The Substitute

By AMAR MITRA
Translated by ANISH GUPTA

ONE

Ask Kartik. He will show you.

Ask Kartik how Hrithik Roshan, the film star, sings, how he walks, and Kartik, the neighbourhood tailor, will show you how he sings and how he walks.

Ask him to show you how superstar Shah Rukh Khan proposes to matinee queen Kajol, when and how he delivers those romantic dialogues, and Kartik’s imitation of Khan will make your jaw drop.

You would be astonished to see what he does when he mimics Amitabh Bachchan performing in the TV show Kaun Banega Crorepati, a quiz programme in which the winner can literally walk away with a fat check for ten million rupees. Kartik’s mimicry would be perfect. He would change his voice to bring out that deep baritone the aging actor was once famous for.

“Tell me, Pushpaji, tell me.” Kartik’s voice would resonate like a laden cloud, leaving you wondering whether you heard it right. Was it Kartik or Bachchan? The difference would be hard to tell.

How does Kartik manage to do it? How does he manage to mimic so well? There is hardly any doubt in the minds of those living at Indra Roy Road, Bhuthnath Biswas By-lane, and its narrow offshoot in a ramshackle part of old Kolkata that Kartik is a highly gifted fellow. If he were to be spotted by the right person, he might even make it to Mumbai, a city where talent always fetches a price. That’s what they all think. There—who knows?—he may, one day, become the film world’s one and only Kartik Kumar. He is so good!

Otherwise, how else can anyone so flawlessly mimic Ajit Saha, the flabby, blubbery resident and owner of House No. 7? Tell Kartik to show you how Saha goes about on his morning walk, and Kartik will promptly put on a show. The bulging man runs out of breath every few steps. He stops. He pants. He waits. He inhales and exhales in short, strenuous spasms. Kartik even recreates Saha’s facial contortions, picking every detail, even the very small ones, to make his subject look astonishingly real.

Saha is no ordinary man. He is a gentleman, a babu. Sahababu’s errand boy, Madhab, walks behind him with a towel in hand. When the babu sweats, Madhab wipes his limbs, neck, ears, and forehead. And Kartik’s changing expression shows how, like a passing shadow, the signs of exhaustion on Saha’s face fade to be replaced by a look of comfort, as a soft towel soaks up the streams of dripping sweat. People cheer and break into peals of uncontrollable laughter as they watch Kartik enact the many facets of Saha’s morning outing. Then, as the bouts of laughter subside, they all stand and marvel at Kartik’s art. They look at each other and agree that there is something in him—that Kartik is, indeed, a born artiste.

It was the beginning of winter. There was not much work at the tailor’s shop. Every day, Kartik ran the sewing machine for a while to make a few pajamas and lungis. During the rest of the working hours, he revelled in his pastime of mimicry. As a matter of fact, what else could he do to while away his time? And, for that matter, how else would the jobless and good-for-nothing souls of Bhutnath Biswas By-lane and Indra Roy Road spend the long hours of their uneventful days, passing in slow motion, if Kartik wasn’t there to put on a show so funny that their bellies would ache from laughter?

Keep going, they would tell Kartik. You are sure to catch someone’s eye one day. Yes, you must, they would insist, in order to become a sought-after film star. On such occasions, some would fondly remember Dinesh, Kartik’s father. They thought Kartik had inherited his father’s talent. But, perhaps due to sheer bad luck, no one of consequence had ever noticed Dinesh’s skills. So, Kartik’s father couldn’t make it anywhere. He had gone unnoticed and unsung, and there came a time when his talent withered away.

But those who knew him remembered the days when Dinesh would go about like a virtual reincarnation of Dev Anand, a perfect copy of the hero of such blockbusters as Guide, Kala Bazar and Jewel Thief. That unmistakable gait, that unique manner of speaking—those hallmarks of the matinee prince—seemed to be Dinesh’s inborn traits. He would often perform in the impressive arcade of the Grand Hotel, where the rich and the powerful—film stars, starlets, directors, and other glamorous men and women—often put up. Strangely, though, no one ever took notice of him. Despite his amazing mimicry, lanky young Dinesh got nowhere. Those who had crossed the threshold of fifty, still had striking memories of him. But, if Dinesh, an unforgettable mimic artiste, failed to make it big in life, would Kartik be any luckier? That fleeting doubt would invariably cross their minds, even as they watched Kartik become someone else.

Dinesh—who, thirty-two years ago, would walk, speak, and cast his eyes like the evergreen Dev Anand—was now a worker in some jute mill in Naihati, a monochromatic town of defunct industries. The factory remained shut for six months in a year. For the other six, the rundown mill worked sluggishly, with its greasy, weary machines gasping to stay alive, as it were. Dinesh had now become old. His once-supple body was stiff and bent. The shiny black hair that once formed a mantle on his head had become thin and gray. Poor Dev Anand! When Jewel Thief or Kala Bazar was shown on television, or when the timeless songs of Guide, sung by Mohammed Rafi, played in a street-corner cassette shop, their melodies wafting into the open air, Dinesh would sit, all alone, in the far dark corner of a playground, even as dew fell softly on winter evenings.

Dinesh’s son Kartik was emerging as someone more talented than his father. Just as some people pick up the notes of a song by listening to it once or twice, Kartik used to quietly make mental notes of people’s expressions, mannerisms, and the subtle movements of their eyes and limbs, while sitting at the tailoring shop, turning the sewing machine by involuntarily pressing its paddle up and down. Yet, some people sighed, would Kartik remain a nondescript, neighbourhood tailor despite all his talent? The doubt would keep bugging them. For, though time ticked away and days passed, Kartik got no call from anywhere to stage a public show. Things, they all thought, were simply not looking up for him.

Then, one day, just when time seemed to have been giving him a go-bye, he got a call from someone important. One morning, Sahababu, of House No. 7, sent his servant, Madhab, to the tailor’s shop.

“Sahababu wants to see you,” said Madhab.

“Sahababu! Why, Madhab?” Kartik asked with consternation. Maybe the man had found out that Kartik mimicked him in front of his shop and everyone had a good laugh, he thought. The very sight of Sahababu used to make Kartik feel shaky. He owned such a huge house! Itwas almost as big as a ship.

Was Sahababu angry with him? Kartik asked Madhab. But the chap looked blank. He didn’t know, he said. Even Kartik’s sharp eyes failed to notice any shade of expression on Sahababu’s servant’s face.

Well, Madhab is a strange fellow, thought Kartik. He is Sahababu’s very own man. When Saha sets out for his shop around eleven in the morning, Madhab goes along with him. When Sahababu returns home, Madhab walks back with him. He accompanies his babu when he goes on his morning walk. When he goes to the market, Madhab follows behind with bags in his hand.

“Where is your babu?”

“He’s standing in front of his house. Come with me. He wants to see you at once.”

Kartik proceeded with trepidation, wondering what lay in store for him. Earlier in the day, he had mimicked Sahababu, showing a few hangers-on how the man walked. The men, sitting on a bench at a tea stall next to his tailoring shop, had rolled over with laughter, as he imitated the man’s ungainly gait. Usually, some of those who gathered to see Kartik perform drank cups of tea at the tea shop. They ordered a cup or two for Kartik as well. So, on the whole, Biren, the tea stall owner, did good business when Kartik was around.

While Kartik accompanied Madhab, Biren left his shop and walked up to them from behind.

“Where are you taking him, Madhab?” Biren inquired, but got no answer.

Biren took a few steps behind them and then stopped. He went no farther. When Kartik was not around, no one came to this wintry lane littered with shadows. And that wasn’t good for business. Biren knew that all too well. He stood looking in their direction, watching them walk away. It seemed to him that Kartik’s gait resembled that of Saha. The thought brought a faint smile to his lips.

“The fellow is some artiste! He can really do it. It looks as if Madhab is actually walking next to his master,” Biren muttered to himself, as Kartik and his escort receded into the distance, growing smaller with every step.

There was a big courtyard inside the house resembling the deck of a seafaring ship. In that open space, winter sunlight was neatly spread out like an enchanting carpet. And Sahababu, seated on a chair placed on that bright carpet of light, was savouring the mellow warmth of the winter sun. When he saw Kartik, he motioned him to stand in front of him.

“What do you do, Kartik?” asked Saha.

“I am a darji, a tailor,” he said.

“Dinesh’s son?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your father could do it. He would be exactly like Dev Anand whenever he wanted. I know you can do that, too,” said Saha, with the hint of a question in his eyes.

Kartik shakily tilted his head to one side. “I can, sir,” he replied.

“Will you be Chaplin?” asked Saha without a preface.

“Sir?” Kartik failed to gather what he meant.

“Do you know Chaplin?”

Kartik did not answer.

“What does your father, Dinesh, do these days?” Saha persisted with his inquiry.

Kartik told him all that he knew about his father, who had fallen on hard times. Saha listened, saying nothing.

Then, he broke his silence to remind Kartik that it was the season of circuses, when troupes came to perform. Winter was the season of fun, he stressed.

“Do you know my shop?” resumed Saha.

“Yes, I know,” said Kartik. “There is Vastrakutir at Shyambazar, there is a TV store at Hatibagan, and a Variety Store outside the Town School.”

“All right. You will have to play Chaplin,” Saha said abruptly. “Do you know him?”

“No, sir,” said Kartik, a bit ashamed of his ignorance.

“If you don’t know him, how will you become Chaplin?” Shaha looked disappointed.

“You will show me,” Kartik spurted in reply.

“Oh, it’s nothing. It’s like playing a joker. All you need is a hat, a black jacket, a pair of trousers, and a walking stick with a curved handle. Vastrakutir is all decked out these days. There is a huge stock of warm clothes, shawls, and sweaters. Rebates are also being offered. You will have to stand in front of the shop, looking like Chaplin, and send customers in. Can you do that?”

For reasons best known to him, Kartik thought this was the way forward for him. He imagined it marked the beginning of his cherished journey to the filmdom of Mumbai, or Tollygunge, in Kolkata. Sahababu’s Vastrakutir, the garment shop, was situated at the five-point crossing of Shyambazar, a busy junction of roads, where people kept moving up and down. He would get a chance to step out of the cold and shadowy surroundings of Bhutnath Biswas By-lane, where sunlight rarely ever entered, and stand on a wide-open road, leading perhaps to a bigger, brighter, and merrier world. He would put on a hat, a black jacket, and a pair of trousers—and he would become Charlie Chaplin! Kartik could feel a rush of excitement in his veins. It was not that he had not seen Charlie Chaplin ever. In fact, he had, a few times, on TV. But he thought it would be wise not to tell Sahababu that. The sight of the man had always stirred an uncanny feeling in him. But, now, he was caught in two minds. Maybe his fear of Saha was, after all, unfounded, he thought.

Sahababu told him the basics of the offer: “You will have to work from 5:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. every day. For that, you will be given snacks in between and paid a daily wage of sixty rupees. And you will, of course, have to take the evenings off from your tailoring shop.”

Of course he would, thought Kartik. There was hardly any sewing work this season. Big garment factories had hijacked the work of small outfits like the one he owned. These days, with little work on hand, he loitered aimlessly on most evenings. He either put up his mime show to entertain others or watched TV at the club or went to see a film at a cinema hall in Shyambazar. He could feel the lure of the five-road junction. It was drawing him in, and for good reasons. One evening, he had seen TV newscaster Shyamali at Shyambazar. Another day, he had spotted Romita, the presenter of a TV quiz programme. Shyambazar was a terrific place! You could see such people, and other TV big shots, walking down its busy streets. And, one day, Kartik imagined, a director, movie director to be precise, might walk past him at twilight, and he, Kartik, might, by a stroke of good luck, catch the passing man’s eye…

“You will have to draw a big crowd in front of the store with your mime acting. And, mind you, it will have to be done in silence, without a word being uttered. Do you understand?” Saha’s voice cut short Kartik’s reverie.

Yes, nodded Kartik.

Madhab, who stood behind his master, looked at him with large, round eyes.

“You will need a coat, pants, and a hat. Where are they?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have any,” said Kartik, confused.

“Well, they are lying in my shop,” said Sahababu. “I had bought them for this fellow, Madhab. But he is an idiot. He has the brains of a cow. He dressed up as Chaplin but stood stiff like a statue in front of the store, like a block of wood. You can’t plough with a goat, can you?”

Kartik raised his eyes. He saw Madhab had turned his gaze away from him. For less than a moment, they all sank into an uneasy quiet. Then, abruptly, Saha’s temper flew. “What are you listening to, you moron? Don’t stand there doing nothing. Go inside and fetch some tea. Tell me, what should I do with you? I should give you two kicks on your backside and throw you out,” Sahababu yelled at Madhab.

Kartik cringed at Saha’s sudden outburst. “No, no, I won’t take tea, sir. I must take your leave now.”

“Go. But be there at the shop by 4:00. You will be given a makeup,” Saha reminded him at lower decibels.

“Yes, I will be there,” Kartik promised.

Sahababu sat shaking his legs. He looked more relaxed now. “Let me see how you perform. Nothing like this had ever been tried out here before. These are all foreign techniques. This way they draw customers to ladies’ garment stores in England. They make models clad in two-pieces stand in front of shops. Do you understand?”

Kartik chose to be silent. Generally, Sahababu did all the talking, and all the listening as well. Those who knew him had grown accustomed to his rants. But Kartik had to listen to some of it now. He saw Madhab coming, his face ashen and cheerless. He held a tray with both hands. It had cups and saucers on it. The cups full of tea trembled as he approached. But Madhab somehow managed to keep them in place.

 

TWO

Biren was waiting for Kartik’s return, and so were the four regulars at his tea shop. Ajit Saha, or Sahababu, as they called him, was a money shark. He once owned a dilapidated, one-storey house. But he transformed it into a big building in front of everyone’s eyes. From one business, he opened three. He also bought two swanky cars. Why would such a man summon Kartik? Biren was curious. And so was Anil Halder.

Anil Halder, running close to fifty-five, did virtually nothing. He owned an old, rickety typewriter. He would come and sit with it under the portico of a house around 11:00 every morning. That was part of his daily routine, which he stuck to without fail. Anil alone knew what that derelict machine could and could not do. He often claimed that he had almost landed himself a job at the Farakka thermal power station. But it was this man, Saha, who had queered the pitch, and the job slipped out of his hand.

“How did he manage to do that?” Biren asked, stirring the sugar in a glass of thick, milky tea.

“That swine of a post office lost the letter. Saha had told the postman to do so. I know.”

“Why did he do that?”

“Because I knew too much about him—who he had made pregnant, who he had given money to get an abortion done, who he had tattled about to the police.”

“So, you didn’t get the job?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be wholly right to say, no. I wasn’t ready to give up. I am not that type. So I went all the way to Farakka. And guess what I saw? I found another Anil Halder working in my place, sitting on the chair that I was to occupy,” said the real but now jobless Halder.

“Strange! Why didn’t you go to the police?”

“Are you crazy? Police meant Bibhuti Pal, the officer-in-charge, the borobabu, or the boss of the police station. He would claim a man a day. There used to be a corpse lying around here and there almost daily. The borobabu had announced that he would finish off one of the two Anils first. And we were to decide who would be the first one,” said Halder, dropping a figment of his imagination. “This chap Saha was an informer.”

“What happened after that?”

“Had I got the job, today I would be getting a salary of twenty thousand rupees. My eldest maternal uncle was a big officer at Farakka. He used to get free electricity. Even if you kept the heater on and the lights burning the whole night, there would be no electricity bill to pay.” Halder listed the freebies that were to come with the job, his flow of words tapering off at the sight of an approaching figure.

“Here comes Kartik,” Halder resumed enthusiastically. “Tell me, what happened at Saha’s place? Be careful about that man. I had once asked him to give me a shirt and a pair of trousers because I had to appear for an interview. I promised to repay once I got the job,” Halder said in one incessant flow.

“When was that?”

“Ah, when? Probably last month, or was it last year? Let me think. It may have been before the Durga Puja or perhaps before the chariot of Lord Jagannath was out on the streets for Ratha Yatra. Do you know what he told me? He asked me to go and sweep the footpath in front of his shop. I’ll get the swine one day.”

That was how Anil Halder was—a bit out of his mind. If he slammed Saha in the morning, he was sure to sing his praises by sundown. He would recall with a tinge of pride the day Saha took him home and treated him to a plate of chowmein. Or how, on one Poila Boisakh, the Bengali New Year’s Day—when businesses ceremonially opened new books of accounts—he had gone to each of Saha’s three shops and emptied one soft drink bottle after another. On such occasions, he would cull from his convoluted memory a long list of instances that vouched for Saha’s warmheartedness. And he would not fail, during such nostalgic moments, to express his gratitude to his good old friend—whom he had apparently known from a time when they both went about in their birthday suits—for keeping him in mind even after so many years.

Kartik announced his newfound job to those gathered at the tea shop, and then went about his business and sat at his sewing machine.

Anil Halder was intrigued, to say the least. “This is the problem with Saha,” he said aloud. “He found another Anil Halder and put him in my place at Farakka. And, now, in place of the real Challie, he has found Kartik. Bring the real Challie, if you can. Show the world that you are worth your salt.”

Everyone broke into laughter. Halder stood up. He took a few steps towards Kartik. He looked the would-be Charlie in the eye and said, “Tell your master that I haven’t forgotten. Had I got that job in Farakka, I would be earning twenty thousand rupees a month. There would be no one to spend my money. I would be sitting on piles of notes today. But, no matter what, I would still be typing, sitting by the roadside. I piss on such a job!”

Kartik spent the whole day thinking about Saha’s offer. Then, he set off in the evening. He was back at the sewing machine the next morning, only to disappear again in the evening. Biren, who went to the tea shop almost daily, had gotten wind of Kartik’s evening whereabouts. He had learned that Kartik was posing as Chaplin on the footpath, drawing people to Vastrakutir, Saha’s garment shop. He had also learned that Kartik had become quite a sensation. As people stopped to stare at him, Kartik used the curved handle of his walking stick to pull hesitating customers into Saha’s shop. It was hard to recognize Kartik in a pair of trousers and a coat, and with a hat on.

For five days, Kartik did not show up at his shop. And that was just as well, thought the tea shop owner. An artiste had finally gotten the job he was cut out for. Why should he now spend time sitting at a sewing machine? Kartik would now start climbing up the career ladder. He would keep rising till he became a megastar like Shah Rukh Khan or Akshay Kumar. Who could stop him, if Saha were to promote his skills?

Kartik returned to his tailoring shop a few days later. What was he doing in the mornings these days? People were eager to know. Kartik said he had been practicing his role by watching a few Chaplin videos that he had managed to lay his hands on. The regulars at the tea shop appreciated that. Was this the Kartik they had known for so long? His appearance seemed to have acquired a shine they had not seen before.

“Shall I show you, Biren-da?” asked Kartik.

“What will you show?” cut in Anil Halder, exhaling rich bidi smoke, a poor man’s tiny cigar of packed tobacco in rolled tendu leaves.

“Would you like to see Sahababu?”

“Why? Show us Challie, damn it. Some other Anil instead of me got into Farakka, Durgapur, and Haldia. Instead of the real Challie, he has made you pose as one. Had I got the job then…”

“Let me play Sahababu, uncle,” Kartik insisted.

“Will you manage to?” Biren asked, still of two minds.

“Of course,” said Kartik, full of confidence. And the next thing he did was to summon, in a full-throated voice, “Madhab, come here, you swine, you son of a bitch.”

“Hey, who is calling whom?”

“Oh, you couldn’t make out? That means I have failed,” said Kartik, disappointed.

“No, no, it’s not that. Does Saha abuse people in his shop? That’s what I meant to ask,” Biren said in disbelief.

“Yes, he does. Inside the shop, Saha has a room to himself, an exclusive chamber. The shop shuts at 8:30 in the evening. Saha then starts drinking foreign stuff. And just a few gulps make him swear,” said Kartik.

“What does Madhab do then?”

Kartik showed what Madhab did. He would shrink in fear, and Saha would savour the sight. He would laugh, making a cackling sound, at Madhab’s pale, bewildered look.

Kartik repeated what Saha had said in office: “Hey, Kartik, you know, I had decided to give Madhab your job. But the swine couldn’t do it. He just wouldn’t smile. Madhab, smile. If you don’t, you sister-fucker, you’ll have to take your pants off.”

“And did Madhab smile?” asked an excited Anil Halder.

Kartik shook his head. His face became sombre. His eyes turned heavy. Tears welled up in his eyes. The corners of his lips began to twitch. He tried to force a smile. It seemed as if it was about to break on his lips, but the very next moment the hint of it disappeared.

Everyone looked at Kartik in dismay. Anil Halder jumped to his feet, bewilderment writ large on his face. “Why are you crying, Kartik?” he asked, full of concern.

“It’s not me. It’s Madhab crying,” said Kartik. “Haven’t I got it right?”

Anil Halder nodded his head. “Yes, you have,” he said haltingly. “It pained me a lot. Madhab must be suffering a great deal. He should piss on his job. He should follow my example.”

Kartik wiped his face with the palm of his hand. “Would you like to see more?”

“Be Shah Rukh Khan—it’s been a while since I last saw you as the big star.”

Kartik shook his head. “Instead, see how Saha counts his money and how Madhab makes the bundles of notes. This is how Saha watches a match on TV while counting. ‘Hit, Sachin, hit. Six-e-r,’ he yells. Then he rattles off a few orders for Madhab. ‘Go, and get some sweets for twenty rupees. Listen: come back fast. On the way, give this money to Singhababu, the second officer at the police station. Tell him Sahababu of Vastrakutir has sent it.’”

“He sends money to the police station?” Halder sounded incredulous.

“Yes, he does. And there’s more,” said Kartik. “He tells Madhab, ‘There are two Banarasi saris in here. Give them to the boss. His daughter is about to get married. She will wear one; his wife, the other.’”

“Ah, you sound exactly like Sahababu,” said Biren, the tea stall owner.
“You will make it, Kartik,” said Halder. “Come to think of it, I would have made it, too. But I didn’t allow myself to do it. I had an offer to play a part in the film Balika Badhu (The Child Bride), as a member of the groom’s entourage. But couldn’t. That chap, Saha, hadn’t passed on the information that there was such an offer.”

“Did Saha play that role?” asked Biren, with a glint in his eyes.

“Of course he did. But they didn’t finally show him in the film. He was edited out,” Halder said, laughing loudly. Then, he stopped abruptly, let his voice drop, and added as an aside, “I went and told them to cut his remuneration as well.”

“Would you like to see the customers in the shop?” Kartik asked.

“Yes, show us what they do,” said Biren. About ten people had quietly assembled to see Kartik perform. Biren was happy, as cups of tea were being ordered and sold. Kartik imitated the way the newlyweds talked while standing in front of the shop, weighing their options. “You can have everything at Sahababu’s Vastrakutir—shawls, sweaters, saris, shirts, trousers, vests, and whatnot!” they would say to each other almost inaudibly. Couples alighting from Maruti cars flaunted their love while walking up to the shop entrance. Seeing Charlie, they would greet him with a wry smile.

Kartik replayed, to the last detail, all that he had seen over the past few days.

“When does Saha leave the shop?” Anil Halder wanted to know.

“Why do you ask?”

“I want to catch him. That bastard was a police rat. Even before you were born, Kartik, Saha had tattled about many people and got them arrested. My cousin Jogen was a party worker. Saha, unable to find him, made the police arrest me. Oh, the way they thrashed me! Are they devoid of all human feelings?”

“Come on, keep all that useless talk aside. Such things used to happen in those days,” said Biren, stirring a glass of tea with a spoon, making a tingling sound.

“What happened to your cousin Jogen?” asked Kartik.

“He’s lost. Dead, perhaps. Again, it may so happen that he’s in Britain or America, working there. Guess what his typing speed was? Eighty. And it was flawless, never a spelling mistake anywhere.”

“Oh, stop that,” snapped Biren, the tea stall owner. He regularly paid money to the police to run his little roadside business. He feared if the word went around that people at his shop bad-mouthed the cops, they might come and kick down the structure, which was made of flimsy wood. They had done that before a few times.

Kartik fell silent. He slowly walked back to his tailoring shop and sat in front of the sewing machine. There was no work, though. There was no sewing to be done. He rested his head against the machine for a while. Then, getting up, he came and sat on the steps in front of his shop. A spot of sunlight had fallen there. Kartik rested his haunches on the sunlit steps, his arms entwining his raised knees. He placed his chin on them and stared vacantly into the distance. Kartik seemed to undergo a silent transformation as he sat there.

Everyone looked at his face and eyes in surprise. They appeared different, like someone else’s face and someone else’s eyes. Whose? They tried to think. Maybe nobody’s, really. Maybe they were Kartik’s very own and none other’s. Perhaps he had remembered something that saddened him suddenly. Or was Kartik, through that posture of his, portraying someone he knew? Those who had gathered were unable to make up their minds. Anil Halder, tea stall owner Biren, and the chap who sold bidis and cigarettes from a small boxlike kiosk all had their eyes fixed on Kartik.

Anil suddenly remembered Charlie. He tried to recall the film and the scene in which Charlie had sat in that pose. Charlie could, and did, sit like that, thought Halder, scanning his fuzzy memory. Maybe Kartik is posing as Charlie, he told himself. Or had he become someone else altogether?

“What’s the matter, Kartik? What makes you so sad?” inquired Halder.

Kartik shook his head. “Madhab sits like this,” he said.

“Madhab or Charlie?”

“I am playing Charlie while trying to portray Madhab. The truth is, Charlie has a bit of Madhab in him.” Kartik’s voice turned heavy and sombre as he spoke.

And then, within a span of a split second, he thundered: “You son of a bitch, the second officer of the police station came with his wife, and you couldn’t recognize him?”

“No, sir,” he added meekly. “He wasn’t in his uniform,”

Kartik kept playing a dual role, alternately posing as Saha and Madhab.

“He was not in his uniform! Does that mean the man wasn’t there, you swine? It will be your day or mine. The second officer called up to say that he had chosen a shawl and two sweaters, and he had to pay for them. You refused to recognize him?”

“I couldn’t, sir. He didn’t have his police dress on. He didn’t have a cap on either. Without them, it is so difficult to recognize a policeman.”

“You couldn’t recognize him, you bastard? Go and fall at his feet, seek his pardon, return the money. I’ll kick you so hard that you’ll never stand again. Get the hell out of here,” Kartik yelled, as Saha.

Anil Halder couldn’t hold back his excitement. “I challenge him to do that,” he said, gnashing his teeth. “What happened next?”

“Madhab sat exactly like this after returning from the police station,” said Kartik.

“Poor thing!” mumbled Halder.

Most of those who had gathered did not like this conversation between Halder and Kartik. The tea stall owner, too, felt it wasn’t any good. There was no fun in their words. Charlie always made people laugh, but Kartik wasn’t doing that, they grumbled. They were eager to hear Kartik repeat Shah Rukh Khan or Amir Khan’s fabulous dialogues or the memorable lines of Mogambo in the film Mr. India. The things that Kartik said were not the stuff of films. How dramatically he had changed within days of stepping out of Bhuthnath Biswas By-lane and spending time at Shyambazar, they thought. They didn’t like the change they saw in Kartik but were unable to take their eyes off his telltale looks. So, they hung on.

 
THREE

Not many stop at Bhuthnath Biswas By-lane when Kartik is not there, especially on dull, grey winter mornings, when the sun is almost absent. Those who stop by, drawn by the enticing sight of coiling steam rising from a pan of thick, hot tea, hurry off in search of sunshine the moment their glasses become empty. The lane is narrow. Derelict buildings with peeling plaster and exposed bricks stand on both sides, casting long shadows all day long. It is only in the last week of March, when the sun takes a northward ride after the summer solstice, that a shaft of sunlight strikes the far end of this northbound lane. This wintry thoroughfare warms up only when Kartik is there. No wonder tea seller Biren always eagerly waits for him to show up. But these days, with Kartik spending much of his time elsewhere, he is forced to shut shop soon after sunset.

On yet another morning, he saw Kartik sitting on the steps of his tailoring shop, his face cloudy and looking vacant. He sat there, just as he had done the other day. Was this Madhab or Charlie? Biren was unsure about the subject of that pose. But the pensive face seemed to have more of Charlie in it than anyone else, he thought.

“What’s wrong, Kartik?”

Kartik did not answer. The silence, others thought, was a sign of Kartik’s own inner heartache. Perhaps, this time, he was not imitating anyone; maybe, he was just being his real self.

“Why are you sitting like this? Anything wrong?” asked one of the hangers-on.

The question went unanswered. They could have left him alone and gone their way. But they were not ones who were prepared to take silence for an answer. They couldn’t just walk away without knowing what made Kartik so morose. But they had other reasons to stay on as well. Where could the likes of Anil Halder and Debu Roy possibly go? They had no work or engagement. Debu’s jute mill was shut. He couldn’t figure out how to make ends meet under the circumstances. Some lit their bidis with matchsticks. Some poured sachets of that powdery chewing stuff called Pan Parag into their open, upturned mouths. Others ordered fresh glasses of tea. As for Biren, the tea seller: he reminded one or two to settle their dues soon.

And, in the midst of all this, they had their eyes on Kartik, churning memories in their muddled minds. They tried to guess the role the downcast Kartik was playing. Did Raj Kapoor, Bollywood’s heart-wrenching underdog, sit like this in any of his many films? Or was Kartik showing Uttam Kumar, the Bengali superstar, sitting devastated near a funeral pyre, as leaping flames turned his heartthrob into ashes while a plaintive music raised the emotional pitch? That film was shown on TV a few days ago, they remembered.

It was only after a long pause that Kartik finally spoke: “Sahababu has handed Madhab over to police. He turned out to be a thief.”

“Oh, hell! Police! What had Madhab stolen—clothes, a pant-piece, a Banarasi sari, or was it underpants?” asked Anil Halder.

“None of that. Sahababu’s purse.”

“Purse? How much was in it?”

“All thousand-rupee notes—twenty of them.”

“Thousand-rupee notes? Do we have thousand-rupee notes in our country?” asked a bewildered Halder.

“Yes.”

“Have you seen any?”

“No.” Kartik shook his head.

“Has anyone seen them?” Halder turned and asked those around him.

None had. They all nodded thoughtfully, saying they hadn’t.

“All that’s Saha’s bullshit. There is no such thing as a thousand-rupee note,” said an animated Halder.

“Maybe there is. How can you be so sure?” butted in one of the hangers-on.

“Of course, there can be, only if they print such notes. Do we have 250-rupee notes, or of twenty-five rupees? Or, for that matter, three-hundred-rupee notes?”

No, no one had ever seen any of those unusual denominations. Not even Biren, the teaseller, who got notes of various worth every day. Once, someone had brought along a five-hundred-rupee note. But Biren had never seen, or even heard of, a note worth a thousand rupees.

Kartik insisted that thousand-rupee notes did exist, or else why would Sahababu mention them in his diary?

“Did Madhab take it?” someone from the gathering asked. “Has the purse been found?”

“No,” said Kartik. “Yesterday, police beat Madhab black and blue. I went to the police station on my way back.”

An anxious query followed: “What happened there?”

“Mejobabu, the second officer, viciously kicked Madhab with his boots on. Madhab lay curled up on the floor. He pretended not to recognize me, and covered his face with both hands,” Kartik said.

“And then?” Anil Halder was impatient to know more.

“Come out with the truth, Madhab” is what the officer had menacingly growled, recalled Kartik.

“After that?”

“Name the thief. Name him!” the officer had barked. “Or else we’ll make you the thief. I’ll make sure you rot in jail forever with broken limbs.”

“Then?”

“You don’t know? Then, your father must be knowing, you swine. I will cripple him. I’ll drag your sister here, you son of a bitch. Can you imagine what will happen to her? Rats will eat her away. I’ll reduce you, all of you, to beggars, you sister-fucker. Come out with the money.”

As Kartik played the characters he had seen at the police station, those watching him became fidgety. They were beginning to feel scared, unnerved by the chilling thought that such things could happen to them as well. The cops could come and pick them up, too. What would happen then? Why was Kartik saying all this, as if Madhab were doing the talking? Why did Kartik appear so broken, so utterly hopeless, as if he were Madhab and none else? They kept asking themselves these questions as they turned and left, one by one.

Finally, Anil Halder left, too, leaving Kartik alone, his head resting on his idle sewing machine. His face was sombre and sad. His eyes glistened with welled-up tears. It was a day on which he was unable to be anyone but Madhab. Shah Rukh Khan, Amir Khan, Akshay Kumar, the triumvirate of matinee idols, had abruptly gone out of his life.

“Go home, Kartik,” said Biren, getting ready to shut his tea shop.

“How can I, brother? How will I show my face in public? I am a thief. The police had caught me. Then they let me off. Sahababu-sir had found his purse.”

“What’s wrong with you? Why do you sound so strange? Go home, Kartik,” repeated Biren.

Kartik sat still. His breathing was heavy. A blast of chilly winter air swept through the now desolate lane. Biren walked up to him and held his hand. “Do not ever enact such scenes here,” he told Kartik. No one had the appetite for them. They only made people scared, he explained.

Kartik smiled a sad, despairing smile. He then hung his head down and refused to raise it again, like Madhab, crushed by shame.

The news broke the next morning. Kartik’s father, Dinesh, came yelling up Bhutnath Biswas By-lane, beating his skeletal chest with the full force of his two arms. A terrible thing had happened to him, he wailed as he trotted up the narrow lane.

Kartik hanging by a rope around his neck! What on Earth made him do that? A sense of disbelief spread through the still-sleepy locality like drifting fog on a winter morning.

All through the previous day, Kartik had sat at home with his head bent, refusing to speak.

Before long, the inhabitants of the neighbourhood thronged Kartik’s rundown home. Anil Halder was in a state of frenzy, shouting out for all to hear that he knew why Kartik died and what prompted him to take his own life. There he was, hanging from the ceiling. No, it was not Kartik—the corpse was more like that of Madhab’s, the money thief! He couldn’t do without dying. He had no choice.

Someone from the crowd rushed toward Anil Halder, firmly putting his hand on his mouth. The police had been informed, he whispered. They would soon arrive and lower the hanging body. For they alone had the right to bring down the dead.

 

Amar Mitra was born 1951 in Basirhat, a small town in the state of West Bengal, where his family migrated from what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. He has authored thirty novels, four books for children, and ten collections of short stories. His short story “The Old Man of Kusumpur,” published in The Common, won the prestigious O. Henry Award in 2022. The English version of his novel Dhanapatir Char: Whatever Happened to Pedru’s Island? was published in the same year. 

Anish Gupta is a senior journalist who has worked for leading Indian publications such as the Amrita Bazar Patrika, Sunday, Hindustan Times, and The Bengal Post. He currently works as an editorial consultant. He began his career as a documentary filmmaker.

[Purchase Issue 26 here.]

The Substitute

Related Posts

the peninsula at county mayo

Fallmore

LAURA NAGLE
Mairéad knows what she will say if her husband asks why she has been filling their eldest daughter’s bowl to the brim with porridge at every meal while taking less than a full serving for herself. She will talk about how much she hates oats, has always hated everything about them.

Picture of a blue fish

The Fish Market

ESTHER KARIN MNGODO
You’re surprised to see a fish that’s blue. You’ve never seen such a fish before, let alone heard of one. You say to the fishmongers, “So it’s true, travel makes you new. I can’t believe how blue it is!” You’re told it’s called a Bluu Fish. Its color resembles the jeans you’re wearing.

image of ribbons of all different colors in a row

Rabbit

JADE SONG
Hu Tianbao waves to asphalt and sky. The bumper of his mother’s car has long since exited the drop-off zone, yet he still stands moving his arm in the building’s entrance doorway. Left right left right dawdles his hand. A farewell to punctuality. He’s alone.