Stephen Alter’s book “Birdwatching” follows American ornithologist Guy Fletcher, who is recruited by the CIA and sent straight into the heart of a secret war raging in the Himalayas.
By his side are his two unlikely partners: the enigmatic Captain Imtiaz Afridi of Indian military intelligence, whom he meets on a hunting trip to Kashmir, and the mysterious but attractive Kesang Sherpa, who wanders into his world in Kalimpong. .
With their missions and emotions inextricably linked, the three must learn to trust their own instincts and each other to discover what lies beneath the dazzling snow of the Himalayas.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
The next day, at five o’clock, Fletcher went to the Delhi Golf Club to meet Reggie Bhatia, a childhood friend. Shortly after arriving in India last September, Fletcher had reconnected with Reggie, whose full name was Rajinder Pratap Bhatia. As boys they had been close companions, but after Fletcher returned to the United States they had lost contact with each other. Despite the seven-year gap, however, the two had picked up exactly where they left off, and Fletcher was happy to renew their friendship.
Reggie had recently completed his law degree, although his real ambition in life was to be a professional golfer and compete in the St Andrews Open. His father, a Supreme Court barrister, was a longtime member of the Delhi Golf Club. When they were boys, Guy and Reggie followed and took lessons with the caddies. Fletcher had never liked the game, even though he loved the Delhi golf course, punctuated with sandstone ruins of Mughal tombs and verdant fairways lined with acacias and neem trees.
Two other young lawyers, colleagues of Reggie, joined them to form a quartet. Having not played in five or six years, Fletcher disgraced himself, hitting more than a dozen shots in the rough. Luckily there was an ‘ageywallah’ posted out front, who spotted stray balls and helped avoid losing most of them. It was a hot afternoon, even as the sun was setting. On the sixteenth hole, Fletcher noticed two bee-eaters chasing bugs over the fairway, their emerald plumes golden in the last rays of the sun. Many peacocks roamed the golf course and they took up residence in the trees to roost with mournful and lamentable cries.
After their match, Fletcher followed Reggie, in his Standard Herald, to Jor Bagh. The Bhatias’ house was directly opposite the house where he had lived as a child, in a quiet street off Lodhi Road. Jor Bagh was a more modern built settlement than the spacious expanse of stately Lutyens bungalows that stretched north along wide tree-lined avenues. Fletcher wondered who was living in their old house these days – probably a diplomat or some other expat.
Reggie’s grandmother was listening to All India Radio at full volume downstairs in the living room. Fletcher greeted her with clasped hands and she recognized him with a distracted smile. Putting the golf clubs away, they went upstairs to Reggie’s bedroom, which he had occupied since they were boys, with a balcony overlooking the walled back garden. Fletcher wondered what it must be like to still live at home. He guessed that Reggie would probably stay here for the rest of his life, possibly sharing this room with a woman. By comparison, his own itinerant existence seemed uprooted and disjointed, like something he could never piece together again, no matter how hard he tried. Somehow he envied the predictable stability of Reggie’s future. The golf course would still have its eighteen holes, no more, no less. They would continue to serve fish sticks and chicken shashlik at the clubhouse. Eventually, inevitably, Reggie would follow in his father’s footsteps, litigating arcane cases in the highest court in the land. Unlike many Punjabis who had settled here at the time of partition, the Bhatias had lived in Delhi for several generations.
A servant appeared at the door and Reggie told him to bring two Golden Eagle beers from the fridge and get dinner ready. Her parents were out for the evening, so they could relax and eat on the balcony.
After the beers were opened and the glasses poured, Fletcher recounted how he came across the body in the jungle near Chanakyapuri. Reggie listened with interest, lighting one of his Four Square filter cigarettes and letting the smoke billow from his nostrils. Fletcher described the bullet hole in the victim’s head.
‘I saw something in The statesman” Reggie said. “Do you know who it was?
“Not a clue,” Fletcher said. “He was definitely European. But in the papers, they got it all wrong, describing a younger man, wearing different clothes…and they said he was strangled instead of shot.
“Are you sure it’s the same person?” Regie asked.
‘How many dead foreigners show up in Chanakyapuri? There were no further reports in the newspapers.
“It seems strange,” Reggie said.
“But what’s really weird, Fletcher continued, is that three of his fingernails were pulled out, like he’d been tortured.”
Reggie grimaced, then inhaled a puff of smoke before stubbing out the cigarette in an ashtray, as Fletcher explained how someone had stolen the film from his camera.
“Looks like you got mixed up in a plot, Guy Bhai,” he said, using the nickname he called her when they were boys.
“I might need a lawyer,” Fletcher said half-jokingly.
“At your service,” Reggie replied. “But one of the things you need to understand is that Delhi is not the safe little city you remember. It has changed a lot in recent years. Property values have skyrocketed and people are buying vacant lots as far south as the Qutab Minar for hundreds of thousands of rupees. With the new wealth, many criminals came from Bombay and other places. Murders increased, extortions. Delhi has lost its innocence.
“It still seems like a pretty quiet place to me,” Fletcher said.
“Of course, it’s not a full-fledged city like Bombay or Calcutta,” Reggie said, “but there’s aggressive opportunism in the air. Lots of black money and dirty politics too.
After opening a second beer, Fletcher told his friend what happened with Sage. Reggie shook his head sympathetically. “That’s why I avoided women. My mother is still looking for a wife, but I told her that I will not marry for thirty years, after that I will let her choose a sweet and simple Punju wife and that will be the end, Bhai.
He laughed when Fletcher made a face.
As the foam from his beer waned, Reggie mentioned Jackie Kennedy’s visit and how he’d heard she was staying nearby, in the Pan Am representative’s bungalow at 12 Ratendon Road. It had been converted into a guest house for the first lady and her sister. The Galbraith residence was nearby. Reggie said the Prime Minister sent two baby tigers for his amusement. They were housed in a temporary enclosure at the rear. A friend of his had gone to see them.
‘I have an invitation to the ambassador’s reception but I’m not going…’ Fletcher started to say.
‘Why not?’ Reggie protested. “You need to socialize, Guy Bhai, after studying ducks and geese for the past six months.
“I’m really not interested,” Fletcher said. – Besides, I have no clothes.
“You can borrow mine,” Reggie insisted. “I have a summer suit that I only wore once, to a cousin’s wedding.
The two were about the same height, both 5’10” with lean, athletic builds. At the end of the evening, Reggie persuaded Fletcher to try on the costume, which fitted him comfortably. Adding a shirt and a tie, he packed it all into a garment bag that Fletcher took with him on the bike, flapping behind him like a cape.
At this time of night there was no traffic but after turning left onto Safdarjung Road he noticed a vehicle approaching behind him. He was picking up speed and the headlights were on high beam, heading towards him as if the driver intended to run him over. Fletcher slowed down and moved as far to the left as he could, to let the vehicle pass him but instead of accelerating he stayed a few feet behind the motorcycle. Although the rear-view mirror lights were blinding, he could barely tell it was a jeep station wagon with Delhi plates. Thirty seconds later, as he was about to turn off towards Chanakyapuri, the vehicle was still on his heels, its engine roaring. The garment bag made it difficult to drive, even though he accelerated as fast as he could and kept going straight, crossing a dark section of the road, with no streetlights.
Ahead, on the left, was the main door to the Gymkhana Club where two guards slouched in the shadows. Fletcher waited until the last minute before swinging his bike at them. He could see the jeep begin to swerve behind him, but then the vehicle backtracked and drove away, leaving Fletcher behind. The guards shone a torch in his direction but said nothing. Bringing the bike to neutral, he stopped to catch his breath. Fletcher’s hands were shaking and he repositioned the garment bag, folding it in front of him, over the fuel tank. He waited several minutes, expecting the jeep to reappear, but there was no sign of a vehicle and the streets were silent.
Slowly he turned around and headed back the other way, leading to Chanakyapuri. Although he continued to anticipate that the headlights would reappear behind him, there was no sign of the jeep and he arrived at the guesthouse five minutes later, still shaken but convinced the driver must be drunk. .
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