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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Daytime in New Delhi

Rupesh put on the Coggles as he left the Maglev at Old Delhi Railway Station. The ban on photography on the Delhi Maglev had always existed, but the recent bombing of the Mumbai Local had made the cops skittish, and Rupesh didn't want to take the chance, however remote, of a cyber-savvy Railways Protection Force person recognising the Coggles and pulling him in.
Not that the Coggles were conspicuous -- slightly bulky reflective sunglasses with thick stem terminators housed both the tympanic stimulator acoustics and the bone microphone; the neuro-amplifier pickups fed by nerve impulses that moved the fingers could have been dull plastic wrist-bands asserting solidarity with gays, cancer patients, drug addicts, Alcoholics Anonymous or any one of a thousand causes. Jostling his way through the tides of humanity intent on escaping from or, alternatively, being swallowed into the maw of the Maglev, Rupesh looked like just another slightly seedy young man protecting his eyes from the bright sun. The Coggles digitally filtered and enhanced everything he saw; they protected his eyes from sunlight too.
It had rained the previous day. As he reached the Paranthe Wali Gali entrance, the stench of the vegetable stems and peelings rotting in the damp combined with the perspiration of thousands of unwashed humans to enhance the street's characteristic butter-fried-bread-and-piss-and-cow-dung aroma with a peculiar piquancy, repellent and compelling at the same time. Rickety old buildings towered over him on either side of the street. Though the sun was at its zenith, there was a characteristic gloom at the street level -- the sun could reach the bottom of the man-made canyon only intermittently. Or did the street itself emanate an aura of dinginess that ended up filtering out anything wholesome? Continuing to G B Road -- another couple of stations on the Maglev -- would have put him a minute's walk from Kallu's, but then he would have missed out a chance to check out the Coggles. Having volunteered to beta-test the recent firmware upgrade, Rupesh figured that a stroll down Paranthe Wali Gali, past the Chira Khana entrance, to Nai Sarak, G B Road and Kallu's would tell just how good the new unit was.
And they'd been performing well so far. As Rupesh kept snapping his right-hand fingers, alternately switching between the actuality and enhanced views they projected directly onto his retina, he was constantly amazed and delighted at the level of filtration achieved by their tiny processor. It managed to cut out the cow-shit on the street and the gratuitous dead vegetables flung into every niche; the dark portals he passed, crumbling arches embellished with Urdu calligraphy or reliefs of Hindu gods and goddesses -- entrances to sets for punk gangster movies -- turned into airy, welcoming spaces redolent of seat swings, hookahs and the famed Muslim culture of Lucknow that had extended even up to this city when it was an adjective-less Delhi, neither New nor Old. The hawkers' street cries, the haggling and petty bickering were muted, overlaid with the strains of Beth Gibbons rendering All Mine brought to his ears courtesy the ear-top tympanic stimulators.
"Bhaisaheb, ek aloo ka parantha khaate jaao, din ban jayega."
Hey, that was pretty smart! The paranthe-walla's claim was ludicrous -- as if eating one piece of the fried unleavened bread would have any impact on the rest of his day -- but the Coggles did manage to distinguish the directly addressed sentence from ambient noise and pass it through to him. The vendor himself could have been the caricature of a run-of-the-mill halwai -- oily hair receding from a broad, equally oily forehead, straggly moustache turned down at the corners, stained vest that had long ago given up the struggle to cover a belly made prominent by frequent sampling of his own wares. Rupesh was familiar with the paranthas themselves, stuffed with every imaginable ingredient from plain potato to masala paneer to fiery chillies. Served burning hot straight off the griddle with 3 different chutnies, butter and curds, they exploded fireworks of taste in your mouth; the fireworks continued to your stomach too if you weren't used to eating the heavy ghee-fried fare of Chandni Chowk.
He stopped, ostensibly scanning the score or more of parantha varieties on display, surreptitiously bringing the tips of the little finger and thumb of his right hand together to have the Coggles photograph the man and upload the pic for identification to, but as he expected, after the momentary delay all he got was a briefly flashing ***NO MATCH*** in the periphery of his vision. He could have tagged (the shop owner's name was prominently displayed along with pictures of him or possibly his father serving paranthas to celebrities long dead and gone), but he wasn't in the mood to add faces to; anyway, volunteers roamed the streets of every major city, uploading pictures of faces to which they could put names. The Coggles' face recognition software searched the SeeYouSeeMe database by default, and no doubt one of the CUCMes would be passing this way sometime, recording vendors' faces and generally being a nuisance, asking them their names and promising them cyber immortality.
Not that everyone responded positively to being asked personal details: Gilbert "R@nker" Robins had made history by photo-tagging the till-then unknown Maoist cadre leader Wijaya Tilakratna, and then become history when Wijaya's cadres traced the source of their leader's unwelcome fame. Word on the 'net was that over 2000 bullets had been fired within 90 seconds when the People for Democracy caught up with R@nker on the Meerut bypass. That Wijaya Tilakratna himself didn't survive his stint in the limelight for more than a day after being exposed was poor consolation.
-- X --
Some places achieve fame through and eventually become inextricably associated with the business that adopts them. Like Gaffar Market -- an obscure hub for selling cheap garments that metamorphed into a smuggled electronics outlet during the early part of the century and now drew the city's addicts for their daily fix of Psyte. The only time Rupesh tried the drug-music combination, the den owner had dragged him out after he spent 72 hours straight in the cubicle without eating or drinking anything. He had sworn never to do Psyte again -- if nothing else, 3 days off the 'net was bad for business.
G B Road, on the other hand, was a blameless transporters hub by day that had doubled as the city's red light district at night for over a century. Ineffective attempts by various local governments, including a misguided pitch to bring it respectability by renaming it to Swami Shraddhanand Marg (in the eternal political inability to distinguish between nomenclature and reality), had failed to change its nature. Other illicit pleasures, including Kallu's den, could be found in the alleys behind the main facade of buildings.
Kallu operated out of an old haveli five minutes walk through the narrow streets. Rumour had it that most of his gang was headquartered in the sagging balconies and seedy rooms you could catch a glimpse of when dealing at his front gate; rumour also had it that Kallu had devised elaborate routes in and out of the place, so he could make clandestine deliveries from as far away as the Delhi Gate area. Apart from the hot debit chip unlock service he occasionally provided for Kallu, Rupesh's dealings with the ganglord were limited to scoring. The topological vagaries of Kallu's network filed away for use in emergency, he promptly forgot all about it.
Kallu himself was hanging around the gate when Rupesh got to the old building.
"Salaam Walaikum, Kallu Bhai," Rupesh greeted him.
"Walaikum Salaam. Haven't seen you for a while, Rupesh."
"I was in Bengaluru for a conference. I did come here a week ago, Harish said you were out of the country." Harish was Kallu's ambitious but garrulous second-in-command.
Kallu's eyes narrowed. "Yes, yes, I'd gone to meet my supplier in Kandahar." He paused and then seemed to shake his head to clear it, "I know you don't do the hard stuff, Rupesh Bhai, but you have to try this ope. Mash'allah, one drop will keep you high for half a day". He thrust a small packet containing a gram or so of the oily substance at Rupesh.
Though he had no intention of dropping it, it would have been impolite to refuse the opium. Rupesh pocketed it and muttered thanks.
"Are you still with that firangi chick? What's her name, Eve?" asked Kallu.
"Eva. Yes, we still see each other."
"Here's what you do then, Rupesh Bhai: have the ope half an hour before the next time you go to meet her, and see if she doesn't scream for mercy after you've been doing her for two hours straight. She'll feel as if she's been in bed with a brahma bull!"
Rupesh took his eyes off the shadowy figures moving purposefully in the barely-visible courtyard and encircling balconies and laughed. "Sure, I'll tell her it's with compliments from Kallu. I just hope she doesn't want me oped-up 24x7 after that, though!"
"Arrey, why worry, even if she does, I'm there, no? So tell me, you got anything for me today?"
"Nah, just dropped in to score some stuff. You're just back from Kandahar, what's new?" Though it couldn't compete with the high-THC yields from Malana, Afghani hash had an unmistakable fierce buzz which the old death metal diehards tended to prefer to the mellow highs of the Himachal produce.
"Go to Afghanistan and return without Afghani? You know me better than that, now. Better take 2 Ts at least, it won't last very long."
"OK, I'll take the Afghani for Nair and some Sensitrines for now. And some Malana, if you still have any of that June stock," Rupesh agreed. Recalling the uncharacteristic volume of movement in the haveli itself, he ventured, "Lots of activity going on, huh?"
Kallu's smile froze for a moment, then he recovered his normal air of easy bonhomie. "Visitors," he sighed. "You know how it is, everyone wants to transit through Delhi, and do they ever think of taking a hotel? No, it's always `Let's go to Kallu Bhai, he knows how to have a good time'. I'll have to move to a smaller place if things continue this way."
Rupesh chuckled in response, not believing a word of it. Kallu having uninvited guests was as likely as one of the whores from G B Road turning out to be a virgin after 5 years in the business. Out of habit he touched the tip of his right thumb with his little finger.
***NO MATCH***
"Be seeing you, Khuda Hafiz," and, accounts settled with Kallu, he was slapping a Sensitrine patch on his wrist, on his way out to the Maglev. As he walked away he could hear Kallu's "Don't forget about the opium and Eve!" reminder following him.
--- X ---
Ioseb Shevardnadze was walking through a container yard. The edges of the compound weren't visible, and most of the containers were locked. Shevardnadze was looking for something in one of the containers, and as he approached the darkened one at the end of the row his sense of anticipation, not unmixed with foreboding, grew. He had just reached for the door when his Sidekick buzzed him out of sleep.
It was Ilia. He unfolded it, "What?"
"We have just received a clustermatch on CIA's East Asia man."
"On Thompson?" If this were accurate it would be the biggest event since the penetration of the Boeing fly-by-wire protocols. "Where is he?"
"A place called G B Road in Delhi." The name sounded familiar, wasn't that where Ioseb's Georgians had holed out after the Praful Misra assassination? If it were the same place (and he was reasonably sure it was), it was a proper warren of holes and alleys. Ioseb groaned: hunting elusive CIA bosses in that maze would be hell.
"Get Khalid and come here, explain things to him on the way. Send me the clustermatch details." He hung up.
The Sidekick chimed as he popped an upper. The last remnants of his sleep disappearing, Ioseb opened the newly-arrived folder and scrolled through the clustermatch. The origin,, was one of the hundreds of volunteer web sites whose traffic Shevardnadze's Georgian Mafya were filtering through their own Bayes-Awolowo machine after subverting its network. The do-gooder "Information Wants To Be Free" geeks would have been horrified to know that all the pics they uploaded for identification to SeeYouSeeMe were processed in parallel by the Mafya's distributed botnets. Of course, being geeks, their horror would have been tinged with envy and covetousness, since Iosef's own image recognition systems made SeeYouSeeMe's look like the "Hello, world" that computer novices still wrote as their first program.
Shevardnadze's enthusiasm dampened a bit as he scanned the details of the clustermatch. When Ilia and Khalid arrived at his concrete-lined underground residence a few minutes later he was in his working suit and staring at the pic. The foreground showed the fleshy face of a South Asian man in his early forties; thick lips indicated a bent to self-indulgence but the eyes were hard and measuring. Behind the man Ioseb could make out a plastered gateway with paint peeling from the stanchions, through which could be seen a glimpse of a balcony and, on it, the clustermatch target as a faint blob. On magnification, the blob resolved into the shoulders and part profile of a man about to enter a room.
"How sure does this look?" he asked Khalid.
"The Bayes-Awolowo match confidence rating just short of 0.9. A month ago even that wouldn't have been possible with the little bit of the face that is visible, but the Afghanis gave that downed drone's systems to the Sri Lankans, and their algorithms have improved our identification 100%. With the new rating system, I'm quite sure this is our man," Khalid answered.
"You have done well. Where exactly is this?"
Khalid had done his research on the way there. "The pic contains the old GPS coordinates, which are accurate up to 50 metres, so we locate him somewhere in a half square kilometre near G B Road in Delhi. Sorry we can't do better -- if the camera had been using the new Mercator locator we could have ..."
"Never mind," Khalid would go on babbling technology for hours if not stopped. Shevardnadze turned to Ilia, "Where is Mustafa?"
"In Kathmandu. Andre is with him, remember?"
"Excellent. Put them onto the next flight to Delhi. Have they ever operated there before?"
Ilia frowned for a moment. "Didn't we use Andre in the Praful Misra case?"
"No, he was in Rio at that time."
"Then they're both clean in Delhi."
"Get them there, tell them to find a place to stay in the target region."
"Send them whatever information we have about the clustermatch and Thompson. Let them get busy until we have more details. They can get weapons and local support from Purshottam."
"We can pre-order the stuff, Ioseb. Mustafa likes the H&K MP25K that fires caseless, and Andre still uses the AK47 -- says it's the best assault rifle ever, and even better now that it's all plastic. They'll need stun bombs, grenades ..." Ilia started checking off weapons on his fingers.
"Tell Purshottam to organise the rifles, but leave the rest until Mustafa has had a chance to evaluate the target and decide what ordnance he needs."
"Ioseb, how do we get Thompson out if we capture him?"
"It won't be easy," Shevardnadze pondered on the problems of getting an unconscious man from New Delhi to Tbilisi under armed escort. "Perhaps we should talk to him there itself. Feel like a trip to India?"
Ilia grinned, "Sure, I wouldn't mind some of that hot Indian food ... and those hot Indian women!" He paused, "Andre ..." Ilia didn't need to spell it out.
"Yes, I know. Tell Mustafa he has to keep Andre under control. We don't want him massacring Thompson and half the population of the area along with him."
"I'll find a safe house in Delhi where we can operate on Thompson. When do we leave?"
"ASAP." Ioseb relaxed a bit -- things were falling into place. Mustafa had ample experience in street warfare, and his proximity to the target was an unexpected bonus. Andre was a bit of an unpredictable factor, but Mustafa could be relied on to rein him in until his particular style of brutality was mandated.
As Ilia murmured orders into his Sidekick, Ioseb turned back to Khalid who had donned a heads-up display which he pulled out of his jacket and was making restrained gestures in the air with his hands. Khalid took off the HUD and the neuramp gloves and turned his attention back when Ioseb tapped him on the shoulder.
"Can we find out who uploaded that pic?" asked Shevardnadze.
"The 'net provider is the Airtel-Reliance combine in New Delhi. I can tap my contacts ..."
"Do that. Also send the details to Ghatge, he can use official channels."
Khalid nodded in agreement. The Indian Minister for Telecom and IT's understanding with the Mafya didn't explicitly include arm-twisting information out of the companies his ministry catered to, but he wouldn't refuse a message encrypted with Shevardnadze's personal code. Ghatge would have no problems in extracting subscriber details from one of his telcos. He donned the HUD again for a moment to send the address details to Shevardnadze to tag-sign.
As Shevardnadze signed and sent off Ghatge's message he felt a tingling in his stomach that he hadn't had since he was a teenager running enforcement for his bosses. Thompson alive would mean a complete Mafya take-over of the CIA's South Asia drug business; Thompson dead would be a poor consolation prize, but the Mafya could still capitalise on his absence and overrun at least half his drug operations before the CIA managed to put another equally competent operative on the field.
He poured himself another cup of coffee laced with Russian cognac and settled down to wait.
--- X ---
The Sensitrine was in its first time-dilation phase, and the 5-minute Maglev trip from G B Road to Connaught Place seemed to take forever. The fat housewife in a saree standing next to Rupesh screamed orders to "Pappu" to stop bothering his sister into her bulky, 3-year-old Heads-Up Display. Having reinforced her role as nemesis in case "Pooja" was still complaining when she got home, she clicked the End Call button near her right temple as she squeezed past him to get off at the New Delhi Railway Station. The brushing contact triggered the drug, sending expanding waves of pleasure rolling through Rupesh's body and making his head swim. Novice users of Sensitrine were warned not to overdo the contact-experience bit, since the pleasure could quickly turn into nausea and, in extreme cases, a full-blown paranoid episode. The only paranoid trip he'd ever had -- as a kid in school -- had almost turned Rupesh clean but the lure of the high brought him back to the drug within a week.
Rupesh walked past the Wenger's fast-food franchise outlet (wasn't this the original one where their global empire had started?) in A Block en route to Berco's. He switched the Coggles to playing vintage Pink Floyd and deliberately brushed passers-by; each touch sent the deep waves flowing through his body until they erupted into coloured flashes in his mind, strobing in time with Gilmour's ponderous licks. And Connaught Place ...
Ever since the Big Renovation that followed the blowing up of the LIC Building, Connaught Place had reasserted its role as the centre of New Delhi. If you didn't look too closely, it hardly differed from pictures of the area from a hundred years ago. The circular colonnaded walkway still retained the old-world charm that the British had constructed into it, with the central park across the road on the inside and the shops and emporia on the outer edge. The shops were different, though (no Shrieking Shooz! then), columns were painted with long-lasting anti-graffiti matte and security camstrips nestled innocuously among subdued advertisements pasted high up in the archways. If Rupesh gazed on the ads for more than half a second, the Coggles blanked them out (image recognition courtesy and showed him snippets from today's news in their place. He started scratching his left palm with the fingers of his right hand, altering the programming to display animated fractals instead of the headlines. Another scratch, and the Coggles made a desperate attempt and managed to recognise and highlight 10 of the 12 camstrips in his sight. The music continued uninterrupted, but his view blanked out for a moment while the Coggles processor went through its image recognition routines. Not good, he'd have to file a bug requesting optimisation of the image handling, or, failing that, complete removal of the more processor-intensive functions. The Coggles were supposed to be better than unaided eyes, and visual discontinuities (however short) were not acceptable.
The Coggles buzzed him as he was about to enter Berco's. It was Nair in the blue string tie and white shirt outfit his office mandated. Nair was an old-time Airtel drudge, and it was unusual now for him to call from his office since the merger with Reliance Communications. "Yo Nair, what's up?" Rupesh asked.
Nair didn't even give him a chance to start a conversation. "Who have you been messing with, you asshole?"
"WTF are you talking about?"
"I just got a priority request right from the top to trace a user, and it turns out to be your Denzil D'Souza ID. Someone obviously wants you badly and they want you fast. What have you done?"
"Hey, I've been lying low! I just scored at Kallu's and am meeting Eva at Berco's in 10 minutes. Who the fuck is looking for me?"
"I don't know who, but it's bad. Look, Rupesh, I have to give your details to the boss ASAP. You disconnect here and drop this identity right now, before that data reaches whoever asked for it. If I get any more information I'll ping you on the VPN."
"But seriously, I haven't pissed anyone off."
"Whoever wants you has enough clout to have the MD crapping his pants, so you better start thinking. Disconnect rightaway and don't use the D'Souza credit and debit chips. How's your cash situation?"
"I can manage for a few days. Signing off now, you know where to reach me. And Nair, thanks!" He took off his Coggles and switched them off as he continued walking toward Berco's.
--- X ---
Kallu ran over his mental checklist as he stood at his gate, waiting for the Khan's advance party to arrive. The disruptor equipment that Thompson had brought with him was installed in the corner room. Two of Thompson's men were testing its working right now, using sonic probes to ensure that no sound could be captured at seemingly random points in the building. Kallu had put his foot down when one of them had approached the gate carrying the black briefcase containing his gizmos to check audio integrity around the building. A minute of discussion had been enough to convince Thompson that Americans setting up equipment openly, however briefly, was going to cause ripples on the street. As Kallu had foreseen, the security threat had taken precedence over concerns of integrity.
All his men except Harish and a couple of trusted lieutenants had been sent off on make-believe errands and wouldn't be back till late evening, after the talks were over. Thompson had insisted on that -- the Khan knew Kallu of old, and didn't have issues with Kallu's men being present in the same building. Thompson, on the other hand, had arrived with a virtual army of technicians, communications experts, bodyguards and even a chemist and taken over Kallu's haveli. In a moment alone while his men were busy securing the building for their boss, Harish had asked Kallu why Thompson needed so many people and tons of equipment for what was, after all, a simple 2-hour meeting. "These people are chutiyas," Kallu had said, "They believe that they can achieve anything with technology. The more paranoid they get, the more technology they use, and the more technology they use, the more they see that makes them paranoid. Best thing to do, just pocket their money and forget about it."
--- X ---
Eva walked in just as Rupesh had finished removing the micro-SIM from the Coggles. The quizzical lift of her eyebrow, visible above her Coggles, at finding him without enhanced vision was a reminder he didn't need of how dependent he had become on the prosthetic -- without the Coggles, Berco's was just a dingy room with dark corners. The linen on the table was frayed from over-washing, though the restaurant still provided cloth napkins instead of serviettes, no doubt a hangover from the days when it used to be the happening Chinese food joint in the area. The dragons carved on the walls had faded until their crimson bodies were barely distinguishable from what had been gold outlines, and the red paper lampshades above were holed, creating unintended little islands of leaked light in the room.
Rupesh waved her to sit, and continued switching. Restart the Coggles -- change the internal terminal device identity -- switch off -- insert new micro-SIM -- restart. With a sigh of relief he donned the Coggles again ... the VPNs could be set up while he was talking, and now he could see clearly again. The place was filled with the usual street criminal and as-near-criminal-as-makes-no-difference crowd: a couple of Ukrainian whores wearing next to nothing, their Indian pimp dressed in an immaculate white starched shirt overlaid with skin-tight black leather trousers and jacket despite the heat, flaunting heavy gold chains on neck and wrists and rings on fingers; "Sandy" (Sandeep) and "Jogger" (Joginder) were waiting for customers who'd start coming in around 1500 to stock up on highs for the evening, Jogger raising a languid hand in greeting as Rupesh looked at him; a couple of stubbled Harayanvi heavies in tight jeans and t-shirts doggedly drinking vodka and coke, muscles built up from a steady diet of buffalo milk, steroids and hours spent lifting weights in the gym overflowing in all directions, their waists bulging from the handfuls of butter and ghee they favoured with with every meal. Rupesh hadn't seen these particular two before, but the type was immediately recognisable: fungible enforcers for one of the local toughs running shake-downs. Their boss had doubtless purchased respectability in the form of a legislative council seat when the Delhi Government made him rich beyond his wildest dreams by purchasing his land when his village got amalgamated into the city. Rupesh wondered what they were doing there -- either they had walked into the wrong place and their egos weren't letting them leave without establishing their right to be there, or some poor bastard who owed their boss was going to get his ass kicked and maybe a couple of minor bones broken; nothing too serious, however, as the cops frowned upon overt violence -- that scared the tourists away from Connaught Place.
Eva slapped the Sensitrine patch Rupesh handed her onto her wrist without looking at it. As the Acetylmeth-delta-hydro-trimetadioxin hit her she seemed to glow and sat up straight in her chair. "Fuck, that feels good! Kallu?"
Rupesh nodded in agreement, "Kallu."
"Where would we be without him?"
"Scoring watered-down stuff from Jogger and Sandy, I guess."
"Don't talk to me about those two losers! Do you know, Jogger actually approached me yesterday, saying he could cut me into big money if I dealt for him. I had to work hard not to laugh in his face."
"What did you tell him?"
"I was very sweet, told him that my research didn't leave much time for other stuff." Eva was ostensibly researching the plight of poor farmers in Punjab for a World Bank funded project as part of her Ph.D. thesis. "I think he likes me."
"Maybe you should try him out?" Rupesh kidded her.
"Are you joking? I know it's a religious thing and all, but all that hair really puts me off. Have you seen him in those sleeveless t-shirts he favours? There's more hair growing out of his armpits than there is wheat in Punjab."
"And what do you know about wheat in Punjab?"
"Touché." Eva had already produced two well-received papers on her subject by cutting and pasting from the Internet without ever having set a foot in Punjab.
"Eva, Nair called a couple of minutes back. I'm in some sort of trouble, but I don't know what."
"How does he know?"
As Rupesh related the conversation with Nair, Eva's mouth went slack. After he had finished, she sat silent for a minute, fingers moving in spurts of intense activity. Rupesh looked around. The Harayanvis had knocked back at least 4 vodka-cokes each, and while their postures and movements remained unchanged, their faces were sheened with sweat and their eyes were glazed. They were looking at the two girls, one of them unconsciously scratching his crotch through his tight jeans. The girls, aware of the attention, were talking in low voices and giggling to each other, looking around the room every few seconds to ensure they hadn't lost their audience. The pimp was still nursing his Breezer and looking bored -- the goons looked rough, but his girls could handle them if they struck a deal.
Eva finished searching and tapping her contacts. "Nothing that I can find. This is either a joke ..."
Rupesh broke in, "Nair was dead serious. I've already dropped the Denzil D'Souza ID. You better scrap it."
"Is that why you disappeared from the VPN? Anyway, as I was saying, this is either a joke, or you have serious problems. You're right, though, Nair wouldn't joke about something like this -- you haven't pissed him off about anything recently, have you? -- so we work on the other hypothesis. What ID are you using?"
"Santhosh Kumaramangala."
Eva took a couple of seconds to give it the thumbs up. "That's good for two weeks at least, maybe longer if the bastards at Home Affairs are as lazy as they usually are about validating addresses. Here ..." she rummaged in her backpack, passed him a debit chip and a credit chip under the table. "I'll key these to your ID in a minute. Want cash?"
"I still have a couple of lakhs left over from doing Rediff."
"Where will you stay?"
"If they check D'Souza's address they'll end up in Lajpat Nagar. I doubt if they can trace that ID to me or to the Dwarka flat."
"Still, it would be best to give Dwarka a miss for a few days if they're as desperate as Nair makes out. How about I ask Rachna to move to her boyfriend's and you stay at my place for a couple of days?"
"I'll move my stuff over today then," he said as Eva moved into another drug- and data-induced fugue.
--- X ---
One of the Harayanvis -- the crotch-scratcher's partner -- was conducting negotiations with the pimp for the hire of the two girls. Trying to intimidate the pimp, who looked like a strong breeze would have blown him away if it weren't for the weight of gold anchoring him to earth, he was standing looming over them and nearly shouting. The pimp, on his part, was looking more relaxed by the moment. He had protection all the way from the cop in the street up to the Chief Executive of the city -- perhaps beyond -- and handled situations like this daily.
Leaving Eva to her semi-trance, Rupesh dropped the right-hand pickup balance to zero and tuned the Coggles to the conversation on his left. The hoodlum had turned his attention to the girls now and was trying his special form of blandishment on them.
"You come with me and friend, huh? I give you fuck like you never before."
"You pay the money to Dileep, and me and Sofiya will give YOU `fuck like you never before'!" she responded, indicating the pimp.
"I am natural Viagra. Bang - bang - bang, 1 hours you cry and say stop, stop, I am enough!"
The girl wasn't having any of it. "My stud, if you can last fifteen minutes with me I'll give you your money back, huh Sofiya?"
Sofiya sagely nodded agreement, "15 minutes with me and you cry, Oh Mummy, Oh Daddy!"
"Uh-oh," Rupesh muttered under his breath.
The thug's eyes narrowed and his face started turning purple. The reference to one of his two sacred objects -- his mother and his sister -- was like a green chilly up a horse's backside. "My Mummy? What my Mummy have to do with you, you whore?" He turned to his companion and bellowed across the room in Hindi, "This bitch offspring of a harem thinks she is my mother! I'll teach her a lesson she won't forget her whole life!" He clenched his fists as the other mountain rose and swaggered over to the table.
The pimp was trying to smooth things over. "My brothers, sit down and let's discuss this like educated people," a whopper of a lie if there ever was one, but guaranteed to salve the barely-literate enforcers' egos. "She is from Russia" -- the thugs were unlikely to know about the existence of Ukraine -- "and she doesn't know how things are done here. And you," he turned to the hapless Sofiya, "you keep your mouth shut from now on, OK?"
The crotch-scratcher obviously considered himself a wit, "Until someone pays you to open it, you see my meaning?" he laughed.
As a relieved titter passed around the table, the pimp offered a discount to the goons, warning them not to play rough with the girls. Mollified, the two took the girls and moved on to some cheap hotel nearby -- Hotel Marina in the Outer Circle, with its rooms available by the hour, was the normal trysting point. As they passed Rupesh the girls were clinging onto the Harayanvis arms, ooh-ing and aah-ing over their muscles, while the two tried to suck in their bellies and impress them with stories of fights they had been in and celebrities they had worked for.
"Rupesh, we have a problem," Eva said.
--- X ---
Ioseb turned from Ilia to Khalid seated on his right, "What's the progress?"
The Airbus A410-200 didn't offer enough on-board bandwidth to use the HUD and Khalid was reduced to scratching away with a plastic stylus on an old-fashioned tablet. Without looking up, he responded, "We have run into a bit of trouble."
"Trouble? Didn't you get the user details from Ghatge? I sent them to you."
"That is a fake identity. The account is with someone called Denzil D'Souza, but no such person exists. The address he has given belongs to some shopkeeper family who have never heard of him, his photo is a composite made up from a number of pics available on the 'net, his credit and debit lines terminate at the bank, same problem there."
"So we don't have any way of tracing him?"
Khalid paused: in true geek fashion, he hated disclosing information until he had a complete story which he could reveal with a flourish. On the other hand, Ioseb Shevardnadze wasn't renowned for his patience.
"I've managed to trace his debit chip to an anonymising service on the 'net. I'm trying to get through now into their network to see if we can get more information. We should at least be able to trace the owner -- from what I hear, it's a woman and she's also based in India. Maybe she even knows who this Denzil D'Souza really is."
"Can you get in? If we can find this person we could try to get the information from her."
"She's using military-strength encryption for her data, and she never connects directly to her operation, only through a VPN. That's a Virtual Private Network, a sort of Internet-within-the-Internet. If I get into the VPN I can trace her directly, or if I get into the data I can try to find out more about this Denzil D'Souza. I've got teams working on both," he paused, "This is going to be expensive, you know?"
"Don't worry about the cost. It will all be worth it if this `Denzil D'Souza' can tell us exactly where he took Thompson's picture."
"Working on it, Ioseb." Khalid turned his attention back to the tablet, egging his cracker teams onto redoubled efforts with promises of big payoffs to whoever succeeded in getting into the VPN. Shevardnadze would never know, but Khalid had been vaguely aware of this particular breakaway group's existence for months and he wasn't going to pass up this opportunity to squirrel into their network, paid for by Shevardnadze's money. Hell, Ioseb might even get some collateral benefit if Khalid found anything interesting to the Mafya boss in the maze!
--- X ---
"I can protect my data if I can hang around for another 5 minutes," continued Eva, "but then there's a chance they will break into the VPN."
"That would be a disaster," Rupesh agreed, "the Angels would never forgive you. They might even take out a contract on you themselves." The Flightless Angels were the original owners of the VPN, and entry was strictly by invitation. A VPN breach would compromise the identities, livelihoods and perhaps even the lives of hundreds of small-time hackers spread over the world; that number could grow to hundreds of thousands if the attackers managed to subvert the internal protocols which tied the various cells of the VPN together. Not that all users of the VPN were criminal: some were privacy freaks, and others were in it just for the technological challenge of creating an alternative, hidden network. "Drop the VPN," he finally decided.
"Rupesh, if I do that I have to build up my whole identity business from nothing! I lose all my clients, all my data! And who will buy identities from me knowing I was once compromised?"
"Eva, we don't have time. Trash the whole server cluster so they can't get the data either, that way at least your clients are protected. And then disconnect the VPN."
Eva started scratching the palm of her left hand with her right, wiping out all the software and data.
--- X ---
Rupesh had met her when she first came from Amsterdam to New Delhi, an idealistic student researcher out to reform the world with the support of the World Bank and local NGOs. She and Rupesh had become lovers almost immediately, and he had been privy to her discoveries of all the lapses in the civil society she was dealing with. She glossed each over, Rupesh tactfully refraining from comment. Then Stridhan happened.
Working with Stridhan -- one of the premier NGOs for the upliftment of women in India -- Eva became friendly with Shanti, whom she had helped rescue from an abusive marriage. Coming back to Shanti's village a month later, she was surprised to find her missing. Enquiries only revealed that Shanti had moved out of the village almost immediately after her divorce: no one seemed to know where she had gone. Meeting dead end after dead end trying to locate her friend, Eva became obsessed and finally asked Rupesh if he could use his Internet skills to help her. Treating it as a game, Rupesh started following leads that became progressively more twisted, until one day they found themselves deep inside Stridhan's systems.
The news that Stridhan was responsible for forcing the women it had "rescued" into prostitution shocked the whole country. Eva used a chain of synthetic identities (which Rupesh insisted on) to pass Stridhan's internal e-mails, confidential documents and accounts to the press, one revelation at a time. Aisha Kapoor, Stridhan's founder and icon of women's rights in India, escaped to Puerto Rico but not before her assets, both in India and in banks abroad, were attached by the Government, while Eva's ersatz persona achieved the dubious distinction of being the most popular search phrase on the Internet for 10 hours. Eva had done her cover-up well and, despite the intense curiosity generated about the real person, no one came close to her true identity.
Rupesh and she had just finished exposing their third scam and were sitting in the same Berco's when she told him that she wasn't going to go after NGOs any more.
"They're like your, what's his name, Ravana," she said, referring to the mythological ten-headed king, "Every time you cut one head off another grows in its place. Now identity management, that's another matter."
"So what are you going to do, start making false identities full-time?"
"Why not? You can get me customers, nee?"
In the two years since then she had grown into the most respected underground identity artist, without a single dissatisfied customer. As her customers kept demanding, she branched out first into untraceable payment and receipt systems and recently into anonymous debit and credit chips, transacting over a million Euro every month.
That was what she was destroying now. Rupesh reached for her hand across the table as he saw her drop out of the VPN -- her client data was irretrievably annihilated, and tears were rolling down her face below her Coggles. She took them off and wiped her eyes with a Kleenex from her backpack, blew her nose and turned to Rupesh with a tiny smile. "C'est la vie, mon cher."
--- X ---
Khalid was cursing fluently under his breath. The bitch had cut off her connection just as his Sri Lankans snuck into her VPN link! He still had her data, but cracking the high encryption could take years unless they got unbelievably lucky. The only link he had with her now was an innocuous IPv6 address sitting in one of the logs; Ghatge might still be able to track her if the IPv6 address was hers.
He nudged Ioseb out of his conversation with Ilia, "Ioseb Shevardnadze, we're losing the anonymiser chick."
"Don't worry about it. We just had news from New Delhi: Mustafa showed the pic to Pachauri, our cop in Chandni Chowk, and he immediately recognised the man in the foreground as ..." Ioseb refreshed his data "... Kallu. Apparently this Kallu is local mafia and runs drugs, among other things. Pachauri even located the pic as Kallu's old mansion behind G B Road."
"So we forget about the original uploader?"
"Yes. Mustafa and Andre are on their way there now. Don't waste any more of my money on tracing the original link."
"Right, Ioseb. I'll tell my people to stop working on this."
Khalid thought fast. He was too close to the VPN now, and he might not get another chance for months, if ever. Ioseb wouldn't notice if he made a little private detour to trace this woman. He had already sent the IPv6 to his Airtel-Reliance man and was expecting the details any moment.
Ah, there she was! According to the contact, she was currently hooked to some tower in Connaught Place. Khalid sent off a last instruction to his Mumbai team to have her picked up by a pet cop in the Central Delhi area, and made a show of winding down all the searches for Shevardnadze's benefit. He could buy a couple of hours in a cop station when in Delhi and beat the details out of this girl.
He tallied the man-hour and cluster rental charges, added the cop's advance as an anonymous miscellaneous entry, made the payments and forwarded the charges to Shevardnadze for information. Ioseb didn't usually bother about a couple of hundred thousand Euros, but from now on he was on his own -- any further expenses on this project would have to be out of his own pocket.
--- X ---
Kallu couldn't catch more than an indistinct drone from behind the wall of the corner room. The Khan had requested him to station his best man in the next room to insure privacy while he and Thompson negotiated the deal. Though he was curious, all that Kallu had gathered was that the CIA was looking to expand its funding for covert operations by attaching the Khan's opium fields and underground factories in south Vietnam. In return, the Khan would get protection, safe channels and access to the US and European markets.
Kallu was confident that his proximity to the negotiations would ensure him a piece of the action once the deal was completed. In any case, both Thompson and the Khan were paying him handsomely for providing a neutral meeting place. Neither trusted the other, but both had dealt with Kallu before and India was one place where both of them felt secure -- the Khan thanks to his connections with militant factions, Thompson relying on the Indian Government's friendliness with the US.
Kallu resumed his vigil and continued listening in the hope of catching some real figures.
--- X ---
Rupesh tossed Sandy the twist of opium with a casual, "If it's good I can get you more," as Eva and he left Berco's. Nair had called to warn them that the focus of the search had shifted from Rupesh to Eva, who was restricted to her current identity now that her fabrication apparatus was defunct.
He had also suggested they move towards Birla Mandir. The place would be overflowing with Tuesday devotees come for the evening puja and it would be easier to get lost in the crowd there. It was also bang in the centre of a GSM tower's footprint, giving their hunters that much more area to search.
Nair pinged Rupesh on the VPN as they reached Gole Market, "I told the Angels what happened to Eva."
"That was stupid of you, Nair!"
"No, it wasn't. I've been hearing about someone who's been trying to get into the VPN for months now, and the Angels seem to think this is the same person."
"Right! Remember when Giuseppe dropped out? His terminal had been compromised and this bastard was actually inside the VPN when Maria firewalled the crap out of him. He (or she, whatever) has been sniffing about since then. Maria and her team created honeypots for him and he ate a couple, but he's a smart cookie, realises it's a trap almost before he's set foot in it. This time, though, they think they've got a fix on him."
"Through Eva's server?"
"Eva's server wasn't a trap and he was in a hurry, so he was careless. He transferred a few petabytes of Eva's data to a cloud in the Philippines, and guess who owns that cloud?"
"Don't tell me! Rhea?"
"10 out of 10, my friend!"
"Hey, what about Eva's data? If this dude has it ..."
"Not to worry, Rhea has already looped his decrypt processes." Now the programs would keep trying the same routine again and again on the encrypted data, giving the impression of intense activity without achieving any result. Nair continued, "He'll run into network outages if he ever tries to transfer that data out of Rhea's cluster. We take care of our own, Rupesh-man."
Rupesh passed the news on to Eva. Her back, hunched over since the exposure of her servers, straightened and some of the tension left her face.
--- X ---
The Khan turned the tablet back to face him as the last Impress slide dissolved from the screen. Thompson had done little more than grunt as the Taliban leader presented current and projected capacities, manpower, infrastructure and chemical requirements, logistics, and revenues for cultivation, processing and distribution of opium and heroin. The only time he showed any interest was when the Khan was describing his underground factories, and he suspected Thompson was planning his own little operation in chemical warfare research safely tucked away in Vietnam where the CIA could plausibly deny any connection.
"As you can see, we can immediately start supplying you 250 metric tonnes of 99% pure heroin per annum, rising to over 500 metric tonnes p.a. over a period of 3 years."
"You didn't mention coca cultivation in your presentation. I hear you've been trying that out. How is that going?"
"We planted an acre for testing. The leaf is good yield, nearly 1%, but our people are not used to working with this plant. It will take some time before we can scale that up, but we should be able to start providing you with high-quality crack within 2 years."
"Will your factories handle the processing?"
"We have one paste and base conversion facility already. Because of the high yield of the plant, we must use large amounts of potassium permanganate for the base conversion. One factory was also modified to handle the HCI conversion, but there are still some glitches -- you know it's a dangerous process, and we are looking for an experienced chemical engineer who can help us streamline."
"We'll help you find one," Thompson pulled out his own tablet and made notes. "Coming back to heroin for the moment, where do you get your acetic anhydride from?"
"There is a factory in Vallabhvidyanagar who produce raw stock for the Jharkhand film industry. Kallu is working with them, and we get about 80% of their acetic anhydride quota through ..."
*Whump* The muffled explosion in the courtyard was not loud but the effects of the stun bomb were felt even in the corner room. The Khan, momentarily disoriented, heard heavy steps running up the staircase. Fury replacing his businesslike mask, he turned to Thompson, "You fucking double-crosser!" His fingers moved on the tablet's touchscreen.
--- X ---
As Nair had predicted, Birla Mandir was thronged with Hindus offering prayers to Vishnu the Preserver in his many avatars. A priest gestured frantically to them as Rupesh and Eva crossed the crushed line of people waiting to pour water onto the feet of the seated Shiva statue in the courtyard, pointing at the row of earthen pitchers near the pump well. Rupesh nodded towards the room containing the shrine of Hanuman in response.
"Nair, can you spot who's following us?"
"Working on it. Hold on, Joe wants to show you something."
Giuseppe appeared in one corner. "Watch this," and his picture was replaced by what looked like a panoramic video of the courtyard of the temple. Rupesh enlarged the video a bit, losing the top right quadrant of his vision.
"How did you do that?" It was live, and if he looked closely he could see himself and Eva circling the Shiva statue on their way towards the interior of the temple.
"There's at least a dozen people with those Apple terminals sticking out of their shirt pockets in the balconies above you. They don't know it, but they're feeding me their camera output and I'm collaging the pictures to get a single composite video."
"That's pretty elite, Joe! Have you figured out who's trying to track Eva?"
"See these two?" Arrows pointing at two men in safari suits appeared on the video. "I'll eat my micro-USB stick if they aren't plainclothes cops. We think they're the ones."
Nair chimed in, "We've been watching them for five minutes, and they don't seem to be here for any puja. Maria needs a couple more minutes, can you hang around in the courtyard?"
"Sure." Rupesh brought Eva, who was completely in the dark without VPN access, up to date with events. They picked up a pitcher, filled it at the pump and, like young lovers, joined the queue of water-offerers to the Shiva image, jointly holding the pitcher with one hand and giggling to each other. Apart from the usual choke of small shopkeepers and businessmen, here to get into the good graces of Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu and Goddess of prosperity, there were enough devotees from Delhi and tourists -- both Indians and foreigners -- to let them mingle without being conspicuous.
Maria's icon appeared as they vended their way towards the statue. "That's them. They know Eva's here, but they can't figure out which one she is." One of the cops, staring intently at each woman as if he could pierce her soul, was standing near the statue itself; his partner had disappeared into the warren surrounding the shrines and wasn't visible on the video any longer: not enough vulnerable exposed phones in that area to let Giuseppe do his magic, Rupesh figured.
Despite the priests' attempts to streamline the process, they were barely any nearer to the statue than they had been since they joined the queue five minutes back. Then, as they advanced another inch, a conch shell blew and suddenly they were nearly at their destination, their predecessors in the queue abandoning obeisance to Shiva in favour of religious ecstasy induced by the premier event of the day. Two of the priests hurried off to man the 2-foot brass bells and two more produced conch shells from under their vests and washed them in the water dripping from Shiva's feet, preparing for their roles in the main arti of the day.
With the courtyard nearly empty except for them and a few single girls still queueing up for Shiva's blessings for helping them find good husbands, the remaining plainclothes cop turned his attention to Eva. Whether it was her non-touristy look or Rupesh' company, evidently he came to the right conclusion and started moving towards them.
"Do something fast, Nair, the bastard is coming right at us!"
Maria responded, "Chill, everything's under control. Watch ..."
The cop pulled his phone out his pocket as he was approaching, unfolded it and put it to his ear. He was close enough for Rupesh to hear:
"Found her? Where?"
Pause. "What do you want Nilambar and me to do?" Pause. "When do we get our money?" Pause. "It better be the full amount we agreed on. We have done our part of the job." Pause. "Fine, see you."
He went off looking for his partner and a moment later Rupesh saw them both walking away. The demands of venality satisfied, the web of teachings ingrained into them since childhood once again asserted itself: they stopped for a moment with bowed head and folded hands in front of each shrine before leaving.
"Complete your work and bugger off," instructed Nair. Eva and Rupesh poured the water from the pitcher onto Shiva's feet and pretended to pray for a minute as the Vishnu arti started up. The roar of thousands of devotees chanting was audible even above the banging of the three-foot high drums, ringing of bells and wail of conches:
Om jai Jagdeesh hare, swami jai Jagdeesh hare.
janon ke sankat, das janon ke sankat, kshan mein door karen,
jai Jagdeesh hare.
Eva favoured Rupesh with a lopsided grin and they walked out of the temple.
--- X ---
"Next room," said Andre as Ioseb looked in, "This one's the owner of this place."
Ioseb recognised the man in the foreground of the clustermatch pic. "You are Kallu?"
"Yes. Who are you?"
Andre clouted Kallu across his face with the plastic butt of his AK47. Kallu staggered a bit but remained upright. "Easy, Andre, we don't want anyone hurt here," said Ioseb. Turning to Kallu, he said, "I'm Ioseb Shevardnadze, and right now I'm the person who wants to find Thompson. He's in the next room, you say?"
Kallu nodded, one peer to another. "I know of you. Call this asshole off, will you? How did you get in anyhow?"
"You left all your entrances unmanned. One of your men told Andre about the Nai Sarak route. I don't think you'll see him again, I apologise."
"If he was stupid enough to get caught he deserved it. What do you want Thompson for?"
"Ah, that's between me and him. But I would like to meet with you afterwards, if that's OK by you?"
"Good, I shall see you soon. Andre, please treat Mr Kallu with respect until I return."
--- X ---
Eva was trying to salvage what she could of her data using the temporary VPN connect Nair had given her and following the conversation between Rupesh, Nair, Giuseppe and Maria peripherally. She was aware that Maria had managed to crack into their would-be attacker's systems through Rhea's network, but still didn't understand why the cops had left them alone.
Maria was babbling on like a three-year-old given the keys to Disneyland. "So far we have 4 botnets, including one composed entirely of mobile devices, totalling some half a billion systems, a couple of caches of credit and debit chip numbers -- I haven't cracked the encryption on those yet but I expect we'll get anywhere between half a million and a million virgin chips -- source code for the botnet control, ..."
"Maria, hold up!" protested Rupesh. "First of all, how did you manage to call the cops off? And are we safe from this person now?"
"Oh, I tapped his audio and used it to synthesise his voice to give them their new orders." She continued speaking but the voice was now a man's, with an overt Middle Eastern accent, "We have found the girl, you need look no further."
"You can do that in real-time now? I'd like a go at that code sometime."
"I'll send it over. Don't worry about your safety: Giuseppe and I have a little surprise in store for our little Mr Peeping Tom. He's using the new Samsung Heads-Up Display with the Xenon-cell video and Giuseppe has discovered some very interesting anomalies when you overdrive it."
Giuseppe chuckled in his window, "He won't be peeping very long, I'm setting up the burn right now." His window minimised again.
"What are you going to do with the botnets?"
"We're going to sell them right back to Mr Mafya, who is Mr Peeping Tom's employer. I don't think Mr Mafya is going to be very happy with Mr PT when he has to shell out a couple of megabucks for his own data. You'll get your cut, not to worry -- we'd never have hit this gold mine unless you and Eva had triggered the whole thing off."
"Nice! This Peeping Tom got a name?"
--- X ---
"How did he die?" Shevardnadze was furious.
"This person here," Ilia nodded to the Khan, "has a gun built into his tablet controlled entirely by software. Very interesting engineering, we should make the same for ourselves."
When Ilia and Mustafa entered the corner room they had found the Khan going systematically through Thompson's tablet. Thompson himself, shot neatly through the heart with a plastic .22 slug, was slumped over the table.
Ioseb stared at the Khan. "`This person here', as you call him, is Khan Abdul Masood Khan, head of the Taliban in Afghanistan!"
The Khan bowed. "And whom do I have the felicity of speaking to?"
Ioseb raised his hand in a salaam, "Ioseb Shevardnadze. I have a small business in Tbilisi."
"We have heard of you, Ioseb Shevardnadze, small businessman from Tbilisi," the Khan salaamed in return. "What brings you so far from home?"
"I heard this motherfucker," nodding towards Thompson's body, "was in India and was eager to meet him to see if we could arrive at a mutually beneficial understanding."
"Alas, the motherfucker is now dead. However, may it be possible that benefits can still be derived?"
"It is more than possible. Since we're both here ..."
"May I have my tablet back? Unfortunately, with current plastics technology we are unable to make a multi-shot device, so you will be quite safe." He turned towards Ilia, "Would you be kind enough to fetch my colleague from the next room?"
Shevardnadze nodded to Ilia and Kallu appeared in a moment. His face was livid where Andre had struck it; nonetheless he appeared in good spirits. The Khan rattled off orders to him in Arabic, Kallu nodding and finally salaaming respectfully as he left the room. The Khan turned back to Ioseb, "I have ensured that we will have privacy for at least an hour. After that, with regret, I shall have to leave you -- other business calls, I'm sure you understand."
"You two, you handle security along with Kallu," Ioseb gestured Ilia and Mustafa away. As the door closed, he settled himself in the chair.
The Khan unfolded his tablet. "We are talking about a 500 billion Euro opportunity. You would want to bring in some partners to handle the volumes. This is our plan ..." he turned the tablet towards Ioseb and started the first slide.
--- X ---
Khalid couldn't understand what had happened: 15 minutes back his cops were about to pick up the anonymiser chick and now he couldn't contact them at all. Connectivity was erratic, and large parts of his data seemed to have vanished altogether. He dialled his Mumbai team on the HUD, checking whether the problem was due to local network outages. Halfway through the conversation, his contact's face vanished from the display to be replaced with a cartoon image of a haggard angel dressed in latex with burnt stubs of wings protruding from its back.
It was the last thing he saw before the display flared impossibly bright and burnt out his retinas.
--- X ---
The Khan had nearly completed his presentation when Ilia burst into the room. "Your pardon, Ioseb, but I have an urgent message."
"Could it not wait another half hour?"
"No Ioseb, please come now."
Shevardnadze made his excuses to the Khan and trod to the balcony. Speaking in rapid Georgian, Ilia repeated the information: their botnets and data were in the hands of strangers, who were demanding ransom for their release.
"We need to act fast -- all our cyber operations are down."
"Where is Khalid? That bastard had assured me this could never happen!"
"More bad news, Ioseb. Khalid just reported from the safe house, he has been blinded by someone."
"It's all that little weasel's fault. He kept on assuring me our networks were safe!"
"It is possible he was trying something on the side that backfired, Ioseb."
"It is not possible, it is certain. Send Andre to take care of him, and tell him to make it slow." Shevardnadze pondered for a moment, "Pay these people whatever they want, and tell them that we want our systems back completely clean. If we find a single backdoor we will not stop until we have located and eliminated each one of them."
"Which leaves us with no one to manage the infrastructure. I can handle it for a few days, but we have to find a replacement for Khalid fast."
"Get Kallu."
Ioseb explained the situation when Kallu appeared. "So you see," he concluded, "we need a good systems person with understanding of covert operations."
"I may have just the person you need. One moment." Kallu unfolded his phone and dialled, "Rupesh Bhai? Would you be interested in an assignment?"

New Delhi
March, 2010

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Who Needs A Guru When You Have Bollywood?

The Search

You and I ultimately looking for but one thing: happiness. All our actions, all our thoughts, all our planning, in fact all our energy goes into finding that one elusive state of being, which cannot be defined, only experienced. It's unpredictable, it's non-repeatable, it's unique.
So I immersed myself into books that were supposed to tell you how to achieve happiness in this mortal existence. Starting off with the Bhagwat Gita, I read copiously. Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Ramana Maharishi and the Dalai Lama were as the dust beneath my chariot wheels. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying fell on the way, as did classics like Play of Consciousness and Autobiography of a Yogi. Heck, I don't even remember the names and authors of most of the stuff I read, but they all had two things in common:
  • Each book made intellectual sense. I could resonate with the ideas the author was putting across and understand them clearly.
  • Each book left something to be desired. It was satisfying intellectually, but when it came to putting the practices into, er, practice, some key connection between my life and the yoga delineated in the book was, inexplicably, not to be found. I could see the waterfall, hear it and swim in the pool, but the taste of the water itself escaped my tongue.

The Guru

Hey, if the books don't have it, maybe a living Guru can open the channel to the Supreme Consciousness, right? Ah-ha! Let us go and find the Guru, and leave everything to her/his vision. Find a giant to stand on the shoulders of, presumably one will automatically see further.
I'm fortunate to live in a land where there is no shortage of Gurus, both acknowledged and self-styled. So I went Guru-hunting. Well, not really – at that phase the Masters (and Mistresses?) themselves came into my life, as if the desire itself was drawing them into existence. Some talked about compassion and acceptance, some about formulae and rituals; there were those who advocated insight as the path to enlightenment, those who counselled worship and prayer, and those who spoke of detachment from action. Some asked for absolute commitment to their ideas, while others only pointed at a possible path and asked you to tread it as your inner light guided you.
These were the True Leaders. None of these people ever asked for anything material in return; most of them didn't even require you to be exclusive or regular in your interactions with them. But, as with the books, something was still missing. The melody was perfect, but where were the drums and bass? The beat that got your feet tapping instinctively and your legs to move and sway your body involuntarily?

The Song

Talking of drums and bass, no one can set up a complex beat quite like S D Burman. Combine that with the haunting poetry of the erratic Gulzar and you can't help making a winner of a song. One movie they worked together on was Bandini. It's difficult to pick a favourite among so many stellar compositions, but if you forced me I'd choose:
मोरा गोरा अंग लईले
मोहे श्याम रंग दईदे।
छुप जाऊंगी रात ही में
मोहे पी का संग दईदे।
Impossible to translate either the lyricism or the subtlety, but if you put that into English it may go something like:
Take/accept my fair limbs, and colour me in darkness (Shyam).
I shall merge into the night in the presence of my beloved.
[Here Shyam could refer to either a dark colour, or to Krishna, the god with a dark body.]
So I went merrily on my way, tripping to good ol' Hindi film music with the occasional epiphany thrown in when the lyrics or the music struck the right chord at the right time. (For the cynics – yes, you can trip on old Bollywood numbers, they're as good as psychedelic trance in their own way!)
Until one day decades ago, when my old and dear friend Gopal (the same one who's married to Mary of Idli Fame) was resting his feet on the occasional table and philosophizing about Life, the Universe and Everything, and he made a statement that I cannot forget:
Do you realise that love for the physical beloved is indistinguishable from love for the Divine in most Hindi film music?
Now that was an eye-opener all right. Gopal, thou art thrice-blessed for that insight. With those words fresh in my mind I absent-mindedly spun out Mora gora ang laile on the MP3 player, and the transformation was complete.

The Embrace

मोरा गोरा अंग लईले
मोहे श्याम रंग दईदे।
छुप जाऊंगी रात ही में
मोहे पी का संग दईदे।
If you choose the path of Bhakti, you can do no better than follow the simple instructions presented here. The devotee is asking for her ego and her personality to be subsumed into the Divine, and pleading for that ultimate peace which can only be found in total renunciation of will.
And in that union she will lose her individuality, but also find a joy and a peace that she could never have found otherwise. So she has abandoned all her cares and worries, her responsibilities and attachments to follow her love wherever it leads:
कुछ खो लिया है पाई के
कुछ पा लिया गंवाईंके।
कहां ले चला है मनवा
मुझे बांवरी बनाईके?

The Summons

Simple instructions for finding Nirvana weren't the sole province of S D Burman and Gulzar, however. For instance, in Pyaar Ka Mausam, S D's son R D Burman teamed up with another master of subtlety, ghazal writer Majrooh Sultanpuri, for YABL (Yet Another Bhakti Lesson). The supplicant discloses his state after catching a glimpse of the Divine, and questions his existence sans union.
तुम बिन जाऊं कहां?
कि दुनिया में आ के कुछ न फ़िर चाहा कभी तुमको चाह के।
तुम बिन जाऊं कहां?
But then he goes one step further and reminds us that, just as the devotee longs for the Divine, the Divine also longs for union with him. When the devotee calls, the Divine is powerless to resist and must come promptly, no matter what obstacles lie in the way of their union:
रह भी सको गे तुम कैसे होके मुझसे जुदा?
फ़ट जाएंगी दीवारें सुन के मेरी सदा।
आना होगा तुम्हे मेरे लिये, साथी मेरे,
सूनी राह के।

The Admonition

It's not days of wine and roses all the way, though. Earthly attachments and desires for wealth, power and comfort dog the devotee's every step, luring her away from her goal and seducing her into indulgence. Kalyanji Anandji team up with Indeevar in Upkar to remind the devotee to beware confusing the ultimate reality with the illusions her mind creates:
कस्में, वादे, प्यार, वफ़ा – सब बातें हैं, बातों का क्या?
कोई किसी का नहीं, ये झूटे नाते हैं, नातों का क्या?
For all illusions will eventually pass, leaving her to face the ungraspable, incomprehensible Truth:
होगा मसीहा सामने तेरे, फिर भी न तू बच पायेगा।
तेरा अपना ख़ून ही आख़िर तुझको आग लगाएगा।
आसमान में उड़ने वाले, मिट्टी में मिल जाएगा।


Poet Bahadur Shah Zafar gave us a glimpse of how to waste a life by dwelling on the past and the future instead of living the present, beautifully set to music by S N Tripathi for the film Lal Qila:
उम्रे दराज़ मांग के लाये थे चार दिन।
दो आर्ज़ू में कट गये, दो इन्तेज़ार में।
But it was not until lyricist Sahir Ludhiyanvi teamed up with composer Jaidev in Hum Dono that the Vedantic path was outlined in its completeness. The seeker is advised to live each moment on its own merit and flow with whatever life brings, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, painful or joyous:
मैं ज़िदंगी का साथ निभाता चला गया,
हर फ़िक्र को धूएं में उड़ाता चला गया।
Judgement is the prime cause of sorrow, so do not judge events and situations – bring yourself to the stage where all is accepted, none rejected:
ग़म और ख़ुशी में फ़र्क न महसूस हो जहां
मैं दिल को उस मकाम पे लाता चला गया।
Rejoice, for everything is a gift. Celebrate your failure and your pain as you celebrate your success and happiness. In the immortal words of Bill and Ted, "Party on, dudes!"
बर्बादियों का शोग़ मनाना फ़िज़ूल था
बर्बादियों का जश्न मनाता चला गया।

Threw My Holy Book Out the Window, Threw My Guru Out There Too

Threw learning out the door, I don't need it anymore, for tonight I'll be trippin' on Bollywood.


Do check out the comment by Sharath Srinivas under.
New Delhi
March 2012

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ode to Idli

With the world at his feet
Never seeing defeat
Alexander was still
Hungry for his fill

For his heartfelt desire
Was the everlasting fire
From the land that that day
Beyond the Indus lay.

'Twas an age-long fight
'Twixt the dark and the light
Then the two joined hands
Devas and Asuras of all lands:

"For the rope a serpent,
Mount on turtle suspend,
Let us all churn the sea:
relish immortality."

It was an apple they say
That made Newton's day
But the reason instead
Was the breakfast he'd had.

For the world that we know
Has been created just so
By the hidden energy
That is Mary's Idli.

जिसने मेरी के हाथ की इड्ली नहीं खायी उसका जीवन ही अधूरा है।

New Delhi
November 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ask A Stupid Question...

Can you cry under water?

No. Crying is brought about by excess of emotion, emotions are brought about by hormones and water dilutes the hormones so you don't even need to cry under water. As an experiment, try drinking 7 litres of water and then thinking of something sad -- you will find that you are completely unable to cry (you may have other side-effects, but what's a small burst bladder in the interests of science?)

Do fish ever get thirsty?

Only sea fish, since we know salt makes you thirsty. The worst affected of these are salmon, who have to travel back to the river of their birth when they get excessively thirsty. (Note: ill-informed so-called experts have called this the spawning instinct, but we can now reveal that the true reason for those salmon climbing waterfalls etc. is for them to get a good gulp of plain, unsalted water, preferably with a spot of single-malt mixed into it).

Why don't birds fall of trees when they sleep?

Birds feed on large quantities of cannabis indica (bhang to non-botanists) just before the sun sets and spend the night stoned out of their wits. They have special locks in their feet to anchor them to branches, because the little buggers are so high on THC they tend to float away murmuring "good shit man, peace!" if they forget to hold on.

When they say dog food is new and improved in taste, who tastes it?

Sniffer dogs at airports, etc. are trained on dog foods, and not released for explosive and drug sniffing duty until they can distinguish precise amounts of protein, salts, fat, carbohydrates, preservatives and permitted colours and flavours in various dog foods. For their final test they have to be able to distinguish between wines of the same vintage from the same vineyard, one grown on the south side of the hill and the other on the north side.

Every good epicure and food critic you see on TV or read is really a dog in disguise.

If money doesn't grow on trees then why do banks have branches?

Banks belong to the family Cervidae Ruminantia (as do deer, moose, etc.) and are among the most prolific of the family. Species of banks can be seen in the wild on every continent (including Antarctica) and Explorer has sent back blurry photos of creatures on Mars that could very well be Martian banks.

In civilised lands, banks are generally considered a menace to agriculture (and other forms of culture) and are fair game during the open season. However, most countries have laws about hunting young banks -- you have to wait for them to grow into unstoppable behemoths before you can shoot them. For this, the standard count is the number of branches on their antlers -- a bank with more than 200 branches on its antlers is considered mature and hence huntable.

Buy a rifle and rid the world of the bank menace today!

Why does a round pizza come in a square box?

The great mathematician Pizzagoras first tried to square the circle, and all pizzas since that day come in square boxes in homage to his efforts. We must remember that, while Pizzagoras was Greek and could only make feta cheese pizzas overlaid with tons of olives, the Roman civilisation that followed expanded on his works and refined the pizza into the form that we love today. They also attempted to square, among other things, the Big Bang, Mandelbrot fractals (though Mandelbrot was only born some 2000 years later) and the common Anopheles mosquito. What a bunch of jerks!

Why doesn't glue stick to its bottle?

Glue bottles are made of condensed water, and as we all know, water dissolves glue. The structure and constitution of glue bottles thus serves a dual purpose: keeps the glue flowing smoothly, and prevents it from sticking to its container.

For further information please see our article on our revolutionary new invention, Water Powder. Just add water and you have... Voila! Water!

'I Love You' is not a question, then why does it need an answer

Looking into the history of the statement "I love you", you will find that it is a derivation of the famous question "Et tu, Brute?" to which, of course, Brutus replied "You bet your ass, Julius, and here's my stab with the knife to prove it." So even if you aren't asking it as a question today, be prepared for the stab in the back once you have said it to someone, since that is the only logical progression from that point onwards.

We hope you enjoyed our brief moments with science, history, etymology and fun facts. Do continue to visit for help with your homework, career, Kaun Banega Borepati and love life -- we guarantee absolute and abysmal, but still spectacular failure in every field of endeavour!

New Delhi
November 2011

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Recipe for Writing a Popular Book


1 great idea
Assorted characters
2 teaspoons of scintillating dialogue
A pinch of Stephen Hing
Salt and pepper to taste


Great idea ko Bar-bar Cartland ke through sieve karen until only the finest go through. Mix assorted characters into the idea, keep adding water until Charles Thickens. Knead until soft. Make dough balls and use J K Rolling pin to flatten into 3-inch pancakes.

Itne mein dialogue ko Arthur Conan mein Doyle ke boil karen. When liquid is reduced to half original quantity, Aur-thoda Hailey milaayen aur acchhi tarah se stir kar lein.

Brush dialogue over pancakes and cook over Ian Flaming fire until brown on top. Serve hot.

Goes best with Jeffrey Aachar and fresh Agatha Mishti from Kolkata.

Serves any number.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Religion mini-HOWTO

Once upon a time...

In the village of Kishangarh on the banks of the Yamuna River lived two very different people, let us call them Astik Ram and Nastik Ram. As his name would suggest, Astik Ram was a devout believer in all the scriptures and followed all religious teachings to the letter. There was not a fast that he did not keep, nor did there exist a deity whom he neglected to worship. Neat, clean and moderate in person, habit and speech, he was a model of correctness, and the whole village used to point to him with pride as an example to the world on how to live a correct life.

The other gentleman -- wait, that's too strong a word -- the other person in our story, Mr Nastik Ram, was a bit of a contrast to Astik Ram. Vile of tongue and ugly to look at, he lived a fairly debauched life. No one really liked him much, which suited him since he was quite content to eke out his solitary existence growing his crops, smoking ganja and carousing with itinerant nautch girls in his spare time.

Astik Ram could be seen at the ghat of the Yamuna each morning before sun-up, bathing himself in the holy river, summer or winter. Having performed his bath, he would collect a stone from the river bed, wash it and place it on a rock. Then he would do a complete puja to this Shivling (symbol of Shiva, the mightiest god of the Hindus): wash it with milk and honey, adorn it with a tilak, honour it with flower petals, offer it fruit, sweets and money, chant holy verses and invoke blessings for all living creatures.

Nastik Ram found out about this quite by accident -- he had been out drinking with some of his more unsavoury friends one night and was so high that he couldn't find his way home. He passed out in a thicket near the Yamuna, and was only awakened by the sound of Astik Ram's chanting in the morning. Nursing a massive hangover, he was about to go and tell the pious one to shut up and let him sleep when his curiosity got the better of him. He watched in amazement as Astik Ram performed his morning rituals, and when Astik Ram had left, went over and kicked the metaphorical Shivling back into the river, ate the fruit and sweets, pocketed the money and went merrily on his way.

From that day on this became a regular episode. Each morning, when Astik Ram came to perform his puja, Nastik Ram would be waiting for him in a tree near the bank of the Yamuna River. He would doze or watch while Astik Ram did the rituals, and once Astik Ram had left, he would climb down, desecrate the puja, eat whatever had been offered to Shiva, pocket the offered money and be on his way.

This continued, until one year the gods chose to send down an extra-heavy monsoon. The rain wouldn't stop, and the normally placid Yamuna turned into an angry, destructive beast with a life of its own. It snarled and roared on its way to meet its sister; whole villages were washed away by its fury, and the people of Kishangarh huddled in their huts, praying that they and their crops and livestock would be spared.

When Astik Ram arose in the morning to go to the ghat, his wife was aghast. "Where are you going, my Swami?" she asked.

"To the ghat to do puja", he replied.

"With the river in this state? Forget the ghat, you won't reach anywhere within a 100 metres of the river."

"But I have to do puja! Let me try at least", and saying this Astik Ram stepped out of the house. He hadn't gone very far when he realised the correctness of his wife's concern: the river water had nearly come up to the village, soon he was floundering in a torrent up to his waist, and each step renewed afresh the very real chance of his being completely washed away. He stopped, pondered for a minute, and with a heavy heart returned home. "Today I will do the puja in our garden", he told his wife, who immediately busied herself cooking choice savouries to offer the Gods.

What of Nastik Ram? Not knowing of Astik Ram's change of heart, he was on his way to the ghat as usual. Nearly washed away by the torrent many times, bruised from the logs that the river kept belabouring him with and in mortal fear of his life, he somehow made it to his favourite tree and huddled there, shivering in the cold and hoping Astik Ram would come and do his business soon so that he could get out of this hell and back to his warm hut.

An hour passed.

Many more hours passed.

Eventually he realised that Astik Ram wasn't coming that day, and decided to return home. Now he was faced with a fresh problem; in the hours he had spent on the tree, the river had grown even more violent and would now be over his head if he descended from the tree. Nastik Ram was a reasonably good swimmer, but only a suicidal madman would have tried making any sort of headway in that manic current.

He sat in the tree all day, cold and miserable and wondering if he would ever make it back home again. "I should have chosen a fruit tree instead of this peepal to sit in", he thought as his stomach kept growling from hunger. When the evening approached and the river showed no sign of receding, he started preparing for the night, lashing flexible branches together to make a rude cradle that would prevent him from falling off even if he slept.

Sleep wasn't easy to come by, but after tossing and turning and cursing his luck for what seemed like hours, he eventually did manage to doze off in the early hours of the morning. It seemed that he had barely closed his eyes when he was rudely awakened by a loud noise. Bleary-eyed, he looked up and saw a luminous being sitting facing him in the tree. It looked like a man (if men can be ten feet tall and blue in colour) and seemed to be speaking to him in a voice like thunder.

"Awake!" said the being.

"What the f**k are you doing, waking me up in the middle of the night?" asked Nastik Ram, "Go away and leave me alone."

He turned over to try to fall asleep again, but the luminous being was insistent.


"Listen dude, I don't know who you are and whether you make a practice of ruining peoples' sleep, but we'll discuss that in the morning. Right now I just want to catch some sleep and forget this cold and hunger, we'll have a long chat about your problems over a drink and this great ganja I got from Varanasi later, OK?"


"Oh what the hell, I won't be able to sleep now anyway. Talk, what do you want?" asked Nastik Ram as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

"I am Shiva. Ask me a boon," said Mahadeva.

"Huh? First of all, I don't believe you exist. And even if you did, why would you want to grant me any boons?"

"You are my true follower. Ask a boon and it shall be granted," said Shiva.

"Nono, you've got it all wrong! I don't follow you or anyone, there's been some mistake!"

Mahadeva smiled.

"Of all those who follow me, you are the most diligent in your practice. Ask me a boon", He reiterated.

Nastik Ram was beginning to see faint glimmerings of understanding now. "Dude, you have it all wrong. The man who practices your religion is Astik Ram, he's the one you want. See that hill over there? If you go towards that you will come to a wheat field. Turn left after the field and then turn left again when you come to the cowshed, he lives..."

Shiva smiled again.

"I do not make mistakes, my child. I am here to grant you a boon. Ask and whatever you want will be yours."

"But why me? Assuming for a moment that you're Shiva, don't you know that I crap on your symbol, eat your food and steal your money? And yet to want to give me a boon... something doesn't seem right here," Astik Ram insisted.

"What you believe is not important, only your consistency and determination can win me over," explained Mahadeva, "The man who would risk his life and undergo immense hardship rather than abandon his path is my only true follower."

He smiled again.

"Ask me a boon."

And Nastik Ram did, but that's another story.

New Delhi
March 2010

I can't remember whom I heard this story from some years back. If anyone knows the origin please contact me at (at) gmail (dot) com .

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Murali lived on the edge of the forest with his Father and Mother. Murali's Father was a woodcutter; he would go into the forest every day and cut wood, which he would sell in the nearby village and earn himself a few Rupees while Murali's Mother stayed at home and spent her whole day cooking, doing housework and tending to their little vegetable garden beside the hut.

Murali sometimes accompanied his Father into the forest, but he would soon grow tired of stacking wood and then he would run off to play with his friends.

And what friends! The bear taught him how to get honey out of the busiest hive and the tiger taught him how to walk so stealthily that even a blade of grass wouldn't move under his feet. The deer raced him until he could run fast as the wind and the rabbit taught him how to find food under the ground, while the eagle himself showed Murali how to recognise one among thousands with a single look.

This was Murali's school and his club, and he was happiest when he was with his friends in the forest, running and leaping, eating and climbing, wrestling and mock fighting them.

When he was home, however, Mother made him do chores. "Get water from the well, Murali". "Sweep away the ashes of the old fire Murali dear, I have to make a fresh one for cooking". "Murali my son, get mud from the river bank to put on the walls of the hut". Murali hated doing work around the house, and kept wishing he could be with his friends forever.

One day, when he was about 12, Murali decided to leave home and stay in the forest forever. After breakfast, he ran off immediately afterwards so his Mother couldn't catch him and give him chores to do. When he didn't come home that night his parents were worried and upset. Father wanted to go into the forest and find him and maybe give him a spanking, but Mother said, "Our Murali is a big boy now, let him do as he pleases. After all, he doesn't owe us anything." Though Father wasn't convinced, Mother was patient, and slowly Father too began to agree that they didn't own Murali and he could live his life as he chose.

In the meantime, Murali was having a delightful time. The monkeys and the birds brought him fruit every morning and evening and the wild goats gave him milk to drink. He rode the river on the crocodile's back. He climbed the mountains with the eagle's help. When it was cold he would cuddle up with the tiger's cubs at night, and wrestle them in the morning. Each day was more fun than the last, and so the years passed.

One morning Murali awoke and thought, "Today is the day the hippo promised to teach me how to stay under water!" A quick breakfast of fresh fish and papaya fruit, and he was hurrying off to the river, eager to learn so he could hide under water and tickle the crocodiles tummies when they weren't expecting it (you did know that crocodile tummies are very ticklish, didn't you?) But he heard moaning as passed the bamboo thicket. When he stopped and looked, he found the tiger's mother lying inside with her son nervously pacing up and down. She had been badly injured by porcupine quills. "The wounds have become infected and there is not much hope for her now", sadly the tiger said. Murali couldn't bear her pain, and asked the tiger what he should do. "There is nothing anyone can do, my friend", the tiger replied, "We just have to be with her until the end."

Murali walked despondently back to the hollow tree which was his house in the forest. The sun which had been shining so brightly only minutes back become pale. The sky and the trees lost their colour, and going to the hippo now was inconceivable with the sound of the tiger's mother still in his ears. "Let me try and sleep and forget for a while, at least", he thought.

But sleep didn't come. Faint and muted, he could still hear tiger's mother living out her last breaths, and each moan hurt him as if someone jabbed a thorn into his side. He placed flat stones on his ears, but they fell off whenever he moved his head. Then he tied vines and creepers to keep the stones in place, and eventually he made himself stone muffs which, though uncomfortable, stayed in place and blocked his ears.

This, Murali discovered over the next few days, was one way to not get hurt.

When Murali fell, he tied soft sandstones around his legs so his knees wouldn't get bruised.

When he had to get honey from the bees he tied stones around his arms and chest so the bees couldn't sting him.

When he ate a bitter berry he blocked his mouth so he would not have to taste anything nasty.

When the eagle was caught in a storm and injured, Murali tied stones on his eyes so he wouldn't have to see his friend's distress at not being able to fly.

Blind, deaf and dumb, Murali wandered through the forest. He blundered into trees but he didn't care because it didn't hurt him. His friends tried to talk to him, but he couldn't see or hear them anymore. He climbed a hill without knowing, and since he couldn't see his way, he fell off the path into a ravine.

Murali was badly hurt in the fall. The stones tied to his mouth wouldn't let him cry out, and the only sound that he could make was a faint "Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm".

Many miles away, in their hut, Murali's Mother was about to serve dinner to Father. The daal was hot, and she was rolling out the dough for the first roti when she stopped. "Did you hear something?" she asked Father. "No, what?" asked Father, who was hungry and wanted to eat.

"It sounds like Murali", said Mother.

Father too strained his ears, but he couldn't hear anything. "Must be the wind, it's getting stormy.", he said.

"I clearly heard my son calling." Mother insisted.

"Arrey bhai, he has been gone so many years, how can you hear him calling now? If he were that near, wouldn't he come to us?"

"I don't know, but my son is calling me." With that, Mother left the daal to cool and the roti dough unrolled, and ran out of the house.

As she headed where she thought the sound came from, she met the tiger. "Have you seen my Murali?", she asked, but the tiger had not seen his friend in days. Nor had the crocodile, when she met him at the stream, nor the monkey who offered her bananas as she was passing. But her hearing was sharp and her love for Murali guided her to where her son lay, armoured with stones, hurt and bleeding.

Even though Mother couldn't see his face, she knew Murali at once. She sat down on the ground and gently put his head on her lap and then, for the first time since he had left home, she cried for him. "My cherished one, what have you done to yourself?" she said as her tears dropped down her face and onto her child.

And with each tear, a stone melted away and a hurt healed.

New Delhi
March 2010

Thanks to Ravi Dewan for insightful critique and editing.