The sudden death on a train journey of a distraught Microbiologist knowledgeable on Chinese Bio-Warfare initiatives, leaves unanswered questions and a bagful of worries for an Air Warrior.
[Now a short film titled, “Victor One” starring Shaktee Singh and Dinpaal Ganguly. The film was screened at the Indian Film Festival of Ireland (IFFI-13). It has won two awards: BEST ACTOR (Shaktee Singh and BEST DIRECTOR (Shivani Singh) at a recently held Film Festival. The film is scheduled to participate in four more film festivals in the short film category (including the one at Cannes).
The Transit Camp at Guwahati was a heavily guarded fortress in the insurgency prone east. I had arrived there from Tezpur a day in advance to board the early morning Sampark Kranti Express to New Delhi. Thanks to the mosquitoes, I hadn’t slept a wink through the night. Besides, my mind was 3000 miles away in NOIDA where Mudit and Chhaya were awaiting me––it had been six long months since we’d been together. Annual leave was a precious commodity for those serving in the exotic east.
I arrived at the station a half hour before the departure time and headed for the train parked on Platform Number 1. My reservation was confirmed in the AC First Class compartment. A faded reservation chart was pasted clumsily at the entrance of the bogie. I strained my eyes to read through and locate my name in the list printed on recycled paper using a dot-matrix printer. There was no rush, and as it appeared, I was the only passenger in ‘C’ Coupe. Quite a few berths in the other coupes were vacant too.
Once inside the coupe, my hands developed their own grey cells––they got down to arranging the bags under the berth and spreading the sheet and the blanket. Once settled, I pulled out from my bag, the crumpled draft of an article: Warfighting Sans Bloodshed. I had been working on it for the past three months. My duties as the Senior Logistics Officer at Air Force Station, Tezpur had kept me sufficiently busy to devote time to that article. With none to talk to in the coupe, I was determined to edit and complete it before reaching Delhi. My thoughts ran errands in many directions as I continued to settle down. In doing so, I lost track of time. It was therefore natural that I did not hear the guard blow the whistle; I did not notice the diesel engine sound its horn either. Like me, my senses too had been furloughed.
I suddenly became conscious when the wheels rolled with a jerk and a tall man stumbled into the coupe. He lost balance, fell and lay spreadeagle on the floor. I was taken aback.
“Easy!” I said instinctively and helped the man lift himself to the seat in front. He was elderly and frail; in his early eighties, I guessed. And he might not have weighed a gram in excess of fifty kilos, even with the clothes on. He was a skeleton, almost. The cap of a Sheafer fountain pen peeping out of his oversized coat pocket suggested that he was possibly engaged in some kind of scholarly pursuit.
“Uh! Thank you… I am jaast een time,” he collected himself and forced a smile on his pale face. If at all, the effort deepened the furrows in his wrinkled cheeks. He adjusted his thick-rimmed glasses with cylindrical lenses to focus his gaze on something beneath my berth. He was reading my name printed on my duffel bag.
“So, you are Squadron Leedor… Indiaan Air Force?” I wasn’t much impressed by what he showed off as his discovery because that was my rank two years ago; I had earned a promotion in the intervening period.
Inadvertently though, he had pricked me with that one-word question. “Why do people take everyone who dons blue, to be a pilot?”
“Not really,” I said aloud without making an attempt to hide my punctured ego. “I am a skydiver… the next best thing to being an eagle in the big blue sky.”
The tone, more than the content of my reply, must have amused him, for he chuckled wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, that led to a bout of uncontrollable cough. I patted his back and gave him water to drink. That gave him instant relief.
“Dhonyobaad!” He was grateful for a cup of tea I poured for him from my flask.
He had barely regained his breath when his phone rang. He riffled through his coat pocket to find his phone. He squinted his eyes to read the text on the five-inch screen of his iPhone but couldn’t. Nonetheless, he accepted the call. There was a distinct dash of indifference in the way he responded. It was either an unknown caller, or someone he didn’t wish to speak to. His face turned red as he listened to the individual at the other end. He cupped his mouth as if to prevent being heard, but it seemed he was provoked by the caller to scream into the instrument: “I am not Bheector Bhon (I am not Victor One),” his lips quivered. His large nostrils grew larger, and his unusually long nasal hair flowed out of the cavities like little grey fumes, “Aar, aami Majeek Dadu noi (And, I am not Magic Dadu)! Stop calling me from deepharent nombers (Stop calling me from different numbers).” He disconnected angrily and mumbled a barely-audible sorry when our eyes met.
I gestured an it’s-alright.
He wiped the beads of sweat that had appeared on his forehead. Then there was prolonged silence except for his deep breathing and the rhythmic rumbling of the wagon’s cast iron wheels.
He was professor-like; seemed perpetually lost. He rummaged his pockets for his ticket when the conductor arrived. And, when he did present one, it was an invalid ticket––it was for the Rajdhani Express of the previous day. Without ado, he paid a hefty fine and bought a valid ticket. “I am bheecoming phorgetfool (I am becoming forgetful),” he announced to nobody in particular.
He started a monologue on Warfighting Sans Bloodshed when his eyes fell on the sheaf of papers kept by my side. He amazed me by the depth of his knowledge on the subject.
“Heard about HAARP?” He asked me and, without waiting for an answer, repeated the abbreviation, one letter at a time and expanded it too. “H-A-A-R-P… High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program.”
“It was a secret American Project, a weapon system way ahead of its times. I know a little about it. But I understand that it had turned out to be unwieldy, unviable and a drain on the US Defence Budget. They had decided to scrap it and hand over the site to a university… (I paused groping for the name) … I think, … it was the University of Alaska. I am not too sure of the present status of the Project.” I was unsure and shrugged my shoulders humbly accepting my lack of knowledge.
“You are quite right. It was a rare bheapons programme bheech, if accomplished, bhould habe given the Americans aaneemaghinable pabher to dhominate tha whorld (It was a rare weapons programme which, if accomplished would have given the Americans unimaginable power to dominate the world). Like deesrupting human mentaal processes, jhamming communications, impacting bhethor anywhere in tha whorld,… and maaach more (Like disrupting human mental processes, jamming communications, impacting weather anywhere in the world… and much more). Now Chinese…,” he paused abruptly, looked around and left it at that.
The following hour was spent in what I call polite-meaningless-conversation. My half-hearted effort to know who he was, got stymied each time by his arguments on a variety of subjects: Hypoxia… Foreign Policy… Unmanned aircraft… Electric cars… China… Biological Warfare. There was a core of weirdness in the way he hesitated talking on those last two topics. All through our conversation, his probing eyes scanned our coupe and a part of the adjoining corridor.
Something was troubling him.
At Katihar Junction, I stretched my legs and arms and prepared to fetch hot tea from a tea-stall on the Platform. “Would you like to come along for a cup of tea,” I made an offer.
“Sorry, I habe jhoint pain (I have joint pain). I bhud like to seet hear (I would like to sit here). Bhy don’t you get aa cop phor mee too (Why don’t you get a cup for me too),” An artificial smile bared the gaps in his yellow teeth yet again.
I didn’t mind doing that small favour and walked away with the flask in my hand. I was oblivious of an intriguing request that would follow sooner than later.
The door of the coupe appeared closed when I returned. My repeated gentle knocks and ‘Hello Sir’ through the slits in the small side window were responded by silence. The door, which was not bolted from inside, slid ajar when I tugged it.
The man sat motionless in the corner. He was holding his Sheafer and writing something on his scribble pad. The pen slipped from his fingers as I walked in. He did not pick it up. I thought he had dozed off. The pad too slipped and fell. I couldn’t help read the short note as I picked it up and placed it on his berth.
Written in laboured cursive handwriting was an incomplete and unsigned note which read: “Dear Squadron Leader, I don’t have much time. I have recorded a voice-memo on my mobile phone. Please share it with Victor One. He…”
The man was dead.
Gears shifted and cogwheels began rotating faster in my cranium––eagerness to reach Delhi and be with the family; this dead stranger in my coupe; the voice memo and, above all… the identity of Victor One. Who on earth was this Victor One? My mind felt cluttered.
First things first. I secured the man’s scribble pad, and pocketed his phone before seeking assistance of the Station Master and the cops. They found nothing on person of that lonesome man, or in his baggage, that could reveal his identity. The body was taken away for post mortem and I was made to sign a declaration.
“Sir, we’ll call you as a witness, only if it is really necessary.” The Head Constable saluted and assured me, before letting me board the train again which had been delayed by fifteen minutes.
Next morning, the headline in The Times of India read: “Dr Shantanu Bhattacharya Dies in Sampark Kranti.” A two-decade old photograph on the front page had striking similarity with the passenger I had met on the train the previous day. The subheading read: “Dr Bhattacharya (83) was convalescing in Baruah Sanatorium in Shillong after undergoing psychiatric treatment at AIIMS, New Delhi.” A boxed item aroused my interest: “On condition of anonymity, a close associate said that lately, Dr Bhattacharya, a less known Microbiologist, had been hallucinating about the quantum jump in Beijing’s Biological Warfare capabilities and that he had been claiming that he had found a counter to some of the Dragon’s bio-weaponry. He even feared abduction by the Chinese; was paranoid. The Scientist had gone missing from his Sanatorium late last Friday. His disappearance was kept under wraps as the intelligence agencies were trying to rule out foreign hand.”
I re-read the news item which said: “Codenamed Victor One, Dr Bhatta was popular among his colleagues as Magic Dadu.”
“If the man I met in the train was Dr Bhattacharya, and if Dr Bhattacharya was codenamed Victor One, who do I handover the recorded message on the phone, and the scribble pad to?” I was utterly confused.
My curiosity led me to explore Dr Bhatta’s phone. It wasn’t locked but the sim was missing. Knowing that his end was near, he had erased all the data on his phone except a voice memo. I couldn’t make much sense of the garbled message: “Dear Bheector Bhon, I trast you only. (Dear Victor One, I trust you only) Nobhody ailse (Nobody else)… the Chinese are training a maasquito aarhmy (the Chinese are training a mosquito army)… they habe laarnt tha technique from tha Nazis (they have learnt the technique from the Nazis)… (unintelligible sounds). I habe deeskhovered I have discovered…. They bheel abhduct mee and keel me (They will abduct me and kill me)… Uh! Obhar hown peepal habe bheetrayed me (Our own people have betrayed me)… uh… uh… (long pause) uh…(stuttering)… (silence).”
“Why would Dr Bhattacharya record and send a message to himself?” I was even more puzzled.
My confusion climbed another notch when a newspaper cutting fell from Dr Bhatta’s scribble pad as I flipped its pages to see if it contained anything worthwhile. It read: “Nazis planned malaria-carrying mosquito army.” My train of thoughts was interrupted by Chhaya, my wife, who had laid the table for lunch, “We’ll have to clean up the utensils and dishes for the next few days. Guddi will not be coming to work; she is running high fever. In fact, almost her entire chawl of about 300 dwellers is down with some strange symptoms… I don’t know what’s happening…,” She sighed. “Mrs Manchandani was saying that it is a new breed of malarial parasite, much deadlier, spreading like an epidemic.”