Date of Expiry
Mohan Rao hadn't expected his Tuesday morning to end the way it did. It had begun, like all his weekdays, with a run in Cubbon Park.
It was the best part of the day, the first rays of sunlight glinting off the steely glass facades of the office blocks and hotels that ensnared the city's ancient, woody heart. The avenues were cool under leaf, the obstacles a mere handful of perambulating pensioners, no real impediment to the sure-footed.
One such non-impediment, Colonel Rajvir Singh, Indian Army (retired), memory still bayonet keen, would recognise Mohan Rao from the photograph in the next day's Bangalore Herald and remark on it to his wife, who said nothing.
K. Senthil, street vendor, at his usual spot opposite the Maharajah's statue, would describe how Rao had stopped by at his usual time, paid for his usual refreshment and downed it in the usual single gulp.
The doorman at ParkVue Apartments would report that Rao had staggered, rather than walked, into the lobby.
The lift attendant would say, when asked, that Rao had looked sweaty and pale.
Dr. Anand Acharya, general practitioner, would confirm that Rao had rung for an urgent appointment at 8.13am. "Feeling unwell" read the receptionist's note. "Abdominal pain. Nausea."
An ambulance had been despatched, as per the corporate insurance policy, but the ambulance crew received no answer at Rao's door.
The apartment manager, duly summoned, had found Rao in the kitchen, face down in a pool of frothy vomit.
Had he been given the opportunity to reflect, Mohan Rao might have declared himself satisfied with the weave of his life so far. The private education his parents couldn't really afford had led to a fine job with a good salary. He had left the small town of his birth for a high-rise in the big city.
His entry into adult life had been ballistic, his arc on the ascendant.
Weightless, Rao felt not the clutch of casual circumstance that flattens many such trajectories.
Death grounds every mortal expectation.
This is what Inspector Hari Chatpati would discover some days later, thanks to the angry Austrian tourist and the travel agent who was anything but.
No Hero's Welcome
At around the time Mohan Rao died, Inspector Chatpati was dying his own kind of death. There were many things that annoyed Chatpati but none more than a meeting with the Assistant Commissioner of Police.
The Headquarters of Central Division on Kasturba Road had been a drab, soot-stained villa, built during the British Raj, until the addition of a steel carbuncle five storeys tall. The ACP's office was on the top floor and commanded a fine view of the city. Had Chatpati looked out through the window, he might even have glimpsed the cause of Mohan Rao's demise in the distance. As it was, Chatpati was fully engaged trying to suppress his ire.
The ACP's PA, a matronly woman in khaki uniform sari, had instructed Chatpati on protocol as she led him in. Her eyes were kind.
"Don't forget to salute, Inspector. And best to wait to be asked a question before speaking." She smiled at him. "He's in a good mood today, so you should be fine. Just remember to salute!"
ACP Srinivasan had been first to speak, his greeting unexpectedly effusive.
"Ah! The hero of the hour! Come in, Inspector Chatpati."
Srinivasan had been lounging on his non-regulation sofa, his non-regulation shoes, glistening with someone else's spit and polish, resting on the non-regulation coffee table. The sofa was leather, the shoes brogues and the coffee table cut glass. Any one, Chatpati guessed, cost half a year's salary. The far wall, behind the ACP's desk, was tinted glass, fronted by a teak desk. The desk was flanked by the shields and flags of the Bangalore Police Service. The floor was polished granite, the air conditioned.
Srinivasan's attention had been on the huge flat-screen TV that dominated the near wall. Chatpati saluted and waited. Srinivasan glanced sidelong at him.
"Sit. Don't loiter," Srinivasan snapped, waving at a matching armchair.
Chatpati removed his hat and sat. Srinivasan had the physiognomy of a bon vivant; an improbably large nose overhung a caterpillar moustache and fleshy lips. His paunch cascaded over his Versace belt.
Srinivasan waved the remote control at the TV and turned the volume up.
"This will interest you," he said.
The Bangalore TV news was on. The screen showed a grizzled man in prison uniform and shackles being dragged out of a police van, surrounded by masked commandos wielding sub-machine guns. Chatpati recognised the High Court in the background. Anchorwoman Nita Singh's stentorian delivery cut through the hubbub of journalists swarming about the prisoner.
"Today sees the beginning of the trial of Govind Prabhu, self-styled leader of the Kissan Yudh, the self-titled Farmer's War Party. Residents of Bangalore will remember it was not four months ago that the banned terrorist organisation launched their devastating chemical attack on the Vidhana Soudha. The terrorists claim they are fighting for the preservation of their traditional livelihoods against the incursion of foreign agro-tech companies. Six people died in the attack, including three schoolchildren. It was only the prompt action of the police that prevented more casualties and saw the culprits swiftly brought to justice. The trial is expected to last several days but the outcome is likely a foregone conclusion."
The picture changed to a map of the city, shrouded in grey.
"And now, here's today's weather report. Smog in most areas-"
Srinivasan switched the TV off. "So," he said, smiling, "how does it feel to see justice done? Eh? To be the hero at the centre of the storm?"
Chatpati pursed his lips. "It's not something I think about. Sir."
Srinivasan sat up. "Really?" he sneered. " A commendation from the Justice Minister. A promotion. A cash reward from a grateful Government. Your face on the TV. And you don't think about it." Srinivasan shook his head in disbelief. "You are a very modest man, Inspector."
Chatpati shrugged. "I did not ask for the commendation. I refused the cash. And I avoided the media. As for the promotion-"
"You refused that too," Srinivasan said, nodding. "Strange man, Chatpati. Strange. Though," he wagged a finger, "some might say calculating. After all, what could possibly be more attractive than a hero? Except a reluctant hero? Eh?" Srinivasan leant over and slapped Chatpati on the shoulder. "Shabash! Well done! Because, despite all your earnest refusals, you were rewarded. Am I wrong?"
Chatpati rubbed his shoulder. "I-"
"Oh yes," Srinivasan replied. "You refused the apartment but you were forced into accepting it. The Minister can be very persuasive. Your wife was fed up of living in Police Quarters, no doubt. Nothing like air-conditioning, a fitted kitchen, a concierge, eh? And, instead of accepting the promotion to Assistant Commissioner of Police, you chose a sideways move. Heading the very first 'semi-autonomous police unit' in the City. Remind me what it's called again. Common Nonsense Unit, is it?"
Chatpati bristled. "Civil Nuisance Unit. Sir."
Srinivasan cackled, dispensing spittle. "Oh, yes. Civil Nuisance Unit. What a great name. You're at least half qualified to run that. You're not very civil, Inspector, but you're certainly a nuisance!"
Chatpati throttled his hat in his lap. "Again, sir-"
Srinivasan got to his feet and plodded over to his desk. "Yes, yes, not your choice. Victim of circumstance, blah, blah, blah. Spare me the details." He beckoned Chatpati over. "Come over here."
Behind the desk, Srinivasan looked even more the despot. Chatpati stood.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, sit, man," Srinivasan growled, flicking through papers. "Why such formality, eh? After all, we're all friends here. Now, where is that file?" He pressed a button on his phone.
"Yes, sir," the PA's voice said.
"Mina, where the bloody hell is that file? The German tourist? I thought I said to leave it on my desk."
"You did, sir," Mina replied. "But I had to update it with the medical report. Shall I bring it in?"
"Never mind," Srinivasan snapped. "You can give it to the Inspector when he leaves."
Chatpati felt a brief surge of hope. The end was in sight.
Srinivasan sat back in his chair and studied Chatpati.
"Some work for you, Inspector. To occupy you while your Unit is being set up. What is the status of your Nonsense Unit, by the way?"
"Nuisance. Sir." Chatpati replied. "The premises is being refurbished. We've recruited some staff, mostly volunteers from other divisions."
"I know about the volunteers," Srinivasan hissed, "since I'm paying their salaries for the next three months. Where is your premises? Remind me."
Chatpati swallowed. "The General Utilities building, sir. On Mahatma Gandhi Road. Top floor. The twenty-fourth."
Srinivasan scowled at him. "Utilities building? Not a police station?"
"No, sir. I thought it a better fit." And not subject to your routine interference, Chatpati did not say. "It's smack bang in the middle of our patch, the Central Business District. It's a government building so it's rent free. It's mostly vacant, apart from a cinema on the ground floor, a vegetarian restaurant and a few small shops."
"What was on the top floor?" Srinivasan asked. "I can't recall."
"A nightclub. Sir."
Srinivasan's jaw dropped. "A nightclub?"
"Yes, sir," Chatpati replied, matter of fact. "It was repossessed. Two bars, a restaurant, an open-air balcony and lounge and a dance floor. And a mirrored disco ball." He paused. "Parquet, sir. The dance floor. You should drop by."
Ill-met By Auto-Rickshaw
Inspector Chatpati emerged from the ACP's office around the middle of the morning. The sun was high in the sky. The traffic surged down Kasturba Road with a full-throated, asphyxiating roar. It was hot and getting hotter.
He waited for an auto-rickshaw outside the gates, in the scant shade offered by an ancient cassia tree in bloom. The tree had stood here when the road had been laid during the British Raj. It had outlasted the colonial conquerors; its roots had long since reclaimed most of the narrow, fractured pavement. Pedestrians picked their way past with care, avoiding loose flagstones that might send them tumbling into the mad throng of vehicles that raced past a shirtsleeve away.
The sting of ozone made Chatpati's nose run. He fished a face-mask out of his breast pocket and slipped it on. The smoke from the swarm of teetering buses, skittering auto-rickshaws and buzzing motorcycles gave the air a blue pall. The clamour of engines, horns, brakes and gears was deafening.
He soon realised that his chances of hailing an auto-rickshaw were small. It was peak time on one of the main arteries feeding Bangalore's buzzing heart. Factor in his being in police uniform and the probability of success approximated zero. Auto-rickshaws avoided policemen like the plague. Policemen rarely paid the fare.
Chatpati had waved at a couple of autos that puttered past but it was as if Chatpati were a low-caste Dalit hailing an upper-caste Brahmin. The auto-drivers' gaze slipped right over him as if he didn't exist.
"Shall I stop one for you, Inspector?" the gate guard had asked. The guard had slipped the rifle off his shoulder and raised it across his chest. "This usually stops them."
"Good God, no!" Chatpati said, raising an arm. "Put that thing away! What's wrong with you?"
He had visions of an auto-rickshaw skidding to a halt before a pointed gun, only to be upended from behind by a speeding Municipal Corporation bus. Buses didn't stop for anything smaller than another bus. He could see the auto-rickshaw's tin-thin skeleton cleaved in two, passengers spilling out in a tangle of limbs, sarees spooling into spinning wheels, blood on the spokes and brains on the tarmac. He shuddered. He'd been at the scene of more road traffic accidents than he cared to remember.
The guard shrugged. "It works. Usually. Or I could call for a Hoysala."
"No thanks," Chatpati said, "The driving is awful. I value my life. And it'll take an hour to arrive. They'll suddenly discover some urgent parking felony to prosecute instead."
"Try down the road, then, sir," the gate guard said, shouldering his rifle. "There are usually some auto-rickshaws outside Cubbon Park, near the Marriott, hustling for tourists." He gave Chatpati a conspiratorial grin . "You can sneak up on them. There will be at least one driver not in uniform."
The Municipal Corporation had recently mandated khaki uniforms for all auto-drivers. Compliance had been patchy, another rich source of revenue for the police.
Chatpati walked down Kasturba Road, sticking to the shade where he could. He made it halfway down when his luck changed. There, outside the entrance to the Industrial and Technology Museum, he happened across a gaggle of auto-rickshaws, parked carelessly by the pavement.
Three auto-drivers in various approximations of uniform surrounded a tall, moustachioed man in a dress shirt and tie. The tall man had placed a defensive blue fabric suitcase between him and the auto-drivers. They were so engrossed in heated discussion that none noticed Chatpati approach.
The tall man's voice rose above the din of traffic. He raised an arm, index finger pointed at the sky.
"I protest, thou recalcitrant vagabonds!" the tall man bellowed. "Thine attempts to inflict a calumny is treasonous!"
The two auto-drivers at either side of the third laughed outright. The third, clearly the leader, gave the suitcase a kick.
"Oy! Clown!" the leader growled, shaking a fist. "Stop talking nonsense and pay up. Don't try to cheat me! Pay the fare! Or else!"
The other two chipped in like a Greek chorus. "Yes. Pay up! Don't think you can cheat him just because he is an auto-driver! Better pay quick!"
The tall man drew himself up to his full height, towering above the drivers. ""Villains perpetually declaration themselves victim. Thine remonstrations fall on mute ears, vagrant! Dost thou not comprehend that I am a deputy of the justiciary!"
"What's going on here?" Chatpati said, in his official police voice. They turned to look at him. Shock registered on the faces of the auto-drivers, relief on that of the tall man. The two peripheral drivers began to edge away.
"Stop!" Chatpati said. "You two stay right there. You!" He pointed at the leader, the one who had kicked the suitcase. "What's going on here? Why are you assaulting that suitcase?"
The fellow wilted, eyes to the ground. "It's nothing, sir," he mumbled. "Simple misunderstanding."
The tall man addressed Chatpati. "Penultimately! A fellow compatriot. Honourable compatriot, I entreat thee to imprison this multitude-"
Chatpati raised a hand. "You. Also stop." He stepped up to the ringleader and examined the regulation brass name plate pinned to the auto-driver's khaki uniform top. "Nagesh. That's your name, is it?" The man nodded, mute. "I asked you what's going on here. Speak up, damn it!"
Nagesh wrung his hands. "Sir, this fellow is refusing to pay his fare, sir. He began shouting! I – I felt threatened and-"
"Let me guess," Chatpati said, "you waved these two down to assist you. Am I correct?" He turned to the other two auto-drivers. They shrugged. "Assist? Or intimidate? Which is it?"
The auto-drivers stared at their feet and said nothing.
The tall man had been concentrating intently on the conversation. He spoke again to Chatpati. "Thou hast the great measure of the matter, respected compatriot of the justiciary. These vagabonds-"
Chatpati raised a hand. The tall man stopped. Chatpati addressed the auto-drivers. "Why does he speak like that?"
Nagesh shook his head and tapped his forehead. "Mad, sir. Unbalanced."
Chatpati's face was expressionless. "Where did you pick him up?"
Majestic was what the locals called the area around the Majestic Theatre in the north of the city, in which the Central Bus and Train stations were located.
That made sense, Chatpati thought. The man was clearly from out of town. Chatpati looked him over. The traveller did not appear in the least intimidated. He had a trim moustache and well-maintained eyebrows. His nose was proud, his lips full. He was sweating freely in his long-sleeves and tie. There were damp patches under his arms.
"Where are you from?" Chatpati asked. The tall man looked puzzled. Chatpati tried again in the literary Kannada5 the man had used. "What is thine abode, o compatriot?"
"Ah," the man smiled, "my native place is Cochin, that shining firmament in the fair kingdom of Kerala6."
Chatpati nodded. "Dost thou sojourn?
The man nodded. "Verily. I am arrived to engage in an enterprise of profession."
Chatpati's head was aching. He fished out his handkerchief and wiped his face. "Hast thou the faculty of other tongues?" he asked in hope. "English, mayhaps?"
"Why, yes," the tall man replied. In English. "I speak English. Of course. Why?"
"Thank God." Chatpati said. "Where did you learn to speak Kannada, may I ask?"
The tall man looked puzzled. "Well, from a book. It came with a CD-ROM."
Chatpati nodded. "I see. Was your Kannada book published any time in the last, say, twenty years?"
"I'm not sure. I got it from a second-hand bookshop. Why? What's wrong with my Kannada?"
"No one in Bangalore speaks like that," Chatpati said. "You're speaking the literary, declarative form of Kannada. It's only ever used in traditional folk plays, like Yakshagana7."
The tall man looked nonplussed. "Oh. I-"
"Never mind," Chatpati said. "Let's stick to English. What's the problem here?"
"This fellow," the tall man said, pointing at the auto-driver Nagesh, "demanded five hundred rupees! For a fifteen minute journey! It's outrageous! I refused to pay! In Cochin, I would have had him arrested! I was about to ring for backup when you arrived."
"Cochin is Cochin. In Kerala State." Chatpati said. "This is Bangalore. In Karnataka State. Things are different here." The tall man bristled. "Nevertheless," Chatpati continued, "that fare is excessive. Wait a moment."
He turned to the auto-drivers and pointed at the two at the periphery. He used the guttural street Kannada of a true local. "You two! Bugger off. If I see your sorry arses again, you're in for a kicking. Get it? Now get lost."
The two men ran off towards their vehicles. Chatpati turned his attention to Nagesh. "As for you," he said, "this fellow says you demanded five hundred rupees."
"No sir!" Nagesh wailed. He folded himself into a crouch, hands raised overhead, palms together in the traditional gesture of supplication. "No sir! I just asked for a supplement over the standard fare because of rush hour and-"
"Idiot!" Chatpati cut him off. "Do you think I was born yesterday? There is no supplement for rush hour. Let's see what the fare on your meter is." Chatpati examined the fare meter on the remaining auto-rickshaw. The meter was off. Chatpati turned back. "Well, well, Nagesh. It looks like you didn't even turn the meter on. That's an automatic fine. Five hundred rupees. Get up, you idiot."
Nagesh struggled back upright and wrung his hands. ""Sir, please, sir. I don't have that much money. I just started my day. I have only two hundred sir. See, sir?" He produced a clutch of threadbare notes. "Please! If I don't make five hundred rupees today I can't pay the daily rent for the auto. My family will-"
Chatpati rolled his eyes. "Oh, here we go. Your family will starve, your children will have to beg and your sainted dead mother will be refused entry to her heavenly abode. The usual excuses. Save it. Where were all your fine considerations when you summoned those two other idiots to intimidate this fellow, huh? And just around the corner from Assistant Commissioner's Office! Shameless! You should be fined just for being an idiot."
The tall man had had enough of being the observer. In English, he said "I demand you arrest this fellow. Such individuals deserve-"
"Never mind," Chatpati replied in English. "The matter is dealt with. For your information, the standard fare from Majestic to the city centre is fifty rupees. On this occasion, there's no charge. You are free to go. Goodbye."
Chatpati turned his back on the tall man and grabbed Nagesh by the collar. He thrust him towards his auto-rickshaw. "Get in. Start that thing up." Chatpati got in the rear passenger seat. "No fare for you for that trip, Nagesh. Serves you right. As for the fine, you can either pay it or you can take me to MG Road. Which is it to be?"
Nagesh cranked the machine to life. He turned back to Chatpati, hands folded. "Please, sir. I would be honoured to take you wherever you wish."
The tall man had picked up his suitcase. Chatpati called out to him as the auto-rickshaw pulled away.
"Have a pleasant stay in Bangalore. And buy another Kannada textbook!"