As I opened the door, I found a tall, imposing young man smartly clad in an expensive business suit and a striped necktie standing outside with an iPhone in his hand. He was clean shaven, and even his head was completely hairless and meticulously waxed. The man had a suave, professional appearance, and it took me a few seconds to take my eyes off him and notice the other gentleman – the one standing behind him at a distance.
The second man was much older – easily in his seventies – tall and scrawny, hunched at the waist, slightly stooping over a walking stick, standing and staring at me with piercing eyes. He had a curved nose, a pointy chin, his skin was fair in complexion, and his hair was all grey. There was an aristocratic air about him, and although he now looked aged and shrivelled, for some reason, the old man’s steely glance and uninviting countenance gave me the distinct impression that at some point of time in the past, he must have been the sort of man no one would have dared to mess with.
“Good evening! Is this the residence of Mr Janardan Maity, the detective?” – the younger of the two gentlemen enquired.
‘Yes, please come in’ – I said, hoping to my heart that the man wouldn’t make the mistake of calling Maity a detective to his face. I knew how much Maity hated that word.
I ushered the two men in and Maity rose from his couch and welcomed them with his usual courtesy. I shut the door and joined them, and once everyone had settled down in their seats, Maity asked the visitors if they would like a cup of tea.
The old man betrayed an almost imperceptible gesture, which resembled a scoff. I had caught on to it, and so had Maity, but before we could react, the younger man flashed an affable smile and politely declined Maity’s offer.
“Very well, please tell me” – said Maity – “How can I help you gentlemen?”
“Have I ever…?”
Before the young man could begin, the older one had suddenly uttered those few words and was now staring around the room with a pronounced frown on his wrinkled forehead. He gave the impression of a man who was lost, and was trying to find his way out of a labyrinth.
“I…we have been here before…haven’t we, Mohan?” – He somehow managed to say in a feeble, raspy voice. Although he looked rather frail and disoriented, it was that piercing look in his eyes which somehow made me uncomfortable.
The man named Mohan smiled at us apologetically, quickly extended a hand and patted the old man’s wrist gently – “No, sir. We’re meeting Mr Maity for the first time. We spoke about this, remember? We’re here to take his advice on…on the matter, sir.”
Maity and I watched the proceedings in silence, looking at the two men in turn. The old man’s frightening eyes took their time to scan Maity’s magnificent collection of artefacts neatly arranged across the room and finally came and rested on Maity himself.
“Hmm” – He quipped – “Impressive!”
The young man now turned to Maity and said – “You must be a busy man, Mr Maity, so I’ll come straight to the point. My name is Mohan Sharma, I’m Mr Chowdhury’s secretary and personal manager. I have been with him for almost six years now. Mr Jagat Narayan Chowdhury is the owner of several tea gardens in the Dooars region of Bengal. He has other business concerns too, but tea is the primary one. My employer is seventy-nine now. And for over fifty years, he has been in the tea growing, tea manufacturing and tea exporting business. The tea from our gardens is not sold in India, it is of the finest quality, and we export exclusively to certain specific regions in Europe.”
Mohan Sharma paused a little, Maity waited patiently and I realised why the guests had declined our offer for tea.
“In his youth” – Sharma continued – ‘mr Chowdhury had been a dynamic planter. Much loved, much revered in his estates. Unlike the British, from whom he took over the business, Mr Chowdhury had done a lot for the welfare of his workers. He built hospitals for the labourers of the gardens, schools and playgrounds for their children, he even built temples and churches for them. He ensured that they get clean drinking water, proper sanitation facilities and a safe working environment. Which is perhaps why the labourers literally worshipped him. And as a direct result of that, production of our gardens has always remained unmatched by those of our competitors. But as you know, every successful man has his own share of enemies. Mr Chowdhury did too – although his enemies and naysayers could never get the better of him, and not for want of trying, I might add.”
I watched the old man’s face closely. It looked tired and haggard, and his eyes were now shut, presumably with exhaustion. Although grand in stature, Maity’s house was an old one, and the climb to the first floor took quite a bit of doing.
Those two words from Mohan Sharma made me shift my attention back to him. Although his face was calm, his eyes were restless, and were darting back and forth between his employer and Maity. Maity had interlocked his fingers and was watching Mohan Sharma’s face with a silent stare.
‘mr Chowdhury owns many gardens spread across the region, but he lives in the Manikpur tea-estate, near the Chilapata forest range in Alipurduar district. He has his own bungalow there, right in the middle of the garden, a very picturesque place. The bungalow is situated around half a mile from the estate’s massive factory, where tea is processed. Although it is a huge property with over twenty rooms, Mr Chowdhury himself doesn’t live in the main bungalow. He prefers living in a small wooden cabin within the compound, which was originally built by the British as a quarantine.”
“Leprosy?” – Maity asked.
Mohan Sharma nodded with a smile – ‘that’s correct, Mr Maity. You seem to be familiar with the menace of leprosy in tea gardens in the past. There was a time when it was believed that leprosy was caused by the sap of the tea tree. It was also believed that the disease was contagious. We now know that neither of these are true, but back in the day, people were far more ignorant. The rumours were further fuelled by the fact that incidents of the disease were quite common in the gardens. And often, British planters would attract it themselves. Hence the isolation. Those days are gone now, as are the myths and taboos. But Mr Chowdhury prefers the solitude of the cabin now.”
“Too many people” – Jagat Narayan Chowdhury whispered, his eyes still shut, and an expression of agony now spread across his face – “Far too many people. Coming and going, day and night. In an out. All the time…all those footsteps…I…I can’t…tolerate…”
Mr Chowdhury’s words trailed off. Mohan Sharma looked a bit embarrassed. He said in a soft voice – “Although the bungalow is virtually empty – Mr Chowdhury’s children are all settled in London – there are the servants, the cooks, the gardeners, the drivers etc who have access to the house. Mr Chowdhury moved into the cabin around six months ago. It’s much quieter there, lots of trees, and there’s a beautiful lotus pond right next to the cabin, he likes to have his breakfast by the pond, spends his mornings and evenings sitting there.”
“Where do you live?” – Maity asked.
“I live in the bungalow too. Only Mr Chowdhury and his personal butler live in the cabin.”
“I see. Please continue.”
Mohan Sharma cleared his throat and went on – “Four days ago, on the night of the 16th, someone tried to break into the bungalow. Clearly, whoever the intruder was, he did not know that Mr Chowdhury had not been living in the bungalow anymore, so luckily, he escaped unhurt. But for the same reason, we came to the conclusion that it was an outsider, and not someone from Manikpur. Because everyone in Manikpur is aware of the fact that Mr Chowdhury lives in the cabin.”
“What makes you think that the intruder wanted to hurt Mr Chowdhury?” – Maity asked – “Couldn’t it have been an ordinary thief?”
“Well, we don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why. For one, the intruder climbed the drainpipes and made his way to a specific room on the first floor. He even tried to pick the lock and enter the room. That room used to be Mr Chowdhury’s bedroom earlier. But even when he used that room, it did not contain any valuables. His important business papers, a little gold jewellery, petty cash, etc. were all locked safely in his office on the ground floor. The rest of it is all in bank lockers. This led us to think that the intruder specifically wanted to get to Mr Chowdhury, and that he wasn’t interested in the valuables at all.”
I quickly looked at Maity from the corner of my eye, but Maity didn’t say anything.
“And secondly, when the man was trying to pick the lock and break in, our chowkidar saw him from a distance and raised an alarm. The man jumped down to the ground below, ran for his life and disappeared in the dark before anyone could get to him, but in all the rush, he left a sharp dagger behind.”
“Do you have any idea who this man could have been?” – Maity asked.
“None at all” – Said Mohan Sharma – “As I said before, a successful man like Mr Chowdhury has many enemies. Could have been any one of them. Could have been a hired goon too.”
“Do you have the dagger with you now?”
Mohan Sharma shot a quick glance at his boss and said ––“Er…no, Mr Maity. You see…I didn’t want to carry it around when…”
Maity raised his hand and said – “I understand. Have the local police been informed?”
“Yes, the very next morning. They came and interrogated the entire staff, including me. But to tell you the truth, Mr Chowdhury does not have too much faith in the police. He is of the opinion that their – ”
“You will catch the culprit for me!”
Before Mohan Sharma could finish his sentence, his boss had opened his eyes and thundered those words. He was now extending his hand and pointing his forefinger straight at Maity. I noticed that the skin of his hand had wrinkled so much, that it looked almost skeletal and otherworldly. His frame may have been frail, but the force with which he had uttered those words made me realize that the man still hadn’t lost his mettle.
“My lawyers…they speak highly of you” – He went on – “they say you are a useful man, a thinking man, a man who knows how to get things done.”
“But Mr Chowdhury” – Maity leant forward in his chair and began with a soft respectful voice and a polite smile – “In this kind of cases, it is usually the local police who are far more equipped to – ”
“How much?” – The entire room seemed to vibrate with the force of Mr Chowdhury’s roar.
Mohan Sharma looked somewhat embarrassed, but he made a visible effort to maintain a calm reserve. Maity, on the other hand seemed rather taken aback. His notorious frown had appeared on his forehead.
“Excuse me?” – He said.
“Everyone has a price” – The old man had shut his eyes again – “Name yours.”
Maity’s face turned grave. The frown slowly disappeared from his forehead. He leant back in his couch and said – “Well, that’s where you are wrong, Mr Chowdhury. Not everyone has a price. I certainly don’t.”
Very, very slowly, Jagat Narayan Chowdhury opened his eyes and looked straight at Maity. The man was obviously not expecting Maity’s curt response and was clearly not happy to hear it. He sat in his seat in silence and fumed for a few seconds, staring directly at Maity all the while. Then he asked –
“So, you won’t work for me?”
Maity crossed his right leg over his left and uttered a single word in a calm, firm and resolute voice.
I looked across the room to find Mr Chowdhury breathing heavily. His right hand had grabbed the ivory head of his walking stick, his left had grabbed the wrist of his right hand. Both had begun to tremble.
“May I ask why?”
“Of course you may” – Maity’s eyes had not moved an inch away from the old man’s face, and having said this much, he fell silent again. His dignified reserve made even me nervous, I wondered what it must be doing to the other two people in the room.
The old man spared a gesture of intense annoyance and said – “Well, why?”
“Because you see, Mr Chowdhury, I help people who come to me seeking my help. I am an old-fashioned man – I believe in old-fashioned values. Values such as courtesy, humility, decency. I have nothing to offer to those who come into my home and try to throw money at my face. There are exactly forty-five steps in the stairs outside that door you came through, and I regret to say that you have climbed all of them in vain.”
Excerpted with permission from Best Served Cold, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.