THE WAYFARER -Dola Dutta Roy

posted May 25, 2015, 11:35 PM by A Billion Stories   [ updated May 29, 2015, 10:04 AM ]
THE WAYFARER

By Dola Dutta Roy, Kolkata.

There was a light rap on the front door. Ratna was putting the weekly groceries away when she first heard the knock. By the time she managed to get past the bulging grocery bags mounted on the floor, the rap grew desperate. "Coming," she said. She wiped her hands on the kitchen towel and went through the little passage that came between the kitchen and the drawing room to get to the main door. She was still not very sure of her bearings around the house they just moved in a couple of weeks back.

Shankar had managed to find the place through a broker before Ratna arrived from Delhi with Shuvam, their four-year-old son. She didn't much care for the neighborhood. It was in the outskirts of the main city in a deserted part of Calcutta’s new satellite town called Salt Lake which still had just a few small cottages on little patches of green. Some of them were coated with layers of cement waiting for a fresh coat of paint.

"Couldn't you get your broker to find a better place for us?" Ratna had asked Shankar. "This place is so far from the main city that I feel scared to step out because I know I won't be able to find my way back again." She had pouted.
"That is precisely why I like this place," Shankar had said with a mischievous grin. "Maybe, I don't want you to step out and get lost. I certainly don't want to lose you."
"Can't you ever be serious? I am serious. This place gives me the creeps. I am sure I'll never be able to find my way back if I went out. And I want you to know that I am not one of those to sit around the house and just do nothing. Once Shuvam starts school, I would like to do a few things on my own. I want to move around, Ok, Mr?”
Ratna came close to run her fingers through his hair. “Now will you ask your broker to find us a place in a more civilised part of the world?"

Shankar looked pleased and pampered. He said nothing. He lit a cigarette and was aware that Ratna was truly displeased with the selection of their home in this new town. But he liked the small two-storied house he managed to get with great difficulty, with a terrace and also a bit of green at the back to grow flowers and vegetables. There was an aura about the place. It had a sense of history and mystery.

They said the owner of the house was a public servant and with his life’s savings he had built this house but couldn’t enjoy it because of his son’s tragic death. So the family moved out and rented out the place. Living in a big city like Calcutta had never been Shankar’s dream. He had grown up in suburbia with a lot of space around where there were trees to house koyels and mainas. Besides, practically speaking, rents around this area seemed more reasonable than in areas close to the city centre. They would have to pay triple the amount for a tiny hole in Ballygunge or Lake Gardens. But how does he make Ratna see that! He too hated commuting everyday through congested areas with revolting body odours and filth enveloping him. Which is why at the end of the day, he was happy to come back to a place that was quiet and stench free. It was like heaven to him.
But Ratna was different. Coming from a clean and buzzing area like Alaknanda in New Delhi, she complained about feeling insecure in a lonely place with no friends around.

The rap on the door grew more intense.

"Coming, baba, coming. What's the hurry?" Ratna was a little annoyed at the fact that Parvati, the maid had left to pick up Shuvam from the neighbor's playground leaving her to do the cleaning up in the kitchen and answering doorbells. The local grocer had delivered the package some time back and she was hoping Parvati would give her a hand in putting all the stuff away. Somehow the heat in the city drove her to madness to the point of being listless and lazy.

Ratna unconsciously ran her fingers through her hair to tidy it a bit and mopped her face with the end of her dupatta. It could be Shankar. He hated to wait outside the door for too long. She looked at her wristwatch. There was yet some time for Shankar to return home. He usually got back around seven and it was not yet six. She hoped that it wasn't any vendor ringing the bell to sell something. There always seemed to be an endless race of them moving from door to door to offer their fares to bored housewives.
She opened the door gingerly.

"Sorry to bother you, Ma'am," said a young man in his twenties. He looked tired and kind of anxious. Ratna tried to think if she had ever seen him. He wore a pair of blue jeans and a white shirt with thin checks on it. His hair was untidy and a night-old growth on his face gave him a scruffy look. She was trying to get used to the way Bengalis looked and behaved in this part of the world. They were ever so polite and respectful towards women, she thought.
"I am sorry to trouble you." The young man said. Ratna decided she had never set eyes on him.

The young man was very apologetic. "I didn't mean to disturb you, Ma'am. I was looking for Mr. Nair. I have some business with him."
"Oh, I see." Ratna was a little embarrassed...” But he is not back yet from work. Should be back soon. Would you like to wait for him?" Ratna said falteringly.
"If it's not too much trouble." The young man looked relieved. There was something about his eyes. They looked so mournful, Ratna thought. She hoped the man was not here for financial help from her husband. As it is Shankar was always running short of money for every little thing. She looked at the young man and wondered what to expect.

The man turned back to wave at the taxi that was parked at some distance from the house and Ratna followed his gaze.
"I'll just ask him to wait for me here. I'll be back in a minute, Ma'am.“
The man gave an embarrassed smile and stepped down to go through the small gate that stood decoratively in front of the shabby old house with a new name plate hanging on the outside. He went and spoke to the cab driver and moved back to the house where Ratna still stood wondering if she had done the right thing by asking him to come in and wait. She had plenty to do in the kitchen and there was no sign of Parvati and the kid.

Ratna asked the young man to make himself comfortable and at home. "Don't worry, Ma'am. I'll be all right." He said with an embarrassed laugh. “My name is Debdulal Ghosh. I am a reporter and I am covering a project taken up by the UNESCO that is doing some work on the spread of arsenic in West Bengal. That's why I wanted to have a talk with Mr. Nair…. I didn't mean to give you trouble."

"No, it's no trouble at all," Ratna smiled. She was a little relieved to learn that Debdulal was not here to get money from her husband. She heard the taxi move up to the front of the gate and stop.

"It's so difficult to get cabs around here. I thought it best to ask him to wait." He bared his slightly uneven teeth with a nervous smile.

"Yea, I think that's the best thing to do. Taxis are difficult to find here. Especially this side which is quite a way from the main road." Ratna sat down at the edge of the sofa facing the young man. She had left the front door wide open to be able to look out for Shankar to return. The man seemed harmless but she had never seen him and wondered if Shankar was going to be happy about letting him in.

"Would you like to have some tea?" Ratna was surprised to find herself offering him the age-old Indian brand of hospitality.
"No, thank you. If I can just get a glass of water......." the man left the sentence unfinished.
"Certainly," Ratna was happy to be able to disappear from his sight for a while. This would give her an opportunity to think. She wished Parvati would return with the child and Shankar would also come back home soon. She found herself getting annoyed with him for not having told her about his appointment with some stranger. They were yet to get their phone connection.
"Thank you, Ma'am," the young man got up to take the glass of water from Ratna. He drank it all up rather fast. While he tried to put it back on the centre table, he tripped and the glass jumped out of his grip crashing to the ground with splintering bits of glass flying all over the floor. The man fell over the same and there was a trickle of blood oozing from his forehead and palms that held him back from the fall. Ratna gave out a shriek and ran to help him get up. Debdulal was embarrassed and started stammering as he got up.
"Oh, no, that’s okay, Madam. I’m fine, I can manage,” He pushed himself up and sat carefully on the sofa. “I-I am really sorry, I broke your glass." He started picking up the broken pieces. He got the big pieces and heaped them on top of the small tray on the table. By then the blood from his forehead had traveled to the collar of his shirt and was threatening to pour out with a vengeance.
"Let me get some dettol for you," Ratna said looking a little worried.
"Oh, no. Please don't bother." Debdulal rubbed his wound with his shirtsleeves. Ratna was horrified. She insisted that he wash the wound with some dettol.
"That's alright, Ma'am. If you could show me the restroom, that'll be fine." Debdulal was apologetic. Ratna guided him through the passage to the restroom downstairs next to the kitchen.

She showed him the medicine cabinet on the wall where he could find the things he needed to treat his wound. Debdulal said a faint 'thank you' and locked the door behind him. Ratna stood there for a while with a puzzled look on her otherwise pleasant face. She went back to the drawing room to clear the mess on the floor. She was busy picking up the small pieces of broken glass when Parvati returned to say that the birthday party was not over yet at the neighbor’s and that Shuvam would return later.
"Who is going to bring him back?" Ratna sounded irritated.
"Aunty-ji said her son, Ajay, will drop him back when the party is over. There are so many children, Bhabi, and they are making such a racket." Parvati was filling in the details about the birthday party. "They have a paper animal hanging from the ceiling. All the kids are poking at it with hockey sticks and, believe me, the animal was raining toys and sweets wrapped in silver-paper." Parvati's eyes were shining with glee and she hoped Bhabi would also share some of her excitement. She took the mop from Ratna and got busy cleaning the floor while she jabbered away.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. They always have something like that at children's birthday parties." Parvati was a little surprised to hear the tone of Ratna's voice and her disinterest in the whole matter.

It was not before a good twenty minutes that Ratna realised that Debdulal was still not back from the restroom. She asked Parvati to go see if the bathroom was still occupied. The man looked so vague. What if he couldn't find his way back to the drawing room and was loitering around the house! She frowned at the thought of it. What if he’s loaded with a gun or some weapon! She shuddered.

A few minutes later Parvati came back to say that the restroom door was slightly ajar and that there was no noise coming out of it. Ratna was stunned. Where was Debdulal? She grabbed Parvati's arm and took her in.

"What are you saying?" she whispered. "I let the man in and he went into the toilet. Where can he be?" She checked the bathroom door and the kitchen. But neither of them saw any sign of Debdulal anywhere downstairs.
Suddenly it struck Ratna that the man didn't seem stable after all and, possibly out of curiosity had perhaps taken the stairs to go up.

"Parvati, let's go upstairs to see if that gentleman is there?"
"What gentleman are you talking about, Bhabi? I don't know what he looks like." Parvati was a little puzzled. She was sure, Bhabi had lost her mind! She realised that there was fear in Bhabi's voice. What man had she let in at this time of the day, she wondered.
Ratna ran to the kitchen to look for something. She could only find the kitchen knife. She grabbed that hiding it under her pallu.

The two women hung on to each other and crept up the steps that led to the bedrooms upstairs. They stood at the end of the last step and waited for any uncanny sounds they might hear. What was even more disconcerting, was the fact that there was none. And when the front door suddenly shut with a bang, both of them almost jumped out of their skin.

"Where is everybody? Ratna!" Shankar was back. Ratna was relieved to hear his voice from downstairs. She ran down the stairs with Parvati following suit.
"Oh, you're back. Thank God!" She stopped to take a deep breath
"What's the matter? Why was the front door left open?" Shankar was busy loosening his tie when he realised that there was something truly wrong. He studied Ratna's partly frightened and partly confused expression and added, "Why is that taxi standing there in front of our house? Who is here?"
"Sh-sh," Ratna whispered. She looked frightened. "There is a man inside."
"A man? What man?" Shankar was really confused.
"Some guy called Debdulal Ghosh. He wanted to see you. He went inside........"
"Inside?" Before Ratna could finish her sentence Shankar hissed. "Went inside? Why? Who is this Debdulal?"
"How should I know? He said he wanted to see you regarding some UNESCO project."
"And you let him in?" Shankar was really mad this time.
"Well, he said he knew you and would like to wait for you to come back."
"And?" Shankar questioned her looking angry.
"And then he broke a glass and cut himself. He wanted to go to the loo to wash the wound..." Ratna was almost in tears. She knew Shankar was not going to understand the rest of the story. "And now he is nowhere to be found." She mumbled.
"I don't believe it!" Shankar threw up his arms. "Where is he?" He charged through the passage to the bathroom, kitchen and ran up to the bedrooms upstairs. Debdulal was nowhere. Not even in the bathroom.

Shankar grew increasingly worried and suspicious. He took the stairs that led to the terrace, which he had virtually turned into a terrace garden. What if the man was waiting there with a gun or a weapon to strike after midnight? He was getting really worked up. He had meant to put a grill-gate to the door that led to the terrace but had been putting the project off. He pushed the terrace door carefully. The evening air was filled with the fragrance of the chamelis and juhis he had potted so lovingly once. The sky was already quite dark and the lights from neighboring houses didn't really help much. He stepped into the terrace and looked around. There was nobody. He realized that there was no scope for anybody to hide behind the water tank as it was placed flush against the wall. Where could the man disappear? He couldn't have taken the back door that was kept locked at all times. Still he decided to go down to check it out. The back door was shut and sealed. No soul could step out that way. Ratna looked terrified and when the doorbell rang she shrieked.

Parvati went and opened the door. It was Shuvam. Ajay, the young man who brought him back from the neighbor's, greeted her. But there was another person standing outside.
"Bhabi, please come this side," Parvati called out. Shuvam had already run inside to greet his dad. He had his hands full with back- presents from the birthday party. He wanted to show them to his dad. They all moved to the front door. The man standing next to the neighbor's son Ajay was the taxi-driver in his shabby grey uniform.

"How long am I going to wait, Memsaab?" the cabbie said. "I have been waiting for more than an hour. Please call the young man visiting you to pay me my fare and let me go. It’s going to cost him double the amount he agreed to pay me." The arrogant frown on his face proved that he was cheesed off with the kind of waiting he had been doing.

Shankar moved in behind Ratna and frowned. The driver looked at Shankar and wondered if he had said something out of turn in his presence and lowered his voice. "Saab, you can take his things from the cab. I just need my fare and leave Can I get it?" His tone was different this time.
"Wait a minute," Shankar moved forward. "You brought the young man here?"
"Yes. Why?" The driver was a little taken aback.
"He hasn't left yet? I mean, you haven't seen him leave this house?"
"Why Saab, I have been waiting here since he told me to park the taxi out there," the taxi-driver pointed to the spot where the cab was parked in front of the house. "I couldn't miss anybody even if it was a small fly."
"Where did you pick him up from?" Shankar was curious.
"Why, from Shyambazaar. He seemed to be in a hurry. There was a big accident there and he told me to get out of there as fast as possible. I took the longer but clearer route and got here as fast as I could.” He looked puzzled. “Why, Saab, is anything wrong?"
"Well, no, nothing as such. You said he has left some things in the car. Could you bring them here?" Shankar was confused. He was getting more and more baffled by the minute with the turn of events.
"Sure, why not?" The cabbie stepped out and moved towards his cab. Ajay, the young man from the neighbor's, was getting curious. “I’ll go with him." He told Shankar who nodded.

They brought back a cotton carry bag and a plastic folder containing some yellowing newspaper cuttings. The carry bag had a plastic water bottle, half-empty, a folded newspaper and a notebook. There was nothing suspicious or unusual about anything. Shankar looked at Ratna who seemed quite terrified and was clutching on to Shuvam. Shankar opened the notebook. There were pages full of reports from various sources. The thing that he found a little unusual was the dates marked on them. They were all marked between September 1989 - August 1990. It was obviously an old notebook.

Shankar picked up the yellowing newspaper from the bag and turned the pages while others pored over it to see if any suspicious looking object was embedded in it. It was a Bengali daily. He couldn't tell the date on it. He asked Ajay to read it out to him. It was dated August 22nd, 1991 exactly three years ago to the date. As he turned the pages, Ratna suddenly gave out a cry.
"That's him. That's him. Debdulal Ghosh," she covered her mouth, almost happy to be able to give a face to the name of the guy they were all worrying about. “Your friend,” she looked hopefully up at Shankar.
“My friend! Are you out of your mind?” He grew exasperated. “This is an obituary.”
Ajay took a close look at the picture of the young man in the photograph and looked shocked. "Yeah. That's Debuda." He stared at Shankar and Ratna for a while who stood there with eyes dilated with horror creeping in. He took the paper from Shankar's hands and read out the piece of news. "That's Debuda," he said again his voice faltering. "They used to live in this house some years ago when we were young. But..." he stopped to take a deep breath.
"But what?" Shankar sounded impatient. Ratna gasped.
"But he can’t be here today.” He looked frightened.
“Why not?” Shankar’s face clouded.
“Because….he died in a road accident three / four years back…. umm, from a head injury." Ajay handed back the newspaper to Shankar. "The picture is with the obituary from the publishing house he worked for," he said, looking at all the stunned faces around him.

**************************** THE END *****************************
Author's notes: The story was seen in a dream and recounted for your reading.
Written in JANUARY 2014

Word Count 3588


Submitted by: Dola Dutta Roy
Submitted on: Sun May 24 2015 15:02:28 GMT+0530 (IST)
Category: Original
Language: English


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