One Night in Bangkok
We came to a crest in the trail and stopped to catch our breath. The rich green of the forest was all around us – underfoot; on the rocky slopes that we had been climbing for the last four hours; on the bushes that grew luxuriantly on every patch of soil available and as far as the eye could see. This profusion of green was among the richest you could get to see in the world – the ads justifiably called it “God’s own country”. Even though it was December, this part of Kerala was hot and muggy as it always was throughout the year. We were struggling along the lower slopes of the Cardamom Hills, looking for the habitations of the fast-diminishing Adiyar tribe. There were rumours that this tribe had, for centuries past, discovered the miracle effects of some kind of berry that gave a man incredible bursts of energy and stamina. The rumours went on to say that one dose of this magic berry – it was from the Chamunda tree – would energise even a sixty year old man to run the marathon. In the hands of any pharma company, the secret of this berry could be turned into a huge money-spinner. But the problem was that the shy Adiyars lived in the densely forested foothills of the Cardamoms and had become even more elusive and reticent in recent years because of the ruthless exploitation of their young men for hard labour in the daytime; and their young girls for hard fun in the night-time – at the lowest of cheap wages – by the owners of estates and plantations in the surrounding districts.
The tribals had little recourse – they desperately needed the income since the rough terrain of the Cardamoms allowed scant land for farming and the very remoteness of their habitat allowed for no road or rail links. For the rest of the world the twenty-first century had begun but the march of civilization and the gains of technology had not touched these people at all. They would emerge from the jungle for a few weeks every season to pick tea-leaves, collect rubber sap or harvest cashew berries or whatever and melt back into it once the job was done and disappear without a trace. No local authority bothered to visit their villages or find out how they lived. The general areas where they had their dwellings were fifty, sixty, sometimes even a hundred miles away from the plantations they came to for work. On foot it would take any man several days trek. Their small, wiry frames and quick fingers were ideal for working the harvests but they were not known to carry any of the magic berries on them. We had heard though that on the last day of the picking at any plantation, a carrier from their heartland would materialize out of the dense forests, spend a few moments and vanish as suddenly as he came. Then, after they got paid the next day, the whole lot would be gone without a trace and would not be seen again until the next season. The obvious speculation was that the lone carrier brought doses of the mystery powder to give to the tribals so that they could get the energy to make the long trek back after getting paid on the last day.
All this we had heard, with a few more details thrown in, from Krishnakumar – Krish to us – who was from the city of Thrissur, a few hours by road to the north-east from where we were. He lowered his haversack to the ground and massaged his aching shoulders.
“Man, this is really tough eh, Chats? My thighs feel like jelly”, he said, his thin bony face looking drawn with exhaustion. We had started out from the small lodge near the bus-stand in the town of Devikulam at dawn after an early breakfast and had been going non-stop since then. We turned to watch as the others, Bellie with his long legs and lanky frame and Tanna, a short and stocky sardar, picked their way slowly up the crest.
As he came up to us Bellie gave a huge grin – more like a grimace – wordlessly dumped his backpack and pulled his canteen out to take a long swig. He had wanted to bring his guitar along but much as we would have liked the sound of his blues in the evenings, we had told him to ditch that particular thought. So he had settled for his harmonica – he couldn’t survive even one day without his music. He and Krish were the ones professionally interested in the Adiyars and their magic berries. They were both molecular biologists at the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bangalore and though they were poles apart in their mental and physical make-up, they formed a crack team together and had begun to make quite a little name for themselves in scientific circles in India and abroad. I had gotten to know them well because I visited their campus every so often and our common love of rock and blues had brought us together.
Bellie was a six-foot tall Coorgi – his clan consisted of men who were invariably tall and athletic. It had a proud history of military service with every family having at least one son in the armed forces. Coorgi women were famed for their fair complexions and graceful stature. Bellie too had the build of a natural athlete but he had broken from tradition and gone into academics. He didn’t look at all like a research scientist but more like a rock star with a thick mane of long curly hair and a light beard. He could have made a career in music if he wished but he had decided that the money in India for a blues singer wasn’t good enough to be worth it.
Krish was in many ways the anti-thesis. Slightly built with a long head and sharp features, his father was a teacher in a humble college in Thrissur – he was the only one among us who knew Malayalam, the local language. He had simple tastes in food and clothes but a deep and consuming interest in music of any kind. From ghazals to Carnatic music to jazz and blues, Krish was a walking encyclopedia. Music was what had thrown him and Bellie together – that and their interest in the world of nature. He was the more brilliant of the two when it came to pharmacology. It was he who would get the breakthrough ideas, crack the tough problems. Bellie was content to play second-fiddle in the team and fill the picture out once Krish had drawn the outline. The chemistry between the two was palpable. Bellie came into his own when it came to networking with people and publicizing their achievements. He would ensure that evidence of their work reached the right places at the right time. It was he who had landed the grant from the government to research the Chamunda berry for its pharmaceutical value.
And that was how we came to be on this particular path in the Cardamom jungles. Tanna was not from either Institute – he managed the family business, which was a workshop for imported cars near the IISc campus. Tanna, whose interests in books and music coincided with ours, was a regular pub-hopper and an inveterate trekker. He and I had no professional interest in this trip, we were just in for the spin.
The sun had climbed high into the sky and its rays were beating down with merciless heat. The soft clayey soil was slippery, the ground was packed with short rolling slopes and the trek was grueling.
The patka that bound Tanna’s long hair was soaked with sweat. We were all close to exhaustion. “Hey”, he said as he came up to where we were standing, “do I hear a river or what?”
We turned and looked down into the valley. The bottom was perhaps two or three hundred feet down. We heard it now, the faint gurgle of a hilly stream and then, straining our ears, we caught a deeper undertone.
Krish pointed to a turn in the valley floor some two hundred meters away as the crow flies and said, “Yeah, and I think there’s a waterfall or maybe a cataract out there. I think we can hear it, nah? That must be the spot we saw in the map. If the map is right and there is a village after the fall then we should be able to get a boat there.”
We surveyed the slope below us. It was much thicker than the forest behind us. We would have to hack our way through. It could take the rest of the day to reach the bend in the valley. There was no other way.
We sat down to a quick lunch before starting down. We had brought tinned meat at Koshy’s back in Bangalore and there was some rough bread that we had picked up at Devikulam that morning. When we had finished and tidied up we stood and shouldered our packs wearily. The machete was hanging from a loop on my pack so I took it out and said, “I’ll take first turn at cutting the path. Let’s go.”
For the next few hours we spoke barely a word. The undergrowth was thick and the trees grew closer together as we descended. The jungle around us was silent except for the low sound of the stream below and the rhythmic ‘thwak’ of the machete cutting through the bushes. Nothing else stirred in the midday heat. We skirted the waterfall and the slope became treacherously steep. One wrong move and the weight of our packs would bring us down and we’d end up tumbling down the slope through the thorny undergrowth with a good chance of shattering our bodies on the sharp outcrops of rock along the way. Our clothes were soaked through with sweat, our thigh muscles quivered with every step and after each one was finished at his turn with the machete his hands would feel as if they were made of tons of lead. But with each step we felt the presence of the pool at the bottom get closer.
Near the shoreline the soil turned clayey and the thickets gave way to softer bushes. With relief we put the machete away and moved forward eagerly towards the gurgling water, thinking only of chucking off our clothes and diving into a cool stream. We almost stepped on the young girls who were collecting water in brass pots as we came out of the bushes. I guess with the rush of the river in their ears they hadn’t heard our approach. Startled like does caught in a jeep’s headlights, they made a fetching picture with their wide-eyed vulnerability and their soft breasts heaving in panic. They must have just finished bathing in the cool river. One was maybe fifteen or sixteen, slim and with slender shoulders and brown eyes. The other girl looked a couple of years older, a bit heavier in the breasts and hips, but her face bore a strong resemblance to the first – they looked like sisters. The late afternoon sun played on their nubile bodies, their moist thin white cotton sarees clung to the gentle curves and youthful skin and all of us remained frozen as we were for a long, long time.
Then Bellie, who else but Bellie with the wide smile and smooth charm, swung into action. With a beautifully exaggerated weariness he swung his pack down and sank to his haunches before them, cupping his hands together and indicating that he wanted a drink from their pots. The rest of us sagged down as wearily, lowering our burdens. The tension eased out of the situation and the girls, glancing at each other, broke into shy smiles. Looking down at Bellie, they began even to giggle a bit – he was miming a monkey hopping about with thirst. I knew all too well that his mind was racing, trying to judge which of the two he should try to score with. Never mind that he didn’t know the local lingo, never mind that we were in strange country, never mind that we didn’t know how far the village – and more importantly the young men of the village – were. I had never known trivial matters like these to hold Bellie back when he was on the prowl. But I was too tired to try and hold him back, and anyway the only thing the rest of us wanted was to drink water too.
The younger one was first off the mark. She hefted a pot that was lying at her side, leaned over Bellie and upended it to pour water into his waiting hands. He took his time and as she leaned over further the knotted end of her saree swung about and brushed against his head. She didn’t attempt to clutch it away, he didn’t seem to notice. Okay, we were all thirsty and so he obviously would take a long drink, but all of us, the girls included, knew that he was taking much, much longer than he needed to. But nobody said a word.
At length I crawled forward towards the other girl and cupped my hands. She nodded and I knelt. Tanna and Krish crowded around me, waiting their turn. It seemed natural that we should not disturb Bellie and the slender one. I don’t know how, I don’t know what kind of chemistry was at work, but that was how it went. After he finished, he took his pack to a nearby mound of earth and beckoned her over. Digging around in his back-pack, he fished out a plastic-coated album. I knew what was in it – doctored photographs of him ‘posing’ with different Bollywood stars. What spiel was he going to spin her – out in these backwoods, without knowing a word of Malayalam, not knowing how near the village was? But soon enough their two heads were close together over the photographs, she pointing excitedly at them, jumping up and down as she recognized a star. Even here, in one of the remotest tracts of India, the magic of Bollywood worked. That shameless bastard Bellie – he had never met a film star in his life, but had more than a dozen snaps showing him in close intimacy with the most glamorous of the rich and famous. He had used that album to score more than once back in Bangalore and now it looked like he was going to do so here as well.
“Hey Bellie, lay off man,” said Tanna in a fierce whisper. “We have to talk to the villagers for a boat, remember? We can’t afford to get the young bucks of this place yelling for our blood, man!” The older girl was also saying something in an angry hiss to her younger sister.
Krish, who came from a conventional middle-class family, was fuming. “Bellie, what are you doing?” he shot out. “Do you know that this poor girl could get into trouble because of you? We’ll all be long gone from here but her life will be ruined. Keep your control – you’ve got enough women back home to use anyway – why do you want to play with an innocent girl’s life?”
“Hey, hey, chill, guys, can’t I have a little innocent fun? This chick loves it, man, what’s your hassle? And I’m not doing anything here, just showing her some photos, for crying out loud, and you guys are getting all worked up.” He looked down at the girl with a smile and brushed his hand against hers as if by accident – another torrent of words shot out at her from her sister and she ran giggling to her side. Then he raised his hands to us in mock surrender and stuffed the album back into his pack. “Let’s get on with the business, then. Krish, cool down and find out from them where their village is. Can’t be too far away, right?”
Taking her sister firmly in hand, the older girl had begun dragging her away with averted eyes when Krish addressed her. Drawing himself up to a dignified posture he spoke rapidly. Was he apologizing for Bellie’s actions? But as he went on I could see her expression changing from apprehension to interest and finally to acquiescence. Some exchanges followed between her and Krish and then she pointed up the slope. She motioned to her sister to refill the pots. Then, with a sharp shove she pushed her sister along a narrow path and motioned for us to follow.
Bellie held Tanna back a bit and whispered fiercely into his hear but I overheard. “Why the fuck didn’t you go for the other one, you dumb surd?” he hissed angrily. “Man, these hill-billy chicks are always ready for it. See how the slim one came without a murmur!”
I hurried forward, not wanting to know Tanna’s response.
Within ten minutes we came upon a clutch of a dozen or so huts spread over a patch of even ground. The womenfolk were preparing the evening meal and the men were gathered in a circle, playing with the children, waiting to eat.
Our arrival caused quite some hullabaloo in that little gathering and Krish got into a huddle with one or two of the older men. The rest of us sat around and watched, and at least I was watching nervously for any reactions to Bellie’s flirting.
After a while Krish turned to us. “Okay, there’s no boat or anything – they don’t use the river for transport except for heavy loads. They use rafts which they tow along the shore to a place downstream where a trail comes close to the river. They’ll make us one for a hundred rupees. The Adiyars live deep in the jungle on the other side of the river. They said there is another cataract at the valley bend and after that the river’s deeper and faster. They don’t know how we’ll get across – they never go that side.”
“What if we pay them some more and if one or two guys can come with us past the cataract?” suggested Tanna. “Then they can swim across with a rope and then we’ll pull the raft over with our packs.”
Krish fixed it and then told us we had been invited to join them for the meal and showed us where we could lay out our sleeping bags for the night.
After dinner when we had opened our sleeping bags we gave Bellie a dressing down. Krish was the most vociferous – we could see that his straitlaced south Indian Brahminical sense of propriety had been offended. Getting it off with city girls who knew how to handle themselves was one thing and leaving innocent young village girls in trouble after we had long gone was entirely another, he told Bellie. He reminded him that we had come there for a purpose and not for a jaunt in the woods.
Bellie of course just kept a fierce grin in place and rolled over in his sleeping bag when we were done. For a long while that night I fought sleep off, unsure of that Bellie, waiting to pounce should he try any tricks again. I managed to stay awake for maybe an hour and then drifted off. Nothing else happened and we woke at dawn.
It took three village lads less than an hour to put together the raft for us from bamboo staves and rough vines. We had breakfast in the meantime and set out immediately. All our packs were strapped firmly to the raft and we walked along the shore, free from our burdens. We came to the cataract within an hour and then, using the guy-ropes they had fashioned, the local boys guided the raft expertly as it bounced and twisted around the rocks. A hundred or so meters downstream the river widened and the flow became calmer. One of the lads tied a guy-rope around his waist and struck out for the opposite shore. I followed him and once across, we pulled the raft over. Within minutes the others had joined me and with a wave the youth swam back to his mates. We took the raft further downstream until we could haul it out of the water and tie it to a thick bush. It could come in useful if we wanted to make a quick getaway – we didn’t know what kind of reception awaited us. Then, shouldering our packs again, we started up the hill, looking for a vantage point from which we could take our bearings. The nearest Adiyar habitat was reported to be about three miles due east of the river from the bend we had crossed.
Four hours of foot-by-foot slogging followed in complete silence. In many parts we had to bring out the machete and hack our way through, sometimes taking one hour to cover a few hundred meters. In many parts the soft, moist ground gave way and we scrambled desperately for footing, getting cut and bruised in a dozen places. Leeches clung to our hands, necks and even on our legs, trying to suck blood through our jeans.
“Let them be,” Tanna said, as Krish tried to pluck them off. “The only way to get them off without getting scabs on your skin is to burn them with lighted cigarettes. We’ll do that when we stop for lunch – they won’t do too much harm before then.” We all looked doubtfully at him but he just walked on and we followed. We were too tired to argue.
Every step had become a huge struggle. We were completely sapped of energy. The sun roasted our backs and the sweat dripped down in continuous rivulets from our faces. When we crested the next rise we paused to take our bearings again. We could see the hill with a massive rock-face that was our objective – we had to go over another two hills as far as we could make out. Would we make it before dark? That seemed doubtful. We started down a narrow path in single file and had gone a few meters when Bellie, who was bringing up the rear, gave a hoarse cry. I half-turned to see that he had lost his balance because a bush he had held on to had come uprooted – his flailing hand was waving it in the air – and then he slammed into my back. I fell, and in a mad tangle of arms, legs and haversacks, we brought the other two down as well. Smashing through bushes we gained momentum – the ground here was slippery as hell and the slope very steep. We grabbed for handholds – the bushes either slipped out of our tired fingers or came off at the roots. Nothing seemed able to stop us – Krish’s boot slammed hard into my temple and I was knocked half-unconscious. I don’t know too much about what followed but we seemed to go on rolling over and over forever and getting hit hard on all parts of our body. Someone was yelling out in pain – no, maybe we were all yelling out – I think I or one of the others must have landed on a tree from above but half-way up its trunk – it snapped and then finally we landed on flatter land and came to a stop.
When I came to I found myself sprawled out on my back – my pack was on my stomach and was pressing me down. My head was ringing – when I tried to move a shooting pain told me I had either broken or twisted my right ankle. I looked around – Tanna was lying unconscious on his face next to mine and his left hand was lying at an unnatural angle. Broken.
I heard movement behind me and Krish’s voice, “Chats, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I think I’ve broken my right foot or leg.”
“Where are the others?”
“Tanna is here, next to me. His hand seems to be broken. He’s unconscious, I think. Tanna, hey Tanna, are you okay?”
No answer. Then I called out without moving, looking up at the treetops in my field of vision, “Bellie, where are you, man? Are you okay?” No answer to that either. “Shit Krish, I hope he’s not too badly hurt.”
“What happened?” he asked. I told him what I had seen before the long tumble had started. He was trying to move and groaned. By and by we stirred to a sitting position and looked around. Tanna was stirring too, so I thought he would be alright. Bellie was lying in a ditch nearby – I could see a boot and it was moving.
We took stock of our injuries. I had twisted my ankle but apart from a few cuts and bruises and a nasty headache I was otherwise alright. Krish had got off lightly – he stood up and walked over to look at Bellie. Tanna turned himself over on his stomach and screamed when by mistake he put pressure on his broken hand.
Suddenly we all froze – we were surrounded by a dozen tribals. They seemed to have come out of thin air – they must have been watching us and seen our headlong tumble down that steep slope. They were not armed. They were carrying small loads slung on their backs – they must have been out gathering fruits or nuts or whatever it is that tribals gather. Then one of them stepped forward and addressed me in a rapid but sing-song string of sounds. I looked helplessly at Krish, who shrugged his shoulders at me.
He let off in Malayalam but got only a puzzled look in reply. Bellie, who was standing up now behind Krish, said, “This is some jungle lingo, Krish. We’ll have to do sign language. Are these Adiyars?”
“Looks like. See the nose-rings? And the eyes and hair? Same as in the photographs. But they must be able to understand at least a little Malayalam.” He tried again, speaking slowly and gesticulating as he went. We could see that the one who had stepped forward was straining his ears – it looked as if he caught one or two words. Then Tanna groaned and all our attention went to him. The leader shot off some commands and a couple of them sprang to obey. Quickly they pulled out short knives and cut off a couple of low branches from a nearby tree and fashioned a rough splint. Straightening Tanna’s arm they tied the splint to it with thin vines. He was prepared this time and didn’t scream but the way sweat broke out on his face we knew that it must have pained like hell. They were fast and sure but that surd was one hell of a tough guy.
Then the leader surveyed all of us. I pointed to my foot and he moved it gingerly about. He shot out some more instructions. One of them gestured for me to take off my boot. He opened a pouch that was tied to his waist and poured out some powder. Mixing it with a little water, he made a thick paste that he smeared all over my ankle. I felt at once a cooling sensation. Another lad brought him some leaves and he tied them to my ankle. The others had no obvious injuries.
The leader turned to Krish and they again spoke to each other with a lot of pointing and gesticulating. Finally Krish told us that he wanted us to go with them to their dwellings near the rock-top hill. This was sheer luck! This was exactly what we had been hoping for – better than that, because we would now be conducted to the place directly. Then one of the men stepped forward and gestured that we were to hold our hands out. He took out another pouch and poured out some powder into our palms, indicating that we were to eat it. We couldn’t believe our luck – was this the magic potion that we had been seeking? All of us popped the doses into our mouths – the thing tasted like nothing on earth and we had to fight the urge to spit it out of our mouths. We grabbed our canteens and took deep gulps of water to wash away the taste.
But almost instantly we felt a rush of energy flowing through our muscles – we weren’t tired anymore. In fact, within a minute we were feeling so pepped up that we could have run miles effortlessly. I took a tentative step and the pain in my ankle was already much less. They gave me a stout piece of a branch for a walking stick. I could walk!
The leader waved his hand and three of the youngsters in the group set off at a brisk trot and vanished. It was an advance party to warn the village of our coming, no doubt. We started to follow, going slowly due to my twisted ankle and Tanna’s broken arm. My headache was gone and the pain in my ankle diminished as we went. Our loads were being carried easily by four of them, balanced on their heads. After seeing me struggle bravely for a while they stopped at a bamboo grove and within a jiffy had made a stretcher for me. I lay down and enjoyed the rest of the journey to their village. The gang had both young and old men but they all moved along at a fast clip. Carrying our packs on their heads with a light, carefree manner, they climbed up and down the steep slopes as if they were doing their morning walk. My friends didn’t feel the strain either – no more did they feel excruciating agony of each step, no more the oppressive heat of the merciless sun.
The magic berry was at work and Krish and Bellie kept exchanging excited theories on the molecular structure of its active ingredient. It must have been two miles to the village – we would normally have taken the whole day in this terrain. We did it in four hours – and only because they were carrying me.
We spent a week at the Adiyar village. My ankle got better very quickly with the help of the strange poultice and in two days time I was walking around as good as new. The vaidya (village doctor), an ancient specimen, set Tanna’s bone properly, tied a proper splint and made him a sling. Bellie, Krish and I – all three examined the work and pronounced it as good as any that he could have got in Bangalore. Maybe broken bones were common things that these villagers knew how to handle well. The folk were friendly and gradually Krish was able to decipher enough of their tongue to carry out conversations with them.
With him acting as interpreter, Kanju the headman, an old geezer of about sixty years, told us their sad history.
Once numerous, their people had been spread out over several dozen villages. It had once upon a time needed two weeks’ journey to cover the entire length of the region they used to inhabit. Cross-checking the landmarks they described with our map we reckoned that they must have occupied an area stretching maybe one hundred and twenty kilometers. Now there were only twenty or thirty villages left. The young men would, in the picking season, go to coffee or tea or rubber plantations and earn a few meager rupees each year, melting back into the jungles at the end of the season. But every year, said Kanju with a wistful look in his eye, fewer young men returned. Every now and then, schools nearby would get active and all the kids be asked summarily by sundry officials to present themselves for a few weeks. The Adiyars had long since understood that literacy was a big thing with the officials of Kerala and the count of literates was a matter of great concern to them.
Another way the officials impacted their lives was by employing Adiyar women in the oldest profession of the world. When they had been a proud tribe, any girl getting pregnant either married the man responsible or faced ostracism throughout her life. Now that tradition was dying out – with young men getting scarcer every year it seemed increasingly pointless to preserve it. The elder ones were resigned to their fate – Kanju’s expression said it all. It seemed certain anyway that more villages would get abandoned every year. Soon, the Adiyars would cease to exist and nobody saw any point in fighting the inevitable. Those who could, left to seek their fortunes, those who couldn’t got left behind. It was that simple.
On the fourth day Krish suddenly became very agitated just before the mid-day meal. One helluva flap erupted between him and Kanju. Krish was almost angry, the old man seemed to be getting apologetic and not a little intimidated.
Then Krish turned excitedly to us and said, “Listen guys, we’ve got to move fast! This guy tells me now, now, after four bloody days, that some white-skin foreigner had come to a neighbouring village recently and was asking about the magic berry! It must have been an American – the Coventis-Linova corporation has been seeking this berry for quite a while.
“At first nobody told him anything. He hung around for many days, staying at a local inspection bungalow. Then one day he got the cops to arrest the old vaidya’s assistant because of some fight. The vaidya smells a rat – he thinks the boy must have been enticed to leave and the arrest was just eyewash. The way he tells it, that must have been about two months ago. I knew the Americans were after this – it looks like they’ve moved faster than us.”
Bellie got excited too. “Shit! The fucking race is on, man! Let’s get our samples and get back to Bangalore without wasting more time!”
“That was my first thought too, Bellie,” replied Krish thoughtfully. “But you know, these poor guys also need to be told how to protect themselves from being cheated out of their rightful dues. The only way they can do that is by knowing whom to trust. For them any outsider is a foreigner – we are too, you know.”
Bellie didn’t agree. He wanted to get to the labs and get cracking on the code without losing a moment and it was beginning to look like an ugly argument between the two.
Then Tanna chipped in. “You know Bellie, you got to be smart about these things. If the Yanks or whoever are really into this, then we need to make sure the other villages are warned not to give out anything and watch out for the white-skins. Even better if they can tell us about any more such missions. And why the fuck should they? Who are you to them but another foreigner? You need to invest time out here, get them to trust you before you can expect any co-operation.”
Krish took up the thread. “Yeah, Tanna’s right. We need to meet all the village headmen and talk to them. We’ll not get another chance to do that now that the competition is on.”
“But that could take weeks, you bloody dodoes! If C-L Corp or whoever cracks the code before us, all that this gallivanting about the jungles will get us is some brownie points from these blooming village yokels! You want to stand for elections from here, go ahead and do this crazy thing!”
“Cool it guys,” said Tanna. “I may be a surd but I’m not dumb, eh? What you need to do is to get the old man there to call a conference or something for the other headmen to attend. Krish, convince the guy to act. Looks to me he is kind of resigned to his fate and unless we light a fire under his backside you won’t get action.”
“No, I’ll tell some of the younger lot what they can gain if they go with us. They’ve still got fire in the belly. I’ve made friends with enough of them. They’ll do the rest.”
So that’s how it worked out. We stayed there among the Adiyars for another week. The headmen of one or two of the villages didn’t see the point in trusting one set of foreigners over another and Krish and Kanju made a couple of forays into the region to meet with the more vocal ones and convince them. At long last the meeting was set up – all headmen had agreed to attend. It was fixed for a date one more week away – we decided that Krish and Tanna would stay back, Bellie and I would get back to Bangalore immediately. The villagers showed us to the nearest bus-stand more than ten miles of rough hill terrain away. With the magic berries to help us, we did the trek in just under three hours.
The tribal headmen’s conference had been a success, the way Krish described it to us when he got back to the Institute. All the headmen had agreed to keep any strangers off any talk of the berry until Krish got back to them. I guess his earnestness and the fact that he had learnt their tongue must have convinced them.
* * *
About three months later Krish called me on my cell phone. He was massively excited. It had been a tough day for me and I was unwinding with a John Grisham novel in the peace and tranquility of my rooms.
“Eureka! Absolutely eureka, Chats! We’ve cracked the code!” Krish screamed into my startled ear. He put his instrument on speaker phone and I heard Bellie whooping like a Red Indian doing a victory dance.
“We’re rich, Chats old buddy boy! We’re way fucking rich, man! Wahoo! Hyahh!”
I heard them out, so unlike in this as in everything else and wondered what strange chemistry worked in the lab for them. Krish’s voice was aglow with the fire of intellectual attainment – this was a major scientific breakthrough. I could picture his proud parents as he stepped up to receive awards and honours. And as for Bellie, I could already visualize dollars dancing in his eyes. He would make sure that the news got to the right people at the loudest possible decibel level. And make sure that he collected.
But for now, it was celebration time. We decided to paint the town red starting with M G Road. I rounded up Tanna and shut his shop down for him though it was just six in the evening and his clientele was just about building up for the day. We zoomed off in my Scorpio and made it to the Oaken Cask pub, where we were to meet Krish and Bellie, in half an hour flat. That pub had never before seen so many rounds of drinks being bought for everyone in the house on one single night.
The next day they filed patents for the drug that they called Adiyarate in deference to the source. Krish went down to Kerala to visit first the tribe to break the good news and then his parents’ place to spend a well-earned holiday. Bellie was now getting into action – he was busy checking out the commercial value of the discovery, studying valuations of every major molecule discovered in the world in the last ten years. If they played their cards right, the thing was worth billions. Even sharing out royalty with the Institute and the Adiyar tribe, these two would be rich beyond their dreams.
It did not take Coventis-Linova long to move in.
Two days after the patent application was filed, and even before it had moved to the next step, their executives made first contact with Bellie – Krish was still away in Kerala. The US multi-national obviously had its sources of information deep within the government machinery. They offered the pair ten million dollars US – converted into Indian rupees it was a mega-fortune. And with C-L Corp handling the game from there onwards, a mega-fortune would be invested in expensive drug development work. It was a stroke of fortune any inventor would have given his eye-teeth for. Bellie decided to hold out for fifty million, knowing that this was only an opening bid.
Then came the stumbling block – two of them, in fact. Krish wanted a hundred million dollars – ten times the money that C-L Corp was offering. And royalties from sales of the drug globally. His dream was to revolutionise rural development work in Kerala and in particular among the Adiyar tribe. So he had worked out his strategy to protect these interests in perpetuity. And he wanted to ensure that the legal framework was iron-clad. He wanted that nobody, especially not the Government which was after all run by the greediest tribe in the world – politicians – would squeeze the hapless Adiyars out of their rights.
The second stumbling block was even more stunning. Krish didn’t want to sell to Americans – at any price. He sent feelers out to all the Indian pharmaceutical majors and tried his best to push and cajole them to step into the ring with a bid.
Unfortunately the Indian companies didn’t rise to the occasion. They couldn’t – or wouldn’t – offer what Krish was angling for. Months kept going by and still he wouldn’t give up.
He drove Bellie to distraction with his obstinate stand. Nothing he could say would move Krish and the fight between the two raged on for weeks and spilled out into the public domain as the TV channels around the world lapped up the soundbytes. Because this was the first time that such a major molecule discovery had been made in India and here it was already becoming a spectacle.
* * *
One evening, Bellie, Krish and I were having a drink at the Oaken Cask. I could see they wanted to tell me something. I waited as we made small talk and listened to Dire Straits playing in the background. Then Bellie spoke up about the invitation to Bangkok to meet the top brass of C-L Corp.
“Chats, we’ve got this invite, you know, like to go to Bangkok next month to meet the top brass of C-L Corp. They’ve got some kind of conference happening and they don’t mind spending a couple of hours talking to us.”
“But what about the terms you guys want?’ I asked, looking at Krish. “I thought they were offering one tenth of your asking price?”
Krish’s brow furrowed. “I believe they’ve got some kind of offer in mind that will – what’s the word? materially – get everybody what they want. Some kind of mystery formula that will satisfy all parties, so we have been told.”
“Why not ask them for an outline? Instead of going off there and then finding out that it’s not what you want?” I said. “And as a negotiating gambit, they would obviously –”
“Chats, this is a golden opportunity to meet every key executive concerned at C-L Corp in one place,” Bellie cut in quickly before I could complete. “They told me that the entire top brass of C-L Corp would be there. So we could work out any kind of deal and seal it on the spot. And well, it’s been months since we’ve got the damn patent,” his frustration was plain to see, “but not a little bloody cent in our pockets yet! The lawyers think we are the most stupid bloody fools in this whole goddamn country!”
Krish had a puzzled frown. “They told you? Like when did you speak to them? I didn’t know you had.”
Bellie waved this aside brusquely and rushed on. “Chats, now this molecule needs deep pockets and access to the best infrastructure to bring it to market – everybody knows what it takes. Hell, you can make out the Indian companies aren’t serious – but what’s the difference? We all said that everybody was a foreigner to those poor fuckers back in the jungle, now didn’t we? Whether the code gets marketed by an Indian or an American company, what big deal fucking difference will it make to them?”
Krish still wore the puzzled look and I confess I felt a bit weird inside myself. There was something here that didn’t quite meet the eye. I felt a faint warning sound in the back of my mind, but couldn’t think of any better course of action than to at least talk to the Coventis-Linova guys. After all that happened later, I remembered this conversation. I should have let that little voice speak louder but didn’t. I should have stopped them – but what the hell, what’s done is done.
* * *
Bellie told me the details when he got back from Bangkok.
I chose a quiet, dimly-lit bar far away from his Institute so that nobody we knew would be around and Bellie would feel at ease. The clientele was composed mainly of the kind of hard-drinking working class locals who wouldn’t understand too much English.
He sat with his face in the shadows and we ordered rum. Like everyone else in the place, who were hell-bent on getting sloshed at the most rapid rate possible. It was a real hard-core place, so dimly lit that I could barely make out the dark red colour of the Chicken 65 as the pieces sat on the plates in front of us.
Once the waiter had poured us the rum and coke and plonked the chicken and some salted peanuts on the table and cleared off, Bellie began his story.
On landing at Bangkok they had been received by a company-hired car. It wasn’t a limousine – instead the company had sent a classy BMW, complete with a cheerful chauffeur in a brightly floral T-shirt who introduced himself simply as Paulie and spoke broken but courteous English. A festive mood set in the moment they sank into the plush back seat. Paulie quickly set up a rapport with his passengers and figured out their time-schedules. They had their first meeting in the afternoon and were free for the evening. He told them to be spruced up and ready at eight – he would pick them up in a different car and then they were to leave the rest of the programme to him. He added cheerfully that all C-L Corp executives were getting the same treatment at company expense. Everybody knew that the very devil walked arm in arm with you in the streets of Bangkok and if you missed out on the action you had only yourself to blame.
They had had their first meeting with a senior vice president in the legal department. He laid out C-L Corp’s proposal – to create a trust that would have a corpus of ten million dollars for the development of the Adiyar tribal community. Roads, schools, hospitals, that sort of thing. And another ten million cash down to be distributed amongst the villagers. The trust was to be run by an authority appointed by the state Government. The duo behind the discovery – Bellie and Krish, were to get equal shares of ten million dollars each. Krish had fumed at what he called this terrible let-down, because that made a total of forty million dollars, less than half the figure he had in mind. Bellie had told him to take it easy – that this was just negotiating moves from C-L Corp. They were told that they could think things over and meet the top brass the next day at the conference venue, which was a couple of hours drive out of Bangkok. I had harboured a suspicion ever since Krish and Bellie had told me about Bangkok and I voiced it now.
“Was there a conference in Bangkok at all, Bellie?” I asked.
He shrank against the wall when I asked that. “Wh-why d-do you ask, man?” he stammered. “What gave you that idea?”
“Well, I didn’t read anything about a Coventis-Linova conference scheduled in Bangkok on the net,” I said, peering through the dimness. I was wondering why he was suddenly so fidgety.
“Yeah, yeah right, I was about to tell you that. The bloody thing got re-scheduled. I mean the conference happened on schedule. I mean the schedule was right, the thing got shifted to another venue.’
“As in New York, maybe?” I asked.
“Yeah maybe. Hey, I don’t know, man” he answered. “But what the fuck does it matter, man? We got to meet the key guys anyhow.”
“You mean you did, Bellie. Not poor Krish, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, I was coming to that part, man, why’re you so bloody impatient? I’m telling you the whole fucking story – why’re you rushing me? So we went to our hotel, okay, and we were to get ready for the evening, remember?”
He took a long swig of rum – I couldn’t help thinking that he needed it to steady his nerves. When he lighted a cigarette his hands were trembling slightly. The vague feeling of unease grew inside my gut and I steeled myself to remain calm while I heard the rest of the story.
“So I called him to my room for a drink or two before we got picked up by that driver Paulie. I kind of spiked it a little – well, with a little something that gets you sociable. Hey, like wanting to meet new people, man. I wanted to supervise Krish’s initiation rites, man. Hey, the guy hadn’t yet got himself laid and there we were in Bangkok and –”
“Where did you get hold of this stuff? And what was it anyway?”
“It was ecstasy, Chats, just a little bit. Mix it with booze, you don’t mind the taste and there’s no problem mixing, man.”
“And where did you get it?” I repeated.
“Oh, okay. Like this driver Paulie you know, he had kind of sensed that Krish was a first-timer, these guys can pick up that kind of body language very quickly, it’s business for them. Hey, he knew that the stuff would come in handy to loosen up inhibitions. So like he knew that I was kind of taking him in hand, so he slipped it to me when Krish was busy checking in at the reception. Obviously Krish wouldn’t have agreed to a toke, so how else to get him to try it?”
I had the eerie feeling that the devil had walked in from Bangkok and was standing next to our table.
“Go on,” I said, trying to see his face in the gloom. He was now even more completely in the shadows, only the red light off his cigarette-end played on his features.
“Yeah, so Paulie came at eight and took us first to a pub where we could get a beer and something to eat. There was a band playing and a small dance-floor in the middle of all the tables. Some girls at the next table went on to the dance-floor and we all sat and watched for a while.
“More people from other tables got up to dance. Paulie asked us if we wanted to but Krish – you know how shy he was – Krish shook his head and said he was okay just listening to the music and watching people dance. He said that we could go ahead if we wanted. So Paulie and I got up and started dancing too. I could make out that one of the girls from the next table had caught Krish’s eye and he was watching her more than anyone else. So Paulie and I said the E is beginning to work so let’s keep dancing to give Krish some more time and see what happens.” He took another swig.
I could see the scene in my mind’s eye. Densely packed bodies swaying to the music, lights just strong enough to see the curves of the rumps and busts of pretty young things, waiters flitting around taking orders for pitchers of beer and Krish screwing up his courage, mulling over his Brahmin inhibitions wondering if he had it in him to ask the girl from the next table for a dance. And yes, the ecstacy.
“Did you have any E yourself, Bellie?”
“Wh-what?” Bellie asked, coming out of some reverie he had fallen into. “Oh yeah, of course, man, of course! Hey, obviously I wasn’t going to let Krish have all the fun, man! Anyway, after four or five numbers I got Krish up to dance while Paulie took a break. The girls from the next table were also jiving next to us and we kept kind of bumping into them – even Krish – you know how crowded these places can get, Chats.”
“Yeah, I know. So you guys are getting more excited and there are plenty of girls around. So what happened next? And Paulie, what was he doing?”
“Oh, he was just sitting it out for a while at our table.”
“So he was alone with your drinks for quite a while, then.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Suddenly he leaned forward and looked at me sharply. “What was that supposed to mean, Chats? Do you mean he could have put something into our drinks?”
“At least in Krish’s drink. From what you just said, you guys had decided that Krish needed the ecstasy more than anyone else. Anyway, no point talking about what he may or may not have done. Go on with your story, tell me what happened.”
“So we danced for another half-an-hour or so at that place but nothing else happened. So when we sat down again, Paulie suggested that we finish the pitcher and go to a strip joint. He knew this classy place with good music but would close at eleven, he said. So we got out of there.
“At the strip-tease place we had to wait for fifteen minutes before we got a table. Paulie had to go inside and speak to someone for that otherwise we would have had to wait for maybe an hour. Inside there were more men than women but we had a table next to one where there were three girls.”
“Wow, lucky night it was for you guys. Three for three.”
Bellie grinned – I saw the flash of his bared teeth in the gloom. “That’s exactly what happened, Chats. These were pick-ups – but really classy ones. And you know what? It was Krish who called them over to our table to join us for drinks! Hey, you never saw him so sociable before, man!
“All three were wearing evening dress – you know, the kind that clings close to the body and hugs the hips. With sequins and things. They spoke English well. One was a European – maybe from France or somewhere, I wasn’t sure. The other two were Thai. When they came to our table we got up and changed places so that the three of them were sitting between the three of us. Three for three, like you said. Krish was talking to one of the Thai girls and I was with the other. The French one went for Paulie. We finshed our first round and went on the dance floor with our partners.”
I imagined the scene and tried to see it from Krish’s eyes. Fresh from a place where he had been about to proposition a girl for maybe the first time in his life, feeling slightly tipsy with beer and bold with ecstasy – maybe a second dose slipped in by Paulie, he was ready for action and willing to go. And then, a girl in his arms smiling up at him, her perfume around them, her body getting closer and warmer to his. Every now and then her thighs brushing against his, her soft belly pressing his. Until finally –
“When the place closed at eleven, we kind of crushed ourselves into Paulie’s car and he drove back to the hotel. Krish and I had our girls sitting on our laps on the back seat and we were kind of lost – I don’t know how we would have reached the hotel if it hadn’t been for Paulie. We had a drink in the hotel bar – but anyone could see that Krish and his girl were impatient to be rid of us and up in his room. I knew for sure that he was going to score that night.”
Suddenly I felt as if the devil had slid into the seat next to Bellie, smiling naughtily at me.
“Well, there was nothing much left for us to say,” Bellie continued, lighting another cigarette. “Paulie split with his French girl and Krish and I went up to our rooms with ours. We said goodbye at our doors and that was the last time I saw Krish alive.”
His voice became morose. “Well we – my own date and I – went to bed almost immediately. Oh, she was hot, man, she knew how to get a man all pumped up. She just took control. She stripped me while she worked her mouth all over my body and it felt like I was in heaven and I didn’t have any control over what I was doing and it became like one long and beautiful trip through paradise. It felt so good, Chats – it all felt so –”, he waved the cigarette in one hand and his glass in the other as he groped for the right word – “natural. That’s why I guess I didn’t feel that it wasn’t a girl, know what I’m saying? That’s it, it didn’t seem at all unnatural, man. I mean, maybe I was high and all, and maybe I had lost my head.”
“And what about Krish’s girl, then?” I asked, leaning forward.
“Yeah, I found out later that it was the same with umm – her. Or him. Whatever. But Krish must have felt okay too, because there wasn’t any sound from his room. Hey, if he had been in any trouble he would have been banging on my door or something. Hey, nothing happened, man.”
“When did you come to know that he was dead?” I asked.
That jolted him out of his reverie. “Sometime around four thirty in the morning, Chats,” he said. “One of the hotel’s early morning delivery boys found his body outside on the pavement behind the building. My date of the night before had gone, I don’t know when. She must have dressed and left silently. Krish’s girl was gone too when the cops broke into his room. That was after they had called me.”
He paused here, gathering up his guts to continue. I knew what was coming and despite the rum we had drunk, I felt a cold shiver run down my spine. I felt the devil’s presence again, stronger than ever across the table from me.
“I’ll never forget how my mouth went dry when I saw the line scrawled with red lipstick on his bathroom mirror, Chats,” he whispered hoarsely, his hands now trembling uncontrollably, “‘Welcome to the world of Aids’,” it said. He began to sob.
“But didn’t he have condoms with him?” I asked.
“Hey, I had given him a packet, dammit,” he cried out at me, his hands jerking out in a pleading sort of way, “but it was lying unopened in a corner of the sofa.” He clutched his head in his hands as he looked at me with wide eyes. His expression was as if he was begging me to understand. “The ecstasy must have got him real bad and he must have gotten real impatient. Hey, man, I thought he would know better, Chats. C’mon, even if it was his first time, like he should have known what to do, man. Hey, like I couldn’t stand there doing hand-holding while he was readying himself to shove it in, Chats, now could I?”
Poor Krish, his world must have been shattered when he saw those terrible words written on the mirror. He must have seen the unopened packet on the sofa. It must have taken him just one panic-stricken moment to decide what to do next – it didn’t look like that he had stopped to think, if they had found him on the pavement that early in the morning.
The devil was sitting in front of me in the smoky gloom, swaying his head slowly from side to side. I felt hopeless rage build inside me – and hopeless though it was I wanted to hear him out until the end. I knew I had to say the next words.
“Are you sure you gave him condoms, Bellie?”
“What the fuck do you mean, Chats?” he hissed. “Of course I did! Why should I lie about that, you fucking bastard! He didn’t open the fucking pack, I tell you, man!”
“It’s all so neat and clean, Bellie. All loose ends tied up. But it doesn’t smell right to me.”
But he continued, sensing my hopelessness. Because there was nothing I or anyone could do. And he knew it.
The next day he had taken the meeting with Coventis-Linova and sealed the deal. As cool as cucumber, the very day Krish threw himself to his death. Krish hadn’t wanted to sell to them. But now they had the deal they wanted. They had even given his share to his parents – the poor folk would never know the truth about that night. It was better that way, I knew.
And so did Bellie. And so I told him, my voice as cold as stone.
“Hey, Chats, take it easy,” he said. He seemed more re-assured now. “Look, everybody got taken care of, man. The Adiyars, Krish’s parents, everyone. What’s the point in raking it all up now? They won’t be able to stand the truth. Let sleeping dogs lie, man.”
I felt defeated and hopeless. I had wanted to bring Bellie out here and get – what, a confession? So, I had got it.
And I had to watch silently as he got up from the table and walked out into the night. I never saw the devil again.