লেখক: Sumit Bardhan
শিল্পী: Sumit Bardhan
No, I am not going to try and build it up. You are probably reading this story while you lean against the handgrip in a suburban train, waiting for your destination station. Or maybe you are glancing through it as you gulp down your food during the lunch break at the office before you get back to work. Or even, perhaps you need to go out soon on some urgent work, and you are reading up as much as you can in whatever little time you have left.
In short, for you and maybe for most of you, time is in short supply. So you do not have the patience to read anything like a regular novel that slowly builds up the characters, the background and the descriptions.
So let me come straight to the point. This story is about you or someone like you. All that happens in this story could happen with you too. I mean, it is not necessary that it will happen, but it could happen nonetheless.
Let’s say one of the characters in this story is named Sushanta Roy. Let’s assume you yourself are Sushanta Roy. You are between thirty-five to forty years of age; you look like any other average Bengali, and every day you travel for an hour by suburban train to Kolkata to work at a job with average pay. Your parents have left this world, and you do not have any siblings. You are not that smart-looking or handsome that some girl would marry you just for the sake of love. And neither do you earn enough that someone would tie the knot with you in the hope of a comfortable life. So you do not have a wife either.
Your daily routine is very simple. After getting up in the morning and brushing your teeth, you make yourself a cup of tea. This tea is, of course without milk, because you do not have the luxury of taking the trouble that goes into buying, boiling and storing milk.
After tea, you take a bath, dress up for the office and come to the station. There, sitting on the bench of a tea stall, you complete your breakfast with two slices of toast and a boiled egg. Breakfast over, you catch a train to Sealdah, and from Sealdah, catch a bus to go to the office. You take your lunch at the office canteen with coarse rice, watery dal, a nondescript mash of vegetables and a thin slice of fish. While returning home, you buy a few rotis at the station. At home, you cook a vegetable curry and finish your dinner with roti and vegetable curry while watching TV. In short, your life is without any colour, minus any variety and sans any excitement.
However, you do possess a strange and singular ability. You never forget anything. No, not at all. Be the event six years old or six hours. Which singer had sang after whom in the local cultural program during the previous year’s Durga Puja, or what was the magazine that Sengupta-da was leafing through at the station a week back, or to whom that office file was sent to three months back, all these you can recount in a second if asked.
Of course, it is also true that no one generally asks you these things, and you, too, never go out on your own to speak about them. From a few experiences that had burnt you at an early age, you have learnt at your cost that people are scared of what they do not understand, and they viciously attack as a mob what they are scared of.
You have a somewhat decent reputation at the office because of your ability to locate lost documents. So you do get approached when some important papers need to be found. And if found, you do earn a few pats on the back and a few words of praise. Apart from this, though, your special ability has, so far, been of not much use to you.
For the last seven days, you have been receiving a message on your mobile phone. The short summary of this message is that if you download a particular app and play a game, then you are likely to win a few gifts.
Thanks to print and TV news, you are already aware that scams are rampant on mobile phones. Moreover, you never have had any interest in playing mobile phone games. You have, therefore, dutifully deleted all the messages. For the last three days, however, you have been seeing handbills advertising the same game app stuck to a few lampposts near Sealdah station. And a day back, you did not fail to notice the same advertisement on a half-torn flex banner hanging near your office.
So, somewhat curious, in the space of a little free time while at work, you downloaded the app. To your relief, it did not ask for your bank details, your date of birth or your debit card PIN. During the lunch break at noon, you ran the app and found it to be a memory game. The game quickly showed you ten pictures of different flowers and then displaying them all together in a chart asked you to select them in the order that they were shown. You did not take even a second to complete the task without a single mistake. The game next challenged you with twenty flowers, which again you won. In steps, the game slowly increased the number of flowers to a hundred, and every step was won by you effortlessly.
Now the game painted the mobile screen with the text ‘Game Over’ in large letters, and with a ‘ping’ sound, you received a message. You read the message to find out that you had been instructed to collect your gift from a shop named ‘New Bengal General Stores’ in the area near your office.
After office, you went to New Bengal General Stores, and with a throbbing heart, you showed your mobile phone to the man sitting at the shop counter. You had been more or less convinced that the message you had received was fake, and you would either be summarily thrown out or be heckled with uncomfortable questions.
To your pleasant surprise, however, nothing of that sort happened. After a look at the message on your phone, the man dispassionately gave you a polythene shopping bag. You peeked inside to find that the bag contained toothpaste, soap and a small towel.
These gifts may not have been very expensive, but for the very first time in your life, you experienced the joy of winning something. You came back home with all the excitement of having won a million rupee lottery.
The next day, soon after reaching the office, you received another message. This informed you that in case you would like to play the second level of the game, you would have to update the app. During the lunch break, you updated the app as instructed and ran the game. Just like the previous day, the game showed you pictures of flowers, but this time also added with it pictures of leaves of various shapes. This, however, posed no challenge for you at all, and you won the game with ease. And not only that game, but you also won every game thereafter that the app threw at you. At the end of the day, you went home carrying in a polythene bag shampoo, shaving cream and biscuits that you got from New Bengal General Stores.
From then on, continuously for the next few days, you updated the game every day and came back home dangling a polythene bag full of this or that.
But your new routine hit a break after about a week. That day, after having won the game, when you went to New Bengal General Stores, the man at the counter, instead of giving you a bag, as usual, pointed you to a door at the rear of the shop and said: “Go inside.”
The room behind the door was small. With no other door or window, it was lit dimly only by an old fluorescent light affixed to one of the humidity stained walls. In the room behind a steel table sat a man. He was around fifty, had thinning hair and wore glasses with a thick black frame.
He greeted you with a “Come, come, please have a seat” as soon as you entered and pointed towards a plastic chair.
You pulled up the chair and sat. The man on the other side of the table held towards you a box wrapped in golden paper and tied with a red ribbon.
“I would like to thank you on behalf of New Bengal Marketing Agency for participating in our marketing campaign. At the end of the campaign, we are happy to present you with this attractive gift hamper.”
You took the gift-wrapped box from him, but the word ‘end’ pricked you like a pin somewhere deep inside. You realised that the gift that you had been receiving from the game in the last few days were not those inexpensive household items. It was that refreshing wind of change that was blowing through your otherwise stagnant life. The word ‘end’, therefore, again dealt you another bout of pain.
You were about to get up with your gift box when the balding man with glasses asked with some hesitation, “We are about to start another campaign. Would you be interested in participating?”
It was almost as if someone had handed you the moon. Saying, “Yes, yes, of course”, you sat down once more. The man opened a drawer, and pulling out a visiting card, gave it to you. You glanced at the card and saw “Tarun Samaddar / New Bengal Marketing Agency” printed on it.
Tarun Samaddar folded his hands together on the table and said, “Our next campaign is also a kind of game, but it is not online. To play it, you will need to come to our compound.”
You creased your brows. For you never venture outside your known boundaries. The online game was one thing, but going to an unknown place braving the crowd in trains and buses was quite another.
Seeing the expression on your face, Tarun Samaddar may have guessed what was going on in your mind. So he hurriedly added, “No, no, you need not go there all by yourself. Please come here around noon; a bus will be leaving from here. Many others would be going too.”
The words ‘many others would be going’ gave you some measure of relief. For it definitely lessened the chances of you travelling somewhere alone and then falling into some trouble. But still, with a bit of hesitation, you asked what you would have to do.
“Whatever it was that you were doing on your mobile earlier”, answered Tarun Samaddar. “It will still be a memory game, and you will need to solve a problem. Not all by yourself, though, but together with a couple of other people. Tonight you will receive a video clip on your mobile. If you decide to come, please watch the clip before coming. ”
You nodded and left.
After returning home, you were in a bit of a dilemma and was wondering whether you should go to New Bengal Marketing Agency’s marketing campaign at all when a video clip arrived on your mobile phone.
You ran the clip. The video was silent and was in black and white. Apart from a hissing noise, it had no other audio.
Right at the beginning, the video showed an empty room. Two tables were all the furniture it had. One of these were piled with some unknown machine parts, while the other was empty.
Now a man came and stood facing the camera. He was balding, wore a pair of glasses with a thick black frame and was dressed in a lab coat. He seemed somewhat familiar, but the video quality not being good; you could not really identify him.
In the video, the man started picking up the machine parts, showing them to the camera, and then taking them to another table, fixing them to each other on it.
When the first table became completely empty of machine parts, a strange machine was seen standing on the second one. It looked like a box with an old convex glass TV screen attached to it. The screen was surrounded by a number of dials, switches and knobs. A cone, not unlike an ancient gramophone speaker, projected towards the front from the top of the box, and on either side of it were two light bulbs. In front of the box was a keyboard with circular typewriter-like keys.
Once completed, the man in the video folded his hands in reverence, the text ‘Quantum Entanglement Communicator’ bloomed on the screen in large white letters, and the video ended.
Whatever dilemma you had regarding going to the marketing event the next day completely evaporated after watching the video.
The next day, at lunch break, taking the rest of the day off from the office, you boarded the bus from New Bengal General Stores.
This concludes the first half of yours. That is Shushanta Roy’s story.
Let’s now come to the second character of this story. The name of this character, let’s say, is Purba Sen. If you are a woman of around thirty-five years, unmarried, and without any children, then maybe you yourself are Purba Sen. You work at a senior position in a corporate organisation, you drive yourself to the office every day and on weekends relax on your balcony with stretched legs and a glass of expensive scotch whiskey. It is not that you do not keep the company of men, but such relationships do not last more than a few nights and do not extend outside the bedroom. Since you care but little for any of the rules that society has devised to tie women down, as expected, you have neither companion nor friends. Men are scared of your independence, and you give women an inferiority complex. Both genders, therefore, tend to avoid you. Your relatives, too, avoid you, because you are, they feel, a very bad example for their children.
Since you do not have too much of a social life outside of the office, you spend your time reading. It is an understatement to call you a book worm, a book consuming fire would be a more apt way to describe you. You read at a pace that matches the speed of fire spreading across the paper. Thanks to this reading habit of yours, your apartment has almost become a library, and as you are facing a space crunch, you have recently shifted to ebooks.
Apart from this love for books you have a special ability. You never forget whatever you read. Regardless of how long back you have read a book, you forget nothing about it. Given any excerpt from a book, you can recall the name of the book, the author, subject and can even recite with absolute accuracy some of the important paragraphs.
It is this bibliophilic nature of yours that was responsible for your stepping into this story. Since you buy books like groceries, you tend to frequently visit a number of online book review sites. In a few of these sites, of late, you have started seeing an ad. The ad has been promising to provide discounts for buying ebooks from Amazon if you visit the website, new-bengal-books.in, to play and win a game on that site.
After seeing the ad, you were in some dilemma at first. For your previous experience has been that the books that are available on discount from such sites are generally useless.
However, after having been distracted uninterruptedly by it continuously for three or four days, with a ‘why not check it out anyway’ mindset, you visited new-bengal-books.in and registered yourself.
After collecting your name, email and other information, the site asked you for the names of ten books of your choice. Once that is done, it showed you twenty excerpts and asked you to name the books from which they had been taken. You answered this with ease. Next, you were asked for the name of ten more books, and forty excerpts were given for you to name the books. You completed this step, too, with contemptuous ease. Then in steps, the count of books, as well as excerpts, were ratcheted up, and every time you completed the challenge with one hundred percent accuracy.
After completing around five such challenges, the text “You Win” floated up on the screen, and you received an email with a discount code. The mail also had a list of ebooks from which any one could be purchased at a discount of twenty percent using the code. You were pleasantly surprised to see that none of the books on that list was useless. Rather, all of them had featured in recent bestseller lists. Without any further delay, you bought off the book of your choice from Amazon.
The next day you received another email that asked whether you would be interested in playing the game again and provided a link to the site. Just a day before, you had seen a list of bestseller books, of which you had acquired only one, so you clicked the link without wasting a second.
This time the site made the game somewhat difficult. Instead of excerpts, it came up with complete paragraphs and asked you to pick up the mistakes. As before, this task too was extremely easy for you, and you located the mistakes in no time. And though the game kept making the challenges tougher and tougher, you kept winning till the time that the text ‘You Win’ once more floated up on the screen, and the game ended. Once more, you received an email with a code, this time for purchasing ebooks at a thirty percent discount.
From then on, continuously for a few days, you kept playing the game on new-bengal-books.in. The difficulty level of the game kept going up and in tandem, so did the discount amount for purchasing ebooks.
Then came the last day of the game. After finishing the game on that day, you had been wondering what discount you were likely to receive, given that just the day before, the discount amount had climbed to ninety percent. However, when the email came, it contained no discount code. Instead, it informed you that as a reward for winning the last level, new-bengal-books.in would like to present you with a set of hardcover books. But this had to be collected personally from the website’s marketing office. The address of this office was given as ‘New Bengal Digital Marketing, Sapphire Techno Park’.
The name of the book mentioned in the email caused your eyebrows to rise to a considerable degree. For what was being promised was the complete set of Conan Doyle’s works published by the Folio Society. Definitely, a rare edition, even if one was to disregard its astounding price.
You checked the address on Google Map and found that Sapphire Techno Park was not far from where you lived. It was just about five or six kilometres away.
You are not in the habit of keeping important work pending. So next day, while returning from work, you went straight to the shiny new office of New Bengal Digital Marketing on the tenth floor of Sapphire Techno Park. The elegantly dressed receptionist sat you down in a glass-walled conference room as soon as you showed her the email, and an office boy placed a plate of cookies and a cup of steaming coffee in front of you. A few minutes later, apologising with a “Sorry to keep you waiting, Ma’am”, a man entered the room with an elegant looking paper bag in hand.
You saw the man be in his mid-fifties, with thinning hair, black-rimmed glasses and neatly dressed. Immediately upon entering the room, he held the paper bag towards you.
“Namaskar madam, I am Tarun Samaddar. Let me thank you on behalf of New Bengal Digital Marketing for participating in our web marketing campaign. Here is your prize for the last game of the campaign.”
Though you took the offered bag from Tarun Samaddar, the words ‘last game’ poked you somewhere inside. You suddenly realised that you were not playing the game for the sake of discounts. With the money that you earn, there had been no real need for you to save what was for you, just a small amount. The game to you was what a whetstone is to a knife – an opportunity to sharpen your skills. As the game has ended, a bit of disappointment sullied your joy of having won the prize.
You were about to leave with the bag in hand when Tarun Samaddar, with some hesitation, said, “Madam, we are about to kickstart another marketing event. Would you be interested in participating?”
You raised your eyebrows to ask, “What kind of event? Like the game I played?”
Tarun Samaddar folded his hands on the table and answered, “No, Madam, this is not an online game. It’s a problem-solving team event. But like that online game, it is too a test of memory power.”
Phrases like ‘problem-solving’, ‘team event’ immediately stoked your interest. It never came to your mind to ask what you would gain from the event. Instead, you wanted to know when the event would take place and whether it be held in the same office.
“No, Madam”, Tarun Samaddar informed you with a bit of hand wringing, “there’s no space in this office. We have a facility outside the city, and the event will be held there. It is scheduled for the day after tomorrow; if you wait before this building around two in the afternoon, our bus will pick you up. And Madam, tonight you will receive a document. If you do decide to attend the event, please give it a read before you come.”
You went back home in a bit of dilemma, debating with yourself whether to attend the event or not.
That night you received an email from New Bengal Digital Marketing. Attached with it was a PDF document.
You opened the document. On top was a heading in bold letters – ‘Quantum Entanglement Communicator’. Below the heading was the diagram of a strange-looking equipment. It looked like a square box with an old convex glass TV screen attached to it. Surrounding the screen was an array of numerous dials, switches and knobs. At the top of the box extruded a conical object that looked like it was taken from some ancient gramophone machine. On either side of it were affixed two light bulbs. In front of the box was a keypad with round typewriter-like keys.
The dials, switches and knobs in the picture had been numbered serially. Below the picture, the numbers appeared once more, and next to each of them was a numerical value. Even with a single glance, it was not difficult for you to understand that what was mentioned next to the numbers were in effect the settings of those dials, switches and knobs shown in the diagram.
You did not have the faintest idea of what a Quantum Entanglement Communicator was, but after seeing the diagram, your inquisitiveness reached its peak. Whatever doubt you had on attending New Bengal Digital Marketing’s event simply vanished.
After a couple of days, around two in the afternoon, you boarded a bus with ‘New Bengal’ written on it from Sapphire Techno Park.
This was the first half of yours. That is Purba Sen’s story.
The third character of this story is someone named Juthika Das. If you are a woman aged somewhere between sixty-five and seventy, if you have suffered from the loss of your husband a few years back, and if your children have moved out to settle abroad, then you could be Juthika Das.
You are a very amiable and friendly person. In your locality, you are everyone’s aunt or granny. You are ever ready to help out when someone is in trouble, and with the ladies of your area, you run a welfare society for poor children. There is no one in your locality who does not know of you. You may be alone, but not lonely. The old proverb of the entire world being your family is reflected in all your activities and behaviour.
But no one knows about the razor-sharp mathematical intellect that hides behind this simple, uncomplicated lifestyle of yours. They do not know because you have kept this ability hidden throughout your life, not allowing anyone to have even an inkling of it.
There is a history behind it. Both your parents had been very eminent scientists. Their life revolved around their research. Beyond their research, seminars, lecture tours abroad, they could spare very little time for their children. From an early age, you and your brother had mostly been raised by domestic help. During childhood, a simmering discontent was already present in you because of this. And then something unfortunate happened that added to it. Your brother fell severely ill and died alone because at that time both your parents were travelling abroad.
From then onwards, your discontent towards your parents turned into severe animosity, and you started traversing a path exactly opposite the one that they had chosen. Family and happiness became more important to you than knowledge, name and fame. With your intellect, you could easily have become a very accomplished mathematician. Instead, you chose a very simple, ordinary, middle-class life. Familial happiness, which you never had the fortune to receive yourself, you now distributed with both hands.
But the passage of time brought a break in your life. Your children left home and went abroad to pursue their careers. Sometime later, you lost your life partner to a heart attack. Your family, with which you had so far defined yourself, now became non-existent. Your children love you, they always check up on you, but you clearly know that in keeping with the laws of Time, you have moved away from the centre of their lives.
You have no regrets about the past. You have distributed boundless love and have received boundless love in return. And though you know that Time changes everything, and you and your family have not been beyond such change, you still sometimes think about what you should do with the remaining one-fourth of your life.
You entered this story because of a little girl. One of those children that you and the other ladies of your locality tutor in the welfare society. She came to one day with a pamphlet that she had discovered among the folds of the day’s newspaper.
You saw that the pamphlet was an advertisement printed on cheap pink paper. On top, the heading “Mathematical Puzzle’ was printed in big, bold letters. Below it was a subheading that declared the prize – “Gift – A Box of Chocolate Eclairs.” At the bottom of the page was the name of the advertiser in small letters – ‘New Bengal Distributors’. It was followed by an address and phone number. In between the heading and the footer was a set of mathematical puzzles.
It is not that you did not know that these competitions printed on cheap paper were mostly fake. Not only did they not hand out the promised gifts, but they also tried to swindle money on some pretext or the other. But this particular pamphlet had been brought to you by a child who most likely was encouraged by that ‘Gift – A Box of Chocolate Ecclairs’ line, and there was no way that you would refuse her, “Granny, will you solve this for me?” request.
So you solved the puzzles and wrote the answers on that pamphlet. Then, following the instructions given on the reverse side, you took a photo with your mobile and sent the photo and the address of the welfare society through WhatsApp to the phone number given in the paper.
You had not at all expected to receive anything, but with a pleasant surprise, a couple of days later, a box of chocolate eclairs did actually arrive at the address of the welfare society. All the children there happily enjoyed the taste of chocolate that day.
A few days after that, you received a message from New Bengal Distributors. It informed you that New Bengal Distributors was organising a game of maths on WhatsApp and wanted to know whether you would be interested in participating. It promised a few gifts for the winners.
You still remembered the smile on the faces of the children a few days back, so without even blinking, you messaged ‘Yes’ in return.
You received another message in response almost immediately. It gave you an algebraic equation to solve and gave you a minute to do it. It took you a quarter of that time to find the solution and send back the answer. You again received another equation, and after solving it, one more.
After repeating this exercise for a few minutes, you received the final message, ‘You have won. You will receive your gift in a few days.”
And after a couple of days, a few bottles of Horlicks arrived via courier at the welfare society.
After this, you received another message. You solved and answered a few more mathematical problems. Your efforts were rewarded by a box of salty snacks sent to the welfare society.
The game went on for the better part of a month, with the problems going beyond algebra and touching subjects like trigonometry, calculus, number theory, topology and more. But after a sequence of gifts, after completing one game, nothing came through courier. Instead, one sultry afternoon a child from the welfare society came to inform you that someone had come to see you.
You went to the welfare society room to find a man waiting for you. He was in his mid-fifties, balding and wore glasses with a black frame. His clothes were somewhat grimy, and he seemed exhausted. Next to him was a large canvas bag.
Seeing you, he hurriedly stood up and pointed towards the bag, “Namaskar Madam, I am Tarun Samaddar from New Bengal Distributors. I came to hand over this prize to you.”
With a “We will come to that, but first take a seat”, you asked Tarun Samaddar to sit down once more, poured him a glass of water, rebuked someone mildly for not having turned on the fan, and then and only then asked why Taraun Samaddar had come all the way with the prize instead of sending it through courier.
“Actually Madam, it is difficult to send such a big bag through courier. Our campaign got over, so the last prize is somewhat big.”
The word “last” troubled you a bit. You realised that you were not playing the game just for winning gifts for the children. You were also attempting to find an answer to what you would like to do for the rest of your remaining life. On learning that the game had ended, you did feel some disappointment, but hiding it, you chided Tarun Samaddar with an ‘all this trouble was unnecessary’, asked him whether he had difficulty carrying such a heavy bag, and got him a cup of tea from the teashop.
Getting up after finishing his tea, Tarun Samaddar hesitated a bit and said, “Madam, if you do not mind, I would like to propose something. Next week our company has organised an event. There will be a lot of puzzles to solve. Many will come to play. We will be happy if you too can join.”
When you tried to refuse with your usual “I am an old woman, where can I travel by myself” routine, Tarun Samaddar hurriedly objected. “No, no, you need not travel by yourself at all. We have a bus. Please wait in front of this place; our bus will pick you up.”
You did not think much. Even if nothing else happened, at least you would get to meet a few new people. With that in mind, you concurred.
Tarun Samaddar looked relieved. “I will send you the date and time on WhatsApp.”
You sent off Tarun Samaddar, with a ‘please travel safe’ advice, and after a week, on an afternoon that was nearly ending, you boarded a bus marked ‘New Bengal’.
This completes the first of yours. That is Juthika Das’ story.
The first half of all your stories are complete. Let us now move on to the second half.
Sushanta, when you boarded the bus from New Bengal General Stores, it was nearly empty. Just a few people sat in it, scattered here and there. You went and sat next to a window right on the last row. The fear of being somewhere all alone pricked you once more.
Then the bus started moving, others started boarding, and your fears got somewhat abated. An old lady was last to board the bus, and she came and sat next to you. Thereafter the bus did not stop anymore and started travelling at great speed over the highway.
The bus soon left the limits of the city behind. Here the houses were spaced apart, the trees were many in number, and in between, there were empty stretches of land. While watching the scenery outside, the wind rushing through the open window made you lightly cough a couple of times.
The old lady beside you said, “You are coughing, why not close the window. This time of the year, you can easily catch a cold” and pulled out a Vix throat lozenge from her bag and gave it to you.
“Keep this in your mouth.”
Bewildered, you unconsciously closed the window and popped the lozenge in your mouth. Long ago, you had once suffered a heavy bout of fever. You had staggered your way to a doctor, and no one had cared enough to check on how you were doing. That a complete stranger would worry about your catching a cold was something beyond your imagination. You started to feel as if you already knew the unknown person next to you.”
After travelling for nearly an hour, the bus stopped near a compound surrounded by barbed wire. By then, it was nearly evening, and the western sky had turned red.
You opened the window a little and saw a huge shed inside the compound. It was painted with the words ‘New Bengal Logistics Hub’ in very large letters.
Along with the others, you too got down from the bus and walked with them towards the shed. At the entrance stood Tarun Samaddar, holding a glass bowl with small slips of paper. All smiles, he greeted everyone with, “Please come, please come. Welcome, Welcome. Kindly take a number.”
Following others, you, too, took a slip from his bowl and stepped inside. On the other side of the door was a long room that had a few rows of plastic chairs and was decorated with coloured paper and balloons. The word ‘Welcome’, cut out from coloured paper, had been stuck to the wall at the near end of the room. In front of it stood a microphone stand. Next to one of the long walls, a few tables had been laid out. They were laden with refreshments such as cakes, pastries and biscuits.
Once everyone had come in, Tarun Samaddar came and stood in front of the microphone stand. Switching it on, he blew into it, said ‘hello, hello’ a couple of times, and then satisfied at the sound it was producing, spoke at length.
“Namaskar. Welcome. Let me thank all of you on behalf of the New Bengal Group for attending this event. This is a team event. Each team has three members. The paper slip you picked up has the team number. Please find your team member and then have tea and refreshments. Once you are done, I will explain the game and its rules for this event.”
You looked at the slip of paper you held and saw the number six. You were wondering how to locate the rest of your team members. Fortunately, putting your worries to rest, the old lady from the bus approached you with a ‘let me see, let me see what’s your number’, and then pulling the slip from your hand and matching it with hers, shouted out joyously, “Hey both of us are in the same team.”
You felt as if a big responsibility had been taken off your shoulders. You felt lightened and relieved.
“Since we are in the same team, let us first get introduced to each other.” the old lady said. “I am Juthika Das. You may call me Aunt Juthika. What’s your name?”
You told her your name.
With a “Let’s go and have tea. We also need to find out the third member of our team” Aunt Juthika started to walk towards the refreshment tables. Like a loyal soldier, you, too, followed her.
Purba, let’s now come to you. With a cup of tea in your hand, you had been looking at the very basic arrangements inside the shed, and the people gathered and had been wondering whether travelling so far had been a waste of your time. Then you saw an old lady briskly walking towards you asking, “Who’s number six? Who’s number six?” and a simple and timid looking man following in her footsteps.
Glancing somewhat unwillingly at your own slip of paper, you slightly raised your hand.
The old lady approached you and said, “I am Juthika Das. You may call me Aunt Juthika. This is Sushanta. What’s your name?”
You did give her your name, but your irritation did not go away. You were unable to fathom out what team problem-solving games could be played alongside an old lady and a timid simpleton. Had this been the city, you would have called for a taxi and got away as fast as possible, but in this desolate place, you were effectively a prisoner.
To hide this irritation, you were lightly sipping at your tea when Aunt Juthika looked at your plate and said. “Hey! Why are you just having tea? Take some cake or pastry!”
You tried to dissuade her in a bland voice, “No, no, I don’t need any of that!”
“Why not?” Aunt Juthika just blew away your objection, “When did you last eat? It must be quite a while ago, I think? Your face looks so sunken! Come, come, have this.” She herself put a piece of cake on your plate.
You did not object this time. Or rather, you could not object. You could not remember the last time when anybody ever had bothered asking you whether you had eaten. Aunt Juthika’s “When did you last eat?” touched you in such a secret spot that the corner of your eyes moistened. You hid your face on the pretext of sipping tea.
When the refreshment break was over, and it was time to take your seats, your irritation had somehow vanished. Like Sushanta, you too came and sat next to Aunt Juthika.
Tarun Samaddar once more came and stood before the microphone stand after everyone had taken their seats. He blew into the microphone, said ‘hello, hello’ a couple of times, and started to speak.
“Once again, welcome to you all. Our event is about to begin now. The event has two rounds. You can participate in the second round only if you qualify in the first round. Let me first give you the rules of the first round. If you see behind you, you will see a door.”
You and the rest of the crowd turned around and saw a door at the other end of the shed.
“Please leave your phones on the table and proceed through that door. Behind the door is a corridor with a row of closed rooms on the left. Each of these rooms has a number on the door. Please enter the room with the number that matches your team number. Once you enter, the door will get locked, and you will not be able to open it from inside. The problem that you will need to solve is inside the room. You will have thirty minutes to solve it. If you can solve the problem, the door will open immediately. If you cannot, the door will then open after thirty-five minutes.”
At this point, the microphone suddenly started to make a horrible shrieking noise, and Tarun Samaddar had to stop for a few minutes. He completed the mandatory “Hello, hello” after the microphone had quietened down and then started speaking again.
“If you are able to solve the problem, please exit the room, turn left and proceed till the end of the corridor for the second round. If you cannot solve the problem, exit the room, turn right and come back here. The bus will be ready and waiting to take you back.”
“And how will those who play the second round go back?” someone asked. A few bouts of suppressed laughter spread across the room.
“Please don’t worry, please don’t worry.” Raising both hands, Tarun Samaddar tried to assure everyone, “We have made adequate arrangements for them too. Now let’s go towards the back of the shed.”
Leaving your phones behind in a box on the refreshment table, you and Sushanta followed Aunt Juthika to the corridor. Then checking the numbers on the doors to your left, you entered room number six.
Behind you, the door closed with a click, and you realised that it had been locked. On the top of the door, a red light came on.
You looked around the room and saw two tables. One of them was empty, but the other had a pile of machine parts. Unable to understand what you were supposed to do, you looked at Aunt Juthika, but she also seemed perplexed.
The timid and simple looking Sushanta, on the other hand, had a smile on his face.
That smile did not escape Aunt Juthika’s attention. Narrowing her eyes, she looked at him and asked, “Do you know what is to be done with these machine parts?”
Sushanta nodded. “Yes, they need to be put together to build a machine. I saw it in a video last night.”
You did not get the opportunity to ask, “Is it possible to put together a machine just by watching a video?” Sushanto started to pick up the parts from one table and then connecting them together on the other. And as the parts got assembled together and a machine started to take shape in front of your surprised gaze, you realised that the machine that was being created was the one whose diagram you had seen in the PDF document two days ago. The document with the title Quantum Entanglement Communicator.
A thought ran through your mind like a lightning strike. You realised that the game organised by New Bengal was no ordinary team event. Even if it was not evident at first glance, it was clear that the people who had been brought here all had some special abilities. Just as you never forgot what you read, Sushanta probably never forgot what he saw. And Aunt Juthika? Even she would have special skills, which would become evident later. Only when all three of you had been able to apply your skills in the right fashion would the door open before time, and you would qualify for the second round.
Sushanta put together the machine in about ten minutes. And it just looked like the diagram you had seen in the document. It was a square box with an old glass TV screen attached in front. An array of dials, switches and knobs surrounded the screen. An old gramophone speaker-like cone is thrust out from the top with two lights on either side of it. A set of typewriter-like keys was set in front.
It was now your turn. You saw Aunt Juthika staring at you with a sharp gaze.
You stood in front of the machine, recalled the diagram in your mind, and then quickly started setting the knobs, dials and switches next to the screen to their desired values.
It did not take long. Within a short time, you flicked the last switch.
For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then the meter needles started shaking with newfound life, the ancient TV screen glowed green, and two red lights lit up on either side of the gramophone cone.
You and Sushanta both now looked at Aunt Juthika as if expecting her to take the next step.
Juthika, let’s now come to you.
Your mathematical intellect, of course, is incomparable. But apart from that, you have also another ability that is more connected to the heart than to the brain. So having got Sushanto and Purba in your team, it did not take you long to figure out that both were very lonely. But before they put the machine together and set it up, you had no inkling that both of them had intellectual capacities that could match yours. You, who had always carefully covered up your intelligence in order to present yourself as a simple, ordinary individual to the rest of society, for the first in life, felt that you were with people from whom it was not at all necessary to hide your true self.
You saw Purba and Sushanto looking at you expectantly after setting up the machine. And that look was quite familiar to you. Your near and dear ones always had that look in their eyes whenever they approached you with a problem of their own.
So you took a step towards the machine and was trying to figure out what you had to do next when a hissing sound emanated from the cone of the machine, and someone asked in a dry airy voice, “Testing! Hello, hello! Can you hear me?”
You lowered your mouth near the cone and said, “Yes, go ahead!”
From the machine came the response, “See the question on the screen. Type the answer. What is the fourth number in this series?”
On the ancient green screen, three numbers bloomed – 6, 28, 496.
You snorted with disdain, and using the typewriter keys, typed 8128.
Then seeing Purba and Sushanta staring at you with surprised faces, you explained.
“Perfect number. For perfect numbers, if you add up all the numbers with which the number can be divided, you get back the number itself. For example, the number six can be divided by 1, 2 and 3. If you add these numbers, you get back six. Twenty-eight can be divided by 1,2, 4, 7 and 14. Adding these numbers will again get you twenty-eight. The same applies to the other two numbers also.”
“Correct!” came the answer from the cone. Then was a momentary humming sound, and one of the lights beside the cone turned green
Again the dry airy voice spoke from the cone, “What is the next number in this series?”
The green screen cleared and then displayed a new set of numbers – 70, 72, 80, 81.
You looked at the numbers for a few seconds and typed 84. Looking at Purba and Sushanta, you then explained, “These are Harshad numbers. You can divide the number by the sum of their digits. Take the number seventy-two. Its digits are seven and two, If you add them, you get nine, and you can use nine to divide seventy-two. “
Again the dry airy voice came from the cone, “Correct!” and with a hum, the other light next to the cone also turned green.
Immediately the red light on the top of the door also switched off, and a metallic click sound indicated that the door had opened.
With Sushanta and Purba in tow, you took a left turn in the corridor and started walking.
You had to cross a few doors at the end of the corridor, and you were a bit taken aback after pushing open the last one. On the other side of the door was a small movie theatre. On one side of it was a screen, and on the other side, rows of chairs sloped upwards. Your team may have been among the ones to reach early, for the theatre was nearly empty.
Juthika, Sushanta and Purba, now let’s talk about all three of you together.
The small movie theatre slowly started filling up with people after you sat down, with Tarun Samaddar coming in after everybody else. The door closed behind him, and a red light went on top of the door. You saw that only half of the people who had accompanied you on the bus were sitting in the theatre. Meaning, of course, that half of the original group did not qualify for the second round.
Tarun Samaddar held a wireless microphone in his hand. He blew into a couple of times, and then saying his customary ‘hello, hello’ a few times, he spoke.
“I welcome all of you who have qualified for the second round on behalf of New Bengal Movies. You shall now be shown a movie. You will be informed what to do for the second round after the movie.”
At this point, with the microphone again misbehaving with a screech, Tarun Samaddar had to stop for a minute and say ‘hello, hello’ a couple of times before giving the rest of the information.
“This theatre is specially constructed. We call it reality cinema. While the movie runs, you may feel some vibrations, or your seat may tilt. Please pull the handles of your seat towards you so that you may not fall down.”
Tarun Samaddar sat down, and the lights of the theatre switched off. The light beam of projection fell on the screen, and the movie started.
The first shot was something like the inside of a plane’s cockpit. There were large windows with banks of switches and dials below them. Behind the windows was darkness, amorphous and hazy.
Next came the roaring sound of engines, and the instruments in the cockpit all lit up together. The cockpit seemed to be descending downwards. Thanks to reality cinema, you could all experience the sensation of moving downwards. Then after sometimes the cockpit seemed to be moving upwards, and you felt that sensation too.
Now the scene changed on the screen. The cockpit was now clearly rising up from the ground, and you could see the shifting view outside its windows. You were now deeply engrossed in the movie as if you were really riding on something.
Once again, the scene changed, and at the outside of the cockpit windows was the blue-white globe of Earth.
Next, with a sudden flash, the screen turned white. When the picture came back, the scene had somewhat changed in the movie. Behind the cockpit windows was now a green-white globe floating in space.
Thanks to reality cinema, once again, you felt the sensation of quickly falling downwards towards that green-white globe. As the camera approached the ground, there was a brief glimpse of a strange city. But before you could get a better view of it, the view outside the cockpit windows first turned hazy and then black. The roaring sound of engines also ceased soon. On the centre of the screen, the text ‘New Bengal Movies’ appeared, and then the screen turned blank.
With a beeping sound, the theatre lights came on. From the front row, Tarun Samaddar stood up, microphone in hand, and said, “Please follow the corridor and go back to the first room. I will soon join you.”
All of you came out to the first room one by one. The place had already been cleaned. There was no sign of the balloons and the coloured paper. Only the microphone stood still in its place as before.
Tarun Samaddar came and stood in front, and after his routine blowing into the microphone and ‘hello, hello’ he addressed you.
“All of you who are in this room would have realised by now that none of you is ordinary, and each one of you has one special ability or the other. We have selected you, therefore, through various tests. But there was one more criterion for selecting you. None of you has ties that are likely to pull you back.”
Someone interjected. “We appreciate all that. But what about the second round?”
Tarun Samaddar suddenly looked sad and crestfallen, “I am sorry, but there is no second round. The second round was mentioned just to keep you distracted. For that, I sincerely apologise and express my deepest regrets. Now please come this way.”
Tarun Samaddar came away from the microphone and held open the doors of the shed. You were surprised to see the strong daylight outside. When you had arrived here, it was just evening. How did time fly so fast?
Tarun Samaddar extended his hand outside. “Welcome to New Bengal. On behalf of the New Bengal Settlement, we sincerely hope that you will stay back here. But if you want to go back, then please take your seat in the movie theatre within the next half an hour. Of course, in that case,” Tarun Samaddar looked sad and crestfallen once more, “you will remember nothing of this place. And you will not get a second chance to come back here.”
Absolutely unable to comprehend what he was talking about, all of you stepped outside.
And immediately realised that you were not on Earth. The only thing that looked familiar to you was the bright sky above. But apart from that, everything else was different. The trees and plants were odd-looking; around them moved strange six-legged animals of rainbow hues and over your heads flew colourful craft with billowing sails.
And on the horizon, against the backdrop of the sky, you could see a strange city, light scattering from its golden domes and silver minarets.
Tarun Samaddar spread his hands wide. “New Bengal. For those whose abilities are much enhanced than that of normal people, a chance to begin life afresh. A unique world that is supportive of the specially-abled who want to attain their zenith.”
With everyone else, you too started walking towards that city of light. The thought of going back never even came to your minds.
Translated from the Bengali story “New Bengal”, first published in Parabasia Panchali webzine.Tags: অনুবাদ, অনুবাদ উপন্যাস, বাংলা থেকে ইংরেজি অনুবাদ, ষষ্ঠ বর্ষ দ্বিতীয় সংখ্যা, সুমিত বর্ধন