This short story was written by Satyajit Ray for the Puja number of Sandesh, in the year 1973
Vipin Choudury had just brought the pile of five Agatha Christies to the counter. That was his routine every Monday. He had to take at least five books home for reading. Vipin was a man of principle, besides of course of enormous wealth. He dined exactly at eight and even if there were visitors around his house he would tell them that he was under doctor’s instructions to turn in by nine, so…He read for at least an hour before falling off to sleep.
The store clerk had handed him over the bill for his purchase. Vipin had taken out a stack of tens and twenties and was thumbing through them mumbling a count when he heard the voice.
The word came from a person about five feet six, fair complexioned, well-built, wearing a light blue shirt tucked into a navy blue trouser, hands folded in the gesture that goes with the word. Vipin looked up with distaste. Not only did the interruption cause him to loose the count, he also was getting late to get back home.
“Do I know you?”, he asked with a generous hint of umbrage
“Parimal Ghosh. Did you not recognize me? Nineteen fifty eight, I met you every day for a week when you were in Ranchi. Remember I arranged the car for you to go seeHudrooFalls? You wanted a driver who could understand English and I took the trouble of finding you one? You fell down in the rocks of the falls, gashed your right knee and I got you Dettol from nowhere…remember? ”, the stranger had a look of incredulity as he spoke.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Oho”, said the stranger, tilting his head to the right and touching his forehead with his right hand in a gesture of mock frustration. “Who does not know Vipin Choudhury – the budding businessman then and the great industrialist today?”
“What time in nineteen fifty eight are you talking about?”
“Just after Durga Puja – late October”.
“You are mistaken. I have never been toRanchi. As far as that month in fifty eight, I was visiting my old friend Deenanath Mishra inKanpur. I think you have made a mistake”.
Blue-shirt looked flabbergasted and confused. “But…”, he mumbled “I can understand making a mistake with any other person, but with Vipin Choudhury? Don’t you remember anything? You were there with your friend Dinesh Mukherjee and insisted that you stayed at the tourist bungalow and not at the hotel – the food in hotels suck, you said. Your luggage had more books than clothes and you, Dinesh and I had a bet whether it’ll beAmericaorRussiawho would put the first man on moon. You are single, your wife died eleven years back, you don’t have kids and your elder brother was mentally deranged. In fact you refused to visit Ranchi’s mental sanatorium because you said it reminded you of your brother. Don’t you remember any of this? ”
By now Vipin had given his stack of money to the store clerk who did the counting, made the receipt and handed back the books wrapped in brown paper. Vipin took the package, mumbled a goodbye to the stranger and went toBertram Streetwhere his car was parked next to the Minerva theatre. As he settled in his car, he still could not shake away the blue-shirted man.Ranchi? Nineteen Fifty Eight? Why was the man so sure? Is he mistaken or is he not? Suddenly Vipin’s head felt a bit heavy. He asked his driver Hariram to take Queen’s Way pastEdenGardens. The road went along the river and the cool breeze allowed Vipin’s head to settle down a bit. He became a bit annoyed at himself for having given a complete stranger so much time. He should just have rudely brushed him aside. There is no way that a person can forget something that happened a mere twelve years ago. No way, other than if…and at that precise moment suddenly Vipin Choudhury felt his head spin and everything around him go blank. No way, other than if he was going insane.
“Rubbish”, he muttered as Hariram looked into the rear-view mirror to see if all was okay. He ran a big chemical industry and his perfume and hair-oil were market leading products today. It was only yesterday that he was invited at the Bengal Chamber of Commerce to lecture on Bengalee Entrepreneurs and he delivered an impeccable one hour lecture. That is no a sign of mental imbalance!
What was that about the fall in the rocks? By now the car was on theBallygunge Circular Roadand Vipin rolled up his trousers to check his knee in the light of a passing light-post. There was indeed an inch long scar running from left to right ion his right knee! “This proves nothing”, Vipin thought, “This could have been from his childhood days of playing football, or falling from the bi-cycle, or anything. The easiest way to check out all this was to just drop by his friend Dinesh Mukherjee’s home, which was just two lanes away from where Vipin’s car was currently. Vipin immediately dismissed the idea. He was not a convict trying to get an alibi of not being present at Ranchi in the October of nineteen fifty eight – in fact, he had given the blue-shirt much more importance than he deserved.
Settling down in the couch of his living room sipping a glass of cold lassi Vipin felt much better. That night, as he sank into “N or M” the intricacies of the murder mystery completely wiped out the blue-shirt and all the events of the evening
It was at precisely five minutes past one in the afternoon – just as he was wiping his hands in the wet-towel after his lunch – that the thought reappeared in Vipin Choudhury’s mind. The figure of the blue-shirt, his incredulous face and all that happened last evening came flooding back to him. Vipin decided to put an end to all this.
Locating his telephone book from his paper strewn table, he went straight to the tab that said “M”. Running his index finger down the page he located Dinesh’s number and noticed that his trembling fingers missed a couple of digits in the dial. Vipin could hear his heart beat as the phone rang on the other side. Dinesh picked the phone up on the fifth ring.
“Dinesh, this is Vipin. I need a help from you. Can you tell me how many times you leftCalcuttaduring nineteen fifty eight?”
“Nineteen Fifty Eight? Baap re, that is a while back. Can you hold while I get my old diary? That’s the only way to check.”
Vipin could feel a small bead of perspiration trickle down his left temple as he cradled the phone on his shoulder and absent mindedly played with a paper-weight. After almost an interminable wait, Dinesh came back on the line.
“First time I leftCalcuttawas June. I went toJapanto negotiate some contracts for my company. I remember that trip – I had an ear problem when the aircraft was landing in Dum Dum on the return flight. Second time was in September when I went to Asansol to attend my brother-in-law’s wedding. The third and the last time was….”
“Was what?”, Vipin asked, his voice cracking.
“You should not be asking that Vipin. You were with me too. We went toRanchijust after Durga Puja.”
“Thanks”, Vipin croaked and replaced the receiver even as he thought Dinesh was trying to say something at the other end.
The world was collapsing around Vipin Choudhury. He sat at his desk holding his temples between the index finger and the thumb and could feel a throbbing inside his head. Was he going mad? There was a history in the family, so it is not entirely improbable. Everyone at office knew Vipin as a workaholic – someone who was never ruffled no matter how difficult the situation. But today – since yesterday rather – everything had changed. That day, for the first time in eleven years, Vipin Choudhury left office before five thirty in the evening.
Reaching home at two thirty Vipin drew all the curtains of his first floor bedroom tight and decided to sleep. Soon he realized that it was an impossible task. Vipin could not believe what was happening – he remembered everything in his life. The short cut road he used to take going to school in Dhaka where he grew up, his marks for school-final examination, how hard it was raining on his first day at Presidency College, the exact date and time when his wife passed away – he could remember everything. Vipin just could not believe how this one incident in October of nineteen fifty eight simply vanished from his memory. He did not recollect any other instance of someone having perfect recollection of everything – except for a week in one’s life. Not able to take the pressure any more, Vipin searched his medical box and popped a sleeping pill. Slowly the pill started taking effect and Vipin fell into a disturbed sleep. He woke up several times, once when his servant Ramswarup came to inform that Vipin’s business supplier Dholakia had come to meet him. “Not today”, he mumbled, “tell him I am not well”. Sleeping pills seldom provides deep slumber but today Vipin was unable to even get a few minutes’ sleep without waking up again.
At around seven in the evening Ramswarup knocked the door to inform that Vipin’s friend from High School, Chunilal had come to meet him. “He said it was urgent”, Ramswarup said. Urgency my foot – thought Vipin. He knew why Chuni was here. He had come several times before as well, asking Vipin if he could land him a job. Everytime in the past Vipin had told Chuni – with impact varying from straightness to rudeness – that he was not in a position to help him. “Please ask him to leave. I am not meeting him today and not in the near future”, grunted Vipin as he turned on his side to face away from his bedroom door. Ramswarup had left when Vipin jumped out of bed. Perhaps it wasn’t a bad idea to check with Chunilal if he knew where Vipin was in nineteen fifty eight.
“Wait”, said Vipin as he climbed down the staircase to the ground floor living room. Chunilal had just stood up to leave. “Sit down”.
“Chuni, I want to ask you a question. It may sound a bit weird to you but it is important for me to know the answer. You always had a good memory and you have known me for a while now so you can help me with this”, Vipin said. Chunilal looked bemused and cocked his head, waiting for the question to arrive.
“Do you remember if I had gone to Ranchi just after Durga Puja in nineteen fifty eight”?, Vipin asked.
“Was it nineteen fifty eight or fifty nine?”, Chuni asked back.
“Umm…but you have no doubts that I did go to Ranchi?”, Vipin’s throat was almost like sandpaper once again.
“Vipin”, Chuni lifted his right leg over his left and titled his head back a bit, “have you started drinking or some other addiction lately? I understand that you are a busy man, you have no time and sympathies for your friends and relatives but at least I always admired your clear thinking”
“No doubt in your mind about my going?” Vipin realized that beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead though the fan was running at top-speed.
Not answering the question, Chuni asked “Do you remember my last job, Vipin?
“Booking clerk at the Koilaghata booking counter”, Vipin said. Strangely he even felt happy that he could remember that.
Chuni shifted his right leg and re-crossed his legs. “So you remember that – good. Now if you remember that why is it that you don’t remember that it was I who did your booking for Ranchi? Why do you not remember that I came to see you off at the station and asked the conductor-guard to check the fan in your compartment that wasn’t working? Why do you not remember that I went to the pantry car and asked them to serve you lunch exactly as the train left Burdwan? What’s wrong with you Vipin”.
Vipin reached out and drank the glass of water that Ramswarup must have got for Chunilal. “Must be the stress at office…but you don’t worry, I’ll be fine. Maybe I will just get myself checked with a specialist or something”, Vipin said as he tried to get up but slumped back into the sofa.
Perhaps thinking it was better to leave Vipin to get rest, Chunilal called for Ramswarup and left Vipin’s house.
Dr. Paresh Chandra was not exactly young, but looked sharp, energetic and most importantly had this almost permanent smile that made Vipin Choudhury comfortable just as he walked into the doctor’s chamber. “I have to confess that I have never encountered such a case of selective amnesia before”, Dr. Chandra stroked his chin just as Vipin finished narrating the events of the past two days. Dr. Chandra didn’t but Vipin realized that his narrative was not as succinct and to-the-point as it would normally be. His thinking was losing its edge. “See Dr. Chandra, at this stage I am fast becoming a nervous wreck. My business, my reputation, my social standing – everything – is at stake and will crumble if I do not put this behind me. I am willing to go to any length. If you think you want to bring in someone from abroad, I am happy to pay for all that, but just put me right”, Vipin’s voice had a healthy dose of helplessness in it.
“Mr. Choudhury, I suggest you do this – but remember, there is no guarantee that this will work. I suggest you go to Ranchi. Sometimes visiting the place in question opens up locked doors of memory and you may remember that you did indeed come to this place. In the meanwhile, I will prescribe you a tranquilizer. In your state of mind, sleep is the most important thing.”
Whether it was the tranquilizer or the fact that there seemed to be an apparent solution to his problem, Vipin Choudhury had good sleep that night. He decided to not go to work that day and after breakfast called his office to leave a few instructions. Vipin then called his travel agency and made arrangements for a trip to Ranchi
It took Vipin Choudhury about seven minutes after he stepped out of the train onto Ranchi station to conclude that he had never been to this place. He hired a car and went around the town. Nothing – not the hills, the people, the slightly different hindi language, the air, the neatly laid out bungalows – reminded him of his coming to this place ever. So will it be Hudroo Falls? Will the sound of the water-fall, the rocky terrain where according to blue-shirt he fell down, help him remember something that the town did not? Quite unlikely, concluded Vipin, but he wanted to see the end to this. After a quick lunch, he asked the driver to take him to the Hudroo Falls.
That evening, at around five, as the sunlight was getting dim, a group of Gujarati tourists discovered Vipin Choudhury, unconscious next to a large stone in a rather rocky part of the falls. His first words after they splashed cold water on his face and brought him around was “I swear I have never come to this place…I have never been to Ranchi…I am finished”
Luckily the group of tourists was from Calcutta and they brought Vipin back to Calcutta with them the next day. Vipin Choudhury went straight up to his bedroom and stood under the shower. As the ice cold waters hit his head and face, Vipin realized that if he could not solve this puzzle no one could and if this was not solved he would slowly go insane. And then maybe he too will have to be admitted to the sanatorium at Ranchi like his brother…He couldn’t think any more – he did not want to think any more. He asked Ramswarup to ask Dr. Chandra to come in the evening and turned to go to bed. Ramswarup handed him a brown envelope which was marked “Vipin Choudhury. Personal and Important”. There were no stamps so obviously someone had dropped it at the letter box. Hands trembling, Vipin ripped the edge of the envelope and extracted a single sheet of paper.
I never imagined wealth will turn you so selfish, egoistic and make you avoid your past friends like plague. Was it so difficult for you to help a childhood friend of yours? I never had much money but God made up for that by giving me great imagination. So I decided to extract my revenge by enacting this drama with you.
You had indeed never gone to Ranchi ever.
Dinesh Mukherjee and I shared a common – and I daresay not very positive – opinion of your behavior so he was easily convinced to play his part. The man in the book-shop was a neighbor and stage actor. By the way, the gash on your right knee was from a fall in Babughat – nineteen forty one, when we had gone to perform “torpon” on Mahalaya – hope you will remember now.
Enough said – one of my novels has been accepted by a publisher and possibly he will buy it. That should see me through for the next few months at least.
“I remembered everything the moment I stepped out of the train at Ranchi”, beamed Vipin Choudhury as Dr. Chandra walked in through the door.
“Strange”, Dr. Chandra’s smiled widened. “I have never come across such a case of selective amnesia. Do you mind if I wrote your case for a medical journal?”
“Not at all. But here is why I called you. I gashed my left knee after slipping at the Hudroo Falls. Can you please see if need an anti-tetanus or something? And also if I broke any bones – the back pain seems like it could do with some treatment…