The story so far...
I stared grimly out the car window. We were moving slower than a glacier. If I'd wanted to get stuck in a traffic jam, no city in the world offers as much scope and variety as Delhi. I could've just stayed there and saved the bother of flying across the country. I sighed, and told Mohnish that he was sitting on my coat.
While Malabar Ops are essentially men of the city, they're also loners. When the rest of the world sits around their dinner tables, sharing their stories and their jokes, when their pulp fiction gives them company, a glass of wine by the side, when they're dancing and drinking the night away, when they hold each other, the freezing winter cold a thing of comfort and pleasure, dreaming their dreams of forever; the Malabar Op haunts the night, a man always in the now, his footsteps ringing in the dark alleys behind sleazy bars, his hands deep in his coat, his breath misting up in front of him, his gait languid, but his eyes watchful. Even when he does endure the morning light and the throng of crowded markets and railway stations, it's as if he watches a film from the rows farthest. Nothing escapes his gaze, and he feels and he knows, but he does not belong.
And so, the fields stretching out to infinity and the Himalayas ahead with their snow and their clouds, they speak to his soul. The vast expanses without anyone in sight, the ageless* mountains holding promise of a land without time, ambition or private sorrows; all of it makes the Malabar Op painfully aware that only an Arunachali can buy land there, and makes him ask his friend's mother whether she could hook him up with an Arunachali girl with plenty of land.
We stayed in Mohnish's ancestral home in Chowkham. Stepping out of the car, I saw his uncle Rajingda waiting for us - a dapper man in his 50s, with an unhurried air, a golf cap, a cigarette dangling at his lips, and a cool, level gaze. We gazed coolly at each other. His son Ujjal tells me that his Dad was quite the terror in his younger days and that a favourite unwind for father and son is to watch The Godfather together in the evenings. Ujjal looks after most of the family business now, and cuts quite the cold, formidable Michael Corleone figure in his Pajero and his sunglasses. He's proud of the work his family have done over the years and when he took us around the village, pointed out the things they have built or given land for. His grandfather, Chow Khamoon Gohain, was the first MP from the North East.
A little after 2 in the morning, I was woken up by the howling of something horrible. It was very cold. An uneasy feeling gripped the pit of my stomach. I took out my flashlight and decided to snoop around a little. The house was old, and also rather big - made almost entirely out of wood. Snooping around in someone else's house in the wee hours of the morning demands a certain amount of stealth, but, unused as I am to wooden floors, my first few steps sounded like a cautious Godzilla making for a pile of fish.
The house was shrouded in silence and darkness. I crossed the drawing room and started with the room across the passageway. The giant tusks by the idols glimmered palely. I shone my flashlight around. The room was as big as my flat in Delhi. There was nothing for me there. I turned around. Something jumped at me from the corner by the doorway. My heart leapt into my mouth and when I swallowed hard, instead of settling back inside my ribcage, it went down the wrong way. I coughed and spluttered. I walked backwards out the door and down the passageway in rather a hurry. There was nothing by the doorway that I could see except a Naga sword and a Khamti shield. I don't know why I thought something had jumped at me.
Many Arunachali houses, built as they are by the banks of rivers known to flood on occasions, are built on stilts. This one was no exception. I happened to be near an entrance to the house, which meant that there was a flight of steps leading down. Walking backwards as I was, I was made very aware of its existence only on my way down, my head bouncing off wood every other step. Moving with remarkable agility (all things considered), I started to pick myself off the landing. I had my second panic attack in less than 45 seconds when I glanced up and saw a hideous face leering at me. Turned out to be the handle of a walking stick. Why would anyone want that on the handle of a walking stick?
I saw another set of steps going up in front of me. It took me into a giant room filled with all sorts of old furniture. A private eye with more talent at describing interiors would probably have done a good job of painting you a mental image. I caught sight of a chair that I later learnt was sat on by the Dalai Lama. Sensing a shape above me, I turned around rather slower than the last time I'd sensed a shape, and glanced upward. It was just a crafted deer head. In order to have a better look at its antlers, I tilted my hat back and took a couple of steps back. I shouldn't have. I tripped over a chest (bought from Jew Town, Cochin, and quite beautiful to look at in daylight, really), and landed with a crash on my back. Flailing about, I knocked a vase down, and cracked the leg of a stand.
I felt like I'd been mugged by the Crazy 88. But my training kicked in instantly. I listened. Not a peep. In the last 5 minutes, I had made as much noise as a bunch of Indian close-in fielders about to get suspended by Mike Denness for excessive appealing. And yet, not a soul stirred. I decided that folk who could sleep through a racket like that couldn't have that much on their consciences. I limped painfully back to bed and sleep.
P.S. - Photos courtesy PK.
*He also points out that the Himalayas are hardly "ageless," and are, in fact, 70 million years old, which makes it a young pip, by mountain-range standards.