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The “Daily News”, thrown by the newspaper vendor made a “clat” on the narrow first floor veranda. Soham, who was sitting in front of the TV with a blank gaze, lumbered down the hall to get it.
Actually, he was waiting for this paper, but somehow, despondent as he was, he didn’t rush towards it.
As he picked up the daily, he gazed towards the gloomy July sky. It was already dark & difficult to believe that it’s only 10 in the morning...
A few drops started, as he rushed inside the house. He needed the paper dry…
Soham, now, works in a small manufacturing company & his income is quite meagre, if someone takes his age & academic degrees into consideration.
Once a Diploma in Electrical engineering from a reputed college, it is very difficult to point out exactly where his flaw was…Maybe, he lacked the sufficient impetus & boldness which his batchmates had, to take him to the next level. Or maybe, it was the typical “Bengali-middle-class” conservativeness, that barred him from starting a new business, when his job future was not turning out as expected…Nobody knows for sure…
Blaming partly on luck & partly on “politics”, as the unsuccessful usually do, it took a long time for Soham to finally accept that academic prowess doesn’t always equate to professional salubrity.
Still a bachelor at 38 & with no signs of any upcoming nuptial arrangements, he lives with his aged parents in a two-storied house near Hatibagan.
“The Duttas haven’t paid the rent yet”, his mother announced indignantly as she slammed shut the green old Kelvinator fridge door, which hummed on silently without protest.
A scent of last night’s Hilsa fish wafted through the dining room as Soham flipped through “Classified” section of the newspaper. On some rare Sundays, suitable openings for part-time jobs do come up here.
“Like the other members of the house, this fridge also seemed to stretch itself to its last bit…But, it’s outdated as well, because nobody makes Kelvinator refrigerators these days…”, Soham thought as he eyed his resentful mother, who glared at his father (for an answer on the tenant’s issue), who simply looked outside…
“The Golden Triangle”, Soham thought smirking…
Suddenly, a small box in the lower left-hand corner grabbed his attention.
“YOUNG PERSONAL ASSISTANT BELOW 40 NEEDED FOR CATALOUGING BOOKS, ANTIQUES, ETC.
INTERESTED CANDIDATES TO CONTACT BOX -39039820 WITH CORRECT ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS:
1. Where did Asmanja babu buy his dog from?
2. What was the name of Nabin’s ventriloquist doll?
3. Who was Mr. Shasmal’s business partner, whom he murdered?”
Soham was taken aback...What sort of advertisement is this???
Earlier, he had done several odd jobs like cataloguing & arranging personal libraries, computer-assembling, letter-reading, letter-writing & even painting rooms. He also tried the run-of-the-mill – giving tuitions. But nowhere he had seen such an advertisement.
He skewed his eyes on the questions asked. Asmanja babu…dog…Nabin….
Suddenly, as if a curtain raised from his mind’s eye, he drifted back in time…
A voice called out, “Somu! Somuuuu….See what I have brought for you…” Soham could see a deep green book in front of him…
He leaned back & closed his eyes…
A scene, as if in water-color, gradually came to life …
Two boys, playing cricket in the backyard…one in his teens & the other, much younger…A light-green cambis ball coming at him, above his eye-level with the red setting sun in the background…He must hook it, but not so hard...Not…So…Hard…”Soft hands”, he said to himself…”It will bring a three…”
But, then…Ah…Here comes the hook…Oh, it’s touch too hard…Hence goes the ball sailing out of the boundary wall…
The bowler, the elder boy, exults in joy…the younger one stands vanquished…
“Somuuu…Won’t you go to the grocery store today?”, his mother’s high-pitched voice suddenly shook him up from the stupor…
Getting ready, he suddenly knew where to look for the answers to those three questions…
About a month later…
Soham got down from the bus at Sarat Bose Road in front of Mahal Lamp Shades.
When he was a young lad, he had always dreamt of getting inside that shop. The bright luminous chandeliers & elegant lamp shades imparted a strange mystical aura, as if beckoning him in.
He was so sure that the shop contained hidden treasures – what exactly, he didn’t know for certain. Only his imagination could conjure up varieties of colorful cars, Chinese pens, chewing gums, trump-cards, cambis balls…hidden away from plain sight.
But as he grew up, life gradually lost its color & like everything else, “going to Mahal Lamp Shades” gradually took a far back-end seat in his wish-list, before vanishing away completely. Like today, he can buy as many Chinese pens as he wants, but the wonder & that happiness are long gone…
Today, Soham just glanced at the shop & passed by, feeling nothing…He had an important appointment to keep.
Having sent the job application with those three answers, he was called to the “Daily News” office. There, an elderly clerk peered at him through his bi-focals.
“Are you Soham Kundu?”
“Yes”, he replied, showing his Voter ID.
“We have received several applications for the job, but only you have come up with the correct answers…” he paused…” Congratulations !”
There was not much warmth in his voice, but a faint smile appeared in Soham’s lips. At least, he came out “BEST” in something…
The old man handed over him the address of the advertiser & asked him to meet the later directly at a given date & time.
Hence, in this gloomy & cloudy Sunday, he is going to 39/2 Elgin Road, to meet a certain Mr. Ray.
The Elgin Road neighborhood, in the rains, is an unique phenomenon.
Unlike other localities of Kolkata, this area is a contrasting mix of European-styled two-storied houses of the colonial era & new multi-storied apartments of recent times. Being the first posh residential region of the so-called “South Calcutta”, the Elgin Road & the Bhowanipore area housed several important personalities like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee & Chittaranjan Das.
Today, these old, yet well maintained Duk-bunglow styled houses stand out among the hordes of shopping malls & cafes, with their distinctive deep verandas, high ceilings, poticos & window-shutters. These houses impart an aura of antique beauty, which reminds an occasional traveler of the by-gone era of tom-toms, broughams, hobson-jobson & sherry-fountains in taverns…
Walking down the road, Soham noticed a woman, probably Nepalese, selling roasted baby-corn, in a make-shift stall. A small cute child of four toddled around & looked curiously at him…Suddenly, he remembered how he haggled his mother for that rare delicacy during his child-days. The exquisite aroma of delicious roasted corn, wetted his tongue even today as it did long back…
He took a right turn & crossed the zebra line, towards Elgin Road, recently renamed Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani. This busy road is an avenue, with trees & footpaths on both sides, a rarity in today’s Kolkata.
The streets were slick with the recent rains & green walls of the old St. Mary’s Church complex towered over Soham, as he made his way through the illegal vendors on the footpath & the passers-by.
A few large drops of rain started to fall & Soham had to pause to take out his black umbrella.
“Rains always wash away the glitter & polish, revealing the banality & often, the antiquity within…”, he thought as he spotted a ragged rickshaw-puller & a marwari businessman - both running for cover.
However, while the businessman, in whites, busy talking over phone ran towards the splendid Forum mall, the rickshaw-puller had to make do with the shade of a nearby banyan tree, while his bread-earning vehicle soaked the rain-water.
Soham tiptoed through the slippery footpath as he sought out his destined abode. All of a sudden, a marble name-plate on a red-walled house snatched his attention, as he stared at it.
He had known that the “maestro” Satyajit Ray lived in this area, in the Bishop Lefroy Road, to be precise.
“Could this be his inspiration?” he wondered.
The marble name-plate read “Sir P. C. Mitter” (Mitter being the Anglicized version of the Bengali surname, Mitra). It reminded Soham of Ray’s immortal creation, private investigator “Feluda” who used the same acronym in his visiting card.
Feluda’s memories exposed old, hidden wounds lying deep in the sub-conscious.
A man, sometimes, gets caught unawares by his own ghosts, till he senses that time hasn’t healed them completely…
When Soham was a kid, he was inseparable from his elder cousin, Bikash, who was his aunt’s son. Although Bikash was around six years older than him, the two were as thick as thieves. It was Bikash, who introduced him to the magical world of Satyajit Ray – Feluda, Professor Shonku, Tarinikhuro, etc. They used to sit together poring over a single book & read them, every afternoon after lunch, when Bikash visited his uncle’s house.
Like all kids do, they used to play cricket in the backyard which was a delightful affair. In the golden Sun on their backs, they played till the crimson dusk slipped quietly into the deep-blue evening & neither the batter, nor the bowler could be seen.
Sometimes, they visited the nearby railway station or the river ghat, & sat there in silence watching the trains or the boats pass by. It was incredible, till it lasted…
But, like all things, likings & relationships changed & with time, the backyard lawn covered itself in grass.
Heated words like “property”, “will”, “court-case” etc. were thrown around carelessly by the elders of both families & all of a sudden, Soham discovered that his cousin, Bikash, who hardly waited a day after the exams to meet him, has restricted himself to be an occasional “guest”.
Their relationship took toll & finally, it ended, after Soham joined college.
He felt a sharp pang of sadness as a sigh of disappointment escaped him…
As he was wading through a sea of memories, Soham suddenly found himself standing in front of a house named “JeSuis, 39/2, Elgin Road”. Finally, he has reached his destination!
Brushing aside all unhappy memories, he decided to step in. Today was an important day for him, hence there’s no place for emotions…
“Ah, a funny thing, what a nameplate can do to you…”, he pondered.
The house was a typical Elgin-Road-styled house, except it had two gabled windows on the roof. It looked a bit old, with a few mosses grown here & there. There was an empty sentry-post near the gate, hence Soham went in.
The pathway was strewn with pebbles, most of which had acquired dust. There were a few trees – pines & deodars inside the complex, all dry & sooty. The dry cupid fountain in the center also spoke of a nice taste, but an utter lack of maintenance.
Soham trudged across the lawn & wondered if anybody lived there. Strangely, the gabled windows gave an uneasy impression that someone was stalking him from a distance.
Shaking off the anxiety, Soham reached the wooden front door, but & found a metallic door-knocker in place of a calling bell.
After a few raps, the door opened.
It was a tall, fair-skinned elderly man in gold-rimmed specs with golden retainers. He had thin long fingers in his whitish hands & wore a ruby on his left ring finger. He had a grey English moustache twirled up at both ends & along with his black & gold house-coat, it gave him an almost European look. But he was surely Indian, his grey eyes & his way of greeting betrayed the same…
“Who is this?” he asked, his voice raspy, but authoritative.
Soham introduced himself.
“Come in…”, the old man said brusquely, as he motioned him to follow.
The inside of the house felt dark & damp, but as his eyes adjusted, Soham could see the large hall they were passing through. A faint reddish light glowed from an unnoticed corner, as he could make out different antiquities – masks, statues, paintings, clocks, etc.
“So, the man is an antique-collector…”, Soham thought.
“These were all my hobbies…” the host said in a strange booming voice, without turning around, as if he knew what the young visitor was beholding.
He led Soham in to a mildly-lighted sitting room which had a few decorated artefacts – a Rajasthani painting, a white veiled Rebecca & an exquisite samovar…
The old man took seat in a leather armchair & lit a butz choquin pipe. The strong smell of tobacco filled the room. Soham sat down on one of the wooden chairs facing his prospective employer, steadying himself for questions.
The old man looked directly at him through his grey eyes. There was an absolute stillness in the room, except for the tick-tock from an invisible grandfather’s clock.
“So, are you the one who answered all the questions correctly?”, he asked.
Soham, feeling a bit uncomfortable by the gaze now, replied, “Yes.”
“Can you repeat the answers for me now?” the old man was staring at him.
It sounded a bit insulting to Soham, but he composed himself & replied,
“Asamanja babu bought his dog from Bhutan…Nabin’s doll’s name was Bhuto…and Mr.Shasmal’s business partner was Adhir Chakrabarty…”
The old man seemed impressed, there was a faint smile in his eyes. Soham noticed that the man wasn’t that old as he thought, rather his hair had greyed early…
Soham continued, “All the characters are from a book by Satyajit Ray named “Aaro Baro”. Three characters from three different stories – “Asamanja babu’s dog”, “Bhuto” & “Mr.Shasmal’s last night”…”
“And what’s the color of the book? Can you recall?” the old man enquired.
“Green…” Soham answered, wondering its relevance…
“Good. Was this book procured by yourself? Or someone gave it to you as a present?”
As astonished as he was, Soham now felt unpleasant memories creeping up his brain.
“Present”, he replied… “I got it as a present for my tenth birthday…”
The host puffed on his pipe, unperturbed by the guest’s uneasiness…
“Who gave it you?”
“My elder cousin…” he answered.
The old man smiled & got up…Strolling across the room, he reached the vast book-shelf at the other end. Soham’s eyes followed him, as he looked at the enormous rows of leather-bound books, which previously eluded him…
The old man picked up something from the mantelpiece near the shelf & turned towards Soham,
“But you made a small mistake, young man…Your cousin gifted you the book on your ninth birthday…On the tenth, he gave you “Ebaro Baro”, another book by Satyajit Ray…” he said.
Soham looked at him in amazement...
“But how did YOU know!!!” he muttered…
Sometimes, in life, we are too busy to grasp the answers to the distant questions, that we miss the obvious ones…
In front of Soham, was his host with a familiar grin on his face…the same iris, the same pair of eyes, except it was grey now…the same facial features…except he had seen them much younger & without a moustache…twenty years earlier!!!
“Bikash da !!!” the truth dawned on him as the name automatically escaped his lips.
Now, the old man grinned…the familiar, welcoming grin & came forward to embrace his cousin…his long-lost friend…
“But, Bikash da, where had you been for so long after you left home fifteen years ago? Does aunt know you’re here? How have you aged so much?” Soham was unable to contain himself with excitement…
“Hold on…hold on…” laughed Bikash, “First tell me, do you remember this?”
He handed out a metallic disc, old & blackened a bit, but usable. It was actually a calendar for 25 years, where one could rotate a sub-disc to fit the exact year, month & date. Last time, when Soham had visited his aunt’s home in 1990, he accidentally left behind his prized possession.
“About time…It has almost reached its expiry date…” Soham laughed, because it’s just the 25th year since 1990.
“I left home, because I was bored…” Bikash started slowly… “bored of the in-fighting & the property-disputes…You were too young to know then. Our parents - your dad & my mom…siblings…fought each other legally over the land in Ballygunge. They stopped us from meeting each other…visiting each other’s homes…Back then there was no telephone, so I couldn’t call you…”
He continued as if in trance…
“I had a senior of my college living in Bombay. After I fled from home, I boarded on the Bombay Mail & went straight to him…I worked there as a motor-mechanic, as a cinema-extra, as a taxi-driver, as a house-painter…and what not…”, he smiled reminiscing… “then, after an year or so, I fled from Bombay too…”
“Where did you go?” asked Soham, intently listening.
“I travelled the world, Soham…Europe, Africa, Latin America, name a place I didn’t go…I did several odd jobs all along…Life was not easy always, there were nights I had to spend on the streets in Bucharest, I got mugged in Cape Town, I got lost for three days with little water & no food in the Ogaden Desert…I almost died…”, Bikash chuckled.
“But you know, Soham, it was fun!!! Life was full of freedom & joy…There’s a thing about travelling alone, spending the Christmas on a lonely hut in Rovaniemi, sipping red wine in Cote d'azur in Southern France…and ah!! the Northern Lights in Reykjavik…Ah!! What a beauty it was !!!”
His voice seemed to come from deep within as Soham felt mesmerized…He wondered how his life, his pathetic “soon-to-be-40” life would have been if Bikash took him along…
After a while, he asked softly, “Why didn’t you take me?”
Bikash got up & smiled, “I sent you a letter & it reached your address before I left. But your mom hid it from you…”
He moved to the other end of the room towards the bookshelf. From a drawer in front of it, he took out three diaries & a leather-bound file. Handing them over to Soham, he said, “These are my diaries & this file will be important to you…Now, if you will excuse me…”
Soham took the belongings, but his mind was flooded with thoughts…He felt cheated…
My mother hid the letter from me? Where did she hide it? Did she know that Bikash was going away???
He opened the diaries absent-mindedly. He could see the beautiful handwriting & lucid composition, but he couldn’t read anything.
The file waited for him with a big surprise. Bikash da had written his entire property worth 90 lakhs & the house to his name!!!
Soham felt dizzy…
What will he do with all this money?
He had the long-cherished dream of opening a high-end shop for electrical & electronics goods in his locality, which his father had dissuaded him from doing till now. He had given the excuse of lack of money, but Soham knew better.
His father was a government clerk & looked down upon the so-called “business class” all throughout his life. The typical Bengali mentality, which has plagued the once-glorious community, since the last 30 years.
“This is the reason why the richest in Kolkata are NOT Bengalis, but people from other states…”, Soham said to himself, “An ‘educated’ Bengali youth will rather starve, than open a chai shop to sustain his livelihood…”
But now, his dreams CAN come true. And if he can make profit, he can easily leave his private job, which sucks out his ten hours per day, in exchange of a meagre sum…
Soham’s torpor was interrupted by a sudden thought:
Where is Bikash da? Why hasn’t he returned yet?
Soham looked up towards the room where Bikash da went. It seemed dark & silent…
He called out his name…once, twice, thrice…
But, no reply came. He felt a strange hushed silence in the house, as if nobody lived there. Suddenly, he could hear the pitter-patter outside. It had started raining…
Where did he go???
Soham got up slowly & walked towards the room. He could make out a faint yellowish light glowing inside…As he stepped in, a weird scent wafted in his nostrils…It seemed of eucalyptus oil first…but it seemed mixed with something else…
Inside the room, Soham could now see, a writing desk & a eucalyptus oil lamp glowing in one corner…
In front of the dim glow of the table lamp, sat Bikash da on a chair…as if writing something.
“Bikash da!”, Soham called up. But he didn’t respond.
Soham went up & touched him.
He was stone-cold!!!
A shriek escaped Soham’s dry throat, as he discovered that Bikash da had already passed, probably sometime ago…
After the police formalities ended with the cause of death determined as heart attack, at least 24 hours ago, Soham sat silently in a roadside shop.
He was drenched to the bone & shivering from time to time. People huddled around him, with compassionate words, but he didn’t seem to hear anything. He clutched on to a leather bag containing Bikash da’s papers, papers for HIS independence, which his cousin just gifted him…but he could hardly believe what just transpired…
Bikash da returned… But he didn’t contact ANYBODY, except Soham…
“That’s why he put up that Ad on the paper, knowing fully well that if anybody could crack it, it would be me…”, Soham murmured to himself… “He wanted to help…” few tears rolled down his cheeks, tears which nobody saw…
“Tea for you, master”, a small boy handed him a hot glass of tea. As he sipped the beverage, his eyes suddenly fell on the name-plate of the house.
Je Suis in French, meant “I am”, the English of the Sanskrit word “Soham”.