Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee has written a fabulous introduction to The Rhythm of Riddles: Three Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries (Puffin, July 2012).
Byomkesh had been to Cuttack on official work, I had accompanied him too. After a few days, it became evident that this was not a few days’ job, it would take time to rummage through a mountain of deeds and documents to unearth the truth. Accordingly, Byomkesh stayed on in Cuttack, while I returned to Calcutta. How was a Bengali household expected to run without the presence of a man at home.
On my return to Calcutta, however, I had no work. I was feeling a little helpless in Byomkesh’s absence. Winter was setting in, the days were getting shorter; and yet the hours refused to pass. Occasionally I visited the shop, supervised Prabhat’s work, read new manuscripts if any. But still there was nothing to do for large parts of the day.
Then an opportunity to pass the evenings presented itself unexpectedly.
We lived in a three-storeyed building. We occupied five rooms on the top floor, while a dozen or so officegoers messed together on the first floor. On the ground-floor were the manager’s room, the pantry, the kitchen and the dining room, with just the one corner room being occupied by a solitary boarder. We were familiar with all of them, but not particularly intimate with any.
That evening, I had just switched on the light after darkness had fallen and opened a magazine when there was a knock on the door. Opening the door, I discovered a middle-aged gentleman standing outside, smiling deferentially. I had seen him once or twice on the first floor of our building, where he had taken up residence recently. He occupied the best corner room on the floor all by himself. He appeared to have refined tastes, being dressed in a warm Nehru jacket and a silk churidar, his hair more black than white. He was well turned out.
Greeting me, he said, ‘Excuse me, my name is Bhupesh Chatterjee, I live on the first floor.’
‘I’ve seen you a few times,’ I replied, ‘though I was not familiar with your name. Do come in.’
I gave him a seat in my room. ‘I came to Calcutta a month-and-a-half ago. I work for an insurance company, there’s no telling where I’ll be next. Tomorrow they might transfer me somewhere else altogether, for all you know.’
‘You work for an insurance company,’ I said with some unease. ‘But I have never taken out a policy, nor am I planning to.’
‘That’s not what I came for,’ he smiled. ‘It’s true that I work at the insurance office, but I’m not an agent. I came because…’ after an awkward pause, he said, ‘I’m addicted to bridge. I haven’t had a game ever since I came here, I’m dying for one. After much effort I’ve managed to find two more players. They live in Room No. 3 on the first floor. But we haven’t been able to find a fourth. We tried cutthroat bridge for a few days, but it isn’t the real thing. I thought I’d find out today whether Ajit-babu is interested.’
I was indeed interested in bridge once upon a time. Not merely interested, obsessed. Since I had not played for a long time, the obsession had died. Still, I felt that playing bridge was preferable to passing my companionless evenings reading a dull magazine.
‘Very well, very well,’ I said. ‘I am long out of practice, of course, but still – why not.’
‘Then come with me,’ said Bhupesh-babu, springing to his feet, ‘I have made all the arrangements in my room. Why waste time.’
‘Please lead the way, I’ll follow as soon as I’ve had my cup of tea,’ I said.
‘Oh no, you can just as well have your tea in my room. Come along,’ he replied.
I was amused by his eagerness. I used to be just as enthusiastic once upon a time, the evenings seemed wasted without a game of bridge.
I got off my chair. Informing Satyabati, I accompanied Bhupesh-babu downstairs.
The first room when you went down the stairs to the first floor was Bhupesh-babu’s. Pausing near his door, he called out loudly, ‘Come along, Ram-babu, Banamali-babu. I’ve got hold of Ajit-babu.’
Two heads popped out of Room No. 3, which was situated halfway down the corridor, then disappeared with the word, ‘Coming.’ Bhupesh-babu took me into his room and switched on the light.
It was a commodious room. There were two barred windows on the wall looking out on the road. On one side of the room was the bed, covered with a bedspread, on the other was a cupboard, on top of which reposed a shining portable stove and everything you needed to make a cup of tea. Four chairs were arranged around a low table in the middle of the room, it was clearly a card-table. Besides these, the other small items of furniture, including a dressing-table and a chest of drawers, all indicated good taste. Bhupesh-babu’s tastes ran to Western styles.
Settling me in a chair, he said, ‘Let me put the kettle on, the tea will be ready in a few minutes.’ Lighting the stove, he put the kettle on. Meanwhile, Ram-babu and Banamali-babu had arrived.
Despite our prior acquaintance, Bhupesh-babu introduced all of us once more. ‘This is Ramchandra Roy, and this is Banamali Chanda. They live in the same room and work at the same bank.’
I observed other similarities too; I had not noticed them earlier, possibly because I had not seen them together. Both were aged between forty-five, both were plump and of medium height, their features were cut in the same mould; a thick nose, invisible eyebrows, a square chin. The resemblance was obviously genetic. I was tempted to surprise them. After all, I was a friend of Byomkesh’s.
‘Are you cousins?’ I asked.
They looked at me in surprise. ‘No,’ answered Ram-babu a little brusquely. ‘I’m a vaidya, Banamali is a kayastha.’
I was taken aback. Just as I was trying to stammer out an explanation, Bhupesh-babu arrived with a plate of snacks to rescue me. Then the tea arrived. Finishing our tea quickly, we got down to the game. The subject of their being cousins was forgotten.
As we played I discovered I had not forgotten the art of bridge even after all these years; my playing and calling expertise were both intact. The stakes were low, the most one could win or lose at the end of the rubber was four annas. But playing was no fun without stakes.
Ram-babu and I were partners in the first rubber. Ram-babu lit a thick cigar, Bhupesh-babu and I lit our cigarettes, Banamali-babu was content with slices of clove and betelnut.
Then we began to play. After every rubber, the cards were shuffled and the pairs, changed. All three of them were good players; there wasn’t much conversation, everyone was immersed in the game. Only the ends of the cigar and the cigarettes glowed constantly. Bhupesh-babu rose at one point to open the window and resumed his seat in silence.
When we finished our game it was past nine, the servant had already reminded everyone of dinner twice. When we totted up, I turned to have won two annas. Pocketing my winnings, I rose to my feet joyfully. ‘We’ll play again tomorrow, won’t we?’ asked Bhupesh-babu with a smile.
‘We will,’ I said.
When I went back upstairs, Satyabati remonstrated with me. Nine-fifteen on a winter night was quite late. But, happy after a game of bridge after such a long time, I laughed away her scolding.
After this our games became a daily affair; the session began as soon as the evening lamp was lit, continuing until nine at night. After five or six days, I had formed an impression about each of them. Bhupesh-babu was kind-hearted, soft-spoken and hospitable, extremely fond of bridge. Ram-babu was grave, taciturn, not given to protesting against others’ mistakes while playing. Banamali-babu held Ram-babu in the greatest of regard, trying without success to emulate his gravity. Both were reticent; deeply addicted to bridge. Both had faint Eastern Bengali accents.
We had been happily playing bridge for six days, our sessions on the verge of becoming a permanent institution, when a ghastly incident on the floor below upset our regular gathering. Natabar Nashkar, the only inhabitant of the ground floor, was suddenly murdered. While it is true that we had no direct relationship with him, even when a ship sails along the middle of the river the waves do reach the banks.
At six-thirty that evening, I was on my way to our evening game, wrapped in a shawl. Because I was a little late, I ran down the stairs, my sandals flapping loudly. Just as I had reached the last step, a bang made me stop in my tracks. I could not identify the source of the sound. It could have been a car back-firing out on the street, but the sound was quite loud. No sound from the street could be as loud.
After a brief halt I continued on to Bhupesh-babu’s room. The lights were on, Bhupesh-babu was looking out through the window, holding the bars, while behind him Ram-babu and Banamali-babu were trying to peep through the same window. When I entered, Bhupesh-babu was saying excitedly, ‘There… there… he ran out of the lane just this minute, did you see him? He had a brown shawl on…’
‘What’s the matter?’ I said from the back.
Everyone turned towards me. ‘Did you hear the sound?’ asked Bhupesh-babu. ‘It came from the lane beneath this window here. I’d just opened the window when there was a bang down there. I looked out and saw a man running out of the lane.’
Our building was situated on the main road. A narrow, paved blind lane connected the road to our back-door; the servants took this route in and out of the house. I had a misgiving. ‘The room beneath this one is occupied. The sound didn’t come from that room, did it?’
‘No idea,’ said Bhupesh-babu. ‘Someone does live in the room beneath mine, but I don’t know his name.’
Ram-babu and Banamali-babu exchanged glances, after which Ram-babu cleared his throat and said, ‘The room downstairs is occupied by Natabar Nashkar.’
‘Let’s go and see,’ I said. ‘If he’s in he can tell us what the sound was.’
None of the three seemed keen, but I was Byomkesh the truth-seeker’s friend, how could I not investigate the source of the sound? ‘Let’s take a quick look before we start our game,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t have bothered if it had been an everyday sort of sound, but even if someone came through the lane to throw a cracker into Natabar-babu’s room we should find out, shouldn’t we.’
They accompanied me reluctantly.
There was a lock on the manager Shibkali-babu’s door, the pantry-door was shut too. The dining room was unlocked, for it held nothing but a few low stools. Only the door to Natabar-babu’s room was closed without being locked. It would not be incorrect to presume that he was in, therefore. ‘Natabar-babu!’ I called out.
There was no reply. When a relatively louder call did not elicit a response either, I pushed the door softly. The doors parted slightly.
The room was dark, nothing was visible; but there was a faint smell. The smell of gunpowder. We exchanged startled looks.
‘There must be a switch by the door,’ sad Bhupesh-babu. ‘Wait, let me turn on the light.’
Pushing me aside he peeped into the room, then reached in to grope for the switch. There was a click, the light came on.
The first thing we saw in the unforgiving overhead light was Natabar-babu’s corpse. Dressed in a white sweater and a dhuti, he lay on his back in the middle of the room, his limbs splayed out. A thick stream of blood had flowed out of the area near his chest. Natabar Nashkar had not been particularly handsome even when alive, he was of medium build with a protruding stomach, his bloated face deeply pockmarked. But death had made his appearance even more grotesque. I shall not describe that horror. You could tell from his expression how hideous an emotion the fear of death is.
Frozen into a statue for some time by the sight, Ram-babu emitted a sound like a hiccup from his throat. I saw him staring at the corpse with unbelieving eyes, as if in a trance. Suddenly sinking his nails into Ram-babu’s arms, Banamali-babu said, ‘He’s dead, dada!’ It wasn’t clear to me whether his expression was one of sorrow or wonder or joy.
‘There’s no doubt he’s dead,’ Bhupesh-babu said, his face pale. ‘He died of a gunshot. There. Can you see it on the window-sill?’
The window, which had no bars, was open, on its sill lay a pistol. The picture became clear; standing outside the window, the assailant had shot Natabar Nashkar, then left after depositing the pistol on the window-sill.
Hearing quick footsteps behind me, I turned. Shibkali Chakraborty, the manager of the boarding house, was approaching. He had an emaciated frame, he walked with undue haste, his eyes were unnecessarily distraught; when he spoke, he wasn’t satisfied unless he had repeated himself several times. ‘You here? Here? What’s the matter? What’s the matter?’ he said when he was near us.
‘See for yourself.’ We moved away from the door to give him a clear view. Shibkali-babu jumped out of his skin when he saw the blood-soaked corpse. ‘Oh my god, oh my god. Natabar Nashkar is dead. Blood, blood. How did he die?’
‘You can find out for yourself over there,’ I said, pointing at the window.
‘Oh god, a pistol, a pistol,’ Shibkali-babu babbled again in terror as soon as he saw the gun. ‘Natabar-babu has been murdered with a pistol. Who murdered him? When was he murdered?’
‘I have no idea who murdered him,’ I replied, ‘but I do know when he was murdered. About five minutes ago.’
I explained everything to him briefly. He stared at the corpse in distress.
I had not noticed earlier, but suddenly I realised that Shibkali-babu was dressed in a brown shawl. My heart leapt into my mouth. Controlling my palpitations, I said, ‘Weren’t you home? Did you go out?’
‘What? Yes I… was out on work,’ he replied in agitation. ‘But… but… what is the way out? What is to be done… what is to be done?’
‘The first thing to be done is to inform the police,’ I said.
‘True, true,’ responded Shibkali-babu. ‘That’s right, that’s right. But I do not have a telephone. You have a telephone, Ajit-babu, if you could…’
‘I shall telephone the police immediately,’ I said. ‘But none of you must enter the room, wait here till the police arrive.’
I dashed upstairs. As I was about to enter my room I saw my own reflection in the mirror. I had wrapped myself in a brown shawl too.
We were acquainted with Pranab Guha, the police-inspector in our locality at that time. A competent, middle-aged man, he was not, however, favourably inclined towards Byomkesh. While he did not express his amiability in any manner of harshness of speech or rudeness, he spoke to Byomkesh with excessive obsequiousness, chuckling softly at the end. Possibly their natures were mutually abhorrent; besides, Pranab-babu did not care for the coarse touch of an unofficial hand in official matters.
Having listened to my account on the telephone, he said sarcastically, ‘Really! The biter has been bit, it appears. But when you have Byomkesh-babu there, why do you need me. Let him conduct the investigation.’
‘Byomkesh is not in Calcutta,’ I said testily. ‘Had he been here, he certainly would have been the one investigating the case.’
‘Oh all right, I’ll come round then,’ said Inspector Pranab. He put the phone down with a chuckle. I went back downstairs.
Pranab-babu arrived with his entourage half-an-hour later. He chuckled when he caught sight of me, then inspected the corpse gravely. Lifting the pistol gingerly from the window-sill, he wrapped it in his handkerchief and put it in his pocket. Eventually, having despatched the corpse, he occupied the only chair in the room and proceeded to interrogate all the inmates of the house.
I told him whatever I knew. I am summarising the statements of the others –
Shibkali-babu, the manager, was sworn to a vow of celibacy, a bachelor, in other words. He had been running the boarding house for the past twenty-five years, the boarding house was his wife, his child, his family… Natabar Nashkar had taken up residence in this ground-floor room three years earlier, and had occupied it ever since. He was approximately fifty years of age, and not given to consorting with the others. Once in a while, Ram-babu and Banamali-babu used to visit him in his room. Shibkali-babu bore no ill-will towards Natabar Nashkar, for Natabar paid his dues promptly on the first of every month… Shibkali-babu had learnt that afternoon of potatoes being sold cheap at a particular godown, so he had gone to the godown to purchase potatoes. But the potatoes had been sold out already, he had returned empty-handed.
Bhupesh-babu worked at the insurance office, he had been transferred to Calcutta a month-and-half earlier. He was about forty-five, a widower, with no children. He had no home to speak of, he had travelled all over the country in course of work. Bhupesh-babu gave an accurate account of how he had gathered a group of people to play bridge, and of that evening’s incidents, he mentioned the man in the brown shawl too. He had not seen the man’s face clearly, from the back you cannot see the face of a man who is running away; he was unlikely to recognize the man were he to see him again.
The statements given by Ramchandra Roy and Banamali Chanda were similar. I observed that although Ram-babu remained composed throughout the questioning, Banamali-babu appared somewhat perturbed. They used to live in Dhaka earlier, working in the same British firm. Their wives, children and family had all been killed in the riots at the time of the Partition, they had somehow managed to escape with their lives. Ram-babu was forty-eight years old, Banamali-babu, forty-five. They had lived in this boarding house after crossing over, and worked in a bank. Three years had passed this way.
They were fond of playing bridge, but had not had an opportunity to play since moving to Calcutta. Bhupesh-babu had made arrangements for bridge in his room a few days earlier, the evenings had been passing pleasantly since then. That evening, within five minutes of their entering Bhupesh-babu’s room that evening, there was the sound of an explosion in the lane outside… They had been acquainted with Natabar-babu in Dhaka, it had been a slight acquaintance, without any particular intimacy. Natabar-babu had worked as an agent for various enterprises in Dhaka. They used to meet on occasion here by virtue of living in the same boarding house; Ram-babu and Banamali-babu would drop in for a chat. They did not know whether Natabar-babu had any other friends… They had seen the man in the brown shawl for a split second in the dim light of dusk at the head of the lane, they would not be able to recognize him again.
The remaining inmates of the boarding house were unable to reveal anything. A game of pasha had been in progress in a room at the other end of the first floor, four players and another four spectators had been present there; they had not heard the gunshot. No one else in the boarding house had anything more than a nodding acquaintance with Natabar-babu.
Only the servant Haripada said something that could be either irrelevant or significant. At six in the evening, Suren-babu from the first floor had sent Haripada to the restaurant on the main road to buy some snacks. On his way back through the back-lane, Haripada had heard someone in Natabar-babu’s room, and a conversation at low volume. He had been unable to see who was inside because the door had been shut; nor had he recognized the voice. Haripada had noticed this specifically because Natabar-babu did not usually have many visitors. He could not specify the time, but Suren-babu said clearly that he had asked Haripada to get the snacks at six in the evening.
In other words, Natabar-babu had had a visitor in his room half an hour before he died. It wasn’t anyone in the boarding house, for no one admitted visiting him. Therefore it had been an outsider. Perhaps it had been the man in the brown shawl. Or some other person altogether; Haripada’s statement proved nothing.
After he had taken everyone’s statement, Inspector Pranab said, ‘All of you may leave now, we will search the room. And yes, this is for Ajit-babu and Shibkali-babu, do not attempt to leave Calcutta without my permission until this murder mystery is solved.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked in surprise.
‘I mean that both you and Shibkali-babu are wrapped in brown shawls,’ answered Inspector Pranab. ‘Heh heh. You may leave now.’
He slammed the door on our faces. We returned to our respective holes. The game of cards was forgotten.
The following day passed in inactive tedium. There wasn’t a peep out of the police. Inspector Pranab had left the previous evening with some documents after searching Natabar-babu’s room and locking the door. The man was hostile towards us, but he expressed his hostility so courteously that you could say nothing. He knew I had a watertight alibi, but had still used a flimsy pretext to issue instructions forbidding me to leave Calcutta. Since I was a friend of Byomkesh’s, harassing me was his only motive.
In the morning the gentlemen all left for their respective offices. No one seemed the slightest bit perturbed. There was no regret amongst any of them that the person named Natabar Nashkar who had lived in the boarding house for three years had been killed by a gunshot. ‘If thou be born, die thou must’ – everyone appeared to harbour a philosophical attitude.
In the evening I went to Bhupesh-babu’s room. Ram-babu and Banamali-babu had turned up as well. All of us seemed to be lacking in spirit. No one suggested a rubber. Our session broke up after miserably discussing Natabar Nashkar’s death and criticising the incompetence of the police over a cup of tea.
As I climbed the stairs, a thought occurred to me. No matter how efficient Inspector Pranab was, he would not be able to solve the mystery of Natabar-babu’s death. Byomkesh wasn’t here; the evening sessions were flagging, it would not be a bad idea to write an account of the entire affair instead of sitting by idly. I would have something to do, and maybe Byomkesh would be able to get to the bottom of the matter if he could read my account when he returned.
I began writing that very night. Starting at the beginning, I wrote down every last detail from my perspective in a way that would give Byomkesh no opportunity for finding fault. I finished writing the next afternoon.
I may have finished writing, but the story was not finished. Who knew when and where the story of Natabar-babu’s murder would end. Maybe the murderer’s identity would never be known. Feeling somewhat dissatisfied, I had barely lit a cigarette when Byomkesh entered slowly, holding his suitcase.
‘Byomkesh! You’re back!’ I jumped to my feet. ‘So your work’s done?’
‘The work’s not even begun,’ Byomkesh said. ‘Two government departments are at loggerheads with each other. Each wants to be the first to lay down its life for the cause. I decided to leave when I saw all this. I’ll go back when they’ve finished battling each other.’
Hearing Byomkesh’s voice, Satyabati came running, wiping her hand on the end of her saree. They were not newlyweds any more, but even now a joyful light appeared in Satyabati’s eyes if Byomkesh appeared unexpectedly.
When the couple’s reunion was over I brought up the subject of Natabar’s murder and gave Byomkesh what I had written for him to read.
He returned it to me at six in the evening, saying, ‘Inspector Pranab has confined you to the city. What the fellow must think of us! We shall meet him tomorrow. Let’s go and meet Bhupesh-babu now.’
I realised the case had interested Byomkesh. ‘Let’s go,’ I said, pleased. ‘We may run into Ram-babu and Banamali-babu too.’
I took Byomkesh to Bhupesh-babu’s room on the first floor. My assumption had not been incorrect, Ram-babu and Banamali-babu were indeed there. Byomkesh did not have to be introduced to anyone, for everyone knew who he was. Bhupesh-babu welcomed him warmly, and put the kettle on for tea. Ram-babu’s gravity remained intact, but a nervous wariness was occasionally evident in Banamali’s eyes.
Taking a seat, Byomkesh said, ‘I was once addicted to bridge. Then Ajit taught me chess. But now I no longer enjoy playing.’
Turning to look at him as he was putting the tea-leaves into the boiling water in the kettle, Bhupesh-babu said, ‘Now for only the sport unto death with my life.’
I was startled to hear Bhupesh-babu quote Rabindranath Tagore. He not only worked at the insurance office but also read poetry!
‘Right you are,’ responded Byomkesh quietly. ‘Playing against death all my life has ensured that I can no longer train my mind on lighthearted games.’
‘It’s different for you,’ answered Bhupesh-babu. ‘I deal in death too, what else is insurance but the business of death. But I still enjoy bridge.’
Byomkesh may have been talking to Bhupesh-babu, but his eyes kept drifting towards Ram-babu and Banamali-babu. They sat in silence, unfamiliar with such light but refined conversation.
Bhupesh-babu brought the cups of tea and a plate of cream-crackers. ‘Yours is a different kind of personality too. Bridge is a game for the intelligent, those who are intelligent are naturally attracted to this game. Some people sit down to play for a respite from the agony of living. Many years ago I knew someone who used to play bridge to forget the agony of his son’s death.’
Three pairs of eyes turned mechanically towards Byomkesh. No one spoke, all of them could only stare in surprise. A heavy silence descended on the room.
We finished our cups of tea without a word. Then Byomkesh broke the silence and said in matter-of-factly, ‘I’d been to Cuttack, I only just go back. Ajit informed me of Natabar Nashkar’s death as soon as I arrived. I was not acquainted with Natabar-babu, but the news of his death made me curious. You don’t often have a murder on your own doorstep. So I thought of making your acquaintance.’
‘How fortunate that the murder took place,’ said Bhupesh-babu, ‘or else you’d never have graced my room. But I know nothing about Natabar Nashkar, I had never even set eyes on him when he was alive. Ram-babu and Banamali-babu knew him a little.’
Byomkesh looked at Ram-babu. A shadow of fear seemed to fall over this gravity. He fidgeted, cleared his throat as though about to say something, then shut his mouth. Thereupon Byomkesh turned his glance towards Banamali-babu, saying, ‘I’m sure you know what kind of man Natabar-babu was.’
Startled, Banamali-babu stammered, ‘Uh… ar… he wasn’t a bad sort… quite a decent sort, in fact… but…’
Ram-babu finally regained his power of speech, cutting in on Banamali-babu’s incomplete sentence. ‘Look, we were by no means friends of Natabar-babu’s. But when we lived in Dhaka, he lived next door to us, so we were acquainted. We know nothing about his character.’
‘How long ago did you live in Dhaka?’ asked Byomkesh.
‘Five or six years ago,’ answered Ram-babu, gulping. ‘Then the Partition riots began, and we came away to West Bengal.’
‘So you worked in the same firm in Dhaka?’ Byomkesh asked Banamali-babu.
‘Yes we did,’ he answered. ‘You must have heard of Godfrey-Brown, it’s a large British firm, that was where…’
Before he could finish, Ram-babu suddenly rose from his chair. ‘You haven’t forgotten we have to call on Narayan-babu at seven, have you, Banamali?… We shall take our leave now.’
Ram-babu made a quick exit, with Banamali-babu in tow. Byomkesh turned to watch their act of retreat.
Bhupesh-babu smiled. ‘Your questions sound innocuous, Byomkesh-babu,’ he said, ‘but Ram-babu’s offended.’
‘I cannot understand why,’ answered Byomkesh innocently. ‘Do you have any idea?’
‘I have no idea,’ Bhupesh-babu shook his head. ‘I was in fact in Dhaka during the riots, but I didn’t know any of them at the time. I know nothing about their past either.’
‘You were in Dhaka too during the riots?’
‘Yes, I’d been transferred to Dhaka about a year before the riots, I returned after the Partition.’
There was silence for some time. Byomkesh lit a cigarette. Looking at him for a few minutes, ‘Is your story about the man who used to play bridge to forget the pain of losing his son true, Byomkesh-babu?’
‘Yes, it’s a true story,’ Byomkesh told him. ‘It happened a long time ago, when I was in college. Why do you ask?’
Bhupesh-babu did not answer, he rose and fetched a photograph from his drawer, handing it to Byomkesh. It was a photo of a boy of nine or ten; his face glowing with the brightness of a child. ‘My son,’ Bhupesh-babu mumbled.
‘Your son…’ Byomkesh said, raising his eyes from the photograph to look at Bhupesh-babu anxiously.
‘He’s dead,’ Bhupesh-babu shook his head. ‘He had gone to school the day the riots began in Dhaka, he never returned.’
Breaking the unbearable silence, Byomkesh asked half a question. ‘Your wife…’
‘She’s dead too,’ answered Bhupesh-babu. ‘her heart was weak, she couldn’t take her son’s death. I neither died, nor succeeded in forgetting. It’s been five or six years, I should have forgotten by now. I go to work, play cards, laugh and joke, but I cannot forget. Is there a medicine to wipe out memories of grief, Byomkesh-babu?’
‘Eternity is the only medicine,’ Byomkesh sighed.
by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay
(translated from the Bengali)
Chapter 2 of 2
‘Let us call on Swami Pranabananda,’ said Byomkesh over our morning tea the next day.
I was already under a pall of gloom after hearing of the tragedy of Bhupesh-babu’s life the previous night, the thought of an encounter with Inspector Pranav depressed me further. ‘Is a meeting with Pranabananda absolutely imperative?’ I enquired.
‘It is not if you do not wish to be free of police suspicion,’ answered Byomkesh.
Taking the stairs to the first floor at nine-thirty, we saw a lock on Bhupesh-babu’s door. He must have gone to office. Ram-babu and Banamali-babu were emerging from their room in full finery, they retreated on seeing us. Throwing me a sidelong glance, Byomkesh smiled.
Shibkali-babu was going over the account books in his office downstairs, when he saw Byomkesh he leapt to the door, asking with anguish in his eyes, ‘Byomkesh-babu! When did you return from Cuttack – what time? Have you heard about Natabar Nashkar! And now look, the police have involved me in the case – they’ve involved me.’
‘Not just you, they’ve involved Ajit too,’ said Byomkesh.
‘Yes of course, of course. Brown shawl. Ridiculous… ridiculous. You must save us.’
‘Let me try.’
Suddenly stopping on the road, Byomkesh said, ‘Come, let’s take a look at the lane.
He was referring to the lane that ran past our home, the one down which the man in the brown shawl had escaped after shooting Natabar-babu. It was so narrow that you couldn’t walk two abreast in it. We entered the lane in single file; Byomkesh advanced slowly, his eyes fixed on the paved surface. I didn’t know what he had in mind, but it was rather far-fetched to expect clues to the murder three days afterwards.
The window of Natabar-babu’s room was shut. Pausing in front of it, Byomkesh trained his probing eyes on the paved surface of the lane. The window was at a height of four feet from the ground, it would be easy to fire into the room if the window panes were open.
‘What’s that stain?’
Following the direction of Byomkesh’s finger, I observed a discoloured mark on the ground; star shaped, with a diameter of about three inches. The lane was swept from time to time, but despite the urgency of all the cleaning, the stain had not been obliterated. It appeared to be two or three days old.
‘What is that stain?’ I asked.
Without answering, Byomkesh suddenly lowered himself to the ground like a person doing push-up exercises and planted his nose on the stain. ‘What on earth are you doing!’ I asked in surprise. ‘Why are you rubbing your nose on the ground?’
‘I wasn’t rubbing my nose,’ said Byomkesh, back on his feet. ‘I was sniffing it.’
‘Sniffing it. How does it smell?’
‘You can sniff if too if you’d like to know.’
‘Then let’s go to the police-station.’
Leaving the lane behind us, we went off towards the police-station. I glanced at Byomkesh once or twice out of the corner of my eyes, but it wasn’t clear whether he had discovered anything after sniffing the road.
Inspector Pranab was lording it over the police-station. He was, on the whole, of pleasing appearance, medium build, and not too dark a complexion; the only flaw was that he was barely five feet three inches in height.
At the sight of Byomkesh walking in, his eyes first expressed surprise, followed by feigned humility. ‘Byomkesh-babu!’ he exclaimed. ‘How fortunate I am be in your august company first thing in the morning. Heh heh.’
‘I am no less fortunate,’ countered Byomkesh. ‘The scriptures clearly state the outcome of seeing a dwarf in the morning – you are freed from the cycle of rebirth.’
Inspector Pranab was taken aback. Byomkesh had always ignored his jibes, but that day he was in a different frame of mind. Unprepared for a riposte, Pranab-babu said glumly, ‘I admit my appearance does not resemble a lamp-post.’
‘You have no choice but to admit it,’ Byomkesh smiled. ‘Lamp-posts have lights on their heads; that’s where they’re different from you.’
Pranab-babu’s face fell, with a forced laugh he said, ‘I can’t help it, not everyone has a gas-light in their head, after all. Is there anything you need?’
‘Of course there is,’ said Byomkesh. ‘First, I have marched Ajit to the police-station to prove to you that he is not absconding. You may rest assured that he is under my surveillance, he will not be able to escape under my nose.’
Pranab-babu attempted a disarming laugh. ‘I do not know what the Commissioner will say if he learns that you have restrained Ajit from leaving the city,’ Byomkesh continued without mercy, ‘but I would certainly like to know. We have courts of law in his country, even police officers can be punished for unnecessarily interfering with individual freedom. Never mind, all that can come later. My second questions is whether you have been able to gather any information concerning Natabar Nashkar’s death.’
Pranab-babu debated whether to answer this question rudely. But realising that it would not be wise to antagonise Byomkesh in his current frame of mind, he answered calmly, ‘Do you have any idea of the population of Calcutta, Byomkesh-babu?’
‘I’ve never counted,’ answered Byomkesh contemptuously. ‘Probably five million or so.’
‘Let’s say it is five million,’ said Byomkesh. ‘Is it a simple task to apprehend an individual in a brown shawl from these teeming millions? Can you do it?’
‘I might be able to if I have all the information.’
‘Although it is against our rules to share information with outsiders, I can tell you all I know.’
‘Very well, do. Has Natabar Nashkar’s family been located?’
‘No. We had advertised in the papers, but no one has come forward.’
‘What did the post-mortem reveal?’
‘The bullet penetrated the ribs to enter the heart. The bullet was matched with the gun, it was the same pistol.’
‘He was quite healthy, but on the verge of developing cataract in his eyes.’
‘Who’s the owner of the pistol?’
‘It’s an American army pistol, available on the black market. There’s no way of knowing the owner’s name.’
‘Did you find anything when you searched the room?’
‘All the relevant things we found are there on that table. A diary, about five rupees in cash, a bank pass-book, and a true copy of a court judgement. You can take a look if you like.’
There was a table in the corner of the room, Byomkesh went up to it, I did not. Inspector Pranab was not a decent sort, an unpleasant situation would arise if he objected. From my chair, I saw Byomkesh examine the bank pass-book, leaf through the diary, and read the court document with the judicial stamp carefully. ‘I’ve seen all I had to,’ he said on his return.
By then, the devil in Inspector Pranab had awoken again, peering at Byomkesh, he said, ‘You saw exactly what I did. Have you got to know the name and address of the culprit?’
‘Yes, I have,’ Byomkesh told him.
‘Really!’ exclaimed Pranab-babu, his eyebrows shooting skywards. ‘So soon! You’re incredibly clever! Would you be so good as to reveal the culprit’s name, so that I may arrest him?’
‘I shall not reveal the culprit’s name to you, Pranab-babu,’ Byomkesh said, tightening his jaw. ‘That is my own discovery. You are paid a salary for your work, you will have to find out on your own. But I can offer you a little help. Search the lane running beside the building.’
‘Has the culprit left his footprint in there! Heh heh.’
‘No he has left a mark even more incriminating… One more thing. I shall be taking Ajit to Cuttack with me in a few days. Stop him if you dare… Come, Ajit.’
‘Have you really identified the culprit,’ I asked in excitement when we left the police-station.
‘I had identified him even before we came to the police-station,’ Byomkesh nodded, ‘but Inspector Pranab is a good-for-nothing. He’s not stupid, but his intelligence is destructive. He will never be able to get to the bottom of Natabar’s murder mystery.’
‘Who murdered Natabar Nashkar? Was it someone we know?’ I asked.
‘I shall tell you later. For now, let me tell you that Natabar Nashkar was a blackmailer by profession. You’d better go back home, I’m going to the city. Godfrey-Brown has a huge office in Calcutta too, I might get some information there. It may be some time before I’m back.’ He left with a wave.
I returned home alone. It was 1.30 by the time Byomkesh came back.
‘You have to do something for me,’ he said after his bath and lunch. ‘You have to invite Ram-babu, Banamali-babu and Bhupesh-babu to tea. We’ll gather here in this room this evening.’
‘Very well. But what’s going on? Why did you go to the Godfrey-Brown office?’
‘There was a court judgement among Natabar Nashkar’s effects at the police-station. When I read it I discovered that two brothers named Rashbehari Biswas and Banabehari Biswas were the treasurer and assistant-treasurer, respectively, at the Dhaka office of Godfrey-Brown. They were caught embezzling funds seven years ago. They were taken to court, Banabehari was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, and Rashbehari, to three. Natabar Nashkar had got hold of this judgement. Then his diary revealed that he used to get eighty rupees every month from Rashbehari and Banabehari Biswas. I went to Godfrey-Brown to verify the embezzlement. It’s true. I had no more doubts that Natabar was blackmailing them.’
‘But… Rashebehari, Banabehari… who are they? Where will you find them?’
‘They aren’t far away, you only have to go as far as Room No. 3.’
‘What! Ram-babu and Banamali-babu!’
‘Yes. You came close. They aren’t cousins, they’re brothers. To honour the idiom, you could say they’re not just brothers-in-arms but also thick as thieves.’
‘But… but… they could not have murdered Natabar. When Natabar was killed they were…’
‘Patience,’ said Byomkesh, raising his hand. ‘You will hear the whole story at tea.’
A variety of snacks from the Marwari store and tea had been prepared to entertain the guests. Bhupesh-babu was the first to arrive. Dressed in a dhuti and panjabi, he had a folded grey shawl over his shoulder and an eager smile on his face. ‘Have you made arrangements for bridge too?’ he asked.
‘We can make arrangements if everyone wants to play,’ Byomkesh replied.
Ram-babu and Banamali-babu arrived a little later, their coats buttoned up to their necks, their eyes wary. ‘Welcome, welcome,’ said Byomkesh.
Byomkesh led a witty conversation over the tea and snacks. I observed after some time that Ram-babu and Banamali-babu had shed their stiffness. Feeling quite at ease, they were participating in the conversation.
After twenty minutes or so, when the snacks were exhausted, Ram-babu lit a cigar; offering Bhupesh-babu a cigarette, Byomkesh then held the tin out to Banamali-babu. ‘One for you, Banabehari-babu?’ he said.
‘I don’t smoke…’ responded Banamali-babu, then turned pale. ‘Er… my name…’
‘I know your real names, and that you’re brothers – Rashbehari and Banabehari Biswas.’ Byomkesh sat down in his chair. ‘Natabar Nashkar was blackmailing you. You were paying him eighty rupees a month…’
Rashbehari and Banabehari had turned to blocks of wood. Lighting his own cigarette, Byomkesh spoke as he blew the smoke out, ‘Natabar Nashkar was a devil. When he was in Dhaka, he used to work as an agent as far as everyone was concerned, and as a blackmailer whenever he had the opportunity. When the two of you went to jail, he procured a copy of the court judgement, keeping future possibilities in mind. His plan was to wait till you had got jobs again after your release and then start sucking your blood.
‘Then the Partition took place. Natabar could no longer continue his business in Dhaka, he escaped to Calcutta. But he did not know too many people here, there was no opportunity to pursue either his legal or his illegal profession, no one suitable for blackmailing. His business reached a low ebb. He took a room in this boarding house, surviving on whatever little money he had managed to bring.
‘While he was staying here, he suddenly saw the two of you one day and recognized you. You lived in the same boarding house. On making enquiries, he discovered that you were working at a bank under false identities. Natabar Nashkar found a channel for earning. God seemed to have trussed up the two of you and delivered you to him.
‘Pay up, or else I will reveal your real identities to the bank, Natabar told you. Helpless, you began paying him every month. Not a large sum, admittedly, only eighty rupees. But not bad for Natabar – at least it paid for his accommodation and food.
‘So it went on. The two of you had no peace, nor could you escape Natabar’s clutches. Your only hope lay in his death.’
Byomkesh paused. Breaking the breathless silence, Banabehari burst out, ‘I beg of you Byomkesh-babu, we didn’t kill Natabar Nashkar. We were in Bhupesh-babu’s room when he was killed.’
‘That’s true.’ Leaning back in his chair, Byomkesh blew smoke at the ceiling, saying carelessly, ‘I don’t care who killed Natabar. Only the police do. But the two of you work at a bank. If there is ever a discrepancy in the accounts I’ll be forced to reveal your true identities.’
‘There will be no discrepancy in the bank’s accounts,’ Ram-babu aka Rashbehari-babu finally spoke. ‘We will not repeat our mistake.’
‘Excellent. Ajit and I shall remain silent in that case.’ Byomkesh looked at Bhupesh-babu. ‘What about you?’
A strange smile flitted across Bhupesh-babu’s face. ‘I shall remain silent too,’ he said softly. ‘Not a word shall escape my lips.’
The room was silent for some time after this. Then Ram-babu rose, speaking with his palms joined together, ‘We shall never forget your generosity. May we leave now? I am not feeling very well.’
‘You may.’ Byomkesh saw them to the door, then came back after shutting it.
I saw Bhupesh-babu smiling at Byomkesh. Byomkesh returned his smile. ‘I did not know there was an illicit connection between Natabar Nashkar and Ram-babu and Banamali-babu. That is a coincidence. You have probably understood everything, have you not?’
‘Not everything, but the sum of it,’ Byomkesh sighed deeply.
‘Why don’t you tell the story? If I have anything to add I shall do so afterwards.’
Giving Bhupesh-babu a cigarette and lighting one for himself, Byomkesh looked at me and began to speak, slowly. ‘You wrote an account of Natabar’s death. When I read it, I was struck by a doubt. The sound of a pistol being fired is never so loud. This seemed to be the sound of a shotgun, or a bomb bursting. Yet Natabar had been killed by a pistol shot.
‘You had noticed the similarity in appearance between Ram-babu and Banamali-babu. When I spoke to them, they appeared to be concealing something. Since they used to frequent Natabar’s room, I became curious about them.
‘But they were in Bhupesh-babu’s room on the first floor when the gunshot was heard. The atmosphere in the room was peaceful, normal. He was in his own room, at 6.25 Rashbehari and Banabehari came for the game of bridge. But the game could not begin till Ajit had arrived. A couple of minutes later Ajit’s sandals were heard flapping on the stairs. Bhupesh-babu rose and opened the window looking out on the lane. At once there was an explosion in the lane. Rashbehari and Banabehari went up to the window. “There… there… he ran out of the lane just this minute, did you see him? He had a brown shawl on…” Bhupesh-babu exclaimed.
‘There were several people walking past the lane on the main road, Rashbehari and Banabehari assumed one of them had just run out of the lane. They were left in no doubt that Bhupesh-babu was right. It is possible to induce such mistakes if you want to.
‘Later the pistol was found on the window-sill of Natabar’s room. Naturally the question arises, why had the assailant left the pistol behind? There was no justifiable reason. I suspected that there was serious deception at work behind this apparently simple occurrence.
‘Haripada, the servant, had heard someone in Natabar’s room at 6 in the evening. What if that person had killed Natabar? And had then pushed back the supposed time of the killing on order to create an alibi for himself? A difference of 15 minutes in the time of death cannot be detected by a post-mortem.
‘I was convinced that the murderer was not an outsider, but someone who lived in the boarding house. But who was it? Was it Shibkali-babu? Rashebhari and Banabehari? Or someone else? I didn’t know who had a motive, but only Shibkali-babu had the opportunity. Everyone else had a watertight alibi.
‘My mind was fogged, I couldn’t see anything clearly. I had noticed that Natabar’s room was directly beneath Bhupesh-babu’s, and Natabar-babu’s window looking out on the lane was directly beneath Bhupesh-babu’s window. But the thought of a cracker hadn’t even occurred to me then. Yes, a cracker. The kind that explodes when hurled, or when it is dropped from a height on a hard surface.
‘I was on my way to the police-station this morning in the hope of some fresh information. As I was leaving, I thought of checking for clues in the lane near Natabar’s window.
‘I did find a clue. The discoloured stain left behind by a cracker which burst on the paved surface of the loan directly beneath Natabar’s window. When I sniffed it I discovered a faint tang of gunpowder. I didn’t have any more doubts. An excellent alibi had been created. Who had created the alibi? It couldn’t have been anyone except Bhupesh-babu. Because he was the one who had opened the window. Rashbehari and Banabehari had gone up to the window after hearing the bang.
‘Bhupesh-babu went downstairs quietly at 6 that evening under cover of darkness. The pistol had already been procured, he entered Natabar’s room, introduced himself and shot him. Opening the window looking out on the lane, he placed the pistol on the window-sill and returned to his room. Fortunately no one saw him on his journey to and from Natabar’s room. But in case they had, he needed an alibi. Returning to his room, he waited. Rashbehari and Banabehari arrived in ten minutes for their game of bridge. But Ajit had not arrived yet, so the three of them waited for him.
‘Then Bhupesh-babu heard Ajit’s sandals flapping on the staircase. He was prepared, holding a marble-sized cracker in his clenched hand. On the pretext of stuffiness in the room, he opened the window looking out on the lane and dropped the cracker. There was a bang downstairs. Rashbehari and Banabehari ran to the window; Bhupesh-babu showed them the imaginary murderer in the brown shawl.
‘Bhupesh-babu did not have to do anything more; the corpse was discovered in due course. The police came, took the corpse away. Curtain.’
Byomkesh stopped. Bhupesh-babu had been listening without a word, without stirring, he remained the same way. ‘Any mistakes?’ Byomkesh asked him, arching his eyebrows.
Bhupesh-babu stirred now, shaking his head with a smile. ‘No mistakes whatsoever. I was the one who made the mistake. I didn’t imagine you’d be back so soon, Byomkesh-babu. I had expected Natabar’s case to have died down by the time you returned.’
‘Two questions remain unanswered,’ Byomkesh smiled. ‘First, what was your motive? Second, how did you muffle the sound of the pistol being fired? Even if you fire a pistol in a closed room, the sound is likely to be heard outside. Did you take no care to prevent this?’
‘I shall answer the second question first.’ Removing the shawl folded over his shoulder, he unfolded it and held it out before us with both his hands; we saw a small hole in the new shawl. ‘I was wrapped in this shawl when I went to Natabar’s room, hiding the pistol under it. I shot Natabar without taking the pistol out of my shawl, the sound was muffled by it, no one heard.’
Byomkesh nodded slowly. ‘And the answer to my first question?’ he said. ‘I can guess some of it; you had shown us your son’s photograph yesterday. Still, I want to hear it from you.’
A pulse began to beat in Bhupesh-babu’s forehead, but he spoke with restraint. ‘I had shown you my son’s photograph because I realised you would discover the truth. So I was justifying myself in advance. Natabar tricked my son into accompanying him from school on the day the riots broke out in Dhaka. That evening he came to my house to tell me he would return my son for a ransom of ten thousand rupees. I did not have ten thousand in cash, I gave him whatever I had, my wife took off all her jewellery and handed it to him. Natabar left with all of it, but we did not get our son back. We did not see Natabar either. Several years had passed since then, I came to Calcutta after losing my wife and son, one day I suddenly spotted Natabar on the road. And then…’
‘I see,’ said Byomkesh. ‘There’s no need to say anything more, Bhupesh-babu.’
Bhupesh-babu remained immobile for a few moments. Then he said, ‘What do you wish to do with me?’
Byomkesh looked at the ceiling for a while. Then he said, ‘ “No one hangs for killing a crow,” the writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay had said. I believe no one should hang for killing a vulture either. You needn’t worry.’
By Saradindu Bandyopadhyay (translated from the Bengali)