(Title of the original Bengali story is “Paitrik Bhita.”)
The old building was huge and stood right by the river Madhumoti. Radhamohan sat on the verandah with a book in hand. He could see the river clearly, and had difficulty concentrating on the book.
The river was simply picturesque; on the other side he could see bamboo forests and a mango grove. The grove had however turned into a forest too and seemed ancient. He felt quite comfortable in the large house— it was quiet and peaceful. It was also perfectly suitable for studies and writing. It was his very own ancestral home, but nobody had lived here in quite a while.
Radhamohan’s father Shamakanto Chakroborty had left this place in his early youth. He went to live in Medinipur, with the family of his maternal uncles. He completed his studies there and became a well-known lawyer. He earned a lot of money and built his own house and extended the property. It is not that he never came to his own village, but only to visit. He never stayed for long. He was renowned in his profession and could not leave all that behind.
Some distant cousins had been residing here until recently. But they, too, chose to leave because living in the village was becoming problematic. They also needed to acquire a livelihood. Radhamohan himself had only graduated from the law school last year, and had taken over his father’s law business. The reason behind his visit was to see if he could find someone to look after the property here. An elderly neighbour, Bhairob Barujye had been very friendly and helpful. He even took Radhamohan to his house for lunch and dinner. Radhamohan was ready to prepare his own food but of course he could not do so because of the old man.
Bhairob Barujye’s eldest son came to call him for tea.
“Why don’t you bring the tea over here, Keshto? It feels so good here.”
“Yes, if you don’t mind.”
Everyone in the village had been very nice. “You are the son of our Shamakanto da. You do not need to cook. Come, eat with us.” He felt grateful towards them all.
Keshto brought tea and chatted with him for some time as well. Then he left. Radhamohan looked thoughtfully at the darkening sky. The starlit night reflected itself in the waters of the Madhumoti river. He wondered why his grandfather had chosen to build such a palace in this remote country. He was a police-officer in his time and had earned a lot of money. But he seemed to have little wisdom regarding material aspects. Who in his right mind would want to spend so much money building a house in this place, in the middle of nowhere? What were his heirs supposed to do with it now?
He wondered if the brick-makers would take the house. He toyed with the idea of selling it to them. Right then Radhamohan heard a sound. And that was when he saw the girl. A little girl of about ten or eleven years was peeping out from behind the door. There was a kerosene lamp inside the room; hence she was not in complete darkness.
Bhairob Barujye was really taking very good care of him. He was sending his children by turns to ask after him.
He asked, “Hello, little one, is dinner ready?”
The girl hesitated a bit and then stepped outside.
Radhamohan asked, “What’s your name?”
“Nice name. Can you read?”
“Perhaps you sing?”
Radhamohan smiled as he said, “Won’t that cause problems when you get married? How about cooking?”
The girl nodded indicating that she knew how to cook.
“Ah, so you know how to cook? What can you cook?”
“Everything? Really? That’s nice. Come, take a seat.”
The girl smiled shyly. “No, I won’t sit here.”
“Why not? You have work to do?”
“No, I have to leave. You go and have your dinner.”
“All right; is the dinner ready then?”
“You’re hungry, right? Go and take your dinner.” Radhamohan turned around to say something and saw that the girl had disappeared. He went to his host’s house a little later. Bhairab Barujye welcomed him. “Oh, here you are! Dinner is almost ready,” he said.
Radhamohan replied, “I know. Your daughter went to call me.”
After dinner Radhamohan returned to his ancestral house. He kind of liked his lonely abode. He felt the invisible presence of his forefathers. His father had spent his childhood here. His grandmother had first entered this house as a bride and stood in the front yard with her two feet in milk and dye. Now the family is settled elsewhere. In Radhamohan’s dreams his ancestors visited him and complained, “Why did you leave us? What did we ever do to incur your resentment?”
The next morning he woke up and plunged into papers regarding the property. He spent a very busy day. When he sat on the porch in the evening, the girl appeared again. She was quite shy and did not come to him directly. She waited behind the door and peeped out from there.
Radhamohan called, “Hello, little one!”
She responded, “Mmm.”
“Is dinner ready?”
“Dinner will be late today. They are cooking meat for you.”
“Really? That will be quite a feast then? What do you think?”
The girl only smiled. Quite a sweet girl, thought Radhamohan. Did not chatter like most girls. On the contrary, she was quite shy.
Radhamohan asked, “So, where do your maternal grandparents live?”
“I don’t remember.”
“How come? You don’t visit them?”
She shook her head and replied, “No.”
Radhamohan was amused.
The girl said, “Why have you come alone?”
He laughed and asked, “Why do you ask that?”
“Bring the women of your household here. It’s such a big house! They should be here and make merry.”
“You wish that to happen?”
“That’s what should happen.”
“This house has been forlorn for years. Nobody to light up the lamp in the evening.”
The comment took Radhamohan by surprise. What a precocious child, he thought. He continued with an amused smile, “And you feel bad about it?”
“Of course. You all should come. The whole house will be full of laughter and light.” Then she suddenly remembered, “You must be famished. It’s quite late today.”
“No, no, it’s fine. Don’t worry.”
“But you prefer early dinner.”
“How did you know that, little one?”
“I just do,” she replied with a faint smile.
A little later, she bobbed her head up and down and said, “It feels so good to see you here. Nobody visits. But you have come. Now, go. Dinner is ready.”
“Ready? How did you know that?”
“I know,” she replied with a laugh.
“Okay, let me wash my hands and feet. We’ll go together.”
But when Radhamohan came back after his ablution, the girl was already gone. He smiled to himself. Spirited girl; obviously she went off. And the way she speaks! Radhamohan laughed out aloud.
Bhairob Barujye welcomed him. “Come, my son. Sorry, we are running a little late today. The women are cooking meat. We have not been able to treat you well; hence a bit of special preparation.”
Radhamohan was embarrassed, “What are you talking about? I am like a family member of yours. I will have whatever you eat. No problem at all.”
The next day, the little girl came again.
Radhamohan said, “There you are. I was wondering when you’d come.”
The girl smiled. “You were thinking of me?”
“Yes, of you!”
She bobbed her head and said, “I know why.”
“Yes, but I won’t tell you.”
Radhamohan had got a box of sweetmeat for her from Islamkati Bazar. He had sent his manservant Amulya to bring it. It seemed Amulya had talked to others about it. He felt somewhat irritated. He had meant to surprise his little one.
However, Radhamohan continued, “You can’t possibly know. Tell me then what it is.”
The girl smiled but refused to speak. Her smile was expressive enough, so Radhamohan did not poke her any further. She seemed to possess wisdom beyond her years. But Amulya was hopeless. Did he have to chat about this bit of sweetmeat too?
The girl suddenly said in a coaxing voice, “Where’s my sweetmeat then?”
Radhamohan went off to bring the box for her but as he came back she was gone. The little busy bee had gone off to run some errand of her own. What a strange girl!
Radhamohan took the sweetmeat to Bhairob Barujye’s house at dinner time. “For your daughter. She is very shy.”
Bhairob Barujye smiled, “Does she visit you often?”
“Yes, to chat with me.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, a sweet child she is.”
The next evening, the girl appeared at her self- designated place again.
Radhamohan said, “Why did you leave yesterday, little one? I am still upset with you.”
The girl only smiled and did not say anything.
“Did you eat the sweetmeat?”
“I ate it the moment you said that you got it for me.”
Then she said very affectionately, “The fact that you’ve come here makes me very happy. Such a large house; how does it feel to be alone here, huh? Finally, there’s light in the house.”
“Don’t you wish to visit the city? Will you go with me?”
“I like it here. What do I know of city life?”
“What are you saying? There’s so much in the city—movies, food shops …”
“Whatever. What’s that to me? Promise me you’ll come back.”
“Of course, I will. Why wouldn’t I?”
“You never came all this while. There was no light in the house. Okay, I will go now. You’ll be leaving on Tuesday, right?”
Radhamohan was somewhat taken aback. The only person he had talked to about leaving was Bhairob Barujye. Obviously, he mentioned it to others at home.
The next two days Radhamohan was very busy with work. He had to go to another village regarding property issues and came back late at night on Monday. He had dried food at home and hence did not disturb Bhairob Barujye.
The next day when he was preparing to leave, Bhairob Barujye came to see him, “Son, when did you return last night? Did you eat anything? You should have called us, you know. You’re not a stranger…”
Radhamohan apologised and said, “Will you call your little daughter, please?”
“Of course. I’ll get her right away.”
Bhairob Barujye returned a little later with an eight-year old dark-skinned girl.
“Not this one. It must be her older sister.”
“Her older sister lives at her in-laws. You’ve never met her.”
“Then it must have been some other girl of your household.”
“There’s no other girl at my house. But any other – no, there is no girl of that age around. Only two families of Brahmins live here. How old was she?”
Radhamohan suddenly remembered and said, “She said her name is Lokkhi.”
“There is no girl called Lokkhi in our village. You must have heard wrong.”
“The name might be wrong, but I’ve seen the girl and talked to her. Who might she be?”
“I have no idea, son. There’s no such girl that fits your description.”
Radhamohan said farewell to his newly acquainted neighbour but he kept on wondering about the little girl.
Almost two years after returning from his ancestral home Radhamohan went to visit his father’s sister in Jabbalpur. While looking at old albums he suddenly spotted a girl who looked faintly familiar. Where had he seen her?
His aunt shook her head. “You couldn’t have. She was my younger sister, your youngest aunt. She died at the age of twelve; you were nowhere in the picture. Your mother had not even come to our household. We still used to live in that house in the village.”
His aunt continued wonderingly, “I can still remember her a little. She was just adorable. But that was forty years ago. Then your father left for Medinipur. We never went back to live in the village. After my marriage I went to visit only once. Twenty years have passed since then.”