BOOK EXCERPT

Tales from Hazaribagh: Who was more afraid when an acclaimed author met a notorious criminal?

A hilarious story from an unhurried past set in an idyllic small town by a forest.

He was much more than an author. As he often put it himself, he was really a man of many attributes, an important one of which – besides his renown as a writer – was that he was a zealous fighter of crime, soldiering on against thieves and robbers. Something he kept low key and few people knew about.

One winter, a neighbour’s house was host to a group of vacationers. This beautiful home was the property of a family from Calcutta whom we saw about once or twice a year when they spent a couple of weeks in Hazaribagh. The group – friends of the family – could not have come at a better time. The bracing winter of Hazaribagh was always a balm for body and soul, and in this group were our author and his wife.

Our author (henceforth simply referred to as Author) had already made a name as a Bengali novelist, his latest book winning stirring acclaim among readers and critics, and he intended to use his Hazaribagh sojourn as fuel for inspiration for his next novel. Author’s appearance was strikingly aquiline.

With us youngsters (the daughter of the visiting family and I), he was invariably taciturn, as if we were a bothersome presence. I was properly reverential whenever I was near him.

He spent long hours at our house in conversation with my parents and my elder brother, and whenever I could, I tried to listen in. All were keen to discuss the book that had brought him accolades. They wanted to know about the book that he was working on. His response was always vague and evasive, as though he felt that it was commonplace to be admired by everybody, and that could only mean a lowering of his standards. His calm pronouncement was that his audience belonged to the “intellectual set”.

Sometimes we would go to the countryside on picnics and the locations varied. It could be a shady sal grove on a meadow, or it could be beside a gentle, shallow waterfall. Another time it could be a green grassy slope beside a stream. I was certain that like the rest of us, Author enjoyed these outings, but it was difficult to tell since he kept to himself, contemplating, as someone said admiringly, his next work.

The only time Author became animated – so far as this was possible – was when conversation touched on crime and investigation. Author told us that not many knew of his proficiency in this particular field. He informed us that he was a “committed soldier” who disliked criminals and was ready to join the fray in stopping them, whether or not he was in the throes of literary composition. His father had been a senior official in the police force and thus his initiation in the complex game of crime detection and prevention had begun early. Wasn’t this obsession unusual for a writer? he was asked. With unaffected aplomb he said that he was an artist and as an artist he could not tolerate any threat to or disruption in the normal rhythm of life. His track record here was a long one, he said. One in which he had done detective work, complete with laying traps and wading into the thick of the action regardless of the risk involved. He proceeded to run through a quick catalogue of his exploits, mostly in and around Calcutta and at any time of the day or night.

His principal targets, he said, were burglars and he talked about those he had caught – or helped catch – in the act. The secret, he said, was to be totally unafraid, giving us a neat example. If in a rough-and-tumble football match you’re afraid of getting hurt, chances are you will end up getting hurt, he told us.

When Author recounted his feats, he did it without any bravado whatsoever, narrating all that he did and how he went about it as if these were little more than a day-in-the-life. We listened agog.

One evening after Author had left, I kept going back to what he said about “soldiering on” against criminals. My father said with a straight face that Author belonged to the tradition of great novelists who were also soldiers. Cervantes, he reminded me, fought in the battle of Lepanto. Of course the battlefields were different. Cervantes was fighting the Ottoman Turks, while Author was fighting the enemy within. But both were soldiers. I looked closely at Father to detect the humour I knew was there, but he gave nothing away.

Author’s story ended like this: there was a strong buzz that one of the most dangerously notorious criminals in the area – known as Jabbu Ram – had escaped prison and the police were in hot pursuit of him. Jabbu Ram had a list of horrifying crimes to his name: robbery, theft, extortion and infliction of serious bodily harm were some of them. Both townsfolk and villagers were terrified of him, and the air was tense, something rare for Hazaribagh in those days.

Around this time the visiting family returned to Calcutta. Author’s wife also left and he was set to follow in a few days. Since he was now alone, he asked my brother to spend a few nights with him. He would be glad of the company, he said, after the whole day by himself. So my brother was off to our neighbour’s house with Author.

Their first two nights passed uneventfully. The third night brought the change. In the cold winter night both Author and my brother turned in early for bed, everything quiet in and around the house. A little after midnight they were shaken awake by the almost hysterical caretaker who was unintelligible in his excitement and alarm. What he managed to get across was this: looking for shelter from the cold, Jabbu Ram was holed up in the house. He had entered one of the rooms, waiting for morning, and unfortunately for him, he had dozed off.

With reckless courage the caretaker had locked the door from the outside and alerted some men living close by. What now? he asked.

The threat of Jabbu Ram had reached its end. The man was locked in a room and all that needed to be done was to call the police to pick him up. This was the sane advice my brother put forward. A simple solution really, but Author had a different idea. He declared rather grandly that there was nothing laudable in putting the cuffs on a criminal unable to defend himself. He instructed the caretaker’s friends to stand by. Getting hold of a sturdy stick, he asked the caretaker to unlock the door. He would then overpower the criminal man to man and hand him over to the police himself. He brusquely brushed aside all opposition to this ludicrous idea and stood ready. The caretaker, having no option, did as he was told. And very sensibly my brother, knowing it was futile to argue, rushed to the phone to call the police. Several things happened after that. When the caretaker unbolted the door, Jabbu Ram, furious at being locked in, screamed in rage and rushed out. The sundry helpers, terror stricken, bolted. The caretaker stood a distance away, cowering. And Author, at the sight of Jabbu Ram coming what he thought was straight for him, took a few staggering steps back, slumped heavily to the ground, his stick falling away, and stayed prone, completely unmoving. Jabbu Ram, in full command of the situation, totally ignored Author, walked across to the boundary wall, scaled it in one effortless leap and was gone. The police arrived too late to do anything.

Well before daybreak Author packed his suitcase, left his host’s home and came to ours. The whole story came from my brother. In the morning Author said he had some work in town. This, we came to know afterwards, was going to the petrol station to fill up his car. He returned shortly and after a quick goodbye, hurried his driver to get behind the wheel and drove away rapidly for Calcutta, home and safety.

Excerpted with permission from An Elsewhere Place: Boyhood Days in Hazaribagh, Malay Kumar Roy, Speaking Tiger.

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