That man just loved his potatoes. He also liked his rice and pasta. He had an almost unnatural fondness for carbohydrates, which betrayed itself in his rotund frame and the pot belly that protruded from it.
It was Sibram who first came up with the name. It stuck. Now, he was our Carb Uncle. And he didn’t mind it in the least.
Carb Uncle and Bini were originally from Kolkata but had spent most of their adult lives in Minnesota. They were in their early sixties and looking forward, rather expectantly, to their retirement. They had a decent pension pot; their children had flown the nest and they had nothing to tie them down.
We, who during our individual stints in the States had had the pleasure of making their acquaintance before we returned to Kolkata to resume our respective lives, were all gathered together at Carb Uncle’s Gurusaday Dutta Road residence that evening.
It was their Kolkata pad where they spent a couple of weeks each winter during their visit to the metropolis, never forgetting to invite us to an annual dinner; and afterwards regaling us with their fantastic adventures.
We had just finished an excellent meal in which Bini’s mutton curry was the undisputed pièce de résistance. We were all singing its praises in unison. The only dissenting note came from Carb Uncle; “all that meat and no potato”, he was trying his best Louis Armstrong impersonation amidst our tittering and Bini’s menacing glares during her frequent visits from the kitchen to the dining room.
While we were waiting for the pudding, the conversation turned to retirement plans. I think it was Ghanashyam who expressed mild surprise that uncle hadn’t considered an abode in Shantiniketan. We nodded in agreement. “All good Bengalis, when they retire, go and live in Shantiniketan”, Teni chimed in.
“Like all good Americans go to Paris when they die?’ Carb Uncle retorted sharply. “I don’t know what it is with Bengalis and Shantiniketan. Do the English make a beeline for Stratford?” We were all quiet. It was obvious that Shantiniketan had touched a raw nerve.
After a rather long pause, uncle resumed, clearly shaken. And stirred, “Well, if you must know”, he sighed. After another longish pause, he began, “It was our second visit to the city that year, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport, Call-kata’. So infuriating! My blood boils every time I hear it — never mind the time, never mind the outside temperature.
Makes me want to take the flight back to Milwaukee. What’s the point renaming a city if half the world will only end up caricaturing it.
“We were in the city to take possession of our retirement property, a three BHK bungalow at Ruppur, a small village near Shantiniketan. A bit remote, but we were hoping development would catch up sooner rather than later. And by the time we retired and came to live, it would be quite habitable. Also, Kesta, our man Friday, who looked after all our affairs in Calcutta, in our absence, had confirmed that he would come and live with us when the time came.
“Apart from it serving as an oasis of peace in our declining years, far from the madding crowd, Ruppur, as you all very well know”, uncle paused, looked at us sarcastically and continued, “Had that proximity factor to that font of every Bengali’s cultural, literary and philosophic indulgences — Tagore”.
“The units were so innovatively christened. Very tongue in cheek, if done deliberately. Ours, the last bungalow in the complex, was called The Last Resort. Bini was a bit unimpressed at first but I fell for the irony at once. We were both in our mid-fifties. It was, in all likelihood, going to be our last dwelling place together — and we, as you all know, have had quite a few in our lifetime till date. The unit opposite ours was called Hungry Stones and one next to it, rather more aesthetically appropriate, Red Oleander. There was also a Post Master — a community hall with a letter box and a stationary cupboard.
“We took the Shantiniketan Express from Howrah. Kesta was at Bolpur waiting for us. He had already been to The Last Resort to ensure that it was well stocked with the provisions we needed and was fully habitable for the few days we intended to stay. After about an hour our car rolled into the condominium. We dismounted at the main gate and leisurely strolled through the grounds admiring the large landscaped gardens.
‘Early days yet’, Kesta smiled explaining the absence of security guards at the gate. ‘They will be at their post after sunset’. To our pleasant surprise the bungalows were generously spaced out and not jostling against each other as we had feared.
“An elderly couple were ambling about. We approached them and introduced ourselves.
“‘Yes’, I said.
“‘We are ‘Red Oleander’.
“‘Why don’t you come for tea?’ Bini volunteered.”
“We approached The Last Resort. Just opposite across a small patch of manicured lawn we saw another building just like ours. The nameplate read, Red Oleander and below it ‘Sens’.”
“Exactly at five that evening the Sens dropped in for tea. Bini, as usual, got on famously with Mrs Sen.
“‘Bini?’ She repeated, affectionately, patting Bini on the head. ‘I am Bonolata. I grew up in Nator’, she said wistfully. ‘Now it’s another country’.”
“Mr Sen, on the other hand, was rather taciturn. He sat nodding with a faint hint of a smile playing on his tobacco-stained lips as he looked me up and down.
“‘I rather liked Bonlata’, Bini said when we were alone. ‘I think we will get along famously’.
“‘Bonolata Sen? From Nator? Was she serious?’
“‘I know’, Binny laughed out loud.
“Kesta had excelled himself that night. The chicken tasted like game bird
cooked in the Dak Bungalow style. Soon after dinner, tired as we were, we retired for the night and moments later were deep in sleep.
“Our contended slumber was suddenly rattled by the din of a continuous heavy pounding along with an urgent, insistent plea to open the door.
“Fearful and angry, reassuring a panic-stricken Bini —not the easiest thing to do — I reluctantly dragged myself away from bed and descended the stairs. Kesta was already stationed next to the kitchen window, lights off, looking out. By this time, I realised that it wasn’t our door that was being pounded. Through the trees, I saw the back of a wiry, shawl-clad figure, standing in front of The Red Oleander, banging away at the door.
“‘The Sen’s’, I whispered. Kesta nodded.
“Through the din, I could hear a male voice aggressively enquiring if someone was in. More pounding followed. Then the mysterious figure spat, kicked the door and walked away from us muttering. Then he disappeared in the distance.
“Relaxed, we looked at each other. We left the kitchen, moved to the living room and switched on the lights.
“‘Call the security.’
“Kesta shook his head. ‘The intercom isn’t working. They said they will send the engineer first thing tomorrow morning.’
Instinctively I fumbled in my pocket for my phone. I realised I had left it on the bedside table. I climbed up the stairs. I met Bini halfway up hurrying down with the phone. I told her not to worry, “Just an intruder. Perhaps drunk, perhaps mad,’ which worried her even more.
“The sound of scrambling footsteps on the gravelled drive outside interrupted us. “‘Bini’, a voice laced with fear, was calling out in distress.
“‘Banolata’, Bini whispered.
“I nodded at Kesta. I followed him to the door. Kesta held it open. Bonolata and her husband slipped in; fear writ large on their faces.
“‘Second night in a row’, Mr Sen complained.
“The panic rush subsided. We went into the living room. ‘No, we don’t know who’, Mr Sen was bemused. ‘Complete surprise. When it happened first time last night, we thought it was a stray incident. And then again today. What puzzles me is how she knew who I was. Her voice didn’t sound familiar at all.’
“‘How do you know she knew you’, I asked, surprised.
“‘She kept calling out my name, demanding to know if I was home.’
“I was digesting this when Bonolata handed me her mobile. ‘Bolpur Police. Will you please talk to them?’
“I did my best to explain the situation as well as I could. ‘That was sub-inspector Haldar, I said, handing back the mobile. He has some political clashes to sort out before he can come. He told us to stay in, lock up and call him if there’s an emergency. He will text his mobile number.’
“The tension in the room began to subside. We talked of this and that, mostly trivial stuff. Bonlata sang some Rabindrasangeet. Bini joined in. Kesta made us some hot chocolate.
“Mr Sen got up, ‘I don’t think we should impose any more.’ But Bini would have none of it. ‘No, not till the sub-inspector gives the all clear. We have a guest bedroom. Kesta will have it ready in minutes.’ I nodded in agreement. The Sen’s thanked us profusely but they did not want to bother us anymore. They were sure they would be safe. They would call us if they needed help. But there was no changing Bini’s mind. So the Sen’s thanked us again and retired upstairs to the guest bedroom and we to ours.
“I don’t know how long I slept. I woke up with a splitting headache, my forehead throbbing like a fish out of water in its dying gasp. My mouth was dry like blotting paper and it hurt to swallow. Bini was still deep in sleep. The whole house reeked of weed as if the dying embers of a whole season’s cannabis harvest still glowed inside. I rushed to the guest room. The door was ajar. No sign of the Sen’s.
“‘Kesta”, I yelled. No reply. I rushed down. Kesta was sleeping like a child in his room. The living room was a mess—burnt-out ends of smoky reefers and ash everywhere. I switched on the light. A sense of relief surged inside — nothing broken, no vandalism. Just more reefers and a printed note on the bookshelf, ‘With compliments, Bonolata and Abani Sen.’ The De Quincey on the Shelf was missing.
“‘I was furious. I called the police. They sent someone over within a couple of hours. Bini and Kesta were still under the ether. No sub-inspector Haldar that he knew said Constable Dutta snidely as he twitched his nostrils and stared at me suspiciously. ‘Bonolata Sen, did you say’, I could hear the sarcasm bristle in his voice. ‘Abani is not in’, he came back to inform me, ‘Never has been. Satyaki Sen, the owner, lives in Singapore.’ He wished me, in a funny sort of way, good luck and a safe journey back to America.
Carb Uncle paused. Looked at us quizzically, “This morning, I put The Last Resort on the market.”
We all expressed our righteous indignation with gasps of incredulity.
“Unthinkable”, Ghanashyam Das exclaimed.
And that was it for the night.