Fifty Shades of Grisaille

Fifty Shades of Grisaille

“Good morning, Mr. Iyer! Major Raghav is here to see you,” my secretary Nila, announced.

My buddy from my army days! 

I welcomed Raghav in.

“Iyer, old chap! How are you?” 

“I’m well! Long time, no see! What brings you here?” I inquired. 

“After retiring from the army, I pursued my passion for art. I run an art gallery. I heard that you are a successful detective now! I need your help.”

“Sure! Tell me.” 

Nila served us tea.

“Have you heard of the artist Satyadeep Dasgupta?”

I shook my head. Why did the name sound so familiar?

“He was one of our successful collaborations.”

“You talk in past tense….”

“Because Satyadeep, or SD as he preferred to go by, is no more. He died tragically of snakebite, a week ago.”

Ah! That rang a bell. I vaguely remembered reading about this.

“We were featuring SD’s latest works in our upcoming exhibition. He had shared three of his paintings for display. The last work was pending; he was still painting it. It was touted to be his best so far. Unfortunately, before he could deliver it to us, he died.”

“Aren’t you insured?”

“We are, but SD was the biggest draw to this exhibition. His last work would have generated a lot of attention. And no one knows where it is!”

“Did you try to recover the painting from his home?”

“We tried. The painting seems to have disappeared! Help us find it, please.”

*******

Raghav had left. I went through my notes. 

Satyadeep Dasgupta, aged 58. 

Unmarried, issueless. He lived in his Haveli with his man-Friday Bhola for the past several years.

15th May, 11:00 PM.

Bhola was watching TV in his quarters outside SD’s Haveli. He heard a noise from the garden. He rushed out to the Banyan tree grove, only to find his master collapsed, and a snake slithering away. 

SD was already unconscious. Bhola hailed an auto from the road, as he did not know how to drive. They sped to the nearest hospital, which was quite some distance away. The doctors declared SD dead on arrival.

When Bhola returned home, he found that the Haveli had been ransacked. In his rush, he hadn’t locked up properly. Several small items had been stolen.  

The police apprehended the culprit. A local thief called Ranjan. He confessed to breaking in but maintained that he had not touched any of the paintings.

Bhola claimed that the missing painting was last seen in SD’s study, where he was giving it finishing touches.

A snake in these parts was rare, but not uncommon. What was SD doing out in the dark this late? 

I went through Raghav’s catalogue, noticing that SD painted exclusively in monochrome greys. 

****

I was at Raghav’s art gallery. 

“I’m Detective Iyer.” I showed the receptionist my ID, and was let in.

A grand chandelier embellished the entrance. I admired the elegant décor. The walls were adorned with works of upcoming artists. To my inexperienced eye, certain pieces looked like someone had randomly spilled paint over the canvas.

“Good morning, Mr. Iyer. I was expecting you!”  

A young woman, in her mid-twenties, greeted me. 

“My name is Deepika Hebbar. I’m the curator of this gallery. Raghav Sir instructed me to show you around.”

“Hi, Deepika! Where are you from?”

“I grew up in Coorg but moved here a few years ago.”

“Coorg! Such a beautiful place! I would love to holiday there.”

Deepika nodded politely.

“Tell me about SD.”

“In his youth, SD visited France, where he learned a form of painting called Grisaille. Grisaille is done in monochromatic shades of grey, giving the final painting a sculpture-like finish. He was fascinated by this technique and went on to acquire expertise. His Grisaille’s are renowned for their expressiveness.

We had titled his upcoming exhibition, ‘Fifty shades of Grisaille’. “

I had googled most of this already. I had also learned that SD had quite the reputation as a ladies’ man. He had a string of affairs, the most prominent of which was with a starlet. A colourful life for a man who saw the world in grey.

“SD painted scenes from mythology and history. His most successful work so far has been ‘Draupadi’; sold to an unknown patron for 30 lakh rupees.”

Deepika handed me a pamphlet with SD’s Draupadi printed in front.

A painting of a woman, semi-nude, and trying to shield herself, while vile hands disrobed her. Her tears looked as if they were flowing out of the painting. 

I was impressed. Who knew grey could tell such a vivid story? But 30 lakhs for this? I wish I hadn’t flunked art at school!

“Do you have the details of the buyer?” I asked.

“Some patrons prefer to be anonymous.”

Deepika’s ID snapped from its lanyard. I bent down to retrieve it.

“That’s a pretty picture of you!”

“Thank you!” 

She blushed as she pocketed her ID. She led me to SD’s exhibition inside the gallery’s private area. In the centre of the large circular room, sat an empty showcase. 

“This was where the last piece was supposed to be.”

“What was the subject of this painting?”

“We don’t know. SD was very private, and never visited his exhibitions. I haven’t even met him in person.”

Deepika took me through the giant Grisailles.

“That is Sugreev fighting Vali, the monkey king, as a concealed Ram watches from a tree.”

“This one is of the Gopis bathing in the river, while Krishna steals their clothes.”

“This is an Indian Cleopatra, being bitten by an asp.”

Did SD prophesize his end?

******

My next stop was the Police station. My connections had helped arrange this meeting. The Inspector was annoyed.

“Sir, you are wasting your time. The victim died of Krait-bite. No foul play suspected. Here are the medical reports.”

I perused through them. I noticed that SD had a rare blood group- Bombay blood group. Even rarer than AB-. 

“Any news of the missing painting?”

“When Bhola left for the hospital, a small-time thief Ranjan, broke in. He was caught later when he accidentally bumped into a police officer. We recovered some stolen electronics, and cash. But no painting! We beat him black and blue, yet he denied taking it. The rascal must have hidden it well! It’s bound to pop up later.”

***

I returned to my office, lost in thought. 

The missing painting was still a grey area.

“Sir, here is the research you asked for.” 

Nila had compiled whatever she could find on SD. 

A man with long hair, a strikingly handsome face, and sharp features. I was staring at the enigma that was Satyadeep.

I turned the page to read his interview. He was asked why he never married.

“I don’t believe in monogamy or commitment.”

He had lived up to it, I thought wryly. 

The actress he had a steamy dalliance with? Kyra Malhotra. It ended with him dumping her, though she claimed otherwise. 

***

I planned to visit SD’s Haveli. I had questions for Bhola, who still resided there. Raghav helped to arrange the meeting.

I drove to the grounds. An old house loomed ahead, in front of an impressive garden. In the corner, stood a grove of Banyan trees. Bhola was waiting for me. A man with a gaunt frame and a wan complexion.

“Where are you from, Bhola?”

“I hail from Poorabpur. I have been working for Saab all along. He called me his brother. I can’t believe he is gone,” he said remorsefully.

Bhola invited me into the house and showed me around. The Haveli was impeccably maintained and bore a signature that was unmistakably SD’s, silvery curtains, metallic décor, hoary carpets, and sombre sculptures. 

I looked around for traces of the missing painting, but my search was unfruitful. 

“This is Saab’s study. His latest painting was mounted there, before it went missing.”

The study was filled with easels, brushes, and bottles of paint, in varied hues of grey.

“Tell me what happened that fateful night.”

“Around 9:00 PM, I finished my chores and retired to my quarters, just outside the Haveli. Saab had a visitor. A girl drove in, on her scooter. After nine, Saab managed his guests, so I didn’t bother.”

“Did you tell the police about her?”

“No, they didn’t ask. I heard the scooter leaving shortly after.”

“What were you doing then?”

“I was watching Jubin Nautiyal’s live music concert on TV. “

“Do you like music?”

“Yes, I do. Jubin maintained his energy till the very end! The program finished around 11:00, when I heard groans. I looked out at the garden from my window. It was dark since the lights had fused, some days ago. 

I took a torch, a stick, and set out. The voice was coming from the Banyan grove. Saab was lying down struggling to breathe, and a snake slithered away. I took my stick and beat that vile snake to death. I rushed Saab to hospital, but it was too late.” 

Bhola’s face fell, and his eyes misted. I let him get back to his chores in the Haveli, while I walked around the grounds. 

I reached the grove. Dark and melancholic. I wondered why SD would want to come here at an unholy hour. I stressed my footsteps, to scare slithering reptiles away. 

That was when I stumbled upon an old well by the grove. It was sealed and looked forlorn. My eyes examined the edges. Someone had tampered with the seal, recently. 

I tugged at it; it came off with a dull thud. I flashed my mobile torch down. The well was shallow. I glimpsed a wrapped parcel, at the bottom.

Is this why SD visited the grove?

***

“Iyer, you genius! No one thought to check that well. Why would SD fling his painting down there?” Raghav exclaimed.

 “For now, all cats are grey at night!” I retorted wittily. 

“Raghav, the bad news is that the painting has been mutilated. It shows a nude woman nursing an infant at her bosom. The face of the infant and the woman have been scratched out. I sent it to the forensic lab for analysis. Let’s wait.”

“OK. We are holding a remembrance meet for SD at the gallery, next week. Iyer, you are invited.”

I hung up. I received an email from the lab. They had sent me the CG reconstructed picture. They also found something inserted in the frame. 

This new discovery puzzled me, but also inspired me to investigate a few loose ends. A copy of Entertainment Weekly, and a book on Indian snakes gave me additional insights.

“Nila, can you book me a weekend trip to Coorg?”

Nila gave me a sceptical look.

“The fresh air will rejuvenate my grey cells!”

***

My trip to Coorg was fruitful.  On my return, I visited SD’s lawyer, Mr. Mistry, at his office.

“I want to know about the inheritance of SD’s estate.”

“This is confidential information.”

I showed him my ID and stated my purpose. Mistry seemed to reconsider. 

“Between you and me, in the absence of any legal heirs, my late client’s assets move into a trust. As an expression of gratitude, Bhola receives a sizeable amount. The exact figures will be revealed after the reading of the will, later this week.”

He paused uncomfortably.

“There is one more thing. SD called me the night he died. He wanted to understand inheritance laws. He asked me to come over the next week, to alter his will.”

I cocked a brow.

“Mr. Iyer, People change their will and wills all the time.” 

***

My next call was to actress Kyra Malhotra’s agent. I convinced her for a phone interview.

“Hello.”

“Madam Malhotra, Detective Iyer here. I am investigating a missing painting.”

“I heard,” she stated curtly.

“How do you know SD?” 

“We were lovers once.”

“Were you in touch with him recently?”

“I have not spoken to him for over twenty years! What do you want?” she snapped.

“Yet, you bought his Draupadi.”

There was a sharp pause. 

It was a stab in the dark. Speculation was rife that Kyra was the anonymous patron that had purchased the painting. 

“I bought the painting so that I could destroy it. SD valued his work more than anything. Destroying it would be like destroying him. I am glad that self-obsessed womanizer is dead. I have nothing else to say. Goodbye.”

All the pieces of the puzzle were laid out. Yet they didn’t make sense. The questions circled back to SD. I browsed his catalogue once again.

And then it hit me!

***

I headed to SD’s function. It was held in the gallery’s exhibition room, where chairs had been set up. The function was attended by art critics and fellow artists. I ensured that Raghav invited Bhola too. He deserved to be here.  

Raghav delivered a rousing speech.

“Satyadeep, the undisputed master of the greys! I offer my heartfelt tribute to this charismatic Grisaille artist extraordinaire.”

Once the event was over, the crowds dispersed. Bhola, Deepika, Raghav, and I remained. 

I began, “Deepika. The other day, when I picked up your ID, I noticed you have a rare blood group. It was printed on your ID. The Bombay blood group.

Do you know who else had the same? SD.”

Deepika paled. 

“Coincidence!” she muttered.

“We found a letter in the frame of the recovered painting. A letter from SD to his daughter. A daughter no one knew existed. You bear a strong physical resemblance to him.  And a matching blood group. I needed to confirm my suspicions.

I went down to Coorg this weekend. I tracked details of your schooling from your resume. I visited Holy Angel’s Convent, where Sister Agnes told me everything about you.” 

A morose Deepika crumbled.

“My mother fell in love with SD. He got her pregnant and abandoned her. She returned to Coorg and pined for him, despite him cutting all contact. After delivering me, she slipped into depression. When I was seven, she committed suicide. I grew up in the convent there. I knew about my father from mother’s diary. She never stopped loving him. She named me Deepika, after ‘Satyadeep’. Hebbar is my mother’s surname.

After graduation, I moved to this city. I have a flair for art; I got a job in this gallery. I was aware of our collaboration with SD. All this while, I worked with his art, but never got a chance to meet him. 

I am the illegitimate child of Satyadeep Dasgupta. Happy?”

Raghav gasped. 

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Deepika, you were the girl on the scooter, weren’t you? Why did you go there that night?”

She sighed.

“The 15th was my mother’s death anniversary. I was upset and decided to meet him. I craved a father’s love. He didn’t know I existed. After all these years, I felt I could give him a chance. I felt he needed to know.”

I extracted his address from our database and went to his Haveli that night.”

“What happened?”

“The door was open. I walked in.  He was in his study, painting. His final work. Yashoda breastfeeding Krishna. But Yashoda had my mother’s face….and the child, my face!

I was shocked! All these years he knew. And yet, he did nothing about it. Didn’t care at all! 

It shattered my heart into a thousand pieces. I screamed at him, grabbed my keys, and slashed the canvas. I was the one damaged by the illegitimacy of his actions. And here he was, blissfully making an exhibit out of it. 

He watched me, calmly. Didn’t say a word. I stormed out and left. 

I read he died the next day. In all honesty, I felt relieved. With him, my expectations had also perished.” 

Deepika’s voice quivered. I interrupted.

“Raghav, allow me to reconstruct what happened that night.”

“SD’s illegitimate daughter turns up out of the blue. He is aware of her existence, perhaps through her late mother’s correspondence? For the first time, SD feels remorse for his actions. He watches her rip his painting and storm out. He wants to make it up to her. He takes down the painting, to gift it to her, as an apology. He also makes a call to his lawyer, to ensure his daughter’s rights are recognized. He owes her that much.”

I walked up to Bhola.

“You said you were watching TV till 11:00 PM.”

“Yes.”

“On the concert day, halfway through, there was an error in transmission in your area. Entertainment Weekly reported that some viewers complained of black-out that lasted twenty minutes. Why didn’t you say anything to me about it?”

Bhola fumbled. 

“I might have fallen asleep in between.”

“Or was it because you weren’t in your room at all, but in the Haveli? I didn’t suspect you until you lied about the concert.”

Bhola did not reply. I continued.

“The answer was in the greys! The painting SD did of Sugreev. By your admission, Bhola, you and SD were like brothers, just like Vali and Sugreev. Yet, you betrayed him! Similar to how Sugreev betrayed Vali!”

Bhola hung his head in shame.

“I investigated your transfers. Some months, the amount was three times your salary! There were small inconsistencies with the accounts, weren’t they? You couldn’t stop yourself from embezzling money.”

Bhola began to tremble. 

He burst out, “I stood by Saab staunchly, supporting him through his scandals. My life went by, serving him. And yet, not one ounce of respect! 

Once, when he was drunk, he let it slip that he was leaving 20 lakhs for me in his will, as befitting payment for my service. He could have continued living forever. Where would that leave me?  

I needed money for a family emergency. I stole small sums; pocket change for him. Yet, when he found out, he threatened me! He said he would banish me, penniless. I begged for his forgiveness, and he mellowed down.”

I chipped in.

“Bhola, SD forgave, but did not forget. That’s why he painted Vali. However, he signed his death warrant when he painted Cleopatra; it gave you the idea. Why not kill SD and enjoy your inheritance, before he altered his will?  

Do you know where Kraits are common? In your village, Poorabpur. You went there a few weeks ago. I already made inquiries there. You brought a snake back with you. Down South, they call this snake Ettadi Veeran; a person can walk up to only eight steps before they die, after being bitten. You bided your time. 

SD’s death was no accident. It was a pre-meditated murder! 

You came into the Haveli that night to get something. That was when you accidentally heard SD ring up his lawyer. He was changing his will. You had no choice but to act immediately!

You went back to your room and returned with the Krait. You injured the snake and released it into the study. The snake did its trick. As he lay unconscious, you slaughtered the snake, and tossed it out into the grove. SD never ventured near the grove that night. All the while, he lay in his study.”

“I was so angry….” stammered Bhola.

“The bite didn’t kill him instantaneously. You waited patiently for his life to ebb away. You threw the painting into the well because you didn’t want attention to be drawn to SD’s daughter. Her existence was a threat to your inheritance. 

What you didn’t anticipate was that there would be another break-in that night that led to unanticipated complications.”

Bhola broke down. I called for the police, who took him into their custody.

***

Deepika looked at Raghav shamefaced. 

“I’m sorry for my actions.”

“I have received the insurance money. Don’t worry about the painting.” 

“So, you aren’t firing me?’ she asked fearfully.

“After what you have been through? No way!”

“Deepika, I have something for you,” I called after her.

I handed her a letter. 

“This is the one we recovered from the frame. SD wanted you to have it.”

She opened the letter.

Dear Daughter,

Life is never black or white, it is only grey. There is darkness in light and light in the darkness. The two are inseparable.

Society tries to fit us forcibly into boxes. Either fully black or fully white. Nothing in-between. I chose to embrace the grey.

There are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents. I’m sorry I let you down. I hope one day we can mend our bridges. I wait for that day.

I will paint a new picture for my exhibition. This one belongs to you.

Your father,

SD

Deepika looked conflicted, her face ashen. 

“He valued you over his painting. That should mean something.” 

I patted her on her shoulder. She was a strong girl. She would heal.

My work here was done. My phone rang. It was Nila. 

“Sir, your next client awaits you!”
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One thought on “Fifty Shades of Grisaille

  1. Wonderful story Lalitha. Very entertaining and I learnt about Grisaille form of art. A Madhubani painter myself, any art form intrigues me a lot. The mystery at the end of your story was least expected and that’s why it was such a fun read.

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