It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back. It was indeed a knock. I opened the door to find my cabbie Sunil informing me that there was no hope. The radiator was badly damaged and there's no mechanic nearby. We have to stay here all night. In the morning, he would take the caretaker’s bicycle and fetch the mechanic from the city which was at least two kilometres away from the place where we were doomed. The weather was getting worse. This only meant spending the night in this desolate bungalow. There wasn't any other occupant as the house was not for rent. It was a dilapidated structure acquired by the local municipality and forsaken with sheer disdain. It's a vestige of the golden days of Tea cultivation in the district when the building used to be an officer or may be an Estate Manager's domicile. It was a two storied house typically bearing a Victorian scent. The porch leading up to the entrance probably had cars and trimmed bush lines. Even the inside bore reminisces of that age. The Maplewood flooring, the ebony shelf at the ground floor, the ceiling hooks where once rich tapestries or chandeliers may have adored lied buried now in cobwebs and dust. On the very right hand side at the ground floor were two rooms out of which one was laden with antiques like sofa sets, a wooden table, an armchair and an eloquent gramophone. The resplendent aura had diminished and what remained was merely the debris and a caretaker who was compelled to stay there by the government. This place Chandanpura was cut off from the modern day life. Neither a soul stayed there, nor anyone visited there. I was send there by the Land Department for an assignment involving demarcation and was scheduled to return to the nearest town on that very day. But alas, the downpour and now the vehicle unsettled the plan.
So here I was entrapped in the first floor of the building in a spacious room which seemed least decorated but wasn't short in riches. Probably this was the erstwhile inhabitant’s bedroom. The balcony was still unhinged and the rainwater splashes sprinkled incessantly on the ragged floor mat. It was already around 20 minutes past 9. I emptied my food basket which I carried all the way from town. The driver slept in a ground floor chamber along with the inebriated caretaker. Normally I never did hit the sack before 11 but in a place where you have no electricity, telephone or mobile connectivity or television, what would one do rather than sliding into the arms of Morpheus? You tend to be primitive when stripped off the boons of modern sophistications.
The bed sheets were probably never cleaned. The tattered cloth and the dirty mattress scared me of bug bites but I was scanty of options. Gradually I felt a bit sedated as the candle light began to lose its vigour gradually. However I was shaken from slumber by a squeaky sound. Did someone enter the room? I glanced first at the door and then towards the balcony. It was still drizzling outside but there wasn't a soul to be seen. The shabby sleeping environment may have irked my sleep. I turned and tried to sleep again. Again after a few minutes, I heard a sound. This time I heard it clearly. Not an odd noise but a clear chuckle. Somebody seemed to smile derisively at me. The voice came from right in front as if someone was sitting in the wooden chair. I was positive. Someone indeed was inside the room. The faint moonlight which gullied in the room enabled me to figure out what I was searching. There was a feeble outline almost like the silhouette of a man sitting in the chair. I felt like screaming out but before my vocals could even react, the seated figure expressed in a calm tone “Hello”. It was a male voice, husky and probably that of a man who was in his late 30s. As far as my memory permits, I have never ever been petrified of anything. But I have no shame in admitting that I was terribly afraid by the unexplained presence of this late night visitor. “Spending the night amidst this weather in the woods was better than staying inside this dreadful mess” – I started sweating profusely.
“Don't be afraid Mister. I just came to meet you” the voice emanated as if from a distance. “Meeting strangers at such hours and so stealthily was no good business” – I thought. Nevertheless the voice resumed “I was previously the estate officer of the place. It has been a lonely existence for me since the last three decades. “There was melancholy tone in the stranger's voice. I somehow mustered a bit of courage and asked “What do you want from me?” I could almost feel my heart in my mouth when I fizzled the words out.
“I am yearning to tell a story. Hence I came to You.”
“Who else comes in this wretched place?” – the voice yelled.
“The vile drunkard or the hobos – I despise them. Rotten scumbags. Filthy bastards. How do you expect that I would mingle with such lowly creatures?” – his voice grew angry.
After a pause, there was a sombre tone “Would you listen to my story? Please.”
I simply could not think of anything else to such an unusual request and expressed my assent.
The voice began his narrative gleefully. Long ago Chandanpura was a booming tea estate. The cultivation began during the later half of the British rule in the early nineties. Even after independence, it's glory didn't fade. The produce was of fine quality and bulk quantities were exported all over Europe, Middle East as well as in few parts of Africa. This tea estate had always been governed by Brits even after the expiry of the Raj in India. Call them brutes or whatever else, they really understood the tea business.
The year was 1969, may be December 1968, a Calcutta folk named Ranojit Guha was appointed as the Estate Manager. The estate however was governed by Chief Phillip Gordon, a Londoner by birth and someone who was administering the tea business for almost 30 years in India. Ranojit came in this estate with his newlywed wife Kakoli. They stayed in this very house.
There is a difference between managers in other businesses and a Tea Estate Manger. Apart from having qualifications and intelligence, the primary qualities envisaged were courage and physical strength. Strikes, affrays were common among the labours. In order to tackle that, one needed to be robust and intrepid. Ranojit was born for the job. He was of strong stature, over six feet tall and his watchful nature made him an instant success both in the eyes of the labourers as well as of Gordon Sahib (Sir). Ranojit was aided by his deputy Sameer who was lesser to him in abilities but a sincere soul. Everything blossomed in the new regime.
Back home, Ranojit was a caring husband and Kakoli was a loving wife. They both adored each other. They were married for just more than a year and the love they found in the small valley away from the hustle and bustle of city life rekindled their bonding. Kakoli was svelte and her tender nature seemed to set a feeling of warmth and happiness all around the house. Few people do have the power of spreading happiness wherever they go. Kakoli was one such woman. Their life was so complete, so joyous and then it happened.
It was during one night Ranojit was checking certain papers in the ground floor table. Kakoli had a busy day and retired exhausted to bed early. It was an office function day and she was busy in the cultural events. Ranojit was however engrossed in certain litigation issues. The situation was rattled by the sudden ring of the telephone. He became a bit surprised. Was there any sudden disturbance in the worker's colony or any other perils? In a state of bewilderment and speculation, he rose and picked up the receiver.
There was silence from the other end. Upon repeated greetings, a coarse voice replied
“Do you really think she's yours? She is faking love. Don't believe her lies. Remember, Felicity thy name is woman.”
Ranojit turned livid and hurled profanities and threats. He felt irritated of being disturbed by a prankster at such odd hours. Who can it be? Very few had telephones in that area. Who can dare to pull off such a trashy joke on him? All these thoughts jumbled his mind a bit but after a few puffs of his favourite Trichinopoly tobacco, he dismissed everything out of his mind and refocused on the work.
The call was repeated on the next night too and that unknown voice cunningly spoke
“You don't know what she's up to. She is deceiving you. Don't trust her. You will perish.”
The forewarnings were treated with fuming threats and yet Ranojit was unable to deduce the identity and motive of the caller. He was puzzled as to who would dare to play nasty with him? However he didn't confide anything to Kakoli or anyone else. He was an Estate Manager, the trade taught him to preserve secrets.
The very next night the phone came at the same time. Ranojit was waiting for it. Kakoli was in the kitchen. This phony affair had been bugging him all day. Ranojit was determined to end it once and for all.
He picked up the receiver and the voice on the other end spoke slowly
“Don't screech. I am not your foe. You're being hoodwinked by your dubious wife. She is covertly in love with someone else. They are planning to get rid of you.”
Ranojit could not control his temper any further and hurled incessant abuses. Kakoli came running in and tried to mellow him down. She insisted upon knowing the matter but Ranojit didn't divulge. He stared deeply at his wife. Her peachy eyes looked concerned but was she really being unfaithful? Their love was unquestionable but a thin tinge of distrust had crept in his psyche. Even when they united physically, his mind couldn't help thinking about the possibility of infidelity. The phone call came at the same juncture every night. Ranojit would scream and warn the caller but the perpetrator had sowed the seeds of disbelief in his mind. Kakoli guessed that he was perturbed by someone over phone. She desperately enquired about the details of the calls but her husband evaded the issue every time.
One day Ranojit felt a gnawing stomach pain while in office. Doctor Samaddar came and prescribed medication along with couple of days rest. It was an issue of minor tummy upset. The doctor was penning the dosage when Ranojit quite inadvertently spoke
“Doctor, can it be poisoning?”
The doctor was a bit surprised at the puzzling question but replied calmly
“Don't have reasons to believe so.”
Ranojit still persisted “Well in case of certain poisons like Belladona and Strychnine, you don't even find a trace in blood. It can be that too.”
The doctor sported a quint look. Then in a calm demeanour he replied with a smile
“That's what Christie does to You. Who will poison you? Your cooks are constantly under the surveillance of your wife. You don't dine outside. So where's the opportunity?”
He couldn't tell the Doctor from where did he expect the threat. Instead of going back home for rest, he stayed overtime in office. It was raining heavily outside like it's raining now. Everybody left the office barring Ranojit who was apparently immersed in a pile of files but his mind was somewhere else. Kakoli might be in someone's arms now. They must be taking the advantage of his absence. He couldn't think more. He was feeling weak. The clock had struck 8. He decided to head home. The rain was getting heavier but he switched the car keys on. His thoughts centred around the same aspects. Being bogged down, he quite under the influence of a queer suspicion took a different route back home. May be his wife and her illicit lover were involved in their surreptitious dalliances. He stopped the car just a few meters ahead of the rear end of the house and watched the back door with the eyes of a hunter. It was still raining heavily. The backyard had one lamppost which was at least 30 yards away from the gate which created a dearth of light in the area. The house appeared dark too from the outside. May be the electricity has gone off or may be the evil souls needed darkness. Anything sinister thrives in the dark.
He took out his cigar and continued waiting. A strange conviction possessed him. Someone must be inside. The bloody swine will come out soon and he will exit by the backdoor only.
Minutes passed and nothing happened. Rain was showing no mood to slow down. The only sounds that could be heard were that of crickets and frogs. And then someone opened the door cautiously. It was a hooded figure fully draped in a raincoat. The light was bleak but still Ranojit could figure out that the body was moving in the direction of the muddy field. It walked at a brisk pace and Ranojit immediately took out his torch and barged towards the moving figure.
Just at the outstretched yard he caught hold of the stranger appearing right in front. The hooded figure became terrified. Ranojit finally caught hold of the wretched creature. He switched the torch on and the lights dazzled the figure. Ranojit was shocked to the extreme. It was none other than his deputy Sameer. He couldn't believe his eyes. It was that shy fellow in the office who have been backstabbing him. The phone caller was right. He didn't have the slightest idea of the nasty game going around. Without able to control his temper, Ranojit hit Sameer hard on his skull with the torch. It was a metal torch and the blow was too much for Sameer to handle. He got knocked unconscious and fell on the ground. Ranojit was still thirsty for revenge. He picked up the motionless body of Sameer and dragged him inside the car. He drove till the abyss marking the southern border of the estate. He got down from the car and pulled the body from the backseat. Then he pulled Sameer all the way to the steep end of the abyss and pushed him below. The rascal has paid the price of deceitfulness. Ranojit’s blood was still boiling with rage. How could Kakoli betray him? She needs to be punished too. He drove his car till the house again and this time he entered through the front entrance. The building seemed to have been painted pitch black. May be the electricity had gone off. “Where she could be” he thought. He proceeded a bit forward and saw a tinge of light coming from the right. It emanated from the right hand side drawing room. She must be in there. Slowly he opened the door and there she was. She was elegantly dressed in a light green saree. The diamond necklace shone brightly across her neck and she greeted her husband with a cheerful smile. She was seated on the centre sofa and to her right were Mr and Mrs. Gordon. Ranojit could not decipher what was happening. It felt as if he was in a trance. Philip stood up and the words pierced his senses.
“Well Rano we heard that you were unwell so Clara and me decided to pay you a visit.” – he said with a smile.
“Sameer came along with us from the city office but young man you seem to be growing into a workaholic. We were enjoying some fine wine and music courtesy Mrs. Guha.”
Clara chipped in “That's when Philip felt the urge to gulp his newly brought Cognac. He himself was going out to bring it from the cottage when Sameer intervened. But strangely enough the poor soul hasn't returned yet.”
Ranojit was literally trembling. He couldn't bear it anymore. So Sameer was trying to bring wine from Gordon's cottage and he killed him!!!! Hours passed, the rains ceased and the party was becoming more and more anxious. There wasn't a trace of Sameer. Ranojit retired to bed citing illness. The police conducted search and roving enquiries and the very next day the body was recovered from the deep pit. Due to lack of evidence, the death was termed an accident. Ranojit resigned and left the estate permanently with his wife.
The seated figure was done with his narrative. It was about the crack of dawn. The conservative western attire, the moustache and the hollow eyes appeared prominent now. The ghost seemed to have lifted off a huge burden from his shoulders. It resumed softly
“Since then I have been wandering aimlessly. I just wanted to confess what happened.”
I replied “You are Sameer right?”
The apparition nodded.
I became further tensed “What are you seeking? Revenge?”
“Atonement” – the words gushed out.
I became a bit puzzled. “What would you atone for? You were the victim.”
The figure remained silent for a few minutes and in a remorseful tone replied “From that night, there wasn't a single phone call from that unknown caller.”
I got further confused and tried connecting the dots. Unknown caller, the murder, phone calls ceasing and atonement for a wrongdoing. I understood and looked up to find the empty chair.
There was a silence permeating gradually which was ultimately disturbed by a knock at the door.