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
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
“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
“You’re crazy,” Kalajam said. “Quite crazy, making promises like
“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
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
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
“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
“Yes, of course, but I’ve got an idea.”
Roshobolla drew Kalajam away by the arm. “We need to talk to Fuljhuri about it,
Sitting on the roof, Khoimoa watched them
“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
“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
“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
“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
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...”
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.
“My son is impatient,” Nitai said. “And it’s
not as though your daughter will get any younger or more beautiful if you wait
“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
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
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