The Ghosts of Sitalakhya

Jayanta was a chubby kid too large for his age, but loveable for his big smile and friendliness that transcended gender and age. He was the only child of a Marwari family in Narayanganj that consisted of his mother, a widow, and two uncles. Jayanta had lost his father in a car accident when he was only three or four, but his uncles never let him feel his father’s absence with unfailing love and care. His mother doted on him. They lived in a family house, a large three storied building along the river Sitalakhya, which had been with Jayanta’s family for three generations. Jayanta and his mother lived in the second floor, and his two uncles and their families in the third. For some inexplicable reasons the entire ground floor was unoccupied. The doors and windows of the entire floor were always shuttered. The large building, the rear of which abutted the river bank, had two entrances; one that faced the road and the other in the back near the river bank. The rear entrance was, however, always closed. There was a raised platform in the front of the building, a verandah actually that ran end to end. One had to climb a stoop to reach the front door. Like all Marwaris of Rajasthan in Narayanganj that time (in the fifties) Jayanta’s uncles were business people, reasonably prosperous, and lived and ate well. In fact, the good life in eating showed so much in Jayanta that he tipped the scale at about 180 pounds at age twelve and stood a good six inches above me who was only a year older than him and was barely five feet tall. He was two years behind me in school, but his relatives did not mind that he was falling behind in studies. They indulged his fancies in every way that they could, including feeding him the most fanciful and fattiest food that he wanted. Every morning Jayanta woke up to a breakfast of purees made in ghee, dum aloo (cooked in ghee and butter milk), cheese cutlets, katlis (sweet made of cashew nuts and milk), and a generous mug of creamy milk laced with honey. He would amble out of his house carrying his ample body nurtured by so much ghee in slow strides to school with a servant in tow. He was so slow that it would take him nearly half an hour in walking to his school, about a quarter mile from his home. His lunch was carried by another servant in a Tiffin box every day at lunch hour, which was about two and a half hours after his elaborate lunch. The lunch was a delight to behold.

Although the contents varied from day to day, but mostly for lunch Jayanta would have several pieces of ghee fried paratha or luchis, potato curry, paneer tikis (cheese cutlets), gram flour dhoklas (cakes); and of course, large quantities of sweets. Since Jayanta’s family like all Marwaris was vegetarian, his meals never included any meat or fish items. Jayanta would eat in one corner of the school building away from others. We would never cease to be amazed by the speed with which he would devour his large meals in a flash, and then release a big burp. It was no wonder that at age twelve Jayanta looked like a sumo wrestler. Nonetheless, I liked Jayanta because he was very friendly. Our apartment building was very close to their house, and we often met after school. This is because I shared with him a passion for collecting postage stamps, and he had tons of these because of his uncles’ trade relationship with buyers of Jute across the world. Besides, and this I must confess for full disclosure, he often gave me snacks and invited me many times to his house for lunch. In fact, I developed a fondness for purees and luchis, and dhoklas eating at their home after that. My visits to Jayanta’s home were mostly in the afternoon after school, when his uncles were away at work. One afternoon when I walked over to the house I found, however, one of the uncles answering the door instead of one of the minions working there. The uncle was not his usual loving self when he came out. He looked somewhat disturbed and told me brusquely that Jayanta was not well and that I should come another day. I left their house rather puzzled. Jayanta would not be in school for next five days. When he returned he looked rather wan, and bereft of his trade mark smile. In fact, he appeared as though he had lost some of his chubbiness in those five days. When I tried to speak with him he simply responded in mono-syllables. It was on the third or fourth day after his return to school that Jayanta said to me that he would like to share a secret with me. I was thrilled at the mention of a secret, and so I offered to walk him to their house. He said no, he could not be seen by his uncles to be walking back home with anybody other than their faithful servant. So, how would he share his secret with me, I asked? He said he would let me know when I could visit him at his house, and then he would let me into his secret. I waited and waited, but the call never came from Jayanta. After a few days I decided to go over to his house, hoping that I would catch him without his uncles being present. I approached the entrance door to their building and after making sure that there was no one around I knocked. There was no answer. Before knocking again I pressed the door, and it opened with a squeak. The door was unlocked. There were two sets of stairs, one led to the floors above, and the other, a smaller set led to the floor ground level, which was unoccupied. As I was about step to the floor above where Jayanta and his mother lived, I heard distinctly voice of Jayanta calling my name from the ground floor. For a moment I wondered how

Jayanta could be in the uninhabited part of the building, but I rushed down nonetheless. A musty odor struck my nostrils as I descended on the floor below. The doors and windows were closed, and I could figure out in the dim daylight that percolated through cracks in the windows a space with some old furniture strewn around. I looked for Jayanta but he was not there. As I was about to take the stairs out of the floor I heard again Jayanta’s voice from an adjoining room. In the semi darkness I figured out another door, which on pressing yielded with a squeak. Again a foul odor, this time of something rotting enveloped my nose. I looked for Jayanta, but he was not in the room. Again, a ray of light creeping through a crack in one of the windows gave an eerie outline of the room. There were few chairs garnished by cobwebs. As I tiptoed my way a very malodorous smell nearly made me puke. In a hurry to get out of this foul environment I tripped against one of the very old wooden chair and fell on the ground, with the chair falling against me. As I tried to remove the chair from my chest I heard someone whispering into my ears in a hissing voice, “come and see what they have done to us”. I looked around, but did not see anyone. In a desperate attempt to get out I stood up and started toward the door. I found another door, and pressed against it. The door opened to yet another dark room and I stumbled against a bench or something and fell down hard against some hard objects that prodded by chest. As I propped myself up I could see in the semi darkness that I was lying on something whitish, which I soon realized were human bones. In horror I pushed myself up only to wander against some more bones strewn around, and the air filled with rotting smells. I wanted a way out, but in the near dark room I could barely see any door. I tried to feel my way along the wall when I heard a wailing voice, this time coming from another side of the floor, “come and see what they have done to us”. I ran for the end of the room hoping that there would be a door there when I felt something very cold gripping my left arm. I do not how, but in a last desperate attempt I collected all my force and jerked myself free of the cold grip. That moment I found myself against a door, pushed myself hard against it. The door fell down and I found myself near the riverbank. I realized I was at the rear end of the building. Without looking behind I started running as fast as my legs could carry me. I stopped only when I reached our building. Next day when I found Jayanta eating his lunch alone as usual, I planted myself before him and told him that perhaps I had a bigger secret to tell him than he had. First I wanted to know, however, whether he was at his home the previous day. When he replied that he had gone to Dhaka that evening, I was sure that I had actually been through some surreal experience in his house. Without much ado I told him about my near brush with death in his house the previous day. I expected Jayanta to dismiss my story as a complete fib, but instead he nodded his head and said that he was glad that I had escaped unhurt. The reason he was away from school for three days, he said, was that he had a similar experience when one day

on return from school he had heard his mother call out from the ground floor. He had the same eerie experience except that he had fallen unconscious on the floor. He was discovered by a servant who had heard Jayanta’s groaning when the servant was cleaning the stairs. He was so shocked that he ran a fever for three days. For some inexplicable reasons, however, his uncles had forbidden him to speak about the incident to anyone. That is why he was hesitant to talk about this to me. But what is the secret of the ground floor, why is it shuttered, I asked Jayanta. Jayanta gave me a strange smile, and said it was a family secret. Family secret indeed, I thought as I left Jayanta that morning vowing to find it out someday. Unfortunately that someday would not arrive many years later in my College days. By that time Jayanta and his family had sold their property and moved to India. A businessman from outside Narayanganj had bought the building and wanted to renovate the building to give a more modern look. When he went about the work, however, surprises awaited him as local laborers balked at entering the ground floor on the pretext of the prevalence of supernatural in that building. When his offers of higher wages and other enticement such as bonuses and free clothing did not budge the laborers, the businessman took the decision to dismantle the whole structure and build anew. But before he did that he scouted around for the real story of the building by interviewing several very old residents of Narayanganj. His son, who happened to be in College with me, shared with me the findings later. Jayanta’s great grandfather, Ramprasad Agarwal, was a self made businessman who had established his trade in Jute in Narayanganj traveling all the way from Rajasthan. He had bought the building the ground floor of which he used as his trading office. As much of the trade in Jute those days was carried via River, the sellers would carry Jute in huge country boats that they would anchor at the bank near the building. Jayanta’s great grandfather would buy from many sellers who would visit him in the building, which they found conveniently located. He had a big warehouse nearby where the Jute bought would be kept and sold at high season. The story goes that the sellers, who were generally not very wealthy, and were in need of cash sold Jute to him at a rather low price. However, soon some of the sellers realized that the old man was making a huge profit from their lack of bargaining power. They became greedy and wanted to have some of the cash. But instead of asking for a higher price from Ramprasad they sought a short cut to his wealth. Since he kept all his cash in the trading office, Ramprasad used to sleep in the ground floor with one fellow Rajasthani as a Darwan (guard), while his wife and son slept upstairs. One hapless night while Ramprasad slept near his iron chest with cash and the guard was dozing off the effect of Bhang, the gang of irate Jute sellers broke into the ground floor. As one of the intruders tried to break open iron chest, Ramprasad woke up. He grabbed the gun that he always kept near the bed, but before he could aim it at the intruder, another collaborator hurled a stone at

Ramprasad, dislodging the gun. Immediately, the first intruder took the gun away and fired at Ramprasad killing him instantly. The Darwan had by this time all awake from all the noise. When he saw the intruders he took his own gun, but before he could fire it a third intruder hit him with a brick on his head making him drop to the ground. He was beaten to death before the intruders decamped with cash. Police came much later as always, but were never able to trace the killers. The business was taken over by the surviving young son of Ramprasad. But the trading office was moved elsewhere, and the ground floor was permanently shut. It was believed that the widow of Ramprasad and his son often heard wailing sounds from the ground floor making it all the more impossible for them to enter that part of the building. It is even believed that some curious servants who were foolhardy enough to enter the ground floor never came up. What I found puzzling however, that there would be human bones still in the ground floor that I swear I had seen, even though Ramprasad and the Darwan were cremated. Could these be the remains of the unfortunate servants who had foolishly entered the ground floor?