A riveting spy thriller by a former spy, Prabhakar Aloka’s Operation Haygreeva will keep the reader hooked till the last page. The novel follows the C3 unit of the Intelligence Bureau, its officer Ravi and his protégés as they uncover a plot that threatens the very fabric of the country’s peace and stability. Read the excerpts here and get yourself a copy to get lost in this page-turner.
Mumbai, 11 July 2006
Birdsong punctures the stillness of dawn, merging to the chatter of the early risers who were already out on the streets of Virar to rouse Sullu from her sleep. ‘Earlier than usual,’ she thinks to herself, as she sits up in bed, scratching at the skin under her anklets. She has recently been dealing with strange itchy sensations over her body. They disappear just as suddenly as they appear. She isn’t entirely sure if it is because her doctors have just confirmed she is pregnant, or is it something else? Something she is too afraid to articulate, even within the safety of her own mind.
She looks at Madhav. His half-open eyes silently implore her to let him stay in bed for just a little longer. She smiles at him affectionately. They have been married only for two years, but in that short period, they have learnt to recognize what these little gestures mean.
She walks over to their street-facing window and gently draws the curtains. She stands there for a while, absorbing the early morning atmosphere. A grumpy chaiwallah pushing his cart, a municipal worker sweeping aside the previous day’s litter, and stray mongrels basking in the bright light of dawn. This is Mumbai.
Eventually, Madhav sits up and yawns, even as Sullu continues to stare unmindfully outside. It is a habit she has recently picked up. For some months now, she unfailingly stands at the window each morning, taking in every little detail. It is almost as if she isn’t sure if things will be the same the next morning. Madhav is convinced it isn’t just the pregnancy, for the window-gazing had begun well before. Something else seems to be weighing down on her.
As the clock ticks closer to 6 a.m., the demands of the day begin to drift through Sullu’s mind. There is tiffin to be prepared, chores to be done. Shrugging her shoulders with a sigh, she moves away from the window and walks towards the kitchen. The filter coffee that they share each morning is usually accompanied by a conversation. They discuss each other’s plans for the day or decide what they will eat for dinner. But recently, even this had changed. Without warning, Sullu would suddenly bring up matters completely unrelated to the day’s business, as she did this morning too.
‘Madhav,’ she begins, gently running her fingers over her belly, ‘do we really have to continue staying in Mumbai? I mean, wouldn’t it be better for our child, and for us, to move to a smaller city? Somewhere nondescript, where things are not so . . .’
Madhav looks at her with a puzzled expression on his face.
‘Sullu, we’ve had this conversation before. It’s not possible. Where will we go? Even if we move, it has to be to another metro. My career will be over before it even begins if we move to some unknown small town. We have to stay here, for the sake of our child’s future,’ he responds, fully aware that she won’t be convinced.
Sullu lets it be for the moment, for she can’t deny that he is right on all counts. Perhaps this feeling is a result of the anxiety and paranoia of being pregnant. Although she doesn’t bring it up again this morning, and silently helps Madhav get ready for work, he senses her worry. On the rickshaw ride to Virar station, he finds his mind returning to Sullu’s concerns. He knows she is right to some extent. Mumbai has its fair share of problems and is by no means the ideal place to raise their child. But leaving isn’t an option. He is due for a promotion any time now, and the last thing he needs to think about is the prospect of shifting.
He is so thoroughly immersed in these thoughts that the rickshaw driver had to call out several times to let him know that they had reached the station. Apologizing for his absentmindedness, he hastily reaches into his pocket for the fare. He hands over a hundred rupee note, but the rickshaw driver gestures that he has no change. If he waits for the change, he will miss his train. Cursing his luck, he tells the driver to keep the change. ‘So much for a good start to the day,’ Madhav thinks to himself, as he darts towards the station to join the steady stream of commuters all rushing to get to work on time.
The chaos and the crowd are just the distraction he needs to turn away from his own worries. Everybody seems to be in a frantic hurry to get somewhere, at all times of the day. For Madhav, the sheer size of the crowd and its hurried pace always come as something of a relief. Amidst them, his worries don’t loom so large.
As he waits for the train at his usual spot by the fruit stand, he takes out his phone. He has missed two calls from Sullu. He is about to call her back when his train pulls into the station. It is usually packed well beyond its capacity, but somehow it always manages to chug along. It is weighed down not just by the number of people it carries, but also their outsized ambitions. In many ways, the Mumbai local is a microcosm of the country and its aspirations.
No sooner had he reached his office than Sullu texted, ‘Reached?’ Madhav wants to get started with his day and doesn’t want to focus on her worries right now. He sends her a quick reply and puts away his phone. As the day goes by, he immerses himself in his work. At 3 p.m. he realizes that he has completely lost track of time. It is a message from Sullu—‘How was the palak paneer?’—that alerts him that lunchtime had passed, and he had forgotten to eat. To admit that to Sullu would only make matters worse. So, he replies with his trademark playfulness, ‘Out of this world. You’ll win MasterChef at this rate.’
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. But at 5 p.m., just as he is trying to wrap up work, she sends him another message—‘Dhoklas and coffee are waiting at home. See you soon!’ Madhav wonders why she is bombarding him with so many messages. This is unusual, even by her recent standards. Whatever it is, he has to return home immediately to make sure everything is all right with Sullu. He will just have to come to the office a little earlier than usual the next day to finish the pending work.
While the day went by in a blink for Madhav, it trudged along slowly for Sullu. All through the day, she paid little attention to the contents of Madhav’s messages. She cared only about the notification on her phone, indicating that her husband has responded. As evening approaches, she restlessly awaits his return. When he finally gets back, he does not even have to ring the doorbell. She has been anxiously watching, first through the window and then the peephole, and opens the door as soon as he reaches it.
As she serves him a cup of coffee, she breaks the uneasy silence most unexpectedly.
‘Did you hear, Saddam Hussein’s trial took a strange turn today.’
Madhav looks up from his coffee at her, surprised. What has happened to his wife? They usually discuss their favourite saas-bahu serials, but today she has jumped straight to international news.
About an hour after Madhav reached home, train number 90831 on the same route leaves Churchgate station yet again, packed to the brim with people returning home after a long day’s work. The first-class compartment is also jam-packed with barely any standing room. The regulars, like the group of government employees who are discussing office politics, have long mastered the art of keeping a conversation going even amidst the deafening commotion that is a constant both inside and outside the train.
‘Boss, this Palkar no, I tell you. He sits in his office till eleven every day, but never decides on a file. Every time it’s the same thing. Returns it with the same remark, “Please see me.” I am telling you he is an expert at playing the nigyysob game,’ one of them says.
‘Nigyysob?’ his colleagues respond in unison, puzzled by the word.
‘Don’t you know N-I-G-Y-Y-S-O-B? Now I Have Got You, You Son of a Bitch! Palkar is like the Tendulkar of this game. Without even looking at the file, he will ask you to see him. And then he will grill you on all kinds of things that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. Some small thing that you haven’t done, or something you’ve neglected, he will make sure you confess regardless and apologize. Then, if he thinks you’re sufficiently ashamed, he will return the file, asking you to bring it back after you’ve completed your unfinished work.’
‘Don’t worry, yaar. He’s retiring soon anyway.’
‘Arrey, I’m telling you. He’ll keep getting an extension, and we’ll probably retire before him.’
The uproarious laughter that erupts from the group is so loud that it nearly drowns out a conversation that a woman in an adjacent seat is trying to have with her daughter over the phone. She looks up at the men with mild contempt before returning to her call, covering her mouth with her tightly curved palm to ensure that her daughter can still hear her. ‘As I was saying, if you finish your homework quickly, there will be chicken for dinner. Kohlapuri chicken, your favourite. But only if you finish it. Deal, Nanna?’ The little girl at the other end exults in excitement as she promises to finish her homework on time.
Elsewhere in the same compartment, a group of amateur crooners have broken into song as they always do on their way back from work. They sing the popular song ‘Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai’ . . .
It is a crowd favourite, and an unspoken bonhomie quickly emerges in the compartment. In no time the five government employees abandon their discussion. Their briefcases turn into tablas, and the gossip on their lips gives way to joyful whistling. The woman in the adjacent seat feels her contempt towards the men disappear. Even as she continues to speak to her daughter, she chuckles at their childlike enthusiasm. A young couple standing close to the footboard remove their earphones to join the spontaneous revelry. They look into each other’s eyes and smile. What was only moments ago a suffocating ambience has transformed, just like that, into one of liberating joy. It is just another day in Mumbai.
And then, just like that, everything is snuffed out.
A loud explosion rocks the train, throwing it off the tracks. There is fire everywhere, and thick clouds of smoke engulf the compartments. The government employees, the woman on the phone, the singers, the couple, all lay lifelessly at varying distances from the compartment that was only an instant ago full of life. Now Palkar will have no one to play NIGYYSOB with. The woman’s daughter will not eat chicken for a very long time. The singers have unwittingly rendered their final performance. The young lovers will have to await another lifetime to put the song’s philosophy to the test.
In the next ten minutes, six other such explosions throw several trains across Mumbai off their tracks. Hundreds of people lay dead, and with them, millions of dreams. If the trains represent a microcosm of the country and its aspirations, the bomb blasts are an attack on it.