Folk-Lore/Volume 31/Review/Sajher Bhog

Sājher Bhog, by Rai Sahib Dinesh Chandra Sen. Calcutta, Śiśir Publishing House, 1919. 1 rupee 4 annas net.

Only last spring the University of Calcutta published The Folk-Literature of Bengal, a reprint of lectures delivered to the University by Mr. Sen as Ramtanu Lahiri Research Fellow. In that book Mr. Sen gratefully expressed his obligations to Mr. Dakṣiṇā Rañjan Majumdār, the Grimm of Bengal. But he modestly omitted to state that he too is a collector of Bengali folk-lore. Indeed, as a lifelong student of popular poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, his attention must have been forcibly drawn to the ancient legends of local deities imbedded in this artless old verse. In his Sājher Bhog he has published six stories which are not without interest to collectors of folk-tales. Two of these indeed are modified versions of tales already recorded. One is taken from the Kathā-saritā sāgara, and another from a Persian source to which Mr. Sen has not given a reference. It is to be hoped that he will repair this omission in a second edition. A third tale is taken from the English of the famous missionary Carey, and a fourth is little more than an amusing anecdote of how an Amir of Afghanistān was misled as to the taste of the Indian mangoe. There remain two excellent tales which the author heard in his childhood, true specimens of village folklore in Eastern Bengal. The first (and best) of these is the horrific tale of the Bhūta Tāpāi. I make a brief summary of it as an example of the wares Mr. Sen has to offer to his readers.

A middle-aged Brāhmaṇ, one cold winter’s night, was crossing a wide plain on his way home. The wind blew shrill and chill, and the wayfarer, Śibu by name, trembled in every limb. Suddenly, on the left of his path, he saw a fire blazing cheerily, and round it a number of people enjoying its warmth. What a temptation to warm himself in good company before continuing his homeward journey! He came near, and feeling the genial influence of the flame from afar, incautiously shouted “Tāpāi, tāpāi,” meaning “I am warmed, I am warmed.”

Alas, the creatures round the fire were maleficent ghosts, hideous, distorted, grinning, sworn enemies of mankind, shouting obscene words with the nasal utterance which marks their race. Moreover, one of them was named Tāpāi, and the ghostly assemblage were mightily vexed at a mortal’s familiar use of their comrade’s name. They threatened him with instant death. The Brāhmaṇ, in terror, felt for his sacred thread, but it had slipped down. He strove to repeat the holy names of the gods, but his memory was paralysed with fear. But finally the thread came into his hand, and taking heart, he boldly asserted that he knew Tāpāi quite well, seeing that Tāpāi and his ancestors for three generations had been the slaves of his family. “Well,” cried Tāpāi, “if he can tell me the names of my ancestors, I will become his bond servant.” To which the keen-witted priest replied: “How can I be expected to know the names of all the slaves of my ancestors? But I have them recorded in a ledger at home.” On which he was allowed to depart on condition that he returned on the third day to answer to Tāpāi’s challenge. Otherwise not only he but his family would perish at the hands of the man-eating bhūtas.

The Brāhmaṇ went home, saved for the moment, indeed, but filled with despair for the future. For two miserable days the wretched priest could neither eat nor sleep, and his wife and daughter and infant son shared his anxiety. The third night, when his family slept, the miserable man went forth to hang himself in the jungle rather than face his ghostly foes. But on the very tree he chose for his suicide were two dark forms. He shuddered, he stood still, but he listened. It was Tāpāi and his wife, and the latter, with true feminine curiosity, was asking her husband the names of his forebears. Of course Tāpāi had to tell, as every husband does when his wife presses him. He recited the following verse:

And his son Chhāramu,
And his son Āpāi,
And his son Tāpāi.

Such was the verse which the Brāmaṇ committed to memory, and groping his way home through the dark forest, faced life with a new confidence. Next evening he went to the ghostly rendezvous, and the unlucky Tāpāi followed him home, his submissive slave. But there was one condition. Tāpāi would perform all tasks given to him from dawn till nightfall. But he must be kept occupied all the time. At first the condition seemed easy to fulfil. The bhūta was ordered to build a palace, raise a noble temple, dig a tank, procure a bridegroom for the Brāhmaṇ’s daughter, etc., etc. But there are limits to human desires and human inventiveness, and even the Brāhmaṇ was, in spite of all the luxury with which he was now surrounded, a harassed and perplexed mortal. He was like to die of sheer worry and anxious thought, when his wife came to his rescue. She plucked a curly hair from her husband’s eyebrow. “Give that to the creature,” she said, “and tell him to straighten it.” The poor demon, for once, was at his wit’s end. He pulled the hair, and pressed it, and wetted it. But all in vain. The moment it was released, it curled up again. Finally, at nightfall, the good Brahman released Tāpāi, as Prospero released Ariel, and then he and his family lived happily afterwards!

It is only fair to say that this crude summary gives a very faint idea of the primitive charm of the tale as told by Mr. Sen in his racy Bengali, with all manner of delightful details of domestic life in an old-fashioned Hindu household. This is equally true of all the tales, which have all a pleasant homely humour which is singularly evocative of country life in Eastern India. It is to be hoped that Mr. Sen, instead of rewriting tales from the Persian, will collect more genuine village tales like that of Tāpāi the bhūtā. Many Anglo-Indian children have heard such stories from ayah and bearer, and would be glad to have a permanent record of such primitive and probably ancient legends.