The author of 'Curse of the Godman,' Biddu was born in India and started his career playing in a pop band influenced by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Following early success, he headed West and moved into the international music arena where he quickly struck gold, signing the unknown Carl Douglas and producing the hit Kung Fu Fighting. He tasted success on his return to India in the early 1980s, and composed hits such as Aap Jaisa Koi for the film Qurbani, and the pop albums Disco Deewane and Made in India. His critically acclaimed autobiography, 'Made in India', was published by HarperCollins India in 2009.
His latest book 'Curse of the Godman' published by HarperCollins India spreads over 336 pages, the book is set in 1951 where an unseen spectre terrorises the areas around Darjeelings scenic tea plantations. As the events unfold, Michael and Sarah Patterson, British owners of the thriving Silver Glade plantation, find their lives intricately enmeshed with all of it, and with the frightening figure of a Naga sadhu whom Michael glimpses on a dark night. The sleepy little town nestled in the hills of north-east India wakes up to a number of murky incidents all of which come together in a riveting climax.
Here's an extract from the book:
Michael Patterson, the owner of Silver Glade Tea Estate, his wife Sarah and the manager of the estate,estate, Sanjay Kapoor, sat around a wicker table in the veranda of their bungalow, enjoying the dappled sunshine that filtered through on a fine Darjeeling morning. On the table lay sections of two Sunday newspapers in a heap, teacups, and a half-open tin of shortbread.
The bungalow was a beautiful wood-and-brick structure with a sloping roof made of decorative, ridged tiles that covered the wide veranda which encased the front and rear of the house. The roof rose and plateaued at the top, where a patch of rectangular glass served as the skylight through which the sun's rays percolated into the dining area. The veranda was the mainstay of the bungalow. It was where the British spent most of the day in the summer months. They would read their papers, have their breakfast or afternoon tea and socialize with friends over a gin and tonic. The veranda had wooden railings and the woodwork on the exterior of the building was painted a pale pistachio which seemed to blend with the green of the plants and tea bushes surrounding the house. A ramp with a gentle slope had been built on the right side of the veranda so as to allow direct access to the garden. A few ancient oak and elm trees reached for the sky and their branches hung benevolently over a part of the bungalow. The back of the house faced north towards the Himalayas and in the distance, about twenty kilometres away, beyond the ridge and the rise and fall of the various plantations, you could see the mountains as the sun glistened and bounced off their snowy peaks. The bungalow was built a metre above the ground, and stone steps led to the entrance. In India, 'the heavens opening up' is the most appropriate term for the rainy season, and Darjeeling received its fair share of rainfall, and having an elevated home was an essential precaution against the monsoon rains and snakes in the hilly area.
Only at night, after a formal dinner, did the British revert to the indoor lounge, where a huge fireplace warmed the house during the autumn and winter months, when temperatures plummeted to single digits. Next to the main bungalow, about forty metres away on one side, was a cottage - it was where Sanjay Kapoor lived. The immediate area in front of the bungalow was a fairly large garden. This was Sarah's territory, alive to an abundance of rhododendrons and magnolias. Being English, she had planted cuttings of roses which settled well enough in the climate of the north-east of India. The edge of the garden saw the beginning of the tea estate. The tea bushes were hardly more than a metre tall, in a rich, deep green hue, and stretched neatly in rows for over a hundred acres, as far as the eye could see, cascading over gentle hill slopes. The beauty of the estate came to life when the first rays of the sun cut through the morning mist and cast the world around in a fragile glow. While the three of them sat around the table discussing the lead story in the papers, the Nepalese bearer, Bahadur, number one in the hierarchy of staff at the bungalow, brought in fresh tea and poured them each a cup. The man disappeared just as quietly as he had arrived.
'Good Lord! How gruesome!' said Sarah Patterson, putting down the Herald as her hand reached towards her mouth, the colour draining from her ivory white cheek. 'Quite beyond belief.' She paused for a moment. 'I had met Leela once at the Darjeeling Gymkhana, but ' Her voice trailed away. 'What's wrong, darling?' asked Michael. 'It says here that the woman was raped and then strangled,' Sanjay interrupted them, looking up from the Northern Journal, the newspaper he was reading.
It was headline news about the rape and murder of Leela Dasgupta, described in the papers as an 'independently wealthy Indian socialite', separated from her husband Rahul Dasgupta, etcetera, etcetera. She had been found dead at her home 'Fern House' in the Darjeeling District two nights ago, and the local police believed there to be 'foul play'. 'Whatever do they mean by foul play?' Sarah exclaimed, her voice rising an octave as she heard Sanjay read out more bits from the newspaper. The men remained silent, absorbed in the headlines. 'I suppose it means they have no idea how it happened,' she finally said, answering her own query. There was a picture of the victim in both papers, a rather attractive-looking Indian woman with earrings and a necklace that vied for attention.
The headline in the Herald read 'MRS DASGUPTA, INDIAN SOCIALITE, AGED 44, FOUND MURDERED'. 'In all things, there is always more than meets the eye,' Michael finally said in his brandy-soaked voice. 'She lived alone, so perhaps it was a scorned lover, or maybe she owed money to someone. Or maybe she had too much. Who knows?'
'She was heiress to the millions left by her father, the late Bijoy Mukherjee, the landowner and industrialist from Calcutta. Well, that's what it says here, anyway ' Sanjay said to Michael before his voice tapered off to a whisper when he realized that Michael might just want to read that bit himself later. 'The Northern Journal has described the murder as Leela's "tryst with destiny",' continued Sanjay, looking up from behind the paper.
Sarah spoke up. 'What a magical turn of phrase. But quite inappropriate under the circumstances, don't you think?' She ut down the paper she was reading. 'Mmm,' said Michael pensively, 'maybe so. But it reads well, and every Indian who has heard Nehru's speech on that memorable day will know the line. I would say it is a clever reworking of that phrase. I've always believed a good sentence is worth a library of foolish words.'
Sanjay looked up once again from his paper. What Michael had just said caught his imagination. He admired people who infused the poetry of words into their everyday conversation. 'I often heard her being referred to as a rich bitch. Not the nicest sobriquet for a lady, is it? So maybe she had enemies. I still think it was someone local. Perhaps her servant or a robbery gone wrong?' Sarah said. 'I don't think so,' Sanjay said as he raised a cup to his lips. He took a sip and then carried on, 'I tend to agree with Michael, it could have been a jealous lover. She may have had a whole string of fellows. God knows, there are enough randy planters around!' 'Do you two ever disagree with each other? I give up,' Sarah said mockingly. 'We did once, but I've forgiven Sanjay for that transgression,' Michael joked.
'You have forgiven, and I have forgotten,' said Sanjay, laughing at his own wit. One couldn't help noticing the bond that existed between the two men. Physically, they could not have been further apart. Yet, there was something uncanny in the way one seemed to mirror the other, as if they had spent a long time in each other's company. Michael with his ruddy white skin and slightly receding sandcoloured hair looked every inch the quintessential tea planter. His military trimmed moustache was a dead giveaway to his army days. There was a delicious softness in his voice, but one detected a tinge of sadness too, which created the illusion of a certain vulnerability that made one want to reach out to him. He was forty-nine years old, and as he often said, there were days when he felt the fatigue of each second of those forty-nine summers. He had a sense of humour, or as he put it, a sense of irony, which seemed to compensate for or conceal a deeper hurt that was his alone to bear. He was a warm, engaging man whose instinct it was to make others feel comfortable.
Sanjay also wore a moustache just about long enough to be twirled, and his dark hair was combed back neatly, giving the impression that he had just climbed out of a pool of water. At five foot eleven, and with a silver bracelet on his right hand, this proud Punjabi wore his military bearing on his sleeve. He was forty-four, and not conventionally handsome, but with his dark, searching eyes he held a certain animal magnetism for some. He had known Michael for ten years, and in spite of the camaraderie between the two, one felt he was always slightly in awe of his boss, and that he would give his life for the Englishman.
At forty, Sarah had the most difficult time adjusting to estate life. Slim and attractive in an English Rose sort of way, she was fair as ivory with deep reddish orange hair that curled and cascaded down her shoulders in a neat mass. She had hazel eyes and possessed an inner strength found only in some English women from the Home Counties. In many ways, Sarah was the right woman in the wrong place, for this was a man's world. Your nearest neighbour at the next plantation would be at least five kilometres away, and boredom was forever hanging over one like a cadaver, unless you loved gardening and needlepoint. She often attended the Women's Volunteer Service, which did social work in and around Darjeeling. Having, in the prime of her life, given up her family and close friends and the comfort of her home in England to be with her husband in this alien land, Sarah was a woman whose desires had not exactly been fulfilled.
The weapon was held firmly in his hand, steady as a rock. Slowly, he raised the gun and peered through the sight, as his finger moved towards the crescent-shaped trigger. Not even his gentle breathing could disturb the fine balance of the instrument as it rested against the muscled front of his shoulder blade. He heard the distant rustle of leaves and sensed the position of the animal from its heavy grunts. He turned just the upper part of his torso, while his legs stood firm; his rifle followed, poised like an obedient dog doing its master's bidding. He squinted one eye and a vein in his temple pulsed lightly as he concentrated. Presently, he saw a movement in the tea bushes ahead of him, and in one flowing motion he pulled the mechanism. The sound of gunshot reverberated throughout the terrain in ever-descending volume. They heard the thud of something hitting the ground and knew a kill had been made.
'I've got it!' cried an excited John D'Souza. 'Chalo! Check karo. Go and get it, boys. Don't just stand there. Jaldi! Jaldi!' he said to the four workmen with him. The men dashed off, swerving through the tea bushes like ferrets, in the direction of the kill. A jubilant smile lit up the face of the handsome young man. The workmen came back holding the dead wild boar upside down by its legs. John gave the animal a once-over. 'Not the biggest carcass I've seen. But there is plenty of meat here for everyone, including you fellows,' John said to the men as they lay the boar on the ground.
'We vegetarian, sahib, no eat meat, only non-meat,' said one of the workers. John laughed at that, and the men grinned back, revealing rows of red, betel-nut-stained teeth in rosary beads of smiles.
'Arey, you boys don't know what you're missing. Never mind,' he said, casually looping the gun strap over his shoulder. Then the men looked around till they found a branch of dead wood lying nearby and tied the boar belly-up, so they could carry the animal back to the main bungalow. 'Achha, let's go. Jaldi! Jaldi!' John was keen to get back to the main bungalow and show the others the kill. An Anglo-Indian, John D'Souza was just a shade under six feet, slim and sinewy in an outdoor sort of way. His features and colour betrayed a trace of foreign parentage. It was his nose. Yes, his nose was more aquiline than typically Indian. John was a maverick well before the word was in vogue. At a time when there was a stigma attached to being 'Anglo' and most of them tried to pass themselves off as British, often referring to Britain as 'home', John had always, quite resolutely thought of himself as Indian and nothing else. His father had worked for the railways during the British Raj and, stationed in the town of Durgapur, some two hundred kilometres from Calcutta, continued to work for the Indian Railways after Independence. John's mother had died during childbirth.
He had grown up in Calcutta, that teeming city of millions, under the care of his grandmother, Dorothy D'Souza. He had studied at St Xavier's College; he wasn't the best of students, but he had been the most popular. He knew his way out of an argument, and into a friendship. A crucifix on a chain hung around his neck; his hair - not long, not short - curled just below his upturned collar and an ever-ready comb stood by in his back pocket to flick through his hair at the slightest appearance of dishevelment.
He managed to get through his finals at St Xavier's since the thought of ending up with a menial job in the railways scared him enough to make him put some effort into finishing his basic degree. He loved the outdoor life that could only be found away from the cities of India. He talked his way into his first job in the office of Consolidated Tea Distributors and Auctioneers, a subsidiary company of the massive Consolidated Tea Estates that dealt in auctioning tea to buyers from around the world. It was a desk-bound job that John found morbidly boring, but he stayed put, thanks to an emotion akin to watching an extremely bad film that makes one want to leave the cinema and at the same time compels one to watch it to the end.
It was at this office that John met Sanjay Kapoor, the manager of Silver Glade Estate. Sanjay had come to see John's boss regarding a minor altercation with the local trucking firm which brought the chests of tea from Silver Glade to the distribution warehouse. He was looking for an assistant, and John jumped at the chance of getting away from Calcutta. They met later that evening in a caf on Park Street. Over a few cups of tea and samosas, and a fair amount of questioning and probing by Sanjay regarding John's schooling and family background, a deal was worked out.
'As an only child, will you miss your parents, John?' the sombre Sanjay Kapoor asked.
'I suppose I will. But everyone has to leave the nest some time, don't you think?' John answered, hoping it was the right answer. 'Do you listen to your father? Young people nowadays have very independent views. Do you rebel against his wishes sometimes?'
'My father is the man I want to emulate. He and my mother sacrificed everything to put me through college. I know this sounds pompous, but I worship at the altar of my parents. But there are times when I do question my father. Not too often, though. Sometimes I question God too.'
John wondered if he was going over the top. He had lied, and he felt the shame of his words. He knew he should have been more honest and told Sanjay the truth. He had not seen his father in years, and the woman in his life had been his ageing grandmother. But he also knew that in Hindu families, God and one's parents jointly occupied the no.1 position on the pedestal of love and respect, and Sanjay, being Hindu, might find the pandering to his liking.
It was the right answer to give. 'I like that in a young man.' Sanjay nodded. A little laugh erupted from within him. 'Respect hard to find that nowadays.' Then looking John straight in the eye, he said, 'Do you know Silver Glade is one of the premier plantations in Darjeeling?'
'In that case it will be an honour to work for this company,' John replied and felt a flush of embarrassment in his newfound formality of speech. Not that Kapoor noticed.
'Your new boss is an Englishman. Michael Patterson. You may have heard of him. He is a wonderful man to work for. You will like him, I know. Everybody does. But you will take your orders from me. You will learn why, when you come. I will teach you the ropes during the first month; I think you will catch on fast. But words can tell you only so much, experience teaches you more. You have a rudimentary knowledge of tea, so that's good. 'What a serious fellow, John thought to himself. Apart from that, he liked Kapoor, who looked to be a solid and trustworthy guy. A man's man.
And in John D'Souza Sanjay Kapoor found the kind of person he would have liked to have been as a young man. The easy confidence and lightness of being that is such a natural springboard of youth. It was something that only came from an urban upbringing and rarely coloured an individual from a rural, farming community.
'You are from Punjab, are you not?' John asked. 'Jalandhar,' Sanjay said cryptically, not wishing to elaborate. 'Then how did you come to work in Darjeeling? It's a long way from Jalandhar and farming, isn't it?' John's curiosity was aroused. Who would come all the way from the north-west of India to Darjeeling in the north-east, and why?
'It's a long, long story,' Sanjay said, with a faraway look in his eyes. Then he broke into the faintest of smiles. 'But one day, when we have the time, I will tell you.' 'Promise?' said John, smiling. 'Yes,' Sanjay replied succinctly.
'Okay,' John replied, not rebuffed by Sanjay's reticence. And then Sanjay proceeded to chalk out the details of John's employment. It was a dream of a job that came with a small cottage on the estate and an old jeep that John would come to love. And so, six months after joining Consolidated, John D'Souza handed in his resignation and began a new chapter in his life, in a tea estate near Darjeeling. It was what he had always wanted.
And a salary of five hundred and fifty rupees a month was not to be scoffed at. Certainly not bad for a twenty-five-year-old! At the bungalow the discussion regarding the murder of the socialite suddenly gave way to the noise and exuberance of the advent of John D'Souza and the workmen walking towards the main house carrying the carcass of the wild boar. 'There won't be any more uprooting of the nursery slopes, boss,' said an excited John. 'Here's the culprit.' 'Well done, young man,' Michael answered, looking down towards the base of the steps of the bungalow, where John stood proudly while the men balanced the pole holding the carcass on their shoulders. 'I must say you are quite a shot, John.'
Over the year, Michael had grown increasingly fond of the lad. 'Troublesome little buggers. Really mess up the plants and soil. Good work all around.' Michael was decent enough to acknowledge the men carrying the beast. Maybe the workers did not understand his words, but his warm tone conveyed a feeling which touched them. He glanced at Sarah. 'Tell the cook we'll have this for dinner tomorrow, darling, and also some lovely roast potatoes and that cauliflower in cheese sauce. Dinner tomorrow night, John? Bring someone. Have you got a girl or two?'
John smiled back sheepishly, but did not answer. There was still the residue of the 'White Rajah' pollen floating in the air. So whether out of awe or respect, there was a deference in John's attitude to Michael.
'Come on, a good-looking fellow like you must drive the Darjeeling lasses crazy. So tell me, have you got a girl stashed away somewhere?' Michael persevered.
'Not really, boss.' John replied. 'No time for girlfriends, as yet. But I've got my eyes and ears open, so let's see.' 'Good. And stop calling me boss, John. I told you from day one it's Michael. Understood?'
'Yes, boss,' said John with a huge grin.
It was only when the other two had moved from the table to greet the lively commotion of John's arrival that you noticed Michael was in a wheelchair. So natural was his bearing, so upright and straight his back that one assumed quite easily that he was seated on one of the wicker and rattan chairs. Michael wheeled himself away from the table and towards the railings and thanked the workmen in heavily accented and broken Hindi.
The men may or may not have understood him, but they nodded their heads furiously in appreciation, and beamed that wonderful smile of innocence that simple people are able to affect without any other motive but joy.
When the workers left, Michael turned to the others. 'We may have ruled the world, and been masters of the universe, but one thing we British could never do was master another language,' he said, laughing at his own linguistic ineptitude.