nce upon a time, there was, in Bunglistan, a
little girl named Tuktuki.
Of course Tuktuki
wasn’t her real name – even in Bunglistan, nobody has a formal name like
Tuktuki – but it was her nickname, and actually a very, very common nickname
for Bunglistani girls.
Now, though there were
thousands of Tuktukis, this particular one had something special about her,
something that drove her mother to distraction.
“I wish she’d go to
sleep,” she would moan to her friends. “I wish she’d just go to sleep!”
This, you understand,
was the problem: Tuktuki was a nice, clever, pretty girl, but there was one
thing, one thing only, that she wouldn’t do; she wouldn’t go to sleep.
This was a major
problem. Tuktuki’s mum couldn’t leave her alone in bed to go out for a chat
with her friends, or to the market, secure in the knowledge that she was sound
asleep. She’d get up and go wandering around, looking for her parents, and the
neighbours would find her and bring her back.
they’d say, looking insufferably smug, “was wandering around our yard again.
Another ten steps and she’d have fallen into the pond, and then where would you
Or maybe Tuktuki’s mum
and dad would be together looking for a little intimate time for themselves,
and just as their hands got to wandering over each other, there would be the
sound of a child getting out of bed and coming looking for someone to talk to.
It was a mess. And
Tuktuki’s mother didn’t like such messes.
“Sleep, why don’t
you?” she often demanded, only just resisting the urge to shake her daughter
until her teeth rattled. “Just sleep!”
“I don’t want to,”
Tuktuki replied. “I can’t fall asleep, and when I do, I keep waking up almost
So Tuktuki’s dad took
her to the village astrologer. The great man, who made a tremendous living from
reading horoscopes and selling good luck charms, barely glanced at the girl
before handing her a small brass tube on a black string. “Tie it around her
arm,” he said, “and she’ll sleep. For sure. Now my fee is...”
Tuktuki’s dad, who
wasn’t nearly as interested in her falling asleep as his wife was, went white
at the fee, but paid it. And then he took her home, and they waited for her to
fall asleep, as the astrologer had guaranteed.
And she did not fall
So the next day both
Tuktuki’s parents accompanied her
back to the astrologer. “You said your charm would make her sleep,” her mother
said. “And she’s more awake than ever.”
“Let me see her
horoscope,” the astrologer said, and mumbled over it for a minute. “It’s as I
thought,” he said then, handing the scrap of paper back. “Her Saturn was in the
house of Venus, and her Rahu is about to gobble up Ketu, so there’s no way any
charm could work. Next, please.”
Tuktuki’s mum was trying out a new recipe her friend Radhika had given her. The
recipe was complicated and involved a lot of ingredients, each to be added in
strict order and in precise quantities, so it needed a lot of concentration.
Besides, she had an idea that she could cook it better than that self-satisfied
twit Radhika ever could, and was thinking of adding one or two things that
would seal the deal.
It was just as she
discovered that she had no cardamom bark left, and had ordered her husband to
rush to the market to buy some, that there
was a tiny noise behind her and she found Tuktuki standing there, blinking
“Go to bed,” Tuktuki’s
mum yelled. “Go to bed and sleep, or I’ll feed you to the rakshasas!”
But Tuktuki wouldn’t
go to bed, because she wasn’t a coward and she wasn’t scared of rakshasas.
“There are no such things,” she said. “They’re only a fairy tale.”
“I’ll show you,”
Tuktuki’s mum grunted, and, seizing her by the arm, dragged her out of the
kitchen and behind the house. There was a large plantain grove there, and,
taking her deep into it, Tuktuki’s mum tied her to one of the biggest plantains
with strips torn from an old sari. “Now stay there,” she said. “Stay there
until you decide to sleep like a good girl, or the rakshasa will come and eat
Now, of course,
Tuktuki’s mum didn’t really want
daughter to be eaten by a rakshasa. Like Tuktuki, she knew rakshasas were just
the stuff of old wives’ tales, and intended that the girl would get no more
than a bad scare. But in this she was totally wrong.
Not only did rakshasas
really exist, there was one who actually lived right under the plantain grove,
in a cave deep under the earth. Every night he emerged from the cave, yelling,
in the approved fashion of rakshasas, “Hau Mau Khau, I want a human now. I’ll
tear off his arms and break his head, and I’ll eat him with mustard and bread.”
This proved, if any proof was necessary, how depraved he was, because only a
rakshasa would be depraved enough to eat something with mustard
So each night the
rakshasa would come out of the ground, look around for anything he could find
to eat, and – since by that time everyone was in bed and asleep – stomp off
elsewhere looking for prey. And, on the way, because he’d be so hungry, he
would take his frustration out on any ghost he happened to meet.
What? This all
happened in Bunglistan. Which place in Bunglistan doesn’t teem with ghosts?
The rakshasa, of
course, was very unpopular with the ghosts who filled the plantain grove, and
they complained to each other bitterly about it. “He grabbed me by the hair
tonight,” one would whine, “and yanked it so hard I thought my head would come
another ghost would reply. “Last week he tried to eat me, and if I wasn’t a
ghost I’m sure he would have eaten me, too.”
“He’s a bully,” they all
agreed. “It’s a pity we can’t do anything about it except try and stay out of
And tonight there was
a human child tied up in the plantain grove – with the rakshasa likely to wake
up any moment and come stalking this way!
All the ghosts in the
plantain grove huddled together in conference.
“Maybe we should save
the kid,” some of them said. “We could untie her and let her go home to mum.”
“Are you daft?” the
other ghosts jeered. “Her mum would imagine she untied herself, and bring her
right back and tie her up again.”
“If she didn’t punish
her in some other way,” the first ghosts replied. “She might do that.”
“Yes, and that other
way might be even worse than this,” was the response.
“Well, then,” some
ghosts argued, “let the rakshasa eat the girl, and then maybe he’ll be happy
and not beat us up quite so much tonight.”
“How’s that supposed
to help?” others snapped back. “He’ll be back tomorrow and be twice as angry
because there’s no girl for him to eat.”
Among the ghosts,
there was a young shakchunni called Bulu, who’d been just watching the others
cavil and bicker. Finally she slipped away from the group and went silently to
where the human girl was sitting with her back to the plantain, tied in place
by the strips of old sari.
Now, Tuktuki was a
brave girl, and had not cried at all. Nor, since she didn’t sleep, did darkness
hold any terrors for her. And she watched with calm interest as the young
shakchunni came up. Though Bulu was clever and pretty, she was also very young
and inexperienced, and she sometimes forgot things like keeping the bottoms of
her feet in contact with the ground, or the fact that living hair didn’t
normally writhe and twitch like snakes, so she was quite an
Tuktuki said politely. “Are you a ghost?”
“Yes,” Bulu admitted. “I’m
a ghost. Please don’t be frightened, and do exactly what I tell you to do.”
“I’m not frightened,”
Tuktuki assured her, “but why should I do anything you tell me?”
“Because there’s a
rakshasa in this grove, and he’ll wake up any minute, and if he finds you here
he’ll eat you, and leave not even a bone.”
Of course, hearing
about rakshasas from a ghost made it easier to believe in them than if she’d
been told about them by a mere human, so Tuktuki allowed Bulu to untie her.
“What are we going to do now?” she asked. “Are you going to take me back to my
“Not quite yet,” Bulu
said grimly. “This rakshasa is an arrant bully, and he needs the lesson of his
life. You and I, my dear, are going to give him that lesson. Will you help me?”
“Of course I will,”
Tuktuki replied. “What do you want me to do?”
In response, Bulu
plucked a few bunches of plantains. “Hold these,” she said, and tied them
together so that they looked roughly like a human being. “Help me tie them to
the tree,” she said, and with Tuktuki’s help, did so with the sari strips.
“Come with me,” she
said, and led Tuktuki to the edge of the plantain grove, where some
amorphophallus tubers had been planted. “Help me dig one of these up.”
“What for?” Tuktuki
asked, as she began obediently digging with her hands. Soon she’d exposed a
tuber half as big as she was.
“We need to flavour
the rakshasa’s dinner,” Bulu said with a grin. “Haven’t you ever eaten one of
“No, mum says I’m not
“Lucky you. But wait,
we won’t need the tuber. Here comes someone who’ll do the job much better. Stay
where you are, and be careful not to move suddenly.”
Before Tuktuki could
ask what she was talking about, she heard a most extraordinary noise. It was
like a kettle boiling and steaming, mixed with a rattling like that of dried
palm fronds in a stiff wind. And something the size of a small dog came pushing
through the plantains, snuffling about on the ground.
Bulu said, “you’re just the person I wanted to meet. I want some of your
The porcupine, of
course, didn’t reply, but stopped with surprise at the sound of the ghost’s voice.
While he was still looking around with his heavy head, the young shakchunni
darted forward and snatched a double handful of quills from his back. “Thank
you, Father Porcupine,” she called, and, leading the girl back to the plantain
tree she stuck the quills into the dummy, pushing them into it one by one until
there were none left.
“All we have to do is
wait for the rakshasa to arrive,” she said with a satisfied sigh. “I hope your
mum doesn’t suddenly remember you and turn up.”
This didn’t happen for
an excellent reason: Tuktuki’s mum was so taken by her recipe, which had turned
out to be better than expected, that she quite forgot that she’d tied up her
daughter in the plantain grove. She forgot even to mention it to her husband
when he got back from the shop, being too busy enjoyably berating him for
buying cardamom strips when she’d sent him to buy bay leaves. Though he
protested, she simply shouted him down, something at which she was an expert.
Then she shoved a plate of food in front of him and crossed her arms across her
“Now eat that and tell
me what it’s like,” she said, the look in her eyes daring him to criticise it.
Tuktuki’s dad, who
knew that look of old and feared it, swallowed the vile stuff and made noises
of weak assent, whereupon his helpmate dug into it with gusto herself. And then
she seized him by the arm and dragged him to bed. After a while, they slept.
Meanwhile, Bulu led
Tuktuki past the other ghosts, who were still in acrimonious debate about what
to do, and found a hiding place from which they could watch the dummy. “Now all
we have to do is wait,” she said.
They did not have to
wait long. With a roar, the rakshasa emerged from the earth, and stood glaring
It was the first time
Bulu had seen the rakshasa, and of course Tuktuki had never glimpsed one, so
they stared at him in fascination.
He towered above the
plantains, his head seeming to reach the sky. He was so broad that the
plantation bent and swayed as he came, and the ground shook with every step of
his enormous feet. His arms were thick as trees, and rippled with muscle. His
head was a block of carved rock, his face dominated by a nose sharp as a
scimitar, lips like ridges of stone, and eyes like red glowing fires. His chest
was a chiselled slab, his thighs like anvils, his...
...he was, in fact,
pretty striking looking, actually.
“Hau Mau Khau,” he
shouted, looking around, “I want a human now. I’ll tear off his arms and break
his head, and I’ll eat him with mustard and bread.”
“Wait here,” Bulu
breathed in Tuktuki’s ear, and strode out quickly from her hiding place.
“You’re in luck, Sir
Rakshasa,” she said. “A human has been left in the plantain grove just for you.
The rakshasa gave her
an incredulous look. It was the first time a ghost had ever spoken to him of
his or her own accord, let alone given him any good news. And the news this
ghost was giving him was hard enough to believe.
“A human?” the
rakshasa repeated. “A human
You mean it? A human?”
“Yes, and you’d better
eat it quickly, before someone comes looking for it.” Bulu pointed to the
dummy. “There it is.”
Now, rakshasas, as you
may or may not know, don’t really have good eyesight, despite their glowing
eyes. They depend on their senses of hearing and smell for most of their
hunting, and at that moment the breeze brought to the rakshasa’s nostrils the
smell of sweat-soaked sari. Besides, he was very, very hungry.
With a roar of
triumph, then, the rakshasa jumped forward, ripped the plantain dummy from its
bindings, and stuffed it down his throat. There was a moment of utter silence.
And then the rakshasa
began to dance.
It was a rather
strange dance. Clutching his throat with both immense hands, the rakshasa began
to jump up and down, hooting all the while. He then turned two complete
somersaults before crashing down on the ground, still clutching his throat and
“What’s the matter,
Sir Rakshasa?” Bulu inquired solicitously. “Doesn’t the taste of human agree
with you? I thought you liked human flesh.”
“Like human flesh?”
the rakshasa managed to utter, between groans. “If I’d known human tasted like
this I’d never have wanted to have one. It’s tearing me to pieces inside!”
Bulu blinked. “Wait.
You didn’t know what human tasted like?”
“Of course I didn’t.”
The rakshasa groaned and clawed at his throat. “I never had one before. Do all
of them taste like that?”
“Wait,” Bulu repeated.
“You say you never tasted human before? Though every night you come around
roaring that you’ll break their heads and eat them with bread?”
The rakshasa looked as
embarrassed as a moaning rakshasa with a throat filled with porcupine quills
can look. “It’s what’s expected,” he mumbled. “Everyone told me when I was
growing up that I have to roar about eating human and then gobble them up. But,
I’m, actually, you know, a bit of a pacifist, really. I’ve never actually eaten
human before this. That’s why I was always so hungry.”
There was a long
silence, punctuated only by the rakshasa’s moans. Bulu looked at the rakshasa
and Tuktuki looked at them both.
“Sir Rakshasa,” the
shakchunni said eventually, “could you sit up and open your mouth wide? I’d
like to help you.”
Still moaning, the
poor rakshasa sat up and opened his mouth wide, and the shakchunni reached in
with her delicate fingers and plucked out the quills one by one. Soon there was
a tiny heap of quills on the ground and the rakshasa was blinking in amazement
and no longer moaning.
“The pain’s gone!” he
marvelled. “It’s really gone! How can I thank you?”
“Well...you could stop
beating up the ghosts you meet,” Bulu told him. “We don’t like it very much,
“I didn’t want to,”
the rakshasa said. “They told us, you know, that ghosts would scare away humans
and deprive us of prey, so...”
“But you don’t want to
hunt human anymore,” Bulu reminded him.
The rakshasa shook
with horror. “Hunt human? Never again. Not when they taste like that. You’re
right, I’ll never beat up ghosts again.” Slowly, he got to his feet. “But I’m
still so hungry. I’m weak with hunger.”
“I don’t know what
to...” Bulu began, and changed her mind. “No, I do. Come along.”
With Tuktuki following
at a distance, she led the rakshasa to the Amorphophallus patch and pointed to
the tuber the girl had dug up. “Try that. Humans like it. At least, some
humans like it.”
rakshasa picked up the tuber and took a bite. And then a blissful smile crept
across his face.
“This is perfect,” he
beamed. “It’s like heaven! Why would anyone want to eat human when food like
this is there to be had?”
Bulu didn’t reply. She
was looking at the smiling rakshasa, and realising that he was actually very
handsome, and that he wasn’t evil at all. And the rakshasa, looking back at
her, realised that she was actually very pretty. Very pretty indeed, for a
ghost, and even the ugliest ghost was far, far ahead in looks compared to the
average female of his own species. Besides, she’d saved him from the terrible
taste of human, and given him the best food he’d ever had.
There’s no telling how
long they’d have stood there drinking each other in, but at that moment Tuktuki
put her foot down on a sharp stone and gave an inadvertent cry.
“Who’s that?” the
“A human,” Bulu said
hurriedly. “Remember, you promised.”
“Don’t tell me again,”
the rakshasa said, backing away. “Is it safe for me to be near her? She won’t
jump into my mouth, will she?”
“No, she won’t,” Bulu
assured him. “But I think I should take her home now.”
“I’ll come with you,”
the rakshasa said. “Now that I’ve found you, I never want to lose sight of you
again, not for a moment.”
“Nor do I want to be
away from you,” Bulu said, “but don’t worry, I’ll come right back. It’s just
that you’re rather large and conspicuous, and if the humans see you...”
“They could jump into
my mouth?” the rakshasa asked, turning as pale as it was possible for a
rakshasa to turn.
“Exactly,” Bulu told
him. “But if you wait here, I’ll just see the girl back home and come right
back. You don’t need to worry about losing me. You see, as much as you love me,
I love you.”
Meanwhile, back in the
Chhichké Chor was one
of the greatest thieves Bunglistan had ever known. More than a thief, he
considered himself an artist
. Not for
him the crude tactics of bandits, who would break down doors, hit people over
the head, and tie them up before smashing the place to bits looking for their
valuables. No, Chhichké Chor prided himself in stealing things without a drop
of bloodshed, and so delicately that he could strip a house bare around the
ears of the slumbering family.
His technique never
varied. He would always pick a house on the outskirts of a village, so that he
wouldn’t risk anyone seeing him at work. Using a scraper, he’d carefully carve
a hole at ground level in the earthen wall of the house, big enough to crawl
through. And, even though it would have been too dark for most normal people to
see anything, Chhichké Chor had trained his eyesight so well that a single ray
of reflected starlight, or the flicker of an intruding firefly, was as much to
him as broad daylight to another person.
Nor was he so
overconfident that he didn’t look to his own safety. Before going on one of his
expeditions, Chhichké Chor would always strip down and rub himself all over
with mustard oil, from head to foot. This served two excellent purposes. First,
it made him extremely slippery, and so almost impossible to hold on to, just in
case some inconsiderate homeowner arose at an inconvenient time. Chhichké Chor
did not care for inconsiderate homeowners who woke at inconvenient times.
And, of course, the
mustard oil made him ghost proof. Chhichké Chor knew all about ghosts, and was
well aware that being out and about in the dead of night was asking to have his
neck broken for him by some ghost or other. But, naturally, no ghost could bear
to contaminate itself with the touch of mustard oil. It was the perfect way to
kill two birds with one stone.
Tonight, of all
nights, Chhichké Chor had fixed his sights on the home of Tuktuki’s parents. He’d been watching the house for hours. He’d
watched as the lamp in the bedroom had flickered and gone out, and listened until
the noise of huffing and moaning had given way to a pair of rhythmic snores.
Then he’d tested the wall with his scraper...and discovered, to his dismay,
that the hard-packed earth was almost impossible to cut away.
Any lesser thief might
have given up and gone looking for easier prey, but Chhichké Chor was an artist
. To him, the rock-hard earth was
a challenge, and he’d come prepared for it. Slipping off to the pond, and
ignoring the stilt-limbed fisher ghosts that were wading about, he’d filled a dried
gourd full of scummy water. Returning to the house, he poured the water over a
patch of wall, waited for it to soften the earth a little, and began scraping.
Each time he ran out of water he’d go back and fill more, and the ghosts would
give him a wide berth, exactly as he expected.
Finally scraping his
hole, he crawled inside, and, to the music of snoring, quickly looted the
house. It was an easy house to loot. Tuktuki’s mother was one of those women
who liked to gloat over her possessions, and always laid them out where she
could see them first thing in the morning and just before turning in for the
night; in other words, she always spread her jewels and the heavy silver
utensils she’d inherited from her mother on a sheet of cloth by her bedside.
Hardly believing his
luck, Chhichké Chor gathered them all up, tied the cloth into a bundle, and,
pushing it ahead of him, crawled back out through the hole...
It was at this precise
moment that Bulu and Tuktuki arrived.
The shakchunni knew
something was wrong at once, by the odour of the hated mustard oil. But even as
she paused in mid step, looking around for the source of the evil material, Tuktuki,
who’d been skipping a few steps ahead, saw the thief. Breaking away, she rushed
on the miscreant just as he was hoisting the sack of loot on his shoulder.
“What are you doing?’
she squeaked, hammering at him with her tiny fists. “Those are my mum’s things!”
your mum’s things,” Chhichké Chor corrected,
with a nasty grin. “They’re all mine now. Now get lost, or...” He raised a hand
This was too much for
Bulu to tolerate. Despite the mustard oil, she took several steps forward,
gritting her teeth all the while. But it was too much. The mustard oil drenched
the air, and turned it to fire. It was so strong that she felt her skin begin
to blister. Gasping, she staggered back.
“A ghost, I see,” Chhichké
Chor said, noticing her, with an even nastier grin. “Well, ghost, go your way
and nothing will happen to you. Try and stop me, though, and...”
The rakshasa came out
of the plantain grove, a mountain on the move, striding on legs like immense
columns. At each step he took the ground shivered, as it would if a boulder came
crashing down from the heavens. He raised his arms, and they looked as though
he could reach up and rip the moon away. His eyes flared, red stars against the
night. He roared, and the roar came echoing down from the sky, and back again.
“You dare,” he
shouted, pointing a nail like a spear in the thief’s face. “You dare threaten
my beloved. You, a mere human, dare to raise up your smelly little self against
the loveliest ghost who ever was. I’m...”
“Don’t eat him!” Bulu
shouted urgently. “Remember what they’re like.”
“I’m not going to eat
him,” the rakshasa roared, looking round at her. “I’m not going to eat
the inedible creature, don’t worry.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to rip him limb from limb. There’s...” he
turned back. “Where is
All he saw was the
bundle of loot, thrown on the ground, and a frantically racing figure in the
uktuki was, of course, the guest of honour at
the wedding. But she wasn’t the only one.
“The first thing I’m
going to do,” Bulu assured the guests, “is to teach this husband of mine to obey.
him not to follow us.”
“And if I hadn’t,” the
rakshasa pointed out quite reasonably, “what would have happened?”
“I’ll tell you what,”
Tuktuki’s mum said aggressively. “That thief would have got away with all my
things, and I’d never have got a night’s peaceful sleep again, that’s
what would have happened. And I
need my sleep.” She flexed her muscular arms. “I’m only a weak woman, but if I
ever get my hands on him, I’ll...”
“Yes, yes,” Bulu said
hurriedly, desperately trying to stem the flow. “But it’s really your daughter’s
doing, you know. If she’d slept like you wanted her to, we’d never have caught
“And she was very
brave,” the rakshasa added. “She charged the thief by herself. You should be proud
“Humpf,” Tuktuki’s mum
said. “And what will she
do when she
grows up, I’d like to know, get a job as the village night watchman?”
“She’ll be fine,” the
rakshasa assured her. “My wife and I will be her friends always, and we’ll make
sure she never comes to harm.”
“Let’s go in to the
feast,” Bulu said. “You all like Amorphophallus, I hope? I’ve cooked it in all
kinds of ways. There’s something for everybody.”
“Lead me to it,”
Tuktuki’s mum snapped. “I’d like to see who can cook it better than I can.”
Snatching up a plateful, she began to shovel the contents into her mouth, disapproving
noises leaking out around the margins.
Nobody heard a soft
snore from the back of the gathering, or noticed a small figure slide down on
to a mattress of bundled plantain leaves.
A piece of half-chewed
tuber in her hand, a peaceful smile on her face, Tuktuki was asleep.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017