It was quite a spooky affair.
There had been no plans to visit Darjeeling. In fact it was decided not to go anywhere during the Puja vacation. But at the last moment, when there were just a few days left of the holidays there came an invitation to visit Darjeeling. Neelmadhav Bandopadhyay was a friend of Gogol’s father and a barrister in the High Court. He had an ancestral house in Darjeeling, situated a little way off the Mall near the hospital. Neelmadhav’s father was an only child, and so was Neelmadhav himself. So he was the sole heir of the Darjeeling property.
Gogol knew that this friend of his father’s had often invited them to visit his house in Darjeeling, but his father had never found the time…But during that year his father had been so busy that he could not avail of the annual leave. And that was the reason why he could so easily manage to take leave from office just after the Pujas. And since the High Court was still closed, his barrister friend pleaded with father to go with him to Darjeeling.
Since the Annual Examination starts knocking at the door soon after school re-opened Gogol’s mother never liked the idea of going for a holiday during the Puja vacation. But Neelmadhav Babu succeeded in persuading even her! Since father also had no objection to the idea Neelmadhav booked their seats on a flight going to Bagdogra. Gogol’s father had decided to go by train and had made the necessary arrangements, but Neelmadhav thought that since it was vacation time it would be difficult to get reservations on the train. ”So I have booked ourselves on the flight. We’ll take just a few hours to reach Darjeeling,” said Neelmadhav.
Father was thus persuaded to take the flight. He offered to pay the fare for two full and one half tickets but his friend would not hear of it. “How could you think I would accept this money Samiresh? That can’t be,” he said. After making a few more futile attempts to make Neelmadhav accept the money father ultimately gave up. Of course Neelmadhav was quite well-off. Moreover he was father’s childhood friend. Gogol was asked to address him as uncle: “Banerjee kaka.”
Gogol came to know a few details about his Banerjee Uncle. That he had been married once but unfortunately his wife did not live long. Neelmadhav never got married again. He had no children either. Yet he was so friendly and not at all a loner. He got pally with Gogol soon after they met.
It took only forty minutes to fly from Dum Dum to Bagdogra. Banerjee kaka had made all arrangements well in advance. A car was waiting for them at Bagdogra Airport. In those days the flight to Bagdogra left Dum Dum at ten o’clock in the morning. They reached Darjeeling by one o’clock in the afternoon. There were two types of pleasures in a journey by train... during the day one could see so much of the country---fields and rivers, villages and other beautiful sights. The night was also exciting. Gogol could never sleep continuously in the train. Waking up suddenly he had difficulty in remembering where he was, and then next moment, the jerking compartment and the noise of the rushing train would remind him that he was on an overnight train. He would go back to sleep, only to wake up again after some time. It was like a game played in a world of dreams. In the light of dawn a new country would unfold itself before his sleepy eyes.
Such were the ecstasies of a journey by train. It was somewhat different by air. This was not Gogol’s first flight though. Moreover he had flown quite a number of times since then. If one gets a seat by the window then down below there is so much to see, even from that height. It could be so thrilling! Rivers, forests, cornfields, rail tracks, trains moving along the rails, roads, cars rushing by, all very diminutive. Villages, and also sudden views of towns and factories. When the plane inclines on its side, the ground down below becomes blurred, and if one happens to glance through the window opposite, one sees a different scene. The rivers look like huge meandering pythons. Boats looking like toys float over the snake-like rivers. In places the river looks broad and the silted riverbed spreads far and wide. The smaller rivers look like small snakes. It was in late October that year when they had accompanied Banerjee Uncle to Darjeeling, The sky was so clear that even before their plane had landed at the Bagdogra airport the snowclad Kanchanjungha was clearly visible. Much of the pleasure of flying lies in the fact that destinations can be reached so quickly. It takes an entire evening and night to get to Siliguri by the Darjeeling Mail. And then the car ride to Darjeeling. Gogol had also been on the toy train which was far greater fun than going by car or a jeep. It would take much longer, though.
It was two years ago when Gogol with his parents along with Banerjee kaka had boarded the plane to Bagdogra. They had reached Darjeeling at one in the afternoon. There was a road on the left of the Mall, which turned downward and then left towards the hospital. From the hospital a road about forty yards wide went right up to the gate of Banerjee Uncle’s house. The gate was wide open and a Nepalese lady, smiling warmly, was standing outside the door. The car had driven straight down the driveway. Banerjee kaka was in the front seat. As soon as he got down the Nepalese lady joined her hands together in a respectful gesture. The window on Gogol’s side had the pane rolled up. He quickly pulled it down. After he had reciprocated the namaskar Mr Banerjee started chatting with the lady in Nepalese.
Gogol got down from the car along with his mother. It was end of October and still a bit warm in the foothills of the Himalayas. Mother had warm clothes and shawls ready for everyone. Although all the windows were closed Gogol was made to wear a long-sleeved pullover even before they reached Kurseong. Gogol did not feel too cold in Darjeeling. There was warm sunshine and a blue sky.
The paved courtyard in front of Banerjee kaka’s house was quite big. Their reflections were visible in the glass panes of the big front door. There was a room next to the front door and the door of this room gaped wide open in the wooden wall. Through it one could see a table with chairs all around it. The place seemed deserted. One glass pane of a window was closed. The courtyard had iron railings all around it. There were no rooftops to be seen over the railings on this side. Standing in the yard and glancing down, one saw a few picturesque houses, and a few small cars moving along the Cart Road. Flanking the house at the back, along the terraced slope of the hill, a few houses could be seen. A narrow zigzag pathway skirted the houses. At first it seemed that Mr Banerjee’s house was in a congested area of the town. From this courtyard one could see the Cart Road, part of the bazar, and people and traffic on the move throughout the day. Above the road, the trees, houses, cars moving along a smaller road and the expanse of the sky, though not the Kanchanjungha peak.
After the car had pulled up to the house the Nepalese lady had bolted the gate and Banerjee kaka had introduced them all to her. The lady was a bit older than Gogol’s mother. Her fair face had quite a lot of wrinkles in it and her eyes were black. She had a sweet, gentle smile. She was wearing a sari and a blue full-sleeved cardigan. There had been a mutual exchange of civilities after which she had cordially invited them to come in. She spoke Bengali, “Come Mr Chatterjee; Mrs Chatterjee, do come in.”
It was surprising how well the lady spoke Bengali. Her pronunciation however gave her away. Banerjee kaka was speaking to her in the Nepali language. The lady glanced at the next room, which was made of wood, and then said something in Nepali. "I call her Moily Didi,” explained Mr Banerjee, turning to Gogol’s parents. "Moily means second. So Moily Didi is mejodidi. You may also call her mejodidi. She has a strong personality. And very efficient too. Her husband was in the Army. The Japanese took him prisoner during the Second World War. When he came back after a long imprisonment almost totally ruined in health, they used to live in a house down below, on the Lebong side of the Mall. Then my father gave them accommodation in this house. Moily Didi’s husband died in this house. Before he was taken prisoner he had been promoted to the post of Habildar. Had he not fallen ill after his long captivity then may be he would have become a Captain or a Major. But he remained a sick soldier to the end of his days and drew his pension as such.”
While Banerjee kaka spoke Moily Didi’s eyes were becoming moist, her expression sad. “Let’s not talk about it now, Banerjee Thakurpo” said Gogol’s mother, with great concern.
Mr. Banerjee understood at once. Rather embarrassed, and in an apologetic tone, he said something to Moily Didi in Nepali. Moily Didi responded in Nepali, wiped her eyes quickly, and pulling Gogol towards her, said, “But I haven’t yet spoken to Master Chatterjee! You must be terribly hungry dear! Come, come inside. The food is ready. Just wash your hands with soap and warm water and sit down to eat.”
“And this is our Moily Didi,” said Banerjee kaka with a laugh. “She has two daughters. The elder one is married. Her name is Durga. The younger one is called Maya. She is not married yet but will soon be. They live with their mother. Durga’s husband Pratap Bahadur works in a shop owned by a Marwari businessman. Durga has a son. Maya passed the School Final last year. Moily Didi is the caretaker of my house. She looks after everything. But for her we could never come to Darjeeling.”
Moily Didi could follow our Bengali conversation. “Whatever Bhaiya says, I can do everything because of the money he sends me every month. He looks after my establishment, my daughters…. But do come inside. You have come from the plains so you should be careful not to catch cold in the hills. There is hot water ready for you. I would say you should not take a bath today. You may suddenly catch a chill. Besides it’s quite late. It’s lunch time, really. You couldn’t have eaten much when you set out from Calcutta so early in the morning.”
“In the car we ate oranges, biscuits, chocolates and hot milk,” announced Gogol.
Banerjee kaka had gone towards the glass door and up two steps. He held the door open and said, “Come on in, everybody.”
“What shall I call her, Ma?” asked Gogol.
“You will call me Aunt Moily, Gogol,” Moily Didi said with a smile. She pressed his cheek and said, “What a sweet boy. Your didis will love you.”
After Baba and Ma had gone through the glass door, Gogol noticed that a lanky stranger in a threadbare khaki military uniform was standing on the other side of the door. He had a black Nepali cap on his head. He had deep dark patches below his eyes; yet his eyes were amazingly bright. A pair of moustaches hung on either side below the nose. He was also wearing a badly torn full sleeved woollen khaki sweater above his tattered uniform. His hands, whatever was visible of them, were dirty and emaciated. His face seemed to be badly scarred but his eyes burned fiercely. When he looked at Gogol the boy looked away quickly for it was difficult to stare at those eyes.
The man was standing just opposite Banerjee kaka, on the top of the stairs, beside the door and was looking at him, yet Banerjee kaka seemed not to see him at all. May be he deliberately ignored him? Did not his parents see him either? That was surprising! Those burning eyes seemed to soften suddenly. A smile blossomed through those limp moustaches. Yet Moily Didi did not even turn to him… as if she had not seen him at all. She escorted Gogol into the house. Banerjee kaka entered next, shut and bolted the glass door. Gogol turned. He saw that the man was still standing outside the door. He was staring inside, staring at them through the glass panes. As Gogol turned his head to look at the man he tripped on the carpet. “Dear dear, hope you’re not hurt,” said Moily Aunty, “This bit of the carpet has a fold.”
Gogol was still turning his head backwards to look at the man and the man was also looking at him. “What are you looking at? Have you left anything out there?” asked Aunt Moily.
“No” nodded Gogol, “Who is that man standing there beside the door?” he asked with a stealthy look in the direction of the man.
A sudden light of recognition shone in Aunt Moily’s eyes as she looked towards the door. But she said she could not see anyone. “Who have you seen?” she queried.
“A man dressed in a very old and torn khaki uniform is still standing there outside, on one side of the door,” said Gogol, “ A Nepali cap on his head… His shoes dirty and torn… his hands so thin and filthy… a pair of moustaches. He is looking at me and even smiling. Can no one see him?”
Hearing this Aunt Moily was not only astonished but seemed to get angry suddenly. She glared towards the door. Gogol was surprised to see the man turn slowly and go down the steps. He walked across the yard and disappeared on the left behind the fence. Yet Aunt Moily assured Gogol that there had been no one there…they had not seen anybody. “It’s a new place for you and you are probably hallucinating,” she said. “Come on in.”
Gogol could say nothing. But he was sure he had seen the man.
There were three sofas around the carpet upon which there was a centre table. Neither Banerjee kaka nor his parents were there. There was a wooden partition; in the wooden wall on the right a big window with its glass panes shut. The partition had a door in it on one side which also had glass panes through which could be seen a big room. Taking Gogol by the hand Moily went through this door. Much of the wooden floor was carpeted. There was a huge dining table covered by a milk white tablecloth which had two small vases of flowers on it. Two brass candle stands contained two thick pink candles about two inches in diameter. No light was on because through the big window panes on the right of the wooden wall a lot of daylight filtered through, making visible the tastefully laid table. There were four Chinese soup bowls placed upon four plates with four china soup spoons laid in the right position. Four bigger plates each had four smaller ones placed neatly on the left. There were tablespoons and dessert spoons knives and forks all laid out in what seemed the right order. White napkins folded in triangles adorned the glasses. To Gogol it seemed that he was in the dining room of some expensive Calcutta hotel…but…
Aunt Moily went into the room holding Gogol by the hand. Gogol turned to look behind…no … through the glass door of this room and the glass front door he could not see anyone standing on the steps. Moily went a few yards past the diningtable and stood in front of another door which had a curtain strung onto its glass pane so that nothing of the interior could be seen. Moily Aunty pulled open this door. A huge well decorated, well lighted room revealed itself. They had to climb over a few steps to enter this room. There was a beautiful and comfortable bed and Gogol’s mother was relaxing in it. Father was having a smoke sitting in front of the dressing table which had two huge mirrors with golden coloured frames. But how was the room so flooded with light? The room had no glass wall or window opening out from it. Then he noticed the ceiling. There was a skylight right in the middle of it. The sunlight fell upon its glass and filled the entire room with its radiance.
Since the room was big enough there was another bed at the far end, covered with a spotless bedsheet. In the middle of the two beds there was a round table with a stone top. Surrounding it were four elegant chairs with royal purple upholstery. The dressing table comprised of a long shelf fixed to the wall and covered with a clean white linen. Upon it a host of beautiful phials and containers with foreign and Indian creams, powders, eau de cologne. Covering the panelled wall behind the dressing table was a frilled and pleated linen curtain. The other walls were highly polished. On the floor was a pretty woollen embroidered carpet. Two oil paintings were hanging on either wall—one of a spectacled man, fair and moustached and wearing a formal jacket and tie; the other a beautiful woman, head partially covered with her sari and wearing a jewelled brooch. The way she was dressed suggested she came of a wealthy family of a bygone era. The door in the wooden wall on the left stood open and through it could be seen a room which had no skylight. The electric light was on. Aunt Moily conducted Gogol right across this room to where there were two steps leading up to a closed door. She opened the door with a slight push and going into the dark room she switched on the light and called, “Master Gogol, come in.”
It was the bathroom. It had a well paved floor. The geyser was on. A bathtub on one side with two taps for hot and cold water respectively and a shower. Another room was there, just near to the bathroom and through the open door of this one could see a commode. This room had a window but its glass panes were shut. “Here is the basin. This tap gives hot water, this one cold. Here is a soap, and there a towel. Wash your hands and face and come. I will go and ask your Ma and Baba to hurry up… or the food will go all cold.”
Aunt Moily left the bathroom. Gogol had a good wash with soap and hot water. But the man in the army tunic all in shreds, the Nepalese cap, the long whiskers… that man was still on his mind. “Why couldn’t the others see him? … Banerjee kaka, Moily Aunty, his parents, none of them… why?” he was thinking. Yet he was certain that the man was still standing on the other side of the door.
He had not yet finished washing when his mother came and asked whether he was ready. “Be very careful, don’t catch a cold,” she said.
“Okay Ma,” said Gogol, coming out of the bathroom.
Mother closed the bathroom door. Father was still sitting and smoking. Banerjee kaka emerged from the door on the left. He had changed into kurta and pajama and was wearing a thick shawl and woollen socks and sandals. “Finished washing? Good. Take a look at the next room and then we’ll eat, and after that you’ll visit upstairs.”
Gogol entered the next room. It was big…one bed…one table with dignified chairs all around. On one side a dressing table, a huge mirror took up the wall space. Cosmetics and such stuff were on the table. The door at the back seemed to be leading into an attached bathroom. One caught glimpses of the glass panes behind the curtains covering the two walls. Outside the window and on the left could be seen a small wooden house. In front of the house a narrow wooden veranda. There were no railings. Below the veranda and in front of it a tiny, neatly paved courtyard bound by a railing beyond which could be seen the road and the traffic, the hills on the other side and the houses, all appearing like a picture.
There was a sari-clad woman on that slip of a veranda. She was quite young, wore her hair in a plait and was carrying a child who was perhaps a year old. The child was well protected from the cold and well covered in woollens from top to bottom. Its cheeks were a bright pink. There was another girl still younger, wearing a long frock-like dress. But she did not wear any cardigan. Her hair was cropped short. She could not be more than seventeen or eighteen. They seemed to be Aunt Moily’s two daughters, Durga and Maya. They were not looking at Gogol but chatting with each other.
Gogol pulled the curtain. He went to another end of the room and drawing back the curtain he could see through the window pane the garden outside. There were a lot of rose shrubs but no roses bloomed. Chrysanthemums and cacti, and vegetables such as cabbages, tomatoes and coriander leaves. The garden looked well tended.
Gogol was about to draw the curtains, when suddenly he saw the man, the same tall and lanky man again. There was the Nepalese cap, the worn out canvas shoes, the thin arms, the moustaches. He emerged from behind the wooden house, the house in which Aunt Moily lived. A little while ago Gogol had seen Aunty’s two daughters talking on the veranda of this same house. Did the man come out from inside the house?-- wondered Gogol.
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind, than he saw the man come down into the garden. Gogol felt sure that the man could see him through the window pane. Although he wanted to, Gogol could not come away from the window. It seemed that the man had emerged from behind the wooden house with the sole purpose of observing Gogol for he was staring unblinkingly at Gogol straight in the eyes. But his eyes which appeared much too white wore a softer look than before. In fact his expression had become rather mournful. He was even trying to convey something by inclining his head slightly. Gogol could not say for certain whether those hanging moustaches moved in an effort to say something, although it seemed that the lips were trying to frame a speech.
Outside the precincts of the garden there was a small wooden house painted white and blue. Just as the ground at the back of the garden sloped upwards, so too the land behind this cottage ascended in a gentle incline. Here there were a few pine trees and a variety of smaller trees and also shrubs, in between which a narrow path zigzagged up. A few people were using this path to go up and down the slope.
Two Nepalese boys came and stood before the creeper-covered fence of the blue and white house. They were facing the garden and laughing and talking to each other. Both of them seemed to be a bit younger than Gogol. The mysterious man looked at the boys just for a while standing not more than a few yards away from them. Yet the boys appeared not to see him at all. Perhaps they were much too engrossed in their own conversation to notice the man for they did not turn towards him even once, nor did they seem to notice Gogol standing at the window.
Gogol heard his mother’s voice behind him, “How’s this Gogol? Moily Didi is waiting to serve our lunch … the food is getting cold, and you are still here… What are you looking at? Come quick.”
“Ma, please come here, sit down a bit,” called Gogol. “Tell me what you can see out there in the garden?” and Gogol drew back the curtain.
“Flowers, plants, cacti, cabbages, tomatoes, what else?” said his mother, surprised at the question. “Can’t you see anything else?” asked Gogol eagerly.
“Of course I can,” she said. “Two boys standing near the fence of that house and talking…but why, what’s the matter?”
Gogol was intently staring at the strange ‘invisible man’, while the man also seemed to devour Gogol with his eyes. “You can see only those boys and no one else?” insisted Gogol.
“Why, no,” remarked his mother, surprised. “Who else should I see? No one else is there. Can you see anyone else?”
Gogol was taken aback. He could not give the right answer for fear his mother either would not believe him, or would think that the whole story was a figment of the imagination. Perhaps she would not even allow Gogol to go out by himself. So he said with a dismissive air, “No, I can’t see anything else either, though for a moment I thought I saw another person standing there.”
“You’re wrong,” she said, “There are those trees, and people going up and down… it’s them you may have seen, not anyone else. Now come, let’s sit down to eat.”
The man was still standing there, staring hard into Gogol’s eyes. He seemed to hear what Gogol’s mother was saying, for, much to his surprise, the man signalled to Gogol as if telling him to go away. Before his mother could say anything else Gogol drew the curtain to and left the room along with his mother.
The inviting smell of Chinese food filled the next room and it kindled his so long suppressed hunger. Banerjee kaka and his father were already there at the table while Moily Aunty was standing nearby with her younger daughter Maya by her side. After introducing Maya to Gogol and his mother she proceeded towards the table.
Quite a few china bowls, lids all in place, adorned the table. Aunt Moily removed the lid of one. The aroma of clear chicken soup steamed into their nostrils! Placed in front of the soup were containers of soya sauce and chili sauce. Maya removed the napkins from the glasses and filled them with water from a beautiful jug. Aunt Moily stirred the soup with a large ladle and filled their soup bowls. Gogol eagerly poured some soya sauce into his soup. “Don’t take chili sauce, Gogol,” warned his mother.
Yes that was her way … Gogol knew she would forbid the chili sauce. He compensated with ground pepper and salt. Spreading the napkin on his lap, he put a spoonful of soup into his mouth and looked up towards Hill cart Road which was bustling with traffic and pedestrians. The hills, trees and houses in the distance. There was no trace of the mystery man anywhere.
The soup was good and Gogol became a bit absentminded as he sipped it. Then followed so many of his favourite dishes. Chicken fried rice, sweet and sour corn, soft fried boneless lamb, sweets….he had his fill of all this. Yet he could not get the man out of his head.
His parents and Banerjee kaka all started praising Moily Aunty’s culinary skill. Embarrassed, she said that Maya had also helped; she could not have managed by herself.
Maya’s rosy face got quite red with embarrassment …. the way they all praised her! After the meal was over Banerjee kaka suggested they rest a while and then after tea he would show them round the first floor of his house. He himself preferred not to sleep in the afternoon while in Darjeeling for that gave him an unpleasant feeling of heaviness.
Gogol went and lay down next to his father in the big bedroom adjacent to the dining room. One felt cold after a meal. His mother lay down in the other bed. Banerjee kaka went to the room next to this one. It did not take long for his parents to fall asleep. But he himself was not at all sleepy. The figure of that man floated before his mind's eye. It was strange indeed that no one else could see him. Yet he saw him clearly. He had never in his little life experienced such a phenomenon. Was it what people call a ghost? Or could it be that the story of the invisible man had become true? But then, should that be the case, why should Gogol alone see the invisible man? In the story no one saw the invisible man who indulged in such mind-boggling activities.
Gogol stole a look at his sleeping father, and then quietly got off the bed, opened the door and stepped into the dining room. The table had been cleared and done up beautifully. Through the window in front he could see outside. He opened the glass door and went into the sitting room. He glanced at the glass of the front door but could see no one standing outside. On one side of the courtyard he saw the car parked in the sunshine. Suddenly his eyes fell upon the wooden wall of the dining room. The door in it was standing open, and there, on the other side, he saw the man in the military uniform. The man stared at Gogol. Gogol got the creeps. He was all alone. There was no one around. Only himself and the man. Through the open door he could dimly see another darkened room. When he had first come into the house this door was not open and so the next room could not be seen either.
Gogol did not know what to do. He had seen the man twice before, but outside the house. This time he was standing right inside, the pupils of his cold white eyes were ghastly and still. There was a smile lurking within his moustache. He was looking at the boy. Mustering courage, Gogol asked, “Who are you?"
There was no reply, only a slight movement of the lips. Then much to Gogol’s surprise the strange man went through the front door without opening it! His tattered canvas shoes made no sound on the floorboards. But how did he manage to go out without opening the door? There he was, standing outside and staring unblinkingly at Gogol through the door. It seemed that he was making signs for Gogol to come to him!
No sooner had Gogol advanced two steps than Aunt Moily’s voice could be heard, “Where are you going, Master Gogol? Weren’t you in bed?”
“I couldn’t sleep, so I have come out,” replied Gogol, stopping short.
“Your parents will soon be up,” said Moily Aunty, ”Then I will make tea, and after that we will go to the Mall. Till then, stay in your room.”
“Aunty, who is that man standing out there?”
Aunt Moily looked towards the door, frowning. “Why, I can’t see anyone there!”
“But I can see him!”
“What sort of man do you see, tell me.”
“Torn and old military tunic, torn khaki woollen sweater, Nepalese cap on his head, tattered canvas shoes…”
The more she heard the wider grew Moily’s eyes and terror loomed large in her gaze. She looked at the glass door, she looked at Gogol and held him tight by the hand. “It’s nothing,” she said, “You are imagining things. Come and lie down for half an hour. I’ll go put the kettle on for tea.”
She took him into the dining room. Gogol turned as he went in and saw the man still standing as before, outside the front door. Yet if he was seen by no one else, how could Gogol convince others of his existence? And why was the man making appearances for Gogol alone? What mystery is this?
Gogol found his parents sitting up. Banerjee kaka was also there in the room chatting with them. “Where were you Gogol ? in Moily Didi’s room?”
“No, I was looking at the scene outside through the dining room window,” replied Gogol. Although he wanted to speak about the man, he could not bring himself to do it, because no one would believe him anyway. But Gogol was rather ill at ease. Moily Aunty’s expression floated before his eyes. When he was telling her about the man her face and eyes had gradually taken on a look of terror. It seemed that she knew some secret. Yet she had dismissed it as hallucination. Will the mystery never be solved?
Tea was over and everyone was ready to go out. Mother made Gogol put on a jacket over his sweater. Before going out Banerjee kaka opened the door of the sitting room which was next to the dining room. He went in and switched on the light. They followed him in and found the room almost empty. It was not as well furnished as the other rooms. On the left was the staircase.
Moily Aunty came just then and Banerjee kaka escorted everyone upstairs. Moily Aunty drew back the curtains of all the windows. The afternoon was still bright. The wooden flooring of the verandas and the rooms were all thickly carpeted. There were three well decorated rooms side by side. The central room had a semi-circular veranda attached to it. It was somewhat like a room above a portico for it had glass windows all around. There was a round table and a few chairs. From here one could see the Mall and quite a vast expanse of the sky.
Banerjee kaka took them on a guided tour through this elegant top floor of his house. Pointing to an armchair in the sitting room he said, “My grandfather once invited Rabindranath Tagore to tea, and the great poet sat in this chair." It is said that even Swami Vivekananda came and stayed in this house. The next room contained articles associated with his visit.
They went there and saw a tiger skin, a bed with a pillow and a bolster. That was the room where Vivekananda stayed. In the days of his grandfather, according to Banerjee kaka, lots of British sahibs also used to come and stay in this house. His father and grandfather would come up to Darjeeling during holidays. But nowadays Banerjee kaka could not make it even once a year. But he has been able to maintain the house that was so dear to his father and grandfather and for this he was grateful to Moily Aunty. Mere money was not enough to get the right kind of service. Aunt Moily looked after the house with loving care.
After seeing all there was to see Gogol started descending the stairs with everyone else. Suddenly he stopped. There was the man going down the stairs ahead of them all! Yet upon the wooden stairs there was no sound of his footfalls. “Why are you stopping Gogol? Do you want to see anything else upstairs?” asked Banerjee kaka.
“No, no,” and Gogol and started climbing down quickly.
The man went down with Gogol following after him. He pushed open the front door, went out and stood there. Gogol did not know what to do. He heard Banerjee kaka’s voice behind him, “Come, Gogol, let’s go to the Mall by car. We’ll park the car there and look around the place.”
But Gogol did not quite hear what was said to him. He went towards the door. The man outside moved away a bit and stood on one side of the door. His eyes shone bright with a hard, fixed look. He was not looking at Gogol. Gogol pulled open the door and went outside. Now the man glanced at him. His eyes softened with a calm but sad look. “Why do you stop again, Gogol?” Banerjee kaka called from behind.
Gogol went down the two steps and stood in the courtyard. Turning back he found the man observing them all. But none of the others saw him. Moily Aunty went ahead and pushed open the gates. There was the same car with the same chauffeur who had driven them up from Bagdogra. Now the car was driven up to the front door. Banerjee kaka got in and sat next to the driver while Gogol and his parents got in at the back. Gogol sat near the window. He saw the man coming towards the car. Suddenly he started running and pulled open the door. Gogol was about to scream but restrained himself at the last moment.
“I say, the door was not locked properly,” and with that Banerjee kaka pressed the lock firmly.
The man had climbed into the front seat in between the driver and Banerjee kaka. What was he up to? Did it mean danger? The car was then climbing slowly uphill taking the road beside the hospital. Only Gogol could see that there was a stranger in the car. How strange! Surprise of surprises… Neither Banerjee kaka nor the driver could feel there was someone sitting between them.
The driver parked the car in the parking lot on the road going towards the Mall. All of them got out of the car into the pleasant afternoon sunshine. The place was quite crowded. Gogol was watching the man. He also stepped out of the car and looked at Gogol. This time he smiled quite freely.
Banerjee kaka was walking towards the Mall along with Gogol’s parents. The man pointed them out to Gogol. His father turned round and called, “Come, Gogol, why are you standing there?”
Gogol started walking fast. The man walked even more quickly, and was soon ahead of them. There were different types of people in a wide variety of clothes on the streets. All sorts of shops lined the road. But Gogol was not noticing all this. His eyes were fixed on the man who was walking ahead of them, sometimes turning round to look at Gogol.
They reached the Mall. Gogol’s attention was now so diverted by the racecourse in Lebong, the tea garden and above all the famous mountain peak Kanchanjungha, that for a brief while he forgot about the man. He noticed Aunt Moily’s daughter Maya near him. There was a brief exchange in Nepalese, between Banerjee kaka and Maya, who smiled at Gogol. Then Gogol again noticed the man. And then, for the first time, the man beckoned to him. It was quite an unambiguous gesture.
Gogol’s parents were busy conversing with Banerjee kaka. Maya Didi was also walking and chatting with two Nepalese girls. Gogol started following the man who walked towards Lebong along the road that was girdled by a railing. He occasionally looked back at Gogol.
Evening was descending upon the mountains. The twilight faded. Gogol stopped short and so did the man. He beckoned to Gogol as if saying, “Don’t be afraid. Come with me and I will show you something.”
Gogol was dying with curiosity. He went after the man. The twilight vanished quickly almost like magic and black evening descended. The street lamps came alight one after the other. Lights in the houses below, lights in the tea garden. The man halted at a spot where there was no railing and the road bent its way downwards. The man too went down along this road. He was still beckoning. He did not seem to see the people who were passing Gogol along the way. They were all unknown people.. None of them took any notice of the boy. The man went on meandering downward along the road. Darkness came. This side of the town had very few lights but Gogol could see the man clearly, could even see him gesturing to him asking him to come along. Gogol pursued him with breathless curiosity.
Once it seemed that the man halted on the desolate lawn of an old dark house. Gogol also went and stood there. The man stretched his hand forward pointing ahead and strode on. So did Gogol. The man climbed down a rough and narrow pathway leading off the lawn. Gogol did so too.
At this moment Gogol heard indistinctly, a feeble voice calling out his name as though from a vast distance. But Gogol could not stop. Like a sleepwalker he followed the man. It was a woman’s voice calling him and it was gradually coming near. The man was occasionally looking backwards to see Gogol and then zigzagging his way along the tortuous, mountain pathway. There was not a single cottage near at hand.
The man halted at a particular spot. He looked back at the boy and then pointed upward. Gogol noticed a small peak which the man started climbing. Gogol also started to climb. The man stopped atop the peak, beckoned, moved headlong, and then disappeared all on a sudden. At that moment somebody shouted and flinging herself upon the boy held him tight.
Gogol found that the man was not there. And in front an absolute darksome nothingness. But who was holding him so tight? Then they were picked up by the light of a torch and he heard Banerjee kaka’s voice, “Maya, Maya!”
Maya shouted in reply, without relaxing her grip upon Gogol, “UNCLE, I GOT GOGOL. But if I were a bit late I could not save him. But Gogol, how did you get to this spot?”
“I was beckoned by someone who is invisible to you all except me.”
“What does the person look like?”
Gogol gave a full description of the man. “You are talking about my father,” sobbed Maya, “But he died four or five years ago.”
“Yes. After a prolonged illness and mental depression he killed himself by jumping off this peak exactly here. Oof ! to think that you too would have done the same had I not come when I did!”
An icy something slithered down his spine and terrified, he clung to Maya.
The rest of his stay in Darjeeling was spent under the careful surveillance of his guardians. Strangely enough, the man who had been invisible to all except Gogol was not seen any more.
The original story "Adrishya Manusher Haatchhani" [adR^ishya maanushher haatachhaani*] by Samaresh Basu is included in the collection Gogol Omnibus (Jagaddhatri Publisher, Kolkata; 1394 BE).