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|Volume 11 |Issue 32| August 10, 2012 ||
"No, no, I don't want to hear any of this. Please. Please!" Tirna screamed, her head covered with a red shawl, her body squeezed into a huddle.
"It's only a story, didibhai," consoled Mitti.
"It's not just a story Mitti," said Nirjhar, whose room had become the setting of the tale.
"Alright, so what even if it's a true story, didibhai?" insisted Mitti. She was no less scared of ghosts than her cousin, had never slept alone on a bed in her seventeen-year-old life for fear of ghosts sleeping with her, and like her cousin uttered the mantra “Ram Ram Ram” with a shiver whenever she went to the toilet alone on winter nights, walking on tiptoe and sitting on the commode soundlessly as if these little sounds of feet and water would wake up ghosts, who both the girls had presumed to be very light sleepers.
"Story or History, whatever. I don't care. I don't want to hear anything about ghosts. As it is, amabasya is just two nights away," said Tirna, her eyes peeping out of the red shawl which stood over her head like a badly-tailored hood.
But Mitti, who had made this long journey from Balurghat to be with her cousin, had heard stories of all kinds of ghosts from her Bangladeshi servants. Bangladesh was a country where the population of ghosts was larger than that of men, women, and children, she had been convinced. Darjeeling, however, might be home to fairer ghosts, spirits of old sahibs and memsahibs or even the pretty Nepali girls whom she had seen from the car on their way up to the hill-town, the girls searching for lice in their friend's long hair. Quite clearly Mitti valued fairness; if she ever had to see a ghost, it would have to be a fair ghost. Mitti was scared, but listening to ghost stories was like eating chillies to spice up a bland dish; one cried and suffered while eating it but wouldn't stop for there in lay the delight. Perhaps like love.
Tirna, however, would not relent to her cousin's demand. She had grown up with the fear of the unseen, and unlike most girls of her age feared ghosts more than men. Empty roads filled her with thoughts of ghostly cars, empty rooms with sounds of voices, empty beds with invisible bodies of ghosts keeping warm under quilts and furry blankets but it was the bathroom, empty but for the buckets and bins filled with water to their necks in water-starved Darjeeling that scared her the most. She was convinced about the existence of water-ghosts with transparent bodies like water that could kill her as soon as she splashed water on her face. She believed in the existence of water-ghosts as much as her landlady was convinced about the existence of water-thieves who stole water from her tank with invisible pipes so that she often screamed in the middle of her sleep, "God! There goes another drop!" Tirna scrutinized every mug for traces of water-ghosts, chopped fingers, nails, even transparent eyelashes.
Nirjhar believed in ghosts or at least in spirits more than he believed in God. That scared Tirna even more. One day while walking up the gradual slope that led to Darjeeling Government College where they were colleagues, Tirna had suddenly stopped and asked Nirjhar, "Do you believe, as Prajna and Saikat do, that there are ghosts in the Principal's residential quarters?" "I wouldn't be surprised if ghosts chose to live in these damp and dark quarters given the high rent and scarcity of good houses in Darjeeling!" Nirjhar had replied in the tone of one answering an ignorant student. Tirna had stood there and laughed, and then, had suddenly felt scared to enter a building where she might run into a ghost and not even recognise him, her, or it. Then she felt scared of walking beside Nirjhar for the man would have walked beside a ghost exactly as he was now walking beside Tirna. And then a thought occurred to her which was to come back to her whenever there was a power cut: Was Nirjhar himself a ghost? She had slowed down her pace and started walking behind Nirjhar, as if she could fool a possible ghost with this trick. "What's wrong? Hurry up! Just five minutes to go for my lecture," Nirjhar had looked back and said in a friendly shout.
Tirna had been surprised, in a way one is surprised by a mother's wake-up call in the morning. Was that how ghosts spoke, in a familiar language, English, Bengali, Hindi? Did they know all the words in the dictionary? What if they said something whose meaning Tirna did not know? Would the ghosts kill her then? "Hurry up?" thought Tirna again. Did ghosts wear watches too? What time were their watches set to? GMT? Or IST for Indian ghosts? Oh! So did ghosts carry their nationalities with them to an empire of death, their passports, ration cards and election identity cards?
Nirjhar had begun talking. Tirna could not, at first, make out the words of his story; they came like a mantra to her ears:
I don't know my great-grandfather's name.
it seems that you are the subtle wine in my blood, the dancing restlessness in my heart, you mother, dead girl
….Your death has become an imagined painting, a mysterious sign,
because of which, after losing you, I have become capable, prosperous, not a loser,
filled my life with elemental humiliation
"Is this some mantra to invoke ghosts?" Tirna whispered to Mitti without looking at Nirjhar. She was too scared to look at him. He might have become a ghost by now. She wished she could run away from the room but banished the thought immediately for she was neither wearing socks nor closed shoes and some ghostly logic told her that ghosts attacked barefooted women first.
"Oh didibhai, didn't you know this? Don't you know this famous poem? Buddhadev Bose's Sandhilagno," said Mitti, irritated with her sister for in her mind, at least, the stage had been created for the ghost's arrival. She kept looking at the ventilator, expecting an underfed ghost to make her entry through this squeezed space. Tirna was angry with Nirjhar. Calling the ghost would not be enough for him; like all Bengalis, he needed to present a wordy prelude for everything, for every occasion, even calling a dead mother back into his world.
"But where's your mother's ghost, Nirjhar da?" asked Mitti in disappointment.
"I won't call her back again. If my mother doesn't want to see me, doesn't want to let me see her, how can I force her to come?" replied Nirjhar.
"Then why those words of invocation to your mother?" Mitti asked, now irritated with her Darjeeling ghost-guide.
"And that too, borrowed words!" Tirna wanted to add but didn't.
"Those are the words that my friend Girin had used for the planchette," Nirjhar replied.
"Planchette? What planchette, Nirjhar da?" Mitti couldn't contain her excitement.
"Please I don't want to hear of any planchette," said Tirna.
"But I want to know, didibhai. Moreover, if Rabindranath Tagore could do it when his hair and beard had turned silver, making him almost the age of ghosts, we can too," declared Mitti emphatically.
Tirna did not answer.
"And Tagore even sang a Rabindrasangeet for the ghost who came … so what if Nirjhar da used Buddhadev Bose's words?" Mitti looked for encouragement and turned towards Nirjhar.
"Something similar happened with us as well. Ghosts are such unpredictable creatures. You ask for someone and someone else arrives," replied Nirjhar and looked at Tirna who clearly had decided that she would not look at him, at least not at the son of a ghost.
But Nirjhar had begun his story. Tirna had not cared to listen to all the details of a planchette session. Her cousins' story-books had been full of planchette sessions, dark candle-lit rooms, coins on wooden tables, pen, blank paper, and pictures of black ghosts, the printer's ink smudged in these cheap books which made them scarier.
"What was your first question to the ghost?" asked Mitti.
"Who are you?"
"Moon of India? But when the earth itself has only one moon, how can India have a moon for herself?"
"I am Harischandra, Bharatendu Harischandra, Bharatendu, 'The Moon of India'. I am the architect of modern India."
"She sent me. You won't understand her language. She speaks a much-derided forgotten language. We are now neighbours in the other world there. She sent me to speak to you in a language you will understand. Hindi. The national language of India. The Rajbangshi's language you have forgotten. At least you understand Hindi, don't you?"
"See, we come from small villages and very small towns…"; "Yes, Mathabhanga, Toofangunj, Meteligunj…"; "Although this is Coochbehar, the district headquarter …"; "Even then, we learnt Hindi only as a compulsory third language from Classes Five to Eight … even if we failed in Hindi we were promoted to the next class…"; "The little Hindi that we know, we picked it up from Don…"
"Dawn? The Pakistani newspaper? Chhi Chhi."
"Baap re, we can barely even speak a proper sentence in English, our compulsory second language, a subject in which we have to get pass marks …"; "Hindi? Baap re!"; "Why English and Hindi? What about Bengali? That's the most difficult…"
"But you all are Bengalis, aren't you?"
"Yes, we are Bengalis"; "Yes, that's what the government says we are…. But we don't speak this language at home"; "None of us except Nirjhar…"; "…whose father is a Bengali…"; "So we have to learn three foreign languages in school – Bengali, English, Hindi …"; "And mathematics, don't forget that…"
"And when we were silent for some time," said Nirjhar, looking at Tirna, "the spirit of Bharatendu pointed towards me and said, 'Why are you silent, monkey?' and I replied, 'Monkey? How dare you call me a monkey?'"
"'Yes, I called you a Hanuman. Ka chupa sadhi raha balavana?,' the spirit of Harischandra replied."
Nirjhar suddenly became animated. Tirna looked at him from the corner of her eyes. He continued. "And I told him, 'Monkey? Me? Bhago! Go!'" Nirjhar had wanted to see his mother, talk to her; he had secretly planned to trap her in this world when she came. He would request her to cook shidol, his favourite Rajbanshi recipe of dry fish. But his mother had refused to be his, as always. And now this man who was claiming to be a representative sent by his mother was calling him a monkey, even if the monkey was Hanuman, the monkey-god. Nirjhar would not entertain him any longer. He would try to invoke his mother's spirit again. If only she would come on a second bidding.
But before Nirjhar had even started to convince his friends, another spirit had arrived like a nosey neighbour.
The drama had started again.
"I wouldn't have come. I never go uninvited anywhere, not even to students' invitations to my spirit in Aligarh Muslim University… And that too to a Bengali's house…"
"Then why have you come? We wanted to see Nirjhar's mother."
"Who cares for a Bengali woman? She is dead, is she? I came because I was scared that Bharatendu might say something against me and … Urdu. Hindi is a whore, Braj Bhasha or Khari Boli, whatever… Urdu … Urdu is like …"
"But why would he? He seemed to be a decent fellow …"
"That's what you Bengalis don't understand. That's why I always said that administration should not be left to Bengalis …"
"But he was nice …"; "Only he called Nirjhar a monkey…"
"Think for a moment what would be the result if all appointments were given by competitive examination. Over all races, not only over Mohammedans but over Rajas of high position and the brave Rajputs who have not forgotten the swords of their ancestors, would be placed as ruler a Bengali who at sight of a table knife would crawl under his chair. There would remain no part of the country in which we should see at the tables of justice and authority any face except those of Bengalis. I am delighted to see the Bengalis making progress, but the question is – What would be the result on the administration of the country? Do you think that the Rajput and the fiery Pathan, who are not afraid of being hanged or of encountering the swords of the police or the bayonets of the army, could remain in peace under the Bengalis? This would be the outcome of the proposal if accepted. Therefore if any of you – men of good position, Raïses, men of the middle classes, men of noble family to whom God has given sentiments of honour – if you accept that the country should groan under the yoke of Bengali rule and its people lick the Bengali shoes, then, in the name of God! jump into the train, sit down, and be off to Madras, be off to Madras."
"He seems to be giving a speech… some nineteenth century speech"; "Yes, must be some speech which he must have memorised and which even his ghost has not been able to forget …"; "Please go or we shall call the 'We Are Bengalis' association."
"That's all that you Bengalis can do …. writing with the pen – giz, giz, giz, giz, giz and mere talking – buk, buk, buk, buk."
"Why don't you go and send Nirjhar's mother instead?"
"What? Talk to the spirit of a Bengali woman? Never! You should have had a mother like Aziz-un-Nisa, not 'Nirjharer Ma' … What names Bengali women have!"
And then the ghost of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had disappeared, still unsuccessful in making his earthly peace. But the planchette session had not ended there. Nirjhar and his friends had asked for one ghost, only the spirit of Nirjhar's mother but instead two men had come, speaking a different language, of a different time. And while they had checked their story books to see if they had done anything wrong, another had appeared and spoken in a quaint Bengali, not the Bengali that Nirjhar's father spoke, neither the Bengali of his Rajbangshi friends, not even the Bengali in which Desh was written.
Hey Bongo, bhandare tobo bibidho ratan;
This had been the English-Bengali Hindu-Christian poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt extolling the virtues of his mother-tongue Bengali, telling these Rajbangshi children how he had become a pauper, a beggar in a faraway land, the Europe of his imagined fables, until his clan-goddess had ordered him to go back to his land and his language. But alas, said Nirjhar, the Rajbangshi children had not understood his words then.
After Tirna had heard Nirjhar's stories, she longed to get back to her room, to the comfort of her bed. She had lost her patience with the interfering ways of ghosts and Nirjhar's ghost-ploughing manners. Tirna wanted to be alone: this was not a reciprocal comradeship of her body to its shadow but a deeper delight, as unfathomable and inexplicable as the birth of water from water. From her room she could hear Nirjhar and Mitti. Perhaps a ghost had arrived. Tirna pulled her toes under the blanket; ghosts, in her mind, were respectful beings, who entered through feet and toes.
Nirjhar asked, "Who are you?"
The spirit seemed disappointed at this lack of recognition. "So this world still suffers from this confusion about my name. My fight with Dozey about this issue is still due. I haven't been able to find him in heaven yet. Perhaps he is in hell. He ought to be."
Nirjhar was looking for identities. He was circumspect about the slippery identities of ghosts. So he railed, "Who are you?"
"I am …. Sorry, I was many people… a tea garden manager, a tea garden proprietor, owner of Mandelligunge and … an ornithologist."
"What's that, Nirjharda? I don't understand these big difficult English words Nirjhar da," said Mitti.
"An ornithologist? Someone who studies birds," Nirjhar explained.
The spirit intervened, "Why? Haven't you heard of Pellorneum Mandelli, Arborophila Mandelli Hume, Phylloscopus Inornatus Mandelli Brooks, Certhia Familians Mandelli Brooks, Minla Mandelli, Sphenocichla Humei Humei Mandelli?"
"Baap re baap, Nirjhar da! If I knew a fair spirit would use such difficult words, I would have never wanted to see an English ghost. Which language is he speaking in, Nirjhar da? Latin? French? Portuguese?" Mitti was clearly regretting her desire to speak to 'a fair spirit.'
Nirjhar scolded her, "Shh! Choop Mitti! These are the scientific names of the birds he has discovered".
The ghost became a patient teacher. "Haven't you heard about these birds? Haven't you seen them in the British Museum? Or the Museum in Milan, my native city?"
Mitti became the apologetic student. "But Sir, I am an Arts student …". She stopped mid-sentence, wondering whether she had got her verbs right. She was scared of the prepositions, unnerved by where these tiny words might place her, above, under or inside a fair ghost.
The educating spirit continued, "You would have surely heard more about me had it not been for that Hume …"
Nirjhar took over from a scared Mitti, "Hume? Which Hume? A. O. Hume? The founder of the Indian National Congress?"
"Yes, that Hume … Hume is a brute, in fact, I call him a swindler, as far as birds are concerned. I gave him 5000 specimens and he gave me only 800 … when I was rather kutcha in ornithology."
"But Lord Hume was a nice man. He understood the problems of the natives."
"Natives? Don't talk about the natives. They are such humbugs. Hume, the natives, the Land Mortgage Bank of India … even Darjeeling – all of them forced me to commit suicide."
"Suicide?" asked Nirjhar, turning quiet. He had heard rumours that his mother had committed suicide.
"Ish!" said Mitti, and then stopped, not sure whether the English ghost would understand this Bengali sound of consolation.
Louis Mandelli was however clearly not looking for sympathy. He said, "Thank God for death! At least I got to meet my friend Anderson in the other world."
"Which Anderson?" asked Nirjhar.
"We are sitting …" began Nirjhar, intending to inform the ghost that they were sitting just above the Happy Valley Tea Estate which, until a few years back, produced the most expensive tea-leaves in the world.
"We don't know whether you are sitting, standing or sleeping because we can't see you," interrupted Mitti who had her own questions. "By the way, can ghosts sit, stand or sleep? What do ghosts eat? Are you a vegetarian?" There was a reason behind this question. Mitti's father was a die-hard carnivore and once when Mitti had wanted to turn vegetarian under Tirna's influence, her father had explained, in an extremely self-believing tone that human beings, unlike goats and cows, gradually turned green if they ate too many vegetables in their lifetime. Mitti had perhaps believed him, for she was a great believer, or at least wanted to be one, a believer of everything.
"What? A vegetarian?" The fair spirit was angry.
"Mitti, choop kawro. Yes, Mr Mandelli, as I was telling you, we are sitting right above the world's most expensive tea …" said Nirjhar after scolding Mitti.
"Forget the tea. Tell me about the birds, the Finches, the Grallatores, Natores, the Raptores …"
Nirjhar could not remember when he had last seen a bird in Darjeeling. It was as if Mandelli had packed all the birds in boxes to his other world.
"There are hardly any birds in Darjeeling. Only an occasional happy pigeon."
"The birds will only return when Darjeeling becomes the capital of Gorkhaland," said Mitti.
"So you are a cabinet naturalist …. You are like the Hume Ornithologists …. Your statements are based on hypothesis only…." said Mandelli.
Nirjhar pleaded with Louis Mandelli to leave.
Nirjhar felt drained, and not completely unlike a ghost of himself. When he switched on the lights, he felt that his being had stood still and waited for the rain, and it had rained when he had been away. Now there was only water-logging. All the spirits who had come, invited and uninvited, had gone and come and gone again without having settled their own disputes. Nirjhar felt like a being full of holes, like a patchwork shirt. He felt unfit to live, both in the world of men and in the world of spirits, in Mitti's and Madhusudan's.
Nirjhar took out a flag from his drawer, the Indian tricolour saved from the Independence Day function in college. He rolled it into a rope so that the green and the white and the saffron melded into each other. He then got a stool and climbed up on it urgently. Rolling the flag into a noose, he put his head through it. All this was part of his preparation to become a ghost. Looking up to the ceiling, he suddenly realised that there were no ceiling fans in Darjeeling. Furious, he climbed down from the stool and walked out to the balcony of his third floor apartment. The Happy Valley Tea Estate looked like an Ouija board to him in the darkness. Nirjhar wondered whether he had really turned into a ghost.
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