For the last four days, one name has been making the rounds in and around the popular tourist destinations of Alappuzha and Kottayam - that of pop star Britney Spears, who was voted the biggest star of the decade in a recent internet poll.

It was a relatively small news item that appeared in a local newspaper, saying Ms. Spears would be welcoming the New Year on a houseboat in Kumarakom or Alappuzha, that triggered the four-day long ‘contest’ to locate her. What started with routine enquiries to houseboat operators, hotels and tour agencies, gradually snowballed into a major hunt as media houses sent their reporters and cameramen to scour the sprawling Vembanad Lake on speedboats, ordinary motor boats and some, even on wobbly, fishing boats fitted with outboard engines.

Almost every houseboat on the lake, not to mention those leaving the main boarding points, had cameras focused on them. If any foreign passenger, particularly a woman came out on the deck, there were frenzied clicks of the cameras. There was a television channel, which sent its cameraman on a speedboat. Halfway across the lake, he called his office. “There is a problem. I haven’t seen this Britney character. How do I recognize her?”

The pursuit of the evasive Ms. Spears continued even at night. A vernacular newspaper went to the extent of publishing a photograph of a well-lit, high-end houseboat, saying it had a “beautiful foreign passenger”, which “could be Ms. Spears”.

The stories continued on Friday, saying that this “beautiful foreign passenger” watched a Kathakali performance along with 15 others of her group, that they had Kerala food and even had newspapers delivered to them on the boat! “Was that Ms. Spears?” the newspaper asked its readers.

On Saturday, even the Alappuzha police joined the party. Special Branch detectives decided to check C-Forms, which are mandatory documents to be submitted by each and every foreigner who checks into a hotel or houseboat, submitted in the last three days. The C-Forms submitted by a group of foreign nationals, who alighted from M.V. Vrinda, a houseboat that was first rumoured to have the celebrity passenger, were checked in particular. There was no Britney Spears there too.

The police finally said: “She is not in Alappuzha.” The Kottayam police are still silent. And the mystery continues.