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, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, and The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, along with dozens of articles and three works of nonfiction, including the highly acclaimed Salaam Brick Lane, an account of a year spent living above a Bangladeshi sweatshop in London’s notorious East End. He lives in Delhi with his wife, Indian-born journalist Anu Anand, and their son.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Case of the Love Commandos Prologue
The Love Commando watched the black Range Rover pull in through the gates of the University of Agra. Laxmi—the Commando’s code name—could make out the portly profile of the driver, the one who was so fond of chicken tikka, desi sharab and the accommodating ladies of the local bazaar.
Next to him sat the goon with the gorilla nose and droopy eyes. He looked like he’d have had trouble spelling his own name. But it would be a mistake to underestimate him, Laxmi noted. Naga, as he was known at his local gym, was a power-lifting champion with fists the size of sledgehammers.
“They’re pulling up now,” she said into her mobile phone, the line open to her fellow Love Commando volunteer Shruti, who was waiting inside the gymnasium building where the examinations were about to begin.
It was ten minutes to four.
The driver had kept his end of the bargain. Now Laxmi would have to live up to hers. Last night’s surveillance video of his dalliance with that bar girl would not find its way into the hands of his wife after all.
From behind the Licensed Refrigerated Water “Trolly” positioned across the road, she watched the driver alight. He looked up and down the busy street. Satisfied that the coast was clear, he opened the Range Rover’s back door.
The revulsion Laxmi felt for the driver paled in comparison to the contempt in which she held his boss, who emerged. Vishnu Mishra personified everything the Love Commandos were attempting to change about India. In north Indian parlance, he was known as a Thakur, literally “lord”—a hereditary landowner with no qualms about exploiting the caste system that still doomed tens of millions of low-caste Indians to subjugation and poverty. His immaculate appearance despite Agra city’s heat and dust owed everything to this gross imbalance. An army of servants attended to his every whim: cooks, cleaners, sweepers, even a personal barber–cum–shampoo wallah who kept his nails immaculate, buffed his skin and, rumor had it, dressed him in the morning. Managers oversaw the day-to-day running of his numerous commercial activities. His eldest son managed his political ambitions. And a mistress called “Smoothy” ensured that during many an afternoon in apartment 301D of Avalon Apartments, his carnal needs were sated.
Mishra even had a ready vote bank of thirty thousand subjugated tenant farmers whom he maintained in a perpetual state of poverty and hunger.
Still, there was one task he was evidently prepared to take care of himself: Vishnu Mishra was prepared to kill.
As he climbed down from his Range Rover, Laxmi caught a flash of the semiautomatic inside his jacket.
He stood for a few seconds, surveying the street and waiting for Naga to alight from the other side of the vehicle. Then he beckoned for his daughter to step out.
This was the first time Laxmi had laid eyes on Tulsi. She’d been under lock and key for the past three months in the family’s Agra villa, barred from having contact with even her closest female friends. Indeed, the only visitors she’d seen in all that time were prospective grooms and their families, all of them vetted and introduced by an “upscale” marriage broker.
“Beautiful, homely, fair and proper height” was how Cupids Matrimonial Agency had described her. Laxmi could see that this was no exaggeration. Tulsi had mother-of-pearl skin and dark brown eyes set amidst a flurry of long black lashes. She looked to be in good health, with plenty of color in her cheeks. If she bore her father any ill will, it certainly didn’t show in her doting smile.
Had she buckled under the relentless pressure of parents and family? Laxmi wondered.
She’d known it to happen before. Tulsi’s boyfriend, Ram, might have been a handsome boy with liquid brown eyes, but he was still an “untouchable,” or Dalit—a caste so low and noxious to the highborn Hindu that, until recent times, the slightest physical contact with a member had been considered personally polluting.
Vishnu Mishra would stop at nothing to prevent his daughter from seeing Ram again. He’d blocked all communication between them and left the young man in no doubt about what would happen if he attempted to contact Tulsi again.
“I’ll kill you at the earliest opportunity, Dalit dog,” he’d promised over the phone.
But Ram hadn’t been scared off. He’d appealed to the Love Commandos for help. The charity helped Indian couples from disparate castes and religions to marry and settle down, often under aliases. The founders and volunteers believed that the arranged-marriage system was holding back society and that if young people were able to choose their own partners—to marry across caste lines and therefore break down the ordained divisions once and for all—then India would become a more progressive place.
Laxmi, who’d met with Ram a fortnight ago, had taken a shine to the young Dalit and his commitment to Tulsi.
“She has hair that smells like raat ki raani,” he’d told her.
Did Ram understand how hard it was for “love marriage” couples to make their way in Indian society without parental support? Did he comprehend how especially hard it would be for them given that Tulsi was from a Thakur family and he a Dalit one? Possibly not. “Without blossoms there is no spring in life,” he said, quoting from the poet Ghalib. Ram sounded naïve, but Laxmi was willing to risk her life for the lanky love-struck student nonetheless.
And what better place for the Love Commandos to strike again but Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, the world’s greatest monument to love?
Now the whole plan hung on whether Tulsi would be true to her feelings—and whether she was brave enough.
If she wanted to avoid an arranged marriage at the Harmony Farms wedding venue a week from today, then she would have to be. This was her only chance of escape, her finals being the one commitment Vishnu Mishra would ensure that she didn’t miss.
“She’s heading in now,” Laxmi reported to Shruti. “Be ready.”
Vishnu Mishra led Tulsi inside the examination hall past clutches of students. Naga followed a few steps behind. His steroid-enhanced muscles ensured that he moved like a gunslinger in an American Western, with legs splayed and arms hanging stiffly by his sides.
The driver, meanwhile, stepped over to the Licensed Refrigerated Water Trolly and demanded a glass of nimboo pani. He gulped it down, some of the liquid trickling onto his stubbly chin, and eyed Laxmi, who was posing as the vendor.
“Want to be Radha to my Krishna, baby?” he said with a lecherous grin.
She ignored him and he tossed a couple of coins onto the top of the cart before returning to the Range Rover.
A few seconds later, her phone vibrated with an SMS. “Dad’s here!” it read.
Laxmi cursed under her breath. Vishnu Mishra had gone inside the examination hall. He must have come to an arrangement with the adjudicator—no doubt a financial one.
“Stick to plan,” she messaged back before donning her helmet, jumping on her scootie and kick-starting the engine.
Crossing over the road and mounting the pavement, she headed down the alleyway that ran alongside the gymnasium building. It was littered with chunks of loose concrete and dog turds. She pulled up beneath the window to the ladies’ toilets.
A few minutes later, she received another SMS confirming that Tulsi had been slipped Ram’s note asking her to run away with him.
All Laxmi could do now was wait—and pray.
· · ·
Forty-five minutes passed. Laxmi was beginning to give up hope when a set of painted fingernails appeared over the window ledge.
A pair of anxious dark brown eyes followed. It was Tulsi.
“Are you with Ram?” she whispered.
“Yes, I’ll take you to him!” answered Laxmi.
The Love Commandos had placed a bamboo ladder in the alley earlier that morning. She picked it up and leaned it against the wall.
“I’m not sure I can do it!” said Tulsi as she looked down.
“We’ve only got a few minutes before you’re missed. Hurry!”
It took the young woman a couple of attempts to get one elbow up onto the windowsill. The other followed. Then a foot.
“That’s it, you’re almost there!”
Just then, there was a thud inside the toilets—a door slamming against the wall. A man’s voice shouted, “What the hell? Get down!”
He grabbed Tulsi by the leg and tried to pull her back inside, but she kicked. “No, Papa! Stop! Let me go!”
Laxmi heard another thud—Vishnu Mishra falling backwards into a toilet cubicle—and suddenly Tulsi was free and scrambling out the window.
Within seconds, she’d reached the bottom and Laxmi sent the ladder clattering to the ground. Mishra’s curses rained down on the two women as they clambered onto the scootie and sped away down the alley, slaloming through the debris.
They reached the front of the gymnasium to find the pavement occupied by a crowd of students demonstrating against poverty, chanting and holding up placards that read: IF I GIVE CHARITY YOU CALL ME A SAINT, IF I TALK ABOUT POVERTY YOU CALL ME A COMMUNIST!
Honking her horn and motioning the students out of the way, Laxmi wove between them.
Out of the corner of one eye, she spotted Naga bursting out of the gymnasium doors. He pushed through the crowd and knocked over three or four students. “Stop!”
He would have caught her had it not been for Laxmi’s colleague Sanjoy, a third Love Commando volunteer, who’d been mingling with the students.
Stepping forward, a can of pepper spray at the ready, he nailed the goon right in the face.
Naga reared up, roaring like a wounded animal, clasping his hands to his face, and staggered away. Sanjoy then climbed onto the back of the scootie and he, Tulsi and Laxmi sped off toward the main gate.
Behind them Vishnu Mishra ran into the middle of the street. He was wielding his revolver and gesticulating wildly to his driver to start the engine. But the man was fast asleep at the wheel of the Range Rover. The knockout pill Laxmi had slipped into his nimboo pani had done the trick.
· · ·
The trio passed beneath the red sandstone ramparts of Agra Fort and crossed the sluggish, polluted waters of the Yamuna River. Between the iron supports of the bridge, they glimpsed the gleaming white marble of the Taj Mahal before plunging headfirst into a maze of filthy alleys and lanes as cramped and teeming as an ant colony. The shop fronts of ironmongers, jewelers, dried-fruit sellers and cigarettepaan vendors interspersed with light industry units housing ironworks, printers and cardboard recyclers all appeared in rapid succession like the frames of a cartoon viewed through a Victorian zoetrope. Motorbikes and three-wheelers bullied their way through a multitude of pedestrians, cows and goats. Children spun metal bicycle wheels along the ground with sticks. At a water pump, men wearing chuddies lathered themselves in suds.
Tulsi bore the stench of raw sewage and diesel fumes and potholes without complaint. Only after they’d emerged into a landscape of houses dotted amongst virgin paddy fields on the edge of the city did she call out, “Where are we going? Where’s Ram?”
The answer was a nondescript building of red brick that served as the Love Commandos safe house.
“I can’t believe we got away!” gushed Tulsi as she dismounted from the scootie, shaking with fear and excitement. “Oh my God, I don’t know how to thank you!”
Laxmi didn’t respond. Her attention was focused on the front door of the building. It was hanging, broken, from its hinges.
“Is Ram inside? Can I see him?” asked Tulsi.
“Keep her here,” Laxmi instructed Sanjoy as she stepped forward to investigate.
Pushing the door aside, she discovered a flower pot lying shattered in the corridor beyond. In the room where Ram had been staying, there were signs of a struggle. His new pair of black shoes, purchased for his impending wedding, had been thrown at the assailants who’d broken in. There were a few spots of blood on the concrete floor as well.
Laxmi searched the rest of the house, fearful of finding a body, but it was empty.
Somehow—God only knew how—Vishnu Mishra’s people had finally tracked Ram down. They’d waited until he was alone and then grabbed him. That, surely, was the only explanation.
Laxmi went outside to break the bad news to Tulsi.
Her face fell and turned pale. “Pa will kill him!” she cried. “Oh my God! I’ve got to talk to him!”
Laxmi handed the young woman her phone.
Tulsi’s hands shook, but she managed to dial the number. “Please pick up, Pa. Please, please, please,” she kept saying.
Laxmi put her head close to the phone so she could eavesdrop on the conversation.
The call was answered by a gruff male voice. “Who is this?”
Tulsi’s answer caught in her throat. “Paaaa . . . I’m . . . soooo . . . saaarreee,” she wept.
“Where are you, beta?”
“Please don’t hurt him, Pa. I’m begging you.”
Tulsi let out a couple of long, hard sobs. “Raaaaam!” she wailed. “I love him sooo much!”
“Listen, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Now I’m going to come and get you. Tell me where you are. I’m not angry. Your mother and I want you home—that is all.”
Tulsi wiped her wet cheeks and managed to compose herself. “Let me speak with Ram first,” she said. “I want to know he’s all right. Let him go and I’ll come home. Papa, I’ll never forgive you if anything happens to him.”
“Listen to me very carefully, beta. I don’t know where he is. And I don’t care. My only concern is your future. Tell me your exact location immediately.”
“You’re lying, Pa. He’s not here.”
“Where is here? Tell me! I’m your father!”
Laxmi grabbed the phone and disconnected the call.
She and Tulsi stared at each other, confusion and disbelief writ across their faces.
“What did he say?” asked Sanjoy, who looked equally baffled.
“He says he doesn’t have Ram,” said Laxmi.
“You believe him?”
“He sounded genuine,” said Tulsi.
One of the neighbors, whose house stood a couple of hundred yards away, pedaled past on his bicycle. Had he seen anything? Laxmi asked.
“A black SUV with tinted windows was parked here earlier.”
“Did you see who was inside?”
“Two men got out.”
“What did they look like?”
“I was too far away.”
“Did you see anyone leave with them?”
“A young man, I think. They dragged him out of the house.”
Laxmi thanked the neighbor and hurried back into the safe house to grab her bag. She emerged again to find Tulsi in a flood of tears.
“I should just go home. That way no one will get hurt,” she said, gripped by grief.
“I don’t think that’s the answer,” said Laxmi as she tried to comfort her. “Now, listen: I promise we’ll get to the bottom of this. For all we know Ram was taken by someone hoping to get a reward from your father. I’ve a friend who can help—a private detective. In the meantime I need to get you somewhere safe. You’re going to have to trust me. Will you do that?”
Tulsi thought for a moment and then gave a nod. They remounted the scootie.
“We should split up,” Laxmi told Sanjoy. “Rendezvous at the bus station in three hours. Make sure you’re not followed—and change your mobile chip.”
She disposed of her own down a drain and then headed back through Agra’s burgeoning suburbs.
Once Tulsi was out of harm’s reach...
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