We had just moved to Kolkata for our schooling. Not that we thought Kolkata schools were better than mofussil ones. Schools are the same everywhere—cast in the same mold. All schools force-feed lessons but sadly no one becomes educated; and even if they do, it is thanks to their own merit, not that of the curriculum or the teachers. Actually, we had come to save ourselves from malaria.
Three months or so after we arrived, Sarada-dada unexpectedly appeared as our house-guest. I don’t know on what connection we used to address him as dada. He was neither our relative nor in-law; he was not even from our village. Wherever his ancestral village was, he didn’t have a home there. He was a social drifter. During that time our part of the country was crammed with zamindars like the termites in a termite hill. And with each of them he had some sort of a connection; what exactly it was, nobody knew. He lived off the hospitality of these people and everybody welcomed and treated him warmly. He was a Brahmin and a gentleman in speech and demeanor. So whatever he was— a brother, uncle or distant in-law, everyone was eager to have him as a guest. He would never ask anyone for money. He was supposed to have a widowed relative in Kashi, and he would get money from her whenever needed. Her name was Sukhoda. Sukhoda had abundant wealth but no children; being closely related to Sukhoda lent him a special status.
We, the boys, were delighted to see him although we’d had never seen him or heard his name before. We felt that finally here was someone we could talk to. In Kolkata, we had no relatives, not even friends— with whom we could talk and pass the time. We didn’t enjoy talking to our schoolmates. Back then, conversation with Kolkata boys was as insipid as the milk sold in Kolkata—watered down.
Every evening Sarada-dada used to regale us with stories; the stories of the things he had experienced in life. Of course, Mother had warned us that whatever Sarada said was out and out false. But that didn’t deter us. Because though lies are not acceptable in court, they are always present in stories. Anyway, Sarada-dada mostly told us ghost stories. But we never revealed it to Mother. We had heard that the man who supplied father with hookah tobacco used to tell ghost stories to our elder brother. As a result, at night, he would get scared to go from one room to another. Then Father barred the tobacco-seller from entering our house. Lest mother turned Sarada-dada out, we never repeated these stories before her. Besides, there is no fear of ghosts in Kolkata. The streets have lamps and are lined with rows of houses— no jungle anywhere. Ghosts are afraid of light and hubbub. Whatever the brilliance of the light, the tumult is far greater. Ghosts never appear amidst such hullaballoo. Sarada-dada only told us stories of ghosts he had seen with his own eyes. One day I asked him, “You tell us stories of village-ghosts only. Haven’t you ever met a sahib-ghost?”
Sarada-dada answered—“Where would I see them? Europeans don’t die in this country. How will they become ghosts if they don’t die? Huge train collisions occur here and thousands of natives die; but have you ever heard that a single sahib died?”
“Then who lie buried in those cemeteries?’
“All are Eurasians. Listen, I am not saying that no European dies here. But we don’t come across those who have become ghosts.”
“In this country, their ghosts don’t live in trees or walk around. They travel first-class in trains and the Eurasian ones second-class. However, I did see a sahib ghost once, though it’s very painful to relate the experience. Even now thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.”
“We want to hear the story of the sahib-ghost.”
Sarada-dada began after a long sigh, “Very well, but never repeat it to anyone.”
“Who knows, I might have to face a defamation charge. Even a dead man can bring such a charge and one may be fined or jailed. I don’t want to rot in jail again.”
Then Sarada-dada began—
Once I was going to Kashi from Kolkata. When I reached Howrah station, the train was about to leave. So I got into an empty first-class compartment, thinking that I would get off at the next station and switch to third-class. As soon as the train started moving, a sahib appeared from the bathroom. He was at least six feet six inches tall, ruddy-faced, with googly eyes. He smelt strongly of drink, and it was foreign liquor. Stepping into the compartment he said, “You Blackie, just get off.” By then my nerves were shattered and I was trembling as I said, “Sir, how can I get off now? I will leave at the next station.” He said, “Impossible! Your clothes are very dirty and you stink. Go to the bathroom, take off your clothes and wash yourself. And stay there. Come out when I get off. Do as I say, don’t you know that I am the Burra Sahib of the Railway?” Fearing for my life, I did just as he said, that is— I went into the bathroom that wintry night, stripped myself and washed my whole body. Suddenly a gust of wind carried away all my clothes. I remained sitting in the bathroom, soaked and completely naked. Meanwhile, the Burra Sahib was stomping about the compartment, and occasionally hurling endearments at me— swine, ass, monkey etc. I quietly swallowed the abuse.
Nearly an hour went by. I was all wet and shivering and without a stitch on my body. And on the other side of the wall, the Burra Sahib was tippling away and prancing about.
The train stopped for about a minute. There was a click, the sound of the latch being opened. Then the train moved on. Not a sound on the other side of the wall; so I tried to enter the compartment. Good Lord! The Burra Sahib had put the latch on of the bathroom door. I remained trapped in the darkness. Half an hour later when the train reached Bardhaman, I stuck my head out of the bathroom window and without caring for consequences, started shouting, ‘Porter, porter!’ Then a porter came, opened the latch of the door, turned on the light and fled on seeing me naked, as he thought I was a ghost. Eventually, when the stationmaster came and declared—“Not a ghost, a thief,” the porters pounced on me, thrashed me till I was half-dead and dragged me to the platform.
The stationmaster said, “Quick, give him something to wear. If a memsahib suddenly appears and faints at the sight of this naked fellow, I will lose my job.” A passenger gave me a sari which I wrapped around my body. Then I told the stationmaster everything that had happened and he said that the Burra Sahib of the Railway was in Shimla. Besides, no sahib had got on the train or got off anywhere.
Now I realized that the creature at whose hand I had suffered such humiliation was not a sahib, but a sahib’s ghost.
Then the stationmaster sent me off to the police station. There too I suffered a round of beating before the interrogation by the officer in charge. I repeated my story. He believed me, for he had once been harried by a female ghost.
The following day the OC took me to the court. My offense was supposed to be grievous and I should be prosecuted without any delay. The judge was a true gentleman and highly educated as well. He believed the story of being harassed by a ghost in the train, because he was an ardent theosophist. But it was pointless to invoke God and ghosts in the court of the British Raj. The existence of God and ghosts is not accepted there. He had no alternative but to sentence me to a month in jail. My offense was traveling first-class without a ticket in a naked state, while being high on ganja. As a final warning he said, “You can smoke ganja if you like; but when you do, don’t get on a train without a ticket, especially in the guise of a naked sadhu; and particularly in first-class.”
I said, “Your honour, I don’t smoke ganja.”
He said, “As a ganja-smoker you got off with a light sentence. Otherwise, I would have sent you to the Sessions Court.”
Now you have heard the story of a first-class ghost. Compared with them, the rustic ghosts are much more well-mannered!