So you want to hear my tale, do you? Sit down then, and stop fidgeting and pushing each other around. If I’m going to tell my story at all, it isn’t going to be to children who are listening with half an ear.
Back when I was a child, we weren’t like this. When our elders told us a tale, we’d hardly dare breathe for fear of missing a word – and we wouldn’t be playing with twigs and stones either. And it will be night soon, and your parents will be calling you home to dinner. If you want to listen, settle down.
Right, so I was going to tell you about the ghost. Yes, ghosts exist, and they’re everywhere, yes, even here in the town – they just don’t make themselves known to people most of the time, because it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But those of us who know what to look for can always tell when one’s around.
This happened when I was quite a young man, living in the village back in the country. You – with all your electric lights and your cars and bustle – don’t understand what life’s still like in the villages. People live in mud-walled huts with thatched straw roofs, and still travel by bullock cart along dirt tracks. And of course, everyone knows about the ghosts. They’re everywhere, in the ponds and fields and in the trees – especially in the trees.
Of all the haunted, trees, there was a particular banyan tree growing by the path which led to the market. Everyone in the village knew that a whole city of ghosts lived in that tree. Why, nobody would go past the tree even at high noon without leaving something beneath it as an offering, a small fish or a fruit, or maybe a sweet or two. And nobody would ever, of course, go that way after dark. We were poor and uneducated, but we weren’t crazy.
Now old Uncle Tarok wasn’t crazy, either, but he was a little bit fond of the drink. This fondness especially took him on market days around the festival season, and someone had to be there to see to it that he went home before dark. Usually, his son would do it, and if his son wasn’t around, someone or other from the village would take the responsibility.
But one time, his son was away – visiting his in-laws, I think – and Uncle Tarok went off to the market in the morning, as usual. One of his neighbours, Babla I think it was, had volunteered to go to the market and fetch Tarok back before dark. But during the afternoon Babla’s old father fell violently ill, and he had to rush to bring the kabiraj to treat him. The old father made a complete recovery, later, but in the confusion everyone forgot about Tarok until it was far too late, and the sun was already kissing the western horizon.
“He’ll just have to sleep off the booze in the market,” Babla’s wife told him. “Surely he’s smart enough not to come back at night, even if drunk, and they know him in the market, so they’ll give him a place to stay.” And because the old father was still not recovered, Babla found it convenient to believe her.
And it might have been as she said, too, had it not been for Uncle Tarok’s booze binges. Now, normally, Tarok was a nice old man – none nicer – with not a stubborn bone in his body. But when he got drunk, he changed completely. Then he began to think of himself as an invincible hero, who could do absolutely anything he wanted, and whom nothing – but nothing – could harm.
Now, this was the last market day before the Kali Puja festival, when it was the custom to get drunk anyway; and old Uncle Tarok had got good and sozzled on mohua liquor, even more than he normally did. Unfortunately, instead of drinking himself into a stupor, what he ended up doing was fire himself into a state of acute bravado.
Later, the merchant Gobardhan, who sold cloth at the market, told me that he had made a tentative effort to hold Tarok back from trying to get back home that evening. “I’ll...my name won’t be Tarok,” the old man said, thumping his chest, “if some stupid ghosts try and stop me from getting back home. Let’s see ghosts trying to stop me from going home. Let them try, I say!”
Now, of course, you’ve got to understand that if there’s one thing you should never do, it’s challenge ghosts. Under no circumstances, ever, should you challenge them, even when you think it’s safe. There could always be a ghost of some kind hanging around, somewhere, and if it hears you, it will go right off and tell the other ghosts. And then they have a point to prove, you see. Even drunk, Uncle Tarok should have known that. But he didn’t.
Now, Gobardhan was a careful and compassionate man. Of course, since it was already getting dark, he couldn’t order one of his men to see Tarok home – but he would have ordered them to see to it that he remained in the market. But then there was a big rush of customers, and he forgot. I don’t blame him – we all make mistakes, and it really wasn’t his responsibility in the first place. But, in any case, he forgot.
Meanwhile, with everyone busy at their trade, and nothing to keep him longer at the market, Uncle Tarok began to weave his way home. It was a new moon night – the very night, of course, when ghosts are most active – and he had nothing but starlight to illuminate his way. But he’d walked that path so many times before, boy and man, that he had no real problem keeping to the path, drunk as he was. It would probably have been much better if he’d lost his way.
Now, as you’ll have realised, the ghosts in the banyan tree were boiling with indignation at Tarok’s challenge, which one of their roving spies had reported to them. So they gathered together and decided to teach Tarok a lesson.
So when Uncle Tarok reached the tree, the ghosts were waiting and ready for him. The first he knew of this, though, was when one of them jumped right out of the tree and into his path.
It was a fisher ghost, very tall and thin with long arms and legs, eyes big as oranges and red as blood, teeth like radishes and ears like winnowing baskets. It stood across the path, arms akimbo, and glared down at Tarok.
“Who are you,” it said nasally, because, you know, ghosts can only speak through their noses, poor things. If you ever meet a ghost, even if it’s disguised itself perfectly as a human, you’ll know it by its nasal speech. “Who are you, that dares to come this way after the fall of night?”
Unfortunately, though, old Tarok was so drunk that the ghost’s nasal speech made no more impression on him than its enormous eyes and stick-thin limbs. “A cold?” he enquired. “You have a cold? What you need is a good strong shot of mohua and it’s gone. Look at me,” he yelled, so loudly that the ghost flinched, and thumped his chest. “I never have colds.”
“I’m...” began the ghost, trying to recover its poise. “I’m...”
“I know,” Tarok bawled. “You have a cold, and that’s what’s making you look so miserable. Look at you,” he yelled, and took hold of one of the ghost’s hands. “All skin and bone. You need feeding up before you fade completely away.”
By this time, the ghost wished it could fade completely away. It tried, but the grip Tarok had on its arm was too potent. “Come with me back to the market,” he shouted, “and I’ll fill you with mohua. You’ll never regret it.”
Oh, but the ghost already regretted it. It regretted a lot of things, but most especially it regretted not wringing Uncle Tarok’s neck immediately, as it had intended. Why, oh why, it lamented to itself, had it chosen to grandstand by challenging the drunkard face to face?
As though on cue, Uncle Tarok released a cloud of alcohol-laden breath at the ghost, so potent that it would have sent it reeling but for the death-grip the old man had on its arm. “Come along,” the horrible reprobate insisted, tugging. “I’m sure there’s still a lot of mohua around.”
Now it so happened that the fisher ghost was rather unpopular with the other spirits in the tree, dating from a recent incident where it had tried to dictate to them how they should spend the rest of forever like it, fishing in the scummy village ponds, instead of as they wished, according to their various ghostly wishes. Also, it had insisted on jumping down to confront the man, ignoring advice to merely drag him up into the tree and finish him off at leisure. So, though normally they’d have been furious at a mere human challenging one of their number, they were delighted at this ghost’s plight. “Go on, go on,” some of them shrilled, hanging from the branches like strange fruit. “Go to the market, and get drunk. It’s going to be such fun.”
The fisher ghost would have blanched if its features had been capable of blanching. “No, no,” it began protesting.
“What do you mean, no?” Uncle Tarok had progressed to the truculent phase of being drunk. “Listen, when Tarok tells you something, then you do what he says, you understand?” Without waiting to discover if the ghost did understand, he began tugging it lustily back in the direction of the town. Utterly helpless, the ghost had no option but to follow.
It was just about that time that the people in the market had discovered that old Tarok was missing, and they had been looking uneasily at each other and reassuring themselves half-heartedly that he’d be all right, while secretly believing his broken body would be discovered along the way in the morning. So when he arrived in their midst, they were both astonished and relieved...until they saw what he had by the arm.
“This friend of mine,” Tarok explained conversationally, “has a cold. He can hardly talk at all, you know, because of it. He needs mohua, doesn’t he?” He glared around at the dumbstruck multitude through bloodshot eyes. “Doesn’t he?”
Trembling, Gobardhan allowed that perhaps Tarok was right. “How did you bring him here?” he asked, awestruck.
“What do you mean how did I bring him here? He came along of his own free will. When did I ever force anyone to do anything? Tell me that. Did I ever force any of you to do anything?”
Everyone allowed that old Tarok had never forced anyone to do anything.
“And I’ll fight anybody who says otherwise,” Uncle Tarok declared. “Mohua!” he shrieked without warning. “Where the hell is the mohua for my friend?”
A pitcher of the drink was produced. Old Tarok picked it up and examined it dubiously.
“I’d better taste it to make sure it’s all right,” he proclaimed, and drained off almost half in one gulp. “Not bad, not bad. Here,” he said, yanking on the poor ghost’s arm, “you have some.”
By now the ghost was wishing it had never died. All through the trek back to town it had tried desperately to free itself, but the more it struggled, the more determined the old man’s grip had got. And when they’d arrived at the marketplace, the ghost’s morale collapsed completely. For one thing, it had never seen so many people together in all its unlife. For another, it suddenly realised that it was stark naked.
These things might have fazed anyone. They absolutely wrecked the ghost. So cowed was it, in fact, that it submitted to Uncle Tarok pressing the pitcher of booze to its lips. A moment later, it had swallowed the vile stuff. All of it.
In order to understand what happened next, you have to realise that the ghost had never imbibed alcohol before. Of course, half a pitcher of mohua would have knocked out almost anyone, barring exceptions like Tarok, but to the ghost’s defenceless system it was like being struck by a train. The world began tilting from side to side like a ship in a gale, and, with a piteous howl, the ghost fainted on the spot.
“You’ve killed it!” some people shouted. “Old Tarok’s killed it!”
“I never did,” Tarok said, turning pale and raising his free fist. “I’ve never killed anybody. I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.”
“You killed it!” People surged forward and hoisted Uncle Tarok on their shoulders. “You’ve killed the ghost!”
“What ghost?” Tarok blinked, beginning to wake from his drunken haze. “What are you talking about?”
A hundred voices told him.
“You can’t kill a ghost,” Tarok proclaimed judiciously. “The idea’s absurd. A ghost is already dead; otherwise how could it be a ghost?”
“Look!” people said, bearing him to where the fisher ghost had collapsed so pathetically. “Absurd or not, there it is!”
But there it wasn’t. Recovering just enough to be able to escape, it had crawled away from the market. A little distance away, it clambered to its clawed feet and ran. But not being familiar with the way, it turned down the wrong alley once, and then again.
Only a little distance out of town, it passed below a certain tamarind tree, and with a thump a huge brohmodottyi ghost jumped down out of it. It was, like all its kind, immensely obese and besides, had a ragged beard which was tangled and knotted.
“How dare you come this way?” it thundered. “I’ll teach you to...”
The alcohol was still working away on the fisher ghost’s constitution, and quickly changing its mental landscape. “Fiddlesticks,” it said, and grabbed the brohmodotyi by the wrist. “I’ll teach you to lose some weight. And what do you call that beard?”
“What?” the brohmodottyi began. “I’ll...”
“You’ll come along with me to the town,” the fisher ghost said. “And I’ll get you a nice shave and get you to join a gym of some sort. You look like you need it.”
“This is...” the brohmodottyi began, enraged. “You are...”
“Your best friend,” the fisher ghost declared. “Come this way.”
That was a night the townsfolk would never forget.
What’s that? You doubt my story? Listen, you young tadpole, I’ll have you know that every word in it is true.
How do I know, you ask? How do I know what the ghosts said and did? I know because...they told me.
Yes, a few nights later I was walking along that way, and they grabbed me and told me all about it. Then they told me how humiliated they felt about the whole experience, and how they wanted revenge on the human race.
What are you asking, you back there? How did I get away, you’d like to know?
I didn’t. After they talked to me, they wrung my neck. It’s my ghost who’s talking to you now.
Why, just look how dark it’s got! Your mothers will be looking for you, children. Go home now, and go to bed – and I have just one more thing to say to you.
Sleep well, children. Sleep deeply. And...pleasant dreams.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013