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Episode 26: A Taste of Home
Season 1: The World Unseen
Kiran Nambudiri was momentarily lost for words.This was a most unexpected reply. The military gentleman had come to Newmarket Racecourse to find him? It was puzzling and peculiar, it was inexplicable and incomprehensible, it was baffling and bewildering, it was —
There were so many words in English meaning the same thing — or almost the same thing — and Kiran had to halt the express train of his mind steaming off along another lengthy track. Words captivated him. Though not as much as numbers did.
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‘You came here to find me, sir?’
‘Haan mainne kiya. mujhe bataaya gaya hai ki aap ek utkrsht ganitagy aur kodabrekar hain,’ * the gentleman said.
‘Aapakee hindee bahut achchhee hai sar. ** But what is this all about?’
‘I want to hire you. Specifically, I have a need for someone with your expertise in cryptography.’
‘This is very flattering, sir, but I’d hardly call myself an expert.’
‘And yet you’ve had a paper about…er…something phoney substitution ciphers published in the journal of the London Mathematical Society?’
‘Homophonic substitution ciphers. That’s true, but my practical experience is really very limited.’
‘What time do you finish work?’
‘The last race is at five o’clock. After that, Mr Smiggins and I cash up for the day. Then we’ll take our belongings back to the lodging house. And then we’ll have dinner.’
As he uttered the word, Kiran’s heart sank at the thought of dinner. The hardest thing about being in England was adhering to the strict vegetarianism of his Brahmin upbringing. The rice and lentils he had brought with him from London had run out two days ago. This evening he would feast once again on soggy boiled vegetables and bread.
‘I’d like you to dine with me this evening,’ said the gentleman.
‘Mr Smiggins will be disappointed. He doesn’t like to dine alone.’
‘Make an excuse. Tell him you’ve met an old friend from India.’
‘But please tell me who you are, and what this is all about.’
‘I am Major Arthur Lock, and I have a proposition for you. It will pay well — and it may end up preventing a great misfortune.’
That evening, Kiran, having wiped his suit down with a damp cloth and drawn a comb through his unruly hair, strolled the short distance from his lodging house to the White Hart on Newmarket High Street. It was a fine evening, though the day’s gentle warmth had gone. It impressed Kiran that here, unlike in London, there were stars visible in the sky. The stars made him feel less alone.
As he had predicted, Mr Smiggins was disappointed that he would dine alone, but he accepted Kiran’s story about an old friend from India. Kiran felt a guilty about the deception, but after all, Major Lock was from India, if not originally, and he was now an acquaintance, if not exactly a friend.
Kiran was intrigued by the major’s proposition. Clearly, it was a cryptographic matter. But what need could he have for such a service?
As he walked into the dining room of the White Hart, there was the expected diminishment of conversational chatter while people paused to look at him. Kiran had realized early in his travels with Mr Smiggins that a brown man in rural England couldn’t help but draw attention to himself. Some of that attention was hostile, some was suspicious, but most was simple curiosity. Where is that chap from? What is he doing here, and is he going to entertain us with his strange lingo and stranger ways?
The room was decorated in the style that Kiran had come to recognize as Public House Rustic: dark heavy furniture, horse brasses, watercolours and old photographs, agricultural implements, corn dollies. He rather liked it. It was so different from anything he had known in India.
And that now familiar smell of beer and pipe tobacco. Kiran had considered adopting a pipe habit when he first came to England, thinking it might make him less strange in the eye of the natives. But his several attempts at pipe-smoking had resulted only in watering eyes, sore throats, coughing fits, and the most intense nausea he had ever experienced. The last attempt had culminated in an epic vomiting of his stomach contents into the Thames at Wapping.
Major Lock stood to greet him on the far side of the room. By now, the room chatter was back to the level it had been at when Kiran walked in. That he was dining with such a quintessential Englishman seemed to have reassured everybody.
‘I must say, sir, that I am in quite a state of trepidation about what I will eat in this establishment. I follow a vegetarian diet and it has proven most difficult so far to —’
Major Lock waved his hand. Kiran found the non-verbal displays of the English far harder to interpret than the linguistic ones. Was that a gesture of dismissal, as if to say, I don’t care for your dietary idiosyncrasies, you will dine on roast beef, like a proper Englishman? Or was it a gesture of reassurance, as if to say, have no fear, there will be plenty of boiled vegetables and bread?
Major Lock read the confusion on his face.
‘It’s all taken care of, Mr Nambudiri. My colleague, Sergeant Draper, is in the kitchen. We served in India together and Draper developed a keen interest in your country’s cuisine. He’s no bad cook and I think you’ll find it all to your liking. We had to use some persuasion with the people here, but Draper has promised to give the cook some new recipes. We’ve told her plenty of people in London have a taste for Indian food and when they come here for the racing, it’ll give her another string to her bow.’
‘Does Sergeant Draper know that I’m a vegetarian? Most Englishmen find that a difficult concept to grasp.’
‘Yes, he does.’
While it pleased Kiran that the major was thoroughly apprised of his dietary requirements, he found it a little disconcerting.
‘If you don’t mind me asking, major, how do you know so much about me? I’ve only been in England for four months. I assumed I was living in perfect obscurity.’
‘That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? How many of us in this modern age can actually live in perfect obscurity? This is the age of the telephone and the telegraph, the census and the electoral register, the professional police force and the private detective.’
‘You found me with a private detective?’
‘As a matter of fact, I didn’t. I first heard about you from a…a third party. I was told a brilliant young Indian scholar had come to England and was going up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in the autumn. In the meantime, he was working as a bookmaker’s assistant to make ends meet. I imagine your mathematical skills are useful in that line of work.’
‘They are, though it’s very simple work.’
‘For you, I’m sure. Though it’s unfortunate your researches at some of our London gambling houses were truncated so abruptly. You could have made a sight more money in that environment.’
Kiran gulped and felt the sweat surface on his forehead.
‘This is very embarrassing, major,’ he said, laughing awkwardly. ‘I had no wish to cause such a kerfuffle. I did not know it was illegal, or at least unacceptable, to record the results of the roulette wheel and the baccarat table. My purpose was merely to gather enough data to see if the outcomes were genuinely the result of chance. Certainly, with the roulette wheel, there are several other factors that may affect the result. The balance, the level of the table, the way the croupier tosses the ball, even the temperature of the room.’
‘So you began at Whitestone’s, posing as an Indian prince.’
‘There are plenty of Indian princes in London gambling establishments. I thought it the best disguise given the colour of my skin.’
Lock laughed. ‘I admire your pluck. But look, you must be thirsty. Let me order us some drinks. Draper should be here with the food soon.’
Lock signalled to the barmaid and ordered a pint of bitter for himself and a lemonade for Kiran.
After the drinks had arrived and they had both taken a draught, Lock said, ‘Three gambling houses, and each time you were spotted and thrown out.’
‘It was the notebook that gave me away. I can remember a sequence of about forty numbers but after that my memory fails me. I had to write down the sequences, but it was hard to do that discreetly. There are eyes everywhere in such places.’ Kiran paused. ‘Did you hear about all this from your third party?’
Lock shook his head. ‘I have contacts in the Metropolitan Police. I asked them if they had anything on a young Indian visitor.’
‘But I was never charged with anything!’ Kiran said hotly.
Lock made what Kiran assumed was a placatory gesture. ‘I know. The police spoke to you only because the owners put pressure on them. I’m sure you can guess they have friends in high places.’
‘Yes, they warned me off. And the owners circulated my description to the other London gambling houses. It was impossible to continue.’
‘So you got a job with a bookmaker.’
‘Yes, though it doesn’t pay very well. And I can’t place any bets myself. Though I’m not sure how feasible it would be to develop a mathematical system for predicting horse races.’
‘Surely that’s all down to factors like the horse’s condition, the state of the turf, the weather, the skill of the jockey, and so on?’
‘Ah, but if one could analyse those factors in sufficient detail, and then quantify them to a sufficient degree of exactitude, one would have the key to horse racing. God is a mathematician and therefore everything in the cosmos is susceptible to mathematical analysis.’
Lock looked unconvinced, but Kiran was as certain of the truth of his statement as he was that he was a conscious soul.
‘Now here’s Draper with our food,’ Lock said.
Kiran looked up and saw a stout fellow of medium height with red hair approaching their table. Following him was a stouter woman, her dark hair half-hidden under a cook’s cap. They carried trays laden with dishes, wafting the delightful and homely smell of spices. Kiran breathed deeply of the nostalgic scents of cumin, coriander, cardamom, chilli, and ginger.
The others in the dining room had a mixed reaction to the exotic smells. Some wrinkled their noses and some puffed furiously on their pipes and cigarettes in a kind of olfactory combat. But some appeared to be intrigued, craning their necks to see what unusual fare was being borne to the table of the two unlikely dining companions.
‘Sergeant Draper, Mrs Beck, I’d like to introduce Mr Nambudiri, who is visiting us from India and has been longing, I think, for a taste of his homeland.’
As he laid the plates on the table, Draper said apologetically, ‘Now see here, Mr Nambudiri, I’m not presuming this is anything like your mother’s cooking, or any of your aunties, for that matter. But I spent a fair bit of time learning about the cooking in dear old India when me and the major were there. So I hope it won’t be too far off the mark for you. Now the major tells me you’re from down Malabar way. Well, this isn’t what you might genuine Malabar cuisine. But I’ve done my best with what I could pick up in London’.
‘Oh, Sergeant Draper, this looks splendid, really splendid. But why don’t you join us? That is, if Major Lock…’
Kiran wondered if he had erred in inviting the NCO to dine with the CO.
But Lock said, ‘Have no fear, Draper is joining us.’
Draper and Mrs Beck laid out the dishes on the table, with Draper announcing each one as if he was introducing guests at a party: ‘vegetable curry, bean curry, potato aloo, dal lentils, vegetable biryani, roti, and pilau rice’.
Kiran’s mouth watered. Though this was not, as Draper had warned him, truly authentic Indian cooking, it looked and smelled better than anything he had eaten for several weeks.
‘But gentlemen, I hope you have not abstained from meat because of my proclivities.’
‘Not at all,’ Lock said. ‘Draper and I have eaten many meals together over the years. The soldier’s rule is, eat what’s put in front of you and don’t leave a scrap. Besides, this looks rather tasty.’
‘Quite right,’ said Draper. ‘Now, let’s get stuck into it.’ And they did.
‘How do you find it, Mr Nambudiri?’ Draper said at one point.
‘I’m not just saying this to be polite, Sergeant Draper, but I’m enjoying it tremendously. As you Englishmen might say, it’s not half bad.’
The three of them talked of India. Lock and Draper were unfamiliar with Malabar, having been stationed further north in Sitapore and Poona. But they asked intelligent questions about the land and the people, and Kiran sensed that in contrast to most Englishmen, they did not regard India as a uniform, inscrutable entity.
‘As you know, gentlemen, India is as diverse in its peoples, languages, and culture as Europe,’ he said. ‘So It is one of the great ironies of history that the British accelerated the development of an Indian national consciousness. Just as they did with the Irish.’
‘And do you see Indian independence coming within the next, say, fifty years?’ Lock asked.
Kiran hesitated. How should he reply? They might take it as an affront that an Indian would favour independence from the great global machine of the British Empire.
‘I really don’t know, major,’ he said weakly.
Lock put his fork down and shot Kiran a disappointed look.
‘Come now, Mr Nambudiri, you must have an opinion on the matter.’
‘Well then, I think it will happen. Perhaps in fifty years, perhaps in one hundred. But we Indians must take control of our own destiny. We cannot forever be in a position of submission to a greater power.’
‘Well put,’ Lock said. ‘My hope is that the British Empire endures, and India remains within it, though as a more equal partner. But I am not optimistic.’
Kiran thought about asking what ‘more equal’ meant.
Instead, he said, ‘Major Lock, you have kindly arranged dinner for me, and your colleague Sergeant Draper has concocted a delicious feast. But I am still in the dark about what you need my help with.’
Lock put his fork down, took a sip of beer, and said, ‘There is a code I wish you to break.’
‘A code? Well, you must understand, I cannot get involved in anything illegal. I do not want the British government to decide that I am an undesirable and send me back to India.’
‘I do understand, but I am acting with the cooperation of Scotland Yard on this matter.’
Kiran listened intently as Lock explained the matter of Dr Lock’s notebooks. He had one immediate question at the end of this lengthy explanation.
’But if these experiments took place twenty years ago, why are you so eager to trace the participants now? Isn’t it all water under the bridge?’
‘I wish it was,’ Lock said. ‘But some participants have children of their own now. Some of those children have inherited their parents’ abilities. And some of those have gone missing.’
‘Gone missing? I don’t understand.’
‘There is a group of men working secretly and remorselessly to track the children down and take them — take them where, we don’t know yet. But if you can decipher the code in the notebooks, then we can protect the others.’
‘Do you believe in the existence of psychic abilities?’ Kiran said.
‘I have an open mind on the subject. A lot of the claims made are poppycock. But not all of them. And I experienced things in India that I cannot explain in purely materialist terms.’
Kiran was about to respond when a sudden feeling of disorientation struck him. He remembered the dizziness he experienced earlier in the day when the beggar boy grabbed him. Was he coming down with something? It would be no surprise — adjusting to a new climate and diet. He felt quite faint…
Then came something quite unexpected — a feeling that he wasn’t alone. But of course he wasn’t alone — he was in the dining room of an inn. But this was something different. It was as if — and this was very peculiar— he had company inside his head. As if something, or someone, was wandering around in his mind. He blinked, shook his head, and leaned forward in his chair.
‘Are you alright, Mr Nambudiri?’
Major Lock seemed a very long way away.
And then Kiran was not in the dining room any more.
There was a darkness around him. He caught a glimpse of a face somewhere in the darkness. An English boy by the look of him. Almost angelic. Wait, no, not angelic at all…
He blacked out.
* ‘Yes, I did. I'm told you're an excellent mathematician and code-breaker.’
** ‘Your Hindi is very good, sir.’
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