“Hello, this is Bank of Bodies.” Mr Chatterjee leaped out of his car and sprinted. The reconstructed CBI office was a thick, stubby finger of concrete, with poor lighting to make it harder for foreign spies to see anything. The guard was used to sprinting testers, so he waved him on with a smile.

Mr Chatterjee straightened his tie and slowed his pace to a brisk walk as he entered the building. He hurried down the narrow, dusty corridor. It was long, with a gloomy dark stairwell in the distance. On either side, intermittently, were narrow, tall doors of faded, cheap wood. Jutting out at right angles to each one, like a railway signal, was a thin band with the name of the room in thick white paint. Most of them were illegible.

The ones with no names were the ones to watch out for. They contained Officers on Special Duty. At the one which used to say Testing Lab, Mr Chatterjee went in. The lab was dazzling white, large, tiled, clean and cool. Professor Krishnan looked up from his desk. “Hemonto,” he boomed, “alas, you have missed the first customer. Come, sit, sit.”

Professor Krishnan took great pride in pronouncing Mr Chatterjee’s name right, with the fat, round Os in the middle. In the process, he invariably ended up emphasising the word in any sentence he spoke. From this way of addressal, outsiders, particularly strangers, immediately got the impression that Mr Chatterjee was some kind of retard, and tailored their subsequent behaviour towards him accordingly. Mr Chatterjee truly hated him for it. Personally, he much preferred a quick firm handshake and a crisp “Chat’jee” through clenched teeth, as a means of introduction. Instead, thanks to his boss, he came across as a dim bulb with a vowel problem.

The horn-rimmed spectacles were self-inflicted, in honour of Dibakar Banerjee, his favourite director, who was luckily still alive. He had been conducting a symposium in Bulgaria when the bombs had dropped, wiping out the earlier version of Delhi. But this was where the money came from, and god knows there was little enough going around these days, so he smiled brightly at his boss as he sat down at his workstation. “Sorry I’m late, Professor,’ he said, ‘I know Venky’s always getting the first one, but I’ll start beating him now, just wait.”

An unusually sweet smile lit up Professor Krishnan’s dark, lean, ascetic face. “You fellows fight over your money. I am just interested in results.” That was a fair enough description of the job market. Given that reconstruction was a top priority, all departments of the government were now under the Bureau of Reconstruction, until further notice, or the completion of reconstruction, whichever came sooner.

The Bureau of Reconstruction had given market forces and capitalist principles a free hand, ruling that efficiency and speed took precedence over all else, except in areas of public or private enterprise deemed necessary for exemption by the Competent Authority. The result was that most jobs were now contract jobs. The only secure jobs, unless you were born into an army family, were in the Bureau of Reconstruction, which was expanding rapidly because the Chinese had left them with an awful lot to reconstruct. Most of the remaining population were, by and large, day labourers. Even the BoR itself contracted out at the lower levels.

Generally, the government found hungry, desperate, co-operative, part-time employees quite addictive, and a pleasure to deal with. It left genuine government servants with much more free time, which they used to keep track of their money. Rumour had it that on the outskirts of Madurai, there was a temple dedicated to the man who had coined the phrase “Public-Private Partnership”. Only government officers were allowed to worship there.

Mr Chatterjee stopped brooding and focused on the glass partition. The partition divided the lab into two, roughly equal, sections. On the other side, Venky sat across the table from the first catch of the day. Mr Chatterjee opened up the file on his PC. He had to shake the mouse a few times. His requisition for a new one was still pending.

The putative telepath who was being tested was a teller from one of the State Bank of India branches in Pune. No police record. A dumpy, cheerful-looking wife. And two children! Fertile. That put him automatically at the head of the class. Even slight traces of Skill 17 would get him in. No one really knew what the first sixteen skills were, because the files had been misplaced. But everyone knew about Skill 17. It was the ability to read minds.

He looked at the subject with renewed interest. He was a smallish man in his fifties. Bald, except for two tufts of greyish-white hair fringing his ears. Slightly round-shouldered. Completely innocuous. That’s usually how it was. Maybe it was nature’s way of compensating. Across the table, in marked contrast, was the slim, lithe figure of Venky. But for the huge headphones blocking off all sound, he could have been a tennis player, coiled up and ready to spring.

Venky spoke into his mike. “Okay, Mr Kutty,” he said, wincing at the slight squealing of the ancient PA system, “now we’ll move on to Spatial Mapping.” He closed his eyes, concentrated. “Where am I now, Mr Kutty?”

“You are on a beach, sir,” replied Kutty, timidly.

“Describe it, please.”

“Very bright and sunny, sir. The sand is very white. The sea is blue. Not like India, sir.”

In his mind, Venky was lolling somewhere in the Mediterranean. His parents had taken him there once when he was fourteen, before quarantine. Parts of his recollection were very vivid, other parts were sketchy. He was filling in the gaps in his mind.

“Anyone else around?”

“Not close by, sir.”

“How far can you see into the sea?”

“Till the end, sir. End is slightly blurred. Wait...where it meets the sky, I see writing, in big, black letters.”

“What does the message say?”

Kutty frowned. “It says ‘The CA wears smelly socks’,” he said finally.

Venky took off his headphones, pleased to have achieved his quota. One of his goals in life was to make sure that every day, he made at least one citizen of India say something rude about the CA. As a semi-government servant, he was supposed to keep the CA’s existence a secret – in the interests of national security – but Venky rarely did what he was supposed to. With a confirmed telepath, the finder’s fee was a sweet bonus.

Kutty was sent to the reception to wait while Venky gave them the low-down. “Very high-level display of Skill 17, prof. It’s amazing that he’s lived with it all these years. It must be a zoo inside his head! We’ll need to run basic sanity tests before roping him in. Or has that been waived now?”

The BoR’s requirement for telepaths was constantly growing while conversely, the supply had thinned to a trickle. The early sweeps had picked up most of them. And telepaths were fragile. Many went mad before anyone got to them, unhinged by all the honesty. Entry standards were constantly being lowered.

“Not yet,” said Professor Krishnan. “Send him up for processing. Hemonto, take the next candidate.”

Mr Chatterjee went to the reception to pick up the next supposed telepath. Registered telepath for the BoR was a secure job, so a lot of optimistic fraud happened. Quite a few slipped through the first screening. Some were quite good.

Last year, a down-on-his-luck godman had tried hypnosis on him. (“Sorry, maharaj, no elephant.” “No, no, bete – that dark, long item in the corner of your mind – that is the trunk, see. Concentrate...”) Messing with heads was an area where India remained light years ahead of the competition. Radioactivity had simply accelerated the process.

The candidate was sitting on a bench in the reception. He was huge. His shoulders hulked under a tent-like kurta. His eyes were slightly glazed. He was chewing gum, long and slow. He looked to be about thirty, but his expression was childlike.

The little old lady in the bright silk sari, sitting next to him, sprang up. She came forward and clutched Mr Chatterjee’s arm, fingers sinking into his sleeve. “My son, Rahul,” she whispered. “His talent works only when I am in his lap. May I attend also, please?” Great, now we’ve got two-for-one offers going too. Kinky ones, thought Mr Chatterjee, hallucinating slightly. He led them into the lab.