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The Price of Curiosity

Nirupama Sivaraman

I’ve often wondered if curiosity does kill the cat. It hasn’t discouraged humans from exploring outer space, mucking around with genetic structures or stalking celebrities. When I mentioned this to Gomes, he had something to say about it, as usual.
“Curiosity may not kill the cat, Watkar. But it certainly comes at a price.”
I looked up, puzzled.                         
“Did I ever tell you about the time I travelled to Kolkata?” Gomes leaned back into his cosy armchair. Gomes was the perfect story-teller. And this was a perfect afternoon for it. The heat scorched the streets outside. After the customary half working day at the office, we had reached Gomes’ place for lunch and a smoke. Pale green curtains at the windows fluttered flirtatiously at the slightest hint of a breeze. High above our heads, the ceiling fans whirred loudly, complementing the coolness radiating from the marble floor.
He filled his pipe and inhaled deeply. Settling myself into the comfortable sofa, I waited for him to begin.
“It was a terrible winter that year. The dry air engulfed us with a fury.”
He liked exaggerated imagery.
“It was the winter of 1987. I was a young man seeking his fortune in the big city. After three unsuccessful interviews, I was beginning to wonder if I should get back to my village and my father’s booze shop. My dark blue muffler tightly wrapped around my neck, I was taking a walk by the Rabindra Sarovar, contemplating. The area was peaceful and almost empty, save for a few stray peanut-sellers.
That’s when I saw him.
He was middle-aged, very nondescript. A greying mop of hair over a dark, nervous face and thick shell-framed glasses looked sadly at the placid lake. As I passed by him, he coughed.
“Help me, young man.”
Naïve as I was, I stopped to listen.
“They are following me. I don’t think they will let me live. Here are the keys to the locker. It’s at the Sealdah station. Please give Miranda the letter, you can keep everything else.”

With that pithy yet cryptic message, he handed over a large bunch of heavy keys and quickly darted into a clump of trees nearby. I strained my eyes to see where he went, but he was too quick for that. In just a minute, everything was back to normal. The peanut sellers continued their cajoling, the birds were tweeting, and the park seemed a normal place again. It was as if nothing had even happened. Well, almost.

The keys weighed heavily (both literally and figuratively), as I walked home. Who was this mysterious man? And what did that locker contain? I could contain myself no longer.
Taking quick, long steps across the road I got into a rickety bus with a lustily shouting conductor.
I had no idea what I was in for.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

As I changed buses, I had the odd idea that I was being followed. It is a strange feeling, this. I had no idea who was following me. The man in the yellow kurta and shawl seemed familiar. But so did the boy in the leather jacket. And yet, I wasn’t entirely convinced that I wasn’t being paranoid.

The Sealdah station was a gloomy place that evening. The cold weighed heavily in the air, and most people hurriedly walked by, wrapped up in dark shawls and longing thoughts of a hot dinner. Before entering the station, I turned around. The man and the boy had vanished.
I walked into the station master’s office. A short, stocky man sat at the desk. He looked up, frowning through shell-framed spectacles.
“Have you lost your luggage, mister?”

I shook my head. “Locker 42C”, I said, authoritatively jangling the keys. At this point, I wasn’t sure if I should bring up the story of the man in the park. It was a barely plausible tale and I didn’t want to risk being taken for a lunatic.
He smiled, apparently pleased to see me. I imagine he didn’t meet too many people who didn’t have complaints to lodge. He shepherded me into the cloakroom which smelled strongly of potatoes.
 “Please wait here, sir. I will retrieve the contents from the locker room.” The station master’s voice was stern, but his eyes twinkled with geniality.
It didn’t take long for him to return with a red velvet purse. It bulged with promise, definitely containing more than just a letter. Even before I could hypothesize about its contents, a burly uniformed man grabbed me from behind, twisted my arm and slapped a pair of cuffs on me.

 
     
 

The station master fished out a small packet filled with white powder. Now I usually keep my wits about me, but that day, my heart leapt into my mouth.
“This isn’t my locker.” I began my story in a strong tone. The burly guard snarled, and I went no further. The guard reminded me of the ghost-dog at my grandfather’s place. Do you remember that house, Watkar? Ah, but that is a story for another day. Coming back to the present, the station master was in no mood for reason.
“This is a very serious situation, Mister…?”
“Gomes”
“Ah Mr. Gomes, what we have here is a bag filled with illegal drugs. You are very bold to come to the station and expect to walk out free.”
“But this bag isn’t mine. I was given the key by someone else.” The guard snarled again, louder.
“Who gave you the keys?”
I shrugged, realizing that my story could only get more ludicrous.
“Mr. Gomes, we will have to call the police. Maybe then you will cooperate, yes?”
I was trying to recall the name of a school friend who had gone to law school.
“Look, as unbelievable as it might seem, this isn’t my locker! A man gave me the keys and asked me to deliver the contents to someone he knew.”
The two gentlemen were in no measure convinced. The station master’s left eyebrow shot up.
I rambled on with my story, and when I was finished, it felt like I had been talking for an hour. A fleeting look of impatience crossed the guard’s face. Out of breath, my last sentence came out shrill and full of self-doubt. They seemed to have understood the sequence of events – there were no questions asked. The station master interjected in his stern but steady voice.

“Mr. Gomes, even if we were to believe this sketchy story, we can’t deny the fact that you were caught with illegal narcotics in your possession. And there is a very stiff penalty for it. You are looking at jail time, sir!”
This time, he said it with the genial twinkle in his eye. At that moment, I knew what had to be done.
An hour of haggling, and we settled on two hundred rupees. A hefty sum that was, but a fitting price for my reckless curiosity.
As I walked out with a heavy heart and light purse, I could hear laughter behind me.
I have not been to the Rabindra Sarovar ever since.