On a rainy night in September, a beautiful woman walks into the upmarket Hotel Aurora in New Delhi. She makes her way up to the sixth floor, where she shoots the CEO of an international defence consortium. A few hours later, the woman meets a fiery end in her vehicle on the outskirts of the city.
Varun Mehta, whose family owns the hotel, finds himself unwittingly pulled towards the crime, and the enigmatic woman who perpetrated it. Opposing the advice of the police and his brother, and struggling with his own demons and insecurities, Varun’s search for answers leads him to realize that what appears to be a straightforward case is anything but. His attempt to uncover the truth takes him from the frenetic pace of India’s capital to the remote frontiers of the nation’s north-eastern region bordering Myanmar — the land of the red river and blue hills.
Will he finally find what he is looking for? And will the journey allow him to come to terms with his own complicated past in the region?
Red River, Blue Hills is a gripping thriller that also looks at changing lives and changing times in one of the most diverse countries on the planet. To pre-order the book click here
Chapter 16 / A Very Shillong Deal
Noy Kronholm was doing chin-ups on an exercise bar jammed into the frame of a bedroom door in a house in Shillong. The house was up in Motinagar, one of the quieter localities of the city, away from the traffic and crowds and concrete high-rises, and had a view of the green, mostly pine tree-clad Lum Shillong range that overlooked this once-tranquil British-era town. She got to ten repetitions, her feet pulled up behind her, painfully forcing out the last few, then got down to the ground, spread her hands wide on the red Tibetan carpet on the floor, and started doing push-ups as quickly as she could.
The house was a two-storey concrete structure—built only a few years ago after an older timber-and-plaster bungalow that had stood there for over fifty years was demolished—and was now owned by a contractor who had recently served a term in the state legislature, one of the new elite in north-east Indian cities such as Shillong. She did forty push-ups, her breath growing ragged towards the end, and then she had a drink of water. A cool breeze blew in from the open first-floor window and lifted up the white curtains; outside she could see pine trees and red tin roofs and clouds drifting by in the blue sky. For the first time in many days she felt at peace. She went back to the exercise bar and started doing another set of chin-ups.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The house was a two-storey concrete structure—built only a few years ago after an older timber-and-plaster bungalow that had stood there for over fifty years was demolished—and was now owned by a contractor who had recently served a term in the state legislature, one of the new elite in north-east Indian cities such as Shillong.[/pullquote]
She heard the engine of a heavy vehicle coming up the hill. It stopped outside the house, a door was opened, and shut, then footsteps, up to the gate. She forced herself to concentrate on her repetitions … eight, nine, ten. Letting go of the bar she leant against the door frame to recover. The knocker on the gate sounded, and she could hear the rubber flip-flops of the caretaker slapping on the cement driveway as he ran to open it. She drank some more water, and stepped into the bathroom for a wash.
She looked at herself in the mirror—her hair was cut shorter now, to just below her ears, and was streaked blonde in places—and applied to her lips a light coat of a pale pink lipstick. When she came out he was standing at the window, his back to her.
‘Hello John,’ she said, stepping forward into the room.
He turned around. With his blue jeans and white sports jacket and straight, black side-parted hair, he looked like the average well-to-do north-easterner, his height and big bones hinting that his roots lay in Nagaland or upper Assam, perhaps Arunachal Pradesh.
‘Hello Noy.’ His eyes went over her. ‘You’ve cut your hair.’
Her hand went up automatically. ‘Yes. Do you like it?’
‘It makes you look younger.’
He came up to her and hugged her, till she pulled herself free.
‘Let’s go downstairs,’ she said. ‘I’ll make tea for us.’
‘I’ll put the vehicle inside,’ he said. ‘The less people see it the better.’
The kitchen was clean and furnished with a bare minimum of utensils. She put some water to boil on the stove and sliced a loaf of bread. She could hear the gate being opened, and John bringing in the dusty, mud-splattered Bolero. He walked in through the back entrance and sat down at the kitchen table. The caretaker unwound a length of rubber hose and started washing the vehicle. He was a muscular boy from the countryside, dressed in track pants and an old sweater, and Noy kept an eye on him through the window as she strained the tea into two cups.
‘This caretaker, how long has he been here?’ she asked.
‘Long enough. Don’t worry about him, he’s a relative of the minister.’
She brought the cups of tea to the table. John buttered a slice of bread.
‘No jam?’ he asked.
‘No, sorry. When is the minister back?’
‘Next week. But even if he’s back in Shillong he stays in his Laitumkhrah house.’
Noy took a bite of her bread and drank her tea. ‘The gun they supplied me jammed. The rest I guess you must have picked up from the news.’
‘R.K. Singh I understand. But Thorne? Were you out of your mind?’
‘Did you not hear me? The gun your friends supplied jammed on the third shot.’
‘They were supposed to give you a new piece,’ he shrugged. ‘These things happen, you should know that. But why did you have to go after Thorne, of all people?’
‘Let’s just say I thought it was necessary. I screwed up, of course. But now we have the missile plans from Thorne’s computer that we’ll sell to the Chinese in Ruili. Millions of US dollars, John.’
‘We’ll have to trek across all of Kachin territory to get there.’
‘The ceasefire’s still on. I thought we could have a look at the camp once again.’
‘Who knows what’s left of it now.’
‘I want to see the place where they cremated her and leave some flowers there.’
He sipped from his cup and looked out at the boy washing the vehicle. She got up from the table to get them some more tea.
‘How was your journey?’ Noy asked him. She refilled his cup and buttered two slices of bread, one of which she gave him.
‘Tiring. I took the night bus to Guwahati from Dimapur, then collected the Bolero from Manipuri Basti.’
‘You shouldn’t take so many risks, John.’
‘It’s the last thing they’ll expect. An ERF commander travelling by bus.’
‘And what about Thomas? When is he coming?’
‘He’s crossing the Bangladesh border tomorrow night. I’ll drive to Dawki day after to pick him up.’
‘The unnecessary risks you take, John.’
He laughed. ‘This isn’t Europe, Noy. No scanners, computers, or CCTVs here.’
‘And then the three of us drive down to Assam and into Arunachal just like that?’
‘That’s what I thought.’
‘Do we have an alternative route?’
‘Sure. Through the Jaintia Hills into Dima Hasao, across the Brahmaputra, and into Arunachal Pradesh. What? Relax will you.’
She shook her head and looked away.
After a pause, he said, ‘What about the phone call? You shouldn’t have used that Delhi number.’
‘I made just that one call to you. They wouldn’t have picked it up.’
‘Let’s hope so.’
They finished their tea and bread in silence. When they were done, Noy put the cups and plate in the sink.
‘I think I’ll have a bath,’ John said, rising from the table.
‘I’ll go down to the market,’ Noy said. ‘I need some fresh air.’
He cocked his head, a wry smile on his lips. ‘Unnecessary risks?’
‘Look at me. If anyone asks, I’m a student from Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland.’
He had to agree. In her imitation crocs, pyjamas, faded tee-shirt and cardigan, she looked like nothing but an average outstation student. Her hair completed the picture.
‘Just be careful.’
‘I have so much to ask you about Europe,’ he said.
‘We have the whole day. By the way, you sleep in the bedroom downstairs.’
He watched her pick up a shopping bag and leave through the rear entrance.
‘Don’t forget to buy some jam,’ he shouted after her.
Noy walked down the quiet road with its peaceful old houses set among trees and hedges, here and there a new concrete house like the one she had just left. It was a lovely day, and the city was spread out below her, extending into the surrounding hills, the green and gently rolling Khasi hills under a perfectly blue sky.
She had always associated Shillong with a certain romance, no doubt from her father’s stories, or rather from her mother’s recounting of her father’s stories; of a town from the British times up in the hills, where there was lovely bread from the bakeries and delicious pork chow in the Chinese restaurants, as well as red-cheeked Khasi girls and pine trees and charming little bars with cabins. That was the Shillong her father had visited a couple of times in the early 1980s. She walked down a steep flight of steps, flanked at the bottom on one side by the buildings and workshops of the fire brigade—which gave the area its name—and on the other side, behind a wall, a field, and a mosque dating back to 1942, and the Kiddies Corner boarding. The street joined the highway that cut through the city, and she waited for taxis and cars and trucks to pass before crossing over to the other side, to the footpath running beside the Fire Brigade field, where a group of youngsters in shorts and football boots were being put through their paces on the bare, grass-less field by a coach. Noy walked around the top end of the field and crossed the road again and continued down towards Laitumkhrah.
She herself had first visited Shillong three years ago, and while it wasn’t exactly love at first sight, she had found this congested little city charming and quirky, an impression that remained on this third trip. The city was growing, and it obviously had more linkages now than ever before with mainland India. However, if one kept one’s eyes open, one saw glimpses—a wood-and-plaster house with a tin roof and a small garden, a lovingly maintained Willys jeep, a middle-aged man in a leather jacket—that provided a window into an older, more relaxed, more cosmopolitan Shillong.
She strolled leisurely along the narrow footpath that ran beside the road winding through the Laitumkhrah market, with its general stores and pharmacies and photo studios and cell phone outlets. As elsewhere in the city, older buildings had been pulled down and concrete high-rises were going up in their stead. A group of young boys approaching from the other side eyed her approvingly, and as they crossed her in front of Regetta Stores she heard one of them say, ‘Who’s she man? Looks like that Tadum’s sister no?’‘[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Who’s she man? Looks like that Tadum’s sister no?’[/pullquote]
She had to smile as she walked on and took the left going down towards the vegetable and meat market, both at being mistaken for Tadum’s sister, and at how unimaginable her life would seem to those stylishly-dressed college boys.
In the vegetable section Noy stopped at a stall manned by an elderly Khasi kong with red, betel nut-stained lips, and bought from her greens, potatoes, chillies, and tomatoes. From another stall she bought some small dried fish. The smell of the fermented fish stacked in heaps was strong, and reminded her of the huge wooden vats of fermented anchovies used to make nuoc mam, or fish sauce, that she had once seen in a warehouse in a small town in Vietnam. In the meat section she bought a section of a pig’s hindquarters, watching closely as the butcher chopped up her meat under the glare of a naked bulb dangling down on a wire from the grimy ceiling. She paid, and retraced her steps towards the main road. As always, she was struck by how similar the local markets here in north-east India were to their counterparts in the rest of south-east Asia, from the food to the people and the languages. Closer to Hanoi than to New Delhi, as her father used to say. This was where her heart was, here in the hills and valleys of these forgotten lands, and not in the heat and dust of India, nor in the cold, soulless efficiency of Europe. She stopped at a general store to buy rice, biscuits, milk powder, and jam, and was served by the Bengali owner. That of course wasn’t something in common with south-east Asia.
She walked back, passing local women wearing the Khasi jainsem, children, young girls dressed in the latest fashion, labourers from elsewhere in India, and the ubiquitous black-and-yellow Maruti 800 taxis with five to six passengers squeezed inside each of them. At a newspaper shop near Fire Brigade she bought a couple of newspapers and magazines—she had time on her hands over the next few days. On the window of a Chinese restaurant was a striking poster for what seemed like a music show. She stopped to have a look, shifting the bag from her right to her left hand. It was a band called Snow Leopard, and they were having a show on Friday at a nightclub in Police Bazaar. On an impulse she went in, and paid five hundred rupees to the girl at the counter for a ticket that admitted two. She reasoned that after the stress of the previous week she deserved a chance to let down her newly-cut hair, no matter what John might have to say about it.
On the night that she thought she’d left Thorne for dead in his hotel room, she had backtracked north across the city with the people who picked her up, and then checked in alone at a small hotel tucked into a lane in the Tibetan refugee colony of Majnu ka Tila in north Delhi. She had stayed the next two days as scheduled in Hotel Dolma, waiting for the contact John had arranged to come and meet her. She had checked in wearing a white sun hat—the type preferred by Japanese tourists—and spectacles, having already changed into jeans and a t-shirt at a safe house in central Delhi, and carrying along her backpack. At the reception desk she had presented her alternative Swedish passport in the name of Linda Kronholm, her official adopted name.
Her cover story, which she circulated in the hotel’s small dining room among the few other guests, was that she had got back from Ladakh and was taking it easy for a day or two before heading off to Sikkim. The night she checked in she had cut and streaked her hair with the scissors and hair colour she had already packed in her backpack—things that would have taken too long at the safe house—and it was only after she had woken late the next day that she found out through the news on television that Thorne had managed to survive. Two anxious days passed, and then someone came to meet her, a thin, studious-looking man with a beard who called himself Tarun. He had handed over to her a lakh in Indian rupees, an Indian passport from the regional passport office at Guwahati, in the name of Nivedita Gogoi, and a Delhi driving licence in the same name. The photograph affixed in both of them was one she had scanned and mailed John earlier in the week. The next day she had travelled AC II tier on the Rajdhani Express train to Guwahati in Assam, reaching on Sunday midday and then hiring a taxi to take her up to Shillong.
Now she walked back to the house, and when she got to the gate, a strange sight greeted her inside the compound. A curly-haired woman with a DSLR camera was making two children pose and trying to take a picture with the pine trees on the higher slopes as the background, only she didn’t seem to be getting the angle right. The woman was wearing jeans and sneakers and looked the urban intellectual type, while the boy and the girl, who both couldn’t be older than eight or nine, looked bored, and then shy when they spotted Noy. The woman with the camera turned around.
‘Hello. What a lovely view you have here!’
Noy said hello to her and hurried in with her shopping bag. In the sitting room, John and another man were poring over printouts with figures on them. They looked up as she entered, and then the man looked at John. He was lean, unshaven, and wore glasses. He looked like a professor, and Noy had the feeling she had met him before.
‘Noy, this is Anand. His brother is the one who gave you the money and documents in Delhi.’ John turned to the other man. ‘Anand, meet Noy.’
The man nodded, and now she could see the resemblance.
‘Who’s the woman outside?’ she asked John, and Anand cleared his throat before saying: ‘She’s a friend of mine. Her husband works with our organization. We’re pretending to be a family, tourists … there are less suspicions that way.’
‘I see. I’ll be in the kitchen John, if you need me….’
She washed the pork and the greens and put some water to boil on the stove. She could hear the two men talking over their printouts in the sitting room. She opened one of the kitchen windows, roasted the tomatoes and chillies on the free burner, and used some of the hot water to clean the dried fish. She could hear the two men going out, then the front door was closed, and John came into the kitchen.
‘Have they left?’ she asked him.
‘Yes. What’s for lunch?’
‘Rice, pork boiled with greens, and dry fish chutney.’
‘Excellent. You could have said thanks to him you know, for the documents.’
‘Aren’t they the same people who arranged the gun for me?’
‘Yes. Look, forget that now, okay? We have other things to worry about.’
‘What do you mean forget it? What if Thorne had been armed? What if my gun had jammed the first time? I could be in some jail in Delhi right now.’
‘I get it okay! I didn’t arrange the gun myself!’
They were both silent for a while. She ground the dry fish with a wooden mortar and pestle, added in the roasted chillies and tomatoes, and pound it into a paste. John emptied the rice out of the paper bag into a plastic container. He measured a cup of rice into the pressure cooker, washed it thrice, then added about half an index finger of water and set it on the stove. Noy lightly fried the pork and greens and added some hot water to it. John lit a cigarette from the stove, and went and stood at the rear door. The Bolero now stood spotless and gleaming in the sun.
‘Do we need to give the boy food?’ she finally asked.
‘No. I believe he goes and eats in a nearby house.’
‘What were you discussing with your visitor? The arms deal you told me about?’
‘Yes. The weapons are coming in from the Chin Hills in Myanmar, via Aizawl and Silchar to Jowai in the Jaintia Hills, where they’ll be loaded into coal trucks headed for Guwahati, and from there on a Mumbai-bound goods train. The crates with the weapons will be unloaded at Sahibganj Junction.’
Noy let out a low whistle as she stirred the meat.
‘Very ambitious plan,’ she said. ‘You make it sound so easy.’
John flicked away his cigarette and turned around. ‘I’m taking care of all the details, all the people who have to be paid off.’
‘Why don’t you get the arms through Manipur? They’ll probably be able to fix a better deal for you.’
John shook his head. ‘Things are pretty hot at the moment in Manipur and Nagaland, upper Assam even. Besides, it’s a Manipuri group that’s delivering the shipment to Jowai.’
‘And your profit? Our profit?’[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The weapons are very cheap, old Chinese stock from across the border, mostly AK-47s, also new stock manufactured in Myanmar.[/pullquote]
‘They’re going to wire transfer five crore rupees from Nepal into your Hong Kong account. That’s after we have a meeting here this weekend to finalize matters. Then there’s another five crores once they take delivery of the weapons at Sahibganj Junction.’
‘So say two million US. They have that much money?’
‘They’re flush with money, don’t worry.’
‘And how much did you pay for the weapons in Myanmar?’
John face broke out into a grin, and he looked like what he really was, a light-hearted young man some two years or so older than Noy, who liked nothing better than to drink beer and shoot deer in the hills. At times such as these she couldn’t help but notice his resemblance to her father, or to her memories of her father at least.
He said, ‘I’ve set up a deal with this guy from Delhi. Once a month he has to supply ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in bulk up to Silchar, and the Manipuri guys collect it from there and take it through Mizoram into Myanmar. Barter system. Of course, the Delhi guy never gets to meet the Manipuri guys. The weapons are very cheap, old Chinese stock from across the border, mostly AK-47s, also new stock manufactured in Myanmar. The Delhi person will be here towards the end of the week to meet me.’
‘Drugs? Why do you have to get involved in drugs, John?’
He appeared not to have heard her. ‘And do you know how much I’m paying the Delhi guy? You won’t believe it, half of the initial amount they’re paying us!’
‘I wish you could have done something other than drugs.’
‘It’s a seventy-five per cent profit, Noy. You know well enough those aren’t drugs, they’re used to manufacture drugs. And don’t you see, if I don’t fix this deal, someone else will.’
‘Oh I see very well John. Why don’t you go plan your deal, and I’ll call you when lunch is ready?’
‘If I had been taken abroad as a child and brought up there, maybe I would have been a different person from who I am now. Don’t you dare judge me!’
She said very quietly, ‘And what about having a mother who’s still alive?’
‘You had a mother too! And a father.’
‘It’s not the same thing! I was sent off with them.’
He knew her well enough to leave her alone then. In the bedroom downstairs he unpacked his suitcase, putting his clothes and documents and 7.65mm pistol in an almirah. So many years, and still such a wide gulf between them.
In the kitchen, the pressure cooker let out a whistle and Noy reduced the flame under it. She washed the dirty dishes and placed them on the rack beside the sink. She was obsessive that way, about maintaining order in her life. And somehow John was giving her a bad feeling this time. But there was no easy way to balance things out.