Story 5: Justice

Subroto Sen was, discounting politicians, Calcutta’s richest man. No careful analysis had ever been made of his finances, but it was rumoured he had his finger in all of the city’s creamiest pies. On the ledger of every big company in Calcutta, if one looked closely enough, one would find payments made in the name of charity to some or the other obscure trust which held the money for a certain amount of time before distributing them to various independent investors, who would then deposit it into their individual bank accounts. Wire transfers would then be made at random intervals – packets of no more than hundred rupees at a time – to a bank account in Southern Calcutta. That account belonged to Subroto Sen.

Nobody knew what exactly it was that he did. Some said he was in the Stock Exchange. Others said he was involved with movie distribution; that he owned lands; that he was a consultant; that he was an agriculturist; that he was this; that he was that…

The truth was, nobody knew exactly what he was.

Any one of them, or all of them, could be right. It was true that he had spent some of his young years on the Exchange. It was true that he had dabbled in movie distribution. It was true that he owned agricultural lands. It was true that he owned shopping complexes in Calcutta. But what were the ‘services’ he offered all these big companies on whose payrolls he so furtively existed?

It was a question that had only recently begun to be asked, for this connection between him and his employers had stayed hidden for a good part of the last twenty-five years. Tracks had been hidden very well, indeed.

The man was not known to anyone in Calcutta. He had never appeared on television. He had never given an interview to a newspaper or a magazine. He never went to parties. He never hosted any. For most of the common men in the city, Subroto Sen did not exist.

But there were some circles that knew of him and his value. They knew that patronage from someone like Subroto could be the only way to get financial gains from their work. They knew that if they could impress Subroto with any of their work, their life would be made.

They were poets.

I am a poet.

I had first met him at Shantiniketan three months ago, at a book fair. I was new to Calcutta then, and I had only just joined the Poetry Guild. One of my colleagues pointed me to him and whispered his name into my ear. He was walking around the place with a royal dignity, and yet he appeared extremely at ease. He was picking up books on poetry seemingly at random, leafing through them, and occasionally engaging in polite conversation with people who recognized him. His wife and two children accompanied him.

I did not pay much attention to him that night. The man had everyone from our guild fawning over him. I figured he had enough on his plate already. I took refuge in the ‘fiction’ category. If what I had heard of him was true, there was no danger of running into him over there.

It was closer to dinnertime when I felt a hand on my elbow. I turned around. It was Sandesh, the fair organiser.

‘You have a book here, don’t you?’ he asked.

I nodded.

‘Has it attracted a lot of readers?’

I shrugged. ‘Haven’t noticed. I’ve been quite busy reading all these other books.’

‘Well,’ Sandesh said, dragging me by my elbow. ‘I have seen him read your book.’

‘Oh, yes?’

‘Oh, yes. He was asking me about you. Says he wants to meet you.’

* * *

Our friendship was unlikely in many ways. He, forty-four years old, emperor-styled moustache, big and flamboyant; and I, appropriately thin for a struggling poet, clean-shaven, barely twenty one. That first conversation we had at the fair – about Tennyson, Worsworth, and of course, Tagore – must have impressed him in some way, because that led to further meetings and further discussions; at book-stalls, at coffee-shops, at movies.

He then started asking me over to his house – a mansion in Salt Lake City – for an occasional dinner. I met his wife, Namrata, and his two kids, Ishaan and Prashanti. He never mentioned my own poetry; conversations usually revolved around past giants of literature, but I never pushed. In my own way, I enjoyed their company for what it was worth. If personal gain came as a matter of course, I would take it. But I would not go searching for it.

His life seemed to be altogether idyllic. His wife was beautiful and intelligent. His kids were well-behaved and smart. They had an army of servants looking after their every whim. In my visits there I had never once seen or heard an altercation between husband and wife. They always seemed so much in harmony with one another. He seemed to have, in my eyes, about as perfect a life as any man would want. He had riches, he had a loving family, and he had perfect health. He did not have fame, but that was because he did not want any.

* * *

It was on one such night at his place, when we were both seated next to each other on the balcony of his house, looking out towards Central Park, that he looked at his glass of Bagpiper a little too wistfully.

It had been a good evening. Namrata had sang for us a selection of songs from the Gitabitan, which led to a discussion of Satyajit Ray’s movies, then a commentary on the stories and novels of Sharathchandra Chattopadhyay (whom Subroto hated with a vengeance). After dinner, the conversation had moved to spirituality, with Namrata expounding on the futility of life.

She was now back in the house, putting the kids to sleep. Subroto continued to stare at his glass. ‘What do you think happens after death, Vibhu?’

I did not reply. I just smiled at him.

‘Ah, you think I have had a lot to drink tonight, don’t you? You young men – you think you know everything.’ He turned to face me. ‘But remember, boy, there is no substitute for experience.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I know a few things that you would never in your wildest dreams believe. I asked you a question. What do you think will happen after we die?’

I shrugged and shook my head. ‘I don’t know, sir. I suppose we will just decompose and be done with.’

‘Be done with,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Be done with! So you don’t think there is anything to all this jazz about souls and reincarnation, eh?’

‘I – don’t know, sir.’

He took a big, final gulp of his whiskey and sighed as it travelled down his throat. When he spoke, his voice was louder and more belligerent than before. His words slanted. His speech slurred.

‘You know, boy, you are probably too young to know all of this, but let me tell you one thing. Your body – your outer body – means nothing. Nothing.’

I took a sip of my drink and listened.

‘It is what is inside you that matters. What is it?’ He licked his lips. ‘Some people call it a soul. Some people call it spiritual energy. Some people call it the ‘essence’. No matter what you call it, that is the most important thing.’

I cocked my head at him. ‘You have had a lot to drink tonight, sir.’

He waved me away. ‘Never mind that, it will keep me honest. My boy, Vibhu, haven’t you ever wondered why I don’t like fame?’

‘You are a private man,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But why am I such a private man? I am rich. I have everything in the world. I have not done anything wrong. Why am I running away from fame? Why am I running away from being visible?’

I looked away from him at the smog covered streets of the city. Orange smudges peered out from beyond the smoky screens.

‘I feel like a runaway sometimes,’ he said. ‘I feel like someone is chasing me and I have to hide from him.’

I looked at him and smiled. ‘I think you need to sleep.’

He gazed at me for a long time in silence. His hands played idly with the empty glass. Then he broke into a grin. ‘I think I will tell you,’ he said. ‘Yes, I think I will tell you.’

‘Tell me what, sir?’

‘I was a leper,’ he said, still looking at me, still grinning.

I sat up in my chair.

‘Ah, I have your attention now. You are thinking why nobody has ever told you that before. So many people claim to know me, and yet none of them know that I was a leper once. How is that possible?’

I did not reply. I merely stared at him.

He chuckled in delight. ‘I was a leper, but not in this body.’ He cast a sly look in my direction. ‘I was sent down here to be inside a leper, but I jumped.’

I relaxed in my chair. ‘Indeed?’

‘You don’t believe me,’ he said gruffly. ‘You young people think that carrying around a bunch of books in your satchels’ – and he pointed at my satchel – ‘will make you smart. You think that everyone older than you is stupid. Well, we are not. I am not.’

‘I certainly don’t think anything of that sort, sir.’

‘Oh that’s what you say. But I can read it in your eyes. You think I am an old fogy. But let me tell you, I know what happens after death. I know, because I remember.’

I took another sip of my drink and looked at him with feigned interest.

‘When you die, my boy,’ he said, ‘your soul goes to – to –’


‘To somewhere. That’s not important! But depending on how you’ve lived your life, some souls go to heaven and some go to hell.’ He shot me a glance. ‘Do you believe in heaven and hell?’

I replied guardedly, ‘Does it matter if I believe in them or not?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘You are right. It does not. But do you actually know where hell is?’

I waited.

‘Here,’ he said, spreading his arms. ‘It is all around you, boy. Hell is here on earth. That leper’s body that I was sent down to inhabit – now that was hell. This one is not too bad. I have wealth, family and luxury. It is not such a bad thing to be a ruler in hell, you know.’

‘So you’re saying you jumped from your leper’s body to this one?’

He looked at me with interest. ‘I see I have pricked your ears. Yes, my boy. I was sent down here to occupy a leper’s body. That was my punishment. But I found that I could jump from one body to another. I jumped and jumped and jumped – until I found this one. I have been here for twenty-eight years now.’

I asked, ‘What happens to the souls that already exist in the bodies you jump to?’

He pursed his lips in thought. ‘I – don’t know. I have never thought of that.’ Then he looked up at me once again. ‘Do you believe me, boy? Or do you think I am drunk?’

I said, ‘I don’t think you’re drunk. You are drunk.’

He laughed. ‘This is the only hell there is, Vibhu. There is no other. You are here because in your previous life you have done something that the big boss did not approve of. He took your soul, cleared its memory, and repackaged it in your current body.’

‘But I cannot jump.’

‘Yes, you cannot. Most of us cannot. What is the point of imprisonment if you could escape whenever you want?’

I set my drink down on the table. ‘True.’

‘I don’t know why I can,’ he continued. ‘Maybe it was a mistake he made. Even I don’t have unlimited powers, you know. I can only jump to male bodies. I can only jump to bodies that are roughly the same age.’

I looked up at the stars. It was an eerily clear night. The lights of the city were going out, one by one. Behind us, the house stood draped in darkness. Only one window in the top right corner was lit.

‘This ‘he’ you talk about,’ I said slowly. ‘This ‘big boss’ – who is he?’

‘Yama, of course,’ he said. He raised his head too and looked up at the sky. ‘Have you never heard of the whip-wielding god who came when your time is up and captured your soul in his noose?’

I reached for my satchel.

‘Oh you’re leaving?’ he said. ‘Did I manage to scare you?’ A sense of normality returned to his voice.

‘No,’ I said. I took out my whip and placed it, folded three ways, on the table before us.

He stared at it silently for a long time. Then, finally, he said weakly, ‘You.’

‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘It was hard to track you down. You live a very quiet life.’

For a long minute he did not speak. Then, suddenly, in a flash, he sat up, reached out and clutched my wrist.

I did not deter him. ‘You cannot migrate into me. There is no soul inside me for you to exchange places with.’


‘Yes, where do you think the souls you displaced from their bodies went? They went to the body that you left. So when you jumped from your leper’s body to some other man’s body, the soul inside him went into the leper.’

I felt his grip grow cold around me. ‘The leper died three months ago. I saw that his soul was not what I expected it to be. I guessed what must have happened. You see, I had to come down for you after that.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘No.’

‘You are not the first runaway soul, Subroto. I have strict processes in place. I try to be careful each time something like this happens. But there is only one of me. Every once in a while, a soul escapes the cleansing process. It retains the ability to jump between bodies.

‘You see, don’t you, what you have done? You have been living a life that has been designed for someone else, and you have relegated someone innocent to the body of the leper.’

‘No. No!’

‘And you know how much of a stickler I am for justice,’ I said. ‘How can I let this go unpunished?’

‘I have been hiding from you all my life…’

‘And you did a good job. Of all the stray souls that I have captured, you held me at bay for the longest.’ I paused and disengaged his hand from my wrist, gently. ‘And for that your punishment will be the longest.’

‘Are you going to clean me up and –’

I smiled at him. ‘Oh – no. I am not going to clean you up. I am going to let you keep your memories of your life here.’

He frowned. ‘I – I – I don’t –’

‘Subroto,’ I said, ‘you said Earth was the only hell there is; that souls get sent here to atone for their sins in their previous life. I am the god of justice. I think a man’s period of atonement should be proportional to the period of his sins. So in that sense you’re right. But you were wrong in thinking that Earth is the only hell there is.’ I looked at him.

There was naked fear in his eyes. ‘So hell – eternal fire – torment –’

‘All are real. All exist.’

‘Who –’ he started to ask the question and stopped.

‘I told you. You’re not the first runaway. There have been more before you. And as much as I hate to admit it, there will be more after you.’

Comprehension, I saw, dawned in his eyes.

‘Your sin,’ I said, ‘was not against your fellow men. Your sin was against justice itself.’

‘But – but why keep my mem – memory?’

‘That is part of the punishment. You will have full access to the happy memories of your life here – of your wealth, of your wife, of your kids. And you will have them forever.’

‘No – No, please, no!’

I stood up. With one whiplash I separated him from his body. He neither screamed nor resisted. He stared blankly at the limp crust he left behind as we both rose together.

I left him in hell. The real one.