I cannot understand why, but the young men of this generation have developed a new sport—to go and spend a night in a haunted house. Every three months or four, I receive a group of guests.
It goes the same way each time. They arrive after sundown, bringing hurricane lamps, candles, sleeping mats, snacks and bottles of water lovingly packed from home. They come in groups of four or five, almost always the atheist, sceptical students of the Presidency College who remind me of my own youth. They sweep aside dirt and rabble from the floor, unfurl their mats, light a hurricane lamp at the centre of their circle, and settle down to tell ghost stories.
I love listening to those stories, though there is little truth in any of them.
Often, I find someone narrating how this very establishment—Malotibala Printing Press—came to be such an abandoned wreck. It is not an antique tale. Even so, the embellishments in the narrative are nothing less than dazzling.
“I have heard that, in its day, Malotibala Printing Press was the most prosperous business on Chitpur Road,” tells the young man to his companions. “Of the thirty-four printing presses along this road, Malotibala was the richest of all.” With a nod, I lean in closer to listen. “But then came its downfall—a heart-wrenching tale of unrequited love and rejection.”
. . . Oh?!
“Friends, all of us must have purchased books from Malotibala Printing Press in our schooldays. But I bet nobody remembers them,” says the storyteller. “There was nothing remarkable about the books from Malotibala in those days. Cheap prints of the Ramayana and the Mahabharat, some standard mythologicals, insipid romances—the same as every other press was churning out. We may have bought books that were printed in this very room, on that cobwebbed machine at the corner, or we may have bought the same books from another press.”
My pride somewhat injured, I continue to listen.
“But then came the big break for Malotibala Printing Press—it was approached by the immensely talented author known as Kojagori Debi!”
Sly grins of recognition appear on the listeners’ faces. The storyteller continues, “But of course, Kojagori Debi was a pseudonym. Behind it was a young lady from one of the wealthy households of the city, educated at home, not the kind of lady who can afford to be seen in mingling with the printers on Chitpur Road. Rumor is that this young lady was as beautiful as she was, hrrm, intriguing. And, as Secret Annals of the Queen by Kojagori Debi started flying off the peddlers’ boxes and booksellers’ stalls, as second and third and fourth reprints were set to run, the luckless owner of Malotibala Printing Press was falling in love.
“This chap, called Udayan Dhar, was the lowest of the low, no different from any other pulp-book printer, with little money and no pedigree. Hardly a match for the daughter of a wealthy, high-caste household, even in this age of scandal. He dared to ask her hand in marriage, and was duly despised. Heartbroken, Udayan Dhar returned to his press and committed suicide in that little compositor’s room at the back.
“Since that day, these premises have been haunted by the spirit of Udayan Dhar. His family—wanting to have nothing to do with the print business—sold off the press, but all the work started going wrong. Sheets of paper would come out blank, carefully composed pages would come out rudely misspelled, obscenities would creep into the text of respectable books. The worst assaults of the ‘printer’s devil’ were suffered by Secret Annals of the Queen by Kojagori Debi. Eventually the new owner, Bibhishon Bhattacharya, decided to shut down the press. And thus it has remained till this day.”
A collective sigh emerges as the story comes to an end. A couple of boys peer at the long shadows on the wall, trembling gently with the flame of the hurricane lamp. It is approaching midnight. I begin to talk.
“I don’t know where you heard this story,” I address the original storyteller, “but I know a different version—quite a scintillating one on its own. I will present it, if I may.”
The night is long and there’s no other entertainment in this house, so the young men consent.
“This is the story of Udayan Dhar,” I begin. “The former owner of Malotibala Printing Press was twenty-four years of age on the day he was murdered—murdered, yes! One can hardly commit suicide by clubbing himself at the back of the skull. Did not read that part in the newspaper, did you? None of the gossipmongers speak about it? Yet another miracle that money and connections can achieve.”
I relish the shock on their faces.
“Udayan Dhar was not born a pauper. His father had been a textile merchant, once quite prosperous. Udayan was the only son—stubborn, eccentric, hardly wise to the ways of the world. One of his obsessions was the printing press. As a schoolboy he had devoured those cheap romances and mythologicals. When he grew up, he wanted to print more of them.
“There is a false perception that books are a genteel business. No such thing in the murky alleyways that branch off Chitpur Road. Out here, authors steal each other’s material, turf wars between vendors turn bloody, henchmen walk about in broad daylight extorting money from the printers. Young Udayan plunged himself into this world, and unsurprisingly, he sank.
“While he struggled not to shut down his little press, one day Udayan was approached . . . not by any beautiful lady who populates these tales of romance, but a hard-knuckled hack writer whose name was Bibhishon Bhattacharya. This man had prowled these rough streets for many more years than young Udayan. ‘I have written many bestsellers with a wide variety of names,’ said the writer to Udayan, ‘but I bring you my best invention yet—a saucy young lady from a wealthy household called Kojagori Debi. She will write an account of the amorous escapades of the rich and famous women of the city, not in the least her own. Ooh, what a scandal it will be! No one will be spared Kojagori Debi’s salacious pen—all the wives and daughters of zamindars, politicians, social reformers, wealthy businessmen, doctors and professors; why even the mems of the Ingrej, so haughty and prim when they appear in public, yet inclined to unimaginable perversions behind closed doors. Kojagori Debi will expose them all! The public will eat it up! We will become millionaires!’
“It seemed like a viable project, though larger than any Udayan had handled before. He did not shy away from printing the occasional lascivious paperback—those were the books that kept any printer in profit, as much as they boasted of their mythologicals and chaste, didactic novels. But there was a catch to this particular project. In lieu of his brilliant plan and penmanship, Bibhishon Bhattacharya demanded ninety per cent of the book’s profits. He even brought his own compositor to set the pages of his book. All he wanted from Udayan were the name and the premises of Malotibala Printing Press.
“Under such unequal terms came about the publication of the now-infamous Secret Annals of the Queen. As Bibhishon Bhattacharya had predicted, the city was aflame with gossip as copies of the book flew off booksellers’ shelves before reprints could even be printed. Udayan Dhar found himself thrust to attention, maintaining the pretense of shielding the honor of his mysterious lady author, while in the shadows Bibhishon Bhattacharya was minting money. Udayan received his meagre share, but it was barely enough to keep his press running. Ceaseless reprints of Secret Annals had put a stop to his other titles. Many of his regular authors had migrated, disgruntled, to other presses. Finally, a year after Secret Annals was unleashed into the world, Bibhishon Bhattacharya approached him with another proposal.
“‘Malotibala has turned out to be my lucky press! It has made me so wealthy I may as well be Kojagori Debi myself,’ he said with one of his throaty chuckles. ‘I could buy any other press on this street—bigger, newer—but this is the one I must own.’
“To Udayan Dhar, his little press was dearer than life. He had resolved not to marry, often calling Malotibala his wife in jest. He declined the offer, but not only that. The look on Bibhishon’s face threw our young protagonist into a state of frenzy. The next day, Udayan brought in a mat and began to sleep within these walls. He no longer went home. He would’ve starved to death if not for the old lady who cooked at a nearby hotel he had patronized in his better days, who sent a boy running to Malotibala Printing Press each day with food wrapped in oily newspaper.
“His vigilance lasted a couple of weeks. Eventually, one evening, some of the other printers coerced Udayan into going with them for a concert at the akhara nearby. They had grown worried about him—he was disheveled, beginning to mumble and smell. Once the concert ended at midnight and the other men ambled on their ways home, Udayan rushed back in panic to his press.
“The night was pitch dark and all of Chitpur Road perfectly desolate; you could hear the cries of foxes wafting in from the salt marshes far along the eastern edges of the city. As Udayan approached his premises, he found the doors unlocked. He lit a candle and set it down by the door; darted to the letterpress to make sure it was unharmed. Right then, something heavy and metallic hit him hard at the back of his skull. (He would later learn it was a compositing stick.) As Udayan dropped to the ground, he could see in the candlelight the ink roller being wrenched out of the letterpress by a pair of muscular arms. In the pooling dark of the night, the scarlet of his blood ran into the crisp black of the printing ink . . .”
The listeners give off a collective shudder.
“How do you know all of this, anyway?” asks one of the young men, suspicious. “Who are you?”
The group is suddenly aware that they have one member more around the circle of light than they did when they arrived.
With a sigh, I give up my act. (Such a good act it was, too.) Someone raises the hurricane lamp to my face. I cannot help the translucent specter that’s cast on the wall behind me, unlike one of their solid shadows.
What happens next is always the same. The young men depart as quickly as their feet will carry them, screaming the names of suddenly remembered gods, always leaving their mats and water bottles behind.
The same people never come back, so I never make any friends.
• • • •
Daytime is difficult for a ghost. Stripped of its raiment of flesh and bone, the spirit scorches too fast in the sun. So I hold my curiosity for nearly a week after I notice that someone has taken up residence at Malotibala Printing Press during the hours of the day.
It is an uncanny presence. It sleeps in the furthest corner of the inner room, curled up under the letterpress, unbothered by cobwebs or dirt. It is not a dog or a cat—no stray animal, for I have reached out to its mind and sensed the contours of sapience. But its sapience is not like any human I’ve met so far. Visceral like an animal’s, but not quite. Older, vaster, oddly amorphous. What on earth is this thing?
I catch the creature on the evening of the eighth day. At dawn, it had brought back the half-eaten carcass of a goat kid. There is still meat left on it in the evening, so my lodger does not go out to hunt.
It is perfectly dark within the walls of Malotibala Printing Press when I make myself visible, but my lodger’s eyes are phosphorescent. He senses me immediately; raises his head to sniff. Then he emits a low, surprised growl. I can see the hairs on his upper body prick up. Over his lower body, somewhat awkwardly, he has managed to drape a dirty lungi.
“No need to be alarmed,” I speak, half to myself. “This is my house, but you are welcome to stay.”
The creature sniffs again, suspicious, and then, to my surprise, answers me in a gruff, awkward voice, trying out the words as he pronounces them. “You are not a man.”
“I was once,” I sigh, then shrug. “But neither are you.”
“I am now.” He pushes up on his hunches. “Or so I think.”
My curiosity knows no bounds. “Do you have a name? Who are your folks?”
“Naiwrit Ray.” The creature munches on a raw shank of goat. “My folks are tigers. But they are all dead.”
Dead . . . uh, tigers?
The creature that calls himself Naiwrit Ray lets it sink in before he says, “Ever heard of a goddess called Bon Bibi?”
Of course I had. Bon Bibi was the heroine of several mythologicals regularly printed from the Chitpur Road presses. “Patron goddess of loggers, fishermen, honey gatherers and other men who make their living off the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. She protects them from the evil claws of Dakshin Ray, deity of the man-eating tigers that roam in those forests.”
“Dakshin Ray is not evil!” My guest flares up like the beast he is. “If the men who destroy the forests can claim for themselves a divine protector, may not the forests—the animals, the rivers, the mangrove—be granted a protector of their own? Is it evil for the forest to resist the greed of man?”
He spits. “Besides, no tiger worth his skin would touch human meat if he could choose. But the tigers of the Sundarbans are hunted and left injured by men; they can no longer hunt for anything stronger or faster. Do you know how many tigers are murdered in the forest by men? I lost my mother as a cub. There were four of us in the litter, of whom only I survived to adulthood. But by then, there was no deer or rabbit left to hunt in the forests. One night, after I had starved for days, I skulked close to a village by the forest, hoping to pick up a stray goat or calf. I had done it before, though not enough times to be always well fed.
“I did not know that, this time, the villagers had laid a trap for me. They spotted me, and up they sprang from the rice fields surrounding their village with torches, bamboo sticks and spears. I bolted back, but I took a spear to the hind leg, and the rice fields were flooded with water. Blind with pain, I kept sinking under my weight. I lost my sense of which way to escape—the men kept coming from every direction. Other sharp weapons pierced me in the dark, I couldn’t fathom what they were, just that they were bleeding out my life. I closed my eyes, let myself drown, knowing it was over—
“—but the next morning I woke up in a rice field, right where I last remembered myself, and found myself turned into this,” finishes the creature, clumsily waving at himself.
“I was caked in mud and blood, and the blood was mine, but I was no longer a tiger. I did not have any clothes, knew no human words, could not even stand up on my hind legs—I learned all that in later days. But the villagers must have found me in this shape, thought me a madman or scavenger unfortunately caught in the midst of their tiger hunt, and left without murdering me.
“Now I can no longer return to the forest, but I also cannot live among men. They are always suspicious, always assuming the worst, but only the worst of their kind. They ask me where I’m from, what is my caste or trade, and I never have the correct answer, so they call me a beggar or thief. I kept being driven out of village after village, till I overheard someone say that in the city, no one asks you these questions—everyone is from somewhere else. So I found my way here, but nothing has been different. No one will give me a place to stay. I am willing to work for food, but I do not understand their work, and no one agrees to show me. They shoo me off as if my very existence offends them, though I pass for one of them now.”
I sit still and watch him—this scraggly, impossible half-man half-tiger, labouring under his tragic delusion. He passes as much for a man as I do.
“Well,” I finally speak, swallowing the astonishment in my own words. “It does say in the stories that Dakshin Ray could take on human form whenever he wished. Only . . . I’d expect him to be a rather more efficient human than this.”
“From what I have heard, your human gods also sound like rather more efficient humans than the rest of you,” grumbles my guest. “Dakshin Ray is a myth, just like Bon Bibi. My line is said to have descended from him, but that means as much as any of your kind claiming to have descended from your gods. Perhaps I would’ve learned more about it if a poacher’s bullet did not take my mother while my siblings and I were still cubs. Perhaps if my brother and sisters had lived, they would’ve shared with me this uncalled-for humanity. As it happens, there is only me, and I have nowhere to go.”
I tell him, “You can live here as long as you wish. Not that these quarters have much to recommend, but at least there is a lack of other people. They stay away for the fear of me.”
“What is there to fear about you?” The expression on his face is genuine bewilderment.
I sigh. I suppose I’m not a particularly fearsome ghost. “It is part of human nature to fear their dead,” I tell Naiwrit Ray. “In life, I had been a very harmless man. In death, I’m perhaps more so—I can no longer go out in the sun; I cannot visit my family or friends. I cannot even move corporeal objects; I pass right through. Yet no one fears the villains who took my life as much as they fear me.”
As I say that, I am struck by an idea.
• • • •
The fundaments of a printing press aren’t easy to explain to someone who has no use for reading or writing. But Naiwrit Ray is all I have, besides all the time in the world.
Of course, Noru is far from unintelligent. I do not even want to find out how he procures money; some secrets are best left under the shroud of the night. But he listens to my instructions with the deepest concentration, and acts on them fast. In a few days’ time, he has returned with two sets of new clothes, a pair of sandals, a barber’s razor, a plastic comb, a bar of soap for bathing. Every night I inspect his efforts at grooming, until I finally declare him worthy to pass in daylight. He is large for a man—strikingly muscular and hirsute—but he can just about slip into the acceptable range for a person.
I send him out next to replace the parts of the letterpress that are broken or gone to rust. He buys paper, ink. In the dark of the night, long after the eyes of humans have given away, the pair of us sit head to head at Malotibala Printing Press and compose the story the world should know.
It is a long, painstaking undertaking. I point out each letter as Noru arranges them into the compositing stick, transfers them to a forme, inks them, and runs the paper through the letterpress. The process takes days, weeks. Noru’s large, stubby fingers—still loaded with the memory of being paws—are anything but nimble. He fails to recognize one letter from the next. He must eat, so I give him a few hours off each night to go hunting. But the haunted Malotibala Printing Press comes to life every night, whizzing and rattling, keeping the interest of prying eyes at a distance.
A month is gone before Noru succeeds in cutting the printed paper in proper shape, till we have hundreds of flimsy pamphlets, immaculately inked. As I go through them for inspection, my heart swells with pride.
• • • •
It takes three days for the deluge to spread. Three days since I have sent Noru out to distribute the pamphlets up and down the bustling stretch of Chitpur Road, to every bookseller who trades in Secret Annals of the Queen. That raunchy bestseller, needless to say, has outlived Malotibala Printing Press by a decade, inviting new generations of readers into its lurid pages. It is printed ceaselessly from three different presses, which are dedicated solely to its reprints. Bibhishon Bhattacharya, says the word on the street, now owns a mansion in the upscale quarters of Shova Bazar, not far from where the fictitious Kojagori Debi might have lived. The days of lingering in the alleyways of Chitpur Road are behind him—he has redesigned himself as a philanthropist and patron of the literary arts.
For a commission, any bookseller would slip a pamphlet within the pages of a book. Even the rare bookseller who can read does not spare his hard-earned literacy reviewing the pamphlet—usually advertising the latest scintillating romance of the season; newfangled cosmetics for the ladies; the most marvellous astrologer for the future-conscious; potent herbal remedies for the infelicitous in bed. It is the surest way to reach a readership; far more reliable than the newspaper, where the editors would heckle for evidence and kowtow to important social figures before printing a revelation as big as this. No one reads a pamphlet until the book is purchased and its pages turned, so we spend three days waiting before there is a rumble, then a deafening roar.
Lurking indoors during daytime, Noru and I listen as the tone of gossip changes on the road outside Malotibala Printing Press. On a regular day, people pass quickly by my derelict house, hardly sparing it a glance. But on the third day since the pamphlets go out, there is suddenly a lot of passing by, which, by the afternoon, turns into lingering, and then we start noticing small groups of people, always innocuously doing something else. Finally, little clouds of conversation, which we strain to hear.
“Did you read . . . ?!”
“What a scandal, what a scandal! Such slander in the name of our esteemed Bibhishon Babu! A pillar of the society if there ever was one!”
“But what if it’s true? What if we really never knew? It’s an age of treachery, brother.”
“I’d like to know how the author of this story knows it to such intricate detail! Was he there? How does he know Udayan Dhar was hit on the back of his head with a—what was it?”
“A compositing stick!”
“And then his skull was smashed with a—”
“An ink roller! What’s those fancy words mean, anyway? Do these printing presses actually get away with carrying such murderous weapons? In broad daylight?”
“What I’d like know is whether there was ever a real wealthy young lady behind Kojagori Debi at all.”
“And what if there was? You’d ask her to marry you? Ha ha ha!”
“What I’d like to find is the chap who spun this yarn, and ask him some questions myself.”
“What I’d like to find is chap who printed it, and the chap who put it inside the books. Who are they? Where are they?”
“Psst—I heard word that Malotibala Printing Press has started rolling again. The homeless on the street have been talking about it for weeks. Nobody has seen anyone come in or leave, but it keeps them up at night!”
“You believe that kind of supernatural stuff? In broad daylight?”
They stand on tiptoe and try to peer through my windows, but they do it from across the road. The broad daylight they swear by has been dimming by now, and with it, their quest for the truth.
• • • •
The crowd that returns the next morning is bigger. I observe a group that has come prepared to break into the premises of Malotibala Printing Press, armed with metal rods, broomsticks, torches, and lidded jars filled with the filthy water of the Hooghly to ward off evil. Even from my crouch indoors, I can see the worms wriggling in that water.
I instruct Noru to start running the letterpress.
He is baffled. “But what are we to print? There isn’t even any paper or ink.”
“Keep your voice low,” I say to him. “Those people cannot see me, my friend, but you are made of corporeal matter. We must keep them out, or you will get caught.”
The reanimation of the press freezes the ghostbusters in their tracks. A moment ago they were adamant crusaders, seething under the noontime sun, but suddenly not a single one among them wishes to take the first step over the threshold of Malotibala Printing Press.
“It’s a prank, we’re being duped.” They elbow each other. “Whoever has heard of a ghost operating a printing press? There’s a man hiding in there, laughing at us as if we’re a bunch of imbeciles.”
“And what man would that be, eh? Would it be the tall, burly man that we heard of—built like a wall, tawny hair all over like an Ingrej, who turned up and distributed these pamphlets all over Chitpur Road, then vanished into thin air?”
“Not like an Ingrej, more like a humongous dog is what I heard.”
“Maybe he was the one who killed Udayan Dhar?”
“Maybe he is Udayan Dhar himself, come back from the dead?”
“You believe there’s a man like a dog-Ingrej-ghost-of-vengeance walking around in these streets? In broad daylight?”
“What I know is that if a man like that existed, I wouldn’t like to go up against him, less so inside of that wreck across the road.”
“Okay, listen up, brothers—if there is truly a man in there, surely he can hear us? Why don’t we politely ask him to step out, and then we can all have a conversation? We are not his enemy!”
“No, no, of course we are not!”
“We aren’t going to hand him to the police! What Bibhishon Babu’s lawyers will do once they learn who is behind all this rabble-rousing is a different matter, but we are just decent citizens. All we want is to find out the truth.”
“Yes, yes, absolutely! Decent citizens! The truth!”
So they write up a pompous speech; repeat it four, five, six times from their camp across the road. Someone brings out a horn. The poetically inclined among them sing a few ditties about truth, justice, and the invincible human spirit; there’s even a patriotic military march thrown in. One person suggests summoning a tantrik to perform a ritual of exorcism and finds himself quickly, embarrassedly, shushed. No one wants to enrage the presence inside Malotibala Printing Press before figuring out what exactly it is.
Through all those antics, we keep running the empty letterpress. It will fall apart soon, I observe with a tinge of sadness, but its function has come to an end.
• • • •
When the mob departs that evening, I tell Noru, “You must leave. I will never be able to repay you for all that you have done, but I can no longer allow you to live here.”
“Where will I go?” my companion of the past two months asks with barely concealed horror. He is curled under the exhausted letterpress like a homing cat. I can tell that he has begun to starve. It has not been safe to go out hunting ever since he appeared in public to distribute the pamphlets.
Something stirs in my mind from a long-lost past, back in my days as a man. I say, “Follow the river till you reach the southernmost edge of the city, down to the docks. Avoid going through human neighbourhoods. Swim if you have to. Can you do that?”
He nods. It is too much to expect of a man, but a tiger will have no difficulty swimming for hours.
“The streets by the dockyard are the most disreputable quarters of the city,” I continue, “replete with thieves, smugglers, drunks, prostitutes, sailors of every race and flag, charlatans of all manner. There you will not stand out as odd, but also do not be taken by anyone. Look only for an old woman—a cook and housekeeper—who lives by herself in a shack. When you find her, tell her you come from me; that you seek refuge and a job from her employer.”
“But you have been dead for ten years.”
“She will understand,” I promise him. If there is anything in the world of the living about which I am left with any conviction, it is this.
“Then why have you not gone to this place yourself?” Noru asks. “Why linger here if you have friends in other places?”
“It’s been a while since I had the joy of uninhibited movement in the corporeal world, my friend,” I remind him with a bitter smile. “Malotibala Printing Press is where I died. It is the only place my spirit can inhabit.”
“But what of Bibhishon Bhattacharya?” Noru is unrelenting. “Nothing we have done has caused a scratch on that scoundrel! People think our pamphlet is a prank, a baseless scandal, even a new advertising gimmick for that accursed book—all it has done is to give a fresh boost to its sales. Bibhishon Bhattacharya did not even come down to Chitpur Road see for himself what the furore was all about. He is probably even now sitting in his mansion, counting his renewed profits, smirking at us.”
“We have done our best. We published our story; spread it among hundreds of people. We planted the seed of doubt. It was more than I had ever hoped to accomplish, telling the truth to one group of college boys at a time. What more did you expect—divine retribution?”
Noru’s eyes flare up at my words. “Divine retribution is exactly why I exist,” he snarls. “That is my role in the world.”
“But you are now a man,” I laugh, trying not to sound unkind.
Noru—Nairwrit Ray, last living descendant of the tiger-deity of the mangrove forests—lowers his head into his hunches, away from me. Awash in the city moonlight dripping through the squalid windows, he looks less like a man than he ever has.
• • • •
After Noru is gone—even the faint shadow of his half-man, half-tiger form vanished around the bend of Chitpur Road—I am returned to the boundless solitude of all my years of haunting Malotibala Printing Press. I am stunned by how still the night is. Not a crack of conversation, not a rustle of a tree; the only sound carried on the wind is the cries of foxes all the way from the salt marshes. Is it me, or is tonight exactly like another night across the gulf of the years?
That night, I had lost something from which I never recovered. I had watched myself flow away from it, feeling angry, helpless, trapped; my futile rage slamming against at the injustices of fate.
Tonight, the taste of bereavement on my phantom tongue feels exactly the same.
• • • •
The mob arrives indecently early the next morning. I was about to retire at daybreak, finally at peace for no longer having to keep watch of Noru; but I am jolted awake by the shouts that at first make no sense to me.
“Break it down! Tear it down! The monster is hiding out there! Don’t let him escape!”
The letterpress is silent today, so the men rush in unafraid, smashing and prodding with metal rods, shining flashlights into cobwebbed corners. The religious ones sprinkle holy water on every dusty surface, dribbling little puddles of mud. They are baffled not to find the culprit they’re expecting. It does not make them stop destroying my house.
Invisible in the corner, wincing under the flashlights, I witness the mayhem.
“—was sitting at his desk with his head lolling from the neck! Each of his fingers smashed, chewed through and through! What a horror, what a horror!”
“And would you talk about the stacks of Secret Annals of the Queen arranged neatly on his desk! And the folder of old, yellowed documents laid open before him! Rumour is that the police officer found the blood from his neck dripping directly onto that paper—the contract he wrote to Udayan Dhar ten years ago! It is true—everything on that pamphlet is true!”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Maybe he did write Secret Annals—I never believed any actual woman from a respectable household could be that promiscuous anyway—and maybe he also skinned Udayan Dhar of his profits, but nothing about that contract proves that he got him murdered as well! A gentleman like Bibhishon Bhattacharya would never do that!”
“But what of this terrible way he was—” The speaker fails to finish his sentence, shudders, chants, “Ram, Ram.”
“I do think it was a stray fox or civet run away from the marshes,” says the rational one, but his voice is drowned in the wails of the others.
“What stray fox or civet climbs into a man’s bedroom on the second floor of his mansion, surrounded by walls and gardens, past gates that are always locked? It was no stray animal, brother! It was him!”
“Him without a doubt! Just like divine retribution,” proclaims the one who always blurts out the wrong thing at the wrong time. The others turn to glare at him.
“Ram, Ram,” they all chant in unison, sprinkling their holy water with renewed vigour over the shattered remains of the letterpress, the threadbare mats and other garbage left by visitors before them, their own murky footprints on the floor.
The filth in the holy water makes me sneeze.
I hope Noru has made his way to the river, that slow-moving sludge of holiness and detritus that will carry him to his destination, like it has carried thousands of others over the centuries. I hope he is received with grace, offered the food and security that are the essence of the living. I don’t think I will ever find out.
I clench my stomach for the entertainment of the afternoon—the long-threatened exorcism with the tantrik, since all other efforts have failed.
• • • •
The exorcism turns out to be little more than a mild annoyance. They build a holy fire in the outer room of the press. My insubstantial hands bunch into fists—fire is the last thing one should bring inside a printing press. But the beard-swinging, ash-smeared fellow who leads the charade is as unreasonable as the rest of them. That mantra you’re mumbling too fast for anyone to hear happens to be the morning prayer from the Kamakhya temple in Gauhati, I want to interject; available in a booklet from Projapoti Press, seven houses down from here. But the sun is still bright in the sky, so I cannot bring myself to manifest.
Men keep milling in and out of the rooms, breaking, trampling whatever they want, till I no longer care. They take down the board outside the house that proclaimed “Malotibala Printing Press”—painted letters on cheap asbestos sheet—which had hung on rheumatically through the inclemency of the years. They chop up the doors and window panes to make wood for the holy fire. By sundown, even the pieces of the letterpress are gone, probably to be sold as scrap metal at the junkyard. I am far beyond being bothered when someone suggests they torch the entire place down to its foundations.
As Malotibala Printing Press goes up in flames, the crumbling walls doused in kerosene oil and fortified with dried leaves and twigs, I can sense the knots in my spirit loosen. I feel no pain—have felt no pain for a decade now—but I sway in the gusts of wind that fan the fire. With each gust, a little bit of me is dissipated; the me-ness of my spirit becomes less and less distinct. This is not unlike drowning in an opium haze, or sinking in a waterlogged field of rice under a night sky studded with stars, though I do not know if I will wake up, and who I will be when I do.
By the time the fire has consumed it all, embers glowing in ash and debris against the pallid grey of the dawn, the men all gone home after a night of sitting by the flames, drinking and wild speculation, there is barely enough of me to hold these thoughts together.
I give up trying to hold on to them. I go.