I was then S.P. in South Dinajpur. One day I went to Balurghat for an official inspection of the local prison. While visiting the under trial prisoners’ cells, I pulled up short in front of a cell. I practically jumped out of my skin seeing the man who sat there - painting.

‘Aren’t you Agnideb ?’

Agnideb looked up, also startled by my voice. ‘Sir? How are you?’ he said, getting to his feet. In his hurry he inadvertently kicked the tins of paint sitting on the floor. A scarlet river started flowing over the ochre hills on the canvas.
I asked ‘Agnideb, why are you here? What is the matter?’

Agnideb used to work under me in Bishnupur. He was a sub-inspector at that time. I had heard that he had been promoted to the rank of Inspector. We had not been in touch for a long time now.

‘Paying for my actions, Sir.’
‘How so?’
‘It is a very long story, Sir. I’ll tell you one day.’
‘No, no, I want to hear it today. Wait;’

I asked the prison supervisor ‘What do you think, Sir? Would it be a problem?’
 ‘No, no, why should it be a problem? Come into my office. We shall hear the story there.’ he said

The tin of red paint had rolled to my feet. I picked it up and gave it to Agnideb.
Agnideb started putting away the canvas and the paint cans.
‘Do you still paint, Sir?’ he asked me.
‘Yes, sometimes.’

The vermillion paint was drying up, darkening, taking up the color of clotted blood. Agnideb leaned the canvas against the far wall – it now looked like a river of blood flowing on a pair of yellow clad luscious breasts. The prison supervisor ordered tea and snacks for us in his office. Agnideb arrived shortly afterwards.

Agnideb started speaking.
‘A few years back the court demanded a reinvestigation of a case. I was assigned to do it. This was not a run of the mill case, Sir. By the way, do you remember Anirban from Bishnupur? The artist?’
‘Anirban who lived in Sankharipara? Didn’t his statue of the Goddess made of corkwood win the first prize once?’

‘Anirban was a wonderful painter. He was a stage decorator too. He met a girl called Manisha during one of the events. You know Sir, Manisha was a very accomplished singer. Her father and grandfather were famous musicians of the Bishnupuri School. Manisha sang all types of songs – classical, Tagore’s songs, folk… She was totally crazy about music. Her elder sister Bidisha was also musical – she played the Sitar really well. But she did not make music her profession. She taught in a college. Manisha stayed with her elder sister – their parents had passed away a few years back. They sold their ancestral house and lived in a flat at a place called Gopeswar Palli. Anirban and Manisha fell madly in love. Inevitably, Manisha became Anirban’s ideal for his paintings. The statues he made resembled Manisha more and more. Anirban introduced her to his parents. The sweet girl soon became a favorite of his parents too.

One afternoon Manisha came to see Anirban in his studio. She was dressed in a red salwar suit that day. Dark luxurious hair cascaded down one shoulder, covering her breasts. On the other shoulder a milk white scarf flowed down like a mountain stream, over the contours of her body, touching the floor. Manisha looked stunning that day. Anirban loved this erotic combination of black, white and red. These three colors came back time and again in his paintings. That day Manisha was the embodiment of Anirban’s artistic ideal. Anirban lost all control and embraced Manisha. Manisha immediately turned to ice. She tried to disengage herself from Anirban’s arms for some time in vain. And then she pushed Anirban with all her force. She pulled herself together swiftly while Anirban was getting to his feet.

‘Sorry Anirban’, she said ‘we have our whole lives in front of us. Why hurry?’

Anirban almost shriveled in shame. But next day onwards Manisha was back to her normal self. The same tinkling laugh, same affectionate messages, same exuberance”…

The first round of tea and snacks were long since consumed. The Supervisor had left the room on some errand. He now came back, his orderly bringing in another round of tea.

Sipping the hot tea I said ‘Please continue, Agnideb’.

Agnideb started again. ‘Yes Sir. A few days after this incident Manisha invited Anirban to her home. In the afternoon. Bidisha was in her college. Anirban was impatient and reached a bit early, at around 11.30 am. He saw that Manisha was cooking for him.’

Agnideb stopped speaking.

‘And then? Why are you stopping, Agnideb?’ I asked impatiently.
Agnideb spoke. It was almost a soliloquy. ‘About two hours later, Anirban walked to the police station alone and declared calmly ‘I have murdered Manisha Bandopadhyay’.
The police went to Manisha’s home with Anirban. Found Manisha on the kitchen floor, dead.
I stopped Agnideb and asked ‘What did the post-mortem report say?’
‘Murder by throttling, Sir. She was asphyxiated. No signs of sexual assault.’
The Supervisor broke the silence. ‘Strange!’ he said.
‘Didn’t the police charge him with murder?’ I asked.
Agnideb said ‘They did, Sir. The police charged him based on circumstantial evidence.’
‘Then why did the court order a reinvestigation?’ I asked, surprised.

‘For a very strange reason, Sir. Although Anirban confessed that he had murdered Manisha, he never talked about why he did it or under what circumstances. He did not say one word in spite of multiple interrogations. So the Magistrate wanted a new investigation, and I was appointed to carry it out.’

Agnideb continued ‘I understood that it was essential to have Anirban’s statement. I met him in the prison. Ordinary stature, a full beard. A totally serene look in his eyes. But Anirban did not speak to me, not a single word. I left disappointed. I returned to the prison a couple of days later. This time I asked the Superintendant’s help and went straight to his cell. Anirban was immersed in his painting. Blood red paint spilled on the milk white canvas, flowing towards a black nothingness. I said ‘Life’s blood in death’s tresses’. Anirban raised his eyes to my face.

And asked in a surprised tone ‘You paint too, Sir?’
I said ‘I do, but not as well as you. Your painting is beautiful.’
Anirban started cleaning the brushes and said ‘I shall reply to all your questions today, Sir. You are an artist. You’ll understand.’

Agnideb stopped. ‘Sir, if you don’t mind, may I make a request?’ he asked me.
‘Yes, of course’ I said.
‘Sir, Anirban is in this prison as well. Why don’t you hear from him what happened on that day?’
I turned to the Supervisor and asked hesitantly ‘Is it possible, Sir?’
‘Why not? I will call him.’ And Anirban was summoned immediately;

Anirban came. Long wavy hair, tranquil eyes. He looked at me for a long time and asked ‘Are you an artist?’
‘Oh, I do draw once in a while. How did you know?’
‘Artists’ eyes are always different. Moist with love.’
‘Sit down, Anirban. I want to hear from you what happened on that day.’
‘But I have told him everything’ Anirban said, pointing to Agnideb.
‘I want to hear it from you, in your own words.’

Maybe there was something in my voice. I don’t know. But Anirban started talking.

‘It was a hot sultry afternoon, the last month of the Bengali year. Manisha had invited me to her home. I was inebriated with happiness. When I reached her house, I heard a lone cuckoo singing somewhere. Manisha opened the door. She was in a red cotton sari, one end draped around her slender waist. She had a small dot painted on her forehead. Her hair was casually tied in a loose chignon. I went and sat on the sofa in their front room. I could see the kitchen clearly from where I sat. Manisha talked to me while cooking. Her elder sister being absent, she chattered on easily. She looked like a little housewife cooking in that kitchen. She said that she was preparing a special dish for me – a pilaf with chicken. She put in sliced onion rings in a wok and removed them once golden. Added ghee to the same wok and put in the chicken pieces. Manisha’s white slender fingers were moving the spatula, almost like a painter’s brush strokes. She poured a cup of water and kept adding different types of spices. The whole place was filled with a wonderful aroma. She tipped half cooked Basmati rice into the pan. After stirring it for some time, she picked up the little bowl of milk soaked saffron. As soon as she poured the mixture on the rice, a bright color spread over the rice, orange as flames. Her fingers were stained orange too. An intoxicating aroma enveloped us.

‘Do you know, Anirban, Saffron is really an aphrodisiac?’ Manisha suddenly said. ‘Cleopatra bathed in saffron to arouse her lovers.’
‘Yes, I know’ I said. My head was spinning.

Manisha was adding more spices – mace, nutmeg, some other spices too. A sharp sweet intoxicating aroma was inviting all my senses ‘come, come’.    Manisha smiled at me – a strange, sensual smile. She sprinkled a handful off almonds on the pilaf. My tongue dry, my voice a whisper, I said ‘Do you know, Manisha, in ancient Greece virgins slept with almonds under their pillows and spent the night drowned in the caresses of their future husbands’. Manisha turned her swan-like neck and smiled sweetly ‘Yes, I know.’ I steeled myself with great effort and continued sitting on the sofa.

Anirban stopped to catch his breath.
‘What happened then?’ I asked impatiently.

Anirban started again. ‘After that, Manisha started adding bright red pomegranate seeds to the dish. Seeds as red and as juicy as her lips. She told me ‘Look, this is pomegranate – the tree planted by Aphrodite herself’. The fire kissed blood red pomegranate seeds seemed to set my blood on fire. The dish was nearly done. Now Manisha took out a strange vial. ‘Look Anirban, my uncle brought me this spice from the Egyptian spice market in Istanbul. It is called ‘Mystery Spice’. Smell it – see how wonderful it smells’. She started sprinkling the silver grains into the vessel. The whole room was enveloped in a strange odor. It started penetrating my entire being, digging like a prehistoric monster. The blood in my veins turned to liquid lava - hot, molten, and destructive. I knew that Manisha did not want me to touch her. But her red sari, the white tiles of her kitchen, her abundant black hair now loose and mussed and that strong erotic aroma started pulling me towards Manisha. I approached her silently and smoothly, like a slithering reptile. The smell in the kitchen was lustier, sharper, and stronger.

I grabbed Manisha. She started to struggle to free herself. Manisha’s body smelt of the spices, combined with her own body odors. It sent waves of excitement and desire through my blood stream. The smell was everywhere – in her fingers, her neck, her throat, her breasts….I drowned myself in that smell, the smell of her body. Passionately, heedlessly, thirstily. Mansiha started screaming; ‘Let go of me’. I tried to silence her, my hand on her mouth. She gradually became silent, totally silent. She crumpled under my hand. I lay her down on the white kitchen floor, like a white swan with a broken neck. Then I walked to the police station.’

Anirban staggered out of the room. The supervisor rose to call him back. I gestured. ‘Let him go’.

After a few moments of stunned silence I asked ‘But Agnideb, why are you here?’

Agnideb started speaking softly. ‘A day after Anirban confided in me, I asked for an interview with Manisha’s elder sister Bidisha because I wanted to clarify certain points. Bidisha asked me to come in the evening. She opened the door as soon as I rang the bell. She was in a red silk sari, her hair untied. She probably had no time to change out of workaday clothes. I went and sat on the same sofa in the front room. Bidisha went into the kitchen to make tea. She sat down next to me.

‘You know, Anirban really loved Manisha’ she said. ‘I still can’t figure out why he did this.’ I asked her all the questions I had to ask. She replied. Cried some. It was getting late.  Suddenly Bidisha said ‘Listen, if you’re not in a hurry, why not have dinner with me? I’ll cook something. I live alone, so most of the time I don’t even feel like cooking’. Bidisha, in her red sari and her tumbling hair, looked very alluring. I could not refuse her. I thought I’ll put my remaining questions to her while we eat.

Bidisha went into the kitchen to cook. ‘You do eat chicken, don’t you?’ she asked from the kitchen. ‘I am making a new dish – pilaf with chicken. It won’t take long. What do you prefer – sweet or savoury?’ She kept up the chatter as she put the chicken pieces in the wok. Added rice. Her fingers were stained in orange as she added the saffron dissolved in milk. The pilaf was now dressed in mace, saffron, nutmeg and other spices. The room was enveloped in its wonderful aroma. Bidisha then added pomegranate seeds – round luscious beads like red rubies. A kind of wild excitement seeped into me, made my blood hot. She sprinkled a handful of almonds, followed by silvery grains, saying ‘it’s almost done’. The strange exotic odor was driving me mad. I gripped the armrest – trying to control myself.

I couldn’t see Bidisha clearly anymore. She became hazy. The white tiled walls of the kitchen were full of blood red Shimul flowers and dark dense clouds. A strong sweet aroma pulled me inexorably towards the kitchen. I didn’t want to go there. I couldn’t resist. I approached her silently and smoothly, like a slithering reptile…Agnideb stopped and covered his face with his hands. I sat there silently for a long time. Then I left.

I went home late that night.
As soon as Mou opened the door, a pungent sweet smell assailed my senses. Mou had a spatula in her hand. Her fingers were stained orange.
‘What are you cooking?’ I asked
‘Chicken Pilaf. You know, uncle returned from Istanbul today. He has brought me a special spice from the Egyptian spice market….’
‘Mystery spice?’ I cut her off, before she had finished speaking.
Instead of replying, Mou suddenly screamed ‘Why have you got blood on your hands?’
I had not realized that Agnideb’s red paint was on my hand.





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