On a Sunday morning in a housing complex in Delhi, Mr. Gupta and Mr. Reddy try to crack a puzzle
Mr. Gupta was in the middle of his third surya namaskar when the doorbell rang twice. With his neck curved upwards and head facing the ceiling, he shouted for his wife. She didn’t answer. He called again and started coughing.
“Shh. You are getting stressed,” Guru ji said.
Mr. Gupta looked at him angrily. He did not enjoy his Sunday morning yoga classes with this little man who looked like a holy clown. With his white dhoti kurta, red tika, constantly folded hands, and aura of serenity, Guru ji only made Mr. Gupta’s blood pressure rise. The doorbell rang again.
“Neena! Where is that woman?” Mr. Gupta said.
Before Mr. Gupta could open the door fully, Mr. Reddy pushed past him, waving a newspaper.
“Mr. Gupta, I’ve had enough. You are the president of this housing society. Please do something.”
Guru ji, tucking in the loose end of his dhoti, rushed over to observe.
“Mr. Reddy, you cannot disturb me like this. This is my yoga time,” Mr. Gupta said.
“And this is my crossword time but somebody is ruining that for me,” Mr. Reddy said.
Guru ji, standing calmly and smiling, said, “It is looking like you would also benefit from yoga, sir. I am offering a good discount to people of this housing society.”
Mr. Reddy looked at him and said, “Who is this fool? Yoga! American nonsense.”
“Guru ji, let us finish up,” Mr. Gupta said.
“But Mr. Gupta, I would just like to tell your friend that yoga does not come from America.”
Mr. Gupta and Mr. Reddy looked at Guru ji. Guru ji bowed, turned, tripped over the end of his dhoti, and left.
Mr. Gupta was relieved to have this distraction. When his doctor had suggested yoga, he had imagined hiring some nubile young woman, Eastern European perhaps, to come to his house in the mornings in tight stretchy pants, bending this way and that. Instead, Mrs. Gupta had gone and found this clown.
“Mr. Reddy, whatever the problem, please wait for the society meeting on Friday.”
“Every time I try to speak at the meetings, Mrs. Ray starts on one of her rants and nobody else gets to speak. I have no option but to come to your home. This is regarding my crossword puzzle.”
Right at that moment, Mrs. Gupta emerged from the bedroom with her hair piled up on her head in a towel like a turban.
“What is this? Where is Guru ji? You know you can’t finish in under half an hour. Your blood pressure will keep getting higher and that makes my pressure higher. Between that and my constant constipation, I will not manage to live.”
“We have a guest,” Mr. Gupta said.
Mrs. Gupta noticed Mr. Reddy and quickly said, “Not constant constipation. Just now and then. It happens to ladies sometimes. I am sure Mrs. Reddy is also suffering.”
“I asked Guru ji to leave because Mr. Reddy needs urgent help with a crossword. Now, what is the clue you are having trouble with? Sit, make yourself comfortable.”
Mrs. Gupta disappeared into the bedroom with her turban.
“Mr. Gupta, I am very capable of doing my crossword myself. My trouble is that every Sunday morning I wake up excited because The Telegraph publishes the difficult Guardian crossword and it is the most satisfying crossword to do but for the last several weeks somebody has been waking up before me, stealing my newspaper, completing the crossword and leaving it at my door. It is, quite frankly, ruining my life.”
“Mr. Reddy, you have your newspaper right there. Nobody has stolen it.”
“I didn’t say anybody had stolen it. Someone takes it in the morning before I wake up, finishes the crossword and puts it back. Worse than stealing.”
Mr. Reddy was unfolding the newspaper in his hands to prove his point.
“And,” he said, “Look at this. They have left some of the most difficult ones blank. What is a six-letter word for Peloponnesian war victor?”
Mr. Gupta enjoyed riddles.
“Pan-Asian war victor you say?” Mr. Gupta said. “Sounds easy.”
“It is absolutely not easy,” Mr. Reddy said.
“Pan-Asian war victor, Pan Asian war victor,” Mr. Gupta continued. “Six letters? V-I-C-T-O-R. Six letters! Got it! Victor.”
“You must find out who is doing this and put a stop to it.”
Mr. Gupta had no desire to run around in the summer heat trying to solve a case of solved crosswords. He didn’t quite trust Mr. Reddy. Ever since his wife had given birth to that mentally disabled boy, something about him had come unhinged. He was working longer and longer hours and taking far too much interest in the goings-on in the society. He used every excuse he could get to leave his house.
“Mr. Reddy, why don’t you go home and have one of those strong cups of South Indian coffee and then come back when you’re a bit calmer? I wouldn’t mind a cup myself. Go and request your pretty wife to make two cups.”
“No. I would like you to please figure out who is doing my crossword.”
Mrs. Gupta re-emerged from the bedroom.
“How is the crossword going?” she asked. “Maybe I can help.”
“Do you do crosswords regularly?” Mr. Reddy asked.
“No, she does not,” Mr. Gupta said.
Mr. Gupta looked at his wife. She was wearing a light pink kurta that was bunching up near her large waist. The mole on her chin was sprouting a dark hair and there were sweat patches visible under her arms.
“We must go out,” Mr. Gupta said to her. “This is not a simple matter of a crossword, I’m afraid. It is a question of a crime.”
“Now?” Mrs. Gupta said. “We have things to do. The rice has finished, the light in the bathroom is still flickering, you said you would fix it today. Mr. Reddy, this is not the right time.”
“Go to the market yourself. Stay out for as long as you need. I have to go with Mr. Reddy. It is a time-sensitive matter.”
Mr. Reddy looked pleased, Mrs. Gupta looked upset, and Mr. Gupta put on his sandals and quickly slipped out of the house before the discussion could continue.
Outside the door, Mr. Reddy turned to Mr. Gupta and said, “Mr. Gupta. I am sorry to say this but it may be your wife who is doing my puzzles. You saw the interest she just displayed. And I have noticed that you do not subscribe to Telegraph.”
“Mr. Reddy, how dare you accuse my wife of such things? It is better you go home and I will take care of the investigation.”
Mr. Gupta saw his window of opportunity. He was already out of the house so he would not be nagged by his wife. Now if he could just get rid of Mr. Reddy, he would have the morning to himself.
“You are a young father and husband, Sundays are home time. I have no family obligations and, as president, this really is my duty.”
“That is very generous,” Mr. Reddy said. “But I couldn’t possibly burden you like that. I shall be by your side until we get to the bottom of this. My wife and son can wait. We will spend all day if we need to. And next Sunday as well.”
And so Mr. Reddy and Mr. Gupta headed downstairs to start the investigation.
“I suspect it might just be Mrs. Ray,” Mr. Gupta said. “Have you noticed she has been acting very strangely ever since her husband passed? And she wakes up very early in the mornings to do yoga. Guru ji teaches her before he teaches me and he tells me that she is always wide awake and ready at 7AM. Not to mention the tight clothes she wears while doing yoga.”
Mr. Gupta always wanted any excuse to stop by Mrs. Ray’s house. The way she lived her life as a widow was so shocking — doing yoga, wearing tight clothes, often sitting on her balcony at dusk with a drink and a cigarette. There had even been rumors of male visitors. Mr. Gupta loved being around her. She was like those modern women you see in movies or read about on Page 3. He felt almost afraid of her.
He stood up a bit straighter now as they rang the doorbell. From inside, he could faintly hear music playing. Nobody answered. He rang again.
“Maybe we shouldn’t disturb her on a Sunday,” Mr. Reddy said. “Why don’t we go and have coffee and plan our strategy?”
Right then the door opened and Mrs. Ray stood in front of them. Her hair was pulled into a ponytail, she was wearing black yoga pants and a pink T-shirt and holding a cup of coffee. Behind her, the apartment was bathed in light, the balcony doors were wide open and loud music was playing. English music. Mr. Gupta felt a slight stir in his pants.
“Mr. Gupta. Mr. Reddy. Good morning. What lovely weather. Come in. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
The two men followed her in and took a seat on her balcony. Mrs. Ray had made her home quite nice. It was almost as if she took pleasure in life. She had installed a personal generator and lined her entire balcony with potted plants. From her balcony, Mr. Gupta could look across at his own apartment. It looked depressing, grey and empty. The grills on the window seemed unnecessary and cowardly. An old pot lay cracked in one corner. Through his balcony window he spotted Mrs. Gupta waddling around the living room cleaning out her ears with a Q-Tip.
“Mrs. Ray,” Mr. Reddy started. “It must be nice – having the mornings to yourself ever since your husband passed.”
Mr. Gupta looked over at Mr. Reddy. That was no way to speak to a lady. You couldn’t just hurl accusations at her even though she was a widow.
Across their balconies Mrs. Gupta was now stuffing handfuls of matthi into her mouth and wiping her greasy hands against her kurta and Mr. Gupta realized that if he could see Mrs. Gupta so easily, that meant Mrs. Ray could see him as easily. He remembered with a shudder the mornings he had stood in the middle of the living room with a towel around his waist, cleaning his bellybutton.
“You don’t spend too much time on this balcony, do you?” Mr. Gupta asked. “Too much sun is bad for the skin.”
“I just love the sun,” Mrs. Ray said. “I had the whole balcony redone and I spend all my time out here. We’re old Indian people, all this SPF and skin cancer rage is just some new fad.”
“But you must protect your skin. And your eyes. You don’t sit and look out of the balcony, do you?” Mr. Gupta continued, his mind racing to remember all that he had done in his living room.
“I’m too old to worry about all that. I find observing people most interesting. Mr. Das below you is quite the Bengali intellectual. It’s nice to see him sitting and reading all day. It’s a lost art these days.”
Mr. Gupta felt his ears burning. He never read. He didn’t understand why people read. Fiction was just lies. He thought of all the evenings when he had sat with his whiskey and made fun of Mr. Das downstairs. And Mrs. Ray was clearly being catty with her observations. But the tip-off. Why hadn’t Mr. Gupta himself considered Mr. Das? Mr. Das was forever using big words and talking about Latin and Shakespeare and whatnot. It was obvious.
“Mrs. Ray,” Mr. Gupta said. “We must take your leave.”
“Wait. Mr. Gupta, we have not asked her anything. Mrs. Ray, this is actually a matter of a crossword puzzle,” Mr. Reddy said.
“Mr. Reddy, Mrs. Ray hardly seems the type to do crosswords.”
The mood on the balcony had changed considerably and Mr. Gupta was now standing up ready to go.
Back downstairs, Mr. Reddy said, “Why don’t we take a break and have a cup of coffee?”
“Let’s get this over with,” Mr. Gupta said. “Mrs. Ray gave us a good tip about Mr. Das. Those Bengalis with their languages.”
Mr. Das opened the door with a book in his hand. Mr. Gupta’s suspicions were getting stronger.
“Mr. Das. Good morning. Sorry to disturb you on a Sunday. I see you are reading. Lots of words in books,” he said.
Mr. Gupta led Mr. Reddy past Mr. Das into the apartment.
“What can I do for you gentlemen?” Mr. Das asked.
Mr. Gupta was looking out of Mr. Das’s window towards Mrs. Ray’s balcony. She hadn’t been lying. She really was sitting in the balcony and looking out. Mr. Gupta smoothed down his shirt and straightened his back and tried to assume a posture of authority.
“Mr. Das. Bengalis are known to be intellectual. Writers, poets, that kind of thing. No doubt you are very interested in Latin branches of English words.”
“Do you mean Latin roots?” Mr. Das said.
“What?” Mr. Gupta said.
“Mr. Gupta, what is this regarding? I was reading quite an enjoyable book.”
“Mr. Das, what is a five-letter word for powdery volcanic rock?” Mr. Gupta asked.
“Trass,” Mr. Das said. “That was in this morning’s crossword. A difficult one; comes from a Dutch word.”
“Interesting,” Mr. Gupta said. He pulled the completed crossword out of his pocket and said, “And would you happen to know the three-letter word for highway curve?”
“Ess,” Mr. Das said.
“Yes? What is it then?” Mr. Gupta said.
“Ess,” Mr. Das repeated.
Mr. Gupta looked confused.
“E S S,” Mr. Reddy said. “Ess. It’s right.”
“Hm. Rather suspect,” Mr. Gupta said with a smile.
Mr. Gupta looked over at Mr. Reddy with a smile and nodded. They had found the culprit. Thank goodness. A few months ago, someone kept latching Mrs. Ghosh’s door from the outside, ringing the bell and running away and despite long hours spent hiding on her floor, Mr. Gupta had been unable to find the culprit. He knew everyone whispered behind his back and thought of him as an unsuitable president.
Mr. Gupta was about to accuse Mr. Das of the crime when Mr. Reddy spoke.
“Mr. Das, what is a six-letter word for Peloponnesian war victor?”
“That one has not been filled out,” Mr. Gupta said. “It will not help us.”
Mr. Reddy kept harping on the clues that hadn’t been completed. Amateur.
“Sparta. Of course. What is this about?”
“Sparta!” Mr. Reddy said, shaking his head and looking annoyed with himself.
Mr. Gupta looked out, saw that Mrs. Ray was staring in their direction, pointed accusingly at Mr. Das and said, “Mr. Das, you are my number one suspect. You are the crossword completer. We would like to see your crossword.”
“What else do you need help with?” Mr. Das asked. “Just ask, I’ll tell you.”
“Please just bring your crossword,” Mr. Gupta said.
Mr. Das went into his bathroom and emerged with the folded newspaper. Mr. Gupta snatched it from him and Mr. Reddy stood beside him to look.
“On a bias is angled!” Mr. Reddy said.
“Mr. Reddy, you keep focusing on the clues that our criminal has not filled. You stick to engineering and let the detective’s mind handle this. Mr. Das has produced a fully complete crossword. This is an interesting development in our case.”
Mr. Gupta looked at the crossword with a wrinkled brow. The double crossword was a bit difficult to explain but Mr. Gupta would find an explanation.
He looked hard.
This crossword was completed with great confidence. Almost nothing was crossed out or changed. Some very difficult words were inserted.
Lye. That didn’t even look like a word. He had probably misspelled ‘lie.’
Bengalis wouldn’t admit to a mistake. They would rather fill out wrong words just to complete a crossword. They were, in fact, just the type who would steal their neighbor’s crossword first thing in the morning in order to do a practice round. And then they would slyly replace the puzzle and fill their own one out with confidence so that it looked like they knew every word in the dictionary.
“Mr. Das,” Mr. Gupta said. “As president, I order you to only do your own crossword puzzle. You cannot complete someone else’s and then replace it. That too with incorrect answers.”
Mr. Das looked perplexed. Mr. Reddy was still staring down at the complete crossword. Poor fellow, Mr. Gupta thought, quite a morning they’d had. He must be relieved that the whole ordeal was finally nearing an end.
Diksha Basu is the author of The Windfall and Destination Wedding. Her nonfiction book about early motherhood, The Return of the Mother, will be published later this year in India by Simon & Schuster.
Read all the Lounge Fiction Special 2024 stories here