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.
He was, actually, waiting for this paper, but somehow, a sense of despondency barred him from rushing towards it.
He picked up the daily & gazed at the July sky, which had already gone dark, making it hard to believe that it’s 10 o’clock in the morning…A few drops started as Soham rushed inside the house. He needed the paper dry…
Soham works in a small manufacturing company & his income is considered meagre in comparison to his age & academic degree.
A Diploma in Electrical engineering from a reputed college, he is approaching 40. Why he couldn’t secure a better job, is still a mystery, considering some of the “laggers” of his class who are well-settled.
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, 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 about the tenants of the ground floor as she slammed shut the fridge door of green old Kelvinator, which hummed on silently without protest.
“Like the other members of the house, this fridge also seemed to stretch itself to its last bit…But, in vain, because nobody makes Kelvinator refrigerators these days…”, Soham thought as he flipped through the “Classified” pages of the newspaper. Sometimes, suitable openings for part-time jobs do appear in this section, which supplements Soham’s limited income.
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 ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS:
- 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 bamboozled… 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, his mind drifted back in time…
A voice called out, “Somu! Somuuuu….See what I have brought for you…” Soham could still see the deep green book in front of his eyes…
He leaned back & closed his eyes…A scene, as if in water-color, appeared before him…
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…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?”
Soham jolted up from his day-dream as his mother called.
Suddenly, he knew 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 sure that the shop contained hidden treasures – what, he doesn’t know for certain. Only his imagination could conjure up varieties of colorful cars, twinkling trinkets, chocolates, chewing gums & trump-cards…hidden away from plain sight.
But as he grew up, like always, “visiting Mahal Lamp Shades” gradually took a far back-end seat in his wish-list, before vanishing away completely.
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 over 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.
Soham gave a faint smile. 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.
Elgin Road, in the rains, is a unique phenomenon.
Unlike other localities of Kolkata, this neighborhood is a 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.
Soham noticed a woman, probably Nepalese, selling roasted baby-corn, in a make-shift stall. A small child of four, probably the woman’s, toddled around & looked curiously at him…He remembered how he haggled his mother for delicious roasted corn during his child-days. He made a mental note that he would buy some for home on the way 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.
Because of recent rains, the old dwellings, the old St. Mary’s Church & the greenery created such an ethereal ambience, almost historic, that it harked back the visitors to a bygone era…An era of tom-toms, broughams, hobson-jobson & sherry-fountains in taverns…
A few large drops of rain had started to fall, as Soham paused 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 footpath-dweller & an effluent businessman in whites both running for cover.
Soham tiptoed through the slippery footpath as he sought out his destined abode. Suddenly, a marble name-plate caught his attention, as he stopped looking at it.
He knew 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 memories till he senses that time hasn’t healed them yet.
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 read them together, every afternoon after lunch, when Bikash visited his uncle’s house.
Like all kids do, they used to play cricket in the backyard which, initially was a delightful affair. But, like all things, preferences changed & gradually, the backyard lawn covered itself in grass.
Grass & moss grew over their relationship, as well & ‘that’ Bikash, who hardly waited a day after the exams to visit his uncle’s house, reduced himself to an occasional “guest”. Looking back today, Soham could hardly find out what exactly changed & when.
Maybe, the declining relationship between their parents & the constant comparison between the two cousins finally took its toll…He had woken up many a night to hushed but heated discussions between his father & mother over terms like “property”, “will”, etc.
He didn’t like it…As puberty arrived, his heart became a desert. He had been trudging along in that desert ever since…
A sigh of disappointment escaped Soham unknowingly…
“I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop…” he thought, in retrospect, because he, too had burned the bridges with Bikash after joining college.
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”.
Brushing aside all unhappy memories, he decided to step in. Today is an important day for him, hence there is 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.
As he walked across the pebbled lawn, he noticed a dry fountain in the center which clearly hadn’t been operated lately. There were few trees inside the compound as well- pines, deodars, etc. The whole place had an air of an old government establishment of the Raj era.
“Nice taste, but lack of maintenance…”, Soham said to himself as he reached the front door & found a metallic door-knocker in place of a calling bell.
After a few raps, the door was answered by a tall, fair-skinned elderly man in gold-rimmed specs with golden retainers. Soham noticed that he had bluish eyes, which together with his skin-color, made him look European. He was wearing a black house-coat, embroidered with golden threads, but the first thing which comes to notice was his grey English moustache twirled up at both ends.
“Who is this?” he asked.
Soham introduced himself.
“Come in…”, the old man said briefly as he motioned him to follow.
The inside of the house initially felt dark, 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.
“These were all my hobbies…” the host said in a strange raspy voice, without turning around, as if he knew what the young visitor was beholding.
He led Soham in to a sitting room which had a few ornately decorated chairs & an arm-chair whose cushion was wrinkled indicating that somebody was sitting on it a while ago…
The old man took seat in the armchair & lit a butz choquin pipe. The strong smell of tobacco filled the room. Soham sat down on one of the chairs.
With a piercing gaze, the old man looked directly at him. There was an absolute stillness in the room, except for the tick-tock of the grandfather’s clock.
“So, are you the one who answered all the questions correctly?”, he asked.
Soham, feeling uncomfortable by the gaze, 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. 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.
“Good. Was this book procured by yourself? Or someone gave it to you as a present?”
Soham could feel 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 hall, he went to the vast book-shelf at one end of the room. Soham’s eyes followed him, as he wondered when will his employee tell him about the job details.
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 asked. A shroud of unbelievability covered his gaze…
In front of him, was his host with a familiar grin on his face…the same iris, the same pair of eyes, except it was blue now…the same face…except he had seen it younger, without a moustache, twenty years earlier!!!
“Bikash da !!!” the name automatically escaped his lips.
Both the cousins came forward & embraced each other…after a long time…
“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 bursting with questions…
“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…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”, Bikash chuckled…
“But you know, Soham, 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…What a beauty it was !!!”
He seemed immersed in his thoughts for a while, his blue eyes staring in the distance…
Soham wondered how his life, his pathetic “soon-to-be-40” life would have been if Bikash took him along…
“Why didn’t you take me?” he asked softly.
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 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!!!
He looked up see Bikash da hadn’t returned yet. Not sure what to do, he called out his name…
No reply came. There was a strange hushed silence in the room, as if nobody lived there. Soham could hear the pitter-patter outside. It had started raining…
Where did he go???
Soham got up slowly & walked towards the next room. He could make out a faint light glowing inside. As he walked in, he could smell a weird scent, not fully unpleasant, somewhat like eucalyptus oil, but mixed with something else.
Inside the room, in front of the dim glow of the table lamp, sat Bikash on a chair, as if writing something. Soham went up & touched him…he felt it was stone-cold!!!
A shriek escaped his dry throat, as he discovered that Bikash 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, probably more because of the shock.
“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”.