Top Of The Heap: The Man Who Went Up In Smoke

Some critic has quipped on one of the Beck novels as follows  “pick up the books, block out a week, lie to your boss, stay in bed and finish the series”.

Normally critic-quips are for the show, but this time I tend to agree.

The Martin Beck novels are the written record of “this is what police work looks like” or as we say in this part of the world “Idhu Dan Da Police”.

A far- cry from the constructed problems that has come to dominate the crime novels or the detective story. Inspector Beck from Stokholm Homicide is no Hercule Poirot, but very much a working man(a character in the novel calls police-work a curse); who is met with walls of problems with every turn.

Sample this from the words of the inspector himself about this case:” Unpleasant. Very unpleasant. Singularly unpleasant. Damned unpleasant. Blasted unpleasant. Almost painfully so.” The disappearance of a person is not a problem for a gentleman detective to solve but a genuine human tragedy.

In their second outing, authors Sjowall and Wahloo send Martin Beck to Budapest to trace a Swedish journalist Alf Matsson who has literally disappeared into thin air. It is said that this writing couple alternate chapters and sometime even paragraphs between themselves, but I was unable to tell the difference.

Shady characters populate Budapest as Beck tries to make sense of what is happening to this case, while he should be vacationing with family on an isolated island and he knows only one thing, that this case cannot be solved alone. Yes, this is a summer holiday book and somehow I took it up at the right moment.

Even at 200 odd pages, the authors are able to convey a world of detail and observation only proves that words, like bullets, only work when used judiciously.

Oh, just realized that the title of this book is a wicked pun. So good these Swedes!

Do check out their Edgar Award winning novel “The Laughing Policeman”

 Top of the heap is an occasional column on books


fiction politics Verse

Flower Writing

Being the second chapter of the Upper Balcony Sessions


Archer walked in as usual, the balcony floor which spoke only in the language of cleanliness now was covered with scraps of paper like a terribly dressed bride.

Archer never used think in imagery such as the above, in his previous employment as an assistant to one Mr. Abbot, a boring company man of yore who was needless to say; very very successful.

There Archer  was trained to approach with the directness of an archer, insights of a geographer and with the incisiveness of a diamond cutter from the farther provinces.

“Damn it, I’m doing this again, must stop” Archer muttered to himself.

The muddy puddle that was his mind settled to something like the soothing calm of the lake of reflection.

“In good time you have come, Archer” said the Sultan, still immersed in his paperwork like a….nevermind said Archer’s mind.

The sultan continued, “I am judging the annual poetry contest, and the entries this time have been more than encouraging, like a father who has just seen his firstborn smile, I go to work”

“But Sultan, your kingdom is at stake, your life is endangered, the poor people are restless; surely this not the time to judge the annual poetry contest” Archer pleaded but with a firmness in his tone that reflected his administrative capabilities.

Mr. Abbot would have been proud.

“But Archer, there is always time for poetry” saying so the Sultan started to look for one specific piece that had come in praise of himself and gave it to Archer for reading, but not before one more imagery.

“Read, my friend from the company, for a king and an elephant are alike, only others should speak of their greatness”

“But Jahanpanah, I do not understand, an elephant cannot really speak, even if wished to”

The Sultan’s stare alone was enough to silence poor Archer, he thought of how kind Mr. and Mrs. Abbot were before he read the poem.

“ I see your face in the sun,

For it is you who give us light

In the dark times though

You are the moon

A lion on the throne

An elephant on the battlefield

A crocodile to your enemies

A king among poets you are

A poet amidst kings

May your fame stand like a rock

While all others become dust”

Archer finished, his eyes widened in disbelief, his mind unable to come to terms with the situation.

“Wah! Wah!” said the Sultan, completely lost to the words.

“Surely, you are not going to give this piece the prize, are you Huzoor?” asked the bewildered Archer like a ….oh damn nevermind.

“Yes! This is a fine piece of flower writing, I recognize them at the instant, really your company men must be schooled in art and the aesthetics!” this was the Sultan.

Even before Archer could ask about this whole flower writing, the Sultan had started a recitation of sorts.

“like those soft petals

That adorn the heart

Words that come

Together like a garland

Those that please

The writer and the reader

Like a flower that smiles

With the light of the sun…..”

At this very moment, the assassin who was hiding in the nearby trees; obviously fed up with this recitation by the Sultan made the misstep of shooting an arrow much before his plan.

Obviously, the poisoned arrow, shrieking through the air like the yet to be discovered rocket, missed the Sultan by the breadth of a hair, panting for breath, the Sultan cried for help from below and God from above.

No one came.

It was Archer who took the Sultan to safety and sounded the alarm, the assassin who had managed to perch himself on the trees was later found to be an ex-poet of some repute, poverty had driven him to violence.

Sang the king in a high pitched voice much like a speaker of parliament trying to be heard.

“Why? This thirst for my blood?

Quietly flows the Yamuna

She who quences all our thirst..

She who….”

“Stop it! Oh King” this was the assassin (whose name has been withheld from history on request)

Archer was beginning to enjoy this final retort by the ex-poet now turned assassin

“Stop it! Oh King

The Yamuna is dark

As much as darkness can be

Made by the filth that fills this city

But not even the Yamuna can match

The darkness of our lives

The emptiness of our stomachs

The hopelessness of our children

Stop it! Oh King

For words may bring you the

Pleasure of flowers

But for us words are just words

Stop it! Oh King

Let not ‘art’ cloud your better judgement

Let not ‘poetry’ be your path to escapism

Let not ‘nature’ distance you from the people

Let not ‘words’ divert you from the message

Stop it! Oh king

Because not every time an arrow will miss”

Everyone in the royal court recognised the brilliance of this extempore performance by the ex-poet turned assassin, naturally no one applauded.

“Wah!Wah!” said Archer’s mind, “finally someone who was worth the prize for poetry.”

The prize for an attempt assassination was of course, public execution.





The Upper Balcony

      Archer looked at the city, very few were privileged to have this view. The upper balcony was for the king of kings, it had everything that the empire had wanted to convey to the world at large, grand yet simple, intricate but not extraordinary. The upper balcony was in fact a very ordinary name, the original name of course was lost in the fires that raged the city now and again, the company men could only come up with names such as ‘left court’, ‘right court’, ‘main corridor’ and ‘upper balcony’.

The lack of imagination of the company men deeply troubled the Shahenshah, a title he could still use officially; he was glad that he was not forced to use some governmental title such as “ex-emperor”.

“But then what is in a name, Archer? History that is recorded is without excitement” asked the Shahenshah, it was one of the questions that the Sultan posed to the open sky and to the vast city that stretched across the plains, as far as his eyes could see.

Two sets of eyes.

Archer maintained the silence which he had now learned to observe, the night was becoming slightly more philosophical for his liking.

But the silence had served Archer well, an unofficial list of most powerful men in the company presently had put Archer in the third place, right below the resident at Delhi and the viceroy; this had been the most pleasing news in the past week for Archer especially after months of trying to stop a rebellion on one hand and attending his uncle who had been tied to his bed or in other words his disease for the past so many years.

The thought of the list brought a smile to Archer’s face, and thought had taken him up and away from the upper balcony and into the higher but temporary realms of happiness, so much so the Shahenshah had to turn back to look at a smiling adviser.

“Ah! Archer, always a smiler” was the king’s refrain before he continued.

“I am called the king of kings, and I only have a balcony. I am also supposed to be the giver of peace in a city that is about to explode in rebellion, names are just names”

The moonlight made up for the lack of street lights in the old city.

The moon which had been the darling of the court poets now looked pretty much helpless and without inspiration while the Shahenshah and his adviser looked upon, one lost in his illustrious yet fading past, the other lost while dreaming up his near certain glorious future.

The slight wind kept them company.


Books fiction



If I do not write this now, then someone will write it in the future and they will write it badly


The sun appeared untiring, relentless and omnipresent, the topic of discussion for today and every day and days to come. The heat dried up everything making the men and women forget the feeling of wetness. As lips dried and tongues could no longer help, the people turned to the minds of the poets, but alas; they could find no help there too. The word bank of the poets were empty, their brains too had become dry like cloth sold for cleaning computer screens, their imagination centred on the looming presence of Surya, the sun god.

An enterprising and unimaginative writer had just brought out a series called The Battle against the Sun. Since it was predictable, the comic made a modest profit and found some ardent collectors too.

One of them was Kuresan, he was currently trying to get any word on the monsoon; in his hands were the last two copies of ‘The battle against the Sun”. The penultimate issue was called the Final Recruitment: Battle Cry. These very words were written in ghostly yellow lettering making the reader wonder if ever a war against the sun could be won in reality.

As Kuresan passed a high window, little did he know that final touches on a novel called “Come December, my love, my rain” was being made, the novel would be quite useful in plot development in the future, but we leave it right now.

“Hail Kuresa!” called out one college student from a corner shop where a bunch of them had remained to waste away the remainder of their wasted lives, usually Kuresa used to take offense to these trouble mongers, but being senior to them gave him the look of maturity, if not maturity itself. He passed on without smile or frown.

The corner shop did not have any corners, as in, it was curved and its name by now you would have guessed would have come from the fact that it was in the corner and was run by an non local-ite, apart from stacking locally sourced high on oil highway snacks, the corner shop also sold ‘asli-tea’.

The corner shop also had a thick ledger which was neatly divided into two “College Guys Accounts” and “Jobseekers Accounts”, needless to say and still we would like to say that your name will ultimately gravitate from College Guy Account to Jobseekers Account section without much trouble (unless of your own academic doing or should we say undoing).

Kuresan used to have a Jobseekers Account with dues running up to the higher hundreds, but he then realised that no one will be giving him a job and he will have to make one for himself.

“Novelist” he came and said to owner.

The owner in spite of being a small time trader was also a learned man and he realised that as a novelist Kuresan would never be able to settle his dues in the coming hundred years or so. So he decided to be pragmatic and forced Kuresan to close his account.

This might partly be the reason as to why Kuresan did not stop at the corner shop.

No one can really say what the true reason is, but we cannot rule out some possibilities as well.

As Kuresan reached the Kanchipuram Gazette office, the three storeyed building built in 1832 by Sir Roland Dash, no one knew what the last name of Sir Roland was, but the reason for this however was singular. The commemorative plaque detailing the name and effort of the builders had been chipped exactly at the point where Sir Roland’s family name was etched in stone. This reason for this chipping activity is unknown, mostly miscreants with difficult ideologies.

Since the time of the British the building was called Sir Roland Dash buildings as they knew there had to be a surname and substituted it with Dash. Over the years it was called the Dash and with the help of the tongue of local rickshaw pullers, it is now called just Das.

Uninformed and lazy historians attribute the building to a Bengali steel magnate Das who had interests in Kanchipuram and had since built these office buildings, nothing could be further from the truth. One such historian turned diarist turned newspaper editor sat at the other side of the shining long Burma teak table and he was the guy Kuresan was going to meet.

Like all 52 year olds, A.A.V.Alagesan was irritated and had problems at home, and like every other man holding prominent office; reflected his problems at the workplace. This did not go too well with the workplace as people feared to talk to their employer and innovative ideas, well remained as ideas.

Kuresan, unlike most others you will meet in this story was brave; it is also quite possible that he does not know this. He walked in with an air of privilege and belonging, smiling to all those who passed him, nobody however returned the greeting.

That might be because Kuresan’s uncle was A.A.V.Alagesan and the rightful heir to the constantly reducing in subscription but still functioning local newspaper with a global outlook “the Kanchipuram Gazette”

Before Kuresan drops and breaks his dark rimmed brown tinted Wayfarer modelled imitation power glass later in the story, we need to tell you that he does in fact wear glasses.

Kuresan adjusted the above mentioned glasses and focussed on his uncle whose face was extra worried today, but the magnitude of the worry could be guessed, he looked  like a sparrow that had forgotten to apply anti-ageing cream, to be specific his uncle looked like an out of work Tamil movie villain who had now outgrown heroine father roles.

While looking at all this, Kuresan also looked at a slender figure standing at one dark corner of the ‘three out of four” corner well lit room.

“Ah! Kuresan, it is I who sent for you” said the editor in his dying voice; it was not as if his voice had been that of an army commander or that his voice had given him considerable leverage over other contemporary editors, his voice was always in this near death tone which made people assume that his voice could have been forceful in the past. Nothing could be more wrong.

“We received a letter this morning….and the contents of which are quite, I should use the word shocking!” A.A.V continued, the very mention of the word shocking got Kuresan interested; he had already come to the edge of the seat.

“Seems like a threatening note it could well turn out to be a prank”

“Something like Jack the ripper!” exclaimed Kuresan and giving out reference points to the reader, so that a mental picture could be formed.

“No no, not in this town…here you read it aloud” A.A.V said as he pushed the piece of paper towards Kuresan, and so it began.

Long have I waited,

Not for work

But for a worthy adversary

In the coming weeks, my hidden acts

Will come to light, while I am in darkness

Where are you, O detectives?”

–         Someone You Need to Find


“This doesn’t look so threatening does it?” asked Kuresan, “it’s just a prank, no need to publish this uncle”

“But what if it really is a threat and these hidden acts could be horrible, truly horrible things that we wish would never happen to any man or woman on earth?” This was the voice of the slender figure which had come out and could be seen by all.

“Ah, Kuresa, I forgot to introduce you; this is our new head of the local crime branch Ms. Jayanthi Jayapal IPS, we thought she might want to have a look as well.

As they shook hands, the ever ticking mind of Kuresan realised “But surely you are not THAT Jayanthi Jayapal who wrote ‘Locked Out in Lakshadweep’?”

“Yes, but that was a long time ago, I am a crime novelist turned police detective” she said as she blushed.

Needless to say Kuresa couldn’t control his excitement, he went on to add how the novel had become something of a cult collector’s item in crime fiction and how it could be compared to all the classics of the genre.

“Thanks…but editor sir, you haven’t introduced this gentleman” Officer Jayanthi pointed out.

“This is my nephew…” A.A.V began but couldn’t complete

“I am C.F.Kuresan, detective turned novelist, at your service”

Only A.A.V and Kuresan in the room knew that Kuresan was neither a detective turned novelist and nor was his initials C.F.

A.A.V just sighed and called out for tea.

As they waited for tea, Kuresan made a mental note of two things,

“Unlike most crime novelists turned police officers Jayanthi was actually pretty”

Secondly, “I now have a case, finally”











In an unusually wet morning amidst the surprised citizens of Chennai who were looking up and thanking the various generous rain Gods, Vatsan stood stooped with luggage more importantly sad, hopeless and in pain. His round face showed sleeplessness of vigilant soldiers, while the expression on his face was that of a homeless dog.

“Respectfully kicked out by the legs of fate” was what Vatsan would go on to describe the event in later correspondence, for an artist keen on light melancholy, he would have been a perfect subject.

Vatsan represented one of the many million constituent bubbles which ultimately made the Indian IT Bubble, the same bubble which in a span of years had transformed the dried grass coastal plains of Shozinganallur into a flickering light of economy.

Vatsan had till the previous night shared a room with a couple of friends, of which one had orders to move abroad and the other somehow thought it was time for him to get married and headed south. Room sharing works in many ways, but for Vatsan it had been quite pressing to be pressed along with two strange men, and just about time when he was getting familiar, he was the single guy without a room on the road, in a rainy junction.


The room mate who had thought it was sensible to leave all this and marry also gave Vatsan a haphazardly folded visiting card, the cheapness of the paper echoed deep in Vatsan’s mind and the wordings also did not give him much confidence.




But since, Vatsan was a believer of the adage “something is better than nothing” and since it was not a Tuesday; Vatsan had no other choice.

“So many houses here, all vacant” was the first thing the house finder said to Vatsan as they both sipped tea; the tea shop was Rangan’s office/haunt. The tea master was probably his cousin or a distant relative, but no one ever knew. While introducing Vatsan to his ‘dosts’ there as ‘party’, Rangan made a mental note of all the houses that would fit his assessment of Vatsan.

The first house that was shown was on the edge of a shrinking swamp, the sight of it from afar made Vatsan request for something legal, relentless Rangan picked out houses from his bulk album like a seasoned gambler picking out cards. He had showed almost everything, but Vatsan was not satisfied.

Finally Rangan closed the bulky photo album with a THUD!

“Finally, what you want? Eh? What?” in serious high pitch that frightened Vatsan, but as he was a man not tired of choices, said thus “ I want something liveable and also with someone decent who will pay half”

“Ok, then u select” saying so Rangan threw the album onto Vatsan’s hands and continued “IT fellows want to see 400 houses before living in one”

“You are IT only no?” he asked again while Vatsan was busy leafing through.

“Umm..yes kindoff”

“This one!” Vatsan said pointing with his finger at picture showing a cavernous house, dark looking even under sufficient lighting.

“This one a? This is booked.”

Vatsan’s spirits fell to his intestines on hearing the only thing he liked in the album was booked.

“Wait, but I will ask him, if he can share. 2.5 BHK ok va?”

“What is 2.5 BHK?”

“Two bedrooms plus study” Rangan said as he held his primitive cell phone to his ear waiting for Vatsan’s future roommate to pick up the call.


The study in Scarlet, was more spacious and more darker than it had been in the picture, completely empty; it resembled an empty barrack with echoes.

“UK party, all family in UK. This house is investment, all ok? Rent ok? Ten months advance” Rangan who by then had lost his earlier business friendly nature and now spoke only in salient points.

“Why this house is called Scarlet?” vatsan asked as he looked around, he wouldn’t have cared if it had been called anything, but was just buying time, before the owner’s representative arrived.

“Oh! First builder built only Red,Yellow and Green; later Government sanctioned more waste land, so one by one all colors. See that is Cobalt Blue”, the house finder showed a distant house undergoing repairs. The colony of neat functional row houses was aptly called ‘MULTICOLOR COLONY’

Vatsan was satisfied and waited patiently for his roommate.


Rangan stood in the middle of the house and said “This is Sanjeevi, your roommate”. If there had been a fan hanging from the ceiling it would have scraped the well oiled hair of Sanjeevi.

Vatsan looked at himself and felt closer to the ground, even his urban work clothers looked dull to Sanjeevi’s brown long kurta that would best fit in the set of a Bengali art film. Sanjeevi held out his hand and said, “Straight from Shollinganallur junction, I think? So roommates from now”

Vatsan couldn’t detect whether the above line was relief or irritation, he responded what he thought was favourable and said hello.

It was only later that Vatsan came to know how Sanjeevi had drifted for year or so trying to buy time from his brother claiming he was preparing for the Indian Police Service, but immediately after Rangan’s departure Sanjeevi started snooping around Vatsan’s things asking in a friendly manner on the number of medical dictionaries and anatomy charts that made up the luggage.

“I’m a medical transcriptionist, I listen to prescriptions of doctors and sift through medical records and histories of patients, these have been quite my companions in the past few years and my previous roommates say I shout out disease names in the night; their idea of having fun was calling me a doctor and see my struggles to get the pronunciations right” said Vatsan not realising he was being more frank that he usually was, always a sign of comfort.

“Interesting…”Sanjeevi said, “but you wouldn’t mind me if I called you Doctor, would you?”

Thus finishing the open ended question Sanjeevi pushed himself back into the recliner and clutched his violin close to his chest, they seemed to be his only belongings.

“This, I think is going to be a long friendship” he said confidently, while doctor Vatsan unpacked.