Short Story — After Twenty Years by Avishek Parui
Sitesh Sen tried and failed one more time to fully understand what the muzzy indistinct female voice was describing about the timing of his train. It’s just the way the announcements were made at Howrah Station, with a shrill but unclear human voice trying to climb a sea of sounds across a creaking microphone. It didn’t suit his ears, ended up being just a gurgle of words that didn’t mean much. “And what was the need to have that funny jingle-sound at the end of each announcement?” Sen thought, “Like a dull doorbell taking off from the final incomplete word.”
Frustrated and flustered, Sen asked a man standing nearby about the announcement giving his train’s departure details. It didn’t help to know that it was four hours late. He was at the right place though, platform eight.
Sitesh Sen worked in the sales division of a major medicine company that operated in Eastern India. He was on the verge of being promoted to the post of divisional manager. He had to catch the train to Bhubaneshwar to attend a conference that was really a networking bazaar for sales people like himself, where cards were exchanged and smiles were spread, where people sucked up with lovely lies, where almost everyone wore ties. Sen felt stupid about his job sometimes, especially when he drank too much. Such occasions had become increasingly more frequent. He didn’t complain though.
It paid him pretty well, took care of his family. They had just been on a vacation to Singapore, where they bought plenty of lovely clothes, had lots of fancy food and went on many fun rides. Sen knew many people beavering away at worse jobs with far less benefits. He had no illusions about himself. With a B.Com and an MBA degree from a private institute, he had done well and had been lucky enough to get to his current position. He did not really have any special talent that he felt was being wasted.
The Howrah Station on that April evening was a spectacle of rituals and random movements, crisscrossed by train sounds and jazzy lights. Turbaned coolies in red shirts and with metal tags on their arms were pulling massive tin boxes on broad creaking carts. A sea of faces alternated between excitement and tiredness, their limb movements cut in and choreographed by unclear announcements. Wheeled wooden trollies selling books by Maupassant as well as Mayapuri attracted hippies of different nationalities with enormous rucksacks while old women sat in the quieter corners of the platforms selling warm groundnuts. The fruit juice vendors had decorated their kiosks with strings of garish plastic pineapples as their mixing machines whirred away steadily. A constant crowd of people throbbed before the passenger lists displayed in wired glass stands on each platform, jostling each other to confirm their coaches and berths. The tin roof on top resonated with tweets of confused and exhausted birds at night.
“Excuse me, is this platform eight?” asked a confused looking fat young man who appeared abruptly, panting for breath, clumsily untucking his shirt from a loosely buckled belt.
“Thank god! I came running from the other end of the station, apparently there’s an annex now, it’s so confusing! Is the train to Bhubaneshwar running late?”
“Yes,”Sen tried to not engage beyond monosyllables.
“Thank god! I was scared I would miss it. You see I started late from my place. I live in Hazra and the Uber took ages to arrive. And the Kolkata traffic is insane at this hour!”
Sen began to move away slowly, inching towards the nearby tea stall to get away from the man. He hated having random conversations with strangers in public places. He did not like adda, the very Bengali habit of having rarified, sometimes romantic, often opinionated and always digressive conversations with anybody at all about everything under the sun, from Communism to Kentucky Fried Chicken, from Picasso to the price of hilsa, sometimes simultaneously and seamlessly. Sen was a medical manager who only dealt with customers. For him, time meant money. He had no interest in Spanish or English football leagues, had no opinion on anything arty, had never heard of Kafka, Kubrick or Trotsky.
“Yes even I was thinking a cup of tea would do me good, especially after all this rush. And the patties look fresh too,” said the stranger.
The young man followed Sen as he walked towards the tea stall and very promptly declared that they ought to have tea together. He then went on to introduce himself.“I am Arindam Dutta, I work at the Kalighat State Bank of India. Off to Bhubaneshwar on vacation. My brother lives there with his family. But I am dreading the weather I’ll face there.”
By then, Sen had realized getting rid of this man was almost impossible. He regretted traveling by train.
Normally his company paid for his flights but this time the decision to attend the conference was confirmed at the last minute and all the economy class tickets had already been taken. Only the divisional managers were entitled to fly business class on company funds. Of course, Sen could have easily paid for himself but he was too proud to book his own flights when going on business trips, pride being a necessary asset in his line of work, often a statement of one’s entitlement in a deeply hierarchical chain of privileges. Instead Sen had settled for the company-booked train tickets. He had been irritated initially but calmed himself by thinking that in one year’s time, he would hopefully become the new DM and would be entitled to fly business on company funds.
Besides, traveling in air-conditioned first class wasn’t too bad. But now Arindam Dutta had arrived with his unquenchable thirst for conversation and tea. Sen decided to fiddle with his phone in order to pretend he was busy.
“That’s the new Motorola, right? Even my cousin has the same phone. He says it’s better than an iPhone. He would know, he does coding for smartphones. Apparently, Lenovo and Motorola have merged. Don’t know who has bought whom though. You never know when these big companies rise and fall. Capitalism, heh heh!! Two teas please, and two chicken patties, they’re fresh right? Just warm them up a bit.”
Arindam Dutta had already given a 100-rupee note before Sen could put his phone away and refuse. He now stood stupidly, completely defenceless against a long rambling adda that was beginning to brew, about to invade his peace and privacy. Dutta meanwhile turned to pick the cups of tea.
“Say what you will, there’s nothing like tea in an earthenware cup, you wouldn’t get the same flavor in plastic cups or even in glass, right?”
Dutta sipped his hot tea with a long loud slurp while Sen held on to his cup, staring stonily at the two chicken patties being warmed inside the glass microwave, confused whether or not to thank his newfound companion for an evening tea that had appeared abruptly.
“I am so sorry, I am just rambling on about myself. Didn’t ask you your name or what you do?”
“Sitesh Sen. ADM of Sen’s Medicals.”
“Of course, Sen’s Medical, big company! They have opened a new branch near our neighbourhood, you know the lane right opposite the Kalighat Greek Church.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I have been there a few times, to buy Saridon mostly. You see I have these headaches, you know, it’s the boring bank work. Perhaps next time I should mention your name and they will give me a discount, heh heh! Oh the patties have arrived.”
Sen held on to his warm chicken patty and slowly sipped his sweet syrupy tea, dreading the prospect of Dutta demanding a discount by describing him as a close acquaintance. Judging from his bulk and the way he guzzled his patty, Sen thought Dutta probably suffered from hyperphagia, a term he had learnt recently at a sales team meeting describing an abnormal craving for food.
There was another unclear announcement about a platform change, for a Delhi-bound train.
Dutta had finished his tea by then, chewing his patty, which too was coming to an end. Sen thought he should say something out of courtesy, for the treat of the tea and patty. He thought of something suitably confusing and vague.
“This, this, demonetization thing,” Sen mumbled at last. “You know, this demonetization had really affected our medical companies as we mostly paid our manufacturers and distributors in cash. I am sure your hours in the bank got longer too, with everyone coming in to exchange and all.”
Dutta had mouthed the last chunk of his chicken patty and nodded furiously till his tongue found space enough to move and mutter. He looked like a madman with a newfound erotic excitement, visibly animated beyond the ken of describable words.
“Bloody hell, it was hell!! I needed two Saridons a day during those two weeks after demonetization was declared! We had to stay in office till 10 pm at least. I almost crashed at one point. There were hundreds of people coming in every single day, clueless and confused. And so were we! And all for what? What a farce!!”
Dutta sputtered away, spitting chicken pieces that flew from his mouth, a sight so viscerally revolting to Sen that he actually stepped back and looked away.
“A disaster! A complete disaster, a cheap drama! That was what it was! And now we know almost all the cash returned to the Reserve Bank, so the whole point of clearing the market of black money was a massive failure! We at the banks suffered the most. Thank God, we did not get beaten up by the public! I think public manners in our country have improved, at least this demonetization drama demonstrated that.”Dutta was almost panting for breath by then, having screamed his angry opinion on demonetization while chewing hot chicken.
Sen looked at him closely now for the first time. Dutta was a short stocky man in his mid-30s, showing signs of a protruding paunch and a receding hairline. He was the Bengali everyman one met in the metro and the market. Sen thought this was a good time to end the adda and walk away with a quick thank you.
He had almost prepared a suitable signing-off sentence before Dutta exclaimed, “God! I think I need to run to the toilet now, all this eating and speaking quickly! And that too about demonetization! Please can you watch my bag as I go? I will be back very quickly. Actually, there’s a public toilet I can see right behind you. I will just go and come back. Please watch my bag, okay?”
Dutta spoke like a man about to explode suddenly, the hot tea, patty and memory of demonetization week had evidently awakened his bowels into an excitement that required immediate release. Without wasting any more words, and before Sen could say anything in response, Dutta was off, almost running with a hand clutched to his paunch. In less than seven seconds, he had disappeared. Leaving behind his bag and a flummoxed Sen on the platform.
Sen’s first impulse was to grab this chance and escape, with the very strong possibility of never seeing Arindam Dutta again. The bag and its content could go to hell while their owner eased his bowels. But something held him back.
It may have been a grudging gratitude for the tea and patty, just general politeness, or, most likely, an uncertainty about how to act in the situation. Sen was quick and clinical in his client meetings and presentations, not wasting words or moves, always with a keen eye on the most profitable outcome. But he was often found wanting when it came to taking quick decisions in non-official situations, where he was happy to give way to others.
Sen stood where he was, staring at the dark brown bag that Dutta had left behind, looking helplessly around till he saw Dutta had also left his fat leather wallet on the marble counter of the tea stall, in front of a pile of crisp-packets, a spot the shopkeeper across the counter could not see. After about seven seconds, Sen slowly picked it up and began to examine the inside.
Dutta’s wallet was a walnut-coloured, inexpensive one with a hard leathery feel. A bunch of 100-rupee notes were visible. Sen continued to stare at it as he held it in his left palm, his face changing color and character quickly. Something seemed to be returning, rushing back to him, the memory of an impulse he thought he had left behind through a painful process of repression that often bordered on self-torture.
Sen had experienced it first when he was 11, the desire triggered by a gift-box his maternal uncle had asked him to watch, containing birthday presents for his cousin. It was a big red box, with various brands of chocolates and toys, including warrior-dolls and arms-magnets. It all showed through shiny transparent cellophane. He had kept staring, not knowing when his finger had untucked the cover in order to pick first one piece, then three. He had tucked the cellophane back immediately after, leveling away the missing spaces inside the gift-box, putting the toy-pieces slyly into his pocket. The feeling of possessing things not meant for him, managing to get something that belonged to someone else, generated a special thrill, a forbidden feeling that enchanted the 11-year-old Sitesh immediately. Nobody noticed anything; the birthday party went perfectly as planned.
The three tiny toys were the perfect debut.
He became bolder and smarter over time stealing water bottles, lunchboxes and geometry sets from school; cricket bats, library books, Bunsen burners during recesses, casual conversations and diversions, when people weren’t looking or were half-looking. The objects often did not matter. It was the way he managed to get them. The more difficult the challenge, the sweeter the sense of procurement. His favourite method was to just pick things casually without a show of secrecy or stealth, under the nose of unsuspecting persons. He got his greatest kick by pretending he was not thieving but picking up his own things.
By the time he left school, Sitesh Sen had a collection of stolen objects that he kept inside an old tin trunk beneath his bed. He kept the books on his shelf, separated in a way only he would know. Nobody noticed much in his home. His father was a doctor who spent most of his time at his clinic. His mother was an insurance agent who spent most of her waking hours on the phone. They were easy to lie to. They didn’t seem to care beyond the basics.
It stopped when he was 21, exactly ten years after he started, on the same date, 18th of June.
Sen always thought of this coincidence with ambivalence. He knew the dates as he always made an entry in his diary after each major haul, describing in details the act, the characters, the conditions, often making imaginative insertions in order to make it sound daring and more dramatic. This was the only thing he had ever written that came close to fiction.
It happened after an incident in a tiny bookstore in southern Kolkata, quite close to where Arindam Dutta said he lived, Hazra. Sen was on his way back home after a long and exhausting class at his MBA institute in Kalighat, about to take the metro, when he suddenly spotted the bookstore. Though it was a small one, the books seemed to lure him through the long glass windows.
He didn’t care about the books, he seldom read beyond what was necessary. When he walked in, he was greeted by an old lady at the counter, who looked sweet and sleepy. “Too easy”, Sen had thought, letting his instincts take over his intelligence. He had not looked around carefully, as he was wont to do, to check if anyone was watching him. The deep-gut thrill was kicking in as he stepped into the store, with a half-smile that was part of the pretense of looking normal. He had browsed the rows till he thought he had lost the lady’s attention, before tucking two books into his pants.
He spent some more time in the bookstore before preparing to leave. He sauntered towards the door, looking askance towards the counter. The old lady seemed to have disappeared. He did not rush, he never did.
Right at the door, he was pulled back roughly by two pairs of strong hands. Two men had emerged from nowhere. They hauled him in and brought him before the old lady who was now looking far from sweet and sleepy. She seemed to have seen through his shirt, seen the books beneath his clothes. Her face had a sinister smile that made Sitesh shiver with the kind of terror he had never felt before. Without wasting a word, the two men pulled his shirt so hard that it tore. The books were right there, stuck to his skin, partially tucked into his pants. They were retrieved and returned to their places, as if they had never been dislodged from the shelves.
The first blow fell on his left jaw, so hard that his bone went numb immediately, following one steely second of undiluted pain. There was then a kick on his belly, where he had hidden the books he meant to take. It pushed all the wind out of his body in a second and he struggled to breathe, panting for the air that wasn’t his anymore.
They knew how to beat, how to inflict pain. A strong pair of hands held him while the other dished out the blows. They did not let him fall. Very soon he could not see anything, except a pair of strong sinewy arms, with tight taut muscles that rose and fell like angry waves.
Sen did not understand why they beat him so brutally. It was cold, cruel, clinical. Perhaps it was a collective revenge for all that he had taken for ten years — all the geometry sets, fountain pens, watches, Radiant Readers, lunchboxes, coffee coasters. As the men beat him, the old woman looked on with knowing eyes, smiling strangely. To Sitesh, it all felt like a long-drawn-out plan by three perfect strangers to punish all his sins. By the time he was kicked out of the shop, he had a torn shirt, swollen eyes and a bleeding nose. Not a single word had been uttered.
He had ambled aimlessly till he stepped into the metro station that looked spectral with its white lights. He got into a train that swirled like a slow snake and sat numbly in a corner seat meant for the handicapped, unable to think or to remember, barely hearing the recorded female voice that announced the upcoming stations. The voice was blurry and indistinct. Something seemed to be rolling inside his left ear. It felt thick and heavy, slowly becoming a mass that blocked sound waves midway. He had got up when the train stopped at the last station, far from his home. As he walked, each step was a reminder of the pain he felt. He did not quite remember how and when he got back home.
Nobody noticed anything.
He slowly walked into the washroom and took off his clothes. He stood staring at his naked body studded with dark bruises. He could not hear himself cry. He felt his body shiver. He did not know when he had slithered down the washroom wall.
Subsequently, Sitesh developed high fever. He stayed in bed for a week. He was delirious every night, dreaming of the two faceless men who had beaten him brutally, two strong sinewy arms with monstrous muscles holding and hurting him with heavy kicks and blows.
When he recovered, he dragged out the tin trunk full of stolen goods from underneath his bed, emptied its content and made a bundle, including all the books he had stolen. Then he took a rickshaw and threw the bundle into the big municipal dump yard two miles from his house. It was around 9 o’clock at night and he hoped nobody was watching. For a long time he had the fear of being followed. Whenever he would see two men walk together, he would freeze in terror.
Sitesh Sen turned to his studies now. He worked hard for his MBA exam and topped in his institute.
He started working at the age of twenty-four in a Rajasthan-based pharmaceutical company as a junior sales executive and shifted to Jaipur. He travelled across North India for the next four years, hopping jobs. By the time he was twenty-eight, he returned to Kolkata and joined Sen’s Medicals as a senior sales executive.
At thirty, he agreed to marry the daughter of one of his father’s wealthy patients and received a steel-grey sedan as a wedding gift from his father-in-law. At thirty-two he had a daughter; at thirty-four, a son. He moved into his own 2,000 square-feet apartment in a high-rise at a posh South Kolkata neighbourhood and started playing tennis at Tolly Club at the age of thirty-seven.
Sitesh Sen had managed to leave behind the tin trunk, the two men and the dump yard.
That was twenty years ago.
As he stood with the wallet on platform eight of Howrah Station that warm April evening, Sitesh Sen felt a cold sweat claw his neck. He was overwhelmed by an instinctual craving that also smacked of shame and apprehension. His fingertips were already brushing the sharp surfaces of the notes which were beginning to rustle, arousing in him an old furtive feeling which Sen thought he had left behind for good. Nobody was watching him.
He was a forty-one year old respectable man now wearing a Louise Phillipe shirt. He had credit cards and an AC-first-class ticket. It was easy for him to just take an ordinary-looking wallet. Nobody would suspect anything strange. His own wallet was a dark-brown Louis Vuitton. But as Sitesh knew too well, it had never been about the price or the quality of the thing, it had always been about the experience of getting the thing itself, the forbidden fetish of taking that which did not belong to him.
Most often, it was about being seduced by the situation, and then letting his instinct blend in with the opportunity. Over the last twenty years, Sitesh had assiduously and painfully stopped himself from being alone with forsaken or forgotten objects.
But on that April evening, as he stood holding the wallet as its owner presumably relieved himself in a nearby public toilet, Sitesh Sen, ADM of a major East-Indian pharmaceutical company, found himself in the grips of an old forbidden impulse. All sights and sounds around were becoming a blur, the only object that mattered was the slightly torn walnut-coloured wallet he held on his left palm, his own purple Delsey trolley bag stood forgotten behind him.
As he quickly took the wallet and turned away from the teashop, Sitesh Sen found his feet taking him swiftly to a distant spot, a large luggage depot where sweaty coolies and metallic kettles of tea shared steam and where he must have looked spectacularly odd with his Louise Phillipe and Louis Vuitton. Sen was sweating too, with a complex combination of fear and pleasure. Something was moving deep inside him, like a chained beast slowly being released. He clutched on to the wallet tightly, feeling its taut leathery body sink into the flesh of his palm. The words around him were cut down to whispers. Howrah Station seemed slow and out of breath.
After what seemed a painful stretch of time, Sitesh Sen began to empty the content of the wallet, feeling the papery body of the notes and the curves of the coin between his shaky fingertips. There were a couple of debit cards too and some old receipts. The luggage depot smelt of rotting rats just like smell from the rubbish heap where he had thrown his big bundle of stolen objects twenty years ago. It was a familiar smell in the old North Kolkata neighbourhood where he grew up. Sitesh Sen was lost in nostalgia.
Twenty years ago, he had thrown away everything he had taken, hoping to bury his instinct to take anything again eternally. Now, standing in a semi-lit luggage depot on a muggy April evening in Howrah Station, Sitesh Sen seemed simultaneously ashamed and aroused. He also felt free — far removed from his world of Sunday tennis matches at the Tolly Club and his office parties at the Irish House.
Sen had not noticed when the lights had been turned off. The crowd of coolies had first thinned and then faded away. It was only when he saw three shadowy figures walk towards him from a distance that Sitesh Sen realized he was actually alone in a corner of an old warehouse in an otherwise busy and noisy station. The three figures drew closer until Sen recognized the one in front as Arindam Dutta.
The two other men stayed in the shadows behind him but there was something eerily familiar about them, in the way they walked, in the way their strong sinewy arms were visible even from a distance.
“That bookstore closed down right after that day. This warehouse will close down after tonight too. It will close with you.” Dutta’s voice had nothing of the flabby intimacy that Sen had patronized earlier in the evening. Instead it now carried a steely, shrill quality that sent shivers down Sitesh Sen’s spine.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, I’ll return everything, right now, here, here!”Sen’s voice was that of a schoolboy pleading, about to get chastised, abused, secretly, by a figure of authority.
It was a mistake. I’m sorry. I failed. But I did my best.
“This was a test. And you weren’t good enough, I’m afraid. So they’re here to do what they did twenty years ago. Only now you won’t be allowed to go. Just so you know.” Dutta was chewing each word, more menacingly than he had chewed his patty earlier.
The two men stepped out of the shadows and drew closer.
“I won’t do it again. I let my guard down. I kept myself clean all this time. This was after twenty years. I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Please don’t do this to me again!’
“After twenty years,” Dutta muttered. And then stepped aside to let the two men take over.
Their heavy bootsteps had a sinister ring.
When they were about seven feet away, Sitesh Sen screamed – a long bloodcurdling howl that snapped his guts, tore his lungs, and knifed through his throat. Everything, everyone, every sound seemed to halt for about five seconds. And then the ADM of Sen’s Medicals dropped everything he was carrying, turned around and began to run.
The exit of the warehouse gave way to an old platform with abandoned bogies and engines deadened by silence and slow time. Sen sprinted across it in cold sweat as he heard the boots behind him. Strangely, there did not seem to be anyone around, just his limbs and panting sounds. Then the platform ended and Sen ran up the stairs of a broken and old bridge. Sen stopped, caught between spasms of fear and breathlessness. There was nobody around him but he seemed to hear the sound of boots from a distance.
Those boots. Those strong sinewy arms with monstrous muscles were approaching. Sen held the railing and bent forward, his upper body almost giving way in exhaustion. An indistinct announcement floated from afar, presumably about a train running late, or a train arriving. That sound mixed with that of boots chasing in Sitesh Sen’s brain, made him straighten up again. Through his scared sweaty eyes, he could see a silver slice of the river at a distance, Ganges glowing with the reflections of long lights from the huge buildings along its banks and the ferries floating with their smaller lights.
He could see an old luggage train draw closer to the bridge and another one leave, pass underneath him picking up speed. They were like snakes, swirling as did the train twenty years ago. The trains merged with the dead rat smell and the sound of those boots closing in.
Sitesh Sen was on top of the bridge and climbed higher.
He now waited on the railing.
Avishek Parui is an Assistant Professor of English at IIT Madras and Associate Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. He is the author of Postmodern Literatures (Orient Blackswan, 2018) and researches on memory studies and masculinity studies. He is a creative writing resource person trained and certified by the British Council and had been a creative writing mentor at the Arts Café, St. Aidan’s College, Durham University, UK. His short stories have appeared in Kitaab, Madras Mag, The Bombay Review and Humanities Underground.