The Air and the Water: Amar Mitra

~ 1 ~

Talapatra-babu’s home may not have been in Pasandpur, but fourteen months of living in this market town had turned him into a local. A Food Department inspector who accepted bribes energetically and lacked the skill to spare anyone from kickbacks, Ramshankar Talapatra was transferred from Sonarpur in 24 Parganas to our Pasandpur on the border between Bankura and Purulia after running foul of the authorities. No story about Pasandpur can be complete without him, because it seems that Pasandpur, with all its rough terrain and rocks and hillocks and vanishing jungles and red soil had charmed Talapatra-babu. It had captured his heart.  He used to assert with conviction that he had never been posted in such a wonderful place in his career of thirty-five years – where he could breathe deeply and easily, and accept both official and unofficial payments with equal ease, without anyone asking questions or sending anonymous applications to the higher authorities; a place where one could work happily for a hundred years.

Let me tell you about Pasandpur. Call it a market town or call it a city, even, but outsiders have never cared for Pasandpur despite the pasand in its name. No local ever gets a job here – outsiders work at the offices and courts in this town. And from the moment they arrive, they count the days to freedom from this sentence of exile. Tarapada-babu, the high school teacher, openly says that once the remaining five years of his working life are done, he’ll move to Durgapur or Burnpur, buy some land, and live his life out there. What attractions do Pasandpur hold for me?

We don’t exactly know what attractions Pasandpur holds for people, but what we have seen is that because of the offices and courts and the narrow-gauge railway line, we are never deprived of new faces. Clerks or vagabonds, those who come never stay on. We don’t see why they should. What does Pasandpur have to offer besides the unpolluted air here? The tiny toy train loses its novelty value quickly. We cannot hold back the people who come here, even if we want to. They leave. If they can’t, they grow old criticising Pasandpur. Inspector of Food Talapatra-babu and a few vagabonds are the only exceptions. Their faces are suffused with smiles as they try to pronounce the name of the town. As Talapatra-babu himself acknowledged, even those with whom he played cards in the evening paid him his bribes during the day, saying softly, here you are sir, five hundred it is. The Food Babu had never seen anything like this in his life.

When he heard this, Rabilochan-babu, the headmaster of the high school, said, but this is your legitimate due, how can my nephew expect to run a business without paying you off?

Examining his cards, Talapatra-babu said, not everyone understands, you know, they think all it needs is a smile to get things done. For heaven’s sake, if the doctor’s visit or the priest’s fee or the teacher’s salary isn’t cleared…

Talapatra-babu paused halfway, seeking his fellow players’ support. The headmaster was the first to nod in assent, of course, of course…

The headmaster’s nephew had a kerosene oil dealership. He had been entreating the inspector to increase his quota of oil – could he not make a recommendation to headquarters? And yes, he did sell the oil on the black market at inflated prices instead of giving it to ration card-holders, but then how was he to expand his business otherwise? Talapatra-babu had found him out, and had promptly held his palm out under the table. This had taken care of the situation, but he had haggled intently first with the nephew, making off for the card session as soon as he had pocketed the payment. The headmaster’s nephew’s wife served tea and chanachur. Sipping his tea, Talapatra had said, there can be no relationship between work and leisure, you know, the other thing is a matter of the day job…

Of course, of course. The innocent headmaster smiled at the inspector. Thank goodness you take bribes, that’s how things get done, the previous inspector had got my nephew into all kinds of trouble. He was almost arrested, saved himself only by paying off the police.

Talapatra-babu didn’t spend a single night outside Pasandpur during his fourteen months here. The place had offered him sanctuary, he would say, given him relief during his last days at work, so he would not leave.

Why should you go, you must help my nephew establish himself first, sir. The headmaster had told the inspector deferentially, you’re not exactly without friends here.

Pasandpur offers sanctuary to people. Vagrants take shelter here. Besides those who are transferred on work, the rest of the visitors are all wanderers. Some on their way in, others on their way out. Some of them are empty-headed, while others are brimming with intelligence, holding on to their ponderous heads and grey matter and brain-cells carefully as they climb out of the palanquin-like bogies on the narrow-gauge railway. It’s this train with two bogeys that brings people with job as well as drifters to Pasandpur from time to time. It had brought Ramshankar Talapatra too. A befuddled Talapatra-babu, halfway to old age, had got off the evening train one day with his suitcase and bedding. His skin blackened by the smoke from the coal engine, his drooping white moustache blackened too, a faded, ancient pair of terylene trousers hanging loosely around his waist, dressed in a khaki full-sleeved sweater, his feet covered by an old, patched pair of strapped sandals, his greying hair untouched by oil for months. People had mistaken him for a vagrant who had run away from home, eyeing him suspiciously, trying to size him up – was he half-mad or entirely mad, cunning or simple, a stayer or a traveller? But when the man had said, looking around him as he got off the train, what a nice place, their suspicion had ebbed. He had not got off at Pasandpur only to declare it napasand.

No one knows when Pasandpur became a pilgrimage site for eccentric vagabonds. Probably from the time the narrow-gauge railway was set up. The toylike train would frequently deposit an empty-headed or brainy drifter on the platform in the afternoon or evening and whistle its way along to the next station. There is a station here, it’s true, but that’s just an empty field, with neither an office nor any railway employees. There is no stationmaster, no pointsman, no tickets. There’s no fixed schedule for the train either. It might not show up for two day before arriving unexpectedly one evening, whistling. It might then stay here all night, periodically snorting and emitting smoke. The headmaster cannot sleep on those nights because of the sound made by the engine’s exhalations. He isn’t married, living with his nephew and nephew’s wife instead. One of his nephews is established, but not the other one. One of his nieces isn’t married yet. Worry has made him a light sleeper. Rabilochan-babu, the headmaster, doesn’t care for the train or the engine or its bogies. Once, a rather manly drifter had got off the train and almost torn another of his nieces apart after dragging her into the jungle. Such a to-do! Pasandpur’s people had decided to beat him to death. But fearing charges of murder, the headmaster had said, never mind, put him back on the train, are the people of Pasandpur really capable of killing a fellow human being?

It had certainly caused a furore. The people of Pasandpur still talk about it whenever the subject comes up. What else do we have here after all besides the train and the outsiders? Even the hailstorms are not as severe as they used to me. There was a hailstorm once, a long time ago. A twenty-kilo block of ice fell into the jungle from the sky. The cowherds saw it and told everyone. Apparently the ice took seventy-two hours to melt. Just that one time. And the other time was what the terribly beautiful and rather manly vagabond had gone and done. Forcing him into the train had not proved easy, either. The guard and driver had refused, asking, where should we take him?

Wherever you like, he’s a criminal.

No, the man had flared up, there would be nothing beautiful in this world then.

Then hand him over to the police, the railway people had said.

Word would get out in that case, with his niece becoming involved, which was why the headmaster had not taken that route. He had said, the man came by your train, we’re returning him.

But the drifter hadn’t wanted to leave, saying with a strange smile, I shall be back, no one can love the way the women here do, oh how exquisite her eyes, how bewitching her smile, how silken her breasts. There’s meaning to this town.

The headmaster had turned red. What meaning, he had muttered.

There’s a meaning to all this – why the sun here is so hot, where the winds swirl in from, why the girls here are so lovely inside.

The headmaster had felt overcome. He was told that the drifter had not forced his niece into the jungle – on the contrary, it was she who had enticed him. She was not particularly beautiful, but her eyes held the magic of water. It was the height of summer. Their joy had made flowers blossom on the palash trees in the forest. They had touched each other the way the breeze touches the flowers and the leaves. When a cowherd saw them, everyone came to know, and then the trouble started. People had raced to the spot to find the young woman with her arms around the vagabond’s unclothed, rock-solid body, covering his rough chest in kisses. The sound of kisses spread through the jungle like the splashing of rain in Pasandpur. The smell of damp earth rose from the scorched clay of summer. Much more would have taken place had the cowherd not seen them. The headmaster would have had to tackle everything. The girl is now a mother of two children, living in Burnpur. She has not been to Pasandpur in a long time. Because when she visits, she has no inclination to return, forgetting her husband and family and home.

Now the headmaster became Talapatra-babu’s companion. No one except that drifter and this food babu had ever loved Pasandpur. Sometimes the headmaster mentioned the vagabond subtly, he had said, this spirited sunshine, balmy breeze, a woman with a beautiful heart, her eyes like a limpid pool – none of this has ever happened before, and I don’t even know why they have now. Can you tell me, where is the real home of the wind that swirls about in Pasandpur?

Talapatra said, oh no, my home isn’t in Sonarpur, I used to live by myself there too. My home is in Midnapore, it’s been such a long time since I’ve been there.

Won’t you go home?

I’ll stay here as long as I’m happy – after all, no one’s filed a petition accusing me of taking bribes or stealing, so I’m not likely to be transferred again.

~ 2 ~

One evening the headmaster Rabilochan-babu turned to Talapatra, will you do me a favour?

The food inspector’s experienced eye had discerned that the headmaster really was in trouble, that he really needed help. Come to my office tomorrow afternoon, he said sternly.

No, this isn’t for my nephew.

Dropping the cards in his hand, Talapatra said, I know, I have my eye on your nephew, I know he’s selling kerosene at six rupees in the open market instead of two-and-a-half as he should.

Looking troubled, the headmaster responded, what can I do, he’s so obsessed with money that he simply won’t listen.

If he listened he would be a kerosene dealer all his life. Did you know he’s selling cement too?

The headmaster said, he has no choice – he didn’t even finish school. Do you think I enjoy listening to people saying that my nephew hasn’t even passed his higher secondary exams? The other teachers taunt me.

Talapatra giggled, it’s all out of envy – do they have any idea that out of the twenty-six dealers in this area your nephew pays me the largest amount?

The headmaster summoned his nephew’s wife, can you make us another cup of tea, Lalita my dear, inspector-babu will be here for a while.

No tea, said Talapatra, I’m off now Rabi-babu, we’ll talk tomorrow afternoon.

The headmaster wouldn’t relent. He followed Talapatra, catching up with him. That’s not it, I just wanted to talk about my niece’s wedding.

Tomorrow afternoon, then.

They did talk the next afternoon. Not that Talapatra-babu took a fee for listening. But he said, pay me for matchmaking, it won’t amount to a bribe. The headmaster would have to pay, for he had made a match with one of the dealers. The groom lived in Rangamati, close to Pasandpur, young, of marriageable age. Could Talapatra finalise the match, on the condition that the dowry would have to be reduced?

Is that all? It’ll be done. I have him under my thumb. Talapatra-babu had said with a smile, he sells the entire rice and wheat meant for the ration-shop on the open market. Just watch what I do to him.

The headmaster had told his intimate associates everything afterwards. The match would not have been finalised if Talapatra-babu hadn’t butted in. The groom could not ignore the inspector. The headmaster was relieved after the marriage. Like her sister, this girl too had started frequenting the station and the jungle of palash trees. He wouldn’t have been able to take it if something untoward were to happen.

Talapatra-babu was a double beneficiary, extracting a fat fee for matchmaking. He would claim he needed money desperately, that there was no way to survive without money. And yet he cooked for himself, slept on a khatia, put on a freshly-washed shirt just once a week, and freshly-laundered trousers just once in two months. Someone used to visit him from Midnapore at the beginning of every month – his son, possibly. He would leave by the evening train with money. In addition, Talapatra also sent a money-order around the middle of every month. He had no bank account here. He would be anxious at the beginning of the month, looking relieved only after his son had arrived and he had handed over the money. He would keep track through the month of the ways in which his twenty-six dealers were breaking the law. Using this information, he would corner them, two hundred won’t do this month, Parimal, add another hundred, I can’t bear to look at what you’ve done with the sugar.

He had got hold of a ramshackle cycle from the headmaster, promising to return it when he left. He would patrol Pasandpur, Rangamati, Shaltora, Naw-Pahari and all the other areas on this cycle. When one of the tyres was punctured, he got the headmaster’s nephew to pay for a new one. The people of Pasandpur are the finest of all, he would say.

One day he observed, it’s amazing – when I got off the train last winter, I had so many grey hairs, and my skin sagged, but just look at the change in me over this past one year, headmaster-mashai.

Really! The headmaster was astonished.

Oh yes. Check for yourself.

He was right. The headmaster felt he was telling the truth. The inspector had indeed arrived with a head full of grey hair. An elderly man with a stoop who had got off the train only this past winter. Looked like a vagrant. But you wouldn’t know that now when you looked at him.

What hair-oil do you use, asked the headmaster.

I don’t use hair-oil.

Then how?

It’s the air and the water here, I’ve never encountered such fresh air anywhere, not even such water, all the grime in my inner machinery has been washed away.

The headmaster was pleased. As a long-time inhabitant of Pasandpur, he couldn’t stand criticism. Something happened to him in his happiness, and he asked, what was that you were saying about the air?

Not just the air, the sunshine too, one is warm all the time, very useful.

The sunshine too! The headmaster began to mutter, do you know what this air and sunshine mean?

Talapatra-babu guffawed. Meaning, what do you mean, how can they mean anything?

Where do they come from?

Talapatra-babu laughed uproariously again. Where on earth will it come from? What are you talking about? By the way, my days here are drawing to an end, a month and a half to go.

A month and a half! And then?

I’m retiring, got my letter already. Tell your nephew to increase my payment this month, all right?

The headmaster asked, and after retirement?

I’ll go home. A note of mourning appeared in Talapatra-babu’s voice.

You’ll get a pension, won’t you?

It’s a pittance. The salary’s a joke, you know, my real earnings come from the dealers. The salary is just evidence of having a job. What I earn is from bribes. Can you imagine how much I have to cycle around for it? No one lets go of money easily – neither your nephew, nor anyone else. But yes, extracting bribes in Pasandpur is easy. Let’s say I buy a packet of cigarettes and tell the shopkeeper that so-and-so dealer will pay, he doesn’t object. My son takes away toiletries too every month, besides the money.

The headmaster said, it’s all thanks to the air here, don’t you think?

As he left, the inspector said, remind your nephew to double the payment this month…

I will, nodded the headmaster.

~ 3 ~

Talapatra-babu arrived panting a fortnight later, didn’t you tell him, master-mashai?

Of course I did.

The inspector had become thinner in a mere fortnight. He seemed to be combing the area on his cycle all day, returning home late at night, and becoming irregular at the card sessions. The nephew had said, inspector-babu is desperate for money, but now that he’s about to retire, why should people pay him more?

But he’s been here so long.

The nephew had chided his uncle, the headmaster, don’t you speak up for him now.

So the headmaster gave the inspector a seat. Let it go, it’s only a matter of a few days more.

Talapatra muttered, I wrote home saying I’m retiring next month – so my wife wrote back, bring money.

You have your Provident Fund, gratuity…

Talapatra-babu shook his head. I’ve already withdrawn my Provident Fund, only the last few months’ money in there now, a couple of thousand at best.

And the gratuity?

No knowing when I’ll get it, and they’ll deduct most of it anyway. I embezzled government money once for my eldest son to start his own business. The business failed, I’ve been ruined too – no increments for four years, they’ll take away most of the gratuity, and my salary isn’t high enough for a fat pension.

Talapatra’s hair suddenly appeared greyer to the headmaster. For the first time he realised that the inspector used dentures, for in his agitation Talapatra had forgotten to put them on. So he was looking very old, his cheeks sunken, eyes clouded over. He had aged a great deal in a fortnight. He stuttered when he tried to speak.

The headmaster couldn’t make any promises. The inspector disappeared for the next few days. One evening the nephew said, the man is sniffing around like a dog, he’s even invading dealers at home in the middle of the night.

The headmaster said, he’s in trouble, before he leaves you’d better…

The nephew said, we’ll give him a farewell.

But what farewell? With ten days to go before his retirement, the inspector said, I’m getting an extension.

Wonderful, six months more in that case, right? The headmaster inspected Talapatra closely. The man had acquired a stoop, his shoulders seemed bent. He had not shaved for at least a week, and even his eyebrows seemed to have greyed suddenly. He looked like the man who had got off the train on a winter evening. His hands shook as they picked up a cup of tea.

Sipping his tea, Talapatra said, I don’t need cordiality – my rates have increased, I need my payment at once.

Why are you telling me all this? The headmaster seemed irked.

No, not you, but please tell your nephew. The man suddenly fell silent. Then he said in a low voice, there’s no place like Pasandpur, master-mashai. Nor people, and moreover, you’re my friend.

Yes, said the headmaster inaudibly.

Then let me tell you that my wife has written, only if I hand over whatever money I have to her and my two sons will she let me enter the house. How much money do you suppose that is? I informed them, but they don’t believe me.

But the house is yours, what do they mean they won’t let you in?

No, sir, my wife is the official owner. My sons have written, if you’re retiring, you won’t have any money to give us – so better look for work. What do I do?

The headmaster was silent, experiencing a significant lack of ability to offer advice.

The next day the headmaster was told by his nephew, all lies, how can he get an extension – his corruption is legendary, the dealers in Sonarpur even beat him up, they know everything at headquarters.

Never mind, he’s leaving.

That’s why we aren’t saying anything, but he’s making unfair demands. If we’d known he would do this we’d also have beaten him up and thrown him out. But then how would we have done that – the previous inspector got us into deep trouble, that’s why this one was spared.

The headmaster said, give him a proper farewell at least, find out what he wants, a TV set if possible, probably doesn’t have one at home.

He doesn’t want any of that, wants cash – we had thought of using the last month’s payments for a grand farewell. Pasandpur would have earned a name for itself.

The inspector arrived again on the day before his retirement. Floppy trousers, khaki sweater, uncombed hair, sunken cheeks, trembling on his feet, yes I admit I lied, everyone knows there was no chance of an extension, I had tried to collect three months’ extra payment in advance, but everyone’s come to know, I’m a thief after all, how can I get an extension?

He was raving, discovered the headmaster. When I saw how rich some of my relations were I began to take bribes in Ranaghat, then it got to be a habit. I even smuggled rice myself when I was in Murshidabad, it’s all a matter of habit, during the food movement I took government-supplied rice home, all out of habit, terrible. And not just me, my family has become used to it too. When I wrote that I would go home penniless after retirement, they replied, fend for yourself in that case, you can’t get away with lies…

Forget it, forget the whole thing, would you like some coffee?

Talapatra-babu shook his head. I took money from you too, although it was put to good use, but what do I do now, I’m in such a hole, let me see how much I can take with me, Pasandpur’s air and sunshine are lovely…

Talapatra-babu didn’t budge even after retiring on the thirty-first of the month. Never mind the farewell, he hadn’t even received his allowance for the final month. His successor had forbidden all the dealers. He’s a thief, don’t any of you give him any money. Why should you have to pay if you’re running a clean business? And if you must pay, give it to me, I’m the Inspector of Food at Pasandpur now.

The headmaster asked, why did you have to lie?

Talapatra-babu grimaced at the headmaster’s question. I was forced to lie, so that I could make a little extra money.

Talapatra couldn’t extract any money. Nothing at all. He spent his final days wandering from one shop to another, from one godown to the next, from one house to another, returning despondently each time. Everyone promised to pay the next day, or the day after. Eventually they didn’t even invite him in anymore. His days ran out. Even when they invited him in they didn’t talk to him. Even when they talked to him it was just small talk, when are you going home, and so on. No one offered him a cup of tea. No farewell. People who used to genuflect before him twice a day averted their eyes now.

He kept saying, make the payment, I need the money desperately, I’m retiring.

No one paid any attention. Eventually he spent his days alone at a tea-shop, sitting on a bench, facing the road. Winter had left, but its last bite was still to come. A bitterly cold north wind blew every morning. It raised each of his grey hairs on end. His head drooped, his body trembled. He looked exactly like a sick, infirm tiger, its teeth fallen out, but its greed for flesh intact. He kept hailing passers-by, just a minute, Saha-babu; here, Netai; I believe you’re planning to increase your wheat quota, Mandal-babu…

The ration-shop owner strode past without heeding him. Only the headmaster noticed him on his way back from school. Stopping, he said, not here, Talapatra-babu, come home with me for a cup of tea.

The inspector got to his feet with a wan smile, not today, Gobindo Saha is about to return, the dealer from Shaltora, owes me three months’ payment, I’m lying in wait for him.

How can you, just send word, he’ll send your money to you.

He won’t, the treacherous miser that he is. I have no choice, I can’t go back empty-handed, can I.

The headmaster said, the people of Pasandpur aren’t traitors – all right, I shall send for him, his son goes to my school.

Yes, I had always thought the people of Pasandpur wouldn’t turn out this way. I’ll be leaving soon, master-mashai, I’ll just sit here till then to feel the sunshine and the air, why don’t you go home. Ah – even breathing is such a joy here. There’s meaning to this town, don’t you think?

The headmaster was reminded of the drifter. He had said something just like this when going far away from Pasandpur. There was a similarity. The inspector had been caught in the same web.

That evening the headmaster told his nephew, all of you should give Talapatra-babu something, it doesn’t feel good to see him sitting there all day.

The nephew shook his head. He doesn’t want a TV, he wants money, the dealers aren’t interested anymore, they’re all chasing the new inspector.

Ask them once more.

Everyone’s avoiding him. They think there’s no point throwing money at him now that he’s retired – he took quite a lot during these twelve months, after all.

The headmaster couldn’t accept this. He realised that his nephew was also avoiding Talapatra. But there were other people in Pasandpur. When they heard, they said, this can’t go on, the man just sits there breathing in the dirt and grime, he’s aged visibly, we can’t bear to see this. No one in Pasandpur can be allowed to be unhappy. Those of us who were long-time residents of Pasandpur said, how much does he want, we’ll take up a collection, let him go back home.

Talapatra shook his head at this, no, the dealers must pay, why should you, I didn’t do anything for you.

That doesn’t matter, you’ve lived in Pasandpur for over a year, we shall give you a farewell so that you can go back home.

Talapatra-babu kept shaking his head, mumbling, whom will I go back to? They know money, but they don’t know me. I made a big mistake, if I had come to Pasandpur earlier, thirty-five years ago, I wouldn’t have developed this habit of taking bribes. The air and sunlight here mean something, don’t you think, that’s why I cut down on the bribes here, I used to earn a lot more at Sonarpur…

Talapatra-babu kept repeating the same thing for several days, there on the roadside. The man began to change visibly. If he had come here thirty-five years earlier, he might have never taken bribes, he rued. The bribes had done him no good. He had just become slaves to his wife, sons, and money. Ah! What a lovely place Pasandpur is, even my grey hairs had turned black.

Then Inspector Talapatra disappeared suddenly. That is to say, he boarded the train without being observed by anyone. The next day we confronted the guard and the driver, have you taken the inspector back?

The aged driver, covered in coal-dust, and the aged guard both began to chortle, yes we took him back, the last time all of you had forced a vagabond on us, this time we took him back of our own volition, get in, Talapatra, we told him, why spend any more time here?

He got in?

He did, but he has promised to return, he won’t abandon this place – just as it is easy to take bribes here, it’s also possible to live here happily without taking bribes, here grey hair turns black, teeth stop wobbling and set themselves firmly back in the gums, sagging skin turns taut, eyesight improves, apparently there’s meaning to living here, there’s… The guard and the driver, two aged men, chattered on.

The headmaster’s eyes misted over. Talapatra won’t return.

A month and a half later, Ramshankar Talapatra’s sons came instead, two demons in search of their ungrateful father. They began to scream, the swine has escaped. Where does he think he can hide, we’ll find him and get our money.

The people of Pasandpur beat them up and forced them back into the train. Boarding, they said they would take revenge on their father, or on Pasandpur, Sonarpur was much better, even though their father had been beaten up there he had made lots more money, Pasandpur had corrupted him.

Now the headmaster of Pasandpur gazes at the railway lines all day long. He has retired, after all. The lines are visible clearly from his veranda. I wonder what he stares at. Even though he cannot recognise people a couple of feet away, now and them he calls out to his nephew’s wife, isn’t that a drifter there, bent over and covered in coaldust? Could it be Talapatra-babu? Or is it the beautiful man who had come earlier… Inspector-babu…. he-e-e-e-re…

The dust blows across the empty road. The summer winds are encroaching on Pasandpur, a little at a time. The nephew’s wife’s eyes mist over too. She covers her mouth with the end of her sari.

The Love Letter: Buddhadeva Bose

~ 1 ~

Walking though the drizzle in a raincoat, he kept stopping every now and then – to fill his lungs with oxygen, to swallow a few mouthfuls of light air. It was lovely – this drizzle, this fresh air which seemed newly-awakened, this quiet narrow serpentine lane, which – although a little uneven, paved with stones, a little too clean and desolate – still, it vaguely reminded him of Beltala Road. So… I’m going back? Yes, of course; my job, my family, my ‘Speech’ magazine, my linguistics society – all of them are in Calcutta, how will Calcutta survive unless I return? But there are still three days to go.

He chanced upon a street corner, on the right a mansion with Doric columns, in front of it Diana surrounded by her nymphs, a wide avenue bursting with the sound of scooters. This is Rome, I have arrived in Rome, the infinite city of memories and loveliness – I arrived this instant, for the first time… and now? The lane after the statue of Diana – wasn’t that what the girl at the hotel said? Looks like that street there… yes! Another narrow, paved lane, small shops on either side – furniture, silverware, clothes, books – behind the glass the latest books on four languages – I’m tempted to enter, but not now: first, the letter. The rain had almost let up, the sunlight became visible on the last few drops, the enormous square was lit up – crowds of people, taxis coming to a halt, two horse-drawn phaetons awaited the most sophisticated among the tourists – and a flight of steps began where the square ended; steep, wide, venerable, like a concentrated, silent welcome. So this was the Piazza di Spagnia. He didn’t stop for a look, he walked on quickly, a wall caught his eye – a deferential notice on a plaque: Keats-Shelley House. That second floor room – that window, through which a foreign young man would gaze occasionally, an unknown, dying poet, seeing nothing, understanding nothing. I will be in that room in a few minutes, from the same window I will look out on the Hispanic steps – the same I who had till the age of forty-two considered Delhi my western frontier. Excuse me for a few moments, Shelley-Keats: first, the letter.

After a single glance, he tore his eyes away from the fountain before him; American Express was just two buildings away.

It was summer, there was a crowd of American tourists, long queues snaked up to every counter. Although some tourists decide to go out there on camping, taking out all the necessary equipment with them that is of vital importance. Still he was from the one on the counter, behind nine or ten people. He was looking at the letters arranged in their pigeonholes – envelopes of different colours, red blue yellow green airmail flags, stamps glittering as though they had been crowned – inside  them, scores of languages, so much hope, happiness, comfort. Is it that light grey envelope there… no, that’s been given to someone else. Even after scouring the racks with his eyes he didn’t seem to spot the familiar grey envelope. Was it just an aerogramme then, or perhaps a picture postcard with a couple of paragraphs? Or was it actually possible that not one of those numerous envelopes had his name on it?

Suddenly he felt warm, taking off his raincoat he folded it over his arm.

Who was this distant friend for whose letter he was so distraught? Sadly, the answer was rather pedestrian. A woman, whom he had met – unexpectedly, unbearably – in a Midwest town in America, because of whom his days had become burdened for several weeks now and his nights tumultuous, whose absence accompanied him everywhere in Europe, from one city to another, from one country to another, continuously. And continuously the letters from this woman, in every country, in every city, while travelling on the train, while eating at the restaurant, on a bench by the river, on the steps before the museum; in the spaces between all he had seen on his travels, all the sights, all the paintings, all the palaces, all the old manuscripts, the letters ebbed and flowed like waves, a secret longing in his middle-aged veins, exciting and pleasurable like the beginning of an illness. Of course he had written back too – staying up nights in his hotel room after the exertions of the day, sometimes the moment he arrived at a new town, sometimes he had constructed sentences in his head while travelling, which he no longer remembered when it was time to write the letter. There were no significant developments to report, no questions that had to be answered, nothing new that needed to be said, but still – he had to write. He had to write in a language that was foreign to both of them; she could at least use her mother-tongue German from time to time, but although he could read five European languages he could write only in one, English, which he had once prided himself on knowing very well. But when he tried to write to a special person during a particular state of mind he discovered that what he had thought of as English was nothing but a tight, ill-fitting dress, which he could use to accommodate his research on linguistics, but in which it was impossible to express what was in his heart. It was a formidable obstacle – but still he had to write. Such a turmoil in his heart – he could not find the words to match it, he condemned his own fate because she did not understand Bengali, and then the very next moment he bowed in gratitude to his destiny, because his life – his humdrum Bengali life on which the shadow of old age had fallen already – had experienced something so astonishing.

Her last letter would reach him here in Rome. Last, for he was going directly to Calcutta from Rome, and to him Calcutta was synonymous with a well-defined, disciplined, clearly-articulated circle of life, which included many other people, and which had no room for anything purely personal. He would board the eastbound plane three days from now, and the woman of his desire on the other side of the ocean, living on an unknown longitude on a distant western continent, who had awakened him, who had aroused his sadness, would be lost at once. What had been alive in two chaotic hearts would be converted into a silent point on a lifeless atlas. That was why today’s letter was crucial.

From the other side of the counter came a voice: ‘Yes, sir?’

‘Ray, Birupaksh,’ he said, offering his passport; the handsome young clerk, as efficient as a machine, met his expectations at once. A strange sensation spread over him as soon as he saw the envelope, as though all distance had been banished for an instant, as though there was no such thing as separation in life. And to think I had imagined there would be no letter – how sceptical I am even though I’m so lucky!

Birupaksha walked away, leaning against the wall in a quiet corner. He slit the envelope open carefully with his nails. A large sheet of ivory paper, stiff and crackling – but a little too white, unbelievably colourless. Nothing written on it, not a single ink-mark or pen-stroke – from top to bottom, from left to right, on both sides… white, silent, virginal. But what did the words top and bottom, left and right mean anyway, since nothing was written he didn’t even know whether he was holding the letter the right way up. Yet the handwriting on the envelope was flawless, the postal mark on the stamp featuring Abraham Lincoln was immaculate – and the envelope, light grey, with the watermark of aeroplanes all over it, made in France, was indubitably from Esha too… Then?

Out on the road, Birupaksha wiped his forehead with his handkerchief, slinging his suddenly heavy raincoat over his shoulder he stopped on the pavement. There’s a newspaper kiosk – I haven’t kept touch with the world for a long time, let’s see how things are. Carefully crossing the road made dangerous by speeding cars, he bought a New York Herald Tribune published in Paris, a Le Monde, a Frankfurter Zeitung, and, at the last moment, a slim guide to tourist attractions in Rome – immediately after buying them he regretted burdening himself with these papers, to tell the truth, am I really curious about the world right now? Crossing the road again and passing the Hispanic steps, he paused suddenly before a signboard: Babbington Tea House. No sooner did he read the name in this unexpected display of the English language than his Bengali throat felt parched for the taste of tea – although many things on the Continent were magnificent, no one understood tea there, now he might be able to quench his thirst in real tannin juice in this tea shop with an English name. He liked the place the moment he entered – its tranquil settings were quiet and dark, with just two customers sitting silently and dimly in two corners – that table by the window, tasting the news of the world with tea for a restful half hour – the possibility seemed delightful. He leaned back on the padded bench, ran his eyes over the headlines in each of the newspapers in turn, but it appeared that nothing was happening in the world, nothing new, at any rate – a minister’s resignation, trouble at an election, countries at odds with one another, conflicts, pretended alliances – for ages, ages, he had been seeing these same things in the papers, the same news under different names and different dates. Birupaksha sighed, pushing aside the newspapers in exhaustion. A short Italian girl with pink cheeks brought his tea in a silver pot, Birupaksha’s heart quickened a little at the sight of her milk-white, ironed uniform.

Was that what it really was? A virginal white? I didn’t make a mistake, did I? Making sure no one was watching, he surreptitiously pulled the grey envelope out of his pocket – this time too, an unmarked sheet of paper emerged. Holding it up to his nose briefly, he thought he sensed a faint fragrance – familiar – like the perfume Esha used. What, what could it be? … What could it be? Had she written a letter on both sides of a different sheet of paper and then absent-mindedly inserted a blank sheet in the envelope? No, it wasn’t possible, there wasn’t even a chance in a million of such a mistake – especially for someone like Esha, whom I have never seen losing her composure even under the strongest emotional pressure. But what if that one-in-a-million chance has come true in my case? Who can say with certainty that what doesn’t usually happen will never actually happen? But if the mistake did occur, it must have been caught at once, and the real letter also posted?… But… then… why didn’t the other one reach?

Birupaksha drank half a cup of tea out of good manners, left a fat tip for the short, pink-cheeked waitress, abandoned the newspapers, and returned to American Express in two minutes.

‘Can you please check whether there’s another letter for me?’

Checking the pigeon-hole patiently, the clerk said, ‘Sorry, sir.’

Glancing at his yellow tie, Birupaksha swallowed.

‘Will there be another delivery in the evening?’

‘The evening delivery doesn’t contain overseas letters. Besides, we’re only open till three. You can check again tomorrow morning.’

For the first time, Birupaksha realized that, like other things in life, letters also depended on chance. How easily we assume that any letter that’s been written is bound to be posted, and that if it has been posted it is certain to reach its destination at the right time. It was true that the majority of letters did arrive at their destination, but don’t we hear of letters being lost at times? And this postal network spanning the entire world – international, intercontinental, interoceanic – this highly complicated and superbly controlled system, the finest example of human cooperation, which ensured that a letter extracted from a post-box in an Alaskan village was inevitably delivered five days later to a dilapidated building in a Bangkok lane with its address obliterated – was this too not a wonder, terming which a miracle would not be an exaggeration? So many yawning traps stood in its way – a clerk’s exhaustion, a postman’s inattention; floods, storms, fire, transport mishaps. Come to think of it, receiving a letter was just as unlikely as living healthily for many years; any letter could be lost, we could die or fall hopelessly ill at any time – and yet we have not learnt to be grateful for being able to live with our organs intact, or for having received all our letters all this time.

– But perhaps I’m overdoing it; a wider world exists beyond the circle I am going round and round in over an expected letter – not the bubble-like world of the newspapers, but a different, magical world, in which even ruins shine forth as examples of beauty, and the perturbation of existence has a dappled covering which we mistake for permanence. This is Rome, I am in Rome, for the first time, I’ll be here only for two days, and yet I’ve seen none of the sights although it’s 10.30 am already.

Birupaksha made up his mind and took a taxi; saw many sights, spent a great deal of money, drank a glass and a half of Chianti with dinner so that he could sleep well – and returned to the hotel at nearly 11 pm, suitably tired, a little unsteady from the wine that he was unused to drinking. He was sleepy on his way upstairs in the lift, but the moment he unlocked his door and entered, switching on the light to see a neatly made bed, maroon curtains on the window, a bottle of mineral water on the table near the head of the bed – all the routine arrangements for comfort which were available for a price in any country – he was overcome by the kind of fatigue that can almost be called hopelessness, under whose effect he could suddenly fall ill one night while on his travels, switching on the light at his head now and then, tired of trying to sleep, and then switching it off immediately afterwards and turning on his side, and, half-asleep, feeling in the dim darkness that he was in his usual bed in his own home, that someone would respond if he were to call, someone dear to him would come running if he were to scream, when his imagination persuaded him that his country was the best, that the most comfortable bed was the one the maid Haridasi made for him every night, and that the most beautiful sight was the three-storied house with the plaster flaking off the walls he set his eyes on first thing every morning – and remember the very next instant that he was now far away in another country, even if he tossed and turned all night in his sleep no one would come to him. Just like the child whose heart ached (Birupaksha was reminded of the term pawran porey, which he had learnt as a young boy in east Bengal) if his mother went away for even a single day, Birupaksha was overcome by unhappiness – he had never felt this way anywhere else – as though he wanted to go back, to do nothing but go back to his own house where his family was, the only place that offered him happiness, offered him security. But the question was: which was his own country, where was his home, and who was his family?

Birupaksha prepared for bed mechanically; taking off his watch, he piled everything in his pocket on the table, wrapping his dressing gown around his pajamas, he sat down in the chair. He tried to keep alive in his mind all that he had seen that day… an unwavering radiance, another free spirit with the same bent of mind, beyond our momentary pains and pleasures – ultimately, was this not what brought comfort to humans – such as his linguistics, or like Michelangelo, Rafael or Donatello, who obliterated the memories of the heinous crimes of the Renaissance, the poison, the dagger, the agony of thousands of people burnt alive… But I am only reeling off names, quoting from books, I have not seen anything. My mind is estranged from my eyes, my soul is battling with my body, I am not where I am. Say something, Esha, say something to me – let me see Rome. This is my first time here, I may never come back.

Seemingly disobeying his will, his hand reached out amidst the pile of light, glittering and valueless Italian coins, the wallet swollen with Italian currency notes, the address book, the passport, and the useless scraps of paper. Again that white sheet of paper, turned bluish by the light from the table-lamp with the green shade. As though they were there, words, hidden in it, like pomegranate seeds beneath the hard shell – or like the emptiness of the mirror in an empty room, which can be filled any moment if a door were to be opened, if a curtain were to be drawn. Birupaksha held the sheet of paper up to the light, it appeared yellowish white, like the yolk within the eggshell. Stretching it out flat on the table, he examined it more carefully, for better illumination he bent the neck of the lamp much closer to the paper. After a few moments he thought a few letters were dimly visible here and there. Birupaksha rubbed his eyes, concentrating all the power in his eyes, trained by years of reading ancient manuscripts, on those spots; a few more letters became visible.

Suddenly he remembered reading about invisible ink in a detective story a long time ago, the letters appeared as soon as the paper was warmed. Even earlier, when he was in school, someone had said that the same effect could be achieved by writing with a nib dipped in lemon juice, he had tested this and found it correct… Then… that’s what it was! Very carefully, he held the paper with both his hands just below the bulb; before his eyes, just like corn popping, or like the blooming of buds into flowers under the touch of sunlight at dawn, the black letters began to appear against the white of the paper – one side was filled entirely. Now for the other side – that didn’t take long. And now, the message, the words, the assurance, the drops exuded by the heart of the woman who lived far away, a glass filled to the brim… before him, awaiting the touch of his lips. Birupaksha was not the least bit surprised, he felt no excitement – on the contrary, he considered it natural and appropriate, blamed himself for not having caught on straightaway to this small, innocent trick of Esha’s. But soon thick creases appeared on his forehead, his breath quickened, he had momentary doubts about his own equilibrium.

The letter was written in a language he did not know.

It was a long letter, filled with letters on both sides, nothing scratched out, no white spaces except between the lines, but even he – an expert in Indo-European languages, someone who worked all the time with several Indian and European languages – could not lift the veil off a single word on the sheet of paper spread out before him. After scanning it for some time, he was convinced that the letter was in code, written in the form of a puzzle, for in it he could see many different scripts – Greek letters between the Roman ones, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Gothic, Devnagari, he suspected some of them of being in Brahmi, in fact there were even Chinese characters, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Bengali letters too, and some symbols that eluded Birupaksha’s guesswork. Only at the bottom right of the reverse side, close to the margin, was the name ‘Esha’ written in large letters (Birupaksha had made her practise this), and only this made it possible to identify where the letter started and where it ended, and only this one word could be read.

Birupaksha laughed in a low, soft voice. She’s testing me to find out how good a linguist I am. She used to laugh at me gently when out of sheer bad habit I tried to explain the etymology of words to her, when I tried to teach her Bengali and Sanskrit. ‘Even after twelve years in America I haven’t mastered English,’ she would say, ‘and other languages on top of that! Spare me!’ Her logic was that learning more than one language meant learning none of them, and even after learning several many more would still be left. I would say, whatever is learnt is valuable. Maybe, but you have to accept that man’s ignorance is infinite anyway! The argument would end in amused laughter – but now, she seemed to have written this letter to me just to prove her point, she seemed to be challenging me with bolts of lightning from her lips and eyes  – well? Read this if you can!… Give me a little time, a little time – look, I’ve understood your game now.

But could she – whom I had named Esha, who had learnt a few Hebrew and Yiddish words from her grandmother as a child, and a little Russian from the time she had spent with her former husband, but who, to tell the truth, didn’t know any other language besides German or Russian – possibly compose such a global puzzle? But then how can I say she could not, for many ordinary dictionaries do include the Hebrew, Cyrillic and Greek alphabets, she could have picked up a few Devnagari and Bengali letters from books that I had left behind, and what I thought of as Chinese, Egyptian or Brahmi scripts might well be her own improvisations – maybe they had only been used to embellish the manuscript, the way many people doodle in the margin while thinking of the next sentence… But what if it turns out that the entire letter is meaningless, merely an artistically assembled chest with nothing inside? Just look – the handwriting appears synthetic too, the Roman letters are like printed text, interspersed with capitals – not quite recognizable although similar to Esha’s script. It seems this letter’s taken a long time, a great deal of patience, to be written or drawn – but how did she get so much time, how did she manage to be so patient when she knew how much I yearn to hear her voice?

Why do you mock me, Esha?

– Mock? Did she then not really give all of herself to me, did she hold something back? Is she then trying to take herself back at this final hour, before the last farewell, to reject her relationship with me – she, who’s the torrent in my heart?… No, it isn’t possible, it just isn’t possible. I must believe. There’s her signature – clear, my most favourite letters in the language most familiar to me – am I so weak as to ask for more proof? She’s not lying, she’s not mocking me, I will decipher the meaning – I have to.

An hour passed, but still the lines on Birupaksha’s brow didn’t smoothen out, his eyes began to ache from glaring constantly at the letter. Despair crowded around him again, his body was ready to collapse with fatigue, but there was no sleep, it was impossible to sleep in this state of mind. Tell me, Esha, explain what this means – if it’s rejection, tell me that too. In two days the distance between us will become immense – tell me your final word before that – tell me, is this agonizing vigil of mine real? Is it not real?

The telephone on the table caught his eye. His watch showed one-thirty. Eight-thirty in the evening in the Midwest in USA – she was probably at home now, after dinner, the dishes done, she was flipping through Life magazine by herself, or listening to the news on television – what else did Americans who lived in the suburbs have to do in the evening? After a few moments, Birupaksha placed a long-distance phone call.

Successive female voices wafted over the ether – Rome, New York, Chicago – a wave travelling at the speed of thought – a few moments of silence, and then, he heard clearly, ‘Hello.’

For an instant, Birupaksha could not breathe. Esha’s voice – exactly like hers, a little deep, as though she’s standing before me, as though I’ll see her face in a moment. It took a little time for the echo of the impersonal ‘Hello’ to die in his ears.

Again from the other end, ‘Hello.’

‘It’s Birupaksha, from Rome.’

‘Oh, it’s you! How strange – I was thinking of you. How are you?’

‘Did you write to me – in Rome?’

‘Yes, of course I did. Didn’t you get it?’

‘I did – but I cannot understand whether it’s a letter.’

‘ Cannot understand?’ A gust of laughter.

‘I cannot understand a word, Esha. What have you done?’

‘I am writing a letter to you, all the time.’

‘All the time?’

‘All the time. In my head. Not everything can be written down, you know.’

‘But this letter – listen – what did you write in it? Which language is it in? Tell me, Esha, answer me – what did you write? Which language?’

‘You’re asking me what I wrote? In which language? You, of all people.’ That drizzle of laughter again.

‘Esha – I beg of you – tell me what you wrote.’

‘I wrote…’ a strange sound followed, as though it wasn’t Esha’s voice anymore, but impotent, half-spoken gobbledygook from the throat of someone being strangled.

Birupaksha heard himself shout, ‘Tell me! Tell me! What did you write?’

‘I wrote…’ Again those peculiar, distorted sounds. As though the sentence was being bent and mangled the moment it was begun, the shriek of a broken record on an old-fashioned wind-up gramophone, or a monkey trying to imitate a human voice. Every time Birupaksha called out, ‘Esha! Esha! Can you hear me?’ he heard the same sounds.

Then the line was disconnected. After a few moments Birupaksha placed another call to the same number, after several attempts the operator told him there was a storm on the Atlantic, she wouldn’t be able to get through till the next morning.

Birupaksha realized he was trembling, sweat was pouring down his face. Drawing the curtains, he opened a window pane, after several gulps of mineral water he sat down with the letter again.

What had they talked about on the telephone? Nothing at all, all he had found out was that Esha did indeed write him a letter. But… even that was a lot. Yes, she did write, but what proof did he have that this was the letter? ‘Cannot understand?… You’re asking me what I wrote? You, of all people!’ Faint laughter, affectionate, but blended with a touch of amusement, as though she was surprised that I cannot understand, as though she has reposed enormous faith in me, but I am proving myself unworthy of her. If only I had been able to talk a little longer, if only that mechanical failure hadn’t swamped us suddenly, if only nature’s whim had not cut us off! But she had said, ‘I am writing a letter to you all the time – in my head. Not everything can be written down, you know.’ What could be clearer? Not everything can be written down, since there there’s no end of things to say. And besides (this might be the real reason), how much can language achieve? A tight, ill-fitting outfit – does that describe only a foreign language, as English is for me or Russian, for Esha? Isn’t the concept of language itself constrained, a sort of guesswork – even if it’s what we refer to as our mother tongue? The only difference is that we are more at ease in some languages than in others. Consider the nations that speak English, or Spanish, or Bengali or Hindi or Tamil – how many of their people can really speak it in a way that you can talk about? Instead, language is being eroded by their usage, it is their thousands of newspapers that are becoming filthier by the day, the adjectives are crumbling, the proverbs and humour and apt phrases are being converted to clichés. Does none of those acclaimed pieces that are acknowledged as the best examples of a language reveal the occasional stitch of a blunt needle, a strand of loose thread, or passages held together by a pin – which we do not notice because of the gems that sparkle in between? What is perfect and dazzling and complete in itself in the mind shrinks – or swells, bursting and losing its intensity – to become a compromise when it is put into the mould of language – no longer absolute, but relative to place, time and situation. Yes, relative, but language changes continuously over time – even the flesh-and-blood Shakespeare can no longer be read without notes now, eighteenth century Bengali prose is incomprehensible to the everyday reader. Consider two contemporary individuals from Chittagong and Bankura – both places situated in what was once the single state of Bengal, both the individuals speaking ‘Bengali’ – but bridging the linguistic gap between them is almost impossible. Texts change so much in translation – they have to, for not all languages are equally endowed, every language has its subtleties, compound words, pulses and rhythms, light and darkness, which are unique to it, beyond the reach of any other language. And what we refer to as original writing, that is translation too – from thought to language, from imagination to embodiment; this translation is the most difficult and arduous – and perhaps the least successful. How wonderful it would have been if we could have woven several languages on the same loom, if there were a retort flask in which we could have distilled the different qualities of different languages! Perhaps in this might grow, not this language or that, but just language, the long awaited language in which everything can be said. And perhaps that is what Esha is trying to do – on a small scale, on her own initiative, she wants to create just for me a special, secret, assimilated, symbolic language that no one else may understand, but that I will easily be able to get to the bottom of – at least, that’s what she assumes – since I am a linguist, and since I love her. Then… what I had thought at first is right, after all.

– But how is that possible? Esha isn’t a book-eating creature like me (thank goodness!) – how would such an plan occur to her? The doubt rose in Birupaksha’s mind for the second time, but this time he dismissed it deliberately, the proposition that it was impossible for Esha to create such a script no longer seemed worthy of consideration. He viewed the whole thing from a different perspective now, he asked himself: how much do you know about Esha anyway? No, do not protest; you have to admit that you were busy with her in another way – choked by the constraints of the body and of time, the days and nights growing more passionate under the threat of your imminent parting, you had neither the time nor the inclination to look for anything beyond this. You tried to hold her in arms too eager, far too impatiently, that is why she slipped through them, when you think of Esha you recall her laughing eyes, the scent of her hair, the trembling you felt at her touch – nothing else, just these. You have to admit that you could not accommodate anything larger in this love of yours, you only nibbled at the corners with your small appetite.

– But now this error would be corrected. This letter was the means.

Birupaksha trained his eyes again on the coded sheet of paper; he did not realise when his head fell back against, when his thoughts dimmed and disappeared in the darkness. He woke up with a start to realise that he was sleeping in his chair, his neck ached, and the glow from the table-lamp had paled in the glow of the sunlight reddened by the maroon curtain.

~ 2 ~

He didn’t receive a letter at American Express that day, but then he hadn’t expected to. He spent the day wandering about the streets – dishevelled, aimless, desultory. Numerous lanes, several piazzas, many statues and palaces and churches and fountains and gardens; but all his other curiosity was dead, he had eyes for nothing else. The thought that he was in Rome did not disturb him anymore; he didn’t even remember that on the plane he had decided that he simply had to see Bernini’s sculpture Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona (because one of the rivers was the Ganga); indeed, he didn’t even feel the urge to visit the graves or the memorials of the two poets from his childhood whose lines had still not been squashed under the weight of his linguistics studies. A different task, one specific task, seemed to have captured all his attention, he could have no respite until it was complete.

It was August, as the day progressed the sun grew stronger, at one-thirty in the afternoon he took refuge in a cafe. First a glass of Campari with plenty of ice, moistening his parched throat he spread the puzzle out again – for the first time that day. Something unexpected happened. As soon as he glanced at the paper three words leapt out of it to lodge themselves in his brain: ‘fern’ (‘distant’ in German) in Gothic letters, in the next line the Greek ‘oyaks’ (‘home’), and, a few words later, the word ‘alo’ (Bengali for ‘light’) – surely it was Bengali? – in Cyrillic script… so simple? He almost laughed aloud, but because of his familiarity with the rigorous techniques of research, he controlled himself at once, exercising caution… Where were the verbs hidden? Which of the words were prepositions and conjunctions? What kind of grammar linked the words? Nothing could be conjectured, an entire sentence had not revealed itself yet… Still, a start had been made, three holes discovered in the wall, like the false dawn before sunrise, the sky would soon be filled with light. That one of the three identified words was ‘light’ also seemed a good omen; ‘distant’, ‘house’, ‘light’ – perhaps she had written, ‘A light shines for me in that distant house’ – in other words, ‘Your absence is making me unhappy’… But it could also be ‘I want to return home from that distant light’. In which case the meaning would change entirely. These three words could be part of hundreds of different sentences – which of them was it? And besides, what was the certainty that they were part of the same sentence? The punctuation is unclear, and I’m not used to reading handwritten Greek or Gothic or Cyrillic, could I be getting confused, the way Bengali children confuse compound letters? If only I could get some help, if only a multilingual dictionary were at hand, an expert or two… is there anyone in Rome? He remembered Enrico Carducci – Italy’s finest linguist, but the field of his research is Mongolian, my problem doesn’t exactly belong to his area… Should I go to Geneva, home of Charles Dubois, whose huge accomplishment is the compilation of a ten-volume comparative dictionary of the ancient Indo-European languages? Birupaksha toyed with the idea – I met Dubois just a few months ago at the international conference in New York, he had expressed his approval for my short monograph on ‘The Evolution of Nasal Words in North Indian Languages’ – I don’t think he will turn me down. But… what shall I tell him? This letter… so personal, intimate – how can I show it to anyone? But… I could pretend amusement and say, ‘One of my American students has sent me a riddle – can you tell me whether it makes any sense, or whether it’s a hoax?’… And besides, to a scholar it’s all a question of knowledge, and knowledge is never personal; an authority like Charles Dubois or Joachim Tsin from Tubingen will analyse this letter with the same detachment with which a surgeon uses his scalpel on an unconscious and naked beautiful woman. Moreover, their probing skill will only reveal the literal meaning, the implied message will remain a virgin just for me. The more he pondered, the more Birupaksha found himself drawn to this idea, he felt that before he returned home he had to somehow shed this burden of disquiet that had taken over his mind. There was no difficulty, his holidays had not run out, the return ticket was valid for three weeks more, he had some money too. Nothing would go wrong if he were to delay his return…

He rose with his ravioli half-eaten, took a taxi to the airline office, cancelling the next day’s ticket, and sending a telegram to Calcutta, he took the train to Geneva in the evening.

But Charles Dubois was in hospital, ill. At Tubingen he was told that Joachim Tsin was in Portugal for his summer vacation. From Tubingen to Hamburg, where everyone was surprised when he enquired about professor Helmut Schnell, for the octogenarian scholar had been buried a year earlier. He went to Paris, but Henri Pere from the Sorbonne was in Quebec, and not due to return before October. For a moment, Birupaksha gave up in disappointment, he felt as though ill luck was dogging his footsteps, perhaps he would have to spend the rest of his life burdened by this turmoil.

His last night in Europe passed in a cheap hotel on the Left Bank in Paris. Before going to bed he counted his remaining foreign exchange – he had been travelling Third Class on trains all these days, had not taken a taxi in any circumstances, eaten frugally, travelled through the night wherever possible to save on hotel bills – but what he had still managed to spend was by no means insignificant in Indian terms. He was a good husband, a good father, dutiful, he was taking back for his family whatever money he had saved from his income as a teacher in the United States – he did not consider the money his own; which was why he felt a stab of remorse at this whimsical and speculative expense on the last leg of his journey. And it had come to nothing. Perhaps I should forget this letter, or conundrum, or joke, or whatever it is, it’s not as though I have nothing else to do and can devote all my time to such a trifle.

He had almost fallen asleep when a new thought suddenly set his mind ticking. That he had not found anyone to help him despite so much effort might also be intended, planned; she does not want me to seek anyone’s help; her demand of me is that I should pass this text alone and unaided. As soon as the thought occurred to him a wave of pleasure washed over his heart, sleep made his eyes heavier, he felt he had discovered the vital clue in this complex game. Slowly, he drifted off.

When he awoke, he found it was not light yet. His plane was to leave at ten, he had plenty of time. He had slept barely three hours – but still he felt light on his feet, without a sign of exhaustion from all the travelling. Switching on the lamp, he sat down with the letter again; after a couple of hours he arrived at a certain conclusion. The first three letters were in medieval pig Latin, possibly they said, ‘After you left…’

He returned to Calcutta ten days later than scheduled, rejoined his job, began to shoulder all his responsibilities again. He repaired his ancestral house with the money had managed to save and bring back, bought his wife a refrigerator, a radiogram, and new furniture; he re-entered the orbit of his old, familiar life – easily, without resistance.

Over the next ten years, he published several slim volumes of research in linguistics, inducing active interest among international scholars. But what was normally discussed only by experts abroad made an astonishing impact on people at home. Needless to say, issues such as the influence of Sanskrit on conjugation in Tibetan, or which Hebrew and Greek words had been imported from ancient Persian, or how closely the Tagalog language was related to Tamil and Sinhalese, and how much of Pali and Magadhi-Prakrit featured in it, were equally irrelevant to the daily life of people anywhere in the world; but since incomprehensible issues can also provide the ingredients for excitement, and because the incitement of patriotism and the possibility of compensating for our inconsequentiality makes us Indians exaggerate assumptions of genius, one morning – as a result of two long and admiring discussions in ‘The Philologist’ from Oxford, England and ‘The Journal of Linguistic Studies’ from Cambridge, which some people chanced upon – one of Calcutta’s highly circulated newspaper ran a special article on Birupaksha Ray, the other newspapers followed up with a number of reports – journalists bestowed such flowery appellations on him as ‘Mr Eloquence’, ‘Born Under the Star of the God of Speech’, and ‘Twentieth-Century Mithridates’, in an unguarded moment a harmless-looking but cunning young man took a photograph of him reading and had it published in an illustrated magazine from Bombay. Things became more convoluted after this, suddenly becoming aware of his existence, the gods of Delhi conferred the title of Padmavibhushan on him; the following year, competing with Delhi, the leaders of West Bengal awarded him the highest honorary title of the university, which was normally preserved for highly-ranked scholars on the verge of death.

Birupaksha was considerably disturbed by these unexpected and, for him, completely unnecessary events. Crowds of uninvited socially-conscious men and women at home and in the workplace; appeals from many unknown and, occasionally, a few famous people through the post and over the phone, requests for interviews from one magazine after another; he was asked to participate in myriad agitations, to become the president or vice-president of – or advisor to – a variety of organisations, to sign a multitude of petitions and address a host of meetings; he was immensely surprised at his opinion being sought on such diverse subjects as the Suez crisis, spaceflight. Sino-Indian relations, artistic freedom, and even the architecture of a proposed temple and the desirability of displaying kissing in Indian cinema. For some time attempts were made to drag him into the centre of the debate on the national language of India; north Indians assumed that he would support Hindi by virtue of being an expert in Sanskrit, and south Indians were hopeful that no Bengali could be anything but anti-Hindi; as a result, flattering statements began to be showered on him from both sides. Invitations piled up from foreign embassies; requests to join different programmes in Delhi and Bombay and Jullundhar and Ernakulam, or to head cultural delegations despatched by the Indian government to east Europe or southeast Asia. How was he to cope with all this, what would he do with them? Birupaksha felt helpless at the first onslaught – confused, beleaguered, powerless, and because of this, as though unable to maintain his balance, did one or two things which were both inappropriate and unbeneficial. He signed a couple of petitions (simply to get rid of strangers quickly, without properly reading what they said); responded to repeated requests (since refusing over and over again was a waste of energy) by delivering pedestrian speeches at one or two meetings – but a trivial incident amidst all these developments made him determined to exercise self-defence. One day, one of his colleagues (older than him) told him, ‘Let me tell you something Birupaksha-babu, you’re in the good books of the bosses now – why don’t you take the opportunity to grab a fat grant for ‘Speech’ magazine, in fact if you make an effort you might even be able to get your hands on a plot of land for our linguistics society.’ Each of the words and phrases like ‘good books’, ‘opportunity’, ‘grab’ and ‘get your hands on’ seemed to make Birupaksha quiver inside, but his senior colleague used precisely this language, and in a tone, accompanied by movements of the eye, which suggested that it would be foolish of Birupaksha not to accept his advice. And at once Birupaksha knew what he should do in this situation; he realized that the only way to survive was passive resistance, like a vulnerable insect he would have to hide in his hole, withdraw into a shell like an immobile snail. After this he began to reject each and every proposal indiscriminately – gently, firmly, deferentially, sometimes a trifle rudely, even evoking the ire of ministers and popular leaders. The harsh glare of publicity, which had fallen on him unexpectedly, moved away smoothly, no one could see Birupaksha Ray at meetings anymore, he was not the member of any committee in Delhi or Calcutta, because of his silence on all manner of topical affairs, his name never appeared in newspapers or magazines. For some time, he was criticised in some quarters for his unsocial behaviour; but because candidates always outnumbered posts, his absence was not felt anywhere (some people breathed a sigh of relief at his exit); influential men shunned him, the public forgot his name; Birupaksha was freed of the demon.

Meanwhile, there were some changes in his family life too. His daughter married a young artist of her own choice; his son moved to Ranchi with a job in the government’s geology department; and his wife Suhasini created a happy and independent life for herself. After the initial passion of youth had been spent, Birupaksha’s relationship with his wife had begun to sag – the reason could be his excessive fondness for linguistics, or an unconscious aversion on the part of his wife; for many years (barring the weeks with Esha) his life had been devoid of physical relations with women, and that was what he had become used to. So he was not upset when, shortly after his return from Europe, his wife reached her menopause, though somewhat early. And now, when there were virtually no inhabitants at home other than the husband and the wife, they grew distant from each other, with almost nothing in common. Under the influence of her daughter (or of her son-in-law, via her daughter), Suhasini began to consider herself an art expert; she visited exhibitions with them, entertained young artists at home. In addition, her South Calcutta Women’s Organisation kept her busy too, as its secretary she was invited to the Governor’s residence on Independence Day and Republic Day, she discussed issues of women’s welfare on the radio sometimes. Then there were visits to her son twice a year, motoring around the beautiful hilly tracts of Manbhooom-Chotanagpur, the unmixed pleasure of becoming friends with her grandchildren. And since Birupaksha did not participate in any of this, his distance – not just with his wife but also with the rest of his family – kept growing.

It wasn’t as though there were no conflicts over this at first. Soon after her daughter’s wedding, Suhasini had made a strong accusation to the effect that since Birupaksha was a learned man, whose opinion might be considered valuable, he should not be silent about Asit Samanta’s paintings. ‘I’m not saying this because he’s our son-in-law, but really, his work is very good – extraordinary!’ Now, to Birupaksha, paintings referred to creations in which the subjects could be identified clearly, where the water, the mountain, the animals, the people, the gods and goddesses all revealed themselves at a single glance, all told it was like a narrative – viewing some samples of which on his visit abroad had made him feel as Duryodhana did in the demon architect Moy’s Indraprastha – he was about to pull out his handkerchief to wipe away the fresh blood oozing from the wounded soldier’s chest, it had taken him some time to realise that the flash of bright sunlight was not a natural phenomenon but the result of applying colours. Of course, he wasn’t indifferent to the depiction of Radha’s tryst or to Holi as seen in Mughal or Rajput miniatures, although the figures looked like dolls you could tell immediately what was going on – but Asit’s work, he felt, could easily have been the work of a child; broken, straggling brushstrokes, arbitrary splashes of colour, on the whole nothing like the things we know – in fact it wasn’t even possible to tell whether the painting was upside down or not. His intellect tried to convince him that this was the new style (for he had seen similar work abroad) – but be that as it may, none of this made any difference to him, all this was a thousands miles away from his life. That was why he preferred silence; lest his wife or daughter or his artist son-in-law himself tried to explain the mysteries of these paintings, the fear of which prevented him from speaking his mind. At this time, Suhasini and he might have had private conversations such as this one:

‘Asit’s exhibition opens at the art centre on Saturday. You’re going, aren’t you?’

‘Let’s see.’

‘What do you mean let’s see. Asit’s first solo exhibition – how can you not be there?’

‘I don’t understand art.’

‘Art is to be seen, not understood.’ (Suhasini said this a little self-consciously, and Birupaksha told himself, ‘Khuku’s words, Khuku heard Asit says this, and Asit must have read it somewhere.’)

‘I… er… I’m busy, you know.’

‘Everyone’s busy. That doesn’t mean they have no diversions.’

‘Very well, I’ll go.’

‘Can you tell me why you aren’t interested? Do you know what ‘Abhijan’ said about Asit this week?’

‘What?’

‘They wrote, we congratulate Asit Samanta wholeheartedly for his painting ‘Starry World’.’

‘Wonderful!’

‘I’ll show you Asit’s file.’

‘File? What file?’

‘Clippings of all his reviews, that’s all. You’ll see how much praise he’s getting.’

Birupaksha sighed.

‘Lady Pramila Chatterjee is coming to the exhibition on Saturday. Do you know who’s inaugurating the show? Shankarananda Sinha Roy!’

The name sounded vaguely familiar to Birupaksha.

‘Just imagine, such a great film-director, so famous all over the world – he’s inaugurating the exhibition! Asit is hoping to do some work in cinema – paintings don’t sell in this benighted country, but there’s money in films – if Asit can be the art director in Sinha Roy’s next film…’

‘Of course! Of course!’ Birupaksha interrupted. ‘That would be wonderful.’

‘Everyone admires his work so much – but you don’t say anything even though he’s part of the family – do you think that’s appropriate?’

‘What do you think I should say?’

‘You want me to tell you that too!’ Suhasini said acerbically. ‘They’re your own daughter and son-in-law – you don’t have the slightest feeling for them. You’re not just his father-in-law, you’re an important person too, don’t you understand how delighted Asit would be if you were to encourage him?’

Suhasini continued her lament for some more time, but Birupaksha didn’t say a word.

Or, a few years later:

‘So you aren’t going?’

‘I told you…’

‘Leela requested you so fervently, she wrote…’

‘I have things to do here.’

‘Very well, take your books along. Debu’s got a huge bungalow – you’ll get a room to yourself just like you do here, no one will disturb you.’

After some thought Birupaksha said, ‘But I cannot tell beforehand just which books I might need.’

‘Don’t you even want to meet them at least?’

‘But I do. They visit from time to time.’

‘It’s not the same thing. Just think how happy they’d be if you went. You’re becoming more and more peculiar by the day – we have a lovely granddaughter, you haven’t even bothered to play with her.’

‘There’s no dearth of people to play with her.’ Absently, Birupaksha made an unwise statement.’

‘Incredible! Are you even a human being!’ Suhasini hissed a rebuke, her eyes furious.

But even this sort of bickering was now a thing of the past. He was selfish, he was self-centred, he was stuck in his own little world, he did not care for his own children, he loved no one but himself – Birupaksha had become used to accusations like these, and Suhasini had tired of levelling them too.

No one protested anymore about that fact that Birupaksha did not join celebrations and didn’t deviate an inch from his daily routine even to please the nearest members of his family, no one expected anything of him, everyone had accepted him. Accepted him exactly as he was, a zero with the label of ‘husband’ or ‘father’ or ‘grandfather’, as though he was missing from this house even while living in it, as though, despite the natural circle of love, any contact between him and his family was now beyond the realm of possibility. Sometimes Suhasini told her children pityingly, ‘The man’s heart has died rummaging through dead languages all his life – he wasn’t like this before, you’ve seen for yourself…’ and the others exchanged glances and changed the subject, for everyone knew there was no use talking about it anymore.

~ 3 ~

But still, despite being so unburdened and detached, despite the unbroken leisure, free of distractions, at his disposal, Birupaksha had made almost no progress in his real work over these past ten years. Continuous hard work and round-the-year efforts, defying the seasons, had yielded only those three short monographs, from whose dangerous worldly repercussions he had managed to protect himself carefully. Those were nothing – merely the preliminary shoots, with nothing in them to suggest that he would eventually be able to sink his teeth into the succulent, blood-red apple. The certainty – distant. The proof – none. The letter was still as impenetrable as it had been on a summer morning in Rome ten years earlier. He had covered a great deal of ground around it, emerged from his Indo-European circle, learnt some Hebrew and Chinese; hunched over books for days on end at the National Library; familiarised himself with several extinct scripts after much research; leapfrogging obstacles like his own lack of money (for fate had not endowed him with the ability to walk the path of wealth), the unavailability of foreign exchange in India, and the reduction in the import of foreign books, he had procured from London many dictionaries of obscure languages, he had not slept for more than three hours on many a night; but still he had not been able to pierce the obscurity of the composition.

He had, of course, encountered several points of light. Many moments when he had clutched his pen with the ardency of the adulterous wife at the moment of meeting her lover to write down what at that time had appeared to be a literal translation of the letter. But after the first few sentences he had been stupefied by doubt, a tortuous and unending worry about which corner of the universe the next sentence was concealed in, and how he would find it, making his grey head droop over the desk. He had written nearly three hundred and fifty fragments over ten years, besides innumerable notes and comments – meanings of words, the possible syntax, minute details of the probable grammar – a dozen thick notebooks filled with scribbles, whose meaning was unclear even to himself now – every time he felt that the secret key was within reach, his perplexity grew even more. The principal reason was the inappropriateness and inconsistency of his surmised or imagined translations, terming which laughable would not be an exaggeration. One sentence seemed to yield a description of women’s fashion for autumn that year (‘The cheetah and peacock from your country will steal women’s fashion this time.’); another appeared to offer an intricate analysis of the Cold War between the USA and Russia; a third seemed to be the beginning of a scientific treatise on migratory birds. One revealed an unbelievable degree of vulgarity, while another was like the Sunday sermon by a Methodist priest. Clearly, none of these could possibly be the message he was seeking; obviously, all of them were wrong. He had not been able to close the distance even by a hair.

In moments of exhaustion he had decided to write to Esha, asking her to unravel the mystery, but this had not seemed the correct course of action for various reasons. First, Esha may not have kept a copy of her unusual letter, and he was unwilling to be parted with it even for a moment – or else he could have had a block made and had as many copies printed as he liked. Of course, Birupaksha had made about fifty facsimiles on the pages of his notebooks – he believed the last three were absolutely flawless, therefore there could be no objection to sending one of them to Esha. But… a long time had passed, what if Esha herself had forgotten the solution to this puzzle? Suppose she has indeed forgotten, and wants to know from me what she wrote? Possibly that’s it, possibly that’s just what it is. She rummages through her post-box every day with just this hope. She jumps when the phone rings. ‘How strange! You can’t decipher it? Not even you!’ How infinite her faith in me, she will not allow me to seek anyone’s help, she has made me so lonely, self-dependent. If I ask her for the answer now, will I not be proven unworthy – not just unworthy, but also a fraud? Whatever else I may be, I am not one of those who cheat at chess, who copy from their books in university examinations, who buy lottery tickets to become overnight millionaires. Even amidst such uncertainty, Birupaksha remained steadfast to two of his convictions: (1) This letter was an expression of Esha’s eternal love for him – so that he did not forget her, till his last living breath, that was why she had tied him up in knots, and therefore (2) deciphering the letter not only his personal responsibility, but also possible. An unformed but strong feeling took hold of him – since he had been held to this vow, it must be assumed that it was within his ability of fulfil it. There’s no difficulty – it’s just that I’m not able to concentrate hard enough; charmed by the decorations on the chest, maybe I have forgotten to lift the lid.

That was why, with considered thought, Birupaksha had refrained from getting in touch with Esha. It would not have been impossible for him to revisit the distant country where he had discovered her in an unknown town. At one point – when the Indian government and foreign embassies were looking upon him favourably, the possibility had even risen once; but he had deliberately (or, perhaps, battling against his inclination) brushed aside the possibility. No – it will not be right, I do not deserve to meet her until I have accomplished the task she has given me. She – my gentle, soft-spoken, lover – is waiting patiently for me to explain the meaning of her letter to her. She is waiting – for me to remind her of what she has forgotten herself. Day after day, year after year.

~ 4 ~

But who was this Esha, to whom or to whose memory this middle-aged scholar had dedicated his time, his health, his complete attention? For that matter, what did ‘memory’, that ponderous, glittering word, mean? Does my pulse quicken when I say her name in my mind? Do I hear her voice anymore when I press my ear to my pillow before going to sleep? Can I recollect her face clearly? In fact, if she were to knock on my door suddenly, would I recognise her at once? Questions such as these rose in his mind from time to time, he brushed them aside at once. And this was probably the deepest reason that he had never attempted to meet her face to face again. What if the old melodies were forgotten when they met? What if the hours go by making small talk, as though we are mere acquaintances? What if a letter brings forth a reply that anyone else could have written? No, not that way, not through any easy road – I will not take this route to my destination. What does it matter who Esha is, what she is, what she’s like? What difference does it make if she has retreated to a distance that cannot be bridged? It is that very distance that I touch, just like the waterfall touches the sea the moment it begins its journey. The letter, I have this letter. Her final message – the very last gift with her name – this is enough. This was how, as the years went by, this was what Birupaksha had thought. As a matter of fact, the waves of time had washed away all the facts – sometimes he couldn’t even recollect the name of the tiny town in the American Midwest; to determine whether Esha’s house number was 1302 or 1203, he had to turn the yellowing pages of his notebook – but through this continuous erosion, a single idea – the core of his existence, as it were – remained strong, even grew – that this letter, these different scripts, was indeed a message.

One some nights, when Birupaksha opened his notebook and flipped through the pages gouged by his own pen, his heart swayed like a pendulum between the two extremes of enthusiasm and despair. Sometimes he hunched over the mysterious letters, holding the sheet out flat in the glow of the table-lamp, just the way he had in Rome after receiving the letter, as though with the hope that a hitherto-undiscovered new letter would appear suddenly, or a new relationship between the visible letters would emerge. There must be some principle beneath all this, a mathematical law – surely it was all quite simple, just like the way substituting numbers with symbols automatically revealed the working of algebra. But why have I not been able to find this underlying principle despite all my efforts? Birupaksha was annoyed with himself because his notes and explanations were haphazard, he had written down whatever had occurred to him, without following a rigid methodology – should he have prepared a card index using the American method, creating an alphabetical listing, had he drifted further away from his objective by studying the Tibetan and Sinhalese languages, neither of which was connected to the letter? But method – was that everything? Wasn’t vision the main thing, don’t all mysteries reveal themselves if the power of vision is sufficient? A few years ago I found it difficult to read small letters, they were indistinct, as soon as I began to use glasses everything became clear. Only after Galileo used the telescope he had made himself did he see the mountains on the moon. X-rays made it possible to see the skull, the lungs, the heart of a living man. But where is that miraculous ray which can pierce this paper to reach the distant place where a certainty beyond all argument awaits me?

The night deepened, one o’ clock, one-thirty, two o’ clock, Birupaksha sat uncertainly, dazed with sleep and uneasiness in his heart, immersed in the silence of the night. Drowsiness made his thoughts incoherent; even the conviction that he had considered deep-rooted all these years seemed to disappear now and then, a horrifying question assailed him: is there really anyone named Esha? Was there, ever? Did I ever see her, did I touch her? If she is not a figment of my imagination, if she does exist, why doesn’t she appear? Why doesn’t she say something? She must come, she must prove she exists, she does not have the right to saddle me with all the responsibility and remain dormant herself. At times the form of a woman pushed aside the curtain of sleep closing over him – sitting in the armchair next to his desk, her face indistinct because that part of the room was in the shade, but the contours of her body were not mute, as though she were saying something with all her being, silently. But what? Birupaksha listened carefully, tilted his head to pay more attention, there was only a buzzing, like the continuous hum of a small insect, as he listened sleep came in a rush, waking up suddenly he saw the sheet of paper beneath the lamp. Hebrew letters, Greek letters, Devnagari. His research, his lifetime quest, his examination. If I ask for more proof, will I not be proving my own poverty? Pushing his notebooks aside, Birupaksha rose to his feet, he felt as though he had returned to his focal point, switching off the light he went to bed – but sleep eluded him for a long time.

So he swung from one end to the other – all day and all night – simultaneously with everything else he had to do, hidden behind them.

Ten more years passed. Meanwhile Birupaksha published yet another book; about a hundred and fifty pages of the main text, with eighty-seven pages of notes – dense with symbols and scripts – titled: ‘A Proposition Regarding the Relationship of Sanskrit with Chinese, Russian and ancient Persian’, it offered a new theory regarding the origin of the Indo-European languages. It created even more of a sensation among foreign experts, a great deal of debate ensued over his hypothesis, several people protested vehemently, some labelled the monograph ‘revolutionary’, while others rued the fact that, like many other Hindus, Mr Ray had also regrettably abandoned science in favour of mysticism. German and French translations appeared within six months, but because India was in the grip of a political crisis, there was no repetition of the unwelcome incidents referred to earlier; delectably meeting his expectations, this new effort went completely unnoticed in his own country.  He retired from teaching the day he turned sixty-two – although nothing would have prevented him from clinging on for three years more, and Suhasini had pleaded with him to do just that. On the same day he handed over editorship of ‘Speech’ magazine to a younger colleague, and ignoring all protests he resigned from the post of president of the linguistic society. Now all his time for research was under his own control. But – his family observed in astonishment – his daily routine changed in ways beyond everyone’s imagination. He no longer spent his entire day with his nose buried in his books, his chair in the second-floor library was often empty, his connection with the National Library had become tenuous too. The thick journals that came from abroad – which he would eagerly leaf through as soon as they arrived – were often put away without being unwrapped. Even more surprisingly, he joined family gatherings now and then, took part in light conversation and banter with his children and their spouses – he even seemed curious about Pop Art and The Beatles. It was noticed that when his daughter’s or daughter-in-law’s female friends visited, he – provoking ill-concealed discomfort in everyone – spent some time uninvited with these young women, gazed at them with a degree of wonder, made unnecessary conversation with them, even made racy comments not befitting his age or status. His son had been transferred to Calcutta with a promotion some time earlier; Birupaksha had made friends with his granddaughter after she turned eleven, the same granddaughter whom he had not paid any attention to earlier, he took her for strolls along the river and the Dhakuria Lake, his enchantment with her childish babble became evident in his expression. One morning, he grew excited after seeing a photograph of Madhubala, who had died recently, and reading her biography in the newspaper; he expressed such intense regret at having to die without the chance to watch such an extraordinarily beautiful actress – whose talking, moving figure on the cinema screen had captured the heart of the entire nation – that his daughter-in-law could not suppress the laughter rising in her throat. ‘All right,’ she consoled her father-in-law, ‘if I hear of Mughal-e-Azam playing anywhere I shall take you.’ ‘Who are the most beautiful actresses today?’ he asked eagerly. ‘Most beautiful?’ His daughter-in-law reeled off several names, explaining the unique qualities in their acting styles, Birupaksha listened attentively. ‘There’s a Saira Banu film on, would you like to go?’ she asked, using the Bengali word ‘boi’ – book – to refer to the film. ‘Boi? What do you mean, book?’ His son answered, ‘That’s how films are referred to nowadays.’ ‘Not just nowadays – for a long time now,’ added his daughter-in-law. ‘I’ve been hearing it since I was a child.’ ‘Really? For a long time now? How strange! And I had no idea. Just imagine…’ unconsciously echoing something he had heard many years earlier, Birupaksha said irrelevantly, ‘just imagine how difficult it is to learn even a single language properly – leave alone several!’ Meanwhile, his daughter-in-law had been scanning the entertainment columns in the newspaper, looking up from the paper, she said, ‘It’s playing at Bijoli, I can send for tickets if you like.’ ‘Are you mad!’ his son objected firmly. ‘What’s the use of torturing baba this way?’ But astonishing everyone, Birupaksha accompanied the women in the family to watch not one but two films in a single week – featuring Saira Banu and Tanuja, respectively. His daughter declared, ‘I can guarantee baba will be forced to leave in ten minutes…’ but nothing like that ensued, on the contrary, after their return Birupaksha conducted a long comparative analysis of the two actresses’ looks and acting skills.

This strange transformation – which should have pleased his family – did not generate the expected joy in anyone’s heart. Out of long habit (and to tell the truth, because his absence had never created any difficulties), everyone felt that it suited him better to spend his days in his second-floor library, detached and indifferent; he seemed to be descending to a pedestrian plane from the highest peak of punditry that he occupied; he seemed to be unfairly destroying the pride that they had felt in his being an ‘extraordinary man’, despite all the pain he had caused them. His daughter felt a fresh bout of pique at the thought that her father had never commented on Asit’s paintings, but now appeared childishly obsessed with cheap Hindi films, which was why she couldn’t protest when Asit chuckled, ‘Your father’s brain is turning to jelly,’ meanwhile Suhasini casually told her daughter-in-law,  ‘Don’t you go inciting your father-in-law to watch films, he might turn senile.’

~ 5 ~

However, Birupaksha continued to wage his secret war, it was only his strategy that had changed. He now viewed the entire problem from a different perspective; what he had sensed sometimes, on a late, drowsy night, had now been converted into certainty; he had accepted that the so-called ‘scientific approach’, which he had tried to follow assiduously all this time, was not applicable in this particular instance. I have attacked the script from so many different angles; left to right, right to left; top to bottom, diagonally; I have improvised many different symbolic alphabets, constructed a mixed framework of many languages, but the results have all been unacceptable, all of them have misled me further. By and by he began to think that his knowledge of linguistics was only a façade for ignorance; life was so short (once again he echoed someone else unconsciously) – how many languages do we have the time to learn anyway? There are innumerable languages about which I do not have the slightest idea, whose very existence I am unaware of, and even those in comparison to whom I am but an insignificant labourer, even those geniuses, are nothing but infants, just like me, before the enormous Tower of Babel. Bantus, Swahilis, Eskimos – all these people are articulate and eloquent; despite being surrounded by an alien and powerful language, American tribals apparently still speak in nearly five hundred different tongues. Then how futile, how meaningless our efforts – we who consider ourselves linguists, with our capital of ten or twelve or, at most, twenty languages. Besides, language doesn’t belong to man alone; cats have their love songs, chimpanzees are argumentative, domesticated dogs can communicate hunger, fear, love and the intrusion of thieves simply through inflections in their barking. But wild dogs do not have this range of notes – it is said that the domesticated dog has learnt the ‘language’ of man by cohabiting with him and copying him. But is this assumption valid in all cases? Take the bat – blind by day, living far away from the company of human beings, an actual sound from whose throat we might hear once in a lifetime – fifty years ago a German expert had published a complete notation of their language. And recently a team of scientists in California have recorded the language of the hippopotamus, the range of its sounds is apparently extraordinary considering that it is not human. Until now, human society has believed that only human beings can ‘talk’ in the real sense – since he can stand upright, since the power of his tongue and vocal chords is unique, since the structure of his brain and nervous system is exceedingly complex… with logic such as this man has proved his own pre-eminence. But who knows, maybe fish are not dumb either – it is our eardrums whose capacity is limited, and no instrument exists yet to capture the very low or very high sounds that fish might make. Since we are human beings we look at the world only through the eyes of human being, we observe the behaviour of other creatures only with our own minds and senses (we don’t have a choice) – in these circumstances, how can it be certain that all that has been conjectured about the languages of other animals, or about the origins of human languages, is not as blurred and ephemeral as cobwebs floating in the air?

Birupaksha could no longer accept all the theories he had read about the origin of language – from gestures, from dance, from war, from screams or hisses – in his imagination the family divisions between languages had disappeared too, he had even become sceptical about the universally accepted proposition that Chinese had nothing in common with English. He felt that the Puranas were right where these things were concerned. The echo of one particular articulated sound, like the first pulse of life in an animate world, had tumbled over centuries and millennia to compose all those other collections of sounds, vowels and consonants, nasals and aspirates, whose diverse symmetries we refer to as language. It’s just like the numerous concentric circles created when a pebble is thrown into a lake, only its surge was unending, the waves never ceased. A cascade of echoes, a reverberation of resonance – not the real thing, different kinds of counterfeits, in other words, all languages are only corruptions of the original language – the so-called primitive languages like those of the Bantus or Mundas as much as the so-called evolved languages such as Sanskrit or Greek, English or French. And that is why we do not understand one another’s languages, do not understand each other even when speaking the same language or dialect; the minds of the monkey or the bat or the hippopotamus remain unrevealed to us, whatever interpretation we have of this world and this life are all woefully partial and subject to revision. But St Francis of Assisi used to converse with birds, Gunadhya wrote the Brihat Katha – Ocean of Stories – in ‘barbaric’ Prakrit and read it out to wild animals, Orpheus’s song entranced trees and stones and beasts. Don’t these legends all point towards a single world language – not a synthetic Esperanto or a commercial basic English, not something limited to a particular continent or a means to a limited end – but universal in the widest sense, the natural mother tongue of all of nature, the connecting link between the innumerable and distinct existences on earth? Just as the fraction may be infinite but is still contained within the whole number, so too are the separate language fragments of man and beast subsumed within the original tongue, which in itself is unique and infallible, but beyond the reach of our specialised sciences because it is manifested in many different languages. If one of its rays were to give itself up to me, no language in the world would remain unknown to me, and in an instant the message would become lucid, the message which I have exhausted myself over with my literal quest over all these years.

Birupaksha was electrified by the courage of his imagination, almost feeling afraid at first. Will it be right for me to step off the path which I have long been accustomed to, and which so many experts have walked on? Logic does not support my line of thinking, after all. But was it logic that had dreamed up X-rays? If a ray capable of penetrating flesh and skin to unravel the inner mysteries of the human body could have been discovered, why can’t we discover at some time in the future an invisible beam that can penetrate the covering of script and meaning to unveil what lies at the heart of any language? This see-through ray, which was beyond imagination even a short while ago, was actually hidden in nature since the beginning of time, and it is now considered a natural property of the universe. Similarly, the original language is waiting too – one of us will suddenly part the veil to reveal it. It’s easy – quite easy – only a thin curtain lies in the way, it seems as though it will be drawn any moment, it virtually wants to give itself up.

As he mused about this, it occurred to Birupaksha that man’s biggest superstition was the perceived difference between the miraculous and the natural. We cannot invent anything, we can only discover things. They exist – everything exists simultaneously in the universe – all that we desire, the subjects of our wildest hopes, even all that is beyond our ken right now – are all present; it’s just a matter of finding them. Am I then on the verge of some such discovery, which people will dub astounding and epochal? Birupaksha felt his heart beat faster, overcome by wonder and humility, he pressed his hand to his chest and lowered his head. A different thought sprang up at once from the bottom of his mind, as though he could see a clear path before his eyes. Enough of attacking – it was time to surrender. What I am looking for is self-illuminated (for all the languages of the world are only weak reflections of it) – why should intelligence, knowledge, analysis or exertion be necessary to find it? The world is lit up as soon as the sun rises – do we have to make an effort to realise this? The locked, abandoned room that has been dark for many years and the room that became dark five minutes ago because of a power failure will be illuminated simultaneously when a match is struck. One pinpoint of light is sufficient to dispel even the darkness accumulated over centuries. Then what use is knowledge? An illiterate itinerant forest bandit had unexpectedly articulated incantations bound in rhythm. A clever thief had built the first veena from the entrails of dead animals. I will now have to forsake all my learning. I will have to pretend I have forgotten my vow. I will have to start afresh.

This was the reason that Birupaksha’s daily routine had been broken so spectacularly, or perhaps he had broken the very concept of the daily routine. He was waiting – he would have to pass this period of waiting easily, without making demands of himself, without pondering, without pride. He would have to fill his days with whatever diversions were at hand – and it would be a serious mistake to assume that anything that was at hand was necessarily trite, or irrelevant for him. No – everything was connected, they were all part of the different fractions of the whole number. Every last thing was important now. He would have to observe young women’s gestures, the cultivated seductiveness of beautiful women on cinema screens, how the little girl’s shy smile spread from her lips across her entire face, how sadly his daughter-in-law’s pet dog raised his eyes to the sky, how the beam from the setting sun which fell on his bathroom window made the walls glow… he would have to listen closely to the splash of the rain, to the sound of the streets being watered, to the trundling of the first tram at dawn – the essence of all these ingredients would have to be stored like a secret stash of food within himself, where there was growing, little by little, unknown to him – like a foetus incubated for years on end in the womb of a gigantic mother – the message which he had been searching for in vain all these time. As though the radiation from a distant star had covered millions of light years to approach earth, to approach mankind… to approach him. There’s nothing I have to do – besides allowing what is imminent to materialise. There’s nothing I have to think, I am prepared.

~ 6 ~

This new realisation of Birupaksha’s had some other results too. The sheet of paper with the symbols – which he had taken great care of all these years, spreading it out flat and inserting it into a clear plastic folder (so that it did not tear along the folds), never forgetting to spray insecticide on it once a month – he put away in the iron safe in his bedroom, adding the notebooks with the notes and comments that were the fruits of years of labour. He could no longer believe that they would prove useful; he was amused when he recalled the nights that he would go to bed with the plastic folder beneath his pillow, and his notebook, pencil and the bed-switch within his reach; those moments from the past appeared tragic – moments when he had sat up in bed and switched on the light, written line after line in a feverish hand, drawn a number of diagrams, mouthed the presumed sentences silently, only moving his lips, and then, suddenly stabbed by the dagger of doubt, had plunged his face into his pillow and tried to go back to sleep. He had scanned the letter so many times that a perfect and complete facsimile had been etched sharply in his mind; he could hold on to the image as long as he liked, and if he ever told himself, ‘Not now, I’m sleepy,’ it would slowly disappear. Before he went to sleep, or at the moment of awaking, he played a game like this with his mystery letter.

Because his work always involved sitting at a desk, Birupaksha had long suffered from constipation, of late its severity had increased, he had to allot a quarter of an hour for the preliminary moving of his bowels. To keep annoyance at bay, he went in with a light novel or magazine, but one day he remembered that whatever original ideas he had had about linguistics had been revealed to him for the first time, long ago – not in his library, nor while teaching – but in the pleasant solitude of the toilet. Immediately, he felt a desire, after a long time, for a look at the original manuscript; he took it out of his safe and into the toilet. It was just the same – in other words, just as he had seen it six months earlier. For quite some time now it had become obvious that the physical existence of the script could not be depended on; once pitch black, the letters had turned brown long ago, but even that brown had now become yellow and faded, despite all the care a few creases had appeared on the sheet, even its whiteness seemed grey now. Birupaksha tried to look at it afresh, as though he were seeing it for the first time, but the pretence didn’t last, at first glance the letter seemed to grow heavy in his hand with all its past history. No – there was nothing new to see, he knew it all, he had come through all the battles, burnt a great deal of incense, but not for a moment had he set eyes on the goddess of these letters. Birupaksha sighed, he spent longer than usual sitting where he was – so long and so absent-mindedly that there was a knock on the door, he was informed that his tea was getting cold (‘Actually they’re worried that I might have fainted – it happens all the time these days.’) – to reassure them, Birupaksha said, ‘Coming,’ and rose to his feet, and suddenly, out of haste or carelessness, the letter slipped out of the plastic folder. It fell directly into the commode where he had recently emptied his bowels. Without a moment’s thought, he dipped his hand into the dirty water and picked up the letter, blindly turning on the tap in the basin and spreading the sheet of paper out under it. The cleansed – far too clean – yellowish letters melted into the water, all that had been written was obliterated, and the sheet of paper crumbled into dust and into the basin, where it passed effortlessly through the drain into the metropolitan underworld through which flowed the excretion of innumerable people. And all this took place within just a few seconds, before his eyes – Birupaksha had no opportunity for second thoughts, he could not save a single fragment as a memento. By the time he had turned the tap off, not a sign remained.

The first impact of this accident gave rise to two different feelings in Birupaksha’s mind. He felt guilty – as though a loved one had died because of his carelessness, someone who had been his lifelong companion. But just as, after someone’s death, we think mostly of the dead person, just as they come alive all over again in our minds, so too did Birupaksha recollect, strongly, the real person, whom he had named Esha, the way he had seen her, twenty or twenty-five years ago, in a small town in the American Midwest. Astonishing him, almost overwhelming him, Esha’s face, the form of her body, her voice, all came back to him clearly. Suddenly the desire to see her again, to touch her again, reared its head. He remembered the sunlight, the drizzle, the light breeze, the cobbled lane and the wide, generous piazza – he saw himself at American Express, waiting behind nine or ten people for his letter; his heart was twisted once more with the hope, the anxiety, the failure, of that moment. And then, shaking with restlessness, he slowly found his answer, he went forward towards that quiet ending, which time prepares us for without our knowledge, so that a man does not suffer too much.

Birupaksha did not even realise when the wave of memory and desire, which had been resurrected by the disappearance of the letter, subsided. What had been a reality in the distant past was converted into a pure idea now, his thoughts found a new equilibrium. He was no longer repentant because the original letter no longer existed, on the contrary, he saw a certain aptness in its sudden disappearance. It was natural for an inanimate object to dissolve into the five elements – it wouldn’t be wrong to call it desirable either – because something remained even after that, and this remnant became evident only when it moved out of the shadow of the physical object. Is there anyone who doesn’t know that the idol has to be immersed so that the goddess can seep into our lives? Or perhaps there’s no need to make an effort, it works as automatically as the air we breathe. When it’s humid, when not a leaf on the trees stirs, the breeze still exists – for everyone, all the time. Is this – what I’ve thought of all this time as the ‘letter’ – ‘my letter’? Isn’t the word ‘my’ presumptuous, isn’t it incorrect? Can anyone really live without a task such as this, a responsibility, a constant companion? People live easy lives, passing time on some pretext or the other – until they’re called away to their real work. ‘Here’s the letter – your letter – read it to find out what it says.’ The same letter for everyone, yet everyone thinks it’s only for them – and that is why the mystery runs so deep. It will not be unravelled in any meeting, by any committee, at any conference, pedantry and judgement will be of no use, each one will seek an answer on their own – only within themselves, nowhere else. Birupaksha looked out of the corner of his eye at the other people in the house, he observed people’s expressions if he happened to go out – had the letter reached any of them, or would it reach soon, did any of them know of the expectation that kept each of them moving about restlessly? He thought that this was why his granddaughter was growing up, why his daughter and daughter-in-law did their make-up with such care, why his busy son’s eyes sometimes grew wistful, why his son-in-law played with his paint and brushes. They wanted it, they wanted the same thing that had been growing within him all this time, which had filled him to the brim year after year. That was what they wanted too – but they hadn’t realized it yet. Now and then he wished he could call one of them and reveal his secret, wished he could ask, ‘Have you got it? Have you got the letter? – but he restrained himself at the last moment, lest they thought he was going mad.

For the first time in his life Birupaksha seemed to consider himself happy; that he was alive was enough, there was nothing else he had to do, nothing else he wished for. He may indeed have suffered from a mental problem at this time; sometimes he didn’t understand the meaning clearly when he opened a scholarly book, he thought to himself, ‘Why do people write all this? What purpose does it serve?’ One day an old essay of his happened to fall into his hands, reading just two pages so exhausted him that he had to lean back on the sofa and close his eyes. Another time, his daughter brought him a clipping from a French magazine – a brief discussion on Joan Miro – in the process of reading and explaining it to her, he had to stop several times and check the dictionary. He was surprised, but not upset – instead, he was pleased to think that he had finally been released from the iron grip of his own learning. His vision was weaker, he had to hold the page close to his eyes to read, but he felt no urge to change his glasses, for books had retreated from his life. And the incident had retreated even further – quite indistinct by now – the incident which could be said to have given birth to all the others, and which had seemed oh so important once. Perhaps it was incorrect to call it an ‘incident’, for the word held the sense of an ending, while actually it was still taking place, it took place every day, there was no assurance of its ending. It was like a game, and the game was everything – it was irrelevant why and for whom. And that was why the person who had introduced him to the game was almost wiped out from his mind, he forgot her real name, he even forgot the name he had given her, Esha. And the lost letter, which he had assumed was imprinted in his memory, no longer appeared frequently in his mind’s eye; after spending many sleepless nights, he now fell asleep the moment his head touched the pillow, sleeping through the night without waking up; in his dreams he sometimes went back to his childhood, now and then he saw his mother’s face, she had been dead thirty-five years now. The last year of Birupaksha’s life passed this way, in utter happiness.

~ 7 ~

An April morning. Birupaksha had just woken up after a pleasant night’s sleep. He was awake, but hadn’t got out of bed yet, not even opened his eyes. He didn’t know why, but he considered himself extraordinarily happy that day from the moment he had awakened, still in bed, he was enjoying the sensation, half-asleep, without opening his eyes. A breeze ruffled his thin hair – not from the electric fan (he realized this clearly), it was blowing in through the window, a zephyr, a vernal breeze. He seemed to taste the phrase ‘vernal breeze’ with his tongue, with an air of amusement, he thought he got a sudden fragrance of cloves, and the scent was translated into several of the poet Jaideva’s smooth alliterations. A woman’s voice wafted in from the dining room – he recalled that the house was full of people, Khuku and Asit had dropped in the previous night and stayed over, a niece was visiting from Bhagalpur – not exactly visiting, her parents had sent her to Suhasini so that the entire country could be combed to arrange a match for her – ‘she’s not doing anything much after passing her B.A. exam!’ – and the girl had already made some progress towards striking up a romance with Asit’s younger brother. Birupaksha recollected the faces of everyone in the family – how nice they are, how nice they are all – I really have been unfair to Asit, I have hurt Suhasini now and then, Leela too – and yet how they all love me – amazing! He was pleased by the thought that he lived with all of them, that he was alive with all of them around him, he was pleased by the thought that his niece would soon get married, two individuals would once again discover the age-old mystery, like fresh blades of grass children would come again, the youth of the world would remain intact. I had been somewhat detached when Khuku got married, when Debu got married, but this time I will play the uncle of the bride to the hilt, welcome the guests, supervise the wedding feast. There was a tinkling sound – the tea was being laid out – everyone would wake up now, one by one, the dining table would turn noisy. He heard his granddaughter say, ‘Make my omelette please, didani, all right?’ She couldn’t bear to have an omelette unless it was made by her grandmother, even if it was burnt, she would still bite into it and say, ‘Delicious!’. How sweet Debu’s daughter was, she would probably grow up to be a real beauty. Suddenly a face floated up before his still-closed eyes – a woman’s face – the body took shape slowly beneath the face – who was it? Where am I? The sea, infinite from one horizon to the other, an unending succession of waves, the froth racing over the blue, breaking and flowing back constantly – and the woman was walking along the shore of this sea, in a sheer dress, triumphant, radiating youth with every step, beneath the enormous sky, as though wrapping the sunlight around her, and making the ocean her witness. Did I ever see a scene like this in a film? Or is it someone else whom I know, whom I have seen somewhere? Who can it be, what is her name? Suddenly he remembered – Madhubala. Madhubala… Madhumala… Madhumati… wasn’t it a different name? But not all his efforts could make him recollect another name, identifying the woman correctly appeared impossible, and yet the feeling that he knew her, that he had seen her somewhere, grew stronger. He concentrated all the power in his vision on the woman – she was walking towards him, she wasn’t very far away now, but the little distance that remained simply could not be bridged, he was surprised, wondering how the woman could be in motion and still be so immobile. And then he saw that there was no woman there anymore, the sea and the sky had disappeared, and in their place a single letter appeared before his eyes, a dazzling symbol against a dark background. And immediately an uneasiness took hold of his body, his chest seemed constricted, and then a marvellous sight took his breath away. Rows of letters – aligned and organised – surrounded him on all sides, in the same disciplined way in which a band of soldiers wrested a fort from the enemy. All those letters – now he remembered – long familiar… unfamiliar… but unfamiliar no more now. The letters seemed to enter his body on their own – spreading like germs in his bloodstream, in the marrow of his spine, piercing his flesh like needles; their meaning, their sense, their subtle allusions brought forth a response from every pore in his body. ‘Ah! At last! Then… it’s true, all true!’ He tried to say this out loud, but all he heard was a sound like a faint cough. He felt as though he was being unfolded by this unexpected attack, he was spreading out in every direction like a waterfall cascading down to the plains – swelling in every direction, with love for everyone, he was going far, far away. Where am I going? The question flashed in his mind and disappeared at once. Joy – he was overcome by unimaginable joy – happiness, as unbearable as pain, was grinding him to pieces, his heart beat uncontrollably, the sea that had disappeared from his sight a short while ago now roared in his ears, but not devoid of meaning, amidst this roaring he seemed to hear the sounds corresponding to each of the letters. But his senses had not left him completely yet; he felt an indistinct need – although he could not determine whether it was a wish to pass urine or to quench his thirst, or was it to write down for others what he had just heard? His body twitched with the desire to sit up.

A little later, Birupaksha’s daughter-in-law entered the room with his bed tea to find that his head had slipped off his pillow, one of his legs was dangling from the bed on the floor, his body was motionless, his face, peaceful, and the lines of his mouth suggested that he wanted to say something.

The Right to Information, or, April 7: Anita Agnihotri

When it was time to return home from the office, the hotbox for lunch and the huge, circular ‘cool jug’ of water were the first to leave. Kallol’s wife Bratati did not trust the water anywhere on earth. Even bottled water was drawn from ponds these days. She certainly didn’t trust people. So, it was boiled water from home. Next to leave were the important documents for next morning’s meetings. A couple of bundles of files too, wrapped in red felt, about thrice a week. One some days he had to spend so much time talking to different people that the files remained unattended.

Kallol had two orderlies of his own. They were the ones who carried all this things out. Then, when told by one of the orderlies that Kallol had risen to his feet, the driver brought the car round to the portico. It did not suit an officer of his weight to be made to wait. No one bothered about such things in Delhi, but it was different at the state level. It was impossible to be effective unless one maintained appearances. So his private secretary Lalitkumar had told his boss right at the beginning, albeit deferentially, ‘Don’t leave without warning, sir. Only after I’ve announced the car.’

In specific situations even the private secretary could not be disobeyed.

Today, too, Kallol had just got to his feet with the intention of returning home as he did every day – the clock said seven-fifteen – when Lalitkumar entered, his face tinged with a trace of tension.

‘GM Akhilesh Varma is here.’

‘Now?’

‘Some important work, he says.’

An irked Kallol resumed his seat. By virtue of his post, he was the chairman of about ten sick, decaying corporations. Akhilesh was the general manager at one of them. A very prudent, experienced, shrewd individual. His unannounced arrival at seven in the evening was as unexpected as it was cause for anxiety. Who knew what had happened. The warehouse hadn’t caught fire, had it? Or had the bank seized their account? Maybe there had been a scam with the stock? Several disparate thoughts ran through Kallol’s mind immediately. Tomorrow was Saturday. An accident on Friday evening meant a ruined weekend. On top of which, the state legislature was in session. The market for news was bullish. No one knew which item of news could lead to a ‘call attention’ motion, or which would be converted into a starred question in the Assembly.

‘What’s the matter, Mr Varma?’

When Kallol was in a good mood he addressed his subordinates by their first name, and by their surnames when he was angry or tense.

Without a word, Varma extended an yellow envelope towards him.

‘What’s this?’

Varma still didn’t speak. He only took a sheet of paper out of the envelope and held it open for Kallol to see.

A notice.

On white paper, of course. Using legal jargon, it said that you are being summoned to the Information Commission on April 7, at 10.30 AM, with all relevant information and evidence. And if you do not present yourself… the commission is free to take any unilateral decision it sees fit.

Kallol took a few seconds to read the letter and decipher its meaning. He had to read more than a hundred different letters every day. About twenty of these were related to court cases. No, his memory had played no tricks in this case, but he found it a little difficult to analyse and digest the fact that the Information Commission had summoned him, Kallol Roychowdhury.

Assuming that he could not remember what it was about, and using his silence as an opportunity, Varma said, ‘This is that woman’s case sir, Das’s wife… Tanima Das…’

There is no need whatsoever to remind me, Kallol thought to himself, for it is impossible to forget either Tanima Das’s presence or her letters. The combative wife of a wrongdoer. A departmental enquiry was underway against ‘corporation attender’ Gopal Das for flouting rules – it had been going on for nearly four years now. The company’s hand against corruption had been strengthened after Kallol’s arrival, as a result of which police cases had been registered against employees like Gopal Das, with complaints being lodged in the courts for causing deliberate monetary loss and breaking contractual terms. Detractors said this was eyewash. The management had taken on the task of reducing its workforce, the formal term these days being ‘rightsizing’; foreign aid would be available only if a hundred people could be taken off the rolls. It wasn’t possible to offer Voluntary Retirement Schemes to everyone overnight, and even if it was, not everyone would accept them anyway. So with an iron hand they were trying to sack those who had been accused of corruption or negligence – this lent the rightsizing the fragrance of ethics, while the trade union could not protest and funds for voluntary retirement were saved.

Staff members like Gopal Das earned four thousand rupees a month on average. About one and a half times the earnings of a part-time maid in the city. Kallol broke into a sweat wondering how a man could run his household, educate his children, dress in clean clothes and shave and go to work every day on this salary. As was the case with most of them, some of them ran small businesses on the side to survive, while others resorted to corruption. About six years ago a special audit had led to Gopal Das’s being accused of siphoning off twenty-seven thousand rupees. There was a difference of twenty-seven thousand rupees between the official value of the stock in his custody and the auditor’s estimate. The departmental enquiry and the police case had been going on ever since. About fifteen other people were snared in a web of similar cases. But none of them had either a malicious mind like Gopal Das’s, nor a luscious wife like Tanima Das. Was it not a glaring example of the discrimination in the world’s social infrastructure that a downright poverty-stricken man about to lose his job should have such a committed wife? Even Bratati, the wife of a man as important as Kallol, didn’t wait up to eat dinner with him when he was late. If he suddenly needed money, she actually lent him some, saying, ‘Here you are, I don’t have any more.’ What would happen if Kallol’s boss were to file two civil cases and one criminal case against him, as he had done against Gopal Das? Wouldn’t Bratati split her bed and bank-account and move into her own (gifted by Kallol) flat? She definitely would, and she couldn’t be blamed for it.

Gopal Das’s wife Tanima had been visiting Kallol’s office regularly for a couple of years now. Two hours were allocated every Saturday afternoon to listen to public complaints. Tanima used to show up with her applications. Dark-skinned and well-built, she would dress in crumpled handloom saris with her hair tied back, a large teep on her forehead and sindoor in her hair. Lalitkumar had told her a couple of times that taking her application to the GM or even the Managing Director of the company would be good enough. Kallol was too senior to meet her, too important an officer. As if a company chairman ever entertained such routine complaints! Without being intimidated in the slightest by the weight of Kallol’s post, Tanima had said, shaking her head, ‘No, I know that he alone can give me justice.’

Initially Tanima Das’s handwritten visitor’s slip had been swept away in the Saturday crowd and the frequency of visits by the Kanorias, Garodias, and the workers’ union. Tanima wasn’t the kind of person to add a five- or ten-rupee note to her slip when handing it to the peon.

Even when she wasn’t summoned for three hours, she had remained sitting obstinately. Before it was time for Kallol to leave, Lalitkumar and the orderlies had tried what might be referred to as getting rid of her. But Tanima hadn’t left. Eventually Kallol had spotted her standing near the wall of the corridor as he was leaving and asked, ‘Who is she? Why has she been made to wait so long to present her grievance?’

Kallol had scanned Tanima’s appeal right there in the corridor. The content of all her applications had been more or less the same since then.

Gopal Das had not sold any of the stock, he had never had stock of the value mentioned by the auditor, and therefore the company’s allegations were incorrect.

Kallol had felt perturbed initially. The accusations had been rejected in clear terms, the quality of English being far from pedestrian. The applicant had waited for several hours without getting an audience. ‘Very well, I’ll examine this,’ he had said. ‘I’ll let you know if there’s anything to be done.’

To the ordinary public, a statement such as this from Kallol’s powerful lips was all that was required. But Tanima was different. ‘You’ll let me know? Through a letter? When?’

‘Do you expect sir to commit a date right now?’ Lalit had asked angrily.

‘All right,’ Tanima had answered, ‘when should I check again? Next Saturday?’

‘Try the Saturday after the next.’ This was Kallol’s attempt to extricate himself by asking for some time.

Normally a fortnight is a long time, especially when the need is one’s own. But somehow the days would pass very quickly in the case of Tanima’s plea.

The visitor’s slip written in the same hand fifteen days later would disturb Kallol as though it was an overt threat.

She was here again! Once more!

‘Can you check what’s happened to her application,’ he would tell Lalit.

‘It’s nothing to do with this office,’ Lalit would answer with a smile. ‘It will go to the corporation and be dealt with there. The MD will return it with his comment…’

‘But check anyway, it would have been filed here before it was sent to the corporation…’

Then it would turn out that section officer was absent, or the senior clerk was on leave. In other words, there was no information for Tanima.

Tanima would appear and stand in silence.

Kallol would be annoyed. He felt naked, unarmed. ‘It hasn’t come back to me yet. Once it does, I can explain the situation.’

‘When should I come then? Next Saturday?’

‘All right.’

It would be the same story the next Saturday.

Kallol did not know at first that there would be so many applications on Grievance Day. All of them were left in bundles – none of them was put up to anyone in files.

Later, his helplessness would be converted to rage.

Tanima, Tanima and even more of Tanima. Every Saturday.

He would telephone Varma and Chaubey, the MD, to express his unhappiness.

‘Why don’t you comment on the grievance petition? It’s not been sent back to me yet.’

They would express polite, deferential surprise.

‘Did you send something, sir? I’ll check. But Das’s case is under progress. It’s been four years. We’ve lodged an FIR.’

One day Kallol had told Tanima with angry eyes, ‘Don’t keep coming back, Mrs Das. You know the case is sub-judice.’

‘I’m not here about the court case,’ Tanima had said in surprise. ‘I’m here about the departmental enquiry. Nothing prevents me from making a complaint, does it?’

‘Fine, then keep coming back.’

‘I have presented fifteen applications till now. None of them has been answered. You are the chairman of the corporation. If you don’t have the answer, what can your subordinates do?’

‘I don’t know. Nor am I obliged to answer. Please don’t disturb me every day, don’t waste my time.’

Kallol’s voice had become louder. One of the orderlies rushed in. He hadn’t meant to throw it, but still a paperweight had slipped from his hand and shattered the glass on a low table next to the desk.

Tanima stopped her Saturday visits after this. Kallol was somewhat contrite, but relieved.

There was work, pressure, and tension all week. But in spite of all this, waiting for Tanima every Saturday had become something of a habit – there was a powerful manliness in rejecting her. When she stopped coming, Tanima deprived Kallol of his weekly pleasure, but rid him of his anxiety too.

Kallol hadn’t realised that things had taken a different turn.

Chaubey the MD phoned him one day. He was a quiet, fearful, plump man, not a sly fox like Akhilesh Varma. He never took the initiative. But this time he was anxiously passing on the news to Kallol.

‘Tanima Das has filed an application under the Information Act, sir, asking for lots of documents.’

Kallol was astonished. It had barely been a year since the Information Act had been passed, and the workers and officers had only just been trained for it – how to give the right to information to the people. Kallol himself had written a couple of articles, attended training seminars, and brainwashed his staff into believing that information was the primary basis of democracy. But still, Tanima’s application under the Information Act was unexpected!

‘That woman is quite something!’ observed Lalit. ‘Gopal is just a dummy, hiding behind his wife and watching the fun.’

‘What documents has Tanima Das asked for? Let me see the application.’

Chaubey seemed utterly demoralised. ‘She has asked for entire sets of documents. A long list of twenty-one sets of documents in all. Starting with the audit report all the way to office correspondence. How can we give her all this?’

‘Don’t even bother, sit,’ said Lalit. ‘The Act lists the kind of information that need not be provided. Chaubey is the first officer of appeal, he will reject the application.’ Hesitating, Kallol said, ‘What harm will it do to provide the information? Can you bring me a copy of the Act please?’

They sat around a table with copies of the Act – the business lawyer and the car accident lawyer, Chaubey, Varma, Lalit. With coffee, paneer pakodas and prawn cutlets. They began to underline the relevant parts.

Section Eight of the Information Act listed the kind of information that need not be provided…

– Information that could compromise the safety and security of the country

– Information that would invade the privacy of an individual

– Information pertaining to confidential ministerial discussions

In this manner, as they read through the sections, there it was!

If providing information during an enquiry could hamper it, those in possession of the information are not bound to disclose it.

Clearing his throat, Kallol said… ‘But they can provide it too, can’t they? On the flip side of every “need not provide” there’s also a “may provide”, isn’t there?

Varma, Chaubey and Lalit were all astonished, but they didn’t want to say anything, keeping in mind the gap between their respective positions and Kallol’s.

Who knew whether the boss was joking, or whether he was serious, or whether he has simply trying to gauge their stance?

Actually, as they read Section Eight, an image floated up in Kallol’s mind through the gaps in the letters – of Aruna Roy. The leader of the movement for the right to information. When he had joined the administration during his involvement with leftist student politics, he had said as an excuse, how will I change everything unless I’m an insider? His university friends had laughed so loudly that he had spilt his tea and scalded his knee. This agony was compounded by the twenty-three-year-old Kallol’s rage. These people are asses. They’ll be clerks all their lives, they will be penpushers, but they will never understand what ambition is. There was no biotechnology, no M.Techs or MBAs, not even a whiff of software in the air back then. Nineteen seventy-eight.

The Left Front had come to power in West Bengal. Kallol and his friends had marched in victory parades. Left leaders who had had to go underground were emerging into the open. People were streaming out on the roads. Everyone from the bus-conductor to the water-carrier was a ‘comrade’. Still fired by this dream, Kallol had scored a jackpot in the all-India examination and gone for training. Then, when he was posted in a small sub-divisional town, he began to work with the ferocity of a lion. It was at this time that Aruna Roy had paid a visit. When he went back home one evening, he discovered his bodyguards trying their best to explain to a woman in a white sari with a brown border, her hair uncombed, her appearance dishevelled, ‘Go back, madam, sir doesn’t meet anyone at home at this hour…’

Kallol was overwhelmed. By this sudden visit on Aruna’s part during her tour, the activist and the young sub-divisional officer sharing khichuri for dinner. With curd, pickles and papad. Aruna had told him about her experience of working with the poorest of the poor in Rajasthan; of her movement, ten years later, for the right to information, organising people, winning the Magsasay… At a seminar on the Information Act, Kallol had declared proudly, ‘I know the person whose movement and sensitivity to people’s needs made this Act possible… Aruna Roy…’

As Kallol read Section Eight of the Act, the image of his meal with Aruna rose before his eyes. But the people sitting in front of him appeared far more clearly than Aruna.

Tanima’s application was rejected under Section Eight, Sub-section H. Information Officer Varma’s instructions were recorded on the file. What was referred to as a ‘speaking order.’ Tanima lodged an appeal, filling in all the relevant details in the form and paying the requisite fees. This time she was rejected by Chaubey. The next appeal was to Kallol. When he received the application, a part of his heart kept saying, why not provide the documents – what difference would it make? The departmental enquiry had ended. A second and final show-cause notice had been issued to Gopal Das. He had no hope. Providing the information was unlikely to hamper anything.

But Kallol was no longer the Kallol of 1978 – his hands were no longer tinged with the red gulal of victory. He was not even an individual anymore, he was an institution. Hundreds of people were dependent on him. Any weakness on his part would now lower the standing of the institution. Chaubey, Varma, Prasad, Kumar, Lahiri and the rest raised such a hue and cry – labelling his intrinsic weakness a case of casting pearls before undeserving and poor swine – that Tanima Das’s second appeal was also rejected at Kallol’s own hands.

All this had happened about three months ago.

Now, after all the other work and incidents that had taken place since then, Kallol seemed to be searching for his own existence again in the rerun of his memory triggered by the Information Commissioner’s summons.

The entire sequence of events came back to him. Tanima’s Saturday visits. The application to the grievance cell. Tanima waiting. The paperweight slipping out of his fingers and shattering the glass on the low table next to the desk. A woman had stalked Kallol like a hunter for a year now.

Kallol observed Varma’s cold, cruel face. Tucking the yellow envelope between the pages of a diary, he was staring fixedly at Kallol. His eyelids didn’t drop, as though he were a reptile. Varma looked as though he would lay down his life to fulfil Kallol’s wishes.

‘So I have to show up on April 7.’ Kallol smothered a sigh. ‘What if I don’t go? Will they issue a ruling unilaterally?’

‘No, you should go, sir. Why should it be unilateral. You shall go with your head held high, we’re making arrangements.’

Summoning Lalitkumar, Kallol said, ‘The Commission doesn’t have its own building yet. Can you find out where the sittings are being held? Since I have to go.’ Strangely, this man Gopal Das had only sent his wife all this time. He had never come himself.

What Varma said with his eyes on the floor amounted to this: these bastard males are always up to their tricks.

Kallol hadn’t been to the courts very often. In his entire life. He had had to go to the High Court a couple of times on charges of contempt of court, but that was all. The Chief Information Commissioner was a retired colleague – he needn’t fear a threat or humiliation. Kallol tried to reassure himself. But still he appeared irritable and crotchety – to Bratati. A suppressed tension had made him fidget all day.

The administrative section of town was always spick and span. At about ten-twenty on the morning of April 7, his driver Sadashiva left the main road and drove all the way up and down the road that crossed it at right angles. Lalitkumar had given the address to Sadashiva and not to Kallol. The man was going round in circles like a fool. The hearing was at ten-thirty. Kallol was annoyed – he didn’t like being late. Especially in such situations, when he was the one under fire.

‘Stop the car,’ said Kallol suddenly, loudly.

He had spotted Tanima Das near a gate, standing almost like a statue. Immediately afterwards he noticed the board with the name of the Commission. Kallol didn’t know, but the day before yesterday – on April 5, in other words – Gopal Das had been terminated from his job. According to an order from Chaubey. Tanima had refused to receive the dismissal notice at home. So, today, on April 7, the dismissal notice had been printed in the local newspaper, with Gopal Das’s photograph. Royal arrangements for the social humiliation of Gopal Das the criminal.

Kallol would have noticed it himself had his mind not been wandering.

A simple soul and a little religious, Chaubey had been hesitant initially. Gopal Das was bedridden for a year. He wasn’t getting paid anyway. Was it really necessary to drive the last nail in the coffin? The shortage was of twenty-seven thousand rupees only. Nothing compared to what the Telgis and their ilk had done. Akhilesh Varma the reptile had put immense pressure on Chaubey. That’s hardly the issue, sir. This is a matter of the chairman’s prestige. Doesn’t he have to go to the Commission with his head held high? Throw the traitor out.

Eventually Chaubey did release the termination order. Kallol didn’t even come to know that his cohorts had changed him instead of changing the rubric of democracy.

Rolling up the dark windows of his car, Kallol told Sadashiva to turn the air-conditioner up. It was a short journey to the gate, but he wasn’t going to travel fuming.

Tanima Das didn’t look at him. She stood as though she had been turned to stone.

Was it Tanima, or Aruna? The view wasn’t clear from a distance.

Sabotage: by Anita Agnihotri

When he returned home Shibaji went directly to the dining space. Turning the tap on at the sink, he washed his hands with liquid soap, rubbing them against each other repeatedly. His wife Smita had bought the pouch of soap a fortnight ago. Apparently this was the most hygienic way to wash one’s hands. Smita had left today – the pouch was a little more than half full. He had developed this obsession with washing his hands about a year ago. Because it was a jarring sight, Smita would stop him sometimes with a movement of her eyes. Now that she wasn’t here, Shibaji would wash his hands as often as he liked. Sub-inspector Gaffoor Khan had died at this time last year. On the elderly side, he was a little plump, with a white moustache, not very fit physically. He had been promoted to sub-inspector after spending many years as a havaldar in an area where there was no such thing as crime. Mile after mile of unpopulated land, dense jungles, interspersed by wide valleys full of shoots and leaves in a multitude of colours, and the celebrations of flowers. Intense poverty, a scarcity of schools and hospitals, and practically non-existent electricity. Even in the district headquarters, the power came and went at will, staying only a few hours each time. The Intelligence Bureau people sent secret reports from time to time in indecipherable scrawls – extremist organisations were spreading their roots in rural areas, conducting brainwashing sessions by night. They were handing out money to boys and girls, sporting equipment and books and leaflets too – and would soon start recruitment. All these notes remained in the in-trays on the desks in the police station – no one bothered to read them. At least, till Shibaji came, the practice of reading them did not exist. But even Shibaji had not been able to spare the time; he had been promoted only last year, and had joined as the Superintendent of Police for the district just about a week ago, which was when a landmine blew up a car belonging to the Tilda police station. Sub-inspector Khan’s and two constables’ bodies. The constables’ faces had been mutilated grotesquely, one of their bodies thrown into the bushes by a bungalow. There was no doubt that they were dead. When Shibaji reached the spot, the first thing he saw was Khan, sprawled beneath the sunlit sky, the yellow light mingling with his body, his arms spread out wide. He was the only declaration of peace amidst the monstrosity of the smashed jeep and the fragments of human bodies.

Assuming that Khan could still be sent to the hospital in the jeep accompanying his car, Shibaji had joined his driver and constables. Like unexpected, undeclared terror, blood poured out, reddening his hands. It had not been obvious that there was such a large, gaping wound precisely at the centre of Khan’s back.

Afternoon had turned into evening before Shibaji had managed to sit down to a meal that day. Not much of a meal – a little vegetable soup and two chapatis. Smita had practically forced them on him. When he sat down to eat, Shibaji felt that his fingers still had bloodstains the colour of rust, and a raw smell. He had risen from the table to wash his hands with soap at the bathroom sink. And that was how he had acquired the habit. Every time there was news of death, injury or explosions, he had the urge to wash his hands. Was it Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Shibaji had been working continuously for a year with the disorder; perhaps he would have to leave the world soon with his disorder intact.

He would have had to work as an additional SP for four years or so. The post of SP, though it meant moving some distance from the state capital, was a challenging one. Just as he was beginning to feel that there was no charm to being the second-in-command, he had been told of the promotion. Whereupon Shibaji had done something he didn’t usually do, which was to return home at an unusual hour, put his arms around his sleeping wife and kiss her wildly. The posting order had only just been issued – this was a golden opportunity to take a week to join and use the time to meet both sets of parents in Delhi. The husband and wife were planning the trip at night, between lovemaking and sleep. In the morning came the summons from the Home Ministry. Shibaji had been both surprised and pleased. He was welcomed effusively and offered tea in a virtually transparent cup and saucer of bone china. The Home Secretary was present, as was the Inspector General of police. Astonished by the statement ‘So this is the courageous young man’, Shibaji heard the Secretary say, ‘He’s even named after a fearless hero – Shibaji.’

Although he was thrown into doubt by the sudden discussion of courage and heroism, Shibaji was subsequently told that he would have to inform the ministry of the infrastructural problems faced by the police over there, and that the government was determined to provide the district with all its requirements.

Abandoning the lure of a week of what bureaucrats called “joining leave”, Smita, Tulika and he set off for the uncertain the very next day. Uncertain, because he had already gathered some feedback from his friends and senior officers. He had even got a sense of the fiery situation in the district. The Home Ministry read reports that were even more flawless and timely than the ones which lazy police officers didn’t bother to read in their village homes. Today Shibaji knew that he had been selected not because of his heroism but as a sacrificial goat.

The area was surrounded by hills, with a mountain stream flowing through it. A new district carved out of an old one. The sadar office had been set up about ten years ago, but it was still not well-appointed. Travelling from the capital meant a fourteen-hour train journey, followed by a drive. Travelling by car took eighteen to twenty hours on bad roads. Winters were intensely cold, though the summers weren’t unbearable. Although the timber mafia had cleared much of the jungle, the ancient forests had not yet been wiped out entirely. The rain wasn’t insignificant, which was why trees kept growing unbidden all over the place – on the hillside, by the roads, on uncultivated land.

Tulika was only three. She used to go to a playschool when they lived in the city – not a significant form of education. She could be taught at home for now – and besides, there was always nature. The landscapes hereabouts were so delightful that an entire calendar could be made with them. After her wedding, Smita had enrolled for a doctorate with Delhi University, but the work was proceeding at a slow pace, the fieldwork had not begun as yet. She wasn’t particularly anxious at the outset of her journey into the uncertain with Shibaji – she was curious instead. The area wouldn’t be a bad choice for her fieldwork. But as soon as they reached, the family as well as Shibaji’s work environment had been enveloped in a sense of emptiness. No one moved to this place, no one wanted to. Even the District Magistrate’s post was vacant. How could this be possible? Several posts were vacant in different departments, including the revenue, rural development and police departments. Although allowances were higher here, no one wanted to be transferred to these parts. And those who did work here had been here for a long time, without being transferred. Because no one would accept transfers to this area. They had stagnated in the same posts in the same district for thousands of years, incapable of – and even opposed to – change.

Shibaji worked very hard. Attempts to improve the skills of his team, visiting the farms and the villages, establishing contact with people, arranging for fresh weapons and ammunition – and yet he experienced an infinite sense of exhausion every evening. As though he had been knocked out of his orbit and was falling headlong into a deep black emptiness. After Khan’s death, Shibaji had asked for four platoons of armed constables for surveillance and patrolling. Having knocked repeatedly on closed doors, he had finally been given three companies of forces – three months later. They were completely unfamiliar with the forests, the foothills, and the towns and villages hereabouts. After several months of purposeless movement and sleep, along with bouts of malaria, they had gone back in disarray. Shibaji had realised that there was no point learning the techniques of unarmed combat, but what was he to do anyway? He was now in the same situation as the rest of the people stagnating in the district without a future. He doubted whether there would ever be a replacement for him. Shibaji had been earmarked for valour and sacrifice.

The warmth of September gave way to autumn in the forest areas. Fresh flowers sprung up on the sandbanks in the river, the jungle of the night began to smile with a profusion of yellow sage flowers. A deep crimson moon rose at the onset of evening, its reddish hue turning gradually to fiery orange and then silver. Sitting alone in the veranda, sometimes with her daughter in her lap, Smita watched all of this, but none of it made a mark on her. She was like a mirror, whose body existed only to reflect things, without a heart. When would Shibaji return, she wondered in her chair in the veranda. Was he in his office or had he gone off to some village or town somewhere? She had told him over and over again that, wherever he might go, he should return before sunset. ‘As if it’s safe even by daylight,’ Shibaji had responded with a ruthless smile. What else could Smita have done but tremble at this? There was no opportunity to send her daughter to school, and even if there had been, she would probably not have done it. But it wasn’t as though she was home-schooling Tulika. The picture books and toys were locked away in cupboards. So were boxes of beautiful saris and salwar-kameezes, along with the yellow, pink and white baby frocks for her daughter. Where would they wear all this to? All they had here was anxiety and terror – there was no happiness in her heart. Smita didn’t let the tablecloth hang low over the sides of the dining table – who knew whether something deadly was hidden beneath or not? Before going to bed at night she combed the corners of the room, the space beneath the bed, the folds of the curtains. Everyone at home was on the verge of suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The building was originally the sub-divisional inspection bungalow – it wasn’t exactly a house, for there was a claustrophobic air everywhere, except in the veranda at the back. Heavy curtains, small windows, the sitting room directly in front of the veranda, and a room on either side of it. This building had been chosen as the SP’s residence after the new district was formed. Two or three Adivasi locals worked in the kitchen and cleaned the house. They had even brought an aged woman from Shibaji’s office to look after Tulika. But Smita didn’t approve of any of them. She didn’t even allow the old woman anywhere near her daughter. And sometimes she felt apprehensive too – what if this distrust on her part provoked anger or revolt? This fear made Smita change her strategy at times. She laughed and joked with them, exchanging meaningless conversations. But through it all she remained cautious, just in case they made any indiscreet confessions.

Despite being neck-deep in uncertainty, they did manage to chat and smile through dinner – Shibaji and Smita. Tulika joined them if she was awake – perched not on a chair but on the table, pushing the pots and bowls away with her arms. Shibaji laughed away Smita’s shift of strategy. ‘What rubbish – all this is speculation! These are all ordinary, poor people, forced to work here for a living. They’re under pressure from both sides – the police on one side and terrorists on the other. All they want is to remain silent – they cannot be made to talk. I have learnt all this from my trips to the villages for first-hand information.’

At night they slept snuggling up to one another; Smita wasn’t even willing to let her daughter sleep on a bed of her own. She had dreamt of a renewed, deeper intimacy when they moved to this desolate area. But now even the desire for a relationship had vanished – they clung to each other out of fear. The grassy fields with trees that lay beyond the veranda at the back looked magical in the moonlight. The forest and the earth were exactly as Smita had expected them to be; only, their unquenchable thirst had dried up everything else.

Peace reigned for about four months following Khan’s killing, as though nothing had ever happened. In the middle of winter a remote police outpost was attacked. Only a single guard with a stick was on duty, the rest being out on patrol. His blood-smeared, bullet-ridden body lay there till the next morning. There was neither mobile phone coverage nor a phone at the outpost. Information took a long time to travel. Who were the attackers? Probably not a large group of people. There was no torching or looting. The killing was a signature of sorts. The attackers had left after signing.

What is it you want? Even if not with these precise words, this was what Shibaji tried to find out during his attempts to make contact with people. His eyes asked the same question of newlyweds in shell jewellery, of men afflicted by old age, of pregnant women. I know what would help, but the key to these solutions is not in my hands. Your right to enter the forests has been curtailed, your tubewells don’t work, your schools have leaking roofs, your hospitals have no doctors or nurses, your women die during childbirth, your children are born in darkness, your sick die in the darkness. Yes, I know all this, but why don’t you speak up? Are all of you mute? Who are the people you have summoned to settle things with us – they know of nothing but weapons. So many constables and so many middle-level inspectors have died – does anyone know whose fault it is that they were killed? Who is going to hunt the killers down? The forests are dense, the paths are hidden, the villages nestle in the folds of the mountains, we don’t have enough people to track the killers. How will we know who the murderers are? What’s the use of searching, when almost anyone might be the killer?

Shibaji muttered to himself at home these days. So Smita had to keep an eye on him too. His mumbles and frequent washing of hands gave birth to a vague fear in her mind. Would they have to live here in exile till death?

Barely a year had passed, but they felt as though they were living inside a closed box.  Shibaji was trying his utmost to get out, of course, travelling the long distance to the capital with his entreaty. It wasn’t possible to meet the minister on one’s own initiative, without being summoned. The Home Secretary had been too busy too meet him. He had got two-and-a-half minutes with the Director General of Police, who had informed him that a transfer order was impossible in less than three years. But yes, the armoury would be refurbished to strengthen his hand. The armoury? Low walls, half the ceiling comprising sheets of corrugated tin, a damp, ancient building. They had submitted a plan for a new structure, and nine or ten months had passed since then. But then that involved expenses; the arms and ammunition would arrive first, since they had been ordered earlier.

The store of modern weapons which he had built carefully was looted. They had come. In flocks, one might say. Twenty-five or thirty outsiders in a tiny, sleepy district town. You could definitely say they had flocked in. They ate at roadside restaurants, smoked in front of the cinema hall. Split into small groups, they included girls too. The local people didn’t understand their language, which was a mixture of the border tongue and Hindi. All this came to light afterwards, however.

All the nine or ten guards at the armoury were killed in the unexpected attack, a celebration of fire and blood. Although out of practice for years, the guards had been the first to open fire, but hadn’t been able to save themselves. The militants had left after piling the weapons in a small truck. Shibaji was at the other end of the district that day, in an area surrounded by dense forests. It took two-and-a-half hours just to get back. The entire operation was completed in thirty-five minutes. Shibaji went to the spot, without having had the chance to wash his hands. Bindu Parja was present. The only female guard to have survived, she had watched the rest of them die. She had stood till the end with her gun, emptied of cartridges. Her eighteen-year-old son had burnt to cinders in front of her eyes – he had recently joined as a temporary sentry. The bomb had set his body on fire.

When she saw Shibaji, Bindu forgot formal protocol. Instead of a salute, her heartrending cries rose in the air – it wasn’t so much crying as it was the screams of a speared animal. Laying a cold, stiff hand on Shibaji’s chest that night, Smita told him repeatedly, ‘Quit this job, there’s no need. Quit, you’re an engineer after all, you can get a private sector job, we can manage without a job for some time…’

Decisions like these weren’t easy to take. The enquiry into the raid, arranging compensation for the dead and paying for the treatment of the wounded took a month and a half. The national media had flashed the news for several successive days. Smita’s parents had called them tearfully. The same request – come away at once, all of you, if you can’t quit, take leave.

Leave. The most priceless commodity at the moment. The application for leave was rejected at once. Those who could not approve anything on time could reject things with flawless alacrity. Take leave now? Aren’t you aware of the fact that the Union Home Minister is coming for a review, with a dozen central officers? You’d better get the helipad ready instead, several helicopters will be coming.

Eventually it was decided that Smita would go to Delhi with Tulika. And Shibaji would try for leave again after the minister’s tour had ended. Or else…

‘I’ll quit. I promise, Smita. I can’t take this tension, this pressure, day after day anymore. Already my blood pressure is fluctuating, I’ve developed cholesterol too. What’s the point of wasting life this way, you’re right, Smita…’

Weeping late into the night, without sleeping, Smita had left in great anguish. Shibaji had seen her off on the train from the major junction in the adjoining district. Tuli was hurt too, hiding her face in her mother’s breast and refusing to speak. She kept displaying a moist little finger to indcate that she had quarrelled with him. The junction was two hours away. He had already received a couple of text messages from Smita on the way back – are you ok? Take care. As though something would happen any moment.

Back home, Shibaji went directly to the dining space and washed his hands thoroughly, using the hygienic liquid soap that Smita had bought.

The food was not laid out on the dining table as it was every day. The napkins, knives, forks, plates – everything was missing. Shibaji peeped into the kitchen – no one there. The breakfast cornflakes and the milk were scattered all over. Sukhan, Ram and Pandavi were nowhere to be seen. The entire house was empty. Strange! Their presence was so natural that Shibaji did not register their absence at first. He went out into the garden at the back though the kitchen door. It wasn’t exactly a garden – a small patch of grass, and then a host of wild plants and vines. The forest seemed to have paused deferentially, waiting for an invitation to enter the house.

It was a desolate afternoon. Wild ducks and skylarks kept calling in a deserted emptiness. A yellow leaf or two drifted to the ground in the melancholy sunlight. As soon as Shibaji stepped out, the forest charged at him. On heavy but silent footsteps. The curtain of green coalesced into the shape of a barrel. Dry gunpowder had been stuffed into it centuries ago.

Shibaji’s mobile phone lay on the dining table. By now innumerable messages had gathered in it – of love, of tears, of anxiety, of rage. Now the calls kept coming… the ringtone echoed through the empty house.

Shibaji’s fingers were still smelling of liquid soap.

Nawab Sahib: by Banaphool

I saw Nawab Sahib thrice. Once, in person; and twice, in my head. Even the face-to-face meeting wasn’t a long one, lasting not more than five minutes. Let me tell this story first.

I was the local doctor.

One day I was told that some of the rich gentlemen in the area had decided to invite Nawab Sahib to tea. A few of the local inhabitants would be invited too, to give him company. I was to be one of them. The bearer of this information asked, ‘Your house is still empty, doctor, when is your family arriving?’

‘Not for another month or so.’

‘Then it would be of great help if you allowed us to use your house for the preparations for the tea. None of us can offer so much space in our houses, and from what we hear…’ he stopped.

‘What is it you hear?’

‘Inviting ordinary people like you and me to tea would not have needed such elaborate arrangements. But it’s different when it comes to Nawab Sahib. His own people will cook for him – one head-cook and three general cooks. They will state their requirements in advance, and be here a day earlier to prepare the kitchen. They will arrive at dawn on the day of the tea-party and start cooking. Lots of details to be attended to. Your house is both large and empty, so we were wondering…’

I wasn’t particularly keen on such an invasion, but I couldn’t quite turn down the request. ‘Very well, I have no objections,’ I was forced to say. ‘But I don’t understand why Nawab Sahib was suddenly invited to tea.’

My guest arched his eyebrows in a prolonged display of astonishment. ‘Do you know what a privilege it is to host Nawab Sahib for tea? He never honours such invitations – we have been requesting him for four years. We don’t know why he agreed this time…’

I was silent for a few moments. Then I asked, ‘I suppose all of you know him very well…’

‘He’s one of our biggest debtors.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘We lend him thousands of rupees. He informs us whenever he’s in need of money – we visit him and hand it over.’

It was my turn to be astonished. I had always known the borrower to be immensely grateful to the lender. But this was just the opposite.

‘I suppose he borrows a lot.’

‘A lot.’

‘Does he pay you back on time too?’

‘He does, but not on time. We never take IOUs from him – we just lend him the money. Then, when we hear he’s come into some cash, we bow to him and say, on such and such date we had offered on your order such and such amount for your service. It would be of imemense help if we could get it back now. He issues instructions at once to his treasurer. We always get the entire amount we ask for. If we were to ask for ten thousand rupees in return for a loan of five thousand, we would get that too. He never questions us. A genuine nawab.’

I was silent, for there was nothing to say. But I grew eager to meet him.

I had heard a great deal about him earlier too, but had never set eyes on him. I was a recent import to the area.

‘When is he coming?’

‘In four days. At five pm on Wednesday. His cooks will be here tomorrow.’

The cooks arrived as planned. I was flabbergasted to see them. While I had no idea what the real nawab would be like, each of them was a minor nawab in his own right. One of them had henna on his beard; another was dressed in velvet slippers; a third had on a velvet jacket over his kurta; and the ring on the finger of a fourth seemed to hold a genuine diamond. The head cook was dressed in immaculate western clothes, and spoke perfect English. I was told he had lived abroad. Mughlai, Pathan, English, French, Italian, Goan, German, Chinese – he was an expert in many different cuisines. His salary was five hundred rupees a month.

Overwhelmed by all this, I welcomed them warmly and offered seats. They greeted me with dignified deference too. Only the head cook took a seat, while the other three remained standing. One of the rich gentlemen who were hosting the tea party for the nawab was present too. He took a chair. The head cook asked him in English, ‘What do you propose to offer Nawab Sahib?’

‘We have invited him to tea. But naturally that is not all we will serve. There will be some pulao, some mutton, and anything else you see fit. Bread, cake, biscuits, jams and jellies have been ordered from Firpo’s. Some crockery too. Someone from Firpo’s will bring everything…’

‘But can they supply gold crockery?’ asked the head cook. ‘Since you’re hosting Nawab Sahib…’

He looked at the representatives of the host with a smile. The host’s expression suggested he was perspiring profusely.

‘How many guests?’

‘About ten.’

‘Is that all? I will bring the gold crockery in that case.’

‘Should we say no to Firpo?’

‘Let them bring what they will. We’ll need the cups and saucers. Now give me a piece of paper, let me make a list.’ I handed him a writing pad. ‘Ten guests?’

The head cook sank into thought for about a minute, his eyes closed. Then he said, ‘I don’t think the arrangements need to be very elaborate. Let there be two kinds of pulao, and four kinds of white and zarda kababs. Curries won’t work with tea. I am making the list accordingly. You could arrange for some namkeen, kachauri, and samosas too. Is good ghee available here? If not, I’ll get it myself. I can also provide some excellent flour from my larder. We get ghee from Kashmir for Nawab Sahib, the women make it with their own hands there. The flour comes from Punjab…’

‘Very well, do get the ghee and flour then, we will pay,’ said the host.

‘Pay? We are not grocers, babu sahib.’

A respectful smile appeared on the head cook’s face.

‘Forgive me,’ the host said quickly.

‘Please procure everything that I’m putting on the list. I shall come again on Tuesday morning. We need a couple of servants tomorrow to clean the yard; and a mason to make the oven. Ramzan Ali, you shall personally supervise the making of the oven.’

‘Ji huzoor.’ Ramzan Ali, who was wearing a diamond ring, accepted the order with a salaam.

Then the head cook instructed Ghafoor Khan, ‘You shall decorate the kitchen. Flower-pots, flower vases, carpets, chairs – tell babu sahib here what you need, he will arrange for everything.’

Greeting the host, Ghafoor Khan said, ‘Two dozen flower-pots, an elegant flower vase, a carpet, and an armchair. Two small tables on either side of the armchair. A container for ittar, an ashtray, and an overhead marquee…’ I was not a little surprised at the requirements for the kitchen.

‘You need all these things just to cook?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ answered the head cook in chaste English with a smile. ‘How will the cooking be perfect unless the cooks are in a pleasant frame of mind, unless the environment is joyous? Mustn’t the surroundings in which food is prepared for Nawab Sahib be pleasing?’

‘Yes, certainly,’ the rich gentleman butted in quickly. But he still seemed to be perspiring.

‘Let me draw up the list now. Ten guests, you said?’

‘Yes, ten.’

The head cook sat frowning for some time. Then he said, ‘Never mind, I will go back now and send the list shortly. I might miss out on some items if I draw it up here. Someone will deliver this soon. I shall leave now. Please arrange for everything on the list. Abid Mian, you shall come here tomorrow to decorate the room that Nawab Sahib will eat in. I hope there are chandeliers.’

‘There are,’ said the rich gentlemen. ‘How many do you need?’

‘If the hall is a large one, about a dozen.’

‘Very well, it shall be taken care of.’

Abid Mian, the third cook, saluted and stepped aside. The head cook bade everyone farewell and left. The other three followed him, promising to be back the next morning. The rich gentleman took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face, brow and neck. ‘We had expected to manage with two hundred or so,’ he said. ‘But it seems to me that it will require rather more. Naturally, a tea-party for Nawab Sahib is no laughing matter. I should be going too. If they send the list to you, please pass it on.’

‘All right.’

He left.

A couple of hours later the list was delivered to me. I was amazed to see its contents. Was the man mad, I wondered. There would only be ten guests, and the list said: seven goats (each between seven and ten kilos in weight), 15 kilos of fine rice (tulsi majari or katari bhog) for the white pulao, 15 kilos of Peshawari rice for the zarda pulao. Five kilos each of twenty different spices for the pulao, except the saffron, of which only five kilos were needed. Ten kilos of onions, ten of garlic, five of ginger – and five kilos each of raisins, almonds and nuts. Incredible! Anyway, I sent the list off to the gentleman who had come to my house – let the hosts decide for themselves what to do. Why should I rack my brains over it! I would simply turn up at the appointed hour and meet Nawab Sahib. Despatching the list, I went off to visit patients.

Ramzan Ali, Ghafoor Khan and Abid Mian arrived the next morning. So did a mason and two porters. They had brought bricks and cement too. Showing them to the open space behind the house, I went out on house calls.When I returned at two in the afternoon, I discovered the place transformed. The entire area had been weeded and cleaned, a clay oven had been set in place, flower-pots were arranged on the sides, and a beautifully-patterned marquee had been set up – even the bamboo posts of the marquee were wrapped in red fabric. A canvas armchair and a couple of low tables stood on one side. The flower-vase, ittar-pot and ashtray had all been sent. A folded carpet lay on the ground.

‘The carpet, tables and armchair will be needed on Wednesday morning, huzoor,’ Ramzal Ali told me deferentially. ‘The flower-vase, ittar-pot and ashtray too. I’m putting them in one of your rooms.’

‘What will you do with all this?’ I asked.

‘Noor Mohammad sahib, our head-cook, will use the armchair. We’ll place it on the carpet, with the tables on either side. One for the ittar-pot and flower vase, the other for the ashtray.’

Quite an arrangement! I let them put everything inside. The other items on the list appared the next day. Seven plump goats began to bleat in front of my house. The rice and spices turned up. And Noor Mohammad arrived a little later with the ghee from Kashmir and the flour from Punjab. I saw that he was accompanied by the rich gentleman. It was time for another surprise. Noor Mohammad began to circle the goats, examining each of them carefully. Then he told Abid Mian to lift one of them in the air by its middle. Abid Mian complied with his order.

Scrutinising the goat from every side, Noor Mohammad proclaimed himself satisfied. ‘Keep this one,’ he said, ‘send the rest back. We won’t need the entire meat. I will choose three kilos…’

Turning to Ramzan Ali, he said, ‘You can start now. I need two kilos of each of the two varieties of rice. Every grain must be undamaged and ripe. That’s what all the extra rice is for. Two of you can work on the rice, and then on the spices. You have to be meticulous. The clove, cardamom and pepper must be picked with great care, so that there isn’t a single bad grain. Pick the dry fruits with the same care – they often mix impurities into the raisins and almonds. Remember, each grain must be plump and pure, not a single one should be rotten…’

‘Ji huzoor.’

Saluting, Ramzan Ali approached the basket of rice. The head-cook left for the day after these orders, telling us that the cooks would pick and wash the best portions of the rice and spices, and that he would be back the next day. The other three got down to work after he left, toiling till nine at night to finish everything. They took back most of the rice, spices and dry fruits. Only the best portions were left nehind.

Noor Mohammad arrived early next morning. Ramzan, Ghafoor and Abid followed his orders. All he did was lie back in his armchair, smoking expensive cigarettes and issuing instructions. The fragrance of their cooking spread everywhere. Noor Mohammad had to put in a little physical labour only when the pulao was being made. A mixture of spices and ghee had been added to the rice, with a suitable amount of stock, in a pot and its mouth sealed with a paste of flour. Noor Mohammad rose from his chair occasionally to hold a stethoscope against the side of the pot and listen to the sounds inside, so that he could decide whether the flame needed to be turned up or down. Just as doctors use a stethoscope to gauge the condition of the heart, Noor Mohammad too could make out from the bubbling sounds within the pot how much longer the pulao needed to be cooked. I was flabbergasted.

Nawab Sahib arrived in his car at precisely five in the evening. His kurta and tight pajamas were a spotless white, while a white lace cap perched on his head. He didn’t seem so much a man as a dazzling sword. He had blue eyes and a gentle smile. Greeting each of us with an adaab, he took his seat. Each of his hosts said a few words in their exuberance. He listened to all of them with a tilted head, smiling, nodding now and then.

The food was served in plates of gold, followed by the tea. Nawab Sahib only accepted a cup of tea, taking one or two sips. He didn’t touch the food. Drinking half a cup of tea, he rose to his feet. ‘Please excuse me,’ he said courteously. ‘I have to go somewhere else.’

He left after bidding farewell to everyone.

My second encounter with Nawab Sahib took place in a different way. I was treating the son of a poor paan-seller. He couldn’t afford my fees. His dilapidated hut and little shop were all he had – the poor fellow could barely buy all the medicines. A few months later he gave me another call. This time it was his wife who was ill, but I discovered that his fortune had changed for the better – he now lived in a two-storied house. This time too, he tried to pay me a smaller fee than usual. ‘You seem quite well-off now,’ I said, ‘you have a two-storied house…’

‘I’m as poor as ever, doctor,’ he said. ‘Nawab Sahib gave me this house to live in.’

‘Nawab Sahib?’

‘Yes, doctor. I am a fortunate man, which is why his car had a puncture in front of my shop one day. I gave the driver a hand in changing the tyre. I bowed to Nawab Sahib too. With a smile, he asked, “Do you live here?”’

‘Yes, huzoor,’ I said. ‘That’s my house there.’

He left after a look at my ramshackle hut. An engineer arrived the next morning. ‘Nawab Sahib has ordered me to build a two-storied house for you.’ He began work the same day, and we had a two-storied house in no time…’

I seemed to see Nawab Sahib in my mind’s eye. Fair, blue-eyed, smiling gently…

I heard recently that Nawab Sahib had died. Not of an illness, but by falling into the sea. Many people say it was deliberate. Because his will was rather unsual. It said, ‘I hereby bequeath all my property for the betterment of the poor. I do not have a penny left now. How will I pass the rest of my life?’