Once upon a time, far away in the land of Bunglistan, there was a village by the name of Bhoylagey. This village was ruled by a zamindar, as cruel as he was rapacious, as greedy as he was fat, and as arrogant as the day was long. It would be superfluous to name him here, for he was nothing if not a zamindar, the very essence of zamindarhood.
This zamindar had a daughter, vain and spoilt, but pretty as the fireflies that flitted in thousands through the bushes of an evening. The fame of this daughter’s beauty had spread far and wide, and many were the suitors who sent marriage proposals through the matchmakers, but the zamindar decided that none of them was good enough for his daughter. So, though she was already fourteen years old, she was still unmarried, to the horror of her mother and her aunts and other female relatives. But the zamindar’s word was law, and nobody dared protest.
Among the village youth was a young man who was also famed throughout the land for his courage and physical prowess, for his fearlessness and his good looks. His name was Shoummojjyotee Mukhopadhyay, so naturally he was known to everyone as Bhombol. Though brave, handsome and brilliant, he was, alas, impecunious, and lived alone in a small hut since his parents had long ago passed into the Great Hereafter.
Bhombol had long since decided that he wanted the zamindar’s daughter for his wife – not only for her beauty, if truth be told, but for a portion of her wealth. He’d been poor too long to be willing to remain poor much longer. But the zamindar’s daughter apparently didn’t even know he existed, so there was nothing he could do about that.
Now Bunglistan was a nation where ghosts abounded. Each grove of trees, each lonely, cholera-depopulated village, each broken-down, forgotten temple, had its own resident population of spirits. So many of them were there, indeed, that they had their evolved their own distinct races and classes, until they could hardly be said to belong to the same species. And the people knew this, and lived in a state of perpetual fear, so much so that they didn’t even mention the ghosts – one never knew when one was listening, and to take its name was to invite it to drop in, perhaps literally on one’s head.
Not far from the village of Bhoylagey was a forest, in the heart of which was a little pond, on the banks of which grew palm trees, banyans, and a tamarind or two. Of course, as any Bunglee knew from childhood, such a spot was to be avoided at all costs. Banyans and tamarinds were the favourite hangout of ghosts – one could never find one without a spirit or two in attendance, and a pond full of fish would attract fishing ghosts too. They would be walking on the water of a night, feeling for fishes with their immensely long arms, their white fangs flashing, and to see them was to go mad and drown oneself – and then one was a ghost as well.
Nobody from the village, therefore, ever visited the pond, except for Bhombol. Because he was so brave, every morning, just at dawn, he would walk to the pond to bathe in its (if truth be told) rather scummy green water, and return refreshed to start his day.
What he didn’t know was that there was always someone watching.
The shakchunni had been born to a petni, wife to a brohmodottyi who lived in a banyan tree on the far side of the forest. She had long since left the banyan to take up residence in the big tamarind that grew near the pond, and every dawn she would watch the handsome young man come along, strip naked, and wash himself all over. And the sight would make her burn with frustration, until she could scarcely keep from grinding her teeth with the force of her desire.
The shakchunni’s tragedy was that although she was an intensely physically passionate ghost, she had no way to satisfy her sexual needs. For one thing, she was comely for a shakchunni, so much so that she felt she deserved more than the usual run of bhoots and prets from whom to choose a husband. For another thing, she had fallen hard for the man, not the least when she had first seen him in all his naked glory. Even the best-endowed pret had nothing on him.
So the shakchunni yearned and moaned to herself, and satisfied herself as best she could, until her tender parts were sore and tingling, and this made her burn even more with desire. And just as she finally decided things could no longer go on like this, she had an unexpected visitor.
It was her mother, the petni, whom she hadn’t seen in years. The older ghost made herself comfortable on a branch of the tamarind and came straight to the point.
“Your father and I,” she said, “have decided it’s time you married. We want little grandghosts to brighten up our lives.”
“But –“ the shakchunni began, but the petni cut her off. It was this habit of her mother’s that had finally driven the shakchunni to leave the banyan in the first place. The petni never let anyone get a word in edgewise. It was only because her husband, the brohmodottyi, never said anything that they managed to live together without fighting all the time.
“Your father and I have decided,” she said, “that you will marry the bhoot who lives in the ruined palace on the far side of the forest. You know him?”
The shakchunni did. The bhoot was tall as a palm tree, with limbs like pillars, red eyes like burning coals, ears like winnowing baskets and teeth like radishes. He was so ugly that she shrank from the very idea of marrying him, but she didn’t even get a chance to open her mouth to say no.
“He is a good, kind ghost,” her mother went on. “Besides, we have already talked to the Brahmin priest ghost who used to live at the old temple until it collapsed completely. He’s checked your horrorscopes, yours and the bhoot’s, and says that they match.”
“You’ll get married next month, on the new moon night, on the occasion of Amavasya. Your father and I will be organising the feast and getting everything ready for the occasion. You had better prepare yourself as well. We expect you haven’t forgotten how to cook and clean for your husband? I taught you all that well enough.” Without waiting for an answer, the petni left in a swirl of wind and starlight.
A very disturbed shakchunni spent the night tossing and turning in the tamarind tree, until the fishing ghosts left the fishes alone and retreated, cursing, to their holes in the bank. Only as the dawn broke and she watched the naked Bhombol – the precious object between his legs and all – washing himself in the scummy green water that she had an idea.
That night, as soon as it was properly dark, the shakchunni climbed down from the tamarind tree and went to the village. She moved as stealthily as she could, so that nobody could see her, and went straight to the zamindar’s immense mansion. With only a little peering through windows, she located the room of the zamindar’s beauteous daughter, and watched as that young lady undressed and retired to bed.
Once she was sure that that girl was fast asleep, the shakchunni entered the room through the window, and from the cupboard removed the best, most ornately decorated of the saris she could find, as well as a set of gold jewellery. She then went right back to the pond, and set about dressing herself by her reflection in the water. Although she had of course, never worn clothes before, let alone jewellery, she managed it somehow, and sat down by the edge of the water, the sari pulled far down over her face until it hung like a hood past her chin, and waited for the dawn. And as soon as she saw Bhombol coming in the distance, she put her face in her hands and began sobbing piteously.
Bhombol was astonished to see the zamindar’s daughter, in her famous ornate sari, sobbing by the side of the pond, the equally famous jewellery adorning her hands and feet.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, coming up to her. “Don’t you know this is not a good place? There are ghosts hereabouts.”
The shakchunni covertly pressed her fingertips hard against the sides of her throat, to deepen her voice until it could pass for that of a human woman. "I’ve come here to drown myself,” she said. “Or perhaps if the ghosts find me, they can eat me. I don't care what happens to me anymore. Nobody loves me, nobody."
So Bhombol sat down on the bank by her side and put his arm round her shoulder. "Don't say that," he said. "I'm here, aren't I? You have nothing to fear."
The shakchunni unobtrusively snuggled closer to him while pretending to draw away. "You’re like all the other men,” she told him. “You’ll do nothing for me. If you would do something though – if you have the courage to keep your word...but of course you won’t."
"I'm the strongest man in the village," Bhombol retorted. "Nobody has ever gone away disappointed who ever sought my help. So if you want me to do something, name it, and I will."
“Marry me, then,” the shakchunni said. “Marry me, because I love you, and nobody else will do.”
“Marry you?” Bhombol asked in wonder. “Of course I will marry you.” He hesitated. “But what will your father think of it, I wonder?”
The shakchunni thought of her father, the brohmodottyi who hadn’t opened his mouth once in decades. “I don’t think he’ll say anything,” she told him. “In fact, I’m pretty certain he won’t.”
“Good, that’s fine then.” Bhombol still sounded a little unsure. “So...when are we getting married?”
“Tonight,” the shakchunni said. “Come here at midnight. We’ll marry right here, by the side of this pond.”
"Here?" Bhombol was amazed. "With all the ghosts? And no ceremony? Are you feeling all right?"
"You want to marry me or don't you?" The shakchunni was having a difficult time keeping her voice low and throaty and began coughing violently. “Of course,” she said when she’d recovered, “if a brave hero like you is frightened off by ghosts, I’ll just have to look elsewhere.”
Bhombol had a vision of the zamindar’s riches, almost within his grasp, begin to recede. “I’ll marry you,” he said hastily. “It’s just that...”
"If you are the man you claim to be,” the shakchunni snapped, “you’ll come here tonight. Alone. And after we marry, you and I will go together to my mother and father and I’ll present you to them as their son-in-law."
“I’ll be there,” Bhombol promised. “Don’t worry.”
“And remember,” the shakchunni said, rising, “not a word to anyone.”
So Bhombol bathed and returned to the village to prepare for his coming wedding. He oiled his hair, put on a clean dhoti, and went to the barber for a shave. On the way back from the barber’s establishment, he took the long way around so he returned along the lane that led past the zamindar’s mansion. Eager to catch a glimpse of his beloved, he walked past it and back again, peering up at the windows. Each time he saw a curtain twitch, he would stand and stare up at it, willing it to rise and reveal his beloved.
The zamindar’s daughter had seen him. She hadn’t the faintest idea who he was, but she was in a temper, and the sight of some unknown lout glaring up at her window didn’t improve it any. Summoning her servants, she ordered them to fetch the guards and pikemen and throw the lout into the main street.
Bhombol picked himself out of the dust, spat the grit out of his mouth, and stalked off, muttering angrily at the perfidy of the zamindar’s daughter, who had led him on like this only to make a laughing stock of him. Just wait – if he ever got his hands on her again, he’d...
Meanwhile, the shakchunni had been busy. She’d gone around to her friends, telling them of the wonderful news of her upcoming nuptials, getting hold of the Brahmin priest ghost, and making arrangements of her own for an impromptu feast. She was so busy that she hadn’t even had time to remove the sari or the jewellery. She had to get married before her parents got to know – once she presented them with the fait accompli, there was damn all they could do about it. She swore her friends to silence, which meant, of course, that they immediately gossiped about it. Soon enough the marriage was the talk of the forest. The only ones who hadn’t heard of it were the shakchunni’s parents: the brohmodottyi since he never said anything and so nobody ever told him anything; and the petni because she never stopped talking long enough for anyone to say anything to her.
By mid-afternoon, word of the marriage reached the winnowing-basket-sized ears of the bhoot who had been slated to marry the shakchunni. Normally an easygoing ghost, this bhoot was roused to intense anger that a mere human should presume to wed so far above his station as a shakchunni – more so, a shakchunni who had been promised to him as bride. Stamping his pillar-like legs, he gnashed his radish-sized teeth and decided on revenge. He stalked off to the pond and settled down to wait behind some trees, from a position where he could see the track to the village. When Bhombol came along this track, he would catch the puny human and snap his pencil-neck for him.
Unknown to him, Bhombol was already there, not far away, and also watching the track. This was because soon after having him beaten up, the zamindar’s daughter had found her best sari missing as well as a large portion of her jewellery. She immediately decided that the lout who had been ogling the windows was the one responsible, and complained accordingly to her father. The pikemen, some of whom knew Bhombol by sight, identified him. The word went round the village like lightning – Bhombol was a wanted man.
So Bhombol had to run away in a hurry, in such a rush that he couldn’t even take his meagre possessions from his little hut. He intended to hide in the forest, where he thought he ought to be reasonably safe, until nightfall. Then he’d sneak back into the village, get what he could carry with him, and make his way to the next village where he had relatives. He sat behind another palm tree, watching the track, ready to run if he saw the zamindar’s men coming.
So Bhombol and the bhoot sat watching the path that led to the village - Bhombol for the zamindar’s men, the bhoot for Bhombol, and neither of them knew of the other’s presence. And, elsewhere, the shakchunni was still rushing about.
Dusk began to fall.
And, meanwhile, not far away...
Doshyu Dakat and his band of bandits were the worst, most savage desperadoes Bunglistan had ever seen. They had pillaged their way up and down country with impunity, from the river delta country to the south to the hills to the north. Bhoylagey had been one of the few places that had been spared their attentions. Tonight was its turn.
Doshyu Dakat had heard of the wealth of the zamindar, who had so sucked the villagers of all they had that he was the only one worth robbing. So, as darkness fell, he led his band down to the village and rushed the zamindar’s mansion, shouting “Ha-re-re-re” at the top of their lungs and brandishing their hooked swords.
Within less time than it takes to tell of it, it was all over. The terrified guards threw down their sticks and surrendered, the servants were swiftly overpowered, everyone was tied up and the mansion stripped of all its valuables. The gang left, laden with booty – which included the zamindar’s daughter, whom Doshyu Dakat had slung over his shoulder. He had been taken with the girl’s beauty and intended to make her his wife.
Doshyu Dakat and his cohorts were strangers to the territory and had never heard of the reputation of the pond in the forest. Having passed that way in the mid-morning, the gang leader had thought that would be a good place to pause and distribute the loot; so, once they left the zamindar’s mansion, the band made its way along the track through the forest, until they could see starlight reflected off the water of the pond.
It was at that point that things got interesting.
Bhombol had just decided that it was dark enough to sneak into the village when he had seen movement along the track and heard voices. Deciding that it was the zamindar’s men come for him at last, he turned and ran through the forest, blundering along as fast as he could. And then he stumbled round a tree trunk and right into the shakchunni’s sari-clad arms.
The shakchunni had finally finished most of her preparations. Leaving a few of her more trusted friends to make the final arrangements for the feast to come, she’d collected the priest ghost and had been making her way back to the pond, there to get ready for the ceremony. Unwilling to risk frightening off her intended, she didn’t want to risk an audience to the actual wedding. All that could come later.
So she’d been hurrying back through the forest, the priest ghost – older, frailer and slower – following behind, when she’d heard a commotion. And the next instant, Bhombol had lurched from behind a tree and fallen into her arms.
Grabbing him firmly by the bicep – for she had no intention of letting him get away – and ignoring his bleats of protest, she began to pull him effortlessly along, back in the direction from which he’d come.
The bhoot had also heard the sounds of the band approaching. Convinced that it was Bhombol arriving at the head of a column of wedding guests and hangers-on, he jumped out from behind a tree and started lashing out at the robbers with his immense fists and feet. In moments, the hitherto undefeated bandits had dropped everything they were carrying and run away howling with fear and pain. The bhoot chased them, laughing contemptuously, swinging a palm tree around his head like a stick. Only the bundles of loot were left on the bank of the pond, along with the zamindar’s daughter, who had long since fainted dead away with terror.
This, then, was what Bhombol saw when he arrived at the pond – the bundles of treasure, beside which the girl lay unconscious, a fold of her sari fallen across her face. Instinctively, he bent and pulled away the sari from the girl’s features.
It was the zamindar’s daughter.
Slowly, his heart hammering, Bhombol turned and looked at the shakchunni. She’d pushed back the sari hood from her face in order to see where she was going, and in the light of the stars Bhombol saw, for the first time, her face.
Even a comely shakchunni is something one needs to be prepared for mentally. Bhombol was not so prepared. With a squeak of utter and complete fright, he fainted and slid to the ground beside the zamindar’s daughter.
The shakchunni was still staring down at him with disgust when the bhoot and the priest ghost arrived.
“There, you see,” the bhoot said, still laughing. "This is the puny human you want to marry?"
“I don’t think so,” the shakchunni muttered. “I couldn’t marry a man who faints at the sight of me. I’d have to wear a burqa all the time, and I’m not even Muslim.” She turned to the priest ghost. “Will you marry me to this bhoot?” she asked.
“With pleasure,” the priest ghost said. “I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about marrying you to this human. After all, I don’t even know whether your horrorscopes match...if, that is, he even has one.”
“I want him punished, though,” the shakchunni said. “Marry us – and then marry him to this fainting little chit. They deserve each other.” And so it was done.
Bhombol returned to consciousness at the sound of a weird, ululating cry. He didn’t know it, but it was the sound of the shakchunni reaching her first orgasm. Blinking at his surroundings, he saw only the girl and the loot. Peering at her, he saw that she was the zamindar’s daughter, and that she had vermilion in the parting of her hair, and bangles made of conch shells on her wrists. She was a married woman, he realised, and then it came to him that he was married to her.
He had completely blotted the shakchunni’s face from his mind, and he only remembered that he was to have married the zamindar’s daughter by the side of the pond, and assumed that this had happened. At the cry of the shakchunni reaching her second orgasm, the girl also awoke, and saw Bhombol and the piles of loot – and not a bandit to be seen.
“You chased them all away,” she said, and fell into his arms. “My hero!”
“Chased whom away?” Bhombol wondered. “Oh well – never mind.”
“Let’s go to my parents now,” the young woman said.
So, bent under the load of loot, the newlyweds returned to the zamindar’s house, where they untied everyone. The young woman told of how Bhombol had chased the robbers away single-handed, and how she had married him out of gratitude. And so overwhelmed was the zamindar at recovering his money and his daughter, that, albeit most reluctantly, he accepted Bhombol as his new son-in-law.
And so, except for the bandits – and who cares about them? – everyone lived happily ever after, as the story goes.
After the passage of a year and a day, the shakchunni gave birth to a little ghost. As the child of a bhoot and a shakchunni, he was of course a pret. His name was Bishshoychomok Bidyutjholok, so quite naturally they nicknamed him Tupai. Like all prets, he had small and soft horns, which hardened and grew bigger as he grew older. By the time he reached his teens, he was a heartbreaker, with his huge horns curling round his face. Many were the young petnis and shakchunnis who threw their hearts at his feet, but he had no eyes for them.
“I hope he’s not gay,” the bhoot said worriedly. “I mean, not that I’m a homophobe or something, but–“
“Just leave him alone,” the shakchunni snapped. “He’ll be fine.” But time went on, and he wasn’t fine.
Tupai wasn’t interested at all in the young petnis and shakchunnis. He didn’t even look at them when they called to him enticingly from dark nooks, lying back alluringly with their legs spread open. He had no idea what they wanted from him – and didn’t particularly care.
Finally even the shakchunni got worried. “I hope he’s not gay,” she muttered to nobody in particular. “Not that I’m a homophobe, of course, but...”
Then, one day, Tupai glimpsed in the distance a human girl, the offspring of Bhombol and the zamindar’s daughter, and fell instantly head over heels in love.
But that is another story.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011