OFF MAHATMA GANDHI ROAD – Maury Zeff

Chapter One

The wind that washed off the Deccan Plateau ripped into Bangalore’s early-morning streets like the tide. It pinched the last bit of sleep from me as I piloted my motorbike through the city’s wide streets. Something about this hour, where night meets day, chilled me more than the cold. It was the one time when those who had stayed up all night crossed paths with the early risers. And I couldn’t always tell the two apart.
The man staggering along the side of the road in this quiet section of the city might have been a construction worker off to his day’s labor, still drunk with sleep, or maybe just a soused straggler from the last of the all-night toddy dens and hundred-rupee brothels, looking for a place to sleep off his excesses.
The rail-thin, shirtless Tamil wearing nothing but a dhoti and a headscarf was possibly a holy man, or perhaps he concealed a knife in his garment, planning to liberate the construction worker from yesterday’s wages.
The speeding white Maruti Suzuki that dared me to cross in front of its path as we met at the junction quite likely conveyed a young woman back from an all-night shift at one of the call centers, where she solved technical issues for irate customers in North America. Ninety-nine out of one hundred times, the driver would drop the girl safely at her parents’ house, but who could say what thoughts raced through his mind as he eyed her long, downcast eyelashes in his rearview mirror?

The auto-rickshaw driver who passed me in his little black and yellow, three-wheeled mobile was probably just looking for an early-morning fare—perhaps a mother taking her children to one of the convent schools before heading off to clean villas in Lalbagh—but he might have been circling around and around, learning this small stretch of Bangalore, understanding its patterns and who went where and when. The kind of man I could call upon when I needed information of a particular sort.

*

The call had come in ten minutes earlier, my mobile announcing I like big butts and I cannot lie. I made a mental note to change the ringtone, which my half-sister Shilpi had probably downloaded onto my phone the night before as a joke.
I had been stirring in bed, the night allowing in the first glimmer of morning. The symphony of car and auto-rickshaw horns and crow caws that filled the days had not yet begun.
I squinted to read the time on my phone. 5:53. Bloody hell.
It was Pranesh Chadwalla, the chief of security at NearX India. I sat up and turned on the small lamp by my bed. “Hello.”
“Venky, one of our folks has gone missing. Can you come directly?” Pranesh spoke a rough form of Kannada. “Before day begins, need you to get started on this.”
I had already removed the dhoti I slept in and was slipping into a pair of trousers. Still holding the phone to my ear, I pulled a pressed shirt from the teak armoire across the room.
“So important it can’t wait until sunrise?” I asked.
“It’s an American stationed here only,” Pranesh said.
It wasn’t so uncommon for locals to go off unannounced for poojas and festivals, or to be seized by an urge to see their families in the middle of the week. Usually they would surface within a day. If it wasn’t too brazen an absence, the company might just dock their pay. But for an expatriate to go missing, that was a different matter.
“Give me twenty minutes.”
“Make it soon.”
I went downstairs, past Shilpi’s room. She was the only one in the house who slept with her door closed. I assumed it was her way of finding a little privacy in our crowded home.
“Where are you going so early, boy?”
I turned around to see my stepmother, Leela, in the hallway. The house was cool, and she was wrapped in a thick floral sarong.
“One of my clients needs me, Amma.” I was halfway down the stairs.
As I walked through the parlor, I saw my grandmother sitting quietly on a chair, a cup of tea in her hand. She slept in the back room, when she slept. I stopped, leaned over, and kissed her forehead. “I’ll see you later, Ajji.”
Before I reached the door, Amma had come downstairs. “You wait five minutes, and I’ll make you some dosas. You need breakfast.”
“No time.”
“This is a crazy business you’re in. Before the sun, you leave for meetings.”
“It’s urgent.”

I was out the door before she had time to protest.

*

From my family’s narrow, two-story home in Mahalleshwarum to the office in Milk Colony took thirty minutes or more during most of the day, but at this early hour I could make the trip in ten minutes and zip down the middle of the road unimpeded by other vehicles. An hour later, and I would have had to wrestle my bike through traffic on Bangalore’s clogged roads.
In the predawn light, a stray motorbike whizzed past me, going the wrong way on Sri Raman Maharishi Road, its mustached driver and his passenger making guiltless eye contact with me as we passed each other.
When I arrived, several autos sat parked along the wall outside NearX’s offices, their sleeping drivers’ legs sticking out the sides of the small, open-air vehicles. I pulled up at the guard booth and was waved through.
The night watchman in the lobby let me in with a nod. “They’ve got you jumping at all hours,” he said, grinning.
I patted his shoulder. “You just keep opening the doors.”
The man laughed.
Pranesh’s office was a small disorderly room in the basement of NearX’s ultra-modern main building. I sometimes kidded him that he wouldn’t be able to find his hands in this mess, let alone anything more important. But more important was never very important: an engineer suspected of sharing source code with a competitor or an office romance that had gone in the wrong direction, causing disharmony at work.
I had once told him, after several beers, that he was wasting his time on these things when there were more important problems in the world. Pranesh’s answer was “NearX’s rupees are orange just like anyone else’s, and there are a lot more of them than anyone else is willing to pay.” He looked at me for a good long moment with rheumy red eyes and then asked why I was any different. I did the company’s bidding for money. It was just that, as a contractor, I didn’t enjoy the security of a regular paycheck or other company perks. I had no answer to that.
Pranesh was a hard-working man, but the typical NearX work problems wouldn’t have gotten him out of bed so early. His eyes were particularly bleary this morning.
“What can you tell me?” I asked after mumbled pleasantries.
“Stephen Wilcox, thirty-two, from Chicago. You’ve been there, no?” Pranesh looked up from the file.
I leaned forward. I didn’t know why, but I’d assumed it was a woman they’d lost.
“I’ve only flown through the airport. What does he do?”
“Vice President of Special Projects. Been here for eight months. Seconded from NearX Thailand.”
“Special projects?”
He shrugged. “Business development. Strategic planning. Whatever the company needs him to do. It’s either a place they put their smartest chaps or the last stop before they give him the boot.”
“So which is it for this Wilcox?”
Pranesh patted the file. “It’s not clear.”
“Married?”
“No. Has a reputation as something of a rake.” Pranesh pulled a small head shot out of the man’s personnel file and passed it over.
Wilcox had blond hair and a square, handsome face that smiled a touch too hard at me.
“He looks like a superhero,” I said, and laughed, thinking of the American comic books I’d brought back from the US as a kid and still had tucked away in my armoire.
“What?”
“Never mind.” I uncrossed my legs and sat up. “Any leads?”
“Yesterday was the second day he didn’t show up at work without calling. We sent a boy around to his apartment. There was food set out for a meal, as if someone had left in a hurry.”
“You call the police?”
Pranesh shook his head. “We’ll have to. As soon as we report it to the US, they’ll want all of that good stuff taken care of.”
“And once the cops get involved, NearX has to step back.”
“Not only that. It hits the newspapers, and the company has more problems.”
“How long do you think they have?”
“Mr. Chowdhury informed his boss in Hong Kong yesterday. No response yet.”
It was amusing how formally Pranesh referred to Deepak Chowdhury, the managing director of NearX India, even when no one who cared was around. He had made it clear that he didn’t hold the man in high regard.
“What do you want me to do then?” I asked.
“Take a look at his place.” Pranesh handed me a large copper key and an address.
“He lives in Lalbagh.”
“Posh.”
Pranesh shrugged. “Expat housing allowance.”
I stood.
“Can you meet me back here at eight-thirty? I want you to talk to some of his coworkers.” Pranesh was straightening papers on his desk, only half glancing up.
“The usual bit?” I took on an officious voice. “Yes, I’m Sergeant Krishnamurthy with the BCP.
“No, do you mind playing the firangi this time?” Pranesh was avoiding eye contact. “I think we’ll get clearer responses if they think they’re talking to a white man from the head office.”
I nodded again, more rigidly this time, and went to leave.
Pranesh added as I was almost out the door, “And, Venky, keep Mr. Wilcox’s place clean, if you know what I mean. No fingerprints. You don’t want to get pulled into this if we have to call the cops.”

Chapter Two

I steered my motorbike between two auto-rickshaws on Queen’s Road and gunned the throttle, pulling ahead only to find myself stuck behind a massive lorry painted in the bright colors of a Hindu temple with Tamil Nadu plates and PLEASE HORN OK painted on its rear gate.
It wasn’t the first time Pranesh had asked me to pretend to be a white man. I had more than once wondered if that was why NearX had given my fledgling detective agency so much work. It was handy to have a guy who could play the role of the foreigner as needed.
And I had to admit it worked. I could pull off a reasonable approximation of a New Jersey accent, and my light features could just as easily have been Mediterranean as South Asian.
Just last month I had befriended an Australian executive with SuPro—another big software company—who had confirmed over many beers and rounds of golf that their latest hire, a crack engineer poached from NearX and three years out of the Indian Institute of Technology, had shared with his company the prototype for a new database system that NearX had been designing for its call center. Then it was up to Pranesh and the lawyers to lean on the young man however they felt necessary. I never asked about the outcome of such matters.
I wondered what my mother would have thought. Acting like a white man for some mercenary purpose had always seemed like an insult to her memory, as if that was all that was left of her—a mixed-race son who could invoke his American heritage when needed for financial gain.
I overtook the lorry and then another, going around the roundabout and continuing on Queen’s Road.
I smiled when I thought of my grandmother’s words the last time she had picked me up at Newark Airport twelve years earlier. Look at you. We should have mixed our genes with an Indian years ago.
I hadn’t known what to make of it at the time, but I had long ago realized that she had meant it as a compliment. Nature had picked from my Indian and Jewish heritages a strong set of features from each. The chameleon effect of being both Indian and white—yet neither—had its benefits in my line of work. Thick dark hair, but a shade lighter than black, not quite typically Indian, but almost. An inch taller than my father’s six-foot frame, which made me tower over most Indians as well as my American family in New Jersey, not to mention any adversaries who might come along. A robust nose and a complexion that Shilpi said seemed to lighten and darken with my moods.
Over the years, I’d often studied pictures of my mother for some sign of physical connectedness. She was everything I didn’t see in myself. She had had long curly hair, dark features, and a tiny frame. To me, she looked more Indian than I ever had.
Maybe it made sense that, as a young American backpacker seeking spirituality in India, she had found her husband, an earnest young doctor who had treated her for a bad stomach as she traveled through. Six months later they were married. That had been 1982. I was born two years later. And when I was six, she was taken from us in the most awful way possible.

When I thought about it (which was all of the time), her death generated one of two responses within me: utter revulsion that often made me nauseous, or else a desire to exact brutal retribution, not just on the men who had done it to her, but on any one who thought it was okay to harm another.

*

I pulled up to Wilcox’s apartment. Flat, rectangular, with a black granite gate in front of the circular driveway. I wheeled my bike off the street.
The guard nodded. “Your business, sir?”
I put on an exaggerated New Jersey accent, or at least my recollection of a New Jersey accent. “NearX company business,” I said with the impatient, tough-guy whine that my cousins in America used to speak with. I produced the company ID badge that Pranesh had dummied up for me. The power of that international brand and my white man act had bypassed more such gatekeepers than I cared to recall. A white man in India was exempt from the daily bureaucratic mud that the locals had to wade through.
I dangled the key in front of him. “I need to examine the flat that the company rents for Stephen Wilcox.”
The guard eyed me for a moment and then motioned me into the building with a bored look. I was tempted to break into a string of Kannada and curse the man for not doing a more diligent job, just because he thought I was a foreigner. But of course I didn’t.
At the apartment door, I pulled a pair of rubber gloves from my pocket and turned the key in the lock. This was a new one—scoping out the home of a missing person, just like in films. I locked the bolt behind me once inside.
The apartment’s hall—its main room—had been done up smartly. Expensive wireless sound system, big plasma TV mounted flush to the wall, and a panoply of furniture and decorations that looked as if they had been handpicked from just about every country in Asia. Balinese teak tables, Thai floor cushions, Chinese wall hangings, a Japanese screen dividing the living room from the dining room. Buddhas, Shivas, and Ganeshes as far as the eye could see.
I wasn’t sure if I liked Wilcox’s appropriation of all things Asian into this meaningless conglomeration of interior decoration. What kind of man was unknowable once you saw his home?
The food Pranesh had mentioned had been cleaned off the table, leaving only stray crumbs. An open bottle of red wine still sat on the table. I picked it up. Empty. I could imagine the NearX office boy who had been sent around to check on Wilcox guzzling it as a reward for his troubles, maybe even helping himself to whatever Wilcox had been eating.
I sniffed the bottle and examined its label. Australian Shiraz. Whoever this Wilcox was, he must have been loaded. I didn’t know many people who could afford the two-hundred-percent duty on imported wine. I chuckled. The office boy had good taste.
The kitchen was spotless, as if someone had cleaned it since Wilcox’s last meal. Last meal? Well, his last meal at home. Everything was in its apparent place, not a dish removed. I walked out into the open-air room just off the kitchen, with a second sink for washing dishes. Nothing was out of the ordinary.
Not having investigated a missing person before, I wasn’t entirely sure what I should be writing down. I erred on the side of jotting notes liberally, perhaps drowning any real evidence I might uncover in superfluous detail.
I went back into the main hall of the apartment. The walls on either side of the bedroom doorway had sizable built-in bookcases, largely empty on the left, save for three books, and scattered with framed photos and what looked like academic degrees on the right. Two of the books were on the Ajax programming environment and the other was entitled Managing Multicultural Teams. Company man, even in his literary tastes.
The framed pictures and documents on the right were a testament to a well-lived life in midstream. One shelf was taken up with personal photos—despite changing hairstyles in pictures that appeared to span several decades, Wilcox always had a flop of blond hair. In some photos he was surrounded by other fair-haired people, each with that tell-tale Wilcoxian flop. Scanning the pictures, the term golden boy came to mind. Wilcox as a teenager with features so even they were almost girlish. Wilcox surrounded by a group of equally wholesome-looking white teenagers and one Asian girl. Wilcox in his twenties, his face hardening into manhood, his body filling out. The most recent pictures, some taken in Asia, showed a man whose handsome features had set in an exaggerated way—an overly pronounced cleft chin, swooping hair, an even tan, a steely stare. Probably gorgeous to some women, an untouchable museum piece to others.
Wilcox was now a person with a face and a past, not just another white man in India. And it seemed possible that this man whose life I was beginning to know had met with some unsavory fate. I was no longer simply playing at being a detective.

The next shelf contained contemporary artifacts of Wilcox’s life in Asia. There were photos with friends, a bunch of work photos, and then a surprising assortment of him surrounded by Asian children and what appeared to be dignitaries from assorted countries, mostly Southeast Asian, if I’d had to guess. The documents were all declarations of gratitude and recognition for charitable work Wilcox had done.

The Minister of the State of Penang recognizes Stephen Wilcox and the Asia Kidz Malaysia Foundation for contributing a library to the George Town Council District.

Dear Mr. Wilcox, Executive Director of the Kidz Thailand Foundation:
On behalf of the Office of the Prime Minister of Thailand…

I was impressed. Most foreigners came to Asia and made it their playground, while at the same time enjoying rapid career acceleration. Wilcox seemed to have taken note of the disparities around him and tried to do something about them. A cynical voice inside me (I liked to imagine that it was my inner American) wondered how altruistic this Westerner’s motivations truly were. But I banished my skepticism. The man had done good.
The bedroom was an exercise in decorative paucity compared to the Pan-Asian bazaar of the main hall. A large bed with a plain wooden headboard and a single dresser. The bed was unmade, which was odd in contrast to the sparkling kitchen. Who had cleaned the kitchen, if not the housekeeper? Surely she would have cleaned the bedroom too.
A handful of coins lay in a teak tray on the dresser. I had no doubt that Pranesh’s office boy had cleared out any rupee coins and notes, not bothering with the fractional paise, as if to say that he had not touched the money at all. Leaving a dish full of only paise coins was like leaving just crumbs in the pantry and saying there was food there.
I opened the dresser drawers. Clothes. For no particular reason, I went over to the bed, pulled back the cover—a Rajasthani print duvet—and then replaced it. The nightstand was bare. I pulled open its drawer to find enough condoms to outfit a cricket team as well as sundry toiletries, some of whose uses were not immediately clear to me. I was about to close the drawer, for the first time feeling that I was invading Wilcox’s privacy, when I saw a picture at the bottom.
It showed Wilcox with his arm tightly around a young Indian woman, the two of them standing closer than a platonic distance. She looked up at him, her face suspended in a lovely laugh. In fact, everything about her was lovely—her milk-chocolate skin, her long eyelashes, her perfect cheekbones. Westerners could say what they would about our dilapidated infrastructure and soul-crushing bureaucracy, but no one produced more beautiful women than Mother India.

On the back there was a note written in uniform, deliberate handwriting:

Stephen, Such a lovely night. Thanks for being my gallant knight.
No more excuses! You have to cook me dinner soon.                 
A.

Her gallant knight. What could that mean? And who was the beautiful A who still printed out photographs in 2018? I took a picture of the print with my phone and then replaced it in the drawer.
I went back into the hall. A wireless router on the desk blinked its three green lights at me. The sole desk drawer was empty, save for a blank notebook and a calculator. It was 7:35. The morning rush hour—not that it was discernible from the constant rush hour that darkened the rest of waking hours in the center of Bangalore—would have begun. It was time report to Pranesh.
I looked around the main hall and the kitchen to make sure I’d left things as I’d found them, and then walked back into the bedroom to do the same. As I peered into the closet, the screech of a shoe on the stone floor in the other room chilled me. I moved to the bedroom doorway and saw two men standing in the main hall. One slapped a truncheon against his palm.

Author’s Statement

Although I usually start my stories with a character or premise in mind, a setting is what first inspired me to write this novel. In an earlier career, I ran a technology business in Asia, which sometimes took me to Southern India. When I first visited Bangalore in 2000, the guidebook informed me that I could see all there was to see in an afternoon. This assessment was underscored by the city’s lush air, uncrowded streets, and languid pace, all atypical of the India I had encountered elsewhere. And I loved the place from the start.
Business and a relationship brought me back to Bangalore many times over the next ten years. On each trip I noticed more people, more buildings, and fewer cows. As India’s Silicon Valley rose up around the city, I began to realize that I was a symptom of that change—one of countless westerners coming to hire from the country’s seemingly infinite pool of crack programmers, discover a massive new market, and form personal relationships with locals. At the same time, young Indians were graduating with valuable technical degrees and millions of uneducated villagers were arriving by the trainload to clean houses, drive cars, and cook meals for this burgeoning middle class. The former “garden city” had catapulted itself into the global economy.
When I began to write, I decided that Bangalore would be the setting of my first novel. I always pictured the place at night—the relentless buzz of auto-rickshaws plying the streets, the swarms of families taking in the sultry air on Infantry Road, and the brief eye contact I made with passers-by who came from worlds I could only imagine. Bangalore’s mystery and danger (in my imagination at least) brought to mind Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles of the 1930s and ’40s. Both were previously provincial cities that had quickly risen to greatness, thanks to a single industry. The intrigue of self-made impresarios, aspiring actors, and poor laborers coming together had inspired Chandler’s novels. Similarly, Bangalore’s version of this unlikely stew fired my imagination.
From this dynamic setting, a story began to emerge. I conceived a young private eye, Venkat Abraham Krishnamurthy, the justice-minded son of a local doctor and a murdered Jewish-American mother. Not fully at home in either the US or his native India, Venkat has always existed in the in-between space of otherness. When he is asked to locate Stephen Wilcox, a missing American expat who has lived perhaps too recklessly, he must navigate both western and Indian cultures. He soon discovers that Wilcox’s assistant, Asha, a young Indian woman betrothed to her cousin, has also disappeared, but under different circumstances. The connection between the two—and perhaps to their employer—becomes the key to finding both. In exploring this connection, Venkat must plumb the depths of traditional Indian society, Asia’s brutal sex industry, and the secretive technology industry. In this world where everyone is a foreigner to him, Venkat comes to see that justice and morals do not always coincide.

 

Maury Zeff lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His fiction and plays have been published in American Fiction 2012, Southern California Review, Switchback, and the Best of Playground (2014 and 2017 editions), and his plays have been produced around the country. He has an MFA in Long Fiction from the University of San Francisco and has received fellowships from the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto and the PlayGround theater company. He lived and worked in Asia for four years, an experience that deeply embedded itself in his writing and worldview.