Today's Reading

(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores December 2023.)


TUESDAY, JUNE 17, 1975, 4:15 P.M.

"Tell me. Why did you plant the bomb?"

The guy squinted at me in the low light of the hut. I stared back at him. We sat cross-legged on the dirt floor. What little concrete there was had crumbled long ago and been swept into the corners.

"To kill him," he said.

His eyes twinkled. I couldn't tell if he was smiling beneath the scarf he'd tied over his face, but I thought so.

"Well, good job, then," I said, shifting in my uncomfortable seat. The hut was tucked away deep inside the dense labyrinth of Dharavi, Bombay's—and the world's—largest slum. Acre after acre of shacks packed together as far as you could see. Some—the nicer ones—were built partially of brick, semi-permanent if lopsided. Most, however, were corrugated tin with burlap sacks for doors and tarpaulins on the roof to keep out the rain. Rat's nests of wires, strung along crooked poles, carried stolen electricity to the shanties. And there was even the odd TV antenna, aimed cockeyed at the sky.

I asked him why he'd wanted to kill a sub-inspector of the CID—the Criminal Investigation Department—in the first place.

"Revolution," was all he said.

I found that obvious and trite. "What do I call you in my story?"


I noted it in my pad. "Can I take a photo?"

He seemed to be debating with himself. It was risky, even with the scarf over his face. Risky but bold, he must have decided. In the end, he wagged his head in that way Indians do. His ego had won out. He simply couldn't resist the attention.

* * *

TUESDAY, JUNE 24, 1975, 8:43 P.M.

The first time I met Willy Smets, he told me I could think of Indians either as the obstacles to my happiness or the means to achieve it. Having materialized from the smoke and chatter behind me, he spoke directly into my ear and scared the hell out of me. I reeled around to see who belonged to the voice with an accent I couldn't quite place. A European man of about forty-five or fifty.

"My name is Willy Smets," he said. His thin lips stretched into a smile, baring a line of long teeth. "This is my place. And you, young man, have only recently arrived in Bombay."

I blushed. "Is it so obvious?"

"It is." He sipped his cordial. "But no worries, my boy. You're the new tenant in the flat on the twelfth floor, isn't it? What's your name again?"

"Daniel Jacobs," I said, the words sticking in my throat. "Dan. Danny."

He put an arm around my shoulder to give me a friendly squeeze. No handshake, just a half-hug. "I shall call you Danny Boy."

I offered one of those numb smiles in return. The kind that betrays your discomfort despite your best efforts to hide it.

No, I'd never seen Willy Smets before, but I'd heard about him. The expatriate community in Bombay tended to stick together. Socialize and play together. It didn't matter if you were an American or a Brit, German or French, you ran in the same circles, and everyone knew everyone else. Except for me. I'd arrived six weeks earlier and was still finding my way. But I knew about Willy Smets, by name and reputation at least.

A couple of weeks before, an Irish stringer from the office— Flaherty—had asked me where I was living. You didn't so much go by street addresses in India, but sectors and building names. I'd told him I had a two-bedroom flat in a building called Sagar Darshan, Cuffe Parade, in South Bombay. Small by American standards, but of recent construction and comfortable, except for the lack of air conditioning. "Sagar Darshan? Right, you're in Eric's old flat," he said, referring to my predecessor. "It's Willy Smets's building. Have you been to one of his parties?"

I hadn't. And even though he'd never been invited to one himself, Flaherty said they were the best gatherings for foreigners in Bombay, with beautiful women and free-flowing liquor—a scarce and expensive commodity in India. Eric Nielsen—the guy who'd occupied my flat before me—had been obsessed with the parties, according to Flaherty. He'd talked about this Willy Smets constantly.

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