The Pakud Case

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The Covid19 pandemic and the lockdown thereof have people wondering whether this is a natural virus coming from animal source or artificially created albeit by accident in a science laboratory. There is a section of society who would like to categorize the Covid19 as bio-terrorism and they do have buyers of their theory.

My friend Indrajit Roychowdhury in his article on the subject (https://indroyc.com/2020/04/22/coronavirus-new-blueprint-for-bio-terrorism/) has highlighted the use of biological weapon that gave shape to epidemics and I quote him as under …

“By the fourteenth century, the idea that the immediate cause of epidemics was some sort of corruption in the air was widely accepted. It was believed that this corrupted air could gain entrance to the body by way of the lungs or through wide-open pores in the skin as a result of excesses, bathing, or heat. Also in the fourteenth century, additional prominence was given to the idea of contagion. In the theory of contagion, the “poison” was originally generated in man himself and spread person-to-person by contact with the sick or dead, or with their personal effects (fomites).

A report by the Italian chronicler Gabriel de Mussis of the siege of Caffa (1345–47) is often credited as describing an early deployment of a “biological weapon”, thus triggering the “Black Death” in Western Europe. He reports that Mongol troops threw plague victims into the city with catapults, thus contaminating the inhabitants. However, re-evaluation of historical, biological and epidemiological data indicates that the spread of the disease was probably an inevitable consequence of the intense trade relations along the coasts of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Therefore, the alleged catapulting of infected corpses would rather have been a marginal contribution to the diffusion of the disease (if it took place at all). The infection was subsequently spread by refugee ships via ports at Constantinople and along the Mediterranean trading routes and harbours towards Genoa, Marseille and Venice, thus initiating the Plague in Europe.”

However, this story is closer home in India and happened in the last century. This is perhaps the very first murder committed using biological weapon in India. We are aware of numerous cases of murder by poisoning but those were poisons with single or limited use like curare or cyanide etc. but this is one for mass killing used for a single murder. Read on….

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26th November 1933, Howrah Station: The Prince of Pakud (now in Jharkhand State) Royalty Shri Amarendra Chandra Pandey along with his sister Princess Bonbala Devi were walking on the crowded platform towards their train coach having bought their tickets for the journey to Pakud. Their elder brother Prince Vinayendra Chandra Pandey has come along to see them off and was walking a little distance behind trying to dodge the oncoming disoriented crowd.

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“Auch” cried Prince Amarendra holding his arm in pain. “What happened brother” asked Princess Bonobala Devi. “I collided with a person and felt a sharp pricking pain in my arm” replied Amarendra still holding his affected arm. Bonobala turned around to see who could have collided with her brother and could get a glimpse of a beggar wrapped in dirty shawl looking back at them. By now Vineyandra too joined them and enquired “Hey, what happened? Let me see.”

Vineyandra took his brother on the side away from the crowd and Amarendra took his shirt off to show where it hurt. There was a small pinhole and instead of blood it had a yellowish drop of fluid.

“Let’s go to a doctor right now, I am very scared dada”, insisted Bonobala. But Amarendra laughed at the suggestion and said, “Huh, it is hardly any injury warranting a visit to the doctor.” Vineyandra suggested to checking with the doctor once they reach Pakud to which Amarendra agreed.

Once they were on way to Pakud, Bonobala again said, “Dada, I am very scared. I now remember having seen that guy at the cinema hall near the ticket counter… same clothes and the dirty shawl!!”

You are getting paranoid, sister, retorted Amarendra. However, after 6 hours of train travel upon reaching Pakud, Amarendra’s arm had swelled up and he was running high fever. Next day Bonobala along with their family friend Kamalaprasad took him back to Kolkata for consultation with Dr. Naliniranjan Sengupta.

After checking him the doctor said, “He is suffering from Septicemia.” Dr. Sengupta clarified that septicemia is a contagious infection that spreads to body parts very fast and is lethal. To confirm whether the infection is viral, the doctor sent Amarendra’s blood sample for culture and at the same time started the treatment to contain the infection. However, before the blood culture report could come, Amarendra at the young age of 20 years passed away on 4th December 1933. His last rites were performed by his elder brother Vineyandra.

When the blood culture report finally came, Dr. Naliniranjan Sengupta was dumbfounded. The report said, “Growth of Yersinia pestis.” In other words, it is a virus causing plague… it could be bubonic, pneumonic but instead it was septicemia. Since the body of Amarendra was already cremated, postmortem could not be done but the suspicion remained.

The following day, Dr. Sengupta, Bonobala and Kamalaprasad went to see the Deputy Commissioner of Police. At first the DCP was not convinced about any foul play but at the persistence of Bonobala and Dr.Sengupta agreed to get the matter investigated. He gave the charge of the case to seasoned detective inspector Sharatchandra Mitra but warned him that it was a sensitive high profile case and therefore the image of Calcutta Police should not get tarnished.

The very next day Inspector Sharatchandra along with Bonobala and Dr. Sengupta went to the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine situated at Central Avenue. In those days, the institute was amongst the pioneers in the field of tropical and viral diseases. They with the director of the institute and asked him a direct question, “Can Septicemia happen if the plague virus comes in direct contact with the blood of the victim?” The answer was “Yes, if it comes in contact with an infected or injured part of the body.” Sharat Babu asked Bonobala if there was any such injury on Amarendra’s body. She hesitated and then said, “No, not any injury as such but he collided with a person at the Howrah Station and he felt sharp jab on his arm. It seemed like some injection needle had pierced his upper arm.” Dr. Sengupta confirmed having seen such a mark on his body.  Inspector Sharatchandra turned towards the director once again and asked, “Can this virus be injected in the body?” The director said, “It’s very strange and I haven’t come across such cases but yes, it is a possibility.” “Are there any cases of plague in the country reported?” Sharat Babu asked. “No, there are no reports of any plague anywhere in India. We would have known if there was any.” replied the director of the institute.

Coming out from the institute, Inspector Sharatchandra asked Bonobala if she can describe the person who collided with Amarendra so that a sketch can be made. She agreed but even after the sketch was circulated across all police stations, the man couldn’t be traced.

Inspector Sharatchandra went back to the Tropical Institute for another chat with the director. “Other than the infected body of the victim, where else can one find this virus?” he asked. “Well, the Halfkine Institute in Bombay is working on a vaccine for the plague, they will have the bacillus for research purposes”, replied the director.

The very next day, Inspector Sharatchandra left for Bombay to meet the director of Halfkine Institute. He had a list of questions…. (1) Where do you keep the plague bacilluss? (2) How secure is the place and who is in charge of the security? (3) Are all the units of bacillus safe and not pilfered in the last couple of months? “The security for such deadly virus is absolutely secure and no, not a single phial is missing” replied the director.

As Inspector Sharatchandra got up to leave, the director said, “I just remembered an instance that happened few weeks back… a diploma holder from Tropical Institute, Calcutta had come asking for sample of the virus for his research project. Since his project was not govt sanctioned, we refused him the sample. Then again he came back with letter of recommendation of two doctors of medicine. But we refused once again as none of those doctors were government authorized. I don’t know how far this information is useful to you.” Inspector Sharatchandra smiled at the director and said, “Please give me the details of those three people from your records.”

The records revealed the names; the diploma holder was Dr. Taranath Bhattacharya and the doctors who had given the reference are Dr. Durgaratan Dhar and Dr. Shibapada Bhattacharya, all three of them are residents of Pakur!! Moreover, Dr. Taranath was the official doctor for the Royal Palace of Pakud. However, further investigation confirmed Dr. Taranath Bhattacharya to be a fake doctor having some work experience as a bacteriologist at some laboratory in Calcutta. The other two were genuine doctors of good repute.

Inspector Sharatchandra announced to the DCP, “Sir, please issue the arrest warrants, I have found the culprits.” The following day all three were arrested from Pakud and brought to Calcutta for interrogation. Under extensive interrogation, Taranath accepted that he had gone to Halfkine Institute for the bacillus of plague because he needed it to confirm the efficacy of antidote he invented, but they refused. Both the doctors, Durgaratan and Shibapada confirmed his story and said they had given the reference letter in good faith.

The police couldn’t deny their logic and had to release them on bail. The two doctors had no motive behind the murder but Taranath being the house physician was not fully above suspicion. His claim of finding the antidote for plague and therefore needing the virus sample sounded too convenient a story. Inspector Sharatchandra started looking at all the clues right from the beginning…

    1. Amarendra died of plague
    2. However, there’s no plague pandemic anywhere in the country
    3. Therefore, the virus must have come from the laboratory

But how? As per the director of Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine, the plague virus bacillus is available only at the Halfkine Institute, Bombay. Therefore, it must have come from there only by some means!!

Inspector Sharatchandra once again met with the director of Halfkine Institute. “Have you given the plague virus bacillus to anyone in the last few months for any kind of research?” he asked the director. “Well, Infectious Disease Hospital, Arthur Road had requisitioned few phials of plague bacillus which we supplied to them.” Came the reply from the director of Halfkine Institute. Inspector Sharatchandra rushed to the Arthur Road hospital and met with the directors, Dr. Mehta & Dr. Patel and asked, “Where are the phials of plague bacillus that you requisitioned from Halfkine Institute?” The answer was not only shocking but astonishing too…

“A young man from Bengal had come to do research on plague vaccine. He claimed to have developed a vaccine for plague and needed the plague bacilli to test the efficacy on rats. So we arranged for the bacillus from Halfkine Institute. However, his vaccine was a failure as all the rats died. But he left for Calcutta sighting personal emergency even before the results were confirmed.”

“Can you confirm if the research scholar used all the samples or have taken out a phial with him?” Inspector Sharatchandra asked. “We have no clue about that” replied the director duo in unison.

“Is this the person?” Sharat babu asked showing the picture of Taranath. “Yes” confirmed Dr. Mehta & Dr. Patel.

“Isn’t it a bit irresponsible on your part to allow an outsider to play with such deadly virus without any background checks?” Inspector Sharatchandra admonished the directors. “What can we do? He came with recommendation from a very influential person. We have the letter of recommendation in our files.” Dr. Mehta replied.

Dr. Patel took out the personal file of Taranath and showed the letter of recommendation. The letter was signed by none other than Vinayendra, the elder brother of the victim Amarendra. Inspector Sharatchandra called up his boss, the deputy commissioner of police immediately and said, “I have cracked the case, Sir. Please arrange for the arrest warrants….”

Vinayendra alongwith Taranath were arrested and confessed to their crimes. The plot was hatched to eliminate Amarendra so that all the wealth of Pakud Royalty would belong to the elder stepbrother and he can splurge it on gambling and womanizing.  The idea of using plague bacillus was ensure that the death would be treated as natural cause; which probably would have but unfortunately for them, there was no epidemic of plague anywhere in India at time and thus the cause of death became suspicious.

The case in Calcutta High Court was famously followed by the press as well as public at that time. Both the culprits were found guilty and sentenced to death. However, on appeal, the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment at “Kalapaani – the Cellular Jail at Andaman’s”.

The actual murderer – the man at the railway platform & the weapon – the hypodermic syringe with plague bacilli were never found.

Tit for Tat

It was a wonderful summer evening and all the animals in the jungle forgot about their differences and were enjoying the lavish annual summer party. There were sumptuous meals to savor and choicest beverages to drink.

All the animals seem to enjoy this once in a year gala party. The bonhomie was apparent as one could see the wolf dancing with the deer forgetting that they are otherwise sworn enemies.

All this while the stork was enamored by the handsome fox that seemed to enjoy his meal and drink merrily from the pitcher. The fox was indeed very smart with his tanned fur which glowed in the clear moonlight. The stork did her best to attract the attention of the fox and finally managed a seat next to the fox.

They got into a conversation and soon were dancing together. They danced as if they were seasoned dancers and had several dances together before the evening nearly ended.

The fox was very pleased and asked the stork, “Why don’t you join me for dinner next week?” The stork was more than eager and said “Sure, I will come next Saturday.”

The following Saturday the stork spent much of the day cleaning her feathers one by one and streaking them with her beak to make them shine and reached the fox’s house at the appointed time.

The fox greeted the stork, “Oh Ms. Stork, you are looking wonderful today and your feathers are shining like the moonlight.” “Thank you”, the stork said blushing at the complement.

The fox played the music and they again had dance for sometime. After a while the fox excused himself to set the dinner table. A very appetizing smell came from the kitchen and the stork felt hungry. Soon the fox came with two large plates filled with soup and placed one in front of the stork and said “Enjoy the soup.”

The stork tried hard to drink the soup from the plate which was shallow but could manage only a few drops. She started to get exasperated but did not show her displeasure out of courtesy and hoped that the handsome fox will notice the problem and help her.

Meanwhile the fox was greedily slurping his soup noisily and was oblivious to the discomfiture of the stork. He looked up only when he had finished the last drop of the soup from his plate. Looking at the almost untouched plate of the stork he said, “Aha, you really have a very small appetite or perhaps the taste did not suit you, Ms. Stork!”

Saying this he pulled the plate of the stork and gulped down her portion of the soup too.

The stork was very upset at this rude behavior of the fox but did not show her anger. She said, “I would very much like to reciprocate this lovely evening that we spent together. Why don’t you come over to my place next week?” The fox readily agreed to the proposal.

On the appointed date the fox got ready and reached the house of the stork well ahead of the time. He sniffed the air and was delighted to smell the delicious aroma that filled the air around. He knocked on the door and was warmly welcomed by the stork who herself was looking very bright.

After chatting for a while, the stork went to kitchen to get the dinner. She came back with two flagons filled with delicious stew and placed them on the table. “Bon appetite” she said and concentrated on her stew. The fox looked at the flagon and thought ways to drink the stew. He thought of asking for a plate but the stork was engrossed in her meal and paid little attention to the fox. Exasperated, the fox tried to drink from the flagon but got his nose stuck inside, instead.

The stork finished her stew and looked up. “What, you don’t like the stew, Mr. Fox? No problem, I will finish it off.” Saying this stork picked up the flagon and started drinking the stew that was given to the fox.

The fox was very angry and said, “Ms. Stork, this was no way to treat your guest. You are not only selfish but rude too. I will never come to your house again.” The stork said, “That be true but you are the one who showed me the way. Remember, when I came to your place, how you had treated me!”

It was tit-for-tat. The fox realized his folly and walked over to stork “Sorry Ms. Stork, it was my mistake. I promise to mend myself and be a good host in future” saying this fox walked away slowly from there.

Friends for Life

Once, long ago in a dense forest lived many animals, some were vegetable eaters and some carnivorous, who preyed on other living creatures. Among them was a fierce Lion who ruled the forest and the tiny mouse who lived in a tree hole along with his family.

The animals in the forest were both hunters and hunted. The bigger animals preyed on the smaller animals and were fearful of being hunted by the humans someday. The lion went about his hunting without any fear from other animals as he was strong and fearless. The Mouse went hunting for food with a fear that some big animal will eat him up one day and therefore was cautious in his whereabouts.

And it so happened one day ….

The mouse, while hunting and gathering food for his family; went very far from his den and was getting late. He was rushing back home when he encountered the big lion sitting on the very track that leads to his home. At first, the mouse thought of going back and trying some other route to his home but it was getting very late. The mouse looked closer at the lion and saw that the lion was sleeping. So the mouse took a chance and got on to the tail of the lion and then on to the back of the lion. The lion was only dozing and the nimble walk of the mouse tickled him all over his body. The lion waited till the mouse reached his head and gave a jerk which made the mouse fall just in front the fearful lion. The mouse started shivering with fear but did not loose his mind. Gathering all his wits he said, “O mighty lion spare me. I have a family to feed and I am but only a tiny creature not worth your feed.”

The lion roared, “But you have disturbed my sleep and I must punish you for that.”

“If you spare my life today, I promise to come in good stead and repay your kindness someday” said the mouse, now little composed.

The lion laughed out loud and said, “What a tiny creature like you can do for me? I am big and fearful. All the other animals are scared of me.” But the lion just had his meal was otherwise quite contended and thought the little mouse won’t satiate him so he said again, “Okay, I will spare you for today but don’t ever come my way again.”

That was enough for the little mouse and he scurried home as fast as he could.

The days went by and the lion had forgotten all about that incident but the mouse remembered and knew that during his lifetime he must return the lion’s kindness.

Though in the forest the lion was the king, there were still dangers from other kind animals called Humans, who hunted not for food but for pleasure and were more cunning than the animals in the forest.

One day a group of hunters (humans) were in the jungle for hunting and they laid a trap with nets on the tree above and a big loaf of meat for the big cat. The lion was hunting on the other side of the forest and did not see the hunters. He roamed freely and reached the spot where the hunters had laid the trap. The lion could see the meat loaf and thought, “Aha, there is ready food and I don’t have to hunt.” He went nearer and as soon as he pawed at the meat loaf, the net above on the tree fell on him. The lion sensing the betrayal, tried to wriggle out of it but more he tried, he got entangled in the net. The lion got exhausted and felt doomed.

It was by chance that the mouse was returning home in the evening when he saw the lion and his predicament. The mouse remembered his promise to the lion and immediately rushed towards him. The lion looked at him and said, “Go away, can’t you see I am doomed, the hunters will come soon and slay me.”

The mouse did not say anything and went on his task of chewing at the rope of the net. The ropes were strong and it took lot of strength for the mouse to chew them. He went on relentlessly and by the dawn could make a sizable gap in the net for the lion to come out.

The lion got out and thanked the mouse for saving his life. The mouse said that he merely returned the kindness once shown by the lion himself.

The Mouse and the Lion became friends for life for they realized that size really does not matter but the attitude and love for all that really is greater.

The Long Race

On a lovely sunny day in the jungle, all the animals were in a playful mood and relaxed. There was the Hare, the Fox, the Squirrel, the Badger, the Hedgehog, the Weasel and the Tortoise. Suddenly, the Hare started saying he is the fastest among all of them. He said, “I can beat you all in any race. Dare to race with me?”

“We are too small and slow to race with you” The Squirrel, the Badger and the Hedgehog said in unison.

“What about you, Fox” asked the Hare. “No, not me, I am too tired from hunting throughout the night.”

There was silence in the group for sometime, then with little hesitantly, the tortoise spoke, “I can give it a try, if you like.”

The Hare had a hearty laugh to him and replied, “Ah ha, so we have enterprising Tortoise accepting my challenge.” The Hare held up a Gold coin that he had picked up from a nearby barn and said, “This Gold Coin will be the prize for the winner. We will race from here to the stone bridge on the other side of this forest.”

The Hare, confident of winning the race, laughed out loud and said, “Old tortoise, you have no chance of winning this race, you are too slow. Why don’t you just relax in this bright sun instead of toiling hard for this gold coin?”

All the other animals joined in the laughter. But the Tortoise was determined and said, “Lets not waste time and start the race. Who will start us up?”

The owl that was sleeping till now fluttered his wings and said, “Tu-whit-to-whoo” signaling the beginning of the long race to the stone bridge on the other side of the forest.

The Hare was rushing as soon as the signal was give and soon he was out sight. Meanwhile the Tortoise just started plodding his heavy body in the thick forest. All the animals were sympathetic to Tortoise and cheered for him, “Bug-up, dear old one. You can surely run faster.” The Badger and the Squirrel sneered, “Its no point actually, the Hare will win hands down.”

The Tortoise, unmindful of this hullabaloo, went on his task and inched towards the stone bridge, still very far ahead. The determination was writ in his face and he kept telling himself, “Slow and steady wins the race.”

The Hare moved on relentlessly through the thick forest over the swamps and bushes and finally reached a clearing and stopped to look behind. He waited to hear any sound of anyone following him, but neither could hear any sound nor could he see any trace of the Tortoise.

The Hare laughed out as he was very pleased, he was winning by the miles. He now walked at a leisurely pace and had reached almost at the end of the forest. He could actually see the stone bridge through the bushes at a distance not very far from where he was.

The Hare liked to boast and felt that reaching the milestone without his friends watching is of no fun and that he must wait for the other animals to catch up with him before he reached the stone bridge, the final point of the long race. They must applaud him, the victor, when he beat the Tortoise.

Thinking this, the Hare sat down under a tree and felt relaxed. Soon, because of the heat the Hare dozed off to sleep.

The Hare woke up to the cool breeze that was now blowing as the sun set and he could hear the animals cheering at a distance. The Hare thought, “So my friends are all here to see me win the race!” He stretched himself and got ready to race the remaining distance.”

The hare could not imagine that all the while that he was sleeping; the Tortoise not only caught up with him but slowly moved ahead of him. Now the Tortoise was only a few a steps from the final point – the stone bridge.

The Hare moved forward cheerfully and suddenly to his horror saw that the Tortoise was much ahead of him and was actually steps away from the stone bridge. Now, even if he ran his fastest, he cannot beat the Tortoise. The other animals are cheering the Tortoise and not him which he foolishly thought to be the case.

The soft-spoken and sensible Tortoise plodded the last few steps to the stone bridge with a satisfying smile on his face. He had won the race. He had beaten the boastful Hare. All the animals gathered there, cheered, “Well done, old Tortoise, you have beaten that show-off Hare handsomely. You are the Winner.”

The Tortoise was tired by now but still he moved to the top of the bridge and waved at the crowd acknowledging their applauding. It was a proud moment for the Tortoise and he was very happy.

The poor embarrassed Hare was now ashamed of himself for he had let go a great opportunity by his arrogance and had let the Tortoise win the race. He walked up slowly to the top of the stone bridge and handing over the Gold Coin to the Tortoise said, “Congratulations, you have won the race. Here is the prize – the Gold Coin for you.”

The Tortoise very much at peace with himself said, “Its okay buddy, you can keep the Gold Coin. I never ran for the Gold Coin. I only wanted to beat you in the race. I had lots of fun today and am very happy. Just remember, the slow and steady wins the long race, always.”

All the animals laughed out loudly. They all had a wonderful fun-filled day.

The Foolish Ghost

Once upon a time there lived a poor barber along with his wife. He was so poor that he could barely afford one full meal in a day. His wife was very upset with their state of poverty and kept nagging him “You couldn’t provide me with two full meals. What kind of husband are you?”

The wife kept badgering the barber day-in day-out saying, “Why did you marry me if you cannot provide with my basic needs? I was well of at my father’s house, at least I could eat two full meals a day and don’t have to work so hard through the day.”

One day, the barber quite fed up with his wife’s nagging, left home early in the morning deciding that he will not come back till he becomes wealthy.

Through-out the day he worked very hard but still could manage only a meager amount and felt very disappointed. He kept wandering about and reached the very end of the village where the forest starts. Dejected and tired he sat down under a tree and said aloud, “What is the point of my living if I cannot gather enough food for my family?”

Now on this tree lived a very fearsome ghost, whose only hobby was to kill hapless human beings and looking at the barber he got excited about the kill he would make.

The ghost climbed down from the tree and standing in front of the barber in a shrieking voice said, “Hey barber, I will now kill you and eat you up. Nobody can save you.”

The barber though very frightened, didn’t loose his common sense and used mind cleverly and said, “What, you will kill me. Wait till I capture you in my bag where I already have one ghost. The poor ghost in my bag needs company.”

Saying this, the barber took out his mirror and held it up in front of the ghost. Meanwhile the ghost, who had never seen a mirror but have heard about the clever clan of barbers got scared and said, “Sir, I will do whatever you ask of me, just do not put me inside your bag.”

The barber not certain what to ask said, “You ghosts rarely keep your words, what is the guarantee that you will not run away?”

The ghost still shivering from fear said, “I promise to abide by your command, master. Just tell me what you want and it will be served right now here itself.”

The barber feeling very confident now said, “First get me a bag full of gold coins. Then make a big store-room (granary) at my house and fill it up with food. Also see to it that the granary is always full, never out of stock. Do this immediately.”

The ghost relieved, immediately arranged a sack full of gold coins and promised to build the granary store by the next day as he needed help from his uncle who was expert in building such things.

The barber, now a rich man started his journey back home. He reached his home in the early hours of the morning and found his wife waiting for him anxiously. Before she could say a word, the barber dropped the gold filled sack in front of her. The wife could not believe her own eyes when she saw the gold and was very happy. She hugged her husband and said, “Oh my, where did you get this treasure?” The barber with a wink replied, “Wait till evening and you will see more.”

Meanwhile the ghost got his uncle along to the barber’s house to build the granary. Uncle ghost has seen many a place and all sorts of people, was skeptical and said, “Nephew, the barber has made a fool of you. There are no ghosts in his bag.” Saying this started to peek inside the house.

The barber could sense that the ghost along with his uncle had come. He immediately held up his mirror in front of the window from where the uncle ghost was trying to look inside and said, “Don’t you try any trick now. If you two do not start the job, I will put you both in my bag along with this ghost.”

The uncle ghost looking at his own image in the mirror got very scared and screamed, “Nephew, lets get on with work, this barber is very clever and dangerous. He already has captured a poor ghost.”

Uncle and nephew got down to the task immediately and working throughout the day, not only build the granary filled it up with all kinds of food stock. The ghost-duo also promised to fill-up the granary with food every week.

The barber, now a wealthy villager, his wife contended with her fortune along with their children never had to think of the food and lived happily ever after.

Caterpillar

My Chhoto Dadu (grandpa) loves to play with words and quiz everyone around him. He is not my real grandpa, in fact he cannot be grandpa of anyone for he is a bachelor, but I and my husband Biren have been calling him as Chhoto Dadu ever  since the time we knew him.

We lost touch for some years and then suddenly, one Saturday he landed up at our Noida Sector 50 apartment along with a friend by the name of Prafulla Sarkar. He had found out our whereabouts from some common friends and decided to surprise us by paying a visit to us. We were delighted to meet Chhoto Dadu after so many years. Chhoto Dadu had come all the way from Bhagalpur, Bihar, along with eight of his friends for Delhi Darshan. Four of his friends have gone to the homes of their relatives while Chhoto Dadu and four others have checked in to a guest house.

Biren, somewhat hurt, said, “How can you do this Chhoto Dadu? Are we not your relative? Please stay with us for few days.” After a lot of persuasion, Chhoto Dadu agreed to spend the whole day with us. We ordered Delux Thalis from Haldiram that included Pulao, Parantha, Dal and three more sabjis beside a Gulab Jamun as dessert. After a fulfilling lunch, the adda began in the living room. I decided to serve tea at 4 pm, yes only tea because Biren said, he will get freshly made Samosa and Jalebi from the corner sweet shop around 5 pm when it is freshly made and then we can have another round of tea or coffee.

On the dot of 4’O clock, the doorbell rang. “I think the maid, Suravi has come. I’ll ask her to make the tea” saying so I got up to open the door. On the other side of the door were Suravi and her daughter Keya. The mother-daughter duo silently entered and went to the kitchen. I followed them too. Suravi took off her new flowery saree placing it neatly on the side rack and wearing the kitchen apron she started the process of making tea. She was wearing a matching blouse and a new petticoat. Meanwhile, Keya had gone and checked the number of people in the living room for making tea and accordingly has set up the cup-n-saucer.

I asked Keya “You didn’t go to school today?”

“Yes, I had gone to school and we are coming from there only. The Boudi of C-Block had given Ma the evening off as she was to go to my school today.”  I remembered, Suravi had mentioned in the morning that she will be going to Keya’s school as it was result day and the Principal had summoned all the parents. The New Dawn School in our sector 50 runs classes for the children of nearby JJ clusters in the evening after the regular school is over.  Suravi had gone to the school all decked up to get her daughter’s half-yearly result. Last time, the class teacher had rebuked her for not able to sign her name on the result card. The guardians are supposed to sign on the result card. So, this time, Keya had taught her mother how to write her name, only her name.

“Did she sign her name?” I asked Keya.

Keya silently gestured that she didn’t sign. In fact she did not even enter the classroom, she sat outside the room and Keya’s cousin who is senior to her had signed as her guardian.

In the living room, the adda is in full flow. Chhoto Dadu is telling some funny anecdotes, Biren & Prafulla Sarkar is laughing out loudly. I explained the chores to Suravi and went to the living room to join the adda. A little later, Keya entered, with tea and biscuits nicely placed on the tray.

“Who is she?” asked Chhoto Dadu.

I introduced Keya and said, “She has done very well in half-yearly exams. Results came out today only.”

Chhoto Dadu addressed Keya, “Okay, let me test how good you are in maths?  Question is Twenty Six soldiers are going through a street where twenty mangoes are lying, how many does each of them get?

I could see the poor girl is trying to divide 20 mangoes amongst 26 soldiers and feeling frustrated. Chhoto Dadu has a look of amusement in his eyes as are Biren & Prafulla Sarkar too. We all know the answer; it is the way of asking that is confusing to the candidate. It is actually Twenty Sikh(s) soldier going through the street where twenty mangoes are lying. So, each of them get one mango each.

Thereafter, Chhoto Dadu quizzed her English prowess and Keya passed with flying colours. I gave a few books to Keya, “You have done well in the exams, and these are your prizes.”

Then I asked her “Your mother did learnt to write her name, so what happened, why didn’t she meet the teacher?”

“She got nervous, said she wouldn’t be able to write her name in front of the teacher.” Keya replied.

“That means, your mother needs to practice more.” I said. Keya silently agreed and went back to the kitchen.

Now, Chhoto Dadu focused on me asked in Bengali, “Tell me what is Biral – toro – stambho?”

I was completely at loss, Biral in English is Cat, toro translates into Big or Bigger that means something bigger than a cat. The only thing that came to my mind was Tiger or Lion and Stambho means pillar, so this has to be Ashoka Pillar with Lion emblem, I concluded.

“Is it Ashoka Pillar?” I asked.

Both Biren & Prafulla Sarkar laughed out loudly. Chhoto Dadu with an amused expression explained “It is like in Sanskrit, Biral – Biraltoro – Biraltomo and just like that in English Cat – Cater … and Stambho is Pillar. So, if you join the words together, it will be Cater+Pillar= Caterpillar!”

I felt cheated but in a loving way. I don’t like caterpillar, the very sight of it makes me cringe. But, butterflies with their colourful appearances are wonderful.

Looking at my confused face Chhoto Dadu said, “The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is a very amazing phenomenon, isn’t it? Something similar happens with humans too. Who can predict if this little girl, Keya one day becomes Vice President in a big MNC or she can be an IAS officer too, say in next twenty years!”

What Chhoto Dadu said, made an impression on me, even I have seen such transformation in human beings, viz. Ramsewak. When Ramsewak came to our house, he was barely 11 or 12 years old, malnourished and weak. Normally, children of this age exude a kind of innocence but Ramsewak had none. The lady, who supplied us fresh buffalo milk, brought him to us one day for doing sundry odd jobs. Apparently, he came from her mother’s village where famine had stuck that year and many people had died due to hunger. The entire family of Ramsewak had perished and said she would be much obliged if we could accommodate him in our home.

Out of motherly emotion, my mother agreed to keep him for odd jobs. Although, Ramsewak was thin and weak in appearance, in reality he was a tough nut or nut case.

Within a week of his coming in to our house, Ramsewak got bitten by the street dog. There were about 5 or 6 dogs in our neighbourhood but he could not identify which one bit him. So, my father suggested that since it could not be ascertained if the dog is rabid, Ramsewak be given the full course of Rabies anti-dote. My uncle who had come on vacation from Indian Army took him to the hospital for treatment. A few months later, Ramsewak fell from the balcony of our neighbour Gursharan Singh and fractured his arm and leg. We, in all these years did not knew that one could easily jump in to their balcony from the rooftop of our kitchen. After this incident, Gursharan Singh erected a wall on his balcony to prevent trespass. My mother said “If he had done this earlier then Ramsewak wouldn’t have hurt himself.”

After school, I joined the college in Patna and became a hosteller. I would visit home only on special occasion like Durga Puja/ Dusserah, Diwali and other festival time. Every time there was a new story about Ramsewak, how he manages to destroy things that are otherwise indestructible. My mother would often say, “If only the fellow was smart enough, I would have sent him away. But this stupid fellow won’t last a day in the outside world.”

Five years have passed since Ramsewak came to our house and his antiques have become legendary, no one can dare send him to fetch sweets or other eatables from the market, half of it will go to his stomach even before reaching home. My uncle said that once when Ramsewak was sent get some Rosogolla, he had tasted each piece before putting it back in the container. I couldn’t believe this but at the same time did not wish send him to fetch the favourite sweet.

By this time, Ramsewak had started smoking but never in front of us and for this he also started stealing pennies from the money for daily shopping of grocery and veggies. Once he said that his maternal granny is unwell and he wants to visit her at Sasaram. We had no clue about his granny or any living relatives. Ramsewak said that his granny was not aware of his whereabouts all these years but have now come to know about him through some common acquaintances. He took 2 days leave and went to meet his granny. The two days became two months without any news of Ramsewak and then one day Dad got a postcard that said Ramsewak was in jail for ticketless train travel.

Biren & I and our two kids, were at Pathankot those days and even though I tried to meet my parents every year somehow two years had elapsed before I could visit them. I got to know of the above incident while visiting them. Mother informed that Ramsewak had gone to meet his granny and got stuck for two years and have come back now. She refused to divulge that he was in jail for two years for some serious crime instead of just ticketless train travel. May be keeping with the family tradition she did not want me to know the bitter truth, just like I was not told about my father’s incurable ailment. I was naïve enough not to notice the apparent ill health of my father. Unable to run his business, he had wind it up and stayed home only, meeting friends in the evenings. I thought, he had made enough money in all these years and now wanted to enjoy his retired life. Many changes have taken place in these two years; Ramsewak had become the chief concierge at our home. And this irritated me after knowing truth about him from the neighbours but my parents shrugged off all my protestations.

My husband, Biren left the govt service and decided move into private sector. First, we moved to Nigeria for three years and then to Australia for four years. My children were in boarding school and would visit us in Sydney during holidays. In all these years my contact with parents remained on phone calls only.

After spending many years in foreign soils, Biren found a job back in Bangalore, India. We settled down in a nice, peaceful locality and looked forward to visiting my parents during Durga Puja. I, alone flew down to Patna and from there took a three hour taxi journey to Arra.

On reaching my parental home, I was shocked to see the state of the house. The house crumbling down in the absence of proper maintenance, most of the rooms remain closed, unused. My father was bedridden completely and in his last few days. I spoke to Biren and decided to stay back to take care of Dad in his last days. The house that once was noisy with loads of people and merriment now stood like an ancient structure ready to submerge into mother earth, just waiting for one thunder strike.

As I had noticed, most rooms remained unused and closed. There was practically no activity in the house most of the time. My mother would spend most of her time at Dad’s bedside and would get up only prepare food for Dad and her. The third person in the house was Ramsewak who would come at fixed time like when mother would be in the kitchen, he would sit by father’s bed and read Hindi newspaper in a low voice. Once my mother would bring the food he would go away and come back in the evening. He also did errands for my parents, now and then but his main occupation was plying cycle-rickshaw.

Looking at my saddened face, Mom said, “You are mistaken, we didn’t needed money from you. Your father had the best treatment but you know when cancer strikes it will take the person along. Your father did not want to tell you all these years for you would have remained sad in the foreign soil.” May be she was right, my parents always wanted me to remain happy and guarded me against all unpleasant events and news. I wouldn’t have known the last days of my father if I had not come down for Durga Puja celebrations!!

On the ninth night my father passed away in his sleep. Ramsewak, who used to sleep on the veranda, called Dr. Verma, Dad’s physician and Mr. Shiupujan, Dad’s friend. They were the only regular visitors to my ailing father. Dad knew about his inevitable death and had made all arrangements for Mom after him. Once the last rites were performed, I wanted Mom to come over to Bangalore with me but she said that she would spend some time with her brother in Kanpur. My maternal uncle was a saintly bachelor, extremely learned person, spending his time, energy and ancestral money in social causes through his NGO.

Biren had come on hearing the sad news and his presence helped in sorting out things easily. Ramsewak spent most of his time at our house helping us with all sorts of odd errands. Biren was very impressed with his devotion to my parents and the work he had put in without being a paid employee of the family. When I told Biren about his past, he said, “Ramsewak has done the actual true duty of a son all these years. Your mother had given refuge to an orphan and he had paid back every penny to the family.” Earlier, if anybody referred Ramsewak as my mother’s son, I would feel angry, irritated but today I was flooded with an emotion of gratitude towards him.

We dropped my mother at my maternal uncle’s home in Kanpur and then went back to Bangalore. Before leaving Arra I asked Biren “Can’t we do something for Ramsewak.” Biren said, “I will try and get him an office job.” When suggested Ramsewak to come to Bangalore with us, he refused point blank and silently cried. I tried to give him some money but he refused that too. My mother cried too.

Three years later, my mother too passed away. After that we never visited Arra. The house was sold off and all my connection to that place ceased to exist completely. My mother kept up the correspondence with Ramsewak till she was alive. He used write to her in Hindi and she would ask someone to reply back in Hindi only.

Many years later, at a party I chanced upon Manisha, Dr. Verma’s daughter. She was visiting the city with her husband who had come on a project. After a few pleasantries she asked, “Have you heard about Ramsewak, poor fellow?”

“Why? What happened to him?” I asked with genuine concern in my voice.

I was shocked to hear what Manisha narrated.

Ramona Park in Arra is frequented by the morning walkers. Some time back, the daily walkers could feel a bad putrid stench coming from a section of the park that had become a sour point due to dumping of garbage despite the municipal corporation putting up a notice against garbage dumping. When the stench became unbearable, someone had informed the concerned department who cleared the mess. There was carcass of cow or bull that was the cause of the foul smell.

Ramsewak was not aware of such news. He was content in plying his rickshaw during the day and sleeping on the veranda of the Jain Mandir on Jail Road. The temple authorities did not mind his sleeping in their premises for he was like an unpaid guard of the temple at night.

 Like any other day, he had picked up his passenger, Karim Miyan from the station to drop him at Milky Mohalla and then proceed to his night shelter. As they reached Ahiri Tola, he could see a small crowd has gathered and blocked the thorough fare. Ramsewak was irritated at this kind of hooliganism. He asked, “What happened? Why is the road blocked?”

A few people from the crowd came over to his rickshaw and asked Karim Miya to get off. Ramsewak protested at this and said “What are you doing? Leave him alone.” One of the guys told Ramsewak that they won’t harm him but they want Karim Miyan to come with them. They want him to pay for killing a cow, Karim Miyan doesn’t deserve to live another day! Ramsewak tried to save his passenger in vain and in the process got fatally injured and died in hospital after two days.

An enquiry committee was set up to probe the rioting incident. The investigation concluded that morning walkers had complained to the municipal authorities who had visited the spot and cleared the garbage and the carcass. The witnesses confirmed that some people had started the rumour of killing of a cow to start a riot and disrupt communal harmony in the city. However, their efforts did not work, the rioting was curbed immediately. Only two innocent lives were lost for no reason.

We had given our Bangalore address to Ramsewak asking him to communicate if he needed any help. Biren had asked him to come over to Bangalore where he would arrange a permanent job for him. But he never took advantage of our invitation. Perhaps, he had sensed something artificial, non-genuine in our invite. He did not want to take any help from us. His relation with my parents was beyond money and material, it was a relation of heart that remained unchallenged, unbroken…

Note:

I got this story in one of my WhatsApp group long ago but did not read it at that time. Recently my phone got hanged and I needed to clean up the memory and there I found this story. In view of the recent cultural or moral policing with regard to individual’s food and dressing habit to clamping down of slaughter houses and wine vends and pubs, I found this very relevant. I do not have any clue of the original Bengali author, so could not possibly take the permission for translation but hope she will understand and forgive me for this intellectual trespass….