When my grandfather expired, we found a small box in his iron trunk among his other belongings. My mother opened it, thinking it must contain something valuable. But all she found was an old pocket-book, and something wrapped in a dirty newspaper. She unwrapped the newspaper and immediately screamed in fright, dropping whatever was wrapped in it.
I hurried over and asked, ‘What – what happened, Ma?’
Trembling, she pointed to the floor and said, ‘Kumar, throw that thing away right now!’
I bent down and saw a skull lying on the floor. Surprised, I said, ‘A skull in his iron trunk! Had Thakurda lost his mind in his old age?’
‘What are you waiting for? Just throw it and sprinkle Ganga Jal right away?’
I chucked the skull out of the window into a ditch next to our house. The pocket-book I kept on a shelf. Ma put the wooden box back in the trunk. …
A few days later, Karali Mukherjee from our neighborhood suddenly turned up at our house. I was very surprised to see Karali Mukherjee at our place, because I knew that my grandfather and he had not got along at all; when Thakurda was alive, I had never seen Karali Mukherjee enter our home.
Karalibabu said to me, ‘Kumar, you have no elders guiding you any longer. You are still underage. All said and done, you’re a boy from the neighborhood, we should all be helping you right now. That is why I have come.’
Listening to Karalibabu’s words, I thought he wasn’t as bad a person as I had previously assumed. I thanked him and said, ‘If I need anything, I’ll come to you first.’
Then Karalibabu sat and talked of other things. In the course of our conversation, I said, ‘Something rather interesting has been found in Thakurda’s iron trunk!’
‘What thing?’ asked Karalibabu.
‘A sandalwood box, containing a skull-’
Karalibabu’s eyes burned bright like two embers. He quickly said, ‘A skull?’
‘Yes, and a pocket-book.’
‘Where is that box now?’
‘Still in the iron trunk.’
Karalibabu changed the subject after that, but I could tell that he was in the grip of some great excitement. Then he left.
That night I woke up all of a sudden. My dog, Bagha, was bringing the house down with his barking. Annoyed, I scolded him a couple of times, but all that did was egg Bagha on further. He barked even louder than before.
Right after that, I heard footsteps. Someone had just sprinted over our terrace, the footsteps thudding. Flustered, I rushed to open my bedroom door and stepped out. I looked around me, but there was no one there. I thought it was my imagination. Letting Bagha out of his leash, I returned to my room and went back to sleep. …
I woke up next morning to a huge commotion created by my mother. I stepped outside my room and asked, ‘What has happened, Ma?’
Ma said, ‘Kumar, a thief tried to burgle us last night!’
So I hadn’t imagined what I had heard.
‘Come and take a look, he’s broken open the iron trunk in the drawing room.’
Entering the drawing room, I saw she was right. The thief hadn’t been able to take much though, just the sandalwood box.
But a niggling worry ate away at me. Despite all the other valuables in the trunk, why did the thief just carry that one sandalwood box? Then I remembered how excited Karalibabu had been when I had mentioned that box yesterday. Was it possible that the box was part of some sort of a mystery? Otherwise, who would carefully store a skull in a trunk?
Without alerting my mother, I rushed out. When I reached the ditch I found the skull lying on a mound of trash! I picked it up once more to inspect it. The skull had been painted over on one side with some sort of dark dye, but the water in the ditch had rubbed off some of the colour. And where the dye was absent, there were some calculations carved into the bone. Burning with curiosity, I smuggled the skull back home. Some hard rubbing with soap and the dye washed off. I watched in silent surprise as an entire side of the skull emerged, filled with minute numbers; someone had carved them in. They looked like this :-