A Spy in McLeod Ganj
by Sameer Kulkarni
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The whole thing really started on a foggy Monday morning in McLeod Ganj, when gentlemen of every description, newspapers tucked under their armpits, were making a beeline for Tea House.
Tea House had been built in the Edwardian times and still carried that splendid charm about itself. Its high-ceilinged hall had good old terra-cotta tiles to hold the weight of tea enthusiasts, while the stone used for the walls was just slightly white-washed to reveal its stony exterior and was from a local quarry.
There were plenty of canvases, some carrying the images of Dalai Lamas through the ages, splattered across the walls. An orange-colored façade between the larder and the hall had an oil canvas of Buddha showing just one half of his ever-calm face, his long ear lobes making all the difference by adding another tea-spoon to the sincere serenity of the house.
The proprietor, Major Menon, had served in the Indian Army for fifteen years, only to retire after a serious injury whose after-effects he still carried with a slight limp in his left leg. He had taken over Tea House, a nice cozy restaurant in the middle of McLeod Ganj, after a few other brief stints.
As for the actual setup, the restaurant had a small main floor that held about six or seven tables for the commoners not defined by their social or economical status. By “commoners,” I mean flitters: people who would finish their tea and biscuits and go on about their life.
However, life above those two stairs that separated this main floor from its more laid-back sibling was completely different. It was for people who liked to spend their time as they wished, people who wouldn’t let the world dictate their day; it was for the regulars. It was so popular that the group of people who regularized Tea House were known in the city as “the regulars.”
Major Menon had put the cashier’s desk on the upper side. It was more a vantage point than a till, because it gave him excellent views of both the floors, part of the main street and also the entrance to a government building which was simply known in the town as Viceroy House, in reference to its having acted as the residence of the Viceroy of India, the late Lord Cowlthington. Considering that McLeod Ganj carried a most agreeable weather during summer, many international summits and meetings were held at Viceroy House.
As the clock closed in on nine, a woman and a man came in and sat themselves at table 5. Their attire gave them away immediately as Buddhist monks. Seeing that Bahadur was taking care of their order, Major Menon went back to reading The Times. He read the first few headlines and, as his eyes moved and rested, his brow suddenly transformed and looked flustered. The lines read:
The contract to construct a highway between Phobrang and Dalhousie has been given to McCormick & Henley Associates. Indian Government is still trying to negotiate terms with the British infrastructure firm, but the initial figures are supposedly sitting on a budget of $10 million.
This is one of the biggest infrastructure projects that the country is investing in to protect its northern frontiers from Chinese enthusiasm. The deal is supposed to be finalized over the weekend in McLeod Ganj.
Reading this, he immediately hollered towards someone on the upper floor. ‘Can you believe it, Sahni? They gave it to a British firm.’
‘I told you they were going international! Who can blame them? These local buffoons charge as if they were asked to build one on Mars. And their quality, huh? Even sparrows build long-lasting nests!’
They exchanged a few more volleys and, as was his practice to ask about their wellbeing to anyone new to Tea House, he climbed down and went towards table 5. The woman had left and the man was looking down at the menu, looking for something he knew wasn’t there.
‘Welcome to the Tea House! Your first time here in McLeod Ganj, sir?’
The monk just smiled.
‘The museum and the annexed library here are exquisite when it comes to capturing all the history of Buddhism, if that interests you.’
He smiled again.
‘If it’s not too personal, may I recommend our Momos? They are vegetarian and are just coming out of the steamer as we speak.’
The monk nodded again and, taking that as a cue, Major came back to his desk. He gave the order to Bahadur and looked back at the table. The woman was back now, and was chatting to the man in a language Major couldn’t verify.
What Major found unmistakably bizarre was the fact that the duo had turned their chairs around and, instead of drinking in the beautiful Himalayan ranges from the opposite window, they were looking onto the street. But then you never can tell about these monks, Major thought. They are above us all, and what we might view as roadside might mean gold to them. He just dismissed that as eccentricity but, when it was repeated for the next two days, his curiosity rose, and he thought something else was afoot.
Thursday morning, after they had rearranged the chairs and the woman had left momentarily, Major took his chance and walked down towards the monk.
‘Pardon the intrusion, sir, but I am just curious. Do you not like that view?’ Major asked, pointing towards the window that was revealing one of the peaks as a nice fluffy cloud now forked into two.
Before the man could answer, the woman returned. ‘I was just asking him what it is that you look at?’ Major said, looking at the woman.
‘Yes, thank you!’
Her answer had three words, convincingly enough to let the Major know of their aversion for conversation and taking that hint, he went back to the kitchen to remind Bahadur of something.
When he came back, the woman had again disappeared and the man looked squeamish at best. It looked like he was trying to get up, but had suddenly lost all the energy. His previous futile attempts to converse made Major not interrupt, and he just watched as the man took one step and then collapsed.
* * *
Presently, everyone around had gathered around the table, and Major was trying to check the man’s pulse. The pulse appeared to be normal, but the man was still unconscious. Bahadur had been dispatched to fetch Dr. Verma, and he was just coming in with the doctor’s bag in his hands.
The first thing Dr. Verma ordered was to give more air to the man, and he asked everyone to get on with their things. Ultimately, Major was the only civilian who hung around to give Doc all the details.
‘What happened here?’
‘I don’t know! He was sitting here. He had some tea earlier. When I checked later, he looked really nauseous, as if someone had given him a big dose of castor oil. Then he tried to stand up but collapsed. There was a woman with him, whom I can’t trace just now. Wait, there she is.’
‘Where did you go?’ Major fired towards the woman.
‘What happened to him?’ she said, ignoring the question and then bending over to check the man’s pulse.
‘I am Dr. Verma by the way. If you don’t mind, I need to check a few things,’ the doctor added.
She stepped away and then calmly stood near the man’s feet, waiting for Doc’s inspection. The man had regained consciousness by this time, but wasn’t responding to any of Dr. Verma’s questions. However, seeing the woman, his lips twitched and his eyes bulged, but that was about it.
After checking a few preliminary things, Dr. Verma said, ‘I don’t think it’s too serious. He seems to have lost his balance somehow, but I can’t say what induced that. A high altitude can cause it, if one isn’t used to the elevation.’
‘Must be that,’ the woman said.
‘I think we need to keep him under inspection for a couple of nights to see if he gets his ears back.’
‘So he can’t hear right now?’
‘No, not a syllable. I will send the boys over with an ambulance.’
Major walked with Dr. Verma to the door. They were just chatting about the whereabouts of both the monks, when the woman stopped by and said, ‘I need to call the master at the monastery. I know where the hospital is; I will be there in thirty minutes.’
Dr. Verma left soon after and Major went to the kitchen to get an onion, to see if sniffing it might make the monk get back to his senses. By the time he came back to the table, the paramedics had arrived, and one of the guys was trying to locate his notepad. When he reached down to the man’s neck to check for the pulse, he got nothing. He then went down to his left wrist and tried the same, but nothing again. He was sure now, but he still lent his ear to the prostrate monk’s chest and when he got nothing again, he looked terribly confused.
‘Major, this monk is dead,’ he said.
‘What are you talking about? Dr. Verma just checked him ten minutes ago. He was breathing normally.’
‘That might be true, but he isn’t now. He is dead.’
‘But how is that possible? I went in the kitchen only for a minute or so, and you guys were here by the time I came out.’
‘We will take him over to the hospital and let the pathologist do some tests. If he was alive when Dr. Verma checked him, it might be a cardiac arrest.’
‘Hmm, all right!’
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Sameer Kulkarni