Shankha Vishwajanin
Shankha Vishwajanin in Bengali

- Modhumita Ganguli

I have traveled much around various states of India with my family-Bapi, Ma, and my brother, Raja. And so I have many memories to share-some funny, some scary. This incident took place when Bapi was posted in North Bengal, t he picturesque part of Bengal -with water, mountains and dense forest.

"How about a candle-lit dinner tonight?", my romantic
brother chirped in. "Yeah, it will be great! Particularly with the insect soup." put in Tanya sweetly. Raja was disappointed. They were already talking about dinner when we still had twenty kilometers to reach our destination. Six long hours of journey from Siliguri, where my bapi had been recently transferred made us all-Raja, Ma and my cousins who were visiting us -wait impatiently for the Rydak forest rest-house to appear.

And what a journey! Endless road yawning before us, two or three dry river-beds glistening in the sunlight, in one of which our car got stuck for sometime, causing Ma worry about wild cats and tigers making a debut with us. Finally the rest-house did appear -an old, grand house just where the road ended. By this time we had crossed the Rydak river where the platinum moon had smoothly taken over the rosy twilight like the change of guards at the Buckingham Palace. Everybody poured out of the car. A whisper, a comment and a crackle of laughter broke loose. Leaving all to there merriment decided to lounge around the old place.

The night was lonely , cold; it's calm was broken only by the murmur of leaves and the piercing
cry of a bird nearby . Suddenly I was not alone. Someone else was sharing the nature's company
with me. I thought it better to retrace my steps and join others.

"Missibaba, salaam",a husky voice said behind me. I turned like a zombie. Is this how a ghost looks?Very old-maybe as old as the house- stooping a little he gave me a toothless smile.

"I am Bhootnath, the chowkidar of this place", he said with pride. "Missibaba, Memsaheb is calling you. But what are you doing here alone, Guria? It is cold out here. You know, once I had pneumonia …….."He chattered on till we reached the house. From the threshold I could hear Ma scolding ,"Rimi, can't you be a bit obedient like your brother and cousins. Just look at them." I looked at them. They were giggling to glory. I made a face and retreated upstairs.

It was a small room with a double bed and an attached toilet. This was all I could explore with the help of a single flickering candle. There was no electricity here. When I went down refreshed, my family was already engrossed in the story the chowkidar was narrating .I joined them. Before independence, this house was owned by a bachelor British gentleman. As a generous landlord he was loved by everyone and, above all ,by his faithful young servant, our chowkidar. Every evening after a day's work he would go to the nearby club for a game or two of snooker and a few pegs of whisky.

On that fateful morning, Bhootnath took a jug of black coffee to his master's room. This was a daily demand before starting the day. Last night Bhootnath had gone to see a 'jatra' in a nearby village and came back home only a couple of hours ago. The master was already up, sitting at the table writing something. Hearing Bhootnath's footsteps, he looked up.

"You look tired, Saab. Returned very late yesterday?" Bhootnath asked with concern. The gentleman gave a pale smile and resumed writing. A few hours later , Bhootnath was disturbed by the chug of an engine. Looking through the kitchen he saw a police jeep approaching. In a couple of minutes, two grim faced officers met him at the kitchen. One of them said, "We are sorry your master met with an accident on his way back home last evening .He died on the spot." "Dead?!" Bhootnath was aghast. He ran upstairs and found nobody. The writing pad was also gone.
"Since the day I often feel his presence", the old man concluded.

A shiver ran through me. I looked at the chowkidar and he gave me a peculiar smile. Bapi broke the uneasy silence with a laugh of disbelief. Soon his facetiousness and confident chat brought the light-hearted mood back. The candle-lit dinner was simply delightful and Raja was very happy. When I went up to my for the night, I was relaxed and comfortable. To my surprise, there was a gaslight in my room which the kindly chowkidar had provided especially for Me. I was midway in silently thanking him, when Ma came in, flustered.
"Rimi, how can you sleep with that light glaring on?" The life-saving lamp was removed to the wash-basin in the bathroom.
"Now it's okay. Sweet dreams, my dear," She was away.
Dreams! Hah! Sleep never bothered to tread by my path. Listening to the strange sounds from the active forest around me and staring at the dancing shadows on the wall, I was suddenly afraid. Afraid of what? I don't know. May be, of the unknown. For reassurance, my eyes started exploring the lighted bathroom. As in all old British bungalows, the bathroom here too had a whitewashed prominence. I could see the sundry things - towel racks, towels, wash-basin, sweeper's door at the other end,… And then I saw it happen. "Swoooooooooosh!"
I was hypnotized by the sight. The next moment I was screaming. The door opened urgently and anxious faces peeked at me. I ran into Ma's arms and collapsed.

Later, as if in a trance, I related the whole story. "… as my eyes rested on the commode, I saw the chain of the flush go slowly, very slowly down……swooosh……and slowly back upwards. There was no one in the bathroom."
"This must have been the Englishman!" Ma cried excitedly, "We must leave this place at once." Bapi pacified her with a gesture of his hand. Then he said with a puckered brow, "But how could this happen?" The chowkidar who had joined us by then turned towards me in reply, "Guria , are you afraid?" His eyes were serious. Then a twinkle of laughter stole in and his whole face creased in a ridiculous merriment.
"What's there to laugh?" I rebuked him tearfully, mightily offended.
"Everything", he gasped for air and said , "That tank is defective .Whenever water fills it up, it empties. Then the flush chain comes down automatically."
I was dumbstruck. The old man smiled at me.
"Betia, you should not accuse the poor 'bhoots' for your misadventure, the lazy workmen are more to blame." By then everybody was laughing.

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