Arka felt a shiver along the left side of his chest. It was slight to start with, then gave two medium size shakes and then stopped. Arka felt his chest and looked up. Hope nobody noticed anything. No. Everyone worked silently along the rows of tables.
Heart palpitation was not a good sign in a twenty six year old active man. It would be a cause of worry. Hope nothing was wrong with his heart! But Arka felt more irritation than worry. He frowned. It wasn’t his heart; it was his cell phone in his pocket! He had kept it in the vibrating mode. So if he got any call, it would not ring, just vibrate. At this time it could only mean that Utsa was trying to call him. If he didn’t reply, she would keep calling. As if she was in a grave danger. This was her habit.
Yet, today, before leaving home, he had repeatedly warned his wife, “Please don’t call me, Utsa.”
Utsa was nestled on the sofa reading some magazine. It was about some women’s make up. Since her marriage, she had been spending a lot of time with these magazines. Each issue dealt with different topics. Some with hairdos, some with hands, or lips. Today she was reading about eyelashes. How to keep your eyelashes wet for a long time. The writer had a sense of humor. Right in the beginning he said, “Crying is the easiest way to keep those eyelashes wet. Crying makes your eyes look deep and mysterious. Remember as modesty is a woman’s adornment, crying is the adornment for the eyes. But for those who can’t even do this easy task, let me give some tips…”
Now she looked up from the magazine, “Why can’t I call you?”
Arka was buttoning up his shirt, “Cell phones are not allowed there. We have to keep all phones outside before entering.”
Utsa was amused, “Why? Is it like a school?”
Arka stopped himself from getting irked. It was not a good idea to get mad at one’s brand new wife. Of course he wouldn’t be able to get mad even when she got old. Because Utsa, though not exactly beautiful, was a sweet natured girl. It was hard to get mad at sweet soft people. So he said in a quiet voice, “No, not a school, Utsa, it is a laboratory. And we work with sound in the lab. That’s why it is prohibited to bring in any external sounds.”
Utsa was wearing a dressing gown on her nightie. Very pretty gown. These outfits could cover a body as well as reveal it. They didn’t show overtly but gave enough hints about the body underneath. With Utsa, it indirectly accentuated all the curves of her slim body. Arka looked away. That body had gotten him in enough trouble. It had made him late for work for at least three or four days. The car came and honked downstairs; still Arka undid his shoes and ties. Utsa never refused her husband’s overtures for sex, but would never let him get in bed with shoes and ties.
Utsa raised her arms and stretched, “But yesterday you picked up the phone when I called, why not today?”
“I did it illegally, Utsa. I kept it in vibrator mode. When you called I made an excuse and went to the bathroom to chat with you.”
“Do the same today too.” Utsa laughed showing her beautiful pearly whites. “Then we can chat. That will be fun. Bedroom to bathroom chat. Me in the bedroom and you in the bathroom.”
Utsa’s impulsiveness was very attractive. It resonated in Arka’s mind all day long, even in his dreams. Still he tried to sound serious, “I can’t do illegal things everyday!”
Utsa was quiet for a few moments, then held him and pouted, “You think our chats are illegal?”
Arka tried to undo her grasp, “God, no! Chatting with you is not illegal; entering the lab with cell phone is illegal. Besides, even the slightest sound gets amplified in there. Be it my cell’s vibration or your chats. Our machines can catch all sounds.”
Utsa widened her already wide eyes. “Oh my God! You catch sounds? Do you tap phones too?”
Arka smiled, “No no. Why should we tap phones? Our job is even more complicated. We undo the tangles of words and conversations.”
Utsa was amused, “Really? How strange! Tangles of words? How can that be? Are chats like our hair that you untangle by soaps and shampoos?”
The car for the office tooted from downstairs. This was a pain in the neck. One was forced to be on time. Arka sometimes wished he could let the car go and drive himself. But that wasn’t possible. After their marriage his car became hers. Utsa needed it to visit her family, go shopping, or go to the movies with her friends.
But Utsa never planned her outings. According to her the sudden excursions were more fun. Even simple shopping seemed like an adventure. Arka quickly did up his shoelaces, “I’ll explain the tangles and snarls some other day. Now I’m off. The car is calling me. And please don’t call me today. I’ll not carry the phone in the lab, I’m telling you beforehand.”
Some beauties are like quick flowing streams; some are like quiet and deep rivers. Utsa’s beauty was like an ocean. She knew how to create waves in her body. Now she did that in her bust and belly and stood up to smile at her husband, “And what if a burglar breaks in? I am all alone in the afternoon. What if he ties me up and… heehee! Even then I mustn’t phone?”
Arka seriously considered leaving the phone outside the lab, but at the last minute he remembered about Utsa’s ‘burglar’. Of course she was kidding. But he was amused. All new wives kidded like that. He put the phone on vibrator mode and hid it in his pocket. Then he donned his apron, rubber gloves, and masks covering his nose and mouth. On the head he wore a cloth cap. He looked almost like a surgeon. But instead of surgical instruments, the lab had laptops, sound boxes, headphones, sound editing system and many other unrecognized complicated machines. On the first day even a smart guy like Arka was confused.
Not only the instruments, the work itself was confusing too. Last month when they moved Arka to this new research wing, Arka was quite surprised. When professor Soham Talukdar explained his assignment, he had exclaimed, “Are you serious, Sir? That actually happens?”
Professor smiled faintly, “Before, the problem was mostly in the other countries, but now it is happening here too.”
Soham Talukdar was highly educated. He taught and was taught in many renowned foreign universities before returning home. Now he was deeply involved in the real nature and properties of sound. He also was in many important advisory committees of various corporate houses. They too valued his opinions and had donated tons of money to make this state of the art laboratory.
Arka had asked, “How did the problem start here Sir?”
“We are still trying to figure that out. Perhaps because we are chatting too much.”
“Chatting too much?”
Grey haired, handsome Soham smiled again, “No? On the street, in the buses, trams, cars, and houses, now there are incessant chats. Non-stop, endless talking going on. If you could count, you’d perhaps find more than a million sentences being uttered every second. Even a few years ago, it wasn’t so bad. The air struck by these sound waves has their limits too. Imagine the number of cars in a street suddenly increasing. There would inevitably be traffic snarls and jams. That is exactly what is happening. The sentences are jamming up in mid air. One party can’t hear what is being said at the other end. Part of what we are saying is getting stuck midway in the tangles.”
“They are getting stuck?” Arka was more amazed.
“What else? One sound wave is getting superimposed on another. We may not realize it and think that we heard all that was said and the other party may think the same too. Who keeps track of what got messed up in the middle? That is our job. We have to tackle these snarls and get them straightened out.”
Arka still felt confused, “Is that even possible?”
“Don’t know yet, but we have to try. In the first part we have to catch these snarls by the antenna. Then how we release them is a problem for later time. First we have to clean up the snarls.”
“Interesting!” Arka had said, “Highly interesting.”
Talukdar said, “Lots of countries are doing research in this field. But we are the first in India. As we deal with other people’s conversations, everything has to be highly confidential. You will not find much on the net or in the journals. We too must maintain strict secrecy. I have brought some good software from abroad, untangling software. Arka, I have seen in your file that you were a brilliant student in Physics. I would like you to leave management and join our research.”
Arka sat up straight. “Of course Sir. How can I not join such exciting work? And I have always been interested in research. The management job was mainly for career…”
Arka adjusted the heavy headphone and leaned forward. He started a program on the laptop. A shadowy indistinct ball appeared on the screen. Like a ball of yarn. The strands were all tangled up one on top of the other. The entire ball was trembling on the screen. He went on ‘sound’ option and clicked his mouse. Now he could hear cacophony of hundreds of voices. Like a busy market. He could not hear anything distinctly. As if all the words were trying to be separate but just couldn’t. They were all shivering like animals caught in a net.
Arka again felt that vibration near his heart. For a second he thought of turning the phone off but again remembered Utsa’s imaginary burglar. It was true that she stayed alone in the apartment all day. Nowadays one heard of all kinds of stories about burglaries, rapes and murders, Arka put down the headphone and stood up. Ranjan at the next table also looked up at him. Arka gestured ‘restroom’ and went outside through the glass doors. Going behind the wall in the hallway he quickly called Utsa back, “What happened?”
“Lots of things! I’m missing you.” Utsa laughed.
Arka was relieved at her words and laughter. Thank God everything was fine. Still, he tried to sound irritated, “Utsa, I told you so many times not to call me in the lab, even then…”
Utsa ignored his peeve, “Hey, tell me, are you still working with those tangles of chats? Could you hear anything interesting? Do tell me.”
Arka realized he was enjoying talking to her, he made his voice low, “These are secrets. I can’t tell you about somebody else’s chats. We have ethics. My professor will be very upset if he knew.”
“Am I just a ‘somebody else’?” Utsa sounded hurt, almost tearful.
“No, no! Did I say that? Dear me! How can you be ‘somebody else’?”
“Go away! You don’t have to say anything to me. Not yours, mine or anybody else’s.”
Arka moved closer to the wall. In front of him was a huge glass window. From ten floors above the road of the Sector Five glinted in the afternoon sun. Cars and people were running every which way. But from so far above one could only see the movement, not hear the sound. It looked like a silent movie. Arka was relieved at his wife’s laughter, now he felt proud at her feeling hurt. Of course she would feel hurt. He smiled and whispered, “Ok, ok, I’ll tell you. Why do you get mad so quickly? If you act like that how can I concentrate at work?”
Utsa removed the hurt from her voice, “You’ll make mistakes and get punished. It will serve you right.”
“I managed to open up one snarl today. It wasn’t anything special. Just ordinary conversation. It had male, female, young, old all types of voices. Like, ‘I really can’t make it today. Got stuck in the office, too much work.’ Or, ‘Do visit the market before coming home dear’, or ‘don’t forget the notes on political science.’ There are others too, about bids in the share market, booking tickets at the multiplex, leaders threatening their underlings, bosses yelling at the workers for being late, all kinds of nonsense like that.”
Utsa asked in a low voice, “Well, anything about love or affairs?”
Arka glanced at the hallway and covered the phone. “Not today, but yesterday I did hear something. Just the sound of kissing. No words, just sound. Like this…now I must run. Boss is coming this way.”
Before Utsa could say something, Arka hung up and went back to his seat laughing to himself. Couldn’t he really find something about love? It would be fun if he could. Then he could tell Utsa with much embellishment. He didn’t go out any more since their wedding. Friends, clubs, nothing. Not even to his parent’s place in Kamardanga. He often thought about going but just couldn’t get around to it. Actually he didn’t want to leave Utsa. He felt a bit embarrassed at the realization.
He turned up the volume of his headphone. He must find something for Utsa. Not anything boring, but some exciting love chats. Could he really find something like that?
He did come across something, at the very end. It was almost quitting time. The large tangle on the screen had opened up. Only a few knots were still present. Arka tried to undo one knot when he heard a musical female voice in his headphone---‘ When will you come? No, not at one, two o’clock… I never nap after lunch, you know that….No, silly! He is far away at that time…in his laboratory… heehee, you are a naughty one…if you come to my apartment and tie me up…heehee…!”
Arka’s heart skipped a beat. He was very familiar with that voice and laughter!
The original story Chats (চ্যাট্স) by Pracheta Gupta is collected in 50-ti Golpo ('50 short stories', '৫০-টি গল্প'; আনন্দ; ২০১০) (Ananda Publishers, Kolkata; 2010).