All I knew of detective work came from the small stock of detective novels in my possession. They’d led me to the conclusion that the detective is a debunker of accidental events, and as such, renders the world a cosmic service by making the world less accidental, that is, more reassuring. But it is odd that other species do not have such agents of reassurance. The zebras have no Poirot; penguins murder each other with impunity; there is no Vyas-the-squirrel preparing to harass some poor squirrel mom just to locate his missing nuts. I’d never thought about this striking difference before and it seemed far from accidental.

“It’s seven, sir-ji.” Rathod glanced at me significantly, and then quietly repeated. “It’s seven.”

I got out of the jeep and studied the building. Saumya Apartments was a typical middle-class apartment building in Noida, just a little too upscale for Miz Khargane, a mere personal assistant. “Am I working you too hard?”

“No, sir-ji.”

“Speak frankly, lieutenant. I am not just your boss. I am also your HR department.”

My assistant looked trapped. He had one of those honest bodies that had never figured out faces could not only reveal feelings but also hide them.

“Sir-ji, please don’t take offence, but I have observed you don’t use your power. For example, one word from you and I would have dragged this bitch by her hair to your office! Why are you taking the trouble? You are such a senior officer! You should be pampered. Other officers I worked for, complete nobodies compared to you, never left their offices. I’m just humbly wondering, that is all.”

What Rathod was saying of course, was that being my sidekick hadn’t produced an uptick in his income. So far, working for me was to just work for a salary, the stupidest reason to work for something. Didn’t I care he had a family to take care of?

There was also genuine concern about my disregard for my status. If I compromised my dignity by wandering around like a second-class detective, it would affect his standing as well. It would affect how he would be treated in his next assignment. In an organisation with a mostly static hierarchy, being part of the right pecking order was important in circumventing the limitations of rank. He had been thrilled to learn Dorabjee was related to Tanaz. All Parsis were related, everyone knew that! He had hit the lottery! If I was a clown, he was a clown. If I was a king, he was a king. People like Rathod understood in their very marrow how a feudal order functioned. It would pay to heed his advice. But I couldn’t let him think he had taught me something.

“So the bedbug is trying to teach Dracula?” I placed a brotherly hand on his shoulder, smiling to indicate I wasn’t offended. “We’re here because she doesn’t expect us to be here. We have the advantage.”

Rathod wobbled his head. “Game over. Checkmate.”

“No, this isn’t a game!” I said, sharply. “We aren’t playing a game. There’s no such easy escape from responsibility. What is a game? There is some goal to achieve. So many wickets, so many runs more than someone else. You have to run faster, punch harder, jump heavier, some such goal. And there are rules which make it difficult for you to achieve the goal. So if you are playing, then you’re trying to achieve some goal following rules which make it difficult for you to do so. Isn’t that the definition of a moron?”

“Hahn sir-ji, only your gyaan I will trust.” His fervent tone suggested if nothing else, I’d completely subjugated him. “Sir-ji, one question.”


“Are we going to torture her?”

“Only with your limited intelligence.” I punched the elevator button and heard the elevator begin its grinding descent. Why had I bothered to have Rathod along? Because investigators in movies always worked in pairs. “We’ll be playing good-cop, bad-cop. You’re familiar with the procedure?”

“Yes sir-ji.”

“Good. Let me be clear. There will be no need for force whatsoever.”

Rathod grunted, his expression a replica of what his parents must have seen when they denied Little Rathod a treat.

The apartment was on the fourth floor, with three apartments to each floor. The door to Apartment B lacked the usual necklace of lemons, chillies and mango leaves over the door. The garbage pail hadn’t been set out. Otherwise there was little to distinguish it from the other two apartments. I could hear the TV’s sounds through the door, but when Rathod pressed the doorbell, it abruptly went mute. Rathod pressed the bell again, this time emphasizing it for an extra couple of seconds.

The apartment’s inner door opened and a woman’s head peered through the grill.

“What is it?”

“Shabari Khargane?”

“What do you want?”

Definitely hostile. The aggressiveness could be discounted. It was a signal to strangers she was to be treated as a virtuous woman. A point she must have had to repeatedly make in Delhi. Shabari was fair and appealing, undeniably voluptuous. The touch of baby fat about her cheeks offset the tired eyes and just-emerging lines on her forehead. Her hair had been swept into a careless bun and the shapeless nightdress showed she hadn’t been expecting company. She seemed familiar. I initially assumed it was because she reminded me of the actress Saya, but then I remembered seeing a photograph in Dhasal’s office. Shabari standing next to the great man, looking up at him, black eyes adoring, smiling, ready to serve.

“Open!” barked Rathod, stepping out from behind me.

But Shabari Khargane had already registered his uniform and her hostility collapsed entirely. She unbolted the inner grill with exaggerated haste, pushed open both the door panels. The door was set to one corner of the room’s width, and as I entered, instead of noticing the room’s proportions, my eyes picked up the framed reproduction on the opposing wall. It showed a cute English kid in a red velvet coat, seated, hands on knees, rosy cheeks, staring at the viewer with a somewhat petrified expression. Odd.

I glanced around. The room was cosy in the middle-class manner. The standard diamond-shaped quilt on the wall, a sepia-coloured sofa set you could find in any metro store, a wall with framed pictures of dead people, a midget-sized hookah which like all hookahs looked out of place, a wooden cabinet probably filled with old photo albums, a factory rug on the tiled floor, a glass-topped dining table supported on conical black legs ringed with steel bands. At the table was a fat little boy with a subversive face, plugging away at homework. Her son, I guessed.

Shabari retreated towards the table, tugging at the front of her nightdress, blocking our view of the kid. She was Hindu, middle-class, respectable, and a mother. And fair-complexioned. A perfect storm of virtues that clearly made Rathod uncomfortable. But her discomfort eclipsed his. She stood there, her arms locked in an “y”, the right hand folded across her torso, clasping the straightened left, the palm revealing its worry by hiding its thumb. She asked if we would take some chai.

“No, that’s not necessary. We’re here to locate a missing item from Dhasal-ji’s apartment.” I sat, leaned back against the sofa, glanced at Rathod. He walked over to peer at the framed pictures on the wall. Mystifyingly, he ran an index finger over some of their rims.

“Durga-ji gave me the painting,” cried Shabari, looking about her as if the proof lay on the floor. “Two years ago! I told him I liked the boy’s rosy cheeks, and he said, then you can admire it at your leisure. I swear it, sir-ji!”

I reassured her she wasn’t suspected of stealing anything, least of all a painting. Perhaps she could start by describing her typical working day.

Yes, of course. She arrived around nine each morning. Durga-ji was very understanding if she was late every now and then. He was a good cook; he didn’t need any help in preparing his meals. She sorted his correspondence, kept track of his appointments, handled calls. She also cleaned Dhasal’s house three times a week, usually on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Dusted, swept, mopped the floors. The bathrooms were cleaned every day.

I was surprised. Mopped the floors? Why hadn’t he hired a real maid, I asked.

“Why should he when I was there? I was only a servant for Gujral-sahib, but Durga-ji made me much more than a servant, so I refused to let anyone else serve him. I have never cleaned anyone’s bathrooms, except his.”

Shabari daubed at her eyes. I glanced at my hands, gave her a second to recover. Who was Gujral-sahib? And how had a maidservant become a personal assistant?

She gave me a puzzled look. Darting eyes, her striking pupils as black as jamun fruits.

“Don’t be afraid,” I said encouragingly.

“Sir-ji, don’t you remember? You were the police officer in charge at the Chandni Chowk station. You had called the Mahila Adhikhar people? You listened and believed my story. Because of you the case was dropped.”

“What case?” Then I gestured for her to wait. I told Sudhir to go to the kitchen. It would be quieter. His mother and I wanted to talk. When he’d gathered his books and reluctantly left, more on account of his mother’s silent nod than any fear of me, I looked at Shabari inquiringly.

Looking as if she regretted ever bringing up the matter, Shabari confessed she’d been arrested over a decade ago.

It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had been a simple girl from UP who’d landed in Delhi looking for a job. New city, very frightening. Someone in the bus had mentioned this ladies’ hostel in the Chandni Chowk area. Very cheap, safe. She had found a room at the hostel and gone straight to bed without even unpacking first. In the middle of the night, the place had been raided by the police and she’d found herself in a most unfortunate pickle. I had to believe her, please sir-ji, she was completely innocent.

Apparently, I had helped her out. I had no memory of the incident. True, I had spent a few weeks in Chandni Chowk. It had been part of my civil service training. The idea, I believe, had been to give us recruits a taste of real life. I’d handled dozens of civil and criminal cases, the usual farrago of atrocities.

The Mahila people, Shabari continued, had got her a job with Gujral-sahib, a labour leader. Durga-ji used to visit his house in GK-II. When Gujral-sahib had died in 2000, she’d begun to work for Durga-ji. My kindness had saved her. She had often prayed–

“Life is all about helping one another,” I interrupted, a little more roughly than was necessary. I reached into my briefcase, withdrew the copy of the letter. Forty-five pages. I leaned across and handed it to her. Since she had handled his correspondence, had she ever seen a similar sheaf in a Lokshakti courier envelope? A few weeks ago? At most, three?

Shabari flipped through the pages, then said timidly that she didn’t remember receiving the letter, but if I said it had been sent, then surely, she must have received it. The only question was when. Surely in the last few weeks, but then she said she couldn’t be sure because Durga-ji got a lot of mail. A lot. It wasn’t easy to remember everything that flitted through her hands. Very often she just gave him a clutch to deal with at a time. People sent him stuff all the time, sometimes multiple copies even. Each morning, she sorted the day’s correspondence into Durga-ji’s IN basket. He liked reading every piece of mail, often working late into the night, writing replies, attaching them, and finally placing the mail in the OUT basket. Her job included mailing the letters, stocking the right-sized envelopes, reminding him of pending mail, that sort of thing, and she simply couldn’t remember any of those actions in regard to this letter. Perhaps the post office. She was very sorry. Shabari returned the pages to me.

I didn’t believe her. She was lying.

Excerpted with permission from Half Of What I Say, Anil Menon, Bloomsbury.