The sun beat mercilessly down on the assembled crowd which had surrounded a house and its grounds. Over 300 people had thronged the site. To one side were parked two police jeeps and a van, with my car carefully parked in a shaded spot that diligent Sreedharan Pillai had found. Half a dozen policemen kept the crowd from getting close to where the excavation was under way. The DSP (deputy superintendent of police) and I sat in the shade of a mango tree on chairs commandeered from the house.
The site of the excavation was now a mere pile of bricks and laterite blocks. This had been a borma just a couple of hours ago, commonly used for firing bricks and tiles, among other things. But now it was just a pile of debris. An informant had stated that the borma was built recently over the grave of Sarasan, a missing person whose disappearance had raised a storm in the legislative assembly and precipitated a political crisis in the coalition government. The house belonged to a close confidant of the minister accused by his opponents of plotting the disappearance and killing of Sarasan, who had changed his political loyalties. Every tea shop and toddy shop in the locality was abuzz with authoritative accounts of the sordid Sarasan saga. Photographs of Sarasan which had appeared in local dailies showed him to be a handsome young man with a shock of curly hair inspired by film stars, and a carefully tended Ronald Colman moustache. Street corner meetings were held by rival political parties to sing praises of the deceased Sarasan, of the selfless service he had rendered to the ungrateful minister, and of the dastardly way his life had been snuffed out.
There were many colourful accounts of his death. One version had him kidnapped from his house in the dead of the night, gagged and carried slung from a bamboo pole on the shoulders of two men. This silent, deadly procession wound its way through the moonless night, past sleeping huts with their unsuspecting occupants, while Sarasan struggled futilely. At the seashore, a fishing net was wrapped around him, and he was thrown into the water. As bubbles rose to the surface, the perpetrators of the terrible deed turned their faces back to the shore and silently rowed back.
Another version had Sarasan flee for his life, pursued by a posse of hired killers. Being young and fit, he was able to outpace his pursuers, and would have soon been able to gain the safety of the public road and the police station just across the road when he made the fatal mistake of turning to look once again at the pursuing men. His foot caught a root and he was flung heavily to the ground. His pursuers swiftly overpowered and gagged him and bore him away to a distant spot where he was suffocated to death. A shallow grave was dug in the soft earth and Sarasan was laid to rest.
A third version, much favoured by the film aficionados among the local people, had Sarasan engage in a gallant combat with numerically superior opponents, knocking down a couple of them, while avoiding blows from the staffs wielded by them, the fight progressing well into the night, till he was finally overcome by weariness. According to this version, his opponents saluted the brave man’s courage before they dispatched him with a sharp knife.
The only fact that was indisputable was that Sarasan was nowhere to be found. He was missing, wiped off the surface of the earth, erased from existence. The fact that he was a close aide of the powerful minister was also well known. What was less clear from the evidence was whether there had been any falling out between the two, in circumstances that could have compelled the politician to wreak awful vengeance on the other. That such stories had caused acute political embarrassment to the beleaguered minister was evident, with not a day passing without a new lurid account of the disappearance of the luckless Sarasan. The case would have been consigned to the limbo to which all such unsolved cases are destined, had it not been for the fact that a split appeared imminent in the minister’s party.
The case of the missing Sarasan, which had slowly disappeared from the radar of the media, was magically revived, and stories started to fly thick and fast. Sarasan was said to have been spotted in various states, indicating that he was an intrepid traveller. These would have remained amusing had one report from an alleged eyewitness not claimed that Sarasan had been killed and buried on the premises of a supporter of the minister. To ensure that the evidence would never be discovered, the diabolical plotters had contrived to construct a borma above his last resting place, a strange mausoleum for the blameless Sarasan.
On receiving the report, the police conducted a preliminary inquiry, and appeared to be satisfied that there was sufficient grounds to investigate the matter further. They recommended that the remains of Sarasan be exhumed to complete the investigation into his death. It was on the basis of that report that I had ordered the exhumation of Sarasan’s corpse, reported to have been buried under the massive borma. And that was how we wound up sitting on a hot sultry afternoon in a baking compound, while a team of workers wielding pickaxes reduced the huge structure to rubble. As the borma came down, and the mound of rubble grew, so did the expectancy among the assembled crowd. They pressed forward to get a glimpse of the grisly remains, the women among them the most eager, elbowing and thrusting their way through the throng.
Soon, the pickaxes were replaced with spades and shovels, as the workers hewed their way below the baked surface of the earth. Clods of earth flew up and out of the huge ditch that was being gouged out of the spot where once had stood the borma. Finally, when the heads of the men digging had all but disappeared from view, a consultation was held between the officers present. It looked impossible for a small group of men to have dug a grave so deep, filled it with earth, and then built a borma over it, even if powerfully motivated to cover up a crime. After much discussion, it was decided to abort the exercise, and the crowd was ordered to disperse. They did so to the accompaniment of derisory comments about the effectiveness of the police and the government authorities. The women departed to their respective chores, chattering animatedly about having certainly seen a part of a hand or leg sticking out of the debris. The men appeared to ponder the weighty issue of whether mid-afternoon could be regarded as sundown for having the first drink of the evening.
The DSP and I sat watching the workers refill the large hole they had opened up. A form was filled in by a sub-inspector (SI), and checked by the DSP before handing it over to me to sign. I glanced through it, and affixing my signature, returned it to the SI. Deciding there was little point in remaining there any longer, I climbed into the car and was soon on my way back to Kollam.
L’affaire Sarasan refused to die down, despite the fact of the missing corpse. In fact, Sarasan missing appeared more potent than Sarasan dead and discovered. The legend of Sarasan grew in the days that followed. The political opponents of the minister put this to good use, and the fortunes of the minister appeared to take a turn for the worse. As the political storm inside the minister’s party gathered strength, Sarasan seemed to become an avenging angel, poised to smite his erstwhile mentor to the ground.
Then, one morning the people of the area read that Sarasan was discovered working as a cook in a little hotel in a town in Karnataka. Upon being accosted by the reporter, Sarasan had apparently refused to answer any question, and had beseeched the reporter to leave him alone in peace. The identity of the man in question did not appear to be in doubt. And thus, the ghost of Sarasan was finally laid to rest.
I have sometimes wondered about the person whose borma was demolished so rudely while the hunt for Sarasan’s corpse was in full swing. Could he not claim damages from the government for having destroyed his property?
Buy C. Balagopal’s take on administering the little districts of Kerala here.