by Rajat Chaudhuri

 

     It was certainly a chance encounter and an odd one at that. How old would I have been then? Not much, having just scrambled through Part I of my grad school exams–if I could somehow repeat the feat with Part II, I would be a free bird. The wisdom of economists (Economics was my Honours subject) went miles above my muddled brains, and bunking classes I watched Hollywood flicks. At dusk, I trawled the market street of Hatibagan, hoping to catch a naughty hint in the glancing looks of progressive ladies who came shopping without their men and at first light, driven by a fancy, I would be attending French classes in the musty-smelling halls of the Alliance française de Calcutta.
     We had just got a telephone at our Calcutta home. Fastening a tiny lock to its dial, Father declared, "This is only to be used in emergencies, never make calls unnecessarily." But I would make calls on the sly. Picking padlocks was something we had learnt at boarding school.
     The girls who came to study Economics were snobbish and stuck up. Desperate for affection and left with no other option, I had to test my luck making blind calls. Undoubtedly most of these drew a blank and I wouldn’t waste your time going into the sad details of those wasted efforts.
     Leafing through the fat telephone directory, I would stop at a feminine sounding name which seemed promising and dial the number and from the other end a hoarse baritone would declare, "Major Tarini Bhat-charge speaking," or something worse than that. So, defeated and disillusioned, I had been wondering if I should take the help of a numerologist when out of the big beautiful blue an idea swept me away.
     Focussing on the keypad of the push-button phone I conjured up a string of logos and symbols. Among those that came to mind immediately, was the bow-legged M of McDonald’s, the well known red ribbon of AIDS awareness, the simple U of the Roman alphabet, which in today’s breathless age is just y-o-u in a hurry, and the famous Circle-A: Ⓐ that the anarchists had adopted. I remembered many others. I imagined tracing these signs out on the keypad, ending up each time with a sequence of numbers and I began to play. Dialling one number after another, leaving the rest to luck–
     I began my experiments with the U and it turned out a dud because the first two numbers are 1 and 4 and there was no telephone exchange in Calcutta in those days where the phone numbers began with 14, and it’s still like that I suppose.

     Like this a few more calls threw up nothing worthy. On the bargain I got cursed and threatened for making crank calls. Right then, the circle-A of anarchism struck my fancy. Tracing out the "O" and then the "A" on the keypad, I dialled the new sequence of numbers and a husky feminine voice answered,
     "Parveen," she said.
     It was a whispery, sensuous voice and as it licked my ears, a nest of cobras reared and hissed inside my guts. Bringing my wits about me, I said, "Me Arjun."
     I was grabbing the receiver tight–my hands shivering in excitement, when she said, "Not now, call me at night."
     Now imagine my situation–looking out for an oasis on a long desert trek I had suddenly found myself in the middle of an ocean. Let me not go into the details of what I did for the rest of the day.
     I had a friend called Sahadeb who lived in the same street as us. Now this is not the kind of name that goes well in a milieu of young college guys and assorted good-for-nothings, and so we called him Debu. Debu was my partner in these telephonic fortune hunts. If one of us had any news that looked promising, he used to share it with the other, in the right spirit of camaraderie. Unity and sharing is essential for the nation’s progress, was the lofty principle that guided our attitude in these matters.
     That evening I went to our carom club and taking Debu aside said, "You have to stay at my place tonight." Then I told him about that voice which made snakes hiss in my guts. He laughed.
     "Your Jupiter is on the ascendant buddy. Kama-deva also seems quite happy. Don’t irritate those Gods now. I am suffering Shani-deva’s wrath. The fires of Kama are singeing me from inside but I have to suffer it. This should go on for a while. Then only my karmic accounts would be in the black again. Don’t call me now, unless you want this to end in disaster," Debu said.
     I protested, I bargained, I issued threats but he didn’t budge and sent me off wishing me luck.
     I bought a pint of Old Monk rum with some money I had stolen from my private tutor. As soon as dinner was over and my folks had turned in, I bolted my door, lit a Charminar and fished out the stainless steel glass and the bottle of rum. I took small sips of the Old Monk and kept staring at the lazy minute hand of the table clock. Around quarter to twelve I dialled the numbers, tracing out the familiar pattern of Ⓐ. The phone began to ring at the other end.
     My hands shivered as I counted the rings and was wondering whether I should disconnect, when the receiver was picked up at the other end.
     "Is it Arjun?"
     "Yes…" I was suddenly tongue-tied. All witty openers slipped away beyond reach and my dulled brain went soggy-wet as if it was being marinated in a tub of vinegar or sour curd. Actually, it was neither vinegar nor sour curd but testosterone.
     "Don’t you sleep at night?"
     Her prodding interest gave me time to recover from the happy shock. "The government’s telecom department–I mean God–seems to have taken care of that," I said.
     "I see… so your government has a fine sense of humour. I mean your God does. Are they the same guy?"
     "I have heard some cool-headed German philosopher said something in those lines and we know from bitter experience. Both are invisible, quite ruthless tough guys and they make a difference between sin and virtue," I said. Two pegs of rum had taken care of inhibitions.
     "Don’t you believe that there is sin and there is err…virtue?"
     "Tell me how could I separate the two? Nobody could say quite clearly how each one looked–I mean does sin grow a beard and the other, does it wear glasses? Aren’t they like Siamese twins joined right from birth?"
     The laughter at the other end was like a Gypsy tune playing in my heart, playing on an instrument whose name I would never know. Even to this day those notes ring in my ear, reaching out to me from a strange and distant land.
     "I know whether sin grows a beard. I will tell you, if you would listen to me," she said.
     You can well imagine what the moon was doing to the ocean. The water foamed and frothed and bubbled, rushing into rivers, creeks and streams. And it was no ordinary tide but a rumbling turbulent bore. Great was its speed, uncounted its secret currents, varied its moods, mischief and tempers.
     The nightly chats grew longer. There was so much we talked about that one would never finish if one tried to tell it all. And some of these were…err…intimate. One couldn’t possibly speak such things here, but if the gentle reader has had the chance to dial fantasy phone numbers in Europe or the States, it won’t be difficult to form a fair idea about how it went between the two of us.

~


     I am not the sort of buffoon who would ask a woman her age, but going by her voice I guessed she was a few years older to me. So it was a toy boy situation and this got to my head, further kindling the kama-fires that had begun to lick my poor self.
     Parveen said she lived at Choku Khansama Lane near the Sealdah rail terminus. They were old aristocrats of that neighbourhood named after a khansama–a male cook who would double up as house steward. Those years we used to live in a rented house in the Manicktala area, which is further up north. Even if one walked, it didn’t take more than twenty minutes to reach Sealdah. This teasing proximity fired up the desire to meet her.
     I would waste the day replaying conversations of the previous night, in my head. My college attendance thinned out even further. But Part II exams were drawing near and to top it all a ruthless summer had arrived. To sum it, this was turning into what they call a pressure-cooker situation.
     But Parveen avoided any suggestions of a date. She would say, "Let us get to know each other a bit more, then maybe," or "What if the meeting ends the trance? Why won’t you let your mind create what it likes, don’t you know how different the picture of your imagination could be from the real person?" There were other such inane excuses she made.
     I was however not to be persuaded by two-penny abstractions. Of course I had a picture of her in my mind–hair down to the waist like that shampoo girl, curvy like the Tamil heroine who was the queen of Bollywood then with night lights in her eyes–so what? My desire to meet the flesh and blood woman grew relentlessly. The day would be spent waiting for night, and night, when it arrived, slipped by too quickly and I would fall asleep at dawn with my head full of her voice. Gradually, the outside world began to look distant and weird. As if I was watching everything from far away. Needed glasses, did I?
     When the sun had set, the Bedouin brushstrokes of red, orange and ochre on the Calcutta sky seemed to be the beckoning of a beautiful new world. Daybreaks, no more pregnant with worries and foreboding, brimmed with the possibilities of rejuvenation. It seemed that our battered, chaotic, ravaged city was dressing herself up in the clothes of a new bride–is this what they call Utopia?

~


     Round about this time there were thundershowers one night. It was the kind of cyclonic weather we get when there is a depression in the Bay of Bengal. Finding the water god Barun, in this frothy mood, I advanced my plans post haste. Bringing on a grave voice and a tone of finality, I told Parveen, "if you are not meeting me tomorrow, we will never meet again." As if I didn’t care, while what I was banking on was the soul-quenching night rain. If she had anything like a heart she wouldn’t be able to turn me down!
     "So kiddish," she said then thinking something, "but you may not like to see me in the daytime, maybe in the evening…"
     No more maybes–I took a swig of Old Monk and said, "OK, six in the evening at Coffee House, first floor."
     I had been drinking and had not been listening closely. If I had, maybe I could have been prepared for all that happened afterwards. However I doubt if it is at all possible to be prepared for the events that followed.
     Again she was silent for a few moments, then she said, "No it’s not possible, not there."
     "Why? What’s the issue with Coffee House now? Ex-boyfriend drops in, eh?"
     Silence.
     "What’s it now, tell me?"
     "No. Don’t ask me to meet you like that. You come somewhere, I will also be there," she said.
     "What? So we still can’t meet face to face–what is this now?"
     "Not yet. Don’t ask me to meet you just yet. It’s a bit difficult. I can’t explain. For now, let us be together at some place. Let me see if you can recognise me. Some other time–"
     Hard as I tried, I could not steer her out of this odd arrangement. Finally I agreed to her proposal. But I couldn’t share this with the few girls in college who went out for that odd date; they would have made fun of me. In fact I had to keep this from Debu also.
     There was a Hollywood romance with Brooke Shields in the female lead, running at The Globe those days. Endless Love was drawing huge crowds because Brooke Shields was the darling of every college boy and perhaps also because of that catchy tag line–She is 15, he is 17, the love every parent fears. We decided to watch Endless Love in the evening show, but on that harsh condition–there wasn’t the slimmest chance of meeting face to face.
     Next day I got my ticket early and hung around the box office. The crowd was mostly college students. Some older fans of Brooke Shields also in the queues but I couldn’t pick out the Parveen of my dreams from that crowd.
     After the show, I took the tram home with a heavy heart. The chiaroscuro of the evening, the dreamy rattle of the tramcar and maya–thick and sweet as tal-patali on the old streets and alleys of Calcutta–somewhat lifted my spirits by the time I reached home after buying two packs of Charminar. It was ten at night.
     "You didn’t tell me that you smoke" Parveen told me that night.
     Really? But how did she find out? I asked her how.
     "Simple. You smoked so many cigarettes outside the cinema hall and then went out during the interval again. You must have smoked then too."
     My goodness! So she had really come to watch the movie, I couldn’t recognise her! I really hated myself for this. But still to be sure I asked her what colour shirt I was wearing, the name of Brooke Shield’s character in the movie and so on. She answered all my questions.
     "I was in the row just behind you, you didn’t recognise me." It was an accusing tone laced with sadness.
     "I am sorry. I don’t know why I couldn’t, but it can’t go on like this. We have to meet like ordinary folks do–I won’t have any of this any more."
     "Who said I am ordinary? Why don’t you assume something else? That you came and watched the movie sitting so close to me, quenched the thirst of my soul. You know–the smoke of your Charminar is still caressing me, wrapping me like a blanket. You are still here with me," Parveen said.
     But this was getting desperate. I felt I was losing my mind. I blurted it all out to Debu one day over a garage drinking session. He listened and warned me, "I smell trouble here, back out man." But a storm had been brewing. It was impossible to calm those winds. And Parveen remained equally adamant–she wouldn’t meet me face to face. She would come but wouldn’t show herself. She would watch me in secret. I would fail to recognise her.
     Like this we went to the movies a few more times and then once to the planetarium. Gradually the weather got worse and I was caught up in a full-fledged desert storm. The violent khamsin blasted sand into my eyes and mouth–I was blinded, bleeding and choking fast. The darkness was deeper than anything I had known before. At one point it seemed that they were pulling down the houses of our old city, digging up the avenues, chopping down the shade trees, tearing everything apart and bulldozing the debris into the slow-flowing Ganga.

~


     Finally, after a string of prayers and petitions I did make some headway, though this was still a kind of half way house. Parveen agreed to meet me but now there was a new twist–talking was banned. What the hell! What a girl–first invisible, now visible but incommunicado. But anyways, it was decided that the venue for this silent date would be an old Mirazpur Street eatery–Favourite Cabin.
     The appointment was sharp at noon. At midday this place is usually empty, and because it was near her home she knew it well and told me where I should sit. I was supposed to arrive sharp at twelve and sit at the nearest table on the right. The heroine of the silent film would pop in at quarter past twelve and sit at Table 4 and have tea. Cut!
     If my patient reader has ever heard that Gypsy tune playing on that instrument without a name, in that far away country that is not on a map, they will understand that this guy had not quite gone bonkers but was getting more than obsessed perhaps.
     I tiptoed into Favourite Cabin at noon and sitting down at the pre-assigned table whispered my order–tea and patties. The tables were old-fashioned with heavy marble tops that were cold to the touch and just sitting down there calmed my mind. Three people were at a table near the back talking and whiling away their time. The eatery was empty otherwise. Along Mirzapur Street, trams rattled by one after the other, some headed for College Street some Rajabazaar. But I was quite oblivious to my surroundings, my gaze fixed on the wall clock.
     Exactly at fifteen minutes past twelve a very fair girl pushed through the door, looked this way and that and went and sat down at Table 4. Her hair was done in the 40s Hollywood style and her shiny skin had a strawberry ice-cream blush. She was wearing a deep blue salwar kameez embroidered with arty chikan work. There was a light brown tinge to her hair which could be the colour of mehndi or brown naturally.
     The moment she came in the flowery scent of nargis-attar wafted through the eatery. Everyone looked up. Beautiful eyes she had. They were bright brown and it seemed as if the hints of some lost feeling lingered in them. But where was the hair of the shampoo girl and the curves of the Tamil screen goddess? If reality and imagination–like good friends–take the same packed bus and ride pasted against each other in the choking crowds, then one half of the joys of creation is squandered among flies.
     Yet what struck me most was her age. This girl would be at least five years younger to me. She couldn’t have, by any means, left high school. Was I making a mistake then? It was proving really difficult to imagine this teenage Hollywood sweetheart behind the sensuous Gypsy voice on the phone every night.
     I was staring at her like an idiot. Suddenly I remembered that there were other people there. However she was busy sipping tea from her cup, her gaze lowered. There was nothing in her gestures that said she was conscious of my presence. Once I thought I would go up and introduce myself but that would be a breach of our agreement. So I haplessly sat in my chair and tried discreet means to attract her attention. It was no use. I couldn’t possibly beat out a tune with my spoon and saucer, could I? Did she see me at all? Who knows–
     The wall clock struck half past twelve. I was about to get another cup of tea when suddenly the girl rose, paid her bill at the counter and walked out of the shop, her head lowered all the time.
     As soon as she had left, a waiter crept up to my table and slid a chit of paper into my hand. "The girl who just left asked me to give it to you," he said.
     I hadn’t expected Parveen would completely ignore me, so I had been sinking fast in the dumps. On getting that chit of paper, excitement wrenched me out of that state, right in the blink of an eye. In a slanting calligraphic style she had written:
     Won’t be able to talk tonight. Come home tomorrow, after seven in the evening.
     Blimey! Come home tomorrow! It was surely not my lot to cipher out this sweetheart of a girl. So be it, I decided. I already had the directions to her house.

~


     At seven in the evening the Sealdah area was bustling with coolies, brokers, businessmen, touts, middlemen, traders, shopkeepers, office-workers homebound and bachelors out for fun.
     Tramcars rolled from north to south or from east to west–along Mirzapur Street rattling on towards College Street and places even further. Men on their way home went bat-hanging from buses, while rickshaw pullers ringing finger bells manoeuvred their loads of paper shreds, freshly printed books, sweet boxes and starry-eyed lovers through the dingy lanes and by-lanes of north Calcutta. Some of them were coming from the warren of side streets of Baithak-khana Bazaar while others went on their way to Budhu Ostagar Lane to deliver fresh reams of paper to the antediluvian printing presses. Customers jostled for their orders at the telebhaja shops–the aroma of fish fry and eggplant fritters making them water at their mouths. The blaring of bus horns, the tinkling of finger bells, the rattle of tramcars, the cackle of hookers, the cussing of rowdies, the lie-laced speeches of political dadas, and finally, one among a trio of graceful drunks who had just emerged from Tower Bar, bursting into a song–all gave it a festive flavour. It seemed, the whole city had assembled at Sealdah, with the agenda to draft an Anarchist Manifesto that night.

~


     The sounds of the city began to fade as soon as I crossed Mirzapur Street and entered Choku Khansama Lane. The narrow lane was flanked by old residential houses. In fact it was not wide enough to be a lane but was more like what is called a gully here. Something was bugging me–last night I had called Parveen and was greeted by a recorded "this number does not exist" voice. I know, I shouldn’t have called–she had asked me not to–but that the number would vanish just like that, was something that continued to escape me.
     The lane was poorly lit. One or two fluorescent lamps that were fixed by brackets to the houses threw some light on the patches of asphalt and a faint light filtered through the windows. Their house was near the end of the lane–
     You could tell; it was a very old building. Sprawling and massive, it hardly looked like the dwelling place of the middle classes. The arabesque windows set with stained glass, the balustraded balconies leaning out of each floor like drunken sultans and the serene geometry of pointed arches all indicated a clear influence of the Islamic style. I gave the great wooden door a little push when my knocking didn’t draw any response. It opened just enough to let me in. My Titan watch showed it was twenty minutes past seven. The anarchist’s festival had delayed my arrival–
     There was a mosaic courtyard inside and a flight of stairs went round it to the inner chambers of the mansion. On two sides of the courtyard were rooms with their doors closed while the far side was pitch dark. There must have been a power disruption in this house because the only light came from a hurricane lamp in the middle of the courtyard. The scent of nargis-attar hung lightly in the air. I was wondering whether to knock on one of those doors or climb up the stairs when someone said, "Come upstairs."
     It was a male voice and he sounded like a middle-aged person but in the thick darkness of the upper floor I couldn’t see him. I began climbing the stairs. The wooden railing looked old but it was sturdy. Somehow the assault of termites had been held-off.
     At the top of the stairs was a wide crescent-shaped balcony with rooms on one side. But for one at the far end, all these rooms had their doors shut. "Come here," someone from inside that room said.
     I walked up to the lighted doorway of that room. It was big as a hall, tastefully decorated with antique furniture. At the centre was a half-circle of walnut armchairs with a row of high-back mahogany chairs at one side. A violin was lying on one of the high-back chairs as if someone had just finished playing and kept it there. At the back of the hall was a massive chest of drawers with intricate carvings while a grandfather clock was set against another wall. The clock had stopped. Between the walnut armchairs, a Persian carpet was laid out and on it was a fancy table with mother-of-pearl inlay work. A leather-bound volume had been kept on this table–an old French encyclopaedia. Along the walls were more tables of hand-carved mahogany with silver-inlaid bowls and braziers, brass displays and a red and black amphora that looked pretty old. The mosaic floor of the hall had beautiful floral motifs and from the ceiling hung an ornate Napoleon III bronze chandelier, all its candles blazing. But where was Parveen?
     The gentleman who had called me in had risen from his armchair. He looked somewhere in his early fifties–healthy and fair with a thick walrus moustache and bright eyes. He was wearing spotless white kurta-pyjamas and his face had a radiance, which was difficult to miss. It seemed as if his presence had lit up the hall more than the candles did.
     Asking me to take a seat he clapped twice and in a flash a man wearing a fez hat appeared with a glass of rose syrup and setting it on the table disappeared.
     "Did you get a basket carrier to come here?"
     When he saw his question draw a curious stare from me, he knit his eyebrows and said, "But, I didn’t hear any horse carriage outside so I thought a basket carrier must have carried you here?"
     I was wondering if he was just kidding me or being saucy for no apparent reason and was about to say something, when someone from the balcony said, "Sir, basket carriers and horse carriages have stopped plying more than a century ago. Men do not carry men on their heads anymore. It has again slipped out of your mind." Must have been the fez-wearing rose-syrup man.
     The man nodded and looked at me strangely. I don’t get scared too easily but a knob of fear suddenly choked off the air supply. Should have told Debu before coming here, flashed through my mind. Now if I am finished off by ghosts or ghouls no one will ever find out. Right at this moment that rose-syrup man might be getting ready to pounce on me from behind and break my neck.
     The gentleman seemed to intuit my fears and said, "Don’t be scared young man. We are not man-eaters, but…" Again he was lost in thoughts.
     Having regained some courage I said, "Well, I wanted to ask you something, I mean…does Parveen live here?"
     His voice seemed to come from a locked wooden chest now. Speaking slowly he said, "No. The plague took her away long ago; while I remain invincible." There was a long pause. "Who knows how many years have gone by since then. No one but the mysterious European Count knows how this grizzly old cat could slip out of the maw of Time."
     Before I could get the flow of his conversation he went on, "I used to be the chote-nawab’s khansama then, you know, like a chef. The young nawab enjoyed what I cooked for his family and he liked me a lot. One day a good friend of his came down from England. This sahib liked my mutton rezala so much that he went on telling everybody. Chote-nawab heard this and ordered that from then on I should cook for the sahib and accompany him on his travels. How old would I have been then? Just as you see me today–fifty or fifty-five at the most. So anyway, I went south with the sahib and stayed with him in Madras for three years. There in Madras sahib got introduced to Madame Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society. Sahib used to visit her house often. Her face is still fresh in my memory. Soft-spoken and well read, she looked just like a wax doll and she had this special weakness for badhakapir-ghonto. You know badhakapir-ghonto?"
     I nodded, remembering the flavour of the cabbage delicacy. His face told me he had crossed his fifties but what amazed me was his voice. I felt I was listening to a youth of twenty now. It’s difficult to explain how I felt in his presence.
     He continued to speak, "So my sahib invited Annie Besant to his house one evening for dinner where among other things he wanted to treat her to my special badhakapir-ghonto. She came, accompanied by the European Count. Tall and athletic, his eyes had a splendid glow, as if a torch was always burning behind them. I had prepared an elaborate meal for the special guests with a spread of dishes–badhakapir-ghonto of course, then mutton rezala, lamb korma, Hyderabadi biryani, kakori kebab, aarbi halim, three kinds of desserts and so much more. Everyone enjoyed the food but the Count didn’t touch a single dish. He sat in a couch at the far side of the dining hall leafing through the pages of a dictionary. His face devoid of expression, as if he didn’t see or hear us–or imbibe the aromas of the food for that matter."
     He paused for a moment then went on, his gaze now distant, "I was alarmed. I dreaded he was not happy with my style of cooking. When he saw that I was nervous, the Count called me to his side and told me a few things. Just a few sentences, like that. How could I explain it to you…? It seemed my sahib knew all this from long before–he became a card carrying theosophist later, but that's a different story. Besant memsahib saw us talking and asked the Count not to discuss those things with me but then he had already begun to speak. And when one hears what he was saying, whose curiosity won't be piqued? Would you believe me if I tell you that it is possible to imprison Time like this, in your fist?"
     The gentleman held out his fists before me. His skin looked butter-soft like a child’s. There was not a fold, not a wrinkle anywhere. He could give any fashion model a run for her money. I was awestruck and kept quiet. Taking the glass from the table I took a sip of the rose-syrup. I kept staring stupidly at his face. He went on–
     "So, I too fell for it. Forsaking everything, my cooking, my love for good food and drink–I began to lead the life the Count had revealed. When hungry I would eat a gruel of boiled oats seasoned with the bark of the arjun tree and then I began doing those secret kasrats–the exercises. Hunger surrendered to me meekly one day, it doesn’t bother me any more. So, the Count left that night but before he went he related such astonishing anecdotes. If a man on the street heard him, he would surely call him a charlatan. Why, I myself thought he was one, when I first heard those stories. But not any more… After that evening we have met so many times. He comes and sits just there, where you are sitting now. He tells us tales of far away lands and people… But let us not go into this any further. You became Parveen’s friend, so I was thinking of sharing more with you. But you are young, it’s not the time to delve into the Great Secrets." Then he suddenly looked lost. The rose-syrup man appeared from somewhere and began massaging his head.
     He began to speak again, "Hmm… I lost so much by choosing this life. My daughter left me at such a tender age. Must have been a century ago; try as it does time cannot finish me off. There were just a few houses in this neighbourhood then. This house of ours, the church there and the mansion house of the rajas of Kasimbazaar. And there were some one-storey buildings of small traders. So many kinds of horse-carriages plied the streets those days; there were the ekkas, the landaus, the juris, the phaetons. My child wanted to ride horses. I took a lot of trouble to send her to Collin sahib’s stables so that she could learn horse riding. And then she loved to watch the shongs perform their pantomimes. They gave shows out there in the courtyard. But I couldn’t save her… The plague took her when I was away in Madras. Where did all those familiar people go? Now this house is my refuge. 'Til the time I hear Israfil blowing his trumpet, I will remain here. But who knows, whether I would even hear that angel? Look at this servant," indicating the rose-syrup man, the head massage stopped abruptly, "he too crossed hundred a decade ago," and the massaging resumed, "he takes care of all my needs now. I read books, play the violin. But one by one you finish all your lessons. An endless day, it gets bigger–I have jumped in that darkness of time and I am falling, falling–plummeting through the abyss and I wait forever, for my feet to hit the ploughed earth, teeming with life and the warmth of mortals. Rich with the bones of the dead, throbbing with the energy of procreation."
     He went on talking like this, sitting in that great candle-lit hall. His voice had taken on grey undertones, "I hear so many things–the sahibs have left, India is a free country now. Good no doubt, but would you be able to keep it like that? I have also heard stories of electric lights, they say these are bright as the sun and then this servant told me of trains that run through tunnels under the earth," he slapped the rose-syrup man lightly and the man gave me a toothy smile, "but I don’t believe all that. And what does it matter even if these are true? I don’t wish to see any of it. Both the wheels of Time are cloaked in the same darkness, no matter whether you move forward or step back, no matter whether you illuminate the world with your electricity or use candlelight. When my child left me, I lost interest in it all. I have solved the riddle of maya but it doesn’t help me at all–death animates the world and makes it worth your while, mortality makes life precious and worth fighting for. Look there," he pointed towards the chest of drawers, "one of my friends drew that portrait for me; see how sweet my girl was. If the Count comes again, I will tell him this time–show me the way backwards. I want to go back and see my child."
     I moved my gaze up, above the chest of drawers. Candlelight from the massive Napoleon III chandelier was brushing those cheeks that had a quiet strawberry ice-cream blush. An impish smile played on her lips and in those limpid brown eyes lingered the hint of a feeling that had been lost forever. A fog of sadness enveloped me. I took leave of the gentleman and rose from my chair.
     "Don’t call her again. It troubles her," he said.
     I nodded sadly. Waving a goodbye, I hurried down the stairs. I pulled open the heavy wooden door, and walking out, walked a few steps and was blinded by the light of fluorescent lamps and my eardrums seemed they would burst under the assault of compressed air bus horns. It was twenty minutes past seven still but the second hand of my wristwatch had sprung back to life. And the fragrance of nargis-attar followed me for a few steps before falling quietly back.

~


     Many years later, I came to know the Count’s name–Count Saint-Germain. He was the same man about whom Voltaire, in his letter to Fredrick of Prussia had written–A man who knows everything and who never dies. Later I have heard him mentioned in several other places.
     That old house on Choku Khansama Lane stands no more. I went there a few days ago and found that the signboard of a real estate company has sprung up amidst the demolished pile of mortar and brick. Ambrosia Builders and Developers it says, or something in those lines.

 


 

Rajat Chaudhuri has published one novel – Amber Dusk. His fiction and reviews appear in Eclectica, Underground Voices Magazine, Indian Literature, Notes from the Underground, The Telegraph, Asian Review of Books and other venues. www.rajatchaudhuri.net