Tarok and the Ghost
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
So you want to hear my tale, do you? Sit down then, and
stop fidgeting and pushing each other around. If I’m going to tell my story at
all, it isn’t going to be to children who are listening with half an ear.
Back when I was a child,
we weren’t like this. When our elders told us a tale, we’d hardly dare breathe
for fear of missing a word – and we wouldn’t be playing with twigs and stones
either. And it will be night soon, and your parents will be calling you home to
dinner. If you want to listen, settle down.
Right, so I was going to
tell you about the ghost. Yes, ghosts exist, and they’re everywhere, yes, even
here in the town – they just don’t make themselves known to people most of the
time, because it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But those of us who know what
to look for can always tell when one’s around.
This happened when I was quite a young man, living in the village back in the
country. You – with all your electric lights and your cars and bustle – don’t
understand what life’s still like in the villages. People live in mud-walled
huts with thatched straw roofs, and still travel by bullock cart along dirt
tracks. And of course, everyone knows about the ghosts. They’re everywhere, in
the ponds and fields and in the trees – especially in the
Of all the haunted, trees,
there was a particular banyan tree growing by the path which led to the market.
Everyone in the village knew that a whole city of ghosts lived
in that tree. Why, nobody would go past the tree even at high noon without
leaving something beneath it as an offering, a small fish or a fruit, or maybe
a sweet or two. And nobody would ever, of course, go that way after dark. We
were poor and uneducated, but we weren’t crazy.
Now old Uncle Tarok wasn’t
crazy, either, but he was a little bit fond of the drink. This
fondness especially took him on market days around the festival season, and
someone had to be there to see to it that he went home before dark. Usually,
his son would do it, and if his son wasn’t around, someone or other from the
village would take the responsibility.
But one time, his son was
away – visiting his in-laws, I think – and Uncle Tarok went off to the market
in the morning, as usual. One of his neighbours, Babla I think it was, had
volunteered to go to the market and fetch Tarok back before dark. But during
the afternoon Babla’s old father fell violently ill, and he had to rush to
bring the kabiraj to treat him. The old father made a complete
recovery, later, but in the confusion everyone forgot about Tarok until it was
far too late, and the sun was already kissing the western horizon.
"He’ll just have to sleep
off the booze in the market," Babla’s wife told him. "Surely he’s smart enough
not to come back at night, even if drunk, and they know him in the market, so
they’ll give him a place to stay." And because the old father was still
not recovered, Babla found it convenient to believe her.
And it might have been as
she said, too, had it not been for Uncle Tarok’s booze binges. Now, normally,
Tarok was a nice old man – none nicer – with not a stubborn bone in his body.
But when he got drunk, he changed completely. Then he began to think of himself
as an invincible hero, who could do absolutely anything he wanted, and whom
nothing – but nothing – could harm.
Now, this was the last
market day before the Kali Puja festival, when it was the custom to get drunk
anyway; and old Uncle Tarok had got good and sozzled on mohua liquor, even more
than he normally did. Unfortunately, instead of drinking himself into a stupor,
what he ended up doing was fire himself into a state of acute bravado.
Later, the merchant
Gobardhan, who sold cloth at the market, told me that he had made a tentative
effort to hold Tarok back from trying to get back home that evening. "I’ll...my
name won’t be Tarok," the old man said, thumping his chest, "if some stupid
ghosts try and stop me from getting back home. Let’s see ghosts trying to stop
me from going home. Let them try, I say!"
Now, of course, you’ve got
to understand that if there’s one thing you should never do,
it’s challenge ghosts. Under no circumstances, ever, should
you challenge them, even when you think it’s safe. There could always be a
ghost of some kind hanging around, somewhere, and if it hears you, it will go
right off and tell the other ghosts. And then they have a point to prove, you
see. Even drunk, Uncle Tarok should have known that. But he didn’t.
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