Midnight: by Achintya Kumar Sengupta

I was posted at Kandi in Murshidabad district. The two-storied house we lived in was rather big for the two of us. Several of the rooms on both floors were empty. Going up the stairs, the east-facing room to the left was my study, while a long and wide veranda led to the bedroom at the west. A few chairs were strewn about the veranda, which looked out to the south.

It was a quiet and peaceful house, surrounded by trees on all sides. There was no electricity, only the dim flickering of lanterns.

As it happened, we had drifted into spiritualism. I didn’t go out anywhere after returning home from the courts in the evening. We planted ourselves around the table.

It wasn’t exactly planchette, it could be called table-turning – automatic writing. Normally my hand would protest after noting down a few pages of witnesses’ testimonies, but now there wasn’t the slightest sign of fatigue even after covering reams. There are probably some forms of writing that are even beyond the unconscious. Which was why.

The table was the biggest source of surprise. It was a small four-legged table, meant for a typewriter. It was quite heavy, but when it shot out from under our hands, zigzagging across the floor on its own to slam into the wall, it didn’t appear to be propelled by only our willpower.

So many people came. In the form of words written down, that is. I’m so-and-so, I’m so-and-so. Unfamiliar names outnumbered the familiar ones. I’m Renu, I’m Chuni, I’m Taraprasanna. I’m Bibhuti Ghosh from Maheshwarpasha, Niranjan Banerjee from Malda, your classmate Mohammad Suleiman from Noakhali District School.

Nothing could be proved. We had written letters to many of the places mentioned, but nothing matched. Not the names, not the addresses, not the descriptions. All foggy.

But still, I had no idea why, we got down to it again. Sometimes it went on late into the night, sometimes even later. There did seem to be something. The signals were indeed whizzing across the ether, but I couldn’t capture them because I was nothing better than a wooden box. The moment I became a radio set, they would start playing.

Because I was recently incomplete, I was recently incapable.

In Dhaka Ganderia, Ramakrishna had been to see Bijoykrishna, who had run his hands over the visitor’s body to make sure it really was him. But in fact Ramakrishna had not been there at all. Only a worthy vessel could attract a worthy substance.

That evening, we seemed to hear a different voice.

As soon as we arranged ourselves around the table, the writing became legible: ‘I’ve been waiting a long time.’

‘Who are you?’

A woman’s name. I recognised it, although she wasn’t a member of the family. There was no one who wouldn’t recognise it. An unmarried, brilliant singer. A veritable nightingale.

‘But how did you come to choose us?’

‘You played a song of mine on the gramophone in the evening, that’s what brought me here.’ The words continued: ‘It was wonderful to hear myself sing. If you’d play it once more.’

This didn’t prove anything either.

January 30, 1948.

That evening we were sitting around the table as usual in the bedroom. Our well-wishers among the family were present with their companions, as they were wont to. After disclosing their names, they wrote: ‘We can’t stay long today, let us go.’

This had never happened before. Astonished, I asked, ‘What’s the hurry?’

They wrote: ‘A great man was just arrived. Everyone’s off to see him, we want to go to. Let us go.’

We released them; the table calmed down.

At night a colleague came over to inform me, ‘They’re saying on the radio that Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead today.’

Had the hubbub been over this great soul, then?

Did that prove anything either?

A new message would appear in writing before the earlier one was completed – a number of spirits seemed to be jostling for attention.

‘I only just got here, listen to my story first…’

‘I’ve been waiting for hours…’

‘I don’t believe any of you is here,’ I snarled. ‘Can you do something to prove you are?’

‘We might be able to perform some small task.’

‘Can you pull some of the books off the shelf in my study and drop them on the floor?’

The window in the study slammed loudly.

A wind had probably sprung up. I hadn’t shut the window tightly enough. I hurried off with a torch, and found several books lying on the floor.

My heart began to thump. But I didn’t accept this as proof. ‘The wind did it,’ I said.

When I returned to the table the well-wishers among the spirits warned me, ‘Don’t you dare ask for such magic tricks. There are many spirits here from the lower levels. The recently dead tend to congregate at those levels. Many of them are liars and charlatans. They create confusion and cause harm. Don’t indulge them.’

‘But how will we find ethical spirits?’

The answer came through the words: ‘Only if you try after midnight. That’s when the great men deign to descend.’

‘What use is descent alone? The eyes want to see physical forms. What’s known as materialisation.’

Namita Chakraborty came immediately after this.

Just before going to Calcutta for the Easter holidays, we had a session. We didn’t know her, hadn’t heard of her, weren’t looking for her, but suddenly the words appeared: ‘I’m Namita Chakraborty.’

‘What was your occupation?’

‘I was a college student.’

‘Your address?’

She gave her address clearly. And wrote: ‘I died last Sunday. Please ask my mother not to cry so much. I feel miserable to see her cry. And tell her…’

Some other spirit seemed to displace Namita.

As luck would have it, the address was close to our house in Calcutta. I thought of making enquiries. Perhaps I’d discover that my ‘receiving’ had been inaccurate. That I had written ‘An idea today’ as ‘And I died today.’

I found the specified house on the specified street.

‘Does anyone named Namita Chakraborty live here?’ I asked the gentleman standing on the road near the front door.

‘She did. She died last Sunday.’

‘Died?’

Questions such as why or what do you want with her could not arise after this. I left slowly.

I should have met Namita’s mother. But that would have meant trouble. She would have wept even more.

‘You still need proof?’ I asked my wife. ‘Why should even a single address match?’

We were back in Kandi. The sky was awash with moonlight.

As usual I left my study at midnight, pausing at the door leading into the veranda, the lantern in my hand. I found one of the south-facing chair turned to the east, and a young woman in it. She was looking at the door with glittering eyes.

The young woman stood up as soon as she saw me. The east-facing chair promptly turned to face south again.

The woman was no longer visible.

I woke my wife up in the bedroom. ‘We need a session,’ I said.

We sat down. I passed the pencil to my wife.

‘I was here,’ the words appeared.

‘Who?’

‘Namita Chakraborty, who had come the other day.’

‘You say you were here. Aren’t you here now?’

‘I came in human form, but now…’

I looked around, but couldn’t see anything. The words spelt out: ‘Why didn’t you pass on my message to my mother? There are other things I need to tell you. You must start before midnight.’

‘I’ve been transferred to Asansol,’ I said. ‘Visit us there.’

‘Very well…’

Leaving a long stroke of the pencil on the rest of the page, Namita left.

Our next visit to Calcutta was delayed. I walked past Namita’s house two or three times. I wanted to take a look at a photograph. But I didn’t enter, just in case the photograph matched the figure I’d seen, just in case the proof became irrefutable. Far better to leave things mysterious, verging on doubt.

Namita’s mother must have overcome her grief by now.

And in any case, we’d be in Asansol soon.

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