I was sitting alone in the AC First Class coupe of the Sampark Kranti Express until the wheels rolled with a jerk and a person stumbled in and fell spreadeagle on the floor.
“Take it easy.” I helped him lift himself to the seat in front. He was an elderly frail man; in his early eighties, I guessed; and he might not have weighed a gram in excess of fifty kilos. He was a skeleton, almost. The cap of a Sheafer pen peeping out of his coat’s pocket suggested that he was possibly engaged in scholarly pursuits.
“Uh! Thank you… I am jaast een time.” A forced smile on his pale face 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. I realised, he was reading my name on my steel trunk.
“So, you are Squadron Leedor… Indiaan Air Force?” I wasn’t much impressed by what he seemed to show off as his discovery because that was my rank years ago; I was now a Group Captain. I smiled, nonetheless.
Inadvertently though, he had needled me gently with that one-word question. “Why do people take everyone who dons blue, to be a pilot?” I thought.
“Not really,” I said aloud without making an attempt to hide my feeling. “I am a skydiver,” I said proudly. “The next best thing to being an eagle in the big blue sky.”
The peculiar tone of my answer must have amused him for he couldn’t help chuckle at it. Unfortunately, that sent him into a bout of cough. I offered him some water and a cup of tea from my flask which gave him instant relief.
“Dhonyobaad,” he was grateful.
His phone rang soon enough. He squinted his eyes to read the text on the five-inch screen of his iPhone but couldn’t. He accepted the call with indifference. 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 was provoked by the caller to scream into the instrument: “I am not Bheector Bhon.” His lips, quivered, His nostrils grew large and his unusually long nasal hair flowed out of the cavities like mini grey fumes, “Aar, aami Majeek Dadu noi (And, I am not Magic Grandpa)! Stop calling me from deepharent nombers.” He disconnected angrily and mumbled an inaudible 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 in his mannerism, perpetually lost. He rummaged his pockets clumsily 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 the fine and bought a valid ticket. “I am bheecoming phorgetfool,” he announced to nobody in particular.
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 lingered long on those last two topics. All through our conversation, his probing eyes scanned our coupe and a part of the 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 bhud like to seet heaar. Bhy don’t you get aa cop phor mee too,” he exposed the big gaps between his yellow teeth as he urged smilingly.
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 soon.
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 effortlessly when I tugged it.
The man sat motionless in the corner. He was holding his Sheafer on to his scribble pad. The pen slipped from his fingers as I walked in. Written on his scribble pad in laboured cursive handwriting was an apparently 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––anxiety to get down to work the next morning; this unknown dead man in my coupe; the voice memo and, above all… who 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 necessary.” The Head Constable saluted and assured me, before letting me board the train again. It 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 nudged 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 recorded by him: “Dear Bheector Bhon, I trast you only. Nobhody ailse… the Chinese are training a maasquito aarhmy… they habe laarnt tha technique from tha Nazis… (unintelligible sounds). I habe deeskhovered…. They bheel abhduct mee… 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 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 breakfast, “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.”