The grove of Srish Poramanik was renowned for nuts. It was right by the roadside and full of ancient trees. It was dark like the night even during day time.
Our primary school was not far away from this place. They called it Rakhal Master's school. In the middle of the yard, there was a mulberry tree and hence we called it the Mulberry School.
We had two teachers and one was Heeralaal Chakravorti. He owned a shop of pots and pans and hence was called “the pot-selling master.” What a teacher he was! The size of his canes was legendary. During the tiffin-break, the teachers used to take a nap. We would roam around as we wished—in the woods, groves, paddy fields and return after an hour or so. Sometimes we would find them still fast asleep and then resume our fun activities for an extended period of time.
That day it was no different. Our school was quite a distance away from the rail tracks. We went to see the rail tracks and the Matla Bridge and the teachers were sound asleep as we came back.
Naran said, “Shush, don't say anything. Let's go and have some of those nuts.”
Everybody agreed. I said, “It's not easy, you know.”
“We don't have to get up on the trees. There are lots underneath…”
“Really? Okay, let's go and see.”
It was two at noon when we all entered the grove. The bright autumnal sun shone over our head. The grove was overrun with weeds and thorn bushes—resulting from the heavy monsoon rain. A narrow path ran through the woods. Thick tendrils hung from the trees. None of us ever covered the entire grove—it was huge—stretched from the road to the riverbank.
There were some guavas in the trees, but they were still not edible. I strolled on toward the river. No sign of nuts; or rather I did not have the patience to look for them. So I separated from my friends. The trees and weeds were really thick around this place. Few people frequented this side of the grove.
I thought I heard the sounds of a fox. The Kullo bird screamed from top of the tamarind trees. Suddenly, I felt uneasy; didn't they say that the ghosts abound by mid noon? The ghost was called Roshi and you have to kneel down so that he does not harm you?
Should I kneel down? The spirits would go away if there were any. It was mid-noon all right. And I was alone. But why in the world was the ghost called Roshi? It could have been Shyam, Kalo, or Nibaran too.
I turned around a curve and saw a dense bamboo forest and a thicket underneath. And while standing there I felt my heart had stopped beating. Sitting with her back to the trunk of an aamra tree was Boro Bagdini.
I took a careful look. It was Boro Bagdini all right. But didn't she die some time back?
Boro Bagdini used to live in our village. She had a small cottage near the place called banyan field. She had no family and she lived by herself. I knew she used to work at the house of the Paals. Then she caught fever and nobody had seen her in a while. Then about two months back, the corpse of a woman was found in the bamboo forests near the waterbodies. It was half-eaten by the foxes and wild dogs. Everybody thought it was Boro Bagdini as the woman was thin and dark like her.
And here was Boro Bagdini sitting under the aamra tree.
I broke into a run and sped away until I reached my mates. I was trembling all over and I could barely speak.
“Hey, what's it with you? Why are you shivering?”
I said, “I saw the dead.”
“What dead? Where?...”
“Boro Bagdini is sitting under the aamra tree inside the thicket. I just saw her near the riverbank.”
“What? That's impossible.”
“I saw her with my own eyes. It's Boro Bagdini.”
“What's he saying? Let's go and see… he's lying, of course.”
Then our leader Nimai Kolu said, “Hey, no. We can't go now. I'm sure our teachers have woken up by now. Remember the pot-selling master's cane? I won't go. You can go if you want to. And who knows if he's not lying….”
The boys stopped at the reminder of pot-selling master's cane. One and two, everybody started walking toward the school. I followed them too.
As we reached the school we saw that both the teachers were up. The pot-selling master was walking to-and-fro front of the empty classroom. He raised his voice as he saw us, “And so finally you're done with play, eh?”
We could say, “And you're done with sleep?” But who would dare to ask that? We were all terrified of him. As he entered the classroom he called, “Ratna, where have you been?”
I was trembling like a sacrificial goat. There was Boro Bagdini on one hand, and here was the pot-selling master. Still I decided to use the only weapon I had. I said, “Sir, they all know why we're late… We had been to the grove of Sharba Poramanik… and we saw the ghost of Boro Bagdini.”
Amazement and fear played out on the face of the pot-selling master. He said, “What… what do you mean by ghost?”
“You know ghost… ghosts that…”
“I know what a ghost is, you little monkey. Where did you see it? What are you talking about?”
I told him in detail and my mates also supported my story by describing how breathless and afraid I was when I had returned from my excursion. Pot-selling master called out to the other teacher, “Did you hear what the boys just said?”
Master Rakhal was preparing to smoke when he asked, “What was that?”
“Ratna says he saw a ghost in Sharba Poramanik's garden.”
“Who'd Sharba Poramanik?”
“Srish Poramanik's Father. It's their grove you know.”
I had to narrate again and Master Rakhal, who believed in all kinds of superstition, nodded and said, “Of course. It was a terrible death. She would turn into a ghost.”
But the pot-selling master was not convinced. “But why would a ghost sit like that under a tree? And in the middle of the day-time too!”
“So what? Is there any rule that a ghost cannot sit under a tree?”
A chaos arose and a decision was made to go into the grove to find out the truth of the matter. All the boys accompanied the teachers and I led the procession.
I took them to that dense thicket and to the aamra tree.
And what we saw was this:
A torn, soiled and fetid quilt was spread out under the tree. On one side there was a pot of water which was half-filled. Stones and skins of the aamra fruits were scattered around the place. Some were fresh and some from a few days ago. There were also a pile of chewed tamarind and chalta. On the quilt lay the shriveled and emaciated figure of Boro Bagdi. She was dead; died not long ago it seemed.
The mystery was never solved.
We went out of the copse in a procession and informed the authorities. The chawkidar and the dafaadar came to see the body of the dead woman. Who could say why Boro Bagdini had left her cottage to die in this jungle? Some said she had gone crazy while some other suspected that she was possessed by the spirits.
However, the real reason of Boro Bagdini's death was ill-nourishment and perhaps the malaria of the autumn. There was nobody to even give her water at the end.
Who would? Nobody knew that she was dying in that thicket.
The mystery behind Boro Bagdini's death in the wildernesses was never solved.
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. She is also the Deputy Editor of the Star Literature & Review Pages of The Daily Star.