Translated from the Bengali by Upasya Mukherjee
If somehow the planetary positions of Saturn and Mars align, it must be Mars only, then even you can discover Telenapota one day. To put it simply, if you can manage a couple of days off from the daily grind—and get someone to entice you with the prospect of finding the most innocent of fishes eagerly waiting for their turn to meet the fishing hook—in an enchanting lake, and if you haven’t had much luck in angling except a few pool barbs—then you too can suddenly chance upon Telenapota one day.
To find Telenapota—you need to board an afternoon bus cramped with men and merchandise of all sorts. Next comes the bumpy ride with occasional pokes and prods from your co-passengers, and when you’re all sweaty from the summertime journey, you deboard without a pretext.
You would find a marshland with a narrow bridge passing through. The bus would cross that bridge making strange noises and disappear around the corner. The forests would don a veil of darkness as it would be close to sunset by then. The place would be desolate. It would seem even the birds have abandoned the place out of fear. You could feel a dampness in the air. It would feel like an ominous curse gradually spreading its imperceptible hood over the swamp.
Coming down from the main road, you would have to wait near the marshland. It would seem as if someone has dug up the mucky creek through the dense vegetation—that gutter has disappeared too after some distance into the wilderness.
To discover Telenapota, you must have a couple of friends and companions. They might not be as excited with the idea of fishing as you, but still, they would go—as if on some undisclosed secret mission.
The three of you would then have to observe the creek curiously, with the occasional efforts to drive away mosquitoes and some confused exchange of looks.
Soon, with the growing darkness, the faces of your companions would be hard to discern. The mosquitoes would begin to buzz at a higher octave. Just when you would be debating a return, your ears would be drawn to a mysterious sound coming from where the creek has seemingly vanished into the forest. It would feel as if a peculiar cry is being elicited out of the forest.
You’d grow curious. Your wait won’t go in vain. You would notice a faint oscillating light in the obscure darkness—followed by the leisurely arrival of a bullock cart from the depths of the forest—along the creek.
From afar, the cart and the cows appear tiny, like miniature models from some fantasy land.
Without much hum and haw, the three of you would station yourselves under the shade of the vehicle and you would be faced with the challenge of fitting three pairs of arms and feet and three heads in the minimum possible space.
The cart would then retrace the path it came from following the creek. You would be surprised to see the pitch-black forest gradually revealing a narrow path. Every moment, the wall of darkness would seem impenetrable but the cart would keep on moving sluggishly, carving its own path.
You would sense the unease of realizing that your organs might be temporarily displaced. On this ride marked with frequent inadvertent collisions with your friends, you would come to realize that the surrounding sea of darkness has sunken even the last headlands of your consciousness. It would feel as if you’ve left your familiar world far behind. A world devoid of sensations and enveloped in fog is all that you can see around you. Time stands quiet, motionless.
Time is still, so it would be hard to estimate how long the stupor lasts.
All of a sudden, startled by a peculiar clamor, you would see the stars above the shade and discover the driver of the cart enthusiastically banging a canister.
On being asked, the driver would nonchalantly reply that it was to drive off darned wild animals. He’d assure you that it’s just leopards and they are ferocious only when hungry.
As you’d wonder how a land infested with wild cats existed just thirty miles away from the city, the cart would have crossed a large field. The waning crescent should be in the sky by then. In that subdued moonlight, the cart would pass by a series of derelict signs of habitation, standing silent as colossal guards—witness to Time.
You would feel a shiver run down your spine as you are trying to raise your head. It would seem like a journey into some outlandish realm of memories, shrouded in a cloak of fog.
You would not be certain about the time, but you’d feel as if the night was endless—as if everything had drowned in an eternal uninterrupted silence—like specimens in a museum preserved in formalin.
Taking a couple of turns, the cart would now come to a halt. Having assembled all your dislocated limbs, you’d deboard one by one like puppets. You’d be welcomed by an obnoxious smell and realize that it is the stench of a putrid pond. Adjacent to the puny waterbody, visible in the subdued moonlight would stand a humongous mansion dilapidated—with a damaged roof, walls caved in and bare windows—the entire structure standing like a fort in defiance of the moon.
You’d be shacked up in one of the rooms of the mansion. The cart driver would bring a lantern and a pitcher of water from somewhere. Stepping into the room, it would be evident that you’re the first human inhabitant of the place in a very long time. Someone must have tried to clean the room, only to irk the resident-spirits of the place. Their disapproval would be evident in the frowsy smell of the place. The slightest of movements would result in plasters chipping off the roof and raining over all of you like curses of the formless inhabitants of the mansion. You’d have to fight over the occupancy rights of the room with a couple of bats, all night long.
For the successful discovery of Telenapota, one of your mates has to be bibulous, always ready for the next peg, and the other a clinophile, never missing a chance to sleep a bit more. Just as you’d lay out the mat, one of them would lie flat and start snoring, and the other would start off with a bottle.
With the passing hour, the flame would die out in the lantern. By some inexplicable connection, all the able mosquitoes of the region would invite more and more of the newcomers to join their blood-sucking rituals. If you are an expert, you’d realize from their stance that they are mosquitoes of high pedigree—the flying carriers of Lady Malaria, Anopheles. Both of your friends would be knocked out by then for two entirely different reasons. Hence, you’d gradually leave the bed and, with a torch in hand, would try to go to the terrace to get some fresh air.
Every step of the way, some loose brick or sand would serve as a deterrent but for some inexplicable reason, you’d continue your venture.
Once there, you’d find the parapet had crumbled in most places. The cracks and crevices had been invaded by roots, threatening to bring down the edifice any day now. Still, in the faint glow of the waning moon, everything would appear somehow enchanting. As if, upon staring for a while, you’d get to know which princess lies captive in her forever trance in some secret chamber of this enchanted slumberland. At that moment, in the ruins by the road resembling a mound, a faint ray of light would be visible from a window. A figure shrouded in mystery, guarding the light. You’d wonder about the identity of this nameless lady in the window, what reason she could have for remaining up at that odd hour but you wouldn’t find an answer. A while later, everything would seem to be an illusion. The mystery figure would have disappeared, along with the ray of light. It would seem as if a dream has bubbled up for a moment into the living world from this endless abyss of sleep, only to vanish again.
Carefully coming down the stairs again, you’d quietly fall asleep by the side of your friends.
You’d wake up surprised to find that even in this strange land, there are mornings marked by the chirping of birds.
The true intention of coming here wouldn’t be forgotten. After having made all the detailed arrangements for a successful angling mission, you’d station yourself at the mossy embankment by the pond and gently lower your baited fishing hook.
With the day progressing, a kingfisher, perched atop a sloping bamboo plant, would swoop into the pond, smearing colors in the air, and then return triumphantly to the same spot with a catch, only to mock you in some foreign tongue. A long and robust snake would emerge from a crevice along the pond and calmly swim to the other side, a couple of dragonflies would flap their glassy wings and quarrel for a spot on your sinker and the melancholy cries of the dove would distract you from time to time.
And then the sudden sound of the water would draw you out of your trance. Ripples in the calm waters would set the sinker bobbing in the pond. Turning back, you’d notice a girl filling a pitcher, discarding all the vegetation from the pond water. The girl would have curious eyes but there would be no hesitation in her activities. She’d look straight at you, observe your sinker, then turn again and lift the pitcher up to her waist.
It would be hard to ascertain her age. Her calm yet resolute countenance would tell you that she has had myriad life experiences. From her long and slender undernourished constitution, it would seem as if she is waiting at the threshold of adulthood, having crossed adolescence.
Walking back with her pitcher, she would turn back and suddenly say, “Why wait? Give it a tug.”
Her voice would be so soothing yet grave, that you wouldn’t find talking to an absolute stranger awkward. Only that you would be too dumbstruck to pull the line on time. Then you’d pull up the floating sinker to find that the bait is gone. You would have to look at the girl with awkwardness at least once. She’d also return from the pond, with slow and calm steps, but it would seem as if while turning her face away, a hint of a smile colored her calm yet gloomy face.
The desolation of the pond wouldn’t be interrupted after that. The kingfisher would have quit its futile attempts to tease you and would have flown away by then. The fishes, being dejected by your remarkable angling skills, would have decided not to return to the contest. All that transpired a while ago would seem irrelevant to you. The possibility of such a girl existing in a deserted place like this would seem incredible.
After a while, you’d have to pack your belongings and get up. You might return to find that tales of your fishing exploits have already reached your companions. Embarrassed by their jibes, on questioning, you’d be told that they got to know from Jamini, an eye witness.
Curious, you’d ask who this Jamini is, only to be told that she is the same enigmatic girl at the pond, a relative of your bibulous friend. You’d also be informed that the day’s lunch would be offered at their place. Last night, an apparition in the mystifying ruins had evoked a transient sense of wonder in your mind, but in broad daylight, you’d be disappointed to see how grotesque the ramshackle mansion is. It would be beyond your imagination that a nocturnal cloak could conceal its agonizing ugliness so effectively.
You’d be surprised to know that the mansion belongs to the girl Jamini’s family. Perhaps in one of the rooms, lunch is being arranged. It would be a simple affair, probably Jamini would be the one serving the meal. You would have noticed earlier the lack of unnecessary diffidence in the girl, just that now, seeing her from close quarters, the austerity in her face would be more noticeable—as if all the repressed sorrow of this abandoned, desolate, and forgotten place has cast a shadow on her countenance, as if her gaze is fixed towards an abyss of weariness, foreseeing the disintegration of these ruins, along with her own.
While serving your lunch, you’d notice her being restless and somewhat anxious a couple of times. Hearing a feeble voice from the rooms upstairs calling out her name, Jamini would rush outside. Her face would grow darker with worry, every time she’d return.
You could rest a while after lunch. With a lot of hesitation, she would call her brother, your bibulous friend, from the door with a hint of desperation, “Please come once, Mani da.” The conversation between Jamini and your friend would be loud enough for you to hear.
A concerned Jamini would be heard saying, “Ma would not listen to me. She has been restless since the moment she got to know of your arrival.”
An annoyed Mani would be heard saying, “Oh! So, she is still thinking that Niranjan has come?”
“Yes, she is sure Niranjan is here, only that he is feeling hesitant to meet her. I cannot think of a way to convince her. After losing her eyesight, she has become really hard to reason with. Sometimes she gets so angry that it could kill her.”
“This is quite a predicament. Had she been able to see, we could have shown her that none of us is Niranjan here.”
Even you can hear the feeble yet shrill and angered voice coming from upstairs. Jamini would now plead with Mani da to go and calm the old lady down.
Mani would assure Jamini and come back to your room and say, “What a strange situation, the old woman can’t see or move about but is determined not to die.”
Now you would definitely be curious as to what this whole bizarre mess is about! An irritated Mani would explain, “The woman had fixed Jamini’s marriage with some distant nephew of hers named Niranjan when they were kids. Even just four years ago, he had assured the old lady that he would return from his job abroad and they’d get married. Since that day, the old hag has been expecting Niranjan.”
Now you would have to ask, “Has Niranjan not returned from abroad yet?”
Mani would inform you that Niranjan never went abroad. It was just a concocted story to pacify the pestering old woman. He had no intention of marrying the girl of a pauper and has been living a happy married life for quite some time now. But she wouldn’t believe a word of it and even if she did, it could kill her.
“Does Jamini know about Niranjan?”
“Oh! You think she doesn’t know! She just can’t tell her mother. And now I have to bell the cat!” said Mani, as he prepared to go upstairs.
At that moment, you’d be involuntarily rising and declaring that you’d accompany him.
Mani would be surprised to see your enthusiasm.
“Is there a problem if I go?” you’d ask.
“No problem at all,” Mani would say and lead the way.
After having scaled the narrow, dark, and decrepit staircase, the first-floor room that you’d enter would seem better suited for a subterranean bunker. Coming into the room with a single window that’s shut, everything would seem blurry at first but you’d gradually make out the form of a frail woman lying covered with a tattered quilt, on an equally worn-out mattress. Jamini would be standing petrified by its side.
Your footsteps would elicit some signs of life in the old woman’s body, “Is it Niranjan finally? Have you remembered your hapless aunt after all this while? I can’t die in peace as I was awaiting your arrival. This time, you won’t run away like before, right?”
Mani would try to utter something but you’d stop him to say, “No dear aunt, I won’t vanish this time.”
Even without raising your eyes, you’d sense Mani’s bewilderment and the look of awe on Jamini’s face. But you won’t have the time to look up. You’d focus on the sightless eyes of the old woman, with bated breath. You’d feel as if a pair of dark flames emanating from her eyes are examining you. You’d sense the sands of time trickling away, like dew drops in a sea. After a while, you’d hear her say, “I was sure you’d have to return. That is why I have been alive all this time, guarding this haunted mansion.”
The old woman would be out of breath by now. You’d glance at Jamini once to realize that underneath her cold exterior, something is melting down slowly—the resolution against good fortune and a happy life in general, strengthened by a deep sense of despondency, is about to falter.
The old woman would assure you that you’d be happy with Jamini, not because she is her daughter, but because she is a gem of a woman. She would go on to say how she tolerates all her tantrums of senility and takes care of her uncomplainingly, and how in that desolate world of spanandry, Jamini had been both a daughter and a son to her.
In spite of your strong desire to look up, you wouldn’t take that risk to conceal your tears.
You’d just assure her in your choked voice, “I give you my word, aunt. I’ll marry her.”
And then again the bullock cart would arrive at the doorstep. The three of you would get onto it, and Jamini, standing close to the cart with a forlorn expression, would say, “You are forgetting your fishing hooks here.”
You would say with a smile, “Let them be. Just because I failed to catch it this time, doesn’t mean I’ll let the fish of Telenapota elude me again.”
Jamini would not turn back this time. It would seem that from her eyes and not her lips, a beautiful smile of gratitude is floating across the horizon of your heart, like the pristine white clouds of autumn.
The cart would move away. Your friends would be busy discussing how, more than a century ago, Telenapota was struck by a wave of lethal malaria, resulting in its desolate form. All these talks would evade your ears. The restricted space of the cart won’t bother you anymore, and the monotonous creaking of the wheels won’t sound harsh to you. With every heartbeat, you would only hear, “I’ll be back, I’ll be back.”
As you would arrive at the populous illuminated city streets, you would find the memories of Telenapota to be like a distant but blazing star in the night sky. You’d spend a few days settling into the daily grind, not knowing if your heart is getting heavier with emotions. Removing all obstacles, just when you’d prepare to set out for Telenapota again, all of a sudden you’d get a terrible headache with shivers. You’d have to wrap yourself up in layers of blankets and quilts. The thermometer would read at a hundred and five degrees. Your doctor would ask where you contracted malaria from and you’d slip into a feverish daze.
Many days later, when you’d walk out with trembling steps and sit down to reflect, you’d find that a lot has changed, within and without. Like a setting star, the memory of Telenapota would seem like a blurry dream to you. You would feel as if the place is a myth. The one whose face is grave, and whose gaze is distant and melancholic—like an apparition in the ruins, that girl is perhaps just a figment of your imagination.
After a brief moment of discovery, Telenapota would disappear again into the eternal darkness of the night.