Original story: Tarapada Ray
Translated by: Tapabrata Bandyopadhyay (Our first guest contributor!)
Surama does not make phonecalls often. There is no telephone in her home, neither in the school where she works. Actually they meet too often to require a telephone conversation. Hence, when Rakhal heard Surama’s voice over the phone, at the rather unusual hour of four in the afternoon, he realized that something was wrong. As soon as she said, “Hallo” Rakhal replied, “Surama, this is Rakhal. What happened?”
Surama clearly sounded tensed, “Listen, just now we received news that Boro Jamaibabu has had an accident. He was taken to Medical College. Can you come to the emergency ward?”
“Yes… yes. I am coming in fifteen minutes” Rakhal put a hold in his half-finished file and left.
It’s not like Rakhal was familiar with all of Surama’s relatives, although he had heard of this brother-in-law from Surama a few times.He found Surama in the lobby of emergency ward. She spoke in a deep voice, “Don’t think he will survive. Anyhow, you wait here.”
Rakhal was glad that he met Surama first. Otherwise he would have felt a little awkward in such a scenario in front of her relatives. His relationship with Surama had not been formalized yet; most of her relatives did not even know Rakhal.
Rakhal stood in the lobby. Some of Surama’s relatives were running around. But their expressions betrayed that there was only a very small chance that the victim would survive and they were just making a last desperate effort.
Rakhal had no idea what happened to the accident victim: whether it was a road accident or something befell him at home. He was just thinking random stuff inside his head. All the accident stories he had heard previously were coming to his mind, scaring him a little. He remembered when he used to stay in his village, during his childhood, if someone died killed of a snakebite, for next few days people would use torches and lanterns when they had to go out after nightfall. But after a few days things would go back to what they were.
While thinking all this Rakhal noticed a gentleman standing beside him. He was a fashionably dressed man in his mid-forties. He was wearing a fine panjabi, dhoti with polished shoes. Rakhal looked up to see his slight, pitiful smile. Rakhal thought this person must be some uncle of Surama’s, or he could be a friend or colleague of her brother-in-law.
It looked like that the second option was more likely. Surama’s relatives who were busy running around the emergency did not seem to recognize him. Even Surama did not recognize him.
But Rakhal noticed him. He was asking a few questions, about the extent of the injury, the chance of survival—those kind of queries. Sometimes to the nurse or the doorman or maybe to some relatives of Surama. Sometimes he would get an answer or sometimes he would be ignored.
When Surama returns after fifteen minutes Rakhal asked, “Will he survive?”
“No” Surama said dejectedly.
In the meantime, the doctors in the emergency pronounced him ‘dead’ but it looked like the family could not take the dead body for cremation straightaway. First there would be a post mortem and only then they would get the body back.
Some people tried holding off the post mortem but they found that it would be more troublesome than having the post mortem.
Rakhal did not have any prior experience of such events; neither did he want to get involved in his girlfriend’s extended family’s personal matters. He tried to be as detached as possible.
It seemed that the strange gentleman did the same; he also played the part of a sympathetic observer.
But suddenly he did a curious thing: when the corpse was put on the stretcher to be carried to the morgue, he ran towards it and lifting the white cloth which covered the dead body he told some relative of Surama’s:“Take his clothes, otherwise in the morgue they would strip them off anyway.” Some people reacted a little at his comment but given the gravity of the situation no one wanted to carry out what he had suggested.
While the cover was removed, Rakhal could see the dead body for a split second … mangled hands, distorted chest, and blood-soaked shirt. A terrible sight, Rakhal felt sick.
But that man looked at the body without flinching. Rakhal was amazed. He was even more surprised when the man performed another bizarre act. He stopped the folks who were pushing the stretcher car once again. Then without a single word he took out a handkerchief from pocket of the blood-spattered shirt. Once he was done he gestured at the stretcher carriers to take the body away.
Everybody was taken aback at that man’s sudden action. No one seemed to recognize him either. Surama’s elder brother was concerned. “What was that?” he asked.
That gentleman was leaving, he just turned back to say “Just kept a souvenir”. He lifted the handkerchief up to show everyone and left a little hurriedly.
Surama looked at Rakhal, and said in a whisper, may be at her brother, “Must be a very close friend of Boro Jamaibabu!” Rakhal thought the same. But he was also feeling a little uncomfortable; there is some abnormality, a little madness in collecting souvenirs from your dead colleague in this way.
A month and half had passed since then. Surama and her relatives gradually overcame their grief. One day Surama told Rakhal, “You remember that friend of Boro Jamaibabu’s? I see him quite often. It seems like he lives in our neighbourhood.”
“Which friend?” asked Rakhal. He had almost forgotten about the incident in the hospital. Once Surama reminded him, he asked, “Did not you find his behavior on that day a little strange?”
“Yes.” Surama agreed “The gentleman is generally sober but somewhere in his dealings it seemed like something was wrong. Sometimes his gaze makes me very frightened.”
“Is he a colleague of your brother-in-law or some other friend?” asked Rakhal.
“I am not sure, I did not even ask anyone.” Surama said, “Actually I have not seen him earlier, neither did I see him on the day of his funeral. Only met him the other day when he asked us to visit his place once.”
“Us?” Rakhal frowned.
“Yes!” Surama’s voice becomes lighter, “In those fifteen minutes in the hospital, he got a hint of our relationship. So out of courtesy he did not invite me alone.”
The next Sunday morning, when Rakhal was waiting for the Surama at the bus stop near her home he met that gentleman. In a pleasant voice he asked Rakhal, “Hallo! Waiting for her here?”
Rakhal was not at all comfortable. He hardly knew this man and found his overt friendliness disconcerting! In the meantime Surama reached the bus stop. The gentleman invited her to visit his house with a friendly smile. He looked importunate.
Rakhal had some time on his hands, but he wanted to avoid visiting that man’s house. So he cooked up a story. “I have to go to Deshapriya Park, someone will be waiting for me there. Surama maybe you can come there after visiting his place?”
He had a faint hope that the man might say “It’s ok. If you have a problem today may be you two can come sometime later.”
But actually he was happy at Rakhal’s suggestion. “Please come for a quick visit.” He told Surama and then he looked at Rakhal, “Please make sure to visit once in future. I have a unique collection, the likes of which you will never see anywhere else in this world!”
Till that point Rakhal had thought he was a polite but foolish man. But after the last comment he sounded arrogant too. How could a middle-class Bengali man have a collection which is unparalleled in the world?
Half an hour later Rakhal was waiting for Surama in front of Deshapriya Park. Like it happens very often, for about five minutes no buses were to be seen and then within moments one double-decker came, followed by another two. Suddenly the middle one overtook the front one and came to a halt at the stop. Rakhal saw Surama getting down from it. Rakhal had a slight apprehension that the gentleman would accompany her but was glad to see her alone.
But Surama could not get down. The other two buses had started a desperate race to reach the stop and n a terrible moment. Before Rakhal or someone else could realize what was happening, Surama was run over by one of those buses.
Panic, screams and a sudden crowd… amidst all this when people finally rescued Surama’s mangled body from under the wheels of the bus, Rakhal felt that he was going to faint. It would have been much better if that body had remained under the wheels forever.
Two months had passed since that day. One day Rakhal went to PG hospital to visit his uncle. He had suffered a heart attack, but he actually survived this time… he was discussing the situation with his cousin while coming out, when suddenly he saw that gentleman.
He was standing in front of the emergency ward, exactly the same way as the day when Rakhal saw him for the first time. The same fine clothes and polished shoes.
He recognized Rakhal and walked towards him. “Hallo, how are you? what happened?” Rakhal asked. Suddenly he remembered Surama’s death. She was returning from this man’s house on that day. Rakhal remembered the day of Surama’s brother-in-law’s death, from his peculiar act of taking the handkerchief to his presence in the emergency ward today with an apathetic smiling face, everything pointed towards some really menacing incidents—all surrounding that gentleman.
He did not reply to Rakhal’s question, rather he asked him, “You never came to my place?”
Suddenly Rakhal became desperate. He said, “Definitely, I will come, what would be a good day?”
The man said, “Isn’t there a holiday next week for Janmashtami? You can come that morning. Here’s my address.” He gave a printed visiting card to Rakhal from his pocket.
“You have a grand collection in your house, don’t you?” Rakhal asked while taking the card.
“Right, right. That’s why I am insisting you come.” That was his response.
Rakhal found it rather easy to find his house from the address in the card. The man was waiting for him the drawing room. He was quite happy to see Rakhal.
Rakhal took a seat. Their conversation was rather formal: the way two strangers converse. At one stage Rakhal asked, “So, was Surama’s brother-in-law a close friend of yours?”
“You mean, that man from whose pocket I picked up the handkerchief on the day of our first meeting?” he enquired.
Rakhal was taken aback, “You did not know him?”
The gentleman shook his head and said, “No!”
“Then what?” asked Rakhal.
The gentleman smiled, “I will clear all your doubts. But let’s go see my collection first.”
Rakhal followed the gentleman to the second floor. It looked like the house was completely empty except for them. Half of the second floor was an open terrace. In the other half there was a big room with a heavy lock on the door. The gentleman slowly opened the door. There was no window in the room, only a couple of small skylights near the roof. He switched on a small light, which increased the shadows in the room rather than the brightness.
This is the grand collection! What’s so special about this? Rakhal was puzzled.
There were a few of racks on the wall. On those racks there were weird, peculiar things.On one side there was one shoe, a broken stick, a burnt cigar inside a glass jar. On the other side there was a dirty chopper with some sticky marks on it.
Rakhal asked, “What are these?”
“Wait. Let me tell you.” And then the gentleman started explaining, much like a guide in a museum. First he pointed to the broken stick, “This broken stick belonged to someone from my village. Once he was face to face with a poisonous cobra and he tried to kill it with this stick, the stick broke but he missed the snake–which then bit him and he was killed.
The gentleman kept talking in this manner. Rakhal was mesmerized.
Next he pointed at the burnt cigar, “Remember the incident of Subodh Pathak? That man who was shot by his nephew while having a cigar on his couch post-dinner. Some petty family issues. This was his last cigar, which he was smoking at that time.”
The gentleman kept describing his objects. All the things related to unnatural deaths, bizarre, uncanny accidents were stored in the room. In open daylight, in the heart of Calcutta … Rakhal could hear the trams on the street, outside someone was calling out “Jatin”, the smell of someone cooking a spicy dish nearby, but everything related to this house felt unreal, ghostly and mysterious.
That shoe belonged to a young Marwari man, who killed himself by jumping into the Ganges with that shoe on. That dirty chopper with blood stains was the one with which a Nepali man had killed his wife. Rakhal could identify Surama’s brother-in-law;s handkerchief in one corner.
Rakhal’s legs were trembling, sweats were trickling down from his forehead and he felt faint. He felt like a caged rat inside the room. The man kept describing his collection; Rakhal could not even look at his face.
Suddenly Rakhal turned his head towards his right. He was greatly shocked even in this fearful state of mind. It was nothing but a pair of ladies’ sunglasses: white border on black background, the sort of sunglasses which lots of girls in Calcutta use.
Rakhal had a strong hunch, but he could not speak much. He pointed towards the sunglass and said in a choking voice, “This one?”
The gentleman looked at that direction and said, “You guessed right. This one belonged to your girlfriend.”
Rakhal was stunned. The gentleman kept saying, as if to explain, “Look, it’s not that I have collected all the things in this room after the accident or death. In some cases I found them even before the accident. I did not have to fetch it, it was left to me. Even your girlfriend forgot those sunglasses on that day.” He gave a pause and then asked Rakhal with a dry smile, “Did she really forget or…”
Rakhal is choking. Not a single moment in this creepy room anymore. He has to find a way to leave this room. But his sunglasses! He also had a pair with him. Where did he keep them in this dreadful room? He wants them back, he wants them right now!
His limbs were shaking; his entire body was sweating. His eyes were about to pop out from anxiety. Rakhal frantically looked around the room, where are his sunglasses? Where did he leave them in this necropolis?
The gentleman looked at Rakhal, “Do you think you have left anything in this room? Are you looking for your sunglasses? They’re in your left hand!”
He spoke rather courteously, but at that very moment Rakhal ran out of that room. In all the excitement, the sunglasses were shattered in his hand.