A client claiming she was murdered in a past life is a novel dilemma even for Vish Puri, India's Most Private Investigator.
When a young woman comes forward claiming to be the reincarnation of Riya Kaur, a wife and mother who vanished during the bloody 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Puri is dismissive. He's busy enough dealing with an irate matrimonial client whose daughter is complaining about her groom’s thunderous snoring. Puri's indomitable Mummy-ji however is adamant the client is genuine. How else could she so accurately describe under hypnosis Riya Kaur's life and final hours?
Driven by a sense of duty - the original case was his late father’s - Puri manages to acquire the police file only to find that someone powerful has orchestrated a cover-up. Forced into an alliance with his mother that tests his beliefs and high blood pressure as never before, it’s only by delving into the past the help of his reincarnated client that Puri can hope to unlock the truth.
About the Author
Tarquin Hall is a British author and journalist who has previously lived in the USA, Pakistan, India, Kenya and Turkey. He now divides his time between the UK and India, and is married to BBC reporter and presenter Anu Anand. He is the author of four previous Vish Puri mysteries.
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Vish Puri tried taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, just as Dr Mohan had advised him to do during times of stress. But it was a struggle: his chest suddenly felt tight, as if he was at high altitude.
Only his mother had this effect on him. And there was no doubt he'd heard her out in reception.
'Chubby's very much there, na?' she'd asked, her shrill voice carrying through his office door.
Elizabeth Rani's response was drowned out by the curse Puri uttered under his breath: 'By God, what now, yaar?' But he knew it would be only a matter of seconds before his intercom buzzed and his executive secretary announced – with tickled glee, for she adored Mummy-ji – his mother's wish to look in on her son.
For a moment, Puri contemplated the possibility of escaping out over the roof, where he could access the fire escape on the adjacent building. To do so would involve passing in front of the reception window, however, and he would be spotted for sure.
Besides, it had been only half an hour since he'd polished off an excellent rogan josh and a couple of naans, and he wasn't altogether convinced he would be able to pull himself up to the small toilet window, nor that he would fit through it.
There was no point pretending that he was on an important call and couldn't be disturbed, either. Mummy would simply wait him out. And if he tried to explain the truth – that in thirty minutes he needed to leave the office for two urgent meetings, the first with his lawyer and the second with Mr Ram Bhatt, a recent client, who had sounded anything but satisfied on the phone – he would only get a lecture about working too hard and not looking after his health.
Worse, she might pry. Mummy was forever trying to find out what cases he was working on and had an uncanny knack of drawing out the details. Take the last time she'd visited the office, for example. Puri had just finished a meeting with a prospective new client. A middle-aged air hostess who'd been fired from her job because she'd gained weight, she wanted to avail of Most Private Investigators Ltd.'s services for the purposes of gathering evidence of wrongful dismissal (the reason given by her employer being that her 'reflexes were impaired'). Unfortunately, the meeting had not been a total success and the air hostess had left the office in a flood of tears. Thus when Puri's mother had, by chance, passed her on the stairs and the two fell into conversation, Mummy-ji became embroiled in the whole business, committing the firm to taking on the case without so much as a by your leave.
Puri had objected strenuously, of course. His mother had no right to speak with his clients, let alone get involved with their – his! – cases. She had played hurt. And then, predictably once home, Puri had received a ticking off from his wife, Rumpi. He only had himself to blame. If he'd shown the prospective client more sympathy and not referred to her as a trolley dolly or suggested that beyond a certain age an air hostess was, surely, better suited to doing the check-in, then she wouldn't have left the office so upset. Mummy-ji was only trying to help. Her heart was in the right place. The usual.
Puri took another deep breath and exhaled. 'Face the music, Puri-sahib, that is only way,' he murmured to himself.
Invite Mummy in, hear her out, and then show her the door with a gentle reminder that he was not to be bothered at his place of work unless it was an emergency. And by emergency he did not mean a 'hit-and-run job' on Mrs Pathak's poodle or the theft of Ninu Auntie's (alarmingly large) stash of Xanax.
Buzz went the intercom.
Puri raised himself from his chair and made a quick survey of his office, checking for anything lying around that he didn't want his mother to see. He'd been reviewing the matrimonial case file for Mr Ram Bhatt in anticipation of their meeting later and it was lying open on his desk. Hurriedly, Puri closed it and made for the door.
Mummy was still chatting with Elizabeth Rani. 'Ah, there you are, Chubby,' she said, as if his whereabouts had been in any doubt. 'Just thought I'd come by. So many days have gone past since last we met, na?'
In fact, it had only been four days. But for an Indian mother, that was a lifetime, Puri reflected as he greeted her.
'Wonderful to see you, Mummy-ji. Looking so nice, I must say.'
He made a gesture of bending down a few degrees as if to touch her feet, as was customary, knowing that she would raise him up by the shoulder – and that his paunch would prevent him from reaching the floor, anyway.
'I'm not interrupting something important?'
'I'm wanted at Patiala House, actually, Mummy-ji,' he said, checking his watch.
But she either ignored him or didn't hear. 'Just I was reading about that Muradnagar murder – the double one,' she said. 'Must be the woman was having an affair.'
Puri knew full well that Mummy was fishing, mentioning the high-profile case on the off chance that he was involved. 'Some chai vai, Mummy-ji?' he asked as he returned behind his desk rather than sitting next to her.
'Nothing,' she said and sat down on the chair opposite his desk, ensuring as she did so that the back of her light-green kurta didn't crease.
'You've taken your lunch, is it?' he asked.
'Just I've come directly from my Ladies' Club biannual new members luncheon.' She sounded faintly irritated, as if he should have known.
Puri's leather executive chair wheezed like an asthmatic as he lowered himself into it. Mummy was poised on the front of her seat, straight-backed, with her handbag in her lap. The manner in which she held on to the straps with both hands conveyed a steely determination, as if Puri needed reminding.
He was going to need a cup of chai – strong chai.
Leaning over his desk, he pressed the talk switch on his intercom and spoke into it. His voice was louder than necessary, a habit from those bygone days before the mid-Nineties when all Indian phone lines crackled like Geiger counters and crossed lines had been the rule not the exception.
'Madam Rani, some chai if you please.'
'Right away, sir.'
He took his finger off the switch with a flourish, evidently well pleased with himself for his ability to make use of such a marvel of the modern, technological age.
'So – tell me,' he said, sitting back in his chair.
'One matter is there, Chubby – top priority,' replied Mummy, suddenly brisk and business-like. 'Obligation is there on my part and the responsibility lies with you, also.'
Puri could feel his chest tightening again. 'Mummy-ji, I'm not following, exactly,' he said.
'You have gone the family business way, after all,' she replied.
He rolled his eyes. 'Mummy-ji, let us do without the drum roll, if you please.'
She gave a tut. 'Chubby, don't do impatience, na. I was getting to the crux,' she scolded. 'Now, where was I? Oh yes, regarding your responsibility. This is a matter regarding your papa-ji, Om Chander Puri. Some information has come to light. Thus I'm doing my duty and looking into the matter.'
Puri held up a hand. 'Don't tell me this has got to do with the Shandu Shetty homicide.' He was tempted to add, And I'm well aware of Papa-ji's full name, thank you.
'Not at all, it is concerning another case all together,' she said. 'You remember Riya Kaur? She got murdered during the riots.'
By riots, Mummy was referring to the Anti-Sikh Riots of October-November 1984 when more than 3,000 Sikhs were massacred by Hindu mobs in Delhi in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards.
'From what I can recall, Riya Kaur was a young mother resident in Rajouri Garden. She went missing during the riots and the circumstances pointed to her having been taken from the house by the mob in the dead of night, though like many hundreds of others her body was never identified let alone located.'
Puri had a flash of his father sitting at the table in the kitchen of the old family home in Punjabi Bagh a few years after his forced retirement from the Delhi Police, speaking about the case, his features suffused with sadness.
'Papa-ji took on the investigation after Riya Kaur's father filed the missing persons and appealed to him personally,' Puri added.
'The two were known to one another from childhood,' interjected Mummy.
'Bobby, then Papa-ji's junior partner, worked on the case, also, but it remains unsolved – and, for all intents and purposes, a missing persons,' Puri stressed.
'Suspicion fell on the husband, Mantosh Singh,' said Mummy.
'No charges could be brought.'
'He murdered her, rest assured. Just some proofs were absent.'
'By proofs you're referring to the woman's body itself, I suppose?'
'Come, Chubby, a body is not everything,' she said.
Puri felt his head swimming. How had he allowed himself to be drawn into this ridiculous argument? What was she getting at, anyway? And where was his chai?
He glanced over at his blood pressure machine. It was the briefest of glances, but his blunder didn't go unnoticed by his mother.
'Chubby, what is that?' she asked, squinting at the apparatus.
'What is what?' he asked, playing dumb.
'It is for measuring blood pressure, na?'
'Yes, Mummy-ji, if you must know, my blood pressure has been somewhat elevated of late. And speaking frankly, the last five minutes have not improved matters.'
'Chubby, how many times I'm telling you, diet is required? Obesity is there.'
'And how many times I've told you that detective work is not for mummies?' Puri shot back.
She was silent for a moment before answering. 'Many times you've told me, if you must know. Never mind that I've offered valuable assistance in times past, to you and Om Chander Puri. You've forgotten the Butter Chicken murder case, for example?' A knock on the door left Mummy's question hanging in the air.
Puri bawled a gruff, 'Enter!' and the office 'boy' (who was in fact a grown man of twenty-six) came in bearing the tea.
The crockery on his tray rattled in the stony silence as he crossed the room and approached the desk.
He had brought two cups. The first he placed on the desk in front of Mummy, the second in front of Puri, along with a plate of custard-cream biscuits.
Once he was gone – backing out of the door like a courtier in a throne room – Puri picked up his cup and sipped zealously at the hot, milky chai. A quick glance up at the clock on the wall between a prominently displayed selection of framed awards and accolades and photographs of him with various personalities (including a beaming Dalai Lama and faintly perturbed-looking Amitabh Bachchan) told him that ideally he should be on his way in five minutes.
'I'm due at Patiala House, then a meeting with a client,' he said. 'What is this all about, Mummy-ji? Why rake over the past? Nothing is to be gained. It is a cold case, as cold as ... I don't know ... a fridge!'
'What if I told you some crucial new evidence has come to light?'
'I'll tell you in due course. First thing is first. To solve the case, the Riya Kaur file is required.'
'The official file?'
'From the police department's archives?'
'You wish me to enter the building and simply ask for the official file to be handed over, is it?'
'Such a small thing for a great detective, na?'
Puri almost smiled at her gall. 'Flattery will get you nowhere, Mummy-ji,' he said. 'Now ... I suggest you tell me what all this new evidence is you think you've discovered.'
'First, you must promise to get hold the file, Chubby. For solving the case once and for all, it will be indispensable. My memory is not what it was.'
Puri tried to explain that it was no small thing to get hold of such a file. It would be risky – an offence under God knows how many acts. If caught, he could face prosecution. The police chief would lock him up and throw the key in the Yamuna.
But it did no good – Mummy was relentless, and it wasn't long before Puri found himself agreeing to do 'his best' and 'try' to get her what she wanted.
With this, she stood and began to leave.
'Aren't you forgetting something?' he asked.
She looked puzzled.
'Oh, yes, sorry, yaar, so forgetful I'm getting.' She took her seat again. 'See, Chubby, the fact is that, regarding the Riya Kaur murder, one witness has come forward.'
'What kind of witness?'
'A human one, naturally. You think it could be a dog or a monkey or some such?'
'Nothing would surprise me.'
'Well, she is very much a woman.'
Mummy gave him a blank look. 'That is all – a woman,' she said.
'A member of the family, a servant, neighbour ... butcher, baker, bloody candlestick maker?'
'Language, if you please.'
'She is related to Riya in a way, yes.'
'And this woman claims to have witnessed what, exactly?'
'She saw what happened with her own two eyes.'
'Saw what exactly?'
'You wish to know her testimony, is it?' asked Mummy with a sigh. 'For that, Chubby, some time will be required and you've a meeting to attend unfortunately.'
Puri placed both hands palms down on the desk, as if he needed the support to steady himself.
'Just answer me this: the female, your witness, is she willing to go on the record, to testify in the court?' 'That could prove ... complicated.'
Puri took a deep breath and exhaled, determined to remain cool, though he felt like he could explode.
'Mummy-ji, tell me who this witness is, exactly and precisely, or I will not get you the file. Final.'
'But you promised!'
'You've one minute, then I'm terminating this conversation. No discussion.'
'Very well,' she said, composing herself. 'If you must know, Chubby, the witness is in fact Riya Kaur herself.'
'She's alive? You've met with her?'
For a fleeting moment Puri felt hopeful. His father's failure to solve the case had troubled him to his dying day. The case had been a personal one. Riya Kaur's father was his close friend.
Was it possible that Mummy had got to the bottom of it once and for all?
Her reply – 'More or less' – brought him back down to earth with a thud, however.
'More or less? How someone can be alive more or less, I ask you?'
'Simple, na,' replied Mummy. 'Saanvi is the reincarnation of Riya Kaur.'
Puri closed his eyes. 'By God,' he breathed. 'You're saying some woman is claiming to be Riya Kaur?'
'Not some woman, Chubby, if you please. Saanvi. She is '84 born.'
'And you plan to present her into court, I suppose? "Your Honour, this is the woman who went missing all those years back. We recognize that she looks nothing like Riya Kaur and that she is not, in fact, Riya Kaur at all. But if it please the court, we ask Your Honour to indulge this little fantasy!"'
Mummy's face flashed angry defiance. 'Saanvi is the one, rest assured,' she said. 'So many details she knows. Like the colour of Riya's wedding sari. How she could know such a thing?'
Puri stood up and began to gather his things: keys, wallet, the Ram Bhatt matrimonial case file.
He grabbed the custard creams as well.
'So, you'll get hold of the file tomorrow?' asked Mummy.
Puri ignored her.
'Chubby, you gave your word!' came her voice as he exited his office.
He closed the door behind him and paused, holding on to the handle as he weighed the wisdom of leaving his mother in his office (where she was now free to snoop) with the prospect of throwing her out (whereby he would have to endure more of her ridiculous nonsense).
His indecision lasted but a couple of seconds, and he passed quickly through reception and down the stairs.
It would be up to Elizabeth Rani to evict Mummy from his office.
The prospect of this caused him to give a loud guffaw. 'Pigs might fly. Cows, also,' he mumbled to himself as he made his way through the bustle of Khan Market.CHAPTER 2
On the drive over to the Delhi High Court, Puri munched on his custard creams and tried to put his mother out of his thoughts. He checked his messages, looked over the Bhatt matrimonial case file, pondering what cause his former client might have to be unhappy about the investigation Puri had carried out on his behalf, called his tailor to ask when his new safari suit would be ready, though he already knew the answer, and checked his messages again.
Mummy-ji's words kept coming back to him, however, and soon, despite his best efforts, Puri found himself railing against her theory. Though as a Hindu he believed in reincarnation and the notion that the soul is eternal, he found the idea of someone recalling events from a past life preposterous. Clearly this Saanvi, the young woman Mummy was touting as Riya Kaur born again, was deluded or worse.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Case of the Reincarnated Client"
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