By Ankana Bag
One particularly rainy day, the students of Class 8, Section F begged their teacher Batakrishna Majumder to tell them a ghost-story. Batakrishna was an arts and handicrafts teacher without much inclination to talk, so he mildly suggested that the students themselves tell the stories while the others listen and quietly work on their hanging macramés at the same time. His students agreed to the second part of the plan but said no to the first. It has to be him who tells the story. “Sir, you said that you lived in a faraway village for a long time in a big family. You must have heard so many stories. Just tell us one!” Reba said while discreetly folding away her Macramé. Batakrishna sighed. He looked at his students and said “I’ll tell a story, only it’s not a story because it happened to me when I was a child.” The children perked up, gathering close as Batakrishna began.
“I indeed grew up in a village, at a time when electricity had not reached even the nearest town. When I was just a little bit older than all of you, some of the boys of our village formed a local club and a handful of us from the nearby paras joined it. We wanted to hold a number of activities throughout the year, like Manasa pujo, Bheem pujo and Ganesh pujo, as well as host kho-kho and football matches between the teams of two different villages. The grown-ups at our homes were as enthusiastic as us and assured us that they would help out with the things that we couldn’t do.”
“Was it an all-boys club?” A student asked, to which Batakrishna nodded in confirmation.
“The girls in the village didn’t want to join?” another student, Meenakshi asked and Batakrishna just smiled a bit before resuming his story.
“One of us came up with the idea of having a room of our own to hold our club-meetings out of the way of the others. We found a small plot of land a little far from the homes but close to a place where the old shmashan of our village used to be. The elders grumbled a bit at first, but then relented considering that it had been a long time since the shmashan was used last. We were very eager and tried to help in building the hut while my uncle supervised the building of the framework with bamboo, mud and hay.”
“One day, when the hut was still unfinished, we were holding a meeting to decide what would be the first activity of our club. The short, overcast afternoon of autumn after Durga pujo had gone past quickly as darkness crept in while we debated on what to name our club. The area was completely desolate. Over the evening, the wind became somewhat stormy. The only source of light was a hurricane lamp and its flame did not flicker even once in the almost-stormy wind because of the glass chimney. Suddenly, there was a strange sound of the wind. As we looked outside, we saw that the light of the hurricane lamp fell directly on a Shyaora tree (Streblus asper) which stood a few feet away from our hut. All of us took in sharp breaths at what the light revealed. A woman sitting on a branch of the tree! We couldn’t see her face because the aanchal of her white saree covered her head as she faced away from us, but we could vaguely make out the dark outline of her feet as they dangled below the branch she was sitting on. Who would sit alone on a tree, in the middle of a stormy evening, far away from the village? All of us broke out in goosebumps as another gust of wind shook the leaves making an eerie sound and the silhouette of the woman also shook with it.”
“All of us had grown up on stories of Shaankchunni (ghosts) and also suddenly remembered with renewed clarity that the old shmashan of the village was just a few metres away from us. We couldn’t take our eyes off the tree.”
“In our fright, Shibu tried to grab the lamp and knocked it askew. The moment the light moved away from the tree, the woman disappeared from our sight. We could still see the tree, but the outline of the woman in the white saree was nowhere to be seen. All of us, except for Shibu who was trying to light the lamp and hadn’t noticed anything, were frozen at our places as the wind howled. Where did she go? Is she coming toward us? What if she suddenly appears on this uthaan, right by us?”
“By then, Shibu was done fixing the lamp and he put it back to its previous spot. As if on cue, the image of the woman flickered back into existence!
Kochi, the youngest member of our group, looked suspicious and moved the lantern back and forth quietly. It happened again. Whenever the lantern wasn’t at that exact spot, the woman would vanish and the tree would look empty. Then when the light was returned to its place the woman reappeared without any change. A couple of us gathered up the courage to go close to the tree to check and informed the others that there is indeed nobody on the branches. “Hah, that was a trick of light!”, exclaimed Shibu. We were relieved and agreed that it must have been a trick of light and shadow. However, Shakti and Shone kept shaking their heads and saying that they had clearly seen the glint of silver nupurs on the woman’s feet and heard its faint jingles. How can it be possible if it was truly an illusion created by the light and the spooky atmosphere? His claims made some of us doubtful again so we pulled ourselves together and quickly left that place.” Batakrishna inhaled and stopped talking.
The students were not about to let it go so easily though. “That’s the end? You didn’t tell the grown-ups about it?” some of them asked him.
“We did tell the elders at our homes and we each got to hear a bunch of very old tales about it” Batakrishna answered thoughtfully. “We heard about a woman whose husband drowned and she lived under that tree because her in-laws wouldn’t take her back in; another woman whose child died and she wept beside that tree everyday for years until one day she just went missing. We also heard about a newly-married girl who went crazy and took shelter under that tree until she died of snake-bite. Shibu’s father was the pradhan of the village panchayat so at Shibu’s request, he gathered men to cut it down.” While reminiscing, Batakrishna seemed to faintly recall that there had been some murmurs of dissent against the cutting of the tree from the womenfolk of some houses, not that anyone paid much attention to it. He also remembered feeling inexplicably sad on the bright, hot morning when the old tree was finally felled. The students were quiet for a few seconds, realizing that this is the end of the story, before Shreya ventured to ask “Do you still visit the club, sir?” “No” Batakrishna shook his head. “The club doesn’t exist anymore. Like the tree and the old shmashan, it has become a ghost of the past.” He finished with a sigh.
About the Author
Ankana Bag is presently a student pursuing Ph.D at Centre for Comparative Literature, Visva-Bharati University. Brought up in Santiniketan, she did her graduation and post-graduation in English. She is an avid reader of Bangla and English literature and occasionally writes short fiction. Her interests are focused on East-Asian popular culture and literature.