Asitda was the quintessential professor in his crisp white dhoti and kurta and trademark black leather bag slung from a shoulder. Yet he was not the serious intellectual type who maintained a distance from students but a mentor — counselling, inspiring, cajoling and directing them in research, placement and competitive exams till they were settled in life. A liberal, open-minded, rational person popular among his peers, Asitda seemed to know every third person in his para, his college area in Behala, and from Howrah to Burdwan where he went to take classes as a part-time professor of political science in Burdwan University. He was the most unlikely person to encounter a ghost, that, too, an urban one and yet it seemed he had had an experience he would narrate with flourish. Here is his story:
“Do I believe in ghosts? Once you ask me I will be foxed for an answer,” Asitda would confess. “As a village child, I firmly believed that ghosts lived in a large old tree. When passing by it, I muttered some prayer under my breath and ran away as fast as I could. Once a strong gust of wind shook the branches of the huge tree just as I was crossing it. A twig fell on my head. I immediately let off an eerie scream that brought my friends running to save me. That was my first tryst with ghosts!
“When we shifted to Kolkata, its bright lights and noisy crowd naturally drove all ghosts away. The question of believing in the existence of ghosts became a rather theoretical one. That was my only experience till I started visiting Burdwan.”
He continued, “I had to start early from my house in Dhakuria to catch a train to Burdwan three times a week as I went there to teach at the university. Before going for my classes, I always had lunch at a small Burdwan station hotel. Burdwan station was chock-a-block with hotels and eating joints primarily meant for hundreds of people who came to the town&’s university, medical college and hospital. I had chosen and fixed my preferred eatery and menu of rice, dal, a vegetable dish and fried fish. My timing coincided when the first rush of customers had already eaten and left. That particular day there was no other customer in the hotel when I entered. Sambhubabu, the proprietor, was at his usual desk strategically placed near the kitchen, which also gave him an overview of the dining hall. I greeted him and took my designated spot in one corner of the hall, which was dark owing to load-shedding and an overcast sky. My plate with steaming rice and dal along with vegetable curry arrived promptly.
I had nearly finished eating and was about to ask for fish fry and rice when a voice called out, ‘Bangshi machch de, bhaat de.’ I almost jumped out of my skin thinking who could possibly know my pet name! I looked around to find Sambhubabu busy reading the newspaper and there was no one else. A cool gust of breeze touched my face and I shivered. My helping of fish and rice arrived but I could not enjoy my meal. I quickly finished and left the hotel.
“I narrated the eerie incident to my university colleagues and they warned me against visiting Sambhubabu&’s eatery. ‘It is one of the oldest joints there. Who knows the number of victimised sprits hovering around? Also, two cases of suicide are on record,’ they offered. By the time I reached home, I was almost run down with fever. After a clinical check-up, the doctor declared flu. When I told him about my ghostly experience he laughed it off and said it was beyond his specialisation! After a night of fitful slumber, I woke up with a heavy head.
“I had to attend Burdwan University as I was in charge of admissions. I was determined not to have lunch at Sambhubabu&’s place and decided to carry some home cooked food for a change. The train journey with the usual group of friends and peers brought some relief to my head brimming with swirling thoughts. A strange urge for more adventure gripped me as against the practical idea of avoiding that eatery.
When the train had pulled into the station and I was about to take a turn towards the university, Sambhubabu was there by a quirk of fate. He had returned from Kolkata carrying a shopping bag. ‘Asitda,’ he called out, ‘where are you off to? I have a special menu today being served by a new waiter.’
“I could not refuse him and also my curiosity got the better of me. Sambhubabu was planning to give his hotel a makeover and elaborated his plans animatedly. He escorted me to a corner seat and after checking that the fish curry was piping hot called out to the new serving boy, ‘Bangshi, this is Asitda, our old customer, you must serve him well.’ My namesake was a young fellow with a pleasant face.
“My fever had gone. My head had cleared up as I shook hands warmly with my Burdwan ‘Bhoot’.”