A Strange Attachment

JAYARAMA UDUPA FOR THE CARAVAN
Elections 2024
01 January, 2012

ABOUT THE STORY Arguably the greatest Indian short-story writer of the 20th century, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (1903-1950) possessed remarkable gifts of “voice”, of getting under the skin of a character. As evident from the story published here—a classic ghost story, held taut by a mixture of quotidian and supernatural details—Bandyopadhyay worked out a narrative style so smooth, easy and natural it seems more spoken than written. Not a word is wasted; the story goes forward with every sentence, drawing us deeper into its field in the same way that Nibaran Chakrabarti’s house in the story draws in and possesses the narrator. Also noteworthy is Bandyopadhyay’s evocative dialogue, a quality much praised by Satyajit Ray, who fashioned his film sequence The Apu Trilogy from Bandyopadhyay’s novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito. Bandyopadhyay’s style is here beautifully realised by Phyllis Granoff’s translation, the lead story of a collection, long out of print, published in Canada by Granoff in 1984 as A Strange Attachment and Other Stories (Mosaic Press, Ontario).

IT BEGAN TWO YEARS AGO, what I’m going to tell you about. I don’t remember it all that well; in fact, I’ve long forgotten most of what happened. How did I get here? Well, there’s a road that leads from Bagula on towards Sindirani. I was walking along that road one day. I’d been employed for years as a cook in a Brahmin household. I had just lost my job.

I didn’t really care about losing my job; that was not what bothered me. What bothered me about the whole affair was that I had been fired unjustly. I hadn’t stolen the ghee; I’ve no idea who had, but my employers decided anyway that I was the guilty party. By the time I’d cleared Shantipada, Sarshe and Berjeradanga the afternoon was almost over. I was starved; I was a strong healthy young man and I had a good healthy appetite. Even though I’d some money on me I hadn’t seen any food stall in all these backward villages.

There was a beautiful lake to one side of the road. I’ve always loved bathing in lakes. I took off my clothes and left them on the broken-down bathing steps at the shore and plunged into the water. The shallows were choked with water hyacinths; I pushed them aside and dove into the clear water, enjoying the rush of coolness around my body. It was the end of the month of Baisakh; it was still very hot and it felt delightful to bathe in the lake. I hung my wet things on a branch of a tamarind tree by the shore of the lake. My body was cooled off, but my stomach was still burning with hunger. Weren’t there even any edible wild fruits at this time of the year? I couldn’t see a thing which looked edible, no matter how hard I tried. It was then that I noticed the old man coming down to the lake to have his bath. Catching sight of me, he asked, “Hello! Where did you come from?”

I replied, “I’m just a poor Brahmin; I’m looking for a job. At the moment I’m dying of hunger. Can you tell me where I can get something to eat?”

The old man said, “Wait. Just let me have my bath and then I’ll take care of you.”

After he finished his bath, the old man took me with him into the village to an old house that was completely surrounded by jungle. He told me, “My name is Nibaran Chakrabarti. This house belongs to me, though I don’t live here. My son runs a business in Kolkata; they’ve got a place in Shyambazaar. This huge house just lies here unoccupied, and there we have to crowd ourselves into three small rooms. I can’t tell you what it’s like for us in Kolkata! I come here every month to make sure everything is all right. My sons are afraid of the malaria in the village and so they never want to come. There’s a big orchard behind the house, it’s got all sorts of fruit-bearing trees. All the villagers come and pick whatever is in season. How would you like to stay here?”

I replied, “I could do that.”

“What kind of work can you do?”

“I’m a cook.”

“While I’m here you can cook; the two of us can eat together.”

“That would be just fine with me.”

As soon as he saw that I was agreed to his suggestion the man seemed unusually pleased. He brought me something to eat right away. When I had finished, he handed me an old mat and a big bolster and said, “Why don’t you take a little rest?”

I was tired from walking that long distance. When I woke up there was not much left to the day. The red sun was cresting the tips of the tall trees. The jackals had already begun to howl in the jungle behind the house. I went outside and walked around the forest for a while. As far as I could see there was nothing but forest and jungle with ancient mango and jackfruit trees. There wasn’t a single house in sight. All I could make out was a broken-down temple somewhere in the jungle. When I went over to investigate, I found it had been taken over by bats.

By the time I got back to the house Nibaran Chakrabarti had settled down to his smoking. He asked, “Do you know how to make tea? Then make some tea for us. You could also fry some of the parched rice we have. We can mix it with some oil, salt and unripe chillies.”

When the sun had set he told me, “Put up the rice. There’s some fine sundried rice and some ghee made from cow’s milk. You can boil some potatoes with the rice. That’s about what I eat, just simple things.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, and you can make something from the striped gourds for yourself. You’ll see them growing behind the kitchen. At this hour you’d best take a lantern with you. And one more thing. Be sure to keep a light burning in the kitchen at all times.”

“Of course. How could I cook in the dark?”

“That’s exactly what I meant.”

It was a huge house. There must have been a good fourteen or fifteen rooms on the two floors. In addition there was a long verandah. All but a few of the rooms were padlocked. The kitchen had a long raised terrace in front of it; at one edge of the terrace were four or five palm trees and an orange tree. In order to pick some of the gourds I had to make my way over to that edge of the terrace by the trees and then down into the courtyard; then I had to circle around to the back of the kitchen. It was not yet completely dark; thinking that there would be no need for me to take the lamp I left it behind when I went to fetch the gourds.

My God! What a thick jungle had grown up behind the kitchen! It was full of wild gourd vines, the kind people call “rubbish vines”. You know what I mean, you know how vines sprout up when you throw the garbage out of the back door of the kitchen and the seeds in it take root. I noticed that many of the gourds had already gone to seed; I tried my best to choose the young ones. Suddenly I caught sight of a figure; it looked to me like some married woman from the village, just opposite me about ten paces away. She was bending down in the plants. Her face was half-concealed in her sari which she had pulled over her head; like me she was picking gourds. I glanced over at her a few times and then turned my back and went about my business of selecting seven or eight nice young gourds. When I was ready to go back in I took another look. The woman was still picking gourds.

Nibaran Chakrabarti asked, “Did you get yourself some gourds?”

“Oh, yes sir. There’s lots of them out there. Someone else was picking them, too.”

A note of surprise in his voice, Nibaran asked, “Where?”

“Out there, right behind the kitchen. Near where the jungle starts.”

“A man?”

“No, a woman. She looked to me like the wife of one of the villagers.”

A strange look came over Nibaran Chakrabarti’s face. He said, “What woman? Show me.”

When we got to the back of the kitchen I could see there was no one there.

Nibaran kept asking, “Where’s the woman?”

“She was right here, right in these vines.”

“Hmm. Just what I thought. Let’s get out of here. As if married women appeared just like that in a man’s backyard at this hour of the day.”

I was a little taken aback. What was so strange about a village wife going to pick some wild gourds? For the life of me I couldn’t figure it out. Besides, Nibaran Chakrabarti might be here today, but tomorrow he was going back to Kolkata and who was going to keep watch over his wild gourds then?

After we had finished our evening meal, old Mr Chakabarti brought up the business of the gourd-thief again. He asked, “Why didn’t you take a lamp with you when you went to pick the gourds? I told you to take a lamp, don’t you remember? Why didn’t you?”

I really couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. The old man just seemed to be one of those people who have to find fault with something. Why, I could see perfectly well without a lamp; hadn’t I seen the woman stealing the gourds? Then what could possibly have been wrong in my not taking the lamp with me?

The old man kept on, “No, no, after the sun goes down you must always keep a lamp with you.”

“But why?”

“Because I say so. How old are you, anyway?”

“Thirty-seven, maybe thirty-eight, I think.”

“At any rate you’re much younger than I am. I’m sixty-three. You must listen carefully to everything I tell you.”

“Yes, sir. I will.”

That night when I was lying in bed I was awakened suddenly by some noises above me. It sounded to me like the sound of objects being shifted; I thought someone must be shoving boxes and beds from one end of the room to the other. At any rate, I was sure someone up there was lugging around heavy objects. The old man was going back to Kolkata the next morning; I figured he was getting his things in order. But at this hour of the night? He certainly was an eccentric old geezer!

The next morning I mentioned it to the old man. Taken aback, he asked, “Me? Moving things?”

“Yes, very late at night.”

“Oh, uh, oh, yes.”

“If only you’d asked me I would have been glad to help you.”

Old Mr Chakrabarti didn’t say another word. By nine o’clock I’d cooked up some lentils and rice and fried some gourds. After he had something to eat, he gathered up his belongings and set off for Kolkata. As he was going out the door he told me several times, “Think of this as your own house. There are guava trees and mangoes, jackfruits and the finest papayas. You can plant vegetables; I have an acre of the most fertile land that’s just lying fallow; the house itself sits on an acre and a half. It’s all been reclaimed by the jungle now, with no one here to take care of it. You should clear the land and plant vegetables; you can eat what you need and sell the surplus. Do whatever you want. Just consider this your own home. Look after it and enjoy it. You don’t have to worry about a thing. And oh, yes, before I forget ...”

“What’s that?”

For no obvious reason Mr Chakrabarti lowered his voice. “People will try to convince you that you shouldn’t stay here for me. But don’t you listen to a thing they say. Stay here and look after the house; live here, do what you want and don’t listen to anyone. Enjoy the fruits and vegetables. I’ve left two rooms open for your use.”

The old man left. It was as if he’d catapulted me into heaven. Why, two rooms of this huge house were open just for my use! Besides that I had the verandah, the kitchen and the raised terrace in front of the kitchen. There was a deep well; I would never have to worry about water. There was plenty of dry wood; I would never have to concern myself about kindling. The old man had given me an advance of ten rupees and there were practically forty kilos of fine sundried rice. The trees were loaded with mangoes and jackfruits. The whole thing was like some miraculous gift from heaven that God had sent down into my hands!

Later that day I decided to hunt down a grocery store and get myself some salt and oil. My god, what a thick jungle there was, right in the middle of the village! And there didn’t seem to be any sign of human habitation anywhere near the Chakrabarti place. I made my way through the jungle along a narrow path; after I had gone about half a mile or so I ran into another man. He looked like he was also on his way to buy some oil; he was carrying an oil pitcher in one hand. He asked me, “Where did you come from?”

“I’m living here, at Nibaran Chakrabarti’s.”

“Nibaran Chakrabarti’s? Now, why would you be doing that?”

“I’m looking after the place. I arrived yesterday.”

“You won’t be able to stay there for long.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Just what I said. You’ll see. You’re not the first one. No one stays very long. Even the Chakrabartis themselves can’t stand the place and it’s theirs. No stranger would ever put up with it, that’s for sure. His children and their wives won’t set foot inside the house.”

“Why not?”

“How should I know? It’s a creepy place. You’re new here; you’d better watch yourself.”

And with that the man was on his way. I found the store and bought what I needed. By that time the afternoon was nearly over and the sun was beginning to set. As I spied the big old two-storied house from the jungle I felt a stab of terror in my chest. The house really did look strange, almost menacing, I had to admit. It looked like some living creature lying in wait, ready to stretch out its paws and devour some tiny unsuspecting soul, like me for a start. What was it about the place that gave me that impression?

It was nothing; it was just that fellow I’d met on the road; he was responsible for my altered state of mind. I’d been in a great mood when I’d set out to buy oil and salt; the only possible reason for my sudden change were the things the man had said in his efforts to frighten me off. Who’d asked him for his advice anyway? What business was it of his? Old Mr Chakrabarti had warned me that people would say all kinds of things to try to get rid of me; I was not to listen to a one of them.

It was nothing; it was just that the villagers had gotten used to being able to steal the fruits and vegetables from the grounds and eat them to their heart’s content. Now that there was someone to watch over the place they wouldn’t be able to go on with their looting. I was going to put a cramp in their style; that was why they were determined to scare me away. After all, hadn’t I just seen some village woman the evening before making off with some of our gourds?

JAYARAMA UDUPA FOR THE CARAVAN

I hadn’t had it so good in a long time. And I never had such a golden opportunity to earn my living without a stitch of work. All I had to do was cook for myself and my labours were over. I would finish off the cooking bright and early in the morning and then stretch out on the downstairs verandah and sing to myself. I was lord over this big house. No one could say a thing to me. I could do just as I pleased.

Suddenly my reverie was broken by an unexpected sound. Water was pouring down from a pipe on the second floor, just as if there was someone up there on the second floor washing his hands and feet. I got up and walked over to the edge of the verandah where I’d been sitting to see if I could get a better look at the verandah on the second floor. The water was still coming down, falling right in front of me in heavy steady streams. The staircase leading to the second floor was padlocked; Mr Chakrabarti had taken the keys with him so that there was no way for me to get upstairs. Where could the water be coming from?

Within ten minutes the water had stopped. I thought to myself that Mr Chakrabarti must have left a pitcher or a pot of water up there on the second floor verandah and it must somehow have fallen over. That had to be the answer. Where else could the water have come from?

After a while I went and lay down. No sooner had I put out the lamp and gotten settled in my bed than I fell asleep. When I woke up in the middle of the night I could see the moonlight streaming through the window onto my bed. And there was the smell of flowers, an alluring sweet fragrance. What kind of flowers could they be? In my sleepy state all I could tell was that I’d never smelt that perfume anywhere near the house before.

I jumped out of bed. What was that? Some woman was walking along the verandah right outside my window! I could see her clearly; there was no mistake about it. I opened the door and in an instant was out on the verandah myself. As I stood there two things became absolutely clear to me: the first was that the fragrance I’d smelt in the room was even stronger out here; the second was that somehow it was connected to the woman—she was giving off this heavenly perfume. It was not from any flowers I knew. But I still wasn’t sure exactly what the fragrance was.

I felt disoriented, as if I was not fully in control of myself, almost drugged or drunk. What was I doing out here? Oh, yes, some woman had walked across this veranda just a few moments earlier. And she had left behind here lingering traces of this strong perfume. But there was no sign of her anywhere. Where had she gone?

Nothing more happened that night. After a few minutes I went back into my room and lay down again. When I got up in the morning I dismissed the whole thing as a dream. I felt fine and refreshed. I threw myself into my work. I ran over in my mind what the best way to clear the jungle was so that I could start cultivating some vegetables.

The only thing I minded about staying at Mr Chakrabarti’s was the loneliness. I kept thinking that if only I had some neighbours things would be much better. I had no one to talk to; that was the only thing that really bothered me.

THAT AFTERNOON something happened.

I had just taken the pot of rice off the stove when suddenly I heard what sounded like a crowd of people laughing. The sound was coming from the second floor, and it was an ugly, threatening laughter. Shivers ran down my spine. This was no gentle giggle but a raucous, ghoulish guffawing. The heavens tremble at the sound of laughter like that.

I dropped the rice and ran. When I got to the verandah and looked up I couldn’t see a thing. The rows of windows on the second floor was shut tight just like all the windows downstairs. The rolls of laughter had stopped and all was silent.

What was the meaning of this? Was there a bunch of hooligans hanging out upstairs? I had another look at the staircase that led to the second floor; it was padlocked, just like before.

I wasn’t afraid. After all, it was broad daylight. I had no superstitions about ghosts at that time of day. Had I heard that laughter in the middle of the night I would have been senseless with fear; you would have had to take a key and pry my clenched teeth apart. I’m not ashamed to admit that.

I went back to the kitchen, poured the water off the rice and set about putting up some gourds to cook. Yes sir, there’s plenty of gourds in the jungle, take as much as you want, I said to myself; this is my house, and they’re my gourds. Yesterday had taught me what a heady experience it is to be master of something. This was the first time in my miserable life I’d ever known anything like this.

I kept my ears pricked up to see if I could hear anything from upstairs. I didn’t hear a peep. I finished my meal and went to lie down. I fell right asleep. From the depths of my sleep I thought I could hear a crowd of people talking and laughing right there in my room. I thought I could make out people chattering all around me; it was like the way you might hear people’s voices if suddenly you fell asleep in the midst of a noisy wedding party. It must have been a delusion, no doubt from the mood I’d been thrown into when I’d heard that weird laughter earlier in the day.

For the next nine days nothing further happened.

It’s only natural, the way people are always keen to forget anything unpleasant that’s happened to them, and they’re usually pretty successful at it, too. I kept telling myself, it was nothing, you must have heard wrong, even the woman, you just thought you saw her; and the laughter, all a figment of your imagination.

I had gained some weight in the meantime and was feeling strong and vigorous. All I did was sleep and eat. I had no particular work to do and a kind of lassitude had settled over me. Normally I would have considered myself a hard-working type; sitting around doing nothing just wasn’t my style. But for a while now I’d felt lazy, maybe from all those years of overwork. Anyway, all I wanted to do now was to sit down and relax.

On the afternoon of the ninth day I was clearing the jungle behind the kitchen where the gourds grow, naturally being careful to leave the gourd vines. I was planning to plant some rice and there was a wild creeping pumpkin vine growing in the jungle that I wanted to train onto the roof of the kitchen with a trellis of bamboo sticks. It was easy to work around here; I had all the tools I needed: a heavy cutting knife, spade, scythe, weeding hook, shovel, axe. There was even a handsaw lying in one corner of the house.

I hadn’t been working very long, probably not more than half an hour, when suddenly I saw that the woman had come back. She was bending over in the vines and picking gourds. But the split second I noticed her I was distracted by a huge uproar that was coming from the rooms on the second floor. It sounded like a lot of people, maybe fifty of them screaming at once. All the doors and windows suddenly flew open as if the house was being buffeted by hurricane-force winds.

I dropped what I was doing and looked up at the second floor. When I got to the front verandah what did I see! Not a single door or window on the second floor was open! Everything was exactly as it had always been!

What was going on? What were those awful screams and groans? This time there was no chance that what I had heard had been a figment of my disturbed imagination. I had been working out back with a perfectly calm and clear mind. Now things had returned to their normal silence; there wasn’t a sound to be heard anywhere.

The woman had come to pick gourds in the midst of all that commotion. I ran back behind the kitchen. She was gone.

That night something else happened. Something very strange.

I had just finished eating and was lying down. I must have fallen into a light sleep when all at once I woke up with a start, thinking I had heard someone. I looked around to see a crowd of people gathered at my bedside. They all had red turbans on their heads and small sticks in their hands. The oddest thing about them was that their faces were all absolutely identical. It was as if one person had multiplied fifty-fold, at least that was what I thought at first. I felt as if I was looking at a single face reflected in a myriad of mirrors.

One of them said, “Oh, someone has joined us today.”

Another replied, “Some earthling built a house here a long time ago. I’ve never seen the house, but that’s what I heard. Those who can see told me. There’s someone staying in that house now.”

“Lies. What house?”

“We’ve never seen it.”

“Let’s get going, let’s start our dancing.”

My god, was this what people called “the Dance of the Ghouls”? I had heard about such things, of course, but now was I really about to witness one right before my very eyes? They all began to strike their sticks and dance. My hairs stood on end. How they howled and shrieked!

They didn’t touch my bed or any part of my body. It was as if they didn’t even know I was there. I passed out in terror as they danced their gruesome dance and groaned their hideous groans.

When I came to, the last moonlight of the night was pouring through my opened window. On the cool breeze was that sweet fragrance of some unidentifiable flower that I’d smelt here once before. Half-conscious I looked outside at the trees, gently bathed in moonbeams.

I don’t know how long it was before morning dawned.

When I got out of bed I felt that nothing had disturbed my night’s sleep. I felt as refreshed and invigorated as if I’d had a perfect night’s rest.

But then who had watched that goblins’ dance? Had that also been just a product of my imagination? Had I eaten and then fallen asleep and had it all been a crazy dream? If that was so, then how to explain that fragrance, like the scent of some flowers, on the late-night breeze? When the woman had been pacing underneath my window she had left behind the exact same perfume. I couldn’t have imagined the scent; it still lingered in my nostrils. It must be the smell of some wild flower I’ve never seen before, I told myself. That’s got to be the answer.

When I walked into the store to buy some oil the shopkeeper asked me, “How are things with you? I mean, have you seen anything odd?”

“No.”

“Have you heard anything?”

“No.”

“You look like a decent sort. Do you know any spells? Magic formulas to keep ghosts away?”

“Just give me some oil. I’m in a hurry. I don’t believe in that kind of nonsense.”

“You’ve never seen a woman? You know, someone you might have thought was the wife of one of the villagers? You’ve never smelled anything?”

“Smelled what?”

“The fragrance of some flower you don’t recognise?”

“No.”

“Then you’ve been spared. All the people who’ve stayed in that house before kept seeing some strange woman there. In the end things reached the point where they simply refused to budge from the house. They just got thinner and thinner and wasted away until finally they died. Two people it’s happened to. Ghosts gather in that house, and they drive anyone who stays there insane. It goes like this. First the person becomes strangely attached to the place so he won’t move from it; then he loses interest in eating and he refuses to go anywhere else. I can see you must know some kind of magic against ghosts. None of us will step foot near the place. The ghosts make ordinary folks nuts.”

I took the oil and started on my way back. As I walked I wondered, had I then also begun to go crazy? But as soon as I put one foot on my property my doubts vanished. I said to myself, no, no it’s all in my imagination. I’m wonderfully happy here. Why would I ever want to leave this place and go anywhere else? I’m doing just fine, splendid, just great, really.

Since then I’ve been holed up in the house for two years. Mr Chakrabarti doesn’t give me a salary or anything, but I don’t mind. I look after the place, I sell eggplants and bananas. I watch them dance every night. I live with them. And I never set foot outside the house.


Bibutibhushan Bandopadhyay (1893-1950) is one of Bengal’s greatest short-story writers and novelists. His best-known books include Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Aranyak, Adarsha Hindu Hotel and Ichhamati.