Green Room by Janhavi Acharekar

Excerpted and adapted, with permission, from Wanderers, All, HarperCollins India, 2015.




For Murli, the inspiration was Charles Forjett, the maverick British officer who had led the force with great courage and panache in the previous century, the man who laid the rules and the very foundation of the police administration in Bombay as it is known today. Tales were told and paeans sung of this dashing hero and demi-god in uniform, who conversed fluently in multiple Indian languages and was a hero for the British and locals alike. There were whispers that he was the illegitimate son of a European army officer and a Kathiawadi woman – the reason, perhaps, for his Anglo-Indian features and his softness towards the natives. Reason, also, they say why he was never accorded the status of a full-fledged commissioner. He was an ‘acting’ commissioner instead, letting his native genes demean long years of dedication to the force.


Like Forjett, Murli too was a misfit – an Indian in European garb at times and a European of Indian complexion at other times – flitting from one to the other easily and yet, not without conflict of loyalty. What appealed to Murli the most was Forjett’s contribution to criminal intelligence by way of the theatrical. Known to lurk in the alleys and dark by-lanes of the city in native dress to gather information, he was a man after Murli’s own heart. Taking on the mantle from Forjett, not long after, was Commissioner Kennedy who was known to occasionally roam the city in an Arab’s outfit or a burqa, accompanied by one of his men. It was somewhat like the Indian kings and rulers of ancient times who wandered among their unsuspecting subjects in disguise to inspect the reality of their administration and to quell their own fears and assuage fragile egos.


Nearly half a century after Forjett’s death, Murli decided to revive his spirit. Among the first changes that he introduced in the police force as superintendent was quite literally, a changing room or rather, a disguise room for his men. He called it the ‘green room’.


It was not unusual for Murli to wander about in the narrow gullies of Bhendi Bazaar before Muharram, disguised as a Pathan or as an opium or cocaine addict outside dens of vice and pleasure. He was as comfortable in his various costumes as he was in his uniform. He would enjoy his transformation from a venerated senior officer to anonymity so much that it appeared as if he looked forward to living his life vicariously through these fictitious characters that he whisked out of thin air, playing out their non-existent lives with brilliance and ease until the case was solved and it was time to create a fresh new character. In fact, so beguiled was he with the efficacy of this method that he had trained those under him in this art of role-playing. Often, even when he was busy gathering information about his suspects, he also imparted advice on acting skills – about getting the accent right, about the right occasion for an animated or an impassive expression or about perfecting the art of slipping into the shadows effortlessly when required. In these times of mufti, he enjoyed the drama that accompanied the profession – the identification followed by the serenade of the suspect. And finally, the moment of truth when the unsuspecting criminal was trapped in his own turf after which there was much pleading, the attempt to flee, the comic timing, the hysteria, the silence, the begging for forgiveness, the interrogation and the occasional violence required of authority.


Among his more memorable ‘dress rehearsals’, as he called them, were those that required him to spend time at the gambling dens. Suspicious that those with weak morals among the lower ranks must have sealed their lips with the illicit money of the very dens they were duty-bound to dissolve, he often set out in the middle of the night to assess the situation for himself. He wore a long and straggly beard on these nocturnal excursions and even had a pair of bushy eyebrows reserved for occasions when he did not wear a traditional turban. Adept at card-playing and rolling dice, he was seen as a regular at the secret hideouts that changed location ever so often. He was careful to play down his skills so as not to arouse curiosity or draw unwanted attention to himself as a contender for the win. Yet, he often won small amounts that he sent to the fingerprint bureau for verification and clues of criminal activity. By now, he had learned the various calls – soft whistles, claps, calls of night birds, the baying of stray dogs – to be able to follow their place of origin and settle into the game that often continued until the wee hours of the morning. He was aware of their extensive network and did not trust the informers, befriending instead the men who kept guard outside the gambling houses, by posing as one of the regulars. On more than one occasion, he had heard the names of his own men crop up and he had even caught one in the surreptitious act of taking a bribe. Not one of these men were spared, and although he was hardly the sort to suspend people without a warning, he made an exception in these cases.


However, the lure of such places of vice held a different thrill and attraction for Murli. It was thanks to his visits to these dens that he had honed his card-playing skills and learned other forms of gambling such as eki-beki – odd-and-even – and satta, which involved betting on numbers. He often enjoyed this alternate life that allowed him to be both participant and observer under the pretext of work. For that brief period of time, he was free from the shackles of his own life and this activity provided him with the much-needed escape from both, the boredom of domesticity as well as the pressures of new responsibilities at work. It took him into the dark and wonderful underbelly of a city that seduced those who trespassed at night.


At other times, he had found himself wandering among the harlots and their pimps at Falkland Road in his effort to trace the origins of the human traffic trade as well as those of the cocaine lords. Inspired by the arrest of one such lord – Mumtaz of Lahore – famously lured into an ingenious trap by a burqa-clad constable who manipulated the man’s weakness for the fairer sex to the advantage of the police dragnet, Murli too sent his constables as bait to follow up on his own leads.


Thus, it came about that there was a plethora of strange dresses, diverse headgear, hilarious wigs and bizarre disguises that fought for space with dusty files and papers in the cabinets of the CID. The men were often seen changing their dress in the washroom or applying finishing touches of strong-smelling glue to detachable facial hair or washing off darkened eyebrows and other fake additions to their features so as to mislead their victims. By establishing the green room, Murli gave this activity a dedicated and sacred space, elevating its status to that of an art by recognising its players as performers. It resembled the theatrical space from which it derived its name, complete with bright lights, a wardrobe and all.


While there had been many nocturnal wanderings to hunt down old friends from the numerous illegal trades, Murli was in pursuit of no one in particular one evening. He merely set out on his routine stroll, around Bhendi Bazaar in his Pathan’s disguise. The sun had barely set; the signs of the first anti-social activity not quite visible and only faintly stirring when he returned to the green room before time. As he pulled off his beard and washed the sticky solution off his face, Murli had his eye on the wall clock. It was time to tail someone who had aroused other suspicions of late.




Elsewhere in the city, Swaraj rehearsed the part of an errant Westernised young man in the annual college play whose script had been written by a fellow student. The scene required this wayward son of a rich man to try, unsuccessfully, to impress and seduce the daughter of his father’s business associate. The girl’s chastity would be preserved in the nick of time by a young doctor who had dedicated his life to the freedom struggle. The girl would go on to nurse people under his care and the two, like the free nation, would live happily ever after.


And so Swaraj, in the role of the villain, lit his Imperial cigarette on stage. He did it with flourish, slowly and with the practised ease of a student who has already experimented with forbidden fruit. He pulled out the cigarette from an ornate silver case with a dragon engraving, brought from Macau by a classmate’s father. Placing it stylishly between his pursed lips, hat pulled low over his face and the collar of his trench coat pulled high and a thin moustache plastered on his upper lip to disguise his recent adolescence, he played his part to the hilt. With the other hand, he drew out a matchbox and in the silence of the college hall interrupted only by the shallow breathing of his fellow cast members and the writer-director who doubled up as production assistant, the sound of the first crackle of fire was heard as he struck the match. An orange glow lit up his face, making him at once irresistibly attractive and frightening in appearance to his leading lady. He inhaled deeply as he put out the match by waving it about languorously, and when he exhaled, he had the look of a wise man who had just been granted a glimpse of the great beyond. He wheeled around suavely for his dialogue delivery, spouting sugary words in a villainous manner.


Then, the poignant moment took a dramatic turn for the tragicomical when a classmate burst noisily into the hall, disrupting their rehearsal with the frantic patter of his footsteps. The boy banged the door noisily behind him, trying to push up its heavy iron bolt with little success and then ran towards the stage where the actors observed him with a combination of puzzlement and bemusement. Finally, out of breath and red in the face, he looked in the direction of Swaraj and spluttered, ‘Raju, put out the damned cigarette and run, you fool! Your father’s car has just turned into the patio!’


The leading lady was enveloped in a jet-engine trail of smoke that left her coughing violently and the writer-director-producer began spraying rose water meant for the next day’s performance a la Gandharva Naatak Mandali. The rest of the cast, meanwhile, dispersed hastily in order to dissociate themselves from the putrid odour of smoke ill-disguised by rose-scented attar. The unintentional and spontaneous scene seemed to mimic some obscure comedy from the silent era. And the Chaplinesque sight that followed – Swaraj scampering into the wings and into the falling night outside – would not be forgotten by the cast of Another Dawn for years to come.



Janhavi Acharekar is the author of the novel Wanderers, All, HarperCollins, 2015, a collection of short stories Window Seat: Rush-hour stories from the city, HarperCollins, 2009 and Moon Mumbai & Goa, Avalon, 2009, the first Indian destination travel guide published by the American travel book series Moon Handbooks.

Her writings feature in various short-fiction anthologies including the Indo-Australian Only Connect: Short fiction about Technology and Us from Australia and the Indian subcontinent, Rupa India; Brass Monkey Books Australia, 2014 and Fear Factor: Terror Incognito, Picador India; Pan Macmillan Australia 2010. Her features on travel and the arts, as well as her literary reviews, appear in Indian and international publications. Janhavi was awarded the Charles Wallace Visiting Writer’s Fellowship at the University of Stirling, Scotland, in 2009. She is a contributing editor at Conde Nast Traveller India.

More on Janhavi at her website.