I first met the extraordinary Mrs. Gupta in a sleepy little cocktail party that one of our mutual friends had invited us to. I had, of course, heard of her from various sources, and though most of the stories constituted of the same basic facts, I never quite managed to shake off my incredulity towards them.
At first glance, I could detect nothing in her appearance to betray her reportedly macabre tastes. She was and looked well over seventy, draped in a spotless white sari with elegant black borders. Her face appeared entirely composed of deep lines and wrinkles of varying sizes, her lips thin and colourless, as if they were inward extensions of the lines on each side of them. Small, black, lifeless eyes. Her hair had turned completely gray and lay thinly on her head in long frail strands bunched together tightly near the nape of her neck. She sat patiently listening to and evidently uninterested in the high pitched gossips of the ladies around her. The only feature worth noting, I reflected, was the absence of glasses. I had rarely seen a woman of that age without them.
It was during a particularly low phase in my fledgling career as a writer. In the past year, I had published a few stories in second grade magazines, earning barely sufficient money to stay afloat in a city like Mumbai. For several months, I’d been constantly approaching publishers to see if my motley collection of stories and essays could be combined into one volume through a common thread; a thread I myself could not detect. Expectedly, the publishers were not keen. They told me I could become a pretty decent author, but not by writing short stories. Write a full length novel and come back to us, they said. These days, nobody publishes short stories by an unknown author, they added.
And so here I was, trying desperately to find inspiration for a novel. There were none coming. Everywhere I went, everything I looked at, I tried to find myself a story. I even attempted to put myself into the shoes of authors past and how they’d look at a scene. Once, I’d sat three hours in front of an old, nearly blind beggar staring at him, until he’d gotten so uncomfortable that he’d limped off himself. What would the great authors write about him? Murakami would possess him with powers to make frogs or fishes or some such thing fall from the sky. Coetzee would create a poignant history of the man and who he was. Beckett would perhaps see him waiting for that one coin that would change his luck. Kafka would simply name him K. Which of these interpretations would I enjoy the most? For a long time, I had considered the one closest to my own to be an indication of the best. For wasn’t it when an author could describe a situation as if you were doing it yourself, as if he had gotten into your head and read your thoughts, that he achieved the inhuman? But then, I reasoned, that meant the author had merely reproduced what one has already thought oneself and has, therefore, little to offer by way of an alternate perception. So then was it the work that differs the most from one’s perception that should be considered the greatest?
Coming back to Mrs. Gupta, the chance encounter with her raised high hopes for me. A woman whose life and inexplicable tastes were worthy of being documented. A woman who perhaps held in her mind my future. A woman I had to talk to.
And so I walked up to her and offered her a glass of wine, which she graciously declined. I introduced myself.
“A writer, I see. How interesting”
Then she looked away again into the crowded milieu of multicoloured skins and fabrics, as if that interested her more. I asked if I could sit next to her for a while. She looked up at me for a moment with a semblance of surprise and then nodded.
“You don’t appear very interested in talking to all these people; don’t know many of them, I gather?”
“I know all of them”
For the next half hour, we sat next to each other, without conversation. At the end of it, she asked me to help her to her feet. I did so.
“Thank you, young man” she said “Visit my home sometime if you want to. I get quite lonely sometimes. A cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt.”
“Yes, of course. It’ll give me great pleasure.”
She nodded, picked up the walking stick next to the chair and walked off.
For a week after that, I meditated on how serious she really had been about the invitation to coffee. She had appeared earnest enough. The more pressing concern, however, was whether I should indeed go. If indeed the rumours about her were true, this could lead to an encounter more demanding than one over coffee. But I was desperate for my story. So I went.
Nothing happened. Her home was a lovely little two storey bungalow by the seaside. She didn’t speak much at all, politely answering whatever queries I put to her. I, prudently, avoided talking to her of what really held my interest. After a couple of hours, I bade her goodbye.
“Come back some time if you want to” she said, as I walked out.
Come back, I did. Several times in the next two months. Determined. Dogged. Each time, I spent a little more time with her. I learnt she had had a husband who died some ten years ago. I learnt she had a son she hadn’t seen in fifteen years, though he lived in the same city. I learnt she liked walking to the nearby park once a week and play with the children there.
It was probably my fourteenth visit, when she proposed I accompany her upstairs to see what it looked like. So far, she’d never shown me around the house and I hadn’t expressed any particular inclination in doing so. I was immediately on alert, the fear of what this might culminate in, coming back. But there was no conceivable reason why I could refuse and so followed her up the stairs, anxious and perspiring.
The stairs ended in a balcony, one that was visible from outside the house. It looked extremely clean, given the sea and the sand right next to it, and was evidently cared for. At the far end of the balcony, there was a door that led into what looked like a penthouse. She waited while I walked around the balcony, taking in the view and making mental notes of what I would or would not describe, if this did end in a story. Then she gestured towards the door and led me into the room.
It was a penthouse alright. Converted into a library. Four shelves full of books. There was a small glass paned window next to which was a medium sized reading table and two chairs.
I walked up to a shelf and picked up a book. And I realized all that I had heard of her was true. The truth was placed neatly, row upon row, stack upon stack, hundreds of them. On all the shelves
Porn. Magazines, graphic novels, literature. All porn.
I dared not look at her. I leafed through a few, scarcely able to keep my hands from shaking. A seventy year old woman, perfectly sane, who devoured porn.
I said nothing. She said nothing. I quietly made my downstairs; she made no attempt to intervene.
At the door, I turned around and asked her to if I could have a glass of water. She returned a minute later with it.
“I’ll take your leave now” I said.
“Do come back again”
That’s it. No explanations. But she had wanted me to see that room. Why? And what secret perversion made her keep, and in all likelihood read, all of that? What was the meaning of all this?
For a month after that, I did not go back. I lay at home, rarely going out, thinking of her. Devising stories. I thought of several, each more morbid than the other. But that was not the point. I had to know what the truth was. I had to ask her. And if her letting me have a look meant anything, then she probably wanted me to ask. She knew I was a writer.
So one morning, I called her and asked if I could see her. She consented, without letting her voice betray whether or not she wanted me to. I went anyway.
As always, she sat me in the cosy sofa where I always sat and went inside to make us some coffee. I sat there, looking around me, half expecting to see what I did not know.
She put the cups on the table and sat opposite me, looking at me intently. I did not speak. The silence hung over us oppressively.
“You wanted to see me again.” She said after a while. I nodded.
“It is about the library, isn’t it?”
“You want to make a story out of this, don’t you?”
I did not respond.
“That’s why you’ve been coming to me all this time”
I remained silent, staring down into my cup.
“So go ahead, ask.”
I looked up. She had been staring at me all the time.
“Why?” I asked
Her husband had been a moderately successful businessman. She had met her when she was about thirty and he well over forty. She had fallen madly in love with him and his money. He was in love with sex. So they had married.
A year into the marriage, they had realized that compatibility did not enter the equation for the two of them. They didn’t have the same tastes in anything. Not even different tastes. They just didn’t know what they wanted, assured only of the fact that whatever one desired, the other did not. Before either could contemplate a separation, a child had been produced. So, for the rest of their lives, they based their relationship on sex. To the very end. Just that.
Their son had, once he grew up, sensed the apathy that the two had towards themselves and towards him. So he had left. The two had gone on anyway.
And then the husband had died. And Mrs. Gupta’s entire life, wasted, had come tumbling down on her. She had mourned and wept for two years, yearning for her husband’s physical presence. There was no memory of him, of their time together, that she could conjure up to soothe her grief, to replace it with melancholy. And that made his absence more severe.
She looked back and forth in her life to find what she could go on with now. There was nothing. Once, before their marriage, she’d wanted to paint. Now her hands trembled and she smeared paint over the canvass.
Then one day, she had picked herself up, put on a dress she’d worn when she was young and which ill fitted her, put on pounds of makeup and gone to a pub. There she had sat alone at a table, staring at every man that walked in, smiling coquettishly at whoever cared to look at her. Nobody had come to her, talked to her. She’d returned home after they told her they had to close and cried herself to sleep.
Thus she spent every night thereafter. Sitting in one of the corner tables, being a laughing stock. Until one day, a young handsome looking fellow had walked up to her and asked her if she’d like a drink.
Later that night, she had returned home with him. She had asked him to wait in the hall, while she decorated her bedroom with fragrant colourful candles, which she’d bought in anticipation. Then she had stripped herself naked, switched off the lights and asked him to come in. When he entered, he had turned the light on. He wanted to see her for what she was, he told her. He had looked at her with tender eyes as she stood disconsolate and feeling more naked than she had ever felt before. Then he had walked up to her, taken her in his arms, and gently kissed her on the lips.
He had tried desperately to arouse her, to satisfy her. That she could not experience anything close to an orgasm, was entirely God’s fault. In truth, she never had had an orgasm in twenty years; when she was with her husband, that had not seemed to matter. She had cried desperately, clinging on to the young man, sniffing I am sorrys and saliva all over him. There was nothing wrong with what had happened, the man had told her. He had asked her to wait while he went outside and returned with a book in his hand. What is it, she had asked. It’s porn, he had replied. So they had lain there the rest of the night, in each others’ arms and he had read the entire book to her. She had not stopped crying, with sadness and pleasure and relief. Thank you, she had said. Thank you, as she dozed off in the best sleep of her life. In the morning, when she had woken up, he was gone. She found a note from him which said he was sorry and that he couldn’t let his conscience do this any longer.
A week later, a large parcel had arrived. It was from her son. He had sent her two porn magazines along with a photograph of himself with his friend, the young man of the previous night. She had read them, standing on the porch, right where she had opened them.
Another parcel arrived after a week. They continued to arrive week after week, year after year.
Her son had never come to meet her himself. The incredible library upstairs was her memories of her husband, her son and that last wonderful night she would have in her life, all rolled into one.
All of this, I wanted her to tell me.
“That is no business of yours” she told me instead.