Once upon a time there was a zamindar, a landlord, in Bunglistan who had a son about whom he was very worried.
The son’s name was Shubhrolochon Chottopadhyay, and so naturally everyone called him Babai. And though his father had brought him up from birth to take over the feudal zamindari, he showed absolutely no interest in it at all. Instead, he grew up strong-willed and headstrong, and spent his time in the fields and wrestling pits during the day and the shops of the village market when night fell.
In vain did his mother try and plead with him. “Babai,” she said, “you really must take some interest in the zamindari. You’ll have to take it over one day, you know.”
“I’m not interested in being a zamindar,” the incorrigible young man retorted. “I’m interested in wrestling, and playing dice in the shops in the market in the evening, and watching the girls go by on their way to the pond in the palm tree grove to bathe.”
“But...” the poor woman protested. “What will happen to the zamindari if you don’t take it over?”
“I couldn’t care less,” Babai told her. “It can go get eaten by a rakkhosh for all I care.”
This was of course not something that reassured the poor lady, and she went to report to her husband, who, predictably, erupted with fury.
“I’ll have him whipped!” he yelled. “I’ll have my men thrash him till he doesn’t know what his name is! Where is he?”
“Wait!” his wife begged. “I have an idea. Why not get him married? Once he has a wife to care for, and later children, he’ll calm right down.” She looked discreetly away from her husband’s bulging eyes and tomato-coloured face. “I’ve never known it to fail.”
“All right,” the lord and master of the house said in disgust. “I leave it to you. Find a wife for the brat if you can. After all, it was you who spoilt him, who stopped me from beating him when he was a kid. A few good thrashings then and we’d never be in this state now. I kept telling you, but you...”
Finally getting him to simmer down, Babai’s mother went to her room to think. “There’s no point asking Babai whether he’d agree,” she decided. “He’s as stubborn as his father. The only thing to do is find a few eligible girls, and ask him to choose one of them. I heard that the Mukhopadhyays’ daughter is of age to get married, and it’s possible that they’re looking for a suitable match. I’ll start there.”
So she asked her friend Shondhya, who knew the Mukhopadhyay family well, about the daughter. “Yes,” Shondhya admitted, “I heard that they’re looking for a match. However, I also know a couple of other girls who are prettier and more religious, and more obedient to their parents’ orders than she is. I heard...” she leaned close to her friend’s ear and lowered her voice to a mere stentorian shout. “I heard that the Mukhopadhyay girl was seen last Pujo festival stepping out of her house alone.”
“Really?” Babai’s mum gave a delighted gasp of horror.
“Yes,” Shondhya confirmed. “What’s more, she didn’t have her head covered and had shoes on.”
The description of such depraved behaviour was extremely delightful to Babai’s mum, of course, but it failed to solve the problem of what to do about finding a wife for him. “You said you know a couple of other girls,” she said. “Please send the word round.”
“I’ll do that,” the response came. “I’ll find your son a wife, or my name isn’t Shondhya Bondopadhyay.”
Within a week, she was back with a list of names. “This one’s of best birth,” she said, “but that one’s family is richer. This one here’s the prettiest, with eyes just like a cow’s, but that one can sing best. And she’s also the best cook. But this other one can dance, and also does alpona decorations very well.”
“I’ll show Babai the list and make him choose one,” the zamindar’s wife said with great satisfaction. “He’ll choose one of them, I’m sure.”
So she showed the list to Babai, and he snatched it out of her hand and tore it to pieces. “I’d rather marry a...a ghost...than one of those stupid girls,” he said.
“Go then,” his mother shouted right back, consumed with anger at the prospect of all her hard work going up in smoke. “Go and marry a ghost. See if I care.”
“Fine, I will,” Babai said, and stormed out.
Now, as everyone knows, Bunglistan is overrun with ghosts, and one can’t even whisper in a corner without the risk that a ghost might be eavesdropping. And since both Babai and his mum were screaming at the tops of their not inconsiderable voices, it wasn’t long before the word was out among the ghosts that there was a human out to marry one.
“Maybe some pretty young ghost should try her luck,” the ghosts laughed. “A nice young petni or shakchunni could land the husband of her dreams!”
Now, among the ghosts there was a young petni, whose name was Kadombini, and whom everyone called Kadu. She was also a real embarrassment to her parents, whose status was very high among the ghosts, because she absolutely refused to behave as a nice young petni of high birth and good breeding should.
One time, for instance, she’d found a Brahmin conducting a ritual in the yard of a house on the outskirts of the village. While any other ghost would have either made himself scarce, unable to stand the noxious clouds of eye-watering smoke rising from the ritual fire, or at the best stayed at a safe distance to watch, Kadu had no such inhibition. And she noticed that, next to the fire, there was a huge mango tree, laden with unripe fruit. Sneaking into the branches, she watched with great interest.
The Brahmin had poured another spoon of ghee into the fire, and while it hissed and sputtered, he’d turned to the house owner. “Another handful of cowrie shells, if you please,” he’d said.
The house owner, who’d been growing paler and paler as the ritual had gone on and on, had turned white to the lips. “Again? I’ve already paid you nine times!”
“What can I do?” the Brahmin had replied, pointing to the palm leaf manuscript from which he’d been reading his prayers. “It says right here that the priest has to be paid now.”
“But I’m almost out of cowries,” the house owner had protested. “I can’t...”
“Shut up and pay,” his wife had hissed, digging her elbow into his side. “Otherwise you won’t get merit to get into heaven.”
“It’s not heaven I’m worried about,” the unfortunate man had whined. “It’s getting into debt. And don’t forget that this whole ritual is to get us out of debt.” He’d turned to the priest. “Can I pay in...” (casting a desperate glance up at the tree) “...mangoes?”
“Please don’t joke,” the priest had replied severely. “The manuscript says you have to pay in cowrie shells, or...” His eyes had roamed speculatively towards the wife’s wrists. “In gold. If you have no cowrie shells you could pay in gold. It says so right here, as you could see for yourself if only you could read Sanskrit. Since you can’t...”
A small mango had hit him at that moment, right on his shaved head. Hard.
“What...” the Brahmin had begun. “Who dares...”
Another mango plonked itself down, bang in the middle of the ritual fire. The indescribable odour of charred unripe mango had filled the air.
“Take the payment in mangoes,” a voice had said from the tree. “If you know what’s good for you, that is.”
The Brahmin had turned a shade of green not unlike an unripe mango that has been suffering from anaemia. “I think I just remembered a shloka that allows payment in mangoes after all,” he’d said hurriedly.
This was the kind of petni who, sitting on her favourite branch of the tamarind tree behind the village temple, heard that a human had pledged to marry a ghost. And she shivered with such glee that the entire branch shook hard enough for all the crows sharing it with her to take off, cawing.
“Wants to marry a ghost, does he?” she said. “Well, we shall see, we shall see.”
Now, Babai, having stormed out of the house, had gone to his favourite spot in the fields, from which he could watch the girls go by on the way to the pond to bathe. Today, though, there were no girls to watch, because it was already well past the hour when they went to bathe. Feeling cheated and disgusted, and with the idea that the whole world was conspiring against him, Babai finally stalked off to the pond itself, hoping to see some latecomer village maiden immerse herself in its scummy waters and emerge, sari clinging transparently to her wet body, with nothing left to the imagination. His thoughts went back to the unforgettable occasion he’d caught a glimpse of Snigdhokumari Mukhopadhyay, her red-bordered white sari almost as transparent as air, as she’d disported herself in the water. But that had been several weeks ago and he’d never even seen her again, in dry clothes or otherwise.
As it happened, Kadu had had the sudden idea that she should clean herself up a bit before going to stalk this stupid human who had the unbelievable audacity to talk of marrying a ghost. Being a total tomboy petni, she’d never had a particular interest in hygiene, and her hair was covered with dried leaves, twigs, and crawling with all manner of ghostly lice, while as for her finger- and toenails...even she was embarrassed about her finger- and toenails.
“If I’m to have some proper fun with this man,” she decided, “I’d better go and clean myself up a bit, or he’ll be scared off right away. I’ll have to...”she shuddered at the thought. “I’ll have to bathe and wash my hair, and file my nails short on some rock. Still, it’s a price worth paying if it means that I can have some fun. I’ve never really had much fun since that time with the Brahmin and the mangoes.”
So she went off to the pond, which was, as she’d anticipated, deserted at this hour. Even the fisher ghosts were sleeping in their holes in the banks, and the ghosts in the palm trees were hanging head down among the coconuts, waiting out the day, so she was assured of privacy. With one quick look around, she stripped and washed her clothes, which were as dirty as she was. Then she spread them out to dry on the bank, and immersed herself in the water, thrashing around as quickly as she could to get it over with. And it was exactly as she emerged, freshly washed, that Babai appeared on the scene.
The zamindar’s son had hoped, at the best, to catch a glimpse of a turned back or the bulge of a breast. What he saw instead was a female form standing knee-deep in the pond, and – if he could believe his eyes, which were goggling as much as his father’s in a rage – without a stitch of clothing on.
Kadu, who was relieved that she’d got the disagreeable bath over with, had found a piece of rough stone and was industriously filing her nails on it. So intent was she on this task that she quite failed to notice the young man who was standing on the pond’s bank with his mouth hanging open and his eyes popping halfway out of his skull. And she’d just finished with her last toe that she heard a kind of gurgling noise and looked up.
Now, Babai – whatever his other faults – was a very good looking young man. And Kadu, for a petni, was strikingly beautiful, and her tomboy unlifestyle had kept her figure in excellent shape.
“What a handsome man,” the young petni thought, “even if he has that imbecilic look on his face. What a pity that he’ll probably scream and run away any moment, as soon as he realises I’m a petni.”
“What a lovely girl,” part of Babai’s mind thought, while the rest of it was far too occupied in goggling at Kadu’s exposed charms. “What a lovely, lovely girl.”
There is no telling how long the two of them might have stood gaping at each other if there hadn’t been an interruption at that point. And it was about the rudest kind of interruption there could possibly have been.
As everyone knows, apart from ghosts, the other thing Bunglistan is famous for is bandits. In fact, just as ghosts lurk in each tamarind tree and curl up in the crevices of every ruined temple, each forest track and back road is ceaselessly roamed by gangs of vicious bandits looking for plunder and women. And at that precise moment a gang of bandits arrived at the pond.
The bandits were tired, and had been travelling a long way. Their initial plan had been to rest a while by the side of the pond, quench their thirst from the scummy water, and try and catch a few fish for their supper. Business had not been great in a while, because the countryside was so oversupplied with bandit groups that the competition was murder. So the robbers had been trying to find some village which was still an unexploited resource, but had met with no success whatsoever, and their supplies of both loot and morale were almost exhausted.
At the head of the bandit gang was the dreaded Ya Borogöf. Actually, Ya Borogöf wasn’t all that dreaded. In fact, among the hierarchy of bandits he was strictly small fry. But he wanted to be dreaded, and was always looking for an opportunity to be dreaded. And the first thing he saw was the young man standing by the pond side, staring at something with his mouth open.
“Get him!” Ya Borogöf shouted. “He’s well dressed and looks as though he’s from a rich family. We can get a good ransom for him.”
At the shout, Kadu – whom the bandits couldn’t yet see because she was hidden behind palm trees – snatched up her clothes and quickly put them on. By the time Ya Borogöf saw her, she was almost modestly dressed, with the hood of her sari pulled low down over her features.
“Two of them,” the bandit chief hooted in delight. “One can fetch us a good ransom, and the other will do us well as a maid to cook and clean for us. Get them both.” Rushing forwards, the bandits seized Babai first, because he was closer, and tied him up with ropes before he could even start struggling. Then they turned to her.
Now, of course, if Kadu had wanted, she could have escaped at once. But she was worried about the handsome young man the bandits had captured, who was now crying out piteously and uselessly for help. And also, her sense of adventure was aroused. This promised to be the most fun she’d had in a long, long time.
“You don’t need to tie me up,” she said, trying to keep her voice in as low a bass note as she could, so that she sounded like a high-pitched human female. “I’m just a weak woman, as you can see. What could I do to all of you big, strong men?”
The bandits looked for instruction to Ya Borogöf, who nodded. “Don’t tie her up. In any case, she can’t cook and clean for us if she’s tied up. You,” he turned to her. “You go and gather firewood, and then you can cook a meal for us.”
“A meal, is it?” Kadu thought to herself, inwardly grinning. “Oh, you’ll have a meal, all right.”
“And don’t think of running,” Ya Borogöf added, as he and his men luxuriously sprawled on the pond bank. “Or we’ll just cut the throat of your friend here.”
Babai made some inarticulate noises and started to struggle, so the bandits decided to gag him. Since they hadn’t any spare cloth to gag him with, they ripped off his tunic and tore it up to use as a gag. Kadu’s eyes bugged out at the sight of his chiselled muscles, honed at the wrestling pit.
“He’s got as good a body as he’s handsome,” she thought. “I wish it were he who wanted to marry a ghost, not whichever twerp I cleaned myself up for. He wouldn’t have to look any further.”
“What are you wasting time staring for?” Ya Borogöf demanded. “Firewood, and then food. Quickly, now.”
So Kadu went off among the trees, until she was out of sight of the bandits. “Wood ghosts,” she called, in her normal voice. “Ghosts of all the dead wood here, gather the broken sticks and dried leaves together and bring them to me.” And the ghosts pushed all the dead branches and broken wood together, so that in only moments she had such a huge bundle to carry back that if she was a human, she couldn’t have done it in one trip.
Ya Borogöf and his men didn’t seem to find anything surprising in how quickly she was back. “Learnt your lesson quickly, did you?” the bandit chief said. “All right, make a fire and get to cooking.”
“What can I cook?” Kadu asked. “I don’t have any food.”
“Catch some fish then,” Ya Borogöf said lazily. “We don’t have any food either.”
“All right,” Kadu said, hiding a grin in the hood of her sari. “I’ll be back soon.” Walking along the bank of the pond, she reached the far side, where the men couldn’t see her properly, and waded into the water.
“Fish ghosts,” she called, knowing that she was quite safe to do it at this hour, because the fisher ghosts were all asleep in their holes in the pond banks. “Ghosts of all the fish who died in this pond, bring fish to me. You know which fish I mean.”
And so, even as Ya Borogöf yawned and began to think about oiling his gigantic moustache, the young petni returned, staggering under an armful of fish. “I’ll start cooking right away, shall I?”
“Yes, of course. You’ll make a good maid, if you keep working as hard as this. Today’s our lucky day.”
Without saying a word, pausing just long enough to dart another admiring look at Babai’s bulging muscles, Kadu put down the fish and started making the fire. Meanwhile, Ya Borogöf decided to interrogate his captive and took off his gag. Babai instantly burst into a torrent of infuriated speech.
“One more word,” Ya Borogöf said, once he could get a syllable in edgewise. “Just one more word out of you, and I’ll cut your tongue out. You will only answer my questions, and nothing else.”
“If you cut my tongue out,” Babai pointed out, “you won’t get any answer to your questions anyway.”
“In that case,” Ya Borogöf snapped, “I’ll punish the woman, your lady friend there. You won’t get into trouble, she will.”
Babai thought of the girl’s lovely body, and ached to be able to see it again. “Don’t hurt her,” he said. “I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“He’s honourable as well as handsome,” Kadu thought, and her heart shivered with delight. “I do believe I’m falling in love. What a pity I’m going to have to let him go afterwards.” Sighing with regret for what might have been, she prepared the fire.
“The zamindar’s son, are you?” Ya Borogöf was saying meanwhile, his heart leaping with joy. “We’ve really struck it lucky, then. Just imagine the ransom we’ll get for you.”
“You’ll get nothing, I’ll bet,” Babai retorted. “My father thinks I’m useless.”
“Does he?” the bandit inquired. “Why?”
Babai shrugged as well as the ropes would let him. “I’m not interested in being a zamindar,” he said. “I’m not interested in gouging rents out of the peasants’ labours. I’m not interested in sitting in an office all day looking to see how I can cheat on the taxes I owe to the king. I’m interested in wrestling pits and girls.”
“And does your father gouge rents and pay taxes?”
“Does he?” Babai repeated, scornfully. “You think you’re robbers? He probably loots more in a month than you’ve done in all your lives.”
“That’s good,” Ya Borogöf said, his eyes gleaming. “It’s very good. That means all the more for us. Whatever your father thinks, I’ll bet he’ll be more than glad to pay up if we send him...one of your ears, for example.”
Babai was just drawing breath to say what he thought about this, when Ya Borogöf picked up his huge hooked sword and reached for his ear. With a sigh, Babai – who wasn’t fond of knives, let alone swords – fainted dead away.
And at that very moment, Kadu called from the fire. “Here, Sir Bandit Chief, I have a problem.”
“What problem?” the robber chief asked, turning.
“You told me to cook the fish, right? But I don’t have the special salt to cook them with.”
“What special salt are you talking about, woman?” Ya Borogöf moved towards her threateningly, ear-cutting temporarily forgotten. “Whoever heard of fishes needing special salt?”
“The fishes themselves did, of course,” Kadu said, and poked the nearest fish. “Here, tell him.”
The fish lifted its head and stared at the robber chief. “We’re the best fish,” it said. “We refuse to be cooked with anything but the very best salt, from the mines of the King of the World Above. Heaven, in other words.”
“That’s right,” another fish said. “Who do you think you are, trying to have us cooked with anything but that precious salt?”
“But...but...” Ya Borogöf began, his mind boggling too far to form words properly. “But...”
“I know where to get this salt,” Kadu said cheerfully. “I’ll just fetch it, shall I?”
And she began to grow. And she grew. And she grew. In moments she towered as high as one of the palm trees around, and then she reached out a hand into the sky. And reached out, and out, and out.
“Oops,” she said, looking down at the bandits, who were staring up at her, paralysed. “I’m just unable to reach the salt. But if one of you gentlemen could climb on my hand, I’m sure you could fetch it for me. So...” And she bent towards them, grinning. “So, just which one of you shall it be?”
A few moments later, Babai reluctantly regained consciousness as pond water was splashed in his face. Forgetting that his hands were supposed to be bound, he tried to rub his face dry, and discovered that he could rub it dry, because his hands were no longer bound. And his head seemed to be cradled against someone’s soft bosom.
Opening his eyes, he looked up into Kadu’s grinning face.
Now, Kadu had two grins. One was the one which had just sent the bandits rushing away, screaming with terror. The other...the other was the one she was now bestowing on Babai.
“My hero!” she said. “You saved me!”
“What?” Babai shook his head and sat up. “What do you mean? Where are those horrible robbers?”
“Don’t you know?” Kadu asked. “Just as they were going to punish me for not having their fish cooked, you burst your bonds, and beat them up so badly that they all ran away. Have you really forgotten all that, or are you just being modest?”
Babai expanded his chest proudly at the thought, and then deflated it again. “It can’t be,” he said. “It must have been you who chased them away.”
The petni nodded reluctantly. “You’re right. You’re honest as well as handsome, I see. But, yes, you’re right. I did chase them away. Never mind how.” Getting up, she started walking away as quickly as she could, so that the wonderful young man couldn’t see the misery in her ghostly eyes. “Well, it was nice knowing you.”
“Wait!” Babai called, scrambling to his feet. “Don’t go. You’re as capable as you’re beautiful. It’s such a pity that you aren’t a ghost.”
Kadu frowned over her shoulder. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“I vowed to my mother that I’d marry a ghost,” Babai confessed. “If I hadn’t made that vow, I swear you’re the one I’d marry.”
Kadu turned, her ghostly heart thumping. “My love,” she said. “There’s something I have to tell you...”
All the ghosts said it was the best wedding they’d ever seen.
The humans, even Babai’s mother’s friend Shondhya, said nothing at all. They too busy trying not to gibber.
The final comment came from Kadu, as she snuggled up to her new husband afterwards.
“That was the best fun I’ve ever had,” she said.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017