Once upon a time, there was, in Bunglistan, a little girl named Tuktuki.
Of course Tuktuki wasn’t her real name – even in Bunglistan, nobody has a formal name like Tuktuki – but it was her nickname, and actually a very, very common nickname for Bunglistani girls.
Now, though there were thousands of Tuktukis, this particular one had something special about her, something that drove her mother to distraction.
“I wish she’d go to sleep,” she would moan to her friends. “I wish she’d just go to sleep!”
This, you understand, was the problem: Tuktuki was a nice, clever, pretty girl, but there was one thing, one thing only, that she wouldn’t do; she wouldn’t go to sleep.
This was a major problem. Tuktuki’s mum couldn’t leave her alone in bed to go out for a chat with her friends, or to the market, secure in the knowledge that she was sound asleep. She’d get up and go wandering around, looking for her parents, and the neighbours would find her and bring her back.
“Your daughter,” they’d say, looking insufferably smug, “was wandering around our yard again. Another ten steps and she’d have fallen into the pond, and then where would you be?”
Or maybe Tuktuki’s mum and dad would be together looking for a little intimate time for themselves, and just as their hands got to wandering over each other, there would be the sound of a child getting out of bed and coming looking for someone to talk to.
It was a mess. And Tuktuki’s mother didn’t like such messes.
“Sleep, why don’t you?” she often demanded, only just resisting the urge to shake her daughter until her teeth rattled. “Just sleep!”
“I don’t want to,” Tuktuki replied. “I can’t fall asleep, and when I do, I keep waking up almost at once.”
So Tuktuki’s dad took her to the village astrologer. The great man, who made a tremendous living from reading horoscopes and selling good luck charms, barely glanced at the girl before handing her a small brass tube on a black string. “Tie it around her arm,” he said, “and she’ll sleep. For sure. Now my fee is...”
Tuktuki’s dad, who wasn’t nearly as interested in her falling asleep as his wife was, went white at the fee, but paid it. And then he took her home, and they waited for her to fall asleep, as the astrologer had guaranteed.
And she did not fall asleep.
So the next day both Tuktuki’s parents accompanied her back to the astrologer. “You said your charm would make her sleep,” her mother said. “And she’s more awake than ever.”
“Let me see her horoscope,” the astrologer said, and mumbled over it for a minute. “It’s as I thought,” he said then, handing the scrap of paper back. “Her Saturn was in the house of Venus, and her Rahu is about to gobble up Ketu, so there’s no way any charm could work. Next, please.”
That evening, Tuktuki’s mum was trying out a new recipe her friend Radhika had given her. The recipe was complicated and involved a lot of ingredients, each to be added in strict order and in precise quantities, so it needed a lot of concentration. Besides, she had an idea that she could cook it better than that self-satisfied twit Radhika ever could, and was thinking of adding one or two things that would seal the deal.
It was just as she discovered that she had no cardamom bark left, and had ordered her husband to rush to the market to buy some, that there was a tiny noise behind her and she found Tuktuki standing there, blinking away.
“Go to bed,” Tuktuki’s mum yelled. “Go to bed and sleep, or I’ll feed you to the rakshasas!”
But Tuktuki wouldn’t go to bed, because she wasn’t a coward and she wasn’t scared of rakshasas. “There are no such things,” she said. “They’re only a fairy tale.”
“I’ll show you,” Tuktuki’s mum grunted, and, seizing her by the arm, dragged her out of the kitchen and behind the house. There was a large plantain grove there, and, taking her deep into it, Tuktuki’s mum tied her to one of the biggest plantains with strips torn from an old sari. “Now stay there,” she said. “Stay there until you decide to sleep like a good girl, or the rakshasa will come and eat you up!”
Now, of course, Tuktuki’s mum didn’t really want her daughter to be eaten by a rakshasa. Like Tuktuki, she knew rakshasas were just the stuff of old wives’ tales, and intended that the girl would get no more than a bad scare. But in this she was totally wrong.
Not only did rakshasas really exist, there was one who actually lived right under the plantain grove, in a cave deep under the earth. Every night he emerged from the cave, yelling, in the approved fashion of rakshasas, “Hau Mau Khau, I want a human now. I’ll tear off his arms and break his head, and I’ll eat him with mustard and bread.” This proved, if any proof was necessary, how depraved he was, because only a rakshasa would be depraved enough to eat something with mustard.
So each night the rakshasa would come out of the ground, look around for anything he could find to eat, and – since by that time everyone was in bed and asleep – stomp off elsewhere looking for prey. And, on the way, because he’d be so hungry, he would take his frustration out on any ghost he happened to meet.
What? This all happened in Bunglistan. Which place in Bunglistan doesn’t teem with ghosts?
The rakshasa, of course, was very unpopular with the ghosts who filled the plantain grove, and they complained to each other bitterly about it. “He grabbed me by the hair tonight,” one would whine, “and yanked it so hard I thought my head would come off.”
“That’s nothing,” another ghost would reply. “Last week he tried to eat me, and if I wasn’t a ghost I’m sure he would have eaten me, too.”
“He’s a bully,” they all agreed. “It’s a pity we can’t do anything about it except try and stay out of his way.”
And tonight there was a human child tied up in the plantain grove – with the rakshasa likely to wake up any moment and come stalking this way!
All the ghosts in the plantain grove huddled together in conference.
“Maybe we should save the kid,” some of them said. “We could untie her and let her go home to mum.”
“Are you daft?” the other ghosts jeered. “Her mum would imagine she untied herself, and bring her right back and tie her up again.”
“If she didn’t punish her in some other way,” the first ghosts replied. “She might do that.”
“Yes, and that other way might be even worse than this,” was the response.
“Well, then,” some ghosts argued, “let the rakshasa eat the girl, and then maybe he’ll be happy and not beat us up quite so much tonight.”
“How’s that supposed to help?” others snapped back. “He’ll be back tomorrow and be twice as angry because there’s no girl for him to eat.”
Among the ghosts, there was a young shakchunni called Bulu, who’d been just watching the others cavil and bicker. Finally she slipped away from the group and went silently to where the human girl was sitting with her back to the plantain, tied in place by the strips of old sari.
Now, Tuktuki was a brave girl, and had not cried at all. Nor, since she didn’t sleep, did darkness hold any terrors for her. And she watched with calm interest as the young shakchunni came up. Though Bulu was clever and pretty, she was also very young and inexperienced, and she sometimes forgot things like keeping the bottoms of her feet in contact with the ground, or the fact that living hair didn’t normally writhe and twitch like snakes, so she was quite an interesting sight.
“Good evening,” Tuktuki said politely. “Are you a ghost?”
“Yes,” Bulu admitted. “I’m a ghost. Please don’t be frightened, and do exactly what I tell you to do.”
“I’m not frightened,” Tuktuki assured her, “but why should I do anything you tell me?”
“Because there’s a rakshasa in this grove, and he’ll wake up any minute, and if he finds you here he’ll eat you, and leave not even a bone.”
Of course, hearing about rakshasas from a ghost made it easier to believe in them than if she’d been told about them by a mere human, so Tuktuki allowed Bulu to untie her. “What are we going to do now?” she asked. “Are you going to take me back to my mother?”
“Not quite yet,” Bulu said grimly. “This rakshasa is an arrant bully, and he needs the lesson of his life. You and I, my dear, are going to give him that lesson. Will you help me?”
“Of course I will,” Tuktuki replied. “What do you want me to do?”
In response, Bulu plucked a few bunches of plantains. “Hold these,” she said, and tied them together so that they looked roughly like a human being. “Help me tie them to the tree,” she said, and with Tuktuki’s help, did so with the sari strips.
“Come with me,” she said, and led Tuktuki to the edge of the plantain grove, where some amorphophallus tubers had been planted. “Help me dig one of these up.”
“What for?” Tuktuki asked, as she began obediently digging with her hands. Soon she’d exposed a tuber half as big as she was.
“We need to flavour the rakshasa’s dinner,” Bulu said with a grin. “Haven’t you ever eaten one of these?”
“No, mum says I’m not old enough.”
“Lucky you. But wait, we won’t need the tuber. Here comes someone who’ll do the job much better. Stay where you are, and be careful not to move suddenly.”
Before Tuktuki could ask what she was talking about, she heard a most extraordinary noise. It was like a kettle boiling and steaming, mixed with a rattling like that of dried palm fronds in a stiff wind. And something the size of a small dog came pushing through the plantains, snuffling about on the ground.
“Father Porcupine,” Bulu said, “you’re just the person I wanted to meet. I want some of your quills.”
The porcupine, of course, didn’t reply, but stopped with surprise at the sound of the ghost’s voice. While he was still looking around with his heavy head, the young shakchunni darted forward and snatched a double handful of quills from his back. “Thank you, Father Porcupine,” she called, and, leading the girl back to the plantain tree she stuck the quills into the dummy, pushing them into it one by one until there were none left.
“All we have to do is wait for the rakshasa to arrive,” she said with a satisfied sigh. “I hope your mum doesn’t suddenly remember you and turn up.”
This didn’t happen for an excellent reason: Tuktuki’s mum was so taken by her recipe, which had turned out to be better than expected, that she quite forgot that she’d tied up her daughter in the plantain grove. She forgot even to mention it to her husband when he got back from the shop, being too busy enjoyably berating him for buying cardamom strips when she’d sent him to buy bay leaves. Though he protested, she simply shouted him down, something at which she was an expert. Then she shoved a plate of food in front of him and crossed her arms across her chest.
“Now eat that and tell me what it’s like,” she said, the look in her eyes daring him to criticise it.
Tuktuki’s dad, who knew that look of old and feared it, swallowed the vile stuff and made noises of weak assent, whereupon his helpmate dug into it with gusto herself. And then she seized him by the arm and dragged him to bed. After a while, they slept.
Meanwhile, Bulu led Tuktuki past the other ghosts, who were still in acrimonious debate about what to do, and found a hiding place from which they could watch the dummy. “Now all we have to do is wait,” she said.
They did not have to wait long. With a roar, the rakshasa emerged from the earth, and stood glaring around.
It was the first time Bulu had seen the rakshasa, and of course Tuktuki had never glimpsed one, so they stared at him in fascination.
He towered above the plantains, his head seeming to reach the sky. He was so broad that the plantation bent and swayed as he came, and the ground shook with every step of his enormous feet. His arms were thick as trees, and rippled with muscle. His head was a block of carved rock, his face dominated by a nose sharp as a scimitar, lips like ridges of stone, and eyes like red glowing fires. His chest was a chiselled slab, his thighs like anvils, his...
...he was, in fact, pretty striking looking, actually.
“Hau Mau Khau,” he shouted, looking around, “I want a human now. I’ll tear off his arms and break his head, and I’ll eat him with mustard and bread.”
“Wait here,” Bulu breathed in Tuktuki’s ear, and strode out quickly from her hiding place.
“You’re in luck, Sir Rakshasa,” she said. “A human has been left in the plantain grove just for you. Come quickly.”
The rakshasa gave her an incredulous look. It was the first time a ghost had ever spoken to him of his or her own accord, let alone given him any good news. And the news this ghost was giving him was hard enough to believe.
“A human?” the rakshasa repeated. “A human is here? You mean it? A human?”
“Yes, and you’d better eat it quickly, before someone comes looking for it.” Bulu pointed to the dummy. “There it is.”
Now, rakshasas, as you may or may not know, don’t really have good eyesight, despite their glowing eyes. They depend on their senses of hearing and smell for most of their hunting, and at that moment the breeze brought to the rakshasa’s nostrils the smell of sweat-soaked sari. Besides, he was very, very hungry.
With a roar of triumph, then, the rakshasa jumped forward, ripped the plantain dummy from its bindings, and stuffed it down his throat. There was a moment of utter silence.
And then the rakshasa began to dance.
It was a rather strange dance. Clutching his throat with both immense hands, the rakshasa began to jump up and down, hooting all the while. He then turned two complete somersaults before crashing down on the ground, still clutching his throat and moaning piteously.
“What’s the matter, Sir Rakshasa?” Bulu inquired solicitously. “Doesn’t the taste of human agree with you? I thought you liked human flesh.”
“Like human flesh?” the rakshasa managed to utter, between groans. “If I’d known human tasted like this I’d never have wanted to have one. It’s tearing me to pieces inside!”
Bulu blinked. “Wait. You didn’t know what human tasted like?”
“Of course I didn’t.” The rakshasa groaned and clawed at his throat. “I never had one before. Do all of them taste like that?”
“Wait,” Bulu repeated. “You say you never tasted human before? Though every night you come around roaring that you’ll break their heads and eat them with bread?”
The rakshasa looked as embarrassed as a moaning rakshasa with a throat filled with porcupine quills can look. “It’s what’s expected,” he mumbled. “Everyone told me when I was growing up that I have to roar about eating human and then gobble them up. But, I’m, actually, you know, a bit of a pacifist, really. I’ve never actually eaten human before this. That’s why I was always so hungry.”
There was a long silence, punctuated only by the rakshasa’s moans. Bulu looked at the rakshasa and Tuktuki looked at them both.
“Sir Rakshasa,” the shakchunni said eventually, “could you sit up and open your mouth wide? I’d like to help you.”
Still moaning, the poor rakshasa sat up and opened his mouth wide, and the shakchunni reached in with her delicate fingers and plucked out the quills one by one. Soon there was a tiny heap of quills on the ground and the rakshasa was blinking in amazement and no longer moaning.
“The pain’s gone!” he marvelled. “It’s really gone! How can I thank you?”
“Well...you could stop beating up the ghosts you meet,” Bulu told him. “We don’t like it very much, you know.”
“I didn’t want to,” the rakshasa said. “They told us, you know, that ghosts would scare away humans and deprive us of prey, so...”
“But you don’t want to hunt human anymore,” Bulu reminded him.
The rakshasa shook with horror. “Hunt human? Never again. Not when they taste like that. You’re right, I’ll never beat up ghosts again.” Slowly, he got to his feet. “But I’m still so hungry. I’m weak with hunger.”
“I don’t know what to...” Bulu began, and changed her mind. “No, I do. Come along.”
With Tuktuki following at a distance, she led the rakshasa to the Amorphophallus patch and pointed to the tuber the girl had dug up. “Try that. Humans like it. At least, some humans like it.”
Doubtfully, the rakshasa picked up the tuber and took a bite. And then a blissful smile crept across his face.
“This is perfect,” he beamed. “It’s like heaven! Why would anyone want to eat human when food like this is there to be had?”
Bulu didn’t reply. She was looking at the smiling rakshasa, and realising that he was actually very handsome, and that he wasn’t evil at all. And the rakshasa, looking back at her, realised that she was actually very pretty. Very pretty indeed, for a ghost, and even the ugliest ghost was far, far ahead in looks compared to the average female of his own species. Besides, she’d saved him from the terrible taste of human, and given him the best food he’d ever had.
There’s no telling how long they’d have stood there drinking each other in, but at that moment Tuktuki put her foot down on a sharp stone and gave an inadvertent cry.
“Who’s that?” the rakshasa rumbled.
“A human,” Bulu said hurriedly. “Remember, you promised.”
“Don’t tell me again,” the rakshasa said, backing away. “Is it safe for me to be near her? She won’t jump into my mouth, will she?”
“No, she won’t,” Bulu assured him. “But I think I should take her home now.”
“I’ll come with you,” the rakshasa said. “Now that I’ve found you, I never want to lose sight of you again, not for a moment.”
“Nor do I want to be away from you,” Bulu said, “but don’t worry, I’ll come right back. It’s just that you’re rather large and conspicuous, and if the humans see you...”
“They could jump into my mouth?” the rakshasa asked, turning as pale as it was possible for a rakshasa to turn.
“Exactly,” Bulu told him. “But if you wait here, I’ll just see the girl back home and come right back. You don’t need to worry about losing me. You see, as much as you love me, I love you.”
Meanwhile, back in the village...
Chhichké Chor was one of the greatest thieves Bunglistan had ever known. More than a thief, he considered himself an artist. Not for him the crude tactics of bandits, who would break down doors, hit people over the head, and tie them up before smashing the place to bits looking for their valuables. No, Chhichké Chor prided himself in stealing things without a drop of bloodshed, and so delicately that he could strip a house bare around the ears of the slumbering family.
His technique never varied. He would always pick a house on the outskirts of a village, so that he wouldn’t risk anyone seeing him at work. Using a scraper, he’d carefully carve a hole at ground level in the earthen wall of the house, big enough to crawl through. And, even though it would have been too dark for most normal people to see anything, Chhichké Chor had trained his eyesight so well that a single ray of reflected starlight, or the flicker of an intruding firefly, was as much to him as broad daylight to another person.
Nor was he so overconfident that he didn’t look to his own safety. Before going on one of his expeditions, Chhichké Chor would always strip down and rub himself all over with mustard oil, from head to foot. This served two excellent purposes. First, it made him extremely slippery, and so almost impossible to hold on to, just in case some inconsiderate homeowner arose at an inconvenient time. Chhichké Chor did not care for inconsiderate homeowners who woke at inconvenient times.
And, of course, the mustard oil made him ghost proof. Chhichké Chor knew all about ghosts, and was well aware that being out and about in the dead of night was asking to have his neck broken for him by some ghost or other. But, naturally, no ghost could bear to contaminate itself with the touch of mustard oil. It was the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone.
Tonight, of all nights, Chhichké Chor had fixed his sights on the home of Tuktuki’s parents. He’d been watching the house for hours. He’d watched as the lamp in the bedroom had flickered and gone out, and listened until the noise of huffing and moaning had given way to a pair of rhythmic snores. Then he’d tested the wall with his scraper...and discovered, to his dismay, that the hard-packed earth was almost impossible to cut away.
Any lesser thief might have given up and gone looking for easier prey, but Chhichké Chor was an artist. To him, the rock-hard earth was a challenge, and he’d come prepared for it. Slipping off to the pond, and ignoring the stilt-limbed fisher ghosts that were wading about, he’d filled a dried gourd full of scummy water. Returning to the house, he poured the water over a patch of wall, waited for it to soften the earth a little, and began scraping. Each time he ran out of water he’d go back and fill more, and the ghosts would give him a wide berth, exactly as he expected.
Finally scraping his hole, he crawled inside, and, to the music of snoring, quickly looted the house. It was an easy house to loot. Tuktuki’s mother was one of those women who liked to gloat over her possessions, and always laid them out where she could see them first thing in the morning and just before turning in for the night; in other words, she always spread her jewels and the heavy silver utensils she’d inherited from her mother on a sheet of cloth by her bedside.
Hardly believing his luck, Chhichké Chor gathered them all up, tied the cloth into a bundle, and, pushing it ahead of him, crawled back out through the hole...
It was at this precise moment that Bulu and Tuktuki arrived.
The shakchunni knew something was wrong at once, by the odour of the hated mustard oil. But even as she paused in mid step, looking around for the source of the evil material, Tuktuki, who’d been skipping a few steps ahead, saw the thief. Breaking away, she rushed on the miscreant just as he was hoisting the sack of loot on his shoulder.
“What are you doing?’ she squeaked, hammering at him with her tiny fists. “Those are my mum’s things!”
“Those were your mum’s things,” Chhichké Chor corrected, with a nasty grin. “They’re all mine now. Now get lost, or...” He raised a hand threateningly.
This was too much for Bulu to tolerate. Despite the mustard oil, she took several steps forward, gritting her teeth all the while. But it was too much. The mustard oil drenched the air, and turned it to fire. It was so strong that she felt her skin begin to blister. Gasping, she staggered back.
“A ghost, I see,” Chhichké Chor said, noticing her, with an even nastier grin. “Well, ghost, go your way and nothing will happen to you. Try and stop me, though, and...”
He never finished.
The rakshasa came out of the plantain grove, a mountain on the move, striding on legs like immense columns. At each step he took the ground shivered, as it would if a boulder came crashing down from the heavens. He raised his arms, and they looked as though he could reach up and rip the moon away. His eyes flared, red stars against the night. He roared, and the roar came echoing down from the sky, and back again.
“You dare,” he shouted, pointing a nail like a spear in the thief’s face. “You dare threaten my beloved. You, a mere human, dare to raise up your smelly little self against the loveliest ghost who ever was. I’m...”
“Don’t eat him!” Bulu shouted urgently. “Remember what they’re like.”
“I’m not going to eat him,” the rakshasa roared, looking round at her. “I’m not going to eat the inedible creature, don’t worry. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to rip him limb from limb. There’s...” he turned back. “Where is he?”
All he saw was the bundle of loot, thrown on the ground, and a frantically racing figure in the far distance.
Tuktuki was, of course, the guest of honour at the wedding. But she wasn’t the only one.
“The first thing I’m going to do,” Bulu assured the guests, “is to teach this husband of mine to obey. I told him not to follow us.”
“And if I hadn’t,” the rakshasa pointed out quite reasonably, “what would have happened?”
“I’ll tell you what,” Tuktuki’s mum said aggressively. “That thief would have got away with all my things, and I’d never have got a night’s peaceful sleep again, that’s what would have happened. And I need my sleep.” She flexed her muscular arms. “I’m only a weak woman, but if I ever get my hands on him, I’ll...”
“Yes, yes,” Bulu said hurriedly, desperately trying to stem the flow. “But it’s really your daughter’s doing, you know. If she’d slept like you wanted her to, we’d never have caught the thief.”
“And she was very brave,” the rakshasa added. “She charged the thief by herself. You should be proud of her.”
“Humpf,” Tuktuki’s mum said. “And what will she do when she grows up, I’d like to know, get a job as the village night watchman?”
“She’ll be fine,” the rakshasa assured her. “My wife and I will be her friends always, and we’ll make sure she never comes to harm.”
“Let’s go in to the feast,” Bulu said. “You all like Amorphophallus, I hope? I’ve cooked it in all kinds of ways. There’s something for everybody.”
“Lead me to it,” Tuktuki’s mum snapped. “I’d like to see who can cook it better than I can.” Snatching up a plateful, she began to shovel the contents into her mouth, disapproving noises leaking out around the margins.
Nobody heard a soft snore from the back of the gathering, or noticed a small figure slide down on to a mattress of bundled plantain leaves.
A piece of half-chewed tuber in her hand, a peaceful smile on her face, Tuktuki was asleep.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017