Date: Sept. 8, 1998
Place: Malabar Hill Police Station, Ridge Road, Mumbai, India
Interviewer: Detective Ramaj Nitu
Interviewee: Stella Hart
I’m the only one who was ever able to interview Stella Hart about Ajit Agarkar’s disappearance, something I now understand they did on purpose. It took Agarkar being gone for six years and my buying Hart a cup of tea at the teashop on Apollo Street every day for a year in order for her to allow me to step into her sunroom with my tape recorder.
I thought if I had Hart, I would have Ajit. But that was silly of me. No one will ever have Ajit except Miss Hart herself. There was something potent in that sunroom that day, something so potent I was scared to stay too long, yet couldn’t leave Miss Hart, and I think she knew it.
Stella Hart. If you could meet her, you would understand that words can’t describe her. Her mystery, her beauty.
I saw Stella Hart for the first time when I was twelve and she was eight. She was one of three Caucasian girls at our school, but she still dressed in bright yellow saris more than she wore Western clothes. She had something about her, even at eight, which I can’t really explain. We all started noticing her and Ajit when we spotted them lying across the highest branches of various banyan trees at recess. No one understood how they got there; even us boys four years older than them were never able to climb so high, and I still don’t think I would be able to. But we didn’t just notice them because of how high they climbed. We noticed them because they were just looking out at us, and then past us into all of India. We noticed them because they never talked to each other when they were up in those banyan trees. It was as if they spoke to each other in a language we didn’t understand, a language of silence, a language I longed to be a part of.
During the interview, we sat on a yellow couch in the middle of the blue-tiled room. There was a bathtub in the corner of the room, which was filled with tattered books and Polaroid snapshots of animals. There was a puja table next to the bathtub, although when Hart caught me staring at it, she made it clear that she was not a Hindu. A long slinky dress covered her petite 5-foot-5-inch frame. She wore big translucent sunglasses, even when the sun started to set. She was twenty at the time.
Hart hasn’t been seen since September 1998.
– Ramaj Nitu, Oct. 3, 1998.
— How did you learn about Ajit’s disappearance?
I read about Ajit in the newspapers like the rest of the world. Well, yes and no. It’s hard to explain. You all came to question my father eventually. I was hiding at the Vipassana in Igatpuri; you know, the one three hours outside of Mumbai. I know the man that runs it. He kept me safe. My mother had fled the country, so my father was the only one your people could ask about Ajit in relation to me. I’m sure they regretted even trying. Detective Cornwell found him in a booth at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel bar overlooking the Arabian Sea, twirling a gin and tonic in his right hand. His left was probably still bandaged up.
— Where is your mother now?
My mother didn’t leave a note, and I don’t expect her back. I think she was born with a kind soul, but even kind souls can be damaged by the stampede of time.
Hart kicked off one of her heels, revealing navy blue toenails and a henna-covered left foot.
I think she was just lost amongst a culture that wasn’t hers, a sea of colorful silk and elegant bindis, which put me at peace.
She taught me how to keep my nails clean and ordered dresses from New York for me to wear, but she looked at her feet when her drunk husband told the other parents, on the small bleachers lining the fourth-grade soccer field, that I was adopted, that his wife couldn’t carry a child. All she did was pull me out of soccer.
She liked to pretend to be a socialite and had tea with women who didn’t like her. My father was obviously busy at the embassy, so they paid an African lady to raise me. Ruby. God, I miss Ruby.
This was the first time I saw Hart truly smile, other than when I saw her at Ajit’s zoo.
I was always jealous of the tone of her skin, of the way she never burned, didn’t have to wear a huge floppy hat under the Mumbai sun like my mother, didn’t turn red like my father. I felt it made her stronger, richer than anything else I had ever seen. Ajit always came over for Ruby’s cooking. He loved watching her pull at the dough with her hands when she was baking bread. He wouldn’t come over when she was breading chicken legs or boiling lobsters, though. He loved animals too much.
— Can you tell me a little more about life with your parents, life with your father?
It is not important to the story of Ajit’s disappearance. Frankly, it’s not important or interesting for that matter. Ruby is more important.
— Do you think there is a chance of him being released?
You’re the officer, you tell me.
Hart looked me straight in the eye. I looked out the window. She continued once I looked away.
My mother told Ruby not to pack sweets into my lunch, but Ruby chose not to listen. Sometimes she packed me those chocolate Hostess cupcakes with icing in the middle from New York; sometimes she packed homemade oatmeal cookies. On Fridays, she would ride her bike to my international elementary school and drop off a warm lunch in the front office. Sometimes, it was lasagna; sometimes, it was takeout from a restaurant she stopped at en route. My favorite was when she brought me linguini with white clam sauce. At least once a month, though, it was a whole pizza pie with a note taped to the box that said to share it with Ajit.
— Ah. Ajit.
Hart smiled, kicked her other heel off and crossed her legs Buddha-style on the couch at the mention of his name.
I think I met Ajit in kindergarten. I can’t remember, to be honest. We were little, though. I liked him because he could catch butterflies and birds in his brown hands, something I could never do.
Ajit gets along better with animals than he does with people.
— There are rumors that he claims he can talk to them.
Ajit would never claim anything. Even if he can, he would never even share that secret. Some of the magic in life is meant to be kept to oneself. That’s what Ajit’s grandfather told us on the abandoned street when we found the miniature pig with intricate blue and red designs all over his skin, as if he had jumped right out of a painting. The pig squealed by my side the rest of the way to Ajit’s apartment building.
“Stella,” his grandfather whispered to me when Ajit had run ahead to play with the fireflies. “This isn’t something you tell your friends over the cafeteria table, and especially not your parents.”
I looked down at the small pig and picked him up in my arms, he stopped squealing immediately. “Stella, I love you, Ajit loves you, and now this little one loves you too.”
I can’t believe I’m telling you about Francis. Well, you will probably see him anyway.
Anyways, as I said we named him Francis. He is my pig, but we had to keep him at Ajit’s for obvious reasons.
— Where is he now?
Taking his siesta… Can I get back to Ajit?
— By all means.
I was the one that came up with the idea of Ajit’s zoo. He already had the necessities for the zoo, but I helped him organize it. I made it famous. The story of how Ajit’s animals came to be is unclear to me. His mother once told me over Sunday tea that when Ajit started talking, all he wanted was animals, not cricket bats or Legos — animals. It started with dogs, but then dogs turned into boa constrictors and serpents, those turned into Dalmatian mice, and then those turned into larger animals, like his white lion and brown panda bear. Eventually, his grandfather surprised him with an elephant we called Henry.
Hart began to reach over towards the coffee table and opened up a sterling case with a large S engraved on it. She pulled out a cigar.
You don’t mind if I have one, right?
It was Ajit’s grandfather who taught us about cigars and scotch.
Hart began to light the cigar. She walked over to the bathtub in the corner, reached underneath the tattered books and Polaroids and pulled out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold Label.
Do you care for some scotch?
Hart walked back over towards the couch.
It may make this story a little more practical.
Hart crossed her legs, allowing her long dress to slide up and reveal her bare skin. She poured me a glass.
For the record, I don’t smoke cigarettes. I think they’re trashy. Only cigars. And I don’t like Madonna.
Ajit and I liked to smoke cigars under the large banyan tree in his backyard. Francis and Henry were always with us. It was always just the four of us: a little petite white girl, a slightly chubby Indian boy, a smiling elephant and a miniature pig whose fur was an intricate design of red and blue. We started smoking cigars under the banyan tree when we were fourteen. We started combining them with Ajit’s grandfather’s scotch when we were fifteen.
— What was Ajit’s grandfather like?
Ah. Dada. I wish he were still alive. Ajit’s father doesn’t care for me very much. He thinks I’m the cause of Ajit’s disappearance, which I guess is true. But Dada would have stuck up for me. I take care of Ajit’s animals, you know.
— I didn’t know that. I assumed they had caretakers.
Well, they do. But I make sure Ajit’s animals are constantly being called by their proper names. It’s the only thing Ajit cares about with him being gone.
— What do you mean? Have you talked to him?
She smirked and looked at me with those big eyes, and her dress seemed to somehow slide further up her legs.
Yes and no … but back to Dada. My favorite memories of Dada are under the banyan tree. He taught Ajit and I the seven chakras of the body and made sure we knew all the different deities. Ajit’s and my favorite has always been Ganesh, with his elephant head — just like Henry. Henry was our personal Ganesh. We liked the idea of his big belly being able to digest whatever life brought. Whatever my father brought, or the summer monsoons. We liked to think that every obstacle put in our paths was put there just for us, that Ganesh had some big adventure for us in the end. I like to imagine him as yellow, like the sun, but Ajit swore he was pink. What color do you think he is?
— I always thought he was yellow.
Ajit always had to be different. But, I guess, so did I, in a way.
We came up with the idea for Ajit’s zoo underneath the banyan tree smoking Dada’s cigars from Havana. At this point, Ajit owned every type of wild animal that existed in India.
— Is that an exaggeration?
Not at all. You’ve been to the zoo. How can you even ask that?
— I didn’t think you would remember.
I remember everything. He kept them in the second floor of the apartment building that his family shared with his grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles on his father’s side. Henry, of course, stayed in the garden — he enjoyed the shade of the banyan tree.
— Was the Agarkar family ever worried about the animals getting upstairs?
Oh no, not at all. We locked the doors to the staircase and even Sacha the chimp never was able to figure out the elevator. At first, we tried to have some sort of organization for the animals. First we thought to organize them alphabetically, but Ajit said that friends, even if they were different species or looked different, like Ajit and I, shouldn’t be separated. So, in the end, there was really no organization, which made it hard for newcomers but put the animals at peace.
— But how did the animal floor become the zoo?
I drew a picture of Henry and then began to put posters up around our school. We listed the main attractions: the Dalmatian mice, the king cobra, the peacock, the white lion and, of course, Henry, who we painted to match Francis’ fur for the grand opening. We charged 500 rupees as an entrance fee. Ajit wanted to do 1,000, but I thought that was too much, no? I was going to get all the profit so I could run away from my father. You know, the zoo never would have happened, all you people would have never gotten to be so intimate with such beautiful animals, if it weren’t for my father — that’s Ganesh’s doing.
— What do you mean?
She narrowed her eyes.
I’m not an idiot; I know you read the gossip section of the papers.
— I’m sorry, Miss Hart. I didn’t mean to offend you. I just wanted to hear your side of the story, not theirs.
Why don’t we pull out a smoother bottle of scotch?
She got to her feet and walked back towards the bathtub.
A year before we came up with the idea for the zoo, when I was thirteen, my father started coming into my room at night. The first time, he just kissed my feet, stared out the window.
Hart yanked out a new bottle of scotch from the tub, then turned and walked back towards me, keeping her eyes on the new bottle.
But then he started doing other things. I guess he thought it was okay because I wasn’t his actual daughter. I’m not entirely sure if my mother knew, if she realized his half of the bed was empty for long periods of the night, but that’s when I started looking for my real parents.
Hart poured herself another glass of scotch.
Ajit’s grandfather tried to help me, though I never told him about my father’s night visits. Dada just didn’t particularly care for my parents. He didn’t care for anyone who didn’t have family dinners.
Hart took a long gulp of her scotch.