Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ramesh and the Landlord’s Secret (Part l)

Part I: Ramesh Disappears!

A poem about the Principal (not very flattering) can lead to trouble. With Ramesh around, solving one problem usually leads to another – and then the adventures start.

I looked around at the circle of eager faces crowding close to my desk in the small classroom, then glanced down at the sheet of paper in my hands, cleared my throat and began reciting:
“To Mr. Gupta, our Principal,
This poem I dedicate,
Whose two hundredth birthday
We’ll probably soon celebrate –”

“Two hundred years?” exclaimed Raghu, the class monitor, interrupting me unceremoniously. “I never thought he was that old!”

I slowly raised my eyes and stared frostily at this critic of my art. “There is, “I declared stonily, “something called ‘poetic license’ which allows a writer to exaggerate a little. Even an ignoramus like you would’ve realized this if you’d waited to hear the next four lines. Or perhaps,” I enquired politely, “you’d rather I did not read out my poem?”

“No, no!” protested Raghu hastily. “I’m sorry I interrupted! Please continue yaar!”

I hesitated a little then, with a shrug, resumed reading.
“While the above-mentioned age
One may easily refute,
That Guptaji is very ancient
Is a fact nobody will dispute!
Although he’s supposed to be
Our Indian History teacher,
On the subject of good behaviour,
He’s an equally good preacher.
His lectures on the latter
Are really such a bore,
But we dare not to tell him so,
For we fear that he’ll be sore.
When he’s angry he resembles
A bull that has seen red,
Or a lion that, for many days,
Has not been fed.
When Guptaji calls for you,
It’s best that you run;
He’s probably the most terrifying person
Since Attila the Hun!
When he --”

But my classmates were not destined to hear the rest of my poem. At this point Deepak, who had been posted at the door as a lookout, announced in a hoarse whisper that sounded more like a bull frog with a sore throat: “He’s coming!”

In less time than it takes to say ‘Watch out!’ everyone was at his place, studiously scanning a book or sharpening a pencil. My poem was quickly thrust between the pages of my exercise book, and I was busy trying to look busy filling ink into my pen. A step was heard outside the door – and a moment later Mr. Gupta, the Principal of our school, entered to take his History class.

With the smoothness and perfect timing that comes only from long practice, we all swept to our feet and chorused in harmony:
“Good morning, Sir!”

“Good morning, good morning,” murmured Mr. Gupta somewhat absently. He mounted the small raised platform in front of the blackboard on leaden feet. Something was worrying our Principal.

As I pointed out in my poem, Mr. Gupta is an elderly man. He is also spectacled, balding and plump. He looks rather like a Roman Emperor with something on his mind. He carefully polished his spectacles with his handkerchief, replaced them and looked owlishly at the class.

“I…er… have an important announcement to make,” he declared in the manner of a prophet of doom. “The new landlord has refused to renew the lease on this building,” he continued. “We will have to seek new premises. A letter is being sent to each of your parents informing them of this.” Mr. Gupta paused as if at a loss for words. It was clear that this news had come to him like a thump on the base of the skull with a sock full of wet sand.

I wasn’t surprised at his feelings. Mr. Gupta had nurtured this school right from its birth, thirty years ago. The Educational Trust which administered the school would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to find another suitable building in the town. Mr. Gupta was thus in danger of seeing his life’s work being demolished in front of his eyes!

I was not the only one who realized this. Mr. Gupta’s words were followed by a tense silence. It was broken by the Principal himself. “Anyway,” he continued quickly, “I will not be able to take this class today. I have to go and attend an urgent meeting of the governing body of the Trust. Just gve me your homework exercise books.”

As Raghu went quickly round the classroom, we handed our History exercise books to him. Without a word, Mr. Gupta accepted the pile of exercise books from Raghu and swept out of the room.

A buzz of excited conversation broke out. “Wow!” exclaimed Deepak, springing up from his chair and coming over to my desk. “Poor Guptaji! Does it mean the school will have to close down?”

“We’ll have to join some other school, then,” declared Deepak, “Which one? St. Thomas’?”

There was an immediate storm of protest. “Never!” shouted Shiv, the star of the school football team, from across the room. “St. Thomas’ School has been our football rival for years and years! I’d never go there!”

“What do you think?” I asked Ramesh, who had also left his desk and come over.

My spectacled friend stared down at me and there was an odd look in his eyes. “Listen, yaar,” he said quietly. “In which exercise book did you hide your poem on Mr. Gupta?”

“My poem?” I asked in a puzzled voice, for I had forgotten about it in the excitement following the Principal’s brief announcement. “Er….let’s see. Oh, yes! I hid it in my History exercise book. Why?”

Ramesh stepped back and pointed his forefinger at me in a dramatic gesture. “And which exercise book of yours did you just hand over to Guptaji?” he asked.

I had sometimes wondered how I would feel if a bomb ever exploded at my feet. I knew now. I shot out of my chair like a rocket. My mouth fell open and I goggled at Ramesh like a dead fish.

“What a mess!” gasped Raghu, aghast at my plight. “When the Princi reads that poem of yours, he’ll blow his top!”

I slumped back in my chair.

“But don’t worry,” reassured Ramesh. “There’s still a way out!”

As a strong swimmer hoots to the surface after a high dive, my soul rose suddenly from the depths to which it had descended. I raised my head and stared at Ramesh. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” said Ramesh, the familiar glint appearing in his spectacles. “You heard the Princi say that he has to attend an urgent meeting now. My guess is that he’ll dump the exercise books he’s just collected in his study and go straight to the staff room or the seminar room or wherever the meeting is being held. Since the Princi’s study is never locked, we can go now and hop in when nobody’s looking, remove your poem from your exercise book, and hop out again! But we’ll have to act fast – before the Princi returns to his study after the meeting is over!

For a moment, the boldness of this plan took my breath away. “What if the Princi catches us?” I exclaimed.

“Am I afraid of the Principal?” cried Ramesh, manfully. “Well, yes, I am!” he added, after a moment’s reflection. “But he won’t catch us if we’re careful! Come on, yaar, don’t be chicken! Think what’s at stake!”

That decided me. Ramesh’s plan did have some chances of success and that was more than enough reason to justify trying it out. Beggars, after all, cannot be choosers. It was of vital importance that Mr. Gupta should not read the poem.

“All right,” I agreed, fighting down my natural fear of Ramesh’s daring escapades. “Let’s go!”

The Principal’s study was on the ground floor and in one corner of the rambling building. It was with…well, not quite an uplifted heart… call it a heart lifted about halfway… that I followed Ramesh there. At a moment when everything had seemed lost and disaster stared me in the face, Ramesh had come up with a plan which, while undoubtedly risky, did carry with it a chance of success. And, the good friend that he was, he had automatically made my problem his own. At the same time, I was fully aware that Ramesh has the general outlook on life of a ticking bomb. In his company you always have the uneasy feeling that something is likely to go off at any moment with a pop.

We reached the small passage leading to Mr. Gupta’s study and found, that by the mercy of the fates, it was empty. “Well,” said Ramesh, “who’ll go in?”

I began to get cold feet. “Er…you’re kind of better at this sort of thing, aren’t you?”

Ramesh grinned at me. “You’ll never change, yaar! All right, I’ll go! You stay as a lookout. Incase anybody comes along, start talking loudly to warn me. I’ll keep as quiet as a mouse until that person goes away! Got it?” I nodded.

Ramesh hurried to the door of the study. He looked furtively around him like the hero of a C-grade spy movie. Then he quickly turned the door knob and stepped into the room, shutting the door after him.

The seconds ticked away with agonizing slowness. Then, just as I began to feel that things were going smoothly, I heard the sound of heavy footsteps approaching. I whirled around to see who this unwelcome intruder was – and then my heart jumped into my mouth and slammed against my teeth! For the person who had suddenly rounded the corner and come into view was none other than Mr. Gupta himself!

Mr. Gupta stopped in his tracks as soon as he saw me. A puzzled frown creased his brow. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Do you want something?”

I swallowed painfully. If he ever got to know what I wanted…

Mr. Gupta took a step forward. “Well? Why don’t you say something? Hurry up!”

I took hold of myself. With a courage born out of desperation, I managed to stammer in a loud voice: “I…er…well…er…actually, sir, I…er…wanted to…er…ask a question in history!

Mr. Gupta was truly amazed. “You want to ask a question?” He gave a pleased smile. “Well, well, wonders will never cease! Certainly, my boy, ask your question! Ask ten questions, if you want!” He glanced at his wristwatch. “The Chairman of the governing body has telephoned to say that he’ll be half-an-hour late. So we can discuss your problem now in my study. Come!”

I felt as if I had been hit in the eye with a wet fish. I reeled. “In the study, sir? But…but…”

But Mr. Guota had already reached the study door. With my heart still in my mouth, I followed. Had Ramesh heard me talking to Mr. Gupta? And had he found a place to hide?

Mr. Gupta swung open the door. I stopped breathing.

Mr. Gupta stepped into the room. I shut my eyes.

“What’s the matter?” I heard Mr. Gupta shout impatiently. “Why aren’t you coming in?”

I stepped into Mr. Gupta’s study and stared wildly around me. Ramesh was nowhere in sight! Hope began to creep back into my heart, much like a puppy that shamefully and quietly returns to his master's house after an unauthorised morning in the forest.

Mr. Gupta sank into the chair behind his desk. “Now ask your question!” he ordered.

I stared at the Principal, my heart sinking. I felt as if I was facing a firing squad. “Uh…it’s about the first battle of Panipat, sir!” I said quickly, on my feet.

“What about it?”

I thought fast. “Er…did Akbar –- ”


“No, no! I meant Humayun!”


I began to perspire. The situation was fast becoming desperate. I tried one last shot in the dark. “Actually, it’s…it’s about Babur!”


“Er…did he -- ” and then I broke off suddenly, my eyes nearly shooting out of their sockets. The cupboard door behind Mr. Gupta’s head had opened slightly and I glimpsed Ramesh peering at me from inside!

“What’s the matter?” asked Mr. Gupta surprised. “What are you staring at?” He began to turn.

Ramesh quickly re-shut the cupboard door. “I wasn’t staring at anything, sir!” I cried desperately. “My-my mind just wandered!”

Mr. Gupta stopped turning his head. Instead, he directed a penetrating stare in my direction. “Your mind seems to be wandering a lot, this morning,” he said, his voice hardening a little. “Will you or will you not ask me your question?”

I gave up. I was unequal to the situation. “I-I’ve f-forgotten my question, sir!” I stammered.

There was the sort of silence which I believe cyclones drop into for a second or two before they break in fury.

“What did you say?” he asked in a dangerous voice.

“I-I’ve forgotten my question, sir!” I repeated miserably.

“Oh?” said Mr. Gupta. He got slowly to his feet. “Is this some sort of a joke?” he thundered. “You have the nerve, the audacity, the outrageous cheek to try to be funny with me! You think I have nothing to do but sit and listen to your babbling! You – what is this?” he asked testily to the peon who had suddenly appeared at the door of the study.

“Excuse me, sir, but the Chairman Saab has arrived,” replied the peon. “He’s in the staff room.”

Mr. Gupta sprang to his feet. “That was very quick of him!” he exclaimed. “The meeting can start now!” He turned to the peon. “Go and tell the Chairman that I am just coming!” he ordered.

“Ji Saab,” said the peon and left. Mr. Gupta turned to me. “I’ll deal with you later,” he said grimly. “Now go back to your class!”

Mr. Gupta picked up some papers from his desk and swept out of the room. I scuttled after him.

Raghu and Deepak had told the rest of the class my plight. Immediately on entering the room I was surrounded by eager classmates wanting to know the outcome of the mission. The ordeal I had just suffered left me feeling as if I had been run over by several motor-lorries and it was some time before I could collect my thoughts sufficiently to tell them what had happened. After I had finished, Raghu uttered a low whistle and exclaimed. “I wonder that your hair hasn’t turned white – after what you’ve been through! So you don’t know whether Ramesh finally managed to remove your poem from your exercise book after all?”

“No,” I replied. “But Ramesh should be back soon. Then we’ll know!”

I was wrong. Ramesh did not return. The break bell rang soon after, and during the interval I searched the entire school building and grounds for him like a madman. But not a sign of him did I find! Ramesh seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth – leaving not a trace behind!

The rest of the day was spent watching some documentary films in the auditorium. I naturally found it difficult to concentrate on the screen. Thankfully, no one noticed that Ramesh was missing. I knew that he had plenty of chances to slip out of the Principal’s study after Mr. Gupta and I had left. Ramesh’s non-appearance was something I just couldn’t explain.

When the last bell rang, Ramesh had still not re-appeared. Sick at heart, I picked up Ramesh’s school-bag along with my own and prepared to leave for home.

I do not know how I managed to reach home without being run over – I was too worried to notice what was happening on the roads.

The first thing I did on returning home was to pick up the telephone receiver and dial Ramesh’s number. No, Ramesh’s mother informed me, Ramesh had not yet returned home from school. Was anything the matter?

“No,” I assured her in a hollow voice. “Nothing’s the matter.” Perplexed more or less sums up the state I was in when I sat down to lunch. My mother’s cooking turned to ashes in my mouth. Just as I was finishing, the telephone rang.

“It’s for you,” my mother told me, holding the receiver in her hand, “Ramesh calling.”

Ramesh? For the second time that day, I shot out of my chair like a rocket. I grabbed the receiver from my startled mother and barked into the mouthpiece: “Where are you speaking from?”

“Home,” replied the familiar voice at the other end of the line. “I just arrived. Have you got my schoolbag?”

“Yes, yes!” I exclaimed impatiently. “But what happened to you? Where did you disappear?”

“It’s a long story,” said Ramesh mysteriously. “Were you worried?”

I uttered a hacking laugh.

“Was I worried, you ask! Why, I searched every drawer and dustbin in the school looking for you!”

“Sorry about that,” murmured Ramesh soothingly. “I couldn’t help it. I’ll tell you all about what happened to me a little later. You know the old abandoned house belonging to the landlord, near the field behind the school? Well, meet me there in an hour. And bring your torch along!”

“But-but --”

“No buts, yaar. Please do as I say! And, I’ve got your poem!”

“My poem?” I had forgotten all about it while worrying over Ramesh’s disappearance! “Yes, of course! Thanks a ton! O.K. I’ll do as you say. But you’d better have a good reason for dragging me there!”

The click of a receiver being replaced was the answer I got.

Next time: What has the abandoned house got to do with Ramesh’s mysterious disappearance from school?

Ramesh and the Landlord’s Secret (Part ll)

Part II: The Secret Tunnel

The school Principal announces in his history class that the school may close down since the landlord won’t extend the lease. A very unflattering poem about the Principal is left in a history exercise book by mistake, and sent along to the Principal’s office inside the book. Ramesh plans a daring rescue, but while he’s in the Principal’s study the Principal returns. Ramesh simply disappears! He doesn’t return to class for the whole day. His friend gets very worried, but then receives a telephone call at home from Ramesh, asking him to come to a certain abandoned house. When his friend asks why, the call is cut off!

The abandoned house belonged to the same landlord who owned our school building – the one who’d refuse to renew the school’s lease. These two buildings and the house in which the landlord now lived had all been built many years ago by the present landlord’s late father. The last landlord had died only a few months back leaving everything to his son. A couple of year’s ago, the roof of this house had collapsed during a big storm, and the house had remained unoccupied ever since.

An hour after my telephone conversation with Ramesh, I reached the broken-down gateway leading to the roofless house. Seeing no sign of Ramesh, I started up the driveway that led to the house. Just as I was a few feet away from the building, one of the ground-floor windows suddenly swung open and Ramesh’s head popped out.

“Hi, yaar!” he cried cheerfully. “What’s the matter with you? Got asthma?”

A sharp grasp had escaped my lips. But I felt perfectly justified in gasping. A weaker boy would have screamed and fainted.

“What do you mean,” I declared hotly, “By behaving like a jack-in-the-box? For a moment, I thought you were the local ghost!”

“I’m sorry, I frightened you,” said Ramesh, looking far from sorry. “I was just checking to see whether things were just as I had left them an hour ago.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of anger.

“Come and see,” invited Ramesh, looking as pleased as a baby with his first rattle.

I climbed through the open window and followed Ramesh as he led me through the dark interior of the house. We reached a staircase but instead of going up Ramesh led e down. The steps ended in front of a stout door which, I presumed, led to the cellars. Ramesh tugged at the door. It opened, squeaking and grating like something in a radio horror programme.

Ramesh put his hand in his pocket and took out a small torch. He switched it on. “Did you bring your torch, like I asked you to?” he asked me.

“Er…no,” I admitted. “I forgot.”

Ramesh made a noise like a buffalo taking its foot out of a swamp. I guessed he meant it to be an expression of disgust.

The light from Ramesh’s torch revealed that we were in a small room cluttered with trunks, crates and large bundles of papers. There was an open doorway in the far wall. Ramesh waved his hand at the contents of the room. “I checked up some of these crates,” he said. “All this is the result of the general cleaning up that took place in the landlord’s residence after his father died and left everything to him. There’s more in the next room.” He started towards the second doorway and I followed.

Just as we reached the doorway, Ramesh’s torch went out. “Oh, heck!” exclaimed Ramesh. “This is the second time it’s happened in fifteen minutes! Some spring must be loose inside!” He started shaking the torch violently.

I took a few steps forward.

“Don’t --,” began Ramesh but that was all I heard. The next instant, I stepped into thin air!

The ground seemed to vanish beneath my very feet! All of a sudden, I found myself falling. My mouth opened to scream but even before I could utter a sound my feet landed on something hard sending a jolt through my body and I crashed forward onto my face!

The fall, though it was all over in a split-second, left me in a world that jumped and swam before my eyes. My chest felt as though somebody had extracted my heart and replaced it with some kind of lively firework. For a few seconds, I lay there, flat on my face, stunned more by the shock than the impact of the fall, trying to get my breath back. Then: “Are-are you all right?” a hesitant voice asked from above.

I slowly turned over and stared up at Ramesh’s head which I saw outlined against a square opening a little above where I lay. “No,” I replied with conviction. “I am not!”

“I-I’m sorry, yaar!” pleaded Ramesh. “For a moment I forgot that you didn’t know!”

“Know what?” I asked testily, for I was very angry. “Isn’t it time you told me what’s going on?”

“Yes,” agreed Ramesh. He jumped down through the opening and helped me to my feet. Once standing, I saw that the opening was only a foot or so above my head. Ramesh pointed to the opening with his thumb. “You fell through the mouth of a trapdoor.”

“A trapdoor?”

“Yes. I-I left it open when I went to fetch you from upstairs. The lid’s rather heavy.”

“Hm! But how did you find it?”

“Let’s start walking, yaar! I’ll tell you as we go along!”

We began walking down the passage, Ramesh’s torch lighting the way. “A little later,” began Ramesh, “this passage will branch into two more passages one leading to the left and the other to the right, each at right angles to this one. In fact, you can even say that this passage opens out into another passage running perpendicular to it. The passage on the left leads to the cupboard I was hiding in!”

My mouth fell open. “The cupboard you were hiding in!”

“Yes. In the Principal’s study.”

“In the Principal’s study!”

Ramesh frowned irritably. “Don’t repeat everything like an echo in the Himalayan mountains!” he exclaimed, returning to his old self. “It’s like this: I found the pile of exercise books which Guptaji had taken from our class, and I’d just picked up yours when I heard you talking loudly to our Princi himself! I quickly took out the sheet on which you’d written your poem and nipped into the cupboard!”

I am always ready to give credit where credit is due. “That was quick thinking! I’d have probably fainted!”

“No doubt,” conceded Ramesh. “But you nearly gave the game away when I peered out of the cupboard and you goggled at me like a startled snail! I thought that Guptaji was about to open the cupboard door so I stepped back, tripped over something and fell against the back of the cupboard. I heard a small click and a portion of the wall slid open behind me!”

I stopped in my tracks. “Wow!”

“I felt like wowing myself then,” continued Ramesh. “Naturally, I just had to find out where the opening led to! I climbed down some steps which I found leading from the opening and then saw that I was in a passage. A little later, I came to another passage branching off to the right which I followed. This is that passage!”

I frowned thoughtfully. “So now you know of two entrances to this underground passageway.”

“That’s right!” agreed Ramesh. “One in the Princi’s study and the other in the cellar of the abandoned house.”

“That means that there must be, at least, a third opening! I said, making a brilliant deduction.

Ramesh seemed to blossom like new-born lotus. “Ah!” he exclaimed delightedly. “Now you’ve put your finger on the spot, hit the nail on the head, gone to the heart of the matter! It also struck me that there should be at least a third opening and I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about it. You know, of course, that the school building, the abandoned house and the landlord’s present residence were all built together by his late father years ago?”

I nodded. “And so what?”

“Well, the father probably decided to join all the three buildings by a secret passageway!”

I began to see light. “Then the third entrance must be in the landlord’s house!”

“Exactly!” Ramesh suddenly motioned me to a halt. I saw that we had reached the T-junction of our passage and one running perpendicular to it. Ramesh jerked his thumb to the left. “That’s the way to the Princi’s study!” he announced.

I pointed to the right. “And that leads to the landlord’s house?”

Ramesh shone his torch into the passage on the right. “That’s what we’re going to find out!”

I stared at my unpredictable friend. “What – what do you mean?”

“We’ve only guessed where that passage leads to. We don’t know for sure,” Ramesh pointed out. Besides, there may be other branches leading elsewhere! We were lucky to stumble on to this passage. It’ll be a crime to leave it unexplored!”

I began to protest. “But-but --” But Ramesh, I saw, had already started to walk down the right-hand passage. On his face was a keen, tense hunter’s look.

I quickly debated with myself. Could I let Ramesh go on alone? Of course I couldn’t! Ramesh had, after all, risked his life and limb to make sure that my poem did not fall into Mr. Gupta’s hands. It was my duty to stand at his side now, in anything he did. Besides, I was rather curious. A secret passage is, after all, a secret passage. I followed Ramesh.

We walked in silence for quite some time. Then, suddenly, Ramesh’s torch shone on a heap of rubble. Ramesh came to an abrupt halt and I was forced to do likewise.

At first, I thought that the passage had fallen in. But, on closer inspection, I discovered that the pile consisted of broken bricks, though painted the color of rock, whereas the passage actually was solid rock.

Ramesh inspected the pile. “Somebody had walled up the passage here!” he announced, and he continued unnecessarily: “The wall has now collapsed.” He began to carefully pick his way over the rubble. Sighing to myself, I prepared to climb over behind him.

Once safely over the pile of rubble, we continued to walk in silence with Ramesh leading the way. Then, all of a sudden, Ramesh switched off his torch and braked to a halt, making me collide with him.

“What the --,” I began.

“Shh!” whispered Ramesh, grabbing my arm. “Look!”

I looked. In the distance I could see a gleam of light!

Still holding my arm and without switching on his torch again, Ramesh started walking forward. Terrified at the thought of being left alone in the dark, I let Ramesh drag me along with him.

As we approached the gleam of light, it grew larger and larger and soon assumed a square shape. It became clear that we were seeing the light through the mouth of the passage.

Ramesh halted again. “The light’s too strong to be coming from a torch,” he whispered to me. “It must be coming from an electric light bulb.”

For some time, I had been feverishly considering the possibility that the source of light might be a ghost.

“Listen, Ramesh,” I whispered back. “Let’s not go any further. We may be trespassing.”

Ramesh seemed genuinely shocked. “After coming all this way, we can’t go back without seeing what’s going on!” he exclaimed in a tense whisper, as if he couldn’t believe his ears. “Don’t be funny, yaar!” And so saying, he set off again. The light seemed to attract him like steel to a magnet.

Muttering dark things under my breath, I followed my friend.

As we approached the mouth of the passage, we began to hear some curious sounds. Together with a murmur of voices, we heard a strange gurgling. There were other sounds, too – fizzing, popping and clinking. And yes, there were fumes. The fumes, which had begun to tickle our noses, by now were rather pungent and sweet-smelling -- a bit like the fumes given off by the acids which we heated in the chemistry laboratory at school.

When we were only a few feet away from the mouth of the passage, Ramesh halted and signalled me to do the same. Then, he pressed himself against one wall and began to edge quietly towards the mouth. I pressed myself against the other wall and also begn to edge ahead.

We reached the mouth of the passage together and peered out.

A startling sight met our eyes.

The passage opened out into a huge wall hewn out of the rock. On the far wall of the hall was another opening through which the passage continued. Immediately in front of us was a single row of drums stretching away on either side of us and arranged a few feet away from the wall. Beyond the drums were stacked, against both the right and left wall, crates and crates of bottles filled with a yellow-coloured liquid.

In the middle of the hall were five big cauldrons, beneath each of which was a small pit filled with glowing coals. On the ground beside each cauldron were a large number of big glass jars containing a clear, colourless liquid. Around each cauldron stood three or four men. Some of the men were holding jars in their hands and pouring out the colourless liquid into the cauldrons. The others were stirring the mixture in the cauldrons with big wooden spoons. Near the opening in the far wall, there was what looked like a small, make-shift laboratory. The whole hall was brilliantly lit by four or five powerful bulbs suspended from the ceiling.

As we looked, three men entered the hall from the other opening. The first of these, a short, thick-set, muscular individual wearing a kurta and trousers, seemed to carry an air of authority with him. As he approached the cauldrons, the men around them stepped back respectfully. The man in the kurta peered at the contents of all the cauldrons and then nodded his head in a satisfied manner. As I recognized him, my eyes widened. The man in the kurta was none other than the school’s landlord!

Next time: The boys have stumbled upon a dangerous secret. What is the landlord upto?

Ramesh and the Landlord’s Secret (Part III)

Part III: Discovery!

Ramesh and his friend are stunned to hear that their school may close because the landlord won’t renew the lease. In the course of retrieving an unflattering poem about the Principal from his study, Ramesh stumbles upon a secret passage which links the school to an abandoned house, and another tunnel. The boys explore and find a secret underground cellar, full of bubbling cauldrons and bottles and men working. It is clearly an illicit liquor factory! As they watch, a man walks in. He talks to the men and is obviously the boss. It is the school’s landlord!

For a few minutes, the landlord addressed the men, who stood in a circle around him, listening. Then he left the hall through the opening by which he had come, followed by the two men who had come with him.

“Psst!” I quickly turned my head and saw that Ramesh was signalling me to follow him back up the passage.

When we were about twenty or twenty-five feet away from the mouth of the passage, Ramesh stopped. “Now we won’t be overheard!” he breathed.

“What’s going on in there?” I asked.

Ramesh looked surprised. “You mean, you haven’t guessed? Why, it’s an illicit liquor factory!”

I stared at him. “What?”

“Yes. The fumes smell of methyl alcohol – which is what illicit liquor-makers mix in the liquors they brew! Remember the newspaper reports about how illicit liquor has suddenly started appearing in this district? Well, I guess, this is the place where it’s made!”

I was amazed. “But –but that means the local landlord is behind the illicit liquor!”

“Yes,” agreed Ramesh grimly. “He must have started this racket just after his father died and he inherited everything – including this underground hall. The third entrance we were talking about must in the landlord’s residence!” Ramesh’s eyes widened suddenly. He looked as if he had just been struck by a thunderbolt. “Of course!” he exclaimed “Perhaps that’s why the landlord refused to renew the lease on the school building! He didn’t want anybody stumbling on the secret entrance leading to this hall and thus discovering his secret factory!” Ramesh grinned happily. “And that’s just what I’ve gone and done!”
I was impressed by this reasoning “Perhaps you’re right,” I conceded. “Then let’s go and report to the police!”

Ramesh became thoughtful. “Of course!” He scratched his chin. “But the landlord is an important man. When you’re my age –”.

“I am your age.”

“So you are! I forgot that. Well, anyway, since you’re my age, you should know by now that you can’t go around accusing important people of being hooch kings without having some evidence to back up your story. Let’s see now…yes…if we could take a bottle of this illicit liquor, the police would naturally want to know where we got it from. That would make them listen!”

Warning bells began to ring in my head. “Are you crazy!” I exclaimed. “Imagine the risk involved!” Ramesh’s spectacles began to glint excitedly. “There shouldn’t be much risk involved if we do everything properly. Did you see those crates containing bottles of yellow liquid? Well, that must be the illicit liquor! All we’ve got to do is crawl behind the drums until we come to the first crate, pick up a bottle and then crawl back behind the drums. Why, compared to this morning’s ordeal in the Princi’s study, it’ll be child’s play!”

Even I had to agree with this. Ramesh began to creep back to the mouth of the passage. With my heart in my mouth I followed him.

When we were about five feet away from the mouth of the passage, Ramesh fell on his knees and began to crawl like a baby. Without saying anything I did likewise.

On reaching the mouth we paused for a few tense seconds and tensed our muscles. Ramesh turned to look at me and nodded. Like two snails in a hurry we quickly crawled across the couple of feet separating the row of drums from the mouth of the passage. Nobody shouted. We had not been spotted!

Ramesh began to crawl to the other end of the row of drums.

I followed my reckless friend feeling, as all of us do at one point or the other, that I wanted to be somewhere else.

Ramesh, however, did not seem to share my feeling. He continued to crawl single-mindedly and, half a minute later, had reached the last drum. He peered round the corner and gave a self-satisfied smile. Immediately in front of the drums was the first stack of a long row of crates containing bottles of yellow-coloured liquid! For the first time in many minutes I began to breathe freely. Perhaps we might get away with it after all!

Ramesh quickly thrust his unlit torch into my hands. Then, he carefully rose to his feet and began to stretch his arm over the last drum in order to pick up a bottle form the top-most crate of the stack in front of us. Suddenly, his mouth fell open and he quickly dropped to the ground.

Puzzled by my friend’s behaviour, I peered through the drums and then my heart seemed to leap straight up into the air twiddling its feet, like a Russian dancer! A man had detached himself from the group around the nearest cauldron and was coming in our direction!

Did he suspect our presence?

I stared at the approaching man as if hypnotized. Nature, stretching this illicit liquor-maker out, had forgotten to stretch him sideways. On top of the straight-line body was a thin, ratlike face, with a long nose, long hair, and small eyes.

As this tall man neared the drums behind which Ramesh and I crouched, I stopped breathing. As I watched, the man came to a halt. He glanced casually about him and then turned and leaned against a stack of crates about fifteen feet or so away. He fumbled about in his trouser pocket and then drew out a packet of beedies.

I released my breath with a hiss and ceased to tremble like a malaria-patient. This man was only taking a break! He did not suspect our presence!

Ramesh, too, seemed to realise this, for he suddenly revived like a watered flower. The crate of bottles no longer looked too far. Ramesh once again slowly got to his feet and began to stretch his hand over the top of the drum. I stared breathlessly at the tall man. He had not noticed anything. Ramesh very carefully picked up a bottle by its neck from the top-most crate and began to withdraw his hand, holding tightly to his prize.

Then disaster struck.

The torch, which had already given us trouble, chose that moment to demonstrate again that something was wrong with it. I had just raised the hand holding it to scratch my chin when, all by itself, the torch suddenly switched on its light. The beam of light passed clear between the gap I was peering through and hit the tall man’s left eye! The man jumped as if he had been hit by a water-balloon. He swung around just in time to see Ramesh standing behind the last drum and holding a bottle of illicit-liquor. The man stopped chewing his beedi.

He lowered his eyes – and saw me staring in horror at him from between the drums.

The beedi fell from his mouth. Time sometimes does seem to stand still. It did then. For perhaps half a second nobody moved. Then, the tall man began to open his mouth. As if that was a signal, Ramesh and I came to life together. There was only one thing to do.

We ran.

As we raced down the row of drums, the hall erupted to the sound of shouting voices. Feet began to pound after us. We turned into the passage and began to race down it, feeling like a couple of rabbits with a whole platoon of dogs on their track. Ramesh was holding tightly to the bottle we had risked so much to obtain.

I scarcely noticed when we flew over the pile of rubble, careless of the danger of falling and breaking our necks.

We reached the fork in the passage. Ramesh, without pausing, grabbed my arm and dragged me into the passage on the left.

“The Princi’s study’ll be locked at this hour!” he gasped, his chest rising and falling like a troubled ocean. “Our only chance of escape is through the abandoned house!”

We ran. Suddenly, we no longer heard the sound of pounding feet behind us.

Ramesh slowed down a little and grinned triumphantly. “They ran on straight!” he exclaimed. “They must think we came from the school entrance!”

I said nothing. I had no breath left to talk. Besides, we had reached the mouth of the trapdoor.

Ramesh quickly swung himself through the opening overhead with an agility even Tarzan might have envied. I followed more clumsily but just as fast.

Once safely inside the cellar of the abandoned house, Ramesh quickly slammed down the wooden lid of the trapdoor. Then he ran to the nearest trunk and began to drag it onto the trapdoor. As he did so, a small box that had been lying on top of the trunk, fell to the ground and broke open. An envelope fell out.

Satisfied that nobody could now open the trapdoor from below, I crossed over to the door of the cellar. Seeing that Ramesh had not followed me, I turned around. Ramesh had picked up the envelope and was staring at it curiously.

“What’s wrong with you?” I exclaimed. “Come along!”

Ramesh thrust the envelope into his trouser pocket and joined me.

We ran all the way to the police-station.

The inspector knew Ramesh and me. We had helped him catch crooks before. But even he was sceptical at first when he heard our story. However, when we placed the bottle of illicit-liquor on his desk then, as Ramesh had predicted, he sat up and took notice. A police-party was immediately dispatched to the abandoned house. Another jeep-load of policemen was sent to the landlord’s residence. Meanwhile, at Ramesh’s insistence, the Inspector telephoned Mr. Gupta.

He gave our principal a summary of our story and asked him to come to the police-station.

The police-party sent to the abandoned house radioed back confirming our discovery. The Inspector asked us to wait and himself left for the abandoned house with another jeep-load of policemen.

While we waited, Ramesh took out the envelope he had thrust into his trouser pocket and tore it open. There was only a single sheet of paper inside. As he read Ramesh’s eyes suddenly lighted up as if a lamp had just been switched on in his head.

“Would you believe it __,” he began and then broke off as Mr. Gupta burst into the police station.

Mr. Gupta had been in the middle of another meeting of the governing body of the Educational trust that ran our school, discussing the disaster that had overtaken the institution, when the Inspector’s telephone call had arrived. His eyes were a little weary. He hurried over to Ramesh and me, his face creased with lines of worry.

“What have you two got yourselves involved in, now?” he exclaimed.

Ramesh jumped to his feet and thrust the paper he was holding into Mr. Gupta’s surprised hands. “Read this, sir!” he said.

Something in Ramesh’s tone made our Principal obey. He glanced down at the paper and began reading. As he did so, a strange look appeared on his face.

Mr. Gupta finished reading and looked up. His mouth opened. He made a remark we couldn’t hear.

“I beg your pardon, sir?” asked Ramesh.

“I said ‘Thank you, my boy’,” said Mr. Gupta, “You’ve saved the school!”

I swung my head around and stared at Ramesh. “What-what—”

Ramesh grinned happily. He pointed to the paper in Mr. Gupta’s hands. “That’s the old landlord’s will!” he explained. “He’s left the school building to the Trust!”

The landlord and his henchmen had had no time to escape and were caught redhanded by the police. We found out later that the landlord had not known of the other two entrances to the underground passage-way when he started his illicit liquor factory just after his father died. He had used only the entrance from his house. His father had walled up the passage when he first leased out the school building to the Educational Trust and rented out the second house. It was only when the wall, painted the colour if the surrounding rock, collapsed, that the present landlord had realized that his racket might one day be discovered by accident. That was why he had refused to renew the school’s lease.

The will, it soon came out, had been deliberately hidden by the old landlord, who had doubted his son’s honesty. Wanting the good work of the school to continue, the late landlord, in his will, had granted absolute ownership of the school building to the Trust. Thus, the school would not have to close down, after all! Mr. Gupta was so pleased that he never asked what Ramesh was doing in his cupboard in the first place!