The howls of the strong wind, scattered bits of soot hanging loosely all over the place, ear-shattering sounds of the doors and windows that could not be shut properly, creaking noises produced by the old house, a few dry leaves from the nearby tree intruding into the room through the broken ventilator panes, the powerful bulb gradually losing its brightness to become like a piece of ember and give credence to the impending danger inside the room Â– all these happenings terrified me, making a clear impact on both my mental and physical faculties. Yet I did not look around me for help and scream like a terrified child for the last hopes of survival because, besides me there was no one else in the lonely guest house at that hour of the night.
There was no chance that Bhabaprasad who stayed in the small house at the other end of the compound could hear me in the rain-storm; maybe he was not at home. Could be that he would have some cheap booze at the paan shop at the crossing about a furlong or so away and spend the night there. I knew during our first meeting itself Â– from the way he walked, his physical appearance, his way of talking Â– that he had the habit of drinking, no one had to tell me about it.
BhabaprasadÂ’s drinking habit however did not affect his behaviour and hospitality. He received me like a very close yet devoted follower, taking the small suitcase from my hand and placing it gently on the stool, clearing the dusty layer that had formed on the previously cleaned few articles of furniture with his gamocha, removing the lid from the glass of water and saying to me: "The dust on the road must have troubled you a lot."
As I removed patches of dust with an old towel and wanted to say something, Bhabaprasad said: "The road has not been gravelled for a long time. About 10 or 15 years ago I had raised the matter with an officer during his visit here. A few days later two truck-loads of stone chips were sent here; one truck-load was utilised by the ranger at his bungalow and the remaining chips were scattered here and there. Now there are no traces of those stone chips left."
I knew that Bhabaprasad wanted to let me know about his connections with important people. That was natural, because unless something very important cropped up there was no chance of any officer visiting this isolated place; and even if anyone came, there was no option for him but to put up with the round-the-clock hospitality and company of Bhabaprasad which I had by now understood.
"How often do officers and VIPs come here?"
"They hardly come. For quite sometime now no one has visited this place. Why should anyone leave the comforts of city life and come to this jungle? Apart from the poor condition of the roads there is also no human habitation upto a distance of three to four furlongs from this bungalow."
"The village people must be engaged in agriculture?" I asked the question like a researcher in social science, not that I had any intention of acquiring a thorough knowledge of the lifestyle of the village folk, because that information would be of no help in the official work for which I had come here. And I didnÂ’t think it would help the least in expanding my knowledge; my real intention was to keep Bhabaprasad busy in the room for some more time because if he left there would be no one to talk to.
No reply came from Bhabaprasad, maybe he was a bit hard of hearing. He concentrated on opening the two windows. The moth-eaten curtains hung distortedly; no visitor must have noticed them for a long time. Or even if the tattered curtains had attracted attention, no thought must have been given to get them replaced.
"You have nothing to fear about the monkeys, they have become like domestic animals," Bhabaprasad said disinterestedly.
"Do they cause any harm or disturbance?" Fear of animals had always troubled me. Although I didnÂ’t show much anxiety while asking the question, I knew that I had an unfounded fear of monkeys. There was some psychological reason for it and despite trying hard I had not been able to overcome that fear.
"They wonÂ’t do anything if left alone. After all they too understand love and affection."
I had heard many nature lovers talk about love for animals, but till date I have not been able to gather the courage to find out the truth and have also not nurtured any remote wish to do so. So naturally it was not surprising for me to get apprehensive at the possibility of an attack from the monkeys. And then I noticed Bhabaprasad getting unduly amused at the sudden apprehension that had gripped me.
"Have they ever harassed anyone? Say, like destroying clothes and belongings, or getting angry and clawing or gnawing at…" without letting me finish Bhabaprasad explained that no such incident had ever occurred because the monkeys had by now understood that visitors came to the bungalow just for a night or two to rest and could never challenge their territorial supremacy like permanent residents. In fact, during their brief stay the visitors, either out of fear or love for natureÂ’s resources would try to weave a temporary bond of friendship with the animals. That in no way caused any obstruction to the dominance of the monkeys.
I did not let Bhabaprasad know that I was not comforted by his assuagement. He fetched two buckets of water and placed them in the bathroom. "Well water?"
"From where will you get municipal water here?" There were some traces of resentment in BhabaprasadÂ’s straightforward reply. It was natural because apart from the wells, there could be no other source of water in the area; the small hillocks in the surroundings made me realise that installing a tubewell was a difficult task because the rocks deep inside would surely cause obstructions to the pipes.
"How far is the well? If I can fetch water myself when I need it, I wonÂ’t have to trouble you."
"ItÂ’s quite nearby and can be seen from the back door of the bathroom," Bhabaprasad said, compelling me to guess the location of the well with an indication of his finger. "You donÂ’t have to draw water from the well, IÂ’ll do it for you."
"No I mean, suppose I feel like cooling myself in the heat with a bucket of water, why should I bother you so late in the night; I can simply open the door and fetch the water myself," I said as I changed my clothes.
Bhabaprasad must have been convinced that I had no doubts about his sincerity and it was only to save him the unnecessary trouble that I had volunteered to fetch water from the well when required. He said: "IÂ’ll be there, you need not worry." I had thought he would stop at that, but proving me wrong he came near me and whispered: "It would be advisable not to venture out of the bungalow because these are not good times. You can call me if you need water or want me to go to the market or fetch cigarettes, betel-nut, drinks etc."
From the atmosphere pervading the area I could guess that it would not be wise to move around alone and invite trouble. Tomorrow morning when the forest department jeep arrives it would be better to get into it, finish my official work and leave this place. Nowadays it is natural for gun-toting youths to visit such isolated places more frequently.
"ItÂ’s the forest I am talking about… ."
"Huh! How will my job be done if I am so scared of the guns? Since I have come here on official duty I must go out tomorrow; how can I remain indoors out of fear?" With the arrogance of a courageous and sincere government officer I hurled the words like darts at Bhabaprasad and looked at him with pride. I was sure that he had been convinced about Â‘todayÂ’s SirÂ’ being a man of mettle, a fearless officer pledged to his official duties and to whom duty had more worth than his own life.
"I am not talking about the boys, theyÂ’ll come openly, indulge in some act and leave. But itÂ’s these unseen ones that create more trouble."
I was unable to make any head or tail of what Bhaba was saying even as I tried to find out if he was in his normal state; was he walking normally, did he twist his tongue when he talked or had he over-drunk that cheap stuff?
"Sir, I had kept back the facts from you lest you might be scared, but for the past some time now officers have stopped staying in this bungalow. Things are very scary."
I did not show any eagerness to listen to Bhabaprasad intently because I didnÂ’t want to give him any hint of my weakness, fear or of my mental state. But a strong desire to hear out the rest of his story surged up within me. And the show that I put up like a good actor disheartened him a lot; maybe he was not expecting such a vague and indifferent attitude from me. He stopped talking and went out of the front door to the verandah. I could hear the sounds his torn sandals made on the steps.
"At what time would you like to have dinner? Early…"
Not letting him complete his enquiries he was making from the verandah, I called out a bit loud from inside: "You can bring it anytime you want. Along with it…" Bhabaprasad re-entered the room.
"Something simple will do; you can make a dish of mixed vegetables, thatÂ’ll be fine. I am a bit tired and would prefer to sleep early." I saw the smile on BhabaÂ’s face and got the impression that my menu would be very easy for him to prepare.
"Earlier the officers used to have frequent gorgeous parties here and I would make all the arrangements for them. But there has been no such party for the last two years." Taking out the matchbox from the pocket of his khaki trousers Bhabaprasad put it on the table and said: "We have frequent power failures here. There are two candles inside the drawer."
"Why are parties not held nowadays?" Surely Bhabaprasad was not aware that I had put the question to him in order to elicit more details about his unfinished story.
"After two major incidents the officers stopped coming here out of fear."
"What do you mean?"
"I was surprised when I heard from the ranger that you were coming. Sir had asked me not to tell you anything about those incidents if you didnÂ’t ask about them."
It was not that I was trying to unfold the mystery; I wanted to know the details from Bhabaprasad only for my own safety. Even if I had to leave now I could do so within half an hour in the rangerÂ’s car; but actually I ought to know why I felt the danger to my life and wanted to run away from the place.
"Mr Gogoi was a cheerful person. He would enjoy costly drinks with the ranger and go to bed only around 2 am. Occasionally he would come and spend two or three nights here. And then one morning he suddenly died in bed."
The story of the dead man simply flowed out of BhabaprasadÂ’s mouth without any emotion or excitement in his voice or any expression on his face. I found nothing sensational about his story because the fact that a man could suddenly suffer a cardiac failure and die after drinking too much was known to me.
"We all understood that Ningni the Ghost had killed Gogoi during the night. The huge footprints inside the house left us the warning that the Ghost still moves around in the vicinity of the village. One month prior to GogoiÂ’s death, the Ghost had killed Niranjan Tamuli too in a similar fashion."
It didnÂ’t take me long to understand the meaning of the Â‘unseen thingÂ’ Bhabaprasad had talked about. Of course his ghost story could in no way unsettle me because such hearsay is always linked with old guest houses.
"Of course there are some here who have seen the Ghost. I myself have heard his footsteps. Once Dharani the faith-healer had brought him under his control, but of late he is said to have broken free from DharaniÂ’s shackles. You can never tell whom Ningni would attack. He is a fiery creature with eyes burning like ember, the nails on the fingers of his big hairy hands a span long and dishevelled hair that has become matted at places; and he sometimes roams the jungle wearing a red turban. His feet remain a foot above the ground and when he sticks out his tongue he looks like Goddess Kali… ." Bhabaprasad looked at me with curiosity. He wanted to find out the effect his description of Ningni the GhostÂ’s physical appearance would have on me; whether it would bring about an expression of fear on my face or … . "Since that day no one has come to spend the night in this bungalow. Whoever comes here rests by the day and leaves before nightfall. It is said that after breaking free from Dharani, the Ghost has become like mad, seeking only human blood."
Before I could say something, he said again: "You need not be so scared because the Ghost normally doesnÂ’t come down from the hills in clear weather. He is said to become restless only when the weather is cloudy. Gogoi and Niranjan too were killed when there were thunderstorms."
Although I had no idea how strong a thunderstorm Bhabaprasad was talking about in the afternoon, yet the fast-blowing wind, the thunderbolt forming in the sky with the sound of a thousand bombs and the power to rattle and break the doors and windows, the blinding lightning, the relentless raindrops as big as hailstones getting restless to tear apart the tin roof Â– all these developments surprisingly made me anxious to consider all aspects and find out if the developing situation had anything to do with the coming of Ningni the Ghost. A thud outside told me that a dry leaf of the coconut palm had fallen; somewhere some tree must have got uprooted. The ember-like bulb had in the meantime gone out and for a moment in the flash of the lightning, I figured out where I was positioned. I groped my way to find the matchbox on the rack and forcing open the drawer with all my might, took out a candle and lit it. But it could be blown out any moment by the strong wind. I drew my revolver from the holster and held it in my right hand, ready for any eventuality. The flame of the candle quivered in the wind that had crept in through the gaps in the doors and windows. My excitement caused my palm that was in contact with the revolver to sweat, even as the rats running about on the ceiling created a scary situation.
The complete picture of BhabaprasadÂ’s Ghost Â– with dishevelled hair, nails a span long, fiery ember-like eyes, a yard-long tongue sticking out like the tongue of Goddess Kali, long legs hanging a foot above the ground Â– flashed before my eyes; his extended hands hairy like the bear pushing their way past the closed door, his bloody tongue making hissing sounds like the cobra and darting out and his nails brushing the muscles of my neck which had in the meantime become hard and stiff… . A knock at the door momentarily kept the GhostÂ’s image at bay. I held the revolver tighter and was about to proceed towards the door, when the candle went out. "Who is it?"
"Bhabaprasad here sir."
"Why have you come now?"
"I have come to clear away the dishes." Yes Bhaba was right, after my dinner he had not taken away the dishes. But danger couldnÂ’t be ruled out. Besides it was not that important for him to remove the dishes now, he could do so after the storm. So I said: "Come later after the thunderstorm abates."
"I have something to tell you sir."
What could he have to say in this situation? What if it was actually the Ghost in the guise of Bhabaprasad come to coax and trap me in his eager claws? As I opened the door it looked like the watchman called Bhabaprasad had entered the room completely drenched in the rain. Well, actually in the pitch dark of the room I only tried to feel his presence and consoled myself that he was indeed Bhabaprasad. He could be someone else, a thief, a robber or Ningni the Ghost.
"Sir, the thing is," Bhabaprasad began as he lit the candle, which palliated the scary situation inside the room to a great extent. "Put away that firearm, you wonÂ’t need it because Ningni will not kill you like he killed Gogoi and Niranjan."
I felt a bit uneasy because I had not wanted my weaknesses to be detected by Bhabaprasad in such an embarrassing manner.
"Do you know how many boys Gogoi cheated with false promises of jobs? Many fathers had sold off their lands and given him money, but he failed to provide a single job to anyone." BhabaprasadÂ’s sudden change of attitude towards Gogoi caught me unawares. "He even took away my only daughter to town promising her a job and then allegedly sold her off to a contractor." I had no difficulty in understanding that his heart broke in agony as he said it.
"Which contractor?" I asked trying to add salt to his wounds.
"Niranjan, the one whom Ningni had strangled and whose blood was then drunk up by the Ghost," Bhaba said self-contentedly. In the meantime he had finished clearing away the dishes and cleaning the table. "I know that you have come here to probe the two murder cases."
With one stroke Bhabaprasad seemed to have razed to the ground the so-called success of my 15-year career in the police force, because I had been puffed up on the belief that no one was aware of the official reason for my visit here.
"I think I have not committed any sin by strangling Gogoi and Niranjan and then putting the blame on Ningni the Ghost." The statement flowed out of BhabaprasadÂ’s throat like a very confident declaration. "You are not believing me because being a policeman you need proof," he said, mocking at me severely.
"Where is your daughter now?"
"Two days after being sold off she hanged herself from the ceiling fan." I didnÂ’t notice any change of expression on BhabaÂ’s face. "Before dying she had reportedly spat out curses at her father," he said and left the room with the dishes in his hands. I heard the flapping sounds his torn sandals made as he said: "If it is okay with you then I shall stay in my room. In the morning IÂ’ll voluntarily come with you to the police station. But you ought to sleep now; the storm has abated, the weather has cleared and thereÂ’s no more fear of Ningni the Ghost."
Meanwhile, power was restored and the thunderstorm was over. So there was no chance that the Ghost would come now. But I couldnÂ’t sleep for fear of other ghosts; would the ghosts of Gogoi and Niranjan come in? I picked up the revolver.
Was it Ningni the Ghost that had come here in the guise of Bhabaprasad and talked to me? I sat up in bed and waited for daybreak.
Translated from Assamese by Biman Arandhara
Courtesy: The Assam Tribune (2003)