Aftermath

  • লেখক: Ankita; Translated By: Subhasish Mitra
  • শিল্পী: টিম কল্পবিশ্ব

Time: 0110 hours

Date: 26th April, 1986

Place: Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine, U.S.S.R.

You cut could the tension with a knife. Every single person present in that room – the scientists in white, their assistants, even the lowly workers in their gear – everyone’s eyes were gleaming – was it greed? A few licked their lips, as if they could physically taste the success, the culmination of their years of labour. Arunabha found this distasteful. He felt put-off by the buzz around him. This place was nothing more than a prison for him, a prison from which there was no escape. His gaze shifted from the blue glare of the computer screen to the glass wall across the room.  He could see the people feverishly working there, covered head to toe in protective gear. It was more than five years ago – that he was invited by the Soviet Union to work in this nuclear plant situated right at the border separating Russia and Ukraine. He was one among many nuclear physicists to be invited and he had then readily jumped at the lucrative offer. Things were different now. Were the offer made today, he was not so sure whether he would even consider it. Even the fact that their five years of hard work would come to fruition today was not enough to excite him. He rose from his seat, and paced restlessly around the room. What would he not have given to be someplace else!

He checked his watch. 1:10 a.m. Today was his son’s birthday. No, he corrected himself, not today, yesterday. Just an hour back his son had completed six years. How did he look now? The last time Arunabha had seen him, his son was just a year old. That was the year Arunabha had become aware of the top-secret research being carried out in Reactor 4. Under the façade of the nuclear power plant, the Soviet scientists were engaged in some really ground-breaking experiment. They were working hard to replicate the Big Bang, that moment in time when the Universe began as a tiny, dense, fireball that exploded; the moment which, many theoretical physicists claimed, took place 13.8 billion years ago. The scientists were feverishly engaged in replicating that exact same environment, all in an ultra-secret environment, hidden behind the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor.

That knowledge had changed everything. Arunabha was a theoretical physicist and his work was restricted to dealing with particle theory. Everyone who was not a member of the core team – there were more than a hundred physicists and mathematicians like Arunabha in that laboratory – operated on a need-to-know basis. Despite this, he was not allowed to leave the country after that, even his passport had been impounded. His letters to and from home were heavily censored and the odd phone call home was also tapped. He cursed the day he fell into this trap. If he would have only realized what he was getting into, goddamn it, he would not have bothered to return.

He came out of the closed, claustrophobic room and walked down a narrow corridor and up a flight of stairs to a small gallery. Fine snow had started to fall. The cold wind cut to the bone. Arunabha lit a cigarette. His mind wandered to the Indian secret service agent who was supposed to visit him today, and provide him with a fake passport and tickets. He knew that if he were caught it would mean certain death at the hands of the KGB, or even worse, life imprisonment in one of their infamous jails; but seriously, what other options did he have? He was sure that that the authorities would never allow him to return to India considering the sensitive nature of the project he was a part of and the information he was privy to. His only escape route lay via Poland, for which he had been trying since the past year or so. But now even that seemed dicey. He was sure that he was being continuously observed; he could feel their gaze on his back whenever he ventured out.

He could see the lights of Pripyat faraway, twinkling in the darkness. The town was where all the employees of the power plant and their families lived. Arunabha had a flat to himself there and even as he was standing there, there should be an Indian agent in his room (hopefully!) who would be leaving behind his passport and tickets to freedom.  Just the thought of his impending flight and that he would get to see his son after more than five years got his all excited. He lit another cigarette to calm his nerves.

His thoughts again went back to the work they were involved in. They had finally reached the final stage of their experiments. It was now a question of patience. Exactly when the two particles of matter would collide and what cosmic matter that would result in was something that everyone was unaware of; but for the last seven days not a single one of them had left the premises. Everyone wanted to be there when the Big Bang occurred. What that would portend for mankind was not then on anyone’s mind.

The sudden muffled explosion shook the ground beneath his feet. He could see the structures around him swaying like crazy. There was a dazzling, blinding light all around. The gallery where Arunabha was perched collapsed to the ground, taking him with it. Almost immediately, there was a deafening explosion and a column of fire that rose straight up towards the sky. Parts of equipment, wooden partitions, and cement blocks were flying around and thudding into the ground all around him. Arunabha had limped back up on his feet, when from nowhere a hot, bullet-like object struck him. The velocity of the object was such that his body was thrown up in the air. Unbearable pain, such as that he had never experienced before, dulled his senses and as he fell to the ground, a dark film fell before his eyes.

 

***

 

Time:  Late evening      

Date: 25th April, 1996

Place: South 24 Parganas, West Bengal, India

Ujaan had managed to fashion a dainty boat out of colocasia leaves and a bamboo stick. All his focus was now on keeping it afloat in the swirling river waters. He had climbed down the dangerously crumbling river bank with the help of the semi-exposed roots of the fig tree growing nearby. A narrow channel had been excavated by the villagers, carrying water from the river to the village and passing through the forest. Villagers, even those engaged in collecting wild honey, or catching fish, would not be caught dead in this place. Other than tigers and crocodiles, the two perennial threats of this region, snakes were aplenty. And even if they were to discount the threats of animals and snakes and reptiles, there was the fear of the unknown. Over time, this place had acquired the reputation of a haunted place, and that was one fear that no amount of logic and education could resolve for the simple people residing in the nearby villages.

Ujaan had a small flat-bottomed boat which he skilfully navigated down the shallow waters of the narrow channel. This channel was navigable only during high tide. Once the waters receded, all that was left was sticky mud. The hungry river flowing end to end had been devouring the banks on either side since…..god knows when! Even now, if one listened carefully, one could hear the land being gently devoured by the insatiable, flowing water. Ujaan could see small eddies formed by the falling soil and disappearing as fast, leaving bubbles in their wake. This lonely, godforsaken place had been Ujaan’s favourite since he had discovered it. Now giving a final shove to his boat and seeing it flounder in the river waters, he clambered up the river bank, hoisting himself up by the tree roots. There was a small ledge made of bricks around the tree, and wiping the river mud off his feet by the simple expedient of vigorously rubbing his feet on the wild grass, he lowered himself on this seat. He could see his makeshift boat, still bobbing about bravely. There was a steamer anchored mid-stream. He could make out two people on the deck and if he was not mistaken, their binoculars seemed to be focused on where he was currently sitting.

He felt a twinge of unease. Human company (or interference) was the last thing that he desired now. He liked this spot precisely because people were too scared to venture here. He knew he was completely alone here, safe from prying and questioning eyes and barbed words. A sudden desire to actually meet one of the many rumoured ghosts populating that part of the forest rose in him. It came over him all of a sudden and along with it, even the question that had been festering within him since the past few years: Who is my father? Do you know what happened to him?

Today was Ujaan’s birthday. People, those close to him, chose to forget this day; rather, not remember it. As if this day had never happened! Was it really possible to un-remember something, Ujaan sometimes wondered. He had noticed his grandmother crying inconsolably in her room since morning and grandpa, sitting with the unread newspaper on his lap, staring with unseeing eyes out the window. His mother had left for work, but she had forgotten her railway pass on the hall table. And Ujaan? He had escaped and had made his way to his lair. Did any one of them actually forget this day, or were they trying to suppress the memories of this day? Ten years back to this day, Ujaan had lost his father. He was only six years old then. Since then, he had witnessed the same scenario unfold every year on this day.

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and let his gaze wander. He could not see his boat any more. All of a sudden, a rustling sound made him sit up, all senses alert. A jet black cobra had slithered into view from a nearby clump of bushes. Ujaan estimated it to be at least a metre and a half in length. As soon as the reptile saw Ujaan, it went into full attack mode. It raised its body off the ground and spread its hood, swaying from side to side. It is rumoured that even the Bengal tigers gave the cobra the right of way – but Ujaan showed no desperation to move away from there. He kept sitting where he was, his gaze fixed on the swaying reptile. This was the first time he was so close to one of these beauties. The fierce, beady eyes held a hypnotic appeal and looking into those eyes, Ujaan could readily believe all those tales of victims being unable to move when affixed by the cobra’s gaze. The snake was within striking distance now. As if to tease the reptile, Ujaan extended the big toe of his right foot and swayed it from side to side. The snake followed the movement, its forked tongue extended rapidly a couple of times and then all of a sudden, as if by powered by some unseen force, it lowered its hood and lowering itself to the ground, slunk away into a nearby bush on the other side.

Ujaan let out a deep sigh – he had been holding his breath for eternity it seemed – and inserting his hand into his right hand trouser pocket, he felt the marble-like ball nesting there. It had once again managed to protect him. He brought the small ball out and again scrutinized it, as he had done innumerable times in the past. It was black in colour, no, he corrected himself, although it appeared to be black, it was unlike any black colour Ujaan had seen before. It was not the colour black, rather, an absence-of-all-colours black. It seemed as if the ball had sucked in all the available light, and hence it was black! Ujaan had noticed that unlike other marbles, the ball in his hand did not shine even when exposed to sunlight. It was as if even the sun’s rays were unable to penetrate the ball.

Ujaan transferred to the ball to this other hand, it was impossible to hold onto it in one hand for long. It was way too cold, probably even colder than ice. Even after a decade, this strange, mysterious ball never ceased to surprise him. He had conducted a few ‘experiments’ of his own on this strange ball. He had placed it in water, and strange enough, the water surrounding the ball had not turned to ice; he had heated it on an open fire, but its temperature had not (apparently) risen one bit; he had taken it to the local iron-smith who had been unable to even make a crack on it, leave alone break it; he had even taken it to Kolkata, where in the confines of the college laboratory, he had immersed the strange ball in the strongest possible acids without any effect. Even magnets had had no impact on the ball. What the hell was it made of? Ujaan tried very hard to recollect whether the mysterious ball was there in the cremation ground before his father’s body was cremated, but it was such a long time ago, and he was so young, that his memory was a blank.

Today, the entire world was aware of what had happened in Chernobyl on that fateful day. An extremely powerful explosion had rocked the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant and had obliterated more than half of Unit 4. As a nuclear explosion it might not have been devastating enough, but what had followed, surely was. Deadly nuclear radiation had leaked out and caused havoc in the erstwhile USSR and other eastern European countries. Tens of millions of people in these regions were estimated to have been affected by the nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster, their lives and livelihoods devastated by the deadly radiation. More than four thousand had succumbed within the first few months itself. But was it only a single explosion at a nuclear power plant? The murmurs still persisted. If it were indeed a single explosion at a single nuclear power plant, why had the project been shrouded in such secrecy? Was there something else, some top-secret work going on there, which the larger world was unaware of? In the absence of any conclusive evidence, the murmurs would only gather more body, making Chernobyl synonymous with man-made catastrophe.

What Ujaan did remember was that his father’s remains had been brought back to Kolkata in a special lead-lined casket. Without the Indian government’s active intervention, even this might not have been possible. The deal was that his father would have to be buried in Kolkata itself inside that casket as per special protocols, but Ujaan’s grandfather had pulled some strings and greased some palms and had managed to bring the casket with the body to their far-flung native village in the Sunderbans. After the cremation, Ujaan had found the strange ball that was now in his possession, among the ashes. If it were not there before the cremation, then it must have come there with his dead father, but again, how? How did it come to be in his father’s possession? Had it somehow penetrated his body and thus evaded all scans and searches and thus entered this country undetected? It was all a mystery. Ujaan’s head swam.

For a decade that the strange ball was with him, Ujaan had realized that it had some peculiar effects on his surroundings. When it was on his person, insects and other animals stayed away from him; just as the cobra had slithered away. This was not a figment of his imagination. He was way more intelligent and smart that others of his age or even older; in fact Ujaan was a certified prodigy. He had cleared his school leaving exams at just twelve years of age and created a sensation in the entire state. Now at the age of sixteen he had given the final examination for his Physics (Honours) papers and was confident of excellent results here too. He was preparing for his GRE and had his sights set on studying quantum physics at a top American university. Before returning to the village, he had mailed Alan Guth at MIT. Professor Guth was an expert in their area of Cosmology and if Ujaan could fulfil his dream of studying and working under him, his dreams would be that much closer to fruition. He was on tenterhooks; would the professor accept such a tender student for a Master’s program? He was keeping his fingers crossed. He had to decode the secret behind the ball and he was prepared to go to any extent in order to do so.

“Hey Ujaan babu! Hey!” His reverie was shattered. With a start he realized that the coarse voice calling him came from the white-bearded figure of Sohel Ali sitting in his fishing boat. Ali dada lived in the same village as his family did and in fact, he was the one who had taught Ujaan to row. The old fisherman steered his small fishing boat near the shore and kept it in place there with the help of a sturdy bamboo stick. Looking up at Ujaan he shouted, “What are you doing there all alone? Looking to be tiger bait?”

“Nothing like that Ali dada. Anyway, I will be returning now, but what have you come this far and that too in your skimpy boat?”

“Return? Have you not noticed that the waters have receded?”

It came as a shock to Ujaan to realize that while he was immersed in his thoughts, the tide had indeed receded. The water level in the channel by which he had come was already dangerously low and if he were to start now, he was sure to be stranded midway.

“Can I come with you Ali dada? I will return tomorrow and collect my boat.”

Clambering down the crumbling river bank, Ujaan noticed the steamer moving in their direction. And gradually picking up speed. Were they crazy? Were they not aware of the hidden sandbanks? They were sure to hit one, and if they got stuck in one such sandbank, then heaven help them!

“Sure, but hurry up. I cannot wait here for long; it is too dangerous.” As soon as Ali said this, a huge chunk of the bank crumbled and splashed into the river. Ali’s boat was rocked by the waves and moved away, but the old man again manoeuvred it back near the shore.

Ujaan had caught hold of a thick root of the fig tree and was swinging himself down when he felt a sense of unease. His nerves were on edge, as it was before the snake had made its appearance. He stopped and glanced back at the approaching steamer. The two men were still on the deck, one with a pair of binoculars and the other with…

As soon as he realized what it was, Ujaan let go. He jumped directly onto the wildly heaving boat and before the old fisherman could remonstrate with him, the silence of the evening was broken by two sharp reports. With horror, Ujaan looked upon as two bullets crashed into the exact same place where he was hanging just a couple of seconds ago.

“They are shooting at us, Ali dada,” shouted Ujaan as he lay prone at the bottom of the shallow boat, but the old sailor had already reacted. He pushed the boat off the bank and the small boat moved rapidly in the strong current. A bullet shattered the bamboo pole with which he was steering the boat, another couple struck against the side. The small skiff tilted and it seemed would topple over, but at the last moment it righted itself and arrowed down the river. Ujaan risked a quick glance over the side of the boat and saw the steamer stuck on a sand bank. And standing on the deck, looking at him with the fierce gaze of a predator that has seen its prey escape, the two unknown killers.

 

***

 

The little boat was docked at the small, riverside jetty at Saranpore, swaying gently in the relatively calmer river water there. This was quite opposite to the storm brewing in Ujaan’s mind. His heart was still racing wildly at what he had just gone through. And at the back of his mind was the thought that he had seen those two men before.  It suddenly came to him, and with that recollection, a cold dread enveloped him. A couple of weeks back, a student had been kidnapped right from in front of the college gates. This incident had taken place before a sizeable number of horrified eyes, among which one pair belonged to him. A few days later, the poor boy’s tortured and mutilated body was found at the same place from where he had been kidnapped. That unfortunate boy’s name had also been Ujaan. This had spooked him so much that he had come away to this place, his ancestral village, nestled deep in the bowels of the Sunderbans.

Ujaan could remember one of the kidnappers quite well – close-cropped hair with a square jaw, with a distinctive tattoo of a snake down one side of the throat, and even today he was quite sure, this was one of the persons that he had seen on the steamer deck. The one with the gun. The one who was using him for target practice. There was no doubt in his mind that these people were following him. That he was the target of the kidnapping incident and it was sheer luck that the wrong Ujaan had been picked up. But who the hell were ‘they’? And why were they after him?

By the time he had clambered up the clayey bank onto more solid footing, the sky had turned grey. Ujaan had been steadfastly ignoring the silent (and a few not so silent) query in the old fisherman’s gaze and had come up with an evasive answer that was neither here nor there. He was more worried now about reaching home. It would take him more than an hour to reach his home and he was not quite feeling up to the long and lonely walk home. Did those two know where he lived? They were carrying arms – what if they attacked when he was home? How would they save themselves? If only the threat emanated from animals, the strange ball in his pocket would have saved him, but these were humans. Ujaan had never felt as helpless as he felt then.

All of a sudden it came to his mind that his friend Sanjay lived in Saranpore. More importantly, Sanjay’s father happened to be the Inspector at the local police station. Once upon a time, they had been quite close friends and fierce opponents across the chess board. Sanjay had lost his left leg – amputated below the knee – to an unfortunate childhood accident, but he compensated for that with a keen logical and analytical brain. Ujaan recollected traipsing across the fields and forests from his village to Saranpore to play chess with Sanjay. That’s it! Ujaan thought. He would go approach Sanjay’s father. He was sure that once he explained everything to Uncle, he would take proper steps. There was something fishy going on and despite his prodigious academic achievements, his still young self was unable to comprehend the full implications of all that had been happening since the past few weeks including the latest murder attempt.

Ujaan reached his friend’s house at a run. Sanjay was sitting on the front porch, leaning against a pillar, his crutches lying by his side. “Think of the devil!” exclaimed Sanjay. “Dad had mentioned last week that you were home. What took you so long to come meet me?” Then looking at Ujaan’s face and noticing something wrong he added, “Is everything fine? You look somewhat pale.”

“Where’s uncle, Sanjay?” replied Ujaan. There’s something urgent that I need to discuss with him.

“Dad’s out on official work, but he is scheduled to return tonight. There’s a Kali puja at our place tonight, at midnight to be precise and he has promised to be home before the puja starts. Meantime, is there anything I can do to help?”

Ujaan was in a dilemma. He did not want to put his friend or his family’s life in any danger, but he also felt that today’s happenings were too serious to keep to his self; he needed another brain to pick and discuss the events. Ultimately, self-preservation kicked in and he unburdened himself before his friend. Everything, from the kidnapping in Kolkata to his encounter with his would-be killers, he left out nothing. Sanjay listened, open-mouthed.

“Are you really sure they shot at you?”

“Absolutely! You can go check with Ali dada. He will show you the shattered bamboo stick that he used for steering his boat.”

They sat in silence for a while. ‘Let’s go inside and wait,” Sanjay said. “And you had better call and inform you mom. It is quite late and she must be worrying.”

They both went inside. Ujaan’s grandfather picked up the call. They knew Sanjay and his parent’s quite well and had no objection to Ujaan spending the night there. Ujaan was about to keep the phone down when his grandfather said, “Wait, Ujaan. There are a couple a people here that have come looking for you. Apparently they are from some newspaper and want to interview you.”

Ujaan’s throat went dry. His heart began thumping and the receiver dropped from his numb fingers. Realizing something was wrong, Sanjay picked up the receiver. Making excuses for his friend, he continued the conversation and assured him that Ujaan would be home in an hour’s time and that those two reporters were to be requested to wait.

Ujaan had been frantically gesturing to his friend that two ‘reporters’ were most probably the two killers, but Sanjay appeared not to notice. He kept the receiver and turned to Ujaan. “Do you take me for a fool? I am calling the police station right now and ask them to send a posse to your house and pick up those two men. We need not wait for my dad to return; the in-charge there knows me and he will do the needful.”

Ujaan felt relieved, but before Sanjay could pick up the phone to call the police station, it rang. It was Ujaan’s grandfather to say that the two reporters had left and that he, Ujaan, could spend the night at his friend’s place and return the next day. Ujaan indulged in some small talk with his grandfather and then disconnected the call. “Doesn’t smell right,” said Sanjay after Ujaan had updated him. “I think your grandfather will suspect something if I call up and ask him a few more questions. Rather let me talk to the inspector in-charge.”

“No, no….let’s wait for your dad to return tonight.” Sanjay did not look much convinced, but following some cajoling by his friend, he finally acceded.

26th April. 0340 hours. The puja was done with. It was difficult to believe that till thirty minutes ago, the place had been buzzing with devotees. Now they had all left. Even the priest had departed after packing up. Since protocol dictated that somebody remain with the idol, the two friends had volunteered. They were seated on a raised platform that surrounded the inside courtyard. There were four pillars at the four corners of the courtyard from which a canopy was stretched end-to-end to protect the soon-to-assemble devotees from the night-dew. Halogen lights hung from a couple of pillars were unable to completely disperse the darkness. In fact, the area just beyond the reach of the light beam seemed to be darker still. Fireflies gleamed in the bushes casting an eerie glow and at one end of the platform stood the life-sized statue of the goddess Kali. Ujaan was trying not to look at the idol. Whenever his eyes fell on the image of the goddess, he felt a strange tingling – a preternatural dread, of some impending doom.

Sanjay’s father had not fulfilled his promise. Sanjay, though upset, did not seem to mind so much. “It happens quite often,” he told his friend. “Anyway, if he is not back tomorrow, we will go to the police station and file a diary. You can give a description of those two thugs, right?” As this seemed to be the only plausible course of action, there was nothing the two could do but wait. Wait for dawn to break. Wait for the police station to start functioning.

“Can I have a look at that marble that you keep talking about”, asked Sanjay breaking a silence that had entered their conversation. Ujaan reached for it in his pockets and handed it over.

“This doesn’t look like a marble, does it? Rather it looks like a dark void”, said Sanjay. All of a sudden, with a sharp cry of pain, he dropped the marble. “It’s so bloody hot!”

Hot? Ujaan was indeed surprised. In the last ten years, he could not remember it being anything else other than cold. “What nonsense,” he exclaimed and went across to pick up the ball which had rolled to the center of the courtyard, where a mass of utensils used in the puja were lying in a heap. To his surprise, he found the ball lying there but no sign of the utensils anywhere. And were his eyes playing tricks or did the ball seem slightly larger in size? Sanjay apparently had also noticed this. “As soon as the ball touched those utensils, they disappeared. What the hell is happening?” Ujaan pulled his friend away from the ball. Things were totally beyond his comprehension. His nerves were on edge. His sixth sense told him, there was impending danger; danger of a very high order.

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed shadows across the courtyard. Looking up his startled gaze fell upon two people, the same duo that had attacked him earlier the previous day. Both were armed.

“They’re carrying silenced weapons,” Sanjay whispered in Ujaan’s ear. “If they were to shoot us now, nobody would be able to hear or do anything.”

“Shut up!” threatened the man with the snake tattoo. Ujaan felt the cold fear of dread. But how did they find him here? Were they listening in on their phone calls? Had they harmed his grandparents? How far were they willing to go to find him? Just a few hours back these two thugs had shot at him. With intent to kill. Now in this dead of night, they would not hesitate to shoot again. And this time they would not miss.

The other man approached them. He asked something in an accent so thick that neither friend was able to understand a word of it. He again repeated himself and this time Ujaan caught one word – Cosmos.

“Cosmos? What is that?” asked a surprised Ujaan.

“Cosmos is the World. It is the Universe. A mini-Universe. We know it is with you. It is our property. You better tell us where it is.”

A switchblade, as if by magic had appeared in his hands. Holding the flickering blade against Ujaan’s throat, the man searched his pockets for the elusive Cosmos. He was still unable to fathom what it was exactly the two men were looking for, but one thing he was sure of. Whether they found it or not, their lives were in danger. It did not seem to him that they would be left alive.

Sanjay reached out for his crutch. The tattooed man reached him with two long strides and kicked him viciously. Sanjay clutched his chest and rolled on the floor in pain. The man wielding the knife again spoke. “The object that arrived with your father’s dead body; that ball because of which the snake spared you….where is it?”

Ah! Realization dawned on Ujaan. They had come looking for the marble. All this for that marble? What was so special about it?

“This is your last chance to tell us where the Cosmos is,” growled the man with the tattoo. “I’ll count to three.” He pointed his silenced weapon against Sanjay’s temple.

Ujaan raised one shaking hand and pointed at the center of the courtyard where the ball lay. The small, marble-sized ball had by now become as large as a cricket ball. There was no trace near it of any of the puja paraphernalia that was there even a few minutes ago. The tattooed man reached out to pick up the ball when he began being sucked into the ball. He let out a spine chilling cry of terror which stopped as abruptly as it had started. He had disappeared completely inside the ball!

The pitch dark globe jumped a couple of feet off the ground. It was now the size of a regular soccer ball. The knife-wielding man was looking at the entire spectacle with a stunned look on his face. He had reached out to help his friend and he was thus standing with his hands outstretched, when Ujaan gave him a hard shove in the small of his back. Sanjay too had seen the opportunity and picking up his crutch had tripped him up. Against this twin attack, the knife fell from his hands and he fell headlong on the ball. The same scenario repeated itself. Remnants of his death-scream went reverberating around the empty courtyard.            

The ball had grown much larger now. Ujaan could well feel its attraction and heat. That black void seemed to be pulling everything into it with a merciless and irresistible force. It was a matter of time before it sucked both him and Sanjay into itself, Ujaan felt. He held onto his friend with one hand and with the other, grasped one of the pillars. He felt his friend also clinging onto him. They had both risen off the ground and were horizontal to it. He was holding onto the pillar for dear life. Would the pillar hold up though? Ujaan could feel the pillar swaying. If it broke….even in the midst of the chaos, he noticed that the idol of the goddess, the offerings to her, the canopy on top…everything was disappearing into the dark void that was the Cosmos. The ball was growing larger and larger as if deriving nutrition from everything that was being sucked inside it.

With a crash, the pillar came down. Ujaan’s already tenuous grip on it was broken. His body was being inexorably pulled inside the ball by some cosmic force. Just before he lost consciousness, he felt strong arms grasping him and pulling them both to safety.

 

***

 

Time:  sometime in the morning            

Date: 25th April, 2006

Place: CERN, Geneva, Switzerland

A chorus of voices wishing him a very happy birthday greeted the Dr Mukherjee as he entered the room. Mixed among the birthday wishes were quite a few congratulatory wishes too; the reason for the latter being the fact that late the previous evening, his research proposal had been finally approved by the authorities at CERN. The European Organization for Nuclear Research or CERN as it was more popularly known was a leading player in the field of sub-atomic particle research, and getting approval for a project here was grounds for celebration definitely.

He had been working there for the better part of the last two years and today was indeed a culmination of all his hard work over the duration. The past few years had seen him publish multiple research papers on the various sub-atomic particles of the proton, the smallest particle of matter. His papers had led to answers to the fundamental questions surrounding the origin of the universe. Scientists the world over had been compelled to acknowledge the fact that his way of thinking was indeed unique and today, he was seen as one who had radicalized thinking and research in this field.

Dr Mukherjee accepted the congratulatory messages and a few bouquets with a gracious smile, entered his laboratory and closed the door. He made it a point to display the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign over the door. He wanted some time for himself. He knew very soon there would be a deluge of people wanting to meet him; after all, it was not every day that a twenty-six year old young scientist such as Dr Mukherjee stood on the cusp of such breakthrough achievement. But that was for later. Right now he wanted some peace and solitude.

He pressed a small button on the underside of his table. A small section of the wall to his right slid back noiselessly. There was a small room on the other side of the wall, a room made of special glass. The canary hanging from its cage on the other end of the room began flapping around in agitation. He had noticed that animals, birds and reptiles were unable to tolerate any contact with the object inside that small room. In fact even close proximity to that object would make them feel uncomfortable. He had conducted extensive tests on the object and found it emanating waves of a particular frequency that was detectable only by animals, birds and reptiles, but not humans. And there was something about this frequency that was not palatable to non-humans. The special room had been specifically designed to prevent the waves from coming out, but the strange thing was that the canary could still feel them; hence its agitation.

Dr Mukherjee cast a glance over the object in that special enclosure. It was not as black as it was a decade back, but it was back to its original size of a marble. He lay back in his chair and tilted it as far back it would go and cast his mind to the events of that fateful day a decade ago. Thank God for Sanjay’s father; if not for him, who knows where the matter would have reached! He had spread the word that the Goddess Kali had awoken from her slumber and devoured everyone. The simple folk of the village had consumed this version of the happenings. Maybe Sanjay’s father’s khaki uniform had also contributed to their gullibility, but the disappearance of the two strangers had been buried for ever. Later, it had emerged that the two belonged to a Russian Secret Service – one whose existence was denied by everyone. Their papers had been located from a dilapidated house in Ujaan’s village, but were denounced by the Russian government as fake and the work of the capitalist, western media to discredit the good name of Russian people. Ujaan and his family lived in fear (and under police protection) for a few months after this event, but nothing untoward had happened. After a few weeks, Ujaan had received Professor Guth’s acceptance letter and his subsequent arrival at MIT had changed the course of his life for ever.

What had those two killers said, Cosmos? A mini Universe? Whatever…Ujaan had never ever let that marble out of his sight or possession after that day. The strange behaviour he had seen in that ball – increase in size and temperature, the tendency to devour everything near it – had never occurred again. When Ujaan had found it lying in the courtyard the day after the momentous happenings of ten years ago, it had returned to its original state. The only noticeable difference, and only when he looked very closely and minutely, that Ujaan could find was that there was now a very narrow point of light at the core of the ball.

Ujaan still was unsure of what exactly had traversed that night, but he could make an educated guess based on all that he now knew. Scientists had dated the Universe to around 13.7 billion years ago. In the beginning there was nothing, but then energy was created from which came into existence the different sub-atomic particles and later atoms and molecules, of which the two earliest ones were Hydrogen and Helium. Energy was transformed into the twin forces of Gravity and Electromagnetic force. At the moment of its birth, the Universe possessed an extremely high temperature, which began reducing almost immediately and ultimately reached many degrees below the freezing point. This phase was the dark phase. Roughly two hundred million years after the Universe was ‘born’, the first star or galaxy came into existence. Scientists estimate that at time, because of the tremendous increase in the gravitational forces, the various atomic particles came together to form the first star.

Ujaan switched on the ultra-microscope that was hooked up to his computer to display the object being studied on the monitor. He could see the smallest details of the interior of the ball on his computer screen. Ten years ago, he had first detected the faint point of light at its core. Somehow, this mini-cosmos had traversed that first two hundred million years of the Universe’s existence in just a decade. In the next ten years too, the mini-Universe had become more enriched, and by studying the same, Ujaan, Dr Mukherjee, had discovered the secrets to quite a few mysteries of the Universe; answers to many questions that had been perplexing scientists for decades. Since the past two years, in scores of research laboratories spread underground the CERN facility, teams of scientists were engaged in deciphering the mysteries of this ball.

Today, at 0010 hours another decade would be completed. Would something strange happen today also? Would it open some new avenues for scientific research? Maybe, if something ‘strange’ did happen today, it would usher in a new era of human development, wondered Ujaan. Maybe, they would be able to connect with a parallel universe, where the old Dr Arunabha Mukherjee would be working in tandem with a young Dr Ujaan Mukherjee to find solutions to complex problems of Physics. Ujaan placed his eyes over the viewing glass and adjusted the screws to sharpen the image. An otherworldly kaleidoscope appeared before his eye: galaxies, nebulae, clusters, stars, planets, and satellites, swimming across an ocean of darkness…. carrying within them the answers to myriad questions!

Tags: Ankita, Short Story, Subhasish Mitra, Translated from Bengali, সপ্তম বর্ষ দ্বিতীয় সংখ্যা

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