Patol-Babu, Film Star: Satyajit Ray

[The story on which Dibakar Banerjee’s track, ‘Star’ in ‘Bombay Talkies’ is based]

Patol-babu had barely slung the shopping bag over his shoulder when Nishikanta-babu called from the street, ‘Are you there, Patol?’

‘Yes. Coming.’

Nishikanta Ghosh lived three houses down from Patol-babu on Nepal Bhattacharjee lane. A most entertaining man.

Emerging with his shopping bag, Patol-babu said, ‘What is it? You’re up early.’

‘Look, when will you be back?’

‘In an hour or so. Why?’

‘You’re not going out again, are you? It’s Tagore’s birthday, after all. I met my wife’s younger brother at Netaji Pharmacy yesterday. He works for the films – supplies actors. He told me he needs someone for a scene in a film. The sort of person he wants, you know – about fifty, short, bald – I thought of you at once. So I told him about you. I’ve asked him to talk to you directly. He said he’d be here around ten. You don’t mind, do you? They HAVE said they’ll pay, according to their rates…’

Patol-babu had certainly not expected such a proposal early in the morning. It was difficult for an insignificant man like him to anticipate an offer to act in a film at fifty-two. It was actually unbelievable.

‘Well, out with it. Yes or no? Didn’t you act or something once upon a time?’

‘Yes, that is to say, why should I say “no”? Let him come, let him give me the details. What did you say your brother-in-law’s name is?’

‘Naresh. Naresh Dutta. About thirty, tall, well-built. He said he’d come between ten and ten-thirty.’

At the market Patol-babu confused his wife’s instructions and bought chillies instead of mustard. As for the rock salt, he forgot entirely. Not that he should have been so surprised. Patol-babu had once been keenly interested in acting. It wasn’t merely an interest, it was in fact a passion. He routinely acted at jatra performances, amateur theatre shows, festivals, and local club celebrations. Patol-babu’s name had appeared on handbills many times. On one occasion it actually appeared at the bottom, singled out and highlighted in large letters – Appearing as Parashar, Shri Sitalakanta Roy (Patol-babu). There had even been a time when tickets were sold on his reputation alone.

However, he used to live in Kanchrapara at that time, with a job at the railway factory there. In 1934, Patol-babu moved to Calcutta with his wife when he got a slightly better-paying job at Hudson & Kimberley and a house on Nepal Bhattacharjee Lane. The first few years here had passed happily. Patol-babu’s boss at the office was quite fond of him. But, in 1943, when Patol-babu was on the verge of setting up a neigbourhood dramatic club, his war-hit company began to retrench employees, and his safe job of nine years vanished into thin air.

Since then, Patol-babu had spent all his days looking for ways to earn a living. He set up a stationery shop, but it didn’t survive beyond five years. Then he took a job as a clerk at a Bengali company for some time, but resigned, unable to tolerate the arrogance and unprovoked aggression of the Bengali Englishman Mr Mitter. In the ten years since then, starting with selling insurance, there was nothing that Patol-babu had not tried his hand at. But he had remained as hard-up as ever, living from hand to mouth as always. Of late he had been frequenting a scrap iron shop; a cousin of his had promised him a job there.

And acting? It seemed to belong to a different lifetime. A dim memory, a sigh that sprang up unexpectedly – that was all. It was just that Patol-babu had a fine memory, which enabled him to remember snatches of stirring dialogue from his roles. ‘Hark! The divine bow doth spring to life repeatedly, the allies march to battle. As the myriad roaring wind, the mace doth thunder mountain-like!’ Oh! The very thought still gave him goosepimples.

Naresh Dutta arrived precisely at twelve-thirty. Patol-babu had almost given up hope and was preparing to take a bath when there was a knock on the door.

‘Please come in!’ Opening the door, Patol-babu practically dragged the stranger into the room, offering him the chair with the broken arms and saying, ‘Please take a seat.’

‘Oh no, no time. Nishikanta-babu must have told you about me…’

‘Yes, yes he did. I was very surprised, though. After all these years…’

‘You don’t have any objection, do you?’

Patol-babu lowered his eyes to the floor in embarrassment.

‘But … er… will I do?’

Looking Patol-babu up and down gravely, Naresh-babu responded, ‘You’ll do very well indeed. It’s tomorrow, mind you.’

‘Tomorrow? Sunday?’

‘Yes… not at a studio, though. I’ll tell you where it is. You know Faraday House at the crossing of Mission Row and Bentinck Street, don’t you? A seven-storied building. Get there by eight – eight-thirty, latest. That’s where we’re shooting. I’ll let you go by noon.’

Naresh-babu made to leave. An anxious Patol-babu said, ‘But you haven’t told me about the role.’

‘Your role… is of a pedestrian’s. A passer-by, you see. An absent-minded, bad-tempered pedestrian… by the way, do you have a coat that buttons up all the way to the neck?’

‘I think so.’

‘Wear it. It’s a dark colour, I hope.’

‘Brownish. Warm, though.’

‘That’s fine. Our scene’s set in winter, it will fit in well… eight-thirty tomorrow, Faraday House.’

Another crucial question popped into Patol-babu’s head.

‘The role has some dialogue, I hope. I’ll have to say something, won’t I?’

‘You bet! A speaking part!… You’ve acted earlier, haven’t you?’

‘Um… yes, a little…’

‘There you are then! Why should I come to you if I just needed someone to walk past the camera? I could have just picked someone from the pavement. Of course there is dialogue and it’ll be given to you as soon as you arrive tomorrow. All right then…’

When Naresh Dutta had left, Patol-babu went to his wife and told her everything.

‘As far as I can see, this isn’t a major role; there’s a payment involved, yes, but that’s not the main thing either. The fact is – you remember my first role on the stage, don’t you? A dead soldier. I had to lie there with my mouth open and eyes closed. And the rest, as they say, is history. You remember Mr Watts shaking my hand? And the medal from our municipality chairman Charu Biswas? Well? This is just the first rung of the ladder, don’t you think? Respect, fame, renown, reputation – If I live, o my wife, I shall win them all…’

The fifty-two-year-old Patol-babu suddenly sprang in the air. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ said his wife.

‘Don’t worry! You remember how Sisir Bhaduri used to leap about while playing Chanakya at seventy? I’ve regained my youth today.’

‘If wishes were horses! No wonder you’re such a zero!’

‘I’ll be a hero soon! That reminds me – I’m going to have a cup of tea this afternoon, all right? With a little ginger juice, otherwise my voice…’

~

It was seven minutes past eight on the clock on the Metropolitan Building when Patol-babu reached Esplanade the next morning. It took him another ten minutes to reach Faraday House at the junction of Bentinck Street and Mission Row.

Elaborate arrangements were underway in front of the office gate. Three or four cars, one of them quite large – almost the size of a bus – with equipment piled on the roof. A three-legged black machine stood on the kerb; several people were bustling about. At the entrance a steel rod had been lain diagonally on a three-legged stand, with something resembling a beehive dangling from it. About thirty people were scattered about, among whom Patol-babu even noticed a few non-Bengalis, but he couldn’t quite make out what they were doing there.

But where was Naresh-babu? No one else knew Patol-babu.

Patol-babu advanced towards the gate, his heart thumping.

It was the month of May; the khaki coat buttoned up to the neck felt quite heavy. Patol-babu sensed beads of perspiration on his neck.

‘Here, Atul-babu… this way.’

Atul-babu? Patol-babu turned around to find Naresh-babu calling out to him from his position next to a pillar in the portico of the office. He had confused his name. Not surprising. They had only met once. Greeting him, Patol-babu said, ‘You may not have noted my name properly. Sitalakanta Roy. Though everyone knows me as Patol-babu. That’s what they called me on stage too.’

‘I see. You’re quite punctual, I notice.’

Patol-babu smiled.

‘Nine years sat Hudson-Kimberley – never been late a single day. Not one.’

‘Wonderful. I’ll tell you what – why don’t you wait there in the shade? We’ll get things going in the meantime.’

‘Naresh!’ someone next to the three-legged machine called out.

‘Sir?’

‘Is he one of our people?’

‘Yes sir. He’s the one… you know, the collision…’

‘I see. All right. Now clear the area, will you? We’re going for a shot.’

Patol-babu took up a position beneath the awning of a paan-shop next to the office. He had never watched a bioscope being shot. It was all new to him. There was no resemblance with the theatre. And how hard these people worked. A young man of twenty-one or twenty-two was carrying the heavy machine around from one spot to another. It must be at least twenty or twenty-five kilos.

But where was his dialogue? There wasn’t much time. Yet Patol-babu still didn’t know what he would have to say.

He suddenly felt a little nervous. Should he go up to them? There was Naresh-babu; shouldn’t he talk to him? Whether the role was minor or major, he would have to prepare if he wanted to play it well. What if he made a fool of himself in the presence of so many people by muffing his lines? He hadn’t acted in twenty years, after all.

About to move forward, Patol-babu stopped on hearing someone shout.

‘Silence!’

Then Naresh-babu was heard saying, ‘We’re taking a shot now. Please be quiet, everyone. Do not talk, do not move, do not approach the camera.’

Then the first voice was heard again, shouting, ‘Silence! Taking!’ Patol-babu could see him now. A plump man of average appearance standing next to the three-legged machine; something like a pair of binoculars hung from a chain around his neck. Was this the director? How odd, he hadn’t even found out the name of the director.

Patol-babu heard a few more cries in succession. ‘Start sound!’ ‘Running!’ ‘Action!’

As soon as the word ‘action’ was uttered, Patol-babu saw a car drive up and stop in front of the office, and a young man in a suit with pink-paint on his face practically tumbled out and strode up to the office gate before stopping. The next moment Patol-babu heard a cry, ‘Cut!’ and at once the silence was broken by a hubbub in the crowd.

‘Recognised the fellow?’ asked a man standing next to Patol-babu, leaning towards him.

‘I’m afraid not,’ said Patol-babu.

‘Chanchalkumar,’ replied his neighbour. ‘Rising star. Acting in four films at the same time.’

Patol-babu rarely went to the bioscope, but he thought he had heard of this Chanchalkumar a couple of times. It was this young man that Koti-babu had been praising the other day. His make-up was rather good. Replace that western suit with a dhoti and put him on a peacock – he’d make a perfect Kartik. Monotosh aka Chinu from Kanchrapara had similar looks; Chinu used to be terrific in female roles.

Leaning towards his neighbour again, Patol-babu asked in a whisper, ‘And what’s the director’s name?’

‘You don’t know?’ asked the man in surprise. ‘That’s Baren Mullick, of course – three hits in a row.’

Thank goodness. He had gathered all the necessary information. He would have been in trouble otherwise if his wife were to ask whom he had acted with and in whose film.

Naresh brought Patol-babu a cup of tea.

‘Here you are sir, this will clear your throat. We’ll call you any minute now.’

Patol-babu couldn’t help but come to the point.

‘If you could give me my dialogue now…’

‘Dialogue? Come with me.’

Naresh walked towards the three-legged machine, followed by Patol-babu.

‘Shashanka!’

A young man in half sleeves approached. Naresh told him, ‘This gentleman is asking for his dialogue. Write it out on a piece of paper, will you? That collision thing…’

Shashanka turned to Patol-babu.

‘Come with me, dadu… give me your pen for a minute, Jyoti. I have to write the dialogue for dadu.’

The young man named Jyoti handed the red pen in his pocket to Shashanka, who ripped a sheet out of the notebook in his hand, wrote something in it, and gave it to Patol-babu.’

Patol-babu discovered a single word written on it – ‘Aah!’

Aah?

Patol-babu felt his head reel suddenly. He wished he could take his coat off. The heat was unbearable.

‘You seem disturbed, dadu,’ commented Shashanka. ‘Too difficult?’

Were they mocking him? Was the whole thing a massive joke? A farce enacted around a harmless, uncomplaining man on the busy streets of a busy city? Could people possibly be so cruel?

‘I don’t quite understand,’ said Patol-babu, his throat dry.

‘Why not?’

‘Just “aah”? No other lines?’

Raising his eyebrows, Shashanka said, ‘What are you saying, dadu? You think this is nothing? This is a regular speaking role. A speaking role in Baren Mullick’s film – are you serious? You’re a lucky man, I tell you. Do you know that at least a hundred and fifty people have acted in this film of ours without a speaking role? They merely walked past the camera. Some didn’t even walk, merely stood on the spot. Not everyone’s face was visible, for that matter. Even today – look at those people standing next to the lamp-post. They’re all in today’s scene, but none of them has any dialogue. Even our hero Chanchalkumar has no dialogue today. You’re the only one speaking.’

Now the young man named Jyoti came up to Patol-babu, putting a hand on his shoulder. ‘Listen to me dadu – let me explain. Chanchalkumar is a senior manager in this office. In this scene we show him rushing into the office after hearing of a theft. That’s when you come in his way – a pedestrian – all right? You collide with him – all right? After the collision you say “Aah!”, but Chanchal rushes in without paying any attention to you. Ignoring you brings out the state of his mind – all right? Do you see how important the whole thing is?’

Shashanka came up to him again. ‘Now you know. Can you wait over there now? Can’t have a crowd gathering here. There’s one more shot before we call you.’

Patol-babu drifted towards the paan-shop again. Stopping beneath the awning, he threw a sidelong glance at the piece of paper in his hand and then, checking to see whether anyone was watching, crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the drain.

‘Aah!’

He emitted a heartfelt sigh.

Just one word – not even a word, a sound – aah!

The heat was becoming unbearable. The coat felt like it weighed a tonne. He couldn’t remain standing anymore, his legs were like lead.

Patol-babu went up to the flight of steps on the other side of the paan-shop and sat on them. Nine-thirty. Karali-babu played devotional songs at home on Sunday mornings – Patol-babu went regularly. He enjoyed himself there. Should he go? What harm would it do? What use was it wasting Sunday morning in the company of these rotten, shallow people? He would have to bear the burden of the humiliation too if he stayed.

‘Silence!’

To hell with your silence. It’s all talk and very little work. The theater in comparison…

The theatre… the theatre…

A faint memory rose in Patol-babu’s mind from the past. Invaluable advice given to him in a deep, controlled and yet melodious voice: ‘Remember this, Patol. There is no humiliation in playing a minor role. Your achievement as an artist will be in extracting the last possible ounce of feeling from that insignificant role to make it a successful performance. The theatre is a group activity. The success of the play is built only on the success of each individual.’

It was Pakrashi-moshai who had given this advice to Patol-babu. Gagan Pakrashi. Patol-babu’s guru on the stage. An extraordinary actor, Gagan Pakrashi was not in the least bit arrogant. A saintly man, and the finest artiste among artistes.

There was one more thing that Pakrashi-moshai used to say. ‘Every line of dialogue in a play is a fruit hanging from a tree. It’s not within everyone’s reach. Even those who can pluck it may not know how to peel it. It’s your responsibility – the actor’s. You must know how to pluck the fruit, peel it, squeeze its juice out and serve it to people.

Recalling Gagan Pakrashi, Patol-babu instinctively bowed his head in respect.

Was his role today really meaningless? He would have to utter just the one word – aah. But could the dialogue be dismissed simply because it was just a single word?

Aah, aah, aah, aah – Patol-babu began to recite the word in different ways, with different intonations. As he did, he made a remarkable discovery. That one word, expressed in different ways, could bring out different states of mind. The way you said ‘aah!’ when pinched slyly was quite different from the way you said it after a cool drink on a hot day. And yet another kind of ‘aah’ emerged when tickled in the ear. There were many other aahs besides – sighing, contemptuous, or hurt; a quick ‘ah’ or a prolonged ‘aaaaaah’; loud or soft, pitched high or low – or even starting on a low pitch and rising to a high one. Incredible! Patol-babu felt he could write an entire dictionary of that one particular word.

Why had he felt so disheartened? This word was an absolute gold mine. A worthy actor could hit the jackpot with this single word.

‘Silence!’

The director emitted a roar again. Patol-babu discovered Jyoti pushing the crowds away near him. He had something to tell the fellow. Patol-babu strode up to him.

‘How much longer, my boy?’

‘Why so impatient, dadu? You can’t be in a hurry over these things. Wait another half an hour or so.’

‘Of course, of course. I’ll wait. I’ll be nearby.’

‘Don’t run away, ok?’

Jyoti left.

‘Start sound!’

Without a sound, Patol-babu stole away into a quiet, secluded lane across the road. He was pleased to have some time before the shot. Since these people weren’t going to bother with a rehearsal or anything, he would practise his role on his own. The lane was deserted. This was a business area – which meant there weren’t too many residents. Moreover, it was Sunday. The handful of people who did live here had gone off to Faraday House to watch the shooting.

Clearing his throat, Patol-babu proceeded to gain mastery over the special ‘aah’ in this special scene of the day. Using his reflection in a glass window, he perfected various aspects of his performance – how much his face would be contorted after the collision, how far his arms would be knocked back and what angle they would assume, how widely the fingers would be splayed, and what the position of his feet would be.

Patol-babu was summoned exactly half an hour later; he was no longer dispirited. His anxiety had vanished too, leaving behind only a suppressed excitement and a thrill – the feeling that he used to have twenty-five years ago before appearing in an important scene on the stage.

Waving Patol-babu over, Baren Mullick the director said, ‘You’ve understood the scene, I hope.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Very well. First I will say, “Start sound”. The sound recordist will respond with “Running”. The camera will start rolling at once. Then I will say, “Action!” You will immediately start walking from the pillar in this direction, while the hero gets out of the car and walks towards the office gate. You must ensure that the collision takes place at this spot on the pavement. Ignoring you, the hero will walk through the office gate, while you will say, “Aah!’ in annoyance and continue walking. All right?’

‘A rehearsal…’ proposed Patol-babu.

‘Oh no,’ interrupted Baren-babu. ‘It’s getting cloudy. There’s no time for a rehearsal. We must take the shot while the sun’s still out.’

‘It’s just that…’

‘Now what?’

Patol-babu had had an idea while rehearing in the lane. Mustering his courage, he spoke about it.

‘I was thinking… er… if I had a newspaper in my hand, and if I were to be reading it when we collide… you know, to bring out the sense of absent-mindedness…’

Before he could finish Baren Mullick said, ‘Excellent… you there, can you give your newspaper to this gentleman… yes. Now go take your position by the pillar over there. Ready, Chanchal?’

‘Yes sir,’ answered the star, standing by his car.

‘Good. Silence!’

Baren Mullick raised his arm, and then lowered it the very next moment. ‘Just a minute. Keshto, give the gentleman a moustache, quickly. The character isn’t coming through.’

‘What kind, sir? Bushy, handlebar or butterfly? I have all kinds.’

‘Butterfly. Quick, don’t take too long.’

Approaching Patol-babu, a short, dark man with backbrushed hair took a small black false moustache out of a tin box and glued it beneath his nose.

‘The collision won’t make it come off, I hope,’ said Patol-babu.

‘Never mind a collision,’ smiled the young man, ‘you could wrestle with Dara Singh and it still won’t come off.’

He was holding a mirror. Patol-babu took a quite look at himself. Yes – it suited him very well indeed. He couldn’t help admiring the director’s eye.

‘Silence! Silence!’

A buzz had risen amidst onlookers at the sight of the moustache being put on. it died at Baren-babu’s roar.

Patol-babu noticed that most of the audience gathered at the spot were staring at him.

‘Start sound!’

Patol-babu cleared his throat. One, two, three, four, five… Patol-babu would have to take approximately five steps to get to the spot earmarked for the collision. And Chanchalkumar would probably have to take four. So if they set off simultaneously, Patol-babu would have to walk a little faster, or else…

‘Running!’

Patol-babu held his newspaper up in front of his face. If he could just mix sixty per cent annoyance with 40 per cent astonishment when saying ‘aah’…

‘Action!’

Praise the lord!

Clomp clomp clomp clomp clomp…. bangggg! Patol-babu saw stars. His forehead had struck the hero’s practically head-on. A sharp pain almost made him unconscious for a moment.

But the very next moment he applied tremendous willpower to recover, and, uttering the word ‘Aah!’ with sixty per cent annoyance, twenty per cent astonishment and twenty per cent agony, he gathered his newspaper and continued on his way.

‘Cut!’

‘Was it all right?’ An anxious Patol-babu went up to Baren Mullick.

‘Fantastic! You’re a very good actor, you know… Suren, use the filter to find out if it’s going to get darker.’

‘No injuries, I hope, dadu?’ Shashanka came up and asked him.

Chanchalkumar walked up, rubbing his forehead. ;What timing! For a moment there I didn’t know whether I was alive or dead…’

Naresh pushed his way through the people gathered there. ‘Come into the shade here. One more shot and then I’ll clear your…’

Patol-babu made his way through the crowd, wiping his perspiration, and stopped once again in front of the paan shop. The clouds had covered the sun, and it was no longer as hot; but still Patol-babu took his coat off. Ah, how pleasant! A deep joy and self-satisfaction slowly suffused his mind and heart.

He had performed really well today. The years of disuse had not blunted his artistic sensibility. Gagan Pakrashi would have been genuinely pleased. But had these people understood? Had the director Baren Mullick understood? Would they value the enthusiasm and effort he had put into playing his role flawlessly? Did they have the capability for it? Their involvement probably ran as far as getting people to act and paying them. Payment! How much? Five, ten, fifteen? He did need money… but what was five rupees in comparison to his happiness today?

~

Naresh didn’t find Patol-babu when he went looking for him about ten minutes later. Had he left without his payment? How absent-minded!

‘The sun’s out,’ shouted Baren Mullick. ‘Silence! Silence!… Come here, Naresh, control the crowds!’

The Game: Humayun Ahmed

Babu Nalini Ranjan, ‘third sir’ at the Khairunnesa Girls’ High School, suddenly learnt to play chess one afternoon. He couldn’t stand the game. Two people staring at a board for hours in the most annoying fashion – why? Still he was forced to learn. Jalal sahib, the geography teacher, was an old friend of his. He could not turn Jalal sahib down. During the lunch break he learnt how the pawn moved, how the knight jumped two and a half squares, how the bishop stood diagonally, his staff raised. ‘It’s a cerebral game, pandit,’ said Jalal sahib seriously. ‘Exercises the brain.’

Nalini babu could not quite understand how it exercised the brain, but he defeated Jalal sahib in their very first game. Smiling wanly, Jalal sahib said, ‘I took it too casually. Another game?’

There was no time. English composition in the fourth period. Nalini-babu rose to his feet. But he couldn’t teach very well that day. The game of chess began to haunt him subtly. This had never happened before.

They played two games after classes. With a wooden smile Jalal sahib said, ‘I see I have to work on my defence seriously with you.’

Jalal sahib worked on his defence seriously in the third round. The hour for his prayers went by. The game went on till the evening. Unable to lock the office up for the day, the peon Bachhu Mian paced up and down in the veranda with an irked expression. Jalal sahib sighed after the game. ‘You seem despondent,’ said Nalini-babu.

‘One more round,’ requested Jalal sahib. ‘The last one. You won’t win this time – I’ll play an ultra-defensive game.’

‘Not today. I have to go to the tutorial.’

‘Come on, it won’t take long.’

The final game ended in a draw. Jalal sahib emitted quick breaths. ‘Let’s go,’ said Nalini-babu.

‘Another round.’

‘No more, it’s late.’

‘Just sit down and play, it’s not very late.’

Nalini-babu sat down again. His triumphal march began. The people of Niyamatpur came to know in a very short time that an unbelievably good chess
player lived in their town. No one could defeat him. His fame remained undiminished for fifteen years.

Fifteen years was a long time. He lost two teeth in this period, and developed cataract in his left eye. And on a rainy July afternoon he retired as assistant headmaster. His farewell citation read:

‘Babu Nalini Ranjan is an uncrowned king of the world of chess. He has created history by defeating Bangladesh’s chess champion janab Asad Khan three times in a row.’

It was true. Asad Khan’s sister-in-law lived in Niyamatpur. He had visited her in some ill-fated hour, agreeing to a game of chess out of sheer curiosity. He had assumed that it was just another case of a small town where everyone extolled the skills of an average player. Even when the game began he did not realise his mistake. He saw that the short, thin man knew nothing about chess openings. For obvious reasons, he didn’t even know as much as those who had read a book or two on the subject. As a result of which Asad Khan captured the pawn in front of Nalini babu’s king on his fifth move, smiling contemptuously. But the smile began to hurt his lips when he saw his bony opponent suddenly pouncing with both his knights. Asad Khan was astonished, but the people of Niyamatpur behaved as though there was nothing unusual about losing to Nalini babu.

All Asad Khan’s joy at visiting his sister-in-law paled that year. A fortnightly magazine published in Netrokona said – The veteran chess player Babu Nalini Ranjan of Niyamatpur, a teacher at Khairunnesa Girls’ High School, has defeated the national chess of champion of Bangladesh resoundingly. It is worth mentioning that this record-breaking chess player has lost to no one in the past ten years…

It was unbelievable but true. Nalini babu had won every single time. People used to travel long distances to play with him. Once, the secretary of the chess federation arrived with a foreigner. Niyamatpur had never been witness to a more momentous event. Even those who knew nothing about chess thronged the venue. A holiday was declared at Khairunnesa Girls’ High School after the lunch break. Twice the federation secretary warned Nalini babu, ‘Play a very cautious game. The person I’ve brought is from Belgium. A highly rated player.’

‘I always play a cautious game.’

‘No need to hurry your moves, all right?’

Nalini babu nodded. He had understood.

‘It’s best to play the Giuoco Piano defence with him. You know it, don’t you?’

‘No sir, I don’t.’

The secretary’s brow was furrowed. The furrow deepened when he saw Nalini babu responding to P-K4 with R4.

‘What are you doing? Are you experimenting against him? What sort of move is this?’

The foreigner also said something in English. Babu Nalini Ranjan was a teacher of English, but he could not decipher a word. His face falling, the secretary said, ‘I thought I was going to put an untrained talent on display, but looks like I’m going to be humiliated.’

They played three games. One was drawn, Nalini babu won the other two. The secretary’s astonishment was boundless.

‘Why don’t you play at Dhaka?’

‘I have to teach at the tutorial. And besides, I don’t keep well. Asthma.’

‘No, you must come.’

‘I am a poor man. No money.’

‘How can you be poor?’

The secretary embraced Nalini babu.

At babu Nalini Ranjan’s farewell on the rainy July afternoon, therefore, the subject of chess cropped up repeatedly. And at the end Suruj Mian – president of the meeting, secretary of the school committee and chairman of the municipality – announced in a most mysterious manner that he had made arrangements for a fitting display of honour for babu Nalini Ranjan, the pride of Niyamatpur, unbeaten at chess. He was giving the school fund a cheque for fifteen thousand rupees. Anyone who defeated Nalini babu would get this money. And if no one could, the school fund would get the money after Nalini babu’s death.

There was tumultuous applause. The headmaster had to hold the cheque up high to show it to everyone. No one had imagined such a dramatic move from Suruj Mian.

On an October evening Nalini babu had a severe attack of asthma. The air seemed very thin. He strained to fill his lungs. A pulse in his throat bulged repeatedly. But despite the state he was in, he sat down to play the final game of chess in his life. He would play it to lose. Today he would lose to his old friend Jalal sahib, who would win fifteen thousand rupees. The money would be used for Nalini babu’s treatment. Warm clothes would be bought for winter, for he suffered terribly terribly in the cold. Jalal sahib had persuaded Nalini babu after a great deal of effort. One defeat would make no difference.

The game was being played in the school hall. Jalal sahib was playing the challenge game. Many spectators had gathered out of curiosity. Nalini babu’s position worsened. A careless move lost him a bishop. Soon afterwards, one of his rooks was pinned. A murmur rose amongst the spectators. Nalini babu saw tears in Jalal sahib’s eyes. The undefeated chess champion of fifteen years was about to lose. Jalal sahib’s face was unnaturally pale. His hand shook as he moved his pieces.

Sobahan sahib the homoeopath said in surprise, ‘Nalini babu is in deep trouble.’

‘It’s all Nalini’s pretence,’ said Jalal sahib hoarsely. ‘He will fix it at once, just watch.’

‘Are you weeping, Jalal?’ asked Nalini babu softly.

‘Of course not. There’s something in my eye.’

Jalal sahib began to rub his eye in order to get rid of the invisible object.

Was that a faint smile on Nalini babu’s lips? He challenged the king with a check from his knight. The king moved one square. A second check with the pawn. The king moved yet another square. Nalini babu brought his black bishop out of a seemingly invisible city. An astonished Sobahan sahib said, ‘My goodness!’ ‘Check,’ said Nalini-babu, pushing the bishop in front of the pawn.’

Despite his best efforts, he was unable to lose the final game of his life. Deep in penury, the pride of Niyamatpur died practically without medical treatment on November 12, 1975. Tuesday. Khairunnesa Girls’ High School was closed for two days to mark the occasion.

Rupa: Humayun Ahmed

‘Would you care to hear an interesting story?’

I looked at the man in surprise. We had struck up an acquaintance only a short while ago – and that too, not a very deep one. He had enquired whether I was waiting for a train. Yes, I had replied, asking him out of courtesy where he was going.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ he had replied with a smile. ‘I’m here to receive my wife. She’s coming from Chittagong. The train’s two hours late. I don’t feel like going back. I thought I’d wait instead of going all the way home and then returning to the station.’

That was the extent of our acquaintance. If a person were to ask on the strength of this faint connection, would you care to hear an interesting story, one is bound to be at least a little surprised. I was not particularly inclined to having strangers tell me stories. And besides, I have observed in my long experience that stories that are said to be interesting never turn out that way.

I remained silent. The man would understand the significance of my silence if he were intelligent. If not, I would be forced to hear his story.

The man did not prove to be even remotely intelligent. Taking a tin of paan out of his pocket and preparing one for himself, he began his story.

‘You must be very irritated with me. It’s natural, here’s a man who has started pouring out his tale without so much as a by your leave. But do you know what the problem is? It’s a special day for me. And on this special day I have the urge to tell someone my story. If you permit me, I shall tell you.’

‘Very well.’

‘Do you like paan?’

‘No I don’t.’

‘Try one, it’s a mishti paan. You’ll like it.’

‘Do you also offer paan along with your story on this special day?’

The man laughed. Quite amiably. He was about forty. Very handsome. His sparkling white kurta and pajama suited him very well. He appeared to have dressed carefully for his wife.

‘This incident took place about twenty years ago. I was studying for my Honours degree at Dhaka University – in physics. It’s probably too dark here for you to see me clearly. If there had been enough light you’d have realised I am quite handsome. Twenty years ago I looked like a prince. In fact I was known as The Prince amongst students. The funny thing is that the girls paid me no attention. I don’t know if you’ve noticed – women are never attracted to men for their appearance. They notice everything about men except their looks. None of the girls at the university ever came up to me to make friends or even to talk. I didn’t take the initiative either. Because I stammered. I could not speak fluently.’

Interrupting him, I said, ‘But you’re not stammering now, your speech is quite smooth.’

‘My stammering was cured after I got married. It was very bad earlier. I tried all kinds of treatment – from talking with marbles in my mouth to homoeopathy and even amulets from the Pir – no stone was left unturned. Anyway, to go back to the story. My subsidiary subjects were mathematics and chemistry. A girl in the chemistry subsidiary class almost made me stop breathing. How lovely she was! Long lashes, dark eyes. Eyes that laughed all the time. Have you ever fallen in love?’

‘No.’

‘If you haven’t, I won’t be able to explain my state of mind. The very first day that I saw her, I literally fell ill. I didn’t sleep all night. My throat grew parched every few minutes. All I did was take drinks of water and pace up and down in the veranda of Mohsin Hall.

‘We had only two subsidiary classes a week. I wanted to weep with frustration and misery. What harm would it have done to have a subsidiary class every day? Two classes a week of fifty-five minutes each meant a hundred and ten minutes. These hundred and ten minutes went by in a flash. And besides, the girl was frequently absent. There were times when she wouldn’t attend classes two weeks in a row. On those occasions my impulse was to jump from the roof of Mohsin Hall and put an end to all my agony and torment. You won’t understand how horribly I suffered. Because you’ve never been in love.’

‘You haven’t told me what the girl’s name was. What was it?’

‘Her name was Rupa. I didn’t know it at the time though. It wasn’t just the name – I knew nothing about her. I didn’t even know which department she studied in. All I know was that chemistry was one of her subsidiary subjects and that she came to university in a Morris Minor. The number was V 8781.’

‘Didn’t you make enquiries about her?’

‘No, I didn’t. Because I was constantly worried that if I did I would discover that she was friendly with someone else. You’ll know what I mean when I tell you about something that happened one day. After the subsidiary class had ended, I suddenly noticed her smiling and talking to another boy. I began to shiver. I thought I would collapse. I came away, not attending any more classes – and in a short while my body was wracked by a fever.’

‘How strange!’

‘Of course it was strange. I passed two years this way. I virtually abandoned my studies. And then I did something extremely bold. I found out her address from the driver of the Morris Minor. And then I wrote her a letter, without addressing her. I no longer remember exactly what I wrote, but the sum and substance was that I wanted to marry her, and that she must agree. Until she did, I would stand in front of her house, without eating. A fast unto death. Does the story seem interesting?’

‘Yes it does. What happened after this? Did you put the letter in the post?’

‘No. I delivered it personally. Handing it to the doorman, I said, you know the apa who lives here, the one who studies at the University? Give her this letter. The doorman took it obediently, returning in a short while to say, apa says she doesn’t know you. She’s right, I told him, but I know her. That’s enough.

‘And so I camped outside the gate. As you realise, it was an insane idea. I really was out of my mind then. I couldn’t think logically. Anyway, from nine in the morning till four in the afternoon, I stood uneventfully in front of the gate. I noticed a few curious eyes observing me from the first-floor window now and then. Around four in the afternoon a man emerged from the house and told me sternly, “Enough of your madness. Go home now.”

‘ “I shan’t,” I answered even more sternly.

‘ “We’re informing the police. They will arrest you.”

‘ “I don’t mind. Go ahead.”

‘ “You rascal! Is this any place for your drunken antics?”

‘ “Why are you abusing me? I haven’t abused you.”

‘Burning with rage, he went back into the house. And it started raining immediately afterwards. Incessant rain. I got soaked, but I couldn’t care less. I knew as I did that I was getting a fever. After spending the day under the blazing sun, I would never be able to stand the rain. But I was desperate by then – I wasn’t afraid of the outcome. I was collapsing with hunger and exhaustion. I thought I would faint any moment.

‘Meanwhile, I had succeeded in attracting the attention of curious passers-by. Several of them asked me, what’s the matter? Why are you getting drenched here in the rain? I told all of them, don’t worry about me. I am a madman.’

‘The girl’s family may have informed others about this strange incident over the phone. Three different cars arrived at their house. The passengers threw angry glances at me before entering.

It was nine at night. The rain had not stopped for a moment. I was burning with a fever. I couldn’t stay on my feet anymore. I sat down, splaying my legs out. The doorman came up to me and whispered, the sahib wants to call the police, but apa isn’t willing. She’s weeping at your condition. Sit tight.

‘I sat tight.

‘It was eleven o’ clock. The lights went on in the veranda of their house. The door to the drawing room opened and the girl came out. Followed by all the other people in their family. None of them stepped off the veranda. The girl came up to me alone. Standing in front of me, she said in an impossibly tender voice, what’s all this madness?

‘I looked at her, bewildered. Because it wasn’t the same girl. A different one. I had never seen her. The driver of the Morris Minor had given me the wrong address. Possibly deliberately.

‘Tenderly the girl told me, come inside. Dinner’s served on the table. Come now.’

‘I rose to my feet. I tried to say, please don’t mind, I’ve made a mistake. You’re not the same girl. You’re someone else. But looking into her eyes, soaked with compassion, I could not say this. No woman had ever looked at me with such softness.

‘I couldn’t walk properly because of the fever. You don’t seem well, she said. Take my hand. No one will stop you.

‘The rest of them stood on the veranda, looking at me harshly. Ignoring them, the girl held out her hand. With an intense love that man has not been given the power by god to ignore. I took her hand. I’ve been holding it for twenty years now. Sometimes I feel a sort of restlessness. I have the urge to tell my wife this story of mistaken identity. But I cannot. Then I seek out a stranger like you and tell him. Because I know that this story will never reach my wife. All right, I should go. The train’s here.’

He stood up. The lights of the train could be seen in the distance. The railway lines were rumbling. The train was indeed about to arrive.

(From) Harshabardhan Doesn’t Go To War: Shibram Chakraborty

… The brothers appeared at the recruiting office as directed, standing next to each other. Harshabardhan was the first to be examined.

‘Name?’

‘Harshabardhan.’

‘Age?’

‘Forty-two.’

‘Father’s name?’

‘Poundrobardhan. Mother’s name…’

‘No need. Address?’

‘Chetla.’

‘Profession?’

‘Timber merchant.’

‘Do you consider joining the Indian Army an act of great value, of glory?’

‘Of course, of course.’

‘Which division of the armed forces would you like to enlist in?’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Harshabardhan did not understand the question.

‘There are several divisions, you see. Infantry division, armoured division, airborne division…’

‘I want to be a general straightaway,’ Harshabardhan informed him.

‘Are you mad?’ The recruiting officer couldn’t help asking.

‘Is that a precondition?’ Harshabardhan enquired. ‘Must I be mad before I can be a general?’

Without answering, the officer turned to Gobardhan.

‘Name?’

‘Gobardhan.’

‘Age?’

‘Thirty-five. Ditto ditto ditto for the rest.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Meaning – the address, father’s name, and profession are all the same as above,’ Gobra explained. ‘We’re brothers, you see.’

‘I see. Very well, go into the next room for your medical check-up,’ said the officer. ‘Only if you pass your medical exams will you be enlisted.’

‘We’re safe now, dada,’ Gobardhan whispered on the way. ‘When we’ve never passed a single exam in our lives, how are we supposed to pass the medical exam now? We’re bound to fail. We’ve been saved.’

‘Don’t be sure of their felling us.’ Harshabardhan wasn’t convinced. ‘Nothing is to be felled in wartime, nobody’s a useless fellow.’

The doctor took one look at Harshabardhan’s enormous paunch and rejected him. ‘No, impossible.’ Harshabardhan was about to protest that he had seen many generals with paunches like punching bags, although only in photographs. But the doctor dismissed his protests with a couple of strokes on his belly.

It was Gobardhan’s turn next. Having passed all the exams, he had to have his eyes tested.

‘You can read the letters on the chart, can’t you? The chart on the wall.’

‘What! You mean there’s a wall there?’

‘Your eyesight doesn’t seem very good.’ Holding up a huge aluminium tray two feet from his eyes, the doctor said, ‘What am I holding here?’

‘An eight-anna coin, isn’t it? Or is it a four-anna-paise coin?’

Gobardhan was also rejected on grounds of poor eyesight.

Coming out of the recruiting office on Gokhale Street, the brothers heaved a sigh of relief. ‘Come dada, let’s give give ourselves a treat,’ suggested Gobardhan. ‘It’s almost two-thirty. Let’s have lunch at a restaurant and watch a matinee film at three.’

It was past three by the time they had eaten their way through several items. They entered the theatre in the darkness, taking the seats assigned to them.

When the lights came on at the intermission, Harshabardhan jumped out of his skin. The doctor who had checked Gobardhan’s eyes was sitting next to him. Here he was, comfortably watching a film despite his poor vision. Gobra was bound to be caught now.

Harshabardhan nudged his brother with his elbow to point the doctor out.

Gobra wasn’t daunted, however. Instead, he turned to the doctor and said, ‘Excuse me, madam, this IS bus No. 33, isn’t it?’

‘What!’ The doctor was startled by this unexpected interrogation.

‘I mean, pardon me, madam. This bus IS going to Chetla, right? It’s all very well to have pushed through the crowd to get in, but am I even on the right bus? Will I get to Chetla?’

The Gift of Death: Nabarun Bhattacharya

Some people’s lives are so dreary that in the process of putting up with the tedium they don’t even realise when they just die. When you think about it, they seem to be under a cloud of doubt even after death. In that respect, few people are born as lucky as me. Whenever I get fed up of things, something inevitably happens to revive my spirits. But you can’t say this to too many people. Friends and relations all assume I’m grinding out an existence just like them. Hand-to-mouth. Brainless sheep, the whole lot. But then it’s best for them to think this way. Else they’ll be jealous. They’ll look at me strangely. I don’t know how to cope with envy. I’m afraid of the evil eye too. Good and evil – that’s what makes the world go round.

The first thing I have going for me is my amazing contact with lunatics at regular intervals. Chance or fate, it just happens. An example or two will help me explain without creating problems on the business side. But it’s best not to tell the psychiatrist my wife took me to. Suppose she changes my pills?

Just the other day this man – gaunt, half-dead, looks like one of those people who can fly – got hold of me. Had two terrific schemes, he said. He’d sent the details to every world leader. Two of them had replied so far. Both Thatcher and Gorbachev had praised his ideas. He’d be talking to both of them soon.
He was flying out next month. I sat down to hear of his schemes.

The first one was to build a projection jutting out from the balcony of every apartment in all the high-rise buildings coming up these days. Something like a diving board at a swimming pool. He would make a couple of prototypes to begin with. Once the government had approved enthusiastically, it would be added to the building plan, without having to be added on later.

Apparently it was essential for people to have such high spots nowadays to stand or sit on. Without railings, not very large. It was for those who wanted to be by themselves. People were chased by thousands of things these days. He was being chased by the chief minister, by scientists, by the prime minister. The police commissioner too. Also by the Special Branch, the Criminal Investigations Department, and the Research & Analysis Wing. That was when the plan struck him. A slice of space – but outside the building. Speaking for myself, the idea appealed to me too. Entirely possible. But because I lived in a single-storied house inherited from my father, I didn’t give it too much thought. His second scheme was not exactly a plan – it was more of an adventurous proposal or proposition, though it was closely connected to the first scheme. He would stand as well as walk on the wings of a mid-air aircraft. He wanted to demonstrate this practically. Today’s youth would regain their courage if they saw him. The youth needed dreams, for the alternatives were drugs, cinema and HIV. He wanted to perform this feat on an Indian Air Force plane. He had written it all down in detail. There were diagrams too. All of it gathered in a thin plastic folder. He kept these documents in a file tied up with a string. He wanted to know if I could help him with the second idea in. Whether I knew an Air Marshal, for instance. When I said I wouldn’t be able to help him, he requested me to pay for a cup of tea and a cigarette at least. I did.

I have met several such insane people, in different shapes and sizes and with different behaviours. I have seen people who have gone mad with sudden grief. I’ve encountered not a few suicides too. Before killing themselves, some people develop a half-mad detachment. I’ve come across such people too. But then I’ve also run into not one but two cases where there wasn’t a whiff of insanity. Both of them used to spend time with mystics. One of them used to go to Tarapith, that den of mystics, every Sunday. The other was embroiled deeply in office politics. Both hanged themselves. All of these incidents are true. The age of making stories up has ended – why should people believe me, and why should I bother to make them up, either? Some of the lunatics and suicides I’ve seen were tragedies of love. But this isn’t the time for stories about women. Although the first person whom I told the story that I have eventually decided to recount here was my wife. A woman, in other words.

And this was what led to all the quarrels and demands. For what? That I must see a psychiatrist. I was an able-bodied man – why should I abandon the business I ran and go see a doctor for the insane? She paid no attention. Her brothers came. Collectively they forced me to see a woman psychiatrist. What an enormous fuss they made. But it turned out to be a good idea. Very pretty. Western looks. And matching conversation. Very cordial. I liked her so much that I told her the story too. For years altogether now I’ve been taking the tiny white pills she gave me, thrice a day. Sometimes I take a blue one too. It gets wearisome. I get annoyed. But I like the woman so much that I can’t help trusting her. I try to tell myself that I’ve recovered from an illness. Not that I’m ill.

The story that all this preamble leads up to is not about lunatics or suicides, however. In fact it’s been three whole years. I was returning home by train from Madras. I have to travel indiscriminately on business. To save money I travel second class on the way out, but on the way back I give in to my longing for luxury and inevitably buy a first class ticket. There was no one else in the four-berth compartment. I was comfortable. Somewhere near the Andhra-Orissa border I woke up and found everything dark. The train wasn’t moving either. Pitch dark. You couldn’t see anything out of the window. Once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness I realised that the train was standing at a small station somewhere. A deep indigo night sky. Hints of low black hills. A few lonely stars. People moving about. The glow of torches. Getting off the train, I heard that a goods train had been in an accident. It would have to be moved and the line, repaired. Only then would our train resume its journey.

Almost without warning, the lights came back on. I went back to my compartment. At once I discovered that someone else had entered in the darkness. The man was – not probably, but almost certainly – not a South Indian. His appearance and way of talking made that obvious. In his forties. Fair, well-dressed, handsome. Slightly greying hair. His fine shirt and trousers, gleaming shoes and the tie around his neck gave him the appearance of a successful salesman of a multinational company. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I still don’t know the name of the company or how big it was. So big that it was almost mysterious and obscure.

After some small talk both of us lit our cigarettes. He was the one to offer his expensive cigarettes. When I asked him whether he wouldn’t mind a little whiskey, he said he didn’t drink. So I drank by myself. There was no sign of the train leaving. Neither of us spoke for a while. Almost startling me, the man suddenly said, – Keep this business card of ours. Might come in useful. The card was black, made of some kind of paper with the feel of velvet. On it, an address in an unsettling shade of bright yellow. Nothing else. A Waltair address. Nothing else on either side of the card. Neither the name of a company, nor a phone number.

– That’s not our actual address, mind you. You have to take a roundabout route to reach us. But when you write to us add your address with all details. Our people will certainly get in touch with you. It may take a little time. But they will definitely meet you.
– What exactly is this business of yours? Seems to be some sort of secret, illegal affair… But then you’ve got business cards too – strange!
– Look, our company doesn’t have a name. No name. We help people die – you could say we gift them death. Of course it isn’t legal, but…
– You mean you murder them.
– Absolutely not! Murder! How awful, we aren’t killers. It will be done with your full consent. Different kinds of death, in different ways. You will choose your method, and pay accordingly. You want to die like a king? We can do it for you. We will fulfil whatever death wish you might have, no matter how unusual. You’ll get exactly what you want, just the way you want it. But yes, you have to pay.

I had a long conversation with the man thereafter. I’m recounting as much of it as I can recollect. As much of the strangeness as actually penetrated my whiskey-soaked brain in the anonymous darkness of the station. As much as I’ve been able to retain three years later.

His position was that, for a variety of reasons, each of us harbours a unique death wish within ourselves. That is to say, a pet notion – and desire – of how we’d like to die. Like a romantic, someone might want to leap from a mountain into a bottomless ravine on a cold, misty evening. Others want their bodies to be riddled by bullets. Yet others, to be charred to death in a fire. Someone else wants poison in their bloodstream, so they they begin with a slight warm daze and bow out as cold as ice. Some want to be conscious at the moment of death, while others prefer to be halfway to oblivion. One person wants to be strangled to death. Another is keen on being stabbed. Some people wish for death in a holy place, the sound of sacred chants ringing in their ears. But wishing doesn’t guaantee fulfilment. No matter what, the majority of deaths are uninteresting, drab and dull. This company meets the demand for such deaths, fulfilling its clients’ death wishes. I remember some parts of the salesman’s pitch verbatim.

– There’s a theoretical side to this too. Our R&D is extremely strong. You’ll find non-stop research underway, not only on the practical side of death, but also on other aspects, covering data from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Thanatos Syndrome, Indian thoughts on death, Abhedananda, and Jiddu Krishnamoorthy to the latest forms of murder, suicide and clinical death. Forget about India, no one in the world is engaged in this sort of business. It wouldn’t even occur to anyone. We’ve been told of a few small-scale attempts in Japan, but this isn’t a matter of automobiles or electronics, after all. They may have their Toyota and Mitsubishi, but those poor fellows still can’t think beyond hara-kiri. All those bamboo or steel knives – so primitive. Not at all enterprising. Incidentally, do you know which country has the most suicides in the world?

– Must be us.
– No sir, it’s Hungary. Magyars are incredibly suicide-prone.

They offered access to all kinds of death. They would fulfil even the most intricate and virtually impossible proposals. A man from Delhi had always imagined dying when his jeep skidded on an icy mountain road. It was organised. If you wanted to die of a specific disease, their medical team would check on its feasibility. But they would not engineer someone else’s death on your request. You could only arrange for your own death through their services.

I learnt a great deal from the conversation. Apparently many people lived such bewildered lives that even though they had a vague idea of how they’d like to die, they could not express it clearly. The company had a choice of pre-set programmes for such clients. The most regal of these was the ‘record player’.
A gigantic record player was set in the ocean at a distance. A huge black disc was set in it, the disc of death, turning at thirty-three and one third revolutions per minute. The record player was placed on a rig similar to an offshore oil-drilling platform. You had to get there on a speedboat. The fortunate man desiring death was made to sit on a chair over the spoke, shaped like a bullet or a lipstick, reaching upwards through the hole at the centre of the record. The record-player played an impossibly tragic melody – Western or Indian. Rachmaninoff’s Aisle of Death, or the wistful strains of a sarengi, as you wished. Several thousand watts of sound enveloped the client in a trance. Revolving on the surface of the ocean along with the record, he was also transported to a place beyond the real and the unreal. When the music ended, the stylus entered the glittering space in the middle of the record with the sound of a storm, striking the man a mighty blow that ensured his death even before his body hit the water. His head was either torn off his body or pulverised. As soon as the corpse fell into the sea, hundreds of sharks swam up at the scent of blood. This was a very expensive affair. Very few people could afford it. Till date, not more than two or three people had heard the symphony of death.

– Who are they?
– Excuse me, but clients are more important to us than even god. We cannot possibly divulge their identities. Although we are practically friends now, you and I. Do you remember how Mr ____ died? You should.
– How could I not remember. Such a horrible plane crash!
– It was a plane crash all right, but that was what he wanted.
– But what about the other passengers? Surely they didn’t want it.
– Sorry. It’s prohibitively expensive. Because there are other victims.
– But they were innocent.
– Innocent! My foot! In any case, there’s nothing we can do about it. None of them told us to kill them. But if they insist on taking the same flight, what are we supposed to do? Moroever, this was his choice. Yes, choice. We made all the arrangements to fulfil his request, using the money he paid us.
– But. Why did he do this?
– He had got rid of Mr ____ the same way. Not through us, of course. Lots of innocent people had died on that occasion too. So he wanted a similar death.
– How many more such cases have you handled?
– Numerous. But why should we tell you about all of them? Can all such cases be talked about? Should they even be talked about? We offer many services. We sell suicide projects, for instance. Not as expensive. Lots more. Let me just tell you this, all the famous people who have died recently – from the Bombay mafia leader being gunned down to the Calcutta filmstar who committed suicide with the phone in his hand and forty sleeping pills in his stomach – it was all our doing. And then there are always the political leaders. It’s very easy to help them – all of them prefer a heart attack.
– So you people help only the famous? Give them the gift of death, that is.
– We’re still trying consolidate our business, you see. The company’s a long way from breaking even. But yes, pride in our performance is our major capital at present. Later, of course, we’ll have to think of the economically weaker classes too. To tell you the truth, poor people are much more trouble. The bastards aren’t even sure whether they’re alive in the first place, how can they be expected to think of death? And besides, they’re unbelievably crude.
– What about those even lower down – miles below the poverty line – beggars?
– Impossible! Last year our R&D people studied the death wishes of beggars in three metropolitan cities – Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Their findings were – how shall I put it – silly and delightful. Childish demands.
– Such as?
– In most cases the image involves eating. For instance, some of them want their limbs, heads and bodies to be stuffed with meat, fish, butter and alcohol till they explode. They desperately want liquor. Then again, some of them wanted god to take them in his arms at the centre of Flora Fountain in Bombay. Infantile, and so naive.
– But you have to say they’re imaginative.
– That’s true. They’re bound to, since they’re human beings. But yes, we get a lot of valuable ideas from children. Just the other day our R&D unearthed a fascinating story from an American newspaper.
– Tell me, please.
– A boy, you know. About twelve. Somewhere near Chicago. The fellow had dressed up as Batman. He was Batman constantly, jumping from roof to roof with a pair of wings clipped on. No one took him seriously. Even the girls used to laugh at him. Child psychology, you see. So none of you can recognise Batman, he said. One day he was found in a deep freezer, frozen after several days in there. You’d be astounded at the kind of cases there are. Batman! Actually it’s not like I don’t drink. Pour me a strong whiskey, will you? What’s this whiskey called? Glender! Oh, it’s Scotch. I’ve never heard of this brand.
I had poured a few whiskeys. For the salesman. And for myself too. After I had poured several, he had left like Batman, swinging and weaving. I had weaved my way to bed too. The train had started moving. I could still hear his voice ringing in my ears…
– But yes, there’s a grand surprise in death, especially in accidental death – a thrill that we never deprive our clients of. Say someone has booked a death to be run over by a car. But not all his efforts will allow him to guess when, where, or on which road he will die. The virgin charm of sudden death will always remain.

Who was this man? What company did he represent, for that matter? The gift of death – the idea couldn’t exactly be dismissed out of hand. Despite my best efforts, I hadn’t been able to do it for three years. Secondly, don’t we have our own visions of death, after all? Would it be fulfilled in this one life, in this life? For instance, I have a specific sort of death wish of my own too. But then the death by record player is very expensive. Naturally. I live with doubts and misgiving like these. These things lie low when I take my pills regularly. When they raise their heads I visit the psychiatrist. She changes the medicine. Blue pills instead of white. In the darkness of power-cuts I pull that man’s black business card out for a look. The disturbing yellow letters are probably printed in fluoroscent ink. They glow in the darkness. I don’t mind showing the card to anyone who gets in touch with me. You can check for yourself by writing to them. It might take a little time but their people will certainly get in touch. You can be sure about this. They will definitely meet you.