The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star
The enchanting new Baby Ganesh Agency novel sees Inspector Chopra and his elephant sidekick investigating the dark side of Bollywood.
Posted on March 7, 2018 in Extract
On a sultry March evening, in the great hive-city of Mumbai, Inspector Ashwin Chopra (Retd) was once again discovering the futility of reasoned discourse with his fellow countrymen.
‘He is an elephant,’ he said sternly. ‘Elephants do not eat hot dogs. They are herbivores. In other words: vegetarian.’
‘Hah!’ said the hot-dog vendor, snapping his tongs triumphantly in the air. ‘These are vegetarian.’
Chopra looked down at the sizzling griddle. Then he looked at the heap of sagging hot dogs set beside it on the vendor’s handcart. Flies circled amorously around the pyramid, like B-2 bombers on a raid.
He turned and fixed his companion with a stony look.
‘Did you take the hot dogs?’ he asked.
Ganesha blinked rapidly, then twirled his trunk in the air, rocking back and forth on his blunt-toed feet, ears flapping, as Chopra glared.
He recognised the signs.
During his thirty-year career in the Mumbai police service he had interrogated thousands of suspects, and in so doing had become intimately familiar with the language of tells, involuntary movements that gave the inexperienced dissembler away.
It seemed that similar laws governed the behaviour of one-year-old elephants.
‘What have I told you about helping yourself?’ he scolded. Ganesha hung his head.
‘What’s going on here?’
Chopra looked up to see his wife Poppy powering down the road with young Irfan in tow, the boy’s walnut-brown face split by an enormous smile. In his right hand he clutched a stick of candyfloss, floating above his head like an umbrella. Poppy, resplendent in a marine-blue sari, steered him through the crush of people moving towards the entrance of the Andheri Sports Stadium.
‘This elephant here is a thief!’ replied the hot-dog vendor primly. ‘I have caught him in the act.’
Chopra closed his eyes.
Poppy’s cheeks reddened. ‘Is that a fact?’ she said.
‘He has consumed four of my finest hot dogs,’ continued the vendor, oblivious to Chopra’s shaking head. Poppy stepped forward and jabbed the paunchy man in his chest. ‘What proof do you have that he ate those hot dogs?’ Jab. ‘Who would want to eat such rubbish anyway?’
Jab. Jab. ‘Do you even have a licence for this cart? Look at the state of it! It is filthy!’
‘But– but–’ The vendor backpedalled into the trafficclogged road. An auto-rickshaw with a cage of scrawny chickens strapped to its roof swerved around him, honking madly. A cloud of feathers trailed from the rick as it buzzed away.
‘Chopra! There you are!’
Chopra turned to see a heavyset, grey-haired man with a walrus moustache bearing down on them, arms outstretched in welcome.
In the three years since Chopra had last met Bunty Saigal his old friend had gained weight, padding out a naturally generous frame that now strained the seams of a navy-blue safari suit. Saigal had left the Brihanmumbai Police five years ago – four years before Chopra himself had been forced into early retirement by an ailing heart. Saigal had made the change for financial reasons, moving into a lucrative role as a security consultant at the Andheri Sports Stadium. Now he organised security for major events, such as the Bollywood concert that Chopra and Poppy were attending this evening.
A month ago Chopra had made the mistake of mentioning Saigal’s new position to Poppy. Upon discovering that Saigal would be presiding over the upcoming concert featuring Bollywood’s newest star, Vicky Verma, she had harangued Chopra to twist his arm for front-row seats.
Chopra had reluctantly obliged.
Bollywood movies were one of Poppy’s enduring passions and, as the show was to take place at the nearby stadium, it seemed churlish of him not to at least enquire.
Saigal had been more than glad to help.
He had always been a gregarious and jovial man, the life of the party, whereas Chopra himself was of a more taciturn disposition.
A broad-shouldered man with a head of jet-black hair greying only at the temples, Chopra’s most impressive feature was an imposing moustache that underlined the natural authority that emanated from his tall frame. For almost three decades he had served Mumbai’s citizenry as a policeman; for three decades he had remained steadfast to the principles ingrained in him by his father: honesty, integrity and decency. This in itself made him something of an oddity, for such qualities were often notable by their absence in the venal sinecures of the Indian police service.
Saigal pumped Chopra’s hand with his strangler’s grip, then led them past the crowded turnstiles, through the packed outer courtyard, and into the stadium proper.
A wall of noise greeted them as they moved along the running track, past the cordoned mass of jostling, chattering concert-goers trampling down the field grass, to the front row where a string of security guards were holding back the crowd as it ebbed and flowed.
As they walked along, the great bowl of the stadium opened up around them.
Chopra glanced up.
Beyond the rim of the cantilevered steel roof, the iconic fifty-metre-tall Andheri water tower, with its conical tanks, loomed over the stadium like a praying mantis. He noted the many fans settling on to the rows of concrete bleachers
curving upwards under the roof. He would have preferred to be up there, away from the chaos, but he knew Poppy wouldn’t hear of it.
The day’s heat had settled into the stadium. Chopra found that he was sweating inside his white cotton halfsleeved shirt and beige duck pants.
He glanced at Ganesha, happily trotting beside Irfan.
Occasionally, Irfan would lower his candyfloss so that Ganesha could pluck some off with his trunk and insert it into his mouth.
As usual, the pair were as thick as thieves.
Irfan, a street urchin who had walked into the restaurant Chopra had opened after his retirement a year earlier, had become a bona fide member of the family. He continued to live at the restaurant, as did Ganesha, but there was no doubt the pair had slipped into the vacant space in Poppy and Chopra’s lives, a space occasioned by the absence of children of their own.
Chopra recalled the fuss Poppy had made getting the boy ready for his first-ever concert. Smart new clothes, stylish shoes, fragrantly oiled hair parted with geometric precision. Even Ganesha had been given a bath and a sprinkling of Poppy’s favourite perfume. There had been no question that the little elephant would not attend.
Thanks to Poppy, Chopra’s young ward was now as addicted to the Bombay talkies as his wife.
Eight months earlier, the infant elephant had arrived at Chopra’s home, a fifteenth-floor apartment in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri East, as a malnourished and despondent calf with barely the energy to lift his head. The elephant had been accompanied by a curious letter from Chopra’s long vanished uncle Bansi, a notorious prankster from his childhood in the Maharashtrian village of Jarul. But this time Bansi’s tone had been serious. Bansi had not explained why he was sending Chopra an elephant, nor anything about the calf’s past, merely stating, cryptically, that ‘this is no ordinary elephant’.
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