The last time they were at the headquarters, it was a different sort of anxiety that had filled Mihir, Cyrus and Jose. It has been a little over a month since, but so much has changed. As their car makes its way past the space agency’s station, there is none of the innocent excitement of the previous time. There is only dread and fear now. At 8.47 am, the car pulls up outside the headquarters’ foyer. Unlike the previous occasion, the driver speeds away immediately leaving the three to fend for themselves.

It dawns on them that they do not quite remember where Ravi’s office is. The last time the driver had taken them through a side entrance, but they cannot remember where exactly it is. They realise that they have to go through the main entrance.

They hurry up the stairs, and make their way past security screening when a receptionist asks for their IDs and purpose of visit. They hand in their academy IDs. Mihir speaks on their behalf, “We’re here to meet Mr Ravi Kumar. We have an appointment for 9 am.” The receptionist looks at them with wide eyes, as if to suggest that she has no idea what they are talking about.

“I’m sorry, but this is a very large department and our appointment registers are linked to designation and not name. Unless you can give me the exact designation of the person you intend to meet, I cannot help you.”

“The chief of C3, Mr Ravi Kumar.”

“I’m sorry, mister. There is no such department here. I’m afraid you might be at the wrong address.”

“Wait, what? Are you sure? This is exactly where we met him last time. A-and, and an official vehicle dropped us off here just now.”

“I’m sorry, it must be a mistake.”

The three of them exchange puzzled looks as they walk back towards the door. Jose looks around and notices that the signage all around them indicates that they are at the Central Bureau of Statistics. He points it out to the other two.

Cyrus lets out a sigh of recognition. He tells the other two in a hushed tone, “How foolish of us, really. Surely everything is coded. Wait, let me try.” He runs back to the receptionist and tries his luck, “We’re here to meet the chief statistician.” The receptionist smiles and looks at her computer. She quickly scans through the screen and looks up at Cyrus, shaking her head.

“I’m sorry, the chief statistician has no appointments at 9 am.”

Cyrus glances at his watch. It is already 8.52 am. They have only eight minutes left. The last thing they want is to be late.

“I think we should just call him on his phone. No point playing this guessing game.”

Jose nods and pulls out his phone. There is no network. Again, something they should have expected. He curses quietly under his breath and runs out of the door and down the stairs. Outside, the phone immediately picks up a signal. He hurriedly calls Ravi, who picks up after only a few rings and tells Jose to ask for the chief of the poverty-eradication department. Jose pants his way back to the receptionist, who struggles to mask the fact that the three have ensured a rather entertaining start to her day.

“The chief of the poverty-eradication department, that’s who we want to meet,” Jose tells her, struggling for breath.

She quickly looks at her screen again. Without shifting her gaze, she reads out, “Jose Cherian, Mihir Kaul and Cyrus Bandookwallah. Very well, you may go on. C-335. Third floor. Please take the visitor’s entrance, which you will find at the end of the hallway if you go through this door.” He thanks her profusely, and signals to Mihir and Cyrus that they can now go in.

As they make their way through the long corridors that lead to the visitors’ entrance, they realise that in all their excitement, they had barely paid any attention the last time around. The headquarters’ nondescript façade is highly misleading. The building is enormous, they realise.

It is the sort of intricately laid-out complex – like a large multi-specialty hospital with a hundred different wings – that one could easily get lost inside. While the reception area is eminently populated with all sorts of signage, there is nothing once you go past, except for minuscule numbers on each of the doors. Unless you know where to go, it is highly likely that you will get lost.

They take the elevator to the third floor, where yet another perplexing discovery awaits them. The numbers are not sequenced in linear order. C-300, for instance, is followed by C-458. Mihir glances at his watch. It is 8.57 am. They look around, desperately trying to remember from last time. But it is a hopeless search for all corridors look alike.

With not much time left, they decide to follow their instinct and walk through the south-west corridor, hoping to find somebody who may be able to direct them to the right office.

They are fortunate. Only a minute later they catch a glimpse of Subramanyam walking through the other end of the hallway towards a water cooler, chanting mantras under his breath. They begin to run. Subramanyam hears their loud footsteps and turns towards them. He signals to them to slow down and begins to walk in their direction. They meet halfway.

There is no need for explanations. Subramanyam already knows.

“Sorry, sir. It’s just...”

“Relax, relax. Just follow me.”

Subramanyam leads them through a formidable maze of hallways, doors, and junctions, before finally ending up at the corridor in which Ravi’s office is located. “I hope we remember every turn, or we’ll be just as hopelessly doomed next time,” Cyrus whispers to Mihir and Jose. “If there’ll be a next time,” Mihir reminds him.

Subramanyam asks them to wait outside as he enters Ravi’s office. After a minute or two, but what seems like eternity to the three, he returns and asks them to go in. Ravi’s office is just as spotless and organised as they remember it. Similarly intact is his inexplicably out-of-place enthusiasm, “Well, if it isn’t the sensational three musketeers again. Please, sit down.”

They awkwardly take their seats.

Looking into Jose’s eyes, Ravi immediately asks, “So, whizz-kid. What is the plan of action?”

“I just need to get access to the bureau’s network, sir. Wired access, preferably.”

Ravi rolls his fingers over his desk, as if he were playing the tabla and gets up from his chair. They all follow suit. Ravi signals to Mihir and Cyrus that they may remain seated.

“Same rules as in my house. You can look at anything you want while we’re gone, except my desk. Flouting the rule at my house would have incurred my displeasure, but here, it might invite charges of treason and inciting war, so rein in your curiosity.”

Before Mihir can clarify that they have no such intentions, Ravi has already walked out of his office. Clutching his backpack in one hand, Jose walks briskly to catch up with him. They go through yet another maze of corridors, not a single word exchanged all throughout until they reach an unmarked door guarded heavily by four uniformed personnel bearing guns.

They rise in unison to salute Ravi, who stops to inquire about their well-being. They seem happy to see him, and shake their heads vigorously, indicating that all is well. Although the guards signal to him that there is no need to do so, Ravi insists on logging his entry in the biometric system. As he places his thumb over the scanner, he turns towards Jose and asks, “Did you sleep well last night?”

Jose is taken aback. He takes a few moments to respond.

“Y-yes, sir. I-I mean, actually...not really, sir. To be honest, not a wink of sleep, sir.”

Ravi smiles.

“Excellent. You’re in the right place then. Welcome to Insomnia.”

Operation Haygreeva

Excerpted with permission from Operation Haygreeva, Prabhakar Aloka, Penguin Books India.