To the reader: This is the latest in a series of stories set in the fictional Indian town of Chamathunagar, and featuring a recurrent set of characters. I have no intention of explaining the cultural background. They ought to be clear enough from the context, if I've done my job, that is.
The whole thing might not have happened if Pillu hadn’t found the mushrooms.
Even after he’d found them, it wouldn’t have happened if Pillu hadn’t cooked and eaten the mushrooms. Even Pillu, reluctantly agreed that it had probably been somewhat rash of him to have eaten them. But then he’d not really known what he was doing.
Pillu had found the mushrooms while sorting through a pile of rotting wooden planks to find usable nails to pull out and sell. The planks had come from an old house which had been abandoned for so long that it had acquired a reputation for being haunted, and had been allowed to deteriorate until one day it had simply fallen in on itself. Even then, it had taken some time before people had finally decided that if there had been a ghost, it probably had gone looking for other accommodation.
In his defence, Pillu had been hungry, having not eaten since the previous evening. Pickings had been lean the last week, and this morning he’d given the little food he had left over to Raja rather than see the big dog starve. Even so, he might not have eaten the mushrooms had he not overheard a conversation between Vijay from the tea shop and Jaggu Ram a few days before.
“Look at this,” Vijay had said. He’d been pointing at an article on a paper bag made out of an old newspaper. “Says here some people eat mushrooms. They even farm them. Mushrooms!”
“Must be foreigners,” Jaggu Ram had clucked through a mouthful of samosa, shaking his head. “They’re shameless,” he’d mumbled. “Those foreigners! Have you ever seen one of their women? Going around practically naked...”
Pillu had only been passing by, and hadn’t waited to listen to any more. But the idea of eating mushrooms had stuck in his mind. It was quite a novel idea. He’d never heard that mushrooms could be eaten before. But if foreigners and people in big cities did it, then it must be something that could be done, because foreigners and people in big cities knew everything. Maybe he ought to try mushrooms sometime, he thought, and then turned his attention to the job in hand.
He hadn’t thought of mushrooms since then, but the idea must have stayed dormant somewhere in his subconscious, because he remembered it at once when he came across the mushrooms.
They were exceptionally handsome mushrooms. Unlike the drab brown or tiny white ones Pillu was used to finding, these were not just large and fleshy, but coloured a deep red sprinkled with white. Pillu’s stomach grumbled with hunger when he saw them, and without further ado he gathered up nine or ten of the largest and stuffed them into the packet in which he’d gathered the nails he’d found.
On his way back home, he passed Vijay’s tea shop. “Oye Pillu,” Vijay called. “What have you got there?”
Pillu shrugged, embarrassed. “Nothing. Nails and things.”
“All right,” Vijay said. “I was keeping these biscuits and a couple of buns for Raja. They’ve gone stale.”
Pillu took the packet of crumbling biscuits with some relief. He knew that people could eat mushrooms, but he had no idea if dogs could, and he didn’t want to experiment with feeding Raja any. Nor did he want the dog to go hungry, but he had no other food at all.
“I’ve heard Bhola wants some crates shifted tomorrow,” Vijay continued. “If you’re free I’m sure he’d be glad to give you the work.”
“Thanks,” Pillu said. “I think I’ll be able to find the time.” Feeling happier for the first time in days, he’d gone on home, a spring to his steps. Food for Raja, a culinary treat for himself, and the prospect of work; what more could he ask for?
That night Pillu stewed the mushrooms with salt and a little turmeric, and ate them with great appetite, while Raja scoffed down his biscuits and buns in the corner. The mushrooms were very tasty, rather like meat, and Pillu regretted not having brought back any more. Raja came sniffing around for leftovers, but there were none. Pillu had eaten it all and licked the plate.
Pillu had just laid himself down on his mattress when he noticed something strange. The ceiling of his hut, normally bare but for a discoloured patch and the dusty scraps of cobwebs, had begun to look very odd indeed. At first he couldn’t decide just what was so weird about it, but then he saw that the discoloured patch had started to twist and writhe. A moment later, it had turned into a face, which was glaring down at him.
It was a rather interesting face, with huge teeth in a jaw like a monkey’s muzzle, a broad flat nose with flat eyes on either side, and skin the colour of old stained copper. Pillu lay staring up at the face, and the face stared down at him, blinking its eyes and grinning with its huge slab-like teeth.
“Raja,” Pillu said quietly, pointing up, “do you see something strange up there?”
But all Raja did was look around, sniff Pillu’s fingers, and lie down again, without so much as a whine. Pillu and the apparition continued staring at each other, and after a while Pillu reached out and snuffed out his candle.
Immediately the hut was filled with pulsating greenish light flooding down from above. The face itself was shaking with maniacal glee. All around it, the expanse of the ceiling was filled with twisting, writhing shapes, like snakes and ropes or snakes like ropes. Huge spiders the size of footballs scuttled along them, and reached down towards Pillu with long legs ending in hooked claws.
It was all very strange and fascinating, and Pillu might have found it almost enjoyable under other circumstances. But the face and snakes and the spider seemed to be pressing down towards him, and when he tried to push himself away he found he could no longer move.
This made the whole situation somewhat unpleasant. In fact it was so unpleasant that Pillu tried to press himself into the floor to get away from the face and spiders, and when even that proved impossible, he fainted.
He woke in the first light of morning with Raja’s cold wet nose solicitously snuffling at his face. He had confused memories of gibbering monsters, but apart from a throbbing headache everything seemed all right. The splotch on the ceiling was back to being a discoloured splotch, and the cobwebs were back to dusty cobwebs, and the only spider he could see was a tiny brown shape in the corner.
With a sigh of relief, Pillu got up and began getting ready for the day. He decided that old Jaggu Ram had been right after all; foreigners were crazy to eat mushrooms.
And with that he put the whole episode right out of his mind. He had better things to worry about, like where his next meal was coming from.
It would not be mushrooms, of that he was sure. He was tolerably sure he would never touch mushrooms again.
The advent of Babu Khan and his gang went at first almost unremarked in Chamathunagar. Babu Khan was far from unknown in the district, and his exploits had made the pages of the Chamathunagar Samay more than once, but his stamping grounds had been up around Kuttagarh and beyond, where the grimy industrial sprawl of Dumbandhhona began. There, he and his gang had carried on a reign of terror for years, extorting protection money, kidnapping people for ransom, running illegal weapons, and acting as the strong arm of any political party with the money to pay. Babu Khan and his gang had made a fine living.
But in recent times things had begun to go sour. The party which normally hired Babu Khan’s services had lost badly in the last state-level elections, and the new government had a few scores to settle. So Babu Khan’s gang had taken some hard hits, and so many of his men were now sitting behind bars that he had only a few left.
For Babu Khan, this was not much more than a professional hazard. He had been through this kind of thing before, and knew that the storm would blow over sooner rather than later. After all, he and his gang fulfilled a need, and there would be elections to come. But he needed a place to hide out until the noise and fury died down.
So he asked most of his remaining gang members to disperse for a while, and with his core group of four men, he came down south to Chamathunagar. Here, where nothing ever happened, he could easily wait it out, and the government would ignore him. No government ever really cared what happened in a backwater like Chamathunagar.
But once in Chamathunagar, he needed a place to stay. And once Babu Khan needed something, he made sure he got it.
It was several days after he’d made his move south that Qureishi Chacha came up to Jaggu Ram as the latter sat on his usual stool at Vijay’s Tea Shop. Qureishi Chacha was one of the best-liked people in Chamathunagar, a wispy-bearded old man who had once been a religious teacher and now was a harmless crank who spent his days writing his own interminable commentary on Islamic jurisprudence. Nobody had ever seen him approaching a policeman before, and he was so diffident that it was some time before Jaggu Ram even realised he was there.
“Yes, Chacha ji,” Jaggu Ram said, when he finally decided the old man wanted to talk to him. “What can I do for you today?”
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Qureishi Chacha said, “but I’ve been thrown out of my house, and I need your help.”
“Thrown out of your house?” Jaggu Ram asked, pausing in the act of biting into a bread pakora. “Who threw you out of your house? Give me a moment to finish eating this, and we’ll go and set things right.”
“It was Babu Khan,” Qureishi Chacha said. “You know, the one who’s been in the papers. He came to me and gave me this...” Trembling with indignation, he held out a soiled hundred-rupee note. “He told me he was buying my house, and this was payment, and I’d better get out right away. A hundred rupees!”
If Jaggu Ram heard the latter part of this at all, he didn’t answer, because he’d just bitten into the bread pakora when Qureishi Chacha had mentioned Babu Khan and after that he was too busy choking to be able to manage anything else. When he’d finally managed to start breathing again, he turned agonised eyes towards the old man. “Babu Khan?” he asked, pleadingly. “Did you say Babu Khan?”
“Yes, of course,” Qureishi Chacha said. “So what are you going to do about it?”
There was nothing Jaggu Ram could do about it, and he knew it perfectly well. Lumbering to his feet, he made a show of fumbling for his bamboo stick. “I’ve a couple of things to see to, Chacha ji,” he mumbled. “Then I’ll get right to it.”
Vijay and Qureishi Chacha both peered at him suspiciously. “What have you got to do that’s so urgent, Jaggu?” Vijay enquired. “You’ve been sitting here for almost an hour eating and drinking, and you didn’t say a word to me about pending work.”
Jaggu Ram glared at him. “Police business,” he said. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“And meanwhile I don’t have a place to stay,” Qureishi Chacha put in.
“You can stay with me, Chacha ji,” Vijay told him, “until Jaggu gathers the courage to get your house back.”
Pretending not to hear, Jaggu Ram turned away smartly, tripped over his own bamboo stick, and fell flat on his face in the dust.
Once Babu Khan had found a place to stay, he wasted no time in making himself known in town. He was not a man who believed in false modesty, and he did like his comforts.
So it was that he sent his number two, Umesh Singh, to the old skinflint Umashanker Agarwal with a demand for money – or else unfortunate accidents might happen. Agarwal, who knew just how vulnerable his catering business was to sabotage, didn’t even bother to try and bargain. Umesh Singh returned to Babu Khan from what he’d expected to be merely preliminary negotiations, his pockets already bulging with thousand-rupee notes.
Babu Khan was extremely pleased. “This might be a place worth staying in for longer,” he said. “If they’re all like this, we’ve got it made.”
A couple of days later, a delegation of concerned citizens came to Jaggu Ram. They had some difficulty finding him, because for some strange reason the fat policeman was no longer to be seen on his usual perch outside Vijay’s Tea Shop. They finally ran him down to earth near the slum on the riverside.
“Jaggu,” Bhola from the General Stores said, “just what the hell do you intend to do about this?”
Jaggu Ram looked hunted. “About what?” he asked. “What are you talking about?”
“These criminals, of course,” Kallu the butcher put in. In response to the crisis he’d even buried his feud with Bhola to stand by the grocer’s side. “They’re going around everywhere, throwing their weight around and demanding things.”
“Babu Khan ordered me to stitch him a suit, free, and provide the cloth as well,” Usman the tailor said dolefully. “When I quoted the Quran at him he shoved a gun in my face and ordered me to shut the hell up and do what he told me to. And I’m a Muslim just like him!”
“They’ve been extorting from the truckers too,” Charanjeet Singh reported. “Our business has fallen right off because the long distance lorries are avoiding halting at our stop. And I can’t really blame the drivers, either.”
“They’re already making eyes at our daughters,” Gundu Rao yelled in his heavily-accented Hindi. “Any day now we’ll have a rape on our hands.”
“And I’m still homeless,” Qureishi Chacha put in from the back of the throng.
“So...” Mullah Islamuddin summarised, “they’re terrorising the town, and what are you going to do?”
Jaggu Ram looked around for a way of escape. “Well...”
“You are the policeman, you know,” Zakir the other grocer said, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his rival Bhola.
Jaggu Ram wiped the sweat from his face. “I don’t think...”
“You’d better start thinking, then,” Pandit Avishek Mishra told him. “Or we’ll have no option but to go to the government and get someone who can.”
Babu Khan licked the last trace of gravy from the spoon and belched contentedly. “That was pretty good,” he said. “What are you planning to cook tomorrow?”
The scrawny little man he’d hired looked down submissively at the floor. “Whatever you order me to, sir.”
“We still have some of that meat I got from the butcher,” Umesh Singh said. “Make a stew of that.”
“As you wish.” The cook stirred restlessly. “Sir, if I might say something...”
“Yeah?” Babu Khan looked up from his pistol, which he had begun to clean. “What?”
“Aren’t you afraid, stuck in this haunted house all night?”
“Haunted house?” Babu Khan blinked. “What do you mean, haunted house?”
“Well, sir...” the cook faltered. “It’s known in this town that this house is full of ghosts. I didn’t know you weren’t aware of it. There was an earlier haunted house, right there next door; but it fell to pieces and the ghosts all came to live here in this place. Don’t they bother you?”
Babu Khan glared at the cook. He should’ve known better than to hire a superstitious idiot, but the man had come asking for a job, and he most definitely could cook. “Ghosts are terrified of Babu Khan,” he said at last. “Ghosts know better than to mess with me.”
“I’m glad, sir,” the cook said, backing out deferentially. “I’ll just clean up and leave. See you all tomorrow.”
“Yeah, all right.” Babu Khan waved a hand dismissively, his forehead creased in thought.
“I’m told you’ve been recommended for a promotion, Jaggu,” Pillu said, tickling Raja’s belly. The German shepherd lay on his back, a hind leg rotating frantically. “For putting Babu Khan and his gang in jail.”
“Not that it’s going to do any good,” Jaggu Ram responded, poking moodily at a clod of earth. “They’re never going to promote me. After all, Babu and the others came and turned themselves in.” The clod refused to break apart, so he prodded it again. “All right, Pillu,” he asked at last. “I’ve been dying to ask. How did you manage it?”
Pillu looked around quickly to make sure nobody was listening. “Mushrooms,” he said darkly.
“I tasted some mushrooms I found growing on the rotting wood from the old haunted house.” Briefly, Pillu described what had happened afterwards. “And when you came round asking for help with the gang...”
Now it was Jaggu Ram who glanced quickly around. “Don’t tell anyone about that.”
“No fear,” Pillu said. “No offence, but I wouldn’t want anyone knowing I’d worked with you, anyway. So, I thought about it, and then I went to Babu Khan and offered my services as a cook. I was slightly surprised that he took me up on the offer. Not that he actually ever got around to paying me, of course.”
“Of course.” Jaggu Ram rubbed at his moustache. “And what did you do?”
“Well, as I’d hoped, the mushrooms were still growing on the rotted wood, so I could gather a nice big supply. I cooked them all.”
“The mushrooms, again?” Jaggu asked. “Did they like it?”
“They ate every bit,” Pillu said. “When I cook, I do a proper job of it.”
“I see. They must have had a bad night...”
“I told them the house was haunted,” Pillu said. “And their imaginations did the rest.” He paused. “A couple of friends from the slum came up and made noises all night to help, and they brought Raja with them. Have you ever heard Raja howl?”
“No, can’t say as I have,” Jaggu Ram replied thoughtfully. “I can almost sympathise with the poor crooks. No wonder they came shivering to me this morning begging to be locked up. But, Pillu?”
“Weren’t they suspicious? I mean, you turned up out of nowhere, offering to cook for them, and these are people who live on the edge, and are leery of anything and everything. So how is it that they just ate what you dished out, without a qualm?”
Pillu sat back on his heels. “What makes you think they did?”
“But that means...”
“Yes,” Pillu said, with immense dignity. “They made me taste it first, at gunpoint. I thought you’d have got the implication, when I told you friends brought up Raja and made noises, not I. I was...otherwise engaged.”
“It must have been a bad night for you, too,” Jaggu Ram said, with a note in his voice almost of sympathy.
Pillu shrugged. “But I knew what to expect, you see, and I hadn’t eaten as much as they had.” He paused. “But, you know what, Jaggu?”
“I’d appreciate it if you never mentioned the word mushrooms to me again.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012