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Unfinished Tale of an Unknown Person
|by Dipankar Dasgupta|
It took me almost a lifetime to conclude if Purnendu was a genius or simply a mentally challenged person. And that does not speak too highly of my intelligence I have to admit.
By the time I completed the second term in that school, my report resembled a bloody battle field, smeared as it was with examination scores written in red ink. I suppose red was not a colour identified with revolutionary zeal in our part of the world as yet and both the teachers at school as well as the guardians at home began to worry about the quantum of grey matter my mind was endowed with. My parents realized that there was no hope at all of me being promoted to the next class and took me out of the school in the middle of the year. They tutored me at home and made me appear in the admission tests of a number of renowned schools, but to no avail at all. I was rejected everywhere and finally admitted to a school meant for the likes of me. There was no admission test there and the school’s doors were open for anyone willing to walk through them.
He was a tall person, always dressed simply in clothes bearing the stamp of austerity, his dark, sharp featured face wearing the haunted look of a scientist stuck with problems that, according to him, even Einstein would avoid like live wire. He smiled but rarely, and when he did, his face expressed unmistakable signs of pain at the sight of the mirthfully irresponsible teenagers, in whose midst he had been condemned to waste his talents reserved exclusively for the advancement of science.
Purnendu was not a noisy person as I said, so I was taken completely by surprise one day when the teacher in the class asked him to “stand up on the bench”! I don’t remember what the occasion was. He might have failed to answer a question or his homework could have been judged unsatisfactory. I am sure of course that he had not been pulled up for disciplinary reasons. He accepted the punishment without demur and remained standing on the bench, towering above all of us like a veritable Statue of Liberty, both due to his physical height as well as his presumed intellectual superiority. I was deeply distressed by the sight and almost moved to tears, since I could not accept Purnendu’s humiliation. But Purnendu stood at his elevated post, his face expressing stoic indifference if anything at all. As I ponder over it now, he must have appeared to me like Hercules tricked into bearing the Heavens on his shoulders, only I was probably ignorant of Greek mythology at the time.
Purnendu lived in a well-appointed house which indicated that he came from a well-to-do family, but there was something strange in the deserted look the house bore. The house was shrouded in mystery, a personification of an unrevealed tragedy. It was mid-day and the street was quite empty. There might have been a calling bell, but I remember that my companion preferred not to use it. Instead, he called out “Purnedu” in a full-throted voice that rang through the sunlit, empty afternoon street. The call had to be repeated several times before Punenedu appeared from behind the closed doors of a room in the front corner of the building. For the first time during our period of acquaintance did I notice signs of annoyance on Purnendu’s usually composed face. He was clearly disturbed by the arrival of visitors. He did not speak to me at all and I do not have any idea about the exchange that took place between him and my chaperone. It was a short conversation, Purnendu replying in monosyllables at best and his face growing visibly furious with every passing moment. Finally, it was clear that he wanted to have nothing to do with us and the question of letting us into his house did not arise at all.
It is Purnendu who occupies me even today, a double agent connecting the worlds of scholarship and pornography. I never discovered whether he had indeed amassed the books they said he had, but his behavior on that far away afternoon made me feel that the allegation was not entirely untrue. I soon forgot about him of course and did not remember him even once till I bumped into him on the street one morning almost thirty years later. The spot where we saw each other was close to the residence I had visited in my teens. I can’t recall if he recognized me first or whether it was I who began the conversation. He looked almost totally unchanged from his school days, dressed exactly the same way he used to be in school. The only difference was that his hair displayed a few grey touches now and he wore glasses. He recognized me too but he was his usual reticent self. I asked him what he was doing though he avoided answering the question. Instead, in an almost accusing tone, he inquired, “Have you married?” He wanted to know nothing else at all it seemed. What my profession was? No. Where I worked? No. Was I in touch with any old classmate? No. Married or not was the only issue that mattered.
I could have ended Purnendu’s story here, but then the reader would question me what the point of it all was. So, I need to add a last act to this enigma. I lost track of Purnendu once again and travelled to different parts of India as well as the world. And then, of all places, I ran into Purnendu one last time in Hong Kong during the first decade of this century. No, I did not see him physically anymore, but being a cyber enthusiast, I often form friendships with people I never get to see in flesh and blood. I came across one such in a site I visit no more and it turned out that this person was Purnendu’s neighbour in youth. The street is a walking distance from where I live today. And my curiosity knew no bounds. I kept pestering the person about Purnendu’s whereabouts at that time, but the person was now married and lived elsewhere. He had a mother though who still lived there and she might know.
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