When I was a little boy, an artist friend of my dad told me, ‘If you haven’t seen Birbhum, you haven’t seen Bengal.’ I realised how true the statement was when I landed a job in a rural school in Birbhum soon after graduation. Far from the madding crowds of the city of dystopia called Calcutta, it was a place where the river Kopai meandered unhurriedly through swaying fields of golden harvest. And miles of red gravelled earth dotted with palm trees stretched to the end of the world. The sky seemed much larger to someone who had lived in a city all along. And at night, instead of the dull grey, the black firmament opened a window to a different universe with countless dazzling stars split in two parts by the majestic Milky Way. My students, most of whom came to school barefoot, were refreshingly simple. A good place to be in, but it was not without downsides.
For one thing, daily newspapers reached the place only in the evening. Consequently, the mornings were uneasy and tense. But a far more serious problem was to find a roof over my head. There were no takers for houses on rent, and the concept of renting out houses was as alien to the people as air-conditioning would be to the people of Greenland. A post office and a police outpost were the only offices in the area – there was not even a bank – and our school was the only institution. Most of my colleagues were locals, although a few teachers used to commute from a nearby town by rickety public buses that carried passengers both within and on their roofs. One of them was Ajay babu, who insisted that I stay in the town. But small towns with their open drains and closed societies didn’t seem too appealing. I would rather be a village bumpkin and live in a countryside that came alive through the pen of Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya.
The secretary of the school committee, a wholesale trader of husk and jaggery, kindly offered me temporary shelter in his house. After overstaying his hospitality for some time, I got the information that a place was available on rent.
The house was at one end of the village, with hardly any other dwelling nearby. From the main entrance, I saw a lovely little two storied structure with a projected balcony, and I immediately fell in love with the place. Surrounded by a garden and shaded by leafy jackfruit, mango and neem trees, the small house had been constructed years ago by the local zamindar’s youngest brother, the architecture bearing a clear imprint of his avant-garde tastes. By and by, I came to know that Chhoto Babu (the youngest scion), was extraordinary not only in his architectural tastes. He was a bachelor and by far the most highly qualified person around. People still remembered him with affection as a simple upright man. He did not have any regular work, but was a great source of encouragement for the local youth, who he encouraged to go for higher studies. He offered them, what is nowadays known as career counselling, for free. Thanks to his guidance, a number of boys from the area became state civil service officers, railway engine drivers etc, careers about which village boys had hardly any idea those days. A quiet person, he spent most of the time reading. Every evening, Chhoto Babu was seen sitting in the first floor balcony attached to his bedroom, reading newspaper and drinking tea from a large brass tumbler.
The building was abandoned about five years before, after Chhoto Babu had hanged himself in his bedroom. It is possible that education did him in. If instead of living an altruistic life, he had – like many other junior scions of wealthy rural families – indulged in wine and women, possibly he wouldn’t have died at the age of forty.
That evening, as I was sipping my evening tea in a local teashop furnished with high benches and low benches, its owner, Mohan warned me, ‘Master Moshai, are you moving into that house?’
‘Yes, I might.’
‘Please don’t. Chhoto Babu’, Mohan said after quickly touching his forehead with both hands, ‘is still there. Many villagers have seen him in the balcony after dusk.’
‘Well, ghosts are indeed seen after dusk.’
My crude description of a respected soul was greeted with a cold stare and precise and detailed description of the apparition that lived in the abandoned house. And although I made light of Mohan’s and many others’ warnings, deep within, I was scared. The house was indeed beautiful, but after considering everything, I would have wriggled out of the deal if I could. But unfortunately, by then, I had occasions to lecture my students and colleagues about social evils like superstition and why we should look at life rationally. Not taking a lovely house offered for a song because of the fear of a ghost, that too of a man who had been absolutely harmless in his corporeal life, would have utterly destroyed my standing in society! Therefore, I had to accept the offer.
The house hadn’t been used in a long time and needed some repair and a coat of paint. The masons employed for the job wouldn’t work after four in the afternoon. Needless to state, that didn’t lift my spirits! Anyway, when the house was ready, I moved into my new abode with uncertainly and trepidation.
As I sat alone in the balcony with a newspaper and watched the sun going down across a vast expanse of open space behind a tranquil river flowing into eternity, all my fears were gone. Nothing unholy could happen in such a serene place, I assured myself. Darkness descended silently as I read the paper in the shaft of dim light that came out of the bedroom. Soon, sleep got the better of me.
At this point of my narrative, Dear Reader, I’ll have to disappoint you. I slept like a log through the night. No footsteps were heard from the terrace, candles were not snuffed out by sudden gusts of wind, the windows did not close and open on their own, the cracked mirror in my bedroom refused to join up and show me the reflection of a tall gaunt man in pyjamas. Even the village mongrels didn’t bark. The night passed off in a dull, prosaic manner and the morning found me as alive and happy as the chirping birds.
Ajay babu had been vociferous against the idea of taking a ‘haunted house’ on rent, and to avoid another pointless argument, I hadn’t told him that I was actually moving in there. So the next morning, when I met him on the way to school, I was anxious to tell him that the haunted house was actually quite harmless, and win a few brownie points. But Ajay babu seemed edgy and agitated. Before I could say anything, he almost shouted at me, ‘Have you heard?’
‘The sub-inspector of our thana, Madhab Das is in hospital.’
Police sub-inspectors are durable specimens of human beings. They are not expected to be in hospital unless …. I guessed the poor fellow might have come in contact with a particularly nasty ruffian. So I asked, ‘Was there any robbery last night?’
‘Arre nah! Madhab Das was returning home last night at about 10 o’ clock, on his bicycle. On the way, he was crossing the house that you, in your infinite wisdom, have decided to move into. And what did he see? Chhoto Babu was sitting in the balcony, reading a newspaper! Although it was dark, he could be seen clearly. It was Madhab Das who had brought down Chhoto babu’s body hanging from the ceiling. Naturally, he couldn’t take it. After going a short distance, he fell off the bike, unconscious, and fractured an arm. He’s still delirious.’
A cold shiver went down my spine. I was sure I had gone to bed long before ten. Who did the policeman see? Could it be …?