Translated from the Bengali by Dr. Barnali Saha
I am a detective employed by the police force. Two intentions rule my life — my wife and my business. I had previously been living in a joint family; nevertheless, owing to their lack of regard for my wife, I had fought with my brother and subsequently left the premises of his house for a nuclear establishment. It was a rather daring feat on my part, especially since my brother, the earning member of the family, looked after us.
Although leaving the brethren’s household was audacious, if not impudent, I never lacked confidence in my own abilities. I was certain that just as I had managed to fascinate my beautiful spouse, so too would I be successful in entrancing Lady Luck. I was unequivocally sure that in this world, I, Mahimchandra would not be left behind. I joined the police force as a junior and eventually rose to the position of a detective.
Just as the brightest of lamp deposits black collyrium, similarly the gloom of jealously and suspicion blemished my wife’s love for me. The friction at home was at times a hindrance to my work; because police work naturally disregards the dynamics of place and time. Managing the vagaries of importunity and unpredictability was germane to my employment. It is this unavoidable fluctuation of my schedule that caused my wife’s naturally suspicious disposition to transmogrify into a perennial struggle with no relief. In order to scare me she would sometimes say, “You spend your days here and there and seldom meet me; in such a situation, what am I to do but worry about you?”
Having resolved to become the best detective of the force and leave a legacy for my progeny, I had perused all the literature that was available on the subject. All that reading, however, made me despondent and anxious. The reason for my pessimism was the idea that most of the criminals in our country are fearful and imprudent, and consequently, the crimes they commit are listless and easy to unravel. Their crimes do not have either the finesse or the impenetrability the mysteries talked about. The lackadaisical criminal of our country is incapable of containing the grotesque excitement of murderous bloodletting within himself. The net of deception that our forger employs inevitably engulf him because he is unaware of the subtle trick of escaping the confines of his own trickery. Alas! in our enervated country, the work of a detective seldom brings either joy or glory.
When apprehending a Marwari gambler from the Barabazaar area of Kolkata, I had reprimanded the idiot in my mind saying,
You fool, you are a disgrace to the race of fine criminals. Causing utter ruin to another suits the masters of criminality, and not blockheads like you who should have better been a worshipper of piety. Fie, fie, I say.
When arresting a murderer, I had often, addressing the fool, monologuized internally
Do you think that the government’s newly improved gallows are meant for inglorious felons like you who neither have the imagination, nor the stern reticence of classic criminal minds, and yet you dare to commit a murder! You must be ashamed of yourself!
In my imagination, when I walked around the thickly populated streets of Paris or London with magnificent edifices majestically lining the way, their tops piercing through the layers of foggy mist and brushing the firmament, I could feel the thrill of adventure in my nerves.
I imagined that just as the streams of people, hordes of workers, torrents of festivities, and bevy of ravishing beauties perennially populated the sky-scraper lined streets and the side-streets, similarly another corresponding stream of ubiquitous criminality – murky, monstrous and malignant – made its way underneath the façade of respectable life.
It is the close proximity of this latter stream with the European social life that made its humour and its pleasantries so elegant and popular. And here, in the modest open-casemented households skirting the roads of Kolkata, conversation usually steered around gastronomy, household chores, sermons, chess and card games, spousal delineations, and at most, the separation between brothers and discussion of legal cases. Gazing at this scene of random mediocrity, didn’t it ever strike you that perhaps in one of the tenements dwelled the shadowy figure of a criminal incubating its nest of black eggs?
Many a time, while on the road, I would peruse the expressions and mannerisms of pedestrians and if I perceived anything even remotely suspicious in the bearing of a person, I would inevitably follow his lead and enquire about his whereabouts. But alas! The investigations were always aborted because my imagined felon perennially turned out to be an immaculate gentleman whom even his friends and relations would abstain from casting aspersions on. Even that one member of the populace, who looked like an inveterate sinner just returned from committing some murderous act, turned out to be the second master of a public school on his way home after his teaching duties. I was sure that people like him if lived in some other country, had the potential to become noxious crooks. But lacking in a certain vitality and manliness, they weren’t able to forge for themselves a successful career in criminality and continued going through life working as employees in schools living off their pension. The hatred and disgust I felt for this school master and for his unequivocal innocence on the criminal front could not be matched with my lack of respect for a small thief performing random peccadilloes.
Finally, one day, I chanced upon a lone figure under the spotlight of a lamppost close to my home agitatedly wandering without any purpose. I was unequivocally sure that this restlessness was stemming from some secret sinister motive. Standing in a shadowy corner, I perused his movements carefully. He was a good looking fellow, young and lithe and a perfect fit, in my opinion, for criminal activities. Individuals whose facial features betray their wicked disposition are, in general, overtly careful in their admonishment of such activities. It is as if the contingency of failure is always associated with their actions, be it good work or any action laden with malevolence. The fellow’s appearance was undoubtedly praiseworthy and I couldn’t but compliment him in my mind saying, Bravo to you, my dear lad, if you could fully utilize the unique potential god has endowed you with.
I walked out of the shadows and having approached him, slapped him on the back. “I hope you are doing well,” I said. Startled at my interference, he presented a countenance drained of all color. Seeing his surprise, I said, “I am so sorry to have startled you like this. I thought you were somebody else.” This time I was sure that I hadn’t made a semblance of mistake; nevertheless, his untoward disconcert pained me a little. He should have been more in control of his faculties; still, a pattern of excellence is a rarity even in criminal classes. Nature is often a skinflint when it comes to finetuning the prowess of a felon so as to transmute him into a doyen of criminality.
A little later, having observed him leave his position from underneath the lamp post, I followed him. Having walked along the bank of the rotund pond, I saw him eventually resting on the adjoining grassy bed. I thought this position was far better for thinking up devious schemes than the stark lighted area underneath a lamp post. If people were to see him lying thus on the grass, they would think that perhaps he was pining for his lover and etching the lines of her visage on the dark canvas of the night sky. It was unequivocally true that I was greatly fascinated by this young man.
I enquired about his whereabouts and came to know that his name was Manmatha and that he was a college student. Having failed in his examination, he was now wandering about purposelessly during the summer holidays, when all his friends had vacated the hostel and gone home. During extended breaks, all students generally return home. I was, thus, determined to find out what misfortune prevented him from doing the same.
Assuming the identity of a student, I took up residence in the same apartment as him. The first time he saw me, his expression betrayed a strange dubiousness. It seemed as if he was both surprised and suspicious and yet, his look suggested his understanding of my covert intentions. I realized that he was a huntsman’s ideal hunt, somebody who wouldn’t be easily overpowered.
Nevertheless, his apparent reticence was short-lived because when I tried to strike up a friendship with him, he was easily entrapped in my net of deception. However, the piercing look he directed toward me suggested that just as I was keen on plumbing the depths of his mind, he too was interested in knowing about me. Such invigorating alertness and curiosity about human nature was, in my opinion, the mark of a true expert. Such a display of artful ingenuity at such a young age highly impressed me.
I realized that unless I brought in a damsel in the middle of the proceedings, the mind of this extraordinarily wily created couldn’t be penetrated.
To this end, one day, in a voice choked with emotion I said to him, “My dear, there is a lady whom I passionately love, but she doesn’t return my affection.”
Evidently startled by my words, he looked at me for quite some time and then smiled and said, “Such calamity is not rare; it’s to induce such jocularity that god has created the difference between men and women.”
“I need your advice and help,” I said and he agreed. I fabricated an elaborate history of passionate conflicts for his ears and he listened to my narration with interest; nevertheless, he didn’t say much. I was under the opinion that an exposition of the details of love, especially the kind that is utterly condemned, exponentially fosters the bond of friendship between two people. In the present scenario, however, any suggestion of heightened intimacy was conspicuous by its absence. Although he became quieter, it seemed that the details of my narrative were indelibly embedded in his mind. My respect for the young man increased twofold.
In the meantime, I was ambiguous about what Manmatha did behind closed doors every day; nonetheless, I was unequivocally sure that whatever devious scheme he was engaged in was progressing satisfactorily. That he had recently gained mastery in whatever covert and obscure activity he was presently part of, was writ large on his youthful countenance.
Using my secret key, I had unlocked his desk and apart from a notebook of unintelligible poetry, a compilation of class notes and some trifling letters from family members, found no evidence of his criminal activity. Nevertheless, the letters from home suggested that despite the frantic requests to come back to the household premises, the young man had remained unbending in his resolution to stay put in the hostel for some reason best known to him. Had this resolve to steer clear of the home and stay put been proper and fair, I was sure he would divulge the facts concerning the matter during our daily discourse; but the fact that he never mentioned any details about his off-seasonal stay in the hostel aroused my curiosity about the lad’s history and his whereabouts. In my opinion, the young man was far from an innocent student but a representative of the ever-expanding aggregate of that secret anti-social community dwelling within the entrails of the netherworld and forever engaged in destroying the edifices of the world above. I considered this man as an agent and extension of that longstanding transnational aim of =destruction. Although in modern times, this representative of ruin had taken on the garb of a bespectacled innocent Bengali college student, I felt that if he had been part of some terrible Tantrist ritual and wielded a decapitated head, his mannerism wouldn’t have petrified me like it did now. I was quietly respectful of the young man’s talent.
At last, it was time to invite the damsel in person into the plot of the narrative. Harimati, who also worked for the police force, acquiesced to my proposal. I told Manmatha that I was the besotted and heartbroken lover of that woman and even went to the extent of reciting a few lines of poem “Why the moon shines on the canvas of the sky” addressing her as I walked beside him on the banks of the circular pond. And Harimati too, partly out of emotion and partly out of sport, said that she had dedicated the wealth of her love to Manmatha. Nevertheless, the person in question, remained unperturbed and simply observed the proceedings from afar with relentless curiosity.
One afternoon, around that time, I discovered some torn pieces of a letter littered in his room and after gluing the bits together, the following sentence met my eyes: “Today at 7 in the evening in secret at your house…” Despite searching desperately for the remainder of the communication, I was left disheartened.
I was as unequivocally thrilled at my discovery. My situation was akin to an archaeologist who having chanced upon a bone probably belonging to a long-extinct animal, could happily imagine a whole future of a series of successful exercises.
I knew that Harimati would be arriving at our house on that day around ten in the night but was sceptical as to what the evening’s mysterious incident entailed. The young man was both brave and sharp. In case one wanted to perpetuate a crime, one would be well-advised to perform the action on a day when the household would be in a commotion. First, it would ensure a lack of concentrated attention on the secondary incident as people would be caught up in the primary event. Secondly, when there was a special gathering at a place, people would often discount the idea of a simultaneous and secret gathering at the same place on the same day.
I was suddenly suspicious if Manmatha was using our new friendship and this rigmarole of a romantic relationship with Harimati to have his own mysterious object fulfilled. It was probably because of this that he neither allowed himself to be totally entangled in the proceedings nor extricated himself completely. We were actually helping him hide whatever mysterious effort he was part of. People erroneously thought that he was occupied with us and he wasn’t keen to clear that misunderstanding.
Think of the arguments. It was unequivocally true that a student who had vehemently turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to his relations’ ardent requests to come home during the summer vacation and was whiling away his time in an empty boarding house must be in desperate need for solitude. I had been an uninvited guest in his household breaking the tranquillity of his solitude and yet he hadn’t protested. Not only that, having introduced a woman in the proceedings I had made the situation even more complicated and despite that he was neither pestered nor annoyed. He neither vacated the house nor shunned our company. Nonetheless, I was sure that far from being attracted to our company, Manmatha had started garnering a profound abhorrence for me and Harimati. What seemed significant was that despite our presence being odious to him, Manmatha had accepted the company of newly acquainted people like us rather than unabashedly savouring the delicacy of solitude. On another note, Manmatha’s behaviour that had previously struck me as unreasonable and suspicious now assumed a congeniality that I couldn’t but appreciate. In fact, so impressed was I that such a devious mind as his was begotten in the soil of Bengal that I had often felt the urge to embrace him with a congratulatory squeeze.
No sooner did I see him that day than I said, “I have decided to treat you to a special meal at a hotel around seven in the evening today.”
Although my words startled him at first, he quickly regained his composure and said, “Dear friend, I beg your pardon, my stomach is in a dismal state today.”
Despite the fact that I wasn’t supposed to stay home at early evening that day, I officiously engaged in a series of aimless small talk with him as an excuse to languish in the lodgings. My disinclination to move must have perturbed Manmatha greatly because not only did he agree to all that I said, but also abstained himself from declaiming my assertions. The passing time must have made him more anxious for at last having looked at the clock, he stood up and said with great desperation, “Aren’t you supposed to go and fetch Harimati this evening?” Acting surprised I said, “Yes, yes. I totally forgot. Please prepare the evening meal, brother, and I will be back home with her by ten-thirty.” Subsequently, I departed.
The thrill of joy pulsated in my veins. My eagerness at that instant as the hour of his secret rendezvous drew near matched in every possible way the excitement that Manmatha had displayed. As such, situating myself at a comfortable distance of the house, I kept perusing my watch like a lovestruck young man eagerly waiting for his beloved’s arrival. As the darkness of the evening started to condense around me and the street lights were being lit, a closed-door palanquin made its way into our neighbourhood and stopped inside our house.
The tear-drenched, concealed figure that sat curled up inside the confines of the palanquin was the epitome of tragedy to me. The fact that she could nonchalantly be conveyed by her host of Odia palanquin-bearers into the vestibule of our bachelor lodgings enchanted me to no end.
I couldn’t contain myself any longer. I tiptoed my way up the staircase into the second storey of our apartment with the intention of prying onto their intimate conversation. Nevertheless, despite my intention to overhear the couple’s conversation without their knowledge, my plan failed because Manmatha sat facing the staircase while the veiled lady sat opposite him talking softly. When I realized that Manmatha had detected my presence, I barged right into the room saying that I had come back to get my watch which I had forgotten to take along with me. So nonplussed and bewildered was Manmatha at my intrusion that it seemed for an instance that he was going to collapse on the floor. Driven by an eagerness mixed with equal parts of sarcasm and joy I said, “Are you unwell?” When he didn’t reply, I turned to the veiled woman who sat like a marionette under her wraps, “How are you related to Manmatha?” She remained quiet; nevertheless, I soon discovered that the lady wasn’t related to Manmatha in any way, but unequivocally to me in that she was my wife. What transpired after that incident was no secret.
This was my first instance at apprehending a thief.
After a moment of silence, I spoke to detective Mahimchandra, “Come to think of it, despite its equivocal appearance, your wife’s relation with Manmatha could have been in reality devoid of any disruptive element.”
“I agree,” replied Mahim and continued, “His letter was discovered in her chamber.” Saying this he handed over the missive to me for my perusal. The document undermentioned is for the readers’ scrutiny:
I wonder if you remember your childhood friend Manmatha any longer. In the halcyon days of youth, you and I were playmates during my trips to my grandparents’ house in Kajibari. Now, our playhouse has but shattered and our friendship has long withered. I am unsure of your knowledge as to how at the time having reached the limits of my endurance, I had jettisoned my modesty and tried to initiate talks about our marriage, which, sadly, were squashed by our respective guardians on the ground that you and I were nearly of the same age.
Subsequently, you were married and for nearly four to five years your whereabouts were a mystery to me. And then I learned about your husband taking up residence in the city five months ago as an employee of the police force. The news led me to renew my pursuit of you and I was rewarded when I finally discovered your home.
God can testify that I neither anticipated a meeting with you in person nor have any evil design to intrude upon your domestic bliss. One evening I stood under a lamppost in the neighbourhood of your abode waiting like a worshipper of the Sun god to see you once as you performed your diurnal activity of placing a lit kerosene lamp at around seven-thirty in the evening on the sill of the southerly window on the second story of your house. The yearning to see your face the radiance of the lamp was my only crime against you.
Incidentally, over the past few weeks I have come to be acquainted with your husband rather intimately and what I have discovered has convinced me that you are not happy in your life. Although, I have no socially approved authority over you, the god who has made your distress as synonymous with mine has also directed me to initiate a liberation for you from that despondency. As such, I hope if you accept my apologies for my audaciousness and kindly visit me on the coming Friday around seven in the evening for a twenty-minute chat, I would tell you a number of secret details about your husband that would benefit you in the long run. In case you are equivocal as to the accuracy of the information and could bear the words that would be divulged to you, I am willing to give you the proof of my assertions as well as advice you on the point. I promise that if you follow my guidance, you would undoubtedly be very happy in life.
My motivations in this regard are not completely selfless. The idea that I would be able to see you, albeit momentarily, listen to you speak and my home would be blessed for eternity by the touch of your delicate steps bring me unrestrained delight. If you still doubt my motives and do not feel an inclination to meet me, then do let me know as I would in that case convey what I have to say via a written communication. Further, if you feel a reluctance to compose a message in the first place, then do show my missive to your husband and I would tell him what I have in mind.
Your Ever Well-wisher,
Sh. Manmathanath Mazumdar