Translated from the Bengali by Ankan Kazi
There is a small village next to the Arial Khan River in Faridpur district. Its name is Mohanpur. Most of the inhabitants of this village are Muslim peasants. A small section of the village was made up of a handful of kayastha households. It seemed as if the fear of losing their caste made them group together in a corner of the village.
Just as the black tassel of the Turkish Fez wishes to accommodate the pigtail of Hindu nationalism, but is failing to achieve their trust1, the Muslims of this village have attempted to make peace with the kayasthas several times, only to have the latter treat these overtures like the whisperings of ghosts.
Among the Muslims, Chunnu the trader is the most prominent member of the community. In spite of his prominence, however, he farms his land himself. He is aided in this work by his seven sons and three wives. Why he did not take another wife and fulfilled the sunnat is not clear. They say his third wife is a very difficult woman. Fear of her sharp tongue has kept any prospective fourth wife away. This would cause no end of regret to Chunnu the trader. He would tell others about his sadness, “Is this what they mean when they say- “If God feels generous one day, the weaver will feign lack of generosity the same day?” Allah has commanded us to get four wives, but if it is not in my destiny how should I fulfill His command?” He pauses for a moment, swallowing in agitation; and then he says, “It’s the girl from that strange family whose arrival has caused this to happen.” As soon as he says this, he adds cautiously, “Now listen here, don’t say any of this back home. If that woman hears of it she will bring the house down in the afternoon.”
It is the third son of this third wife, named ‘Alla Rakha’, who is the protagonist of our story. And like the hero of any other story- he is brave, brilliant and full of mischief. In the village they called him by the name Keshranjan Babu. It was a name given to him by a girl from that village itself. Her name is ‘Chan Bhanu’, or rather, Chand Bano. But I’ll come to that later.
After Chunnu the trader’s third wife produced two girls, the third time, when a boy arrived, she named him cautiously ‘Alla Rakha’. The boy who is in the protection of Allah. This should keep him safe at least from the fate of any premature death, thought his mother with some reassurance. Allah had probably laughed that day! Several ‘Alla Rakhas’ of his kind, instead of finding His protection have had to seek shelter in the grave. But in this case, as if out of a sense of amusement, Allah actually preserved this boy. He must have said to himself, “Wait, I will keep him alive but I will make sure that the others get roasted for the rest of their lives.” I do not know if he will die later on- but these twenty years that he has lived has already taken a heavy toll on the village. When it came to them, the proof of his existence was the substance of their misery. Instead of God, they would rather he was named after a ghost since he created as much trouble as one.
The Muslims would say to him, “You’re the son of Iblis!” The kayasthas would tell him, “You must have been born on a new moon night!” His father berated him constantly, but his mother would call him lovingly, “My genius!”
Now it is time to talk about the girl who named him Keshranjan babu; that is, Chan Bhanu.
She was Narad Ali Sheikh’s daughter, from the same village. Narad Ali was not a name meant to celebrate the utopic union of Hindus and Muslims. He was born many years before the Non-Cooperation Movement, which was still fresh in one’s memory. But I do not want to exaggerate his distance from it either.
Narad Ali, Sheikh Ramchandra, Sita Bibi- you could still find ten or twenty people in the village with names like these. Who knows, there may be others with even stranger names like Hanumanullah or Vishnu Hossain.
Narad Ali may not be the most successful person in the village, but he wasn’t too badly off either. Whatever land he possesses is enough to yield a small harvest that gets him by. He neither borrows from anyone nor does he lend.
He is a fairly peaceful man. But his wife seemed to enjoy strife. Even if she did not believe in the cause herself, she found a lot of pleasure in creating conflicts and this made Narad Ali somewhat nervous. She liked setting people off. But when others failed to catch on to her sense of enjoyment they would get angry with her. She would maintain her composure and continue the quarrel for a while and then, abruptly, she would leave the fight, saying, “That’s enough for now. Let me go eat, then I’ll come back and show you your place. You will find out for yourself how close you can get to heaven in a day.” When people saw her moving so quickly from a state of agitation to complete ignorance of the conflict at hand, they would, in spite of their genuine anger, burst out in laughter. Although this laughter rarely implied a release of the anger that had built up within them.
And these parents had one child: Chan Bhanu. The mother had named her lovingly after listening to a romantic qissa.
In fact the name could be seen as a slightly altered and expanded version of her mother’s name. Her face was always animated and she ran around in the fields and river banks all day; sometimes it looked as if the very waters of the Arial Khan River was scared of her and attempted to run away!
She was fourteen and even if the father brought it up occasionally the mother would not hear a word about her marriage. She would say, if the moon leaves how are we going to live in this dark world? If Narad Ali insisted, she would shut him down, saying “You don’t have to irritate me like this- my girl will not get married. Like Joigun Bibi, she will wait until her Hanip arrives.2”
Like Joigun Bibi of Mohanpur, it did not take long for her Hanif to show up. And this was our ‘Alla Rakha’ himself.
One day Alla Rakha was reading the qissa of Shonabhan, when he decided that Chan Bhanu was similar to Shonabhan bibi in the qissa and he was like the gazi Hanifa3. That was simply because there was no one in the village who was prettier than Chan Bhanu. In the hopes of conquering Shonabhan, he started imagining his parade of celebrations as he read on:
‘When the bibi heard the sounds that announced Hanifa’s presence,
She finished a simple meal of about eighty kilos of mass.
She carries a mace that weighs a ton and a shield that that weighs about a hundred thousand kilos,
She rides twelve horses and threatens to peel your skin off!’
Oh my god! This was so much more terrifying than Hanifa. She eats eighty kilos worth of meals at a time and rides a dozen horses together! Will Chan Bhanu do something similar? Alla Rakha was quite shaken by the image. But in spite of his heavy losses throughout the narrative, it was Hanifa who won out in the end. Who knows what fate may decree! Alla Rakha made three partings in his hair- one through the middle and two on the sides; to these fallow passages on his head, and then his arms and clothes, he applied a generous amount of perfume and hair dye, stuffed his cheek with a paan and set out to win over his Shonabhan, alias Chan Bhanu.
Here we should also say that Alla Rakha had become as modern as he could after reading those romances. He did not live like an ordinary farmer’s son. Clean dhoti, shirt and shoes were accompanied by well-dressed long hair, and he would smoke cigarettes and chew paan about the village streets while wondering what trouble he could inflict on somebody. Even though his age had crossed the frontiers of youth he had never misbehaved with any woman. His targets were mostly confined to the older inhabitants of the village, the crops and fruits of houses and fields, treetops swaying gently in the breeze, storage vessels hidden about at home, and at night: the bamboo groves, tamarind trees, coconut trees and others.
He was not of much help to his father’s farm work- unless you count the numerous times he tried to attack the bulls or let them loose on other people’s fields so that his father got shouted at. He went out to supervise the farm twice: the first time he set the fresh harvest on fire, while the second time he neatly picked the rows of harvest and placed them on another farm. After this his father did not ask him for help any longer.
The money he regularly wasted on his leisure was one day refused by his mother. When he asked his father, the latter not only refused but pretended to calculate his son’s debts and attempted to redeem it immediately by offering to apply several blows with a switch upon his back. Alla Rakha did not run away, cry or complain to anyone about it then. So when Chunnu the trader’s house caught fire that night, Alla Rakha could be seen lighting a cigarette from that conflagration and saying something to the effect of: ‘I did not have the money to buy a matchstick today. What a coincidence this house caught fire tonight- I can light my cigarette finally!’
When his father started striking him with the switch once again, Alla Rakha took it calmly and said: ‘my back was hurting from the beating in the morning, so I thought I should arrange for some warmth. If this beating also causes further injuries I might have to seek warmth elsewhere in the village and burn a neighbour’s house down this time.’
Hearing this frank admission from his son, the father seemed to lose his bearing and stopped hitting him. He fell to his son’s feet and started striking his own head on it, pleading with him, “I fall at your feet- you’re the blackest misfortune upon my life, you wretch- but please don’t do any such thing! I will be thrown into jail this time.” That evening, due to the anxious intervention of other villagers, it was decided that Alla Rakha’s father would continue to sponsor his life as a dandy. Alla Rakha had grown serious and said, “I am my father’s son; I would have done what I promised to do.” Everyone burst out laughing, but his father- fighting a whole host of emotions ranging from anger to sadness- kicked him to the ground and shouted: “Do you hear what this son of a wretch is talking about? He calls himself my son! I piss on your father’s face!” This made Alla Rakha laugh too.
Anyway- to continue with my story. After attending to his toilette, he ambled casually into the courtyard of Narad Ali and began to knock on his door, saying, “Narad uncle, are you home?” The sound of this familiar voice surprised the three members of the household. Chan’s mother said, “That devil-spawn is here!”
Chan Bhanu was sitting in the verandah with a ripe karanda berry to which she had applied a generous helping of salt and chilli. She was about to taste it with the tip of her tongue and peck at it experimentally. Instead, she turned her large eyes toward Alla Rakha and rolled them in exasperation when she saw his three-way haircut. She said slyly, “Keshranjan Babu has come- someone fetch the stringed-cot for him to sit on.” Then she tunefully took up this strain:
“Here- relative, please sit on the cot,
Wash your feet by the river’s ghat,
Then I’ll break your back with this freshly-cut cane!”
As soon as she sang this she burst into a fit of giggles and ran inside the house.
Alla Rakha was not prepared for this performance during his arrival. He also fled. Mohanpur’s Hanifa thus faced his first defeat.
Soon word of this event began to spread from Chan Bhanu’s mother to other members of the village. Whenever anyone saw Alla-Rakha about the village thereafter, especially if they happened to be groups of girls, they would shout at him- “There comes Keshranjan Babu!”
Chan Bhanu may have insulted him, but Alla Rakha wreaked his revenge upon the entire village. Alla Rakha had provided paan and cigarettes to a group of boys and drilled them into a sense of order. With their help, one night, he strewed a range of stinking objects and some general rubbish in front of the houses of almost all the villagers. It looked vomit-inducing from a distance- and stank to high heaven!
The villagers could not understand how so many people caught cholera that night. They did not know that eating tamarind leaves could give you such severe indigestion either. The fertilizing excrement in the village was made out of some part of human as well as cow shit, stale juice of leaves and foetid fever vine; but how did tamarind leaf get into the mixture? It did not take too long to solve this mystery. They saw the other items leave the doorway but the leaf from the tamarind tree remained there. After a lot of effort they had to unearth the soil itself, hacking it with axes, to get rid of the stink of tamarind leaves. But they had to admit that the boy had brains. This was the first time the villagers found out about the strength of the tamarind leaf!
In the entire village only one house was spared from the depredations of this demon. It was Chan Bhanu’s house. There was no doubt why this house- which actually provoked his wrath in the first place- was spared, at least in the minds of Chan Bhanu and her mother. He had, after all, burned down his own house too.
As if he wanted to say- here! Look at my anger. I could have easily exacted revenge for my humiliation, but I did not do so. I spared you!
Chan Bhanu was thinking about these matters the next morning and found herself crying after a while. Anger and humiliation made her calm, moon-like face flush into a furious shade of blood red. Her mother saw her crying and said, “Chan! Why are you crying? Did your father scold you?” Chan Bhanu was their only child so she was spoilt by them and, quite naturally, this made her more proud. Her mother imagined that her father must have scolded her before leaving for the fields.
Chan cried a bit more, swelled up with grief and said something that implied this: why did Alla-Rakha insult them like that? After defiling all the houses- he spared theirs, as if to suggest how little he cared about them or prove how unworthy they were of his forgiveness. It would have been much better if he had simply insulted them to their faces.
Mother tried to reason with her daughter. It was because of her strange welcome yesterday that he had taken such an extreme step, she suggested. But Chan Bhanu was unable to take her mind off it. Alla Rakha began to press like a thorn in her side. Alla Rakha was an ace marksman like Hanifa. His first arrow had found the right target.
Later that day, when she was going to take a bath in the Arial Khan river in the afternoon, Alla Rakha saw her pale face and started rejoicing. Even in his moment of joy, however, he felt a thorn piercing his heart. Ah! Her face is so ashen. No, it was clear that she knew how to cast arrows like Shonabhan too. Unconsciously, her aim had also found its target.
As soon as Chan Bhanu saw Alla Rakha her wan face came alive and she was seized by a fit of laughter. She wasn’t prepared for this sudden burst of laughter, however. How could such a ferocious devil possess the face of a witch’s ghost? His absurd face could shock a dead person into laughter.
Laughing loudly she felt immediate embarrassment and her face went red. What if Alla Rakha misinterprets the motive of her laughter? Chhi, chhi, chhi, chhi- how shameful!
But she did not have to wonder about the consequences of her sudden reaction for long. As soon as the sharp edge of her laughter flashed across the bank, Alla Rakha turned his back and abandoned the battle once more. He thought this laughter was merely announcing the imminent arrival of a lightning storm. Chan Bhanu saw him running up to an ancient fig tree, which he climbed to the topmost branch and sat waiting. What a strange boy this was! Everyone says there are snakes on that tree. What if he gets bitten by one, or if he falls off the branch? Chan Bhanu wondered about these things for a while, observing Alla Rakha’s strange antics, then proceeded to take her bath in the river.
Once she was in the river she reflected on her conduct and felt a fresh wave of shame. What is she doing? And why did she stand and stare at that monkey for so long? He might take that as a sign of encouragement and bother her endlessly. Who knows what he was thinking about?
She did not swim that day. The waters of the Arial Khan River seemed to sigh a breath of relief. Chan Bhanu stood in the river, immersed up to her neck, and contemplated.
She had been thinking about it the whole day until then; the same set of questions fluttered around her mind: Why did Alla Rakha turn up at their house yesterday, dressed like that? He does not enter anyone’s house usually. Why was he looking at her like that? And then, why did he go around torturing the villagers to seek revenge for something she had done? Why did he not say anything to her? He is not just a monkey but also mad, probably.
While thinking about this, she had the idea that Alla Rakha might be watching her from the top of the fig tree. It was a fair distance away but she could clearly see that he had moved from one branch to another, which afforded a clearer view towards her. What a nuisance! Chan Bhanu thought she would never be able to leave the waters again. But she had seen him so many times before; had swum in the river in front him so many times! But this shame- the sudden embarrassment- was new. What an unholy hour it was when he decided to step into her house last night. It was like a storm cloud that could instill fear and fascinate one at the same time.
Alla Rakha gave her the reprieve once again. She saw him climbing down the tree.
But now she was angry with the wretched boy. What does he think? Does he imagine she will not be able to get out of the river as long as he stays on the tree? Was it pity that made him climb down from the tree? Did he also imagine that Chan Bhanu would not dare to risk a swim with him hanging around the river bank- in fear or shame? Is that why he got out of the way so quickly? Chan began to swell with a fruitless sense of anger. Today she will show him that she does not care about his devilry. Even in the cool waters of the river, her body began to burn with heat. She finished her bath quickly and walked determinedly out of the river. If she sees him in the street again she will show him how confidently she can ignore and walk past him. She does not consider him to be human at all.
But she could not see a single hair of Keshranjan Babu anywhere. Was this the same insult- the same gesture of pity? Chan hated him- with all her heart, she hated him! Was it her inability to insult him back that was making her suddenly feel rather miserable? Why was her mind growing unhappy after failing to spot him on the streets? The determination with which she walked out of the river; where did it go now? What had happened to Chan? Was she possessed by a ghost now?
The god of love probably has his arrows dipped in the same poison that cobras dispense with their tongues. As soon as it finds its target it spreads the poison throughout the body- reaching the head, finally. Surely this is the reason for Chan’s behavior? She cannot forget him, but her body burns with anger at the very thought of him.
For the first time in her life, Chan had lost her appetite. Her mother took stock of things. When an unmarried daughter grows older she knows what kinds of ghosts are likely to possess her mind. She wiped her tears discreetly and said to herself- ‘she has been claimed by the evil eye of a ghost, mother! I will have to get used to not having her near me for much longer!’
So Narad Ali was surprised when his wife asked him to look for a bridegroom for her daughter. They did not say anything to each other after that, as silent tears ran down their cheeks.
Chan Bhanu’s wedding date has been decided. There’s about a month to go. She is going to marry Chheraj (Siraj) Haldar’s son from the neighbouring village.
Mohanpur’s Hanifa, that is, our Alla Rakha and Chan’s Keshranjan Babu, heard the news and went through the roof. A final battle needs to take place to decide the victor once and for all. He wanted Chan Bhanu for himself. He also knew that Chan’s parents would never consider him as a suitable groom for their daughter. So it was pointless to ask for her hand. His mind was buzzing with the stories of Joigun and Shonabhan. What if he kidnaps Chan Bhanu and leaves with her for another country? But there was a problem with this plan- it would not work without getting her consent first. But how should he win her consent?
Ten days passed but no opportunity presented itself for him to carry out his plan. On the eleventh day it seemed as if Allah himself became curious and looked towards Alla Rakha expectantly.
He had of course run into Chan Bhanu several times during these days, but he was careful to avoid looking at her directly for too long. The man who had inspired such diabolic fear in the hearts of the villagers, was now, in his turn, scared of this slip of a girl. Alla Rakha could not figure out how that had happened. But there was no more time to waste- no scope for any more embarrassment. He tried to think of different manoeuvres that he could employ but failed to arrive at the most efficient one.
But finally Allah had decided to be generous. When Chan Bhanu went to fetch water from the river that evening, the bank was completely deserted.
As soon as she immersed her vessel into the river- there was a swishing noise in the distance and a water demon floated towards her that looked like a clay pot with an open mouth. And the mouth spoke to her in a nasal tone, without much by way of preface: “If you marry anyone other than Alla Rakha I will haunt you and your husband, snap both your necks and drink your blood the same night!” When Chan heard that voice and saw the mouth speaking to her she emitted a brief shout and fainted into the water. Seeing this to be a great opportunity, the demon rose out of the river and removed the colourful disguise on his head that resembled the mouth of a clay pot. He hid the disguise under water, collected the unconscious body of Chan and walked out of the river. For it was none other than our own multi-faceted hero Alla Rakha or Keshranjan Babu!
Minutes later, when she regained consciousness and saw herself in Alla Rakha’s lap she jumped out of it immediately and said, “Where did you come from?” She began to shake like a bamboo leaf. Alla Rakha said, “I was walking this way when I saw someone floating in the river. I rushed to rescue them and then I saw it was you! God is merciful that he sent me this way- who knows what could have happened otherwise? What had happened to you?” Chan Bhanu’s eyes filled up with tears of gratitude as she stared at Alla Rakha. Then she said what had happened, leaving out the bit about the water demon’s threats.
When Alla Rakha took her to her parents’ home and told them about the incident- there was a chaotic scene in the house. The parents started weeping and blessing Alla Rakha for his kindness. In response to all this, Alla Rakha turned to look at Chan Bhanu and laughed casually, saying, “So how did that turn out? Were you not supposed to break the back of your Keshranjan Babu with a switch?”
It seemed that a storm of joy had suddenly come alive in Chan Bhanu’s mind that day. Unable to resist the force of this joy, she let this slip: “Well, if God grants us such a day I will happily break a switch on your back!” Although as soon as she said this she wanted to hide her face in shame, bury it underground and die with it. Alla Rakha would certainly understand the meaning of those words! But God will not grant that day to them. In twenty days she will be leaving as the bride of the Haldar household. What did she do? She ran inside the house, threw herself on the bed and buried her face in the pillow. She wanted to cry.
Alla Rakha also vanished soon after. Chan Bhanu’s parents looked at each other’s faces, dumbfounded. What had just happened? What is the meaning of this?
Alla Rakha was mad with joy as he ran towards the river bank. It was the eve of a new moon night, so the sky was limned with brightness. Alla Rakha thought that was not the moon at all- it was actually Chan Bhanu, who had illuminated the sky of his mind that evening.
He stayed there until late into the night, singing loudly to his heart’s content. Then he returned home and thought that Chan Bhanu must have reported everything that the water demon had told her to her parents. Maybe they will break off the engagement overnight and come to his house the next day- asking for his hand for their daughter. And if this did not happen, and she did not go into the river anymore, it still would not be a problem- after all, the demon still lived on land.
But two days passed and nothing happened. Alla Rakha understood that for shame or some other reason, Chan Bhanu had ignored the advice of the water-demon and neglected to inform her parents about it. Otherwise they would not be calmly installing an awning for an imminent wedding in their courtyard. The anger provoked by his failure caused him to go nearly mad. Any more delays would be disastrous, so he decided that the demon must address its concerns directly to the parents. Late that night Narad Ali was woken by a strange sound of crying. It sounded like someone was sitting in their courtyard and sobbing persistently into the night. Narad Ali thought his neighbour Shobhon must have beaten up his wife again and she had come to their house for a quiet cry. But he still called out in the dark- “Who cries there? Is that Bodna’s mother?” There was no reply although the sobbing continued.
Narad Ali took his kerosene lamp and no sooner had he stepped into the courtyard than he shouted out Allah’s name and ran immediately back to his room, bolting the door after him. Chan’s mother asked in a timorous voice, “What happened to you? Who was it?” Narad Ali was unable to answer as he shook like someone in the grip of high malarial fever, only whispering the words of the Surah Ikhlas to himself and blowing air onto his chest. The hair on his head was standing still like the spines on a porcupine. As he heard hee-hee-hee sounds coming from the courtyard he was busy reciting the prayers of forgiveness to Allah (the touba isteghfar) even as his tongue was barely managing to utter the whole name of God.
Chan Bhanu’s sleep had been interrupted too, but word of a possible demon or ghost had sent her right back to her bed as she lay biting into her pillow, almost dead of fright.
After a while Narad Ali had regained a smidgen of normalcy as he shouted out Allah’s full name, touched his ears and nose in reverence, and said, “Touba isteghfar ullah, Aujubillah (instead of Naujubillah!), Bismillah! I just stepped out in the courtyard and saw- as big as a palm tree!- an old man wearing a strange headgear… standing by himself. His beard was about ten foot long! Oh, help me God! The King of the Jinn himself paid us a visit tonight!”
When Chan and her mother heard this they were on the verge of another fainting spell. No one was brave enough to check if the aforementioned old man, tall as a palm tree with the appearance of the king of the jinn, was still in the courtyard. They could not even muster enough strength to shout for help. It was as if someone was choking them. What if the king of the jinn got angry if they called someone? God help them then! The three of them lit a candle and sat near the flame, shaking with fear and reciting the name of God.
The King of the Jinn did not stir up any other trouble that night. He slowly entered the mango grove nearby and made a gesture so that three or four strange-looking ghosts emerged. They started undressing the King of the Jinn.
And that costume was elaborate: A long bamboo stick was tied to another, smaller, bamboo stick and an earthenware pot was attached to the head of the longer stick. On that pot a terrible face was painted with several shades of ink, while a thick turban was tied around its top. The pot wore a very long beard made out of jute and the smaller stick seemed to work as his hand; on that hand, there were two strips of cloth wound like the long sleeve of a piran. On two sides of that long stick a pair of white dhoti was hung- so one would have to carry the sticks and walk while staying within that chamber created by the two dhoti. If anyone saw such a tall person walking around the village at night it would certainly scare him to death- and even scare a few other ghosts in the process.
When the elaborate disguise was unraveled, it was easy to see that it was our own Alla Rakha after all. The leader of the ghosts, Alla Rakha, gathered his effects and his fellow-ghosts and quickly disappeared from the scene. While departing, they said, “No more for tonight. They saw a jinn today, perhaps they’ll hear of a disappearance tomorrow!”
By the time it was morning, the entire village knew that the King of the Jinn had paid a visit to Chan Bhanu’s house last night. Narad Ali had described him to be as tall as their palm tree, but the villagers had extended it in their imagination right up to the sky. The girls were saying, “Why should it not pay a visit? Keeping such a big girl unmarried is a certain way of inviting a jinn!”
Others still said that the Jinn was probably in love with Chan Bhanu after witnessing her beauty. He must have an eye for her. It was such a pity for someone about to get married- maybe he will turn up at her wedding itself and snap her neck there!
A Maulvi came and read the Quran at Chan Bhanu’s house that whole day. At night the maulud sharif was performed. It needs hardly to be said that the aforementioned ghosts also came and ate the sacred offerings during the sharif. Later that night, Shobhan and two or three others slept over at their house.
Deep into the night the sound of a flute was heard coming from the palm tree behind the house. Nobody had quite slept due to fear anyway. They saw everything through an open window. They saw a twenty foot long pair of feet, inky black in colour, descend from the top of the tree. The leaves of the palm tree made a dry noise as they parted to make way for it. Suddenly, however, this was followed by a rush of sand and dirt that fell out of the tree and on top of Narad Ali’s tin roof. At the same time, the six or seven areca-nut trees that were standing next to the palm began to shake violently too. As if they were about to break into two. But there was nothing on those trees! The watchers could not say anything else about what happened subsequently that night because after witnessing these violent shakings they had been struck dumb, blind and speechless for the rest of the night.
Whatever sliver of consciousness remained flickering in them after these events was subjected to fresh assault when they saw a black cat jumping out of the top of the palm tree and landing on their window sill.
That night the committee of ghosts decided that they would not scare the family any longer, in case they fled from the village. Alla Rakha shook the jinn’s legs, which were the bamboo sticks covered in black cloth, and said “I have an idea!” The group of ghosts became excited to hear that.
What Alla Rakha said to them afterwards, was this: He had decided that he was going to get a letter printed from Calcutta. And the King of the Jinn himself was going to deliver it to Narad Ali. That will be the end of the game and ensure his total victory.
Due to the strange nocturnal events at their place, Chan Bhanu’s wedding had been pushed back by another month anyway. All sorts of ghost-whisperers and holy men had descended upon Narad Ali’s household trying to get to the bottom of those nightly visitations. Word had spread to the surrounding villages too, stirring up excitement wherever it went. When nothing happened for the next seven or eight days, everyone asserted that the sacred rites had borne fruit. Thanks to those incantations, the ghosts had been forced to flee. What a relief it was!
Meanwhile, after the events of the second night, Alla Rakha got hold of the address of a printing press in Calcutta. He went there and made several drafts until he could produce this letter, reproduced below. He made several copies and eventually sent this letter to the manager of the printing press:
Please accept my salaam. Please print what I have written below in a nice and beautiful manner. If you accept this letter from a poor person like myself and then fail to print that letter within the next three or four days, God will find a way to reprimand you. And please let me know how much the printing would cost. I hope, sir, that you will not neglect your duties. Print it in such a manner that reflects the latest fashionable style of writing and use good paper for it.
Respectfully, Year- 1337, 10 Boishakh
Alla Rakha, Trader Alias Keshranjan Babu (He must receive it)
Mohanpur, Damuda District: Faridpur (Where the Arial Khan River reaches)
And the divine speech of the King of the Jinn that he wrote down was:
Bismillah Allahu Akbar
La Ilaha Illalla
Oh Narad Ali Sheikh,
I am telling you and your wife,
Your daughter Chan Bhanu,
Must be given in marriage to Chunnu the trader’s son Alla Rakha. If you don’t do this you will invite a lot of trouble on your heads. If Chunnu the trader appears surprised when you approach him with this offer of marriage and asks you questions about it, you must ignore it. Summon Alla Rakha and another Munshi and have them read the kalema- that’s it.
Majga’s Chheraj Haldar has decided to get his son married off to Chan Bhanu. He still desires it in his heart. Beware, beware! It is God’s own will that Alla Rakha should be the one getting married. And if you disregard the will of God your daughter will suffer the pangs of hellfire!
Beware- take caution- and be careful to adhere to the contents of this letter, otherwise you will become an infidel.
If you get her married off to Alla Rakha I will pay you a visit in your dreams. Chan Bhanu is like my sister, after all. I will give her some presents. I’m telling you once again- your slip of a daughter only wishes to get married to Alla Rakha. But if you refuse this, there will be hell to pay.
The King of the Jinn
Along the margins of this letter- he had repeated his instructions to make the print as ‘fashionable’ as possible.
It was the city of Calcutta after all- where one could purchase tiger’s milk if one had the money. So this divine letter was printed easily within the next eight or ten days. Alla Rakha could barely conceal his glee.
The committee of ghosts called a meeting again. It was decided that the divine letter would be delivered that very night to Narad Ali. Alla Rakha would dress up as the King of the Jinn and go to their house. If someone wakes and sees him it won’t be long before their teeth are set to chatter.
That night the King of the Jinn’s divine letter, pitched into the night sky, passed almost unhindered through the straw roof of Chan Bhanu’s house. By early morning, the entire village knew about it.
Narad Ali was now trapped. The King of the Jinn had made it clear that his daughter was to be married off to Alla Rakha, while Siraj Haldar, on the other hand, was not about to give up his claim easily either. In spite of the visitations from jinn, fairies and ghosts Siraj Haldar was determined to get his son married to that girl. None of the villagers at Majga or Mohanpur had been able to dissuade him. He said, “If God grants us any luck no son of a ghost can harm a hair on his head. He has to die one day anyway, if it has to happen at the hands of a ghost who can do anything about it?”
Truth be told, Siraj was a sly and intelligent man. He had understood the situation well. Chan Bhanu was their only child and an attractive one at that; some greedy rascal was probably trying to win her over with these tactics. Although it must be said that Siraj was not necessarily unafraid or disbelieving of ghosts himself. He merely thought that whoever had done this must have employed a ghost-whisperer for the job. Once the marriage is completed it would be easy to find a different ghost whisperer to chase these demons away. There was hardly any other girl sitting on such an expanse of land waiting to marry his brilliant son.
Siraj’s son was like his father- brave, smart and sly. He thought that the marriage needed to be concluded as soon as possible; then an exorcist could be called before he would try to get close to his new bride.
Father and son put their heads together and decided that only the wedding would take place at Chan’s house. Ruiyat, or the ceremony of the auspicious first-look, would be postponed and they will bring home the bride only after the latter ceremony is completed. Chan Bhanu will have to remain at her father’s house until the ruiyat is done.
Narad Ali called Siraj Haldar over to his place. It was only the neighbouring village after all. Siraj Haldar appeared at his house as soon as he could. He read the contents of the divine letter and thought for a while. Then, he said calmly, “Whatever you might think, brother- I’m telling you this is not a missive from a ghost; it is that rascal, Alla Rakha’s handiwork. The bastard must have gotten it printed from some press. Why would the King of the Jinn write a printed letter to you? I respect the King of the Jinn very much, but this is not his work. If this is not a trick played by that bastard I will submit myself to be struck fifty times with a shoe.”
Truly they had not thought about it this way. But he had seen the King of the Jinn with his own eyes. Oh my god- that height, reaching up to the ceiling, beard going down to his waist, a massive turban around the head! He pleaded with Siraj Haldar, even falling at his feet, but could not convince him otherwise. Siraj said if anyone has to die it would be his own son; Narad Ali need not fear anything.
In the end, Siraj almost threatened Narad Ali by implying he would press for damages if the marriage was not confirmed. Narad Ali gave up his negotiations.
Chan Bhanu’s mother had not said a word during this time. Her face did not bear the earlier signs of amusement or even happiness anymore. Some unknown fear and the more real dangers of what was going on seemed to have sapped all her vitality. Mother and daughter would not leave the house anymore. After seeing the water-demon, Chan Bhanu’s mother had taken over the water drawing duties, bringing it back herself so that her daughter could have a bath. Chan never went to the river again. Amulets and sacred trinkets had almost completely covered her body so there was no visible space on her arms, waist or neck. It was like tying an anchor to keep a sinking ship in place.
Chan had dried up too, looking wan and listless through the day. Hearing everyone talk she had started believing that she was probably possessed by jinn. Fear and worry prevented any possibility of sleep, amusement or the regular motions of eating and living. She had no mind for such things. But this was such a strange ghost! If she had to be possessed by one anyway- why should it repeat what Alla Rakha says? Ghosts do not tend to behave this way. They tend to embrace whoever they are possessing, without voicing the wishes of other people. Does that mean this ghost was Alla Rakha’s pet? Or perhaps, it was Alla Rakha himself who was the ghost!
In spite of all her troubles, Chan had not been able to forget about Alla Rakha. His strange nature and behavior seemed to have left a mark on her mind.
He might be terrible but he hadn’t harmed her exactly. Even though she had behaved so badly with him! She recalled the time when she was leaving a neighbour’s house to return to hers when she saw Alla Rakha visibly agitated in the street. No one else was on the street that day. When she ran to him to ask what had happened, he had said that a snake had bitten him. When she asked where it bit him, he pointed to his chest. Truly there was some blood on his chest! Chan Bhanu had no time to feel embarrassment then. Didn’t Alla Rakha once save her from the river? She sucked some of the blood from his wound and spat it out; before putting her mouth to the wound again, she asked- what kind of snake was it? Alla Rakha had silently pointed to her eyes in response. After that, Chan barely remembered how she staggered back to her house and fell into a daze. But no one knows about this incident apart from the two of them.
Chan Bhanu had understood- Alla Rakha had deceived her into touching his chest with her mouth by making a small wound on it, probably with a knife, and that the story about the snake was not true. Still, she could not get angry with Alla Rakha. If someone can go to such lengths for a mere touch- even it was only the mouth- and cut out a wound in their chest, who could love her any more than that? It was possible that what her would-be father-in-law, Siraj, had told them was completely true. But she felt her heart crying out for the boy that the village so loved to hate. Why does the world seem intolerably empty if she does not see him for a day?
Yes, a jinn or a ghost had truly possessed her. Let him be a jinn or a demon, after all he must love her very much! Isn’t that why he becomes a jinn one day, and a tall, stick-legged demon the other? Chan began to think that the snake had not bitten Alla Rakha after all; it had bitten her and the poison was washing over her mind. A mother’s mind is omniscient. She was the only one who saw her daughter’s pain, and the sheer sight of her drying up in front of her eyes. She knew who the real ghost was too. But even if she wanted to help she knew it could not be done. She will have to sacrifice her herself. Siraj Haldar was a terrible man; if the engagement was called off he would not take it lying down. Father, mother and daughter felt helpless as they submitted their fates to the stream of events.
Eventually, nothing came out of anything. The man who had never seen defeat in his life was confronted with it for the first time. The King of the Jinn, his divine letter, the assortment of minor ghosts- the tall stick-legged one, the mamdo, the thousand-eyed one, the brohmodoitto, the half-necked one- none of them could prevent his failure in the end. Alla Rakha also seemed to have lost his enthusiasm. The day Chan Bhanu had put her moon-like mouth on the wound on his chest- all the poison in his blood, the jealousy, envy, greed and hunger had been transformed into nectar in his body. As if at the touch of a magic stone his insides had been turned into gold. The ghost in his head had stopped haunting him.
Chan Bhanu got married. She did not get a glimpse of how her husband looked. She did not feel like taking a look at him. The groom did not see his bride either- what if the Jinn that had possessed her came and broke his neck! He left home after the wedding- in search of some good quality jute for his business.
Chan Bhanu had been married off at night. The next morning, Alla Rakha’s parents and brothers were surprised to see his appearance. His thick and long hair had been shaved; he was wearing a waistcloth and holding the switch which was used to chase cows. He was also carrying a plough on his shoulders. His mother understood everything. She knew about the rumours that had spread in the village about him and Chan Bhanu. She wiped her eyes quietly and went inside the house. His father and brothers sent thanks to God for finally planting some sense in Alla Rakha.
In the distance, under the shade of a mangrove, was another pair of eyes that became moist like the cloudy, early-morning sky, when they saw Alla Rakha’s ploughman’s frame. Those eyes belonged to Chan Bhanu. She ran to Alla Rakha and fell near his feet, crying, ‘Who did this to you?’ Alla Rakha smiled calmly and said- ‘The King of the Jinn’!
1. A reference to the contemporary Khilafat movement, which was programmed to encourage unity among the Hindus and the Muslims for the nationalist movement.
2. A reference to Jaiguner Puthi by Syed Hamza, a popular qissa narrative in Bengali, usually denoted by their textual form as ‘puthi’.
3. A reference to Shonabhaner Puthi by Munshi Abdul Karim.
Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899- 1976) was a Bengali poet, writer, musician, film actor, and the national poet of Bangladesh. Popularly known as Nazrul, he produced a large body of poetry and music with themes that included religious devotion and rebellion against oppression. Nazrul’s activism for political and social justice earned him the title of “Bidrohi Kobi” (Rebel Poet). His compositions form the avant-garde music genre of “Nazrul Geeti.”
Ankan Kazi is a writer, translator and PhD scholar at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His previous translations include contemporary fiction from Bengali as well as non-fiction essays on art history. The story published here is from a forthcoming collection of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s short stories, translated from Bengali. His essays and translations have appeared in Indian Literature, The Caravan Magazine, The Wire and Jamini.