Diptarag Bhattacharjee and Indraneel Ganguli narrate a first-person account of a strange and mysterious incident that happened to Sapna Vijayan, during her visit to Murshidabad in her childhood days.
This story was narrated by my school mate Sapna Vijayan. Must have been in the mid-eighties, this first person account was based on incidents she encountered while attending a relative’s marriage, in Murshidabad.
According to her, she and her parents reached their destination, a small village (can’t recall the name now), shortly before breakfast, catching the overnight Lalgola Passenger Train from Sealdah.
Indu Mashi greeted us with a smile and had made prior arrangements for us to stay at the Neelkuthi, one of the erstwhile residences of the Indigo Planters, past the singular village street.
Gosh, we were so hungry, and we didn’t have to wait long!
Traditional breakfast comprising triangular parathas accompanied by begun bhaja (brinjal fries) and some alu-kumro chenchki (potato-pumpkin dry curry) was heavenly.
Originally called Makhsudabad, it was reputedly founded by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th century. In 1704, the Nawab (ruler) Murshid Quli Khan (following Aurangzeb’s orders) transferred the capital there from Dacca (now Dhaka, Bangladesh) and renamed the town Murshidabad. The famous money lending family, the Jagat Seths, were prominent and powerful family in Murshidabad for a long time. They were believed to have played important roles in the revolutions that stirred in Bengal. After the Nawab (Shiraj Ud Daulah) had lost the battle of Plassey, Mir Jaffar became the ruler of Bengal and his successor, Mir Kasim, had the Jagat Seth executed.
Planting of Indigo plants (‘Neel’ in Bengali) in then undivided Bengal dates to 1777. It is told that Louis Bonnard was probably the first Indigo Planter in Bengal. The representatives of British rulers forced the cultivators of Bengal to plant Indigo instead of paddy or other food crops. With the flourishing of Indigo trade, ‘Indo houses’ or ‘Neelkuthis’ came up, built by the administrators and representatives of The East India Company.
During that period, if any farmer refused to grow Indigo, he would be tortured. Even women and children were not spared and the crop, other than Indigo, used to be burnt or destroyed. Because of constant pressure to cultivate Indigo instead of food grains, the farmers were compelled to revolt. The play ‘Neel Darpan’ written by Dinabandhu Mitra reflected the incidences of pressure and torture by the British administration and the feelings of the peasants of Bengal towards the British indigo planters.
A Bengali Hindu wedding is not a one- or two-day affair but can go on for more than a week as well. Our friends and family members were seen frequently visiting the house of the bride for the entire week, before the wedding day.
After Saat Paak (seven rounds / circles) the bride and the groom are made to look at each other in front of all the assembled invitees. The bride is told to remove the paan (beetel) leaves and look at the groom (Shubho Drishti). This exchange of loving glance is to initiate them to be together officially. After the circles are completed, still sitting high on the piri (a small wooden pedestal) the bride and the groom exchange garlands of fragrant flowers thrice (Mala Badol). This is the first step in which they accept each other. All this was happening while the gastronomic delights were being served elsewhere, in the house.
Bengali wedding is a foodie’s dream come true. In fact, it is not wrong to say your wedding food is one thing that will bond you with your esteemed guests. So remember, your guests might forget the lavish décor & extravagant arrangements but would never forget the lavish décor & extravagant arrangements but would never forget the sumptuous feast they had at your wedding. The traditional fare here comprised Luchi-Cholaar Daal, Begun Bhaja, Steamed Rice, Chorchori / Ghanto, Doi Maach, Kosha Mangsho, Chutney-Papad, Mishti Doi, Sandesh, Roshogolla and Mishti Paan.
Located almost in south east corner of the village, there was an old, two-storied house inside an enclosed area. The mansion was usually under lock and key and on enquiry learnt that this was one of the Zenana Mahals, converted into a Neelkuthi – a British Indigo Planters Residence.
Sprawling rooms alongside huge balconies, a house that had every corner reminding us of 18th century colonial architecture.
The day after the marriage, I wasn’t feeling too bright since the morning and decided to stay back at the Neelkuthi. I had instructed the cook to make me a Spartan lunch of “Sheddo Bhaat” and post lunch, settled on the steps with the steps with the latest ‘Famous Five’ compendium. A couple of hours had passed by, that’s when, I felt a fever kicking in……
I am otherwise quite physically fit and usually do not succumb to ordinary cold or fever, but this was something else, a deviation from the usual. My body and mind, both felt drained. With a rising temperature, I decided to skip dinner and tucked in for the night.
An old styled bedroom with a mosquito net, two large windows…….
My parents returned slightly late, checked on me, gave me some pills and decided to let me rest. Although quite drowsy, I was tossing and turning, with sleep eluding me through most of the night.
A strange dream. A huge man, stick in hand, beating hapless farmers. He appeared very cruel, very demanding and completely unmoved to the wails of the poor peasants. Uff!!!
At some point in time, I opened my eyes, felt someone tugging me by the arm. Bleary eyed, I looked around and…….
…… I saw him, his eyes directly gazing into mine! I was terrified, so terrified, that I almost choked. The same man in my dream was right in front of me, now looking at me! What could I do???
I managed to let out a scream. My parents rushed into my room, the cook in tow. I somehow narrated the strange sighting and that’s when the cook said, “Khan Saab had come. He often does. This house was a gift for his Begum and his spirit wanders around in search of her”. Post the Indigo revolt, Khan Saab and his Begum continued to live here until the Partition. After Independence, the Government of India took this property under its possession – a lot had changed except the presence of a solitary spirit.
The night passed by somehow with me battling a high fever. Some of our relatives decided for us to return to Calcutta the very next day. Several tests were done but the symptoms remained undetected – the fever raged on for almost a week!
This strange and mysterious incident remained with me since and I never dared visit Murshidabad again.
DIG-TALES created by Indraneel Ganguli and Diptarag Bhattacharjee
Illustrated by Indraneel Ganguli
Diptarag manages country operations for a US multinational. Photography amateur, food explorer, story teller, cricket aficionado and suffers from wanderlust.
Brand builder, artist-writer, storyteller and lover of world cuisine. With a 25-year career across top advertising firms, telecom and IT, he now runs his Marketing Consulting consortium “ReachIG”.