Three of them stood by the clock, a miniature grandfather Mr. Gupta purchased yesterday from DeCosta’s, an auctioneer at Park Street. It makes beautiful Westminster Quarters when its bells strike. Indeed he had it delivered to his home, only for its chimes, it mattered little whether the hands obeyed the rules of the orb. A minute or two late, even a half- hour would worry little this octogenarian widower who left his office some twenty- six years ago. And after his wife died, time seemed unworthy of him. These days he seldom leaves his chair by the window, only twice I believe, for a nap in afternoon and around ten in the evening for his bed. Rest all he trusts is the generous framework with pane that overlooks the grass, bordering the tram-line, travelling east to west. A book often read twice, his breakfast, the tea that keeps showing up, the ting-tong given off by a passing tram, the subtle woody noise emanating from hand-pulled rickshaws and a rare nod from the next door child now in his fifty, bear the transition. His fragile alveolus allows him to speak sparely. Occasional turning of the head; the breathlessness and his failing eyes are all that remain of him.
Urmi, Gupta’s daughter, now nearing her sixty, her friend Brishti with her husband Roddur had assembled for a lunch at Gupta’s that afternoon when the sun came down well before noon. The get-together was planned nearly a month back when Urmi at her Washington home was preparing for a summer with her lone- father at Calcutta. But the windstorm at cockcrow had struck unexpectedly, bringing disappointment. Lights were on at ten in the morning, the windows found shut and the doors closed when Roddur left his car at the portico.
It started early without a drizzle around eight after the day broke, and a downfall by evening was promised by the incoming cyclone. The lamplighter had prematurely lit the street lamps along the tramline. It was a sickening sultry morning amidst darkness and a dismal overcast gloomy dawn that makes one wipe his neck and glasses again and again. Little air blew when the two-bogie tram ran past, the depression was quite palpable. The wind took to its pace quickly while the drizzle started and the downpour beat the patter hastily.
‘Let’s start with some tea, the lunch will be ready by one,’ spoke Urmi displaying the 4R size photographs she took at the Niagara Falls the year before. They were good to watch, the mist arising from the huge cascade draped Urmi , belying her forlorn look for a moment.
‘Who took this pix of yours?’ asked Roddur inspecting it closely as he moved his eyes over Urmi’s, dividing his time between the two and pondering what made her age so quickly. Urmi didn’t reply, still placing more photographs on the bed where they sat.
‘Who took the photograph?’ repeated Roddur believing Urmi had missed him.
‘I thought you forgot your question,’ she said flatly and continued, ‘ Smith, he works with me at the University, we both went for a trip to Niagara,’ said Urmi her ears reluctant to accept more questions.
‘You love him?’ dropped Brishti aware and vigilant, keenly watching Urmi’s face.
‘Smith loves you?’
‘May be, may not be, I am not sure.’
‘You look much younger here,’ added Roddur wontedly, pointing at the photograph and diverting the angst building up slowly.
Urmi married Saurav some thirty years back and their only son Sujoy, stays at Brisbane. She resides at Washington, separated some ten years ago from Saurav, who has his home at Davis. Their son is not yet married, but still he is divorced, divorced from his parents. Roddur regards the relationship as quite complicated and difficult to reveal, the veracity behind its separation was buried since long. And the three of them continue to stay detached from each other.
The lunch was over by two in the afternoon when Roddur put himself at the easy-chair perfectly contended that lay beside where Gupta sat. This pretty long mahogany woodwork belonged to Urmi’s grandfather. It is old nonetheless utterly comfortable and consummately attractive. Roddur couldn’t refuse himself falling asleep there. Gupta retired to his room for his afternoon nap and the two ladies adapted themselves on the large teak wood bed, where the photographs still lay haphazardly. It was four in the evening still the rain didn’t care to recede. The darkness that sank at noon sustained and trams were plying no more. When Roddur left the easy-chair Gupta had resumed his view at the window. At his age a maid cares for him all the time. Roddur said ‘hello’, a little embarrassed imagining how Gupta might have stared hazily at him while he was deeply asleep. The evening tea came ready when the ladies were still in bed.
The rain came quickly pouring in a deluge making it quite evident that for the rest of the day it will limit the three to the bedroom. They sat on the bed talking desultorily, the heavy rain often obscuring what they spoke as the Westminster Quarters remained carelessly abandoned. At one time their words lost each other’s threads acceptably affirming that they had nothing much to share at this age, their secrets have turned more secretive unworthy of disclosure, while they abated from each other, their minds dwindling as they grew old. Only the Westminster Quarter played at a distance by the shadowy corner of the staircase but it rarely overpowered the downpour. The sound from the human voices was fading in the distance down the silence that was creeping in slowly. The three had comfortably composed themselves on the bed as quietness descended lazily. ‘Let’s try some planchette,’ Urmi dropped her idea all of a sudden. The other two wondered how it came into Urmi and in fact for Roddur, he had hardly used the word in last thirty years, if he is to be believed. He, a man of science had little inclination for those séances. Brishti kept quiet not joining the words. She knew well how adept Urmi is in automatic writing on Ouija talking boards. She had witnessed her more than once during her college days and it quickly reminded her of Urmi’s mother as an accomplished medium fostering communication with spirits. Suddenly Brishti felt reasonably apprehensive mindful of the setting that may develop under this noisy inundation and was gently laying down the lull. She thought it is the rain that mattered, and without it Urmi wouldn’t have made up her mind to settle for planchette, a paradigm shift from her letup to a turbulent rise and this reflection made her simper spontaneously.
‘Let’s begin,’ Urmi joined in breaking her silence. Roddur wondered how swift she was eager to begin her grind as if some unknown hand was accompanying her endeavor. Brishti, still not talking much kept herself at ease holding her last posture with difficulty.
‘You know the science behind planchette?’ Roddur was eager to drop the unknown facts the others knew nothing about, he believed.
‘There can be no science behind it. It is a paranormal activity, it’s even beyond imagination of the subject you are talking about, the bloody science,’ quickly added Urmi without a pause, she was spewing, her face was asserting it all. But Roddur was barely interested to follow her, eager to put in his words of justification before she cuts his words off again.
‘I will tell you about the science,’ he spoke finding a gap, now quite decisively. He lit a cigarette and made himself comfortable. The rain which hardly surrendered a quarter of an hour back, resumed its fury. But Urmi was averse to paying any heed to Roddur, her annoyance persisted.
‘Let me be allowed to speak,’ Roddur continued distinctively, raising his hand, defying Urmi’s interception.
‘It is a psychological phenomenon, you understand that?’ spoke Roddur less intrusively this time.
He didn’t stop here. ‘It’s called ideomotor reflex in the scientific jargon. The subjects participating in planchette make some miniscule movements in their hands not aware of it. And that moves the pencil or whatever you use,’ he continued, ‘you people should make some effort to move yourself from your ostrich like luxury and read Carpenter’s effect who first published his scientific views in 1852 ignoring the spirits. He was harsh I believe when he made the facts clear. ‘There is nothing called spirit, hence there can be nothing called planchette,’ he added and abruptly put out the cigarette stub angrily on the ashtray. His disgust was discernible.
Photographs were moved to the end of the bed, the lights put off, the door closed and a hard piece of cardboard was laid on the bed. Only a little blue night lamp simmered behind the mirror that stood on the dressing table, silently reflecting every ones mood. Urmi was so quick in putting the English alphabets on the board with 8B pencil that Roddur couldn’t move his eyes off it. What a mastery of work, she must be doing it every day thought Roddur, arresting Urmi eyeball to eyeball. Roddur hadn’t noticed her carrying a cap from a perfume bottle hidden in her left palm. She quietly placed it on the cardboard over the word A and whispered ‘silence.’
They all three had put their index fingers on the little cap of steel. The cap struggled to slip out of the fingers placed inconveniently one above the other. There was a little noise outside of the room. Mr Gupta must be making efforts to move out of his chair, they believed, and the lady was expected to be present but there was no way to ascertain it, Urmi had already closed the door to the balcony. The sound withered away quickly but appeared again somewhere from outside the house near the portico where Roddur stood his car.
The rain was steadily making its presence with ease. But from nowhere scene of a fearsome unstoppable rain from Kuruosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ began to appear eerily before Roddur. Soon its sound turned muffled and diminished but an alarming calmness has quietly begun to emerge from beneath the board that lay on the bed.
The room appeared placid before the darkness whilst a yellow light emanated from the slit below where the door appeared shut. But it interfered little with the blue haze inside the room. Some insignificant insects raised their voices together in lowliness at the corner of the bed room. It bothered little the built up atmosphere. The perfume cap suddenly shivered and began to move. Roddur felt a strong pull on his finger placed over the steel cap which Urmi kept pulling, but he hardly could believe what he was witnessing. Urmi appeared too reluctant to strain her finger only pressing it delicately on the cap. Brishti behaved like a novice as if she was participating unwillingly, but Roddur was too curious to abandon the game. They had earlier decided to invite Urmi’s mother whom all three knew well. She started with some silly yes and noes but Urmi without reason decided to release the spirit suddenly and the fingers that rested on the perfume cap turned flaccid. To Roddur the game was over and he decided to relieve his finger when Urmi proposed to bring in the maths teacher’s spirit. He was a large angry man who lost his temper often and the cap began to move erroneously for some time. It made brisk and vehement movements refusing to answer questions the three had raised. Roddur fell in a trance unable to fathom the pull that generated on the bottle cap. It continued its vigorous movements on the cardboard for some time when Urmi requested the spirit to leave.
With the darkness haven’t eased much, the insects raised their voices. When the rain and the wind began to wean, the cap from the perfume bottle without the knowledge of the three had moved itself to the letter G and generating a fine unnoticeable tremor settled itself. Roddur moved his finger from the planchette board and raised his eyes only to find Urmi stiff and erect like a man. Her delicate right hand now held the planchette board with a grip of a male looking eyeball to eyeball with Roddur. Roddur couldn’t move his eyes off her face enveloped in a layer of heavy delicate sweat refusing her to breathe and look orderly. All that Roddur could see through the blue haze of the room was Urmi’s eyes turn red in a burst of anger but she spoke in a very easy male voice, modulated yet flat. A heavy male guttural tone from Gupta’s younger days began to emerge from within Urmi’s.
She now looking straight into Roddur’s face spoke with a pause in Gupta’s voice,
’Sujoy is not Urmi’s, he is from Saurav, his father, not a legitimate one obviously.’ He continued with affection, ‘I feel sorry for the child.’ Urmi rotated her head, still stiff and exanimate, towards the bunch of photographs that lay one above other near the brink of the bed and stopped uttering a while. A cold zephyr blew between the cards lifting one from its pack and suspending it in levitation.
‘Don’t show this Niagara picture to Saurav. It will make him unhappy,’ spoke Gupta in a clear distinct voice, loud but tender.
The spirit expressed with a breathing space in a delicate but impressive voice turning toward Brishti, and leaving the room it added smilingly ‘Don’t bother if the clock doesn’t make sounds any more, I will carry the Westminster Quarters with me.’
The spirit must have left after that because the frigid air had suddenly disappeared. What Roddur could see was Urmi’s fatigued body lying over the planchette board drenched in sweat and smell of steam and gloom.
When Roddur and Brishti rushed to Gupta, he was dead and the lady earnestly trying to revive the gentleman who brought some relief to her poor family. The grandfather clock no more made beautiful Westminster Quarters thereafter.
I do not know what happened next. But it was for certain only three of them knew the mystery behind the clock’s losing its music. They stood by the clock; still, watching its hands move silently, without a word arising from the gong below. It will be too childish for them to reveal what the old man had disclosed in that creepy dark room the other day.