You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.
- M. Scott Peck
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Indranil Biswas had just returned from his morning walk when his mobile phone kept on the centre table lit up.
While going for his daily retinue of his morning walk & jogging, Indranil never carried his phone in person. He prefers to keep out the interference of technology as much as possible...And now, being retired, it has become easier...
The yellow backlight of the phone was glowing intermittently in the silent mode, not to disturb the calm & serene household at 7 o’clock in the morning. Indranil picked it up.
The call was from Mr. Debajyoti Mukherjee’s residence & it brought sad news...News of Mr. Mukherjee’s demise…
An old class-mate of Indranil’s elder brother, Mr. Mukherjee was a globe-trotter by passion… “Debu da”, as Indranil called him was more than just a family friend. They shared a kindred spirit in friendly addas & personal adventures.
Mr. Mukherjee had been to several places all-round the globe, Arizona, New Mexico, Antarctica, Scandinavia ; he even went to unregistered countries like Tuva, Somaliana, etc. But he often joked that he found Kashmir & Shimla to be the most beautiful of all places…
Indranil felt bitter...not much sad though. Maturity brings inevitability in place of sorrow.
“Debu da was 85 & he surely lived every moment of his life”, Indranil thought, “…except the last three months when he was mute & bed-ridden, because of paralysis...Death was not much unwelcome…at least, to him…”
The old parental house of Mr. Debajyoti Mukherjee in Maniktala was grand one. Two storied, with about 6 rooms in each story, the house was complete with a small garden, a porch, a big garage which can accommodate house two cars, an attic & not-to-mention a marble fairy on the roof, which was a replica of that of the Victoria Memorial. Because of the last one, the house has earned the moniker “Pori-bari” in the neighbourhood.
Mr. Mukherjee’s grandfather was a civil judge. He amassed enough wealth for his son & grand-son to live off petty government jobs as well as pursue their interests in leisure.
As Indranil entered the house, he met the deceased’s only daughter, Laboni. She was a few years younger than him & looked up to him as her elder brother. The ever-smiling Laboni today, greeted Indranil with teary eyes...
After paying his last visit to the old man & offering his condolences, Indranil asked Laboni what led to the old man’s demise.
“Cardiac Arrest...” she replied briefly... “Baba was on medicines for the last three-four months, recently there was an aggravation… Anukul informed me two weeks ago…I am residing here since…”
Indranil knew some of these incidents. “Anukul?” he asked.
“Oh. The new servant. Sajal, the older one left a few months back…”
“Ma is ok. She’s coping up…” Laboni replied, supressing a sob… “She was apprehending this, I guess…”
Indranil felt sorry & consoled her. Clearly she was not…
“There’s a thing between daughters & fathers, an invisible bonding...”, Indranil mused while he thought about his own daughter, Monalisa...
“Have you informed Mrinal da?” asked Indranil politely. She nodded in the affirmative… “And Babua is in Ahmedabad, right? Pursuing MBA…”
“Yes, he is…” Laboni replied, apparently getting a hold of herself. Nothing is a better diversion to a mother than the topic of her children.
Meanwhile, the servant brought tea & snacks for Indranil babu. He politely refused, but in vain as Laboni strongly insisted. His investigative eye, as instinctive it was, noticed that the servant, Anukul is of 25-30 years old, medium complexion, intelligent-looking, with a cut mark on his left cheek.
After tea & snacks, Indranil walked into the adjacent room.
This room with a chequered marble floor was previously occupied by his beloved & respected Debu da. They, along with a few other friends, had spent many evenings here with tea, muri & telebhaja, enjoying endless adda. The old man loved him specially & he once visited him very often, until the busy work-life set in…
Reminiscing these thoughts, Indranil suddenly remembered of Mr. Mukherjee’s private book collection. Mr. Mukherjee used to call it “Mukherjee’s Athenaeum” which had around 1200 books, collected, read & studied over three generations. It was in the next room.
Mr. Mukherjee used to spend a bulk of his time in his Athenaeum, till he suffered paralysis, three months ago. In this deplorable time-period, although he couldn’t get up from bed, apparently, he couldn’t live far away from his prized possessions.
Entering the room with teak-wood book racks from top to bottom, Indranil took a deep breath. It was as if he had entered a magical world. A world of dreams, lives & endless possibilities... “People
search for such a world endlessly throughout their lives & end up in shopping malls, expensive restaurants, bars & extra-marital affairs”, Indranil thought...A scent of eucalyptus oil & some unknown herbs spread throughout the room.
“Such great collections & such proper cataloguing…” he thought. The books were classified into several sections – Fiction, Non-fiction, Science, Art, Folklore, History, Economics & what not !!! Each section in fact, had several sub-sections. Should anybody look for a particular book, he would find it without breaking a sweat…
“It’s quite astonishing that a private book collection had so much structure. It can only be achieved through passion & diligence...”, Indranil thought.
Browsing through the books, as usual, Indranil felt attracted to the leftmost self, the Rare Books Collection. Having spent a number of years visiting this house, he was more-or-less familiar with the rest of the shelves. It was the “Rare books collection” that had a surprise in store for him, almost every time he visited it. The Late owner always took the pleasure of introducing the latest additions to his young colleague.
“Bengal Fairy Tales” by Bradley Birt with illustrations by Abanindranath Tagore…“High Adventure” by Edmund Hillary with the author’s signature…“Rubaiyat” by Omar Khayyam illustrated by Asit Kumar Halder…“The Canterbury Tales” by Chaucer 1st printed edition…“Don Quixote” by Cervantes – original edition…“Rajabali” by Mrityunjoy Bidyalonkar, one of the oldest printed Bengali books…“The Birds of America” by John James Audubon with illustrations by the author, one of the 119 copies known to exist...the list goes on...
“Babu...” Indranil’s train of thoughts was interrupted with a call from the back.
Anukul...He was standing on the doorway...
“Madam ji asked for you...”, he said.
Best-guessing this “madam-ji” to be Laboni, Indranil set off following him.
A whiff of cooking entered Indranil’s nostrils. The old cook, Malati mashi (or what her name was) had started preparing the daily meal.
“Maybe, it’s better to leave now or else Laboni will ask me to have lunch here only..” Indranil thought. A new-looking microwave oven sat on a wooden table in the passage in front of Debu da’s room. It was probably used to warm the owner’s food exclusively, because Indranil remembered there was another oven near the dining table.
He was taken upstairs to a drawing room where Laboni & Mrinal were talking. Anukul left after taking Indranil to the room.
With a quizzical look, Laboni said, “Oh..Did I call you? I happen to forget a lot of things now-a-days...”
“It must be the stress....& age..”, Indranil thought.
“Oh, yes, I remember...yesterday, a queer incident took place...”
“What is it? Tell me...”Indranil asked.
“I was thinking of telling this to you...But it may be nothing, very insignificant...Yesterday night, when we finished dinner, I heard baba ringing his bell. I thought he wanted to go to the bathroom or something, but as I went to him, he asked for something else. His hand gestures suggested he wanted paper & a pen...”
“Are you sure, Laboni?”, Mrinal asked. “I mean why should he ask for pen & paper at 10 pm...”
“Yes... I am sure. I only could read all his gestures. Anukul was also picking up, but he’s far from expert...” Laboni replied.
Indranil spoke now, “Did Mr.Mukherjee make any will?” He noticed Mrinal felt a bit uncomfortable with the question.
“Yes, he did already...Pravanjan babu, our house-advocate is well-aware. I am the sole inheritor.
So...” Laboni answered confidently.
“Hmm...I see. Is there any reason you can think of, that he might wish to change his will?”
“No...Not at all. He was hail & hearty in the evening. He watched a cinema, in fact. He usually saw one movie a day each evening, all these three months. Or read a light book...He was fine, mentally in peace, I would say...”
Indranil got up from his seat & started sauntering.
“So, what did you do, when he asked for a pen & paper?” he asked Laboni.
Laboni’s face fell. Slowly, she replied, “Anukul was not there, he had left for his home that day after dinner. And it was very difficult for anybody to set him up & assist him in writing. Also, it was already quite late for him...So, I told my father to go to sleep that day & wait till morning...He insisted...very much...But I didn’t listen...” Drops of tear came out of her eyes...”Why didn’t I?” Mrinal placed a hand over her head & consoled her.
“So, Mr. Mukherjee wanted to write something that night, but the poor man didn’t get any chance the next morning...”Indranil thought...”What can it be?”
Slowly he came down-stairs through the marble staircase & went inside Mr.Mukherjee’s room. The room was quite spacious & airy with two windows facing south. Mr. Mukherjee’s cot was placed beside them, so that he can both enjoy the breeze & the view outside. In the adjacent rack, there were a number of pills & a pitcher with a glass. An LED TV was clamped to the wall in front of the cot. “So, this is how he watched the movies…”, Indranil thought. Overall, the room was simple, but neat & tidy.
After spending a few minutes inside the room, Indranil found nothing suspicious, at least indicative of why Mr. Mukherjee could have asked for a pen & paper yesterday night. Hence he decided it’s time to leave. Although Laboni asked him to have lunch, this time, he successfully managed to ward off this request.
Next morning, Indranil was enjoying his cup of morning tea along with his daily dose of morning news on TV in his Salt Lake residence. Militancy & corruption, as usual, were making the headlines. Particularly, crime rates were on the rise in the city…Murder, arson, dacoity, crime against women…Indranil wondered whether the public, in general, have grown more restless & indifferent towards the pain of others, whether the virtues of humanity are still the same…He was getting bitter, when finally the news channel served some ‘shiny’ news of a talented Indian teenager winning the chess championship & an honest taxi-driver returning a bag of 10 lacs to its rightful owner.
“Oh !!! These news channels!!! They know the right concoction of bitter, tangy & sweet news!!! Just when all optimism seems lost, they will pull out the hope fairy out of Pandora’s box…”, Indranil thought with a smile as he turned off the TV.
But his smile vaporised instantly as he stared at the blank screen. With a jolt, he got up & announced, “Neera, I am leaving for Debu da’s house. I think I know the reason why he wanted a pen & paper…”
“Where’s Anukul?” asked Indranil as he stormed in Mr.Mukherjee’s house. Laboni had answered the calling bell.
“He’s on leave today, told his mother is ill….”
“Well. Call up Maniktala police, tell them my name & ask them to get hold of Anukul at the earliest!!!” Indranil interjected.
Laboni was too shocked to question & scurried away to follow his orders.
“Also, tell them to check Anukul’s residence first, he will go there before he flees…” Indranil shouted.
He was already inside Mr.Mukherjee’s room.
“What happened?” Mrinal had come down & asked quizzically.
“Yes, Mrinal…in a minute…first do me a favour….Please lie down on the cot…Same position as Mr.
Mrinal hesitated, but followed his orders…
“Now, I will go into the library room…you just keep your eye on the microwave oven…” Indranil told Mrinal as he moved to the anathema…
Puzzled, Mrinal followed his orders…
Upon reaching the “Rare books” section, Indranil called out, “Mrinal, can you see me?...In the reflection on the microwave glass?”
“Ah…yes…I can…” came the reply. Clearly Mrinal didn’t expect a microwave glass to function like a mirror.
“Good…Now let’s see…” Indranil said as he carefully opened the lid of the section.
A few minutes passed…
“As I suspected…Come Laboni & Mrinal, see here….”Indranil called out…
As the couple entered the room with pulsating hearts, they saw Indranil holding out a black leather bound book.
“What is this?” Laboni enquired.
“See, the book title”, Indranil held out…
“Report of Pandit Kinthup’s exploration of Yarlung Tsangpo
As narrated before the Hon’ble members of the Tibet Frontier Commission, 25-28th March,1914.”
He continued as the couple searched for answers, “Pandit Kinthup was a British spy serving in Tibet. This is an account of his Tsangpo river exploration. The exploration was to find out at what point the Tsangpo river, called Brahmaputra here, enters India…If memory serves me right, he went there in 1879 & this report was written in Shimla thirty years later, when the Macmahon Line was drawn....”,
he paused a bit & said, “Only two copies of this report exist- one in the India Office Library in London & the other one was here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the price of this book is 1 lac rupees today…”
Laboni & Mrinal were mesmerised by the story. They didn’t know such treasure existed in their father’s library.
“But, why do you say that the report “was” here?”, Mrinal asked slowly.
“Because, see this…”
Indranil opened the leather-bound book…To the astonishment of the couple, in the book, there were pages after pages of white paper…
In the wide & spacious drawing room of “Pori-bari”, Inspector Ranajay Talukdar sipped the tea as the others gathered around. The present members were : Retired IPS officer Indranil Biswas, Laboni, Mrinal, Mrs. Mukherjee, Kundu babu from next door & two constables holding a handcuffed & down-faced Anukul…
“We got him in his residence only. He didn’t expect to get caught…” smiled Inspector Talukdar.
“And the book?” asked Indranil.
“Yes…Right here…” said the Inspector, as he handed out a leather bound black book, almost identical to the earlier mentioned one except a bit old. Indranil opened the book & leafed through the pages, satisfied…
“Hats off to your intuition, dada…” beamed the inspector. Indranil smiled back.
“How did you guess…that father wanted to report a book-theft?” asked Laboni slowly.
“Partly it’s a hunch, I must say…But yesterday, when I was visiting the library, browsing the Rare books section, Anukul called me suddenly saying that you were asking for me. But, when you said you were not, I suspected that Anukul was trying to distract me from checking the rare books section closely…” Indranil paused. “Also, if you check the rare books section closely, you would find that the dust had not settled uniformly on all the books, which should have been the case if they were not touched for the last 3-4 months…”
“And then, today morning, as I turned off the TV in my residence, I could see my reflection clearly on the black screen…We sometimes forget that we do not always need a mirror to see an image, any smooth surface will do just fine…” Everyone stared at Indranil, astonished.
He continued, “My guess is that: Mr. Mukherjee saw the book-theft in the reflection of the new microwave oven surface. But the poor man couldn’t speak, so he wanted a pen & paper in the first instant as Anukul left for the day…But, alas…he didn’t get any chance to write anything the next day…”
There was pin-drop silence in the room.
“But, why did he steal it? Who is behind this? Did you get any inkling of that, Ranajay babu?”, Indranil asked.
The Inspector replied, “Yes…He has confessed everything…A loan shark by the name of Tarakram Jhunjhunwala…He deals with antiques apart from real estate, banking & what not. Mr. Mukherjee brought this book in an auction in Shimla, for 1 lac 20 thousand rupees !!!”
The people in the room gasped…
The inspector continued, “Mr. Jhunjhunwala was the rival bidder who went up to 80 thousand. But when Mr. Mukherjee quoted the said amount, he didn’t go further…This was a great blow to his ego…Hence he bribed Anukul to get the book & to replace it with a dummy. In fact, they also agreed upon several other books upon the old man’s demise…We will file a charge sheet & catch this mastermind soon…”
Indranil looked at Anukul with disgust.
“What was the rate, Anukul? For betraying your master? Ten thousand per book?” he detested.
Next morning, when Indranil went to Mr. Mukherjee’s house, he found Laboni in the library room.
He was surprised as Laboni was never into books, unlike her father.
Laboni understood & said,“If it wasn’t for your keen eyes, the book would have been gone & father’s possession would have been lost forever…” She could feel how her father’s sorrow in his dying moments, alone…his treasure getting stolen in front of his eyes…
She continued, “I will take care of these possessions from now on. If there’s anywhere he resides, it’s here…”
Indranil didn’t say anything, just smiled…