[Preliminary Note from his collaborator, Dr Vatsan:
These are records of some of the cases handled by my illustrious friend and colleague, the consulting detective Om Prakash, known to an admiring public as ‘Chalak’ Om on account of his astuteness and acumen in uncovering mysteries. Since he specialised in cases relating to fraud, bribery, corruption, chicanery and all manner of sharp practice, ministers and bureaucrats and the police were not always his best friends, though it is amazing how often they consulted him. This they did whenever they thought he might be of help in uncovering evidence that could fix their political or professional rivals.]
1. The Case of the Missing Aircraft
My notes indicate that it was on a certain wintry December afternoon of the year ’18 that I found myself once more in front of our old barsati at b122, Bekar Street, the starting point of so many remarkable adventures I have had in the company of my friend Mr ‘Chalak’ Om. I find it recorded in my scribbled memo that I was having difficulty breathing that day on account of Delhi’s polluted air. (I find the same thing recorded also for every other day of the year. In a year or two after that, we learnt to stop breathing in order to cope with the situation.)
As I let myself into Om’s (and my former) apartment with a spare key, another individual emerged from within. Despite the fact that he had on a pair of dark glasses which covered his eyes, I could tell—so shifty-eyed was he—that the man was seriously shifty-eyed. We passed each other, he on his way out and I on my way in.
I found my friend stretched out on his sofa, his head in a swirl of smoke from the countless bidis he had smoked during the day. The pollution of the air outside the two-room barsati was precisely balanced by the pollution of the air inside. Even as I entered, Om reached for another of the noxious Langar Chhap Bidis which he kept in a Jodhpur slipper, and which he helped himself to from time to time.
“I know you don’t approve, my dear fellow,” he observed sardonically. “But one day you will thank me for adapting you to a life without oxygen. Be that as it may,” he said, eyeing me keenly, “I see that you have been reading the political headlines of the day.”
“How on earth did you guess, Om—?” said I in amazement.
“Tut, man, it is simplicity itself. The look of utter disgust on your face gives away the activity you have been recently engaged in. Nothing can produce quite that look of repugnance and loathing on a man’s face as the political news of the day which our country has to offer. And by the way, I never guess: it is a shocking habit. Setting that aside, what did you make of the fellow who just passed you at the doorway?”
“A client, no doubt?”
“No doubt. And a client from where, would you say? You know my methods, Vatsan: apply them!”
“I would hazard the surmise that he was a Central Bureau of Intelligence official.”
“Capital, Vatsan! And how did you deduce that?”
“Well, anybody as shifty-eyed as that, despite the protective camouflage of heavily tinted glasses, must belong to an Intelligence agency!”
“Bravo! I see that your years with me have not been wasted!”
“But which CBI is he from—CBI-1 or CBI–2?”
“You are behind the times, Vatsan. The CBI has now splintered into 32 factions, and my recent client belongs to the group that calls itself CBI–21. He is interested in fixing a hated rival in CBI-7 on allegations of sabotaging the investigation into the Rifle Aircraft deal. The deal, you will recall, was initially for 126 aircraft, but that has now been whittled down to just 36. CBI-21 is interested in knowing how 90 of the aircraft disappeared into thin air, as it were.”
“And how indeed did they disappear?”
“Through long division, my dear fellow. 126 divided by 36 is 3.5. If the price of each aircraft is increased by three-and-a-half times, the number of aircraft will dwindle from 126 to 36.”
“But why was the price raised?”
“To accommodate India-specific enhancements, according to CBI-7. To finance the investment of the dud Indian off-set partner and so save him from bankruptcy, according to CBI-21.”
“And which one is right?”
“Our voters will decide that at the General Elections. Meanwhile, there is the bell, heralding a new client. When you open the door to let him in, Vatsan, you will encounter a fellow in dark glasses identical to the chap you let out some minutes ago. This fellow, as we will discover, is the Chief of CBI-7, who will consult me on how he can fix the Chief of CBI-21 for interfering in his investigation.”
“What will you do, Om?”
“Why, I’ll take on both their cases and pocket both their fees and let them slug each other to a standstill. If you will wait for a half-hour to see CBI-7 out, then we can do something purposive with the evening. Ustad Amjad Ali Khan is performing tonight, and we can follow that up with a spot of dinner at Moti Mahal. What say you, Vatsan?”
“Need you ask, Om? Anywhere and anytime, my dear fellow!”
2. The Adventure of the Vanished Governor
Readers will recall the mysterious circumstances under which the head of one of the country’s most important institutions suddenly disappeared in the early winter of the year ’19. Few, if any of them, are aware of the role played by my distinguished friend Mr ‘Chalak’ Om in the mystery. With the passage of time, the details of that singular episode can now at last be revealed to an eager and expectant public.
The first intimation of the case I had was when I returned home one late winter’s evening from my rounds, to the barsati I had resumed sharing with my friend at b122 Bekar Street. On letting myself in through the front door, I was surprised to discover a familiar-looking stranger in consultation with ‘Chalak’ Om. Muttering a hasty apology, I made to move toward my bedroom when Om stopped me with these words: “Pray join us, if that is convenient, Vatsan. My client was just about to present his case when you entered. You will have no difficulty in recognising our illustrious client. This, sir, is Dr Vatsan, before whom you may be as candid as you would be with me: I expect that his assistance will be invaluable.”
Our client was indeed an illustrious personage. I had no difficulty in recognising him from the satisfied smile he wore on his face, and which I had witnessed so often on television at the presentation of every Annual Budget over the last few years. It was the Economics Minister himself.
“You must know, Mr Om,” began the Minister, “that the decision on demonetisation was not taken in a hurry. It was intended to mop up the black money in the system, or at least to formalise the informal economy, or at least to hasten the transition to digitalisation, or at least none of the above, in which—you will concede—we have succeeded most admirably. To suggest anything else is a canard beyond description, and is the handiwork of an opposition that supports urban naxals and cannot trace its gotra. I would be inclined to say the same thing about the Goods and Services Tax, and Smart Cities and the Bullet Train—”
Om, who had been leaning back in his armchair with his eyes closed and his fingers steepled, suddenly opened his eyes. Sometimes he could be very austere and forbidding, as he was now. Fixing his client with a penetrating stare, he said: “You strangely forget your audience, Economics Minister. You are not addressing a political rally. Rather, you are speaking to a consulting detective and his side-kick on a matter which you suggested was a matter of urgent national importance. Pray come to the point. I fear that with elections around the corner, you are overwrought. You need something to steady your nerves. Perhaps you would like to try one of my bidis? Langar Chhap that side, Ganesh Bidis this.”
The Economics Minister declined the offer with a shudder that shook his body from stem to stern. “My apologies for not coming straightaway to the point, Mr Om. We at the Ministry need your services in locating the Governor of the Reverse Bank of India. He vanished without a trace last evening. The Reverse Bank is now rudderless.”
“That, I would have imagined,” murmured Om, “is surely in the interests of the banking system.”
“Ha, ha, Mr Om,” tittered the Minister politely. “On the other hand, there are matters of the most vital necessity and immediate urgency on which the Ministry needs to consult him, and it is severely discommoding to us that the Governor is nowhere to be found.”
“Rest assured, Economics Minister,” said Om soothingly, “I am seized of the gravity of the situation. I have one or two thoughts on where the Governor of the Reverse Bank may be found. Let me explore these leads. I shall get back to you on the subject just as soon as I am in a position to report some encouraging news to you. Meanwhile, Vatsan here will see you through to the front door.”
I returned to the armchair after seeing the Minister out. “Well, Om, what do you make of it?” I asked my friend. By way of response, he rapped the side of the armchair, and said in a high-pitched voice: “It is safe to emerge now.” I was amazed to see a human form crawl out from under Om’s armchair. It was the Governor of the Reverse Bank of India!
“Surely you are abetting a felony, Om!” I cried.
“It is no felony to allow a man to crawl under one’s armchair, Vatsan. The Governor justifiably wishes to avoid having pressure exerted on him by the Minister to transfer his Bank’s accumulated reserves to the Ministry. So I have advised him to lie low for a few days, which he has chosen to interpret in a somewhat literal-minded way by crawling under my armchair. A few days of absence is a scandal which should jolt the Ministry; and when he makes a reappearance, I doubt the Governor will be subjected to any further harassment to part with the Bank’s reserves. Over the next three days, the Governor will share your bedroom with you.”
Alas! The best-laid plans of mice and men…The Governor managed to give us the slip on his second day of refuge. Feeling in urgent need of a savoury snack, he slipped out of b221, only to be spotted, nabbed, and whisked away by the authorities from the bhel puri shop on the intersection of Bekar Street and Parthaman Square. His nerves thoroughly shattered by now, he submitted his resignation immediately, much to the relief of the Economics Minister.
Om blamed me bitterly for taking my eye off the Governor, which I thought was very unfair. Nevertheless, to make light of the issue, it occurred to me to make a bit of a joke of the matter, which I am afraid did not go very well with Om.
“I wish, Om,” said I, “that you would have taken the precaution to ‘URGE IT’ upon him to refrain from sneaking out of the barsati. Did you get it?—I mean the pun on the words ‘URGE IT’—”
“I can occasionally brook your pawky wit, Vatsan, but I find your sense of humour has lately been descending to execrably infantile depths,” said Om coldly. “And now, if you will be so good as to hand over the papers of the Niksi-Chorav Embezzlement Case to me—”
3. The Adventure of the Absconding Defaulters
As I dragged myself sleepily one morning into the drawing room of our barsati in b122 Bekar Street, I found that my friend ‘Chalak’ Om was already up and about. Indeed, it turned out that he had not slept all night. Our landlady’s aloo-paratha breakfast lay untouched upon the table, while the floor by the room-heater was littered with a mounting pile of Langar Chhap bidis. Om himself was sitting cross-legged and motionless upon his armchair, his eyes closed in deep contemplation.
“A case, my dear fellow?” I ventured to ask.
Om opened his eyes and regarded me without favour. “Yes, a case, Vatsan. A side-kick should be of some assistance—by serving as a sounding-board, if nothing else. Can you at least offer me your undivided attention, without the distraction of an interminable breakfast?”
“Very well, Om,” I said, a trifle nettled by his tone. “I was only into my sixth cup of coffee and my eighth aloo-paratha—but I’m prepared to accept a certain order of starvation if it will help you with your case.”
“As you are aware, the Central Bureau of Intelligence has now splintered into 31 factions. CBI-21 is one of the only two groups that are interested in (occasionally) fighting crime and solving cases that are referred to the Agency. Late last night, Inspector L— of CBI-21 was here—inspired as much by the ambition of upstaging his hated rival Inspector G— of CBI-7 as anything else—to seek my advice on tracking down three persons, former associates of the arch-criminals Niksi and Chorav, who had defaulted, to the tune of several thousand crores, on loans borrowed from the Bank of Allahabad. A CBI operative who was involved in the man-hunt has managed to track the absconders down to three cities in Uttar Pradesh. He sent an e-mail message to Inspector L—, which reads as follows: ‘I know where the absconders are. They are in the cities of Gomukheshwar, Ramganga, and Antardesh.’ Inspector L— immediately shot off a response: ‘Can’t find referenced cities on map. Kindly clarify.’ Back came the reply from the field operative. ‘Didn’t want message to be intercepted by hackers, so employed code of Jellystone Park’s bear.’ Before further clarification could be sought, the field operative was found murdered in the most mysterious circumstances. The absconders’ friends and promoters are suspected to be behind the killing. Inspector L— has left me with the task of deciphering his late operative’s code.”
“Was it really necessary to use a code?” I asked.
“What do you mean, was it really necessary,” said my companion testily. “This is a ‘Chalak’ Om story, is it not? Are there any other ways in which you propose to make yourself useless?”
“Several,” I retorted, finally stung by Om’s rudeness. “Here, by way of example, is one such unhelpful question. Shouldn’t the Bank of Allahabad now be called the Bank of Prayag, after the recent re-naming by the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister?”
For a moment, Om stared at me, before gripping my arm warmly. “I must congratulate you, my dear fellow,” he cried. “You have solved the case, though—it goes without saying, of course—you have no notion of having done so!”
“Why, what do you mean, Om?” I stammered.
“Consider, Vatsan, who is the Bear of Jellystone Park?”
“It is that cartoon character Yogi Bear, is it not?”
“Superb! And who has recently been changing the names of cities in Uttar Pradesh?”
“The Yogi, surely!” I exclaimed.
“Precisely!” said Om. “In the Yogi’s code, the cities of Gomukheshwar, Ramganga and Antardesh would be the mythological equivalents of cities that were probably named under Mughal rule. All we need to do is to locate the equivalents. Quick, Vatsan, the Index! What have we here on cities with Islamic names? Fassbinder – Fatal – Fatehpur: now then, speculated to be the Antardesh of Vedic times! Gasogene – Ghalib – ah! Here we are: Ghaziabad, believed to be the Gomukheshwar of mythology! And Moplah – Morabba – Ho! Hum! – Good Old Index! Moradabad: built on the banks of the river Ramganga! That is where L—’s men should find the absconders: in Fatehpur, Ghaziabad and Moradabad! I’ll let L— know straightaway.”
The following morning, Om tossed across a telegram to me. It was from Inspector L— of CBI-21. It read: “Absconders nabbed at Fatehpur, Ghaziabad and Moradabad. Much obliged to you.”
“To you, he should have said, my dear fellow,” said Om generously. “I think we deserve to give ourselves a treat. Do you have any suggestions?”
“I believe I know the very place for it, Om: a jalebi enterprise located on Dariba Kalan (‘The Incomparable Pearl’) Road, if you are interested in a hot, dripping dessert.”
“That sounds splendid, Vatsan. It is possible, though, that by the time we get there, your jalebi-wala will no longer be on Dariba Kalan Road, but on Apurva Gutika Road—or, who knows, on Apratimāna Mauktika Sarani—but come, let us be on our way: jalebi is jalebi whether the shop is on a road with a Persian name or a Sanskrit one!”
Athur Kannan Thayyil is an author who sometimes writes under the name of S. Subramanian.