Masala Mystery Sample Chapter One: Porter


I awoke to the sound of laughter as I do every first day in India. Thirty or forty voices, laughing loudly in unison, pierced the predawn dark. Lying in bed, I smiled broadly to myself. I couldn’t help it: the laughter was infectious and I’d been looking forward to it. This laughter has heralded my arrival in India almost every year for the past two decades. On the rare occasion when I land in another city: in Chennai or Mumbai, for instance — I miss it. Morning laughter means Delhi to me.

I dozed happily in bed, waking again at first light, to the sound of group laughter. This time the precise, organized waves of “Ha… Ha… Ha… Ha… Ho… Ho… Ho… Ho… Hee… Hee… Hee… Hee… were interspersed with the cacophonous chatter of parrots flying through the tall trees outside my room. The laughter came from the heavily-dewed lawns of Lodhi Gardens just beyond the trees. Every morning, groups of middle-class Delhiite men and women join together to practice yoga on the wide expanses of clipped grass between fifteenth- and sixteenth- century domed tombs. Some of these groups incorporate the newly fashionable laughing yoga into their routines. Their sounds inevitably drew me out to walk around the gardens.

I don’t practice yoga myself, or at least not often. I prefer walking and occasional jogging. New Delhi’s heat, even this early in the day, was a shock after frigid New England. I strode quickly, fifteen feet or so behind two Sikh men in tightly creased turbans, matching logoed T-shirts, flashy shorts and well-seasoned Reeboks. Coming the other way down the paved path encircling the park were dozens of New Delhi’s newly prosperous locals: gaggles of three and four middle-aged women wearing salwar khameez and gossiping happily while trim single men and women paraded their charms. A pair of old gentlemen, one bearded, the other closely shaven, each wearing three-piece suits with watch chains, loudly discussed the politics of Kashmir while a shy young man and woman defiantly held hands and cast furtive, longing looks at one another.

Breathing deeply, I shook off the lethargy of joints and muscles. Twenty-nine hours of travel had taken their toll. I hate the long journey, but it’s an unavoidable inconvenience of my profession. I am glad to maintain my connections back in the United States and have purposefully chosen to live in an uncrowded, safe part of the country where the air is clean and my community unstructured and socially unfettered. It provides the perfect contrast to my annual months spent traveling in India.

After stretching my legs with a brisk walk around the gardens, I returned to my home away from home at the India International Centre. The IIC started as a club for scholars and local intellectuals. Its simple accommodations and homely atmosphere suit me perfectly. Following a light breakfast, I went to my room to unpack and organize my notes for my tour. Two hours later, I descended to wait on the edge of the circular driveway framed by pots of blooming roses. The uniformed guard, Bhupinder, broke into a wide smile. “Oh, Good Sir, how glad I am to see you! You are well, Sir? And your Madam, Sir? How is she being? How long is it you are being with us?” Replying that I would be staying only a couple of days this time, I asked after Bhupinder’s family. The guard proudly announced that his son was studying at the Polytechnic and his daughter had just had her second child, his first grandson. After a few minutes, I asked Bhupinder to call for my car. In the distance I could hear the speaker on the PA system across the street blare out, “Carrr 2734, Carrr 2734, Driver Daleep! Carrr 2734, Driver Daleep!”

Three minutes later, a battered old black and yellow Ambassador coupe rumbled in next to me. Daleep, my diminutive, grey-uniformed driver, leapt out of his seat and came around to the left rear door, opening it and gesturing me inside. Once back behind the wheel, Daleep turned to ask, “Which place, sir?” “Jor Bagh Market, please Daleep. I need a gift for Carrie.”

During the five-minute ride through local back streets, I asked Daleep about his family. Daleep Sharma was raised the son of Brahmin farmers who worked their land in Kangra Valley, in the foothills of the Himalayas — a region fabled for its beauty. Sadly, economic necessity had forced him to raise his family in a smog-filled warren of dilapidated apartments in an impoverished section of New Delhi. Although subservient in his profession, Daleep spoke openly, even candidly, about his life, his love for his wife and the accomplishments of his two children. I gladly accepted his offer to come to his home for a meal the following day.

Arriving at a row of small shops, Daleep dropped me in front of the godown (warehouse) of a favorite wholesale crafts dealer. I wanted to find a tribal necklace to give as a welcome present to my tour assistant, my first cousin Carrie Lee McFadden. She was due to arrive the next evening as she escorted the tour members into India. Entering the packed building, I chose a necklace of tiny red glass beads with yellowed bone spacers.

I had intended to return directly to the car, but just at that moment, an unctuous voice lisped, “Oh, Porter, welcome back to our country! I have not seen you for such a long time!” I recoiled. I knew who it was without even looking. Arvind Gupta owns one of the most prominent galleries in Delhi. He specializes in classical art, antiquities, excellent textiles and exquisite jewelry. He is also one of the slimiest individuals I have ever met. Gupta oozes false charm, his entire body wiggling like a happy puppy as he talks. I avoid him whenever possible. I cannot deny that the art that Gupta collects and sells is superb, but I have always distrusted the man. And yet I treat him politely: it would serve no purpose to alienate him. Gupta’s circle of friends is impressive.

“I must show you the paintings I have just acquired! You must come into my gallery…” Shuddering imperceptibly, I acquiesced. I hoped the experience would be brief.

White marble covered the front of the gallery. Taller even than my six-foot-one height, a turbaned Sikh with a large mustache opened the plate glass door as Gupta ushered me into the large interior. The walls were covered with gold raw silk upon which were mounted a collection of gilt-framed paintings, some of them miniatures, others oils. An enormous baroque-framed portrait of a Maharajah, and similar one of his Rani, spread across one wall. Upon another was stretched a breathtaking eighteenth century Kashmir shawl, masterfully restored and lit to feature the intricacies of its weaving. Glass counters held a dazzling array of fine antique jewelry. An inset wall case displayed jewel-encrusted boxes, enameled elephants and camels from a rare royal chess set, and a few carved jade-handled daggers. This spectacle was only a setting for countless hidden treasures. Gupta or his employees would extract them and show them with a flourish only after evaluating the income and acquisitiveness of potential customers

No doubt Gupta had a motive in urging me to enter. As he drew me through an ornately carved rear door and into his office, Gupta snapped his fingers and said something in a dialect I did not understand to a well-groomed assistant who came running up. The walls of the inner office were covered with more fine art as well as a framed and garlanded photograph of an old, bespectacled gentleman, Gupta’s “sainted” father, long since deceased. As we sat, tea was served within minutes – not the usual glasses of sweet milk Indian chai, but the finest Darjeeling in delicate bone china cups and saucers, poured from a monogrammed English silver tea service. While we sipped our tea, Gupta politely asked me about my family and my work, obviously not much interested in my answers.

When that ceremony was over and the teacups cleared, one of the assistants, a short thin man wearing a traditional black Nehru jacket and white trousers, entered bearing a large portfolio. As he placed it reverently in the center of the desk, I was surprised to notice that he wore a Rolex watch on his right wrist. Perhaps it was a cheap knockoff. I had been offered one by a street vendor the previous year.

“These are my latest acquisitions,” Gupta bubbled. “A prince whose name, you understand, I am not at liberty to reveal, wanted to rent a riad in Morocco. He no longer has the funds for that sort of expenditure, don’t you see, and so, when he particularly wants something, he comes to me with items for sale. I think you too will be pleased with what he had for me.” As he talked, Gupta’s whole body continued to squirm slightly. His hands never stopped moving. He clasped them, then wrung them out, then took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, then looked at me intently while running his fingers affectionately over the marbled paper of the portfolio. “My dear Dr. Lee, you are now in for a treat…”

I leaned forward as Gupta opened the folder and extracted a stack of eight or ten paintings, each layered in acid-free tissue. The first that he unwrapped was Mughal, a sensitive portrait of a lithe-bodied woman fingering a sitar against a backdrop of a palace garden. The second depicted Krishna surrounded by a bevy of laughing women, their full-lashed elongated eyes indicating that this painting belonged to the Kishangarh School of Rajasthan. One after another, Gupta revealed his paintings. All the rest were also Rajput miniatures from a variety of distinct schools created in the 17th and 18th centuries under the patronage of various royal courts in Rajasthan. They were indeed superb, but I felt a certain unease. I could not pinpoint what was bothering me, but I had an undeniable sense that they were not all they purported to be. Each of them looked right. The paper on which they were painted appeared correct, the subject matter divine, the lines and forms precise and the colors authentic—yet something felt out of tune.

I was careful to disguise my concern. “These are indeed magnificent!” I sighed. “What is your intention for them? How do you think I might help you?”

The corner of Gupta’s mouth betrayed a slight smirk before he covered it by gushing, “You are so well connected with western museums, dear Porter, that I hoped you might recommend them for me. Of course you will benefit handsomely from any sale you can arrange for me…”

“Mr. Gupta…”

“Please call me Arvind!”

“Arvind, then. You know that I could never accept a commission for any connections I might make for you. But of course I will keep these beautiful paintings in mind and will recommend them to the right people if I sense there is interest. You would, of course, need to provide me with digital copies as well as good prints.”

“Absolutely, dear Porter. Whatever you want will be available. I will arrange for them to be delivered to you. Where are you staying?”

I was just telling Gupta about my accommodations when Ghulam, the short assistant, rushed in to whisper something in his employer’s ear. Gupta jumped to his feet in agitation.

“You must excuse me, dear man. Just now I’ve learned that a couple of VVIPs are arriving here and I must give them all my attention. Please pardon my haste. We will continue this conversation later.”

Without further explanation, Gupta glided quickly out of his office and was standing at the front door as it opened to reveal a dark-suited, distinguished continental-looking man accompanied by an elegantly dressed, beautifully coiffed woman. Fine subtle jewelry adorned her ears, neck, wrists and fingers.

I glanced briefly at the paintings again while the diminutive Ghulam rewrapped them and closed the portfolio. As I left the office, Gupta was just entering with the chic couple. A brief introduction identified them as the Portuguese ambassador and his wife, both reservedly polite.

I was relieved to escape the building and its cloying proprietor. Outside, I took a deep breath and signaled for Daleep to come pick me up. I was bemused to notice the contrast between my own dented and discolored taxi and the elegant Jaguar limousine waiting outside. The small Portuguese flags fluttering on its hood gave its inhabitants unhindered access to wherever they chose to travel in India. As Daleep drove me away, I noticed Ghulam rushing out of a side door of the gallery carrying a large bundle.

While Daleep navigated the vagaries of oncoming Indian traffic, he asked over his shoulder, “Is everything being OK, sir?”

“I’m not at all sure, Daleep.” I replied.