By Nandita Bose
It all happened many years ago when I was a little girl – about ten or eleven years old. My friends in this story are a one-eyed bullying dog, his mate who was without a tail – and quite proud of it, a crow with only one beak and a pigeon couple. All of us got together and worked with Fate to bring about a big change in the neighbourhood – something for which the birds came in throngs to thank me and so did the squirrels, the cats, the rats, the butterflies and even some humans. The trees and the green foliage were overwhelmed by what happened and thanked me and my children and grandchildren over the years with loads of fruits and flowers. The main character – mind you, is a ghost.
My parents had died and I lived with my grandmother, Thamma, in a small railway town nestling in the Choto Nagpur region of Bihar, India. The house was a grand structure that grandfather had built. From the portico, one could see the surrounding encircling hills. There were two wells – ah the water was so sweet – in the spacious garden and more than two dozen trees. The house was supported by tall pillars and there were many rooms all fitted with wooden bedsteads ready to welcome the entire family when they rolled in for holidays running away from the crowd of the big city of Calcutta. Time, however, took away everyone leaving me in the care of Thamma in this huge house.
And so we lived – the old lady, the middle-aged housekeeper Joseph and his wife Dukhini. They were a strange pair. Joseph-chacha went to church once a week but his wife regularly visited the local temple. They had many children – I have lost count although they taught me how to climb the tallest branches of the tree, pull water from the well and talk to the birds and squirrels. The couple cooked, cleaned, marketed and in short did everything for us and had been doing so from the time when Dukhini’s father had been alive. I attended the local school but Thamma was never strict with me. She would brush my long hair and say “You don’t want to go to school?”
“Then don’t go. Come I will show you the puppy Joseph has brought from the church.”
I was so excited that I asked many questions at one go without waiting for an answer.
“Can we keep it? Is it mine? Why doesn’t it have a tail? Is it a boy or girl? What will it eat?”
Thamma answered with patience.
“Yes, we will keep it. Yes, it is yours. Somebody cruel must have chopped off its tail. It’s a girl. It will eat what we eat.”
“Like your pet the one-beaked crow?”
And so, we named the crow ‘Biku’ and the puppy ‘Pari’.
Thamma’s wrinkles stretched into a wider smile at the mention of her pet. The crow had fallen off its nest a day before it could fly and would have surely died if Thamma had not found it during her evening amble through the unkempt garden. The mother crow never bothered about silly children that fell off nests before time. She had more important things to do. Unfortunately, the fall had resulted in injury to the beak of the bird. Thamma did her best to nurse the crow but although the wound healed, it could not eat properly – had to bend its head sideways and scoop up the food. So it was a routine now. Whenever Thamma sat with her plate the crow would jump down from its perch on the window frame, wait patiently for her to finish and then join in to scoop up the generous remains from the old lady’s brass thali.
Another creature joined Thamma’s family – a pigeon. It landed near Thamma one day with a pathetic expression. Perhaps Biku the crow was the introducer. I don’t know. A strand of hair was entwined around one of its feet. Thamma knew about pigeons. She told me “Look, we must catch the bird, snip off the hair and apply an antiseptic lotion; otherwise, the hair will sink deep into the muscles and ultimately the pigeon’s leg will fall off!” It was difficult to catch the flying creature because although it had come for help the pigeon was goaded by an instinctive fear of humans. Pari added to the problem. The dog was jealous of the attention being poured on the newcomer and barked whenever we were about to succeed. Finally, I distracted Pari and Thamma threw her gamcha over the bird. Since the treatment, the pigeon did not leave our group but brought along a mate. The pigeon also had to be named but before we could do that my life changed.
Slowly but surely the sleepy railway station town became important. Many people came and went and soon we began to feel the transformation. Joseph-cha-cha was seen lolling around with many smart-looking friends sporting dark glasses, ponytails and pointed shoes. Some of the men wore earrings. In the beginning, the partying was near the gate but later they began to enter the garden and visit Joseph’s quarters. While passing they would offer me chocolates and nod respectfully at Thamma. Thamma was far from happy with this crowd. Dukhini too had her reservations and would grumble loudly but Thamma kept quiet.
It was most unlike my grandmother to bottle up her dislike in silence, but later when I grew up I understood that this was because of her failing health. Soon the time came when she took to the bed. One day she died. I didn’t understand death but I realized that now I was completely alone. In a daze, I accompanied Thamma’s remains to the burning ghat – Battala Samsan, which was some distance away by the banks of a trickling stream. Neighbours had helped in the last rituals and one of them hunted through Thamma’s papers to find out if there was any relation of ours in Calcutta. I don’t know what happened but life flowed on with Chacha and Chachi as my caretakers. Their friends began to freely come and go.
This did not go on for long because Chacha began to grumble about the expenses.
“How can we feed the child and the dog? This land has to be developed. The child … let me think. ”
Yes, that was a problem for them but for me, a most welcome change had happened. When Thamma was alive the animal and birds followed her around ignoring me but now all four – Pari, Biku and the pigeon pair stuck to me like a leech. I felt mighty important. It somewhat made the absence of Thamma bearable.
The caretaker couple continued to squabble. Chachi always snapped at her husband and said something about going to the bank and the money kept in the old lady’s cupboard. I half understood all this and tried to match my sorrow with the freedom of not having to go to school anymore.
Few weeks after the death of Thamma I suddenly fell ill after taking a broth Chachici gave me. I began to vomit and foam at the mouth. It was terrible but then I don’t remember what happened.
The Banyan Shelter
When I recovered my drugged senses it was dark. Where was I? I could not get my bearings but the place seemed vaguely familiar in the moonlight. I could hear the gurgle of a stream flowing nearby. I tried to turn my head but could not. It seemed I was lying on a wooden platform – hard and uncomfortable. A feeling of sickness began to overtake me as I once more lost my consciousness as I retched. I woke up when raindrops began to gently kiss my eyelids. It refreshed me. I could manage to stretch. Then I heard people talking. A familiar voice was telling someone.
“Look here is the doctor’s death certificate. Here is the money. Rain clouds are gathering and it was said over the radio that the river will overflow. Then we can’t cross the bridge.’
“But you can’t leave the body here in the samsan until it is burnt”.
“You do it. She has nobody. Here, give me the flame. I will light it. Now let me go. Please. Here is some more money.”
Then another person was grumbling something which I did not hear. I was trying to concentrate on the familiar voice of the person who worried about the overflowing river. It was familiar, but in that dazed condition, I couldn’t put two and two together – the voice and the person. Vaguely I understood that with money, papers also changed hands and somebody shuffled away hastily trying to beat the rain. That shuffling gait! Even that was familiar. But who?
Dark clouds covered the moon as the rain now fell in torrents. It cleared my thinking. Slowly I got up and saw a shelter in the distance. Instinct made me dash for it. From the portico, I peeped in and saw that the shed was empty. There hung from a hook a clean dry length of white cloth – perhaps a dhoti. I was now shivering. Making a dash for it, I discarded my wet clothes I wound the white dhoti round myself. Should I stay in this shelter? Some instinct warned me. The vibrations of the room were menacing. Hearing footsteps I ran out and climbed up the nearest tall trunk of a banyan tree. Soon the rain started to fall again in torrents. Then the water began to rush in. The approaching person ran away fast as the swirling waters ran off with my discarded clothes.
When the Sun broke through, I had recovered. I recognized the place! Why – it was here that I had lit Thamma’s funeral pyre! Battala Samsan! But how did I come here? When did I cross the rickety bamboo bridge across the river? Then it flashed that I had been placed on a pyre and someone – oh dear that voice was familiar – it was Joseph-cha-cha.
I jumped down from the tree but froze when a mangy dog blind in one eye came sniffing up. He circled me and then got distracted when some pallbearers came with a dead body. Then something strange happened. The owner of the shelter in charge of the cremation ground who had run away last night when the water began to rise, came back. He looked at me and then at the funeral pyre and began to tremble and shriek.
The newcomers took one look at me and began to create a ruckus. Frightened I jumped up the tree again and like the trained monkey I was, I swung from tree to tree quite a distance away from the commotion site. But I could hear them.
“I placed the body on that pyre when the rain fell. Where is the body? I will lose my job – if anybody comes for the ashes.”
But the others were not listening it seemed – they were baffled about the ghost and exclaiming among themselves that they had seen it. Soon the voices died down and I decided to jump down and try to hit the road; my target was Thamma’s house but fate had it otherwise.
I couldn’t find my way and still under a daze I was stumbling along the main road when a car stopped. I was lying on the road and the old man driving the jalopy somehow blamed himself for my plight.
To make a long story short, that was how I became part of the household of this kind old doctor – Budda Dadu, who nursed me back to health. Like all children, I accepted the situation and behaved like an adopted puppy. Sometimes I made noises about going back to the grand old house but he wanted me to recover fully.
“My child, you are too young to understand – somebody had given you poison that didn’t work or perhaps the rain helped you out of it. I don’t know. But the place is dangerous for you. You get well and then we will see what can be done.”
Budda Dadu lived by himself caring for the locals and loved by the locals. He wanted nothing and he was never in want. I did my best to take care of him but he was fiercely independent. But Budda Dadu allowed me entry into his world of birds. Every morning at dawn both of us fed an assortment of birds puffed rice and breadcrumbs. There was always a bowl of fresh water for them. The pigeons came in throngs. Did I or did I not see a familiar pair? I was not sure.
I stayed on but a habit remained. Time and again I sneaked off at dusk when Budda Dadu was busy in his chamber, through the trees, sometimes swinging through branches to the cremation ground – Battala Samsan. I took with me the white dhoti – yes it was a dhoti – to give me the feel of that moment. Also, I felt guilty and kept thinking of returning the item to the shed. But the shed had been replaced by a new one and I got confused. Covering myself with the dhoti and sitting on the branches I felt I was going back in time – hoping and hoping that Thamma would take me back to her house. The place triggered old memories that my mind had pushed back on that awful night. I felt sure that from this point on I would be able to go back. There was always that mangy dog to welcome me. Somehow from that rainy night, he had accepted me as part of the scene and whether I brought a biscuit for him or not, he allowed me into his territory with wags of his tail. He never gave me away when I waited up in the branches thinking and thinking. Sometimes Mangy – I could think of no other name, accompanied me to the main road.
One evening it began to rain. I waited in vain for the rain to stop but it worsened. Just then a group came chanting with their dead. I knew Budda Dadu would worry and so I decided to slip down. One of them saw me and immediately the cry went out.
I slipped away hastily – more afraid of them than they were of me. Suddenly I sensed Mangy trotting behind me. It gave me a good feeling to have company. He escorted me right back to Budda-Kaka’s den braving local dogs. But they were no match for him – you see Mangy lived with the dead! He had little regard for life!
Later it became fun – this game of playing ghost. Don’t forget I was then a little girl up to pranks.
Soon word got around about the ghost of the samsan – Battala Bhoot!
The Ghost and the God
The weather cleared and then one day things happened in a rush. The days had become short and I was up in the tree looking at the stream and the bamboo bridge in the distance – faintly outlined by the mellow afternoon sun. I was missing Mangy. He had not come for a few days. What could it be? Then suddenly with a woof Mangy arrived at the foot of the tree with a companion.
Companion! There was Pari coyly trotting beside him – respectfully a paw behind him – a sure sign of marriage. Seeing me Pari threw decorum to the winds and started barking up the tree wagging her stump. I jumped down and took them to my heart with both my arms. Suddenly there was a flutter and Biki landed on my head. The pigeon pair too was a safe distance away on a nearby branch.
It was unbelievable. The whole entourage accompanied me back to Budda Dadu who welcomed them warmly with biscuits. Seeing them together, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle suddenly began to fall into place. I tugged at the old man’s sleeve. “I now remember my Thamma’s house – we will have to cross the bamboo bridge beyond the samsan and then – come Mangy seems to understand – Pari too – they are leading the way – I know too – come Dadu”.
Budda Dadu took his umbrella and put on his well-worn pair of shoes. Mangy and Pari trotted ahead with the birds circling overhead. We followed. After about half an hour or less the surroundings became familiar and Mangy led me to the gate of Thamma’s mansion. It all came back in a flash but before that something happened. Chacha and Chachi were in the verandah talking with some of the fancy fellows when suddenly Chacha turned towards the gate. In the dim twilight what he saw he alone knew but the sight of me wrapped in the white cloth raised unknown fears in him. As I hid behind Budda Dadu there arose a din of “Bhoot! Bhoot!”
The fancy-pants around him all began to shake. Budda Dadu swiftly steered me away and we took a shorter route back home. “Let us go from here. They are not good fellows. I know one of them – asking me to sell my plot. So that is your house. I must speak to the lawyer. Come hurry – they could harm you again.”
But there was no need for the lawyer. The ghost took over control from here. The story of the Bhoot spread like wildfire. The city men who had come to fell the trees and begin ‘development’ work could not find anyone willing to work here – neither woodcutters nor masons. There was much haggling and persuading but the ghost cult was deeply ingrained in the psyche of this region – something that jeans pants and dark glasses could not dispel. The fight for the land was not easy. Joseph Chacha one day came to bully Budda Dadu to force him to sell his small plot but seeing me in the distance he turned tail and ran. Many scientists and rationalists came to find the ‘ghost’ but it was all in vain. But whenever doubts of its existence arose, I put on the robe taking advantage of full moon rainy nights.
Later – much later, Budda Dadu analyzed and explained to me how it all came about – my reunion with the animals. The mating mood and the vibrations in the air had sent Mangy sniffing out his adorable Pari but at the same time, Mangy carried back with him my smell. The pigeons who had visited Budda Dadu recognized me and being free fliers they went back to Thamma’s place. Biku was desperate for human help to live and the love story of Mangy and Pari filled in the missing gaps.
And so there was no concrete development but only green development. The trees remained. The trees multiplied and the banyan marching forth ultimately took over the entire stretch until nothing but Thamma’s locked gate was standing. The new litter of puppy dogs played round the gate that guarded nothing but the wild.
The legend of the ghost grew and expanded and together with it the protective greatness of the banyan. The tree became the God of the Grove as the reverential touch of Man completed the scene. People came in groups to tie the tree with thread and touch the ground with their foreheads on which it stood. Smoke from incense sticks purified the air. The birds sang hymns. The stream kept the beat. The legend of ghost and god lived on with the expanding green of Battala Samsan.