Friend Request

Apurba’s fingers froze. Cradling the mouse, all of a sudden it seemed someone had soaked off all sensation from the index finger of his right hand. All he had to do was press the button that will click away a small green button on the screen of his Macbook Pro. The green button that said “Send Friend Request”. The autumn afternoons were getting shorter. The sun had lit up the tall buildings of midtown Manhattan ; they in turn radiating the golden orange glow across the Hudson. Chunks of ice floated down the river as Apu looked out from his twenty second floor apartment window on Washington Boulevard in Jersey City. His eyes roving between the profile picture of a lady looking slightly to the left of the camera, her pearl like set of teeth perfectly offset by the hint of red on the lips – curled in a smile. She was wearing glasses that reflected a large patch of green and some sky. The oval rimless glasses looked nice on Kaveri’s roundish face. Like a movie, Apu’s mind went back eleven years. There was the vastness of an open green – the maidan – and a stunning sunset playing out elaborate dramatics in the September Kolkata sky. The fierce battle of regime change between the monsoon and autumn, reflected in the glass facade of the Tata Center, almost like how the Empire State Building today reflected the autumn New York sun

————–oooooo—————

The evening was smelling of wet earth, of crushed leaves on the pavement and burnt diesel – a heady concoction. Apu was pacing the sidewalk across Everest House, a tall building in downtown Calcutta across the vast open space – the maidan, lush lungs of a three hundred year old city. Chartered buses plying from the northern suburbs of Barasat terminated here in the morning – and started from here for the return trip once office-time ended. Apu was not employed but Kaveri was. She worked in the public relations department of Tata Steel – the imposing building across the street. They had met each other at a friends place three years ago. They had fallen in love on the day a fire broke out at the Calcutta Book Fair; Apu had located Kaveri in the scramble and safely escorted her out from what was an impending situation of stampede. Over snacks at Ganguram on that day, they first held hands

Kaveri was keen on marriage – pressure from her parents now that she had a job was only catalyzing her intent. Her parents, though aware of Apu, did not know the relationship. Apurba on the other hand was reluctant. He was studying for his MBA and had only the final set of exams to write to qualify as a chartered accountant. Kaveri wanted to bring the matter to a head and for the whole week pestered Apu to at least accept that her parents should approach Apu’s father to broach the matter of marriage. It was tough for her, Kaveri explained, to even break the matter of their relationship to her parents – leave alone pressing for a marriage. For some reason, Apu had a one dimensional stance – cannot marry before getting a job and job will come only after academics concluded. Apu met Kaveri every evening and travelled with her back home, sharing a few moments of tenderness in a bus full of passengers.

Sitting next to the window that evening Kaveri at first was stern in her demand for a definite answer from Apurba and then, by the time the bus got onto the Eastern Bypass, had tears in her eyes. She turned away from the window, put her head on Apu’s shoulder and begged him in whispers to say yes. The light floral fragrance of Kaveri’s perfume choked Apu. He looked out into the darkness through which the bus cut through. At every streetlight the halogen cast a slanting sliver of glimmer on Kaveri’s face. Her eyeliner was running a bit, Apu noticed

“It will be Ultadanga soon, Apu”, Kaveri begged as the bus approached Apu’s stop. “Please, please tell me a yes. End my misery”. Apu remained stubborn and once again explained in his rational voice why they must wait for more time. By now the droplets of tears had transformed into steady trickles. And it had started drizzling outside. Pulling the half-glass window shut, Apu – for no particular reason said “I am not getting down here. I will go till your stop”. The rain splattered on the window, the halogen light shining through the droplets of water that struck on the glass. Yellow shadows crossed Kaveri’s roundish face as she shifted her head to rest on the window

Kaveri got off the bus at the airport. Apu reasoned that he will travel a bit farther to catch a bus from its terminal point – from where he will be able to get a seat. Kaveri asked if he could get down with her and walk the ten minutes to her home. “Busses from here are very crowded. And it is raining”, said Apu – rational as ever. Kaveri got down and stood for a while, oblivious that she should open her folding umbrella. She looked up at the window and smiled at Apu – the only time in the past ninety minutes that she had smiled. She raised her hand and extending her thumb and little finger made a gesture that asked Apu to call her over the weekend. The rain had already made the shoulder of her light pink kurta wet

Apu never called Kaveri. He left town for a month and went to live with his elder brother in Bombay – allegedly to study together with some friends he had made during a management school program in Calcutta. The truth was he wanted to get away from Kaveri. For a while. Not Kaveri as much as her relentless pressure to get married. Apu’s one month absence from Calcutta went on to become two

“Oh, how come you did not know Apu-da? Didi got married last month and they now live in Bombay”. Apu met Kunal, Kaveri’s younger brother, one day at the Chakrabarty Chatterjee bookstore at College Street in Calcutta. Apu had the inkling that something was amiss – his phone calls to Kaveri’s home went unanswered and the only thing he was able to learn from her office is that Kaveri Sarkar no longer worked there. “Jamaibabu works for Pepsi. And you know how much a Coke fan didi is. I am sure they are having a lot of fun!”

————–oooooo—————

Apurba enlarged the profile picture as much as he could. He could now see the little black mole at the corner of Kaveri’s upper lip. Happiness has a natural way of announcing itself from the eyes. Kaveri Sarkar-Ghosh by that measure looked very happy, radiant actually. Meanwhile, the sun over Manhattan had paled, reducing the Empire State and Chrysler buildings to a dull blackish orange glow. The Empire State Building today was lit in yellow. Apu remembered the glow of the yellow halogen on Kaveri’s face that evening in the chartered bus

Mustering up courage and then in a flourish Apurba Sen, Head of Mortgage Research at Wells Fargo, clicked on his laptop screen the little green button that said “Send Friend Request”

School Bus

Poor Naveen was late

It was the day to get back after an extended weekend. A weekend that also involved the Durga Puja, which unfailingly means heaps of fun. Naveen was not a Bengali (for who the festival is real big) but had lived a couple of years at Durgapur, a town some one hundred miles west of Kolkata, built around a steel plant. The time, though short, was enough to indoctrinate him to the five days of sheer fun that Durga Puja was. It was this morning-after, however, that Naveen dreaded the most. The alarm clock would blare its gut even when the winter solstice sun barely peeped out to say hello. The mind was still groggy from the sweets of the previous evening. An inevitable shrill lady voice would announce shortly – Naveen you are late. The mad scramble then to get ready for yet another day

Naveen, short and not really very well built, now started to walk briskly to reach his bus-stop just outside the gate of the community where they lived. The bus arrives precisely at 7:10 am – and the driver (who in his past life must have been an army fellow) was least likely to wait that extra minute in case someone was late. Naveen noticed the door to Manish’s home was ajar – shit, Manish then must have already made it to the bus stop. Usually Naveen met Manish at his gate and chatted their final few meters to the bus stop. Clutching his shoulder slung bag to reduce swing, Naveen now broke into a run. Actually he had wanted to reach the bus stop early today. To take his chances of sitting next to Alpana, the drop-dead beautiful Bengali girl with large bewitching eyes. Alpana usually got great sweets the day after Dussehra – or Bijoya as she keeps referring to the festival. More than the sweets, it was Alpana’s fragrance mixed with the light petrol smell of the bus that Naveen felt was a heady olfactory concoction early in the morning. Taking the sharp turn at the clubhouse, Naveen could now see the gate and as he puffed his heart out he remembered he had forgotten his tiffin box on the dining table. For a moment he froze, trying to make the decision whether to rush back. He could visualize the lonely Tupperware “dabba” sitting atop the dining table. The digital watch on his wrists said 7:07. Ditch – he decided! On the day when everyone at lunch time will be hunched up at the desks hogging and exchanging dussehra goodies, Naveen will have to walk down to buy some food. But that is better than missing the bus. And Alpana. The bus, goddamn it, was already at the bus stop. The engine was running and it was just about to move – without Naveen – when Alpana sitting next to a window saw him running. Alpana half raised herself from her seat and gesticulated. The bus stalled and the driver put his flailing arm out to rush Naveen – as if he needed the hustle. Ahmed, the driver, was always in a hurry. Naveen barely had any breath left in his lungs or force in his legs as he pushed himself up the three steps and hauled himself and his bag onto the bus cabin. He was greeted with the usual cheer from his mates. The cheer of congratulations in making it to the bus combined with the good-to-see-you-again cheer after the extended weekend. Naveen slid the bag from his shoulder and noticed the seat next to Alpana was taken. Flopping down on a seat next to Gurdeep, Naveen gulped his own saliva to soothe the dry throat. Gurdeep turned towards Naveen, thrust his hand out and said, “Oye, happy dusserah yaar. How was last quarter for you? Targets met?”

The company bus, having picked up its final passenger, started the one hour drive towards Electronic City.

One cannot call this a short story. It is a mere chronicle of an incident involving office-going adults; parts of an event I often witness in my mornings. My memories take me back to my school days and it is impossible to not notice the sheer similarity of circumstances. Did a giant black hole devour the intervening years or are we destined to relive our pasts no matter how much we have walked ahead along the sands of time?

The Kali Temple Mystery

This story, authored by Murarimohan Beet in Bengali, first appeared in the children’s magazine “Suktara” in the year 1977 (July issue)

Illustrations in this story are photographs from the original piece. Copyright belongs to respective owners. My attempt is to present the story as close to the original as possible

Ajay, Shyamal and Ratan – three of my friends from college had come to visit our village. It was the summer break and I had taken them to the banks of the river in an attempt to beat the heat. The river Mayurakshi  flowed about a mile and a half north of our village – the banks of the river was very pleasant during the summers. The sunset was spectacular as the sun dipped creating a magical silhouette of the railway bridge. We had planned to spend a few hours there till dusk and then return back home. Anticipating that it could be dark on the way back, I was carrying a large five-celled flashlight with us

It was about six in the evening. The summer evening still had a fair amount of sunshine. Soothed by the river breeze we were deeply engrossed discussing the wave of Naxalism sweeping the state – so much that we failed to notice the huge dark clouds creeping up the western sky. We realized when the wind picked up and the light suddenly started deteriorating sharply. We hastily got up and started walking – rather a brisk jog – back towards the village. It was a tough ask anyway and within five minutes the elephant like cloud had covered the sky, the wind had picked up to a nasty howl and rain started pelting down in large drops. Our jog had transformed into a run by now. I was well aware that there were no places for us to seek shelter in this one and a half mile stretch of road back home. Except that deserted temple

But no one went anywhere near that temple any longer – not definitely after sundown. Like every other villager, I was aware of the temple’s legend and afraid to be in its vicinity in the night. The rational person in me argued that fear was mostly rooted in an urban legend but even that could not completely alleviate the uneasy feeling. But today we had a strong flashlight with us – besides the light its bulk could also be used as a weapon. The rain was incessant and there was no way we could get back home without falling ill tomorrow. Thus with great reluctance, I led the boys down the turn from the road that led us to the precincts of the deserted temple. We rushed into the portico of the temple and took shelter below the low roof. It was not a very large temple. Devoted to Goddess Kali, it used to belong to a Tantrik who stayed at the temple with a bunch of his followers. The temple was now dilapidated – parts of the structure broken down and in ruins and large parts of the temple compound consumed by wild weeds and trees. Plants had grown from its walls and snaked down from the roof, which was threatening to collapse any day soon. It was just seven in the evening though the constant patter of rain, the wind and constant chirping of crickets made it seem like midnight. If it were not for the rain I would surely not have come to the temple at this hour

“Where have you brought us, Bipin! You sure there are no snakes or scorpions around here?”, Shyamal asked as he nervously looked around, simultaneously drying his hair with his handkerchief

“I won’t rule out the possibility but see, we had no alternative. There was no way we could have run a mile in this rain and storm”, I surveyed the area around with my flashlight

“But it does seem that this was quite a temple at one time, no?”, asked Ratan

“Yes, indeed”, I replied. “This was a Kali temple presided over by a Tantrik. He was more a ruffian than a devoted disciple of the faith. He and a handful of equally dubious followers of his would perform puja and rituals every evening. Such was the type of the puja that far from coming to see the idol, no one ever dared come to witness the rituals”

Shyamal stopped drying his hair and each one of boys stared back at me

“There is a lot of dark history of this temple. I can tell you all if you want to hear – but only that much that I know”, I said, not quite knowing if it was the right thing to do

Ajay looked out at the now ominously reddish sky and said, “It looks like we will be here for a while. So why not make the best of the time. Go on Bipin, tell us the story of this temple”

We cleared the weeds and dust from a small area as much as we could, sat down and I started my narration

————————– 2 —————————–

My grandfather was around forty or forty two when this temple was fully functional. Like I said earlier, a Tantrik worshiper used to live here and worship the goddess Kali. A five feet tall idol of the goddess – black in color – used to be perched on this raised platform you see here. No one knew though that this idol was just a decoy and that the real worshiping happened in a small room in the basement of this temple. There is a room towards the rear of the temple from where goes a short flight of stairs down to the basement room. This was accidentally discovered by a group of young boys who were returning home after attending a wedding in the adjacent village. They had taken refuge inside the temple for the same reason as we have today – torrential rains in the month of July. The main door to the sanctum sanctorum – which today is in ruins and exists no more – was closed and locked that night when they got here. The boys however could hear sounds of bells and drums – the type that usually gets played during an offering to the goddess. The sound was indistinct, muffled and seemed to be coming from a distance. The boys were aware that even during those days there were no human habitations anywhere near this temple.  Yet the sound of the bells, the drums, however muted, were quite clear – it was apparent that a puja was being performed somewhere within this temple, perhaps in a different room. The boys – six in number – were getting increasingly curious and started going around the temple to locate the origin of the sound. To their disappointment – and increasing bafflement – all the rooms in the temple were locked. The boys came to the rear of the temple where the sound was much clearer than before. They knew the source had to be somewhere close. Then they found a room, the one right at the back of the temple, where a solitary light was burning and the door was ajar. The boys were convinced that the key to this mystery was in this room. They had however heard about the Tantrik and the dubious nature of his followers and wanted to make sure there was no one inside the room. Hiding in the darkness for about ten minutes, they emerged when they did not notice and sign of movement in and around the room. The sound of the bells and drums became much clearer as they entered the room. A small lamp was burning on the floor casting ghostly flickering shadows on the walls. The room was barren save for one cot and a large square piece of metal placed on the floor with handles on two sides. One of boys pushed the metal plate and it was immediately clear that the sound was coming from somewhere down under the room

The plate was quite heavy and it took four of the boys to push it away to reveal a staircase – dark and damp. Flashing their torchlight carefully they could not see the end of the winding stairs but it was beyond doubt that there was a basement below and the bells and drums were being played there. What was happening there? Why was it necessary to perform the ritual in the basement rather than in the main temple? The boys could now smell a whiff of something mysterious happening in the temple. They quickly discussed between themselves and decided it was important to find out what was going on here. They silently began to climb down the stairs, feeling their way through the darkness.  Just after the first turn in the staircase, they were able to see what was happening. What they witnessed sent a chill down the spines of each of those six young boys

It was a medium sized room with no ventilation – the only entrance and exit was through the staircase. The room was lit by kerosene lamps and lamps that are lit during religious offerings. Inside the room at one end was a tall black idol of goddess Kali, the red tongue hanging out and shimmering diabolically in the flickering yellow light. A man in bright red robes, long hair and beard was performing the rituals holding a lamp in his right hand, dancing to the sound of the bells and drums like he was in a trance. Around him were seven very well built strong men. Two of these men, thugs more likely, were each holding the arms of a small boy, no more than ten years old. Another man was holding a large shining sword like blade, called Kharga in religious offerings. A small armory of more blades, spears and swords sat against the wall.

It was clear that the real rituals and offerings happened in this basement and human sacrifice was also a normal practice. By then the man performing the rituals – the Tantrik – was done and he nodded his head at the two men holding the child. They dragged the child towards the idol of the goddess and the other man arranged and tightened his grip around the sword blade he was holding

The boys did not stay back to witness the remaining of this inhuman drama though at that point their desire to save the child was quite overwhelming. However difficult it was, they contained their emotions because it was evident that they were out-armed, out-muscled and obviously outnumbered by the thugs present in that basement. They fled through the staircase, careful to replace the metal plate exactly how it was and fled that area immediately. Before entering the village they started discussing their subsequent plan of action. It was clear that the thugs kidnapped sacrificial children from not nearby villages but from distant ones, lest they raised an alarm. This practice had to be stopped permanently. The boys concluded that the thugs had to be killed and reached a plan how they would carry this out. They also decided to not reveal this to anyone in the village and let everyone know only after their mission was successful

Exactly a week after this incident the boys returned to the temple at around ten in the night. This time they were carrying with them two drums of petrol. The boys hid behind bushes for a long while – there were no one except themselves, they were sure. Slowly they started moving towards the rear of the temple and towards the room that had the staircase to the basement. All of a sudden they could hear the sound of bells and drums just like the other day. Relieved that the Tantrik and his thugs were in the basement the boys now hurried towards the room. They entered the room and pushed aside the metal plate. After that they poured the contents of the two drums down the staircase. One of the boys had already lit a long strand of paper using his matchsticks and the burning lead was duly dropped into the dark abyss of the staircase, bursting the crevice into an inferno. The boys were ready and quickly pulled the metal plate shut. They then pulled the bed in that room and placed it on top of the metal plate. By then the death screams and shrieks of the Tantrik and his thugs had started in the basement, their sounds as muffled as the sounds of the bells and drums would be. It was all over in less than an hour and a deathly silence hung over the temple premises. Mission accomplished, the boys went back and narrated the story to the villagers, who from then onwards were doubly scared to come to the temple knowing everything of what had transpired. Except for situations like today when inclement weather forced the four of us to seek refuge in the ruins

————————-3 ———————–

“What a story”, said Ajay, first to break the silence as I wound up my narration. Ajay deftly lit a match, shielded the flame from the strong wind with his palms and lit a cigarette.  He was about to shake the matchstick to put it off when he froze. We all did and looked at each other, stunned. Ajay’s matchstick almost singed his fingers when he croaked, “what is that sound, Bipin?”. Slightly muffled but it was quite audible – the sound of bells and drums just like it happens during a ritual or an offering

The sound was muffled but very distinct, especially as the wind was blowing it from the source and there was not a single other sound – except a sudden heaviness in our breathing. I had begun to shiver. There was no human presence within a mile of this area. Then? Where was this sound coming from? Had some new Tantrik arrived and had revived the temple? That was impossible. The temple showed no signs of habitation – the dust, the thick carpet of dry leaves, vegetation, weeds everywhere and banyan shoots coming out from every crack in the walls. No, it was not possible that someone was staying here

“You said there used to be no settlements around this area then. How is it now?”, inquired Ajay. Ajay was one of the most daring young boys I have seen. A regular body-builder, he would swim in the Ganges during high tide

“It is the same now”, I said

“Huh! Then has some new Tantrik fellow come down here and has started his own small private practice?”, Ajay had regained his confidence after the initial setback. “But that does not look feasible. Look at the condition of this place. No human being surely has been around this place ever since those six boys dumped petrol and killed the murderers forty years back”

“You said it all was happening at the basement of the room in the rear of the temple. Why don’t we go and check”, Shyamal had got up and was trying to figure out the way towards the rear. It was not very clear given a large part of the temple had totally collapsed

I had no intention of going towards the rear, finding out that infamous room and whatever that lied beyond but at the same time I did not want my city friends to brand me a village coward. I joined the other three as we found our way to the rear. Most of the windows and doors of the rooms had been eaten away by termites and had either fallen off the hinges or were about to. Two inch thick dust greeted us everywhere as did sand and rubble. It was impossible for anyone to be living here. There were no footmarks except ours as we tried to discover that room at the rear of the temple. The sound progressively started getting clearer and it was quite evident that the source of the sound – the bells and drums – was very near as we stood at the door of what had to be that rear room. The door was hanging from the hinge and a thick layer of spider web adorned the dark doorway. No one could have entered this room leaving the spider’s web intact. What on earth was going on here?

We pushed the web aside and carefully entered the room. Right in the center of the room was what once upon a time had been a bed. Two of its legs had fallen away but the other two stood on a rusty and slightly mangled plate of metal with handles at the edges. The sound of the bells and drums were very clear now and without any doubt, coming from the basement. Four of us got on either side of the metal plate and a combination of push and pull revealed the cavernous square hole that was the staircase. I had never seen such solid darkness in my life. The sound of the bells and drums was almost like one could reach out and touch the source. But who were conducting the ritual? There was not even a lamp lit anywhere. Was there someone conducting the rituals in complete darkness?

Ajay, the fearless, took lead. “Come down with me”, he whispered, “don’t light the torch but keep it handy. Everyone hold onto the shirts of the person in front. And keep feeling the wall”. Ajay descended into the darkness. We reached the wide step where the staircase turned into the remaining few steps to the basement. We could see nothing, which was natural but neither could we feel anything. Not a breath, not any movement yet the sound of the bells and drums were just a few feet away. Suddenly Ajay inadvertently did something and the torchlight came to life, bathing the scene in front of us with an eerie beam of white light. And the bells and drums stopped instantaneously. We could see the basement, covered in at least two inches of dust and eight human skeletons scattered across the floor in different places. At one end of the room stood a half burnt idol – clearly the infamous idol of goddess Kali. The spears and swords at the corner of the room were more or less intact – perhaps the petrol did not reach that crevice. One large sword-blade – Kharga – lay at the feet of the idol and a skeleton right next to it. Scattered across the room were other ritual items – lamps, water caskets, large plates – each mangled in the fire such it was impossible to tell if they were made of iron, brass, silver or gold.

“Impossible”, Ajay was the first to break the silence. “Surely, the sound was not coming from this room. We must have made a mistake”, no matter how hard he tried Ajay’s voice was quivering. My state was possibly the worst of the lot – whatever my clothes had dried after the rain, they were drenched once again. This time in my own sweat. “Let’s go up. We will inspect the entire area”, said Ajay as we all turned back to climb up the stairs. I was now leading the queue with Ajay at the end, shining the torch. I had barely reached the wide step where the staircase curved when I heard a blood curdling scream from Ajay. AAAAAAAA …. H-E-L-P, Help, Help me….he was screaming with all the power of his lungs. He had dropped the torch and we were once again engulfed by the solid darkness. We reached Ajay and found he was unconscious and not able to move. We half carried half dragged him up the stairs. I won’t go into the details of how we managed to carry him back to the village that night. The local doctor came around to see Ajay the next morning. He gave him a dose of sedatives and said that it was most likely he had seen something terrible that had scared him out of his senses. Ajay regained his senses by mid morning but he was almost in a daze till noon of the next day. He narrated a strange story when he completely came around. He said that he saw a terrible looking Tantrik, with a large kharga in his hand, come and grab him by his neck. By the time he realized what was happening, the Tantrik had gripped the back of his head and brought the sword blade down on his neck with all force. It was then that he started shouting for help

————————— 4 —————————–

Hearing Ajay’s story, a large group – about twenty – of local youths wanted to go and check the mystery of the ruined Kali temple. Most of them were aware of the legend that went with the temple but this recent happening had stirred their interests to no end. I asked them to carry flashlights – it was quite possible that the basement will be dark even during the day. Finally I counted the team carrying at least ten flashlights. We reached the temple and quickly found our way to the room at the rear of the temple. The metal plate was ajar – we had not bothered to place it back that night – and the staircase was visible. We went down with all the ten flashlights guiding us the way. I found at the base of the stairs my flashlight that Ajay has dropped that night. But wait – what was this? My knees felt weak and my head spun as I took the scene in. I was sweating profusely looking at the room, which was now bathed in white light from so many flashlights. Why were there two skeletons at the bottom of the stairs? There were none there the other day, I was sure – they were scattered around the room but all away from the stairs. And how come there were nine skeletons and not eight? How did this kharga come here at the base of the stairs? The room was covered in dust and even now one could clearly make out the distinct outline of the sword blade where it had been lying at the foot of the idol. The same went with the skeleton that was almost next to the blade – it was not there but its imprint was on the dust was.

That same skeleton was now lying at the base of stairs along with a new skeleton, the neck of which was clearly broken and the sword blade lying right next to it

Liar

“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”
“What?”
“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)

Vipin Choudhury’s Amnesia

This short story was written by Satyajit Ray for the Puja number of Sandesh, in the year 1973

“Nomoshkar”

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.

Dear Vipin,

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.

Your friend

Chunilal

“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…