My father’s ancestral home, Uma Villa, more popularly known as Uma Kutir in Bengali, was named after his grandfather Umacharan Sengupta, a native of Dhaka, in erstwhile East Bengal. Umacharan had shifted to North Bihar sometime in the early years of the last century for professional reasons and chose to settle down in the small suburban town of Araria. It was a largely insignificant town by the river Ponar, inhabited surprisingly, by a lot of Baidyas from East Bengal. The house he had built, way back in 1913, was a fairly large one, with a lot of surrounding land, big enough for a large family. My grandfather was the middle child among three brothers and had married a young girl from Dhaka who travelled all the way to this distant town to share his home and raise eleven children. They shared Uma Villa with the older brother’s family and scores of nephews and nieces who chose to visit for prolonged stays. The house therefore had its fair share of noise – laughter, arguments, snivels and tears and any ceremony lent it a festive air. The eldest son of the house, my father’s older cousin had turned out to be a spoiled brat due to his overindulging parents and they had chosen a beautiful bride for him, all the way from Calcutta – a young college educated girl who sang beautifully and soon became a favourite among all the local youngsters. The only unfulfilled desire in their lives was for a child. So when the good news finally came, she was immediately packed off to her parental home in Calcutta for a safe delivery. Months passed and one day the son came back to Araria with the devastating news that both the mother and the new born had failed to survive the rigours of a difficult birth. The entire town went into a shock. Their favourite Boudi was gone forever, she would never again gather the young girls of the locality together and teach them the new fashions from Calcutta or the latest songs that were being played everywhere, it was an irreplaceable loss and every heart went out to the young man who had lost both wife and child at the same time.
Several months passed, the next door neighbours, also distant relations, invited him to visit their ancestral village, perhaps for a change of scene. He went, though not too willingly but when he returned he was accompanied by a wife – a young, illiterate village girl who matched the first wife neither in looks nor in talent.
Araria, though hugely disappointed, was not unkind to the poor girl. The family accepted her and decided to host a reception afterwards to welcome the newly-weds.
The sun was beginning to set by the time the morning rituals were over and the new bride wanted to wash up before the guests started to arrive for dinner. My oldest aunt, Chinu, had the honour of assisting the new bride in everything and accompanied her to the bathing area which was a little distance away from the main house. Darkness had set in when the first screams reached the sitting room. Immediately a commotion broke out, the young and the old, came running to see what was wrong. My father too, was among the curious onlookers. And there she was, crying and shouting hysterically, occasionally breaking out into wild laughter.
“What’s wrong, dear?” asked my grandmother and her reply stunned everyone. “Chinudidi has hit me” she said without turning a hair. My aunt looked bewildered and her husband stepped in, “Impossible, why would she do that? You are lying.”
A sly look look came onto her face. But she refused to relent, blaming my aunt in a singsong voice. Now the guests had begun to arrive and the whole situation was becoming extremely embarrassing. The elders in the house decided she was a patient with a conveniently concealed history of hysteria and needed treatment. But what should be done to prevent tongues from wagging? The best solution seemed to be to keep her confined, on the excuse that she had suddenly taken ill.
Accordingly, she was kept in one of the ground floor rooms, locked and bolted securely from the outside. And as the night wore on and the guests dispersed after a relatively somber evening, she stopped crying and shouting. And then to everyone’s utter consternation and shock, the opening lines of a popular song, “Saanjher Taroka Tumi,” a favourite of the admirers of their former beloved sister-in-law Sushama, wafted through the locked doors, beautifully sung, just like ‘she’ used to, previously.
“That that that……..” my aunt was visibly nervous, the children had become quiet, only some of the seniors were whispering among themselves, heads were being shaken and hands wrung and the tension was mounting as the song went on and on. The song stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Someone unlocked the door and they all rushed in to find her sitting on the bed with the same look of cunning on her face. “She is possessed,” said my uncle, an expert in paranormal affairs. “We have to get an ojha.” An ojha or a witch doctor used to be the main weapon against anything deemed supernatural in those days. So in due time, an ojha was summoned from some distant village. Armed with brooms of various sizes in his hands and a sack full of some powdery stuff on his shoulders, the ojha arrived.
He sat in front of a small pyre, the new bride on the other side, eyes wild, hair dishevelled and with them sat my uncle. And then it started, the ojha kept on throwing some of that powdery stuff at the young girl and the poor soul yelling out in some unseen agony. And then the harsh voice of the ojha repeatedly inquired, “And who are you?” And as they waited with bated breaths and hands held fast, only one word emerged through her clenched lips, “Sushama.”
There was pin drop silence as my uncle turned towards his new sister-in-law, looked directly in her eyes and asked her to speak the truth. “Yes, I am. I am Sushama, how dare he marry again? How could he forget me within months?” she said.
“Of course, I won’t allow her to replace me, I won’t, I won’t,” she was screaming hysterically again, tears streaming down her face. My father and the other kids had gathered near the door, eager to listen in while the other members of the family were sitting just outside the door, some of them crying, most of them too terrified to even speak.
“I was watching all the rituals being conducted from my corner in the garden and waiting for an opportune moment to catch hold of this imposter and when she went to bath with her hair left loose, it was just a matter of minutes to possess her body and here I am, back to my rightful place and whatever you say or do I am here to stay,” and she laughed, an eerie sound that sent chills down everyone’s spine.
However, my uncle was not about to give up so easily nor would the hired ghostbuster go back without achieving some measure of success.
They persisted and diligently stuck on to their job through the day and the night after, interrogations coupled with liberal use of the brooms alternating with the powdery dust thrown at her face and as they went on and on, the victim “seemed to be gradually weakening” and finally the next morning there came a change in her demeanour and with a huge sigh, she finally agreed to let go.
“And how will we be sure that you would be gone forever?” asked the ojha.
“That big tree in the corner was where I had stayed before I found this body,” she replied. “The moment I leave, there will be a great gust of wind and a branch will break and fall to the ground.”
Within five minutes, a great gust of wind rattled the windowpanes and sent papers and books flying all over the place and then there was a loud crack as a thick branch of the tall tree at one corner of the dark garden fell on the ground. Putting out the tiny flame of the earthen lamp the gust of wind was gone as suddenly as it had arrived and the house fell silent once again as the young bride fell down in a faint.The ladies of the house came running with water and tried to revive her and soon she stirred and opened her eyes, shock and terror writ large on her face.
“What happened?” her voice sounded anxious and frightened.
“Don’t you know?”asked my aunt.
“No…..why am I on the floor? And why is everyone crowding around me?”
She, apparently did not remember anything, possibly a blessing but the incident remained fresh in everybody else’s mind for years to come.
My father enjoyed relating this story to anyone interested in true stories of hauntings and spirits, especially since this was his first ever encounter with creatures beyond the realms of existence and it was also the best tale about the ghosts.