The Gilbert Jessop Mystery is a tale of detection etched on a vast canvas. A cricket historian plays the role of an expert hired to solve an intriguing problem involving old scoring sheets, fast hundreds, modern-art masterpieces, antique wagon wheels and old Victorian letters.
As he puts together pieces of the puzzle, he gets entangled in a bizarre mystery which spans across a century in time encompassing subjects as varied as Victorian England, the last days of British Raj, Scientific influence on Art and the Internet.
This novella is available in the volume Bowled Over – Stories Between the Covers by Arunabha Sengupta.
Kumar walked back to the table, a smile touching his lips.
“We fly to Jaipur at half past seven tomorrow morning,” he announced. “I will come down to the hotel to pick you up at 5.30. Sylvie, I hope you don’t have other plans.”
Sylvie rolled her eyes. “Your Highness, I can’t dream of missing it. I must say, this calls for celebration.”
“Celebration? I do agree, but you know about me Sylvie. I am a teetotaller.”
Sylvie had suddenly shed her sober, studious exterior. She looked at Kumar with mock disgust.
“What kind of a Maharaja are you?”
Kumar brought his fingers to his lips.
“Shhh…Don’t ever say that again. I am no longer a Maharaja, never been one. No Maharaja in the Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic. Especially so in Calcutta, where only the biggest communist is allowed a quasi-regally named palace of his own.”
Sylvie laughed and turned towards me.
“What about you, professor? Do you also profess to be a teetotaller?”
Again there was the one-sided skirmish with my conscience which the combination of wine and woman won convincingly.
“Well, I don’t mind the odd glass as long as it doesn’t approach a bottle, but shouldn’t we wait till the actual painting is unearthed?”
Sylvie looked at my eyes and if I was any vainer, I would have sensed flirtation.
“It is not the destination but the journey that’s important. Let’s celebrate this small achievement.”
Drinks were called for. Kumar, disciplined ever since his cricketing days, had nothing stronger than salted fresh lime soda. He left early, reminding us of the early start the following morning.
We left The Oriental after dinner and moved to the Polo Bar. Sylvie sipped her vodka while I had quite a lot of Johnny Walker.
With each passing minute and downed peg, she seemed to grow more and more attractive. She was prattling a lot.
“I heard you play cricket too,” she said as I thought about getting up.
“I do, but I am much better at its history. And no history of cricket will ever talk of me,”
“Well, it might, if you are instrumental in discovering the Gilbert Jessop painting. To Jessop Jubilee,” she raised her glass.
An hour later, I got up from the table. Sylvie had to support me.
“Do you want me to help, ma’am?” a polite waiter enquired.
Sylvie waved him away.
“So, professor, holding your drink is not one of your strong points either,” she said, chiding playfully.
I staggered to the elevator, my arm around Sylvie’s shoulder.
“To tell you the truth…I am not a drinker at all,” I said, not knowing whether to be ashamed.
“I guess there was reason enough to celebrate,” she replied. We got into the elevator.
“That’s true,” I said. “But, more than that… I was enjoying your company a bit too much.”
“But, professor, the pleasure’s mine too,” she responded generously. “You are full of hilarious anecdotes. You’ll be an instant hit on any Sports Channel.”
I leaned on her a bit more than was necessary as we got out of the elevator. She led me to my room.
“I hope I’ll be able to wake up in time,” I said. “Sylvie, I know you’re a dear, but will you be good enough to ask the reception to give me a wakeup call?”
She opened the door.
“I’ll come and wake you myself,” she said. “Professor, you have done enough thinking for a day, now relax and sleep it off.”
I was helped to the bed and there she allowed me to fall. I remember a semi successful lunge at her petite waist and a disgusting attempt to kiss her. I did not remember the outcome, but it was neither romantic, nor violent. At least, I can say for sure that I was not slapped. I guess, she understood my state of inebriation well enough and gently, firmly detached herself from my pathetic embrace.
I woke up the next morning with a feeling of iron pikes being drilled through my head.
A uniformed member of the hotel staff was looking at me with curiosity. Another pair of hands was shaking me.
“What in God’s name…?”
“Sir, are you okay?”
I groaned and sat up in bed. Somehow, the surrounding did not seem to be quite right.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“It is half past nine,” one of them answered.
I squinted at the door, and then around the room.
The two of them exchanged glances with ill-concealed laughter. Here’s a classic drunk, their eyes seemed to suggest. He has no idea whether it’s day or night.
I got up haughtily and reeled.
“Steady, sir,” one of them held me as I regained my balance.
“I had asked for a wake up call at five…I had a flight to catch at seven thirty…What’s …?”
One of them spoke. “Sir, this room has been vacated.”
“The lady staying in the room has vacated it. She checked out at 5.30 this morning. We were cleaning up when you...”
“What the… I mean I had been staying in this room,” I protested. Suddenly the strangeness of the room was more apparent.
“Wait a sec, what’s the room number?”
This made no sense. I had been staying in 421. Sylvie had been staying in 517. What exactly was going on?
“I am from 421,” I said. The two of them kept looking at me expressionless eyes trying hard to hide the bubbling amusement underneath. They seemed to be used to such mix ups.
I demanded to see the manager.
It was all very confusing. It was difficult to explain everything to the manager in the first place because nothing really made sense to me. My room key was also not with me. However, a couple of the hotel staff identified me as being the guest from room 421. And one of them had seen me being taken to the 5th floor by the firangi madam. Soon, the manager worked out that I was the guest of the great Kumar Mangalsingh. He quickly put on his external shell of extreme courtesy.
As I was handed a key to room 421 along with a pitcher of lemon solution which supposedly worked wonders on hangovers, I made my way up with a splitting headache.
How had I landed up in Sylvie’s room? To what limits had my inebriated advances taken me? Had I tried to force myself into her room, or had I been too intoxicated to get out and return to my own room? All I remembered was being half-carried by Sylvie and then lunging for her waist. And what happened after that? Where was she? Where was Kumar? Had they left for Jaipur without me?
I entered my room and sat clutching my forehead. Lots of things did not make sense.
I groped for the phone and called Kumar’s residence. The phone rang on and on without being answered.
I called his shop, KM Sportsgoods and was informed that Kumar had left for Jaipur. He was expected to be back within a week.
That was strange. Kumar had indeed left without me. Had Sylvie told him of my drunken advances? That would explain a lot. His whole impression about me would undergo a metamorphosis. I looked at the carpet, ashamed of my own lack of restraint. That, too, with a guest from another country. In advanced stages of alcohol induced moments of chivalrous indiscretion, I had probably mistaken the normal friendliness of her culture as flirtation.
I took a sip of the lemon mixture and contacted the hotel’s travel desk. I wanted a train ticket back to Jaipur. I could not afford an air ticket without Kumar’s sponsorship. They promised to get back to me by the afternoon.
I thought of going back to bed, but my head throbbed. I spent some time in the tub and then went out to get a breath of fresh air. I walked across the Lower Circular Road and along a small lane to the Theatre Road. The only solace I had in moments of doldrums was among books. I walked into the British Council Library.
For some reason, I went over some materials on Gilbert Jessop. How he drew people to the ground with his big hitting, how Neville Cardus pined for another of his kind, how he retired at the age of forty – early for those times – because of ill health and then lived to see eighty.
I tried to hunt down some articles on Mangalsingh and Ajaysingh’s contribution to Indian cricket, but apart from the mandatory mention of their first-class records in Wisden statistics I found nothing else. Just out of curiosity I tried to find more material on Vipul Pratap Sareen and Dharamveer Singh, but once again, I got only their first class records.
I walked out of the library and located an STD call booth. It was past one in the afternoon, and I guessed that Kumar would have reached Jaipur by now, even if the flight had been delayed. I dialled the number of Kumar’s Jaipur home. I was informed that Kumar had indeed reached his residence, but had gone out again immediately after depositing his luggage. Had there been any English lady with him? Who is speaking, sir? Professor Anand. Well, sir, I don’t know, he came in alone, dropped his luggage and went off in the car. There might have been someone in the car, but I can’t say for sure.
After a moment’s thought, I dialled the number of RRCC. The phone rang on and on and on.
Dejected, I came out of the booth. I did not feel like eating anything. The head still throbbed. I went back into the British Council Library.
The Internet Access had just been installed in the library, and one could use it at an exorbitant rate of Rs 100 every half hour. I had had some experience of browsing the net since VSNL had brought the World Wide Web to India two years earlier. I had been fascinated by Cricinfo.
I went in and logged on to the web. I did not really know what I was looking for in particular. I just wanted something to do, preferably in air-conditioned environment.
I pulled up Altavista and typed Paul Hackensmith.
The results were somewhere in the region of two million, ranging from Pope John Paul 2 to Hackensack, NJ. I typed Mangalsingh and searched again. The results were equally numerous, varied and useless.
I thought of searching something which would give fewer results. I typed Vipul Pratap Sareen + Cricket. There were fewer results this time. The first result took me to Cricinfo’s page of player career statistics. I saw the same results I had seen the day before in the pages of Wisden. Two matches, nine wickets, at an average of 18 runs per wicket with a best of six for 67. That seemed a good enough start to a career. The date of birth was April 16, 1927. So, he must have been just eighteen when Paul Hackensmith had seen him bowl. Whatever happened to him after that? He who bowled like Alec Bedser?
I went back to the search results and clicked on the next result. It loaded after an interminable two minute wait and showed the curriculum University of Hackesford, NC, where Vipul Rege, Andy Svenson and Pratap Singh would appear for a Test on February 27. The next bulletin was about a Synthesis of Western Melodies by a group called The Merry Cricketers. Mark Sareenson would do something or the other at an Wushu Exhibition…I quickly hit the Back button.
There were several such false results. I clicked on the fifth link merely for the want of anything better to do. No constructive idea was forming in my throbbing head. As often happened to me while surfing, I had become quite passive and the mouse almost dictated me.
As the fresh screen began to load, I immediately realised that it was another result far from target. It seemed to be a message-board of a Zen Buddhism Study Group of an Oxford University College. I was just on the verge of clicking the Back icon on the toolbar when I noticed the message which had come up.
Re: Sound of one hand Clapping
Posted by Nathaniel Smith on 23rd May, 1996
It is very apt that the answer to an age old koan should suddenly flash in front of me in the most commonplace of day to day happenings.
It was the Oxford-Cambridge cricket match and the young Indian batsman of the home team, Jay Sareen, played one of the most pleasing innings. I am not an expert on cricket, but the century that he made was a thing of beauty - and I dare say it would have made the venerable Kashyapa smile if he had beheld Gautama watching this innings just as he had beheld him sniffing a flower.
Sitting in the stands, beaming with pride and with a lost expression on his face was Jay’s father. The old gentleman could not join the others in applauding his son as he walked back to the pavilion, one of his arms was amputated … probably an old accident, but did it make his clapping any less audible? Others cheered loudly, including the pretty art history major Sarah Palmer, the fiancée of the day’s champion batsman. But, the sound of one hand clapping was heard the loudest of all.
Follow me said the wise man, but he walked behind.
I re-read this unusual exposition of Zen Buddhist philosophy. And then, for the next hour or so, I surfed the net with unusual zeal, desperately egging on the painstakingly slow connection.
At half past two, I was sprinting out of the British Council Library towards the nearest telephone booth. I had never run faster in my life.
This novella is available at John McKenzie Cricket Bookshop
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)