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Why Ashu Cannot be a Detective— Prabuddha Ghosh

May 19, 2023 | Fiction | 0 comments

 TRANSLATED FROM THE BENGALI BY RITUPARNA MUKHERJEE

Image used for representation

Image used for representation

 

Ashu received a case after many months. But this case would probably slip out of his hands. Not probably, it would definitely slip out of his hands. Would Ashu never be able to solve a case? Having torn himself apart and built himself according to the expectations of his clientele, would he still not be able to see a case to its culmination?

Where lies the problem?

Ashu had received a case a few months back- a girl had fled her home after marriage.

“That scoundrel Mussalman has somehow convinced her to run away with him”- said the man, clad in a beige shirt and gold-rimmed glasses, who suddenly stopped. Perhaps because he remembered Ashu’s full name. But the heavily-built man didn’t allow him to finish his train of thought and said- “You will have to find out everything- where they are, what they are doing. We will handle the rest… also ask among your relatives.” This last sentence had swiftly pierced his heart, but slipped from his mind quickly as well. Ashu didn’t let these remarks affect him anymore.

A professional detective could not afford to be affected. Besides, their college-going girl had left inexplicably, marrying someone, just leaving behind a letter- can utterances be constructed sensitively in such a dire situation? The clients were the boss. Their house was in Amherst street. The visiting card of the heavily-set man had his name and credentials- Alokmay Basu, B.Tech, M.Tech, M.I.T.

“Namaskar, Mr. Ashu…”- the man had said on the phone and met him thereafter at a café, possibly getting his number from someone local. Maybe he didn’t quite get his full name in a hurry. During his meeting at the café, Ashu noticed a discomfort when they learnt that his full name was Ashfaqullah during the introduction.  Observation is an important skill in a detective. Ashfaq always introduced himself as Ashu. Thankfully his house didn’t have a nameplate. Had it been there, it might have been inconvenient. What if the client felt uncomfortable on hearing his name ‘Ashfaqullah’ or worse, left without actually entering his home? Ashu’s home, with its barely two and a half rooms, was well-decorated. Bapi babu, the individual who had given him the case of locating his absconder father, had been a little surprised, looking at his rooms. Ashu had served him tea and samosas on a plate.

Taking a bite of the samosa, the man had said, “Wow! You have painted your walls a sky blue instead of bright green. Its looking quite nice. The curtains don’t have sequins or zari-work on them either. Are they from Mafatlal’s? We have similar off-white curtains at our place…” Ashu’s investigative mind had comprehended the man’s surprise. Ashu was almost about to feel bad for himself, but didn’t. Didn’t his small living quarters at Nakibullah Lane or the illegal two or three-floor constructions at Hersey Street have those loud, bright and gauzy curtains? Ashu had removed all traces of Ashfaqullah from his room. He couldn’t take away the signs of their faith from Abba and Ammi’s rooms. Ashu realized that in order to be a successful detective he would need to forsake those signs. Ashfaqullah had altered a lot of things- his appearance, speech, behavior, taste.

During his one and a half case, the pretty, well-dressed teacher had declared- “Oh, your appearance and speech are like that of a Bengali’s”. Since it was only his one and a half case, Ashu hadn’t become fully professional in his speech and mannerism yet. That is why his surprise got the better of him and he said, “Madam, perhaps you meant a Hindu. I am a Bengali. A Bengali Muslim”.  Presumably because she had been a teacher, she explained with a professorial air, the matters relating to the Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims, to the Bangladeshi Muslims and the Muslims in West Bengal, that the Muslims had banished others during the partition… so on and so forth. This case was about the background checkup for a prospective groom. Ashu had learnt from his elder brother that the best way to learn about the backgrounds of the future brides and grooms was from the local grocery store. The marriage of one of his brother’s friends had been called off when the bride’s family learnt of his gambling addiction at the local grocery store.

Ashu went to Sarat Colony at Birati. He had learnt of a few things, and couldn’t learn about many other things because the potential groom was modern in his purchase habits and ordered most of his requirements online. Ashu wanted to be a true detective, a veritable Satyanweshi, perhaps that is why he had caught hold of an assistant manager of an online shopping portal and had a few drinks with him. He wanted to know about the boy’s orders, the kind of EMIs he paid. However, this particular case was half-done. Midway through this case, the teacher had called and told him in a strained voice that her daughter had refused to marry, that she wanted to remain a lesbian. Ashu had expected the woman to ask him to gather information about her daughter’s girlfriend because she had paid him a third of his fees on the first day. But she had poured water over all his hopes and said in an increasingly wet voice, “I have taken an appointment with a psychiatrist. If you get the number of a good endocrinologist, please inform me, brother… alas, I haven’t been able to do much despite being a mother for so long…” Ashu had googled after the phone call to unearth the fact that an endocrinologist was a doctor specializing in hormones, treating various hormone imbalances in the human body. Mrs. Dutta didn’t ask for the rest of her money back. Ashu didn’t mention anything about it either, merely said ‘certainly’ twice, ‘alright’ once and having almost said ‘that’s true’, he disconnected the call.

 

The case of a few months back  

Ashu had begun gathering information relating to the case. The girl’s name was Devaki. Ashu had been to her college, beside the Taltala crossing, three days. He chatted the people up at the paan-cigarette stall nearby. He gave cigarettes to the boys who stood idly at the college gate, their bikes parked against the walls. His ruse was- “I have come to know about the college for my brother’s admission”. The boy’s name was Shaukat Atif Khan. A resident of Iqbalpur, he was Devaki’s senior by two years. His family, though not rich, was financially quite well off. However, he didn’t have much of a bond with his family. He wanted to make a living by singing and guitar playing. He often didn’t go back home. Shaukat’s family members were also not too bothered about him. Ashu took a few days to figure out where these two absconders could have gone. He discovered two possibilities after having probed around his home and college- either Kerala or Bangalore. Ashu called Alokmay Basu and informed him of his findings. He found it odd that the family had not yet roped in the police. But he soon perceived in his detective mind that the Basu family’s pride was far dearer to them than their youngest daughter. Their plan was to use a private detective to know their daughter’s whereabouts after which they would use their influence to get her back as per their convenience. Ashu couldn’t afford to think too deeply about the matter. Alokmay had also made it amply clear in his mannerisms- Ashu’s job was to give them the final location of the girl and collect his fees. Just that.

Ashu was about to bribe a clerk at the registry office to get the names and phone numbers of the witnesses to the marriage- perhaps they could tell him…

It was at this moment that Khadu Basu had called him. The man with the golden frames. His good name was Abhishek Basu, known in his neighborhood as Khadu. Ashu had made a point to know everything about the Basu family in the very beginning. They gave out routine donations to all political parties. They had five properties in Kolkata at one point. Now they merely had two. The Chetla house was about to be handed over to a promoter. Alokmay’s older sister had married against the wishes of her family and left. A few years later, she had committed suicide along with her husband and daughter.

Ashu came to know of these things at the local tea stall- “The women of this household are all in that fashion. Rangathakma, that is, the middle sister of Khadu’s grandfather, had left at midnight with nothing but the clothes she was wearing, on the pretext of attending a committee. What a scandal… heard about it from my grandfather…”

Ashu had stitched those broken words to form a shape. Ashu’s sleuth instincts told him that giving Khadu’s family the news about Devaki and Shaukat’s movements would not bode very well for the latter. Still, his well-being lay in the client’s happiness. Khadu called him when he was about two minutes away from the registry office- “Listen brother, you don’t have to proceed any further in this matter… no, no, we will find them. How far will they flee?… We had appointed Himani Mukherjee… yes, him… he has traced their place at Kerala… it’s alright… you have tried your best… you don’t have to proceed any further in this matter… have a nice day”.

The lights outside the Tea Board were announcing the arrival of the evening. The sounds of the homeward bound office-goer’s shoes, mobile phone ringtones, the preparation of jhalmuri and papri, the beggar’s imploring cry, the curses of the minibus conductors- all these ambient noises were turning the evening quite cinematic. Ashu could only recognize the dying light of the evening amidst so many sounds and words. He opened the notes in his mobile phone and jotted down his feelings on losing another case. In two or four lines.

He wrote in the end- “Ashu couldn’t solve this case”, then cutting ‘Ashu’ from the notes and replacing it with ‘Ashfaqullah’, he saved the document and put the mobile phone back in his pocket. There is a certain twilight smell in the realization of sudden loneliness amidst crowds of people and a multitude of sounds. Ashu moved towards that smell. He planned what medicines to get for his Ammi while wading through that particular smell. He had forgotten the prescription in his hurry. He remembered the names. He wouldn’t be able to get Neskito-8 without the prescription. But he wouldn’t have to worry about the rest. He had wanted to get chaap from Royal on his way back from Bagri market. But that desire wore off like the smell of cheap perfume. A twilight taste clung to his tongue. Ashu moved towards the tram tracks. Oh, he would have to get the healer’s oil as well. Some Pir had prescribed the oil for his Ammi. She believed that the oil lessened her pain. Ashu moved towards the next lane.

 

A case-study of a few of Ashu’s cases

The cases came to him in unusual yellow dreams. Ashu was laying in his room. His mobile lay on the table. A series was playing on it. Episode 8. Ashu had guessed in the seventh episode who the murdered was.  He had paused many times during the second and fourth episodes, zoomed in on the victim’s room in the background, listened to the words of three of the suspects in the fifth episode in a higher volume. In the seventh episode, he could gauge that the victim’s son was the murderer in all likelihood. His guess stemmed from the fact that the son’s alibi did not match and from the general way in which he spoke. The son had psychological problems. However, Ashu didn’t understand why the storyline of the two other suspects had to be suddenly cut short. The mystery could have been deeper had the storyline paid a little more attention to the other two. There was space for character development. The eighth episode was playing. There was another episode left. Ashu lay on his bed. He didn’t feel like shutting his mobile phone. Was he sleepy or feverish? His body was aching. Why did all the series have murders? Was there no other crime than murder? When that woman tried to shape her daughter into normalcy according to her beliefs, wasn’t that a crime? Alokmay Basu had been able to locate his niece. Having found her at Ernakulum, he had sent his niece straight to Germany, to his sister. The police had arrested Shaukat’s employed elder brother and taken him to the Baguiati thana of all places. The next day, a car drove over the feet of Shaukat’s mother. Presumably, it was because of these problems that Shaukat had to agree to get back to Kolkata. Khadu had funded his music album. Himani Mukherjee’s team had resolved everything. Was that not a crime? Khadu had given a cheque for the treatment of Shaukat’s mother on Himani Mukherjee’s mediation. Ashu had learnt of these things not for the fees of course, but out of a desire to quench his investigative curiosity. Could Ashu have found such a simple solution to the problem? Chances are Khadu had lost faith on Ashu for that reason.

His semi-professional investigative mind, however, darkened with clouds, for Akrur, a common friend of Shaukat and Devaki. Akrur was one of the witnesses in their registry. Ashu often saw a pendulum in his dreams. Akrur had warned Devaki on her phone before Himani’s team and Khadu reached Ernakulum. Akrur fell off the train one day on his way back home to Liluah. Apparently, his hands had slipped from the rod near the door. Case closed. Ashu often felt a prick of discomfort in his dreams. He had been the one to give Shaukat and Devaki’s Ernakulum number to Akrur, so that he could warn them in advance. He had thrown away the sim card after that. Had Akrur not warned his friends, his hands wouldn’t have slipped from the train rod. Presently, the November light was waning with the Maghrib azan just as Ashu’s relationship with his neighborhood was fading away. He had forgotten his breakfast haunt beside the Choti Masjid. Nawaz, Ponty, Mahi neither called him nor invited him over anymore. Memories fell off his person like old dust. Ashu felt sorry for his unfinished cases, for Akrur, for Bakaullah, for Sonai, for the candy given by the Imam of the Choti Masjid. The invisible pendulum kept oscillating meanwhile. He recalled Biswadeb Babu. He had accompanied his Abba to one of his friend’s house when he was very young, a primary school student. The man was his Abba’s colleague at the Rajabazar gas company. Ashu faintly remembered that the man used to have something tied below the elbow of his right hand. He used to serve tea in floral cups. He felt sorry for those cups of tea.

Did such sadness blow in his direction like Rituja’s hair? Didn’t Devaki have a small mole like that beside her nose? And didn’t Devaki have buck teeth like Rituja? Rituja and Ashu had gone to rent a flat in Rajarhat. They got the flat as well. Did the landlord give in because he saw the bindi on Rituja’s forehead, a dupatta on her head and her buck-toothed smile? Someone rang a bell on Ashu’s front door. Could that be a new client? Rituja had just come out of the shower, her skin was damp. Instead of answering the door, Ashu went to the sky-colored bedroom and hugging her, he rubbed his lips on Rituja’s moist skin. The bedcover was his Abba’s choice. His Abba had passed away. The bed was empty. Was it strawberry on Rituja’s lips? Ashu breathed faster and he soon became hard. He shivered when Rituja took his penis in her hands. “Is this what circumcised means? Do you people believe in violence from a young age because you are circumcised?” The tremors in Ashu’s body abated steadily, a strange taste dulled his mind.

#

Ashu had come by a weird case. It was the case of the third house of the lane in Bosepara, Bagbazar where the old houses were being torn down to give way to new apartment buildings. Sonai had died at the far end of his youth. He didn’t have any relatives, just a few distant kin. When they tried to encroach the ground floor of the house, two of Sonai’s neighborhood friends approached Ashu. They had made a casual acquaintance at Ghotan da’s stall one day while having alukabli, chaat and rum. Satyaki and Phatka jumped when they heard Ashu was a private detective- “Wow Dada! Do you keep a pistol with you? Chinese? Foreign-made?” Ashu had laughed. Whenever they came across Ashu they would urge, “Dada, tell us about your solved cases please!” Ashu used to regale them with stories. They were just that- stories.

A teacher had asked him to get information about a girl- Ashu had informed her that the girl was really nice, a school teacher. The teacher had spoken to the girl’s family and convinced them to agree to the match. She had taken Ashu with her. Ashu had received good money on the case. She was very open-minded, a teacher of science, after all. She didn’t object to same-sex marriage, but it was her daughter’s marriage, so she wanted to check and verify. “Everyone agreed, dada? I find the homos a little strange! But then, these people are educated, have money, so maybe they are different”, “Their relatives agreed as well? The news…”. Ashu had laughed at their amazement. “It didn’t take place here. She made arrangements and sent the couple to Bangalore. They are happy.” Satyaki and Phatka treated Ashu to a large peg another time. Ashu said that he had used his sleuthing skills to find a couple who had fled in fear to Cochin. Ashu had mediated to convince both families and solve Asif and Sanjukta’s problem. He was a detective with a conscience. Sanjukta had a job there, Asif was content! Ashu hadn’t taken a fee in this case. The girl’s father had a generous heart. He had pressed in Ashu’s hands a sum of fifty thousand rupees along with an invitation. “You have done a very virtuous deed Dada! I am a fan of Shahrukh, you know. His wife is Hindu. You have done something that only happens in movies”. Ashu had smiled. Satyaki and Phatka had urged him for a treat of fried beef and parathas on his way home, a loving request, “Ashfaq da, you have it quite often. Please take us for a treat today. We won’t be able to have it at home… you must know some good restaurants that sell these”. Ashu exclaimed with somewhat red eyes and a little irritation, “I don’t eat all that, Phatka. I’m not like that. I don’t like all that.” Satyaki looked at Ashu with a hurt surprise, pulled Phatka and went away. About three months later, Phatka had called Ashu and asked him to meet at Ghoton’s shack.

“Sonai da was a dear friend. You have seen him once here with us. He just had two loves- his home and booze. He would never sell his house…” Ashu had taken the case despite knowing that it wouldn’t earn him anything. The other members of the house had misbehaved with the orphaned son. They had pressurized Sonai to sell the house, the promoter in tow. They would have sold the house as soon as Sonai signed the agreement. Phatka, Laddu, they were correct in their assumptions- the co-owners of the house had an on-going skirmish with Sonai regarding this matter. It hadn’t been an easy job for Ashu either. He had taken the case thinking it would be but a moment’s game but it had taken him three weeks to find everything. The relatives staying in the interior-most part and on the second floor did not heed him in initially- “Investigator? My brother-in-law is in the police, you know” or “We worship the Radha Madhab here, stand in front of Sonai’s room and talk to us”. The relatives had spread through word of mouth that Sonai was fond of them and respected them a lot. They had shown an agreement where Sonai’s signature was clear. However, Ashu’s skeptical mind prevented him from believing what he saw. He perceived that Sonai’s signature could be fake. But how could he test his assumption? They were not giving him the keys to Sonai’s room downstairs. Phatka and his gang got the keys after bearing down on the relatives and opened the room for him. However, two days later, a few boys from the local council jumped him in the alleyway. They also had their share of profits if the promoting went through. Ashu didn’t give in that easily. He followed his hunch to prepare a set of arguments. Sonai’s death had been declared normal, a sudden heart attack. He had seen a copy of the file report after bribing the junior sub-inspector of the Shyampukur police station. Ashu didn’t get much proof to the contrary. He had retrieved a copy of the agreement from a niche behind an almirah in Sonai’s room. Along with it was a paper having his last wish. It was an unusual wish list- he wanted to turn two of the rooms on the ground floor into a library and make a small seating area for his friends to drink booze in the two rooms to the left. It took Ashu quite a few days to discover that small niche- no one had known of its existence. Ashu had been able to locate it by reading Sonai’s diary and a few of his texts saved in the mobile phone’s notes.

A shrill voice from inside the house had pierced Phatka and Laddu’s cheerful cries- “We have Radha Madhab’s resting place inside this house. How dare some loafer would come and start a liquor shop here? That is why people say that tamarinds can never be sweet and a Muslim will never understand the value of a home deity. Someone should inform Bacchu about this business.” If Bacchu was summoned, it meant the councilor would come eventually and decide to do something in favor of the promoter. How far could Laddu, Phatka and Pedo go after all? Besides, they would have to secure the liquor license from the excise department and Ashu had no contacts there. They didn’t stand a chance of getting a liquor license in such a densely populated area. Phatka and his friends had collected some money amongst themselves and given Ashu a sum of five hundred rupees. And they promised Ashu free booze every week if they were able to secure the license. Ashu comprehended that he had earned a bad rep in that locality and he certainly would not get any further cases from there. Then, where could he get his cases from? Ashu didn’t want to take the data entry job. But…

Findings from the investigation of the missing person 

A client had come with a request to search for his mentally deranged father. He was last seen wearing a green plaid shirt with navy blue and grey pinstripe trousers, black frames in his eyes, seventy years of age. Ashu was promised a daily allowance of five hundred rupees and on finding the old man, a reward of rupees twenty thousand in cash along with his normal fees. So, it was quite a lot of money. Ashu hadn’t been able to do much on his Abba’s demise. His illness had spread quite substantially before its detection. He had only been able to arrange for half the amount required to meet the expense of his father’s treatment. Although Ashu loved his Abba very much, there was nothing much he could by that point of time. It pained Ashu’s heart to see this man spending such a substantial amount of money in search of his father. It was just the beginning of October. Ashu threw himself whole-heartedly into the case. Moreover, he might earn a good name if he was able to solve this client’s case. He was planning to appoint an assistant as well, prominently advertise for the post in the newspapers. He didn’t get much help from the old man’s mobile phone. It was an older model and the SIM card wasn’t recharged, as a result of which it had stopped operating. Ashu spoke to the close relatives. The client’s father didn’t have any major health issues aside from high pressure and a bout of dengue once. The client had claimed that he had mental problems but Ashu didn’t seen any prescriptions for it. The relatives didn’t have a clue either. Ashu came to know of a distant aunt in Muthisona village, somewhere in Malda district, from the old man’s elder brother. Ashu was finally able to locate the old man. He hadn’t brought any money with him in fleeing from his son. Ashu had guessed as much. It was almost November. The client needed his father to be present at the bank while submitting the life certificate. That is why the son visited Ashu in the middle of October. It was arranged such that only the son could collect his father’s pension money. Biswadip babu didn’t get a dime from his pension amount. His son allocated his daily allowance which was barely enough to have tea and samosas at the local shop. But his pension would stop if he didn’t give a proof of his life in the bank by November. That is why Biswadip babu needed to be found out. Biswadip babu wanted to live well. What would happen if he didn’t go to the bank in November? Oh, the pension would stop? So be it. He had ample provisions to live well in Muthisona village. His sister from the village also took good care of him. The son had also not discussed his father’s absence with anyone else in fear. He was managing the issue by making ruses like- “My father is suffering from depression. I have sent him north on a vacation”. Ashu had taken rupees five hundred each for all twelve days. After returning from the Muthisona village, he gave his client the address of his father’s sister in the village. He also took the rest of the money.

Biswadip babu’s words- “Don’t give him this address, Ashu”- lingered in his ears, but he would never be able to become a professional investigator if he allowed those words to ring in his ears for too long. It wouldn’t be too bad if he got a new case after solving that one. But it didn’t come.

Bapi babu called Ashu and asked him- “You didn’t introduce yourself with your full name, Ashfaq, at aunt’s house?”- “I had gone there for professional reasons. My work was more important than my name and surname…”- “No, no, Ashu babu, err Ashfaq bhai, this was not right on your part. Pishi is really irritated. She has had to throw away her utensils. I have also had to listen to her angry words although I was not at fault.” Bapi babu had deducted a little amount from his fees.

 

Why this stubborn desire to be an investigator?

Ashu had been an avid follower of detective stories from his childhood. On the occasion of his circumcision, one of his distant elder brothers had given him a book- ‘Be your Own Detective’- a book of short stories. There were three questions at the end of each story. The reader would have to answer those questions. It was not as if Ashu had never glanced at the answers provided in the last page of the book. But then he just had to refer for six out of the forty stories. Abba had helped him with three. Ashu had figured out the rest by himself. Ashu had also become a fan of detective stories on reading Feluda or Kiriti Ray. Ashu stayed with his family in a simple two and a half room apartment in a nondescript lane in Rajabazar. The main difference between Ashu’s home and the rest of the small apartments of Nakibullah Lane were the two bookshelves they had. Ashu’s grandfather had come to Kolkata from Shantipur immediately after the partition. The rest of his family and relatives had exchanged their land and property and settled down in Barisal. Ashu had never seen them. He had heard stories from his grandfather in his infancy. He sat beside his grandfather’s chest, combing his beard, tingling him, listening to his stories. The two and a half-roomed house constructed in the leased land beside the slums, where Ashu’s grandfather settled with his family, had actually belonged to Mafizul, a clerk in the tram services of the city. Mafizul had a family of six that left for Pakistan immediately after the riots started in the Howrah district early in March, 1950. Ashu’s grandfather had arrived in Kolkata just a few months back. He couldn’t take a risk when few of the houses in his neighborhood at Shantipur village were torched. He left his land, taking whatever was within his reach, along with his books. He had taken shelter in the Chaku Khansama Lane congested in two rooms.

After that, as soon as he came to know about the house at Nakibullah Lane… these things were a cause for amusement in his school and college days. Could these things really have happened? He had once gone for breakfast to Mana’s place. When they learnt that his family were refugees, Mana’s elder paternal uncle said in a tone mixed with levity and anger- “Listen Ashfaq, you are young, so you don’t really know about these things. Only we know what it is to be carried over from the other side like a leaf having the leftovers of food. You live comfortably now that is why you have the luxury to humorously spin stories about the event”.

Ashu later realized that the angry smile of Mana’s uncle came from a place of deep-seated hurt. Every story, every poem that he had read carried an image of that pain. In all the novels and Puja sankhyas he had read at the Jagriti library, Ashu could find the reflections of the torment he had seen in Mana’s uncle or in Nandini’s grandmother who would beat her head in the thakurdalan. But did he read stories of people like his own grandfather or Mafizul? Ashu’s grandfather had kept his books in an almirah back at his Shantipur home. People used to respect him a lot. He had a few bighas of land to his name. That almirah stored books by Priyanath Daroga, Hukakashi and Parashar Verma. Ashu had inherited these old, moth-eaten books with neem leaves inside them but devoured them nonetheless. Ashu’s Abba bought books on Byomkesh and Dipak detective. Ashu’s first client was Ashu himself! His first investigative job was to locate his ancestral home in the Shantipur village.

Listening to the realities of Mana’s uncle, Nandini’s grandmother and Souvik’s grandfather, he would doubt the veracity of his own grandfather and Abba’s narratives. It was this doubt that led him to his first investigation. He had asked for his first client fees on returning from Shantipur- the price of the pain of coming upon one’s own ancestral land- the sorrow that found reflection in his father’s eyes. Ashu had informed his father that a club had been constructed in the front portion of their family land, a liquor shop at the back. Nobody had heard the names Farooq Ahmed or Mubarak. Ashu had heard stories about the ashwatha tree from his grandfather. He had been able to locate his family land after spotting the tree.  However, Ashu was gradually realizing that there could be no detective named Ashfaqullah or at least detective fiction wasn’t written having the likes of him.

Ashu’s College friend, Samanway, had called him once, “Heard you have become an investigator. So, what have you solved lately?” Samanway had researched on the first phase of detective fiction in Bengali literature. He had told Ashu about Bakaullah- the detective Barkatullah, also called Bakaullah. His stories were very interesting apparently! “So, tell me, do you have disguises?” Ashu found it difficult to explain it to his friend that he was living a disguise himself. Or was he preparing to leave a lifetime of disguise behind to take up the disguise of a detective?

There was an opportunity to have some snacks with a constable of Bhawanipore police station in his third case. He had to go there a few times. Biswas da, the constable, used to like paan with jarda. Ashu had asked him one day- why weren’t any detective stories written with Muslim detectives? Dutta da had said- “Look Ashu, most of the criminals, from petty thieves to terrorists, are Muslims. Don’t take my words personally. I know this because I was posted in the intelligence division for some time. Look at the crime record of Kolkata, why just Kolkata? Look at the crime record of the entire nation- Muslims… you will see it if you look at rape cases, street crime or sedition”. Did Ashu need to see for himself? It felt as if he was running with ever-increasing speed in the darkness. And while he ran, shards of experience fell away from him- Sadani’s fees, the rented apartment that did not get, the words which had slipped from Rituja’s lips, his lost family land, his Abba’s closed glass factory. Only his instincts remained- Ashu had to become a sleuth- the impressive sleuth of the best-selling books by famous writers.

Ashu wanted to be a good Muslim with all his being- in the title that clung to his name in the Aadhar card, the identity that stuck to his title, the markers which were mingled in that identity, and the repudiated light that shone on each one of these markers. Ashu had brought chapatis and tarka on his way back from Ghoton’s shack. The evening was spent- the evening azan was over as well. Ashu kept the chapatis and tarka in Ammi’s room. He opened the Gita in his room. He read the Gita every day. He knew the Ramayana. He had the unbridled freedom to read books at his home. Ashu liked reading detective stories and reading the Gita aloud every day. Initially it was a means for Ashfaq to be like his Hindu friends, acquire a taste for their reading, later it became a habit. Ashu emulated logical reasoning from many books to develop his own critical thinking skills. He read the foreign detectives minutely. But one needed to have some form of social acceptance in order to be a detective. He would gradually have to become Ashu. Ashfaqullah could live with his data entry job, his share market broking. Besides, Haji Chacha had assured him that he would get him a temporary position in the food department of a Park Circus hospital. He just had one condition- Ashu would have to read the Namaz five times and quit alcohol. “Ashfaq- harmed by the evil spirits”- that was all that Haji Chacha asked for. But Ashu wanted to become a professional sleuth. Couldn’t someone in Bengali literature write a story about him?

 

Ashu wants to deconstruct himself

Ashu used to listen to Mahalaya. He used to set an alarm very early in the morning and wake up sharp at four. Ever since he couldn’t wake up one time, Ashu used to listen to Mahalaya and then go to sleep. Ashu didn’t just listen, he would talk about it with everyone in the soft light of the dusk at the City college, over jhalmuri, chow and cigarettes, starting his conversations with- “Did you listen to Mahishasura Mardini this time? Didn’t it give you goosebumps?” or, “I liked the Mahalaya program in channel three more than that in channel five”.

Once Arka had laughed at his words- “Don’t try to fool me. You have tuned in to watch Sudeshna dance!” Rituja had asked another time, “But then, the idol worship in your community is… I mean, isn’t this haram for you people? Wasn’t an idol broken in Brahmanberia?” Ashu knew that Rituja did not mean badly. Moreover, Rituja’s words would sound like the strains of a violin by the time they reached his ears. His heart would flutter when her hair would fly here and there. Ashu would see everything, and then observe the way he saw things. Everyone would gorge on phuchkas and cold drinks together. But why was Rituja’s stomach upset on the day he had brought sewai prepared by his mother? Ashu’s investigative mind told him that perhaps she thought that beef and payesh were cooked in the same wok, or at least the utensils touched one another? But the part of his mind that listened to the strains of that violin assured him that beef was never cooked at his home and that Rituja had surely caught the stomach bug. Instinct is an investigative mind’s most powerful tool. Ashu’s instincts wanted to tell him a lot of things, but he wouldn’t listen to those in such special cases. Ashu didn’t call the program Mahalaya, he would refer to it by its true name- Mahishasura Mardini, with a clear pronunciation. He knew two songs and a few hymns by heart. He still remembers every word. He would correct anyone who said “I don’t listen to Mahalaya” by saying, “No dear, it is Mahishasura Mardini– it is written on the cassette cover, you see”. Nairit, his batchmate from school, wouldn’t believe him. He would borrow detective fiction from Ashu while the others would dismiss Ashu’s words- “Do you understand our culture better than us?” Ashu had accompanied Nairit for pandal hopping twice. His first glass of beer was with him as well. “You shouldn’t drink these things Nairit”- “Why? Because its haram? Eh?”, Nairit had guffawed. Even after that, Ashu hesitated the two or three times that he accompanied Nairit to a bar. Ashu drank mulishly because Aniket from college had proclaimed to the classmates, “Well, he doesn’t drink because drinking is considered haram in his religion”. What if he was ostracized even from that small group? When Ashu thinks about these things now, he laughs at himself.

Nairit had joined another college. He participated in politics just like that friend of Abba’s- from the glass factory. Ashu came to know when he was older why that man tied a piece of cloth under his elbow in the right hand. That patch of his hand had Ram-Sita tattooed in his youth. He had wanted to reject these markers when he grew older. Since he could not wipe out a tattoo, he covered it. He used to urge Ashu’s Abba to forsake a lot of his markers as well. Abba would laugh. Ashu met Nairit many years after they left school. Nairit had joined a political party full-time by then. Nairit had laughed at Ashu’s aspirations and the alterations that Ashu had made to realize his wish. Ashu never met Nairit after that. He didn’t meet many of his relatives either. His relationships were as tangled as his headphones. Would he be able to untangle them if he became a detective?

The time that Ashu had gone to rent an apartment for the follow case, he had thought his knowledge of religion would be really useful to him. A relative of the manager of Khaitan Company had given him that case. Ashu had advertised in the newspaper spending around seven thousand rupees. A small column. He got a phone call. The Khaitan Manager had invited him to a restaurant in Park Street and explained the job. The job was to follow the regional head of Sadani Manufacturers. “We are looking for someone who knows how to keep a low profile so as to avoid detection. Do you have some experience in this kind of work?” Ashu had nodded his head biting the meatiest portion of the sandwich. Rubbing the mayonnaise off his lips, he had said, “I have done a few cases like this. Nothing so high profile. But…” Ashu would have to search for a rental apartment in Rajarhat. He would not be able to pursue Mr. Yadav properly if he did not live close to him. His advance amount was quite satisfactory. It was sufficient to get him a one bedroom-hall flat and cover his travel expenses in following the man. Ashu was determined to employ an assistant this time. He would get a good amount of money on solving the case. His sole cause for concern was leaving behind Ammi alone for a few days. He gave Moti bibi eighty rupees a day. She stayed in the butcher’s alley. She would come and be with Ammi for three hours every day and night. Ashu didn’t get a rented apartment. The first two days, he left home at dawn and went to Rajarhat. But he couldn’t make it the third day because he was really exhausted in following Yadav’s car and standing in front of his office throughout the day. “Yadav has left for a meeting today. Its just a one-month job… you can’t even do that properly? Now, if there is a problem in the tender…”. Ashu desperately searched for a rented apartment in the fourth to sixth day, he had even contacted a broker. He sent a broker from his locality to search for a rental apartment in Rajarhat on the sixth day while he went in pursuit of Yadav’s car. He was supposed to submit a report to the Khaitans in the evening. He was stuck in the expressway. There was a blockade in the expressway protesting a fire and destruction of a mosque in Uttar Pradesh. Yadav and Sadani’s car had somehow managed to avoid this jam.

But Ashu was stuck. “Can’t you explain it to the people of your religion? Those fucking assholes. They just believe in blocking roads and setting things on fire. Your own people have blocked your way?” Ashu had begun reasonably well. He was so sure that he would solve this case well! Ashu had become Ashfaqullah in merely seven days. The initial procedure for renting an apartment had proceeded well. It was just his voter and aadhar card that spoiled everything. “You don’t look like… sorry dada, we don’t want to rent out our apartment at this moment”…

“You speak Bangla quite fluently! Arabic… no, dada, we don’t want to rent our apartment, we have our son’s marriage soon”. Ashu had desperately tried to persuade them that he didn’t eat beef, didn’t keep a beard, wasn’t really interested in Namaz, that he pandal hopped during Durga Puja, knew Rabindra sangeet and quite a few shlokas… Ashu returned to Nakibullah Lane. The Sadanis were professional. They took away half of the advance amount. Ashu had deconstructed himself to a such an extent yet how was he caught each time? Why were all his attempts a failure? At one point of time, Ashu used to cover his penis with a thick, tightly hugging layer of skin, so that his circumcision could not be discovered in a glance. Did that give him more self-confidence? He used to say naturally- “Namaskar, I am Ashu”. Was that of any use? He had to do an affidavit in order to change his name in the voter and aadhar cards. But would the government office agree to this change? It was a matter of a lot of money. Should he get a temporary job in the meantime and save some money? Perhaps he could change things then? Ashu would surely become an impressive detective character.

#

Ashfaqullah will possibly not be able to retain this case as well. Why possibly, he certainly will not be able to retain it. He has deduced this much.  What is the use of knowing the cause? It will be the same thing over and over again. And this is after all a story. The reality is different, isn’t it? Ashfaqullah is crossing the tram lines and entering his locality. He has a parcel in his hand- the word ‘royal’ is written boldly on it. He will meet his old friends for a chat at Rocky’s shack after the evening azan. Soon Ashu will climb up the discolored stairs, go past the moist air of the kitchen, enter his room and switch on the light- and like Sisyphus wait for his next client’s phone call. This story ends with these possibilities. Let the packet from Royal be a mystery sans mystery. Every thing apart from Ashu’s name and the two and half room apartment in Nakibullah Lane is fictional, merely a story.

 

First published in www.nagrik.net , October 5, 2022.


End notes:

Satyanweshi: truth seeker; a Byomkesh Bakshi story

Puja sankhya: special issue of magazines published ahead of Durga Puja festivities

Thakurdalan: a place of worship adjacent to the courtyard

Jarda: sweetened tobacco

Mahalaya: an auspicious day for Hindus, the last day of offering tribute to departed forefathers and the start of Devipaksha, which initiates the Durga Puja celebrations

Mahishasura Mardini: a program broadcast on Mahalaya wherein the Goddess Durga slays the demon king, Mahishasura

Sewai: Vermicelli, usually made into a sweet porridge

Payesh: sweet porridge made with rice or vermicelli


Also, read a Hindi fiction by Indira Dangi , translated into English by Rituparna Mukherjee, and published in The Antonym:


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Prabuddha Ghosh

Prabuddha Ghosh

Prabuddha Ghosh is a resident of  Kolkata. He is currently working as a Senior Research Fellow in the department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University. He completed MA in Comparative Literature from the same university. He presented research papers in several international conferences. Some research articles have been published in peer reviewed journals. Prabuddha writes poems, short-stories and essays. A collection of poetry named ‘Jakhon Sangbidhan Bodle Jachche’ was published in 2021 from Yapanchitra foundation. Prabuddha also plays and teaches Chess. ‘Shah Maat’, a book on Chess, was published from Boibhashik Prokashoni in January 2023.

Rituparna Mukherjee

Rituparna Mukherjee

Rituparna Mukherjee is a faculty of English and Communication Studies at Jogamaya Devi College, Kolkata. She did her MA in English literature and currently pursuing Doctoral degree in Gendered Mobilities in west African and Afro-Diasporic Literature at IIIT Bhubaneswar. Her areas of interest include African and Indian literature and Post-colonial and Feminist theories as well as English Language Teaching, Second Language Acquisition and Communication studies. She works as an ELT consultant, translator and ESL author outside of her work and research schedule.

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