Once upon a time, in a village in Bunglistan, there lived an ojha.
His name was Obinashchondro Shutrodhor, and therefore at birth he’d been nicknamed Bhutu. He’d often cursed the doting grandmother who’d imposed that nickname on him, because having been saddled with an appellation so reminiscent of bhoots – not to mention prets, shakchunnis, petnis, brohmodottyis and all other manner of ghosts – what other choice had he ever had but to become an ojha?
He was, truth to tell, not a very successful ojha. Nobody had called him to chase away a ghost in ages, or to lift a curse, or even for a spell to banish the evil eye from falling on their newly spawned child. They’d rather send for an ojha from one of the other neighbouring villages than give him a cowrie, let alone a copper coin, or even barter a fish or a stick of firewood for some work.
It wasn’t really his fault. A proper ojha should look frightening enough to scare the most obdurate ghost away. He should have matted hair and beard, inflamed eyes, long nails, and beads all over his arms and hanging down to his chest, not to speak of a voice reminiscent of thunder. Bhutu was nothing like that. He would have to stretch on tiptoe to even be called of medium height, was scrawny as a scarecrow, and had a voice that squeaked like a startled mouse. Only not even a mouse would be scared of Bhutu, who couldn’t afford a bead, let alone a mass of them, and whose efforts at growing a beard had never succeeded in doing more than produce a few wispy tendrils on his cheeks.
In vain he’d even taken to approaching people in the village lanes to ask them whether they might have some small annoying ghost to banish. In the end he’d gone, his little bag of charms hanging around his neck as always, to loiter outside the zamindar’s house, in the hope that the zamindar – whose brick mansion was certainly large and rambling enough to attract as many ghosts as it did roosting bats and squabbling crows – might have a sudden need of a spirit to chase away.
Now the zamindar had just married a girl, all of twelve years old, and she’d brought a substantial dowry with her, comprised mostly of various ornaments of gold and silver, chief among which was a gold necklace set with a stone red as blood and the size of a sparrow’s egg. The zamindar was convinced that all the thieves in the country were out to steal the necklace. So he picked out those of his men who had the brawniest arms and the biggest moustaches, armed them with sticks as long and thick as pikes, ordering them to be always on the lookout.
And of course the sentries soon got bored as bored, because who would think of trying to steal the jewels with them on guard?
So one of them saw Bhutu where he waited, trying to catch the eye of someone from the zamindar’s house with a ghost or two to get rid of. “Thief,” he shouted, after taking a good look and deciding that Bhutu was neither rich and socially connected, nor big and strong enough to fight back. Calling his mates to help, he rushed at the poor ojha, who jumped back in fear and fell right into the zamindar’s personal pond.
Bhutu, who couldn’t swim, would have drowned right then and there, except that the pond was already full of fisher ghosts, who didn’t want any further competition from some newly dead interloper. Before the ojha even realised what was happening to him, one of them grabbed him by the scruff of his scrawny neck and slung him out of the water so hard that he ended up draped over the back of the zamindar’s favourite bull, who was tethered at the side of the pond to graze. The bull, startled and angry, ripped his stake right out of the ground as he shook off this sudden and unexpected burden. And then Bhutu, covered in pond scum and weeds, had to run as hard as he could to escape the bull’s horns as well as the zamindar’s outraged henchmen.
On top of all this litany of misfortune, Bhutu didn’t even have a wife, not even one built like a water buffalo and with the temper of a wild boar like that of Damodar the washerman. At times he thought Damodar’s wife would have made a better ojha than anyone else, because with her voice that was like the roar of a dyspeptic tiger she would have been able to clear out all the ghosts in ten villages around. But she only seemed to reserve her screaming for her husband.
It was her husband that Bhutu met on the way as he ran, leading his donkey laden with laundry. “Damodar,” he begged, “let me hide in your bundle of washing, or else the zamindar’s men and the zamindar’s bull are going to murder me.”
“And what will you give me if I do?” Damodar asked. “I know you don’t have two copper coins to rub together.”
“I’ll give you anything you want,” Bhutu said in desperation, for he could hear the shouting of the zamindar’s henchmen and the bellowing of the zamindar’s bull, approaching rapidly. “Name it, and I’ll give it to you.”
Now it so happened that the washerman’s wife had seen, a few days ago, the zamindar’s new child bride wearing the gold necklace with the red stone set in it, and had immediately decided that she would not rest until she had one such of her own. Or, rather, her husband would get no rest until she got one of her own. And, of course, Damodar’s protestations that he was a mere washerman and would never, no matter how hard he tried, earn enough to buy one link of a gold necklace made no impression on her either.
“What do you mean you won’t buy it?” she bawled, and the lizards in the corners scurried for shelter. “You will have to buy it. Or I’ll break every bone in your body.”
She was certainly big enough to do it, and Damodar was spindly enough to have it done to him. But even the deepest desire to not have every bone in his body broken couldn’t change the fact that he could never, ever, in his entire life, earn enough to buy a necklace like that. And the matter had been weighing heavier and heavier on his mind, because, of course, his wife never let it rest.
So, now, he reacted to the ojha’s begging with pure spite. “Get me a gold necklace like the one the zamindar’s new baby wife wears,” he snapped. “That’s my price for hiding you.”
Bhutu had just glimpsed the sticks of the zamindar’s men waving above the bushes, and he only half-heard what the washerman had demanded. At that moment he would have agreed to give Damodar half the moon if that had been the price asked for. “All right, you’ll get it,” he said desperately. “Now hide me.”
So Damodar tipped out the load of laundry from the sack on his donkey’s back – he could always wash the lot of them again, after all – and pushed Bhutu inside. Loading up the sack on his donkey, he continued leading the animal along the path, swiping the animal’s flanks lightly with his stick to keep it moving. Within moments the zamindar’s men showed up and surrounded him.
“Where do you think you’re going?” one of them, who had, of course, a huge moustache, shouted.
“We’re chasing a thief,” one with an even bigger moustache bellowed. “Have you seen the thief?”
“Begging your pardon, master,” Damodar whined. “I’m only the washerman, as you know, and I’m just taking the laundry back on my donkey.” To emphasise the point, he raised his stick and brought it down sharply on the sack. There was a muffled yelp.
“What was that?” a third, who had a yet bigger moustache, yelled. “Did you hear something?”
“It must be a ghost in the trees,” Damodar said desperately. “What with the useless ojha this village is burdened with, ghosts are everywhere.” He brought the stick down again on the sack, and there was another yelp. “See?”
“We’re just wasting time,” the zamindar’s man with the biggest moustache thundered. “While we’re wasting time with this idiot, the thief’s getting away. And we have to catch the zamindar’s bull as well.”
With renewed shouts, waving their sticks, the zamindar’s men ran on. Damodar waited until they’d disappeared and then tipped Bhutu unceremoniously out of the sack.
“What were you doing, beating me black and blue?” the latter demanded.
“Never mind that,” Damodar said. “Where’s my necklace?”
“Necklace?” Bhutu blinked in confusion before suddenly remembering that Damodar had demanded the necklace for hiding him. “But how can I give you the...”
Damodar turned in the direction the zamindar’s men had taken, raising his voice. “Here he...”
“Wait, wait,” Bhutu begged. “I don’t have any necklace, but I’ll get it for you. Just give me time.”
“I’ll give you three days,” Damodar declared. The fourth day from now was his wife’s birthday, and she would hopefully refrain from breaking every bone in his body if he gave her the necklace as a present. “Three days only, mind!”
Nodding gloomily, Bhutu walked away homewards. Where was he to get a necklace at all, let alone one like the zamindar’s wife’s? His only option was to leave the village and run away.
And that was what he decided to do.
Of course, as even Bhutu realised, he couldn’t just pack up his things and walk out of the village. For one thing, the road out led right past Damodar’s hut, and if he wasn’t there, his monster of a wife would be. For another, the zamindar’s men might still be on the lookout for him, and he wasn’t quite sure that they wouldn’t remember what he looked like.
There was only one solution: he would have to run away at night.
This was, of course, easier said than done, and not because of the danger from snakes or just falling into a pond in the dark. Night was when the ghosts would all be out and about, and it would normally have needed a more intrepid man than Bhutu to brave the possibility of being caught by them. And so he waited one day, and then another, hoping that Damodar would have forgotten the necklace thing.
But Damodar hadn’t, of course, forgotten. “Hey, ojha,” he shouted on the third afternoon, right across the big pond outside the village. “Today’s the third day, don’t forget. I want that necklace by tomorrow morning. Or else.”
Bhutu had been standing under a jackfruit tree, looking up longingly at the immense, odoriferous, yellow fruit, wishing he could wrench down one and gorge himself on the slimy, sweetish flesh inside. But if he even tried, he was quite sure, the ghosts in the tree would wring his neck. Bhutu had a healthy respect for jackfruit tree ghosts, who were notoriously almost as truculent as those that inhabited tamarind trees. He even thought he could see one of them, bulking shadowy among the leaves. At Damodar’s shout, he gulped down the saliva that had gathered in his mouth, sighed mournfully, and set off homewards to pack his things so that he could sneak away as soon as darkness fell.
Meanwhile, it so happened that that same afternoon the zamindar’s child bride had developed an upset stomach from eating too many green mangoes. The zamindar had summoned a kabiraj from the next village to have a look, and the kabiraj had said that the girl had simply had too many green mangoes and would recover in good time. This had, of course, infuriated the zamindar.
“No wife of mine,” he shouted, “can have such a commonplace problem as stomach cramps from green mangoes like some common village urchin. Are you trying to compare her to a village urchin? Are you?”
The kabiraj had shrugged and given the girl a herbal medicine of his own concoction, which would – he was fairly confident – not do her any harm, taken a couple of copper coins for his trouble, and gone on his way. The zamindar, though, was still fuming.
“How dare he try to fob me off with this useless stuff,” he shouted, poking the small earthenware pot with its revolting yellowish-green contents. “There is no way my wife can have such an ordinary illness. In fact, you can be sure she isn’t sick at all. Yes,” he said, struck by this idea, “she can’t possibly be sick. She must be possessed. Yes! She must be possessed by a ghost that’s jealous of her youth and beauty.”
The zamindar’s clerks and assistants nodded dutifully. “You must be right, Master,” they intoned. “There is indeed nobody as young and pretty as our mistress. No wonder a ghost might be filled with jealousy at the sight of her.”
“We must get rid of the ghost,” the zamindar’s old mother said. “We should burn dry chillies and mustard oil. Ghosts hate the smell of dried chillies and mustard oil.”
So the zamindar had his cook send up dried chillies and mustard oil from the kitchen. His minions poured the mustard oil in an earthen lamp, stuck in a wick, and set it to smoke and sputter by the child-wife’s bed. And in a great iron pan they heaped crushed dried chillies, heated it until the spices were smouldering, and put it on the floor until her room was so full of acrid smoke she could hardly breathe.
“The ghost must surely be gone by now,” the old mother said at last. So, just in time to stop the girl from asphyxiating, they carried away the burnt chilli and threw open her window. The zamindar waddled pompously into her room as soon as the smoke had cleared enough to tolerate.
“And how are you feeling now, my dear?” he enquired.
“My stomach is still hurting,” the child bride said between gasps and coughs. “And now my throat and eyes and nose are all hurting too.”
“It must be a very powerful ghost,” the old mother said. “A very evil, very powerful ghost.”
“What should we do then?”
“We should get an ojha to chase the ghost away,” the old mother said. “These ghosts are stubborn and need an ojha to do the job.”
“But where can we get an ojha?” the zamindar asked. “I don’t know any ojha.”
“There’s one in the kabiraj’s village,” the junior-most of the clerks offered. “We could fetch him.”
“Under no circumstances,” roared the zamindar, “will I have anything to do with anyone from that idiot’s village.”
“There’s another in the next village but one,” the middle clerk said. “I know him. He chased a ghost away for my mother-in-law when...”
“Good!” the zamindar interrupted, flashing a betel-juice-stained smile. “You can go right now and fetch him.”
The middle clerk’s face went pale. “But...” he stammered. “But that’s a long way, and it’ll be dark long before I can get there, and...there are ponds and tamarind trees and ruined temples full of ghosts on the way. Maybe tomorrow morning, if the mistress isn’t better...”
“Rubbish,” the zamindar screamed. “We can’t wait till tomorrow. If you don’t go, I’ll whip the skin off your back myself.”
The middle clerk went three shades paler, his mouth opening and closing like one of the fish in the zamindar’s pond. “But,” he repeated, “but...”
“Wait,” the senior clerk said. “I just remembered that there is an ojha in this village, though I’m not sure who it is or where he lives. But our guards can ask around and find out.”
“Excellent,” the zamindar said. “Send the guards right now to find this fellow and bring him here.”
So it was that, just as Bhutu was making his way home from the pond, someone he knew hailed him. “Hey, Bhutu, I hear the zamindar’s men are looking for you.”
Bhutu went as pale as the zamindar’s middle clerk. “For me?” he squeaked.
“They’re the ones with the moustaches and the sticks,” the man said with relish. “I don’t know what you’ve done, but you’re going to catch it.”
“Where are they looking for me?” Bhutu asked, his lips growing numb from fear. “Are they coming this way?”
“Not yet,” the other replied, sadly. “I told them the way to your house. They’re on their way there. But,” he added cheerfully, “when they don’t find you there, they’re certain to come looking. They seemed awfully eager to get their hands on you.”
Bhutu walked away without another word, and then, as soon as he was out of sight, he turned back and hurried as fast as his legs could carry him away from the village. He was in such a terrible panic that he scarcely noticed where he was going, and – since being half-starved and weak he couldn’t go far without getting winded – he soon ran out of breath and collapsed under a big tree.
He had hardly started getting his breath back when he heard some distant voices, which sounded horribly familiar. At any rate, he could hear them mention his name, and he was quite sure he heard the zamindar mentioned too.
In a panic, and with no idea where the zamindar’s men were, Bhutu did the only thing he could. He clambered up into the tree as fast as he could and hid himself among the branches. The leaves were thick, so that they probably concealed him, but even more, the tree was filled with rough and bulky objects that smelled strongly, though at that moment he didn’t have the leisure to think about them.
The voices came closer, and he could hear that they were angry. “Where is that ojha?” one was growling. “The zamindar will have the skin off our backs if we don’t find him.”
“And if we do,” another said, “he’ll have the skin off the ojha’s back for making him wait.”
The terrified Bhutu tried to hide himself even further into the thickest shadow of the leaves, pushing aside one of the rough bulky objects as he did. It was very large and heavy, apart from stinking hard enough to make his eyes water. When he touched it, his finger came away covered by a sticky, gummy material. And then, he realised where he was.
He was back at the pond and had climbed into the jackfruit tree.
If the zamindar’s men hadn’t been close by and threatening the skin on his back, Bhutu would have scrambled down from the tree as quickly as he could. As it was, all he could do was cling to his branch and try to comfort himself with the thought that it wasn’t yet dark, and so the ghosts wouldn’t yet be astir. Then, after waiting until the last sounds of the zamindar’s henchmen had faded into the distance, he began to stretch his cramped arms and legs, preliminary to getting down.
And at once his arm was grabbed by a huge and shadowy paw. “Who are you?” a voice rumbled in his ear. “How dare you come up in my tree and disturb my sleep?”
When Bhutu decided he could talk again, he slowly turned his head, and promptly decided that he couldn’t talk again. Perhaps he would never be able to talk ever again, any more.
Behind him was a gigantic head, so large that it rivalled the jackfruits in size. It was a mass of shadow and darkness, except for two vast, dimly glowing red eyes and a faint glimmer of great yellow tusks. The bhoot tilted its giant head and pulled him closer by the arm for a better look.
“I asked you a question,” it rumbled. “Answer me, and then I’ll tear you limb from limb.”
All Bhutu managed was a squeak, and twisted desperately, if futilely, to get away from the bhoot’s grip. The movement brought the little sack of charms dangling around his neck to the bhoot’s attention.
“What’s this?” it enquired, and poked at the bag with a forefinger of its other hand, only to draw it back immediately with a hiss. “What’s in there? It burns!”
Bhutu swallowed and suddenly found his voice. “It’s my job,” he said. “I’m an ojha.”
The bhoot recoiled, letting go of Bhutu’s arm. “An ojha!” it gasped. “I’ve never seen one of you before. I heard ojhas can burn ghosts to ashes and destroy them so thoroughly that they become the ghosts of ghosts. What are you going to do to me?”
“Nothing...” Bhutu began. His mind, unaccustomed to quick thought, was racing. “Nothing, that is, if you do exactly as I say. Now, what’s your name?”
“Olombush,” the bhoot replied. “But my friends call me...”
“I am not interested in what your friends call you. Now, Olombush, are you going to do what I tell you to, or should I burn you to ashes with my ojha charms?”
“I’ll do whatever you tell me to, lord,” the poor bhoot said, cringing as much as anything of its vast size could cringe. “Just give me the order, and it’s done.”
“Right, listen here. There is this zamindar who rules the village. He has a wife, and the wife has a necklace which...”
Soon afterwards, as darkness fell, the bhoot departed from the tree on his errand. Bhutu sat back, fingering his bag and glancing nervously about the tree. There might be other ghosts around, and they would probably not be as credulous about his abilities as Olombush was.
While he waited, he scratched a hole in the nearest jackfruit’s spiky hide, and began, almost absentmindedly, to eat.
Very early the next morning, just as the last of the night’s hordes of ghosts were returning to their roosts to snooze out the day, Bhutu turned up at Damodar the washerman’s hut. From inside he could hear the washerman’s wife soundly berating her husband. “It’s almost daylight,” she was shouting, “and you haven’t even got up yet! How will you get a thing done if you aren’t even willing to get up in the morning? No wonder I still haven’t got my necklace.” And more, in the same ear-splitting vein.
Bhutu waited discreetly behind the little shed that served as a stable for Damodar’s donkey. When the washerman finally stumbled out of his home, his wife’s shrill recriminations following him, he stepped into the open. Damodar was so startled that he nearly fell over backwards.
“Here’s your necklace,” Bhutu said, holding it out. “Now we’re even.” Without giving Damodar a chance to say a word, he turned and walked away.
Meanwhile, in the zamindar’s mansion, things had been going from bad to worse.
The zamindar had not been pleased when the guards returned, unable to find the ojha. So far from pleased had he been that the guards’ ears had been ringing from his ranting until it was quite midnight. And then it was discovered that somebody had sneaked in while all the screaming was going on, and stolen the child wife’s famous necklace right out of her room.
The child wife herself had seen nothing, since at the time, her stomach having stopped hurting on its own, she’d been in the kitchen in a fruitless search for more green mangoes to eat.
“Get the thief,” the zamindar had shrieked, his ample frame quivering like porridge while his face had gone the colour of a sunset. “Get the thief or I’ll whip you all with your own sticks!”
“Master,” the large moustached guard whined, “it’s midnight, and the ghosts...”
“Go!” the zamindar roared.
“Master,” the larger moustached guard whined, “it’s midnight, and the ghosts...”
“I said go!” the zamindar roared.
“Master,” the largest moustached guard whined, “it’s midnight, and the ghosts...”
With all the moustached guards refusing to step outside, the zamindar reluctantly had to wait till dawn. He spent the time stamping up and down the mansion, leaving his old mother worrying that he would hurt his poor legs. Meanwhile, the child bride found the next best thing to green mangoes, a pot of mango pickle, and ate the lot, which gave her stomach cramps all over again. Only, this time, everyone had more important things on their minds.
“The necklace!” the zamindar shouted. “The necklace! The necklace!”
So, as soon as the dawn was lightening the eastern horizon, the zamindar’s guards had had to step out of the mansion to go looking for the thief. And the first thing they saw was, of course, Bhutu, who had begun feeling so happy and carefree at having given the washerman the necklace that he didn’t even notice where he was going until he literally bumped into the guards.
“Hey, look,” the guard with the thick moustache said, grabbing hold of Bhutu by the arm, just like the bhoot had. “Doesn’t this one look familiar?”
“Come to think of it...” the guard with the thicker moustache said, squinting at Bhutu. “He kind of reminds me of somebody. I’m sure I’ve seen him recently. Give me a moment and it’ll come to me.”
“He’s out awfully early anyway,” the guard with the thickest moustache said, pointing at the dawn. “Suspiciously early, you might say. Hey, you,” he added, taking Bhutu by the other arm and shaking him, “what have you to say for yourself? Were you out stealing?
“Is that the necklace you have in that bag there?” the guard with the thicker moustache said, and, without hesitating, pulled it off Bhutu’s neck and emptied it on the ground. And then all the guards stood looking down, mystified, at the collection of stones, twigs, and bundles of feathers lying in the dust.
Bhutu, who had been gasping and squeaking with fright, finally found the ability to speak. “My materials,” he said. “They’re just the tools of my trade. I’m an ojha.”
“An ojha, are you?” the guard with the thick moustache gave him a hard shake. “Where were you last night when we wanted you? Where?”
“Forget that,” the guard with the thickest moustache replied. “We need an ojha to find the thief. Nobody else could.”
“But he’ll want money,” the guard with the thicker moustache said. “We don’t have money.”
“Don’t be a nitwit,” the guard with the thick moustache snapped. “It’s the zamindar who’ll pay. After all, it’s his wife’s necklace.”
“You’re right,” the other guards agreed. “Let’s take him to the zamindar and tell him about it.”
So, waiting only long enough to let Bhutu scoop up his pebbles and feathers, the guards dragged him before the zamindar. “Master,” they said, “the thief has made a getaway, but we’ll catch him. This ojha will catch him for us.”
“How will you catch him?” the zamindar thundered.
Bhutu’s brain had been in a whirl all this time. Until the previous evening it had hardly ever had to work at all, and it was coping badly with this unaccustomed exercise. He gulped and glopped and licked his lips. “I can do it,” he said at last, “but not with these things I have on me. I need to fetch some special equipment. Could I have leave to go and get it?”
“All right,” the zamindar said. “I suppose you need your tools. But come right back. If you find the thief, I’ll give you...” he thought. “I’ll give you fift...er, thirty copper coins. If you don’t, my guards will break every bone in your body.”
“And if he doesn’t come back, master,” the guard with the long moustache added, helpfully, “we’ll track him down and break every bone in his body.”
“That’s right,” the zamindar agreed. “Well, go and get your things.”
“I’ll be back soon,” Bhutu said. In fact he needed to be back soon, if what he was planning was to work. Once the sun was high up in the sky it no longer would.
Running as fast as he could, with the thought of the thirty copper coins – more money than he’d ever seen in his life in one place – in his mind, he rushed to the pond outside the village and slapped the trunk of the jackfruit tree.
“Olombush,” he called. “Oh, bhoot, are you there?”
There was a rustle in the tree, and the bhoot’s immense red eyes glowered through the leaves. “Who dares disturb my bedtime?”
“It’s the ojha. Come down, or I’ll burn you.”
There was a slight pause, and then the bhoot slid down the trunk and puddle on the ground like a misshapen buffalo. “Oh, Master. I am sorry, but I did not recognise you. Please pardon me.”
“I will, I will,” Bhutu said heartily. “But you’ll have to do something for me in return. Now listen carefully.”
Leaning forward like a tusked, glowing-eyed, talon-pawed, buffalo made of shadow, Olombush listened.
“I am back, Master,” Bhutu announced. “And I am ready to track down the thief.”
“Good,” the zamindar said. “So you have everything you need?”
“Everything,” Bhutu nodded, “except a copper bowl. Could I have a copper bowl? A smallish one will do.”
“I don’t see why not,” the zamindar said. “We have plenty in the kitchen.” A sudden thought struck him. “Look here, I want to make something completely clear. I’ll lend you the copper bowl, but when you’re done with it you’ll have to give it back. It won’t be added to the thir...to the twenty copper coins I agreed to pay you.”
“Twenty?” Bhutu squeaked. He glanced at the zamindar’s purpling face. “Yes, twenty, master.”
The zamindar’s old mother brought a copper bowl from the kitchen and gave it to the ojha. “Take good care of it,” she snarled, as well as her toothless mouth could. “If you dare get one scratch on it...”
“Don’t worry, Honoured Aunt,” Bhutu said, taking the bowl. “I’ll return it to you as soon as I’m done with it.”
Going outside, followed by the zamindar, his guards, and the old mother, he waved the bowl around in the air and then put it on the ground. “Now,” he said, placing his fingertips on it, “someone has stolen a valuable necklace from this mansion. Find the thief, bowl, and the necklace too.”
There was a moment’s pause, and then the bowl began to move. Slowly at first, then, faster, it began to roll down the path, until it was rushing at terrific speed along the ground, Bhutu running stooped over with his fingers on it and the zamindar’s guards in pursuit. (The zamindar’s old mother, of course, couldn’t run at all, and the zamindar himself gave up after a few waddling steps.) Faster and faster sped the bowl, until it seemed to be going faster than any human being could run, let alone a scrawny half-starved one like the ojha.
“Stop!” called the guard with the long moustache, panting.
“Go slower!” implored the guard with the longer moustache, huffing.
“It’s no use,” Bhutu called back over his shoulder. “The bowl is pulling me. I can’t slow down or stop until it gets to where it’s going.”
“Let’s just keep him in sight as best we can,” said the guard with the longest moustache, which pulsed from the wind of his puffing. “We’ll catch up with him when he stops.”
“It almost looked,” the guard with the long moustache said, slowing down to a trot, “as though something was pushing him and the bowl, didn’t it?”
“Like a shadow that you almost couldn’t see?” the guard with the longer moustache agreed between gasps for breath. “I saw it too.”
“It seemed to have red eyes too,” the guard with the longest moustache said, rubbing his sides, which were aching. “But we must have imagined it. There couldn’t have been any such thing.”
Meanwhile, Bhutu had arrived back at the washerman’s hut, where Damodar’s wife was examining the necklace. She’d snatched it from his hand as soon as he’d entered the hut, and, after trying it on, had taken it off to look at it some more. Damodar had just begun planning to heave a sigh of relief when she glared up at him suddenly.
“So you could get this necklace for me, could you? But you said you couldn’t. So you must have a lot of money hidden away from me, don’t you? Don’t you?”
“What?” Damodar’s planned sigh of relief died a despairing death in his lungs. “But I don’t have any money...”
“Don’t you dare lie to me.” She reached out with the hand not holding the necklace and seized Damodar by the throat. “If you don’t have money, how did you get it? How?”
“I...” Damodar struggled frantically to breathe. “I...”
“He found it outside,” someone said from the doorway. “You found it outside, Damodar, didn’t you?”
Both Damodar and his wife turned. It was the ojha at the doorway, crouched behind a copper bowl. He looked up at them with a grin. “A thief stole the zamindar’s wife’s necklace, and must have thrown it down outside your house when he heard us coming. That’s what happened, Damodar, isn’t it?”
Damodar’s wife had been turning steadily the colour of a beet while gathering breath to unleash a sufficiently devastating explosion. So much was her need to gather air that she’d even dropped her grip on her husband’s neck. “Us coming?” he asked. “Who is this ‘us’, ojha?”
“Why,” Bhutu said breezily, “the zamindar’s guards. They’re out to find the thief, and when they do, they’re going to break every bone in his body with their long sticks. Go to the door and you’ll see them coming.”
Damodar stepped to the door, looked out, and hesitated just a moment. Then he darted back, snatched the necklace from his wife’s hand before she could tighten her grip, and ran to the ojha. “Take it,” he said. “Take it and get out, and never show your face here again!”
Bhutu shrugged. “I’ll take it,” he said, “but when the zamindar’s guards ask where I found it, I’ll have to...”
“I’ll tell them the thief threw it down and I found it,” Damodar said desperately.
“You do that,” Bhutu said. “After all, that’s what happened, right?”
“So,” said the zamindar, “here are your ten copper coins, exactly as we agreed.”
“Ten?” Bhutu looked up at him. “Master, you promised me thirt...I mean, twenty.”
“What?” the zamindar bellowed, rather like his bull. “You dare lie to me?” He glared around at the guards. “How many copper coins did I promise this wretch?”
“Ten, Master,” said the guard with the shaggy moustache.
“Ten, Master,” said the guard with the shaggier moustache.
“Ten, Master,” said the guard with the shaggiest moustache.
“There, you see?” the zamindar grinned fatly. “In fact, ten coins are too much. You got the necklace back, but you didn’t catch the thief. And on top of that my mother tells me...”
“He put a scratch in the bowl!” the old mother hooted. She held up the utensil and pointed at it with a quivering finger. “Look, it’s almost big enough to be visible! And it was such an old bowl too, from my own grandmother’s time. They don’t make them like this any longer, and...”
“You see?” the zamindar howled. “You see? I should pay you nothing at all, but I’m not a cruel man. Here, take your five copper coins and get out.”
Bhutu walked despondently away, clutching the five copper coins in his fist, muttering imprecations under his breath against the zamindar. All of a sudden he felt something around him and looked up to see a shadow, almost invisible in the light of the rising sun, with two dim red spots like eyes. “What do you want?” he asked truculently. “Shouldn’t you be asleep by now?”
The bhoot grinned, its yellow tusks briefly flashing in the sun’s rays, so that a goat passing by ran away bleating. “I would have been,” it said, “but it struck me that you’ve disturbed me last night and again this morning, and you’ll more likely than not be coming around again to do it tonight. So I thought I might as well get it over with.”
Bhutu considered. “Well, now, there is something I would want you to do. Go to the zamindar’s house, and frighten him.”
“Right,” Olombush said. “I’ll give him a fright. A really good fright.” And without further ado, the ghost disappeared.
The zamindar had just sat down to his favourite breakfast of a mountain of rice soaked in clarified butter and topped off with greasy fried fish. He was still chuckling to himself about the money he’d saved with the ojha. “And I got back the necklace, too,” he repeated for the tenth or seventeenth time, before stuffing a gargantuan helping of food into his mouth. It was so big that he could hardly chew, but that was the way he liked it. “All for five copp...”
Then he looked up and saw a gigantic bhoot squatting opposite him, gnashing yellow tusks and glaring at him with titanic red eyes.
“How many copper coins are you eating?” it enquired. “Shall I rip you open and find out?”
“So that’s it,” Olombush said. The bhoot tapped on the trunk of the jackfruit tree with one long talon. “I did what you asked for, and I’m done working for you.”
“Not so fast,” Bhutu said quickly. “Remember I’m an ojha, and if you don’t do as I say, remember what I’ll do to you.”
“Oh, about that,” Olombush replied, casually. “I was talking to some of the other ghosts. They told me that ojhas can’t really burn us to ashes. At best they can only make things uncomfortable for us for a while. And those who know who you are tell me that you’re a poor specimen of an ojha, too. You’re nobody to be scared of.” The bhoot’s voice rumbled with menace. “So, if you know what’s good for you...”
Bhutu swallowed. “I won’t bother you any longer,” he said. “It’s just that I’ll starve to death if I don’t get some work, and my work is chasing ghosts away.”
“So what was your plan? To make me haunt people and charge a fee for scaring me off?”
“Yes, but if you aren’t going to do it, then I’ll just have to starve to death,” Bhutu said miserably. “And then I’ll be a ghost as well.”
“Don’t worry,” the bhoot replied. “I thought about that. I arranged for a ghost you can scare off all you want. There he is.”
Bhutu looked in the direction Olombush was pointing.
Walking across the surface of the pond, bobbing across the unquiet waters, the ghost of the zamindar was coming.
Meanwhile, in the washerman’s hut, Damodar’s wife had grabbed her husband by the ear.
“I saw a woman in the village today,” she grated, “with gold rings in her ears that hung down to her shoulders. Get me earrings like that or...”
“You’ll break every bone in my body,” the washerman sighed. “I know.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2021