Bidhu Babu, a great-granduncle of mine, was a freedom fighter and social activist who campaigned especially for the abolition of child marriage. He was also a confirmed bachelor. This was not because he was always averse to matrimony but his one and only encounter and its aftermath was so bizarre and tragic that it changed the course of his life.

It was way back in India&’s pre-independent days when Bidhu Babu was all of 20 years old. He was known in town as a good college student who belonged to a well established family and was reckoned as the town&’s most eligible bachelor. The way things were then, he could not resist the social pressure at home beyond a point. Reluctantly, Bidhu Babu agreed to the family elders’ choice of a 10-year-old girl. He was pleased, though, to notice young Basanti&’s twinkling eyes and spontaneous smile. Basanti was the daughter of a respected doctor in the town. Her relatives agreed it was a perfect match, not just between the boy and the girl but between the families as well.

Soon enough, the wedding day dawned. The barat arrived somewhat before the appointed hour, presumably because they lived in an outstation location. The bride&’s side had hosted the barat in a huge vintage mansion downtown. Right away they were entertained with elaborate refreshments and tea. Bidhu Babu sat with a few friends joking and laughing while Basanti, decked up in bridal finery, waited in another room. The two would meet at an auspicious moment.

Suddenly, Bidhu Babu espied a curly head peeping out between the curtains and a pair of mischievous eyes met his in silent laughter.

“Who&’s there?” he called out, but before his friends could stand up and catch her, a lthe figure in full bridal dress ran off saying, “Looko churi” in an endearingly tinkling voice.

A couple of boys ran after her, calling out looko churi all the way. Basanti&’s barat was very embarrassed by the whole episode. “What a tomboy she is! She has no idea what marriage means!” they remarked. Bidhu Babu did not mind at all; rather, her bright eyes and tinkling laughter stuck in his mind.

The muhurtam (auspicious moment) for the wedding ceremony was approaching. Bidhu Babu sat with the priest who was chanting his holy verses when there was a big commotion in the house. Basanti was nowhere to be found. Anxiety turned into panic as the hours ticked by and everyone hunted high and low for the bride in the huge rambling house. The barat became restive.

Basanti&’s mother fainted and her father appeared with folded hands, tears running down his cheeks, asking for more time. Soon ugly rumours started floating around about her boisterous nature, her free running about, her lack of responsibility and the like.

“She must have run away with someone,” announced one pesky aunt. Her mother wept copiously and denied any such possibility. Basanti&’s playmate Haren was questioned sharply but all he could say was that he had last seen her playing looko churi with friends.

“Looko churi?” everyone stared incredulously. How could this be for a prospective bride? When even the barat confirmed it, a host of interpretations were given to those two words and everyone was convinced that it could only mean that she had run off to where and nobody could find her.

The lights of the mandap fizzed out. The angry barat left without dinner, with hot words. Only Bidhu Babu was silent. That charming face between the curtains and the teasing sound of looko churi returned to captivate him. He could not bring himself to think that Basanti had run away. He was sure something terrible had happened to her.

The good doctor, Basanti&’s father, was so dumbstruck and heartbroken that he abandoned the house then and there as it was on the wedding day, gave up his practice and left town. Bidhu Babu went on to finish his studies and got a good job but he refused to get married despite entreaties by his parents. The face of his bride-to-be had such a question mark that he could not go through the ceremony with anyone else.

Years later his posting brought him to the same town. Curiosity drove him to the house that now lay dilapidated, overgrown with bushes and brambles, dark and dismal. The doctor had not wanted to have anything to do with the cursed place and did not even try and sell it, despite lucrative offers. The mansion got the reputation of being a Bhoot Bangla (ghostly house) that made people disappear. Now no one went near it any more.

An inner urge forced Bidhu Babu to enter it on his second visit. He remembered each and every moment, especially the brief encounter with his child bride. “I am sure you have not run away with someone and sullied your reputation,” he whispered to himself. “You are too innocent for that — a mere child who would not hurt anybody, especially me!” He wiped away the tears that had involuntarily welled up in his eyes.

He moved through the dusty dark rooms till he came to the attic on the second floor. It was full of bags and boxes and then suddenly he spotted a big junk-box at one end. Some strange reflex drew him to the box, which was laden with a thick coat of dust. The lid was very firmly stuck and it was with great difficulty and a crowbar that he was able to pry it with a jerk. He peered in and staggered back — a skeleton in full bridal dress with all the jewellery intact lay at the bottom of the trunk. Bidhu Babu sat down with a thud on a dust-laden stool in the attic.

In a flash he realised what had happened – a tragic denouement of a childish game. He could feel the panic, the darkness, the suffocation as Basanti had tried to push open the lid that had fallen shut suddenly. His heart wept silently at all the accusations that had been made, the tarnishing of her reputation, his own humiliation and hurt. He sat there for ages till the tears had washed away every bit of negative feeling.

“Basanti, I always knew; but forgive me if I ever doubted you one bit,” he sobbed to no audience. “I have work to do,” he thought when he stood up. “I have to make amends by fighting against child marriage and trying to help restore girls’ rights.”

From that day, Bidhu Babu gave up a handsome job and joined the social movement of his time with great zeal. The childlike face and smile in his heart was his motivation.