Deep in the middle of a forest in Bunglistan, there was what had once been a village.
It had been a very long time ago that it had been a village. The people had all gone, driven away by cholera and famine. The waiting forest had swiftly moved in to reclaim the rice paddies, weeds and silt had choked the ponds, and the huts and even the huge rambling zamindar’s palace had crumbled to ruin. By day, one might have thought nothing except monkeys and rats had lived in the village for generations.
By night, of course, it was a different story.
This being Bunglistan, the night belonged to the ghosts.
“Shadow soup again,” Master Bichchiri Bhoot whined. “I hate shadow soup!”
His mother, Mrs Pirito Petni, frowned terribly, as only a petni can frown. “You’ll eat what’s put in front of you,” she said, “or you can starve to death. See if I care.”
“He can’t starve to death,” her husband, Boroshoro Brohmodottyi, pointed out mildly. Everything he said and did was said and done mildly. “He’s already dead.”
“And why are you taking his side?” his wife demanded, rounding on him furiously. “No wonder he’s spoilt, the way you treat him, letting him get away with anything he wants. Well, I’m done. Do as you want, both of you.”
“But...” Boroshoro Brohmodottyi began. “I didn’t exactly take his side, did I?”
“That’s what you always say. When the neighbour’s wife, that Shomapto Shakchunni, picks fights with me you never back me up.”
“Neither does her husband take her side,” Boroshoro Brohmodottyi pointed out. “Both Prokando Pret and I have better sense than to get involved in...”
“What was that?” his helpmeet screamed. “You dare talk back to me! You never get me anything. I slave my fingers to the bone for you, and you don’t even appreciate it. I haven’t even got a gold necklace in all my afterlife. And now this!”
“I can’t get you a gold necklace,” her husband said plaintively. “Where can a ghost get one? And what would you do with one anyway? I mean, it’s not as though you’re alive.”
“That does it,” Pirito Petni yelled. “You dare taunt me with not being alive? I’m going back to my parents.” Slamming down her bowl of shadow soup on the floor, she stormed out of the hut into the night.
Boroshoro Brohmodottyi and his son looked at each other with embarrassment. “She’s always doing this,” the older ghost said. “She doesn’t mean anything by it. Don’t worry – she’ll be back in a day or two.”
“How can you be sure?” his son replied. “She looked really mad. Worse even than the time last month when...”
The Brohmodottyi winced at the memory. “No need to mention that,” he said quickly. “But it’s simple, really.” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure his wife had really left, and leant over closer to his son.
“Her parents can’t stand her temper either, you see.”
Meanwhile, not far away, a heavily armed band of bandits was approaching.
Bunglistan, as everyone knows, is famous for two things. One, of course, is ghosts. The other is bandits. Just as every tree and every ruin has a ghost roosting somewhere like a malevolent fruit, one never knows when one might encounter a gang of desperadoes on the rural paths or have them descending on one’s home on an evening, eager for loot and destruction. But even among them, Durdanto Dakat was a byword.
Not only was he of gigantic stature, and as muscular and heavy as a water buffalo, he had a pair of moustaches that rivalled the noble beast’s horns in their spread, and in one hand he swung a hooked sword so big that no two of his men could even lift it with ease. And so utterly without fear was he that he dared even the ghosts to fight him, boasting that he would give them such a thrashing that they would be frightened to life, and then he could kill them all over again. The ghosts had heard his boasts, and none of them had thought fit to challenge him. They’d just stayed out of his way.
Not that his gang was any less in their cruelty and bloodthirstiness than he was. As a rule, he only recruited the worst, most desperate, evillest evildoers that ever swung a sword or despoiled a defenceless home. Each man who joined his band had to have a history of barbarity behind him that would have made even other hardened bandits cringe, and if he found them suitable, they had to fight him in single combat. Only those who survived the fight without permanent injuries found a place in the group. And, tonight, they were immensely happy, because they had just ended a series of raids which had given them so much in the way of plunder that they could hardly walk upright under their burdens.
Now the bandits, of course, hadn’t gone unnoticed on their raids, and the local king’s army was chasing them. It wasn’t much of an army, not one that the bandits would normally have had any reason to fear, but they were loaded with so much in the way of booty that they couldn’t either fight or move fast enough to make a getaway. That is why they’d entered the forest to find a place to hide until the soldiers had given up and gone home, and they could move on again.
So they had come through the forest, laden with their plunder, and they finally reached the long abandoned village. In the night, the huts looked almost inviting, and the robbers were tired and wanted to rest a while and gloat over their riches.
“Yes,” Durdanto Dakat agreed, “we’ll lie up here for a bit. It looks like a good place.”
“What about ghosts?” faltered one of the newest and least bold of the gang. “A ruined village like this is bound to be just crawling with them.”
“Especially at night,” another of the newest and least bold added, before Durdanto Dakat could think up a sufficiently crushing retort.
The robber leader looked around at his men and saw that they were beginning to murmur and glance about uneasily. He knew quite well how panic could spread in this kind of situation, and realised that he’d have to do something at once to squelch it.
“I’ll show you,” he roared. “I’ll show you exactly what I’ll do to any ghost which dares to create trouble.” Stomping to the nearest hut, he kicked down the sagging remnants of the door, bulled his way inside, and in only a trice emerged, pushing a portly figure with a long beard before him at the point of his sword, while holding something small, black, and wriggling by the neck with the other.
“Look,” he bellowed, like the buffalo he resembled. “Here are a couple of ghosts for you. And just look at them! They can’t do a thing against me.” As illustration, he held the small wriggling thing up, which tried to bite him, failed, and began whimpering piteously.
“What are you going to do to them?” the first new robber said, in an awed voice.
“I’m just going to cut off the fat one’s head, of course,” Durdanto Dakat thundered. “And then I’ll break this baby ghost’s neck. With my sword and my strength, nothing is impossible. And then I...”
He never finished.
When Pirito Petni had been shouting at her husband and son, someone had eavesdropped on them with great enjoyment. This was Shomapto Shakchunni, whose own husband was on a trip away from the village. She’d been mildly disappointed when all that had happened was that Pirito Petni had stormed out instead of continuing to yell for half the night, as she had done so many times before. With a sigh of disappointment, she’d been about to go back to her own dinner, of distilled cobwebs and marshlight, when she’d seen people approaching. Putting the plate down, she’d watched as they came into the village, and the huge one with the moustaches had forced his way into her neighbour’s house. A little while later, as she watched with horrified fascination, he had come out forcing the Bromodottyi ahead of him at swordpoint and carrying the child by the neck.
Shomapto Shakchunni liked quarrels and intrigue very much, but – as a consequence of the circumstances of her demise, the precise manner of which was strictly her business – she was also strongly opposed to violence. Stepping out of her own hut, she raised a hand.
“Stop,” she said. “You don’t have to hurt anyone, you know.”
The robbers, turning, gaped at her. This is not to be wondered at. A shakchunni is not something even a murdering gang of bandits is used to seeing, especially in the middle of the night. Even a pretty shakchunni would be startling. And, truth to tell. Shomapto Shakchunni was about as far from pretty as it was possible to be. Even among shakchunnis, her face could stop a hungry jackal.
“Oh father!” the second new robber began, going so pale that he almost glowed white. “This is too much. I want to go home!”
Everyone seemed about to echo this same sentiment, with the sole exception of Durdanto Dakat. He snorted and lifted his sword high.
“Scared of this one, are you?” he jeered. “Let me show you just how fast I can turn her into pieces of ghost.” Twisting his moustaches heroically, he beckoned to Shomapto Shakchunni. “Come here, you.”
This was a bad mistake.
Prito Petni had had a disappointing night. She’d hoped, in fact fully expected, that Boroshoro Brohmodottyi would come rushing after her to beg her to come back home. Even a lady ghost, after all, enjoys drama and likes to feel wanted. But though she walked slowly enough for her husband to overtake her twenty times if he’d wanted, there was no sign of him when she made her way through the village and to her parents’ house.
And then, suddenly, a dreadful thought came to her. With Prokando Pret away from home, her husband was left at the mercy of the wiles of that strumpet Shomapto Shakchunni!
There was no time to waste. Abandoning the ghostpath, she rushed through the forest homewards, by the shortest possible route. Bursting into her house by the back door, she looked around, but saw neither her husband nor her son. And then, from just outside, she heard the unmistakable voice of the strumpet herself...
Anger took over Pirito Petni, anger in such intensity as she’d never felt before, even when she’d been alive. Snatching up an enormous iron skillet, she rushed out of her house, determined to settle the strumpet’s hash once and for all...
The reader already knows what she saw. And, because everyone’s attention, including Durdanto Dakat’s, was fixed totally on Shomapto Shakchunni, none of them saw her come.
We shall, in order to spare delicate sensibilities, omit a detailed description of the scene of violence that followed. All you really need to do is remember this:
Not even a buffalo-sized bandit is capable of withstanding an iron skillet to the head when it is wielded by an outraged lady ghost.
“Do you like the necklace?” Boroshoro Brohmodottyi asked.
Mrs Pirito Petni turned it over and over in her hands. “It’s all right, I suppose,” she said grudgingly. “Nothing to those I used to have when I was alive, of course.”
“Of course not,” her husband sighed. “But it’s the best I could find from all the things the robbers left when they ran. At least you can’t say I didn’t get you one.”
“Yes, fine, you did,” Pirito Petni said. “But all you got me was a necklace. Did you see what that shameless hussy Shomapto Shakchunni got for herself? A set of gold bangles, a couple of anklets and toe rings as well. Why couldn’t you get me any of that?”
“You didn’t ask,” Boroshoro Brohmodottyi said. “But nobody else in the village has a necklace like yours now. And you did want a necklace. Besides,” he added ingratiatingly, “you’re a genuine heroine now. Nobody can deny how heroic you are. You’ll be famous in the village.”
Pirito Petni grunted. “All right, let’s at least eat. It’ll soon be day. Sit down, both of you, while I warm up supper.”
“Shadow soup,” Bichchiri Bhoot whined. “Do we have to have shadow soup again?”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015