The story of The Hawa Mahal Murders focusses on two characters: Smita, a troubled housewife trapped in a bad marriage (her second), and Jai, a police officer desperate to prove himself but stymied at every step by a crooked boss and a corrupt system.
When a series of murders take place in a posh locality in Mumbai, all hell breaks loose, with senior police officers scrambling to save the Chief Minister’s son and frame an innocent watchman. Jai finds it hard to handle the intrigue and is on the verge of losing his job. Smita, struggling to salvage a deteriorating relationship with her husband, realizes that she married for all the wrong reasons, again. She regrets her decision to put aside her career ambitions and has to consider the possibility that her husband is a serial killer.
This story is also about a woman’s vulnerability in society and police corruption.
Targeted Age Group:: 15-50
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
It was always my ambition to write a novel in the thriller genre as I read books of that type with great enjoyment. Besides, I have always been a writer, ever since I was a child. I took up journalism as a career and this improved my writing skills. I also wrote a lot of short stories, some of which were published. And finally, I won a contest at a literary festival and as a result, bagged a book contract.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Like all fiction writers, I draw characters by observing people around me. However, this does not mean that my characters are from real life. One amalgamates people one knows and adds something else to the recipe, from one's own imagination. It's like cooking in a manner of speaking.
Raja was a boy of six when he decided to build Hawa Mahal. He decided this as he stood in front of the mahal of his dreams: a rose-coloured five-storey façade with hundreds of ornate windows. He had never been this mesmerised.
The boy was visiting Jaipur with his parents, eager to introduce him to the city of their origin. Hawa Mahal was an ancient palace built by a great king hundreds of years ago, they told him. Raja’s little boy mind could not quite grasp the historical significance of the Palace of Winds and nor could he encompass the enormity of the time that had passed by, but he knew that this must be one of the wonders of the world. He told his father, a jawan in the Indian Army, that he would build a palace just like this. His father gave him a pink plastic toy to play with. Here’s your Hawa Mahal, he said.
Raja’s mother, a god-fearing woman who had never seen the inside of a school, told him gently that he was not a Maharaja, just her Raja. Little did Raja know that his struggle against his parents’ disbelief had only just begun.
The years rolled by and Raja scraped through school. His parents were indifferent. He won prizes in sports and in oratory but his parents didn’t notice. When he enrolled in college on a sports scholarship, they told him to get a job. When he insisted on pursuing graduation, they let him, in stoic acceptance of his stubbornness. When he graduated, they suspected he had cheated but they were happy that now he could start working.
Raja left home to become a salesman in a jewellery shop; a store belonging to his father’s cousin. His work-place was in far-off Kolkata, away from the suffocating dullness of his parents. He liked the work, especially the diamonds. The customers fascinated him, the men and women with their fancy clothes and soft voices. When no one was looking he practiced their clean, clear accents, the subtleties in their expressions and the adroitness in their speech. He would often pretend he was one of them, strutting around in his best clothes, knowing that one day he would be better than them. He would own many such shops and marry one of their women.
One day he fell in love with a girl who came to the shop. She came every day for six days, enthralled with the shiny gold necklaces and sparkling diamonds. She adorned herself with them, staring wide-eyed at her own reflection in the mirrored walls. He believed that she came every day because she liked him and he wanted to give her a ring with the biggest diamond in the shop. She was the girl of his dreams: beautiful, rich, with all the fine upbringing that he wished he had. He asked her to marry him on the sixth day. He never saw her again. It confused him, because he knew she liked him. Maybe she hadn’t guessed how rich he would become.
That was when he decided to hurry up.
Stealing a fistful of diamonds from the shop where he slaved the whole day and guarded the whole night, he ran away to a city called Surat, where he knew diamond merchants worked. Afraid of the police, he grew a beard, learnt to speak the language and changed his name to Rajat Mehta. He never contacted any of his family members again. He needn’t have worried. The police never came.
He set himself up as a middleman and traded in jewels. The secret lay in the buying, that is what he had learnt after three years in the business. It was an industry where contacts were everything, because buying on credit was critical; trust needed to be earned. With his smooth talk, good designs, reliability, and most important, competitive prices, he built up a large network of contacts and a loyal customer base. He kept a low profile and was careful not to cheat the wrong people. He came to be known as Surat’s Rajubhai.
Seven years later, not as rich as he wanted to be and still thinking of the love of his life, Rajubhai decided to re-locate.
His destination was Mumbai. He was just thirty; plenty of time to make it big. One day, when people believed him to be one of the best in the business, he took a loan and bought his first shop in Andheri. He lived in a tiny alcove above the shop, surviving on just two shirts, one meal, and a scooter, stashing away all the extra cash to repay his loan.
One day, a respected businessman came to his shop, agreed to pay off his loan and gift him a plot of land in Juhu – if he married his cross-eyed daughter. Rajubhai agreed. The time had come to build Hawa Mahal, the palace of his dreams. And search for the girl he had not forgotten.
1. THE COUPLE
Many years later:
It was odd, Karan deciding to move into Hawa Mahal before he had shown it to her. She saw it on the Sunday before they moved in, and on their way there he told her how wonderful Hawa Mahal was, and how lucky they were to have got an apartment there. Not only was it located in an elite neighbourhood, the rich and the famous lived there. She would see it for herself.
As soon as they entered JWD, as the area was popularly called, the chaotic sounds of traffic muted and lush green trees started to replace the dusty shrubs. Sari-clad housewives with jute shopping bags turned into ray-banned women in air-conditioned cars, and white-shirted office-goers at bus-stops into blue-uniformed chauffeurs and khaki-clad chowkidars. Faceless apartment buildings on the edge of the road morphed into white bungalows lined with pavements, not footpaths. It was a place through which slum dwellers, hawkers, beggars or even ordinary mortals, would hesitate to pass.
‘Look, the houses are getting larger,’ said Karan as he unerringly homed in on D Road.
He’d been here before but hadn’t bothered to mention it. Resentment welled up in her as she thought back to the past week. Karan’s personality seemed to have undergone a change. Today especially, he had been in one of his lousy moods, having started the day shouting at the waiter for serving them oily omelettes, and on their way out of the hotel, he’d picked a quarrel with her because she had refused to change out of her faded blue jeans. And on the drive here, he had got into an abusive exchange with an Uber driver who had veered too close to their brand-new Hyundai i20. Something was wrong. Although Karan had always been a little mercurial, impatient, irritable even, he had never been this irritable.
True, she had known him for just over a year before marrying him, but she couldn’t bear to think that she had made a mistake, again. He must be under some kind of pressure, maybe the new job wasn’t working out.
Smita glanced at the white mansions around her, houses with black spiked gates which looked more like barricades. She had to admit that D Road was pretty, and unlike any other road she had seen in Mumbai. Wide and shady, it glowed with the reddish yellow of gulmohars and sparkled with the whiteness of the bungalows. And it was silent. The only sound she heard was from the chirping mynahs and the rustling leaves; the roar of the traffic had been left far behind.
A few bungalows down they saw it. Hawa Mahal. What was the fuss all about? It was an ordinary apartment building, as out of place amongst its neighbours as a dhoti-clad villager in a five-star hotel. Its pale pink turreted façade, pyramidal in shape, was faded and worn, and vaguely reminded her of an old palace she had seen during a college trip to Rajasthan. There wasn’t a patch of green in the compound, or rather, the parking lot. The heavy iron gate on which ‘Hawa Mahal’ was emblazoned, was rusted and chipped, the last letter of the first word missing. Haw Mahal, she read, not in the least amused.
Ugly was the word for it. All four storeys of it. The design was a silly mix of the ancient and the modern, the arched roofs and hanging cornices a garish contrast to the straight lines of the balconies. The numerous niches, each enclosing long, narrow windows with intricate latticework in stone, meant only one thing – stifling, claustrophobic interiors.
Smita was still frowning when Karan swerved into the building at twenty kilometres per hour, coming to an abrupt halt in front of the entrance, just avoiding running over a slightly built Nepali in a faded banyan and flapping khaki shorts. Karan jumped out, his six-foot frame towering over the stranger blocking his path. Side-stepping the Nepali deftly, he beckoned to Smita to join him.
‘Parking not for visitors saabji,’ bleated the man.
Karan bristled. ‘Who says we are visitors?’
The man’s face fell, and his wide, staring eyes remained fixed on them as they walked into the building. ‘I’m Ram Bahadur, watchman,’ he muttered, as if talking to himself.
Karan was already in the lobby, if you could call it that. Narrow and box-like, it reminded her of an abandoned train compartment. She wrinkled her nose at an odd smell. It couldn’t be a dead rat; it was more synthetic, and made her feel a little queasy in the stomach. Karan was calling out to her, and she joined him on the first-floor landing, outside apartment number three.
‘Captain saabji not mention name,’ said a squeaky voice behind them. Startled, they turned around. Bahadur had followed them.
Karan gently steered Smita into the apartment and banged the door shut behind him, right in the watchman’s face. ‘Retard.’ He turned to Smita. ‘Are you going to just stand there or look around?’
She steeled herself to see an apartment as oppressive as the stairwell. The first thing she noticed were the long, narrow windows with stone latticework which cut out most of the light. The rooms were shadowy but spacious, and each room had its own balcony. Attached to the sitting room, beyond the French windows, was a large, terrace-like space. Flinging open the French windows, she stepped outside, breathing in the scent of the sea. She loved the sweet, sultry, salty smell of it; she had missed it all these years in Delhi. The gulmohar was so close she could touch the scarlet flowers and yet soak in the warmth of the sun filtering through.
The curious eyes of the Nepali sitting on the stone ledge at the gate brought her back to earth.
‘Like it?’ Karan had come up behind her.
She turned around. The intensity in Karan’s dark, long-lashed eyes was startling. Almost as if her liking the apartment mattered to him, almost as if he would change his mind if she asked him to. ‘I don’t like the stone jalis. It feels like a prison.’
Karan’s bushy eyebrows came together in a “V,” making him look ill-tempered, distorting his handsomeness. ‘You prefer the company flat at Dadar? It’s half this size, right next to the railway line.’
‘You didn’t show it to me.’
‘Show you a place which I know you’ll hate? A noisy, poky little flat with one tiny balcony? Really Smita, you always oppose me just for the sake of it! I told you, I got this place for a bargain!’
Fifty thousand per month for a three-bedroom apartment in this area was a good deal, but she didn’t like to be hurried and he knew it, and till now had seemed to understand it. Why was he pushing her now? It wasn’t as if she was saying no, all she wanted was to look at more houses; after all they had been in Mumbai for just a week. And she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something off about this place. Great locality it may be, large it may be, but places, like people, gave off vibes, and she wasn’t getting the right vibes. The apartment seemed alright, but something in it or around it wasn’t. The problem was, Karan wouldn’t understand.
‘It’s got everything,’ Karan was saying, his words tumbling over each other. ‘A ground for the kids to play, parking space, watchmen for both night and day, and the best thing: great neighbourhood. Rich people live here, Smee.’
‘But why don’t you want to see more houses?’
He continued as if she hadn’t spoken. ‘People here don’t throw garbage out of windows. They don’t spit or leer. This is where we belong. With decent people.’
He stood inches from her, his thick, soft hair falling over his spectacles, his Davidoff after-shave flooding her senses. She melted. It would have been easier if he had listened, but that was becoming rarer, and she didn’t want to get into an argument, not now. After coming to Mumbai, most of their conversations had ended up in squabbles, so much so that he had started reminding her of Akshay. Akshay had been a bully – she stopped herself. No, it wasn’t fair to compare them, Karan wasn’t like Akshay, and in this last year he had been good to her. It was she who was being difficult.
‘Okay,’ she said.
‘We’ll move in on Wednesday.’ He took off his designer jacket, flung it over his shoulders and walked towards the door with a spring in his step. ‘Damn the weather! I had forgotten how humid Mumbai is!’
Karan had been born and brought up in Mumbai as well, not that she knew much about his childhood; he had told her very little, and clammed up if she broached the subject.
‘Are you sure about this, Karan?’ she asked as they made their way out.
He made an impatient gesture. ‘Why shouldn’t I be? For god’s sake, stop whining. The children will love it here, the landlord told me there are families here, with kids.’
She gave up.
On the way back he lectured her on how lucky they were to have got an apartment like this, as large chunks of Mumbai’s population of thirteen million lived in slums, and most of the others in cramped apartments on smoky, noisy roads. Living in JWD was not like living in Mumbai at all, he said. Besides, in localities like these, security guards usually outnumbered the residents, and that ensured a high degree of safety.
Safe it certainly was not, thought Smita as she stood in her neighbour’s sitting room a few days later. She hardly dared to breathe. Her neighbour, Ria Khan, a widow from the apartment opposite theirs, was dead. She lay slumped on a floral, red Kashmiri carpet, clad in a blue kaftan with a yellow lining, her head at an odd angle from her body and a gruesome greyish tinge on her skin. A birthday card with an embossed picture of red roses sat on her chest, right next to a speckled, crimson flower from a gulmohar tree.
There was a faint smell in the room and it seemed familiar. Why in the world was it familiar? Smita’s fingers trembled as she pushed away a strand of hair away from her face. If the murder had happened before they moved in, would Karan still have insisted on moving in? Karan, she thought with a feeling of disquiet, liked being surrounded by the uber-rich. It was as if they formed a halo around him. He had never been at ease at their apartment in Delhi’s Sadanand Society, a middle-class colony in Paschim Vihar.
Smita looked around her. Luxurious teak wood furniture; soft, upholstered sofas; fragile, dancing figurines on peg tables; a photograph of Bollywood’s current heart-throb Pratique Khan in a silver frame; and a gigantic multi-coloured painting of horses – was it a Husain? There was a surreal quality to the scene, as if they had stepped onto a movie set. The woman who lived upstairs, the wide-eyed Neera Koshi, was a fellow spectator.
‘Pratique’s her son, you know,’ said Neera, tapping Smita’s shoulder.
Neera’s casual attitude grated on her and Smita turned away, feeling sick to her stomach. It was time to get out of here. But Neera held on to her arm, continuing in her high-pitched, nasal voice: ‘Don’t feel bad for her, yaar. She was a bad type, going around with all sorts of men, and I bet one of her exes offed her, in revenge. He knew it was her birthday for sure! He didn’t take any of her stuff, look, nothing is gone. Look at those stones on her fingers!’
There was a multitude of rings on Ria’s fingers. Smita had never seen such large diamonds in her life. There was a diamond snake ring with red rubies for eyes, a white gold ring with a cluster of diamonds and an engraved silver one. One ring in particular stood out – a pentagon-shaped one studded with diamond chunks and a large ruby at its centre. Around her neck was a thick gold chain, its glittering diamond pendant contrasting hideously with the purple bruise in the hollow of her throat.
A trickle of bile crawled up Smita’s throat. ‘I’m going home.’ …
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