The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star


By Vaseem Khan

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Mumbai is a city that thrives on extravagant spectacles and larger-than-life characters.
But as Chopra is about to discover, even in the city of dreams, there is no guarantee of a happy ending.

Rising star and incorrigible playboy Vikram Verma has disappeared, leaving his latest film in jeopardy. Hired by Verma’s formidable mother to find him, Inspector Chopra and his sidekick, baby elephant Ganesha, embark on a journey deep into the world’s most flamboyant movie industry.

As they uncover feuding stars, failed investments and death threats, it seems that many people have a motive for wanting Verma out of the picture.

And yet, as Chopra has long suspected, in Bollywood the truth is often stranger than fiction. . .



On a sultry March evening, in the great hive-city of Mumbai, Inspector Ashwin Chopra (Retd) was once again discovering the futility of reasoned discourse with his fellow countrymen.

"He is an elephant," he said sternly. "Elephants do not eat hot dogs. They are herbivores. In other words: vegetarian."

"Hah!" said the hot-dog vendor, snapping his tongs triumphantly in the air. "These are vegetarian."

Chopra looked down at the sizzling griddle. Then he looked at the heap of sagging hot dogs set beside it on the vendor's handcart. Flies circled amorously around the pyramid, like B-2 bombers on a raid.

He turned and fixed his companion with a stony look. "Did you take the hot dogs?" he asked.

Ganesha blinked rapidly, then twirled his trunk in the air, rocking back and forth on his blunt-toed feet, ears flapping, as Chopra glared.

He recognised the signs.

During his thirty-year career in the Mumbai police service he had interrogated thousands of suspects, and in so doing had become intimately familiar with the language of tells, involuntary movements that gave the inexperienced dissembler away.

It seemed that similar laws governed the behaviour of one-year-old elephants.

"What have I told you about helping yourself?" he scolded.

Ganesha hung his head.

"What's going on here?"

Chopra looked up to see his wife Poppy powering down the road with young Irfan in tow, the boy's walnut-brown face split by an enormous smile. In his right hand he clutched a stick of candyfloss, floating above his head like an umbrella. Poppy, resplendent in a marine-blue sari, steered him through the crush of people moving towards the entrance of the Andheri Sports Stadium.

"This elephant here is a thief!" replied the hot-dog vendor primly. "I have caught him in the act."

Chopra closed his eyes.

Poppy's cheeks reddened. "Is that a fact?" she said.

"He has consumed four of my finest hot dogs," continued the vendor, oblivious to Chopra's shaking head.

Poppy stepped forward and jabbed the paunchy man in his chest. "What proof do you have that he ate those hot dogs?" Jab. "Who would want to eat such rubbish anyway?" Jab. Jab. "Do you even have a licence for this cart? Look at the state of it! It is filthy!"

"But— but—" The vendor backpedalled into the traffic-clogged road. An auto-rickshaw with a cage of scrawny chickens strapped to its roof swerved around him, honking madly. A cloud of feathers trailed from the rick as it buzzed away.

"Chopra! There you are!"

Chopra turned to see a heavyset, grey-haired man with a walrus moustache bearing down on them, arms outstretched in welcome.

In the three years since Chopra had last met Bunty Saigal his old friend had gained weight, padding out a naturally generous frame that now strained the seams of a navy-blue safari suit. Saigal had left the Brihanmumbai Police five years ago—four years before Chopra himself had been forced into early retirement by an ailing heart. Saigal had made the change for financial reasons, moving into a lucrative role as a security consultant at the Andheri Sports Stadium. Now he organised security for major events, such as the Bollywood concert that Chopra and Poppy were attending this evening. A month ago Chopra had made the mistake of mentioning Saigal's new position to Poppy. Upon discovering that Saigal would be presiding over the upcoming concert featuring Bollywood's newest star, Vicky Verma, she had harangued Chopra to twist his arm for front-row seats.

Chopra had reluctantly obliged.

Bollywood movies were one of Poppy's enduring passions and, as the show was to take place at the nearby stadium, it seemed churlish of him not to at least enquire.

Saigal had been more than glad to help.

He had always been a gregarious and jovial man, the life of the party, whereas Chopra himself was of a more taciturn disposition.

A broad-shouldered man with a head of jet-black hair greying only at the temples, Chopra's most impressive feature was an imposing moustache that underlined the natural authority that emanated from his tall frame. For almost three decades he had served Mumbai's citizenry as a policeman; for three decades he had remained steadfast to the principles ingrained in him by his father: honesty, integrity and decency. This in itself made him something of an oddity, for such qualities were often notable by their absence in the venal sinecures of the Indian police service.

Saigal pumped Chopra's hand with his strangler's grip, then led them past the crowded turnstiles, through the packed outer courtyard, and into the stadium proper.

A wall of noise greeted them as they moved along the running track, past the cordoned mass of jostling, chattering concert-goers trampling down the field grass, to the front row where a string of security guards were holding back the crowd as it ebbed and flowed.

As they walked along, the great bowl of the stadium opened up around them.

Chopra glanced up.

Beyond the rim of the cantilevered steel roof, the iconic fifty-metre-tall Andheri water tower, with its conical tanks, loomed over the stadium like a praying mantis. He noted the many fans settling onto the rows of concrete bleachers curving upwards under the roof. He would have preferred to be up there, away from the chaos, but he knew Poppy wouldn't hear of it.

The day's heat had settled into the stadium. Chopra found that he was sweating inside his white cotton half-sleeved shirt and beige duck pants.

He glanced at Ganesha, happily trotting beside Irfan. Occasionally, Irfan would lower his candyfloss so that Ganesha could pluck some off with his trunk and insert it into his mouth.

As usual, the pair were as thick as thieves.

Irfan, a street urchin who had walked into the restaurant Chopra had opened after his retirement a year earlier, had become a bona fide member of the family. He continued to live at the restaurant, as did Ganesha, but there was no doubt the pair had slipped into the vacant space in Poppy and Chopra's lives, a space occasioned by the absence of children of their own.

Chopra recalled the fuss Poppy had made getting the boy ready for his first-ever concert. Smart new clothes, stylish shoes, fragrantly oiled hair parted with geometric precision. Even Ganesha had been given a bath and a sprinkling of Poppy's favourite perfume. There had been no question that the little elephant would not attend.

Thanks to Poppy, Chopra's young ward was now as addicted to the Bombay talkies as his wife.

On the day of his retirement the infant elephant had arrived at Chopra's home, a fifteenth-floor apartment in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri East, as a malnourished and despondent calf with barely the energy to lift his head. The elephant had been accompanied by a curious letter from Chopra's long-vanished Uncle Bansi, a notorious prankster from his childhood in the Maharashtrian village of Jarul. But this time Bansi's tone had been serious. Bansi had not explained why he was sending Chopra an elephant, nor anything about the calf's past, merely stating, cryptically, that "this is no ordinary elephant."

At first thoroughly at a loss as to what to do with the strange bequest, Chopra had eventually warmed to his role as guardian. And in Ganesha—as he had named his young ward—he had ultimately discovered a sensitive and adventurous soul. The little elephant possessed depths that Chopra had yet to fully fathom; what was certain was that he was a highly intelligent creature, and an emotional one. As each day passed Chopra discovered new facets to Ganesha's talents. He had yet to solve the mystery of the elephant's past, but his appreciation of his ward's extraordinary abilities continued to grow.

Saigal ushered them to the front row, parking them before a group of singing, chattering youngsters.

"Sir!" A brisk young security guard pointed at Ganesha with his baton. "There is an elephant behind you!"

Saigal rounded his eyes and held his hands to his cheeks in dismay. "Where?"

"There!" said the guard.

Saigal turned and made a horrified face. "An elephant! I must be getting old. I thought it was my shadow."

The guard, realising that his boss was making fun of him, coloured.

"Chopra, I shall leave you to it." Saigal bid them farewell and lolloped off back the way they had come.

Chopra's eyes wandered over the crowd jostling around them, comprised largely of teenagers and young women wearing far too few clothes in his opinion.

But such was the modern fashion.

Occasionally the knot of girls behind them would squeal delightedly as canned pictures of Vicky Verma were flashed onto the giant screen erected above the stage. Verma leaping from a moving train; Verma bashing up an assortment of villains; Verma romancing a sultry, pouting leading lady. There was even a surreal shot of Verma in an astronaut's outfit sipping from a can, a particularly cheesy ad campaign for a major soft drinks company.

He glanced at his watch, tapping it furiously. The watch was nearly a quarter of a century old, a memento of his departed father, the schoolmaster of the village in interior Maharashtra where both Poppy and Chopra had grown up. A congenitally temperamental timepiece, but he would not dream of parting with it.

Beside him Poppy licked a thumb and wiped a smear of sugar from Irfan's mouth. Ganesha trumpeted happily. He was receiving a great deal of attention from the girls behind them, who kept crowding around him to take photographs. Chopra knew his ward enjoyed the limelight, though sometimes he wished Ganesha would be a little more retiring.

His thoughts were interrupted by a loud klaxon, and then a cavalcade of fireworks erupted from the gantry above the stage. Smoke billowed from the stage floor and then, as it cleared, an overweight man in a bright red suit with a matching tie and black fedora jogged forward, holding a mike.

Chopra recognised the well-known Bollywood comedian Jonny Pinto.

Pinto lifted off his fedora, bowed to the crowd, bellowed a welcome, and immediately launched into a fusillade of cheap jokes—some that seemed to Chopra to skirt the boundaries of good taste—before introducing the first act, a fusion dance troupe marrying traditional Punjabi bhangra dance with modern street dance.

Chopra found himself shaking his head, even as howls of delight rocked the stadium.

He knew that such concerts were an integral part of the industry. Bollywood films were, almost without exception, musicals—indeed, movie music was an industry all by itself, and audio sales an important source of revenue. Concerts such as this were vehicles for promotion: for the movies, the stars, and the music. Producers pumped millions into them; they became miniature productions in their own right, microcosms of the glamour and spectacle that was Bollywood. Chopra, however, found them gaudy and coarse, lacking the refined artistic sensibility that appealed to him.

The concert proceeded apace, with each energetic act following closely on the heels of the one before, punctuated with comedy skits from Jonny Pinto. A succession of ageing stars and up-and-coming starlets—in costumes ranging from swirling saris to shimmering miniskirts—performed dance numbers, and another well-known comedian brought the house down with a send-up of the state's much-maligned Chief Minister.

And then the lights dimmed.

Finally, it was time for the main event.

Pinto launched into a gratuitous introduction—"Bollywood's newest sensa-tion! The kid that's taking the industry by storm! More super than Superman! Mumbai's own bad boy, the one, the only, Vicky Verma!"—then backpedalled offstage as fireworks erupted around him. More smoke engulfed the stage.

When it cleared, a tall figure stood silhouetted against a colossal movie poster. The roving spotlight sprang onto the solitary figure dressed in shimmering silver trousers and a stylishly cut black jacket above a white vest. Designer stubble and twin earrings. A quiffed and gelled mullet of dark hair, barely held in check by a red bandana.

Vicky Verma, enfant terrible of Bollywood, and superstar in the making.

The crowd went wild. Chopra had to hold his hands to his ears as the gang of cheerleaders behind him hurled themselves forwards on a tidal wave of noise.

Verma launched into a dance routine, gyrating about the stage while lip-syncing to a raunchy number from his last movie. When he was joined onstage by a troupe of dancers, the gyrations became even more suggestive.

Chopra stole a glance at Poppy. His wife was clapping away, as engrossed as any of the teenagers around her.

After the first number Verma paused for breath. His dark eyes swept the front rows with an imperious gaze. He suddenly caught sight of Ganesha and did a double-take. As accustomed to the extraordinary as Verma was, it gave Chopra a small measure of satisfaction to think that he had probably never seen an elephant in the front row of one of his concerts before. Particularly an elephant trumpeting as loudly in appreciation as Ganesha was.

The concert proceeded with three more numbers from Verma, interspersed with incoherent addresses to the audience, before the final dance act.

Verma and a cast of dozens congested the stage in gaudy historical costumes from the set of his latest movie, a big-budget blockbuster slated for release later in the year. A hypnotic beat from the movie's soundtrack pounded from the stadium's speakers.

And then, abruptly, the music stopped, and a curtain of ringing silence fell over the audience.

All the lights cut out, save a single spotlight focused on Verma. The compere began to count: 3… 2… 1… Stage smoke erupted from beneath Verma's boots, engulfing him, and then was just as swiftly blown away by powerful fans…

The audience gasped.

Verma had vanished.

The crowd waited with breathless anticipation. Suddenly, the spotlight swung halfway down the stadium to a spot just above the highest bleachers on the stadium's eastern side.

Smoke erupted, then cleared… and there, impossibly, was Verma!

The crowd doubled their screams of delight.

Chopra blinked. Incredible! How could Verma have got up there in a few seconds, not to mention changed into a new costume?

He was given no chance to find out as smoke billowed forth again to consume the star. Now the spotlight swung over to the far side of the stadium, again to a spot above the highest bleachers. More smoke… and there was Verma once more, again in a new outfit.

More bellowing from the crowd.

Yet more smoke, and Verma vanished for a third time.

Now the spotlight moved to the rear of the stadium, and the whole act was repeated. This time, when Verma vanished, the spotlight swung all the way back to the stage. Another flurry of smoke whooshed over the dancing girls who remained frozen, awaiting Vicky's return.

The crowd roared in anticipation, counting off the seconds with the compere: 3… 2… 1…


For a moment there was a stunned silence, as if a wrong chord had been struck during a familiar piece of music. Everyone had expected Verma to be on the stage when the smoke cleared.

Yet he was not there.

The music started up again, and the dance troupe awkwardly began the closing number. But Chopra could tell their movements were off. Clearly, they had been expecting Verma onstage.

A few minutes in, the compere froze the dancers. Smoke billowed, passing a veil over proceedings; when it cleared, moments later, there was Verma again.

The crowd released a sigh of relief.

The dance was completed, and then, without even a goodbye to his loyal followers, Verma vanished backstage. Within moments the security personnel were herding everyone towards the exits.

It was an abrupt and strange end to proceedings, Chopra thought.

On the way home something continued to nag away at him. It wasn't until later that night that he finally realised what it was.

The Vicky Verma who had reappeared at the very end moved differently. If Chopra had been asked to swear to it he would have said that that Verma wasn't the one who had begun the concert. But he couldn't be sure, and no one else seemed to have noticed. Perhaps it was just his old policeman's instincts making a nuisance of themselves, looking for something that wasn't there.

It probably wasn't worth worrying about.


Chopra regarded the tall, thin, bespectacled man in the leather biker's jacket seated before him.

It was the morning after the concert and they were sitting in the office at the rear of Poppy's Bar & Restaurant, the air-conditioner thundering away in the corner.

Chopra had arrived early.

He had a number of case files to look through and then a busy afternoon ahead, planning activity on open investigations with his associate private investigator Abbas Rangwalla.

Rangwalla—once Sub-Inspector Rangwalla—had served for twenty years as Chopra's second-in-command at the nearby Sahar station. Now he had become an invaluable member of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency, the second venture that Chopra had embarked upon since retiring. The truth was that the restaurant largely ran itself, left in the capable hands of Chef Lucknowwallah and Chopra's bilious mother-in-law, Poornima Devi. As a consequence, Chopra found that he had time on his hands, time that he wished to put to good use. He had retired from the police force, but how could one retire the experience and instincts honed over an entire career? The detective agency provided an outlet for his need to put to use those hard-won skills, and his even greater need to pursue justice, a cause ingrained within the folds and hollows of his heart.

But Chopra's morning routine had been interrupted by the arrival of an unexpected visitor.

By day, forty-six-year-old Gerry Fernandes was a stock-market trader, a man who had made millions on the Bombay Stock Exchange. Under normal circumstances, Chopra and Fernandes' paths would never have crossed—they came from different worlds. But there was one point where their lives did intersect: their passion for motorcycles. Specifically, their passion for one particular motorcycle: the Royal Enfield Bullet.

Chopra and Fernandes had met at the local chapter of the Bombay Bullet Club, which Chopra had joined despite Poppy's strenuous objections. His wife made no secret of her disapproval of his penchant for tearing up the streets on the back of the 500cc beast. Chopra was new to the club but Fernandes was an old hand, having served as ride captain on many an outing of the Bisons, as the group styled themselves.

But today Fernandes was not here to discuss motorbikes. A shadow lay over his gaunt features. In the leather jacket emblazoned with the Bisons logo he looked like an accountant who had wandered into a costume shop and inadvertently walked out in the wrong outfit.

"I've come to settle our account, Chopra," said Fernandes, reaching inside his jacket for his chequebook. "How much do I owe you?"

"You don't owe me anything," said Chopra. "We are friends."

"Business is business," said Fernandes primly. "Everything in its place."

Chopra shifted in his chair. He knew that Fernandes was a very particular fellow, meticulous about money and notoriously ruthless in his business dealings. As a consequence, he had a very narrow circle of friends, and many detractors. It was only in the Bullet Club that Fernandes was able to relax his guard. Chopra had seen a side of the man that few had glimpsed. His careworn appearance belied his spirited demeanour when out on the open road.

Two weeks ago Fernandes had approached him for help.

It appeared that Fernandes' father, a retired civil servant, had misplaced a valuable family heirloom. The fact that the "heirloom" was a motorcycle helmet was neither here nor there. The leather helmet—complete with goggles—had belonged to the legendary motorcyclist Erwin "Cannon Ball" Baker, who had worn it during his record-breaking transcontinental ride across America in 1914. Fernandes, who idolised Baker, had purchased the helmet at an auction in California. Not long afterwards, his father had smashed the display case in which the items had been housed, donned the ensemble, and departed for a joyride on Fernandes' beloved Bullet.

He had been discovered some hours later in a roadside ditch on the outskirts of the city, naked, incoherent, and with a small goat strapped to the back of the bike.

Of the prized helmet there was no sign.

Fernandes had been beside himself at the loss of his Baker memorabilia. In desperation, he had turned to Chopra for help.

Having interviewed the senile paterfamilias, Chopra had asked an acquaintance specialising in hypnotherapy to examine him.

The results had been impressive.

Under hypnosis, Fernandes Senior not only led them to the lost helmet, but also on a tour of half-a-dozen previous lives, ranging from a junior miniaturist at the court of Emperor Jahangir to a famine-stricken farmer who had walked beside Gandhi on his legendary Salt March.

These revelations had greatly perturbed the Fernandes household. Three maids had already quit, and the headman was walking around on eggshells lest he be once again belt-whipped by the old man while in the throes of his incarnation as prison-master of Calcutta's Fort William dungeon, known to history as the Black Hole.

Perhaps this explained Fernandes' haggard appearance, Chopra thought, as his friend tore off a cheque and held it out.

"If I take that cheque," said Chopra, "we are no longer friends. You needed help; I did what I could. That's what friends do."

Fernandes stared at him, then tucked the cheque back in his pocket. "Thank you," he said with genuine emotion.

After Fernandes had left, Chopra considered how lonely the pedestal of wealth and power could be. He had met many privileged individuals in his life and so often their lives were shadowed by unhappiness, contrary to the belief of the average man on the street. Sometimes this misery was self-inflicted, but at other times it was simply the toll that fate demanded.

The noise of the television broke into his thoughts.

It was a news item on last night's concert. It appeared Vicky Verma had overexerted himself and was now confined to his south Mumbai home with a mysterious illness. This revelation was causing great consternation among his fans, as well as the Bollywood fraternity.

Chopra next spent an hour with Rangwalla going over the caseload.

Rangwalla's arrival at the agency had been fortuitous. Chopra had been steadily drowning beneath the mountain of work that had deluged the agency since its very public first case, which had exposed a major human trafficking ring in the city. Rangwalla—employing the street smarts that had made him so able a policeman—had immediately helped whittle down the load.

As they were winding up their meeting, Chopra's phone rang; glancing at the number, he saw that it was unlisted.

"Am I speaking to Chopra?" said a cultured, if somewhat dry, voice. "Proprietor of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency?"

"Yes," said Chopra.

"The same Chopra who recently assisted in the reacquisition of the Koh-i-noor?"

Chopra was taken aback. "How do you know about that?"

The details of his involvement in the return of the Koh-i-noor diamond—which had been stolen during a recent exhibition of the Crown Jewels in Mumbai—had been kept out of the public realm. Only a handful of people knew that he had been instrumental in tracking down the jewel.

"That is irrelevant," said the voice curtly. "I have been instructed by my client to request your attendance at her residence in Malabar Hill. It is a matter of the utmost urgency."

"What matter? What client?"

"I am afraid I am not at liberty to discuss further details."

"You can't expect me to drop everything and come running down to south Mumbai just on your say-so."

The voice paused. "Very well. My client is Bijli Verma, former film actress, and mother of noted actor Vikram Verma."


The gilded Antakshari Tower had looked down from its precipitous eighteen-storey elevation atop Malabar Hill for the better part of five decades. Centuries earlier, Keralan pirates from the subcontinent's deep south had surveyed the fledgling city from these once-forested heights, planning pillage and plunder. Now the tower's lofty perspective provided expansive views over the nearby promenade of the Back Bay, the Hanging Gardens on the hill's western flank, and the ancient Banganga water tank, which legend said had sprung from the earth where Lord Ram's brother Laxman had fired an arrow into the ground. In the mid-nineteenth century the hill had been colonised by Mumbai's British overlords, after the demolition of their redoubt within Bombay Fort.


  • "Wildly inventive ... a great warmth and wisdom infuse this and the other Baby Ganesh books."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "Smoothly combines an affable lead, a seemingly impossible crime, and an endearing and highly unusual sidekick-a baby elephant named Ganesha.... Fans of Alexander McCall Smith will find a lot to like."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Calibri; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Publishers Weekly on The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown
  • "An entertaining feel-good read in the tradition of Alexander McCall Smith.... Utterly charming." —Guardian on The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
  • "The deep love for Mumbai and its people - warts and all - that Inspector Chopra shares with his creator infuses the novel from the beginning. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is certainly a delightful and uplifting crime caper, but it also comes with an edifying dose of serious social comment, with many of Chopra's preoccupations mirroring those of his creator."—The Bookseller on The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
  • "An enchanting start to a new series."—Woman & Home on The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
  • "A winning debut...Khan's affection for Mumbai and its residents adds to the novel's charm."—Publishers Weekly on The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
  • "Debut Mumbai-based 'cosy' - complete with baby elephant - keeps things heart-warming while tackling corruption at the highest levels and violent crime at the lowest. Endearing and gripping, it sets up Inspector Chopra - and the elephant - for a long series."—Sunday Times on The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
  • "Thought-provoking mystery... promising debut."—Booklist on The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
  • "Charming."—Marie Claire on The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
  • "A fantastic and heartwarming read... I can't wait to see what happens next!"—First for Women on The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra

On Sale
Jul 18, 2017
Page Count
400 pages

Vaseem Khan

About the Author

Vaseem Khan first saw an elephant lumbering down the middle of the road in 1997 when he arrived in India to work as a consultant. It was the most unusual thing he’d ever encountered and served as the inspiration behind his series of crime novels.

He returned to the UK in 2006 and now works at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science where he is astonished daily by the way modern science is being employed to tackle crime.

Learn more about this author