Santanu was a bright young man in his late twenties, studying in Calcutta’s prestigious Presidency College. His subject was physics, and his professors had espied in him a questing mind combined with an intellectual daring that saw him tread new paths of thought in his chosen field. They foresaw for him high honours and were practically certain that he would get a full scholarship at one of the world’s best known ivy league colleges.

Santanu’s elderly parents were very proud of their son. He was their only child, and they had always known that he would make it big in the world. Santanu’s father was the retired VC of a well-known university in the city and his mother had been a teacher of English at a prestigious girl’s college of Calcutta University, but had taken early retirement some years ago. They were a family of academics and it seemed only natural to his parents that Santanu should excel in intellectual pursuits.

Santanu’s days were spent between his classes, meetings with his professors and library work. The only other activity he indulged in was joining the gatherings at Coffee House, just across the street. It was an iconic landmark on College Street, going back almost a hundred and fifty years, and had always been a place for meetings and “adda” of intellectuals, writers, artists and firebrands – it was part of Bengal’s artistic and revolutionary history. It still carried the old reputation and the atmosphere, and perhaps the old inspiration and vitality still lingered there.

It was at this Coffee House that a group of young students of Santanu’s batch had started to meet regularly and, as the old-fashioned fans whirled slowly from the high ceilings, and the bearers in their white uniforms, with cummerbund and turban went fleet footed from table to table, these young Turks flexed their intellectual muscles. From Dostoyevsky to Churchill, and Sarat Chandra to Ghalib, there was nothing they didn’t discuss, quote or argue over. If one day their talk led them down the chequerboard of the world war and Nazi fanaticism, another day it was Omar Khayyam’s quatrains and yet another day, it was the communist party and the congress. Summer, winter or monsoon, there was always some of the group seated at a table at Coffee House, cigarette smoke curling up, and with it the aroma of black coffee and buttered toast. It was a time of idealism, when all the world lay before them, waiting to be experienced and conquered.

It was here that, one day, someone brought up the subject of ghosts. Of life beyond death.

“Of course, there is spirit. We are not simply bones and skin and organs,” said Manik. “I believe doctors in Germany are trying to actually measure and medically document spirits. That is so exciting – that is what medical research should be about!”

“Even in Britain, major research is going on into the afterlife. Southampton University is one of the leaders in this,” put in Arvind, who was applying for scholarships in the UK and was always on about all things British.

“I wonder why Britain has always had such a tradition of ghosts. Their spiritualist movement is so old. Conan Doyle was a spiritualist. Even that scientist who discovered X-rays was one of them. Of course, America also has its Society for Psychical Research,” said Santanu.

Ruchi, the pragmatic realist snorted, saying, “This is all simply imagination. Tell me, can you put a ghost in a test tube?”

“Ah! The world’s first test tube ghost baby!” quipped Sheila, the wit of the group.

They all broke out in laughter, until Santanu said, “I think the most interesting experiment into spirit communication was done by – guess who?”

“You?” offered Ruchi, rolling her eyes.

Santanu smiled as he sipped his coffee. “Close,” he told her. “Thomas Edison.”

“Edison?” asked Manik.

“Yes,” replied Santanu. “Edison was convinced that the spirit survived physical death, and to prove his idea, he started work on the Spirit Machine. It was to be something like a telephone, an instrument through which the spirit world could speak to the living, and this world could dial the dead.”

“But what happened to it, where did it go?” asked Manik leaning forward.

“No one really knows for sure,” said Santanu, narrowing his eyes as he tried to remember, “but it was rumoured that Edison did create the blueprint before his death and that is now stored in some secret government archives in Britain.”

They were all so intent and absorbed that there was a little collective gasp when a man cleared his throat just behind them.

It was Dr Ghoshal, the head of the Bengali department, standing at their table.

“Oh, sir, hello. Would you like to join us?”

“We didn’t see you.”

Manik quickly got up to pull forward an extra chair from a neighbouring table.

“No, no, I must be going,” the elderly white-haired man smiled at them. “But I thought I would ask you something before I left. I was sitting at the next table and overheard some of what you were talking about. Fascinating subject. You talk about great minds of the West, but what about someone from your own city?”

“From Calcutta?” asked Santanu, his forehead creasing as he racked his memory.

“Yes, of course. Don’t you know about our very own poet, Jnanendra, and his fascination for planchette? He may have lived more than a century ago, but his name is famous even today in every part of the world.” Dr Ghoshal pushed his glasses up his nose, saying, “In fact, he was known to have frequent sessions with the planchette board at his family home in north Calcutta. The building still stands today and if I’m not mistaken, it has been made into a kind of museum.”

Sheila nodded. “Yes, sir, I remember reading about it in a magazine. In fact, that article speculated that spirit influences were a large part of his poetic inspiration.”

Dr Ghoshal nodded. “Yes, there is much to think about there. You young people should keep Jnanendra in your list of people who experimented with spirit communication.”

As the group chorused their assent, the elderly man smiled at them, and raising his hand slightly in farewell, left.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Planchette’ in Whispering Shadows: Stories, Deepta Roy Chakraverti, HarperCollins India.