prague or some such place for half of the year. The surgeons’ daughter seduced me in the falling evening light, even as I heard the shouts of cricket-playing on the beach below. As I inhaled the acrid fumes of my Charminar, she rose, and ebbed, with the sea behind her. Enchantresses vying for my hazy attention.

I ashed my cigarette on an ornamental ashtray on the side-table by the bed, and took a drag. I wouldn’t need cigarettes for the rest of the evening. I took hold of her hair, made orangish in the sun let in by the French windows. I traced a line down her skin, the reluctant white of the moon, with spots of gold here and there. There and here. I lit her. I lit her with my tongue and inhaled, twirling her around in my mouth. I let some of her go down my gullet; teasing, corroding, like a snake lapping at the air with its black, forked tongue. Exhaled, let her through my lips, and saw her swirling, dancing, spiraling away from me and my desire. I let her burn gradually. She remained there, flickering, while all around her there was charring, as grey become black. When evening turned to night, when the stars came out to see a woman burn a man, and for him, I do not know. What I do know is that the night I smoked Arshiya, two other lovers had their hearts scooped out of them for loving too much.

The morning after, there was no breakfast in bed. No sweet nothings whispered through slightly-swollen lips into ears a little numb from gentle biting. No lingering in the sheets and folds of smoked love. There was one icy journalist and another edgy one who would never be a novelist, trying to piece together the events of what might have transpired about two hundred feet below from where they lay curled into each other.  One drunk vagabond, who said that he normally slept on the sand had a particularly interesting version. He said that he’d been shaken out of sleep by a woman’s muffled shouts, which had suddenly stopped. From the shadow cast by a street-lamp, he’d seen the figure of a slender, wild-haired apparition, walking into the lane that led to the main road from the beach. He’d followed the figure discreetly, and saw it turn into a building. Arshiya’s building. He’d woken up the watchman, and together they’d scanned the compound, the terrace and the corridors. The watchman corroborated the part concerning their search of the building, and reckoned that whoever it was had jumped the wall at the back, and into the adjacent building. The police took the drunk with them. That night, as I lay next to Arshiya in my Bandra apartment, trying to fall asleep to her soft breathing and the purring of the ceiling-fan, I thought about the Khaleja Khooni.

Motive

I have an image of sitting in a cafe opposite Sterling with Harvard Rustom, drinking chai, smoking Charminars and discussing motive.

“What do you think is his motive, Shirodkar? I mean, why does he do it?”

“Oh, the usual. Hurt bird syndrome. Woman would have left him for another fellow. Something like that.”

“You won’t believe it, but you remember that I told you about this novel I wrote once? Just after I got back from Harvard? This whole Kaleja Khooni business is uncannily similar to that plot. There was this character called the Brainwasher. He’d murder his victims, take their brains out, wash them, and display them on his mantle-piece. He’d been kicked out of his house by his father, who insisted on calling him brainless. This was his revenge. It’s freaky, yaar.”

It did sound very eerie, but I finally understood why publishers were not exactly falling over each other to publish my good-natured boss.

“What was it called? Something about a ladder, no?”

No One Knows Where The Ladder Goes.

“Why did you call it that?”

“There was this scene towards the end of the novel, where the Brainwasher is talking to a psychiatrist about his fascination with the brain. He says that when you look at the brain, it makes all these beautiful patterns. These patterns look like a bunch of ladders, cutting across each other. The shrink is convinced that this was a metaphor for some larger theme in his life that would help her draw an analogy between  his act of brainwashing and his philosophical foundations. She asks him where he thought the ladders led. He replies saying, No one knows where the ladder goes.

Where were our ladders going? I wondered what the Kaleja Khooni did with all those hearts he chiseled out of chests. Did he label them with the description of his victims? “Exhibit # 21, wheatish complexion, Reynolds pen in shirt pocket, Juhu Beach.” Or “Age: Around 22-25, Sex: F, Chest Size: 34DD. Shed behind Kurla Terminus.”

In school, your biology teacher would have you told that the human heart is a small organ, as big as a fist. Subtextual analysis of the history of civilization will tell you that never has something so small been made out to be something so big. The heart is invariably a part of a grand narrative, the centre of things. In our gigantic scheme, everything has a heart. Even Darkness. It can do so many things, and have so many things done to it. It can fly, beat, soar, sink. It can also be given, taken, stolen, broken. Its external counterpart, the fist, can pack quite a punch. Knuckles have been known to bleed when one punches too hard. But the heart, ah, the heart. You can never tell whether it has struck or been struck. It is always bleeding.

The Note

True to its nature, The Reporter ran full page features of the Kaleja Khooni in those days. But we were not the only ones. Even the mainstream publications had picked up on the story, and were reporting it with a fervour they only reserved for the-cartoonist-who-politicked and the-one-with-the-schizophrenic-hair. Young lovers in our city of impossible love and longing lived under the pall of fear. The spots in the city where they would normally play their little games of who-blinks-first-as-we-look-deep-into-each-other’s-eyes (the more adventurous, of course, played finger cricket and tongue tennis and boob squash), wore a deserted look. Spots in the city that represented the various stages of love: puppy love, with its back to the majestic sweep of  Marine Drive, the shallow fondling on the rocks at Bandstand, and then, the inevitable fluid exchanges in the anonymity offered by the matinee shows of Bombay’s seedier cinema halls. The Kaleja Khooni could be anywhere, and everywhere. A grey, grey city miles away, which they once tried to replicate here, had Jack the Ripper almost a century ago. Another city, not as far away, which they would never try to replicate here, would have the Monkey Man three decades later. In urbs prima in Indus, we had the Kaleja Khooni, an urban yeti with a vendetta against love.

Next: the college-going heirs of rival industrial families of Malabar Hill. Their bodies were found, arranged in a compromising position (their families hoped against hope that they hadn’t been found that way, when their hearts were still theirs), in a little cove on the private beach of the Raj Bhavan. Arshiya was close at hand again. She had been sent by Rustom to the Raj Bhavan to cover an event hosted by the Governor in honour of a visiting delegation of German industrialists and legislators. Of course, her brief had been to unearth salacious gossip about the Bombay upper-crust, who “drove down” from less than two blocks away. The parents of the victims were present, one set trying to edge the other out of photo-ops with dignitaries, both sets studiously flattering politicians and trying to close business deals with the German industrialists.

The bodies were found only late that night, when the parents had reported the pair as missing. This time he had left a note in the pocket of the young man’s trousers.

Matters of the heart, doomed from the start,

Pleasures of the mind, of a different kind,

I am the Reaper, and the one who Sows,

Yet no one knows where the ladder goes.

There was a warning too. Just below the verse. Mandar Shirodkar, correspondent at The Bombay Reporter, I suggest you let her go. Or I will kill you both.

Alibaug

Arshiya, Rustom and all my wish-wishers insisted that I take the Khooni’s advice if I did not want my heart scooped out of me. As a result of the note, Arshiya’s ex-boyfriend came under the police scanner. He was a classmate from college, and they’d broken up a few months ago. Admittedly, the break-up had not been amicable. It had ended in a flurry of tears and sharp words after she’d caught him cheating on her. But Arshiya was convinced it couldn’t be him. She asked Rustom to use his good offices to get him off the radar. The police did let him go after their investigation showed that the he was not their man. For starters, he was not “slender” by any stretch of imagination. He was positively huge. Six feet two, about a hundred kgs. Witnesses were convinced it could not have been him. He was satisfactorily able to explain his location at the time the murders took place.

I refused to let Arshiya out of my sight in the days following the note. Her hair that would cascade when she undid it, roll on roll of that black magic. Her collar-bones, gently jutting twins, like ridges asking questions of the forces that created them: history, the weather, her lovers’ gaze. Her precise hands with their long fingers, scalpel-like, inherited from her parents. Rustom packed Arshiya and me off to his bungalow in Alibaug, equipped with three private security guards, until further notice. It was in Alibaug that Arshiya really threw herself into me. She softened up, the ice maiden thawed before me. Away from work, life, the city, her eyes were not so distant anymore, her belly-button no longer held too many secrets, her thin arms held me as a lover would, even when we were not making love. It would be a pity if her heart were scooped out of her now. Her heart which had found love only to recover from it.

Yes, the idea was romantic: being holed up with a lover in a beach paradise, safe from the sinister designs of a serial killer who has suggested that he will kill me in a note that he left behind with his last victims. But in those days my idea of romance was action. I wanted to be in the city, where my prospective killer and I could play cat-and-mouse, as the city followed our every move with interest. Move over, Khorpude and Fernandes. We, the Khooni and me, would be the commanders of the city’s latest Great Game. I tried working on the novel, but it was futile. There were too many unanswered questions in my head, too many connections waiting to be made. So I was pleased when Rustom sent a car for us to be returned to the city. On our return, we were informed that there had been no murders since we’d left for Alibaug, and a greyish overcoat had been found in a corner of Juhu Beach that the drunk vagabond, who had been taken by the police after the Juhu murders, was found to frequent.

The Dancer and the Dance

It was August, and the heavens opened up at will. Where there were geckos a few weeks ago, now there were slithering eels, as my drenched shirt stuck to my back, and I felt the wetness make its way downwards. It would begin as a light drizzle, and lovers walking hand-in-hand on the streets would look at each other coyly, as if to say, “Oh, it had to happen. You and me. Walking like this. Only the rain was missing.” Without warning, it would begin to pour. The rumble of the showers would sound like laughter, the skies mocking the foolish young for romanticizing themselves, their lives together. The abashed twosomes could be seen scurrying, holding papers, books, bags, umbrellas over their heads, trying to find cover against the wrath of forces they thought had conspired to bring them together in the first place.

It was on such evening that I made my way to Arshiya’s in Juhu. It was about a month after our return from Alibaug, and the Kaleja Khooni had not struck. Us, or anyone else. The police seemed to be convinced they had their man in the vagabond drunk, and legal proceedings against him had already been initiated. I was worried sick because I didn’t know where Arshiya was. She’d left office around noon for her aunt’s place in Dhobi Talao. She said she’d meet me at VT Station at around eight, after which we would take the train back together. Under stately Gothic columns, gargoyles that seemed to scowl, and ceilings that were high-vaulted, I waited. I made my way to her aunt’s place in Jer Mahal, just as patrons crowded around Metro for the last show of the day. She hadn’t gone there at all. I stumbled out into the neon lights, and used the telephone in Furtado’s to call Rustom at the office and those of her friends who owned a connection at their residences. Nobody knew anything.

That train ride to Santacruz was the longest of my life. I stood in the ill-lit compartment, nauseous, with my brain spinning. Men who were going home to their wives, to beat them or to love them, to beat them because they loved them, stood around me, watching the city whiz past in the darkness. As the stench of Mahim creek wafted into the compartment, I could feel the hotness in my earlobes spreading to other parts of me, parts that I did not know existed, parts she did not know existed. Once there, I opened the door with a spare key, and walked in. In the bedroom where we made love: a gunny bag.  Next to it, a grey overcoat, her father’s set of spare surgical instruments: a bone-cutter, a scalpel, a pair of scissors, a frayed copy of Rustom Kharabjee’s No One Knows Where The Ladder Goes, with its terrified woman in a red dress on the cover. I peeped into the bag. Brownish-yellow, dried, like apricots left out in the sun to make jams of. Of course, our hearts are not red. Only our blood is. I picked up the note. This time there was no reason for her to disguise her handwriting.

My time has been served, hearts I have sown,

The moment has come to cut open my own.

Now there is nothing left to chance,

The dancer has been made the dance. 

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