The Strange Ailments of Solitary Dreamers

By Devdan Chaudhuri


It’s me, me, the cursed one, I am guilty!
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov



It was the eighth day after my transfer to Lake Police Station, and it was a cold afternoon. I had just returned from a call. A young boy had gone missing—it wasn’t a case of kidnapping; the boy had left his home in a fit of anger and hadn’t returned home. One night had passed. He was thirteen years old. The family was well-off; they lived in one of the posh apartments in a building on Southern Avenue.

The boy had had a spat with his father. His younger sister, eleven years old, told me in private that he had given her a hug and told her he would come to “rescue” her soon. The word “rescue” made me feel uneasy. I felt disgust towards the parents—they have all that common folk aspire to, yet they cannot give their children a healthy environment where they can live and grow.

The story which the parents told to me was a lie; I can tell when I am being lied to. I asked my junior to record their statements, collect the photo of the boy and take the number of his cell phone, which was switched off. Sooner or later, he would switch it on and then it wouldn’t be a problem to track him. I also asked my junior to take the phone numbers and addresses of all his friends.

When I looked at his photo, I could make out that he was a sensitive boy. Children are not children anymore; they become adults faster than we ever did. There are so many disgusting behaviours they have to endure and witness so soon in their lives. I feel bad for them.

I had a sudden fantasy: I wanted to lock up the parents and keep them in the police station cell for a night with the petty criminals, without food and water, with no access to a toilet. Yes, the fantasy gave me a strange pleasure. I could also tip the pickpocket scum to beat up the father. But I needed to find the boy first and record his statement, though the young boy was unlikely to say anything that would lock up his own parents.



My colleagues often tell me that I am too sensitive to be a police officer. “If you cannot manage your conscience, you won’t progress much in your career, and keep getting transferred,” one of them observed once. I remembered a dialogue from a Satyajit Ray film: “The more you rise up, the more you stoop low.” They don’t make films like that anymore.

“I think that instead of managing our conscience, we should be inspired by the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny and do a 2016 Police Mutiny, and go down in history,” I replied.

My colleagues were bewildered and then they laughed at me. “The British left many years ago, in case you’d forgotten.”

“Everything important is a shallow laugh for you. The British might have left, but the oppression hasn’t. Our big bosses and their bigger bosses have made the police department a joke. All the corrupt creatures we have to salute, guard and listen to. All the criminals we have to protect because of them. All the things we do and don’t do—doesn’t it make you ill? Don’t you feel a gnawing hurt in your soul? Don’t you feel a bitter taste in your mouth? We have to do something more. We should declare a mutiny, arrest the criminals and their political masters—put all the scum behind bars. The people will support us. Our mutiny will set an example. The police force will gain the honour that has been lost.”

My colleagues looked at me with silence, then amusement. Then one of them, who had a talent for interrogation, told me in his slow chilly voice: “You are a dreamer; a bad dreamer. You are alone, with a mother in your small town; she has a pension. We have families. What will happen to them when the mutiny is suppressed and we are locked up in a jail forever? Don’t let your bad dreams influence you too much. Your strange fantasies are not good for your health.”

“He told me that he used to write poems,” another colleague remarked. “I told him, let’s go and drink at the whorehouse and listen to your poems. He said, he doesn’t like all those things. Haha.”

“Listen, you are not a poet revolutionary.” The chilly voice spoke again. “You are a police officer in Kolkata under the state government, and they are in control, not us. We follow orders, not our conscience. That’s our duty, our livelihood.”

“Conscience is what makes us humane,” I said. “Conscience is like a plant. You need to nurture it, so that it grows. If you neglect it, it will slowly die. The roots of the plant penetrate deep and bring nourishment. Without that nourishment, you will become a small minded person; your soul will retreat away from you. You will become shallow and your capacity to feel the depths of your own being will be lost. You will not even realise that your life has turned into a soulless wasteland.”

They looked at me with a combination of awe, confusion and pity; more pity and confusion than awe. They looked at each other and scornfully smiled. The practical people always laugh at the dreamers; they cannot think beyond their own interests and have little empathy beyond their own type of people.

My colleagues don’t suffer from the truth that makes me ill; makes me feel a distaste that I cannot get rid of, cannot forget. For that, one has to see and be affected by the present rot. They don’t seem to see it, or perhaps they choose to ignore. But my dream is just a dream; I haven’t acted upon it. It is a response to alleviate the ailment that I suffer from.

I didn’t understand the root of my ailment earlier. I was restless and confused. Then one evening while taking a stroll around the lakes, I was able to understand what was going on within me. It was the most terrible of sufferings: not being able to act upon one’s truest feelings; not having the freedom to say and do what one knows to be right.

It was the torment of a suppressed conscience, being helpless against unfair orders, allowing the exploitation of the legal loopholes, letting the rot continue, collecting wages and doing very little that is really required.



My mood was reflective when I returned from the call. I had done all that I could have to find the boy; my juniors were on the case and the usual procedures had been quickly set in motion.

While sipping a cup of tea, I realised how cold it was. It had been an unusual winter, with intermittent spells of cold and warmth, and then it had rained the night before, a light breezy rain—something you don’t expect in the winter. But the sky had cleared in the morning, and by early afternoon, the cold winds from the north had returned to the city.

Police stations are chaotic places; ours was no different. Only the air-conditioned chamber of the officer-in-charge had privacy and calmness. We were to get a new officer-in-charge soon; the last one was a party-affiliated man who switched his allegiance after the last Assembly elections—he had already acquired two suburban houses, a wife, two children and a mistress. The word was that he had been transferred to a more important police station to take care of things for the party bosses. The elections were coming—key men needed to be positioned in key places.

Whenever the foul mood returns, whenever I start to feel my ailment once again, I tend to daydream.

How good it felt imagining our Police Mutiny happening: suddenly all police officers refuse to take orders; we start rounding up the scum, the investigating officers produce all the solid evidence for the chargesheets, half of the elected assembly and all the goons go behind bars, as do some police officers. The Police Mutiny of 2016 starts in Kolkata, spreads all over the country. The rising happens. History is…

The mobile phone rang. It was my mother; she was sending some of my favourite sweets through a relative coming to Kolkata. She also put pressure on me to take a decision on a marriage proposal. I told her I’d call her back; I was on duty now.

The whitewashed room with four wooden desks, beyond the main area as one enters the police station, is the place for the sub-inspectors. No one else was there in the afternoon. After a spell of dreaming, I was sitting on my chair with a cup of tea, thinking of the missing boy, when a gentleman walked up to me, stooped awkwardly and said in a trembling voice, “I have killed my daughter; arrest me.”



I don’t remember ever being so taken aback in my life. For a moment I couldn’t react. I was tongue-tied. Then I mumbled, “What are you saying?”

“You heard me right,” the gentleman said in a trembling voice. “I have killed my daughter; arrest me.” He put forward his hands with closed fists; he was expecting me to handcuff him.

I was stuck in the moment, still unable to react. Then a colleague entered the room. When he saw the gentleman, he broke into a laugh. “How did he manage to enter this room? Why did no one see this madman?”

A few others entered the room and began chattering. After a while, things became both clear and strange. What my colleagues told me was as follows: the gentleman had a mental ailment; he had been coming to the police station and confessing to crimes he never committed. Everyone in the police station knew about him. The gentleman usually appeared once every couple of months. Even the chap who’d been bringing tea to the officers for over ten years knew of him when he started to work in the police station.

“But who is he? What is his background? Did an investigation happen?”  I asked one of my colleagues.

“From the time I came in to this posting, and that has been three years, I am seeing the man. Everybody looks at him as an entertainment item—a clown and a madman. They ask about his latest crime, laugh amongst themselves and then shoo him away. I remember he once wanted to be arrested for committing crimes against humanity, illegally invading a country to steal oil and making money for a chosen few while having scant regard for the monumental destruction and the loss of human life.”

“What did he think himself to be? A President of a country?”

“No, he never takes up identities. He holds himself responsible for the crimes of others. He believes he has committed those crimes.”

“What other crimes did he confess to?”

“All types of crimes. A cricketer who betted against his own team but escaped punishment, a businessman with political connections who owes a lot of public money siphoning funds overseas, an actor running over people in a drunken state but managing to get acquitted, a minister putting his incompetent mistresses on public posts with no regard to his duties to the nation, an editor suppressing news stories of public interest under pressure from the owner, a bank manager sanctioning loads of bad loans to certain companies which get secretly written off and so on.”

“He is soaking up the stories from all around him,” I remarked. “But there is a pattern. He is confessing to actual crimes and moral crimes which go unpunished.”

While I was talking to my colleague, the gentleman was already been persuaded to leave. But he was reluctant to go. He wasn’t shouting, but he was mumbling loudly in his trembling voice. “You are the police. You must catch me. People get away all the time. No one complains; everyone forgets. You cannot let me go. You cannot let me go unpunished. You cannot let me go unpunished.”



The gentleman was of average height, with a receding hairline, a round unshaven face. There was tension and perplexity in his eyes. His voice trembled due to the intense inner pressure that he had created for himself.

I called one of my juniors and asked him to escort the gentleman to his house and investigate. “I want all the details about this person. He seems to be from a good family. He is wearing decent clothes and sports shoes. He certainly is well educated and aware of the world. Talk to his family, the neighbours and the doctor who is treating him.”

I went up to the gentleman and asked him his name. He refused to answer and was still perturbed that the police were letting him go unpunished. I spoke to him very softly and calmed him down.

“We will surely punish you. But now go to your house. The policeman here will go with you. He will speak to your family and then arrest you. Don’t worry. We will punish surely.”

The gentleman looked a bit relieved at my assurance. Slowly and hesitantly, he walked out of the room along with my junior. The chatter moved with him. I felt a peculiar heart wrenching feeling, a heaviness growing within my chest. My breath became hurried and shallow.

I drank a glass of water and sat back on my chair. After a while, I was feeling better. My thoughts moved to the strange ailment of the unknown person. My mind was full of questions; I waited anxiously for my junior to return with the details of the gentleman.

What happened next was totally unexpected. My junior returned after an hour with a terrible confession. The gentleman had refused to go in a vehicle and wanted to walk. They were walking towards Jodhpur Park when my junior had to take a phone call. It was about the case of the missing boy. Information had come that a young boy was trying to purchase a train ticket to New Delhi at Howrah Station; he has been detained in the station master’s office. While this was possible good news, there was bad news as well. While talking my junior had got distracted, and when he hung up, the gentleman, who was walking in front of him, had disappeared near a bus stop.

One has to fight to control one’s anger and disappointment, or they tend to take control over you. I said nothing, and called the station master’s office. What is the boy’s name, I asked the station master. His name matched the name of the missing boy.

I won’t leave this job to anyone else, I told myself. I got into a police vehicle and told the driver to take me to the Howrah Station. One case had been solved; the boy was safe and unharmed.



For the next two months, I eagerly waited for the arrival of the gentleman. Every afternoon, I would walk out of the police station and stand for a while in the compound where our vehicles are parked. There is a gate that leads to the street by the side of the flyover. Small makeshift shops line the street selling consumable products that are always in demand—cold drinks, cigarettes, packaged snacks and incense sticks.

Sounds of vehicles reverberate in the air; there is a constant flow of people. But for two months, the gentleman hadn’t come. I thought of making a sketch of him and try to locate him. The CCTV footage wasn’t good enough to get a clear photo of his face. He must be living nearby, within a radius of a kilometre. But on what grounds would I start the investigation? No one had filed any complaint. He had done nothing.

I could pursue the investigation unofficially of course, and was thinking about it, when I received my transfer orders. Clearly, people were not happy with me in this police station. I had put a stop to a couple of illegal practices through which a few officers were making good money. I had also reprimanded and moved a suspension order against a colleague who was beating up petty criminals with an inhumane ferocity—almost for fun.

There had also been a complaint filed against me a month before. The young boy’s father had filed a complaint for threatening him. He was a well-connected businessman. All I did was to warn him not to beat his son and use abusive language, when I had gone to return the young boy to his home. I had also given my mobile number to the boy and had asked him to call me if his father misbehaves under the influence of alcohol. He did call a month back, and I had gone and accosted his father once again. I wanted to take more action against the businessman, but his young son was too scared to record a statement. The businessman’s complaint had clearly added to the number of reasons which warranted my transfer. I was now moving to the newest police station at the fringes of the city.



In the small town I come from—Bandel—there was a friend of mine. When I was eighteen, I asked him about his dream in life. “I come from a poor family,” he had said. “The poor in this land cannot afford to dream. It’s all about survival.”

I didn’t agree with him and had argued. He had said that I don’t come from such a poor family like him, so I will not understand. “What if your dreams don’t come true? How miserable will you be? You will have a sad life. So it’s better not to have any dreams, and simply take life as it comes.”

I still don’t agree with him; his words were coloured with a cowardly attitude. What happened to him, I never found out. He couldn’t clear his higher secondary examinations and a few months later, his family moved out of our locality. I never met him since then.

He was also the one who had told me a story of a donkey that committed suicide. I didn’t believe him. But he was sure that donkeys do commit suicide. All of a sudden, his memory comes to me.

I turned down the marriage proposal. My mother didn’t like my decision. She told me that I would never find such a nice girl again. But I couldn’t explain to her; she won’t understand my real reason for turning down the proposal—being married and having children will domesticate me. It will make me cautious. I will no longer be able to pursue my dream of being a fearless law enforcer, but slowly morph into an establishment policeman—thinking about safeguarding one’s job, pleasing bosses, stooping to the politicians, asking favours for school admissions, demanding free passes to cricket matches and music concerts, inspecting the quality of annual gifts which came from those who wished to please, lobbying for the next promotion. And that would be an end to everything that I know as myself.

Society has laid out many rat-traps as dreams to aspire for; I see them as methods of enslavement, not freedom. I also don’t care whether my career progresses or not. Most likely, it won’t. No one wants a fearless law enforcer, least of all the police department.

But reality has seeped with my dream of a Police Mutiny; it simply cannot happen with one man. I don’t daydream about it anymore.

I have been having strange thoughts lately. I am unable to sleep well because of violent nightmares. There is a possibility that my ailment might get worse. I might get frustrated and feel unused. I might break down. The spirit I carry within my heart might wither away. But something I have reassures me—my service revolver, the cold steel that I like to hold in my hands and press closely on my skin and move the sensation over my face, the cheeks, the lips and the forehead.

If my ailment goes beyond a critical point, it will only take a bullet to end my suffering. Death is an odd cure from all incurable ailments. This somehow comforts me, like a night of rain: the sound of it and the coolness it brings.

My sole regret with leaving Lake Police Station is that I never got to meet the gentleman again. Not having proper closure is one of the most intimate pains of life. Unanswered questions keep eating into you; invade your solitude; create perplexity and frustration. I will never know who he was. What was the story of his life? What happened to him?

Was he really mad? Or was he more aware and sensitive? Was he volunteering to be punished for the crimes of others which go unpunished? Or did he really think himself to be the perpetrator of the crimes? Was he every man on earth or something that exists in all? Did he emerge from the anguish when conscience is violated?

Now that cold afternoon when I met him seems to be like a dream, like a memory seen from a great distance. What if I pull the trigger? Will he hear the gunshot? Will he get to know that a law enforcer—unable to sleepwalk through life—has been forced to take his own life by the rotten system? Will he understand that the law enforcer only wished for an opportunity to live honourably by serving the best impulses within him, but was slyly penalised for upholding the law?

Will he then go to Lake Police Station and confess of his crime? Will he take upon himself the crimes of the system? Will he stoop awkwardly and offer his hands to be handcuffed?

Perhaps he will dream again—the dreamer of justice. He will say in his trembling voice: “You cannot let me go unpunished. You cannot let me go unpunished.”

'Devdan Chaudhuri is the author of the novel ‘Anatomy of Life’ (Picador) – nominated for Tibor Jones South Asia Prize. He has published short fiction, poetry, literary essays and analytical pieces on politics and culture for various independent publications and alternate media. He is one of the contributing editors of The Punch Magazine and an executive member of Calcutta based group – Poetry Paradigm.

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