In 1980, Rajendra Dhondu Bhosale was a constable at Yellow Gate Police station, when a phone call from his home informed him of his sister’s dowry death. She was a young bride and he, a 23-year-old helpless brother in his first posting with Mumbai Police.
Since then, Bhosale has never let a criminal case involving a woman drop. “In every such case, I see my sister,” he says.
So when Pooja Gaud, a seven-year-old who went missing on January 22, 2013, remained the only girl that Bhosale, as the officer on duty, in charge of the missing bureau, couldn’t trace till the day he retired, he left the force a miserable man. Pooja’s became the second photograph he carried at all times, alongside his sister’s.
On Friday morning, when he was informed that Pooja had been found, he didn’t let his emotions take over. Instead, after what seemed like a long pause, he became the cop he always was: “Let me confirm. If she is found, they must have taken her for identification, then medical.” By evening, when he had “confirmed” it himself, he called back, “Happy, happy day. It’s a happy, happy day.” The words were broken by his sobs.
This is not the Bhosale I met in February 2015.
I was at DN Nagar Police station to report on a detection case involving a sex offender for The Indian Express, the newspaper I worked for at the time. Bhosale walked in, irritable, scolding his team in a fatherly tone (“why do you need five persons to explain one detection?”) and giving orders to another constable (“refresh, keep refreshing this page!”). In the 20 minutes I was in the room, I saw a desperate officer struggling with embarrassingly slow internet and a difficult deadline to make a crucial addition to the missing person registry.
As the officer in charge of the missing bureau, a department that relies on probing through visual images, Bhosale was constantly exchanging instructions on his Nokia 1100 headset and writing furiously in his diary, walking in and out of the room. When he wasn’t scolding the juniors, he was heard talking to the computer in Marathi (“I know you are overworked too, but just this bit today! Just this last entry!”). The tea boy followed him around with his evening tea — unsure where Bhosale will eventually sit — or if he will even sit!
No one, nothing, intrigued me more that day. Not even the commissioned Sunday story.
“Don’t bother talking to me, they call me mad,” he told me when I attempted to speak to him.
An inspector in the station gave me sketchy details of the last case Bhosale was trying to detect before his retirement. Having researched it, I returned a few times to speak to Bhosale but his only reply was a phrase I would become used to: “Running mein hoon” (I’m in a hurry). Once when he spotted me from a distance, he hid, and another time walked into the men’s loo. I finally got him just a week before his retirement when he promised an interview after he had hung his uniform.
He kept his promise and sat in the room where I had first seen him: A dejected 58-year-old clutching his diary and refusing to open the page which had the case details of Pooja Gaud. The others left the room to allow him his grief. That day the entire DN Nagar police station looked defeated.
In the seven years since he never ceased talking about Pooja, or even looking for her. In the beginning, our phone calls, one every few months, involved discussing leads and angles he continued to suspect. Later, they involved prayers, and lately, philosophy, questioning life and destiny. Initially, a news report about girls rescued in trafficking cases in any state meant he would either call the state police himself or prod me to make the calls. This was interesting at first, but my reporter’s cynicism took over, while he stayed resolute. On days when I tried to change the topic, he would persist. “My family scolded me today for talking to Pooja’s photograph,” he told me once. “Are they going to make your putla (statue) for all this dedication?” a relative asked him one day when they found him discussing the case with another serving officer. “You are retired. You know what it means. Retired from the police,” his wife reminded him once.
Every time he returned to Mumbai from Khed in Ratnagiri he followed a fixed itinerary: Meet Pooja’s parents, and offer them hope. Follow it up by taking their prayers to different places of faith.
He never failed to check on updates with the family. All the questions in the case were followed up every time they met. And he did this diligently every year.
Until a week ago.
“Chadar bhi chadaya hain. Makhdum Ali Baba ke dargah mein,” he said over the phone last week, speaking of his visit to the patron saint of Mumbai Police in Mahim. “Maine unko bola mera ek dukh pending hain,” reminding the saint of Pooja. “Iss baar police station ko bhi haath lagaya our pranam kiya,” he said the next day, of his visit to DN Nagar Police station.
Early this year, Bhosale had started wondering if he would still be alive when Pooja was found. “Time bhi hamesha running mein hain,” he had told me when he found Pooja’s father had passed away. “Her uncle, her father and I have travelled to several states looking for her. He is gone now. I want to be there the day Pooja is found.”
He was at a relative’s place in north Mumbai when he heard she had been found. The first person he ran to inform was his wife. “I went running and gave her a chummi (kiss) on the cheek. I have never done this in public,” he says, adding she was “finally relieved to see him happy” for the first time in years.
Later on Friday night, he took some time and opened his wallet to tell his sister that Pooja had been found. “I cried a lot,” he said, crying. “The lone missing girl I couldn’t trace, prayers found her for me. I told my sister that God helped me keep my promise to her.”
Having travelled to Khed on Saturday, Bhosale says he allowed the breeze to comfort him. He kept his phone switched off all afternoon and thought about Pooja’s miraculous journey — and the lady who helped her track her past. He feels those who helped bring Pooja back are the real heroes. He is hoping to meet Pooja once “all the police procedures” are done and the investigation is complete. “Besides, I need some days to collect myself,” he says.
“I spoke to Pooja’s mother this morning. She kept repeating ‘Meri Pooja mil gayi’. I listened to her without interrupting. She was crying. It’s a different kind of relief to hear a mother finally find peace,” he says. “It’s only after the call was over and I had disconnected it that I told myself, ‘Meri Pooja bhi mil gayi’.”
The writer is an independent journalist