Authors: Andrew L. MacNair
Tags: #Suspense Mystery
by Andrew L. MacNair
Copyright May, 2013
This novel is dedicated to the women of India who, too early in their lives, have become widows. May they be showered with love, kindness, and all the respect that all good people on earth deserve. Compassion for all.
I would like to thank the Department of South and Southeast Asian Language and Literature for their patience with this author so many years ago.
I also wish to thank Master Upadhyayi of Varanasi for his countless hours of dedication.
Varanasi, India, March 2006
Mina Rumir kissed her daughter’s forehead and settled her into the linen inside the cradle next to her bed. The child, filled with its mother’s milk, was sleeping now, and for a moment the young mother just looked at her infant in silence. She gazed at the rose-petal lips as they quivered from the breath or dreams that passed through them, and the sight of those lips instantly brought a fresh coursing of milk to Mina’s breasts. She gazed at her baby’s hands and lifted one with her own finger to study the nails, the cuticles like waning moons. With her own thumb she caressed the creases along the knuckles, because that was what Mina Rumir cherished more than anything in her world, her Surami’s fingers. She could not have told anyone why she loved them so much, but the mere touch of those tiny appendages filled her with a love she could not have imagined she possessed.
For a moment she pictured an afternoon in the not too distant future when they would sit as mother and daughter on the broad swing in the garden. They would giggle and sip cane juice, and with a fine brush Mina would paint her Surami’s nails in shades of vermilion and rose and smother them with kisses.
She bent once more to touch her lips to the hair on her daughter’s brow, and then drawing her shawl about her head, descended the steps to the parlor. As she entered, Panchu glanced up from a thin stack of papers. “Can I assume she is asleep?”
“Yes, My Love.”
“And you think it safe for me while you are gone, that she will not wake and raise the entire neighborhood with cries for her mother?”
Mina smiled. “With the milk she has drunk? She will sleep for hours, perhaps even until morning.” The young husband returned his wife’s smile and imagined the pleasure of them sleeping uninterrupted through an entire night. She chided playfully, “You will be fine, Panchu. I am sure you will manage our two-month old baby well enough while I am gone to temple. It is an hour only, and too many days have passed since I have been to take darshan. Perhaps afterwards I will look at the new silk that my good husband is going to purchase for me when I am thin again.”
With a wave of his fingers he said, “You are thin enough, my beauty. Go. It is an evening made just for you.”
The lanes that fed into to the Sankat Mochan were filled with the typical mixture of odors that evening. Fruit, incense, and the crisp aroma of trimmed carnations mingled with the foulness of sweat and excrement. Mina glided along the familiar lanes without hurry or haste, savoring the first solitary minutes she had enjoyed since Surami’s birth. Her journey wound serpentine along the edge of the university and east from the district of Nagwa, and even though she felt alone as she walked, the avenues were swollen with streams of humanity. It was Tuesday, holy day--the day when the devout went to prayer, vendors plied their goods in keen expectancy, and the bare bulbs of shopkeepers glowed late into the night.
Mina paused at her favorite flower stall to select a mala of tulasi and marigolds. The vendor, recognizing the young mother, offered a fair price and inquired politely of Panchu and the baby. They chatted about each other’s families and then Mina settled her shawl over her head and strolled the final distance to the Sankat Mochan.
The queue leading to the nave was shorter than she’d anticipated. It was after all the season of marriages, but only three wedding parties were gathered in the gardens, and the ceremonies had yet to begin. Mina listened to the stifled laughter and nervous whispers of the brides and their maids. Such a short time ago, she smiled, I giggled in this very place from my own nervousness.
Worshipers knelt to have their foreheads cleansed of dust and sweat and other impurities accumulated during the week. Above the nave, the statue of Hanuman rose like a tree, muscular and tall. The monkey-god was laughing, smiling at all who congregated below. Mina looked into that smile and for an instant it seemed to focus just on her. With a shy bow of her head she placed the wreath of flowers at its feet and knelt to receive darshan. The priest, pleased to see her at his altar again, lifted her chin affectionately and rinsed her forehead with holy water. Then he placed a circle of crimson in its center.
Mina gazed again at the statue and in her mind’s eye the tiny fingers of her daughter’s hands materialized. She stretched her own palms towards the sky. Love, she thought. That is our greatest gift. It is the blessing we are all given--each and every one of us--love, as limitless as the stars.
At that instant a bomb detonated four meters from Mina Rumir’s outstretched palms. The device was calculated to kill as many worshipers as possible on that holiest day of the week. The young mother did not feel the blast; razored steel and mortar ripped through her spine and severed nerves from torso. Her outstretched hands vanished like mist in the flash, and within the minute Mina Rumir was dead. Her last thoughts were of her Surami’s fingernails painted brilliantly in vermilion and rose.
Four hundred meters to the east, from the plush safety of a dark Mercedes, Sutradharak, The PuppetMaster, twirled a silver ring on his smallest finger and smiled. He watched in dark fascination as knives of shrapnel tumbled lightly back to earth through an ascending plume of dust and smoke.
That was well placed, he concluded, a veritable model of perfection. Location and timing are so essential to this running game of diversion. Fascinating. All that death from the pressing of two small buttons.
A moment later Sutradharak detected the far-off rumble of the second explosion. The canisters at the cantonment rail station had detonated, a few seconds behind schedule, but from the sound of it, they had done precisely what they were supposed to—destroy lives, amplify fear, and generate futile searches for those responsible.
Varanasi, four months later
There are days that return to our memories like loop-tapes, revisit like children’s rhymes, but as we move through them, they feel ordinary. Commonplace. We see them as mundane hours of little importance, but then, when we look back from some further point in time and see what they have truly brought, we realize that they moved together with the precision of a fine watch and had all the significance of our own birth.
The morning that Lalji came whimpering across the courtyard to inform me that he couldn’t perform his chores for at least a fortnight was such a day. And between dawn and dusk three more seemingly innocuous events occurred that left far too many good people dead and ultimately altered the lives of millions: My teacher requested that I accompany him to the cave beyond Sarnath, Adam strolled quite casually past my front gate, and the news of the bombings in Northern India repeated itself.
I look back at those events, their seeming irrelevance, and ask myself how it was that I missed their magnitude. They should have given me some glimpse into the events of the next twenty-one days. But they didn’t. Ah, but then I remind myself that that is simply the way my life has always unfolded: tiny, unanticipated events that change everything.
Let me begin with Lalji. The knuckle of his baby finger, he complained that morning in
an inconsolable voice, had been cracked when a companion had struck it the previous evening during a game of cards. Lalji had been reading them prematurely, before they had all been dealt, and this being viewed as bad manners, resulted in the dealer smacking a palm sharply down upon Lalji’s inconsiderate fingers. He was now displaying that cracked knuckle with puppy-like whining noises all with the hope that he wouldn’t have to lift it--or any of his other extremities--to do any chores for as long as he could prolong the healing time.
I wasn’t buying it.
To say that Lalji was merely lazy would be to vastly misinterpret his amazing capacity for work avoidance. He would routinely saunter back from the market, hours late, with the most creative tales of how a dozen thieves had attempted to outsmart him and steal our money—and he did refer to anything of value as ours. At first I questioned how such trickery had taken place but learned that my questioning brought lengthy descriptions of vendors attempting to pass off bad products for good ones, and thus more idle time was spent in the telling. Now I simply reminded him that I knew those vendors by name and would consult them at first opportunity as to what actually occurred.
Lalji always smelled of coconut oil and sweat, and depending upon the day of the week that odor would permeate the air in reasonable freshness or putrid rancidity.
He was so slight of build as to be called skinny. He wore a frayed purple loongi at all hours, and even though at our first meeting I had provided him money for a new one, the replacement never materialized--the rupees, I suspect, having transferred to one of his better card-playing friends. I’m not certain if Lalji even owned a shirt, which is just as well as it would have looked far too comical draped about his skinny shoulders.
So, as he stood before me that morning clutching his baby finger and rolling his eyes as if he might faint onto the patio tiles, I wasn’t fully accepting his request for a postponement of duties. First, I had fractured as many fingers as baseball catcher in my time, having enjoyed basketball, full contact sparring, softball, mountain biking, surfing and Ultimate Frisbee during various phases of my life. I knew what that finger needed. And to Lalji’s dismay, I knew exactly how much it could endure once it was splinted. I told him as much.
“But Sahib…” This came out in a prolonged whine and was pronounced exactly like the European car, Saab. “It burns like the fires of the Ghats. How can I iron your shirt and pants with such pain? How can I fold them neatly the way you ask? I feel that I shall not be able to walk even the distance to the fruit-walla this morning.” Feigning dizziness--quite well I might add--he leaned against the wrought iron fence above the wall that circled the yard and let his knees sag. He cast a glance about the courtyard, ostensibly eyeing the hammock to sink his feeble body into. I stroked my chin thoughtfully and examined the knuckle with the expression of a surgeon.
“Hmm . . . Lalji, with the help of St. Thomas the Healer, I will perform a small miracle. Right now, within this very half hour, I will cure your finger.” My proclamation was drawing upon his Christian beliefs, which he adhered to minimally out of respect--or fear--of his mother’s sharp tongue and quick palm. “Go fetch me five cubes of ice from the freezer in the kitchen, no more, no less, because that is the precise number the cure calls for. Also, bring the drying cloth next to the sink and the white tape from the medicine cabinet.” I clapped, “And do it quickly.” He stared at me with obvious disappointment that I was going to so quickly eliminate the source of his evasion of duties.
I was about to add that the remedy wouldn’t work if the ice melted, but then realized that such information would provide him far too convenient an excuse.
Thirty minutes later, taped and numbed with cold, Lalji’s pinky was once again ready to perform his obligations as my gofer, dhobi, and watchman. That was the moment I received the request from my teacher.
I had just finished taping pinky and ring finger into a comfortable but firm union, both of us admiring the work, when the iron bell outside my gate rang softly three times. Without looking up I knew that the hand that pulled on the string was that of Soma, my teacher's young servant. She, unlike every other person who tugged on that cord, always rang the bell in a hushed, almost demure fashion, as if she were embarrassed by the rudeness of the noise.
She was hunched silently on the opposite side, hidden inside a threadbare shawl. I called out, “Namaste, Little Sister.” And here, I will presume, is the appropriate place to introduce myself. My name is Martin Chandler Scott, and every person who knew me before my time in India referred to me as Marty. But in the holy city where I had lived for more than three years I was known only as Bhim--pronounced like beam, but with a whisper of aspiration. I was a linguist, more precisely, a Sanskritist of recognized skill, and my purpose for being there will be explained in due time.