It took me almost a lifetime to conclude if Purnendu was a genius or simply a mentally challenged person. And that does not speak too highly of my intelligence I have to admit.
I met him for the first time as a student of Class Seven in a school meant for boys whose unfortunate parents had given up on them. There was a small minority of good students in the school too, but I belonged to the majority without a doubt. The school I went to the previous year, as a student of Class Six I mean, found me wanting in basic human intelligence. Or so it would appear from the scary progress reports that were sent home to my unhappy parents, who were rapidly progressing towards a nervous breakdown.
By the time I completed the second term in that school, my report resembled a bloody battle field, smeared as it was with examination scores written in red ink. I suppose red was not a colour identified with revolutionary zeal in our part of the world as yet and both the teachers at school as well as the guardians at home began to worry about the quantum of grey matter my mind was endowed with. My parents realized that there was no hope at all of me being promoted to the next class and took me out of the school in the middle of the year. They tutored me at home and made me appear in the admission tests of a number of renowned schools, but to no avail at all. I was rejected everywhere and finally admitted to a school meant for the likes of me. There was no admission test there and the school’s doors were open for anyone willing to walk through them.
Something similar might have happened with Purnendu as well, or else why should he and I be admitted simultaneously (at the Class Seven level and not Class One or lower) to this generally accepted institution for the mentally incompetent? Yet this is not the way I viewed things at that stage of life. Besides, there was a telltale difference between Purnendu and me. He had a scholarly look about him whereas I clearly resembled a moron.
It was not his look alone that distinguished Purnendu from the rest of the class. What stood him out was the erudition that marked his conversation. While the best students in the class were concerned with problems in arithmetic and elementary algebra at the peak of their scholarly inquisitiveness, Purnendu remained miles ahead of us all and deliberated on esoteric knowledge reserved for the chosen few. Quite invariably, he was concerned with science, as in physics, chemistry and so on, and appeared to be familiar not only with the latest advances in these subjects but also the names of books and journals dealing with the issues. We were too ignorant to verify his statements and took them at face value.
He was a tall person, always dressed simply in clothes bearing the stamp of austerity, his dark, sharp featured face wearing the haunted look of a scientist stuck with problems that, according to him, even Einstein would avoid like live wire. He smiled but rarely, and when he did, his face expressed unmistakable signs of pain at the sight of the mirthfully irresponsible teenagers, in whose midst he had been condemned to waste his talents reserved exclusively for the advancement of science.
I liked Purnendu. Partly because I believed him to be far ahead of the world he was born in. But I also liked him for his quiet simplicity, for his soft-spoken manners, and most importantly, for the distance he maintained from the merciless lampooning one can be subjected to in an all boys’ school. Yet we never turned into close friends, most likely on account of his reticence, but also probably because I never considered myself a match for his intellect. Our conversations had been few and, as far as I can recall now, bordered on the facile.
For example, I told him once, “Purnendu, when it comes to physics, you can probably expose the profound ignorance of the most well-known scientists in the country, can’t you?”
Purnendu didn’t turn to look at me. Instead, he had this far away lost look on his face as he replied, without the slightest trace of amour-propre, almost with humility as it were, “Oh yes, that I can …”
I felt satisfied to hear the reply of this teenager, my classmate at that, which probably indicates that the grey matter that I lacked was amply compensated by gullibility.
Purnendu was not a noisy person as I said, so I was taken completely by surprise one day when the teacher in the class asked him to “stand up on the bench”! I don’t remember what the occasion was. He might have failed to answer a question or his homework could have been judged unsatisfactory. I am sure of course that he had not been pulled up for disciplinary reasons. He accepted the punishment without demur and remained standing on the bench, towering above all of us like a veritable Statue of Liberty, both due to his physical height as well as his presumed intellectual superiority. I was deeply distressed by the sight and almost moved to tears, since I could not accept Purnendu’s humiliation. But Purnendu stood at his elevated post, his face expressing stoic indifference if anything at all. As I ponder over it now, he must have appeared to me like Hercules tricked into bearing the Heavens on his shoulders, only I was probably ignorant of Greek mythology at the time.
A bigger shock lay in store for me though. A classmate informed me one day that Purnendu was particularly popular, not because of his monumental store of scientific knowledge, but for his staggering collection of pornographic literature! I was somewhat innocent I suppose and not yet been exposed to these forbidden books, but not being above the curiosity that accompanies puberty, I forgot all about Purnendu’s erudition and felt an irresistible urge to lay my hands on his hidden treasure. On a holiday afternoon therefore, I pestered my informer to lead me to Purnendu’s home in the hope of borrowing from his collection.
Purnendu lived in a well-appointed house which indicated that he came from a well-to-do family, but there was something strange in the deserted look the house bore. The house was shrouded in mystery, a personification of an unrevealed tragedy. It was mid-day and the street was quite empty. There might have been a calling bell, but I remember that my companion preferred not to use it. Instead, he called out “Purnedu” in a full-throted voice that rang through the sunlit, empty afternoon street. The call had to be repeated several times before Punenedu appeared from behind the closed doors of a room in the front corner of the building. For the first time during our period of acquaintance did I notice signs of annoyance on Purnendu’s usually composed face. He was clearly disturbed by the arrival of visitors. He did not speak to me at all and I do not have any idea about the exchange that took place between him and my chaperone. It was a short conversation, Purnendu replying in monosyllables at best and his face growing visibly furious with every passing moment. Finally, it was clear that he wanted to have nothing to do with us and the question of letting us into his house did not arise at all.
The pornography question remained unsettled therefore, but the classmate who took me there told me that Purnendu’s family did not wish him to bring anyone into the house. I was quite puzzled by all this, not so much by the disappointment associated with my failure to acquire my object of desire, something I had never seen before but had heard of, as by the obvious reluctance Purnendu showed to admit us in. Why can’t we enter his house? I kept asking myself, since there was no restriction in my own family as far as bringing my friends into my home was concerned.
I didn’t continue in this school much longer and was shifted to a newly come up school soon after, a school to which I owe the rest of everything good that has happened in my life. This is where I came across Utpal Dutt as my English teacher and a delightful real life story took off then onwards. I have written at length about this in a book in Bengali, but this is not what I want to speak about now.
It is Purnendu who occupies me even today, a double agent connecting the worlds of scholarship and pornography. I never discovered whether he had indeed amassed the books they said he had, but his behavior on that far away afternoon made me feel that the allegation was not entirely untrue. I soon forgot about him of course and did not remember him even once till I bumped into him on the street one morning almost thirty years later. The spot where we saw each other was close to the residence I had visited in my teens. I can’t recall if he recognized me first or whether it was I who began the conversation. He looked almost totally unchanged from his school days, dressed exactly the same way he used to be in school. The only difference was that his hair displayed a few grey touches now and he wore glasses. He recognized me too but he was his usual reticent self. I asked him what he was doing though he avoided answering the question. Instead, in an almost accusing tone, he inquired, “Have you married?” He wanted to know nothing else at all it seemed. What my profession was? No. Where I worked? No. Was I in touch with any old classmate? No. Married or not was the only issue that mattered.
I answered in the affirmative, somewhat taken aback, and even told him that we had a child. The expression on his face turned into total disgust and he didn’t wish to carry on the conversation any further. He simply walked off. That was the last time I spoke to him, but I did spot him in the same area on later occasions also. He was always preoccupied and never noticed me, or even if he did, he did not acknowledge the fact.
I could have ended Purnendu’s story here, but then the reader would question me what the point of it all was. So, I need to add a last act to this enigma. I lost track of Purnendu once again and travelled to different parts of India as well as the world. And then, of all places, I ran into Purnendu one last time in Hong Kong during the first decade of this century. No, I did not see him physically anymore, but being a cyber enthusiast, I often form friendships with people I never get to see in flesh and blood. I came across one such in a site I visit no more and it turned out that this person was Purnendu’s neighbour in youth. The street is a walking distance from where I live today. And my curiosity knew no bounds. I kept pestering the person about Purnendu’s whereabouts at that time, but the person was now married and lived elsewhere. He had a mother though who still lived there and she might know.
Following interactions with the mother, I was informed a few days later that Purnendu was no more. This person was not too sure that it was Purnendu that we were discussing, but everything we discussed pointed in his direction. There was nothing unusual about this message of course. But what did make Purnendu’s story somewhat poignant was the information that he had been a mental patient for a long time. And he was not the only one in the family with the affliction. He had failed to acquire a gainful training in any walk of life or to find employment during his manhood. But his family, which was rich, thought normalcy could be restored by getting him married! And they did find an unfortunate enough girl to tie the knot with him. What’s more, the marriage brought a child into existence as well.
As I learnt these details, I recalled the pain in his face the last time he spoke to me and I told him that I was married with a child. I do not know how Purnendu died, but his wife, I think I was told, is well-educated and, what’s more, is reasonably well-employed.
I am not sure what makes me want to find out the whole story, or at least reconstruct a story based on these stray incidents. The pretentious scholar, the pornography specialist and a man desperate about a wife (or most probably physical intimacy with a woman), he remains a riddle to me. The only thing I am sure about now is that he did not lack virility. There is a child he had fathered.Whether this child is normal or not, I have no information on.