News of a Murder: by Moti Nandy

Bibha and Nirmal subscribed to an English newspaper, and besides, she hardly ever glanced at anything except the photographs and headlines. So she had no idea about this piece of news. In the afternoon Manashi, the housewife next door, had a big laugh as she said from her balcony, ‘Oh my god, you haven’t read it yet? Never mind, I’ll give you our newspaper. Someone with the same name as yours has been murdered. And such a coincidence! A housewife in North Calcutta, under the jurisdiction of Shyampukur Police Station, one son, aged about forty. I was shocked. Actually it was my husband who had read it first, then he made me read it too. Go check next door whether she’s alive or been murdered, he told me. I ran to the window to discover your husband coming out of the toilet while you were in the yard, scolding Balai about something. How we laughed!’

Bibha felt a stab of curiosity. ‘Let me see the newspaper,’ she said.

Manashi offered her the newspaper, saying, ‘My husband isn’t done with it yet.’

‘I’ll give it back in a minute.’

A triple-decker heading in fairly large letters announced: ‘Housewife Bibha Das murdered. Assailant leaves money, jewellery untouched. Servant absconding.’

It was minor news at best. But it had been stretched to provide a thrill to readers. In fact, Bibha did feel her skin prickle and her heart skip a beat.

Her 17-year-old son, who was studying for his final examinations, was in school. Bibha Das was alone at home in the afternoon. Somebody – or some people – strangled her to death, leaving her body in the kitchen. The dead woman’s body bore no injuries. The keys to the wardrobe were beneath her pillow, but the wardrobe hadn’t been opened. Neither the money nor the jewellery had been touched. Her son came home from school to discover the front door wide open. Entering, he called out for the servant. Going upstairs, he found his mother lying face down in kitchen. Her blouse was missing. Her sari was raised above her knees. The police could not be certain whether she had been murdered after being raped. The servant was twenty-four years old, he had been employed there for two years. He was absconding.

‘They didn’t mention where it took place,’ Bibha said when returning the newspaper. ‘Must be somewhere close by.’

‘Shyampukur is our police station too. It should be easy enough to find out.’ Manashi even informed Bibha that she would enquire.

Bibha’s husband Nirmal telephoned a little later. ‘There’s news of a murder in the papers today.’

‘Manashi from next door showed it to me a minute ago.’

‘Where’s Balai?’

‘Downstairs, must be asleep.’

‘Lock the door at the top of the stairs.’

‘I was also thinking of doing that.’

‘Some of the people in office know your name. Sukumar came by to check. Apparently he was worried sick after reading the papers this morning. No one home in the afternoon besides a full-bodied male servant, he said, and Mrs Das is pretty, too.’

‘Oh no, Balai is a decent boy. He’s been with us three years, after all.’

‘There was something in the papers today…’ Soumitra said as soon as he came home from school.

‘I read it.’

‘What horrible things they write. Apparently her blouse had been removed. I had an argument with a couple of friends. Many women take their blouses off on these sultry afternoons. They wouldn’t believe me… Forget it.’

‘Why do you have to argue over such things?’

‘Why do they write about them in the papers then? Some of my classmates have seen you. They’re the ones who claim to be concerned.’

‘About what?’

‘About your being alone at home all afternoon… I’m hungry.’

When he returned from office in the evening, Nirmal said without any preamble, ‘You’d better lock the house and go next door or something every afternoon. Staying all alone at home doesn’t seem wise. This kind of murder is becoming commonplace in Calcutta these days. Apparently the majority of the victims are beautiful women.’

‘You’re scaring me, the way you’re talking.’ Bibha tried to sound coy, but could not. She really was afraid.

‘Boudi, boudi,’ Balai was calling Bibha from downstairs. As she turned towards the stairs, Nirmal said, ‘Do we have Balai’s village address?’

‘I certainly don’t.’

‘Get it, get it right now.’

The next day Manashi came up to Bibha on her own to hand her the newspaper, saying, ‘Just imagine! How terrible, at this age, and with a son too, an affair with the servant!’

The headline was just as large as the previous day: Bibha Das had an illicit relationship with the servant.

‘Those who know you will think of you straightaway when they read this… so many resemblances, after all. The girl in the house behind ours, she’s a schoolteacher, she was telling me.’

‘What was she telling you?’ Bibha’s limbs grew numb. What horrible things people were saying!

‘Nothing awful. She was just saying the headline made her think of you at once. The two Bibha Dases have a lot more in common than just their names.’

‘A lot more? What do you mean?’

‘She was probably referring to the similarities in age, in your homes, one son, a young servant – things like that. My husband said the same thing too. The news gives you a nasty and dirty feeling, doesn’t it?’

‘Naturally.’

‘I’ll take the newspaper back from you later after you’ve read the whole thing.’

What have I got myself into. Bibha sat down heavily on her bed, newspaper in hand. This witch of a Bibha Das had let her down badly. Manashi and the house at the back effectively meant the entire neighbourhood. They must be gossiping about her in every house right now. If only she had had two or three or four children instead of just the one. It was all thanks to Nirmal’s poor advice – one’s enough, that way we can bring him up properly.

Bibha paced up and down impatiently. Everyone who knew her would immediately think of her when they saw the name. And how strange, she was in fact home alone every afternoon, and Balai was young too. The very term illicit relationship was terrifying!

The telephone rang. Bibha ran to answer it. You didn’t feel lonely when you were talking to someone.

‘Is that Bibha? This is your aunt, how are you? How’s Nimu?’

‘I’m very well, auntie. We’re all very well.’

‘I read something in the papers that scared the life out of me. Have you read it?’

‘Something about a murder?’

‘Yes, not just a murder though, there’s much more to it.’

‘There’s nothing like that going on here aunty, you mustn’t think…’

‘Didn’t I see a servant at your house? Is he still there?’

‘Oh no. Balai was sacked long ago. Nearly six months… no, almost a year. We have a maid now.’

‘Very wise of you. You can never trust these young servants. Doesn’t Soumitra take his Higher Secondary exam this year?’

‘Yes.’

‘I haven’t seen you in a long time, I must visit soon.’

‘Please do.’

Bibha shuddered as she replaced the receiver. The aunt was bound to see Balai if she came. Bibha sat down on the bed, holding her head in her hand. She felt sick all over.

The phone rang again. Bibha ran.

‘This is Nirmal. Have you locked the door?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’d asked you to get Balai’s address in the village.’

‘I’ll get it now.’

‘Not now, not now. He’s alone downstairs now… I wish you wouldn’t forget these important things!’ Nirmal’s voice was acidic with annoyance.

Bibha lost her temper suddenly. ‘What kind of horrible fate will befall me if I go downstairs?’ she shot back testily. ‘Balai is a very nice young man.’

‘Bibha Das also used to think that her murderer was a very nice young man.’

The slamming of the receiver rang in Bibha’s ears. She stood with her eyes closed, swaying. Taking a step or two to grab at the side of the bed, she stared helplessly at the headline in the newspaper.

When he came back from school, Soumitra said as usual, ‘I’m hungry,’ without coming up to his mother. Looking out blankly through the window, Bibha said, ‘Tell Balai downstairs to give you your food… never mind, I’ll get it myself.’

‘No,’ Soumitra practically screamed. ‘You don’t have to go downstairs, I’ll go.’

Bibha’s lips began to tremble. She went out into the balcony to stare at the road. Let the neighbours and the people on the street see her. She had not been murdered, she was not having an affair either. ‘You can see, I’m here all by myself,’ she muttered.

Back from office, instead of coming upstairs as he did every day, Nirmal began to talk to Balai. About to go downstairs, Bibha paused on the staircase when she heard their voices.

‘What have I done wrong dada for you to ask me to leave? Where will I get a job now? Give me the rest of the month at least.’

‘Absolutely not, you have to leave the house tomorrow. Didn’t I tell you I have a problem about you? Why should you be in trouble, I said I’d give you the full month’s salary, didn’t I?’

As soon as she heard Nirmal’s footsteps approach the stairs Bibha retreated.

Bibha was sitting in the balcony. Two maids were passing on their way to work. It was time for water to be supplied to taps. ‘Wait a minute,’ Bibha cried out to them from the first floor.

After a brief pause, they continued on their way.

‘Don’t go away. Do you want to work for us? Don’t run away.’

The maids didn’t stop. But one of them said to the other, ‘They’ve had five maids in six months, no one’s lasted more than a fortnight. She’s gone mad, that woman.’

Striker: Chapter 1

I had a dream last night.

A white car glided to a halt at the spot where our lane meets the main road after winding past three crossroads. As no one in our neighbourhood had ever seen so large a car, they crowded around it, though afraid to come close. A middle-aged foreigner got out, his complexion as dark as the night. Dressed in trousers and a jacket as white as his car, he had on dark glasses, with a cigar in his mouth and salt and pepper hair.

Waving his hands, the foreigner said something to the crowd in Portuguese. Our neighbours, who knew no other language besides Bengali, with a smattering of English, Hindi and Oriya thrown in, just looked at one another, perplexed. His tone suggested he was trying to find out something.

Stepping up from the crowd, Nutu-da asked in Hindi, “What do you want?” Then, having managed to translate the words mentally, he repeated the question in English.

Now the foreigner asked in unaccented Bengali, “Does someone named Prasoon Bhattacharya live here?”

Athough taken aback at hearing the foreigner speak in Bengali, everyone was reassured, a buzz of curiosity springing up. Prasoon? Prasoon! Prasoon!! What does he want with him? Why is this man here?

“You mean Anil Bhattacharya’s eldest son Prasoon?”

“Yes, I’d like to meet him,” the foreigner told Nutu-da, not looking anxious anymore. Nutu-da was another tenant in our house, our neighbour. He worked as a compositor at a press. With his wife having died two years ago, his daughter Nilima was the only other member of his family. A simple, straightforward man, he had just the one problem – he couldn’t help offering unsolicited advice. And whenever he got the opportunity, he would raise funds – be it for a local event or a community celebration. People of all ages referred to him as Nutu-da. Nilima was roughly my age. A student of Class Ten, she slaved away day and night at home and elsewhere. She was a great friend of mine.

“And what business do you have with Prasoon?” Nutu-da asked the foreigner sceptically.

His cigar had gone out. Re-lighting it with his lighter, he said, “I’ve come from Brazil. I’m sure you’ve heard of Santos Football Club. I’m the manager there. If Prasoon agrees, we want him.”

Nutu-da said, “What do you mean, want him?”

The foreigner responded quickly. “Of course, my club will pay him. We’ll also pay for his airfare to come home once a year.”

“How much will you pay?”

“I will discuss that with his father,” the foreigner answered warily. “Prasoon’s not an adult yet. We’ve done our homework about him. He’s 17 years and 4 months old.”

Nutu-da proceeded to escort the foreigner to our home, followed by a procession of local people. You had to enter our house through an unpaved path just 30 inches wide. Nutu-da and our family occupied one-and-a-half rooms each on the ground floor. The landlord, Bishwanath Dutta, occupied the first floor. He had four daughters, two of whom had been married off.

About to leave home, Bishwanath, or Bishu-babu, was flabbergasted at the sight of the entire neighbourhood trailing a foreigner into our lane. Retreating quickly, he sent his second daughter Shonamukhi out to deal with the situation. Bishu-babu was terrified of the police.

Seated on a low stool, my father was reading the morning paper. My mother was in the kitchen. I had a brother and a sister – Pintu, the brother, was the middle one and Putul, the youngest. No sooner had he entered than Nutu-da started yelling for my father. Baba’s was a taciturn personality – most days, we didn’t exchange a single word. I tended to avoid him.

“Anil-babu, the manager of Santosh Club is here.” Nutu-da was panting with excitement. “Pele plays for them.”

“Pele who?” baba asked sternly. “Where does he live?”

Nutu-da was taken aback. Smiling gently, the foreigner stepped up to speak. “Santos is a Brazilian club. Our city is a famous port, from where coffee is shipped all over the world. Our club is among the best in the world, and Pele is the world’s greatest footballer. There hasn’t been another talent like him ever.”

Running his eyes over the crowds behind the foreigner, baba said, “I don’t follow football. Tell me what you want.”

“We want your son Prasoon to play for our club.”

“Talk to him. I have nothing to say about this.” Baba disappeared into his room quickly, followed by the foreigner and Nutu-babu. Meanwhile, emboldened by the knowledge that the visitor wasn’t a policeman, Bishu-babu came up to our door too.

“Since Prasoon isn’t an adult yet, he cannot sign the contract. As his guardian, you have to do it,” said the foreigner.

“No, I will not sign anything connected with football. I do not wish to earn my son’s curses by leading him into damnation.

“Anil-babu was a footballer too,” Nutu-da whispered to the foreigner. He was a fearsome left-in for Calcutta’s top club, Juger Jatri. But he gave up the game after his left knee was injured during the Rover’s Cup in Bombay.”

“Who said I gave up the game?” baba suddenly shouted sharply, harshly. “I was forced to give up. My injury was never treated. I couldn’t afford it, and the club didn’t offer a paisa. I still have to walk around with a torn cartilage. The club forced me to play with the injury. It was the IFA Shield final, against East Bengal. With three minutes to go, the match still goal-less, there I was six yards from goal, with Taj Mohammed on the ground, Byomkesh Bose rushing towards me, Ghatak not able to make up his mind whether to give me the charge or not, the stands roaring in unison for a goal – and from that distance I shot wide.”

Looking embarrassed after that passionate diatribe, baba lowered his head and limped off to the bed, dragging his left foot. Smiling wanly, he said, “I’d told them I wouldn’t be able to play. They gave me an injection and forced me to play, promising a job if I did. I did try, I tried very hard, to score that goal.” He continued almost unintelligibly, “They spat all over me, accusing me of having tanked the game for a bribe. My forehead split under their blows.” Distractedly, he rubbed the scar exactly in the centre of his forehead.

“Footballers meet the same fate all over the world,” the foreigner said sympathetically.

“Why should they?” Baba’s eyes blazed, reflecting his anger and hatred. “When I was rolling on the pitch in agony, they all said I was pretending. They didn’t stop to consider that the man they were vilifying had scored at ease from twenty-five to thirty yards out, had been the top-scorer in the Calcutta league for two years. They humiliated me cruelly, cruelly, not knowing how much I had dreamt of wearing the shield-winners’ medal, of scoring the winning goal for my club…”

Baba stopped.

“We’ll pay well. The first season we’ll pay the equivalent of two thousand rupees every month. That’s the standard for our second team. If his performance can get him into the first team and he plays well, between salary, bonus and endorsements he’ll make at least two lakhs a year.”

“What?” said Bishu-babu and walked into the room. Nutu-da stared at the foreigner, robbed of speech. The crowd murmured.

“Imagine Prasoon having it in him! You can’t tell from looking at him, can you?”

Baba worked as a timekeeper at the Aruna Glass factory, where there had been a lock-out for over three years. Still, he had not defaulted on our house-rent of thirty-five rupees. His self-respect was so strong that it was intolerable for him to even imagine being insulted by the landlord. Ma said he worked at a chemist’s, leaving home every afternoon and returning late, well after I’d fallen asleep.

“You should talk to Prasoon directly. I haven’t been to watch a game for the past twenty years. I don’t even look at the sports page of newspapers. I’m not going to say yes or no on this subject.”

“Anil-babu!” Nutu-da pleaded in a low voice. “Prasoon will earn up to a lakh. You can live like a king!”

“Unbelievable. Imagine earning so much just for kicking a ball! You should accept the deal,” said Bishu-babu.

“Footballers have their pride, Bishu-babu. Prasoon plays football because he wants to, not because I’ve asked him to. I have never watched him play. I don’t want to hear anything more about foortball. I’ve said all I had to.”

Although the foreigner as well as Nutu-da and Bishu-babu, tried to persuade baba, he just shook his head obdurately. Eventually the Brazilian gave his visiting card to baba, saying, “Please think it over and let me know. Since Pele plans to retire soon, we want to prepare Prasoon immediately so that he can replace him later.”

The foreigner left, and so did the crowd. Alone in the room, the card still in his hand, baba walked up to the window, shred the card into little strips and flung them out. As they floated around like a shower of flowers, ma ran out of the kitchen to pick them up, Nilima behind her. Chasing the strips, Nilima came up to my window and whispered, “Wake up, Prasoon. It’s five o’ clock!”

About Striker, Stopper

Striker, Stopper
By Moti Nandy
Published in Bengali 1973
Published in English translation by Hachette India, 2010

From the jacket
Striker is the story of a young football player, Prasoon Bhattacharya, whose father, once a top scorer in the Calcutta League, is completely sidelined after being accused by the club of deliberately throwing the winning goal. As a young player struggling to make his mark, Prasoon not only has to battle the ruthless exploitation of the football clubs, his family’s straitened financial circumstances, and his own development as a player, but he has also to exorcise his father’s ghosts. Stopper, on the other hand, is the story of the much older Kamal Guha, a veteran player with an eclectic record, now playing the final game of his career… Both novellas brilliantly capture the heady highs, and the crushing lows, the heroism – and the ignominy – of sport. However, it is always the game, and the action on the field, that is the real hero of Moti Nandy’s writing.

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