The Descent of Mr.Gupta
Some twenty kilometers from Dhanaulti lies the village of Bataghat. Travelling down the spectacular road from Dhanaulti to Mussorie, it is unlikely that you would ever notice such a shabby and insignificant little village, and even more so the little dirt road that breaks off to the left and disappears into the woods. This trail moves through thick pines for some two kilometers before rising steeply to a hill-top. This place is locally referred to as "Didina" or the "flower of the hills". Not many people know of this place, and very few actually come here.
Didina is a place haunted by memories. Before Independence, it used to be the place where the cream of the British ‘high society’ would spend their lazy summer afternoons. It was a place where only the distinguished could afford a cottage. Yet today, it is only a shadow of its former glorious self. As one by one the British left, Didina became a memory in the minds of those few that cared to remember the past. There are some old men in the village who could tell you tell you a story or two. The tales that they have to tell, no doubt fascinating, are caught somewhere between their imagination and the fragments of some old memories. Yet, all these have little to do with us.
Didina has some old cottages. They are built in the old colonial style and bear the mark of a refined arrogance. Most of these are in ruins; only three are maintained and occupied. They belong to three old ladies.
The dirt road follows a twisting path through a mountain meadow till you can see the tiled roof-tops of the first few houses. The last cottage down the dirt road belongs to a Mrs. D’Souza. It bears a small sign which reads, "D’Souza’s Cottage: Room For Rent". Mrs. D’Souza is a thin, pale woman who suffers from chronic bouts of rheumatism. During these painful hours she often goes to her neighbour, Ms. Sherbetwallah, for her home-made remedies which though grossly unscientific, provide miraculous cures. Ever since her husband, the Judge, passed away some twenty years ago, she has had to rent out her cottage to earn her livelihood. Bad investments have left her with little money, and the cottage is her only source of income. Her neighbours, Ms. Sherbetwallah and Mrs. Chadwick, have always been so kind. Though money might be difficult at times, Mrs. D’Souza could never ask for financial assistance from her neighbours. She could never do it. It would be against her principles. After all, Mrs. D’Souza was a proud woman.
But today, something is wrong with Mrs. D’Souza. Her wrinkled forehead seems to have acquired at least a hundred new wrinkles, and her walk seems to be slower than usual. She is a woman faced with many problems, but today she is worried about something specific. Mr. Gupta, to whom she had rented out her cottage back in January has refused to vacate and leave. Summer was here. Mr. Verma would be here in only a couple of days. She had so much to do. The pies would be difficult to make this year. But she had to make them; she would manage…somehow. She had promised him the pies. She couldn’t bear to disappoint Mr. Verma; he really loved those pies.
Mr. Verma was Mrs. D’Souza’s favourite lodger. He had come every summer, for the past sixteen years. He would stay with her for about fifteen days and then drive back to Delhi where he worked for some newspaper. Mrs. D’Souza knew that. Mr. Verma had written those sweet things about her pies in his paper. She had it framed on the wall of the living-room. He also brought with himself really nice presents for the three old ladies every year. Mrs. D’Souza treated him like her own son. They would talk for hours about different things. She really enjoyed his company. It was one time in the year when Mrs. D’Souza was truly very happy.
Mr. Gupta was a strange man. In appearance, he was most insignificant. He was short, with a wheatish complexion. He was one of those men you may see any day and everyday on the road, or on the bus or at the local tea-shop. He had arrived in Didina some five months back. He had promised Mrs. D’Souza that he would leave in a month or so. He had gone back on his word. He had refused to leave. Mr. Gupta led a strange life. He rarely went down to the village, and had never shown interest in social interaction. In fact, he rarely came out of his room. Though he looked an average man, he had an extraordinary temper. Mrs. D’Souza had seen flashes of it, mostly when he conversed over the telephone. In the beginning it had scared her. But now, she no longer felt scared of him. Mr. Gupta had arrived in Didina with two suitcases. The first contained his clothes. He never opened the second. However, Mrs. D’Souza was not a stupid woman. She knew what the second suitcase contained. It contained money; it contained a lot of money.
At first, Mrs. D’Souza had thought that Mr. Gupta was one of those men who really enjoyed their privacy. There were always some like him who would come for a couple of days, to get away from the rush of daily life. All of them had enjoyed their stay at her place. It seemed to give them the break that was necessary to face the trials of everyday life once again. However, in course of time she understood that though Mr. Gupta refused to leave this place, he was not exactly fond of this place. In fact at times Mrs. D’Souza would think that he hated it with vengeance. Yet, he refused to leave. It was as if Mr. Gupta had exiled himself from the rest of the world, by some compulsory choice.
Mrs. D’Souza was a soft-spoken woman. She had tried to explain her problems to Mr. Gupta at various instances but he had shown little interest. It was not in her nature to scream or shout and make a public demonstration of her problems. That was just not her. She could never dream of involving either of her neighbours in this messy business; it was against her principles. Her pride would never have allowed that. However, this was not what Mrs. D’Souza was actually worried about.
Ms. Sherbetwallah was preparing her latest self-invented remedy against the common cold. It was a concoction made of several herbs which she had gathered from the forest. Though she weakly admitted that it had a rather foul smell, she had no doubt whatsoever that it was the ultimate cure against the common cold. However, fortunately or unfortunately, Ms. Sherbetwallah had an incredible resistance against practically every ailment or disease: thus self-treatment was quite out of the question. Perhaps Mr. Verma would be kind enough to try out this remedy she had prepared. He seemed to be suffering from one ailment or the other every time he came. Mr. Verma had, in the past, tried her remedies and enjoyed its miraculous effects. He would never object against trying out this concoction; he was such a sweet man. He brought her that wonderful book on mountain herbs the year before last. She could not but wonder what Mr. Verma would bring this time around. He always brought such beautiful gifts. Mrs. D’Souza had assured her that Mr. Verma would stay with her. How it was possible with Mr. Gupta leeching on to the room seemed to puzzle her. Mrs. D’Souza had seemed really unconcerned about this situation. But she was worried. It was just not this.
Mrs. D’Souza no longer has a rose bush. Instead she is now growing peas. They are the apple of her eye at the moment. Under the peas lie the remains of Mr. Gupta. He was a rather unpleasant man. With him lies his ill-gotten wealth. After all, Mrs. D’Souza was a proud woman.