Tuesday, 11 May 2021

The Hounds Of Elsewhere

 Note to Reader:


You may want to read The Hounds Of Tindalos by Frank Belknap Long before you read this. It's not absolutely necessary, but it'll save you from spoilers if you subsequently decide to read that 1929-published story.



THE HOUNDS OF ELSEWHERE

 

So he called you, too?” I asked. “I didn’t know you were on my flight.”

 

Yash Agarwal blinked at me like the tortoise he rather resembled. “I got a call from him the day before yesterday. He did not tell me you were coming.”

 

“...or I wouldn’t have come,” his tone of voice clearly indicated, but I ignored it.  Yash Agarwal had never liked me, but didn’t ever express it openly. We walked together to the luggage carousel and stood waiting for the suitcases to come tumbling out. “Did he tell you how long we’d be expected to stay?”

 

“Just tonight, wasn’t it? I got a ticket for the first flight out tomorrow morning.”

He blinked at me a little more. “I’m leaving tomorrow as well. Do you know what he wants to see us for?”

 

“He didn’t tell me, except that it was essential that we came.” A very fat woman in pastel green pushed between us to pull a bag nearly as large as she was off the conveyor belt. “He just said it was essential,” I repeated, once she had withdrawn, with more shoving and pushing. “I think that’s my suitcase there.”

 

Yash Agarwal had already collected his while the obese woman had been elbowing her way out. “It has been years since I last saw him,” he said, as we got into a taxi and I gave the driver the address I’d been given. “I wasn’t sure he was still alive.”

 

I didn’t say anything. Outside the window the open fields around the airport sped by, giving way to low brick housing. The area had become a lot more built up since I was here last. Far in the distance, the skyscrapers of the business districts and the residences of the ultra rich poked skywards like triumphant fingers.

 

I grew aware that Yash Agarwal was saying something. “So, why did you agree to come at short notice when you don’t even know what he’s calling us for?”

 

 I shrugged. “Why did you?”

 

He stared at me for a long moment. “Just curiosity,” he said at last. “I wanted to know what the old man is doing these days.”

 

“Well, you could say the same about me,” I said. The taxi was slowing down as the traffic thickened. A motorcycle, driving at extreme speed, roared past so close that I felt the wind of its passing right through the window. “That character will end up under a bus.”

 

“Hopefully. They don’t care for anyone except themselves.” The motorcycle had derailed the question about why I’d come, which was fine, because I didn’t really have an answer. I suspected that Yash Agarwal didn’t either, unless it was to make sure that nobody else Dr Singh had summoned got exclusive access to whatever he’d called about.

 

Dr Singh; I leaned back against the seat and watched the city grow as I thought about him. It had been many years since we’d been students at his class in mathematics. He’d picked three or four of us out – Yash Agarwal had been one of them, and I – for additional instruction at his home after class hours. And somehow afterwards we used to sit and read fiction, especially Lovecraftian fiction, of which Dr Singh had turned out to be surprisingly fond.

 

Afterwards, Yash Agarwal and I had met Dr Singh several times over the years; and, as he’d grown older, he’d begun talking more and more about plans he had after retirement. “This is just marking time,” he’d told me the last time we’d met. “I’ve done my research, and I’m just waiting for when I’m a free man. And then I can do what I want!”

 

“What are you planning, Doctor?” I’d asked, not very hopeful of an answer. Though he was a professor as well as a PhD, Singh always disliked the “professor” appellation. “I worked for the PhD,” he’d been wont to say, “but just had to hang around in my teaching job long enough to become a professor. One might as well call me a Doddering Ancient.”

 

“You’ll find out when I’m ready.” He’d grinned in answer to my question and clapped me on the shoulder. “Until then, not another word.”

 

I had no idea whether Yash Agarwal had had a similar meeting with the old man, not that I would ask him. The taxi  had slowed down further and now turned off the main street on to one side street, and then another, between large houses which were, by the standards of this growing city, quite old and definitely extremely expensive.

 

“Have you been in this part of town before?” I asked Yash Agarwal.

 

He shook his head. “I just got his address over the phone, the same as you, I imagine.”

 

The taxi coasted to a stop outside a blocky pinkish-brown two storey building with a strip of heavily overgrown garden around it. I was about to check the house number on the gate with that on my scrap of paper, when I saw Dr Singh himself watching from a ground floor window. He waved and disappeared, and a moment later the front door opened.

 

“Well, here you are,” he called to us. “Come in, you both look as though you need a cold drink.”

 

We did. It was a hot afternoon, and the glasses of orange juice Dr Singh pressed on us were almost as welcome as a bottle of chilled beer would have been. Between sips I looked around the room. It was well-furnished, but rather untidy. Dr Singh saw me looking and grinned ruefully.

 

“I know,” he said. “I’ve been too busy to bother about anything else recently.”

 

“Have you been too busy to take care of yourself?” I asked. Dr Singh had been a heavy man, once, but his paunch had all but disappeared. Under his sky blue turban, his rolled white beard didn’t conceal newly gaunt cheeks.

 

He waved an irritated hand in a long familiar gesture. “Oh, that. Once I’m done with my project I’ll have time for all that sort of thing again.”

 

“Your project?” Yash Agarwal asked.

 

“You’ll be finding out soon. After all, that’s why you’re here.”

“So you did it at last, did you?” I put the glass down. “What is it about, anyway?”

 

Dr Singh cocked his head and looked at me. “All in good time,” he said. “Let’s have lunch and I’ll tell you all about it.”

 

****************************************************

 

You remember (Dr Singh said) that we used to read Lovecraftian fiction together back when you were my students. Most of it was, of course, fantasy; I have extreme doubts that undiscovered cities built by barrel-shaped Elder Things lie in the Antarctic, or that a mountainous alien god lies sleeping under the South Pacific. But, like anything else, if you have enough speculation and freed imagination, something comes along that might have a nugget of truth in it, even if purely by accident.

 

One of the stories I thought might hold that nugget of truth was Frank Belknap Long’s The Hounds Of Tindalos. You probably remember that story, I think; the narrator is called by his friend Chalmers to his flat, where Chalmers talks about his hypothesis that time is a continuum, existing everywhere simultaneously. Chalmers – through a combination of Einsteinian mathematical formulae and an unnamed Chinese drug that the Daoists allegedly used to achieve universal consciousness – plans to travel this space-time continuum and experience everything simultaneously. He also has an idea that time is of two kinds, the familiar “curved” time that we know – what we’d today call spacetime – and something called “angular time”.

 

When I first read of this “angular time”, I hardly thought about it, taking it to be just part of the fictional background of the story. But later, that night, when I was lying awake, it crept into my mind and would not go away.

 

Think about us as a point moving along a graph paper. On one side we have the past, everything that has happened already, which we can see, as it were, by looking over our shoulder. On the other we have what will happen, in future, spreading out from where we are at a given moment into the distance, which we can’t see, but which we can speculate about, and which we will experience. From our perspective the past is a quadrant that narrows down to end at us at this given moment, while the future is a quadrant leading out and away from this moment. Correct?

 

But what about the rest of the graph paper? Behind us is one quadrant, twenty five percent of the paper. Ahead of us is another quadrant, twenty five percent of the paper. That leaves fully half of the paper unknown and unknowable. That fifty percent is at right angles to us. It’s called “elsewhere”.

 

I know the obvious objection, that spacetime isn’t two-dimensional like a graph paper. But that’s not an objection; I merely used the graph paper as an illustration. It’s more like two cones, touching at the tips.

 

You know all about the multiverse theories of spacetime. In an infinite number of parallel universes that arose at the moment of the Big Bang, a finite number, closer to this time, gave rise to life on earth. In a smaller number of those universes, coming closer to our present, humans evolved. In a still smaller number, even closer to our present, Frank Belknap Long wrote his story. Yet fewer, and more recent, universes had all three of us being born, and still fewer and more recent of those had us taking the same study and career paths as we did. And an even smaller number had me thinking about Long’s story and taking steps to do the research on it. And still fewer had me calling you two and both of you being willing and able to come.

 

You, of course, understand what I’m saying. If we look back towards the past, an infinite number of possible universes keeps narrowing into fewer and fewer ones as we come closer and closer to the time that we acknowledge to be our present. And all of those intersect at this precise moment when I’m saying these exact words to you. Everything behind us is a cone, widening out to the moment of the Big Bang.

 

And from this moment on, the intersected universes will immediately split and the time streams diverge again. In one universe, I’ll pick up this pencil, like so, and in others I won’t. And things will keep changing more and more as we move towards the future, with differences accumulating, both for us and humanity and the universe at large, so that the future will spread out into another cone, extending to the end of time as we know it.

 

Again, these two conical time streams limit our perception to one axis of the graph, the horizontal one, and make it impossible to know what will be happening on the vertical axis, moving at right angles to us. There again you have “elsewhere”.

 

Do you see, therefore, what struck me? Angular time might be real, only it’s moving at right angles to us, just like each dimension of spacetime is at right angles to the next. We could actually access it, if only we could move at right angles to the direction in which curved spacetime is carrying us. Do you understand?

 

The more I thought about this idea, the more it made sense to me. All that needed to be done was to work out how.

 

The first thing I did was, of course, to discard any notion of using any drug, Daoist or otherwise. Frank Belknap Long’s Chalmers didn’t mention, of course, the name of the drug, but even if he had, and in the unlikely event that it even existed, the last thing that scientific research needs is mind-altering chemicals thrown into the mix. So I concentrated on the mathematics, which, of course, luckily happened to be my own field of expertise.

 

In that I was immeasurably aided by the fact that we aren’t in the 1920s like Chalmers. Here, in the 21st century, we have computer programmes that can scan through millions of models, apply them to a problem, and check for solutions. In fact I had programmes specifically created to help me in this, and my computer kept running through the various permutations and combinations day and night, even while I was teaching in class, even when I – most reluctantly, I can tell you – went to sleep.

 

It was only a few months before my retirement that – after years of trying various approaches, and more mathematical models than I care to think about – that I hit on a solution. At first I could scarcely believe it, but the more I checked, the more certain I became. But it required a great deal of preparation – a very great deal – and I decided that it would have to wait until after I retired.

 

Fortunately, as you know, I am a bachelor and so have had no expenses on a family; I took no holidays, made no extravagant expenses, and I could afford to accumulate enough money to indulge myself in the practical minutiae of my research. I knew I wouldn’t be getting any grants, even if any institute took me seriously. Only actual and verifiable results would be acceptable.

 

All these days, after retirement, I have been carrying out experiments and modifying my parameters. I’ve had years of setbacks, but each merely showed me where I was going wrong so I could correct my approach. And at last I’ve got it. Multiple dry runs have been successful; only the final experiment remains.

 

Tonight, I intend to perform it, with myself as the subject. I will be sending myself into “elsewhere”. And you two will be my witnesses and controls.

 

That is why I called you here.

 

****************************************************

 

You can’t mean to say,” I exploded, when Dr Singh had finished, “that you actually found a way to access this angular time!”

 

“Not only have I, my boy, you’ll see it for yourselves.” Dr Singh got up from his chair and chuckled. “You’re looking at me as though I were a mad scientist from one of those dreadful pulp science fiction stories from the nineteen-fifties. One would almost think I was stitching together body parts to create a Frankenstein’s monster.” He gestured. “Let’s go upstairs. I converted the entire first floor into my workspace and laboratory.”

 

We climbed the stairs, to be confronted by a heavy door. Dr Singh produced a long key from his pocket and unlocked it. “I had this fitted so that the laboratory is a fully contained space,” he said. “I don’t know if you noticed when you drove up, but I had all the windows on this floor bricked up as well.”

 

Inside was a large room, illuminated by brilliant white lights hanging in the ceiling. There was something subtly off about its shape, which bothered me. The more I looked around the room the more it seemed strange. Dr Singh saw what I was doing and smiled.

 

“The walls aren’t precisely at right angles,” he said. “Nor is the ceiling a flat plane. I found that a cube didn’t work, but a slightly different shape did.”

 

We followed him to the centre of the room. There was a workstation of sorts there, with computer monitors set on a horseshoe-shaped wooden desk with three wheeled office chairs parked behind it. On the open side of the horseshoe was a couch that looked rather like a reclining dentist’s chair, with an attachment at one end that resembled oversized headphones on a hinged arm. There was other equipment, including a video camera on a tripod, what looked like professional sound recording apparatus, and a large box that resembled an outsize computer CPU but whose purpose I could not imagine. Thin wires spilled from it, coiled on the floor, and rose again to plug into the headphones.

 

“Singh’s Monster,” Yash Agarwal said. “It has a certain ring to it. You can almost see it lying there on that thing while you work on it, Doctor.”

 

We both ignored him. “So your subject, I mean, you, lie on the couch, I assume? And then what happens? Surely you don’t physically slide over into a parallel universe?”

 

“It would be perpendicular universe,” Dr Singh said reprovingly, “and, no, of course I can’t physically enter it. Nor would I want to, since there’s no way of predicting the effects it would have on my body. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be a physical transference. What I’m doing is to try and intercept the time flow from ‘elsewhere’ and converting it into a form which I can experience and understand.”

 

“You mean,” I said, “that you’ll be mentally experiencing it, like a dream. Like Frank Belknap Long’s Chalmers.”

 

“That’s right,” Dr Singh nodded his heavy blue-turbaned head. “That’s another point at which Long was prescient.”

 

“There’s just a little problem,” Yash Agarwal said. “If you’re going to base your research on Long’s tale, you should remember that his character Chalmers faced, uh, hazards.”

 

Dr Singh snorted. “You mean Long’s Hounds of Tindalos, who tracked his Chalmers through angular time, and who entered our curved time universe through the angles between walls? Even in the story’s universe, one can safely put that down to the drug Chalmers had chosen to poison himself with.”

 

“He’s got a point, though,” I said. “Just suppose there’s...something...that might follow your consciousness back. How can you guard against it?”

 

“Right,” Yash Agarwal added. “We wouldn’t want you to have your head torn off like Chalmers, your blood drained from your body, and left smeared with blue protoplasm and a triangle made of rubble arranged around your corpse.”

 

Dr Singh gave us a pitying look. “I actually have thought of that, you know.” He pointed. “Look over there.”

 

We looked. On the far side of the room there was another door set in the wall. And this was perfectly round, like one of the hatchways in submarine movies.

 

“Inside that,” Dr Singh said, “is an egg-shaped room, without any angles. If I have to, I’ll take shelter there until any danger blows over.” He walked across and opened the door. Both Yash Agarwal and I followed him and looked over his shoulder. Neither of us had ever seen a room like that before. White painted and oval, it was like being inside an egg. There was a large bean bag on the floor, a rolled sleeping bag, sealed packets of bread, a basket of fruit, bottles of water, and piles of books.

 

“I see you’ve provided for a longish stay,” Yash Agarwal observed.

 

“Chalmers had the same idea,” I objected. “He plastered the corners of his room. But there was an earthquake, and...”

 

“...and the Hounds of Tindalos entered through the jagged edges of the broken plaster,” Dr Singh finished, closing the round door and leading us back to the horseshoe desk. “Well, this isn’t an earthquake prone city; there hasn’t been an earthquake here since records began.”

 

“I always thought the earthquake was the doing of the Hounds,” Yash Agarwal put in, inconsequentially. “It was extremely convenient, wasn’t it?”

 

“Plastering the corners of a room and making a room that’s designed without angles are different things entirely.” Dr Singh gave us a look as though he was regretting his decision to call us in. “Anyway, sit down, and I’ll show you the mathematics of the project.”

 

Suiting himself to his words, he switched on one of the computer monitors, brought up a screen full of graphics, and began.

 

****************************************************

 

I can’t find any flaws in it,” I admitted reluctantly.

 

We’d been over the diagrams and equations again and again, listened to Dr Singh point out where he’d gone wrong and had had to backtrack, checked the equipment, and then gone over the mathematical models again. I had found myself hoping for a flaw, a mistake of some kind, but there was none.

 

“I think it’ll work,” Yash Agarwal said, equally unhappily.

 

Dr Singh stood and stretched. “Good! We can go down for dinner and you two can rest a while. We’ll start at midnight, which is...” he looked at the clock on one wall. “Three hours from now,” he finished.

 

“Have we been at it that long?” Yash Agarwal and I glanced at each other in surprise. “It didn’t seem like it.”

 

“Well, it shouldn’t have, if I managed to keep it interesting.” Dr Singh rubbed his white beard cheerfully. “Now down to dinner, and after that, we come right back up again.”

 

We didn’t talk much during dinner; everyone was lost in his own thoughts. Afterwards, Dr Singh instructed us over again in what our roles were to be.

 

“I’ll set up the video camera and start the sound recording,” he said, “and then begin the procedure. You two will keep a close watch on the apparatus, and also listen carefully to everything I say. Remember to take individual notes, and that you’re only to terminate the experiment if I ask you to, not before.”

 

“And if, like Chalmers, you show signs of extreme physical distress?” Yash Agarwal asked.

 

“I don’t see any reason why I should,” Dr Singh responded tranquilly. “The couch is quite comfortable.”

 

We made our way upstairs again. Though we were deep inside the city, not a sound penetrated from outside, testament to the thickness of the walls. Dr Singh looked around the room and shrugged.

 

“Well, this is it,” he said. “Twenty years of thinking and planning and experimenting and working, and now at last I’m about to do it. Well.”

 

“Are you nervous?” I asked.

 

“Hardly,” he said. “Nervousness is for those who aren’t sure of themselves. Are you two ready with everything you need? Pads, pens, everything?”

 

“Yes,” I said. “By the way, what made you choose midnight?”

 

He shrugged. “It’s just that by then most people have gone to sleep, so there’s less electronic noise. I’ve shielded this floor from as much as possible of that, of course – you’ll find you have no mobile phone reception here – but it’s hard to eliminate it completely.”

 

“Does electronic noise matter?” I asked, as he moved a microphone on a swivel over the couch and tapped it. “I shouldn’t have thought it, from your models.”

 

“It shouldn’t, but why take a chance?” Dr Singh moved the video camera on the tripod so that the lens was pointed at the head end of the couch. Now, remember, don’t say a word once we begin.” From a drawer in the desk he took what looked like a large pair of very dark wraparound sunglasses, but which I decided couldn’t possibly be. “Hold that a moment, will you?”

 

I took it and examined it. It was a pair of very dark wraparound sunglasses.

 

“That’s so I minimise extraneous visual stimuli,” he explained, climbing on the couch and lying down. Pulling the apparatus that looked like oversized headphones over his head, he poised them over his ears. “When these are on, I can still hear you, but they will be playing back the equations we talked about in the form of electronic impulses, through my ears to my brain, just as I explained to you. And I’ll be describing everything I experience, so take it down, in case the recording fails.”

 

“Don’t you think you’ll remember what you experience when you, uh, wake up?” Yash Agarwal asked.

 

“How should I know? I haven’t tried this before, and there’s no point in taking chances.” Dr Singh took the sunglasses from me, slipped them over his eyes, and began clamping the headphones over his ears.

 

“Just a minute,” I said. “Assuming any of this works at all, just how far are you planning to go? I mean, into this...angular time stream?”

 

I couldn’t see his eyes, but I saw his brow contract in the familiar annoyed frown that said, I am disappointed in you. “As far as I can, of course. If I’m to go at all, I’ll go the whole way. All right, we’ll begin.”

 

Slipping the headphones into place, he lay down.

 

I don’t know what Yash Agarwal had expected. For myself, I had thought we’d maybe have something like the clock stopping like in Long’s story, or the lights growing dim. But the second hand of the clock on the wall went sweeping round in its unhurried way, and the bright white lights remained as bright and white as ever.

 

Suddenly, Dr Singh’s lips twitched, and he began to speak.

 

“It’s starting,” he said.

 

****************************************************

 

I’m beginning to feel a strange sensation (Dr Singh said). It started around my midsection but is spreading throughout my body. It feels rather as though I were being turned inside out and back again; painless, but not pleasant. It’s not too much to tolerate, though.

 

My eyes are open inside the sunglasses, but all I can see is darkness. I can’t hear anything either, not even the sound of my own voice, though I know I’m talking because I can hear the vibration of my voice in my throat. I hope I’m speaking loudly enough for the recording, and for you to take down.

 

The sensation has enveloped my entire body now. My skin feels a though it’s inside my body and everything else is outside, but I have no pain. I’m also beginning to feel as though I’m slowly spinning round and round.

 

I think it’s less dark. Maybe I’m imagining it, or perhaps it’s just the ceiling lights shining through the sunglasses...no, it really is getting less dark. The blackness is less black, and I can make out lines, like those of walls, only they don’t seem like walls we know. They look like they’re leaning at angles that walls normally should not be able to.

 

There is movement there too. The lines seem to be moving, but they can’t be because they’re just lines. No, of course not, it’s I who am moving. I’m slowly being swept past the lines, and more lines are appearing, at more and more impossible angles, like jagged teeth in many jaws set in one mouth. It’s getting lighter, the darkness turning slowly to a greyish-green colour with a blue tinge.

 

 I feel as though I’m moving towards a great net, spread as far as I can see, made of lines that cross and recross each other at acute angles, rather like a pile of needles. Glowing points move along those lines, meet, merge, and move apart again. The light is changing to a translucent blue that is impossible to describe, but which seems to be everywhere, including inside me. I can’t feel any part of my body anymore. I think that those lines are what stars are like in “elsewhere”, and the glowing points may be their movements through time.

 

There are more lines appearing around me. They are closer, jagged and meet at angles that should be sharp as stiletto knives if they were to touch., but I can’t feel them touch. Maybe I’m a thing of lines and angles here too. Maybe everything in our universe is here as well, only represented in angles instead of curves. Are you listening to this? Maybe there are two of you here too, made of angles, and I can’t recognise you even though I can see you, because you look like nothing I can understand.

 

Now I am moving further. The net is no closer, it’s still an immense distance away, but the lines around me are changing. I have no idea whether I’m moving towards the past or the future, of course, but it’s probably immaterial. I never thought it would be like this.

 

(Pause)

 

The lines and angles are all around me now. They crowd and overhang, they are so close to me that I should not be able to move, but I’m moving anyway. Things flicker among them, that I can’t make out, not because they move so fast but because they’re of angles and shapes that I can’t reconcile with anything I am familiar with.

 

(Long pause)

 

The lines and angles are slowly becoming fewer, and spreading further apart. I have a feeling as though I am on an immense plain. Even the net is no longer so tightly meshed, the lines are fewer, the glowing points further apart. I feel as though I am approaching either the beginning of this universe, or the end.

 

The translucent bluish light is no longer so translucent. It’s becoming cloudy, with tinges of yellowish-brown and black. This gives me a chance to examine it more clearly. Yes, the light itself seems broken up into angles, each angle at a slightly different shade and, I daresay, at a different wavelength. That would be logical if everything is constructed from angles. Even waves wouldn’t follow curves, but an angular course. I wonder what a black hole would look like in this place.

 

I am beginning to have a feeling of being accompanied by something unseen. There seems to be something on this plain with me. The pinkish-yellow light is stronger and more opaque, and the black is clotting into angular shapes that look almost familiar. I’m getting closer to them, and if I could strain for a better look I would. In any case I’ll soon be able to see them more closely.

 

The net is almost gone now, only a few lines scratched across the far distance, the glowing points so slow that they are almost stationary. I must be at an extreme point of time. The pink and yellow are filling up the gaps, and the black things are taking shape. They are jagged and moving, and I am beginning to feel a reluctance to get any closer. But I can’t turn back or away, because I am being swept closer to them at every moment.

 

They are angular and big, and they move around in a way that is like no movement I have yet seen in this universe. They seem to be moving across the plane, at right angles to the way I am going, while everything else I have seen was moving either in my direction of movement or back the way I came.

 

It is almost as though they’re blocking the way so that nothing can get by them. It is as though they are border guards, determined sentries that will let nothing past.

 

They...they see me. They’re aware of me! They’re turning towards me! I see them. I see their faces!

 

Quick! Terminate the procedure! For god’s sake bring me back! Bring me back before they get me!

 

(Inarticulate screaming)

 

****************************************************

 

What happened, Doctor?” I asked, supporting the old man with an arm around his shoulders.

 

“Here, drink this,” Yash Agarwal said, handing Dr Singh a glass of brandy. I have no idea where he found the brandy.

 

Dr Singh shook off my arm and waved away the brandy. “I don’t need that,” he said. He got off the couch and began stowing away the recording apparatus and sunglasses. His movements were abrupt and slightly uncoordinated, and it was easy to see that he was struggling through a shock.

 

“Can you tell us what happened?” I asked, glancing from him down to my notes. “You said they saw you.”

 

“Yes, well.” Dr Singh licked his lips. “It was probably nothing but my imagination. Old Long and his Hounds of Tindalos, which follow a man back through angular time. Rubbish. Just a load of metaphysical claptrap. Yes, well,” he repeated, “I’ll need a few days to analyse all the data and check what exactly happened. Yes.”

 

Yash Agarwal and I exchanged glances. “And then what do you plan to do? Publish your findings? Go on another trip? When?”

 

Dr Singh shrugged his shoulders in a quick, angry gesture. “How should I know? I have to analyse the data.” He wouldn’t look at us. “It’s almost four in the morning. You should call a taxi. Your flight will be leaving in a few hours.”

 

“At least take some precautions,” I said, after we’d called for a taxi to the airport and gathered the suitcases we hadn’t even unpacked. “Don’t leave yourself vulnerable.”

 

“Don’t worry about me. As soon as you leave, I’m going right to the round room I showed you and staying there until I’m sure it’s safe. No walls with angles, remember?” He still wouldn’t look us in the eye.  “I think that’s your taxi. Have a good trip!”   

 

He practically pushed us out of the house and slammed shut the door.

 

****************************************************

 

We were in the air, and the Fasten Seat Belts sign had gone off, when Yash Agarwal leaned across to me. By mutual unspoken consent we'd asked for seats together; neither of us wanted to be alone right then. 

 

“I’ve just thought of something,” he said.

 

“Yeah?” I looked up from the notes I’d made. “What?”

 

“Dr Singh,” Yash Agarwal said. His face was pale, his voice a hoarse whisper. “He’s locked himself in the round room.”

 

“Yes,” I said. “So?”

 

“We both saw that room. He had books in there.”

 

“Obviously. He needs to have some way of passing the time. What’s your point?”

 

Yash Agarwal’s face was beaded with sweat. He rubbed at it with his sleeve.

 

“Books have angles,” he said.

 

Copyright B Purkayastha 2021




Friday, 7 May 2021

Olombush and the Ojha: A Ghost Story from Bunglistan

Once upon a time, in a village in Bunglistan, there lived an ojha.

 

His name was Obinashchondro Shutrodhor, and therefore at birth he’d been nicknamed Bhutu. He’d often cursed the doting grandmother who’d imposed that nickname on him, because having been saddled with an appellation so reminiscent of bhoots – not to mention prets, shakchunnis, petnis, brohmodottyis and all other manner of ghosts – what other choice had he ever had but to become an ojha?

 

He was, truth to tell, not a very successful ojha. Nobody had called him to chase away a ghost in ages, or to lift a curse, or even for a spell to banish the evil eye from falling on their newly spawned child. They’d rather send for an ojha from one of the other neighbouring villages than give him a cowrie, let alone a copper coin, or even barter a fish or a stick of firewood for some work.

 

It wasn’t really his fault. A proper ojha should look frightening enough to scare the most obdurate ghost away. He should have matted hair and beard, inflamed eyes, long nails, and beads all over his arms and hanging down to his chest, not to speak of a voice reminiscent of thunder. Bhutu was nothing like that. He would have to stretch on tiptoe to even be called of medium height, was scrawny as a scarecrow, and had a voice that squeaked like a startled mouse. Only not even a mouse would be scared of Bhutu, who couldn’t afford a bead, let alone a mass of them, and whose efforts at growing a beard had never succeeded in doing more than produce a few wispy tendrils on his cheeks.

 

In vain he’d even taken to approaching people in the village lanes to ask them whether they might have some small annoying ghost to banish. In the end he’d gone, his little bag of charms hanging around his neck as always, to loiter outside the zamindar’s house, in the hope that the zamindar – whose brick mansion was certainly large and rambling enough to attract as many ghosts as it did roosting bats and squabbling crows – might have a sudden need of a spirit to chase away.

 

Now the zamindar had just married a girl, all of twelve years old, and she’d brought a substantial dowry with her, comprised mostly of various ornaments of gold and silver, chief among which was a gold necklace set with a stone red as blood and the size of a sparrow’s egg. The zamindar was convinced that all the thieves in the country were out to steal the necklace. So he picked out those of his men who had the brawniest arms and the biggest moustaches, armed them with sticks as long and thick as pikes, ordering them to be always on the lookout.

 

And of course the sentries soon got bored as bored, because who would think of trying to steal the jewels with them on guard?

 

So one of them saw Bhutu where he waited, trying to catch the eye of someone from the zamindar’s house with a ghost or two to get rid of. “Thief,” he shouted, after taking a good look and deciding that Bhutu was neither rich and socially connected, nor big and strong enough to fight back. Calling his mates to help, he rushed at the poor ojha, who jumped back in fear and fell right into the zamindar’s personal pond.

 

Bhutu, who couldn’t swim, would have drowned right then and there, except that the pond was already full of fisher ghosts, who didn’t want any further competition from some newly dead interloper. Before the ojha even realised what was happening to him, one of them grabbed him by the scruff of his scrawny neck and slung him out of the water so hard that he ended up draped over the back of the zamindar’s favourite bull, who was tethered at the side of the pond to graze. The bull, startled and angry, ripped his stake right out of the ground as he shook off this sudden and unexpected burden. And then Bhutu, covered in pond scum and weeds, had to run as hard as he could to escape the bull’s horns as well as the zamindar’s outraged henchmen.

 

On top of all this litany of misfortune, Bhutu didn’t even have a wife, not even one built like a water buffalo and with the temper of a wild boar like that of Damodar the washerman. At times he thought Damodar’s wife would have made a better ojha than anyone else, because with her voice that was like the roar of a dyspeptic tiger she would have been able to clear out all the ghosts in ten villages around. But she only seemed to reserve her screaming for her husband.

 

It was her husband that Bhutu met on the way as he ran, leading his donkey laden with laundry. “Damodar,” he begged, “let me hide in your bundle of washing, or else the zamindar’s men and the zamindar’s bull are going to murder me.”

 

“And what will you give me if I do?” Damodar asked. “I know you don’t have two copper coins to rub together.”

 

“I’ll give you anything you want,” Bhutu said in desperation, for he could hear the shouting of the zamindar’s henchmen and the bellowing of the zamindar’s bull, approaching rapidly. “Name it, and I’ll give it to you.”

 

Now it so happened that the washerman’s wife had seen, a few days ago, the zamindar’s new child bride wearing the gold necklace with the red stone set in it, and had immediately decided that she would not rest until she had one such of her own. Or, rather, her husband would get no rest until she got one of her own. And, of course, Damodar’s protestations that he was a mere washerman and would never, no matter how hard he tried, earn enough to buy one link of a gold necklace made no impression on her either.

 

“What do you mean you won’t buy it?” she bawled, and the lizards in the corners scurried for shelter. “You will have to buy it. Or I’ll break every bone in your body.”

 

She was certainly big enough to do it, and Damodar was spindly enough to have it done to him. But even the deepest desire to not have every bone in his body broken couldn’t change the fact that he could never, ever, in his entire life, earn enough to buy a necklace like that. And the matter had been weighing heavier and heavier on his mind, because, of course, his wife never let it rest.

 

So, now, he reacted to the ojha’s begging with pure spite. “Get me a gold necklace like the one the zamindar’s new baby wife wears,” he snapped. “That’s my price for hiding you.”

 

Bhutu had just glimpsed the sticks of the zamindar’s men waving above the bushes, and he only half-heard what the washerman had demanded. At that moment he would have agreed to give Damodar half the moon if that had been the price asked for. “All right, you’ll get it,” he said desperately. “Now hide me.”

 

So Damodar tipped out the load of laundry from the sack on his donkey’s back – he could always wash the lot of them again, after all – and pushed Bhutu inside. Loading up the sack on his donkey, he continued leading the animal along the path, swiping the animal’s flanks lightly with his stick to keep it moving. Within moments the zamindar’s men showed up and surrounded him.

 

“Where do you think you’re going?” one of them, who had, of course, a huge moustache, shouted.

 

“We’re chasing a thief,” one with an even bigger moustache bellowed. “Have you seen the thief?”

 

“Begging your pardon, master,” Damodar whined. “I’m only the washerman, as you know, and I’m just taking the laundry back on my donkey.” To emphasise the point, he raised his stick and brought it down sharply on the sack. There was a muffled yelp.

 

“What was that?” a third, who had a yet bigger moustache, yelled. “Did you hear something?”

 

“It must be a ghost in the trees,” Damodar said desperately. “What with the useless ojha this village is burdened with, ghosts are everywhere.” He brought the stick down again on the sack, and there was another yelp. “See?”

 

“We’re just wasting time,” the zamindar’s man with the biggest moustache thundered. “While we’re wasting time with this idiot, the thief’s getting away. And we have to catch the zamindar’s bull as well.”

 

With renewed shouts, waving their sticks, the zamindar’s men ran on.  Damodar waited until they’d disappeared and then tipped Bhutu unceremoniously out of the sack.

 

“What were you doing, beating me black and blue?” the latter demanded.

 

“Never mind that,” Damodar said. “Where’s my necklace?”

 

“Necklace?” Bhutu blinked in confusion before suddenly remembering that Damodar had demanded the necklace for hiding him. “But how can I give you the...”

 

Damodar turned in the direction the zamindar’s men had taken, raising his voice. “Here he...”

 

“Wait, wait,” Bhutu begged. “I don’t have any necklace, but I’ll get it for you. Just give me time.”

 

“I’ll give you three days,” Damodar declared. The fourth day from now was his wife’s birthday, and she would hopefully refrain from breaking every bone in his body if he gave her the necklace as a present. “Three days only, mind!”

 

Nodding gloomily, Bhutu walked away homewards. Where was he to get a necklace at all, let alone one like the zamindar’s wife’s? His only option was to leave the village and run away.

 

And that was what he decided to do.

 

*******************************************************

 

Of course, as even Bhutu realised, he couldn’t just pack up his things and walk out of the village. For one thing, the road out led right past Damodar’s hut, and if he wasn’t there, his monster of a wife would be. For another, the zamindar’s men might still be on the lookout for him, and he wasn’t quite sure that they wouldn’t remember what he looked like.

 

There was only one solution: he would have to run away at night.

 

This was, of course, easier said than done, and not because of the danger from snakes or just falling into a pond in the dark. Night was when the ghosts would all be out and about, and it would normally have needed a more intrepid man than Bhutu to brave the possibility of being caught by them. And so he waited one day, and then another, hoping that Damodar would have forgotten the necklace thing.

 

But Damodar hadn’t, of course, forgotten. “Hey, ojha,” he shouted on the third afternoon, right across the big pond outside the village. “Today’s the third day, don’t forget. I want that necklace by tomorrow morning. Or else.”

 

Bhutu had been standing under a jackfruit tree, looking up longingly at the immense, odoriferous, yellow fruit, wishing he could wrench down one and gorge himself on the slimy, sweetish flesh inside. But if he even tried, he was quite sure, the ghosts in the tree would wring his neck. Bhutu had a healthy respect for jackfruit tree ghosts, who were notoriously almost as truculent as those that inhabited tamarind trees. He even thought he could see one of them, bulking shadowy among the leaves. At Damodar’s shout, he gulped down the saliva that had gathered in his mouth, sighed mournfully, and set off homewards to pack his things so that he could sneak away as soon as darkness fell.

 

Meanwhile, it so happened that that same afternoon the zamindar’s child bride had developed an upset stomach from eating too many green mangoes. The zamindar had summoned a kabiraj from the next village to have a look, and the kabiraj had said that the girl had simply had too many green mangoes and would recover in good time. This had, of course, infuriated the zamindar.

 

“No wife of mine,” he shouted, “can have such a commonplace problem as stomach cramps from green mangoes like some common village urchin. Are you trying to compare her to a village urchin? Are you?”

 

The kabiraj had shrugged and given the girl a herbal medicine of his own concoction, which would – he was fairly confident – not do her any harm, taken a couple of copper coins for his trouble, and gone on his way. The zamindar, though, was still fuming.

 

“How dare he try to fob me off with this useless stuff,” he shouted, poking the small earthenware pot with its revolting yellowish-green contents. “There is no way my wife can have such an ordinary illness. In fact, you can be sure she isn’t sick at all. Yes,” he said, struck by this idea, “she can’t possibly be sick. She must be possessed. Yes! She must be possessed by a ghost that’s jealous of her youth and beauty.”

 

The zamindar’s clerks and assistants nodded dutifully.  “You must be right, Master,” they intoned. “There is indeed nobody as young and pretty as our mistress. No wonder a ghost might be filled with jealousy at the sight of her.”

 

“We must get rid of the ghost,” the zamindar’s old mother said. “We should burn dry chillies and mustard oil. Ghosts hate the smell of dried chillies and mustard oil.”

 

So the zamindar had his cook send up dried chillies and mustard oil from the kitchen. His minions poured the mustard oil in an earthen lamp, stuck in a wick, and set it to smoke and sputter by the child-wife’s bed. And in a great iron pan they heaped crushed dried chillies, heated it until the spices were smouldering, and put it on the floor until her room was so full of acrid smoke she could hardly breathe.

 

“The ghost must surely be gone by now,” the old mother said at last. So, just in time to stop the girl from asphyxiating, they carried away the burnt chilli and threw open her window. The zamindar waddled pompously into her room as soon as the smoke had cleared enough to tolerate.

 

“And how are you feeling now, my dear?” he enquired.

 

“My stomach is still hurting,” the child bride said between gasps and coughs. “And now my throat and eyes and nose are all hurting too.”

 

“It must be a very powerful ghost,” the old mother said. “A very evil, very powerful ghost.”

 

“What should we do then?”

 

“We should get an ojha to chase the ghost away,” the old mother said. “These ghosts are stubborn and need an ojha to do the job.”

 

“But where can we get an ojha?” the zamindar asked. “I don’t know any ojha.”

 

“There’s one in the kabiraj’s village,” the junior-most of the clerks offered. “We could fetch him.”

 

“Under no circumstances,” roared the zamindar, “will I have anything to do with anyone from that idiot’s village.”

 

“There’s another in the next village but one,” the middle clerk said. “I know him. He chased a ghost away for my mother-in-law when...”

 

“Good!” the zamindar interrupted, flashing a betel-juice-stained smile. “You can go right now and fetch him.”

 

The middle clerk’s face went pale. “But...” he stammered. “But that’s a long way, and it’ll be dark long before I can get there, and...there are ponds and tamarind trees and ruined temples full of ghosts on the way. Maybe tomorrow morning, if the mistress isn’t better...”

 

“Rubbish,” the zamindar screamed. “We can’t wait till tomorrow. If you don’t go, I’ll whip the skin off your back myself.”

 

The middle clerk went three shades paler, his mouth opening and closing like one of the fish in the zamindar’s pond. “But,” he repeated, “but...”

 

“Wait,” the senior clerk said. “I just remembered that there is an ojha in this village, though I’m not sure who it is or where he lives. But our guards can ask around and find out.”

 

“Excellent,” the zamindar said. “Send the guards right now to find this fellow and bring him here.”

 

So it was that, just as Bhutu was making his way home from the pond, someone he knew hailed him. “Hey, Bhutu, I hear the zamindar’s men are looking for you.”

 

Bhutu went as pale as the zamindar’s middle clerk. “For me?” he squeaked.

 

“They’re the ones with the moustaches and the sticks,” the man said with relish. “I don’t know what you’ve done, but you’re going to catch it.”

 

“Where are they looking for me?” Bhutu asked, his lips growing numb from fear. “Are they coming this way?”

 

“Not yet,” the other replied, sadly. “I told them the way to your house. They’re on their way there. But,” he added cheerfully, “when they don’t find you there, they’re certain to come looking. They seemed awfully eager to get their hands on you.”

 

Bhutu walked away without another word, and then, as soon as he was out of sight, he turned back and hurried as fast as his legs could carry him away from the village. He was in such a terrible panic that he scarcely noticed where he was going, and – since being half-starved and weak he couldn’t go far without getting winded – he soon ran out of breath and collapsed under a big tree.

 

He had hardly started getting his breath back when he heard some distant voices, which sounded horribly familiar. At any rate, he could hear them mention his name, and he was quite sure he heard the zamindar mentioned too.

 

In a panic, and with no idea where the zamindar’s men were, Bhutu did the only thing he could. He clambered up into the tree as fast as he could and hid himself among the branches. The leaves were thick, so that they probably concealed him, but even more, the tree was filled with rough and bulky objects that smelled strongly, though at that moment he didn’t have the leisure to think about them.

 

The voices came closer, and he could hear that they were angry. “Where is that ojha?” one was growling. “The zamindar will have the skin off our backs if we don’t find him.”

 

“And if we do,” another said, “he’ll have the skin off the ojha’s back for making him wait.”

 

The terrified Bhutu tried to hide himself even further into the thickest shadow of the leaves, pushing aside one of the rough bulky objects as he did. It was very large and heavy, apart from stinking hard enough to make his eyes water. When he touched it, his finger came away covered by a sticky, gummy material. And then, he realised where he was.

 

He was back at the pond and had climbed into the jackfruit tree.

 

If the zamindar’s men hadn’t been close by and threatening the skin on his back, Bhutu would have scrambled down from the tree as quickly as he could. As it was, all he could do was cling to his branch and try to comfort himself with the thought that it wasn’t yet dark, and so the ghosts wouldn’t yet be astir. Then, after waiting until the last sounds of the zamindar’s henchmen had faded into the distance, he began to stretch his cramped arms and legs, preliminary to getting down.

 

And at once his arm was grabbed by a huge and shadowy paw. “Who are you?” a voice rumbled in his ear. “How dare you come up in my tree and disturb my sleep?”

 

When Bhutu decided he could talk again, he slowly turned his head, and promptly decided that he couldn’t talk again. Perhaps he would never be able to talk ever again, any more.

 

Behind him was a gigantic head, so large that it rivalled the jackfruits in size. It was a mass of shadow and darkness, except for two vast, dimly glowing red eyes and a faint glimmer of great yellow tusks. The bhoot tilted its giant head and pulled him closer by the arm for a better look.

 

“I asked you a question,” it rumbled. “Answer me, and then I’ll tear you limb from limb.”

 

All Bhutu managed was a squeak, and twisted desperately, if futilely, to get away from the bhoot’s grip. The movement brought the little sack of charms dangling around his neck to the bhoot’s attention.

 

“What’s this?” it enquired, and poked at the bag with a forefinger of its other hand, only to draw it back immediately with a hiss. “What’s in there? It burns!”

 

Bhutu swallowed and suddenly found his voice. “It’s my job,” he said. “I’m an ojha.”

 

The bhoot recoiled, letting go of Bhutu’s arm. “An ojha!” it gasped. “I’ve never seen one of you before. I heard ojhas can burn ghosts to ashes and destroy them so thoroughly that they become the ghosts of ghosts. What are you going to do to me?”

 

“Nothing...” Bhutu began. His mind, unaccustomed to quick thought, was racing. “Nothing, that is, if you do exactly as I say. Now, what’s your name?”

 

“Olombush,” the bhoot replied. “But my friends call me...”

 

“I am not interested in what your friends call you. Now, Olombush, are you going to do what I tell you to, or should I burn you to ashes with my ojha charms?”

 

“I’ll do whatever you tell me to, lord,” the poor bhoot said, cringing as much as anything of its vast size could cringe. “Just give me the order, and it’s done.”

 

“Right, listen here. There is this zamindar who rules the village. He has a wife, and the wife has a necklace which...”

 

Soon afterwards, as darkness fell, the bhoot departed from the tree on his errand. Bhutu sat back, fingering his bag and glancing nervously about the tree. There might be other ghosts around, and they would probably not be as credulous about his abilities as Olombush was.

 

While he waited, he scratched a hole in the nearest jackfruit’s spiky hide, and began, almost absentmindedly, to eat.

 

*******************************************************

 

Very early the next morning, just as the last of the night’s hordes of ghosts were returning to their roosts to snooze out the day, Bhutu turned up at Damodar the washerman’s hut. From inside he could hear the washerman’s wife soundly berating her husband. “It’s almost daylight,” she was shouting, “and you haven’t even got up yet! How will you get a thing done if you aren’t even willing to get up in the morning? No wonder I still haven’t got my necklace.” And more, in the same ear-splitting vein.

 

Bhutu waited discreetly behind the little shed that served as a stable for Damodar’s donkey. When the washerman finally stumbled out of his home, his wife’s shrill recriminations following him, he stepped into the open. Damodar was so startled that he nearly fell over backwards.

 

“Here’s your necklace,” Bhutu said, holding it out. “Now we’re even.” Without giving Damodar a chance to say a word, he turned and walked away.

 

Meanwhile, in the zamindar’s mansion, things had been going from bad to worse.

 

The zamindar had not been pleased when the guards returned, unable to find the ojha. So far from pleased had he been that the guards’ ears had been ringing from his ranting until it was quite midnight. And then it was discovered that somebody had sneaked in while all the screaming was going on, and stolen the child wife’s famous necklace right out of her room.

 

The child wife herself had seen nothing, since at the time, her stomach having stopped hurting on its own, she’d been in the kitchen in a fruitless search for more green mangoes to eat.

 

“Get the thief,” the zamindar had shrieked, his ample frame quivering like porridge while his face had gone the colour of a sunset. “Get the thief or I’ll whip you all with your own sticks!”

 

“Master,” the large moustached guard whined, “it’s midnight, and the ghosts...”

 

“Go!” the zamindar roared.

 

“Master,” the larger moustached guard whined, “it’s midnight, and the ghosts...”

 

“I said go!” the zamindar roared.

 

“Master,” the largest moustached guard whined, “it’s midnight, and the ghosts...”

 

With all the moustached guards refusing to step outside, the zamindar reluctantly had to wait till dawn. He spent the time stamping up and down the mansion, leaving his old mother worrying that he would hurt his poor legs. Meanwhile, the child bride found the next best thing to green mangoes, a pot of mango pickle, and ate the lot, which gave her stomach cramps all over again. Only, this time, everyone had more important things on their minds.

 

“The necklace!” the zamindar shouted. “The necklace! The necklace!”

 

So, as soon as the dawn was lightening the eastern horizon, the zamindar’s guards had had to step out of the mansion to go looking for the thief. And the first thing they saw was, of course, Bhutu, who had begun feeling so happy and carefree at having given the washerman the necklace that he didn’t even notice where he was going until he literally bumped into the guards.

 

“Hey, look,” the guard with the thick moustache said, grabbing hold of Bhutu by the arm, just like the bhoot had. “Doesn’t this one look familiar?”

 

“Come to think of it...” the guard with the thicker moustache said, squinting at Bhutu. “He kind of reminds me of somebody. I’m sure I’ve seen him recently. Give me a moment and it’ll come to me.”

 

“He’s out awfully early anyway,” the guard with the thickest moustache said, pointing at the dawn. “Suspiciously early, you might say. Hey, you,” he added, taking Bhutu by the other arm and shaking him, “what have you to say for yourself? Were you out stealing?

 

“Is that the necklace you have in that bag there?” the guard with the thicker moustache said, and, without hesitating, pulled it off Bhutu’s neck and emptied it on the ground. And then all the guards stood looking down, mystified, at the collection of stones, twigs, and bundles of feathers lying in the dust.

 

Bhutu, who had been gasping and squeaking with fright, finally found the ability to speak. “My materials,” he said. “They’re just the tools of my trade. I’m an ojha.”

 

“An ojha, are you?” the guard with the thick moustache gave him a hard shake. “Where were you last night when we wanted you? Where?”

 

“Forget that,” the guard with the thickest moustache replied. “We need an ojha to find the thief. Nobody else could.”

 

“But he’ll want money,” the guard with the thicker moustache said. “We don’t have money.”

 

“Don’t be a nitwit,” the guard with the thick moustache snapped. “It’s the zamindar who’ll pay. After all, it’s his wife’s necklace.”

 

“You’re right,” the other guards agreed. “Let’s take him to the zamindar and tell him about it.”

 

So, waiting only long enough to let Bhutu scoop up his pebbles and feathers, the guards dragged him before the zamindar. “Master,” they said, “the thief has made a getaway, but we’ll catch him. This ojha will catch him for us.”

 

“How will you catch him?” the zamindar thundered.

 

Bhutu’s brain had been in a whirl all this time. Until the previous evening it had hardly ever had to work at all, and it was coping badly with this unaccustomed exercise. He gulped and glopped and licked his lips. “I can do it,” he said at last, “but not with these things I have on me. I need to fetch some special equipment. Could I have leave to go and get it?”

 

“All right,” the zamindar said. “I suppose you need your tools. But come right back. If you find the thief, I’ll give you...” he thought. “I’ll give you fift...er, thirty copper coins. If you don’t, my guards will break every bone in your body.”

 

“And if he doesn’t come back, master,” the guard with the long moustache added, helpfully, “we’ll track him down and break every bone in his body.”

 

“That’s right,” the zamindar agreed. “Well, go and get your things.”

 

“I’ll be back soon,” Bhutu said. In fact he needed to be back soon, if what he was planning was to work. Once the sun was high up in the sky it no longer would.

 

Running as fast as he could, with the thought of the thirty copper coins – more money than he’d ever seen in his life in one place – in his mind, he rushed to the pond outside the village and slapped the trunk of the jackfruit tree.

 

“Olombush,” he called. “Oh, bhoot, are you there?”

 

There was a rustle in the tree, and the bhoot’s immense red eyes glowered through the leaves. “Who dares disturb my bedtime?”

 

“It’s the ojha. Come down, or I’ll burn you.”

 

There was a slight pause, and then the bhoot slid down the trunk and puddle on the ground like a misshapen buffalo. “Oh, Master. I am sorry, but I did not recognise you. Please pardon me.”

 

“I will, I will,” Bhutu said heartily. “But you’ll have to do something for me in return. Now listen carefully.”

 

Leaning forward like a tusked, glowing-eyed, talon-pawed, buffalo made of shadow, Olombush listened.

 

*******************************************************

 

I am back, Master,” Bhutu announced. “And I am ready to track down the thief.”

 

“Good,” the zamindar said. “So you have everything you need?”

 

“Everything,” Bhutu nodded, “except a copper bowl. Could I have a copper bowl? A smallish one will do.”

 

“I don’t see why not,” the zamindar said. “We have plenty in the kitchen.” A sudden thought struck him. “Look here, I want to make something completely clear. I’ll lend you the copper bowl, but when you’re done with it you’ll have to give it back. It won’t be added to the thir...to the twenty copper coins I agreed to pay you.”

 

“Twenty?” Bhutu squeaked. He glanced at the zamindar’s purpling face. “Yes, twenty, master.”

 

The zamindar’s old mother brought a copper bowl from the kitchen and gave it to the ojha. “Take good care of it,” she snarled, as well as her toothless mouth could. “If you dare get one scratch on it...”

 

“Don’t worry, Honoured Aunt,” Bhutu said, taking the bowl. “I’ll return it to you as soon as I’m done with it.”

 

Going outside, followed by the zamindar, his guards, and the old mother, he waved the bowl around in the air and then put it on the ground. “Now,” he said, placing his fingertips on it, “someone has stolen a valuable necklace from this mansion. Find the thief, bowl, and the necklace too.”

 

There was a moment’s pause, and then the bowl began to move. Slowly at first, then, faster, it began to roll down the path, until it was rushing at terrific speed along the ground, Bhutu running stooped over with his fingers on it and the zamindar’s guards in pursuit. (The zamindar’s old mother, of course, couldn’t run at all, and the zamindar himself gave up after a few waddling steps.) Faster and faster sped the bowl, until it seemed to be going faster than any human being could run, let alone a scrawny half-starved one like the ojha.

 

“Stop!” called the guard with the long moustache, panting.

 

“Go slower!” implored the guard with the longer moustache, huffing.

 

“It’s no use,” Bhutu called back over his shoulder. “The bowl is pulling me. I can’t slow down or stop until it gets to where it’s going.”

 

“Let’s just keep him in sight as best we can,” said the guard with the longest moustache, which pulsed from the wind of his puffing. “We’ll catch up with him when he stops.”

 

“It almost looked,” the guard with the long moustache said, slowing down to a trot, “as though something was pushing him and the bowl, didn’t it?”

 

“Like a shadow that you almost couldn’t see?” the guard with the longer moustache agreed between gasps for breath. “I saw it too.”

 

“It seemed to have red eyes too,” the guard with the longest moustache said, rubbing his sides, which were aching. “But we must have imagined it. There couldn’t have been any such thing.”

 

Meanwhile, Bhutu had arrived back at the washerman’s hut, where Damodar’s wife was examining the necklace. She’d snatched it from his hand as soon as he’d entered the hut, and, after trying it on, had taken it off to look at it some more. Damodar had just begun planning to heave a sigh of relief when she glared up at him suddenly.

 

“So you could get this necklace for me, could you? But you said you couldn’t. So you must have a lot of money hidden away from me, don’t you? Don’t you?

 

“What?” Damodar’s planned sigh of relief died a despairing death in his lungs. “But I don’t have any money...”

 

“Don’t you dare lie to me.” She reached out with the hand not holding the necklace and seized Damodar by the throat. “If you don’t have money, how did you get it? How?”

 

“I...” Damodar struggled frantically to breathe. “I...”

 

“He found it outside,” someone said from the doorway. “You found it outside, Damodar, didn’t you?”

 

Both Damodar and his wife turned. It was the ojha at the doorway, crouched behind a copper bowl. He looked up at them with a grin. “A thief stole the zamindar’s wife’s necklace, and must have thrown it down outside your house when he heard us coming. That’s what happened, Damodar, isn’t it?”

 

Damodar’s wife had been turning steadily the colour of a beet while gathering breath to unleash a sufficiently devastating explosion. So much was her need to gather air that she’d even dropped her grip on her husband’s neck. “Us coming?” he asked. “Who is this ‘us’, ojha?”

 

“Why,” Bhutu said breezily, “the zamindar’s guards. They’re out to find the thief, and when they do, they’re going to break every bone in his body with their long sticks. Go to the door and you’ll see them coming.”

 

Damodar stepped to the door, looked out, and hesitated just a moment. Then he darted back, snatched the necklace from his wife’s hand before she could tighten her grip, and ran to the ojha. “Take it,” he said. “Take it and get out, and never show your face here again!”

 

Bhutu shrugged. “I’ll take it,” he said, “but when the zamindar’s guards ask where I found it, I’ll have to...”

 

“I’ll tell them the thief threw it down and I found it,” Damodar said desperately.

 

“You do that,” Bhutu said. “After all, that’s what happened, right?”

 

*******************************************************

 

So,” said the zamindar, “here are your ten copper coins, exactly as we agreed.”

 

Ten?” Bhutu looked up at him. “Master, you promised me thirt...I mean, twenty.”

 

“What?” the zamindar bellowed, rather like his bull. “You dare lie to me?” He glared around at the guards. “How many copper coins did I promise this wretch?”

 

“Ten, Master,” said the guard with the shaggy moustache.

 

“Ten, Master,” said the guard with the shaggier moustache.

 

“Ten, Master,” said the guard with the shaggiest moustache.

 

“There, you see?” the zamindar grinned fatly. “In fact, ten coins are too much. You got the necklace back, but you didn’t catch the thief. And on top of that my mother tells me...”

 

“He put a scratch in the bowl!” the old mother hooted. She held up the utensil and pointed at it with a quivering finger. “Look, it’s almost big enough to be visible! And it was such an old bowl too, from my own grandmother’s time. They don’t make them like this any longer, and...”

 

“You see?” the zamindar howled. “You see? I should pay you nothing at all, but I’m not a cruel man. Here, take your five copper coins and get out.”

 

Bhutu walked despondently away, clutching the five copper coins in his fist, muttering imprecations under his breath against the zamindar. All of a sudden he felt something around him and looked up to see a shadow, almost invisible in the light of the rising sun, with two dim red spots like eyes. “What do you want?” he asked truculently. “Shouldn’t you be asleep by now?”

 

The bhoot grinned, its yellow tusks briefly flashing in the sun’s rays, so that a goat passing by ran away bleating. “I would have been,” it said, “but it struck me that you’ve disturbed me last night and again this morning, and you’ll more likely than not be coming around again to do it tonight. So I thought I might as well get it over with.”

 

Bhutu considered. “Well, now, there is something I would want you to do. Go to the zamindar’s house, and frighten him.”

 

“Right,” Olombush said. “I’ll give him a fright. A really good fright.” And without further ado, the ghost disappeared.

 

The zamindar had just sat down to his favourite breakfast of a mountain of rice soaked in clarified butter and topped off with greasy fried fish. He was still chuckling to himself about the money he’d saved with the ojha. “And I got back the necklace, too,” he repeated for the tenth or seventeenth time, before stuffing a gargantuan helping of food into his mouth. It was so big that he could hardly chew, but that was the way he liked it. “All for five copp...”

 

Then he looked up and saw a gigantic bhoot squatting opposite him, gnashing yellow tusks and glaring at him with titanic red eyes.

 

“How many copper coins are you eating?” it enquired. “Shall I rip you open and find out?”

 

*******************************************************

 

So that’s it,” Olombush said. The bhoot tapped on the trunk of the jackfruit tree with one long talon. “I did what you asked for, and I’m done working for you.”

 

“Not so fast,” Bhutu said quickly. “Remember I’m an ojha, and if you don’t do as I say, remember what I’ll do to you.”

 

“Oh, about that,” Olombush replied, casually. “I was talking to some of the other ghosts. They told me that ojhas can’t really burn us to ashes. At best they can only make things uncomfortable for us for a while. And those who know who you are tell me that you’re a poor specimen of an ojha, too. You’re nobody to be scared of.” The bhoot’s voice rumbled with menace. “So, if you know what’s good for you...”

 

Bhutu swallowed. “I won’t bother you any longer,” he said. “It’s just that I’ll starve to death if I don’t get some work, and my work is chasing ghosts away.”

 

“So what was your plan? To make me haunt people and charge a fee for scaring me off?”

 

“Yes, but if you aren’t going to do it, then I’ll just have to starve to death,” Bhutu said miserably. “And then I’ll be a ghost as well.”

 

“Don’t worry,” the bhoot replied. “I thought about that. I arranged for a ghost you can scare off all you want. There he is.”

 

Bhutu looked in the direction Olombush was pointing.

 

Walking across the surface of the pond, bobbing across the unquiet waters, the ghost of the zamindar was coming.

 

*******************************************************

 

Meanwhile, in the washerman’s hut, Damodar’s wife had grabbed her husband by the ear.

 

“I saw a woman in the village today,” she grated, “with gold rings in her ears that hung down to her shoulders. Get me earrings like that or...”

 

“You’ll break every bone in my body,” the washerman sighed. “I know.”

 

Copyright B Purkayastha 2021