They arrived late every full moon night.
When it was pitch dark all around, with not a soul in sight. When there seemed to be no sign of life. The branches of the trees shivered in the breeze, and in the bamboo grove the bamboo shoots brushed against each other and made a crackling sound – krrr, krrr, krrr. A flock of bats perched on the lychee tree, a few owls hooted hoarsely, and at the crossing by the wall, a three-hundred and fifty year-old woodpecker pecked exactly seven times on a peepul tree.
That is when they came. Their shadows danced with tinkling sounds by the light of a lantern.
That is when you heard the wheezing cough of an old ailing man, and the loud crying of babies. That is when you knew that even in this silent land filled with darkness, there was, in fact, life.
One or two windows swung open. The shadows reached the porch. The tinkling and the light of the lantern came closer. They finally stopped at the crossing by the wall.
There were eleven young men. They had two lanterns among them. Two held spears, four of them wore anklets. The first thing they did was put down the lanterns and rub their hands together to warm themselves, and slap various parts of their bodies to swat mosquitoes. Then in monstrous voices, they yelled out in unison –“Hey re re re re re re Wake up, villagers wake up.”
They cried out these words to the east, west, north and south. Then they made a circle around the four shadowy figures wearing anklets and clapped together, keeping time. Suddenly, their song began:“We’ve come to buy ghosts, brothers, to buy ghosts Ghost-oil will produce medicine, so we’ve been told in our dreams. We’ve drunk Ganga water From old Bipin’s new tap Mixed with basil leaves and crushed ghost’s bones. We come to buy ghosts brother, to buy ghosts.
At the sound of their loud singing and their anklets ringing, a few crows in the peepul tree suddenly awoke and began to caw. Two or three foxes fled. From the patio of a nearby house came the crack of a hookah being smoked.
They resumed their song:“Grandsons and granddaughters of ghosts, old folk, young chaps Just any old ghosts won’t do If you produce three genuine Ghosts of Muslims or Brahmins You’ll get ten rupees for each, cash in hand, right away. To win a ghost, oh brother, to win a ghost To buy a ghost, oh brother, to buy a ghost, we come The ghost oil will make our medicine, we’ve been told in a dream Ten rupees. Ten rupees. Ten rupees. Cash in hand, warm and fresh. Ten rupees."
Even after the song stopped, the dance carried on, especially from short Nitai. He loved to dance. Surendra gave him a beedi and said, “Smoke.” Only then did Nitai stop. Surendra’s chest was like an iron door. He had a head full of unruly hair and held a spear in his hand. In his eyes was a look of satisfaction. He was the one who wrote the song, but he couldn’t sing. When the others sang, he shut his eyes and clapped.
Binod also held a spear. He carried it dipped forward like a flag pole. An animal was tied to his spear with a rope. When the animal squirmed, Binod exclaimed, “Look at the bugger, it hasn’t lost its spirit yet.”
He twisted the spear and flung the animal with force on the ground. Loud clanging sounds rang out.
Everyone lit up a beedi and rested for a bit. The next song would be under the banyan tree in Maalo village.
Surendra walked along the street a little way and called out, “Oh dadu Paban, are you awake?”
A voice responded from the same patio where the sounds of hookah being smoked were coming. “Yes I am. Come, come here.”
Not even Paban himself knew how old he was, eighty or a hundred. His body was bent over. All of his bones could be counted. Three of his five sons had died, and two of his grandsons, but there was no sign yet of Paban’s departure.
The men came and sat on the patio and set the lantern down next to them. Even in this winter cold, sweat gleamed on the bodies of those who had just danced.
Nitai asked, “Where’s the pot of water, dadu? Is it outside?”
Paban’s younger son Nibaran had also woken up and come to the patio now, rubbing his eyes. He brought a pot of water. Nitai gulped down almost half of it. Nibaran’s young son and daughter stared at them from the doorway.
The moment Paban put down the hookah, Binod picked it up and took a drag. He made a face and asked, “Oh Ram Ram. What’s this grandpa? Is it tobacco?”
Paban smiled his toothless smile with glee.
Next to Nitai, Ghanai said, “Why, what’s wrong? Let me see.”
He took a drag too, and instantly spat it out.
Paban laughed. “You can’t take it because you’re too young. I can handle it.”
“This isn’t tobacco. What are you smoking?”
“Where will I get tobacco? Do you know what tobacco costs? Would my son buy me tobacco? He doesn’t give me a paisa.”
“Then what have you filled this bowl with?”
“I have been smoking for many years, can’t stop until I die. But I don’t get tobacco, so I make a mix out of dried mango leaves and a little cowdung. I quite like it.”
“Eww, disgusting! Sacrilege!”
Paban couldn’t stop laughing at the thought of having made two men smoke dung instead of tobacco.
Nibaran said, “All his senses are vanishing as he gets closer to death.”
Nitai and Ghanai said a few choice curse words. Nibaran’s children giggled from the doorway.
Paban ignored them. But turning to his son, he said, “Why make snide comments about my death eh? I’ll die only when my time’s up. No use speaking of it now.”
Nibaran said, “If I see you messing around with dung again…”
Surendra interrupted to say, “Oh let him be. Here dadu, want a beedi?”
Paban snatched the beedi from his hand and says, “Bless you son. May you have much wealth and many children. Will you give me one more beedi? I’ll smoke it tomorrow morning.”
Surendra asked, “Dadu, haven’t you found any ghosts? You used to know so many.”
Paban said, “Yes I did. Seen many too. With my own eyes. I’ve seen a female ghoul standing right here under the peepul tree, near the house. Once I was caught by a fish ghost. There I was, coming back with some fish I caught in the Hijalmari swamp. And that bastard ghost started to follow me. After walking a couple of steps, he said, “Give me fish please – Paban, give me fish – then I noticed that it was not one but three ghosts, and I dropped the fish and ran.”
“So couldn’t you get us even one ghost?”
“But I don’t see any now. Maybe they’re scared when they see you. Why, just two evenings ago, I was sitting here on this porch, smoking the hookah, when I saw a woman in a red Benarasi sari walking past the cowshed carrying an earthen lamp, going towards the pond. I saw her clearly. I called out, ‘Hey lady, who are you? Where are you going?’ But she didn’t reply.”
“Oh you must have seen Nibaran’s wife.”
“With my luck! Where will my daughter in law get a Benarasi sari from, boy! I doubt she has even a single proper sari. This was a beautiful woman, covered in jewels.”
“Why didn’t you run up and catch her?”
“Are my legs that strong? And Nibaran wasn’t home either. As soon as I called out to her twice, she disappeared before my eyes. Hey Suren, will you really give ten rupees for a ghost?”
“Of course I will. I am carrying the money with me in my pocket. You’ll get cash right away.”
Paban looked at his son with his foggy eyes. In a voice filled with longing he said to him reproachfully, “Why don’t you ever wander around in the woods? Where would you get ten rupees cash? You can’t even get 10 tall arum roots for ten bucks. And there you are, sitting there empty-handed.”
Nibaran said, “You shut up. Who can catch ghosts? I have never even seen one.”
Paban muttered, “You need eyes to see them. There are 17 species of ghosts in this village, I’ve seen them with my own eyes. Each one for 10 bucks, can you imagine?”
The animal tied to Binod’s spear made a movement again. Startled, Nibaran said, “What is that?”
Binod said, “It’s a porcupine. It was trying to get away in front of the temple of the cholera goddess. I pierced it with my spear. The bugger is so tough, hasn’t died yet.”
Nibaran’s two kids now came running to the door to see the porcupine. The girl was wearing a pair of shorts. The boy was completely naked. Nibaran shooed them off. “Go away, go inside.”
The girl was thirteen. She quickly placed both her arms across her chest. Once she had caught a glimpse the porcupine, she went inside. But the boy didn’t stir.
Nibaran asked, “What are you going to do with it?”
Binod said, “Cut it and eat the meat.”
“If you could have kept it alive and sold it, you’d have got a good price for it.”
“Do you think it’s easy to capture a porcupine alive? Maybe if we’d had the hollow of a banana tree, we’d have managed. But where could we have got that from at the time? The bugger’s still moving, but won’t much longer. I pierced it right through the stomach.”
“The bastards dig up the arum root trees in my yard and eat them. I can never figure out when they come. Once in a while I hear loud noises in the wee hours of the morning, but when I get here I see nothing.”
“It’s easier to catch a porcupine than a ghost. And even that you can’t do?”
Paban let out a deep sigh. Porcupine flesh was delicious. Red, red meat, so tasty and juicy. It had been so long since he had had meat. Binod’s house was nearly two miles from his. If he could manage to walk over there the next afternoon, and say, Dear Binod, I came to taste a bit of meat, then wouldn’t he give him a little?
They talked for a while. Then Surendra got up and said, “Come on, let’s go now. Dadu, you tell everyone around here to look for ghosts, each ghost is worth ten rupees – they don’t even have to catch any, if they point one out to us, we’ll catch it ourselves, but they must point one out to us clearly.”
“What will you do with the ghosts you buy? Do ghosts really produce oil?”
Surendra grinned and said, “Well, let’s see what they produce. We’d be able to cure so many people of so many diseases.”
“I worry about you. In the end, you too will perish at the hands of a ghost. You have no idea about their temper, some day, when they get a hold of you, they’ll wring your neck.”
Surendra burst out laughing. A few days ago, he would have said a lot of things boastfully. He would have thumped his chest and said that no father of a ghost had the capacity to come near him. But now he didn’t say any of that. Father Pereira had forbidden him. Words only led to more words.
Paban said, “Even your father had his neck wrung by a ghost. I saw it myself. He lay by the creek, eyes turned up, his face black with fear.”
That was ancient history. Now Surendra no longer felt sad when he heard the story. He replied, “That’s exactly why I’ve started the ghost capturing business. Binod’s mother slipped and fell into the water when she saw a female ghoul. Nitai’s father was chased by a will o’ the wisp. Ghanai’s uncle fainted three times. Come on, come on, get up everyone.”
But when they were about to leave they noticed that one of the two hurricanes was missing.
Nitai said, “Hey, where’s the other hurricane. I just kept it over here.”
Paban said, “You didn’t get two. There was only one.”
Binod shouted, “Hey! We brought two hurricanes here.”
“Then where would it go? Why don’t you look under the peepul tree? You might have made a mistake.”
“No way would we make such a mistake. Nitai brought one hurricane and Sukhen another.”
Nibaran whined, “Then where could the hurricane go? It’s not like a ghost came and stole it away in front of us.”
Surendra said, “Your children came to see the porcupine. One of them must have taken it.”
Nibaran peeped inside the house and said, “Where, they haven’t taken it, it’s dark inside.”
Nitai said, “Don’t try to be clever Nibaran uncle. We will search inside the house. Are you trying to bluff?”
Nibaran said, “Your aunty is sleeping inside, and you want to go there? Do you think we’re thieves?”
“Then where did the hurricane go to?”
“What would we do with a hurricane you bastard? Can we even afford a drop of kerosene? There’s not a paisa at home. We haven’t bought rice in two days.”
Paban agreed with his son. “If we had money would I be smoking dung?”
Surendra said, “Please call your kids, Nibaran uncle. I will ask them.”
Nibaran raised his voice suitably for a father and called, “Paanti, Genu, come here once.”
The girl didn’t come but the boy did.
Before Surendra could say anything, Nibaran asked, “Did you take the hurricane?”
The boy nodded vigorously and said roughly, “I did not take it.”
Surendra asked, “Hey Genu, where’s your sister?”
Genu pointed towards the dark area behind the house and said, “Over there.”
“Why has she gone there?”
“She’s gone with our mother.”
Nitai jokingly said, “Nibaran uncle, have your wife and daughter gone to look for ghosts?”
Paban scolded him. “Don’t say such inapproporiate things, Nitai. Would a pregnant woman go looking for ghosts in the middle of the night?” If the barren aantkuri ghost curses her, the baby in her womb will perish in the womb itself. I’ve seen so many female ghouls out there.”
Nitai retorted, “Then why does your daughter in law have to go there in the middle of the night?”
Nibaran said, “Your aunty has a bad stomach. ”
“But if she had to take our hurricane, wish she’d told us.”
“Who’s taken your hurricane? Wouldn’t we have seen someone take it?”
“Well, this is a bloody pain. Did our hurricane just vanish into nothing?”
Surendra said, “Come on, let’s go over there and look.”
Paban and Nibaran didn’t move. The rest of them went towards the darkness behind the house in a group.
A little far off, Panti stood under a gooseberry tree. Even in the cold, all she wore was the pair of shorts. The part of a young woman’s body that calls out and announces the arrival of her youth was covered with her two arms.
As soon as she saw them, she yelled out at the top of her voice, “Please don’t come here, please don’t.”
Near her, behind a bush, flickered the faint light of a hurricane. Surendra glanced at it and quickly turned away. He said, “Why didn’t you ask us first before taking the hurricane? We’re waiting by Paanchla crossing, when you’re done, come give it to us.”
Nitai joking added, “And if you see a female ghost or something over there, shout out to us. We’ll instantly catch it. And you’ll get ten bucks.”
From the patio of the house, Paban said, “One time, the master of the Choudhury household caught a ghost by the creek. A live skeleton. How it struggled, but the master tied it up with a rope. Our luck isn’t that good. With ten rupees, we could buy seven seers of rice.”
Genu asked, “Dadu, have you really seen a ghost?”
Paban replied, “Yes dadu, so many times.”
“Will you show me one please? I just want to see one from far away.”
“You’ll see one, if you’re lucky. But it’s better not to.”
Nibaran watched the group of young men in the distance and said, “The bastards have become too greedy.”
In a little while, the men went away, the sounds of their anklets ringing out. The light from their hurricanes faded. The house disappeared into the full moon night.
Surendra had aroused plenty of suspicion among the villagers. For quite a while, he had been forgotten by them all. When he was around twelve or thirteen, he used to work as a cowherd for the Choudhurys.’ One day, the landlord’s slippers were lying on the living room steps. Instead of removing them with his hands, the boy tried to move them with his feet. But the landlord saw. He got beaten up pretty badly out in the courtyard. Apparently the fellow also had a habit of stealing. The evening after he was beaten, the kid ran away from the village. Rumour had it that he was pumping tires at a bicycle shop in the city. After that no one had kept track.
And now he had returned, a big strong young man. He worked in some factory, wore colourful clothes and a watch on his wrist. Smoked cigarettes more than beedis. One day he went and spat in front of the Choudhurys’ house. Not once, but three times. No one in the village had ever done such a thing before.
Of course none of the landlords lived there now. Only a caretaker lived quietly inside. The caretaker was an old man, what could he do but stare helplessly. There were no watchmen or footmen around any more. Now they didn’t even have a year’s crops.
Surendra had acquired a few followers in the village. He came home every weekend. He had built a house on his old land again, where he partied with his groupies. There was a lot of good food to be had there. The previous month, they had gone to clean the tank that had been silted over for years. Fat lot of cleaning they did, just went in the water and splashed around. Everyone knew that a spirit lived in that tank and dragged someone underwater every year. One of the boys also nearly died. He had jumped into the middle of the tank to grab some mud, and couldn’t get any oxygen. When he finally came up, panting and puffing, his face was blue. And yet they hadn’t learned their lesson, and were planning to go again the following week.
Then they had another hobby. Wandering around singing kirtans on full moon night. The unemployed youths of the village had now found this occupation. Surendra must have been paying for their addictions. He had even promised to get some of them jobs in a factory in the city. That was the biggest bait.
A lot of people had figured out what Surendra was trying to say with his ghost-buying excuse. After all, not everyone was a fool. But how could that which so many had seen with their own eyes for so long be false? And the ghosts were such deceitful creatures too. When they saw Surendra’s gang, they refused to come out. Were the ghosts also scared of him? Of course, even a ghost’s father would be scared of such a robust rogue.
Surendra was getting bolder by the day. He was steadily increasingly the price. It began with ten rupees, then twenty, then fifty, and now he had taken it right up to a hundred. One hundred rupees for catching a ghost. It didn’t even have to be captured, just glimpsed from a distance with a couple of witnesses. The thought of a hundred rupees made the blood sing. In these times, who would give one a hundred rupees? Where a human life had no value, how could a ghost’s be worth a hundred? Unless the ghosts themselves were raising their value and smirking at everyone from the shadows.
It was rumoured that when he first came to the village, Surendra had told Nitai and company that human beings had no such thing as a soul. The very thought sent shivers down one’s spine. Humans without souls? Then where did they come from and where would they go? Even if they were able to bear the sorrows and struggles of this life, it was because there was hope for happiness in the next one. But if there was no soul, then what after? Asshole. Anyone who said such things should be beaten up until his face was smashed to bits. At first it sounded like Surendra must have become a Christian. In which case it wouldn’t have been difficult to ostracize the bastard. But he was obviously not a Christian, for the year before he had celebrated Durga Puja with a lot of fuss.
Durga Puja had caused quite a ruckus the previous year. The village had just one Durga Puja, in the Choudhury babus’ outhouse. That was how it had always been. In the last five to seven years none of the landlords had come home. The zamindari had disappeared, there was no income, so why would they come? All that was left was that huge ruined house. The landlords didn’t even sponsor the puja. And yet, the mother’s puja couldn’t stop. That’s why some of the villagers split the cost among themselves and organized it chanting the name of the goddess.
Last year Surendra and his groupies had said that if the puja was to be financed by the villagers then it should be staged in a shed erected in the center of the village. Why should it take place in the zamindar’s house? Why should a zamindar who was incapable of paying a single paisa be the one to enjoy the goddess’ blessing? The fellow was clearly still angry with the Choudhurys. If the home that had been hosting Durga Puja forever suddenly stopped doing so, then the goddess’s curse would fall on it. Surendra was well aware of this. My boy, the zamindar babus were already fallen to their depths, how much lower did you want to drag them down? The son of the landlord who was once so grand, why he now languished in jail. When in college, he got into a fight. The landlord’s other son was a rail guard. Heh heh heh heh.
In the end Surendra had the puja staged in the primary school field. He got a contribution booklet printed in the city and went around collecting funds from every home. The rice crop was harvested just before Durga Puja, so people had a few rupees to spare. Even the few gentlemen of the village who used to run things during the Puja in previous years, didn’t argue with them at all. The babus who used to contribute twenty-five rupees earlier now gave five. Surendra’s boys themselves erected the canopy in the middle of the field and brought the idol there.
In the middle of Ashtami night, you should have seen Surendra dance! Who knows how many bottles of liquor he’d consumed. His eyes were as red as hibiscus flowers, his head full of unruly curls, his body like a bull’s. The guy looked like those disreputable associates of Shiva, Nandi and Bhringi. When he was dancing with an incense pot in each hand, you should have heard him scream, “Ma, Ma.” In his drunken state he had no control over his feet and kept tripping, with the flames leaping from the pots. One time he even fell right over. It was surely his forefathers’ good fortune that saved him from getting blinded by the fire. His groupies called him by his name, pulled him by his hands, but got no response. Who could have possibly had the strength to drag such a huge body up. Finally, just when Nitai was about to throw a pot of water on his head, just then, he jumped up by himself and began to laugh, Ho ho ho. Poser! He had just been faking the whole time, it seemed. The antics of a drunkard.
The landlord’s son who was now in jail came to the village just after the puja last year, along with two friends. Earlier the landlords would come by car, now the son came by motorbike. It was doubtful whether even two or three rooms in that huge house were habitable now. That’s where he put up. The old caretaker must have given the young landlord the lowdown. The next day he appeared at Paanchu’s grocery shop and asked, “Can you tell me where Suren lives?”
Paanchu the grocer cautiously said, “Who Suren?”
The young babu said, “The one who organized the public puja this year. I hear he’s also formed a gang to capture ghosts?”
Paanchu said, “His house is past the Paanchla intersection, and then a mile further, right at the edge of the village. But he doesn’t always live here.”
However, that day being Sunday, Surendra was sure to be there.
Everyone thought that now finally Surendra would have it out with the young landlord. Circumstances may have declined but still after all zamindari blood ran through his veins. And he was so handsome. Such good looking men were nowadays not to be seen in the villages. When the zamindari was still there, there had been a few. But now, all of them were in the city.
The old days were gone when the young babu could just have sent a messenger to summon Surendra and then beaten him up with a shoe. Instead, he took his friends and went himself, revving up his motorbike. And then what he and Surendra talked about, no one knew. But after a while the young babu and his friends were seen coming out of Surendra’s house smiling. When he heard him say something, the landlord tried to slap Surendra on his shoulder, but because Surendra was extremely tall, his hand didn’t quite reach up there. Instead as soon as he got out his pack of cigarettes from his pocket, Surendra immediately took one without asking. This was truly called Kolikaal, the cursed age. From a distance, Nibaran saw this scene with his own eyes.When he saw Surendra take that cigarette from the young landlord’s packet Nibaran suddenly remembered Surendra’s statement that human beings had no soul. Oh, the very thought hurt. Even though Surendra had refused to admit it later. Schoolteacher Jogen had asked him.
In between two neighbouring villages there was a school. New government teachers came to that school and left after a year or two. Then new teachers came. The only one who had stayed on was Jogen. Jogen sat alone by the river in the evenings and watched the sun set. Broody fellow.
The same Jogen had asked in the midst of a crowd of people on market-day, “Hey Suren, I hear you said that human beings have no soul?”
Surendra had never studied with Jogen. He didn’t hide his beedi. But he also didn’t talk back. He scratched the back of his neck and replied, “You all know that best. I’m an uneducated fellow, what do I know? But I’ve never seen a soul.”
Jogen grinned behind his moustache and said, “You crazy fellow, this air we breathe, can we see it with our eyes? Does that mean the air doesn’t exist?”
Those who were listening nodded. “Yes, you’ve shown him Jogen Teacher. Now speak fellow, does the air not exist?”
Surendra said, “The air cannot be seen with our eyes, but it can be captured.”
Jogen said, “The air can be captured? What are you talking about? Hold a little air in your chest, and immediately your heart will start to flutter. Won’t it? What do you all say?”
Nearby stood a balloon seller. Surendra grabbed a balloon, and blew into it until it expanded into a gourd. Then he closed its lips together, raised his hands and said, “Look here, Teacher sir, I captured the air. Can you please explain if the soul can be captured like this? You explain it and I’ll accept.”
The teacher said, “You want to capture the soul? Don’t even think about it. It doesn’t let anyone capture it. Nainang Chidranti Ang Bang Chang. That means the soul can never be caught, it can’t be burned in fire, it can’t be drowned in water. The soul is ageless and immortal.”
Surendra said, “When a person dies and is cremated, then does the soul just slip out of one’s mouth? Where does it go?”
The teacher said, “Then it merges with the Supreme Soul. The Supreme Soul is God.
Surendra said, “Oh.”
Jogen said, “What? You didn’t like that? You don’t agree?”
Surendra said, ‘Why wouldn’t I agree? When someone as learned as you are saying so, how can it be wrong?”
At Jogen’s victory everyone was pleased but also a little surprised. They had all thought that Surendra would strike up a fierce argument. By blowing up the balloon, he’d shown off quite a bit. After that how could he just surrender like a nice guy?
Jogen patted Surendra, feeling quite contented. Like he was a very good student of his. Then he asked again, “I hear you’ve started a ghost-catching business?”
Surendra immediately replied, “Yes I have. A gentleman in the city has placed an order. If I give him one ghost, I’ll get two hundred and fifty rupees. I’ll buy it for a hundred. That’s a fat profit for me. Look, merchants are buying onions at this market at twenty-seven rupees for 40 seer. In the city they sell them for the wholesale rate of thirty-five. I have also started an export trade.
Jogen laughed out loud, Heh heh heh heh.
Surendra joined in the laughter as if he’d made a funny joke.
“Have you found any?”
“Heh heh heh heh. Is this a child’s prank? I’ve never heard of a ghost trade. Put all such thoughts out of your mind. This is a very dangerous thing, you never know what might happen.”
Surendra again lit a beedi and said, “I will go to your house one day Teacher sir. Everything can’t be discussed in the market. You know that my father was strangled to death by a ghost.”
Jogen said, “Yes I’ve heard.”
Surendra said, “My father had with him that day money from selling rice. Not even a half-pice of it could be found. Who took that money, a soul or a supreme soul? Who needs money more? I will find out in your home. Not a single villager gave witness that day.”
The old canal had silted up. The government was digging it up again. Mister Rahman from the next village had taken out a lease to dig the canal. When water flowed from the canal again it would help farming in the region. Every time he thought of that, Nibaran kicked himself.
He had two and a half bighas of land. The previous year, in the month of Fagun, that had to be mortgaged. There was no alternative, Nibaran himself had been gravely ill. If his son, daughter, wife or father had been ill, he wouldn’t have pawned the land no matter what, but he was the sole earning member of their family, if he died who would save the others? His father was in the last stages of his life. Didn’t have the strength to do anything. But he still had the appetite of an ogre. None of the other brothers were willing to take care of their father. All the hassle was Nibaran’s.
He had told the moneylender that the ownership of the shared crops would remain his. He would be a share cropper on his own land. Once the harvest was over, he planned to sow cauliflowers there.
Now, the blessed government was digging a canal. Couldn’t they have done this two years ago when the land was all Nibaran’s? Now, with the crops being shared, would he fill the stomachs of his family members or repay the loans?
Fifty men were needed to dig the canal every day. The entire village had pounced on it. No one had any work now. Nibaran’s family profession had been building huts. Now it was hard to find work. Those who had a little money were building houses with tile, and for that they got workers from the city.
Mr. Rahman had hired fifty labourers to dig the earth from his own village, Sonamuri. That caused a big ruckus two days ago. The canal lay between two villages, so why should only the men of one village get work? Weren’t there men fit to work in this village too?
Mr. Rahman was a level-headed man. After listening to everyone, he had decided that every day twenty-five men from each village would be hired. The same man wouldn’t be hired two days in a row. And they would get four and a half rupees per day and the cost of one meal.
Yesterday Nibaran was hired. But not today. A hut-builder’s son had now been reduced to an earth-digging coolie. Such a thing was food, little different from God himself.
Today he had no work, but still Nibaran walked to the canal’s site. After all, he had no other work either, and it was fun to watch. As he walked, he kept thinking of what Surendra had said. He simply couldn’t bring himself to like Surendra. Surendra was strong. Money jingled in his pocket. Men like him didn’t return to their villages once they went to the city. So why had Surendra come back? Why didn’t he go away again? He had a pocket full of money but wouldn’t give it to anyone. This business of buying a ghost. Nibaran couldn’t stand it. If he had a hundred rupees, it would have solved so many of his problems just then. Someone had that money in his pocket but Nibaran couldn’t get at it. In this world, some had much more than what they needed, while others couldn’t even meet their needs, such was the law of fate! So many people saw so many ghosts, but he couldn’t find a single one! After dark he looked here and there, sometimes he was startled by something, and blinked his eyes and stared again. No, it was a banana plant or a wood apple tree. Dammit!! Then he would get angrier at Surendra.
Now Nibaran stood on top of the dam by the canal. He breathed in slowly. The stomach turned if one breathed in too much air on an empty stomach. He felt miserable. Fifty men were digging the earth together, they seemed to be a separate group, Nibaran did not belong with them. In a little while, they would get four and a half rupees, Nibaran would not. For the past few days, his wife had been suffering from stomach cramps. She cried out at night. At such a time she needed good food. If only she could get a little milk, the body would get some nourishment, for the babe in the womb… But milk? Nibaran couldn’t even remember the last time he had bought milk. By the pond, some edible leaves grew wild, and for the last few days, they had been living on those boiled leaves and rice gruel.
The sun was setting, drowning the sky in dark crimson. Just then, the sky looked like God’s palace. He raised his hand in that direction and said silently, Dear God, in this lifetime I’ve suffered a lot, in the next one, please give me some happiness, may I be able to have a couple of meals a day. And may I be able to give my children a few treats.
A little to the right, under the Neem tree, a small crowd had gathered. Nibaran walked towards them in the hope of a few free drags from a beedi. When he got there, he heard an astonishing piece of news. Instantly his eyes shone with a malicious pleasure. As if he would now take revenge for all his defeats.
Interrupting the animated discussion, Nibaran asked, “Forget all that. Has any of you seen this with your own eyes?”
East Bengali Charu from Shonarang village said, “If I didn’t see with my own eyes, do you think I’m lying?”
Nibaran asked anxiously, “Is it still there?”
“Why Bhanu just saw it a little while ago. It’s rolling and writhing on the ground!”
“Is this true Bhanu?”
Bhanu was a very simple man. He had been bald since he was twenty or so. Everyone knew that Bhanu was incapable of making up a lie.
Bhanu said, “Yes, I’ve seen it, under the blackberry tree. It was writhing on the ground and foam oozed out of its mouth. The exorcist has arrived. He lit so much incense it made my eyes burn and I couldn’t stay.”
Nibaran said angrily, “Exorcist? Will you bastards never learn? Why didn’t you let Surendra know? That sisterfucker talks a lot. Let’s see today how much ability that son of a bastard has.”
Bhanu said, “But Surendra is in town.”
“Get the bastard from the town. Are the ghosts only going to show up on holidays for him?”
“Sometimes Surendra comes back home from town at night. Apparently some chick has caught his fancy!”
“Then why don’t you call the bastard?”
Everyone ran towards the village shouting and cheering.
Surendra’s house was at one end of the village. His father had been a very tough farmer. He didn’t spare anyone with his tongue. He had ploughed a small piece of land and managed to take care of his family. That land had all gone, but the house was still there. There was a peculiar rule in the village. Everyone was always plotting and planning to try and grab someone else’s land. False suits were constantly being pressed. And lands were seized as gambling debts. But rarely did anyone encroach on another’s house. In all the villages, there were one or two houses lying vacant, with no sign of the owner. During the day doves wandered around for food there, yet no one usually came to live in the houses. That would have angered the family deity who would then invoke a curse. That was why even when relatives paid an unexpected visit and there was no room at home, still neighbours wouldn’t send anyone over to stay in an empty house. Even if it became a permanently abandoned house, it was alright. The windows and doors were then taken off and used as firewood.
Surendra had erected doors and windows in his house and made it habitable again. In the city he had his own quarters next to the factory. There, he had closed drains and tap water. Yet, nowadays, Surendra liked coming and staying in his village home. The land here tugged at him. Once in a while Surendra lay alone in his own room in the middle of the night and cried to himself. Tears streamed from his eyes. No one would believe that such a big, strong man could cry.
Surendra cried alone. He suffered terribly when he thought of his mother. One day he had cruelly left his mother and run away. When the Choudhurys had beaten him without any reason, he had been blinded by rage. He didn’t think of his mother. He ran. His mother had had nothing to eat and cried herself to death. In that very room. No one had wanted to touch his mother’s corpse because she had cholera. It lay there for three days. Since then no one would come near the house.
After all this time Surendra had come back to take revenge on the village. Now he had money in his pocket, strength in his body, courage in his heart – but his mother was never coming back.
Weeping silently, Surendra thought to himself that one day he would marry a girl from that very village. Maybe then his anger would subside. But where was such a girl? No one caught his fancy. Forget beauty, no one even seemed healthy. None of them seemed to even have breasts.
From outside someone called out in a deep voice, “Surendra! Surendra!”
It sounded just like his father’s voice.
Surendra lay there laughing. The village boys had tried to frighten him several times. They had hurled rocks at the tin roof, and left a drowned cat inside the house. One time Surendra managed to catch some of them and give them quite a thrashing. After that some of their activities had been reduced, but a few of them were still after him. If only he could catch them again.
When the voice called out again, “Surendra, Surendra,” he went outside. No one was there. A three-quarter moon shone in the sky. The leaves of four coconut trees in a row all faced north now.
No one was there. Who could have called out?
Surendra looked around everywhere. Dusk had fallen a short while ago. Already, a deep slumber had spread across the village. Surendra stroked his broad chest and thought to himself, “It happens. When one lives alone, one hears such things.” He didn’t want to live alone much longer.
In the darkness he thought he saw some figures walking towards him. Seven or eight people. They were almost running toward the house. Surendra stood still and waited.
At the head of the gang was Nitai. He came jumping towards him and said, “Surenda, O Surenda, great news. I was coming to you when I met these folks on the way. Great news.”
Surendra calmly asked, “What news?”
“In Sonarang village, Sarbananda Das’ son’s wife has been possessed by a ghost.”
Surendra jokingly said, “Really? How much bhang have you drunk?”
Now four or five others came forward and said, “It’s true! Sarbananda’s son Bibhuti’s wife has been possessed by a female spirit. She has been writhing on the floor since morning. The spirit is speaking through her mouth. Saying such disgusting things.”
Still joking, Surendra said, “Really? What disgusting things, pray?”
“You can hear that for yourself if you go there.”
“Haven’t any of you heard it? Have any of you seen it?”
Nibaran said loudly, “Of course they have. Why, Charu and Bheno – both have seen it. Even the exorcist is unable to drive the ghost away.”
“Where is Sarbananda’s son Bibhuti?”
“He works in Durgapur.”
“Is there anyone from their family here? No one from their house has come to call me.”
“So if we tell you, you won’t go? Are our words no good? Are we no good?”
“Look, let me be clear. Sarbananda’s house is about two miles away. It’s better to sing kirtans at home than to go all that way for no reason, on the basis of gossip. “
“Or are you now afraid?”
Now Surendra laughed. These middle-aged men were so childish. Their brains were filled with dung. He said, “My business is so profitable, how can I be afraid? But where am I getting the real thing?”
“Why don’t you go see?”
“Alright, I’ll go. But if I go and find that it’s a bluff, then I’ll show you. Don’t fool around with me. I’m a straight talking fellow.”
Surendra went inside to get ready. The others waited outside. Only Nitai had the right to go inside the house.
Surendra was putting some things inside a bag. A small tin box. Nitai didn’t know what was in it. A flashlight. A pack of bandages. And an empty bottle of imported liquor.
Nitai asked, “Surenda, why are you taking the empty bottle?”
Surendra grinned from ear to ear and said, “Don’t you know? I will capture the spirit in this very bottle. Ghosts are terrified of bottles. As soon as I hold the bottle up, it will slip right inside. Bastard! You’ve also gotten excited by their talk!”
Slinging the bag over his shoulder, Surendra went outside and said, “Let’s go.”
After walking a few feet, Nibaran asked, “Have you brought the money Suren? You promised to pay a hundred rupees, today your money will be spent.”
Surendra said, heartlessly, “What is that to you Nibaran uncle? If I get the real thing, I’ll pay the price. But if someone gets the money it will be Sarbananda Das. Will he pay you a single paisa from that?”
Nibaran was a little deflated. But he thought to himself, Whether I get it or not, still I will be pleased just to see the money slipping out of your pocket. Son of a bastard, today your spirit will crack!
Once upon a time Sarbananda Das was quite well off. Now times were not so good, he had lost his land. Still, his elder son worked in the city and sent money home. The house was quite lovely. Four room surrounded a massive courtyard. And all around the house stood several betel nut trees. A path lined by betel nut trees wound its way past the kitchen to the pond. In one corner of the yard there stood a blackberry tree.
Right then the house was packed with people. No one was making any effort to control the crowd. People were doing whatever they wanted. It was hard to hear over all the shouting. Thick smoke came from the incense. Countless insects flew the light of a gas lamp.
Sarbananda’s daughter-in-law, Shanti, was lying in the yard. Her clothes were wet, and her hair matted in mud and water. Her eyes were shut, and foam poured out of her mouth continuously. For a while, she lay still, then all of a sudden she writhed as if in some terrible agony.
Sarbananda himself was slowly putting incense into the charcoal fire in a large earthen pot. And sitting next to Shanti, the exorcist was continuously chanting mantras with his eyes closed. In his hand was a broom.
The exorcist was a little man. The old exorcist from that village, Mahadeb, had been very renowned. He would be summoned from ten or twenty neighbouring villages. He had an imposing appearance that aroused both fear and respect in all who saw him. His hair reached his waist, like a woman’s, while a beard covered his face, his clothes were bright red, just like his eyes, and in his hand he carried a stick. This Mahadeb exorcist apparently could make ghosts and spirits dance left and right with his mantras. About six months ago, Mahadeb had died. It was rumoured that he had tried to capture two ghosts inside his body.
Just as a priest’s son is a priest, so an exorcist’s son is an exorcist. But the son had not inherited the father’s physique. He was in his early twenties, and his body was still chubby. Be that as it may, at least he had inherited his father’s mantras. And he had one important skill. He could touch his nose with his tongue.
Mahadeb’s son’s name was Subal. He sat cross-legged on the floor and chanted mantras with intense concentration, and every time the woman twisted, he instantly thrashed her with his broom. It was said that Mahadeb’s thrashing would spill blood. Subal may not have been hitting that hard, but his cussing was quite spirited. Once when Shanti moved her arms and legs particularly hard, Subal grabbed her hair with one hand and, beating her, said, “Out, out, daughter of a bastard, wife of a bastard, get out! Out!”
Surendra pushed his way through the crowd and stood in the middle of the courtyard. He was as dark as the Lord of Death himself. His jaws were stiff from rage. His first impulse was to kick the bugger Subal. The son of a pig dared to raise his hand at a woman. Surandra took a couple of steps towards him, but then he stopped. He remembered Father Pereira’s words. “One must not hit anyone except in grave self defense. Only animals attack one another for no reason. You are a man, Surendra!”
He bent down and said to Subal, “Here, let me see Sir. Let her go! I want to see.”
If Mahadeb had been there, a tumultuous brawl would have started. No one had ever dared to get in the way of Mahadeb’s work. He wouldn’t have cared two hoots for Surendra’s strength. He wasn’t any weakling himself. But the son was useless.
Subal meekly said, “It’s my case, who are you to examine it? I’m about to drive away the spirit. Just now.”
Surendra brushed him aside like an insect and said, “Move, move.”
Then he asked Sarbananda, “What happened?”
Sarbananda said with a pale face, raising a hand, “That blackberry tree…”
It was Subal himself who told the rest of the story. That morning, the daughter-in-law had emerged from her room in the previous night’s unwashed clothes. The sun hadn’t yet risen completely then. As soon she stepped outside into the yard, she noticed three koi fish. The night before, the fish had been alive in a large earthen vessel. Live fish were often kept in the house like that. But somehow the pot had turned over, and the fish had escaped. It was a good thing they were not been eaten by a cat. Of course, cats were afraid of live koi. The woman quickly caught the fish and put them back in the pot. Then, instead of washing the scales off her hands, she wiped them on her clothes. After going to bathroom sleepily, she was about to return to her room, when…
Subal stopped. The people present had already heard the story nearly fifty times, yet Subal tried to be dramatic and said, “On that blackberry tree were sitting two evil spirits. This is just the sort of chance they wait for. The woman had wiped the fish scales on her unwashed clothes, and on top of that, didn’t wash her feet after going to the bathroom. She was walking through where the clothes are laid out to dry, when suddenly a branch from the tree lowered itself and smacked her on the head. That’s it, once she fell down in the yard, we haven’t been able to stir her since.”
Surendra asked, “That early in the morning, was anyone else awake? Did anyone see the woman catching the koi? Or that she didn’t wash her feet?”
Subal wisely said, “Why does anyone have to see? I figured it out as soon as I saw the case. There on the porch you can still see the pot full of live fish.”
Surendra said, “Hmm.”
Subal said, “Do you want proof? Want to see?”
He thrashed the woman with the broom in his hand and said, “Bitch, bastardlover tell me, didn’t the woman catch the fish in her dirty clothes?”
From Shanti’s mouth came sounds, “Mmm, mmm.”
“Look here, she’s confessing. Want to hear more?”
Once again he hit Shanti with the broom and said, “Shit eater, tell me, Didn’t the tree’s branch lower itself and hit her on the head? Didn’t it?”
This time from Shanti’s mouth clearly came the words, “It did. It did.”
Subal turned around, looking pleased with himself.
Shanti was not from that village. Sarbananda had picked her from his mother’s village, Rashapagla. The girl had had a little education. Sarbananda’s son Bibhuti had got a BA degree from Mahakuma town, and this girl suited him well. Despite being a married woman, Shanti had tied her hair in two plaits for a long time. For the past two years Bibhuti had kept his wife at home because the city was too expensive. He came once in a blue moon. They had not had any children yet, it was suspected that the wife was barren.
Surendra stared at Shanti. A short while ago she was lying on her stomach, now she was on her back, an arm pinned under her back, her face turned to the ground. A woman in the prime of her youth was lying on the ground in front of so many people, with her wet sari clinging to her body. The aanchal was curled up in a ball like a python near her feet, the string at her waist had come loose. Her eyes were open but unseeing.
Barren women must be beautiful. Surendra had not seen anyone as pretty as Shanti in any village.
Subal said, “Two evil spirits were inhabiting the berry tree at once. The male is still sitting there, I’ve carved a boundary all around, it can’t come here now. The female has penetrated the woman’s body. The two won’t leave without each other.”
Surendra walked towards the berry tree. Subal yelled out, “Don’t go there, you will be possessed. The male is till sitting there. Can’t you see, there’s no breeze and yet the branch on top is swinging on its own?”
Truly, in the pale moonlight, it looked like the branch on top of the berry tree was swinging slowly.
Someone from the crowd shouted out, “If he wants to go, why don’t you just let him.”
Bending down, Surendra rolled his khaki pants up to his knees, and quickly climbed up the tree. Standing on the thickest branch with one leg, he shouted in his deep voice, “Where is it?”
Subal replied, “Higher. Right at the top. I can see clearly, the bugger is grinning. Climb a little higher, you’ll find it.”
Surendra understood his plan. The berry trees weren’t very strong. There used to be a stool made from berry tree wood in their home. One day without any warning it had cracked right down the middle. Now if he climbed higher with his sturdy body, then it would surely break. And if he didn’t climb up, then they would say that he had lost!
He took off the belt from his waist and made a lasso. Then, standing on tiptoe, he stretched himself as high as he could, and tried to catch the tip of the branch with his lasso. As soon as he caught it, he snapped off the branch and brought it down with him.
Sticking the branch under Subal’s nose, he said, “Is your male spirit sitting here?”
Afraid, Subal moved his head back a little.
In the meantime Shanti had woken up and was giggling. She gestured to Surendra and said, “Hey, listen, listen.”
Everyone shouted out, “It’s called him, the spirit has called him.”
Surendra got somewhat startled. “It sounded just like a healthy person. Did that mean the woman was so far faking it? Even after being beaten so badly by Subal?”
Shanti picked up the curled up aanchal and covered herself, looking more respectable. Giggling again, she beckoned to Surendra and said, “Please listen, please.”
Surendra walked towards her and said, “What?”
“Listen. Come closer.”
Surendra moved a little close and said, “What?”
Shanti slapped the ground and said, “Sit, come and sit here. Why are you being bashful? Why bashful with me? You’re my lover. Sit.”
Surendra sat down.
Shanti said, “I have something to tell you. I’ll whisper it in your ear.”
Surendra said, “Tell me from where you are.”
Shanti slid her way towards Surendra’s lap. She pulled his head towards her. Surendra felt very uneasy. Shanti seemed to want to whisper something in his ear.
Touching his ear with her mouth, Shanti began to whisper something. Surendra couldn’t make out a word. Once he shouted out, “Ooh.” Shanti had bitten his ear. Surendra pushed her away. His ear was bleeding profusely.
The people began to laugh loudly. They were very amused at Surendra’s sorry state. From that day on his nickname became ‘Earless Suren!’
But the crowd’s laughter was halted by Shanti’s own sudden laugh. Hee hee hee hee, Shanti laughed out loud, with blood on her mouth. Then, in a strange monstrous voice, she said, “Hey Surendra, will you marry me? Please come here! Will you marry me? You and I will hide in the jute fields. Will you marry me? Hey Surendra! Please come.”
Everyone knew that Sarbananda’s daughter-in-law Shanti was a very shy girl. She didn’t utter a word in front of people. Especially in front of her father-in-law she would never say such vile things. Besides, this wasn’t Shanti’s voice, it was someone else speaking inside her.
Again Shanti began to laugh, Hee hee hee. It was not a human laugh. It sounded like two knives scraping against each other. Sent shivers down one’s spine. Several people ran away in fright.
Surendra had his handkerchief pressed to his ear. His shirt was soaked with blood near his neck.
Now Shanti leaped at Surendra’s chest and said, “Want to play? Hey Surendra, want to play with me? Eh Surendra, please come, play? Hee hee hee hee.”
Surendra forgot that one was not supposed to raise a hand against a woman. He clutched Shanti by her hair to push her head away and gave her a loud smack on each cheek. He was furious.
When beaten, Shanti again wilted and fell to the ground.
Of those who had run away in fear, a few had now come back. For a few moments everyone was silent. Surendra wiped the blood from his ear.
Suddenly, from the crowd, Nibaran spoke up. “Hey Surendra, now take out your money. Give us the money.”
Others chimed up, “Yes, now you will have to pay up. Sarbananda da, don’t let him go, catch him.”
Surendra asked, “Money for what?”
“Didn’t you say that if we saw a ghost with our own eyes you’d pay a hundred rupees?”
Surendra said, “What did we see?”
“Are you pretending to be a fool now? Everyone will testify, you said fifty times that if you see a ghost with your own eyes, you’ll pay a hundred rupees. Didn’t you just see one?”
Surendra said, “No, I did not.”
“You’re lying. Trying to swindle? Pay up. Sarbananda da, don’t let him, catch him, today there’s no getting away. He shows off so about his money.”
Several of them came towards Surendra in a circle. They planned to surround him. Starving, skinny Nibaran seemed to be the most eager. He wouldn’t even get fifty paisa from that money, still at least the asshole Surendra would be put in his place. Seeing what was happening, Nitai, who was a member of Surendra's own gang, hid in the back and said nothing. After seeing Shanti boudi’s behaviour, his heart was pounding.
Surendra pushed away two men from in front of him and stood with his feet apart, before taking out a huge dagger, and said, “I’m warning you, don’t try to mess with me or I’ll make a blood Ganga flow here.”
In an effort to escape, people tripped over one another. Surendra was truly a murderer, just as everyone had suspected.
Surendra brandished his dagger in the air and said, “I am a man of my word. I said I’d pay a hundred rupees and so I will, if I see the real thing. Does that mean you’ll try to pass off fake, adulterated goods on to me? Here’s a weak patient. You show that to me and ask for money? Huh?”
He smacked the broken berry tree branch on the ground three times and said, “Is there a male spirit in this? Where is that bastard? Or has he fled after seeing me?”
He took out the empty bottle from his bag and slammed it down in front of Subal and said, “Just like snake charmers capture snakes, why don’t you capture a ghost for me! Don’t you go around capturing ghosts? After screwing the cap on this bottle if it jumps on its own, then I’ll give you a hundred rupees right now. Right now. Look, here’s the money.”
Surendra took out a bunch of notes form his pocket and waved it.
Not able to do it, Subal said, “Go, go.”
Kneeling down on the ground, Surendra placed the dagger next to him. Then picking up one of Shanti’s wilted hands, he began to feel her pulse.
Finally having mustered up some courage, Sarbananda said, “Hey, don’t touch my daughter-in-law.”
Surendra scolded him. “Shut up! A little while ago, do you know what your daughter in law whispered in my ear? If I say it in front of everyone, your face will be black with shame.”
Sarbananda was instantly silent.
But the exorcist’s son, Subal the exorcist, was not willing to renounce his claim that easily. He spoke to the few people who were peering out from among the audience.
“Did you see? Did you all see, he is trying to snatch my case from me. It was me who was first summoned from this house.”
Surendra said, “You have been talking nonsense all this time, have you been able to capture the ghost?”
Subal said, “You move. I will now begin my exorcism tantra. The bitch can’t possibly get away.”
Surendra said, “Spare us your exorcism tantra. Have you heard of the liquid tantra? That is the father of all tantras. Now watch, I’m starting that liquid tantra.”
Surendra took out the tin box from his bag and opened it. In it lay syringes for injections and some various medicines. Breaking an ampule, he poured all the medicine into a syringe. Then he raised the tip and released the air.
Everyone was stunned into silence.
Surendra said to Sarbananda, “Don’t be afraid. I’m used to giving shots. Have you heard of Father Pereira? Very famous doctor. He found me on the streets and gave me shelter in his home. He raised me. I learned to give shots from him.”
He quickly stuck the syringe in Shanti’s right arm. He looked like a skilled compounder. Shanti made no sound. After injecting all the medication, Surendra pulled out the syringe and said to Sarbananda, “Your daughter in law is suffering from hysteria. Now she will sleep for ten to twelve hours. When she wakes up, feed her well. She will be cured. Now go, take her inside and make her lie down. Ooh, my ear is driving me crazy.”
Sarbananda said, “Bou is now so strong that even five men couldn’t hold her down earlier. How will I take her inside?”
Surendra said, “Huh?”
Then, just like Shiva ruining Daksha’s feast, he picked her up in a heap from the floor. He said to Sarbananda, “Show me which room she sleeps in, I’ll go and her put on the bed.”
After crossing the porch, at the door, he gave Sarbananda a look of pure hatred. Then, lowering his voice, he said, “Is this how you want to kill your pregnant daughter-in-law? And you’re supposed to be respectable folk!”
It rained and rained for three days. Hard to believe that it was winter. Seemed just like a monsoon downpour.
In the evening, soaked all over in mud and water, Nibaran stumbled homewards. He hadn’t been drinking, and yet his feet had no strength. His body seemed unable to hold up much longer. He would collapse any minute anywhere. His heart was filled with despair.
Just five days ago, he had planted cauliflower seeds in his mortgaged land after borrowing money from the moneylender. The rain had ruined the crops. He had never dreamed that it might rain so much at this time of the year. This appeared to be God’s curse. Today the ridge separating his land from his neighbour’s had broken down, and the water had flooded in. He had tried to dig up a few saplings, but failed to rescue most of them. The deal with the moneylender was fifty-fifty.
That was for the future, which was gone. But what of today! Since yesterday, digging work in the canal had ceased. In such rain, there was no point digging. But today had been Nibaran’s turn. And if he had had work, he would have got his own ration and four and half rupees. Now it seemed like four and half rupees could buy one so much. Just four and half rupees were worth a world of happiness.
Mr. Rahman had said that those who couldn’t work that day would get work the next day before anyone else, if the rain stopped. And it if still rained the next day? Then the day after! The fact was that Nibaran’s job was certain. Now, until the next day or the day after, Nibaran just had to survive by punching his stomach with his fist.
Nibaran stared at the sky with two angry eyes. How could even the clouds become such enemies of men? It was heartbreaking to see the tiny little cauliflower saplings, they looked just like babies hiding their faces in their mother’s laps, how could the gods in the heavens not have had any compassion before killing them? The cauliflower saplings had burst into tears, Nibaran had heard them.
Just then his foot slipped in the mud, and his loincloth loosened at the waist and from it fell out a small bottle. In it lay six black and yellow capsules of medicine. In the dark, in the mud, where did the bottle disappear? With his skinny fingers, Nibaran started to hunt for it. His body burnt in disgust, he couldn’t bear it any more.
The bottle was found. He hoped no mud had gone into it. No, it was sealed with a rubber cap, not even air could enter. But, instead of being delighted at finding the bottle, Nibaran felt like flinging it away.
The doctor at the health center in Sonarang loved to fish. Every Sunday he would go to a different pond to fish. Last Sunday he had come to the silted up tank behind the Choudhury babus’ house. Panti and Genu were wandering around there. The doctor babu only liked to catch fish, not eat it. If he caught more than one, he gave the rest away. Everyone knew this. That day the doctor hadn’t managed to catch a single fish, still he had come to Nibaran’s home. The young doctor chatted with children a lot. It was Panti and Genu who had dragged the doctor babu there. They loved their grandfather. For a few days, Paban had been very unwell, and could barely speak.
The doctor looked at Paban and said a lot of fancy things. To feed him this, feed him that. Nibaran took it all in with one ear and out the other. His father was old, now he would die. Why fuss about it? Nibaran had been very hopeful that his father would now pass. Just by staying alive he was of no use to the world. But, alas, a few days later, the old man shook his hands and legs and sat up once more? However, this time he would not be saved.
Today despite the rain, Nibaran had sat on the canal’s bank for two full hours. In case the rain suddenly stopped, in case the digging began. At that time the doctor was walking on the dam to go see a patient. Seeing Nibaran, he stopped. The doctor talked to everyone. Folding his hands together to greet him, he asked Nibaran, “How is your father?”
No point prolonging the conversation in such situations, so Nibaran just said, “Good.”
“You should visit me once. I will prescribe some medication, your father needs a tonic.”
Nibaran kept quiet.
The doctor said again, “You can come today itself. In about an hour or so. I will be back by then.”
At that moment, it seemed not Nibaran but someone else inside him spoke up, “Doctor babu, we are poor, God has not provided us with two meals a day, how can we afford those expensive medications?”
The doctor’s eyebrows were joined. He gazed at Nibaran with his two large black eyes for a moments in silence, then opening the massive bag in his hand he took out the bottle of medicine and gave it to Nibaran, saying, “Give him two of these each day. After he eats his meal. If not today, visit me tomorrow or the day after, let me see what I can do.”
When Nibaran did not say anything, he was quiet for a while, and then said, “One must never lose hope.”
Even then Nibaran wasn’t happy. In fact he was angry. Sometimes a person’s pity made one angry. If the doctor had stood there and given advice a little while longer, then surely Nibaran would have flung some curses at him silently. Unbearable, everything was unbearable.
As Surendra stood in the mud in the dark, with the medicine bottle in his hand, a smile began to play on his face. It was neither a smile of anger, nor disgust, nor ridicule, nor sadness, nor pity. It was a strange smile, a mysterious smile. The doctor had said, give the medicine twice a day after the meal. The doctor was stupid, he had learned nothing. Now, if Nibaran hurled the medicine away, would it be a sin?
Nibaran didn’t throw away the medicine. After all, it was expensive. He began to walk again. It continued to rain without stopping, though in moderation. Just then, there was no one but Nibaran in the world. He walked on homewards. At that moment, he hated his own home more than any other place in the world, yet that was where he had to go.
It was not too far now. There was a puddle of water in the middle of the road where Nibaran washed the mud off his feet. When he looked up, he was startled. In front of his house, who was that leaning against the grapefruit tree? Through the rain, in the broken darkness, there stood a ghost. Nibaran’s heart seemed to be stuck in his throat. His first impulse was to turn and flee. Every rib in the ghost’s chest was clearly visible, and a skeletal arm was outstretched. Nibaran let out a cry.
The spectral figure then said, “Who, Nibaran, is that you?”
Turning around to run, Nibaran said, “Oh bugger.”
He had never imagined that the person who that very morning had been stuck to his bed, and not had the strength to rise or speak, would come outside and stand in the rain. His life seemed as tough as that of a koi fish. Son of a bastard, Asshole.
Nibaran said sharply, “Why have you come outside?”
Trying to speak, Paban gasped. His voice sounded nasal. He said, “You were not back yet. In this storm, I was worrying.”
Nibaran let out a deep breath. The old bugger was speaking clearly. Did that mean he would survive even this time around? Oh Lord, how much longer would he have to bear this burden?
Paban asked, “Did you bring anything?”
Nibaran said, “What?”
“Rice, wheat, didn’t you bring anything?”
“Where will I get it from? From your father’s property? Today there was no digging. Today my ruin has been completed.”
“You didn’t get anything at all?”
Taking the bottle from his waist, Nibaran said, “I have brought medicine. The doctor gave free medicine for you. You’ve trained your grandchildren so well, they got hold of the doctor.”
Paban ignored the medicine and said, “You didn’t get rice or wheat, nothing? Today all day the stove has not been lit at home.”
In that instant Nibaran decided his future course of action. He said in a firm voice, “There is no hope for us here any more. Tomorrow we will leave. In the town I’ll go to the rail station and beg for food.”
Paban said eagerly, “Then let’s do that.”
“Will you be able to go?”
“Why won’t I? You can hold me up a little as we walk.”
“If you can go, good. If not, you will watch the house.”
The children had both fallen asleep, the wife lay awake. Her eyes were pale. Every part of her body except her stomach looked sickly.
Entering the room, Nibaran said in a grave voice, “I was not able to bring anything today.”
His wife’s face didn’t reflect any emotion.
“Is there anything at home?”
The wife turned her face to the wall and said, “No.”
Nibaran yelled impossibly loudly and said, “Why not? What will I eat now? What about the dough that was left last night?”
The wife didn’t get upset at all. With her face still turned away, she said, “I saved it until this evening. Then Panti and Genu kneaded the dough with water and ate it.”
Paban had been lying down with the torn blanket over him. He now sat up and tried to take his son’s side. With insincere eyes he looked first at his daughter in law, then at his son, and said, “Look, she didn’t even give me a little. They ate it all up themselves. I asked so many times, Bou, please give me a little. Today my fever has subsided, today I’ll have a bigger appetite, at least give me a little. Or if you won’t give me any, at least save some for the son, he’ll be coming home after slaving all day – but she ignored me. Gobbled it all up herself.
Now the wife turned from the wall. She gave her father-in-law a look that could have turned him to ashes. Leaning on her elbow she half sat up and said in a venomous voice, “Old man, why don’t you die? Before saying this, why didn’t your tongue fall off? The children ate, but did I touch even a grain myself? There’s an enemy in my stomach, and yet I didn’t eat anything. And only your greed grows? What compassion for your son. Didn’t you go three times to the kitchen to hunt around? I know everything! Wretch, why can’t you die? If you die, I’ll be relieved.”
Paban looked at his son and said, “See? See?”
Nibaran did not take sides. What he wanted to do was to kick his two sleeping children, kick his father, even his wife. He alone needed food. If by God’s will it stopped raining the next day, then how would he dig with no strength? If he didn’t live, could any of them else live! None of them understood that. All of them had their mouths wide open with demonic hunger.
If it didn’t stop raining tomorrow, then they would definitely have to go to town. There would surely be some place to hide their heads in the rail station. No one died of starvation in the city. God had infinite compassion for city people.
His wife was continuing to mutter. Nibaran scolded her, “Shut up.”
A rag was placed on the floor by the door to prevent the water from coming in. Picking up the wet rag Nibaran wiped the mud from his feet and hands. He didn’t want to go to the pond in the dark. Gulping down a pot of water, he lay down.
There were a big room and a small room next to each other. The door in between the two stayed open these days. The window in the smaller room must have been open, because drops of rain came into the room. Nibaran thought, his father was getting wet. Let him. He still had the strength to walk around, couldn’t he get up himself and close it? If too much of the rain reached Nibaran, he would kick the door between the two rooms shut.
There was no sound, except that of rain on the tin roof like the patter of crow’s feet.
The children were fast asleep, they hadn’t woken up. Then the pregnant woman fell asleep too. But Nibaran found it impossible to fall asleep on his empty stomach. And an ailing old man wasn’t supposed to fall asleep easily either.
After a while Paban began to moan.
Nibaran asked, “Now what?”
Paban took a deep breath and said, “Nothing! For two days I have not eaten any rice, I’m very hungry.”
Nibaran flung the medicine bottle towards him and said, “Here, eat this.”
Paban breathed heavily and said, “I haven’t eaten in two days.” Then he really put all the capsules in his mouth and began to chew them. It made a crunching noise.
After a while he again let out a deep breath and said, “Oof it’s been so long since I had some tobacco. I asked bou for a little fire, but she didn’t give me any.”
“Will you be quiet?”
The old man kept quiet, moaning sound kept coming out of his mouth with every deep breath.
After a while, Nibaran still hadn’t slept. A sliver of light came in through the window and flickered on the wall before fading. But in the distance one could hear a faint tinkling sound.
Nibaran pricked up his ears. They were coming. Surprising, even in this rain and thunder they were coming?
Rage smouldered in Nibaran’s stomach. They had money in their pockets and strength in their bodies, which was why they were able to indulge in such fun and games. They came to make people like Nibaran suffer even more. Why didn’t that earless Surendra die? So many people died for no reason, why didn’t he die?
It seemed that they had arrived under the tree at Panchla crossing. The broken strains of their song came floating with the tinkling of their anklets:“Grandsons and granddaughters of ghosts… old folk, young chaps Just any old ghosts… To win a ghost, oh brother, to win a ghost… A hundred rupees, a hundred rupees… Each ghost is one hundred rupees…”
Paban coughed twice. He too was awake. Nibaran asked, “Baba, O Baba, are you feeling ill?”
Paban said, “No.”
“Baba, have you ever seen a ghost? Tell the truth.”
“Yes I have. Many times.”
“Who becomes a ghost when they die? Does everyone become a ghost when they die?”
“Those who die an unnatural death, those whose souls remain on earth even after death.”
Nibaran suddenly got up and stood by the door. In the darkness, his figure made an even darker silhouette.
Paban asked, “Why did you get up? Are you going outside?”
Nibaran said, “No. Baba, if you die…”
Paban said, "Yes I will certainly become a ghost! Do I have to tell you that...Even if I stare at the two grandchildren’s faces just before…you must call Surendra…I will slip into the bottle, you take the hundred rupees. Noooooo, Nibaran, don’t kill me, just let me live two more days, just two more days…give me a little warm rice…I want to eat to my heart’s content for two days…one bowl of hookah…oh please Nibaran, I beg of you…just two days…a little warm rice…I beg of you Nibaran, just two more days…”
Published in Parabaas, July, 2011.
The original, titled Garam bhaat othoba ekti nichhok bhuter golpo (গরম ভাত অথবা একটি নিছক ভূতের গল্প) by Sunil Gangopadhyay is included in the Collected Short Stories (Vol.2) (গল্প-সমগ্র, দ্বিতীয় খণ্ড), published by Mitra & Ghosh (মিত্র ও ঘোষ), Kolkata, 2009.