Translated from the Tamil by Rakesh Khanna, Rashmi Ruth Devadasan and V. Vinod

 

Translator’s Introduction

The Tamil language is spoken by about 70 million people, mostly in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India; it also has official status in Sri Lanka and Singapore, where it is spoken by sizeable minorities. With an unbroken and at least 2200 year-old written tradition, Tamil speakers are justifiably proud of their classical literature: epic poems like Silapathikaaram and ancient treatises on ethics like Thirukkural are still studied, committed to memory, quoted in casual conversation, and used liberally in the speeches of local politicians.

But these days, there’s plenty of ‘less respectable’ literature, too. Tamil crime and detective fiction took off in the early 20th century, and has never slowed down. Romance novels, ghost stories, mythological thrillers and historical romances set during the age of the Chola and Pandiya empires are all wildly popular.

Every week, new titles appear at tea stalls all over Tamil Nadu, clipped to magazine racks or draped over clothes lines. Their glossy covers bear Photoshopped collages of Scandinavian metal album covers, Hindu calendar art and screen grabs from hyper-violent American video games; stapled between them are a hundred slim pages of newsprint. These ‘novels’ sell for 15 rupees (about US $0.24), and at around 10–20,000 words, they’re the perfect length for an intercity bus journey.

None of these writers had ever been published in English – or even had their existence acknowledged in English print – until 2008, when our Chennai-based indie publishing house, Blaft Publications, worked with translator Pritham K. Chakravarthy to bring out The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Volume I. The translations proved popular with a variety of different sorts of readers: Tamilians who found it more comfortable to read in English than in their mother tongue, urban Indians from other parts of the country who wanted to sample the Southern fare, and a number of curious foreigners. We are currently at work putting together Volume 3.

This story is by Subha, a pseudonym used by the writing duo of Suresh and Balakrishnan. They have co-authored hundreds of books – their first Eagle Eye Detective Agency novels began appearing in 1983, and in 1987 they started a publication called Super Novel, which brought out a new story every month until 2007.

Narendran Jakkirathai! (‘Look Out, Narendran!’) was originally published in the September 1987 issue of Super Novel. It was one of the first Eagle Eye novels to feature the female detective Vaijayanthi. Although she’s still a junior employee here, and doesn’t get many action scenes, readers will be happy to know that later on in the series Vaijayanthi turns out to be an expert in karate, a crack shot with a pistol and a complete badass overall.

Suresh and Balakrishnan live with their families in adjacent apartments in Chennai.

Rakesh Khanna

 

Prologue

A love letter

Shah Jahan’s beloved – Mumtaz Mahal!

An eternal anthem in white marble – the Taj Mahal!

Architecture to put the palaces of Turkey, Persia and Italy to shame;

Twenty thousand labourers, twenty years of labour.

O my love, I am not Shah Jahan.

But my love is deeper than his.

Delicate, pure.

Shah Jahan and Mumtaz were two different souls.

You and I, we’re not like that.

I am you, and you are me!

 

1

 

Chennai Police Commissioner’s Office. In the background, the sound of a wireless radio, like a voice from a hoarse throat. On the wall, a large map of the city. A desk covered with a dark green velvet cloth. On top of the velvet cloth sat a heavy glass paperweight, giving a distorted reflection of the Commissioner’s face.

An envelope lay on the table. Spinning in his swivel chair, he picked up the envelope and removed the letter. His eyes scanned the lines. The chair stopped swivelling.

He reached out with his little finger and pressed a buzzer. The shadows of the swinging doors danced at the entrance, and a peon walked in.

‘Call Ragunath,’ he barked.

He read the letter again as he waited for Ragunath to arrive.

‘Good morning, sir.’

‘Bad morning, Ragunath. Please have a look at this letter.’

Ragunath – the upright and capable Assistant Commissioner – read the letter over.

‘Read it out loud.’

 

Dear Mr Commissioner,

No beating around the bush; I’ll come straight to the point.

In Thandaiyarpet, between my hometown and the Mambakkam road, the Railway Authority has a plan to lay a new railway line. I have begged them to abandon it. To no avail.

Therefore, this is a warning. If the Railway Authority does not immediately announce the cancellation of this plan, I will destroy that iconic monument to love, the Taj Mahal.

First, I’ll give you a little sample to show that I’m not fooling around. On the fifteenth of this month, before sunset, your Mambakkam Police Station will be blasted to smithereens. Try and protect it if you can.

If you wish to save one of the wonders of the world – as well as the Mambakkam Police Station – then you must immediately notify all the English-language dailies that the plans for the new railway line have been abandoned.

Sincerely yours,

Name, address, and photo withheld

‘Each letter has been pressed hard into the paper. He’s written it in a very emotional state. Accurate English. He’s educated, with a high I.Q. What’s the connection between this Mambakkam train track and the Taj Mahal? Find out if the Railways have received a similar letter. By the by, who’s the Mambakkam Police Inspector?’

‘Paulraj, sir,’ said Ragunath.

 

*

 

Inspector Paulraj read over the copy of the letter for the hundredth time, his brow knotted in anger and consternation. Deep in thought, he pulled a cigarette from a packet, put it to his lips and lit it. He drew the smoke in deeply.

The phone rang.

‘Hello.’

‘When will you come home?’

That authoritative female voice could belong to no one but Rosalyn.

‘I’ll be coming late, Rosalyn . . .’

‘Didn’t you promise to take me to see my mother today?’

‘Whatever I promised, it’ll have to wait till tomorrow. Today we’ve received a letter from someone threatening to destroy the police station . . . ’

‘Happy news! If you catch the guy, bring him home. I’ll give him a garland. Let’s see, maybe if you don’t have a place to work anymore, there’s a chance we’ll see you around the house. Hold on – is that cigarette smoke coming through the receiver?’

Paulraj immediately dropped the cigarette and crushed it with his foot. ‘A cigarette? Of course not,’ he said.

From the other end came the sound of the receiver being hung up in irritation.

Angrily, Paulraj pressed the buzzer on his desk.

‘707,’ he yelled.

There didn’t seem to be anyone there.

Paulraj jumped up from his chair and looked out the door.

Across from the police station, under the shade of the thatched roof of a shop, 707 was standing sucking on a beedi; as soon as he saw Paulraj’s face, he hid the beedi behind his back and gave a sheepish look.

‘Don’t call me inside. I’m a family man, sir,’ said 707 from where he was standing, smoke spilling from his mouth.

Just as Paulraj, irritated, took another cigarette from his pocket, the phone started ringing.

Must be Rosalyn again. Well this time I’m not going to put out the cigarette, no matter what she says.

Furiously, he picked up the receiver. ‘Put the phone down, woman!’ he said.

‘Who are you shouting at, Paulraj?’ came the commissioner’s voice from the other end.

‘Yes, sir . . . I mean, no sir . . . I mean, I thought it was my wife . . . ’

‘Have you checked the station thoroughly?’

‘The bomb squad’s gone over every square centimeter of space, sir. There’s no bomb. It must have been some idle joker who wrote that letter.’

‘No, Paulraj. Now another letter has come, warning us that we’re not taking him seriously. At five o’clock this evening the station is going to explode. He’s also written that as long as we quietly evacuate the station, nobody will have to die.’

Before Paulraj could reply, the commissioner cut the call.

 

*

 

Exactly half an hour later, police vehicles arrived at the station’s entrance. The commissioner stepped down and Paulraj gave a salute.

The police station was situated in the middle of a large, empty maidan. It had originally been intended as a residence, but now it was a police station, and the front wall had been painted red. Here and there around the station, coconut trees stretched up from the earth towards the sky.

‘Our man’s chosen the right station. Nobody in the neighborhood will come to any harm,’ said the commissioner.

The doors of the police van opened and two sniffer dogs came out, along with their trainers.

‘Check the whole place again, every centimeter,’ ordered the commissioner, and then turned to Paulraj.

‘Any sign of recent digging in the neighborhood, anything like that?’

‘No sir. We’ve been vigilant, day and night, since the letter came . . . ’

‘Come, let’s do a round of the area, see if anything turns up,’ said the commissioner, confident that nothing would.

They came back and finished lunch by about 2.30. The dogs were tired from sniffing; white spittle dripped from their tongues. Their trainers had declared confidently that there was no bomb.

Opposite the police station was a house; Paulraj and the commissioner asked to have some chairs put on the stoop, and there they sat.

The Commissioner’s eyes were drooping with sleep (as tends to happen after a meal of mutton biryani, mutton fry and double omelette fried in coconut oil). He leaned back slightly in his chair and closed his eyes. After a short nap, he got up again. Paulraj had brought tea from his house, and the commissioner had a taste as he watched the station.

Closing in on five o’clock, the sky became slightly darker. One by one the clouds gathered together above the police station, as if to watch the show. Some birds, having finished the day’s duty, flapped their wings to return to their nests. A crow sat on the edge of the station roof, tilting its head once and looking around. Then it hopped backwards a little and settled. A dog, its tongue hanging from its mouth, ran aimlessly from place to place.

The Commissioner was staring at the clock.

At exactly five o’clock a sound shook Mambakkam village. The police station suddenly disappeared, and in its place remained a cloud of dust and rubble. Half a brick had been launched high into the sky at rocket speed.

The policemen standing around the building all ducked for cover.

‘I say, what is this, what is this?’ said the Commissioner, standing up with a jerk. As the dust slowly settled, everyone in Mambakkam crowded the area with questioning looks on their faces.

Where the Mambakkam police station had stood, only one tiny piece of wall remained.

 

3

 

Eagle Eye Detective Agency.

Narendran and Vaijayanthi entered Ram Das’s office. Narendran gave a joking smile to the person sitting in front of him.

‘So your Mambakkam Station has been blown to bits! What’s your address now? Care of the pavement, is it?’

‘We’ll play around later, Naren. Who put the bomb there? Tell me,’ said Paulraj.

‘What’s this?’ said Narendran. ‘You’re asking like you think I’m the one who hired the guys to blow up your station.’

‘Naren . . . On one side I’ve got Rosalyn wailing about how could she trust and marry a cop who can’t even protect his own office, on the other side I’ve got the commissioner giving me a solid drubbing. Up to the minute before the bomb blast there was no sign of where they could have kept it. I’m missing something here. Somebody appeared in a puff of magic smoke, detonated a bomb, then disappeared in another puff of smoke. Can you find him?’

‘Why should it be Naren? I’ll take the challenge,’ said Vaijayanthi.

‘I love you too, Vaij,’ said Narendran.

‘What!?’

‘I mean, I love a challenge too, Vaij. We’ll play it together. Like a duet,’ said Narendran.

Paulraj began to relate what information the police had.

 

4

 

The Bullet motorcycle tore through the wind. Just outside the village, Narendran removed his helmet and placed it on the petrol tank. Vaijayanthi rode on the seat behind him, wearing a sari with little white dots, just a touch of red lipstick, a string of Hyderabadi pearls around her neck. A sea breeze played through the hair on both their heads.

The tar road suddenly ended and turned into a mud track with a herd of buffalos standing across it, welcoming them lovingly to Mambakkam.

Narendran stopped the Bullet in front of the place where the police station had been and walked up to the little shop next door.

‘Two Gold Spots,’ he said.

The shopkeeper looked Narendran and Vaijayanthi up and down. He opened two Gold Spot bottles and offered them up with little puffs of fizz. Wistfully, the shopkeeper watched Vaijayanthi’s Adam’s apple bob up and down as she drank.

Narendran looked around. The mid-morning sun shimmered. On one side of the road were cows, bicycles and colourful fabrics dancing in the breeze at the entrance of a jigna-work sari embroidery shop. On the other side people were walking in the hot sun, their bodies shining with sweat.

The tiny wall of the police station stood close by. In the distance, they could see the funnel-shaped loudspeakers on the facade of an asbestos-roofed cinema tent. Could such a quaint little village really exist here, just a stone’s throw from Chennai?

‘What are you here for, sir? Scouting for shooting locations?’ asked the shopkeeper.

‘That’s right,’ said Narendran.

‘Who’s the hero of the picture?’

‘Marlon Brando.’

The shopkeeper closed his mouth.

‘So Vaij, what did Paulraj say?’

‘Point one: up to the minute before the explosion there was no trace of a bomb inside the police station compound, nor anywhere in the grounds outside.’

‘Right. But the explosion was caused by powerful gelatin sticks – however they came to be there.’

‘The bomber had only one demand: that the plan for the Mambakkam railway line be abandoned.’

‘So we need to find all the people who opposed that plan, and tick them off one by one. How many people are going to be affected by the Mambakkam railway line?’

‘Four people went to the court to petition against it. Eventually a settlement was reached with each one of them; they were paid a certain amount to drop their objections.’

‘There was one other bit that seemed out of place. Remind me what Paulraj said about the Mambakkam tourist bungalow.’

Vaijayanthi rifled through the pages of her notebook. ‘Paulraj had gone to arrange the Police Commissioner’s stay at the tourist bungalow. The watchman got terrified at seeing the police. Now, that bungalow is supposed to be reserved for official guests of the government. But the watchman had let some ordinary tourist stay there. The tourist had vacated his room just before Paulraj and his team showed up, and the watchman hadn’t had a chance to clean up the room yet. So Paulraj’s arrival gave him a good scare.’

‘OK. Let’s check out that tourist bungalow first.’

‘What’s this? Why, Naren? The blast site, the list of people who opposed the railway line – you want to put all those aside to investigate some tourist bungalow that’s totally unrelated to the case?’

‘You never know which snake will be hiding in which termite mound, baby.’

Vaijayanthi whacked Narendran’s shoulder hard with her handbag. ‘Who are you calling “Baby”?’

‘Ow,’ said Narendran, kick-starting the Bullet.

 

*

 

They passed a line of coconut trees and a cow sleeping like a heavy sack as they entered the concrete compound of the tourist bungalow, an old building with a large garden. Narendran rang the calling bell and the door swung open immediately, like the entrance to Ali Baba’s magic cave.

The person who peered out from inside looked about fifty years old. Skinny, with a wrinkled face. Reeking of alcohol. He wore a shirt a few sizes too big for him, and his eyes darted to and fro like a frightened baby rabbit.

‘Who do you want?’ he asked in a quivering voice. The fingers of the hand that held the door were also quivering. He caught sight of Vaijayanthi, who was standing behind Narendran. ‘We’re not renting rooms to anyone,’ he said, and tried to close the door, but Narendran slid his shoe into the gap to stop him.

‘I’m not looking for a room, Manickam.’

‘How do you know my name?’

‘Inspector Paulraj is my cousin. You’d better let me inside . . . or else you’ll be spending some time “inside” yourself.’

The watchman opened the door.

It was a small bungalow, with just four rooms – three of which had fallen into disrepair.

‘So, Manickam, whoever comes here, you put them up in the first room, right?’

‘Important people, VIPs, whoever it is . . . ’ Manickam stopped.

‘Basically whichever VIPs give you money for booze, am I right?’

Manickam laughed, in spite of himself.

‘It’s okay, Manickam. Show us the room that you showed the Inspector.’

Manickam waddled like a duck up to a nail in the wall from which hung a bunch of keys, then opened the first room.

The room had a tiled floor and, at its center, a dark green rug that must have been as old as the bungalow itself, stained and coated with dust. On the other side of the rug was a sofa. Two cots with mattresses and floral-print bedcovers. An ancient coat of distemper had somehow survived the heat of the summers and the damp of the monsoons, and had not lost all of its original bluish tint.

‘What’s that on the wall?’ Narendran said, walking up to it.

Black letters stood out against the blue.

Sleep in peace, Banu. I’ll take care of it.

 – Chakravarthy

Who was Banu? Who was Chakravarthy? The words hung there like a private work of art, meaningless to all but two people.

‘Vaij, come look at this.’

Vaijayanthi went over to the wall to investigate. Narendran turned to Manickam.

‘Before the inspector arrived, who had you rented this room to?’

‘I gave it to a guy about your age. He told me his name was Kumar.’

‘What did he look like?’

‘He was quite tall. Like Ranjan.’

‘Who’s Ranjan?’

‘The cinema actor! The one from Chandralekha.’

‘See this gone case! He still remembers the heroes from the black and white movies!’

‘Manickam, when did he check in to this room and when did he vacate it?’ asked Vaijayanthi.

‘I went over this with the police already.’ Manickam counted on his fingers. ‘He arrived on the twelfth and left the same morning the Inspector came.’

‘So on the morning of the fifteenth? What time?’

‘Around eight o’clock.’

‘And you didn’t clean the room afterwards?’

‘I didn’t imagine he would scribble on the walls!’

Narendran was deep in thought. ‘Vaij, it had to be him that wrote this.’

‘Aiyyo, Naren, what does this have to do with the bomb blast? Come on, let’s get out of here, this room looks like it’s seen one too many honeymoons.’

 

5

 

There was a constable guarding the tiny portion of blasted wall that was all that was left of Mambakkam Police Station. ‘For the time being, the police are operating out of the government school with the free meal scheme,’ he said.

‘Good place,’ said Naren as he went over to the blasted wall and began looking around.

‘Has anyone disturbed anything?’

‘What sir, you think there’s some buried treasure we should dig for? No, it’s been untouched since the bomb blast.’

Narendran’s eyes took in the whole scene with a 360-degree sweep. It was a strange jumble.

Bricks, whole ones and pieces, with the cement still stuck to them. Dried cow dung. Shards of broken pots. Broken table legs. Some black feathers. Stripped wires. A telephone mouthpiece. Scattered scraps of cotton. A cigarette box. The iron bars of the jail cell. Government-issue grey file covers. A packet of condoms.

‘There’s one thing I’ve realized since coming here, Vaij.’

‘You’re going to ask why there’s a condom packet in a police station, aren’t you? Don’t imagine dirty things – it must have been evidence from a brothel case.’

‘Chee, a man can never think at the speed of a woman,’ said Naren, throwing his hands up in the air. ‘What I meant was something else.’

‘What?’

‘Paulraj said not even one life was lost, but he was wrong.’

‘What? Who died?’

‘Look here – the tattered feathers of a crow!’ said Narendran, moving away before Vaijayanthi could whack him.

‘So what next?’ said Vaijayanthi.

‘You tell me.’

‘Let’s meet all those names on Paulraj’s list.’

‘Chee – such boring, dried-up names. Not even one Urvashi, Rambha or Tilottama[1] on the list,’ Narendran said, starting the Bullet.

‘I hope you meet a she-demon, and she sucks out every drop of your blood,’ quipped Vaijayanthi as she settled herself on the pillion.

 

*

The first address on the list was in Ennore. The house wore a faded coat of green paint and a jasmine creeper wound around its walls. A plate by the front door had the name Mohammed Ali Raja written in gold letters, and a date that made the house thirty-two years old.

Narendran pressed the calling bell.

Kaun?’ inquired a deep, strong male voice from within, in Urdu. ‘Who’s there?’

I’m Bahadur Shah Akbar, Emperor of Delhi, Narendran thought of saying, but then decided against it.

‘Hello, good morning,’ he said in English to the elderly gentleman who opened the door.

The old man wore the traditional Muslim cap. In the center of his forehead, like a third eye, was a dark mark from years of bending down in prayer.

‘Walaikum Salaam. And you are?’

Narendran stated his name and position. The old man invited them inside. In the room was an almirah full of books. Sofas in the corners. On the right-hand side of the wall, a painting of Mecca. Next to it, in gilded Arabic lettering, were two verses from the Koran.

Also mounted on the wall was the stuffed head of a deer with long curved antlers. The glass marbles in its eyes created the illusion of life.

There were also three stuffed cranes, and next to them a photo of a girl. She was around twenty years old, with slightly tousled hair, rose-coloured lipstick and eyebrows that curved naturally like two inverted crescent moons. A neck the colour of ivory. Lips stretched in the hint of a smile. A small mole on the left edge of her nose.

Narendran stopped and stared at the photo, enraptured.

The old man tore Narendran away with a sharp cough.

‘My daughter, Shahira,’ he said.

‘I-I’m sorry,’ stammered Narendran as Vaijayanthi gave his thigh a quick, hard pinch. He realized he’d been staring at the photo longer than could be considered polite.

‘It happens to everyone – the first time they see her, they lose themselves. Everything in this room is her creation, the fruit of her talents.’

‘You mean – these birds, the painting of Mecca, the verses of the Koran, the stuffed deer head . . . ?’

‘All the work of Shahira.’

‘That deer – it really does look like it might spring to life at any moment.’

The old man smiled.

‘This new railway line is devouring our graveyard. We didn’t want the iron wheels of rail carriages to ride over all those pure and innocent buried souls. So, as the representative of more than a hundred people, I filed a case. The railway authorities allocated a convenient plot for a new graveyard close by, our people agreed to the compromise, and we withdrew the case.’

Narendran nodded. ‘I hope we haven’t troubled you,’ he said, as they took their leave.

‘Your eyes kept darting around like you were hoping Shahira would make an appearance,’ said Vaijayanthi once they were outside, a touch of heat in her voice.

‘And you were supposed to be paying attention and taking notes. If you spend all your time watching my face how do you expect to move forward in this line of work?’

Vaijayanthi did not look chastised.

Narendran tried to pacify her. ‘I wasn’t being lecherous or anything, Vaij. It’s just that . . . she really looked like a goddess in that photo.’

‘Just be careful where you stick that long nose, or someone’s going to cut it right off!’

 

*

 

The second address was in Ennore as well. From the main road, they turned down a side street, rode past a cycle shop and stopped the bike. Then they climbed up some wooden steps and knocked on a door. An old woman in a gown opened it.

‘Major Napoleon’s residence?’

‘Yes,’ said the old woman. She pushed the curtain aside and welcomed them in.

It was a small room with too many chairs. An embroidered cloth was draped over a teapoy, hiding its age.

An old man was sitting on one of the chairs. He got up.

‘I’m Napoleon,’ he said.

There was authority in his voice, and when he held out his hand, there was still strength in his grip. But the whites of his eyes were faded. He gave them a condensed account of his past twenty years of retirement, and that ended the introductions.

‘I’m here to talk to you about the case you filed against the railways.’

‘There was already an inspector who came and drilled me on that. That case is over. I had bought a plot of land for my son, then the railway authorities wanted to put a track through it. Darling, get these children tea. Look here, young man: I’m an army major. I’ve served my country, I’ve shed sweat and blood. But forty years after Independence, this country has done nothing for me. That’s why I had no desire to sacrifice the land I’d bought. I took the case all the way up to the court, but what happened in the end? My son, who was also in the army, stepped on a landmine and now he’s gone. What use is the land now? So in the end I gave it to the Government.’

The old man was breathless. The old woman had brought in the tea and he downed his cup in one gulp.

‘So tell me, who’s this little jar of honey you’ve brought with you? Is she your lover or your secretary? Maybe both?’

The major gave Vaijayanthi a wink. At his age! Vaijayanthi looked like she wanted to shoot him on the spot. She did not touch her tea; a skin had formed on the top, and it smelled like kerosene.

As soon as they had come out to the road, Vaijayanthi said, ‘Somebody should dig out that old man’s eyes and throw them in the fireplace.’

‘Easy Vaijayanthi, easy,’ said Narendran.

 

*

 

In the first of the next two houses, they met an officer’s wife who was overjoyed that the railway authorities had allotted her land in Ennore instead of Mambakkam.

They ended up crossing out the last address on the list as well – the owner of the house had kicked the bucket. They arrived to find a wake in progress. The traditional feast for the tenth day after death was being prepared. At the threshold, some stray dogs and Narikuravas[2] were re-enacting the First Battle of Panipat over a few leaf-plates of food. Someone touched Narendran on the shoulder and invited them to come and eat at five.

Narendran walked away hurriedly. Vaijayanthi broke away from a group of women she’d been talking to.

‘This man who just died – he had no wife, no heir. He lived and died alone. What do we do? Does the investigation end here?’

‘Sure. Some mental case just decided he wanted to blow up the Mambakkam police station, and figured he’d blame the railway line.’

Narendran started his bike with one kick. Dhad, dhad, dhad went the engine, spitting exhaust.

 

6

 

When Narendran entered the office, Ram Das was on the phone, rubbing his bald head in agitation. Ram Das wasn’t the type to lose his cool. It had to be something serious.

‘The commissioner got another letter.’

‘What does it say?’

‘Tomorrow evening, Tarnaka Police Station. After he blows that one up, the Taj Mahal is next.’

‘Tarnaka? Where’s that, Das?’

‘Hyderabad.’

‘I’ll go meet the Commissioner.’

 

*

 

The Commissioner was in such a state of rage it seemed as if someone had put the bomb under his own chair. Paulraj stood next to him, busily switching between green, red and black telephones.

Narendran went and stood in front of the commissioner.

‘Who let you in? If you’re one of those newspaper men, then get out!’ The veins on the Commissioner’s neck were bulging so far they looked like they were about to pop.

Narendran was startled. ‘I’m Narendran, sir. Eagle Eye Detective Agency.’

The Commissioner calmed down a little. ‘So you’re that fellow?’ he said. ‘The one that went around Mambakkam, right? What did you find?’

Should I tell him about Shahira’s beauty? Narendran shook off the thought. ‘I couldn’t find anything.’

‘We had many people scour that area and we came up with nothing. What made you think you could?’ said the Commissioner. ‘We’ve sent notice to those railway chaps and they’re completely unconcerned. Their reply is, we’ll wait and see what can be done at the next Parliament session.’

Paulraj cut in. ‘Since this morning, reporters have been phoning up, asking whether we had prior information about the Mambakkam blast.’

‘Did you speak to the Hyderabad Commissioner?’ asked Narendran.

‘Our audacious friend in Chennai sent him a letter, too. Here’s the photocopy.’ The commissioner threw it at him.

The letter began with ‘Dear Commissioner’ and went on to warn, in impeccable English, that at 6 p.m. the next day, Tarnaka police station would be destroyed.

‘But this letter reached the Hyderabad Commissioner two days ago. Our friend must have already known that we wouldn’t take him seriously about the blast at Mambakkam. That means he’s probably already fixed a date for the Taj Mahal,’ said Narendran.

‘Stop annoying me,’ said the Commissioner.

Narendran made a gesture to Paulraj that meant I’ll check in with you later, and took his leave.

 

*

 

‘It’s 4.50. We’ve only got an hour left, Naren,’ said Vaijayanthi, as the flight to Hyderabad kissed the runway.

Outside the airport, Narendran hailed a taxi. ‘Tarnaka,’ he said, crisply.

The taxi sped along the twisting, turning route to Tarnaka. They passed a cow or two on the road; in the distance they saw the silhouette of a church. Then they were driving alongside the wall of Osmania University, with the lush green trees and creepers of the campus visible beyond.

Kithar, Saab?[3]’ asked the driver.

‘Tarnaka police station,’ said Narendran.

‘There are three police stations in Tarnaka: Gandhi Road, Toll Gate, Independence Park. Which one?’

A new dilemma. ‘Go to all of them, one by one,’ he said.

The taxi driver turned and gave Narendran a funny look.

A sentry stood at the entrance to the first station, his head nodding with sleep. Inside, in the glow of a yellow light, an inspector was writing something. It couldn’t be this one.

‘Next station,’ said Narendran.

As they turned down the street toward the next police station the taxi was stopped. Two policemen started shouting at Narendran in Telugu, telling him to get out. They looked suspiciously at Vaijayanthi.

‘The Chennai Commissioner sent us,’ said Narendran. But the policemen prevented him from approaching the station further. He had the feeling that if he said anything more he would get it in the neck.

As Narendran was trying to see if there was another way around the blockade, there was a deafening explosion. A stone fell on the policeman who had stopped Narendran, and the following second all the cops had vanished.

‘Come on, Vaijayanthi!’ said Naren, as he grabbing her hand and running ahead.

In the orange twilight, the blasted police station looked like a scene from an English movie.

The police stood around like mourners. Ttk, ttk, went the flashes of cameras, as the dust from the explosion refused to settle. Some official police papers floated by; half a charred curtain; a few pigeon feathers. A torn black boot was caught in the electric wires overhead.

A howling could be heard coming from within the debris. As policemen cleared the stones away, a wounded dog emerged, limping. Almost immediately, part of its leg fell off, to become just another piece among the pile of rubble.

Narendran was as furious as a Mexican bull.

‘Some sort of invisible man is challenging us, floating here from Chennai like magic, and he’s blowing up police stations. And I’m powerless to stop him,’ he moaned.

‘Don’t get tense now,’ said Vaijayanthi, slowly recovering from the shock of the blast. ‘Think about how to save the Taj Mahal.’

 

*

 

Narendran was sitting on the restaurant balcony, picking disinterestedly at a pesarattu and tapping his head.

‘We’re missing an angle somewhere.’

‘Who do you think the enemy is, a man or a woman?’ said Vaijayanthi.

‘Didn’t you see the handwriting on the letter? It’s got to be a man. A man with a few screws loose!’

‘Why the Taj Mahal? What did the Taj Mahal ever do to him?’

‘Wait! Why is the Taj Mahal famous? It’s a symbol of undying love. Wait, wait . . . think calmly, Vaij. Do you remember the sentence that was written on the wall at the tourist bungalow?’

‘Of course. Sleep in peace, Banu. I’ll take care of it.  – Chakravarthy.

‘Sleep in peace. Nimmathiyaaga thungu. What does Banu sleeping have to do with the bomb blast?’

‘Narendran, I’ve got it!’ shouted Vaijayanthi, jumping up. ‘Nimmathiyaaga thungu. Rest in peace! That’s what they write on graves, right? Banu’s grave must be in the path of the railway line. Our Mr Chakravarthy doesn’t want the railway track to run over Banu.’

‘Exactly!’ Naren was getting excited. ‘But how did he manage to blow up Mambakkam police station, when the bomb squad had thoroughly checked it over?’

‘We’re still stuck there. However he managed it, he’s detonated this new bomb the same way.’

‘This Chakravarthy must be staying somewhere close by. It would be easy to hide in the midst of all these faces . . . Vaij, come on. I have the feeling we’re closing in on our friend. I’ll tell you the rest on the way.’

Narendran rushed out of the restaurant, almost slipping on the wet floor, and ran past reception to the phone. He placed a call to the Hyderabad Police Commissioner, and introduced himself formally.

‘Check all the lodges in the vicinity of the Tarnaka police station as soon as possible. If anyone’s arrived from Tamil Nadu, travelling alone, please look into it.’

They could hear the Commissioner start to bark orders before he even put the receiver down.

Then they questioned the receptionist of the hotel they were staying in.

Ustaad, can you please check if anyone named Chakravarthy, a Tamilian, has stayed here in the last three days?’

‘Are you the police?’

‘No, not the police. James Bond. Sherlock Holmes. Shankar Lal[4],’ said Narendran, folding his thumb and stretching out his index finger. ‘Dishum! Dishum!’ he said, firing his finger gun. The idea that they might soon catch up with their target had him bursting with energy.

The receptionist searched the computer. ‘Uh-uh,’ he said, sticking out his lower lip.

Narendran’s enthusiasm did not flag.

‘Another favour. I want the addresses of all the hotels in the area.’

He looked at the list the receptionist held out. ‘Hotel Menaka . . . Ramyadi . . . Paris . . . Hotel Taj.’ Narendran’s finger stopped.

‘Let’s try this Hotel Taj first. Our friend seems quite fond of the Taj.’

 

*

 

The receptionist at Hotel Taj listened to what Narendran had to say, and then flipped through the pages of the register.

‘Yes, a Mr Kumar from Chennai. He checked out just a short while ago.’

A cheated look was hung on Narendran’s face. ‘I need to see that room,’ he said.

‘Who are you?’

‘Ask the Hyderabad Police Commissioner, he’ll tell you.’

The receptionist was taken aback. ‘Second floor, sir. I’ll come with you.’

As they approached the corner room on the second floor, a room boy emerged from it.

‘Sir, the person who just vacated the room forgot something.’ He held out a piece of paper and a single rose.

Narendran grabbed the paper and read: Sleep in peace, Banu. I’ll take care of it. – Chakravarthy

‘It’s him! It’s our friend, it’s him!’ Narendran leapt at the room boy and held his chin between his fingers.

‘My young maharaja, when did this man leave?’

‘Just now, saab. I caught an autorickshaw for him myself.’

‘And do you know where he was going?’

‘He told the auto driver to take him to where the ghazal-singing girls are. Near Golconda Fort.’ He described the markings on the vehicle.

‘Thanks. Here’s some money. Don’t count it too fast.’

Narendran charged out of Hotel Taj. ‘Vaij, do something for me – fill the commissioner in on all the details. Ask him to put police blockades on all routes out of the city. I’m going to search for that Chakravarthy,’ he said.

He flagged down a passing auto and leapt in. ‘Golconda,’ he said.

By the time Narendran’s three-wheeler reached the fort it was almost eleven. They’d travelled so fast, the engine was as hot as a stove.

They did a quick round of the area. Soon, Narendran found a parked auto matching the room boy’s description.

‘There it is!’ he yelled.

He touched the gun at his hip to reassure himself and got out. The auto was empty. Perhaps the driver had gone off to smoke a beedi or something. Gingerly, Narendran walked up to the vehicle. There was a suitcase on the passenger seat. It looked like Chakravarthy had gone in intending to make a swift exit when he came back out.

Narendran picked up the suitcase. It wasn’t heavy, but it was locked. He took a steel pin from his belt, stuck it in the keyhole and fiddled. The suitcase sighed open – aah. And in the middle of the hastily packed spare shirts, pants and towels – what was that?

A little plastic box. Some sort of meter, with a bunch of switches and levers. Under each switch was a word in English: ALTITUDE. DIRECTION. FUSE. GO.

Arrey, kaun?’ yelled the auto driver, in the musical drawl of the local Hindi.

Narendran slammed the box shut, spun around, slipped out of the auto and walked through the gate on the other side of the street.

 

7

 

Behind the fence was a large compound. On the far side was a house with a big garden. At the entrance sat a bearded man who looked at Narendran questioningly.

Narendran put on a greedy look. ‘Here for the ghazals,’ he said. He took out some money from his pocket and flashed it.

Wordlessly, the man waved Narendran inside.

Slowly, very slowly, Narendran opened the door. From somewhere inside the sound of tabla called to him: come, come. He heard the sweet voice of a girl, singing about a moonlit night: ‘Chandini raat mein . . . ’ As she stretched out a note of the raga, Narendran heard men’s voices exclaiming their praise. ‘Vah, vah!’

He walked in the direction of the voice. He came to the entrance of a room and stopped. He parted the curtains and looked in.

Ten or fifteen mattresses with bolster pillows. Men, reclining: rich men, all with bulging pot bellies. Glass bowls filled with grapes. Glass goblets filled with liquor. And in the center, a woman, dancing.

A knee-length skirt. A silver belt. Sequins. Skin glistening with sweat. A single braid. On her head, a sequined cloth cap. In her furious twirling, in the way her eyes flashed at her audience, was an overpowering sexiness.

Narendran searched for a Tamil face in the crowd. Towards the left, in the middle of the potbellies and the pudgy cheeks – there he was, there! Tousled hair, crumpled shirt, dirty pants. His eyes were fixed on the dancer, staring unblinkingly. There were flashes of impatience in those eyes. It was clear that he couldn’t wait for the performance to finish.

As Narendran took a step forward, he knocked over a brass lamp that clanged to the mosaic floor. The man with tousled hair was the first to turn and look at Narendran. As soon as he saw him, he jumped up like a shot. Before Narendran could open his mouth, the man pulled aside the curtain behind him and ran.

Kaun hai tum?’ – ‘Who are you?’ someone demanded threateningly. Narendran decided there was no time to lock horns with anyone. At once, he did an about face and ran out to the entrance.

He went around the house and headed towards the garden at the back. Unfamiliar trees grew so thick that they blocked the moonlight from reaching the ground.

Narendran plunged into the darkness. Sticking close to the compound wall of the house he walked slowly toward the back. At the end of the wall, he slowly and carefully craned his neck around the corner to see along the back.

Nnatsh! Something hit him on the head.

As Narendran tried to regain his footing he received another blow to his shoulder. He grabbed the revolver from his hip and rolled to the ground, cursing the darkness. In front of him was the silhouette of a man. Narendran pointed his gun at him. But the next strike made the gun jump out of his hand. It twirled through the air and was caught by the hands of the enemy. He extended the gun.

‘Get up,’ he said with a hiss, like he was telling a secret.

There was nothing else to do. Narendran got up.

‘Turn around.’

As soon as Narendran turned, the butt of the gun was slammed into the back of his skull. Stars spun inside Narendran’s head. A rocket blasted off, sped upward – Virrr! – and burst. Damaar!

Kumar – aka Chakravarthy – pressed the gun against Narendran’s back.

‘Walk,’ he said.

Narendran wondered what Vaijayanthi was doing. He walked slowly forward, his feet crunching the fallen leaves. Kumar seemed to be keeping his face tight. He was not talking much.

Narendran decided to spring into action. He whipped around like a fighter cock, head-butted Kumar, and then tried to grab him. The cloth of Kumar’s shirt pocket came away in Narendran’s hand.

Kumar hadn’t expected the sudden attack. The gun went flying. Instead of trying to pick it up, he thrust both arms towards Narendran’s chest. Zoop! He gave him a rough shove.

Narendran lost his balance and fell backwards – and kept falling, down into a deep pit. He rolled up into a ball, and as he fell he scraped the side of his body on something; it burned like someone was rubbing fire on it. Dhobeel! Narendran hit the ground.

Because he had rolled himself up, he had escaped serious injury. It took him a minute to realize that it was a well he had fallen into, filled with slush and water. With one hand he wiped the mud from his face. He shook his head clear. The guy who had pushed him from the top must have escaped by now.

Something else fell on him. A stone? He felt around for it, and his hand touched something. A gun! His gun! Narendran felt his strength return.

Kumar must be caught. He must be caught at once.

He looked up. Well, at least there was some matted moss on the walls to give him some grip. He would have to climb at least twenty feet.

He had fallen so fast that his body was covered with bloody scratches. Here and there his skin had been scraped off. A sleepy rat emerged from a hole burrowed in the side of the well, fell on him in its surprise, and scurried off.

Narendran was undeterred. Pushing aside fear for his own life, he climbed. Thirty pain-filled minutes later, he drew himself over the mouth of the well to the ground and exhaled.

In the dark he heard a voice. ‘Naren!’

Vaijayanthi!

As Narendran brought himself fully upright, he saw a police jeep parked in the garden. Half of the Hyderabad Police Force was swarming the area.

‘I went to the police and told them what was going on. Then I came looking for you, following the room boy’s directions.’

‘Where’s that Kumar?’ demanded Narendran.

‘He was gone by the time we got here, Naren. He escaped,’ sighed Vaijayanthi.

The police had begun to question the ghazal audience. Vaijayanthi and Narendran went back to the hotel.

 

*

 

After giving himself a thorough scrub in the bath, Narendran sprayed a whole bottle of cologne on his body.

In his head, he kept hearing an emotional voice: Sleep in peace, Banu.

It came to him like a slap on the forehead. He leapt to his feet and grabbed his cell phone. He called his colleague at the agency, John Sundar.

‘John. Take down this address in Ennore. Muhammed Ali Raja, a Muslim elder. A cemetery in the way of the proposed railway line,’ he said. ‘He has a daughter, her name is Shahira. Beautiful as a goddess. I want all the information you can get on her – specifically, if she ever fell in love with anyone. I need to know immediately.’

‘Naren, they’ve got another letter from that crackpot. He’s threatening that by the next full moon the Taj Mahal will no longer stand intact,’ said John Sundar, breathlessly.

‘Vaij and I will head to Agra. Tell Paulraj. Ask him to come there.’

‘There are only three days left till the next full moon,’ said Vaijayanthi, when she heard the news.

‘Vaij, we’re going to Agra. To see one of the world’s most famous symbols of love.’

 

8

 

They reached Agra the next day at 9 p.m. As the bus reached the outskirts of the city, lines of policemen checked every suitcase, unfurled every bed roll and checked every inch of the vehicle. South Indian faces got extra scrutiny. Finally, their turn came.

‘I’m Narendran,’ said Narendran.

Immediately they surrounded him and Vaijayanthi, and took them to a temporary police camp.

‘Come over here,’ said the Tamil Nadu Police Commissioner. ‘Your friend has announced that he’s going to blow up the Taj at twelve tonight.’

‘I almost had him in Hyderabad. But at the last minute, he got the upper hand.’

By the time Narendran had related everything that had happened, it was 9.30 p.m.

‘We need to catch him in the next two and a half hours. Otherwise you, me, the Tamil Nadu Police, the Andhra Police and the Agra Police will all have to take the cows grazing!’

‘He’s going to demolish this?’ said the Commissioner, looking at the Taj Mahal through binoculars.

Narendran looked up and was stunned. Encircling the monument was a huge barbed wire fence. Every ten feet was a floodlight casting illumination on the famous symbol of love. In the light, the Taj Mahal glowed. Slowly, softly, the reflection of its dome rippled on the Yamuna River. The moon, more than three-quarters full, stood in the midst of a crowd of stars, all watching the magic show put on by the white marble.

‘Wonderful!’ said Vaijayanthi.

‘If our friend has his way, it won’t be wonderful for long.’

Paulraj rushed up to them.

‘They’re stopping everyone who gets within half a kilometre of the Taj Mahal. They’re checking every tourist who comes into Agra. They have searchlights all over the place. They’ve erected fifty-foot high lookouts all around the grounds, each manned by two policemen with a rifle and a telescopic sight. The bomb experts swear there’s no bomb anywhere inside or surrounding the monument,’ he said.

‘Hotels and lodges?’

‘The police are hunting there, too. No one suspicious has been caught so far.’

‘It’s not going to be easy to bomb the Taj,’ declared the Commissioner.

‘I think he’s up to the challenge. He’s got some sort of remote control.’ Narendran told Paulraj about the device he’d found in the auto.

‘Fine, let’s assume he’s planning to detonate the bomb via remote control. He still must have fixed the bomb somewhere right? They’ve made a clean sweep of the place.’

Paulraj was searching desperately for a toehold. The time was 10.25.

Narendran’s phone rang. John Sundar!

‘John, what happened?’

‘That chick is really a super beauty, Naren. I could practically fall in love with the photo.’

‘Fool! Don’t waste time! Speak!’ barked Narendran.

‘Shahira Banu had a love marriage, to a Hindu boy. Her husband’s name was Ashok Kumar, an electronics engineer. The girl died in a railway crossing accident; Ashok Kumar escaped with minor injuries. The girl is buried in Mambakkam cemetery. Ashok Kumar spent days and days mourning by her grave. But as soon as the railway authorities gave the circular that they were acquiring the burial ground to lay the new line, he went missing. Shahira’s father broke down in tears when he told me,’ John Sundar said, all in one breath. ‘And one more thing, Naren. When I was coming out of the house, I met a Narikurava who asked me a peculiar question.’

‘What question?’

‘He said, “Aren’t you Sahib’s son-in-law? Do you want some more birds? Pigeons or crows?”

Click! Click! Click! Sounds went off inside Narendran’s brain as each remaining hole of doubt clicked shut. His face lit up like a thousand-watt bulb.

‘John! Reach through the phone and shake my hand. You’ve just casually unknotted this case’s most important mystery.’

Narendran reached in his pant pocket for a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face. But when he brought out the cloth, he realized it was the torn pocket from Kumar’s shirt. There was a piece of paper sticking to the fabric. He peeled it open.

The word Jahanara was written there, along with ten numbers. The last number was illegible, torn away during the tussle.

Narendran looked at the time. It was 11.30 p.m. There was only half an hour left. We can catch him. Narendran ran towards Paulraj.

‘Paulraj! His name is Ashok Kumar, he’s an electronics engineer. I’ve discovered his modus operandi. I need two pairs of binoculars, right now. Now!’

Paulraj gave orders over the wireless.

‘Jahanara could be a person, or it could be a lodge – maybe a lodge in Agra. Here are the first nine digits of the contact’s number. Try to find the last digit, dial it with every number from 0 to 9. Figure out which cell tower range it’s in.’

Phones rang continuously, and in a few minutes the news came.

‘It’s across the Yamuna. The phone’s located in the Mithru buildings.’

‘Vaijayanthi! Bring the binoculars over here quick,’ said Narendran as he ran to the bank of the Yamuna. The opposite bank was silent. Here and there he could make out the outlines of huts in the darkness. In one or two there was a light; in between, a few two-storey houses.

‘Paulraj we need a steamer. To go out on the river.’

Paulraj jumped into action.

Fifty per cent of the lights now swept slowly over the opposite bank of the Yamuna. A steamer that was on river patrol came up to the shore where Narendran was standing.

‘Vaij, watch for a bird taking flight from that bank.’

‘Have you gone crazy, Naren? By this time all the birds will be sleeping in their nests.’

‘Just do as I say.’

Immediately Vaijayanthi took up her binoculars to watch the other side.

The steamer tore through the water towards the opposite shore. Narendran looked at his watch. The time was 11.40 – just twenty minutes left.

Would the Taj Mahal escape or not?

 

9

 

‘Naren, look there! Look there!’ screeched Vaijayanthi. ‘Not just one – nine crows have just taken off from that green painted multi-storey house. They’re flying into the sky! See!’

Narendran looked in the direction she was pointing. In a straight line, the nine crows had begun to fly in the direction of the Taj Mahal. The manner in which they flapped their wings seemed a bit indolent, but no one would have looked at them with suspicion.

‘Understood, Vaij? The stuffed deer head that looked so lifelike – he learned that art from Shahira. He stuffed crows and pigeons and put bombs inside them. Then with his electronics engineer’s brain he fixed them so they could fly, and so he could operate them by remote control. That’s how he landed the bombs on Mambakkam and Hyderabad police stations at the last minute before the blasts.’

‘My God!’ said Vaijayanthi.

Just before the steamer could touch the opposite shore Narendran jumped. He fell to the ground and rolled. He ran towards the green Mithru buildings, keeping an eye on the crows.

Like stealth fighters, they hovered beyond the range of the floodlights. The time was 11.45 p.m.

He came to a house which had a few locked shops on the ground floor. Narendran readied his gun. He climbed like a cat up a drainage pipe. He jumped – mmth! – and landed on a balcony. There was a girl standing there. The moment she saw Narendran, she held her palm up to her mouth in surprise, as Narendran trained the gun on her forehead.

‘Don’t shout,’ he said in a whisper. Then, with a shock, he realized who she was. The one from the house in Hyderabad, who danced along to the music – it was her, the ghazal girl.

He turned the gun and brought it down on her head. She whirled once, as though dancing to a ghazal, and then collapsed. Narendran caught her and laid her down, gently.

He went through an open door into a hallway. Another door stood half open. Narendran leaned through the gap to look inside. There was Ashok Kumar, staring at the Taj Mahal like a possessed maniac. His fingers rested on the switches of the remote control.

Narendran looked at the time. It was 11.55. One second . . . two seconds . . . three seconds . . . Narendran leapt. His fingers reached for the switchboard. The attack took Ashok Kumar completely by surprise. He lost his balance and rolled.

Narendran moved the ALTITUDE switch of the remote control up. Outside, the crows rose higher in the air: Vrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Ashok Kumar had righted himself and was preparing to charge. But this time Narendran was ready. They locked arms. Kumar flailed at him wildly – the last desperate moves of a cat fighting for its life. This time Narendran did not go down. He hit Kumar with the butt of his gun. The instant Narendran slammed the metal down on the back of Kumar’s head, he crumpled to the floor, groaning softly: ‘No!’

Narendran put his gun down and stared at the remote control for a moment. He pushed the DIRECTION switch, and Vrrr! – the crows changed direction. They flew two hundred feet away from the wall of the Taj Mahal, until they were directly above the Yamuna River. Then Narendran moved the ALTITUDE switch again, bringing the crows down – Surrr! – until they were submerged in the river. Then he pressed the FUSE switch and . . . GO.

A muffled boom was heard from the river.  In the glow of white lights, the Yamuna swelled thirty feet. Then the waters subsided.

Narendran turned around with a smile.

Ashok Kumar had got up and was sitting. He had Narendran’s gun. He laughed weakly.

‘You did a good job, Naren,’ he said.

‘Thanks. It’s madness, you know, trying to destroy the Taj Mahal. Put that gun down, it’s loaded.’

‘I understand that. I also understand something else . . . something that you don’t.’

‘What?’

‘The power of love. Look outside – your friends are coming. Take credit for your success. What did you do to Jahanara?’

‘Who’s Jahanara?’

‘The one who used to call me Chakravarthy. She’s been Banu’s friend from childhood. The ghazal-dancing beauty. It’s only with her help, under the cover of her veil, that was I able to come so far. Don’t do anything to her! And . . . will you lay me to rest beside my beloved Banu? I’ll be thankful to you.’

In a fraction of a second, in a move that caught Narendran completely off guard, Ashok Kumar put the gun to the center of his forehead and pulled the trigger. His body slumped down slowly, blood flowing from his mouth and from the hole in his forehead.

Narendran stood, staring in disbelief. The sound of the police could be heard.

 

Epilogue

 

Narendran switched off the motorcycle engine. The Bullet rolled on silently for a short distance and then came to a stop.

‘We shouldn’t let even the sound of the motorcycle disturb them, Vaij,’ said Narendran.

He indicated the two graves, lying side by side. Shahira Banu and Ashok Kumar.

‘Look at you, coming to Mambakkam graveyard and getting all romantic,’ Vaijayanthi said, with scolding eyes.

‘Well, I can’t compete with the government. They’ve made the romantic declaration in Parliament that the railway line shall never pass through here.’ Narendran gave a big sigh. ‘Vaij, you know, when I saw the Taj Mahal – I got inspired. I had the idea of building you a “Vaij-Mahal”.’

‘Oh really?’

‘Really, my dear. I’ve asked the housing board to build one on the banks of the Cooum!’[5]

As soon as he said it, Narendran got pinched. Hard.

 

[1] Urvashi, Rambha and Tilottama are three of the best-known Apsaras, or celestial nymphs of Hindu mythology, fabled to be supernaturally beautiful. They are also commonly used as (mortal) women’s names.

[2] The Narikuravas, literally ‘the jackal people’, are a semi-nomadic ethnic minority group found throughout Tamil Nadu and other South Indian states. They speak a language called Vagriboli, thought to be related to the Romani of the European gypsies. In urban areas, they are known for selling beaded jewellery, shooting small birds for food and collecting recyclable trash.

[3] Hindi: ‘Where to, Sir?’

[4] Shankar Lal was a detective character who appeared in many popular Tamil crime novels of the 1960s, written by Tamilvanan. A translation of the Shankar Lal novella Tokyo Rose is included in The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Volume I.

[5] The river that runs through central Chennai, known for its trash, untreated sewage and foul stench.

 

Book cover courtesy of the author

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