There was a ghost which lived in the tamarind tree beside the pond behind Gobardhan’s house.
Gobardhan knew the ghost was there. Even if he hadn’t known that this particular ghost was there, he’d have known that a ghost of some kind was around. Ghosts, after all, lived in every single tamarind tree in Bunglistan. Everyone knew that.
Gobardhan didn’t mind the ghost. Most tamarind tree ghosts were irritable at best and could be positively dangerous, but this one was fairly benign. In fact, sometimes on a winter’s night it came down out of the tree and visited Gobardhan, and they’d sit down and drink some hot milk and share a hookah.
Of course the ghost couldn’t come to Gobardhan’s house. This was because of Gobardhan’s wife. Did you not know he had a wife? Oh, he had a wife, all right.
She was a horrible woman, as you’ve probably already guessed. She had a voice like a broken brass pot being scraped over stone, and a hand so heavy that Gobardhan shivered in fear whenever she came anywhere near. She ruled over him with as much total authority as a king over a peasant, and had as much contempt for him as the king would for the peasant, too.
Of course one of her primary complaints was about money. Gobardhan never, ever had enough, and no wonder too, since his only work was as an assistant priest at the little temple in the village. It was a small enough temple, and the income was meagre enough, that when the fat old head priest had taken his share there were only a few cowrie shells left over for Gobardhan himself. And, though she knew the cause, his wife would neither go and look for some work herself nor leave him in peace.
Children? They had no children. Gobardhan shivered with dread at the thought of what his life would have been like if they’d had kids, They’d probably have turned out to be just like her, and then he’d have to listen to several voices like that and be bossed around by them all day.
One of the few times he could find to relax was on winter evenings, when his wife said it was too cold to step outdoors. Then Gobardhan would go and sit down by the pond, looking at the stars reflected on the water, and the ghost would, if it were in the mood, come to him.
The first time this had happened, Gobardhan had been scared. Wouldn’t you have been, if you’d gone to the bank of the pond for refuge from your nagging wife, and something huge and heavy and black as the winter night itself had sat down beside you with a sound like a sack of rice dropped from a height?
Oh, all right. Maybe you wouldn’t have been, but Gobardhan was. He was so scared that he couldn’t even scream in fear. All he managed was a despairing little squeak as he waited for the ghost to break his neck. That was what all the ghosts always did – they broke the necks of anyone they wanted.
Fortunately, the ghost realised that he was terrified. “Don’t worry,” it said, in the nasal tones all Bunglistani ghosts used. “I’m not going to harm you.”
“What do you want?” Gobardhan gasped.
“A puff at your hookah?” the ghost said rather timidly. “It’s been so long, so long since I last had a puff at one. Why, I think I must have been still alive then!”
Blinking nervously, Gobardhan handed over the hookah to the ghost. It pulled in a deep draught of the smoke – which began leaking immediately into the air – and heaved a blissful sigh. “That felt great,” it said, puffing away in great gulps. “Why are you sitting out here in the dark? Don’t you know ghosts are around at night?”
“Well...” Gobardhan said. “It’s my wife, you see...”
“Say no more.” The ghost literally shuddered. “I know all about that. So, you want to come here every night and sit under my tree, eh?”
“Only when I can,” Gobardhan replied. “If you don’t mind, of course.”
“Mind?” the ghost boomed, or at least as much as a ghost can boom, given that it can’t speak except in a nasal whine. “Of course I don’t mind. As long,” it added, “as you have some more of that hookah smoke.”
And that was how the friendship started.
Now, of course, while Gobardhan wasn’t too bright, he wasn’t a complete idiot. That’s why he never, ever, told his wife that he had a friend for a ghost. She’d have stopped him going out at once, if necessary by hitting him over the head with a rolling pin. She was perfectly capable of that.
She was capable of anything.
Now, it so happened that the village in which Gobardhan lived was part of a tiny kingdom, just like all others in Bunglistan. The king was very fond of jackfruits, and had an orchard outside his palace filled with nothing but jackfruit trees. The orchard’s fruit were all for the king alone. Let alone the subjects, not even the queen was allowed to eat a single piece.
This made the queen very angry, because the food she loved above all in the world was jackfruit. In fact, even the smell of one was enough to make her crave the sweetish, slippery taste of one sliding over her tongue and down her throat. So – in a palace where the wind brought the smell of a whole orchard of them constantly to her nostrils – the yearning drove her half wild.
So, one night, unable to tolerate the longing any more, while the king snored, she stole quietly from her bed and down the palace stairs. The kingdom was so tiny that it could only afford a pair of guards at the palace gate, and, of course, at this time of night they were, as she’d expected, sound asleep, leaning on their spears. So the queen could steal into the jackfruit orchard, quite unseen by any human eyes.
Now this is something she should, of course, never have done. Tamarind ghosts are one thing – one might find a good one – but jackfruit orchards are the haunts of the worst, vilest ghosts one ever could see. No other ghost even compares to a jackfruit ghost. The queen should have known all this. And now she was going, at night, alone into a whole orchard filled with jackfruits!
Now, on top of all her other mistakes, the queen chose the night of the new moon to make her trip to the orchard. The new moon night, of course, is the one on which ghosts are most active, and the jackfruit orchard was fairly boiling over with them. They saw the queen enter, stepping nervously through the trees as she peered up looking for the ripest of the fruit she could find.
Now among the ghosts that teemed the jackfruit orchard there was one meaner, angrier and more evil by far than all the rest put together. While the other ghosts were merely mischievous, this one was pure evil. And it was also jealous; it hated having to stay the orchard when the king and queen got to sleep in beds and live in comfort in the palace.
When this ghost saw the queen enter the orchard, it at once thought of a plan. Choosing an exceptionally ripe and odorous jackfruit, which was close to the queen, it seeped into the fruit and waited.
Sure enough, the queen found the particular jackfruit, which was so ripe and stank so much that it would have been hard for her to have missed it. Greedily, she tore apart the tough skin with her fingers, pulled out a handful of the pulpy slippery flesh, and – spitting out the seed – felt the sweetish mucilaginous gobbet slide gloriously down her throat.
And along with the fruit, of course, the ghost entered her too.
A little while later the king woke from his sleep and saw the queen standing at the foot of his bed. This was strange, for she never normally got up during the night, unless she was sick. Then he saw her eyes and decided she was sick. They were blood red and glared with a manic light.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, reaching out to touch her, but she jumped away and bared her teeth at him like a snarling dog. Her teeth seemed to have grown oddly long and sharp.
“Don’t come closer,” she hissed. “I’m warning you.” Her voice seemed to have become strangely nasal. “Go away and leave me in peace.”
Seeing that something was badly wrong, the king hollered for the royal physician. That old man came doddering up from his bed in the lower depths of the palace, took one look at the queen, screamed and fainted. When roused, with difficulty and the application of repeated splashes of water to the face, he goggled and pointed at the queen. “That’s a ghost!” he gasped. “It’s not the queen, it’s a ghost inside her!”
The queen, sitting on the bed and helping herself to the king’s cherished jackfruit, laughed. “Of course I am a ghost,” she said. “And what are you going to do about it?”
There was, as they soon discovered, not much they could do about it. The king called in his head priests and his court astrologer. He called in the royal magician. He even called in the keeper of the jackfruit orchard, on the grounds that if anyone knew enough about ghosts that worthy would be it. He called them all in, and showed them into the chamber where the ghost-possessed queen sat gulping down jackfruit as though there was no tomorrow.
The queen laughed at them all. She laughed at them when they appeared, she laughed at them when they tried their incantations and enchantments, and she laughed most uproariously when, defeated, they trailed out of the chamber one by one. Most especially did she laugh at the jackfruit keeper.
“Look at this one!” she hooted. “All these years he shivered even to come into the orchard in broad daylight for fear of ghosts – and now he’s almost dead with fear. And he’s going to kick me out? He?”
In the end the king sent runners out throughout the kingdom to make a proclamation. “Anybody,” the runners announced, “who can rid the queen of the ghost possessing her will be rewarded with half the contents of the royal treasury.”
This caught everyone’s attention, of course, and people from all over the kingdom swarmed to the palace to try their luck. They came, they looked at the queen’s sharp teeth and blood red eyes, and they ran for their lives. And the queen laughed and laughed, and ate more and more jackfruit. That, as much as her possession, was driving the king to distraction.
One time only he tried to stop her from eating jackfruits. At once she stood up from the bed on which she was lolling, and seemed to grow to twice her size. Arms upraised, she stepped towards him, snarling. There was no need to say anything further. The king fled as precipitously as the merest peasant, and ordered the queen to be given her jackfruit.
The orchard was beginning to look a bit bare by the time the news of the queen’s possession finally reached Gobardhan’s village, which was the smallest and least important of all those in the little kingdom. And the moment Gobardhan’s wife heard it, at the market, she rushed straight home and grabbed him by the ear.
“Ow!” he yelled. “What are you doing that for?”
“Off your lazy backside,” she hollered back, yanking him to his feet by the ear. “Half the king’s treasury is there for the taking, and here you are, sitting wasting your time.”
“But...” he began. “I don’t know anything about evicting ghosts.”
He might as well have saved his breath. “How hard can it be?” she bawled. “You’re a priest, aren’t you? You know all the prayers, don’t you? Better than that fat old man in the temple who does nothing and takes all the money?” She didn’t give him a moment to reply. “Get going right now, this instant, and don’t come back without half the king’s treasury, do you hear me?”
Gobardhan, of course, scrambled to obey, though he knew what the outcome would be. Though it was already growing evening, he left at once, not daring even to take the time to change into his best dhoti and smear a bit of ash on his forehead to act more learned. He’d only gone a few paces when there was a noise like a sack of grain falling on the ground and his friend the tamarind ghost appeared near him.
“What happened?” it asked. “I could hear her yelling right from my tree. Where are you going? Did she throw you out?”
“She might as well have,” poor Gobardhan said. “I am to go and evict the ghost that’s taken possession of the queen, and get half the treasury as reward. That’s all. A mere bagatelle!”
The tamarind ghost would have clucked its tongue, if only it had had that organ. Instead, it clicked its tusks together sympathetically. “I’ve been hearing rumours through the spirit network,” it said. “They say this ghost is a terrible one, one of the worst of the worst.” It glared at the ground moodily. “A disgrace to the whole race of ghosts, indeed.”
“So what should I do?” Gobardhan asked plaintively, plodding along.
“I don’t know,” the ghost said. “But make a little room for me in that pouch of parched rice and jaggery you’ve got in your hand, and I’ll hide in there and go along with you.”
So Gobardhan made room for the ghost in his pouch, and it squeezed in. The unhappy assistant priest plodded on through the evening, until, just at the time when he would have normally sat down to dinner, he finally arrived at the king’s palace.
“Who on earth are you?” the guards said, frowning terribly. “Don’t you know that this is not the time to come bothering the king?”
Gobardhan turned pale, and for a moment thought about fleeing as fast as he could. But then he thought about his wife, and what she would do to him if he failed, and the fear that filled him at that thought was greater than his fear of the guards. “I’m not here to bother the king,” he said. “I’m here to heal the queen.”
The guards exchanged glances and grinned. “Well, then, it’s hardly worth your coming in, really, because you’ll be out at once and running for your life,” one said.
“But we might just let you in, since you’re so keen,” the other put in. “Of course, you have to give us something for our trouble.”
“Like that bundle you’ve got there,” the first added, and snatched the cloth full of dried rice, jaggery, and tamarind ghost. “Now go in...and don’t break your neck when you come running out.”
Casting a desperate glance at the bag, Gobardhan entered the palace. The queen’s chamber was easily identifiable from the overwhelming smell of jackfruit wafting out of it. He entered timidly, and saw the lady herself, sitting on her bed stuffing jackfruit into her mouth with both hands.
She glared at him with her blood red eyes, but her mouth was so full of fruit she was quite unable, for the moment, to speak. At last she choked the slippery stuff down and found her voice. “Well?” she asked truculently, angry at having been interrupted in the midst of a particularly stinky and succulent fruit. “What do you want?”
Meanwhile, the guards at the gate, chuckling to each other, began untying the bundle. “I hope it’s something worth our while,” the first guard said.
“If it isn’t,” the second told him, “we’ll give him a good beating when he comes out.”
“If we can catch him,” the first said, laughing, as he poured out the bag’s contents on the nearest stair. “He’ll be running for his l...”
He never completed the word, because something huge and black with yellow eyes and gnashing tusks rose out of the bag.
The tamarind ghost was irritated. Very irritated. It had found the bag a much tighter fit than it’d imagined, and the constant chafing of the parched rice hurt its tender ghostly skin. And now, after being tossed around the entire evening inside the bag, it had been stolen and rudely spilled out on to the staircase. It rose out of the ground and stood glaring down terribly at the guards, considering wringing their necks for them.
It was not necessary. At the first sight of it, the guards had both fainted dead away.
The tamarind ghost looked around for Gobardhan, thinking to go to him. Smelling the stink of jackfruit from an upper window, it decided the easier option would be to climb the wall and enter through the window. Scrambling up the wall like a huge monkey, it peered over the windowsill...
Ten instants later, Gobardhan’s wife looked up from her supper as something huge and black rushed like the wind into her hut. “Come along,” the thing said. “There isn’t another instant to lose!”
“What –” Gobardhan’s wife began, with a fragment of fish still raised half way to her mouth, but she didn’t get to complete the sentence. Nor did she get to finish the fish. The black thing, which she’d only just begun to understand was a ghost, picked her up and rushed out into the night. In ten more instants, the ghost had carried her into the queen’s chamber and dumped her on the floor.
They had only just arrived in time. The queen, her teeth bared and red eyes glaring, was advancing on Gobardhan, who was frozen in place with two competing fears. The fear of the advancing thing before him made him desperate to run away, while the fear of his wife was enough to keep him rooted to the spot. And then his wife was there, too, right in the middle of the room, and glaring at him terribly.
“Well?” she shouted. “What have you to say for yourself?”
“Here!” the queen objected. “How dare you try to interrupt?”
Gobardhan’s wife hardly spared her a glance. “I can’t even have my fish in peace,” she stormed. “Have you kicked out that ghost from the queen yet? Oh, what’s the point of asking, I can see that you haven’t. Talk about useless! My mother was right. I should never have married you. I should have...”
“I was just about to wring his neck,” the queen tried to break in. “So please let me do it.”
“You keep out of this,” Gobardhan’s wife yelled. “As for you,” she turned back to Gobardhan. “Just let me get you home and see what happens. You couldn’t even let me put on a good sari or my best earrings. Just sent this...this ghost to pick me up. When I think of the way I slave my fingers to the bone for you, I...”
“Shut up,” the queen shrieked. “Just shut up and let me break his neck. Shut up, will you?”
“What?” Gobardhan’s wife hissed. “You said shut up, did you? You said shut up to me?” She advanced on the queen ghost, her fleshy arms rising. “Shut up, did you say? Huh?”
That was enough for the jackfruit ghost. With a wild shriek of terror, it fled from the queen’s body and through the window, right back to the jackfruit grove. The queen sat down on the bed suddenly.
“Oh my,” she said, blinking. “What on earth is going on, and who are you all?”
I wish this story could have a happy ending, but it doesn’t really. Yes, Gobardhan and his wife, and the tamarind ghost, went back to their village. Yes, Gobardhan’s wife did reluctantly consent to the tamarind ghost’s occasionally visiting their hut on cold or rainy nights and share a hookah with her husband, and even unbent sometimes enough to share their fish and rice with it.
The problem was with the half-portion of the royal treasury the king had promised. Yes, he did keep his promise. Kings aren’t worth much if they don’t keep their promises, and, anyway, he was happy to have his wife back, and even happier to have his jackfruit again. So he did give Gobardhan half the royal treasury, as he had promised.
But, as I said, the kingdom was small and poor, and the treasury was smaller and poorer still.
As Gobardhan went back villagewards, half the contents of the treasury hung at his waist, tied in a fold of his dhoti.
The five copper coins clicked at every step, mockingly, all the way back home.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015