Shine The Light

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The lawns behind the grad students’ block were brightly lit and the happy mix of professors and students milled about, getting politely drunk on rum punch. A mild December chill was in the air and our breath was misting in little clouds when we spoke. We were feting the success of the Institute’s team at a Berlin seminar on quantitative techniques in business analytics, where three of our research papers had won prizes. Our boys had returned earlier that day. Some deans were also present, each holding forth to his circle of hangers-on. Our gang, Chokko, Asthana and a couple of the others, was off to one side, close to the bar, slugging away as usual, setting the pace. Only Googol (Govind Goel in official records) was yet to join us, he being one of the delegates being feted. I sought him out with my eyes, spotting him finally amongst the cream of the professors. Dean BK Chandramohan was the centre of that circle.

BKC, as the dean was generally known, was the epitome of the smooth, silver-haired patriarch of the academic world. And he knew it. His wiry frame was always clothed in a dapper tweed jacket and knife-edge trousers, ending at well cared for suede shoes. He was wearing his trademark scarf tucked in old-world style at his throat. He never wore ties. Every touch, every mannerism had to have a trade-mark BKC dab and the man naturally drew attention. He was as smooth socially as he was suave sartorially.

He had strong and deep connections with the party that was in power in Bangalore and was said to be personally very close to Venkata Prasad, the Chief Minister. In addition to the traditional khadi shirt and dhoti that gave him the ‘son of the soil’ image so important to Indian politicians, Prasad sported the angavastram, a long khadi cloth neatly folded and slung over one shoulder, embroidered with their party colours along the borders – a neat branding touch borrowed from western marketing management. BKC was the acknowledged branding guru whose advice guided Prasad’s party. The Prasad family ran the Indian National People’s Conference like a fiefdom. Like many other political outfits across India, the INPC was a splinter group of the Conference Party, the grand old maid of Indian politics. As for BKC, he was valued both for his advice on matters economic and for his savvy on matters politic. It was a commonplace that he had declined the directorship of the Institute so that he had more time for political interests.

But then, BKC was also rumoured to be close to many other parties. And why not, since most parties had been formed by splintering older, more established ones. In the corridors of power, everybody was close to somebody in almost every other party.

Googol was in deep and serious conversation with BKC, standing a little apart from the dean’s circle. The older man was nodding his head intently. It looked to me from afar that Googol was making some kind of proposal. When they were done they rejoined the circle. We watched as Googol delivered some hugely funny anecdote in his inimitable thigh-slapping style. How he managed to do that in the iconic BKC’s presence was a mystery to all of us. One wouldn’t have thought Googol to be the type easily tolerated by the suave professor. He wore a ruffian’s air with cocky nonchalance. Thickset and with an emerging beer belly, Googol was heavily muscled around the chest and shoulders. His swarthy complexion, gristly beard and thin wispy hair made him seem like a goon on hire to some political warlord. When he grinned, his thick lips curled down on his left side, reinforcing that impression. His language was filthy – he was pathologically incapable of speaking without peppering his sentences with the f-word. But his ruffian’s looks and manners belied a razor-sharp intellect which had won him gold medals in mathematics and was presently doing duty for him in his pursuit of a second doctoral thesis in advanced game theory. He already held a PhD in mathematics from Carnegie Mellon. The same intellect had enabled him to win laurels at the just-concluded conference in Berlin. The photographs showed that he had somehow been convinced to wear a jacket over his normal grubby T-shirt and jeans while presenting his paper in Berlin. To those who didn’t know him well, the man was insufferable.

We had all been watching him with BKC and the conversation had turned, but naturally, to politics. We were talking of the current chief minister, who was half-way through his term in power and according to an electoral agreement between the INPC with its partner Janata Bloc, was due any time now to hand over the chief minister’s seat to its leader, AV Devayya. Prasad was a proven double-crosser and highly unlikely to step meekly aside for Devayya. The buzz was that he was going to leave Devayya hanging in suspense for at least another year. I was saying, just as Googol lumbered up, that it was time someone showed the whole bloody lot up to be the charlatans they were. He caught the remark and it set his gaze going speculatively into the middle distance and a smile played briefly on his face. Not so briefly that I missed the wicked glint. I wondered what devilry his crazy mind had started on now.

But he had other news of his own. “Hey Chats,” he said, punching me on my chest, “you know I struck fucking gold at Berlin? Nah, not the medals, you bugger, something else. This is big fucking money talking, man!”

We ditched our political discussion, all ears for this news. “You know, I met this Panetta fucker in Berlin. You know, that big construction king in Italy? Panetta Infrastructure Corporation? Like he was attending the fucking seminar only because he had read a preview of my paper, man, how do you like that! He got keen on my model and he sees big time application in his business. He wanted to fucking buy the IP, man, and he was talking fucking millions of dollars!” Now this was indeed great news. A foreign business magnate attending an academic seminar and wanting to buy intellectual property off the bat was rare stuff.

We crowded around Googol and spent a good half-hour getting all the details.

It was Chokko who raised the point of protocol. “But what about the Insti, Googol? You’ll have to give one third to them.”

“Hey man, no sweat!” He lowered his voice to a gravelly whisper that could be heard only ten feet away, “I’ve got BKC to fix all that shit,” he winked. “You know, these things have got wheels within fucking wheels and – ”, he left us hanging in the air, suddenly going coy on us. I thought to myself that the full story would come out in own good time and changed the subject.

The next morning I was at the mess having breakfast when Googol came hurrying up. He rarely stirred out of bed this early but today he was already washed and spruced up, looking almost dapper.

He came directly to me and said, “Hey, Chats, you fucker, you know what? Last night Panetta called me to say he’s got madam in Delhi convinced to upgrade the Bangalore international airport to a fucking multi-modal hub. That means nearly twenty thousand fucking crores!. Because you’re talking an international airport, a railway station, an inter-state bus terminus and a container terminus all rolled into one. He can do this multi-modal shit faster than anyone else in the world man, that guy’s good. He’s done Milan, Barcelona, Sao Paolo and Athens and he’s working on Cairo now. The only hitch is that the Conference Party has no solid hold right now in Karnataka, so madam’s not going to be able to help Panetta much.

“I told BKC about this new thing just now – bumped into him going for his morning walk. You should have seen him – he was fucking jumping around like a jack-rabbit – he got so goddamn excited. He said this was too big a thing to let go for such a silly reason. Parties keep splitting and joining again and who fucking cares, eh? Big money is big money! He said we could fix it for Prasad to talk to madam and merge back into the Conference, at least until the project is completed. That way Devayya will get jacked because then Prasad will have enough fucking MLA’s to stay in power in Bangalore. May even go for early elections and close it out faster.”

“You told BKC that? Already? Wow, Googol, you’ve been bloody busy this morning! I never knew you got up so early to go bumping into people taking morning walks. What dirty scheme are you cooking up, hanh?” I asked, watching the man with narrow eyes.

“Balls, you fucker,” he guffawed, “don’t let your imagination fly off the edge.” Turning towards the counter, which was a good thirty feet and four huge marble-topped tables away, he bellowed for some coffee, which came pronto. He slapped the man on his shoulder and traded banter with him light-heartedly. Googol always got quick service in the mess because he treated all the hands as his personal friends and made sure they got little gifts for Ugadi and Dussehra.

“Nah, Chats,” continued, now a bit more serious in tone. “You know, Panetta told me he wants to do a recce of India himself, maybe next week, maybe two weeks from now. I’m going to Delhi to meet the fucker and bring him to Bangalore. So I wanted BKC to be well-prepared.”

“What’s with the BKC angle, Googol? How come you’re suddenly so pally with him? Is it to do with the intellectual property deal?”

Googol’s eyes flared and he practically hissed out at me. “Shh, you bastard! Are you mad? These things have to be done quietly!”

I retreated from the topic hastily and focused on my omelette.

I wasn’t surprised to see in the next day’s papers that Prasad had decided to postpone handing over the CM’s office. There was some mention of the INPC not having confidence in Devayya’s ability to manage the state’s developmental needs and I knew that BKC had been at work on Prasad after he received Googol’s information. I only hoped for Googol’s sake that he was not playing too dangerous a game. For him, he was probably trying to get into the wheeling-dealing circle of politics just to insure the money he would collect from the sale of his fancy mathematical model to Panetta. But for the rest of the players in this game the stakes were much larger. What was more worrying to me was that they were old hands at this kind of thing. But I knew that crazy Googol and his dogged determination. Once he got an idea into his head, he would move anything to see it through.

The crazy bastard forced me, unwillingly, one morning two weeks later to the Malleswaram flower market on as bizarre an errand as I could possibly imagine. How I let Googol push me into this I will never figure out. He called me from Delhi airport, where he was about to board a flight to Bangalore along with Panetta. He got me out of bed at six am to give me very precise instructions. I was to buy a five kilo garland of marigolds exactly two yards long – he was emphatic on those measurements – interspersed with white and red roses and sequined silver thread. So there I was, standing among a teeming surge of housewives, cart-handlers, flower-girls and stray cows for almost one full hour, as the garland was made to those exacting specifications. I guess some people like the fragrance of acre upon acre of fresh jasmines, roses and tulips, the flash of brightly coloured Kanjeevaram silk sarees in the early sunlight and the shrill cries of hundreds of buyers and sellers. I guess I wouldn’t have minded the scene myself if I had not been pre-occupied, wondering what Googol was getting me into.

I was to take this garland and reach the Hotel Windsor Manor by nine am which is where Panetta had booked the Duke of Wellington suite for himself and his mistress, who was an upcoming Italian TV starlet when not globetrotting with him. Once there, I was to hand over the garland to Devayya who had arranged a welcome for the man. Now, how Devayya, the intended victim of the whole game, was in this scenario at all and why he, the deputy chief minister of the state, was himself going out of his way to receive a foreign businessman at his hotel was another mystery to me. That was not how Indian politicians did things, preferring to have such visitors come to them instead, but I figured that the times must be a-changing. Either that, or somebody must have got wind of the plot that Prasad was hatching, passed the word on to Devayya, and he was now trying to hijack the action by creating a few pre-emptive photo-ops with the Italian magnate.

I had been too sleepy and dazed to ask Googol for all these details and he had been stridently insistent on the phone and in a tearing hurry moreover, because boarding for the flight had been announced.

The Windsor Manor’s porch, like the main hotel building itself, is built on generous colonial lines and there was a large crowd of reporters and sundry hangers-on waiting to receive Panetta and his entourage. With surprise, I saw another figure with a marigold garland in his hand. I recognized him vaguely as another of the ministers in Venkata Prasad’s cabinet. What were two state ministers doing here? Then it struck me that he was from the INCP and not from Devayya’s party. And his garland was much thinner and shorter than the one I had brought. When Panetta got out of his car, Devayya stole the limelight with his gargantuan garland and effusive welcome. Then the Italian’s girlfriend stepped out, clad in a figure-hugging silver-coloured mini-skirt and a silver streaked pair of knee boots. All male eyes in the milling crowd were riveted hungrily on her tantalizing cleavage and smooth, milky thighs. Devayya grabbed the other garland from the dumbstruck INCP emissary and along with it took complete charge of the moment – he gave her another effusive welcome and not many caught the almost casual way in which he managed to allow his fingers to brush the girl’s breasts as he arranged the garland around her shoulders. Cameras flashed everywhere and Devayya was right there in the middle of the action.

Panetta carried the unmistakable air of a self-made corporate czar. He was a powerfully built man of fifty, with a magnificent personality and magnetic energy. The characteristics of a man who had carved out a place of his own under the sun by sheer dint of hard work, guts and bloody-minded determination were plain for all to see.

Panetta had his arm around Devayya’s shoulders and a charming grin on his face. His forceful personality was reinforced with brisk, decisive movements as he delivered rapid-fire sound bytes to the eager reporters. Devayya had been initially nonplussed at being the centre of Panetta’s attention but recovered quickly and threw his arm around the foreigner’s shoulders too in a gesture of easy familiarity as he added his mite on Karnataka’s plans for a golden future and the Italian’s global experience that would be tapped by his administration. I knew that Devayya had no clue what he was talking about, but consummate politician that he was, he had recognized an opportunity to score over his rival Prasad, and had pounced on it gratefully. Panetta’s mistress being there added a dash of colour and the photographers had a ball. Then the bunch of VIP’s brushed through the crowd and into the hotel.

Googol stepped out of the car and followed closely. As he went past me he thrust a slim dossier into my hands wordlessly. He was smiling happily and gave me a broad wink before disappearing into the lobby. I opened the dossier – it contained a sheaf of print-outs on Karnataka and its current government, obviously used by him to brief Panetta on the flight. Clipped to the inside cover was the only photograph in the file – it was a large sized snapshot of Devayya.

I stared, aghast, at the photograph and then at Googol’s retreating back, dimly registering that he was on the second leg of what was surely a plot of truly Machiavellian dimensions. Had Googol spent time on the flight from Delhi briefing Panetta on Devayya? Had Googol set this meeting up without informing Prasad as part of some devious scheme? Obviously then, he wouldn’t want Devayya to find this folder on him and had conveniently palmed it off on to me. What the hell was the man up to? Shaken and confused, I made my way to the parking lot where I had left my bike.

The headlines in the next day’s papers talked of an hour-long one-to-one meeting between Panetta and Devayya. Large photographs of them grinning broadly at the camera and shaking hands in the lobby were plastered across the front and city pages. And none of Prasad’s key henchmen were anywhere to be seen. Everybody knew that Panetta Infrastructure Corporation was a global powerhouse when it came to mega projects involving thousands of crores of investment and thousands, maybe lakhs, of jobs. The political fall-out of this meeting were enormous but nobody yet knew the inside story. To add to Prasad’s woes, Panetta had made a lightning visit and there had been no time for his men to mount any damage control. The infrastructure magnate had visited the site of the airport with a technical team, met with selected businessmen in the local construction industry and left that very evening for Mumbai, taking Googol along for further discussions on the new model. I could imagine the consternation in the Prasad camp. Chokko and I laughed heartily as we scanned the papers in the faculty common room.

But another front page story made Chokko and I laugh even more uproariously. The chief minister had announced that his party, the INCP, and Devayya’s Janata Bloc would sit down and hammer out details of handing over power in three days time. Panic must have struck in Prasads’ camp when they heard of the Windsor Manor meeting. If Devayya was so close to Panetta that he could be closeted with him at his hotel for an hour as the papers said, then surely the mega project and its juicy crores was not going to fall as cleanly into their laps as they had thought. They must have figured that discretion was the better part of valour and had decided to offer a truce and allow Devayya to take the front seat in the government after all. The state’s public would have got quite confused at this flip-flop, but then the public is always an ass.

Panetta left Mumbai for Italy and Googol got back to Bangalore three days later.

“Hi Chats!” he bellowed, startling me and my students as we were having our mid-morning tea in the canteen, “what’s up, man? You got a minute?” He beckoned me to a corner of the room.

I joined him at a small table and looked inquiringly at him. “That Panetta’s quite a fast mover, man! He’s given me support staff at Mumbai to do the work for adapting my algorithm in a couple of big fucking projects in Europe. Now I’ll be traveling often to Mumbai, spending maybe three days a week for the next few months. I’ve got enough leave accumulated, but I need you to help me manage my doctoral students here, buddy. Can you do that for me?”

He had two students doing project work and we worked out the details in my rooms that evening. Then he told me, “You know Chats, what Panetta’s closing comment to me on the airport multi-modal thing was? He said madam wanted him to try and work with the Prasad gang. He was a little foxed because they aren’t from her party and they’re not going to be in the chief minister’s seat for the next two and half years. But he said it didn’t matter to him so long as whoever occupied the CM’s chair was on his side.”

“So what’s in it for her then?” I asked.

“C’mon, fucker, where are your brains?” he spat out derisively. “See, she needs the top Conference Party honcho from Karnataka in Delhi as a central minister and so she’s got nobody good to lead the party in the state polls two-three years from now. So what better than these two blokes getting back into the Conference fold some time soon, eh?”

My eyes widened in comprehension. “Man,” I said in awe, “these political guys are bloody shameless! The same guys were calling her all kinds of names during the last elections!”

“Tchah! What does it matter what you say at election time, you asshole! She was calling them names too. Everybody does it all the time and then you forget it the minute counting of votes is over. After that you’ve got to be ready for the next opportunity. You can’t live in the fucking past. Not in fucking politics.

“Look Chats, the stakes are too high to feel fucked by a little name-calling. Politics in India means control of public funds, man, and that means huge, huge funds for projects of all kinds! If anybody does a return on investment calculation then politics will beat any other business by a huge fucking margin. Any day.”

“Yup, guess you’re right.”

“And what’s happening in India now is that the money is getting bigger and bigger. Five years ago India was too fucking small to be on anybody’s radar. People like Panetta wouldn’t have known whether India was to the south or to the east of China and wouldn’t have given a flying fuck. Now India’s infrastructure is the big story across the fucking globe. That’s where us guys are beginning to be sought out by the politicians eh, Chats? Without our brains and our international contacts these half-assed semi-literate politicians from their shitty villages are fucked, man, totally fucked.” He was chuckling softly. At least, that is what he was doing, though he sounded more like a bear gurgling at a pot of honey. “That BKC has got it all figured out, man. He has set himself up beautifully as a kind of business consultant to politicians. Man, that is one smooth operator,” he said, shaking his head reverently.

“But you know what?” he continued, leaning forward in excitement. “BKC knows that he’s fast getting outdated. All this internet stuff has got him fucked, man! He just can’t figure out how to use it. You know, all these young, smart guys fresh from college making tons of money in five years what he wouldn’t dream of making in a lifetime. All because they’re on the spot faster than old fogies like him. That’s where I come in buddy, he needs to be in my good books or else his future’s history. I’ve got him eating out of my fucking hands!”

“That reminds me, Googol. What’s the latest buzz on the transfer of power? I remember BKC saying that there was some big meeting scheduled for today.”

He slapped his forehead. “Oh, shit, have these guys advanced the meeting? I need to talk to him right now!” he muttered, pulling out his cell phone. Right there he called up the professor. The meeting was beginning in fifteen minutes. Googol insisted with him that they needed to speak urgently. And then he told him what Panetta had said about working with Prasad before leaving India. I could almost sense the incredulity in BKC at the other end as he took in Googol’s news.

Gradually a triumphant smile spread over Googol’s face as answered the questions. Was he sure that Panetta had talked directly to madam and not to some flunky? Had she been absolutely clear in her views? Googol explained how Panetta had been considering Hyderabad or Chennai and how he had personally convinced the Italian that Bangalore was the best place for the project. With the stakes as high as twenty thousand crores and the employment potential at least two lakh jobs, Karnataka could ill afford to lose out. So Panetta was slated to make a second visit to Bangalore, a longer one this time, in two weeks.

When he rang off at length there was a satisfied smile on Googol’s face.

And sure enough, the next day’s papers showed the results of that last minute phone call. The talks between the INCP and the JB had broken down. The transfer of power had been put off yet again.

The public was being treated to a roller coaster ride full of ridiculous tomfoolery.

Two weeks rolled by. Panetta landed in Delhi as before to spend a few days in the capital. Googol flew out to meet him there and to escort him to Bangalore.

I had asked him why he was whizzing about like that when anyway Panetta was coming to Bangalore for a full week’s stay. “Ah, Chats, you don’t know how politics works, baby! It’s just like tennis, all about the big points! You know, you’ve got to be on the spot at key times to make sure someone doesn’t screw your happiness by hijacking an opportunity that you’ve been creating with all your hard work. This isn’t textbook style management, Chats,” he said, thumping me condescendingly on the back, “this is the business end of politics, man.”

I had shaken my head and watched in wonder as he went about his plans.

One bright and sunny January afternoon I was squatting on a grey granite bench on the faculty lawns, deep in study. I had found a spot where I could shield my body in the shade of a spreading bush and stretch my legs out to warm my bare feet in the sun. That special silence one only finds on campus was broken by the ringing of my cell phone.

It was Googol. “Hey, Chats, hope I disturbed you? Great! Now listen, you fucker and listen hard. Panetta is coming to Bangalore tomorrow morning. He’s checked into the Windsor Manor, Wellington Suite as usual. He’s got his chick with him. Okay?”

I sighed. There was no point telling him that I had set up a seminar with my doctoral students for the next day. When Googol was in flow, all obstructions got washed away. I would have to re-schedule the seminar.

“Okay man, now here’s the deal. You got to get hold of Samuel, you know, that photographer charlie from the Deccan Tribune. I promised to let him know next time there’s a scoop. You tell him I sent you, he’ll drop whatever else he’s doing. Okay?”

I marveled at Googol. He had woven a far wider web than I had thought and he must have worked far harder at this than I had ever known him to do.

“Now get him and land up at the Windsor Manor sharp at eight am tomorrow morning. Sharp, eh Chats? The timing is fucking critical, man, critical! And you know these press blokes – they sleep late and won’t get up in the morning unless some big asshole is getting fucked. You tell him my name and he’ll be there.

“Now between you and me, Panetta is meeting the CM one-on-one tomorrow at the hotel over breakfast. That’s at seven. Like don’t tell anyone okay, Chats? Especially not Samuel. Let him discover it at the right time. Okay, you’ve got to be at a table by the swimming pool, not in the lobby, you hear, Chats? Because that lobby is the busiest place in the hotel at that time of the morning and I don’t want some wandering fucking reporter to spot Samuel and start wondering what the fuck’s going on.

“By eight the meeting will be over and they’ll have called in a few guys – like a couple of ministers and some IAS types. They’re going to make an announcement at the hotel itself and that’s the scoop, okay? Like, I’ll give you a missed call on your cell around that time and then you get Sam up to Panetta’s room.”

“You mean that madam woman ---,” I broke in.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “She’s done with all the talking and it’s a done deal, man. These Italians are real savvy, Chats, man they could teach us Indians a thing or two about wheels within wheels!” He was chuckling at the end of the line as we rang off.

The Windsor Manor was planned in a U-shape, two elegant wings running out behind the central block that housed the spacious lobby as well as several restaurants and shops. French windows behind the lobby led out to a beautifully landscaped garden and a large lawn that could hold a party for at least a couple of hundred guests. The lawn was bordered by carefully manicured bushes and beyond that was a heated Olympic-sized swimming pool, blue waters looking fresh and inviting despite the January chill.

Samuel and I took a table under a canopy by the poolside and ordered coffee. Around us rose the two stately wings of the hotel, each room with its private little balcony. There were maybe a dozen swimmers splashing around, and white skin flashed in the morning sunlight. Only westerners would find the energy to take a dip in this chilly morning. A few tables were occupied and with a slight start I spotted a vaguely familiar figure at a table tucked away, almost out of sight, at the far end of the pool. He looked like someone I had seen off and on. Then I remembered – the guy was from the IIMB faculty and I wondered what had brought him here so early in the morning. Five star hotels weren’t usual hang-outs for academic types, who had neither the money nor the social access to belong here at this time of day. He seemed to be alone, so more was the wonder, because that meant he would be paying the bill.

Dismissing him from my mind, I surveyed the swimmers. Both Samuel and I followed a sexy young lady in a bright floral bikini with our eyes as she stroked powerfully down the length of the pool in a fast crawl. She reached the other end and took a short breather before starting the next lap. As she turned around I recognized her – it was Panetta’s mistress.

I glanced at my watch. It showed ten minutes to eight. The girl did another few laps and climbed out of the pool. I called for the bill.

My gaze was resting on her rump as she headed for the changing rooms. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a fleeting flash of white off to one side. I turned my head and froze – had I not spotted the chief minister darting quickly into the building? I hadn’t missed the trade mark angavastram with its distinctive border. This was no party sidekick but Prasad himself – because I had recognized the peculiar brisk gait and that unique swing of the shoulder as he strode in. But what was he doing down here, when he should have been up at the Wellington Suite for the past one hour? And how had he come into the rear portion of the building? Then I remembered, the Windsor Manor had a little-used back entrance near the out gate. It was not often used unless you had driven the wrong way into the premises. So that’s what Venkata Prasad must have done, because this was supposed to be a secret one-on-one meeting.

But still, I was puzzled. It looked like he was late and I knew Panetta to be very particular about time. He hated to be late and he hated even more to be kept waiting, chief minister or not. If the meeting hadn’t started on time, I wondered why Googol hadn’t called to warn me. He had said the timing was critical – he had been most emphatic on that point – but now it looked as if the timing had gone for a bad toss. According to the original plan, Samuel was supposed to cover the scoop at eight, now less than ten minutes away.

The man from IIMB at the end of the pool was on the phone, talking with his hand cupped over the instrument. The waiter was bringing him a salver – it looked like he had paid his bill and was preparing to leave. When he finished the call he collected his change and got up. Glancing in my direction he saw me watching him and cringed quite noticeably. As our waiter brought my change I half rose from my seat and the man almost ran for the door, making a rapid escape.

What the hell was going on out here?

I saw Panetta’s girl emerge from the changing rooms and head for an entrance to one of the wings. She looked mind-blowing in a short negligee of sheer pink gossamer with frilly trimmings that barely managed to cover her hips. The wet profusion of curls in her shoulder-length black hair framed her glowing pink complexion like a bunch of forbidden fruit. Every male eye at the poolside was riveted to her luscious body as she sashayed tantalizingly along the paved pathway.

Then I got Googol’s missed call – the signal for us to move. That’s all, a missed call. I rang back to find out if he knew that the situation had changed, but his phone seemed to have gone out of range. Now where the hell was he?

While I was thus standing undecided, Samuel picked his gear up and headed for the building because he knew about the missed call signal. So I followed. The lobby was busy as usual at that time of the morning with new arrivals from the airport checking in and guests milling about heading for the coffee shop or out for the day’s business. We took the lift to the top floor where the Wellington Suite was located.

As soon as we stepped out of the lift we heard the commotion. Around a bend in the corridor we heard raised voices. One was feminine and with a distinct European accent and the other was masculine and clearly Indian. Hers was raised in anger and his in throaty passion. We quickened our pace, rounded the corner and the tableau was before us.

Venkata Prasad, apparently having lost control due to an aroused libido, was holding Panetta’s girl by the wrists, trying to force his unwelcome attentions on to her. She was struggling to free herself and her negligee had fallen open, exposing a heaving pair of exquisitely sculpted breasts encased in designer bras made of blood red lace. Few men would have been able to hold themselves back when at such close quarters with such a juicy piece of femininity, and our respected political leader was certainly not amongst them. As for her, she obviously had a great deal of experience in handling such advances, because though angry, she wasn’t in a funk. In fact, I think she was half smiling scornfully at the middle-aged figure, draped in the trademark white khadi of the politician.

I was astounded at the man’s insouciance, or maybe he had simply lost his self-control. But then how could he expect to get away with this sort of thing right in front of Panetta’s room?

Samuel hadn’t stopped to think about such trivial issues. He had whipped his camera out in a flash and had taken half a dozen rapid action shots before the struggling pair realized we were present. And then, as the CM turned and went red in the face, he took a couple of more shots and scooted for the stairs, not waiting for the lift. He had got all the scoop he wanted and there would be hell to pay when the pictures got into the papers.

The girl nipped quickly into the room and bolted the door behind her. That left the two of us staring open-mouthed at each other. My breathing had stopped. I expected Panetta to come blazing angrily out of the door at any moment.

The CM broke the silence. “Please, please go after that man and get the photographs! Do this to protect the people of the state!” he begged me with folded hands. His lips had curled back in contrition and his whole body was shaking like jelly. The man seemed fit to burst into tears.

I bolted after Samuel all the way down six floors to the lobby but it was no use.

He had vanished.

And all day Googol remained incommunicado.

And damn the man if he didn’t breeze cheerfully into my rooms the next morning as Chokko and I were having our first cup from my coffee-maker. The Deccan Tribune lay open before us. As I had expected, there was but one topic in the papers that day. In all probability, there would be but one topic of discussion across the city, maybe across the entire state. Venkata Prasad’s picture holding Panetta’s mistress up close and skimpily clad was splashed all over the front page. There was no way he could survive as chief minister now.

“Where the fuck have you been, you bloody SOB?” I asked Googol as he sauntered in. “Man, the whole shit has hit the fan and I was trying to reach you all day yesterday! And what happened at Windsor Manor, man? The timing went haywire, do you know? And then this thing happened right in front of Panetta’s room! Where were you yesterday morning, man?”

“What the hell were you doing in Windsor Manor, Chats?” asked an astounded Chokko. “Don’t tell me you were there too!”

I realized I had blurted out too much and stared helplessly at Googol. He was quite unperturbed. “Hey, Chats, how about some coffee for me too?” He lowered himself nonchalantly onto a chair, one of those steel folding affairs, because that was the only one free. He lighted a cigarette and stretched his legs out. The chair shuddered and groaned under his bulk. He looked every inch a man who had accomplished a great task.

I couldn’t hold myself back. The questions came bursting out again. “Screw coffee, Googol you bloody fucker, what do you mean, acting like nothing the hell has happened? Tell us where the hell you’ve been, man! Where were you yesterday morning? And –”

“Hey, hey, you’re repeating yourself, my son. Take it easy, take it easy and give me some fucking coffee.”

Chokko did the honours and I sat and glared at Googol.

He took a tentative sip. Then he leaned back and smiled benignly at us. “Well, now that the whole thing is over I don’t mind telling you all. Panetta and I had gone for a round of golf yesterday morning. You know the course is just opposite Windsor Manor and when I told him that he couldn’t resist going for a game. He loves golf, you know. You know, he’s one of those haunted souls who hanker for golf every day, man! Every bloody day! And his girl, she loves to swim first thing in the morning. So there we all were, that’s all.”

“But what about the meeting with Venkata Prasad, you rambling bastard? Don’t play games now. You told me Panetta was a stickler for time and you were supposed to start at seven!”

“Oh. That.”

“Yes. That.”

“Ah. Well, I kind of forgot to tell Panetta about the meeting.” He shrugged his shoulders and took a long, satisfied drag.

He began to chuckle softly. His glance fell on the front page on the table and he got up to take a closer look. Then he started to laugh even louder. I was stunned. The bloody schemer had never fixed a meeting in the first bloody place. In a sudden flash I realized what that familiar but furtive figure at the hotel poolside had been doing. He had been planted there by Googol to give him signals as events unfolded. The sheer scale of the charade Googol had mounted took my breath away. He had brought a state government down – and he had done it to satisfy a mere whim!

And he had used me ruthlessly as an ignorant cat’s paw in this dangerous game.

I felt angry and started to sputter but I had lost them. Chokko and Googol were now hooting with laughter, slapping each other on the back. Well, I had to admit, the whole thing was quite comical. I had to smile in spite of myself. And in the papers, the candid camera photographs were in fact outrageously funny. Venkata Prasad’s eyes bulged out above an open mouth shaped like a fish grabbing for breath. His flowing white khadi was disheveled and his figure half hid the elegant but scantily clad girl behind him. The most damning note of all was his cherished symbol – the angavastram. In the brief struggle it had somehow fallen into the girl’s grip and the camera had caught it, waving like a semaphore flag, signaling a guilt that must have been very difficult to explain away. The man must have suffered a heart attack when he saw the camera aimed at him. I too couldn’t help laughing out loud. Then the mood caught us and just wouldn’t let go. Before too long, all three of us were hopping about my drawing room, pointing at the photographs, holding our sides, tears in our eyes, unable to contain ourselves.

At long last we quietened down and I said in mock anger, “Googol you fucking bastard, you used me fully in this whole bloody farce, man. But it was brilliantly done. Even BKC, man, you made full use of him too, hanh?”

“Ohh, yeah man. That was absolutely the fucking best! He was like a bloody bull in the ring and all I had to do was wave a red cloth and he would go off the fucking deep end!” gloated Googol, mixing his metaphors as he got carried away in his exhilaration. His beer belly was shaking uncontrollably as he recalled those moments. “You should have seen his expression that first time when I told him about Panetta’s plans. Oh man, his eyes actually goggled at me and I thought he would actually begin drooling from the mouth. Oh, the timing was perfect because our man Prasad had been asking BKC how he could swing a deal that could get madam’s attention. So,” here Googol, helpless with laughter, had to grab the wall for support, “you know, he was only too willing to listen to anything I told him about Panetta. Poor guy, he’s too smart for his own good!”

“Yeah he’s smart all right,” Chokko, who worked in BKC’s department, broke in. “He’s having the last laugh, Googol my friend. Like last night he left for Rome. Apparently there’s some big deal he’s brokering for the central government with some other Italian business house. This has come straight from Conference Party headquarters in Delhi.”

Googol froze. He whistled softly. “Smooth operator, man. All the time he’s been talking to madam and nobody knew. Not even me! Well, I guess I underestimated him completely.

“Just goes to show you can’t beat an old dog at this game, eh, Chats?”

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