The police found his residence in the early hours of the morning. They knocked on the landlady’s door and with the key she provided opened his door. The stench of death welcomed them. They had arrived a little too late. For there on the bed lay the elderly man as rigid as a dried log with a serene expression on his face.
“He seems almost happy”, observed Godpoley the constable.
* * * *
Mr. Sen saw her for the first time in the Academy of Fine Arts. There was something ethereal about her like the paintings that adorned the walls of the gallery. Was it the glow of her bronze skin or was it her face brimming with innocence and vulnerability which would make anyone want to care for her, Mr. Sen could not decide. But whatever it was, she was the most beautiful woman he had seen in his entire life. Her hair cascading down her waist reminded him of a waterfall. A few strands of her hair strayed onto her face, of which she took no notice. Her nose was adorned with a ring and her lips were painted a light shade of red. She reminded him of the Bengali actress Suchitra Sen.
On any normal day, he wouldn’t have given her a second thought but that evening when he returned home the woman stayed at the back of her mind. Given enough time she might have faded into oblivion, but it was not to be. Fate had willed something different for him, that’s what Mr. Sen told himself in retrospect.
Man is unique in the sense that he can appreciate beauty, something a creature of instinct cannot. And yet a thing of beauty for one may not be so for the other. A swordsman finds the way his blade curves beautiful whereas a poet may be partial to his words. Some people find beauty in our bountiful nature whereas others do so in a melodious voice. Mr.Sen found them in paintings. He admired not just the work of art but also the thinking and hardwork that went behind it. And everyone knew that there was no better place in the whole of Kolkata than the Academy to indulge his passion. And so it was that a few days later while returning from the British Library his bus passed the Academy he felt a sudden urge to visit it and see the works of the masters. He had long contemplated buying a painting but the prices were too steep for an old man living off his pensions and his meagre salary as a librarian. His visit to the Academy would have been uneventful had he not spotted her again. She was wearing the same red saree he remembered her wearing the last time. And for the second time Mr.Sen was struck by her beauty. Something stirred inside him and his heart fluttered but he did not know why. Suddenly he had this strange urge to talk to her. He imagined her voice to be sweet and melodious and soft too, such that you had to stand near her to hear what she said.
He shook his head. What was he thinking! He did not even know her. But then again you do not always need to be a friend or relative or an acquaintance to talk to someone, said a voice in his head. True, someone had to break the ice. Moreover if he did not talk to her how would they get acquainted? Such were the thoughts that swam in his mind as he stood there for a long time gazing at her making sure that he stayed out of her line of sight.
He heard someone speak to him. “What?” he asked. His reverie broken he turned to see the speaker was the diminutive doorman.
“Sir, the Academy’s about to close”, the doorman said. “So early?” asked Mr.Sen.
“It’s 7:45, sir. The Academy closes at 8:00.”
“What!” He consulted his watch. It was indeed so. He had spent close to an hour standing here and doing nothing. The doorman moved away to speak to some of the other stragglers like him. He looked back in the room to find her gone. ‘That’s strange. I never saw her leaving.’ he thought. But then again, he had his back to the door and she could have easily walked past him without him noticing. He cursed himself for not being able to get her glimpse one last time. That night all he could think about was her.
The next day he confided about her to his friend, Mr.Ghosh.
“It’s all those romantic novels you have been reading at that job of yours”, he said knowingly, “they have addled your mind.”
Mr.Sen did not say anything.
“Spend some time in prayers. You will find inner peace. Look at me.”
“You know it very well that I don’t believe in god, more so after everything that has happened to me.”
“Well there you go. That’s your problem. You have no one to turn to when you are in a moral turmoil.”
“Oh please, you speak as if you telephone god when you are in a problem and have lengthy discussions with him over tea on the latest political development.” Mr.Sen said sarcastically.
“You are too shallow, Sen”, said Mr.Ghosh unfazed by the sarcasm.
“Yes, you have told me that before.” The rest of the walk was completed in silence.
‘He must think I am mad’, thought Mr.Sen. ‘Why even I think I am mad.’ But his friends surrounded by their family could not have felt the anguish and pain that a lonely heart feels. Mr.Sen was confused by what he felt. Could it be love? He had loved his wife, loved her more than anyone else. Could someone else take her place? Could he fall in love again?
That evening he visited the academy again, hoping against hope to get lucky a third time. And he did. There she was draped in red.
‘Maybe she is waiting for me’, he thought and then smiled to himself, ‘that would be a little too much to expect.’
But was this coincidence?
He knew what Ghosh would have said, “Someone above must be conspiring against you. What is the probability that the same thing happens to you thrice? This surely is a test. God wants to see if you can resist, rise above the mortal plane.”
‘To heck with that’, he thought. Plucking up courage he moved forward and stood beside her putting up a big show of looking at the painting she had been admiring for the past few days. Minutes passed in silence, his mind didn’t pick up one detail about the painting. Mr.Sen stood there unable to decide how to start a conversation. Finally-
“I have seen you before here... admiring this painting. Twice before, to be exact. Are you planning to buy it? It’s beautiful.” He looked up to see her give a shake of her head.
Close up her face looked even better, no blemishes, no spots. The kohl lining her eyes accentuated her beauty. There was a hint of a smile playing on her lips. Encouraged he said, “I frequent here a lot and I saw you a few days back...” and then impulsively blurted out, “I found you so beautiful.” As soon as he said it, he saw her expression change. The smile was gone and so was the serene expression. He cursed himself inwardly. Outside he felt embarrassed. Unable to look into her eyes he stammered, “I am..am sorry”, and hurried away from there. Coming outside he took slow, deep breaths. ‘What was I thinking?’, he thought. ‘Now she is going to think that I am some lecherous old fool.’ He couldn’t sleep that night. He tossed and turned on his bed. Probably she was having a laugh about it with her friends. She would have a grandfather his age. Oh! What he would have given to just be able to rewind the clock and unspake what he had spoken.
As the clock struck five in the evening, the next day, he found himself debating whether to go to the Academy or not. In the end he decided to go and apologise to her if she was there. He saw her as soon as he entered, standing in front of a painting of a chimpanzee listening to a gramophone, wearing what she always wore. He went up to her. He was pleased to see that she did not move away.
“I must apologise for the way I behaved yesterday. That really was unbecoming of me”, he said. She smiled back. “I hope you didn’t think too badly of this old fool.” There was an imperceptible nod of the head.
‘So demure’, he thought.
He felt a huge burden being lifted off his heart. He felt he could now talk freely. He found himself talking about the paintings, the artists, colours and various themes. He did most of the talking and she did the listening part. That evening when he returned home he felt elated. Everything seemed, felt different. The world seemed brighter, the people in his apartment happier. But then he realised that the only thing that had changed was him. He was happier. He felt young again.
And so it became his routine, his only routine in fact. His job at the library got over at 4:30pm and he would make a beeline for the Academy. She would always be there, waiting for him at the same place. For the first time in many years he found someone in whom he could confide. She provided a patient ear to all his problems. She wasn’t judgemental. He had always known that it was his fault that his son turned out the way he did, he knew that he had been a soft father. But the last thing he wanted was to be reminded that, but people never understood. They made it a point to shove the point in his face. But she was different. He always felt good after talking to her. It was as if she absorbed all his negative energy and imbued him with positive energy. With her he found himself talking about the things long forgotten, things which were too painful for him to remember. He talked about his wife, her cancer. He told her about his loneliness. Theirs was a relation free and unbridled, unbound by the limitations of a name.
* * * *
Mr.Ghosh was the last to be called in.
“How did he die?” was his first question to the Inspector.
“Cerebral stroke, the doctor says. He has been off his meds for quite sometime now.”, replied the Inspector. “Do you know why would he do that?”
“Really! I don’t know why he would do that. Maybe he thought he was alright. I mean, he hadn’t fallen ill for years now. So I guess he thought he was cured and didn’t need his medicines.”
“What can you tell us about your friend? Did you notice anything unusual, anything out of place these past few days?” asked the Inspector.
“Well he didn’t come for our usual morning walk, the last three days. I would have called him up but he didn’t have a phone. He said it would just be an extra burden on his pocket. I was thinking of coming to check up on him in a day or two.”
“Anything else? Was he in debt of some kind? Had a fight with anyone?”
“No, he was very particular about his expenses. He wouldn’t be in debt. He would starve to death rather than borrow from somebody. I don’t know anything about a fight but the last time we went for the walk he told me he had had a disagreement with this man.”
“There was this girl he had been talking to for sometime. I think he liked her because he always used to talk about her during our walks. And he said he wanted to invite her over for dinner and her father didn’t want any of that.”
“Did you know the name of that girl? Where she was from?”
“No, come to think of it, I never asked him of her name. Actually I wasn’t very happy with what he was doing. It wasn’t right for a man of his age. Do you think this girl has anything to do with all these?”
“We don’t know anything concrete as of now. Can you remember anything he told you about this girl? Even the minutest detail can be helpful.”
“ Not much. Only that she was beautiful and quiet and she always wore a red saree.”
“A red saree, you say. That’s interesting.”
“Why, do you know of such a person?”
“Mr.Ghosh, please take a look at this.” Mr. Ghosh looked at the thing that he was being shown and as he slowly realised what the policeman was trying to imply he thought the policeman was mad, for sure.
The landlady was inconsolable. Mr.Sen had been a good tenant, she said. Always paid the dues on time, never picked a fight with anybody, always polite. She was pretty sure witchcraft was involved. It was pretty sure from the way he had died. No injury marks, nothing. A man didn’t just drop dead. When asked if she had noticed anything out of the ordinary all she could offer was that Mr. Sen had not gone out for work at his usual time.
The police had interviewed the doorman first. He had been the one who had recognised the arsonist from the video footage. He couldn’t stop talking.
“I knew from the beginning there was something wrong with this guy”, he said with the air of a man who knows just about everything.
“Why do you say that?”, the policeman asked.
“He used to hang around the room all the time. I always had to ask him to vacate the place before he did so. And he used to talk with himself. A few days back he even picked up a fight with one of the painters. And now that you tell me, I saw him snooping around the building these past couple of days. It’s pretty clear now he was looking for an isolated spot to light the match. I recognised him at once when I saw the footage. I had seen him hurrying out with the other visitors when the alarm was set. If I had known he had done that, he could not have escaped. It was a pretty ingenious of him though. The fire drew everybody away and he could just slip away with it...”
The Inspector raised a hand asking him to stop. It was pretty clear the doorman wanted to say more.
* * * *
At the house of the late Mr.Sen the inspector and his trusted constable stood talking. “It’s pretty clear now, Godpoley”, the inspector said, “The poor man stopped taking his medicines, started hallucinating, lost his grip on reality and here we are.”
“It makes sense, sir”, the constable agreed. “What are we going to do with this now? Return it to the Academy?”
“Eventually. For now it’s evidence. Roll it up and bring it along.”
“Yes, sir”, the constable said as the inspector went outside to have a smoke.
Godpoley looked at the evidence he had been asked to roll up. It was a painting, the source of all this hullaballoo. It was the painting of a woman, as beautiful as any apsara, a red saree draped around her body, her nose adorned with a ring. The kohl lined eyes seemed to be staring at him.
“No doubt the old man thought she was real”, Godpoley said to himself as he put the painting in the evidence bag.