• Parabaas
    Parabaas : পরবাস : বাংলা ভাষা, সাহিত্য ও সংস্কৃতি
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  • In Bhushandi’s Fields (ভূশণ্ডির মাঠে) : Parashuram (Rajsekhar Basu)
    translated from Bengali to English by Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra with Carolyn B. Brown


    Shibu Bhattacharya lived in the village of Peneti. He had a wife, three cows, a single-storied brick house, some ancestral land from his Brahmin forebearers, twenty-six families relying on his priestly duties, and a few tenants. These helped him live comfortably. Shibu was thirty-two. He’d had some basic schooling and knew some Sanskrit from his father—enough to make a living as a priest and to care for his other assets. But Shibu wasn’t happy. His wife, Nrityakali, was about twenty-five, with a strong physique and formidable nature. She took good care of her husband, but Shibu found a lack of genuine warmth in her ministrations. Minor, insignificant matters would spark off tempestuous brawls. Shibu would be exhausted after five minutes of shouting, but once Nrityakali’s sharp tongue got going, it didn’t stop easily. So Shibu was defeated every time. Because he couldn’t manage his wife, the people in the village called him a coward, wife-ridden, tied to her apron strings, and so on. The sheer disrespect—both in and out of his house—made him miserable.

    One day, Nrityakali heard a rumor that her husband was having an affair. That day their bickering reached new heights, and Nrityakali’s broom found Shibu’s back. Poor Shibu spent the night in anger, pain, and humiliation, then caught the 6 am train to Kolkata.

    From Sealdah station Shibu went straight to the temple in Kalighat. There he made an offering of five rupees and prayed: “O Mother Goddess Kali, please, please make that hellcat suffer from cholera and die. I promise you I’ll sacrifice a pair of goats. I cannot tolerate this anymore. Please Mother . . . give me a solution so I can start a new family. This bitch can’t even have children. Please oh please, Mother.”

    Back from the temple, Shibu feasted on a large packet of fried snacks, half a seer each of curd and sweet jalebis. He then spent the rest of the day touring Alipore zoo, the museum, Hogg market, the High Court. Later that evening, he checked into Hotel-de-Orthodox on Beadon Street and dined on one plate of curry, two plates of roast chicken, and eight deviled eggs. Fully satiated, he spent the night watching the late shows and returned to his village by the early morning train.

    But Goddess Kali must have misunderstood his prayers, because soon after he got home, Shibu got diarrhea and began to vomit. The kabiraj came. The doctor came. So nothing much was accomplished. After eight hours of suffering while his wife cried at his feet, Shibu left this world for good.

    Shibu no longer wanted to stay in his village. That very night he crossed over the Ganges. Across from Peneti was Konnagar. From there Shibu flew north through Rishra, Srirampur, Vaidyabati’s Haat, the jute mills of Champadani, and perhaps five or six more miles. Finally, he reached Bhushandi’s fields. The place was vast and empty. It had once boasted a brickyard, so the ground was uneven; not much was left other than a few potholes and mounds, bushes of acacia, wild arum, hill glory flowers, and wild berries. Shibu fell in love. There was a tall palm tree on one side of a long-forgotten brick pile. On the other side was a twisted wood apple tree. Shibu made for the tree and became its brahmadaitya, its resident Brahmin ghost.

    For those unschooled in theories of the spirit-world, here’s a summary: everyone knows that after death, a man becomes a ghost, right? But how do the realms of heaven and hell and the theory of reincarnation figure into the afterlife? Atheists don’t have souls. After death, their bodies just decompose into the oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and other gases and blend with the air and soil. The sahibs do have souls but do not reincarnate. After death, they become ghosts and gather in a large waiting room. There, after some time, they undergo the Last Judgment. Once their verdict comes through, some spend eternity in heaven, the rest spend eternity in hell. The freedom they enjoyed in life is markedly decreased after death. The sahib ghosts cannot leave the waiting room without a special pass. Those of you who’ve participated in a séance know how difficult it is to bring down a sahib ghost. But we Hindus have different arrangements because we believe in everything—reincarnation, heaven, hell, karma, pilgrimages, nirvana, liberation, the whole works! After death, a Hindu first becomes a ghost and can live freely anywhere he or she wants; even interacting with living people is a possibility. This is a big advantage. But this state does not last long. Some Hindus get rebirth after two or three days, some after ten or twelve years, some after two or three centuries. Sometimes, for a change of air, the ghosts are sent to heaven or hell for a while. This is good for their health. In heaven, they can enjoy themselves thoroughly, and in hell, after getting rid of all the weight of their sins, their lightweight, transparent bodies feel clean and refreshed. Besides, they may be lucky enough to meet some other cool, interesting ghosts. But those who die in holy places like Kashi or the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal, or if they are fortunate to see Vamana on Jaganath’s chariot during Rath Yatra, they can unburden themselves of all their sins and can then achieve moksha and be truly liberated.

    Several months had passed and Shibu was still hanging out in his tree. The first few days had been exceptionally happy—Shibu was truly free, in a new place, in a new state. It had been a truly ecstatic state of being, but now he was feeling lonely and bored. However temperamental his wife had been, she’d taken good care of him, and in his nonexistent bones, Shibu now missed her. At one point, he’d even thought of returning to Peneti. He quickly dismissed the thought. If he did return, he knew people would say he was so attached to his wife that even after death he couldn’t stay away.

    No, he had to find some likable ghostly female companion right here.

    It was Phalgun, springtime. A mild south breeze was rolling over the Ganges and the sun god foundered in the river and drowned in its dark waves. Bhushandi’s fields lay awash in the scent of hill glory flowers. There were new spring leaves on Shibu’s tree. Some distance away in the akondo bush, a few pods burst open, and clusters of cottony fiber blew past Shibu, shining like spidery skeletons. A yellow butterfly flew right through Shibu’s transparent body. A black beetle buzzed around him. On a nearby acacia tree, a pair of crows sat, the male crow tickling the neck of the female, whose eyes were closed languidly while she fitfully sang caw—aw—aw. A large frog woke up from his nap and carefully stepped out of his hole in Shibu’s tree. He looked at Shibu with large round eyes and croaked in ridicule. A group of cicadas who’d been tuning up for their evening chorus now synchronized in a loud trill.

    Although Shibu wasn’t alive, his dead heart wanted to beat anew. He felt empty, and yet he detected a rhythmic flutter in his invisible chest. He remembered a petni who lived at the far end of the fields, in a demon tree near Pituli Marsh. Shibu had often seen the female ghost catching fish in her wicker basket in the evening. She was covered by a shroud from head to toe. Once, she’d removed her veil to look at Shibu and bit her tongue, embarrassed. The petni was old, her cheeks sunken, and her two front teeth absent. Shibu supposed he could chitchat with her, but nothing more.

    . . . bit her tongue, embarrassed.

    Shibu had noticed a shankchunni. She’d been dressed in a gamcha and had another on her head. As Shibu watched this ghost of a married woman, she’d stepped out with her long legs like a stork and splashed cow-dung water from a pot in her hand. She didn’t look old. Shibu had tried to flirt with her, but she snarled like an angry cat, and Shibu quickly shrank back.

    . . . splashed cow-dung water from a pot

    The one who tempted Shibu the most was a dakini, who had recently arrived at Khiri the Brahman’s abandoned hut by the Ganges near the eastern end of the fields. Shibu had only seen the female ghoul once, but that was enough to get him hooked. The dakini had been sweeping the yard with a palm-leaf broom. She was wearing a plain white sari. Spying Shibu, she’d flashed a quick smile and disappeared into thin air. But, oh, what a smile! And her teeth and face and complexion! Nrityakali’s color had been dark brown like a kala jamun! But this dakini was pale, like the soft center of the sweet.

    . . . sweeping the yard with a palm-leaf broom.

    Shibu let out a long sigh and started his song.

       O Sri Radhika or Chandrabali?
       Who do I pick? Who shall I ignore?

    Suddenly there was a loud voice from the top of the nearby palm tree, echoing throughout the fields:

       Cha ra ra ra ra ra
       Hey, Bhajua’s sister, Bhaglu’s daughter,
       Marry a cuckoo, marry a cuckooooo—

    Shibu was startled, “Who’s that on the palm tree?!”

    The answer came, “Kariya ghost, I am.”

    Shibu replied, “Dark ghost? Come on down, son!”

    A dark-skinned, sylphlike ghost with a turban on his spindly head slid down the tree and knelt in front of Shibu, “Greetings, Brahmadeoji.”

    . . . sylphlike ghost with a turban on his
    spindly head slid down the tree . . .

    “Live long and prosper, my child,” Shibu responded. “Can you find some tobacco?”

    “Got a chillum?” Kariya ghost asked.

    “No tobacco, no chillum. Why don’t you get both?”

    The Kariya ghost soared up high and a few moments later brought back the tobacco, the chillum, and a hot coal to light it with from the market in Vaidyabati. He lit the tobacco and handed it to Shibu. Shibu attached the stem of an arum leaf to the chillum and took a long drag. “So? When did you arrive? Tell me about yourself.”

    Kariya ghost told him his story. He’d lived in Chhapra district with a wife, a cow, land, and everything. But his wife, Mungri, was extremely quarrelsome and bad-tempered, and the two never got along. One day, they had a big fight about their neighbor Bhajua’s sister, so Kariya gave her a good thwack with his stick and left home for Calcutta. This was now thirty some years ago. After a few days, he got the news that Mungri had died from smallpox. Kariya did not return home, nor did he remarry. He worked in various places and ended up in the Champadani jute mill as a porter. After a few years, he received a promotion to the head porter’s job.

    Recently, while hoisting a load with a pulley he’d suffered a head wound and was hospitalized for a month. Just a few days ago, he had kicked the bucket and came to live on this palm tree.

    Shibu inhaled deeply and was about to hand the chillum to Kariya when suddenly a brassy voice rang out from the brick pile, “Brother, anything left in the chillum?”

    A few old bricks fell off the pile near the wood apple tree and out of the crack crawled an apparition. He was short and chubby. His face was like the bowl of a hookah with a moustache. He was bald-headed, had a string of prayer beads around his neck; he wore an undershirt, a dhoti, and a pair of sandals from Taltala. He grabbed the chillum from Shibu and said, “Brahmin? My respects, sir. I have some money buried in here. So, I’ve become a yaksha to look after it. It’s nothing much—just a few hundred rupees . . . all mortgaged bonds, sir. All on paper only. Not a quarter in cash. So, watch out. Don’t even cast a glance that way. You’ll only earn a pair of handcuffs . . .”

    . . . all mortgaged bonds, sir.

    Shibu knew some of the Meghaduta, Kalidas’s famous epic, The Cloud Messenger. He respectfully asked, “Are you the same yaksha from Kalidas’s—?”

    “Brother-in-law. He was my wife’s brother-in-law; Kalidas married my wife’s cousin. The kid was a rent collector for Nimki’s estates in Hijli . . . died many years ago. How do you know about him?”

    “How long have you been here?”

    “Me? Hahaha. Let me see . . . about seventy years. I’ve seen so many characters come and go. You arrived only the other day. I remember that day well. You had to remove all the red ants and stumble three times before you could climb this tree. I saw it all. I know you like to sing. That’s a good hobby. But if you want to learn classical, be my trainee. My voice has become a little twangy, but even a dead elephant is still worth a lot.”

    “May I ask what you did before?”

    “Sure,” answered the yaksha. I am the late Naderchand Mullick. Surname Basu. Caste Kayastha. I lived in Rishra; at present in this brick pile. I used to be the police chief from Rishra to Bhadreswar. Have you heard of Georgeti Sahib? The tax collector of Hooghly? He loved me so much. He left it to me to enforce the law for the entire area. People trembled at the name of Nadu Mullick.”

    “How about your family, if I may ask?”

    The yaksha heaved a deep sigh. “Not everybody can have everything, brother. I did have a family, but the wife was a tyrant. Here I was, the all-powerful Nadu Mullick—the Company’s criminal court for the entire district was in the palm of my hand, and she dared beat me with that piece of wood! But immediately after, she fled to her parents’ place. I could have easily arrested her under Penal Code 324, but I didn’t want to start a scandal. Besides, where could she run? There is dharma, there is guru. Pretty soon her karma caught up with her. In the plague of ’47, the bitch went belly-up. But I was done with family life. After Georgeti Sahib returned to England, I too retired, and with my pension money started an amateur theater company. When my time was up, I came and settled here. I don’t have any kids, and that’s fine with me. I didn’t want to work hard earning the money only for it to be squandered by God-only-knows which ghost reincarnated as a son of that ill-fated bitch. This is much better. I look after my own money and am happy living here. Anyway, enough of my story. What’s yours?”

    Shibu told Nadu Mullick his story. He also introduced Kariya ghost.

    “It seems all of us are in the same boat, brother,” the yaksha said. “No use crying over spilt milk. Come, let’s have some music. No pakhawaj drum, so I can’t keep the tempo properly, but I’ll slap on my belly. Nope, tummy’s empty. Sounds weak . . . oh hey, Kariya, would you take some of that muddy soil and slap some of it here on my belly? There, that’s just about right. So, do you understand chautal? Six beats, four talas, two rests. Here, listen to this:

       Dha dha dhin ta kat ta ge.
       Wife is scary, beats her hubby.
       Chases him round, yells all the time.
       Hits him for no reason or rhyme.
       Grabs his throat and drags him by hair,
       Not a weakling, no, she does dare
       To throw him down, push him around,
       A wimpier hubby can never be found.

    Dha is on first beat. Then kete gadi gene dha! Dhin ta tere kete gadi gene dha! If you miss this dha, you’ve lost it all. My voice is getting hoarse. Oh hey, Kariya, go on, get me some more tobacco . . .”

    God always helps those who help themselves, because after lots of coaxing and pleading, Shibu persuaded the dakini to shack up with him. She still hadn’t spoken a word or taken off her veil, but she’d silently given him her consent. Today was their wedding day, and they followed all the ghostly rituals. After sunset, Shibu smeared himself with holy mud from the Ganges and bathed in the river. Next, he cleaned his sacred thread with the sticky velvet apple sap, combed his hair with a cactus brush, and tied a ripe scarlet gourd to his tuft of hair. He also collected an armful of hill glory flowers, wood apples, and custard apples. When the jackals began their evening chorus, he made his way to Khiri the Brahman’s hut.

    It was the fourteenth day of a bright waxing moon. Shibu sat in the courtyard on a large taro leaf in front of his dakini and prepared to recite the Sanskrit slokas for warding off evil spirits. But first things first. With some eagerness, he suggested, “I’m sure that now you can at least remove your veil.”

    The dakini removed her veil, and Shibu got the fright of his life. “What?! You?! Netya?”

    Nrityakali laughed shrilly and said, “Of course, my dear husband! Did you think you’d get rid of me that easy? Just because I died? Having fun chasing the petnis and shankchunnis, are you?”

    “How did you come here?” Shibu asked. “Did you get cholera?”

    “Cholera be damned. Why? Did I not have kerosene in my kitchen?”

    “Ahh, so that’s why you look paler than before. Gold shines brighter after being put through a fire. Well, has the attitude softened a bit?”

    Suddenly, the rituals were interrupted. What was the commotion outside? It sounded like a bunch of vultures fighting, tearing at each other. Suddenly, the petni and the shankchunni pushed through the gate like a pair of meteors and landed in the courtyard, screaming and screeching at each other.

    “Why should I hand over my man to you?” the petni asked.

    “Go to hell, you old hag,” the shankchunni responded. “He’s your grandson’s age.”

    “Oh my! And you such a young, blushing bride yourself!”

    “Get real, you fish-smelling dirtbag. I’m his wife from two lives ago.”

    “Oh yeah? said the petni. “And I’m his wife from three lives ago. Take that, you cow-dung eater.”

    “Keep howling. Let the other dakini-witch disappear with him.”

    The petni muttered some spell and locked the gate, “Let me strangle you first, then I’ll finish that witch.”

    Both started scratching, biting, and pulling out each other’s hair. One Nrityakali was not enough, now two more wives from Shibu’s previous lives had arrived. Shibu twisted his sacred thread around his fingers and started chanting a prayer to god. Nrityakali cursed and hissed angrily.

    Suddenly, the yaksha’s voice was heard singing in the distance:

       Dear, can you hear that sound?
       Is the flute player Shyama around?
       No, it’s a fox. Recognize the howl,
       Don’t mistake it for a dog, jackal, or owl.

    The yaksha stopped singing, approached the fence, and asked, “What’s going on, brother? Why all this commotion?”

    Kariya ghost yelled, “Hey Brahmin ghoul, open the door.”

    Shibu stayed silent.

    The yaksha and Kariya ghost pushed and shoved, but the door, locked by the petni’s spell, did not open or break. At last, Kariya ghost shouted out an extraction spell:

       Strike harder, oh big man, heave ho
       Just a bit more, heave ho
       Uproot the mountain, heave ho
       Run the engine, heave ho
       Burst the boiler, heave ho
       Watch out! Phew!

    Suddenly, the roof, walls, fence, and gate all flew up into the sky, flinging themselves far away.

    Seeing the dakini, aka Nrityakali, the yaksha exclaimed, “What is this, dear wife? You here?! With this Brahmin ghoul? Shame, shame. Are you out of your mind?”

    The dakini sat silent and stone-faced, her veil now pulled over her head.

    Kariya ghost said, “Hey Mungri, don’t you have any shame?”

    * * *

    What happened after this is impossible to describe. Even the ink in my pen dries up trying to write it. Shibu’s three wives from his three previous lives and Nrityakali’s three husbands from her three previous lives confronted each other and this fearsome threesome caused a huge orgy of earthquakes, forest fires and tornadoes to rage atop Bhushandi’s fields. All the ghosts, ghouls, demons, genies, and spirits from all corners of the earth joined in to see the fun. Spooks, elves, pixies, gnomes, goblins, and other sundry foreign ghouls started playing flutes and dancing. Djinns, afrids, marids, and other long-bearded ghosts from Kabul started jumping around. Ching, chang, fachang, and other hairless, beardless Chinese ghosts started tumbling and somersaulting all over the landscape.

    Oh my! God grant us peace. Hail to our protector Mother! Who will solve this scary, messy marital problem? Not me! The ghost species are extremely obstinate and tenacious. They would not leave without their full and just deserts. They are keenly aware of their rights—men for their masculinity, women for their femininity, ghosts for their ghostliness, petnis for their petniness, and so on. I am pleading most sincerely to all you great men of letters, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Charu Chandra Bandhyopadhyay, Naresh Chandra Sengupta, Jatindra Mohan Singha, and others, please get together and make some arrangement so this ghostly family does not get torn into pieces, and no illegal outlandish situations arise. If you really can’t solve it, please collect subscriptions from all and arrange to offer sacrifices at the holy pilgrimage to Gaya for all of them so they can at least find some peace.

    (1923)



    অলংকরণ (Artwork) : Jatindrakumar Sen (taken from the original Bengali article)

    Tags: Bengali, Humor
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