Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Malabar Op goes to the movies: The Setup, involving The Dame, The Burg & The Hound

I stared at my manager's head with a vague distaste. I wasn't listening to a word he was saying, but I know to a cert what he was going on about. I'd heard it all before and the plot's never gripped me enough for repeat performances. What held my gaze, though, was his head: small and dark and shaped like a coconut. It had a thin covering of hair on top, very similar to and as light as the spread of coir on a de-husked coconut.

Coconuts are known for their versatility of use: the name Kerala, for instance, is derived from it, and even in far-away lands such as the one where they speak Malay, it's called the "tree of a thousand uses." The shell and the husk alone, since that's what brought us on to this topic, can be used to make anything from hoofbeats, to musical instruments, to shirt buttons, to fuel. Coconut water, if drunk from the right coconut and if you believe Harry Belafonte, is good for your daughter, makes you strong as a lion because of all the iron, and is ideal with rum when you're feeling a little glum; and the white, fleshy coating on the inside, subject to the same restrictions as the liquid, tastes like a slice of heaven.

But those are coconuts. My manager, on the other hand... When he reached the point where he was telling me how, in his book, I was all sorts of unpleasant things, I couldn't help but express amazement at this accomplishment literary, given that the last time I checked, he couldn't put together three sentences in an email without some sort of a blooper. This terminated the interview, and I was free to go back to my desk and brood. I wanted to throw up - preferably on his keyboard. I'd just thought of an excuse to go back to his desk, and had even conjured up an imaginative segue to the barfing when, as so often happens every now and then - but usually only when you're in the shower - the phone rang.

A clipped, snotty voice was on the other end...

"Listen, I came across this Facebook page for a private investigator just now... the Malabar Op or something. Are you him?"
"Yes," I said, trying not to betray too much interest: it helps with monetary negotiations.
"I've never seen a seedier ad."
I let that one fly.
"Well, what do you charge?"
"One thousand o..."
"That's way too much."
"Well, what'd you have in mind, then?"
"We'll come to that. First, can you give me any references?"
"Sorry, no. I've not been very long in the business. I do it part-time, so far. But I've read every Hammett and Chandler ever written, and I model myself on Russell Crowe from L.A. Confidential."
"And what do you with the other part of your time?"
"I'm a programmer."


The phone rang again in a couple of days' time. This time she sounded a little less haughty, a little defeated.

"I suppose beggars can't be choosers," she sighed. "How soon can you make it to Pune?"
"As soon as you book the airline ticket," I assured her.


Ah, Pune. I knew the burg well. Yes, I did. Once. A long time ago. But that was then. This was now (or, rather, a later then than the first then there).

Despite the pouring rain, it was a little too hot for my trench coat, and I had to drape it over my arm stylishly as soon as I was out of the terminal. A black cab was waiting for me. The driver was a short, thickset grouch in his late 30s. He didn't have an umbrella, which made me regret the decision to take off the coat. Oh well, life is a sum of the choices we make. A clap of thunder, a thud of the door, a growl of the engine, and we were off.

The house was the farthest one on a little lane that leads away from all civilisation. It starts out charmingly enough, but gets woodier and has less and less houses the further you go down it. And there at the very end was a house all alone, as if the others on the lane were shrinking away from it. Even the pack of barking dogs running after the car stopped, as if they'd hit an invisible barrier. Trees crowded around it, but these weren't the sort of trees you'd read about in a Robert Frost poem, but something rather more sinister - it is undoubtedly what the forest looked like to Hansel and Gretel after the little idiots lost their trail of breadcrumbs, and probably what Red Riding Hood thought of the woods after she made her acquaintance with the wolf. So there it was, the little house at the edge of Fangorn - to careless glances as pleasant a house as anyone could hope for - and I fidgeted uneasily.


It was a house with furniture. No, wait... that doesn't sound right. I've never managed to learn the names of pieces of furniture, colours, the names of different types of windows, curtains, etc; so these sort of descriptions are very difficult for me. Picture in your mind's eye a richly furnished room, but altogether on the dark side - as if light were somehow banished from there. And yet, a room that hints not at opulence or decadence, but the exact opposite... in a very evil, tightly-controlled way - like hair done up in a bun with not a strand out of place. Done? Well, that's exactly the sort of furnishing her house had.

A match, a scratch, a quick flame, a silhouette, and a puff of smoke. I could sense her gaze raking into me, every tiny movement and tic magnified and filed. I suppressed a nervous giggle.

"So... this is what my 7000 bucks of airfare has dragged in..."
I bristled. "Look here, I got back from the North East not two weeks ago, having solved an intricate puzzle to the satisfaction of all, and I really don't need to take this kind of shit from anyone... If you don't like what you see, Missy, I'm just as happy to go right back out that door."
"And once you go right back out that door, do you walk all the way back to Delhi?" drawled the voice through the smoke.
"Ah... Well...There, you see... since I'm here at your behest... it's only fair that you..."
"A blue ruby of mine has been stolen."
"Oh, too bad. Sympathies. I hate it when that happens."
"I think the thief is going to be at the piff."
"At the sniff, you mean?"
"What does 'at the sniff' mean, jackass?"
"Well at least all three are proper words, unlike your sentence which scores just two out of three," said I defensively.
"The PIFF - the Pune International Film Festival."
"What makes you think that the thief is going to be there?" I asked, interested. "Have you watched Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale?"
"What? Look, I'm trying to talk as slowly and use as few syllables as possible here. I don't need fucking Bogart. All I need is a sap who'll do as he's told. On the table there is a delegate pass for the festival... which starts tomorrow, by the way. Look for a girl named Sally. Find out where she's hidden the ruby and get it back to me."
"I don't understand. If you know who took it, why don't you just... Oh, all right. Whatever. As regards my fee..."
"Your fee will be exactly what I choose to pay you after you retrieve my property. In the meantime, you shall stay here."


My room was on the ground floor, right next to the kitchen. The three rotis, half a bowl of dal and the two pieces of chicken I had for dinner didn't quite sate me (private eyes as a rule work up a healthy appetite due to all the martial arts training), and I toyed with the idea of topping up the tank, so to speak. Granted, her parents, the poor things, had slipped an extra roti or two onto my plate from their ration when she wasn't looking, but...

I crept quietly out my room, and was groping for a light in the passageway when I saw two pale-yellow points of light gleaming at me. Now, I've come across a lot of evil in my life. I've seen everything from the polish of Hannibal Lecter, Pavanai and Harry Lime to the malevolence of Eddie Dane, Anton Chigurh and Frank. But never have I seen anything drip evil from every pore like this dog did. I suppose zoologists would classify it as a Golden Retriever, but really, it was the size of a genetically modified lion that had been hitting the gym for 60 hours a week. It didn't make a noise... just a few leisurely steps in my direction, until it was inches from my face, mouth open, teeth gleaming and daring me to take a forward step... any step, in fact, other than back into my room.

I coughed apologetically, then remembered that he was just a dog after all, but smiled weakly anyway, all the while walking backwards gingerly, mumbled goodnight, and closed the door behind me. "I can think. I can wait. I can fast," quoth Siddhartha. Well, anything he can do, I can do better.


Mr. Ordinary said...

"I wasn't listening to a word he was saying, but I know to a cert what he was going on about. I'd heard it all before and the plot's never gripped me enough for repeat performances. What held my gaze, though, was his head: small and dark and shaped like a coconut."

Don't tell me that you are talking about the same coconut head you and I know very closely ;)

missjane said...

Ahh, the surprisingly elusive Malabar Op fb page...

Rohan said...

The amount of business it gives the Op, though...

Neha said...

So, what happens next? :D

Rohan said...

I have no clue, sadly. This post had been gathering dust in my drafts list for some time, and I was hoping that pushing it out would inspire me a wee bit to complete it. No such luck. I'm leaning towards something with plenty of sex and violence...

Arushi said... did u finally got to the sex and violence part or are they still elusive !!!

Rohan said...

Still slightly elusive, but since I've got it in my head that I'd like to have at least one post in every month of this year, there'll be something this weekend - no matter how bad it is.