The house of the woman who wouldn’t listen

About fifty years ago, in a village an hour and a half out of Calcutta, two young men were in the habit of sneaking away from home at night to smoke. They could not smoke at home, for reasons having to do with fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts and all kinds of irritating young cousins, but their village was surrounded by fields and overgrown gardens,  and finding a place to sit comfortably and stay undisturbed was rarely a problem.

There was a favourite garden, and a favourite tree under which they usually sat. The tree was close to the boundary of a  large property, an unkempt verdant expanse that had not seen any kind of pruning for a very long time. They chose that garden because people from the village would be unlikely to walk by that way after dark. They kept close to the boundary because there were stories about that house in the village.  Venturing too close to the rambling crumbling ruin of a mansion at night did not seem like a particularly good idea.

It was a huge house. It had been one of the homes of a wealthy zamindari family with business interests all over Bengal, and large land holdings. The house had been built for a sister of the family, a woman with seven sons and a husband whose admiration for her was legendary. The best local materials had been sourced, and builders and masons had been brought from far places to build this extravagant mansion in the Sundarbans, surrounded by verdant gardens and fruit orchards. The windows, it is said, came from Burma.

Once shuttered against darkness and storms, the long desolation of the house had thrown the windows wide open. Monsoons had rotted, warped and sagged the wood, and rusted and broken the hinges. Many years of children’s daytime games had shattered the glass of the inner frames, until walkers-by could see into outer rooms of the house from the narrow dirt path that cut through the mango orchard.

Lights had been seen at these windows by several people from the village. Reports were confused about these lights. Some people hurriedly taking the back path through the mango orchard at night had seen the slight aura of candle-light in the upper windows. Others had assumed there was a lantern in one of the back rooms. The most uncomfortable reports were those of moving lights in the inner reaches of the sprawling house. At least two people from the village had glimpsed fleeting dark shadows thrown on ceilings or walls, as if someone with a lantern in hand was walking through the long passages of the inner house.

Some of these sightings had been followed by daytime investigations by brave souls, but no traces of human occupation, however temporary, had ever been found. Even more disturbing, some of the upper windows through which lights had been seen belonged to parts of the house which no longer had any rooms, where ceilings and floors had collapsed to the point that no human being could get anywhere within sighting distance of a window.

Momentarily half-seen through large broken windows, surrounded by the complete darkness of a village night, the lights had terrified most people into refusing to take the path after late afternoon. Very few took it even in broad daylight, and they tended to walk through quickly.

Its not like we weren’t scared, says the teller of the the tale, but we went to her garden because no one we knew would walk by that way, and see us smoking. At sixteen, we were much more scared of the elders of the family than we were of ghosts.

You called it her garden?

Everybody called it Ramani dasi’s house.  The way we heard it, most people were scared of her when she was alive.

She was quick to temper, and raising seven sons had made her authoritative and unpleasant to cross. The children of the village would keep away from her fruit trees in the summer. Her sons were devoted to her, though. When their father died, she continued to stay in the large house with them.

The family was Vaishnavite, devotees of Krishna and Radha. These were the idols in household shrines, in the temples dotting the village, and beyond- the wealthy family had built several temples in south Bengal . Shakti worship, or the worship of the goddess, was strictly forbidden.

Ramani dasi decided that she wanted to worship the goddess. Once she had made up her mind, it was impossible to change it. Her brothers advised her that this would be a very bad idea, since the family fortunes were under the protection of Krishna. They commanded and stormed, and then they reasoned and pleaded, but she held firm. The goddess must be worshipped, she said. Besides, everybody worshipped Durga in Bengal, and there was no reason why she, in particular, must not do what hundreds of others do every year.

So a legendary Durga Puja was held in her house. Five days of  blazing lights and worship and feasting, the likes of which had never been seen in the mostly Vaishnavite area. The preparations were elaborate, the spread was lavish, and everyone was invited. People responded to her invitations, of course. There’s two things people will come far to see: conflict and celebration, and this promised to be both.

Within a year, one of her seven sons was dead.

In two years, says the story, all of them died one by one, until she was left alone in the huge house. She wanted no company, and it fell slowly to disrepair.  The once-tended garden grew wild, and even her closest relatives did not see her for months at a time. She died many years ago.

Once she was dead, no one wanted to go into the house, and no once else came to occupy it. So it fell to desolation and ruin, except for the lights in the windows at night.

did you ever see these lights?

no, we just wanted to smoke at night. why would we disturb the house?

______________________________________________

I heard this story at a town in Budge Budge, about an hour out of Kolkata/ Calcutta, down the Taratolla road.

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