Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Malabar Op goes to the movies: The Setup, involving The Dame, The Burg & The Hound

I stared at my manager's head with a vague distaste. I wasn't listening to a word he was saying, but I know to a cert what he was going on about. I'd heard it all before and the plot's never gripped me enough for repeat performances. What held my gaze, though, was his head: small and dark and shaped like a coconut. It had a thin covering of hair on top, very similar to and as light as the spread of coir on a de-husked coconut.

Coconuts are known for their versatility of use: the name Kerala, for instance, is derived from it, and even in far-away lands such as the one where they speak Malay, it's called the "tree of a thousand uses." The shell and the husk alone, since that's what brought us on to this topic, can be used to make anything from hoofbeats, to musical instruments, to shirt buttons, to fuel. Coconut water, if drunk from the right coconut and if you believe Harry Belafonte, is good for your daughter, makes you strong as a lion because of all the iron, and is ideal with rum when you're feeling a little glum; and the white, fleshy coating on the inside, subject to the same restrictions as the liquid, tastes like a slice of heaven.

But those are coconuts. My manager, on the other hand... When he reached the point where he was telling me how, in his book, I was all sorts of unpleasant things, I couldn't help but express amazement at this accomplishment literary, given that the last time I checked, he couldn't put together three sentences in an email without some sort of a blooper. This terminated the interview, and I was free to go back to my desk and brood. I wanted to throw up - preferably on his keyboard. I'd just thought of an excuse to go back to his desk, and had even conjured up an imaginative segue to the barfing when, as so often happens every now and then - but usually only when you're in the shower - the phone rang.

A clipped, snotty voice was on the other end...

"Listen, I came across this Facebook page for a private investigator just now... the Malabar Op or something. Are you him?"
"Yes," I said, trying not to betray too much interest: it helps with monetary negotiations.
"I've never seen a seedier ad."
I let that one fly.
"Well, what do you charge?"
"One thousand o..."
"That's way too much."
"Well, what'd you have in mind, then?"
"We'll come to that. First, can you give me any references?"
"Sorry, no. I've not been very long in the business. I do it part-time, so far. But I've read every Hammett and Chandler ever written, and I model myself on Russell Crowe from L.A. Confidential."
"And what do you with the other part of your time?"
"I'm a programmer."


The phone rang again in a couple of days' time. This time she sounded a little less haughty, a little defeated.

"I suppose beggars can't be choosers," she sighed. "How soon can you make it to Pune?"
"As soon as you book the airline ticket," I assured her.


Ah, Pune. I knew the burg well. Yes, I did. Once. A long time ago. But that was then. This was now (or, rather, a later then than the first then there).

Despite the pouring rain, it was a little too hot for my trench coat, and I had to drape it over my arm stylishly as soon as I was out of the terminal. A black cab was waiting for me. The driver was a short, thickset grouch in his late 30s. He didn't have an umbrella, which made me regret the decision to take off the coat. Oh well, life is a sum of the choices we make. A clap of thunder, a thud of the door, a growl of the engine, and we were off.

The house was the farthest one on a little lane that leads away from all civilisation. It starts out charmingly enough, but gets woodier and has less and less houses the further you go down it. And there at the very end was a house all alone, as if the others on the lane were shrinking away from it. Even the pack of barking dogs running after the car stopped, as if they'd hit an invisible barrier. Trees crowded around it, but these weren't the sort of trees you'd read about in a Robert Frost poem, but something rather more sinister - it is undoubtedly what the forest looked like to Hansel and Gretel after the little idiots lost their trail of breadcrumbs, and probably what Red Riding Hood thought of the woods after she made her acquaintance with the wolf. So there it was, the little house at the edge of Fangorn - to careless glances as pleasant a house as anyone could hope for - and I fidgeted uneasily.


It was a house with furniture. No, wait... that doesn't sound right. I've never managed to learn the names of pieces of furniture, colours, the names of different types of windows, curtains, etc; so these sort of descriptions are very difficult for me. Picture in your mind's eye a richly furnished room, but altogether on the dark side - as if light were somehow banished from there. And yet, a room that hints not at opulence or decadence, but the exact opposite... in a very evil, tightly-controlled way - like hair done up in a bun with not a strand out of place. Done? Well, that's exactly the sort of furnishing her house had.

A match, a scratch, a quick flame, a silhouette, and a puff of smoke. I could sense her gaze raking into me, every tiny movement and tic magnified and filed. I suppressed a nervous giggle.

"So... this is what my 7000 bucks of airfare has dragged in..."
I bristled. "Look here, I got back from the North East not two weeks ago, having solved an intricate puzzle to the satisfaction of all, and I really don't need to take this kind of shit from anyone... If you don't like what you see, Missy, I'm just as happy to go right back out that door."
"And once you go right back out that door, do you walk all the way back to Delhi?" drawled the voice through the smoke.
"Ah... Well...There, you see... since I'm here at your behest... it's only fair that you..."
"A blue ruby of mine has been stolen."
"Oh, too bad. Sympathies. I hate it when that happens."
"I think the thief is going to be at the piff."
"At the sniff, you mean?"
"What does 'at the sniff' mean, jackass?"
"Well at least all three are proper words, unlike your sentence which scores just two out of three," said I defensively.
"The PIFF - the Pune International Film Festival."
"What makes you think that the thief is going to be there?" I asked, interested. "Have you watched Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale?"
"What? Look, I'm trying to talk as slowly and use as few syllables as possible here. I don't need fucking Bogart. All I need is a sap who'll do as he's told. On the table there is a delegate pass for the festival... which starts tomorrow, by the way. Look for a girl named Sally. Find out where she's hidden the ruby and get it back to me."
"I don't understand. If you know who took it, why don't you just... Oh, all right. Whatever. As regards my fee..."
"Your fee will be exactly what I choose to pay you after you retrieve my property. In the meantime, you shall stay here."


My room was on the ground floor, right next to the kitchen. The three rotis, half a bowl of dal and the two pieces of chicken I had for dinner didn't quite sate me (private eyes as a rule work up a healthy appetite due to all the martial arts training), and I toyed with the idea of topping up the tank, so to speak. Granted, her parents, the poor things, had slipped an extra roti or two onto my plate from their ration when she wasn't looking, but...

I crept quietly out my room, and was groping for a light in the passageway when I saw two pale-yellow points of light gleaming at me. Now, I've come across a lot of evil in my life. I've seen everything from the polish of Hannibal Lecter, Pavanai and Harry Lime to the malevolence of Eddie Dane, Anton Chigurh and Frank. But never have I seen anything drip evil from every pore like this dog did. I suppose zoologists would classify it as a Golden Retriever, but really, it was the size of a genetically modified lion that had been hitting the gym for 60 hours a week. It didn't make a noise... just a few leisurely steps in my direction, until it was inches from my face, mouth open, teeth gleaming and daring me to take a forward step... any step, in fact, other than back into my room.

I coughed apologetically, then remembered that he was just a dog after all, but smiled weakly anyway, all the while walking backwards gingerly, mumbled goodnight, and closed the door behind me. "I can think. I can wait. I can fast," quoth Siddhartha. Well, anything he can do, I can do better.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

In admiration of the scientific mind

I wanted a break from my weekend routine of flat hunting. So I watched Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Earth: 1, Flying Saucers: 0 - if anyone wants to know the final score). Unfortunately the film turned out to be a little too awful* for a place in my list of "counterpoint to 2001: A Space Odyssey" films, but it did have this one extraordinary scene.

A scientist and his wife/secretary are driving down a desert highway toward their top-secret rocket-launching facility. On the way, the scientist is recording memos on... is it a stenograph machine? (He speaks into it, apparently expecting it to record his speech.) Just then a flying saucer pops up behind their car - very much like the helicopter tailing Jamie Lee Curtis and her boyfriend in True Lies.

But unlike that helicopter, the saucer lurches forward like a drunk, three-legged dog making for his food bowl. Having passed the car, it then screeches to a halt, and executes the most shambolic reverse I've ever seen, lurching and wobbling and nearly taking the roof of the car with it. It then rises up vertically, does a booty shake, and accelerates away in a manner reminiscent not so much of the USS Enterprise engaging its warp drive, as much as Woody Allen accidentally engaging forward instead of reverse in Annie Hall.

All this leaves the newly wedded couple understandably flustered, particularly as the movie has just started and flying saucers haven't yet become anywhere near as omnipresent as from a little later on. So it's a while before they can manage conversation. Which, when it does appear, goes like this,

Wife: Russ, it was a saucer. A flying saucer?
Russ: Well, we saw what appeared to be a flying saucer. That's all we can say.
Wife: We saw it. We heard it. Both of us. What more do we need to know?
Russ: Well, we have to have time to think... to evaluate this... before we sound off.
Wife: Let me have a light. :after a light: Of course, it wasn't a saucer at all. I just shake like this all the time.
Russ: :sigh:

Later, while playing back the tape,

Wife: Russ, the saucer sound. It's on the tape! You forgot to turn it off! I remember now. I turned it off afterwards!
Russ: :grudgingly: Well, that's one piece of concrete evidence.

Isn't that just magnificent? He manages to keep this rationalism through most of the movie, slipping into empiricism (and a little smugness) only very briefly, and that too only when having to convince someone in a hurry, "Both Carol and I are subject to the same atmospheric disturbances (???!!!) that may have affected other observers, but there is a qualitative difference, when you're a scientist."


*It seems to have been quite influential, though, and the likes of Independence Day and Mars Attacks! have extensive references to it. Not to forget lines like "When an armed and threatening power lands uninvited in our capitol, we don't meet him with tea and cookies."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Satisfied Mind

Money can't buy back your youth when you're old
Or a friend when you're lonely
Or a love that's grown cold.
The wealthiest person is a pauper at times
Compared to the man with a satisfied mind.

What rubbish. Lack of money won't get you any of those either. And if you disagree, may I have your excess wealth, please?

All I ask for is just enough to walk into the gorgeous house - no more than a 10-minute amble from city centre, a stone's throw from a Metro station (just in case), and sandwiched between a cinema with reclining seats that plays noir on Tuesday evenings and the restaurant that would make God wish he had metabolism; but yet just at the foot of a winding road up a hill with lots of trees, wild grass, perennial cloudy, breezy afternoons, and overlooking acres and acres of army grasslands that will not for a hundred years have anything built on them - and flick a thick wad of cash, Bugsy style, at the startled owner before asking him to clear out. If it were a commercial movie, the credits would come right up because there wouldn't be much money in filming a chap spending the rest of his days doing "no work at all, except perhaps an occasional poem recommending the young man with life opening before him, with all its splendid possibilities, to light a pipe and shove his feet upon the mantelpiece." Except the pipe. Filthy habit, that.

The popular image of the rich & lonely old crank, followed with indecent haste by the moral that money can't buy happiness is an argument about as intelligent as claiming that the appeal of fast cars is that they help you keep appointments. As Al Pacino pointed out in a deleted scene from a well-known gangster flick, "You shouldn't be embarrassed by your wealth. This contempt for money is just another trick of the rich to keep the poor without it." Remember, money is the root of all evil, and as an older Pacino argues in a different film: amorality is fun.

Most people who fit the Scrooge stereotype, or who've made their own money, are probably ambitious, driven folk who're in it for the money only to the extent that it's a barometer to power, achievement and other thingies that a journeyman like me could only hazard guesses at. They wouldn't know how to enjoy their money any more than I would know how to make pots and pots of it. Why don't people move past the eye-grabbing images of the descend of Michael Corleone into darkness and look at the countless examples of filthy rich people living the happiest lives imaginable? Most bookstores have entire racks devoted to Wodehouse, and yet I've never seen Bertie Wooster offered as an exemplar counterpoint to all this fallacious stereotyping and unfair binning of money...

There's this Norwegian movie, The Storm in my Heart, about unfathomable men driven by passions they cannot understand or tame. It has a bit of dialogue that goes like this: there are two types of travellers - those who book airplane tickets and hotel rooms and who return when their money runs out, and a second group who walk out the door with no money in their pockets and who go where the road leads them. But isn't there a third sort? There are those who drift through life with no ties to anyone or anything, except a bottomless bank account, a healthy, if unsentimental, appreciation of beauty, and a plain refusal either to be tied down or to rough it. They are the meek and they're blessed because they've inherited their wealth, not made it themselves.

P.S. - Is there anything in the world more depressing than house hunting on a budget (any budget)?