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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 16, New Delhi, April 3, 2021

Bantala: Anatomy of a Lynching Foretold | Sujit Chakraborty

Friday 2 April 2021

by Sujit Chakraborty

On May 30, 1990, at Bantala, off the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, on the way to the delta, three women health officers were raped and lynched when their car was trapped by a crowd of hoods. One of the ladies and the driver of their car died. Police and the state government gave out the story that the team was suspected of being child-lifters. The mainstream media in Calcutta conveniently nodded the same story. But was it so simple? A rather scary investigation later revealed it to be completely different. Here is the story of the process of the investigation.

The phone rang at around 10.30 in the morning. “Shuit...”

Patently Shankarda, Shankar Ray, the great ‘planter’, as I call him. He never pronounced my name as SUJIT, just ‘Shuit’.

The term ‘planting stories’ is negative in journalism. ‘Planted stories’ are those that someone wants a reporter to ‘carry’ to fulfil the ‘planter’s own ulterior motives.

It was different then from what it is now.

We believed in the adage: “News is something that someone somewhere wants to hide... everything else is ‘advertisement...” for the one who ‘gives out’ the news... the press releases, the press conferences, the junkets that fly reporters over thousands of miles to get a favourable press comment....

I was against all that.

My allusion to Shankarda as a ‘planter’, on the other hand, was to pay my respects for his uncanny and infallible ability to give story ideas, with contacts to boot, to us reporters... anyone who cared to ask him for one. It was embarrassing to say “Thank you,” to Shankarda after every story successfully done by me, and for which he never got the credit. So by way of “thanks” I still call him the ‘planter’.

None of the stories served any of his personal purposes, but did some public good, and all of them turned out to be true and not some concocted stuff.

“Shuit,” the great, indomitable planter said.

Hnya, Shankarda, bolun.” (Tell me, Shankarda)

“Bantala... your paper carried a report... what do you know so far?” he asked.

My heart sank... did I miss out anything?

Back-foot: “I did not do that report, Shankarda, someone else from my office did, so there is nothing in particular that you might be wanting to know that I know of, Shankarda. I think that was a case of mistaken identity of UNICEF officials being taken to be chheledhora,” I said. (chheledhora is ‘child-lifters’)

***

On May 30, 1990, three ladies health officials, Anita Dewan, the Deputy District Extension Media Officer of the West Bengal Health Department; Uma Ghosh, a senior officer of the Health Department; and Renu Ghosh, a representative of UNICEF’s World Health Organization office in New Delhi, travelling in a Maruti Omni, were raped and lynched. Dewan died in a hospital later that night; Ghosh was horribly disfigured but survived. The driver, Abani Naiya, also died later. But he went unmentioned in the press.

But what really happened? No one knew, excepting the chheledhora myth.

Newspaper reports, like that in my own weekly, Sunday Mail, which had sent its ‘star reporter’, said they were mistaken as “chheledhora” (child lifters) by the local people, and hence lynched.

That’s all that had been reported and after a week or so, the furore died down, though the name Bantala became a hate word on the misrule of the Red fort.

***

The phone call with Shankarda was on.

Tumi ki shuneychho jay okhanay rape hoyechhilo?” (Have you heard that there was rape there?)

Blood started curdling in my veins... the ‘planter’ is never wrong, had never been wrong till that conversation... so the word ‘rape’ stung my ears. Not a single newspaper had mentioned that.

After a pause, I said, “Janina to, let me check out, Shankarda, and I shall let you know.”

He hung up. I kept sitting, completely dazed, on the old teak stool that my father had bought dozens of years ago and still functions as the telephone station in our Salt Lake home.

***

“Tapas?”

“Shalaa Shujit, morey banchli naki bay?” (You humbug Sujit, still alive?)

Patently Tapas... doctor Rana, then posted at the National Medical College and Hospital, near Park Circus, South Calcutta (now Kolkata). I those days he was posted in the Emergency Ward.

Shon, Tapas, tui to Emergency tay achhish, Bantalar case ta ki bolto?” (Listen, you keep working in the Emergency Ward... what is this all about the Bantala case?)

Tapas went silent. For a while.

Then he asked, “Ki jantay chaash?” (What is it that you want to know?)

Abey aar bolish na... (Hell, man, a lot of muck...) someone is saying there was rape and all that shit... tui ki janish bolto?” (But what precisely do you know?)

A pregnant pause again...

My old school pal then fell into local lingo: “Phoney hobey na gandu,choley aye, aar ektu babar prosad niye ashish... ami ki tor baper chakor?” (You bum-ass, all this... not over the phone. Come over... and I am not your father’s servant, so bring some of Baba’s Blessing — he meant ganja.)

Patently Tapas, my school friend, doctor, magician and many other things put together.

Fortuitously for me, Tapas had been on Emergency duty that very night, so it was all from the horse’s mouth.

Rape kina janina,” (I don’t know if there had been any rape) he said when I met him. “But she could have survived. She (Anita Dewan) had four ribs broken, puncturing her lung. When she came, she was almost dead. The health minister came rushing in. I was on duty that night, bujhlito, (you see)... Emergency Night Duty.

“The body came in... I wanted her to be removed to the OT straightaway, but the officials were insisting on formalities, and they went on delaying things, so by the time we took her to the OT, she was finished.”

Tapas later gave me some more medical details of what he, as a doctor, had perceived.
The most important was his perception that the injured had been brought in too late, too late, as if on purpose. (The incident took place at around 6.30 pm. The hospital was a mere nine kilometres from Bantala and could have been reached in a mere 10 minutes.
Why was the lady brought in at around 11.00 pm?)

As a reporter, my ears cocked up, like a dog cuddled around its tail round the street corner, waiting to hear the wrong footstep before starting to bark up the street....
There had been too many wrong footfalls that evening at Bantala, but I was still not aware of all that.

***

My next stop was the Manch. Its network at the grassroots is legendary, and so from Tapas’ hospital I went straight to the Manch office in Beleghata, north-central Calcutta.

I told my friends what all I had heard till then, which alarmed the usually cool team members. A war council meeting was convened at the Manch office for that evening.

Nabo Dutta

Bishu Dasgupta

Ashimda

Khokon Majumdar

And Bapida, Bapi Dutta.

Naboda looked askance at Bishuda. He was the master strategist and analyst. “We have so far heard nothing. I tried to ask Khona, but he did not say much,” he said about the rape issue.

Naboda, always direct and gutsy, said: “You cannot do that report sitting here, Sujit has to go to the spot but...” I have never seen Naboda dither. But? Naboda’s large, bulging eyes darted outside the office room, and once it came back to the room he said...“but his life will be at immediate risk, that is for sure.”

No one looked at me. They were discussing something they had never contemplated. I did not say anything. To say I was not scared would be a lie. But to admit I was scared would mean an immediate halt to the investigation. And as an investigative reporter, that would be unacceptable.

I pulled out a Gold Flake and lit up. Bapida was already sucking on a bidi.

“Bapi, you take Sujit, but be careful,” said Bishuda in his baritone. “Let nothing happen. He is too valuable for us.”

Taholey-ie to hobay na... (But that is not enough) His paper has to agree to print that report,” said Naboda.

Sheta bodhoy hoey jabay,” I conjectured. (I guess that will be done.)

The ‘war council’ meeting was being held inside the Manch office. But it was only after all the other Manch volunteers had left. Barring those few, no one would know. Omerta!
I was aware that soon, I would have to go on an adventure, though I still didn’t know of what kind. But it was exciting, and some butterflies around the area of the navel were fluttering about inside me....

The meeting got over. Bapida came out to the lonesome, darkish corridor of the Manch office, sucking on the last embers of his bidi.

Without so much as a preamble, Bapida said: “Guru, tomorrow morning... may be tomorrow... let’s see. I have to contact Pagla first.”

Down on the road, I took a taxi and left for home, and Bapida walked to his own home nearby.

There was nothing the next day. No one from the Manch called through the day. I kept waiting at home, as there was no assignment in hand, so I called up Jiba (Jibananda Das of Bartaman) and had a natter with him. I did not mention anything about Bantala, but I realised that the issue had gone cold for the Calcutta newspapers. I watched an irritating film, whose name I fortunately do not recall.

At around 10 in the night, the doorbell rang.

Bapida, lanky and wiry, stood there with his fairly unremovable smile, his two incisors just slightly jutting out of his upper lip, both hands dug in his trouser pockets. He walked that way all the time, occasionally running the left side of his nose with his left index finger.

Bapida and I have gone on several dangerous investigations, and his company was always reassuring, and not just that. It was a charming company. He never wore shoes, not even slippers with buckles. His shirt was never tucked in. Time followed him, so he had no use for a wrist watch. You could never make out the kind of deadly things he was capable of. And he never seemed in the least perturbed by anything.

Bapida also had an uncanny sense of smelling traps and charting out different routes in advance whenever we had to travel inside dangerous territories. He had once been hunted and he was also a hunter, as an ex-Party grassroots level apparatchik.

So there he was, smiling with his wristwatch-less hands in his trouser pockets...

Choley aslam bujhley. (Bapida pronounced S as sa, not the usual Bengali sha. Seta, not sheta... sedin, not shedin, and I found that even more endearing.)

Choley aslam bujhley.” (Just dropped in to see you, he said, beaming his toothy smile.) I opened the gate and he slipped into our drawing room, both hands still tucked inside his pockets.

Bapida asked for some tea and we sat down. Ma was very fond of Bapida and never failed to come and greet him. “Masima bhalo achhen.” (Aunty, are you fine?) Ma said, “Bosho, cha aanchhi. (Wait, I’ll just bring you some tea.)

Inside the house, father grumbled: “Eto rattirey abar kay ailo!” (Who is it so late in the night?) Ma informed him softly: “Bapi, Bapi.” Father was immediately reassured and let out a confident: “Aw, aisey bujhi.” (Ah, so he is here.)

Bapida finished his tea at leisure and then said: “Kaal jetey hobey, bujhlay? (We have to go tomorrow morning, okay?). But you will not go as reporter, that is obvious. I will take you to meet some friends as a rich man’s son scouting to buy a bheri.”

A bheri in Calcutta parlance is a very large fishing lake, and each bheri is worth millions. There were often deadly gang wars to control the bheries that dotted the entire area south-east of Calcutta right down to the delta. Bantala was the first major one.

That night I told my wife: “I need your gold chain.”
“Why?”

“I am going on an investigation. I need to go somewhere as a rich bum wearing gold and costly clothes.”

“Where are you going?”

“No, can’t tell you that... but it is possible that I may not return alive... slightly risky...” I thought it was fair that I should keep her warned of at least that much.

***

The next morning, the private taxi I had booked arrived at my home sharp at 5.45 am. I was wearing a spotless white pair of pyjamas and a fancy photua, ornateKolhapuri jootis, a Titan Moon Phase watch... and oh, also a gold chain. The spoilt brat of a rich babu off to buy a bheri...

I went to pick up Bapida from his Beleghata home. He told me to have tea at his place, took the vehicle and said: “Tumi chaa khao, ami aschi.” (You have your tea... I’ll just be back.)

He returned after about 15 minutes and asked me to hop into the vehicle. And immediately I felt a surge of anger.

Bapida sat in front, but next to me in the rear seat was another man! Medium of height, dark brown in complexion and a face that betrayed no sign of intelligence in his gene code! A wall, basically.

What shit! I thought. How irresponsible of Bapida ... who was this man? Is he going to be with us? But Bishuda had clearly instructed that only Bapida and I should go. So is Bapida giving his friend a lift to some place? But why did he need to do that? Why on such a dangerous mission?

People smoke cigarettes in various modes that betray their various moods. I snatched out a Gold Flake King Size, slammed the matchstick on the powdered side of the matchbox and smoked in large, fast, angry pulls. Bloody shit! I thought.

At one point just ahead of Bantala kanta kol, (wholesale fish market, where fish consignments are weighed) Bapida alighted and asked me to wait: “Boso, aschi.” And he vanished, without elaborating.

The moron next to me started asking inane questions and my temper kept rising sharply. I answered a few of his questions and then simply looked out the window, totally ignoring him. But his wit was of such rarity that he did not even sense the insult.
A little later Bapida sauntered in the Bantala kanta kol. I was seeing him establish my credentials.

Aar bolisna sala, (Hell, don’t ask me) I have told him this is not a good area, but he insists on buying a bheri here.” That was about me!

To a few other people he said much the same thing, sprinkling the message with “Boro loker beta, poisa achey, orachhey.” (A rich man’s son blowing up his father’s coffers.)

His acquaintances would sneak over their shoulders to have a look at the boro loker beta, extremely fair in complexion, wearing a gold chain, smoking Gold Flake Kings, with a genuine disdain written on his face, the disdain from suffering that fool next to me, but which, of course, was taken for a tycoon’s arrogance.

Good work, I thought and gradually my anger started subsiding.

Bapida left word with his friends to immediately let him if know if a good bheri is up for sale.

We moved out of Bantala bazaar for our next port of call. But just as we did, a man in a blue shirt and brown pair of trousers on a bicycle just moved ahead of us a little before we hit the road. Somehow, that image stuck in my mind.

***

We reached Bantala village and went to meet Pagla in his large hut. “Pagla” could have been his name, or it could just be the way Bapida addressed him.

“Arey Bapida, tumi?” (Oh what a surprise, Bapida, you here?)

Pagla seemed surprised but genuinely honoured to see Bapida. I knew Bapida was a dangerous dissident who had walked out of the Party. And I knew that Pagla was a die-hard party member. So his effusion showed just how respected Bapida must once have been... respected and feared.

We sat on a rather high, four-legged cot which took some doing to climb. Bapida sat cross legged and was promptly offered tea. A little baby was asleep in a soft cradle made from an old sari of Pagla’s wife. The scenery through the window was lush green. To the left side of Pagla’s house in the field across was the Party office with the red flag fluttering in the early morning of mid-June.

***

Bapida introduced me to Pagla and said: “Sahebekta bheri kintey chaye (Sahib wants to buy a bheri here)... ta tora ja shob korchhish, (but the kind of trouble you guys have created) I told him to stay off.”

The allusion to the lynching was clear. And Pagla did not miss the subtle pointer either.
Makkali Bapida, ami kichhui korinigo!” Pagla exclaimed. (I swear by Kali Ma, Bapida, I did not do anything.)

Bapida veered away from the issue and asked the man about this bheri and that. Pagla narrated the firing that lasted all of the previous night at a nearby bheri, when two factions of the Party battled to seize control over it.

Bapida asked about the best fish-yielding bheri around, and heard of the various points of friction, and he kept telling me: “Bollam na, ekhaney onek gondogol.” (Didn’t I tell you this is a troublesome area?). He was just re-affirming my ‘innocent’ venture.
Bapida kept muttering the word gandogol (big trouble).

At this point Pagla broke in and spoke to me for the first (and last) time: “Na sir, gondogol nei... ota to ekta bises ghotona.” (No Sir, there is no problem at all... that was just a special incident, he told me.)

We were sitting on the high cot with my back to the window.

Bapida finished his tea and lit a bidi: “Boli se bises ghotona ta kee?” (And what, pray, was that special incident?)

Arey bulu-pin go. Shalara geram shudhrotey chaichhilo...” (Hell, the ‘bulu-pin’... the buggers ‑ meaning UNICEF ‑ wanted to reform our village.)

I feigned disinterest. But my mind was struggling: what is a bulu-pin?

Pagla then started his story as if from a reverse gear: “Naholey tumi bolo, gaditey aagun keno lagabey? (Tell me, otherwise why did they burn the car?) Bapida boloto, have you ever heard a car having an accident in Bantala being burnt?”

My mind was racing to grasp what those two were discussing. They knew well the allusions and indications in their conversation. For me it was all a blank.

Pagla then explained how, when any car has an accident in this area, people come and beat up the driver and then systematically cannibalise the vehicle. “Jogatakes the katis (wipers), backlights belong to Sona, Podip nebey chakar tube, the tyreswill go to Jhogru.

In other words, in Bantala such an ‘accident’ feeds a clear underground market. The villagers had settled that if a car so much as even scrapes a bicycle or a person, it will be stopped, mobbed and ripped apart. It was mutually decided who would take which part and go sell it in the Mallick Bazaar market for stolen auto parts. Wipers, backlights, tyres, tubes, even engine parts, all had been apportioned as the rights of people like Joga, Sona, Pradip, Jhogru... eventually the body of the car would also go straight to the illicit car market near Park Street.

Kisher bulu-pin?” (What bulu-pin?) Bapida ploughed the topic back. “What had happened... people say you people lynched them mistakenly as chheledhora (child lifters)...

Pagla sniggered: “Dhusssss! Kissu na. Kisher chheledhora?” (Huh? Child-lifters? What bloody rubbish!)

***

Pagla explained that the UNICEF official Ranu Ghosh and health department’s Anita Dewan were known to each and every child and every parent in the village, so no one could ever “mistake” them as outsiders who came to steal children.

Not just that. Pagla continued: “They used to come every week and start from here, travelling right up to Goshaba, distributing medicines, discussing health issues with villagers. Oder bhul korey merechhi bollei hobey?” (And someone says that they were killed by ‘mistake’ as child-lifters? What nonsense!)

Pagla said then that they had heard that UNICEF had plans of making Bantala into a model village, especially in terms of children’s health and education.

That, Bapida later explained to me, would be disastrous. Starting with Bantala, the entire belt was a stronghold of the Party, and Bantala village, especially, was the armoury and nerve centre for the Party’s election riggers for South Calcutta polling stations, where resided the well-to-do intellectual class, who could turn against the Party. Bantala was a party fortress storing arms and sheltering the Party’s blessed criminals.

Naturally, Bantala had to be kept off UNICEF’s clutches, because if UNICE came in, there would be inspections by multiple agencies, there would be the media, may be the international media, and the den would be blown.

The UNICEF, obviously had no idea of any of this. Even the scribes reporting the incident had not heard of any of this. Sitting on that high wooden cot, I saw bombshell of a report shaping up.

The Party had sensed the threat, but there was no way it could ask the UNICEF officially from the state government to shift out. Something else had to be done.

Maal khaoya chherechhis?” (Have you stopped boozing?) Bapida changed the topic, and for a good reason. A break was needed to ward off the suspicion that our target was not really buying a bheri but getting this story.

Makkali Bapida, maal khaina aar,” (I swear by Ma Kali, no more booze for me, Bapida) Pagla said, though he was already reeking of country liquor at eleven in the morning.
This change of topic made Pagla even more eager to take up his story again.

***

It had become clear to me that the at the centre of the incident lay the ‘bulu-pin’, which by now I realised was actually the UNICEF’s programme blueprint for Bantala’s development as a model village. Rape was incidental, and the ‘child-lifter’ story a safe justification, which had been thought out well in advance.

Story of a lynching foretold.

Pagla said that to stop UNICEF, rather, to get the bulu-pin at any cost from the UNICEF people was the whole logic behind the operation that had been meticulously planned over months. The only thing that would make the ‘incident’ seem normal is an ‘accident’ and rumours of children going missing.

So for a few before weeks from mid-May, these rumours about a gang of female child-lifters doing the rounds were carefully floated in the entire belt, right up to Goshaba.

They started the rumour mill, and after a week, the action was on the anvil. It was planned for May 30, the day of Jamai Shoshthi that year. And there was shrewd logic behind the choice of the date.

Jamai Shashthi is the day when all men with their wives leave their homes to visit their in-laws, mostly in other villages and cities away from home. Which means there are no men in the village, even if the cops investigated.

So, the justification was decided upon; in advance; the alibi made fool proof; in advance; and all this before a ‘spontaneous’ outrage by ‘paranoid’ parents hunting down ‘suspected chheledhoras’... now for the operation.

***

Pagla said Samol and Jhogru used a bike to start chasing the UNICEF car from Basanti, when the team, in their Maruti Omni, started back for Calcutta after crossing over from Goshaba, across the Bidya River.

At a point, the duo gave up the chase and two others took it up, much like a relay race.

A chase to put the fear of death in the mind of the driver so that he would be distracted.

“I was at home that day. I was sitting where Saheb is sitting now, looking out the window,” Pagla said. I turned around for the first time to look at the road winding cross that Pagla was pointing at.

All three of us now faced the window.

The road from our right side was straight enough, so the Maruti would have been racing in, panicking due to the chase. But down the road was a culvert that could not be seen even from the vantage point we were sitting in, for the road had taken a sharp turn there. The culvert was hidden behind some houses and trees.

Ora oi birij tar upor benchi petey dilo,” Pagla continued. (They placed a wooden bench over that ‘bridge’ — the culvert.)

Now for the first time my hair started standing in my arms. Plotting of a lynching!

The driver, racing down the straight road, turned sharply and suddenly saw the bench at the very last moment and braked sharply to avoid the collision. At that breakneck speed, the Maruti Omni, itself a light car, turned turtle... and the mob went on the rampage.
Gang rape. Immediately. The driver tried to resist but was beaten with iron rods, as the ladies too would be after the mob’s lust had subsided.

The violence went on as the sun started dimming, just like the lights of the lives of the four people.

No one knew, but in the meanwhile, the entire EM Bypass was lined with armed policemen till VIP Nagar, cordoning off Bantala from the rest of Calcutta. Excuse? Some “VIP movement”. Net result? Insulation of a planned lynching!

What is important is that the vehicle had been ransacked but not a tyre or tube or wiper or backlight had till then been ripped off, as is usually done in Bantala when an accident occurs there.

“They could not find the bulu-pin anywhere,” Pagla said. The mob leaders, though, were certain that the blue print would be in the vehicle, somewhere. So finally they decided to end the menace and ordered the vehicle to be simply burnt down.

Meanwhile, the three ladies and the driver were left bleeding in the fields nearby, hidden from the main road.

***

“So the police never came to investigate?” Bapida asked.

Of course they did. It is their duty to come, Pagla said. But they could not find any suspects. Pagla explained: “Oi jay bollam na, Jamai Shoshti chhilo go...” (I told you, isn’t it, that it was Jamai Shoshti?) “Geramay keu chhilo-i naa.” (Naturally, there were no men in the village that day.)

Then Pagla gave Bapida a list of all the major players in the incident and mentioned the places where each of their in-laws’ homes were.

The police, fully under the control of the Party, found the alibi completely and easily acceptable and satisfactory.

Stunned, we left Pagla’s house.

***

After coming to the vehicle, Bapida asked me: “Did you see all the bombs under the cot?”

I had seen a lot of round-shaped things and thought they were cheap soap balls, some fifty or sixty of them. I shuddered to think that we were all along sitting atop scores of deadly bombs!

Bapida then told our driver to move ahead towards Basanti. “We shall have to go right to the spot where it started,” he said. I agreed immediately.

When we entered the next village, I saw the man in the blue shirt and brown pair of trousers speed out of it on his bicycle, and sensed we were being followed. But when I said that, Bapida pointed out my mistake: we are not being followed, he said: we were being preceded.

In the next village a gentleman, a school teacher known to Bapida, met us at his veranda. He seemed cagy the moment we entered, but nevertheless, offered us tea.

But half an hour of cajoling yielded no result. He said he was sorry, but he would not be able to say anything. He did not say “I do not know.” He simply said, “I cannot tell you anything.”

As we turned right on the road, the blue-shirted man sped away ahead of us.
“Did you see that, Bapida?” I said.

He now realised what I was saying. “Khobor hoye gachhey, bujhley Guru?” (The word has been spread around about us.)

We were being preceded. The protagonists were all being warned in advance, from Bantala right down to Goshaba.

“Let’s turn around... bipod achhey agey,” Bapida said. In his own uncanny way of anticipation, Bapida had sensed a threat looming around us. We could face the same fate as the UNICEF officers in the way ahead.

“Besides, we now know the full story from Pagla anyway... he was the only person who is beholden to you, and there had been no time to warn him. So he had been honest. And perhaps he himself must not have been involved,” I conjectured.

We turned around.

We went right off the main road. The hunted was still hunting. Bapida was using all his contacts.

We turned right off the main road and went into some village tract.

In the distance from the back seat, I could see endless tall grassesflowering.

In between, somewhere, Bapida asked the driver to stop.

We stopped, and both he and the buffoon sitting next to me alighted.

And they vanished amidst the flowering grasslands swaying in the gentle afternoon breeze as far as one’s eyes could see.

For a while, it was OK by me... I did not feel anything.

Then minutes that seemed like hours passed.

Bapida was nowhere in sight.

Across the dirt track, I could see a highly sexy woman, attractive in her black skin colour, selling desi (country liquor) to some men who came by, all the while standing under a palm tree.

So, this is Bantala, I thought. Bombs, booze, boobs, sex bombs, an explosive concoction....

In that situation, it struck me that if a few people were to come to my Ambassador car, dig a hole on the ground big enough to sink the entire car into it, there would be no one to protest, let alone protect us....

I was stranded!

Bapida had gone into an errand I had no idea about.

By then, my Titan Moon Phase watch said it was 1.00 pm, and I was hungry. I pulled out a cigarette but did not feel like smoking, so I packed it back.

I missed the buffoon then. At least, he could have stayed with me.

By the time Bapida returned and he, I was exhausted and half asleep. But feeling reassured, I lit a cigarette, and slowly puffed on it, relaxed.

We turned towards base, but I did not care where or which road we travelled by.
At around 2.30 that afternoon, we touched base at Bapida’s residence.

Bujhley to byaparta?” he asked me, his two middle incisors sticking out, always unflappable. (You understand the whole game now, I suppose, he asserted.) We sat on a bench and started drinking tea from the earthen cups.

Suddenly, a man came running towards us.

“Bapida, phone,” he panted.

Kay ray bhai,” he asked irritably and went off to talk to the man, who stood at a distance.

“Khokonda has sent his men into Bantala,” he told me when he arrived.

Khokon Majumdar, a terror to the cops in the seventies, who once made a machine gun using a lathe machine.

The legendary Khokon Majumdar, who had been present during the war council meet before our Bantala expedition, but had not spoken a word till we had set off.

Khokonda sending his men inside Bantala to salvage us would be mayhem. But he had decided that he would bring me back, and his armed comrades had been deployed for that.

I suddenly realised that the only person missing from our group was the buffoon.

That is when I realised what he was: A gunman, under the command of Bapida, waiting to fire to save my life... if need be.

His genetic lack of wits was then no issue with me. Gunmen are like that. Witless.... trigger-wise....

We rushed back to the Manch office. The full ‘war council’, including Bishuda, was there.
Bapida got an earful from Bishuda for the delay in informing the war council that we had done the job and everything was fine. And that I was safe!

The next weekend, the Bantala report came out in Sunday Mail, my newspaper, causing a huge turmoil amongst Calcutta editors as to how come their reporters had missed such a story and printed just a police version.

The rest is, as the cliché goes, history. Or more precisely, as happens with most pro-people journalism, neglected by history!

Post Script; "My friend Bapi Dutta (Bapida), sadly, left us suddenly at a very young age a few years ago."

(The author is a senior journalist and author who worked on the Party underworld in West Bengal in a series of investigative reports between 1990 and 1991. He is located in Vasundhara, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. Every incident mentioned and personae named are true and nothing extraneous has been projected. Email: sujitnti1[at]gmail.com)

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