Willingdon College is housed in a magnificent Gothic structure that has been classified as a Grade-I heritage structure and stands as an example of the best of British Raj architecture. Established in 1854, ‘Willy’, as it is commonly referred to, is one of the oldest colleges under the University of Mumbai. Up until the late seventies, the college had a vibrant faculty that strove hard to retain the college’s status as a ‘centre of excellence’. However, once exalted as a prestigious seat of learning, it had fallen from grace in the marks-oriented educational culture prevalent today. As the Fort area got increasingly commercialized, the college’s geographical location always proved to be a major disadvantage. Located bang in the middle of a shopper’s paradise, the Fort area now offered numerous distractions to its student populace. In fact, Willingdon College is fast acquiring a reputation among Mumbai parents as an institution to avoid sending their children to, lest they get ‘spoilt’.
Virkar was aware of the crumbling reputation of Willingdon College, as it was one of the colleges that he had aspired to join in his own student days. Unfortunately, his father had insisted on Elphinstone College, which was much closer to his home in Colaba’s Machhimaar Nagar. ‘What is the point of going to such a hi-fi college when all you have to do is attend classes?’ his father had said, thwarting Virkar’s Willingdon dreams. But Virkar had got his own back. He had made friends with some of the ‘hi-fi’ crowd from Willingdon and hung out with them at the city’s happening joints, till the ‘hip’ crowd turned to taking drugs to enhance their cool quotient. The middle-class boy inside Virkar shrank away from the ‘druggy’ label and he eventually broke away from his set of friends—but not before he was introduced to all the galis and khopchas where they ‘hung out’ while indulging in their drug of choice.
It was one of these galis that Virkar had turned his Bullet into. Being aware of the parking hassles on the main roads of the Fort area, Virkar had remembered this gali as a place where one could park without worry. He was trundling along, looking for an empty space between the rows of two-wheelers already parked on each side of the gali, when he noticed the two men standing in a lane a short distance ahead of him. There was nothing particularly significant about their appearance and one of the men was handing a bundle wrapped in newspaper to the other. This, too, was a normal, often-seen activity on the busy streets of Fort where deals of all sorts were transacted and goods wrapped in all sorts of everyday items were exchanged. Only one thing about them stuck out—the man accepting the bundle had a face that Virkar was very familiar with. It was the face of Usman Teacher. At the very instant that Virkar recognized him, Usman Teacher turned his head in the direction of the reverberating phut-phut-phut of the Bullet. Although Virkar was dressed in plainclothes, Usman Teacher and the man with him recognized the unmistakable policeman’s aura about him. While Usman Teacher’s companion turned on his heels and ran, Usman tore open the bundle in his hand and suddenly its contents gleamed in his hand.
The evil snout of the Russian-made semi-automatic TT-30 Tokarev Pistol lined up with Virkar’s chest. In a spilt-second decision, Virkar dropped the Bullet towards the left and flung his body on to the dirty floor of the narrow lane, rolling towards the parked motorcycles even before he hit the ground. The motorcycle skid horizontally along the tarred floor of the gali but without Virkar astride, guiding its path, it could only manage a few yards on its own. The deafening sound of gunfire echoed in the gali as the bullet spat out by the Tokarev whizzed above Virkar, missing him by a couple of feet. By this time, Virkar’s rolling body had crashed against the tire of a parked scooter, which tilted to its side and fell against a parked motorcycle. Then, like a pack of dominos, the parked two-wheelers began to fall one after the other, creating a loud ruckus.
The sound of metal screeching against metal was enough to unsettle Usman Teacher, even though he had a gun in his hand. He turned and ran in the same direction that his companion had run towards earlier. Virkar, who was lying in a heap at one end of the fallen two-wheelers, had by now retrieved the Browning service pistol on his holster and was readying himself to shoot. He jumped up into a crouch from his semi-prone position on the floor and lined his pistol in Usman Teacher’s direction but, through the jumble of motorcycle handles and scooter tyres, he could see that it was too late; Usman Teacher was turning the corner at the end of the gali. Virkar leapt forward and broke into a run, hopping and jumping over the fallen vehicles while trying his best to reach the end of the gali in the shortest possible time. But as he turned the corner, Virkar’s heart sank. All he could see was the Mumbai crowd that milled around the Fort area throughout the day. He knew that he had very little time to find Usman Teacher before he disappeared once again. In desperation, he looked around for any sign that would point him in the direction of his quarry.
The traffic signal on the main road turned red and the traffic stopped. Virkar ran towards a waiting car and jumped on to its bonnet for a better vantage point. The driver honked in protest but Virkar ignored him as he scanned the area again in the hope of sighting Usman. Just when it seemed that Usman had once again escaped his clutches, Virkar noticed a paanwala waving at him. The shopkeeper was pointing towards a shop that sold branded garments. Virkar jumped off the bonnet and ran towards the shop. As he entered the establishment, he noticed that the sales personnel inside had shrunk back against the rows of racks lined with folded clothes. At the far end of the shop, an open door indicated that he had just missed Usman. Virkar ran out of the door into the street behind and realized that he was back to the gali where he had encountered Usman a short while ago. On instinct this time, Virkar ran in the opposite direction. Hoping he could spot Usman as he turned the corner, he scanned all the buildings that lay across the street. This time luck was on his side as, even though the street was as crowded as the one he had come from, the people milling about were mostly young college students. Among their colourful attire, Usman Teacher’s checked bush shirt stood out like a sore thumb. Virkar spotted him attempting to take cover among a knot of students as they entered the imposing entrance of the building that stood diagonally across the street. The sign etched in stone on the façade of the building proudly proclaimed ‘Willingdon College, Estb. 1854.’