Of all my stories that have won prizes at short story contests, this one is my favourite – SPY GAME. The story is set in Mumbai circa 2007.
“Subject got down on platform No. 9 of CST Station from AC Chair Coach C1 of the Deccan Queen at 10:40 A.M. Subject walked leisurely to the exit, turned right, crossed the suburban section of CST railway station, took the subway, emerged on the pavement on the other side of DN Road, and entered the Planet M Music Store on the ground floor of the Times of India Building. Subject browsed around, listening to music on headphones at various consoles, walked into the classical music section, sat on a sofa, put on headphones and listened to western classical music. After enjoying the music for half an hour subject walked out of the store, without buying anything, turned left, walked past JJ School of Art towards Crawford Market, crossed the road, was observed sipping a Falooda at Badshah Cold Drinks, then window shopping strolling unhurriedly towards Dhobi Talao, turned right on Kalbadevi Road and at exactly 12 Noon entered the New and Second-hand Book Shop.”
I listened dumbfounded as he read from his notes.
“Subject emerged from the book shop after fifteen minutes,” he continued, “walked towards Dhobi Talao, hailed a taxi which drove past St. Xavier’s College, VT circle, Capitol, past the GPO, to Ballard Estate and stopped outside Britannia restaurant. Subject was observed thoroughly relishing a plate of Berry Pulao inside the café…”
“What?” I interrupted, but he held up his finger motioning me to keep quiet and continued reading from his pocketbook, “Subject then ambled down Ballard Road, PM Road, browsed books at Strand, crossed Hutatma Chowk, towards Churchgate, past the CTO, Oval, Eros, Asiatic, Gaylord, and was seen enjoying sweet curds at Rustom, after which subject walked back towards Eros, then turned right on the KC College lane, and entered Oxford Book Store where till this moment subject is browsing…”
“You too are following that man?” I asked him.
“Which man?” Dilip said looking confused.
“That man, over there, white bush shirt, sitting in the rocking chair reading that huge coffee-table book,” I whispered, indicating with the corner of my eyes, the nondescript man I had been following since morning all the way from Pune.
“Him? Not him. I’m not following him. I am following you,” Dilip said.
“Me?” I asked totally flabbergasted.
“Yes, Alka. I’m following you! You are the ‘Subject’ – the object of my attention, the target of my surveillance,” Dilip said matter-of-factly.
“How…What…” I stammered dumbstruck.
“Relax, Alka. Let’s go sit over there. In the Cha-Bar. And you tell me all about it over a cup of tea.”
After a sip of soothing flavoursome Nilgiri tea I said, “Now tell me Dilip, why are you following me?”
“No, you tell me first. About this spy game you are playing. And that too in a most clueless and amateurish way, so shoddy that you didn’t even notice you had grown a tail.”
“Yes. Me. I’ve been tailing you since you got off the Deccan Queen and you didn’t even realize it.”
“But why are you following me?”
“I’ll tell you. But first you tell me why you are following that man. Who is he?”
“He?” I said, glancing furtively at the man browsing nonchalantly, totally absorbed in the book in front of him, without a care for the outside world, “Well, he is the husband of my boss.”
“Husband of your boss?” Dilip asked incredulous.
“Yes, Anita Agarwal, my boss. And he’s Mr. Agarwal, her husband.”
“And why are you shadowing him?”
“She told me. Anita called me to her office yesterday evening. She told me that her husband makes frequent mysterious trips to Mumbai. And when she questions him he evades, says it’s just some routine work – sorting out his investments and all that.”
“She suspects he’s having an affair. So last evening she called me to her office when every one had gone home, told me her husband was going to Mumbai in the morning, booked on Seat No. 10 in the C1 AC chair car coach on the Deccan Queen, and gave me a ticket for a seat behind him in same C1 AC Chair car coach so that I could observe him carefully.”
“I am following him since morning.”
“Are you crazy? Your boss tells you to spy on her husband and you take off, just like that, as if it’s a game or something?”
“She’s my boss – you don’t know Anita – she’s very domineering, the way she suddenly asked me, I couldn’t say ‘no’ to her.”
“She could have hired a detective, a private investigator.”
“I told her, but she said she wanted all this kept very secret – that she trusted only me. And since I had never met her husband, he didn’t know who I was and he wouldn’t suspect anything.”
Dilip looked at Mr. Agarwal, still deeply engrossed in his reading, and remarked, “Look at him. You think that clot is capable of having an affair?”
“He seems to be a simple man.” I said.
“And what about your boss, Mrs. Anita Agarwal?”
“Oh, she’s very mod. Really smart and savvy.”
“Why smart dames like her marry simpleton chaps like him?”
“It’s the opposite too, isn’t it? The Plain Janes get the best guys.” I said.
We laughed together. Just like we did during the delightful moments we spent together when we were in college.
“Hey, Alka. I haven’t told you why I am following you?”
“Tell me, Dilip. Why?”
“Anita Agarwal, your boss, told me to.”
“Anita Agarwal? She told you to follow me?” I asked, shocked beyond belief.
“Yes,” he said.
“But why? Why does she want me followed? And why tell you? ”
“Why the surveillance? Well we really don’t delve too much – just submit the report to our client and collect our fees. And why me? Well, she didn’t exactly tell me. She told our Pune office.”
“Well, I quit my job a few years ago. Started this detective agency – private investigations of the most discreet kind. The Pune office e-mailed your details yesterday. The moment I saw your photo I decided to do this myself.”
“Dilip, you’re following me from Pune?”
“No. I’ve been shadowing you from the moment you got down from the Deccan Queen. My only worry was that you would recognize me, so I was very careful, and I’ve also kept a backup agent who’s tailing you all the way from Pune just in case.”
“What? Someone’s watching us?” I was aghast.
“It’s standard practice. To warn me in case I grow a tail, if someone is following me.”
Instinctively, I tried to look around; searching among the book-browsers, trying to spot the watcher, maybe it was that innocuous looking lady looking at recipe books in the food section, or maybe it was one of those students near the management shelves. Suddenly, my cell-phone rang in my purse.”
“Don’t …” Dilip cautioned, putting his hand firmly on mine as I tried to reach my purse on the table. He opened my purse, took out my mobile phone, disconnected the call, and gave it to me.
“It’s Anita,” I said, looking at number, “I was supposed to call her up at 2 – I forgot – so she must have called to check up.”
“Switch off your mobile,” he said sternly.
“Just do as I say. Switch it off and give it to me,” he commanded peremptorily.
I mutely did as he said.
“You are really clueless, aren’t you? Don’t you know you can be tracked by your cell-phone?”
“Right now, your mobile is probably in the Churchgate ‘Cell’ – that’s why it’s called a cell-phone. And if that guy, the chap you are shadowing, has also kept his mobile on, it can be established that both you and him were at the same places at the same time, and maybe, someone interested may draw some intriguing conclusions!”
“That me and Anita’s husband…?”
“Exactly! Time, Inclination, and Opportunity – the three ingredients of an affair. Well, Time and Place can be verified from the cell-phone records, and it’s too much of a coincidence, isn’t it, both of you being at the same places at the same time for a full day, one can almost infer the Opportunity, and as far as the Inclination is concerned, well, it is a matter of conjecture.”
My stomach curdled with panic, my body shivered with tremors of trepidation, I was overwhelmed by uneasiness, all sorts of weird scary thoughts perambulated in my brain, and my mind went hazy.
“Hey, Alka! You okay?” Dilip asked.
“I’m frightened, scared, afraid. It’s so confusing!” I said.
“It’s not easy, this spy game. Amateurs like you should not try to act like professionals. It can be dangerous, nasty.”
“Don’t worry, Alka, now I’ll be with you. Trust me. I promise you I’ll get to the bottom of this and you’ll be safe. We’ll follow that guy together. It’s better for the cover.”
“We look like a married couple, don’t we? Blend in, less conspicuous than a single woman like you walking the streets, isn’t it?”
I felt totally perplexed and uncomfortable. The whole thing was getting more and more bewildering. So I put my arm in Dilip’s, and like a zombie, I let Dilip lead me as we followed our target across the Oval, as the majestic clock on Rajabai Tower struck three, to Kalaghoda, into the Jehangir Art Gallery.
“A foodie, bibliophile and connoisseur of art! Great guy!” Dilip remarked as we watched him devour the huge delicious samosas at Samovar, the art gallery restaurant which resembled a railway dining car.
I looked at my watch. Almost four. Enough time for a quick wander via the Gateway, Colaba Causeway and Fort to CST in time for the Deccan Queen back to Pune. Suddenly, I noticed Dilip looking past me, at the entrance, and he quickly got up, told me to wait, and walked away towards the art gallery.
He returned with a sophisticated mobile phone in his hand, sat down, and said, “Hurry up, Alka, We’ve got to go. Fast.”
“What about him?” I asked.
“Don’t worry. He’ll be taken care off. Now you finish your tea, quickly.”
Minutes later we were speeding towards Pune in a chauffer driven car.
“Tell me, Alka, where do you think your boss Anita Agarwal is right now?”
“Anita? She’d be in her office. She always works late, never leaves before eight.”
“Well. She’s certainly not in her office now. She’s in a motel near Karla.”
“Yes. Near the caves. Just an hour’s drive from your office, on the way to Mumbai.”
“It’s impossible. I just can’t believe all this!” I said incredulous.
“We’ll see,” Dilip said, gently holding my hand, “Alka, when I got the request to tail you, I smelt a rat. So I decided to find out a bit about the client. I’ve put a tail on your boss Anita – full scale surveillance, background checks, the works! She pushed off from her office at 11, ostensibly for a business lunch and headed straight to Karla.”
“I just don’t understand all this. It’s all very strange. A business lunch. And that too in a motel near Karla?”
“Relax, Alka. We’ll be there in an hour,” Dilip said intertwining his fingers in mine and pressing warmly.
I looked out of the window. We were speeding on the expressway now and I could see the silhouettes of the Sahyadri Mountains ahead. Soon it started to drizzle, and as we negotiated the ghats and crossed Khandala it was raining steadily.
Suddenly the cell-phone rang in Dilip’s pocket. “Yes,” he said into the mobile phone, listened for some time, looked at his watch, then said, “Shit. Don’t lose them,” and kept the phone in his pocket.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Anita is leaving the motel in a car with a man.”
“Man?” I asked curious.
“Yes,” he said, “but don’t worry. We’ve got them in our sights. Maybe we’ll run into them on the link road before they hit the highway.” Then he turned to the driver, gave him instructions, and soon we had turned left off the expressway onto a narrow deserted road.
Now it was raining very heavily, the driver slowed down to a crawl.
“There they are – your boss and her friend,” Dilip said pointing ahead.
I followed Dilip’s gaze, looked ahead, and just a short distance away I could see a car parked on the opposite side of the road, probably waiting for the rain to subside. Despite the poor visibility I recognised the car at once.
“Stop!” I told the driver.
“No, not here,” said Dilip.
“Just stop!” I yelled at the driver, “Right there, next to that car.”
The driver stopped. I opened the door, motioned to Dilip, and said emphatically, “Come Dilip. Let’s go and meet my husband. And, of course, my boss Anita.”
Copyright © Vikram Karve 2007
Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
© vikram karve., all rights reserved.
Published in Blogprint Anthology, Penguin India (2008) ISBN : 9780143064411 (pp 32 – 40)
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About Vikram Karve
A creative person with a zest for life, Vikram Karve is a retired Naval Officer turned full time writer. Educated at IIT Delhi, ITBHU Varanasi, The Lawrence School Lovedale and Bishops School Pune, Vikram has published two books: COCKTAIL a collection of fiction short stories about relationships (2011) and APPETITE FOR A STROLL a book of Foodie Adventures (2008) and is currently working on his novel and a book of vignettes and short fiction. An avid blogger, he has written a number of fiction short stories, creative non-fiction articles on a variety of topics including food, travel, philosophy, academics, technology, management, health, pet parenting, teaching stories and self help in magazines and published a large number of professional research papers in journals and edited in-house journals for many years, before the advent of blogging. Vikram has taught at a University as a Professor for almost 14 years and now teaches as a visiting faculty and devotes most of his time to creative writing. Vikram lives in Pune India with his family and muse – his pet dog Sherry with whom he takes long walks thinking creative thoughts.
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