They arrived late every full moon
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
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
“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
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:
granddaughters of ghosts, old folk, young chaps
Just any old ghosts won’t
If you produce three
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
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,
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
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
“Where will I get tobacco? Do you
know what tobacco costs? Would my son buy me tobacco? He doesn’t give me a
“Then what have you filled this
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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
Genu asked, “Dadu, have you really
seen a ghost?”
Paban replied, “Yes dadu, so many
“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
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
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
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
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,
The young babu said, “The one who
organized the public puja this year. I hear he’s also formed a gang to capture
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
From outside someone called out in
a deep voice, “Surendra! Surendra!”
It sounded just like his father’s
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
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
“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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
“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
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
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
“Listen. Come closer.”
Surendra moved a little close and
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
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
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
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
Surendra took out a bunch of notes
form his pocket and waved it.
Not able to do it, Subal said, “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
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
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
Sarbananda said, “Bou is now so
strong that even five men couldn’t hold her down earlier. How will I take her
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
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
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
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
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
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
Trying to speak, Paban gasped. His
voice sounded nasal. He said, “You were not back yet. In this storm, I was
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
Nibaran said, “What?”
“Rice, wheat, didn’t you bring
“Where will I get it from? From
your father’s property? Today there was no digging. Today my ruin has been
“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
“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
“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
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,
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
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
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:
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
Each ghost is one
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
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…”