Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Malabar Op checks out the clouds

I studied the SMS carefully. This could prove to be a new development in the case. Or it might not. But private eyes can't afford to overlook any lead, no matter how far-fetched. We know from bitter experience that things that appear unrelated at first sight tend to dovetail into the plot by page 250. I booked a cab for Shillong.

The fields that so captivated me during my ride in were now veiled by a fog tinted thickly with the orange of dusk. But I had no time for prettinesses. Wheels were turning in my head, those wheels turning other wheels, and they, in turn, working levers and complicated machinery and stuff, until wisps of smoke could be seen escaping my ears.

The cab driver, a loquacious man by Malabar Op standards (but then, who isn't?), pointed out a temple built in the centuries past by the Ahom kings. There's this tunnel, apparently, that starts beneath the temple and ends  at nobody-knows-where - because no one who's ever gone in has come back out. This interested me enough to spare it a few wheels: a worthy challenge, but, on the whole, maybe more of a case for a Malabar Jones than a Malabar Op. I grunted an acknowledgment and returned to my case.

My work in Guwahati done (I probably should've told you that I had work there and what it was and all that, but these reports have a strict word limit), I continued on my way to Shillong. Shillong's less than a 100 kilometres from Guwahati, but the road up through the hills is heavily plied at night by trucks, making the going a little slow in places.

The border between Assam and Meghalaya is unusual. A highway divides the two states. To the left of the highway is Assam, and to the right - lined by wine shops, the tax structure for alcohol being very attractive - is Meghalaya. And that's why Assamese chickens cross the road. For the cheaper booze.

The road up into Shillong, when not blocked by trucks, is a lonely one. The  full moon was pale yellow and had a smattering of clouds about it. The forest-covered hills were quiet in a moody, windy way. All that was left to complete the picture was for the car to break down and a wolf to start baying in the distance. But nothing of the sort happened. This isn't that kind of a case.

As we neared Shillong, we crossed a big lake. I remember being very struck by it, and jotting down a description in my notebook; but as I've misplaced it, all that's left for me to say is that I was... struck by it.

And then Shillong started. It's a city that cocks a snook at everything physics has to say; every brick is a triumph of man against nature. Perhaps it's how all hill stations are, but this is the first big one I've seen, and it was astonishing. Houses side by side, sometimes seemingly on top of each other, perched precariously on steep slopes, the hills swarming with pin points of light, mile after mile after mile.

One of my pet theories is that the best way to get to know a city is to simply listen to it. The rhythms of the conversation, the language, the things left unsaid, all this, it tells you all you need to know and more. Here's what I learnt about Shillong by overhearing just one such conversation.

Guy 1: "Yeah, so like I was telling you the other day, Shillong - called the Scotland of the East by our colonisers from long ago - is the capital of Meghalaya, which translates as 'the abode of the clouds.' It's a city nestled in the Shillong Plateau."

Guy 2: "And the reason we're waiting for a cab is that the bus service is practically non-existent. The cabs - mostly Maruti 800s, as these are vehicles with no power steering, and hence can be switched off on downward slopes to save fuel - are all shared; you can ask the driver not to pick up anyone else, though, by paying him extra."

Guy 1: "Absolutely. Also, because it's built on hills and everything, the roads are sort of narrow, and there are many one-ways. Finding a parking spot can be a bit of a nightmare, too. But the traffic is fairly disciplined."

Guy 2: "Hmm... We must not forget that the Khasis are one of the few matrilineal and matrilocal societies in India. For instance, most of the property passes to the youngest daughter."

Guy 1: "Exactly. And Christianity is the dominant religion. Which is why, even though the temperature's 6 degrees right now on this Christmas day, the blood in our veins runs hot from watching all the pretty girls dressed up all nicely for church. How do they stand the cold, though, in those short dresses? Look at this guy in trench coat and hat next to us: he looks like he's auditioning for a Havells ad, and I still bet he has thermal underwear on."

Guy 2: "Interesting. This has been such a nice conversation, and informative, too, for the casual bystander. We really should meet up more often. Anyway, why I wanted to meet you today was to tell you that there's been... ooh, there's a cab!"

At Shillong Point, I knew whom to look for. I'd deduced from the SMS that the sender was a dame in her 20s, pretty short, with medium-length straight hair. She'd most likely be a political-science teacher. I walked up and tapped her on the shoulder: "It took me a while, but I'm here for you now."

She stared at me expressionlessly for a moment: "Well, at least this is a new one."

I showed her the SMS.

"Are you aware that those things can also be used for purposes such as, for instance, checking whether you're the intended recipient of a fairly strange message?"

"Why would I think it wasn't intended for me? Trouble is my middle name," I replied woodenly.

She sighed, and turned away to lean over the railing again. A little time passed. Shillong looked quite lovely from that spot, framed against the far taller hills all around it. Presently, she said

"Do you do project work?"
"What do you mean?" I replied uncertainly.
"There's this exam I'm giving, and I'm supposed to write a 1000-word essay on Berlin Alexanderplatz. Know anything about it?"
"Oh, ah, that's not quite in my..."
"No matter. It was a long shot."
"Is there anybody I can beat it out from?" I asked hopefully.
 "Well," she paused doubtfully, "there's this guy I know who bought the Criterion edition of those discs at an Amazon sale a few months back. But he wouldn't help. He hates my guts."
"Leave that to me. Where can I find him, and are you going to pay up front or after the job is done? I usually demand a retainer."
"How much did you have in mind?"
"How much do you have?"

And that is how I set out to find Jeem Thar, with 14 bucks and 75 paise jangling in my pocket. I'd never worked for so little ever before, but she had a way of fluttering her eyes that made my knees go weak. Mind you, a man in my profession gets a lot of eye fluttering from a lot of dames; but this was easily in the top five.

I've heard claims that Shillong's the only city in India that has a paved road leading to every residence. I wouldn't know - because I didn't tail Jeem to every house in Shillong - but all the ones I did walk on were paved. I especially enjoyed tailing him on the narrower streets, my standard-issue Op boots ringing smartly on the pavement, the close walls echoing the sound in a delightful surround effect.

And the roads were clean. There's nothing I hate more than keeping brisk pace with a suspect, and then having to hop on one foot, trying to scrape gum off. Not getting gum on his boots is vital to a private-eye - gum tends to muffle ringing footsteps, leading to low job-satisfaction levels.

Then there are the little roads that lead up and down, everywhere, that a private eye can duck into when he gets a little too enthusiastic with his footsteps and the suspect wheels sharply around. Private eyes love elevation changes. Especially when they allow him his ringing footsteps: thump, crack, thump.

The only negative was that a lot of Shillong's shops and restaurants are the small, tastefully furnished, personal types that most folks go gaga over, but makes us private eyes stick out like VVS Laxman at the IPL. But that apart, the place is just private-eye heaven, I tell you.

I cornered Jeem at Ward's Lake. I'd planned to pull him under some bushes and whack the info out of him, but probably because of massive deforestation, brightly coloured umbrellas are what the young of Shillong seem to prefer. Admittedly, umbrellas look a little odd in winter, but we Malabar Ops can rough it out with what's available when forced to. I dragged him under a vacant umbrella. To the rest of the world, we were a pair of rent-crossed lovers, but only the two of us would ever know how ferocious the battle really was. After about the sixth punch on his slightly pulpy belly, he started to spill the beans. In less than 15 minutes, I had all the words anyone would ever need on Berlin Alexanderplatz. I made him repeat it all in German just for the hell of it.

Handing the notes over later that evening, I gruffly asked her to wipe her tears off. It was nothing, I said. Just an honest day's work. I adjusted my hat in exactly the same way that Humphrey Bogart did in The Maltese Falcon, wore exactly the same smirk on my face, and walked toward the waiting cab, my ringing footsteps never having sounded better.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Malabar Op goes soft

The story so far... 

The Malabar Op snoops around
There was bamboo-shoot pork, bamboo-shoot pickle, something else that's the world's hottest chili, eggs, freshwater fish, mutton, algae, sweet potatoes, small potatoes, normal potatoes, chicken, shrimp, rice, dal, cauliflower and lots, lots more on the lunch table. Maintaining my enviable fitness levels was clearly going to be a problem in Chowkham.

Life there is pretty restful. The village by the riverside, the freezing waters as clean as can be, the woods and the fields with hardly a soul in sight, the Himalayas so very close by, the charm of the house itself, all of this, it sometimes makes a private eye forget that he has business at hand, and turns him into a tourist - and a vegetable of a tourist, at that. 

The day begins early in the "land of the dawn-lit mountains." I've heard that the sunrise is as early as a little after 5 in the morning. The only person who can confirm that is PK, who would disappear into the early-morning mist to go birding. Due to a lack of witnesses, his exploits on these trips are largely shrouded in myth and mystery; but stories have filtered through of lows such as getting lost and wandering into army camps, and glorious highs such as the day he got to molest a Crested Serpent Eagle.

Aunt Frika (Mohnish has as many aunts as a character in a Wodehouse novel, and they all ask just two things of him: that he get a haircut and get married - in that order) would regale us at the breakfast table with stories of the floods in 2004. She told us how they watched, from their terrace, house after house disappearing into the river; of how all their help had to leave to take care of their families; of how they had no water or electricity for more than a week; of how they harvested rainwater, and the joys of bathing in them.  Ujjal, sitting nearby, added gloomily that one day they too would lose their house as young rivers are rather unpredictable with their courses. After breakfast, she would buzz off determinedly bride-hunting for Mohnish (who'd sit in a corner blushing prettily).

The Malabar Op leads Mohnish across the Lohit
Mostly, it was a time for the finer things in life: sleeping late, hogging like (and on) pigs, avoiding any kind of excessive physical labour, etc. We would go orange plucking, have a look at the pagodas and the museums nearby, and buy handwoven bags  and Khamti lungis from the pretty tailor in the village. This being winter, off-roading on the riverbed in Ujjal's Gypsy was also an option. The locals were very impressed when I led local-boy Mohnish across the treacherous currents of the Lohit.

The high-point was when we drove to Parashuram Kund. Legend has it that Lord Parashuram, for naughtinesses such as killing his mother, had an axe irremovably stuck to his arm. He travelled the length and breadth of the country as penance for his sin, but the axe wouldn't come off. It was only when he bathed in the waters here that it finally parted ways. This legend is all the more poignant to us Malabar Ops as the story goes that it's a blow from his axe that claimed the Malabar coast from the seas.

I suppose then that this place needs no further description than this: all it takes is one glimpse to convince you that there are no sins those blue-green waters cannot cleanse. We got a couple of nice pictures, but they do no justice to the sight of the river snaking its way through those hills, the foothills of the Himalayas: sheer, green and beautiful.

And just when I was in danger of completely forgetting about the case, came a walk by the river. PK to Mohnish: "Come with me tomorrow morning, my little piggy, and I'll show you the eighth wonder of the world."

I scratched my chin thoughtfully and followed.

P.S. - Photos courtesy PK.