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…