M a y, 1 9 7 8
There were three of us: my Mesho (maternal uncle), the fat pandit, and of course, myself. I carried the plain wooden box and handed it over to the pandit, who proceeded to wade waist-deep into the brown water. He held the box outward as a token of offering to some unseen deity, and began his rhythmic chanting. The glimmering buoys floating up ahead jingled with the gentle current, augmenting the already melancholy atmosphere pervading the place. I moved back a few steps from the chilly water and made yet another vain attempt to provide a rational explanation to the extraordinary series of events culminating with this strange riverbank ceremony.
My Mesho had always been a chess fanatic, and it had been impossible for him to ignore a rather magnificent wooden chess set which had been on display in one of the numerous antique shops dotting Russel Street. Not being a fan of the game myself, I will not go into the details; suffice to say that it was big and shiny and came at a throwaway price. Sunday mornings were reserved for these in-house chess games with a few other politically outspoken tea guzzling friends of his. How was I in the picture? Thanks to the annual phenomenon called the summer vacations, which I was spending at their place in Hatibagan with a bunch of other cousins.
And then the trouble started. Again, for the sake of brevity, I will skip the relatively less important parts. To put it in a nutshell, chess pieces turned up at the oddest of places, and in the oddest of times. Before moving to the final pandemonium, there was this particular event which was an indicator of things to come. I woke up once in the middle of the night to find the board lying on the table in my room. On closer inspection, I found the white king in a rather simplistic check mate position ,courtesy the black queen and a black rook. The moonlight through the windows illuminated this grisly triumvirate, lending an otherworldly aura to the situation. The vanquished pieces were arranged in a perfectly straight line along one side of the board, silent spectators to the final killing move. The rest of the household slept soundly; and for the first time, I understood what it's like to be confronted by something which you cannot explain to any degree.
I believe they call it fear.
True, in various occasions, the pieces had been found strewn across the living room floor, under the bed, and one night, two pawns were found keeping a lone vigil on the toilet cistern. These were of course, attributed to the mischief making younger cousins of mine, to which they protested most vociferously. Tired of all that commotion, my Mesho locked it up in his own private cupboard, and slept with the keys beside him. In fact, I had seen him locking it up that very evening. Throat dry, I switched on the lights and sat up the remainder of the night.
Fast forward to a sunny afternoon the next week (the interim period was relatively calm). I lazed on the living room bed adjacent to one of the walls, while prodding my youngest cousin Sumi through what they call their holiday homework. She was still in her chicken scratching three-four letter word phase. Presently I noticed a trail of blue ink originating from her pencil case, and staining the cream coloured bed sheet spectacularly. My eyes followed the stain to the point where the side of the bed met the wall. Leaning against the wall at that very point was the now familiar faceless white queen.
Fear.... palpable, tangible.
The subsequent events were a blur. The rest of the household converged, and it took four grown men to shift the heavy mahogany bed to check where the ink stain had finally ended.On exposing the portion of the wall previously hidden by the immense bed, we got another shock. There were freshly written letters, in an immaculately flowing Bengali script, shining crystal blue against the white wall :
"Mukti chai, raja." (Roughly translated, it would come down to "Oh my king, I demand my freedom.")
This was the final straw; it was established that we were dealing with something not from this world. Nobody had moved that bed in years. It was then that the family pandit was consulted, and he came to the natural conclusion that it would be best to dispose the 'possessed' set into the Hooghly.
Pollutants or poltergeists, the rivers take them all.
Which brings us back to the ghat. The pandit had seen it off; it floated away gently with the current amongst the numerous boats, ferrying fishermen and tourists alike. The other two turned back up the steps, yet I could not peel my eyes away from that box with its terrible contents. It hit one of the buoys, and kept adhering to it until a fisherman's net snapped it up.
We should have burnt it.
Note: The above has been based on actual events, which occurred over thirty years ago at my Mashi's (Maternal aunt) place. Needless to say, I was not part of it; I have taken the liberty to tweak the tale here and there to make it more readable. Of the original characters who were unwilling participants of this drama, I personally know no one apart from my Mashi, Mesho and my still-in-high-school mother, who were all first hand witnesses to this singular sequence of events.