Read Date with a Sheesha Online
Authors: Anthony Bidulka
I clicked on the photo and was taken to a new page. I growled under my breath when I was presented with the standard greeting telling me to add Nayan as a friend if I wanted to know more.
I had no idea if Facebook Nayan Gupta was the same Nayan Gupta whose death I was invited to, but I was curious enough to find out.
Okay, okay. My lack of previously booked engagements (read: I was bored) may have had something to do with it too.
According to my Day-timer, other than an afternoon coffee date with my friend Anthony, the day was devoid of appointments with clients clamouring for my services. As was the next day and the day after that. Business was slow. My brow creased, and I let out an audible humph. Maybe that Blue Monday scientist was on to something after all.
I jumped up and headed for the door. There was just enough time to make it to the airport.
Saskatoon’s John G. Diefenbaker Airport is named for the thir-teenth Prime Minister of Canada, who grew up in our city. He had many nicknames during his political career, my favourite being 12
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“The Dief” (which I always thought would have made for a much snappier airport moniker. I can hear the pilot’s smooth tones now: We will soon be on our approach for a landing at The Dief.) I pulled into the parking lot just after eleven. Eighteen months ago, my beloved and mucho sexy Mazda RX-7 convertible was pushed off the roof of a downtown parking garage. I was meant to be in it. Luckily, I managed to escape, just in time to see her splat on the ground three storeys below me. If this isn’t proof that life as a prairie private detective is nothing short of exhilarating, I don’t know what is. That sad day suddenly left me without any readily available means of transportation. Other than my own two feet, that is, which made it rather difficult to pursue fleeing criminals in speeding vehicles. And late-night surveillance with nowhere to sit but the snow bank across the street from the bad guy’s house just wasn’t working for me.
For many years, I’d resisted what I knew deep down to be true. A two-seater convertible, no matter how much of a man-magnet, is simply not a practical vehicle given the life of a private eye. In my line of work, I spend more time in my automobile than most. Add to that two dogs, a mother who’d needed the Jaws of Life to get in and out of the Mazda, and a boyfriend who has a daughter and two dogs of his own. The car was Impractical with a capital “I.” So, today, I am the owner of another Mazda. A
to be exact.
I know I made the right decision. A minivan is what I need. It’s good for me. Like fibre is good for me. And cod-liver oil. And regular appointments with John the dentist.
As I closed the door of the “Babamobile” (as I’d come to think of her) I heard the reassuring thunk of the heavy door with child-proof locks, and felt a good deal older than my spritely thirty-nine years. But I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. It was damn cold out and my ears were already feeling the burn. (I never wear a toque—messes the hair). So I made a hasty dash for the terminal, and my appointment with death.
Once inside, I loosened my scarf and unzipped my quilted jacket. I passed by the signs for Air Canada, Delta, Pronto, 13
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Transwest, United, and WestJet. There didn’t immediately appear to be any check-in counter for “Nayan Gupta’s death,” and as I toddled along, I realized I didn’t really know what I was looking for. Would there be banners and streamers and watered-down punch? Music? Maybe some speeches?
I had to admit to myself that I didn’t really expect to find anything here. I’d come all this way because I had nothing better to do. It got me out of the office. After all, how seriously would anyone in their right mind take an invitation to death? The whole thing was a hoax. Someone’s idea of a joke on Blue Monday. Kind of like pulling an April Fool’s Day joke on a friend. I just happened to have the time to play along. On the way back to the office I’d pick up something fun for lunch. Maybe sushi. Not a bad morning, really.
Although I’m not a Tim Hortons fan (and therefore—according to some—not really a Canadian), I stopped next to the kiosk and debated ordering a cup of java. Steaming hot liquid in any form is always a good thing in wintertime Saskatchewan. Just as I was about to succumb to the opportunity to rrrrrrroll up the rim to win, a crowd of about twenty people diverted my attention.
They were standing on the far side of the food court, near the big windows that look out onto the tarmac. Although it wasn’t exactly a commotion, they were definitely getting worked up about something.
I sauntered over to get a better view of what it was they were staring at. From what I could tell, they seemed particularly trans-fixed by a nearby Air Canada jet. It looked like the aircraft had been there for a while. Arriving passengers had already disem-barked. A gas truck was refuelling the plane. Cargo was being unloaded. Nothing seemed amiss or particularly interesting about the airplane. I didn’t get it.
Then came a collective intake of breath, followed by a stifled cry. Followed by several more cries.
What was going on?
My eyes searched the plane and the surrounding area all over again: Big metal tube. Two wings. Sitting on a wide, flat, frigid-looking expanse of runway. All looked standard to me.
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But there had to be something…something…
Then I saw it. A new piece of cargo had just been unloaded from the plane’s belly. From its size and shape, and the reaction of the assembled group, now flattened against the window, I knew it could only be one thing. A coffin.
I turned to examine the people. They were hugging one another, murmuring in voices thick with grief, pressed as close to the pane of glass or each other as they could be. Others in the food court were watching the public tumult too. They couldn’t resist. It was as if we’d somehow been transported to a stranger’s funeral.
We were compelled to watch the sadness, witness the misery. At the same time, we were glad to be removed, glad it wasn’t someone we loved in that solitary, cold-looking box. Even so, the emotions were so big, so raw, so real, a wave of sorrow radiated out from the mourners, washing over the rest of us. We couldn’t help but be covered by the tide of loss.
Many of the women, and some of the men, were sobbing. The others did what they could to comfort them. Small children looked up at their parents, eyes wide, faces strained, unsure whether to cry or run away and hide.
One of the older women, nearly overcome with her sadness, began to collapse. The crowd rallied around her. She was helped to a nearby chair, and slumped into it. I noticed a colourful swath of fabric pool around her feet. Under her coat she was wearing a sari. I studied the group more closely and saw that all of the mourners were of South Asian descent. Gupta. Nayan. South Asian. The dark handsome features of the young man on Facebook… South Asian? Could it be?
Suddenly I felt ashamed for having taken the whole thing so lightly. Had I really been invited to the death…or at least the after-math of the death…of Nayan Gupta? Were these people his family? Friends and relatives here to greet him at the end of his final voyage home from who knew where. Here to escort him to his final resting place.
Why was I here? Who would send me an invitation to this?
Who would do such a thing? The whole idea was nothing short of ghoulish.
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With the casket disappearing from view, the family began to regroup, recover, and move, en masse, toward the exit. I was only a bystander, an outsider, yet I felt wrung out by the ordeal. My heart had been frayed by the unexpected display of pain.
When the man broke off from the departing group and came toward me, I was not surprised. I was relieved. Here at last would be the answers to my questions. Here at last would be an explanation for my requested presence. I’d know what my part in all of this was meant to be. Deep down, even though I didn’t know a soul amongst those gathered at the airport that day, I was filled with a desire to help them if I could.
The man who approached me was several inches shorter than I, heavy-set, with an egg-shaped face and expressive, intelligent eyes. Familiar eyes. I would have bet dollars to doughnuts this was Nayan Gupta’s father.
Without a word, the man reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a folded piece of paper, and handed it to me.
“Mr. Gupta?” I asked.
“Mr. Quant,” he answered. “Thank you for coming. Neil was my son.”
“Nayan. He called himself…most people called him Neil.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Gupta.”
“Thank you. That is very kind. I’d like very much for you to come to our home now. Can you do that? I have something to tell you.”
“Pranav,” a woman from the departing crowd called out to the man.
His eyes remained on me. “I must go,” he told me. “Will you come to my home? I will be there, at the address on the paper I just gave you. With my family.”
I nodded. “Of course,” I agreed. As I did, I wasn’t quite sure why I was being so accommodating to this strange man with his strange request.
He reached down for my hand and pulled it into a brisk handshake. He gave me a smile that must have cost him dearly, given the circumstances. “I must go now.”
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And then he, along with the rest of Neil’s family and friends, was gone.
A sombre-looking woman opened the door to the Gupta’s sizeable Arbor Creek house. She nodded at me and stepped back to let me in. Although I couldn’t see the rest of the clan, I could hear the hum and buzz of people in unhappy conversation not far off.
“My husband is waiting for you,” she said.
“You’re Mrs. Gupta?” I said, mostly because I had nothing else up my sleeve.
“Yes,” she told me with pursed lips. “I am Unnati Gupta.
Unnati was wearing a stunning sari of rich turquoise, bright pink, and deep yellow. Her dark hair was pulled back from her face, bringing focus to eyes that were sharp and slightly narrowed, as if she was in a permanent state of suspicion. Her lips were painted bright red, matching her fingernails. A lovely collection of gold jewellery adorned her wrists, ears, and neck.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” I told her.
She nodded again, those eyes taking in every bit of me.
“And who is this, Unnati?” Another, older woman wearing an equally colourful and striking sari joined us.
“This is no one,” she answered. “He’s only here to see Pranav.”
I must not have hidden my surprise at her brusque comment too well, because she quickly added: “I mean you aren’t family.
Everyone here today is family, you see.”
I managed a wan smile.
“Well, he should eat anyway,” the other woman said. Taking firm hold of my arm, she purposefully led me away from the front door. Unnati followed at a discreet distance, as if wanting to know where we were going but not wanting to be part of the trip.
My as yet unnamed companion handed me a plate and welcomed me to try one of everything. Although I could readily identify some of the dishes: pakoras, samosas, a lentil-based dal, chickpea masala, kebabs with sauces, mango chutney, and piles of freshly baked naan bread, there were many more I did not recog-17
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nize. No problem. My hospitable escort was more than happy to introduce them, spooning healthy portions of each onto my plate.
When she was done—or rather when there was no room left—
the woman pointed at the sweets. She made me promise to come back for dessert. In particular, she suggested the gulaab jamun.
My mother would say the dish looked something like fried perogies in syrup. (And then she’d go home and try to make it herself—Ukrainian style.)
As soon as the old lady was gone, Unnati was at my side.
“My husband is waiting for you,” she told me, with a pointed look at my overflowing plate. I could almost hear it groan from the strain, of both the overabundance of food and my chaperone’s disapproving glare. “It’s this way.”
Following behind the departing woman, feeling a bit like Oliver Twist caught with too much porridge, I took the opportunity to inventory the sights along the way. From what I could see of the furnishings, the artworks, and the general splendour of the Guptas’ house, I concluded that although maybe not
rich, the Guptas were getting plenty dirty on their way there.
Undecided between modern-day contemporary and traditional Indian, they’d decided to go with both. Beautifully carved antique chests and doorway arches of dark brown woods mixed seamless-ly with sleek leather divans and glass-topped coffee tables.
Massive brass deities sat companionably next to postmodernist sculpture. Lush carpets covered slate tile, gold-framed art depict-ing humanized gods and celestial beings hung next to vivid oil originals by famed local artists such as Ernest Lindner, Dorothy Knowles, and Darrell Bell. The result was a wildly eclectic decor, but skilfully accomplished in a way that no single feature was highlighted at the expense of another.
“He’s in here,” Mrs. Gupta said, indicating a closed door at the end of a wide hallway. The quiet that surrounded us was a testament to sound construction, thick walls, and the size of the house.