The Truth

The Truth by Michael Palin

Book: The Truth by Michael Palin Read Free Book Online
Authors: Michael Palin
Tags: Fiction, General
Below them, picked out in silver lettering, ran the strap line, ‘Dalween Banking: For a Better India’.
    Mabbut stared down at the inert rubber strip as if willpower alone might set it in motion. Some of the overlapping slats were half peeled away, revealing piles of rubbish beneath: a discarded shoe, plastic bags, stained newspapers, something dark and amorphous, its damp sheen reflecting the neon above. Craning his neck, he looked towards the exit, trying to pick out the man who was supposed to be meeting him among the crowd of expectant faces squeezed up against a steel barrier. Several khaki-uniformed policemen stood around, lathis in hand.
    Mabbut considered his options. Provided the baggage arrived and his was amongst it, and provided his man was there to meet him,then he could go to work immediately, following up the leads he’d been given. The only cloud on the horizon was the oppressive presence of Ron Latham. Even from five thousand miles away Mabbut could still picture the calculating stare with which Latham had fixed him as they had said their farewells in London. Latham knew that Mabbut had not told him everything about the contacts that had led him to India, and he knew that Mabbut knew he knew. Hence this cat and mouse game, with Latham ostensibly allowing Mabbut to conduct his own investigation while insisting on organising the flights and hotel and requesting that the hotel provide a guide. Silla had successfully fought off Latham’s demand for daily updates, however, arguing that if Mabbut’s plans to find Melville were to work he should be free to follow leads as and when they came up. Mabbut had reiterated her point, saying he had to be as light on his feet as possible, and presenting Latham with an appearance of calm confidence. It had seemed so easy in London. Now that he was in India he felt a lot less sure of himself.
    ‘Mr Keith, sir!’
    By now Mabbut had retrieved his luggage, worked his way through the crowd at the exit and found himself standing before a tall, moustachioed, slightly stooping man with thick glasses, a dark blue tie and an immaculate white shirt tucked into freshly pressed chinos. Mabbut felt uncomfortable. His shirt was damp and sweaty and the light cotton trousers he’d chosen for a pre-monsoon climate were already corrugated at the crotch. The man stepped forward and hung a garland of marigolds around Mabbut’s hot neck. Then he stepped back, brought his hands together and gave a short bow.
    ‘Namaste.’
    ‘Namaste,’ replied Mabbut, returning the bow, as instructed in his Lonely Planet guide. His companion spread out his arms to encompass the throng of meeters and greeters.
    ‘Welcome, sir, to paradise on earth.’
    He snapped an order and a frail, elderly man in a dhoti appeared and took hold of Mabbut’s suitcase.
    ‘You can wheel it!’ Mabbut called after him, but it was too late. The man had already hoiked the case up on to his head and was sprinting towards the exit.
    The moustachioed man bowed again.
    ‘I am your guide from the Garden Hotel, Bubhaneswar’s premier establishment for the discerning visitor. I am here to attend to your every need.’
    Mabbut controlled an impulse to remonstrate, but it was too late. His companion stepped to one side with another low bow, ushering Mabbut ahead of him as if the days of the Raj had never ended.
    On the way in from the airport, as green paddy fields and stagnant creeks slipped by on either side, Mabbut learnt that his guide was called Farud and that his field of expertise was Hindu temple architecture from the sixth to the twelfth century.
    ‘At one time there were seventeen thousand temples here.’
    Mabbut nodded. He suddenly felt very weary.
    ‘It is our good fortune that there are still five hundred remaining.’
    As they drew up outside the hotel, three turbaned men stepped forward and grasped the doors. Short of having his name shouted out, Mabbut could hardly have effected a less discreet arrival. Once

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