The newspaper in front of Shankar Roy was certainly the most uncanny the 44-year old hawaldaar had seen his entire life. Its font was certainly different from any other paper he had read and the pictures showed people he would have only seen in those Victorian period movies. He tried to have a quick glance at the first article and it made no sense either. There were no ‘fish-storms’ in the region, and definitely no disappearances. The pictures showed men dressed in long hats and robes, standing in front of the Taj Mahal. Even stranger so was that Roy thought he had seen the man in the photograph shift a little to the left. Surely the bumpy toy-train ride and the gain in altitude was chugging his imagination.
The man across Roy was fast asleep. He had been so the entire journey, soon after they left New Jalpaiguri Platform that morning. Visiting Bengal in the middle of July was no minor feat. It rained for half the day and the blistering humidity sucked the very life out of you. Strong bodied men had succumbed to the region’s testing climate. Surprisingly enough, the man in front of Roy had not broken a sweat in spite of being wearing a heavy robe himself. The hawaldaar was accompanying him after receiving direct orders from the district’s Inspector General. The fish curry and rich left half-eaten, Roy hurried to the station to meet his guest. Deep amidst the swarm of coolies, the man stood out. Tall and thin, fair skinned with his shabby hair and round glasses, he waved past the porters and walked up straight to Roy, as if they already knew each other.
He had some urgent matters in Kurseong, Roy understood from his heavily accented English. Something about the old mansion near Victoria Memorial School and the forest behind, the guest explained. To add to the hawaldaar’s inconvenience, there was a vehicle strike in the district, and no cars were willing to take them at the risk of being damaged by agitators. All police cars were busy patrolling the countless roads, funneling across the Shivaliks. The five-hour journey by train was the only option.
The fog was clearing ahead of the lazy curve, and Kurseong was clearly visible for the first time. The small town, nestled on the road between Darjeeling and the plains, was bursting with tourists that summer, drawn from afar due to its famous orchids. A new botanist was creating some stir by producing flowers of rather profound quality. His orchid farm had managed to outdo every other in the hills and received a sizable column on a national daily. People thronged to visit his farm, so much so that the police had to be called and a ticket counter was set-up. Roy himself was one of the visitors that very week. The majestic perfume of the flowers corrupted the entire street all way from the curve that led to the farm.
But all the fan-fare stopped three days ago. The botanist had gone missing under rather strange circumstances. No note, no sign of struggle at his place, and no phone calls in or out of the house as well. The neighbors did not notice anything unfamiliar, expect for a rather large flock of owls one time. The birds were reported to have stood their ground even after tenants tried to shoo them away. Some even remained overnight, never once budging from their perch.
Eerily, the town was blanketed in a constant cloud ever since. It rained for three consecutive days and there was no sign was slowing down. July was beginning to feel like the middle of December. Some shepherds even reported snow on the upper slopes. It was unheard of for that time of the year. Roy was thankful that he was posted at the foothills near Sukna that month. Kurseong was his home, and hence his seniors pressed him into this new assignment. Make sure he gets everything he asks, the IG instructed him. He comes highly recommended.
The train jolted to a halt and the guest was awake. Shankar Roy had figured he was definitely British, since abstained from pronouncing any R’s when he spoke. They walked out of the small railway station, and across the street where a police jeep awaited. Roy helped the guest with his bag and asked him to sit on the passenger seat, while he hopped on to the back. The man explained where they had to go and the junior constable fired up the rickety vehicle and kicked it into gear. They were snaking their way up to Victoria Memorial School, when the guest suddenly reached for under his robe and pulled out a rather short baton of some kind. He began pointing it out of the window and sent out short bursts of white light. It was as if someone had held up a torch and kept flicking it on and off. The fog was clearing up ahead of them now.
After nearly half an hour of driving, the jeep was standing in front of a handsome gate. A few children walked past them, bags in hand. They reached the school, and had to inform the guard at the gate that they would be visiting the mansion upstate. The junior constable filled the register. Roy walked up to his guest, wanting to ask about the baton. Funnily, he could not seem to recall what was topic of concern. The harder he tried to remember, the more difficult he found to recall. He abandoned his plans once they were back in the car, riding uphill.
They streaked past the old colonial school, past its gigantic windows and the huge playground below to the right. The Brit was now looking outside the window, lost in some deep memory. They reached the mansion, and found the gardener waiting for them – the guard had informed him about the visitors. Roy’s guest jumped out of the car. He walked up to the steps of the mansion, the hawaldaar hurrying after him luggage in hand, awaiting further instructions.
That will be all Mr Roy, the man spoke. I will be spending the night here, and I am sure you were informed of the same by your superiors. I have your phone number with the gardener and will surely call in case of an emergency. Till we see each other again tomorrow, I wish you a good day, and hope you finish your fish curry next time.
How could he have known about the fish? Roy walked back to the jeep alarmingly puzzled. He then remembered never having asked the man’s name. He quickly turned and shouted. Roy was sure he had heard the name before, in some news bulletin, or perhaps in a case he had overheard. It did ring a bell, but that was it. He could not remember again.
The jeep drove out of sight as Roy’s guest entered the house. It reeked of damn moss and wet paint, but fortunately it had remained dry that monsoon. The gardener tried to have the fire going, but the wet logs refused to ignite. The guest insisted he do it himself, and asked the gardener to fix him a quick meal. Soon after he was alone, the guest pulled out the baton Roy had seen, and flicked it towards the fireplace. An attractive fire roared out and the guest carefully tucked his holly and phoenix feather-cored wand inside his robes. He dusted the nearest armchair and sat down, letting out a deep sigh, removed his glasses and unbuttoned his collar. Harry Potter was thousands of miles from home, and yet he did not mind being alone that day as he quietly turned 35.