Gangajal, Or One Day in the Life of an Unknown Indian

I went and joined the tail end of the serpentine queue leading up to the Speed Post counter at the post office. The queue was long and about to spill over to the pavement. Not that I wasn’t mentally prepared. I was armed with earphones to help me concentrate in peaceful boredom on my smart phone playing out the audio version of the Economist. I listened to the pros and cons of Germany’s trade surplus, Donald Trump’s latest spell of insanity, Cornelis’ prize-winning vegetables in Ngabang, Mr. Hapilon’s shelter in Marawi and so on and so forth.

Peace, however, was disturbed unexpectedly. “Non-peace” had arrived in the shape of a youngish bozo. He was snarling at me I observed, but strangely enough I couldn’t hear a word he said. I wondered for a split second if I was in the midst of a surrealistic dream. You know, the sort of dream sequences that great film makers, such as Fellini or Bergman, weave into their movies for the sole purpose of making you feel insecure about your intelligence.

I stared at him open mouthed till I realised that the earphones had turned me deaf to happenings within close range even as I was hearing about events occurring in remote South China Sea, both loudly and clearly. I removed my hearing hurdles therefore and switched my attention to the young man’s grievances.

“You have taken up my place,” he accused.

I looked behind me and found that I was still the solitary person guarding the rear of the queue. “But I am at the end of the queue! How could I have possibly usurped you?”

“You have,” he replied haughtily. “I was the last person in the queue and now you have taken up my place.”

He sounded as though he was trying to establish a territorial right and not his last position in the waiting list. Being peace loving, I moved back a few inches to accommodate him. He warned me not to disturb the order. “You are behind me,” he hissed. “Remember this.” Saying so, he disappeared wherever he had appeared from. I continued to guard the rear, quickly closing up the gap I had created for his use. But I was uncomfortably conscious that the rear that I appeared to be guarding was not exactly the rear that I was meant to guard. Which rear was invisible at the moment, but could pay surprise visits whenever it wished.

I plugged back my earphones. A woman with a perfect British accent greeted me with news about sex workers in Colombia. I decided to switch gear and shift over to YouTube to listen to the Schubert Serenade as I watched the faces that I faced inside the post office.

One in particular caught my attention. He sported a sparsely vegetated, large round head and rushed around a matching round table, clockwise at times and anti-clockwise at others. A mound of timeworn papers lay on the table and he took short breaks to feverishly sort them out. A grumbling crowd chased him, some clockwise and the rest anti-clockwise. I tried to figure out without success what the round chap was doing for his followers around the round table. It occurred to me, not without a tinge of jealousy, that I had never been sought after this way.

Schubert continued to entertain me in the meantime.

And then I noticed posters on the walls. One said that you needed to link your postal savings bank account to your Aadhaar number, or else unknown things could happen to you. I happily recalled that I possessed no such account. Yet another said that it was the Speed Post service that was keeping the country together, but that it wouldn’t remain open after 3 PM. This was disconcerting, I mean the possibility that the country was getting ready to fall apart after 3 PM.

Schubert took leave as this new piece of intelligence invaded my mind. Worriedly, I checked my watch. It was ten past one. Life has its pleasant surprises too I thought. I still had close to two hours left on earth. Peace returned along with Schubert, since I forgot to ask where Speed Post parcels were likely to be delivered once the earth ceased to exist. I live in a fool’s paradise I suppose.

Someone behind me patted my shoulder. I looked around in mild alarm. He was a shortish chap, once again pretty young, but not snarling. Obligingly, I removed my earphones. Schubert, feeling neglected, began to vibrate inside my trouser pocket in agony as the man who didn’t snarl, actually smiled at me. I smiled back too with an amiable “Ah! How are you today!” expression, but had no idea who he might be. He responded audibly. “I am behind you,” he observed. This fresh new “behind” related allegation made me lose a heartbeat, for there was no room for doubt concerning his assertion. Before I could agree with him though, he too disappeared with an “I will be back here later” message. This undoubtedly meant that should anyone else come and stand behind me, I was in charge of explaining to her or him that she or he was in fact not standing behind me.

I don’t think I had found myself sandwiched between two persons ever before in my life, both of whom were invisible. It was a case of disappearing front and behind in Perry Mason language. The situation was unenviable. I went back to Schubert, however, and continued to watch the visible waves of perspiring humanity once again. There were wooden benches where people were dozing. I had no idea why you needed to walk over all the way to the post office to enjoy your siesta. I vaguely recognized one of them. I stared at him trying to recall where I had seen him in the recent past. The man returned my gaze and smiled. The smile was unmistakably familiar. Who could it be?

The man was helpful. “I am behind you,” he reminded me. The man behind me, even though not visible behind me, was not exactly invisible either. He was riding a bench, under a rickety fan, while I, his trusted lieutenant in the infantry, was holding the fort at the end of the queue.

In the meantime, the queue moved forward along with me immersed in the Schubert serenade. It was around 2.15 PM when I found myself to be the third person from the counter, not counting the invisible man behind whom I stood. He materialized though by the time I had moved up to the second position and taken out the earphones, ready to confabulate with the girl at the counter.

“You are behind me,” he snarled. As with the other man, I had no recollection of his face, but I recognized his trademark snarl. I let him squeeze in without a murmur. I am a peaceful person. I think I have already said that.

Soon, he faced the girl seated on the other side of the counter in a violet shirt and black trousers. Quite pretty in fact. She weighed his envelope and told him that the charge was Rs. 53. He produced Rs. 60 from his pocket, which the girl refused to accept.

“Sorry, no change available,” said Girlie.

“Where do I get three rupees from?” replied Snarlie, somewhat unsnarling.

“Go out and get the change from nearby shops,” replied Girlie.

“But there are no shops nearby,” Snarlie had rapidly melted and was close to whimpering now.

The invisible man behind me, the one who smiled, had now turned visible behind me and he began to offer his opinion as well. “Don’t delay us, come tomorrow with the change,” suggested Smilie.

Snarlie snarled at Smilie. Girlie though didn’t budge. I looked at my watch. It was half past two. I was getting fidgety, when divine help intervened. Like oil in Arabia, I struck coins inside my trouser pocket. In my left pocket to be precise. With an exclamation of hallelujah, I extracted them and offered three rupees worth of coins to Snarlie in broad daylight. Plenty of witnesses.

After this, the matter was settled in a jiffy. Snarly disappeared soon after as was his wont. Before he did so, however, he looked back at me and produced a mixture of a growl and a grunt. In appreciation I think.

This brought me face to face with Girlie. Except that it didn’t. When I turned my face from the disappearing Snarlie towards the counter, I found much to my horror that Girlie too had disappeared. The day was reserved for vanishing people. I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes to three and the counter still empty. I stood there dumbfounded as the seconds ticked away. Schubert too was angrily protesting inside my pocket. The right pocket, for if you remember, the left pocket was where coins tinkled.

I looked everywhere. No girlie alas. I noticed instead a middle aged woman sitting inside a kiosk that said “Stamps” in bold red letters. Did people buy stamps anymore these days to post letters? What strange commodity was the woman selling? A closer look at the window resolved the mystery. A typed notice was pasted there. “Gangajal,” it announced. In two sizes, 200 litres and 500 litres. Not Bisleri mind you, but Gangajal! To wash away your mortal sins. A postal route to Heaven?

I began to pray. Sweet God, I will offer you a 200 litre bottle of Gangajal to make Girlie reappear.

The prayer was answered instantaneously. She walked out of the adjacent room from behind a curtain that had last been washed around the time of the Sepoy Mutiny, accompanied by two zealous male colleagues. “What medicine did you consume?” one of them queried. She whispered a reply. The other one reacted, “That’s the last tablet you should have tried. It makes you feel sleepy.”

Absolutely correct, I thought to myself, when super-potent Gangajal was easily available. Postal employees might even be offered a discount.

I didn’t have to wait much longer. Girlie handed over the receipt to me somnolently and I rushed towards the Gangajal kiosk to stick to my promise to God, only to discover that the lady in charge of Gangajal had vanished as well! The lights in the kiosk had been switched off, its door was locked and a Sold Out notice snickered!

In the meantime 3 PM had arrived and left, with not a drop of Gangajal available in the vicinity to hold back cataclysms. And if you are wondering how come you are still alive, I have a simple question for you to consider.

Who told you that you were still alive?

_______________________________

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Tryst with a Teacher

Teachers who stick to a syllabus bore me to death. I have always enjoyed being taught by teachers who didn’t mind crossing boundaries and trespassing into other subjects. Arithmetic mingling with geography, history with chemistry, or, for that matter, English literature taking a u-turn into physics. Teachers who lead you that way are eccentric for sure, but I am quite convinced that they are the ones who make learning a gloriously enjoyable experience.

I am reminded in particular of my English teacher in school. He made us read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and while he was teaching that book, he introduced us to events leading to the French Revolution in magnificent detail. It was not clear whether he was teaching European history or English literature. And we thoroughly enjoyed all this, especially so since he didn’t stop with the French Revolution. Soon enough we were learning about the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and his retreat from Moscow. Needless to say, we used to look forward to his classes, for each class exposed us to ever new surprises. And the surprises didn’t remain confined to history alone. They bordered sometimes on sci-fi as well!

“Do you know what an atom is?” he asked us one day in the middle of his lecture.

Some of us knew, some didn’t. So, he went on to explain the basic structure of an atom, telling us what neutrons, electrons and protons were. He described how sub-atomic particles revolved around a nucleus at unimaginable speed even as the physical body that was made up of the atoms, like the black board for example, clung to the wall betraying not a single sign of any movement.

The students stared at him in puzzled silence.

“You see, an atom is a bit like the solar system. The sun in the middle and the planets circling it ever so restlessly. But you and I continue with our lives without bothering about such matters. Yet, we are continuously seated on a gigantic ferris wheel! Isn’t that surprising?”

We nodded our heads vigorously. True indeed, how stupid of us. But then he went on.

“Is it possible though that the solar system is merely an atom, one amongst endlessly many that are sticking together to make up some colossal structure?”

We scratched our heads.

“Well, look at the black board. It is merely a collection of endlessly many atoms and each atom has a queer resemblance with our solar system. Let’s put together trillions of these solar systems and may be they will begin to look like a solid body. Perhaps like a stone on a ring worn by yet another super-gigantic creature. An infinitely large brobdingnagian individual, who loves his ring, but doesn’t know that there are nano beings living somewhere in his ring. He has his life to lead with no idea at all about the love and hate that keeps us busy as well.”

We listened to him open mouthed and stared back at each other. Some smiled stupidly.

He suddenly raised his voice several decibels and came up with an even more dramatic possibility. “Suppose by accident, some of these subatomic particles crash against one another. They are circling at such immense speed that the atom might explode. Right?” He smiled.

We nodded vigorously once again.

“An atomic explosion of sorts! What will happen to the black board if such an explosion were to occur? It will disintegrate into splinters. No?”

Yes, that did look like a possibility, however absurd.

“And what will you do with the blackboard if such an incident were to take place? You will have it thrown away. You will have no use for it, right?”

Yes, of course, a splintered blackboard should be quite useless in a classroom, we agreed.

“But now, suppose such an accident occurs in our solar system.” He said this and waited for our reaction.

We didn’t react. We were quite dumbfounded.

“Well, an atom in the giants ring stone would have exploded, thereby destroying the stone altogether. The giant will be puzzled for sure. Why did the ring disintegrate? he could wonder for a while. Then, since he has other important work to do, he will not worry too long about the broken ring. He will simply take the ring and throw it away. Just as you said you will throw the blackboard away. Right?” He came up with a stage whisper as we continued to remain spellbound.

This sci-fi story has stayed back with me for a long, long time. I think it was 1958 when I heard this imaginary tale.

I have often told you about this teacher. His name was Utpal Dutt, one of the best stage cum cine actors India produced. Only few know how good a teacher he was too, before changing his profession.

I have no doubt in my mind that it was he who inspired me to take up teaching as a profession.

 
 
 
 
 

Gone with the Wind

Like the rest of humanity residing on the wrong side of seventy, I often lament over the good old days when a family physician visited your home. Somewhat in the manner of a dear old friend, he smiled and briefly chatted during visits, and these constituted the best part of the cure. But he prescribed medicines too, usually referred to as mixtures. They were liquids of varying shades and colours, which well-trained compounders in pharmacies served in corked up bottles. On the body of the bottle was pasted a slim strip of paper, whose sides were carefully snipped off at regular intervals to mark the doses for the medicine. There must have been a simple technique the compounder employed to produce the markers, whose total lengths as well as the sizes of the tabs that indicated the quantum of the mixture in each dose varied across bottles, depending presumably on their sizes and the intensity of one’s illness. I am pretty sure that they spent quality time with a pair of scissors and a paper roll designing the markers. The mixture preparation art with the clearly demarcated dosages glued to the bottles has disappeared completely with the arrival of proprietary medicines. But then so has the family physician.

The physician was not the only example of the species that visited your home. I remember Hari in this connection, from seventy odd years ago. He was the first barber I came across in my life and I realise now to my surprise that Hari is an anagram of hair! I doubt though that his parents had named him Hari to initiate him to his profession. In fact I am not even sure if they knew what the word hair meant. On the other hand they might have known, for once in a while you did come across hair-cutting saloons even during those primitive days.

Hari was inseparable from his little wooden box of implements and knew precisely when his clients needed him for their haircuts. Like the compounder, Hari too started off his job with paper. Not the compounder’s spotless white roll, but an old sheet of newspaper that he borrowed from his client’s home. He spent at least ten minutes or so patiently folding up the sheet right down the middle, making the three sides of a page perfectly align with those of the facing page. Then he carefully selected a spot near the centre of the common side and carved off a semi-circular section around it with his scissors. When the pages were reopened, the semi-circle transformed into a circular hole large enough for any normal sized head to pass through. Finally, the perfectionist that he was, he slit up one side of the circle vertically downwards, a few inches or so, to give the thing the appearance of a shirt front (without button holes of course).

The garment, worn by his client seated on a chair, looked like a shirt of sorts, projecting on both sides over his shoulders. If there were two more holes, one to the right and one to the left of the shirt front, a person’s arms could well be pushed out through them, making the newsprint cover resemble a pillory from the middle ages advertising the imminent arrival of the printing machine. The shirt was meant to protect the best part of the torso of the person undergoing a haircut from the shreds of hair that soon began to travel downwards.

Once the newspaper cape was ready, he put on his nickel framed semi-usable glasses before shifting over to the actual business of hair-cutting. The haircut ceremony at our home invariably took place on the ground floor balcony facing the street. The newspaper clad client had to sit quietly for at least half an hour, announcing stale news from a few days ago to all interested passersby. Once the ceremony was over, Hari helped him slip out of his newspaper confinement, neatly folded it up again and carried it away. I don’t know what he did with it, but it is unlikely that he used it for bedtime reading.

He was happy with his dark wooden box, containing a pair or two of hair-cutting scissors, a time-tested razor, a couple of not so clean looking combs with missing teeth, a single pair of vintage clippers, and almost invariably a tin framed mini-mirror, for clients who had to be convinced that they had received value for money. He was slim and clad invariably in a once white dhoti and shirt and sported silvery hair with occasional patches of grey. As a child, I used to be afraid of the razor and insisted that he used the clippers alone instead of shaving the back of my neck with his razor. He wore a constant smile on his wrinkled, sunburnt face however, and assured me that there was nothing to worry about. I don’t think he could convince me, but I couldn’t persuade him either.

Hari charged a sum that could not have exceeded today’s equivalent of 50 paise. Once the job was over, he released his captives from newspaper confinement and invariably parted with a wisdom filled advice on the way to take a bath after a hair-cut. “Start off by pouring pots full of water over your head to wash off the hair sticking to your body. That will clean you up,” I might have followed his counsel, but cannot recall anymore if it brought me success.

My memory suggests that he was the same old man, from the very first day of our acquaintance to the last, and that could have been several years. In fact, I strongly suspect that he was born old, but unlike Benjamin Button, continued to stay old till he died. I don’t know where he died, except that once he had passed away, his son, Panna, showed up, claiming his right to take charge of his father’s business. For some reason though, he didn’t continue for too long. Either he died from natural causes or he lost out to the slowly developing barber shop culture. And I distinctly remember that he had not mastered the technique of transforming newspapers into shirts.

Hari with his newspaper capes took a final curtain call many years ago. But newspapers still exist along with their home delivery service. This brings Sharma to my mind. Sharma used to deliver newspapers to my home, a silent and never complaining person. Unlike Hari’s wooden box, Sharma had a bicycle and he cycled around the locality with his daily newspapers. He was well-informed about our preferences and every morning, as soon as I opened the front door, I found all the four newspapers I regularly subscribe to waiting at the entrance. His specialization was not limited to newspapers alone. He showed up during festival seasons with a list of annual issues of popular magazines, which my wife enjoyed reading. And once every month, he came up with his bill at a late morning hour when he knew we couldn’t be asleep. He was particularly helpful during emergencies as well. Once in a while I found out somewhat late in the morning that I needed the day’s edition of a paper I did not normally buy. Sharma had left his phone number with me and all I had to do was give him a ring. The issue I was looking for arrived soon enough.

Old time residents in my locality told me that Sharma’s did not live an enviable life. He was a bachelor and took charge of a bunch of useless nephews his brothers had left behind them. So, Sharma spent his life caring for the nephews and probably their mothers as well. Once in a while he used to go back to his native village for a vacation, asking his nephews to take charge of the newspaper delivery to his regulars. The nephews though were not dependable and the newspapers arrived at my home with random gaps. This was most annoying and we complained to Sharma when he came back. He smiled in embarrassment and told us that he would try his best to have the matter resolved, but I didn’t think he had any control whatsoever over the nephews. Matters continued the same way over years. Yet, having known and trusted Sharma for so long, we continued to patronise him.

Till one day when we heard that he had sustained an accident in his old age and lost use of both legs. He was packed off promptly by the nephews. One of them showed up at my residence and informed me that he was going to ensure the regular delivery of newspapers then onwards. He failed to keep his promise of course and finally, out of sheer disgust, I engaged a different newspaper boy. This new boy is dependable and has not failed me so far.

In the meantime though, Sharma himself showed up all of a sudden, bearing a complaint from his nephew that he had not received his payment. Sharma was not able to walk at all and had to be helped by someone to climb up to my first floor apartment. It was a sad spectacle, but I had no choice other than explaining to him the nature of the problem. I was unwilling to accept Sharma’s nephew as his replacement. Sharma didn’t complain and left without demanding any payment whatsoever, though I offered to compensate him for the newspapers I never received.

I asked him whether he was planning to come back. In response, he drew my attention to his knees, which appeared to be permanently enclosed in strange looking casts bound to his knees with wires. That such a person could not possibly ride a bicycle was pretty obvious. Though newspapers will still be delivered to my home, Sharma at least has gone for good. Where to I have no idea, even though the word Ashram happens to be an anagram of Sharma.

Of Doctors, Loose Bowels and Françoise Hardy

She howled at me. I wasn’t particularly scared of a howling female. Of course, she was not my wife. A female in the shape of my howling wife never fails to loosen by bowels. But as I said, she was not my wife.

“I want you to get that hole sealed up by tomorrow,” howled she, who, as you will recall, was not my wife. She could be someone else’s wife of course. My wife was sitting right next to me and somebody else’s wife was facing me from the opposite side of the table. “Early signs of cataract may be, but cataract can go to hell. You have a hole in your right retina. Get it fixed by tomorrow.” The somebody else’s wife howled once more. She is popularly known as Dr. R, one of the best eye surgeons in Kolkata. “Just take a look at this,” the somebody else’s wife told the not somebody else’s wife. She pointed out something on the computer screen to the latter, who in turn vigorously nodded her head several times and told me later that she had seen nothing but a multi-coloured computer screen “signifying nothing”. She is a computer hater. She believes in fact that humanity is on the verge of extinction on account of computers. And holds me responsible for early signs of the cataclysm.

“How do I fix the hole in the retina?” I asked her, not feeling particularly confident at this juncture. “They never taught me the art of fixing retina holes. Can you fix it for me please?” I pleaded finally.

“No, I can’t fix retina holes,” the howler howled. “You have to see a retina surgeon.” She proceeded to write down a name on her prescription pad. “Call up F Hospital and seek an appointment with him right away. Get going, on your march. Left, right, left, right …” I don’t think she actually issued those marching orders, but the expression on her face could be interpreted that way.

I was back home soon enough and called up the recommended hospital. The gentleman who answered the phone heard me out and then said, “But Dr. B will not be available for at least a week. He was here only this morning and left instruction for his patients. He is out of town by now.”

Now, that was a scary message. Somebody else’s wife had asked me to get the hole sealed up within twenty four hours. I conveyed the message to the man, who refused to budge a centimetre. “Dr. B,” he said “won’t be back before 7×24 hours.” I tried to calculate how many hours they add up to, but being bad in arithmetic amongst every other useful thing, failed miserably. My bowels put my brain on alert. They was about to loosen up.

“What do I do then,” I wailed. “Dr. Somebody else’s wife has told me that I have no choice.” I remembered at this point of time that she had howled a solid question at me. “Don’t you see flashes of light in the middle of a dark night?” I had to admit that I did. I think she issued the marching orders that I thought she did but may actually not have, after hearing out my admission.

“Why don’t you see Dr. S instead,” said the man who refused to budge a centimetre. “He will be visiting day after tomorrow and he is one of the best retina specialists in the country.”

“Day after tomorrow! But that is way beyond tomorrow! Besides Dr. Somebody else’s wife had asked me to see Dr. B and Dr. B alone.”

“Why don’t you call her up and ask her then?” said the man who didn’t budge a centimetre.

“She howls,” I replied.

“What?” said TMWDBAC.

“She howled at me when she said I had to see Dr. B, who you say has gone into hiding.”

“Call her nonetheless and ask, if you wish to seek her permission. Then let me know. I am fixing a provisional appointment for you,” said TMWDBAC and disconnected.

You see folks, though I am not particularly scared of howling SEWs, my fingers trembled in no uncertain manner when I tried to call this particular Dr. SEW. As I had expected, the phone remained unanswered for the first ninety nine times or so that I called. But then she obliged.

“You see,” I explained, “I am the one you asked to see Dr. B to get that hole in my eye fixed. I saw you yesterday. My name is X, the one who sees flashes of light in the middle of the night.”

“Yes, I remember,” she answered in a howl-less tone this time. “What about it?”

“Dr. B will be away from the city for the next 7×24 hours. You told me to get the repair done within 24 hours. Though I don’t know what 7×24 hours is equal to, I have a gut feeling that it exceeds 24 hours. ”

“Oh, is that so? OK, I am giving you another name. Go see …”

“Can I see Dr. S instead at F Hospital?” I interrupted her with supreme bravery.

She immediately shifted gear and began to howl. “Dr. S? How on earth will you get to see him? He visits the hospital only once a month and that too from distant Chennai. His next visit falls due exactly a month from today.”

“But Doctor,” said I, “somebody at F Hospital said that he is due here day after tomorrow and that I can even get an appointment with him.”

She was silent for a long while. I began to wonder if she had hung up. But then her voice floated back. “He did, did he?” she was totally un-howling now. “Well, if you can get an appointment with Dr. S, then nothing could be better. He is one of the best in the country.” She repeated exactly what TMWDBAC had told me. It doesn’t matter that you cannot see him within 24 hours.” She seemed to be suggesting that it was worth the longer wait, whether or not I lost my ability to see at all in consequence.

Mr TMWDBAC’s views were confirmed and an elated I called him up and fixed the appointment.

“I told you so, didn’t I,” purred Mr. TMWDBAC.

I waited for the hour to arrive and went and saw Dr. S. In the meantime, I held on to my eyesight with all the strength of mind I possessed. I waited at the end of a long queue, but did get to see him. He examined me and said, “You don’t know how lucky you are that you saw Dr R. She is a great eye surgeon, though not a retina specialist. She specialises in cataracts. Few cataract specialists could have detected what you are suffering from. You are lucky, most lucky, that you saw her.”

Dr. SEW had brought me luck in the shape of Dr. S from Chennai.

“But she had said that I was unlucky, with a hole in my retina and all,” I mumbled.

“Oh, we will fix that, don’t worry,” assured the surgeon. “Your other eye too has a problem, but I will not touch it unless it looks really serious. Surgery is the only solution to the problem, but right now it’s not all that threatening. We can wait. You see me from time to time for check ups. I will tell you if extreme steps are necessary. Also, you can always hop into a plane and see me in Chennai, if …” he left the sentence hanging in the air. It had a sword of Damocles flavour.

“And the hole?” I lamented.

“I will cure that right away. They will put drops into your eyes and when you are ready, I will solder the hole.”

That was around four or five years ago. And I have been seeing him ever since, at least twice a year and so far things have remained stable. We have turned into buddies sort of and he even revealed to me that he was a vinyl record fan and suggested that, given my interest in music, I too should shift to vinyl. I have a fairly large collection of those records. I told him about it and he immediately wrote down the name of the best brand of players to go for. On the prescription pad! “It’s around 25K,” he informed me, looking somewhat unsure if I could afford it. I sat poker faced in response. In any case, my books I knew had taken up all the space allotted to me at home.

To make the point clear, I chose one of my favourite records from the collection and presented it to the doctor next time I saw him. He was most reluctant to accept the gift, but I managed to persuade him. It was an old favourite, Françoise Hardy. The cover of the disc was slightly damaged given its vintage. I noticed that I had written the date and place of purchase in a corner of the cover. Rochester, 1972.

I have no idea if the doctor enjoyed listening to it, but he told me on the following occasion that he had to spend a good part of his valuable time cleaning up the grooves of the record and getting the cover back in shape. He even gave me his phone number and asked me to visit his home when I went to Chennai next and share a drink. Who knows? One of these days I may need to hop into a plane and visit him in Chennai, as he had asked me to on the very first day I had seen him. The circumstances under which he had asked me to hop into a plane were unlikely to land me at his home for a drink though.

Fortunately, however, the good doctor has been giving me a clean chit for a long time now, except for the last time I visited him a month or so ago, when he sounded a warning.

“You know what? I am surprised that neither you nor the inside of your eye ball look as old as the age you have declared to the hospital. What bothers me most is not your retina right now, but the fact that I don’t see any major sign of cataract yet. The way you are going, you may not need a cataract surgery for the next ten years at least. And no cataract surgeon will ever agree to treat a 97 year old! It is too risky. But the good news is that right now you are eye-wise in perfect shape despite your age.”

Which sounded like a warning you know. I mean there could be eye unrelated parts of me that are in imperfect shape. My bowels are sending me that unmistakable loosening message once again.

To appease them, therefore, I decided to listen to Hardy once again. I know you are all familiar with the number, but no harm listening to it one more time.

Or just ignore it.

 

The Master’s Class

Arup Mallik, 1997

Arup Mallik, who passed away on May 25, 2017, was an economic theorist from Calcutta, a city with an established tradition of producing some of the brightest Indian economists. He had impressed all those who taught him and won coveted prizes in India (he studied in University of Calcutta) and the United States of America (he did his PhD work at the University of Rochester). He warily avoided self-advertisement though, and refrained from publishing his research output in academic journals, possibly on account of the unreachable standards he had set for himself.

He spent most of his career teaching economic theory to postgraduate students of Calcutta University. During his heyday, he was the quintessential teacher who delivered classroom lectures the way Mozart might have conducted his symphonies. “Here was a Teacher! When comes such another?” was the expression of wonder with which his students invariably applauded him.

He taught mostly his own creations, which he doggedly refused to write up. A single exception to this rule was his paper titled “A Note on Multiplier and Real Wage Adjustment” (1977), on which several other researchers based their published papers, but which itself vanished, probably through termite-ridden neglect. His sharp, analytical mind was constantly engaged in dialectics, rejecting theses by antitheses, replacing ever new structures by newer ones. He was a nonconformist as far as conventional economics teaching went and constantly searched for alternative paradigms. Thus, teaching itself was a form of research for him.

Quite apart from his teaching skills, he was vastly popular among his friends and students, thanks to his sense of humour and personal charm. Many of his students-turned-friends grew up into successful researchers in the established sense, earning worldwide acclaim. To their credit, however, not one of them disowned what they inherited from the master. The master too remained blissfully happy that international accolades didn’t travel his way.

Anecdotes relating to Arup Mallik abound. In this context, a personal experience comes to mind. Around the late 1970s, Cambridge-based Piero Sraffa’s work was extensively studied in economists’ circles in Calcutta. Arup himself was a specialist in the area (and other areas as well) and I, a classmate from his past, approached him with a question that I couldn’t resolve. Arup listened to me for around a quarter of an hour, twirling his curly hair with his thumb and forefinger which was his habit when deeply engrossed in thought. Then, suddenly, he began to clap his hands in obvious delight and provided simultaneously a crystal clear answer to my question. What surprised me was that he went on praising Sraffa at the top of his melodious voice. “This is absolutely fascinating… Sraffa is a genius,” he repeated several times. Having explained Sraffa to me in his inimitable style, Arup passed on the entire credit of the explanation to Sraffa himself, as if it were the latter that had helped me clarify my doubt about his work. Arup belonged to a hopeless minority that misreads its own achievements as those of others.

Over time, Arup’s vibrancy started dissipating and one suspects that the strict curricula-based mechanical teaching rules put him off. He gradually became less forthcoming and, except for his association with a few old students, began to distance himself from the student community. He was afflicted with health problems too and receded into a cocoon, in spite of the best efforts of Sarmila, his erstwhile student, later colleague and caring wife.

Few youngsters today who have chosen to pursue the discipline of economics have probably even heard of Arup Mallik, leave alone his brilliance. If so, it is a monumental tragedy.

[Originally published without the photograph in The Telegraph, Calcutta on June 1, 2017.]

 
 
 

Of Prescriptions, Encryptions and the Pair of Pimps

Medical practitioners, divide up into two clearly defined and mutually exclusive categories. Those who write prescriptions and those who write encryptions (or cryptographs, to use old fashioned terminology). Depending on how critical the nature of the illness is, one has to decide which category of doctor needs to be visited. Under normal circumstances, one visits the prescription writer, the one who scribbles down the names of a variety of medicines to be purchased from local pharmacies. Any run of the mill pharmacist can read the handwriting, even when it is not particularly legible. When these medicines fail to provide the desired results, however, people converge to the encryption writers, the ones who prescribe medicines in coded language that can be deciphered only by specially trained workers employed in their privately run workshops.

I was suffering from the recurrence of painful ulcers in my mouth. Initially, they used to come and go and the suffering was not long lasting. With time though, they developed a tendency of arriving and setting up permanent residence inside my oral cavity. When the pain became unbearable, I visited a prescription writer. He tried various medicines for a number of weeks and, when everything else failed, declared that it was an allergic manifestation and began to administer anti-histaminic tablets. Avil 25 to be precise, one tablet b.i.d. If they helped me, I remained hopelessly unaware of the good news. The Avil tablets ensured that I was half asleep most of the day and dead asleep at night. In this somnambulant state, I had no idea if the ulcers had vanished or not, for I was hardly conscious if I myself existed anymore. This was not particularly helpful, since I had a professor’s job to perform and a teacher who slept while lecturing was not popular either with the students or with the authorities. I was desperate though to retain my job, if for nothing else, at least to be able to pay for the Avil 25’s I was consuming to lose my job, and finally, in a rare moment of consciousness, took a right about turn and landed in the chamber of an encryption specialist at the opposite end of the town in North Kolkata.

The latter held my wrist and read my pulse with a frown on his face and finally produced an encryptions filled page, to be decrypted by his assistants in the adjoining pharmacy, which bore a distinct resemblance to an alchemist’s laboratory from the middle ages. Decryption was a time consuming process, however, and I was told by shadowy characters there to show up next day to collect the medicines.

I did as I was asked and after procuring the package of medicines, came out into the open and began to walk towards Central Avenue to catch a bus back home. It was a longish walk through a lane that connected to the avenue. The lane was deserted and it was around 2 PM in the afternoon. Suddenly I noticed that I had company, two beetle leaf chewing men, one on my left and the other on my right, were pressing me from both sides with increasing force. Their beetle juice smeared crimson lips didn’t inspire confidence at all and when they began to speak to me, I felt immensely uncomfortable. They cackled obscenities down my ears accompanied by vulgar gestures. I was confused for a while but soon figured out that I was walking through Calcutta’s oldest and much renowned red light district, Sonagachhi. It had never occurred to me that the encryption specialist’s chamber was located so nearby. I was vaguely aware at best of the Sonagachhi area and visiting the doctor landed me right in the middle of it.

Two pimps without a doubt. Alarmed, I used the medicine package, the only weapon I possessed at that moment, to push one of them away. The fellow was taken by surprise, for the package burst open on his shirt front and its blackish, semi-liquid contents began to trickle down his clothes. He screamed out and tried to catch hold of me with help from his mate. I began to run as well and I ran so fast that I could have set an Olympic record of sorts. They were somewhat tipsy I imagine and couldn’t keep up with me. Soon, I had reached Central Avenue, where I knew I was safe. It was a busy thoroughfare, unlike the empty lane, and traffic policemen were patrolling around. I ran for a while more nevertheless and finally stood by a bus stop, keeping a wary watch over the lane I had emerged from. The pair had evaporated fortunately, but my heart was still thumping when I finally boarded a bus.

Back home, I headed straight for the shower, where I slipped quickly out of the clothes I was wearing, deciding to throw them away. They were far too dirty I felt. Then I stood under the shower for a long duration and kept on rinsing my mouth with water for a reason I cannot explain. I did it again and again and again. Then I dried myself up, changed into fresh garments and emerged from the bathroom.

I felt cleaner. I felt at peace with myself. And, interestingly enough, I definitely felt that the pain inside my mouth was bothering me less. I re-entered the bathroom and rinsed my mouth a few more times. The pain subsided even more.

The relief was so great that rinsing my mouth every hour or so turned into an addiction for the next few days. The ulcers began to disappear and after a week or ten days, I was completely cured. Since then, ulcers in my mouth have rarely developed. And when they do, I simply rinse my mouth several times a day and the treatment never fails.

In hindsight, I must admit that I owe my eternal gratitude to the pair of pimps that made me run for my life through a narrow Sonagachhi lane. And I do not underestimate the medical branches of prescriptions and encryptions either. But for these, the pimps, and hence the treatment, may never have shown up in my life at all.

আন্’না


গৌরীর রান্'না
গৌরীও খান্'না
একবারই সখ করে
খেয়ে নিয়ে পেট ভরে
বলেছেন ওরে বাবা  আন্'না। 

 


 


God Almighty — Flash Fiction #17


The tiger has turned into a great nuisance. Humans are worried to no end. It started with cattle and then human beings too began to fall prey to the tigers. People brought out their sticks, their spears and their guns and killed the tiger. But then yet another tiger arrived. Finally, the humans approached God Almighty with an appeal.

“God Almighty! Do please save us from the tigers.”

God Almighty replied — “Okay.”

Soon after, the tigers showed up in the court of God Almighty with a complaint — “The humans have made our lives unbearable. We are running away from forest to forest. But the hunters are not leaving us in peace. Hey God Almighty, can’t you please find a remedy for this perilous situation?”

God Almighty replied – “Of course.”

Just then young Nerha’s mother appeared before God Almighty and prayed —“Baba, please make sure that my Nerha is blessed with a lovely young bride. Please, please dear God Almighty. I am offering you five paisa in obeisance.”

God Almighty replied – “Okay.”

Harihar Bhattacharyya addressed God Almighty on his way to court where his case was pending. “I have worshipped you all my life. My body has thinned on account of the fasts I kept. I want to give a proper lesson to my rascal of a nephew. Please do be my ally.”

God Almighty replied – “Okay.”

Sushil is preparing for an exam. He tells God Almighty everyday, “Dear God Almighty, do make sure that I pass.” Today he added — “God Almighty, if you can arrange for a scholarship for me, I will spend five rupees to distribute sweets I offer in your glory.”

God Almighty replied – “Okay.”

Haren Purakayastha desires to be the Chairman of the District Board. He approached God Almighty through an intermediary, a priest called Kali. “I need only eleven votes to win.” The priest, in lieu of a fat fee, chanted prayers in incorrect Sanskrit making God Almighty nearly lose his mind – “Votam dehi, votam dehi —”

God Almighty replied desperately – “Oh, okeigh, ohkeigh.”

The farmer raised his hands towards the sky and said — “God Almighty, give me water.”

God Almighty replied –”Okay.”

The mother of a sick child prayed to God Almighty–”Oh Lord, I have but a single child. Please don’t snatch it away.”

God Almighty replied – “Okay.”

Khenti pishi, the next door neighbour of the mother, said –”God Almighty, the slut is far too vain. She shows off new jewelry every other day and looks down on us all. You have shown endless mercy by catching hold of the child by his throat. Give the broad a proper lesson.”

God Almighty moaned – “Okay.”

The grim philosopher said – “God Almighty I wish to understand you.”

God Almighty warily responded – “Okay.”

China came up with a piercing cry – “Please save us from Japan Oh Lord.”

God Almighty replied – “Sure.”

A young man from Bengal caught hold of God Almighty– “No editor is accepting my submissions. I want to publish in ‘Prabasi’. Please tell Ramananda-babu to be kind to me.”

God Almighty replied – “I will.”

During a short break, God Almighty asked Brahma, who was sitting right next to him – “Do you have pure mustard oil at your home?”

Brahma said – “Yes, I do. But what’s the problem?”

God Almighty said – “I am in dire need of it. Can you spare some for me?”

Brahma. (Speaking hastily out of all five mouths) “I definitely can.”

Pure mustard oil arrived from Brahma’s home. Immediately, God Almighty put drops of mustard oil into his nostrils and fell into a deep slumber.

Till this day, we has not woken up from that slumber.

Translation-cum-transcreation of a classic Bengali flash fiction বিধাতা (bidhata) by Banaphool. The original version of The Neem Tree was also his creation.

 
 
 
 
 

[This a transcreation of an original story written by Banaphool. He is the same writer who had penned The Neem Tree. The present story in its original version was published by Gurudas Chattopaddhay and Sons in 1936 in a collection entitled Banaphhol-er Galpo (Banaphool’s Stories).]

Of Crows and Men — Flash Fiction #16

I am either a schizophrenic or a downright hypocrite when it comes to my attitude towards animals. At the same time that I cajole my dog-hating wife to allow me a puppy in the house, I will definitely be sorry to see Kentucky Fried Chicken pack up and leave the country.

I have nothing against birds though. The koel drives me to distraction on many a moonlit night. The kingfisher’s perfect somersault leaves me speechless. I have tarried patiently by peacocks for an opportunity to watch them dance. The magnificent curve of a flamingo’s neck fascinates me and, quite unpardonably, I adore the sight of little chicks scampering about.

Yet there are boundaries I will not cross. I do not enjoy the company of rodents, of spiders, of cockroaches, and, among birds, of crows. I detest crows. I am repulsed by their looks, their raucous caws and their untidy nests. Besides, dirty fish-bones on my balcony, along with other filth, are daily reminders of their slovenly habits.

I was more than a little surprised, therefore, by the agony I felt the other morning, to discover a group of little boys shriek with delight as they pulled at a string fastened firmly to the claws of a baby crow. It had not yet learnt to fly properly and must have crashed on the pavement during one of its training sessions. The miserable thing believed that the way to freedom lay in flapping its wings, which it did with all its might, much to the merriment of its captors. As it was dragged along the rough surface of the pavement, it parted its beak and cawed in a hoarse whisper, revealing the raw redness of a mouth unaccustomed to anything other than the infinite tenderness of a feeding mother.

It took me all the powers of persuasion to put a stop to this horror and make the boys untie the string.

Later on in the afternoon, I searched for the crow on my way out for a stroll. The local presswallah pointed it out to me as it perched precariously on a heap of rubble close to the edge of the pavement. I went near to have a closer look and check if the string was truly detached. The bird recoiled in panic and, losing its foothold, tumbled down the slope right into the middle of the street.

Just then a Maruti van whizzed past, far too close to the spot where the hapless crow had landed. I winced in fear and closed my eyes. When I opened them at last, prepared mentally to absorb a gory spectacle, I could hardly believe what I saw. The creature was wobbling back towards the pavement on a return trip to life!

I gazed at the scene and found myself wondering how soon it might pay a visit to my balcony.

And then I winced again, this time in disgust.

 

Krishnendu Karmakar – Unfinished Story of an Unknown Man

Prologue

It is doubtful that any story involving a human life is ever complete. And this is true even for the simplest of nursery rhymes. Jack, we know, had sustained a skull fracture after he had fallen down and Jill had tumbled down after him. But we never got to know if Jack’s fracture was treated, nor if Jill too had an injury that needed to be attended to. For all we know, the best part of Jack’s life story unfolded only after he was released from a hospital where his crown got fixed. And Jill too might have grown up into an attractive blonde and married a dark, handsome person. They brought up a family of healthy children perhaps, except for the one that died of infantile pneumonia. The Jack and Jill rhyme talks to us about the most inconsequential parts of their lives. Other important events could have happened to them, but they remained unrecorded.

Likewise, most other life stories too are probably unfinished. Even so, if one were to view life as a series of chapters of a book, a few of these might well appear to be somewhat more finished than the others. And these are the ones that tell us a partial story at least of the life that is being portrayed. However, a book, all of whose chapters have been partly or wholly destroyed, deliberately or otherwise, can be retrieved at best by relying on the memories of people who claim to have read them before the destruction took place. Needless to say, a life story reconstructed in this manner is likely to remain almost totally unfinished and not just partly so.

I

This is how Krishnendu Karmakar’s life appears to me today. It was a life about which I have known close to nothing at all. Yet, he has definitely resided in the hidden recesses of my mind as a puzzle of sorts, an unsolved puzzle that challenged me not only through his entire lifetime, but even beyond it.

I met him for the first time as a student of Class Seven in an all boys’ school, which still stands opposite Deshapriya Park, Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta). It was not his look alone that distinguished Krishnendu from the rest of the class. What stood him apart 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, Krishnendu remained miles ahead of them all and pontificated on esoteric knowledge reserved for the chosen few. Quite invariably, he was concerned with science, as in Physics, and appeared to be familiar with breakthrough advances in the subject along with the names of books and research journals dealing with the issues.

We were too ignorant to verify his statements and took them at face value. Of course, anyone who spoke the language of Einstein, Niels Bohr and their likes, when his peers were learning the basics of elementary trigonometry at best, was not always an object of admiration. Quite often therefore he was ridiculed as well, but he remained unmoved as much in the face of praise as deprecation. At that young age at least, he did not normally lose his poise, whether it was happiness that greeted him or reverses.

He was a tall person, always dressed simply in clothes bearing the stamp of austerity, his dark, sharp featured, close to handsome face wearing the haunted look of a scientist stuck with problems concerning the universe. He smiled but rarely, and when he did, it was not exactly audible or exuberant.

I liked Krishnendu. Partly out of an irrational respect for his apparent command over subjects totally beyond my intellectual reach. He had once written an article for the school magazine titled Epistemology of Interacting Fields. I doubt that our teachers even attempted to read it. I distinctly recall a shiver running down my spine when I read the title and might have felt like Bertie Wooster standing face to face with Jeeves’ collection of Spinoza’s works. In utter naiveté though, I told him, “Krishnendu, when it comes to Physics, you can probably take on the most well-known scientists in the country, can’t you?” Krishnendu didn’t turn to look at me. Instead, he had this lost faraway 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 may well have indicated that the grey matter I lacked in my youth was amply compensated by gullibility.

I liked Krishnendu for his soft-spoken manners as well. He was not a noisy person as I said, so I was taken by surprise one day when the teacher in the class handed out a punishment to him, asking him to climb up and keep standing on the bench where he was supposed to be sitting! I never found out the offence he had committed. It is not impossible though that he had submitted for a homework assignment in arithmetic an essay on the latest advances in quantum mechanics. I am sure of course that he had not been pulled up for misbehaviour. He accepted the sentence without demur and remained standing on the bench, Prometheus like, submitting totally to the dictate of fate. Even though we were not exactly bosom friends, I found it hard to accept Krishnendu’s humiliation. But Krishnendu himself expressed stoic indifference if anything at all. And I carry a vivid memory of the scene till this day. The bench on which he stood was lined up against the northern wall of the classroom and he remained gazing at the southern wall above our heads from his elevated location.

II

Isolated events such as these cannot explain why Krishnendu managed to leave a lasting impression in my mind. As I found out from my classmates, there was a paradoxical trait in his character. His love for books was not limited to science alone, for side by side with his collection of learned books, stood a shelf full of lewd pornography. He was the proud owner of a porno library, from which a selected few of his friends were allowed to borrow. I was somewhat innocent I suppose and had not yet been exposed to these forbidden books. But not being above the inquisitiveness that accompanies puberty, I forgot all about my regard for his awesome intellect and felt an irresistible urge to lay my hands on his treasure. On a holiday afternoon therefore, I pestered my informer to lead me to Krishnendu’s home, hoping to borrow from his collection. And this adventure led me to yet other mysteries surrounding Krishnendu’s life.

He lived in the ground floor of a large three storied house on Dover Lane, a posh area in South Kolkata. The appearance of this floor, however, did not match its surroundings. There was something distinctly odd about the deserted look it wore, shrouded in the obscurity of an unkempt garden leading up to its entrance. It was past mid-day and the street was somewhat empty. There was a door bell, but my companion preferred not to use it. Instead, he stood out on the street and called out “Krishnendu” in a full-throated voice that rang through the lonely afternoon. The call had to be repeated several times before Krishnendu appeared from behind the closed door of a room in the front corner of the ground floor. For the first time during our period of acquaintance did I notice signs of annoyance on Krishnendu’s usually placid face. He was disturbed by the arrival of visitors. He did not speak to me at all and kept me waiting on the pavement. My companion entered through the front gate and spoke to him out of earshot. I did not have the slightest idea about the exchange that took place between them. It was a short conversation, during which Krishnendu’s dark face turned visibly darker. 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 riddle remained unsettled, since Krishnendu was clearly against admitting me into his inner circle. But the classmate who took me there told me further that Krishnendu’s family did not wish him to bring anyone into his home. I was puzzled. Why can’t we enter his house? I kept asking myself, since there was no restriction in my own family as far as my friends were concerned. Not letting us into his home was a problem that I tried to solve without any success at all. Did his family have a secret to hide? Who were his family members? What were his parents like? I had no clue at all, except that the grim atmosphere suggested that a secret did exist, one which did not exactly point towards something as trivial as a hidden pornographic collection.

We rarely conversed after the event and my visit to Krishnendu’s home was a topic that was completely avoided. In any case, he began to exercise a strange influence on me. Despite his mild manners, I began to feel uncomfortable in his company. There was a darkness that surrounded him that I had no wish to associate with.

III

I didn’t continue in this school for too long though and was shifted away to a new one during the middle of the year. The new school was delightfully different from the old one and at that young age it didn’t take me long to forget the school I had left. However, there was a good reason why I couldn’t forget Krishnendu, the double agent connecting the worlds of learning and pornography and holding up a No Admission sign in front of his home. My new school was located close to Krishnendu’s home and I walked past it every day. I noticed signs of life on the upper floors of the building, but the ground floor, from which Krishnendu had once emerged, continued to be shrouded in joyless silence behind tightly closed doors and windows. It didn’t seem to have any contact with the stream of life flowing by it, whether on busy mornings or on quiet afternoons.

I cannot remember a single day when I didn’t stare at the house with a feeling of expectation mixed with apprehension for the remaining years I spent at the school. I felt that a mystifying object or the other might suddenly spring out to warn me against my idle curiosity. But nothing happened at all. It always looked deserted, though I had an odd feeling that its looks belied reality. There were people living in that flat, people who might have been keeping a watch over the world outside through hidden crevices in the windows, but who were reluctant to reveal themselves to the living world.

Then, inevitably enough, I passed out of school one day and entered college. My connection with Krishnendu’s home was finally cut off, for the college I went to was located at the other end of the town. Even though I no longer went past Krishnendu’s home anymore, he continued to dwell in my mind subconsciously. In fact, some of my classmates from the old school, Santanu, Partha and others joined the same college I went to. And, every once in a while, Krishnendu’s paradoxes turned into topics of conversation and made us snicker. None of these friends were too sure about what Krishnendu did after leaving school. The riddle deepened therefore and even if he did not occupy my thoughts the way he used to in the past, I did not totally forget him either.

I completed the routines of college and university education, earned degrees abroad and finally entered professional life. Several years went by and then one fine morning, almost twenty five years after my last meeting with him, Krishnendu materialised. I was walking down Gariahat Road when I bumped into him near its crossing with Rashbehari Avenue. The spot where we saw each other lay close to Krishnendu’s residence in Dover Lane, a mere five minutes’ walk from where we stood.

It didn’t take me more than a moment to recognise him, even though he had visibly aged compared to his school days. He was dressed in bellbottom white Bengali style pyjamas and a long, light apricot coloured khadi kurta. This was the same casual costume he wore to school, which had no uniform regulations. His hair displayed grey patches now and he wore glasses. Krishnendu had aged, but not so his apparel. Yet, I felt that I was back at his residence, wondering what lay inside and his curious life tale confronted me all over again.

He recognized me, though he was his old unforthcoming self to start with. It was I who began the conversation. I asked him what he was doing, but he avoided answering the question. Instead, he stared at me for a while and then, suddenly, blurted out in an almost accusing tone, “Are you married?” Not that he repeated the question, but the intense look in his eyes and the total silence accompanying the look told me that he wanted to know  nothing else at all. 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.

It took me a few seconds to swallow that missile of a question and then, somewhat taken aback, I answered him in the affirmative, and even told him that we had a child. Upon hearing the news, the expression on his face turned into disgust, bordering on hatred almost, and he didn’t wish to carry on the conversation any further. He simply walked off without even bothering to wave me goodbye and disappeared in the crowd. 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, walking down the pavement in long strides, never noticing me, or even if he did, he did not acknowledge the fact.

Why on earth did Krishnendu react the way he did to the news of my marital status? I wondered. Was it because he wished to be married and hadn’t found a bride yet? By then, he was well past the age to dress up as a bridegroom. Could it be the case that he was himself married too, but not too happy with his marital life?

IV

I failed to answer my own questions and lost track of Krishnendu a second time and this coincided with a longish stint away from Kolkata. But then, of all places, I ran into Krishnendu over internet. I came across a person on a social networking site who was Krishnendu’s neighbour in youth. And as soon as I found this out, Krishnendu leaped back into my consciousness with renewed vigour. My curiosity knew no bounds. His enigmatic personality stood before me and challenged me to read him out. I kept pestering the person about Krishnendu’s whereabouts, but he had himself left Kolkata. His mother though still lived in the old locality.

Following his interactions with his mother, I was informed a few days later that Krishnendu was no more. There was nothing unusual about Krishnendu’s passing away. But what did make his story somewhat poignant was the additional information that he hailed from a psychologically disoriented family. An elder brother was the worst affected and had even been admitted to a mental home where he was subjected to electric shock treatments.

My mind went back once again to the distant past when I had visited his home and for the first time I conjectured a probable reason why Krishnendu’s family didn’t permit his friends to visit his home. The picture inside was unlikely to have been pretty. And I began to entertain thoughts all over again about Krishnendu’s family members. What were his parents like?Did he have siblings other than the elder brother I had now heard of? Questions poured like heavy showers on a dark night.

I distinctly felt that there was more to find out about him than I had already found out. All I knew about him was that he was a self-professed scholar, a pornography enthusiast and probably a man who had not been visited by conjugal happiness. This was a hopelessly incomplete description of a man I had gone to school with and remained interested in ever since, though not continuously so.

V

And then I received a call from Santanu one morning. Partha and he, as I said, were the classmates from the old school that I had gone to college with. Santanu had settled in the United States and was visiting his old haunts in Kolkata. He suggested a get together in the Food Court of Acropolis Mall and roped in Partha as well. Partha still lives in Kolkata, not far away from my residence as it turned out.

As is most often the case, our conversation receded back into the misty past as we sipped freshly ground South Indian coffee. We lamented the disappearance of the South Indian coffee shops from Kolkata and from one story of disappearance sprung up many others. Since all of us had known Krishnendu, it was inevitable that he was to show up at some point or the other.

I discovered that neither of them was aware that Krishnendu had passed away. None of us had any knowledge of the circumstances under which he had died. Nor did we know what sort of a profession he had chosen. But we did discuss a good deal about the paradoxical facets he exhibited during his school days.

“Did you know that he had a brother with a psychological problem?” I asked them.

“Oh yes of course,” replied Partha. In fact I had even seen him during my school days.”

“You did?” I asked in surprise. “You visited his home did you?”

“Oh no, no one I know ever walked into Krishnendu’s home. But this brother was visible once in a while, sitting all by himself on the edge of unrailed ground floor verandas leading out of people’s homes in the area. That too in the middle of gruelling summer days, when people either stay indoors or work in offices.”

“This was surely a sign of his mental problem,” I added. “In fact, I understand that he was treated with electric shocks!”

“Almost surely so,” Partha went on. “He was delirious and often complained about his lost batteries.”

“What?” Both Santanu and I asked in bewilderment. “What lost batteries could he possibly have been talking about?”

“I suspect,” said Partha, “he linked up the electric shocks to batteries. Once released from the mental home, he probably recalled the shock treatment and began to believe that he had a store of expensive batteries that was stolen and used by enemies who tried to electrocute him. He had even accused strangers of stealing his batteries and was roughened up a number of times.”

“Oh really?” Santanu laughed out. “The elder brother ran after batteries and the younger one after Einstein.”

“And pornography,” I added mischievously perhaps.

However, we saw that we did not really know anything much about Krishnendu and the way he travelled after leaving school.

I told them about my meeting with him at the Gariahat crossing several years ago and the dissatisfaction he had expressed about my marriage. We chuckled over the matter once again of course and then went on to chat over other matters concerning the world at large.

Santanu told us that he was leaving India the next day and had packing to do. We parted thereafter, but I felt all over again that the Krishnendu virus had attacked me. I needed a cure for my incurable disease and decided to follow him up. In retrospect needless to say, for he lived no more.

VI

There was only one miserable trail left to investigate. The home he lived in still stood, though vastly renovated and used as an office by a renowned medical practitioner, Dr. Datta. I knew him well and began by calling him up one evening. He confirmed that he had purchased the property from one Karmakar, though he did not know Krishnendu at all. After selling off the property, the Karmakars had moved over to a house in Bosepukur Road, pretty close to the Acropolis Mall near the south-eastern fringes of Kolkata, where we had discussed Krishnendu not too long ago. He gave me clear directions to the building. I wasn’t sure if the present occupants of the Bosepukur building, whoever they were, might be willing to entertain me. Yet I was anxious to find them out and needed to contact them somehow or the other. And I knew not how that feat could be achieved.

Then, all of sudden, I was visited by a brain wave. I remembered how Sherlock Holmes used to employ his street urchin squad to gather information. I had no such gang at my disposal, but luck was on my side. I learnt that the maid who had been working for us for several years lived close to the Bosepukur building during her childhood. I offered her a prize if she could help me get in touch with the people I sought. Like Holmes’ urchins, my maid too jumped at the idea of solving a possible mystery and she was interested in winning the prize money as well.

Under the scorching sun, she walked over several kilometres to locate the residents at Bosepukur Road. She discovered them and, fortuitously enough, found out that she had known them from her childhood days. Her mother used to work for them in the same Dover Lane building that intrigued me and she often went there in her mother’s company, because her mother’s employers were kind people. Who were these kind people? Krishnendu’s parents? Were they members of the family that firmly refused to let the daylight enter their abode? I was excited by the news and wanted her to find out if this was the Karmakar family I was searching. Much to my disappointment though, she came back with the news that they were Mukherjees! I was crestfallen. I had no idea how the Karmakars that Dr. Datta had mentioned metamorphosed into Mukherjees. But I didn’t give up hope, since the maid was full of praise for the Mukherjee brothers and their wives and was reasonably sure about her ability to build the bridge I was dying to cross. She left after work and I spent the night on tenterhooks awaiting her arrival next morning. She came back smiling and handed me a slip of paper with a phone number written on it.

“What’s this?” I asked her.

“Why, this is Mukherjee mami’s phone number, wife of the younger Mukherjee brother,” she said proudly.

“But will she speak to me,” I was still doubtful.

“Why not,” she said. “I told her that you were trying to find out about your old friend and that he resided in the same building in Dover Lane where they used to live years ago. She herself gave me the number and asked you to call her up.”

“Elementary my dear Watson,” her triumphant smile seemed to announce!

VII

I hesitated for a while and then finally called up the number. A lady answered the phone and I asked her if she was Ms. Mukherjee. She answered in the affirmative and from the tone of her voice I could make out that she was waiting for my call in suspended animation. And that helped matters immensely.

I introduced myself to the lady and began the conversation.

“You see, Ms. Mukherjee, I am trying to locate an old acquaintance who might have been your neighbour in Dover Lane before you moved over to your present residence. His name was Krishnendu Karmakar. Did you know him by any chance?”

“Of course I knew him,” she answered mirthfully. “He was known as Einstein in that locality! They were our ground floor neighbours. We occupied the top two floors.”

I knew immediately that I had hit the bull’s eye. I had indeed seen people in the top floors of the building on my way to school. This was Krishnendu alright. He was Einstein in school, but unknown to us, he entertained his neighbours at home with fundamental problems in science as well. Moreover, unlike his classmates, the neighbours in Dover Lane were probably far less convinced about his intellectual prowess.

“Ah yes, that must be he,” said I as jovially as I could. “He had the same designation at school too. Anyway, what was your impression of Krishnendu?”

“Impression? I hardly formed any impression,” she replied. “He pretty much kept to himself. He went to office muttering away to himself and came back home the same way. Off his nut, he certainly was. He didn’t really associate with anybody at all.”

“But he must have associated with some people at least, or else why should they call him Einstein.”

She thought for a while and then said, “Perhaps he did before I arrived there. By then he had cut off neighbourly relations. After acquiring the title they gave him I guess.” That sounded like a credible explanation, I told myself. But I remembered at the same time that Krishnendu and his family had never really been a sociable lot. Unless accusing neighbours of stealing batteries constituted social intercourse.

“Who were there in his family?” I asked carefully.

“Oh, I understand that he had brothers and a sister, but except for an elder brother, most of them were dead by the time I moved into that building as a newly wedded bride.”

“Elder brother?” I asked. “Do you know anything about him at all?

“I think he was a mental patient. At least that’s what I learnt from neighbours. And he passed away soon. So Einstein alone lived there with his wife and child. That was the only family I was aware of.”

“Wife!” Here was new information. I prodded further. “He had a wife, did he? What kind of a woman was she?”

“Umm, … she was far too young to be his wife. I heard that she came from a locality in North Kolkata. Probably her family was not too affluent, or else why should they marry her off to a halfwit? Besides, the person was old enough to be her father!”

I could see that Ms. Mukherjee did not feel particularly friendly towards Krishnendu. Yet I continued with my quest.

“Was it a happy family?

“Not at all, not so at all!” she said emphatically. “As far as I know, they hardly ever communicated. They had a hopelessly strained relationship. The loony talked to himself and she too left home for unknown destinations soon after he was gone to office!”

This information about the woman, a woman much younger than Krishnendu, was loaded. I needed clarification.

“Perhaps she had a job as well?” asked I.

“I doubt,” said Ms. Mukherjee without the slightest trace of hesitation in her voice. “She did not appear to be professionally educated. She simply went about her own way.” Then she added with unconcealed sarcasm, “She too had her own circle you see.”

Well, I thought, they must have started off with some sort of a relationship, at least towards the early stages of their conjugal existence. Or else, where did the daughter arrive from? Once again, cruelly enough, I remembered Krishnendu’s pornography connection and his possibly sex starved life. There could have been a deep rooted tragedy in the life of the middle aged Krishnendu’s far too young wife. I did not have the heart to ask about the daughter.

“They could have fallen in love,” I suggested, trying to elicit more information, “and then the relationship dried up.”

The lady began to giggle. “No, not a chance. This must have been an arranged marriage, though I cannot say who had planned to destroy the girl’s life. Almost certainly she came from a poor family, lured by the fact that Mr. Einstein had a good job.”

“Good job? What sort of a job was it? Do you have any idea?”

“Well, I am not sure, but I have heard that it was a government job in some department or the other. Irrigation, was it? Any government job, even a clerical job, must have appeared lucrative to a distressed father desperate to marry off a daughter. You know the status of women in Indian society, don’t you?”

“Yes of course, the state of affairs is deplorable.”

“Hmm,” she uttered grimly from the other end.

But my curiosity was still alive. I ventured to carry on with the conversation, not knowing how much longer she might entertain a stranger.

“And then one day you sold off your house and moved over to Bosepukur Road, right.”

“Well, in a way,” she replied. “That was way back in 1996. But it was not our house you know.”

“No?” I was surprised. “It was Krishnendu who owned the house, did he? Did he inherit it from his father?” I remembered what Dr. Datta had informed me. He had purchased the building from a Karmakar.

“No no, you got me wrong,” she continued cheerfully. “We had a leasehold on our part of the building. They too had a similar arrangement for their part I presume. But no one had ever heard of his father, or of his mother for that matter.” Her voice was full of doubt. About the lease as well as about Krishnendu’s parents. As far as she was concerned, Krishnendu may never have been fathered at all. He could well have been a fruit of his own loins! His parents were not members of the family that lived behind the closed doors. There were brothers and a sister, but no parents.”

I decided to ignore the possibility of Krishnendu’s self-creation. And of course, I couldn’t follow how lessees sold a property, but kept quiet. It was she who clarified voluntarily.

“We were compensated for giving up the lease and used the proceeds to purchase this property in Bosepukur.”

“Krishnendu did the same, did he,” I inquired.

“Well, he must have,” she explained. “All of us vacated the house and moved elsewhere.”

Krishnendu was then not a total novice as far as worldly matters were concerned. Self-declared physicist, collector of pornography and a person capable of carrying out a real estate deal.  But I was assailed by doubts, given the Karmakar connection Dr. Datta had indicated. Could it be possible that it was Krishnendu’s family that held the lease for the entire building and that they had sublet a major part of the building to the Mukherjees? Finally, when the doctor wished to purchase the property, he might have offered money to Krishnendu to make him vacate the building and the Mukherjees in turn demanded the lion’s share of the cake to move out themselves. I did not even try to figure out who the original owner of the building could have been. I was confused enough already.

“Where did Krishnendu move?” I asked with some hesitation.

“No idea at all. But some say that they bought a small apartment further south in Dhakuria or Santoshpur.”

Krishnendu bought a small apartment and the Mukherjees bought a bungalow. I must have been correct in assuming that Krishnendu wasn’t compensated enough.

“You have no further information about their whereabouts then?”

“Well, the only information I have is that he died soon after they moved to wherever they moved.’

“And the wife and the child?”

“That is anybody’s guess. They may still be living in the apartment they purchased. They could have sold it and moved elsewhere. And, for all I know, they could well be dead too.”

Even if she knew, I began to suspect that she was unlikely to let me follow the trail any further. Her information was self-contradictory. How had she found out that Krishnendu had passed away after moving to his new flat? I asked myself. Someone at least must have known the way to the flat and brought back the message for her. She was on her guard and didn’t reveal anything more at all. The only persons then who were likely to know more details about the story were Krishnendu’s wife and daughter. But they had vanished altogether according to the lady.

I knew that my time was up. I thanked Ms. Mukherjee profusely before disconnecting. I felt that I knew now all that one could possibly find out about Krishnendu from the Mukherjees and awarded the prize I had promised to our maid.

VIII

I was chatting with Partha over the phone a few days later. Partha had associated with Krishnendu far more than I ever did. Krishnendu was a regular at Partha’s home. Partha, who is a flourishing computer scientist was interested to know what I had discovered about Krishnendu. But he also told me what he had concluded during his professional career. He had found out that Krishnendu was mostly correct about the Einstein theories he used to preach in school.

“I am convinced that Krishnendu had actually read up Einstein in the original as a school boy,” said Partha. “He was an eccentric and one of his eccentricities concerned Einstein. It led him to neglect his school curriculum. He tortured his adolescent mind to figure out Einstein’s earth shaking findings. This was not exactly a healthy exercise for the warped state of his mind.”

“Oh really,” said I. “My understanding of Einstein is still quite poor. So, I shall not be able to check this up. But tell me, what other eccentricity was he afflicted by?”

Partha came out with an embarrassed laugh. “I feel constrained to talk about it even with you. But since you have asked me, I will satisfy you.”

I was at my inquisitive worst once again. “Please do, I have my theories too. Let me ask you, are you referring to his obsession with pornography?”

Partha guffawed into my ear. “You are absolutely right. He was obsessed with women’s bodies. His hallucinations surrounding female physiology will make you blush even at this mature age. You remember Purnima? She was the young sister of our Santanu.”

I tried hard to recall and vaguely remembered a cute, young face. “Well, what about Purnima?”

“Krishnendu used to describe to me his lust surrounding Purnima …,” said Partha hesitatingly. “Krishnendu’s vivid pornographic imaginations concerning this innocent young girl often made my mind begin to spin.”

“Well this fits well,” I said, “with the information I gathered  about his relationship with his wife and why the marriage went sour.”

“Information? Wife? Oh yes, tell me. What have you unearthed?” I had managed to arouse Partha’s curiosity now.

I related to him in response the details of my conversation with Ms. Mukherjee. “Well, we haven’t really resolved the puzzle, but we probably know enough by now, wouldn’t you say?”

Partha agreed with me. “Yes,” said he, “your wild goose chase has not been entirely in vain. But you will never find out what went on inside his mysterious Dover Lane home. Nor about the flat to which he finally moved and where he died. I wouldn’t advise you to proceed any further.”

“Right,” said I. “But don’t you think that his story is not yet completely lost?”

“How do you mean?” asked Partha.

“I suspect that Ms. Mukherjee can lead us to people who know where Krishnendu’s wife and daughter settled. But she is holding that card very close to her chest. Those two individuals, if they are alive, will be in a position to help us produce a somewhat more coherent tale. Incidentally, did Krishnendu ever mention his family to you? His brothers or a sister?”

“Well, he did once point out his elder brother to me, the one who was treated in a mental home. But he never spoke of anyone else.”

“Parents?” I asked.

“No, his parents were a complete mystery. It didn’t even occur to me to ask him. But I was quite young at the time and probably not mature enough to ask such questions. Anyway, are you suggesting that you are still trying to follow him up?”

“Why not?” said I as I switched off the phone.

Epilogue

I do not know if I shall ever find a way leading to Krishnendu’s wife and daughter. I tend to believe that they are traceable. How they will react to inquiries about the enigma that Krishnendu was, one cannot predict. His relationship with his wife had not been too cordial. She must have suffered in his hands and the story she will have to tell, if she ever tells one, could well be overblown. On the other hand, it is most likely that Krishnendu’s interest in his wife never went beyond his morbid concern surrounding a woman’s body. We will never find the complete truth. But then, as we had noted at the very beginning of this sordid tale, no story involving a human life is ever quite complete. What intensifies the mystery of Krishnendu’s story however, is that not only do we know where he disappeared, we do not even know where he had arrived from. Although people have mentioned knowing about his siblings, whether dead or alive, no one was even interested about his parents. Krishnendu, it might appear, was a person who neither had a beginning nor an end! These, if they existed, lay hidden in mystery, behind the tightly closed doors of his home. That home is no longer his of course and has changed into a doctor’s brightly lit crowded chamber. Perhaps Krishnendu’s family waits there too in impatience for the patients to leave, the lights to be switched off and the doors to be locked up by the security guard. And then, through the rest of the night, they confabulate happily amongst themselves about the secret they have jealously held on to till this very day.