Satyajit Ray’s Beard or the Lack Thereof – Abhijato Sensarma

Satyajit Ray’s Beard or the Lack Thereof – Abhijato Sensarma

June 2021

“And why would there be multiple Earths in the same universe?” the counsellor asks me. She’s not my counsellor—and this isn’t my world. But she still has the same pair of spectacles resting on the bridge of her nose, and she peers through them to look at me. She must have been confused at the start of today’s discourse. Usually, we talk about my marriage being in the wrong place, not my body being on the wrong planet.

I slip forward on the sofa. The woman sitting beside me looks at me with concern—but now that she’s out of my line of sight, I can think better. It took me some time to accept the fact that she’s my wife in this world. She has a shaved head here, but what truly took me by surprise was the fact that we were sleeping in the same bed when we woke up. And when I told her I shouldn’t be there, she looked at me with an expression of love for me which I did not know she still allowed herself to reveal.

When I first came here, I did not know what to expect—in many ways, I still don’t. But my professional life’s turned out to be the same as it’s always been. I’m still a quantum engineering professor. I’m still working on teleportation. And I still feel like myself—I’m a resident of my own mind, at the very least. But there’re two big differences in this world that set it apart from mine.

“If the shape of the universe is flat enough, as evidence seems to suggest, then it’s constantly expanding.” My hands spread outwards in front of me as I start my monologue. It’s a habit I have. “And if molecules are allowed to arrange themselves in every way they can over infinite space, they’ll eventually run out of unique combinations. Patterns will start repeating—and the same worlds will arise in different parts of the universe.”

The counsellor nods again. She steals the slightest of glances at my wife between looking up from her notebook and looking at me—“Have you considered the possibility … that this may be a reaction to your wife having cancer?”

I bend my head sideways, confused. Couples therapy has never been my favourite part of the weekend, but neither has the counsellor ever been this wrong. She thinks I’m going crazy.

My wife’s bald head steals my attention more than her eyes. But oh, her eyes do read of pity. I don’t want any.

My wife isn’t dying from cancer.” I say it with an emphasis on my baritone. It sounds harsh, almost dismissive. You’re in denial, the counsellor seems to think. But once again, she doesn’t say anything. She simply brings up her arms to the handrest on her seat and leans on it, thinking of how to approach this case.

Just then, the alarm clock in her room goes off. She snaps her fingers and mutters “Turn est.” A switch moves by itself, and the alarm stops ringing. “Time’s up, so that will be all for today. I think we’re making real progress here so far. Same time, next week?”

She smiles at me, but I retain my nonchalance. I stare at the portrait of Satyajit Ray in the background—he’s the most revered filmmaker in Bengali cinema. But here, he has a beard akin to a Tagore, whereas Ray was famously clean-shaven in my own world. This isn’t my home. And this isn’t the Ray whose films I’ve grown up watching.

The portrait shouldn’t even be there—in my world, the counsellor hung her framed diploma on this wall, so that it would be facing us during the session. But in the strange new place I find myself in, the diploma’s on the other side of the wall, where Ray’s portrait should have been. It’s a reversal which doesn’t say much, except that this isn’t my world to inhabit.

I look at the woman who claims to be my wife. As a way of compensation for my harshness, she says to the counsellor, “Thank you, Doctor.” Then, she mutters something under her breath. I don’t catch the spell this time around. She’s intentionally using the tone she always does when she’s cross with me. And before I can do anything about it, a white beam of energy envelops her. By the time the energy dissipates, so does she. I’ll find her at home again.

“Umm,” I say, looking around the room. I run my fingers over the leather on the sofa with my left hand, and run the other hand across my hair. “I guess … I’ll just walk back home.”

I nod awkwardly at the counsellor and pat my thighs before getting up. She looks at me with concern that brims over to amusement. She doesn’t say anything, of course—but she’s only human.

The counsellor’s the least of my concerns as I walk down the stairs and make my way onto the road. The autorickshaws and taxis converge in the middle of the four-way intersection, pausing for a moment when the signal opens for the other side. Soon, their turn comes as well. I stand and stare at them for a while, until all the vehicles I tried to keep track of have disappeared out of sight. There isn’t too much of a difference between the public transportation of the Kolkata I know and the one I’m in right now, except for the fact that all vehicles hover above the ground here. They have no wheels, but they do have drivers and an automated gear shift technique that does not require the assistance of hands.

I’ve learned about it on the Internet, which is no less fascinating or abusive than the one I know from my own planet. I’m a product from before the World Wide Web’s time, but the evolution of science seems to have followed a less stringent path on this world, where magical spells do a lot of what science and maths account for in mine. I don’t like this place.

It’s been less than twenty-four hours since I found myself in this world, but in that time, I’ve come to understand that the most commonly used spell is the one which helps in transportation. People don’t use it all the time, and prefer using public vehicles when they can—it’s akin to not taking a helicopter every time you want to cross the street, I guess. But the spells used here are strange, as spells have always been. They’re spelled in Latin, as well. What is the one for transportation, though?

I try saying it out loud. “Trans—transvec—transvectio—”

And just as I pronounce the spell—it’s the correct one, it seems—I find myself disintegrating. It’s a strange sensation, and I would think about it more if not for the fact that my mental facilities seem to be incapacitated. When I feel complete again, with my senses and my cognitive abilities returning, the first thought I have is—”What on Earth?”

It’s an ironic choice of words considering my situation. I find myself looking straight at Satyajit Ray’s bearded portrait again. According to the Basic Dictionary of Magic—whose online website I accessed yesterday—one’s always transported to the place they’re thinking about at the time of saying the spell. Using this spell effectively is an acquired habit.

I look down, and there is the counsellor again, peering over her spectacles and straining her neck with curiosity no longer censored by the hours she’s being paid for. I see a notepad on her lap. She’s probably filing away the minutes of today’s session with us before the next client arrives.

“Hello … What may I do for you?” She tries to wear a smile on her face, but her lips twitch back to a more neutral position.

I chuck my head to the right and smile, embarrassed at this intrusion of mine. “I’ve just transported myself to the wrong place when I intended to go back home. You see, I was thinking about your place instead of mine, and I’m new to this magic business, so I didn’t realise what would happen if I said transvectio—”

And just then, I can’t feel my toes again. I realise what’s going to happen next—I’ve spoken the spell, haven’t I? But before I can think too much about the nuances of transporting for the second time in as many minutes, I’m no longer able to feel my thoughts either. It’s serene, almost meditative, to not carry the worries of these worlds on my shoulders.

But when my feet touch the ground again, I throw up. It’s on a familiar rug—the one I brought back home after spending a year in Switzerland working on the effects of extreme altitudes on my teleportation machine. The machine never worked. And in this world, it doesn’t need to.

“Hey,” I hear the familiar voice say. It’s my wife’s, even if it’s mellowed down now. Probably because of the cancer. And also, because her husband seems to have gone crazy.

I look up at her. She’s in her robes, getting ready for a bath. But before I can tell her anything—or apologise as a way of coming to terms with the place that is going to be my home for the rest of my life—I feel my eyes closing. I didn’t even say a spell this time. Where am I going now?

But before I can take in my new surroundings, my face hits the floor. The first—and last—thought I have here is that my nose is going to hurt like hell when I wake up again.

On opening my eyes, I see the roof above my head. I can still hear the public vehicles making their way past our home on this main road of the city. I never liked this place, even though the apartment itself is fine. Furnished at the time of purchase too. It’s just that the commotion of the bazaar and the cars have never been to my liking. On the other hand, my wife thought the familiar sirens and rhythmic honks which compose this room’s overtones would give me comfort when I came back home after the uncertainty of conducting experiments at my laboratory. I didn’t think it would help, but over time, the sounds of the street have indeed turned meditative for me.

I find a reflection of my life in the taxis which pick up their passengers below at inflated rates. You can bargain, you can curse, and you can go anywhere you want—but at the end of the day, the taxi always drops you off at home. You’ve seen the sights of the city, yet there’s the same old bed you need to sleep on. Beside a woman you loved once, but now can’t bear to touch.

She realises I’m awake, though, and moves into my field of vision. I still don’t want to touch her, because she isn’t mine to have, and she isn’t mine to love. But even if she were, would I want to? I feel uncomfortable about the realisation that she’s a mortal—in both this world, and the one I’ve come from.

Before I can grasp at the finer ends of this chain of thought, I’m brought back to reality by a sudden pang of physical discomfort. My eyes look down, and I can see the bridge of my nose—it’s certainly not where it should be. It’s bent way too much towards my right. It’s on the verge of being numb, but isn’t, which makes the pain intolerable now that my senses are fully returning.

This wife moves her fingers and says a spell which does not penetrate the ringing sound in my ears. But the sound eventually dissipates, and as it does so, I feel my nose align itself properly. It almost twitches—no, it jumps back into its place.

I want to move away from her, for no fault of her own. She reminds me of my own wife too much—the one with whom disagreements have turned into silent nights. But even now, when she seems as foreign to me as she’s ever been, I cannot stop admiring her. She always was the more tenacious of us. During separation or a bout with cancer, how does she remain the pleasant one?

She looks at me now with a love in her eyes I did not know I’d been missing. A love which is unconditional and comes out in moments of solidarity that have not yet turned into gestures born out of obligation.

But I cannot allow myself to reciprocate the feeling, even if I feel a tinge of heartache. For, as much as I want to reach out now, and brush my hands against her hardened cheeks, she still isn’t mine to love. So, I push my arms against the surface I’m lying on, attempting to get back up.

“No, you must rest. Have you forgotten about that time we went to Darjeeling and you transported twice in a minute?” The voice lets out a laugh, but she doesn’t see it through. I’ve seen her do this before, but I realise now why she does it. We’ve hurt each other too much, you see, and expressing ourselves has become a luxury. A laugh about the good old times has long been replaced by a few more moments of silence in my world.

“What happened to me? Am I a serial fainter in this world?” The weather’s always been oppressive in this part of the country during the summers.

“You’ve got the Paralysis Syndrome, or have you forgotten that as well?” she asks. I shoot her a look. I never knew, I would like to tell her, but it wouldn’t help.

Her head bows down as a way of resignation. “Your heredity means you can’t teleport yourself like the rest of us can. You can only do it twice a day. You get quite tired otherwise. You pass out, like you did today.”

I try to nod, but my head doesn’t seem to be able to lift itself from the pillow for now. However, I do seem to recollect a stray line from the Dictionary of Magic’s entry about the subject. Something about people being born with a rare variation of the 24th pair of chromosomes, the ones that grant humans their ability to interact with magic. A pair which—in my world—is considered to lead to deformities and death rather than magical abilities.

“I … I really might not be who you think I am.”

She places a hand on her temple and looks away. “The mosquitoes are going to start entering the room again—let me shut the windows. Prope.” And on cue, the windows move inwards, as if they’re intoxicated by a breeze blowing out of the room. The illusion of normalcy is shattered when the latches attached to the bottoms of the windows pick themselves up and lock them into their positions on the windowsills. Estranged or not, my wife remains cool across realms.

And right then, the first lines of Rabindra Sangeet burst through our closed windows, drowning out the noise of the receding vehicles as the last strains of sunlight drain away and the artificial lights take over. “Ami chini go chini tomake, ogo bideshini.” I know you, oh, I do, foreigner.

Ah yes, I do. She’s going to be my life now—there’s no escape from it, and somewhere deep inside, I don’t want there to be any. It will take time to learn this world’s spells, perhaps, and it will take time to convince the counsellor that I was truly having a nervous breakdown about my wife’s cancer today. But things aren’t as bad with my wife here as they are back home. Our time together will be curtailed, but maybe I can learn to love her again all the same.

“Did I ever stop loving you?” I ask her, as a way of enquiring about the work I would need to put in to have a better relationship with her.

She shoots me another look. But I’ve always been this way, asking questions about love and existence while lying on the bed with a broken nose, if only figuratively. So, she answers, “No. As a matter of fact, ever since my diagnosis, you’ve loved me more than you ever have.”

I try to nod, but it ends up looking like an awkward twitch of the head. She understands, though, and she laughs. For the first time in months, I’m able to smile with her. Oh, how I’ve missed that feeling of having someone there for me. The baggage of death takes precedence over marital discontent, I realise.

“Why does my nose … feel normal?”

“I fixed it. It’s the first spell you ever taught me. Transportation helped us get away from either of our parents if they saw us when they weren’t supposed to. You always landed on your nose whenever you fell unconscious. And I was always there for you. To fix your nose. Or just fix your hair.”

So, in this world, I did find a way of escaping her parents. A less painful way than jumping out of her window from the first floor and breaking a bone in my leg that one time, for sure.

“Does this help you remember anything?” she asks.

“It does,” I reply, remembering the exuberance of her youth—and mine—with a fondness I didn’t think my marriage would still entail. “But then … it doesn’t.” She sighs.

I’ve never believed in karma. Neither did I ever believe in magic before I saw it with my eyes. Perhaps this mystical experience of love I don’t deserve is karma repaying itself for things I’ve done in lives I cannot remember. I would like to confess my sins to her, tell her how I’ve mistreated her.

But before I can, my wife rests her hands on my forehead. “You’ve become very tired because of this ordeal. Sleep now, and I’ll sleep alongside you. Hopefully, you’ll be in your senses when we wake up tomorrow. Somnus.”

And I feel myself drifting away again. I slip into oblivion, akin to how I’ve felt while teleporting before. But this time, I’m not reappearing to a different part of the world. My mind merely guides me to a world of my own. I feel a comfort I haven’t felt for a long time now—the comfort of falling asleep next to someone you love.

“So, you believe you’re from another dimension?” the doctor asks. I nod and look around the room. I see laminated certificates hanging where Satyajit Ray’s portrait should be hanging. The portrait occupies the space on the wall right behind me. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought the counsellor had just exchanged our seats as a way of giving the two of us a ‘new perspective’.

But when I turn around to look at the portrait, Mr. Ray’s likeness hangs up there without a beard on the man’s face, as if it’s a joke. His beard’s the most iconic part of his appearance—and this world doesn’t even have that. Alongside the fact that it believes magic exists only in escapist novels and ancient scriptures.

“Umm, yes, I do.” I don’t put in too much effort into my assertion, because I’m truly not interested in this session. This counsellor isn’t the one I’ve been intimate with about my Paralysis Syndrome. And this wife isn’t the one I’ve grown so close to because of her terminal cancer. She looks much younger sitting beside me now, untouched by fate or fear.

She loves me in this world as well. But she doesn’t have terminal cancer—yet—and this makes her more placid, less lively, than my wife. The man who’s actually married to her was the one who filed for divorce. On the other hand, my affection for her has turned platonic with the changing of worlds. I would like to embrace her, and apologise for the sins of another man, but I love her only as my confidant from a different life. It wouldn’t be fair to love her any more than that.

She brought me in for an emergency counselling session today. She checked my temperature and cooked me a good meal first, even though I’ve become the one to do that in my own marriage back home. She cares for me, yes, she does—yet, as much as I care for this woman too, I can’t seem to love her.

“Have you considered that this could be related to the fact that the two of you want a divorce?”

“Ah,” I say. “It’s the farthest thing from what I want, though.”

My wife shoots me a look. “You’re the one who wanted it the most.”

I get up from my place, and throw out my hands—it’s a sign of desperation in this world too, I hope. “I’m sorry, but this is all too much for me. Transvectio.” I stand in my place, but nothing happens.

I’d forgotten. I don’t have the chromosomes I need to perform magic in this world.

The counsellor bends her eyebrow at me. “I’ve been learning a bit of Latin to cope with all this stress,” I inform her. It’s a trick I picked up at school, whenever anyone caught me practicing spells in an empty classroom or in a corner of the playground—I’ve never been good at magic. The excuse usually failed to protect me from the ridicule of my classmates when I was younger, but now, it helps me slip out of my unsuccessful attempt at teleportation.

I look around this familiar room set up in an alien manner for what I hope is the last time. “I think I need a break. I’m unable to cope with the pressure, and I’d appreciate some space rather than being dragged down for therapy to this office. My apologies, I’ll have to get going now.” I do my best impression of storming out of the room and down the stairs of the large hospital. Theatrics, it turns out, will always convince others to leave an upset man alone, whether it has something to do with magical civilisations or not.

Some use the elevator, of course, but it’s a relief to see most others walking beside me on the stairs. In my world, the presence of magic means people teleport themselves to the other end of a long journey in a matter of minutes. Everyone except for people like me, that is. On the other hand, everyone here needs to sit down and let a good old engine—and a decent driver—do the work instead.

As jarring as this reality has been to me so far, including the experiences with my very own wife, the biggest incentive for staying in this world has been the respect engineers are given here. In the society I’ve grown up in, engineering as a career has always been treated akin to a punchline. The electricity plants that power most of the world, the equipment that makes surgeries easier for Medical Wizards, and of course, the transportation that helps the less biologically gifted ones among us—they’re only possible with the help of scientists like us. But it’s the Wizards who are at the helm of affairs. They’re the most influential politicians and academics. They get to decide what others are known as. Many books have called the people of my profession an ‘afterthought’, replaceable tools only there to help the Wizards accomplish their goals. But society wouldn’t be able to hold itself together if our kind disappeared overnight.

This world, on the other hand, designs its fervour around supernatural elements of a different kind. I see the people praying in makeshift temples and on the rickshaws that carry models of their deities wherever they go. Not being treated as a dispensable labourer comforts me in a way I’ve never felt about my professional identity before. I wouldn’t mind staying here—but I can’t.

I’ve fought for a semblance of respect towards my profession for the longest time. It’s the reason I started experimenting with manufacturing a teleportation device using scientific apparatus rather than relying on the genetic predispositions of the population. I’ve found what I’ve sought for all my life—but this isn’t earned.

So, I make my way to the most familiar place I know after my home—the University I work at. The only difference being that here, the campus isn’t guarded by magical sharks floating in the air.

Rather, the University’s guarded solely by the same people I’ve become good acquaintances with back in my realm. It is closed off to students at this time of the evening, but when I flash my ID at one of the guards—a card which surprisingly does not morph itself into a miniature replica of its holder in this world—he lets me in. “Welcome, Professor,” the man says, and steps aside.

I make my way up to the second floor. Room 616. Here it is. I stand in front of the door for a moment, then another, and then another. It’s on the last beat that I have to remind myself once more of the nature of human existence here. You’ve got to turn your own door handles in this world.

I enter the room and switch on the lights. Here lies the machine. It looks the same. It’s cylindrical, with a hollow, secured chamber in the middle of it large enough to fit a human—the place where the person must enter if they’re to teleport. This machine remains in its prototype stage, just like mine.

The most essential discovery I’ve made exists here too, in the form of a neutrino battery on top of the machine, powered by an alloy of platinum and plutonium. A ‘radiation cover’ ensures the battery is shielded and the machine can be dealt with in normal clothing. As a matter of abundant precaution, I slip on the gloves lying on the counter.

I proceed to open the chamber and look at the controls when I realise these gloves are not infused with any magical spells. This means that they aren’t really protecting me from any radiation-related accidents. But I carry on. A preliminary inspection should not take long.

The machine looks the same on the exterior as mine. The keypad has an extensive entry system which allows for transportation to different parts of the Universe, even though this is an ambitious addition to the machine’s infrastructure. It’s purely theoretical, because it cannot function. Mine didn’t, at least.

I pick up a screwdriver and unshackle the interior of the machine. Another cursory glance reveals what I’ve been suspecting ever since I entered this lab. The protoype, it turns out, is indeed a bit different looking here—on the inside! I shift my focus away from the similarities and study the differences between my device and the one this Earth’s version of me has created.

I put on my protection kit and start with my work. I note down observations in my favourite notebook—this world’s version of it, anyway. Blueprints lie all around my corner of the lab, and my suspicions are confirmed.

He’s created one half of the machine, with his work delivering solutions to the long-drawn questions I’ve asked myself over the years during its construction. His configurations reveal things like how the neutrino battery should be wired to the quantum transportation engine, and whether I should add a circuit breaker before or after the feed from the electronic transmitted attached to the keypad is integrated into the CPU (before, of course, but only with a special modification to the industry model to make it compatible with my work). His notebook combines with my knowledge to show me the full picture, and thus, I can now complete this Teleporter to make it a functional one.

The switch must have happened yesterday, under the improbable conditions across both ends of the Universe where similar worlds created two polar opposites of machines which also had perfect compatibility with each other. The alignment of similar cellular structures did the rest, and the ambiguity in the positions of supercharged, hyperactive atoms altered the probabilities of their positions. This simultaneously attempted operation of compatible halves led to some sort of superimposition of the machine and its contents before the eventual separation. During this time, our consciousnesses must have switched—because while my body feels the same, it’s lost the power to perform magic here—so it’s likely his body. My counterpart probably has my former abilities, under this hypothesis.

But again, it’s just that—a hypothesis. I can’t remember for the life of me how I ended up tucked in bed on this world. I was a mess when I woke up in the morning. Maybe it’s just the machine that does it. All I know is that the rest of my life seems perfectly stored in my mental faculties.

Such a freak accident probably won’t occur again—neither the transportation, nor the memory loss—but it doesn’t need to. I now know how to configure this machine, and make it work from a single location. If I do manage to work things out soon, I can go home again, and help my other self out too.

Let’s see how I go about rescuing both versions of myself now—and inventing intra-dimensional teleportation along the way.

When I open my eyes, I expect to feel her palm on my forehead again, ready to put me to sleep if I haven’t come around to what she thinks are my regular senses. Sunlight is peering in through the windows, which are open again, and carrying in the familiar hum of the vehicles during office hour.

I slide up in my bed and feel the sour taste in my mouth. I’ll need to brush my teeth. What was the spell for doing that, again? “Puriter lavit dentes.Have clean teeth. It’s the wordiest phrase I learned yesterday, but also the most convenient one of them all. I would also love to learn the spell which lets me floss, even though I’ve never done that as a regular human being before.

The brush should’ve been floating towards me with the perfect amount of paste on it, a proportion which no human hands could ever conjure. But it doesn’t. I say the words louder. “Puriter lavit dentes.

“Have you really been taking your Latin classes so seriously?” my wife asks. She’d been asleep, beside me. “I didn’t realise you were taking any at all.”

I turn towards her. Yes, I’m seeing my wife, because she has her long hair again. She’s also got the beautiful smile and that radiance which comes from being optimistic about what life plans for you next.

And then, the memories come back to me in bits and pieces. I recollect the strange feeling with which I was greeted when I met another part of myself in a world which seems too distant to exist now.

He told me the theory he’d postulated, and introduced me to his machine—it was incomplete, yet revealed all I needed to know to get home. We worked on completing it overnight, and now, here I am, before the break of dawn. I can’t recollect all the details, but I remember enough. He said he’s noted down all that I would need in my notebook to construct another machine. I want to rush down to the University’s laboratory to check if the memories I’ve retained aren’t betraying me. And if there already is a fully functional Teleporter in my lab.

I remember his parting words as well. Love your wife as much as you can, for as long as you can. Some of us don’t have her for much longer—but then, neither will you, if you stop loving her.

She still wears a look of confusion on her face, though, as she should. This is the first time in months that we’ve shared the same bed—I must have slipped in while she was asleep. She would have no way of knowing I’ve changed overnight, once again.

“Are you … wearing a wig?” I ask.

Now, she shoots me the familiar look which indicates her confusion has been superseded by amusement. “I’m going to call the counsellor again. You could do with some medication—I didn’t realise our divorce would get to you so much …”

“You don’t need to do that,” I say.

Questions of science can wait—it’s the ones of my heart that need to be answered first. In this world, my world, I realise that the two of us still have time. My wife’s concerned. She’s been concerned for the longest time, hasn’t she? There’s a tinge of sorrow which hides beneath her façade as well, but it’s not of the inevitable kind. We can make things better between us.

“I’ve got another question,” I say.

“What’s it this time?”

“Did Satyajit Ray ever have a beard?”

“No, he was an indie filmmaker—not a crazy loon.”

I break out into a smile. “I’ve been feeling like one myself up until now.”

She tilts her head to the left.

I reach forward to caress her hair, and then I hug her for the first time in months—I didn’t want to before, but now that I can, I wouldn’t be having this any other way. She tries to move away at first, but then, she embraces me too.

We need to work on our relationship—a lot. But I’m in my own world again, in the arms of my own wife, and with an enriched Latin vocabulary. It isn’t going to be easy. But the time to try isn’t a luxury everyone has, unlike us.

I break away from our embrace for a moment. “I want things to be better. I want us to be happy again. And I don’t want to leave you,” I say.

“Neither do I.”

“We can try again, can’t we?”

She nods. Amidst the moments of silence yet to retreat from our relationship, I reach forward and embrace her once more. She’s never stopped loving me, and now, I realise that neither have I.

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