Memories of my melancholy ghosts
5 April 2012
Remembering pre-television celebrities in a small town in Assam.
The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
loves you. Each
has left something
– Rae Armantrout
Many years ago, before the advent of television introduced the residents of Mangaldai, in central Assam, to various unfamiliar celebrities, the town had its own unique set of such personalities. Back then, Mangaldai was a Macondo-esque sleepy town, where nothing ever really changed, and Karimchowk, where our home is, with its handful of shops and two schools – a primary and a high school – was a tiny corner of the town.
The town suffered from a lack of visible celebrities to the extent that even the burglar and the local brute were, in a way, famous. Adding a descriptive identifier was a common practice; maybe it still is. Thus, for example, Raghu, who habitually got into fist-fights and brawls, was called Raghu Gunda, and Madhu the local burglar was called Madhu Chor – names which would eventually become Raghugunda and Madhuchor respectively. Damayanti, Madhu’s mother, was no longer known as Damayanti, but rather as Madhuchor’s mother.
The biggest celebrity of Karimchowk in those days, however, was the elephant that belonged to Kalimuddin Mahajan (Kalimuddin Ahmed really, but people added the honorific Mahajan as he was a businessman). Whenever a truck or a bus (there were very few cars back then) got stuck in the mud, this elephant would come to the rescue. Mubarak, the mahout, would sit on its back with the arrogance and nonchalance of a Mughal emperor, while people rushed to the elephant with bunches of bananas and other ‘bribes’, rasgulla included. The elephant would leisurely devour the offerings and then with some struggle and a powerful thrust or two, push the vehicle out of the mud.
Mubarak, who always wore a lungi (except for special occasions such as religious or social festivals, when he wore white pajamas) and a khaki shirt (probably a throwaway from some policeman) and carried an umbrella whose U-shaped handle latched on to his shoulder, used to visit my father’s chamber every now and then. He always brought a Charminar cigarette – an inexpensive, non-filtered brand – for my father, though he himself only smoked bidis. He used to address my father with the most intimate but least honorific pronoun, ‘toi’ in Assamese, and also introduced him as his ‘dost’ (buddy) to other people – a practice my mother did not approve of. She felt that this action of Mubarak’s diminished my father’s status, albeit imaginary, in the social hierarchy.
The elephant actually belonged to Kalimuddin’s mother, I later found out. Sometime in 1984, while playing cricket, I saw an elephant running among the graves in the Muslim cemetery with its trunk raised and bellowing painfully. I ran home to warn my mother that an elephant had gone mad and we should be careful, since a wild elephant had caused havoc in the town only a couple of years ago. Thankfully, Kasim the mason, who was nearby, explained that it was only Kalimuddin’s elephant mourning the recent death of its owner, Kalimuddin’s mother.
Then one day, to end the monopoly of the elephant in that small town, Shambhu arrived. It was one of those days in early spring, when the wind that carried sand and dust from the banks of the Brahmaputra not only caused itchy dry skin but also brought measles and other illnesses. From the first moment the town noticed a big bull running after a herd of cows, it realised that a new celebrity had arrived. Within a short time, Shambhu would conquer the town: the grocers’ shops would be his playground, and he could snatch away any vegetables or fruits and face no consequences. By virtue of being a bull (considered the mount of Lord Shiva), Shambhu would rule over the shops and all the cows in the town for many years.
Feared and famous
In contrast to this shortage of visible celebrities, famed invisible inhabitants crowded the town. My mother, an expert on the hierarchy of ghosts and spirits, had utmost reverence for the dainees, who with just one lick on the cheek could make a person wither away and die in a matter of months.
It was a dainee, according to my mother, that caused the death of a neighbour’s brother, M Bordoloi, and his wife and young child in the late 1960s. Mother never forgot to mention that, on his last night Bordoloi, while on a visit to his brother, had gone outdoors to smoke a cigarette when a dark female figure – a dainee – atop a ximolu (silk cotton) tree waved at him, indicating that he should come closer. The next day, on his return journey, his car collided head-on with a moving truck.
A ximolu tree next to my school was also rumoured to be inhabited by a dainee. And there were suspicions that the silk cotton tree in front of the temporary office of the State Electricity Board was the residence of another dainee. This issue was later resolved by Ramsagar, the office’s night watchman and a self-styled tantric and black magician from Bihar, who confirmed witnessing a dainee sitting on that tree, combing her long hair and belching out fire.
And then there was our home, at the epicentre of a Bermuda triangle formed by these three silk cotton trees and their resident dainees. But in spite of the proximity to such heavyweight spirits, the resident spirit of our family home was aghorabaak – the bottom of the barrel, lowliest of all spirits. Totally impotent, and unable to cause any harm, all it could do was make lots noises in the surrounding trees whenever mother cooked a special dish, mostly of the non-vegetarian variety. She was perhaps a little disappointed that instead of a more fearsome resident spirit, all we had was a nincompoop ghorabaak.
A few years later, her disappointment would turn into excitement when on a spring evening she, in her infinite capacity for delusion, saw a fair damsel in white clothing come rushing into our house. However, in spite of her strong conviction that this was Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of wisdom, whose presence heralded extraordinary academic achievements in our family, my brother and I have failed both our mother and the goddess by turning out to be rather mediocre.
The banks of the Mangaldai River were also infested with various ghosts and spirits. The most memorable of them was the slapping ghost, who preferred to live on a tree other than a silk cotton, and slapped anyone passing by during dark nights, including elephants. The honour of being the most fearsome of all the ghosts, though, went to thekobondho, a headless spirit with eyes glaring from its chest. A face-to-face encounter with a kobondho guaranteed death. Based on my mother’s statements, Karimchowk was a favourite spot for the dainee community, though for some strange reason kobondhos did not prefer it. Another unresolved issue was whether the kobondhos resided exclusively in and around the Hindu cremation grounds.
Guns and coconuts
Apart from a burglar and a brute, the town also had a few other human celebrities. One of them was Binoy, nicknamed ‘Half-paitara’ (Half-Style) for his not-so-successful fashion sense, but who, some claimed, was actually the ‘Hanh-paikari’ (Duck-Wholesaler), as he had reportedly caught, killed, cooked and eaten all the ducks belonging to a certain neighbour in order to settle some unspecified score. Binoy was a matter of curiosity and a legend among the children. His reputation, though, rested chiefly on the ‘fact’ that he allegedly bit a chunk of flesh out of Kanu Daroga (sub-inspector) when the latter came to arrest him. Like any true legend, the when, where, why and how of this incident always remained shrouded in mystery. By the time we came to know about Binoy in school, the legend included that he was an extremely violent man, who carried long, sharp knives on him at all times. One of my earliest memories of him was when some kids from my school tried to provoke him by calling him names. Instead of pulling out one of his deadly knives, all this supposedly violent man did was walk to the school and complain to the teachers about the students’ lack of manners.
Then there was Pitikaka, the neighbourhood drunkard. Bertrand Russell wrote in his book The History of Western Philosophy that Immanuel Kant followed such a strict routine that people could set their watches by his schedule. For my mother, Pitikaka played the role of Kant. Eight o’clock in the evening was when she would yawn for the first time; when Pitikaka passed by in an inebriated state, real or pretentious, it would be time for bed because, mother claimed, it must have struck 9:30 at night.
In that sleepy town, 1982 brought some excitement, though of a negative and destructive manner. First, a wild elephant arrived, but confused by the labyrinths of small houses and narrow streets, it became violent and aggressive. The rumoured number of goats, old women, and other people killed varied almost every hour of the day, and would continue to do so for weeks. The elephant could not be stopped until professional hunters were called in by the district administration to kill it. Trapped between houses, it had to be cut in pieces to be carried out and buried.
And then the unimaginable happened. Two strong monsoon hurricanes, apart from causing significant damage to the town within weeks of each other, plucked the heads off some coconut trees – something that tradition made us believe was impossible. The popular belief was that the only concession the coconut trees granted to Bordoisila, the hurricane goddess, was a tilt of their heads. (Whenever hurricanes started to blow, women used to put vermillion powder, a comb, hair oil and a mirror on a stool outside their houses and order the males in the family to keep quiet so as not to provoke or excite Bordoisila.) May thought that the coconut trees had had their tops broken off that year because of the town’s collective guilt in killing the elephant – an image of Lord Ganesha, the Hindu God who removes all obstacles. As a result, various offerings were made to the gods, including Lord Ganesha, to pacify them and to ask for forgiveness.
The February winds of 1983 brought communal violence and mayhem to many parts of Assam, following which Karimchowk saw K P S Gill (then the Director General of Assam Police), Satish Jacob (or so we imagined) of the BBC, and for the first time, long, comfortable buses (which we called tourist buses) passing by. By then, thanks to the Border Security Force and the Indian Army, we could tell a carbine from a submachine gun, and the prevailing situation taught us the difference between a curfew and a shoot-at-sight order.
It was about this time that Murgichor (chicken thief) appeared. Truth be told, he never stole any chicken from anywhere, or at least we never knew of any such incident. But the moniker stuck. A lean, dark, homeless man with a long beard, Murgichor was either mentally disturbed, or was driven to insanity by the constant teasing and name-calling of the town kids. On his best days, he used to wear a dhoti and walk aimlessly about without paying any particular attention to anyone; on his roughest days, attired in a loincloth, he would draw some white lines on his legs, arms and forehead, carry a wooden sword, and threaten to sacrifice those who teased him at the altar of Maa Kali, the fearsome Hindu goddess.
And then television arrived.
~Pankaz Sharma was born and brought up in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam. He studied in Guwahati, Delhi, and Hyderabad, and worked in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He can be reached at pankaz.sharma(at)gmail.com.