Mirjafar

  • লেখক: Sandipan Chattopadhyaye, Translator: Subhasish Mitra
  • শিল্পী: Avibrata Sarkar

“Damn! How could you let this happen?”

“Sorry, sir, it was my fault, but… but, I did rectify it within seconds.”

“That doesn’t change anything, you son-of-a-bitch! You almost screwed up my entire life’s work there! Lal, you there?”

“Yes, boss.”

“Shoot this bastard right now. I want to hear his scream.”

There came the sound of a gunshot, and almost simultaneously merging into the fading echoes of the crack, came a dying man’s pathetic scream that faded into a gurgle.

“Good riddance. Now I need to handle this.”

2

Ashok had just let out a moan of pleasure as he pressed the girl’s head against his crotch when his bliss was rudely interrupted by the powerful transmitter just beside his ear, alerting him to an incoming call from his boss.

Son-of-a-bitch! What a time to call! Shoving aside the girl with one hand, Ashok began pulling up his trousers while taking the call. He had intentionally left the phone device at home – if the device were with him, his boss would have made a video call, and that would have caught him literally, with his pants down! Even without the phone device, the powerful transmitter and trans-receiver alerted him to incoming calls, which were restricted to voice calls only.

“Yes, boss!”

“Where the hell are you? And why are you without your device?”

“Actually, I forgot it this morning in all the rush… getting Rina ready for school” The lies flowed glibly from his lips. “I was anyway headed for office; anything urgent?”

“Yes, something urgent has come up. Meet me as soon as you are here and hurry up, for fuck’s sake! You’re supposed to keep your tracking device on… I want to know you are on the way and not buggering off somewhere!”

Ashok switched off the call with a huge sigh of relief. He hadn’t realized his tracking device was switched off. What luck! Otherwise, he would have been in for some more choice words from his boss.

Ashok was not very familiar with this part of Sonagachhi, Asia’s largest red-light district. The area was a complete maze with dark and narrow alleys and lanes winding their serpentine ways inside. He was a frequent visitor – but his familiarity was restricted to a few street-facing brothels that populated Sonagachhi. Last night, his regular pimp had alerted him to the arrival of fresh ‘meat’ – local lingo for whore. He had been starved of sex for quite some time, which was why, early in the morning, having readied Rina for school, Ashok had gone there. He had not been to this area before, well inside Sonagachhi. If the pimp had not shown him the way, Ashok was doubtful; he would have found the location. But boy! Was the effort worth it! The girl was indeed something. He had been savouring the wares of Sonagachhi for some time now, but this was the first time he had chanced upon such a specimen. Normally he needed to boost his libido with a couple of drinks; today, that was not required. The moment he had seen her slim waist, accentuated by a dangerously and alluringly low-worn sari, he had had a massive erection. His immediate thought had been to make up some excuse and take leave from the office to spend the whole day with this gorgeous girl… But now that opportunity was gone. Instead, he had to face his boss. Shit!

Running down the rickety stairs leading from the girl’s room on the first floor, Ashok came face-to-face with the pimp who was patently surprised to find him down so early. “Done? So fast?”

“Shut up motherfucker!” growled Ashok, his temper not helped by the smirk on the pimp’s face. “Don’t piss me off. Take me to where I’ve parked my car. I need to report to the office.”

He started his recently acquired voice-operated Volvo convertible. Although these vehicles did not come with steering wheels, Ashok had had one custom-installed in his car. He liked the antique feel, and more importantly, it gave him a safe, manual option to navigate when his work took him to terrains where there was always a risk of losing connectivity. Ashok toggled the mode selector from the battery mode to the solar mode and switched on the GPS.

“Dad, where are you?”

Rina’s voice came over the receiver, affixed over his ear. This was one voice that could instantly transform the animal within him to something fairly resembling a human. The way she called his name helped him maintain his sanity. She was possibly the only reason why Ashok had not yet lost his soul. Her mother had left her, but he couldn’t, although he had to make his regular alimony payments to her.

“Yes, baby, what is it?”

“Ma’am has asked you to meet her; says it is something important.”

“Why? What have you done now?”

“Nothing, I swear”, said Rina, in her childish sing-song voice. “Ananya ma’am asked me to tell you to meet her. Some urgent work.”

Ananya? So that was it! A sardonic smile lit up a corner of Ashok’s lips. If it was Ananya, then definitely she was in need of more money. She had never let Rina know that she was her mother, but she would also not let Rina out of her sight. Everyone at school knew that Rina was the apple of Ananya’s eyes, but nobody was aware of the reason behind it.

“Alright, honey, I will be there. Tell your teacher I will drop in on the way back home in the evening, will you?

“Daddy, please be home early. I feel so lonely without anyone at home. Please!”

“Will try my best, dear; got something urgent to do now. Bye,” said Ashok, ending the call with the button on his steering wheel. Although a safe driver, he did not risk driving and talking on the phone otherwise, what with the heavy traffic in Kolkata. He had reached his office, and after having parked in his designated slot, he took the lift to his office floor.

3

His first port of call – after a brief detour to check and confirm that his boss was busy in a video call – was to Animesh Sen’s cabin. Sen was a veritable storehouse of all office gossip and information. He was the first to enter the office, and often, the last to leave, reaching home after his wife had left for her night shift. The office grapevine had it that relations between Sen and his wife were so bad that even on weekends, he preferred to come to the office to browse the net and play games online – all to avoid her!

Ashok pulled up a chair and deposited himself in front of Sen, who was busy reading a report on his tab. He was surprised, to say the least, as normally, Ashok hardly interacted with him.

“What a surprise, Ashok! What brings you to my table?”

“You tell me, Sen. Why this urgent summons, that too on a Saturday? And he’s in a meeting, I see. What’s cooking?”

Sen looked at Ashok from above his glasses. “Nothing that I have heard of, but there are rumours of some trouble, somewhere.

“Any new resource?” asked Ashok eagerly.

“Looks like that”, said Animesh, “but matters are not as straightforward as in the past. The boss has been on a rampage for the past couple of days. And today to, he has been making a nuisance of himself since early in the morning. It looks like you will have to again handle the mess for him.”

Again? Shit! Ashok was tired of this constant fire-fighting. Ashok was the IT head at Waterhouse but recently opted for fieldwork of his own volition. The truth was that owing to the IT department not having much work, Ashok had seen his career come to a shuddering stop. In order to revive his stagnant career, he had decided to venture into fieldwork. The bitterness with Ananya was another contributory reason. He found it much easier moving around in the field rather than sitting behind his desk, where his idle mind tortured him with the sundry what if’s.

His boss was quite happy to accede to Ashok’s request, and he found himself identifying water resources. Just a few days back, he had identified one such resource – but resolving the attendant paperwork, litigation, resource rights had drained him. He had become an expert at identifying the water resources, but he was yet to master the process of registering them in Waterhouse’s name. A couple of staff members from their legal team had recently resigned, putting the added pressure of their work on his shoulders.

“This won’t do”, thought Ashok, “simply won’t do any more. It is time I found myself another job, another better paying job.”

Coming out of Sen’s cabin, Ashok bumped into his boss. “Hey, hadn’t I asked you to meet me the moment you were in office?” he growled.

“You were in a meeting, didn’t want to disturb you”, mumbled Ashok.

“Well, come in now. There’s something important I need to discuss with you. And switch on the sound-proof mode on your way in.”

Now Ashok was intrigued. His boss had never discussed anything with him in the sound-proof mode. It had to be something quite serious.

“Ashok, I’ll come straight to the point. What is our progress in the Dhumri case?”

“Almost nearing the end, boss”, replied Ashok. “We have screwed Sin-City totally. They had claimed that they had discovered that particular resource, but we removed W and T from the face of the earth. Of course, we had to spend some money to show that it was an accident, but it was a neat job. The police did not suspect any wrongdoing. Now they have no witnesses. The match is almost in our pockets”, gloated Ashok.

“Till now, how many resources have you discovered?”

“Almost ten; well, if you include the ‘finds’ that I managed to poach off our competitors, it could be even more, possibly around twenty-five!”

“Well, I’ve got an assignment for you, a good one. You should be able to complete it in a day or two. Listen carefully; it is an IT-related problem, which is why you are the only person who can handle it.”

“Boss, I am always ready for any assignment, but if you could consider my name for this year’s promotion, then—”

“I will look into it”, interrupted his boss. “It needs just one e-mail from my side, and you would be our next Vice President. First, let’s complete this assignment. Here, check this out.”

The lights dimmed, and the tabletop transformed into a luminous screen, on which appeared a satellite map. Using his fingers expertly and navigating across the map, his boss focused on a particular area. “This place”, he said, “is a remote village around 600 kilometres from Kolkata. Although in today’s age there is nothing called a village anymore, this place, Karutirth, is something of an anachronism. You go there, and you will feel that you have stepped back in time. No one lives there anymore; it seems the villagers abandoned this place long back. Recently, our satellite drones have reported some anomalies in this place.”

“What kind of anomaly?”

“The readings from this place change to Type 5.6 from Type 3 before again reverting to Type 3.”

Ashok’s interest was now piqued. “Type 5.6… Type 3… but there is a significant difference between the two. And Type 3 doesn’t contain water. And…”

“Shut up, asshole! Listen to what I am saying,” snapped his boss. “This place was Type 3 for ages. We know from experience that it is a waste of time exploring these Type 3’s, so we ignored Karutirth also, but a few days back, HQ alerted me of this anomaly. If there is significant moisture inside the soil, more than the average, its grade might improve. I said ‘might’. I checked the weather reports. A few days back, there were scattered showers in that general area, and that is what has strengthened my assumption.”

Ashok waited for a couple of seconds to gauge whether his boss wanted to speak more. When there was a silence from that end, too, he decided it was safe to voice his opinion. “Then there should not be any problem, right? Maybe it was the rainfall that caused the reading to jump from Type 3 to Type 5.6, but have we checked the previous records?”

There was an ominous silence before his boos replied in the affirmative. “That cursed place, a long time ago, maybe 300 years or more, was a Type 5.5. Today it might be a Type 3, but the place’s history does not allow me to reject the other possibility!”

“But there is still another point of doubt. Could light showers cause an upgrade from Type 3 to Type 5 plus? And that too for a few seconds only? Have we checked for any technical glitches?”

“That is why I have called you Ashok. The drone that had identified this anomaly has stopped sending out signals. We have lost all contact with it. In fact, it has gone off the radar since the time it sent out that anomaly in the reading. You have to go there immediately.”

Ashok’s heart gave a lurch. Each of these drones cost a few hundreds of crores in American dollars. “What is HO’s take on this?” he asked.

“That’s why I sent for you, Ashok. This incident came to light last night. You need to leave for the site right now. See what you can salvage. I would have gone myself, but Watts, our Chairman, is scheduled to drop in today, presumably to discuss this issue. There’s no way I can leave this place now. I suggest you start immediately.”

“Has anybody else located the anomaly? I did update you of the fact that drones belonging to Sin-City and WaterNear have been seen in those areas recently”, said Ashok.

“Cannot confirm for sure. Someone might have seen that anomaly, again maybe not. We are expecting an attack in that general vicinity imminently. If possible, conduct a recce there and tap some potential resources. Inform me immediately you find something. But your priority is to track down the drone. The moment you locate it, dismantle it and bring it here. Can you fit it inside your car? The firm’s car would not be available at this moment.”

“I think so. It is not a big drone; it should not take up much space once it is dismantled. What if I can’t locate it?”

“You will inform me over the secure line in either case and please ensure complete secrecy in this mission. I hope I can depend on you?”

Ashok nodded. “What is the extent of this Type 3 grade?” he asked.

“Satellite Vision indicates a few hundred square kilometres.”

“What about the extent of the 5 pointers?”

“Only a few acres”, replied his boss.

“That’s it?” asked Ashok, “only a few acres? Even if we do find something there, it will not generate more than a few crore dollars!”

“So what? You do what you are being told to do,” snapped his boss. “I am running this business, asshole, not you. Let me take that call. Another thing; don’t waste time conducting surveys of the land; just search for the drone. I want you back in the office by the day after tomorrow, with the complete report. Do you understand? No video calling; I need your physical presence here, in this very room. And for heaven’s sake, keep your cellular device handy and charged!”

“Right, boss”, mumbled Ashok, backing out of the cabin. He felt a strange thrill in this assignment. It had been quite a while since he had engaged in active fieldwork. The last few months were spent shuttling between the office and the courts. His last assignment in Dhumri was somewhat like a poaching expedition. He had last identified a resource on his own almost a year back. This feeling of elation at starting on this new project proved to him that his hunger was still intact. But there were some points of concern that needed clarification before he started out. He decided to drop into Sen’s cabin once again.

4

“I smell something fishy in this whole business”, said Ashok, taking a drag on his favourite brand of cigarette. He and Sen were seated across the table in the smoking area of the office. Sen took a loud sip from his cup of tea and enquired, “Fishy? What gives you that impression?”

“This entire ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ business; what was Type 3 becomes Type 5, and in the blink of an eye again becomes Type 3. How is it even possible? There is something more than meets the eye, Sen. You have any explanation for such irrational behaviour?”

Sen lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Have you seen the video?”

“Not yet. I plan to see it later after I return. It’s there on the server, right?”

“I suggest, no I insist, you watch it before you leave.”

“Have you seen it?” asked Ashok.

“Yes. I was summoned first thing in the morning to give my opinion on the whole business. It’s a mystery how a Type 3 grade site stayed hidden and undetected inside a Type 1 grade zone. And how the heat map images from the drone suddenly turned green and then orange, as if somebody had turned on a switch, and then just as suddenly turned it off!

“So are you saying it wasn’t a technical glitch?”

“I did not feel it was so, but you would understand better. My instinct says there is something shady about that place. Go prepared.”

“But then where did the drone disappear to?” Ashok was still trying to puzzle out the mystery.

“Something must have conked off. I am sure you will find it lying there, somewhere.”

Leaving Sen, Ashok began preparing for his assignment. He checked the survey equipment he always carried with him and packed some additional stuff that he felt he might require later. He was careful to check that his ultrasound Glock was there in the hidden compartment of the car dashboard. The heft of the gun felt very reassuring.

He checked the GPS. He would have to pass through Sovabazar. The morning’s unfulfilled sexual desire suddenly made him dizzy. He decided to visit the young prostitute before leaving. He could always leave by evening. It would not take him more than 5 hours to cover the almost 600 kilometres distance.

Locating his pimp and reaching his destination took some time. The young girl smiled a knowing smile at Ashok, almost as if she was expecting him. Ashok was now almost crazy with animal lust and pounced on her, tearing her clothes away.

5

A satiated Ashok lay on the bed, blowing rings of smoke towards the ceiling. His mind was now off sex, focused on the business at hand. The disappearance of a satellite drone was major news indeed.

“A penny for your thoughts,” the young maiden lying beside him chimed in. Ashok turned to face her. She lay on her side, looking at him with wide-open eyes, a hint of naughtiness playing in them. She seemed even more beautiful in repose. No one could guess from looking at her that she was in this profession. Ashok detected a glimmer of intelligence in her eyes and general demeanour.

Ashok did not reply but began putting on his clothes. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Roma,” replied the girl with a slight smile.

Tucking his shirt in, Ashok probed further. “Where are you from, Roma?”

“Dhupguri”

Where he could hear this name recently, wondered Ashok. His memory was playing tricks on him again. He left a thick wad of currency on the bedside table before leaving the room. As soon as he started the car and switched on the GPS, his heart gave a jolt. Surely, it could not be a coincidence! He rushed up the stairs and knocked on Roma’s door once again.

It was late evening when Ashok reached Ananya’s modest apartment. Rina, as usual, was with Ananya after the completion of her school. She jumped into his arms. Today, Ashok could not let go of his daughter after the first hug. He clung to her. He was developing the notion that he might not return from this latest expedition of his. There was an unusual trepidation in his mind, most of it concerning Rina. How would the little girl survive in her father’s absence? Could she ever fit into the new family, where her mother seemed comfortable enough?

“You look peculiar,” Ananya’s voice intruded upon his thought, “anything the matter?”

“No,” replied Ashok with as much conviction as he could muster. Setting Rina down, he led his former wife to the adjoining room. Her current husband was in the police and was on the road most of the time, which meant that Ananya could easily schedule her meetings with Ashok. “I’m leaving on an assignment immediately. Something serious has come up. I don’t know when I will be back. Rina will be staying with you for that duration. I hope you don’t mind?”

“I hope you’re on the level with me,” said Ananya, genuine concern now in her voice.

“Oh yes, everything’s hunky-dory,” said Ashok, feigning a lightness of spirit he did not really feel. “Say, I hope Timir won’t mind having Rina around, would he?”

“You don’t worry about Timir. I am sure he would not even notice her. I will handle him alright! You stay safe and return as soon as is possible.”

Leaving Ananya’s apartment, Ashok stopped at a convenience store and picked up a few packets of ready-to-eat food along with a few tetra-packs of fruit juice and a couple of six-packs of beer. Producing his Waterhouse ID card, he also bought a few bottles of drinking water at a hefty discount. Packing everything in a box and putting that on the back seat, he made his GPS-aided way to Sonagachhi.

6

It was almost eight in the night when Ashok was finally on his way with Roma at his side. He was at the wheel. Myriad questions flooded his mind. His GPS had shown that the last hamlet before Karutirth was Dhupguri, the hamlet that Roma said she was from. That was what had made him take her along on this expedition. A local person was always useful, and if the person was as beautiful as this… Of course, he had had to pay a princely sum to both the pimp and Roma, but to Ashok, it was justified. He absolutely lost all control when faced with the twin temptations of wine and wench.

The city of Kolkata, gleaming and glittering in the night, flashed past as he picked up speed. Highrise houses, the headquarters of multinational corporations and covered in fluorescent light, towered over them on either side. Kolkata was now an artificial city, and the entire city was now enclosed in a bubble of artificial atmosphere. The memories of sticky, enervating summers were of the past, and centralized air conditioning took care of that. Although, over the past century, global temperatures had steadily risen, citizens of Kolkata were largely unaffected, protected as they were in their cocoon. But there was another problem that had manifested itself on an even more serious level – the scarcity of water.

It was in the books that water scarcity as a problem had first reared its head almost three centuries ago. Although three-fourths of the earth was water, yet the potable portion was less than two per cent and was restricted to the aquifers. Rivers and glaciers also could not alleviate the problem of water scarcity. Anyway, they had their own limitations. The distribution of water resources was so uneven that every year, whereas some regions reeled under drought conditions, some others experienced flood-like situations.

Like other places, certain regions in India, too, were more severely affected by water scarcity. Rain-fed rivers of southern India had long since dried away. Cauvery, Narmada Godavari – these were names to be found only in books – had become six- and eight-lane highways ferrying giant trucks from one place to another. The inhabitants of these regions had relocated to the north and the east and created a separate identity for themselves.

The more man gained mastery over technology, the less he became concerned with the environment. A few centuries ago, when black smoke from factory chimneys or the innumerable vehicles on the teeming roads released poisonous carbon monoxide and sulfur particles in the atmosphere, it was easier to detect this lack of concern; these activities directly impacted the environment. In later years, the quantum of pollution escalated, but sadly, humans either did not recognize the seriousness of the causes or maybe even were not allowed to recognize them! Digital waste, chlorofluorocarbon from cheap air-conditioning units, the growing demand for water by major industries, use of groundwater for irrigation purposes, not focusing on rainwater harvesting and the rampant wastage of water – all led to the present water crisis.

Truth be told, drinking water was one of the costliest products on the market today. After reserves of oil ran out, people did manage to harness solar energy or special cells to fuel cars, trains, buses or aeroplanes, but was there really an alternative to water? It started with the rationing of water which escalated to the world powers flexing their muscles for control over water resources. Nuclear deterrence or the threat of arms became a thing of the past – man had realized the pyrrhic nature of wars; rather, it was now more the style to break another’s spine using economic resources.

India was blessed with an abundance of water resources – especially the eastern and northern regions – blessed as they were by the presence of large snow-fed rivers such as the Ganga and her tributaries along with sundry mountain rivers as well as huge, underground reservoirs of water in the eastern region. These had ensured that the water needs of a large majority of the Indian population could be satisfactorily met. They might not be as bountiful as the Ogallala aquifer of Nebraska but were no less important for the volume of water they contained. In some way, China was even worse off. The infamous Hwang-Ho had been reduced to almost a trickle resolving the water problems of the water-deficient northern regions of the country. The same was the case with another of its major rivers Yangzi. The Chinese were now frantically searching for water resources to provide their ever-increasing population with their minimum requirement of water.

The Indian government had set up the Controlled Aquifer Usage for Sustainable Environment or CAUSE in a bid to protect their water resources, and Waterhouse was a direct result of that. It was India’s oldest aquifer identifying and water-rights protection firm. Their field agents were called Water Resource Trackers or WRT in short. When Ashok had joined Waterhouse, he too had done so as a field agent. It was mandatory for every new recruit at Waterhouse to undergo this field training. Then, depending on their proficiencies, they were reassigned to suitable departments or promoted internally. Because of his background in Computer Science, Ashok was tasked with handling the IT department, where he was now, but his grounding as a WRT had ensured that even now, he could look at the land surface and predict with a high degree of accuracy whether there was any water below the surface or not.

In the past few years, a few MNCs had come up which had encroached on the monopoly of Waterhouse. Surprisingly, these MNCs – Sin-City, Aqui-near to name just two – had utilized government patronage to expand their reach. There were a couple of Chinese firms also. Rumours were rife that most of these so-called MNCs were nothing but gangs of thugs who had been hungrily eyeing the Indian water resources for long and would go to any lengths to bring them under their control.

Ashok did not much understand the politics behind water, but on this, he was quite aware; in this fight for control over water resources, India was now surrounded from all sides. Many of these world powers had entered into trade agreements with India, almost fallen over themselves to get these agreements over the line. They had relocated many of their prominent industries to India, mainly in the Eastern region. It was one such power that was behind the Atmospheric Controller that today covered the city of Kolkata under its layer of an artificial environment. The project had had a huge budget, which one such power had provided, and today the government was indebted to the foreign power.

Ashok had by now crossed the limits of the climate-controlled, artificial Kolkata, and his Volvo had now picked up speed on the six-lane highway. There were industrial complexes – both large and small – on either side of the highway. He took a quick sip from his water bottle; mentally, he put in a reminder to ration his water consumption as far as possible. Beer and fruit juice would have to suffice unless absolutely necessary.

He stopped at a charging station and charged both the main as well as the spare battery. Waking up the sleeping Roma, they both had a quick dinner from the rations Ashok had brought. This would possibly be their last stop before sunrise the next day. This was a particularly crime-infested area; in fact, the law-and-order situation worsened to a marked extent as one left the city limits of Kolkata. The people who lived in the surrounding areas found ready employment in the city and the sundry industrial complexes. They could go to any extent for water – they received five litres of water daily per person with which they were expected to fulfil all their requirements. It was, therefore, better to assume all precautions when crossing this section.

7

Roma had dozed off again. She had reclined her seat all the way back, draped a blanket over herself and was blissfully asleep. Ashok called out to her softly. She responded with an indistinct mumble.

“Needed to talk to you.”

She turned her body to face him. “What is it?”

“Who are you exactly? Somehow you do not look or behave like a typical sex worker. How the hell did you reach Kolkata all the way from Dhupguri?”

“You men can feel horny, can’t we?” retorted Roma, with a merry laugh.

Ashok flushed. He was not expecting such a forthright answer from the girl. Roma reverted to a serious tone. “No, Ashok, it is not that. Dhupguri is not fit for living anymore. The underground water resource is completely depleted. Now when we drill for water, we get arsenic-tainted water. People have died after consuming that water, and many more have been diagnosed with cancer. The water from the Ganga does not reach Dhupguri; otherwise, that could have partially mitigated our plight. I have a father and brother back at home, and it was with the desire to do something for them that I came to Kolkata almost a month ago. Here I realized that it would be impossible to survive even a week without a steady source of income. The police would continually harass me – checking my ID, matching the same with their records, asking uncomfortable questions. So you see, it was almost out of necessity that I started this… this work.”

Ashok was aware that prostitution was a completely legalized and well-paid, salaried profession, and he was sure that if not for Roma’s striking beauty, she would not have landed this job. In fact, she would not have lasted beyond a week. Border guards would feed every new entrant to the city a capsule, which in fact was a bio GPS tracker. It would remain inactive for a week. If, within a week, the new entrant’s employer did not feed him another capsule to neutralize and deactivate the first capsule (and send a message to the authorities), the police would be knocking on his doors. After tracking the person with the help of the original bio GPS tracker, the police would haul his ass out of the city limits. Kolkata had stopped welcoming or entertaining vagrants or migrants or the unemployed in its arms – unless they happened to be politically well-connected.

The car was now purring along a huge wall. Ashok knew that on the other side of the wall was the river Ganga. It was no more accessible or visible to the people who once considered the river as a Goddess. The river waters were today meant only for industrial use and to keep alive these people. Huge water purification plants were engaged day and night in purifying the waters of the river to render it fit for consumption, but for how long was anybody’s guess. Hence, this race, this competition to locate and control the aquifers. After all, it was a matter of life or death!

Roma had again dozed off. She was not a big one for conversations, Ashok realized. He was also feeling sleepy and decided to take a quick nap. He set the GPS for Dhupguri, activated the auto-mode, reclined his seat and settled down for the night. He used the remote to transform the car roof to transparent mode. The night sky was a welcome sight. It had been a long time since he had seen the star-spangled night sky. It was a pipe dream for the people living in Kolkata – covered as the sky was with the atmospheric controller. Besides, smoke and dust from the neighbouring industrial clusters rendered a clear view of the sky nigh impossible. Gazing at the night sky, Ashok drifted off into a deep sleep.

8

The first warm rays of the rising sun filtering through the transparent car roof woke Ashok up. The first thing he did was to check the car battery indicator. He realized that the air conditioner running for the entire night had caused even the powerful car battery to get depleted. Reaching out, he switched off the AC. Roma was still asleep. Boy, she was a heavy sleeper! Stopping the car, he came out with the compressed air pressure device. This was what normal people like him used to clean up. Water, as a cleansing agent, was unthinkable. The super-rich might use the water stored in tanks to wash up, but for the plebs, this was the only option.

The heat struck him like a sledgehammer. Habituated as he was to the temperature-controlled environment of Kolkata, he found it difficult to adjust to the natural temperature anymore. He turned his head slowly to survey the flat, empty landscape and saw a few isolated houses scattered here and there. Acute water scarcity and deforestation had led to this dystopian landscape. It was disturbing that people still inhabited these lands!

He drew in a deep breath. It was a welcome experience, breathing in fresh, natural air. He checked his watch; he was running late. He needed to move on towards Karutirth immediately, without any further delay. But before that, he needed a cup of strong milk-tea. That would wake him up. He turned to the car and found Roma up and about.

“Good morning Roma.”

“Good morning”, she yawned.

“Go clean up. Use the air pressure device. I am preparing tea. I hope you like milk-tea?”

Roma nodded her assent and began cleaning her face.

“We are in Dhupguri now, Roma.

She stared for some time out in the distance. “It’s quite a way in the interiors, in a place called Badamtala.”

“Don’t you feel like going home….visiting your father and brother?” Ashok actually did not want anyone to accompany or distract him when he was on the job.

“Home? I would love that,” said Roma perking up immediately. “Follow that road some way, and you’ll reach my home. You can drop me off there. By the way, where are you going?”

Ashok smiled and said, “Darbhanga. My uncle stays there. I haven’t seen him in ages. I am looking forward to a nice long drive. But be ready. I will come to pick you up tonight.”

“OK. I will be ready”, said Roma.

The car moved onward from Dhupguri at a more leisurely pace now. The desolation seemed more acute the more they progressed. Bald, stony mountains reared their heads on either side, thorny scrubs dotting their barren slopes. They crossed a sort-of marketplace comprising a few provision stores and a huge water tank. Ashok recognized the tank. These tanks were serviced by deep-under-the-ground pipelines. Rumour had it that there was a layer of electricity flowing over the many metallic layers of these underground pipes – all to prevent any water thieves from tapping into these precious resources.

The road was now getting progressively worse. Cracked earth and stones made the Volvo lurch alarmingly every few meters. Ashok had ditched the auto-mode and was again at the wheel. They were approaching a bend in the road when Roma exclaimed excitedly, “There’s Dad!”

Ashok noticed a middle-aged man waving at them. “I had called ahead to inform him that we would be arriving today; so nice of him to wait for us.” Roma was clearly excited.

Ashok could not share her enthusiasm. He had planned on keeping this mission a secret, as far as possible, but now this old man would see him. God only knew how many people he would pass on this news to!

“Have you told him anything about….me?” Ashok asked tentatively.

“Not much; only that my boss would be dropping me off,” said Roma with a knowing smile.

Ashok smiled inwardly. The girl had brains. He stopped his car beside the man, excitedly waving his hands. He looked to be in his mid-forties, and although his clothes were not exactly clean, there was a hint of past glory in his bearing. His skin was deeply tanned and cheeks bristling with a couple of days of growth, but his eyes were bright with innate intelligence. Somehow, just like he had felt with Roma, Ashok did not feel that her father also belonged in that rustic setting.

“Thanks for taking the trouble to drop off my daughter”, said the man in a booming voice.

“No trouble at all,” said Ashok. “I was anyway passing this way.”

“Where are you headed to?”

“Darbhanga,” replied Ashok cautiously. “I love driving, and whenever I get the chance on weekends, I take off.”

Ashok decided to probe a little more. “Hey, you live around here. I have heard of a ghost town called Karutirth somewhere nearby. Can you point out the way to that place? I would love to visit that place… It is not every day that you come across such places!”

Roma’s father dropped his voice to a more solemn pitch. “Don’t,” he said, “no one lives there anymore. A century back, a pandemic finished off the entire population; since then, nobody has set foot in that godforsaken place. As it is, people are moving out of this entire area, and when it comes to a place like Karutirth, rumours compound the matter even more. People claim that spirits of the departed roam the place at night, mysterious sounds have been heard from the depths of the earth. Who knows what is true and what is a rumour? But if at all you want to go, follow this road straight for another ten kilometres or so till you reach a bald mountain. Take a right from there, and you will enter the limits of Karutirth.”

Ashok’s interest was now well and truly piqued. Spirits? Mysterious sounds? It definitely needed looking into! But when he spoke, it was in a matter-of-fact voice. “If you say so. Well, in that case, I will just have a look at the place from afar and move on. I have to return tonight. Will pick up Roma on my way back; have an important meeting tomorrow.”

While accelerating away in a puff of dust, he glanced into his rearview mirror and saw the father-daughter duo staring at the fast-disappearing car. Then they turned around and were soon lost from view.

9

It was around ten when he reached the limits of Karutirth. The sun was a ball of fire, blazing away in all its glory. A narrow path made its winding way along the barren mountainside. The surrounding land was all cracked up. He had to enter the village. His instinct told him that what he was searching for was not be found here; he would need to look elsewhere.

Following the track along the mountainside for half an hour or so brought Ashok to a place where the ground was not as cracked as what he had seen before. Disembarking from the car, the first thing that struck him was the eerie silence. The usual sounds, birds and insects, were also notable by their absence. Far away, on the branches of a dead tree, he noticed a few vultures. He dropped down on one knee to inspect the soil. Strange! It lacked the features of the typical clayey or laterite soil that was more common in that region. It even lacked the usual coarseness of the sandy soil. For the first time, he was perplexed.

Ashok glanced at his magnetometer, and his heart gave a leap. The needle was stuck at the extreme limits of the device. The presence of aquifers went hand-in-hand with a mild magnetic and electrical presence, this he knew, but that would not even begin to explain the activity being indicated by his magnetometer. Such behaviour could only be justified by the presence of an extremely large magnetic field caused by a strong flow of electricity. But even that solution posed a different set of questions. Electricity in these parts was generated from the latest generation of solar panels. He was sure that there was no electricity carrying wires anywhere near. Even the layer of electricity around the pipelines deep under the ground would not be able to create this strong magnetic field. That implied the presence of a strong source of electricity somewhere. But where was it? And more importantly, why were the drones unable to detect this magnetic field?

Ashok extricated the soil analyzer from his satchel. Three minutes after he started an analysis of the soil sample, the machine reported that it was unable to identify the same. It was unprecedented. It was as if he was on an alien planet – the soil was unidentifiable, the magnetometer was behaving as if it had a mind of its own – something was seriously wrong with this place. His boss had to be updated about this development.

While sending a voice command over the microchip affixed behind his ear, Ashok realized that the chip was dead. Jammers! There had to be signal jammers somewhere nearby. That was the only explanation as to why the drones were unable to communicate with this place. But then, the drones had to send out blank signals, right? Why did they then show a Grade 3?

Ashok was beyond perplexed now. He felt as if he was at the epicentre of a mystery, a mystery that he was quite unable to fathom. To his left was a vertical mountainside, rising to a few hundred feet, devoid of all vegetation, flat, featureless landscape all around, three vultures perched patiently on the branches of a dead tree… He was not much prone to superstitions, but the situation he found himself in did send shivers down his spine. His eyes, behind his anti-glare glasses, looked around helplessly, for something, anything, that would help him resolve the mystery… in vain. He decided that he needed to do something, start from somewhere. Deciding to at least establish the spread of the magnetic field, he started his car in auto-mode and realized that the strong magnetic field had totally screwed up both his GPS and the auto-mode function. Leaving the magnetometer dangling outside the car door from a socket, he randomly began to crisscross the area in his car.

Almost two hours of random driving convinced him that the spread of the magnetic field was a few hundred square kilometres at least. It was now late afternoon, almost three, by Ashok’s watch. The heat was causing his head to throb painfully, but he was determined to finish what he had started. He had never left a mission unfinished, and he didn’t intend to now. He had to find an answer to the mystery on hand. He had to locate the missing drone.

He took out his steel drill with the intention of drilling a small hole in the ground and placing the water sensor. Kneeling on the ground, he located something peculiar in the soil. Taking up a handful, he looked at it carefully. What was that that he thought he saw? Sawdust? Ground bone fragments? A thrill ran down his spine. Was it even possible? He quickly checked the reading on his soil identifier. The reading confirmed what he was thinking – the soil sample did indeed contain a significant amount of cellulose, much more than normal!

‘Artificial soil’, muttered Ashok excitedly to himself. But how did it come to be here? Who the hell would dump synthetic soil on this barren patch of land? Inserting the sensor, Ashok checked the reading, and what he saw astounded him. It displayed a figure of 5.6! Ashok was now going crazy… He took out the sensor from there and began checking the reading at random locations. It was the same everywhere, 5.6. Ashok couldn’t think straight anymore. He had made possibly the biggest discovery of the century. He removed the communicator chip from behind his ear. He needed time to think….

By now, he had almost forgotten about his original mission, to locate the missing drone. The sun was on its way down the horizon, and darkness was creeping in. He was unlocking his car when his sixth sense warned him of impending danger, of someone behind him. As he, in a reflex action, removed his Glock from his holster and started to turn around, something hard struck him behind his ear. The already darkening evening turned dark in an instant, and he slumped to the ground.

10

There was a throbbing behind his eyes when he tried opening his eyes. The dull throbbing only intensified as he opened them fully and found himself tied to a chair. There were two faces staring at him eagerly.

“Ah! Our hero wakes up at last,” muttered one. “I knew I hadn’t tapped him very hard.”

“Shut up. Don’t talk so much. Go inform the boss,” the other scowled at his partner.

It was an ordeal to even turn his head, but Ashok simply had to know where he was. He found himself in a well-decorated room, with shelves full of books on either side. On a large table before him were two laptop computers and a Tab; and a large bottle of water at one end of the table.

“Hello, Ashok. Good to see you finally awake.”

The throbbing behind his eyes had now spread. His seemed on fire now. He sensed something sticky beside his right eye. Probably blood. He was feeling weak, and he realized that he hadn’t eaten in a long time. Except for that cup of tea in the morning, he had had nothing to eat. The exciting discoveries, one after the other, had completely taken his mind off food. But this voice sounded familiar. It rang a bell even in his pain-ravaged brain!

A blurred face leaned towards Ashok. “Not feeling well, are we? Daryl, bring something strong for this gentleman to drink.”

As his eyes focused on the face, recognition dawned, and Ashok yelped in surprise, “Boss? You… What are you doing here?”

“Ah, good to see that you have finally recognized me! Now drink up, my friend. We have plenty of hard work ahead, and time is at a premium.”

A stocky woman entered the room with a bottle in her hand. She held the bottle before Ashok, which had a drinking straw inserted. Ashok finished the drink in a hurry. He was really thirsty. The juice must have had something extra. Just drinking it filled him up with energy.

“I feel really bad welcoming you in this fashion, but believe me, I had no other option. I have something to share with you, after which you will need to do something for me. Only after that, when you complete what you need to complete, will I set you free.”

Ashok was silent. He knew he was at the end of the mystery. But what was his role in it, and why he was the chosen one, that he was quite unable to fathom. He decided to wait it out.

“Ashok, my friend, you have been in this field for almost fifteen years now, right? Having worked with water all these years, you are fully aware of the history of water problems and the environmental adversities too. I’ll not bore you with those, but I would just like to remind you that water problems are not an issue of our generation; they, in fact, have their origin quite a few centuries back when water resources were aplenty, and they used it indiscriminately. There were many seminars and symposia conducted in those days on water; in fact, there even was a global event conducted – World Water Forum – where environmental scientists and experts from various countries used to come and deliver lectures and share ideas on topics such as watershed management, rainwater harvesting, water rights and controlled water use. It was all talk because little or nothing of it materialized on the ground.

“The Chinese had decided to build a pipeline to transport the water from the Hwang Ho in the south to the water-deficient areas of northern China. Sadly, Hwang Ho could not take the pressure, and it dried up. Rising global temperatures caused glaciers to melt, and most of this flowed into the oceans, making the water unfit for drinking. The aquifers in North America ran dry. If not for major litigation in the United Nations concerning water rights, the world powers would have loved to retain control over water resources by themselves. Those residing in the smaller countries would have died of thirst.”

“But, there are people creating potable water from oceans using desalination techniques,” interjected Ashok.

“Yes, but then again, the credit goes to ‘water rights’. Desalination is a costly process. In order to meet that cost, the rich countries have had to spend millions of dollars as a subsidy. Rumours are rife that they might remove their subsidy any day now. And that is why you see this competition to acquire water resources that are there in other countries. The mantra is, ‘control as much of it as you can’.”

Ashok’s mind was now reeling. “I get all that, but why hold me captive? You could have untied me at least.”

“I am so sorry. It totally slipped my mind. Mohanlal, untie Ashok. And, stay in the room. I will need you.”

A burly young man entered the room, untied Ashok, and then went and stood with arms folded across his chest against the door. There was absolutely no expression on his face. Ashok caught a glimpse of his Glock in the man’s hand.

Ashok flexed his arms, clenched and unclenched his fists. He rotated his head slowly, turned his head from side to side….trying to loosen the stiff shoulder muscles. The pain had almost subsided. Removing his kerchief from his pocket, he wiped off some of the caked blood from his forehead. His boss continued.

“This place was already depopulated a century back, courtesy of the pandemic. My father was a visionary environmentalist and scientist. When he started his work on watersheds, aquifers and rainwater harvesting, people didn’t take much note of it. He worked in absolute secrecy, and in the course of his work, he discovered a huge resource of mineral water under the ground, here, in Karutirth. Using that as the source, he proceeded to construct an underground confined artificial aquifer. Unfortunately, he could not complete the work that he had started.

As you might have noticed, this is a low-lying area, ideal for standing water. My father used to collect rainwater and water from other sources and store it here. He revitalized all the aquifers in this region. It was around that time that I completed my studies in Cambridge and joined my father in his endeavour. My father’s biggest challenge was mobilizing funds for his project. A project of this size guzzled money like a hungry pig! CAUSE was set up when my father was still alive. Dad was its first president and was well-connected to the bureaucracy. He requested them to release funds from the CAUSE budget for his personal project. They obliged him, but my father’s need was still unmet. He started embezzling from government grants for Waterhouse.

By then, Waterhouse was in very bad shape. Finally, it was taken over by the American water firm ‘The Aquatic’. This presented a different challenge. Misappropriating funds from local Indian companies was one thing; it would be difficult to do so with a foreign one. I had joined Waterhouse while my dad was alive. After the takeover, looking at my qualifications and experience, they were promoted to Asia Pacific Region Head. It did my job, misappropriating funds for this project, a little bit easier, but I had to work doubly hard to cover my tracks!

Anyway, all that is history. My work is now complete. This place that you see is a self-sustained facility. It may not be as large as the Ogallala aquifer, but I have managed to create an artificial aquifer spread over more than six hundred square kilometres. This aquifer of mine contains millions and millions of cusecs of pure mineral water. I am now the owner of trillions and trillions of dollars.”

“I have a few questions,” said Ashok.

“Go ahead. We have half an hour or so. You need to get ready for the next phase of the work.”

Ashok was still in the dark as to what his boss wanted him to do; nevertheless, he plunged ahead. “What is your real reason behind building this aquifer? Who do you want to sell it to?”

“Sell? Now? Are you crazy, or what? Let the water crisis worsen first!”

“Then you would need to wait for at least a century. The water resources in the northern part of the country, and even the Ganga waters are still abundant. No doubt, this artificial aquifer is a source of great wealth, but it is completely illegal. I hope you realize that. If the government comes to know of it, you will be severely punished.”

“Ashok, you still do not know many things. Not your fault entirely. This aquifer is increasing in size and depth on a daily basis. Our machines are digging under the ground even now as we are talking. The place where we are sitting now is a floating cabin, fifty feet below Karutirth. There is only one exit, an elevator inside a secret chute. We have surveillance cameras on the surface to detect the presence of unknown and unwelcome visitors.

And speaking of the Ganga, how long do you think you can depend on her waters? Hundreds of purifiers are extracting water from it daily. Heavy industries need water; paper manufacturing is a water-intensive process – and they are all using the waters of the river. Have you seen recent aerial pictures of the river? There are huge visible sand-beds at quite a few locations. More than two hundred crore Indians are dependent on her water for survival. Mark my words, another ten years at the max. After that, Ganga will go the same way as Hwang Ho.”

“But we still have other aquifers! If I am not mistaken, around a hundred and twenty-five or so exist as on date.” Ashok could not help but butt in.

“One hundred and seventy, not a hundred and twenty-five. You need to stay updated, my friend. And they are all open aquifers, not confined like this one. Rest assured, even they will not be worth consumption in a few days’ time.” There was a smirk on his face as he said this last sentence.

“Why?” asked Ashok, intrigued now.

“You really want to know why? It is because we have poisoned all those aquifers; we have used a compound of arsenic, and that too in large quantities. You cannot now remove the poison even by reverse osmosis. Do you know why Karutirth has become a ghost town? This place was infested with arsenic. Most of the aquifers in this region contained poisons such as arsenic and chloride. These are what caused the spike in deaths related to cancer. And now only I have the know-how on the procedure to remove this special arsenic compound from water to render it fit for consumption again. When the government decides to use the water from those aquifers, it will realize that the water contains poison. It will require huge investments by the government to make it fit for drinking again, and I will then be there with my technology, my know-how. And trust me, I will not render my services for free! This aquifer will also enable me to earn billions. You see, I have all my bases covered.”

“But where is the water for your aquifer coming from,” asked a baffled Ashok. “There is hardly any rainfall in these parts.”

“Your Ganga is a huge contributor to my aquifer. Our biggest investment lay in connecting the Ganga to our aquifer. We had to exercise utmost caution while doing this. We had to excavate at specific places under the ground to bring the waters of the Ganga here. It took a lot of our money and manpower to complete this work. We compartmentalized the work, spread it out among different groups. Not a single group knew the full scope of their work or what the others were doing. The final connection was made by me. Of course, I had my trusted lieutenants with me all the time.”

“But, you would still need to wait for a decade or so, right?”

“Yes, but I can always sell a couple of small aquifers, ones that I discovered. That will sustain me for the present, and then, of course, I have the income from Waterhouse also coming in.”

“But, why the synthetic soil? Why spread that all over the ground?”

“For food, Ashok, for food. We cannot sustain on water alone, can we? You have seen the soil quality here; nothing could absolutely grow here. Hence we have created this nutrient-rich soil. We are waiting for the right moment to start cultivation out here.”

“And the drone?” asked Ashok.

“That was possibly my only mistake. I had taken special protection measures around this location. I had manipulated the system to display the surrounding areas as Grade 1 and this central area as grade 3. I could have shown the entire zone as Grade 1, but you need to remember that this area was previously a Grade 5 point something area. If it were to suddenly become a Grade 1 area, then eyebrows were bound to be raised. That’s why I chose to show this area as a Grade 3 area. I, too, have a little knowledge of the technology used in drones; I have learnt how to manipulate its sonar to get the desired grade. A few days back, because of a silly error by one of my employees, the magnetic field peaked for a few seconds. Coincidentally, the Waterhouse drone was in the vicinity. The drone lost control because of the high magnetic field and came down to a much lower height, where it detected the real grade of this place. Although we have since destroyed that drone, the damage was done. I did not want to involve you in this matter, but I was helpless, you see.”

“Then why send me down here if you did not want to involve me?” asked Ashok.

“It was important for you to know these facts because you are Waterhouse’s head of IT services, Ashok. Mr Watts asked for you to be sent down here immediately. What I had not anticipated was that you would start testing the soil samples. Anyway, now that you know everything, you need to do a job for me. You have to destroy the footage that is in the Waterhouse server.”

“I cannot possibly do that from here. I cannot access the server from here.”

“That is why I have brought you here, Ashok. You will now go to our office, remove the firewall from our server and send the back-end link to the server to me. I will access the server from here and delete the file. After that, you can again restore the firewall settings.”

“Do you really think it would be as simple as you just now made it out to be?” Ashok asked incredulously. “You know there are CCTV cameras everywhere in the office. The instant I remove the firewall from the server, HO will receive an alert. I would have to justify why it was switched off. They will scan the number of files. I will be caught.”

“Nothing will happen. I will protect your ass. You might lose your job in the worst-case scenario. I will provide for you. You need not worry about your future anymore!”

“No, I can’t involve myself with this…..this illegal activity. And why are you so worried about that small bit of footage. The Chairman has already seen that footage, and he has not yet said anything,” said Ashok, mustering as much outrage and courage as he could.

“He hasn’t yet seen anything Ashok, at least nothing that can implicate me. You know they have a weekly review meeting with those footages every Monday. Today is Sunday, so if that footage is not deleted by tomorrow, then he will arrive with his henchmen for an on-the-ground inspection. So you better start now!”

“Won’t. I refuse to do anything of the sort.” Ashok was adamant.

“Don’t mess with me, Ashok, I warn you. I have with me something that is dear to you.” He pointed at a wall, and a screen materialized there. He activated a video call by voice command to a number in Kolkata. Ashok saw a man sitting in a room, with Rina on his lap.

“Timir?” jumped up in excitement.

“How are you, Rina baby?” continued his boss as if Ashok had not interrupted him. “See who I have with me, your father,” he purred.

Rina was sitting quietly on TImir’s lap. On seeing Ashok on the screen, she ran towards it. “Daddy, where are you? Please come home,” she pleaded. “This man has hurt miss badly. He has hurt me too. Leave me. I want to go to daddy…” And she burst into tears.

Timir let out a guffaw, “Not ‘miss’ baby, but say ‘mommy’.”

Ashok felt a sliver of ice down his spine. He was in deep shit. This racket was much more dangerous than he had initially thought. He would surely lose his job, and he might even face incarceration. Also, there was no guarantee whether these people would let him live once he had done their bidding. But right now, he had no option. He had to go. For Rina.

Mohanlal dragged Ashok out of his chair and covered his head with a black cloth. He was pushed and shoved all the way to a lift. Ashok could hear the clang of an underground door opening and then feel a rush of air on his face. Then he was out of the underground chamber, and the door closed with a thump.

There was a shadowy figure standing near his car. Ashok was in for more surprise, and the figure turned out to be Roma. He removed a bottle of water and took a big gulp from it, then poured a little water on his soiled kerchief and wiped the blood off his face. With Roma at his side, he started the car.

“Drive straight. Don’t stop anywhere,” ordered Roma.

“Surprised Ashok?” the microchip behind his ear was active once again. “You have all right to be surprised. The girl beside you is not a prostitute. Rather, she is one of my best assistants. Her name, fuck it, what’s in a name, you can call her Roma. You will follow every command of hers. I need not remind you of the consequences if you don’t. Now, hurry.”

There was hardly any conversation on the ride back. Equations had changed. It was possibly a full moon night, and the landscape had taken on a ghostly, silvery shine. The day’s happenings seemed like a dream to Ashok. He had yet to come to terms with them. But then this was life, and it pivoted a complete 180 degrees in the blink of an eye.

“Can I ask you a question?” asked Ashok hesitantly.

“What?” Roma asked, looking straight ahead, lips pursed. Her personality had undergone a complete change. Ashok could not correlate the girl from the previous day with this person beside him.

“What were you doing in Sonagachhi?”

Roma gave half a smile. “Sir has interests in many areas; not everything happens here. I needed to stay in Kolkata for long periods, and I realized that Sonagachhi was the safest place to stay hidden. In fact, he himself had suggested that I stay there. And I was not joking when I spoke of carnal desires. It can get bloody painful working alone on assignments. You came as a godsend. When the pimp showed me your photograph, I found you pretty attractive and told him to bring you to me. But, honestly, I did not know at that time that we would require your expertise.”

“Did you know that you would be accompanying me?”

“No, that was totally unexpected. You walked into the trap voluntarily. But we had made provisions for that too. We had professionals to follow you all the way here. But when you invited me to accompany you, well, nothing could be better than that, could it?”

Once again, silence fell inside the vehicle. Ashok had nothing more to ask. There was a sense of relief that it was not only his lust for the female flesh that had brought about this situation. At least he would not be riven by guilt pangs for the rest of his life!

11

It was almost three o’clock when Ashok entered the city limits of Kolkata. He saw no sense in going to the office at that hour. It would raise more questions. Rather, he went straight to his apartment. Roma accompanied him all the way. She was under strict instructions to not let him out of her sights for even a minute.

He took a quick shower to freshen up and changed his dirty clothes. Surreptitiously, without her noticing, he picked up a cell phone from his bedside table. It was one of the old model phones, which he knew could not be tracked. He had used this phone to contact the innumerable women who were his objects of lust. He knew it was safe to use this phone. Using the office phone for such purposes would have busted him for sure. Somehow he felt that today, this phone might come in use.

As soon it was light, Ashok left for his office. Roma was with him. Leaving her in the car, he entered his office. Their office had a strict ‘no outsiders’ rule, and no one was beyond its purview, not even their boss. Having logged in, he proceeded straight to the server room. Only he had access to this room. It was not possible to enter this room without the necessary biometric permissions, and at Waterhouse, only Ashok had that authority in his capacity as the IT head. Making himself comfortable before the main computer, he wrote a small line of code to enter the server and from there the firewall.

On his earpiece, he could hear his boss let out an expletive. “Why the fuck am I getting a message that I need to authorize the access to the server firewall?”

“You know your authorization is needed to access the firewall.”

“Don’t mess with me. I know you know how to skip this authorization,” his boss replied, pure venom dripping from his voice.

Ashok smiled to himself. He had achieved what he had set out for. The SMS would be proof enough. It had the potential to cause enough problems for his boss. He focused his mind on rewriting the code to bypass the firewall, but this time without the required authorization. It was not impossible, just that it took some time, but once it was achieved, he had the complete run of the server. He was free to do whatever he wanted. He sat quietly before the machine, contemplating his next step. He had access to a goldmine – to ravage as he wished to.

“Where’s the server link, you bastard?” His boss’ angry voice broke his chain of thought.

Ashok quickly made a copy of the footage on his old mobile and then sent the access link to his boss. In a matter of seconds, the file was erased from the server, and Ashok restored the firewall. Everything was just as before, except for one missing file.

“I have done as you had asked for; release Rina right now.”

“Have patience, Ashok. I want you back in Karutirth immediately. I will ask my men to drop Rina off at your place.”

“OK”, said Ashok in a resigned voice. “By the way, my phone battery is almost dead; I haven’t charged it since yesterday. I’ll take a few minutes to charge it, and then I will be on my way.”

His boss checked the server; it displayed an ‘access denied’ message. The firewall was engaged as before. “Alright, Ashok, Roma will stay in your apartment. You go in your car. Pick Rina up and come on over. There’s still some work left here.”

“Right boss, will do so,” replied Ashok. He removed the chip and switched off his phone.

It was seven. Ashok knew one person who would be in the office at that hour, and he was correct. He knocked on Subimal’s door.

“Hey, what’s up? You look as if you have seen a ghost! Everything OK?” asked Subimal.

“Bro, I need your help. It’s urgent. Do you have Mr Watt’s number?”

“Watts’ number? Sure I have, but why do you want his number?”

“Will explain later, I promise. But I really do need his number now urgently.”

He entered the conference room armed with Watts’ number. He dialled the number that Subimal had provided.

“Mr Watts?”

“Sorry, dude,” an unknown voice floated out, “Watts is out. This is Robert, the new CEO. Who is this?”

“Good morning, sir. I am Ashok, the IT head, Kolkata HO.”

“Oh yeah, Ashok, I have heard about you. Tell me what you want.”

“I have some valuable news for you, sir,” said Ashok. “The information I have can change the history of mankind, I can assure you.”

“Wait, is your line secure, or do you want me to call you back?”

“No, sir; that would not be required. Just hear me out. But I have a few conditions too, and for the sake of safety, I request you to call me by my other name.”

12

“Fuck that bastard! What the hell is he doing with Watts’ number? He asked for Watts’ number, and you gave it to him?”

“How was I supposed to know? Did you tell me not to? Anyway, he took Watts’ number and right away entered the conference room.”

“His phone was and is still switched off. Did you notice him using any other communication device?”

“That I did not notice. His phone was lying in front of me; he took it while leaving.”

“Shit! Where is he now?”

“He left quite a while back.”

“The hell he left! And you could not inform me before this? Anyway, start deleting the accounts immediately. Start now!”

“Roma, Roma!”

“What happened sir, all good?”

“Get the fuck out of there, now.”

“Leaving right away, sir.”

“And bring that bitch with you. I want both of you here, as soon as possible!”

“Sir!”

“Now what?”

“There are police checkpoints everywhere. I can see one at the next intersection. They are checking every vehicle and its passengers. I think they have my photograph with them.”

“Shit! Ditch that girl somewhere and leave.”

“I don’t think it will be possible to cross the city limits, sir. They will catch me for sure.”

“Then die. Don’t call me again.”

“Sir…all these years I slogged for you, and you leave me to die? Sir…shit! He cut me off! Fuck him, fuck everyone!”

13

Ashok was literally flying over the smooth road. He was already beyond the city limits. He felt much relaxed now. Roma was in police custody; so was Rina, but she was enjoying an ice-cream chatting nineteen to the dozen with a few young police officers. She had come running to Ashok and jumped into his arms the moment she saw him, but Ashok knew that his work was not over yet. The final confrontation was due. He had to go to Karutirth one final time. He had somehow managed to convince Rina and leave her in the safe custody of the police officers. Now he was on the way to Karutirth.

Ananya had called. It seemed Timir had been absconding since the previous day. The police had raided their residence, but Timir had managed to escape before their arrival. Ashok had cut her off midway. He was not interested in her or her sob stories. He had become disillusioned with everything that had happened and now wished to lead life differently, in a better fashion.

Robert, on the other hand, had been ecstatic upon hearing the news. His excitement had been palpable even across the telephone, but Ashok had realized that the man on the other side of the telephone possessed an extremely cold and calculating mind. Robert had assured Ashok that he would ensure his relocation to London. Ashok was surprised that the CEO of a company could change overnight. From his voice, Ashok felt that their new CEO was a young man and a go-getter. He was managing the company affairs from his residence in London.

The final scene was yet to unfold. Ashok did not have any weapon with him; his Glock was still with Mohanlal. Did it matter anymore? The tables had turned. He was now the king, and his erstwhile boss was no better than a mouse. He set the car on auto mode and switched on the GPS.

It was evening when he reached Karutirth. Suddenly from nowhere, a bullet came from somewhere and blew away the driver’s side front tire. Ashok guessed it was a sniper. He jumped out of his car and took cover. He could hear a voice shout, “Don’t shoot. I want that bastard in my office.”

Mohanlal practically threw Ashok down upon the floor of the underground office where he had been a prisoner some twenty-four hours ago. He had dragged Ashok all the way by his wrists, and Ashok could feel them burning with pain. That guy Mohanlal was as strong as an ox!

His boss came over and slapped him hard across his cheek. “How dare you spoil my life’s achievement?” his face had grown crimson with rage, and he was foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog. He was shaking with rage, and Ashok guessed, not very far away from losing total control.

Ashok spat on the floor and just missed his boss’ immaculately polished shoes. “Achievement my foot! You consider poisoning the drinking water sources of the population an achievement, Mr Siraj?”

“Yes, I do so. Do you want to know why? Once these foreigners get control over our water resources, we will be left with nothing. We will again become paupers. It will be a return to slavery for us. Don’t you realize that they have not come here to do business with us but to plunder our resources, asshole?” Siraj shouted.

“And what have you done? Was it not your duty to use your wealth for the benefit of the people of this country? Was it not your duty to use your knowledge to save the people of this land? Instead, you chose to profit from the water! In what way are you better than those foreigners?” Ashok retorted.

“Do you even realize what you are saying? What have you done? They will come and take everything away. If they manage to control the largest aquifers in this country, they will get to control our economy. We will be finished, Ashok!” Siraj collapsed to the ground, defeat written large on his face.

Mohanlal was monetarily distracted by his boss’s reaction, and taking advantage of the situation, Ashok lunged at the man. An uppercut at the point of Mohanlal’s jaw laid him flat on the floor. Ashok picked up the Glock, and as soon as Mohanlal sat up, he fired his gun at him. Mohanlal’s head disappeared in a red mist, and his lifeless body collapsed on the floor.

Siraj raised his head. Anger and hopelessness in equal measure were etched on his face. Tears flowed unabashedly from his eyes. “How could you do this, Ashok? The welfare of your country never once entered your thoughts?”

The smug smile that had a few hours back adorned Siraj’s face was now on Ashok’s lips. “Yes, I could because I am not interested in staying here. I want to build my life on my own terms, Mr Siraj. They would anyway have taken over this place in a few years’ time – you know it; my actions have ensured that it happens immediately.

There’s another thing that you should know. I have another name given by my family. I changed it a long time back and have hardly used it. I am no longer Ashok; from today, I am Mir Jafar.”

There was just enough battery power remaining in the Glock for one last blast directed at Siraj’s head.

A notification alert sounded on Jafar’s mobile. He checked his phone for the incoming SMS.

“Thanks for your help, Mr Jafar. I am en route. We will consider your conditions soon, but for the time being, you are in charge of the entire Kolkata city operations, dude. How does that sound? See you soon. Yours truly, Robert Clive.”

 

The novella was published in Kalpabiswa.

Tags: Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Subhasish Mitra, অনুবাদ, অনুবাদ উপন্যাস, বাংলা থেকে ইংরেজি অনুবাদ, শুভময় মিশ্র, ষষ্ঠ বর্ষ দ্বিতীয় সংখ্যা, সন্দীপন চট্টোপাধ্যায়

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