Farewell to a Ghost – Intermediate Level
It was at night under a full moon that the old deserted house looked particularly fascinating. From the river bank we looked at it in long silences. When the wind made waves of the tall yellow grass around it, the house looked like an imaginary castle floating on an unreal sea. Though colorless, empty and frightening, I must repeat, it was as fascinating as a fairytale world.
Generally we didn’t talk during the night. But the next morning one of us would tell another and we would all know by evening that he had briefly seen the girl. She would always be standing at the broken window, looking up at the moon or down at the river, crying tears which fell like drops of gold.
It was nothing new, yet we were greatly excited every time and would gather on the river bank again the next evening.
Any of us village boys would have done anything to help her in some way. But we knew we could do nothing. She was so near, yet she belonged to a faraway world. Besides, we knew only too well that we ought not get too close to her. We had been repeatedly told about the brave lad of long ago who had fallen in love with her. There was a large banyan tree which stood alone on the point of the river bank closest to the house. The lad had often left his home at night without his parents knowing and climbed the tree. Settling down on a branch, he would look for long hours into a room on the upper floor of the house through its broken window.
Obviously, he could see her sitting inside the room lost in her thoughtful sadness. But did she ever look at him? Yes, occasionally. Why otherwise should the lad have fainted and fallen down from the tree, not once but three times? It is all right as long as you can look at a ghost without the ghost looking at you. It is only when the ghost looks into your eyes that you faint.
Finally, one summer afternoon, taking no notice of the strong warnings of his family and friends, the lad entered the house. He quietly climbed the broken stairs and looked into the room. Perhaps the girl was asleep, for it was said that she cried the whole night and slept most of the day, sobbing in her sleep.
He should have been more careful. Many years later we boys still talked about how he acted without thinking and felt sorry for him. To be in love was risky enough. And to be in love with a ghost was very dangerous. How could he have been so foolish?
He had run up and kissed her before she could stop him. She had given out a scream. Many had heard her crying and making meaningless sounds like a baby but that was the only time anyone had heard her scream.
The scream probably could not have been heard by you or me, but just then a popular beggar known for his strange ways happened to pass by. He spent most of his time walking about in the cemeteries of our area, coming into the village only once in two or three days when he was hungry. He could understand the languages of birds and animals. It seems that he could also hear what others could not. When the villagers discussed the missing lad he told how he had heard the unusual scream from the old house.
A group of brave men from the village entered the house the next morning. They had sprinkled some magic water from the Ganges River on their heads and hidden pieces of iron under their clothes to stop the ghost from coming too close. But none of them even thought of carrying sticks or weapons. They would never do anything to hurt the girl.
They found the lad lying full length on the bed that had lain unchanged for a hundred years in the room upstairs – dead. That he had kissed the girl was certain. Not only because of the girl’s sudden scream, but also because of the thin line of blood on the lad’s lips which had flowed down to his chin. That, of course, was the price one must pay for kissing a ghost.
It was indeed a terrible warning. But it did not affect our villagers’ liking for the ghost. What could she do if people fell in love with her? She had never asked them to! She had not killed the unfortunate lover! She could not remove the deadly curse that separated her world from ours. During the hundred years she had lived in the house, not even once had she tried to enter anyone’s body or do anything bad.
It could have been even more than a hundred years. Those were the days when the British farmed large areas of our land. They were mostly located in Bengal, but some had spread to the neighboring lands of our state, Orissa. Their experiment did not succeed on our soil and they soon left, leaving behind the beautiful house they had built.
As the old story goes, three young British men who came to work the land had brought a girl with them. It is not known if she was taken against her will or bought from her mother. She was very beautiful. Her mother was from the coastal forests of West Bengal and her father must have been a European. She had the fresh, wild looks of her mother’s people and the light skin of her father.
Because of her father, she could not mix with our women. It was out of the question for our women to approach a girl with European blood.
From the very beginning the girl would not follow her masters orders and they would beat her. After several attempts to escape had been prevented she began to do as they said and let several months pass without causing any further problems.
One day her three masters had to travel down the river on business. There was a deadly disease spreading through many of the villages at the time, and the British did not want to stop on the way. If the river was flowing quickly, it took only a day to reach the town.
They reached the town all right, though a little late, the next morning. A number of excited birds circled over the boat. The three young men and a bird lay dead around a container of half-eaten food.
The girl had prepared and packed their lunch. There was little doubt that she had prepared it with a strong poison.
The girl had been helped in her desperate attempt to punish the young men and win her freedom by the keeper of the house. He was a clever but evil little man who had been with the company for many years. The girl knew where her masters had hidden their gold and money. According to the agreement between them, the girl and the keeper were to escape with the riches and share them. But once the girl had uncovered them, the keeper killed her and disappeared.
Three days later some angry British police, along with a group of our soldiers, appeared on the scene. They forced the villagers at gun point to bury the girl’s body and searched every house for the killer. Many pots of Ganges water had to be borrowed from the neighboring villages to sprinkle in the houses the police made unclean by going inside with their guns.
But all these events were thought of as no longer important. It was only occasionally that people now talked about them. What happened to the British and the future of the girl’s killer did not interest us. It was only the girl that mattered – I mean her ghost. We always thought of her as one of us, although we knew quite well how different she was. Apart from being a ghost she was of foreign blood, blood from shores across the seven seas. We could not help being a little more respectful towards her on that account, though we knew that blood had lost much of its importance once she had become a ghost.
No feast in the village, be it due to a birth or marriage or death, passed without the girl’s share being duly offered to her. This always took place at night. Some young men would carry the pots containing the food. The party would always be led by a respectable old man, generally the head teacher of the village school. We juniors were allowed to watch their actions only from a distance. After the pots and a lamp had been placed between the house and the banyan tree, the head teacher would call out to her. ‘Unhappy girl,’ he would shout. ‘Here is your share of the feast which has been held by the kind so-and-so on such-and-such occasion. Be satisfied with this. And, we ask you to guard the village from evil as best you can. We have never tried to send you away or bother you, have we? No. Why not? Because we look upon you as one of our unlucky daughters. God grant you peace!’
The party would leave the place without looking back.
Nobody was supposed to look at the place where the food was left after that. However, hiding from the adults, from our favorite spot on the river bank, we did look. As the flame from the lamp moved one way and then another, it was like a dance of ever changing shadows. We felt we saw something mysterious, and our hair stood on end. Then the lamp would suddenly go out. ‘She does not like us watching her,’ one of us would say, and we would leave her alone.
‘She does what the head teacher says, doesn’t she? He knows how to speak to her,’ the teacher’s favorite student would say as we joined the feasting crowd.
‘Who on earth doesn’t do as he says!’ another student would add.
I had, however, a feeling that when the head teacher asked her to guard the village against evil he really meant something else. This was that she herself should not cause any harm to our village. His words, I felt, even suggested that something bad might happen to her if harm did came to the village. What else did he mean by saying each time that we had never tried to send her away or bother her?
This made me unhappy. She was so harmless and so good. What business had the head teacher to be saying one thing and meaning another?
A strong hot wind blew during the summer afternoons for days on end. For an hour or two everything was quiet except for the noise made by the wind. The doors and windows of the old house had disappeared long ago. As the wind violently tore through every room and corner of the building, it produced strange noises. The sounds fascinated me. My father wanted me to take a nap, but I would sit up in bed listening to them.
Once in a while I had a strong feeling that I must secretly go to the house, for no other reason than to give the girl a moment’s silent company. But, I was afraid, she might not understand my purpose. That stopped me.
One day I was brave enough to admit to myself that this was almost like falling in love. I could feel my face turning red as the idea came to me. Maybe, other boys of the village also felt like me. It never occurred to us that the girl was at least a hundred years older than us. Some wise man had told us that once one had become a ghost one never grew in age.
It was when we were preparing for the middle school examination that the shocking news came. The government had decided to pull down and remove the old house and use the land for some other purpose. No wonder that we forgot our studies and hid behind the school wall to listen to the adults discussing the issue in the evening.
‘Can’t we ask the government to save the house?’ said someone.
‘No,’ the village chief said. ‘When the land owner could not pay his taxes, the land has become the government’s property. The government does not provide for ghosts.’
His statement was followed by a long silence and occasional coughs and yawns. Then a lizard tick-ticked and two or three people said quietly, ‘True, true!’
‘But what will happen to the girl?’ said someone else. ‘She has lived there all these years and has never harmed us. Rather, there are reasons to believe that she is a good ghost.’
The lizard tick-ticked again and this time more people said, and more loudly, ‘True, true!’
The discussion continued for a long time. All agreed that something had to be done for the girl. But nobody had an empty house to offer her. However good, a ghost was still a ghost and keeping her with one’s family was not a workable idea. But if nothing was done for her, she would naturally settle in someone’s house.
It was perhaps midnight by the time they came to a decision. By then our mothers or uncles had found us behind the wall and had driven us back to our beds.
At the request of the villagers the work to remove the building was stopped for a few days. A famous priest, well-known for being able to communicate with spirits, arrived on the appointed day. He was tall and fat, with a round red mark on his forehead. He wore a necklace which we were told was made out of the backbone of a witch who would not do as he asked. He never smiled.
It was a sad day for us all. The weather matched our feeling. It was cloudy and rained lightly from time to time. Almost every family had brought a little food to offer to the girl: rice, bananas, coconuts, sweets or cakes. All were welcome to watch the ceremony, and so the villagers pressed near the house. For many, particularly the women and children, it was their very first time close to the ghost.
The presents were arranged in a half circle outside the front door. The priest placed something at its center and slowly removed the red cloth covering it. It was a complete human skull. He also held a stick of bone. He sang some strange songs while drawing figures in the air with the bone and then, his face turning red, shouted angrily, ‘But where is she? I have already issued my command three times. She should have appeared before me immediately. How dare she be show so little respect?’
‘I am sorry, Baba,’ said the chief. ‘She must be asleep upstairs. She doesn’t sleep at night, you know!’
‘Very well, I will go up and pull her down by the ear. She must understand that I am not used to spirits not doing as I say,’ said the priest loudly, and he climbed the stairs.
We looked at one another helplessly. I felt like crying. Should not somebody have told the priest that the girl was not to be treated rudely?
We could hear the loud sound of the priest walking about upstairs. Then he shouted something we could not understand. The sound made drops of sweat break out on our faces even on that cool morning. He returned with a winning look on his face. Then he said in a commanding voice, “there, eat as much as you want and then leave this house!’
We had almost stopped breathing. The priest looked at us as if we were fools and suddenly called out loudly, ‘What! You will not eat? Mind you, that will not soften me. Eat or not, you must leave the house and the village now, immediately.’
The chief managed to say, ‘Baba, you should perhaps wait a little. She has always done as we asked. She will eat. Please tell her that it is our strong wish. Our women have brought these presents with so much love!’
But the priest did not seem to care. ‘She is leaving. Make way!’ he shouted at us and the crowd parted.
She did not eat. But when asked to leave, she did so immediately. We did not see her, true. But we knew how deeply hurt she must have felt. We felt very small.
‘Stop! That’s right. I will lead you,’ the priest said, and slowly walked through the crowd showing the invisible spirit the way with the pointing bone in his right hand. With the left hand he gave some directions to his assistant, who stayed back and collected the magic skull and, I believe, the food and other offerings.
All followed the priest. The village was left behind and we walked through the fields for nearly a kilometer, braving the light rain and the fear of heavy rain.
‘There! Get into it!’ commanded the priest, standing under a tall palm tree. Then he spoke some strange words and beat the tree with the bone and circled it a number of times.
‘So, from now on this will be your home. Understand?’ the priest shouted, looking up to the top of the tree. He then smiled at us proudly. ‘She can never leave the tree,’ he said, trying to sound important. ‘I have tied her to it!’
He turned back and we did the same. We boys walked with the women while the men and the priest walked faster and ahead of us. We walked in silence. But at one point someone sobbed. Then everyone was crying, though as quietly as possible.
When we reached the village the workmen had already started pulling down the old house. The rain would make their work easy, the contractor informed the chief.
After three or four days of rain the sky became clear. A full moon shone brightly and, as usual on summer evenings, we boys gathered in a field near the river to play Kabaddi. But there was no life in our play. Finally someone said, ‘The ground here is too wet. Can’t we go farther up where it is dry?’
No sooner had he said this than we began to run. Soon we were near the palm tree and our hearts were back in the game. We played on till late in the night, happy to be near our lonely ghost. And we returned there every evening till the last day of the summer holidays.
The next day I was taken to the town to go to high school. I had never been to a town before. Soon my mind was filled with many new things. I forgot the ghost.
Three months later came the long Puja holiday and I headed for home. From the bus stop I had to walk five miles to reach my village. I was in high spirits. Suddenly, while crossing the fields, my eyes fell on the palm tree and for a moment I could not move. The tree was dead, struck by lightning. Its burned branches were lying on the ground.
With a heavy heart I continued walking. During the holiday none of the boys spoke of the girl. It being the rainy season there was no question of our going to play in the fields.
As I grew up, I passed the age of playing Kabaddi and found myself visiting the village less often. And the village boys of today are so different, knowing little of the ways of the world. They are simply afraid of ghosts.