About the Author
Tarquin Hall has lived and worked throughout South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. He has also written dozens of articles and three works of nonfiction. He and his family live in Delhi.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken One
Stripped down to his undergarments and tweed Sandown cap, Vish Puri stepped onto his wife’s old set of bathroom weighing scales. He watched with apprehension as the needle jerked violently to the right and settled on 200 pounds.
“By God,” the detective muttered to himself. “Two extra pounds are there. She is going to kill me—certainly if not totally.”
He tried lifting one foot off the pressure pad and shifted his weight to see if it made a difference. It didn’t.
“Well, nothing for it,” he said with a sigh, stepping back onto the floor.
Puri checked that the bedroom door was locked, picked up the scales and turned them over. He removed the bottom panel, exposing the crude mechanism inside. Then he squeezed the pressure pad between his knees. When the needle reached 196, he jammed a wooden peg into one of the cogs.
The scales could now register only one weight: 196 pounds.
“Hearties congratulations, Mr. Puri, saar!” he told himself with a smile after double-checking his handiwork. “Diet is coming along most splendidly.”
Still, the detective knew that he’d bought himself a week or two at the most. Eventually all the lapses of the past fortnight would catch up with him—for “lapses” read numerous chicken frankies, five or six kathi rolls (he had been on a stakeout; what else was he supposed to eat?), and a significant portion of the Gymkhana Club Sunday brunch buffet (the Pinky Pinky pudding had been irresistible).
He was going to have to lose at least a token amount of weight—enough to keep Rumpi and that bloody Dr. Mohan off his back.
Fortunately, he believed he had found the answer to his prayers: diet pills. According to a flyer that had been stuffed under the windshield wiper of his car, these promised “miraculous and exceptional results!”
Puri fished out the flyer from his trouser pocket and read it again just to check that his eyes hadn’t deceived him. “Tired of being a big motu, but want to enjoy your gulab jamuns?” he read. “ZeroCal is the answer! It contains a special fiber that absorbs fat molecules and converts them into a form the human system doesn’t absorb. So now you can carry on getting your just desserts!”
Puri chuckled to himself. “Just desserts,” he said. “Very good.”
He stuffed the flyer back into his trouser pocket as footsteps sounded on the top of the stairs. They were accompanied by his wife’s voice: “Chubby? Are you ready? We had better get a move on, no? There are bound to be traffic snarls.”
The detective went to the door and opened it.
“What have you been doing in here?” asked Rumpi as she entered the room. “Don’t tell me you were listening in on the servants again with one of your bugs. You know I don’t like it when you do that, Chubby.”
“Just I was weighing myself, actually.”
Puri stepped gingerly back onto the scales, one foot at a time. They gave a creak, but the peg held.
“Hmm. One hundred and ninety-six pounds,” she read. “So you’ve lost . . . two pounds. It’s something, at least. But so far I don’t see any improvement.”
She looked her husband up and down, scrutinizing his stomach, which bulged out beneath his cotton undershirt like a lumpy pillow.
“You still look . . . Well, if anything I would say you’ve got a little larger, Chubby.”
“Must be your eyesights, my dear.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight, I can assure you,” said Rumpi, her voice thick with suspicion. “I just hope you’re keeping off those chicken frankies,” she continued with a sigh. “It’s for your own good, Chubby. Remember what happened to Rajiv Uncle.”
Ah, poor old Rajiv Uncle. Last month he’d suffered a massive heart attack while at the wheel of his Mahindra Scorpio and taken out four feet of the central barricade of the Noida Expressway. The fact that he’d been fifty-four, only a couple of years older than Puri, had not been lost on Rumpi or his three daughters. Mummy had seen fit to comment on it as well—along with his three sisters-in-law, numerous aunties, and even a cheeky nephew or two. Indeed, given the great Indian family system in which everyone knows everyone else’s business and everyone exercises the right to involve themselves and comment upon everyone else’s affairs, the detective had recently found himself on the receiving end of a good deal of health-related advice. Most irritating of all had been the impromptu lecture from his seventeen-year-old niece, whose opinions on most things in life were informed by India’s edition of Cosmo magazine.
Age still trumped youth even in today’s changing middle-class society, so he had been able to tell her to put a sock in it. But over his wife, he enjoyed no such advantage.
“Yes, my dear,” he replied with a prodigious yawn. “Now I had better get changed. You’re right. It is getting late. And I would be making one stop along the way.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re working, Chubby—not today of all days.”
“Ten minutes is required, only.”
Puri escaped into the bathroom to attend to his handlebar moustache, which was looking limp after the rigorous shampoo and conditioning he’d given it earlier. First, he groomed it with a special comb with fine metal teeth. Then he applied some Wacky Tacky wax, which he heated with a hair dryer so it became soft and pliable. And finally, he shaped it into a symmetrical handlebar, curling the ends.
He returned to the bedroom to find his wife sitting at her dresser, putting on her earrings. Her long, straight hair hung down her back over the blouse of her lustrous black and gold Banarasi sari.
Puri went and stood behind her, placed his hands on her elegant shoulders and smiled.
“Beautiful as the first day we met. More beautiful, in fact,” he said.
Rumpi smiled back at him in the mirror. “Still quite the charmer, aren’t you?” she said.
“Once a charmer, always charming,” cooed the detective, and bent down and kissed the top of her head.
· · ·
A thick January fog had engulfed Delhi and its unstoppable suburbs overnight. And when the Puris set off for South Delhi at midday—some eight hours before the murder—mist still veiled the imposing glass and steel buildings along the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway. Bereft of the sunshine usually gleaming off their futuristic façades, the beacons of the new India suddenly looked pale and subdued.
It was still bitingly cold as well. Not freezing, it had to be said, but the short winter always found the vast majority of the capital’s inhabitants woefully ill prepared. With no means to heat classrooms, the city’s schools had been closed for the past week. “Load shedding” led to frequent blackouts. And the morning newspapers brought daily reports of a dozen or so deaths amongst the countless thousands living in Delhi’s makeshift jhuggis.
The languid figures Puri spotted through the fogged-up windows of his Ambassador, layered in chunky cotton sweaters, reminded him of Victorian polar explorers in the days before brightly colored, mass-produced puffer jackets and fleeces. He spotted security guards standing outside the gates of a call center huddled around an electric cooking ring, chins tucked on chests like disobedient boys sent to the naughty corner. Farther on, a gang of laborers breaking rocks in a ditch wore scarves wrapped over the tops of their heads and under their chins, lending them a strangely effeminate look despite the arduous nature of their task.
Puri and Rumpi had spent yesterday afternoon volunteering at a local charity, distributing blankets to the city’s poor. Many of those they’d encountered had been visibly malnourished, making them especially vulnerable to the cold. The experience had served as a sharp reminder that for all the growth in the economy, for all the fanfare about dazzling GDP figures and IT this and that, there was still so much need and want. Upon returning home last night, Puri had felt moved to write a new letter to the most honorable editor of The Times of India, pointing out that it was the duty of the “proper authorities” to make improvements and the responsibility of “ordinary citizens” to hold them accountable.
“With so much of change coming to modern society, it is of the upmost importance and necessity, also, that we continue to uphold the role of dharma,” he’d written. “Dharma has been the underlying concept of our civilization over so many of millennia. Let us not forget the meaning of the word itself. This most cherished and honored of words comes to us from the root ‘dhr,’ meaning ‘to hold, to bear, to carry.’ For both Chanakya, founder of the Maurya Empire, and our great emperor Ashoka, it meant ‘law, virtue, ethics and truth.’ Let us abide by these most honorable of principles, and with them firmly set in our minds, let us remember our collected responsibility to others and one another also.”
His message was evidently lost on the city’s drivers. Despite the poor visibility, cars and trucks sped up behind the Ambassador flashing their headlights and honking their horns, and wove through slower-moving traffic like getaway vehicles fleeing bank robberies. Cocky hatchbacks, their side mirrors folded inward, squeezed between other vehicles, making three lanes out of two. The occasional rusting three-wheeler suddenly came into view, puttering along in the fast lane.
And sports cars rocketed past, vanishing instantaneously into the fog. Puri kept bracing himself, anticipating a screech of brakes and the boom of a high-speed impact, but they never came. Could this lack of carnage be attributed to divine providence? he wondered. Or had Indian drivers developed the heightened reflexes of demolition derby drivers given that they faced similar conditions? Certainly the police played no part in keeping the traffic moving safely. Puri didn’t spot a single patrol car along the entire route. There weren’t any hazard signs in place, either. And so it was with a sigh of relief that he greeted the exit sign for South Delhi and the Ambassador was delivered safely down the off-ramp. A broad carriageway carried the car past the gated communities of the super-elite, where the tops of luxury villas peeked over high walls ringed by security cameras. They passed a series of identical concrete “overbridges,” which held aloft the city’s new flyovers, and soon reached the AIIMS spaghetti junction. The detective found it impossible to pass the installation-art steel “sprouts” growing from the embankment without making some disparaging comment, and today was no exception. “If that is art, then my name is Charlie with a capital C!” he said, becoming all the more vocal when Rumpi said that she quite liked them.
She and Puri were still arguing, albeit good-naturedly, when the car turned into Laxmi Bai Nagar.
“Number four oblique B, H Block, Lane C, off Avenue B.” He read the address from a text message he’d been sent on his phone. “Behind all-day milk stall.”
Handbrake, his driver, acknowledged these instructions with a “Yes, Boss” and promptly pulled over to ask for directions.
“Aaall daay milk staall kahan hai?” he asked an auto rickshaw driver.
“What is this case you’re working on, Chubby?” asked Rumpi as they waited.
She rarely inquired about Puri’s work (and he in turn usually only told her about an investigation once it was over). However, on this occasion, she felt she had the right to know. It was a big day for her family, after all.
“You remember Satya Pal Bhalla?” he replied.
“That tabla player?”
“No, other one—moustache fellow.”
“Oh God, don’t tell me.” She moaned.
Puri gave a knowing nod. “Absolutely, my dear. A total weirdo, we can say. But he called this morning, only, in quite a panic. Seems he got looted.”
This was an oversimplification. But the detective had no intention of providing Rumpi with the details. The whole thing would sound ridiculous and she would insist on driving directly to their destination, the Kotla cricket stadium, where her nephew, Rohan, was due to play in one of the opening matches of the new, multi-billion-dollar cricket tournament, the ICT.
To the detective, however, the case was as tantalizing as a jalebi to a fly. He’d had to handle a lot of run-of-the-mill work in the past month or so—a slew of bog-standard matrimonial investigations, a mundane credit card fraud, several death verifications for insurance companies.
Worst of all, he’d found himself helping that bloody Queenie Mehta of Golf Links prove that her upstairs tenant was eating nonvegetarian food when the lease strictly forbade the consumption of meat on the premises. It didn’t help matters that from the start Puri had sympathized with the “offender,” nor that the investigation itself had been especially unchallenging. True, the tenant in question had been careful not to place any incriminating evidence in his garbage, disposing of the bones from his illicit meals outside his home. But after one of Most Private Investigators’ operatives had followed him to the butcher’s and covertly videoed him buying a kilo of mutton, the case had been brought to a speedy conclusion.
Was it any wonder that the attempt to cut off Satya Pal Bhalla’s moustache, the longest in the world, had every cell in his detective brain tingling with anticipation?
Who would have done such a thing? A rival for his title? Someone with a grudge? Anything was possible in Delhi these days, Puri reminded himself. With the city’s population growing exponentially, corruption endemic, and the elite amassing fabulous wealth as well as adopting Western tastes and lifestyles, Indian crime was taking on ever-new facets.
Just look at the story on the front page of today’s paper. Six months ago, if the report was to be believed, an Indian hacker had accessed America’s Pentagon computer system and downloaded dozens of top-secret files related to security in South Asia.
A commentator in the same paper likened these times to the myth of Neelkanth, when the demons churned the ocean in search of Amrita, the nectar of immortality. What they created instead was poison, which had to be consumed by the god Shiva.
From this legend came the Hindi saying “Amrut pane se pehle Vish pinna padta hai.” Roughly translated it means “You can’t have the sweet without the sour.”
· · ·
Three wrong turns, a couple of U-turns and two more stops-to-ask-directions later, Handbrake pulled up outside the address. Puri’s prospective client, Bhalla, lived in a three-story government-housing complex for babus and their families. There were dozens of such blocks in South Delhi, most of them built in the 1950s and ’60s. Architecturally uninspiring, painted in the same government-issue off-pink, and only distinguishable from one another by the letters and numbers stenciled on their façades, they had become some of the most desirable addresses in the capital. H Block was set amongst neem trees and small communal gardens known as “parks,” where children played in the sunshine that was now breaking through the fog.
Puri made his way up the bare concrete staircase to the third floor. The sound of hissing pressure cookers came from inside one of the other apartments. A smell of roasting cumin and fried mustard oil filled the air.
Outside the door to 4/B, he found several pairs of shoes lying in a jumble. He unlaced his and placed them to one side. The bell brought an elderly serv...
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