Monday, December 17, 2007

Ramesh And The Manhunt (Part 1)

PART I: The Search

Ramesh and I sank wearily into our seats in our compartment of the Rajdhani Express train. Our two small suitcases were stacked neatly and safely on the rack above our heads. As the other passengers in our compartment located their seats and fought over the luggage space in the overhead racks of our Air-conditioned Chair Car, Ramesh and I tried to relax and regain our breath.

It had been a hectic day.

The time was now twenty minutes to five in the afternoon. After half-an-hour, our train, which was, at present, parked in the New Delhi Railway Station, would begin its journey. If all went well, the train would reach Kolkata’s Howrah Station at around eleven o’clock the next morning. It was October and our school was closed for the second term break. Ramesh’s bachelor uncle, who lived in Kolkata, had invited us over to spend the holidays with him. Ramesh and I had arrived in Delhi that morning from our town and, after a whirlwind sightseeing tour of the nation’s capital, had returned to the Railway Station to catch the Rajdhani Express. Delhi’s magnificence and beauty, its wide roads and stately buildings, had taken us by storm and we were still a bit dazed by it all.

After a couple of minutes, I opened my eyes and looked out of the window next to me. The platform was crowded with people. Passengers, some carrying their own luggage and some followed by overburdened porters, rushed to-and-fro, sometimes bumping into one of the various hawkers who, unmindful of the crowd, pushed their trolleys up and down the platform and kept shouting their wares at the top of their voices. Although I could no longer hear all the din through the sealed windowpane, I could well imagine the noise on the platform, having boarded the train from it not very long ago.

Suddenly, my attention was caught by a large number of policemen who had now appeared. With them were some men in railway officials’ uniforms. They all wore a purposeful air and kept shouting instructions to each other. I grabbed Ramesh’s arm.

“Look!” I exclaimed. “Something’s up!”

Ramesh leaned over and stared through the window. “You’re right,” he said, after a moment. “Those policemen are searching for something or somebody!”

We continued to gaze through the window. “Hey!” I exclaimed suddenly. “The policemen are boarding the train!”

The next minute, our compartment was swarming with policemen. Without so much as a by-your-leave, they began moving up and down the aisle between the two rows of seats, peering into the faces of the passengers. Whoever they were looking for was, apparently, not in our compartment, for the policemen soon moved out and filed into the next one. Ramesh and I looked at each other with question marks in our eyes. What on earth was up?

A few minutes later, the policemen were back. The Inspector in charge stood at the head of the compartment and raised his arms.

The excited passengers fell silent.

The Inspector looked apologetic. “I’m extremely sorry for this intrusion,” he announced – a bit belatedly, I thought. “This morning,” continued the Inspector, “a prisoner escaped from Tihar Jail and, a short while ago, we received a tip that he may be heading for Kolkata!”

An excited buzz of conversation arose from the passengers as soon as the Inspector made his startling announcement. Ramesh gripped my arm.

The Inspector raised his arms again and there was silence. “As far as we can make out however,” he continued, “the escapee is not on this train.” A very audible collective sigh of relief emanated from our fellow passengers in the compartment. The Inspector raised his arms again. He was beginning to remind me of my P.T. master at school demonstrating one of his drills.

“However,” said the Inspector, “as a precaution, I will request you to have a look at this photograph of the escapee and remember his features. In case any of you happen to catch sight of him during the trip, please notify the railway staff on this train at once!” As the Inspector was speaking, one of his policemen began walking down the aisle, showing a photograph to the passengers. As soon as he came abreast of our seats, Ramesh excitedly reached out for the photograph and stared at it intently. I looked too.

The photograph was of a vicious-looking pig-eyed man with a broken nose. I shuddered as I looked at the photograph. Sharing a train journey with such a man was certainly not a pleasant prospect!

Before leaving the compartment, the Inspector had a last word: “My men and I have checked this train as thoroughly as we could under the circumstances, and I’m pretty sure the escape is not on board! The photograph has only been shown to you, just in case… Anyway, have a pleasant journey!”

It was only at six o’clock in the evening as the train finally pulled out of New Delhi Railway Station – fifty minutes behind schedule. Our fellow passengers, one by one, sank back into their cushioned seats to enjoy the trip in the air-conditioned comfort which the Rajdhani Express was justly famous for. All seemed to have forgotten the escapee from Delhi’s Tihar Jail. All, that is, except one. Yes, you guessed it! My bespectacled, tousle-headed friend, Ramesh, the avid reader of detective fiction that he was, could not get the escaped prisoner out of his mind.

Ever since the train left Delhi, Ramesh had been sitting slouched in his seat, brooding. Suddenly, he grabbed my arm and hissed, “Listen, can we really be sure?”

I looked at my friend, puzzled. “Sure of what?” I asked.

“Can we really be sure that this escapee is not on the train?” replied Ramesh.

“Well, those policemen couldn’t find him, could they?” I said, making what I thought was a good debating point.

Ramesh nodded brightly. There had appeared on his his spectacles a glint which I had no difficulty in recognizing. I had observed it on several previous occasions when Ramesh had led me into one madcap adventure after another. I could read its message. It meant that some pleasing inspiration had floated into Ramesh’s mind, and it caused a strong shudder to pass through my frame, together with a wish that I were far away. When pleasing inspirations floated into Ramesh’s mind, prudent people made a dash for the nearest bombproof shelter.

“Ah, but you see,” said Ramesh pointedly, “they had to hurry through their search and, naturally, couldn’t have been very efficient about it! The escapee could easily have kept his face half-hidden in the shadows, or something!” Ramesh began to sound very excited. “Yes, I think I’ll take a more careful look at our fellow passengers!” he announced quickly, and one began to get up from his seat.

I grabbed his arm. “Are you crazy?” I whispered fiercely to Ramesh. “What’ll people think, if you go around staring into their faces as if they were newly acquired, weird exhibits in a zoo?”

Ramesh smiled and pulled his arm away from my grip. “Don’t be silly! I won’t be that obvious!” And, before I could say anything else, Ramesh was out of his seat, a keen, tense look on his face, like that of a tribal hunter stalking a fleet footed deer.

I held my breath as I watched Ramesh glide slowly up the aisle, glancing casually to his left and right. He reached the head of the aisle without any mishap and disappeared through the doorway. He reappeared a few minutes later and slowly glided down the aisle towards our seats. When Ramesh returned to his seat, he was looking a bit pre-occupied.

“Well?” I asked, in spite of myself.

“Negative,” replied Ramesh briefly. “He’s not in this compartment or in the next.”

“I told you so!” I said smugly.

“That proves nothing!” retorted Ramesh irritably. “I’ve been thinking about it and it’s clear that this escapee will do whatever he can to keep his identity hidden. He must be disguised.”

“Good point,” I conceded. “But so what?”

“So I’m going to keep this possibility in mind while I search the other compartments!” replied the self-appointed detective.

“You mean you still persist in thinking that you’ll find the escapee on this train!” I exclaimed, amazed.

Ramesh’s mind is one of those which readily falls into the grip of obsessions. “Of course!” he said. “We can’t allow the escapee to get away, can we?”

I refrained from arguing any further. The experience gained from a hundred battles had taught me that Ramesh always got his way. One might bluster and one might struggle, one might raise hands to heaven, and clench fists and shake them, but, in the end, the result was always the same – Ramesh did what he wanted.

As Ramesh moved away again, I settled back into my seat and flipped open the latest issue of the mystery novel which I had brought along for the journey. It was completely dark outside now and the lights inside the compartment had been switched on. The only thing visible through the window of the train was an occasional lighted window of some obscure hut or the other, which flashed past almost before they could be registered. As the Rajdhani Express raced through the Utter Pradesh countryside, I immersed myself in the latest exploit of Detective Moochwala and his dog Pooch.

I cannot recall how many minutes elapsed before I felt Ramesh’s hand on my shoulder and reluctantly disengaged myself from the murder that was about to be committed.

I looked up to see a flushed Ramesh, excitement oozing out of his every pore. His eyes were the eyes of one who has passed through the furnace, and he was vibrating gently, as if he had swallowed a small auxiliary engine.

“I’ve found him!” declared Ramesh dramatically.

In spite of myself, I felt a stir of excitement within me. “Are you sure?” I asked quickly.

“Yes, yes!” replied Ramesh impatiently. “He’s three compartments behind ours! He’s got on a thick – very thick – beard!”

I was doubtful. “If you haven’t even seen his face ho can you be sure he’s your quarry?”

Ramesh assumed the air of one talking to an idiot. “That’s why he’s got such a thick beard on, silly! So that nobody can see his face and recognize him! It’s a very effective disguise!”

Ramesh can be very convincing when he wants to. “Perhaps you’re right,” I conceded, though a bit doubtfully. “So what do you propose to do? Inform the staff?”

“First, we’ll have to trap and expose him,” said Ramesh. “Otherwise, we won’t be believed – we’ve no proof.”

Alarm bells began tingling in my head. “And how do you plan to expose him?” I asked quickly, sensing trouble.

Ramesh’s specs glinted dangerously. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “That man’s seat is next to the aisle. I’m going to that compartment, walk down the aisle, and, when I come to his seat, pretend to fall. And, as I fall, I’m going to grab his beard. It’s bound to come off in my hands!”

I was aghast. “You’re crazy!” I exclaimed.

“That’s what they said to Columbus.”

“But – but --,” words failed.

I’m going! Come and see me in action, if you want to.” And, with that, Ramesh sprang out of his seat and moved off.

I jumped to my feet and rushed after him. I had to keep an eye on my lunatic friend. I followed his hurrying figure through two compartments and saw him pause before the entrance of the third. Before I could reach him, I saw Ramesh brace himself and then casually walk through.

With my heart in my mouth, I reached the entrance of the compartment and stopped. It was too late to stop Ramesh and I could only look on helplessly.
Ramesh was walking casually down the aisle, swaying slightly with the movement of the train. I ran my eyes quickly down both sides of the aisle and then caught my breath as I saw, half-way down the compartment, to my right, a thick, heavily-bearded man, leaning back on his reclining seat, his eyes closed This sleeping figure had to be the man Ramesh was referring to! As I recalled Ramesh’s words, it struck me that such a thick beard did seem a bit unnatural. Perhaps Ramesh was right after all!

As Ramesh reached the sleeping figure, I suspended breathing. Suddenly, the train swayed rather markedly and Ramesh, taking advantage of the situation, catapulted onto the sleeping figure! His flailing left hand brushed over the man’s face and grabbed his beard!

Beardy woke up with a piercing shriek!

Next time: A careful inspection of beards!

Ramesh And The Manhunt (Part 2)

Part II: A Holy Terror!

Ramesh and friend are comfortably settled in the Rajdhani Express at New Delhi, about to leave for Kolkata. Suddenly a police patrol boards the train with railway officials, searching for a prisoner who has just escaped fro Tihar Jail. The police have been tipped off that he might be bound for Kolkata. The search yields no sign of the man, so the police circulate his photograph to the passengers and leave, apologising for the delay. Ramesh’s friend settles down to a good read, but Ramesh is sure the convict must be on the train – in disguise, of course. He goes off to search and before long comes back triumphant. There’s a passenger in the compartment further down the train with such a thick beard that his whole face is covered up. Ramesh tells his friend to follow, and plans an exposure of the crook. As the train sways, Ramesh pretends to fall and grabs at the, surely, artificial beard!

For a few minutes, there was utter pandemonium in the middle of the compartment. Piercing shrieks, cries of pain, angry shouts, words of apology and startled comments emanated in quick succession from the centre of action. As I rushed forward, passengers crowded around the spot where Ramesh had fallen. With my nerves all aquiver, I pushed through the crowd and reached Beardy’s seat in time to see Ramesh being helped to his feet by a young man. I stared at Ramesh’s target and saw that the beard was still in place!

Beardy’s face, or whatever was visible of it, was a dark red and his eyes were filled with tears of pain. “You – you --,” he spluttered at Ramesh, who was busy adjusting his spectacles. “What is the meaning of this?” he grimaced with pain. “You nearly tore off my beard by the roots!”

Before Ramesh could say anything, the gentleman in the seat next to Beardy spoke up, “It’s not his fault, my friend! The train swayed suddenly and this boy lost his balance. I saw it happen!”

“All right!” growled Beardy. He looked at Ramesh. “But walk more carefully next time!”

“Yes, sir! Sorry, sir! Lost my balance, sir! I hope I haven’t hurt you very much! I’m really sorry, sir!” Ramesh sounded very apologetic, indeed. In fact, the person I was beginning to feel sorry for was my friend Ramesh. Beardy’s real beard must have been a great blow to him! It comepletely ruled out the possibility of Beardy being the escapee – he could hardly have grown that beard in one day!

Safely back in our seats, I maintained a diplomatic silence. It wasn’t difficult to gauge how Ramesh was feeling, and I did not want to, as the saying goes, rub salt into the wound. Ramesh wore a disintegrated air, as if somebody had removed most of his interior organs. You see the same sort of thing in stuffed parrots when the sawdust has leaked out of them.

After a little while, our meals were served. Ramesh ate his in silence. I did not disturb him. After the meal, I looked at Ramesh to see if he wanted to make conversation. My friend, I saw, continued to look like a dead fish on a slab of ice. I returned to my detective novel.

A little while later, I heard a sound next to me. I turned my head. “Did you say something?” I asked Ramesh.

“I said: I hate beards!” replied Ramesh. “Good night!”

The next morning found Ramesh greatly revived in spirit. When the train pulled into Dhanbad Station at eight o’clock for a fifteen minute halt, Ramesh went for a short walk on the platform and came back looking as revived as a watered flower. He tucked into his breakfast with the zeal of an athlete and made pleasant conversation.

Breakfast over, Ramesh leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes and cupped his hands below his chin. I recognized his ‘Sherlock Holmes’ pose immediately – he always assumes it when he wants to think aloud. “Tell me,” he began, his eyes still closed, “how many hours are we away from Kolkata?”

I knew Ramesh knew the answer as well as I did, but, just to humour him, I played along and lived the role of Watson. “We’re due to reach Howrah Station at eleven o’clock,” I replied. “It’s nine o’clock now.”

“So, we’ve just got two hours!” Ramesh opened his eyes. “We’ll have to work fast!”

I was puzzled. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Do we have a job to do before reaching Kolkata?”

“Of course!” exclaimed Ramesh. “We’ve got to catch this escapee!”

I stared, amazed, at my unpredictable friend. “You mean you’ve still got that bee in your bonnet?” I asked unbelievingly. “Didn’t last night’s experience teach you anything? The escapee is not on this train!”

“I’m not so sure,” said Ramesh. “The policemen were acting on a tip-off when they searched our train. They must have had a good reason.”

“I don’t know about that,” I replied. Ramesh’s reasoning generally goes beyond me. “But, as you yourself have pointed out, this man, if he is on the train, must be disguised. Otherwise he would have been spotted long ago. So, how can we recognise him?”

“Let me think,” said Ramesh, frowning a little. “A thick beard is a natural disguise – but there’s only one heavily bearded man on the train.” He winced at the memory. “And he’s not our man – his beard is real.”

“The only other thick bearded men I’ve seen on this train,” I added, “are a couple of maulvis, three or four sardarjis and a man dressed like a Pathan.”

Ramesh sat bolt upright in his seat, his eyes shooting out of his head like a prawn’s.

“Of course!” exclaimed my friend. “That’s the answer! How come I didn’t think of it!”

I stared at Ramesh in surprise. “Have I just said something enlightening?” I asked.

Ramesh stared back at me, his eyes wide and gleaming. “This escapee must be disguised as somebody who looks natural in a beard – whose beard one doesn’t give a second thought to!” he said excitedly. “He must be disguised as either a maulvi or a sardarji or a Pathan or some natural beardy!”

I slowly let Ramesh’s words sink in. It was a plausible idea, I had to concede. “But there are quite a few such men on this train,” I objected. “How will you locate the escapee among them?”

“Simple,” replied Ramesh, continuing to look like one inspired. You could almost hear his brain working overtime. “Remember the photograph of the escapee which the policemen showed us? Our quarry has a broken nose! Now, how many maulvis, sardarjis and Pathans on this train do you think do will have broken noses? Come on, let’s begin our search at once! We’ve no time to lose!”

“But – but --,” I spluttered.

“No buts, my friend. We’re working against time! I’ll cover the compartments in the forward portion of the train and you cover those towards the rear. Beardy falls in your portion and I don’t particularly want to meet him again!” And Ramesh was off!

I reluctantly got to my feet and began my mission. There were no broken-nosed men, bearded or otherwise, in my compartment, and my spirits began to revive. I would simply take a stroll down the train and return. I had no doubt that I would have to disappoint Ramesh. I certainly did not share his conviction that the escapee was on our train.

In the next compartment were two bearded maulvis. A hurried glance in their direction was enough to satisfy me that neither of the two sported a broken nose. The next two compartments boasted of a handful of sardarjis – all with intact noses. While in the third compartment, behind ours, I kept my eyes averted from Beardy.

The fourth compartment yielded a bearded man dressed like a Pathan. Whether this gentleman actually was a Pathan or not, I cannot with authority state, but his nose had definitely never been broken. I entered the fifth compartment on light feet, quite enjoying my stroll, after all.

There was one young, fair-complexioned sardarji in the middle of the compartment. I briefly glanced at his long, acquiline nose and passed on. I saw no more bearded men in the compartment. I was about to turn back, when, through the entrance in front of me, appeared a bearded man wearing saffron robes and with a grey shawl thrown around his shoulders. His right hand was holding a necklace of prayer beads. It took half a second for the face of this sadhu, or holy man, to register – and then my heart stopped beating.

Overlooking a thick – very thick – black beard on this sadhu’s face was an extremely prominent broken nose! In spite of myself, I recognized that broken nose! The photograph of the escapee was still fresh in my memory – Ramesh had seen to that. And, to remove all doubts, were the man’s pig eyes!

My blood froze. I stood rooted as the sadhu brushed past me. Then, my senses returning, I quickly spun around and saw the saffron-robed sadhu lower himself into a window seat a little ahead.

My feet took off. With a life of their own, they quickly propelled me back through the compartments I had just traversed and, before I knew it, I was back in my seat. Ramesh had not yet returned from his expedition.

I sat there quietly, trying to regain my breath and recover from my shock. Ramesh had been right, after all! The escapee was actually on our train!

Ramesh returned shortly, looking very disappointed. But one look at my face and his gloom vanished. He guessed all. “Where?” he asked excitedly.

“In the fifth compartment behind ours,” I told him breathlessly. “In a window seat towards the rear of the compartment! He’s dressed up like a sadhu...holy man – saffron robes and all!”

“Thanks,” said Ramesh and rushed of, looking like a child about to be taken to the circus.

There was a strange look on Ramesh’s face when he returned a few minutes later. It was the look of a person who has just found himself on the receiving end of a miracle.

“You’re right!” he exclaimed. “That’s the man! Those pig eyes and that broken nose! It can’t be anybody else! He hasn’t even covered up his eyebrow!”

“What eyebrow?” I asked.

“His right eyebrow, of course! Didn’t you notice in the photograph? The escapee has a small scar running through his right eyebrow. This broken-nosed sadhu has the same scar!”

“What do we do now?” I asked quickly. The situation was becoming too much for me.

“We’ll contact the railway official in charge of all these attendants,” replied Ramesh. “He’ll be in the Pantry Car! Come on!”

Together, we rushed towards the Pantry Car, which was located in the forward portion of the train. We were an hour away from Kolkata and all the passengers were readying themselves for the end of the journey. Suitcases were being taken down from the overhead racks, coats and jackets were being put on, and magazines tucked into plastic bags. Ramesh and I had to rudely push past many passengers who were on their feet, preparing for arrival in Kolkata.

We rushed into the Pantry Car and headed for an authoritative looking gentleman in a black uniform with a Northern Railways badge pinned on it. The man looked up from a chart he was reading and stared at us in surprise.

“Yes?” he asked. “What can I do for you?”

“We’ve found him!” exclaimed Ramesh breathlessly, without any preliminaries. “We’ve located the escapee from Tihar Jail! He’s on this train!”

The railway official’s mouth fell open. He drew out a photograph from his jacket pocket. “You mean him?” he asked pointing to the escapee’s face on the photograph.

“That’s right!” replied Ramesh. “The escape is disguised as a sadhu! But his eyes and broken nose give him away!”

The official seemed impressed by Ramesh’s conviction. He turned to an attendant. “Call the guards, quick!” he ordered.

A moment later, the two policemen who were on guard duty in the train appeared, rifles and all. Ramesh and I quickly led them and the railway official through the various compartments whose occupants stared at us curiously, until we reached the one where the sadhu sat.

“In here!” proclaimed Ramesh. We swiftly moved down the aisle, and came abreast of the seat in which the broken-nosed sadhu was sitting. One quarry looked up – and then jumped to his feet! His eyes opened wide when he saw the guards and, with a muttered oath, he pushed past the man in the seat next to him and sprang into the aisle! Before the guards could react, he threw himself at them! As the guards fell away in surprise, the sadhu with astonishingly agility, pushed passed them and began running up the aisle!

Ramesh was the first to recover. “Stop him!” he shouted, and took off after the fleeing man. The railway official, the guards and I followed in hot pursuit.

In a thrice, our quarry had crossed the next compartment, Ramesh at his heels. I was right behind Ramesh. “He’s the escapee from Tihar Jail!” cried Ramesh to the startled passengers. “The beard is false!”

Ramesh and I entered the third compartment behind ours together – and were just in time to witness the climax. Beardy, who had clearly heard Ramesh’s shout, had jumped to his feet. We saw him swing around, stare at the sadhu rushing towards him, and then shoot out a leg.

The escapee never knew what hit him. One moment he was running – and the next minute he was flat on his face! Beardy had neatly tripped him!

Beardy hauled up the fallen escapee and grabbed his beard. The beard came away in his hands! The face that was revealed was unmistakably that of the escapee!

The guards reached the shaken escapee and caught hold of him. Beardy turned to Ramesh and me and grinned. “So that’s why you grabbed at my beard last night!” he exclaimed. “I should have realized what you were up to! I’m Inspector Ram Swaroop of Delhi Police, plain-clothes branch!” He flashed an identity card at us.

“You boys have done my job for me! There’ll be a reward in it!”

Ramesh and I looked at each other and grinned. Trust us to have mistaken a policeman for a crook!

The Rajdhani Express pulled into Kolkata’s Howrah Station a short while later. Ramesh’s uncle was there to receive us. “Welcome to Kolkata!” he exclaimed. “I hope you weren’t bored in the train.”

Ramesh looked at me, and there was a twinkle in his eyes. “No,” he answered. “We managed to find ways and means to keep ourselves occupied!”

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Ramesh and the Space Age

We were in the middle of breakfast, one morning, when the telephone rang.

My father picked up the receiver and almost immediately slammed it back into its cradle with a snort.

“Who was it?” asked my mother from the breakfast table.

My father irritably unfolded the newspaper. “Some idiot who shouted ‘the kangaroos are dancing’ and then cut the connection,” he replied.

My mother’s reaction was a mild “tut-tut” but mine was more forceful. I nearly choked over my egg sandwich. Hurriedly gulping down the remains of my breakfast and unmindful of my mother’s astonished look I rushed out of the house and, grabbing my cycle, pedaled off as fast as I could.

Ramesh was waiting for me at the gate of his house.

“What’s the matter?” I asked him, braking to a halt and dismounting. “Why the code?”

Ramesh beamed at me. His hair was looking more untidy than ever and there was a glint in his spectacles – always a sure sign of trouble.

“Come with me,” he said mysteriously. “I’ve got something to show you.”

Leaving my cycle locked and leaning against the gate I followed Ramesh to the big shed in the garden at the back of his house. With the air of high priest conducting a special ceremony, Ramesh threw open the door.

“Have a look inside,” he said. I stepped into the shed and peered short-sightedly around me. The shed had been converted into a workshop and the shelves were cluttered with mechanical junk of all kinds. But what held my attention was an object in the centre of the room. It was a silver-coloured cylindrical object – about three and a half feet tall – tapering off at the top into a needle-sharp point, with thin, wing-like projections at the base.

I am not one of those characters who go about pinching themselves that things are real, but if I were I would never have had a better opportunity or reason to pinch than right then.

The object I was looking at was a small rocket.

“Well?” Ramesh asked. “How do you like it?”

I gave a low whistle. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “That’s really a beautiful model.”

Ramesh looked as if I had just insulted him. “Model!” he exclaimed. “Did you say model?”

I looked at him surprised. “Well, isn’t it? A model, I mean?”

Ramesh drew himself up. “I’ll have you know,” he said haughtily, “that this is a real rocket, and that I made it myself.”

I stared at him. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Does it fly?”

“Fly? Ha!” Ramesh made a sound like that of bull-frog with a sour throat but which I think he meant to be a sarcastic laugh. He picked something up from the ground and showed it to me. It was a box dotted with numerous dials and buttons. “See this? It’s a remote control box. Just by turning a couple of buttons I can make this rocket shoot five miles into the sky!” He gave me a self-satisfied smirk. “And I made it myself.”

I stared at Ramesh, then at the box in his hands and then at the rocket. “All by yourself?” I whispered, impressed.

“Well…er…I did take the help of some do-it-yourself manuals.” He waved airily at a shelf of books. “But only a little help, mind you,” he added hastily.

“Still, it’s very impressive,” I said, awed at the feat. I had always known Ramesh was brainy – everybody knew it. “Have you tested it?”

Ramesh became brisk. “That’s what I called you for,” he said. “I want you to witness the first flight of the rocket. Help me to carry it out into the garden. I’ll launch it there.”

I whirled around to stare at Ramesh. “What, fly it here?” I asked amazed. “What if something goes wrong?”

Ramesh assumed the air of one talking to a backward child. “Nothing can go wrong, my friend. I know. I made it.”

I stared at him, aghast. Till now, my attitude towards the rocket had been, as it were, detached…academic is perhaps the word. But now I suddenly found myself becoming involved in what might turn out to be a dangerous experiment.

“Listen!” I gasped. “I-I,” but Ramesh, I saw, was already straining at the rocket.

“Help me,” he pleaded. I helped him.

After we had carried the rocket out into the garden and set it up on a three-legged metal stand. I made another attempt to make my eccentric friend reason.

“Look, Ramesh,” I told him desperately. “This house is practically next to the market. We’d be in lots of trouble if the rocket crashed there.”

Ramesh tried to reassure me. “But I’m telling you, the rocket won’t crash at all,” he told me confidently. “It’ll simply go up and come down in a straight line. It’s fully remote-controlled.”

I can’t say I was convinced but, as usual, Ramesh had his way.

By now, the rocket had attracted quite a few spectators, who watched us from over the garden wall. They included a handful of street urchins, a postman taking time off from his rounds, a couple of young men with time on their hands and a talkative old man who kept asking when the next game would start.

Ramesh seemed pleased with the audience. After tinkering with the rocket for a while he picked up the remote-control box and stepped back a few feet.

The atmosphere suddenly became electrified – there was a hush and tension, which often comes just before a batsman reaches his century, or when someone is making a run which might alter the fortunes of a game. It affected the spectators and it affected me.

Ramesh raised the box in his hands, turned a couple of knobs and pressed a button.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then, slowly, the rocket began emitting a cloud of smoke from its base. As the smoke became denser, I wondered fearfully whether the contraption was going to blow up in our faces. But the rocket had other plans. It gave itself a shake and then suddenly, with a strong shudder, shot into the air!

The rocket worked!

My joy was short-lived.

A split-second later the rocket made a half-circle in the air, stood poised in a brief instant of indecision, and then started going round in circles, like a dog chasing its tail.

The spectators and I stared at the sight with horrified fascination while Ramesh frantically twiddled the knobs and buttons of the remote control box.

But he twiddled in vain.

About a minute later the rocket, tiring of the game, came out of its circular orbit and suddenly set off in the direction of the market, apparently having decided to go on a voyage of exploration.

For a moment, Ramesh stood frozen. Then, with an agonized cry, as if he were a demented miser who had just seen all his painfully hoarded gold coins suddenly sprout legs and run off, he rushed out of the garden and ran towards the market, still holding the remote control box.

The spectators, delighted at this free entertainment, also made off towards the market, the talkative old man asking when they were going to disqualify the umpire. With a heavy heart, I followed.

The progress of the rocket over the market had understandably caused quite a sensation and a large crowd joined us in our chase. Ramesh had now started shaking the remote control box more and more violently. The rocket continued on its way.

The rocket passed above an old warehouse and, seemingly pleased at the fuss it was causing, started its dog-chasing-tail act again.

By now, a policeman had joined us.

The rocket suddenly stopped going round in circles. It had the satisfied air of one who has done a good day’s work. For an instant, it hung in the air, apparently deciding its next course of action.

We watched it breathlessly.

The rocket came to a decision. It turned slowly in the air – and then suddenly swooped and crashed through the roof of the dilapidated warehouse!


As the crowd gave a roar, the policeman sprang forward. “Stand back!” he shouted. “It might go off!”

Poor Ramesh looked as if he wished he could go off – somewhere far away and never be seen or heard of again…

The big doors of the warehouse crashed open and a man, terror written all over his face, rushed out. The opened doors attracted Ramesh like a bee to honey. A whirring noise, and Ramesh, unmindful of the policeman, had rushed into the building. Everybody followed.

Inside, there was utter chaos. Broken boxes lay scattered all over the floor. They had evidently been knocked down by the rocket and bits of the roof. The rocket itself had broken into pieces.

“Who’s responsible for all this?” demanded the policeman, after taking one look at the place.

Some of our original spectators pointed at Ramesh, now sadly picking up the pieces of his cherished rocket.

The policeman frowned silently. “Hmm,” he muttered, staring at Ramesh. “You’ve a lot of explaining to do. Look at all the damage you’ve caused.” He waved a hand at the broken boxes. “These…” suddenly his voice trailed off. He bent and picked up a couple of booklets from the ground. “Wait a minute!” he exclaimed. “What are these passports doing here? And brand new ones, at that!” Frowning, he examined the contents of some of the broken boxes. When he straightened up, a few minutes later, he was looking very excited. “Forged passports!” he breathed, half to himself. “Boxes and boxes of them!” He scratched his head with his baton. “Of all the lucky breaks…”

It all worked out for the best, of course. It always does. The warehouse into which the rocket had crashed had been the centre of a big forged passports racket. The owner of the warehouse was subsequently arrested and found guilty. In the light of discovery, Ramesh became a hero. The newspapers somehow convinced themselves – and their readers – that Ramesh had deliberately planned the crash to expose the racket. And, not surprisingly, Ramesh never bothered to set them right…

Friday, November 9, 2007

Best wishes on the occasion of Diwali - the Festival of Lights...

Today, India celebrates Diwali - the Festival of Lights...

On this auspicious day, may you be blessed with peace and prosperity...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ramesh And The Great Match

Some play well on field. Some, like Ramesh, play well off it! Now read on...

Mr. Gupta, the Principal of our school, carefully polished his spectacles with a handkerchief, replaced them on the bridge of his nose, and looked owlishly at Ramesh and me.

“Do you want to know why I’ve summoned you both to my office?” he asked politely.

Ramesh and I shuffled our feet uneasily and stared at the floor.

“Or perhaps you do know why I’ve called you?”

Our uneasiness increased. We knew all right.

Mr. Gupta went on, still very politely. “Why were you late for school, yesterday?”

Ramesh, the more courageous one, stuttered an answer. “We—we missed our bus, sir.”

“And why did you miss your bus?” This time, Mr. Gupta’s tone was icy.

We did not answer. Some questions just cannot be answered.

Mr. Gupta spoke, and the temperature in the room fell a further few degrees. “Wasn’t it because you both decided to spend time in Mr. Thakur’s apple garden?”

There was nothing to say. We stood there with our heads bowed and our hearts heavy.

Mr. Gupta leaned back in his chair. He looked like a Roman emperor who had been growing fat on starchy foods, and was now dealing with some upstart rebels.

“Well,” he said thoughtfully, addressing the ceiling. “Since you both decided to take some time off from school yesterday, we must help you put in some more time, mustn’t we?” he asked, not choosing to explain the “we”.

Ramesh and I continued to shuffle our feet uneasily. There was nothing else we could do.

Mr. Gupta’s voice became purposeful. “You will both stay back in school after classes today, and each write one thousand lines on ‘I will never be late for school, again’. Which means, of course, that you will miss seeing the football match against St. Thomas’. As I’ll be going to see that match myself, you will now inform the security guard at the school gates that he is to watch over you.” And with that, he dismissed us.

Ramesh and I left the Principal’s office, shattered. My battered brain could only think of that line of Tennyson, whom we were then studying: “The curse is come upon me.” The Principal’s words had dealt us a great blow indeed. The match between St. Thomas’ school and ours was an annual event and the high-point of the football season.

The silver cup for which it was fought had become one of the most prestigious symbols of inter-school rivalry in our town. To miss seeing that match! The thought was too shocking for words! Nevertheless, the Principal’s order had to be obeyed.

It was while we were searching for the security guard (like all good watchmen, he was not available at the spot he was supposed to be guarding) that Ramesh got this crazy idea. He grabbed my arm excitedly. There was a glint in his spectacles which I did not like.

“Listen!” he exclaimed, breathing quickly. “Why shouldn’t we go to the match after all?”

I patted his shoulder kindly. “There, there,” I said sympathetically. “The shock’s been too much for you.”

Ramesh brushed off my hand irritably. “Don’t be an ass,” he said. “I’m dead serious.”

Warning bells began to ring in my head. “Wha-what do you mean?”

Ramesh, acting like a hero of a C-grade spy movie, looked carefully to his right and left and then lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “What if we don’t tell the security guard to watch over us like the Principal said?” he hissed.

My head, never strong, was beginning to swim. “Are you crazy?” I nearly screamed.

Ramesh became persuasive. He started massaging my arm. “Just think carefully. Nobody except the Principal knows that we’re supposed to stay back after classes. We can easily write the lines at home, after seeing the match. If we hand them over to the Princi the first thing tomorrow morning, nobody will be the wiser. All we’ve got to do is to stay out of sight of the Princi during the match.”

Even I could understand the logic of all this. Ramesh, when he wants to, can be very persuasive. But if the Principal caught us playing truant… But then, on the other hand, I really would like to see the match…

Ramesh saw me wavering and grabbed this chance. “That’s settled then!” he exclaimed heartily, energetically shaking my limp hand. “Ah…there goes the bell for the next class!” With that, he hurried off, leaving me feeling lost.

What had I let myself in for?

Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘it might have been.’ As I followed Ramesh from the bus-stop to St. Thomas’ school, a few blocks away, glancing nervously over my shoulder at frequent intervals and jumping at every small sound, I thought of the mess I was in. But for Ramesh, I might have been, at this very moment, sitting in school peacefully writing out my lines. In fact, but for Ramesh, there might have been no lines to write out at all! For it had been his suggestion to spend some time in Mr. Thankur’s apple garden. And look what it had led to…

Ramesh halted before a small restaurant.

“There’s still some time to go before the match is due to start. Shall we have something to drink before that?” Before I could say anything, Ramesh answered the question himself. “Yes, I think that’ll be a great idea. And for heaven’s sake,” he continued irritably, “stop looking like a dejected tapeworm!”

Speechless at his unfairness, I followed Ramesh into the restaurant.

It was while we were finishing our soft drinks that it happened. I heard the door swing open behind me and somebody enter the restaurant. I heard the restaurant owner hurry forward and say: “Good afternoon, sir. Nice to see you again.”

Then I heard a familiar voice return the greeting: “Good afternoon.”

That was all it said.

It was enough. I nearly choked over my soft drink.

Time sometimes does seem to stand still. It did then. For almost a lifetime I stared at Ramesh horror-stricken. I had the momentary illusion that the management of the restaurant had hit me over the head with a sock full of wet sand. Ramesh’s bespectacled face, too, was a mask of horror. He looked like a bombed area.

I carefully replaced my soft drink bottle on the table and cautiously peered over my shoulder.

Mr. Gupta, our Principal, was quietly sipping a cup of tea at the other end of the room.

Beside him, on the floor, was a large bag which I recognized. It was used for carrying the silver cup which we had won in the football match against St. Thomas’ last year. From the way the bag bulged, I could see that cup was still in it. I straightened my head quickly.

Ramesh came to life.

“Out!” he hissed.

I was slow to the uptake. “Wha-what?”


Ramesh jumped to his feet and, in one swift movement, placed some coins on the table, grabbed my arm, and hauled me out of the restaurant.

I think we made it in three seconds flat.

It took us two seconds more to turn into the nearest alley. We leaned against the wall, panting heavily.

It was some time before I got my breath back, but as soon as I was sufficiently resorted I turned on Ramesh.

“You-you-you-” I gasped.

Ramesh guessed what was coming. He hastened to pacify me. “I know, I know,” he said soothingly. “But how was I to know that the Princi would choose this restaurant to have tea in?” He smiled ruefully.

“Anyway, no harm’s been done. He never saw us. We’ll just wait until he leaves for the school to see the match. Then we can follow him at a distance.” So saying, he carefully peered around the corner of the alley.

After a moment’s hesitation, I, too, peered round the corner.

I was just in time to see the Principal emerge from the restaurant, carrying the bag in one hand. As I watched, a shabbily dressed boy with untidy hair approached Mr. Gupta.

“Sir, could you spare a few coins?” the boy asked in Hindi.

Mr. Gupta looked surprised. After a slight hesitation he said: “O.K. Just wait a moment while I see if I’ve some change.”

Mr. Gupta put the bag down near his feet. He took out his wallet, opened it, and raised his head – just in time to see the boy take off with the bag!
He was heading towards us.

Ramesh and I gave one startled look at each other and then sprang into action. Ramesh fell back a few steps while I shot out my leg.

The boy never knew what hit him.

One moment he was running and the next instant he was not. Contact with my leg sent him sprawling head first on the pavement, the bag flying from his hands. As Ramesh neatly caught the bag, I pounced on the boy. But the would be thief was too nimble for me. Neatly dodging my arms, he gave one startled look in our direction and disappeared up the alley.

Riper years and a chronic stiffness in the joints had prevented Mr. Gupta from chasing the boy with a similar burst of speed. But he had been witness to all the later action. Now, reaching us as we got our breath back, he stared at us in frank amazement.

“What…what…what are you doing here?” he asked.

It was not often that Ramesh found himself in the position of being able to score a debating point against the Principal. It seemed to lend to his manner a strange, quiet dignity. He held out the bag to Mr. Gupta. “The cup, sir,” he said.

Mr. Gupta slowly stared at the bag and then at Ramesh and then at me. For a moment he looked thoughtful. Then a smile spread over his face. “Ah, yes…the cup,” he said.

The smile told us all we wanted to know. Our sins had been forgiven.

Later that day, sitting on each side of Mr. Gupta, Ramesh and I witnessed one of the most magnificent victories that our school has ever won against any football team. Playing superbly, our team trounced St. Thomas’ 7-0 to claim the cup for another year. Some people were later heard to comment on how possessively our Principal held on to the cup during the post-match celebrations. Almost as if he expected somebody to grab it away from him…

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ramesh And The Scoop!

Every good journalist loves a scoop – a dramatic story that only his paper publishes. Ramesh was the new editor of the school magazine. Where was the scoop that could make his first issue exciting?

It all began when Ramesh was appointed the editor of our school magazine. Ramesh is a thin, spectacled boy, my age, my class, and considered the brainiest guy in the school. He is also the most notorious.

One day, at lunch-break, an excited-looking Ramesh bore down on me.

“Listen!” he exclaimed, “I’ve got an idea!” His spectacles glinted dangerously – a glint I had come to recognize, and fear. It always meant that Ramesh had thought of some crazy idea or plan.

I tried to take evasive action. “I’m busy,” I said.

Ramesh ignored the interruption. “I’m going to feature an expose in the first issue of our magazine.”

I was conscious of a feeling, such as comes to all of us at times, of not being equal to the intellectual pressure of the conversation. “A-a what?”

“I’m going to uncover a deep-rooted conspiracy and feature it in the magazine! It’ll be a sensation! It’ll be the biggest scoop of the century!” As you may have noticed, Ramesh, when excited, tends to let his imagination run away with him.

“Er…where do I come in?” I asked nervously.

“You? Why, you’re going to write it!”

“I am?” A happy thought struck me. “But I don’t know of any conspiracy, deep-rooted or otherwise.”

I had spoken too soon. “But I do,” said Ramesh impressively. “And it’s right here, in this school!” Although Ramesh looks more like a scientist, with his tousled hair and spectacles, he is more inclined to criminology. A voracious reader of detective fiction, he has a habit of building up criminal plots where none exist.

I was quick to point this out to him. “You have a habit of building up criminal plots where none exist,” I said accusingly.

Ramesh again ignored the interruption. “I always felt that the new head-gardener was a suspicious character,” he continued. “Now I’ve heard that he’s started staying in the school compound, claiming that his village is too far from the school. But I know better. I think he is planning to loot the Headmaster’s office of all our cups and trophies. And I’ll tell you why I think so.”

Ramesh lowered his voice to a conspirational whisper. “This morning, near the tool-shed, I actually heard the head-gardener tell someone I couldn’t see that he would get the job done by tomorrow.” Ramesh smiled triumphantly and added rather unnecessarily: “So there!” His eyes took on a dreamy expression. “If only we can photograph him in the act!” Here, Ramesh was obviously referring to his new camera-cum-flash-gun presented to him by a generous uncle.

“You’re crazy!” I said. “That ‘job’ which the head-gardener was talking about could be anything! Besides, what do you propose to do?”

“My plan is that we keep a watch on the headmaster’s office tonight,” said Ramesh, and added impressively, “the head-gardener may strike tonight!”

“You’re off your rocker!” I exclaimed. “Don’t count me in on this mad venture.”

Ramesh looked hurt. “Well then,” he said, disappointed, “I’ll have to go alone.”

Alone? My conscience bit me. Ramesh was my friend, after all. Maybe I could stop him from doing anything foolish. “I’ll come,” I said.

Ramesh’s face lit up. “Thanks,” was all he said. But I knew he meant much more, knowing how I hated doing anything dangerous.

Night Hunt

That night found Ramesh and me climbing stealthily over the school wall and then creeping equally stealthily across the school grounds. Clutching his photographic equipment in one hand and a torch in the other, Ramesh led the way to the Headmaster’s study. Feeling slightly foolish, I followed.

The headmaster’s office lay in darkness. Nothing seemed to be happening there.

Ramesh’s forehead creased into a frown. “Perhaps the head-gardener will strike later in the night,” he suggested.

“And do you intend us to hang around here all night, waiting for him?” I asked, as politely as I could.

“Well…no,” answered Ramesh thoughtfully, and then brightened. “Let’s check on what he’s doing,” he said - and without waiting for my reply, he turned and strode off purposefully towards the head-gardener’s quarters.

Muttering darkly to myself, I followed.

The head-gardener’s modest quarters looked dark and deserted in the night. Ramesh and I crept quietly up to the doorway – and for the first time that night I felt a cold hand clutch at my heart. Could Ramesh perhaps be right?

Before I knew what was happening, Ramesh had placed a hand on the doorknob and turned it. The door slid slowly and silently open. With my heart in my mouth, I gazed into the small room, slightly illuminated by the moonlight.

The head-gardener lay on a bed in the opposite corner of the room, gently snoring to himself.

Ramesh quietly shut the door and avoided my eyes.

“You and your deep-rooted conspiracy!” I hissed at him.

Ramesh tried to cool me down on our way back to the wall. “Maybe he’ll try tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe –,” suddenly Ramesh stopped in his tracks and grunted like a stuffed pig. It was as if he had been sauntering down a street and had walked into a lamp-post. “Hey!” he exclaimed, grabbing hold of my arm. “I think I saw a light in the Headmaster’s study window!”

“Oh no! Not again,” I protested. “If you really expect me to believe –,” and then I, too, stopped in my tracks. Even at this distance a faint light could be seen in the Headmaster’s study!

Who could it be?

Ramesh immediately took command. Motioning me to be silent, he led the way quietly to the main school building. I followed him only because I was scared to be left alone. By now I was feeling like a nervous saboteur with a time bomb in his suitcase who’s suddenly discovered his wristwatch had stopped. Ramesh halted only when he had reached the now open window and huddled beneath it. For the first time that night Ramesh was beginning to show signs of strain. “You look first,” he suggested.

I was firm. “No, you first.”

He sighed. “O.K. let’s look together.”

We slowly raised our heads, until our eyes were level with the window sill, and peered into the room.

My eyes boggled.

In the light of a powerful torch placed on the Headmaster’s desk, a tall, dark, man was carefully packing our school’s hard-won cups and trophies into a large sack!

We quietly ducked under the window again. I shivered.

“Shouldn’t we call the police?” I whispered.

“It’ll be too late,” Ramesh whispered back. “Let me, at least, take a photograph of him – then, even if he escapes, the police can easily identify him.”

Before I could say anything, Ramesh, holding his camera in front of him, raised his head again. I quickly followed suit – and banged my head loudly against the window sill, making (or so it seemed to me) a noise loud enough to awake the dead. The pain in my head did not prevent me from seeing the thief (what else could he be?) suddenly whirl around, clutching a knife in his hand.

For a moment, the world stopped. I felt like I was staring at a man-eating tiger from a distance of less than six feet.

Flash of Fear

They say that when you receive a great shock, a part of you dies. Well, a part of me most certainly died that night as I stared at the knife on the thief’s hand. Then, as my heart slowly started beating again, things started happening.

All the while as I had been standing like a zombie, Ramesh had been holding the camera in front of his face – he, too, seemingly frozen with shock. Now with admirable presence of mind he pressed the shutter. The effect was startling.

The brilliant glare of the flashlight in that dark room felt almost like a physical blow, and, as the flash gun was directed at the thief, he got the full brunt of it. The thief reeled back as if he had been slapped; the knife fell from his hand.

“At him!” screamed Ramesh.

Ramesh and I jumped over the window sill and launched ourselves at the thief. Ramesh made a grab for his hands while I dived for his legs. Fortunately for us, as the thief fell to the ground under the weight of our combined attack, he hit his head against the desk and blacked out! The struggle was over.

Front Page Story

Leaving me to watch over the now unconscious thief, Ramesh ran off to wake up the head-gardener. That worthy person responded quickly to the strange situation. Having tightly bound the thief, he summoned the police and the highly bewildered Headmaster. Ramesh and I were, of course, in the limelight – Ramesh managing to neatly evade all uncomfortable questions as to what we were doing in that particular place at that particular time. I, suffering from delayed shock, could only offer a few grunts by way of explanation.

We were, of course, school heroes for quite some time after that but the real triumph for Ramesh was when the first issue of the school magazine under his editorship came out. Prominently displayed on the front page was the dramatic photograph taken by Ramesh on that fateful night, showing the startled thief with the sack of loot in one hand and the knife in the other, standing in the middle of the Headmaster’s study. Nobody could accuse Ramesh of not taking his job seriously!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The most beautiful child - a folktale retold...

Emperor Akbar surveyed his crowded court. “I think,” he announced, “that my Prince Khurram is the most beautiful child in Agra. Don’t you all agree with me?”

The courtiers knew how very fond Akbar was of his grand children. They all cried out together: “You are very right, your Highness! Certainly, your Majesty!”

Birbal, Akbar’s chief Minister, however, remained silent. Akbar looked at him. “Why are you silent, Birbal?” he asked, a puzzled frown creasing his brow. “Do you think differently? Don’t you agree that my grandson is most beautiful?”

Birbal bowed low before his emperor. “You have posed a very difficult question, your Majesty,” he said. “There is no real test for beauty.”

Akbar stared crossly at Birbal: he was not used to being contradicted. “Is that so? All right, then, let us have a contest.” He waved his hand at the courtiers. “Let me see if tomorrow any of you can bring along a child who is more beautiful than my grandson!” And so saying, Akbar majestically rose to his feet and swept out of the hall followed by his attendants.

The courtiers, too, had hurriedly got to their feet and bowed low as Akbar made his exit. After the Emperor had gone, the courtiers straightened themselves and stared at one another. What would the old boy think up next?

Nevertheless, the ‘old boy’ being who he was, his wishes were commands and commands had to be obeyed. Akbar’s courtiers spent the rest of the day frantically searching among families of their friends and relations for good-looking children. As a result, the next day, the moment Akbar graced his court, his eyes encountered a historic sight. In a hall usually filled with middle-aged and elderly men, their features scarred with the lines of experience, Akbar saw a sea of smooth, cherubic faces, and eyes that stared at him wide-eyed and with anything but the respect due to a king. Where Akbar’s entrance usually created a hushed silence, today his ears were bombarded with the sounds of childish voices, some shouting, some crying and some laughing. Yes, following Akbar’s instructions, each of the nobles had brought along a small child to court.

Akbar had not forgotten about the contest he had arranged. He walked among his nobles and inspected each child carefully: “Hmm… That child is too fat. And that one there is too thin. And this child has eyes too far apart.” Finally: “Hmm…no, I still think my Khurram is the most beautiful child in Agra,” he announced. He turned to Birbal. “But why have you not brought a child?”

“Your Majesty, I have found the most beautiful child in Agra,” answered Birbal. “But to see him, I am afraid you will have to disguise yourself and come with me to the child’s house.”

Akbar’s curiosity was thoroughly roused. A child more beautiful than his grandson! Such a child would have to be very good looking indeed! “All right, then,” he told Birbal, “we will dress like ordinary citizens and go to see this child.”

A few hours later, a group of six men slipped out of Akbar’s palace by a side entrance. All six were similarly dressed – in long robes made from some coarse material and high turbans. All had long bushy beards which hid most of their faces. An observant person, however, might have noticed that one figure in the group walked a little more erect than the others, a little more confidently, you might even say a little more ‘royally’. And not surprisingly. For this bearded figure was none other than Emperor Akbar – in different clothes but with the same royal bearing. The figure leading the group was, of course, Birbal.

They walked until finally Akbar began to wonder what he was doing. Birbal had led the group almost to the outskirts of the city and the houses they passed were beginning to look more and more shabby and dirty.

“How much further do we have to go, Birbal?” asked Akbar, complainingly. He was tired.

“Just a little distance more, my lord,” assured Birbal. “Please be patient.”

Finally Birbal came to a halt in a small clearing surrounded by a few ramshackle huts. He pointed to a distant hut, in front of which a small boy was playing.

“There, my lord is the most beautiful child in Agra!” declared Birbal.

Akbar stared at the grimy little boy. “But-but, that is the ugliest child I have ever seen, Birbal! Have you dragged me all this way for a joke?”

Birbal smiled secretly. “I beg of you, your Majesty, please wait for a little while!”

As the men watched, the child got to his feet, a clay doll in his hands. He began to totter towards the hut. Suddenly, the child stumbled – and fell flat on his face! For a few seconds, the child’s face was numb with shock. Then he screwed up his eyes and began to howl.

Immediately a woman rushed out of the hut and ran to the fallen boy. “My poor child!” she cried. “How dare the earth hurt my jewel! We will kiss it all better, pretty one.”

A surprised Akbar turned to Birbal. “How can she love this ugly child?”

The child’s mother heard him. Picking up the boy in her arms and cuddling him, she turned to face the men. “How DARE you!” she cried, livid with anger. “Go and search all of Agra and see if you can find a lovelier child! Now go away, you blind fools, or I’ll give you a proper thrashing!”

Past battles had taught Akbar to know when it was best to retire. Now, after one startled look at the angry woman, Akbar and his companions beat a hasty retreat. As they made their way back to the palace, Akbar said thoughtfully: “I now understand what you mean, Birbal. Every child is the most beautiful in the eyes of its parents…”
“…or its grandparents, your Majesty!” added Birbal with a grin.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

I will return to this blog after five days...

I am leaving for the airport for a five day business trip to Mumbai and Ahmedabad. I will get back to this blog on my return.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

International Non-Violence Day...

Today, the world celebrates International Non-Violence Day, on the occasion of the 138th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

His message: "I cannot teach you violence, as I do not myself believe in it. I can only teach you not to bow your heads before any one even at the cost of your life."

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ramesh And The Costly Mistake (Part 1)

The first thing both Ramesh and I noticed, when we entered the street where Sanjeev lived, was the police-van parked in front of our fat friend’s house.

“I wonder what the matter is?” murmured Ramesh, half to himself, as we stared at the policemen loitering around Sanjeev’s front door.

As we reached the small crowd of curious onlookers standing on the pavement, the front-door swung open and our plump friend rushed out to join us, his school-bag in one hand and a half eaten apple in the other.

“Hi!” exclaimed Sanjeev, as he fell into step beside us. “Something very exciting happened last night!”

“What?” asked Ramesh, casting a backward look at the policemen.

“You’d never guess!” replied Sanjeev, his face flushed with excitement. “It was most extraordinary!”

I scratched my head. “You skipped your dinner?”

“Very funny.” Sanjeev cast a withering look in my direction. “You can save your wisecracks for later. This is very serious.” He bit into his apple in an overwrought manner and continued with his mouth full: “Somebody tried to burgle our house last night!”

Ramesh started like a starving bear that has just smelt honey. “What?” he exclaimed, swinging his head around to stare at Sanjeev. “A burglary?”

“An attempted burglary,” corrected Sanjeev, with the self-satisfied air of a storyteller who has managed to capture the attention of his audience. “We were woken up in the middle of the night by Sheru barking away for all he was worth. When we rushed downstairs to the drawing-room, we found that the French windows at the back had been forced open. Sheru’s barking must have scared away the burglar before he could take anything!”

“Any clues to the burglar’s identity?” asked Ramesh.

“Only two footprints on the flower-bed near the French windows. But the soles of the shoes that made them had been worn smooth. So there are no distinguishing marks.”

“Hmm!” Ramesh frowned thoughtfully. “There must be some more clues!” He assumed his ‘I am more efficient than the police’ look. “I think I should also have a look around the scene of the burglary!”

Sanjeev’s mouth fell open. “But, but the police won’t let you!” he exclaimed.

“Not now,” explained Ramesh patiently. “After school – when the police have gone. Now we’ve got to catch the school bus. And we’ve only one minute to reach the bus-stop. So let’s run!”

After school, we returned to Sanjeev's house. In true Sherlock Holmes style, we began examining THE SCENE OF THE CRIME. From the open doorway, I looked around the large room that served as the drawing-room of Sanjeev’s house. There was the usual sofa set, a television, and a stereo system. There were shelves lined with books, a couple of paintings adorned the walls. And other knick-nacks were strewn about the room. It was around two o’clock in the afternoon and Ramesh and I had thought of nothing else during the first half of the day, while we were attending our classes, except what we might discover when we stopped by at Sanjeev’s house on our way home from school.

Ramesh and Sanjeev walked over to the open French windows. “This is where the burglar tried to get in,” said Sanjeev.

Ramesh gazed down at the floor which was completely bare of any tell-tale signs. “Mmm! Let’s see if we can find any clues outside.” He and Sanjeev walked out through the French windows into the garden.

I wandered about the room, hoping to contribute to the hunt for clues. But the difficulty confronting the novice on these occasions is that it is so hard to tell what is a clue and what is not. Probably, there were clues lying about all over the place, shouting to me to pick them up. But how to recognize them? Sherlock Holmes could extract a clue from a wisp of straw or a flake of cigar-ash. Doctor Watson had to have it taken out for him and dusted and exhibited clearly with a label attached. I was forced reluctantly to conclude that I was more like a Doctor Watson. Giving up, I halted in front of a large gilt framed mirror that had been hung up on the wall opposite the door and straightened my tie.

Ramesh and Sanjeev re-entered the room from the garden. “Stop admiring yourself!” exclaimed Ramesh, seeing me. “From the way you’re staring at the mirror you’d think you were looking at a painting of the Mona Lisa!”

Sanjeev stepped in like a proud householder. “But you must admit that even a painting like the Mona Lisa would look nice inside that gilt frame!” he told Ramesh.

Ramesh looked closely at the mirror. “Perhaps,” he agreed. “When did you get it? I never saw it here before.”

“My mother bought it yesterday along with a couple of other things from the antique dealer’s shop in the old bazaar,” replied Sanjeev. He pointed to a small carved wooden stool with a drawer and the brass flower vase that had been placed on it. “My mother liked these three items and thought their prices were not too high. She…,” he broke off suddenly as the front doorbell rang. “I’ll see who it is,” he said.

Sanjeev stepped through the open doorway, crossed the small hall and swung open the front door.

“Does Mrs. Sharma live here?” I heard a man’s voice ask.

“Yes,” replied Sanjeev. “She’s my mother.”

“I would like to speak to her,” said the man.

“Please come in,” invited Sanjeev. Sanjeev backed away from the front door and I saw a tall, thin, neatly dressed man step into the hall. Sanjeev’s mother came down the stairs.

The man turned to her. “Mrs. Sharma? Pleased to meet you,” he said smoothly. “I represent the antique dealer from whose shop you bought three items yesterday. I will not beat about the bush. The counter-boy sold those items to you by mistake. They were already reserved for another customer. I have been asked to offer to buy them back from you.”

I looked at Ramesh, who had by now joined me at the door of the drawing-room. What a coincidence!

Ramesh And The Costly Mistake (Part 2)

Sanjeev’s mother was taken aback. “But I bought those items in good faith!”

“I know.” The man was sympathetic. “I am very sorry about this. If you want, I can give you exact replicas of those items.”

“I don’t know what to say,” replied Sanjeev’s mother, doubtfully. “I will have to consult my husband.” She paused.

“Yes, yes, please do,” said the man quickly. “I’m sure he will understand our problem.”

“Perhaps. But he will return from office only at six o’clock.”

The man’s face fell. “Oh but this other customer will come to the shop at four! What will we tell him?”

“That is your headache.” Sanjeev’s mother was firm. “I can tell you my decision only after six!”

The man looked stumped. “Very well, then.” He turned quickly and walked out of the house.

Sanjeev shut the door after him and joined us in the drawing-room. “You heard?” he asked. “I didn’t think mother had bought anything extra-special yesterday!”

“Still, there must be something special about these three items,” pointed out Ramesh. “Otherwise, why can’t this man give those replicas he was talking about to that other customer?”

I stared at Ramesh. “That’s right!” I exclaimed. “Why does that other customer want only these particular items?”

Ramesh walked over to the wooden stool and vase and stared down at them. “These don’t look very valuable,” he opined. “The vase is of ordinary brass and the carvings on the stool are not very intricate.” He picked up the vase and peered into it. “Perhaps something’s hidden inside!” He put down the vase. “Nothing here.” He crouched before the stool and drew out the drawer. “Nothing here, either.” He pushed in the drawer and began running his fingers over the carvings on the stool.

I smiled down at Ramesh. “You can’t always expect to discover a secret drawer like you did in that junk shop case!” (Read: "Ramesh and the Secret of the Junk Shop".)

Ramesh frowned thoughtfully. “But there must be some reason why the antique dealer wants these things back so badly!” he exclaimed.

Sanjeev scratched his head. “I wonder who this other customer is?”

Ramesh jumped to his feet excitedly. “Of course! The identity of this other customer might throw some light on the problem! And we can easily find out the identity by keeping a watch on the antique shop and seeing who enters it at four o’clock!” He looked down at his school uniform and grabbed my arm. “Come on! Let’s go home and change into some ordinary clothes first!”

Ramesh And The Costly Mistake (Part 3)

Ramesh gulped down the last dregs of his soft drink, replaced the empty bottle on the table of the dhaba we were sitting in, and gazed out through the doorway at the antique shop across the street, glanced down at his wrist-watch and exclaimed: “Its four thirty and nobody’s turned up yet!”

Sanjeev bit into his fifth samosa. "Let’s sit here a while longer, yaar,” he mumbled through his full mouth. “The customer might turn up yet.”

Ramesh frowned at him. “You seem to think we’re on a picnic!” he exclaimed.

“I’ve got to keep up my strength, yaar!” said Sanjeev defensively. “Detective work can be very tiring. You don’t want me collapsing on you, do you?”

“Certainly not,” I grinned.

Ramesh squirmed restlessly in his seat. “Anyway, I can’t sit here any longer! I think I’ll go and snoop around at the back of the shop.”

“Should I come with you?” I asked.

“No, you stay here and see who goes into that shop,” replied Ramesh. He looked scornfully at Sanjeev. “Our friend here will be too busy eating to notice!” He got to his feet. “I’ll be back soon.”

Ramesh left and I ordered another soft drink for myself. The minutes ticked by. Some of the dhaba’s collection of flies settled on our table and began eying Sanjeev’s samosas in an offensive manner. Nobody entered or left the antique shop. Nor did Ramesh return. I slowly began to get worried. What was keeping Ramesh?

At five o’clock, even Sanjeev began to share my worry. He stopped eating and stared uneasily out of the window. Suddenly, he grabbed my arm.

“Look!” he hissed.

I looked. The street was filing up with evening shoppers. Harrassed householders were haggling over fruit pieces at the stalls to the right of the antique shop. That wasn’t why Sanjeev had grabbed me. A thin man with long hair had halted in front of the antique shop. He carried a bundle under his left arm. After a second’s thought, he entered the shop. He came out a few minutes later, minus the bundle, and walked away.

Sanjeev looked at me. “Was he the customer we were waiting for?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied, with a worried frown. “I wish Ramesh was here. He’d know!”

But Ramesh had not returned.

Ramesh And The Costly Mistake (Part 4)

I glanced at my wrist watch. “It’s five-thirty, now,” I said. “How much longer do we wait?” “I don’t know,” replied Sanjeev miserably. “Do you think anything else will happen now?”

I glanced out of the restaurant window and then stiffened. “I think something’s happening right now!” I hissed. Sanjeev jumped…

A large white car of foreign make had drawn up in front of the antique shop. A blond-haired foreigner got out of the car. He paused only to straighten his clothes and then walked into the antique shop.

Sanjeev and I stared at each other, with obviously the same question on our minds. Was this foreigner that other customer whom we had been watching out for?

We said nothing to each other and continued to stare out of the restaurant window. The minutes ticked away with agonizing slowness. Then, suddenly, the foreigner came storming out of the antique shop, his face red and looking very angry. Slamming the car door behind him with such force that the impact could be heard even inside the restaurant, he drove off.

I drew a deep breath. “Well, what do you make of that!” I exclaimed to Sanjeev. Something funny is going on inside that shop! I hope Ramesh hasn’t got involved.”

Sanjeev looked worried. “What do we do now? We can’t sit here forever.”

“You’re right.” I came to a decision. “I think we should also snoop around the back of that shop. We might find out what’s happened to Ramesh.”

Having paid the bill, Sanjeev and I left the restaurant. Deliberately not looking at the antique shop across the road, we quickly walked down to the end of the street. Then we crossed the road. Once across we rounded the corner and soon stood at the mouth of the dark alley that led to the back of the antique shop.

“I’m scared,” said Sanjeev.

So was I. “Don’t be silly!” I exclaimed, though not very convincingly. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”

Sanjeev grabbed my arm. “Oh, yes, there is!” he hissed. “Somebody’s running towards us!”

Ramesh And The Costly Mistake (Part 5)

He was right. Before I could react, Ramesh came into sight, running quickly down the alley. Ramesh saw us and stopped in his tracks. “What are you doing here?” he whispered.

“Looking for you,” I whispered back, nervously.

Ramesh hurried forward and pushed us out of the alley. “Let’s get away from here!” he said quickly.

We walked to the nearest bus-stand shelter, and sat on a corner of the long bench inside. “Now tell us,” I ordered Ramesh. “Why were you away so long?”

Ramesh’s spectacles began to glint excitedly. “I’ve been snooping about inside that antique shop!” he announced, with the air of a conjuror pulling a rabbit out of his hat. “I spotted a half-open window at the back of the shop and climbed in. Did you see a foreigner enter the shop? You did? Well, I was hiding in the small storeroom next to the showroom and heard everything. He’s the customer who wants those items Sanjeev’s mother bought!”

“Why?” I asked.

Ramesh frowned thoughtfully. “It appears that one of those three items has great value for some reason. This foreigner told the antique dealer that his employer had already incurred great trouble and expense in trying to secure that item. If they didn’t get it back, his employer would be very angry!”

Sanjeev looked bewildered. “But didn’t you say that the items weren’t very valuable?”

“Yes,” agreed Ramesh. “But it seems to me that something valuable must be hidden inside one of these items and it is that valuable something which the foreigner was talking about!”

I was impressed by this logic. However, there was one flaw. “You did check the items, yaar,” I reminded Ramesh. “But you couldn’t find any hidden stuff.”

“I didn’t give them a detailed examination,” said Ramesh defensively. “I’d like to go over those things once more before the antique dealer’s representative pays his second visit to Sanjeev’s house.

I suddenly remembered our deadline. I glanced at my wrist-watch. “We’d better hurry, then!” I exclaimed. “It’s nearly six o’ clock; that chap’ll be reaching Sanjeev’s house any time now!”

Ramesh jumped to his feet. “I’d forgotten!” he exclaimed loudly, startling the other people inside the bus-stand shelter. “We must hurry! Those people are pretty desperate to get back the stuff – they might do anything! Let’s run!

We ran.

There was a small black car parked right in front of the gate of Sanjeev’s house. We came to an abrupt halt some distance away from the house. The antique dealer’s representative was standing on the doorstep and ringing the bell.

“We’re too late!” I gasped.

“Not yet!” panted Ramesh. “We can enter by the back door! Let’s head for the black alley!”

“Here, hold on, yaar!” protested the plump Sanjeev, his chest rising and falling like a troubled ocean. “Let me get my breath back!” He wiped the sweat off his forehead. "I’ve never run so much in my life!”

“You need the exercise,” retorted Ramesh pitilessly.

We were standing at the back door of Sanjeev’s house only half-a-minute later. Ramesh rang the back doorbell – and kept ringing it.

Sanjeev’s mother opened the door. “Oh, it’s you boys,” she said, surprised. “Why didn’t you come by the front door?”

Ramesh did not beat about the bush. “Because we wanted to warn you about the antique dealer’s representative. The antique dealer is involved in some kind of shady business. It’s like this…” And, in a few terse words, Ramesh went on to tell Sanjeev’s mother about the foreigner and his own hunch about a valuable hidden object.

Sanjeev’s mother took the story without batting an eyelid. “I suspected something was wrong,” she said. “This man is a bit too eager to have the goods back. But what do we do now? He’s standing in the hall talking to my husband.”

“Stall him,” Ramesh said simply. “Don’t accept any offer he makes. Let’s first examine the goods.”

Sanjeev’s mother returned to the hall while we boys quickly entered the drawing-room through the door connecting it with the dining –room.

Ramesh headed straight for the wooden stool. He picked up the vase from it and handed it to me. “You check this,” he told me, “while I look over the stool.” He turned to Sanjeev. “You, Sanjeev, run your fingers over the gilt frame of the mirror. You might touch some secret spring that opens out a hidden compartment!” he added hopefully.

Ramesh And The Costly Mistake (Part 6)

We got to work. I peered into the vase and then turned it upside down. There was nothing inside. Sanjeev carefully felt every inch of the gilt frame of the mirror. He discovered no secret mechanism. Ramesh drew out the drawer of the stool, tapped it’s bottom, probed every nook and corner of the stool and carefully ran his fingers over the carvings. But he found no secret compartment and no hidden object.

Ramesh finally gave up and got to his feet, a disgusted look on his face. “Blast!” he exclaimed. “Are we on the wrong track? Perhaps there’s nothing hidden after all!”

“But I can think of no other reason why these items – or one of them – should be so important to those men,” I said.

“Neither can I!” Ramesh collapsed on the nearest sofa. “I –”

He was cut off by Sanjeev who suddenly gave an agonized cry and leaped towards the sofa like one possessed. “Get up.” cried Sanjeev. “Get UP!”

Something in Sanjeev’s voice made Ramesh obey at once. He scrambled to his feet. “What’s the matter?” He asked, bewildered.

As if in answer, Snajeev threw aside the cushion on which Ramesh had been sitting to reveal a wooden board which had been placed beneath it. He lifted the board – and a poster of Daniel Radcliffe (as Harry Potter) came into view!

“It’s a poster of the latest Harry Potter movie!” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” said Sanjeev. He picked up the poster tenderly, as if it were a very fragile piece of chinaware. “I put it under the board to smoothen out the folds.”

Ramesh’s eyes seemd to shoot out suddenly, like those of a snail. “Of course!” he cried, his face flushed with excitement. “How could I have been so blind?” He burst into a sudden flurry of frenzied activity. Rushing across to the mirror, Ramesh took it down from the wall, then laid it face down on a cushioned chair, took out his pen-knife from his trouser pocket – and proceeded, with it’s help, to take the plywood backing off the mirror, taking care not to scratch the gilt. When the back was almost off, Ramesh carefully drew out a painting!

Ramesh And The Costly Mistake (Part 7)


Ramesh stared at the painting for a couple of seconds and then looked up excitedly. “Do you recognize this painting?” he asked. “Why, it’s the Mughal period painting that was stolen from the museum last month! The theft was reported in all the newspapers.”

I pursed my lips into a soundless whistle. “That foreigner must have commissioned the antique dealer to arrange for it to be stolen! And, after the job was done, the painting was hidden behind the mirror! No wonder the foreigner was so angry that the mirror had been sold off!”

Ramesh became brisk. “We must act fast! We’ll let this man in the hall buy back these items. As soon as he goes off with them, we’ll phone the police. Please go and call your father, Sanjeev. And, meanwhile, if you don’t mind, I’d like to borrow something of yours…”

It all worked out as Ramesh planned. While Sanjeev’s mother bargained with the antique dealer’s representative, his father listened to Ramesh’s story and saw the painting. He readily agreed to sell back the goods. As the delighted man walked off with the goods, Sanjeev’s father phoned the police.

An hour later, the police swung into action. They raided the antique shop and arrested the foreigner, the antique dealer and his representative. It later came to light that it had been one of the antique dealer’s henchmen who had broken into Sanjeev’s house in an attempt to take away the mirror. Having failed, they tried to buy it back.

Only one thing more remains to be said about this episode. By a quirk of timing, the police surprised the three crooks at the very moment when they had just removed the plywood backing the mirror. The Inspector who led the raid was thus able to describe to us later the expression on the faces of the crooks as they goggled dumbstruck at the poster of the latest Harry Potter movie, which Ramesh had thoughtfully put beneath the plywood in place of the stolen painting…