Category Archives: Memoirs

Interesting experiences from my life. Giggles and sniffles.

Looking Back at the Sixties: Tale Told by an Absolute Nobody

Published by Presidency College Alumni Association in Autumn Annual, Vol. XLVII 2018-19

“True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy…”
Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 4

Anyone belonging to my generation, when asked to conjure up his version of the Presidency tale, cannot help feeling a bit like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s “Rime”. The college that I attended and the age it represented have been washed away by the tides of time. Half forgotten memories cling nevertheless like albatrosses around the necks of some of us, which is a punishment that can be awarded only to people who have shamelessly outlived their allotted time in “this breathing world”.

The shame of over-extension does not visit those, of course, who had not only been a part of that “age of fables”, but continue to live on even today in supreme glory, and rightfully so, having joined possibly the ranks of the immortal. Almost surely, Amartya Sen leads the chosen few, accompanied by stars such as the geologist Asish Ranjan Basu, physicist Bikash Sinha and several others. Nonetheless, being admitted to Presidency College following the school board examinations endowed every student without exception during that age with an aura of greatness, which was difficult to rub off outside the college premises. Middle class parents took pride in announcing that their children were the chosen ones and their less fortunate neighbours invariably envied them.

As I remember, following what used to be known as the School Final Examination, I had walked through the gates of the college for the first time with “bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness”, to start off as a student of the Intermediate of Science (ISc) class. Admission was inextricably linked to the aggregate score secured in the School Final Examination. I should have been surprised and possibly filled with jubilation to locate my name in the first list itself of the successful admission seekers. At the very top of the list shone those who had achieved a rank in the board examination. First, second, third and so on as the list travelled all the way down in order of mark-wise merit. My name appeared somewhere near the very bottom, belonging as I did to the group that had also run, though I doubt that I ever tried seriously to participate in the “also run” race. I had probably managed to simply limp along at best, a habit that I have failed to kick till this very day.

I maintained a respectful distance from the medalists, however, especially so once classes began. The champions were strewn across the classroom glowing in celestial glory, while a large number of us hoped as best as we could to escape notice. I recall professors, one in particular, who on the very first day that he saw us, ordered us to declare our scores, not sotto voce but loudly and clearly. Those who revealed monumental scores were further investigated. “What was your rank?” The answer could be a stunning “Third” or a “fourth”. But the likes of me were not spared on that account. Our desperate prayers to be granted invisibility having been ignored by the powers in Heaven, we too had to own up our rank-denied ignominy. The classrooms might have resembled cauldrons of class struggle on such occasions, being filled up by two sorts of students, the Prince Hamlets and the crowd of “attendant lords”.

Whatever the perceptions of the world outside might have been, within the college boundaries, class distinctions existed. Only a handful of students were assumed to be the heirs apparent to thrones of glory, with the majority resembling strangers à la Camus. Of course, fate decreed that many a throne had to be abdicated in the course of time, sometimes wilfully, sometimes in battlefields. The anonymous beginners often transformed into celebrities and the hastily anointed ones disappeared into the wilderness with equal frequency.

***

Volumes have been written about the goings on within the college premises, about professors whose names will stand carved in stone for the rest of eternity. Since the high and mighty have already sung paeans in their praise, I can succeed, if at all, in adding minuscule footnotes to them. I will try and perform that holy duty at some point or the other in this essay. However, what attracted me more to start with were the environs of the Presidency College of yore. The clock tower, next to the observatory in the main building, if memory serves me right, never worked, so that recorded time appeared to have remained frozen throughout the entire period of my student day association with the college. The Derozio Hall did not exist, though we had been promised by Sanat Bose, the then Principal, that funds for the auditorium had been sanctioned. He warned us with deadly precision though that it was not likely to come up in the foreseeable future. There being no auditorium in the college, most cultural programmes organised by the Students’ Union were held in the Physics Lecture Theatre in Baker Laboratory building. This is where we were charmed by Debabrata Biswas, Purabi Mukhopadhyay and many other renowned singers.

This Lecture Theatre, which continues to exist, was also the venue for public debates organised by students and the most popular and unbelievably talented debater I was fortunate enough to witness performing there was Sudhangsu Dasgupta. Hiranmoy Karlekar, who was himself a student of Presidency College, was also an impressive debater. In all likelihood, around the time I heard him debate, he was a post-graduate student. Gayatri Chakravarty (later Spivak), along with Jayabrata Bhattacharjee (who was a year junior to me) and a much younger Sundar Chatterjee (later transformed into the film actor Dhritiman Chattopadhyay) regaled us with their debating skills too.

The best of the debates that we were exposed to in the Physics Lecture Theatre was organised in the form of a “Mock Parliament” and the issue that was debated by this Parliament was the dismissal of the democratically elected communist government of E.M.S. Nambuduripad in Kerala. The dismissal took place on 31 July, 1959. It was my first year at Presidency College and I have no clear idea about the exact date of the debate. Eminent politicians such as Siddhartha Sankar Ray and Sadhan Gupta, as well as regular debaters like Sudhangsu Dasgupta and N. Viswanathan participated in the debate. Saila Kumar Mukherjee, who had been the Speaker of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly from 1952 through 1957 acted as the Speaker for the Mock Parliament too.

It was one of the grandest of shows I witnessed during my student life and I simply cannot forget the oratorical skills that our young minds were exposed to on that afternoon. The students were thrilled and I think that the motion was thrown open to vote, but I do not remember which side won on that lovely autumn afternoon. It’s quite possible that the Treasury benches won, since the Students’ Union at the time had an SFI minority and the group that dominated students’ affairs was the anti-SFI group PCSU (Presidency College Students’ Union).

Students presented musical performances too on occasions and one in particular that has remained glued to my mind was Partha Ghose’s singing with a piano accordion that he played himself. Most probably, he was then a student of the final year of the Physics Honours course and I was a year junior to him, studying Economics. It is difficult to come up with a list of the numbers he presented, but I distinctly remember him singing Kishore Kumar’s unforgettable song “shing nei tobu nam tar shingho …” He achieved instant popularity in the college by his performance and I was told that many of the girls who attended his show literally fell in love with him. And why not? He was handsome, he was a talented singer and he was an accomplished student. The girls simply swooned and the boys too participated in their own way in the “merry din”.

There was yet another venue for an annual gathering, the Star Theatre in North Calcutta. Students used to stage all boys or girls plays there, since university rules strictly forbade boys and girls performing together. The girls normally perfomed Tagore dance dramas, such as Chitrangada or Shyama. Boys restricted themselves to plays like Sukumar Ray’s Chalachchitto Chanchori. Dwijen Bagchi, a lawyer in later life, was an accomplished actor. He excelled in these shows. Normally English language performances were avoided. During my student days though, English plays were staged for two consecutive years. The one I participated in had a female character in it, which was doctored upon, thereby changing it from someone or the other’s wife to his brother.

***

Students spoke to one another mostly in Bengali, avoiding English as far as possible. The atmosphere was typically Bengali middle-class. However, a cultural revolution of sorts occurred during the year I joined the BA programme in 1961. A significantly large number of students joined the college who had a Loreto College or a St. Xavier’s College background. Most of them were fluent with the English language and opted for what was called Alternative English for the BA Pass course instead of Bengali. It took a while for the college to get accustomed to this new breed of students, but they were quite friendly themselves and those who wished to associate with them were soon part of the group. The most revolutionaries were led by a group of girls who had arrived from Loreto College. They brought a metamorphosis in the college premises, sartorially speaking. Prior to their arrival, the girls who studied in the college showed up in cotton saree clad Bengali simplicity. The Loreto girls arrived in tight fitting salwar-kurtas and their kurtas, unthinkably enough, were often sleeveless. And there was a girl, who, if I remember correctly, arrived one day in her skirts. That was a bombshell. There was a murmur of disapproval, which could have, I am not entirely sure, reached the Teachers’ Room as well. But pretty girls in pretty dresses were pretty girls in pretty dresses and they won hands down. I am still in touch with some of these revolutionaries and they are no different from any other average Bengali person. In any case, middle class or not, they did precipitate a change and apparel-wise at least, the girls transformed the Presidency look ever since that year.

***

The quadrangle next to the Baker Laboratory was a quintessential green, maintained in that state along with rows of the best seasonal flowers under the loving care of the Principal. A person entering the college for the first time was invariably caught by the breathtaking beauty of the garden and the bright green field. The maintenance did not extend of course to many of the other essential facilities, but this oversight was a part of middle class culture as well and no one ever demurred over such issues. One assumes though that the Principal’s office and the Teachers’ Rooms were adequately equipped to attend to nature’s calls.

The green quadrangle was where Dipak Ghosh excelled. He was a talented cricketer and students crowded there to watch him produce over-boundaries, one after another, during matches played against other colleges. St Xavier’s College was our principal opponent and when they came to play at the Baker quadrangle, literally all the students forgot about their classes. The Xaverians’ principal target was Dipak Ghosh and their joy knew no bounds once Ghosh was dismissed. It was difficult though to put a stop to his magic, which does not mean of course that he never fell prey to the opponents’ attack. On one occasion, I remember him being sent back to the pavilion by the captain of the St. Xavier’s team, Shivaji Roy I think, who caught Ghosh in the slips. Among Dipak’s many cricketing achievements was the number of glass windows in the Baker Laboratory Building that his boundaries managed to smash into splinters.

Yet another accomplished cricketer was Bikash Sinha, whom I have mentioned earlier. However, there was a fundamental difference between the likes of him or Partha Ghose and Dipak Ghosh. Sinha and Ghose were successful students as well, which Ghosh was not. He was a student of the Mathematics Honours course, but I doubt that he ever attended classes. I do not think he managed to complete his degree at all. On days that had no cricket matches scheduled, he sat in the Coffee House in Albert Hall, chain smoking in a quiet corner, mostly alone. What his problem was, I never found out. He came from a well to do family I was told that lived in a two storied bungalow near the Gariahat crossing. And one day, without notice, he simply died. Some told me that his family had a history of premature deaths, but I didn’t know him sufficiently well to know the details. A pall of gloom descended on the college on that ill fated day, students speaking in whispers, but soon enough life was back to normal.

***

I normally caught the No. 10 bus at Gariahat crossing to reach College Street. These were double decker buses, pretty crowded while boarding, but on lucky days the boys found empty seats. On exceptionally lucky days, there could be a girl from the college sitting next to the boy. Being able to pay for her journey (ten paise probably) produced blissful smiles on their faces. Outside academics, it was the ultimate achievement one could hope for. There was a longer route as well from College Street to Gariahat. This was the No. 2 or 2B bus route, the length-wise preferred route if accompanied by a girl.

The college was bordered on its southern fringe by the Calcutta University campus, as Presidency University still is. What has disappeared though is the grand Senate Hall with its Corinthian pillars. The Senate Hall directly faced Goldighi in College Square and many an idle afternoon were spent in College Square by peanut munching students. Beyond the eastern boundaries of College Square stood the Paramount “sherbet” restaurant (along with its competitor Paragon, which exists no longer). We partook of the excellent elixir they served on days when our meagre allowances permitted the extravagance. What we drank there left us in a tongue licking state for days on end.

On the southern border of College Square stood Puntiram Sweets, which we visited on poorer days to consume a variety of snacks. The northern boundary of the college was flanked by the YMCA building, which itself sported a small restaurant and this too we dropped into once in a while. Beyond YMCA, across Harrison Road was Dwarik Ghosh’s renowned eatery, which sold mouth watering “luchi” and “aloor dam” for 6 paise and “luchi” and “chholar dal” for 4 on our financially stressed days. There was yet another restaurant on Harrison Road, Gyan Babur Cabin, which directly faced Bankim Chatterjee Street. I don’t think too many students from the college went there, but thanks to a magnanimous cousin, I did get to taste one of its delicacies on a long lost afternoon. The dish carried a name as exotic as exotic as “Kiss Me Quick”. Gyan Babur Cabin rests now in peace one knows not where, an event which could well have motivated my cousin to migrate to Australia.

College Street Coffee House of course occupied the pride of place. It was the most patronised restaurant and it continues to live till this day. It was somewhat expensive, quite apart from being smoke filled. Chairs were often hard to find and there were invariably days when one could afford to consume nothing other than the smoke and the supposedly intellect stimulating conversations carried out by people sharing the table, or, at best, the cheapest fare it served. This was known as “infusion” and looked like black coffee. One hears a great deal about Coffee House being the most authentic producer of bales of Bengal’s intellectual fabric. But I have to admit that the only thing that ever attracted me to that restaurant was its Mutton Afghani. I visited the place a few years ago only to discover to my horror that Mutton Afghani still existed, but it did so in a quality-wise hopelessly depreciated state.

College Street itself may have grown more congested compared to those prehistoric days, but even if it has done so, this is not too apparent to the naked eye. It was always bursting at the seams, and it is difficult to imagine that the seams have actually given way. Of course, the one way traffic arrangement is a modern day phenomenon, but it is hard to distinguish the one way flow from the two way flow of the past.

***

I was a regular student of Presidency College from 1959 through 1963. I completed my BA degree in Economics in 1963, but remained enrolled as a student in the College till 1965, though I was attending classes in Kantakal at the time as a post-graduate student. An arrangement between Presidency College and Calcutta University those days made it possible for Masters’ students to be enrolled as students of Presidency College, primarily to let them have access to the College library. Taking this into account, I think I can declare myself to have been officially a student of Presidency College for six years.

As I said, I had started off as a student of the Intermediate of Science (ISc) class, after finishing what was known as the School Final Examination. What are my memories from the ISc class? Not much alas that are worth recording. Few teachers in the science stream managed to leave any deep impression. And this has little to do with the passage of time, for I have fascinating memories of teachers who taught in the school that sent me to this college. I have recorded those memories elsewhere.

One teacher in the ISc class though stood out and this was P.C. Rakshit. His classes were full of drama, drama that easily attracted young minds. He taught us physical chemistry and I recall the manner in which he distinguished a physical mixture from a chemical compound. A physical compound, he said, was a bit like a “muri-mudki” mix. Even after mixing them up, it was not difficult to un-mix them into their component parts, simply by physically separating out the two components. The mixtures that doctors prescribed those days and compounders served were therefore not physical compounds from a chemist’s point of view.

Another fascinating incident that I remember from this class was the experiment he carried out to show how water could be produced by fusing two molecules of hydrogen with one molecule of oxygen. I was much impressed by the sound and fury accompanying the experiment. When the experiment was completed, we saw a clear glass dome sprinkled with water drops. If I remember correctly, he used a catalyst to carry out the experiment and that was the first time I learnt about a catalyst. Rakshit did not teach us for too long and the syllabus changed to inorganic chemistry. These were taught by teachers whom I quickly forgot.

Physics was taught by a number of teachers, but it was Nagen Das who took the largest number of classes. I am afraid that I remember very little of the Physics I learnt either. The teaching methods were uninspiring and on that account perhaps, I found the subject unattractive. On the other hand, as I realised much later in life, Physics is concerned with fundamental and deep questions. The professors though did not pose the questions, for me at least, in a manner that could arouse my inquisitiveness.

Mathematics was yet another subject that failed to excite me and this was most unfortunate. I had opted for Mechanics as an elective subject for the School Final Examination and performed reasonably well in the finals. The Mechanics I was taught in school constituted a part of the Mathematics syllabus for ISc as well. But the teaching method was maddeningly dull and helped me forget all that I learnt in school.

The classes that I attended in the ISc course did me more harm than good and Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics helped me little to progress in my academic career at this stage of life. This is strange, to say the least, since in later life I literally fell in love with Mathematics as I specialised in Economic Theory and a good deal of my research in the subject used Mathematics that I hated in Presidency College but learnt with enthusiasm when confronted by some of the most wonderful teachers I came across. Of course, I need to admit here that my reactions to the teachers may not have been shared by my classmates. They could very well disagree with me and I have little to offer in self-defence if they do.

***

Despite my deficiencies, I performed manageably well in the ISc examination and my father was hell bent on sending me over to an engineering college. The batch of students I belonged to was quite exceptional in this respect. The score-wise best among them opted for engineering courses and there were few left who were willing to continue with Physics, Chemistry or any of the other regular science subjects. The Physics Department in particular had rarely been betrayed by the rank holders in this manner. So, what was unimaginable those days, students belonging to lower rungs easily found admission into the Physics, Geology and other Honours courses. Not that they did not flourish in later life. In fact, I have already mentioned Asish Basu, who could not find immediate admission to the Geology department. But he is a world renowned geologist today even though he could have been considered a non-starter when he joined the Geology course.

I had of course lost all interest in pursuing a science career and fought hard at home to switch over to Economics, which during those days was considered an Arts subject. Once I was able to convince my father to let me off the hook, I was admitted to the Economics Department quite easily, though I cannot say that I performed particularly well there either.

The professor who moved us most was Bhabatosh Dutta, whose teaching skills are impossible to forget. He was full of humour and his classes were intensely dramatic. The students simply lapped up what he taught and I missed only one of his classes during the course of my entire BA class and that on account of some illness or the other. I loved Bhabatosh Dutta’s teaching methods, because he reminded me of Utpal Dutt who taught us English in South Point School. Utpal Dutt’s teaching was full of drama as well and the students got instantly attracted to his classes.

The other well-known teachers I was exposed to in the BA Honours class were Tapas Majumdar and Nabendu Sen. They were serious teachers, but the drama element was missing in their courses. Dipak Banerjee taught us for a single day, after which he left for an assignment abroad. On that single day though, he gave us useful advice. And that advice consisted of drawing our attention to a number books in macroeconomics which were to be avoided under all circumstances. He did not proceed beyond this.

However, around four years later, I got to know him closely, when I was selected as a research scholar in the newly instituted Centre for Economic Studies in the Economics Department. During those days, I did get to learn a good deal from him and it was he who was mainly instrumental in my securing a fellowship in a US university to complete a PhD degree. My association with Dipak Banerjee continued till the very end of his life. As is often the case, the teacher student relationship vanishes and is replaced by friendship. Something similar in nature occurred as far as my relationships with Nabendu Sen and Tapas Majumdar were concerned as well.

I was taught by Upendra Nath Ghoshal too, the departmental head, who clearly thought me to be the worst student in the class. Nirmal Majumdar taught us Aristotle’s Politics, Nirmal Chandra Basu Roychoudhuri lectured on International relations and Ramesh Ghosh taught us Political Theory. I failed to impress the Political Science professors without exception and ended up the BA course with a firm conviction that I was an absolute nobody as far as my abilities as a student were concerned.

***

When those bygone days “flash upon my inward eye”, I cannot help asking myself why it was that Presidency College forced me to drown deep into mediocrity and lose whatever self-confidence I possessed. I end up with a solitary explanation, which may well be incorrect. It was an age when a student’s ability was judged almost entirely by the marks she or he scored. It was not easy to score high, for it involved perseverance. Hard work that is, with a solitary goal. Not growing inquisitiveness about the unknown, but the sprinter’s zeal for snipping off a micro-second from the time required to reach the finishing line. The philosophy inculcated unto students was hard to distinguish from the motivations that provoke a Sachin Tendulkar or a Serena Williams. Beating the opponent was possibly more important than responding to the allure of imponderables. This was actually encouraged. It was an age when numbers scored in examinations alone sanctified. In this connection, one needs to be careful of course in pointing out that there were several instances of students who succeeded in maintaining the balance too, between high marks and a greed to learn. Mukul Majumdar was the most prominent among this latter group, but he was not the only one.

***

Going back to the ISc course, while it did not fulfil any major goal for me at least, viz. opening my mind to science and mathematics, I have to admit that the course was not a total waste and that for the wrong reasons. English and Bengali were compulsory subjects for us and these were taught by teachers who did fascinate me. If I remember correctly it was Tarapada Chakravarty who taught us Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This was not the first time that I was being introduced to the work, for back in school Utpal Dutt, who was perhaps the best teacher I have ever known, taught us the same poem. Perhaps my familiarity with the poem helped me absorb Tarapada Chakravarty’s version particularly well. If this was true, then it stood in contrast with my experience with Mechanics described earlier. Quite apart from him, we had Sailen Sen, Bhabatosh Chatterjee, Amal Bhattacharyya, Arun Dasgupta and a few others in the English Department and they did wonders for me. There were excellent teachers in the Bengali Department too, but the one I remember most fondly was Bhabatosh Datta.

***

I left the college totally bereft of confidence in myself. But not all of us were cowards. In this connection, I remember my classmate Dipak Mitra (who was better known by a nickname that his peers had adorned him by, but one which I shall refrain from using now). I have no idea how Dipak had performed in the School Final Examination, but I do recall that he displayed a singular disinclination towards what the college taught. He remained unmoved by the Presidency glory throughout the two years of the ISc class. Dipak rarely attended classes and must have employed well-known tricks to be marked present during the roll call with which each class began. It was mandatory to attend a minimum percentage of the number of lectures delivered. Falling short of the percentage figure had serious consequences. Permission to attend the final ISc examination was denied. There must have been people who were so punished, but not Dipak. He managed to sit for the final examination alright. And I distinctly remember him leaving the examination hall for some subject or the other long before the final bell went off. This was unthinkable in Presidency College. The examinees were so serious that they had to be forced to stop writing beyond the announced end of the examination hour. But Dipak could not care less. He submitted his answer script at least an hour before the test was over.

Not that he failed the ISc examination. He was too smart to fail in anything he ever took up. He didn’t end up with a glowing record of course as far as ISc went, but he was least bothered on that account. Following the ISc examination, he left the college in search of greener pastures. My knowledge regarding what he was upto following his encounter with Presidency College is vague at best. But I did come across him much later in life. He was a successful and highly regarded corporate lawyer at the time and, what was most important, we turned into excellent friends long after we were both out of Presidency College. Of course, given Dipak’s successful career, he was a bit of a globe trotter as well and it was no easy job to drop into his office or home and chat freely.

Dipak was not incapable of playing pranks on the teachers and one incident comes readily to my mind. It involved Kajal Bose (later Sen), the beloved Kajal-di of the English Department. Kajal Bose was back from Oxford and had freshly joined the college. Women faculty members were rare those days and the only other lady I recall teaching at the time belonged to the Botany Department. Kajal Bose was young, beautiful, full of poise, an epitome of Bengali culture of that age. The Intermediate class on the other hand was an all boys class in an otherwise co-educational college. Few among the boys in the class had ever been taught by women teachers. I was a bit of an exception in this respect, for I had passed out of a co-educational school which employed both men and women to teach. Dipak and the others had a different background. And Dipak, as I said, had a headful of ideas.

Although he rarely attended classes, he decided to attend a Kajal Bose’s class one fateful morning. He was a bit of a ventriloquist as I discovered that day, who could produce noises whose source was hard to trace. And he decided to try “confusions with” Kajal Bose. He was sitting straight faced at the back of the class as she began to lecture. When out of nowhere one heard clear notes of a sarod being played in full volume. Kajal Bose ignored this bravely for a while, but the rest of the class didn’t. We began to hear giggles and the class turned unmanageably noisy. But Dipak carried on with a face devoid of any expression at all. Finally, Kajal Bose reacted.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?” she literally thundered.

No one appeared to fit that description. She stood there in horrified silence for a while and finally threw out a challenge.

“Is there anyone in the class who has the courage to identify the mischief monger? If there isn’t, the entire class will have to pay for this.”

This was a serious threat and one student responded. His name was Bishnupada Ukil. Till today I think he, like me perhaps, was a misfit in the ISc class, or in Presidency College itself. In fact, he had given me the impression that he was attracted to learning Sanskrit more than anything else. He had difficulty in expressing himself in the English language and had developed the habit of writing up his English sentences and reading them out to keep conversation going. Bishnupada stood up with his sheet of paper.

“What exactly is it that you want us to tell you Madam?” he read out loud and clear.

Kajal Bose was quite flabbergasted to say the least. She thought she had made herself amply clear and simply stared back at Bishnupada in disbelief.

But Bishnupada read on unperturbed. “Do you want us to tell you the name of the student who is creating this noise?”

At this point, Kajal Bose found back her speech. “Why, yes of course. Who is responsible for this noise?”

With a sheepish smile on his face, Bishnupada read back, “That Madam we cannot tell you!”

I have a vague memory that, to her credit, Kajal Bose courageously continued with her class, ignoring the sounds that continued to pollute the air and that Dipak probably never showed up for Kajal Bose’s classes again.

None of the three people involved in this anecdote reside our world anymore. Kajal-di, after a successful career, passed away under unenviable circumstances. Bishnupada, who joined the WBCS, left us many years ago, following a heart attack I was informed. And Dipak himself was the last one to leave. He was suffering from the most dreaded of afflictions. Fortunately though, his suffering was short lived. I went to see him in the ICU at Bellevue Clinic, where he was languishing in a semi-conscious state, but he did recognise me and gestured me to come closer to him. I went as close as I could, defying the barriers of tubes and other medical equipment. His voice was faint, though I heard him quite clearly. “Don’t lament,” he said. And those may have been the last words he spoke to anyone at all. He left us next day.

Dipak was fond of translating Tagore songs into English and he had even published a book, Echoes, a few years ago. He presented me a copy of this book and here are a few lines from the first song in the book:

“Remember me yet if I am gone afar,
If old love is overlaid with a web of fresh passion:
If you know me not, even if I am near,
As I were a shadow that might not be, remember me yet.”

***
***

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 were 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 referring you to someone else. 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 with a laser beam.” The eyedrops brought back to my mind Oberon’s machinations against Titania, but I soon realised that the drops had blurred my vision far too much for me to recognise anything, not just anybody, around me. By the time I regained my vision, there was no one around except my wife and she was far too familiar with my asinine ways to raise an alarm. We came back home in peace.

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.

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.

 

The Man Who Would Be Magician

I have caught this nagging infection that makes me travel backwards in time. Unlike Benjamin Button or Barnaby Fulton, it doesn’t make me any younger mind you. (In case you haven’t heard of Barnaby Fulton, you will be well-advised to watch Monkey Business on YouTube. It was made in 1952, when most of you were still to be born. I was there of course, not to speak of Cary Grant, Ginger Roberts, Marilyn Monroe and a few other inconsequential people.) The infection reared up its head, I suspect, since the day I cogitated about Kamala Bastralaya around three years ago. That was a tailor shop, let me remind you, at the crossing of Manohar Pukur Road and Rashbehari Avenue in erstwhile Calcutta. The shop has evaporated now having fallen victim to the ravages of time and the prime location is occupied by Asian Paints, which, paradoxically enough, gloats over its anti-ageing formula. But it is not Asian Paints that drags me back to my foggy past today.

Instead, I wish to dwell upon Rashbehari Avenue alone and a little man who once lived on an offshoot of that street called Jamir Lane. The busy road stretches from east to west, a road that is uncompromisingly straight compared to Manohar Pukur Road. The latter never fails to remind me of a rippling river winding its way along the plains. It is full of feminine curves as it were, charmingly illusive through rain and shine. Not so Rashbehari Avenue. As you walk westwards along it, you go past Deshapriya Park (recently redecorated), Kamla Vilas (the well-known hideout for South Indians of yore), Lake Market (which still sells the best fish in South Kolkata), Melody (a widely visited music shop that, unlike Kamala Bastralaya, has kept Asian Paints at bay) and then finally take a sharp left turn to reach the Keoratala crematorium with military precision. That’s the point of no return. Sunset land.

But return we must though today, for our time machine is driving in reverse gear. Let’s walk eastwards therefore to the other end of the avenue. Somewhat in the spirit of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, however, the road, like universe itself, appears to curve back on itself at its eastern fringe and begin to traverse back west. The secret of the trick lies in the almost unnoticed Jamir Lane that connects the eastern and western flanks of Rashbehari Avenue. It lends to Rashbehari Avenue a magical quality, making you believe that you are moving east, when in fact Jamir Lane deceives you back to the westward stretch.

Magic, yes, uniquely magical it is, this eastern end of Rashbehari Avenue. No wonder therefore that it is exactly here, where west swallows up east, stands Indrajaal. Indrajaal was a mansion of sorts constructed by TW’s GM as a residence. Though palatial during its early youth, it has assumed a somewhat stunted appearance now, facing as it does a gigantic shopping mall on the opposite side of the street.

TW’s GM was an acronym used by an American Magazine to refer to P.C. Sorcar, who had performed in the US, advertising himself as The World’s Greatest Magician. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the name of that magazine any longer. He was probably the most successful magician that India produced during his lifetime, which ended abruptly and far too early with a heart attack sustained during a performance in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, Japan. P.C. Sorcar’s passing away created a void for a while in India’s presence in the world of magic, till he was replaced by his equally capable son, known as P.C. Sorcar, Jr and the latter too held the world in awe for several decades.

I should have been a schoolboy then, and so was my younger cousin Rana. And we had a common ambition, to turn into master magicians. TW’s GM was still alive and kicking and we were avid readers of the books he wrote for youngsters, but we knew only too well that they could never lead us to the Holy Grail of sorcery. We needed a teacher and Sorcar Senior, given his eminence, was unreachable. Hence, we set out on a search mission for a Guru if you will.

The search led us to another name, a magician called A.K. Sarkar. Quite obviously, P.C. Sorcar was born Sarkar too and had changed his family name to Sorcar, to draw people’s attention to his link with sorcery. A.K. Sarkar held magic shows as well, but unlike Sorcar who performed in the best known auditoriums, Sarkar probably never went beyond the confines of make shift stages occupying pavements during seasonal festivities. And once in a while, he wrote in magazines for young people like us. Consequently, he was not a street juggler either, like Maganlal Magicwallah.

It didn’t take Rana and me too long to discover that A.K. Sarkar was related to P.C. Sorcar, though the exact nature of the relationship remains obscure. I assumed they were cousins, whether near or distant I have no idea. And for all I know, they need not have been cousins at all.

Even at that young age, we were shrewd enough to guess that a man with limited fame was likely to be more approachable than a famous person. We discussed the matter in depth therefore and then hatched a plan. Rana used his contacts and discovered that A.K. Sarkar’s residence was no different from P.C. Sorcar’s. They both lived in Indrajaal. The building was not far from our own homes, but we were not sure if we could gain admission into the premises, given that we were both teenagers. Nor did we have any idea about the plea we needed to forge to begin a conversation with Sarkar.
An adult was required to accompany us we decided. We were too young to attract attention.

In this connection, help arrived in the shape of Moni Kaka (Moni is a name and Kaka means paternal uncle in Bengali). Rana was Moni Kaka’s only son and despite his busy lawyer’s work schedule, Moni Kaka was never a spoil sport, especially when young people approached him with bizarre proposals. The proposal in this case was that he chaperone us to A.K. Sarkar, without any appointment whatsoever. Moni Kaka, Rana’s doting father and my doting uncle readily agreed and one fine evening drove us down eastwards along Rashbehari Avenue in his shiny black Ambassador (or, was it Landmaster?) and parked it in front of the imposing gate of the mansion. The gate was tightly closed. Even though we didn’t notice a No Admission sign, there was a stern looking gateman posted there with that telltale message radiating from his eyes.

Moni Kaka led us to this obviously unsympathetic man and struck up a conversation.

“Can we see Mr. A.K. Sarkar please?” asked Moni Kaka as casually as possible.

The watchman, who was eying us suspiciously, grew even more so. I tend to believe now in my old age that his overly suspicious behaviour had a solid foundation. Given Sorcar’s international recognition, he was probably used to dealing with autograph seeking tramps waiting for chance encounters with the master. He knew how to send them away. We, on the other hand, could well have belonged to the minority who ever sought an audience with A.K. Sarkar and he needed to assess our nuisance value. In the absence of Moni Kaka, the two cousins were sure to have been sent back immediately. But Moni Kaka being an adult and exquisitely well dressed in a dark suit, the man was on the horns of a dilemma.

“Who — umm — are you?” asked the man, somewhat heistantly.

“I told you I wanted to see Mr. A.K. Sarkar,” said Moni Kaka. “I have important business with him.”

The gatekeeper’s unbelieving eyes shifted from Moni Kaka to us and then back to Moni Kaka. Even if Moni Kaka could possibly have important business with Sarkar, what were these youngsters doing with him? But Moni Kaka too had his lawyer like looks and he used them to his advantage. The two of them kept staring hard at one another till the gatekeeper finally gave in.

“You wait here, I will go and inquire,” said the man and disappeared behind the gate, locking it from inside as we waited outside on the pavement. But Moni Kaka smiled back at us.

“Battle won,” his eyes whispered.

We were waiting for around ten minutes I think, before the gate reopened a chink or so and the guard signalled us to enter. We stepped inside gleefully, but were somewhat disenchanted to discover that we were not being invited inside the building. We had to stand unceremoniously on the courtyard in the gatekeeper’s company. A short flight of stairs led up to a ground floor balcony along which were located a set of rooms. Out of one of these a gentleman came rushing out, happily excited. He was frail and shortish, in his mid-thrties probably, if memory serves me right, dressed rather plainly. A Bengali style pyjama possibly and a loosely hanging un-pressed shirt. We could see his face clearly, since the balcony was well lit. He stared at us, as the gateman had done, but not with grim suspicion. Instead, a hopeful smile lingered across his lips.

“I am A.K. Sarkar. Are you looking for me?” he asked Moni Kaka, his face still glittering in excitement.

“Oh yes, Mr. Sarkar, we have come here to see you,” said Moni Kaka smiling brightly in turn.

“Which club do you represent Sir,” said Mr. Sarkar with endless naiveté.

“Club?” It was Moni Kaka’s turn now to lose his poise. He quickly recovered though and continued with remarkable grace. “I am not representing any club now, though I am a life member of several in the city. Today however, I am not seeing you on behalf of a club. I am here,” he explained further, “with a request on behalf of these two boys. My brother’s son and mine. They are deeply interested in the art of magic. I have brought them over to find out if you might agree to help them train.”

The expression on Sarkar’s face went through a series of transformations upon receipt of the message. The elation travelled downwards and ended up in a dark chasm of despondency. He was completely taken aback to hear what Moni Kaka had to say and kept gazing at Rana and me, totally befuddled. He was at a loss for words.

But then, suddenly, a trace of hope leaped out of the Pandora’s Box we had opened up for him.

“How did you find out about me?” he said in a voice that could remind you of a dying man catching at a straw. There was pathos in the air. I smelled it even at that immature age. Sarkar was not a sought after person as Rana and I had correctly guessed. Unfortunately, the magician had not learnt the most important trick of all. He didn’t know how to hide his emotions, suggesting to me what his status probably was in the family with which he resided. It was Sorcar who was known the world over. But here were people who had come looking for Sarkar! Was there a glimmer of hope in the horizon finally? Had Lady Luck herself wielded the magic wand?

It was my turn to speak out now, since I knew that Moni Kaka didn’t know the answer to the question Sarkar had asked, and Rana, being younger to me, was a little shy to speak up.

“We are familiar with the stuff you write for magazines. We learnt several tricks reading your articles.” I quickly responded.

My response resulted in a painful bursting of his temporary bubble of hope. I had driven in the proverbial last nail in the coffin. Hope gave place to gloom almost instantaneously. Seeing Moni Kaka’s smart attire, Sarkar had probably taken for granted that a wealthy party had arrived to hire him for a magic show in a carefully chosen venue. But that was not the case. He was being actually asked to tutor two juveniles in the art of magic! We were standing face to face with a monumental sigh.

I don’t think the conversation proceeded too far beyond this point and he found a way of getting rid of us without sounding too rude. I have forgotten how he excused himself or how, for that matter, the gatekeeper showed us out. Nor can I remember what Moni Kaka told us on our way back home.

Moni Kaka continued to flourish as a lawyer and Rana made a name for himself in adult age as the first person to run a private news channel in Bengali. Even though he didn’t turn into a great magician, hprobably taken for granted that a wealthy party had arrived to hire him for a magic show in a carefully chosen venue. Instead, he was being asked to tutor two juveniles in the art of magic! We were standing face to face before a monumental sigh.
I don’t think the conversation proceeded too far beyond this point and he found a way of getting rid of us without sounding too rude. I have forgotten how he excused himself or how, for that matter, the gatekeeper showed us out. Nor can I remember what Moni Kaka told us on our way back home.

Moni Kaka continued to flourish as a lawyer and Rana made quite a name for himself in adult age as the first person to run a private news channel in Bengali. Even though he didn’t turn into a great magician, he is well-known in India and abroad in the television show business. I managed to survive as well in my own small way.

What life did to Sarkar though continues to be a mystery. Soon after the senior Sorcar passed away, his son, Sorcar, Jr, took a prodigious leap into the world of magic. And while this phenomenal transition from senior to junior was in progress, Sarkar probably took a curtain call unaccompanied by encores.

Rashbehari Avenue may well know which way he went in the meantime. I suspect myself that he slowly crawled westward and never came back. But the avenue now, with its shopping malls, restaurants and traffic jams, is hopelessly uncommunicative about that last journey.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Sighing in Winter


Spring, it would appear, is invariably followed by summer and summer in its turn by autumn, and so on and so forth. No wonder therefore that as the spring moonshine girl receded into the past, other seasons invaded. And I grew older. And older. Though not quite as old as I am today. In fact, I was quite young still, when the spring moonshine girl disappeared into a galaxy tucked away in an unknown corner of the universe.

I think I was a student of the MA class when yet another girl showed up at a forgotten crossroad of my wayward ways. Well, I exaggerate, for I have not quite forgotten the morning when Sovan-babu spoke to me as he sat in the well-appointed living room of a friend’s home. “There’s this tenth class girl who needs to be tutored. Will you be available?” he asked me with a fixed smile on his kind face. Sovan-babu was a regular at the friend’s home, having been a devoted student of his father, who taught History in the Jadavpur University. He wore a dhoti and a long shirt whose colour wavered between butter and buttterscotch, and never forgot to carry his umbrella. A bachelor by all accounts and a person devoted to old books. He was himself a collector of sorts, or at least one who was intimately connected to collectors of precious gems of our literary past. I cannot recall any expression other than a smile on Sovan-babu’s dark face. A smile that never failed to invite, not even the most insensitive specimens of our race.

The wages of my labour, Sovan-babu told me, would be Rs. 40 a month, which was a dramatic rise from the spring moonshine Rs. 5, that had sent me scurrying towards safety. I was elated frankly, since a bus ride from the southern end of Calcutta those days to its northern outskirts cost no more than 50 paise. And Sovan-babu being a totally dependable person, I jumped for the offer and showed up at the home I was directed to visit no more than a week later. I arrived exactly on time.

Sovan-babu was waiting there. It was once again a somewhat low
middle class room in a large two storied building. The building must have seen better times when it had been built perhaps three decades ago. Old, but not quite as old as the Red Fort. Somewhat like the older me compared to my moonshine day. What caught my attention, though, as soon as I entered the room, was a shiny black human skull sitting on a shelf filled with accumulated almanacs from the near and distant past. There could have been other museum pieces sitting there as well, but what I saw, apart from the skull, was a large sized bed inherited from more affluent days, going by the quality of the wood. However, unlike the spring moonshine home, the bed did not occupy the entire room. There was enough space left for a dark brown Burma teak cupboard too, jam-packed with unorganized books and papers that peeped through its panelled glass door. And there were a few straight backed wooden chairs as well and a writing table of unknown vintage once more. As opposed to moonshine, the student’s books were sitting there in a pile on the table under the scrutiny of the aforementioned skull from the wall at the far end of the room.

Apart from Sovan-babu, the girl’s father was expecting me too and at some point of time after I arrived, the mother showed up as well. Smiling, welcoming people and well-fed too going by their sizes. The father was clad in a somewhat worn out white fatua and a dhoti reaching down to the knees, worn South Indian style. It is difficult for me to recall what we conversed about, but whatever it was, we were soon nodding our heads in agreement. I had been hired as Aparna’s (name unchanged) teacher, to teach her mostly English and Mathematics. And I have forgotten of course at which point of time during the proceedings the pretty young Aparna had entered the stage. As I have already told you, I was older now, but not too old. Besides, Aparna wore a saree, unlike the moonshine kid, who was just a little girl in long skirts.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is no love story that I am weaving out for you. It will not lead to broken or joined hearts, if that’s what you are expecting. It is just a story of a growing young girl, who needed extra help outside her school. Aparna was a sweet young girl, full of reverence for her new found teacher. And the teacher was hell bent at that stage of his life on turning into a professional teacher some day in the not too distant future.

I arrived on the day we agreed upon for my first session and this time I had a better look at the inside of the building as I climbed up the stairs to the first floor. It appeared to be a house full of people as well as rooms. The people lived as separate families occupying two or three rooms each. Peaceful coexistence, for each family appeared to own the rooms it lived in and I ended up with the impression that they had once been a joint family. With time the family had grown in size probably, making joint living an infeasible proposition. The reasons could have been economic too, but I didn’t care much to exercise my brain over the issue.

The room this time was empty, except for Aparna and I sitting across the table from each other. Two people in a large room, leaving out the skull that stared at my back as I faced Aparna. It was not a particularly scary experience, I know not why. Skull it was, but it was a friendly looking skull, not entertaining deep dark thoughts against any one in particular. Since the skull was after all a skull though, I did inquire about it when I saw Sovan-babu next time. It appeared that Aparna’s father, Amiya-babu, had started out life quite differently from the way he was living now. In particular, he had not planned to raise a family at all and so Aparna’s appearance in this world was directly linked to Amiya-babu’s change of mind.

Amiya-babu, I was informed, had left home to live the life of an ascetic in his young days. And no ordinary ascetic at that. He had chosen to be a tantrik sadhu! Which explained the skull, perhaps the only relic he had saved from his tantra filled days. As I looked once in a while at the good natured Hobit shaped man, I found it most difficult to visualize him sitting on a corpse and practising whatever tantra yoga a tantrik performed. Quite clearly, he had been disillusioned and come back home to announce that he was no longer interested in tantric occupations. Instead, a family of his own and a pretty daughter attracted him more. God, being merciful, was not deaf to his appeal and hence, there I was, teaching Aparna under the ever watchful guardianship of the skull that had lost its charm. Or had it? I will have more to offer on this matter as we move on.

Aparna, as I found, was fairly weak in English and I had to work hard to make her learn. Her mathematics was OK as far as I could see, but it could have been better. She was not exactly a serious student and I soon found myself scolding her once in a while for not working hard enough. Her parents sat in the adjacent room and listened to the radio almost every evening I visited them. Sometimes though, my voice rose a few decibels above the radio waves, especially when I took Aparna to task for neglecting the work I had assigned her. And the parents would hear me clearly it seemed, especially the mother. Hidden behind the curtain separating the two rooms, she would join me in chiding her daughter in a shrill voice. An embarrassing situation for me, for Aparna reacted quite strongly. Not vocally though. Her eyes spewed fire, as she frowned in dogged defiance at the table. “I won’t forgive you for this,” she appeared to be yelling at me in thundering silence.

But there were interludes of entertainment as well. Provided by the father. As I recall, they owned a few cats that roamed freely inside their rooms. And Amiya-babu was obviously fond of them. He would speak to them whenever one or the other of them appeared in the adjoining radio equipped room. Quite invariably he invited them to his vicinity with a loud but affectionate “Meow”. Like my voice, his meow floated over in the opposite direction to where we sat and caused immense embarrassment for Aparna. She was not quite prepared to present a meowing dad to her tutor. There were variations too in the meow theme. On one occasion, the radio announced that a programme of light classical Bangla songs was about to begin. I have no idea why Amiya-babu began to imitate the announcement immediately. And he kept repeating the imitation at ever higher pitches and in a variety of notes and tunes, till suddenly he shifted gear and ended up with a few bouts of his meows. On some of these occasions, Aparna would turn red trying to suppress her embarrassment and, once at least, she left the room to bring her dad back to his senses.

Even though I maintained a straight face for Aparna’s comfort, I used to be greatly amused by these incidents and described them later to Sovan-babu. He was surprised the first time he heard about this and even went to Amiya-babu’s home to find out if I was imagining things. He came back with the message that Amiya-babu believed that he was engaging in these antiques to help me feel at home. I don’t think I ever produced the impression of feeling constrained or shy in any way, but Amiya-babu didn’t give up his efforts to make me feel relaxed, even after his conversation with Sovan-babu. He kept on maintaining the comfort level at his home to his daughter’s endless discomfort.

Amiya-babu and the skull in the room were the most interesting memories I have from my Aparna-teaching days and I often wondered who Amiya-babu was meowing at, the silent skull or his cats?

This is an inconsequential story, but it is a story with an end, and that end I have yet to reach. Let us proceed therefore in its search. Soon enough, Aparna’s Board examinations arrived and I visited her home a number of times while the exam was on to find out how she was faring. Following this, I had no further need to visit them and had begun to work as a Research Scholar in Presidency College, Calcutta. But God had willed otherwise.

Soon after the Board results were published, I received a call from Amiya-babu. I wasn’t prepared for this, but I went there to find out what he wanted. I was told that Aparna had done rather well in the exams and, most importantly, it was in the English language that she had scored best!! I simply could not believe my ears, for till the last day that I had taught her, I had been scolding her for being poor in English. I stared at her parents in dumbfounded silence. As far as I could remember, my own score in English for my Board exam had been worse. I managed to keep my emotions in check, however, and inquired why I had been summoned.

“You have to keep on teaching her” was the command I heard. And I responded with a “But …”, which they all ignored quite totally. “Look,” Amiya-babu told me in a no nonsense tone this time, “it is clear that you have taught her well, or else her results cannot be explained.” I tried to “but” back, but I but-ted in vain. “You start soon,” the father ordered and disappeared behind the curtain to his meowing retreat. There was no one else in the room, not even my student. So, I silently stared back at the skull for a while and came back home wondering whether it was the skull that could explain the miracle of Aparna’s performance. Perhaps it had its magical powers.

I remained in semi-incognito condition for a few days till Sovan-babu intervened once again. They had assumed, it appeared, that I had agreed and wanted to know when I could show up. There was a second question this time though. What should my wages be? She had risen to a higher class now and obviously required a better paid teacher. So, how much does the teacher wish to be paid? I saw a way out now. Without batting an eyelid, I said Rs. 41, i.e. a rupee more than what I was being paid till then. The news was dutifully conveyed and I learnt that the family was deeply engaged in a discussion concerning the demand. What did a one rupee rise mean? What, in other words, was one equal to? Whatever they concluded, I received the summons once more to begin and I too responded, if only to find out how they had solved the mystery of the numerical magnitude of ‘one’.

I began to teach and at the end of the first month Amiya-babu walked into the room wearing a face that looked more serious than anything even remotely close to his meows. He was carrying currency notes in his hand and he handed them over to me with a half audible noise. Something like a “umph” I think. Naturally, I did not count the money in the presence of my student and simply slipped the notes inside my shirt pocket. On my way back home that evening, I did count of course, and found that my wages had increased by Rs. 10. Made sense, since 1 + 0 equals 1 as far as I knew. By this time, I was so much at home with Amiya-babu’s family that I couldn’t care less. I carried on therefore till Aparna finished her Higher Secondary exam. She performed well this time too and I strongly believe till this day that she owed her success either to herself or to that magic skull.

And then she entered college to study English Honours with Mathematics as a minor subject. I asked her why she had combined Mathematics with English. She didn’t know. I asked her why she hadn’t consulted me. She didn’t know.

Amiya-babu called me back in the meantime and asked me to continue. I told him in no uncertain terms that this was an absurd proposition. I was a student of Economics. How could I teach an English Honours student? But the family was unconvinced and I had to oblige once again. I had begun to feel pretty stupid by now of course and informed them with all the strength at my command that I was available only on condition that they wouldn’t pay me a dime. They worried for a while, but ultimately agreed. They were convinced about my miracle value, though the skull obviously knew better.

I am pretty close to the end of this inane story now. While Aparna was following her English Honours course, I got a fellowship from the US and had to leave. Prior to my departure, I went to Amiya-babu once and asked him to read my horoscope for me. Sovan-babu had told me that Amiya-babu was trained in that area. He did not oblige me till I was very close to departing for foreign shores. And what he told me stunned me to say the least. “I looked at your horoscope. It’s good, but don’t get married. A married life will not bring you happiness.” Well, I didn’t follow his advice and after having spent 46 years of marital bliss, I am not sure anymore if he knew how to read horoscopes.

That was the last time he spoke to me. Yet an epilogue remains. Several years later, perhaps 20 years or so, I came across Sovan-babu once again. I was back from the US then and teaching at the Indian Statistical Institute. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked him about Aparna. Amiya-babu and his wife had passed away I learnt and Aparna was working in the State Bank of India. Sovan-babu even told me about the branch where she was posted. Only I did not pursue the matter any further.

We had seen the end of each other. She had her family and her children. So had I a wife and a son. We had our separate lives to lead and I wasn’t sure if our ways could cross anymore. Even so, as I write this piece now, I cannot help asking myself what Aparna is doing these days. She should have retired from service, that pretty little girl I used to know and scold. She is a grandmother possibly. Sovan-babu, alas, cannot throw much light on the matter either, having succumbed to mortality.

I also think that in this game of life, my student has won hands down. She had not only scored higher in the English language examination, beating her own teacher. But if she is a grandmother now she has still more to boast about than her teacher.

Her teacher. The one who is sighing in winter.

 

 

Spring Moonshine

Instead of proceeding southwards at the crossing of Manoharpukur Road and Rashbehari Avenue and arriving at the now vanished patch of green I once pondered over, if you were to make a right about turn and retrace your steps along Manoharpukur itself, all the way towards its crossing with Lansdowne Road (or, what is renamed Sarat Bose Road now, a Netaji connection needless to say), and keep moving eastwards, you will ultimately land on Russa Road (where Basushree Cinema once towered, but now resembles an exhausted heap of a panting stray dog in the middle of a scorching summer). Actually, the Uttam Kumar Manch lies too in benign neglect somewhere along the stretch, but I didn’t intend to take you that far.

Time-wise though, you need to travel a lot more in reverse gear, towards a solar juncture when no one imagined Uttam Kumar could ever be awarded a public stage in posthumous glory. On the temporal plane however, as I said, you merely need to cross Lansdowne Road and walk around a hundred yards or so eastwards. And you should be able to locate the home I have in mind. Or, more accurately, the space that the set of low roofed, over congested rooms connected by a shared balcony cum corridor had once occupied, but no longer does. A single storied long lean building let out to several tenants I thought. I have searched for it in vain for the past many years as I passed that way.

I wish I could locate her at least once though before taking my final curtain call. But I doubt that this can ever happen either. She has disappeared, like her home, I know not where. A darkish slim girl, a smiling face carrying about it a freshly washed evening aura. Her hair neatly combed and tied up in a pair of pretty ponytails. She wore a conservative, long middle class skirt, reaching well below her knees as she sat on the family bed. Her books were cleanly arranged on the bed and her writing table was a short wooden stool set in front of her.

It was not hard for me to make out that she was waiting with all the anticipation at her disposal for my arrival. I cannot recall exactly how old she was, probably a student of Class Seven or eight at most. I, on the other hand, had just finished my Intermediate of Science Examination from Presidency College and was goofing around doing pretty much nothing. When a friend suggested that I earn a little on my own giving tuition to school students. I had little idea where such tuition hungry students waited, but my advisor was generous. He found out the address where the girl looked forward to being tutored.

Recall that I am talking about the wrong side of prehistory. It required a good deal of courage to agree to walk into a middle class home and train up a girl not much younger than the tutor himself. Nonetheless, I tried, for the wages offered were a fabulous Rs. 10 a month!! The first time I would be spending my self-earned money and Rs. 10 was a fortune. A bottle of coke cost twenty five paise and a comfortable bus ride to my college in North Calcutta (which was the other end of the town) was a mere 10 paise. The height of luxury was a Rs. 1.25 ticket to a matinee show in a flawlessly air-conditioned theatre. What was it that I pined for that I could not possess now? No this was too good an offer and I readily agreed, though, needless to say, the decision was carefully hidden from my parents and especially from my mother. She would surely have played spoil sport. Her sons’ (my elder brother and I) association with teenage girls had to be viewed with endless suspicion.

Well, one bright evening, I was led into this home and introduced to the girl’s father who welcomed me with open arms. Few words were exchanged, for the girl was all impatient to drag me over to her books. A bright ambitious girl who had no time to waste over small talk. She meant business and as far as I can remember, it was Trigonometry that we started off with. The subject had just been introduced in her class and I didn’t miss the excitement that radiated from her eyes. I began to tell her about the basics, drawing a right angled triangle and explaining what sine theta stood for. Next came cosine theta quite inevitably. And as I was about to explain tangent theta, the girl intervened firmly. “Teacher, please don’t tell me. I want to figure it out on my own!!” I stared at her in wonder and waited for her to come up with the results of her calculations.

She was definitely an intelligent student, who would make any teacher happy, even one that was as young and inexperienced as I (exactly eighteen years old to be precise). Hence, the fun continued, problem after problem, subject after subject and I think I lost track of time. Till I suddenly noticed that it was past 9.30 in the evening. I knew I had to be back home or else people should begin to worry. My mother maintained uncompromising discipline and no one had the courage to defy her.

So, I gave her a set of exercises that I would be looking into next time and got up to leave. I hadn’t noticed that the girl’s father was sitting in the room right behind me and keeping watch over me. He took me by complete surprise as I turned around and stood in front of him. I had no idea in fact what he was doing there. Eavesdropping perhaps, measuring up my character? Making sure that I was not making a pass at his daughter? Or was he trying to figure out if I was familiar with what I was teaching?

Discomfiture prevailed for a while as I stared back stupidly at him. He looked very tired, probably waiting for the bed to be vacated for him to lie down and rest. I managed to recover my senses though and smiled at him as I prepared to leave the room. He stopped me and requested me to sit down. I had hardly expected this, but I complied, though I was getting late. Clearly, he had something in his mind and his face expressed embarrassment. And I waited for him to open up.

“I have a request for you to consider,” he began. “As you can see, these two small rented rooms are all I have to keep my body and soul together. I am not in a position to spend much on my daughter’s tutor.” He halted and hesitated and then blurted out, “I really cannot afford Rs. 10 a month you see. Why don’t you think of yourself as a part of my family and reduce your fees? Will you please teach her for Rs. 5 a month? Rs. 10 is awfully expensive. You understand don’t you?”

I was taken aback and didn’t have to try too hard not to understand. At the same time, as I faced the father, I knew that the daughter was sitting behind me listening to the conversation. A smart girl, whom any teacher (even one who was teaching for the first time) would love to teach. The girl, who had told me only an hour or two ago that she didn’t want me to give her the answer to a question I had not even asked, for she wished to try it out on her own. But her parents lacked the means to help her along.

I was caught for a while on the horns of a dilemma. I didn’t know how to answer the man. If I refused, the girl who had aroused the teacher’s interest in me on that very first meeting, would be dispirited. I didn’t wish to hurt her. At the same time, I wasn’t sure what ought to be the right course of action. So, I just smiled at the man sheepishly and left his premises in silence, probably giving him the impression that I had agreed.

I had little worldly experience at the time (or even now for that matter), and kept wondering back at home what the correct course of action might be. This was my first tryst with real world economics I suppose, though I hadn’t yet had any formal exposure to the subject. “Would it be wise to comply with the request?” I kept on asking myself. As I learnt soon after in college, the man was asking me to reduce the “supply price” of my tutoring service by no less than fifty per cent. If I did agree, what impression would I produce about the quality of the commodity I was selling?

Or, for that matter, about myself? If I lowered the price, I was either not sure of my ability as a teacher, or, worse, I was readying to enter a monastery. Both possibilities crossed through my mind needless to say, and neither was too appealing.

I took the easy way out after thinking over the matter. I never went back to teach the girl, nor did I send any information. I suppose I was too much of a coward to haggle over the price. Fortunately, they had no idea of my address and could not trace me back to my home. I did receive a message of course from the father, sent through the aforementioned intermediary, inquiring why I had not showed up a second time. I felt no desire to oblige the messenger with a reply.

I do not know how this little girl fared in her life. Did she rise high in a profession or was she simply married off as they often are? I shudder to think of her simply leading the life of a mother and then probably a grandmother and nothing else. I want to believe instead that she travelled high up, much higher than I ever did or could. And I wish that the innocent smile that I had once seen on her face has not metamorphosed into a hardened sneer with her “progress” in life.

Manoharpukur Road is a storehouse of memories. It flows like a river, a river full of recollections. Not all of them are pleasant alas. Rivers dry up, they produce floods.

But they also reflect back once in a while the full moon during springtime.

Like the smile on the little girl’s face. The girl whose name I shall, sadly enough, never be able to recall anymore.