One day, when Potol Babu was going home from office, his neighbour Keshob Babu called out to him from his window.
Potol Babu’s real and complete name was Nobinchondro Bhottacharjyo. He worked as a head clerk in an accountant’s office. He was very proud of his position, especially so when people asked him for financial advice. Or, at least, he had been very proud of his position until the accountant’s son had taken over the firm. He thought it was for financial advice that Keshob Babu had called out to him now, and that was why he made the bad mistake of waiting to talk.
“Habh you seen the newj?” Keshob Babu asked, through the iron bars on the window. “They are saying a ghost has been seen een the town.”
Potol Babu rubbed his bald head. “Who eej saying thees?” he asked, reasonably enough. “You know eef eet eej een the paypaar eet may be a lie.”
“No, no,” Keshob Babu hastened to assure him. “Eet eej not in the paypaar. Eet eej on the telebheeshon.”
Potol Babu rubbed his bald head a little harder. If it was on the television, that was a different matter. He had total faith in the television, like everyone else in Bunglistan. “Well then, what deed thees ghost do?” he asked.
“Eet was seen near the feesh maarket,” Keshob Babu said. “Peepool going that way saw eet in a tree and told the pulish. They are now haanting eet ebhrywhere.”
“They weel catch eet soon, I theenk,” Potol Babu said. Inwardly, he was quaking. He was terrified of ghosts, and the very thought of a ghost on the loose was enough to send shivers down his spine. He’d always imagined that all the ghosts had been locked up in zoos long ago. Besides, he had planned to visit the fish market afterwards, and buy a kilo of carp. “Ghosts are not going to be able to esskep for long from the pulish.”
“Maybe eet weel come thees way,” said Keshob Babu, with relish. “Eet weel go into saam house and wreeng the necks of ebhryone there.” It was all right for him, because he had a wife and three children. One look at the wife would send any ghost screaming for dear unlife, while the children were even worse. But Potol Babu, whose own wife was enough to terrify a man-eating tiger, was away at her parental house, and wasn’t due back until the day after tomorrow. He’d been looking forward to an evening of peace, quiet and fish curry, but now fish curry was out of the question, and probably peace and quiet as well.
“I theenk I weel go and rest a while,” he muttered, and quickly walked home. As soon as he was inside, even before turning on the light, he slammed the door shut behind him and pushed home all the bolts. Then, wiping the sweat off his forehead, he hunted for the light switches, and walked into his living room.
There was a ghost sitting on the sofa.
Potol Babu stood staring at the ghost, and the ghost sat staring at Potol Babu. And both of them screamed together.
They were still screaming when the telephone rang.
It was an old black telephone with a rotary dial – Potol Babu did not hold with such fancy modern innovations as mobile phones, which, he was convinced, sent bad electricity into people’s ears – and, fortunately, was on a table right next to him. Still screaming, he picked up the phone.
“Bhottacharjyo!” It was his employer, the accountant’s son. His name was Amulyokumar Bishshash, so of course everyone called him Binoy Babu. “Why are you shouting like that? Stop shouting, you are making my ear hurt.”
Potol Babu bit off the scream so sharply he bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood. When he’d finished blinking with pain, he finally managed to reply. “Binoy Babu! There is a ghost here een my house. Eet eej here een thees room weeth me!”
“There are no such theengs as ghosts.” Binoy Babu sounded exasperated. “You are getting too old and too foolish, Bhottacharjyo. That eej the reason I am calling, anyway. Tomorrow, you take your back pay and clear out your theengs from the offish. You are fired!”
“Fired?” Potol Babu was so shocked that for the moment he forgot the ghost. “Baat, Binoy Babu, I habh been working for your faathar for thaarty years.”
“Yes, and that eej the problem. My faathar’s staff eej all old and incompetent. We need young blaaad een thees day and age, no? That eej why I am replacing ebhrybody een the offish. You are faarst, baat I weel sack all the aathars too.”
“Baat...” Potol Babu repeated “Baat, what weel I do for a leeveeng? I am too old to find anothaar job.” But there was no point. His employer had already hung up.
Potol Babu dropped the phone back on its cradle and then, as heavily as the phone, plopped down on the sofa. He plopped so hard that the ghost couldn’t move out of the way in time, and Potol Babu sat down on its tail. The ghost squeaked in pain and terror.
Potol Babu, startled, turned to see what had squeaked, and found himself next to the ghost. For a moment he thought about beginning screaming again, but his head was already spinning so badly from the phone call he thought he might pass out if he began to scream. And then, when he was passed out, the ghost would wring his neck. So he just gulped a little.
It was a horrible ghost. It was black and red and orange, as though it was on fire in patches. It had a huge mouth big enough to bite Potol Babu’s head off, hands like slabs of coal and a head like a charred pumpkin. And, worst of all, of course, it was a ghost.
The ghost opened its huge mouth big enough to bite Potol Babu’s head off, and Potol Babu thought his last hour had come. Which, given that he had no job any longer, was fine with him.
“Pleej don’t call the pulish,” the ghost said. “I weel go right away een a leetle while, baat don’t call the pulish.”
Potol Babu blinked. “What? Aren’t you going to wreeng my neck?”
“Wreeng your neck?” The ghost’s orange and red charred pumpkin face looked horrified. “What a horribol idea! I don’t ebhen know how to wreeng a neck.”
Potol Babu gathered a little courage. “What are you doing here een my house?” he asked.
“Hiding,” the ghost said miserably. “The pulish is saarching for me, so I ran away and looked for a place to hide. Your house was empty and a weendow was open, so I jaamped in from the tree outside. And now you are going to call the pulish and they weel come.”
Potol Babu was horrified by the very idea. “Of course I weel not call the pulish,” he said. “My wife weel be back een two days and she weel say eet ees deesgracefool that the pulish came to the house. The neighbours weel be telling her and then she weel make my life hell. Of course,” he added, “she weel make my life hell anyway.”
“Why?” the ghost asked. “Was eet becauje of whatebhar you were saying on the telephone?”
“Yes,” Potol Babu confessed. “I habh lost my job and I am too old to get anothaar job. My new bosh eej a bad man. Not like heej faathar, who waj a good man, baat he died. Heej saan eej deesmeeseeng all the offish people.”
“That eej bad,” the ghost said sympathetically. “What do you theenk you weel do now?”
“What else can I do?” Potol Babu asked. “All I can do eej go weeth my wife to work een her braathar’s school as a teachaar. And I can’t stand cheeldren.” To his horror, he began to weep. “I may habh to commit sooicide. And then I weel become a ghost.”
“And then pulish weel haant you,” the ghost said, “and you weel be fleeing for your unlife. Like me. You theenk you habh problems? You should see my problems.”
“Well,” Potol Babu asked, irritated at the burden of misery being moved from him, “so what? What can they do to you? You are a ghost.”
“You theenk ghosts can’t be haarmed?” The ghost shuddered so hard that the sofa shook. Potol Babu grabbed hold of the armrest so as not to be shaken off. “Eef you only knew the danger from maastaard oil and gaarleec, you would not say that ghosts habh notheeng to fear.”
“What were you doing out near the feesh maarket, then?” Potol Babu challenged. “Deed you not theenk of the pulish then? Thees ees not the olden dayj, when ghosts could go anywhere. Why were you out where peepool could see you?”
“What was I to do?” the ghost whined. “Eet eej not as though I wanted to be out. Eet eej not as though we ghosts don’t know that theengs are not as they used to be once. Baat I deed not habh a choice. I was thrown out obh the house we were haunting.”
“Thrown out?” Potol Babu blinked. “What? Why?”
“Becauje obh obharpopulation,” the ghost explained miserably. “Eet eej not like before when we could leebh anywhere, when each tree and house was a home for a ghost. Now nowhere eej safe except a few haunted houses, where nobody goes. And so all the ghosts are crowded in there. And we are all getting angry weeth each aathar and fighting all the time.”
“And they threw you out becauje you were fighting?” Potol Babu asked.
“No,” the ghost confessed. “I am too cowardly to fight. They threw me out becauje...becauje...”
“Yes?” Potol Babu was fascinated. He had never imagined the unlifes of ghosts had this particular kind of drama. “Why deed they throw you out?”
“Becauje one new ghost came to the haunted house,” the ghost said. “And thees waj a bhery bhery beeg and strong ghost. I theenk een olden dayj he would habh been a zamindar, or a bandeet. He eej as beeg as a palm tree and haj teeth like radishes and ears like weenowing baskets. The aathar ghosts tried to throw heem out, and he began to fight them, aanteel they agreed that he could stay. Baat to accommodate heem, they had to make space, so they threw out two of aas.”
“Two? Why two? There waj only one of heem.”
“Becauje he eej twice as beeg as any aathar ghost, so to make space for heem they had to throw out two. One was the ghost who had arrived last. He died jaast one maanth ago. The aathar waj me, becauje I could not fight them to keep from being thrown out.” The ghost began to make horrible retching sounds. “And now I am a refoojee, being haanted like saamtheeng eevil.”
Potol Babu realised that the retching noise was meant to be sobbing. Instinctively he reached out to touch the ghost, and flinched back at the last possible moment. The ghost noticed, of course.
“See,” it said triumphantly. “Even you habh no real seempathy for me. You theenk I, an honourable bhoot, am beneath you. You don’t waant to taach me.”
“No, no,” Potol Babu said hastily. “Eet eej not that I am against you.”
“Then weel you let me stay in your house?” the ghost asked hopefully.
“How can I do that?” Potol Babu asked reasonably. “I am habhing my problems too.”
“Yes, your job. Baat whaat eej there to be daan about eet? Nothing, jaast like there eej nothing to be daan about me being weethout a house to go to. Me, and the aathar ghost who waj thrown out. Poor fellow maast be roameeng around saamwhere and weel be haanted too.”
“Yes, the aathar ghost,” Potol Babu said automatically. His mind was back on his lost job, and he was getting more despondent by the minute. If only Binoy Babu’s father had not died, none of this would have happened. Binoy Babu’s father had been a nice man, just and fair, who couldn’t stand his own son, and who had seemed to be in the best of health and all set to live many more years – until he’d been run over by a tram a month ago. Just a month ago, Potol Babu thought bitterly, his future had seemed secure and bright. And now...all of a sudden, something occurred to him.
“Wait, wait,” he said, interrupting the ghost, who was still going on with its litany of complaints. “You say thees ghost who waj thrown out weeth you only arrived one maanth ago? Who eej he?”
“Heej name eej Obonindrokumar Bishshash,” the ghost replied peevishly. “Whay, what daaj eet matter who he waj? He eej homeless now, like me.”
“I knew eet,” Potol Babu said. “He eej the ghost obh my old bosh. Eef only he waj steel alive...” He stopped. His mouth fell open. His eyes glazed over. He seemed to have stopped breathing. The ghost grew concerned.
“Heeyar,” it said. “Don’t die, or you weel be a ghost also, and there weel be three of aas trying to esskep the pulish, not jaast two.”
Potol Babu didn’t even hear it. He was getting the idea...or rather the Idea...or even the IDEA...of his life. Ideas did not come to him naturally or often, and his brain had ceased all other functions as it contemplated this one. At last, driven by the need to breathe – and to blink – he came back to himself.
“Look, ghost,” he said. “Do you know wheyar thees Obonindrokumar Bishshash eej hiding?”
“No,” the ghost said. “Baat I theenk I can find heem weethout deefeecaalty. He maast be saamwhere neaar the old haunted house. He doj not habh enough experience of being a ghost to wander far away from eet. Why do you waant heem?”
“Becauje...” Potol Babu summoned up all his cunning. It was even harder than working an IDEA, so it took effort. The ghost looked curiously at the drops of sweat rolling down his bald head. “Look, ghost, you can’t stay heeyar, right?”
“Jaast for a few dayj,” the ghost said wheedlingly. “Een a few dayj the pulish weel habh forgotten about me and I can go away.”
“A few dayj!” Potol Babu snorted. “The day aftaar tomorrow my wife weel be caming back from haar parents’ house, and then you weel be raaning fastaar from haar than from the pulish.” He got up, went to the shelf, and picked up a photograph in a frame. “Thees ees a picture obh haar. When she eej not at home I keep the photo taarned away, so aj not to spoil my mood. Look!”
The ghost looked, and an instant later, as though by magic, it was on the far side of the room. It had also gone so pale with fear that it was now pink and grey. “Pleej,” it begged, “protect me from that horribol monstaar. I weel do anytheeng you waant.”
Potol Babu didn’t resent his wife being called a horrible monster. It was nothing more than, as he acknowledged to himself, the truth. “So not only weel you be raaning away in two dayj,” he said, “baat you weel habh nowhere to go. Even eef you could stay longaar you would steel habh nowhere to go. Right?”
“Right,” the poor ghost agreed. “Whaat can I do?”
“I weel find you a place to stay,” Potol Babu said. “Eet eej more than large enough for two ghosts. You and thees Obonindrokumar Bishshash. You breeng heem heeyar and I weel tell you what to do.”
“Really?” the ghost asked, the dawning hope making it flush pink, like the morning sun. It was glowing so bright a pink that the room began to look like the set of the only porn film Potol Babu had ever seen in his life. It brought a blush to his face as bright as the pink of the ghost, so that the room looked more like the porn set than ever. “I weel go and look for heem right away.”
“Be careful of the pulish,” Potol Babu said, but the ghost had already disappeared.
With a sigh of his own dawning hope, Potol Babu got his shopping bag and went out to buy some fish for his dinner.
The next morning Potol Babu went to work as usual. Without surprise, he noticed that Binoy Babu was late coming to work.
“Maybe he eej seek,” one of the other clerks said.
“Maybe,” Potol Babu suggested nonchalantly, “he had veeseetors who kept heem awake all night.”
“Veeseetors?” the other clerk scoffed. “You are getting stupeed een your old age, Potol Babu. Who gets veeseetors who keep them awake all night?”
Potol Babu shrugged. “Eet waj jaast saamtheeng I thought,” he said.
Binoy Babu stumbled in just after noon. He looked horrible. He was unshaven, his eyes were bloodshot and his hair was stuck up in spikes all over his head. He looked around and finally focussed on Potol Babu.
“Bhottacharjyo,” he said. “I habh been theenkeeng about that phone call I made to you laast night. I habh decided to forget about the matter.”
“Yes?” Potol Babu said. “That eej nice, saar.”
“More than that,” Binoy Babu gulped, “I habh decided to eencreese your salary weeth eemediate effect. Een fact, I weel daable eet.”
“Thank you bhery maach, saar,” Potol Babu said.
As Binoy Babu turned, tottering, to go to his cubicle, Potol Babu glanced at the corner of the office. Above the row of bookcases stuffed with ledgers, he caught a glimpse of something dull orange, and, beside it, another something that was black as midnight, except for a white flash of grinning teeth.
Then he turned back to his work, and when he looked again, the black thing and the orange thing had retreated into the shadows, out of view.
Potol Babu’s wife returned the next day. After stamping around the house like a rogue elephant, as was her wont, she turned on Potol Babu.
“What habh you been doing when I waj away?” she demanded. “Waatcheeng more obh those feelthy foreign feelms weeth naked women?”
“No, no,” Potol Babu protested. “I deed notheeng like that. I ebhen habh saam nice feesh caary for you. And the bosh haj eencreesed my salary.”
Potol Babu’s wife grunted, like a rogue elephant that has just found a bale of succulent grass. Potol Babu began to breathe easier, hoping the crisis had passed. He hoped too soon.
He found that out when his wife wandered into the living room. “What eej thees?” he heard her scream. “Why eej my photo taarned backwards on the shelf?”
Potol Babu sighed. Maybe he should commit suicide after all, he thought.
At least, as a ghost, he knew where he could go.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017