“Damn”, grunted Utpal as he reached sleepily for his buzzing mobile phone. It was 6 am, the usual time when his phone’s alarm goes off to wake him up. Utpal stabbed his thumb on the “off” option to switch off the disturbance. Should have switched off the alarm last night itself, he thought to himself. It was almost two in the morning when Utpal reached his home at Salt Lake. There were some problems with the trains and then the struggle to find a bloody cab at Howrah Station
“Tea or coffee?”, asked Parama, Utpal’s sister-in-law, wife of Upal, his elder brother
“Coffee, boudi, and two eggs and hard toasts. Do you have brown bread?”
“No baba, we have the regular bread that we regular people eat. If you gave advance notice of your coming then we would have got the brown bread for you”, replied Parama. “And what’s your plan for the day? Other than meeting Mira”, Parama voice was clearly playful. It was a bright morning and the road outside their home was already abuzz with people, cycle rickshaws and the occasional taxi
“Aah, boudi – the trouble with such short duration trips is that one gets to meet Mira but no chance of spending any – what do they say these days? – quality time”, Utpal was busy lathering his face in front of a mirror. He had a long day ahead. Twice in the day he will be on stage, so getting a close shave was important. His razor had a new blade – those three-blades-in-one
The phone rang just when Utpal was negotiating the tricky part where his handle-bar moustache stopped short of his jaw. Parama shouted for her husband to pick up the phone – it was the landline. Utpal had managed to clean up the right side of his face when Upal shouted from the living room. “Utpal, for you”. Utpal was both surprised and annoyed. Why would someone call the landline for him and not his mobile phone? Lather on the left side of his face, Utpal walked up to the phone, perched himself on the handle of a sofa, picked up the receiver and said with a slight edge in his voice “Hello?”
“How’s everything Utpal? What’s the good news?”, the baritone on the other side asked.
Instinctively Utpal shifted the receiver from his right ear to left, causing half the lather to leave his face and land on the receiver. And at the same time he had to grab the edge of the sofa handle to not fall down. The floor under his feet was giving way. His head began spinning
Utpal was employed in the accounts department of a large steel manufacturer. He did not qualify as a Chartered Accountant after completing his bachelors in commerce, but thanks to his father’s connections managed to land this job. It was not a job that was stressful or required Utpal to work long and odd hours. It suited Utpal perfectly well because while the job was his profession, it certainly was not his passion. Utpal’s passion was acting on stage. Theatres. The bug had bit him during his stint at Goenka College, when he acted in a dramatization of Brecht’s Galileo by his class for the annual festival. Hours of rehearsal, experimentation with voice throws, controlling the tenor of the voice in a soliloquy, the applause as instant feedback – all became a heady mix for Utpal and he knew he had found his calling. After Galileo, he joined a small time group that put up performances at various occasions – political party meetings, office functions, cultural events in the suburbs. It was also through this passion of his that Utpal found the love of his life – Mira. Mira, a slim, tall girl played Nandini in Tagore’s Rakta Karabi, which was Utpal’s first break as the central character – the King. Utpal and Mira also started doing shows for play-reading, both on stage and on radio. It was a perfect arrangement for Utpal – a steady job with a steady paycheck at month end, excellent opportunities to pursue his passion and love interest intersecting passion in the most satisfying way
Thus it was not unnatural that he was both stunned and clueless when his superior, Mr. Barat, one day walked up to his table and announced that Utpal has been shifted to Dhanbad, at a subsidiary company that mines coal. “Promotion, Utpal, promotion. You will be reporting directly to the works’ manager”, Mr. Barat smiled from one end of his face to the ear – “so the roshogolla after lunch is on you, eh”. Forget sweets, Utpal felt like he will puke his breakfast right there. He could see all his colleagues looking at him from adjacent tables but the whole scene was a big blur for him. “First April, Utpal – that is your joining date. Arrey na baba, this is not April Fool! Here read the order for yourself”, Mr. Barat held out the cyclostyled sheet. Death warrant, thought Utpal – it was the first week of March and he had less than a month to live
Utpal took to Dhanbad like a fish would take to a dry pond. His distance from Kolkata became agonizing, though initially he tried to remind himself of Aranyak and all that and tried to feel happy. The saving grace was Mr. Nihar Dutta, the works manager and his boss, with whom he could at least converse in Bengali. Mr. Dutta, with a deep baritone, was a very reserved man with an occasional sharp sense of humor. After a few months, Utpal started to game the system. He realized that acting in plays would be impossible without the investment in rehearsals so he picked radio shows and play readings. He would pick solos or two-character items, in which he could work with Mira. Utpal and Mira had a natural chemistry that made up for whatever the less rigorous rehearsals took away. Utpal had to use every imagination – and a combination of living relations and probable ailments – to convince Mr. Dutta to grant him leave. He mostly obliged, but this time around, three days back his leave application came back with a red scrawl on it – “rejected” it said. This was a disaster for Utpal! Mira had worked hard to get three shows plus one radio recording at the All India Radio – there was no way he could let this opportunity go by. Utpal was sitting down at his table holding his head thinking about the matter when he decided to walk straight into Mr. Dutta’s office. Utpal knew Mr. Dutta had to meet officers from the environment department at four. Utpal’s train to Howrah was at six thirty. It was almost three now.
“Yes, come in”, the deep baritone intoned as Utpal walked through the swing doors
“Sir, my leave application”, Utpal was a touch excited so the words came out gushing. “You rejected it Sir”
“What is this with so much leaves, Utpal? First it was your father’s hernia surgery, then your brother had a bike accident and broke his ribs. Now what? You know the trouble we are having with the environment people, the transport people – there is so much to take care of here and your application said you wanted to take leave? Just like that?
“No Sir, actually Sir, this is a real emergency – very personal sir”
“My wife Sir…tomorrow Sir…actually I never mentioned it before…personal matter Sir…”, Utpal realized he was a much better actor on the stage than in an impromptu situation
“What? Are you having a baby or what?”, Mr. Dutta took off his glasses and seemed a bit bemused now
“Yes Sir”, Utpal stunned himself saying this but the words just rushed out as if on cue to Mr. Dutta’s words
“Utpal, I would have approved your leave immediately if you wrote that in the application. I don’t understand this silly coyness around having a baby and all. Alright, you can go”, Mr. Dutta signed the leave application. “Give it to Mahato on your way out. And don’t be nervous – everything will be fine. Good luck Utpal to you and your wife and let me know the good news as soon as it happens”
“So what’s the good news, Utpal?”, Mr. Dutta’s baritone boomed on the telephone line as Utpal steadied himself by standing up now
“What…where…how did you get this number Sir?” Utpal’s words were not coming out smoothly
“Your cell phone is switched off. So I had to call Barat and he gave me this number. And it is not important where I got the number from – what is the news there young man?”
“Err…Sir…last night it was late…but”, Utpal mumbled
“Late so what? Did the delivery happen?”
“Yes…Sir…I mean Sir…I can explain…”, Utpal was in complete disarray
“From your tone I can understand two things Utpal. You are tired after last night, which is perfectly understandable, Secondly you possibly had a baby girl, which explains your less than enthusiastic behavior, which I find absolutely rubbish in this age and generation. It is a very happy day for you so I will spare you the lecture. Which Nursing Home?”
“Nursing Home? Which nursing home…oh…it is in Shyambazar, near the metro station. It is called Dolphin…no Daffodil…Daliah…no something like that Sir…my head is not working well Sir”, Utpal’s knees were already of butter. Someone from his sister-in-law, Parama’s, family had a Nursing Home in Shyambazar – thank heavens he could remember in the nick of time
“It happens baba, it happens. Ok, listen, I am on my way to Calcutta today to meet the Minister and Secretary of Industries – I have meetings with them all afternoon and then I am taking them for dinner at the Taj. I will however, without fail, come to meet your little angel tomorrow morning at the Nursing Home. Don’t worry – I will find the Nursing Home. Till then, be a good boy”
Utpal could hear the click of the line going silent. Utpal could also hear the thumping of his own heart. It was somewhere around his throat
For the next two hours Utpal’s life was a concoction of remorse, rebuke and some really high quality brainstorming – all because of this one lie he had resorted to. Upal was livid and announced quite early that he had nothing to do with this, especially taking umbrage about Utpal’s earlier lie about his motorbike accident, not to mention that their father – 81 – was a man of absolutely immaculate health with no hernia problems ever. Parama was stunned initially but as most women, was the first the gather her senses and started to thrash ideas how the situation could be redeemed. Mira, who had arrived as earlier planned, was first miffed having discovered this side of Utpal’s, then tried to make positive contribution to the solutions that were getting bandied about
“Pick up the phone and confess to Dutta that you lied”, Parama said flatly, inspecting her finger nails
“Impossible Boudi. He will sack me right then. You know what the job market is like – I will not get any job now. There has got to be a way out of this. Let’s try the Nursing Home boudi”, Utpal looked pale. He was both feeling hungry but in no mood to eat the eggs and toast that sat in front of him. Two houseflies were battling over rights to settle down on the egg and have their fill
“What about the Nursing Home?”, Parama asked shifting nervously in the chair – her voice very skeptical – almost afraid to get into that line of thought
“Yes, yes…Nursing Home. That is the solution boudi. So many delivery cases happen in the Nursing Home. Can we not just hire a new born when Dutta shows up there tomorrow morning?”, Utpal was as serious in his opinion as his listeners incredulous
“And wife? I cannot play wife”, Mira said flatly to no one in particular without taking her eyes off the table
“Are you out of your mind, Utpal?” Parama was truly incredulous. “What is the guarantee that there was a baby girl delivered at the Nursing Home today? What is the guarantee that the patient party will agree to doing this? Has anyone ever heard of this concept of hiring a newborn baby and a mother to fool someone’s boss?”
“Look Boudi, we will never know if we do not try. Please boudi, please – maybe it will not work but what is the harm in trying once at least”, Utpal was almost at Parama’s feet by now
“Look, this cannot happen over telephone. I will call Bishu and we will have to go to the Nursing Home. Finish your food and all three of us will leave”, Parama said with an air of finality. And of frustration as she shooed the files away and pushed the plate closer to Utpal
The scene at Dalim Nursing home was typical of what a North Calcutta medical facility catering to middle income customers would look like during visiting hours. The ground floor had a cordoned off area, with four rows of chipped paint steel seats with a sign above that read “Waiting Area”. A television set was perched high up but wasn’t playing. Adjoining to the waiting area was a pharmacy, which had access through a narrow doorway. At the right of the doorway was a desk with a sign “May I help you” with two women and a man sitting behind it. The man – shining bald pate – was busy typing away something at a concealed computer keyboard. The sign above his head said “We do not determine sex of a foetus”. Quite predictably, someone had attempted to scratch out the word “not” from the sentence with blue ink. There were at least fifteen people in the waiting area, most peering down at their cellphones and a few taking turns in sharing pages of a single copy of Anandabazar Patrika. The bald man abruptly stopped his typing and several other people looked up curiously when Bishu blurted out “Impossible” to whatever Parama was saying to him in very hushed tones
“Sssh…keep your voice down…this is sensitive”, said Parama as she smiled and looked around to give an impression that all was well
“That is why didi I am saying it is impossible. Our license will be squashed and the entire management will go to jail. This is impossible didi”, Bishu had lowered his voice but he was still agitated
“Let’s go to the second floor. We’ll talk there”, Parama skillfully elbowed Bishu to the stairwell. The second floor was the neonatal ward and hopefully Bishu will have gathered his thoughts as they climbed up rather than taking the elevator. Utpal and Mira followed. Parama had warned them to speak as little as possible
After about thirty minutes of speaking, pleading and a bout of tears from Mira, Bishu finally came around to a solution that seemed acceptable. Plan A, as Utpal called it, was to meet Mr. Dutta at the second floor landing (lobby would be an overstatement for a four feet by eight feet area where the stairwell and elevator met) and inform him that the mother and daughter are doing well but the doctor is not allowing visitors. Plan B, in the case that Mr. Dutta insisted that he’ll just peek his head in and take a look at the bundle of joy, Parul’s new born baby – a boy – would be shown, minus Parul’s presence to Mr. Dutta. Parul was a nurse in the same Nursing Home who delivered a healthy baby boy by a C-section the night before. She was the only person who would agree to this act of deception. It was also decided to wrap the baby well in towels so the male infant could be passed as the baby daughter. “Thank God for those black bindis they put on babies irrespective of their gender”, thought Utpal. After oscillating between being grumpy and nervous, Mira now was beginning to enjoy this charade. Anything to do with babies mostly cheer up ladies, Utpal observed. “But can’t we just buy some baby girl clothes from Shyambazar and dress up the boy? That will look so authentic”, Mira hooked her arm in Utpal’s as she looked up and made the request. “What is this? Some Satyajit Ray film or a just a way to get rid of this idiot Dutta, eh”, Utpal was and sounded irritated, “and by the way, we just have a little more than one hour to reach Indian Statistical Institute, if you did not notice”.
With the immediacy of the Dutta threat receding, Utpal was getting back into his daily grind and the special reason why this web of deceit had to be spun. Mira and Utpal were to do a play-reading session for a cultural function organized by the staff of the Indian Statistical Institute. This was a famous two character play – a phone conversation between two lovelorn individuals who got acquainted through a series of wrong number calls. The play was a superhit – especially the Utpal-Mira rendition. Utpal is simply outstanding as the ideological, frustrated, defeated young man, having his last worldly conversation with the only person he relates to before he hangs up and slits his wrists to end his life.
The Indian Statistical Institute wasn’t too far from the Nursing Home, but Utpal wanted to drink some tea to relax his voice – in play-reading voice modulation is the most important thing and keeping the throat in good shape is vital. Fifteen minutes and two cups of tea later, Utpal and Mira hailed a cab at Shyambazar near the Netaji statue and were on BT Road, driving towards the venue
Leaving the cab at the gate of the Institute, Utpal and Mira walked through the large arched gateway. A big banner stretched across the length of the gate welcomed the guests to the cultural program. The program itself seemed to be underway – wafts of songs were coming through – and following the sound was the easiest way to reach the venue inside the sprawling campus. Some two hundred meters from the main gate, Utpal and Mira were greeted by Bhattacharya – Ashim Bhattacharya, cultural secretary of the Employees Union, organizers of the event.
“Arrey dada, come come…it is our privilege to have you and boudi…I mean…Miradi with us today”, blurted Bhattacharya as he did an about-turn to take Utpal and Mira towards the auditorium. “Everything is alright Sir? No problems in reaching our place?”, inquired Bhattacharya
“Hmm..no, none…just that we had a busy morning and could not rehearse much…but I am sure that will not be much of a problem”, Utpal was actually worried that Mira and he perhaps needed to brush up some parts of the play. He had plans to do that in the morning but this entire Dutta episode derailed his plans
“No worries dada. Actually we are running behind time Sir. One of our performers – stand up comic – called to say he is late. Some problem with the trains. You and Miradi are slated just after him. So you will get about an hour in the green rooms to practice”, Bhattacharya said as they neared the auditorium. The auditorium was small but nicely built – and tastefully painted in yellow and brown. There was hectic activity in the lobby, with staff and guests going in and out. Some people were standing outside to catch up on their smoking
“We will sit for a while with the audience. I need to understand the acoustics of the room so we can modulate our voice throws better”, said Mira. She was very particular about this. There were auditoriums where they had performed earlier and knew what the acoustics were like but this one was brand new.
“Sure didi. I will show you and Utpal da right in. You can sit for as long as you want and then come to the green room when you want to start the rehearsal”, Bhattacharya waved away a couple of girls standing at the door, checking for tickets of all who went inside the auditorium. “If you need me, just give a missed call in my cell. I will come over and pick you up”
Mira and Utpal settled down in a row towards the middle of the audience area and looked around to spot the placement of speakers. The auditorium was dark and a singer singing Rabindrasangeet was just winding up her show – in fact she had just finished. Utpal was happy that the next show was a solo stand up comic act – it will give him the right environment to check out the acoustics. The musicians on stage were removing their instruments and a middle aged man came to the standing microphone at the right edge of the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being patient. Our next performance will start in a few minutes. Our star performer was delayed due to problem with the trains – but he is here and will enthrall us with his jokes for the next forty five minutes. Let me welcome on stage, the renowned stage humorist”, the gentlemen then stretched out dramatically the name of the performer as he himself receded into the wings, “Nihar Dutta”.
Utpal turned his head towards the stage like someone had touched a live wire to this spine. Just as he did, the actor rambled on stage – slightly portly, wearing a shiny gray suit with a red tie and announced in a deep baritone – “Nomoshkar, my name is Nihar Dutta. I am from Dhanbad – a town where coke is not something you drink on a hot summer day”
“Mr. Dutta? Mr. Dutta”, croaked Utpal gripping Mira’s arm tightly as he half stood up – like in a trance. His voice seemed to have cracked up for real good
This story is inspired (no, “inspiration” is not used as an euphemism of “plagiarized”) by Bengali novelist Bimal Kar’s short story “Swakhatosalil” (1996)