Friday, 22 November 2013

Going Home

Elia was going down to the well when her father called. “Look at this.”

Elia turned. Her father had been digging a drainage ditch down from the potato field. It was hard work, and Elia had asked to help, but her father had said it wasn’t a job for a girl. He’d been digging for a week now and it wasn’t half complete yet. “Father?”

“Yes, come here.” Her father was squatting by the side of the ditch, poking at something with the tip of his spade. “Have a look.”

Elia put down the bucket and bent over her father’s shoulder. There was something smooth sticking out of the red earth at the side of the ditch. As her father poked it, a large clod of mud fell away from it, revealing a curve of metal. And, underneath, something that was the colour of old ivory.

“What is it?” Elia asked.

Her father said nothing for a minute or two. He kept scraping away with the tip of his spade and more earth fell away. Now Elia could see it too, the eye sockets filled with soil and the yellow teeth.

“Father. What...”

“Wait.” Elia’s father pushed the spade into the earth above the thing and levered. A large chunk fell away and now they could see more of the thing, the corroded metal helmet and the brown line of the jawbone.

“It’s a skeleton,” Elia said, awed. “A real skeleton.”

“Yes, he must have been a soldier back in the war.” Elia’s father poked at the soil which had fallen into the ditch and the spade came up with something metallic. Buttons, with scraps of rotting cloth still sticking to them. “Those are off his uniform.”

“The war?”

Her father glanced at her. “You’ve heard old Minthang talk about it. When the Japanese were here.”

“Oh.” Elia blinked. “But that was ever so long ago.”

“And so is this skeleton.” Elia’s father poked at something in the earth wall, and levered out a long, rusted piece of metal. “This was his rifle, I’ll bet. And here...”

Elia began to climb down into the ditch for a closer look, but her father glanced sharply at her bare feet. “No, it’s not safe for you down here. Go get the water for your mother, and then...” he thought for a moment. “Go to the chief’s house, and tell him. Tell old Minthang, too. If he can come all the way up here, he’ll want to have a look.”

Sighing, Elia turned away to the bucket. The interesting stuff was all over, she thought.


He must have been Japanese.” Old Minthang wiped spittle from his jaw. His voice was shaking, even more than his usual old man’s quaver. “They wore helmets like that.”

Elia looked at him with surprise. The old man was shaking all over. His knees were trembling, as was his arm and even his head. Nobody else seemed to remark on it, but they were all crowding around the ditch.

Strictly speaking, Elia shouldn’t have been there at all. If her father had seen her he’d certainly have sent her away to the house. But Elia was interested. Even if she couldn’t see what was going on, at least she could hear what they were all saying. And now she was interested in what was happening to Minthang.

“You said there was fighting near here,” Jomte, the chief’s son, said. “Uncle Minthang?”

“Yes, yes,” Mnthang mumbled. “Half the village was burned. Leaning heavily on his bamboo staff, he lifted a trembling arm, but Elia couldn’t see what he was pointing at. “Over there, that’s where they had set up their camp. The Japanese. They were shooting this way, towards the village. The English were coming the other side. I saw people getting killed. But nobody knew who killed them. The Japanese and the English, they were shooting through the village from both sides.”

“What’s that in the mud?” someone asked. “His knife?”

Mintang went on as if the man hadn’t spoken. “The chief at that time, it was Linboi, I remember my father had been talking about leaving the village before the fighting started. But Linboi, he had told us that the English never could lose a battle, he said they could conquer the world. So nobody left. And then the village was destroyed and many people killed. But not Linboi. Nothing happened to him.” Minthang spat, or it might have been that the saliva simply ran over his jaw. “His house wasn’t even hit by a single bullet.”

 “Well, that kind of thing happens.” Elia recognised her father’s voice. “You shouldn’t worry about it.”

“But then the English went away, and the Japanese...” Minthang’s voice trailed off. “The Japanese...”

“What’s wrong?” At last, someone noticed that Minthang was swaying. Jomte wrapped his arms round the old man’s shoulders. “Are you all right?”

“Get him back to his house,” someone said. People gathered around Minthang and began helping him back towards the village, and Elia’s father saw her at once.

“What are you doing here?” he snapped. “Go back home. This isn’t for you.”


What are you going to do with the skeleton?” Elia’s mother asked her father.

Elia put down the book she was supposed to be reading and listened. They were in the next room, but the door was open and she could hear clearly enough.

“The chief says he’ll send Jomte down to the town to tell the police, but when they’ll come back I don’t know. In the meantime we’re digging out the bones and putting them in a sack.”

“A sack?” Elia’s mother’s voice rose. “You aren’t bringing it in here.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve left it behind the shed.” Her father hesitated. “I hope Elia’s all right?”

“Yes, why shouldn’t she be? Do you think she’d be scared of ghosts or something?”

“I wasn’t really thinking at first, and let her see the skeleton. It isn’t the kind of thing for a young girl.”

“And it’s all right for you?” Elia’s mother’s voice was rising, and she brought it down with an effort. “All you men, coming to gawk around the poor thing’s body, as if it’s a circus. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

“Here, hold on. Just now you were saying that you don’t want it in here.”

“That’s different. And if it isn’t the kind of thing Elia should have seen, what about the old man? I saw him being taken down to the village and he could hardly walk.”

“Well, he had a shock, you see. He had bad memories, from the war.” Elia’s father’s voice dropped to a whisper, but she could still hear him. “He’s mumbling about things the Japanese did after the battle, before they retreated a couple of days later. The way they treated the villagers – it was pretty vile.”

“I don’t want to hear it!” Elia’s mother snapped. “There’s enough sickening things happening without talking about what occurred seventy years ago. That poor thing out there had a family too.”

“Quiet,” Elia’s father said. “It doesn’t matter, the police will take the body and hand it to the government. They’ll send it back to Japan, I suppose.”

“Where is Japan? Far off?”

“I don’t know where it is. Maybe as far as England, people say. Far. Elia might know.”

“I wonder if there will be anybody who might remember him,” Elia’s mother said.


 That evening, after dinner, Elia slipped out and walked to the shed. From here she could see the ditch, like a wound in the earth, and the trampled place where the people had gathered. It all looked very quiet and peaceful, as it had looked all her life, and she couldn’t imagine that there had been men fighting and dying right in her father’s potato field. She picked up a clod of soil and crumbled it, letting the dirt slip through her fingers.

There was a sack leaning against the wall, a shapeless lump in the darkness. Elia touched it with a fingertip. There were hard things inside, bone or metal she couldn’t tell.

“I’m glad you were found,” she whispered. “It must have been lonely, staying under the earth alone for so many years.”

A meteor streaked through the sky. She watched it till it vanished.

“My mother wanted to know where Japan was,” she said. “My father didn’t know. I do, though. I’ve seen photos, in my school books. It looks like a nice place. Green forests and bright cities. You must have missed it when you came to the war, didn’t you? Were you homesick?” She touched the sack again, running her fingertips over it, the rounded bumps and sharp edges. “It must have been terrible,” she told the sack. “The war. You were probably terrified, weren’t you? Maybe being killed was a relief. You were out of it.”

“Elia!” she heard her mother call. “Where are you?”

“Maybe your family was waiting for you to come back,” Elia said. “Maybe you had a sister like me. Did you have a sister? Perhaps she’s still waiting, hoping you’ll come home someday.”


“You’ll be going home,” Elia whispered. “That is something, isn’t it?”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Raghead: Frogg Tha Masta Rappa

If music be the food of love, slay on!

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Fairly Useless Fact (Number Whatever it is)

Pigs are the only animals in the world reared for one purpose only: meat. They don't lay eggs, they aren't sheared for wool, nobody drinks pig milk and they aren't suited to be draught animals. All farm pigs are raised to be slaughtered and eaten, either at maturity or when they can no longer breed. No exceptions. 

[Old Major in Animal Farm said this out straight: "You young porkers before me, every one of you will gasp your lives out at the block within the year."]

Also, pigs aren't stupid animals. They have the same order of intelligence as dogs. 

Remember both those facts when you watch those kids' cartoons with happy talking pink pigs, and suddenly they aren’t funny any longer. Suddenly they’re horror movies. 

You're welcome.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


Winter. Grey light seeping –
Cloud-filtered free of colour
Down to mark the leaden hours of day;
Between the dark and the dark.

Winter. Time of heartbreak. Time of tears
Filling the corners of the mind
With unshed pain.
Only memories to mark the year gone by;
Nothing to hope for in the year to come.
Time pressed between calendar sheets
Yesterday, today, and another today.

Winter. Bare branches against the sky
Time of death. The time to hold one’s hope
Close against the creeping night
Where dreams shatter
In a moment, brittle as glass.

Winter. Time of the frozen sparrow
Of the knife of ice in the heart.
Winter, when pain goes dragging past
Chains to enslave the soul;
Time to hug a lover close
Warm and safe, against the grey
Dying time.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Aladdin's Mother and the Magic Lamp

One day, Aladdin’s mother decided to clean the palace.

It had been a long time since she’d done any cleaning, because the ring Aladdin wore generally did everything she’d ever need to do – cooking, cleaning, and all of it. In fact, it was getting on Aladdin’s mother’s nerves, because it had been so long since she’d last been able to do any work by herself. If she even suggested it, Aladdin would fly into a temper.

“I didn’t defeat the wizard and marry the Sultan’s daughter,” he would say, “so that my old mother would have to wear her fingers to the bone working like a drudge. Sit back and rest! I’ll get everything done.” And he would go away, rubbing at his ring, and the next thing she knew everything would be done.

In fact, the royal life was getting to Aladdin’s mother. She really didn’t like it too much. She’d spent her life among people in the slums and marketplace, chattering with her neighbours, yelling at stray mongrels and mischievous urchins, working from dawn to dusk, and it had kept her fit and active. Now she felt old and fragile, forbidden to do a lick of work. She was sure it wasn’t good for her.

Besides, she didn’t like Aladdin’s wife. The princess was a nice enough girl, she supposed, but she had seen the young woman stare at her more than once with a strange expression, as though considering something, some course of action. Once or twice she’d found them talking and they’d jumped guiltily on seeing her and obviously changed the subject. Several times she’d thought that her daughter-in-law would be very happy if she died and left Aladdin with nobody else in his life but the princess herself.

“That’s not going to happen,” Aladdin’s mother said to herself. “I’ll have to make sure it doesn’t happen, by staying nice and fit. If only they’d let me cook and clean a little, that would be enough. But...”

But today, Aladdin and his wife, the princess, were off visiting the Sultan in his palace, and the old lady had the palace to herself. The temptation to do some honest dusting and mopping was too much to bear.

“I’ll just do the storeroom,” she said to herself. “It would take days to clean the whole palace, and by then the first parts would be dirty again, but the storeroom I’m sure I could manage before they came back.” Without further ado, she tottered off to the storeroom, which was lined with shelves full to bursting with the treasures Aladdin had gathered over the years.

“Just look at all this,” Aladdin’s mother grumbled, looking at the precious vases and statues worth a Caliph’s ransom. “All polished and dusted and not a thing for me to do.” Seeing a battered old oil lamp in the corner, she picked it up and stared curiously at it. “What a strange thing to be left in a treasure chamber. Still, it needs a spot of cleaning, it does.” Happily, she took a rag and began rubbing at the metal.

There was a flash, and a rumble like thunder, and a huge genie appeared. “I am the master of wind and wave,” he said, “but slave of the lamp and the owner’s slave. What would you have, mistress, what would you have?”

When Aladdin’s mother had stopped gasping for breath, and discovered that the genie was real and still waiting, she had an idea. “My son and his wife will soon be back,” she said. “Turn me into a fly, so I can listen to them talking and find out what she really says about me.”

“So be it,” said the genie. There was another flash and the old lady was turned into a fly.

It was fun being a fly. She could buzz through the air, for one thing, and cling upside down on the ceiling with her six legs. With her huge compound eyes, she could see very nearly in all directions, and her sense of smell was so good she knew what was in the corner of the larder in the kitchen, many rooms away.

Down below on the ground floor, she heard a door open. That would be her son and his wife, returning. Happily, she buzzed out of the storeroom and downstairs, riding on a current of air.

A moment later, with incredulity and joy, she heard what they were saying.


Dear husband,” the princess said, looking up at Aladdin with adoring eyes. “Your mother’s birthday is tomorrow.”

“Are you sure she doesn’t suspect the surprise party we’re planning for her?” Aladdin replied.

“No, I’ve been very careful. I didn’t even ask to measure her for the new dress we’re making for her, the one spun from moonbeams and sunlight. I estimated her size as best I could from looking her over when she wasn’t noticing.”

“That’s wonderful,” Aladdin said. “Poor old lady, she does deserve some fun once in her life.” They paused at the entrance to the princess’ room. “The musicians, snake charmers, jugglers and acrobats will all be here, as will the choicest pastries and meats, made for the angels themselves. She will be so thrilled!”

“Yes,” the princess said, “and it’s just tomorrow evening. What a wonderful time she will have.”

“Well,” Aladdin said, “I have a couple of things to do before dinner. I’ll get them done and get back.” Kissing the princess tenderly, he turned away.

The princess sighed happily and entered her room. Maybe her mother-in-law would finally learn to love her, she thought, after the party. At least she would be happy.

Smiling, she looked around her room. It was perfect, the result of the greatest of genie magic, everything just as it should be. There was just one flaw, she noticed with a frown of distaste: a large fly, crawling on the wall near her mirror. She hated flies.

Quietly, moving slowly so as not to scare the insect into flight, she reached for her fly swatter.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Witness and the Martyr

Let’s say, you’re a young Muslim man in India, not particularly educated, not rich, not well connected in any way; someone just trying to make a living like everyone else. Also, like everyone else, you’re grateful if the powers that be just leave you alone to get on with your life.

Now, somebody sets off a bomb somewhere – a bomb which has nothing to do with you, of which you knew nothing till it went off. And the next thing you know, the police come and arrest you as a terrorist who made the bomb or helped the people who made the bomb.

Why? Let’s say your name is similar to that of a suspect...or that you might have one time lent him your laptop or something like that. An entirely innocent activity, long since forgotten. But now you’re in jail, with the media already having tried and condemned you, and without money or connections or any hope of ever proving your innocence – especially since the “tough anti-terrorist” law says the burden of proving innocence is on the accused. In other words, you have to prove – while locked up, and without any means of doing so – that you’re not a terrorist. And any confession the police can extract from you by torture is admissible in court and can be used to convict you.

Now, perhaps you could still find a way out if you had a good lawyer. But there are a couple of problems with that. First, the top lawyers are incredibly expensive – far out of your financial means. Second, your local lawyer’s association – stuffed with right-wing, politically connected members – refuses to take up any case defending a “terrorist”.

You are, therefore, done for. Decades of prison time, if not the death penalty, is what you’re looking at – even though you haven’t done anything at all.

This is actually a not uncommon fate of many young men in this country; after each terrorist attack, even though it’s not even known who’s responsible, the police arrest Muslim men with great fanfare, parade them before the cameras, and then they disappear from public view. Somehow these Muslims are all from the working or lower middle classes, never from the affluent; the latter, after all, have both money power and connections. A number of them are quietly released when it becomes obvious that there’s not even the slightest, flimsiest, bit of evidence against them – but, of course, they’re pretty much ruined for life branded as “terrorists” for evermore. As for the rest, it’s like something out of Kafka’s The Trial. You probably know that play.

Now, this is the kind of thing that the Great Indian Muddle Class doesn’t like thinking about. It’s, as I’ve said before, reflexively anti-Muslim anyway. Besides, it has peculiarly convinced itself that the political class and the police may be thoroughly corrupt and lie as a default mode – yet, when it comes to Muslims/terrorism/Pakistan (all of which are the same thing where the Muddle Class is concerned) they somehow always tell the truth. So, if someone’s accused of being a terrorist and is a Muslim, proof isn’t important – the fact that he’s a Muslim is proof enough.

So, it’s always a little surprising when there are actually people in the popular media who dare tackle this kind of subject. Even more is this true when Bollywood, which now exists solely to cater to the Great Indian Muddle Class, actually dares to make a film about it – and a film based on a real life story. I watched that film recently. It was called Shahid.

Shahid Azmi was a teenager in a Bombay slum who was caught up in, and badly traumatised by, one of the periodic anti-Muslim pogroms which punctuated Indian history through the 1980s and early 90s (this particular pogrom was in 1993). Filled with hate and anger, he ran away to join a militant group in Kashmir. Sent off to a training camp in Pakistan, he only lasted a short while before being filled with revulsion at the brutality of the “freedom fighters”, who were quite as bad as the Hindunazi goons who burned Muslims alive in the city slums. not actually how you handle an AK. Please.

Disillusioned, doubly embittered, he escaped from the camp and returned home to the slum to his mother and brothers. Perhaps, he could have slipped back to his normal life, if it hadn’t been for the kind of thing I mentioned.

Arrested at random by the police – not because of his time in the training camp, but because of his alleged role in planning to murder Hindunazi leader Bal Thackeray and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah – Shahid Azmi was stripped and tortured to force him to confess to his “terror” links. When that didn’t work, he was dumped in Delhi’s Tihar Jail (probably India’s most famous prison), where he spent seven years before the charges were dropped  and he was released (in 2001) without ever facing trial. (Remember what I’d said about people being released when no evidence could be found against them?) Perhaps he would then have decided that the terrorists were right after all, and turned completely to the (other) dark side. But Shahid Azmi, as it turned out, wasn’t quite that kind of man.

Instead of turning to terror (in jail he even met a certain infamous terrorist, Omar Sheikh, who would later go on to organise the kidnapping and decapitation of Daniel Pearl), something that would have done nothing except add to the list of innocent Muslims arrested and victimised, Shahid Azmi decided to fight the system with its own weapons. He became a lawyer, but not just any lawyer; he specialised in defending those innocent Muslims in prison and without a future. Having experienced their plight for himself, he fought for them as if he, himself, were on trial. And, perhaps, he was.

In seven years as a lawyer, Shahid Azmi managed to get seventeen people acquitted. That may not sound like much till you consider what he was up against: the legal apparatus, the media, the police (who shamelessly manipulated and forged evidence), and the law itself, which, as you may recall, laid the onus on the accused to prove himself innocent. Getting seventeen acquittals, under those circumstances, wasn’t much – it was amazing.

But of course it carried a price.

Elsewhere, I have repeatedly written about the terrorist attacks of 26th November 2008; among the accused “facilitators” were two Muslims who were later acquitted by the court. Those acquittals were due to the work put in by the lawyer for the accused, one Shahid Azmi. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alive to savour his victory.

Shortly before the court announced its verdict, Shahid Azmi – then all of 33 years old – was “mysteriously” shot dead by “unknown people” at his office. There’s not too much doubt who was responsible; Azmi was a thorn in the flesh of the police and a hate object for the Hindunazis. Even less surprisingly, the killing remains “unsolved” to this day, though the police never seem to have trouble “solving” terrorist attacks within hours to days of them taking place. [There was a similar incident involving teacher SAR Geelani, who was accused of being involved in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament. After finally being acquitted by the court, he was “mysteriously” shot in the abdomen outside his lawyer’s house in Delhi. Though critically injured, he fortunately survived. That case, too, of course remains “unsolved”.]

As several reviewers noted, the word Shahid has two meanings in Urdu, distinguished by pronunciation: shāhid, meaning “witness”, and shahīd, “martyr”. Shahid Azmi was both.

In most nations, Shahid Azmi’s story would be an automatic subject to attract filmmakers. But – as I said earlier – this is the kind of “sensitive” topic Bollywood is allergic to, so it was a pleasant surprise that it actually handled it. Even more so, it was a pleasant surprise that Bollywood didn’t massacre the story as is its wont; it actually made a sensitive, compelling film on the man without trying to turn him into a hero in the mould of Perry Mason or one of John Grisham’s lawyers.

In other words, at least by Bollywood standards, this film is great. I have no doubt that it was dramatised somewhat, with several separate events merged into one, but they weren’t meant to glamorise Azmi. At no point does he look superhuman; if anything, he’s more “average” than you or me. Nor do the courtroom scenes – Azmi’s chosen battlefield – look at all like the set-piece dramas of the typical Hollywood, or Bollywood for that matter, film. They’re ill-lit, dingy, and there are virtually no spectators except policemen and lawyers. Witnesses lie openly, and seem far from embarrassed when caught out. Lawyers squabble, yell at each other, and persist in their stance even against all logic and propriety. It’s a dirty, squalid world, in which the “justice” is, clearly, just as dirty and squalid, and the defendants’ only sin is that they have Muslim names, not (as Azmi says, in one memorable scene) “Mathew, Donald, Suresh or More”. And yet, Azmi manages to fight and win, over and over again.

The courtroom isn’t the sole focus of the film; far from it. This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a courtroom drama. Most of the film is about what goes on outside, in Shahid’s personal life. There’s a good deal about his relationship with his domineering, highly traditional mother, and his brothers. And there’s a kind of love story too, with Mariam, a client of Azmi’s who’s a divorcee with a son. Azmi marries her, and makes a life with her; but she’s under no illusions (unlike him) of the dangers he faces, and in the end she comes off as the most reality-facing person in the film, on either side.

One of the cardinal virtues of this film is that it doesn’t treat the viewer like a moron. The editing is choppy, deliberately so, with the audience left to fill in the gaps. For instance, in one scene, Shahid proposes to Mariam in a cafe; she looks shocked, gets up and leaves. The very next scene, they’re together, obviously a couple. The viewer is allowed to imagine what happened in between.

Among the interesting titbits about Shahid is that most of the roles were actually played by non-Muslim actors. The protagonist is a Hindu in real life; both his mother and Mariam are played by Sikh actresses. It’s a tribute to their abilities that they manage to pull it off so well that you’d never have guessed.

Once upon a time, Bollywood flicks were three-and-a-half-hour long monsters crammed full of songs and side-plots, made without a script and  with “something for everybody”; insufferable ‘comedy’ routines in the middle of what was meant to be a drama, ludicrous ‘heroic’ speeches, and unintendedly hilarious deathbed scenes. That terse, focused films like this one are even made go some way to convincing me that Bollywood has come some way into the modern world, though of course Shahid (the film) didn’t do well. Given the tastes of the Great Indian Muddle Class, one couldn’t expect it to.


Just by way of contrast, let me say a word about the...thing...that ruled the box office the week after Shahid. It’s called Krrish 3 (yes, you read that right) and is a...mix, I suppose...between a superhero flick and a science fiction film. Rather than try and describe it in detail, let me make a list of sorts.

It has a flying superhero who jumps on a jet plane in distress, which has its nose wheel jammed, and forces the wheel down into place. Does this sound familiar?

It has a stunningly obvious “disguise” which somehow nobody can see through. A telephone box isn’t included, though.

It has a man in a wheelchair, who controls a group of “mutants” with powers including shape-shifting in one case, and another one who has a rhinoceros horn growing from his forehead. Rings a bell, does it?

Yes, it really was that bad

It has a “virus” (which looks rather like a nematode parasite, actually) being deliberately spread in a particular nation, with the antidote being in the possession of the Big Bad Villain. Think you heard this before?

It has a humongous smash-up fight among superhero and supervillain among high-rise buildings, with satisfyingly toppling tons of masonry, iron and shattered glass, in which not a single civilian becomes collateral damage. This...may not be altogether original.

I could actually go on and on about the number of films this one’s ripped off, but I won’t. I’ll just say that probably the only original material comprised several excruciating songs, one of which actually went (in English translation): “God, Allah and (the Hindu Ultimate Deity) Bhagwan/ Together made this One.”

God, Allah, Bhagwan and, for that matter, Zeus and Quetzalcoatl wept.

I’m not that surprised that the crowds rushed to it, though. Where else can you watch something like twenty films for the price of one?

Sunday, 17 November 2013


In the evening, when it was cool, Rashna went down to the lake to watch the stars glint and shine on the water.

Tonight, though, she wasn’t alone. The ghost of the lake was there before her. It twisted and writhed above the surface of the water, as if dancing.

Rashna stood on the bank and watched it with irritation. “Can’t you come back later?” she said. “You’re here all the time.”

The ghost said nothing. She had not expected it to say anything. But it did turn to show her its face, the eyes and nose dark holes in the air. It waved its arms, making grabbing gestures.

“Big deal,” Rashna said. “It’s not the least bit scary. Besides, it’s rude. I just wanted to sit a while on the bank and you try to scare me away. I’ll tell on you, I will.”

The ghost of the lake seemed to be considering this threat. For a minute or two it just hung there over the water, one of its long arms rubbing at the space where its mouth would have been, if it had a mouth. Then it turned away, raised its arms and began to dance again.

“You’re mean,” Rashna said. “You just wait and see if I don’t tell on you.” Angrily, she stomped off from the lakeside and back towards the house.

The ghost of the grotto was waiting for her by the path through the garden, where the old well made a patch of deeper black in the shadow. It fell in by her side as she stalked up the way. “Something wrong?” it said, in a whisper like the wind. “You look angry.”

“It’s the ghost of the lake,” Rashna said. “It won’t let me sit on the bank to watch the stars on the water, even though it knows I’ll only be there for an hour or two. And it lives in the lake. It can come out whenever it wants.”

The ghost of the grotto nodded sympathetically. “Yes, the ghost of the lake is a little, shall we say, selfish sometimes. But the poor thing has reason, you see. A tragic history.”

“A tragic history?” Rashna stopped and peered suspiciously at the ghost of the grotto. Even though she was peering as hard as she could, she barely saw it. The ghost of the grotto was as near to invisible as a ghost could get. “What tragic history?”

“Ah, it was sad,” the ghost of the grotto sighed. “Once, you know, the ghost of the lake was a young and handsome nobleman.”

That? A young and handsome...I don’t believe it.”

“It’s true though,” the ghost of the grotto said. It sounded faintly miffed. “Of course, if you don’t want to hear it...”

“No, go on,” Rashna said hastily. “You were saying how it was a young and handsome nobleman. And what happened?”

“Well, this was long ago, you understand,” the ghost of the grotto said, mollified. It sat down on a flat stone by the side of the path. “This young nobleman was betrothed to a lovely young woman, who was famed in all the country for her beauty. There was just one little problem,” it paused dramatically. “One problem, was all.”

“What?” Rashna asked, sitting beside the ghost of the grotto. It was a pretty narrow stone, but then the ghost didn’t take up any space at all. “What problem?”

The ghost of the grotto leaned so close that it almost touched Rashna’s shoulder. “She was a milkmaid,” it whispered. “A common milkmaid, for all that she was the prettiest girl in the country. Now do you see the problem?”

“Actually, no,” Rashna confessed. “So what if she was a milkmaid? Who cares about all that?”

“Everybody, back then,” the ghost of the grotto told her gloomily. “A nobleman couldn’t marry anyone beneath his station. Besides,” it added, “she had lice.”


“Of course, he had lice too, but then his lice were noble lice. Not like hers.” It laughed like the wind blowing across the desert. “Well, this young nobleman used to come down to the lake and meet her by the shore, and they’d sit and watch the starlight on the water.”

“All nice and romantic,” Rashna said, cattily.

“Oh, very,” the ghost of the grotto replied cheerfully. “They used to sigh and hold hands, and scratch at their lice. But of course they knew their love wasn’t going anywhere.”

“So they drowned themselves in the lake, I’ll bet?” Rashna asked.

“Where on earth did you think that up?” the ghost of the grotto said in surprise. “Nothing of the sort. What happened was that one day he was ordered by the next higher noble in the hierarchy – oh, a very powerful man – to marry his daughter. So, of course, he did.”

“How awful for the milkmaid,” Rashna said.

“Awful nothing,” the ghost of the grotto replied. “The nobleman would sneak out every evening and come down to the lake and meet her, just like before. His wife never came down, because of the mosquitoes.”

“I don’t understand,” said Rashna. “Where does the tragedy come in, then?”

“I’m coming to that,” the ghost of the grotto said testily. “One day, it so happened that the milkmaid had bought some sweets in the market, from a travelling pedlar – such lovely, remarkable sweets as I’m sure you never tasted – and brought them to the lakeside, to share the nobleman. He loved them, even more than she had.

“ ‘Let me take a couple back with me, to eat later,’ he told her.

“ ‘ All right,’ she agreed. ‘But make sure to eat them yourself. If your wife should taste them, then there will be trouble, I fear.’

“And the young nobleman promised, and he wanted to keep the promise. But as he entered his house, the smell of the sweets filled the air, and his wife came running to him.

“ ‘What is that aroma?’ she cried. ‘My senses are dancing, my blood rushing about my veins. Quick, give me whatever that is which smells like that, or I shall die.’

“Now, of course, this was ridiculous. She wouldn’t have died. But the young nobleman was terrified of the power of her father, and seeing no way out gave her the sweets. She ate them in two bites and immediately began to badger him to get her more.

“ ‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I only had the two, and there are no more to be had.’

“But she wasn’t to be denied. ‘Go and get me more,’ she said, ‘or I will have a word with my father, and then you know what will happen.’ She was a very spoiled woman, his wife.

“Anyway, seeing no way out, the nobleman went back down to the lake the following evening, and told the milkmaid what had happened. ‘Why did you not listen to me?’ she asked. ‘The pedlar who sold me the sweets is long gone, and who knows where. Now what can we do?’

“The young nobleman thought for a long time. ‘Perhaps,’ he said at last, ‘you could make some sweets, as much like those as you can. Even if they are not exactly like those the pedlar made, perhaps they would satisfy her.’

“Agreeing to try, the milkmaid went away dubiously. ‘It will take at least a day,’ she warned the nobleman, ‘for I have never made sweets before.’

“The young nobleman made his way home and told his wife that the sweets would only be ready tomorrow. She flew into a terrible rage at the words. ‘I am sure,’ she said, ‘you wretched fellow, that you have eaten them all yourself. I will glue your mouth shut, so that you can’t eat them again. Only when I get the sweets will I unglue your mouth.’ And, so saying, she glued his mouth shut so tightly that he could not prise his lips apart, no matter how hard he tried.

“ ‘Since you’ve had all the sweets,’ she said, laughing, ‘you won’t starve.’ But of course, the young man hadn’t had anything at all, and was most dreadfully hungry. All through the next day he was hungry – so hungry, in fact, that his eyes began to cross and he could no longer walk a straight line by the time the evening came round. Desperate to meet the milkmaid and get the sweets from her, he rushed down to the lake side and, not being able to see where he was going, he fell in and drowned.”

“Hmm,” Rashna said. “And that’s why it doesn’t have a mouth?”

“Of course that’s why,” the ghost of the grotto said. “Now, when the milkmaid came with the couple of sweets she had made – and pitiful enough they were, too – she came running to the lake, but just in time to see the nobleman drown. Not being able to swim, of course, she could not help him in any way.”   

“So,” Rashna said, “she jumped into the well and drowned, did she – and became you?”

“You really are a most tiresome girl,” the ghost of the grotto snapped. “I’m trying to tell the story here. If you’d rather that I...”

“No, no,” Rashna said hurriedly. “Go on, please. I’m sorry.”

“So, as I was saying, the milkmaid found the nobleman drowned. And of course this made her sad and angry.”

“I can imagine,” Rashna murmured.

“The milkmaid, in her anger, rushed along the path until she got to the nobleman’s house, and ran inside until she found the nobleman’s wife – his widow, I should say. And she stuffed the sweets into the woman’s greedy mouth, screaming ‘You want the sweets? Well, then, eat the sweets,’ over and over. Did I mention that the sweets were very thick and hard?”

“Were they?”

“You bet they were. They were so thick and hard that they did for the silly woman. Choked her to death right on the spot.”

“Oh my. And what did the milkmaid do?”

“Well, she was scared, of course, when she realised what she’d just done. So, in order to prevent discovery, she dragged the wife’s body down to the well, and dumped it in.”

“She did? And then you are...”

“The ghost of the wife, stupid greedy thing that she was. And she deserved it too.” The ghost of the grotto gave a sigh which might have been of sadness or pleasure. “And I’ve been here ever since.”

“What happened to the milkmaid, then?” Rashna asked.

The ghost of the grotto shrugged. “How should I know? She dumped me here and went off. I’ve never seen her again afterwards. So, are you still going to tell on the poor ghost of the lake? It’s just enjoying a moment in the night air.”

“I’ll think about it,” Rashna said. Leaving the ghost of the grotto sitting on the stone, she went on up the path to the house.

The guard ghost at the door saw her and snapped to attention. “You shall not pass!” it said.

Rashna sighed. “You know perfectly well who I am,” she told it. “There’s no point going through this farce each time I come in. Now stand aside and let me by.”

The guard ghost had once been a soldier of some kind. It was dressed in the charred remnants of a uniform and a shattered helmet, and carried the ghost of a rifle which it held across her path. “No unauthorised personnel,” it shouted. “I have my orders!”

“What’s wrong with you today?” Rashna asked. “You seem a bit out of sorts.”

The shoulders of the guard ghost sagged. “You don’t know the half of it,” it said. “Today’s the hundredth anniversary of the day I was supposed to be given a medal for valour on the battlefield, but I was killed an hour before the ceremony. An hour!” It began sobbing bitterly.

“You poor, poor thing,” Rashna said sympathetically. She suddenly remembered something. “Wait.” Rummaging in her pocket, she took out a brass button which had come off her old jacket and which she had been forever planning to sew back on. “Look, here’s a medal for you.”

The guard ghost looked at it with incredulous gratitude. “For me? Really?”

“Really.” Rashna held out the button, and it disappeared from her hand and reappeared on the guard ghost’s chest. “Now will you let me pass?”

“Of course, ma’am.” The guard ghost saluted so smartly its helmet seemed about to fall off, though it was only the ghost of a helmet. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Smiling, Rashna entered the house. It was, of course, unlit, and the rooms were dark and thick with dust and clutter. Still, she walked unerringly to the staircase in the corner and upstairs to the room at the top of the house.

The figure in the corner turned with a rustle. “So, you’re back? I thought you were planning to go down to the lake.”

Rashna grinned. “I came back a little bit early. Heard a good story, too. You’d probably find it interesting.”

“I will?” The figure rustled. “What is the story about?”

“Before I tell you,” Rashna said, “tell me this. Did you really not know how to make the sweets, or did you deliberately make them hard and thick so they’d choke the nobleman’s wife?”

“Guess,” the milkmaid’s ghost said, and laughed so hard that its voice was almost audible.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013