“Arise, awake, and stop not till the goal is reached” (Hindu sloka)
Passing women porters, some sauntering, gigantic terracotta vases upon their heads, others resting under banyan trees, the branches falling down like melted wax, Percival Head-Wood, musing to himself, wondered if for the natives, or maybe even the banyan trees, the summer heat before monsoon was unbearably hot too. Percy pulled his mind back from reverie; yes, the heat was sweltering, but he was starting on a mission for King and Country, he must pay attention.
Percy’s family had always served the Empire. Yet with nerve damage to his leg from childbirth and a profound stutter, Percy’s own opportunities were limited. Percy accepted he could not play the war hero, leading troops over the parapet at the Western Front. Instead, perspiring from every pore of his skin, here he was in Madras, a mere deputy commissioner of police. Although, truth-be-told, police work rather suited Percy; he had a keen, analytical mind, methodical and organized; he paid close attention to detail. After the war, perhaps he could return to England, to a post in the Metropolitan police, like Conrad’s Chief Inspector Heat, routing out terrorists and anarchism. He just needed to show how good he was.
Already his policeman’s intuition had pointed him towards a potential conspiracy that in all probability did involve bomb-throwing anarchists. Percy had an interest in amateur radio and had begun to pick up coded messages. Encrypted initially with simple transposition codes, the original plain text in plain sight, merely rearranged. Once decoded, the messages seemed innocent enough, oil trades across the world. America, Japan, Turkey, Persia, Mesopotamia – almost everywhere. But every message was followed by some significant event in the very same place mentioned in the messages; British surrender in Kut, explosions in a New Jersey harbour, German defeat in South-East Africa, Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Percy deduced that this was more than coincidence, but who exactly was in control? The Russian Empire, Central Powers, Western allies, all were losers. Simultaneously, independence movements were rising up across the world; the Irish, the Czechs, Azerbaijanis, Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus. As if some unknown force was orchestrating war on the behalf of subjects of Empire across the globe.
Recently the intercepted encodings had become more complex; double, even triple or irregular transpositions. Cyphers with the plain text still visible, yet scrambled beyond simple reordering. Occasionally he could still decode them; it became a puzzle where letter frequencies were clues, from abundant A to the scarcest Z. What about X, could that indicate Mexico?
And now the algorithms changed again, a substitution encoding perhaps, some shifting cipher to disguise letter frequency? Just sequences of numbers, could each number map to a particular word? Given enough encoded text, frequently used words and grammar rules might become visible. But Percy could no longer decode, or even determine the language; it was just numbers, beyond his capabilities. But he still had one lead to follow: many of the radio broadcasts were so strong they could only be coming from somewhere close. Taking his radio receiver by train, Percy had triangulated signals to the University campus right here in Madras. Could it be this was an Indian plot to overthrow existing order in the world, a global mutiny or rebellion, planned right here in Percy’s beat? This was his chance to shine, to solve the crime of the century, to be the hero and save the world.
Generating all these different cyphers must require mathematical skill. Percy decided to start his investigation by enrolling on a short double-entry bookkeeping course within the mathematics department; it would be the perfect cover. But he had to tread carefully; if a conspirator realized he was a policeman, surely his life would be endangered.
Continuing his stroll beside the banyan trees, Percy finally reached the university and the banqueting hall where students were due to register for courses. Built by the son of Clive of India, the hall proudly stood upon tall white columns, a Grecian temple to the power of Empire. What snake in the grass could possibly be plotting against King George from here?
There was a small queue of both Indian and British students at the enrollment. “H-h-h-hello, I-I-I ‘m P-P-Percy He-Head-Wood, here to st-st-study a-a-accountancy,” Percy stammered.
“And a warm welcome to you, sir. You look thirsty, please help yourself to the food and drink in the main hall while we wait for the registrar to arrive.”
Percy walked on to find a magnificent banquet of food and drink. One dish looked particularly temping, golden reddish brown balls, soaked in sweet scented syrup. He tried one, superb, magnificent. All these months eating stodgy kedgeree at the police mess, if only he had realized Indian food could be so tasty before. He took another, then another.
A well-mannered Indian clerk approached Percy. “I am sorry for the delay, the registrar will arrive shortly. I see you enjoying the dessert. In India we call this Gulab Jamun as it resembles the fruit of the Jamun tree. To make it one simmers milk until it thickens to a paste, or khoya, next one adds flour and cardamom spices. The mixture is then rolled into a ball and fried within a vat of clarified butter. Lastly the cooked dough is coated in a rose scented honey and saffron syrup. Is it not the most magnificent dessert you have ever tasted?”
The clerk offered him the plate, Percy could only take another. “S-s-so good.” Percy, drooling slightly as yet another syrupy delight disappeared into his expanding waist, loosened his belt buckle a notch.
“Do please help yourself, we still await some students and the registrar.” The clerk handed Percy the plate.
Having almost forgotten why he came, Percy, well, yes, why not, just one more… and another rose-scented sphere fell into his mouth, sticky syrup filling his mouth like the sweetest honey.
The clerk strolled back towards the teaching staff. “Police. If he asks questions, kill him,” he whispered as he passed a bespectacled student.