Monday, February 21, 2011

More Than Just Curry

Category: Issue 21

                                  More than Just Curry

    Sumpta Gupta was trained as a dentist in his native India but immigrating to America reduced his prospects considerably. Forced to find work, he drove a cab around Chicago for a chilly year or two until his brother in law, Shasha Singh, opened a small grocery store in Santa Rosa, California, and asked Sumpta if he could help out. Sumpta was happy to oblige. Happy to ditch the cab and put Chicago 2,300 miles behind him. He and Anka packed up their four children and what little they owned and drove an old car 2,300 miles across the country. They would remember that drive as one of their best times.
    The Guptas had four children, three daughters—Rivka, Putah, and Shiva— and a step son, Bobo, from a previous marriage. Anka never spoke of her previous marriage and Sumpta learned not to upset her by asking too many questions. Bobo was a strange little boy. Almost silent and fastidiously neat he wore a mixture of tattered sneakers and some his sister’s clothes. It was Bobo who was delivering the chicken curry to Francis Brennan at the library that fatal day.
    Sumpta and Anka were busy in the store. Anka in the kitchen making samosas and Sumpta by the back door unloading a truck load of fresh produce. Engaged as they were, they did not see the elderly Mr. Brennan plunge to his death. As a result they had little to tell the police investigator when he came around to question them. They were singled out for questioning because the police found the chicken curry at the scene. The curry was left by Bobo who had a great deal to tell the police and, indeed, told them most of what he knew in a most lively and, as far as the police were concerned, incomprehensible manner.
    When the police came to question him, Sumpta Gupta just shook his head from side to side in that curious way Indian people have. That side to side head shake can mean many things to a fellow Indian, but it confused the investigator, a tired public servant a few months from retirement, completely.
    Bobo, had a great deal to say about the events of that day. He had been crossing the street in front of the library when the professor fell at his feet nearly crushing the boy. Bobo stood shocked before the bloody and broken thing. He shrieked, dropped the curry and fled.
    “What were you doing there?” the cop asked Bobo.
    “Delivering the curry sir.”
    “Who was the curry for?”
    “For the professor, sir.”
    “For professor Brennan? The victim?”
    “Yes sir.”
    “Did you see him fall?” The investigator felt he was getting somewhere. At least he’d solved how the curry got on the sidewalk.
    “No sir,” Bobo replied.
    “Did you see anything?” the cop asked, “anything at all?”
    Bobo stared at his sock-less feet in the torn tennis shoes and said, “No sir,” in a tiny voice. This was not the truth, for Bobo had seen his uncle, Shasha Singh, at the window. Miraculously his 11 year old mind thought it better to keep that information to himself. Whatever his uncle was doing up there was not his concern. Bobo knew better than to mess around in family business.
  Sasha Singh loved his sister and was happy to help her and her family. His brother in law, Sumpta, was a good worker. Shasha tried to treat him well, but couldn’t help being a boss and asserting his authority. “Sumpta sweep the sidewalk.” or “Sumpta, the produce is looking wilted.” That was the sort of thing Sumpta heard all day. It made Anka feel ashamed for her husband and angry at her brother.
    Sasha was a shy man with few friends and a big scar running down his face from his eye to his mouth. It gave him a cruel look though he wasn’t a cruel man. The scar was the result of a knife fight in his youth. Family honor was nothing to trifle with in the old country.
    Sasha Singh had ambitions. He dreamed of opening a second store and was grooming Sumpta to be the manager. His training methods were often harsh and unexplained which made the atmosphere in the store thick with resentment and misunderstanding. Sumpta’s unhappiness at work was reflected in his life at home where he often took out his frustrations on Anka and the children.
    After questioning the staff of the little store, it came to light that Professor Brennan was a frequent customer coming in every morning for sundries and hot coffee and calling in for lunch almost every day. The professor knew Sumpta and his children by name although he often got the daughter’s names mixed up. Sumpta’s most lasting memory of the Professor was his poor dentition. On the morning of the day he died, professor Brennan stopped in the store and bought a package of chewing gum, a bottle of water and a newspaper. Sumpta remembered saying, “No coffee today professor?” Those were the last words they spoke.
    What no one knew was that Anka and the professor shared a secret. Many years before, when Brennan was on sabbatical in India doing research on Hindu Creation Myths, he employed an escort service to help him satisfy his sexual needs which in his case involved young girls and boys. The girl they sent him was Anka Singh, she was thirteen years old. They spent a night together. It’s not clear whether the professor remembered any of that incident but Anka certainly did. She recognized him immediately and shrank from his presence whenever he entered the store. If a DNA test were ever done, it would prove that Professor Brennan was Bobo’s father.
    Bobo and the professor also shared a secret. Bobo’s daily curry deliveries had developed into something quite extraordinary. The arrangement was fine with Bobo who was comfortable with either men or women, besides, the professor was a generous tipper. Anka suspected something was going on with her son and the old man. Her suspicions were confirmed when she confronted Bobo after one of his deliveries. Anka dared not tell her husband of her shameful past but desperate to tell someone, she made the mistake of confiding in her brother after making him swear not to seek vengeance. Despite his promises to the contrary, Shasha Singh seethed with rage and vengeance.
    The police searched in vain for a possible motive or a suicide note but came up empty handed on both scores. They did learn that Professor Brennan had a reputation as a pederast but nothing could be proven, besides, half the faculty at the local college were suspected of some form of sexual misconduct. At no time did the investigation implicate the Guptas or the Singhs in the professor’s tragic death.
    So it goes with human affairs. Layers of mystery and coincidence pile up until something has to give. Shasha Singh went on to open a second grocery and a third. Gupta managed one until his death in an accident on his loading dock. Anka, left a widow, was cared for by her brother. She ran a large kitchen that prepared meals for Sasha’s stores. The kitchen grew into a restaurant and successfully employed all her children. The Gupta girls all married American men they met in the restaurant and went on to have varied and interesting lives of their own. Bobo became a drag queen, went off to live in San Francisco for a while. He died of HIV Aids in 2002. Go figure.

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