The waiter arrived with their order and set it down, then beat a hasty but polite retreat. Chanakya stared slack-jaw at the mountainous sundae. “Ooh,” he said, “ice cream and. chocolate.” He dug in with two spoons.
~Icewalla Part 02~
© Vishal K. Bharadwaj, 2003, All Rights Reserved
Chaitanya was still out cold, resting on the little sofa in the hall where Meera has flung her bag the night before. Chanakya, Chandrika and the Inspector Raané stood near him and crowded the rest of the room.
“So what do I write in my report?” the Inspector, a short man in his mid thirties, asked Chandrika. He cocked his head towards Chaitanya. “Or do I open a case for him too?”
“No, no. We’ll know more when he gets out of it, but suffice to say this doesn’t look like a simple rape and murder.”
“Simple…” Inspector Raané sighed, watching the coroners carry the body bag out of the apartment. “You know, at first I didn’t even think of calling the Panchaayat. Murderers often put ice in the tub in order to throw off the time of death, shore up their alibis. But then I realised that the water was frozen in the tub — when we found that piece of ice shaped like a hand I knew there was some gochigiri going on.”
“First time we’re doing something like this,” Chandrika said. “We usually just don’t get involved with–“
Inspector Raané nodded. “My father was a Panchaayat employee. Worked in the back-office at Taraporewala’s — finances and stuff. This was when the Panchaayat was more closed, no interference with the Outside. That’s why he wanted me to be a policewalla, so I could actually do some good in the world… even if I didn’t know any magic or things like that.”
“You’re taking a big risk by getting us here,” Chandrika said. “If anybody finds out…”
“My superiors won’t know a thing.”
“I was worried about the press. They’re downstairs — had to use a few distractions just to get us in unnoticed.” Chandrika bit her lip. “Going to be even more trouble getting out…”
“Sorry,” Raané said.
“It’s alright,” she replied with her disarming smile; the first time she had smiled since coming here. “I just don’t like to waste my spells on presswallas, you know?”
The Inspector smiled quickly, then turned towards the bathroom. “‘Accidental death by drowning,’ then?”
“Rape and murder,” came a groggy voice from the couch. Chaitanya had awakened.
“Who was it?” Chandrika asked.
“You mean, ‘What was it?’ And I don’t know, frankly. But I’m going to find it.” He staggered to his feet and headed for the door. “Inspector Raané,” he said, stopping at the threshold, “we’ll take over this investigation from now, and I can promise you we’ll find the killer and stop him… it. Write what you need to in your report, but don’t even bother getting involved yourself, the police can’t handle this. Come on kids, we’ve got some work to do.”
The trio were silent in the elevator ride down. When they reached the ground floor Chandrika heard the clamor of reporters around the corner and winced. She began to hunt through her satchel for something, when Chaitanya stopped her.
“Don’t bother,” he said, and then walked out, absently waving his hand a couple of times. The din abruptly stopped. When they reached the compound they had to negotiate through a few dozen people — police, press, passersby — sleeping awkwardly on the ground, photographers clutching their equipment like teddy-bears, policemen rolling about in dreams of glory and action.
“Chilled water?” the waiter asked Chaitanya, presenting a bottle.
Chaitanya goggled at him. “No,” he replied curtly. “Warm, if you have it — warm. Do you have any jeera-paani? You know, cumin seeds steeped in hot water?”
The waiter’s reply came in a practiced blank stare.
“Doesn’t matter. Room temperature, then. And then get me the hottest soup you have. I don’t care what kind, just hot, okay?”
“Very good, sir — hot. And what will Madam have to eat?”
“Do you have missal?” Chandrika asked.
“Never mind. I’ll… um…” she quickly riffled through the menu. “Caesar’s salad — my god, look at the price — I mean, Caesar’s salad and… and french fries!”
“French Fries?” the waiter asked.
“Yes. You do have French Fries, don’t you?” She asked authoritatively.
The waiter nodded and turned to Chanakya. “And your Sir?”
“Ice cream!” beamed Chanakya.
“Very Good, Sir. What kind?”
Chanakya goggled and turned to Chandrika. “There are kinds…?”
“Oh, just give him something fancy,” Chandrika told the waiter. “A sundae. Chocolate.”
The waiter quickly jotted it down and almost ran for the kitchen.
Chaitanya looked up at the expensively lit ceiling and sunk further into his plush chair. “I wish this place had some sunlight coming in.”
“I know,” Chandrika groaned, feeling the leaves of one of the nearby forest of potted plants that surrounded the table. “Artificial. This is… this is a joke. A five-star joke, but a joke nonetheless.”
“Whose idea was this, anyway?”
“Well you said you were hungry, so technically it was your idea, Chaitanya.”
“I only said I was hungry — the kid is the one who rushed into the first restaurant he saw! I tell you, if I wasn’t so tired I’d head for the Udupi down the street. At least there the waiters don’t wear bow-ties that cost more than my entire outfit.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Chandrika shrugged, “we can afford it. Panchaayat pays for all on-duty stuff.”
“I hope the ice cream is good,” Chanakya said.
“You and me both,” Chandrika replied. “Chaitanya… want to fill us in?”
“Yeah, sure. Better get it done with on an empty stomach.”
Chaitanya told it as clearly as he could, which was hard since what he experienced was always so overwhelming: sight, sound, smell, touch, memory, emotion, all crammed into one and shoved down the throat at the speed of light. He had many synaesthetic reactions too, which he had to translate — the demon’s eyes, for instance, had smelled like Pakistani rock music. Meera’s perfume was the colour of sunlight, the texture of baesan laddus.
“Algernon in Liverpool?”
“That’s what it said,” Chaitanya shrugged.
“What’s an Algernon?” Chanakya asked, licking some ice-cream from his upper lip. “And what’s a Liverpool? It sounds hideous.”
“I’m sure it is,” Chandrika replied. “Well, it’s been some time since I heard anyone call us darkies…”
“Could be dealing with a pre-independence person. He was English. Propah accent and everything.”
“Colonial English demons,” Chandrika mulled, “Uditaa’s going to be tearing her hair out over this one.”
“I don’t like Uditaa auntie,” Chanakya said.
“Uditaa auntie doesn’t like you either, kid,” Chaitanya replied. “Chandrika, how often do these, um, firang types show up, anyway?”
“Not as much as they used to,” Chandrika said. “There were a lot in the 50s. That was the last time the Panchaayat was very active. My Aazobaa made his career hunting leftovers from the British Raaj. Remind me to show you some of the pulp novelizations.”
Chaitanya smiled with surprise. “Your Grandfather was that C.C. Kulkarni? The man who wrote the Kadam Namdév novels?!”
“You’ve read them?”
“My had had the whole set! There were… what, twenty-five–“
“Twenty-seven. And those are just the published ones.” Chandrika grinned.
“So they’re actually based–“
“On his own experiences, yes.”
“I though the Panchaayat had a strict secrecy policy.”
“He changed things enough to avoid any suspicion — the real cases are much more intense. Many of our people grew up reading those books, that’s what fuelled their interest in the field — that’s what got them to sign up. Besides, a cut of the profits went directly into the Panchaayat treasury.”
“Ah. So that’s what’s paying for lunch.” Chaitanya looked ceiling-wards. “Thank you, Kulkarni-ji.”
“Now, coming back to more pressing matters–“
“Ice cream!” Chanakya pipped.
The waiter arrived with their order and set it down, then beat a hasty but polite retreat. Chanakya stared slack-jaw at the mountainous sundae. “Ooh,” he said, “ice cream and chocolate.” He dug in with two spoons.
Chandrika picked at her Caesar’s salad with a fork, while Chaitanya simply stared into the mercurial depths of his sweetcorn soup as if divining the future. He looked up at Chandrika at the same moment she looked at him.
“Did your Grandpa ever go up against…”
“Could be,” Chandrika said. “Could be. He kept very detailed journals at Taraporewala’s.”
“Let’s go,” Chaitanya said, and pushed his chair back.
Chandrika stopped him halfway and cocked her head towards Chanakya. “Chaitanya… it’s the kid’s first sundae.”
Chaitanya nodded and sat down again. “Okay.”
To Be Continued
© Copyright 2003, Vishal K. Bharadwaj, All Rights Reserved