Bhootkaka was home. That was not his name. Till date I do not know his name. He was a ‘chhimayki’ (neighbour) from buba’s busty, and since he had a day’s work in Darjeeling town, he had dropped by at our house to stay the night. It was a common thing to have visitors drop by for lunch and to stay the night, have breakfast and leave the next day. Not all of them were relatives from the extended family, many were people who were from buba’s busty who needed to visit the town for some work – paperwork, bills, monthly rations, or medical.
Bhootkaka arrived one grey morning during Asaar. He had gone to school with buba. He had tea at home, and left for the town to finish his work, promising to be back for lunch. By noon, the skies had become darker, giving way to fat drops of rain. Very soon, we were in the middle of a raging storm. It was very dark outside, and dark inside. Bhootkaka arrived, wet and flustered at his bad luck. The officer he had come to meet was not at home. He’d have to try again tomorrow.
After a warm lunch of bhaath, musoori dal and pir-piray alu, with dollops of gheu and achaar, we snuggled around the angethi in the kitchen. Muma had kept a kettle on boil. And there in the warm glow of the coal embers with the quiet hissing of the kettle, we were drawn into stories of chudails, ban jhakhri, lemlemey, sokhpa, raankhey bhoot, ghosts and spirits of all hue and shape.
The stories were true! The chudail of Teesta Valley had waltzed with an enamoured victim across the big oval maidan of the school, one corner to the other. The onlookers included Bhootkaka, and they saw only a scarecrow man dancing alone in the maidan. The man later said he had danced with a beautiful lady, and coughed some blood. Bhootkaka and the villagers had followed her to her grave by pinning a hook to her hollow back, and set her to rest. That particular chudail had never been seen after that, but tales of other chudails abounded.
The ban jhakhri is a benign forest spirit, a shamanic deity, a short gnome (3-5 feet tall) with red/golden matted hair all over his body, except his face and hands. He abducts anointed ‘pure’ children to pass on his shamanic knowledge, so that they can become great witch doctors once returned back to their world. His biggest nemesis in this objective is his wife, the lemlemey, Queen of the Bokshis (Queen of the Witches), who would want to eat the chosen child. The husband would secure the initiate child within a protected magical circle and teach him, and the wife would find methods to lure the child out of the protected ring. If the lemlemey ever caught a child outside the circle, it would be best to run downhill, as the lemlemey will lose her balance running downhill holding her large breasts in front of her (!).
The circle drew closer to the fire, as the wind howled outside. Our cheeks grew ruddier, eyes bigger, and mouths drier with the stories of those who must not be named. Buba made us bhuteko makai, sprinkled with salt and chilli powder, and hot mugs of tea. As it became darker, I got up to ready the lamps, my sun-down ritual. The storm had knocked out the electricity, not that we did not need the lamps even on days we had electricity. I cleaned the glass lamp, checked the kersosene, trimmed the burnt end of the wick.
Our shadows played on the polished wooden floor. Bhootkaka did not tire of telling us stories of the ghouls he’d met and heard of, and we were too fascinated to let him stop. As we made our beds after dinner, we all cuddled in together, furtively eyeing the lengthened shadows on the walls for any movement. Or worse for any blank eyes watching us from the dark. Despite forgoing drinking milk after dinner, I woke up in the middle of the night. The wind had quietened, and the rain banged incessantly on the roof. “Bahini, bahini, wake up, I need to go to the toilet,” I moaned. After a struggle to find the torch beside us, an exchange of exasperated looks, and a promise to accompany her the next time, I stumbled into the bathroom, keeping the door ajar, with her outside with the torch.
The next morning, the storm had cleared, but a dampness had settled on everything. Bhootkaka left for his appointment; he would be catching a jeep back to the busty after that. We did not know his name, and hence he would always be remembered as Bhootkaka.
Deki and Binita had come home and we were playing ‘machaa-kaada’. The rubber band rope was stretched against their mid-thigh now; I was in the middle jumping. “Didi, Muma has asked you to come home chittho harey,” bahini lamented. She had already come twice before. This time she had a ‘murai ko dalla’ in her hand. I was enjoying showing off my jumping skills, equally incredulous I had got so far. The air smelt of pine cones, a cold sun peeped in through the trees, but I was warm with all the playing around Rani’s kothi grounds. A rani lived in the kothi, but now the mansion looked bereft of any living beings. I had never seen the rani, but I had heard tales of her tasteful chiffon sarees on her outings, and how she would travel to Calcutta for the Derby.
Later in the afternoon I was met at the door by muma. And she was ready, and armed. The ‘sishnoo ko dhulai’ with a bunch of freshly-cut stinging nettle didn’t hurt at first, and I let out a giggle. Too soon. The burning lashes soon had me screaming, sobbing, and jumping some more. The stinging lasted for a few hours. My sisters tried applying gheu, a cold compress, and ‘naakh ko gheu’ too. I’m not sure if the last option helped, but I had produced lots of it with all the crying and snorting. I sobbed into the night. The rashes had disappeared by the next morning, but the stinging remained. And this searing memory.
Read Part 4 here.