Monday, 2 November 2015

The Girl, the Ghost, and the River: A Tale of Bunglistan


Once upon a time, long, long ago, somewhere in the depths of Bunglistan, there lived a poor fisherman.

He lived with his granddaughter by the side of a little river, in a hut with a thatched roof and mud walls. When it rained the thatched roof leaked, and when it rained heavily, the river flooded its banks, licked at the mud walls of the hut with hungry tongues of water, and threatened to carry it all away.

The fisherman was very poor. Almost all he owned in the world, apart from the clothes on his back, were a tiny boat, on which he would row out daily into the river, and a net, which he would spread out afterwards to dry on rocks on the river bank, and mend whenever it got torn. The net was so old, and had been mended so many times, that there was none of the original net left; it was all patchwork, in a hundred different kinds of thread and as many different sizes.

Poor as the fisherman was, he was not unhappy. For he had his granddaughter, who was as beautiful as a star in the twilight, as graceful as a ripple on the water, as soft spoken as the shadows of the evening, and as intelligent as the rays of the noonday sun was bright. Her name? It was Shorothkumari, but everyone called her Futki.

Futki never complained of her lot, living with her poor grandfather, who was burned as dark as old wood and who had not a spare cowrie to give her when the fair came to the village once or twice a year. She kept house for him without complaint, and cooked their meals in a brass pot over a fire of sticks and dried leaves.

There was a story of how the fisherman had come by that pot, which was the only other possession they had except for their clothes, net and boat. A few years ago, when the rains had been so heavy that the river had risen until only the thatched roof of the hut was above water, floating like a straw hat on the flood, the fisherman and Futki had been forced to leave for higher ground. The fisherman had been despondent, blaming himself bitterly for not having looked for some other kind of employment when he’d been younger, and that the river had now, like a hungry crocodile, eaten whatever little they had.

“Don’t cry, Grandfather,” Futki had said. “The river has kept us for all these years, and when we get back, she will keep us again.”

“But the flood will have destroyed whatever little we have,” the fisherman had said, unwilling to be comforted.

“Don’t cry anyway,” Futki had replied. “When the flood goes down, we’ll go back and then we’ll see what we find.”

Then when the flood went down, they went back to their hut, and, as the fisherman had said, it had swept away all they had had, including their pots of baked earth on which they had done their cooking. But, right in the middle of the hut’s earthen floor, the river had left the huge, thick brass pot, larger and heavier and more valuable than anything the fisherman had ever owned before.

“See, Grandfather,” Futki had said, clapping in delight, “the river has paid for the damage she did, and given us more in exchange!”

Now, of course – this being Bunglistan, where ghosts were everywhere, in the trees and down by the water, roaming the winds and riding the moonbeams on a summer night – the fisherman’s hut had a ghost too. It was a fairly innocuous ghost, which lived on the wooden cross piece under the thatched hut roof, and never did anything to annoy anyone. In fact, so quiet was it that the fisherman and his granddaughter didn’t even know it was there.

One day it so happened that a dreaded bandit, by the name of Hotochchara Hamladar, led his gang down into this region of Bunglistan, slaughtering and looting everyone who was luckless enough to come in this way. Finally, the gang amassed so much loot that Hamladar’s men demanded that he share out the booty among them and let those who wanted go their own way.

However, when the sharing out started, the bandits fell to fighting among themselves over the spoils, until only Hamladar himself survived. This was not, he thought, altogether a bad thing, because now he, alone, had all the looted riches to himself. Triumphantly twisting his immense moustaches, he hoisted the bag of booty on his shoulder and set out homewards. Finding his way blocked by a river, he walked along it until he found a boat on the bank.

Of course he stole it to cross the river with. By now he’d stolen so many things that a mere boat was nothing at all.

Unfortunately, the immense combined weight of the bandit and the bag of loot was too much for the boat. It turned turtle, and little by little, drifted with the current back to the shore at the same point from which it had started off. Hotochchara Hamladar, along with his bag of treasure, sank like a stone.

It was, of course, the fisherman’s boat Hamladar had attempted to steal. And it was his hut that the bandit’s ghost saw first, when, breaking free from its former owner, it drifted to the top of the water and set out for the shore.

“A house!” it said to itself. “Just what I needed.”

So it went to the fisherman’s hut, and, without further ado, caught the quiet little resident ghost by the scruff of its inoffensive little neck, and hurled it out through a chink between the walls and the thatched roof. Then it settled its considerable ghostly bulk on the wooden crosspiece, sighed contentedly, and went to sleep.

This was the evening, and the fisherman had gone to the village market to sell the day’s catch, and, hopefully, earn enough to be able to buy some rice, salt and mustard oil for him and his granddaughter’s food tomorrow.

Futki, in the meantime, had settled down at the open hearth outside to cook supper in the brass pot: the little rice that remained in the hut, flavoured with a sliver or two of fish and a pinch of turmeric. By the time the meal was ready, the fisherman came home, and he and the girl sat down to eat.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and lightning flashed.

“As I was coming back from the market,” the old man said, “I saw that clouds were gathering, and I think it will be raining hard before the night is out.”

The girl sighed, remembering how rain meant water dripping into the hut, and the rising flood water, and wished that she and her grandfather could have afforded a grand house, like one of those in the village; one with a real roof and a door which actually closed, built high enough that the river didn’t come visiting each time the rain god decided to shower his blessings. But of course she didn’t say a word of any of this.

Sure enough, even as they finished eating, the skies opened up and the rain came rushing down, with such force that the roof began to leak almost at once. The water dripped on the ghost of Hotochchara Hamladar where it slept on the crosspiece. Growling in irritation, the ghost tried to get away from the dripping water, and finally pushed itself into a corner where the drip was a little less.

“Did you hear anything?” the girl asked. “I thought I heard a noise like a snarl. Do you think a mad dog is around somewhere?”

“It’s just the thunder,” the fisherman said.

But it wasn’t the thunder, and, as the night passed, the water dripped and dripped until the bandit’s ghost could take no more. Finally, with a roar of anger, it jumped down from the crosspiece, and landed up to its ankles in river water. With another howl, it grabbed the fisherman by the throat and yanked him up from his bed.

“You do something about this,” it shouted. “Stop the water dripping on me, or I’ll break your neck like a stick.”

When the fisherman had managed to recover from the shock of finding himself dangled off the floor by a ghost half the size of an elephant and as massively built as a water buffalo, he finally managed to find the ability to speak.

“Spare me, ghost, my father, my uncle,” he said. “It is the will of the gods.”

“I care nothing for the will of the gods,” the ghost of Hotochchara Hamladar said. “You either stop this rain falling on me or I’ll...”

“My dear ghost,” Futki, who had also woken at the commotion, interrupted. “My dear, handsome ghost. Please let me explain.”

Now the ghost of the bandit had never seen the girl before, and was instantly smitten by her beauty. “This is exactly the kind of wench I need,” it said to itself. “I must have her!”

“What could you explain?” it replied, dropping the wretched fisherman like a sack of potatoes. “Let me hear what you have to say.”

“It’s perfectly simple,” the girl replied, thinking furiously. “The hut is under a curse. Whenever it rains, it is condemned to leak water, and there is nothing anybody can do about it.”

“Why not?’ the ghost demanded. “What will happen to anyone who fixes up the hut, then?”

“This hut was cursed by a great sage,” Futki said. “He was passing by once when he tripped on a pebble fell down outside the door and twisted his ankle, and, in a rage, said that anyone who tries to repair it again will die. You know what unreasonable tempers these sages have. And so, you see...” she spread her hands helplessly. “There’s nothing we can do.”

“Is that so?” the ghost roared. “Is that so? I refuse to be rained on because of a curse laid by some piffling little sage. I’ve killed hundreds of sages, and I’m not scared of them.”

“But it’s different for you,” the girl pointed out. “You don’t have a life to lose. I mean, not any longer. But we do, my grandfather and I. And also you’re big and strong, and we’re only a weak old man and a girl.”

“You’re right about that,” the ghost said, swelling up with pride. “I’m strong and I have no fear. Nothing has ever scared me, even when I was alive, and nothing will now. I will repair the house!”

With a rush of wind, it swept out of the door, and in less time than it takes to write of it, had returned with wood and bricks from somewhere, and had begun to work at top speed. By the time dawn’s light started filtering weakly through the clouds, it had replaced the hut’s dissolving mud walls with sturdy brick ones, set with actual windows and even a door that could be closed, and had put up a roof that kept out the rain. It had even dug a trench which diverted the river water away from the hut, so that the building stood in the middle of a little island above the flood.

At last the ghost stood back, arms akimbo, and surveyed its achievements with satisfaction. “There,” it declared. “Now that is a dwelling fit for a ghost like me. And for my wife too!”

The fisherman and his granddaughter exchanged alarmed glances when they heard this. “You mean...?” the old man quavered.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” the ghost thundered. “I intend to marry this girl here, of course. She will make a good wife for me.”

The fisherman’s face went pale under his sunburned skin, and he began to gasp for breath at the thought of his beloved granddaughter married to this dreadful ghost. “You intend to marry her?” he managed.

“Of course, and live in this house here. I don’t intend ever to leave this place.” The ghost peered at the fisherman. “Don’t even think of refusing, or I’ll...”

“No, no,” Futki interrupted quickly. “My grandfather isn’t thinking of refusing you my hand in marriage. Why would he? You’re so brave and strong and handsome. Where would I ever find a better husband?” She paused a moment. “But, you know...”

“Well?” the ghost of Hotochchara Hamladar demanded, when she hesitated.

“Well...you know, a married woman has to have a certain standard in life, more than a girl like me who’s only ever known hardship. My grandfather is bowed down with sorrow at the thought that we have no means to provide for my married life, no money or the means to make any. All we can do is just about provide for ourselves. So, you see, we can’t, much as we like, agree to the marriage.”

“Don’t worry about that,” the ghost thundered. “All my life I was a famous bandit, and I haven’t lost my touch. Right away I will go and loot the royal treasuries of Bunglistan for you. How can you refuse me then?”

“No, no,” the girl said quickly. “We couldn’t let you do that. We could never be happy, my grandfather and I, if we had to live on the proceeds of crime. Besides, the kings you intend to rob won’t rest until they run the thieves to earth. What if they find their way to us? What will we do then? Can you protect us against their armies?”

The ghost considered a moment, and then brightened up. “I know!” it said. “I was carrying a bag of treasure when I was drowned. It’s there at the bottom of this river. Bring it up, and it will serve your needs for all your life and to spare.”

The fisherman gave a resigned sigh at these words. “You should let the ghost break my neck,” he muttered to the girl. “At least then you could still get away. That would be far better than to become wife to such a vile creature as this.”

“Don’t give up hope yet!” the girl whispered back. “Let me see what we can do.”

“What are you muttering about?” the ghost demanded.

“We were just planning the wedding feast,” Futki responded quickly. “Now, how do we get this treasure?”

“Nothing simpler,” the ghost said. “All you need to do is go out into the river, dive down and pick it up from the bottom.”

“But how can we do that?” the girl asked, pointing out to the river, now a raging torrent. “We would be swept away the moment we entered the water. We are, you know, only a weak old man and a small teenage girl, while you are a huge, strong ghost.”

The ghost thought about that a while. “All right,” it said. “You row out in the boat, and I will dive down and get the treasure.”

Seeing no way out, the girl nodded. “All right,” she said reluctantly. “Grandfather and I will get the boat ready.”

So they rowed out into the torrent, the girl at one end of the boat, the fisherman at the other, and, between them, the huge brooding bulk of the ghost, hunched over like a buffalo. When they had rowed out far enough, the revenant signalled them to ship the oars and slipped overboard. A moment later it had come up again.

“Well?” the girl asked, hope dawning in her breast as she saw that the spirit was empty-handed. “Did you not find it?”

“Of course I did,” the ghost responded testily. “But the bundle I was carrying it in tore as it sank, and the treasure is scattered all over the river bottom. It will take forever to pick it up a piece at a time and bring it up. You must bring something I can take down with me, fill with the treasure, and bring up again.”

The fisherman and the girl looked at each other. “There’s only the big brass pot...” the former said.

“That’ll do,” the ghost ordered. “Bring that, and I will load it with the treasure.”

So the girl and the fisherman rowed the boat back to land, while the ghost swam back to the bottom of the river to gather what it could of the treasure. “We are lost,” the old man wailed. “You should have let it break my neck. Now there’s nothing we can do.”

“Of course there is,” the girl said. “Don’t you see that this is our chance?” She bent over the oar, murmuring quickly in her grandfather’s ear. A little later, the boat bumped the shore, and she scampered on eager feet to fetch the brass pot and something the fisherman had bought from the market the previous evening. The old man, meanwhile, went to get his tattered old fishing net, as Futki had directed.

“Let’s just hope this works,” the fisherman muttered desperately, as they left the shore again, rowing out into the driving rain.

“It’s just got to,” the girl replied. “We simply have no other option but for it to work.”

When the boat reached the middle of the river again, the ghost popped out of the water like huge black rock. “Give me the pot,” it said, and, snatching the heavy brass receptacle from the girl’s hands, disappeared. Some time later, it emerged from the water again, holding up the pot in both hands.

“Here’s some of it,” it said. “Empty it into the boat and give me the pot again, and I’ll go down and get the rest.”

Futki upturned the pot, a cascade of ornaments and coins spilling out across the bottom of the boat, and peered into the receptacle doubtfully.

“What is it?” the ghost demanded impatiently. “Give me the pot and I’ll go down again.”

“I think there’s some ornament sticking to the bottom of the pot,” Futki said. “I can just see it glittering, but try as I can, I can’t reach it to take it out.”

“What?” the ghost demanded. “Let me see!” Jumping out of the water, it peered into the pot. “I can’t see anything.”

“It’s there, to the side,” Futki insisted. “I’m sure you can see it, and get it out, if only you look close enough.”

“Wait,” the ghost said. “I’ll check.” It bent over the pot, squeezing its head and upper body inside.

“Can you see it now?” Futki asked, frantically signalling to her grandfather.

“I can’t quite...” the ghost’s muffled voice emerged from the pot, past the bulk of its body. “Maybe if I went right inside...” Suiting itself to its words, it squeezed into the pot.

In a trice, Futki had taken the fisherman’s tattered old net and crammed it into the pot’s mouth, plugging it up. And the fisherman had then, exactly as the girl had instructed him, poured the entire contents of the gourd of mustard oil he’d purchased at the market on the net.

Mustard oil, as you must know, is an impenetrable barrier for spirits; and though the ghost of Hotochchara Hamladar roared and shouted and struggled frantically, it was as tightly sealed inside as in the most secure prison. Without a word, Futki pushed the pot off the boat into the river. With an almighty splash, it hit the water and disappeared.

“Well, that’s that,” the girl said. “The river gave us the pot, and we’ve given it back to her again. And as for the treasure, our wants are few, and we have more here than we’ll ever need.”

“We can at least buy a new pot and a net,” the fisherman said, smiling with relief.

“Yes,” Futki said, laughing, as she bent over the oar, “that we can do, all right.”

When they entered their house, they suddenly realised they weren’t alone. Something was sitting on the crosspiece, staring down at them shyly.

“I hope I’m not bothering you,” the thing said. “I used to live here, and some other ghost threw me out yesterday. I’ve been hanging around, and I wondered if it was safe for me to move back again. Unless you mind, of course. If you do, just say the word, and I’ll go right away again.”

“I think you can stay,” the girl said. The fisherman looked at the ghost, compared it to the one they’d faced earlier, and nodded. “I don’t think the ghost which threw you out will be bothering any of us again.”

“Thanks so much,” the ghost replied. It looked around. “There have been changes around here, haven’t there? What happened while I was gone?”

“You might say we had a spiritual experience,” Futki responded, smiling.  


Copyright B Purkayastha 2015


12 comments:

  1. Oh, what a wonderful story!! A clever girl, a kind grandfather and 2 ghosts. And mustard oil to boot.

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  2. I didn't know that about mustard oil. Great story Bill!

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  3. Spiritual experience for sure. Great story Bill.

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  4. I should probably explain that in standard Bunglistani mythology, mustard oil and burned dried chilli were as much barriers to ghosts as garlic was to traditional European vampires. However, as far as I'm aware, like said vampires, Bunglee ghosts are also evolving to meet the needs of pop culture. Don't judge them. It's a harsh world.

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  5. This was a great story. I really enjoyed it.

    The 'stans', as far as I know, are predominantly Muslim. I forget what Indians call India. Actually, given the more than 20 linguistic groups in India, I suppose there are more than 20 words. I've seen one that (I think) starts with 'B'. But never any kind of a 'stan'.

    But then, I'm in Arabia, where there are no ghosts at all, only djinn (of which we have plenty).

    I found that Pakistan has saints (Pir in Urdu). Modern Christians prefer that all their saints be dead, but Pakistan has living saints (or Pir, I'm not sure how to form plurals in Urdu). But I don't think they have ghosts. I tried to ask, but my Urdu and their English precluded conversations on the order of 'Do you believe in ghosts?'

    MichaelWme

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    1. What about all the ifrītun from The Thousand Nights And The One Night?

      Bunglistan is the name I've bestowed on the historic territory of Bengal: currently divided between Bangladesh, the Indian state of West Bengal, and parts of the Indian states of Assam and Tripura. As an ethnic Bunglee (Bengali) myself, I rather enjoy mocking them.

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    2. Oh yeah, and one of the names the Hindu right uses for India is Hindustan....ironically originally a Muslim name for the country.

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    3. An ifrit is one of the djinn. There are at least four different kinds of djinn, some more powerful than others. My translation usually just translated all four kinds as 'djinn' (it was the story of Alf, Leila, and Leila for children, so they kept things simple, and left out a lot).

      MichaelWme

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  6. Da as long as you keep writing stories like that, I will keep failing my MBA classes. p.s it was the best compliment I could manage as I have limited imagination. And I was looking for something original. Next time, I will copy paste compliments from google :)

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    1. That was a pretty good compliment, but I'd prefer you to pass your MBA exams.

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  7. Love your tales of Bunglistan, but they really need to do something about their ghost problem.

    I mean, if all it takes is mustard oil...

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