Of Spirits and Things

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We had just moved into our new house, so lovingly named after me by Baba, when an unfortunate ‘Spiritual’ upheaval came about.   Niranjan the manservant and Jeevnath the cook had been freshly appointed into their household jobs and they were permitted to move into the spacious Naukraan – a euphemism for a single room under a corrugated tin shed graced with one door and one window on the two inner walls.  The two outer walls were parts of the boundary wall around the inner courtyard of the house.   They were quite happy as they rightfully should have been;   they were well paid and well housed!   However, very soon thereafter both of them became unhappy about the room they were asked to live in.   They were convinced that the room was haunted.

My readers of this tale, being of modern age, might well laugh and say ‘what rubbish’.   How silly of a man to include a ghost story in a tale about real life!   Let me then assure my modern reader that I am not being silly at all.    In my childhood, ghosts were common place.   They could be found anywhere and everywhere;   they often accosted people one knew directly.   Why, even in our own house that we occupied at the Chaurasta before we moved into our brand new house, ghosts moved around with total impunity.   Ma had seen one herself just as Baba had seen another in his own bed room.   I had heard about those incidents a hundred times.   If you don’t believe me, I can recount those for you right now.    Story one:   Baba was asleep on his own bed under the mosquito net; yes, the same bed where I slept sandwiched between Baba and Ma every night when we were in that house!   It was early one morning   and Baba suddenly saw a woman clad in a white sari circling his bed.   He was of course very surprised.   He got up and wondered who this could be.   It was still quite dark and from under the mosquito net he could not quite recognize the person.   Both the doors of the room were closed and Ma (and I?) lay peacefully next to him.    He turned around to pull the mosquito net up and got down from the bed;   lo and behold; the ‘woman’ just disappeared!   Now you tell me.   Could it have been any thing other than a ghost?     My story two is also just as emphatic.   This one concerns Ma.   My Dida (mother’s mom) was paying us a short visit.  My Thakuma (Father’s mom) was with her in the kitchen one evening preparing dinner.   My Ma was of course there too, attending to the two elderly ladies.   Dida wanted something to be fetched from the bed room and asked Ma to go and get what was needed.   Ma did what she was asked to do.   While coming back down the staircase she found Thakuma walking up in a hurry.   Ma was quite surprised.   She asked her if there was something amiss.   Thakuma ignored her and walked away to the first floor.   Puzzled by this incidence, Ma came back to the kitchen and found BOTH the ladies in an amiable animated conversation!    Who was it then, the one that walked past her on the staircase?   Ma ran back upstairs and of course did not find any one at all!    Since there had been a persistent rumour about a lonely spirit roaming in the house, the incident was put down to one of those unexplained visitations.   The spirit had appeared to be harmless and reticent – so why worry?

With such a background of familiarity with spirits around us, I was not surprised in the least when one day Amulya told me about a recent incident; it seems that someone was throwing stones on the roof of the naukraan in the middle of the night.  This occurrence was driving Niranjan and Jeevnath quite crazy.  Now Amulya was my closest friend and I had no reason to disbelieve him.   He was Baba’s office peon and he looked after me throughout the day.    There was a twinkle in Amulya’s eyes and I knew that he was about to tell me a story.   Who do you think was throwing the stones? He asked me.   I don’t know, I said, you tell me who was it.   Amulya lowered his voice.   His eyes took on a sinister look.   In a whisper barely audible to me he said ‘It must have been the Maamdo’.   What is a Maamdo?   My curiosity was instantly aroused and I asked Amulya to explain.   Amulya was always happy to narrate tales.   Whenever a musalmaan dies, he said, he has to go to Allah and explain all that he has done when he was alive.   If he was a good person Allah will send him to Jannat or else he will be sent to Jahannum.  But, he said, the fellow will need time to go and find Allah and talk to him.   In the mean time, if his grave is disturbed, he has to rush back.  If that happens, sometimes he gets stuck and cannot go back to Allah.   He then becomes a bhoot.   Such bhoots are called Maamdo Bhoot.   I found the explanation quite simple and acceptable, but I had a question.   Why would a Maamdo come to our house?   Amulya now became very conspiratorial.   In forced whispers he told me that there used to be a grave of a poor musalmaan below the tamarind tree just outside the inner wall.   It was an unmarked grave and it got disturbed while erecting the wall.   The poor soul has now become a Maamdo and it has no place to go to.   It has therefore taken shelter in the tamarind tree.   When he is angry he throws stones.   Once again I found Amulya to be absolutely logical.   After all, if a fellow is disturbed in his sleep and is thrown out of his bed he is quite likely to be angry enough to climb a tree or throw a stone or two.    However, I still did not understand why he needed to be so angry all the time, to the extent of frightening poor Niranjan out of his mind.   I expressed my feelings to Amulya.

I think Amulya could read me like an open book and was actually egging me on towards these questions.   He now settled down with the second part of his story.   Once upon a time, he said, a poor Brahmin lived on this piece of land.   He had a little hut but very little money.   He did not even own the piece of land on which he had built his hut.   Days passed by and he became old.   One day his wife died and then his children went out to faraway lands to earn their living.   The poor Brahman was left all alone.   Then when he was really very old and frail one day he died in his sleep; no one knew about it.  His body rotted.   Ultimately some people came and cremated him.   There was no trace of his sons.   There was no one to pray for him or perform his shradh.  Poor soul just hung around waiting for a son or a grandson to perform the ceremonies and no one came.   He could not go to heaven.   His hut broke down and was blown away by the winds.   He became a Brahma Daitya and found refuge on the Bel tree that had stood next to his hut.

`Now this was becoming quite serious.   A Brahma Daitya on a Bel tree on this plot of land?   Well, there was only one such tree and that stood right next to the rear veranda in the inner courtyard.   I crept a little closer to Amulya and eyed the Bel tree obliquely.    Amulya carried on with his story.   All this had happened many years ago; much before someone buried the Musalmaan close by below the tamarind tree.   Our Brahma Daitya had by then become used to being the only spirit inhabiting the plot of land.   When one day Saheb (i.e. Baba) bought this piece of land and disturbed the grave, the poor Maamdo popped out and created a ruckus.  Of course no human being could see him or hear his outbursts, but it had greatly upset the peace of mind of the Brahma Daitya.    He had asked the Maamdo to leave the premises and the Maamdo had flatly refused to do so.    From then on there has been a continuous fight between the two. By now I was quite concerned.   What can we do about this situation?   Amulya shook his head slowly.   We have a big problem on our hands, he said.   I never thought of asking him how he got to know all this.

Amulya was right.   We did have a big problem on our hands. Niranjan and Jeevnath had become very scared and were unwilling to stay in the naukraan.   How they became so conscious of the ‘Spiritual’ problem was a mystery. Ma was worried.   Everyone counselled the servants without any success.   Ultimately Thakuma in her desperation wondered whether in view of the servants’ fear the offending trees should be cut down.   The two very frightened men took this suggestion very seriously and requested for the removal of these two trees.   Baba rejected such retrograde suggestions out of hand.   Not withstanding his personal experience with things spiritual, he did not really believe that bhoots existed.   More over,   he was morally bound to discourage superstition amongst people under his care.   No, he said.   Do not bother me with any stories about ghosts.    It became a classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object and the atmosphere became tense!

Human mind is known for its innovativeness.   Some one in the house, I do not really know who, suggested that perhaps the matter could be approached from a different psychological point of view.    How about considering the question of security of the house as a reason for removing the offending trees?   After all,   the Tamarind Tree   was located outside the inner wall and it did overhang the roof of the naukraan structure.    The compound did not have a security fencing in the real sense.   There was no gate at the entrance.    There were two other breaks in the perimeter fencing leading to “Burir Ma’s” house over the northern boundary and to Dr Dhar’s house pond (the clean secluded tree rimmed swimming pond for the ladies of the neighbouring houses) towards the East.   Any thief could come at night into the grounds, climb the tamarind tree and swing down into the inner courtyard unnoticed.   All the effort of embedding glass shrapnel on the inner courtyard wall would then be rendered wasteful, would it not?   And the huge Bel tree would offer such an easy access to the first floor bedrooms!   One of the branches of the Bel tree almost touches the rear veranda.    One would shudder to contemplate the risks involved.   The little girls are so small and their bed room is not even adjoining Saheb’s room.  The little boy’s (that is MINE!) room lies in between.   Can one even imagine the ‘other’ dangers over and above the loss of property if a thief entered the girl’s room?   No.   Such a risk is just not worth considering!

Once an idea is planted in ones mind and it is fertilized with fear, it grows quickly and spreads its branches filled with leaves to cover the sunlight of reason.   Slowly the ‘reasonableness’ of the revised case became accepted by the majority of the residents.   Baba was now pestered for his approval for the removal of the two trees.   Thakuma was in any case the originator of the idea.   All the servants joined the clamour.   Then Ma lent her support.   Ultimately when Bankim Kakababu also lent his support Baba had to give up.   A wood cutter was commissioned.   The two trees were cut down.   For good measure, one over-hanging branch of the mango tree adjoining the latrine block was also cut down.   There was some discussion as to whether the stump of the Bel tree should be left as a lounging bench on the inner courtyard, but the idea had surfaced too late and the wood cutter had butchered the tree trunk mercilessly before he could be instructed otherwise.   A bunch of day labourers were called in and the remnants of the trees were dug out of the ground from the roots.   Everyone was happy, but perhaps the happiest man was Amulya who was allowed to cart away the timber to make doors windows and furniture for his village home.   He was after all the originator of the ‘spiritual story’ in the first place!

Postscript

After some time a thought struck me and I could ask only Amulya for an explanation:   What had happened to the Maamdo and the Brahma Daitya after the trees were removed? So I asked him the question one day.    It was late in the afternoon at that time and the elders were deep in their siesta.   Amulya was prompt with his response.   Pausing for a moment from his chore of polishing Baba’s shoes he looked up and asked me –‘why? Have I not told you already?    After they lost their homes in the two trees they realized that it was pointless fighting each other any more.  The made up and now they share the large Babul Tree just north of the Jamun tree.   Do you want to come and see their new home?”

No thank you, I said, and I ran upstairs to my room.

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