Life. It’s too unpredictable, too uncertain. Today everything’s here, tomorrow there may be none.
The teenage boy was thinking the same thing as he glanced around with his red-rimmed moist eyes. The little one-room house, with a bed in the eastern corner followed by a wooden closet and a miniature cabinet, felt vacant and haunting to him. Even as he noticed the small gas cylinder and the one burner stove just by the western side, behind the main door to the room, they looked orphaned too. Even though the boy knew all about cooking, he was never allowed to touch them when he came back home.
‘I know you work in an Engineering College’s canteen.’ The man would say, smiling lovingly at him. ‘I’m sure you will do great things someday. So, no. I don’t want you to cook at home. At least not until I am dead.’
And now that day has arrived, father.
He looked outside once. This year, even as February started, the temperature in Panagarh had raised to around twenty-eight degrees, which was unusual. And now, as mid-March approached, it looked as if the Panagarh Gram, or the village of Panagarh, was starting to boil. Though he didn’t have a smartphone, the fourteen-year-old knew that the temperature was rising to thirty-four, thirty-five degrees daily. Thankfully, there was no sweat in this area, unlike in Kolkata, where most of the students of the college hailed from.
But those thoughts were distant as the boy looked around the room. Without his father, the place felt lifeless.
‘Why father?’ He spoke softly as he reached the bed and sat in the corner, his eyes distant. Another tear escaped his eyes as he wiped it away and looked towards the small wardrobe and the only picture in the room sitting above it.
A man of around forty, his dark brown eyes glinting, his black moustache giving a manly impression to the otherwise young-looking face, stared back at him. A melancholic smile appeared on the boy’s lips as he looked at the grinning picture of his father and the small boy standing by his side.
He still remembered the day it was taken. It was Chhat Puja five years ago, and the father and son duo went to the carnival in the nearest village. His father, Naresh Lal, bought him a small monkey that would beat drums.
The memory suddenly made his eyes moist again.
‘Why did you leave me, father? Why?’
His whisper seemed to be reverberating through the walls in the room and hit back at him as he sniffed slowly. He could still feel the warmth of his father’s hands, remember his loving kind eyes and the comfort of his hands on him while sleeping.
All that is gone now.
He sighed. Suddenly, he longed for the smell of the man who was his shadow, his mentor, his philosopher, and his guide. Whose blood ran through his veins.
Even now, his voice ran through the young boy’s mind.
‘You need to study. You need to learn the basics.’ His father would say, running his fingers through the boy’s hair. ‘Without knowledge, without learning, it is a very difficult world to live and thrive in.’
The boy smiled. The Bengali books, the small English alphabet books, were still placed above the cupboard, where he had kept them last.
But, the smile abruptly vanished as the boy looked closely at the topmost book. It was Rabindranath Tagore’s Sanchayita, a collection of Bengali poems that his father bought about a year ago for his son to read. But, he never remembered keeping any notes or torn paper inside it the last time he opened it two days earlier, just before Naresh’s heart attack.
Curious, the boy slowly approached the cupboard and grabbed the book. As soon as he lifted the book in his hands, the torn page that was peeping out from the middle of the pages dropped to the floor, gradually, like a feather flying through the air before resting on the floor.
His smile was gone now, replaced by a curiosity in his eyes, and his brow furrowed. The young boy knelt and clutched the page.
‘Huh!!’ The boy involuntarily said as he saw what it was.
His curiosity doubled as he saw words written there, in plain Bengali. The handwriting was his father’s, but he never remembered the man writing this.
He opened the thing and was surprised to see this page, this letter, addressed to him.
He slowly started reading the letter, each passing moment making his eyes wider and mouth more open, while his breathing became laboured.
A few minutes later, as he completed reading the letter, his eyes became moistened again, and the young boy slowly whispered.
‘What is this, father?’
Three Days Later
‘Why do you make me look like a superhuman, Aru?’
I looked up sharply, diverting my mind from the awesome egg toast for breakfast. Well, not exactly amazing, if you consider the toast being prepared more than an hour ago and not served hot. Still, it was better than having a Maggi this time. Normally, the morning routine in the college hostel for me was to wake up at around eight-thirty, get freshened up, take a shower, get ready, and reach the canteen by nine-thirty. Most of the time that would invariably turn into nine-forty for some reason or other, and when my friends and I arrived there, irrevocably, the last ounces of breakfast were all but gone. As a result, the only option was always Maggi.
But today, it was a bit different.
Today, being woken up early due to the excruciating heat of mid-March, I got ready and called my best friend, Jayashis Dey, to reach the canteen by nine-ten. And thanks to that, we were now eating the breakfast served in the canteen.
Oh, and there was another news that kept me on my toes this heated up Monday morning.
Yesterday, the author the copies of my first book — The First Year Fiasco, where I narrated Joy’s first case in our college, reached my home in Kolkata. The cover picture, the blurb on the back, and the whole story printed and completed as a book made me finally realize what was being achieved by me.
I have finally become an author. That too, writing a real-life crime thriller!
But no, my best friend, my book’s protagonist, had to differ from me somehow.
‘Why?’ I asked, my brows furrowed as I looked at him while he was going through the book. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Well….’ he shrugged as he put the book down and locked his eyes with me, ‘For starters…. you showed me as someone who had figured out everything suddenly by the end of the book, which was not actually the case. I had my suspicions from day one, when I got that smell…..’
‘I know, I know.’ I interrupted him. ‘But, if I told things from the start, that would have totally ruined the story. Moreover, I narrated the story from my perspective, the way things were happening to me.’
‘Ok.’ He nodded while taking a cigarette out and lit it before speaking again. ‘Tell me another thing then.’
He paused for a moment while letting the grey smoke from his mouth disperse towards the ceiling of the canteen. There were not many people today in the canteen, another reason for us getting breakfast. With the summer hitting us full-fledged so early this year, I guess most of the guys were still relishing their homes in Kolkata, Asansol, Raniganj, etc, or the ones in the hostel still enjoying their naps, like our friends Chandreyi or Subhashis. The ten or twelve guys scattered in the canteen and twenty-odd students running around on the campus had no interest in me and Joy. Their friend groups were different. And in most cases, the new couples of the college were the ones dispersed around the campus and the college at the moment.
‘I am waiting.’ I said, taking the last bite of the toast while looking at my friend.
‘Did you really think of me as the villain?’ He spoke slowly, his face contorted as his eyes searched for something in mine. ‘I mean….you thought I could have done those killings and…….’
‘I….I…..ahem.’ I suddenly looked down and then rotated my neck here and there, not meeting his eyes, while putting a lock of hair behind my left ear. ‘It was….it was….’
I suddenly stopped as I saw him coming through the canteen door. Chhotu, the youngest canteen attendant in our college. This was the guy who would get us our Maggis at odd times when we came to the canteen after classes or during recess. He was once fired from his position but returned after the canteen manager was arrested for his crimes. The guy was around thirteen or fourteen, and always had a smile on his face, no matter the situation or the time of the day.
But today, it was understandably different.
As the boy entered through the open canteen door, his five-foot frame looked frail. The faded blue t-shirt he was wearing, along with the black worn-out pants, was not enough to hide the fragility in his body. It looked like an oversized dress was wrapped around a smaller mannequin. As I caught a glimpse of his eyes, they felt hollow and distant, like his steps. His newly shaven head, his dark shadowed face, and his slow movement, all showed the same thing.
Profound sadness somewhere.
And, it was understandable. The guy had lost his father just last Wednesday, five days back. Mr. Naresh Lal worked as a carrier of vegetables and goods from the market in this same canteen, until a week ago. A nice middle-aged man, Naresh was one of the most soft-spoken guys I have ever met. But, the man had a weak heart.
It was on Thursday afternoon last week, that we noticed that Chhotu was not there in the canteen. When asked by Kunal and Ranjan, Ashish da, the current canteen manager, told us something that hit us like a truck.
‘Last night Chhotu’s father, Naresh, had a massive heart attack, and he died suddenly.’
But wasn’t he supposed to be on leave till the Sraddha or the last rituals were done after eleven days of death? What is he doing here now?
Joy also seemed to notice that I had stopped speaking and followed my eyes to see………..
……..Chhotu approaching our table only, surprisingly.
‘How are you Chhotu?’ Joy asked as the guy reached us, sitting straight. ‘Why…are you so agitated? I know how much………’
‘I am not here to gain sympathy Joy dada.’ Chhotu suddenly spoke in a husky voice in a manner that belied his age, making both of us stop and look at his dark brown eyes without blinking. He looked at me and then at Joy unnaturally as if he was not human but a mere robot.
‘I need your help.’ He said, again in the same robotic manner, before I saw his eyes moistening. ‘I…I have seen you work in different cases. I know you help the police. I understand that you want to find the truth behind matters. That you like mysteries.’
What’s he talking about?
I looked at him in surprise, trying to understand what his point was. A look at Joy told me that he was not as surprised as me but was still waiting to know what all this was about.
And then Chhotu slowly sat on the chair by my side while taking a torn paper out of his pant pocket. He extended his hand towards Joy, giving him the page.
‘Please read this. You will understand.
The biggest mystery of my life.’
My lovely and dearest Chhotu,
You have been the greatest joy and my purpose of living for these last fourteen years. You are the only thing that happened right to me throughout this worthless life. Watching you grow, make a living for yourself in the PIEM Canteen, working with people bigger than you, and making a name for yourself there has always made me proud. I could not have been happier to see you study, read and write both Bengali and English. I know Rabindranath’s Sanchayita is your favourite book and, hence, I’m keeping this letter here so that you find it once I am not there.
I am writing this letter in full conscience and a valid state of mind. By the time you read this, I might not be there on this earth. Don’t fret, don’t feel disheartened. I know you are a strong lad and will continue to thrive in this world. Your constant trying to be a better person, being someone who could make a name for himself, probably comes through your genes, something I am not at all aware of.
Yes, the truth I am disclosing to you today would be hard to take for you. I know. But, I have to tell you everything.
Chhotu, my heart, my dearest son, you are not my blood. You were not born of me, but I found you. I am not your birth father. I had told you that your mother died of childbirth, but that was not true either. I was never married. That is the reason I have never been able to show you any picture of your mother even when you asked me, probably a thousand times. It has taken all my will and patience to keep this a secret from you. You must understand, I never wanted to lose you. Even though you were not my blood, I was your father and you, my son.
Anyway, let me tell you how I found you.
It was during the Durga Puja of 2008, that I went to Kolkata to see the famous festival there, along with my friend Ganesh Barik, from Panagarh. We stayed there in a small one-room house for five days, and both of us gave a stall of roadside food near Muhammad Ali Park. You won’t believe how much we made in those five days. Our income as normal labour in Panagarh for the whole year dimmed in front of that. However, once everything was over, on the Ekadashi of Durga Puja, I was ready to come back. But, things didn’t go as I had planned. Ganesh told me that he got a job in a small fast-food centre in Kolkata and that he would not return to Panagarh. I, on the other hand, have never left Panagarh for more than a week and wanted to come back as soon as I could.
So, after a bit of a fight with Ganesh, I started my return journey that very evening. The plan was to take a local train to Burdwan and from there another one to Panagarh. But, as I reached Howrah Station and was about to go inside through the big entrance to the ticket counter, one thing suddenly caught my eye.
A small boy, just days old, was crying out loud in one corner of the door, and people were all ignoring him as if nothing had happened. I looked around but saw no one nearby that child. My heart cried out as the sound of his shouts reached my ears. Maybe the hapless child was looking for his mother, maybe he was hungry. Or maybe he was in pain, or just plain afraid of seeing so many passers-by. But the one thing that struck me odd was that nobody, none of the people passing by, even glanced at the crying baby for once. I, on the other hand, couldn’t ignore that frantic cry. I quickly crossed through the door and reached the corner, laying my hands on the beautiful yet helpless baby. I looked around, shouted out, and tried to find the child’s parents, but none came forward.
So, grinding my teeth and looking at that baby, I made a decision. And probably that was destiny. Because, as soon as I took the baby in my arms, he stopped crying, cowered on my chest, and slept peacefully.
At that moment, I decided to raise the baby myself, and become his father.
You were so small, just like a doll. I decided to call you Chhotu instantly.
And it was the 10th of October 2008, the date that I rejoice every year as the happiest day of my life. That was the day I found you and celebrate your birthday.
I have never married. I never wanted to share you with anybody. From that day onwards I have never been to Kolkata, nor did I permit you to go there yourself. Who knows, your parents might still be searching for you there.
But I was wrong. I know now. I was selfish, blinded by love. And in the process, I might have taken you away from your real parents. Maybe you would have got a better life, a good school, precious gifts, and a mother’s love. I ransacked that from you.
And, that is the truth.
If possible, please forgive me. If you ever go in search of real parents, just remember that I loved you too, with all my heart.
Tears were streaking out of my eyes slowly by the time Joy and I completed reading the whole letter.
A heavy silence followed for a few more minutes as both of us tried to contemplate what was conveyed through those Bengali blue handwritten words. A man, a simple labour, had harboured such a deep love for a child for so many years, even though he was not his own blood.
But this letter raised so many questions in my mind regarding our society.
Why do people give birth to children only to abandon them? And why in a place such as Howrah station, instead of an orphanage? And how does a connection so deep form between random human beings like Chhotu and Naresh? Are those predetermined, a hand of fate, or is everything spontaneous on this planet?
I looked at Joy and sighed. Maybe someday, he would realize the connection that was still unseen to him. But, my vision was stuck as I noticed him. I was taken aback when I saw his eyes. There was a droplet of tear on his right eye, that was glistening in the morning sunlight that came through the canteen door and fell on the cemented floor, reflecting in his eyes. I had only once in the last nine months that I knew him. When one of our professor’s dead body was found.
Sitting by his side after Chhotu gave him the letter and peering over his shoulders to read these melancholic words, I probably skipped the fact that Joy was also a deeply emotional person. True, when I had written his stories, I depicted him as someone who had an awesome ability to observe things, of knowing the hidden meaning behind simple gestures and appearances. But Joy was a person of flesh and blood too.
And that too someone I……
‘I understand your predicament, Chhotu.’ Joy spoke in a deep but sensible voice, wiping the tears away and locking his eyes with the youngest canteen attendant.
‘Hey Chhotu. So sorry man.’
The words were spoken by Ashish da as he was going out of the canteen and saw Chhotu sitting with us.
‘No need to be here, man.’ The canteen manager said, his face sympathetic. ‘Take your time and then be back. Believe me, I know how this feels.’
Chhotu answered him with a forced smile on his face and gestured a thank you before moving his eyes back to Joy. I had no idea what Ashish da gathered from it, but he didn’t stand there long.
‘Joy da….’ Chhotu started whispering slowly, as the manager left the place. ‘I know this might not be a big issue for…….’
‘Aah….’ Joy suddenly yelled, making both of us flinch at the same time. The next moment, I realized what had happened. I saw him shaking his right hand, and in the process getting rid of the cigarette bud, the burning tip of which probably was about to touch his flesh. He barely took three puffs from the thing before Chhotu came and handed him the letter, and as a result, the whole thing had burnt off till the end, without allowing my friend to take another puff.
‘Don’t…don’t worry Chhotu.’ Joy said, slowly this time, looking at the young guy while dipping his index finger in the glass of water in front of him, his face contorted a bit in agony. ‘There’s no big or small thing in mystery and truth. I am a mystery seeker, a truth finder. And for my friends, I will always be that, before anything else. I will do what I can to help you find the identity of your real parents.’
That brought a smile to both mine and Chhotu’s faces, as Joy slowly took his finger out and wiped the water using his white hankie.
Finally, another new case after nearly two and a half months. Another mystery to solve. Another adventure.
And for me, it would bring another opportunity to write a new story.
‘What do you think of it?’
Joy shielded his eyes from the late afternoon sun using his blue cap while looking at me. His dress, the yellow-orange striped round neck t-shirt, and the faded blue jeans really accentuated his handsomeness somehow. I have always noticed that he liked to wear colourful t-shirts and different kinds of pants, and by some means, he was always looking amazing. And at four-thirty in the afternoon, his fair skin was glazing as the orange sunlight fell on them. In comparison, I must have looked as bland as any girl could have been in my very simple blue and brown Barbie top and the black jeggings.
I noticed some girls from our year, and a few from the second year looking at him appreciatively as they crossed us while either going to the college building, the mechanical workshop, or the canteen. But Joy, as always, hasn’t glimpsed them or ignored them. I knew very well that these girls have envied me from the start of college for being with this handsome prince from day one, but they didn’t have the guts to do anything to me. The reason behind this being my status in the college after helping Joy and Biswas solve the First Year Fiasco case. Like Joy, I was well known in college and had lots of friends. As a result, these girls only had the option to grind their teeth or clench and unclench their fists from a distance.
‘Well…..’ I shrugged, looking at the workshop and then back at him, my brows furrowed. ‘This might be a very complex case for you, Joy. I mean….’ I stopped for a moment to form words in my mind before speaking again. ‘I mean, where do you even start looking for his parents?’
After learning that Naresh was not his real father, Chhotu was heartbroken. We could see him sniffing from time to time for that small period that he was there with us in the canteen, just before the classes started at ten. And because of that, throughout the whole day in college, I was not able to concentrate much on my studies. Whenever I tried to listen to what the professors were saying, Chhotu’s moistened eyes, the words in the letter, and Joy’s tears came back to me like flashes from some movie. Looking at Joy fidgeting with his fingers at times, and stroking his chin with his right index finger, it was clear that he had the same mindset as me.
With all these thoughts, all these frequent cases, how did he still manage to be third among all the students in the first semester and be a favourite of nearly every professor in the college?
I, on the other hand, barely managed to get a six-point grade compared to his eight-point seven.
‘More than that…..’ Joy said, pinching his nose and then scratching his chin before he stared at me. ‘I…. I somehow feel there’s a bad road at the end of this. I don’t….’ He stammered as he spoke, ‘I…I…I have no idea how….but…somehow it feels that …..that the ending might not be a good one for Chhotu.’
I looked at my friend with my jaws open. In the last ten months, I have worked with him on four different cases before today. And I have never seen him so unsure, or without confidence. It was as if I was watching a ghost of himself for the first time.
And it was needless to say that it was in no way likable. Good that no one else has to see it now.
‘Joy…Joy…..ahem.’ I started trying to think of a way to cheer him up and boost his morale. ‘You have intelligence unlike any I have seen, and that too at such an age. You have the ability to pierce through the darkness, to gain knowledge through the fog, and to deduce the mystery behind anything. You are not just a truth seeker. You are a mystery lover. You are a puzzle solver.
And…and…’ I took his sweaty hands in mine, trying to calm his mind as he looked at me. The yellow and orange Marigolds and the red Hibiscus flowers along with a few yellow roses made the small garden in the campus where we were sitting look like a part of heaven as the orange rays of the sun fell on them. The early evening breeze that accompanied the light made the flowers dance slowly, making me feel content with myself and the person accompanying me. ‘And…look at it this way. Chhotu suddenly learned that the person he had known all his life as his father was not related to him by blood. Their bondage was of emotion, of life. But, as a son, he has the right to know who his birth parents were.
Maybe…maybe, he wants to stand in front of them, lock his eyes with them and ask — why they have abandoned him?’
I sighed as I watched Joy. He seemed to be breathing normally again, though he was still chewing his lower lip slowly. But, at the same time, I noticed a smile gradually appearing on his face, making his face glow, even though the cap was shielding his eyes and nose from the sunlight.
‘You are right, Aru.’ He said, now taking his hands out of mine, making me suddenly fill blank for a moment. And then he looked at me, his different coloured eyes looking at mine with a fire in them. ‘I need to find his parents. As a child, he deserves to know the truth.’
I smiled back at him, not because he was smiling too or because of his boosted confidence. It was because I saw the passion in his eyes, the urge to find out the truth behind some mystery, that I have seen driving him from the time I knew him.
If only the same passion was there for me, he would have noticed how much……..
‘Hey guys. What are you doing here? Won’t you change before going to the ice cream parlour?’
My thoughts were interrupted as twelve of our friends, including Chandreyi, Raima, Kunal, and Ranjan, suddenly called us while entering the campus. Unlike the two of us, these guys have gone to their respective rooms after the classes to freshen up and change while we stole the time to discuss the case. The only condition Chhotu had was to maintain the secrecy of this case, at least in college.
And we tried to keep it that way, not even letting our friend group know about this.
‘So, this is your house?’
Chhotu nodded slowly. We glanced at the one-room small house covered with red tiles on the terrace just on the corner of the road. It was around ten minutes away from our college campus, further from all the hustle at the extreme end of the village. The greenery all around us was mesmerizing. My hair shivered slowly by the side of my left ear as the cool breeze caressed them like a passionate lover. The eastern sky was already full of yellow light as the sun peeped from the corner of the terrace of the house.
To me, the place looked a bit lonely, away from the main Panagarh Gram area. At seven-thirty, it was still early in the morning, at least for someone like me, who normally wakes up after seeing the clock hitting eight-thirty on the mobile screen.
But, today was different.
‘Wake up, Aru.’
I was not even able to see anything clearly when the phone rang at six-thirty today. With half-open eyelids, cursing both the loud ringtone and whoever was calling, I fished out the mobile from below the Engineering Physics book of the second semester that I was going through last night. And my eyes opened wide seeing the caller id, the blurriness in my mind gone.
Why was he calling so early in the morning? He has never done that. I know he wakes up early, jogs near Vayu Vatika, but never disturbs me before eight.
So what changed?
I quickly answered the call to hear him speak the words urgently.
‘Uh….why?’ I spoke in a slurred manner, my mind still groggy.
‘I have called Chhotu on his number after coming back from jogging.’ Joy spoke hurriedly. Nearby sounds of rickshaws and passing vehicles suggested he was somewhere near the highway. ‘We need to go to his house after an hour.’
‘Wha….why?’ I sat up as I heard his words. Has something happened to Chhotu? He had given us his number to let him know of the progress and in case we needed to contact him.
‘Last night I told you that we need to go to Kolkata, right? To check on his lost parents?’
‘Uh-huh.’ I said, nodding to myself as I stood up slowly on the ground, wearing my sandals as I spoke. ‘So? Why Chhotu’s house now?’
‘Wow! You are soooo intelligent.’ I heard the sarcasm in his voice, making me grind my teeth as I approached the balcony. A look around told me that most of the hostel was still sleeping, like my roommate Raima, except for some early risers that seemed to make their way towards the common room and the washroom.
‘Asshole.’ I muttered slowly, as I could hear him chuckle.
‘Ah….what was that?’
I could imagine his face, smiling at his own taunt, and fire stroked my mind.
‘You heard it.’ I said, my voice raising a bit. ‘ Asshole.’
‘Well…..we can discuss that later.’ He said, his voice turning serious again. ‘But, don’t you think before going to Kolkata, we need to take a look at Chhotu’s house to see if we can find a clue there?’
That stopped me for a second. Yeah, true. Before visiting Kolkata, we should take a look at his house.
‘O….ok.’ I stammered, realizing why my friend was taunting me. ‘So, he said to go there at seven-thirty?’
‘No silly.’ I heard him giggling again before he spoke. ‘It’s because you will need that time to get ready, have breakfast and meet me just outside the college campus. And then we will go to his house together.’
‘Yes.’ Chhotu replied to my truth seeker friend’s question, as he choked, and his eyes welled up. ‘This….is where…. babu and I have always lived.’
Joy nodded and sighed at the same time, as I tried to gauge the house from outside.
It was a small one, compared to the average houses in the village. The four brick walls stood about six feet from the ground and were covered with thin tiles. I tried to understand what the colours of the walls were but was not sure if they were green sometime in the past before the plaster of some places had fallen off, showing the red bricks. There were two windows in total, one in the entrance beside the main worn-out wooden door, the other on the southern side. Both were smaller than any normal windows of the village houses. The southern window seemed to overlook the small pond on that side, adjacent to the house. We could see a few ducks sailing around while some ripples suggested there were fish too in this tiny water body.
‘Please come.’ Chhotu said, wiping his tears away as he held the door open for us to enter. Two of the three hinges seemed to have loosened up, making the door very unstable and requiring it to be held while open. The edges of the brown door seemed to have decayed in places, exposing the jagged splinters of wood there.
The inside of the house didn’t look any better as we entered the half-lit place. Even this early in the morning, the place looked dark, except for the reflecting sunlight that came through the southern window and lit the place.
‘Electricity is there, but most of the time its out.’ Chhotu said as I looked at the small stagnant ceiling fan above me.
Joy nodded as he scrutinized the whole place with his alert eyes. He was looking more handsome today in his blue smiley t-shirt and white track pants, along with the blue Snickers. I, on the other hand, had too little time to dress up. Hence, I came out with only a green t-shirt with a quote that said — PRETTY GIRL and pink leggings, making me probably look blunt in front of Joy.
Maybe that’s why people were looking at us on our way here when Joy and I followed Chhotu from the campus gates after I had a bread-butter toast in the canteen.
Pushing the thought away, I followed Joy’s eyes to look at the room and its contents.
The first thing that came to notice was the small bed. I have no idea how Naresh and Chhotu managed to sleep in this bed. It was just a little wider than my hostel bed. I tried to imagine my hostel mate from the first year, Jasmine, sleeping on it and nearly choked at the thought.
She will probably fall off it, just like Saptarshi, my foodie friend in college.
The bedsheet that was covering the bed was probably either cream-colored or white before it had a grey appearance. Just by the side of the bed, below the southern window, stood a wooden cupboard followed by a plywood wardrobe, which was shut. On top of it, some books seemed to be standing, accompanied by a couple of hankies and a basket containing keys, matchsticks, dried flowers, and a small bottle of water. A look at the books told me that most were Bengali, including Geetanjali and Sanchayita by Rabindranath Tagore, along with a couple of English books.
So these are what Chhotu has been studying after canteen work.
‘You two look so happy together.’
I looked at Joy holding a picture of Naresh and Chhotu together, taken from the top of the cupboard. A younger Naresh and small Chhotu were looking towards the camera with happy smiles on their faces. Naresh was holding the boy by his shoulders as Chhotu held his father’s waist with affection. The background was some meadows in Panagarh itself, not far from here. I have seen the place by myself when in the evenings we stroll through different parts of the village.
‘Yes.’ A smile appeared on the boy’s face as he looked at the picture, the earlier memories probably rushing through his mind as his eyes welled up. ‘I remember this day. Babu took me to Panagarh High School for admission six years ago. But, the amount they were charging as session fees, even though it was a government school, was too much for him to pay. He was disheartened. But I was not. I told him to take the road through the meadows, crossing the Bene Pukur. In the early evenings, many birds come there and have a cacophony of songs among themselves. I wanted to make him happy. And he was, after seeing the picture. A photographer was there at that time, from some newspaper or magazine, who took this picture and babu noted his phone number. The next day, that guy gave him this picture.
Babu…he….’ This time Chhotu’s voice cracked a bit as he forced out the words slowly. ‘He…treasured this…. this picture. He…he always said that…… this was a reminder of our happy times. Whenever he was upset or anxious, I have seen him looking at this picture and slowly getting calm.’
Joy nodded as I sighed. Here was a boy who didn’t have a blood relationship with the person in this picture, but for more than fourteen years, he was loved unconditionally by him.
Are blood relations everything? Or are there random relationships that can be worth more?
‘Ok Chhotu.’ Joy said, his voice determined now. ‘I want you to stand near the stove that side…yes. Aru…you too.’
The last words were directed at me as Joy flexed his fingers.
‘I will go through everything in the room, to try and find if there’s any clue, any remnant of your past here, Chhotu. Just be patient.’
‘Did you like that aampana?’
I slurped through the small packet, completing the last ounce of the raw mango juice just as Joy spoke the words. A look out the window told me that the train was nearing Liluah, the final station before it reached Howrah. The rail lines, the houses, a few dogs and men, all passed in a blur as the train continued moving at its striking speed. It was already eleven-thirty in the morning and looking outside, I could feel the sun blazing. The humidity was probably more than ninety-five percent, as my top was clinging to my body. A look around told me that others were feeling the same too, with sweat pouring from their faces and bodies.
Suddenly, by the looks of some elder uncles glancing at me, I became a bit self-conscious.
It’s as if I am wearing a see-through top. God, I hate these hungry looks.
Looking at Joy, I could see he wasn’t bothered about that, as the beads of sweat crossed his eyes and fell on his lap. He probably was not even aware that I hadn’t answered him and was glaring at the nearest thirty-something man who was shamelessly glancing at the quote on my top. More precisely, it felt like he was trying to pierce through those letters and see through my pink bra.
Disgusted, I held my bag close to my chest, causing the man to peep away and Joy to stare up at me. His eyes fell on mine, and instantly he was aware of my discomfort. He looked at the man sitting by his side and then towards another elderly woman next to that guy. Startling me, a smile unexpectedly appeared on his face as his eyes twitched.
‘Aunty, my mobile recharge is gone….’ Joy spoke to the lady who was looking at a small child on the other side of the local train compartment with a smile. ‘Could you….pleasegive me yours to make an urgent call to my mom? She would be worried sick about being late.’
‘Sure beta.’ The lady said with a warming smile, just as the disgusting man started to get up.
I furrowed my brow as I knew very well that even though Joy had a prepaid sim, he recharged for Rs. 100, just outside Panagarh station at nine, before taking the train to Burdwan. What’s he up to?
‘My phone? Where’s my phone?’
The woman’s frantic cry made everyone in the compartment look towards her just as I noticed the man cross the bench, moving towards the door of the train. Why’s he got up so early? Liluah is still a good five minutes away.
At that moment, Joy suddenly sprang up from his seat, keeping the baby dress he was looking at from Panagarh till now with furrowed brows all the while, and his bag in the seat, and gripped the collar of the moving man, astonishing everyone.
‘Search his left pant pockets.’ Joy cried frantically to everyone in the compartment. ‘He has the lady’s phone. I just saw it.’
‘Bullshit.’ The man said in a harsh voice before trying to get rid of Joy’s claw. But, the next moment, four other people around him gripped his hands from different sides as the man tried to get away.
Sure enough, a minute later, the lady’s phone was back to her, while the audience in the compartment hit the guy with their bare hands for the next couple of minutes, just as the train stopped in Liluah station.
‘Taken your revenge.’ Joy whispered, winking and smiling at me while sitting down at his place by the side of the window again.
I smiled and shook my head in amazement.
My genius friend had somehow noticed that the man was a mobile thief and had taken away the lady’s phone. That’s why the elaborate drama.
‘So, what’s all with this baby dress?’ I whispered slowly as the train started towards Howrah.
‘Well….’ Joy said, his brows furrowed again, but his eyes never left the dress and the wrapping that was found during our morning search for nearly forty, forty-five minutes in Chhotu’s home. ‘The way it was kept in the wardrobe, inside cloth wrappings, this was the dress and wrappings that Naresh had found Chhotu with for the first time. The man was meticulous about his adopted son. He kept these belongings with him as a locked away memory. And by the looks of things, this is the only thing that can help us locate Chhotu’s original parents.’
‘Ok…’ I said, nodding. The deduction seemed sound. Except this, there was nothing else in the house that could point us towards Chhotu’s inheritance or his real parents. His father had never told him anything about these, and neither did Chhotu remember them. Today was the first time that he had seen this dress and wrappings. And it was easy to guess who’s they were for.
‘The orange cottony wrap, the light blue small cover and the green dress…..’ Joy said, looking at them while chewing his lower lip, ‘….all suggest one thing.’
‘That, Chhotu was not born in poverty.’ Joy whispered, looking at me. ‘See these wrappings…..’, he said, giving me the orange soft wrap in my hands. ‘They are soft and comfortable for any baby.’
I nodded as I held it in my hands. I was reminded of a soft and comfortable blanket that mom bought from Haridwar a couple of years back. This wrapper was of somewhat similar quality to the comforter my parents obtained for three hundred bucks.
‘Similarly…the sober colour of the cover and the dress tells us that Chhotu’s original parents had a good choice.’ My truth seeker friend continued. ‘And that they had money.’
‘Anything else?’ I asked, giving him back the orange wrapper and looking at him for an answer.
‘Yes. A couple of things, actually.’ Joy smiled, holding the green dress in his hands. ‘This dress, the baby shirt was bought from a local store somewhere. The tag here….’
Joy opened the little garment and showed me the tag near the collar. Faded red words — CHAFNA, could be seen there, along with words like 100% cotton and L size. Below the size, the figures 0 – 3 MONTHS made it clear which age this dress was for.
‘A quick google search told me that this CHAFNA company is a big name now for kids garments, from Bangladesh.’ Joy smiled as he spoke hurriedly. The sound of the train running drowned out his words so that only I was able to listen to him. ‘But, in 2008, it was a miniature company. And in Kolkata, there were only three stores at that time that imported kids garments from this firm. So, we need to check with these three stores, or whoever is available among them till now.’
‘Hmmmph.’ I pursed my lips, thinking how difficult it would be to get the details of someone who bought it from a local store about fourteen years ago. ‘And what’s the other reason?’
‘Look at this handwritten drawing here.’ Joy uttered as he brought the blue cover and its tag near my eyes.
I squinted my eyes and tried to look closely at what he was referring to, but the shaking of the train and the light and shadow from the outside made it a bit difficult. After a few more seconds of staring at it, suddenly I noticed it. My eyes widened as I fathomed what it was.
‘Yes.’ Joy said, smiling and noticing the understanding in my eyes. ‘The Crescent moon and the star.’
He stopped for a moment as the train slowed to enter the Howrah station before he spoke again.
‘Chhotu was born a Muslim. We need to find a Muslim couple who left their baby in Howrah Station in 2008 October.’
‘How can I tell that sir, after so many years?’
I was afraid that this was going to be the answer that the shopkeeper was about to give to Joy and me. This was the second time we have heard the exact same words from two different people. The first to tell was Jalal Hamid Mondal, the owner of the shop named Kid’s House in New Market in Dharmatala. After reaching Howrah, that was our first destination among the three stores where that Bangladeshi company exported baby garments during 2008.
‘Our system has not yet been digitalized, though you can use Pay TM or GPay here, sir.’ The man had said with a smiling face, his white teeth looking like a jagged sandstone carving in a mountain, among his brown face and black beard. ‘But, it is impossible to know whom I have sold these garments, if any. There’s hundreds of other kids stores in Kolkata now, and CHAFNA exports to a lot of them. Its….’ He shook his head, though the salesman-style smile looked as if permanently etched on his face as he spoke, ‘Its…impossible sir.’
‘How about the sales register from 2008 or your duplicate bills?’ Joy had asked, his voice quivering now.
‘What are you saying sir?’ The man grinned bigger this time as if a joke had been cracked. ‘At that time, normally we didn’t give any bills at all, like all the local shops here. We knew which garment we sold, and if needed to change, the customers would have to bring back the garment within seven days of the sale to exchange. Even now, bills are something that people ask us seldom.’
Both me and Joy sighed as we left the place to take the metro to reach our next destination, in Deshapriya Park. We had to go to Kalighat metro station, and from there the shop named Maa Kaali garments was just a ten-minute walk away.
But, our luck was even worse on the second occasion. The storekeeper, Baali Das, didn’t even bother to answer our questions.
‘You college students come here, ask for prices and never buy anything.’ The man shouted out as soon as we asked about the garment. ‘We are here for business, not entertaining your questions. Get lost.’
It was then that the idea came to me.
‘Call Sobhan uncle.’ I said, coming out of the earshot of the shop owner. ‘Without his help it might get difficult to get this information.’
Joy’s eyes lit up like a pair of LED bulbs as I said those words. Clearly, the idea of calling his uncle, who works in the Lalbazaar Detective Department had escaped his mind.
‘Every guy deserves a friend like you.’ He grinned as he fished the phone out and started calling.
The area near the Priya Cinema Hall was a busy one, with a brand new movie hitting the theatre. But, neither I nor Joy was interested in it as Joy told the details to his uncle over the phone.
I looked at Joy with a question in my eyes as he kept the phone back in his pant pockets and lit a cigarette, his face covered in a smile.
‘We need to wait for five minutes for an officer from the nearby police station to come here. He will be with us when we ask the questions to Mr. Das.’
Needless to say that it was nearly fifteen minutes of waiting and watching the crowds move, the buses leaving and the autos taking passengers, that finally, we saw a police van near the cinema hall. A young officer dressed in white came out of the vehicle and looked around, looking for someone as Joy and I approached him.
‘I am Jayashis Dey, Inspector.’ Joy said with a smile while introducing me next.
‘I…..I….thought that these students……’ Mr. Das stammered as the officer looked at him with his wide angry eyes. ‘S….so….so…sorry. Please….ask wha…whatever you want.’
‘Thanks Mr. Das.’ Joy said before asking the question. ‘ Do you maintain any kind of register or any billing mechanism to track your customers, from, let’s say….2008?’
The question seemed to stun the man as he did a double-take.
‘2008? That’s…that’s more than…..fourteen…’
‘Years ago.’ I finished his words, my patience running out now. The growing hunger was also another reason, as the clock hit one-thirty. ‘Now, do you remember or can you check customer details from that time?’
It took the man another fifteen minutes to get a bill book from 2008-2009, but that didn’t help much.
‘From September 2008 to March 2009, we had most of the things sold on adult stuff. Kurtis, nighties, pajamas and sorts. But no, no baby items.’
‘None at all?’ Joy said, his voice a bit low.
‘No sir. Please see the bill book.’
A look at the book by the Inspector and Joy told us that the man was indeed telling the truth.
And that was the reason we had to move towards Gariahat to get to the final shop on the list, Ankur.
‘Can you please help with this?’ Joy pleaded, looking at Abinash Chowdhury, the elderly owner of the store. ‘We need the information.’
The man looked at Joy through the big round glasses and then at me as if he was seeing an alien.
‘I……’ He started, before seeing both our pleading eyes and sighing. ‘Let me see what I can do. Give me half an hour.’
It was forty more minutes before we returned to the store after having a good lunch with fried rice and chilly chicken at one of the fast-food stalls nearby.
‘Banik…’ Mr. Chowdhury called to a young subordinate inside the shop as he saw us enter. ‘Bring that 2008 log for me.’
‘Here sir.’ The younger attendant said a minute later, bringing an A4-sized red bill book with pink half torn pages, followed by full yellow pages.
‘Ok.’ The nearly seventy-year-old said, holding the book and opening it slowly. ‘I don’t know why you guys need it, why you are asking…..but…’, he looked at me with a warm smile and then at Joy. ‘….. you guys are as old as my granddaughter, who is studying at Calcutta University. So, here.’
He held the thing upside down as he reached the September month bills for that year and gave it to my friend.
‘Ok.’ He said, scrutinizing the book while changing the pages. ‘A. Chakraborty has taken three baby napkins and three dresses for zero to three months on 18th September. Nabin M. Kar took two shirts for a three-year-old boy on 29th September.’
He whispered to himself as he continued to look through the pages before coming to the end of October and moving back again. And then he suddenly stopped at one. I screwed my eyes trying to get a look at the page, along with a surprised Abinash Chowdhury.
‘Mr. Gyanendra Pal.’ He muttered to himself, oblivious to the presence of two more people looking incredulously at the book and then at him. ‘Bought three baby dresses and three napkins, along with two wrappers and a soft cotton towel. On 6th October.’
Joy stopped for a moment as he looked at me, his eyes glinting. And then he spoke slowly.
‘This is it. This is our man.’
‘Have I sent you to college to study or to delve into other people’s mysteries and police crimes? And now you have started bunking classes, and roaming around Kolkata without letting your mom know?’
I just kept quiet, listening to my mom’s blabbering without answering anything. Any response would surely lead to an argument between me and her, and I was too consumed with thoughts to do that.
‘Your daughter is totally out of control.’ Mom said while putting the plate of egg tadka down on the table and turned to get the rotis from the kitchen.
‘Oh Anuradha, stop now.’ Dad said with a smile on his face, and he looked back at me.
‘So…….’ He uttered as mom was away from earshot. ‘What’s the latest update?’
‘Well…….’ I said with a smile while taking a spoonful of mom’s prepared tadka in my mouth and savouring the taste. ‘We got a bit lucky here.’
I remembered the discussion in Ankur between Joy and Mr. Chowdhury, along with the long-time attendant, Banik.
‘So, do you remember this guy? This Gyannendra Pal?’
‘What are you saying, son?’ The elderly owner smiled sadly. ‘At times, I can’t even remember when the last lot of garments came. How can I remember someone that I had barely seen for maybe a few minutes fourteen years ago?’
‘How about looking at these?’ Joy said, holding out the baby dress, the cover, and the wrapper from his bag and putting it on the counter, in front of Mr. Chowdhury and his helper, Banik. ‘These were brought by that man.’
‘These…..’, Chowdhury muttered as he touched the items and brought them closer to his eyes for inspection and………
‘I remember now.’ Suddenly, Banik cried out, breaking into a smile as he held the cover in one hand and the orange wrapper in the other. ‘I…I remember. This guy, a young man around twenty-something came alone here to buy these things.’
‘You remember?’ Chowdhury asked, astonishment clear in his voice and the way his eyes were wide behind the glasses.
‘Yes…yes sir.’ The thirty-something man said, still grinning. ‘I remember because this man had come alone and I had to bring out almost all the covers and wrappers that we had. The man didn’t like any of them and then after an hour, he bought a sky-blue wrapper, along with a blue cover….’
‘Sky blue wrapper?’ I interrupted him this time. ‘But this…..’
‘Let me finish Madam.’ The man said, smiling and looking at me. ‘I remember him specifically because he came back the next day. Alone. And I had to again open up all the wrappers we had. He….he told us that his wife didn’t like that blue wrapper. Finally, after a lot of heated discussions, debates and negotiation, this man took this orange wrapper.’
‘Do you remember how he looked?’ Joy’s voice was a bit higher than normal due to the excitement.
Even I was grinning this time, it seemed that our luck worked.
‘Yes. Yes sir. I remember.’ Banik said, beaming. ‘He was young, brown skin, with a thin moustache, buzz cut hair. His eyes were black, but I had noticed a certain fear….no, caution, in his eyes.’
That made Joy stand up straight, his eyes wide.
‘Yes. He….his eyes were darting here and there, looking around the shop and outside the whole time he was speaking with us.’
‘O…k.’ Joy nodded, now stroking his chin with his index finger.
I know this stance very well. He was thinking something, trying to put himself in the unknown man’s position. I was also disturbed by one question that was coming to my mind as soon as Joy noticed the name.
Wasn’t he supposed to be a Muslim man? If so, why change the name on the bill?
‘He was hiding from someone, Aru.’ Joy muttered slowly as we went out of the shop and slowly walked along the pavement. ‘He was a Muslim man for sure. He had scribed the Islamic icon there in the tag unconsciously. If you notice the jagged lines in the moon and the star, you would see that it was not a conscious drawing. He ran the pen through the same lines two or three times. So, his religious beliefs were clear to me. But……’
I was listening to him and looking at the purses and sandals from different vendors near the pavement, taking my eyes off him for a moment. The next, I suddenly noticed that Joy was not speaking to me anymore, surprising me.
A look by my side told me that the guy who was supposed to be walking by my side was not there at all. Taken aback, I looked around, finally finding him standing a few feet behind me, stroking his chin with his finger and looking down, thinking about something deeply.
‘What happened?’ I asked, reaching him a second later.
‘Huh!’ He seemed to be coming out of his reverie as he looked at me and around. ‘Oh, sorry.’
He smiled awkwardly before his face became again serious as he slowly whispered.
‘Something wrong, Aru. There’s definitely something wrong.’
Before I could ask what it was, suddenly Joy’s eyes seemed to focus back on me, and his voice became clear again.
‘Ok, let’s do one thing now. It is nearly three o clock now.’ He said, looking at his wristwatch and then back at me. ‘ You go to your home. I will go to mine. I will call you tonight regarding any updates.’
And with that, before I could protest or discuss anything, he suddenly turned around, ran a bit, and took a minibus that was on its way to Kalighat, leaving me in Gariahat, all alone to wonder.
‘So, you have no idea whatsoever about that guy and what Joy was thinking?’ Dad asked after he listened to the details from this afternoon.
‘I called him. Yelled at him.’ I said, creasing my face in anger while putting a lock of hair behind my left ear. ‘He said that he had some work to do and then went home. And then he said that I should wait for his call.’
‘Hmmm. I wonder what he’s up to.’
I looked at the time as soon as I heard my phone ringing. Pausing the web series I was watching, I glanced at the caller id and smiled.
So, finally, he got time.
‘Nice. You finally called at midnight.’ I said, my voice as much serious as I could make.
‘S… sorry Aru.’ I heard Joy speak from the other end, his voice content. ‘I was a bit busy actually.’
‘Oh! And you probably thought it was best not to include me in your work, right?’
There was a silence that followed on the other side as he heard the words I hissed on the phone. If only he was here, I might have broken his head.
‘I….I understand your anger.’ He spoke after a few seconds, his voice softer. ‘Actually….I had to meet Sobhan uncle. There’s been an update.’
That stopped me from getting angrier anymore. Why is it that curiosity always gets the priority? And how does this guy always know that?
‘What update?’ I asked, my voice cautious this time.
‘Well….I spoke with Sobhan uncle and got Banik called to the Gariahat Police Station.’
‘What? Why?’ Now it was time for me to be surprised. I couldn’t even think of a single reason that Banik could get arrested. ‘Why was he arrested sudd…..’
‘He wasn’t arrested, buddhu.’ I heard Joy scolding me and stopped speaking. ‘Sobhan uncle suggested that a police artist might help to create a sketch of that person from what Banik remembered.’
‘Oh!’ I said before the whole situation made sense in my head and my eyes lit up. ‘But, that means…that means…..’
‘Yes.’ I could feel Joy smiling on the other side of the phone. ‘The artist named Kanak Mohanty from the police sketched as per the description from Banik.’
‘Great. Then can Chhotu learn about his father now? Can this sketch be used to find the person now?’
I heard a sigh on the other side before Joy spoke. And when he said, his words were as chilly as a winter night.
‘There’s a lot more to it. I have told you earlier that I thought this case was not a good one, at least for Chhotu. I called him but told nothing. He is coming to Kolkata in the morning local. He should arrive by nine in the morning.’
He stopped for a moment before speaking.
‘I need you to come to Jadavpur, near the 8B bus stand, at seven in the morning. A police operation would start then. We should wait there, before Inspector Harish Jadav from Jadavpur P.S. calls me.’
And before I could ask anything more, he hung up, leaving me with at least ten questions in mind, the top one being — Why the hell a police operation?
I noticed Joy standing with a Constable in a white dress as I crossed the road and reached the 8B bus station in Jadavpur. The place was crowded like any other day, even at seven in the morning, with people roaming around to catch buses, autos, and taxis for their destinations. But, before I could figure out why I was here, Joy spoke again.
‘Let’s go. Just five minutes from here.’
Without asking any questions, I followed the Constable and Joy to reach a smaller lane just a few hundred meters behind the bus station, opposite the telephone exchange. The first thing I detected was the police van standing in front of an older-looking four-story building. And then I saw the police.
Five of them were running throughout the building, scrutinizing each room, while four more brought out three handcuffed people, their faces covered in black masks. Two of them were men, while the third was a woman.
‘Don’t worry.’ Joy said with a smile as he held my hands. ‘They will be going to Jadavpur P.S. now with inspector Harish….’, he showed the stout figured young inspector coming out of the building, who seemed to wave and smile at him before getting into the police jeep.
‘And we?’ I asked dubiously. Honestly, whatever was happening was screwing up my mind like anything.
‘We are going to have a good breakfast in a nearby hotel that I know.’ Joy smiled, ‘and wait for Chhotu to arrive.’
‘At least tell me who these guys are? And what they have to do with Chhotu and his parents.’
Joy chewed his lower lip before he met my eyes and spoke.
‘They are sleeper cells, Aru. Terrorists in India, coming from Pakistan and settling up here in different alias.’
My eyes widened as I heard those words, a chilly wind passing through my spine in an instant. I have seen movies like — Holiday, Family Man, Special Ops, and others and was quite familiar with the concept of sleeper cells.
‘But….but…what’s with…. Chhotu?’ I finally managed to say while my throat seemed to be drying up with every passing second.
‘Not now, Aru.’ Joy pleaded with his eyes as I saw the police jeep and the van moving past us. ‘Let Chhotu come. Just a couple of hours maybe.’
‘Welcome Jayashis. Welcome Aratrika.’
Inspector Harish welcomed us with a smile as we three entered his cabin in the Jadavpur P.S. Joy just smiled, acknowledging the welcome as the man showed us the chairs to sit in.
‘And you must be Chhotu.’
Chhotu just nodded blankly as the Inspector looked at him before sitting down silently on the third chair. The Inspector seemed to notice the gloomy mood in the room as he sighed and sat down on his chair.
‘So, Jayashis Dey.’ Harish spoke, now seriously looking at Joy, his eyes boring into my young friend’s mind. ‘Detective Sobhan Dey told me about you. You are his nephew and a bright young truth-seeker. Nice work in the Panagarh College case.’
Joy just smiled and bypassed the question by asking something different.
‘Can….can Sajeda Bibi be called in this room?’
The Inspector probably didn’t expect this reply, as his brows suddenly raised high above his eyes, exposing the pink tissues above the whites in his eye socket. But, the expression was there just for a second before he finally called a Constable from outside and asked to bring the required person here.
‘So….what’s this all about?’ Harish said with another smile as he looked from Joy to me and then at Chhotu. His eyes seemed to stop and scrutinize the youngest person a little more before the Constable was back along with a handcuffed lady.
As we all turned around to look back, I was surprised to see the woman this time.
No doubt it was the same woman the police had arrested in the surprise raid in Jadavpur earlier today. The same black hijab, the same sandals, and the pink Palazzo peeking out of the hijab. But unlike this morning, I was able to see her face this time. She was dark-skinned, resembling the colour of coffee without cream or milk. The tan was not the only thing that I was able to notice. Her black sunken eyes, the bushy eyebrows, the thick eyelashes, the semi-curly hair, and the thick lips suddenly reminded me of someone close by as she slowly sat on the only bench available in the cabin, followed by the lady Constable.
I looked at Chhotu, whose jaw seemed to have fallen as he saw the thirty-something lady sitting apart from him.
And then Joy spoke.
‘Chhotu….meet your mother, Sajeda Bibi.’
The words hit like a train in the gut of everyone present in the room. I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of my lungs, making me feel breathless and choking. My eyes widened while my lips quivered, trying to make sense of it all. A look at the inspector told me that he was also feeling the same. The raised brows, the open mouth, the straight posture, and the brown eyes darting from one person to the other gave his feelings away very clearly.
Chhotu, on the other hand, made an audible gasp just as his jaw fell open. His eyes moved from Joy to the handcuffed woman and stuck there, meeting the black eyes of the lady, who seemed to be the only person who was not shocked by the revelation. She was looking straight at the young boy as a smile slowly crept across her face.
‘Wh…what…what are you….saying…Joy da?’ Chhotu finally managed to utter the words through the quivering voice in multiple instalments. Even though the air condition in the inspector’s cabin was working, I could see the young boy sweating now, with droplets of sweat forming rapidly on his forehead, one making its way to his left ear’s side.
I self-consciously put a lock of my hair behind my left ear while speaking for the first time.
‘She is Chhotu’s mother? A sleeper cell? A terrorist?’ I nearly hissed out, my heart going out to Chhotu, whose eyes suddenly became moist and red-rimmed. ‘Impossible.’
There was a silence that followed for a couple of seconds. To me, it looked like a couple of years at least. And then, Inspector Harish spoke again, confusion evident in his voice.
‘What is going on here, Joy? You said that there’s a boy called Chhotu coming, and we need to let him meet Sajeda. But you never mentioned anything about family.’
Joy sighed and shook his head. And then he spoke.
‘Inspector sir, this Chhotu is a friend of mine. He works in our Panagarh college canteen.’ My friend said as he gestured towards the sniffing young boy sitting behind me, his eyes still stuck towards the woman sitting across him. ‘His father died just a few days ago, and that’s when he came to know that he was adopted. Naresh Lal was not his real father. Now Chhotu was aware of my interest in truth-finding and mystery-solving, and so he asked for my help in finding his actual parents.
And that’s when everything started.’
He stopped for a moment to sip at the coffee provided to him and me by a Constable just a few seconds ago.
‘The first thing I did was check the date. Naresh found Chhotu in Howrah Station on the 10th of October 2008. But even then, I was not sure about the significance of it on a broader scale.’ He added. ‘I searched Chhotu’s place in Panagarh and came up with a baby shirt, baby wrapper and towels. And each one looked expensive and of good taste. The thought that came to me then, was why would someone abandon their child after grabbing such nice items for the baby?’
Chhotu looked at Joy as Sajeda seemed to listen to my young friend with rapt attention. I, on the other hand, never took my eyes off of the duo as they listened to my friend.
‘Keeping that thought away for the moment, I started going through the items as both me and Aru left for Kolkata.’ Joy continued, still sipping his coffee. ‘I quickly found two things. First, the tag on the shirt was of a Bangladeshi kids garment company, which during 2008 exported to only three stores in Kolkata. And the second one — an ink scribbling of a Crescent moon and a star, that gave me the idea that Chhotu’s parents were Muslims.
Anyway, as we searched through the stores regarding those wrappers, I found a guy in Ankur stores in Gariahat who confirmed that a person named Gyanendra Pal had come to get these items. Using my contact with Sobhan uncle, I asked the guy to help create a sketch of this Gyanendra Pal.’
This time, even I was listening to Joy with rapt attention as he spoke. Till now, everything was clear to me. What was not apparent was the fact that how a search for Chhotu’s parents led to a terrorist sleeper cell.
‘Once the sketch was ready last evening, my uncle showed me the sketch. And that’s when everything fell into place.’
With that, Joy brought out a picture from his albums on the phone and showed it to me, Chhotu, and the Inspector. A man, in around his late twenties, with a moustache and a steep nose, a pair of thick lips, and curly hair looked back at us with his cruel sunken eyes.
‘Somehow this man seemed familiar to me. I keep tabs on different criminal news, terrorism and likes.’ Joy declared, shrugging. ‘ It’s kind of a hobby for me. So, something triggered in my mind as soon as I saw the sketch. To verify a terrible possibility, I used an app on my phone to create a beard and a black turban on the man’s face and ….bingo.’
He showed us another picture from his albums. This time, the man, the same man, had a black beard as well as a black turban. I had no recollection of seeing such a person, but I heard a sudden gasp across me. Looking up, I saw Inspector Harish staring at the picture with his eyes nearly popping out.
‘Yes…’ Joy said gloomily, as he noticed Harish’s reaction. ‘I had the same reaction.’
‘That’s….he’s Abdul….’ The Inspector said, but Joy interrupted him.
‘Yes, Abdul Hasan Al Kasim.’ Joy said. ‘The second in command of Kasab during 26/11 in the Taj Hotel, in Mumbai.’
There could not have been a bigger surprise that could shake my very core. The words felt like rapid punches on my stomach and chest as I nearly cried out, while it seemed that my eyes would fall off from their sockets… But before I could react, I heard Chhotu scream.
‘Noooooooooo. That’s…not true.’
I turned and was greeted by a surprising sight. Chhotu, the person who I have always seen smiling in our canteen, while giving us Maggie, or serving other foods, crying hopelessly. His eyes were red, and a thick stream of tears seemed to flow from both of them freely. His tanned face was full of sweat, while his palms seemed to tremble a bit as he stood shuddering.
A jhin-jhin sound made me look towards my left, and I saw the handcuffed Sajeda trying to get up, but the lady Constable beside her was keeping her down.
Without waiting, I went towards Chhotu, holding his hands and wiping his tears, as Joy looked towards him. It took us a couple of minutes to calm Chhotu down as he sat back on his chair, whimpering.
‘I…I never thought…. It’s my nightmare…..’ Chhotu spoke through a burst of tears.
‘No Chhotu.’ Joy said, in a firm voice, holding his hands and steadying them. ‘Your biological parents don’t define you. Your work and your own mind does.’
That seemed to somehow make the young boy calmer, as the inspector urged Joy to continue.
‘Now it was clear to me why a Muslim man would give a Hindu name to the shop attendant while buying the clothes.’ Joy started again. ‘I showed the same picture to Sobhan uncle, and he was shocked too. We knew that Abdul was dead, but we were not sure about where he was from or if he had anyone else working for him before the Mumbai attacks. Now, the police have got some leads. It didn’t take them long to find out that Abdul was staying with four more people in the Tollygunge area in 2008. And among them was a woman. The sketch of the woman was also not too hard to create, from all the people in and around the place where he stayed, and also from Matrisadan where Sajeda was admitted for delivery and Abdul brought those clothes.’
He stopped for a moment to throw the empty coffee cup into the bin before speaking again.
‘The police were able to retrace his steps from fourteen years back. Abdul came with five of his friends — Fashiq, Ali, Imran, Sajeda, and Khurdiq, to India back in 2007. They set up an alias for working in a small business together in Kolkata and stayed in Tollygunge, waiting for their call. By the time the call came, Sajeda was pregnant with Abdul’s child. With nothing else to do, they abandoned the child in Howrah station, and they took the train to Bombay. The footage, the tickets, etc were all verified late last night.
Anyway, after Kasab was caught and Abdul died, there was no news about the other four people. Now, with the sketch of Sajeda late last night, all the police stations were alerted. By midnight, it was clear that Sajeda had been seen near Jadavpur. One of the informants was able to give the police the exact location and details of Sajeda and the other three guys.
And now, here we are.’
There was a long silence in the room as Joy finished speaking, catching his breath. Apart from the sound of Chhotu sniffing, there was no other disturbance.
But, the silence was broken finally by a harsh, deep female voice.
‘I did what I had to do.’
I looked towards where the sound came from and saw Sajeda looking at her son. But, there was no remorse, no emotion behind the look. It was….. as if a robot, a mannequin was looking at the young boy.
‘Yes. And I will do it again.’ She hissed. ‘Go to hell, India.’
Suddenly, I saw movement by my side, and something blurred past me.
Before I knew what happened, I saw Sajeda’s face turning around, her left cheek becoming dark red very quickly. And then I looked at him.
Still crying, water flowing from his eyes and nose, beads of sweat all around his face, and breathing heavily, Chhotu stood beside his biological mother. But, this time, his eyes were full of rage as Inspector Harish urged the Constable to take Sajeda back to her cell.
‘And that’s what you get for your work.’ Joy uttered through his teeth while holding Chhotu, as Sajeda crossed him. Her eyes seemed to be on fire, as they darted from him to her son. ‘A bloody slap from an Indian.’
‘Thank you, Joy da.’
It was four-thirty in the evening, and we were at Howrah station, seeing off Chhotu as he was taking the train back to Panagarh.
‘No, Chhotu.’ Joy said with a smile. ‘Its all thanks to you that we got hold of the sleeper cell that have been staying here for a long time.’
‘So, what have you thought about yourself now?’ I asked, just as I heard the train whistle and Chhotu sat in his seat. Looking from the platform, I felt as if I was saying goodbye to a departing friend, even though I knew that tomorrow when we were back to Panagarh, we would see each other again.
‘Well….I spoke to Inspector Harish.’ Chhotu said with a smile, his earlier sadness gone now after a good lunch in a restaurant in South City Mall. ‘He said that he will guide me on my studies and maybe someday I can be recruited into the police.’
His eyes lit up as he spoke the last words. I noticed the moistness in the eyes of my best friend as he smiled after hearing the last words.
Only one thing rang through my mind as the train departed, and we waved off Chhotu.
Not all sinister beginnings end up being bad. Sometimes, dark things happen so that a good thing can emerge out of all the ashes.
Like my truth and mystery seeker friend, Joy.
By: Angandeep Kr Chatterjee