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It is not all a bed of roses October 13, 2018

Posted by globejam in fiction, Uncategorized.
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drunk.jpgHere I am, sitting outside my office twiddling my thumbs, when I should be working on my missing person cases. It’s my usual practice to set aside one day of the week to search the web for all the missing people in my case list. That day is today. Unfortunately, a power shut down, ostensibly for scheduled maintenance, has effectively pulled the plug on the day’s work.

This does not help my cause.  My list of open missing person cases is long and growing. My success rate is bad, but that’s a recent improvement.  It used to be abysmal.

It is not all my fault though.  When it comes to missing persons, I am just an after-thought.

Typically, as soon as a person goes missing, the immediate family waits for a few hours to a few days, depending on the age and sex of the missing person, for them to come back. When they don’t turn up, they start a limited search operation in the immediate vicinity.  When that does not bear fruit, they approach the police and wait for them to find the lost one.  After a few days, when the police lose interest or do not respond any further, the family ropes in the services of friends and relatives to cast a wider net covering hospitals, morgues, jails, destitute homes and depending on the proclivities of the lost person, lodges, temples, and other possible places. By the time they finally decide to approach me, the person may have been missing for a few weeks, months, or even years.

A city the size of Chennai has tens of thousands of people reported missing each year. Most of them are never found.  Not surprisingly, there is no central system or department to record or keep track of missing people. It is not high in the priority list for the state machinery.  A few websites created by some well-meaning NGOs and government departments have come up recently, but they are woefully inadequate, their database small and their search options limited, to say the least.

The city also produces an equal, if not greater, number of unidentified bodies. Most of these find their way to the nearest morgue, where they are kept for a few days for family members to claim them. The unclaimed ones, which happen to be the majority, are cremated by the local corporation after a certain period, the period decided mostly by the storage capacity of the various morgues.  No DNA samples are taken, nor are dental records kept as done in many other countries. Anyway, dental records are practically useless as very few people have ever even been to a dentist, in the first place.  So, the end result is that when the bodies are cremated, practically nothing remains for any of us to figure out who may have gone up in smoke. It is no wonder that most missing people disappear without a trace.

Many of those that are alive invariably find their way to the central railway station. The famous Indian railways, with the largest rail network in the world is by far the biggest spoke in the wheel when it comes to finding missing people.  The accessible stations, the overcrowded but frequent long-distance trains, the ease of ticketless travel and the general indifference of the people add up to mean that a person without a rupee to their name could be at the other end of this vast country within a matter of 48 hours!  And in this peaceable nation where apathy and charity are sometimes indistinguishable, a person can travel half way across the country overnight, and live by the roadside, in temples, in parks and other public areas on handouts and alms, unmolested and undiscovered for the rest of their life.

So, I am sure you now understand why finding missing people after the trail has gone cold can be a challenge.  With all the standard options already exhausted by the family and the police, I am mostly left to figure out how else one could go about finding someone who is not there in any place that one would normally search at.

My original strategy was, and continues to be, to treat this as a game of bingo.  I memorize all the faces and details of all the missing people I am searching for and then methodically look through all the records available. Additionally, on a regular basis, I visit morgues, destitute homes, orphanages and various other shelters, hoping that somewhere, sometime, I would be able to recognize someone from my ongoing cases.  So far, I have managed to find two people, meagre success for the amount of effort I have put in.

This strategy, as you can imagine, was bringing my morale down, on account of what I considered to be abject failure, to the point that I was almost contemplating removing missing person search from my portfolio of services.  Then, one day, as I was wallowing in self-pity and getting disheartened with my results thus, I got reminded of the maze puzzle.  You know, the one where there are four rabbits on one side with multiple routes out of which only one leads to the carrot on the other end, the rest being dead ends.  Just as many of you would have realized, the fastest way to identify the correct route is to not start from the rabbits but from the carrot.  I thought I would apply the same technique to my missing persons problem.

So, instead of just waiting for cases to land on my desk, I now go and find lost people at the destitute homes I anyway visit and go about finding their families.  The idea being that, at least some of these lost souls must have family back home looking for them.  If I could re-unite these broken families, I would at least experience some success and happiness on account of the good work done.

One of the destitute homes I have been visiting regularly is a place near Minjur on the outskirts of Chennai and this place is proving to be happy hunting grounds for me despite the bleak circumstances.  The place provides shelter for a large number of people, mostly brought in from around Chennai by the police. Most of the people in this place are middle-aged or older, many of them suffering from some form of mental illness.  A few have been abandoned by their family.

The stories of children jettisoning their ageing parents are as heart-rending as they are commonplace. One man in Kerala had taken his trusting mother on his bike to the outstation bus stand, asked her to wait and had disappeared.  Another man had been put on a train by his son and asked not to get down till it reached its final destination, at the other end of the country, where his other son was supposed to come and pick him up. No one had turned up, except, eventually, the police who had picked him up after finding him huddled in a corner crying his heart out. Such stories can fill an entire book.

I choose my cases carefully. I identify the lowest hanging fruits – basically people I feel were neither abandoned nor are so far gone mentally that they won’t be able to help in the search process.  I try not to dwell on whether their family would pay or not, though even if I tried, it was unlikely that I would be able to guess, given how dishevelled and haggard most people residing in destitute homes are.  Only the ones that are mentally far gone looked decent and presentable. They have glowing skin, an easy laugh and bounce in their steps.  I steer clear of them, considering they seem to be happy where they are.

After identifying a potential candidate, I talk to them and get as many details as possible about where they are from. I don’t tell them that I am trying to re-unite them with their family. I find there is no point in raising their spirits unnecessarily and then telling them that I am unable to find their family, or worse, that their family is not interested in having them back. I record my interactions with them on my phone so I can show it to experts and get some idea of where they may be from based on the language, dialect and accent.  Also, these recordings would come in handy in the confirmation process, when and if I actually find their family.

Once I am able to narrow down where they might be from, I contact all the police stations in the likely areas and look for missing cases registered that could match the candidate. If I find some potential matches, I travel to those areas and try and reach the family.  I then show them the video on my phone and give details and figure out if it is a match and they would love to have their family member back.  If all goes well, one or more of the family members travel back with me to take their loved one back.

Before you go gushing about my good nature, let me tell you that it is not all pro bono work, as some of the families I re-unite are happy to pay me for my services and, as you should know by now, I never turn down money that is offered to me. Some are even willing to sponsor the search for another missing person. I guess there is hope for humanity yet.

This activity of mine has turned out to be quite satisfying. Successful also, I might add, for I have reunited over half a dozen people in the last six months.  As I had hoped, this has given me the will to continue looking for those missing persons in my case list.

One day, maybe I will use my software skills to build an AI-based site that will collate details of missing people cases and the missing people from all the destitute homes and automatically match them.  Until then, I will probably just concentrate on the few happy stories, one of which I will share with you. Though it is not one of the “reverse search” cases as I call these, it still holds a special place in my heart.  It was my first missing person case, though calling it that might be a stretch. Nevertheless, the success of this case was what beguiled me into adding this service to my portfolio.

Here goes.

One day, at around eight in the evening, as I was wrapping up for the day, one of the mechanics from next door by name Mani came in with his younger brother and said “Can you help?  My brother’s bike is missing”. “When did you see it last?”, I asked his brother, just trying to be helpful. I didn’t think this was a case for a detective.  “It was with my father this afternoon”, he replied.  “And where is he, now?”, I queried to which he replied reluctantly, “Well, he is missing too”.

It was a missing person case, after all, even though the complainant himself was actually only looking for his bike.

I had seen his father around.  A part-time painter and a professional drunk.  I realized why Mani was more worried about the bike. He knew that his father would eventually make his way back home, but the bike definitely would not.  In all probability Mani’s dad had already pawned the bike and, after hitting a few liquor shops, was lying somewhere in a blissful stupor.  The pawnbroker, sure that he would never see the money again would be already looking for a buyer for the bike.  Speed was of essence. We had to find the father and retrieve whatever money was left after his binge and get to the pawnbroker before he sold off the bike.  And it was already a good six hours since Raju, Mani’s brother, had last seen his bike.  I quickly gave Raju the list of all pawn shops in the vicinity that dealt with bikes and asked him to go around and secure his bike, while Mani and I went around to all the liquor shops nearby searching for his father.

We found him at the fourth liquor shop we tried, in the company of many others in various states of inebriation.  This was a slightly upmarket place with a bar attached.  Now, when you think of a bar, you probably imagine a nice dimly lit room with leather upholstered chairs and teak wood furniture with a friendly barman.  Not quite.  This place was just a small lot abutting the liquor shop covered with a shaky lean-to made of thatch and casuarina poles for cover.  A few chairs and tables were placed haphazardly and few sachets of water were lying around for the rare patron who didn’t drink his poison neat. The only resemblance to the bar in your imagination was that this was also dimly lit, a sole uncovered incandescent bulb providing all the illumination.

It was good that Mani was with me, because I wouldn’t ever have recognized his dad.  All we could see of him first were his two scrawny legs and his torn boxers peeping out from under a table at the far end of the bar.  His lungi had moved up on its own volition, I guessed, probably to protect whatever dignity he had left, and covered his face.  His shirt, which I assumed he must have been wearing when he entered the bar, was not to be seen anywhere.

“There he is!”, exclaimed Mani, in a voice that was mixed with relief and distaste.  We unceremoniously dragged him from his hiding place and tried to revive him.  He was well and truly sloshed by then, but thankfully, the folds of his lungi still held most of the money he had got from pledging the bike.  We relieved him of that money and after half-an-hour of shaking him and dunking his head in water, we just about barely managed to get the details of where he had pawned his son’s bike.  We then called Raju and asked him to meet us there. By ten that night, we had repaid the pawnbroker and retrieved the bike.  Mani was happy with the results and so was Raju.  I am sure their dad was too, having managed to lay his hands on some money for his booze. And for the free ride back home.

It had been a new experience for me and I was left wondering whether these were the kind of cases I would have to deal with as a detective. I could almost imagine myself rooting around in rank, puke-ridden bars identifying people by their boxers, or worse! Just the thought of that sent shivers of revulsion up and down my spine.

Of course, in retrospect, I only wish that more of my missing person cases were that simple and had such happy endings.

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Case 3: An affair to remember September 25, 2018

Posted by globejam in fiction, Uncategorized.
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affairSo, what does an Indian private detective do? I am sure you are curious to know.

Well, let me be frank. There are practically no murder mysteries like the ones in Agatha Christie novels to solve. It’s not that there are no murders in these parts, just that there is usually not much mystery surrounding them. Nor are there complex schemes to unravel or diplomatic fiascos to forestall as seen in the case of many of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

Most of the crimes committed around here seem to fall into one of two categories. Petty and common involving ordinary citizens or large-scale scams perpetrated by the powers that be. Both categories are transparent, commonplace and, unfortunately, perfectly acceptable to society at large. Needless to say, neither of these two categories requires the services of a private detective.

So, what does a private detective do?  I will not admit this to my friends and ex-colleagues, but the truth is, the single largest component of my work and, more importantly, my business, is what we call pre-matrimonial checks. Basically, in the case of an arranged marriage, the detective plays the role of a second level filter in the process of identifying the right bride or groom.  Once an alliance, which is the standard term for the resume of the prospective bride or groom, is received, the family priest checks if the horoscopes of the prospective couple match.  If they do, then a detective is entrusted with the task of finding out if the family and the prospective partner are who they say they are.  More importantly, of course, that the family has the money, assets and connections they say they do.  The way a farmer might inspect a cow before deciding to buy it, the human equivalent of checking pedigree, quality of teeth, and yield. It’s a fairly clinical process that will make a normal person swear off the very notion of such a marriage, but in practice works perfectly well for the predominantly cynical and calculating local population.

This part of the work can be done mostly over the phone and internet, that is, once one has developed and instated properly lubricated sources of information in the right places. Which I have.

The other big segment of business comes from digging up dirt on post-marriage transgressions.  This is a pretty large component of business for detective agencies world-wide.  While in the western world the goal is to capture the errant spouse in flagrante delicto so as to get the best deal out of a divorce, in India, the outcomes can be much more varied.  Transgressions, especially by the men, lead to divorces only in a small number of cases.  More often than not, the wife threatens to reveal the lurid details to relatives in an effort to stop the affair, or swallows her pride and keeps quiet, her only consolation being that she knows what is happening. The role of the detective in such cases subsumes that of a marriage counsellor, as incongruous as it may sound.

The remainder of the business is a classic long tail. A varied list of activities involving tracing missing people, thwarting illegal child marriages, cases which the police don’t want to get involved in or don’t think are important enough, issues where the police have given up or are not interested in following up, and, where one can get away with it, making people offers that they cannot refuse.

Finally, if we are lucky we will get cases that test our detecting skills and provide a certain amount of mystery to decipher.  Detectives like us wait for the day when something interesting turns up to enliven proceedings.

The thing that makes it all worthwhile is that each case is gravid with interesting possibilities. One never knows where a case might lead one.  Take for instance, the assignment I got from Ms Leela.

It was the afternoon of a fairly hot Wednesday.  The browsing centre next door was closed for lunch, as were many of the other establishments around me. Even Govind’s mechanic shop, which is busy all the time, was unusually quiet that day.  I was snoozing in my office, lulled by the peace and quiet and the oppressive heat outside, which even the air-conditioner at full-blast could not dispel, when a saree-clad thirty-something graceful lady knocked on my door, opened it quietly and poked her head in.

“When will the browsing centre open?”, she asked.  It was a such a pretty face, with a flawless complexion the colour of glazed chocolate. I tore my eyes away and looked at the watch and told her it may open in an hour if the owner felt like it.  “Can I wait here till it does?”, she ventured obviously preferring the air-conditioned comfort inside my office to the scorching sun outside.  “Sure”, I said and straightened the papers on my table and pulled a chair for her to sit.  “Make yourself comfortable”, I said and poured her a glass of water.

She was not quite svelte, but her shapely structure was still very much in evidence. If you could imagine a curvaceous, beautiful, dusky woman with glowing skin, and add a thin layer of fat evenly over her body, softening the edges and bringing on a warm glow all around, then I will leave you to it and get on with describing the case.

“So, are you a detective?”, she asked looking at some of the framed certificates on the wall behind me.  These were recent additions I had had to make to the decor in response to the growing visits of potential clients to my office.  I turned around and looked at the certificates she was studying and, appearing modest, said “Yes, just some of my credentials from various institutes abroad”. I didn’t mention that these were online courses I had enrolled for, but then she didn’t need to know that.

“What kind of cases do you get?”, she enquired putting on an air of polite curiosity.  That was my first inkling that she may have actually come to see me under the pretext of waiting for the browsing centre to open.  Who uses a browsing centre these days, anyway?

I am straight, if anything. “Just the usual.  Tracking errant husbands, mostly”, I said with a smile that I hoped conveyed sympathy, empathy and understanding.  I caught my reflection in the glass door behind her and noticed that my smile looked like a leer. I cut the smile quickly lest she saw it and bolted.

I could see she was still hesitant and so, I added, in an effort to sound dependable and trustworthy, “Nothing dramatic or earth shattering, but we are discreet as our name states”.  I think it worked, for, she opened up after that.

“I think my husband is seeing someone”, she said, her voice low and eyes downcast. I sighed inwardly. How many ever times I find myself in this position, I cannot even begin to understand it.  How could it be that one man’s beauty is another man’s neglected wife? “Do you know or are you just suspecting?”, I asked gently.

“It’s not the first time and I know the signs”, she confessed. “Only this time, he is spending a lot more money and time. I am worried he might leave me”, she continued.

“Are you looking for a divorce?”, I asked her wanting to know where this was headed.

She looked genuinely shocked. “No! I love my husband and I think he loves me too!”.

Before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “Then why is he seeing someone else?”.

“Maybe she is fair”, she responded, despondency filling her voice.  It was heart-rending to see such a beautiful woman, whose complexion many other women would die for, looking dispirited and crestfallen because she wasn’t fair! Why are Indians, both men and women, obsessed with white skin, I wondered, cursing whichever evolutionary vestige it was that made us all this way.

“So, how would you like me to help?”, I prodded gently.

“I want you to find out who he is seeing and stop it somehow”, she said entreatingly.  “I’ll pay you”, she added unnecessarily.

I could find out who her husband was seeing. That wouldn’t be very challenging.  But to stop them from seeing each other, I wasn’t too sure.  Should that even be part of the detective’s repertoire?  But, I have never been able to refuse a beautiful woman, and I wasn’t going to start now.

“Let us take it one step at a time.  I will first find out who she is.  Then, maybe I can figure out how to stop the affair from continuing”, I suggested, not wanting to outright deny her request.

She was fine with that, for the time being.  She filled out the agreement, gave me my retainer in cash and still playing the charade, said “maybe the browsing centre is open now”, and left.

All next week, I followed the husband from the time he left home till he got back.  On Monday, he left home with his briefcase and lunch box, drove to the office, stayed there all day, and returned home by eight in the evening.  Uneventful.  If he was having an affair with someone in the office, it was going to be a bit of a challenge. Tuesday turned out to be pretty much the same.  I was getting worried.  An office affair was beginning to look like the likeliest scenario.  But, on Wednesday, the routine changed.  After lunch he drove to an independent bungalow in Gandhi Nagar, Adyar, stayed there for a couple of hours and returned to his office. He was back home as usual by eight. Thursday, once again turned out to be uneventful. Friday was again a repeat of the Wednesday routine.

The next week, I plonked myself outside the Adyar bungalow, taking pictures of all the comings and goings.  Simultaneously, I made a few discreet enquiries about the residents of the bungalow.

Gradually a clear picture emerged. The two-storey bungalow was the residence of a very pretty, dusky actress, who I shall not name for various reasons. Her first film, released about ten years ago, when she must have been about 18 years old, was a big hit.  Unfortunately, she did not get any offers after that, for whatever reason. At 28 though, she was well past her prime, and unlikely to get any more meaty roles in the Tamil film industry, which like all the other film industries, values youth, especially in their heroines, over everything else. A sad story, made sadder by the fact that it is all too commonplace.

This actress, who actually resembled my client quite a bit, by the way, shared the residence with her parents, both in their mid-50s. The parents who occupied the top floor, as far as I could tell, did not seem to be gainfully engaged, which, in all probability, meant that they were entirely reliant on this out-of-work actress to bring in the moolah. And the only way she could do that, given the state of her career, was to let herself and her beauty get exploited. Which the parents did fairly successfully.

Having seen and heard about so many such cases, for the city is full of failed actresses, I knew how the scheme worked.

An unhappily married, well-to-do gentleman is identified and cultivated.  The actress then professes her undying love for the man and wishes they could get married, knowing fully well that the man is unlikely to leave his wife.  Gradually, ostensibly despite her better judgement, she gets into a physical relationship with the man.  The mother plays the role of a sympathetic elder, and starts treating the man like her son-in-law, but blows-hot, blows-cold about his continued refusal to divorce his wife and marry her daughter.  The mother-daughter pair then pretend that all this is hidden from the father because he would raise the roof if he were to know about these goings-on.  Which of course meant that the relationship had to be clandestine from all sides, thereby ensuring that the man’s visits are restricted to specific times when the father was supposedly unlikely to be at home.

The man, thus caught in this love triangle, is then made to feel guilty and manipulated to assuage his guilt by supporting the actress and her family financially.

There may be minor variations, but largely this is how the con plays out. Sometimes the poor actress actually falls in love with the mark and suffers and on rare occasions, the man divorces his wife and marries her.  But most of the time though, there are no “happily-ever-after” outcomes for the actress, the man or his wife, for that matter.

As time goes by, the possibility of any positive outcome for the actress become more unrealistic and so, to save up for the day when her beauty deserts her completely, she takes on one or two additional marks, who all follow a fixed timetable driven by the “angry father” ensuring that the marks are forever unaware of each other’s existence.

In the case of our still-beautiful, but pushing-thirty actress, there were two marks being played, one being the husband of my client.

I had once been an amateur bird photographer. Like many of my compatriots in the software industry, I had splurged on the best of photographic equipment including super powerful zoom lenses and travelled around the country disturbing birds so I could put up some amazing pictures on social media and impress friends.  Thankfully for the birds, I had soon realized that I was doing them more harm than good and had stopped my ill-conceived activities.  The camera and the lenses had then been consigned to a desiccator in the guest room at home that no one used.  I was glad to put them to use for a better purpose this time around.

I took detailed photographs of both the men entering and exiting, one on Wednesdays and Fridays and the other on Mondays and Thursdays. I also got a few less-than-perfect snaps of the men sitting next to the actress through the window and billowing curtains.  I contemplated following and finding out more about the other man, but lazily decided that that was not germane to the case at hand.  That proved to be a mistake. Or not, depending on whose point of view one took. As it happened, it turned out to be a problem for the other man and a blessing for my client and myself actually.

Armed with the photographs, I visited the husband at his office, gaining an appointment as a potential vendor.  By then, I had worked out a clear strategy as to how I would break it to him that his affair was known and how I would go about ensuring that he terminated it forthwith.

I introduced myself as a detective who had a delicate matter to discuss.  I then told him that in the process of following another man, I had stumbled upon his affair with the beautiful actress. He denied it immediately, of course, but then I told him I had photos to prove it.  I then proceeded to take out photos of him going in and out of the actress’ bungalow.

Then, to demonstrate that the actress was not worthy of his affection, or guilt for that matter, I showed him similar photos with the other man entering and exiting the same house.  Unfortunately, and here is something I had not anticipated, the other man turned out to be this man’s brother-in-law!  I cursed myself for not having done my homework.

Thankfully, it did not derail my strategy.  In fact, it worked far better than I had anticipated, because the double blow of the betrayal and the fact that he was sharing a woman with his brother-in-law, somebody he clearly despised, was too much for him to bear.  He wanted to immediately go and confront his paramour, but I advised him to calm down and desist.  Which he did, after a while. Then, quite predictably, he offered to buy his photos from me for a nice sum.  I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I obliged.  I also confessed that I had a second set at the office and promised him that I would destroy those as well.  He had no other option but to trust me, which he did grudgingly.

We sat for some time in companionable silence, him getting to terms with the current state of his affairs, so to speak, and me wanting to ensure that he didn’t do anything stupid on impulse. Gradually, I could see him coming to the realization that it was all for the good.  He could now happily call off the relationship, stop feeling guilty and get back to being faithful to his wife, who he confessed he did really love.  “I am sure you do”, I said, and added “By the way, I don’t know if you noticed, but this actress bears an uncanny resemblance to your wife. Marginally less pretty but younger version of your wife, I should think. I am sure that is something you may want to ponder over”.

He was completely taken aback by my parting remark.  Bamboozled is how I can best describe it. While he was thus floundering, I took leave, fully satisfied that my mission had been successfully accomplished.

Only, after returning to the office, my overactive sense of justice refused to let me enjoy my success.  Thanks to my carelessness, I had exposed the brother-in-law’s shenanigans to this man.  It had been completely unnecessary and now I had put another man, a stranger, at a complete disadvantage.  I knew I wouldn’t sleep till I fixed it somehow.

After anguishing over this for a couple of days, I decided to go and meet the brother-in-law and somehow set the record straight.

I waylaid him the next Monday outside the bungalow, and convinced him to get into my car.  There I shared the photos I had shown my client’s husband and gave him the same spiel about having inadvertently acquired these pictures during the course of another investigation.  Relieved that he was not the target, he gracefully accepted the situation, the end of his affair, the impasse between him and his brother-in-law, and my advice to quietly walk away.  He also insisted on buying his photos for a tidy sum even though I told him I was planning to destroy them anyway.  There were gift horses everywhere, it appeared.

On my part, I was happy I had at the very least levelled the field, and returned to my den in high spirits.  I quickly destroyed all the photos I had relating to this case before I could have any second thoughts.

Just as I was about to call Govind over to share a beer and celebrate another successful case, my bloody sanctimonious sense of justice reared its ugly head again.  I could not, in good conscience, absolve myself of the fact that in one fell swoop, I had completely destroyed the entire revenue stream of that poor actress.  Govind and the beer forgotten, I sat alone and nursed a bottle of cheap whiskey through the night.

Next morning, hungover and maudlin, I decided to do something about it.

A couple of days later, I bumped into the actress at a social do.  She was looking a bit frazzled and maybe even a little desperate. Poor thing. My heart went out to her. I got into a conversation with her and, at some point in time, I may have created an impression that I was a well-heeled but unhappy-in-marriage business man.  Mostly true, except for the married bit.

A week later, I made a small change on my neon board right next to where it says “Sunday Holiday”.  Now the sign reads “Sunday Holiday.  Also unavailable on Tuesdays and Thursdays, between 2 PM and 5 PM”.

I think it was  an equitable solution all around.

Case 2: Of borrowings and refunds September 16, 2018

Posted by globejam in fiction, Uncategorized.
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DevsBoardHi! I don’t think I have introduced myself properly yet.  I am Dhanajayan, the detective from Dev’s discreet detective agency. Friends call me Dhana. Just to be clear, there is no Dev at the agency. It’s just me, a one-man army.  I got sick of working for the software industry and decided to do something more exciting with my life. So, I started this company. With no prior background in this sort of thing. Which should not matter, though.  Can you name a single private detective who came through a detecting school? I didn’t think so.

Anyway, life, as they say, is the biggest training ground. And I am getting trained everyday, and the lessons are coming thick and fast.  I am learning about the world at large, people in general and some surprising things about myself.

One of the first things I learnt was that, despite years of trying the abolish it, the caste system is still deeply and inextricably entrenched in our society. Also, that the associated stereotyping is second nature to us.  I knew this already of course, I am not naive.  But it hit me nevertheless during my first encounter with one of my neighbours.

That neighbour being the owner of Govind’s motorbike service centre.  I assumed the big guy who ran the show was Govind, unless he had also named his business after an imaginary partner. I waited for a week for him to be neighbourly and visit me and welcome me to the area.  I even stacked my fridge with some sweets, soft drinks and a few pints of beer in anticipation.  However, he did not make his approach though I did see him glance my way once in a while, when he thought I was not looking. Bored with waiting, I decided to extend the olive branch myself.

So, when there was a lull at the workshop, I decided to walk across and introduce myself.  The big guy was sitting on the floor dissecting a carburettor.  I went up to him and said “Hi” and introduced myself as the guy from next door. He looked up at me, and without any preamble asked “Iyer’a?”. Presumably just based on my complexion.  He didn’t care to know my name, or what I did.  All he wanted to know was my caste and if I was a Brahmin.

“Telugu”, I replied, not wanting to be stereotyped. It was a brilliant gambit. I could explain why, but, like Fermat once famously wrote, this margin is too narrow to contain it.  Suffice to say that it was a valid response, perfectly acceptable and yet quite inconclusive. “Telugu” isn’t even a caste as you all know, just my mother-tongue. What I conveyed with that one word was I was willing to answer his questions, very personal though they may be, quite ready to play the game and yet I was beyond his stereotyping capacity. I could almost see him mentally slot me into his “unknown” bin.  Which was good enough for me.

We chit-chatted for a bit. I explained what I did, found out his name was Govind as I had suspected, and then invited him to drop into my office in the evening on his way home and left.  I was glad when he turned up.  I offered him a beer much to his surprise, and smoothly moved from “unknown” to “Telugus are cool”.

One day, Govind brought a friend of his who needed my help. “This is my friend Velu. I promised him that you would look into his case”, said Govind. Velu was wearing Ray Ban shades, Levi’s jeans and an Indian Terrain shirt. But the frame was taped up on one side, the jeans were threadbare and the shirt was missing the top button.  He looked like a once prosperous man fallen on hard times.

“How can I help?”, I asked.  “A guy owes me money and I need it back, desperately. Govind here thinks you can help”, he said in a voice that distinctly lacked hope.

It was not the kind of work I had imagined when I decided to start my detective agency.  “I am not sure I can help you. I don’t do that kind of work”, I said and suggested that he look for a collection agent.  Velu gave Govind an “I-told-you-so” look and got up to leave. Govind, however, held him firmly by the wrist and reprimanded him. “Wait. Don’t be so negative.  At least let us tell him what it is about.  I am sure he will have some suggestions”.

While Velu sat there with a sullen expression, Govind filled me in on the details. Velu had been renting an apartment in an upmarket gated community on Old Mahabalipuram Road called “The Bellevue heights”.  Due to a change in circumstances, he had had to move into a smaller establishment.  The owner of the property, however, had not refunded the sizeable rental deposit when he vacated.

Like in many similar cases, the owner had initially promised to refund the money as soon as he found a new tenant.  Afterwards, he had postponed it by giving some excuse or the other.  Three months later, he had stopped responding to Velu’s calls completely.  Velu had been unable to trace the owner after that.

Finding a missing person sounded like something a detective might do.  So, I told him I would look into it.  “What about the fees?”, asked Velu.  I thought about it and told him I would go with a result-based fee.  “I’ll take 10% of what I get back from the house owner.  If I fail, you owe me nothing”, I offered.  Velu seemed happy with that, and Govind appeared grateful.

Later I asked Govind about Velu’s riches-to-rags story.  “Drinks uh?”, I asked, thinking maybe alcoholism was the issue.  “Drugs, actually”, responded Govind, with a sardonic smile. ” Velu was a successful entrepreneur running a profitable rivet manufacturing factory.  Two years ago, his daughter was diagnosed with some congenital condition.  The cost of medicines, doctors’ fee, and the hospital bills have wiped him out”, he told me without going into too much detail.  I chastised myself for jumping to conclusions. I learnt that I wasn’t above some stereotyping, myself. Not something a detective should do, I noted.

Velu gave me a copy of the rental agreement.  The house owner’s name was given as Rajeev Shukla.  “Saettu” said Govind nodding his head sagely, at his stereotyping best.  “Saettu” is a loose term referring to any North Indian involved in money lending, particularly those Jains who run pawn broker shops.  I tried explaining to Govind that Shukla was a fairly common North Indian surname and that not every North Indian is a Saettu and not every Saettu is a bad guy.  Govind nodded as though we were on the same page and said “bloody thieving Saettu”. I gave up.

I started with Shukla’s last known address and phone number as given in the rental agreement.

I called the number, but it was no longer in use.  That would have been too easy. The address was that of an apartment complex in MRC Nagar by the sea.  Another fairly upmarket place.  I borrowed a bike from Govind. “Please return it by 5 PM today”, said Govind, “the owner is coming to pick it up by six”. I updated the definition of the word borrowed in my head and promised to return the bike well in time and took off to track down the address.

I found the building quite easily. I asked the security at the gate if Mr. Shukla lived there.  “He does and he doesn’t”, he said with a grin. I laughed and slipped him some money and said “Here’s something for your tea”. I had never bribed anyone before, but it came easy. He took the money happily and reeled off “He sneaks in once or twice a week, but at odd hours.  If you are a detective, you can stand in that tea shop across the gate and watch out for him.  I hope you know what he looks like. The owner of the tea shop knows the drill and will let you stay as long as you buy some tea and biscuits once in a while.  If you are a lawyer trying to serve notice, please go through that entrance there, take the elevator to the 4th floor, turn right and the apartment is at the end of the corridor.  You can leave your legal notice on top of the pile that is already there”.

He saw my jaw drop and laughed.  “You are not the first person to come here, you know?”.  I didn’t think Velu had sent other people over. So, Mr. Shukla must be doing this to other tenants as well, I surmised.  I told the security man that I wished to see the place once and followed his directions to the apartment.

A pile of legal notices greeted me just as I had been told.  A cursory glance showed that some of the notices were pretty old.  I guessed he had not touched them at all so that he could deny receiving them.  I collected all of them, shoved them into my pockets, went down, thanked the helpful man and left telling him I would be back in a day or two with my own legal notice.

Back at the office, I opened and went through all the legal notices.  Yes. I know. I stole them, and it is probably a cognizable offense. But it was in the pursuit of justice and I was not going to lose sleep over it.  That day I learnt I was not too fixated on legalities.  It was a good thing too, for I would not get too far being law-abiding in these parts.

After poring over all the unnecessary legalese, what emerged was that this Shukla owned at least seven apartments across town and he had reneged on the advance to at least 2 or 3 of his last tenants at each apartment. It looked like our man had a handy sum that didn’t belong to him.

I collated the names and contact details of all the tenants and that of the associated lawyers and then resealed the notices as best as I could.  I then went back and under the pretext of adding one more notice, replaced all of them.  For good measure, I shoved some of them under the door so they were inside the house now, making future denials more difficult.

On my way out, I asked the friendly security if he had a picture of the owner that I could use.  I hadn’t expect a positive answer, but to my surprise he said, “Just a sec.  One of your predecessors dropped a photo. Will check if I still have it”.  He then rooted around his desk for some time and came back triumphantly holding a passport photo of a middle-aged, rotund, Saettu-ish looking man.  I was thrilled and promised him a bottle of rum.  He was thrilled in turn.  “Do give me a call when he turns up next, whatever the time”, I told him.  I knew the promise of the bottle would keep him vigilant.

Over the next three days, I worked the phone and the internet looking for the people in my list. By the time my patience ran out, I had tracked down 15 of Shukla’s gypped tenants.  The story was the same.  He had promised to return the money after they vacated, postponed the payment by giving excuses, changed his telephone number and dropped out of sight.  Ten of them had filed police complaints and some had bribed the area beat cops to track him down, all to no avail.  At their wits end, most of them had hired lawyers to serve legal notices, which, of course, had resulted in tiddly-squat.  Not knowing what to do subsequently and not wanting the lawyers to keep charging them a retainer, they had all given up and moved on.  Most were happy to hear from me and some promised to give me as much as 50% of what I could collect from Shukla.

I finally decided to charge 20% for those who had vacated within the last two years and 30% for older cases. Everyone was happy with the deal. I made the necessary retainer agreements, borrowed one of the mechanics from Govind’s joint to go around and got them all signed.  I had 16 clients now. Business was booming.  All I had to do was find Shukla and get him to cough up the money.

I went through all the rental agreements. Though the phone numbers given in all the agreements were different, the address of the owner was the same as that listed in Velu’s. I tried the numbers and found they were all either no longer in use or had been reassigned to somebody else.  Shukla, being a fairly common name, neither Facebook nor Google helped, each throwing up a number of Rajeev Shuklas none of whom looked anything like our elusive target.  Given that he was in his mid-fifties, it was unlikely that he was active on social media.  If I could somehow find his children, I felt I would be able to eventually track him down quite easily.

I knew I would have to turn to the government for help.  I generally hate dealing with the lower rung public servants because they are a pain to work with.  They are tardy, inefficient and insolent. Worst of all, they make one wait indefinitely. Standing around decaying buildings that smell of urine was not my idea of a day in the life of a dashing detective.

Nevertheless, the next day, I went to the department in charge of collection of property tax and got the details of each of Shukla’s apartments.  It took the entire day, but at least I got all the publicly available information.  Armed with that, I went to the state registrations department website and filled in the details to get the encumbrance certificate for each of the properties.  Three days later, I got the certificates by email. Each certificate gave the details of all the owners of the property going back some 30 years. It cost me some money, but it was worth the price.

As I had expected, the senior Shukla owned only two of the apartments.  The rest were in the names of other family members.  Now that I had the names of his children and their addresses, it was easy to track him down.  I spent a few cigarettes waiting outside each of homes of the family members and eventually found him. He was living in an independent bungalow in the outskirts of town that was in the name of his wife. I spotted him going in and out a few times a day. He looked much older than in the photo.  He was also thinner and his hair was an ugly brown-red, most probably from using henna to dye his hair. Despite all that, he was very recognizable.

I came back and briefed Velu and Govind about my progress.  They were thrilled and I could see a glint of hope in Velu’s eyes and admiration in those of Govind.  I think I may have moved from “Telugus are cool” to “smart cookie” then.

Velu, being rather docile, felt we should get a lawyer, draw up a legal notice and deliver it to his house. Govind, rather more ready-to-rumble, couldn’t wait to lynch him.  I thought neither of these approaches was going to yield the result we wanted.  I asked them to hold their horses so I could come up with a plan.  Govind wanted blood, and soon, but agreed reluctantly that killing the “Saettu” wouldn’t be in Velu’s best interest.

Our “Saettu” was not going to be a simple push over. That much I knew. A man who had ignored multiple legal notices and still went about freely was not going to come clean because of one more such notice.  Going to the cops would also not help, I was sure.  Others had tried without success.  It wasn’t too inconceivable that Shukla had bribed the cops to let him be.  That pretty much left only one option.

The next day, on a borrowed bike, I ran a few errands.  I then had a haircut, styled the way cops are required to—very short on the sides.  I also bought khaki trousers and standard issue red-tan police shoes.  I wasn’t looking to impersonate an officer.  That would be trouble.  I just wanted to appear to be a cop in mufti.

Two days later, as planned, Govind and two of his assistants went in a borrowed car and parked themselves outside the bungalow.  Velu had wanted to join them too, but we thought it would be prudent not to have him  around, lest he be recognised. So, we told him to hold fort at my office and coordinate our communications.

I waited across the road, on a borrowed bike, at a spot that provided an unhindered view of the path that Shukla usually took.  I looked at my watch. It was 9 AM.

A short while later, Shukla came out of his house.  I signalled to Govind and pointed out the man.  Just as he came abreast of the car, one of the mechanics got down and told him that the gentleman in the back seat was searching for an address.  As Shukla came closer, strongman Govind, who was ready and waiting, pulled him in and closed the door.  The car pulled out smoothly into the sparse traffic, no one any wiser.  Inside, they blindfolded him and trussed him up right and proper.  I won’t go so far as to say we kidnapped him. Let’s just say we borrowed him for a while.

I followed the car and together we reached an incomplete and abandoned building on the other side of town which I had scouted out for our purpose. There was no one around and we managed to carry him up and lock him in the elevator engine room at the top of the building.  We left him there to stew for a couple of hours, with one mechanic to guard the room.

Later Govind and I went back to see how he was faring.  I had expected him to be soft and pliable by then.  Instead we found him to be quite a handful, cursing, ranting and threatening to call the police and have us jailed.  Govind looked like he was going to slap him.  Worried that Govind’s large palms might kill him, I took it upon myself and gave Shukla a tight slap and asked him to shut up.  I found I wasn’t averse to a little violence.  The rat immediately changed tack and started wailing and saying how he was not well, had just recovered from a heart attack, had stents inserted and how if we touched him again, he might just fall down and die.  I slapped him again and told him I didn’t care if he died as that was the idea in any case. He fell silent for a while after that.

My slaps had loosened his blindfold just a bit so he got a quick glimpse of my police-officer like appearance. That turned the screws a bit more. For the next half-hour Govind and I carried out a whispered conversation just within Shukla’s earshot.  We made sure he heard words like “evening”, “after dark”, “gun”, “dispose of”, and “lake bottom”.  By then, I guess all the unaccustomed action and adrenaline had made us all light-headed.  Govind started whispering phrases like “gear shaft” and “brake fluid” when he ran out of relevant terms, which got Shukla into a right tizzy.  I thought our uncontrollable giggles were going to give us away, but I guess it just made the situation more macabre for Shukla.

Finally, when I felt Shukla was softened enough and we had regained our senses, I walked up to him and told him that some people he had cheated were paying me to shoot him in an “encounter”. He knew just as well as everybody else what that entailed—a gun shot at point blank range by a cop.

Despite the precarious position he was in, the cunning bastard had his wits about him. Exactly as I had hoped.  He asked me how much I was being paid.  I gave him the total he owed all my clients.  “Let me go and I will give you more than that”, he implored. I told him I was a man of my word and it was too late to bribe me. I also told him to repent for his crimes and make peace with his God for later that evening it would all be over. Then we locked up the room and left.

An hour later he was offering to pay double if only we could let him live.  I told him I might consider letting him go, if he could make good his promise within the next hour or so.  He said he could not arrange for that kind of money so quickly and tried to buy some time.  However, I knew that we could not prolong this charade for long without facing complications.  I did not want to hold him overnight and run the risk of his wife filing a missing person’s report. So, I tightened the screws a bit more by telling him it wasn’t in my hands as I was only following the orders of my senior officer.

Thirty seconds later, he borrowed his phone back from us and called his wife and asked her to keep all his cheque books and bank pass book ready as someone was coming to pick them up.  Velu from my office made the necessary arrangements and by 3 PM, one of Govind’s assistants was back with the books.  We still had 2 hours before the banks closed for the day.

We went through all the passbooks and found that he had just about enough to cover all that he owed his tenants.  Only, it was all spread across half-a-dozen different accounts.  Working against the clock, we got him to make out bearer’s cheques for the required amount. A bunch of Govind’s assistants went around to the banks and we had all the cash in hand before the working day ended.

Velu, all excited, joined us at the abandoned building despite our advice against it.  He appeared very keen to know how it had all gone down.  He was ecstatic when he heard that I had slapped him.  “Did he flinch? Did he cry?  Did he pee his pants?”, he wanted all the details.  “Why don’t you slap him too?”, I offered, the residual effects of the adrenaline-high still very much present. To my surprise, Velu nodded his head, excitement palpable in his face.  Govind had another giggling fit.

After recovering, Govind blind-folded Shukla again and Velu gleefully slapped him a couple of times. It appeared that even docile people were happy to resort to violence if they believed they could get away with it.

It was getting dark by then and so we packed up and dropped Shukla a kilometre from his house. I warned him that I may not be the only one contracted to kill him and that if he knew what was good for him, he would leave the city immediately and not come back for a year or so.  He nodded his head and started making a beeline to his house without as much as a backward glance.

By 8 PM, Govind, Velu and I were holding refreshing bottles of beer in hand and celebrating our first success together.

I decided not to charge Velu the 10%.  The next day, I sent the rest of the money minus my commission to my other clients.  I paid Govind and his team for their services and hand-delivered a bottle of rum to the security chap. I accounted for my expenses and paid myself a decent fee for the hours I had spent on the case.  After all that, there was still a sizeable amount left.

I loaned it to Velu on payable-when-able terms so he could re-start his business.

My first case. September 10, 2018

Posted by globejam in fiction.
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DevsBoardI used to be a software engineer.  Now I am a professional detective running my own agency. Less stressed definitely, though a whole lot poorer.

My office, such as it is, is in the corporation complex close to my house. I rented one of the shops there and turned it into my office. It’s not much of an office, but then my clients don’t just walk in (at least not yet), so it doesn’t quite matter that it is no more than a hole in the wall sandwiched between a bike workshop and a seedy browsing centre. The only saving grace for the complex is that they allow you to put a huge sign at the main gate.  Mine is a big and bright neon board. The letters blink every now and then and there is a very annoying but hard to ignore blinking line that keeps running around the edge of the board.  Quite mesmerizing.  The name’s nice too – Dev’s discreet detective agency.

Of course, you know my name is not Dev, but I like the sound of it. Alliterative.  Besides, when I introduce myself as partner, people immediately think that this is more than a one-man outfit. I try not to lie.

If somebody asks about my background, I tell them I used to work in secure international police ops.  I don’t know what that means, but the last software project that I ran was an SAP implementation managing the HR and benefits records for the NYPD.  I try not to lie.

My ex-colleagues sniggered, not always behind my back, when I told them about my career move.  “Don’t wait for a dusky blonde with a cigarette dangling from her ruby red lips to come looking for you”, they joke, whenever I meet them.  “You would be surprised. Meenamma, who I have hired to clean the office, fits the description, almost.  She is dusky if not blonde, prefers beedis to cigarettes, but definitely has ruby red lips thanks to the betel leaves she chews”, I respond, getting them to laugh with me instead of at me.

“Besides, I am much better off now…”, I continue sometimes, if I am in the mood for it. “…Unlike you stiffs, I can sit back in my office with my legs up on the table and smoke all I want.  And I have got a bottle of premium whiskey in the bottom drawer of my table, for anytime I fancy a drink”, I say, much to their envy-tinged amusement. I really do keep a bottle of whiskey in the bottom drawer, just not a very expensive one.

My first case came from a software company. “Is this the Dave Detective Agency?”, asked a man with an American accent.  I changed my voice a bit and responded, “Yes. How may we help you?”.  “Could I talk to Dave, please?”, he asked solicitously, “I wish to discuss something in the strictest confidence”.  I asked him to wait, put my phone on hold for a few seconds and then, in my normal voice told him that Dev was not available at the moment, but I would be happy to help. Like I said, I try not to lie.

After introductions he said “I have a sensitive matter I need looking into. Some money is missing in my office”. It turned out to be only a few thousand rupees and I told him it was too small a matter for me and maybe he should just call the police and have them look into it.  Even though it was the first call I was getting from a prospective client, I was not keen on taking on an assignment that seemed unlikely to pay. After all, I thought, I can’t possibly demand a fee that exceeded the money that was missing!

He said that he did not want to go to the police for a few reasons which he would tell me once I got to his office.  I demanded a hefty fee, plus expenses hoping to shake him off, but he agreed to the amount quite readily.  I wondered if I had asked for too little, but shrugged it off and told him I would come and meet him the next day.

I did a bit of background checking, mostly LinkedIn, FB and Google and found out that Kamalanathan, now calling himself Nathan, the guy who had called me, was the MD and Chief Evangelist of a 300-people software company with its offices in the centre of the city.  Like many of his ilk, he ran an outsourcing company in Chennai catering to his clientele in the US, which explained the accent.

I met him at his office the next morning. He seemed like a decent guy. He wanted the culprit found. Though it was not a big sum, this was not something he wanted to ignore. And he did not want the police involved as there were several loyal and long-term employees whom he did not want harassed.  In addition, apparently the Inspector of the area wanted a job for his daughter in this office which Nathan was not keen on providing as the daughter was not properly qualified.  Going to the cops would mean there would have to be some quid pro quo, which he was not ready for.

I asked for the list of people who had access to the petty cash box from which the money had been taken along with their personnel records.  Surprisingly, there were only a few names, all of them from the administrative side. Nathan parted with the list very hesitantly as he believed none of them was capable of stealing.  He gave me a free hand to proceed as I deemed fit, his only request being that I deal gently with everyone concerned.  I told him I would come in the next day and in the meantime, he should tell these people that a detective would be coming around and they should be open and helpful.

As I was leaving I noticed that the office had CCTVs installed, so I went back and asked for copies of the tapes for as far back as I could get.  He promised to furnish whatever was available in a day or two.  He was not even sure if the cameras were recording as no one had checked the footage since their installation two years earlier.  I knew this was the case in most places and was quite prepared to hear this answer, so I was not too disappointed.

The next day Nathan allowed me to use his room to meet the employees I wanted to interview as he was going to be in meetings all day. I decided to meet the few that had a free run of the admin section.

The first guy was a Nepali. He introduced himself as Balaji. I wondered what kind of a Nepali had a name like that! “My name is Bibek, actually”, he confessed upon prodding, and went on to explain why everyone called him Balaji. Apparently, his predecessor 10 years ago had been a Balaji, and that name had been foisted on him the day he had joined. No one, it seemed, had even bothered to find out what his actual name was. I felt a little sad on hearing that. I was sure he did too, not that he said anything.

“So, what do you do?”, I asked. He said he was the watchman for the admin section, though from his account of what he did, he was anything but. Like in so many other such small companies, as a watchman, he made coffee, ran errands for the other employees and slept in office at night. That last part was the “watchman” bit.

He had a room upstairs where he kept his things.  He took me there. It was just one small room with a rolled-up mattress at one end, clothes strewn everywhere and a small stove and some utensils at the other end. No other possessions. He appeared to be one of the poor people who have very little need for money. I let him get back to work and returned to Nathan’s room.

The next guy I met was Santosh. He knocked hesitantly on the door and entered looking every bit guilty and scared. He was wearing a white shirt that was threadbare and frayed around the collar.  He looked poor and in need of money.  He had a terrible stutter probably made worse by my very presence.  It took an inordinately long time and the patience of the Dalai Lama to find out that he was a data entry operator in the accounts department. Not wanting to prolong my agony further, I told him I knew a lot of things and was going to call him back again and that he should be ready to speak the truth if he knew what was good for him and then dismissed him. I was glad he didn’t soil his trousers.

It was nearing lunch time by then and so, I decided to meet the others later in the day.  Just as I was leaving, Kannan, the admin manager came with the tape from the CCTV. “I checked and it has last month’s footage. Hope it helps”, he said.  It was the first time I was meeting him.  He was looking dapper in a Burberry shirt and jeans. “Let’s catch the crook quickly. This can’t happen on my watch”, he said, rather pompously.  I nodded and made a mental note to check out how he was able to afford such expensive brands.  I took the tape from him and told him I would like to meet him later in the afternoon and left.

As it turned out, I spent the entire afternoon going through the tape and so did not meet anybody else that day.  Which turned out to be a blessing as the tape eliminated a whole bunch of people who never went anywhere near the petty cash box at any time. In fact, the only people who could have taken the money turned out to be the Bibek, Santosh and Kannan.

Later that night, I went through the personnel records again. Surprisingly Bibek was earning more than Santosh. While Bibek probably deserved what he got, it certainly looked like Santosh had got a raw deal. Kannan, on the other hand, wasn’t earning quite enough to afford the kind of clothes he was wearing.

The next day I decided to pay a visit to Kannan’s home, before he left for office.  The apartment he shared with his wife and two children was on the tenth floor of a sea facing building in a fairly upmarket locality.  I rang the bell and he opened the door already dressed and ready to leave for the office.  He was a little surprised to see me, understandably.  Nevertheless, he invited me in warmly.  I took the seat offered and gave the room a quick once-over. The house, at least what I could see from where I was seated, was tastefully decorated, and expensively, if I were to hazard a guess.

“Do you always leave this early?”, I asked.  “I drop my children at school and then my wife at her office, so if we don’t leave at this time, I will not make it in time for office”, he explained, hinting that it may not be the most convenient time for my visit.

I ignored the hint and complimented him on his fine house.  He seemed pleased and appeared to relax a bit after that.  We made some small talk about schools and what his children did before I managed to find out that his wife ran a placement agency. By then I could see he was getting a little impatient while also clearly curious as to why I was there at his place.  I set him at ease by saying I was there because I wanted to check if he had any suspects and that I did not want to ask him at the office for obvious reasons. He said he didn’t think anyone was capable of stealing as everyone in his department had been there for quite a long time and this kind of thing had never happened before. I thanked him for his inputs and left.

I crossed the road, went to the corner shop and got myself a cigarette.  Before I could finish it, I saw Kannan and his family leave in a new SUV.

It was still early and I decided to catch Santosh at his home before going to Nathan’s office. Twenty minutes later I was walking down the narrow streets of Mylapore looking for his house. There was still about an hour and half left before Santosh had to be in office, so I was pretty sure he would still be in.  It took me another 20 minutes and a couple of false turns before I found myself standing outside a tiny one-bedroom tenement.  I knocked and Santosh opened the door and immediately became a blubbering idiot.  “Who is that?”, screamed a voice from inside. It sounded like it may be his mother. “Tell her it is a colleague”, I suggested gently, worried that he might faint or worse, tell her a detective had come knocking!

“Colleague, Amma”, he said, confirming my guess. He stood there with a ladle in his hand, staring at me like I had come to arrest him.  “Is that Dilip?” asked his mother.  I used that opportunity to say “No, not Dilip”, and pushed past him. The house was tiny. I was standing in the hall. There were two doorways, one leading to the room his mother was in and through the other, I could see the kitchen. Just then, the cooker hissed and Santosh went back to the kitchen, and I moved to say hello to his mother.

She was lying in bed, a bit over-weight and definitely looking unwell.  “Come in and sit near me”, she said sweetly and added, “It’s nice to see one of Santosh’s friends.  We hardly have any visitors”. There was just one chair near her and I took it.  “It’s just me and Santosh here. Poor child does all the work. Glad he has made a new friend”, she said. I nodded my head, not knowing what to say. She held my hand tightly and closed her eyes as though exhausted from our short conversation. A minute later, she was snoring softly.  I sat there for a few more minutes and then gently disengaged my hand from hers and tiptoed out of the room.

I went to the kitchen, took a chance and asked Santosh why he had taken the money. He confessed immediately, looking defeated. “Amma needed some medicines urgently”, he stuttered.  Then after a while, he took a long breath and said “Believe it or not, I only meant to borrow the money.  I was planning to replace it on salary day. It will never happen again.”.

I believed him, but I didn’t say so. “Take the day off today, and don’t tell anyone about our conversation just yet”, I told him and left.

I went back to my office to mull over what I had learnt that morning.  I made a few calls, including one or two to Santosh, searched the net for some specific information and prepared my report.

Santosh had committed a crime whatever the mitigating circumstances may have been. Nathan had hired me to find out who had taken the money and it was my duty to report my findings, irrespective of how I felt about it.

Additionally, though that had not been my mandate, I had found out that Kannan was scamming the company.  It was a crime that was fairly widespread among the tech companies, so it did not take a lot of sleuthing to crack it. Basically, Kannan was routing all resumes through his wife’s recruitment firm making money in the form of finder’s fee off every selected candidate.  I was duty bound to report that as well.

I fixed an appointment with Nathan for that evening and went and saw him.  “So, you have found out who took the money?”, he asked, looking pretty dejected himself. It appeared as though he was as reluctant to hear the details as I was to give it.

I took a chance and gave him two options.  I said, “I could give you this report and you can do what you need to do. Or I can have the “borrowed” money returned, guarantee, to the extent humanly possible, that it won’t recur and make three recommendations you can work on.  What would you like?”.

Nathan was a decent man and I had read him correctly.  Like a drowning man clutching at the lifesaver, with a huge sigh of relief, he grabbed my offer of the three recommendations.

I took the amount stolen from my wallet and put it on the table.  First, I told him to fire Kannan and explained why. He was disappointed but agreed that it was not possible to condone such behaviour.

Second, I asked him to give Santosh a raise so his salary was at least on par with the prevailing market rate.  Nathan was appalled at such a discrepancy and promised to rectify the situation with retrospective effect.

Last, I gave him my third recommendation and suggested that he order for some coffee for us.

Nathan opened his office door and hollered for all to hear “Bibek, Bibek, get us some coffee!”.

Through the half open door, I saw a beaming Bibek respond with an equally loud “Yes Sir!”.

I felt I may have earned my fee, after all.

The story guide September 5, 2018

Posted by globejam in fiction, Scepticism, Uncategorized.
5 comments

pitukulliI had been seriously depressed for a long time. Not for of any of the usual reasons, though.  I had a great job, interesting and remunerative. I had been blessed with a caring wife and two intelligent children.  All loving, caring and wanting to spend time with me. A wonderful house to call home with every creature comfort. An envious life with everything a man would ever want, it seemed, except happiness.

The world had disappointed me.  As had the human race.  We should have been living in a wonderful world where logic ruled, justice prevailed, and everyone was happy.  Like the world imagined in Star Trek. With Jean-Luc Picard at the helm. Instead, we were stuck in a nightmare filled with unthinking people who were spreading like cancer, depleting resources with no thought for tomorrow, and turning this fair earth into a huge pile of plastic.

It would not have affected me as much if not for my unwavering faith, undeniably misplaced, in the brilliance of the human brain. I had always believed in the potential of the human race. I was sure we would be able to reach the stars, conquer the laws of physics, spread far and wide across the universe, and who knows, maybe even eventually know the unknowable, given time.

Given time.  That was the problem.  We were not giving ourselves time.  Extreme short-sightedness and uncontrolled greed were robbing us of the opportunity to truly reach our potential.  It was a race between science and stupidity. And stupidity seemed to be running away with all the prizes.

I tried thinking of how I could help turn the tide.  I joined a few like-minded people and ran awareness programs about the ills of plastic.  I signed every campaign and petition that dealt with global warming or conservation related issues. I carried my own bags when I went shopping.  I even carried my own plates and spoons when I went to a party, until that is, the hosts stopped inviting me.  But, everything seemed to be grossly inadequate and I was just getting deeper and deeper into depression.

All my life, at least till recently, I had believed that I had a purpose in life. Nothing melodramatic. Not something big that I believed I had been specially chosen for. Nevertheless, a purpose.  To be a small cog in the larger scheme of things.  To help perpetuate mankind and mankind’s interest, to keep us in existence, to allow others people to be born, and to live, in the hope that random mutations and evolution would produce brilliant minds that would eventually crack the code and pave the way for a wonderful future.  But that hope had been steadily eroded until it had disappeared completely. Taking with it my sense of purpose.

At my darkest hour, I confided in a close friend. I had half expected him to laugh, but he remained sombre and patiently heard me out. Afterwards, very hesitantly, he told me that he knew someone who may be able to help.  I told him I did not want to meet any godmen or their ilk. “Just come and meet him once, if you don’t like it or it doesn’t help, walk out”, he said sounding reasonable. “To put your mind to rest though, he is not a godman.  He calls himself a story-guide and he helped me once…”, he continued.

Long story short, after much back-and-forth and endless internal debates, I decided to go and meet this story-guide, for whatever it was worth.

On the following Sunday, my friend took me to see this guy. We parked near the Royapettah clock tower and walked through the small by lanes of Triplicane.  After a few lefts and rights, we turned into a small dark passage sandwiched between two shops. A board tied to some electric cables above read Haleem Mahal. I followed him gingerly, bending down to avoid the wires dangling low across the passage while side-stepping puddles of water until we reached a sort-of open courtyard with two stories of small apartments all around.

We took the narrow stairs one flight up and entered an even narrower corridor.  On the right was the well of the courtyard and on our left were a row of single room tenements mostly doorless, some with just a cotton curtain providing a cursory measure of privacy. A sudden gust pushed aside a billowing curtain and I got a glimpse of a sparsely furnished room beyond. An old man was seated on the floor, unkempt and woebegone.  The place was depressing. And here I was searching for happiness. I averted my eyes and hurried forward.

We reached the last tenement. Unlike the others we had crossed, this one had doors – two narrow wooden ones, slatted, and green in colour. They were closed, but a hand-written board stating “Knock, door bell repair” told us what to do.  My friend rapped on the door quite loudly.  Several heads peeped out of the other houses.  “He could be sleeping…”, he explained, seeing my unease at all the attention we were attracting.

A minute or so later, the door was opened by a young man, about my age. He wore what is called a cut-banian (basically a sleeveless cotton vest) and a lungi (sarong). On his head was a colourful bandana and perched on his bridge were a pair of rose-tinted sunglasses. A “Pithukuli Murugadass meets John Lennon” look.  A bit of an overkill, but distinctive, nevertheless.  Which is probably the effect he wanted.  “Another frigging godman”, I thought to myself.

“Hi”, he said cheerfully and beckoned my friend to enter.  I stayed at the entrance, not knowing if I was included in the invite while also wondering if there was even space enough for all three of us inside. I am six-three and 110 Kgs. “Sankata pada beda, olagay ba” (Don’t feel delicate, please come in), he said and ushered me in with an extended arm.  I wondered fleetingly how he knew I spoke Kannada, but brushed that aside, assuming my friend might have briefed him. I was not predisposed to falling for such tricks.

We sat on the two small wooden stools he proffered while he himself went and sat on a pai spread on the floor with his back against the wall. On closer inspection, he appeared older than my initial assessment.  His complexion was sallow, probably from being cloistered in the window-less room, but his eyes were bright and inquisitive and his wide smile quite disarming.  He seemed to radiate good health and well-being, in stark contrast to the rest of the surroundings.

“So, Sridhar, what brings you here”, he asked, addressing my friend in proper English. “Thought it would be nice for my friend to meet you”, said Sridhar, and introduced me.  “So, you are the story maker, uh?!”, I said, half-question, half-joke, hoping to convey my scepticism about this meeting.  He answered with a half-laugh of his own, “Not story maker. I don’t make the story, you do.  I am just here to guide you”.  And in the same vein, he added, “And it’s not free.  2000 bucks up front. Entitles you to multiple iterations until you are satisfied with the story. No refund except at my discretion”.  He sounded like one of the online logo design companies.

I thought he was joking but quickly learnt otherwise. He ignored me and continued to talk to Sridhar about this and that until I gave him the money. Then he turned to me and asked “So, what’s your story?”. I told him that I was feeling sad and purpose-less.  I also explained why I was feeling that way.  Was I religious and did I believe in God, he wanted to know.  I told him I was a card-carrying atheist. “Umm…”, he said, stroking his chin like you see actors do to show they are doing some deep thinking. “So, you don’t believe in God, but you want a higher power to give you a purpose?”, he teased, and with a chuckle continued, “How does that work?”.

I made a mental note not to be misled by his tacky appearance. Forsaking my ready but flippant retort, I described what I had thought of as my purpose and argued that it had not required a God and neither should the new one.

“Ah! Ha!”, he exclaimed, “So you already have a nice story”.

“I did have one, I guess”, I said “only it doesn’t work anymore”.

“That’s ok.  Half our work is done.  You know how this all works already. All we need to do is to find you a new story that you can live with”, he said, as though it was fait accompli.

“I don’t know about that. But what I need is a purpose. After all,”, I asked, “don’t we all need a purpose to find happiness?”.

“Ah! So, you want happiness, not necessarily a higher purpose?”, he ventured.  I had to agree, though I confessed that a purpose would be nice to have. “Maybe, maybe not”, he said, “if happiness is what you seek, looking for something else can only be distracting. Most people believe that the route to happiness is through fame, money, sex, love, family, a new car, a bigger house, power, or even misery.  Yet, I can show you people with one or more or even most of the above and yet happiness eludes them. In their quest for what they believe to be transit points to happiness, they forget their real destination. While the route to these intermediate points may be clear, it is good to remember that the route from these to happiness continues to remain uncharted. There is no connecting flight to catch, or highway you can take, so to speak. For all you know, the route to happiness might be in the exact opposite direction!”.

“Anyway”, he continued, “since you want a purpose, let us work from that angle and go from there”.

“Most religions have nice stories to choose from.  You want to take a look at some of them?”, he enquired.

“Nah!”, I said. “Doesn’t seem to work for any of the religious minded, does it?”, I asked with a derisive laugh.

“No, it doesn’t…”, he agreed readily and added “…only because they don’t take ownership of the story.  For the story to work, you have to believe in it completely. Anyway, let’s take a step back and look at things. We have been given a life, but we don’t know what our purpose is.  Most religions assume that if there is a purpose for our life, it is something set by an external entity and not ourselves.  So, what are the possible scenarios?”, he asked.

If he was trying to convince me about the existence of God, then we would surely reach an impasse soon.  I didn’t want to go there. So, I said, “That means there is no purpose at all, then”.

“That is one possibility”, he conceded. “But let us look at all the options. First possibility is that there is a God and it has a purpose for us.  We may not understand what that is and it may not be essential that we do, in God’s scheme of things.  Like a sculptor making modern art, say, a completely incomprehensible carving.  The piece is practically useless, but the sculptor has a purpose for it.  He wants to convey something to the viewer, maybe even that not everything has to have a purpose. This scenario could mean that searching for a purpose is useless as it is unknowable to us. Score one point for searching for happiness directly.

The second possibility is that there is a God and it has a purpose. However, we may not have a purpose. So, neither do we know our purpose nor have we been created for an explicit reason.  The sawdust in a carpenter’s workplace is a good example.  It is a byproduct of the carpenter’s work and nothing more.  In this case again, searching for a purpose may be an exercise in futility as we would be searching for something that does not exist. One more point for the direct-to-happiness team!

The third possibility is a bit problematic.  There is a God and it has a purpose for us and it is something that we are supposed to find, though no guidance is given. Some people say they have found it, but we don’t know if it is true. If you believe somebody has found it and can teach you to find it too, you have to follow them, though there is no guarantee. Or you have to make your own way.

This is where a lot of godmen and charlatans find their opportunity.  They make their millions by promising to show you the way.  Personally, I don’t believe anyone who says they have found the meaning of everything, but that is just me.  As far as I can tell, there is no user manual here and asking others is unlikely to yield results. If you are going to go down this path, I would happily refund your money and say goodbye right now”.

I was beginning to like this guy. At least he seemed to be making sense though we were no closer to a solution for me. Worried he might chase me away, I reassured him that I was not looking to go down that path.

“Good!”, said he, and continued, “The final possibility is there was a creator – as opposed to an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent entity- who no longer exists or has no more say in how things proceed. Or everything has always been here, somehow. And we are all random creations in a random universe with no purpose whatsoever.  Searching for meaning in this scenario is again an exercise in futility”.

“So, you are suggesting that I stop looking for a purpose?”, I asked.

“That’s not what I am saying”, he countered. “Besides, I am not here to suggest anything.  My job here is to guide you to build a narrative that will lead you to happiness.  If purpose has to play a role in that narrative, we will incorporate it. It’s your story after all”.

“I want to have a purpose”, I said, a little petulantly.

“So be it”, he said like he was some sage out of Amar Chitra Katha.

“So, let’s see”, he began, with renewed vigour. “You are well-off, have everything you want in life, but are disgruntled with how things are progressing. You want hope for humanity, but our headlong rush towards self-destruction is precluding it.”, he summarized.  I nodded.  “You also don’t believe in an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God and have scant regard for religion and religious practices. OK so far?”, he continued. I nodded again.

“This new narrative that I will guide you to build is meant to help you to believe that your life has a purpose thereby giving you the fulfilment you require.  You could call it a delusion, or you could say you are cheating yourself, but nevertheless, you will have to believe in it totally for it to work. “Are you ready?”, he asked.

“I will try”, I said hesitantly, thinking who knew what I was signing up for here.

“That’s a start”, he said. “Anyway, luckily for you, you have unlimited iterations”, he said and chuckled.

“Here are some basic guidelines for you”, he said and stood up and turned towards the wall.  I was surprised to see there was a black board there painted on the wall, and I think he noticed that.  With a flourish, he then conjured up a chalk piece from somewhere and waited expectantly for me to be impressed.  I had seen enough close up magic on TV and elsewhere to fall for all this and I told him so. “Just force of habit, I am afraid”, he said with a grin and started writing on the board.

“One”, he said, as the chalk screeched its way across the board, “the story should be able to stand by itself”.

“Two”, he continued, “it should not go against your fondest hopes, beliefs, and preconceived notions. That way it will be more believable for you”. “Ok, so far?”, he asked, like my physics teacher from school.

I nodded and he continued, “Finally, it should not be disprovable in anyway.  Think about all this and get back to me when you have one or more story outlines”.  I think he meant for me to come back after a few days after formulating a few options.  I didn’t have the patience for that. “Can’t we work on the story now and finish it?”, I asked.

“By all means. I have all the time in the world”, he said with a smile and sat back on his pai. Sridhar, bored with our conversation, excused himself and left saying he had other things to do.

After he left, I realised I didn’t even know the name of this story guide.  So, I asked him.  “You can call me Sadananda”, he said and as if to tell me why, he put on a beatific smile and closed his eyes in meditation.  I guessed these minor shenanigans were second nature to him.

I sat quietly and pondered over all that he had said.  Over the next 3 hours we worked on the story and finally it was something that I could live with.

Happy to have found a narrative to my liking, I promised to try it out over the next few days, and come back if it needed further tinkering.

As I was leaving I wondered what his story might be, for he seemed quite content and, quite possibly, even happy, despite the squalor around him.  “So, what’s your story?”, I asked him jokingly mimicking his first question to me.

“I have no need for a story”, he said, “I am working towards becoming a mystic, a sort of new-age guru”.  Then he added, with a mischievous smile, “Currently, I am practicing the art of taking easy money off the hands of gullible people!”.

I laughed, not knowing how to react, and said “Good luck with that!”.

The stuff of legends. August 30, 2018

Posted by globejam in fiction, Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

chimi3Like many engineering colleges, ours was also well outside town, far away from civilization.  A sprawling campus spanning over 800 acres, it was practically a township by itself, in the middle of nowhere. A state highway, connecting two of the nearest towns, 30 kms away on either side, passed by, providing the sole link to the outside world.

Other than academic activities, not much happened on campus.  The only entertainment available was a weekly movie screened at the college theatre. Though the quality of the movies screened was never any good, they all ran to full houses as this provided the only legitimate opportunity for girls and boys to meet after dark.

For the slightly more adventurous, outside the campus, just across the main entrance was a shop run by an elderly couple that opened only late in the evening.  This was practically the only place that could be reached easily on foot.  It sold cigarettes and a midnight snack of kothu-parotta, a dish whose unique taste was definitely enhanced by the dirt accumulated under the cook’s finger nails. Some of us would be there till the wee hours of the morning, smoking, eating the parotta and an occasional omelette, while sitting on the edge of the road, getting a high from the night buses whizzing past, their wheels coming within inches of running us over.

For all other entertainment, we had to go to the nearest town, at least an hour’s bus ride away.

While the weekdays went by reasonably fast, thanks to classes from eight in the morning to half-past-four in the evening, weekends were rather lazy affairs with nothing much to do beyond lolling in bed and reading books.

It was one such slow Saturday, when three of us, Amol, Neerav and myself, with time on our hands, decided to go look for some grass that was rumoured to be cultivated by some of the more enterprising students.  We made a zigzag path to the outer ends of the campus hoping we would be able to spot the merchandize and maybe even borrow some if no one was around.  Unfortunately, the rumours were just that, or the crop had already been harvested, for we could see no trace of anything beyond the usual scrub.

Not willing to return empty handed, we decided to jump the fence and explore the outside as well before returning to our rooms.  It was just dry scrub everywhere, but it being an unusually pleasant day, we kept walking on and on, till we reached an old, abandoned ruin of a building.  It had just portions of the four walls standing, and no roof at all. Next to it was the remains of a public toilet, equally old but in slightly better shape.  We could see where the two doors had been, with the tell-tale pictures of a man and a woman to denote which section was the men’s and which the women’s.

Seeing the toilet reminded us that our bladders were full and we decided to rectify the situation.  While Neerav and I just found the nearest bush to irrigate, Amol, with his more evolved civic sensibilities decided to use the men’s section of the crumbling toilet.  After going in, he apparently found one ceramic urinal still standing and promptly whizzed into it.  Unfortunately for him, there was a wasp’s nest inside.  Even more unfortunately, a rather irritable wasp was residing there at that time. Annoyed at the sudden intrusion, it had promptly stung the source of the steady jet that was disturbing its peaceful afternoon siesta.

Just as Neerav and I were zipping up, we heard a keening sound and saw Amol running out of the toilet, screaming and flicking and fluttering his wrists up and down, his fingers just a blur, in an unmistakable, typically Indian gesture denoting severe pain.  Worried that a snake had bitten him, we tried to stop him, but he ran past us with barely a sign of recognition.

We ran behind him, but he was unusually fast that day and it was good 500 meters before we caught up with him, all of us panting for breath.  Amol was still hopping around and it took us a while before we could get anything coherent out of him. Finally, between heaving breaths he gasped, “Wasp!”.

“You got scared of a wasp?”, I asked with incredulity, while Neerav, relieved there was no snake involved, started giggling at Amol’s antics. Neerav’s threshold for hysteria was always pretty low and anything out of the ordinary pushed him into paroxysms of laughter. It was quite rude sometimes, but in the sweetest possible way. “It stung me”, he said.  And looking down pointedly at his groin, he continued, “there!”

“There, there?”, I asked, trying hard to contain my laughter, for Neerav’s laugh was proving to be contagious.  “Yes, there, you bastard, stop laughing”, he screamed, quite unlike the usually quiet and mild-mannered Amol. We realized that he must be in terrible pain to react thus and sobered up quickly.  After some cajoling, he let us see the affected area.  The swelling was quite apparent, and to compound it, his body had reacted to the sting by rushing a lot of blood to the affected area, resulting in a rather large erection causing him significant embarrassment. We may have laughed again, though I can’t be sure.  We offered to take him to a doctor but he was in no mood to expose himself to more people.

We slowly walked back to our hostel, with us providing him cover, lest others spotted the unmistakable protuberance.  Our attempts at some levity only resulted in annoying him further, which, if you know boys you will know, only made it all the funnier for us. Anyway, after reaching our room, he borrowed a lungi from me and wore in high on his waist and sat there in one corner with his knees bent in such a way that no part of the lungi touched any of the affected area. A pose that provided shocking visuals to unsuspecting passers-by.

After having realized that the situation was not life threatening, Amol calmed down enough to understand that the real threat was our other classmates finding out about the incident. So, he made us promise not to tell anyone about this. We readily agreed as we did not want him to get further distressed, though neither of us had any intention of keeping our word. This was after all gold dust! However, we did hold on to our promise for a few days despite many of our classmates asking about Amol’s whereabouts when he did not attend classes.

The swelling subsided in three days, and the pain a day later.  The other symptom lasted another three days and we got the feeling that Amol, somewhere mixed in with his embarrassment, was also feeling a little proud of his indisputable manliness.  Thanks to this, the mood in our room improved rapidly and he even started seeing the funny side of it all and shared a few laughs with us.

Obviously, Neerav and I took this as a sign that we were no longer bound by the promise we had made. So promptly, the day before Amol rejoined classes, we took turns regaling our entire class by describing everything in excruciating detail.  While most expressed sympathy after the initial reaction, one girl especially found the whole thing hilarious and could not contain her laughter for a long time.  She would bring herself under control only to burst out into another bout of unbridled laughter, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Not surprisingly, the story spread rapidly across campus.  With every retelling, the wasp grew bigger, the swelling more colourful and the erection larger, harder and more unbelievable.  Amol became somewhat of a celebrity for the next few days. He received all this attention with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, he was angry with us for having broken our promise.  On the other hand, the attention, sympathy, and possibly, new-found respect, from many of the girls (other than that one girl, of course, who continued to laugh every time she saw Amol) made him secretly thankful for our indiscretion.

Over time, many boys went to the urinal central to this story, some just out of curiosity, some to verify if there was any truth to the story, and some as a dare.  Some boys, we heard, even peed into the urinal to prove their mettle.  By the time we completed our course, it had become a rite of passage of sorts, with a number of boys even getting stung and proud of it!

After college, we all went our separate ways, but the story apparently lived on, embellished with every retelling, until hardly any of the original facts remained. On our side, we all did our bit to keep the story alive, none more enthusiastically than that one girl who entertained her colleagues, friends, family members and assorted nephews with Amol’s story over the years.

Over a couple of decades later, we had a college reunion in the campus. As usual there was a lot of reminiscing. Quite obviously, one of the things we talked about was Amol and his “gwasping” experience.  One thing led to another and some of us, including Amol, decided that for old-times’ sake, we should visit the scene of the action again.

The same afternoon, after lunch, we walked to the edge of our campus.  The fence had been replaced by a tall wall, but thankfully there was a gate and the guard there graciously agreed to open it for us after realizing we were old students.

Though the inside of the campus had become practically unrecognizable since we had left college, with lots of new buildings and hostels and increased tree cover, the outside had remained almost unchanged, with the same dry scrub that we had seen so many years ago.  We traced our path to where the ruined buildings had been. To our surprise, instead of the dilapidated building and toilet, in their place stood an ashram, calling itself the abode of the wasp’s blessing. By all indications it was a popular place of visit, with loud speakers blaring, a line of shops selling all kinds of stuff, and a long queue of men snaking away from the entrance of the temple.

The outside wall of the ashram was plastered with bills in bright eye-catching colours all shouting, in bold and all caps, the same thing over and over again.  “PILES?  SEX PROBLEMS?  Call”, followed by a telephone number.

Closer to the entrance on either side were rows of shops all selling aphrodisiacs and miracle treatments for all sorts of sex related problems.  One man, peddling a mucusy substance, was guaranteeing the ogling masses that even a 90-year man, after taking his secret medicine, could go on for five hours non-stop. A shop nearby had different sex toys conveniently labelled as massagers on offer.  Another seemed to specialize only on all kinds and varieties of condoms.  Well-thumbed copies of Playboy and Debonair were also on display.

As we stood there gaping at the scene uncomprehendingly, a neatly dressed man approached Amol and asked perfunctorily “erectile problem?”.

Shocked at a complete stranger casting aspersions on his virility, Amol responded with a vehement “no”.  This was followed by “then, low sperm count?  “No”, replied Amol again, clearly offended.  Without missing a beat, the tout, for definitely that is what he was, continued, “Premature ejaculation, surely?”, to which Amol, insulted enough, responded with choice expletives.

Giving up on Amol, the man shrugged his shoulders and trained his sights on me and asked, “weak erection?”. By then my interest had been piqued, so I responded with a rather incongruously enthusiastic “yes” to find out where all this would lead to.  Like a typical call centre executive running through a script, he continued, “Low motility? Childless? No staying power? Impotent? Small penis? Unsatisfied wife?”, to all of which I readily answered in the affirmative, much to the mirth of all the others. Not finished the tout continued with “Piles?”.  This flummoxed me for a bit.  I could not comprehend why sex problems and piles seemed to be so closely interlinked.  I wondered if men in these parts were getting buggered more than I had imagined, but not wanting to stop the tout midway, I manned up and confessed that I had that problem too!

That a man was loudly, willingly and cheerfully admitting to having all of a man’s most dreaded problems, that too in front of his laughing friends, did not seem too odd to him. Unfazed by all the laughter, the interrogator started his spiel.  “You have come to the right place.  This is the abode of the wasp’s blessing. It’s a decades old ashram setup by a mystic  with the power to solve all problems relating to your manhood.  See all the men standing there?  They have all come because of sex problems”, he recited, clearly a well-worn speech.

I could see the men queued up more clearly now. All had their heads down, avoided eye contact with each other, and looked totally disconsolate and ashamed at their predicament.  The plight of these credulous men, standing in line hoping for a miracle cure made me feel sad and I guess this was reflected in my face.  The man, thinking I was worried about having to stand in the queue said “No need to stand in queue for you.  For Rs. 500, I will take you directly into the sanctum.  All your problems will be solved”.

In for a penny, I decided to pay up the Rs. 500 and go all the way in. If the outside was so colourful, how might the inside of the ashram be, I wondered. The man took the money and led me through a side entrance. The line of men I had seen outside turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.  The queue inside, corralled between metal barricades was zigzagging across the length and breadth of the ashram with at least a thousand people patiently waiting for deliverance.

The tout and I were, of course, outside of this extended cage, thanks to the different entrance we had taken. While the tout strode purposefully towards the main hall, I slinked silently behind him under the baleful stare of a few hundred men. For a while there, I was worried someone might climb over the fence and kick me in my nuts for jumping the queue. But thanks to the tough fences and possibly their low testosterone levels, I was able to walk along with impunity.

More at ease, I looked around to see if the inside of the ashram was as interesting as the outside had been.  I had imagined it would be like Chimi Lhakhang, that monastery in Bhutan, with phalluses everywhere. Disappointingly the ashram looked no different from any regular temple, which it had been clearly built to imitate.

We continued onwards passing by more and more people unmolested, until we ducked into another side entrance and found ourselves right outside of the sanctum.  In front of us was a dark corridor a few meters in length with a narrow opening at the end.  Beyond that was an even darker room with just one or two flickering lamps for illumination.  I did not know what to expect, but was hoping for something shocking that I could regale my friends with. I must say that though it was not what I had expected, it was definitely something beyond my wildest imagination.

For, right in front of me, as I stood peering into the dark inner sanctum of the ashram, I swear I could see, where the main deity would usually be, the distinct outline of a typical ceramic urinal.

Were there wasps in there even now, I wondered?  And do the lucky ones manage to get stung?

The perks of working in Indian Railways. July 30, 2018

Posted by globejam in fiction, Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

Indian railwaysMy forefathers were affluent farmers from Tirunelveli in South India. At one point in time, maybe four generations ago, they owned large tracts of fertile land in which they cultivated fruits, vegetables and flowers. Or so I am told. Unfortunately, by the time my father was born, most of that land had become fragmented, having been divided among the many children of successive generations.   Even the little land my grandfather had inherited had been sold to get my aunts married which meant that my father inherited nothing beyond stories of a glorious past.

Thankfully, my father was a resourceful man, and despite having studied only till his 7th grade, managed to become a fairly successful civil contractor for the Indian Railways.  A worldly-wise man, he knew how to find the right people, appease them and win large contracts. His business grew quickly and by the time I was born, we were already once again on our way to affluence.

I grew up in Tirunelveli and then in Kanyakumari where I did most of my schooling and my Bachelor’s in Psychology.  Like many of my friends from fairly rich families, I had very little interest in anything and practically no ambition at all.  However, my father had clear ideas of what he would like me to become.  For him the most successful people were the bureaucrats.  These were the people he dealt with day in and day out, the people who made all the decisions and seemingly wielded all the power, no matter which political party was ruling. His ambition was to see me become an IAS (Indian Administrative Services) officer.

“Just get through these exams, my son, and you will have the world at your fingertips”, he used to tell me. “The salary is not great, but you can make lots of money, if you are smart.  And the best part is that you cannot ever be fired”, he would gush, the excitement palpable in his voice.  I can’t say his enthusiasm was contagious, but nevertheless, being a fairly obedient son, I was happy to go along. So, it was no surprise to anyone that I faithfully took on his ambition for me as my own. After completing my bachelors, I started preparing in earnest for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exams, the clearing of which qualified one to join an elite group of people who run the country.

After a couple of years of intense preparation, the time came for me to take my first shot at clearing these exams.  My centre for the exams turned out to be Madras and two days before the exam I booked my train ticket from Kanyakumari to Madras by sleeper class. At the last minute, my sister, her husband and their 3-year old daughter also decided to accompany me to Madras. Unfortunately, due to the fact that it was holiday season, the train was already full and they could not get confirmed seats.

However, my father was well connected with the officers in the railways. So, he spoke to the head of the Kanyakumari division of Southern Railways and got us confirmed first-class AC tickets.  “That’s the power of a government servant. Who else can get three confirmed tickets on a train that has been overbooked for months, in a matter of minutes!?”, he asked proudly, already imagining me in that position, I am sure.

It was the overnight train to Madras and we were in our compartment a good 30 minutes before the train started on its journey.  We stowed our luggage, made ourselves comfortable and waited for the train to get going.  Just a minute or so before departure, a young man entered our compartment, a little out of breath as though he had come running, with a notebook and pen in his hand. “Mr. Perumal?”, he enquired, looking questioningly at me and my brother-in-law.  “That’s me”, I said, identifying myself.  “Good evening! Sir sent me to ensure that everything was in order and you are comfortably settled in”, he said.  “Sir”, I assumed was the railway officer who had wrangled the seats for us.  “Yes, everything is fine. Thank you”, I replied, thrilled that someone had been sent solely to enquire after us. “I hope you got your pillows and blankets”, he asked, despite the said blankets and pillows being clearly piled up beside us. “And I have asked the catering to come by and take your order for dinner.  They should be coming by shortly”, he continued. Even though I knew the catering guys would come along anyway, whether he had asked them to or not, I was thrilled with his solicitousness. We were being treated like kings and I couldn’t help but show my gratitude by repeatedly thanking him for his concern.

Then he hesitated a bit and said “There is a small obligation though, I am afraid…”.  By then I was ready to do anything he asked. “Yes?”, I asked eager to please. “You need to pay Rs. 250 as confirmation charges…” , he said, clearly embarrassed to even broach the delicate subject. As my brother-in-law took out his wallet to make the payment, sensing I was travelling with company, he added, “for each ticket”.  I was a little taken aback that we had to shell out Rs. 750, but nevertheless, we were committed and I handed him the amount.  He took the money, jotted something down in his little notebook, wished us a successful journey and jumped off the train just as it started moving.

It took another minute before my brother-in-law chuckled and wondered aloud why we had given this perfect stranger our money.  As the train gathered speed and exited the well-lit station into the darkness beyond, we were nearly sure that we had been had. How had he known my name?  How did he know that the railway officer had got the seats for us? Could it be that there was actually an additional confirmation charge that we had not already paid for?  I tossed and turned that night, annoyed at not even knowing if we had been conned at all.  It must have been early hours before I finally fell asleep.

The next day I wrote the exam and did pretty well.  The results were announced a few months later and we were all thrilled to see my name among those that had qualified.  I hadn’t done well enough to be an IAS officer, but could pick between IRS (revenue department) and IRS (Railway service).  My father was ecstatic and insistent that I join the Indian Railway Service.  I complied, the obedient son that I was.

A year of training later, I joined my commission as a junior office in Southern Railways at Madras.  My office was a huge room with high ceiling in an old British-built complex near the Central railway station.  My father came to see me there and could not contain his joy, hopping around like a 5-year old child.  I was happy to see that his ambitions were coming true.  “Don’t forget to make your money now”, he advised. A week later he passed away peacefully in his sleep. A massive heart-attack said the doctor. Sometimes, I think that he had felt that his job on earth was done now that I had reached where he wanted me to be and then had punched his ticket out of here.

Three months later I spotted the man who had taken money from me on the train two years earlier. We passed each other on the corridor to my office.  I don’t think he recognized me. He appeared to be a clerical cadre employee working somewhere within the building.  I followed him discreetly and found out where his workplace was.

Over the course of the next 4-5 days, I followed him out of the office every evening.  The first three days, he left the office, went straight to the bus stand outside, boarded route 1A and left. Just as I was beginning to think that maybe he did collect legitimate charges from me, on the fourth day, which was a Friday, he moved towards the railway platforms instead of the exit as usual.

My interest piqued, I followed him closely.  He checked his watch once or twice and sauntered towards the Express to Mumbai on Platform 3, scheduled to depart shortly. He reached the First-class air-conditioned compartment and studied the passenger manifest pasted on the outside for a few minutes.  “Aha! So that is how he knew my name”, I figured.  He then peeped into the compartment quickly, did not find what he was looking for and then moved back and waited for the passengers to arrive.

I was slowly beginning to understand what was happening here. Knowing he was not going to go anywhere for a while, I moved to a bench 10 meters away and sat down to watch him from a comfortable vantage. I could have stood next to him and he would not have noticed, so engrossed was he watching the various people getting into the compartment. When it was almost time for the train to start, he took out a notebook and pen, and got into the compartment.  A minute later, just as the train had started moving, he jumped back down, waved at his victims through their window and started towards the exit.  Nobody watching him would have noticed anything out of the ordinary.

As he sauntered away, I considered accosting him then and there, but did not know how he would react, given the fact that he would not even know that I was a railway officer.  So, I quietly followed him out of the station as usual. This time, however, instead of taking his regular bus, he crossed the road and entered one of the many bars that surround the station.

I returned to our office building and went to his office room.  There was just one guy there, ostensibly working, everybody else having left for home.  I pointed to the conman’s desk and asked about him. He did not know much about his colleague except that his name was Madhu, and that he had just been recently transferred from the Kanyakumari office.  I told him my name and designation and asked him to request Madhu to come and see me first thing next morning and left.

Madhu came to meet me the next day. He did not appear worried, just mildly curious.  I asked him if he remembered me. He didn’t. So, I reminded him about that day a few years earlier in Kanyakumari when he had pulled his usual trick.  He smiled and nodded, as though he was reliving a pleasant memory.  Then realizing I was playing the victim here, he said pleasantly enough, “It’s a victim-less crime”.  “I know those seats are reserved for officers like you, against the rules, to allocate to your friends and contacts. A little payment for last minute reservations is not too much to ask of the travelers.  The railways, anyway would not have got any money from them over and above the ticket costs.  So, I make some money for my weekend tipple, so what?”, he asked, confident that nothing could be pinned on him.

I had thought I would just scare him a little bit and let him go.  But I was well and truly taken aback by his matter-of-fact attitude and guilt-free demeanor.  I was also quite impressed by the simplicity of his brilliant scheme.

I had to take some action, though. After all, he had practically confessed. So, I had no other choice but to have him transferred immediately.  That was 2 years ago.

***

India has nearly 8000 railway stations with over 12,000 trains ferrying a whopping 23 million passengers each day.  Most trains are overbooked and many of the long-distance trains have this informal quota of about 10 seats per train, spread across multiple compartments, earmarked for officers to assign as they please.  Even if you take only 200 such trains, there are 2000 such seats available each day.  At a conservative Rs. 250 per seat, this amounts to around Rs. 5,00,000 per day waiting to be pocketed.

Madhu, who I had transferred to the booking department had access to all the trains’ details and was able to identify the best set of 300 trains to concentrate on, within a month of joining in his new position. Over the next 6 months, I built and trained a network of over 300 people on the technique perfected by Madhu, and stationed them in all major stations across India.  I also set up a small call centre next to my office which feeds the seat numbers and names of the relevant passengers to our workforce.

All that the trained personnel do now is to go to the identified seats, collect the money from the passengers, take their commission and deposit the rest into our accounts.  I think I can safely state that I have started making some money.

I only wish my father was still alive.  He would have been really proud of his son.

A Kerfuffle about armpits July 19, 2018

Posted by globejam in Uncategorized.
2 comments

sleevelessYes. I did say something about sleeveless dresses and armpits. It was something altogether innocuous. You wouldn’t think that would result in a such a big fuss, right?  Wrong.  There are five of us in the house, all grown up, at least by age, and none of us is talking to any of the others now because of that one harmless observation.

****

It was just another day.

It was around six-thirty in the morning and as usual we were seated on the verandah watching the neighbourhood wake up.  To my left was Jambunathan, Jim for short, one of my two tenants.  Jim is a world-weary, middle-aged bachelor, maybe about 45, and a freelance journalist. I don’t quite know where he works and till recently had not seen any of his contributions in any of the newspapers and magazines we get. To my right, was Sundar, a young early-30s lecturer, who teaches math at a nearby engineering college. He and his newly-wed wife are my other tenants. In the middle, of course was myself.  I am in my 70s now, fit as a fiddle. I used to work in the US, but now I have retired and returned to my village home to spend the rest of my life. My village is no longer the village I remember from my childhood. It’s a bustling town now, but still home to me and I am happy to be back where I belong.

That time of the day, between six and half-past seven or eight in the morning, was a period of peaceful expression for the three of us. A lazy, tension-free period of gentle banter, before the work day began.  Seated with our coffee and newspaper, we would discuss various matters of indeterminate importance. The day’s news, cricket, local gossip, and sudden insights like the fateful one about armpits, were all fodder for our discussions.

The verandah provided us with a nice vantage point from which to observe all the goings-on.  And not much passed by us without some comment – sly, snide, or sometimes even well-meaning – from one of us. We would watch and provide commentary as the street and its inhabitants gradually woke up and got ready to face another day.

Most days, the routine would be unvarying. The first busy period would just be ending as we took up our usual positions. The last of the milkmen and the laziest of the newspaper boys would just be finishing their rounds. Then the shops would start opening one by one and the first customers would start coming in. The first set of housewives would come out in their nightgowns with a towel for a dupatta and buy batter for the breakfast idlies.  Poking our heads from over the newspapers one or the other of us would comment on the ugliness of the dress and wish for the more traditional saree to make a comeback.  Then after a while, as though to fulfil our wishes, the next set of housewives, typically in sarees, fresh after a bath and wet hair still tied in that towel that is no longer a dupatta, would rush out to buy coriander and curry leaves to put the finishing touches to their rasam or sambar.  At around the same time, a few men would come slinking in, in their dhoti and shirts for their first smoke of the day.

Around half-past 7, the school children would go past noisily on their way to school, followed by girls in their salwar-kameez on their way to the St. Theresa Ladies college at the end of our road.  Finally, the working folks, both men and women, dressed variously, would go hurrying past, to make it to their offices in time.  This was usually the first sign for Sundar to get up and go get ready for college. He would try and delay the inevitable until Shanthi, his pretty wife would come and inform him that if he did not go for his bath pronto, he would be late for his first class. Jim would also use that as a cue to get ready for his work, though none of us knew exactly where he went. A freelance journalist, it seemed, never had anywhere to go to at any particular time.  I, being retired, didn’t have to go anywhere.  However, I would also get up and go into the house soon after for it was boring to sit there without my friends.

That would mark the end of our enjoyable morning session.

On that particular day, we had been having a discussion on how fashions and trends come and go and how there is no accounting for taste.  Just afterwards, I happened to see a few pretty, young, office going ladies in sleeveless tops and made a simple comment about exposed armpits. I even remember my exact words. All I had said was “who knew that an exposed armpit wouldn’t be altogether unattractive!”

It must have intersected with Sundar’s thoughts then because he said something like “I know a pair that is eminently kissable”, followed by a sigh, and “but who lets me?”. Mortified at having voiced such personal thoughts, he got up and left immediately, while I made some non-committal sounds to cover my laughter.  Jim sitting on the other side had his head buried in his copy of The Hindu and did not seem to have heard anything. And that was that.

****

Last Saturday, Jim and I were having our second cup of coffee and wondering why Sundar had not joined us yet, when Shanthi came into our portion of the house, her eyes all red and puffed up from crying, and rushed into the kitchen to talk to my wife. After a quiet period, my wife came out fuming, brandishing some magazine.  She threw it at me and said “See what your friend is doing to this poor girl!”. Just as I caught the magazine, Shankar came in and declared angrily, “I am sure she only wrote it”.  Mystified by all the drama, I looked at the open magazine and saw that it was on a page where a famous sex doctor answered readers’ questions.

The first question caught my eye.  It said “Sometimes, when we are in bed together, my husband wants to kiss my armpits. Is that normal behaviour?  I am worried.”, supposedly sent in by “anguished newlywed”.  I confess I giggled a bit, most inappropriate for my age and the situation, I admit.  Still, in my defence, I had just been reminded of his statement the other day and couldn’t help but wonder if she might have actually sent in the question herself.  “Stop giggling like a fool”, admonished my wife, and added “the poor child did not write such a mail to that idiot doctor.  And this big oaf is accusing her”.

Sundar was seething by then.  He was already angry with his wife.  Now he was angry with my wife too, for having brought out the entire issue into the open.  Now everyone, including bachelor Jim knew he wanted to kiss his wife’s armpits.

I think that’s when Sundar stopped talking to the two women.

In order to diffuse the situation, I said “Wait.  Let’s read the answer at least.  Maybe the good doctor can clear up the matter”, I said half-jokingly. In the lull that followed, I started reading the answer aloud. It said,

Dear Anguished newlywed,

There may be many reasons why your husband may want to kiss your armpits.

One, your husband may be suffering from a salt deficiency.  Try adding a bit more salt in his diet.

Two, I am sure you have noticed how some house dogs jump on the knee of an unsuspecting visitor with gusto.  This might be such a case of mistaken identity.

Ha ha ha! Just kidding. Seriously though…“, I sputtered a bit here as I could not control my laughter.  The answer was funny. I have a sense of humour.  So, bite me.

Anyway, I guess nobody else shared my sense of humour there for I could almost feel their stares trying to burn me to a cinder. Not making eye-contact with anyone, I reined in my laughter quickly enough and continued reading, “...Seriously though, there is nothing weird about it.  It is quite normal and just shows how much your husband loves you. In fact, you should be flattered that he thinks they are eminently kissable”. I paused here to wonder how the answer had the exact same words that Sundar had uttered. Something was fishy here.

But not wanting to add more fuel to an already raging fire, I continued, “So, unless you are extremely ticklish or find this abhorrent, I suggest that you should give it a try.  Maybe you can reciprocate too. Who knows, maybe you will like it too! Just make sure that you keep the area clean for there are a lot of sweat glands there and bacteria thrive in such warm moist conditions. Loosen up and have fun!“.

“There, see. There is nothing wrong with it”, I said and added as an aside to my wife that maybe we could try it too. In my defense, I thought that would reduce the awkwardness all around and maybe people would see the funny side of it.  Obviously, my wife didn’t see eye-to-eye with me on that one.  She thought that was in very poor taste and let me have it!

Reeling under her onslaught, I decided to divert the attention by roping Jim into the picture. “Jim”, I said, “you’re the journalist. Why don’t you find out who wrote that letter”. Jim, till then, had been studiously hiding behind his paper.  On being addressed directly, he looked up from the paper and I could see a weird look in his eyes. Without thinking, I blurted out “What?  Don’t tell me you wrote in the question!?”.

Before Jim could react, the others pounced on him.  “Is this the kind of journalist you are?”, asked Sundar having found an opening to redirect the heat.  “You were there on the verandah with us when Sundar here said he would like…”, I started before realizing that I was probably fanning the flames here. Shanthi, who had been sniffling silently interjected in a cold voice, “…and what did Sundar say?”.  Too late to retract my words, I confessed, “… that he would like to kiss your armpits”.

I could practically see her eyes turning red.  Just as she was about to launch into a full-frontal attack, Sundar pointed a finger at me accusingly and said, “He started it!”. At which point, quite predictably, my wife jumped in and demanded to know what I had said.  “Well, this old man, he said he liked exposed armpits”, said Sundar smugly. I got another earful from my wife.  “At your age! With a bachelor on one side, an impressionable mind on the other and a young girl in the house. You men are so lecherous”.

“What impressionable mind?”, I exploded, “He is over 30 for God’s sakes. Not some pubescent teenager!”.

“You men are sick, I tell you”, she continued, disgust writ large on her face.

I think that is when we decided to stop talking to each other.

I turned to Jim for support only to find him glaring at me.  “What are you glaring at me for?”, I asked.

“Bloody journalists”, muttered Sundar.  “Who’s that quack doctor, anyway?”. asked Sundar.  I was taken aback by the vehemence in Jim’s voice when he responded with “the answer’s perfectly fine.  It’s funny, entertaining to readers and correct in all ways.  What’s wrong in answering questions many people want to ask but are too ashamed to do so?”.

Again, in retrospect, I should have kept my mouth shut, but the possibility was tantalizing.  “Don’t tell me you wrote the answer as well? No wonder you used the exact words!”, I ejaculated.  His jaw dropped for a second. Then he looked at me and said, “it’s all your fault. You started it!”. Before I could respond, he dropped the paper on the table, got up and headed out.  Then, as a parting shot, just before exiting, he turned to Sundar and asked mockingly, “and which half-decent guy buys a smutty magazine like that anyway!?”.

He hasn’t spoken to us since.

*****

It’s another bright day, and here I am, sitting on my verandah, all alone.  The two chairs on my either side are empty.  I am watching the street and its usual progress. It is boring without the company of my friends.  And then, just like that, I have an epiphany.  I realize why the nightgown-and-towel has taken over as the dress du jour for women.  But alas, there is no one to share it with.

I hope things get back to normal soon, because I don’t know how long I can keep these brilliant insights of mine all to myself.

The power of yoga. May 31, 2018

Posted by globejam in This is not bad. It's worse!.
5 comments

yogaclassI better write this quickly, lest I change my mind. I hope it’s not too late already.

I signed up for yoga lessons over a month ago and have been wanting to gush about it ever since. As you know, there is no fanatic like a recent convert, and I don’t want to miss my chance to evangelize yoga and its benefits before the initial euphoria evaporates. Which tends to happen to everything that enters my life. If you don’t know me, take my word for it. So you can understand why I am in a hurry.

Yoga has been truly transformational. Three days after I started my yoga, several of my friends asked me if I had had a facial done! Apparently my skin was glowing, and the dark circles around my eyes that suggested I was more Procyon (raccoon, for those not familiar with scientific names) than Homo (Man, lest you assume something else) were lighter. Amazing. I hadn’t even started all the asanas in earnest and already things were beginning to turn out wonderfully.

Fifteen days later, I was able to touch my toes without bending my knees. A miracle, considering it has not happened before in my life! I am becoming more bendy overall (which must come in useful, some time) and have more energy and feel a lot less stressed. Yoga, where have you been all my life? Reader, reader, you must take up yoga immediately. It is truly transformational. Did I say that already? Anyway, it is. Believe me. Before I change my mind. Chill. I am just kidding. It’s true. If you don’t believe me ask Modi. Or any of his Bhakts. Or FMCG magnate baba ramdev or the aspiring FMCG competitor squeaky Sri Sri, or even our most well dressed and stylish Sadhguru.

Anyway, back to my experience. This yogashram I go to is a calm, serene place. Classes are held on the terrace of a 3-storey apartment complex that has been covered by metal cladding. It is very quiet and most suitable for yoga classes. There are no strict rules or any other in-your-face religiousity that some of the yogashrams tend to shove down one’s throat.  Not too much, anyway.

This particular yoga school seems to be run by devotees of Shirdi Sai Baba. There is a picture of him in one corner, but beyond that, he does not seem to weigh-in heavily in matters related to yoga. As babas go, I think this chappy was all right. From all accounts, he did not proclaim to be a God or a messenger of one. All he did was ask people during his time to give peace a chance, long before Lennon penned those iconic words. Not to be confused with the Puttaparthi guy who was a mediocre magician with an extraordinary head full of hair, at best.

That others have usurped him for their own ends can’t be blamed on him, I suppose.

I apologise, for I am digressing. Happens a lot when I am in a hurry. Some people have tried telling me I am in a hurry all the time because I am constantly digressing and not the other way around. Who knows? Though that sounds absurd, one can never tell. The world does work in mysterious ways. There I go again.

Coming back to the yoga, my class starts with chanting OM a few times (as a breathing exercise, ostensibly) followed by a short prayer. It’s in Sanskrit and I get a feeling that it means something along the lines of “be kind to us and to all those around us”, though I don’t quite follow the language. Let’s just say, I have conveniently assumed that it is largely secular and peace loving in the interests of my own peace of mind and the need to attend some yoga classes.

This is followed by a warm up routine consisting of two sets of 12 Surya namaskarams done at a rather brisk pace. For those uninitiated, Surya namaskaram is a series of 12 positions that one segues through and is a fantastic method of limbering up.  You must, must, must try it.  It is truly transformational.  Really.

After this the teacher guides the students through a bunch of asanas that differ from day to day. The class ends with a 5-minute breathing exercise, followed by brahmari – another breathing technique (you have to close your eyes, place your fingers on your face just so and hum like a bee. Its quite soothing, you must try it. Must. Must) and another short prayer. This one also sounds quite harmless, and altogether secular. Hey! Some delusions are all right. Give peace a chance, ok?

Things have been going well and I am feeling better and better, though some of my friends are suggesting that much of the excess energy I seem to have gained is being spent on lecturing others on the benefits of yoga, but that’s just their nature. They are a sarcastic bunch who have not understood yet the power of yoga. Let us forgive them, for they know not what they say, and all that. See. That’s yoga for you. Lets people be and promotes universal brotherhood to boot.

Just of late, though, I have developed a niggling pain in my shoulder and upper arm. I knew I should have written this article earlier. All these unnecessary details would have not surfaced. Pchah! Anyway, I think maybe one or two of my cervical vertebrae are pressing on an odd nerve here and there and this is preventing me from doing the Surya namaskaram. I have been taught some special asanas and mudras (ways in which you hold your fingers together) that are sure to make this problem go away.  I am hoping they work quickly.

However, that is not the biggest problem. That is just a round-about cause for a larger problem. And that has to do with my having to stand separately and do these special exercises while the others are doing their Surya namaskarams. My class consists of a couple of men and ten-odd women, mostly in their 50s and older. Despite clear instructions (one of the few rules) that they should wear dresses that cover their modesty whatever the asanas, most of them wear their usual regular churidars. These are decent enough at regular times, but not at all appropriate for doing Surya namaskarams that involve a lot of bending forward, flexing the back, and other mild contortions.

Therein lies my problem. I have no more than a passing interest in old saggy tits and I would much rather do without flashes of them when I am en-route to a more enlightened life. Sadly, however, whichever way I turn, there they are. Let me assure you that I am a firm believer in the Seinfeld school of thought that says “Looking at cleavage is like looking at the sun. You don’t stare at it. It’s too risky. Ya get a sense of it and then you look away”. Unfortunately, he has not factored in the possibility of multiple suns, having restricted himself to an earth-like solar system. In my case, everywhere I turn, another pair is rising, if you know what I mean.

I am worried about my reputation. What if someone thinks I am feigning pain to take a peek?  OMG!  I tried closing my eyes, but the teacher insists that unless I can see what I am doing, I will not be able to hold my poses correctly. That was plan-A screwed. Plan-B was to stand right in front of my wife and do the asanas, but she is also finding my fixed stare a bit disconcerting. Besides, constantly staring at her, despite her high-neck t-shirt, is thwarting my progress along the path towards spirituality.

Anyway, all these sudden, jerky neck movements that I am forced to employ to avoid the glare of the sun, so to speak, are not helping me with my niggling neck problem and I am beginning to believe that maybe it may never go away.

This a call for help. If you can suggest a solution, please do so. I don’t want to stop my yoga journey just yet.

Leave your suggestions in the comment section. Sigh!

Strange music December 4, 2017

Posted by globejam in Uncategorized.
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meera_musicI have known all three of them for quite a long time. Then again, I wonder if I actually ever knew them.

I have known the Doctor the longest. He was already a well established cardiologist when I got to know him. I met him for the first time when I was assigned to follow our late Chief Minister. When the CM suffered a heart attack in ’97, through odd circumstances, I was the one who picked up the doctor and brought him to the CM’s home. It was my first scoop as a young journalist.

The doctor was soft spoken, and very respectful even though I was several years his junior. We met many more times, especially after the Chief Minister’s health deteriorated. Towards the end, during the months before the CM finally passed away, we spent many hours together travelling in the convoy with the CM, and backstage during the long political rallies which the CM insisted on leading despite severe health issues.

The doctor was initially quite reticent. I think he thought I was the CM’s grandson or something, given that the CM was always real nice to me, and hence kept his distance. But once he found out that I was a rookie journalist who had just been at the right place at the right time to help the CM when he got his chest pain, he became friendlier and even a little protective.

It was during those times of enforced companionship that we got to know each other well. Surprisingly, we shared many common interests not the least of which was music. We both liked an eclectic mix of music ranging from Carnatic, Hindustani and western classical to jazz and rock. We spent our idle hours endlessly dissecting various artists and bands and exchanging notes on the up-and-coming singers in the Carnatic circuit.

Those endless days must have been a real pain for him. For me, it was part of my job and my newspaper was actually happy that I was close to the CM, because that gave us access to a lot of news first. But for the doctor, it meant not being able to take care of his practice, or be available for his other patients as regularly as he would have liked. Sitting around idly hoping the CM wouldn’t have a heart attack must have been frustrating for him. However, he seemed to take it all with equanimity and I did not hear him complain, even once. He was so zen. When you looked at him, you would think there was nothing else he would rather be doing nor anywhere else he would rather be. When talking to someone, he would be in the moment, all his attention on that person and on the topic at hand, enveloping them in his cocoon of calmness. I have very fond memories from those few months.

After the CM passed away, we did not get many more opportunities to meet and talk. On rare occasions, we bumped into each other at some sabha or the other in Chennai during the December music season, where we would chat briefly. He would be with his friends or sometimes his parents and I would just politely enquire about his well-being before moving on. I know he read my articles regularly because he always sent in his compliments and comments. So, we were never really out of touch, I guess, if you think about it.

One day, I was pleasantly surprised to receive his wedding invitation by post. And even more surprised to see that the bride was the well know carnatic singer M____. By my calculation, at that time, the doctor must have been in his late 30s or early 40s and M____ would have been no more than 21 or 22, a considerable age difference. “Invitation is for our friend, and not the journalist”, said the postscript on the wedding card, with a smiley at the end. Given that they were both well-known and I had only gotten to know them through my work as a journalist, I had not taken the liberty of slotting them as friends, though I was fond of them both, to say the least. So to get an invitation and to be called a friend felt very nice.

I was a big fan of M_____, having covered her meteoric rise through the years since she burst on to the music scene at the tender age of 12. Even at that early age, her talent was unmistakable. I still remember house-full concerts where the child (at that time) would enthrall her audience, comprising people of all ages, with renditions of Meera bhajans. She would invest in them so much love and devotion that it was easy to imagine that she was actually in love with Lord Krishna. If the original Meera’s feelings for the lord are considered the purest form of love, to hear the music flow from this young girl only made it even more so.

By the time she was 18, she was a well-established and highly respected Carnatic singer invited to perform all over the world. I followed her career with keen interest and made it a point to attend her concerts whenever possible. Over the course of her career, I interviewed her quite a few times, and it was always a very pleasant and joyful task.

If she had been only a great singer, maybe her trajectory would not have been so spectacular. Combined with the prodigious talent was her ethereal beauty. She was not just cute, or pretty. Even gorgeous wouldn’t quite cut it. She was beautiful, in the fullest sense of the term. I know, the word beauty is overused and has become cliched, but it would be difficult to find a more suitable substitute to describe her. There was an other-worldly aura around her. I could tell you that she had a flawless complexion the colour of honey, that she had large expressive eyes that were black as the night and yet blindingly bright, that she had a irrepressible smile that lit up the world, or that her long tresses bounced like gently coiled springs made of silk, but it would not do justice to her appearance. Even a poet far more capable than I would be hard-pressed to convey in words what could only be perceived with our eyes and hearts. It was an all-encompassing beauty that made everyone around her feel beautiful too.

To top it all, despite all the adulation and a burgeoning fan base, she came across as a normal person in all other respects. Her expressions, attitudes and answers to the various questions I posed during the interviews were always age appropriate and yet mature for her age. If I sound as though I was in love with her, you would not be too far off the mark.

I was happy for them both when I heard that they were getting married. Despite minor misgivings of their age difference, I couldn’t think of any reason why it would not be the best thing that happened to them. I attended their wedding. I had assumed that it would be a large gala affair with a thousand invitees, but was surprised to find that the wedding was a small private affair with hardly 100 people. When I entered the wedding hall, the doctor was sitting on the stage half-way through some ceremony and the bride was running around bubbly as usual. The demure bride she was not. The doctor caught my eye, nodded his head, smiled and gave me a thumbs up. M____ bounded up to me, grabbed me by the elbow and hugged me like I was a long lost, much loved cousin. “So good you could make it”, she said and then added, “the doctor has asked me a thousand times if I was sure I had sent the invite to you”. “Of course, I am also thrilled that one of my favourite people is here to share in my happiness”, she continued, giving my elbow another tight squeeze, oblivious of the effect she was having on me. She could have never been mine, but the finality of her being well and truly somebody else’s now was inescapable. My heart lurched a bit, I confess. Thankfully somebody else caught her attention then and she bustled away possibly to break some other heart with a dose of her boundless love and affection.

I wondered if life would change for either of them after marriage, especially whether she would cut down on her performances or travels, but thankfully for the fans, life went on as before. While the doctor continued to grow in stature as the preeminent cardiac surgeon drawing patients from all over India and other countries, M___ continued to travel around the world performing to rave reviews.

A decade or so later, I introduced M____ to my friend, an accomplished jazz violinist. He was an old friend of mine, from the time he had first visited India to perform at the Alliance Francaise as a youngster. We had been introduced to each other by my French teacher and I had become his tour guide and translator for the duration of his stay. We hit it off well as we travelled together to Pondicherry and Auroville and then to Mahe in Kerala which was another erstwhile French colony. He toured India almost every year after that, and we used to plan at least one long weekend together travelling to some nearby place with a European connection.

On one such trip to Tranquebar, a Danish post on the east coast of India, we happened to meet M____ and the doctor who were also staying at the same resort. As fusion music was all a rage then, I suggested that they could maybe have a concert together. To my surprise, both of them thought it was a great idea and one thing led to another and within a month, they had a programme which turned out to be a big hit. The next year, she travelled to France and they had a few performances together there which were also very well received.

From that time, their concerts together became a standard fixture during the annual music season in Chennai and in various jazz and world music stages across the world. Over the next decade or so, she not only became known for her own reputation, but also as one half of the jazz–carnatic duo.

During that period, I moved to New Delhi to cover the national political scene. So, I lost touch with all of them and heard nothing much beyond what was reported in the media, which was not much. Then, one day, I heard they were having a concert in Delhi and so I called my friend to reconnect and possibly bum a backstage pass. After the concert I went backstage and we chit-chatted for a few minutes. He then invited me to join them for dinner. M___ hesitated a bit, took him aside and spoke to him for a while after which he came back and said that she had other plans and would be unable to join us. So, it was just the two of us who went for dinner.

After we sat down at our table, without preamble, he said “I should have told you about this sooner. M___ and I are an item now. We have been together for about 5 years now”. I was totally taken aback. “How could you?”, I exclaimed. “What? You’re still carrying a torch for her?”, he countered jocularly. “Yes. That”, I replied in similar vein, “but I was thinking more about the doctor!”. “Of course, the doctor is aware”, he said in reply. “Oh! That poor man. He must be devastated”, I said feeling sorry for the gentle doctor. “Not really. We are all quite civilized about it you know. Its a fairly open relationship between the three of us. M____ is a treasure. Only your society will not accept it and hence the secrecy”, he replied appearing quite blasé. It all sounded altogether Bohemian for me. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine the dignified doctor in a love triangle.

Over dinner he brought me up to speed on all that had transpired since we had last met. Apparently, soon after they started performing together, he had fallen madly in love with her. I wasn’t surprised. It was inevitable given M___’s beauty and the fact that they were traveling together regularly as part of their concert tours. However, since he had also developed an abiding respect for the doctor, he had not acted on his urges, he said. To complicate matters, M____ being her usual ebullient self, he had been unable to figure out if his feelings were being reciprocated or not. Anyway, the absence of any pushback had raised his hopes and so his love for her had grown unhampered. This state of affairs, he said, had gone on for quite some time, making life difficult for him.

Then, during a moment of weakness, he had gone and confessed his feelings, not to M____ as one might logically expect, but to the doctor. Whether this was to assuage his own guilt or he was looking for approval, I do not know. Matters would have ended there if the doctor had asked him to cut off all relationships and move away, he said, as that was something he had already contemplated on doing.

Unfortunately for the kindly doctor, M___ had also, in private, confessed to him her growing feelings for her co-artist. I don’t know what went on in the doctor’s mind at that time. I can only guess that maybe he harboured guilt relating to their huge age difference, or was looking to do the right thing by her, for instead of getting angry, he had offered to get a divorce and set her free. Characteristically, M____ had been in no mood to accept such an outcome as she believed sincerely that she was still as much in love with the doctor as she ever had been, and she had no intention of annulling the marriage. Again, I guess, if the doctor had then told her to break off all relations with the violinist, she would have agreed and matters would have ended there. The decent human being that he was, he did not do that either.

What had eventually happened was that the doctor, whether he wanted to or not, had given their relationship his tacit approval. The doctor had however, cautioned them that society, especially the Indian one, would not take kindly to any extra-marital dalliances, which always reflected badly on the woman, and hence asked them to be as discreet as possible. I am not sure he actually said it in so many words, but that appears to be the essence that my friend, the violinist, took away after their conversation, based on his words.

A period of blissful coexistence followed, if my friend is to be believed. On tours out of the country, the two enjoyed a guilt-free and loving relationship and on return kept their distance, giving M____ and the doctor their space and time. After hearing all this, I didn’t know what to say. What was there to say anyway?  In my heart of hearts, I knew I would have also gladly shared M____ with another man, if only she had loved me. So, I couldn’t fault my friend for this weakness. I would have considered anybody else behaving as M___ did selfish, but was incapable of finding fault with her. The doctor, he was a grown man too. By all accounts he had had enough opportunities not to have allowed this to go on.

I paid the bill, and just as we were leaving, he told me that M____ had really wanted to join us, but was worried that things might get awkward after our conversation and hence had chickened out. I called her from the restaurant and spoke to her and wished them all happiness. She sounded guilty and happy at the same time. I felt guilty mainly on account of the doctor, maybe for having brought them all together.

A year later, I read in the papers that the Doctor and M____ had divorced and she had married my friend. I was surprised. And a little guilty for I know not what. I thought of calling the doctor or the two of them, but was not sure what I would say to them. I could neither congratulate the couple, nor commiserate with the doctor. In the end, I mustered up the courage to call my friend. “Now what?”, I demanded. He laughed sheepishly. It’s a long story. I am coming to Delhi next week. Let’s catch up over a drink. We met the next week and he appeared even happier than before if that was possible. “I am here only for another couple of hours. Back to Chennai by the last flight. Can’t keep away from my lovely bride”, he gushed all in one breath. His exuberance was infectious and I could not help but grin at him. “Start your story. I can’t wait”, I said as I waved to the waiter to take our order. “What can I say? I am the happiest man alive”, he declared. “Two of your finest single malts, spare no expense”, he demanded from the waiter when he came, “for the luckiest man alive and his best friend”. Once the waiter had left, I asked him to get on with it.

“Well, actually nothing has really changed…”, he began, sobering down a bit, “The doctor’s still in love with M____ and as you can see, so am I. She is also just as much in love with both of us as before. So, in that sense nothing is different”. I guess he could see the confusion on my face and that cracked him up. After his laughter at my expense subsided, he continued, “What has changed is that I can now be open about my relationship with M____. No more, this clandestine crap. I didn’t realise it at first, but having to hide my love and act like I was doing something illicit was weighing down on me. So, one day I sat both of them down and shared my feelings”.

“And I guess, the dear doctor agreed readily to this also”, I sighed. “Actually, he was not for it and held out for quite a while, but eventually I prevailed”. “Now, I can tell the whole world how much I love this wonderful creature. What a fantastic feeling that is, you know?”, he said after a pause.

I was happy for him and as usual a little bit guilty thinking of the doctor. “Poor doctor”, I mumbled, but my friend was quite sure things were the same. “You know us. We are all civilized about it. Sophisticated as ever. We are also a bit older now and even more mature. Everything’s going to be fine”, he said. After having seen their unlikely relationship survive for so many years, I wasn’t going to start doubting it now. So, I again wished him all the best. We had another drink, to their health and continued togetherness, before he left to catch his flight.

Six months later I read in the papers that my friend and M____ had filed for divorce. This was all getting too much. I picked up the phone and called him. He answered on the second ring and asked, “So, you heard?”, sounding surprisingly upbeat. “What’s wrong with you all?”, I exclaimed. “Well”, he said, “I have realised that I was not as civilized and sophisticated as I thought I was”. Then with a laugh he continued, “The truth is it took a marriage for me to figure out that I can gladly share the woman I love with another man, but only as long as she is the other man’s wife!”

“So, you guys have broken up?”, I asked, still trying to come to grips with their affairs.

He said, “No, no. Don’t worry. Nothing’s changed”.

“Bite me”, I said, and hung up.