The Kala Ghoda Affair came at a most inconvenient moment. Lalli was in quarantine, after the bizarre Astro case landed her in a household raging with Covid. Savio was all out of personnel, with his crew hijacked for election duty. Shukla was in a permanent rage because his sister-in-law had come to stay, perhaps forever. Dr Q, my usual ally in adventures bookish or gastronomic, was deep in forensic evidence for a forthcoming trial. And my novel was galloping towards denouement. None of us could afford distractions now.

But it was Ramona. You know Ramona! And if you don’t, Ramona Driver, 28, perpetual teenager and madly irrational, is loyal to the core. She’s stuck by me through the worst – it’s impossible to say no to Ramona. It was the usual reason, her annual bout of boyfriend trouble.

“This time it’s serious,” she declared, eyes blazing.

With Ramona, it always is.

“And with Sita it never is,” she retorted with an unexpected flash of malice, reading my silent thought.

I suppose I deserved that.

She was instantly contrite. It would scarcely do to display her talons before the love of her life.

The guy she had brought along looked embarrassed. Usually, Ramona’s preferred brand of testosterone comes deliciously wrapped, but is distinctly hollow. This guy was different. He was short and dumpy and his beard blew off his face in all directions. His intelligent eyes held a glint of defiance.

“Tell her, Madan,’ Ramona muttered, suddenly on the verge of tears.

Madan took charge with unexpected decisiveness. “Ramona’s parents won’t give their consent. But with or without, we’re getting married.”

“Oh with,” Ramona cried. “Never without. They had better give their blessing! They can’t withhold it for such a foolish reason!”

“Which is?” I had to prompt. Their sense of injury had turned them morose and silent.

“It’s the family scandal,” Madan said. “We’re responsible for the disappearance of the Kala Ghoda.”

I had no idea the Kala Ghoda had ever disappeared. It is the name of the city’s art district, and the eponymous horse had never, within living memory, ever been there.

I demanded an explanation. “Do you mean the original statue – the one that was long ago put out to grass?”

The city’s displaced statues, those that survived nationalist ire, have been farmed out to various locations. I’d never seen it, but I knew the old Kala Ghoda statue, the one with a British prince in the saddle, was stabled in Byculla Zoo.

But – stolen! The darn thing weighed tons. Only a master illusionist could have made it disappear.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, don’t be so dense, Sita!” Ramona burst out, seeing my look of disbelief. “The Kala Ghoda was a sapphire.”

“It was named for the superstition attached to it,” Madan said. “The sapphire paupered its owner within the month. It simply galloped through his assets and left him bankrupt. The name described it perfectly. It was deep indigo, almost black, with a star of bright sky blue. To see it once was to desire it forever –” His voice trailed off on a note of wonder and yearning.

“Did you ever see it?” I asked.

For some reason my question startled them. Ramona said pityingly, “Maybe we’d better wait till Lalli gets home.”

“Lalli is home. She’s in isolation, and not to be bothered.” I spoke huffily, ready to barricade my aunt from any intrusion, equine or otherwise.

“Is she sick?” Ramona asked in alarm.

“No, but she can’t be disturbed.”

What had made me so mulish all of a sudden? I added, thinking an explanation was in order, “She’s in quarantine. That last case had her cooped up with Covid patients. Peace and quiet is what she needs now.”

“Nonsense. She’ll enjoy it.”

“Enjoy what?”

Ramona took a deep breath and said in a slow voice. “It’s perfectly clear there’s only one solution. Madan’s family must be cleared. Nothing less will do.”

“And how do you propose to do that?”

“The Kala Ghoda must be found,” they answered in one voice.

“When did it go missing?”

“Huh?” They were baffled by my ignorance. “Lalli will find it,” Ramona announced. She turned to Madan with a million-watt smile. “Lalli can do anything.”

“Why didn’t you come sooner?” I asked crossly. “Before the theft could give your family a bad name?” Again, they exchanged baffled looks. Then Ramona said, “We can’t possibly wait till Lalli’s out of quarantine. They’re going ballistic at home, and I don’t know how much more Madan’s parents can tolerate.”

“Oh, they’re used to it by now.” Madan laughed. “Why, when I was in school, it was a playground taunt: Madan Store, Ghoda chor. Dad’s shop was opposite the school. I just wished he hadn’t named it for me.”

“Wait on – you were at school when the Kala Ghoda disappeared?”

“Hardly,” Madan laughed. “The sapphire disappeared in 1896.”


“Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” I said, very cautiously. “You want Lalli to find a sapphire that went missing a hundred and twenty-five years ago?”

“Exactly. And if Lalli’s in quarantine, you can do it, Sita. You and Savio and Shukla and Dr Q,” Ramona gushed. “Shouldn’t be hard to find with all of you on the job.”

“Why just us?” I shrugged. “Rope in the rest of the city, why don’t you?”

“Hey that’s a great idea,” the love birds said. Love, it seemed, was blind to sarcasm.

Excerpted with permission from The Kala Ghoda Affair: A Lalli Mystery, Kalpana Swaminathan, Speaking Tiger Books.