John, a lecturer in Philosophy at Delhi University returns to his flat one evening to find a letter waiting for him. A subsequent meeting with the author of the letter puts a question mark over the supposed death of John's fiancée six year earlier. He temporarily suspends his work with the hijra community in Delhi to accompany Diamond, a researcher in aesthetics to Shimla, where he had formerly studied. At Shimla they find themselves in the midst of a right wing conspiracy. After four weeks when John returns to Delhi he is nowhere near a solution. If anything, events in the past seem even more unexplainable. Meanwhile Poonam, a six year old girl who has been adopted by Kumari, a hijra friend, gets arrested and is falsely implicated in a theft case. A friend's arrival from Calcutta with unexpected information has John rushing off to the airport. Finally, he appears to be closer to understanding what had really happened
Rajesh gives an overview of the book:
PROLOGUE I’m not a particularly good-looking person, but I have a nice smile. Or to be more accurate perhaps, I had a nice smile. Maybe I still have it. I don’t know. It’s important for me to tell you this because many years ago, my destiny was decided by a smile. My own smile. ‘Do you know what is the most beautiful thing in the world?’ Eliot had asked me this question some thirty years ago. I shook my head. ‘It’s the smile on a child’s face,’ he said. He laughed when he saw my disbelieving expression. ‘You don’t agree?’ he said. ‘Perhaps it’s too early for you to appreciate my view, but a day will come when you will.’ I’m going to tell you, dear reader, a story that will be unlike any you have read before. Do I promise too much? Perhaps. What’s so special about this story, you will ask. There are at least three special things about it. First and foremost, it is a true story. It is in fact truer than many true stories you may have read or heard about. Ah, you didn’t know that stories could be ‘truer’. You thought they were true or false. Well, there, you see, you are already learning. Secondly, the unique thing about this story is the way it’s been written. This is a novel and as you may be aware two of the most common ways in which novels are written are the thriller and literary mode. So which is this? Neither. Or both. You are going to read a curious mix of a thriller and a literary novel, which will be something quite unique – even if it happens to be very badly written. This is quite literally a literary thriller. Why have I chosen to write like this? You’ll understand this by and by. Finally, it may make you see the world slightly differently. Even if it shifts your vision by a fraction of a millimetre, my purpose would have been served. I am going to try and make you see the human face differently, you see. It’s not an easy task. When I look at my face in the mirror, sometimes I see my face and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I see a few lines, some squiggles and a lumpy mass of flesh that does not tell me who I am. And sometimes I see Eliot laughing behind me in the mirror. We returned from Gangotri two days ago, a journey that supposed to take place many years ago. Soon after that she developed this skin condition. In the morning today, I helped her to take a bath. You see, she has all these scabs all over her body, which will go by and by, and for the medicine to properly work – so the doctor says – she has to have a bath thrice a day. It’s not easy for her to take a bath by herself. So I help. But everything will soon be ‘right as rain’? Isn’t that the expression the kind looking dermatologist with the round glasses used? Everything will be right as rain in a few weeks. God. How I worry. But I am getting ahead of myself. This happens quite often to people who read too much philosophy and I do read a fair amount of it, for I teach it you see. Or used to, at any rate. This is not the beginning of my story. It is not even the end. To properly tell you this story, I must start from that morning two months before the trip to Gangotri… The shrill sound of the bell ringing woke me up. I searched under the pillow for the fancy children’s watch smuggled in from China or Taiwan a thirty-rupee turquoise coloured bargain. The pavement shopkeeper who had sold it to me had confessed, when pressed, that it could go bust in a few hours but had given strenuous assurances that there was a far greater possibility it would last out the better part of a year and those had been good enough odds for me given my current financial situation. It was seven in the morning, past my normal waking time, over which I exercised little option. It was unlikely in the extreme, I reflected, that the human alarm system that woke me up each day had become dysfunctional. The greater possibility was that the Saki consumed the previous night at Sonia’s had knocked me out cold. She had bundled me into a taxi and in the slumberous sleep that had followed the drunken stupor I had fallen into, my dulled senses had yet not been sufficiently blunted to ignore Haha’s harsh early morning shouts of ‘Milan! Milan!’ The bell for the first floor was ringing, a piercing high pitched sound that screamed through my brain; it usually meant someone for me, though there were sometimes mistaken callers. My landlord bolted the staircase door from inside at night. I stepped out into the balcony to see who it was, and saw a tall, young man dressed sharply in the typical get up of the up and coming corporate executive, holding a shiny suitcase in his hands. Only his shoulders were sagging, suggesting the tired weariness of a traveller. When he looked up I saw that it was Salim; unmistakeably so, despite a recently grown frenchie beard. I shuffled down the staircase in my pyjamas and let him in. ‘It’s been a crazy trip,’ said Salim, collapsing into an armchair. ‘You can’t imagine the trouble I’ve had reaching Delhi. Engine trouble on the way from Calcutta, and anxiety of a crash apart we had to wait eight hours at Patna airport for it to get fixed.’ He shook his head. ‘And then, just getting here from the airport…’ ‘What’s with these multinational companies? Can’t they pay the taxi fare for their jet set executives?’ It turned out that all taxi and auto rickshaw unions had declared a lighting strike. Petrol prices had gone up two weeks earlier and they understandably wanted meters revised - though not so legitimately - a meter revision far beyond the hike. Salim had been lucky enough to get a lift from the University’s Registrar who’d been on the same flight. Still feeling drowsy I stepped into the kitchen to make coffee. ‘Guess what?’ said Salim, after I had poured him a cup. ‘I met your friend.’ ‘Friends. I have no friends.’ ‘Don’t quote Socrates at me, or ought I to say Mr Confusion?’ said Salim. ‘This one is a friend. Perhaps even more than one. You can’t not call her a friend after spending four weeks with her.’ ‘Did you meet her?’ ‘The jewel cutter herself.’ Sometimes I think its true what they say about there being only five thousand people on the planet. I had spent hours searching the city’s hotels for any sign of the ‘jewel cutter’ as Salim called her, without any success. The absurd coincidence of having discovered her on the verge of her departure rattled every bone in my body.You tell me, what were the chances of Salim having bumped into her like that. I said, ‘Make yourself comfortable.’ Salim stared. ‘The airport.’ ‘You wouldn’t reach in time. You’re forgetting…’ I was already out of the room before he had finished his sentence. Half-walking, half-sprinting down Lucknow Road, I had reached the main road, when I understood what Salim had meant. In the urgency of that moment I had completely forgotten about the strike. It would take far too long by public transport, even if I did manage to catch a bus immediately. I stood on the Ring Road for some length of time waving down all manner of vehicle. Nobody stopped; it obviously wasn’t my popular day. Had I been a University chick, especially one of the longhaired and short-skirted kind I could have easily managed a lift but with a receding hairline and nearly middle aged now I wouldn’t have particularly attracted either sex. To make matters worse, I wasn’t looking exactly respectable in an unwashed kurta‑pyjama and a two-day stubble. Perhaps though, I consoled myself, I looked scholarly and learned - not that it seemed to be helping much.
A black Ambassador drew up next to me. Eliot used to say that your luck could change a thousand times in a single day. The driver was seeking information. ‘Where is Delhi University?’ he hollered, unnecessarily. There were some possibilities here. ‘Where are you coming from?’ I asked. ‘From Karnal,’ he replied. ‘How do we reach Delhi University?’ ‘It’s quite a distance.’ I threw in the statement cautiously, watching the driver’s expression. No sign of any suspicion. I peered inside and saw an elderly couple on the back seat of the car. Putting on my kindest expression, I said, ‘I teach at the University and need to go there myself. If you like, I can guide you to it.’ They accepted gratefully. I climbed into the front side of the car, alongside the driver and began to give him directions to the airport. What had Salim said? She was looking ‘lost and dejected’. I thought back to the day I had returned to my flat from Karim’s and had found that letter.
Rajesh Talwar is mainly a writer. He has practised law for many years, taught at University and worked for the United Nations in Somalia, Liberia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Timor-Leste. He writes fiction (novels, plays, children's books) and well as non fiction (human...