ANATH BABU’S TERROR
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This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about
Who doesn’t know Satyajit Ray. The famous ‘Oscar’ fame film director from Tollygange and even Bollywood. Some may not know he was also a great writer. This short story of his ‘Anath Babu’s Terror’ was published earlier in one of his story collections of a dozen stories originally written in Bengali as ‘Ek Dojon Goppo.’
The story was subsequently published in English under a Penguin title edited by Ruskin Bond as ‘The Penguin Book of Indian Ghost Stories’ in the year 1993.
‘Anath babu’s terror’ is tale of a ghost hunter’s dare into a haunted house. The narrator, while going on a holiday to write in peace to Raghunathpur, meets Anath Babu in the train. The person appears eccentric and strange and is quite oddly and traditionally dressed. The narrator meets him again in Raghunathpur and discovers he is interested in strange and esoteric things and has travelled from one end of India to the other in search of authentic ghosts. He has spent all his life gathering information about life after death, spirits, vampires, draculas, werevolves, black magic, voodoo and the works. He has spent twenty-five years living in haunted houses, dak bungalows, and indigo cottages. Soon he comes to know about a haunted house, where the body of a Haldar who had been found lying dead on the floor, stone cold, with eyes open and staring at the ceiling.
He tells the narrator that he has decided to spend a night in the west room, the most haunted room of the house. But before that he and the narrator go to investigate the house, where Anath Babu can smell a spirit lurking in the house. The next day the narrator is unable to concentrate on his work and so he goes to meet Anath Babu, to investigate about his ghostly experience. When, the writer asks him about last night. He doesn’t answer, and on the contrary he asks the narrator to go to the west room, to get his answer. The narrator does so and when his eyes fell on the floor, a sudden creep, a wave of horror swept over him. He found Anath Babu lying on the floor, stiff and stone cold, staring at the ceiling with a look of horror in his eyes! When, he tried to run. He found Anath Babu in the passage outside laughing raucously, and his voice was drowning him in it, and also paralysing his senses! Later the narrator finds himself in his house, and his friend telling him about Anath Babu’s dead body in the mansion.
The story is spine chilling and will grip you all over. Sitesh Babu, sick and tired of a long drift at work thinks of taking a break. He works for one of the dailies in Calcutta. Writing indeed was his hobby. He had a couple of short stories that needed further focus. For which he needed a peaceful surrounding to iron out his thoughts. So he applies for ten days leave to visit a quiet place where he could complete his stories. And, decides to head for Raghunathpur.
But then there was a reason for his choosing Raghunathpur. Where, an old college mate of his, Biren Biswas, had his ancestral home. And while they were chatting in the coffee house one evening, talking of possible places where one could spend one’s holiday. Sitesh told Biren that he had applied for leave. To, complete his book. For which he was looking for a quiet place so that he could concentrate. Biren was spontaneous in offering him free accommodation at his home in Raghunathpur. He even said, ‘I would have gone with you, but you know how tied up I am at the moment. But you won’t have any problems as Bharadwaj will look after you. ‘He’s worked for our family for fifty years.’ Thus Sitesh decided to visit Raghunathpur. Where, on his way in the train he met Anath Babu. Sitesh just had a suitcase and that too was filled with a packet of writing paper.
The coach was packed. Anathbandhu Mitra happened to be sitting right next to Sitesh. About fifty years of age. Not, very tall. Hair parted in the middle with a sharp look in his eyes and an amused smile playing on his lips. He appeared to have dressed for a part in a play set some fifty years ago. For no one these days wore a jacket like that, nor such collars, or glasses, or boots.
They began to chat. It turned out that Anath Babu, too, was going to Raghunathpur. ‘Are you also going on a holiday?’ Sitesh asked him. But he did not answer and seemed to grow a little pensive. Or it may be he had failed to hear Sitesh’s question in the racket the train was making.
The sight of Biren’s house pleased Sitesh very much. It was a nice house. With a strip of land in front that had both vegetables and flowers growing in it. There were no other houses nearby. So the possibility of being disturbed by the neighbours was non-existent.
Despite, protests from Bharadwaj. Sitesh chose the room in the attic for himself. It was an airy little room, comfortable and totally private. He moved his things upstairs and began to unpack. It was then that he realised he had left his razor blades behind. ‘Never mind,’ said Bhardwaj, ‘Kundu Babu’s shop is only five minute walk from here. You’ll get your “bilades” there.’
He left for the shop, soon after tea, at around 4 p.m. It appeared that the place was used more or less like a club. About seven middle-aged men were seated inside on wooden benches, chatting away to glory. One of them was saying rather agitatedly, ‘Well, it’s not something I have only heard about. I saw the whole thing with my own eyes. All right, so it happened thirty years ago. But that kind of thing cannot get wiped out from one’s memory, can it? I shall never forget what happened, especially since Haladhar Datta was a close friend of mine. In fact, even now I can’t help feeling partly responsible for his death.’
Sitesh bought a packet of 7 O’clock blades. Then he began to loiter, looking at things he didn’t really need. The gentlemen continued, ‘Just imagine, my own friend laid a bet with me for just ten rupees and went to spend a night in that west room. I waited for a long time the next morning for him to turn up; but when he didn’t, I went with Jiten Bakshi, Haricharan Saha and a few others to look for him in the Haldar mansion. And we found him in the same room—lying dead on the floor, stone cold, eyes open and staring at the ceiling. The naked fear I saw in those eyes could only mean one thing, I tell you: ghosts. There was no injury on his person, no sign of snake-bite or anything like that. So what else could have killed him but a ghost? You tell me?’
Another five minutes in the shop gave Sitesh a rough idea of what they were talking about. There was, apparently, a two-hundred-year-old mansion in the southern corner of Raghunathpur, which had once been owned by the Haldars, the local zamindars. It had lain abandoned for years now. A particular room in this mansion that faced the west was supposed to be haunted.
Although in the last thirty years no one had dared to spend a night in it after the death of Haladhar Datta. The residents of Raghunathpur still felt a certain thrill thinking of the unhappy spirit that haunted the room. The reason behind this belief was both the mysterious death of Haladhar Datta, and many other instances of murders and suicides in the history of the Haldar family.
Intrigued by this conversation, Sitesh came out of the shop only to find Anathbandhu Mitra, the gentlemen he had met in the train, standing outside, with a smile on his lips.
‘Did you hear what they were saying?’ he asked.
‘Yes I couldn’t help it.’
‘Do you believe in it?’
‘In what? Ghosts?
‘Well, you see, I have heard of haunted houses often enough. But never have I met anyone who has actually stayed in one and seen anything. So I don’t quite …’
Anath Babu’s smile deepened.
Would you like to see it? He said.
‘See? How do you mean?’
‘Only from the outside. It’s not very far from here. A mile, at the most. If you go straight down this road, past the twin temples and then turn right, it’s only a quarter of a mile from there.’
The man seemed interesting. Besides, there was no need to get back home quite so soon. So, Sitesh left with him.
The Haldar mansion was not easily visible. Most of it was covered by a thick growth of wild plants and creepers. It was only the top of the gate that towered above everything else and could be seen a good ten minutes before one reached the house. The gate was really huge. The mahabatkhana over it was in shambles. A long drive led to the front veranda. A couple of statues and the remains of a fountain told us that there used to be a garden in the space between the house and the gate. The house was strangely structured. There was absolutely nothing in it that could have met even the lowest of aesthetic standards. The whole thing seemed only a shapeless heap. The last rays of the setting sun fell on its mossy walls.
Anath Babu stared at it for a minute. Then he said, ‘As far as I know, ghosts and spirits don’t come out in daylight. Why don’t we,’ he added, winking, ‘go and take a look at that room?’
‘That west room? The one …?’
‘Yes. The one in which Haladhar Datta died.”
The man’s interest in the matter seemed a bit exaggerated.
Anath Babu read Sitesh’s mind.
‘I can see you surprised. Well, I don’t mind telling you the truth. The only reason behind my arrival in Raghunathpur is this house.’
‘Yes, I had learnt in Calcutta that the house was haunted. I came all the way to see if I could catch a glimpse of the ghost. You asked me on the train why I was coming here. I didn’t reply, which must have appeared rude. But I had decided to wait until I got to know you a little better before telling you.’
‘But why did you have to come all the way from Calcutta to chase a ghost?’
‘I’ll explain that in a minute. I haven’t yet told you about my profession. Have I? The fact is that I am an authority on ghosts and all things supernatural. I have spent the last twenty five years doing research in this area. I have read everything that’s ever been published on life after death, spirits that haunt the earth, vampires, werewolves, black magic, voodoo—the lot. I had to learn seven different languages to do this. There is a Professor Norton in London who has similar interest. I have been in correspondence with him over the last three years. My articles have been published in well known magazines in Britain. I don’t wish to sound boastful, but I think it would be fair to say that no one in this country has as much knowledge about these things as I do.’
Anath Babu spoke very sincerely. The thought that he might be telling lies or exaggerating things did not cross Sitesh Babu’s mind at all. On the contrary, Sitesh found it quite easy to believe what Anath Babu told him and his respect for the man only grew.
After a few moments of silence, Anath said, ‘I have stayed in at least three hundred haunted houses all over the country.’
‘Yes. In places like Jabalpur, Cherrapunji, Kanthi, Katoa, Jodhpur, Azimganj, Hazaribagh, Shiuri, Barasat … and so many others. I’ve stayed in fifty-six dak-bungalows, and at least thirty neel kuthis. Besides these, there are about fifty haunted houses in Calcutta and its suburbs where I’ve spent my nights. But …,’
Anath Babu stopped. Then he shook his head and said. ‘The ghosts have eluded me. Perhaps they like to visit only those who don’t want to have anything to do with them. I have been disappointed time and again. Only once did I feel the presence of something strange in an old building in Tiruchirapalli near Madras. It used to be a club during British times. Do you know what happened? The room was dark and there was no breeze at all. Yet, each time I tried to light a candle, someone—or something—kept snuffing it out. I had to waste twelve matchsticks. However, with the thirteenth I did manage to light the candle; but, as soon as it was lit, the spirit vanished. Once in a house in Calcutta, too, I had a rather interesting experience. I was sitting in a dark room as usual, waiting for something to happen, when I suddenly felt a mosquito bite my scalp! Quite taken aback, I felt my head and discovered that every single strand of my hair had disappeared. I was totally bald! Was it really my own head? Or had I felt someone else’s? But no, the mosquito bite was real enough. I switched on my torch quickly and peered into the mirror. All my hair was intact. There was no sign of baldness.
‘These were the only two slightly queer experiences I’ve had in all these years. I had given up all hope of finding anything anywhere. But, recently, I happened to read in an old magazine about this house in Raghunathpur. So I thought I’d come and try my luck for the last time.’
They had reached the front door by now. Anath Babu looked at his watch and said, ‘This sun sets today at 5.31 p.m. It’s now 5.15. Let’s go and take a quick look before it gets dark.’
Perhaps Anath Babu’s interest in the supernatural was infectious. Basis which Sitesh Babu readily accepted his proposal. And like Anath even Sitesh was eager to see the inside of the house and that room in particular.
They walked in through the front door. There was a huge courtyard and that looked like a stage. It must have been used for pujas and other festivals. There was no sign now of the joy and the laughter it once must have witnessed.
There were verandas, around the courtyard. To their right, lay a broken palanquin, and beyond it was a staircase going up.
It was so dark on the staircase that Anath Babu had to take a torch out of his pocket and switch it on. They had to demolish an invisible wall of cobwebs to make their way. When, they finally reached the first floor. Sitesh thought to himself, ‘if it wouldn’t be surprising at all if this house did turn out to be haunted.’
They stood in the passage and made some rough calculations. The room on their left must have been the famous west room, they decided. Anath Babu said, ‘Let’s not waste any time. Come with me.’
There was only one thing in the passage: a grandfather clock. Its glass was broken, one of its hands was missing and the pendulum lay to one side.
The door to the west room was closed. Anath Babu pushed it gently with his forefinger. A nameless fear gave Sitesh goose-pimples. The door swung open.
But the room revealed nothing unusual. It may have been a living-room once. There was a big table in the middle with a missing top. Only the four legs stood upright. An easy chair stood near the window, although sitting in it now would not be very easy as it had lost one of its arms and a portion of its seat.
Sitesh glanced up and saw that bits and pieces of an old-fashioned, hand-pulled fan still hung from the ceiling. It didn’t have a rope, the wooden bar was broken and its main body torn.
Apart from these objects, the room had a shelf that must once have held rifles, a pipeless hookah, and two ordinary chairs, also with broken arms.
Anath Babu appeared to be deep in thought. After a while, he said, ‘Can you smell something?’
‘Incense, oil and burning flesh … all mixed together …’ Sitesh inhaled deeply, but could smell nothing beyond the usual musty smell that came from a room that had been kept shut for a long time.
So he said, ‘Why, no, I don’t think I can …’
Anath Babu did not say anything. Then, suddenly, he struck his left hand with his right and exclaimed, ‘God! I know this smell well! There is bound to be a spirit lurking about in this house, though whether or not he’ll make an appearance remains to be seen. Let’s go!’
Anath Babu decided to spend the following night in Haldhar mansion. On our way back, he said, ‘I won’t go tonight because tomorrow is a moonless night, the best possible time for ghosts and spirits to come out. Besides, I need a few things which I haven’t got with me today. I’ll bring those tomorrow. Today I came only to make a survey.’
Before they parted company near Biren’s house, Anath lowered his voice and said, ‘Please don’t tell anyone else about my plan. From what I heard today, people here are so superstitious and easily frightened that they might actually try to stop me from going in if they came to know of my intention. And, ‘he added, ‘please don’t mind that I didn’t ask you to join me. One has to be alone, you see, for something like this …’
Sitesh sat down the next day to write, but could not concentrate. His mind kept going back to the west room in that mansion. God knows what kind of experience awaited Anath Babu. He could not help feeling a little restless and anxious.
He accompanied Anath Babu in the evening, right up to the gate of the Halder mansion. He was wearing a black high-necked jacket today. From his shoulder hung a flask and, in his hand, he carried the same torch he had used the day before. He took out a couple of small bottles from his pocket before going into the house. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘this one has a special oil, made with my own formula. It is an excellent mosquito repellent. And this one here has carbolic acid in it. If I spread it in and around the room, I’ll be safe from snakes.’
He put the bottles back in his pocket, raised the torch and touched his head with it. Then he waved Sitesh a final salute and walked in, his heavy boots clicking on the gravel.
Sitesh could not sleep well that night.
As the dawn broke, Sitesh told Bharadwaj to fill a thermos flask with enough tea for two. When the flask arrived, he left once more for Halder mansion.
No one was about. Should I call out to Anath Babu, or should I go straight up to the west room? He stood debating, when a voice said ‘Here—this way!’
Anath Babu was coming out of the little jingle of wild plants from the eastern side of the house, with a neem twig in his hand. He certainly did not look like a man who might have had an unnatural or horrific experience the night before.
He grinned broadly as he came closer.
‘I had to search for about half an hour before I could find a neem tree. I prefer this to a toothbrush, you see.’ Said Anath.
Sitesh felt hesitant to ask him about the previous night.
‘I brought some tea,’ Sitesh said instead and added, ‘would you like some here, or would you rather go home?’
‘Oh, come along. Let’s sit by that fountain.’ He replied.
Anath Babu took a long sip of his tea and said, ‘Aaah!’ with great relish. Then he turned to Sitesh and said with a twinkle in his eye, ‘You’re dying to know what happened, aren’t you?’
‘Yes I mean … yes, a little …’
‘All right. I promise to tell all. But let me tell you one thing right away—the whole expedition was highly successful!’
Anath poured himself a second mug of tea and began his tale:
‘It was 5 p.m. when you left me here. I looked around for a bit before going into the house. One has to be careful, you know. There are times when animals and other living beings can cause more harm than ghosts. But I didn’t find anything dangerous.
Then I went in and looked into the rooms in the ground floor that were open. None had any furniture left. All I could find was some old rubbish in one and a few bats hanging from the ceiling in another. They didn’t budge as I went in, so I came out again without disturbing them.
I went upstairs at around 6.30 p.m. and began making preparations for the night. I had taken a duster with me. The first thing I did was to dust that easy chair. Heaven knows how long it had lain there.
The room felt stuffy, so I opened the window. The door to the passage was also left open, just in case Mr Ghost wished to make his entry through it. Then I placed the flask and the torch on the floor and lay down on the easy chair. It was quite uncomfortable but, having spent many a night before under far more weird circumstances, I did not mind.
The sun had set at 5.30. It grew dark quite soon. And that smell grew stronger. I don’t usually get worked up, but I must admit last might I felt a strange excitement.
Gradually, the jackals in the distance stopped their chorus, and the crickets fell silent. I cannot tell when I fell asleep.
I was awoken by a noise. It was the noise of a clock striking midnight. A deep, yet melodious chime came from the passage.
Now, fully awake, I noticed two other things—first, I was lying quite comfortably in the easy chair. The torn portion wasn’t torn anymore, and someone had tucked in a cushion behind my back. Secondly, a brand new fan hung over my head; a long rope from it went out to the passage and an unseen hand was pulling it gently.
I was staring at these things and enjoying them thoroughly, is when I realised from somewhere in the moonless night that a full moon had appeared. The room was flooded with bright moonlight. Then the aroma of something totally unexpected hit my nostrils. I turned and found a hookah by my side, the rich smell of the best quality tobacco filling the room.’
Anath Babu stopped. Then he smiled and said, ‘Quite a pleasant situation, wouldn’t you agree?’
Sitesh said, ‘Yes, indeed. So you spent the rest of the night pretty comfortably, did you?’
At this, Anath Babu suddenly grew grave and sunk into a deep silence. Sitesh waited for him to resume speaking, but when he didn’t he turned impatient. ‘Do you mean to say, ‘he asked, ‘that you really didn’t have any reason to feel frightened? You didn’t see a ghost, after all?’
Anath Babu looked at Sitesh. But there was not even the slightest trace of a smile on his lips. His voice sounded hoarse as he asked, ‘When you went into the room the day before yesterday, did you happen to look carefully at the ceiling?’
‘No I don’t think I did. Why?’
‘There is something rather special about it. I cannot tell you the rest of my story without showing it to you. Come, let’s go in.’
They began climbing the dark staircase again. On their way to the first floor, Anath babu said only one thing: ‘I will not have to chase ghosts again, Sitesh Babu. Never. I have finished with them.’
Sitesh looked at the grandfather clock in the passage. It stood just as it had done two days ago.
They stopped in front of the west room. ‘Go in,’ said Anath Babu. The door was closed. Sitesh pushed it open and went in. Then his eyes fell on the floor, and a wave of horror swept over him.
Who was lying on the floor, heavy boots on his feet? And whose laughter was that, loud and raucous, coming from the passage outside, echoing through every corner of the Haldar mansion?
Drowning Sitesh in it, paralysing his senses his mind …? could it be …?
He could think no more.
When Sitesh opened his eyes, he found Bharadwaj standing at the foot of his bed, and Bhabatosh Majumdar fanning him furiously. ‘Oh, thank goodness you’ve come round! ‘if Sidhucharan hadn’t seen you go into that house, heaven knows what might have happened. Why on earth did you go there anyway?’
Sitesh could only mutter faintly, ‘Last night, Anath Babu …’
Bhabatosh Babu cut him short, ‘Anath Babu! It’s too late now to do anything about him. Obviously, he didn’t believe a word of what I said the other day. Thank God you didn’t go with him to spend the night in that room. You saw what happened to him, didn’t you? Exactly the same thing happened to Haladhar Datta all those years ago. Lying on the floor, cold and stiff, the same look of horror in his eyes, staring at the ceiling.’
Sitesh thought quietly to myself, ‘No, he’s not lying there cold and stiff. I know what’s become of Anath Babu after his death. I might find him, even tomorrow morning, perhaps, if I bothered to go back. There he would be—wearing a black jacket and heavy boots, coming out of the jungle in the Haldhar mansion, neem twig in his hand grinning from ear to ear.’
Posted by Kamlesh Tripathi
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