Berhampore is an old town and as all old towns, it has its share of old ghosts. There’s the ghost (bhooth) of the langra Saheb (one legged Englishman) who used to live in a red house by the river and was involved in the infamous disarming of Indian sepoys in the run up to the Mutiny. They say he still surprises bathers when they go back home on a lonely afternoon and chases them threatening `disciplinary action'.
There’s the ghost of Ashu babu who lived down the road from Kalpana Talkies and loves quizzing late night cinema goers about the show they watched. There's also the `bakery ghost’ of Sheikh Ali who died in a fire in the bakery down the side-lane which you take to go to the river from my Grandma’s house. He still often comes over with fresh baked Pau-rutis (pound loafs), before the morning light has appeared and melts away as you spread Polson butter on the sweet smelling bread!
Then there are the many ghosts of the Sen family itself who used to live in the old, broken-down `Sen Bari’, which had seven ponds attached to a mammoth house at one end of the Khagra bazaar, on way to the Collectorate. That house has now been replaced by monstrous matchbox constructions. God knows where the poor ghosts have retired to.
Bishambar Sen was one such fabled ghost in the `Purono’ (Old)
. Bishambar babu, was a foodie and fastidious enough to the point of being a food fanatic, when he was alive. They say, he would ask his cook to make chana bora (sweetmeat) in the morning and if the dish did not come up to expectations, order the whole Karhai (cooking utensil) load to be flushed down the drain. bari
Even now, if at any Sen family get together, the food is not up to the mark, people glance around fearfully. They claim if Bishambar babu gets wind of this lack of taste - much could go wrong at the gathering.
Legend has it, my mother’s grandfather Radhika Charan, had left this house after incessant spats with others in the family to settle down first in Badalpur-er Bagan bari (the Garden house at Badalpur) and then at the house in Khagra Bazaar where my Grandma lived. But I do suspect, that his ancestors’ ghosts may have played a role in Radhika babu moving out.
On any moonless night, if you had visited the Old Sen
My grand uncle Brojendra Kishore or Brojo babu for short, was always convinced the locked up room above the equally dis-used guard room in my Grandmother’s house was haunted by Bhooth-Master, the ghost of the house tutor who used to teach him `O, Aa, Ko, Kha’ (Bengali script) as a kid.
On rainy evenings, when electric lights flickered out to be replaced by oil lanterns, Brojo babu would relate with glee how this spirit still chased him around with a cane on lonely nights and lonelier afternoons. Ghosts in Berampore apparently loved playing around after a sumptious lunch or a gluttonous dinner.
Master Moshai had, had an unhappy life. A case of unrequited love, you see. He had come to town in search of a living, a simple good looking, village boy from a decent but not so well off Brahmin family. A recommendatory note from some village noteable had got him his job as home tutor to the Sens. The room above the guard house had been allotted to him as he had bronchial problems and couldn’t stand the damp in ground floor rooms, normally allotted to distant relatives and visiting Naibs who stayed with the family.
They say he went about his duties with diligence and quickly brought the Sen boys and girls to heel. The three Rs were stuffed down their gullets, till they were looking for ways to cut out of his class. That, of course, was a difficult thing to do, for my mother’s grandma, a terror, in her own right, sat stitching lace patterns into cloth in a nearby room, with one ear cocked to listen in to what her children were learning.
What undid him was Ms Suzanna O'Hara, the Anglo-Indian lady hired by my Grandfather Gaur babu to tutor his sisters in English and in playing the Piano. Those were the days when educated young men from good Bengali families insisted their would be wives should be able to converse in English, play musical instruments and yet follow all the orthodox rules which Caste hindu ladies were expected to follow at home. Degrees were not important, and in fact were frowned upon, but `education' was a must. My Grandfather naturally wished his sisters all success in catching the right groom and hence did not cringe in spending money on imparting them necessary `Ingraji' graces.
Master Moshai fell madly in love with the young lady tutor, hired to complement his work. Suzanna, did not discourage the poor master but nor did she exactly encourage him. From her side, there was coquetish flirtation. From his side, serious outpuring of young, one sided love.
She was quite a beauty and had many suitors of her own. An Anglo-Indian engineer from the town electric works, the English manager of an ice-cream factory on the outskirts of Berampore. How could a simple Brahmin home tutor hope to match up with such competition? Still he tried his best at a game he was untrained for.
The Sen kids had a gala time, for they guessed the cause of the many glances their tutor threw at Suzanna, while she sat teaching the girls English. They grinned knowingly when Master Moshai stood waiting below the stairs for the lady to finish teaching, so that he could volunteer to escort her to her cottage near Lal dighi (Rehman, the hackney rickshaw man whose carriage had been rented for Suzanna’s thrice a week tutorial appearance at the Sen household, reported on the children's intensive quizzing that Master babu spent the whole trip to her cottage in animated conversation with her. And on the way back, he whistled the latest Devika Rani airs, while smiling at no one in particular.
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One day, Suzanna came to the Sen home with glad tidings. She was getting married. Brojo babu was never clear whom she ultimately married - it may have been the Englisman, for he was fairer or it may have been the engineer, for he was a better catch. On the night the lady exchanged vows with her chosen husband, our house tutor became Bhooth-Master, a ghost of a Master, by hanging himself from the ceiling of the room where he slept.
We always tried to look around for this strange, sensitive tutor, but could never really find him. But then as Brojo babu would relate the story, leaning forward to gesticulate how the ghost ran after him last Sunday afternoon, it all seemed very real. The swish of the rain, often accompanied the swish of the cane in our imagination. The distant shouts from the bazaar could be those of the Master coming back to teach his charges.
To top it all my Boro Maima (eldest Aunt) swore that whenever she walked through the Baithak khana (salon) she could hear unexplained coughs, wheezes and footsteps from the Master’s room. At this, Brojo babu would add excitedly “I told you this guy exists, he still haunts the house … he is our real resident ghost,” sending shivers down our spines.
Ponku would whisper to me “its all a big lie, my dad has told me there are no such things as ghosts.” Of course, that’s what my mother said too. But then the men who worked at Netaji Press, that brave little printing press which functioned out of the old Kutchery (estate office) next to the guard room and below the Baihtak khana, too claimed they heard noises in the Master's room late in the evening when they sometimes did overtime to clear the printing backlog. Netaji Press's owners often gave that as the reason why they never paid rent for the place.
Many years later, after my Grandma died, the guard house was sold to a shopkeeper to be turned into yet another Khagra Bazaar store. They broke open the Master’s room as the keys to the room were lost to the wagaries of time. The room was dusty, filled with cobwebs, broken furniture and ancient brick-a-bracs. But there on the dust, they swore, were fresh signs of someone having paced up and down and then there was the curious brass pik daan (spittoon) in one corner of the room which still had traces of cough mixed with blood.
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Mutiny - Refers to the Sepoy Mutiny or as Indian historians call it, the first war of independence. Sepoys of the 19th Native Infantry Regiment then based in Behrampore were among the first to refuse to obey England's orders on 26th February, 1857, and were later disbanded.
Anglo-Indian - Of mixed European and Indian ancestary with European paternal lines.
Berhampore - a trading town with a river port - Cossimbazar - on the river Bhagirathi which downstream becomes the Hooghly. In the 19th and early 20th century, it was a surprisingly cosmopolitan town with population pockets of Europeans, Anglo-Indians, Marwaris and Jews besides Bengali and Urdu speaking families.