Here I should first talk a bit about my childhood.
My father was a well-known doctor in Monghyr. I was born there and had studied at a missionary school. I have an elder brother; he is five years older than I. He graduated from a medical school in the UK, and is currently associated with a hospital in Golders Green—a place near London. I think he has no intention of returning to his native land. My father died when I was sixteen. A few months later, I moved to Kolkata with my mother to stay at my baromama's house. While staying there I attended St. Xavier's college and finished my B.A. degree. For a time I had a fleeting wish of becoming a writer, but because of my mother's admonishment, I had to look for a job. Baromama's good recommendations helped me secure one. My academic record was good; I was fluent in spoken English. Besides, I have this innate feeling of self-confidence and smartness which I believe had helped me during the interview.
If I speak about my childhood in Monghyr, you might have a better idea about one aspect of my character. I get easily tired with the mundane life in Kolkata. The thronging crowds, the hustle and bustle of trams and buses, the obstreperousness, and the hardships of daily life—sometimes I wish I could just run away from all that. In fact, I did run away several times after I bought the car. On several occasions, during holidays, I headed to Diamond Harbour, sometimes I went to Port Canning, and once I actually took Dum Dum Road and went straight to Hasnabad. In all these trips I had to travel alone, since I never found anybody else interested in these outings.
From this one can easily understand that I do not have a true friend in Kolkata. So when I received Pramod's letter, I was all excited. Pramod was my schoolmate in Monghyr. After I came to Kolkata, we exchanged mails for about four years and then the practice gradually stopped, probably from my side. And on one fine day, after I had come back from the office, Gurudas, my servant, delivered the news that somebody from my baromama's house had brought a letter for me. From the handwriting on the envelope I realized it was Pramod. He had written from Dumka, Working at a 'junglee' office. I got my own place to stay. Why dont you take a leave of a week or so and come over...
Quite a few days of vacation were due at office. So I finished my pending work as fast as possible, wrapped things up, and on the 27th of April—a date I will remember forever—packed my luggage and left the effluvious debris of Kolkata behind me.
Pramod, of course, didnt say anything about coming to Dumka by car. That was my idea. The two-hundred miles should take at most five to five and a half hours. I thought if I had an early lunch and left by ten in the morning, then I should reach Dumka before sundown.
My plan developed a snag right away. My lunch was ready on time; just as I had put a paan in my mouth when Mohit Kaka, my father's old friend, arrived. As Kaka was a respectable elder, and I had not seen him for almost ten years, I just couldn't tell him that I was in a hurry to leave. I offered him tea, and for one long hour had to listen to his personal updates.
At last I bade Mohit Kaka good bye, put my luggage in the car and was about to step into the vehicle when I saw Bhola Babu and his son, Pintu, returning from somewhere. Bhola Babu rented a ground-floor flat of our building. He saw me and asked, Where are you heading all by yourself? Hearing my answer he said with a touch of apprehension, Driving alone on such a long trip; shouldn't you have arranged for a driver, at least for this journey? "I am quite careful as a driver, I replied, and I have maintained this car like a brand new one, so, there is no need to worry. Best of luck, said Bhola babu and went inside holding his son's hand.
Before starting the car, I looked at my watch—a quarter to eleven.
Despite avoiding Howrah and taking Bali Bridge Road, it took me an hour and a half just to reach Chandannagore. The first thirty miles were terribly hectic, the roads were so atrocious and unromantic that most of the excitement about the trip dissipated in no time. But the magic started as soon as the car emerged on the open road in the countryside—"This is the reason I have come! Where was the clear blue sky unstained by the chimney smoke, all this time? Where was the sweet and pristine air dipped in the smell of the earth?"
Around one thirty in the afternoon, I reached someplace near Burdwan. I was hungry. Even though I had some oranges and hot tea in a flask in the car, I wanted to eat something else. The railway station was right on the road. I stopped the car, went into a restaurant and had a couple of toasts, an omelet and a cup of coffee, and then got back to driving once again. I had another one hundred and thirty miles to cover.
Panagar is twenty five miles from Burdwan. From there, one has to leave the Grand Trunk Road and take the Elaam Bazaar Road. From Elaam Bazaar, Dumka can be reached after crossing Massanjore via Siuri.
Just when the military camps of Panagar were coming into view, I heard a loud noise, like the popping of a balloon, from the rear of the car, and the vehicle pitched sideways. The cause was obvious.
Stepping out, I found that the town was still a few miles away. I had to give up any hope of finding a car repair shop nearby. It was not that I did not have a stepney with me, and jacking the car up and changing the punctured tire was not beyond my ability. Yet, I just did not have the mind for it. Changing tire in the middle of the Grand Trunk Road, with other cars whizzing past me and looking at my pitiful situation— the very thought was irritating. But there was no other way. I looked around for ten minutes or so, walked up and down the road and then went to work.
When I straightened up after storing the flat tire in the trunk, my shirt was sweat stained and sticking to my body. I looked at my watch; it was already half past two. The weather was humid. There was no trace of the mild breeze that was blowing an hour or so ago; from the car I had seen the drooping heads of the bamboo groves. Now a creepy silence prevailed all around. As I entered the car, I noticed a nebulous blue-black streak under the western sky over the faraway treetops—clouds. Was a storm coming? Never mind, I said to myself, I should speed up and get going. After gulping down some tea from the flask, I started again.
The ominous storm arrived soon after I crossed Elaam Bazaar. I had always enjoyed storms from the snug corner of my room—welcoming them with Tagores poems and songs with matching rhythms and moods—but never imagined how menacing the same storm appeared in a moving car in the open countryside. The thunderstorm must be one of the evil faces of nature. And its motive must be to tease a hapless man with its gargantuan strength. The sky lit up here and there with blinding lightnings followed by ear-splitting thunders. At times I felt as if the lightning bolts were targeting my car, and a little extra concentration might just do the work.
I somehow managed to get onto the road to Massanjore when, out of the blue, I heard another piercing sound from behind my car. I knew it was not another thunderclap. The second tire had resigned from its job.
I gave up all hope. It was almost half past five and still raining in torrents. I had to maintain the speed between fifteen and twenty five during the last twenty miles; otherwise, I could have passed Massanjore by this time. Where had I come? I could not recognize anything from looking at the road ahead. Rain fell like waterfall on the glass. The wipers struggled noisily, but in vain. Even though in April it wasn't time for sundown, the outside looked dark as night.
I cracked open the right side door. I thought I spotted couple of houses between the trees. But there was no way I could come out of the car to look around. Even then it was clear that there were no such thing as a shop or a bazaar within a mile or so.
And I had no more spare tires with me.
As I was sitting inside the car, I noticed that there was not a vehicle or a person on the road. Had I then come a wrong way? I did have a road map with me. I had reached Siuri I knew, but maybe I had taken a wrong turn after that. That did not seem improbable, especially in the blinding rain.
But even if I were going a wrong way, it wasnt Africa or the dense forests of South America that I would have to wander aimlessly around! Wherever the place was, I realized it must be somewhere in Birbhum and should not be more than fifty miles from Shantiniketan. I thought everything would clear up after the rain stopped; maybe I could even manage to find a car repair shop within a mile or so.
Taking out of my pocket the packet of Wills and matches, I lit a cigarette, and remembered Bhola babu's premonition. The gentleman must have been a sufferer himself—how could he have offered me such a great advice otherwise? In future—
Honk honk honk!
I was dozing off when the sounds of a horn woke me up. I noticed that the rain had abated somewhat, but the darkness had become deeper.
Honk honk honk!
I turned around and saw a lorry parked behind my car. Why was it honking? Was I blocking the entire road?
The lorry could not be blamed, I found out after stepping out of my car. When the second tire went flat, my car had turned a bit and had blocked, if not the whole, at least half of the road—leaving no room for the lorry to pass.
"Move the car to a side; move it to a side."
Then, probably realizing my helpless situation the Punjabi driver came down from his lorry.
What happened? Puncture?"
I gave him a French-styled shrug to show my desperation, I could move the car if you give me a hand.
Now the Punjabi driver's assistant came down from the lorry, and the three of us somehow managed to turn the steering wheel and move my car to the side of the road. I learnt from the lorry driver that it was not the road to Dumka. I had come a wrong way, but Dumka wasn't more than three miles. He also informed me that there wasnt any car repair shop around.
The lorry left. When the rumble of the lorry faded away, an intense silence enveloped the surroundings. I realized that I was in deep trouble.
There was no chance of reaching Dumka that night. I had no idea how I would spend the night.
I listened to the chorus of frogs coming from some nearby pond. The rain had let up somewhat. At other times, I would have enjoyed the damp smell of the earth, but not in this situation.
I stepped back inside the car; but what was the point? Is there any other place on earth more uncomfortable than an Ambassador car to stretch ones arms and legs?
I was about to light another cigarette, when suddenly I noticed a faint ray of light falling on the steering wheel. I craned my neck out of the car window and saw a square shape of light through the trees. It looked like a window. If there was smoke, there must have been a fire, and if there was light from a kerosene lamp, then there must have been—human beings! I thought there must be a house nearby, a place where people lived.
Taking the flashlight, I got out of the car. The light wasnt far away. I thought I should go ahead and see. A narrow path seemed to lead through a jungle towards the source of the light.
I didnt care. After locking the car, I started walking.
I somehow managed not to trip and fall. After sloshing through the puddles for some time I went past a tamarind tree and saw the house. It would be wrong to call that thing a house—it was a thin-walled brick hut with a tin roof. Through the half-open door I saw the squarish leg of a rope cot in the smoky room lit by a kerosene lamp.
Koi hyay—is anybody there?
A short middle aged man with thick mustache came out and squinted as his eyes fell on my flashlight. I lowered the light.
Where have you come from, Babu?
I gave him a gist of my story and asked, Can you arrange for a place nearby to stay in the night? I will pay whatever it may take.
Will you stay at the Dak Bungalow?
Dak Bungalow? Where is that? I realized my mistake as soon as the question arose in my mind. Due to staring at the glow of the flashlight and the lamp, I hadnt noticed the surroundings. Now, turning the light I saw a big old-fashioned, one-storied house on my left. Pointing to it I asked, Is that the Dak Bungalow?
Yes, Babu. But you wont get any bedding or food here.
I have my own bedding; there should be a cot, right?
Yes, there must be a cot.
And I see you have a stove in your hut. You must be cooking for yourself.
The man started laughing and asked me if I would like to have some thick rotis made by him and urad-ka-daal made by his wife for dinner. "Of course," I said, adding that rotis of all varieties and urad-ka-daal were some of my favorite dishes.
I didnt know how the place had looked before—now the Dak Bungalow was just in name only. It was built for the sahibs in those days, so the room was large and the ceiling high. As for furniture, I saw an old cot strung with broad nayar-tape, a side table, and a chair with a broken arm.
The chowkidar brought a hurricane lamp and kept it on the table. What is your name? I asked him.
Did anyone else come here before, or am I the very first guest here?
Sukhanram had a sense of humour, and he laughed at my question. I said, I hope there is no ghost or such here!
Arre! Ram, Ram! God, no. Many people come and stay here. I never heard such complaints from anybody.
I wouldnt say that I wasnt somewhat satisfied with his reply. The question was not whether I believed or not believed in ghosts. If the house was indeed a haunted house then it would forever remain a ghostly abode; if not, then it would never have a chance of becoming one. I asked, How old is this house?
While unrolling my bedding, Sukhan replied, Originally, it was a Neel kothi. There used to be an indigo production plant nearby. One of its chimneys still stands today; the rest is in rubbles.
I knew that the area was known for indigo cultivation. I had seen several indigo mansions in the surrounding areas during my stay in Monghyr.
It was ten-thirty in the night when I laid down on the nayar-cot after finishing my dinner of Sukhan's roti and urad-daal. I had telegrammed Pramod that I would be at his place by evening. I realized he might be worried about me. But I understood that it wouldn't do me any good thinking about all that. I was lucky to find a place to put up for the night. In the future I would certainly listen to whatever advice Bhola Babu would give me. I had learnt a terrible lesson, but it is true that one never learns unless one learns it the hard way.
I had kept the lamp in the bathroom; the faint streak of light coming through the chinks of the door was sufficient. I cannot fall asleep in light. All I needed now was a night of good sleep. I had taken out my luggage from the car, and needless to say, had locked the vehicle. I can certainly say that these days it is more risky to leave a car unattended on a street in Kolkata than in the countryside.
The sound of rain falling outside has stopped. The chorus of crickets and frogs filled the night. The city life seemed to have receded far behind—as if into a prehistoric era! Indigo mansion... Dinbandhu Mitra's play Indigo Mirror came to my mind. I had seen the play while I was in college—at some professional theatre in Cornwallis Street..
I woke up with a start. I didnt know how long I had slept.
I heard a scratching noise at the door which was barred from inside. Perhaps some dog or jackal was scratching the door from the outside. The noise stopped after about a minute. Again, everything became silent.
I closed my eyes, but for just a while. The barking of a dog woke me up.
It was not the bark of an ordinary village cur; it was the growl of a sahibs hound. I was familiar with this. I had heard such sounds in the night from our neighbor Martin sahib's house which was two houses apart from ours in Monghyr. But who would keep hounds in this neighborhood? I wanted to get up and see what was happening but was reluctant to spoil my sleep for the sake of an ordinary dog; rather, I thought, I should try and get some sleep. What time was it?
Faint moonlight crept into the room through the window. I brought my hand closer to my face and my heart suddenly leaped.
There was no watch on my wrist.
It is always good to wear an automatic watch, so I rarely remove it from my wrist. I keep it on even when I am sleeping. Where was the watch? Had I come to some robbers' den? What would happen to my car?
I groped in the darkness near the pillow, trying to find my flashlight. It was gone too.
I leaped out of the bed and searched below the cot. My suitcase had also vanished.
I became angry—I had to do something. I shouted, Chowkidar!
As I was about to open the door to the veranda, I saw the latch in the same position as I had locked it before. There were grills on the window—then how did the thief come in? While I was unlocking the latch, my eyes fell on my hand. Was it the lime from the wall or some kind of powder? When I went to bed, I was wearing my undershirt—then why was I wearing this long sleeved silk shirt?
I felt dizzy. I walked out into the veranda.
I could not recognize my voice, or my accent. In spite of my missionary school education, I never had any strong English accent in my Bangla.
And there was no sign of the chowkidar or his hut. I saw before my eyes a desolate stretch of land. A house was visible at a distance; beside it stood a chimney-shaped pillar. An eerie silence prevailed all around.
Everything seemed changed.
I, too, look changed.
Drenched in cold sweat, I returned to my room. My eyes by then had gotten used to the darkness around me. Now I could see everything in the room. There was a bed—with no mosquito net—though I had hung my mosquito net before I had gone to bed. There was a pillow on the bed, but that was not mine. Unlike mine, the new one had frilled borders. There was the table right next to the bed and the same chair—they now looked new and polished. I noticed the varnished wood shining in the soft light. On the table there was—not the hurricane lamp—but an ornate kerosene lamp with a fancy shade. There were other things in the room—they soon came into view: a couple of trunks in a corner, a clothes rack on the wall. Hanging in the clothes rack were a coat, a strange and unknown hat and a hunters whip. Underneath the clothes-rack was a pair of knee-high boots, the ones known as goloshes.
I looked at myself. I had only noticed my silk-shirt before; now I realized that I was wearing a pair of skintight trousers and socks. I didnt have any shoes on, but I noticed a pair of black leather boots next to my bed.
I felt my face with my right hand and I understood that not only my complexion had changed, my features had also undergone a complete metamorphosis. I never had such a sharp nose, such thin lips, or such a narrow chin. I touched my head and realized that my thick hair was almost reaching my shoulders. The whiskers beside my ears had almost come down to my jaws.
Along with the terror and surprise I felt an intense urge to take a look at my self. But where was the mirror?
I ran to the bathroom and forced open the door.
I had seen only a bucket there before; now I found a tin bathtub in the corner, a small stool and an enamel mug beside it. The thing I had been looking for stood right in front of me—hung above a wooden dressing table was an oval-shaped mirror. I knew it was I who was standing before the mirror—but the reflection I was seeing wasnt mine. Due to some horrible and ghostly magic spell I had turned into a nineteenth-century British gentleman—whose complexion was pale, hair golden, eyes light, and there was a mixture of solemn rigidity and tiredness in his glance. How old could the Sahib be? Not more than thirty, I guessed; but he looked pretty old for his age. Sickness and excess work had aged his skin prematurely.
I walked closer to the mirror to have a better look at my face. A deep sigh rolled up from my chest.
It was not my voice. That sigh had expressed the Sahib's hidden feelings—not mine. What happened next made me realize that not only my voice, my arms, legs—everything was subservient to some other being. But what seemed strange was that I had full knowledge of the fact that I—Aniruddha Bose—had changed. I had no idea whether the change was temporary or permanent; I had no idea if there was any way to restore my body to its previous state.
From the bathroom I came back to the bedroom.
My eyes were drawn to the writing table. Under the lamp, now lit, was lying an opened leather-bound notebook. Beside it was a quill pen dipped in a bottle of ink.
I moved towards the table. The open pages of the notebook were blank. Some unknown power forced me to sit down on the chair, and hold the pen. My hand now moved to the left blank page. The scratching sound of a quill pen broke the eerie silence of the room. The pen kept writing:
27th April, 1868I could not write any more. My hand was trembling. Not my hand—the hand of the journal writer.
The sound of the monstrous mosquitoes started again near my ears. In the end would a sturdy British gentleman like me have to give in to such an insignificant and small insect? Is this the law of fate? Eric had run away. Percey and Tony had already left. I guess my lust for money exceeds their's and thats why, despite frequent malaria attacks, I just could not give up my desire for indigo. No—not just that. Lying to one's diary is a sacrilege. There is another reason—people in my country are well aware of my evil deeds. It was not that I was above board while I was there—and people still remember everything. So I do not have the courage to return to England. I know I have to stay here. And I will have to die here. I am destined to rest beside Mary and my three-year-old son Toby's grave. I have tortured the natives so much; there will be nobody to shed one drop of tear after my death. Mir Jaan could cry. My loyal and dear butler, Mir Jaan!
And Rex—I am really worried about Rex, my dog. Oh! A devoted follower of his master! After my death they would probably stone you to death, or kill you with blows of their sticks. If only I could arrange something for you!....
I put down the pen.
My right hand now went down from the top of the table, close to my lap, and then moved to the right side.
There was the handle of a drawer.
The hand pulled the drawer open. Inside the drawer were a pin-cushion, a brass paperweight, a pipe, and some papers. The drawer opened some more. A shining object—a pistol, with ivory works on its handle.
My hand took out the pistol. It was not trembling any more.
A pack of jackals were howling outside. And, as if in response to their howl, the hound began to growl— bow wow! Bow wow!!
I stood up from the chair and walked towards the door. I opened the door and went outside.
The field in front was flooded with moonlight.
About twenty steps away from the veranda a huge greyhound was standing on the grass. On seeing me it started wagging its tail.
The same somber English tone reverberated in the far away bamboo groves and in the indigo factory and came back— Rex!... Rex
Rex came near me, still wiggling his tail.
When he reached the veranda, my right hand moved up to my waist—the pistol now faced the dog. Rex looked surprised. There was confusion in his burning eyes.
My right hand pulled the trigger.
A blinding flash of light accompanied by an explosion—then smoke and smell of gunpowder filled the air. Rexs body became motionless; the upper part rested on the veranda and the lower part lay on the grass.
Hearing the sound of a gunshot, crows started cawing from the faraway treetops. Some people were running towards the bungalow from the factory side.
I went inside the room and put on the door latch; I heard hullabaloos outside.
I felt the muzzle of the pistol at the back of my ear—it was still warm.
Then, I didnt remember what happened.
A knock on the door woke me up.
I got your tea, Babuji.
The room was shining with sunlight. As a habit, my eyes fell on my left wrist. Thirteen minutes past six. I brought my hand closer to my eyes—I could see the date displayed on it.
I heard Sukhanram outside, Your car has been repaired, Babuji.
Would anyone believe the experience I had on the hundredth death anniversary of one of Birbhum's indigo tax lords?
The original story "Neel-Atanka" by Satyajit Ray was first published in Sharodiya Sandesh in BE 1375 (1968), and later collected in Galpo 101, both published by the Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, India.