As the sole Indo-American detective in Silicon Valley/ Bay Area, I get a lot of business from the community; you might have read of my exploits in “The Case of the Purloined Programmer”, “The Affair of the Disappearing Databaser”, etc. My earnings, meager as they may be, are enough for me to indulge in my few vices. One of them—ogling my niece, who doubles as my secretary and object of desire—is cheap and easy; the other requires travel to Chennai in December, an ordeal so ghastly that I’d rather face an irate housewife wielding a handgun. It’s the NRI migratory season, and for good reason. The weather in Chennai is salubrious, the music divine.
I was back in Chennai last December, prepared to be enraptured. I was staying with my sister, whose daughter (a trifle young to catch my fancy) was attending dance school in the city, learning Bharatanatyam. Personally, I consider dance to be an inferior form of art, which may be because I have two left feet, but can hum a raga or two. My Indian niece, justly proud of her American uncle, quickly spread the work about my profession. She must have given an approximate rendering of James Bond; her classmates started coming home with her, and staring doe-eyed at me. A man can only take so much temptation, especially one who likes his liquor hard, and his women soft; his dope straight, and his dames curvy; yadda, yadda . Luckily, fate intervened before I did something I would regret later, possibly in prison.
One of the girls attending the same dance school, Nivya, came to see me with her mother in tow. Nivya was tall and gangly, which I suppose is marginally better than short and fat. Her mother was swathed in layers of make-up, yards of sari, and oodles of jewellery. She was clearly upset; otherwise, she wouldn’t have dared to knit her brows so much for fear of creasing her skin. She spat out the following information: Her daughter’s Arangetram had been set for late January, about a month from now. Nivya was practicing so hard, the poor thing, and she herself was running around, trying to make all necessary arrangements. The father was willing to bankroll the venture, but wouldn’t move a muscle to help. So, she had booked a hall, given tailoring instructions for the dance dresses, fixed up a caterer, designed the invitations, etc. But the weird thing was: someone, a female, was calling up all these places, pretending to be her, and canceling the bookings as soon as they were made. She wanted me to find the culprit, incapacitate her, and deliver her so that she could pull all her hair out. For this, she would pay a fortune.
Now, I’m usually reluctant to work during vacation, but this case presented pleasing possibilities of discrediting some dance school. So, I assented. I like to go for the obvious solution; if it pans out, it saves me a lot of time. So, I turned to the daughter and asked: “Child, are you the one doing this? Do you think your mother is too pushy, trying to get you up on stage before you’re ready? Is this your way out?”. The girl lifted one supercilious eyebrow, and sneered that au contraire, mon ami, she was the best dancer in the whole school, even better than some senior artistes. The other girls were very jealous of her, and were trying to sabotage her ascendancy. She named three as particular suspects, and described their appearances in not-very-flattering detail.
With an attitude like that, I figured there would be plenty of potential suspects. I roused myself from my arm-chair, and prepared to put in some leg-work. Yet, there was still one likely place to look, following the old detective’s adage: cherchez le spouse. I rang my client’s house bell, and got the paunchy husband in person. He was instantly dismissive, pegging me for a vagrant. I resented that. Palming the brass knuckles in my trouser pocket lovingly, I motioned him over, tempting him with the flash of a gold credit card. When he was close enough, I yanked him close to the grill-door by his shirt-tail, and proceeded to do a tap dance on his face with my trusty b.k. (the only form of dance I endorse, by the way). After a few minutes of this, he was bawling like a baby. It soon became apparent that he considered his daughter’s dancing prowess a social asset, and that money was no issue in this regard. I reluctantly left him to repair his facial features, and made my way to the dance school.
“NrithyaKuthukala” was run by Mme. J.I. Jalaja, a renowned artiste who traced her ancestry back to courtesans that entertained the Tanjore Maharajahs. Her name carried special credibility in Chennai dance circles, as someone who would not promote young dancers prematurely. The school was a bee-hive of activity in the early evening. Tykes and toddlers were stomping on the ground-floor dance floor, while the upper floor was rocking to the gyrations of teenagers and older dancers. I winced at the racket, and poked my head in. All pairs of eyes gravitated towards me, with no break in the rhythm. I picked out the three suspects quickly enough. I managed to gather them in a group during a lull, and quizzed them. They were generally ill-disposed towards Nivya, but not necessarily pathologically so. I fantasized briefly about tying them up and tickling them to elicit a confession, but dismissed such thoughts hastily as unbecoming of the conservative Chennai milieu. I probed a little further, and came away with no vibes of guilt being evident. Either they were very, very good, or they were very, very good.
When everyone’s a suspect, and no one’s one, there is but one thing left to do: Dangle a bait, and wait for the bite. I asked Nivya and Mom to discreetly circulate information in the class about a wizard of a make-up man who could transform any ugly duckling into a swan, and how Nivya had hooked up with him for her Arangetram. A cell-phone number, which happened to be that of moi, was carelessly disclosed as well. I went home and waited for the damn thing to ring. Which it did, in a catchy Tamil film-song tune, around 9 pm. The female voice at the other end did a passable imitation of Nivya’s mother, and begged to rescind the make-up appointment, citing irreconcilable differences with the dance teacher, who wished to use her own in-house man. I listened incredulously, the number flashing on my display clearly matching another one I had seen very recently, on a sign-board, above a doorway. Within a minute, I knew who she was. I gently, but firmly stopped the caller in mid-sentence, told her who I was and that I knew who she was, and made an appointment to see her right away.
The dance school looked desolate in the late night, emptied of the twinkle-toed dancers. But the grande dame, Mme. Jalaja, herself was there, waiting for me. I just asked one question, “Why?”. She sighed, and took awhile to answer, running through all the stage mannerisms that dancers continue to affect, even off-stage. “You see, Sir, this girl presents a conflict for me, between my artistic self and my materialistic self. She is not ready yet for the big stage, but the family is offering lakhs of rupees as honorarium if I can get her up there. Normally, I would have rejected the proposition outright. But, as one gets older, they start liking money even more, especially other people’s money. So, on the one hand, I’m encouraging their preparations, and on the other, I’m trying to scuttle them. I’m at my wit’s end regarding this girl. What do you think I should do?” I thought about it, and as always, came up with a solution. The Arangetram would be held as scheduled, but in the San Jose Bay Area, where a one-legged hippopotamus could perform Bharatanatyam on stage to thunderous applause from an NRI and American public that knew no better. Case closed.
Later that night, there was a knock on my door. The three ex-suspect lasses were giggling together: “We thought you might like to tie us up, and tickle us till we confessed…” A detective’s work is never done…
Prof R Nagarajan [1981/BT/CH] is currently the Dean , International and Alumni Relations at IIT Madras. Before joining IIT in fact, he wanted to be a writer.