Exercising Fire

Here is a PDF version of the story below: Exercising Fire
Exercising Fire
Premendra Mitra
Original Title: “Khanobdahe Ghonada”
First published: July 1978

“No, it is NOT!”, roared Shishir.

The thunderous harmonics reverberated across the room, flowed over the neighbouring houses, and could probably be heard around the bend of our street.

It was something of an overkill, since his voice only had to reach the top of the unrailed stairs, where the illustrious Mr. Das had his solitary rooftop room. Indeed, it was the unmistakable sound of his cheap slippers on the stairs that had been Shishir’s cue.

For reasons more obscure than usual, the gentleman had been avoiding us, and by extension, our relaxing room on the first floor. Each evening, we had trooped in dutifully and waited, but in vain; his favourite armchair remained empty. Finally, after a full week of unbroken silence, we decided to shift mode. Executive action it woud have to be, and the forcible re-establishment of bipartite communication.

Well, I say ‘forcible’. With the redoubtable Ghanashyam Das, actual force was out of the question. Our best bet was temptation, combined with intrigue. Multi-layered baiting was of essence: first, he had to be lured out of his rooftop sanctum; then, compelled to enter the relaxing room; and finally, provoked into breaking his sworn silence.

Phase One of our operation was entrusted to the culinary genius of Banwari and Rambhuj. Dumping the weekend’s groceries on them practically at dawn, we escaped quietly to the first floor. By seven thirty, the mouth-watering aroma of homemade hing kachauri rose slowly from the ground-floor kitchen, suffusing each floor with the promise of scrumptiousness. And yet – yet – the trusted Banwari didn’t appear at the rooftop room with Ghonada’s customary heaped plate.

By eight, the aroma of fresh hilsa, crisply fried in rich mustard oil, began to mingle with the savoury air of the old mess-house.

Still no sign of Banwari on the rooftop.

What calamity could have caused such breach of culinary etiquette? Could the young guards, exasperated by their week of unrewarded waiting, have instructed Banwari to cut his revered Burrababu out of the meal-line? These, we were willing to bet, had been Ghonada’s anxious thoughts for the last half hour. The sound of his slippers on the stairs – music to our ears – had to be a direct fallout of that anxiety.

Phase Two was scripted to go into operation the moment those steps were heard. And thus that reverberating roar from Shishir, “No, it is NOT!”.
“‘It is NOT’?” echoed Gour, his tone dripping with well-rehearsed scorn. “You’re suddenly the Mahabharata expert, eh? If the description of the setting fire to the Khandav woods is not in the Mahabharata, then what is this verse about? Listen:

‘A hundred yojan spread the Khandav wood
Fire blazed, flames rose, a mountainous brood.
Krishna Arjun on either side stood guard,
An assured god took the place down hard.
Crackling branches thundered atop
Dead birds, charred leaves from them did drop
Trees dead, bushes burnt, serpents made roast
Ground scorched, Nagas dead… Khandav was toast.’”

In the middle of Gour’s spirited recitation, Ghonada had stepped quietly into the room. Keeping triumph completely out of our faces, we nodded at him and patted his armchair. If Ghonada was unsettled by this offhand welcome, he didn’t show it. Just as silently as he had come into the room, he lowered himself onto the chair.

The dramatic baton, meanwhile, had passed to Shibu. “You tell him, Gour!”, he said, thumping the ground. “And Shishir, let’s not forget the vivid description of Indra arriving with almost half of creation to save Khandav from burning, of the Fire god’s despair, and of Arjun saving the day:

‘Trooping one after another      Every god followed his brother
Rushing to protect the wood
Garud and the beasts of air      Docile, vicious, foul and fair
Swarmed in to save the ’hood.
Yakshas, ghosts and their peeps      Arrived to defend Indra’s keeps
Armed to their teeth and fangs,
These besides, many more      Unafraid of blood and gore
Made up Indra’s warrior ranks.
Finally Indra, Lord Purander      Unleashed the divine thunder,
Letting rip his battle cry.
Clouds rushed in to obey      Rain darkened the light of day
The Fire God cried, “Arjun, why?”
So Partha, the Super Skilled      His special weapons then did field
‘Shoshak’ and ‘Vayabya’ of dry air
Rose those missiles ferocious high      And bid the torrents a very good bye
Indra’s clouds no more their bounty could share.’”

Now, if everyone was flexing his mythological muscles, why should I be left behind? Before Shibu could triumphantly deliver his last line properly, I jumped in, “Vyasdev himself describes the event in the original Mahabharat. Do you know how brilliantly he unfolds the scene? Listen: “The Lord Hutashon – that’s Agni the fire god for you, Shishir – then assumed his aspect of the seven magnificent flames, and began to burn the Khandav woods down. Caught in that circle of divine fire, the present moment seemed an interminable eternity. The trees and woodland creatures…”

“All made up”, Shishir interrupted laconically. “Made up, or plain wrong.”

Identical looks of shock blossomed on our faces – Gour’s, Shibu’s and mine. “Made up? The Mahabharata is made up?” I croaked, endeavouring to convey that the horror of this statement was physically choking me.
“Yes”, said Shishir, with provocative calm. “Experts have finally begun to admit that much of the Mahabharata that we have today has been edited and amended by later writers. If you had the brains to genuinely care about the epic, instead of being constantly shocked and outraged, you’d know this too. In the real Mahabharata, Arjun and Krishna were in Khandav to put off the fire, not help Agni burn the woods down”.

Here, I sneaked a quick look at Ghonada.

As seasoned observers of the mess-house at 72 Bonomali Noshkor Lane know, outrageous claims of this kind were his domain, not ours. Generally, if any of us dared to so much as set a toe on said domain, we would first be blasted with scathing sarcasm, and then be dazzled with a tall tale justifying all Ghonada’s claims. Today, we hadn’t just set a tentative toe into his domain. We had stormed it, set up camp, and were now in the process of hoisting our flag on its soil. How was the man reacting to this blatant act of plagiarism, or, if you like, this blatant mockery?

Relaxed indifference. That’s the only way I could describe what I saw. Ghonada was stretched out in his extra-padded armchair, eyes closed, gently smoking what had to be one of Shishir’s cigarettes.

I nudged Gour. Clearly, we had to take the drama up a notch.

“So…”, Gour began slowly, “the current version of the Mahabharata is wrong. Krishna and Arjun were actually on Indra’s side, trying to put out the fire, not helping it spread. Hmm. Interesting. So tell us, Shishir, since you’re clearly the scholar here, why on earth would Partha and Vasudev go out of their way to protect the woods from?”
“Well, because… they needed to”, Shishir managed, caught off-guard by this unscripted bouncer. By our calculations, a caustic Ghonada should have cut in long before this.

“Ah, they needed to!” mocked Shibu. “Could you tell us why they needed to?”

I tried to give Shishir a sympathetic look. We didn’t want to bunch up on him like this, but with Ghonada’s temper refusing to catch fire, we had to keep the temperature up for as long as possible. Shishir, however, was losing patience.

“Why don’t you ask Ghonada?”, he snapped. “Also ask him how he feels about you grilling me about the Mahabharata with him sitting right here!”

As one, our heads snapped towards Ghonada. Some time during the last exchange, he had sat up. However, he seemed just as disinclined to speech. As we watched, he lazily released a mouthful of smoke.

Shishir abruptly got to his feet and stomped to the verandah. “Banwari! Rambhuj!” he shouted, leaning over the banister, “where are the kachauris and fish? Are we going to have breakfast for lunch today?”

And those were the magic words that finally broke the week-long ice at 72 Bonomali Noshkor Lane. Ghonada’s face cracked the first hint of smile we had seen in days.
Conversation didn’t flow immediately, of course. First Rambhuj, aided by Banwari, brought in heaped plates of kachauri, potato curry, and fried hilsa – Ghonada’s plates visibly more heaped than ours. In a remarkably short time, only the fine bones of hilsa were left on the plates. As Rambhuj began clearing them away, Shishir obediently leaned forward and placed a cigarette in between Ghonada’s expectant fingers.
“Help us put Shishir right, Ghonada”, Shibu appealed,.
“Why?” said the man, exhaling deeply, “He’s quite right.”

The four of us stared at one another.
“But Vyasdev himself says…”, began Shibu.
“There’s plenty Vyasa said that didn’t survive the centuries”, said Ghonada, cutting him off. “This is but one tiny instance of us filling in the gaps, forgetting lost episodes of our oldest stories.”
“So then”, ventured Gour, “Krishna and Arjun were not in Khandavprastha at all? The whole episode was a… how shall I put it… a transcription error?”
Ghonada sat up a little straighter. “No,” he said crisply. “The current version of the Mahabharata is quite right about them arriving at Khandavprastha. However, their ‘war effort’ on behalf of Agni was all hogwash. Their real alliance was with Indra.”
“With Indra!” exclaimed Shishir, forgetting his role as the laconic sceptic. “But they fought on opposite sides!”
“Or so they had people believe”, Ghonada said, with the satisfaction of one who is in on a particularly secret secret. “Even Agnidev, a divine being, was fooled by their superb acting, so I can hardly blame mere humans.”
“But why?” I all but wailed. “Why the pretence and secret alliance?”
“For Agnidev’s own good, of course.”

This time, we just stared at the man blankly. He sighed. “It was like this: Arjun was tasked with finding Moy Danav, and contracting him to build a palace of wonder and illusions for the Pandavs. Persuading Moy might not have been easy. So Arjun took along the most skilled negotiator he knew, his dearest friend Krishna. At that time, Moy lived in the Khandav woods. Krishna and Arjun had almost reached the woods, when a frail old Brahman blocked their way. “I am starving and ill”, said the Brahman. “Would you fine gentlemen please give me enough to eat?”
Now, Arjun took the Brahman at face value, but Vasudev saw through the disguise at once. “Why, Lord Agni,” he exclaimed, “what’s been eating away at you? You look terribly unwell!”
Agni, the god of fire, may have been a little embarrassed at being identified so easily. “Nothing’s been eating me”, he confessed, “It’s what I have been eating. Have you heard of King Shwetaki? The man is obsessed with performing yajnas. I’ve almost become a permanent guest at his court. Every time his priests pour ghee into the sacred flame, I’m obliged to swallow it. I’ve had nothing but ghee for years and years! My digestion’s shot. It’s been ages since I’ve been able to eat a normal meal. Please, I can’t this any more. I need your help.”
Arjun glanced uncertainly at Krishna. “My lord”, he offered humbly, “I am but a warrior. My skills are not enough to cure your malaise. The people you need are the Ashwini twins, physicians of the divine court. I entreat you, visit them immediately.”
Agni brightened a little. “Oh, I have visited them”, he said. “It was them that told me a ghee-only diet was the root of all my troubles. They’ve prescribed a remedy too: one very large meal of freshly roasted meat. When I asked them how large, they said the Khandav woods were the perfect size.”
“I still don’t see why you need us, Lord”, Krishna said. But there was a tiny smile on his lips, as if he did see, and was rather amused by what he saw.
“Well,” Agni looked morose, “Khandav is Indra’s personal land. Did you know that? It’s under his protection. Every time I try to start a fire, Indra brings his rain clouds in and washes even the ashes away! How am I to get better at this rate? No, Arjun, Krishna, you must help me. You must hold off the clouds and rain – and whatever else Indra brings to stop me – while I burn this place down in peace.”
“Your word is our command, Lord of Fire” said Krishna, bowing. “Go forth and cure yourself. Arjun and I will have your back.”
A beaming smile split Agni’s face. Blessing the duo loudly, he disappeared into the forest. The moment he was gone, Arjun grasped Krishna’s arm.
“My friend, what have you done?” he whispered urgently. “You just pledged our armed support against the king of the gods! Even if we win, Indra shall exact a very heavy penalty for my insubordination.”
Against all reason, it seemed to Arjun, Krishna’s tiny smile blossomed into a huge mischievous one. “My dear Arjun, calm yourself. Our effort will be a ruse. We will not be fighting Indra at all.”
“But… didn’t we just promised Agni we’ll help him?”
“We did. And we will. Just not the way he asked. Listen, it’s true he’s been forced to drink a lake of ghee, but that’s not the only thing wrong with him. During a yajna, the sacred flame must remain constant and stable. Poor Agni has had to sit absolutely immobile for years, as Shwetaki poured more and more ghee into him. What our good lord needs, along with a change of diet, is vigorous exercise. And the two of us shall give it to him.”
“Simple. We’ll wait till Agni starts a fire, and Indra’s clouds blow in to put it out. Then we’ll rush in, you’ll shoot a few arrows at the sky, and I’ll tell Agni to go to another corner of the forest and start the fire while we keep Indra’s army busy. We’ll give him a few moments, then both the clouds and us will head over to his new location. Keep this up for a few hours, and Agni will be as fit as the god of fire should be.”

“And that” concluded Ghonada, rising from his chair, “was how Arjun and Krishna conspired with Indra, and yet Agni got his health back.”

“Wait!”, Shibu scrambled to his feet. “The Khandav woods were burnt down. I mean, Indraprastha was built on its very spot. So if Krishna and Arjun saved the woods, then how…”

Ghonada cut in smoothly. “I didn’t say they saved the woods. I merely said they avoided direct confrontation with Indra, while also fulfilling their promise to Agni. Krishna, our Lord Dhananjay, was a brilliant strategist. He never lost sight of Arjun’s original task: getting Moy Danav to build the Pandavs a wondrous palace. Now, Moy was known to be difficult to work with. But driving a hard bargain is the last thing on people’s minds when a fire is ravaging his entire neighbourhood, intent on roasting the residents to death. All Arjun had to do was offer Moy protection from Agni’s wrath and Indra’s, and he’d have the sweetest deal Moy had ever made anyone. And that is exactly what happened. Indra might have been miffed when he discovered this little side-trade, but he was mollified when the glorious new city – celebrated across creation – was named ‘Indraprastha’ after him.”

Leaving us to digest that last little gem, Ghonada walked casually out of the room (with him, I noticed, went Shishir’s new tin of cigarettes). He already had one foot on the stairs when Gour finally found his voice.

“Ghonada, listen!”, he called. “How on earth could such a fascinating segment have been edited out of the Mahabharat?”

“Oh, it wasn’t edited out”, returned the deep voice from the stairs. “Corruption, as you know, is everywhere. The man who supplied Lord Ganesh with palm leaves in bulk used to thicken his bundles with dry pieces. This segment was written on one such leaf. It disintegrated within a few days of being written upon.”

City Chicks in Sarees

It happens a lot less than people would have you believe. Once, young women moved from their babyhood swaddle straight into sarees, worn around the knee with the aanchol or pally wrapped tightly around the waist. Then there came the intervening modernity of dresses, but most Bengali girls still graduated to the saree fairly young, and once there, didn’t switch loyalties for the rest of their lives.

Now, I’m surprised if I see one person below forty in Bombay’s streets wearing a saree. The times, they have a’changed. To be fair, though, there’s a class element to the city-saree. Most of the cleaning ladies in my neighbourhood wear sarees. Their employers seldom do. Is it because sartorial modernity is considered the premise of the better off? Would employers raise their eyebrows if their maids suddenly turned up in something as innocuous – and eminently Indian – as the salwaar-kameez, much less something a little more ‘western’? I haven’t had the chance to find out. However, I have noticed that one can get sarees for much less than a salwaar-kameez set, and certainly a pair of trousers and a shirt. So perhaps the cleaving to the traditional, though enforced by one’s cultural capital and form of labour, is also perhaps propped up by one’s financial capability.

This sudden nattering about sarees has been brought on by the #100sareepact. Did anyone else know about it? Now, I don’t even own a hundred sarees, and given that I mostly work from home lately, I doubt I’ll wear the ones I do have. But this sounds like a fun project, and so I think I’ll participate by adding old pictures of myself in sarees. Because memes are for modifying, right?


This is today’s picture. It’s my wedding morning, and I’m wearing an inexpensive red-bordered golden-yellow saree bought specifically for the messy wedding-morning rituals. This saree was a yard too short for my generous frame, so first we tried to make do by wrapping it a la Mumtaz, with a tiny pallu. That didn’t work. So then we unwrapped the whole thing, and began the first wrap from the back, instead of the front. This time, it was draped to all the adult women’s satisfaction. There’s a lesson in this process, and it is this: flaws hidden are flaws acceptable, as long as the show goes visibly on.

As people familiar with Bengali/Indian weddings will know, there are two throne-like chair at every wedding venue, one for the bride and one for the groom. They are usually overstuffed and damned uncomfortable. However, since I was doomed to spend the rest of day demurely adorning this chair, I spent the morning making damn sure the chair knew who was boss.

A Photo Essay on Destruction

We had a lovely guest for dinner yesterday. In his honour – and in an effort to keep face-licking off our mehmaan nawazi – we allowed the dogs to romp unsupervised in our bedroom, while we socialised civilly inthedrawing room.Electrified by the sudden free rein in this otherwise-forbidden room, the dogs went absolutely wild. This is the state the bed was in after our guest left.


My partner saw this mess while I was clearing the dishes (we dropped by a few times in between chatting to check on the dogs). To prevent further damage, he put the dogs in the bedroom balcony, where to also hang our laundry to dry.

Once our guest left, we opened the door of the bedroom… and saw the dogs looking damned pleased with themselves.


Of course, Kaju immediately made an effort to get to us, but alas, the window of his jail was too high.

Shorshu, of course, thinks it is déclassé to try and rescue herself. She issued bird-like warbles, indicated she would like to be rescued from her undignified perch, and cuddled for her troubles.


Finally, after I let them both out of the balcony after half an hour’s detention, Shorshu immediately jumped onto the destroyed bed and curled up, like it was her goddamned right.


While Kaju posed cheerfully for the camera, proud of his evening’s efforts.


So much for lessons learnt.

Little Red’s New Coat, Road Dahl

I was speaking to my mum on the phone today, when my dad came on the line specifically to tell me that he read my post reproducing James Thurber’s retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, and that he enjoyed it very much. My mother added from the background that it was delightful.

It’s a bit unsettling at first to know one’s parents reads one’s blog, but I’m quite kicked, really, to play parent, and introduce them to new things, the way they introduced them to me once. So here is an excerpt from another re-telling of the Little Red fairytale, this time by Roald Dahl. It’s a favourite of mine, despite raising contemporary concerns of gun-violence, the fur trade, and encouragement of cruelty to animals.

The action below begins after the wolf has eaten Red’s grandmother, and is preparing to eat Red once she arrives.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf
Roald Dahl

Wolfie dressing up in Granny's clothes. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Wolfie dressing up in Granny’s clothes. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Poor Grandmamma was terrified,
He quickly put on Grandma’s clothes,
(Of course he hadn’t eaten those).
He dressed himself in coat and hat.
He put on shoes, and after that
He even brushed and curled his hair,
Then sat himself in Grandma’s chair.

Little Red Riding Hood comes in and stares. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Little Red Riding Hood comes in and stares. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

In came the little girl in red.
She stopped. She stared. And then she said.
“…But Grandma
what a lovely great big furry coat you have on.”
“That’s wrong!” cried Wolf. “Have you forgot
To tell me what BIG TEETH I’ve got?
Ah well, no matter what you say,
I’m going to eat you anyway.”

"Bang bang, she shoots him dead." Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

“Bang bang, she shoots him dead.” Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.

"My lovely furry wolfskin coat." Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

“My lovely furry wolfskin coat.” Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, “Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.”

Little Girl and the Wolf, James Thurber


NOTE: On the one hand, a tale of cynical ’empowerment’. On the other, a possible advocacy for NSA’s ‘good guys with guns’ fallacy (or in this case, ‘smart kids with guns’ fallacy, recipe for an even greater tragedy). Either way, this is James Thurber’s all-American two-paragraph version of Little Red Riding Hood.

One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. “Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?” asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother’s house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

(MORAL: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)

#JeSuisCharlie? Foutre le Camp!

I see on Facebook today that Charlie Hebdo is still trending, and an email informs me that the asinine hashtag ‪#‎JeSuisCharlie‬, started soon after the Paris attack, is still raging on the interwebs.

Well, I *am* furious about the disgusting – and frankly idiotic – murderers, but this “Je suis Charlie” nonsense is taking pop activism too far. I am NOT Charlie Hebdo, thank you very much, and neither are most of you showing solidarity with the hashtag. European xenophobia – and I say this because most of my friends abroad live in the USA – is a beast quite unlike the hysterically blind, unself-aware American one: it is far more open and unapologetic. In a way, that’s often a better thing than the subtle poisoning of the subconscious, but it is still not a good thing. And much of this xenophobia is expressed culturally through satire.

Does that mean Charlie Hebdo’s staff deserved to be slaughtered? No. Litigated against, perhaps, but not violated physically, much less murdered. On the other hand, do they deserve to be universally applauded for ‘bravery’? I don’t think so. It’s easy to be part of the cultural majority of a land and claim to be an equal-opportunity satirist, but that is not how power works. And indeed, if googling serves me right, I believe France – which is trotting out it’s historical culture of appreciation of satire as a moral brownie point – once banned a magazine for satirising Charles de Gaulle [UPDATE: Facebook connections tell me the banned magazine was Charlie Hebdo’s earlier avatar. Fascinating.]. So much for historical equal-opportunity.

In summary, Hebdo had every right to print what they did, even if they didn’t have sterling taste or a clean social or political conscience. On the question of religious ‘offence': if you’re a deliberately uninformed Hindu, you’re free not to eat beef (or any animal protein), but you have no right to stop anyone else from consuming it. If you’re a devout, conservative Muslim, by all means never draw the prophet, but you have no right to attack or slaughter those that do (but of course, you could take them to court). If you’re a conservative, stupid Christian, stay away from the school curricula. Your ignorance is your choice, not society’s collective burden. Let things stand at that, and all shall be well.

Well, well-ish. It’s a pity that that is the best we can ask for at the moment.

The Dragon Nightmare: The Porcelain Doll 1

AUTHOR BRIEF: Hemendra Kumar Roy was a very popular author for children’s and young adult fiction, not that there was much of a difference between the two at his time. Society was rather different then – India was still a colony, for a start – and therefore the flavour and style of Hemen Roy’s stories are rather different from what one might expect today. This is also what makes them particularly interesting, despite Roy’s somewhat bombastic style.The story so far: Ace detective Jayanta’s friend Manik witnesses a dark, shadowy figure flying away from his neighbour’s roof, moments after his neighbour is murdered. ThePart 1 here.

Part 2. The Porcelain Doll
‘There’s nothing supernatural about this matter, Sunderbabu’, said Jayanta briskly. ‘There might be such things as lost souls, but they don’t break into homes and steal.’

‘No, of course not’, said Sunderbabu hurriedly. ‘Of course not. But you’ll notice, whoever killed Niradbabu – and I’m not saying it was ghosts – didn’t actually steal anything. They merely tried to open a locked strongbox.’

Jayanta looked thoughtful. “And you say it was the same in the two previous cases?”

“Yes!” said Sunderbabu. “In each previous instance they managed to open the almirah and strongboxes, but didn’t actually take anything. Not money, not jewellery… nothing.”

“So clearly the murderers were looking for something else”, mused Jayanta. “There must be something else, otherwise nothing makes sense.”

Sunderbabu cleared his throat. “Well…there was something in the locked strongbox. Nothing important or valuable, just this silly little doll.” His hand dipped into his pocket and brought out a small porcelain figurine. An old Chinaman was sitting on a ram, looking quite satisfied with himself. The entire statute was about six inches high.

Jayanta plucked it out of Sunderbabu’s fist and peered at the design. “This is very old porcelain, and the craftsmanship is excellent. I’d say it probably comes from China’s more glorious times – a representation of the country’s rich artistic heritage. Sunderbabu, it might be news to you, but old Chinese porcelain is as rare and valuable as snakestone. That must’ve been why Niradbabu kept this ‘silly doll’ locked in a strongbox. Is this what the murderers were looking for?”
‘Could be’, said Jayanta, ‘but what about the other two victims? What were the murderers looking for in their homes? We haven’t found Chinese porcelain there.’

‘Lao Tzu!’, said Sunderbabu suddenly.

Jayanta and Manik stared at him.

‘Those two men!’, Sunderbabu exclaimed. ‘I knew I should have held onto them. Annoying twerps. I bet they know about the other two deaths. Hah!’

Jayanta brows crinkled. ‘What “two men”’?

‘Young upstarts’, snorted Sunderbabu. ‘Came along to the last crime scene, poking about and asking questions. I knew straightaway they were trouble. “Who are you?” I asked, “What d’you want?” They laughed and said they were looking for an adventure. Adventure! Imagine! Cheeky fools.
“How would like the prodding of a copper’s rule instead?” I asked, but they just laughed. “If the police prods us, we’ll prod right back. Prodding the police definitely counts as an adventure in our books!” Can you believe that? I was about to have these nuts thrown out when one of them saw this doll. “Lao Tzu!”, he shouted, “Look, Lao Tzu!”
Now, you know I don’t stand for that sort of tomfoolery, Jayanta. So I got right in their face and bellowed, “Get out! Get out of my sight right now!” My shouting voice is usually a force to be reckoned with, but these two were not fazed at all! They sauntered out, holding hands and laughing. Hoom!’

‘Did you get their names?’ asked Jayanta.

‘Bimal, Kumar… something like that.’

Manik sat up in his chair. ‘Bimal? Kumar? Sunderbabu, you don’t mean… could these be the famous adventurers Bimalbabu and Kumarbabu?’

Sunderbabu waved a dismissive hand in front of his face. ‘Who cares? I don’t. Adventurers indeed! What they are is a precious pair, just like the two of you. They spout gibberish just like you, and just like you, they’re barking mad. ‘Lao Tzu!’ Honestly! What does that even mean? Anyway, I’m off now. Lots to do’.

And so, with his mood apparently restored, Sunderbabu left.

Jayanta broke the silence first. ’I’ve heard of Bimalbabu and Kumarbabu too, Manik’, he said softly. ‘Amazingly strong, wonderfully smart, appearing when anything strange happens. If they’ve visited Niradbabu’s home, then something about his murder must have struck them as odd… which means they know more about it than we do.’

‘What about Lao Tzu though?’ asked Manik. ‘That’s what confounds me. What is it?’

‘Never heard it myself. Tell you what, let’s look it up in the encyclopaedia. Would you get the volume down?’

Manik not only got the encyclopaedia down, he started looking for mentions of Lao Tzu himself.

‘Here it is!’ he exclaimed after a few minutes. ‘Jayanta, listen to this! Lao Tzu is a person. He was a Chinese philosopher, born in 604 AD, and considered the founder of Taoism, an eastern religion.’

‘Hmm, so then the statue we saw must have been Lao Tzu’s’, Jayanta said almost to himself. ‘But what does a man living in China nearly three thousand years ago have to do with the death of a Bengali clerk in twentieth century Calcutta?’

Silence descended on the room.


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