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The Spectral Boatman of Mahananda River

The Spectral Boatman of Mahananda River

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Published by zchoudhury

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Published by: zchoudhury on Jun 12, 2012
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The Spectral Boatman of Mahananda RiverZiauddin Choudhury
The Zilla Board Dak Bungalow in Tetulia, Panchagar of Greater Dinajpur, probably the northern mostcorner of Bangladesh, is one of the most picturesque rest houses in the Country. The bungalow oncebelonged to the Maharajah of Burdwan, but it was taken over by the then Government of East Pakistanafter partition of India. The Bungalow came to be managed by the District Board termed later ZillaParishad of Dinajpur District. I visited the Dak Bungalow several times when I was working as AdditionalDeputy Commissioner of Dinajpur District in early seventies. In my visits to Tetulia I would spend sometime in the Rest House mostly to have lunch prepared by that excellent cook of the Dak Bungalow, butnever stayed there overnight, except one night the hair raising memory of which haunts me until today.A unique appeal of the Tetulia Dak Bungalow was its location. The premises were built on a relativelyhigher ground than the rest of the area abutting the river Mahananda that flowed about two hundredfeet below. Besides the beautiful flower garden that adorned the front of the Bungalow, there was avery attractive back yard full with some shade trees that included some Shimul Trees, which wouldcome out with their fiery red blossoms in summer. There was a sitting deck in the back from where onecould see the foothills of the Himalayas in the distance on the Indian side, and the great Mahanandaflowing below. There was also a narrow track adjacent to the Bungalow that was built by the locals tohave quick access to the river. The track was a bit steep since the river was a good two hundred feetbelow, but it was also a convenient way for any Bungalow resident to go to the river bank and take astroll along the bank.My overnight stay at the Bungalow in one my visits to Tetulia was rather unplanned. After a daylongvisit to the area I had come to the Bungalow for a late lunch with intention to return to Dinajpur bysunset. However, after a heavy lunch of the famous Mahananda Rohu Fish, and fried Koi Fish along with
the legendary moong daal of the cook, I went to take a nap. When I woke up it was well past sun set.Considering that I had a full four hour of road travel back to Dinajpur Town I decided to stay the night atthe Bungalow. There was no other visitor in the Bungalow, and the local officials were also of theopinion that I would be better advised to stay the night there. The Cook was delighted, as he hadseveral times told me that he would cook for a game duck (called Brahmani Duck) if he got anopportunity. My over night stay gave him the opportunity since earlier that day his brother had caughttwo ducks in a trap. I did not think twice as I did not have a wife (at that time I was a bachelor) to reportto, and for emergencies like that night I always carried a change of clothes in my carry-on bag.I took my dinner rather late, about 10 PM. It was a sumptuous meal of a heavenly cooked duck roast,kabiraji cutlet of chicken, peas polao, and aloo dam. The meal was heavy, and I thought a walk in theback yard would be good for digestion. It was a clear moonlit night, and a walk outside was reallyinviting. I do not know what really came upon me, but as soon as I went to the back yard, an idea of going down the track leading to the river struck me. As I started to walk down, the Chowkidar of theBungalow offered to come with me. I told him that I would be alright walking down myself, andproceeded on my walk down the track. The moonlight provided me enough guidance down the way.As I reached the river bank I found to my surprise a hooded boat anchored to a pole by the bank. Iassumed it must belong to some fisherman of the area. When I passed the boat I saw a silhouettedfigure seated at the mast. I hollered out to the figure assuming that he had seen me since the moonlightwas bright enough to see anybody approaching the boat. The silhouetted figure responded in a ratherhoarse voice with a salutation. But he did not stop there. He asked me if I wanted to come inside theboat. I do not know if it was my curiosity or foolhardiness, but I simply stepped into the boat withoutany further thought.Once inside the Boat I passed under the hood to go across to the mast where the silhouetted figure wasseated to have a better look at him. In the grey light of the moon I saw the person was shrouded in achadar (wrapper) covering his head, which also partially covered his face. He signaled to me sit in themiddle muttering in his hoarse voice that too much weight at the mast could tilt the boat. I sat downimmediately to stop the rocking boat, and tried to have a better look at the person. It was difficult tohave a full view in the dim moon light, in particular when the man was practically wrapped in the chadarall over including his head. I asked him whether he was out there at this unearthly hour for fishing. Henodded his head. What happened next took me by utter surprise. I found the boat suddenly leaving theriver bank with the mysterious boat man pushing the boat away from the shore with the oar at his side.I do not know when this happened, but the boat had been released from its anchor at the bank by someunseen individual, and we were sailing in river Mahananda leaving behind the Dak Bungalow.My first reaction was shock that the boat would start to sail so suddenly, but then I was also overtakenby fear. Who is this boatman, and why did he not ask me before he started to sail. I was afraid thatperhaps I had fallen into the hands of a common robber who would take me to another part of the riverand demand money from me. I was not carrying my wallet, but I had a rather costly wrist watch on me.I decided that I would part with the wrist watch if the man really wanted to rob me. I gathered my wits,and asked the boatman why he had started to sail without asking me, and demanded that we return to
the bank. But the man did not respond; instead he kept on plying the oar more vigorously makingwhishing sound of water in that desolate river. I thought I should raise my voice and call out for help.But then I realized it would be futile to do so as we were quite far from the Dak Bungalow, and thenearest village would be about half a mile away.I thought I would again appeal to the Boatman and request him to take me back to the river bank. So Imoved a little closer to talk to him. And then it happened. Suddenly a strong breeze came fromnowhere and moved the wrapper from the head of the Boatman revealing the skull of a skeletonreflected by moonlight. It was a skull that I had only seen in pictures, with sockets for eyes, nose, andfleshless mouth showing a set of white teeth. I let out a loud shriek when the ghostly creature put thewrapper around his head again and stood up. I tried to run to the other end of the boat rocking the boatfrom side to side. I imagined the creature was trying to reach for me, and I jumped into the river andbegan to swim back to the river bank with all my strength.I do not remember how long I swam, but it must have been at least a half hour before I reached thebank totally exhausted. I rested on the sand for some time, and tried to find the track back to the DakBungalow. Luckily, the moon had not set still. With help from moonlight I located the track, and trudgedmy tired body along back to the Bungalow. I sneaked into the Bungalow without waking up any body,and avoiding the Chowkidar who was probably at the front gate. I went to my room, changed my wetclothes, and went to bed thanking God Almighty for saving me.I could not leave Tetulia without getting some answer to this nightmarish experience of mine. I thoughtthe only person who could probably give me some explanation would be the old cook who had spent allhis life in the Bungalow. I got hold of him after breakfast, and narrated to him my surreal story. The
cook looked me in the eye sympathetically and said, “Sir, you escaped sure death. The
creature that yousaw is the cursed spirit of Manik
Jele (Fisherman).” “
To this day very few people had such visits withManik Jele, and many of those who did, never returned
alive, “he
added sadly. The cook thenproceeded to tell me the story of Manik Jele, and how he came to be a spirit.Manik was a fisherman of the area who made a name in fishing for his bravery by going far into theriver, and bringing large catches to the market each day. He had several fishing boats that he alsorented to others
. However, a rogue fisherman who eyed Manik’s trade with jealousy, wanted todestroy Manik’s business. He often stole Manik’s fishing nets, and once he was found making holes inManik’s boats at night. Manik confronted the rogue and warned him that he
would be turned over tothe Police. A few days later the rogue fisherman attacked Manik when he was returning from a fishingtrip at night with a deadly machete, and killed him instantly. The murdering scoundrel left the village,and he was never apprehended.It has been twenty five years since Manik died, but every year on a particular day People saw a boatappearing from nowhere anchored to the river bank below the Dak Bungalow. Those who approachedthe Boat had the same eerie experience as I had. They saw a figure covered with a wrapper at the mast.Most people avoided the boat, but some foolhardy people (I suppose like me) boarded the boat, andsaw what I had seen. Many of these encounters turned fatal as bodies were recovered later from the

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