It is two thirty in the morning and the place is quieter than a tomb. Four full-blooded man are locked inside the hostel room, all of them under twenty five, and in various stage of drunkenness. One of them is myself, yours truly.
The air inside the room is thick enough to choke a diehard smoker. No one has spoken a word since Hardik's phone rang. The call was from one Mr. Kasim. He has promised to sort out everything if we do what we are told to do. He is the point man controlled and recommended by Hardik's father.
Our collective adventure last weekend has gone terribly wrong and we are supposed to travel in different directions within next few hours and not get in touch with each other for six months or more. The girl's father has lodged an FIR at the district head quarter near Bhopal, stating that his daughter was gang raped by four unidentified thugs from the Maulana Azad Institute of Technology. According to Mr. Kasim's information, the girl managed to swipe the college ID of one of us. Police will be here soon.
Hardik is second-oldest and a natural leader among us. His father is a class one gazette officer who has survived five changes of government and thirteen transfers across the country. He know the system, its joints, and the special lubricants that make it work.
Unlike any other night, Hardik tosses his drink into the wash basin and looks at us, like we are his sworn enemies. "If anyone can get us out of his mess, it is my father and his network." Hardik speaks in a trembling, low whisper as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. His thin frame and shrunken chest not withstanding, he reminds me of a determined boxer in his final rounds.
Mohan ignores us and gets up from his chair. His cut-off jeans and torn T shirt make him look like a charity case but his father owns a string of sugarcane farms and molasses factories along the Ratnagiri belt. He chain smokes Bristol and he is known as Loaded M in and around the campus. He can catch the next plane to Tahiti or Bahama if he wants to.
Hardik fixes his gaze on Mohan. "You are not going anywhere till the we turn this right side up."
"I had to accompany you that fateful Friday, as if I can't get laid any other way," Mohan tosses a butt out of the window and lights another cigarette.
I see a thin opportunity to make a point here. "No way I can travel out of my state, my brother is getting married in the next month."
"No way, indeed," Prakash (not his real name) joins our conversation and scratches his arm. His face wears a clouded, uncertain look. He is a member of Lal Zanda-his nick name for the communist party of India, and writes in a four page monthly pamphlet no one reads.
Hardik looks down and studies his battered Reebok before speaking. "Prakash, you are the one who planned the little picnic and promised us that it will be harmless fun. What is the alternative you have to keep us out of the jail?"
Praksh looks at me.
"I need a job after the college more than anyone of you. Police case will result in instant professional suicide. And my old man, my family, I don't want to think about it," I say.
"Everyone wants out, but how?" Mohan asks no one in particular and drags hard on his cigarette.
Prakash takes a minute before reacting. "I know a way out of this. She, the girl will survive. She doesn't know us by face. It was too dark and she will be in shock for a long time. I will take care of her."
"You will take care for her? To bury something like this is hard, if not impossible," I say.
"Kasim know the system inside out. From local constable upwards. PSIs. Sarpanch. DIGs. District Judges. Ministers and the people who can make the files appear and disappear at will," Hardik says. "We just have to pay up fast, that's all."
"How do I tell my old man that I need Rs 5 laks for pocket money this month? That too here and now?" I spill the rum in my hand as I imagine the maddening scene with my school teacher father.
"We have a day or two. Kasim can buy some more time. I can pay something upfront on my own and Mohan can chip in a bit. Don't worry about that," Hardik looks hard at Mohan and turns to me.
"What is the alternative?" I ask. "Apart from the dough delivery?"
"Self immolation." Mohan spits the flakes of tobacco in the wash basin and glares at me.
"I never thought she could go to police. She was almost enjoying it by the end," I say.
"She will enjoy the court proceeding even more." Hardik says. "You don't know these things. Do you remember that girl in the Baroda riot case who became the national media icon overnight? Everyone loved her and lapped up everything she said. Whatever she said."
"There is no way this tribal specimen can make anything stick to us."
"If the investigation does not start, that is."
"There is another possibility." Prakash says.
"I marry her."
For a minute none of us know how to react. Hardik sits down on the window ledge and looks out at the night sky. Prakash looks dead serious.
Hardik turns his head and looks at Prakash, speaks for all of us now. "You are nuts. You are the one who suggested the cheap-tribal-girl-in-the-dark-woods idea. You are the one who made a deal with her tribe. Your contact paid them to shut up and apparently, they didn't stop a thing."
"I can marry her if I get the money you are going to pay out there. Believe me, in the long run, you will go over budget."
"Assuming that you are not insane, what is the guarantee that she will not talk and case will be buried after she becomes Mrs. Prakash."
"I am a tribal, not far from that village. I know the customs. I know their psyche and their limitations because that's where I come from. I can see this through without any hang ups, without looking back. I am going back to my roots. I will raise corn and rice, become a farmer again and never see the wind tunnels, flight simulators and you guys again." He looks at us in turn, his face rigid. "What are the alternatives you have if everyone here can't pay up and disappear without a trace?"
No one in the suffocating room has an answer for that. Prakash doesn't look like an aeronautics engineer anymore; he looks like a brown skin tribal man from a dusty Hamlet of mud huts we have never seen. He shakes his head, clears his throat before speaking. His voice is cool and precise now.
"I don't have to wait for the result date to find out I haven't got through the final, I know that for sure."
I believe him because we are in the same class, stay in same hostel room. After years in the making, he still can't get through the most basics of math and formulas. He is lagging behind in every semester. I have written half of his research papers. Despite being his best friend, I have to say this - a reserved ST class or a BC is forever.
"What will you do with the money?" I ask the stupid question to fill the deathly silence.
Prakash's face goes blank. "What can you not do with half of that money," he asks in return. "It's a different world out there. You can travel ten kilometres on a bullock cart for a cigarette. Change a course of life for a few thousand."
Hardik takes control again and stomps his Reebok on the floor. He decides for all of us. "Okay, let's do this."
So we come to an agreement that should save every one's careers, reputations, well being and future. There will be no records, no loose ends, no cross connections, no reunions and hopefully, no memories.