The Very Difficult Diwali of Sub-Inspector Gurushankar Rajaram
In the Winter (Summer in that part of the world) of 2003, I was staying with my sister in Melbourne. A week before, she had been hit by a car while crossing the street and was very badly injured. I had just finished a job in Fremantle, so flew over to Melbourne where my Christmas Holiday was basically taking care of my sister until she could walk again. She was also out of a job: it was rather depressing time as Christmases go.
We rented a lot of movies, and there was one that I remember with great fondness: Lagaan. It lifted our spirits enormously, and while it may not be the best movie ever (or the best Bollywood movie ever), it stays in my mind as a bright spot in a dark period. When I read “The Very Difficult Diwali of Sub-Inspector Gurushankar Rajaram”, it was as if I was thrown back to that Christmas: it bursts with energy, joy, inventivity and sheer exuberance.
My sister and I had a hard Christmas time, but we overcame it. Now, Sub-Inspector Gurushankar Rajaram has a very difficult Diwali, indeed, as literally almost everybody seems to be up against him. Will he overcome the barrage of problems thrown in his way (and Jeff Soesbe isn’t holding back in that regard, far from it)? Will there be song and dance? Find out in this extravagant story about a Diwali like you’ve never seen…
CRAMMED INTO HIS unicopter, patrolling above Bengaluru, Sub-Inspector Gurushankar Rajaram nervously surveyed the scenes below. It was the fourth day of Diwali and the city was slowly, carefully, and exquisitely going mad.
On the unicopter’s monitors the city-wide SHIVA surveillance system presented a constant stream of dangerous situations, courtesy its Bayesian threat analysis algorithms, for Raja to evaluate.
HIGH-SPEED SKATE GANG OFF BVK IYENGAR ROAD turned out to be children reenacting the victory of Rama over Ravana. Raja assigned Patrol Officer Mitra to corral the kids and calm them down.
LARGE ROLLING MOB, SUNDAY BAZAAR ON SULTANPET. A dramatic reenactment of Satyabhama slaying the demon Nakasura. To shut down the battle and claim all weapons, Officer Pandey was assigned.
There were quarrels, pickpockets, misunderstandings, and a generous helping of celebrants intoxicated on beer, honey wine, or psychedelic chai. The monkeys were out in full force as well. Bonobos and ring tailed sahas scampered through the crowds, scaling buildings and apartments, stealing food and valuables. Definitely on the edge, tensions in the city were growing.
This was the flow of Raja’s days during Diwali and at nighttime it would be even more chaotic, as the streets of Bengaluru burned bright with the light of oil lamps and ran thick with the sound and smoke of millions of firecrackers. Firecrackers were too much like gunshots for SHIVA, every bang another HIGH PRIORITY WEAPONS FIRE to be checked.
The Bangalore City Police did what they would with foot officers, scooter patrols, and Sub-Inspectors like Raja directing efforts from the sky. But it was just too many people, too much craziness, for any number of BCP officers to control. Raja hoped the city would maintain itself over the last weekend of Diwali, and by Monday the people could return to the peaceful work of running the strongest economy on the planet.
DISTURBANCE ON AVKAR ROAD. When Raja shifted his bulk to get a better look, the unicopter lurched dramatically to the left. Enough of this. He switched off the autopilot and calmed his hammering heart with a slow, deep breath. These flying autocarts would surely kill him, but if so it would be with his own hands on the controls.
Besides, it was time to survey the grounds of the Dev Mahal. As if the last days of Diwali weren’t enough madness, it was also the fifth anniversary of the death of Dev Khan.
Dev Kapoor Khan. The intersection of the three greatest acting families in Bollywood history. In each of his more than a thousand films, Dev Khan fought like a hero, danced like a demon, and sang like an angel. Women dreamed he was their secret paramour, men wished he was their closest friend, and children made him their favorite uncle. Khan was a playboy, a raconteur, and a prankster of the first degree.
He was also a tireless social activist who brought attention to the plight of the underprivileged, speaking against the unfair treatment of citizens in the rural and farming communities. And when he spoke, everyone paid attention. Dev Khan was attractive and rakish with dark haunted eyes, a cascading mop of thick unruly black hair, and a smile of sparkling white teeth like a constellation of stars. To Khan’s legions of devoted fans, a massive number that included Raja’s own wife Shruthi, Dev Kapoor Khan was an icon, an idol, and very nearly a god who might one day return.
Upon Khan’s death the entire country, most of Southeast Asia, and expat communities around the world entered a prolonged, sorrowful mourning. Some ignorant Western commentators referred to Dev Kapoor Khan as “The Indian Elvis”, but that was an insult to Khan and gave Elvis way too much credit.
To Raja, one of the officers who investigated Khan’s death, Dev Kapoor Khan was just a dead body floating in a crystal blue swimming pool the size of a cricket infield. Raja saw it as the case of a man whose flame had constantly burned so bright and so powerful that it simply flared out, like the short-lived orange and yellow Diwali candles dotting the households below.
The Dev Mahal, the lasting symbol of Dev Kapoor Khan’s fame, was a palatial estate the size of a city district on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Every anniversary of Khan’s death the grounds, opened to visitors, became a colossal festival. From throughout India, pilgrims traveled to remember Khan’s life and despair anew at his death.
SHIVA’s cameras within the Dev Mahal grounds confirmed Raja’s view: a mass of people, estimated at three hundred thousand, singing, dancing, drinking and eating. The mood inside was much like that in Bengaluru, which meant that SHIVA contained a long and growing list of incidents, and trend analysis predicted that things would get worse once the sun went down and the mourning began in earnest.
Raja’s phone rang with a Kalyani raga scale. It was his wife, Shruthi, the chief health officer in charge of the volunteer clinics inside the Dev Mahal.
“Sub-Inspector Rajaram here.”
“Hello, Guru. I assume that is you wobbling overhead?”
“I recognized the uncertain flying. Did you drink today?” Her voice carried the prickly lines of concern that he knew crossed her forehead.
“Of course not. I quit last week. And I’m on duty.”
“Hm.” In that single sound Raja heard a thousand words about his past behavior. Already the conversation had taken a bad turn. Change the subject, perhaps. “How is the situation inside the compound?”
“Under control. Barely. We could use more officers.”
“Everywhere could use more officers.”
“Hm.” Again there were volumes in a single sound.
“Guru, have you found any marriage prospects for my medical aide, Shankar, yet? You do remember, don’t you?”
Raja closed the unicopter window against a sudden chill in the air and was quiet. The only sound was the slow thwip-thwip of the unicopter’s rotors. He didn’t want to reply because it was too early in the afternoon for a third “Hm”.
Luckily, Shruthi broke the silence. “Well, I have to go. We have some fresh dehydrations coming in.”
“Be sure to call if any problems arise.”
“Don’t worry, Officer Rajaram. I’ll certainly call the proper authorities if there is any trouble.”
“Be safe, my wife.”
What had happened between them? Once they shared love letters and long nights of conversation over smoky chai and honeyed sweets. Now there was just this constant state of tension. Raja saw the deteriorated state of his marriage as something related to the decrepit state of his job and of his life in general. No children. No advancement at work. The same small apartment they bought fresh out of university. Back then it was charming and close, but now it was a stale old box. He was a disappointment, to his wife, to his family, to his coworkers, and most of all, to himself.
“Sub-Inspector Rajaram,” the automated dispatch voice said. “You are late for the status meeting.”
“You must attend in person.”
Curse his sieve of a brain. He’d forgotten the weekly status meeting again, and it was important enough to require his physical presence.
“On my way.”
Raja turned on the siren and sped for headquarters, his stomach rolling with the acceleration. He’d developed an unfortunate habit of being late for the status meeting. Another bad mark on his record.
Approaching the landing pad on the headquarters roof, Raja saw the small, trim figure of Officer Balaji standing at perfect attention, obviously waiting for him. She walked at a brisk pace to his unicopter, her perfectly coiffed ponytail flipping back and forth like the tail of a cat, and opened the door.
“Yes, Officer?” Raja struggled out of the cockpit and tried to stretch, to ease the hard knot in his lower back.
“You are to report to the videoconference room at once, Sub-Inspector Rajaram, for a meeting with DSP Guha.”
Now the Deputy Superintendent of Police was joining in the meeting as well. If it wasn’t Diwali, Raja would assume that he was being fired. Especially since the summons to the videoconference room was being delivered in person by Balaji, who had long been after his job.
“Officer Balaji, why are we meeting with the DSP?”
“Among other things, Sub-Inspector Rajaram, the elephants are marauding.”
This day definitely wasn’t getting any better.
“SUB-INSPECTOR RAJARAM, thank you for joining us,” Inspector Naidu said as Raja snuck into the warm videoconference room full of Sub-Inspectors and took his seat at the far end of the polished wood table. Even in the comfortable padded leather chairs of the conference room, Raja couldn’t relax but still felt on edge.
Naidu gave Raja a quick, stern glance before turning back to the monitors. “DSP Guha, I apologize for the interruption. Please continue.”
The monitor resolution was so clear, the sternness in DSP Guha’s thin mouth was obvious as his bushy eyebrows narrowed into a single dark line. “The BCP is stretched thin handling disturbances throughout the city. This issue with the elephants has the potential to become a major problem.” Guha’s gaze locked on to Raja, and sweat trickled down Raja’s spine. “Sub-Inspector Rajaram, the Southeast District is yours, correct?”
“Yes, DSP Guha.” Raja tensed for a chiding.
“You did not notice the elephants massing yesterday.”
“It is Diwali, sir.”
“Well, what’s done is done.” Guha made a note on a pad.
Raja tried to avoid thinking about what that note might entail, and failed miserably. He tried what he hoped was a reasonable question. “Do we know where the elephants are going, sir?”
“Basic projections show they are heading towards the Dev Mahal.”A chorus of gasps and choking coughs exploded from the attendees. Raja himself shuddered at the thought of a herd of marauding elephants loose in the Dev Mahal. Massive grey bodies trampling through the brightly colored tents and stalls, hordes of panicked people crushing each other in an attempt to escape.
It would be a cataclysm. And Shruthi would be at the center of it all. Raja ducked his head as sadness knifed into him.
“What about the army?” Inspector Naidu said.“They are busy with maneuvers on the northern borders. The National Guard is putting down violence at temple sites in the city. The Commissioner’s plan is to request use of the Third Eye of SHIVA.”
Raja jerked his head up. “You would burn the elephants?” The Third Eye, an orbital laser system, could put a hole in a man’s right hand without touching his cigarette. At full power, the Eye wide open, it could leave a smoking twenty-foot-wide crater in the ground. The Third Eye would pick off the elephants one by one until all that was left was blast pits and fragments of charred ivory tusks.
“Other ideas, Sub-Inspector Rajaram?”
“No, sir.” The elephants or three hundred thousand people. Either way, a poor choice. Raja had no other ideas.
“Sub-Inspector Rajaram.” Naidu’s voice was hard, stern. “You are to fly from here to the elephants and find a suitable location for use of the Third Eye. Also, determine the size of the herd. Dust prevents SHIVA orbital cameras from an accurate count.”
Guha tapped his desk, and the sound echoed in the videoconference room. “All information about the herd has been transmitted to Officer Chaterjee in the tech department. Call when you are done. I have another meeting. Goodbye.” Guha’s image blinked out, leaving Raja looking at his own haggard image in the polished mirror of the screen.
“Sub-Inspector Rajaram,” Naidu said. “Start immediately. Your presence at this meeting is no longer required. Report back quickly.”
“Yes, sir.” Raja pushed himself from his chair and left the room. A quick stop by tech department, and then another flight in the unicopter, the last thing Raja wanted. Surely he was being punished for something he’d done, to someone, somewhere, in some other life.
HE FOUND OFFICER Lakshmi Chaterjee in her cubicle, back to the door, wearing thin black ear-phones, watching a video of Dev Kapoor Khan singing. When she didn’t notice him he tapped her shoulder.
Chaterjee twitched, took off her earphones, and spun her chair around. She was young and small, her short pert haircut accentuating the point of her jaw and the angles of her eyebrows. Raja recognized her from the last company picnic.
“Sub-Inspector Rajaram, my apologies. I didn’t see you there.”
“I know it’s Diwali, Officer Chaterjee, but we don’t allow Bollywood videos at work.”
Chaterjee’s face reddened, the color almost as deep as the red of her sari. “Oh, no, sir, it’s not a video. It’s a simulation. Here, watch.” She typed in a clatter of keys before tilting the large screen up towards Raja.
The simulated Dev Khan smiled, then his gaze locked on Raja and a chill crawled up Raja’s spine. It looked so real. “Hello, Sub-Inspector Rajaram. It is very nice to meet you.” The voice and image were perfect, like the man himself was talking to Raja live and in person and across the five years of his death.
“We’re prototyping virtual officers to take calls from citizens,” Chaterjee said, with a touch of pride in her voice. “And, well, Dev Khan just seemed like a natural subject.”
“I’m not here about Dev Khan, Officer Chaterjee.”
“Of course not, sir. You’re here about the elephants.” More lightning-quick typing and the monitor cycled through a sequence of satellite pictures showing a blurry mass in a cloud of dust.
“I ran some basic image enhancement routines over the rough images from SHIVA.” Chaterjee tapped the trackpad on her keyboard and the pictures sharpened as if waves of magnifying glasses were passing over them, some inverted, some infrared.
Raja could now make out the light grey elephants amid the blurry dust. His quick count approached a hundred. “That’s a lot of elephants.”
“I counted a hundred and twenty. Here’s their travel so far.”
She showed an orbital map of the Southeast District, with the elephants’ path in red. It zigged and zagged around the district, not in a straight line at all. Very curious.
“That path is not direct, Chaterjee.”
Raja pointed at the areas that were white with buildings or blue with water. “They have avoided the villages, and detoured by several small lakes.”
“The elephants are being driven?”
“Yes, driven.” Driven meant people were involved. People would want their causes heard in person, and would understand the threat posed by the Third Eye of SHIVA. People would negotiate. There was a chance Raja could handle this situation, an achievement that would actually look good on his record.
“Send the information to my account, Officer Chaterjee. Thank you for the excellent work.”
“What are you going to do, sir?”
Raja signaled on his handheld for his copter to be prepared. “I’m going to find the mahout of these elephants.” He dashed up the stairs, back aching, and mentally steeled himself for another gut-twisting ride over the city.
PASSING THE DEV Mahal, Raja called Shruthi. Her voice, tense at first, caught when he told her about the elephants.
“Guru, it would be a disaster. We could never evacuate in time.”
“I know. Shruthi, We’ll keep the stampede away from the estate.”
“Will the BCP slaughter the elephants? Those poor innocent creatures.”
“I know. I’ll do what I can. I want everyone safe, especially you.”
Right now, Raja wanted to see Shruthi in person, see the simple beauty of her face and hold her strong hands. He missed her more than he thought was even possible anymore. To sit with her and work through a problem together, like they did in the early days of marriage, would be wonderful. But their lives had become parallel lines of a railroad track, going in the same direction but never meeting.
A massive cloud of dust appeared. “I’m at the elephants. I have to go. I’ll call you as soon as I can.”
“Be careful, my husband.” He heard compassion in the tough steel of her voice.
“I will, my wife. Goodbye,” he said as the dust surrounded him.
It took him a minute to find the elephants, but once he did he wondered how he had ever missed them for they were huge, obviously from the farms of Marsala.
Last decade, when the high-powered South India economy was battered by the great oil collapse, the Marsala farmers returned to run their operations on pure animal power. Elephants were taken from the forests of Bandipur, genetically altered for size and strength, and used to provide cheap, highly versatile, grain-powered labor. The farmers reaped a higher profit and a regular supply of elephant dung for fertilizer and heat.
Occasionally, a few elephants got free and roamed the countryside robbing fruit trucks and drinking from swimming pools. This herd was way bigger. Raja’s suspicions they were being led proved right when he circled back to the front. On top of the lead elephant sat a small figure in white robes, wearing a breathing mask.
Raja set the unicopter hovering twenty feet in front of the lead elephant and turned on the loudspeaker.
“This is Bangalore City Police. I order you to stop!”
The lead elephant trumpeted, and then the whole herd joined in. The sound was deafening, even over the whine of the unicopter’s rotors.
Raja turned his siren on, full volume, and the trumpeting died to a whimper. When the dust settled Raja finally got a good look at the herd, a temple tapestry come to life. The lead elephants wore armor, the dented multicolored body panels of vans tied together by thick hemp ropes and draped over their sides. Some pulled carts, made of rope and wood, carrying grey tanks of water or bright baskets of fruit. The riders dressed in grey, dusty robes and wore breathing masks.
Raja switched to the loudspeaker. “I am Sub-Inspector Gurushankar Rajaram of the BCP. Who are you?”
The figure on the lead elephant pulled back its scarf and breathing mask, revealing a young girl, with a round face and straight brown hair, probably twelve or thirteen.
Raja’s heart sank as the rest of the riders took off their masks. Children. They were all children.“I am Shilpa Devendra,” the leader said. “We are TREMOR, the Thai Remainders Elephant Mob Of Redemption. We travel to Bengaluru to protest our unfair treatment at the hands of the mega-corporations.”
Raja felt handicapped by his ‘lack of knowledge about regional economic issues’ as Inspector Naidu would say. “What unfair treatment? These are farm elephants.”
“The corporations buy the small farms, and release the elephants.”
“Now the elephants can return to the forest.”
“What forest? It is being logged into stumps and dirt.”
Free elephants without a home would indeed be a problem, but what was the kids’ connection? “Why do you children care what happens to the elephants? And where are your parents?”
“We are all orphans, brought from Thailand as mahouts. The elephants and our fellow riders are the only family we have. Now we are jobless.”
This situation was becoming absurd. Here he was, sweating in a unicopter, talking economics with a girl on an elephant. Time to take control of this situation, like a Sub-Inspector should.
“You have my strongest sympathies.” As someone who felt himself one paycheck away from unemployment, he could envision the difficulty of the children’s lives. And for an orphaned child? He and Shruthi didn’t have children of their own, another shortcoming on the long list of things wrong with Raja as far as both their families were concerned.
“Then leave us alone and let us continue,” Shilpa shouted.
“I can’t. You’re heading for the Dev Mahal.”
“Of course we are. Dev Khan would have heard our cries. He would speak out in favor of us. Dev Khan loved the poor and the orphans. And elephants.”
“You’d cause chaos at the Dev Mahal. Think about it.”
“If chaos is the tool by which the city becomes aware of our plight, it’s an unfortunate necessity.”
“The government will kill you first.”
“Then we die for our cause.”
She was certainly stubborn and passionate for her cause. Raja could admire her for that even if her judgment wasn’t perfect. “I can’t allow you to enter the city.”
Shilpa tapped at her mobile phone. “You are a big man in a small machine that barely stays in the air. You won’t stop us.”
She waved her hand and an elephant in the middle of the pack uncurled its trunk like a whip. A mango flew in a blur towards the unicopter and smashed into the front windshield, leaving a crack and a smear as it slid off.
Raja yanked the copter back, spun it around and shoved the throttle forward. The sky around him sang with mangos and the copter shuddered with each impact.
Close to the city limits, the engine whined and the copter dropped drastically. Raja’s stomach lurched as he checked the gauge. Empty. One of the mangos must have cracked the fuel tank. The ground was approaching fast. Raja hit the emergency signal, tried to steer as best he could, and braced himself for impact as the crash bags inflated around him like clouds.
RAJA LIKED THE ground, once he was on it. It was stable, solid and didn’t buck and kick at the slightest whim. Raja survived the crash, but the broken struts and twisted blades said the copter was a loss.
At least the communications system still worked. Inspector Naidu answered immediately, and was quickly unhappy with the news of the elephant encounter. Raja imagined Naidu tallying rupees during the story of the mango attack.
Naidu’s voice was hard. “Again, how many elephants, how many riders?”
“One hundred and twenty six elephants, just over sixty children.”
The only sound was Naidu drumming his fingers on a desk. “And you are the only officer who knows of the riders.”
“Anyone who saw the elephants knows there are riders.”
“But you are the only BCP officer, correct?”
Raja didn’t like this direction. “Yes.”
“Did you find a good location for use of the Third Eye?”
“Thirumala,” Raja stuttered, “you can’t be serious.”
“I am very serious, Sub-Inspector Rajaram.” Naidu’s harsh voice re-emphasized the relationship between them; Naidu the boss, Raja the employee forgetting his place. “Sixty children, or thousands of people. The government has made the decision.”
A sick feeling started in Raja’s stomach and burned its way into his throat. The children and the elephants would be killed.
“Honorable Inspector, please give me time to find another way.”
“You went down two kilometers from the Dev Mahal, right?”
“How is the ground around you?”
“Open. Flat.” His words in his mouth tasted bitter, like rancid food.
“Then that is the location for use of the Eye. How long until the elephants arrive at your position?”
“About two hours.”
“Then you have two hours, Sub-Inspector Rajaram. If you don’t have anything by then, they will use the Third Eye. Do I make myself clear?”
Raja could barely speak. “Yes, Inspector.”
“Good. A new copter is on its way to bring you back to headquarters. Report to my office when you arrive. Naidu out.”
Two kilometers from the Dev Mahal, standing in the middle of what in two hours would become a killing ground, Raja wished he hadn’t picked Diwali to quit drinking.
He crouched in the shade of his ruined copter. He had to stop the elephants. There must be some way he could bring chaos into their tightly organized stampede. Harassing the mahouts, maybe, or stealing their food and water.
Thieves. What Raja needed was a group of small, quick, nimble thieves, who could climb down ropes and jump on elephants and bother their riders. He needed a group of monkeys.
A gust of wind kicked up dust and Raja stood for the arrival of a brown, bulky, BCP cargo copter. It settled nimbly on the ground and he ran to the passenger door. Once buckled in he turned to see the figure of Officer Chaterjee at the controls, looking smart in goggles and flying jacket.
She tapped her comlink as the copter spun up.
Raja donned the spare helmet, tight and stiff on his head, and flipped on the comlink. “What are you doing here?”
“We are short handed. I volunteered to retrieve you.”
“My mother taught me. She flew support copters with the Air Force.”
They leapt into the sky like they had springs and Raja grabbed onto the door to keep himself steady. This was a standard rescue copter, with space in the back and several drop baskets. Perfect for his new plan.
“Chaterjee, we’re not going to headquarters. We have a different destination.”
“Sir, Inspector Naidu said I was to bring you right back.”
“Inspector Naidu told me I had two hours. I have another plan, one that requires a couple stops. I need your help in averting a catastrophe. I’ll explain on the way.”
Officer Chaterjee was silent for a moment, then nodded her head. “Okay, sir. Where are we going?”
“Our final destination is the Singh Mystery House.”
“First, we stop by Sunday Market. And we must hurry, time is precious.”
“Yes, sir.” Officer Chaterjee shoved the stick forward and the copter sped up, pinning Raja back into his seat. He was certainly going to get his fill of copter flying today.
AFTER A COUPLE of purchases at Sunday Market via mobile calls and the drop basket, they zeroed in on a landing place in front of Singh Mystery House, once the palatial home of real estate magnate Rahul Singh.
When Singh died, his wife believed that continual construction would keep Singh’s spirit trapped in the house. As a result, the house was a twisting maze of halls, rooms with connecting windows, secret doors, and fake skylights. Collections of fruit, fig and banyan trees crowded the grounds.
As Widow Singh aged she became paranoid and, distrusting people, relied on trained monkeys for help. Various species of monkeys, imported from overseas, bred for intelligence and schooled in sign language, ran the woman’s estate. They also made their way into the surrounding city and bred with the native monkeys, producing second and third generations of smart, sign-language-speaking monkeys, leaders of the monkey gangs that harassed the city. Raja was the last policeman to go inside the Mystery House, on a previous case when he actually met the completely mad Widow Singh.
Raja pointed to the weathered front door. “That’s our goal. It’s not easy, but we have an advantage.” He pulled a large box of yellow and white Mega Mad Candy from the Market sack. “Here, take this.”
“From the United States. Americans can make hyper-sweet candy. And monkeys have a tremendous sweet tooth. Let’s go. Make sure to lock the copter.”
The black iron gate was rusted and the hinges screamed as Raja pushed them open slowly.
“Where are the monkeys?”
“Believe me, they’re here.” The trees around them shook, but there was no breeze. It was from monkeys, monkeys that now descended from the trees and crawled towards them.
“Sir, I should tell you something.”
“Yes, Chaterjee?” Raja kept his eye on the large gold and silver monkeys emerging from the thick vines covering the stonework around the front door of the Mystery House. Big and tough, they were the door guards.
“Monkeys scare me.”
They didn’t have a choice. They had to go through with this. “It’s okay, Chaterjee. They just want the candy. Time to pay up.”
Raja took out his candy box, opened it and shook it. The aroma of peppermint wafted out and the monkeys froze. The largest of the guards sidled over to Raja and stuck out a hand. Raja dropped a few candies into it. The guard popped the candy into its mouth and his eyes went wide before he screeched a laugh.
“He likes it,” Chaterjee’s voice was a fearful chuckle.
The other monkeys crowded around Raja and Chaterjee. “Open your box and give them each some. This is how we get inside.” Raja dispensed candies into the endless series of reaching hands that jabbed out at him.
Chaterjee was struggling. “Sir, my box won’t open.”
Raja was about to help when the box top gave way with a crack, Chaterjee’s hands jerked upward, and the candy exploded out, raining down on them in a shower. The smell of artificial banana made Raja’s throat itch.
The air was filled with small furry hands grabbing for everything in sight, scratching at Raja’s face and clothes. “Chaterjee, throw the box!” Raja tossed his candy box in the air and pulled Chaterjee away from the melee. Amid the sounds of screeching, fighting monkeys, they ran for the door, pulled it open and slammed it closed behind them.
“Are you okay, Officer Chaterjee?”
She ran her hands over her face and arms. “I think so,” she said, catching her breath. “That was interesting. And you, sir?”
He had a few scratches on his hands, and his jacket was torn in a couple places. “I’m fine. Still in one piece.”
“Sir.” Chaterjee pointed up, slow hesitation in her voice.
Hanging from the light fixture in the highest corner of the entry was a single monkey, its fur the color of ginger, holding Raja’s wallet. The monkey chattered, showing stained teeth, and scrambled away through a doorway clogged with tangles of green vines.
Raja had forgotten to leave the wallet in the copter, and cursed himself for the mistake.
“Sir, what do we do?”
“We follow. All spoils go to the Monkey Queen. Luckily, it’s where we wanted to go anyway.”
The house was a monkey paradise, full of things to climb and eat. Old, fraying ropes and nets were strung over and around every light fixture, interior window, or picture frame. Vines grew in through open windows and cracks in the floor. The house smelled of rotting fruit and animal sweat. Raja wondered if Old Widow Singh was still alive, somewhere deep in this house turned jungle, as he pushed through the doorway.
THE LIGHT TAN monkey with Raja’s wallet stayed just within view until they arrived at the dining room. Monkeys of all colors and sizes milled about on crudely constructed climbing posts, like mutant cousins of coat racks or leafless trees, around a massive stained wooden dining table covered in fruit and stolen trinkets.
“Sub-Inspector, look!” Chaterjee whispered.In a large red leather chair at the head of the table was a mummified woman with white hair. So the Widow Singh was dead.
Next to her was the Monkey Queen, the Widow’s original helper, a large golden monkey with bits of grey streaking her fur. On the table in front of the Monkey Queen was Raja’s wallet.
Hello, Raja, the Queen said in sign language.
Raja’s sign language, and his vocabulary, were pitiful. Hello, he signed. I. Want. No, Need. You. Monkey. Help. Me.
“Excuse me, sir?” Chaterjee sounded astonished. “Is that American Sign Language?”
“Yes. I am terrible.”
“I speak ASL.”
Now Raja was astonished. “What? How?”
“I did six months with Technologie Sans Frontieres in New Orleans, and a deaf engineer from Nairobi taught me.”
Relief swept over Raja. “Officer Chaterjee, if you would translate it would be wonderful.”
Chaterjee stretched her hands and turned her wrists in circles. “I’m ready, sir.”Raja bowed low. “Hello, Queen, I am honored to meet you again.”
The Queen responded in a blur then rested her paw on the Widow’s mummified hand.
“Is that what she said?”
“Oh, sorry, Sub-Inspector. She signs so well! She said ‘Inspector Rajaram, we are happy that you return to our home.’ I assumed this,” Chaterjee crossed two fingers and moved her hand across her body, “meant Rajaram. It’s letter R combined with the sign for a prince.”
The monkeys thought him a prince. Raja stood taller with the knowledge. “Queen, I need your help with an important manner. But first, I would like my wallet back.” He knew monkeys appreciated directness.
The Queen picked up Raja’s wallet. “I will trade for candy.”
“Sir,” Chaterjee said. “We lost the candy.”
“Not the candy she wants.” Raja reached into his jacket and pulled out the long thin tube of Super Sour Fruit Bombs, his other Market purchase.
The Queen signed furiously. “Yes. Yes. That. I want that.”
Thank goodness he’d remembered.Raja held up the candy. “My wallet, Queen.”
Eyes narrow, the Queen walked on the table to Raja and in a flash of fur, the exchange was made. Raja tucked his wallet into his pocket as the Queen bit open the tube.
“You need help?” The Queen signed with one hand and flicked out a candy with the other.
Raja quickly reviewed the situation with the elephants, the danger to the people, and the need for action. The Queen sucked her candy, her face twisting with the sourness.
Raja wrapped up. “The sacred books say that a single smart monkey can defeat a herd of elephants.” Luckily, the Queen didn’t read. “Will you help?”
“We want more of this.” The Monkey Queen held up the Fruit Bombs.
It would cost Raja a great deal of pay to get enough candy for all the monkeys, and he wouldn’t be reimbursed. But it was worth it to save elephants and children. “You will get candy. Much more candy.”
The Queen flicked another candy in her mouth, laughing with the sourness. All the monkeys took up the laugh and it echoed around the room. A chill went up Raja’s spine and suddenly he felt deep in a forest, not in the suburb of a large, well-populated city.
“We will help you. When do we leave?”
“There is a flying machine outside that can take us to the elephants.”
The Queen signed furiously to the tall, large, red monkeys standing next to her throne, who immediately swung away. “I didn’t get it all,” Lakshmi said. “But I caught fast, group, bring, and wings, I think.”
The Queen turned back to them. “We will be outside shortly.” She grinned, all teeth and fangs, and patted the Widow’s desiccated arm. “Do not worry, mistress, we will stop the elephants.”
IN THE HELICOPTER were almost a hundred small monkeys with dark black fur, each wearing clear children’s swimming goggles and a red harness. The harness held rigid, jointed wings that extended to a monkey’s hands. When the monkeys stretched, they looked like a colony of bats on the roof of a cave.
The elephants were twenty kilometers from the Dev Mahal. Lakshmi put the helicopter on auto-hover, out of the range of mango fire.
“Queen. Elephants.” Raja signed. Raja opened the door and tasted dust as it swirled into the cargo bay.
The Queen nimbly moved to the door and surveyed the mass of elephants marching relentlessly forward. She turned to the cargo bay and screeched, loud and imperious. All activity stopped as the monkeys faced her.
“Now we win.” The Queen signed slowly, regally, with big gestures and Chaterjee translated for Raja’s benefit. “Win, and we receive many, many sweets. Be safe. Be quick. Be strong. Stop the elephants. Go.” The Queen pointed out the door.
Monkeys poured past her in a well-organized river, leaping from the helicopter, unfurling wings, and gliding down. They weaved through the dust, landing two to an elephant. Immediately they created havoc, playing with the masks of the riders, unbuckling straps, and pulling the elephants’ ears. Several landed on the carts carrying food and water. They threw food out of the carts and opened spigots and nozzles on the tanks, causing water to spill out onto the ground. Trunks whipped towards monkeys, and they danced and dodged them.
The battle raged, but Raja soon knew it wasn’t enough. The mahouts and elephants recovered quickly. Monkeys were hit, tossed aside, ignored, hurled into the air. This was not working. The monkeys were too small, too few, and could be killed. His idea had been a terrible one, and now innocent monkeys were paying for it.
“Not work. Get monkeys back,” he signed to the Queen. He threw out the drop baskets but they were too high.
“Chaterjee, take us lower. We must get the monkeys back.”
The copter dipped and weaved over the elephants as the Queen screeched constantly. Monkeys coasted and jumped to the ropes and climbed back into the cargo bay, dusty and tired.
Raja sat heavily back in his chair, a defeated man. In less than an hour, white death would burn down from the sky and kill elephants and children alike. Simply because they had a cause, a fair and just cause, and there was no one to speak for them. If only Dev Kapoor Khan were alive. He could speak and people would rally to his call.
If Dev Kapoor Khan were alive. Raja knew that Khan was dead, but millions of Indians still believed that he lived, in exile, in hiding. Many of them were at the Dev Mahal. If Khan called them, they would instantly help.
If Dev Khan were alive. But he was alive, within the tech department’s simulation programs, as a prototype virtual police officer. A prototype that could be displayed on SHIVA’s broadcast screens.
If Khan were alive. It was a crazy idea, but it just might work.
He outlined the plan to Chaterjee, and she laughed happily. “It would be just like Live, Calcutta, Live, when he stopped the class riots with the bhajan songs and the dance.”
Raja remembered Shruthi watching the scene, in tears, as Raja passed through the television room. “Can you bring up that scene, to drive the Khan simulation? I’ll give you words for him to say, then he can sing and dance.”
“Of course. Those are standard simulation tests in tech department.”
“Then prepare the simulation. We go when it’s ready.”
“Shouldn’t you ask Inspector Naidu?”
Naidu would only cut Raja off, or fire him. Or both. “No, we’re not calling the Inspector. I take full responsibility, Officer Chaterjee. Use my authorization codes. Are you okay with that?”
WHILE CHATERJEE PREPARED the simulation, Raja cared for the monkeys injured in the fight.
Monkeys lose. I’m sorry, the Queen signed as she patted his arm.
Monkeys try, Raja signed. You get much candy. Thank you.
Chaterjee buzzed him on the comlink. “It’s ready, sir. What do you want him to say?”
“I will take care of that.” Raja went to his seat and flexed his fingers over the touchpad. Dev Kapoor Khan would be sorry, for abandoning his city, his fervent adoring fans. Raja was sorry too, for so many things. He considered his city, his life, all the failures he had inflicted on those close to him, especially Shruthi.
Raja cleared his mind and the inspiration came, like in his youth. His fingers moved in a quick dance of taps, like a tabla rhythm, and he was done.
“That’s it. Head back to the Dev Mahal, and play the video over SHIVA on the way.”
“Your code, sir.”
Raja linked a small monitor in the copter to the SHIVA display system. “Ganesha bless us.” He entered his passcode.
Throughout the city, including the Dev Mahal, SHIVA’s display panels changed from news and traffic warnings to the smiling, beatific face of Dev Khan.
“Hello, my city.” Khan flashed his perfect smile. “I have missed you. I apologize for my absence, and for all my wrongs. But my city is kind, and still remembers me. You bring me joy. Thank you.”
Khan’s silver earrings sparkled as he dipped his head. “But today, my city, my spirit aches in sadness. Marching towards the city, towards my home, towards my celebrating friends, is a large group of hard-working farm elephants and their devoted, orphaned, child riders. They are angry, my friends, over their mistreatment by the big farm corporations.
Khan looked through his long, jet-black bangs. “Their plight is sorrowful, their sufferings are endless, and they have no love to show them the better path. My friends, I ask you to show them the love I know is in your heart.
“A helicopter comes, to lead you to the elephants and their riders. Follow, and go to them. Do not take up conflict, but welcome them. Take care of them. They have helped take care of you for so very long. They deserve your sympathy. They deserve your respect. They deserve your love.
“Thank you, my city. You warm my heart.”
Dev Khan started into “There Is Only One Love”, the slow mournful bhajan from Live, Calcutta, Live, a ballad of love for all the beings of the Earth, no matter what their station in this life.
Raja and Chaterjee arrived in the helicopter. The people in the Dev Mahal were ecstatic, swaying back and forth as a group, holding hands and embracing each other close, singing along with the song they all knew so well.
When they saw the copter, they exploded out of the gates. Chaterjee turned the copter around and led them to the south. They ran, they walked, they rode bicycles, they took carts, an endless river of people singing and chanting along with the music blasting from the copter.
It was a nervous twenty minutes for Raja as the people made it way to the downed copter, the target area for the Third Eye of SHIVA. They arrived mere minutes before the elephants. When the elephants came they found not a flashing death from the skies, but a singing, dancing crowd that surrounded them and stopped them in their tracks. Flowers and food on poles were raised to the mahouts who dropped their masks and took them, smiling.
The copter phone rang. “Rajaram here.”
“This is Naidu. SHIVA says there are twenty thousand people at the target site.”
“Yes, there are.”
“What are they doing?”
“Singing. Dancing. Stopping the elephants. Everything is well.”
“Well.” The communications link was silent while Raja’s heart pounded. “Sub-Inspector, the Third Eye has been deactivated. Congratulations. I expect a full report this evening. Naidu out.”
A wave of relief swept over Raja, as the crowd accompanied the elephants back to the Dev Mahal. Inside young people waited with water and brushes to clean the dirt from the elephants’ hides. The great creatures settled down into the luxurious grass, closed their eyes, and flitted their trunks about lazily, enjoying the attention. The mahout children slid down from their perches on the elephants’ backs and were immediately embraced by older worshipers, who cleaned their hair and faces and draped the children in bright robes of silk and cotton.
Chaterjee set the chopper down in the medical landing pad. Once the engines were off, the sounds of Dev Khan’s music filled the air.
“Officer Chaterjee, come with me and meet my wife.”
A tall, stately figure, in a simple green sari, stood in front of the medical center. Shruthi. Raja’s heart and his pace quickened at the sight of her dark hair with its elegant touches of grey, her marvelously curved body. He took her hands but she let go, grabbed his face, and gave him a full, powerful kiss. Her lips tasted of chai, and cinnamon, and memories of a thousand kisses in their first days of dating.
“That was you, Guru,” she whispered in his ear.
“Oh, it was Dev Khan’s image, but those words. I recognize the style, the sentences. That was you, your poetry. And it was lovely. It touched me, reminded me of the man I fell in love with.”
Raja brushed a tear from Shruthi’s cheek, even though there were many on his own. “I am so sorry, my dear. I’ve done so much wrong.”
“Any wrongs are in your own mind, Guru. You are a good man. We have drifted, but now we are together. We will be happy.”
“I am happy already, my dear.”
“And who is this pilot?”
“Dear, I would like you to meet Officer Lakshmi Chaterjee. She is smart, resourceful, and has been a tremendous help in dealing with this difficult day. Officer Chaterjee, my wife Shruthi.”
“Please, ma’am, call me Lakshmi. Namaste.”
“Namaste.” Shurthi bowed slightly, palms together. “You must have done great things to earn such high praise. And such a pretty face. Are you engaged to anyone?”
“Well, would you like to meet a nice young man? I have an attractive medical aide who would thrill at being introduced to a smart, resourceful young officer as yourself.”
Lakshmi blushed. “Actually, ma’am, I prefer women.”
“Well, well,” Shurthi laughed. “Then you shall have your pick of the doctors.”
“My wife is quite the matchmaker, Lakshmi. You will have many prospects by sundown.” He saluted. “Officer Chaterjee, I hereby place you off duty. You have earned it.”
“Thank you, sir. Today was my greatest day on the force.”
“It was a difficult day, but with a good ending.”
“Guru,” Shruthi said. “Will you join us in the clinic?”
“Actually, my wife, I want to walk around the estate and ensure everything is well. But after that, I would be honored if you would join me for chai, sweets and talk. We could watch one of the movies, and then the lights of Diwali.”
Shruthi beamed and Raja’s heart leapt. “I would like that very much, Gurushankar.”
“Then it is a date, my love.”
Watching Shruthi, laughing and talking, lead Lakshmi into the medical building Raja felt a weight lift from his shoulders. Standing tall, he strode towards the elephants. On the SHIVA screens Dev Khan’s message, Raja’s message, repeated along with the songs of love and devotion. Music and dancing took place around the elephants, and contented trumpeting emphasized the joy.
All was peaceful. All was well. It was a sunny day. His back didn’t hurt. Raja had pride and happiness singing within him, something he’d been missing for a long time.
“Hello, Sub-Inspector Rajaram,” a voice said.Raja looked down to find Shilpa, the leader of the elephant gang, in step beside him.
“Hello, Shilpa. Are you well?”
“Yes. Dev Khan spoke for us. Our cause has been heard. We have the hearts of the people. But there’s one more thing I need.”
“I need a father. And you’re it.”
Raja’s mouth went dry, and he choked over words. “Me? Your father? I would not make a good father.”
“Nonsense. You came to us in a tiny machine, survived a mango attack, returned with flying monkeys, and rallied Dev Kapoor Khan to our cause. You’re sympathetic, driven, and I have seen that your wife loves you very much. You’re perfect.”
This girl, this bright, passionate, outspoken girl, his and Shruthi’s child? It would be a blessing, the child he had imagined in his mind a million times. “Walk with me, Shilpa. It is Diwali, it is a time for stories. Tell me your story, and I will tell you mine. After that, we will talk to my wife.”
Shilpa hummed Dev Kapoor Khan songs and skipped along next to Raja. They passed the elephants and entered the grounds as the sun sat low on the horizon and evening approached. Impromptu showings of Khan’s movies were starting on estate walls, on portable smoke and water screens, and on sheets hung over wires draped between tents.
This was the way it should be, on the final day of Diwali, on the fifth anniversary of the death of Dev Kapoor Khan. The city was leisurely, lovingly, coming back to its senses again.
“The Very Difficult Diwali of Sub-Inspector Gurushankar Rajaram” by Jeff Soesbe. Copyright © 2009 Jeff Soesbe.
- Diwali pictures: Singhajaykr25—portfolio here;
- Helicopter picture: Melodi2—portfolio here;
- Elephant pictures: Rajesh Krishan—portfolio here;
- Monkey picture: Daniel Bayona—portfolio here;
- Lasers/Third Eye of Shiva picture: Shadowlight—portfolio here;
- Bollywood sign: iim calcutta online magazine;
Jeff Soesbe lives in Northern California, where he writes software by day and stories by night. His stories have sold to Weird Tales, Flash Fiction Online, Coyote Wild, and Byzarium. He is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop.