Sikdarpur, Pre-partiton Bengal
Bibhuti huffed as he trudged through Sikdarpur’s clammy paths with three fresh hilsas* in his hand.
He passed the lush paddy fields, whose harvest had tasted their farmers’ sweat and seen their endless toil under a scorching sun.
But that wasn’t Bibhuti’s concern. He had to rush before the lunch hour began at the Sikdar Mansion, where he worked for the Sikdars, the proud landlords of Sikdarpur.
It wasn’t just the scent of fresh fish which enticed them. Bibhuti had caught a whiff of the only other thing that could.
The Sikdar Mansion looked like an ivory palace located right at the heart of the town. Rumour went that it was built in the 16th century, with no expense spared. The Mansion’s marbled floors, muslin curtains, and the magnificent frescoes on its ceilings could put the finest of British residences to shame.
It was now owned by Debakarnath Sikdar, Bibhuti’s master.
Alongside a long lineage of Bengali nobles, the house had also sheltered a lengthy line of servants. Bibhuti’s forefathers had served the Sikdars for ages. Now he was in charge of the entire house staff. He panted as he hurried into the house. After handing the fish to the cooks, he rushed to meet his master.
It was ten in the morning. He knew where to find him.
Bibhuti padded into the living room like an edgy cat, where Debakarnath was busy smoking his hookah.
“Master, I found something today… in the river,” Bibhuti began.
“Huh?” Debakarnath replied with his eyes half-closed.
“Master, this might sound incredulous.”
“There are spirits in the river, guarding treasures. Seven jars of them.”
Debakarnath smirked, “Are you drunk, Bibhuti?”
“No master, I swear on my dead mother.”
Debakarnath threw his old servant a smug glance. Bibhuti had been loyal beyond doubt. Most of the staff were his family members, who followed him blindly and would do anything for him. He decided to indulge the man a little more.
“So, what did these spirits say?”
“They called out to me and showed me the jars, all filled with gold coins, jewels, and other priceless stuff. I’m not joking, sir. See this,” Bibhuti took out a pearl the size of a walnut and handed it to Debakarnath.
Born into a family that was used to wearing precious ornaments right from their birth, Debakarnath couldn’t contest the authenticity of the gem.
“Where did you get this? Did you steal, you traitorous dog?” he barked at Bibhuti.
“No, master!” Bibhuti knelt with folded palms. “I didn’t steal. It’s from one of those jars. I swear.”
“Fine, show me these jars. Remember, if you are playing me, it’s the last time you’ll be doing so.”
Word spread around the Sikdar Mansion like wildfire. On a full moon night, Bibhuti stood on the banks of the tempestuous Padma River to prove his veracity.
Debakarnath brought his entire household, bodyguards, and staff to witness the incident.
Bibhuti stepped into the glacial waters of the river with a prayer on his lips.
An hour and several underwater dives later, he sprang from the river triumphantly, “here they are, master!”
Clutching a mucky brass jar in his hands, he returned to the banks. Gasps and astounded cries filled the place as he uncovered the jar. Golden mint glittered as the moonlight caressed them.
Debakarnath stood there, stupefied. “Good work, Bibhuti. Bring me all the jars and I will reward you as per your wish.”
They brought the jars home under strict vigilance. Debakarnath twirled his moustache as the fortune was transferred to his treasury. In a buoyant voice, he summoned Bibhuti before the entire household.
“I am a man of my word,” he announced with pomp, “tell me what you desire.”
Bibhuti bit his lips, “Master….”
“Go on, don’t be shy.”
“Master, please don’t take offense; but the spirits in the river told me that I and my family own a quarter of that wealth.”
A commotion broke out in the hall, and Debakarnath’s smile evaporated like camphor.
“What did you say? You want a part of the treasure?”
“The spirits ordered so. They warned me that if I am robbed of my share, great misery shall befall the perpetrators.”
“Mangy dog,” Debakarnath bellowed, “you are threatening me in my house, before my family! You’ll pay for this.”
“Master, please listen–”
“YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN YOUR PLACE! BETAL,” Debakarnath commanded his bodyguard, “take this ungrateful wretch along with his entire family and bury them alive. NOW!”
Bibhuti cried and pleaded even as they dragged him and his people away. “Master, don’t do this… the spirits will curse your entire line. Every Sikdar child born henceforth will suffer from madness or deadly diseases. You’ll never be able to touch the treasure. Trust me!” His voice faded and died as he disappeared from Debakarnath’s sight.
Weeks passed. No one dared utter a word about Bibhuti or his kin. But a shadow had fallen over the house. An uneasy silence, an evil gelidity that threatened to swallow everyone in the mansion.
Debakarnath, however, was happy. His wife was pregnant with his first child. Debakarnath’s gunshots in the air reverberated throughout the mansion the night his son was born.
With euphoric spirits, he went to the treasury to get a fitting gift for his wife.
He flinched as soon as he uncovered one of the jars. A snake as dark as coal raised its hood at him. Debakarnath staggered and recoiled.
How did snakes get there? He wondered. Before he could scream for help, the reptile struck him.
By the time they discovered his body, the entire treasury was swarming with cobras.
That was just the beginning of the curse.
The inspector observed the girl who sat before him, gazing at the wall.
“Ms. Sikdar, why did you murder these people?” He pointed at some pictures.
“I don’t know,” she replied, “it’s a calling, I guess.”
Hilsa* – A fish species