Gopal, contrary to his usual habits, was rather late. He rushed into the house just as the final relative had finished licking off the last drop of coffee off the rim of his tumbler.
“Dei Hari, where are Priya and Reva?” he asked, spotting me gathering up the used glasses off the table in the living room.
“I don’t know, try Priya’s room.” I replied, as he dashed off towards it. I proceeded to pick up all the glasses as I heard Priya’s voice float through from her room – “Gopal, you idiot! Do you have any idea how late you are?!” What appeared like seconds later, the cousins and Reva hurried out of the room and out through the front door, waving me a genial goodbye on the way.
“How long are they going to be gone for?” asked Aunt Sreeja, who seemed to have materialized next to me, waving at them.
“Oh for a while. They should be back by dusk.”
“Dusk?! Oh my poor children, I should have packed some lunch for them.” saying thus, she disappeared into the kitchen, leaving me with Uncle Sridhar in the living room. He had the morning papers in his hand and was rummaging through them as if looking for news worthy of his attention.
“I knew it!” he cried, out at no one in particular. “Somebody has already filled in todays crossword!” He was vaguely surprised to find me in the vicinity.
“Oh hello, Hari.”
“How have you been?”
“Oh, pretty well off late. You?”
“I was doing just fine until someone completed todays crossword before me. I know it was that Sudharshan fellow. Have you seen him around?”
“Err, no. I haven’t seen him for a while.” A bead of sweat was about to trickle down my brow, but decided against it.
“I should look for him.”
“Oh, no no, Uncle. Let me find him for you. In fact, I’ll get you another newspaper or magazine as well.”
“Fantastic, my boy. I’ll slip off to take a bath in the meantime.”
“Good idea, uncle.”
The relative set off on his endeavour to procure the necessary toiletries for a long, refreshing bath, as I made my way out of the front door. I quickened my pace to make sure I was out of sight for even the best air of eyes at my grandmother’s place. It had just struck me that it was approaching breakfast time, when my phone rang. Priya was occupying the other end.
“I hope you have made your move.”
“To get the painting, you dimwit!”
“Don’t you ‘Oh, that’ me! I’d better have the painting in my motherly arms when I get back.”
“Motherly arms? Really?”
“You are not an expensive painting. You wouldn’t know.”
“I see. So, what do you want me to do?”
“Do I have to spell it out for you? Just go in, get the painting.”
“How do I get in?”
“You are the criminal. You should know. Ok, I got to run. There are people waiting for me at the stall. Bye.” With that, she was off.
My readers would know by now, Hari Chetlur is by no means a man for all occasions. With all certainity, he is not a man for a break-in. I mean, you need to have the right conditions for a break-in. You need months of planning, a dark night, the necessary equipment, and a strong sense of motivation. I had none of them. In fact, I had never even managed to steal a pen back in school without attracting the attention of half the class, let alone been a part of the fabled Ocean’s eleven. And yet, here was a situation that had put a programmer who at times forget how to spell ‘C’ in the role of a ninja.
My clouded mind had conveniently ignored the fact that my aimless stroll found me standing right outside Uncle Sudharshans and Gopals home. I looked about. A few TVS-50s were the only claim to fame on an otherwise deserted road. A few blocks away, a trio of pot-bellied mamas were engrossed in deep conversation, presumably about when they can hang out and grab a filter-coffee or two. Over to my right and across the road was an overflowing garbage bin, which was now serving up a 3 course meal to a pair of cows and a stray goat. Apart from these, if the aliens landed on the road, they’d find no other specimens for a rectal examination.
Up in front of me, the house itself looked green and plainly uninterested in its surroundings. What would Sherlock do, I asked myself. I got only eerie silence in response. So much for reading all those detective novels. I made a mental note to revisit each of them in more detail if I ever got out of the present calamity alive.
I decided to break the situation down. The front gate itself posed no obstacle. In case it was locked, all the non-athletic years had to be put behind me, and one gigantic effort to swing myself over the gate would do the trick. I could then go into stealth mode and swoop across the six metres of mosaic which led up to the front door. Then came the real problem, of getting in beyond the front door. I had the option of either using brain, and pick the lock, or using brawn and climbing up the water spout and dropping like a leaf onto the terrace. It was a sound plan.
I shot glances either way, and made my way upto the front gate. ‘Locked. Well played.’ I thought to myself as I noiselessly tried to push at the gate. It looked like I had to call upon plan B. I spat on my palms and flexed the shoulders, preparing for the physical hurdle. The gate, I might mention, was 6 foot high, of wrought iron and black. Thankfully, it had a sort of ornate design on it which was pleasing to the eye, but more importantly, would give me strategic footholds in my ascent. With a deep breath, I grabbed on the head of a metal peacock, and began climbing upwards. For a second, I paused to look around. The mamas had disappeared from sight, and the TVS-50s passed by with nothing to report. The cows appeared mildly bemused, but they have a strange sense of humor. The goat, meanwhile ate in steadfast silence.
Satisfied with my observations, I put a couple of more efforts upwards. Surprisingly, it didn’t take me long to reach the top and lean over the other side. My sandal however, appeared stuck in one of the gaps in the gate and I spent a patient few seconds trying to get it free. My torso was already enjoying the air on the other side of the gate. I had just managed to wriggle my foot free, when I felt a hand grab my ankle.
“Oi!” said the owner of the hand.
I struggled to see the rest of him through the gate. Mighty rude of him, I thought to myself, to have me hanging like this, legs on one side of a gate and torso upside down on the other.
“Hola!” I said, with some enthusiasm, I hoped.
The guy was however, in no mood for socializing. “Dei! What do you think you are doing?”
Suddenly, the voice sounded all too familiar. “Oh Venkat!” I said. “It’s me da, Hari.”
“Hari?” he asked, confused. If any of my readers had been on the scene, they’d have noticed, he hadn’t let go of my ankle yet. “What are you doing hanging over the gate?”
‘You are making me hang over the gate, you idiot.’ I wished to mumble, but better sense prevailed. “Oh nothing. You know. Simply.”
“Simply? Why you trying to get in?”
“What makes you think I’m trying to get in?”
“I saw you climbing up the gate.”
A minute of silence.
“Why are you trying to get in?”
I wished the blasted guy would atleast let go of my leg if he had to resort to endless questioning anyway. I felt like the frame of the gate would be etched into my stomach by the time I got off. But this was no time for pondering over future ailing. I looked around helplessly.
Front door. Cleo’s litter box. A jasmine plant. The morning paper. A wandering cat.
The wandering cat ! No. No. That wouldn’t do the trick.
The morning paper!
“I came to get the paper.” I replied triumphantly.
“The paper?” came the voice from the other side.
“Didn’t you get today’s paper at your place?”
No wicked symbol of the law could stop me from here. I was on the home stretch.
“Yes, but somebody finished off todays crossword, and Uncle Sridhar wanted to solve it. So here I am, fetching the morning paper.”
“You are cheap.”
“Couldn’t you have bought one?”
“I didn’t want to walk that far.”
I felt his hand let go of my ankle. I was about to resume my ascent, when I heard a bit of rattling. Without warning, the gate swung open, with me dangling helplessly on top of it. When I recovered from the shock, I realized I had the best seat in the house to watch Venkat walk through the gate, across to the front door and pick up the paper. Without a word, he walked back to me and handed it up into my grateful hands. With a wave of the hand to accept my gratitude, he swung the gate shut again. I meekly clambered down as I watched him lock the gate again.
“You have the key?”
“Yeah, Priya gave it to me.”
“But you can keep it now. In case you need another crossword to do.” He thrust the key into my hand and walked off, leaving me trembling with fury as I punched in Priya’s number on my phone.
“Heya!” came her overjoyed voice from the other end.
“You gave Venkat the key to the gate.” I muttered through clenched teeth.
“Yeah, I did.”
“Why didn’t you hand it to me?!”
“I thought you were smarter than that.”
“You can’t just get away by complimenting me!”
“Hey, if you had asked me for it, I’d have given it to you.”
“What the -“
“Did you get the painting or not?”
“No I didn’t. Your trusted bearer of the key came trotting up to save the day!”
“Ugh, you are useless. I should have given YOU the key after all. I’m going now. Bye.”
I stared in disbelief at my phone for a few seconds. Then headed back to the house, newspaper in hand. Just as the smell of fresh Pongal came wafting through the kitchen door, I deposited the paper in the safe possession of Uncle Sridhar and prepared myself for a meal delicious enough to get my mind of the day’s matters.