Once upon a time, in a village in a distant corner of Bunglistan, were a shakchunni called Roshobolla, and her husband, a bhoot named Kalajam.
For many hundreds of years the ghost community had never had a couple quite as much in love with each other as these two. They never quarrelled, never even had a cross word with each other, and most of the time didn’t even want to be out of sight of each other.
“Why can’t you be with me like Kalajam is with Roshobolla?” many a petni or shakchunni would ask her husband.
“Why can’t you be with me like Roshobolla is to Kalajam?” her husband would snap back. “All you do is whine and bicker. I’m sick of it!”
Inevitably, the ghosts of the village began to seethe with resentment at Kalajam and Roshobolla. “That fool Kalajam,” a pret would mutter to a brohmodottyi, as they hung upside down in a tamarind tree to while away the hot hours of daylight. “My wife keeps praising that idiot all the time. If I didn’t know he was besotted with that wife of his I’d have thought she was having an affair with him.”
“Someone has to do something about that Roshobolla,” a shakchunni would whine to her neighbour, a petni, as they sat haunting the spire of the ruined temple behind the village. “I swear, if my husband wasn’t a ghost I’d strangle him to death next time he tries comparing me to her.”
“Yes,” they all agreed, “things can’t be allowed to go on like this. Something has to be done about them.”
Roshobolla and Kalajam didn’t even live near the other ghosts, or mix with them much. They inhabited the thatched roof of a fisherman’s hut on the other side of the village from the ruined temple, near the river. They lived there so quietly, in fact, that the fisherman and his family weren’t even aware of their existence.
“We’ll just have to wait for an opportunity to take revenge on them,” the bhoots and the prets, and the petnis and the shakchunnis, separately told each other. “Someday the chance will come, and then we will have no mercy.”
Now it so happened that the fisherman and his wife had a daughter, whom they loved very dearly. This daughter was growing up to be a fine young woman, gentle and kind to all things, and Kalajam and Roshobolla both had a lot of affection for her, though of course they took care not to frighten her by letting her know of their existence. Her name was Fuljhuri.
One evening, Kalajam and Roshobolla had gone, as was their wont, to sit by the river and watch the stars shining on the water. When they came back home, to their astonishment, they saw Fuljhuri, alone at home, crying as though her heart would break.
“Whatever is wrong with her?” Roshobolla asked. “I’ve never known her to weep before.”
“Something must have happened,” Kalajam replied. “Hopefully she’ll calm down soon. She’s so naturally cheerful that it’s just a matter of time.”
But Fuljhuri kept sobbing bitterly, and Roshobolla couldn’t take it anymore. “If we don’t find out what’s troubling her,” she said, “and put it right, we have no right to live in this house. I’ll go now and talk to her.”
“At least disguise yourself, so she won’t be frightened,” Kalajam urged.
Snatching up an old sari, Roshobolla covered herself with it, pulling the hood low over her features, and, climbing quietly down from the roof, entered by the door.
“I was just passing by,” she said, in her most kindly voice, gently laying her hand on the weeping girl’s shoulder, “when I heard you crying. Why are you weeping so bitterly?”
Fuljhuri looked up, and, through her tears, saw only the blurred shape of someone who seemed to at least be willing to listen to her. “It’s the moneylender,” she said. “Many years ago, my father took a small loan from him to buy his fishing boat and a few nets. And though he’s paid the money back many times over, the moneylender still says we owe him.”
The infamy of this moneylender was so great that even Roshobolla had heard of him. “And why do you cry for that now?” she asked.
“He says we have to give him all the money he says we owe him, right away, or he’ll take our nets and boat and this cottage, and then we’ll starve. Or else...or else, he says, my parents have to give me in marriage to his son.”
“Have your parents agreed to this?”
“They don’t want to,” Fuljhuri said, still crying, “and they’re still pleading with the moneylender. But if they don’t, we’ll all be thrown out, and have no option but to starve to death. So whatever they decide, I’ll have to say yes. I can’t see my parents suffer because of me.”
“So the moneylender wants this wonderful girl to be his son’s wife, does he?” Roshobolla thought grimly to herself. “Well, we’ll see about that.”
“Don’t cry,” she said aloud. “I’ll make sure you don’t have to marry the moneylender’s son. Just stop crying. Please.”
“You will?” Fuljhuri asked wonderingly. “How can you do that? Just who are you?”
“Perhaps someday I’ll tell you,” Roshobolla replied. “Now, wipe away those tears and wash your face. Nothing is going to happen to you.”
With hope trembling in her heart, Fuljhuri went to the big earthen pot in the corner of the hut, rinsed out her eyes, and wiped her face on a thin cotton towel. “Now tell me...” she began, turning.
But the hut was empty. Her visitor was gone.
“You’re crazy,” Kalajam said. “Quite crazy, making promises like that.”
“But I couldn’t let her heart be broken like that,” Roshobolla protested. “She said the moneylender...”
“Yes, I heard her.” Kalajam sat on the thatched roof, his face twisted in concentration. Even the bats that flitted through the evening air gave the hut a wide berth, such was the effect of that scowl. “And you’re perfectly right, of course. Even if Fuljhuri hadn’t been such a wonderful girl, we couldn’t let the moneylender get away with this. But what can we do to keep your promise?”
“Well...shouldn’t we go to the moneylender’s house and see what’s going on there?”
“You’re probably right,” Kalajam conceded. “Do you know where it is?”
“No, but it shouldn’t be hard to find,” Roshobolla told him. “All we have to do is follow the trail of sorrow and weeping.”
The moneylender’s name was Kuberchondro Chottopadhayay, so of course everyone called him Nitai. He lived in a house that was almost as magnificent as that of the regional zamindar, and in fact was only not more magnificent because he didn’t want to arouse the zamindar’s considerable jealousy. When Kalajam and Roshobolla arrived at his window, he was lounging on a bed, reclining on bolsters, and listening to Fuljhuri’s parents with some enjoyment while sucking on a hookah.
“We’ll pay the remaining amount next year, by all means,” Fuljhuri’s father was saying, as the ghosts arrived. “We promise you that we will. Just please give us one more year.”
“So you say,” Nitai laughed. Furruth, went the hookah. “Yet you haven’t paid this loan off in fifteen years. And you want me to believe that you’ll pay it in one?”
“We’ve already paid ten times the amount, and more,” Fuljhuri’s mother burst out. “How can you say we haven’t paid it?”
“You know the interest,” Nitai said indifferently. “You knew it when you took the loan. And you know as well as I do that you’ll never pay it off, not in one year, not in a century.”
“You said our daughter – ”
“Yes, your daughter. A most delectable morsel, as I thought when I saw her yesterday, making garlands by the river. Pity if such a pretty little thing has to starve because of her parents’ foolishness, don’t you think?”
“But, you old fool, I’m giving you a way out.” Furruth. “You’ll never be able to pay off your debt. And though I don’t have any use for your rotting old boat and tattered fishing net, I am not going to be cheated out of what belongs to me. So marry your daughter to my son, and not only does she not starve, you get to keep your hearth and home, and your boat and net too. Well?”
“Isn’t there anything else we can get for you?” the old fisherman said. “Anything at all?”
“What will you get for me?” the moneylender said contemptuously. “I could buy ten of anything you could get for me, with a snap of my fingers.”
“Can we at least have some time to think about it – a few days?” Fuljhuri’s mother asked.
“A few days?” Nitai arched his eyebrows in mock astonishment. “Do you imagine I have days to waste on you? But, just because I’m feeling generous, I’ll give you till this time tomorrow.” Furruth. “Now get out of here, I have work to do even though you obviously don’t.”
As the old people left, holding on to each other in their distress, Roshobolla, normally so peaceable, was roused to fury by all she’d heard. “Let’s go in and wring his neck,” she whispered. “We should do it right now.”
“How do you think that will help?” Kalajam laid a restraining hand on her arm. “He’s certainly going to have records of their debt in his account books, and if his son is anything like him at all...”
As though on cue, Nitai’s son entered the room. He was fat as a pumpkin and oily as a hilsa fish dipped in mustard, and his eyes strayed in different directions when he looked at anything. He belched loudly and scratched his hirsute belly where it bulged over his dhoti. “Where is that beautiful girl you were talking about?”
Nitai looked at him with love in his eyes. “She’ll be here by tomorrow.” Furruth! “You probably should go and get some sleep so you’re nice and fresh for your wedding.”
“You see?” Kalajam whispered, drawing Roshobolla away. “If this son gets hold of the accounts, he’ll be no better than his father in any way. Maybe worse.”
“Then what should we do?” Roshobolla asked. “How can we save Fuljhuri?”
“The only way we can do that is to make the moneylender forgive the debt,” Kalajam said. “Let’s try and think of how we can do that.”
Now, of course, every place in Bunglistan has a resident ghost or two, and therefore the moneylender’s mansion had one as well. This was a petni called Khoimoa, and of all the ghosts in the village, she was the one who hated Kalajam and Roshobolla with the deepest hatred. Khoimoa thought herself the prettiest ghost of any description in all of Bunglistan, and it always rankled her that while even a shakchunni of ordinary looks like Roshobolla should have a devoted and loving husband like Kalajam, she should never have found a mate at all. Over the years this had made her so bitter that even the thought of Roshobolla would send her into a frothing-mouthed fury.
It so happened that Khoimoa was at this moment sitting on the roof of the mansion, and from there she saw Roshobolla and Kalajam talking to each other. She was, of course, seized with her usual jealous fury. But, furthermore, seeing them so far from their usual haunts, she was instantly seized with a suspicion that they had come here for some particular reason.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to take revenge on them,” Khoimoa thought. “Here they are on my territory, and I’m sure I can ruin whatever plans they’re hatching.” Unfortunately, she was too far away to eavesdrop on them, and, being ghosts, they would have seen her if she tried to sneak close enough to listen in on their plotting. So she settled for watching them as closely as she could.
Meanwhile, Kalajam and Roshobolla were busily trying to think of what to do. “Maybe we can find and destroy the records of Fuljhuri’s parents’ debt,” Kalajam suggested.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” his wife scoffed. “Do you have any idea of accounts? Can you go through ledgers and documents looking for a specific one, and even recognise it if you should find it? I assure you that I can’t.”
Kalajam had to admit that this was impossible. “I suppose we will have no option but to let the girl marry that slob,” he concluded mournfully.
“Yes, but...” Roshobolla frowned, as a new idea struck her. “Come to think of it, why shouldn’t she?”
“I don’t understand,” Kalajam said. “Don’t you want to save her from this marriage?”
“Yes, of course, but I’ve got an idea.” Roshobolla drew Kalajam away by the arm. “We need to talk to Fuljhuri about it, though.”
Sitting on the roof, Khoimoa watched them go.
“Let me get this clear,” Fuljhuri said. “You want me to agree to marry the moneylender’s son?”
Roshobolla, who with Kalajam had rushed back to the hut at the speed of the Kalboishakhi wind, pulled down the sari hood, which had threatened to slip back and reveal her features. “You just have to pretend to agree,” she said. “And then, when you’re taken to the moneylender’s house for the marriage, this is what you must do...”
“But are you sure?” Fuljhuri asked, when she had finished. “How do you know that I’ll be able to avoid the marriage afterwards?”
“Well, you can leave that to me,” Roshobolla said firmly. “My husband and I will make sure that you aren’t forced to go through with the marriage.”
“Your husband?” Fuljhuri peered at Roshobolla. “Just who are you, anyway? I’ve never seen you before tonight.”
“We’re...well, we don’t live far away. We’re your well wishers.” From the corner of her eye, Roshobolla saw Kalajam, sitting on the cross-pole supporting the roof of the hut, signalling frantically. “I have to go now,” she said quickly, “but I won’t be far away. Remember what I told you to do.” Turning away before Fuljhuri could say anything more, she left the hut and ducked around the far side, only moments before Fuljhuri’s parents finally arrived after their slow and lamenting walk back from the moneylender’s house.
“Daughter,” Fuljhuri’s mother said, “I’m afraid we couldn’t change the old skinflint’s mind, or warm his stone-cold heart. He’s given us till tomorrow night to agree to marry his son to you.”
“There’s just one thing to do,” Fuljhuri’s father declared. “We must take everything we have, load it into my boat, and sail away down the river, now, tonight. We’ll go somewhere far away and start over again.”
“The boat’s too small to carry the three of us and still have space left over for anything,” Fuljhuri pointed out. “We couldn’t even take the large cooking pot. Even if we did try to flee, we wouldn’t have anything to start over again with.” She snorted. “The moneylender undoubtedly knows that, which is why he gave you till tomorrow night. He knew that we can’t run away.”
“What else can we do then?” Fuljhuri’s mother took a deep breath. “There is nothing left but to drown ourselves in the river, then.”
“Please don’t think of that!” Fuljhuri said hastily. “I’ll marry the moneylender’s son.”
“But why?” her mother wailed. “You know as well as we do that he’ll lead you a hellish life.”
“Something tells me that things won’t turn out to be the way the moneylender imagines.” Fuljhuri took a deep breath. “But before the marriage actually happens, there’s something you must make certain to do...”
Meanwhile, Roshobolla and Kalajam were back on the roof. “That was a near thing,” the shakchunni said. “Another moment and the parents would have seen me, and then the game would have been up.”
“The game will be up anyway,” Kalajam said. “How are we going to get her away without her realising that we’re ghosts?”
Roshobolla shrugged. “To tell you the truth, I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose there’s no way we can stop her from realising. But by then she’ll be safe, which is the main thing.”
“And we’ll have to go away from here,” Kalajam pointed out. “Once she knows we’re ghosts, she’ll be terrified of us, so we’ll have to leave.”
“Yes, that is a sacrifice we’re going to have to make.” Roshobolla sighed heavily. “Still, there’s no other way out. Now let’s go over the plan again...”
Early the next evening, the old fisherman appeared at the moneylender’s house. “My daughter agreed to the wedding,” he announced, with a heavy sigh.
“Good, good.” Nitai drew on his hookah. Furruth! “Bring her over here right away. I’ll call the priest and have the wedding done and over with tonight.”
“Tonight?” the fisherman asked, astonished. “So soon?”
“My son is impatient,” Nitai said. “And it’s not as though your daughter will get any younger or more beautiful if you wait till tomorrow.”
“All right,” Fuljhuri’s father agreed reluctantly. “She will be here in a couple of hours.” Turning away, he left for home to tell his wife and daughter to get ready.
Meanwhile, Kalajam and Roshobolla had spent an anxious day huddled under the thatch of the roof. When they heard what the fisherman had to say to his wife and daughter, they oozed out through a crack and perched on top of the hut, cloaked by the early evening shadows. “We’ll have to move fast,” Kalajam said.
“Yes,” Roshobolla replied. “Have you done anything like this before?”
“Of course not. I wish we had some time to practice, but there’s nothing for it.”
Meanwhile, Fuljhuri had been dressed in the best sari the fisherman’s wife owned, and she pulled the hood of it low over the girl’s face. “It’s not right for you to look at your husband’s face until you’re married,” she said. “Don’t raise your eyes to him.”
“I’m not going to get married,” the girl replied, though her voice sounded increasingly uncertain. “Don’t forget what you’re supposed to do, will you?”
“We won’t,” her father replied, wiping away a tear. “Let us go, then.”
So, accompanied by her parents, the girl set out for the moneylender’s house, unaware that they were being quietly followed by the two ghosts. Once near Nitai’s mansion, the older couple turned to the girl.
“You wait here,” Fuljhuri’s mother said. “We’ll go and talk to the moneylender and make sure everything’s all right.”
“I don’t trust that moneylender,” Kalajam whispered to Roshobolla.
“I don’t either,” his wife replied. “Let’s follow the fisherman and his wife and see what Nitai is up to.”
The fisherman and his wife went to where Nitai was sucking on his hookah while watching the preparations. “My daughter is outside,” Fuljhuri’s father said. “There is just one condition, though, that she insists on.” He drew a deep breath. “Before the marriage is actually solemnised – before, not after – she insists on you formally cancelling our debt and destroying the records.”
“Is that all?” Nitai grinned. “I’ll do that.” Furruth! “Just be sure that she doesn’t imagine she can get away with refusing the marriage afterwards. I’ll have men around to make sure she can’t do anything like that.”
“She’s not going to do anything like that,” Fuljhuri’s mother assured him. “But she insists on the records being destroyed.”
“Very well. Come with me and I’ll find your accounts.” With a final furruth, Nitai waddled towards his pile of ledgers, the fisherman and his wife following timidly. And, crawling along the shadows that lay in the corners of the room, Kalajam and Roshobolla came, too, intent on making certain that the moneylender did what he had promised.
The petni Khoimoa had been watching the wedding preparations with increasing bewilderment. Now, from her perch on the roof, she glimpsed Fuljhuri and her parents coming. She saw them talk briefly, and Fuljhuri waiting under a tree while her parents went inside. Her curiosity aroused, she was about to come down from the roof for a closer look when she saw Kalajam and Roshobolla quietly following the old couple.
“Oho,” Khoimoa said to herself. “So that is their plan, is it? That girl is dressed as a bride, the house is being prepared for a wedding, and they’re hanging around. Obviously, they plan to get the girl married to the moneylender’s son, for whatever reason. Well, we’ll see about that!”
With a final glower in the direction of the house, she jumped from the roof and landed in the tree under which the girl was standing. Startled, Fuljhuri looked up, only to hear a voice snarling down at her from the darkness.
“How dare you come to my territory?” Khoimoa snarled. “Get out of here this instant, or I’ll break your neck!”
Instead of getting out of there, Fuljhuri fainted. On top of the emotional strain of the last couple of days, this was far too much to bear.
Up in the tree, Khoimoa was nonplussed. Instead of running away and wrecking the wedding as expected, the girl had fainted. What was to be done?
The idea came to her in a moment. Quickly swooping down from the tree, she undressed Fuljhuri, putting on her bridal sari. “They want a bride, do they?” she grinned to herself, pulling the sari’s hood down to conceal her features. “They’ll get a bride they won’t expect!”
Hiding the girl’s unconscious body in the shadows behind the tree, she walked a few steps away, just in time to meet Fuljhuri’s mother coming to fetch her.
“There you are,” the old lady said. “Come quickly, they’re ready for you. And,” she said in a low voice, “don’t worry, they’ve agreed to do what you said.”
Khoimoa, of course, had no idea what she was talking about, but followed her without a word. They went into the house, where the priests were getting the final preparations ready.
“So there you are,” Nitai said with satisfaction. “Sit down here. My son will be coming in a minute.” And in a moment Nitai’s son, with a conical white hat perched on his head, waddled into their presence, belching all the way.
“Let’s begin,” the head priest urged. “It’s the auspicious time.”
“The accounts,” Fuljhuri’s father, who had been standing all this while by Nitai’s side, urged. “You remember.”
“Oh, yes, this.” Nitai held up the piece of paper. “It’s a paltry enough sum, of course, but it got me good returns, didn’t it?” With a laugh, he threw the paper in the sacrificial fire. It flared up and withered away in a curl of ash and a puff of smoke.
And it was at that moment that Kalajam and Roshobolla discovered just how their inability to rehearse had crippled them. Their plan had been to swoop in as soon as the accounts were burnt, snatch up Fuljhuri, and rush her off to safety. But there was a problem.
One of the people who had been engaged in preparing the wedding feast had put a pot of mustard oil down just inside the threshold of the entrance of the building. It now stood, silent and malevolent, barring their way inside as surely as a barred door of iron would have to a mere human.
“Kalajam!” Roshobolla whispered. “Whatever shall we do?”
“There must be some other way in,” Kalajam said. “We’ve got to look for the back door.”
Because the mansion, built out of the interest of so many loans, was so huge, this was easier said than done. The two ghosts set off around the side of the building, around irregular corners, squeezing past a scum-encrusted pond, looking for a way in, and getting increasingly frustrated with every passing moment. Finally, at long last, they found one door that was ajar...and, looking in, saw that it led into the kitchen.
With mustard oil, of course, everywhere.
Meanwhile, as soon as the debt had been burnt, the priests had begun with the marriage. They were greedy, the smell of cooking was enticing, and Nitai’s son, who was too fat to sit in one position for long, had bribed them in advance to hurry things along, they quickly went through their repertoire of prayers, all talking together so their voices merged into a babble.
“Now,” the head priest declared, throwing some ghee into the fire, “garland each other, and there you are.”
And so, moments before Kalajam and Roshobolla, having finally found a way in and then having wandered, lost, through the maze of rooms and corridors, finally arrived, Nitai’s son and his blushing bride finished garlanding each other. And, before the two ghosts could do a thing, Nitai’s son pulled back the hood of his new wife’s sari, so that he could see the promised beauty of her face.
Khoimoa thought she was a great beauty. It was not an opinion shared by anyone else in the world of ghosts.
Nitai’s son was dissolute and overweight, with a heart weakened by loads of ghee soaked-food and lack of exercise.
The inevitable happened. Nitai’s son had a fatal heart attack.
In the course of the shouting and confusion that followed, Kalajam and Roshobolla did the first thing they could think of. Grabbing hold of Fuljhuri’s parents, they hustled them out through the mansion and out of the back door they’d found. Before the stunned old couple could react, they found themselves being pushed along homewards as quickly as they could go.
And there, in their path, was Fuljhuri, without her sari, rubbing her face and looking around in confusion. “What happened?” she asked. “What’s going on?”
Roshobolla and Kalajam glanced quickly at each other. Whatever the mystery was, they’d try and solve it later. Leaving the old couple to go to their daughter, they stepped quietly away and melted into the darkness.
“You’re a worthless husband,” Khoimoa said. “Utterly worthless. Nobody deserves a husband as worthless as you.”
Nitai’s son cringed. Ever since he’d become a ghost, he’d been losing weight, until by now he was almost skeletal. But that was no surprise, since his wife didn’t give him a moment’s peace.
“I do the best I can, dear,” he said miserably.
“The best you can!” Khoimoa brimmed over with angry joy. This was so much better than sitting alone on the roof with nothing to do except feel sorry for herself!
“The best you can!” she repeated. “Well, let me tell you...”
Hands comfortably settled on her hips, she started happily on her nagging for the night.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017