The Bengal adventures
Adventure stories, mystery stories, ghost stories

Bibhas De's Short Stories, Vol. 2:

THE BENGALI ADVENTURE STORIES


Bengali Adventures
Cover art: Gopa De @ age 12


Bibhas De ~ 1986

Welcome, welcome, welcome thrice!

INDEX

VOLUME 2
(Click or scroll)

THE PHANTOM BULLOCK CART

THAT SEASHELL SUMMER

THE STATUARY FROM THE STONE QUARRY

THE SCENTED HOME OF SANTOSH SHOME (long story - teens and older)

SHIKAR STORY (long story - teens and older)

THE STORY GHOST

THE LIGHT HERDER OF SHAMA-I-MAZAR

THE SECRET OF THE SONGBIRD TREE (long story)

GHOST SIGHTING GUARANTEED

Read a story from my book - a new one every month

More to come...

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Bibhas De stories

Bibhas De stories

The mail train pulled in for a very brief stop at the Sri Gouri railway station, punctually at 8:15 pm. The place was deserted – there was no one in sight up and down the length of the single platform. The Mitra family was the only one to get off the train. Directly they got off, the train pulled out. Rajkumar Babu, the father of two teenage daughters, ushered them and his wife out of the station building and onto the courtyard area where normally a few rickshaws awaited the incoming passengers. At this hour, unfortunately, there was not a single one in sight. They simply would have to wait in the hope that one would show up soon. Normally, the servant of the Mitra family would be present with rickshaws ready to pick them up. But in this instance Rajkumar Babu chose to come back a day earlier than expected, and could not send a message to his servant. He was not too worried though. If worse came to worst, they would have to walk about 30 minutes to their home.

Indeed it was not that bad. A single dirt road ended at the station. From here you would have to go through a forested area to get to the main residential district. But before you reached there, right in the middle of the forest, there stood a fairly elaborate brick house where the Mitra family lived. They were fairly wealthy, and could afford this secluded house with substantial grounds and gardens around it.

There was one vehicle of sorts, standing at one edge of the lot. It was a covered bullock cart, suitable for transporting passengers. Rajkumar Babu gave it no mind until the younger daughter Rupa said: "Baba, why can't we take the bullock cart? We are not pressed for time! Sooner or later it will get us home."

"Yes, let's," said the elder daughter Shona.

Rajkumar Babu looked at his wife Rani who seemed to like the idea. Well, why not, he thought. He approached the cart, and as he rounded it, he found the driver standing there, leaning against the cart. Rajkumar Babu asked if he was available for hire. But the man did not reply. Must be one of those people who are most economical with speech. He called out to his family, and helped them into the cab. He got in himself, and said "Let's go!"

But the man did not budge. Rajkumar Babu gave it a couple if minutes. As he was going to ask the driver again, the latter moved. He lit a hurricane lantern and hung it from a bracket on the side of the cab. He then came and sat on the driver's seat. The bullocks started to move. At least now they were now on their way home.

As each person adjusted his or her position to seat comfortably in that cramped quarters, the two girls started giggling. "What is it?" asked Rani. Shona said: "We were talking about the story The Phantom Coach. May be that's what we have here!"

Rani admonished here two daughters: "Don't make fun of people like that, especially in a way that they can hear you!"

The two girls lowered their voices. As they spoke, they kept thee eyes on the back of the driver. He seemed completely uninterested about his passengers.

Rajkumar Babu said loudly to the driver: "We did not discuss a price. What is your going rate for taking us to the Mitra House, if you know where that is?"

The man seemed to shake his head a little. But no reply came. Then Rajkumar Babu said: "All right. I will give you a whole rupee, seeing it is late at night."

The man now gave something like a grunt, and Rajkumar Babu took it to be yes. He relaxed, and sat back, leaning against the bamboo-and-straw cover structure. He also felt a little sleepy.

The girls continued with their theory. "Since he will not even speak, how can we know for sure if he is not of this world?" asked Rupa.

"We can try to touch him and see how it feels. But he might get upset."

"It is all so dark. Otherwise we could look at a distant light and see if his body obstructs it." "So we are still not sure?"

"I am afraid not."

Suddenly one of the wheels fell into a rut, and the whole vehicle jarred. Upon this, the driver said some soothing words to calm the bullocks. So, he was not a speechless person after all.

"May be we are wrong," said Shona.

"That's disappointing! No hair-raising story here we could tell others. And to think this setting was so perfect."

Rajkumar Babu had dozed off. But Rani saw that they were now coming close to the Mitra House. She asked the driver to slow down and enter the gate on the right. But there was no reaction. Panicked, Rani now awakened her husband and told her that the driver was about to pass their house by. Rajkumar Babu called out loudly for the driver to stop. He did not. Upon this Rajkumar Babu became most angry, jumped out of the back of the cab, came around and confronted the driver face to face.

~^~^~^~^~^~

The discovery was made by a passerby in the morning. He fetched the police constable who fetched the doctor. Upon finishing his examination, the doctor said: "It appears to be a case of heart failure. It is strange though, for someone in such good health."

"So, no foul play?" asked the constable. As the doctor was considering his answer, the Assistant Station Master, who was on his way to work at the station, came to see what was the matter. After the constable explained, the ASM said: "This is very curious."

"What is?" asked the constable.

"You know, only last night as I was going by this house, something came to my mind. It was exactly a year ago last night that the big railway accident happened."

The constable suddenly grasped the situation, and said "Ram Ram Ram Ram…"

The doctor was new to the area, and said: "What accident? What's all this Ram Ram about?"

The ASM filled him in: "This deserted house we are standing in front of, it was not always like that. It was full of life. The Mitras lived here with their two lovely daughters. They went on a vacation to Silchar. A year ago last night, they returned by the 8:15 pm train. But about a mile short of the station, the train derailed. It was a very bad business. Many people died. And the entire Mitra family perished."

The doctor was also impressed with the coincidence. Then he asked: "But surely this is just a coincidence. What would that have to do with the driver having a heart attack, even if he did have it on the porch of this house?"

The constable had now been examining the grounds and the cart that was standing there, with the bullocks looking perfectly calm. He pointed out: "Look at the wheel marks. The cart actually turned from the road and came through the gate into the driveway of the house. It was bringing somebody into the house."

"Or a family," said the ASM.

"Anyway, I better take a good look all around," said the constable. He went over the grounds of the house, and then entered the empty house, the ASM and the doctor in tow. The inside was all furnished, but a layer of dust covered everything. They did not see any signs of anything having been disturbed. As they were coming out, the doctor saw a book lying on the night stand between what appeared to be the two beds of the two daughters. It was called The Phantom Coach.

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Bibhas De stories

Bibhas De stories

That summer Gopa – about ten years old then – and her two elder sisters, Sunanda and Mondira, went on vacation to the seaside resort of Puri with their parents. They had rented a cottage right on the beach. You walked out the door onto a porch and then stepped right onto the beach sand! This sandy expanse between the porch and the water's edge of course became wider or narrower with the tides. There were a few coconut trees around the cottage. They completed the picture in a such a way that you developed a sea-suffused mindset. All in all, it was an idyllic place for city-bred girls to be spending a few days in.

On their first morning the three sisters went out for a walk along the beach. The water had receded and bared the previous night's bringings of the sea: Shells of all description, kelp, stone chips nicely rounded by tumbling in the seasand, skeletal remains of sea creatures and so on. Seabirds were having their morning meal noisily, and did not mind the intruders. Gopa started to collect the more exotic-looking shells and place them in a sack fashioned from a beach towel. The elder sisters joined in this activity. Each time someone picked up a shell, there was a mini-conference as to whether it should be acceptred or discarded. In this way everyone enjoyed project. Eventually, with the sun becoming stronger, they returned to the cottage and waited for the sumptuous breakfast that would brought to right to the cottage by the maids of the this resort hotel.

After breatkfast there was a free period of about an hour for everyone to get ready for a full day's outing into the town and to the temple complexes there. Gopa took this opportunity to wash the shells individually, wipe them with a towel and set them out to dry on the countertop of the bathroom washbasin. The washing was not easy. Some of the conch-type shells had quite a bit of sand in them which needed some coaxing to come out. Then the mother said: "Gopa, don't dump the sand in the basin. It will get clogged up. Collect the sand and then throw it on the beach."

     

So then the whole family left. The sightseeing was most enjoyable and exhilerating, but also exhausting. They had lunch in town, and then did some window shopping. Eventually, when they came back to the cottage the light had just begun to fail. The maid came and took the orders for dinner. Again, the menu was quite extensive and an indulging father let the children order whatever they wanted. No restrictions here on vacation!

Now was the time for the whole family to sit down on the porch on beach recliners and talk about any topic anyone wanted to introduce. Gopa went inside to check on her shells, and came back out most agitated: "One of my shells is missing! Who took it?!"

     

By that question she meant one of her sisters. The two were always playing pranks on the little sister, and so it was a foregone conclusion that one of them pinched the shell. But both of them protested most sincerely. "Honest! Not this time," said Mondira. "Don't look at me," said Sunanda. But of course Gopa was not convinced.

"Well, you had so many shells. Are you sure one is missing? May be you lost count, or may be you are not remembering right," said the father.

"I am absolutely sure one is missing," replied Gopa. "Come with me."

She took her father by the hand to the bathroom and showed the empty spot where the shell had been. The father, who of course did not remember what the original arrangement of the shells was, still felt that there seemed to be a gap in the arrangement.

"OK. If you say it is missing then it is missing. Let's go back and figure out what happened."

There was a maid working within beckoning distance and she was summoned. She said that the cleaning ladies never disturbed guest's properties. If the shells were arranged on the counter, then that part of the counter would not be touched or cleaned.

So the suspicion turned again on the two elder sisters. But when they looked at the parents and denied making away with the shell, it became clear that they were not covering up a prank.

"So my shell just vanished mysteriously?" asked Gopa of her father.

The father was a famous scientist. He did not believe in lecturing the children, but in letting them learn logic and reason on their own. And he also tried to make the experience enjoyable.

"You just used two words – vanish and mystery. One has the sense of a miracle and the other the sense of something supernaturtal. Are you sure you want jump to those possibilities before you examine simpler alternatives?”

Gopa thought for a few moments as did her sisters. Then Sunanda asked: "Gopa, what would you favorite woman detective Krishna do if she were given this case?"

"She would investigate!"

"Good," said the father. "Investigate is a much better word. How would you go about doing it?"

Now Mondira spoke: "May be the best way is to say differently what you said in terms of vanishing and being mysterious. How would you say the same thing in the simplest way. What has happened to your shell – in the simplest description?"

" The only thing I can think to say is that the shell has gone. But that sounds strange!”

"Why strange?" asked the mother.

"Strange because shells do not go away. They are just things – like a pen or a hairclip. A hairclip does not go away!"

"OK, Gopa," said the father, "Let's go back to what the maid said about cleaning. Do you see any clues there?"

"Well ... no cleaning ... no dusting ... so any layer of dust would still be there! I will go and examine the counter surface very thoroughly this time."

As Gopa went back inside, Mondira asked: "Baba, do we know what actually happened? For I am stumped!"

"Me too," said Sunanda.

Both parents smiled.

Gopa came back most excited. "Now that I looked at the counter surface very carefully, there seems to be a very faint trail from where the shell was to the edge of the counter. It is as though the shell started walking, came to the edge of the table, fell to the floor, and then walked on the floor and out of the cottage - on to the beach! That is impossible."

"Very good, Gopa. You have solved the case most admirably. As to this being impossible, you are saying this because you do not have enough information. If you did, you would see that everything makes perfect sense. Now let me tell you about hermit crabs."

"What abou hermit crabs?"

"Hermit crabs, you see, are tiny creatures that borrow any suitable shell they can find and make their home inside it. The shell that you picked up had a hermit crab living inside it. Because of your handling the shell, the crab retreated deep inside the shell. You could not see it. Same thing when you were washing it. But when we all left and things quieted down, the crab ventured out. Seeing that the coast was clear, it walked away - with the shell on its back. Yes, it simply walked away."

The much-anticipated dinner arrived shortly after this. It was very lively because Gopa kept talking excitedly about how she would tell this story to her classmates and may be even write a story for the school magazine. The sisters teased her, asking if she fancied herself Detective Krishna. "Why not? She has solved the case!" responded the mother on the child's behalf.

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Bibhas De stories

Bibhas De stories

All the four members of the Bagchi family were excited – each in his or her own way – about the two-week roadtrip to the Lushai Hills area. Sayan and Deep had been there before. But their experience during the Lunglei Diwali left a deep impression on each, and they each longed to go back to these places. Moreover, the prospect of a roadtrip with their parents also was most attractive.

The trip actually was suggested by Mrs. Bagchi's elder brother, Goutam Bose, IPS. He was well familiar with the haunting, mountainous beauty of the Lushai Hills, and wanted his sister's family to see these places. As his guest – in a manner of speaking.

The IPS meant that Bose had passed the prestigious Indian Police Service Examination, and joined the police force already as a high level officer. He in fact rose quite rapidly from there, and had just become the Deputy Inspector General of Assam Police, headquartered in Shillong. This was the highest position attainable by an Indian in British India, and carried considerable power and authority. The highest position, that of the IG, was held by an Englishman. Under him came the Assam Police as well as the formidable military police force Assam Riflles. The Assam Police was headed by DIG Bose and the Assam Rifles was headed by one Col. Ronojoy Chatterjee. By happenstance, Bose and Chatterjee were friends from the college days. The young Bagchis had heard much about Chatterjee from their uncle (all good). The colonel in turn was himself something of an adventurer and enjoyed hearing about the exploits of the young nephews from their uncle.

The upshot of all this is that the uncle had told the boys that the colonel might be in the Lushai Hills area, and if so, would arrange to meet the family there. The brothers anticipated this meeting with great pleasure, for they had already had an image of this man as a great hero.

About a week before the trip was to begin, the Officer-in-Charge of the Silchar Police came to the Bagchi home to pay a visit. Mr. Bagchi had known him only slightly, and was surprised to see him come to his home. The OC got right to the point: "Sir, I am here about your roadtrip to the Lushai Hills. Perhaps you would be kind enough to go over a few details with me."

To make a long story short, he insisted that the Bagchis travel in an unmarked police jeep with a plain-clothes Government driver, and stay at Government circuit houses everywhere. He explained that this was no special favor, but that regulations provided that close members of the DIG's family be escorted in this particular area which was highly sensitive – both politically and militarily. The brewing Second World War made this all the more imperative.

Mr. Bagchi reluctantly accepted, but insisted on paying all the expenses to the Government. The OC smiled and said: "That has already been taken care of by the DIG. Enjoy your trip. Go wherever you like, whenever you like. Anything at all you need, just ask your driver. He will be with you the whole time, staying with you at the circuit houses."

~^~^~^~

The Bagchi brothers were constantly mindful of another facet of this trip. Their uncle, Mama, of course knew of their reputation as a mystery-solving, adventure-loving duo. His response to this quality in his nephews was to try to create and place problems before them that he made very difficult for them to solve. But he secretly hoped they would solve them. So the brothers fully expected that Mama would pose some problem along the way. Their task would be to recognize it as such and unravel it. So basically the brothers were prepared for anything – from a simple prank to an elaborate and well-disguised “conspiracy.”

If the roadtrip ended without their recognizing the plot, they would have to admit defeat – to themselves, that is.

~^~^~^~

The jeep came to their home promptly at the appointed hour. The driver, a stalwart bearded and turbaned Sikh, was most pleasant. He wore civilian clothes: trousers, a half-sleeved shirt and a cream-color turban. He introduced himself as Shardul Singh. “Please call me Shardul,” he said. The Punjabi-speaking Sikh spoke nearly fluent Bengali, resorting to Hindi when some Bengali word or expression escaped him. He surely had to be a policeman or a soldier or a secret service agent – but nothing about him betrayed that fact. The Bagchi brothers noticed he carried a shoulder bag that seemed to have something heavy in it. Must be a revolver. Also, when they climbed into the jeep, they saw a Sten Gun clamped to the back of the driver’s seat. Otherwise the jeep was unmarked, and had most comfortable seats.

When the driver saw the party eyeing the weapon, he said with a smile: “Please have no concern. This is just a standard precaution. There will never be any need to use it.”

After a very leisurely journey with tea breaks and leg-stretching breaks, they crossed into the Lushai Hills area in the early afternoon, and were presently in the little village of Vairengte. This is where they would stop for two nights. Vairengte was one of the World's most pristine and primitive jungles, and a stay here was a very rare experience. The circuit house – one of a network of Government guesthouses – was basic but comfortable and the staff their was most hospitable, waiting to attend to their every need and every wish. They served the afternoon tea as soon as the party arrived.

Over tea, Shardul Singh made a number of suggestions for sightseeing the next day, and the family decide to leave themselves entirely in his care. The Bagchi brothers became most at ease with Shardul-ji, as they started to call him.

After tea, they all went for a walk in the “town” which was just the main highway with shops and other assorted buildings clustered around it. The view of the mountains all around was breathtaking. Back at the circuit house, they had an early meal – simple but delicious – and called it a night. The plan was to start at 8 am the next morning, and head into the deep and dense and dark bamboo jungles of Vairengte.

Sayan and Deep were up and about by 5 am. The parents were still fast asleep. Sayan said: “Deep, let’s enjoy this quiet morning with this gorgeous light breaking. Let’s walk to the town. May be a tea-shack will be just opening up its doors. We will buy the first cups of morning tea and sit by the road and see how the morning grows.”

As it happened, there was activity in one of the tea stalls. The shopkeeper had put a large aluminum tea kettle on open fire. He said: “Come back in a little bit, and I will have nice cups of tea ready.”

So they proceeded to walk towards the south end of the town, past the point where the rows of buildings on the two sides of the street ended. The road opened up, with 360-degrees view of the mountains. Next to the road, and at a little lower level, ran a rustic country lane, parallel to the road. It was mostly hidden from view by shrubs, but an occasional clearing offered a glimpse of the mud lane. It seemed that this lane ran the entire length of the highway, connecting one village to the next. It accommodated foot traffic as well as bicycles and bullock carts.

When they returned, steaming cups of tea were ready. The brothers sat down and sipped the morning’s first cup of tea with great relish. It was obvious to the shopkeeper that they were tourists, and he started a conversation in that vein. When he heard that the brothers would be traveling south the following day, he suddenly perked up. He asked, completey out of context: “Are you Buddhists?”

“No, we are Hindus. But we have great regard for Buddhism,” replied Sayan.

The shopkeeper then said: “I am pleased to hear you say that. So I will let you in on a program that is being conducted with as little adviertisement as possible. You are just in time to watch the Journey of Faith commence. If you time yourself to be in Kolasib about ten in the morning, you will witness a most auspicious event. ”

“Please continue,” said Deep.

“Now, this Journey of Faith concerns an old monk carrying a stone statue of the Buddha from the stone quarry in Kolasib, where the statue has been carved, to a monastery in Burma, just across the border from Champhai. This is the monk’s last act of devotion to the Buddha before he dies.

“However, this plan was made about five years ago when the monk was still in very good health and had great physical strength. He could have hoisted that statue piggy-back with straps around his shoulders and paddingss and carried it half a kilometer at a time. So, although very difficult, the task could be done in a few week’s time. But it took all this time for the local artisans – only two of them – to carve this statue out of a single block of stone. During this time the monk has fallen quite ill and is now near death. So there is no way that he could do it today. Yet he is resolved to fulfil his commitment to the Buddha.”

“He would not agree to have it trucked? Or accept help from others in carrying it?” asked Deep.

“No. And he is most adamant on this point. He plans to simply drag the statue, resting on the ground on its heels, a few inches at a time. So, an entire day’s labor would probably cover about half a kilometer, if that. If the monk lives to finish his project, it will take months or years. And the auspicious day for the installation of the statue in the temple is the Buddha Purnima – the Full Moon of the Buddha – which is just a week from now. Clearly this is not to be, but the effort that the monk is making is a most wonderful act of faith and devotion to witness. It is a blessing for any mortal being to witness this. The journey will commence from Kolasib tomorrow morning about ten. Just go to the south end of the town, and you will see a small crowd near on the foot trail paralleling the highway. Please be as unobtrusive as possible.”

Sayan and Deep thanked the shoopkeeper profusely. Then they started to pay him for the tea but he said, smilingly: “On the house. You are my beginning customers of the day. Offering you the tea is my day’s good deed. This means I will have good business throughout the day.”

Back in the guesthouse, the brothers told the parents about the Journey and they were most eager to witness this event. The plan then had to be broached to Shardul Singh. As he listened his eyes widened in surprise and perhaps awe. But his response was: “No problem. We will make an early start and be in Kolasib in plenty of time for this event.”

The party then set out to enter the jungle. The jeep would carry them only so far. Then they would be on foot. It tuned out to be an experience of a lifetime. When they returned in late afternoon, tea and refreshment were ready. They washed up and enjoyed the tea service. Afterwards, the parents went to rest and Sayan and Deep went for a stroll in the town. As they walked, Deep asked his elder brother: “Dada, I know we are all excited about this unique event tomorrow. But have you considered if this is not the trickery Mama is up to?”

“I have and I am. But there seems to be too much here to pre-arrange. This would be a monumental task to rig up just to execute a prank upon us. But it may be that the Buddhist event is real and Mama hatched some plan around it. Remember the exact timing of our trip was set by him.”

“True. On the other hand, how could he know we would get up early and be at this particular teashop?”

“He could not possibly. Let’s see – we were awakened by the sound of roosters and when we came to the town that teashop was the only shop open … Hmm … Anyway, let’s just keep our wits about on this.”

~^~^~^~

They arrived in Kolasib a little early and proceeded on to the end of the town, that is, the place where the dense pack of shops on the two sides of the street had thinned out. Indeed, they could see now that down from the raised highway, near the foot trail, a small crowd of about a dozen people had gathered. Clearly, this was not a public event. Probably only a handful of people, people in this village mostly, knew about it. The party proceeded most casually towards the crowd.

There, in the middle of the crowd, was laid out on the ground the gray stone statue of the Buddha, face up. The carving was quite exquisite, and the face characteristically serene. The artisans had clearly spent a great deal of effort in carving the clothing the Buddha. It had the real-life look of a loose-fitting attire. The hair was coiffed in the crown-like style charateristic of the Buddha images. The left hand was parallel to the body while the right palm was raised in blessing.

Next to the statue stood a dimunitive, very frail Buddhist monk in bright orange monk’s attire. The lush green of the land, the drab grey of the statue and the bright orange of the monk’s clothes created a visual feast. There were two other monks – much younger – who presumably had come to see their senior monk off on the final journey. Now they were performing some type of ceremony with flowers and burning incense.

After this ceremony ended, the two young monks touched the elder monk’s feet, and the latter touched their heads in blessing. Then the gathered crowd did the same, and the Bagchis joined. Just as the Bagchis were wondering if a Sikh would do obeisance to a Buddhist monk, Shardul Singh did so. The old monk now took his chador and twisted it to fashion a thick rope. He slid this through the armpits of the statue and behind the shoulder. He tried the loose ends of this rope together to form a loop. He now started to pull on the loop while facing the statue. After great effort the statue slid a few inches, its weight being supported by its heels. Seeing this, a bystander suggested to put something like a plank of wood under the heels to reduce friction. The monk explained to him, in kind words, that he could not use any type of “assist”. He had to do the task as it lay before him. He then slid the statue a few inches more. The Journey of Faith had begun.

The Bagchis watched this for a while. Then the crowd slowly dispersed, and the Bagchis were on their way to Aizawl. They would stay in Aizawl one night, go to Lunglei and then return for a longer stay in Aizawl. They figured that the Buddha Purnima would occur during their second stay in Aizawl. But of course in these few days, the monk would hardly clear the Kolasib area, let alone be in Champhai. In any event, a thought was taking shape in the minds of the Bagchi brothers: If Shardul-ji could use his official capacity to take them across to Burma, they wanted to be in that monastery for the Buddha Purnima. Who knows what might happen there! Could a miracle bring the statue there on time?

~^~^~^~

The visit to Lunglei naturally was a momory-stirring one for the brothers. Sayan seemed a little absent-minded to Deep and the latter understood. He did not say or do anything to disconcert his brother. The parents enjoyed the visit, what with Shardul Singh being such a good and caring tour guide.

Sayan broached the subject of the visit to the monastery to Shardul-ji, explaining why they wanted to visit. There was not much to explain really, but only to say that they wanted to see that place where the Buddha statue would have been installed if the Journey of Faith had succeeded.

Shardul Singh replied: “It may be possible. Let me make some inquiries. Normally, I would just show them my warrant card and drive on through the gatepost at the border. But with civilians along – especially civilians with no paperwork - it is a little more complicated. But I will try.”

“Thank you Shardul-ji. Let’s hope providence will favor us in this mission of faith. Boley so nihaal!”

This Punjabi expression, which for Sikhs means “He who says (the following) is blessed”, Sayan added for some reason. To this Shardul-ji immediately provided the standard Sikh rejoinder: “Sat Sri Akal.”

Throughout their stay in Lunglei, another thought kept popping up – for both Sayan and Deep. Where was Mama’s prank? Or did he decide not to do anything this time? The journey was more than half done.

Also, Col. Chatterjee never contacted them. They were looking forward to meeting him. He must be a busy man, and probably could not take the time off. They saw that Shardul-ji was stopping at the police station in each town along the way, perhaps to pick up messages from his office. So a couple of times the brothers asked him if there were any messages from Col. Chatterjee. There were not.

~^~^~^~

They returned to Aizawl in the late afternoon of the day before Buddha Purnima. The statue would have to have been in the monastery by tomorrow morning at the latest. But alas! That was not to be.

As they were entering the town of Aizawl and passing the road junction where the branch road to Champhai veered off, something caught Deep’s eye. A little distance from the road, near the jungle’s edge, he spotted a splash of orange color over the jungle’s green. Some exotic animal? Or another monk? He said: “Shardul-ji, would you stop for a second here please?”

As the car pulled up Deep showed the place to others. Everyone now became curious. Shardul Singh said: “There is a place up ahead from where we can get a better view.”

And what a view it was! It was the monk from Kolasib. He had laid down the statue and was resting. There was no doubt about it. And at the rate the monk had made his progress, there could be little doubt that he would make it to the monasterty in time.

But how was this possible? An intense discussion ensued as they drove on, with everyone trying to propose a theory. The theory Shardul-ji proposed seemed the most reasonable one. He said: “I don’t want to say the monk is making short work of his scared vow, but it may be that at night when no one is watching him, he hitches a little ride with the overnight lorry drivers. He only rides with them as much distance as is necessary in order to make it to Champhai just in time – and no sooner. It makes practical sense. May be the monk changed his mind about not accepting help. I don’t see anything wrong with this, and I mean no disrespect to him.”

After they checked into the guesthouse and had afternoon tea, Sayan and Deep took Shardul-ji for a little walk. There was much commiserating to be done. The brothers already had had their private discussion and had decided that Shardul-ji had to be taken into confidence.

Shardul Singh listened to the entire plan in silence. After dinner, the two brothers and Shardul-ji would leave. Shardul-ji would tell the parents that he was going to give the boys the most adventurous experience of seeing a pristine jungle by night, hear the night sounds, smell the night smells, sense the dangers stalking. But it would be perfectly safe, Shardul-ji would tell the parents. Then the three of them would drive to a place on the Aizawl-Champhai road from where they could see the monk pass – whether in a lorry or on foot or any other way. They would stay as long as needed to watch the passage of the monk. Then, if there was time, they would come back to the guesthouse, freshen up and have breakfast, and then leave for the monastery across the border.

This was too much for Shardul Singh to absorb. He was being asked to help the boys do things behind their parents’ back. That was an absolute no-no for him. At length he formulated his position. He pretended he had not heard anything the brothers just proposed, and said instead: “I would like to give you young gentlemen a feel of the jungle by night. It is quite a memorable experience. And it is quite safe to do. I will ask your parents about this. If they give their permission, we will set out right after dinner.”

~^~^~^~

The three of them stationed themselves around the large, gnarly trunk of an ancient tree. The tree was between the highway and the foot trail. From one side of it Sayan kept an eye on the foot trail. From the other side Deep looked upon the highway. Shardul Singh kept scanning his eyes three hundred and sixty degrees in case the brothers missed something. If the monk would be going to Champhai toninght, they would surely see him. The three of them talked in a low voice about random things, just to make sure no one fell asleep.

As the night progressed, the jungle truly took on a hauntingly enchanted aspect. It seemed that a new night smell arose. Night sounds floated over the quietness of this remote area where there were no manmade sounds at this hour. Occasionally a truck went by, and then everything was quiet again. From here it was possible to see inside the cab of the trucks. If the monk was seated there, they would see him.

Shortly after one am, as the spirit was sagging a little, they saw the headlights of a lorry approaching from the Aizawl direction. Deep and Shardul Singh fixed their eyes on it. By previous agreement, Sayan would not do that but keep his eyes and his attention fully fixed on the foot trail.

As the sound of the lorry grew and its light brightened, suddenly Sayan sensed some faint movement on the foot trail – approaching this way. Then all of a sudden, as if revealed by a lightning flash, the monk and the statue passed in front of him and vanished in the distance. They were moving at a fantastic speed! Sayan saw very distinctly what he saw, but he could not believe what he saw. He began to have self doubt. And now there was no opportunity for Shardul-ji and Deep to see it. The vigil was over. The monk had passed. But what exactly happened?

The lorry had come and gone. No one in it but the driver. Now Sayan told the other two exactly what he saw. He saw their eyes bulge out of the sockets. That meant they believed Sayan saw what he said he saw, but found the scene quite incredible.

At length Shardul-ji spoke: “It is most interesting that there are three of us, but only one eyewitness to this. If there were two eye witnesses, we could tell the story to others with some credibility. But with one eye witness, it is not a tellable story even if it is true. It is a miracle shown only to one person.”

They came back to the guesthouse and slept the rest of the night. The following morning the parents said they would go to the town and do some shopping, leaving the boys with the vehicle and the driver. The jeep arrived at the border post about ten in the morning. Shardul Singh asked the boys for their full names and ages, and then asked them to wait in the jeep while he went inside the office to see if a brief visit to Burma could be arranged.

Sayan and Deep could see the inside of the office through a large glass window. They observed something most odd. “Did you see that?” he asked Deep.

“Yes,” replied Deep. “What does it mean, Dada?”

“I am not sure, Deep.”

A little later Shardul-ji came out with a smile on his face. “We can go,” he announced proudly. The guard at the gatepost raised the bar and the jeep drove into Burma.

Shortly after crossing the border, they saw the monastery, its sparkling white playing against the lush green landscape of the Champhai Valley area. But when they walked into the monastery compound, a sad sight awaited them. A group of mourning monks were standing round the dead body of the old monk. Buddhist prayers were being chanted in a plaintive and sonorous note. The three comers simply stood their, heads bowed in solemn respect.

When the ceremony was over, they asked a young monk what was going on. The young monk said most excitedly: “This dead monk, he is the holiest of holy men. He carried a heavy stone statue from the quarry in Kolasib to here entirely on his own. It must have taken him many months, if not a year. But he arrived here in the nick of time for the statue to be installed under the auspicious Buddha’s Moon. No sooner did he deliver the statue to us than he collapsed.”

They went round to the temple and saw the grey statue installed on a pedestal, with votive offering of flowers and garlands adorning it. A monk there said that the installation ceremony would take place in the evening, under the full moon. The face of the statue looked even more serene in this setting. And the raised hand seemed to bless directly whoever was wishing the blessing.

Sayan stood there a long time looking at the statue most fixedly, while the other two went about seeing the rest of the monastery.

~^~^~^~

“Dada, we will never know what happened there in jungle that night. May be we should not try to analyze this. Just consider it a gift of faith to one that is of faith. But what is certain is that the monk affair is not Mama’s prank.”

“That’s true, Deep. But have you figured out what the prank is?

“Yes. But how do you handle it”?

“Let’s wait till the roadtrip is all over.”

~^~^~^~

They arrived home in Silchar in the noon. The parents invited Shardul Singh to stay for lunch, then rest a while and then leave. But he politely declined, saying he had to go back to his office and report in. He promised to visit again. Everyone thanked him effusively and came out to the jeep to see him off.

As Shardul Singh was about to put the jeep in gear, Sayan asked: “Is the beard real, Col. Chatterjee?”

The driver broke out in laughter. “It is real – I grew it just for this little subterfuge. But what gave me away?”

“Well,” said Deep, “you did very well in every way. Perfect, I would say. You even provided the Sikh rejoinder ‘Sat Sri Akal’ without a moment’s hesitation. What gave you away was not your fault. At the Burma border when you left us in the jeep and went inside the office, we could see you through a window. We saw you show the desk officer there your warrant card and say something to him. The officer suddenly sprang to his feet and saluted. Then he kept standing stiffly at attention the whole time. Then we saw you pointing to your beard and the turban. Clearly, you were explaining your disguise.”

“Then it is my fault. I should have parked the jeep more carefully,” smiled Col. Chatterjee. “Well, young men, I am very glad that you have seen through the prank. Otherwise both Goutam and I would be disappointed – even in our victory.”

Col. Chatterjee promised to come to lunch the next day as his real self, before he left for Shillong. The brothers looked forward to it, for they had come to like the man a lot. They also wanted to talk to him a little more about that night on the road to Champhai. Somehow that matter needed some kind of closure.

Sayan wanted to tame a little the sight he saw, so that it would not haunt him for the rest of his life. Rather, he wanted it to become in his mind a wealth of pure bliss. For there in that portentous jungle, amid the growing night resonances, the flashed image of a drab-grey stone sculpture carrying the orange-clad monk on its shoulder and walking at break-neck speed could be nothing but that.

[To see Sanchari De’s painting of what Sayan saw click here.]

*This story is based on Buddhist lore.

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Bibhas De stories

as told by
Basab De

A STRANGE VISITOR ARRIVES IN SILCHAR

This story was told to us children by my father on a chill rainy evening when the power had gone out and there was not much else to do. It is one of the fondest pleasures of Bengalis to have khichuri for supper on a rainly night such as this. So to the great delight of us children, Mother set about making that delicious rice-and-daal dish by candle light, on a kerosene stove. So there was added also a picnic atmosphere to the proceedings.

In that rising mood of anticipation the rest of us gathered round in the dark – with only moonlight through the window revealing the shapes of things inside the room. We sat on a large bed, making a semi-circle round Father, with our all legs tucked under one huge comforter. We all had on warm clothes which we pulled in a little tighter.

Now, Father read lots of English ghost stories and mystery stories. At this stage, after all these years, it is not known if the following story came from there and was told in the first person singular by him, with storyteller's license. Or was there a kernel of fact behind his narrative?

When Father built roads and bridges through the inhospitable jungles in the India-Burma border region, he met Santosh Shome. Shome had just been transferred to the region as a police Sub-Inspector. In that rough-and-tumble frontierland Shome found in my father a companionable Bengali he had a great deal in common with and befriended him. While Father lived in his makeshift tent in the construction site, Shome was settled in his government quarters with a young family: Wife Sujata and two daughters, five and three years old, named Sutapa and Sulekha. The family often invited Father to dinner and these were most enjoyable occasions for all present. The two girls were sprightly and a joy to be around. One noted in particular how close the two were. They were sisters, friends, companions . At the same time the elder sister also acted as a keeper of the younger: braiding her hair right, helping her with homework and so on. One other thing they had in common was that almost always they wore fresh roses in their hair – from the well-tended rose garden that the two were responsible for. So Shome's house was always and forever fragrant – with the natural scent of roses. It was as though this scent permeated everything in that family – its outlook, its mood, its collective mindset. The scent defined this home the way music might define another home and sports might define yet another home.

Living alone in a tent my father was not in a position to socially reciprocate the hospitality of the Shomes. So he instead brought highly sought gift of venison from his hunts or giant Mahasir fish that his laborers caught in the mountain streams. There was then great feasting around these delicacies, what with Mrs. Shome being a most accomplished cook.

Father lost contact with the Shomes when the former finished his work in the Kohima area and moved to another project in the Lushai Hills. Our family lived in Silchar that time. There was a period of keeping in touch with Shome through an occasional postcard but that too petered out. For Father the Shomes became a fond but distant memory.

~^~^~^~

In course of time Father moved back to Silchar and was working on jobs within easy reach of the town. One Sunday morning a very destitute-looking man with stubble beard and unkempt hair showed up at our front door and asked for Father. Father came to the door but could not recognize the visitor. Then the latter said: “Santosh Shome, from your Kohima days.” Father immediately embraced him with great joy and showed him in. An introduction to Mother followed and then tea was served. Shome explained that he was passing through Silchar and would leave the very next morning. But before that he had to see his old friend. Father let him speak on away whatever he wanted to speak on and listened with great interest.

Upon great request Shome agreed to come back later in the afternoon and stay for dinner. He would not agree to stay the night. First he said he preferred to stay in hotels because he talked in his sleep. Father assured him that we had a separate guestroom and so this would not be a problem at all. Then Shome said he had already reserved a room in a hotel in town. But Father knew the proprietor of that hotel and arranged to cancel the reservation without penalty. Shome then agreed to stay the night at our home and leave very early in the morning. All this is to say that Shome was not here to ask for any favors or handouts as his appearance might have suggested. Actually he would later spell this out as well.

As he was leaving for the time being he told Father: “Thank you for not asking anything about my appearance and not pressing me about my family. I am not a vagrant. I am well set for money. It is just that I have no will to groom myself and take care of myself. I will explain everything in the evening.”

As promised Shome returned in the late afternoon with gift of an ornate box of pastries from the Surma Bakery. These were the kind that cost quite a bit and Father was comforted to have this tangible evidence that Shome was truly not in any financial difficulty. The two talked until dinner time. The dinner went very well. After that Shome sat down with my parents and – in a very even voice – related the most heart-wrenching story of his life.

While the Shomes were still in Kohima a great tragedy befell the family: Sujata was diagnosed with cancer, a rather virulent form of it. No effort or expense was spared to cure her. But it was all to no avail. After a relatively short period of intense agony she succumbed.

The family picked up the pieces. Santosh Shome brought a middle-aged lady – who had no relatives – from his native village to live with his family and take care of the girls. This arrangement worked out very well and in time the girls became very fond of the lady. She in effect became like a doting and caring aunt. Also, the girls grew even closer to each other – if that was possible. Essentially the elder sister Sutapa took over the role of the mother to Sulekha.

And the scent of roses – sometimes of happiness, sometimes of melancholy – continued uninterrupted to permeate the family in all its days.

During the time the following incidents took place Shome was posted in Shantishahar. This town whose name translates to The Peaceable Town was anything but. It was adjacent to the India-East Pakistan border and was known to be a paradise for criminals. Shome was posted as the Officer in Charge (OC) of the Shantishahar Thana (police station.) He rented a house about half a kilometer from the Thana. It was an isolated two-story home surrounded by dense woods. The neighbors could not see this house nor could people from the house see the neighbors. Shome rented the entire second floor. The first floor (what in Indian parlance is called the ground floor) was empty. The access to the second floor was provided by a long, straight, one-flight staircase that rose from the courtyard in a gentle incline.

The floor plan upstairs was L-shaped. As one came up the stairs, crossed the open landing and entered through the front door, he stood at the angle of the ell. To his left was the short arm of the L – the bedroom where Shome slept. The long arm of the ell consisted of four rooms. The one next to Mr. Shome – the corner room – was the dining room-cum-kitchen. Then the bathroom, the room for the housekeeper and then the daughters' room at the far end. The front of the long arm was a long hallway – which provided entry to each room. The outside wall of the hallway was all glass, making the house most cheerfully sunny. Through this glass panel one could see the courtyard and the vast expanse of dense foliage that started at its edge.

With the family settled down smoothly and the daughters admitted to the Government Girls High School, Shome turned to the responsibilities of his new job. The daughters started a rose garden in the spacious and fertile grounds of the house and also planted several varieties of roses in large pots in that well-lit hallway.

With the scented aspect added back in, Shome’s new home was now made whole.

KUHAKARANYA – THE ENCHANTED FOREST

The task OC Shome found facing him was quite formidable. It was not something he was prepared for. But he was not daunted by it either. This particular town, because of its geopolitical setting, was a haven for crimes of all types: smuggling, highway robbery, home-invasion robbery, extortion etc – where the criminals resorted to violence and murder and arson at the slightest pretext. They did not want their authority questioned. The leaders of the criminal syndicates were actually in plain evidence in the town. Everyone knew who they were. The townspeople lived in abject fear of them and gave them wide berth.

This entire area was thus a bleak valley of fear. Girdling it was a forest of ancient leafy trees called Kuhakaranya. Kuhak means a mystery-laden enchantment and Aranya means a forest. So there – The Enchanted Forest. And the mystery was very much there. The forest – in the deep interior of it – was always misted. Especially when on the nights near full moon the moon shone down on this mist, the light in the forest took on an eerie opalescent glow.

But it was also in this forest that many of the criminals hung out – whether to hold meetings in a rustic hut there or to have hooch-guzzling sessions in the ancient, crumbling graveyard. The plantation-style hut was left over from the old logging days. It now looked like an abandoned, ramshackle structure. However, the interior was another matter. The crime syndicates had set it up to provide every luxury and comfort when they met and partied there. The outside was intentionally left as it was.

On weeknights hooch vendors opened up makeshift stalls in the forest and the criminals elements gathered round. The graves and the gravestones served the purpose of chairs. Hassack lanterns were lit, a generator was fired up and and raucous music played on the gramophone. If there was something poetic about Kuhakaranya, it was marred completely by these presences. Hooch was of course prohibited by law but there was nothing the police could do about this situation.

But the townspeople had the forest to themselves on Saturdays and Sundays which the criminal elements took off – mostly to sleep it off at home. This is when the enchantment was felt, the mystery was sensed and poetry condensed. This forest, Kuhakaranya, then seemed to be a pure bliss that girdled and hugged Shantisharar.

No one dared say or do anything that would be construed even remotely as taking sides against the syndicates. A story had that one courageous person named Zubeir Ali – a retired army man – had a run-in with one of these crime bosses. The very next day this crime boss himself assaulted Ali's daughter – a young girl whose beauty and grace were the talk of the town hereabouts – in plain sight of a gathering of bystanders. No one dared come to the girl’s rescue for fear of instant death. Afterward no one would testify to the police. Later that day the girl killed herself.

Of the five crime syndicates that terrorized this Assam-East Pakistan border region from their Shantishahar base and turned it into a valley of fear, the Chhota Munna group was by far the most virulent. Chhota Munna was the one who had assaulted the teenage girl. Years ago he had sneaked across the border from East Pakistan and was now illegally in India. He made no secret about this.

Chhota Munna’s two assistants, Shakil and Pappu, were in many ways even worse than the leader. Besides these three the gang had about fifty men in arms. The other syndicates were somewhat smaller in size. There was some type of an alliance of convenience among the syndicates.

The syndicate bosses met in the hut in the forest every Wednesday evening. Ostensibly these were business meetings – but what actually went on was a lot of partying, drinking, gambling and so on. Each party boss came with several men – so that during these meetings there were a total of about fifty men in arms in that house. However, so brazen were these criminals that they neither made any secret of these meetings nor did they have their men guard the perimeters. They were supremely confident of never being challenged by the police.

SUB-INSPECTOR AJOY BASU

OC Shome gathered this type of information as much as he could – without betraying any emotions. He did not act like the whipper-snapper type who came in from outside and wanted to straighten out everything in one fell swoop. He knew better than that. He also figured out that the police who would now work for him was largely corrupt and were on the take. Also, the judges and the local politicians of this District were not all trustworthy. As Shome learned more he began to feel that his first order of business was to figure out whom he could trust and whom not.

And indeed he found at least one person who seemed scrupulously honest: Sub-Inspector Ajoy Basu. Basu had somehow managed to not get caught in the web of corruption – perhaps by keeping a low profile and in fact, by not doing much of anything. One day Shome took him in the police jeep to a remote village, sat down in a tea-shack and had a very frank talk with him. Basu confessed that under the previous OC it was impossible to do what was right. Everything had to be handled in a way the criminals wanted. But if OC Shome was seriously willing to get tough and stick it out to the very end, Basu would stand with him. Shome asked if Basu had a good understanding of the real danger involved and Basu replied that he had a brother who could take care of his parents – and so he had no big obligations in life. He was saying he would risk his life to do his job.

Soon Shome realized that Basu was a man of exceptional courage. The two started meeting after-hours in Shome's home – taking care that these visits did not get exceptional notice. Basu filled Shome in on the lay of the land: Who all were on the take; who all collaborated out of fear; who all in the police department were likely to rise to the occasion to do the right thing if they had assurances; etc. Shome inquired if Basu had good practical training in firearms. He had. However, the police officers were not issued any firearms except for specific missions. He carried no weapons. Nor did Shome.

Something else happened over this period of time: Basu was only twenty-one years old – and he secretly took a fancy to the sixteen-year old Sutapa. He did not know if the feeling was reciprocal but he held hopes. He found the fragrance of rose in that house most engrossing. It started to become a part of him as well. He did not decline a single invitation to visit there.

Sub-Inspector Ajoy Basu told OC Shome that he would discreetly sound out some of the colleagues he felt could be trusted. This had to be done most carefully as there were informers within the Police Department. After about two weeks he came back and reported that there were a good many ready to stand with Shome if they could be sure that Shome would stick it out and not flee at the first sign of violent opposition. Shome assured Basu that he meant to finish what he would start.

For the first two months in his new job Shome remained seemingly inactive and ineffectual. Nothing changed from the way the police business was conducted under the previous OC. Then Shome took a week off to vacation in Shillong with his family. However, the Friday before he left he took a couple of steps.

First, he called Basu to his office and said: “Ajoy, I am elevating you to full Inspector, and leaving you as the Acting OC while I am gone.”

“Thank you, Sir,” replied Basu. “I appreciate the confidence.”

“Now, please come with me. I want to go visit Zubeir Ali.”

HAVILDAR ZUBEIR ALI

Inspector Basu parked the police jeep directly across the street from Zubeir Ali’s house – and next to a teashop-cum-stationery goods store. In front of the store were several tables and chairs set out. At one of these tables were seated the most infamous crime boss Chhota Munna and his two ever-present sidekicks. They watched the two men with great curiosity. The two officers walked across the street to Zubeir Ali’s door. As they did so Basu quickly explained to Shome who the men seated at the table were. This must be a regular hangout for Chhota Munna, said Basu.

In this small town everyone knew by sight the two policemen – even out of uniform. When Zubeir Ali opened his door and saw them standing there, he was not pleased. He had no love for the police. He asked rudely: “What do you want?”

“We are police officers. I am OC Shome. This is Inspector Basu. I am new here and I would like to ask you about the incident surrounding your daughter’s death.”

“What is the point? You police are all on the take. When this ‘incident’ as you call it happened I was not even allowed to file an official complaint with the police. Dozens of people witnessed this but nobody would be a witness.”

“I am here to do what should have been done then. Please cooperate with us,” said Shome.

“Well, I can see that you are not concerned about Chhota Munna watching you come to my house. So at least you have shown that much courage. Please come in.”

Zubeir Ali asked his housekeeper to make tea and they sat down with the visitors. Shome asked Zubeir to narrate the incident in as much detail as possible.

~~~~~ZUBEIR ALI’S NARRATIVE ~~~~~

I am fifty-two years old. Last year I retired from the Army with full pension as a Havildar and settled down here. I was then a widower with one teenage daughter and a housekeeper – an elderly lady who has been long with my family. My purpose here was to set myself up in business as an independent contractor – doing small jobs. I had a little bit of success and the prospects looked good. But truly my life revolved around my daughter Sonali. She was the apple of my eyes, the light of my life, my reason for living. And of course through her I felt the presence of my dear wife.

Sonali was a most lively girl. She had slowly recovered from the loss of her mother and begun to find joy in life again. She had a most beautiful musical voice and liked Tagore’s songs. She hummed them all day. Not that she spoke the lyrics. She just hummed the tunes. It got so that I could recognize every song from the tune. When she hummed it sounded like a plaintive guitar playing the song. That is how perfect and refined her notes were. The music set the tone of my home and my life. I was most happy. But this was not to last.

One day while I was at a job site overseeing the construction of a Quonset hut at the edge of Kuhakaranya, I was approached by three men. The biggest and the tallest of them – clearly their leader – greeted me first and introduced himself as Chhota Munna. He then introduced his associates. I had no idea who they were or why they were visiting me. But they clearly knew something about me.

Chhota Munna said: “Havildar Saheb, you are a very tall and strong and imposing man – with such a neat military bearing. I could use a man like you in my organization. You will bring respectability to my organization.”

I said: “I am sorry but I don’t know about your organization.”

“Well, we provide security to businesses in return for a monthly fee. We protect them from harm.”

“Harm from whom?”

“From us,” Chhota Munna laughed heartily.

Suddenly I understood everything. This was the crime syndicate and the protection racket I had heard so much about. The soldier in me reared his head. But I controlled myself and said: “Sorry, I must decline. I am happy doing what I am doing.”

“Havildar Saheb, please reconsider it. You are raising all alone a daughter who is coming into youth – already famous hereabouts for her beauty. Soon naughty boys and bullies will be taunting and jeering and heckling her in the streets. I can protect her from all this. You will have a good friend in me.”

“I can protect my daughter fine. My answer is still No. Good Day to you all.”

Upon this Chhota Munna laughed very loudly, almost derisively. He said: “Suit yourself, Havildar Saheb.”

As the three were leaving one of Chhota Munna's aides came to me and whispered in my ear: “Nobody turns down Chhota Munna like this and gets away with it. You have not heard the end of this story.”

OC Saheb, I have seen action with the British India Army in North Africa. That is my concept of danger. I could not see any danger here in this peaceful little town. So I did not heed this warning. It was a mistake – a mistake that would turn my world upside down.

The following morning my daughter said she was going to the post office to mail some letters. The post office is in the railroad station building – only about five minutes’ walk from my home along a busy broad road. It would never have occurred to me that there was anything unsafe about this errand.

A little later, however, a neighborhood boy came running to me and said in a panting voice: “Uncle, Uncle, come quick! They are attacking …”

I started following him immediately and asked him questions as we both ran. The Chhota Munna gang had been taunting my daughter. Then Chhota Munna himself attacked her on the broad platform of the station while a group of spectators watched idly. No one protested. Chhota Munna’s aides stood round, toting their guns.

As I arrived there, my blood boiling, I found my daughter lying on the platform – hardly conscious. A couple of people were attending to her and had summoned a rickshaw to take her home. The criminals had left the scene. I took my daughter home. The housemaid took charge of her and I went to fetch a doctor. When I came back with the doctor it was all over. My daughter had asked the maid to bring her a cup of tea and then, when the maid was gone and she was alone, she hanged herself from the rafter. The music left my home forever.

From that moment on I have been like a walking dead man. The light had gone from life. I had no will to live, no will to get up in the morning, no will to eat, bathe etc. The neighbors got together and saw to the last rites for my daughter.

On the day my daughter died I had got up just enough energy to go to the Thana to file a timely complaint on the assault. No one who was present at the scene would agree to be a witness. Everyone explained that they were most outraged at what had happened but that Chhota Munna had said clearly: “You testify, you die.” No one doubted in the least that he meant it.

At the Thana the then OC said: “If there are no witnesses there is nothing I can do.”

I asked him to at least enter my complaint into official record. He would not do it.

The next day I went to see Judge Chatterjee and pleaded with him. I told him: “You are the leader of this town as far as the law is concerned. Please do something for my daughter.” He said it was a police matter. There was nothing he could do. He said: “You should have thought of the consequences when you picked a fight with Chhota Munna.”

Since the burial of my daughter Chhota Munna had started hanging out at the teashop directly across the street from my home – as if to be constantly on my face. I constantly think of ways of taking revenge. But he is always surrounded by heavily armed men and I do not own any weapons of any kind. But it is the thought of revenge that keeps me alive. Otherwise I would have followed my daughter long ago.

~^~^~^~

OC Shome and Inspector Basu had listened without making any interruptions. Now everyone sat in silence for a few moments. Then Shome spoke: “I am leaving town for a few days. Could you come to the Thana first thing tomorrow morning and file an official complaint with Inspector Basu? Once we have your complaint on file we can act on it. Say in your statement what you have told us just now. Everything – Judge Chatterjee and all. That will account for why the complaint was not filed when the incident actually happened. That way I can act on it now – even at this late date.”

Replied Zubeir Ali: “I don’t know what you can do against Chhota Munna. Even if you have the courage, you are outgunned and outnumbered – and you will not be able to match his viciousness and cunning. While you contemplate how to do things by the book and according to the law he will shoot you dead – without the slightest hesitation. The townspeople will be reluctant to help you. But I will come and file the complaint. This is more than anything any official has done.”

“Good. There is something more. In order for us to take action you must give me your word that you will not try to take the law into your own hands.”

Zubeir Ali was silent for a long while. Then he said: “I do give you my word.”

“In that case I have a proposition for you. You were a sergeant in the army and thus you are amply qualified for police work. My department is now short-handed and the position of a police Sub-Inspector has come vacant. I am offering you that position and you can start working tomorrow – right after you have filed your complaint. This way you will do something useful with your life – and also participate in that cause which is preoccupying you.”

Zubeir Ali was not prepared for this. He looked vacantly at the two visitors. Then Shome said: “Sleep on it tonight. You can give Inspector Basu your decision tomorrow.”

As the two officers approached their jeep they saw Chhota Munna stand up. He was a tall, broadly built man with arms as big as a small tree trunk. He had a handsome face with well-groomed hair and thick black beard. But the appearance was marred by his red lips and teeth – so stained from chewing betel nut wrap. His eyes were bloodshot. On the whole the handsome face had a cruel look about it.

As the officers were boarding the jeep Chhota Munna shouted out: “OC Saheb, what’s the deal with your visiting Zubeir Ali?”

Shome did not react or respond. He sat down and Basu took the steering wheel. Shome said: “Ajoy, let’s get out of here.”

“Right,” said Basu and started the engine. Chhota Munna called out: “OC Saheb, you have two beautiful young daughters. Take good care of them.”

Basu could see in Shome's face that the latter was trying to control his emotion. He put the car in gear and drove off. After a few seconds he said: “Sir, now you have a better appreciation of the enemy. Sometimes I think – as Zubeir Ali just hinted – that our laws are not enough for him.”

“I don't know whereof you speak, Ajoy. But we will do everything by the book – such as it is.”

SHILLONG

OC Shome’s brother-in-law lived in Shillong. He had a large house in Laban that comfortably accommodated the four of them. Shome left his family in the good hands of the hosts and went off to attend to some business of his own.

Arun Dam was an early mentor of Shome in the police force. Dam later rose to be a Police Commissioner and was now in retirement. Dam was most happy to see his protégé from the old days arrive at his doorstep nine am in the morning. He embraced Shome and asked: “How come you are alone? Where are the rose-fragrant young ladies?”

“Sir, I will bring them another day. Today I am here to ask for your help on a certain matter.”

“Well, let’s talk over breakfast then.”

A seasoned professional, Dam quickly grasped the whole situation from Shome’s equally professional, concise narration. Dam said very resolutely: “My advice is: Get out of there! You have two lovely young daughters who lost their mother and you are about to place them in harm’s way. I can talk to people and get you an immediate reassignment. Get out of there without delay!”

What Dam said struck a chord with Shome. He considered the advice and for a few moments, vacillated. Then he recalled his conversation with Basu whom he had given assurances that he would be with them to the end. And now, at the very first opportunity to escape, he was considering taking up that option.

Shome most fervently explained that he was duty-bound and honor-bound to stick it out. If he escaped now, he could not live with himself. “I cannot go back on the word I gave to Inspector Basu and his associates. They have already got things started based on my assurances. So I would be helping them up a very thorny tree and taking away the ladder. But you are absolutely right, Sir. I will leave the girls here until it is safe for them to go back.”

“Basu! Ajoy Basu?”

“Yes, Sir. You know him?”

“Ajoy comes from a very illustrious family. His uncle Parashar Basu is the Inspector General of Assam Police. His father Harihar Basu retired as Brigadier General in the Army. He is now a military advisor to Jawaharlal Nehru. Ajoy's elder brother Bijoy is a rising star in the Civil Service. Young Ajoy is destined for the position of Inspector General. But for now he has to pay his dues in all kinds of places, like everyone else. I understand that he does not like people to know about his family background. He would like to rise entirely on his own steam. Anyway, I did not know he was in Shantishahar.”

Now OC Shome realized why the criminal elements in Shantishahar leave Basu alone. Surely with their extensive underground network they knew about Basu and they did not want the wrath of the Indian Army brought upon them. So it was not Basu that needed Shome. It was the other way round. Ajoy Basu saw in Shome a good partner in what he, Basu, probably wanted to do all along!

Dam asked Shome to leave his telephone number. Then the two started reminiscing about their days together.

The following morning Shome got a call from the IG's office. Could he come to meet with the IG and if so could they send a car for him? In less then an hour, Shome found himself seated across the desk from the Inspector General of Assam Police and the Assam Rifles.

The IG was one of those very effective people who were very economic with words and with time. He said he had been briefed by “Arun”, and he was ready to extend any help. What exactlydid Shome need?

OC Shome had already prepared a list of what he needed for the plan he had in mind. He gave the IG a brief overview of the plan and then presented the list. The IG asked: “Why do you ask for men from the Gorkha Regiment? If you want an armed military force, why not the Assam Rifles? It is a lot easier for me to give you men from the Assam Rifles. For the Gorkhas I have to ask the Army.”

“Sir, I feel that Gorkhas would be the most distanced from this situation, completely trustworthy as to their loyalty and of course, the most fearsome. It is abject fear that I wish to visit upon all the criminal elements in Shantishahar.”

“All right then, do it your way. Leave this list with me. Someone will contact you by tomorrow at the latest. Good luck. And by the way, how is our boy Ajoy handling his job? Make sure you put him through the paces. Fair field and no favor – and all that.”

“Sir, Inspector Basu is doing his job very professionally. He will work like everyone else – no more, no less.”

“Very good.”

Shome’s brother-in-law was most pleased to host the girls and their maid for their entire summer vacation. So Shome returned to Shantishahar alone.

THE PLAN

The first day back in Shantishahar, Santosh Shome disclosed his detailed plan to Inspector Basu and Sub-Inspector Ali. However, Shome did not let on that he knew about Basu’s antecedents. After finishing his description Shome added as a concluding thought: “These criminal elements are remarkably complacent. They do not even dream of anyone taking a stand against them. This overconfidence is our advantage, our edge – and we are going to exploit it for all it is worth.”

“Sir, it seems to me that you are speaking of abbreviating the course of justice,” was Basu’s first comment.

“I am wide open to the suggestion of a better plan.”

“No, I don’t have a better plan. What you say is perfectly lawful and it works for me.”

“And you, Zubeir?”

“I am one hundred per cent with you, Sir,” replied Zubeir Ali.

Under the darkness of that very night, a large, coffin-shaped box was delivered to Shome's home by a truck. There was a storage room downstairs and the box was placed there. The following day saw Shome taking a guest – a Nepalese or Bhutanese by appearance – around town. The two then entered Kuhakaranya. After a full day of being introduced to the lay of the land, the plain-clothed Commander of the Gorkha detachment force of twenty-five men returned to his temporary camp, about half an hour’s drive from Shantishahar.

Early that evening, a Wednesday evening, the entire police force – minus the traffic constables – was gathered in the Thana. There were about thirty men and they crowded into Shome’s office. Shome now addressed them: “Inspector Hamid, Sub-Inspector Ghosh, Constable Chaurashia and Constable Biswas – I am sorry but you will have to placed in the holding cell for the rest of this evening. We will let you out tomorrow morning at which time you will be dismissed from your jobs. The charge is collaborating with the criminal elements. I am now operating under the direct authority of the Inspector General of Assam Police and so don’t even think of making trouble over these dismissals.”

As prearranged a few policemen moved in immediately and took these stunned men into custody and placed them in the lock-up. These men would not be able to communicate with anyone until the following morning. Then Shome spoke again: “The rest of you, you have an idea what this is about. So you also know that this is a dangerous mission. Anyone of you is free to beg out at this time. There will be no consequences to your career if you do. But if you beg out, we must lock you up for tonight – so that you may not communicate with anyone. Who wants out?”

No one responded. Shome said: “All right. You men climb into the two trucks out front and come to my home. There you will be given rifles and ammunition. These are standard police-issue rifles that you are trained on and so there should be no problems. When you are in my home Inspector Basu will give you a detailed briefing about the operation.”

NIGHT MOVES

Kuhakaranya seemed, looked and felt especially portentous this night. And the mist was hanging heavy. They were approaching the hut. The night was near new moon and thus quite dark . The hour was midnight. OC Shome had chosen the timing so that the drunkards would have left by now and there would be no other civilians in the forest other than those in the hut. As he and his men were stealthily deployed – in a crescent shape, facing the front door of the house and about 200 meters from it – there were no signs from the well-lit house that the people inside were aware of any goings on outside. OC Shome and Inspector Basu stood at the midpoint of the crescent formation – the OC with a loudhailer in hand. He signaled everyone to be ready – the operation was about to commence. He then spoke into the loudhailer:

“You there in the house! This is the Shantishahar police. We are here to arrest Chhota Munna, Pappu and Shakil for the assault on Sonali Ali. I want them to come out with hands in the air and surrender. We don't have any business tonight with the rest of you – and we don't want any trouble.”

There was great commotion in the house – judging from a flurry of movement visible through the window. Then a window was opened slightly and through it a head peeped and shouted: “I am Chhota Munna. What the devil do you think you are doing? I am the one who orders the police around. Do you have a death wish? Who are you? Identify yourself.”

“I am OC Santosh Shome. Chhota Munna, I don't want any trouble. Please surrender yourself peacefully. You will receive a fair trial.”

“I have already warned you once, you puny little man. Clearly, you don’t know much about me. Now go home and look after your two pretty daughters. What I have done toZubeir Ali’s daughter I can do again."

Inspector Basu whispered in Shome’s ear: “He is buying time as the men inside are readying their weapons and taking positions.”

Shome spoke again: “You there in the house! Do you hear there? Hear me now and hear me well. I am not bluffing. This a large, well-armed police force. And we are backed by the Indian Army. You do not stand a chance. If you start something, you will all certainly die. All we want is for Chhota Munna and his two aides to surrender. The rest of you can go home. I will give you safe passage.”

There was a period of silence. Probably the crime bosses were conferring. Let us wait and see how much hold Chhota Munna has on these bosses, thought Shome. Now Chhota Munna came back to the window and shouted again: “You must be joking! Indian Army – ha ha ha. And I know all about this police force. The minute the shooting starts, they will pee in their pants and flee. I tell you all for the last time, go home and stay alive!”

Shome handed the loudhailer to Inspector Basu as he himself gave the final signals to his men that the action was about to commence. Inspector Basu said on the loudhailer: “You men in the house! This is the last and final warning. I will give you one minute. Chhota Munna, I am Inspector Basu. Come out with your hands in the air. Otherwise we will fire tear gas canisters into the house. I repeat, there is no reason for all of you to get hurt.”

Shome whispered: “I think we have done everything we could, by the book.”

Said Inspector Basu: “Even so, it does seem to me that we are taking advantage of Chhota Munna’s disbelief about what we can do. He still thinks we are bluffing. We are taking advantage of that. But it certainly is by the book.”

“You have qualms about this?”

“None at all. Let's get on with it.”

In the event it was Chhota Munna that got on with it first. There was a volley of gunfire from the house – from cracks opened in the windows. However, in the dark the shooters inside the house had no targets and were firing haphazardly. At this end the police were all lying on the ground, out of the way of the flying bullets. There came now another volley of fire. Shome issued the order to fire tear gas canisters through the window. Several canisters went forth, smashing the windows and exploding inside the house. Then flames were visible inside the house. Within seconds men started staggering out of the house, firing wildly.

As arranged previously the police remained lying on the ground and firing from that position. They took good aim and made each shot count. But while some fell, other criminals kept advancing. Shome gave two short bursts of his whistle: The signals for the Gorkhas to come in.

The Gorkhas had formed another half-circle, so that between the police and the military they had the house completely surrounded. Now they suddenly appeared in view with their battle cry that – in this dark jungle night smelling of cordite and tear gas – curdled the blood:

Jai Mahakali!
Ayo Gorkhali,

meaning:

Glory be to the Great Kali!
The Gorkhas have arrived.

The criminals were stunned. It was as if – given another few seconds – they would have realized their untenable position and surrendered. But no allowance was made for that anymore. The Gorkhas first fired their rifles as they advanced and as they were within the hand-to-hand combat distance, they used their bayonets with great facility.

It was over. Every man that came out of the house was on the ground – dead or wounded. For the police and the Gorkhas there was not a single casualty.

The house was now engulfed in blazing fire. Everyone waited to see if anyone else came out of the house. Three men did – with their hands raised up in the air. The flames lit up their faces. Even so Shome could not recignize them. He never really looked at their faces when he went to Zubeir Ali’s house. A policeman told Shome: “Sir, these are Chhota Munna, Shakil and Pappu.”

“The cowards let all these men die for them and are now surrendering themselves,” said Shome. His men advanced and hand-cuffed the three. Shome saw in Chhota Munna's reddened eyes hatred and vitriol. Neither Shome nor Basu spoke to Chhota Munna. They let the subordinates handle the prisoners like petty thieves.

Now Zubeir Ali appeared, holstering his revolver with his right hand while wiping off the sweat of battle from his forehead with his left. He said: “Sir, I don't like this at all. We should have finished the job right here. Instead we have ended up with three live criminals.”

“I know what you mean, Zubeir. But once they surrendered there was nothing we could do but arrest them. I had made allowances for their cunning but not for their cowardice.”

“I have a very bad feeling in my gut about this, Sir,” Zubeir repeated in great concern.

Presently two other men staggered out of a side door of the house and shouted: “Please, we are just cooks. We have nothing to do with anything.”

One policeman knew them and vouched for them. Upon this Shome said to Basu: “We need for the story of what happened here to get around – but not from us. These men are perfect. Let them go.”

Basu told his men to let the cooks go. With this the operation ended.

At this point Mother popped in. She wanted to know what side dish we wanted with khichuri. The choice was omelets or pakoras. We unanimously voted for pakoras – those delicious dumplings of assorted chopped vegetable mixed in batter and deep fried. We asked Mother to add plenty of chopped green chilies and cilantro in the mix. Our anticipation for the evening meal grew apace.

The rain continued unceasingly. The power had not returned. The story resumed.

OMINOUS DEVELOPMENTS

The story of the raid was reported widely nationwide and the eyewitness description of the two cooks made it clear that the criminals were accorded every opportunity to surrender or leave the scene. Moreover, their somewhat exaggerated description of the Gorkhas descending with their battle cry struck the fear of god in the minds of the remaining criminal elements. Crime subsided to nearly nothing in that area – literally overnight. The hooch business came to an abrupt end.

On the Sunday morning after the raid of Wednesday night Shome came to his office for a bit – mainly because he felt bored sitting at home alone. He found Inspector Basu there having a cup of tea in a leisurely Sunday morning mood. “Good Morning, Sir,” said Basu and poured him a cup. Shome invited him to come to his office for a chat. He asked Basu: “How are the prisoners in the lock-up?”

The lock-up was in the same building and so they were not speaking of some distant situation. Basu replied: “They have been unusually quiet. We have kept them in separate cells and have not allowed them to communicate with anyone but their lawyers. We will have to produce them before Judge Chatterjee on Tuesday for arraignment. Then we wait for the State Police to take charge of them. That may take a while – what with paperwork and red-tape and all.”

“I see. I wanted to ask your advice on when it would be safe to bring the girls back. If they stay much longer in Shillong they will begin to miss classes.”

Inspector Basu thought for a considerable while. Then he spoke, as if thinking out loud: “Well, the only person who might want to do them harm is Chhota Munna but he cannot do anything himself. That does not mean that we should not consider the situation very dangerous. He could hire someone on the outside through his lawyer. We have no control over that but we should remain vigilant. I would say if we post round-the-clock police guard in your house and if your daughters have police escort to and from school, things should be safe. For the time being your daughters should not go out for any other purposes – this is what I would recommend.”

“Good. There is a family coming here from Shillong and the girls can travel with them. I will send a telegram. They will arrive here Wednesday then.”

Secretly Inspector Basu was glad. But the policeman in him told him that he should take the security situation in his hands. He said: “Don't worry, Sir. I will take personal charge of their security.”

“Thank you, Ajoy. But do it by the book. Don’t extend to my family any special favors. Now, there is another matter you have not told me anything about. It concerns Judge Chatterjee…”

The Inspector sat up in his chair. “Sir, this is a problem area. But I don’t see how the arraignment could go wrong. How can he not bind the criminals over for trial and refuse bail? After all, this is an open-and-shut case.”

“OK. But let's keep an eye on him.”

On Tuesday evening as OC Shome was about to start for home his telephone rang. It was the Government prosecutor. He said: “I am sorry, Shome. The Judge has bound the criminals over for trial but he has also set bail. He said it was a bailable situation. But he said that he was being careful to set a high bail so that, practically, the criminals will not be able to make it.”

“What is the bail?”

“It is one lakh rupees each.”

“Do you think this is a bailable situation?”

“Absolutely not. I am as surprised as you are. I don't know what has got into Judge Chatterjee.”

“Is there any way to appeal or delay this?”

“I’ve already considered our options. I am afraid nothing can be done in short order. Sorry, Shome!”

Shome knew that Chhota Munna could easily raise three lakh rupees. He regretted that he did not pursue the suspicions of corruption of the Judge more vigorously during the last few days. Clearly, he miscalculated the malignancy of the situation.

As Shome was pondering what to do, Basu came in. “You’ve heard, Sir?”

“Yes, Ajoy. We were blind-sighted.”

“I blame myself for not being more proactive about the Judge. I have just now received a report that the Judge met with Chhota Munna’s lawyer privately in town. We can pursue this but it is a long process and it does not help with the immediate situation. The release of the criminals will have to go through. The bail can posted as early as tomorrow morning. We will then receive the order to release the detainees tomorrow afternoon. We will have no choice but to let the vicious criminals simply walk out of here. Anyway, Sir, you better stop the young ladies from coming back.”

“Unfortunately, Ajoy, they have already started on their long train journey. It is too late. They will be here tomorrow afternoon. Tomorrow I will have to see that there are fresh roses in vases all over the house.”

The somber Inspector now smiled a little. Secretly he was a feeling a pleasurable warmth: The expectation of seeing Sutapa after the long absence.

OC Shome now said in his official voice: “We need to do a number of things immediately. First, alert Zubeir so that he will be on guard. He will be an immediate target for Chhota Munna. Second, place the judge under round-the-clock surveillance. Third, let Commander Gurung of the Gorkha Detachment Unit know that Chhota Munna is being released. I would not put it past Chhota Munna to find one of the Commander's off-duty men in town and take revenge. And finally, contact the State police and cancel the prison handover plans.”

“I will see to all these, Sir,” said the Inspector. “Was there anything else? What about posting two constables at your house, round the clock.”

“Make it one constable. I am the head policeman responsible for the safety of all citizens. It is not right that our resources should be devoted to protecting my family.”

Shome said this quite firmly and so the Inspector did not protest. Shome now added: “From now until the matter clears up you and I will carry side-arms at all times. Zubeir as well. We have enough handguns and ammunition in the locker?”

“Yes, Sir. We have .455 Webleys which are quite handy weapons.”

“Good. Now I have a favor to ask of you. I will have to be here tomorrow afternoon to oversee the release of the prisoners. Would you mind going to the station and bringing my girls home?”

“My pleasure, Sir.”

A SCENTED HOMECOMING

At the station the girls were surprised to see Basu and not their father. Basu explained. He thought – or he imagined he thought – a glint in the elder sister’s eyes that told him she was actually happy to see him.

When they arrived home Constable Rahman was already on duty there. He had found a wooden stool and had stationed himself right at the foot of the long staircase that descended from the upstairs quarters. He would be here till midnight when he would be relieved. Inspector Basu conferred with him and made sure he understood the danger. He then checked the constable’s rifle and told him not to hesitate to use it if the need arose. Inspector Basu then said Goodbye to the girls, assuring them that their father would be home shortly. He left for the office.

Shome returned home about six – after stopping at the market to pick up some things for a nice welcoming evening meal. The reunion of the father and the daughters was one of great rejoicing. After the OC washed up and gave the maid instructions to make a special meal the three sat on Shome’s bed – the father in the middle, flanked by the two daughters facing him. The fragrance of rose mingled with the animated speech; there was a great deal to catch up on. The girls gave a day-by-day account of their time in Shillong after Shome had left.

The maid then served an elaborate meal. The three sat and ate as the stories continued. Suddenly Shome felt very happy – life was so good to him. He was no longer mindful of the dark cloud overhead. He thought about his long-gone wife with great longing. He felt her presence through her daughters. They finished up the session and shortly the girls retired to their room. OC Shome picked up the day’s newspaper and started scanning his eyes over it.

The telephone rang. Shome answered and heard the caller: “Shome, this is Judge Chatterjee. I have something of a rather urgent nature to discuss with you. Can you come over for a few minutes’ chat?”

Shome was puzzled. This was most unusual – for a judge to call a police officer and ask him to come to the judge’s home in the evening. This must be important, Shome thought. Without further deliberation Shome answered: “Sir, I will be over in fifteen minutes or so.”

Shantishahar was a very small town and the office zone was even smaller. The Judge's residence was only a few minutes’ walk from Shome’s. Shome then knocked on the girls’ door and when they responded he entered. The room was rose-fragrant as always. Both girls were in bed, reading. Shome explained that he had to step out for a little bit on urgent office business. “Constable Rahman is just outside. Don’t open the door to anyone unless the constable is with them.”

“Don't worry, Baba. We will be OK,” said Sulekha.

“Good. Look after your little sister, Sutapa.”

“I will, Baba. As I always do.”

Shome dressed and left, telling the constable to stay alert. The constable stood at attention, saluted and said: “Don't worry, Sir, I will sit on guard right here on the bottom step of the staircase. The young ladies have nothing to worry about.”

The girls put down their books, turned off the light and did what had become a habit with them: Lit a candle on a nightstand. One candle lasted the whole night. They preferred this light instead of electric light or full darkness.

~^~^~^~

The judge exchanged elaborately pleasantries and seemed not to be coming to his point. Shome then fidgeted visibly. The Judge seemed to get his point and said: “Shome, I am sorry to bring you out this time of night but there has been something on my mind and I wanted to speak to you about it. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“No tea, thank you. Don’t worry, Sir, it’s no problem for me to have come. Tell me what you have on your mind.”

“It is about letting these criminals go out on bail. I thought I had set the bail high enough that they would not be able to make it. But clearly it was not high enough. So I feel somewhat uneasy about this.”

“To be quite frank, Sir,” said Shome, “I was perplexed at your decision to set a bail amount – any bail amount. But you did what you saw fit. And anyway there is no going back now. Was that all you wanted to discuss?”

“That is all, Shome. I am glad to see you are not too upset.”

“I don’t take business personally, Sir. I am a policeman and not a legal expert. But your decision has made my job more difficult and potentially more risky. I have to tell you that. Good night, Sir. I have left my girls home alone and I must return to them.”

“Good night, Shome. And thank you for coming.”

As Shome came out on the street and started walking back towards his home, suddenly a most disturbing thought occurred to him: This was not an important matter at all! Why did the judge call him away from his house at this time of night? If he had an urgent need to express himself, surely he could have done it over the phone!

Shome looked around for the undercover policeman who was supposed to be surveilling the judge and spotted him lurking under a tree. Shome summoned him and asked him to go to Inspector Basu’s home and send him to the OC’s home immediately. Then do the same for Zubeir Ali.

BY CANDLELIGHT

The sisters had just drifted off to sleep when they heard knocking on the front door. Sutapa said: “Baba can’t be back so soon! Anyway, I will go and see who it is.”

“I will come too,” said Sulekha.

“No, you stay in bed. I will see who it is and come right back.”

“OK, Didi, if that's what you want.”

Sutapa lifted the mosquito net gingerly, got out herself and then tucked it back in place behind her so that no mosquitos could get in and bother Sulekha. She then picked up the candle by the stand, opened the bedroom door and walked the length of the glass-enclosed hallway to the front door. Before opening the door she asked: “Who’s there?”

She heard an indistinct response but the word “Constable” was clear. This must be Constable Rahman. She opened the door.

Sutapa could not recognize the tall man with blood-red eyes and thick beard standing there. Before she could say anything the man whisked her out of the house to the open landing at the top of the stairs. Sutapa saw the glint of a broad sword in moonlight – the kind of sword used for beheading of goats is some temples – just before it moved in a huge arc. Then it came back. Her head was severed clean.

The head fell on the first staircase step with a thud. Then it rolled down to the next one, then the next one. Thus, thud, thud … one could count every step until it reached the last one and then rested on the ground.

With a cruel smile the tall man went down the stairs.

After a couple of minutes passed by Sulekha called out: “Didi, who is it?” She heard no response. She called out again: “Didi, why do you not answer? I am afraid.”

Now she saw the candle light approaching. Slowly it came to the door. Sulekha relaxed and waited for Sutapa to come to bed. From her lying-down position she saw Sutapa approach the bed, candle in hand. But she did not speak. Now Sulekha asked: “What's the matter, Didi, has something happened?”

Still no response. Sulekha sat up full on bed and rubbed her sleepy eyes. Now she saw. Her Didi did not have a head. Blood was spurting out from the neck. Sulekha fainted.

~^~^~^~

As Shome reached the mouth of the narrow lane that led from the main road through the woods to the clearing where his home was, he saw Inspector Basu approaching in a bicycle. Shome waited for Basu and the two started walking together toward the house – Basu walking his bike.

As the clearing came into view Shome saw the staircase but the constable was not anywhere near it. He remarked the same to Basu. Basu suddenly became alert. He let his bike drop to ground and pulled out his revolver. Then the two simultaneously saw that something round was lying on the ground just at the foot of the staircase. In the dim light it was not quite discernible. Basu was the first to recognized what it was and nearly retched. But he quickly got hold of his faculties. He grabbed Shome by the shoulder and turned him around. Then he said firmly: “Sir, please keep looking that way. I have no time to explain.”

Basu took off his jacket and placed it over the object. Most thankfully he now saw Zubeir approaching in his bicycle. Basu took several steps towards Zubeir so as to be able to speak privately in whisper. Only a few words and the professional soldier Zubeir grasped the situation. Basu told him to take charge of the OC while he himself went inside the house and looked for the other girl and the constable. But as he turned he heard groans. The constable was sitting on the ground only a few feet away, propped up against a tree trunk – bleeding. His hands and feet were tied together with a strong rope which was looped around the trunk of the tree.

Basu then asked the OC and Zubeir to untie and examine the constable. As the two bent down to do so Basu quickly marked the spot where the round object lay as well as its orientation, for purposes of investigation. Then he wrapped the object in his jacket, picked it up and started up the stairs. The OC had to be properly prepared before the extent of the events were presented to him.

The front door was open. Basu had the package in his left hand and the revolver at the ready in his right. He entered the house. He saw the clear trail of blood in the hallway and followed it to the girls’ bedroom. The sight he now saw – not entirely unexpected because of what he had already seen – caused his knees to give out and he collapsed on the floor. The package fell to his side.

With some difficulty he gained enough strength and tiptoed over the headless corpse on the floor to the girl lying motionless on the bed. Basu checked for signs of life and found that she was still breathing. He covered her in a blanket. Then he took a comforter from the bed and covered the body on the floor, along with the head.

Basu ran down the stairs, took Zubeir aside and said: “There is no time to lose now. I will explain everything later. But first, go upstairs and call Dr. Sen. Then call the station and have them send several men. Then call the coroner on call. It’s Dr. Mirza."

Without any words Zubeir was off. Basu bent down and examined Constable Rahman’s wound. He was stabbed on his right shoulder but the bleeding seemed to have stopped. Basu said: “Rahman, you will be fine. Just hang in there till the doctor arrives.”

Constable Rahman said: “Sir, don’t worry about me….”

“Yes, I understand,” Basu cut him off. Then he turned to the OC: “I am so very sorry, Sir, but the very worst imaginable has happened. I very strongly recommend that you go and stay in your room. Don’t go down the hall. Let us take care of things. I will give you only this summary which I must: Sutapa is dead. Sulekha is barely alive.”

Shome looked at Basu vacantly, like a man in a trance. He opened his lips to say something but he could not utter a word. Then he bent down and squatted on the floor. He kept staring up the staircase. It was as though all his senses and every bit of energy had left him.

~^~^~^~

A dazzle of activities followed: The doctors arrived; Constable Rahman was transported to a hospital; Sulekha received as much care as she needed but her heart was too weak and she did not respond to treatment; by dawn she died. All pitched in to help: the policemen and their families, neighbors and many others saw to the cremations and related rituals. Through all these Shome remained in a daze, never speaking, never reacting to anything. Before the cremations the bodies of the two sisters were laid out ceremonially – fully covered in flower except for the faces. This is the only time Shome looked at them. The truth about the slaying of Sutapa was known to very few people – a few policemen and the doctors – at this stage. Shome was not told.

A couple of days passed during which Zubeir Ali stayed with Shome the whole time. Inspector Basu became – for all practical purposes – the Chief of Police. He visited Constable Rahman everyday in the hospital. Luckily, the knife wound – though deep – did not reach any bones. So his wound was disinfected and stitched up and he was healing apace.

On the third day Inspector Basu came to the hospital with a box of sweets. He asked the constable: “Rahman, are you up to giving me a full account of that night?”

“Yes, Sir. I have been wanting to do that. Now may be as good a time as any – while the memories are still fresh. However, I think that toward the end that night I may have become a little delirious – you know, because of the loss of blood – and I think I was seeing things.”

“Nevertheless, tell me everything that you saw and remember. Just tell me informally – in your own way.”

~~~ CONSTABLE RAHMAN’S NARRATIVE ~~~

When OC Saheb left I decided to stand at the foot of the stairs rather than sit on the stool. I picked up the rifle, slid the bolt home and held it in a firing stance – but with the muzzle pointing to the ground. So I was very fully alert to the situation. Suddenly I heard some rustling in the woods to my left and looked that way. At that moment Shakil pounced on me from the rear and thrust knife into my right shoulder. My rifle fell to the ground. Pappu immediately gagged me so that I was not able to raise an alarm. The two of them dragged me to the tree and tied me up to the trunk – the way you found me. I was completely helpless to alert the young ladies. All I could do was to sit there and observe even as I was bleeding profusly.

I am so sorry, Sir, that I have failed in my duty. I am prepared to take any punishment or dismissal from job. I deserve it.

“Don’t worry about punishment,” said Basu. “I don’t see any negligence on your part. We underestimated the threat. Go on.”

After Shakil and Pappu finished securing me there came out of the darkness the tall figure of Chhota Munna. He looked like a huge monster, carrying a menacing sword – the kind they use to behead sacrificial goats in the Hindu worship ceremonies. Now Shakil and Pappu stood guard at the foot of the stairs with their revolvers at the ready. Chhota Munna strode up the stairs, the sword dangling by his side from his right hand. He knocked on the door. Now I saw through the row of glass window of the upstairs hallway the elder daughter approach the door, carrying a candle. Then I heard Chhota Munna say through the door “It’s the constable.”

Directly the door was opened Chhota Munna dragged the girl out onto the landing, took her candle and stood it on the floor. He then forced her down on the floor with her head extending freely over the first step of the staircase. There he beheaded her. I saw the head roll down the stairs, making a thud at each step. At that point I fainted. So that is all I can tell you.

“You said something about being delirious.” said Basu.

“Well, Sir, this is truly my hallucination but if you insist I will tell you.”

“Go on.”

When I came to, I took in the scene in front of me. The head at the bottom of the staircase, the headless body at the top. The assailants were gone. They must have left me alive so I could tell you who did the deed.

Now the headless body stirred. It got up and picked up the candle by the stand, still lit. It walked back all the way along the hallway. On this sight I fainted again. I came to when you all arrived on the scene. But please don’t place any credence on what I just said.

“Thank you, Rahman. Please rest now.”

JUDGE CHATTERJEE

This was about three pm on Firday. Inspector Basu came back to the police station and sat at the desk of OC Shome. He saw a report on the surveillance of Judge Chatterjee. As he read it his face took on an increasingly concerned aspect. It was a report from Sub-Inspector Hussain.

“About 12 midninght following the incident in OC Shome’s home three men were observed to go into the Judge’s home, moving furtively and slinking under the shadows of the trees. They had parked their vehicle some distance away and carried a large suitcase. The suitcase was observed to be one of those cheap metal varities with garish painting of flowers. They stayed in the Judge’s home for nearly an hour and then came out, without the suitcase. When they were leaving, they passed under a street lamp. Their faces could be seen. They were identified as Chhota Munna, Shakil and Pappu. The surveillance agent did not intervene as he was alone and unarmed.

“With the senior officer being preoccupied with the incident at OC Shome’s home the next morning, Sub-Inspector Hussain decided on his own to go to the Judge’s home and interview him. However, the Judge did not let him in but sent him away with most rude and abusive language. For this reason the disposition of the suitcase could not be determined.”

Inspector Basu asked for Sub-Inspector Hussain who happened to be at his desk. When he came and sat down Basu said: “Tell me as well as you can remember what conversation took place between the Judge and you.”

“Well, Sir, I did not want to lose any time after that suitcase was delivered. I went to the Judge’s residence and knocked on the door about seven am and he answered the door himself. I identified myself and asked him to forgive the intrusion and the early hour. I then told him that there was an urgent matter I needed to talk to him about. Upon this he exploded. He said: ‘I am a Judge of the Indian Judiciary. How dare you come to my home and ask to interrogate me. Get lost before I have your job.’

“I then told him politely but firmly that we could bring him in and interrogate him in custody. He then laughed derisively and slammed the door on my face.”

“He did not even want to know what this urgent matter was about?” asked Basu.

“No, Sir. I thought that was strange.”

“Well, Hussain, the suitcase may have been disposed off by now but that much cash money – and tainted money at that – the Judge would not take to a bank. It must be still in his home. So we need a search warrant. The courts are still open. Let me see if I can reach Associate Justice Karlekar.

Inspector Basu called the courthouse and identified himself as the Acting Police Chief. Upon that he was connected to the Associate Justice. The Inspector made an appointment to come round and see him immediately. Then he and Hussain walked the short distance to the courthouse.

The Associate Justice was a man of great gravitas. Inspector Basu told him the background in as few words as possible and asked for a search warrant to be executed upon Judge Chatterjee’s residence3, the grounds and his vehicle. The Justice replied: “Are you mad or what? Execute a search warrant on a sitting Judge? You better drop this whole thing if you know what’s good for you.”

“Sir, just to be clear on this point, are you saying that in spite of evidence of criminal activities you will not issue a search warrant?”

“You can pursue this as a judicial misconduct issue through proper channels. It will take years to wind through the bureaucracy. And chances are nothing will come if it. Judge Chatterjee is a very powerful man with friends in high places.”

“Thank you for seeing us on such a short notice. ”

The two officers left his office. They stood on the veranda for a few moments as Basu was formulating in his mind what to do next. He decided. “Come with me, Hussain,” he told his colleague. “Judge Chatterjee must still be in his office. It’s only four pm. If we don’t act immediately the Associate Justice will warn him and things will get complicated.”

Judge Chatterjee indeed was in his office, just down the hallway. The two officers simply barged in, ignoring the objections of the secretary in the front office. Inspector Basu said: “Judge, you need to come with us to the station. We need to interrogate you under caution about your connection to the Chhota Munna criminal enterprise.”

For a flitting moment they saw fear in Judge’s eyes. But the latter recovered quickly and said: “Your conduct is most insolent. Let me deal with it right now. Give me a moment while I call the Inspector General of Assam Police whom I know well.”

The Judge really did not mean to make the call. He hoped for the two policemen to cow down and beg his forgiveness. But Inspector Basu said: “All right, Sir. But we will wait right here.” So saying Basu sat down on a chair facing the judge. Hussain followed suit. He, Hussain, was completely discombobulated at this turn of events and fully expected to lose his job within next few minutes.

A trunk call was made to Shillong and the Judge’s name caused the IG to take his call promptly.

“Hello IG Basu! This is Judge Chatterjee from Dhubri District. Remember we met recently at a party at the Deputy Commissioner’s residence in Shillong?”

The other side of the conversation could not be heard. But after an exchange of elaborate amenities the Judge came to the point: “IG Basu, I need your help with an issue with the local police. It seems that some uppity officers think that they can treat me like a common street person. They have no respect for the Judiciary. It almost seems that they are out to cut me down to size.”

After the other side responded the Judge said: “Thank you ever so much. I knew I could count on your help in reining in these rogue policemen. Actually, two of these officers have insisted on sitting here as I call you.”

On hearing the response to that the Judge, with a look of glee on his face, handed the phone to Inspector Basu, saying: “The IG wishes to speak to you.”

Sub-Inspector Hussain now nearly collapsed. When earlier he saw that the Judge was so readily able to reach the IG, he knew for sure he would be out of a job, just as the Judge had threatened. But now seeing that the IG wanted to issue his instructions right away to Inspector Basu, the full measure of his predicament sank in.

Inspector Basu spoke calmly into the phone: “This is Inspector Ajoy Basu, Acting Chief, Shantishahar District Police.”

Basu heard nothing in response. He was not sure if the IG was still on the line. At length he heard the grave and official voice: “Inspector, what is this rum business about?”

“Sir, the Judge is suspected of being an accessory to the brutal murder of a young girl. He lured away the girl’s father on a flimsy pretext. As soon as the father left, the murderers struck. Later the same night the murderes were seen visiting the Judge’s home with a large suitcase – which we presume contained the payoff. The following morning one of our officers visited the Judge’s private residence – so as to keep this matter out of public view – to make inquiries. The officer spoke most deferentially but the Judge threw him out, threatening him with job loss. We then asked an Associated Justice to issue a search warrant for the Judge’s home. He declined. So I am taking the Judge to the police station to interrogate him in custody, under caution. Now, Sir, please let me do my job.”

“Do your job by all means. But if you aske me, based on what you have just said, you are being too deferential to the Judge. Your job is the safety of the citizens – and not observing hierarchical niceties. Do you understand my point?”

“Yes, Sir. I do. Thank you, Sir.”

Now Basu saw the Judge signaling that he wanted to talk some more with the IG. Basu said on the phone: “Sir, the Judge would like to speak to you again.”

“No. Goodbye, Inspector.” The IG closed the line.

“The IG does not want to speak to you anymore,” said Basu to the Judge. Then he turned to Sub-Inspector Hussain and asked: “Have you got your handcuffs on you?”

Hussain felt around his belt and indicated that he did. Inspector Basu stood up: “Judge Amalesh Chatterjee, I am arresting you on suspicion of being an accessory before the fact to a murder. When we bring you to the station and book you, you will have the opportunity to retain legal counsel.”

Hussain cuffed a dumb-founded Judge with his hands behind his back. Hussain asked Basu if a vehicle should be summoned to transport the Judge. “No, we will just walk the short distance,” replied Basu. The significance of this was not lost on anyone. The mighty Judge would be paraded through some of most crowded areas of the town in handcuffs. In fact the first person who saw this strange sight was Associate Justice Karlekar who happened to be in the hallway.

Back in the station as others were processing the Judge’s arrest the two officers sat in Shome’s office. Hussain asked: “Aren’t we overdoing it a little bit with humiliating the Judge?”

“Hussain, the Judge is our only lead to the Chhota Munna gang. Without him we may never find them. Once the Judge understands the hopelessness of his situation he will start to cooperate. At least that is the plan.”

“I see. And another thing. The IG is Basu. You are Basu. I mean … er … you were speaking to the IG the same way you speak to OC Shome. I mean, telling the IG ‘Let me do my job!’ If I were you I would be shaking in my boots speaking to the IG.”

“My dear Hussain, as you well know, Basu is a most common last name among us Bengalis. As to shaking, how do you know I was not?”

“Fair enough. But why did you change your mind about bringing the Judge in for questioning and arrest him instead? Did you want to teach him a lesson for calling the IG?”

“Not at all. It’s his privilege to call whomever he wants to call. With the information we have on him, we can and should arrest him. But we did not – out of respect for his position. That was wrong. By leaving him on the outside we may be endangering lives. So I corrected my own mistake.”

THE THREE MAIDENS OF KUHAKARANYA

Once or twice a day when Shome drifted to slumber, Zubeir Ali came to his own home to see that the housemaid was all right and if she needed anything. During these visits Zubeir noticed that the storekeeper across the street was making nice to him. With the Chhota Munna gang in hiding the man probably thought he ought to get in the good graces of the police.

This afternoon when he saw Zubeir he called out: “Havildar Saheb, come in to this humble man’s store for a minute.”

When Zubeir walked over the storekeeper offered him tea and started casual chitchatting. While at this he asked most casually: “Of course you have heard about the Three Maidens of Kuhakaranya?”

Zubeir admitted that he did not know anything about the Three Maidens.

“It is a very recent development. A number of people have sighted – at different times of night and on different nights – three apparitions of young girls, one without head and one with a hangman’s rope around her shoulder. At the same time they also heard a plaintive wailing, like a sad song. The sighting has always been around midnight and seen only by those who were in the forest then – you know, the few drunkards that still hang out there.”

Zubeir was stunned. This news cut him to the very core and the professional soldier in him did not analyze the news. He asked the storekeeper when the best time to see these apparitions would be.

“Well, tonight is as good as any. There have been continuous sighting up until the last night. So tonight is a good bet. I would not wait.”

When Zubeir returned to Shome’s home Inspector Basu was there. Over cups of tea Zubeir told the story to both Shome and Basu.He left out the headless part. On hearing this story, at long last, the forlorn Shome showed some signs of life. Eventually all three agreed that nothing was to be lost by venturing into the forest. The plans were made accordingly for the three of them to enter Kuhakaranya near midnight that night.

On his way home Basu stopped by the office to see how things were going with the Judge. It was a good thing he had stopped. For Hussain had much to report. The Judge broke done completely and threw himself at the mercy of the police. The details of his statement could wait but there was something of an ominous note in the statement. Apparently, rather than fleeing the jurisdiction or staying in hiding, Chhota Munna planned a grand comeback as the supreme crime lord of this entire area. He would do so by establishing a legend about himself. The three policemen – OC Shome, Inspector Basu and Sub-Inspector Zubeir Ali who challenged his authority – would all die exemplary deaths. Shome by beheading and Zubeir by hanging. Basu would be executed. That way an aura of supernatural power would be added to the Chhota Munna legend. The Judge did not know when or how this would be done but he knew that it would be done soon – in hours or days. There was no time to lose. The danger was real and extreme.

Inspector Basu gave Hussain certain instructions, to be executed that very evening. Then he went for a walk in the town park on his way home. He needed to think. Too much was happening all at once. There could be little doubt that the Three Maidens of Kuhakaranya is the trap. But if they did not take Chhota Munna’s bait because of the danger involved, how else would they apprehend him?

Basu also realized that he could not take extra policemen with him. Chhota Munna would spot this and not come. So it would have to be three police officers against three or more murderous villains. The venue of the meeting was Chhota Munna’s home court because he had set it up. In the event of a gun battle, the grief-stricken OC Shome would be practically useless and Zubeir Ali would probably have to look after Shome. That left only Basu with a six-chamber revolver that cannot be quickly reloaded. Carrying a rifle would make it too obvious that they anticipated danger. In the end Basu decided to have a heart-to-heart talk with OC Shome.

After a light supper he arrived at Shome’s home and found him and Zubeir seated at dinner. Good sign that OC Shome is eating, Basu thought. He sat down next to them but declined the offer of food and tea. He explained to them how this Three Maidens of Kuhakaranya was actually a Chhota Munna plot. He asked if they still wanted to go. They did.

Now Inspector Basu spoke with utmost seriousness, addressing Shome: “Sir, the best situation I can make of this is the three of us against three murderous thugs. They have the advantage having chosen and set up the location. We are going in blind. So for all our sakes we need for you to be at your sharpest and most alert. We need for you to serve as a fully effective gun hand. If you do not snap out of this melancholy you will be endangering all our lives.”

OC Shome remained silent for a while. He finished his meal and as he stood up he said: “You can count on me.”

That was all Basu needed to hear. He felt a whole lot better. Now the three of them got down to discussing the nitty-gritty of the plan. They still had a few hours’ wait. They would start at eleven pm.

~^~^~^~

At nine pm the storekeeper was closing his shop. Just before he shuttered the door Sub-Inspector Hussain barged in with two constables carrying the regulation nightsticks. Hussain said: “I will ask you some questions. You have one chance and one chance only to answer fully and truthfully. If you do not the constables will start on you with their sticks. Then we will take you to the jail. One way or another we get the answers.”

It seemed that the storekeeper did not fancy the beating and started to give forthright answers. Chhota Munna had hired three young girls from the orphanage outside the town to act as the “Maidens”. One of the girls wore sparkling white dress but covered her head in black velvet. This is how she looked like a headless apparition in the dim, heavily misted view in that light-and-dark forest setting.

The police arrived at the orphanage and could easily find the three girls in question. They said they had been told their nightly appearance in the forest as the Three Maidens of Kuhakaranya was no longer needed . They had been paid handsomely for their work thus far by Shakil.

But just in case the girls were not telling the truth, Sub- Inspector Hussain left a constable to watch the door of their house from a discreet distance.

THE ANCIENT GRAVEYARD

Shortly before midnight the three officers arrived at the edge of the forest. They left the jeep there and followed the trail the storekeeper had told Zubeir to follow. There was a slight breeze, causing the tree branches to sway and create a moving light-and-shadow effect on the ground. The three men – all brave by virtue of their profession – all felt a tinge of fear. It was as though death was stalking in this forest. Death in many of its facets: beheading, hanging, shooting. Suddenly a thought came to Inspector Basu: What if Chhota Munna has a number of men hidden in this forest? Even if they took out the three villains, would they themselves survive?

In about fifteen minutes they arrived at the place the storekeeper had described – that ancient abandoned graveyard of that was overgrown with trunk roots of large trees that surrounded the tombs. Among these trees was a banyan tree with a trunk the size of a small house. The forest was sparsely treed and one could see great great distances through the forest – especially now in this faint moonlight. No drunkards were in evidence tonight.

The three of them stopped just short of the graveyard and squatted under the cover of some low shrubs. As they now started to scan their eyes over the ground they saw the elaborate preparation. About in the middle there was set up a makeshift sacrificial yoke. It was an upright U-shaped bracket made of wood, normally used in animal sacrifices in worship rituals. The neck of the animal is placed in the trough of the U and then secured with a wooden pin over the neck. The slayer then stood to one side, slowly brought down the sword to see that it fell on the right part of the neck. Then he lifted the sword and executds the powerful beheading stroke. Only, this particular bracket was larger – large enough to accommodate a human neck.

Near to there a rope was hanging from a horizontal branch of the banyan tree, with a noose at its bottom end. Then, on a high tombstone a red cross was marked, as if to serve as a place for execution by a firing squad.

There was no mistaking what this place was set up for. Chhota Munna had thought carefully about the disposition of each one of them. When it would be all over, word would spread like wildfire. Pepole from the town would arrive tomorrow in throngs to see the scene and the timeless legend of Chhota Munna would be born. What a fearsome legend it would be! People would never again enter Kuhakaranya after dark. Naughty children would be admonished by their mothers: “Do your homework or Chhota Munna will come get you….”

Inspector Basu’s thought process was interrupted by the sound of a familiar voice that came from somewhere out of the dark: “Police Sahebs, I am glad you have come. But you will not see the Three Maindens of Kuhakaranya tonight. They were just a bait to bring you here. Instead you will meet your maker tonight.

“And please do not try to do anything foolish. We have several guns all around covering you. But I do admire the courage of the three of you coming here alone without any reinforcement.”

Chhota Munna now came out to the graveyard area, followed by Shakil and Pappu. The other gunhands were probably behind the trees or upon them. Chhota Munna was carrying a long and broad sword and had a revolver tucked in his belt. Shakil and Pappu carried rifles, ready in their hands.They carried revolvers in addition. Chhota Munna continued: “Now, come on out here in the clearing. No point in hiding anymore. Leave your revolvers on the ground there and come forward, very slowly.”

Inspector Basu now asked Shome in a whispering voice: ‘Sir, do you want to take charge or do you want me to?”

“I will take over, Ajoy. Thank you.”

Suddenly Shome looked like the alert man of action he was in that night raid on Chhota Munna gang. He whispered his instructions in clear, concise terms: “It is dangerous and foolhardy for us to try to arrest these men under the circumstances. They have threatened to execute us. So we have to just take them out. I will take full responsibility for this decision. On my count of three you will fire, each taking out the man opposite you. Do not waste ammunition, for we may need every single bullet. Take one head shot and make it count.”

Now Shome spoke in as loud a voice as he could summon: “You men hiding out there! We have come to apprehend Chhota Munna. We have no business with you. We are police officers. If you harm us you will die tonight for sure. Although we did not bring any help with us, this forest is now completely surrounded by state police and soldiers from the Gorkha Brigade. Not even a jackal can escape. But if you stay out of this I will guarantee that we will let you go.”

Shome changed to his whispering voice and said: “Let’s hope that bluff will work. The fear of Gorkhas is certain to work. That’s all we can do. Now take aim. Chhota Munna is getting suspicious about what we are up to.”

They each knelt down on one knee with the other knee in the horizontal position. They took aim with the heavy Webley revolver in a two-handed grip. If they could hit the men in the head the large .455 caliber bullet will completely shatter the skull. The thugs would be instantly neutralized.

“One,” whispered Shome. The three men were approximately facing the three of thugs. Pappu and Shakil were pointing their rifles in this direction, now that they heard Shome’s voice and could pinpoint their location. Chhota Munna had dropped his sword and drawn his revolver. There was not a second to lose.

Suddenly now they saw the three thugs turn their eyes at the same time to their right, looking into the misted depths of the forest. Something had distracted them. Shome signaled the firing line to hold and waited to see what this was about.

Now they heard Chhota Munna shout angrily: “Shakil, I told you that the girls must not come tonight!”

“Yes. And I asked them not to and paid them off in full. I don’t understand why they have still come.”

Shome whispered: “It seems that the Three Maidens of Kuhakaranya are approaching. We have to be careful that they don’t get caught in the crossfire. Let’s wait and see what develops. But don’t relax your guard. The count is still at One.”

It seemed to the three policemen, who could not see what the thugs were looking at in the depths of the forest, that the girls were approaching the thugs. Suddenly, Chhota Munna cried out: “Boys, these are not our girls. It’s a trick! It is OC Saheb’s trick!”

Chhota Munna raised his revolver and fired wildly in the direction of the girls. Shakil and Pappu also fired their weapons in the same direction. Then Chhota Munna suddenly started foaming at the mouth. He muttered in barely audible voice: “These are bhoots! Guns are no good against them. Save me! Save me!” And then Chhota Munna collapsed to the ground, senseless it seemed. Shakil and Pappu dropped their rifles and stood petrified. They were shaking quite visibly.

The three officers still could not see what the thugs saw and only heard Chhota Munna’s description that these were ghosts. But now they saw that Shakil was moving in a zombie-like trance as if following some signals from the unseen apparitions. He dragged Chhota Munna’s body to the beheading bracket, stuck the neck in it and secured it by the horizontal pin. Then Pappu started moving, also most mechanically. He picked up the sword and came and stood over Chhota Munna. He raised the sword and slowly brought it down to Chhota Munna’s neck to adjust his position so that the fell stroke would come down on the right spot. He raised the sword again and looked into the forest for a final order. At this time Chhota Munna regained consciousness and became aware of his situation. He kept calling out the names of Shakil and Pappu. But Pappu seemed to get the go ahead. He brought the sword down with a tremendous thud. Chhota Munna’s head rolled several feet and then came to a stop. His body thrashed around for a few moments and then became very still.

Shome signaled everyone one to stay put. Now they saw Pappu climb on a tombstone and put the noose around his neck. Then Shakil came forward and pushed Pappu. The latter was now dangling from the tree with the noose around his neck. His feet kicked out a few times and then went limp.

Now Shakil walked over to the high tombston with the red cross marked on it. He stood with his back resting against the stone. He seemed to say a prayer. Then took out his revolver and shot himself on the right temple. His head slumped but his body kept standing upright against the tombstone.

There was no other movement in the forest. If the thugs had back-up people, they were not now in evidence. The three officers got up and came to the graveyard. They looked in the direction the thugs were looking at. Nothing. Or rather, there was something. They smelled roses. And then came faint music as if from a guitar. There were no rose plants or bushes anywhere near there nor were there any sources of such music in that forest in this night.

Inspector Basu saw both Shome and Zubeir raise their right hands while looking into the mist, as if in thanksgiving and affectionate blessing. Instinctively he did the same, meaning to say Thank You and Goodbye.

Basu wondered to himself. Three executions were to take place. Three executions took place. The aggrieved parents did not fire a single shot – they remained blameless of the thugs’ blood. And Basu was also spared the gun battle.

LEAVING SHANTISHAHAR

The official story was both truthful and credible. There was a falling out among the thugs. Pappu killed Chhota Munna and Shakil killed Pappu. Shakil then committed suicide. The police saw nothing of the Three Maidens of Kuhakaranya.

A great peace settled on Shantishara – such as the townspeople could not remember ever having known. Even petty crimes unrelated to the crime syndicates stopped. Young women could walk the streets alone at night alone without any fear. Kuhakaranya became a most enchanting part of the life of the town. In another few years, the word would spread and tourists would come from far to experience Kuhakaranya. The town began to see economic prosperity.

Shortly after the Three Mainden incident, as luck would have it, Shome got a tranfer to Guwahati as the Superintendent of Police for the area. He welcomed the opportunity to leave this place of heart-wrenching memories, but also regretted having to part with his dear colleagues who he came to see as family.

It was unavoidable that Shome would learn the true manner of his elder daughter’s death. He had to read and sign the police reports. But he said nothing about this. He maintained the exterior of a professional, effective officer. Inside he was dying a private death.

A great many people turned out to say Goodbye to him at the railroad station – not only the entire police force but also a large contingent of the townspeople and school children. Shome was quite overwhelmed by this outpouring of gratitude. In the end, just before the train started to pull out of the station, he found himself facing Basu.

Too many thoughts crowded in Shome’s mind at the same time. Here was a young man barely out of his teens. Yet he was put through the ordeal of fire that would by trying for the most seasoned policemen. But Basu had dealt with it all in a manner of quiet confidence, maturity and professionalism. What can you say to such a man? Shome finally managed these words: “I wish I had a son like you.”

“You do, Sir,” replied Basu. “Good luck, Sir. And keep in touch.”

Next stood Zubeir Ali. Shome had for sometime been feeling a deep sense of kinship with him. Now, before he could arrange his words, Zubeir voiced his thoughts: “Sir, we both have three daughters now.”

“Absolutely, Zubeir my brother. Let’s hold them well.”

~^~^~^~

As the train gained speed Shome began to look ahead. He looked forward to spending much time at the temple in Pandu – and hang out with the holy men there. The unusual promotion and the tranfer to this coveted assignment seemed a little curious to him though – as though someone was pulling strings for him.

While settled in Pandu Shome spent most of his spare time seeking company of godmen – assorted sadhus, yogis, boiragis, bauls and so on. He felt a deep peace just by sitting near such people. While the wounds deep within him were never going to heal, salves were applied to them by this means.

One particular sadhu Shome became most attached to lived on the hills of Kamakhya Temple. This was a most reclusive individual that discouraged people from coming near him as he sat under a deodar tree in the woods and meditated all day. But people nevertheless came to see him. He did not converse with them. People would touch his feet, sit near him a while and then quietly retreat. This was considered to be a blissful thing to do. Apparently people felt some beneficial effects of this bliss in their real life.

But Shome had no expectation of any tangible benefit. He just felt a profound sense of healing – one that could not be described in words. He came there every Sunday – without fail. He pretty much sat there the whole day, until it started to grow dark.

After a stint of ten peaceful years in Pandu, Shome retired – moneywise quite comfortable. About the same time, however, something happened that devastated him.

After he retired he had started to go to sit near that sadhu twice a week. But this period did not last long. One day the sadhu opened his eyes and spoke to Shome for the very first time in over ten years of their association: “Kalyan Ho. Shantih ho.”

That blessing meant: “Let goodness befall you! Let peace befall you!” The sadhu then paused a second and said: “I leave you tonight. Let fragrance hold you. Let music hold you.”

The sadhu passed away that night. After that Shome somehow lost all interest in life, in taking care of himself. He gradually took on the aspect of a vagrant. He was constantly on the move. Wherever he was on a given day, there was his home. He lived for one reason and one reason only: His evenings.

At that point Shome suddenly stopped his narrative. My parents naturally expected to hear some elaboration of that curious last comment. But it was not to come. Shome got up and my parents did not pry.

Mother stepped in to announce that dinner was ready. Father said that the story had nearly ended. The rain kept up a steady pace and the power was still out. We were glad for all these. For they continued the mystery of this rainspun evening which had lent atmosphere to the developing story.

THE EVENINGS OF SANTOSH SHOME

Now, as we were listening to this story, the whole time a subliminal thought was traveling in our minds alongside the story! This was not an impersonal story. Father had already indicated in the beginning that we would ourselves become privy to the ending of this story. For we remebered well that houseguest of one night a couple of months ago – largely because of that generous box of mouth-watering pastries.

Of course we only saw him to exchange pleasantries and at dinner. We did not know anything more about him then. The storytelling with our parents took place after dinner when we were attending to our homework at another part of the house. We knew nothing about the following events until now.

Shome left early next morning to catch his train before most of us were even up. Mother got up early and made him a cup of tea which he gratefully drank, sitting in the kitchen. Later that morning Mother saw that my five-year old sister, whose pet name was Tikin, was sleeping in. She slept on a bed that was up against a wall which divided that room and the guestroom. The guest bed was also pushed up against the same wall. When Mother woke Tikin up, she said: “I could not sleep last night, what with all the talking and singing going on in the next room.”

(At that, Tikin nodded, indicating she remembered the incident.)

Mother was stunned. She asked: “Who were talking?”

“Well, the pastry man and three girls were talking and laughing. And one girl was singing from time to time. Not singing really – just humming.”

“You were probably dreaming, Tikin. Anyway, go brush your teeth and come to breakfast.”

Mother immediately entered the guestroom. There was no mistaking the lingering smell of fresh roses in that bare room with nothing there but a bed and a bare nightstand.

Back to index .

Bibhas De stories

[Image courtesy – tigress: creative commons; woman: Sanchari De]
Shikar Story by Bibhas De

For many their avocation is something near to their vocation. A person who is professionally an engineer might be a do-it-yourselfer by hobby. A greengrocer might cultivate flowers. For some people though, the two are seemingly opposite or completely unconnected. A scientist who composes music, a soldier who does needlepoint, a priest who is a thespian ... and so on. The protagonist of our story, Kinjal Roy, belongs to this latter category. By vocation he is an open heart surgeon – he saves lives. By avocation he is a shikari, a hunter. He takes lives.

When our story opens the Harvard Medical School-trained Kinjal Roy MD, PhD at the tender age of twenty-seven was already a highly sought after surgeon – and not just in Kolkata or West Bengal. People from all over India and even neighboring countries came to surrender themselves eagerly to the scalpel of this sure-handed healer. A bachelor with no encumbrances, Kinjal devoted himself wholly to his work, taking time off only to go hunt and renew himself in the process.

Well, that is not altogether true anymore. There was recently added a third facet to his life. A couple of months before our story begins, Kinjal was having a cup of coffee with a fresh-from-the-oven croissant in the South City Mall food court on a Sunday morning. He was thumbing through the Magazine Section of the Sunday Telegraph with that crisp, no-one-has-read-before-me smell. This activity to him was a highlight of his weekends. This early in the morning the Mall was sparsely populated and not all the shops were open yet. In this habitually crowded place there was now a rare desolation – an ambience Kinjal particularly liked.

Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye he saw a young lady approach his table – with a mysterious smile on her face.

“Dr. Kinjal Roy?” she asked with a richly resonant voice that stirred Kinjal’s memory.

Kinjal instinctively got up on his feet. As he was taking in the stunning beauty and the stately elegance of the stranger he replied: “Guilty. But you have me at a disadvantage.”

“May I sit down?” asked the goddess as Kinjal was already arranging a chair for her.

“I am Ajopa. Ajopa Mitra of Shillong once. I am to meet an old friend here for coffee but in a way I suppose I already have met one!”

Kinjal had recovered that familiar face from his memory almost at the same time she said her name. The last time he saw her she was a teenager and so was he. They lived in adjoining houses in the Kench’s Trace neighborhood of Shillong. Naturally they had a healthy adolescent fancy for each other then, but it was one of those theoretical things that go away when one party moves away. Now seeing that frock-clad and ponytailed young girl all grown-up in this enchantingly sari-wrapped stance he had not been able to recognize her at the first instant.

Very quickly now the ice was broken and the two just could not contain how happy they were to see each other. A round of coffee was brought. With a sense of urgency on both sides, it was quickly revealed that both were unattached. Ajopa was an Assistant Professor of English at the Presidency College. She had already heard about Kinjal’s reputation and seen his photo in newspaper articles.

Telephone numbers were now exchanged. But Kinjal was not content to leave things in such an open-ended way. He made bold to invite her to an evening at the Calcutta Club the next Friday. In a crowded city like Kolkata the Club was an excellent place to linger for hours in the luxurious lap of the spacious British India vintage halls under the high ceiling. The plush sitting arrangements for individual groups, scattered over the lobby, were in plain view of all and yet offered complete privacy of conversation. One started early in the evening with a selection of appetizers, to be washed down with the potion of one’s choice. Eventually when the mood was right the guests moved to one of the intimate dining halls and enjoyed an equally leisurely repast.

To Kinjal’s great joy and a little relief even Ajopa accepted the invitation. Even as she did so her true appointment, a fellow woman teacher, turned up. After introductions were made Kinjal brought coffee for all three, lingered for a few minutes and then tactfully withdrew.

When Kinjal and Ajopa met on the Friday evening again, each heart trembling, it gradually became clear that they both wanted to continue to see each other. In time this developed into a routine: meeting at the club early evening each Friday and then stretching the evening till late hours. Almost overnight Kinjal’s own life turned from a black-and-white movie to a technicolor one for him. It was now a matter of allowing a propitious fullness of time before he would ask the inevitable question. He started formulating the question already in his mind as well as considering different manners of positing it.

~^~^~^~

Around about noon on a Thursday when Kinjal was in surgery there arrived a man in simple village attire in his front office. He asked to see the Shikari Daktar Babu, the hunter-doctor that is. The secretary realized immediately that this was not a patient. Nor did he have an appointment. She told him that the doctor would not return to his office until 1 pm. The man asked if he could wait in the sitting area. The secretary then gave him a cup of tea and some biscuits. Overwhelmed by this simple kindness the man started his patient vigil by slinking in one corner of the sitting area, being as unobtrusive as he could.

When Kinjal returned to his office – quite spent from the surgery – the secretary told him about the visitor. Normally Kinjal would not agree to see an unplanned patient visitor at this time. But hearing that this might have something to do with shikar he immediately had the man ushered into his office.

His name was Srikanta Khila. He had been traveling since before the crack of dawn from his native village of Champaghat in the Sundarbans by various modes of transport. His village was being terrorized by a most ferocious man-eating tiger. It had already claimed some livestock and two humans. When the villagers reported this to the Forestry Department outpost at Namkhana, that office in turn contacted the Kolkata Office. The officials here planned to investigate the matter immediately but they had no experienced hunters working for the Department. They felt the best course would be to contact the famous big game hunter Dr. Roy. So that was how Srikanta Khila came to be here. He hoped the great doctor would forgive this sudden intrusion.

When the man paused Kinjal thought the situation over quickly. Time was of the essence now. As it happened he never scheduled any surgery or patient visits on Friday. He left the day open for his own research and for reading up on the latest advances in his field – in the West especially. So his calendar was clear till Monday morning, except for the Friday evening assignation. He decided to start right away. He made a few phone calls and gave his secretary a set of instructions. He called Ajopa and left a message on her mobile phone to the effect that the Friday evening meeting needed to be postponed, offering apologies and promising to get back to her at the earliest opportunity. He then called home and asked his cook-cum-factotum to have a quick lunch ready for two people.

As he was doing all this Srikanta was waiting eagerly in rising anticipation. The Shikari Babu would come to his village after all! Kinjal now told him: “We will go to my home first so that I can pick up some things. We will have something quick to eat. Then we will drive down to Namkhana. Is there a safe place I can leave the car there while we take the boat to your village?”

Srikanta said he knew a person near the boat landing who would look after the car. They were off. At first Srikanta seemed quite ill-at-ease sitting next to Kinjal in his plushly upholstered car, but Kinjal’s easy manners quickly put the passenger at ease. This return trip was going to be a much smoother one for Srikanta than the trip up here this morning.

~^~^~^~

Kinjal and Ajopa both developed an intense curiosity in exploring each other’s life, a curiosity tempered only by a wish to not rush things. They each continued to let the other enter his or her private world – a little at a time. The doors were being opened an inch at a time – sometimes eagerly, sometimes hesitantly. Every Friday evening they met around six and did not part each other’s company until about eleven or so. The rest of the week they turned over that evening in their minds in leisure and relived its endless fascinations and newfound warmths.

As he discovered her Kinjal found Ajopa to be everything he would want in his idealized life partner, and more. There was an aura of mystery, of some unknowable depth about her that he liked. It was as though the exploration would never end. Once a thought came to Kinjal that when he stalked an elusive prey in the jungle, there was the same sense of rising mystery, the same growing portent of the unknowable. But he quickly dismissed that thought as too grotesque.

Soon after they met they were talking about each other’s avocation. Ajopa realized that Kinjal’s success as a surgeon at such young age was more than a woman suitor could expect in terms of the measure of a man. Yet secretly she wished to see in him a well-rounded, eclectic person who could discourse with her on the poems of Joy Goswami or the paintings of Jamini Roy. But Kinjal seemed to be the type of men who seemed to reveal their private persona quite freely and yet remained inscrutable. So whenever she saw a glint of something about him outside of the medical arena, she was filled with expectation.

Upon pressing, Ajopa let on that she wrote poetry as an avocation. Kinjal was visibly thrilled to hear that and wanted to read some of her poems as soon as he could get some in hand. Then he said: “For a professor of English Literature, writing poetry does not count as avocation. It is very much a vocation. So you still have to tell me about your hobby!”

“Well, in that case it would be that I am learning the French language. I want to read some of the great French poets in the original language. When I read English translations of Tagore or Jibanananda Dash, I have a feeling that much has been lost. That is why I think reading a poem in its original language would enrich and inform a person’s experience of it.”

“I see! Let’s hear an example of French poetry in French language.”

“I am very much a beginner, but here is a well known verse from the classical poet Paul Verlaine. It is especially beautiful because its content and its sound reinforce each other:

Les sanglots longs
des violons
  de l'automne
blessent mon coeur
d'une langueur
  monotone.

The meaning in English is…”

Before she could give the meaning Kinjal provided it:

“The long sobs
Of the violins
Of autumn
Wound my heart
With a languor
Monotonous.”

“You know French?!” asked an astounded Ajopa, with that secret hope rising in her that she was beginning to see that sign of a deeply cultured mind.

“Not really. But as you said these are famous lines. They were used as a code by the French Resistance during the D Day invasion. You only have to watch the movie The Longest Day to know that!”

So the cultured mind remained elusive for now.

In time Kinjal felt that they should take the next step up from these now routine Calcutta Club meetings. He wanted to invite Ajopa to his South City flat and introduce her to his home life. At the same time he felt that it was not good form to invite her alone. As luck would have it there came visiting a cousin sister of Ajopa from Shillong. On hearing this Kinjal immediately invited both for lunch the following Saturday. Ajopa accepted.

What Kinjal had uppermost in his mind was to show Ajopa his prized gun collection and the hunting trophies. He of course had already shared with her his hobby of hunting. She had expressed great interest and asked many questions that he was happy to answer each elaborately. But since then he began to sense a faint hint of disapproval in her mien. And indeed, from that evening on, their growing synergy seemed to strike a discordant note. Kinjal felt that showing her his elaborate hunting room display would help bring to fore whatever that dark portent was that had come between them. It needed to be acknowledged and addressed.

And that hunting room indeed was quite fastidious. Assorted shotguns and rifles lay in shiny glass cases that showed them to full advantage. The walls were decorated with heads of animals mounted on mahogany boards by expert taxidermists. The glass eyes of the animals were lifelike. There were a couple of antique photographs of hunting parties of Maharajas from the British India period. There were other memorabilia of jungle and tribal themes. The lighting in the room – both natural and artificial – had been meticulously arranged to flatter the exhibits.

The visitors to Kinjal’s flat were always impressed by this little tour. In fact his friend Shirish Mundra, a wealthy Marwari businessman who dabbled in hunting, would often tell Kinjal half-jokingly: “Anytime you get tired of this collection, I will take it off your hands. We do not even need to discuss a price. I will give you a signed blank check.” Kinjal could tell that Shirish wanted to possess this collection himself and show it off in his home to his friends. But of course the thought of selling this collection would never enter his mind. So he would always smile good-humoredly at Shirish’s offer, taking it as a fine compliment.

~^~^~^~

Kinjal’s father was a land surveyor for the Government of the State of Assam. As such he spent much time in jungles and mountains and river valleys, pitching tents for long stays when needed. Whenever possible Kinjal would tag along with him during school vacations. He would sleep in tents and eat meals cooked picnic style by his father’s men.

The father was also a hunter. Thus the meals often consisted of venison or ducks or wild pigeons – cooked over open wood fire in the dark jungle nights amid the many jungle sounds. All these worked on his young mind. He asked his father to teach him how to hunt and the latter did. The father also taught him gun safety and hunter’s ethics. That was the beginning.

Later Kinjal would hunt big games in various parts of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka with resourceful friends, including some military officers. During his study abroad and later during his trips abroad he was able to acquire a fine collection of weapons not readily available in India. And that is how his gun room slowly took shape to become what it was today.

~^~^~^~

Kinjal would have to get on Highway NH117 to get to Namkhana. The road started as Diamond Harbor Road in Kolkata and snaked its way south to Namkhana where it was interrupted by the Saptamukhi River. At this point one was already in the Sundarbans, the vast forested and wild delta encompassing many meandering rivers flowing out to the sea. The terrain consisted of mangroves, large trees and open grasslands. To the outside world this place was best known as the home of the great Royal Bengal Tigers.

When they gained the Diamond Harbor Road and had left much of the city traffic behind, Kinjal asked Srikanta to give him the fullest account of the situation, without leaving anything out. Srikanta, who turned out to be quite articulate, told him first that a machan was being built in the jungle near the latest kill even as they were traveling. A machan is basically a platform built up on a tree with lengths of bamboo and rope. The hunter sits there, safely out of reach of the prey, and holds his vigil.

SRIKANTA KHILA’S NARRATIVE

Champaghat is a tiny fishing village right on the river Saptamukhi, near where it empties into the sea. The landward boundary of the village ends where dense jungle begins. We are twenty-two families – about seventy-five people. We rely for most of our needs – such as shopping, schools, health center, post office etc – on the nearby large villages. Of course we can come to Namkhana by boat if it is necessary to come to town. It is a few of hours of rowing, much faster with a motor.

Besides fishing, some families have livestock and poultry. Some engage in cultivating fruits and vegetables. All in all, life is very placid. The only community center is the only one small general store there in the village. It carries a little of most everything one might need in one’s daily life. It also serves as a teastall which is where civic meetings are held and village news and gossip are exchanged.

Now, the very first human victim of the tiger was the young wife Janaki of the storekeeper whose name is Narahari Mandal. He is about 50 years old while Janaki is only in her early twenties. The girl had become orphaned and had no one to live with or look after her or support her. She had no means of supporting herself. She was a beautiful girl in full youth, and so needed a proper guardian. The widower Narahari offered to marry her and everyone thought this was the best solution. No one therefore saw anything to disapprove of in this unequal marriage.

In spite of the age gap the couple had a great life together. Neighbors saw them as a most devoted, loving couple. Narahari gave her every creature comfort available in village living, and more. They had an electric stove and a radio set that could receive Kolkata stations. So Janaki had ways to occupy her time when Narahari was not home. Because of fear of petty thieves from outside the village, Narahari had to sleep nights in his store. But Janaki was quite brave and did not mind sleeping alone in their thatched cottage at night. And of course the neighbors were just a shout away, always ready to help. At any rate, there was nothing for Janaki to fear at all. Until the tiger claimed her, that is.

The Mandal cottage backed onto the jungle as did a number of cottages there – all in a row. One of these homes had livestock – cattle and goats. The first victim of the tiger was a cow. Its carcass was found some distance into the jungle, its flesh torn to pieces. A person from the next village knew something about jungle kills. He looked at the carcass and said somewhat uncertainly that it might possibly be a tiger kill. A few days later a goat went missing. Its remains were never found.

Now, it is almost normal to see an occasional tiger wander into the vicinity of the village. It may stay there for a while, feeding on small animals. Eventually it will wander away. This type of stray tigers poses no danger to the villagers. They have learned to live with such visits.

Around about the time we are speaking of there were a couple of sightings of a tiger in the vicinity. A honey hunter caught a glimpse of it may be only half a kilometer from the village. A young boy who went bathing in a pond also reported seeing the large tiger walk leisurely along the bank, swinging its curled tail. And a woman out at the same pond doing her laundry reported hearing a growl and smelling a smell that she knew was associated with tigers.

A couple of days after the goat disappeared Narahari came home from the store at dawn and found Janaki missing. He went around the neighborhood, calling her name out loud. The neighbors came out and joined in the search. It was at that point that one of the neighbors suggested most tactfully that the tiger angle should considered. Since the outhouse for the Mandal home was about 30 yards from the cottage and right on the edge of the jungle, the tiger might have snatched her during a visit there.

The searchers spread into the jungle radially out from Narahari’s home. Before long they found Janaki’s body. It looked like the tiger had not quite started to feed on her yet. The clothes were all bloodied, but there was no sign of mangling of the body. Probably the tiger was full and would come back tonight to feed on the kill, the villagers thought. The expert on jungle kills said he could not tell if it was a tiger kill until the tiger actually started to feed. It was decided not to move the body for the time being, in case arrangements could be made for the rangers from the Forestry Department to come and inspect the kill that very day. People went off to send a message to that effect.

A most devastated Narahari sat motionless all day. Nobody could do anything to make him recover from the shock. The full measure of his love for his wife was brought home to the villagers. At length, as it started to get dark he suddenly stood up straight and said most resolutely: “I will go kill the tiger tonight.”

Even though Narahari was a most powerfully built large man who was quite fearless to boot, people tried to dissuade him. They said that the Forestry Department should handle this. Narahari would not listen. Then a few young men volunteered to go with him. Narahari vehemently refused that offer, saying he did not want to endanger other lives. So saying he picked up his huge machete and walked into the jungle towards where the lifeless body of his beloved wife still lay.

The following dawn saw Narahari staggering out of the jungle, looking disheveled and confused. When he regained his composure, the villagers learned from him what had happened. He had stationed himself up on a sturdy tree branch over the kill. About the middle of the night he heard rustling sounds and saw the tiger approach the kill most stealthily. It came straight to the kill and was about to feed. An angry Narahari jumped right on top of the tiger and started striking it with his machete. But the tiger was infinitely more powerful than he had figured. It shook Narahari off and then stood with its front paws solidly planted on Narahari’s chest as the latter fell to the ground in the supine position. Narahari lay motionless, pretending he was dead. The tiger then started to lick the blood off the kill. Then it simply walked away. Narahari was so shaken that he could not move. He lost consciousness and came to at first light when the birds started to chirp.

That day the body of Janaki was brought back to the village and cremated with full religious rites. The whole village came. Everyone was deeply affected by the incident. And the village was now in the grip of great fear. The tiger had become a man-eater. No one ventured out after dark. And no one went into the jungle even by day. Everyone wondered what would come next.

The answer came in barely three days, yesterday that is. It seems that the tiger was concentrating on the area right behind the row of houses of which Narahari’s was one. This time their neighbor across the fence – a young man of twenty-five years named Tilak who lived with his ailing mother – had gone missing. His body was found by late morning, not far from the other kills.

The body was left the way it was found and the Forest Rangers were contacted. Having obtained the name of the Daktar Babu the Hunter, Srikanta was dispatched by the village to fetch him. The villagers were waiting in fervent hope that the great hunter would come to their rescue.

~~~

One Sunday Kinjal and Ajopa drove out to Gadiara on the poetic river Roopnarayan. They made an early start while it was still dark and arrived at the river bank to catch the famed Gadiara sunrise. By this light the placid expanse of the water seemed like an ever-changing painting in soft tones, with indistinct orange and the magenta accents playing on each other.

They spent the whole morning sightseeing. They had lunch at the tourist lodge and then did some more sightseeing. The idea was to watch the sunset and moonrise before they would head back. It would make for a very long day.

They came to the river bank to see the old fort, now nearly claimed by the river. At low tide, portions of these storied brick-and-mortar ruins of Bengal’s history could be seen. Tourists sauntered on the bank. Women sat and talked. Men took pictures. Children frolicked in the trees. Kinjal and Ajopa found a shade tree and sat down under it. They sat in silence and stared at the watery expanse.

Ruins always invoked a special chain of thoughts in Kinjal’s mind. Ruins of old temples strangles by banyan roots, ruins of ancient citadels overgrown with ivy, forested ruins, moss-grown ruins, water-logged ruins… He thought of time, of history, of ancestry ... and then of his four grandparents, all gone now. He imagined seeing them walking among the ruins, happily among a throng of gaily dressed people. The ruins had come to life, in their own time period. He was now so deeply engrossed in these thoughts that Ajopa could actually see the play of emotions on his face. She left him alone. When finally Kinjal seemed to stir, Ajopa said with that faintest of smiles: “A penny for your thoughts.”

Half of him in the present, half of him still in the ruins’ glory days, Kinjal replied somewhat dreamily: “I will offer them up to you, but in someone else’s words:

Slowly the ivy on the stones
Becomes the stones. Women become

The cities, children become the fields
And men in waves become the sea."

Suddenly a thousand flowers bloomed all at once in Ajopa’s mind. There was a tremendous burst of colors and fragrances. Now she knew, for sure. In actuality, she said with a broadened smile: “Wallace Stevens!”


Gadiara sunset

The sunset in its own thickening sadness was time for introspection, each engrossed in own thoughts. No one spoke. And then came up the moon, nearly full. They sat there, without keeping track of time. At length Kinjal pointed and said: “A moon for the poet.”

~~~

Srikanta Khila’s friend lived not far from the Namkhana boat landing. The latter promised to take good care of Kinjal’s car. Kinjal took out his overnight bag and the rifle from the backseat of the car. He had brought his 416 caliber Safari 550 DGR Rifle, without the telescope which was of no use at night. Properly used, this “Dangerous Game Rifle” could stop a wild buffalo or a charging elephant. It would certainly be a match for a Royal Bengal Tiger. Only one well-aimed shot would be needed. Nevertheless Kinjal had brought a nearly full box of ammunition.

A villager was waiting in his boat in anticipation of the arrival of the great hunter. They were off for the village. During the trip Srikanta and the boatman took turns to give Kinjal a general orientation on the area, it flora and fauna, its days and nights, its villages and desolations. On the way they saw the snout of a crocodile, a few spotted deer and an abundance of bird life – both seabirds and shorebirds.

Some expectant villagers of Champaghat spotted the boat returning and were on hand at the landing to greet their would-be savior. Kinjal was a man of easy manners and speech – whether he was with the academic elite at a conference or in a village such as this. The villagers took an instant liking to him.

The first stop was the General Store where the visibly distraught owner Narahari Mandal received Kinjal with as much warmth as he could muster, under the circumstances. Narahari served complimentary tea to all gathered there. Over the tea something of a combination of a welcoming ceremony and a planning meeting took place. One villager reported that the machan was ready. An animated discussion now took place about the possibility of the tiger returning to the kill tonight. The consensus was that it would.

It had started to get dark. Darkness in the jungle was even darker. Hurricane lanterns were lit and hung in front of the store. They kept swaying, creating moving shapes of light and shadow. An ominous portent began to grow and everyone gathered sensed it. When the villagers looked at Kinjal’s rifle, they found hope. When they looked at his tender age, they despaired. Surely a big game hunter would look like a rugged, imposing individual.

It was suggested that Kinjal have supper at Srikanta’s home and sleep for a bit. But Kinjal said he wanted to proceed right away to the kill and start his vigil. He asked that his compact thermos be filled with strong tea and it was. Srikanta and two other villagers who had built the machan accompanied him. They walked by the row of thatched cottages that included the homes of Narahari and Tilak, next to each other. They went behind the homes and Kinjal took in the lay of the land. There was a row of outhouses just where the jungle began. It would have been very easy for the tiger to step out of the jungle and snatch his victim from there.

They arrived at the kill. It was truly dark now. Kinjal shone his flashlight and saw the bloodied carcass. He walked around it a bit. The kill was all covered in torn, blood-soaked clothing so that the flesh wounds and the tears in the skin were not visible. Kinjal would like to have seen these in order to identify this as definitely a tiger kill. He postponed that task for now. He climbed up on the machan and found it quite sturdy and otherwise satisfactory. He then said goodbye to the villagers who promised to return at first light.

Now Kinjal cleared his mind and concentrated on the situation at hand. This situation was fraught with great danger and he had to be alert with all his senses. He had to be able to distinguish between the rustling of leaves in the breeze and squishing of leaves on the ground under footsteps; between the potpourri of jungle smells and that very special musty, putrid smell that came off the animal’s hide; between the shining eyes of a deer and the glaring eyes of a tiger. Kinjal checked his rifle to see that it was ready to be fired in an instant. He laid the box of ammunition, its lid open, within his reach. Instinctively he felt with his left hand the handle of his hunting knife that was kept in a leather sheath attached to his belt to his left. This had become a habit with him to carry the knife exactly like that, like his father used to do. If you are ever in a hand-to-hand situation with an animal, his father had said, this would be your last line of defense.

But clear his mind however he did, the thought of Ajopa kept entering it and meandering there like a listless wind. In that wind then there were floating random words that he could hear individually and catch like fireflies. Kinjal reached out and collected some of these words. He then set them free before him. And then he saw them dance. Then they held hands and formed a string, that famous line from the Bengali lore that says: The mind of woman is the reward a man is granted upon a thousand years of praying. Kinjal was now sure that that is exactly what the measure of Ajopa was to him. That thought satisfied him, for he now had full appreciation of what he would gain or would let go.

A nightbird’s shrill call brought Kinjal back from his nighttime reverie. He poured himself some tea and drank it all at once.

~^~^~^~

The lunch went very well, what with Kinjal’s resident cook being most accomplished at his task. Ajopa’s cousin Kakoli was a most vivacious young woman with a scintillating presence. Afterwards, during the tour of the hunting room, she was the one who kept pelting Kinjal with questions. Obviously she was interested. That made Kinjal most happy. Throughout, Ajopa maintained a silence with a faint hint of a smile on her face, suggesting she too was interested but wanted to let her cousin have the floor.

“Kinjal-da, how do you reconcile a life-saving surgeon to a life-snatching hunter?” Ajopa’s cousin Kakoli had asked after the lunch as a natural and inoffensive outgrowth of her line of questions. Kinjal welcomed it and proceeded to answer.

“Actually, in the beginning of my hunting days with my father I killed some gamebirds and deer. But then I decided I would not kill anything for no reason. I have often stalked animals just for the love of the sport. But when in the end I found myself in a position where I was sure I could fell them, I withdrew. This is like how some anglers let their catch go. The only animals I kill anymore nowadays are the ones that have become a danger to humans.”

“Is that a rationale or a justification for killing?” asked Kakoli.

“Neither. The thought that I could help people get on with their lives in peace and not be under the constant threat of losing them is one that comforts me. I never actually kill for enjoyment.”

“And what about saving lives in the surgery? Does that give you enjoyment” asked Ajopa this time.

“Again, there is not a simple answer. People think a surgeon has the power of life and death in his hands. Not so. Just as the patient going under anesthesia prays he would wake up all healed, I too pray with same fervor he would. So I would put it the same way: It comforts me.”

They then changed to lighter conversation over dessert and coffee.

~^~^~^~

Kinjal now became aware of a presence. He had heard nothing and smelled nothing. But a shikari’s sixth sense caused him to feel a tingle all over his body. He became fully alert as he scanned his eyes over the terrain below him. All his senses told him now that something was afoot.

He heard the faintest noise of the crushing of dry leaves on the ground. In a little while that noise grew to a point that he was able to judge the direction from which it was coming. He fixed his eyes there. In that faint moonlight he saw now in the distance the tiger winding its way among the tree trunks – stopping, looking, listening as it was doing so. But it was not clear if it was coming towards the kill. Kinjal remained as motionless as he could, being careful to even breathe stealthily. He needed to be not the cause for the tiger approaching this way or for its avoiding coming this way.

Kinjal had a hunter’s familiarity of the way of tigers. It seemed to him now that the tiger did not have a fixed destination but was roaming aimlessly. He kept his watch. But suddenly, it looked as though the tiger had become interested in something it had just sensed or smelled. It turned Kinjal’s way and proceeded resolutely along a straight path to the kill. When it saw the kill it stopped. It stood there for a long while. Then it started walking around the kill, keeping its distance – pussyfooting style. After making a few such circles, it started to close in. Then it smelled the kill from a distance of a foot or so – its nostrils flaring.

Now the tiger looked confused. Kinjal had his rifle positioned so that he could now take his shot. The safety was already off. It was in his hands now to end this nightmare for the village. But his hunter’s instincts also told him something else: This kill was not this tiger’s kill. Were there two tigers operating in this area then? Would he have reason to kill this tiger as well, in addition to the one that had killed the victim?

At this moment the tiger looked straight up at where Kinjal was sitting. Its glaring eyes met Kinjal’s. In that posture of the tiger Kinjal saw no viciousness or malevolence. Just a curious look. No “Dangerous Game” here. The tiger held that posture for many seconds, as if in hesitation. Then it slowly turned around and walked away in a most unhurried pace. Kinjal put the safety back on and set the rifle down on the machan floor.

There were still a couple of hours before light would break upon the jungle. Kinjal made himself as comfortable as possible on the machan and closed his eyes. He needed to think things through carefully. What had just happened? A tiger did indeed come to the kill but Kinjal was quite certain that this was not the tiger that had made the kill. The one that did not turn up thus far. Why? What would he tell the villagers in the morning? If he told them that a tiger came and he let it go, they would be most disappointed. They would not be interested in the finer points of whether this was the man-eater or not. They villagers needed desperately to see a dead tiger, period.

As these thoughts were running through Kinjal’s mind suddenly he sat up straight. There was again footfall on dry leaves. Could this be the man-eater? But the sound was moving away from him at a rapid and resolute pace. He could not make anything more of this. His instincts told him this was the movement of a human but of course that was not possible.

Kinjal did not want to tell lies. So in the morning he told the villagers that the man-eater did not turn up this night. He would hold another vigil the following night, Friday night. They were sitting in the general store and enjoying a cup of reviving early morning tea. The villagers wanted to know the details of his vigil and Kinjal did not have much to say. Narahari who was listening keenly to everything that was being said as he went about his work, now made an impassioned speech. He urged Kinjal to please take him along tonight so he could have the satisfaction of seeing his wife’s slayer slain. This would have a healing effect on his deep wound. He promised that he would be very quiet and unobtrusive and would not in any way interfere with Kinjal. The latter did not like this idea of a nonprofessional on the machan but at the same time, could not see how he could decline such a request. He agreed against his hunter’s training.

~^~^~^~

Friday a week ago they were sitting in the lobby of Calcutta Club with glasses of Nimbu Pani, a freshly squeezed lemon drink, and an assortment of kababs. They were reviewing the lunch party the previous weekend and Kinjal was telling Ajopa how much he enjoyed meeting Kakoli. Kinjal proceeded unmindfully to make a remark that had the suggestion in it that Kakoli would become a relation to Kinjal. As soon as he said it Kinjal realized his error. He did not mean to convey any such message, not yet and not in this manner. But before he could figure out how to unshoot the arrow, Ajopa had started to speak.

“Kinjal, now that you touch on that subject for the first time and make me tremble in joy, I feel I should in all honesty tell you something about how I feel about this.”

Kinjal put his glass down on the coffee table, turned slightly more on the sofa toward Ajopa and waited for what was to come.

“Kinjal, you are the most perfect, most ideal man that any woman could want. What I am telling you is a defect in me. It is a defect for which I can find no reason and no logic. It has to do with that part of your life – a substantial part of your nonprofessional life – that is concerned with hunting. The other day you explained very eloquently your approach to this and most people would find that acceptable and perhaps even noble. An adventurous spirit linked to a spirit of rescue and the spirit of benevolence. There is nearly a parallel between what you do in the surgery and what you do while hunting: Use a knife or a gun to save lives.”

Kinjal did not interrupt Ajopa’s flow of speech. He realized that it was most difficult for her to compose and say what she was saying. He did not want to make it any more difficult by interjecting his Ifs and Ands and Buts. At the same time he was deeply fascinated within himself to hear, for the very first time in his life, a woman speak of a life together with him – even if not in a hopeful way. Ajopa continued.

“Kinjal, it is difficult for me to explain what my problem with that is because I do not myself know. It is not entirely about my being an animal lover which I am. It is more about a feeling, a feeling about something too strange and too exotic. Something most fascinating to behold but something that you do not want to make your own. If you uprooted an exotic wildflower plant and brought it home and planted it in your garden, it would not survive.

“When I was a little girl I once picked a whole bunch of tillandsia from the jungles of Mousinram, brought them home and pinned them to the branches of the deodar tree behind our home. They lived for a few days and then withered away.

“So the long and short of it is that I feel I cannot approach the possibility of a life together with you with a complete sense of hope. And to not tell you this, I feel, would be not right.”

Ajopa stopped. Now it was Kinjal’s turn. He found himself even more drawn to Ajopa after hearing her. At the same time he had the same inhibition many men have of expressing their inner feelings in smoothly flowing language. After thinking a few seconds he replied: “I deeply appreciate what you just said. But there is a lot here for me to absorb. Give me a little time to do that. And now let’s move to a lighter subject. Why don’t we try some Chinese fare this evening?”

~^~^~^~

The machan was rather small for two and it creaked a little under the heavy weight of Narahari. But it held. They managed to position themselves in this cramped quarters as comfortably as they could. Sitting side by side, they barely fit in the machan, Kinjal’s left side pushing against Narahari’s right. Kinjal’s right hand was free to handle the rifle without obstruction. He kept the strap loosely looped around his wrist so that it would not accidentally fall to the ground. Narahari took out his machete and placed it securely in the crook of a tree branch, within easy reach. The villagers all left about midnight. The silent vigil began.

As Kinjal tried to empty his mind of everything but his immediate surroundings, the face and the voice of Ajopa kept visiting his mind. He realized that she had become an inextricable part of his inner life. The thought of a life without her now would be unbearable to Kinjal. It would devastate him in a permanent way.

That familiar rustling sound brought Kinjal back to the present. The tiger was not yet visible. Narahari sensed Kinjal’s sudden tenseness and became very alert himself. He also started scanning his eyes over the ground – as much of it as could be seen through the dense foliage and the huge tree trunks. Presently Kinjal saw the tiger. It was approaching this way without any uncertainty in its bearing. Why did the tiger want to visit the kill again if it was not its own kill? Just idle curiosity may be? Kinjal saw that Narahari was trying to follow his gaze. Kinjal pointed towards the tiger with his index finger and then held the same finger across his lips, signaling that there was to be no talking.

The tiger approached the kill and then started circling it as it did the previous night. Occasionally it stopped to sniff. Then it went very close to the kill and placed its nostrils right against the body. Suddenly Narahari nudged Kinjal and pointed to the rifle and made a sign by curling his index finger, urging Kinjal to shoot. Kinjal did not pay any attention to this. He continued to observe the tiger. It had finished whatever it was doing – sniffing or tasting the blood – and had withdrawn a few steps. It was not going to feed here.

Now Narahari started whispering in his ears, rather emphatically it seemed: “Daktar Babu, I was watching you last night from another treetop. You let the tiger go. Why? Why do you not shoot it now?”

Kinjal was annoyed at this breach of silence. Clearly the tiger had heard the whisper and was looking up this way. What move would it make next? How should Kinjal respond to Narahari’s question? Why was Narahari so adamant about killing this tiger which clearly was not interested in feeding at the kill? Why was Narahari watching him last night?

Narahari spoke again: “Perhaps you suspect me of something, Daktar Babu?”

All of a sudden a dark veil lifted for Kinjal. It was as if he could see an entire story hidden from him thus far, all at once. What a fool I have been, thought Kinjal. It was Narahari all along! He must have somehow come to imagine that while he slept nights in his shop his young wife and the young neighbor were betraying his trust together. Or may be something actually did happen between the two young people. However it was, Narahari must have become intensely jealous and hatched a plan to take his revenge. He waited until a tiger was sighted in the vicinity. Then he killed the livestock and left the carcasses in the jungle for the tiger to feed on. He then killed his wife and the young man in that sequence. Now he needed this tiger to be killed and presented to the village in order to complete his stratagem. Bringing “the killer” to justice would close the chapter on this. No one would be the wiser.

Kinjal turned towards Narahari and the latter saw something in his eyes – the light of realization perhaps – and suddenly reached out and retrieved his machete. He then turned, grabbed a handful of Kinjal’s thick and long hair with his left hand and positioned the machete in his right hand to make a pass through Kinjal’s neck. Kinjal knew that in an instant it would be all over. Narahari’s powerful stroke was sure to slice through the most, if not the whole, of his neck. Just before Kinjal’s mind went blank he remembered his father’s teaching. With his left hand he drew his long, curved and serrated hunting knife from his belt. There was no room to swing the knife. So Kinjal simply pushed it as hard as he could into the side of Narahari’s stomach.

With a loud scream Narahari jumped. The machan gave away and they both started falling towards the ground. Kinjal tried to break his own fall by grabbing on to the lower branches as he went down. He ended up on the ground on his two feet, without any harm. He saw that Narahari had fallen hard but had quickly recovered. His machete had fallen nearby and he retrieved it. Kinjal could not see what had happened to his rifle or the hunting knife. The tiger stood very still, eyeing them from a distance of barely about ten feet. From these close quarters the tiger seemed to loom large over them.

The moment Narahari started to get up the tiger growled at him. Undaunted, Narahari stood up with his weapon raised. Upon that the tiger pounced on him. Narahari lost his balance and fell on his back. The tiger stood with its front paws planted on his chest. Narahari now struck the tiger on its back with the machete, drawing blood. The tiger bit hard into Narahari’s throat and bit off his Adam’s Apple. Narahari’s body went through a series of spasms and then went still. He became a true tiger kill.

The tiger, with its mouth still dripping blood, turned to Kinjal. For the second time in the past few minutes, Kinjal was looking at certain death. Barehanded, he was no match for this powerful creature. Almost hypnotically, he kept his eyes fixed on the eyes of the tiger. The latter now started approaching him, very slowly. When the tiger’s face was just about a two feet from Kinjal’s it stopped.

Kinjal now had a very strange sensation of absorbing the fullest and the most fascinating of mortal dangers that a shikari could ever experience. He sensed danger in the tiger’s intimate smell – one that seemed to be of a musty sweetness. He saw a strange light in the tiger’s eyes. And now the trained hunter realized that this was a female tiger, one in her prime youth. Her eyes now softened as did her entire demeanor. For nearly a minute the two held their gazes locked. Then the tigress turned and slowly walked away, never looking back again. She would never be seen in this area again.

Kinjal’s whole body went numb. As he looked at the retreating figure of the tigress, he felt that someone or some thing most dear to him was walking away from and out of his life. Just walking on away as he was watching helplessly from an incapacitated position. He was overcome by great sadness. He said a silent prayer for her recovery from that machete wound as this lone and unloved creature aimlessly roamed the vast jungles of the Sundarbans.

~^~^~^~

After that fine Chinese dinner Kinjal drove Ajopa home. This was when he gave his response, as best as he could formulate it. He said: “For you Ajopa, I could easily give up hunting, or any other hobby for that matter. There just is not any comparison. But would you be happy with it knowing that I gave up something dear to me only in order to gain you? Or would you rather that I gave up something of my own accord, for reasons unrelated to you?”

“The latter, most definitely. This is exactly why I brought the subject up in the first place. Since we cannot count on things to arrange themselves our way in nature’s own course, should we not consider where we are going with our friendship?”

“I suppose we should, Ajopa,” said Kinjal uncertainly. “I certainly won’t hold it against you if you choose to move on.”

Nothing more was said. Then, as he opened the car door for Ajopa he asked: “Are we on for next Friday?” Ajopa nodded a silent assent. Kinjal felt an emptiness within him as he watched Ajopa disappear behind the doors of her apartment building. What had become an integral part of him was now walking away from him.

~^~^~^~

When a throng of villagers appeared at first light Kinjal explained to them in minute detail what had transpired the last two nights. He then presented his theory about Narahari and the killings. He expected the villagers to express disbelief and was prepared to strenuously re-argue his case.

But the villagers all nodded in concord. Srikanta Khila then explained: “Daktar Babu, we saw no reason to tell you this in connection with the scourge of the man-eater. But we were all aware of the liaison between Janaki and Tilak. It was the village talk for the past few months. But nobody dared or wanted to tell Narahari about this. We all assumed that he was unaware of the situation and hoped this would pass without his ever knowing. You see, we all loved Janaki and Tilak.”

Another villager now took over. “Without disclosing the liaison, the village elder then told Narahari in general terms that it was not a good idea to sleep nights at the shop while his young wife slept alone in their conjugal bed. So what if a few things got stolen from the shop? What is more important? Narahari went away, looking most disturbed. Sometime after that this tiger was sighted. Then the killings began.”

Kinjal and the villagers now removed some of the bloody clothes from the kill, and examined the body. It was riddled with stab wounds. A villager took Narahari’s machete and made some fresh stab wounds with it. The two sets of slightly wedge-shaped stab wounds matched.

Kinjal was offered a hearty country breakfast of a porridge of crushed rice topped with two soft-boiled eggs and a dollop of homemade ghee. It was one of the most delicious breakfasts he had ever had. He washed it down with two mugs of tea. After a session of profuse thanksgiving from the villagers, Kinjal took his leave. Srikanta and many others came with him all the way to Namkhana. Kinjal’s car was retrieved and the villagers loaded into the trunk two large, freshly caught Rohu fish and several bottles of rare, prized honey. Then they all stopped at the Police Station to file a report on the incident. Now Kinjal was off on his long drive north. It was nearly noon.

After he had left the hustle and bustle of Namkhana behind and was on the relatively empty highway many thoughts kept crowding Kinjal’s mind. There then seemed to be a theater playing in his mind’s stage. He saw three faces floating freely, sliding across one another and forming juxtapositions of various combinations. The tigress and Ajopa he knew. The third face he assumed to be that of Janaki. He took a few deep breaths to gain his normal alertness, and decide that it was not safe for him to drive in this state of mind. As soon as he spotted a streetside teashack, he pulled up. He then sat on a rickety wooden bench in front of the shack and sipped the reviving potion.

In his professional life, Kinjal was trained to look at a set of diverse facts, collate and correlate them and then come to a definite conclusion and act on it. He did not have the luxury there of dilly-dallying or shilly-shallying or pussyfooting around. He did the same thing now. He came to two solid conclusions and proceeded to act on them.

First he called Shirish Mundra on his mobile phone and two exchanged warn amenities. Kinjal then asked him if he really was serious about acquiring Kinjal’s hunting things. Shirish sounded most pleasantly surprised. He said: “I will prepare a blank check right now. Just tell me when and I will come with a van. By the way, what all things did you want me take off your hands?”

“Everything. The guns, the trophies, the showcases. Just empty out the room.”

They made plans for Shirish to come to Kinjal’s home for breakfast tomorrow, Sunday.

Kinjal called Ajopa and apologized for missing out on the Friday evening. He said he had an important question to ask her. Would she be available for dinner tonight. Yes, she would.

Kinjal suddenly felt light-hearted and thoroughly revived. He was ready to get on his way. But he ordered another cup of tea. There was a pleasant little matter to turn over in his mind. This evening in the lobby of Calcutta Club would he ask the question from his seated position on the same sofa with Ajopa? Or should he do it the western style – get on his knees on the floor in front of Ajopa? On Saturday evening the lobby would be quite crowded. Most everybody there knew who Kinjal was. All the eyes would be upon him. What should he do?

Kinjal made up his mind. He got up and gave the shopkeeper a 20-rupee bill for two 2-rupee cups of tea and walked over to his car.

At her end Ajopa closed the line pensively and put down her mobile phone. She looked out of her window, saw the grey, prosaic cityscape and felt that the sight comforted her. She muttered to herself: “Home is the hunter…

.

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THE STORY GHOST
Bibhas De stories


The Story Ghost by Bibhas De

In the mid 1940s in Bengal the kids lived in a very different world than today's kids know. There were of course no televisions and no electronic entertainment gadgets of any kind. In most houses there were no radio sets even. Use of telephone (huge black things into which you spoke and asked the Operator for a number) for social purposes was largely unknown. Going to movies (then called Talkies, largely Black & White) was a thing of rare occurrence – once or twice a year, maybe. But they had a whole different range of things for their entertainment: Some of it was outdoors-orinented: sports, hanging out, country outings on bicycle, picnicking etc. And some activities that were indoors.


A sunday outing in old Calcutta. Photo: source unknown

As far as indoor activities went, perhaps the most favorite one was reading – reading adventure stories, mystery stories, detective stories. The sources of these books were not very extensive though. There were the school libraries and the public libraries. But these usually were not very well-stocked and one soon exhausted the possibilities there. Then came borrowing from each other. The kids from well-to- do families could build up their own home libraries, and then lend books to friends. It was implicitly understood that the richer kids had to spread their advantage. These richer kids also subscribed to monthly magazines which had most exciting collections of fresh stories, travelogues, poetry and so on. These truly were something to look forward to all month long. And especially one waited on tenterhooks for the next episodes of the serialized stories each of which – each month – invariably ended in a cliffhanger.

One such magazine – one of the leading ones – was The Bengal Adventurer, and at the time I speak of, the hottest serialized story was The Scent of Mohua, written by a pseudonymous author Sunbird . No one (except of course those who published the magazine) knew who Sunbird was. But that only increased the mystery and the fascination in the young readers. Speculations abounded on what the author was in real life – a big game hunter, a Civil Service Officer who got posted to exotic locations that provided opportunity for adventure, … etc. Was the author a male adventurer as one was apt to conclude or was the author a rare adventuress?

The Scent was a story about a young detective named Rajat Banerjee of the Lalbazar CID, the Calcutta equivalent of the Scotland Yard. He once went to the jungles of the Santhal district on his vacation to seek his ancestral roots. These roots were all tangled in deep and dark mystery. The tales of his ancestors featured fierce thuggee bandits, a cult of tiger worshippers, British sahibs looking for fabled treasures, and a colorful straw-and-clay image of a goddess with ten arms and a garland of severed heads. Rajat had heard about the rough-and-tumble life of his great grandfather in the mid 1800s and the mysterious circumstances in which he and his son and his grandson all sequentially died in the same house, at the same hour of day at the ancestral home in a sal forest outside Giridih. That home in Rajat's time lay in near ruins, and was considered to be a place of great haunting. The story started with the life and times of the great grandfather who had built this home, and worked its way down. The story now stood at the life and times of Rajat Banerjee.

On this portentous visit to his ancestral home in Giridih, Rajat set out alone on a roadtrip in the family jeep. He carried two weapons to protect himself. First his police revolver. But he was not sure about the legalities of carrying this office-issued firearm on his vacation. He figured that until and unless he actually used it on a real human being, a most unlikely prospect, no issues would arise. The weapon was there as a psychological crutch against fear. He also wore around his neck a talisman his mother gave him. It was meant to ward of all evils. Aware of the great evil that stalked Rajat's ancestry up and down the line, his mother went to the holy city of Varanasi and found a renowned priest who specially consecrated this talisman for that special purpose. It was expected to have great powers in the hour of need.

The fascination of the readership with The Scent began first as a tense, taut narrative that kept the reader fully engrossed. But after reading a few episodes, the young readers realized – or actually sensed – something else: the atmospherics. The story was set in the Santhal milieu in the Deoghar- Giridih general area. The Santhals are of course a major aboriginal tribe of India that then lived rural lives mostly, with their own distinctive culture, customs, language and even facial features. Compared to typical Bengalis, they were dark skinned people – handsome in a sunburnt way. Their habitat in this area was largely characterized by red sand expanses and sal forests. Also common here were the mohua trees whose tiny flowers suffused the air with a very sweet, nearly intoxicating scent. In fact, these flowers were used to make a fermented brew that was used as a potent hooch by the locals. So the wind in the sals, the dust cloud over the red sand and the intoxicating scent – these were the atmospherics captured in The Scent. This setting came alive for the readers as though they had been physically transported there. And the taut story wended its way through this mystical stage. Such was the power of Sunbird's narrative.


A form of the goddess Kali (c)blog.artoflegendindia.com

Indeed, the story had gripped the young readers at a very core level. There were areas of the country where mohua trees were rare. So the youngsters would ask their parents what the scent of mohua was like and how they could experience it. Then the parents had to address this issue, and that was not always easy. Not many cities had elaborate botanical gardens. There were stories about moistened clump of mohua flowers sent by mail or brought over by visiting relatives.

The parents figured here in another way as well. They did not want to let on that they read kid's stories with any kind of interest. But when the latter were asleep or at school, the parents did not waste any opportunity to catch up on the story. In fact, the consensus among them was that this was a most unusually captivating story for readers of any age.

~^~^~^~

One day that year in the first week of July, Deputy Editor Arun Sen of All Bengal Publishers, the company which published Adventurer, sat in his College Street office in Calcutta. This was the nerve center of the magazine. Arun was in charge of all the serialized features. In addition to the usual functions of a magazine editor, Arun's job came to include some unwritten ones. While keeping in constant touch with his authors to coax them the coming month's manuscript, he in fact became friends with them, and even socialized with some of them. He himself was a bachelor and lived in such cramped quarters as did not permit him to invite the authors' families for social visits. But for this very same reason the authors invited him to their homes, saying he needed some touch of home in his life. So it came to pass that Arun bacame a family friend to some of his charge.

Arun had obtained his Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Bengali Literature from the Calcutta University, and then – somewhat oddly – joined the Indian Army as a junior officer. His assignments took him far and wide – from the heights of the Himalayas to the dry sands of North Africa and on to the lush jungles of Burma. He did a nine year stint in the service, rising quickly to the rank of a Major. Then he left the military with an honorable discharge that would give him a substantial leg up in any civilian government job he wanted. But instead he chose this literary profession. From his military days adventure was already flowing in his blood and thus editing stories such as The Scent came as natural to him.

The July issue of the magazine was just out and Arun was now to concentrate on the August issue. By previous arrangement the author Sunbird was to come for a visit this morning, and hand-deliver the manuscripts for August and September. Arun always insisted on two months' worth of material at a time so that if any author would become tied up for a time due to some private reason, there would some margin of safety for the magazine to continue publishing smoothly. The meeting with Sunbird was set for eleven am, the idea being that they would finish their shop talk and then go out to lunch together.

Arun of course knew that Sunbird was a young man named Mohit Roy, nearly his own age. Mohit was by profession a Chartered Accountant who worked for himself. He helped businesses and individuals with their financial affairs, and dealt in facts and figures, balance sheets and double-entry bookkeeping, rules and regulations, taxes and levies. Working for himself made him the master of his own calendar and his own schedule. If he wanted to take off for a few days on a moment's urge, he could do so. If he wanted spend a whole day writing, he could do so. But in actuality Mohit led an uneventful life, almost to the extent of being as dull as his dry money matters and tedious government regulations. Arun felt that Mohit wrote thrilling adventure stories to complement his unusually mundane real life. It is a good thing the readers do not know who Sunbird is, thought Arun at times. They would be most disillusioned!

Mohit's parents lived in Deoghar where he spent his childhood and early youth. This is how he became steeped in the sal-mohua mystique of that area. And the adventure probably came from listening stories from his father who was a Government Land Surveyor. That meant that the father had to spend time in remote hills and dense jungles and be exposed all kinds of situations that such duties entailed. As a young boy, Mohit himself was a bookworm and not exactly an outgoing, daredevil type. Thus adventure for him was entirely a thing of the mind. He listened intently to his father's adventures and misadventures, and devloped a distant affinity for the man's life. Why he himself could not be like his father was not a thought that ever occurred to him. He did not feel lacking in any way.

Mohit had married Mohua Bose, a vivacious young lady also from the Deoghar area. Shortly after the wedding they moved to Calcutta. But it seemed that the spell of the Santhal district remained in both of them individually, and in them as a union. The two were very good together. They were at the same time friends and lovers. Arun suspected that, symbolically, the 'Mohua' in The Scent of Mohua was more the captivating wife in his home rather than it was the intoxicating flower in the wild. Perhaps in his mind Mohit transferred the adjective intoxicating to Mohua.

When Arun once raised in jest, and in Mohit’s presence, the question if Mohua the woman was the Mohua in the title of the story, Mohua said: "That is certainly a most romantic thought. But you have to ask the author!"

To this Mohit did not respond or react, maintaining his characteristic expressionless, even stolid, face. This evenness in his character was something Mohua teased him about constantly, quite openly and in presence of others. She did this good-humoredly, and it probably never occurred to her that Mohit might be hurt by this action. One of the frequent themes Mohua voiced was that she wished Mohit had in him something of the most fascinating adventurous spirit he created in his characters. There needed to be some of Rajat Banerjee's fire in Mohit himself, she would say.

Any outsider listening to such banter would not notice any reaction in Mohit. So he or she would conclude that such one-sided teasing was an accepted form of endearment for the couple. But Arun sometimes felt – for no identifiable reason – that these comments caused a deep hurt in Mohit, a hurt which cumulated. It was as though every new day that came along croaked into his ears: "You are a most boring individual. A most boring individual!"

~^~^~^~

Punctually at eleven am Mohit Roy appeared in Arun's office. Two cups of tea were ordered from the office errand boy. Mohit handed Arun two sets of manuscripts and Arun promptly locked them in a drawer of his desk, making a mental note to read them next week. By general agreement the manuscripts were to be kept secret from everyone (other than Arun himself), even the Publisher and the Editor.

Unlike the gregarious, outgoing Arun, Mohit was not a person given to exchanging elaborate pleasantries. So, with only a slight nod of head and wearing his expressionless face, he began: "When you read the new manuscripts you will see that the September issue ends with Rajat arriving at his ancestral home, now a haunted house. This is the point the story came to in its own natural flow, through no great effort of mine. But at this point I feel somewhat deficient, not knowing if I would be able to bring alive a haunted house setting. My mind is quite blank on that dimension. By a strange coincidence though, I have just learned about a real-life haunted house in a sal forest not far from Deoghar. There was a big story about it this Sunday in the magazine section of The Calcuttan. I have decided to go and spend a night there. That way, for the first time, I will have some rea-life experience or some real feel of my own to write from. Some excitement, for a change."

Mohit stopped and looked at Arun somewhat sadly, which was completely uncharacteristic of his familiar expressionless mien. This reaffirmed in Arun's mind how emotionally handicapped Mohit must have felt at being seen as a dull individual. It was rather painful for Arun to see a most proud man show his emotions this awkward way.

Mohit now asked: "What do you think of the idea?"

"It is a most intriguing idea, more so because of the uncanny coincidence you mentioned. Quite frankly, I don't know what to make of this – of the idea itself and of the idea as it comes from you in particular. But tell me, why are you doing this? This is not like you. Are you truly doing it from some inner urge for literary exploration, or are you doing it for some other reason?"

"Well, you are a friend and I don't mind telling you. I want to start changing things about me so that I may prove more worthy of Mohua."

"That is not a good reason at all, Mohit! I don't think Mohua would approve either. My sense – if I may make an intrusive comment, since you yourself have broached the subject – is that Mohua loves you just the way you are. If she teases you, it is purely out of that love. There is certainly no real intent behind the teasing."

Arun paused for a moment to let that bit sink in and then, when Mohit did not give a response, continued: "Haunted houses are really never haunted as such. It is that people who hold vigil there become psyched by the surroundings. Their minds play tricks on them. The ghosts they then create themselves. For this reason alone, one must be of very strong mettle to do something like this. I think you should drop the idea. As far as the magazine is concerned, this is not necessary at all. We are very happy with how The Scent is unfolding, and I am sure however it unfolds from here on would be fine."

"Thank you for your genuine concern for me, Arun. But I still think this experience will make the story unfold much better. Breathe more life into it, that is. I am leaving tomorrow for a couple of days. The feature article on the haunted house has given good directions to it, and it is reportedly abandoned. So I can just go there on the spur of the moment without having to make any prior arrangements. I told Mohua that I am going to visit my parents in Deoghar. She is not to know anything more. You are the only one I am telling about the visit to the haunted house."

"Well, if your mind is made up ... ," said Arun without finishing that sentence. "Let us know if we can help in any way. The journal could pick up the tab for this trip, but on second thought I think we better not get into this officially."

"Thank you. I will come round and let you know how it went as soon as I return."

"OK, enough shop talk. Let's go and have a spot of lunch at the University Canteen and relive our student days."

During lunch, Arun asked Mohit to take all possible precautions. After lunch they parted. As Arun saw Mohit's back disappear round the YMCA Building at the corner of College Street and Bowbazar Street, the former felt a deep sense of compassion, tinged with an unknown foreboding.Why was he, Arun, not more forceful in trying to head off this ill-conceived and strange plan?

~^~^~^~

That meeting had taken place on a Wednesday. On the next Monday, Arun came to his office a little late and found Mohua Roy waiting for him. She was accompanied by a young man whom Arun knew to be her brother. Arun at first was most surprised. Then, when he looked at Mohua closely, he saw that her face had a puffed look – one that comes when a woman composes herself momentarily from a bout of weeping. And when he saw that the vermilion dot on her forehead – a mark of married woman – was not there today, he understood that something terrible had happened. He sat down heavily in his chair.

Arun was at a loss how to begin. But the brother started speaking. He quickly explained that Mohit was in a traffic accident just as he was coming home from the Railway Station on his return from Deoghar. He was taken to a hospital, but he did not survive. The brother and the sister came to see Arun on Mohit’s specific instruction that Arun was to be informed immediately if his return from Deoghar was somehow delayed.

Arun was devastated. An intimate friend of long standing had died suddenly and died very young. Arun himself had a vague premonition about this trip but had not acted forcefully on it. Furthermore, Mohit had wanted, out of some deep-seated pain, to become that which was not his nature. And in doing so he had perished. It was an odd thing though – Arun continued to think – that Mohit had actually survived the haunted house of Deoghar fine (and how brave he must have been!), but was felled by a freak occurrence here in Calcutta!

Arun realized that this event would also throw the magazine into a tizzy. But that problem could wait. For now, Arun offered the widow the help of the company and of himself personally – any help the widow needed. Without further words the brother and the sister left – their heads held low. The scene broke Arun's heart. The widow must not be much older than in her mid twenties, Arun knew. In those days the remarriage of a widow was frowned upon by the society, and was thus rare. The prospects were that this young woman, so bubbling with life, would spend the rest of her life alone and in society-imposed nunnery-like austerity.

Arun spent that day in great grief and could not attend to any work. He decided to sleep on this matter before breaking the news to his colleagues tomorrow. He set up a meeting with the Publisher and the Editor for the next morning. This would be a very important meeting, for the Sunbird name stood behind a substantial portion of the magazine’s circulation.

He now closed the door of his office, sat on his chair with his feet propped on the desk and read the August and the September manuscripts of The Scent. As always he became most engrossed. But when he came to the end of the September manuscript – the place where Mohit left things off before he went to Deoghar – Arun felt a cold shiver. It was as though Mohit was trying to speak to Arun through the manuscript, but the latter could not figure out what the message was.

Or was it that the story itself was trying to speak to him?! He felt even a colder shiver. Arun's thoughts now ran thus: How can a story speak?! That is just silly. But then again, The Scent is in evidence as having enormous tangible power on humans. It engages youngsters; it sends them looking for the actual scent of mohua; it builds bonds among them; it makes them wait for the mailman; it makes them fancy themselves as becoming great adventurers. What if the story were trying to write itself, the events that are unfolding being just its instrument?

Arun sat numb for a good half an hour. Then he went out to the office tearoom and got a cup of tea. Sipping it revived him and he snapped out of his morose musings. He now smiled to himself: A story has as much power as we give it. We can psyche ourselves into thinking that it has power over us but we can also deny it that power.

With his composure restored thus, Arun read portions of the manuscript again, slowly and thoughtfully this time.

~^~^~^~^~

.....

As Rajat stood facing the brick house, crumbling around the edges but otherwise mostly intact, dusk began to set in. This timing was unplanned and undesirable. He had wanted to enter the house for a quick look and be out of it while it was still stark daylight. But the car trouble on the road had set him behind by nearly three hours. And now it was precisely that that portentous hour which he wanted to avoid. This was when all the past deaths had occurred here. In fact, the view of the house with darkness descending round it seemed now to make real for Rajat that portent.

Rajat quickly reviewed the history of the house in his mind. This was his ancestral home in the sal forest near the small town of Giridih. It was built by his great grandfather who had a logging business. Why in this deep jungle? Because the man reportedly liked the seclusion. Others said he conducted an illegal trade in hooch and opium. He was a worshipper of the goddess Kali and made animal scarifices to her, in the hope of achieving propsperity. Story has it that he escalated this ritual and once made a human sacrifice. This was when and how the house began to be haunted.

One day at dusk the great grandfather was found dead, inside the Kali Temple, which was just a part of the large house and located in the rear. His body was found in the prone position, with his neck captivated in the wood U-bracket in which animal necks were secured for beheading. Otherwise, the cause of death could not be determined. There were no injuries to his body. So the doctor who examined him simply wrote heart failure as the cause of death. But the rumor mill held that just as the evil spirit of the house was about to behead him, he died of sheer fright. The beheading stroke of the sword then became unnecessary.

Rajat's grandfather took over the business and thrived for a while. But after a few years he was found dead at the evening prayer hour, in exactly the same posture and same manner as his father. Again, the cause of death was written down as heart failure.

Rajat's father had broke away from this milieu and worked as an engineer in Dhaka. But something drew him to make a nostalgic visit, all by himself. He reportedly set out from his hotel in Giridih at an hour that would put him in the house just at dusk. Nobody knew why he chose that hour. He never returned. He was found dead, seated at the round dining table, with his head on the table as if he were asleep. The death was ascribed to a bad heart. The attending doctor noted, based only on the stories, that heart disease was hereditary in this family. This made the cause of death more rational to those who wanted to avoid having to invoke supernatural causes .

And now the third generation was here at the door and the hour was again at dusk. Rajat felt somewhat sapped of energy, and more importantly, composure. That composure which never left him earlier. Not when he stalked dangerous criminals at night, not when he saw gory murder scenes. He debated whether to turn back, without visiting the inside of the house. When he nearly made up his mind to do just that, suddenly a lamp came on inside the house. This was most confusing for Rajat, for as far as knew this was a house long abandoned – left to rot in the elements. But now it definitely looked like someone had lit an evening lamp – a hurricane lantern most likely, judging from the unsteady nature of the light.

Rajat now mustered just enough courage to walk up to the door and knock on it. There was no sound from inside the house. But the change of light through the glass windows suggested someone was coming to the door, carrying the lantern. Now it seemed like that person had reached the other side of the door and was standing there. Rajat knocked again.

To be continued …

~^~^~^~^~

As Arun put down the manuscript, another thought came to him. Although nothing had happened to Mohit in the haunted house in Deoghar, that experience had to have left some impression in Mohit’s mind. Was he perhaps absent-minded, resulting in the accident that claimed his life? Arun needed now to read the account of the haunted house in the The Calcuttan. In fact, he admonished himself that he should have read it just after Mohit's visit that Wednesday.

He went to his office's Reading Room which kept old issues of newspapers for a month. He easily found that Sunday Magazine Mohit mentioned and the article was very prominent there, with an eerie photo of a sal fores serving as its frontispiece. Arun read the article through within a very short time, and then re-read the portions he found most interesting, in a slower pace.

~^~^~^~^~

.....

The house was built around 1905 by the British India Forestry Department to serve as a field research station. It is located in a clearing in an otherwise dense sal forest and was easily reached from Deoghar by automobile, rickshaw or bicycle. A bridle road branches from the main paved road and enters the forest. After about two miles into the forest there is a sign by the road, pointing to the building. From the road to the building is about fifteen minutes’ walk along a forest trail. The trail accommodates rickshaws and bicycles.

It is a two-story brick-and-mortar building, built in the shape of the letter H. On one side of the connector of the H is the main entrance. The rectangular niche area in front of entrance flanked by the two arms of the H served as a place to park bicycles and rickshaw vans, and as a staging area for experiments before the researchers would venture into the deep of the forest. The corresponding niche area on the rear of the house was then a flower garden with walks and benches. As one entered through the main door, one was in a landing area. From this rose a broad staircase, ending in a landing upstairs. As one stood on the downstair landing and facing the staircase, there was a large dining hall to his right, and a communal sitting area to his left. The dining area led to the kitchen and the pantry. The sitting room led to a a number of laboratories. The upstairs contained the living quarters – single room in a row – fronted by a long balcony.

When the house was being planned, there was standing at the location a very large and very old mohua tree which flowered prolifically each season. When the architect saw this, he decided to leave the tree alone and to build the house partly under the tree's canopy. Today, nearly half the house is shaded by the canopy. The result is that the entire house in the flowering season is suffused with the smell of mohua as if this smell were an integral part of what the house is – a part of its personality, so to speak. The canopy also casts a light-and-dark shadow-work that lends an eerie quality to this personality.

Around about the time this field research station was being built, the famed Bengali scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose had discovered plant life – how planrts react to various stimuli just like living creatures. The research in this building had something to do with this. But the uneducated local populace – living in the nearby villages – put their own spin on what little they had heard about what went on in the house, and on what little they understood of this. The story that thus formed was that scientists in the house were tampering with souls of trees; they were exchanging souls between mohua and sal trees; and things in that vein.

One late evening some kids armed with alta – the women's cosmetic dye – and white lime paste sneaked in and painted a graffiti on the side of the house in large white-on-red letters: Deoghar Soul Exchange. This particular color scheme and the style of lettering matched a prominent building in town with the large and high signboard: Deoghar Telephone Exchange. The scientists found this graffiti most amusing and decided to leave it be. In time this name also became a part of that personality.

By early nineteen twenties, for various reasons, the Forestry Department closed down the facility and put up the house for sale. But because of its remote location and perhaps also because of the pesona of the house, no one wanted to buy it. At last the Department hired a caretaker to live in the house and take care of it. This way they put off the decision what to do with this property.

The caretaker, a young Santhal named Ramchand Kisku, moved into the house with his new bride Sonali. He in effect became the master of the manor. The entire building was his domain, both "Upstairs" and "Downstairs". He could make whichever room he wanted his bedroom, whichever room wanted his workroom, etc. Sonali could have her own workroom, dressing room – whatever she wanted. The Forestry Department remitted Ramchand his salary and the cost of upkeep of the property by mail, but otherwise had no involvement in this.

As the couple settled in here, they were also settling into their wedded life. They were discovering each other as they were discovering the house together. And the two discoveries mingled and became as one. The conjugal life became scented with mohua and suffused with the aura of the house. Ramchand, in particular, was all over this huge building on any given day – not only as a paid caretaker but as a true keeper. It became so that he was not comfortable being away from the house long. He longed to come back to this source place, this mohua-scented light-and-dark chiaroscuro. He minimized his trips to the market, to the post office etc and spent most of his time in and around the house. Friends and family came visiting occasionally. The couple would then give them a most elaborate tour. The visitors would be fascinated to see what the newlyweds had made of their life – poetry encased in hard concrete and rhymed in soft vegetation.


Mohua tree (c) Sukant Kumar Biswas

But disaster befell this life. Late one night as the couple was pleasurably asleep, a dacoit broke into the house with very evil intentions. He carried a heavy sword and was quite fearless. He did not bother even to be unobtrusive. He simply broke down the front door with a tremendous thud. Ramchand was awakened by this sound and saw the dacoit on the downstairs landing from the upper floor. In whispers he convinced Sonali, against her protestations, to leave the house and hide herself in the sal forest. The dutiful caretaker then came down with a long stick and confronted the dacoit. A fierce battle ensued on the staircase and Ramchand was mortally wounded. The dacoit scoured the house, but could not find anyone else or anything worth stealing. He left.

Sonali hid in the forest until first light. She then came gingerly into the house and found her husband lying in a pool of blood, quite lifeless. She became hysterical and ran from the house. The villagers would find her and take her to her parents' home. There she remained, never again setting foot in this house. Later that day, the villagers got together and creamated Ramchand’s body in a place right next to the house, under the mohua tree's shade and smell.

The story of this gruesome murder spread apace and was then assimilated into the legend of the house itself. Ramchand's soul had become one with the persona of the house and hovered there with great longing for his newfound, unrequited love. There were stories of strange noises and sightings, but none of them could be confirmed. The house – with its broken front door never repaired and the growth of vegetation never checked anymore – took on an increasingly sinister look. The Forestry Department simply abandoned the house.

A few months later a young British military Captain was passing through Deoghar and heard the story. That got his curiosity aroused, for he was a muscular he-man up for any challenge to his manhood or his courage. He found an interpreter and visited the village home of Sonali. He wanted to know everything she could possibly tell him about the house. After some reticence and bashfulness, Sonali became forthcoming – and upon the sahib's elaborate questioning – revealed as much as she could about the special character of the house. The sahib then promised to come back and tell her what transpired there, after he had pent night in the house.

There are no accounts available of the sahib's vigil that night, but he clearly emerged unscathed. It appeared that the night was uneventful. What is known is that the sahib visited Sonali Kisku in the morning to give her a report on the vigil.

But only a few days later it emerged that something probably did happen during that night, something that had a delayed effect. For the Captain Sahib and Sonali Kisku eloped together. This was a most strange and unusual occurrence in itself. But it was even more so, considering that the two did not speak each other’s language and came from diametrically opposite social, cultural, educational and national backgrounds.

However, for the village storyspinners meeting in shanty teashops or shooting the breeze by the river landing it all fit perfectly. A soul exchange had taken place during that night. The sahib remained sahib, but became imbued with the soul of Ramchand – with all his unrequited longings and his desires. It was now the daredevil sahib’s soul that was on the loose among the scent of the mohua in that house.

....

~^~^~^~^~

That account, as engrossing a ghost story as it was, had an even greater effect on Arun. For it was now personal to him. Mohit had read exactly the same account and was impelled to do what he did. And the result was what it was. What was it about the narrative that drew Mohit to the haunted house like a bee to a flowering mohua tree? Even against his own nature.

Arun felt most restless as he walked out of his office building. The streets were bustling with the evening shoppers and strollers and homeward bound office workers. Arun decided to go to the College Square Pond and walk round it. Doing this always cleared his head. But his thoughts now moved from the mystery surrounding Mohit's death to the sad plight of the young widow Mohua, and thence to the mohua tree, the mohua flower, the mohua-scented house of desire, Deoghar Soul Exchange.

The more Arun thought, the more it came to him that here was one issue on which action, not musing, was needed. It called for the soldier in him to rise to the occasion. An idea started to form in his mind. At first he was taken aback to see the shape of that idea. But then he gradually let it work on him. He did not feel so oppressed anymore. In fact, he began to feel energetic. He decided to walk over to the Basanta Cabin around the corner and have his dinner, and then go home and think about the haunted house issue as he drifted off to sleep. In fact he felt so sure of his line of action that he now treated himself with a feast of Mughlai Parothas, Mutton Curry and a generous supply of milked, syrupy sweet tea.

~^~^~^~

The Publisher and the Editor were already seated in the Meeting Room, and were chitchatting. They had no idea what this meeting was about. As Arun entered the room, the look on his face told them this was something serious. When they heard the news of Mohit's death, they were stunned. More so when they further heard about the manner of Mohit's death. Arun told them about Mohit's visit to the haunted house, and asked them to keep this in confidence.

Mohit was personally known to all of them, and so there was a period of expressing genuine personal sadness and of reminiscing. But then, the business implications had to be discussed. The publisher cleared his throat and said: "Mohit accounts for something like 20% of our circulation, and that number is on the rise. This is a potential disaster for the magazine. How much time do we have to act?"

Arun replied: "We have manuscripts for August and September on hand. So there is no great urgency to act right this minute. I was wondering – if this were possible – if it would be okay for us to maintain the Sunbird pseudonym and have another author write the stories? What are the legalities?"

The Editor knew about such things. He said: "We have no obligation to disclose to the readership that the author behind the pseudonym has changed. In fact, the young readers would probably rather not know. But we have to clear this with the estate of Mohit, which probably is just his wife. If she signs papers giving us the license to use that name, we will be all right. So the real sticking point would be: Could we even find an author who could pick up seamlessly from Mohit?"

"Not very easily," said Arun. "But we must try. As a backup plan, if we do have to terminate the serial with the September issue, then it should probably have a substantial article on Mohit himself, his life, his personality, etc. The readers would almost require it. Mohit told me that he was going to the haunted house to formulate his ideas for the October issue and beyond. Therefore, I would like to go visit that place and do some asking around to find out exactly what went on there. I could also visit his parents while in Deoghar. Somehow I think we owe this to our young readers."

The other two men considered this point silently. The Publisher, who was a shrewd businessman, now formulated his remarks as he verbalized them: "Certainly it sounds like a good idea. You can certainly make it a business trip. The purpose would be information gathering for the said article."

The Editor and Arun understood what he was saying, and no one wanted to elaborate on that. What he was saying is that if Arun took any risks – such as spending the night in the haunted house himself – the magazine was not responsible. That was what Arun expected. So the meeting ended with his getting approval for his proposal. It was now up to him.

~^~^~^~

Over the next few days Arun had several occasions to visit Mohua at her home over business matters related to what to do with the money that was coming to Mohit and the legal matters related to rights to Mohit's serials. Mohua had composed herself somewhat, and was able to carry on a discussion. In fact, she seemed relieved to have something useful to do in connection with Mohit's pending affairs. She would even offer Arun tea and they would even digress to general conversation. Arun felt his sorrow for her turning slowly to empathy and then to affection. He felt Mohua was receptive to his unspoken gestures of consoling and reassuring.

As Arun's mind became more and more full of Mohua, he suddenly saw the 'haunted house issue' become crystal clear to him. Of course! Mohit was hoping to have a soul exchange with the daredevil sahib in that house. He wanted to come back with a dimension of bravery added to his persona so that Mohua would finally be fully pleased with him. Mohit to her would become a complete man. On that realization, Arun also felt relieved to realize that Mohua would never know about this. If she knew what Mohit did to please her, she might lose her composure forever.

So the superstitious story concocted by some villagers over decades has now achieved a life of its own, mused Arun.

~^~^~^~

It was not just that Arun spent nine years as a military officer in various remote places. He actually saw 'action' – real blood and real gore. One time he was with a platoon lost in the desert of North Africa that found an abandoned mud fortress which a local man said was a haunted house of great virulence. They spent a few nights there anyway. A few in their party claimed to have seen and heard things. So the haunted house to Arun was not an entire abstraction. And he knew firsthand what fear was and what courage was. The idea of spending a night in the haunted house in Deoghar did not faze him at all. And he was not going to tell his employers about the night vigil. Or anyone else, for that matter.

He arrived in Deoghar railway station in the early afternoon and immediately went to the local distributor for All Bengal Publishers. Arun knew this man slightly and the latter was happy to see him. Over a welcoming cup of tea Arun asked if he could borrow a bicycle until tomorrow morning. Of course, the man had two bicycles of his own and one was at hand right there. Arun set out immediately, placing his small overnight bag on the carrier.

He stopped at snackshop and had a substantial meal which was to sustain him until the next morning – if that morning would come to him. He had a thermos in his overnight bag, and he asked the shopkeeper to fill it with as many cups of tea as it would hold. He had already found the road he now had to take out of town, the Deoghar-Giridih Road, and started off towards the 'location.'

Arun easily found the marker on the main road – a milepost – and turned into the bridle road that headed into the depths of the sal forest. It was now nearly five pm, and dusk had started to set in. After about two miles Arun saw to his left, and in the distance, the general outline of a large building. There was also a fading Forestry Department signboard pointing to the house. He left the bridle road and started pedaling along the forest trail. The bicycle had an electric lamp that operated from the tire’s motion, and this helped him see where he was going.

As Arun now stood facing the frontage of the house, he took in those elements of the house that created in one's mind the dark portent of a haunted house. There was the mohua tree, covering nearly all of the house's roof terrace. A faint organic smell was in evidence. A very gentle breeze. There was the shadow effect with a slight chill in it. There was the house's dilapidated look, with the front door wide open. The brave soldier in Arun registered all these as normal facts and observations – nothing to do with anything supernatural. He walked through the front door like a resolute visitor.

The scene inside was close to the image he had in his mind from reading the account in The Calcuttan. He noticed, to his right as he entered, an oblong dining table with perhaps two dozen chairs around it. The table and the chairs were all made of wood, now rotting. No one thought to steal these – so useless were they. The table was quite long compared to its width. Arun decided that this was where he would hold his vigil. Indeed this seemed to be the only place in the decaying house where one could seat himself down for any length of time.

He moved the only one chair that seemed to be mechanically sturdy to a point about the middle of the length of the table. Using his handkerchief, he dusted the chair and a space on the table in front of the chair. From his duffle bag he now took out the thermos, a pack of candles, two candle stands and a match box. He lit two candles and fixed them on to the candle stands. Arun now walked to the front door and shut the door panels as well as he could. He decided against exploring the rest of the house in this darkness which was now palpable.

Arun placed the two lit candles some distance apart on the dining table. The whole table could be seen in this unsteady light, and also most of the dining room. Then he poured himself some tea in the cap of the thermos. He found sipping this tea most reviving. He began in his mind rationalizing every sound that could be heard now – the forest sounds, the house sounds, the wind sounds, unidentifiable sounds.

Without any effort on his part, the history of the house as he knew it started playing out in his mind. Ramchand and his new bride and their discovery of each other; the caretaker becoming almost an organic part of this mohua-laced house; the dreadful night; the widow's agony; the sahib's night vigil. As this play reached the Act containing the visit of Mohit, even Arun felt a little queasy. Mohit must have been sitting at this very table. What happened then? Did he achieve that which he hoped to achieve? If he did, how did it happen, and did it happen right here, right at this table? Also, how did it happen to the sahib?

After a period some musing and some sitting still and some fidgeting, Arun looked at his wristwatch. It was only just after eleven. He had the whole night ahead of him, with nothing to occupy himself with. He decided to listen closely to the night sounds again. As before, most of the sounds he could identify, a few not. He realized that a weaker person in his place might make something supernatural of these unexplained sounds. But to him they were just unexplained sounds. Nothing thus far about this house disconcerted Arun in the least. He remembered what he told Mohit: Haunted houses are haunted because people psyche themselves to believe so. So far tonight this had proved to be true.

Arun now decide to come to terms with himself with regard to a certain issue he had been keeping out of his mind. It needed to be acknowledged and faced. Why did Arun himself come here? Surely he was not by nature a person to be drawn to a haunted house. Yet he came here for a reason.

Arun liked Mohua. If, after a decent interval of mourning, he proposed marriage to her, she would probably accept. The society would probably frown upon such a marriage, but they would come around. After all, friends and acquaintaces of both of them liked them well. They would want them to be happy.

But somehow Arun felt that a Mohua won in this way was not enough for him. He wanted that deeply genuine love of Mohua for Mohit, that love which made teasing an endearing thing. Surely such love in a woman's heart rose for one man only and once only. Arun would never be the object of it, no matter how well Mohua might accept him and how dearly she might love him.

Arun suddenly felt mentally and physically spent. He felt intensely sleepy. He could not resist anymore. He figured that, after all, there was no reason for him not to have a nap. It would help pass the time. He put his arms on the table to fashion a pillow and rested his head on them. He started to drift to sleep. The candles kept vigil.

Arun felt himself gradually sink through layers of sleep. First the layer of light sleep where he was still vaguely aware of his surroundings, of where he was and what hour it was and who he was. Then the layer of dreams where he dreamed mostly of Mohua in a mohua-scented arbor. Then he was in the layer of deep dreamless sleep. But then he felt sinking through even that bottom layer and reach a layer he had not known before. He was now out in the open sal forest. The hour was dusk, and the light was dim. Over the faint smell of mohua was the even fainter sound of temple music. Then he saw apparitions. They matched his mental images of the characters in The Scent. They were promenading in the forest. Rajat was the most visible, walking around him in a circle, as if wanting something from him. Then he noticed the swarm of butterfiles flitting round. Some started buzzing him. He observed them for a while and realized they were undulating sentence fragments. He reached out with his open palm and after a few tries, caught one. It said: To be continued. He released it and caught another. It said: Continued from previous issue. A third one said: The talisman protects from all evil.

Arun continued to play this game until he realized what was all around him, what this whole magic forest was. It was just the story The Scent.! It had come off the printed pages and become an ethereal forest. And in this whole forest was a single supplication. It was wanting something from him. It was wanting to be kept alive, and it was wanting him to do this.

It was a night bird’s harsh call, Arun thought, that penetrated through all the layers of sleep and brought him up to the awakened state. The room now was rather dark. One of the candles had burned completely and the other was on the verge of flickering out. Still dazed from sleep, Arun wondered what time it was. As he lifted his head from the table to look at his wristwatch, his eyes caught a movement at the far end of the table. There at the head of the table was seated Mohit. Next to him sat a young Santhal man. They were peering at him intently. The Santhal now nudged Mohit, and pointing his finger, urged Mohit to go to Arun. Mohit stood up, turned the corner of the table, and kept approaching Arun – coming closer, and closer, and closer…

~^~^~^~

"I think I can take over as Sunbird, and continue the series. I think I can make it so that no one will know the difference," said Arun as he was having a business lunch with the Editor and the Publisher on his return from Deoghar.

The two listeners seemed both surprised by this idea. But the Editor was the first to recover. He said: "If anyone can pull this off, you can. Now that I think about it, this is the best solution."

"I agree," said the Publisher.

"There is another idea I have. We could turn the past serials of Mohit into books if Mohua agrees."

Again, both men agreed most enthusiatstically and authorized Arun to make a deal with Mohua.

This led to a number of planning meetings between Arun and Mohua in his office. Then they started to go for walks around the College Square Pond. There were always people there but rarely within earshot. This was a good opportunity for private conversation. Mohua seemed to be most receptive to the suggestion of such walks.

After each such walk, Arun felt energized to sit in his office and work on the maniscript of The Scent. When he finished the draft of the October issue, he showed them to the Editor. The later read this immediately and as soon as he finished, he came rushing to Arun's office. "This is beyond belief! Mohit himself could not have done better."

So it was that the actual authorship of the series was seamlessly transferred while the anonymous authorship remained the same. No one among the readership had any inkling. The Sunbird serials continued to be a roaring success. Two books had also come out and were strong commercial successes. There was now talk of making movies.

~^~^~^~

The day after the October issue came out, the Editor walked into Arun's office and sat down. He often did that for idle chitchat. Arun liked the man and also respected him. He found the Editor to be most intelligent and astute person, always quick to see all the various dimensions of an issue. He was now holding two cups of tea and he gave one to Arun. He said: "You know, I have been thinking about this whole business we went through with The Scent. There are things about it that still puzzle me."

"The same here. But let's hear what you have in mind."

"Well, first off, the odd decision by Mohit to go to the haunted house. This is not only odd as it stands, but even odder considering who Mohit was – a most even-keel, make-no-change person. Second, your decision to go to Deoghar, a decision which clearly led you to become Sunbrd yourself. That thought would not have ocurred to any of us. And of course you have not told us anything about your visit to the haunted house, but it seems to me that the October episode somehow came right out of there!"

"Those are also the points I was thinking on. But I don't have any rational explanation."

"It is strange. Knowing what I know about this entire business, only one thing makes sense. It almost seems – and don't laugh – that The Scent, when it came to the September issue, anticipated the course it would take and did not like it. It is as though it impelled Mohit to do something that caused a change of authorship. Then it impelled you to go to Deoghar, and to decide to take the story over. And now the story is alive and well again, with you charting the course. You have captured the haunted house aura in a powerful way that Mohit might not have been capable of. The story might well have faltered."

"No, I am not laughing. You are saying that the story itself is the ghost. All the ghosts in the haunted house of Deoghar and the haunted house of Giridih, Mohit, I - we are its instruments. The story is the Ghostmaster!"

They both sat in silence for a long while, not even mindful enough to sip the tea that was getting cold.

~^~^~^~

When it was coming up on a year since Mohit's death, Arun invited Mohua for a walk. There he made bold to propose to her: "It is nearly a year since Mohit left us. I don't know when the time will be propitious – perhaps never – but I will assume that this is a proper juncture for me to say what I long wanted to say to you. I should like to spend the rest of my life with you if you will have me."

Mohua was silent for a long while, leaving Arun unsure as to what to expect. He felt afraid he might have moved too soon. But then she spoke: "Arun, there is this strange feeling I have developed over the months that when I am with you, I am with Mohit. I mean, in a very real sense. I cannot explain this. But I feel I cannot live my life without you in it. Not a day, not an hour, not a minute. You are everything to me that Mohit was."

Mohua then gave that mischievous twinkle of her eyes which Arun was so familiar with. "Just about the only thing I would change about you is to have you a little less gregarious and a little more placid ... ."

~^~^~^~

When the October issue of Adventurer came in the mail, youngsters all over the country pounced on it. For many it was expected to arrive on a Saturday when school was off, and they sat on the stoop waiting for the mailman.The mailing jacket was quickly but carefully ripped off, and the new- smelling magazine opened to the correct page. With bated breath, they read the continuing saga of Rajat Benerjee.

~^~^~^~^~

Continued from the previous issue:

Rajat waited for the door to be opened by whomever was on the other side. Sure enough, he now heard the bolt being slid open on the inside. Slowly the door panel opended inward. Rajat waited for the person on the other side to appear and face him. He stood ready with an explanation of his unannounced visit.

The door opened fully. There was no one on the other side, but the hurricane lantern had been placed on the floor. Rajat looked around, and called out. No one could be seen and no one answered. He picked up the lantern and proceeded inside the house.

Past the next door and in the distance, he could now see the door to the Temple, it's doors wide open. It framed the image of the goddess whose brilliant colors – though faded now – could still catch the eyes. The kharga, the crescent-shaped broad sword, in one of her ten hands looked tarnished with age, but still most ominous. Her garland of severed heads descended almost to the floor. On the floor in front of the goddess, the beheading block with the U-bracket standing upright, ready to receive the next sacrifice.

To Rajat's left was a large hall with a dining table at the center – a round table with half a dozen chairs set around it. To the right of him was a spacious room that looked like a livingroom. The knowledge that his ancestor must have frequented these two places gave Rajat pause.

He decided that he had seen enough, given the urgency of return imposed on him by the growing darkness. The urgency became even more acute when he saw the flame of the lantern flicker. Was it out of fuel? As if to answer that thought, the flame now flickered out. He was immersed in darkness in a completely unfamiliar setting, with nothing in his possession to shed light on it. Almost instinctively, Rajat now touched the butt of the revolver on his belt and then the talisman hanging from a thread round his neck, inside his shirt front.

Rajat could see the outline of the front door clearly, and he started walking towards it. Presently, he stumbled. But someone caught his wrist. That someone now lead him by the wrist for several steps until Rajat realized that he was being ushered to the dining table. He felt a chair slid under him. He pulled it towards the table and sat on it.

Somehow the lamp now flickerd again and came alive. It was not where Rajat had left it, but at the center of the dining table. The light, just enough to take the edge off the dark, showed the visage of the three diners seated round the table. Rajat recognized his father and his grandfather. The third one was obviously his great grandfather. He had a big bushy head of hair, bloodshot eyes and a generally fierce look about him of fearsome thugee dacoits of children's story books. The three seemed to be conversing, but there was no sound. They were all peering at him. Now the great grandfather signaled to the grandfather to proceed. The grandfather looked at the father, then pointed the finger first at Rajat and then towards the Temple.

Rajat's father got up and held Rajat by the wrist. The former got up and followed his father as the latter led him to the Temple. The two others followed. Once inside the Temple, the three men of the house performed some type of worship ritual as Rajat stood by. He had lost all will of his own. In the back of his mind he knew he had come here alone, and there was no chance of anyone coming to rescue him. At the same time, he also felt he belonged together with these three men. They clearly bore him no ill will. Drawing his revolver on them was out of the question.

The ritual ended, Rajat's father came to him and with an affectionate gesture that Rajat remembered well, ran the palm of his right hand over Rajat's head. Then all the men stood in a row as the goddess seemed to come to life. All her ten arms started flailing, slowly at first and then wildly. One of the arms handed the kharga to the great grandfather. Now, one by one, the severed heads started smiling. The goddess now pointed with one of her hands to Rajat, and then with another hand to the severed head garland. She wanted Rajat's head added there. For the first time in his life, Rajat experienced stark, pure fright.

The grandfather then led Arun by the hand to the U-bracket and signaled that the grandson should kneel down and put his neck in the bracket. Rajat knelt down and rested his neck in the contraption. The grandfather locked it there by the sliding a wooden pin. As he was doing so, Rajat felt his talisman slip out from inside his shirt front and hang freely from his neck – clearly visible to any bystander. Rajat now saw his great grandfather hand the kharga to his father. The father positioned himself next to the beaheading block, assuming the striking posture. Thoroughly incapacitated by fright now, Rajat steeled himself mentally and decided that whatever happened he would not be seen as dying out of fright. His mother, whose pride and joy he was, was not to know that he died of fright. Not this time, not this generation. There was going to be no heart failure this time. The cause of death would have to be beheading, by person or persons unknown.

The father raised the kharga above his head, and before bringing it down for the fell swoop, fixed his eyes on Rajat's neck area to target his strike properly.

To be continued.

Back to index

THE LIGHT HERDER OF SHAMA-I-MAZAR
Bibhas De stories


Bibhas De stories

Strictly speaking, this is not a Bagchi Brothers story, for the brothers were not present during the 'main event' nor did they ever know what transpired there. On the other hand Sayan and Deep did set things in motion – in their own particular way – and in that sense it is their story. At the time Sayan was probably about fourteen and so Deep about twelve. But let us start with the principal, Muneer Ali, the young professor of Chemistry at the G. C. College in Silchar.

Muneer was born and brought up in Silchar. He studied there all the way to his Bachelor's Degree, and then went to Calcutta to receive his Master's Degree. It was here that he met Abeer Khatoun and fell in love. Abeer gave up her cherished metropolitan lifestyle and came to live in Silchar which, without meaning any derogation, could be described as a provincial small-town then. Here Muneer found the position at the G. C. College and Abeer was welcomed as a teacher of English at the Government Girls' High School. So the life of the newlyweds was full in every respect. If people did not use the term 'ideal couple' that was only because they did not want to attract any ill omen with too much talk of perfection.

The Alis lived in a small but elegant home near Gandhi Baag, the town's central park and festival ground. Muneer's family was distantly related to the Bagchi family by an inter-religion marriage, and so there was social visiting back and forth between the two households. And that had led to the special relationship between the brothers and Muneer. He became something of a science advisor to the adventuring brothers. There had been times when – on a Saturday or a Sunday – Muneer took the brothers to his college laboratory and the three performed some experiments together.

In time Sayan and Deep came to like the man well, and saw him as an adult friend. This tie became even stronger as the brothers learned from Muneer's mother who came visiting from Sylhet where she now lived, that as a young boy, Muneer was much like the brothers in his love for adventuresome exploits. A few stories were also around, including one about when Muneer briefly became an apprentice of an itinerant Moslem holy man of mysterious persona.

Muneer liked having become something of a role model for the brothers. Whenever he would meet them, he would inevariably greet them with the ebullient greeting: "Ah Holmes and Watson, I see!" Abeer also took a great fancy to the boys. This meant that sometimes the Alis would invite just Sayan and Deep to come spend a leisurely day with them, in addition to the occasional socializing between the two families. To Sayan and Deep, the couple presented a most wonderful picture of marriage: friendship, love, companionship, mutual enrichment. In short, pure bliss.

But an omen did befall that home, one of the darkest kind. Abeer was stricken with a disease that her doctor at first did not take seriously. When there was no improvement in her condition for days, another doctor was called in. He misdiagnosed the disease which now continued to worsen. When the brothers heard about Abeer's illness at this stage for the first time, they immediately asked Mr. Bagchi to step in. Mr. Bagchi then used his considerable influence to promptly bring in none other than Dr. B. Bhattacharya, known as the Dhanvantari of Silchar – the miracle man who could cure all maladies. The great doctor took one look and said it was typhoid. But it was also very advanced. The patient hardly had any strength left to undergo a course of treatment with the then newly available Chloromycetin. Dr. Bhatt prescribed this medication anyway but it turned to be not immediately available in Silchar. By the time a supply was found in the shortest possible time – thanks again to Mr. Bagchi – it was too late.

The loss of Abeer completely devastated Muneer. It was as though the only light had gone out of his life and his home and his heart. and with it was gone his will to live. Beyond this, the manner in which she died also left Muneer full of strong emotions, people sensed. Grief and frustration and guilt combined to make him shut himself off from everything accept his teaching duties which he discharged most faithfully. People said: Look, this fine man would never short-change his students, not in any circumstances.

The only other activity Muneer undertook every day with clockwork regularity was to visit his wife's grave in the evening. He would kneel down near the grave and stay that way for long periods of time. People passing by would see this poignant sight from a distance but would never disturb him. This was probably the only thread that connected Muneer to reality.

Many tried to reach Muneer in many ways and with much care and patience, but all to no avail. The Alis had a live-in housemaid, an elderly lady who had no other relatives. She had become practically a third member of the Ali family. Relatives, friends and neighbors started commiserating with her to find out what was going on and what could be done. She would always report that Muneer would not eat his meals properly nor take care of himself otherwise. Indeed, he started to look emaciated. This could not go on very long without his health collapsing.

The person who everyone thought would be the most logical to make Muneer return among the living was Reshmi, the next door neighbor of the Alis, who had become the greatest of friends with Abeer. The two young women became nearly inseparable. There was constant visiting back and forth, as though the two houses were one – without any kind of barrier. Reshmi was a vocal music teacher at the Sangeet Vidyalaya while Abeer had a great singing voice. So that was another common interest. The two would – on weekend and holiday evenings especially – get together and sing in unison at impromptu gatherings in the Ali livingroom. The neighbors loved such sessions and would not miss a chance to lose themselves in the mellifluous and mood-lifting Tagore songs.

There was one song in particular that the two always withheld from public. It purports to be a lovesong to be sung by one person to his or her paramour in romantic privacy. But in this case Abeer and Reshmi would jointly sing it to Muneer, who would be beside himself with pure joy and yet showing subtle signs of awkwardness. His wife and her friend professing deep love to him at the same time! For this is how the song went:

You are all that my heart desires
Without you, I have no one else, nothing else in this world...

Watching Muneer's discomfort, the two young women would be amused in a slightly mischievous way. It was every bit like Reshmi was a prankster sister-in-law to Muneer. Such was the easy happiness that dwelled in that house.

Reshmi and the housemaid constantly tried to be on top of the situation, but had no luck in reaching Muneer at any level. He would listen to them courteously, but silently. He could not be engaged in any conversation on any subject. Someone remarked that Muneer had become a genial zombie. And of course music had no room in that once musical house anymore.

Naturally, the Bagchi brothers were fully informed on the situation and stayed on top of it, especially through their contact with Reshmi. The brothers discussed between themselves what, if anything, they could do. Muneer was particularly receptive to the brothers when they visited him and would soften to the point of asking the maid to make tea. He would even have a cup himself with the visitors. But the conversation did not go much beyond school and weather. The young brothers did not know how to broach 'the subject', and went away feeling quite helpless. In the end they concluded that this problem was not up their alley. Here was no haunted house mystery to solve or a peddler's scam to expose. It was an adult job, somewhat beyond their repertoire of problem-solving art. But they were not happy about absolving themselves of responsibility with this logical-sounding conclusion. So the matter kept nagging at them.

But the world moves on. Nearly a year passed since Abeer's death. There was no change in Muneer's situation. It was a miracle that he had not fallen terminally ill from neglect of his own health and welfare. Around about this time there came visiting the Bagchi home a family from Calcutta. The man, Dr. Sushanta Bagchi, was Mr. Bagchi's first cousin. He worked as a psychiatrist at the General Hospital and taught psychology at the Medical School. On the very next day after the visitors arrived, while there was great merrymaking going on between the two families, Sayan said to Deep: "Here is our god-sent opportunity to do something about Uncle Muneer!"

The visiting family had returned from a day of sightseeing and had just finished having an afternoon cup of tea. It was about four pm. Sayan and Deep invited Dr. Bagchi to come for a walk by the river. Fortunately, no one else offered to come along. The three chitchatted about life in Calcutta as they approached the river. Then the brothers tried to steer the conversation towards psychology. Dr. Bagchi was cognisant of the brothers' extracurricular activites. Now that he saw that the boys were having difficulty coming to some point, he asked with a broad smile: "But tell me, boys, what's really on your minds? Why this interest in this dry subject of psychology?"

Sayan now embarked upon a concise but complete description of Muneer Ali's malady. He also gave a good account of the happy family life that preceded this. When he finished, Dr. Bagchi asked a few questions. They had arrived at the river. Dr. Bagchi looked around and saw a round concrete platform circling the base of a large tree. He invited all to sit down. Then he began to speak.

"People deal with grief of loss in different ways. What you describe is not unknown in psychology. If you like, I can speak to this gentleman. But frankly, I don't think that will do any good. He is an intellectual and may very well resent any implications that he needs a head doctor. I believe the solution is more up your alley than mine.

"Muneer Ali has completely shut off that part of him that deals with emotions, feelings and self-awareness. Lecturing him on this will not draw him out. What is necessary is to get him interested in something, anything at all. If you can get him hooked on something without him ever realizing that you are tricking him, then that has the best chance to work. As soon as he takes a genuine interest in something, he will slowly come out of his shell. One trigger, and his mind will do the rest. So rather than us trying to heal his mind, we should let his mind heal him. You boys follow?"

"Very clearly," said Sayan. "Just one question. Can we make up something to get him interested? What I mean is this. Suppose we make up some story that he latches on to, and then we string him along. But then he finds out the story is not true."

"That's perfectly all right. The story is not important. The fact that you have engaged him is. We are not talking about you lying, but exercising some imagination."

A little later, back at home, the brothers commiserated. It was decided that there was no time to lose. Moreover, this was a Saturday and the brothers had time on their hands. After the plan was hatched, they set out towards Muneer Ali's home. They were sure he would be home, because he did not go anywhere except to the college during the day and to the grave in the evening.

Indeed he was home, and answered the door himself. When he saw the brothers, he gave a courteous nod. But there was no warmth in it. His ebullient greeting for the brothers of the earlier days was gone these days. Deep quickly said: "Uncle Muneer, we came to see the Time-traveling Pir in Gandhi Baag, and thought we would stop by to say hello to you."

They saw a spark in Muneer's eyes they hand not seen in a year. Before he could check himself, Muneer exclaimed: "The Time-traveling Pir?!"

Sayan now played his part to further implant the story about a Moslem holy man, a Pir, that they had dreamed up. "This is a mysterious itinerant Pir who stopped in Silchar for a couple of days. He holds vigil in the gazebo in Gandhi Baag. This is his last day. Tomorrow he is heading for the North Cachar Hills. We were able to catch him in the nick of time. He reportedly leaves after dusk and goes to sleep in the Itkhola masjid."

"Go on," said Muneer.

Thus encouraged, Deep continued."He tells historical stories from places he has visited. Only, the history is not of the past but that of the future. We heard a couple of stories and they really sound like those of H. G. Wells. And yet the Pir does not seem like a person who would have read English science fiction.

"Well, at any rate, anyone can make up stories set in future. There is no way to verify them. But here is the thing. The Time-traveling Pir apparently can read what is in your mind and say something that will tell you that he actually can do so. This is why we went."

"And?"

Sayan took over. "We're both solidly convinced that he can see into your mind. Anyway, Uncle Muneer, we best be off. We have out-of-town visitors staying at our home."

Without any further words exchanged, the brothers withdrew and walked in the direction of their home. A while later they doubled back and started to walk towards Gandh Baag. Daylight had failed and dusk was setting in. A little distance away from the gazebo there was some shrubbery. The brothers settled down behind these, squatting as comfortably as they could. The gazebo was empty and so was the park. There was no one in sight. The brothers continued looking in the direction Muneer was likely to come from, if he would come at all.

They did not have to wait long. They saw the familiar silhouette approaching the gazebo. Deep whispered: "He would be greatly disappointed to see the gazebo empty."

"But he will figure he is too late. The idea will remain alive with him even if he does not see the Pir."

Muneer had gained the gazebo. As he came close, the brothers waited to see him turn back in disappointment. But that did not happen. Instead, Muneer took off his sandals and stepped up to the paved floor of the gazebo. He did a respectful salaam, seemingly to someone invisible sitting in the center of the gazebo. Then Muneer sat down, cross-legged, at the edge of the platform, facing the center. Then ensued an indistinct conversation. The brothers could only hear the faintest of sounds from here. It was not possible to say how many voices were there or what was being said. Astounded, all the brothers could do was to look at each other. They did not want to speak for fear of being found out.

This went on for nearly half an hour. Then Muneer did another long salaam and started back. Alarmingly, he was taking another exit gate from the park than the one he came through. This would bring him right next to the shrubbery where the brothers were hiding. But fortunately darkness had thickened. The brothers sqatted as low as they could and held their breath as Muneer was passing by. They heard him talking to himself. All they could make out was that he was saying "... shamai mazar ... shamai mazar ...". But they knew no such words.

After Muneer was out of earshot, a gaping Deep spoke in a whisper, his eyes nearly bulging out: "Dada, it seems we made up a whole Time-traveling Pir!"

"Yes, the three of us did," replied Sayan.

The Bagchi brothers decided to keep this incident to themselves, telling not even Dr. Bagchi.

After the Bagchi brothers left, Muneer went back to his shell, sitting morosely in an armchair in his back porch. But his thoughts kept coming back to the Pir. These phrasess were floating through his mindscape: Time-traveling Pir, North Cachar Hills, history is not of past but that of future, he can read what's on your mind.... Then the visions of North Cachar Hills kept playing over his mind's movie screen – the quaint mountain railroad, the picturesque stations with catchy names like Hilara, Bihara, Jatinga, ... Muneer was familiar with the area and could now see a Pir floating over them, over the streams and the hills and the green valleys – time-traveling. Muneer was intensely excited. He sprang to his feet, took a shawl and wrapped it around himself and walked out in his household sandals he was wearing. He hoped it was not too late to catch a glimpse of the Time-traveling Pir.

All the way during his short walk to the park and the gazebo, Muneer's mind was racing. He could not control it anymore. When he gained the gazebo and saw the Pir sitting in the middle, he finally gained his composure. In fact the sight of the Pir brought to him a great tranquility.

Muneer did a respectful salaam to the Pir, saying: "Khuda ki meherbani that I have this good fortune to have a glimpse of you, O Great Holy Man. May I sit down with you a minute?"

The Pir had his eyes closed. Without opening them, he nodded assent. Muneer sat down. He remained silent, waiting for the Pir to permit him to speak. Instead, the Pir said: "My son, this dead soul of yours needs to be brought back to life. You need to visit Shama-i-Mazar."

There was a long silence. Then Muneer said: "Please tell me what Shama-i-Mazar is and where it is and I will go visit it, O Holy Man."

"No, I cannot tell what it is nor where it is. This is simply because it is different for different people. What it is for you only you will know. But come to the the station tomorrow morning and we will together take the North Cachar Mountain Train to where you need to go."

With that the Pir fell silent. Muneer sat for a long while and then got up. He thought for a while and decided he needed to visit his fellow chemistry professor Shobhan Mukherjee at his home. He would visit the grave first and then go the the Mukherjee home. He started thus for the southward gate of the park. While he was walking, the name Shama-i-Mazar kept playing in his mind like a haunting refrain. He had studied Urdu as a child and knew what that expression meant. He kept muttering to himself: Shama-i-Mazar, Shama-i-Mazar ...

Shobhan Mukherjee readily agreed to stand in for him on Monday and teach his class. Muneer told him that his next class was on Wednesday, and by then he will be back from his trip. Mukherjee expressed concern and asked if anything was amiss and if Muneer needed any help. But Muneer evaded all questions. Nor did he tell Mukherjee where he was going.

Sunday afternoon the Bagchi brothers started to get fidgety. What happened? Did anything actually happen? Did things get set in motion? Eventually, each admitted to the other that he was curious to find out.

"But we were at Uncle Muneer's house only yesterday! If we go there again, he will suspect we are up to something. Then the whole idea will fail. May be we should give it some time. With the school on, we can't go there before next Saturday at the earliest. But there is something we could do right away," said Deep.

"I know. We can find out what Shamai Mazar means," replied Sayan.

"Exactly. I think there is some clue in there. But those words sound like high Hindi or Urdu – words that you are most likely to find in Hindi film songs. If not, then we have to find someone who knows Urdu."

"Let's go talk to our friend the Hindi film buff first."

That friend was just their neighbor Arun next door – a veritable Hindi film encyclopedia. When he heard what the brothers wanted and heard the sound Shamai Mazar repeated a number of time, he said with feigned pomposity: "You have come to the right source. Sit down and I will explain. But I don't think what you have heard is Shamai Mazar. It is more likely Shama-i-Mazar, because shama and mazar are two words and the 'i' in the middle means 'of'. Now Shama means a lamp and Mazar means a tomb or a grave. So Shama-i-Mazar is Lamp on the Tomb. The lamp in this case is the kind of votive evening lamp Ma lights under the Tulsi plant in the courtyard, a clay lamp with a wick and some oil in it. You boys are on a new caper?!"

The brothers thanked Arun profusely and returned home. Now they knew what Shama-i-Mazar was.

On Thursday morning the houseguests left. The Bagchi family went to the railroad station to see them off. At one point Dr. Bagchi pulled the brothers aside, winked and said; "Drop me a postcard."

The brothers nodded simultaneously.

About five am Sunday morning Muneer arrived at the railroad station and found the Pir standing near the ticket counter. The latter told Muneer to buy a ticken for the North Cachar Hills mountain railway, for the station Milongdisa. Muneer asked if he could buy a ticket for the Pir as well, but the latter showed him he already had his ticket. After Muneer got his own ticket, the Pir said: "I will be getting off at Harangajao, the station just before Milongdisa. I will then tell you where to go from Milongdisa."

The Pir never spoke again throughout the journey, refusing even to accept the offer of tea and snacks. He simply wrapped himself in a blanket and kept dozing off. From Badarpur Junction the train started its climb up the rugged mountainous terrain. A few minutes before they were to arrive in Harangajao, the Pir stirred. Then he said: "Get off at Milondisa and ask for the foot trail to the hills. There is only one trail. Cross two hills. When you are coming down the slope of the second hill, about halfway down, another trail veers off to the right. Take that until you reach the hidden valley."

"Shama-i-Mazar?" asked Muneer, bursting with curiosity.

"Your Shama-i-Mazar," replied the Pir. "After you return home from here, you will remember nothing about this trip. Not even the name Shama-i-Mazar. And if ever in your life you hear that name again, you will know within your heart that you are in a good place. Then take a look around you and you will know what step to take to make yourself whole again."

That was the last time the Pir spoke. He got off without even saying goodbye.

Within a short time the train pulled into Milongdisa and Muneer got off. He only had a small cloth bag hanging from his shoulder. When he asked the ticket collector at the station exit gate about the trail, the man pointed to it – clearly visible in the distance. But then he asked: "Where are going that at this time of day? That trail takes you nowhere!" It was nearly five pm. Muneer quickly replied: "I was thinking about going on a nature hike early tomorrow morning."

Muneer started on his trek. He took out the shawl he had in his bag and wrapped himself tightly against the evening chill. The trail was distinct and easy to walk on. In the end he found the secondary trail just as the Pir described. But now it was already dusk, and getting darker fast. Muneer was very tired. His once robust physique had become just a shadow of its former self, what with a year of malnourishment and neglect.

At one point the secondary trail ended, leaving no indications as to how to proceed now. Muneer looked around him and considered his situation. Visibility now was quite low. He could see the open range of hills in the distance. Close by, a semicircular clump of trees obstructed his view. His options were now to continue uncertainly over the hill or enter the clump of trees. He did the latter.

But as he pushed his way through the shrubbery among the tree trunks and cleared the first several rows of trees, suddenly in front of of – and down below – there opened up an expansive valley, its lush verdure apparent even in this dim light. On it and spread over it was grazing a herd of cows. The view had a calming and serene quality to it.

It was a depression valley surrounded by hills, like a bowl. But at the far end there was a gap in the hills and the sun's last red color was showing through it and spreading over it. To Muneer the entire scene seemed like a giant votive lamp, with the last rays of the sun making up the distinct flame. The mist filling the valley seemed like the oil in the lamp. So perhaps the sky was the grave, thought Muneer to himself.

Muneer descended down the slope until he was nearly to level of the valley and yet high enough to command the entire vista. There he found a thick tree trunk and sat down with his back to it. He pulled in his shawl even tighter, and settled in. My Shama-i-Mazar, he told himself out loud with a sense of upliftment.

Strangely, the lack of light was no longer a problem. He could see the entire valley as though by starlight. The moon was not visible. The cows were moving only very slightly and only to move their mouths from one patch of grass to another. The ones on the foreground could be seen clearly but the ones further away seemed to slowly blend into a misty light which blended into the sky which blended into the stars.

Muneer lost all sense of time, of place, of himself. The vista was the only reality here. Everything else emptied out from his mind and his head. The valley was going through some type of transformation right before him that he could not quite comprehend until he heard the faintest of faint note of a flute. The cowherd's flute! It was calling the herd home. The cowdust hour of poetry.

Slowly, the grazers all turned towards the far horizon – towards the flame. Then the whole heard started moving away from Muneer and seemingly towards where 'home' was. Now Muneer instinctively focused his eyes on the place where the flame of the lamp was. As each cow approached that point, it grew in size and became translucent and then became light – all light. An entire herd of cows made of light was flowing into the sky. Then Muneere saw. One by one the cows became stars. Then the stars started grazing in the sky.

All this happened in the undulating lilt of the flute – that haunting call for all things to come home. Muneer heard the same flute deep within him as if it was calling him as well. He stood up and started walking in the same direction as the cows. But it no longer felt like physical walking. It was more that he was wafting over the valley as the sound of the flute became stronger in his ears. He could now tell the direction it was coming from. And then, in the distance, he saw the cowherd. The silhouette suggested a boy or a young woman intently playing on the flute, fully engrossed in it.

The flute impelled Muneer to follow the heard home. He continued to approach the gap in the hills. As he reached it, he heard the note of the flute transform, very slowly. After a time the note was fully recognizable. It was a song that was very much his own, one that always made him happy all over – even if tinged with a bit of awkwardness. The only difference this time was that there was only one musician – playing for him in the romantic privacy of this vast valley and this wide sky.

It was early light when Muneer got to the Milongdisa station. There was nobody in sight except for the clerk at the ticket booth. Muneer bought his ticket. Then the clerk said: "The Down Train is not due for an hour yet. There a small shop on the platform where you can have your morning cup of tea."

Suddenly that little extra gensture on the part of the clerk filled Muneer with great joy. He sensed in it a human warmth and caring that he had long resisted. He thanked the man and entered the platform. He saw the shop down a ways along the platform. Even as the shopkeeper saw him approach, he poured a cup of tea. Again, Muneer was deeply touched by this spontaneity.

"Anything else you would like with you tea? Our palm cake slices are quite fresh and tasty," said the shopkeeper.

For the first tme in a long time, Muneer felt hungry. He ordered two slices of palm cake. These were thick, semicircular slices cut from the barrel-shaped cake – a specialty at the railroad stations. Muneer savored them. He now felt the need for a little pointless conversation, something he had never had in a year. He said: "There's no Wheeler Bookstor in this station?"

The shopkeeper smiled. He said: "Babu, this is a very small station. This shop is all there is. And actually, people like it that way. No one here wants Milongdisa to grow into a bustling town."

"What is it like to live here?"

"It is difficult to say because we don't know what it is like to live anywhere else. But our life is peaceful. The place is surrounded by vast wildernesses which hold mystery, spirituality an energy. We feel we are a part of them. In fact, some feel that the wildernesses are alive."

The conversation continued warmly in this vein.

On Saturday afternoon the Bagchi brothers planned to go visit Reshmi and try to find out about Muneer. They knew Reshmi well and did not need a reason to visit her. But Deep had an idea. He said: "Why don't we go see Uncle Muneer directly, and say that we would like to go with him to visit the grave of Auntie Abeer? Then we can light a lamp on the tomb there."

The idea appealed to Sayan. But he said they should first check on the religious propriety of this with Auntie Kamala. Kamala was Arun's mother next door. She was a very devout woman, learned in things of this nature. The brothers found her in the kitchen and described what they wanted to do as she was cooking. "So Auntie, do you think it is all right for us Hindus to light a lamp on a Moslem grave?"

"It is more than all right. It is a most touching gesture. Never lose that quality which in you makes you want to do this," she replied. Then she said the brothers need not go shopping for clay lamps but that she had a supply that she would fix them up with. Thus fortified the brothers started on their way to Muneer's home. They would get there before dusk, before Muneer would start on his daily visit to the grave.

Unfortunately, they missed him by a couple of minutes. But Reshmi was standing in the porch of her house next door. After exchange of pleasantries, Reshmi suggested the brothers should go on and catch up with Muneer. But the boys did not exactly know how to go to the grave. "OK, I will come along," said Reshmi.

As they walked together, Reshmi said: "There has been a most wonderful development. Muneer went away somewhere, out of town I think, for a couple of days last weekend. No one knows where he went. When the maid asked, he said he truly could not remember. Anyway, ever since his return, he seems to be a changed man. Not so much in a visible way or a drastic way, but changed most definitely. If you greet him, he greets you back. If you converse with him, he converses. This is a good start, all of us neighbors think. But we are letting him come back to the world of living in his own pace and not rushing him. He is also eating normally now. Strangely, he asked his maid to lay in a supply of plum cakes and serve him in bias-cut semicircular slices, with tea."

Sayan and Deep looked at each other. Things did happen after that evening – real-life things! They asked Reshmi for more details and she told them what she knew about the changed Muneer. Presently, they arrived at the graveyard and found Muneer kneeling next to his wife's grave. As they approached him he turned, saw them and stood up: "Ah Holmes and Watson, I see! Hello Reshmi!" It was as though he was his old self.

Deep took the lead. He said: "Uncle Muneer, if it's OK with you we would like to light an evening lamp for Auntie Abeer."

Munner seemed to be completely overwhelmed by that gesture. Tears appeared in the corner of his eyes. In a choked voice, he said: "I am most grateful to you."

They put a wick in the clay lamp and then poured some oil. The lamp was placed on top of the headstone. Sayan struck a match and then handed the lighted match stick to Munner. He knelt down and lit the lamp. They all knelt down.

When everyone recovered from the deep emotional experience, Deep gave Muneer the box containing a few extra lamps, wicks and a bottle of oil. He even put in the matchbox. "Here, light the lamp every evening. This supply will last you a long time. Then we will bring you another supply."

Muneer eagerly took the box in his two hands, in silence. That said all. Now Sayan said: "Uncle Muneer, Auntie Reshmi, we have another place to visit this evening and so we will take your leave."

Muneer nodded silently. He and Reshmi kept looking at the receding figures the boys. At that moment both Deep and Sayan turned instinctively to look at Muneer one more time. Muneer and Reshmi were standing side by side, close to each other, their wave-goodbye hands still raised. The lamp, burning bright in the gathering dark, was visible through the gap between the two of them. Deep pointed to the lamp and said: "The lamp on the tomb! In Urdu, Shama-i-Mazar."

Back to index .

THE SECRET OF THE SONGBIRD TREE
Bibhas De Bengali adventure stories


Bibhas De Bengali adventure stories

I. An urgent village meeting

An urgent meeting was called that morning by the village headman, the Morol, in the schoolhouse in the central oval. At least one member from each of the thirty-four families attended. On the teacher’s raised wooden platform in a classroom were placed three chairs facing ‘the class’, the attending villagers. There on the dais sat the Morol, the priest and a representative of the District Government who had bicycled over from Srimangal.

The Morol cleared his throat and started the meeting: "Yesterday our small village suffered the fourth casualty since this horror of horrors started three months ago; and this time it was a two-month old baby girl, Baby Basu. I cannot overstate the danger to the village and the urgency to attend to this matter without delay. But it is also true that we are all at our wit's end as to how to deal with this whatever-it-is.

"Now, as you all know, Priest Rudra has concluded that this is the work of some very potent supernatural evil, and a Whole-Forest Exorcism is called for. He also feels that this entails a great danger for his person, including very possibly loss of life. This is why he has asked that each family pay him one thousand rupees for his services. I know that this is a great hardship and we will have to break into our life savings and sell some family jewels and perhaps also some livestock, but what choice do we have? And remember that the District Government has agreed to match the funds the villagers raise. And the fifteen families in the other village have also agreed to participate fully even though they have not been affected by the horror thus far. So your share of the net fees of one lac rupees Priest Rudra has asked for is considerably smaller than it would have been otherwise."

He stopped and looked at the priest. The latter took this as an invitation to speak. He began: "I consider myself as one of you villagers, and it pains me to ask for this kind of money. But I have to weigh this against the risk I am taking – which risk must be all too obvious to you. The police Sub-Inspector Chaudhury and Oldman Osman died very mysterious deaths. The boy Rupak went totally mad. And now a baby is missing. There is a good chance that if I go up against this evil, I will die too. In that case I would like to make sure that my family is financially set for life. You will give them the money. If I succeed, you will give me the money and it will have been well worth the cost. But if I fail and live, you will not pay me anything.

"So there, I have spoken frankly. Of course you are free to not use my services. You could probably shop around with other Ojhas in nearby villages and ask them what they would charge for a Whole Forest Exorcism. So I am making available to you an option but I am not pressing you to accept."

"OK," picked up the Morol, "I will now report to you that I have already spoken to three Ojhas who perform exorcisms in Srimangal, Sylhet and Bithangal. None of them has ever heard of Whole Forest Exorcism, let alone performed it. They think this must be a very specialized and rare ritual. So there is no option here of using other Ojhas. However, we will now hear from Ranjit Babu from the District Commissioner’s office. He has a suggestion to offer."

The District official reported that indeed the DC, a very benevolent British sahib, having been apprised of the situation, had agreed to match the funds the villagers would raise. But the invoice for payment must not mention exorcism. It should rather say Fees for Forest Restoration Services. The official then proceeded to brief the villagers on the progress the police investigators have made to date.

"Following the death of the Sub-Inspector about three months ago the police had immediately started their investigation. At that time, and also yesterday after the baby went missing, they scoured the forest in ever widening perimeters. But to no avail. The scent dogs they brought in yesterday were also no use. They seemed to have become spooked themselves. So the police are at their wit's end as well. However, they never really dropped the ball all this time. As they were making enquiries all around about what further to do, they came upon one lucky bit of information. The famed jungle adventurer Jiyon Jana of Khulna is currently in nearby Sylhet, on a job to construct a series of viaducts. The DC's office might be able to persuade him to come and have a look at the situation."

When the official paused one villager asked: "I don't understand this. What can an adventurer do for us in this situation? How much will he charge us? And how would Priest Rudra feel about this?"

The first two questions the official answered: "Mr. Jana and his colleague, a Manipuri gentleman named Longjam Shantikumar, an ex-Sergeant of the Army, are known to be seasoned outdoorsmen. They are well-versed on the ways of the wilderness. So they might be able to see some key point or issue here that the police have missed. Also they might well survive such a phantasmagoric sight in the forest as caused young Rupak to lose his mind. And Mr. Jana is a well-to-do man. He would not dream of charging you anything."

Priest Rudra took over. "I have absolutely no objection to this. In fact I think we should invite these gentlemen and work with them. The only thing is, today is Monday. I must perform my ceremonies on a new moon which is next Sunday. If not, the ceremony will have to wait another month."

"We have a dire emergency. Waiting another month is out of the question," said the Morol.

"Well, if Mr. Jana agrees, we can bring him here almost immediately," said the official. "Then he will have until Saturday to look into this."

"Good," said the Morol. " Let's see a show of hands. Who wants to see these two gentlemen approached?"

All hands went up, without exception. The Morol and Priest Rudra also raised their hands.

~^~^~^~

It was a Monday in August of 1946 with the skies over East Bengal a sparkling blue. Near one pm Jiyon Jana and his longtime associate Longjam Shantikumar were poring over some construction maps and charts at the job site in the outskirts of Sylhet, by the river Surma. They were sitting around a makeshift work table under a makeshift canvas tent. Presently they saw a police jeep pull up at the site. From the passenger’s seat got off a man wearing a khaki officer's uniform. He walked towards them and saluted, asking: "Mr. Jiyon Jana?"

Jiyon nodded. The man said: "I am Inspector Shahryar Ferdous, Srimangal Police. I have been sent by the Commissioner of Sylhet District to beg your help on a matter of grave urgency and grave danger. Can you spare a little time so I can describe the matter briefly to you?"

Jiyon introduced Longjam to the Inspector. Longjam beckoned to a worker and asked him to bring them a round of tea and also to offer a cup to the driver of the jeep. The three men now sat down around the table. Jiyon said: "It is best you take your time and give us as much detail as possible. Do not worry about being long-winded."

II. Inspector Ferdous narrates

The tiny village of Kakolimukhor lies in a hilly area in the tea plantation country outside Srimangal. It is a tiny sleepy village of some thirty families. It sits compactly at the foot of a hill which is densely forested over. You may even call this forest a jungle. Form this village if you cross the hill eastward, you come to an even smaller village called Kakolihaor.

Kakolimukhor of course means a place filled with bird song, and Kakolihaor means the marshland of bird song. The villages take their names from the fact that the canopy of that intervening forest is teeming with songbirds. In this forest, one particular spreading tree stands commanding over the village of Kakolimukhor.

This tree has come to be known as Kakolitoru or the Songbird Tree. It truly sets the tone and tenor of the daily life there. Every morning all morning the birds in the canopy sing and chirp and frolic. The sheer variety of bird species there is a wonder in itself: Koels, doels, bulbulis, tuntunis, moutusis, maachrangas, bou-katha-kaos … an unusually rich collection. As the morning grows the birds fly away to the haor on the other side of the forest so that there are hardly any birds at all in the Songbird Tree at noontime. All day long they feed on the fish and the insects in the haor. Evening sees them all back safely to the nests. This cycle is so much a part of the life of the village that any disruption in it would be most noticeable and disconcerting to the villagers. A bad omen even.

Now, the forest covering the hill is nearly pristine except for the ruined bungalow at the top of the hill. It commands majestic views all around. This is a British tea planter's bungalow that has sat empty for some fifty years. It has gone to seeds and is considered today a haunted house. The villages actually have stories about the malevolent haunting here.

Some four months ago there came to the village of Kakolimukhor a stranger who asked to see the village headman. He introduced himself to the Morol as a priest who had fled from Burma to seek refuge in East Bengal. He has a Burmese wife and a daughter three years old, and not much money. He wondered if his family could settle down in the abandoned bungalow on the hilltop for free. In return, he would serve the spiritual needs of the two villages.

The Morol was quite confused by this request. Certainly, the villages could use a priest. But why would the man want to stay in that bungalow? This village could accommodate his family quite comfortably, and even rent-free. The man somewhat sadly explained that his wife had a medical condition and did not want to be seen in public. The Morol guessed that this might be leprosy. He then told the stranger about the bungalow being haunted by an evil spirit. The priest smiled and said that he also doubled as an exorcist. If necessary, he could perform any necessary rites to rid the house of any evil spirits.

So the headmen of the two villages discussed this and agreed. The bungalow at any rate did not have an owner and so the priest would probably be within his rights to move in anyway. The Morols told the stranger that the villagers could help him restore the bungalow and make it livable. The strange, who said he went by the name Priest Rudra, again alluded to his wife and said he that he was quite handy and could do all the work himself.

The very next day he arrived with his family in a motorcycle-trailer. It was a large box-shaped trailer in which he carried all his possessions. His wife and daughter sat squeezed on the backseat of the motorcycle as they traveled great distances. Thus the family was quite portable, the priest explained to the Morol.

Why all this information about this priest? This may be relevant since the arrival of the priest is the only new event that has happened to the two villages in a long long time. Otherwise the population is very stable and life is very routine. The very dark events that befell the villages after the priest’s arrival might quite possibly be linked to disturbing the haunted bungalow, and setting the spirit loose in the forest. At least that is the current thinking of the villagers. This is not to say Priest Rudra is implicated in any way. He could just be an unwitting trigger to whatever is happening.

One morning about three months ago, the villagers woke up to sense that something was not right. First, those out on an early morning stroll saw that a khaki-colored police motorcycle was parked in front of the Morol’s house. A very unusual sight. Then everyone slowly realized that all the songbirds had left overnight. Not only that. When they eventually strolled over to the Songbird Tree, they could tell that all the animal life had also left. There used to be squirrels aplenty, and some jackrabbits. Now the forest seemed to be dead. Not even the cicadas could be heard. No one could figure out what caused this.

The first villagers to reach the Songbird Tree that morning, including the Morol, discovered the body of a uniformed policeman on the ground next to the small ancient altar to the goddess Durga there. The idol had been toppled from its pedestal. This rustic stone idol had been installed by the early villagers, and is today considered the guardian deity of the forest. The village women visit there every day to offer flowers and fruits and other votive offerings.

The Morol identified policeman as a Sub-Inspector Chaudhury of Bithangal Police. The officer had visited the Morol the previous night and asked for direction to Priest Rudra's house, and then entered the forest in the evening to hike up to the hilltop. When the police from Srimangal arrived on the scene and interviewed the Morol, they asked him if he could remember anything else about that evening – anything out of the ordinary. The Morol reported that he had heard a long, low note of a flute from the direction of the Songbird Tree shortly after the Sub-Inspector entered the forest that night.

The police had also brought along a doctor to examine the body. He concluded that the Sub-Inspector died of asphyxiation, but that there were no visible signs of violence. Rumors arose in the villages that the policeman must have witnessed some stark supernatural horror that caused him to choke and die.

Priest Rudra saw the commotion in the village from his hilltop house and came down about the same time the police arrived. He saw the body of the Sub-Inspector. He agreed with the villagers' theory that the death might be due to supernatural causes. He said that the policeman had defiled the goddess and thus disturbed the harmony of the forest. He said that Chaudhury could also be a Moslem name. Indeed when the police retrieved the warrant card from the victim's pocket, they found that the full name was Liaqat Chaudhury. This caused some consternation in the village. Defilement of a Hindu deity by a Moslem man was an incendiary situation in a nation with great communal tensions brewing just under the surface.

By the end of the day that day, it became clear that the songbirds had settled down in the haor for the night. They would never return to the Songbird Tree.

To the villagers, somehow there were here two deaths: the man died and the forest died. There was cast over the two villages a grey pall. Everyone focused on the priest’s theory that the defilement of the forest goddess was the root of the evil. The village women started praying to the goddess with extra fervor and extra offerings. Everyone believed that the fauna of the forest would soon be restored. In the meantime everyone avoided the forest at night. The trails through the forest that connected the two villages and the priest's bungalow were now used only if there was a pressing need. And even then no one would enter the forest alone.

About two weeks after this, a boy named Rupak Dastidar from Kakolimukhor had gone one afternoon to the other village to visit a friend there. Somehow the two boys fell asleep while playing and no one noticed them. When they woke up, it was already dark. In a great panic that his parents would be angry with him, Rupak started back through the dark forest alone, in spite of his friend's protests. To walk on the road encircling the forest would have taken Rupak a lot longer, compounding his predicament.

A little later that evening an anxious Dipak Dastidar, father of Rupak, bicycled along that road to reach Kakolihaor. There he heard from Rupak’s friend what had happened. As these two were standing at the trailhead and talking, they both heard a long, low note of a flute from the forest, and thought it rather strange. No manmade sounds were expected from the forest. Anyway, Dastidar and a few other young men from this village now started on the trails with lanterns in hand. They found a dazed Rupak squatting under the Songbird Tree.

He looked like a boy zombie. He neither spoke nor reacted in any way to anything or anyone. He had simply withdrawn into himself and was not conscious of anything going around him. His eyes displayed no signs of his reacting to any sights. Next morning the villagers took him to the hospital in Srimangal, but the doctors could find nothing physically wrong with him. So they all came back home.

The doctors then wrote a letter to an expert in a mental health institution in Calcutta, describing everything surrounding the transformation of Rupak, and adding the villagers' theory that the boy may have witnessed something most horrific. A few days later the answer came. The Calcutta doctors wrote that the best chance of treating the boy – and a very good chance it was – was to find out what exactly frightened him.

Now, on that very same evening and about the same hour that this had happened to Rupak, Oldman Osman, a genial octogenarian who lived alone and was loved by all, was holding his nightly hooch session on the porch of the General Store. He drank only at night and only here so that children would not witness drinking. The villagers did not object because they saw this as a time of welcome forgetfulness for the sad old man. This location where he sat offers a clear view of the canopy and even part of the trunk of the Songbird Tree.

The following morning when he saw Rupak in this state, Oldman Osman came out with a strange story that nobody believed. According to him, there was a long low note of flute from the direction of the Songbird Tree, following which the whole tree seemed to have come alive and was waving back and forth. The villagers quietly ascribed this story to the old man’s drunkenness, but he kept insisting all day that day to anyone who would listen to him that this had something to do with what had happened to Rupak. The following morning he was found dead under the Songbird Tree – dead of heart failure.

Strangely, the night Oldman Osman died, the people in a house close to the Songbird Tree said that they heard a long, low note of flute from that direction. They remembered it because it was most unusual to hear such a sound from the forest.

Once again, the police had precious little to go on. Groups of policemen held vigil in the forest in the hope of sighting something. But they saw nothing. Nor did they ever hear that flute.

The theory of divine retribution now became replaced by the theory that the evil spirit from the bungalow was stalking the forest. Rupak Dastidar and Oldman Osman were victims of this spirit which, it was clear, was lurking in or around the Songbird Tree.

Then one villager who was a honeybee gatherer, suggested smoking the entire Songbird Tree. If there were any critters, insects or locusts or anything like that, they could not survive the smoke and would come out.

Priest Rudra also liked the idea from his priestly standpoint, and said it should be performed as a religious rite. Firewood was piled up in a ring around the trunk of the tree. The priest then said some prayers and then dusted the stack with incense and myrrh. He continued his prayers and chanting into the evening and asked the villagers to come for the lighting ceremony at seven the next morning, an auspicious hour according to the priest’s almanac.

The firewood stack was lit. As the flames started to leap, water was sprinkled on the stacks to create dense steamy smoke that would not hurt the foliage. One could clearly see the annular column of smoke rise thickly through the foliage of the canopy. The smell of incense and myrrh was strong. By the time the fire went out around noon, nothing visible had happened to the canopy.

After this, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that some supernatural evil was at work. Priest Rudra was approached with the proposal of performing an exorcism, like the one he would have performed for the haunted bungalow had the evil spirit there not fled to the forest. But this would be no ordinary exorcism, the priest said. This would have to be a Whole Forest Exorcism, involving his pacing round and round over the forest, sprinkling holy water and chanting. So the villagers started discussing this plan in right earnest.

Then yesterday at about noon, a house that was just down from the Songbird Tree found a small baby girl missing. The backyard of the house was wide open to the forest. The mother had rubbed mustard oil all over the baby and left her in the sun for a bit, before giving her a bath. This is normal practice. The mother had then gone about her chores for only a few minutes. When she came back, the baby was gone. She had vanished without any kind of a trace.

The villagers sent for the police even as they started their own search. This time the police wanted to leave nothing out. They borrowed two bloodhounds from a sahib plantation owner, along with the dogs' keeper. The dogs were given a scent of the baby's bed linen and nudged towards the forest. But suddenly they became very agitated. They wanted to go away from the forest. They started straining at the leash and looking quite fearsome. At the points the keeper took them back to their van. He said he had never known the dogs to act that way.

So this morning at the village meeting it was decided to seek your help as a last resort before letting the priest take over.

My orders are to wait for you to come with us, if you would agree to do so, and place myself and the driver and the jeep at your disposal for as long as you need us. Whatever else you need, just ask us. The village will put you up. It will not have much by the way of the creature comfort, but the people there are most warm and hospitable.

III. Jiyon Jana accepts

As the Inspector stopped, he was pleased to see signs of intense curiosity in the faces of his listeners who had remained totally silent throughout the narrative. Jiyon now looked at Longjam. The latter said: "I think Foreman Najibullah can hold down the fort here for a few days. The work is all cut out and he knows what to do."

After briefing Najibullah, Jiyon and Longjam picked up their compact travel bags and they were off by two pm. Jiyon and Inspector Ferdous sat in the back of the jeep so they could talk. Jiyon asked Ferdous to tell him what the latter knew about the villagers.

As Ferdous filled Jiyon in, he came to the point where Priest Rudra had asked for one hundred thousand rupees, one lac rupees that is, from the village. Jiyon was visibly taken aback: "That is a king's ransom! This can set him and his family up for the rest of his natural life."

"Yes, he said so himself quite frankly. But the villagers look at it in a positive way. They do not seem to think the priest is being unreasonable or trying to extort money or anything like that.

"But it is because of his asking such a large sum that we wanted to look at him closely. We could not find out much about him at all, given that his past life was in Burma. But that brings us to the issue of why the Sub-Inspector Chaudhury from Bithangal went to see the priest."

"Go on."

"The story the Bithangal police and the Morol have pieced together is this: The Sub-Inspector learned about Priest Rudra settling in the hilltop bungalow when the latter came to Bithangal in his motorcycle-trailer to buy some goats. Bithangal is a very compact town and everyone knows everything that goes on there. And when someone drives in in that contraption and asks to buy as many as five goats, it raises eyebrows. And when he plonked down the full asking price for the goats without the expected haggling, he made an even greater impression. People asked the priest casual questions and learned that he needed the goats for steady supply of fresh milk for his daughter and his wife. They were vegetarians and needed some wholesome milk and milk products in their diet.

"Now, on the day the Sub-Inspector would come to Kakolimukhor , he had received a standard bulletin telegram from some other police department requesting information about a person the senders of the telegram were interested in. The SI somehow must have had had a hunch, for he set out on his own with the telegram in his pocket – before it was officially logged in. Nobody else saw the telegram or knew anything about its content. In the village the SI saw the Morol, and asked to be directed to the house of the priest. At the priest’s house the wife told him her husband would not be back until seven in the evening. The SI went away, promising to return at that time. He spent some time in the area, and about seven-thirty, told the Morol to look after his motorcycle while he hiked up the hill to the priest's house. It was very dark that night and the Morol gave the SI a flashlight.

"The priest said later that he indeed was back home by seven but that the SI never arrived at his home. The flashlight was found next to the SI under the tree. The telegram was not found on the SI's person. Nor could Bithangal police determine what police department had sent the telegram or who its subject was."

"I see," said Jiyon. "OK, let me absorb all that information. Now there is one thing we need from you if we are going to go into that forest and confront whatever it is. Longjam and I both have permits to carry firearms. But we did not bring any firearms from Khulna. So could you arrange for us to have a standard police issue rifle, and a twelve-gauge shotgun with hunting torch mount? For the shotgun I would like some No. 2 buckshot cartridges and a few slugs."

"Consider it done."

IV. They arrive in the village

It was just after three pm when the arrived in the village and daylight was still strong. They could not miss that spreading tree as they drove in. A transfixed Jiyon stared at its canopy as the jeep pulled into the schoolhouse courtyard. There the Morol and few other people had been huddling.

After introductions were made the Inspector left, promising to return before dark. The Morol offered to show the visitors to their living quarters and invited them to have some refreshment. But Jiyon said: "We would like to see whatever we can of the village and the forest while it is still daylight."

The villagers took heart at this, sensing that these visitors meant business. They were not here to dilly-dally or shilly-shally. The Morol and two young men accompanied Jiyon and Longjam as they walked in the direction of the Songbird Tree. The Morol kept pointing things out about the village to the visitors like an expert tour guide.

The village is built around an oval-shaped grassy central square. All houses face it. In the square are a schoolhouse, a small temple and a general store that doubles as a teahouse and a post office. Behind the row of houses to the east, the land starts to rise. The Songbird Tree is right behind these houses, at the base of that slope. From all the houses on the other side of the oval and from the oval itself, the canopy of the tree is clearly visible. The song of the birds, the Morol said, could be heard from every house in the village.

They reached the tree. The first thing Jiyon sensed was that the temperature in the shade of the canopy seemed a few degrees lower than the sunlit oval. To this sense of chill was added a foreboding by the unstable light-and-shadow pattern on the forest floor. Up the slope from here there were many trees, none as proliferated as this one though. The trunk of this tree was covered with soft creepers that climbed up to the canopy. It was easy to see why the birds chose this particular tree to congregate in.

The altar of the forest deity was a short distance from the base of the tree, in a niche cut into the slope of the hill. The slope here was made of stony outcrop denuded of vegetation and rose in semi-circular terraces up to the hilltop bungalow. The rest of the forest floor was soft, vegetation-covered soil.

As the villagers stood back, Jiyon and Longjam walked around the tree in very slow steps and then went up the slope a ways, looking intently both at the ground and at the treetops. They could not spot a single bird or squirrel or any other sign of animal life. Then they returned to where the villagers were standing.

Jiyon said to them: "All the trees look healthy. I do not see any signs of any blight in the vegetation on the ground. There does not seem to be any kind of tree disease or poisoning of the ground water. So I think we can leave out any nature causes of the departure of animal life."

"But, Sir, if you leave out nature causes, what remains?" asked one of the young villagers.

Jiyon looked at him thoughtfully, then said: "Let us see if we can find out."

As they returned, the Morol brought them to one of the houses around the oval and close to the Songbird Tree that had been sitting empty. It had been set up for the visitors as a guesthouse. Their luggage had already been placed here. One of the villagers, Ramvilash, had volunteered to look after the guests and was already working in the kitchen. The two bedrooms were minimal but comfortable, with fresh linens and mosquito nets. Jiyon was pleased to see that the back porch of the house directly faced the Songbird Tree.

Presently tea was served for everyone on the front porch which had some bamboo cane furniture – a few chairs, a bench and a table. They all sat down. As they were sipping tea, Jiyon asked the Morol to give as much detail as he could on each incident, adding that he had already received an overall briefing from Inspector Ferdous as far as the police side is concerned. Now he needed the minutest of details from the village side. The Morol proceeded to give a meticulous account, encourage by the fact that the visitors were losing no time in getting to the heart of the matter most inquisitively. He started with the arrival of the Sub-Inspector of Bithangal Police.

V. The Morol narrates

Just over three months ago late one afternoon there arrived in the village this policeman. He asked to see the village headman and was shown to me. He introduced himself as a Sub-Inspector Chaudhury of Bithangal Police. He said he had heard in the Bithangal town center that there was living hereabouts a Bengali man with a Burmese wife and a small daughter. He also said that the family owned five goats. The SI needed to talk to them in connection with a missing-person inquiry. I pressed him for more detail. He assured me that this was a routine inquiry and there were no charges against anyone. I then showed him the forest trail up to the priest’s house. He left.

Shortly after seven that evening, he showed up at my doorstep again and said that the priest was not home when he visited the first time. He was going there again and the priest was expected back by now. He asked me to look after his motorcycle. He also asked me if I had a flashlight he could borrow. I loaned him mine, a very powerful light with a broad beam.

He never came back. I was worried on this account and could not sleep. So shortly before dawn I lit a hurricane lantern and started on the path to the priest’s house. But at the foot of the outcrop as I looked under the Songbird Tree, I saw something that did not belong there. Upon a closer look I found the SI lying by the altar. I touched his neck for pulse, and looked for other signs of life. He was stone cold dead. Now I did something I have never told anyone – not even the police, and I am telling you in confidence just so you have every bit of information you need for your inquiry.

I saw that the deity had been toppled from the altar and was lying on the ground next to it. The SI’s body was in such a state as to suggest that he had urinated on the deity, and was somehow felled even as he was doing this. I could also see that he was a Moslem, and realized my earlier error in habitually assuming from the name Chaudhury that he was a Hindu. Then the grave danger of the situation was driven home to me. A Moslem urinating on a Hindu deity – this news would almost surely spark nationwide communal rioting. So I made just enough changes to the scene to hide the urination aspect. Just doing up some buttons – you understand? The deity remained toppled.

I came back and at first light entered the forest with other villagers, and pretended to be surprised at the sight of the SI's body. Soon the priest also came down, upon seeing the commotion from his home. He said the Sub-Inspector had not come to his house the second time even though he was expected. The priest made a big thing about the SI, whose warrant card would identify him as a Moslem named Liaqat Chaudhury, having defiled the deity. Luckily this did not ignite any trouble immediately, the fact of the mysterious death of a man being paramount on everyone's mind.

Now on to the next incident. The boy Rupak Dastidar made a bold choice to walk through this accursed forest at night. It cost him his sanity. That very same evening, around the time Rupak was in the forest, Oldman Osman said he saw something. He was sitting in the porch of the General Store. So the Songbird Tree would in his full view. But this was at night – not a very dark night but still dark one – and Osman was surely somewhat inebriated. But we cannot believe that he was making things up. He was either seeing something or thinking that he was seeing something. The coincidence that he would see something on this very night seems to be a curious thing.

And what did Oldman Osman say he saw? I want to give you this in his own words as much I remember them: New branches shot out from the tree trunk and started waving like arms!

(Some fifteen years later Jiyon would recall this very description when he was reading a book called The Day of the Triffids. He felt rather privileged to have been personally introduced to the idea in the book long before it was written!)

Poor man Osman! He kept saying that if we could find out what it was about the tree then we might be able to treat Rupak. My guess is that when nobody would believe him, he decided to go to the tree the next night and get a clear (and possibly sober) view. That cost him his life. His heart was very weak anyway, and something caused it to fail.

Then yesterday noon, the Basu baby vanished – just plain vanished! We do not have a clue as to what might have transpired there. The baby was left out of sight only for a few minutes – and that is not unusual at all. No one expects any danger here. Even as we are mindful of the danger in the forest, what could happen to a baby in the backyard of its home?

So that is a general account. I can answer any specific questions if it helps.

~^~^~^~

As the Morol was finishing up his account, Inspector Ferdous' jeep pulled up. He took a rifle from the back of the jeep and handed it to Longjam, saying: "This is a Royal Enfield Three-naught-Three. You will feel right at home with it!"

Longjam smiled to acknowledge the Inspector's reference to his military background, and said: "We used to call them Jungle Carbines!"

He checked the bolt mechanism. It was well oiled and moved smoothly. The police driver now brought up a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun, a five-battery hunting torch with a gun clamp, and a box of ammunition. Longjam took charge of all these and put them away in one of the bedrooms.

VI. A little tea before dinner

It was now dusk. As the four men sat together talking about the village, Ramvilash came over and said there was plenty of food if the Morol and the Inspector would like to stay for dinner. The Inspector accepted after assurances that his driver would also be fed. The Morol also would join, but that he had first to walk over to his home and tell his wife.

After the Morol left, Jiyon turned to the Inspector. "I want to take you back to the part of your account about the death of Sub-Inspector Chaudhury. I take it that you arrived with the first policemen on the scene and that the scene was left undisturbed as far as you could tell?"

"Yes on both."

"Please describe the scene as you saw it."

"The SI was laying on the ground, on his left side, in front of the altar – his face towards the altar. He was may be about 10 feet from the Songbird Tree. He was a small man. His posture as he lay was somewhat fetal. The stone deity had fallen from her pedestal, and was lying two feet from the body. Otherwise there was nothing out-of-the-ordinary or noteworthy about the scene."

"You said that Priest Rudra would later describe this as a scene of defilement of the deity. Did he actually use the term defilement, or were you using your own words?"

"I remember well that he used that word. Actually, it struck me as an unwarranted exaggeration. I mean, even if the SI had intentionally felled the statue, you could call it vandalism or even sacrilege. But defilement is not a word that would come to mind."

"Do you have any information as to whether the SI was a tough man – in the sense that he would be able to stand his ground in the face of some great horror?"

Inspector Shahryar searched his mind. Then he said: "All I can say from what I learned in the course of the investigation into his death is that he came to the service from the academia through a competitive exam. So I would think that he did not have much life experience in terms of the rough and tumble world."

"If you don't mind my saying so, Inspector," started Longjam, "It seems to me that the death of the SI was under-investigated. I mean, you did not even find out what that telegram was about. Certainly you could have gone to the telegraph office in Bithangal immediately and they would have remembered something about this telegram. That certainly seems odd."

Inspector Ferdous remained silent for several seconds. Then he spoke slowly: "We the police are all too painfully aware that this is the case. No sooner had our investigation started than the priest started agitating about defilement of a Hindu deity by a Moslem policeman. This was an incendiary situation. A high level decision was made to close the case quickly, and not let anyone stir the pot, so to speak."

"Are you saying that the priest cleverly scuttled an investigation that might lead you to find out the reason why the SI came to talk to him?"

"That is what I am saying."

"What is your real assessment of Priest Rudra, Inspector?"

"As I said before, he comes under immediate suspicion because he stands to gain a great deal of money from this whole business. He is also the only new element that was introduced into the otherwise tranquil local scene, and he is the one that disturbed the balance of the forest, if there is such a thing. But nothing actually connects him to anything that has gone on. The fact that he is a refugee from Burma makes it difficult for us to get any information about his past, except of course what he tells us himself." The Morol had come back. The cook now served a pre-dinner round of tea and snacks – an assortment of vegetable pakoras. Thus the collective mood immediately lifted. Longjam asked, quite casually: "Morol, can you paint a picture of how Priest Rudra fits into the village life?"

"Sure. After he arrived here with his wife and daughter and settled in the bungalow, he spent nearly a month renovating the house himself. The village young offered him help, but he very politely declined. He is actually a very powerful and sturdy man himself, not the conventional ascetic holy man we think of. He even cut a channel in the rocky outcrop around his house so that he could walk directly down from his house to the base of the Songbird Tree and into the village. Without this shortcut, he would have to take the long trail around the outcrop.

"There was already a garage which the priest fixed up to house his motorcycle trailer. He then built a fenced in corral on the grounds to keep his five goats. After about a month, he started coming down to the two villages to mingle and get acquainted. He developed a routine where he spends three days a week in our village and two in the other village during daytime, spreading his wares for sale, and being generally available for spiritual counsel. The wares are religious artifacts – amulets, talismans and such that he can customize for a person's particular malady. So the villagers got to know him pretty well. He is well liked in both villages.

"As to his personal life, that seems to be out of bounds. He discourages anyone from going to his house. In fact, I am the only one here that has seen his wife and his daughter. The wife is a bashful lady with a veil that covers most of her face. But you can tell that she is Burmese. The little girl – about three years old – is very pretty and seems to keep to herself.

"So that, in a nutshell, is what I know – unless you have specific questions."

"When he does his priestly duties – chanting and things – can you tell if he is a genuine priest?" asked Jiyon.

The Morol was taken aback. He recovered and replied: "I did not know he was under any suspicion! But now that I think of it, we villagers have no ability to tell if his Sanskrit chants and mantras are genuine. We are largely illiterate in that regard."

"OK," continued Jiyon, "Do you think, Morol, that tomorrow morning the four of us can walk up to the priest’s house and pay a visit without upsetting him and without arousing any suspicion in him that we are looking into him?"

"We can go up to the hilltop and see if he comes out to greet us. Then I will say that I brought you all there so as to give you a panoramic view of the villages and the haor. After that, it will be up to you to tactfully strike up a conversation. And if he invites us in, I will accept on everybody’s behalf."

The four agreed to execute this plan tomorrow at eight. A simple but delicious dinner was served, and the conversation turned to lighter things. After dinner, the Morol and the Inspector took their leave, promising to be back at eight in the morning.

VII. A sudden change of plans

Jiyon and Longjam came to the back porch of the house that offered a full-on view of this side of the Songbird Tree. There were two rattan easy-chairs there and they sat down cozily. In this semi-dark night barely a week before the new moon, the tree looked rather portentous and even ghostlike. Given what they knew, they could now imagine this tree as having some evil supernatural aspect to it. They could see the greatly ramified branches, and could almost imagine what Oldman Osman was saying. They stared for a long time while talking in a low voice. To Ramvilash going about his business inside the house, the impression was that the two guests were privately commiserating on something.

Jiyon asked: "Longjam, changing the subject a little, what is your reading on this defilement issue?"

"Well, I do agree that defilement was an odd word for the priest to use in the circumstances, unless he had reasons to use that word. That would mean that Priest Rudra had seen a different scene than Inspector Ferdous saw. So it is most likely that the priest saw the same scene that the Morol saw, before the Morol tampered with it. That means Priest Rudra was there in the vicinity, lurking perhaps.

"Now, I do not for a moment believe that this Sub-Inspector would defile the deity in any way. That leaves us with only one possibility. Priest Rudra staged the scene himself, the scene that the Morol later saw."

"I agree with that assessment," said Jiyon. "But that still leaves open the question: How did the Sub-Inspector die?"

Jiyon looked at his radium-dial wrist-watch. It was after nine pm. He said: "OK, Longjam, let us shed some light on the canopy." Longjam went inside the house and picked up the hunting torch. Ramvilash had not seen it before. Now as he saw it he remarked: "I have never seen a torch this long!"

Longjam came back to the porch. Aiming the torch towards the canopy, he turned on the bright-as-daylight beam of light.

~^~^~^~

Ramvilash saw the two men come staggering into the house, looking quite ashen and disheveled. Longjam kept saying: "The horror … the horror …" while visibly trembling. Jiyon sat down on the floor ponderously and covered his face.

Ramvilash became very confused. He got them some cold water to sprinkle on their faces and said: "What has happened to you Babus? Shall I go fetch some help? Shall I go and fetch the Morol?"

In a few minutes Jiyon composed himself and told Ramvilash they would soon be all right, but that it would help if they could get some strong hot tea with lots of milk and sugar. Ramvilash immediately complied. Jiyon then bade him goodnight. The still-confused helper left, saying he would come back and serve breakfast at six. Longjam was still babbling.

The Morol and the Inspector arrived about seven as Jiyon and Longjam – still looking out of sorts – were having breakfast on the front porch. The two visitors sat down at the table and accepted the offer of tea. After breakfast the visitors were ushered in to a bedroom for a private closed-door conference. Or that is what Ramvilash surmised. All four men emerged at around eight, looking very grim. Ignoring questions from the villagers who had gathered to see how things were progressing, the four men started for the hilltop. Ramvilash now held court, and told the villagers what he had observed last night and what he thought was going on. He concluded: "So as soon as they pointed that very long torch at the canopy and turned it on they saw something most terrifying. They were totally disconcerted, and physically ill. I am guessing that they will beg out of this. That is what I think they were discussing in the closed bedroom."

With their curiosity thus primed, the villagers decided to await the return of the four men from the hilltop.

A short walk brought the men to the Songbird Tree. From here they had to climb the outcrop along the path carved in it. It looked like a smooth channel, almost as though it were made by flowing water over geological times. Obviously the priest had to work hard at it, but the rock was rather soft. There were footholds cut in this channel so that walking along it was not difficult. Rather a strange approach – to cut a channel and then make footholds in it rather than just carving out a stair steps, Longjam thought.

When they gained the top of the hill, they saw a flat expanse with the British-era two-story bungalow in the middle. The first structure they saw was a detached box-shaped concrete-walled shed which was obviously a garage. Longjam observed that its large wooden door was kept pad-locked. He looked closely at the padlock. The motorcycle-trailer of course is a valuable property to keep under lock and key, he remarked to Jiyon.

Close by, there were three goats munching on some vegetation inside a bamboo-fence corral. Upon that the Morol remarked: "Strange! Priest Rudra had bought five goats when he came here. And they are vegetarians. What happened to the other two goats?!"

Behind the garage, and some distance away, was a small pond full of water to its brim. There were mounds of dug-up earth around it. The Morol explained that Priest Rudra dug this pond himself. It was OK for the rainy season, June to December, but afterwards it may not have much water. The priest would have to find an alternative source of water, because the old tube well for the bungalow was no longer workable.

Behind the garage was the brick-and-mortar building, the bungalow. It had crumbled at the edges, but large portions of it were still livable. The upper story had large windows all around, make it look like the view deck of a passenger ship.

As they looked back down on the village of Kakolimukhor, the whole expanse of the village stood clear before them. They could see the top of the Songbird Tree and the edge of the forest. The comings and goings in the village oval were clearly visible, although it might be difficult to recognize people unless there was something recognizable about them – clothing, walking posture etc.

There was no movement discernible in the house in reaction to the arrival of the party. So they walked round the bungalow and came to the other side to view the village of Kakolihaor and the haor itself. Again, the vista was crystal clear. On the marshland, the haor, were a number of large trees. Even from here they could see the birds on treetops, the birds that had fled from the Songbird Tree. Some seemed to be looking right this way, toward this hill. Wistfully so, Jiyon sensed. They wanted to return to the Songbird Tree!

As they came around now to the front of the house they saw that Priest Rudra, looking annoyed, had come out of the house and was standing defiantly on the front veranda. The Morol quickly greeted him and explained that these were the expected visitors Jiyon Jana and Longjam Shantikumar, and that they wanted to see the lay of the land from the hilltop. The Inspector the priest already knew of course. "I hope this is not an intrusion, Maharaj," concluded the Morol.

Upon this the priest’s stance softened visibly. In a hail-fellow-well-met voice, he said: "Not in the least, Morol. I am most honored to meet the great adventurers. And hello, Inspector! Would you gentlemen grace my home by coming in and having a cup of tea?"

As previously agreed among the party, the Morol accepted this invitation to go inside the house. As they were doing so, Jiyon and Longjam sized up the priest. He indeed was a large and powerful man, and also looked quite agile. He was clean-shaven except for a rather oversized handlebar moustache whose tips met up with the sideburns. Not the conventional ascetic, as the Morol had said. He was wearing a white dhoti and an equally white tee-shirt. The shirt material was thin enough that they could see the Brahmin’s sacred thread through it. Jiyon know which shoulder the thread should hang from, and the priest was wearing it correctly. So far there was no sign of any kind of deception here.

As they went through the front door, there was a staircase that led up to the upper story. Jiyon ran his eyes over what could be seen of the ground story, but there was mostly a hallway with nothing much to attract attention. The entire second story was one huge room, enclosed all around by windows. The room was airy as all the windows were open. On the floor here were spread out a few mattresses and cushions to sit on. There was no furniture.

The party took a 360-degree circular walk along the windows, the priest leading the way and pointing out the features of the landscape. Everything was visible from here. Jiyon took particular care to look at the canopy of the Songbird Tree from this high vantage. It looked perfectly normal, as canopies go.

The priest now called out: "Lakshmi, O my dear daughter Lakshmi!" and in a minute there came up a little girl about three or four years old. The first thing one noticed about her is that she was very fair and her facial features were very well-defined – the nose, the mouth, the eyelids and the eyebrows. Altogether she brought to one’s mind the chiseled marble statue of some Greek goddess. Jiyon thought of how ethnic mixing sometimes produced most beautiful babies. And to accentuate this striking appearance, she had a black mole on the bridge of her nose. She now looked from one visitor to another and greeted everyone silently with a nod of her head, and a very sweet smile to go with that.

"Lakshmi, would you ask Mother to please prepare tea for our visitors?" said Priest Rudra, running the palm of his hand lovingly over her head.

As she left, they all sat down on the mattresses and the cushions. Jiyon looked at the priest: "Maharaj, I hope we do not cause you any ire by coming here and intruding on your turf."

Priest Rudra laughed most jovially: "Think nothing of it! I am glad that you have come, and I – more than anyone else – wish you success. Even though I stand to gain from performing a religious exorcism, quite frankly I am not looking forward to this. And my wife and daughter are very upset that I agreed to do so. In fact, if there is any way I can be of use to you, I would like to help."

"Thank you. We might take you up on this offer," Jiyon took over. " But in the meantime, tell us what the ceremony of a Whole Forest Exorcism is. All I know about ritual chanting and such is the Gayatri Mantra, you know, Om jabakusuma sankasham etc!"

"Well, it is commendable that you know the Gayatri Mantra even though you are not a Brahmin. My reading of the situation is that some great and powerful evil has descended on one or both of the villages, and resides in that forest. I will confront that evil and command him in the names of Durga and Kali and Shiva to depart. It is a very long and elaborate process. I will go round the entire forest sprinkling holy water and Bel leaves. I will command the evil to leave in mantras prescribed in the scriptures."

"And what is your theory about the disappearance of Baby Basu? Do you suppose she is still alive?"

"I think the evil spirit demands some pristine sacrifice. That is why he took the innocent baby girl. I am not sure if the exorcism can bring her back. I would not wish to raise any hopes in the mind of the villagers in that regard."

"Thank you, Maharaj. Longjam, do you have anything particular in mind you would like to ask our host?"

"No, nothing related to the work at hand," said Longjam. "But Maharaj, I was interested to hear that you escaped from Burma and came to India as a refugee. I was posted in various parts of Burma with the India Command. Whereabouts are you from?"

"I am from a fishing village just outside Mandalay, right on the Irrawaddy. In fact the central gathering place of the villagers was the ghat on the river."

"You must have visited the nearby historical town Mingun then? I was stationed in that area for a while."

"Oh yes. It was just a bus ride from us."

Lakshmi appeared, carrying a tray rather large for her size. But she carried it with facility, and handed it to her father in athletic-like movement. The father accepted it also with precision movement. It was as though they habituated to working together in choreographed fashion. The priest now poured the tea as the girl handed round plates of salty snacks called Nimkis.

It was nearly nine-thirty. As the party got up to leave, the priest said: "I will be coming down to the village in a little bit also. I run a shop there. If there is anything more you can think to ask me, just walk over to the temple. I was wondering, Mr. Jana and Mr. Shantikumar, are you going to the forest tonight to confront the evil with guns and things?"

"Actually, Maharaj, we just remembered that we have left some urgent business in Sylhet hanging, and we have to leave shortly. But we will be back Friday night and hold our vigil in the forest. Yes, we do have firearms for our protection, and will use them if we must."

The priest looked confused. Then he blurted out with a smirk: "Surely you are not having cold feet?!"

Jiyon smiled wryly and said: "We will be back Friday afternoon. If not, then Saturday. After Saturday night the show is all yours."

"Then I best get started under the assumption that I will after all have to go through with the exorcism. There is a lot of preparation to be done, and I do not want to push everything to the last minute if there is any question that you might not return."

"That would be a wise thing to do, Maharaj," interjected the Morol. The Inspector nodded in agreement. It seemed quite clear to the priest that the consensus among these two men was in favor of the cold feet proposition. Indeed, Jiyon and Longjam both looked a little sheepish.

VIII. Exeunt Jiyon and Longjam

Back at the guesthouse the villagers were squatting in the front yard. By now some had also come from the other village. As soon as they saw the party returning, they stood up, hoping to receive some kind of briefing as to what was going on. Jiyon and Longjam went straight into the house without saying anything while a grim-faced Morol and a distraught-looking Inspector faced the villagers.

"Boys, here is the current situation that I want you to pass on to both the villages. Our two visitors have suddenly remembered that they have left some urgent business unfinished in Sylhet and must return immediately. But they will be back Friday or Saturday. That is cutting it close. So I have concluded that we should start preparing for the Whole Forest Exorcism. If our visitors return and are able to solve this problem, then all shall be well. But if not, we should be fully ready to move on to the next step."

The Morol paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. But a young villager interjected: "Morol, we heard from Ramvilash that the Babus had seen something in the Songbird Tree last night and were most frightened. Are they having second thoughts?"

"Be that as it may, we will take them at their word that they will return. Now, about the exorcism. Today is Tuesday. I am calling a general meeting on Thursday morning at eight am. I will ask Ranjit Babu from the District office to come also. Now, every family will send the money to that meeting. I will collect them and count them in front of everyone, and then give the money to Ranjit Babu for safekeeping. He will return on Monday morning with this money plus the matching District funds. We will then be ready to hand these funds over to Priest Rudra. He has said that if the birds do not return in two weeks after the Whole Forest Exorcism, he will return the money. I will now go over to the temple and fill him in on this. Is everything clear?"

The villagers nodded somewhat uncertainly, looking quite crest-fallen. But they did not leave yet. About half an hour later, Jiyon and Longjam emerged with their travel bags packed, ready to leave. The police driver came and collected the guns and carried them back in plain view of the villagers. The two guests and the Inspector now boarded the jeep and they were off. The villagers stared vacantly at the receding vehicle. Jiyon now saw the priest entering the village and waved goodbye. The priest waved back.

Jiyon and Longjam were sitting in the back of the jeep. From the passenger seat in the front the Inspector turned to look at them and asked: "I do not wish to press you for any theories but could you at least give me some clues as to what your line of thinking is?"

"We will. But first, can we drive by the other village and take a closer look at the haor?"

The jeep rounded the hill and brought them right to the edge of the haor. From here they had a clear view of some of the birds sitting on treetops. They looked for a long while, walked around a little and looked at the birds from various angles, and were back on their way.

"First let us hear from Longjam as to what his impressions of Priest Rudra are," said Jiyon.

"First of all, the priest is not from Burma. He said he lived near Mandalay on the Irrawaddy, and Mingun was a bus ride away. Actually, Mingun is on the other side of the river and a boat is the only way to get there. Second, he is not a priest. Boss Babu gave him some words from the Sun Worship chant and called it the Gayatri Mantra. Both these chants are known to every Brahmin that wears a sacred thread. But the priest did not spot this obvious error. Third, a thick handlebar moustache is a clever way to disguise your appearance without arousing suspicion that you are hiding, as would be in the case of bushy a beard covering the whole face. Fourth, that padlock on the garage is a new Yale lock, a very expensive tamper-proof foreign-made thing. That seems to be little too much if all there is in the garage is an old motorcycle."

The Inspector’s mouth was literally agape in amazement. But before he could say anything, Jiyon picked up: "Very good, Longjam. To these observations I would add that the priest and his daughter both look unusually athletic. I mean, a homebound little girl could be thin or chubby, but not well-honed and agile as Lakshmi is. It is as though the father and the daughter are on some type of exercise regimen. And did you notice how the girl easily carried the heavy tea tray and then handed it to her father with almost robotic hand movement, as though they were completely in tune with each other’s movements? I think this is significant. There are two other clues I will give you, Inspector: The scent dogs you brought in, and the birds in the haor."

At last it was the Inspector's turn to speak. "I am having a very bad attack of inferiority complex. I was there with you the whole time. I saw and heard what you saw and heard. And yet, I completely missed all these observations!"

Longjam laughed: "That is because you do not have a suspicious mind. You are too trusting of human nature."

The Inspector replied: "That may be so. But I was referring more to the odds and ends of information you brought to bear on this case. Who would have thought that a policeman or an adventurer might benefit from knowing the lay of land in Burma or Sanskrit chants?!"

A smiling Jiyon now asked the Inspector: "Can you be available full time the next few days if necessary?"

"Absolutely," said the Inspector. "But what where you saying about the birds and the dogs?"

"The birds are expecting to return from the haor to the Songbird Tree. If this was a case of some tree disease or some jungle affliction, they would have flown away as far as they could. This suggests that they expect this to be a temporary thing. And surely dogs cannot smell evil spirit. These fierce dogs were cowered by some smell that was unfamiliar and terrifying to them, even though they are hunting dogs."

"I see," said the Inspector even as he was trying to absorb all this. Then he added: "Tell me what to do next, Mr. Jana."

"Where is the most likely place in East Bengal where a Bengali man would socially meet a Burmese woman and marry? It is where there is a mixing of Burmese and Bengali ethnicities. So first thing today, send a telegram to the Chittagong police asking if there is any open issue about a Bengali man with a Burmese wife and a three or four year old daughter. Include a physical description of the priest. Leave out the moustache. Mention the motorcycle-trailer. Also ask if they know anything about a telegraphic bulletin about such a family, received by the Bithangal police – give the date on which Sub-Inspector Chaudhury received the telegram."

IX. The exorcism funds are collected

The village meeting was well attended on Thursday morning. Each family from the two villages was represented. On the dais sat the Morol, Ranjit Babu and Priest Rudra. There was a police constable standing behind Ranjit Babu, clearly for the purpose of guarding the money. There was going to be a great deal of accumulated cash.

The Morol received the money from each family, wrote out a receipt and placed the money in a metal box. After all the families tendered their share, the total money was counted again in full view. Then the box was transferred to Ranjit Babu who promised to return on Monday with the full amount of one lac rupees. Then the Morol said: "Unless there are any issues anyone has, we will bring the meeting to a close."

Dipak Dastidar, father of the boy Rupak, stood up. He asked: "If the exorcism succeeds, does this mean that my boy will be cured automatically? If not, will we at least know what exactly it was that he saw in the forest that terrified him so?"

The question was intended for Priest Rudra and he took it. "I am afraid the exorcism can only rid the forest of the evil and cannot undo any damages. Neither can it cure Rupak nor can it bring back the baby."

"But the Calcutta doctors have said that if we knew what Rupak saw, then they would have a very good chance of curing him. Now you are telling me that we will go through this whole process but that my boy will stay the way he is. I cannot accept this. So tonight after dark I will go to the Songbird Tree, myself alone. Do not anyone even think of coming with me or watching me from hiding, for the evil has never showed itself except to a defenseless person alone in the forest. I will see if I can coax out whatever it is and take a good look at it."

There arose a murmur of disapproval. One villager said: "Dipak, you will face the same fate as your son. You may even die. In either case, how will this help your son?"

Another villager added: "At least wait until Saturday to see if the city Babus come back and confront the evil."

"The Babus will not come back," replied Dipak Dastidar. "Ramvilash saw stark fear in their eyes. They will not come back. No, my mind is made up. I am entering the forest tonight and coming back with a good description of the horror for the head doctors to work with."

The Morol intervened: "Dipak, I strongly urge that you not do this. However, we have all failed your son, and are now about to leave him behind the way he is. So who are we to dissuade you? All I say is think this over most carefully and talk it out with your wife. All right, the meeting is adjourned."

The Morol then spoke privately to the priest: "Can you come to my home about seven this evening say, so that we can go over the details of the exorcism plan. I am quite certain that that is the route we have to take. Unless of course this new development with Dipak Dastidar turns up something that needs to be followed up before we go to exorcism. I think we can finish up our discussion in an hour so that you can go home to dinner by eight."

Priest Rudra agreed to come promptly at seven. As he was about to leave, the Morol said somewhat hesitantly and in a conspiratorial voice: "A great deal of money is within your reach. The mound of hard cash is all there to be just handed over to you Monday morning. And in no small measure this is due to me. You understand what I am saying?"

The priest looked a little surprised. He seemed to be considering in his mind what he had just heard. Then he said in almost a whisper: "OK, I will take care of you as long as your demands are reasonable. We can discuss this tonight."

X. The horror

In the end the villagers, on the Morol's advice, agreed not to interfere in any way with Dipak's plan. So in the evening the village went to sleep just as it did every evening. The only light that stayed on was a hurricane lamp in Dipak Dastidar’s porch.

Just after one in the morning Dipak took the lamp from its bracket and started for the Songbird Tree. It was slightly chilly and so he had wrapped himself in a warm chador. He had also covered his ears with a woolen muffler, running it over his head and under his chin.

In this dark night, the lantern created a fairly large sphere of general visibility. At least the gross feature of things could be seen. In a few minutes he arrived under the Songbird Tree. He then went to the altar and stood there for a while. He came back and found a spot about thirty feet from the tree trunk, and sat down on the ground with the lantern by his side. Now it was waiting. Dipak kept his eyes fixed on the trunk and the lower portion of the canopy, thinking back to the description of Oldman Osman.

About half an hour passed, by Dipak's guess. He stood up and walked around the tree – first slowly and then vigorously, as if to attract the attention of the evil spirit and cause it to appear before him. Then he resumed his seat and pulled the chador tighter around him. He listened carefully for any sounds that were over and above the usual forest sounds.

And now there it was! No doubt about it. The long low note of a flute. A faint noise now of something stirring in the canopy. Dipak tuned his ears to and peeled his eyes on where the noise seemed to have come from. A few minutes passed. Then he saw. In the faint light of the hurricane lantern dispelling the darkness just a little, he saw it. From the trunk of the tree, from just below where the lowest branches shot out, there was sprouting a new branch! Not a new shoot, but a thick, fully formed branch. As its length kept growing ever so slowly, the branch kept swaying in all directions. Dipak felt great horror but still not a debilitating one. He kept his wits about. He remembered Oldman Osman. The branch kept lengthening and swaying, lengthening and swaying.

Even as Dipak now stood up, he let the chador and the muffler slide down from his body. The fully uniformed shape of Inspector Shahryar Ferdous was revealed. He undid the button of his holster and clasped the handle of the .455 Webley service revolver. Whatever he was facing, as long as it was of this world, the Inspector was sure this large caliber bullet would stop it. All he had to do is to retain his composure and not succumb to the horror. The Inspector steeled himself, picked up the lantern with his left hand and advanced a few steps towards the tree. He was now barely ten feet from the trunk.

The new branch had grown so long and was swaying so wildly that if it swung his way, its tip would be face to face with the Inspector. He held up the lantern high so he could have a good view.

It did swing his way, came face to face with him, and held steady there. The Inspector saw it. Even as his right hand was tightening on the revolver, his composure failed. He fainted and fell to the ground.

The tip of the branch hovered over the Inspector a bit and then swung away sidewise and upward.

Immediately two shadows emerged from the darkness of the forest. They laid down the weapons they were carrying. They advanced, grabbed the Inspector by the shoulders and quickly dragged him across the soft grassy floor to a place nearly thirty feet away from tree. They laid him down there and sprinkled some water on his face from a canteen. The Inspector revived.

Longjam asked: "Inspector, are you OK to stay here a while we take care of things?"

The Inspector nodded and said in a feeble voice: "Do not worry about me. Please be careful. Take my revolver."

Longjam took the Webley and stuck it his belt. Jiyon and Longjam returned to where the Inspector had been standing. The lantern had fallen on the ground and got extinguished. The branch had moved out a great distance, but now seemed to be swinging back, aiming their way.

When the tip of the branch was just a few feet away, Jiyon aimed the shotgun at it and turned on the hunting torch. The intensely bright beam caught fully the horror that was approaching them.

The monster serpent itself was fearsome enough. But its human head made it totally phantasmagoric, with all the intensity and all the meaning that the word evil could possibly conjure up. Brave men both, Jiyon and Longjam still had to struggle to not faint. But it became even more difficult when the human-headed serpent’s face came closer. The face of a Greek goddess, very fair-skinned, with sharp nose and eyebrows. All these were accentuated by the black spot on the bridge of the nose. The sloe eyes were wincing in the intense light.

Out of sheer momentum the head continued along its swinging arc, and there was little doubt that it would come back and settle before them. What would it then do to them?

Jiyon spoke very quickly in telegraphic language: "Longjam, nothing supernatural … priest's daughter wearing snake suit climbed into mouth of python …a make-believe human-serpent … a simple hunting issue… when it comes around, you yank the girl out of the mouth, lay her down by Inspector and be ready to back me up with the rifle … Clear, Longjam?"

Longjam realized that Jiyon was taking on the more dangerous part of the task ahead. But this was no time to be debating.

"Clear, Boss Babu," replied Longjam as he was laying down the rifle and wiping his palms on his trouser to get a good grip.

As soon as the head was within his reach, Longjam caught the girl’s shoulder in a vice grip and gave her as hard and as sudden a yank as he could. The girl, wearing a suit made of snake skin right up to her neckline, easily slid out. Longjam noticed a steel hook contraption attached to the girls shoulders to prevent the snake from drawing her in further into its mouth. He carried her to the Inspector, laid her down and said: "Look after her." He turned on his heels and came back to pick up his rifle.

As soon as the snake's mouth was empty, it opened it wide, right in front of Jiyon’s face. The latter, who thought that he had come to terms with the terror, realized that this was more than he could take. The huge jaws, the fleshy pink interior, the fangs and the view of the channel of the throat through which a victim would slither down slowly – all this was too much even for the bravest of man. But instinctively, Jiyon stuck the barrel of the shotgun several inched within this mouth and pulled the front trigger. There was tremendous report, and the charge of No. 2 buckshot sprayed the interior of the snake’s mouth. Jiyon got ready to fire the fatal shot, the slug in the other chamber. But the mouth started moving. He managed to fire the slug but missed. He was out of ammunition in the breech, and there was no time to reload.

But Jiyon saw through the corner of eyes Longjam come up by his side and felt relieved. At that instant the snake gave a violent sidewise jerk of his head, hitting Longjam who fell to the ground. His rifle was thrown several feet away.

The snake opened its mouth even wider and started to come at Jiyon's head. It was clear that it would swallow his head and shoulder at the first go and then would slowly pull in the rest of the body. Jiyon went rather numb. But he managed to keep the torch pointed at the mouth so that Longjam could fire a shot on recovering his rifle.

Now the snake lowered its head slightly, perhaps out of the pain from the damage caused by buckshot charge. As it did so, Jiyon's eyes were looking straight into the snake’s eyes, barely a foot away. Jiyon felt he was looking straight into the abyss of hell. Such was the depth of evil he saw there that he went completely numb. He was petrified.

From his lying position, Longjam could not see how he could get up, recover the rifle and fire a shot in time to save Jiyon. From where he was he could see the snake’s head . He pulled out the Webley and held it in a two-handed grip. But he did not have a clear line of fire. Jiyon’s head was obstructing it.

He shouted: "Boss Babu, run! Get away! Fall back! Give me a line of fire!" But there was no reaction from Jiyon. Just then, the snake moved its head back about a foot, preparing to make the final strike. For a fleeting moment, Longjam saw the pink, fleshy roof of the snake's mouth, just behind the fangs. He emptied all the six chambers of the revolver into that target, in three groups of two shots. The head took on the appearance of a lump of minced meat, but still came towards Jiyon’s head. Jiyon came to and managed to move back out of reach. In a slow motion, the snake’s head fell towards the ground.

Still stunned, Jiyon and Longjam now saw that the body of the snake was still wreathing and wiggling on the ground even as its tail was still sliding down the trunk of the tree. At this moment there came from the back of the tree a tall figure and shouted: "What have you done to my daughter? What have you done to my darling daughter?"

As the priest was advancing towards them, a flute in his left hand a machete in the right, he stumbled on the snake's body. To his abject horror Jiyon pointed the torch to the location and saw the snake coil round the priest with lightning speed and start to crush him. The priest body seemed to bend in most unnatural angles and his face had a vicious, contorted look. Jiyon and Longjam could hear bones break. Jiyon said slowly: "Longjam, I do not think we can do anything to save him. He will die a slow death."

As he said so, they saw the priest look in their direction and point to his temple with the index finger of his right hand, clearly appealing for them to shoot him and put him out of his suffering. Longjam had picked up the rifle by now. He looked at Jiyon. Jiyon said: "Longjam, I do not know the legalities of our shooting a man who is legally alive, regardless of the circumstances. Euthanasia is not legal. I suggest we not do anything."

Jiyon now moved the beam of the torch along the length of the snake’s body and stopped it where there was a bulge. "The baby?" asked Longjam. Jiyon nodded.

XI. The cover up

The Morol was staying alert and was listening for the Inspector's whistle that would signal him to come to the Songbird Tree. The police at the edge of the forest had orders to not let anyone else into the forest until the clearance from the Inspector. But when they heard as many as eight loud gun shots the Morol decided to start anyway, with a lantern in hand.

The sight he saw turned his stomach and he nearly retched. He then steadied himself by clutching Longjam’s proffered hand.

The Morol now saw Jiyon and the Inspector standing together, and a creature half human, half snake lying on the ground.

Jiyon spoke: "Listen carefully because we need to do several things before this whole business becomes public. I will explain what was going on here later. Right now, the first thing we need to do is to decide what to do about the baby in the snake’s belly. The body must still be fairly intact. Do you want to tell the parents or do you want to hide the truth from them? My suggestion is that we cut open the baby and wrap it in ample cloth – never to be unwrapped again – and hand the bundle over to the parents for a proper funeral with full religious ceremony. That would at least bring some closure, and spare them lifelong trauma. We will tell the parents that the baby was found dead in the hilltop bungalow. Would you go along with this, Inspector?"

The Inspector nodded and the Morol murmured agreement. Longjam took out a long hunting knife from his belt and held it up. "If you would do this, fine. If not, I can do it."

The Morol looked at the knife for a few seconds, and took it most resolutely. As he looked at Longjam, the latter said: "Make sure that afterwards you turn the incision side towards the ground. We will explain the spilled blood as being the result of gunshot. Wrap the baby completely and in many folds with that chador over there on the ground."

In about fifteen minutes the Morol was finished. He had wiped his hands clean on the grass. Jiyon asked him if he was all right to get on with the next task, and the Morol nodded. "Now, the little girl wearing the snake skin suit. Before we take it off her, bring the boy Rupak here and let him see and understand that the sight he saw has a perfectly natural explanation. Then give the little girl to the village women to take care of for now. I do not think she is culpable in any way. She is just a victim. May be she will be able to gain a normal life with some care and loving. But that is up to the authorities."

The Morol went away. A little later he came back dragging the boy Rupak almost by force, and Jiyon took charge. He led the boy by hand and showed him the dead snake. Longjam brought the girl Lakshmi and had her stand near the mouth of the snake. Then Lakshmi stuck her feet inside the snake’s mouth to illustrate the process of assembly. Jiyon explained how the human-snake was formed. They saw some reactions on the boys face.

As the Morol took Rupak back, Inspector Ferdous asked: "So did the priest feed the baby to the snake?"

"I think not," replied Jiyon. "A python this size probably eats a small animal every couple of months. This one has eaten two goats in four months. So perhaps it was hungry again and ventured down from the canopy on its own, when neither the priest nor his daughter was watching. It then took the first edible thing it could find."

"And how did Sub-Inspector Chaudhury die?"

"My guess is that he lost consciousness upon witnessing the horror. But he did not die. The priest finished him off by covering his nose and mouth with bare hands."

A little later the Morol returned.

"So now," Jiyon continued: "Inspector, let your men take over from here. Longjam and I will explain everything to the villagers tomorrow morning. It is now nearly two pm, but I do not think any of us will be able to sleep. Is there any chance of some strong hot tea?"

"Absolutely," said the Morol. "Let’s go to my house."

The Inspector joined the three men as they walking towards the edge of the forest, since he needed to summon his men waiting there. Jiyon said to the Morol as they were walking back: "The priest’s wife will no doubt go to prison as an accomplice and a murderer. May be you can engineer things so that Baby Basu's parents can adopt this little girl, if Inspector Ferdous will help with the formalities."

"I will help," said the Inspector.

"A daughter lost and a daughter gained! I have not doubt the parents will want her. She will have a most loving and normal home," said the Morol.

Later, as Jiyon and Longjam were seated in the Morol's house and the latter was in the kitchen helping his just-awakened wife make tea, Jiyon said in a low voice to Longjam: "That was close, Longjam!"

Longjam understood this to be a 'Thank you for saving my life' in that special way of speaking that develops between friends who have watched each other's back for a long time. He nodded slightly in full acknowledgement.

XII. As the adventurer himself tells it

By eight in the morning the villagers had settled down in front of the guesthouse, hoping for a blow-by-blow account. Jiyon and Longjam, joined by the Inspector and the Morol, had eaten an especially hearty breakfast prepared by Ramvilash and were on their third round of tea. They all came out to the porch, teacups in hand. There was just enough space left on the porch for the four of them to seat down on the chairs. The rest of the porch was filled by young boys and girls sitting cross-legged on the floor. On the ground just down from the porch sat a couple of rows of boys and girls. Beyond that the villagers stood round in a semi-circle. The women had not come though. And the Morol had directed that small children not come.

The Morol spoke first. "Our visitors and the Inspector have kindly agreed to take the time to fill us in completely on the events of the past few days. This is good, for we certainly deserve to know the full truth, we who have suffered all this time. The present situation as you may have already heard is that Priest Rudra is dead. The police are now in his bungalow and have taken his wife into custody. The little girl is with the Basu family and is being taken care of there. The body of Baby Basu was recovered from the bungalow and the village will observe full religious cremation ceremony tomorrow. We will bring a real priest from Srimangal for this. Rupak has already started to speak and should recover fully without the need of any doctors, thanks to our visitors. You will all get all your money back, and the village will be at peace. The songbirds should return to the forest from the haor in a matter of days. Now I will let these gentlemen take over."

Inspector Ferdous took over. "I will explain to you why we had to engage in a little deception with the village, before turning the floor over to Mr. Jana and Sergeant Shantikumar. Shortly after coming here Mr. Jana concluded that there was no way to confront this evil or to make it appear before us unless one defenseless person went alone in the forest. There was no point to groups of people holding vigil in the forest with guns and all. But Mr. Jana also did not want anyone to know that he planned to trap the evil.

"So he created the impression among you all that the great adventurers were so scared that they were fleeing with their tails between their legs. The Morol of course was in on this plan, and he in turn took Dipak Dastidar in his confidence. Mr. Dastidar, fortunately for us, gave a fine performance at the village meeting. Of course we were never going to send him in harm's way. Instead, at night when the Morol kept the priest in conference in his house, I came into the Dastidar house and took his place.

"Another purpose to the meeting on Thursday was to lull the priest into thinking that everything was going his way. He saw the money that was coming to him right in front of him, a few inches from him in fact. Cold, hard cash. And to make him even more believing, the Morol privately asked him for a kickback. That left no room for any suspicion in the priest’s mind that anything was amiss.

"The rest of the story you will hear from our visitors, or I should say, our saviors."

Jiyon looked at Longjam. Longjam nodded and started to speak. "OK, let me tell you the story in the sequence in which it developed. Now, even before we arrived here on Monday afternoon, the thing that had struck us as the most significant – based on the Inspector's very thorough briefing – is the conduct of the two bloodhounds brought to track Baby Basu's scent. These are hunting dogs and are used to track all kinds of jungle scents. If they smelled a tiger or lion, say, they might become excited, but surely they would not retreat the way they did in this case. And surely they cannot smell ghosts. So that left us with a puzzle as to what real-life thing it was that the dogs had smelled and became so afraid.

"The following morning as we were leaving, the Inspector drove us through Kakolihaor and we stopped to look at the haor. As we had heard, the birds that had left the Songbird Tree were sitting on the treetops there, in that marshland. It appeared that they were looking wistfully towards the Songbird Tree, perhaps hoping to come back someday. But when we looked closer, we noticed that some of them were actually gazing in the direction of the hilltop, as though they sensed that that is where the object of their fear was. The animals have a sense about such things that we humans do not, but we can use their sense to our advantage

"As you know, before going to the haor, we had visited Priest Rudra in his home this morning, and conducted a casual conversation. A little discussion of Burma convinced us that he was not a refugee from Burma. We also tested his knowledge of the Sanskrit scriptures, especially things that a priest would know. And we became convince that he was not even a priest. Not a Brahmin even.

"So now we became focused on the priest. That brought to our mind one fact whose significance we had missed earlier. On the morning that Sub-Inspector Chaudhury was found dead, the priest tried to hang a communal hatred issue on the incident. And it caused the police to quickly close the investigation. That was an understandable thing for the police to do. However, if that investigation could have been done with proper diligence, things might have gone very differently.

"Why did the Sub-Inspector run out of the office with a telegram in his hand without telling anyone anything or without logging the telegram in? We can only guess that may be he wanted to have the entire credit of nabbing an important fugitive the telegram described. But he died trying to do so and the telegram vanished. No one knew what it was about or where it originated. So that was another thing we considered.

"Let us put it all together. We have a Bengali man with a Burmese wife and a little daughter who all came here about four month ago. About three months ago Sub-Inspector Chaudhury came looking for him and lost his life under the Songbird Tree. The dogs told us there is some real-life danger from the Songbird Tree and the birds in the haor told us that the danger may be connected to the hilltop bungalow.

"Where is a Bengali young man most likely to meet a Burmese young woman and become engaged? Where there is a Burmese population in East Bengal. And there is only one such place, the southern part of the state adjoining Burma. And the central police headquarters for that region is in Chittagong. So we asked Inspector Ferdous to send a query telegram to the Chittagong Police. The response came only yesterday afternoon as we were starting to come here. I will read the telegram to you:

TO SRIMANGAL POLICE ATTN INSPECTOR SHAHRYAR FERDOUS REF YOUR ENQUIRY SAID FAMILY KNOWN TO US STOP SUBINSPECTOR CHAUDHURY POSSIBLY ACTED ON OUR BULLETIN TELEGRAM OF SAME DATE STOP DETAILS WITH TWO CHITTAGONG OFFICERS DISPATCHED TO SRIMANGAL TODAY STOP DO NOT ACT TILL THEIR ARRIVAL STOP SITUATION EXTREMELY DANGEROUS STOP CHITTAGONG POLICE BY DSP VIJAY MATHUR

"Unfortunately, the Chittagong officers will not arrive until this morning, and we had to act last night according to the plans we had set in motion. The officers will be brought here directly they arrive in Srimangal railway station, and we may be able to hear from them in a little while. Anyway, we had to go into the forest not knowing what it was that we were facing, and what the priest was wanted for.

"And then last night happened. That brings us to the end of the story."

Longjam stopped, indicating the end of his narrative. But his audience looked uncertain. Then one girl raised her hand and said: "But please tell us what all happened last night! We all here love to read adventure stories and detective stories, but we don't get many books here in this remote village. If someone somehow gets his hold on such a book, it gets passed round the whole village. Everybody reads, adults and all! Even mothers. And now we have a real-life adventure of our own right here, right in our village. Please please tell us everything."

"OK, we will. We now turn to the actual events of last night." Jiyon took over where Longjam left off. "Inspector Ferdous took great personal risk himself by essentially serving as a decoy. And that plan worked indeed. For after a period of vigil the telltale flute was heard. The Songbird Tree seemed to be coming to life. A new, fully-formed branch seemed to be sprouting from the tree while swaying and wreathing. It was as Oldman Osman had described. We – Longjam and I – had entered the forest from the other village, and were lurking some distance away, watching the Inspector in the guise of Dipak Dastidar. We did not want to appear on the scene prematurely, and thus let whatever it was retreat.

"But then we saw the branch reach out to the Inspector and fell him with a sideways strike. We quickly moved in and dragged the Inspector far enough away that he would be safe. Then Longjam and I came and stood where he had earlier stood. Our first task was to observe this branch and understand what we were looking at. When it came close enough to us we shone the bright light from the hunting torch on its extremity. And the sight we saw was something that can make the blood run cold for even the bravest of men.

"There, waving its human head before us, was a phantasmagoric human-serpent. It was a woman who was a monstrous snake from neck down. We were looking straight at the woman's face. Then the branch swung away. It was only then that I realized that the face I saw was not that of a woman, but a little girl. And not just any girl, but the priest's daughter Lakshmi. So I made a quick mental calculation: First, there was nothing supernatural here. We had a serpent and we had a little girl, and together they had created the perfect illusion of a human-serpent. It was now easy to figure out that the girl had climbed into the snake's mouth wearing a snake camouflage suit up to her neck.

"My second thought was that we could not discharge our firearms with the little girl in the snake's mouth. So, even as the head was swinging back towards us, Longjam and I made a quick plan. When the head would swing round and back to us, Longjam would yank the girl out of the snake’s mouth and take her out of harm’s way so that I could tackle the snake. This part went well. But as soon as the snake's mouth was free it opened its jaws wide and turned to me. My blood curdled. In the light of the torch I was looking straight into the gate of hell. The pink flesh folds of the mouth were made most sinister by the white fangs that turned slightly inward. And I was looking right into the throat channel through which my head would be sliding down in a moment, even as I remained fully conscious of what was happening to me. Upon swallowing my head and shoulder, the snake's jaws would stretch and expand enormously around me and start to pull me in little by little.

"I mustered all the mental strength as I had never mustered before, and discharged a volley of No. 2 buckshot into the snake's mouth. For a moment the snake look stunned. It closed its jaws and started swinging to and fro. At this time Longjam came up on my left with his rifle at the ready. The snake's head was now moving so that when I next fired the slug – meant to be the final fatal shot – it missed the head completely. Suddenly now the snake's head jerked sideways and hit Longjam, who lost his balance and fell to the ground. His rifle was thrown clear. The snake's head was back in front of me. It was slightly lowered so that my eyes were now looking deep into the snake's eyes, from perhaps only a foot away.

"I cannot even begin to describe the evil I saw there. Deep in the depths of the eyes I saw a bluish glow that seemed to like the fire of hell. I think I literally saw this glow, and was not imagining it. It physically paralyzed me completely. But I was conscious and could hear Longjam shout for me to get out of the way and give him a line of fire. But I could not move. The jaws would now start to close in on my head. Neither I nor Longjam had any weapons. We were done for.

"Then I heard six shots in rapid succession. Longjam had fired the Inspector’s revolver which I had not known he had in his belt. He fired from his supine position in the ground in a two-handed grip. And I saw the snake's head turn to a lump from the impact of the large .455 caliber bullets. The head slowly fell to the ground. We thought it was over. Little did we realize what a giant python can do even in its death throes.

"Clearly, the priest was hiding in the forest and was watching the proceedings. Now, seeing the snake collapse, he lost his senses and came running out towards us, shouting: "What have you done to my girl?! What have you done to my girl?!"

"But he stumbled against he snake's body, and with lightning speed the snake coiled around him and squeezed. We could hear bones crack. His life of crime ended thus.

"The mystery of the flute became clear. It was a signal from Priest Rudra to Lakshmi to start the 'act', so to speak. The priest would be watching the scene from a vantage point, and when the time was right he would play his flute. Lakshmi, hiding with the snake in the canopy, would now start the snake on its way.

"So it seems that the python was housed partly in the garage and partly in the canopy. At the command from the priest or his daughter, it would come sliding down the outcrop along the smooth channel, and climb into the canopy. When it was planned to smoke the tree, the python somehow was in the canopy. So Priest Rudra cooked up the excuse of the religious rite and the auspicious morning hour just so he could move the snake during that night.

"A python this size probably needs to eat a small animal every couple of months. And that is why the two goats are missing.

"Also, a python cannot live without the proximity of natural water, and this is why the priest had to create the pond. "So that was the adventure!"

XIII. The Q&A Session

Even as Jiyon was finishing his account, there pulled up a vehicle and two uniformed police officers climbed out. Inspector Ferdous went to meet them. Jiyon now looked at his audience, hoping not to have to answer any questions. Inquisitive youngsters might ask probing questions into areas he did not want to go to. But a few hands went up. Jiyon smiled and looked at one of them.

One boy asked: "How does one become an adventurer?"

Jiyon had never considered that question, and did not know how to answer it. He decided to simply talk about himself.

"I don't know if there are prescribed ways of becoming an adventurer. But for Longjam and me, this is just an extension of our working life. We carve out roads and build bridges in remote places – hills, jungles, river deltas that are still pristine and untouched by man. When you do that for a long time, you become a part of it all. You face whatever comes your way, and sometimes strange things and events come your way. The only thing I can tell you is that a genuine love of outdoors is probably the beginning of a spirit of adventure."

Next question from a girl: "Can women become adventurers?"

"I don’t know any reason why not."

"But if a woman faced what you faced last night, would she be able to cope?"

"Perhaps yes, perhaps not. But she may have other strengths. She may not have made the mistakes we made, and thus not even be subjected to what we faced last night."

"What mistakes?!"

"Well, if we had put together everything we knew before last night in a calm and collected way, we could have figured out that it had to be a giant snake. Then we would have approached it in a more appropriately planned way."

Many hands were raised. Jiyon randomly picked one.

"So the ghost of the bungalow had nothing to do with anything? There was nothing about Priest Rudra’s settling in the bungalow, disturbing the spirit?"

"Look at it this way: If everything that happened can be explained in rational terms, then there is no need or cause to invoke a ghost."

The next question was what Jiyon was dreading.

"But is everything rationally explained? How did Baby Basu die in that haunted bungalow?"

The Morol stepped into the conversation. "Boys and girls, I will explain the rest to you latter. I see the officers are coming this way. Let us hear what they have to say."

XIV. Background story

Inspector Ferdous came and joined the gathering along with the two newcomers. He introduced them as officers of Chittagong Police. He then said: "I have briefed them on the happenings of last night. They in turn have some background information on Priest Rudra that they think they can share openly with all of us. So I give to you Inspector Sengupta."

The Chittagong police officer addressed the crowd. "We are sorry we did not arrive before these gentlemen went into the forest and confronted the evil. Because we could certainly have taken out much of the mystery surrounding this horror. Of course the elements of fear and danger would still have remained.

"The man you knew as Priest Rudra was actually Govinda Mandal. A priest he was not. He was not even a Brahmin. He hailed from Teknaf near the Burma border, as does his wife. She was of Arakan origin.

"This entire family – Govinda, his wife Soe Soe and daughter Lakshmi – they all worked for a traveling circus troupe. The wife worked as a cook. Govinda was a trainer for a 20 foot giant Burmese python. This was the central attraction of the circus, an act called The Phantasmagoric Serpent Girl. It attracted huge crowds who paid premium prices to watch the show. The little girl would wear a specially made suit of snake skin that covered her up to her neck line. She would then climb into the snake's mouth and the snake would swallow her up to her waist. Strapped to her shoulder were steel hooks that prevented the snake from accidentally swallowing the girl entirely. The overall look was that of a monster serpent with the head of a little girl. The illusion was actually perfect. Add to this the atmospherics – the stagecraft, the eerie lighting, the suspense music – and the result was spine-chilling. Even though everyone knew this was put on and that everyone was sitting in the safe midst of a huge crowd, everyone felt the horror. And to cap it all off, the show ended with a bright beam of light on the face which suddenly broke into a sweet smile.

"Now, a little over four months ago, there was a long bank holiday and a great deal of cash accumulated in the circus strongbox, from the box office receipts. Govinda planned to steal that night the entire strongbox and the snake, place them in the circus's specially made motorcycle-trailer for transporting the snake, and abscond with his family. During the act, however, the manager woke up and confronted them. He would have overpowered Govinda had it not been for Soe Soe hitting him on the head with brick. The manager's skull was crushed. But he took a while to die, and was able to tell what had happened.

"We have been looking for the family ever since. And we had sent out telegraphic bulletins to the area police stations on the same day that Sub-Inspector Chaudhury came here.

"So it seems as though Govinda was hiding out here and was at the same time planning another caper. He would surely have left as soon as he had the money in his hands.

"Looking back, what was very effective make-believe horror in a circus setting had become a very effective true horror when placed in the natural setting. That had to be a most diabolical plan."

XV. Closure

About a month later Jiyon's work in Sylhet was finished, and he and Longjam were ready to drive back to Khulna. The annual Puja festivities were just ahead and the two friends were getting into a festive, euphoric frame of mind. The day before they would leave, a bright and sunny day with cirrus clouds signaling the Puja ahead, they decided to drive to Srimangal, pick up Inspector Ferdous if he would be available, and then visit Kakolimukhor.

On the way they stopped at a roadhouse for tea. As they were sitting out in the pleasurable sun and sipping tea, Longjam said: "Now that we are re-visiting the village, I want to sound you out on some issues there I am still not clear on."

"I think I have an idea what they are, but go on. Tell me what's on your mind."

"Well, nothing very concrete. It is just a feeling that not everything was tied up neatly. Even though the villagers may have accepted our story, do we really believe everything we told them?"

"Are you perhaps hinting that there was something supernatural there after all?"

"Well, let's consider a few points. First of all, your vivid description of the dark evil you saw in the python's eyes. You referred to a bluish glow deep in the depths of the serpent’s eyes that seemed like the fire of hell. Now, we are seasoned jungle-faring men. We know that the snake was just a cornered animal trying to protect itself from us and we were trying to protect ourselves from it. It is just the law of nature, the instinct of self-preservation. Just a hunting issue, as you said yourself that night. So how does the element of very dark evil come into this? I have never known you to be given to hyperbole.

"Second, those bloodhounds would surely not be spooked by the smell of an animal even if they had not smelled that animal before. There had to be more to this. Third, since those events we have found out from one of our laborers from Akyab that a Burmese python can go months without meal after eating a small animal. This python was fed two goats in four months. So it certainly would not have been ravenously hungry when it took Baby Basu. Why would it climb down from the tree and go after a human? What I mean is, was this really a case of transplanting a make-believe circus horror into the jungle setting and thus making it into a stark terror, as Inspector Sengupta said, or was it something over and beyond this?"

"The latter, I think. It was almost as though something had happened to transform a trained and tamed circus snake into an evil creature. Beyond all your points, the snake also crushed its own long-time trainer to death. Pet animals usually do not do that. And then there is in mind this other gnawing issue: Why did the priest come to this particular place? But then it occurs to me that there were two obvious questions we never the Morol, because we did not think they were relevant. We were not allowing our minds to consider the supernatural. So we will ask those questions today."

Inspector Ferdous was in his office and readily agreed to join them. But he said he needed about half an hour to finish up some urgent work. In the meantime Jiyon and Longjam were served tea and an assortment of fine local sweets and piping hot samosas from the sweets shop next door to the police station.

When they arrived in the village, the village oval was full. Every villager turned up. They put up whatever colorful festoons they could improvise to create the atmosphere of a carnival. There was a big sign WELCOME SAVIOURS! made by the youngsters. Inspector Ferdous had conspired to send a messenger ahead to tell the villagers of the impending arrival of Jiyon and Longjam!

At the head of the welcoming party was the boy Rupak holding hands with the girl Lakshmi. The Morol explained that the two had become inseparable as though they were siblings, and that Rupak had fully recovered on his own. Behind them were the Basus, parents of Baby Basu. The Morol explained that the family was most happy to have adopted Lakshmi. There was some degree of closure. The Morol took them to one end of the village to show them the memorial grave to Oldman Osman. Then it was the short walk to the Songbird Tree. It looked perfectly peaceful and serene. They saw a brass plaque honoring Sub-Inspector Chaudhury near the altar. The birds were not there this time of day, but they indeed had returned in full force. The bungalow on the hilltop was going to seeds again.

Final goodbyes were said. The Morol accompanied the visitors on their way to the jeep. Jiyon saw the chance now and asked: "Morol, we never asked you this, but did the priest ever tell you why he chose this particular place to settle down?"

"As a matter of fact I was careful to ask him that before accepting him in our midst. And he gave an answer. He had entered East Bengal from Burma near Teknaf and proceeded north somewhat aimlessly, trying to decide where to settle down. One evening they decided to stop for the night near the Mainamati Ruins, about halfway between Chittagong and Srimangal. Then he went for a walk to stretch his cramped legs as his wife and daughter prepared the evening meal. There among the darkened ruins he came upon a sahib browsing. The priest was a little surprised to see anyone here after dusk, but the sahib explained that he was enjoying the ruins by moonlight. They struck up a conversation, with the priest asking the sahib for a good place to make home hereabouts. The sahib told him he knew exactly the place that would suit the priest, and gave him directions to the bungalow."

"And what exactly was the story of the haunting in that bungalow?"

The Morol was a little surprised at such questions at this stage – after the fact, so to speak. But he still replied quite fully. This is how the story went.

XVI. The blue fire

Some fifty years ago a sahib, a tea plantation owner, lived alone in the bungalow. He had a retinue of Indians, the 'natives', working in his house as servants, cooks, gardeners, water boys and so on. The sahib was a most vile and ill-tempered person and on top of all this, hated the natives with a passion. He seemed to derive great personal pleasure by torturing them at the slightest excuse. That included physical beatings and floggings and other forms of torture. Sometimes he brandished his gun and even fired over their heads. He such things on a daily basis, and the servants lived in abject fear. And yet they did not leave his employment because of the good salaries he paid and because he might ruin them if they did leave. Remember that this was still British India. No one could do anything about this.

One day the four-year old son of one of the servants ran up the hill to the bungalow to take his father home, because the mother had suddenly taken ill. When the sahib heard this, he said no way could the servant abandon his duties. Upon this the little boy, still panting from his run, continued his tearful supplication. The sahib flew into an insane rage. He was a huge man, and simply lifted the boy high up above his head and hurled him into the sloping outcrop. The boy was mangled to a most agonizing and slow death.

That night the natives organized. They knew the police would do nothing about the boy's death. So they pulled the sahib out of his bed and dragged him into the garage and tied him to a chair. Then they asked him if he was prepared to mend his ways. The sahib berated them most profanely. He said they were nothing more than beasts of burden to him. He said he would hand them all over to the police in the morning for assaulting him thus, reminding them that the Commissioner Sahib was his drinking mate. The servants then executed their plan. They placed near the sahib’s feet the basket they had borrowed from the local snake charmer. It had contained a yet undefanged keute saap, the highly poisonous krait.

They opened the lid and stepped back. The snake climbed up the sahib’s leg and up his torso. Then it sat coiled in his lap and unfurled its hood right in front of the sahib’s face. For a moment their eyes locked. The servants thought that in that moment they saw for the first time fear in the sahib’s eyes. With lightning speed the snake struck the sahib on the tip of his nose. Soon the sahib's body was writhing in great agony. But even as he was dying, his promised his assailants that he would come back to teach them "an equal lesson – only many times magnified". As he said so, the servants could see the bluish flame of great hatred burning within the sahib’s clear blue eyes.

The sahib's pajama-clad body was placed back in his bed along with the snake which was killed without living any marks. The police concluded that the snake had ventured into the house, climbed into the warm bed and bit the sahib. A brave dying sahib then managed to squeeze the snake to death.

But the true story of the sahib's death spread among the locals as a whispered rumor. The legend developed then that the evil spirit of the owner was hanging around that bungalow, looking to possess a live body. Because of whiffs of this rumor no sahibs wanted to buy this property even at a nominal price, and the property became bewarish (ownerless) and went to seeds.

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GHOST SIGHTING GUARANTEED

Bibhas De Bengali adventure stories

Bibhas De Bengali stories

The skies had been darkening for some time. Around about four it started to rain, slowly at first and then in a steady torrent. This was Sunday afternoon and Avi had been sitting on the veranda of his Government bungalow, sipping tea in a leisurely manner. The moody skies had put him in a reflective mood and now the rain condensed it to something of an ardor.

Life has been good for Avimanyu Chatterjee, all twenty-four years of it. He spent his childhood and adolescence in various parts of the North Cachar Hills area, acquiring an affinity for the great outdoors, and even a little adventurelust. After receiving his Civil Engineering degree from the Bengal Engineering College in Calcutta, he returned here and joined the Assam Public Works Department. There he rose quite rapidly, now holding the fairly high position of SDO-PWD in Haflong. The position of the Sub-Divisional Officer was considered an important one on a District-wide basis, especially in an India just free from British rule and establishing her own governance. Avi enjoyed such privileges as Government housing, a vehicle with a driver, and a housekeeper. However, for his personal use, Avi used the Land Rover gifted to him by his uncle when the latter retired. The uncle in turn had bought it second-hand from a British military officer who was returning ‘home’, and that was how this vehicle was affordable for the uncle, even if just barely. It was a sturdy vehicle that could go pretty much anywhere, even on non-jeepable terrain. It certainly was a great asset for any explorer of hills and jungles in these parts.

Avi had not married yet, but the pressure to marry was being applied with increasing frequency by his parents in Silchar as well as by other relatives. Such pressure was always accompanied by the suggestion of a specific prospective bride, often accompanied by a photograph. Avi knew that his bachelor days would soon end. If he had any last wishes to fulfill as a freewheeling individual, now was his last chance.

And that thought brought to mind the Ghost Sighting stories. He had heard the sequence of stories during his teenage years from the same uncle whom he addressed Uncle Obon. Abanimohan Chatterjee himself was a man whose vocation and avocation were both adventure. He worked as a contractor, building roads and bridges and viaducts all over North Cachar Hills – making inroads into uncharted territory. He and Avi were very close. In Avi’s childhood and boyhood, every time Uncle Obon would come visiting his brother’s family, it would be an occasion of great joy for the uncle’s favorite nephew.

Evenings were devoted to storytelling, while anticipating and even smelling some fine cooking that went on in honor of the dearest of guests. The aroma of goatmeat curry and the fragrance of pulau somehow made the stories even more palatable. Uncle Obon not only would tell mystery stories and ghost stories from famous British authors, bringing such storytelling effects as would make the story into a movie playing before mind’s eyes. Once Uncle told the classic story Green Tea with such effect that Avi continued to have bad dreams for weeks. Years later when he read the story himself, he realized how difficult it would be to narrate this effectively.

And Uncle Obon also told stories from his real life with equal effect. One of these true stories was the Ghost Sighting saga. After Avi heard the first episode, so to speak, it kept getting added to, so that it became something like a long adventure story that unfolds as a serial in a monthly magazine. Avi became fully attuned to it and could visualize the setting of the stories in his mind. It became nearly a real world for him. And after he moved into this bungalow and knew that his carefree days were coming to an end, a tentative but concrete idea had been forming in his mind: He and Uncle Obon, who now lived a retired life in Badarpur Junction, would drive up to that little place on a remote hill in Jatinga, and execute a real life adventure together. He had even put this idea to Uncle Obon who promised to act on it, soon.

And indeed, last Monday Avi received a postcard from Uncle Obon. It said, in part:

On Friday the 23rd inst I will take the train from Badarpur Junction that arrives in Jatinga Station at 3:05 pm. Meet me there and we can start for the hills right away. This will give us plenty of daylight time to do that which we plan to do. Afterwards, I will spend a few days with you in Haflong as you so kindly suggested.

So Avi had been in a somewhat elevated state of spirits all week. The event was to be on next Friday.

~~~~~~

Uncle Obon was once working on a construction project near Jatinga. One day he was scouting the area in his Land Rover. On climbing a remote hill along a barely drivable bridle road that was overgrown with vegetation from disuse, he came to a small shack by the road right at the peak of the hill. It looked like one of those country stores that seemed to stock a little bit of everything even within its very limited space.

From his vehicle Uncle surveyed the general scene. All around him were pristine, undulating green hills. The sky was clear. Black bitterns were flying in wide circles, as if centering on this spot. Soon Uncle could also spot tiger bitterns and kingfishers. He was a little surprised because the birds seemed to be circling the spot where he was standing. Yet he could see nothing special about this place.

He pulled up in front of the shack and got off his vehicle. There was a small flat area between the shack and the road. Here a little Khasi girl with a red bandana tied around her head was playing hop, skip and jump. As she played the red bandana flapped. She called out to Uncle Obon, in somewhat ungrammatical Bengali: “Dadu, please go inside and my father will attend to you. He makes good tea.”

Uncle Obon smiled at her, not minding being called grandpa at his age of fifty-five.

Indeed it turned out to be a mini general store. A little sign on the door said it also served tea. And then he saw, at one end of the porch he was standing on, a rustic sign made on a dilapidated, rough-sawed wooden plank hanging from a tree branch, swinging slightly. On this plank was carved deeply but unevenly the words:


GHOST SIGHTING GUARANTEED

Uncle entered the store and saw a tribal man in his mid thirties perhaps, sitting at the counter. His appearance was striking because of his shaved, shiny head. He spoke broken Bengali, quite good for a Khasi. Uncle ordered a cup of tea and started to chat with the man. A man of easy conversation, Uncle put the Khasi at ease. And when Uncle changed to speaking perfect Khasi, the storekeeper was amazed. He then volunteered, in Khasi: “I was quite taken aback to see you. Nobody travels this way. This store is meant for the village in the plateau behind the store. We have got used to our solitude and our privacy. This bridle road is nearly impassable – even by a Jeep. How did you manage to get here?”

Uncle replied: “I have a Land Rover which can go pretty much anywhere.”

The Khasi went out to see the vehicle, and came back full of admiration. He said: “I have never seen such a vehicle. Indeed it looks much sturdier than a Jeep!”

Uncle smiled and said: “This is the only vehicle of its kind in this area. So rest assured that people will not coming here in throngs!”

After a little while, when the tea came, Uncle asked him about the ghost sighting sign. This gave the man a little pause. But he recovered and got himself a cup of tea. Then he proceeded to tell the back story.

~~~~~~

This has always been what it is today – a small isolated outpost of a village. The people here are mostly rice growers and poultry farmers. Occasionally they take their wares to the big village down the hill and sell them or barter them for the things they need. Otherwise the seclusion is quite complete. The village itself is just a collection of some two dozen bamboo houses on a flat clearing in the jungle just behind the store, a little ways downhill. There is a rustic, zigzagging foot trail that descends from behind the store to the village courtyard. So from this bridle road the village is completely hidden. Only this store stands as a landmark.

“So if an errant visitor does turn up once in a blue moon, he will not know that there is anything here but just this store. Unless I tell him, that is,” said the storekeeper and continued with his narrative.

No one knows how old the Ghost Sighting sign is or who made it. The storekeeper has seen it all his life. His father told him the same thing as did his grandfather. The theory among the villagers is that the sign was put up to attract the British era adventuring sahibs during the rule of Lord Clive. The idea was that, attracted by rumors about the the sign, the sahibs would come here for an interesting outing and then spend money on buying village wares and knick-knacks. As they would do their shopping they would triumphantly mutter to their fellow countrymen their trademark comment on the colonial wares: “Damn cheap, damn cheap!” At any rate, whoever put up the sign, whenever they put it up, it is today considered an age-old prank and no one would even dream of taking that sign down. There certainly is not anything ghostly about it.

The story thus ended, Uncle asked the man about the circling birds. On that the man suddenly remembered that there were matters he needed to attend to, and apologized to Uncle for dismissing him so curtly.

~~~~~

Even as the man was seemingly busying himself with something, Uncle asked him for direction to the big village down the hill. There was no direction really. One just needed to continue on the bridle road. Uncle then said as a parting thought: “You have a beautiful little girl.”

On that the man seemed suddenly startled. “You have seen her?!”

“Well, she’s playing just outside. Why, is there a problem?”

The man relaxed. “No, no problem. It is just that I thought she was down in the village.”

Uncle came out of the store and the little girl waved him goodbye. An incredibly sweet little girl, thought Uncle. As he drove away, he wanted another look at her – her bandana flapping and all. He looked in the rear view mirror. But she was gone.

The birds were still circling overhead. Targeting this hilltop, it seemed.

Uncle arrived at the foothill village in half an hour, at around four pm. As he entered the village, he was in the middle of what seemed like the village square, lined with shops. Uncle found a place to park his vehicle. He then started walking up to the couple of benches under a tree in the middle of the square, where a few villagers were shooting the breeze. They seemed to be looking at him and talking about him.

Uncle Obon easily struck up a conversation and sensed a receptiveness in them. He then asked – in a casual, off-the-cuff manner – about the “quaint” Ghost Sighting sign in the hilltop village. As soon as he asked his question, he saw that there was a reaction. The men seemed to flinch, to stiffen. A few meaningful glances passed among them.

Eventually one man said: “That sign – it is not all in playfulness as you might have surmised. There is some substance to it. That village is a very different kind of village. It is where the dead and the living live together in ‘ethnic’ harmony – out of view of the world.”

Uncle was stunned. He was expecting some expressions of levity; nothing like this. He was intent on hearing more. But he suppressed his excitement and said jovially: “Can I buy you all a cup of tea?” One of the men then signaled to a boy in a nearby teashop. The boy came over with a large aluminum kettle and a bunch a terracotta cups. He poured readymade tea with milk and sugar for every one and Uncle paid him for the tea, and a little tip.

It was not necessary for Uncle to prompt his newfound company any further. The men, taking turns, told a fairly coherent story in bits and pieces.

~~~~~~

In this foothill village, there are many stories – some handed down generations – about the Ghost Sighting sign at the top of the hill. The villagers here also think that the sign is ageless. But the main thrust of all these stories is this: Whether you have to pass through that village or you choose to pass through it, you will definitely see a ghost. The problem is, how would you know you have seen a ghost? If you see five people from a distance during your visit, how would you know which one, if anyone, is a ghost? Are there more than one ghost? Are all of them ghosts?

From time to time, young daredevils from the village have made forays, upon equipping themselves with such diagnostic devices as strands of fresh garlic and satchels of mustard seeds. A ghost would be reviled by garlic and mustard seeds and would react, perhaps by retreating with great haste. But these forays never led to any definitive conclusions. The main problem was to get close enough to the person you saw so that the garlic or the mustard seed would produce a visible effect on him.

Then an old itinerant sadhu suggested using a small mirror. He said ghosts – in whichever way they manifest themselves – are not visible in a mirror. So a group of young men borrowed a small round -shaped, palm-sized mirror from a little girl’s play chest and went up to the hill in the late afternoon. The stayed away from the store and found a vantage point on the hill edge from where they could see the village and the rice fields, way down in the plateau. From here they could see a few people out in the fields preparing to end the day’s work, and a few more in the central courtyard of the village, perhaps waiting to enjoy the sunset.

As the young men tried to scan the mirror over the landscape, they found out that it was problematic. One had to hold the mirror very steady to keep if pointed at a person. Moving from one person to next one with the mirror was not easy either. And they had to be constantly comparing what they saw in the mirror with what they saw with their n*aked eyes in order to establish a correlation.

But after a while they got the hang of it. And then, astoundingly, they found one figure in the fields who did not show in the mirror. Ghost sighting had been accomplished. The dead and the living were indeed working together in harmony.

From that time on, that technique became standard. Whoever went to the hilltop for ghost sighting for the first time practiced a little with the mirror before heading uphill. Of course, all these forays were done in secrecy, and were unknown to the villagers being watched.

So the Ghost Sighting sign is no prank. Every party that ever went up their saw a ghost, and sometimes more than one ghost.

“Now, Babu,” said one man in conclusion, “the phenomenon of that village is possible only because of its privacy and isolation. And we here would do nothing to disturb that situation. If the word spread to the outside world, all kinds of people will be beating there way here. So we respect their privacy and tell their story to no one. We confided in you because we know you to be a respectable and trustworthy person.”

“You know me?!”

Another man replied. “Babu, I am Hari. Last year I worked for you as a camp cook when your job site was in Madhura. Likewise, other men from our village have worked for you in different places at different times.”

Uncle Obon thought he could remember the man now. He smiled in recognition.

As he started to say goodbye, Uncle wondered about the people he himself saw on the hilltop. He started to ask: “The shopkeeper, the shaved-head Khasi man of about thirty-five….”

“That’s Thombor Lyngdoh. He is the only face and the only contact for the village – and also the guardian and the gatekeeper. He lives in the store itself with his wife,” said Hari. “Sad story though. They had one child – a lively little girl. She was always hopping about in front of the store with a red bandana tied around her head. But she died last year of cholera. She then became a ghost villager.”

Uncle Obon asked for a different direction back to his camp so that he would not have to go up that hill again. As he was leaving, he remembered something else. He looked straight at his former employee Hari and asked: “Is there something about birds?”

Hari looked uncertain. A few glances passed again among the men. Then there were nods. Hari said: “Babu, this is matter we can disclose to you only in strictest confidence.”

He was probably expecting Uncle’s agreement. Uncle nodded slightly. Hari then continued: “There has developed in our village for sometime a view that the hilltop village is connected to the infamous Jatinga Bird Suicides.”

Uncle sat down heavily on a bench. Hari continued: “See the theory is that birds commit mass suicides in Jatinga and in no other place in the world because, from their high vantage, they can sense that there is this single spot on the entire planet that is deathless. To die in Jatinga is to not make an end.”

“But that is not all,” another man picked up the thread. “It is said that once a bird becomes a ghost bird in the village, it can exchange its form with a human ghost and vice versa. And that, we think, is the true impetus behind the bird suicides. The birds want a taste of human life.”

A thoroughly discombobulated Uncle Obon now took his leave.

As he drove Uncle began to reflect on events he just experienced. Especially what he had just heard. Jatinga was indeed the place where, each monsoon season when certain weather conditions such as mist and fog and high wind came together, a variety birds in large groups that gathered in the skies from distant places suddenly dived into the ground – into their death. No one knew why. Now he just heard that the hilltop village held the key.

Uncle told himself: It is a good coincidence that Hari was my employee. Otherwise they would not have told me anything at all!

Uncle Obon now gained a smooth, regular road. The Land Rover, which was moaning and groaning over the tough terrain all this time, suddenly became a smooth carriage, its engine nearly silent. It was now as though being freed from the tension of driving on that hill also freed Uncle from whatever dark mood befell him there.

Now he could see clearly, in the clear light of logic and reason. Living and the dead living harmoniously together? Bird suicides linked to that village? Bird ghosts exchanging form with human ghosts? Uncle Obon laughed almost out loud. What nonsense! What tommyrot – as the colonial British sahibs would say! Uncle Obon was after all a man of technology, with an engineering degree. He certainly was not going to fall for such local mumbo jumbo! And most outrageous mumbo jumbo at that!

~~~~~~~

A few days later Uncle Obon found a free afternoon, and headed for that hilltop again. He had armed himself with his little shaving mirror, about four inch by six inch. He figured this would have an advantage over the palm-sized round mirror. He left his vehicle about a quarter mile short of the store and then walked inside the jungle to avoid being spotted. Soon he came to the edge of the hill from where the ground descended steeply and then leveled off about a thousand feet down. He could see the village – about twenty-five or so huts arranged in a semi-circle with a large open space in the middle. The open jaw of the semi-circle was closed by a structure resembling a longhouse: a row of rooms sharing a common porch along the entire length. Beyond the longhouse were the rice fields and to one side of these fields, a series of low structures that probably housed the poultry. The whole scene was quite picturesque – even story book-like.

One thing did not escape Uncle’s attention. While the roofs of all the huts had the same color, straw color, the roof of the longhouse had a different color. Uncle could not figure out what material that roof was made of.

Next Uncle surveyed the sky. Bitterns and kingfishers were flying, once again seemingly with their eyes anchored to this spot. There was a spiral pattern to the flying, the outermost arms of the spiral being made of birds flying in from great distances and joining.

Down in the village, Uncle could see women and children milling about or sitting in groups in the courtyard. In the distance he saw people herding bullocks in yokes in the rice fields. From this distance of course the figures were quite tiny and one could not make out the faces much. Only the difference between men, women and children could be discerned. The villagers seemed to take no notice of the birds constantly circling the village. It was as if this was a normal way of things here.

Uncle squatted on the ground, making himself as comfortable as he could. He started to execute the mirror “technique”. He soon understood the problems, and continued to practice with the holding and the positioning and the scanning of the mirror. He also had to be careful not to let the villagers see the mirror in reflected glare. But the light was now quite diffuse and so that was not a problem.

After scanning the mirror over the little groups in the courtyard – mothers coiffing children, children at play and so on – Uncle turned to the fields. Here the gathering of people was much more spread out. Uncle made a general survey of the area with his nak*ed eyes. Then he started scanning the mirror to see if he could establish correspondence between the small scene he saw in the mirror and the large landscape. This was not so easy. But eventually Uncle got the hang of it too.

He now started to analyze small groupings of people. He looked at a group of people and then looked at the people in the mirror. He did this back and forth for other groups. Until, that is, he came upon a group of three men guiding bullocks with tillers attached to their yokes. From his perspective, the three bullock herds were lined up – one behind the other. Uncle now turned to the mirror.

He felt a cold shiver in his spine when he saw what he saw. In the mirror, the middle bullock had no herder behind it.

After Uncle composed himself, he looked at this scene back and forth – with na*ked eyes and with the mirror. There was no doubt about it. The middle bullock herd was a ghost. Uncle had seen a ghost.

Now the light was fading quite rapidly and Uncle had to start back. But he resolved to come back as soon as he could. Whatever he was thinking now, logic and reason were not among them.

~~~~~~

It soon became a habit, and may be even a little obsession, with Uncle. Whenever he could steal a few hours, he would head for the hills. He would sit at the same spot. And the more he did this, the more he became adept at manipulating the mirror to point it to a desired spot. And to even hold it steady there and study what he was seeing. While Uncle’s logic and reason were perfectly intact when it came to everything else, they were completely suspended up on this hilltop.

Gradually, he began to see more and more figures that became invisible in the mirror. But to the n*aked eyes it seemed as though these figures were integral parts of the village life, sharing in all kinds of duties with the “normal” figures. Truly, Uncle came to believe, this was a village where the living and the dead lived in perfect harmony: “Ethnic” harmony, as those foothill villagers said. A rather interesting application of that expression, Uncle would mutter to himself.

And of course the birds were always there in the sky, always circling. One day, out of some hunch, Uncle tried to look at the birds in the mirror. It seemed however that they were all there.

One rather stormy and foggy afternoon, as the wind was picking up and starting to howl, Uncle decided to call it quits. At that moment he saw the circular flight paths of the birds become erratic. When the wind achieved gale force and fog made things nearly invisible, Uncle saw the birds gather themselves into a compact flock and then suddenly dive at great velocity. They landed on the ground with a thud, almost audible to Uncle. They must have all died on impact or would soon die. Some of them seemed to fall on the rice fields. But visibility was so poor one could not discern anything.

After seeing this “Bird Suicide” event, Uncle realized that he needed a pair of binoculars to further his research. He asked a friend in Calcutta to procure him a powerful one with the zoom feature, Zeiss Ikon if possible. The instrument came to him within two months. With that, Uncle added a new dimension to his exploration of the village.

For he could now see the faces distinctly, as well as activities engaged by both real people and ghost people. He developed a familiarity of the faces and knew which was an ordinary person and which was ghost, by sight. Mentally, he even gave names to many, names such as Batkul (Shortie), Mota (fatso), Lojjaboti (bashful woman). So now he had the entire village life organized into a field of study. He in effect had become an anthropological researcher.

With the binoculars Uncle could now see for the first time some birds feeding on grains or insects in the rice fields. Once having located them, Uncle then tried to see them in the mirror. Just like the people in the fields, some birds did not show in the mirror.

Uncle then scanned the binoculars over the village. And this is when he realized that the roof of the longhouse was covered solidly with birds. That was the reason for the strange color of the roof. He quickly turned to his mirror. These bird were not there. The roof of the longhouse was straw-colored, just like all other roofs.

~~~~~~

After many years at this, Uncle Obon decided to jot down some comments in his private diary which he showed no one. But this portion he let his nephew read one day:

This is the most unique of all places on Earth. Here the living and the dead truly live in perfect harmony. They have an established tenor of life that flows smoothly, without friction.

The population of the living in the village is controlled in the normal way – through births and deaths. The population of the dead is controlled by the twenty-five rooms in the longhouse where the ghosts live one to a room. New ghost can join only if a vacancy has arisen there.

Vacancies in the longhouse arise if ghosts have had their fill of this intermediate ‘life’, and decide to merge permanently into the hereafter. That happens with regularity.

When a vacancy in the longhouse does arise, the dead of the village have the first priority to move in. Outside ghosts are accommodated second.

My observations do confirm, to an extent, the idea that ghosts of birds also live here in a like manner. However, I have not been able to verify the idea of cross-species exchange where a ghost bird can become a ghost human.

My observations have reached a plateau – there’s not much more to learn unless I physically venture into the village. Maybe I can bypass the storekeeper and hike down to the village, under the pretext that my car had broken down and I needed some help. The more I think about this, the more I like the idea. To stand there face to face with the villagers, knowing which were real people and which were ghosts – that must be the thrill of a lifetime. I must do this once before I die.

To Avi this last portion of the diary entry seemed most poignant. He hoped that Uncle Obon would have his wish one day. May be the time they planned to visit the place jointly.

~~~~

Uncle Obon’s involvement with the Ghost Sighting village spanned nearly ten years – from when Avi was a teenager in high school to about a year ago when Uncle Obon finally retired and moved permanently to Badarpur.

True to his unspoken promise given to the foothill village, Uncle never confided these events to anyone. But to his nephew – whom he had sworn to the same promise – he told everything in most exquisite detail. Each time, the storytelling session ended with making plans for how the uncle and the nephew would jointly return to this place for a guaranteed ghost sighting. But the plans never did materialize. When Avi visited his uncle’s family about three months ago and brought this up when the two were alone, Uncle told him: “Let’s really and truly make that trip. If you are game, I will send you a postcard within the next few months, and we will arrange to meet up at the Jatinga Station and head up to the hills. I take it that your Land Rover is in good working order?”

Avi had agreed most enthusiastically, adding that the uncle must spend a few days with him in Haflong afterwards. But Avi also understood that this matter was to be kept out of Aunt Anjali’s hearing. Uncle himself would tell her in his own time and own way. For the time being he would probably just say to her he was going to Haflong, and omit the adventure bit altogether.

As Avi was leaving to go back to Haflong, Uncle Obon gave him the mirror and the binoculars. Avi took them without any protestation.

~~~~~~~

Avi packed in a rucksack the mirror and the binoculars, and also a flashlight with fresh batteries. Then his housekeeper prepared a thermos full of hot tea – already sugared and milked with condensed milk from a can. She threw in a pack of sweet and salty snacks. The last thing to put in the Land Rover were two umbrellas. Avi had his own Mackintosh, and a spare one. He took that along in case Uncle needed it.

The drive from Haflong to Jatinga was easy. Avi allowed himself plenty of time to arrive at the Jatinga Station before the train would arrive. This was the monsoon season and he allowed for the rainy weather. But no sooner was he on his way than there started one of those torrential rains that fall like a solid body of water. At the same time, the sky darkened to such an extent that the light was more like that in the early evening. Avi had to slow down and drive most carefully. He arrived just a few minutes after the scheduled arrival of the train. He saw from a distance that the train was leaving the station. As he pulled in to the station courtyard, he was heartened to see, even in this dim light, the tall figure of Uncle standing under the bamboo shed next to the old banyan tree. Even though it was dark now, there was no mistaking Uncle’s posture.

Avi pulled up right next to the shed as Uncle called out: “Don’t bother getting out in this rain. I will just hop in.”

Uncle came around to the passenger side and got in. Avi started to drive. At this time he saw the familiar figure of the Station Master standing at the doorway of the station house. Avi waved to him and he waved back.

Uncle Obon greeted his nephew with that broad affectionate smile. Then he said: “There’s been a small disaster. When I got off, I forgot to pick up my overnight bag from the overhead rack.”

“No matter,” said Avi, “I can fix you up with pajama, dhoti and kurta and also toiletries. I just hope there was nothing valuable in your bag. Otherwise we can ask the Station Master to wire ahead to the next station. They could look for it.”

No, there was nothing valuable. With the small disaster thus attended to, the two now started exchanging the usual information about how each other’s life was progressing.

A little distance out of the town Uncle asked Avi to turn onto an unpaved road. It was muddy, and the mud had become quite soft and deep in the rain. But the Land Rover had no problem. After about two miles they saw a bridle road meandering on to the hills. Uncle said: “Everything seems to be as it was, even though it has been a year since I traveled this road last.

Now there was less conversation as Avi had to concentrate fully on his driving. It was even darker inside the jungle. Avi turned his headlights on. They continued to climb steadily, carefully negotiating the muddy pits. The two worried about the light being too low for the sighting. As if to allay that concern, the skies cleared and there was again good daylight. The rain held. That lifted the moods of the would be adventurers.

As they came to a place where there was a clearing right next to the bridle road, Uncle said: “Pull up here and park. We will walk the rest of the way.”

Uncle Obon put on the Mackintosh and carried the two umbrellas. Avi picked up his rucksack. The two started walking among the trees, avoiding the road. The terrain was the same as a year ago, and Uncle had no trouble guiding them to the place at the hill edge where he used to hold his vigil. There, Avi saw for the first time the image that was long fixed in his mind: The storybook village, the rice fields, the poultry sheds. There was general agreement between the place of his mind and the place of reality that now lay in front of him.

“It’s been a tough drive. Let’s have a quick cup of tea,” said Avi and Uncle gladly agreed. As they sipped the welcome potable and munched on the snacks, they saw that black bitterns, tiger bitterns and kingfishers were circling the sky – as if centered on the village.

When they finished the tea, Uncle proceeded to give Avi a mini-lesson on how to handle the mirror, the fine points of it. When Avi thought he could handle it, Uncle stood up and said: “Avi, I am finally going to go ahead and just walk down to the village and talk to them. Please keep a watch on me from here.”

Avi was already receptive to this idea. He replied: “Sure, Uncle Obon. But please take an umbrella along. Who knows when it might start to rain again. And also take the flashlight. And come back soon, before it gets too dark.”

Uncle left. Avi settled down and started to scan the scene with his mirror. He could identify in the mirror what he saw with his na*ked eyes. So he found little groups of people with his na*ked eyes, and then checked in the mirror to see if all the people were there in the mirror.

Avi continued in this way for about half an hour but there was no sign of any ghosts. He set the mirror aside, and took up the binoculars. He started systematically scanning the village and the fields to get complete coverage. He surveyed the fields, the poultry housing and the village courtyard. He scanned the longhouse from one end to the other. Then he started the scanning again.

Light was now failing. As he finished with the rice fields and the poultry shacks and moved into the courtyard, he noticed that all the villagers in the courtyard were walking towards the entry point of the village where the foot trail from the store descended.

It had started to drizzle a little. Avi turned his binoculars further to look at the foot of the trail. Yes, Uncle Obon had nearly made it to the village. The villagers saw him and were approaching him.

Avi felt happy for his uncle, but at the same time wanted to keep a careful watch on Uncle’s encounter with the villagers. Now Uncle was in the courtyard and the villagers faced him in a crescent formation. There seemed to start a lively conversation. May be Uncle was telling them about having car trouble. The villagers seem to be receiving Uncle warmly.

As Avi was unfolding his umbrella – for the rain had started to pick up – a thought suddenly occurred to him. Now that there was a considerable grouping of the villagers in the courtyard, he could do his mirror test with advantage. Were there any figures Uncle was talking with ghosts? If so, he could report this to Uncle who would be most anxious to hear any such reports.

The group was rather compact and the mirror could not do a good job of picking out any ones that might be ghosts. But then something caught Avi’s eyes – a little girl with a red bandana around her head who stood slightly ahead of the group and was the nearest member of the group to face Uncle. When Avi looked at her in the mirror, she was not there. This was Avi’s very first ghost sighting. So the legend was true for him as well!

Uplifted from the success of his mission, Avi started his final scan of the crescent with the mirror. Suddenly he saw something that made his hair stand on end. There was no one under Uncle’s umbrella. Just the umbrella hung in the air! Neither Uncle nor the little girl facing him showed in the mirror.

Avi went numb. What did this mean? As he was trying to regain his composure, he saw in the mirror the villagers now leading the hanging umbrella towards the longhouse. He sat aside his mirror and took up the binoculars. Now he could see everything clearly. Uncle under the umbrella was being led by hand by the little girl. Uncle held the umbrella such that it would cover both of them. On top of the umbrella was perched a kingfisher. The other villagers were following, exposed to rain. In a few minutes, they reached the longhouse and Uncle was shown into one of the rooms. Avi understood that they were settling Uncle down. Uncle was going to become one of the villagers – the same kind as the little girl who once called him Dadu, grandfather.

Avi now was almost forced to become conscious of his immediate surroundings, out of sheer urgency of the situation. The light had nearly failed, and if it became any darker Avi would not be able to find his way back to his vehicle – now that Uncle was not here to guide him. He picked up everything and started towards the vehicle. As he walked, he thought of his next move.

All that he saw and surmised were nothing on which he could base any practical plans. He certainly could not go back to Haflong by himself without determining the fate of Uncle – in practical terms that is. But what could Avi do in this unknown jungle at night?

He got into his car and continued to drive, looking for the store. He found it without any difficulty. He saw the telltale sign by the dim light of a hurricane lantern. The storekeeper must have heard the car, for he came out. Avi saw a shaved-head Khasi, seeming to be in his mid-forties. He was looking suspiciously at the Land Rover.

Avi explained quickly that he and his Uncle were passing through here and Uncle suddenly had to answer a nature’s call. He walked into the bushes but never returned.

Avi could tell that the man did not believe his story. He still kept looking at the Land Rover. Did he remember the vehicle from ten years ago?

The storekeeper asked where Avi was coming from and the latter said Haflong. Then the storekeeper said: “There is nothing one could do in the dark jungle in this rain in terms of searching for your uncle. At first light I will gather some men from the village below and start scouring the area. Meanwhile, Babu, you are welcome to stay in the store and try to have some sleep.”

Avi made a mental assessment of the situation. Then he replied: “Thank you for your help. Please do search for Uncle at first light. I will now drive back to Haflong and return at first light, with some people of my own. But if Uncle should turn up during the night here at the store or in the village, please make him comfortable.”

The storekeeper agreed, and declined the offer of some money from Avi. Avi turned his vehicle around with some difficulty, and headed back. Driving was now very slow and very difficult, but at least he was on terrain he had already covered. There should not be any unexpected dangers.

He arrived home about one am, and was surprised to find that all the lights were on and the housekeeper was sitting on the porch. She got up and said in a sad voice: “Babu, as soon as you left there came a telephone call from Badarpur. Your uncle had passed away Friday morning. I sent the driver to intercept you on your way to Jatinga Station, but he could not catch up with you. The Station Master said you stopped momentarily under the tree and then drove off.”

“How did Uncle die?”

“They said he had a sudden heart attack, and died peacefully. His last words were ‘My appointment with Avi. My appointment with Avi.’ I am so sorry, Babu!”

Avi’s sudden and intense grief was somehow tempered a little by his private knowledge that for him, Uncle was not altogether gone. He could visit Uncle regularly, even if through the binoculars. May be Uncle would look up in the direction of the spot of vigil and even give some sign of recognition. Avi needed to get a pair of more powerful binoculars.

Back to index .

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RETURN TO VOLUME 1

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