It was the 5th of May, 1899 – one of those stifling summer days in Panjorbhanga, Rajshahi that breathed only after sundown. As the cool evening breeze lulled the parched eyes of Pramathanath Mustafi, he welcomed the open arms of Somnus. But alas, the soothing nightly embrace was shortlived. At some point during the course of the night, Mr Mustafi’s peaceful slumber spiraled into a breathless and nightmarish encounter.
He dreamt. He saw the door of his bedroom gradually swing open and through it entered a fearsome duo with bloodied weapons in hand. Before he could react, the terrible two had silently lifted him off his bed and carried him out of his bedroom. Frozen by fright, he soon found himself brought to a wide open field at the one corner of which lay a hapless young lad. The lad was tied up with a strong rope and it was plain to him that the terrible two intended to sacrifice the boy. As the villains moved closer to the boy, Mr Mustafi could no longer hold his silence. Horror fought fright and he screamed at the men to release the boy.
Annoyed and angered at the unexpected intervention, the brigands turned their ire upon this audacious tongue. But as they raised their weapons and advanced to slaughter him, sound of bullets rang out from the woods that bordered the field. Like magic, the report of the distant gunfire stopped the thugs dead in their tracks. Recovering from their sharp surprise they sprinted, leaving Mr Mustafi and the young boy where they were.
Somewhat relieved, Mr. Mustafi now proceeded to untie the poor boy. As he neared him, he was once again startled. The boy was none other than Mr Mustafi’s own servant boy, Ghetu Das Bairagi! But there was little time for explanations, and so Mr Mustafi swiftly untied Ghetu and made their escape.
As they darted across the field and into the woods, they realized that they had not the slightest clue as to which way to head. They just knew, instinctively, that they had to get out of the field and get as far away from it as they possibly could. But as they walked deeper and deeper into the woods, a thick sheath of darkness closed in upon them. The rustle of leaves under their feet seemed to echo a million other mysterious murmurs around them. Their quickened pulse, further accelerated by the occasional cries of wild beasts and the oppressive company of the uninvited, made the journey worse than onerous. Every moment stretched into infinity and threatened to be their very last.
One can then imagine their sheer exhilaration upon beholding at last a human figure at a distance! Clutching onto the flicker of hope and joy, they breathlessly ran towards the figure. And the figure too started to walk towards them. But just as it got close enough for them to be able to clearly see it, it suddenly melted into thin air. It seemed like a cruel joke to Mr Mustafi and he felt he could go on no longer.
Yet, carry on they must, for the woods – with or without vanishing humans – were not a safe place to tarry. And so they soldiered on. But no sooner had they crossed the spot where they first beheld the human figure that they began hearing a nasal whimpering behind them. Every Bengali man, woman, and child knows that ghosts speak with a nasal twang. There was no mistaking now. Mr Mustafi and Ghetu were being dogged by a ghost. As Mr Mustafi, after resisting his curiosity for a while, finally succumbed and turned around, he beheld the phantom that followed them.The horror did not bear beholding. Blanched and terrified, he recoiled in absolute horror and speedily averted his eyes in an attempt to unacknowledge what they beheld.
As he frantically looked away, he caught sight of a burning fire at a distance. For a moment, the crackling fire and the swirling smoke promised a safe refuge. Nearly seized by an urge to run towards it, he caught himself at the very next moment. He realized that the fire was most likely an ignis fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp. But no sooner had he decided that the fire was a ruse and not worth running towards, he saw a fireball hurtling towards him.
Tired of the tricks and running aimlessly, Mr Mustafi and Ghetu now decided to stand and fight. As they squared up to face the shooting ball of fire, it transformed itself into a terrible monster. The fire now appeared to come out of its enormous cavernous mouth. As the massive fire-spitting monster advanced to attack him, Mr Mustafi chose to strike the first blow. Alas, he was predictably outmatched. The monster grabbed his left arm and flung him to the ground. Mr Mustafi screamed in searing pain …
… and then he woke up. His disquiet seemed embarrassingly out of place in his bedroom that was as quiet and dark as it had been when he went to bed. Fumbling for the matches on his bedside table, he attempted to light the lamp that sat next to his fourposter bed. Just as he struck the match, he felt a stabbing pain in his left arm. Once the lamp was lit, he looked down in horror to see a long and bloody gash all along the length of his left arm – exactly where the monster had grabbed him. The pain started ebbing after a couple of days and it was nearly a week before Mr Mustafi regained full use of it. But the vividness and the memory of his nightmare never did ebb.
Was this a dream? If so, what did it reveal? Did it reveal a Freudian unconscious or, as locals would hold, the soul’s travel to the Kingdom of Dreams? Why was Ghetu in the dream? And how did the injury received in a dream remain part of the waking world? Unlike Mr Mustafi and Ghetu, we might forever remain lost in these woods.