by Rabindranath Tagore
(adapted from a translation posted at YouthAffairZ, an online Magazine)
I am a police detective. I have only managed to accumulate two assets in life–my wife and my career. Earlier, I used to live with my extended family. However, since my wife was not shown proper respect, I quarreled with my elder brother and found a place of my own. My brother was the breadwinner in the family; abandoning the comforts of home was therefore rather rash.
But I am immensely confident. Just as I have managed to acquire a beautiful spouse, I will, no doubt, be able to turn the wheels of fortune in my favor. Failure is not an option for a man like detective Mahimchandra!
I joined the lower ranks of the police force, but soon climbed the ladder to become a detective.
The brightest flame casts the darkest shadow, they say. My wife’s affection was unfortunately tainted by some distrust. My work required my absence, and this aroused her suspicions. “You are always away, and we meet only occasionally. Don’t you worry about me?” she would ask, as if to provoke me.
I would tell her: “A detective is always suspicious. For this reason, I do not bring it home.”
I was determined to excel as a detective. I had read all the manuals on crime detection, and this fueled my ambition.
The criminals in our country are moronic wimps. They commit only the most rudimentary crimes, there is no ingenuity. The murderer is unable to suppress strong emotions after committing the act. The forger expands his network, but is ultimately trapped by his own web. He lacks subtlety. There is no fun in being a detective in a country like this. What recognition is there to be had?
I have easily apprehended gamblers and cheats on several occasions, and each time I have muttered to myself, “My God! You fellows are a disgrace to the criminal class! Misfits, the lot of you! It is the job of master criminals to bring about the ruin of other people; imbeciles like you should have pursued a religious calling!”
In my mind, I often picture the streets of London and Paris. There is a forbidding, yet alluring, underworld of crime behind the beauty and limitless multitudes in such cities. In our own Kolkata, all that you can see in the homes are people engaged in household chores, cooking, children studying for an examination, groups assembled for a game of cards or chess, marital discords, or, at the most, disputes between brothers–stuff requiring legal advice. Nothing more! Glance into any courtyard, you never suspect that at this very moment some devious devil might be squatting in some corner and concoct diabolical schemes.
On several occasions I have carefully studied the behavior of passersby. If they seemed at all suspicious, I have followed them. I have made discreet inquiries into their family relations. But, in the end, and after all my efforts, I have always discovered to my dismay that they were all decent people who had never committed even the most insignificant crime. Even friends and relatives would refuse to gossip. The most sinister-looking individual whom I followed and who, I was certain, had committed the most heinous crime only moments ago, would turn out to be an assistant professor in a college, returning home from class. These kinds of people could have achieved notoriety as thieves and burglars had they been born in some other country. But, here in our own backwater, they have lost all vitality and vigor, and make a living teaching. They look forward to collecting their pension in old age! The disgust I feel toward pickpockets is nothing compared to the disgust I felt toward that assistant professor!
One evening I noticed a person beneath a lamp-post near my own home. He was pacing back and forth for no obvious reason. He appeared quite agitated. After observing him, I became certain in my mind that he was on some dubious mission. From the darkness, I could observe him clearly without drawing attention to myself. He was young and handsome. “This is how a criminal ought to look,” I thought to myself. “Those with a criminal face avoid committing crimes; they may prove to be failures while trying to lead good lives, but they cannot succeed as offenders either.” His looks were this youngster’s selling point; I appreciated this fact. “Fate has tossed a few assets your way, and it is up to you to make proper use of them,” I thought.
I stepped out of the shadows, and going up to him tapped him on the back. “Hello, I hope you are fine,” I said. He was so surprised that his face darkened. “I am sorry, I made a mistake. Seeing you suddenly, I mistook you for a friend,” I told him. However, in my mind I said, “I haven’t made any mistake. My surmise is absolutely correct.”
I was, however, rather annoyed at him for getting so startled. Ideally, he should have remained cool; but, then, even the most hardened criminal cannot be expected to possess all the qualities which go into the making of a top dog. Nature shows economy when turning a thief into a mastermind.
He hurried away from the lamp-post, and I quietly shadowed him. The youth walked towards the lake, and lay down on the grassy banks. “This is a good place to plan criminal activities, better than the lamp-post,” I said to myself. People are unlikely to become suspicious of him here. At the most, they may think that he, in the absence of his girlfriend, conjured up visions of her face in the night sky.
I continued my investigations and discovered that his name was Manmoth; he was a college student and lived in a lodge. He had failed his examinations. All his fellow students had gone home during the summer holidays, but he had preferred to stay. It is usual for students to go home during long vacations; but for what ill purpose had he chosen to remain? I was determined to find the answer.
Going undercover, I took up residence at his lodge. When we met on the first day, he gave me an odd look. I could not make out what thoughts were passing through his mind. He seemed surprised, and at the same time I got the impression that he was on to me. I realized it would take all my wits to snare him.
However, when I tried to befriend him, he did not hesitate. But I felt that we were studying each other; he, too, wanted to know me better. Curiosity is the hallmark of a consummate professional. I was impressed by so much cleverness in such a young person.
I thought to myself that unless a female was introduced into my scheme, it would be difficult to unravel the youth’s secrets. So, one day, I told him, “Friend, I love a woman but she does not reciprocate my feelings.”
He looked at me in surprise, but smiling wryly replied, “This is not unusual. It happens.”
“I need your help in this matter,” I told him, and he agreed to assist.
I fabricated a story and he listened attentively; he however did not speak much. I had always believed that people become friendlier when you tell them of your love affairs, especially illicit love affairs. But in the present case that did not happen. The boy remained mute; but it was as if he had absorbed all the details. I developed a certain respect for the boy.
Meanwhile, in spite of much effort, I was unable to discover what Manmoth did behind closed doors, or how far his plot had progressed. But one thing was certain: he had not abandoned his objective and was pursuing it with perseverance.
I have rummaged through the papers on his desk in his absence. I could find nothing but a notebook with poems written in it, college lecture notes, and a few letters from home. The letters contained pleas from his parents and relatives to return home. He had ignored these requests, which proved he had some compelling motive for staying. If his reasons were legitimate, they would have come up in our conversations by now. However his suspicious behavior was ample proof that his reasons were anything but honest. This boy was a part of that lawless sewer that made the ordinary citizen uneasy. He was no common student; it was a masquerade. I had to respect him for his artistry.
Finally, I had to physically introduce a woman. Harimati, my colleague in the police department, arrived to assist me. I told Manmoth that it was Harimati whom I loved. While making sure that Manmoth was nearby, I even recited a few poems to Harimati and she, making certain that the youth was within earshot, made it known she had lost her heart to Manmoth. But this did not yield the desired result. Manmoth, inquisitive as he was, began watching us.
One day, I found torn pieces of a letter strewn in his room. After strenuous efforts, I was able to correctly join together a few pieces and deciphered an incomplete sentence “this evening at 7 pm at your lodge in strict confidence.” I was unable to find anything more.
I was exhilarated, satisfied like a paleontologist that has just unearthed a fossil. I knew that Harimati would be arriving at our place at 10pm. This boy was really intelligent! He had chosen the day carefully; it is better to plan a crime when there is something happening at the lodge–everyone is focused on that and no one bothers about anything else.
A doubt crept into my mind; I began to suspect that Manmoth was exploiting our friendship and my pretense of love with Harimati. We were, in fact, aiding and abetting him to achieve his own sinister goals. Perhaps it was a good idea to make everyone think we were complicit?
Just ponder these facts: A student prefers to remain in a lodge during vacations, ignoring requests from his relatives to come home. There cannot be the slightest doubt that he stayed out of some necessity. I had invaded his privacy by moving into his building, and even introduced a female. Yet, he had shown no bitterness. He had not abandoned the lodge, nor did he avoid us. However, I have noticed on several occasions–when he lowered his guard–that he actually loathed both Harimati and me. This could mean only one thing: he was using our friendship as a front.
When I met Manmoth that day I offered to treat him to dinner. “Let’s have our meals in a restaurant at 7 pm today,” I told him. He was taken aback but quickly recovered his composure. “No brother, I am in bad shape today with an upset stomach,” he said. I had never before seen Manmoth refusing an offer to dine in a hotel.
I wasn’t expected to remain in the lodge that evening. But I deliberately engaged Manmoth in a conversation, and did not show any inclination to go out. I noticed that Manmoth was becoming very uncomfortable. He agreed to everything I said, and did not enter into any argument. Finally, looking at his watch in desperation, he stood up and said, “Aren’t you going to pick up Harimati today?” I feigned surprise, “Oh! I had completely forgotten. Brother, please prepare the meals, I will return with Harimati around 10.30pm.” So saying, I left.
I was rather pleased with myself. Words cannot describe how delighted I was. But, I am sure Manmoth was no less excited while he waited for 7pm. I removed myself to a safe distance from the lodge, remaining well hidden, and stood vigil. When twilight descended and the street lamps were lit, I saw a palanquin, balanced on the shoulders of bearers, drawing up to the lodge.
I did not dally. Taking slow and easy steps, I climbed the stairs to the first floor. At first I had planned to remain in hiding, observe and eavesdrop. But I could not put that plan into action because Manmoth was facing the stairs, and a woman was sitting opposite him and talking in a soft voice. When I realized that Manmoth had already seen me, I entered the room as if in a hurry and said, “Brother, I had forgotten to take my watch. I have come back for it.”
Manmoth was so startled, it seemed he would collapse. I was thrilled, but feigning concern I asked, “Brother, are you alright? You look ill.” He did not reply. I turned to the woman and asked, “Are you related to Manmoth?” She made no reply.
I discovered that she was not in any way related to Manmoth. That woman was my own wife!
Everyone knows what happened afterwards. This was the first thief I caught in my career as a detective.
After listening to detective Mahimchandra’s tale, I said, “It is possible that your wife’s relationship with Manmoth is quite innocent, even socially acceptable.”
He replied, “That is most likely. I found a letter, written by Manmoth, in my wife’s box.” He removed a letter from his pocket and extended it to me.
The letter ran as follows:
You have probably forgotten about wretched Manmoth by now. As a child I always passed by your house and played with you. Those childhood days ended long ago. I do not know whether you are aware of the fact that I once tried to arrange for our marriage. But the elders refused since both of us are of the same age.
Then, you got married, and I did not hear about you for four to five years. Five months ago I learned your husband had joined the police department and was transferred to this place. Immediately, I tracked down the address of your residence.
I did not nurture any hopes of meeting you, nor did I wish to intrude into your domestic bliss. I, however, stand under a lamp-post near your house to catch a glimpse of you when you come to place an oil lamp precisely at 7.30pm every day on the window sill in the upper floor of your house. That momentary glimpse is all that I crave for; that is my only sin.
Meanwhile, owing to certain circumstances, I have become acquainted with your husband, and the acquaintance has now turned into a friendship. But after getting to know him better which allowed me to judge his character, I have come to the conclusion that he will bring only grief into your life. I have no claim on you, but providence, which has turned your sorrow into mine, has ordained that I should rid you of your troubles.
Please forgive me for taking liberties with you, but do visit my lodge secretly only for 20 minutes on Friday evening. I wish to tell you certain things about your husband, and I can also present certain incriminating evidence against him. I would also like to offer you some advice, which, if you follow, will make your life a happier one.
Of course, my motives are not entirely selfless; I will have you before me for a few minutes, I will listen to you talk – these are the cravings of my heart. If you do not trust me, and you wish to deny me even that little pleasure, do write to me letting me know about your decision. I will, then, inform you about everything in a letter. In case you do not wish to even write to me, then show this letter to your husband. I shall, then, confront him and tell him all that I have to say.
Shri Manmothnath Majumdar
Note: this is an approximate translation from Bengali, and may be subject to revisions