About the scene: Something fishy is going on at Triya Art Gallery. Anantya heads there, disguised as a nishada, a supernatural tribal to find out what.
‘Gentlemen, we thank you for bidding for our latest exhibition Wombs of Immortality. The funds raised here today will empower these nishada tribals, give them clean water, sanitation and education,’ said the announcer. He continued, mentioning names of the men who’d bid the maximum, congratulated the new art owners who had bought those boring paintings that hung on the wall.
‘This is mine!’ said a big, fat man. He took my arm and pulled me hard, making me stumble. ‘I need it now.’ He laughed, his triple chins dribbling. ‘I will live, I will live!’
I got up, straightened my dress, made a fist of my hand and boxed him straight on his flabby face. He staggered, holding his mouth, which was leaking blood. ‘She … she hit me,’ he squeaked.
‘Touch me again,’ I said showing him my fist, ‘and I will mince your jiggly face and make kebabs out of it.’ I massaged my head, wondering if I should cut one of his chins.
‘Lad—Lady Saranyu …’ he squeaked again, scuttling away towards wherever the dinner party had gone to. Baza rushed over to me, but someone stepped in between.
‘I have always liked attitude in a woman,’ said a sleek, cultured voice. Vajrin Mahendra stood, with his dimpled chin and longish hair that made soft waves just above his broad shoulders. A single grey streak in his hair. I had met Vajrin a few months ago in a case I had been investigating. He was one of the most influential businessmen in the city.
‘Vaj—’ I began, remembered I looked like a nishada, caught myself, and bowed, ‘I mean, Mr Vajrin Mahendra.’
‘How interesting. You know my name when I don’t seem to remember meeting you.’ He turned to address the fuming Baza, ‘Allow me to escort her, Miss Baza, and make sure she gives no trouble.’
Baza, obviously displeased, but with no choice, walked off. Vajrin turned to face me again. ‘I have always been fascinated by women who have sources other than the obvious one of knowing things. Come, let’s take a walk.’
‘I want to—’
He took me firmly by the elbow and out of hearing range of everyone. ‘I have always wondered,’ he began, fingering my yugma locket, so close that I could smell the wine on his breath. ‘Miss Anantya Tantrist, whether trouble follows you everywhere you go or you follow it, in a psychopathic need to die early. Why is it that you want to leave this world so desperately?’
We entered another gallery. From the looks of it, the bungalow was divided into rooms with high ceilings and French windows all painted pristine white and making a string of rooms together. Soft cream lights illuminated the galleries, highlighting the paintings not from above but lit up from behind. There were more paintings in the other galleries, paintings of closed rooms, some done up in a gothic style, some in a pastel romanticism and some hardy.
‘And why is it that you want to live so desperately, Mr Vajrin Mahendra?’ I jibed, touching my scaly skin. He threw his head back and laughed, his voice deep and soft, his curls falling over his eyes. Deliciously.
‘Who are these people?’ I whispered furiously. He waved at someone who stood admiring a red painting of a room, with shades of maroon velvet curtains and a satin sheet on the bed. It was ugly, too red, too rich.
‘Keep smiling, you idiot,’ he whispered furiously. ‘This is no joke.’
The man nodded, and moved away. Over the silence between us, we heard Chiri’s moan coming from the dressing room.
‘Look at the realism in this one. The way the curtains flow, like they’re streams of our collective consciousness, squeezing the very lifeblood—’
‘It’s a stupid painting of a garish room!’
‘Quelle passion!’ he continued as if I hadn’t spoken. ‘Stay away from Lady Saranyu if you want to stay alive.’
‘I am investigating the death of a nishada. She melted,’ I whispered back. ‘If you won’t tell me, I will ask someone else. I don’t have patience—’
‘Patience. Yes, I forget how that’s something only the long- lived have.’
I turned to move away, walking off, but Vajrin held my arm. ‘They are dangerous, Anantya, not people who can be messed with. Drop whatever you are looking into. Believe me. they are above any investigation.’ He leaned close to me, too close. ‘Above even eternals.’
‘Vajrin,’ said a deep, echoing voice called to him. Saranyu breezed in. ‘I am so glad you could make it. It’s been centuries, my dear,’ she said. They kissed each other on the cheek.
‘I had no choice in the matter, Saranyu,’ he answered with a half-smile of sorts, taking her hand and kissing it. She smiled.
‘How time changes everything. You look good in this new avatar …’ She fingered his hair and turned her eyes in my direction with a sudden intensity, gorging into my core, my bones, like a diamond cutter. At that second, I knew she knew.
She knew me, who I was and who I was pretending to be. My cover was blown. But she didn’t say anything.
‘All because of your kindness, Goddess,’ Vajrin answered.
‘Hmm. You seem to have chosen your escort from my girls,’ she said, not hurried, not menacingly, but with an edge. ‘It’s good to know you’re helping the impoverished, Vajrin, so selfless of you.’
He smiled. ‘So is Manu Maharaj. He has been granted a ministry of his own, for manufacturing miracles for the poor. But you would know that, wouldn’t you—’
She froze, her eyes hardening. ‘Let’s not talk about unpleasant things on a night full of life like this. Unless you don’t like the idea of life that is—’ She glided her hand towards Vajrin, whose smile had dropped, as had his hand from my arm. ‘Come, it’s time for din—’ A bloodcurdling scream stilled her hand.
“Excerpted with permission from The Matsya Curse by Shweta Taneja, published by Harper Collins.”