Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Malabar Op in Arunachal

The story so far... 

And now... 

I stared grimly out the car window. We were moving slower than a glacier. If I'd wanted to get stuck in a traffic jam, no city in the world offers as much scope and variety as Delhi. I could've just stayed there and saved the bother of flying across the country. I sighed, and told Mohnish that he was sitting on my coat.

It was only when we left the traffic of Tinsukia behind that my bleak, world-weary private-eye heart began to melt. The mazy, congested streets straightened out into a highway straight as an arrow. The countryside opened up, the trees and people vanished, and to the right and the left enormous fields appeared. And then, ahead, the Himalayas, shrouded in swirling clouds. It looked so near that I thought 5 minutes more on the road would have us crashing into rock (it was, of course, a couple hundred kilometres away).

While Malabar Ops are essentially men of the city, they're also loners. When the rest of the world sits around their dinner tables, sharing their stories and their jokes, when their pulp fiction gives them company, a glass of wine by the side, when they're dancing and drinking the night away, when they hold each other, the freezing winter cold a thing of comfort and pleasure, dreaming their dreams of forever; the Malabar Op haunts the night, a man always in the now, his footsteps ringing in the dark alleys behind sleazy bars, his hands deep in his coat, his breath misting up in front of him, his gait languid, but his eyes watchful. Even when he does endure the morning light and the throng of crowded markets and railway stations, it's as if he watches a film from the rows farthest. Nothing escapes his gaze, and he feels and he knows, but he does not belong.

And so, the fields stretching out to infinity and the Himalayas ahead with their snow and their clouds, they speak to his soul. The vast expanses without anyone in sight, the ageless* mountains holding promise of a land without time, ambition or private sorrows; all of it makes the Malabar Op painfully aware that only an Arunachali can buy land there, and makes him ask his friend's mother whether she could hook him up with an Arunachali girl with plenty of land.

We stayed in Mohnish's ancestral home in Chowkham. Stepping out of the car, I saw his uncle Rajingda waiting for us - a dapper man in his 50s, with an unhurried air, a golf cap, a cigarette dangling at his lips, and a cool, level gaze. We gazed coolly at each other. His son Ujjal tells me that his Dad was quite the terror in his younger days and that a favourite unwind for father and son is to watch The Godfather together in the evenings. Ujjal looks after most of the family business now, and cuts quite the cold, formidable Michael Corleone figure in his Pajero and his sunglasses. He's proud of the work his family have done over the years and when he took us around the village, pointed out the things they have built or given land for. His grandfather, Chow Khamoon Gohain, was the first MP from the North East.

A little after 2 in the morning, I was woken up by the howling of something horrible. It was very cold. An uneasy feeling gripped the pit of my stomach. I took out my flashlight and decided to snoop around a little. The house was old, and also rather big - made almost entirely out of wood. Snooping around in someone else's house in the wee hours of the morning demands a certain amount of stealth, but, unused as I am to wooden floors, my first few steps sounded like a cautious Godzilla making for a pile of fish.

The house was shrouded in silence and darkness. I crossed the drawing room and started with the room across the passageway. The giant tusks by the idols glimmered palely. I shone my flashlight around. The room was as big as my flat in Delhi. There was nothing for me there. I turned around. Something jumped at me from the corner by the doorway. My heart leapt into my mouth and when I swallowed hard, instead of settling back inside my ribcage, it went down the wrong way. I coughed and spluttered. I walked backwards out the door and down the passageway in rather a hurry. There was nothing by the doorway that I could see except a Naga sword and a Khamti shield. I don't know why I thought something had jumped at me.

Many Arunachali houses, built as they are by the banks of rivers known to flood on occasions, are built on stilts. This one was no exception. I happened to be near an entrance to the house, which meant that there was a flight of steps leading down. Walking backwards as I was, I was made very aware of its existence only on my way down, my head bouncing off wood every other step. Moving with remarkable agility (all things considered), I started to pick myself off the landing. I had my second panic attack in less than 45 seconds when I glanced up and saw a hideous face leering at me. Turned out to be the handle of a walking stick. Why would anyone want that on the handle of a walking stick?

I saw another set of steps going up in front of me. It took me into a giant room filled with all sorts of old furniture. A private eye with more talent at describing interiors would probably have done a good job of painting you a mental image. I caught sight of a chair that I later learnt was sat on by the Dalai Lama. Sensing a shape above me, I turned around rather slower than the last time I'd sensed a shape, and glanced upward. It was just a crafted deer head. In order to have a better look at its antlers, I tilted my hat back and took a couple of steps back. I shouldn't have. I tripped over a chest (bought from Jew Town, Cochin, and quite beautiful to look at in daylight, really), and landed with a crash on my back. Flailing about, I knocked a vase down, and cracked the leg of a stand.

I felt like I'd been mugged by the Crazy 88. But my training kicked in instantly. I listened. Not a peep. In the last 5 minutes, I had made as much noise as a bunch of Indian close-in fielders about to get suspended by Mike Denness for excessive appealing. And yet, not a soul stirred. I decided that folk who could sleep through a racket like that couldn't have that much on their consciences. I limped painfully back to bed and sleep.

P.S. - Photos courtesy PK.

*He also points out that the Himalayas are hardly "ageless," and are, in fact, 70 million years old, which makes it a young pip, by mountain-range standards.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Malabar Op in Guwahati

The story so far... 

And now... 

The 7 AM cold was biting. I pulled the coat tight around me. I'd slept for all of two hours the previous night, and had every intention of sleeping through the two-and-a-hour flight. That resolution lasted for all the time it took for the snowcapped line of the Himalayas, stretching unbroken across the horizon, to make its appearance - this was my first glimpse, and there would be no further sleep. The pilot pointed out Mount Everest as we passed by, but the Himalayas are one of those ranges without bright-red labels on each peak, and I'm not sure that what I thought he thinks is the peak is the same as the one he thought we thought he thinks is Mount Everest.

Mohnish and PK, who were travelling from Pune, landed at Guwahati airport about half an hour after I did. Mohnish took one look at my bag, and asked me what the deal was. I told him: PK'd given me the impression that we'd have to wash our laundry by hand. Private eyes are tough, street-wise and ruggedly charming. They're good with guns and wisecracks. But not laundry. So I'd brought along 10 sets of clothing, 2 backup sets, a towel, a backup towel, a jacket, a backup sweater, slippers, and my Jean-Pierre Melville and Jim Jarmusch collections. Mohnish remarked, a tad more waspishly than was warranted, that there are, in fact, washing machines in the North East. PK giggled girlishly in the background. I let him have a cool, level stare.

Mohnish's cousin, Paul, picked us up from the airport. He stopped once on the way to show us the Brahmaputra. Very nice river. Dinner was at Mohnish's aunt's. She was an exceedingly pleasant and gracious host, and her daughter, a little on the quiet side, looks very much like Liv Tyler. So it'll surprise some of you that I'll be devoting blog inches not to either of them, but to Mohnish's uncle - a widely travelled man, who has apparently killed and eaten practically every species on earth.

His favourites (or perhaps least favourites) are pigs. He's machine gunned them in Bangladesh with an AK-47. He's rigged landmines to transform a formerly intact pig, with a family to care for, into little pieces of pork. And he's shot at them with tanks on the Indo-Pak border - prompting them to go "Oink! Oink! The Pakistanis are on the other side!" He even managed to get PK - who just 2 hours earlier had declined Paul's polite rum offering on the grounds that he'd be on an alcohol-free diet for the next 10 days - to partake of his stock of 16-year-old Fenny. 16-year-old Fenny, according to the two of them, is quite the modern miracle, as it proves that there are, in fact, Goans capable of laying off a bottle of Fenny for 16 whole years.

Of course, these trivialities didn't distract me from the business at hand. I kept a close eye on PK and Mohnish. Apart from the fact that they always seemed to want to sit together, there was, so far, nothing suspicious to report.

We had to wake up at 5 the next morning to catch the bus to Tinsukia. Being on the east of India, the day starts and ends very early here. My biological clock, regrettably, does not take the reasoned approach. It says "pooh" to science, and clings to IST like things in a Fevicol ad.  If the watch says 5 AM, then irrespective of what the light-meter says, it goes into a sulk, protests against this travesty of all that is good and holy, and drags my whole body down with it. But then, you can't really argue with bus schedules either. It ought to have known that it was fighting a losing battle from the start.

And so, early next morning, Paul dropped us off at the bus-stand from where we would catch the Volvo to Tinsukia. He had been very helpful and kind (no force on earth could persuade me to wake up at 5:30 in the morning for someone else - but he did it with a smile); and so, when he happened to mention that he likes South Indian girls, I naturally offered to introduce him to a few if he ever found himself in South India. "Why don't you start by introducing yourself to South Indian girls?" PK remarked. I drew my hat over my eyes and went off to sleep.

Tinsukia's to the north-east of Assam, and very near the border with Arunachal Pradesh. The bus journey to Tinsukia from Guwahati takes a little over 10 hours, is of singular beauty, and might just be worthy of Tolkien-type descriptions. Apparently, there are paddy fields and houses with fields of mustard and green hills and tea estates and even a stretch where rhinos can be spotted. But I'd had 6 hours of sleep the previous two nights combined and I slept right through the ride. Sorry.

That evening, relaxing at Mohnish's mother's house with a cup of Assam tea (in Assam, they just call it "tea"), we made plans for the next day. Mohnish's brother would drive us over the border to Arunachal Pradesh, to their ancestral home. This time, we'd start at the more reasonable hour of noon. That settled, we prepared for bed. PK asked Mohnish for a foot massage. Mohnish stared at him. There was a whatchamacallit in the air. I furrowed my brow and took out my notebook.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Malabar Op takes a case

I had long since grown tired of what I did for a living. Of patching and spit-polishing islands of code in the thousands upon thousands of classes that no one else seemed to care for. With every passing day they got a little longer, a little uglier and a little more incomprehensible. And no one gave a damn; not even the ones who owned it. And so, out of this desire to do something that mattered - to help people, for a few bucks a day and expenses - the Malabar Op was born.

I wanted a one-room office with my name and the legend "Private Eye" on a dirty stained-glass door. I wanted to write of long, lonely hours in a dusty office with just my phone and a blue bottle fly for company. But then, I wasn't rich. I had no savings to speak of. I couldn't afford a suitably rundown office in a suitably ramshackle building in a suitably seedy part of Delhi. And even if I did, given that my day-job office was in the Gurgaon of a thousand gleaming glass buildings, the commute wouldn't be pretty.

I did the next best thing. I created a page on Facebook. I am the Malabar Op. I walk the mean streets tough and unafraid... but I care. I'm here to help, to set things right. And I'm discreet. Could you "like" my page, please?

Two weeks. The Gtalk icon on the desktop was smooth and oval and white. I had no messages, no inquiries. I wanted a girlfriend. I wanted a vacation. I wanted a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and thermal underwear.

It wasn't Gtalk that would give me my first job. Early one Saturday morning, the doorbell rang. It was cold and wet and miserable. The sun hadn't been out for 3 days. It rained sometimes, and there was a fog out that was as heavy and thick as the blanket that enveloped me. I should be up and about, I told myself. The fog would lift soon. I shouldn't miss the few hours of relative bright, before the darkness crept in at what would still be afternoon in bright, sunny Cochin. "I've already put the garbage out. It's by the stairs," I yelled and snuggled back into my pillow. The bell rang again. I mumbled a meaningless curse, and opened the door.

Her hair might've moved gently in the wind, playing with misty tendrils of early-morning breeze... had it been one of those mornings. Sadly, it wasn't; there was just the dreary stillness of the fog. That's what you get if you try and make a cinematic entrance in mid December. I tried to look tough and unfathomable, with just the tiniest hint of reproach for the hurt of all those years ago - but tempered by a cynical, pessimistic knowledge of human nature - and also laid-back, wise and mysterious. But it's difficult to pull all that off in bad light, dressed just in thermal underwear.

"It's been a while."
"Well, are you just going to stand there? I'm cold. I didn't bring my boots. All these Delhi women are wearing boots."
"No, I... uh, won't you come in? Make yourself comfortable. I'll be right back."

I didn't have time for a shave or a shower, but I managed to find my coat and hat.

"What on earth's the matter with you?"
"I normally do my laundry on Saturday afternoons. You caught me at a rather inconvenient time."
"I see some slacks and t-shirts in that open cupboard over there..."
"Oh, those are deprecated."

I hadn't supposed that I'd ever meet her again. What could she want out of me now? The years brought back memories sharp and pungent. I felt like a pig in the Rann of Kutch that had just been fired at for pork by a T-55 tank.

"So, I hear you're going into the bedroom-peeping business?"
"Well, it's just something I thought I'd try out. And I don't do divorce wo..."
"Right, right. How's it going?"
"Not very well, so far."
"I figured as much. Listen, I may have a job for you."
"Oh?" I said warily.
"You remember Mohnish?"
"The chap with the pig fetish. Is he still in your project?"
"He's been spending a lot of time with PK recently. He's even taking him to Arunachal, when he's going on vacation in a couple of days' time."
"I want to know if this is more than just good, wholesome, fully-compliant-with-Section-377 (pre-July, 2009) male bonding. Maybe you could go along with them and find out."
"Let's call it a matter of the heart."
"What do you care? You just married a vegetarian."
"I didn't say it was a matter of my heart."
"What do you charge?"
"1250 bucks a day and expenses, plus 12.5% VAT. 5000 bucks retainer."
"How long would you take?"
"About two weeks."
"How do you figure that?"
"That's all the leave I have left. Sleuthing doesn't pay the bills, yet, you know."