THE ARRANGEMENTS is an intricate and subtle exploration
of love. A quirky and oddball novel reveals a tender
and moving story of characters all looking for something
- and hidden under these individual stories is the search
for love, in its many guises.
The novel is set in Chennai.
I do love America.
You know that as well. When I fell in love with your
father and stepped foot on American soil, I was doubly
enchanted with love. No woman could have been as fortunate
as I was. I also love it that everyone calls me ‘Susie’,
not ‘Sue-shee-maa’, as I was always once
called. ‘Susie’ is so much more me. America
absolves our original identities. Mohan becomes ‘Mike’,
Ashok becomes ‘Ash’, Bharati ‘Barbra’.
We’re freed from the albatross of our past. It’s
because I’m an American that I don’t wear
ethnic clothes, as you want me to. Yes, yes, I see those
exotic Indian women hurrying along the streets in their
sarees but that’s not me any more. I don’t
know why I can’t make you understand that. I’m
not ethnic, as you like to keep saying, I’m an
American. I prefer wearing Donna Karan or even jeans
than a saree. It type casts me, the saree I mean, while
even a pair of jeans lends me an air of mystery and
people have to ask where I’m from and I tell them
‘why, New York, of course’, and that always
shuts them up.
why I’m telling you darling you won’t like
at all. Not one bit. You’ll hate it, I’m
warning you. Why? Because you’re an American,
like me, and you’re always so fastidious and India
is certainly not that, not in the least. It can be a
very deceitful place, and most confusing too. You have
absolutely no idea how miserably hot it can get there.
You won’t just be blackened, you’ll be burned
to a crisp. Yes, like the burnt offerings I sometimes
make for your dinner, if you have to joke about my opinions.
I’m only telling you this for your own sake. If
you love me, and you do, don’t you? you won’t
even think such thoughts. Put them out of your mind,
for my sake darling. There’s nothing there for
just don’t know where you got your persistence?
Certainly, not from me. I was never persistent; I’ve
always been carried along by the currents of my destiny.
I know I used to call it karma when you were younger
but now everyone’s using that word- it’s
become fashionable in New York,
like yoga and gurus- so I prefer destiny. There’s
little I can tell you. It’s so many, many years
since I left that I can’t remember much about
that city, so how do you expect me to remember any details?
It had wide streets and narrow streets. No, certainly
not anything as organised as Manhattan.
They ran higgledy-piggledy. Stop laughing, isn’t
that an American expression? I’m sure it is. Then
what would you call something disorganised? ‘Outasight’?
Are you sure? It means something unpleasant? I must
write that down immediately. Well, the city’s
outasight then, nothing running in a straight line in
any direction. No, that’s a lie. In the area where
I was born and grew up in the streets ran in straight
lines, east-west, north-south. Oh, alright, if you insist,
but that was only a tiny part of the city. It was called
after one British King or another, I can never remember
the numbers after their names. I prefer the American
way, George Junior. And the streets were always so crowded
with everything that you had to edge down them sideways
as there was never enough room to walk properly. I think
that’s where I learned to dance so well, hopping
over excrement, dodging cows and rickshaws, gliding
past carts, jumping heaps of garbage. Yes, I did learn
some history when I was in school. It was lust that
had conceived Madras,
so now you know how that city was born. An East India
Company employee, Francis Day, a scoundrel from all
accounts, was having an affair with a Portuguese woman
in San Thome colony. For his own convenience, he decided
this spot on the Coromandel shore was ideal for his
company’s trading post, and so the city was begot
through the loins of a foreign man and a foreign woman.
Yes, well that’s about all I can remember because
I was so embarrassed when I learnt how it all came about.
doesn’t say anything about your going to India
in your horoscope. One minute, I’ll get it and
read it out and see if you find one line which says
you’ll be going there. I know I’ve read
it out to you before but you always stop up your ears.
There’s nothing Indian about believing in horoscopes,
so don’t lay that trip on me. Even here there
are tarot card readers, horoscope casters, coffee grind
readers, tea leave readers, so India
doesn’t have a monopoly on such a science. Nearly
all my friends read their horoscopes in the magazines
and the newspapers, so you can’t say they’re
all Indian. Can you? I do believe in pre-destination
and that our life is written on our foreheads and in
the stars. That’s why I was watching the clock
in the delivery room of the hospital so I would know
the exact time you were born. Yes, don’t keep
laughing, down to the second. Now you’re making
fun of me. How can anyone tell the future from someone’s
garbage? Garbage is yesterday and it only records that
person’s past, especially what he’s eaten
and drunk. See, I had your horoscope cast when a prohit
was visiting the Queen’s temple two months after
you were born. I used to read it to you when you were
baby so that it would subconsciously inspire you to
greatness. I hoped the predictions of success and good
fortune in your horoscope, would guide your footsteps
through life, and you would sidestep the mines of misfortune.
The prohit predicted all that, if only you’d sit
down and listen to it or else read it, if only for my
sake. It will inspire you. Well, I went to the prohit
only because I heard he was very good. I could have
gone to Simon Lucas, who also casts horoscopes and reads
palms, on Bleecker Street,
but I believe he’s a bit of a fake. Besides, it’s
the angle of the moon that’s important.
many names merely reveal the ambiguous nature of my
soul. I am neither one – the Nick/Nicky- nor the
other, I hover in between uncertain of who I am. Gabriel
Garcia Marquez wrote that he always chose the name of
his character according to the nature of the person.
What would he make of me and my nature? Schizophrenic?
Not that I am one, I mean. My mom drives me nuts. I
love her but she still drives me nuts. All mothers drive
their kid’s nuts at some stage in their lives.
All my pals in school thought the same as I did about
their moms. Our fathers didn’t drive us nuts,
mostly because we never saw them long enough. Mornings,
evenings and little league was the most we saw of them.
I should be thankful for that. The other way my mom
drives me nuts is that she refuses to acknowledge her
past. It doesn’t exist for her. It’s vanished
into the ether. Like, she will never wear a saree. I’d
love to see her in one, she’d look real cool.
When I see the Indian women on the streets in their
sarees I always turn to look, imagining my mom in one.
When I was eight or nine, I caught the Lex subway south
to twenty third street.
Around there, for a few blocks east and west of twenty
third, it’s ethnic Indian. There were cafeteria
type places where you could get all kinds of curries
and Indian candies. We never ate Indian food at home
as my mom said it would smell out the apartment. I wandered
around for an hour – into Prasad’s eat-and-takeaway
which also sold candies of many colors, Govind’s
groceries, which like the Uptown Korean all-night stores
sold fresh vegetables but also the air was musty with
cardamom, pepper, cloves, ginger, garlic and pickles
which tickled my nostrils and made me dream that this
was how India smelt in the streets and in the villages,
and finally into Lalchand’s saree emporium. In
each store they spoke a soothing musical language and
gave me different answers to my questions in amused
puzzlement – Gujerati, Maharathi, Punjabi, Tamil,
Bengali, they said contradicting each other. My billfold
was bulging with cash, all of eight dollars of saved
pocket money. I was going to buy her a saree and I had
spent weeks weighing up the saree against Nintendo games,
CDs, software I could do with but my yearning for her
outweighed my own selfish needs. In Lalchand’s
saree emporium I found a pale, seductive yellow saree,
my mom’s favorite color, patterned with green
silk mangoes and bordered green and gold. It cost me
eighty dollars, all my saved allowance, as I didn’t
want to seem a cheapskate for my mom’s present.
I gift wrapped it and presented it to her on her birthday.
She had blushed and gushed and enveloped me in warm
smothering kisses. She splashed it out across her bed
and the dull pastel shaded bedroom shrank away from
such bold colors, and we both agreed she’d look
wonderful in it. My mom was so exotically beautiful
that no one would mistake her for an Anglo-Saxon. Her
eyes were mesmeric as Saturn’s rings and cut men
off at their knees. I waited to see her in my gift but,
as the days and months passed, I realised I never would.
It remained gift wrapped in her closet. It was only
years later that I discovered she did own a saree, hidden
away in old suitcase.
man my mom calls my father isn’t really my father.
He’s my stepfather. Gary, a tall glossy man, snipped
out of a Vogue advertisement, has a nose for sin, especially
the sin of a narcotic possession. His pulpit was the
television screen where, as an interlocutor of some
reputation, he railed against drug abuse, among many
other things, with the same zeal as 19th century preachers
had against masturbation. I never watched his television
show and never called him ‘dad’, ‘pop’,
‘father’, always Gary.
He always confirmed her tale on how they had met in
embellished it with a sun setting in the background,
lighting up her face with an angel’s glow, the
color of her saree, the flowers in her hair. He probably
remembered the color of her toe nails too but I never
asked. My father died in a car smash, my mother told
me when I was old enough to notice the difference between
her and the man she married. He was driving to Bangalore
when a truck hit him head on, wiping him off the earth.
Period. I missed him although we had never ever met.
I don’t even know what he looked like. Somewhere
and the upper eastside, their upwardly mobile trajectory,
she had lost a whole album of photographs of back home.
Her physical description of him was vague – tall,
a full head of hair and ferocious eyes- was the best
she could do for me. And no, she hadn’t fallen
in love with him, as it had been an arranged marriage
and there hadn’t been any time for love to blossom
between them. ‘Blossom’ was her vocabulary,
not mine. The moment he died she took off for America
like a bat out of hell. I wish she had stayed there.
So instead of living in that funky Georgetown
place where you moved sideways through the streets,
and learned to dance, I was raised on the Upper
East Side in a pure white ghetto of a co-op
on 73rd street
between Lex and Park. I felt like a cockroach that had
fallen into a milk carton. In the elevator, surrounded
by the perfumed women-and if that isn’t air pollution
tell me what is- in their Donna Karans, Guccis, Armanis-
would peer down at me with my school backpack and wonder
what the super’s child was doing riding in their
elevator. Sometimes I would say ‘Buenos Dias,
senora y senoritas’ and jabber away in Spanish
although I didn’t know a fucking word. They would
give me space then so I wouldn’t contaminate the
air they breathed. The men all wore dark suits in the
fall and winter, off whites during summers would not
even notice me among the forest of briefcases. In the
summers the Hampton’s
plague hit the building from the first floor up to the
Penthouse where the Lunds lived in their eighteen room
Penthouse which I had visited only once and was the
equivalent of heaven for every aspirant in the co-op.
My best friend in school, Mike Holding, was the first
to lose his cherry to sixteen-year-old Linda Lund, a
true, beautiful American princess with long blonde hair
and innocent blue eyes, when he grabbed her expensive
ass in the elevator one day. Mike was built along Nordic
lines – tall, blond and a wide grin- told me it
was like sinking his dick into an oil well and we both
understood what he meant as the Lunds had a whole bunch
of stock – a billion dollars I heard- in Texaco,
Gulf Oil, Exxon, Hess. The next day, with Mike’s
tuition, I timed my grab too and Linda obligingly led
me up to the penthouse, through the expensive maze of
rooms and corridors and took my cherry in a bedroom
out of a south facing window on the thirtieth floor
on a clear winter’s day. We lived on the third
floor, burrowing our way like moles through perpetual
ConEd light. I was the first, and probably the last,
dark skinned person Linda laid, more as an experiment
than out of sexual pleasure. Thankfully, as Gary
actually worked for a living and wasn’t living
off GE,GM, GF stockholdings, we only spent a week or
two in the Hampton’s.
That was as exciting as moving from a high rise co-op
to a horizontal co-op with exactly the same neighbours.
The only relief was that Mike, who lived on the fifth
floor, was also exiled to the Hampton’s.
We both agreed it was just a wealthy Gulag and a hundred
times more boring than the ones in Russia.
At least the Gulags produced Solzyheneitzen. Who did
My darling boy, you have absolutely no idea how horrible
it is to be a widow in India.
I mean I would have had to shave my head, dress all
in white, yes like an angel but not to lead an angelic
life, not wear any jewellery and mope around the house
for the rest of my life. It’s truly worse than
death itself and I’m not surprised in the old
days the widows threw themselves on their husband’s
pyres. No, we didn’t do that in the south so much;
it was more a north Indian habit. They do have pretty
bad habits, I must say. I was lucky to have met Gary
and fallen in love. I was visiting my cousin in Bombay,
they call it Mumbai now, godaloneknowswhy. I mean what
would happen if New York
suddenly became Yorkville or Newsville, just on a whim.
I’m certain it’s a whim, just to confuse
everyone and my city’s called Chennai, and don’t
ask me why. I don’t remember which cousin in Bombay,
it was so long ago. It’s not important. Your father
(and I wish to god you’d call him that and not
feels it’s disrespectful) was introduced to me
while we were having dinner at the Taj hotel. If anything,
that’s a magnificent hotel. It’s probably
been knocked down by now. He was a friend of a friend
and joined us for dinner. At that time he was working
for Newsweek and was such a dashing chap. Okay, guy,
man. I think he was doing an article on Indian women
and wanted to interview me. So that’s how we met.
And when I was widowed, he heard about that and flew
down from Delhi
to condole me. I learned later he was coming down anyway
on an assignment but at that time I was flattered to
think he’d flown a thousand odd miles just to
see me. As he couldn’t call at our house, we would
meet in the tea room of the Connemara
hotel. That was a lovely old British hotel, it looked
like a stale wedding cake, but it was the in place to
be seen in and I doubted any one of my relatives would
have set foot in it. I knew my parents would never ever
ever ever allow me to marry this tall, handsome white
American and that’s why we flew away to New
York without telling a soul.
They never forgave me, that’s why I’m not
Iyoooo, iyoooo enh thalanoovadhu. At times, I feel I’m
living in an upsidedown world in which everything is
wrong. I should not be alive; I have no right to be.
This upsidedown feeling becomes more intense in unexpected
situations, as if I should not be there. It happened
when I passed through the pedestrian gate of the house
of the man I was searching for. Behind me, on the other
side of the gate, was this American who had hired me
to find this man. I was back at the beginning. Unbidden,
memory awoke. I never remember the precise day- a Monday,
Wednesday? - though it’s in my diary but I never
want to look at that day again. It had been Madras hot,
hovering around 40 degrees, the height of summer, bathed
in perspiration, steam cooked alive, choking on foul
air, as I wobbled on my Bajaj scooter through dense
traffic to the appointment. And as I had climbed those
interminable stairs, I had felt like an Alice
in Wonderland, not tumbling down a hole but up into
it. I had tried to tumble back down but inexorably kept
falling up and up, feeling furtive yet adventurous and
about to change my life. This upward hole was an escape
from the dreary classrooms, the dusty chalkboards, the
blur of faces, like me, marking time in their lives,
waiting for something inevitable, a marriage, to rescue
them. I walked in, trying to be bold, the receptionist
waving me through like a traffic constable into the
other office, and the man sitting in the shadows. He
had a kindly voice, roughened by smoking, even some
whisky in the tone, asking me why I had come. I was
answering your advertisement, I told him, and it seemed
an interesting position. I didn’t tell him I wanted
to escape that destiny which waited for me, and wanted
to take a diversion before it claimed me for life.
Mr Balraj?’ were the first words the American
said, sharp and quick. At least I think that’s
what he said but his accent was alien at that moment.
I replied, still on the phone to Coimbatore,
trying to trace a missing boy who had failed his tenth
standard exams and run away from school in undeserved
knew little about this American, four hours late for
his appointment, prowling my office. He had called Valli
from New York
and made the appointment. A New
York attorney had referred the
agency after they’d found a missing New
Jersey girl. I had tracked her
down to the Aurobhindo ashram in Pondicherry,
immersed in her new found sainthood. Who was he looking
for? A woman? I noticed he rubbed the third finger of
his left hand with his thumb, something was recently
missing from it. He walked straight-backed, as if a
military man, and there was lightness in his movements.
He was physical, trained to project through body language
and kept himself in good condition. There was a faint
break in the middle of his nose, though I couldn’t
see a scar. He had a couple of days growth, either he
was fashionable or he hadn’t shaved on the plane.
His clothes were crumpled from his travels and Valli
told me had come straight from the airport, full of
apology. I smiled to myself when I caught the flicker
of his approval for the room. The paintings were my
personal selection, so was the décor; though not the
pipe rack on my desk or the tan-coloured fedora by the
door. Some things need to remain as reminders of the
vanished. He glanced towards me, beneath the impatience
I sensed an urgency. He’d flown all the way for
something that was very personal, to be revealed only
to Mr Balraj. Of course, he wasn’t here. Now,
it depended on whether he would confide in me or return
to his America.
The young man my mother was busy arranging for me to
meet in the hope I would accept him as a groom was also
Would they know each other? I heard that Indians in
congregated together tightly as filings to a magnet.
I finished my call and waited for him to tell me his
problem, hoping I could help him.
cab driver stole my suitcase just now,’ he said,
with a lost sigh.
am sorry. You should report it to the cops. Not that
I’m sure they’ll find.’
Surprisingly, he took this in good nature and smiled.
He had the beautiful white, straight-as-a-ruler teeth
of all Americans. ‘Cops never do, even in New
I knew he wanted to impress me as he approached my desk.
‘My attorney, Tony Pearson, recommended Mr Balraj.’
He emphasised the ‘Mr’, wanting me to know
he still needed to be convinced.
laughed. ‘How is Tony? I haven’t seen him
for years. He’s a typical New Yorker, drinks dry
martinis and has fast hands around women. Is he still
smiled. ‘Tony’s always divorced.’
him my visiting card with the office and home phone
number. I was expecting his but remembered foreigners
didn’t follow the same customs about cards as
we did. Everyone has a card, even a bus driver. The
little piece of paper reassures us that we exist, and
can prove it to strangers.
down at my note pad. ‘Figgs isn’t an Indian
his corrected pronunciation didn’t enlighten me
on how he had that foreign-sounding name. He wasn’t
about to explain further, a true Indian would have given
me his life history on how he had acquired his name.
He could be a Parsee, maybe a Sardar. They changed their
names to suit the climate. Figg-is could have been the
anglicised form of Fateh Singh. My cultural curiosity,
more than my investigative one, got the better of me.
your father from?’ I asked, then I could pin point
him to his town or village, his ancestry and even his
he said blandly, not adding another word, cutting me
off from that line of curiosity. It could have meant
something in America,
an easterner, not a Texan or a Californian, but nothing
Nikhil. In school, everyone changed it to Nicky or Nick.
Sometimes to nickel, that’s a five cent coin and
I’d even get called five C. Life’s easier
if you have an Anglican sounding name in America.’
I wrote and added, north Indian? Punjabi? He sat in
one of the two chairs facing me across the desk, placing
his still cooling can down on the polished desktop and
removed it an instant later. He rubbed away the damp
ring with his shirtsleeve. I smiled, at least he was
house trained and slid over a coaster. He opened his
shoulder bag, yet still hesitated. I read his thoughts
in the frown lines so easily. Was I the right person?
Was I any good? Was this going to waste his time, and
money? I saw his mind flicking through the possibilities
in that hesitation, and waited again for him to decide.
I wouldn’t push. He removed a book from his bag,
clutched it tightly, then handed it across as if saying
farewell to a baby.
is an old novel,’ he said. ‘I’m looking
for the writer.’
by S.K. Naidu. I made a mental note, quite reflexively:
Naidu a Telugu name, not Tamilian. The Telugus had come
from Andhra in the early 19th century to trade with
the British and had first settled in Georgetown.
They’d flourished as traders, then landowners
and had spread out across the growing city. They had
contributed schools, colleges and hospitals to the city.
The book was old, there wasn’t a dust jacket,
and the cloth binding had faded to a dull green. The
edges of the pages had taken on a sickly jaundiced tinge.
I opened the book to the imprint page; J.M Dent &
had published it thirty years ago. Only one imprint.
The next page had the simple dedication, ‘To My
Parents’, a first novel then. I flicked through
the pages, nothing much else about the author though
someone, I presumed Mr Figgis, had made notes in the
margins and underlined sentences and paragraphs.
do you think S.K. Naidu’s from here?’
and Naidu’s an Indian name.’
are Indians in Kenya,
the West Indies, Fiji.
Salman Rushdie and Naipaul live in New
York and London
and write on India.
And there are other Georgetowns in the world. Guyana
has one too.’
fact, there are twenty-eight Georgetowns in the world.
Seventeen of them are in the US,
two in Canada,
two in Australia
and the other seven scattered around the old British
colonies.’ He had a good voice, with a slight
rasp of exhaustion, except he spoke too quickly. I still
strained to understand his clipped American accent.
thought the US,
were also old British colonies.’
A smile touched his eyes, and lingered. Some people
could smile without smiling. ‘You’re right.
Except he describes this city, and the fort by the sea.’
you asked his publisher?’
have. They don’t know where he is. They’ve
been taken over so many times they don’t even
know where they are or who they are.’
I began to read the first page: “She was born
in a large house, with an interior courtyard, on a side
street in Georgetown.”
said Mr Balraj was good,’ he said deliberately.
am I,’ I smiled at his challenge, remembering
to be courteous to customers even if they thought I
was incompetent, and closed the book. ‘Why do
you want to find him?’
a theatre director. I adapted that novel for the stage
and the New Haven
theatre wants to mount it. But I have to get his permission,
it’s called a release.’ He took the book
back, almost snatched it, from me. ‘Have you read
He sounded innocent, yet I sensed he was really saying:
I bet you haven’t read him or even heard of him.
high school,’ I said as innocently. ‘I think
His panic surprised me. It was as if I’d wounded
him in some way by using the word ‘dead’.
Yet, why should he care? If S.K. Naidu was dead, and
no heirs, he could stage his play. Or mount it, or whatever.
can’t be,’ he burst out. He saw my reaction
and added quickly to cover the panic. ‘I mean
he couldn’t be that old. If the book’s thirty
years old and he wrote it in his mid-20s, he’d
be in his 50s. Or even say he was in his early 30s,
now he’ll be in his sixties.’ He hadn’t
dispelled my doubt, my stare was unblinking, trying
to decipher his reasons. ‘Are you sure he’s
a call, still watching him. He held the book tenderly,
he had long, slim fingers and I was reminded of Sarada’s
description of Ramesh’s hands. She had told me
he played her body as if it were a sitar. I didn’t
think Mr Figgis would make a musician, his fingers were
restless and fidgety, more a tabla player than a sitarist.
‘Raj’ I said into the phone when
The Hindu newspaper’s literary editor came on
the line. ‘I’m looking for the writer, S.K.
Naidu. You have heard of him? Good, tell me if he’s
still alive and where I can find him.’ I waited
on the line, listening to Raj’s computer keys
clicking in the background. When he came back on the
line and spoke his few words I hid my disappointment.
He always was a useless mutaal, ever since school. ‘He
hasn’t heard of S.K. Naidu since that book was
published and has no idea whether he’s alive or
dead. Or where he could be.’
He had an ‘I-knew-you’d-not-find-him’
look on his face. Doubts swirled like storm clouds in
his eyes. Should he wait for M.K. Balraj, a fine detective
according to Tony Pearson, or go with me?
find him, alive or dead.’ Although I hoped I sounded
quite determined I didn’t feel it. We women did
have to try harder than men just to be to prove we were
my grin; he was half convinced, and I’d prove
I was good. Once he’d decided, I knew this would
be his next question. He was American, his shoulder
bag, though slightly worn, looked expensive, he had
on a Breitling watch, and his jacket was linen, and
that could be costly even in India.
It wasn’t that I would be greedy but my other
clients in the waiting room could afford only my lowest
‘Five thousand a day, plus daily bata,’
I spoke quickly, the way Balraj had instructed. Don’t
give them enough time, never hesitate. Figgis blinked
at ‘bata’, and I explained: ‘Expenses’.
Would he bargain me down? That would prove without doubts,
despite his name and accent, he was an Indian. Everyone
who walked into my office demanded a discount, whined,
pleaded, cajoled and wept, for it. I always gave it,
only because I’d already hiked her price in anticipation.
Now, with him, I would settle for half that. No, I’d
drop a thousand, in two hundred and fifty rupee stages.
I saw him mentally calculating the exchange rate. I
could have told him it worked out to one hundred and
eleven dollars a day, excessively expensive, if he accepted.
does the… bata… include?’
snacks, bribes, mostly bribes, everyone in this city
and country have to be bribed.’
I’d heard,’ he allowed a little contempt
leak into his voice. ‘Do they give receipts?’
Research, and this was research, was tax deductible
with the IRS. A look from me was enough. No receipts.
‘You take travellers checks?’
‘Yes, but ten thousand in advance.’
out a book of cheques, and signed two one hundred dollar
ones. As he signed, resting his cheque book on the table,
head down, I again noticed the indentation on the third
finger of his left hand. It had been the finger he’d
been rubbing, obviously he’d just, within the
last day or two, removed his ring. Wedding? Signet?
Wedding, I guessed. Men didn’t hide signet rings.
He tore out the cheques and passed them over.
it and opened it to the first page. I would’ve
liked to have flicked through the other pages to see
where he’d been over the last few years. It was
a bit worn, bent slightly to fit carelessly into a back
pocket. He was Nikhil Figgis, born in New
York City on August
2 1974. After noting the number, I returned
the passport and pulled out a clunky calculator from
the drawer for his sake. Calculators assure people there’s
no hanky-panky. I calculated the exchange rate and wrote
out a receipt for nine thousand rupees. I opened her
right hand desk drawer and, lifting the .32 automatic,
which I used as a paper weight to hold down the loose
cash, dropped the cheques on the pile of 100 and 50
rupee notes. Then shut and locked the drawer.
thing tomorrow…’ I began.
now,’ he said and added politely: ‘I think
my two hundred dollars entitles me to ask you to start
the search today.’
I sighed loudly though, understanding his impatience
and his value-for-money, I wished I could start tomorrow.
‘Will you excuse me a moment, please’ and
called Ramakrishna and Chandra on the intercom to take
over my clients. One was an adultery case, the other
a fraud. Neither would pay much. I finished the call,
picked up the telephone directory, and flicked through
the pages. It was always the first place to start.
checked international enquiries, checked the web, checked
everything I could check. He isn’t anywhere, he’s
I ignored him, determined to do it my way, and in my
own time. He was right. There were hundreds of Naidus
in the pages but no ‘S.K’
he’ll be old and broke, like most writers. You
got any other ideas, apart from the telephone?’
I wasn’t about to admit he was right again. I
had no idea where to start looking for an old man who
had disappeared 30 years ago. What would Balraj do?
What had he taught me? Check births and deaths to start
with. I looked at the time, 5.10, the offices would
have closed, the babus long gone home. Thankfully, Valli
came in, carrying a tray with two cups of sweet tea
and a plate of Marie biscuits. She handed Mr Figgis
his tea, then gave me mine, leaving the biscuits precisely
between us. I pulled out my note pad and began to make
notes of what I knew about S.K. Naidu. One old novel,
one old man, wrote in English, familiar with Georgetown,
read him. I stopped when I noticed Mr Figgis had taken
a small, plastic box out of his bag, and was concentrating
on laying out four pills in a neat row on her desk.
He popped the first in his mouth, followed by a swallow
of beer. He noticed me watching.
he said, and popped another. ‘Anti-dysentery,’
popped, ‘anti-typhoid,’ popped, ‘
anti-…’ He shrugged, not caring, and popped
that too. ‘I was told not to drink anything, eat
anything or breathe the Indian air. I’d fall ill
instantly and die.’
told you that?’
another word after I’d written Figgis; it was
‘hypochondriac??’ He was watching me, his
tea untouched, waiting, waiting. An instinct told me
that S.K. Naidu wasn’t phone-less. When I’d
spoken to Raj, he’d said that ‘S.K. Naidu
had been well-off.’ It meant he had money, and
if he had money, he had to have had a phone. So, why
wasn’t he listed? Who’d know? I rose abruptly.
don’t you check into your hotel, while I go out
and talk to someone who might know something.’
come with you,’ he said, and hitched the strap
onto his shoulder and stood up. ‘It’s sort
of urgent. I have two weeks in which to get his permission
or I lose the slot.’
Haven’s an important theatre?’
like off-Broadway, though it’s not in Manhattan.
But it’s an important launching pad onto Broadway.’
must be tired,’ I insisted. ‘And probably
I won’t get the lead tonight.’
don’t mind, it’s better than sitting in
a hotel room, waiting for you to call.’ He strolled
over to the door, pausing to look at the black and white
photographs. ‘These movie stars?’
politicians, some crooks,’ I said, stuck with
him now, wishing he’d go to his hotel. I didn’t
add that the photographs were Balraj’s rouges
gallery of the powerful and corrupt who had once been
his friends. There were just other pieces of memory
do you tell them apart?’