“Well, the good news is you’re not too far from Chembur,” Neville Longbottomwala told Sirius, after hearing the whole story thus far.
Neville had rescued her from the crowd of old people and brought her to his home. “It’s actually my grandmother’s,” he’d told Sirius. “I’ll never inherit it because she’ll never die, but it’s fine. She’s easy to live with and it’s a lovely house.”
Sirius couldn’t argue with the last part. Neville’s house was like an antique shop in a garden. There were plants everywhere. Vines curled up the windows and wound themselves around metal frames that Neville said he’d designed himself. “I like greenery,” he told Sirius. The shelves were filled with books, the tables were laden with little bric a brac. There were paintings on the wall and doilies on the sofas. And in the living room, on the coffee table, was a silver tray with a pot of tea and a dozen plates, piled with food. Neville’s grandmother had smiled at Sirius and said, “How wonderful! You’ve come just in time for tea!”
Neville’s grandmother had tottered away to her room a long time ago. “Your talk is boring,” she’d bluntly declared when Sirius started telling Neville about the quest she was on and what had happened so far. Now, after entirely too much food and a lot of tea, Sirius had brought Neville up to speed.
“The bad news is that I feel like a nap now after that crazy meal,” Sirius replied.
Neville looked at Sirius uncomprehendingly. “What meal? That was a snack.”
“A snack?” Sirius squeaked. “Neville, I ate three rumballs and I don’t know how many bhakras. That’s not a snack.”
“You did say you were feeling peckish,” Neville pointed out.
“Did someone say peckish? Shall we have some more snacks?” Neville’s grandmother yelled out from her room. “I can heat up some cutlets, if you want.”
“I think we’re fine,” Neville yelled back.
“Are you sure? What about some omelettes?” she asked, still yelling. “We’ve got some strawberry jam that Aban brought from Panchgani. It’ll go beautifully with omelettes.”
Neville paused for a moment, clearly tempted by the thought of strawberry jam on omelette. He turned to Sirius, who shook her head manically. Neville sighed. “No, Sirius says she’s full.”
“Well, if you two change your mind, just yell,” his grandmother hollered.
Neville grinned at Sirius and said,”My grandmother’s biggest fear is that someone will leave the house and say, oont nee gaan ma jeera no vughar.”
“What does that mean?”
“A sprinkling of jeera in the bum of the camel,” Neville translated. “Basically when someone doesn’t offer enough food to match your appetite.” He saw Sirius looking very confused, “We Parsis have a thing for bums. And eggs. Well, food in general.”
“I think I’m going to have some more tea.” Sirius reached over and filled Neville’s and her cups.
“Thank you,” Neville said politely and delicately sipped his tea. “So the Chembur of Secrets, that’s where you want to go.”
Sirius nodded. Neville carefully put the curly-handled teacup on its saucer. It looked very small in his large hand. “Are you sure you want to do this, Sirius?” Neville asked gravely. “Chembur is a strange, strange place. They speak languages like Maharashtrian and Tamil in there. There are lanes that are entirely vegetarian.”
Sirius shuddered a little, but her voice was steady when she spoke. “I’m not going to live there, Neville. All I need to do is reach the Chembur of Secrets and destroy the Horcrux.”
“How will you recognise the Horcrux?”
“At the moment, my bigger challenge is recognising Chembur,” Sirius replied drily. “Look, I know it’s not going to be a cakewalk, but someone’s got to do something about Wol D’Mart.”
Neville made a face. “I think my grandmother summed that man up best when she called him motai na musa.”
“It’s a term in Parsitongue for delusions of grandeur. Roughly, it translates to haemorrhoids of greatness. I told you we have a thing for bums,” Neville said, adding the last sentence as an almost apologetic afterthought.
“It’s well past the stage of delusion though,” said Sirius. “He’s taking over the city at an alarming rate.”
“Yes, he is. He’s even turned the heads of a few of the Parsis. There’s an architect he’s put a spell on, a chap named Contractor. His mother was telling Gran that he’s completely lost it, and that’s saying a lot when we’re talking about Parsis. The family almost died of shame when he put little models of the buildings he’s designed in their living room and some visitor from London thought he collected dildos.”
“Do you know this Contractor fellow?” asked Sirius. “Maybe he can tell me where Wol D’Mart’s secret headquarters are in Chembur.”
Neville shook his head. “He’s in Dubai now, I’m told.”
“So you don’t know where you’re going in Chembur?”
“I was supposed to follow the Snitch to the location, but I lost him. All I know is that it’s Chembur’s best kept secret.”
“Ratnagiri Restuarant and Bar,” Neville said promptly.
“Ratnagiri, it’s Chembur’s best kept secret.”
“It’s a bar?” Sirius asked.
“Perhaps the best bombil fry in the city,” Neville replied, “and people usually ignore it, thinking it’s a dive. Cheap alcohol, superb Malwani food — it’s a gem.”
“It sounds too good to be associated with Wol D’Mart, but if it’s Chembur’s best kept secret, then that’s where I need to reach.” Sirius took out the map and peered at it, trying to locate herself in it. “I can’t believe I misread the map.”
“Oh, maps never work in Mumbai,” Neville said cheerfully. “The whole point of a mapped route is to know that that is the route you shouldn’t take. Especially now that Wol D’Mart has spies in the BMC, it’s impossible to trust maps. He’s bribed the BMC to dig up most of the good roads.”
“But what’s the point in doing that?”
“Well, the BMC looks like it’s doing work and it has a good reason to not notice what Wol D’Mart is doing to the places where he’s building his complexes. And it helps to keep his enemies off his back. Look at yourself. You were supposed to be in Chembur, but here you are in Dadar.”
Sirius sighed and reached for another rumball. Sitting in Neville’s home, it was tempting to drop this rubbish quest. There were snacks in front of her. Neville had put on some happy-sounding Western classical music. Sunlight was dancing in through the curtains, filtered through all the greenery. The ancient looking fans circled lazily. It was all quite perfect. No one would believe there was such chaos outside.
“I’ve no idea why I’m doing this stupid quest,” Sirius grumbled to Neville, her mouth full rum-soaked chocolate and sponge.
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you want, you know,” Neville said to her. “We have many spare rooms here. Settle in, relax, go for evening drinks at the gymkhana, eat 12 eggs for breakfast, listen to Bach — in a week or so, you’ll be my grandmother, just shorter and less hard of hearing.”
“I’m not sure I can carry off those frocks with quite as much panache,” Sirius said drily and added, smothering a bhakra-flavoured burp, “I also don’t think my digestion can handle the diet.”
Neville’s tummy growled. “I think I’m going to have those omelettes after all. It’s that strawberry jam. I’ve been imagining spreading it on the omelette from the moment Gran mentioned it.” He sighed happily, his eyes glazed over. Sirius did her best to not imagine what omelette and strawberry jam would taste like together.
“Well, you’ve wonderfully kind, Neville, but I think I should get back to that quest,” said Sirius. “Just give me directions to Chembur and I’ll be on my way.”
Neville snapped out of his omelette-strawberry reverie. “You’re certain you want to go there?” he asked Sirius. Sirius nodded. “Then you need something before you go,” Neville said. “Fortunately for you, I’m the man who can give you what you need.”
“Neville, that’s very kind of you, but we’ve only just met —”
“There’s no need for formality, Sirius,” Neville said, waving Sirius into silence. “You’re on a quest and who knows what could happen?” He got up and walked over to a cabinet. “What is important is to seize with both hands what Fate throws in your direction and let’s face it, Sirius, Fate threw me in your direction.”
“Neville,” Sirius tried again. “I really —”
“This is one of those things that looks like a coincidence, smells like a coincidence, feels like a coincidence,” Neville continued, his back to Sirius as he rifled through a drawer in the cabinet. “But can it really be just dumb luck that you and I met like this, at this precise point in time?” He whipped around suddenly. “Because trust me, Sirius, when I say that this doesn’t happen in my life regularly. It’s very, very rare for me to have five tola of weed just sitting around in my drawer.”
Sirius blinked. Suddenly the subtle fragrance of the Longbottomwala home was making a lot of sense. Neville’s eyes were gleaming. In his hand, he held a small plastic packet with four little parcels in them. He dangled them. “I don’t want to brag, but I’ve something of a talent with,” he coughed delicately, “herbs. It’s because I got my marijuana saplings from a trip to the Himalayas. This weed is special and it’s what you’ll need to bribe your way in once you’ve reached Ratnagiri because I’m quite certain Wol D’Mart won’t be sitting out in the open, with other Ratnagiri regulars.” He pressed the packet into Sirius’s hand. “There are people who will sell significant assets for a whiff of Longbottomwala’s weed. It’s yours now. Use it well.”
Sirius looked down at her hand, cradled in Neville’s hand and holding the packet of this precious weed. “I don’t know what to say, Neville,” she said, choking up a little. “This is, I never thought…”
“Don’t say anything,” Neville said with a smile. “Just remember, there’s always more where that came from. Though I won’t be giving it to you for free the next time.”
“Let me make you those omelettes,” said Sirius. “Just to say thank you.”
“Gran might want some too.”
“I’ll put a little chopped ham in it, if you have some in the fridge. And cheese.”
Neville beamed. “The kitchen’s that way,” he pointed. “You make the omelettes. I’ll draw you a map that you can trust.”
Sirius leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You’re my hero,” she told him, pocketed the weed and headed for the Longbottomwala kitchen. All that stood between Sirius and Wol D’Mart’s Chembur of Secrets was one six-egg omelette.