On the dawn Abu went missing, his mother was patiently counting the last few grains of rice clattering at the bottom of a battered aluminum container she held more precious than her home. He was the ninth child from the district to have gone missing, but Syeda didn’t know that yet. She wasn’t keeping count.

Sub-inspector Akhil Gadkari was; eight children had been found murdered in the past six months. The day the first body turned up in the small west Indian town three months ago, Gadkari had a head cold. His wife had just told him that she would like to go live in Mumbai with their three-year-old daughter because the child needed to go to a proper school. She could live with her parents rent free and her husband could come visit on his days off. Gadkari didn’t object because he knew the ramshackle local elementary school that fell apart every monsoon wasn’t for his daughter. But the police officer was distraught that morning and the cold didn’t help.

It was a little boy, seven or eight, but small for his age. The skin on his feet was charred. The rest of his naked body unsullied. There was no external sign of trauma, sexual or otherwise. The child’s mouth was messy, however. Some reddish-black, gooey substance was oozing out of it. Standing near a culvert cutting through a field of sugarcane, Gadkari had this impossible vision of the child falling asleep after bingeing on chocolate. Except, it had not. His mouth was packed with mud. The corpse looked only a few hours old and was glistening after a splash of rain. 

“Throw a cordon around. The onlookers should not cross the line, should not. Is that clear?” Gadkari had barked at a constable. And then, as if waking from a dream that made him see things he did not want to, he had walked through the field, eyes down, the stalks of unripe sugarcane stabbing him like time that was running out. 

When he got the forensic report a week later, Gadkari learnt that the child had been strangulated within the preceding 24 hours of his death and the mud had been put in his orifices post-mortem. The killer had set the body on fire but the thermal damage wasn’t extensive. The blaze had been put out within minutes.  

Within weeks, a second body was found on the other side of the town. A farmer looking to sell his land had come to get proper bearings and had found the body. This time, there was no fire damage but all the orifices were sealed with mud. It was a dry day, spent, and harsh after a bout of torrential rain.  

The children came from dirt poor families and had many siblings. They were not instantly missed. In each case, the body was found within 24 hours of disappearance and the parents had no idea who would want to kill them. The usual suspects were rounded up and pumped for information, not very politely, but the police couldn’t make a headway.

Gadkari was in his thirties. His swarthy, solidly built six-foot-two frame and bulging forehead with a mane of thick hair gave the impression of a gorilla who could have played college football at some point. He had—he had been on the university team and had dreamt of playing national. And he did resemble a gorilla, a “thinking gorilla, if you will,” as his wife tended to say when she was in a playful mood. As a police officer, Gadkari realized criminals responded better to questions when the interrogator looked like him. Usually, his presence was enough and when it wasn’t, the constables were happy to help. But people generally had the good sense not to call him “gorilla” to his face.   

The station house officer of a semi-rural police station, Gadkari dealt mostly with hushed-up deaths from domestic violence, interminable land disputes and occasional armed robbery that targeted wealthy landowners. His deputy, Hiten Lagu, was an assistant sub-inspector who was determined to qualify as a university lecturer and leave behind the life of a rural policeman always at the beck and call of clear-minded people who had graduated to politics after a life of crime. The constables were locals, veterans of the provincial police service and generally advised their bosses on how things worked in small towns.

It was Lagu who had alerted him to a pattern. Bodies had turned up in neighboring districts too. The profile was similar—kids from hardscrabble families with many siblings; minimum wage-earner parents who largely left their offspring to their own devices; children, Gadkari suspected, who would walk away happily with a stranger promising a treat because they were almost always hungry.

Lagu, on one of his rounds of the district headquarters to push for a transfer, got chatting with a sub-inspector from a neighboring semi-rural police station. While waiting to pick up paperwork, the other officer started expressing frustration with the way a child homicide was being handled.

“This is not how one investigates murder. Any murder. Oh yes, we are no Scotland Yard, and our facilities are rudimentary, granted. But not to follow logic when one should is a fallacy not just for a police officer but anyone. What do you think?” The lanky man with a cut on his cheek like a prizewinning fencer gone to weed, slightly older than the bespectacled Lagu, had let it out with such somber consternation that it seemed he had a lisp. A couple of children had been found murdered in their jurisdiction and his senior officer, he felt, was fumbling.

Lagu pricked up his ears, flattered at this unexpected attention in a dismal hall where dirty, cobwebbed squares of glass set in rusting grille resisted natural light even in the height of summer and sooty corners with dunes of discarded cigarette butts at their bases seemed like altars to hazy truths that must not shine out.

He asked a few pertinent questions and after another 10 minutes or so, was convinced it was the same serial killer with whom they were dealing. “I think I should let Gorilla know,” Lagu told the sub-inspector, his lips pressed, eyes alert behind the glasses.

Gadkari was pleasantly surprised to learn of Lagu’s initiative. After making a few calls around the district and armed with specifics, he decided it was time to pay a visit to the superintendent of police. A taskforce was soon set up and since Gadkari had taken it upon himself to join the dots, he was made the coordinator. He coordinated. But as months rolled on and more bodies turned up, nothing really got done other than filing evidence correctly—Gadkari was particular about that—and ensuring the paper trail was immaculate. Lagu, the aspiring professor, took care of the finer details. The police super kept up pressure, but they really didn’t have a suspect. No clear motive could be established, and no one had seen strangers hanging around the children in the days leading up to the murders.

Eventually, a politician seeking greater glory decided to weigh in.

On the morning Abu went missing, Gadkari found phones ringing non-stop at his station and outside, reporters parked under shady spots. Some were filming with their cell phones. Five families were holding a solemn demonstration, placards in hands seeking, mainly, justice for their dead children whose bodies had been found weeks, sometimes days, apart. Slogans were put together with bold letters painstakingly cut out from newspapers. They were pasted on placards fashioned out of discarded cardboard. The parents demanded to know, among other things, if the police would have been this passive had moneyed people’s children went missing. One even demanded a probe into police passivity. Of course, the parents had help from the opposition politician whose aide had sought them out, rallied them and corrected quite a few spellings.

The families mostly held low wage jobs and stayed borderline hungry. Strangers thrown together by incomprehensible tragedies, they were wary of each other, competing cunningly for the politician’s attention. His aide had persuaded them that this was a political issue and that they needed to canvass media attention. No one was fooled as a council vote was coming up. Not all families that lost a child came up to demonstrate.

But the parents who did were uncomfortable, unused as they were to well-meaning attention from neatly dressed people who enunciated words clearly and held eye contact. Constables bearing the heartbreaking news to their homes had been brusque and at the morgue, where they had been taken to formally identify their murdered children, there had been an air of apathy. This was a country of 1.3 billion and people went missing and turned up dead all the time.

That newsy morning, Gadkari watched the politician’s aide detach himself from a complement of stringers and walk over to the silent group of parents. It was nearing seven in the morning and the wage-earners had to go to work. The sun was beating down hard and Gadkari was glad of the damp confines of the police station whose roof leaked when it rained hard. The families neatly stacked the placards and a few women volunteered to divide the load. Yes, I need an orderly retreat, Gadkari told himself and turned around to holler for piping-hot tea. Just as he was about to light a cigarette, a cry rang out. A woman with a toddler in her arms had turned on her heels. Her eyes were flashing and her hair was flying. She beat her chest with a fist and as her eyes bore into Gadkari’s, she cried, “Die! Die! Die!”

Cellphones immediately started rolling. This drama was impossible to miss and would make headlines, finally.

Surely enough, by lunchtime Gadkari had fielded calls from the district superintendent of police and the divisional commissioner. Yes, they did read the reports sent out periodically from the police station but for how long was this going on exactly? So, if children were turning up dead for close to six months now what was the officer doing about it? Did he have plans to solve the murders anytime soon or should the brass assume he wished to stay banished in the sticks?

Gadkari took it all calmly. He was used to it. He had spent 10 years on the force and had learnt that staying procedural was the best policy. On a sub-divisional posting five years ago, he had tried to persuade a superior female officer working on a murder that nothing was more important than following the evidence. The victim was a long sufferer of domestic violence, but the family was well connected. His superior officer was part of an elite cadre that had qualified for the job after cracking a tough national recruitment exam, still something of a novelty for a woman in post-Independence India. Gadkari had hoped her personal emancipation would oblige the young woman to be empathetic and objective.

The case never went to court and the sub-inspector found himself transferred to this small town. It was two-and-a-half hours by train from Mumbai and developers insisted on selling the town as a suburb of India’s financial capital. Commuters, few of whom owned cars, believed them because rent in Mumbai proper was among the highest in the world. The suburban fantasy calmed the middle-class who could understand engineered delusion—they were engineering it every day—at home, at work, even during long, soul-deadening commutes on local trains.

When things had quietened down a bit towards the afternoon, Gadkari had an unusual visitor. He heard a commotion outside. One constable seemed particularly agitated. There were raised voices and then a sound like pebbles clattering on a polished floor. It was a woman’s laughter, loud and jeering, the absence of levity in it so jarring that it sounded almost like a warning.

Gadkari rushed out of his office to find two constables trying to push a bare-foot, saree-clad woman down the front steps of the police station. She had her back to Gadkari and was resisting furiously, laughing that strange laugh.

“Stop this at once. What is happening here?” He barked.

The constables let go of her and as the tall woman turned to face him, Gadkari drew a deep breath. Dark and slender with large eyes, her saree was torn and shapely breasts with purple areolas had swung free from a blouse that had lost its buttons in the mêlée. Over the following half a minute that she took to arrange her clothing, Gadkari gathered three things: the woman was not unused to frank, appraising glances at her private parts from strange men; her rough, muscled hands with veins standing on the skin indicated she worked as some sort of a laborer and thirdly, she was in deep distress—her pupils were dilated and her limbs were shaking.

Gadkari motioned at her to follow him and asked a woman constable to bring in a glass of water.

The woman declined to sit and kept standing. She appeared calmer as she sipped and eventually crouched down on the floor. Gadkari waited. Then she put down the glass, covered her face with her palms and started weeping. As Gadkari waited, he felt hollow. No, not again, he whispered to himself. Not another child.

“I am Syeda. My son Abu is missing since morning.”

Syeda’s home was a shack, put together with discarded packing plastic, assorted durable rubbish and planks of rotting plywood. People have been known to be willing to tear off each other’s limbs when scavenging for such building material and Syeda had slept thrice with a shriveled watchman for the privilege.

On one occasion, he had insisted on pushing inside her a long, rough cucumber and when Syeda had protested, he merrily burnt her with cigarettes. She knew better now and when she had to, worked with a pimp. The johns treated her better than the men who would not pay.

Syeda had a day job. She mostly worked on constructions sites dotting Mumbai’s suburbs, part of a multilingual gang from all over rural India who didn’t understand each other well enough to hold considered, comforting conversations.

The women had a thing in common, though. Most of them had taken out their ovaries—the scouts who worked for contractors insisted that they had the surgery first. It was heavy work, lugging construction material up and down slender bamboo grids that always looked on the verge of breaking but impossibly, held. Like their lives. Periods would put them out of circulation for days during the busy season and no one could afford that.

Most had been married young and the majority was single mothers, lugging their hungry young children like ragged luggage from one construction site to another until some were old enough to run away, or to start selling themselves or simply picked to join the gang as child laborers—the third considered a far better fate.

Syeda was hoping Abu would soon be chosen when he went missing.

As Gadkari watched the mother give her statement to the woman constable, Sheila, he had a deep sense of missing something significant. Syeda said she worked on a building site just outside the town. She had a hut there like other laborers and shared it with her son. No, she wasn’t from around here. Her gang had been working in Raigad before this assignment.

Raigad? Gadkari sat up. Didn’t something weird happen there recently?

Syeda was saying the child’s father had been absent from their lives since Abu was a baby. No, of course, she didn’t have a photo of Abu, they barely had clothes on their backs. She said she had waited until the departure of the demonstrating parents so that the police would give her their full attention. She just wanted to see the top policeman and state her case, but the constables were unnecessarily vile.

The woman constable kept her distance from Syeda, her nose decidedly wrinkled. At the mention of constables, she shot the other woman a withering glance and their gazes held for a couple of seconds. The sub-inspector was quick to spot the silent exchange and was nonplussed as a smile—like a newly honed knife—slowly appeared at the corners of the daily wager’s mouth.

Then it hit him. Suppressing a smirk, he reminded himself to have a quiet chat with Pawar, the more aggressive male constable, later.

Before leaving the station, Syeda sought permission to approach Gadkari’s desk. As she stood barely a couple of feet away, he was hit by a pungent, oily odor that was also putrid. The police officer realized why the woman constable was maintaining her distance from the overwrought mother.

“Sir, that woman is crazy,” Pawar sputtered in rage when Gadkari summoned him to his office after Syeda had left the police station.

“How do you know? She moved to these parts with a construction gang barely six months ago,” the sub-inspector persisted.

“Well, she is well known,” Pawar said after a pause. “She moonlights as a hooker. Not an easy feat given how she smells.”

“So, that’s her sin? She has a side hustle, so what? How does that interfere with her right to have the disappearance of her son investigated?” The superior officer was stern.

“Well, there is no son, Sir!”

“No son? Then who did she report as missing? She seemed distraught too.”

“Well, there might have been a son somewhere in the past. I think he went missing and that messed with her head. She joined this construction gang less than a year ago. None of them has seen her son. She goes on about having a son at home—she buys provisions for two, cooks for two, occasionally buys clothes for a little boy but, really, no one has seen her son. The gang foreman doubles as her pimp. The woman is good looking and in demand. He says he has to buy her a whole bar of soap every time before setting her up with a client.”

“I am sure he manages to deduct the necessary cost,” Gadkari commented drily. “But the point is, if that is the case, why is she making a formal complaint now? She said she joined the gang in Raigad about half a year ago, right?”

“Right, Sir. She is a strange woman. Women on the gang steer clear of her. There is gossip that she practices sorcery with bones.”

“Bones? What bones?”

“You know, the kind that sorcerers and so-called healers keep handy to heal people or bring them harm. She may be a looker, but that bitch is not right in the head.”

“Really, Pawar! Okay, let me make a few calls. Stand by please for further orders. And please send sub-inspector Lagu in.”

Pawar saluted and left the room.

Gadkari remembered then why the mention of Raigad had struck a chord. A child’s body had been snatched from the district hospital there and never found. It had triggered a bust-up at the divisional level.

When Lagu arrived, Gadkari asked him to get on the phone and find out if any child of Abu’s age had gone missing in Raigad within the past year. Lagu reported back in a couple of hours, excitement barely suppressed. Abu Omar, six, son of Syeda Omar, he read from a handwritten note, had been found murdered about eight months ago at a remote construction site in Raigad. Son of a construction worker, he had been snatched from a building site in Ratnagiri district. The child was sodomized and strangulated. Curiously, his body went missing from the district morgue. The case had remained unsolved. A month or so after the incident, bodies of two children were fished out of the well of a remote farm. Their father was the deputy foreman of the site where the murdered boy’s body had been found. Those murders also remained unsolved.

Gadkari was listening intently and as Lagu finished speaking, his mind raced to the morning of the day the first body was found in his jurisdiction. The corpse was fresh, and putrefaction had not yet started. Yet everyone at the crime scene had hands over their faces, trying to breathe through their mouths. Gadkari had a head cold that morning with little or no sense of smell. It was written in the forensic report that the body had been doused with kerosene before being set alight. The police officer had smelt kerosene that very afternoon infused with something else that was nauseous. After ten years on the force, Gadkari knew it was the stench of death.

It took the police hours to corroborate Syeda’s movements over the past months. Her foreman was dragged to the police station. He said the woman had turned up at his site one evening, months ago, smelling of kerosene and balancing a putrid gunnysack on her head. She was hardworking enough and seemed willing to please. The foreman took her on. The only problem was that Syeda got terribly worked up whenever stray dogs kept running away with her precious sack and created a scene every time. In fact, there had been a real bust-up that very morning. The foreman suspected her of poisoning no fewer than six strays.

He was questioned for eight hours.

Dawn was breaking when Gadkari and Lagu established that the father of each child murdered in the past months had paid for rough sex with Syeda. Gadkari’s chest heaved. He closed his eyes and found himself back on the sugarcane field where a child with mud slapped on his orifices slept in final disbelief. He felt the bereaved mother’s stabs of incredulous grief on his back, on his head and reeled in fragrant, fresh air into his lungs like a desperate angler. Standing under a Peepal tree that lent an ambiguous shade to his police station when summer sucked the nostrils dry and thirsty birds dropped dead from the sky, Gadkari wept for Syeda and Abu and millions of lost children whose faces their mothers summoned in rage and revenge and in defiant tenderness. Because the sun still shone and the earth still smelt of promise as they endured and endured, those incidental souls who cried inward, fists clenched and eyes pleading, their dignity stripped and beliefs trampled by fate and enfeeblement that forced faceless men to their knees, had their backs to the wall and had women spread-eagled against their will, their spirit seeping like roadkill blood. The sub-inspector wept because he knew that when these men and women and their children rose from the ashes, they were already shadows, out of reach in a way simple, assumed morality could not make sense of.

As the horizon reddened, turning around, his back straight and his gaze steady, Gadkari signaled to his men to get ready.   

Syeda’s shack was just wide enough so that she and her six-year-old could spoon without holding their breath. A few articles of clothing hung on a line rigged neatly across its width and one packing box placed sideways held her kitchen essentials. A rusty mirror captured shards of early light as shy as a little boy and so solemn that it sliced memories. When the police came for her, brandishing sticks and guns, Syeda was crouching in a corner. Holding little Abu’s skull on her lap, she was singing a lullaby. The fraying mother could only salvage the cranium, the strays had run away with the bones.

The mongrels had finally won.


Anisha Bhaduri is an award-winning journalist and writer from Kolkata, India, who lives and works in Hong Kong. She has won a British Council prize, and has been longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and nominated for Best of the Net 2022 for her first short story published in North America. Her work of literary fiction was first published by Random House India in a bestselling anthology. Her debut crime novella, Murders in Kolkata 26, was published by Juggernaut Books. In recent months, her short stories have appeared or have been accepted for publication across four countries in Joyland MagazineTampa ReviewHarpur PalateTouchstone Literary MagazineSonder Magazinethe other side of hope, and Kitaab.