Once upon a time in Bunglistan, there was a ghost called Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh.
Despite his name, there really was nothing special about Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh. There had been nothing special about him when he’d been alive, except that he’d been very tall, thin, and bony; and when he died and became a ghost, there was still nothing special about him. He was just a ghost. Or, to be more precise, he was a homeless ghost.
Now, as everyone knows, ghosts in Bunglistan live according to their types. Some make do with old temples, where they hang like bats in the shadows crowding the corners and niches. A few, the fisher ghosts, live in holes in the banks of ponds, and come out at night to wade the waters with their legs long as stilts. But the vast majority of ghosts make their homes in trees.
In fact, so many ghosts make their homes in trees that there isn’t a single tree in Bunglistan that doesn’t have ghosts hanging from the branches like swollen fruit. So many ghosts, in fact, infest each tree that there’s a major population problem, with new arrivals threatening to push old residents off the ends of branches to fall, in an undignified heap, on the ground, or on the head of some unwary passer-by. And ghosts, you know, dislike the experience of accidentally touching a human just as much as a human wouldn’t like to be touched by a ghost.
It’s a different thing when a ghost deliberately wrings a human’s neck for fun. Ghosts need happiness, too, and neck-wringing is a nice, soothing exercise. But each neck-wringing produced yet another ghost, and exacerbated the population problem, so the poor ghosts had almost had to give that pleasure up.
There seemed to be no solution to the problem except to forbid humans to die. And if there was any way to do that, even the ghosts of Bunglistan hadn’t discovered it.
Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh became a ghost shortly before dawn one night, which meant that he needed to find a home quickly before dawn came. Ghosts, as you must be aware, find the light of day intensely uncomfortable and need to stay in shelter until the liberating dark of the night. But poor Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh could find no home at all.
It was always the same. Each time Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh went to look for shelter in a tree, the ghosts living on it began shouting at him. “Go away,” they yelled. “We’ve got no space for any new ghost – and especially not for a lanky, spindly, bony ghost like you. Just imagine how you’ll poke us with your elbows and knees! We’d all fall out of the tree.”
“That’s his plan,” the other ghosts added. “He wants us to fall out of the tree, so he can have it all to himself.”
“Go away,” they all shouted in unison. “Push off or we’ll beat you to a pulp.”
So poor Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh wandered from tree to tree, pitifully begging for shelter and finding none, until the sky had lightened in the east and dawn was at hand. It was only then, when he’d resigned himself to looking for a jackal’s den to hide in, that he saw, off in the distance, a hut.
It was an old and totally ruined hut, with a roof that had almost entirely fallen in, and walls which were beginning to crumble. And, of course, ghosts didn’t normally take up residence in huts, ruined or otherwise; the smell of human tends to be too strong in them. But beggars can’t be choosers, and at this point Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh was most certainly a beggar.
So, having no other way out, the poor ghost seeped into the hut just as the sun broke the horizon, and secreted himself in the shadow of the part of the roof that was still left. Fortunately, the hut had been so long abandoned by its humans that their taint had largely evaporated, and the only residents were about a hundred rats and twice as many spiders. They didn’t bother him, and being a ghost of a human he didn’t bother them. It might have been different if he’d been a rat ghost or a spider ghost, of course.
Around midday it began to rain, and Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh found a major disadvantage of the ruined hut – being mostly roofless, it let the rain in. The rain couldn’t wet him, naturally; but he hated the feel of the cold drops slithering through his body to splash on the floor below, to spread in pools of grimy liquid that soon sloshed up to cover his ankles. It was a pretty miserable time for the poor ghost.
The rain let off just after dusk, and Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh might have gone out to have another look for better accommodation. But he was so utterly demoralised that he just rolled himself up into a knot of darkness and sat in the corner, the picture of misery.
And he was still sitting there when, just before dawn, he heard voices. Human voices.
All the country of Bunglistan shivered to the name of Gobardhan Gunda and his gang of bandits. Each of them was tall as a giant from the mythological books, and had arms and legs as thick with muscle as any ordinary man’s torso. And their moustaches! Each of them had a span of moustache the size of a water buffalo’s horns.
Where Gobardhan Gunda and his men went, villages and towns emptied themselves, leaving their treasures for him to loot at leisure. Armies sent to fight him broke and ran at the first sight of his moustache on the horizon. Gobardhan Gunda had so much treasure he could have lived in luxury for a thousand years, but the only thing greater than his riches was his greed. So he kept looting his way through the land, and there was nobody who dared tell him nay.
That evening, Gobardhan Gunda and his gang had attacked a zamindar’s palace on the other side of the forest. The zamindar was as infamous for his greed as for his cruelty – in fact, he rivalled Gobardhan Gunda himself in both – but even he, and his private army of pikemen and spear-carriers, ran for their lives as soon as the bandit appeared outside his walls.
So, having looted the zamindar’s palace to their hearts’ content, Gobardhan Gunda’s gang made their way through the forest, trying to put as much distance between them and any possible pursuit as they could. By morning, they were beginning to tire under the immense weight of all their loot, and they needed a place to rest. But even they knew well enough not to rest under the trees.
“Ghosts,” they said to each other, and even Gobardhan Gunda was forced to nod in agreement. “The trees are full of ghosts, and they’ll wring your neck as soon as look at you.”
This wasn’t true, because of the population problem, but the bandits weren’t to know that. And just then, in the very first light of day, they saw the hut.
“Ghosts never live in huts,” they said happily. “We can spend the day there, resting.”
So they crowded into the hut, and if Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh hadn’t already died and become a ghost, he’d have died then, with fear at the sight of their moustaches and hooked swords and great iron-tipped staves. He crushed himself into the furthest corner and hoped he wouldn’t be discovered.
The bandits weren’t looking for ghosts, of course. They ate the food they had with them, and drank enormous amounts of wine, and then settled down with contented and very foul smelling belches.
“Let’s have a look at the loot we got,” Gobardhan Gunda said. “We didn’t really get a chance earlier.”
“It must be quite a haul,” his second-in-command agreed. “That damned zamindar was famous all through the country for squeezing everything he could out of the peasants, by fair means or foul. I’m sure it’ll be the richest booty we ever gathered.”
So they opened out the bundles of loot, and there on the floor of the hut was the loveliest treasure that any of them had ever seen. Gold chains and silver statuettes jostled for space with sparkling diamonds and sapphires, and mounds of copper coins spilled over pearl necklaces and rolled-up paintings of great value. They ran their fingers through it, exultantly.
“Look at this,” they said to each other. “Just look at it!”
Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh also looked at it. But his attention was fixed on one thing, and one thing only.
Right in the middle of the treasure, lying forgotten on the floor among the celebrating bandits, was a tiny little figurine of dark old ivory. It was that of an elephant with one broken tusk.
Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh knew that figurine very, very well indeed.
Long ago, when he’d been not just alive but young, he’d owned that figurine, and loved it with a tremendous passion. It had been bequeathed to him by his father and his father before him; it was, in fact, the only heirloom of any sort the family had possessed. And then, one day long ago, the figurine had been stolen. Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh had searched for years and years, but never found it or heard of it. And here it was, lying right there in plain sight, after so long.
All else forgotten, Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh rushed forward, scattering rings and coins left and right, and snatched up the ivory elephant with a howl of triumph. Clutching it to his breast, he turned to thank the nice men who’d brought it back to him.
They were nowhere to be seen. There were only terrified yells fading in the distance.
The sudden rush of an enormous ghost, all knees and elbows and spindly limbs, had shocked and terrified the bandits. With wild screams of fear, they’d scattered on all sides, leaving the treasure behind them.
Poor Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh tried to follow, to thank them and assure them that he was totally harmless, that they had nothing to fear from him. But by now it was full daylight outside, and the sunlight beat on him and drove him back into the shadows of the hut.
“Never mind,” he thought. “I’ll look for them tonight. After all, they can’t have got far.”
He was perfectly right. Gobardhan Gunda and his gang hadn’t got far. They had, in fact, found each other, trickled together in ones and twos, until by mid-afternoon they’d all gathered together again. They were all safe and sound; the only thing they didn’t have was their treasure, the greatest treasure they’d ever found.
“There’s only one thing to be done,” Gobardhan Gunda declared, moustache bristling. “We’ll go right back to that hut and get it back again.”
“But...” his second-in-command faltered. “What about the ghost?”
Gobardhan Gunda bent a fiery eye at him. “What about him?” he demanded. “The ghost frightened us because we weren’t expecting him. Now we’re all prepared. Let him turn up now, and he’ll see what we do to him. We’re thirty strong men, and he’s just one ghost.”
So, as the sun sank into the west, they made their way towards the ruined hut, arriving from the south side just after dusk...at the very moment when, unknown to them, Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh left the hut on the north side to look for them. And they rejoiced when they found the treasure, just where they’d left it. They searched the hut for the ghost, poking in all the corners, but of course there was no sign of him.
“We might as well spend the night here,” Gobardhan Gunda declared. “We’ll go on in the morning. And keep an eye out for that ghost!”
Meanwhile, Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh had wandered the forest, without finding even one of the kind men who’d brought him his figurine back gain. Not seeing any way out, he finally approached the other ghosts, where they clustered thickly on the trees.
“You again!” they said when they saw him. “We told you already, clear off, or we’ll give you a thrashing you’ll never forget.”
“I’m not here to ask for shelter,” Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh hastened to explain. “I just want your help in a small matter.” And he told them what he wanted.
“And if we find these men for you,” the ghosts said suspiciously, “you’ll go right away and never bother us again?”
“I promise,” Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh assured them. “Just find them for me, and you’ll never have to see my face again in your unlifes.”
So the ghosts spread out, and rushed all over the forest, and searched it from one end to the other. But of course they didn’t find the bandits, not one.
Finally they gathered under the big banyan tree in the very centre of the forest, and began shouting furiously all together. “There never were any men,” some of them shouted. “He just made up the whole tale to get back at us for not giving him space on our branches.”
“Let’s find him and teach him a lesson,” the others agreed. And, in a huge and incensed mob, they set out to hunt Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh down.
That poor ghost saw them coming, baying for his head; and he turned and ran as fast as he could, to look for a place to hide. But each way he went he ran into another mob of ghosts after him, and of course they knew the forest much better than he did.
Having no way out, he ran back to the ruined hut, the only home he now had.
The bandits had only just settled down when Gobardhan Gunda, looking out through the ruined doorway, saw Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh rushing out of the forest towards the hut. “Here he comes,” he said, picking up a staff. “All together now...get him!”
Before poor Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh could even recover from his astonishment at finding the kind men back in the hut, let alone thank them, he found himself beset and belaboured with staves and spears and wicked sharp swords which could have hacked his limbs off if only he’d had limbs that could be hacked off at all. But luckily he didn’t.
“Ouch!” he protested. “Stop! I don’t...” But it wasn’t any use.
And so it was that when the howling mob of vengeful ghosts followed Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh back to the hut, they found him lying on the floor, with the men he’d told them to look for gathered round him, beating him for all they were worth.
Now, blood is thicker than water. Even ghost blood, nonexistent though it might be, is thicker than scummy pond water. And ghosts know perfectly well that when it comes to humans, they’ve got to stick together, no matter what. After all, humans are vile.
And here was a herd of the humans, thrashing one of their very own! If they let it happen, how would they ever get the respect and fear of humans again? And without respect and fear, what worth was a ghost’s unlife anyway?
So, with a great shriek of fury, the ghosts hurled themselves on the bandits from all sides...
It was no contest. There were thirty bandits, but there were more than thirty thousand ghosts. In a blink of an eye, the last of Gobardhan Gunda’s gang was racing away through the forest as fast as he could go.
They never came back again, of course. Good riddance to them.
“Thank you for not wringing their necks,” Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh said, when he’d gathered his breath a bit and picked himself off the floor. “They did bring my figurine back.”
“Who wants to add to the overpopulation?” the ghosts answered. “Besides, even if we’d wanted new ghosts, we wouldn’t want ghosts like them.”
“Anyway,” Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh pointed out, “you have to admit now that I wasn’t lying. And you’ve got to admit that you did me an injustice when you all mobbed me.”
“Yes, well,” the ghosts said, embarrassed. “We’ll make it up to you somehow. Maybe give you a space in one of our trees?”
“But you said there wasn’t any room,” Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh reminded them. “And I wouldn’t want to be the cause of some ghost being evicted on my account.”
“So what is it we can do for you?” the ghosts asked plaintively. “Tell us.”
Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh looked up at the roof for inspiration, and saw stars. “That’s it,” he exclaimed. “Fix up this hut. Repair the walls and the roof, seal up the cracks, and make it a proper home. And then you’ll have done all you need to do for me.”
And so that was what the ghosts did. All that night they fixed the walls, and the next night they repaired the roof with palm fronds, and on the third night they were even contrite and generous enough to improvise a door and windows as well. Then they sighed with relief.
“It’s done,” they told Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh. “Our debt’s discharged. Now don’t bother us again.”
“I won’t,” he told them happily. “I have a home and my figurine. I’ll never want anything else.”
In this he was quite wrong. The next evening, a beautiful young ghostess came wandering through the forest, looking for a home. All she found was a gibbering mass of ghosts, all fighting each other for her. Terrified, she fled through the darkness until, in the first light, she saw the hut.
“That’s a nice, civilised place,” she thought. “I can find shelter there for a little while.”
Of course, she found more. Much, much more.
And today, if you go into that forest, you might find your way to that hut. The door will be shut, but knock gently, and you may be permitted to enter. Inside, you will find the ghostess, loaded down with all the jewels she can ever wear. She will smile at you, and invite you to sit down and make yourself comfortable.
And, sitting beside her, will be Bhim Bahadur Bojrokinkho Singh. It’s not likely that he’ll even take any notice of you. Half his attention is always on the lovely ghostess by his side.
The other half is on the ivory figurine in his arms. As the ghostess will tell you, shaking her head in exasperation, he never, ever, lets go of it, not even for an instant.
And all three of you will know exactly why.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016
|[Image adapted from here]|