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Thus Wrote the Murderer

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‘Kill Johanna. She must die’, thus wrote the murderer. While the evidence suggested the deceased student had been targeted in the campus of Wesleyan University at Middletown this Wednesday, it caused widespread panic since the murderer also wrote – ‘I think it’s ok to kill Jews and go on a killing spree at this school.’

‘One of your students has been killed. His body is in the Honeymoon Garden’, thus wrote the murderer. While the evidence suggested that the deceased student had been targeted in the campus of Sainik School Ghorakhal at Nainital in 1994, it caused widespread panic since the murderer also wrote, ‘Murders like this will be repeated.’

As we drove back to Middletown this Thursday afternoon, Nidhi filled me in with the details of the murder of the 21-year-old student, Johanna Justin-Jinich. That the guy came into the bookstore on Broad Street wearing a wig, shot at close range, dropped the wig and escaped the police cordon leaving his car behind. That his journal, later recovered from his car or his apartment, had his cold-blooded intentions scrawled in it. That the campus is in a feverish grip of anger and fear. We also wondered if the last name indicated she was Jewish.

Something about the incident unlocked a memory gate in my mind and driving through I-91 North, I suddenly relapsed to over 15 years back.

It is circa April 1994 and although pretty late in the night, the entire Abhimanyu house is awake studying for the second-last test of the annual exams next day. We are in the eighth standard and this would be the last time we would have to endure Sanskrit – which I personally saw more as a tiresome subject then and less as a classical language. I am huddled with some other friends around Monis Alam’s bed, trying to get grips on some intricacies of Sanskrit grammar. Suddenly, the lights go out but everyone coolly brings out candles – no cause for alarm as occasional power cuts are normal, even though Ghorakhal, perhaps due to our reputed boarding school, suffers them less. In the pitch dark of the night, nobody notices the man who stealthily passes by our house with a sheet of paper in his hand that bears the pine resin glue on its four corners. He goes straight to the students’ mess that abuts the passage next to our house and sticks the notice prominently on the glass front door.

Next morning, by the time we gather in front of the mess for breakfast, there is a strange buzz in the air. The students of standard twelfth, the senior most class, were agog. We learn that the notice stuck last night, which is no longer there by now, announced the murder of a 10-years old student of standard sixth, who had been reported missing for the last two days. The theory until then, of which there were several precedents, was that he was probably homesick and truant. But, the notice claimed something much more terrible (translation above) – ‘Tumhare ek student ka katl kar diya gaya hai. Uski laash honeymoon garden mein hai. Aise katl aur bhi honge.’ True to its word, the brutally-disposed corpse of the young boy (whose name I forget now!) was found near the precipice of the Honeymoon Garden, a moniker students had given to a small meadow a couple of kilometers out of the school’s main campus, amidst hills and thick woods.

The entire community of about 1000 lived in an unrelenting grip of fear for the next few months. We, the inmates of Abhimanyu house, were truly aghast in the realization that the killer had actually walked past our house the night of the murder. The next thing you know, students moved the beds around to block all the windows with the lockers. The oratorical style of speaking of our house master, Mr S K Tripathi, came to good use as he was able to calm our frayed nerves to a great extent. Soon the exams were over but there was a lull of a few weeks until the next session started. The school authorities took some prompt measures to contain the panic. Students were allowed to rent and see movies back-to-back in the TV room, sports activities were encouraged and bands of teachers roamed in the campus in the evenings to reassure the students and the community. I recall the senior students started escorting us and other junior houses to the mess and back in the evenings. I believe even the marking of the annual exams was a lot lenient – to the extent that some students were saved from ouster from school because they were assumed to be traumatized in the exam room. Police were on the campus often, taking finger prints and handwriting samples of every soul on campus. For good measure, military police also came in to do their bit as the school was under the aegis of the Ministry of Defense.

Aside from being grievously saddening, the murder became a dark and deep whodunit for everyone. All of us incessantly discussed conspiracy theories amongst ourselves and more excitably, talked of about the possible sequence of events climaxing in the notice on our mess door. We heard the deceased boy’s father alleged that the murder was committed by some longstanding enemy of the family (hailing from eastern UP) but we still suspected some abetting insider. Once, the police brought in a sniffer dog too – not sure how much it helped unearth the trail of the crime, but it surely lifted our spirits as we saw the demonstration of its acute sense of smell one fine afternoon in the assembly ground. We thought the perpetrator of the crime better watch out now, as the fierce-looking dog would surely sniff its way to his hideout.

As we took the exit 18 to Middletown, I snapped out of my reverie. Nidhi was still animated about the fall-out; her department had closed and everyone was asked to stay indoors. Apparently, the cops were combing the campus – rumors were rife; had the hideous-looking guy caught by the security camera at the bookstore taken someone hostage in some house? With his journal remarks becoming public, many students were trooping out of their dorms, to their homes or relatives’, as far away from Middletown as possible.

By Friday morning, Wesleyan sent a security update that everyone was waiting for – Stephen Morgan, the killer, had surrendered and had been arrested. People have sighed relief, although I think it will take some time for things to come back to complete normalcy. Amongst other things, Johanna’s family will be distraught for long and the trial of Mr Morgan will surely be watched keenly.

Back to 1994. We had a pretty lukewarm Holi celebration that year, since the festival fell on a date soon after the murder. I remember keeping a pouch of gulaal intact in my locker in the hope that I would open it and celebrate the day the murderer is caught and paraded in the school for all of us to smack him in the face. That day never came. As far as I remember, the police got some leads, nabbed some people suspected accomplices but never really could convict anyone. I think I still have that pouch of gulaal somewhere in my old school trunk at home.

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