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The serial killer of Kittur

Exclusive publication of a short story by the Booker Prize-winning author of <em>The White Tiger</em

Tickets to see C S Zinwan, "India's most famous magician", were starting at forty-five rupees and fifty paise, which was four point five times the cost of a balcony ticket to the Sunday cinema matinee - the maximum my mother permitted for frivolous entertainments. On my way to school I stared with longing at the advertisements for his magic show; plastered side by side on the street walls as thickly as election posters, they multiplied a thousandfold the spectacle of the Zinwan's eyes, large and mascara-lined, hovering over a young woman in a gold brassiere who was tied to a table and being sliced in half by his Patented Surgical Machine.

Then my brother came down from Bombay after a two-year absence, and he too wanted to see the Patented Surgical Machine at work. My mother relented for his sake. Within a week he and I and she and my father were sitting in a darkened auditorium in the Engineer Beedi Building, waiting for the Zinwan to appear.

He walked out of a cloud of white dust, buttoned up to the neck in a long golden suit embroidered with Chinese dragons. He wore a red turban, and black lipstick, and when the hall went dark and the spotlight shone on him, his mascaraed eyes became every bit as entrancing as they were on the thousands of wall posters.

For half an hour we sat spellbound while he released pigeons from his gloves, told random members of the audience their name, age and most secret fantasy, and cured the stammering of a young virgin in the audience. A puff of smoke enfogged him; he vanished into the cloud, and then his disembodied voice declared that he was suspending the show for ten minutes, so that the faint-hearted, epileptics and asthmatics in the audience could leave before the pièce de résistance, the vivisection of the semi-naked golden woman.

Then the lights came on; the cloud was gone, and so was the Zinwan.

"Mass hypnosis . . ." my brother said, as he walked down the steps to the basement of the building. "That has to be it . . . there's no other way those people in the audience would have told him those things."

I was taking him, in the ten-minute intermission, to see the mural in the basement. The Engineer Beedi Building had been built after he went to Bombay, so he did not know the place at all. It was the biggest structure in town, seven storeys tall - like the first instalment of a fabulous modern city that was going to replace old Kittur block by block. Everyone now wanted to hold their meetings here, I told him, as we went down.

The basement was in complete darkness; my brother began slapping the wall for a light switch.

"There isn't any light here."

I struck a match.

I held it up for him so he could discover a painted frieze of satisfied farmers sucking on beedis in a green field. Pied cows, like things from England, lolled in the background, inhaling the aroma of tobacco with satisfaction.

"It's so weird . . . why is it in the basement?" he asked.

I began laughing. This was Kittur; there was no reason for anything. Had he been outside so long he had forgotten?

When we returned upstairs, we found that Mother had been looking for us. The Deputy Inspector General of Police - a distant clansman of ours - wanted to meet the celebrated jour nalist who had returned from Bombay. Would my brother please please please hurry up and impress him?

I remember seeing the DIG once rolling in to the Public Hospital at the Cool-Water Well Junction in his creamy-green Ambassador. It was the day of a murder, and a crowd thronged the entrance to the hospital, forcing the DIG to get out of his car and yell at them. He turned out to be a short, plump man with lumps of chest- fat that bulged under his khaki uniform, like concealed decorations for valour.

"Oh, Anand, I have been waiting for you for so long!"

He was now out of uniform, in a beige safari suit that was too small, and exposed a sliver of smooth, hairless paunch from every button-opening. His hair was oiled and parted down the centre. A pearl of spittle glowed at the point where his lips joined. He took my brother's hands in his palms, as if meeting a bosom buddy, and poured his heart out to him. My brother's fame as a "big-city man" made people all over Kittur do that: in a moment, they were confessing their deepest desires to him, the way they had stood up and told the Zinwan their private fantasies without any sense of shame.

Holding on to his hands all the time, the DIG confessed to my brother the great quest of his life - to leave Kittur for some foreign shore. A man of his talents and abilities, he said bitterly, was not truly appreciated in this little town. An idealistic mist obscured his eyes. America! The name was a heaven in itself. For years upon years, he had been sending out applications to the United States: applications to police departments, academies, private detective schools, even the Florida Coast Guard - all to no avail. America had no use for a man like him.

"Have you tried Canada?" my brother asked. It was only a joke on his part, but it set off a light in the DIG's face.

"Do you think there could be a role for me in the Horseback Corps -" he mimicked the motions of a man crouched on horseback, "- in the Mounties?"

He must have sensed some scepticism in my brother, for he launched at once into an account of all his achievements. Was my brother in town when he nabbed the two bank robbers who broke into the vault at the Union Bank at the Cool-Water Well Junction? That was an amazing achievement on his part. But the case of the Stone Murderer, now that was the best thing on his CV. Nabbing a serial killer. Surely that was something the Canadians would want to know about!

My brother only faintly remembered the case. He frowned, and turned his eyes to the shiny floor, where his shoe was rasping a black square.

"The Stone Killer . . . But did it really happen?"

The DIG's eyebrows rose in irate arches.

"Oh, yes, it was real. May 13 1979, the first murder was reported. June 21 1982, the last one. Raghavan liked to pick up a boulder lying by the roadside. He tiptoed up to homeless people or villagers. And then, he smashed their heads . . . like this - like this - like this -" The DIG counterfeited the actions of a man gnashing a skull with a large rock. It looked as easy as squashing a cockroach under a slipper.

"When I caught him he turned out to be a little fellow in a check-shirt. Looked like an office peon. He sat without a murmur and held up his little finger when he wanted to go to the toilet. I saw him hang for it. I did it all. I deserve the credit. Won't the Canadians be impressed?"

My brother was getting curious.

"And where did he operate, this serial killer?"

"Oh . . . out there . . . in the wilderness . . . beyond the city limits. Far beyond Valencia . . ."

My brother started. "That's where we live!"

"Maybe you'll have to arrest Mr Zinwan this evening for murder of that young girl in the golden bra," a passer-by joked as we heard the warning bell telling us the show was about to resume.

The lights dimmed, we rushed back to our seats, and the Zinwan began slicing the golden woman into shreds of raw meat.

The next day, my brother hailed me at school. He was wearing his stylish Bombay clothes - a blazing white cotton shirt and stone-washed jeans. I manoeuvred our chat to the most conspicuous spot in the courtyard, knowing that everyone would be dying to see the great Bombay- returned celebrity. I talked with him in a most familiar fashion, even venturing to punch him on his shoulders. The truth was, I hardly knew my brother any more.

When he took his bath, I rummaged through his suitcase and picked up those glossy books he had brought back, each emblazoned with some extraordinary name: Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa . . . I read the first line of each book, and my heart raced. "You have to get into the world outside," the books said. "You have to grow up and see what your brother has done. You have to leave Kittur at once."

"How beautiful all this is," my brother said, gesturing about his old school. It was a still morning. A single cloud lingered between the twin towers of the school. In the distance, the Arabian Sea blended into the blue sky.

Sitting me down on his favourite spot - a bench with a sea-view - he told me what it felt like, coming back to Kittur after all this time. A silent snow had fallen on everyone, frosting their hair, drying their features, crinkling their skins, bending them a little. He shuddered. How much of that silent snow now covered him, too?

"You should enjoy Kittur," he said, crunching his palms together, "while you can."

Mr Saldanha wandered around Kittur in a shabby shirt, yet with “inside information” about a dozen ventures

I saw him go up slowly to the padres' quarters.

Father Gonzales, who had taught him geometry and logic, kept him waiting for ten minutes. My brother walked about the padres' quarters - his old hangout when he had been the favourite student of the Jesuits. Stopping in front of the mirror, he ran his hand over his hair (what was left of it) and turned to one side to examine the wrinkles around his left eye. In a corner of the mirror he caught a white-robed figure descending the spiral staircase.

"Still admiring yourself, eh?" Father Gonzales quipped. "You haven't changed one bit."

In the parlour they talked for a while about life in Bombay, and journalism, and how everything in Kittur was changing so fast. "Does your mother still work for the Sisters of Compassion?" the padre asked.

"Yes and no. She no longer does full-time work. She's writing a thesis on social work, gathering data from the Sisters, and sometimes she helps them out with writing letters and forms, like before. " To which the padre said that she was a good woman, a good woman. The padre mentioned the capital drive.

"Do you remember the case of the Stone Murderer?" my brother asked suddenly. A plate of glucose biscuits had been spread out in front of him, and he broke one and dipped half of it into his tea.

"Oh, that," the padre responded. "That was a matter of quiet bravery, yes."

"It's hard to see the DIG being brave . . ." my brother thought aloud.

At this the padre became indignant: "The DIG had nothing to do with it. A woman nabbed the killer. One of us -" The padre caught himself. "I mean, a Christian woman. Mariamma, God-fearing mother of six, a regular churchgoer. She rolls beedis for a living for the Engineer Beedi Mills. It was she and her little daughter who caught the Stone Killer one night!"

"Do you have her address?" Brother asked, taking out his notepad.

"Is the great Bombay journalist on the trail of a story in our humble Kittur?" The padre was not at all displeased.

My brother shrugged, a bit defensively.

"Why not, father? It'll give me a reason to stay here a bit longer."

"Don't forget to contribute to the capital drive!" - the padre shouted, waving goodbye from the stairs.

That evening, at dinner, my brother said that the story of the serial killer had begun stalking him everywhere he went in Kittur. Riding the bus back from the school, for instance, he sees the conductor with his shirt open challenge a passenger: "Why should I be frightened of you? Are you Raghavan?" - and the other passengers laugh. In a roadside sugar-cane shop where my brother stops to savour again the favourite drink of his boyhood, the man squeezing cane in the machine says: "I crush sugar, not skulls - I'm no Raghavan!"

Next morning, on my way to school, I saw Brother, hands on the gate, chatting with Mr Saldanha. Mr Saldanha was one of those people who wandered around Kittur with no real job and a shabby shirt and yet with "inside infor mation" about a dozen different ventures. He had at various times been a self-taught veterinary doctor, the unpaid coach of a district-level cricket team, and a spy for the Ganapati Hindu Boys' High School when they were trying to poach the best Christian students. When he spoke he cocked an eyebrow at a sharp angle, giving him the look of a connoisseur.

"That guy, he was a Jack-the-Ripper, I say. He only killed women, you see. And -" Mr Saldanha's voice dropped - "women of a certain kind. You can't talk about things like that here in Kittur. You're so lucky you got out, went to the big city in time. I could have gone, too, but I was foolish in my youth."

Mr Saldanha gave my brother one more lead: the phone number of G E Roche, editor of The Coastal Times, the first English-language newspaper in Kittur. The paper had been running for only a couple of months now. After bowing unctuously to the great Bombay journalist, and urging him to call upon his services throughout his stay in Kittur, Mr Saldanha added a warning. Despite all the police hoopla and the claims made by the DIG, it was his personal conviction that the serial killer had never been caught. Raghavan was just a scapegoat. The real Jack-the-Ripper was still out there, harvesting skulls in the wide open fields of Salt-market-village.

The more he heard about this story, my brother told Mr Saldanha, the more excited he became. A serial killer caught by a peasant woman and her five-year-old daughter! He was sure he could sell this story to one of the big Bombay publications. There might even be enough material in this for a novel on Kittur.

"Is there nothing else in Kittur you find interesting?" - Mr Roche, the chief editor, asked him the next day. He was a small, white-haired man of clerical appearance who sat beneath a banner that said: "The Coastal Times: Newspaper for the New Kittur". Beneath Mr Roche's modest appearance lurked an awesome intellect, razor-sharp in judgement, my brother added later. "What a waste a man like that is, in Kittur!"

The editor brushed away my brother's apologies. Of course, he knew how tough it was getting people in the big city interested in a little town without the element of sensationalism. The Stone Killer was an excellent marketing ploy for a story on Kittur.

"To understand about the killer," he said, "you have to understand about these."

He held up to my brother's gaze a thin dark reed - a beedi.

"When your editor in Bombay looks down on Kittur what does he see? A town with just four industries. Cashews, textiles, tiles and beedis. Cashews are all grown in the Western Ghats and brought down here just to be exported, so they don't really count. Tiles are, of course, a sunset industry. In ten years, fifteen, they'll be gone. Textiles are new, and only in the industrial zone in the Bunder. Which means the principal industry of this town is beedis.

"The beedi boss, Mr Engineer, is the plutocrat of this town. He's the visionary behind this whole "New Kittur" movement - you know, the highfalutin name they're giving to the construction of a few skyscrapers. Half the politicians are in his pocket. The DIG, too, for sure." He paused. "This newspaper too is in his pocket," he said in a matter-of-fact way. "Have you seen the amazing Mr Engineer?"

"No, but his son is my brother's classmate. A real tightwad, he tells me."

"Wouldn't be surprised - just like the father." The editor lowered his voice. "That's off the rec ord, you get it? Anyway, up north, in Valencia, just about all the Christian women roll tobacco for the amazing Mr Engineer these days. They're even leaving the fields and agriculture to roll beedis."

"Yes, I know - we lost one of our servant girls to the beedi business a few years ago."

"Why not? Sit in your own home and roll beedis, rather than go out to a stranger's house, and sweep the floor. It's no choice for these women . . .

"Valencia, the whole neighbourhood, is one big honeycomb of tobacco-rolling units. All of a sudden, when the business expanded a few years ago, many workers gave up work in the villages around here to come out to Valencia. They slept out in the open. Three, four, five of them bundled up together under one rug.

Raghavan was just a scapegoat. The real Jack-the-Ripper was still out there, harvesting skulls

"Then, one day, one of the tobacco workers went to the police and told them everything. People were being killed at night. Skulls were being found, smashed open by a boulder. Then another came forward, then another. Soon everyone was reporting smashed skulls. I saw the photographs, which came every week. It was as if we were staring at the pawprint of a beast, left over a trail of opened heads."

"How many were there?" My brother looked up from his notepad.

The editor shrugged his shoulders. "The police said fourteen, which means in reality, what? Twenty-eight? Fifty? Who knows, who will ever know? The true facts of this case have yet to be ascertained. What we do know is this . . . in 1979 one of the migrant workers went mad, and became the Serial Killer, and killed people till 1982."

On the way out, the editor shared an interesting titbit with my brother. Off the record, again, of course.

"You know, during the time when the serial killer was rampant, the DIG was so worried, that was when he began to have this obsession about leaving the country."

When my brother got back home, he and I agreed that the next thing was to see the woman herself: the one who had caught the Serial Killer.

It had rained all day long, but the sun came out in strength towards evening. I caught the Number 5 bus after school and headed out all the way into Valencia, past the Double Gate. I had never been this far from home before, and had to ask the conductor to let me know when we got to the beedi workers' settlement.

The settlement was a mess of mud and water. The rain had gathered in large holes on the ground, where it made puddles that were shaped like molars. On the walls of the settlement, soggy advertisements for C S Zinwan's magic show were peeling off together.

Ten minutes of searching, and I found my brother. The sight filled me with alarm. The guy was sitting on a boulder, his head high, giggling helplessly. In his hands he held the remnants of a beedi, which he tossed away when he saw me. Then, with the smoke clouding the chambers of his brain, he looked upwards and laughed.

I sat beside him and looked up with him. A crown of coconut palms was all I saw overhead, but he told me he was looking at the roof of paradise at that moment.

"How insane," he said after a few moments, when he had calmed again, "that I had to leave Kittur and come back before I realised how beautiful it was." Beyond the settlement, we saw the land divided into irrigated fields, partitioned by lines of coconut trees. The fields, flooded with the morning's rain, were like long, polished mirrors; they doubled the spectacle of sunset.

Black dots of birds wheeled in great circles around the sun, like a line of ants running amok about a cube of sugar. We searched for a place to sit. Under the shade of a banyan tree, spots of sunlight twinkled on a pile of dried coconut fibres, like a magical spell being cast on the pile. In the end, we just sat down on the ground.

"It's all her fault - Mother's. She makes us lead such sheltered lives . . . Can you draw a map of the town? Do you know anything about Kittur?"

He lit another beedi.

"C'mon, smoke one - Mother will never know."

I shook my head.

"She's gotten into you too deeply."

He blew smoke out. "I never noticed how everyone in Kittur smokes these things," he said, holding it in between his third and fourth finger, as people in Kittur do, and sucked hard.

He got up slowly, and searched for a stone by the roadside.

"So that's what it felt like . . . to be the killer."

Heaving the stone up, he smashed it on an imaginary head on the ground.

"There! I've killed one!"

I joined the game, putting my hands around a boulder and letting it fall on an imaginary skull.

"I've killed one, too!"

Brother shouted; he had smashed his second homeless person.

We had knocked off six each - and I was lifting the boulder to take the lead in the race - when a spasm of pain twitched in my back. The pain spread and spread, a network of cracks on a shattering glass.

He put me in an auto-rickshaw and packed me off home. When my brother got back home, I was lying in bed. My father had diagnosed my back problem as the first outburst of an inherited condition of a weak spine - and prescribed a full day of immobility.

"Well, what happened?" Mother demanded. "Did you get the story from Mariamma?"

My brother drew his feet up on the sofa and sighed. "She wouldn't talk to me."

Mariamma was a poor, old, Christian woman with a purple sari and eyes that burned with deep suspicion. My brother admitted that he had spent too long in Bombay and had forgotten about the people of Kittur. He'd made a tremendous mistake with Mariamma: he offered her money for her story.

Mother looked appalled. She held her palm to her cheek for a minute.

"What a stupid son I've raised."

Mother disappeared from home that day. We found her back in the house, dead tired, at sunset. She had been up to something; her eyes twinkled mischievously. Until dinner she said nothing. Then, somewhat melodramatically, she said: "I know what your Stone Murderer looked like. I spoke to Mariamma today."

Out of love for her stupid elder son (as she put it), she had used all her connections with the Sisters of Compassion to get the interview. One of the Sisters coaxed Mariamma to come up to the mission and talk for three hours in the afternoon. Over a glass of tea, Mariamma had told my mother the whole story, pantomiming with her hands to show the action.

It was in the middle of the night. Patter-patter-patter, the rain came down outside. She had put little Sylvie to sleep and turned off the light. There had been no man in the house since her husband had fallen into a vat of acid at the fertiliser factory two years ago, so Mariamma slept lightly. Now someone was outside the hut. She woke Sylvie. The two went up to the window, Mariamma picking up the pestle she used to grind rice into idli flour. They saw the man walking about with a stone in his hands. He went into the house. She knew the rice pestle was out there. She waited for him to go into the hut, and then - she made her arms big - she swung the pestle on his head. An hour later, the police vans, jeeps, everything came there.

"The police gave her much more trouble than the Killer had. They took her into town, told her to sign forms she could not read, and made her lose two days' wages at work."

"Where is the pestle today?" Brother asked.

"She has it at home. She says she still grinds rice with it. She'd like to get rid of it, but she can't afford to."

My mother said she had long thought that those struggling women of Valencia, raising children by themselves, were the true heroes of Kittur. It was to be more like them that she left behind the life of a housewife at the age of forty-five, and began work on a PhD.

“Everyone wants to get out of here,” I said, with more bitterness than I knew existed inside me

The monsoons were ending. It was time for my brother to go back. The DIG was celebrating his mother's death anniversary, and we went up to his house to attend the ceremony. When we got there, there was a buzz about the place: C S Zinwan was there. He was a tall man. His eyebrows had been stylised into pointed arches. He still wore a faint mask of make-up, like Michael Jackson did. He had been asked to explain the mystery - how had he chopped up that girl in the golden dress so convincingly that everyone in the auditorium assumed they were witnessing murder, only to make her reappear whole and hearty, a minute after the operation was done? - and he was giving away parts of the solution cryptically.

"Magic is a gift. It all comes from up there," and he raised a finger enigmatically, making everyone turn to the ceiling.

"This is the most beautiful house I've seen in Kittur," my brother murmured. A pot-bellied Ganesha, an antique stone statue, stared down at us from a corner of the ceiling. Glazed sandalwood trunks, brought up from estates in the Western Ghats, gleamed by the side of upholstered sofa sets; bronze figurines stuffed the glass cases of the cupboards.

Why was this man so desperate to get out of our town? - my brother asked. What could Canada possibly offer him above this?

"Everyone wants to get out of here," I said, with more bitterness than I knew existed inside me. "I want to get out, too."

The DIG came by suddenly. He had just been performing the funeral rites, and his body was redolent of sandalwood and ash.

"Did you find out about the Mounties?" he demanded. My brother explained to him the difficulties of entering the Canadian system with an appropriate visa, the difficulties of obtaining one . . . "I'll do everything I can from Bombay to get you a visa," he said soothingly.

A great sadness fell on the DIG's face as he listened to my brother. His eyes glazed over. In his mind he seemed far away, clambering over snowy peaks on chestnut mares in a glowing red uniform.

Mr Roche, the editor, was one of the guests there, and my brother brought him up to date with events. "What about Mr Saldanha's theory . . . that the Killer is still loose?"

Mr Saldanha was an idiot, the editor snapped. Raghavan hanged. The editor stuck his tongue out and jabbed at an invisible noose above his head. That was the end of the matter. Mr Roche scooped the lunch buffet into his plate with rapid thrusts of his forearm and began eating like a starved man. Rich food had the same effect on him as alcohol had on other people. His mood changed: he loosened up and blabbered.

"Although . . . in this world, who ever knows? The real killer might still be out there, yes, possible, possible . . . But tell me, are you going to be writing about the Stone Killer of Kittur?"

"I think not. You see, my mother promised Mariamma there would be no more publicity: that was a condition of hearing the story. Maybe one day, after Mariamma is dead, I'll write it all as a novel."

"That day may not be too long away, unfortunately," the editor said.

"What do you mean?"

"It's almost a certainty, given the amount of tobacco-rolling she does, that Mariamma will get lung cancer soon. Go to the Havelock Henry District Hospital, and you'll see bed after bed of women who work at Mr Bhatt's beedi factory lying there, waiting for cancer to take them away. You see, tobacco is the real serial killer around here. The wealth of New Kittur is being built on the corpses of those women of Valencia."

"I've missed my story, haven't I?" my brother said, moodily. But he cheered up after a few more bites. "I'll get it the next time," he said.

"Next time?" the editor mumbled. "There won't be a next time! You'll come back in five years, and Kittur will be -" He swished his hands fatalistically. "All the young men will have -" He swished again. "It'll be a ghost town."

My brother knew I was sulking, because I was upset he was leaving for Bombay the next day and I was not, so after he got his drink from the DIG, he took me out to the verandah, and let me sip on his scotch-and-soda in secret. It burned in my throat and then vapourised up through my nostrils into my brain; my head felt light, and I began to giggle. My brother was in a panic; he told me to shut up, or Mother would come out to investigate, but I couldn't care. For the first time in my life I felt free. The palm trees in the DIG's garden swayed in a blur of glossy green over my head, and the clouds glowed with incandescence. It was as if I had been given the thousand eyes of C S Zinwan; everything glittered and became beautiful around me, and Kittur seemed the finest town on earth to live in, and I wanted to go nowhere else, and be no one else.

© Aravind Adiga, 2008

Aravind Adiga was born in Chennai in 1974. He read English literature at Columbia University and Magdalen College, Oxford and then worked for the Financial Times and Time magazine. His debut novel, "The White Tiger", won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza