Some might consider my being a private detective an aberration for an Indo-American, but I couldn’t care less. Actually, I consider it a natural regression in my life. First, I got kicked out of school for trying to seduce my teacher.
Then, I lost several jobs for “lack of character”, bankrupted myself several times trying to run semi-legitimate businesses, and finally found myself setting up as a gumshoe because my disreputable traits were my biggest assets in this calling. So, I now try to ingratiate myself with vulnerable women, display an utter lack of principles, place bets with shady bookies, and manage to get paid for indulging all these, and viler, vices. Life couldn’t get any better, unless a leggy Swede were to walk in and drape herself all over me.
I suppose my niece is the next best thing. She is my Gal Friday, though I keep trying to make her my gal Saturdays and Sundays too. She has this mean streak in her: she keeps refusing my advances. I need to change my cologne (or at least my underwear more than once a week). She shuffles papers for me, answers the phone, but mostly reads pulpy film magazines from India. We keep a nice little office together, though it happens to be in one of the low-rent districts off El Camino Real in Mountain View. We get enough business to pay the bills, mostly Indian men with axes to grind against competitors or relatives. One guy literally brought me an ax with blood dripping from it, and wanted me to grind it sharp enough to hack the next cousin standing. I’m pretty good at what I do, probably a whole lot better than you are what you do. I get to keep my own hours, cheat on taxes, and take afternoon naps most days. It is mostly a humdrum existence, interrupted by spurts of brief and violent action—sort of like my sex life.
A few months ago, I was at low-tide in my finances, to the extent that I had taken to living in my office to avoid the rent collector for my apartment. I left a note asking him to get the money from the roaches in the kitchen sink. My clientele was letting me down. The gas station scene appeared to have settled down, no one as asking me to dig up dirt on the 76 down the block. The restaurant business was sedate as well. I hadn’t planted e coli bacteria in anyone’s kitchen for a while. The dress shop that had hired me to hang around a competitor’s store dressed in a bright red sari and make salacious remarks to the men had taken so much heat that they had burned themselves down to collect on the insurance payment.
I was down to my last few pennies, and last few matches, when Mr. and Mrs. Murti stopped by on a clear, cold November morning. The husband had the well-fed, spoilt-baby look that most Indian middle-aged men have, but there was a hint of agitation behind those droopy lids. The wife was animated, punctuating her remarks with well-placed digs into the man’s ribs. For someone in the midst of an apparent family crisis, she was amazingly well groomed. Not a hair out of place, nary a nail unpolished. Her neatly-trimmed eyebrows were, at the moment, knitted in frustration.
The Murtis had a darling daughter who was beginning to stray. The teenaged brat, Kamli, was starting to spend sizable chunks of time at the Anderson household, Brad Anderson being Kamli’s high-school classmate. It had started innocently enough, the smart Indian girl tutoring the dumb American boy in the rudiments of ‘rithmetic, and I’m sure Kamli’s parents had been secretly pleased that their dusky daughter could attract an all-American white boy. So, they had been allowed to study together, mostly in Brad’s house since he was too lazy to make the trek to hers. Lately, Kamli had started to stay out longer, igniting shouting matches back home.
Things had really come to a boil two days ago, when Kamli stayed out all night. When challenged on whether she had spent the night with Brad, she had looked them in the eye, the brazen liar, and unequivocally denied it. After more haranguing, she had shrugged her shapely shoulders, invited them to believe what they wanted, and left the room. Now, the parents were afraid that she was planning to move in with Brad, or run away with him, or something equally love-crazy.
I told them I could break one of Brad’s knees for $ 500, or both for $ 800, their choice. I went through my slide presentation on why the two-knee option is so much better, but they were a restless audience. They wanted me to scare the kid away, but did not want to know much about my methods. Fair enough, I thought, as I pocketed the cash advance in my left pant pocket, and the trusty old brass knuckles in my right. The b.k. are my best and brightest accessory, and I take good care of them. I squeezed them lovingly as I made my way to the Anderson household, which turned out to be a pretty decent-sized home nestled beneath the Los Altos hills. There were emaciated women jogging on the streets, scarcely distinguishable from their canine companions, except that the latter set up a chorus of barks and snarls as they caught my distinctive South Asian scent. There was a Hispanic man mowing the lawn, eyes darting around in search of lurking INS agents. Brad was lounging in the front porch, a beer can fetchingly poised in his left hand, a cigarette dangling in his right. Now, I don’t like smokers, nor drinkers who don’t offer me one on the house. So, he was down to two strikes in my book even before we started our social encounter.
I asked him politely enough if he knew a girl named Kamli. He flicked some ash in my direction, took a deep swig, and belched. Then, the nerve of the boy, he wanted to know who I was. That was the third strike I was looking for. I brought the old b.k. out, and went to work lovingly. Like any true artist, I take pride in my handiwork, especially where it involves rearranging facial features. All of a sudden, Brad couldn’t stop looking, even through the blood and tears. He swore that he and Kamli had no more than a platonic friendship, his sexual interest running more in the direction of Amazonian redheads. Looking at his pathetic puss, I somehow could believe this to be true. Kamli would come in, they would read together for a while, then his sister would wander in, and the girls would start yapping about clothes and jewelry, and he would just tune out and go watch TV. I bought into his spiel, but gave him a couple of extra knocks just for the heck of it. I am a little vindictive that way; you should see what I’ve got planned for my niece once we get married.
The next morning, I ambled over to the Murti residence. The spicy aroma emanating from the house had enveloped the entire neighborhood, drowning out the barbecue smoke and diesel exhausts that most suburbanites drink in like the elixir of life. The house was shaped like all the others on the street, and was nearly as well maintained as Mrs. Murti herself. She greeted me at the door, more disheveled than the day before. Not an early morning person, I told myself. Mr. Murti appeared in the background. I spoke to them reassuringly about their daughter. She was pure as the driven snow, a paragon of virtue, a shining example of Indian womanhood.
Somehow, it did not seem to be going down well. There were no relieved smiles, no bonus payments for a case rapidly concluded. Mr. Murti did pull out a note from the recesses of his coat (the man wore a coat at home at 8 a.m.!), but it was not a C-note. Their precious daughter, whom I was beginning to dislike for some reason, had run off with her “true love”. They were going to a commune in Eastern Oregon, and no effort should be made to bring her back. She liked her parents, sort of, but she liked her lover better, and they would never understand. Good-bye.
Well, it was starting to look like I would have to work a little harder to earn that money, but money is a great motivator when it is the God you live by. I quizzed them about other suspects, and came up with a list of names to go after. I was still convinced that Brad was too big a loser for a nice Indian girl like Kamli to hang around with, but maybe she had been using him as a smokescreen while she lived in sin with some other juvenile delinquent.
I left no stones unturned, no worms unearthed. The first boy I interviewed was sullen until I introduced him to Mr. b.k., then was very forthcoming. He said Kamli was frigid, and therefore of no interest to him. You speak disrespectfully of any woman (even my niece), and you raise my ire, I raise my ornamented knuckles, and you suffer. The other three boys were Indian and properly respectful of elders bearing weapons. The second boy was flustered when I asked him about Kamli, then secretly pleased, as if I were honoring his virility. The b.k. work just as well on other portions of the human anatomy besides the face, as he soon found out. The third boy wore thick glasses and a permanently pained expression; he seemed to be genuinely surprised that Kamli was a girl. The fourth boy had just returned from the Livermore temple and was in a state of bliss. He told me in hushed tones that he would never consider a conjugal relationship with a mere mortal when he was already experiencing ecstasy with the fifth wife of Krishna, and the third consort of Arjuna. There are some nuts I don’t tangle with, and religious nuts are second only to macadamia on my list.
By nightfall, I had to admit defeat. I slowly retraced my way to the Anderson place. Perhaps I had misjudged the lad, perhaps there was more to him than met the eye. Perhaps it was a setup, orchestrated by Kamli, and I had fallen for Brad’s histrionic talents. I still doubted that with every fiber of my being, but I had to go back to make sure. There was a maroon speedster parked in the driveway, and sitting on the hood, swinging her shapely legs, was the singular offspring of the Murti clan. I almost slapped my forehead, the way they do it in Bollywood. She and Brad had indeed nearly fooled me. They were just getting ready to take off. Any moment now, he would walk out with a suitcase, and I would bop him one, grab the girl, take her home, and earn everlasting gratitude and the cold comfort of some hard cash.
I stepped out of the shadows towards her, and cried out, “Kamli, Brad is not worth it! No man is worth it!” She smiled a dazzling smile, exhibiting well-shaped gums to go with her gams, and nodded joyfully. “I agree!” she added superfluously, her dulcet tones mocking my ears.
Then, the Anderson kid did come out of the house, holding a suitcase. Not Brad, but the sister. She and Kamli embraced passionately, kissed each other fully on the lips, squeezed into the car from the driver’s side amid much hilarity, revved the engine boisterously, and sped off in the direction of Oregon. When my tongue had loosened sufficiently, I yelled after them, “Well, it still costs less to have our suits dry-cleaned than yours!” I felt pretty good after that outburst. We men may be losing it as a sex, but we still like to have the last word on our way to expendability.
– Back in 1997, when we were living in the San Jose (not San Francisco; SF is a small, insignificant suburb of San Jose in the Silicon Valley context) Bay Area, I published a short story in “India Currents” featuring an Indo-American private detective— my homage to the “pulp fiction” genre (my favorite!). I’m reproducing it here; if it is well-received, I’ll make it a continuing feature, a la Sherlock Holmes, as I’ve since written a few more stories featuring the same lovable rogue. A serial is the best way to grab readership, as publishing mavens used to say, and as TV execs now proclaim… Professor R Nagarajan (BTCH-81)