“Pintu,” Pintu’s mother said, “you come here and sit down and study this instant, or the ghosts will come and wring your neck.”
Pintu, who had been playing with the shadow his hand threw on the wall, came reluctantly over to the mat spread on the floor and picked up his squeaky slate and chalk. “And mind you make your letters properly!” his mother warned, shaking her hand at him. “Or the ghost will...”
“Mum,” Pintu asked desperately, “will the ghost really wring my neck?”
“Of course he will,” Pintu’s mother said, sensing victory. “Everyone knows that ghosts wring the necks of boys who don’t make their letters properly. Ask your school-master if you don’t believe me.”
“Where is the ghost?” Pintu challenged.
For a moment his mother thought her victory was slipping away from her, and then smiled craftily. “Don’t you know?” she asked, pointing up to the cross-beam below the thatched roof of the hut. “There’s one, a bhoot, right there, watching you right now. He’s ready to jump down on you and wring your neck if you don’t do your lessons.”
“Is that so?” Pintu stared up at the cross-beam, but the lantern’s flickering light did not reach up that far. “What’s he like?”
“What do you mean what’s he like? He’s – he’s black as midnight, and has eyes like burning coals and teeth like spikes, and he has long knobbly fingers to wring necks with. What else would a bhoot be like?”
Pintu turned as white as his mud-coloured complexion permitted, and got down to making his letters on the slate with his squeaking chalk. His mother, happy to have frightened her son into obedience, retreated to the kitchen.
Now, of course, she should never have said such a thing, because this was Bunglistan, and there was a ghost on the top of the crossbeam, who had been listening to all this. What was more, it was a bhoot, and he was black as midnight and had eyes like burning coals and teeth like spikes, and his fingers...
“Well, I never!” the bhoot said to himself. “This is a canard! I’ve never wrung anyone’s neck, or had the remotest desire to wring anyone’s neck, and these humans are accusing me of plotting it. And, more than that, they’re accusing all bhoots of wanting to wring necks. I must go to the Ghost Council and ask for justice!”
So, like one of the puffs of sooty smoke from the lantern, the bhoot slipped up to the thatched roof, oozed through it, and climbed down outside the hut. Then, running with the speed of the wind, he ran to the Ghost Council, which was meeting in the giant banyan tree next to the ruined temple on the far side of the scummy pond beyond the tamarind grove on the far side of the village.
At this time of night, of course, no human – not even a bandit – in his right mind would venture near a Bunglistani tamarind grove, let alone a banyan tree or a ruined temple. And tonight being the new moon, when even the reclusive Brohmodottyi ghosts came out of their lairs and the Mamdo bhoots crawled out of their graves, the night was full of spirits.
“Ouch!” said a pret, rubbing his shoulder angrily, where the hurrying bhoot had collided with him. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going, Roktolochon Goshshami? Or do you want me to butt you with my horns?”
The bhoot, Roktolochon Goshshami, looked apprehensively at the enormous curving horns that adorned the head of the pret. “I’m sorry, Porolokchondro Shutrodhor, but I have an urgent complaint to make to the Ghost Council. Humans have accused us, in my hearing, of plotting to wring kids’ necks!”
“You too?” The pret blinked. “I was just on my way there. I was passing the hut of Nimai the Drunkard, and his wife was screaming her throat out at him telling him that if he had another drop of mohua liquor ever again she’d lock him out and the ghosts would wring his neck.”
This was clearly a very serious situation. Ghosts had nothing but their reputations, and they were proud of their reputations. If they inflicted violence on humans, they’d do it for some actual and pressing cause, not because some delinquent child forgot his letters or a drunkard had a spat with his wife. “Let us go and lay the case before the Council,” the two ghosts decided.
The Ghost Council listened to the two ghosts with concern. “Clearly,” the Chief of the Council, a petni – ghosts do not discriminate by gender, unlike humans – said, “this canard has to be torn out by the roots.”
Her chief opponent on the Council, a shakchunni, objected vigorously. “Why should we oppose this?” she asked. “Isn’t it a good thing if the humans fear us?”
“If they fear us for every little thing,” the petni explained, “then each time they do something they think they should fear us for – like not doing their letters, or fighting with their wives – and get away with it, they’re going to start thinking they can get away with anything. And then soon they won’t fear us at all.”
“Or else,” another of the Council members, a fishing ghost said, poking out his immensely long limbs to get them into a more comfortable position, “we’d have to wring their necks each time they do anything, and that would never do. We’d have time for nothing else.”
“Right,” the Council Chief said. She turned her fearsome glowing eyes on the bhoot. “You, Roktolochon Goshshami – you’re the one who brought this to our attention first, so you’re the one who will do something about it.”
“It’s a great honour,” the fishing ghost said quickly, with a sigh of relief that he wasn’t being included in the mission.
“So that’s decided,” the Council Chief said. “Go right now and begin.”
“But what can I do?” the poor bhoot howled, as loudly as though he was still alive and had a toothache. “How can I make the humans understand that we’re only going to wring their necks if they really do something to deserve it?”
“Don’t bother me with questions,” the petni said, correctly guessing that her rival the shakchunni would start poking holes in any suggestion she made. “You’ll figure something out. But maybe you should have help.” She glared at the pret, who had been trying to ooze silently away. “You go with him, Porolokchondro Shutrodhor.”
And, ignoring the pret’s despairing bleating, she returned to the other matters before the Ghost Council. There was only the rest of eternity, and far too much work to be done.
Thrown out of the presence of the Ghost Council, the bhoot and the pret retired to the ruined temple to plan their next move.
“Maybe,” the bhoot suggested, “we should go to the market place and tell everyone that we don’t wring people’s necks for small things. Do you suppose that will work?”
“Have you gone insane, Roktolochon Goshshami?” the pret snorted. “I’ve never heard such a stupid idea in my unlife. Do you think all those people in the market will sit still to listen to us? What do you suppose they’ll do when we jump down among the fish stalls?”
The bhoot was reluctantly compelled to acknowledge that the pret had a point. “You’re right. Besides, the market is closed at this time of night. Perhaps...” He had a sudden idea. “Perhaps we should go to the zamindar and tell him. His word is law in this village, so if he announces what we told him, everyone will listen.”
The pret looked as though he was, with difficulty, holding back from goring the bhoot with his curling horns. “Roktolochon Goshshami,” he said finally, “this zamindar is the worst tyrant among all the zamindars in Bunglistan. He takes pride in the fact and goes out of his way to refine his cruelty. If we tell him that we won’t wring necks for small offences, what do you think he’ll do?”
The poor bhoot scratched his head. “I see what you mean. He’s more likely to tell them that we told him that we’ll wring necks for even the tiniest offence, especially against the zamindar’s own word. So what is to be done? If only...” he was struck by another idea. “if only,” he said, “there was someone whose word the zamindar would obey. Is there someone he’s scared of?”
“Well...” The pret rubbed his horns in thought. “Maybe we could go to the zamindar’s mansion and spy on him. Let’s go.”
“Yes, let’s,” the bhoot said. “We’d better hurry, or he’ll have gone to sleep. There’s no time to lose.”
So the two of them ran and leapt through the village, jostling aside other ghosts they met on the way, until at last they came to the zamindar’s mansion. Its walls were thick and the windows set with heavy iron bars, but of course these were no obstacle to a pair of ghosts. They crawled in through one of the windows, found themselves in a passage, and at once heard an immense shouting from behind a door opposite.
“How dare you eat all the fish?” a feminine voice was shrieking. At least, it was probably a feminine voice, but neither ghost had heard even a shakchunni with laryngitis produce quite those tones. If they’d been alive they’d have turned white. “You know I like fish, you know I was waiting to eat the fish, and now it’s all gone!”
“I only ate one, dear,” mumbled a male voice. The two ghosts could hardly recognise it as the voice of the zamindar. His usual booming had faded to a meek murmur. “There were ten fish, I ate one, and you ate the other nine.”
“Just nine fish,” the female voice screeched. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, leaving only nine fish for your wife? Go right now and get me more fish, do you hear?”
“But...but...” the zamindar stammered. “The fish market is closed at this hour, my dear. Can’t you wait till morning?”
“I don’t care if the fish market is closed. Go and fish in one of the ponds if you have to, but get me fish. Or I’ll tear your ears out by the roots.”
This was evidently not an idle threat. The door opened, and the zamindar, shaking like a tree in a gale, his moustache drooping and sweat rolling down his face, emerged. “I’ll go and see...” he began, wiping his face with one plump hand, the fingers of which twinkled with jewelled rings.
“No go and see about it,” his helpmeet squalled. The ghosts got ready to flee, in case she should follow her husband out through the door, but fortunately she didn’t. “Either you come back with a fish, or you stay out the night, and if the ghosts wring your neck, see if I care.”
“Again this wringing neck business,” the pret whispered to the bhoot. “We didn’t wring his neck despite him oppressing the entire village all these years, so why should we wring his neck now?”
The bhoot clutched his arm so tight that his claws dug into the pret’s ghostly skin. “Don’t be a fool, Porolokchondro Shutrodhor. This is our golden chance!”
Without giving the pret a chance to protest, he dragged him out through the window and back down the wall. By the time the zamindar, shaking with fear, had emerged from his mansion, they were waiting for him.
“Hey, zamindar,” the bhoot said, quite quietly, but the zamindar jumped as though he’d been stabbed. “No, don’t turn around, you don’t want to see what we look like.”
“That’s right,” the pret said, anxious to get a word in. “Trust us, you don’t.”
“Now don’t gibber in terror,” the bhoot advised, kindly. “We’ve been listening to your wife – ”
“We didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” the pret said anxiously. “We couldn’t help overhearing. Her voice – ”
“Never mind her voice,” the bhoot said firmly. “You want a fish, zamindar. We will get you a fish.”
“As many fish as you want,” the pret said, finally catching on. “You just need to name a number.”
“And in return,” the bhoot said, “we want you to tell the whole village that they aren’t to threaten each other with having their necks wrung by ghosts for every little thing. Agreed?”
The zamindar, who had been standing frozen in terror, finally found the strength to nod. “Excellent!” the bhoot said. “I’ll go and get your fish. My colleague here will keep you company, so that you don’t wander off and come to harm. Wait.”
Leaving the pret to keep an eye on the zamindar, the bhoot raced off through the village, until he arrived at the scummy pond near the Ghost Council’s meeting tree. The Council was still in session, but many of the younger fisher ghosts had grown bored of the proceedings and wandered back to the water. The bhoot approached one of them.
“Shombhuchoron Majhi,” the bhoot said, grabbing hold of one of these fisher ghosts by the arm. The arm was so long and thin that his hand slid down as though on a wet rod, until it came to one of the fisher ghost’s knobby joints. “I want a fish. You will get me a fish.”
“Is that so?” the fisher ghost asked. “And what will you give me in return?”
The bhoot blinked, and then remembered the sight of the zamindar’s hand wiping off his sweat. “I’ll get you a ring off the zamindar’s finger,” he said. “Now get me a fish.”
“All right. A thick ring, remember, with a stone.” The fisher ghost waded into the pond, fumbled around with his hands, and soon returned with a large carp. “I’ll be waiting for the ring,” he began. “What kind of stone...” But the bhoot had already departed, the carp clutched to his bosom. In a few moments he was back at the zamindar’s door.
“I’ve got the fish,” he said. “But before I give it to you, I want one of your rings.”
“My rings? But...”
“Or else you don’t get the fish, and your wife...”
The zamindar quailed at the thought of his wife. “You can have a ring,” he said. “Give me the fish.”
“All right. Put the ring down on the ground, and I’ll throw the fish where you can see it.” As the zamindar rushed to pick up the fish, the bhoot picked up the ring. “Now, here is the other thing we want you to do, in return for this service.”
“Or we’ll wring your neck,” the pret said helpfully.
The bhoot darted a baleful glare in his direction. “We will wring nobody’s neck as long as you do as you’re told,” he said. And, in a few short words, he informed the zamindar what he was to do.
“Yes, yes, of course,” the zamindar said in joyful relief, for he had feared that he would be ordered to stop oppressing the village. “I’ll tell them that.” He felt such an outpouring of happiness that he almost forgot himself and turned to the ghosts. “Maybe you could come to dinner? My wife cooks fish quite perfectly, fried with mustard oil...”
At the mention of the dreaded stuff the two ghosts quailed. “No, no,” the bhoot said. “Don’t bother. We’ll be fine.”
“We’re going now,” the pret added. “Don’t forget your promise. Or we’ll come and wring your neck.”
“I will,” the zamindar said. “I will.” And he went back home, the huge carp in his hands.
His wife glared at him. “Back already? What could you have got in only a few minutes, a tadpole?” And then she saw the fish.
His wife glared at him. “Back already? What could you have got in only a few minutes, a tadpole?” And then she saw the fish.
“Not bad,” she said grudgingly. “But if you could get such a big fish in such a short time, you can certainly get more. Go and get more right now, or I’ll tear your ears out by the roots.”
The zamindar came out of the mansion and looked around. “Ghosts?” he called. “Ghosts? I need your help again, urgently. Ghosts?”
But the bhoot and pret were long gone. At that moment they were reporting success to the Ghost Council.
“Ghosts?” the zamindar bleated plaintively. “I need more fish, or I won’t survive the night, and then I can’t do what you ordered me to. Ghosts?”
He was perfectly right. He didn’t survive the night.
A fisher ghost, trying to help him catch a fish, accidentally drowned him.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017