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The case of the hanging sadhu November 16, 2017

Posted by globejam in Uncategorized.
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I wish I’d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference. So all I can tell you is why he was murdered“, said the guru. “So says the butler”, I thought to myself, having spotted my prime suspect number 1.

Earlier that day, a man who would not identify himself had called in to report a suspicious death at his ashram. Though this particular ashram was known to be quiet and trouble-free, suicides and murders were not altogether unheard of. They were usually hushed up as most of the politicians and many in my police force were ardent devotees of the resident guru. I was actually surprised that the chief inspector had asked me to look into it, as I am one of the irreverent few in the department.

I reached the ashram 20 minutes after I got the call. I waded through a sea of sadhus and sadhvis clad in dull pink and peeped through the window. The deceased was a sadhu hanging from the ceiling fan in his room. One end of his pink angavastram, a piece of cloth used to cover the torso, was tied to the fan head while the other was neatly wrapped around his neck. A stool lay sideways a short distance from his feet, as though he had kicked it away. Why they use the phrase “kicked the bucket” when there is a convenient stool available, I do not know. The small room was sparsely furnished. It had been padlocked from the inside when we arrived. We broke the door down and a quick inspection suggested it was most likely a suicide.

Except that the head of the Ashram had just come in and used the word “murder”. I sighed inwardly. These ashram cases, whatever the outcome, were invariably detrimental to an ambitious cop’s career. I would have been happy to mark it as a suicide and go home. Now, I had to open an investigation.

“Murdered?”, I asked him. His eyes widened a little bit as realization dawned, a little late. “…or suicided”, he finished lamely. “So, either he was murdered or he was ‘suicided'”, I ruminated. Looked like there was more than one murder happening here.

I asked everyone to step out of the room and closed the door behind me. There was an unseemly eagerness among the other sadhus to see their recently deceased brother. I told them all to go away as this was a police matter now. Most of them stood there rubbernecking to get a peek at the poor bloke through the window. So much for relinquishing worldliness. I looked meaningfully at the guru. He turned around, jerked his head and hmphed and his disciples reluctantly dispersed. Can’t really blame them, given there was so little excitement in their regular lives.

I asked the guru to remain in the ashram for questioning, sealed the room, positioned a constable outside the room to ensure no one had access to it and went looking for a telephone to call my boss. At the main ashram office was a guilty looking sadhu desperately trying to avoid making eye contact with me. The office telephone was on his desk. I went to him and whispered through the side of my mouth conspiratorially, “We got your call. We won’t tell anyone you called. Nod if you understand”. He nodded his head, albeit reluctantly. “What’s your name?”, I asked loudly. “Tejonanda”, he stuttered.

I asked him if I could use the phone. Not waiting for his answer, I picked up the receiver and dialed my boss and briefly explained the situation. Asked him if I should close the case as a suicide, in line with our standard practices. He was not amused. Apparently, there had been a recent fallout between the Ashram and the powers that be. I was given a free hand to arrest anyone I deemed a suspect. Some newsworthy arrests would be appreciated, he hinted. I thanked my boss for nothing and hung up.

I tried my luck with Tejonanda and asked him, “Did you kill him?”. “Who?”, he asked apparently bewildered. Obviously, a few cards short of a full deck. “That bloke you called about, who else?”. “Oh! Him? No”, he replied thoughtfully, as though he may have killed somebody else some other time, just not this guy. He did not look like a killer. So, I decided to let him be and went looking for the head honcho.

The guru’s room turned out to be spacious and tastefully decorated. He was there sitting on a gilded throne, dressed pretty much the same way as everybody else – a dhoti and angavastram, but otherwise bare-bodied. Only, his clothes were white silk with gold embroidered edges instead of the dull pink all the others were wearing. And lots of thick gold chains adorned his neck in place of the rudraksha malas that all the disciples sported. Three women were sitting at his feet. Unfortunately, not bare-bodied, much to my disappointment. He stroked his beard theatrically and directed me to the smaller chair next to him, obviously reserved for VIPs.

“Open and shut murder case”, I declared, as though I had all the evidence already. “Did you kill him?”, I asked for the second time that day. Never any harm in asking. He giggled, soundlessly and a little disconcertingly. For a few seconds, his whole body, including his flowing white beard, shook while his ears turned pink. When his mirth subsided, in an incongruously squeaky voice he admonished me gently for my temerity. He explained slowly, like talking to a dimwit, that neither he nor anyone of his disciples were capable of harming any other living creature, let alone commit murder. “We have all given up on worldly possessions and base feelings”, he proclaimed. “God, through well-wishers, provides us with food and essentials and everyone here does voluntary work. Barring the three sets of dhoti and angavastram we get each year, we own nothing at all”, he continued. I could not help but grin as I took in the fruits and chocolates tastefully arranged around him, the gold bracelets around his wrist and all the other trappings of every God man I had come across. If he noticed my ill-concealed incredulity, he did not acknowledge it. He turned to the sadhvis at his feet and delicately waved his hands and asked them to leave us alone. Once they had left the room, and closed the door after them, his tone changed and, rather brusquely, he asked me to wrap up the case quickly.

The guru, it appeared had a full deck. Obviously, not like our poor Dumbonanda at the office. I decided to play a repentant devotee. “Guruji”, I said at my obsequious best, “the winds have changed, as you know. My hands are tied. I have been asked to undertake a thorough investigation. It is not like earlier times. But you know all this, you are all knowing. Kindly tell this ardent follower of yours what to do and what you meant when you spoke to me earlier this morning”.

A little appeased, the guru gave me his version of the events. The dead guy, Jeevonanda, had been dipping his fingers into the ashram kitty. “I was informed by a few of my other devotees that he was not only pilfering money but also carrying stories, all untrue, about the ashram to some people who do not like us. I sent word yesterday that I knew what he has been up to and told him that I would visit his room this morning, to discuss reparation. Unfortunately, this morning’s prayer meeting was an extended one and I was delayed by an hour. In that time, I fear that somebody may have taken the matter into their own hands”, he said sounding quite reasonable. “Or he committed suicide?”, he continued uselessly, after having muddied the water unnecessarily in the first place. “If I had reached him earlier, this would not have come to pass. I was planning to forgive him and prescribe a penance”, he added, sounding even more reasonable. A lesser man would have fallen at his feet and basked in his beneficence. Not wanting to disappoint him, I praised him effusively for his kindness and wisdom and asked for the list of his devotees who knew about Jeevonanda’s transgressions.

From somewhere, in true God Man fashion, he conjured up a piece of paper and gave it to me and said “My assistant Gajananda will help you”. Written neatly on the paper was a list of five names.

I thanked him profusely, referred to him as “His Highness” and ‘Holiest of Holies”, and promised to do my best to close the case to his satisfaction. I might have overdone that a bit.

I sent the body for post-mortem, got my crime-scene team to start work on the room and exited the ashram to mull over the morning’s happenings.

Other than his name, I knew nothing of the victim, not what he did at the ashram, where he came from, how long he had been a disciple, nothing. I made a mental point to send someone from the station to collate the details.

Sri Hamsapreetam, the guru, on the other hand was clearly up to speed on all matters in the ashram. He knew it was murder even though somebody else had taken the trouble to make it look like suicide. He also had the motive and the means to carry out the murder. He continued to be my prime suspect number 1.

Suspects 2 to 6 were in the list that he had so readily given me. I would have to go back and meet with them, though it sounded like a red herring to me. I would also have to get in touch with the accounts department and find out who blew the whistle on the pilfering and how much was actually embezzled.

Back at my office, I switched on my laptop and did a google search for Hamsapreetam. Not surprisingly, he had more videos on YouTube than an established porn star. In one extremely popular video he was teaching his disciples levitation. It was both hilarious and sad to see grown men and women jumping up and down on mattresses under the benevolent gaze of a man who was clearly making fools out of them. In another, he was seen expounding on the virtues of capitalism at some world conference in some middle eastern country. There were many more videos with him hobnobbing with various world leaders and politicians. In most of them, there were two hefty sadhus always in the background.

There were also murmurs on the web about underworld connections, unsubstantiated rape charges, missing people, stories of excesses, disgruntled past devotees who felt robbed, wronged, and in one case, even sodomized. All par for the course for any self-respecting God man, and all probably true, but how much was germane to this particular murder, I did not know.

I decided to play by the book, for this was a delicate matter and who knew which way the wind would blow tomorrow. I asked the crime scene team to inventory the room as well as take all finger prints in the room, those of the people in the list, that of the guru himself and Tejonanda at the office. I also WhatsApp’ed snapshots of the two bodyguard sadhus to them so they could interview them as well. With 3000 sadhus and sadhvis in the ashram, I knew if I did not solve the case quickly it would be near impossible to close it. Already it was beginning to feel like I was trying to find that one guilty flamingo from an entire flamboyance.

Later in the afternoon, I got the preliminary report from the crime scene team and the forensics, for whatever it was worth. The coroner had given the likely time of death, subject to confirmation after the post-mortem, to be between 6:30 AM and 7:30 AM. He also surmised, again subject to confirmation, that the victim had died of asphyxiation and the ligature wounds on his neck were consistent with hanging. The victim’s fingerprints were all over the room as expected, along with several others, as yet, unidentified. No clear prints could be taken from the angavastram. Everything else looked normal, except that there were no fingerprints at all anywhere on the fan. Other than some white powder usually used to keep surgical gloves from sticking to each other, the fans were clear of all dirt and fingerprints. It appeared as though someone had wiped the fan clean while wearing gloves, which was the first concrete sign that this could very well be murder. Any residual hopes I may have harboured of closing this case as a suicide vanished.

The morning pooja that day had gone on from 6 AM to 9 AM, which meant that the Guru and most of the disciples had a strong alibi for the time of death. Lucky for us, the morning prayer meet had been videographed by a TV station working on a documentary and we had access to it. A brief glance showed the Guru to be there throughout the period. The camera man had helpfully panned over the audience multiple times, so that would eventually help us rule out suspects, at the very least.

I went back to the forensic report and flipped the pages back and forth listlessly. I knew the fingerprinting and other crime scene collections would result in naught. Most of the fingerprints and footprints collected in all probability belonged to the crime scene team members themselves. Any other remaining evidence would have long drowned in the white powder that they use, so liberally, when dusting for fingerprints. To say the crime scene would have been contaminated beyond belief was an understatement. I sighed and tried to distract my mind, for I was not willing to get my BP up about things that I had no control over.

There was a list of effects found in the room of the deceased. It was a fairly short list. A table, a chair, a stool, a cell phone, which was surprising, some underwear, 2 dhotis, 3 angavastrams, usual toiletries and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. I asked the team to get me the call details from the phone and then dozed off.

I woke up a few minutes later, sure that there was something I had missed out. The list of effects had slipped out of my hand and was lying on the ground. I bent down and picked it up and glanced at it again. My eyes ran down the short list a couple of times before I realized there was one angavastram too many. I called the constable who had made the list and asked him if the angavastram used in the hanging was included in his list. He went and checked and came back with 4 angavastrams. They looked identical, but I knew at least one of them did not belong to the deceased. I checked them closely and found that three of them had J1002 written on them in dhobi’s ink. The other one, the one used to hang the poor bloke, had P0012 written on it.

I called the ashram office and asked Tejonanda what J1002 on the angavastram stood for. He explained that the J was the first letter of the name of the person whose angavastram it was and 1002 actually identified the person. Angavastrams marked J1002 clearly belonged the victim. I asked him to give me the names corresponding to V1004, S0013, L1234, P0012 and H0044, so as to not reveal my hand. V1004 and L1234 did not exist, but P0012 was a Pushpananda. Tejonanda helpfully added that Pushpananda, one of the two constant companions of his esteemed guruji was taking the night train to Bangalore that day. Maybe he was not that dumb, after all.

I went through the video and found the guru turning to one of the two bodyguard sadhus, Pushpananda I assumed, and whispering something. And soon after that Pushpananda leaving the stage at 6:15 AM. The timing fitted.

Armed with these details, I asked the court to grant us permission to hold the suspect overnight. I also called the ashram and spoke to the guru, for I knew that the stooges in my department would have already informed him, anyway. I explained the situation to him, careful to leave out the bit about the guru talking to the suspect on video. He heard me out quietly and then said philosophically, “Too bad. I will find it difficult to replace him. We all have to make sacrifices”. What sacrifices, I wondered, as I hung up the phone.

I knew what I had was all circumstantial evidence that may not stand up in court. So, I decided to go to the ashram and arrest the suspect myself, in the hope of squeezing out a confession from him and possibly getting some proof of the guru’s complicity in all this. Unfortunately, I was too late.

It was déjà vu. I waded through a crowd of sadhus only to find that Pushpananda had already hung himself using an angavastram. Must be standard operating procedure at the ashram. Out of curiosity, I checked out the number on the angavastram. It read H0001. My question on sacrifices was answered. The guru had played his hand very well.

I was just kicking myself for not coming sooner, when I heard a familiar squeaky voice behind me say “I wish I’d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference”.

Epilogue

The press stitched it up neatly the next morning. A sadhu had been murdered. The police, under my command, had cracked the case quickly and identified the murderer, but before he could be arrested the murderer had killed himself.

I guess everyone was happy with the outcome. With the possible exception of the two sadhus that had been killed.

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