About the Author
Tarquin Hall is a British author and journalist who has lived and worked throughout South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. He is the author of The Case of the Missing Servant, dozens of articles, and three works of non-fiction, including the highly acclaimed Salaam Brick Lane, an account of a year spent above a Bangladeshi sweat shop in London’s notorious East End. He is married to Indian-born journalist, Anu Anand. They divide their time between London and Delhi.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Case of the Missing Servant
Vish Puri, founder and managing director of Most Private Investigators Ltd., sat alone in a room in a guesthouse in Defence Colony, south Delhi, devouring a dozen green chili pakoras* from a greasy takeout box.
Puri was supposed to be keeping off the fried foods and Indian desserts he so loved. Dr. Mohan had “intimated” to him at his last checkup that he could no longer afford to indulge himself with the usual Punjabi staples.
“Blood pressure is up, so chance of heart attack and diabetes is there. Don’t do obesity,” he’d advised.
Puri considered the doctor’s stern warning as he sank his teeth into another hot, crispy pakora and his taste buds thrilled to the tang of salty batter, fiery chili and the tangy red chutney in which he had drowned the illicit snack. He derived a perverse sense of satisfaction from defying Dr. Mohan’s orders.
Still, the fifty-one-year-old detective shuddered to think what his wife would say if she found out he was eating between meals—especially “outside” food that had not been prepared by her own hands (or at least by one of the servants).
Keeping this in mind, he was careful not to get any incriminating grease spots on his clothes. And once he had finished his snack and disposed of the takeout box, he washed the chutney off his hands and checked beneath his manicured nails and between his teeth for any telltale residue. Finally he popped some sonf into his mouth to freshen his breath.
All the while, Puri kept an eye on the house across the way and the street below.
By Delhi standards, it was a quiet and exceptionally clean residential street. Defence Colony’s elitist, upper middle-class residents—army officers, doctors, engineers, babus and the occasional press-wallah—had ensured that their gated community remained free of industry, commerce and the usual human detritus. Residents could take a walk through the well-swept streets or idle in the communal gardens without fear of being hassled by disfigured beggars...or having to negotiate their way around arc welders soldering lengths of metal on the sidewalks...or halal butchers slaughtering chickens.
Most of the families in Defence Colony were Punjabi and had arrived in New Delhi as refugees following the catastrophic partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. As their affluence and numbers had grown over the decades, they had built cubist cement villas surrounded by high perimeter walls and imposing wrought-iron gates.
Each of these minifiefdoms employed an entire company of servants. The residents of number 76, D Block, the house that Puri was watching, retained the services of no fewer than seven full-time people—two drivers, a cook, a cleaner-cum-laundry-maid, a butler and two security guards. Three of these employees were “live-in” and shared the barsaati on the roof. The overnight security guard slept in the sentry box positioned outside the front gate, though strictly speaking, he really wasn’t meant to.
The family also relied on a part-time dishwasher, a sweeper, a gardener and the local press-wallah who had a stand under the neem tree down the street where he applied a heavy iron filled with hot charcoal to a dizzying assortment of garments, including silk saris, cotton salwars and denim jeans.
From the vantage point in the room Puri had rented, he could see the dark-skinned cleaner-cum-laundry-maid on the roof of number 76, hanging underwear on the clothesline. The mali was on the first-floor balcony watering the potted plants. The sweeper was using up gallons of precious water hosing down the marble forecourt. And, out in the street, the cook was inspecting the green chilis being sold by a local produce vendor who pushed a wooden cart through the neighborhood, periodically calling out, “Subzi-wallah!”
Puri had positioned two of his best undercover operatives, Tubelight and Flush, down in the street.
These were not their real names, of course. Being Punjabi, the detective had nicknames for most of his employees (and this being India, his company was as labor intensive as they came), relatives and close friends. For example, he called his wife Rumpi; his new driver, Handbrake; and the office boy, who was extraordinarily lazy, Door Stop.
Tubelight was so named because he was a heavy sleeper and took a while to flicker into life in the morning. The forty-three-year-old hailed from a clan of hereditary thieves, and therefore had been highly adept at cracking locks, safes and ignitions since childhood.
As for Flush, he had a flush toilet in his home, a first for anyone in his remote village in the state of Haryana. An electronics and computer whiz, during his career with Indian intelligence he had once managed to place a microscopic bug inside the Pakistani ambassador’s dentures.
The other member of the team, Facecream, was waiting a few miles away and would play a crucial part in the operation later that evening. A beautiful and feisty Nepali woman who had run away from home as a teenager to join the Maoists but became disillusioned with the cause and escaped to India, she often worked undercover—one day posing as a street sweeper; the next as irresistible bait in a honeytrap.
Puri himself was known by various names.
His father had always addressed him by his full name, Vishwas, which the detective had later shortened to Vish because it rhymes with “wish” (and “Vish Puri” could be taken to mean “granter of wishes”). But the rest of his family and friends knew him as Chubby, an affectionate rather than derisive sobriquet—although, as Dr. Mohan had pointed out so indelicately, he did need to lose about thirty pounds.
Puri insisted on being called Boss by his employees, which helped remind them who was in charge. In India, it was important to keep a strong chain of command; people were used to hierarchy and they responded to authority. As he was fond of saying, “You can’t have every Johnny thinking he’s a Nelson, no?”
The detective reached for his walkie-talkie and spoke into it.
“What’s that Charlie up to? Over,” he said.
“Still doing timepass, Boss,” replied Flush. There was a pause before he remembered to add the requisite “Over.”
Flush, who was thirty-two, skinny and wore thick, milk-bottle-bottom glasses, was sitting in the back of Puri’s Hindustan Ambassador monitoring the bugs the team had planted inside the target’s home earlier, as well as all incoming and outgoing phone calls. Meanwhile, Tubelight, who was middle aged with henna-dyed hair and blind in one eye, was disguised as an autorickshaw-wallah in oily clothes and rubber chappals. Crouched on his haunches on the side of the street among a group of bidi-smoking local drivers, he was gambling at cards.
Puri, a self-confessed master of disguise, had not changed into anything unusual for today’s operation, though seeing him for the first time, you might have been forgiven for thinking this was not the case. His military moustache, first grown when he was a recruit in the army, was waxed and curled at the ends. He was wearing one of his trademark tweed Sandown caps, imported from Bates of Jermyn Street in Piccadilly, and a pair of prescription aviator sunglasses.
Now that it was November and the intense heat of summer had subsided, he had also opted for his new grey safari suit. It had been made for him, as all his shirts and suits were, by Mr. M. A. Pathan of Connaught Place, whose grandfather had often dressed Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan.
“A pukka Savile Row finish if ever I saw one,” said the detective to himself, admiring the cut in a mirror in the empty room. “Really tip-top.”
The suit was indeed perfectly tailored for his short, tubby frame. The silver buttons with the stag emblems were especially fetching.
Puri sat down in his canvas chair and waited. It was only a matter of time before Ramesh Goel made his move. Everything the detective had learned about the young man suggested that he would not be able to resist temptation.
The two had come face-to-face on Day One of the operation, when Puri had entered number 76, the Goel family residence, disguised as a telephone repairman. That encounter, however brief, had told the detective all he needed to know. Ramesh Goel, who had spiky hair and walked with a swagger, lacked moral fiber. It was the same with so many young middle-class people these days. Infidelity was rife, divorce rates were on the up, elderly parents were being abused and abandoned in old people’s homes, sons no longer understood their responsibilities to their parents or society as a whole.
“Many thousands of males and females are working in call centers and IT sector side by side and they are becoming attached and going in for one-night stands,” Puri had written in his latest letter to the Times of India, which the honorable editor had seen fit to publish. “In this environment, in which males and females are thrust together without proper family supervision or moral code, peer group pressure is at the highest level. Even young females are going in for premarital affairs, extramarital affairs—even extra extramarital affairs. So much infidelity is there that many marriages are getting over.”
American influence was to blame with its emphasis on materialism, individuality and lack of family values.
“A fellow is no longer happy serving society. Dharma, duty, has been ejected out the window. Now the average male wants five-star living: Omega watch, Italian hotel food, Dubai holiday, luxury apartment, a fancy girl on the side,” Puri had written. “All of a sudden, young Indians are adopting the habits of goras, white people.”
Sixty years after Gandhi-ji sent them packing, Mother India was, being conquered by outsiders again.
“Boss, Flush this side, over.” The voice broke into the detective’s private lament.
“Boss this side, over,” replied the detective.
“Mouse made contact, Boss. Leaving shortly, over.”
“Mouse” was code for Goel.
The detective made his way as quickly as he could down into the street and, a little short of breath after his exertion on the stairs, joined Flush in the back of the waiting Ambassador.
Tubelight folded his hand of cards, made a hasty apology to the other drivers, collected up his winnings (nearly sixty rupees; not bad for an hour’s work) and revved up the three-wheeler he had rented for the day from his cousin Bhagat.
A few minutes later, the gates to the Goel residence swung open and a red Indica hatchback pulled out. The vehicle turned right. Tubelight waited five seconds and then followed. Puri’s Ambassador, with Handbrake at the wheel, was not far behind.
The team kept a safe distance as Goel sped along the old Ring Road. There was little doubt in the detective’s mind where his mark was heading.
“This Charlie might be having Angrezi education, but he is like a moth to Vish Puri’s flame,” he said with a grin.
Flush, who held his employer in high regard and had learned to tolerate his boastfulness, replied, “Yes, Boss.”
The Ambassador and the auto took turns tailing the Indica through the streets of south Delhi, the rush hour traffic helping the team remain inconspicuous. Cars, motorcycles, scooters, cyclists, bicycle rickshaws, trucks, hand-pushed carts, bullock carts, sacred cows and the occasional unroadworthy hybrid vehicle that defied description vied for space on the road. Like bumper cars at a fairground, vehicles cut across one another, drivers inching into any space that presented itself, making four and a half lanes out of three. Horns blared constantly, a clamor as jarring as a primary school brass brand. Loudest of all were the Blueline buses. Driven by charas-smoking maniacs who were given financial incentives for picking up the most passengers, even if they ended up killing or maiming some of them. “Bloody goondas,” Puri called them. But he knew that the harshest penalty these men would ever face was a few hours in a police station drinking chai. Politicians and babus owned all the buses and had the police in their pockets. The going rate for expunging the record of a “manslaughter” charge was about three thousand rupees.
The detective watched one of these battered Blueline buses lumbering through the traffic like an old wounded war elephant, its sides scarred by previous battles. Faces peered down from the scratched windows—some with curiosity, others with envy and perhaps contempt—into the plush interiors of the many thousands of new luxury sedans on Delhi’s roads. For the have-nots, here was a glimpse of the lifestyle that hundreds of thousands of the nouveaux riches had adopted. For Puri, the scene was a reminder of the widening economic disparity in Indian society.
“Mouse is turning right, Boss,” said Handbrake.
Puri nodded. “Tubelight, keep ahead of him,” he said into his walkie-talkie. “We’ll keep back, over.”
Goel’s Indica passed over the new spaghetti junction of “overbridges” in front of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and continued in the direction of Sarojini Nagar. Had it not been for the occasional ancient tomb or monument—echoes of Delhi’s previous incarnations, now jammed between all the concrete and reflective glass—Puri would not have recognized the place.
In his childhood, Delhi had been slow moving and provincial. But in the past ten years, Puri had watched the city race off in all directions, spreading east and south, with more roads, cars, malls and apartment blocks springing up each day. The dizzying prosperity attracted millions of uneducated and unskilled villagers into the capital from impoverished states across north India. With the population explosion—now 16 million and rising—came a dramatic increase in crime. The vast conglomeration of Old Delhi, New Delhi and its many suburbs had been officially renamed the National Capital Region—or the “National Crime Region,” as most newspapers wrote mockingly.
For Puri, this meant more work. Most Private Investigators Ltd. had never been busier. But the business was not all welcome. There were days when the detective found his natural optimism waning. Sometimes he would battle home through the honking gridlock wondering if perhaps he should turn his hand to social work.
His dear wife, Rumpi, always reminded Puri that India was making great progress and talked him out of throwing in the towel. She would point out that he was already doing the public a service. His current investigation was but one example. He was on the brink of saving a young woman from a terrible fate and bringing an unscrupulous individual to account.
Yes, it would not be long now before Ramesh Goel was brought to book. Puri would have him in another ten minutes or so.
The detective made sure Handbrake remained three cars behind the Indica on the last leg of his journey down Africa Avenue to Safdarjung Enclave. Predictably, the young man turned into A Block.
Unbeknownst to Goel, as he pulled up outside A 2/12—“Boss, he’s at A-two-oblique-twelve, over”—he was being filmed with a long lens from a nearby vantage point. It made no difference that he was wearing a baseball cap, sunglasses and a dark raincoat in an effort to disguise himself. Nor that he was using the alias Romey Butter.
Vish Puri had got his man.
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