A Nose for a Story (1)
'Are you OK Miss?' asked the taxi driver. He could see in his mirror that the American lady sitting in the back seat, was having a hard time keeping down her expensive lunch.
'No, I am not! What is that awful smell?' the woman asked.
The taxi driver smiled to himself. He often had to explain the smell to wealthy foreigners after he had driven them a kilometre or so away from their hotel. It was not something their sensitive city noses were used to.
'It's just the sewage, Miss. The pipes from the toilets are old and the weather is hot in India,' he explained. 'There are many people in Bombay - the pipes get very full.'
The taxi driver almost felt sorry for his passenger. She was middle-aged but had a pretty face and shiny dark hair, though her teeth were too big for his taste. Yet he could see as he closed the windows and switched on the air- conditioning that many men would find her attractive. But he had long since learned to distance himself from the delights of his lady passengers. He thought of himself as a professional, like a doctor. He was above such things.
'Don't worry, Miss; there are no more big sewage pipes in the village where we are going,' he added, helpfully.
'Thank God for that!' said the woman, who was now beginning to wish she had not asked for the windows to be left open in the first place.
'No, they use cesspits - big holes in the ground where they put all their-'
Thank you, driver,' the woman said quickly. 'There's no need to go into details. I can imagine.'
Desiree Malpen, in fact, had one of the best imaginations in her business. She was a senior journalist for the National Diary, a publication which was proud of being America's 'number one magazine for lovers of the truth'. Other journalists who wrote for more serious newspapers disagreed. They said that the National Diary loved scandal and dirt and didn't care how much it changed the truth in its stories. The journalists were right. Lots of pictures and lots of scandal - that was the National Diary's recipe for success - and Desiree was one of the magazine's top writers.
The taxi drove on a long way outside the city until the road became rougher. Finally it stopped by a small group of houses off the side of the road.
'This is the place, Miss. It's the house to the left,' said the driver. He pointed to a house that was slightly larger than the rest and still had some white paint on its walls.
'But it's so small!' Desiree said in surprise.
'Best house in the village, Miss. The family has been there many, many years,' said the driver with some pride, as if he knew the famous writer who had lived there, though he had never met her in his life.
This was the house of the late Nyree Singh, the former society beauty and writer, whose highly praised novels had been made into several films and who had won the Nobel Prize - or was it the Pulitzer? Desiree wasn't sure. She had never read any of her books. She knew, however, that Nyree Singh had been killed two months ago in a car crash just outside Bombay. Some people said she had been driving to the house of an Indian film star - a married film star. Desiree felt sure that the crash had been no accident. It wouldn't be the first time that such 'accidents' had been arranged. Perhaps there was a jealous wife involved... or maybe an angry relative who could not stand the scandal or embarrassment to the family name? She had a nose for a story and when Desiree Malpen smelled a story there would be a story.
And if there were no facts behind the story she would think of some.
She looked at the window of the house. A figure was moving. There was somebody still living in Nyree Singh's house. But who?
Desiree took a few close-up pictures of the house - she always liked to take her own photographs. They gave a personal touch to her stories and made her some extra money.
'That's fine. Take me back to the hotel now, driver. I'll come back sometime and take a closer look. And driver...'
'Next time I ask you to open the windows for some fresh air, don't!' Desiree said decisively.
While Desiree was going back to her hotel in the taxi, Gopal Singh was looking at the old brown photograph of his younger sister, Nyree. It sat on the table next to the sweet-smelling flowers he replaced daily. She looked as he would always remember her - a beautiful young woman whose intelligence shone far beyond her own country. She was only forty-five when she died in that car accident, still beautiful and with so much still to give. She had been respected by artists and politicians all over the world. Yes, he was proud of his sister.
But she used to get so angry!
He laughed. It was easier to laugh now. Oh, the times they had argued over the company she sometimes kept. Gopal had not always liked the people she mixed with. Still, they had always been there for each other. Neither of them had married. She was married to her work. He had always looked after her, though he would never have admitted it to his proud brilliant sister who, in many ways, had been a child still. She was too idealistic, only interested in those who shared her ideals. She would argue her opinions with anybody, but her beauty sometimes attracted lovers as well as thinkers. She could not be trusted to look after herself and who else was there? They were the only ones left of their family. Only he had known Nyree: only he had understood her ways, her needs - perhaps more than she did herself.
And now she was gone.
People seemed to want her even more since her death. But it was still Gopal who looked after her memory and her work. He kept away all the journalists and other people who wanted a part of his sister to take away with them. She had given them-" her work, her wonderful books. Why should they want the part of her that was left to him, the part that was his sister? She had put her life into her work. Wasn't that enough for them?
Gopal had always been there for her. Even when she had mixed with the most famous people in India, she had always come back to her faithful brother and their peaceful little home in the village. Always.
Now there was a growing number of curious eyes, cars that stopped and looked, tapping on the windows, notes through the door. What did they want? Didn't they know she was dead?
But he would stay. He would end his days in the house that held his memories wrapped in the sweet smell of flowers.
What else could he want?
The Excelsior hotel was famous for its quality and luxury. It was the place to stay at if you were at all important or wanted to be thought of as being important. It was always full of foreign journalists. Whenever they were working in Bombay, foreign journalists always chose the Excelsior. Its attraction to journalists was obvious: it was a good place for both valuable information and scandal. Who knows what famous guests might say after too much wine at dinner? And there were always keen listening ears to catch every foolish word or careless whisper. This would later be served up to the world as a tasty dish of scandal in magazines like the National Diary. There were always plenty of readers hungry for details of the lives of famous people, especially if those details were interesting and personal.
That was why Desiree Malpen was staying there.
That evening at the hotel, Desiree sat at her table in the lounge looking at the setting sun through the windows. She was pleased with herself. She kept a glass of white wine with her but drank very little of it. This was what she always did. It meant that she could refuse offers of drinks from interested men while keeping a cl ear head herself. She was very good at listening to people who first drank too much and then said too much. On the few occasions when the conversation went from the boring to the exciting, she could reach into her handbag and switch on her tiny tape recorder - a very useful machine indeed.
Desiree was there to interview one of India's top film directors, Raj Patel. He was about to make a film based on Indian Summer, Nyree Singh's last novel. The Indian film industry, centered in Bombay, was becoming popular in the West, where it was sometimes known as 'Bollywood'. Desiree had no interest at all in Indian films or their directors, but her boss had told her that she might find out more about Nyree Singh and her film star lover. If anybody knew him, Patel did.
She recognised Patel coming towards her. He was quite old, well over sixty - Desiree preferred younger men - and was dressed in an expensive white suit. He was smiling and holding a gin and tonic. Desiree knew that older men were attracted to her. It was useful, though it could be risky if she stayed too long and they became too interested. She could see already that Patel's eyes were attracted by the necklace that sat above the low neckline of her dress. But she could handle herself all right. This guy would be no problem, she could tell. Patel came up to her and smiled.
'Miss Malpen, if I'm not mistaken...?'
Desiree held out her hand as she welcomed him. She was expecting a handshake but Patel took it and gave it a kiss instead. It felt wet.
'They didn't tell me you were so handsome, Mr Patel!'
'You know how to please an old man, Miss Malpen,' Patel said as he laughed. 'But I was surprised when your magazine said it was interested in my latest film production. In fact, I'm pleased that the West is finally taking an interest in Indian cinema.'
'The whole world knows that you beat Hollywood in getting the rights to film Nyree Singh's last novel, Indian Summer. Naturally, everybody wants to know about it, especially since Nyree Singh's death,' said Desiree as she switched on her tape recorder.
'Well, I've always wanted to film Nyree's novels. I think it's best that her work should be filmed by Indians in India.'
'I hear that Nyree had quite an interest in Indian films... and in film stars. Is that right, Mr Patel?'
And so the conversation went on. Raj Patel wanted to talk about his new film but Desiree wanted to talk about Nyree Singh and kept trying to get him to give away details of her involvement with one of his stars. Throughout it all, Patel simply smiled, drank his gin and tonic and kept trying to return to the subject of his film. But Desiree was determined and the subject always went back to Nyree's personal life. Finally he stood up.
'Will you excuse me for a few moments, Miss Malpen? I won't be long.' He had a phone call to make that he didn't want her to know about. And he left.
Desiree waited and sipped her wine. She was annoyed that the old fool hadn't told her about anything apart from his boring film. He was back half an hour later. He seemed to be a little drunk. Desiree tried not to appear annoyed.
'Ah, yes, Miss Malpen - you were interested in Nyree Singh.' Patel's voice was louder than before and not as clear. 'And who can blame you? By the way, that is a most beautiful necklace you are wearing, my dear.'