The untimely call of the woodpecker was the first indication I had that there was a tiger in the vicinity. It was close. I grabbed my Katari a little tighter and turned around to Bhola Majhi who was 6 paces behind me. Lakkhan Mandal was following a bit further behind. We were all laden with the fruits of our days labour. Lakkhan was carrying on his back a large chunk of honey wax in fact a full beeshive wrapped in a gunny sack. Bhola and myself had large shrimp pots which we carried on our heads. The woodpecker will seldom call in the evening. This was an alarm call to other jungle dwellers of danger afoot. In the Sunderbans that means only one thing – tiger. I did not need to warn my companions they were all versed in junglecraft and could read the signs from the trees, birds and animal calls. We quickened our pace our destination was the riverbank where our boat was tied. Once on the boat we would be safe. But it was still nearly a kilometre to the river and in the treachourous conditions of the muddy jungle track it was a good 15minute walk. The sun was going low on the horizon and there would be light for another half hour. We spoke not at all, the only sound was that of our pattering feet through the undergrowth and steady breathing.
It happened when we had just crossed the Bon bibi temple that is very close to the river bank merely 500metres or so. I heard Lakkhan give a scream – but an abbreviated scream that sounded as if the breath had been choked out of him in an instant. We froze and turned around – our senses already at breaking point from a heightened alertness ever since we had heard the woodpeckers panicked call. Lakkhan was missing he had been 15 metres behind Bhola, perhaps he had not been able to keep up with our frenetic pace and fallen further behind. “Lakkhan – Hoa Lakkhan!” we called out to him loudly. Quickly we retraced our steps back along the jungle track. We did not have to go far, just around the turn we found Lakkhan and the tiger. The beast had got Lakkhan by the throat and was dragging him into the scrub. We both dropped our loads and with upraised Katari’s brandished chased after the tiger which by this time had pulled his victim into the dense scrub where we could not easily follow him. The fact that the Tiger was not going to surrender his prey was clear from the fierce growling and snarling that came from behind the cover of the mangrove forest. Now we had to consider our own position – we were in a precarious situation at close quarters with a maneater – with no firearms and darkness closing in rapidly. The little we had seen of Lakkhan had been sufficient to convince us that he was dead or very nearly dead. Certainly after that first stifled scream he had made no other noise. Also when the tiger was dragging him into the bush – it had gripped him by the neck and there was no movement in any of his limbs to suggest that he was still alive. It is common for the Sunderbans tiger to kill its prey by first strike and breaking its neck. We decided to go back to the boat and come back with more people armed and with searchlights to see if we could recover the body. If not tonight then certainly we would mount the full search tommorow morning. But right now we needed to get to the boat.
The short distance to the boat was a nightmare to both of us. We could hear the constant snarling of the tiger in close proximity in the undergrowth. It was following us. Now we were making as much noise as we could and moving quickly but trying our best to make panicked moves. Any wild beast will smell fear – it is a very strong instinct for them. Once the tiger smells fear in its intended prey – nothing will curb its murderous killing instinct. At all costs we knew that we needed to maintain an outward show of courage. If we broke into a panicked run the beast would attack instantly. Indeed the only thing that was stopping it from launching into an outright assault was a natural fear all wild beasts have for man. For the Sunderbans tiger this natural fear is much reduced – they being so used to humankind through close proximity over centuries. We were moving a jog now constantly scanning the bushes around us for a telltale movement to warn us. We had dropped our loads and had our chopping Kataris gripped and ready for action. Turning the corner we saw ahead the silvery broad ribbon of the river and our boat safely secured on the mudflats. Without further ado we pushed into the river desperate to put distance between ourselves and the tiger. After we had rowed out about 30m midstream we weighed anchor. We felt safer now and we needed to prime the diesel motor before starting up. It was dusk now. Our adrenalin was wearing off and Bhola began to shiver. He had been close to Lakkhan. I needed to keep him busy and occupied.
“You prime the motor and get the boat started – Bhola, I will get the lamp lit inside the boat.” I said and went inside the covered section of the boat that had some essentials including a kerosene lamp. While I was lighting the lamp I could hear Bhola fiddling around trying to get the motor started at the head of the boat. My back was turned on him but I could hear him pulling the starter cord, the engine gave a couple of false starts – sputtered and faded. Then I thought I heard a splash. I called out from within the cabin .
“Hoi Bhola – stop fucking around – get that engine started” – there was no answer.
I came out of the cabin onto the open deck of the boat. The deck was empty, Bhola was gone. On the deck was some water marks. The dark river swirled around the boat. In the gathering dusk a smoky haze rose up from the water. I strained my eyes to find Bhola – but I saw only eddies of the river.
“Bholaaaa ….Bholaaaaaaa…” – a rising panic in my voice, that was almost a scream. Only the silent river flowed on remorseless and a few birds twittered in the dark forest.
The old fisherman in the boat finished his story, and lit up a bidi. We were sitting at the jetty in Sajnekhali. He was a local fisherman reporting back to the Forest Office as was mandatory after a days fishing inside the protected forest area. We were tourists come down from Kolkata to spend a couple of nights in the Forest Guest House in Sajnekhali.
“Wow, thats quite a story – is it true” ? Anil asked. It was a bit rude to question the validity of the story to the face but Anil was like that, he did not care too much about others opinions.
“Yes – babu 100% true, and why would I lie – they were my friends. Three of us entered the forest that morning and only one returned”.
“Whats your name” ? asked Nirupom, he had been sitting on edge of the jetty and listening intently. He moved away from waters edge a little bit.
” My name is Jibon” , the old fisherman smiled wryly at his little joke, showing really bad tobacco stained teeth. “Maybe thats why the tiger took my friends and spared me”.
“Its getting dark and cold – I am going back inside”, said Shikha getting up. Anil and Nirupom got up as well, stretching cramped legs. Anil handed the fisherman a folded 10 rupee note. “Come back tommorow – we would like to enter the forest in your boat”
The old man grinned again and gave him a sort of salute ” It will cost you only Rs 300 for a whole day on the water – I will give you the best rates, dont worry”. He pushed his boat off the jetty and flicked his bidi into the water. They stood on the jetty and watched him paddle off into the darkness.
(to be continued)
“When is our boatman coming” ? asked Shikha spreading the marmalade on her toast.
“9.00am” mumbled Anil through a mouthful of scramble eggs.
“Dont speak with your mouth full” Shikha was always a stickler for etiquette, even here in Sajnekhali, so far away from civlization. “Did you want 1 or 2 sugars in the coffee” ? she asked Nirupom.
“Just one, thanks.” replied Nirupom raising the binoculars to his eyes and scanning the forest that spread out in front of their timber verandah. They had spent the night at the Sajnekhali guest house. It was a trip planned they had planned while at work. A short break away from the city grind. The green of the mangrove forest spread out in front of them as far as the eye could see. It was a low forest. Only the occasional tree raising its branches above the stumpy bushes of the Ganges delta. Birdcalls punctuated the background hum of crickets chirping. The voices of the forest office staff could be heard faintly from the jetty on the river not far from the guest house.
“Whats our plans for today?” asked Nirupom, his eyes still glued to the binoculars. He had spotted a pair of egrets on the high branches of a tree in the distance.
“Todays schedule is Pakhirala – the local bird sanctuary, and then we will travel on the boat through the network of canals and distributaries that is home to all the wildlife in this park including crocodiles and tiger”, said Anil. “Your binoculars will come in handy”, he said to Nirupom. He pushed back his chair and got up. “I am finished eating – come on lets go we dont want to be late”. Shikha got up with him.
“Lets go “. She considered Nirupom who was still halfway through his coffee. “Oh sorry Niru – you are too slow, hurry up or you will miss the boat”.
The two of them left Nirupom to finish his breakfast and join them at the jetty. Sipping the last of the coffee all by himself Nirupom could have felt a bit angry at being deserted by his companions but he was by nature a quiet introvert. Being angry did not come easily or quickly to him. It always took him time to make up his mind and act on anything. By the time he was ready someone had usually beaten him to the punch. Just take the case of Shikha for example. Niru was the first to have a crush on her. In fact a crush so heavy he had been unable to articulate it for the whole year. Now that Anil had entered the equation with his bossy boots – I can do everyhing better attitude – maybe he never would. Shikha was spending more and more time with him. Nirupom knew that Shikha had gone with Anil to watch movies after work with no one else in the group. That was something she had never done with Nirupom. Of course Nirupom had never really asked her – he was far too shy to do that. This Sunderban trip had been Shikhas idea. Nirupom had asked for a few others to join but everyone else had dropped off – all except Anil. So now it was the three of them on this weekend trip in the wetland deltas of the Sunderbans. The last of the coffee tasted bitter. Nirupom got up from the table to join his friends on the jetty.
The old boatman from yesterday was there with his dinghy and Anil was in the boat already with Shikha still on the jetty. “Cmon Niru – join me”, said Anil extending his hand to help. Niru igonored his help. “Ask the boatman to hold the boat steady – its bobbing around too much in the water”. The boatman encouraged Nirupom “Dont worry Babu – its perfectly safe it wont capsize, just step on board nice and easy”. Nirupom stepped aboard. The boat wobbled a bit but he kept his balance. Anil extended his helping hand to Shikha who took up the proffered assistance unhesitatingly. She stepped on board and sat down next to Nirupom.
“Here let me hold the flask” he said trying to help.
“No thats ok – I am fine”
Anil untied the rope from the capstan and with an yank on the starter chord the diesel motor chugged to life. They started moving away from the jetty towards Pakhirala. It took them an hour to reach the bird sanctuary. A small jetty linked with a raised wooden walkway built on stilts. The walkway went over the lowlying bushes on the mudbanks and ended in a viewing platform that gave an unrestricted view over several bird colonies that were nesting. From the moment they had got off the boat all their senses were overwhelmed by the pervasive twittering, cackling, hooting and whistling of a myriad different birdcalls. Walking up the walkway towards the viewing platform the sound grew steadily louder. On the platform it was so loud that they had to shout to hear each other.
Anil had his expensive Nikon SLR – he was very excited. A keen photographer his ambition was to get published in National Geographic. He took the camera out of the case and fitted on the telephoto lens.
“Just look at those flying – heron storks – spectacular – I will get some super pics here” Anil enthused.
He is just trying to show off in front of Shikha – the hypocrite – said Niru to himself as he scanned the panoramic scene with his binoculars. He lowered his field glasses “They are called Black Headed Ibis – not heron storks” – he said – “Its important to get the names right when you want to get published in National Geographic”. Shikha was oblivious to any difference between heron storks and ibis. “Dont be such a nitpicker now – Niru – just enjoy the sight in front of your eyes”. Nirupom was embarassed his ears felt hot, they always felt like that and turned red when he was embarassed. He turned away from Shikha and focused his glasses on a flock of waterhens feeding in the distance. Shikha took up the role of being Anils birdspotter with gusto and kept pointing likely subjects for Anils next masterpiece photography as fast as he could click them. They did not once ask for Niru’s binoculars to help them spot a bird better. The close confines of the birdwatching platform suddenly started feeling very claustrophobic to Niru. He needed to get away from these two. He put away the field glasses in its case and made his way back to the boat to wait for them there. It was at least 15 minutes before they got back.
“What took you so long” – Nirupom was surprised at the jealousy he felt in his own words.
“Sorry – it was just too good up there – what a place”, Anil was still on a high from his experience.
Shikha did not say anything – she was a bit flushed around the cheeks. They unhitched their boat from the pier and the boatman started the motor.
I could tell you how they spent the next few hours drifting through the countless canals and creeks of the Sunderbans (they are called khari – খারি in the local language). But I wont because this is not a story about the natural beauty of the forest. Suffice to say that Niru’s mood went from bad to worse as the day progressed. Every word and action from Anil felt like a slight and every smile from Shikha felt like a mock. Even the boatman must have noticed it since he muttered to himself when Anil and Shikha had gone off to pay respect to the Bonbibi temple – “Two is company, three a crowd”. The bastard – he mocks me too, but Niru did not take him up on it. He just lit up a ciggeratte and puffed furiously on it sitting by himself near the tiller of the boat. When they got back to the lodge the sun was going down over the water and Niru had a splitting headache. He headed straight for his room, he needed to be by himself for a little while. He left Shikha standing on the jetty and Anil to settle up with the boatman by himself.
(to be continued)
Dinner was a subdued affair. A simple meal of chapati with some lentil soup and chicken curry. Afterwards they sat out on the verandah with a hurricane lamp throwing long shadows on the walls. Outside it was pitch dark. The forest seemed vastly more menacing, closer even if that was somehow possible. The darkness and the forest surrounded and engulfed them. Conversation was stilted and sporadic as if they were somehow wary of breaking the spell. When they spoke it was in a low voice as if they did not want to disturb or anger some unseen spirit. A few sounds came from the kitchen while the staff in the resthouse cleaned up and packed off for the night to their own quarters. They were the only boarders in the place and soon the sound of pots and pans and running tapwater quietened down. The staff had retired off to bed – the silence was complete. Anil got up and went to his room, he was back in a minute with a bottle in one hand and 3 glasses in the other. He set them down on the table ceremoniously. “Let us drink to celebrate our trip”, he said pouring a bit into each glass. “I have some Coke to mix it with for you Shikha – Niru and me will have to drink neat”. They raised glasses in toast. Neat whisky was not something Nirupom was used to but he could not possibly wimp out and ask for coke to go with his whisky. Anil finished his own drink in a gulp and urged Niru – “Cmon Nirupom dont be a slowcoach – bottoms up”. Niru tipped his glass and the whisky burned its way into his throat like fire. His mind felt on fire too. His ears felt hot and burning. “We will finish the bottle off tonight”. said Anil pouring again into the glasses. Shikha quickly put her palm above her glass, her drink was only half finished anyway. “No for me Anil – I will be going to sleep after this and I advise you two to do the same, we are returning home tommorow”. After a little while she yawned, it had been a long day. “I’m off to bed – see you in the morning, dont drink too much”.
“See you mum” Anil laughed. After Shikha had gone Anil gave Nirupom a conspratorial wink – “Cant have a serious drinking session with a woman around – now its just you and me buddy”, he poured again. Nirupom felt he really should have followed Shikha’s lead and retired for the night. But it was too late now, the moment had gone. The whisky was taking effect, he felt a sense of bravado that was unfamiliar. He could do anything he wanted, certainly he would not be shown up by this bragging fellow by not being able to keep up with his drinking. Lets see how much he can drink…neat he says the show off….. I will match him peg for peg.
Anil looked at Nirupom across the table in the flickering light. A strange fellow he thought – so quiet its hard to make out what he is thinking – I wish he would speak his mind a bit more. Anyway maybe if I can get him drunk tonight I will break through the ice a bit. He always seems to be holding back something. Shikha said that Niru was introverted but had a good heart. Shikha now she was not holding back on the Pakhirala birdtower was she. She had let him kiss her and it had been a hot passionate kiss. Where would the relationship go – Anil did not know – they were both single and unattached. What did he feel for her – love was a deep and scary word – lets just call it extremely attracted. Somewhere in the dark a nightjar called out. Anil felt a rush of adrenalin. A sudden urge to do something dangerous.
“A dare” he said looking at Nirupom.
“What do you mean”? Nirupom was puzzled. Anil was an enigma, like quicksilver hard to pin down. This was out of the blue.
“I mean lets do a dare – something a little bit risky, but you probably wont have the guts”.
“I wont have the guts – thats bullshit, just try me – whats on your mind”.
“Lets go down to the ferry wharf – I dare you to take a dip in the water”
“Thats completely insane and stupid – why should I ” ?
“Its a dare – thats why. Like a challenge, I challenge you – I dont think you have the guts”.
“You are drunk – why dont you take the dip”
“I dont need to prove I am brave – but you do. Besides I cant swim”.
“What makes you think I know how to swim”
“Shikha told me. You used to learn together at Anderson years and years ago. Apparently you were quite good”.
“Really – what else did she tell you”?
“Not much else – we were busy with other things…. But enought chit chat do you want to do the dare or should we start calling you NoBalls Niru from now on”.
“You arrogant bastard – ok I will take you on, but its going to cost you”.
“1000 bucks and I will have the money up front”
“Ok lets do it – I have a torch”
They got off the verandah. Anil switched on the torch. The beam lit up the path leading down to the wharf. They walked silently. Nirupom was angry. There was no way Anil would be able to call him a coward and get away with it. His head was spinning, was it the whisky or was it something more potent. He would show the arrogant prick. They came down to the jetty. It was deserted now. No boats were tied to the moorings. The water looked black in the inky black night. Suddenly Nirupoms fire and courage evaporated, replaced by a sinking familiar nervous knot in his stomach. Who knew what lurked in that water. Crocodiles were common in these waters. He swallowed a few times trying to muster up courage, but his mind kept sending the wrong signals to his body. It felt as if his mind belonged to someone else. Anil must have noticed his hesitation. Was fear that easy to see.
“Whats happened? Lost your courage. Hahaha I knew it.”
“Shut up, I have not lost any courage – this is just a stupid dare. I dont have to get in the water if I dont want to”.
“Of course you dont. But let me give you a bit of free advice my friend, you will never get anything in life if you dont go for it”.
“What do you mean”?
“You know what I mean Niru – believe me its true – even with Shikha….hahahaha”. There was something close to derision in the laugh now. Nirupom saw red – literally a red mist fell in front of his eyes. He just needed to hurt and hit the hurtful insulting creature in front of him. The one that was holding the torch peering down at the swirling water and laughing at him. He would stop that hateful laughter. Niru lashed out. He was no fighter but the punch caught Anil by surprise. He staggered back and teetered on the edge of jetty. The torch clattered down on the wooden boards. His eyes widened in surprise and fear. “Help – I cant swim”. He fell backwards into the water with a splash. The water was deep. Niru knew that from the big boats that came up to jetty. The tide was in as well, the undercurrent in the water made swirling eddies around Anils head as he thrashed around desperately. Niru looked around. Some bamboos stacked on the side could be of help. He picked one up. He wanted to help Anil – give him something to grab onto. He really really wanted to help – his mind did , but his body belonged to someone else. The bamboo proffered to Anil in assistance turned into a weapon of deadly intent. Niru raised the bamboo and brought it down on Anils head still in the water. Anil raised his hands once in a futile appeal and then dissapeared in the murky currents of the dark river.
The moment of madness passed in an instant. Nirupom was stone cold sober. Standing by himself on the dark jetty. The torch on the floor shooting a lonely beam that faded into the darkness. He knew what he had just done. He had committed the first crime of man. He had murdered his friend. Niru knew that, even in that very first instance Niru knew that, and he also knew one other thing. No one had seen him. Niru quietly backtracked to the lodged. Silently unlatching the door he entered his room and closed the door behind him.
(to be continued)
Niru…Niru… Niru what have you done. The voice in his head would not go away. He tried to wish it away, he tried to make it quiet. He thought of other things, made survival plans. Planned his lies. Rehearsed his lines. All night he did this. But the voice did not go away. Sometimes he wished if he could make all this like a bad dream. In the morning it all dissapears, but that did not happen. The voice in his head did not go away. He lay awake in his bed waiting for whatever the morning would bring. He heard the birdcalls first and knew that the first light of morning had broken. Then some human sounds as the hotel staff stirred to life. He heard all this. Stick to your normal routine he told himself. What has happened cannot be changed – now Niru you have to survive this – you will survive this. He checked the luminiscent dial on his watch, it was 6am. He got out of bed and quietly brushed his teeth and washed up. His brain was in hyperdrive. He would have to lie and not get caught. Everyone was his enemy so trust nobody. Be alert, be focused. He would stick to what had happened – or nearly what had happened – his lie would be just a single lie – he had planned his alibi and he would stick to it. Niru sat on the edge of the bed and took a deep breath, he was ready.
Shikha was sitting on the veranda chair when Niru stepped out of his room, she was looking out into the forest lost in some reverie.
“Hi Shikha – did you get up early today”? Shikha turned around and looked at him, she looked beautiful today.
“Yes Niru, I did. I could not sleep very well – maybe the thought of leaving today made me want to forsake sleep and enjoy every moment of this lovely trip to full”.
“Thats true. Have you packed yet? We leave by the afternoon ferry at 2pm”.
“No I have not but it wont take me long to pack. Its just my overnight case – i can be ready to go in 10 minutes.” Shikha paused and looked towards Anil’s room. His door was closed. “What time did you guys finish last night? Anil has not woken up yet”.
It was the moment Niru had replayed in his head all night. He did not hesitate. “Not too long – but I left him just after midnight. I was too sleepy and he was still full of beans. Should we wake him up. They will be serving breakfast soon”.
Shikha considered this and then shook her head. “No, let him sleep in. He probably has a hangover. Lets have breakfast first. We will call him later if he does not wake up by himself”.
The staff had set up their table for 3. They ordered coffee, and then some toast and eggs with cereal. The waiter asked Niru “Wont the other Babu have breakfast today”?
Niru nodded his head, “Yes – but later”.
The waiter grinned. “Yes you all had a late night yesterday.” They had noticed the empty bottles on the verandah table from last nights drinking. Shikha fixed him with a laser stare. He mumbled something about getting some more coffee and scurried back to the kitchen. They finished their food. Shikha looked around impatiently. “You better call him Niru – he shows no signs of coming out of his room this morning and it is past 8.30. We may be able to go on a boat trip down to the crocodile farm if we hurry up.”
Niru got up “Yeah I will check”. He went down the short corridor to the rooms. He went through the motions. He opened Anils door. He half wished Anil would be in there, but the room was empty. Anils stuff lay around here and there. His camera on the bed. Niru closed the door and walked back to the dining room. He walked quickly now. He needed to show concern and a degree of worry. He rushed back into the dining room. “Anil is not…” Niru stopped short. Shikha and the hotel manager were talking at their table. On his entry they both stopped and looked at him. The look on their faces were enough to warn him of danger… they knew something. Niru stopped in mid stride.
“Whats the matter”?
“They found Anil, Oh my god – Niru they found Anil on the river bank”
“What are you saying? What is he doing there?”
The manager cleared his throat. “Sir, some of my staff found your friend lying on the river bank. I am sorry to say sir that we fear the worst.”
Niru looked at Shikha. She was sitting frozen with shock. “Where is Anil – I want to see, take me there. Shikha you wait here I will come back”. The manager nodded acceptance. “Madam please wait here.” He called out to the waiter to give madam some tea and turned towards Nirupam. “Please follow me sir”.
Niru followed the manager outside the hotel down a path leading to the river. This was not the main path to the jetty, more of a natural walkway going towards the bank down another route.
“I have called the police already sir. In this type of cases it is something we have to do as a strict rule. They will be here in 15-20 minutes by their high speed launch. Inspector Rakshit is very capable officer sir, he asked me not to let anyone near the dead body. So I must ask you to only watch from a distance”.
Niru did not answer. His mind was spinning. Police here in 15 minutes. He did not get a lot of time to think. The path ended in a embankment that was directly on the river. It was small area relatively free of the ubiquitous mangrove sundari plant. An area 30-40 metres wide, brown and muddy with water lapping rythmically with incoming tide. Anil lay face down on the edge of the water, His body left there on the high portion of the mudflat by the retreating tide at night. His left arm sprawled out as if in a last defiant dramatic gesture. His hands were half buried in the soft mud, a couple of mudcrabs scurried over his fingers. Nirupam clenched his fists. “Yes it is Anil – that was what he was wearing last night”. His voice was shaking and he could feel a tremor in his body too. Just adrenalin kicking in – thats good – keep focused and you will see this thru yet. A few staff had gathered already. The manager took charge of the situation. “I will wait here sir. You go back to the hotel and stay with madam. The police will be here anytime.” Nirupom shook his head, “No I will wait here with you, please send someone down to the hotel to be with madam. Tell her that we will be back at the hotel soon”. The manager nodded and gave instructions to a man standing who jogged off towards the hotel.
The police arrived at 10am. The powerful engine of the police launch could be heard from quiet a distance as they approached from up the river. The police launch berthed at the main jetty. The manager and Nirupom went down to meet them there. Inspector Rakhsit accompanied by 2 constables. Rakshit was a sharp looking young cop with a clipped moustache. He was all business and dynamism from the get go. Nirupam cursed his luck silently. He could see Rakshit as the eager beaver young cop on the hunt for a career making breakthrough in a murder case. Except this was no murder case it was a death by drowning accident and thats what Niru would need to make sure Rakshit put down in his diary. Rakshit jumped athletically off the launch and walked up to Nirupom and the manager.
“Good morning – have you followed my instructions – no one to go near the body”, he asked the manager.
“Yes, yes – I have followed your every word sir. What a terrible business. Please come with me and I will show you”. The manager was trying his best to ingratiate himself to the official.
Rakshit looked at Nirupom “Are you related to the victim – sir”?
“No, I mean I am a friend – we came here together”
“Good, then you can help with the identification formalities.”
They made their way down to the place where Anil’s body lay on the mudbank. A small crowd had gathered, they were all kept at a respectable distance by a fear of the law and a fear of the dead. Rakshit surveyed the scene. “Looks like he was washed up and left on the bank behind the retreating tide last night. When did you come here”?
“You mean to Sajnekhali – we came day before yesterday. We were going to return to Kolkata today”.
“Is there any others in your group”?
“Yes – there is Shikha”?
“No we are office colleagues”
“I see” Rakshit raised his eyebrow just a little. “I will ask you to go back to hotel and wait for me there. I will complete my inspection and then I will need to ask you and also your colleague Mrs…”
“Ms Shikha Chaterjee”
“Yes I will need statements from both of you”. He turned towards the manager, “I will take your statement as well Mr Ghosh”.
Nirupom turned back towards the lodge. All this while he had been postponing the inevitable but now he would have to face Shikha and break the news to her. She would be in a state of shock but still Nirupom needed to be vigilant – the slightest lapse from his toungue, a loose word or a careless gesture would be disastrous. Shikha was no fool – she had a woman’s intuition – she would see through deception if Nirupom was foolish in his game plan. Shikha was still in the dining room. She was wrapped in her shawl. Her eyes were red from crying. On seeing Nirupom her grief broke out afresh “How did this happen, Niru – how” she sobbed.
“I dont know – he was fine when I left him last night”
“He was so alive yesterday – and now he is gone” Shikha was close to a breakdown. Nirupom asked the staff for two cups of coffee and did his best to comfort Shikha.
“You have to stay composed – the police are inspecting the body and will soon be here to ask for your statement. If you need go to your room and compose yourself a little.”
Wrong Niru, wrong wrong wrong move. He could have kicked himself but too late now. Shikha flashed back at him “Anil is dead – dont you know and you are worried about my composure – what do mean”.
“No no – I did not mean it that way at all. Actually so many things have happened my brain is not working at all.”
That’s better stick to the truth as much as possible. Shikha relented a little. Nirupom heaved a silent sigh of relief.
Inspector Rakhsit was true to his word. His inspection of the body did not take very long. He entered the dining room after stomping muddy boots on the verandah a few times and made himself comfortable with a coffee and a ciggarette in one of the sofa lounges. After the formalities of introductions were dispensed with he cut straight to the chase.
“We will be taking the body of the deceased with us back to Canning for an autopsy – but before I do that I would like to ask you both some questions”.
“Please go ahead – ask any questions necessary”, replied Shikha. She had regathered herself. Nirupom sat down on the sofa next to her.
“Can you describe what happened yesterday”?
Shikha went through all the incidents of the day past and ended with her leaving Nirupom and Anil on the verandah drinking.
“After you went to bed, did you hear anything – like shouting or arguments”?
“No, I was very tired”.
Inspector Rakshit turned towards Nirupom – “It seems like you were the last person to see the deceased alive – do you want to tell us what happened”.
Niru delayed his reply for a moment as if gathering his thoughts. “Well not a lot really – we had a few more pegs and then I was feeling really tired so I came back to my room”.
“So the deceased was still sitting on the verandah table when you left him last night”?
“Yes thats right – there was still a little bit of whisky in the bottle and he said he would finish it off”.
“Are you sure you did not go down to the jetty with him at any point last night”?
Nirupom looked back sharply at Inspector Rakshit. The man was trying to scare him into making a wrong statement. Well he did not know Nirupom Som very well at all. “Inspector Rakshit – I am sure that would have been the first thing I would have mentioned if it had happened – why do you ask me this meaningless question”?
“Sir – I am here to follow every line of enquiry and find out the truth. I am finding it strange that Mr Anil Sinha would have gone down to jetty and jumped into the river in the middle of the night. Why would he do that – do you have a reasonable answer”?
“Well – I dont know that Anil was always a very reasonable person, in fact sometimes he could be quite impulsive”, Nirupom replied. Shikha looked at him once sharply.
“How do you mean”? asked the inspector leaning forward.
“Last night after Shikha had gone to bed, Anil challenged me a strange dare – he was going to swim in the river at night. Of course he was drunk and I refused to let him. I wonder if he was stupid enough to try it himself when I had left”.
Inspector Rakshit stubbed out his ciggarette. “You should have told us this in the beginning. If the gentleman had carried out this plan of swimming he could easily have been caught in the treacherous tidal undercurrent and drowned”
“Yes, that’s what must have happened – I feel so guilty leaving him alone in the verandah last night”, said Nirupom shaking his head sadly.
Inspector Rakshit got up. “Well I will not detain you any longer. We do have your details so we can contact you in Kolkata if the need arises. Will you be informing the family or did you want me to cable Lalbazar”.
“No need for that – I will go to his house and give them the sad news.” Nirupom also stood up.
“I am sorry that your trip has come to such a tragic conclusion – but I wish you both a safe journey back”. Inspector Rakshit shook Nirupom’s hand, bowed to Shikha and left going down the path towards the jetty where the police launch was berthed.
The dining room was empty now except for the two of them. Shikha had turned away from him looking out of the window to the forest.
“Pull yourself together Shikha. There is nothing we can do for Anil anymore. Let me pack up his stuff and we can return by the afternoon ferry as planned.” Nirupom felt a lot better now that Inspector Rakshit had left the scene. Shikha turned around and faced Nirupom. Her expression was strange and foreign. A mixture of confusion, disbelief anger all mixed up. Her eyes were still however and they were fixed on Nirupom.
“Why did you lie to the Inspector – Nirupom”? She only used her full name when he was in trouble with her.
“What do you mean – what did I lie”? Niru could feel imminent danger but could not anticipate where she would attack from.
“You lied when you said Anil wanted to go on a night swim”. Her voice was flat not betraying any inner emotion.
“Its the truth – believe me – he challenged me to a dare yesterday, I had to stop him from doing something stupid. How was I to know that he would go for a swim after I left him. You cant blame me for that, its not my fault”.
“You are lying Niru. You are lying to me now. Anil told me when we were on the Pakhirala tower that he did not know how to swim. That was after you had left us two and gone back to the boat, and I told him that you used to be a good swimmer and we used to go swimming together at the Anderson Club”.
For a moment Nirupom was at a loss for a suitable reply. He felt trapped. In his anxiety he said the worst thing he could possibly have said.
“You have no proof”.
Shikha recoiled as if he had physically struck her. She looked down for a while and then when she looked up at Nirupom again her eyes were blazing with contempt and anger. “You killed him. I know it, I dont need proof. Your every word and action is proof and evidence of your guilt to me. Stay away from me Nirupom – stay away or I do not know what I will end up doing.” Shikha turned on her heel and walked into her room, closing the door latch with a click.
It was late in the evening – Nirupom sat all by himself on the jetty. The birdcalls came from the forest as the river birds gathered for night rest. Shikha had left by the afternoon ferry. She had left alone – Nirupom had stayed behind. He felt really alone. The dusk was gathering and a dark mist was falling over the river. Nirupom stripped off his shirt and took off his shoes. He waded out into the river. The water was cold and grey. He started swimming, slowly. He was going to swim a long long time, until he could swim no more. Three had come to the forest, only one would return.