Gaurav Agnihotri was apoplectic with anger. The editor-in-chief of the News Tonight Network (NTN) paced up and down his office, as his deputy editor and production in charge quailed in their seats at the conference table in the corner. The bank of televisions that covered an entire wall was showing what was playing on all the other news channels. By now, every news network had managed to get their OB vans into AIIMS and was broadcasting from there. The only channel whose reporter on the spot was calling in on the phone was NTN. Apparently, there was some glitch in the network, which the technicians were working to fix.
‘Just how long is it going to take?’ Gaurav asked yet again, his voice quivering with fury. ‘It’s been ten minutes since they’ve been working on it. That’s a lifetime on live television!’
There was no answer from the men quailing in the corner. They were used to Agnihotri’s wild rage, but this temper tantrum was in a different league altogether. Gaurav stopped his pacing suddenly and switched on the sound of the television beaming AITNN’s feed to the world. Manisha Patel, her immaculately highlighted hair swishing gently around her shoulders, was looking suitably solemn as she did her piece to camera: ‘The Prime Minister has been rushed into surgery. Our sources inside AIIMS tell us that the PM’s condition is stable but serious. The senior leadership of the party has already arrived at the hospital as have Birendra Pratap’s two sons, Karan and Arjun.’
Gaurav felt that familiar mix of anger and admiration wash over him as he watched Manisha on the screen. How did she manage it? How did she succeed in getting in front of the story no matter what? And why was it that every minister who trooped into AIIMS was first stopping by to pay homage at her shrine, taking questions they clearly had no answer to. As he watched Manisha go into sympathetic-listener mode, Gaurav’s mind flashed back to the time that both of them had started as lowly reporters at Doordarshan (DD) News. Coming up against the tired old bureaucracy in charge of DD News, they had bonded over bread pakoras and masala chai in the office canteen, swapping war stories and comparing battle wounds. And then, with a speed that was both astonishing and inevitable in equal measure, they had found themselves in bed, caught up in a passion that took both of them by surprise. Of course, it hadn’t lasted. How could it? They were both Alphas. Both had been competing for the same stories. And neither was willing to back off or compromise. The end had been brutal, with each turning on the other viciously. They hadn’t exchanged as much as a ‘hello’ since then. And now, a decade later, Gaurav felt that old bitterness corrode his insides, as he saw Manisha performing what he derisively referred to as her Oprah Winfrey number.
Her hazel eyes looked suspiciously moist, her voice quivered ever so slightly, as she kept the nation updated with the latest on the Prime Minister’s condition. Of course, there was more emotion than facts in her account. But that was what worked in such situations. And Gaurav had to grudgingly concede that she had got the tone just right: a mix of calm and disquiet underpinned by a layer of barely-suppressed hysteria. The door opened and his production manager rushed in. The link had been fixed. Gaurav straightened his tie and took one last look in the mirror that hung opposite his desk. His salt-and-pepper curls were tousled as artlessly as his hairstylist could manage. The subtle application of bronzer had given his somewhat pudgy face contours it did not, in fact, possess.
Slipping on his rimless glasses (he didn’t really need them but he thought they gave him a suitably ‘intellectual’ look) he headed into the studio, mulling just how he could distinguish his coverage from Manisha’s. By the time he had taken his place behind his desk and been miked, Gaurav knew exactly how he was going to play this. The Prime Minister of India was in surgery, suspended between life and death. The doctors weren’t saying very much about his condition. But the truth was clear to anyone with one and a half brain cells. Birendra Pratap had been targeted in some way at the rally as he went into the crowd. A healthy man like him didn’t just collapse for no reason. There had to be foul play. And if there had been foul play there was only one suspect: Pakistan. India’s perennial enemy number one. The country that had vowed to inflict a thousand cuts on India by using terror as an instrument of state policy. Clearly, it had now decided to up the ante with a direct attack on the Prime Minister himself.
The cameraman counted down, ‘Three, two, one…’ as NTN came back from a break. Gaurav took a deep breath, looked straight into camera, his eyes already bloodshot, his mouth an angry line, and started: ‘This is a sad day in the history of our nation. Our Prime Minister is in hospital, the target of a diabolical attack.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, don’t be misled by all these so-called liberal journalists who are talking about how he has had a stroke or a heart attack. We at NTN are here to tell you the truth: Birendra Pratap was the victim of a cowardly assassination attempt. Somebody has tried to take the life of the Indian Prime Minister. And the finger of suspicion points directly at Pakistan.’
It was sunlight that woke Asha up. She had forgotten to draw the blackout blinds the night before when she had finally collapsed into her bed, drained with both physical and emotional exhaustion. It had been hard to see her mother reduced to a wreck, wailing and weeping loudly like a small child, clinging to Asha for comfort, more evidence—if any were needed—that their parent-child roles had been swapped irrevocably. The doctor had had to give Sadhana Devi another sedative so that she could get a few hours of rest. It was only after she had seen her mother slip away into sleep that Asha had headed to her room, where her bed had already been made, her pyjamas laid out and a tumbler of water placed on the bedside table. No matter if the world outside was collapsing, the Race Course Road housekeeping machine hummed smoothly along. Asha slipped out of bed, still feeling groggy from the many Ambiens she had swallowed the day before. She looked at her reflection in the bathroom mirror as she brushed her teeth. How was it possible that she still looked the same as she had the day before yesterday—before her world had been blown apart in that Belgravia gym—when nothing was ever going to be the same again?
Picking up the intercom, Asha asked for tea, and dragged herself into the shower. The steaming hot water served to clear her head, still woozy from the after-effects of the sedative. Asha toweled herself off, and slipped into a white chikankari salwar kameez that her father had bought back for her from his last trip to Lucknow. This would be the last gift he ever gave her. She felt the salty sting of tears in her eyes, as the reality of the situation hit home. Her father was dead. She never got to see him. She never got to say goodbye. She never got to say sorry. She never got to tell him how much she loved him. There was a soft tap on the door. Her tea was here. Pouring herself a cup, Asha turned on the TV. All the channels were showing just one picture. Her father’s body lying in state at Teen Murti Bhavan, her brothers standing behind the bier, looking shattered, while an endless procession of people filed past to pay their last respects to the late Birendra Pratap. Asha could feel that familiar hot haze of anger and resentment descend upon her. Why did they get to act like the bereaved children in the eyes of the world, while she and her mother hid their grief behind the many layers of security at Race Course Road? This simply would not do. Abandoning her tea, Asha stomped off to her mother’s room. Sadhana Devi was still lying in the same piteous heap she had been the night before.
‘Amma,’ said Asha, shaking her awake gently. ‘Wake up. It’s time to wake up.’ One of the ladies-in-waiting tried to suggest that maybe she should let her mother sleep and was subdued with one angry glance. ‘Amma, get up. You have to get dressed. We need to go and see Baba.’ Those were the magic words needed to galvanize Sadhana Devi. They had to go and see Baba. Asha threw her mother’s attendants out and took charge. She chivvied Sadhana Devi into the shower and threw open her closet to choose a sari for her to wear. Her hands reached out for the white chiffon with chikankari, bought by her father on the same trip he’d bought her the salwar kameez she was wearing.
Half an hour later, there was a buzz among the crowd assembled around Birendra Pratap Singh’s bier, with the cameras going crazy with their flashes and popgun sounds. Karan and Arjun, standing with heads bowed beside their father’s body, looked up to see what the commotion was about. It was about Asha and Sadhana Devi, the bereaved daughter and wife, walking up to take their places beside them. Asha could tell by the momentary tightening of Karan’s mouth that he was livid that she had turned up with her mother. The women in their family were expected to stay at home on such occasions while the men dealt with the formalities of the funeral. Asha and Amma had no business to be here, as far as Karan was concerned. But what could he possibly do about that now given that the world’s cameras were turned on him? He could hardly refuse his stepmother and half-sister entry on those archaic, feudal grounds. Asha could see the smooth politician battling with the seething stepson in Karan’s immobile face. But this once, the politician won over the stepson. He walked up to Sadhana Devi, bent down to touch her feet, and then guided her and Asha to Birendra Pratap’s body so that they could offer flowers and pay obeisance. Asha could feel her mother’s hand trembling inside hers as she led her to the gaddi on the side. The people already seated moved over to make space for the widow and the daughter. Asha settled her mother down, wiping the tears off her face, and whispered, ‘Be brave. He would have wanted you to be brave.’ And then, instead of sitting down in the space vacated for her, she went and took her place beside her brothers. She could feel the animosity coming off Karan in waves, but all she could think about was how peaceful Baba looked in death. The stern frown, the downward droop of the mouth was gone. He looked serene, almost happy, as he lay there surrounded by masses of white flowers.
A gust of wind from the nearby air conditioner blew some white rose petals on to Birendra Pratap’s cheek. Almost without thinking, Asha bent down and gently brushed it away. That one touch destroyed her. Tears tumbling down her cheeks, she bent down to kiss her father gently on the forehead. That was the image that the TV channels kept coming back to through the day. And that was the picture that was on the front page of every newspaper the next morning. Asha Devi with Birendra Pratap. An inconsolable daughter bending down to kiss her dead father for the last time. Her brothers, Karan Pratap and Arjun Pratap, were nowhere in the frame.
About the book:
Set largely in the Prime Minister’s official residence, the Race Course Road complex, Race Course Road revolves around the aftermath of the assassination of a sitting Prime Minister and the battle for succession that ensues within his family, with the elder son and heir, Karan Pratap Singh, trying to fight off the challenge presented by his charismatic half-sister, Asha Devi.
As the search for the murderer continues, sex scandals surface, revelations about dodgy arms deals rock India, and rival TV anchors shout and spar even as the country undertakes one of its most bitterly-contested general elections ever.
Who will get to live in Race Course Road once the votes have been counted? Who will get to rule India for the next five years? Who will be the new Prime Minister of India? Read the ultimate insider’s political thriller to find out.
About the author:
SEEMA GOSWAMI is a journalist, columnist and author. She began her career with the Anandabazar Patrika Group, working for Sunday magazine before moving on to become editor of The Telegraph’s weekend features. She currently writes a weekly column, Spectator, for the Hindustan Times’ Sunday magazine, Brunch, which has a large and dedicated following.
Her book, Woman on Top, written to help women in the workplace, has been translated into several Indian languages.
Race Course Road is her first novel.