Translated from the original Bangla novel
Bholu Jokhon Raja Holo (ভোলু যখন রাজা হল)
Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra
Early in the morning, someone was calling sweetly, “Princess, get up please. Princess.” Kashishwari smiled in her sleep. If she opened her eyes she would find her maids lined up next to her bed with water, towel, make up tray. Some would scrub her face, other would comb her hair, or help her dress.
Kashishwari yawned and opened her eyes in smoky lamplight. Alas! There were no fancy bed, no row of maids or anything. She was lying on a rickety bed under a threadbare quilt. The mosquito net was dirty, everything in the room spoke of better days. She was getting on in years. Perhaps one hundred and two. She often got confused. Still she could remember dimly, she was a king’s daughter, a king’s sister and another king’s aunt. Then she wondered how could that be. How could she be a king’s daughter and sister at the same time? And then a king’s aunt? How was that possible? Then her housemaid explained that they were different kings. That she was sister of one king, and daughter of another and aunt of a third one.
Kashishwari yawned again and tried to turn over when she saw someone crawling on the floor. It wasn’t a little child. It looked like a grown adult. Do adults crawl on the ground? She had never seen such a thing. She raised her head and called, “Hey, who are you crawling down there? What are you up to?”
The man looked and smiled, “It is me, grandma.”
“Me? Who is ‘me’? everybody around is some kind of a ‘me’. What is your name?”
“Ma’am, my name is Gadai Khatik.”
“Are you a thief? Tell me. What are you looking for? Must be that pair of dragon faced bangles?”
“No grandma, don’t you remember? Those bangles were sold for your treatment when you had that episode of high fever?”
“Oh dear! Seems like you know a lot of details. Ok I admit you are not after the bangles, then what are you trying to find? My necklace with pea shaped beads?”
“That too was sold to get your new teeth.”
“Good Lord! You seem to know everything! If not the bangles, or the necklace, what are you after then?”
“Ma’am, if I tell you, it will make you sad. I am searching for your room.”
“My room? How can you look for a room inside a room?”
“Well, is this room yours?”
“Of course it is mine. Whose else?”
“Indeed. Here, I am turning up the light. Look around and tell me if it is your bedroom?”
“Not my bedroom? What do you mean? Is it my cowshed?”
“I bow to you grandma, even half asleep, you have recognized your cowshed.”
“What nonsense! Why should it be my cowshed?”
“Well, if bedroom turns into a cowshed, it is a very sad turn of events, indeed!. Here, look up at the ceiling, you will be able to see some moonlight, even a few stars through the cracks and gaps in the tin roof.”
“Kashishwari looked around. He was right! “Why should there be tin roof over my bedroom? Are you playing some pranks?”
“No ma’am, not me. Someone else is playing a prank with you.”
Suddenly Kashishwari screamed in terror, “Oh no! What happened to my bedroom? This really seems like a cowshed. I can even smell the cow dung! Who stole my bedroom?”
“Ma’am, I didn’t do it.”
“Then who did?”
“Who knows, but I heard a rumor that some king is now going to stay in your house and that is why they dumped you in this cowshed.”
“King? What king? And why should that worthless king live in my house? And why should I be here when I have such a large house? Tell me. Am I dreaming?”
Gadai scratched his head, “No grandma, you are not dreaming. They really found a king in Chandraghoshpur and he will arrive soon. That is why this arrangement.”
“A king from Chandraghoshpur? You stupid! I too belong to the same lineage. My father was a king, my brother was another, and my nephew was also a king. You think I am some unimportant person? And what king? I am the sole owner of my house.”
“That is what we all knew also, but now it seems Bhabesh’s son Rupesh is going to be the king and gets to sit on the throne.”
“Did you say Bhabesh’s son? Is he still alive?”
“That’s what we hear.”
“But, Bhabesh is like my grandson. So the king will be my great grandson. Will it look proper if I stay in a cowshed? Tell me, you stupid oaf, are you behind all this?”
“Never! Grandma! I am just a petty thief. Nothing more. I saw the lamplight in the cowshed and dropped in to see what was going on. Then I find you! Daughter of Danesh Chowhury, sister of Satyesh Chowdhury, aunt of Tejesh Chowdhury and grandma of Bhabesh Chodhury!”
“See? What a humiliation! Me in this cowshed? Is that fair? Doesn’t it damage the king’s prestige? You tell me. Such a huge house, yard, seven eight large rooms. I wasn’t going to kick out my great grandson. We both can stay in the house. Please, why don’t you arrange it for me? In this place I will surely catch pneumonia and die.”
“How can I do that? It is not only the king, but also all his ministers and generals, they too need some place to stay. After all they are king’s men.”
“Really? Sounds like the happy days are here again! Last I knew the king had no assets to speak of. Now suddenly all this?”
“Everything is possible grandma. A molehill can become a mountain too. And that’s when danger strikes. Well, grandma, it is almost dawn. We can’t manage well in daytime. I better get going?”
“You are leaving? Ok. But dear, before you leave, do me a favor. Cover me well with this quilt. It gets a bit chilly in the early morning.”
Gadai tucked the old woman with much care and left with a sigh.
In the morning, maid Manti shook Kashishwari awake, “Grandma, get up. It is late already.”
Kashishwari opened her eyes, “Say, Manti, Last night I dreamed that a thief was telling me that I have been moved into a cowshed?”
“It is true indeed. You are in a cowshed.”
“That is so unfair! We should call the elders of the village and complain.
“Oh, no, no! Don’t get into that. The house is full of huge muscular goons. I don’t like their looks at all. I tried to complain about something minor, and the guys looked at me in such way I was petrified!”
Bholu had to bathe early in the morning. Then he was made to wear a clean, new cloth. A shawl and a huge turban were added too. Fifteen or sixteen giant sized men accompanied him to the palace ruins in the jungle.
The ruins had been cleaned up as much as possible. A clean sheet was spread on the iron throne. The holy fire was lit in front.
Bholu hadn’t slept well last night. A man woke him up and talked some nonsense. Rest of the night Bholu spent thinking about what he said, but couldn’t find any solution.
Now he felt sleepy and was yawning. He was also hungry, but supposed to be fasting till the coronation.
The man sitting on his right had huge muscular arms, wide chest and killer looks in his eyes. He was glancing at Bholu from time to time. The smoke from the holy fire and burnt ghee was smarting Bholu’s eyes, but it didn’t seem to affect the man. His name was Jagu. All of a sudden he poked a huge finger in Bholu’s tummy and gnashed his teeth, “Do you know how much we had to spend for this? Three hundred rupees per kg ghee, honorarium to the priest, and a piece of dhoti for him too, then the feast—for lunch, pulao and chicken curry, for dinner, loochis and spicy lamb curry. If we don’t get all this compensated, your kingship will be history!”
Bholu was stunned. What expense, why compensation, he could not understand. Who was spending all this money and why? He didn’t want to be the king. Somehow he smelled danger. His heart beat a little faster.
At last Abidyathakur finished his long drawn worship. The holy ash was smeared on Bholu’s forehead. Then everybody carried him to the throne. Abidyathakur sang some more hymns and sprinkled holy water on him. Then all the goons half-heartedly cheered, “Long live the King!”
Bholu didn’t feel like a king at all. In fact he was deeply worried and a little bit scared too. He couldn’t figure out the intention of these guys, he did not even know if they were the good guys or the bad ones.
He had even lost appetite for the lunch. The pulao and the chicken curry were tasteless on his tongue. He just ate a little bit and got up.
After the meals, another bald headed goon came to him with a big smile, “you turned a nice trick by becoming a king out of nothing. Well, good job. Now start keeping your part of the bargain. We don’t have much time to sit around. Start from tomorrow.”
Bholu asked in great surprise, “What work are you referring to? What do you want me to do?”
“What? The real job is meant for you. Start right away. We are all behind you.”
Abidyathakur hurriedly stepped in the middle of the two and said, “Don’t hurry him like that. Let him settle down a bit. These jobs have to be done in a cool head. Rushing through may spoil all our plans. Let him rest a day or two and look around the area.”
Bholu realized these guys wanted him to do something but he had no idea what it was.
Later that evening Abidyathakur took him aside and told him the story, which made Bholu’s hairs stand on end!
Apparently Bholu has to look for some hidden secret treasure. It seemed only Bholu could do it and nobody else. If he found the treasure, the goons had promised to quit their criminal activities and get steady jobs in the palace. After all, the king did need bodyguards and securities. However, if he failed in his search, the goons would be very unhappy with him.
Poor Bholu started to tremble. He thought perhaps he had malaria. That night he didn’t eat anything and went straight to bed.
Around midnight someone again shook him awake. Bholu saw the same man sitting at the foot of his bed, “Well how do you like being king so far?”
“It is awful! I’m supposed to find a hidden treasure, or I will be in deep trouble.”
“So there is some risk involved. After all that is why they were looking for you all around.”
“But what do I know of hidden treasures? When I lived here with my dad, it was in a small house,” Bholu sounded vexed.
“Yes. I know, near the pond in Palpara.”
“Right! You seem to know a lot.” Bholu said, “But I don’t remember ever visiting the palace. How would I know where to look for this treasure? What a fix!”
“But those guys need that treasure. They too have to live. There is much competition in crime nowadays.”
“Are they all criminals?
“Of course! They all left just now to loot in Paldighi.”
“Pal dighi…the name sounds familiar. I’m sure I heard it somewhere.”
“Sure you have heard. That is where they murdered Bhabesh Chowdhury. Do you know why? Because he didn’t tell them his son’s name or whereabouts.”
“For me? But why?”
“You must have bad karma! Your trident birthmark is the problem for both you and your father.”
“What happens if you are born with a trident birthmark?”
“That is a long story. Just let me tell you. You are in grave danger, whether you find the treasure or not.”
“Oh man! I’m shaking like a leaf.”
“That is natural. With dangers all around, of course you will be trembling.”
“Then shall I run away from here?”
“Probably a good idea, but there are guards all around. Besides Gokul, Nobu, Nitai, there are also Damodar, Haripada and Brindaban. But you can try.”
“How did you come in? Are you with them?”
“No brother. I am too insignificant for them. But I am used to sneaking in and out. Many years of experience.”
Bholu just sighed.
The man said, “You aren’t giving up already, are you?”
“If there is no way to escape, then …”
“But why do you want to run from here? Legally, this house belongs to you. Kashishwari has no one but you. After her death you are the sole owner of this place.”
“My house? How so?”
“It is a bit complicated, but easy once understood.”
“Kashishwari is the sister of your great grandfather Satyesh Chowdhuri . So she is your great grand aunt. She was widowed at an early age. So her father Danesh Chowdhury deeded the house in her name. So this is your house too. Couple of weeks before they grabbed you, they picked up Kasishwari in her bed while she was asleep and dumped her in the cowshed so the whole gang could occupy the house. Kashishwari is hundred and two years old. She has no other relative. If you go to the terrace you will see the shed towards west. It is a ramshackle place, the tin roof leaks in the rain. Poor woman is really suffering in the cold. But she can’t do anything. Her own great grand nephew has occupied her house.”
“But that is totally unfair. It’s a shame.”
“You are her only relative alive.”
“Can I go see her?”
“Not openly. That will be dangerous. But there is a guava tree close to the terrace. Can you climb a tree?”
“Then go down the tree, there are many shrubs on the ground, you can easily get cover.”
Getting off from the third floor with the help of the guava tree was no problem for Bholu. Even though he was not book smart, climbing trees was one thing he was expert in. Down on the ground too there was plenty of cover and he had no problem reaching the cowshed.
There was one dim lamp lit in the shed. Doors and windows were non-existent. It was not at all safe for an old woman to stay there all by herself.
In the dim light he felt pity looking at the skeletal thin woman. Bholu too had no living relatives. If this lady was really related to him, then she was the only one.
Softly and lovingly Bholu called, “Auntie? Auntie!”
“Who is it?”Kashishwari opened her eyes. In spite of her age, traces of her previous beauty could still be seen in her face.
“I am Bholu, auntie.”
“Bholu? Who is Bholu?”
“My proper name is Rupesh Chowdhury, I am Bhabesh Chowdhiry’s son?
Her toothless smile was the sweetest Bholu had ever seen.
“Oh, my! You are the good-looking son of Bhabesh, you are the one with that trident birthmark! So, you’ve come to see this old woman? I am so thrilled! Heard you’ve become the king now? That’s why they made me move here.”
“No auntie. I didn’t occupy our house. The ones who did have nothing to do with me. But you don’t worry auntie. I will take you back to your own house.”
“Will you? Really? I am really suffering here. It gets so cold in the early mornings. Then stray dogs and cats come in; all kinds of insects roam around, ants, mosquitoes…”
Bholu could feel an intense rage growing in him. It was coming out like flames from his ears and nose. He was so angry that he forgot all about his fear.
He took Kashishwari’s thin hands in his own and promised, “You watch me auntie. I am going to do something about this!”
“Say, you are really Bhabesh’s son? You are not playing tricks on me, are you?”
“No, auntie. Because of my birthmark, my dad was forced to leave the village, to save me. I was saved but dad died in the hands of those bandits.”
“Then come and sit by me for awhile. I want to tell you something, in private.”
“What is it auntie?”
“Come closer. Around here even the air has ears.”
Bholu bent over her. Kashishwari whispered in his ear, “The trident is on the spire of the temple of Shiva and the key is in the bottom of the pond. Understood?”
“No, auntie. I don’t get it.”
“But I don’t know any more than this either. This is all I’ve been told by my grandparents. You seem honest. So I am just passing it along. Perhaps you will be able to find the treasure.”
“OK auntie. I’ll remember them. You rest now. Whether I find the treasure or not, I have found you. My only relative.”
“Bless you my son, what you said made my heart fill with peace and joy. Long live.”
After saying good-bye to Kashishwari, Bholu didn’t return to his room. He kept walking straight and reached the fountain in the garden. He decided to sit there and do some thinking. He was not scared anymore. In stead he could feel the heat of his anger.
He was so deep in thinking that he didn’t realize when the darkness had receded and the pale light of dawn appeared.
Suddenly he heard, “Seems like a new face here!”
Bholu saw a middle aged man brushing his teeth with a twig.
Bholu sighed, “I guess you may call me that.”
“So, why here? Looking for buried treasure?”
Bholu smiled, “You can say that too.”
The man sat and chewed his brush, “So many people come here searching for treasure.”
Bholu said, “Yes, I know. Do you live around here?”
“Yes. Seven generations of my folks have been living in Chandraghoshpur.”
“Great! Then you must know about the trident on the temple? How come it’s missing?”
Brahmagopal chewed his twig brush, “There was a trident alright, haven’t seen it lately. Perhaps someone stole it.”
“Stealing from that high? That too a rusted iron thing? Who would do that?”
“That I can’t tell. Nowadays thieves have no sense whatsoever. Only the other day someone stole my old broom!”
Bholu gravely said,”Hmm!”
“Why are you interested in that trident?”
“Why? I am not sure.”
“You don’t look like an outsider? Where are you coming from?”
Bholu looked at the man, “My name is Rupesh Chowdhury. I am the son of Bhabesh Chowdhury. I had some relationship with this palace.”
Brahmagopal was startled, “What are you saying? You are Rupesh? The one with the trident mark?”
Brahmagopal almost dropped his brush. He picked it up and stared at Bholu for a long time, “Your clothes are shabby but otherwise you do look like a royal person. You do resemble your dad. But your dad…”
“He is not anymore. I heard he died about six years ago, in the hands of robbers while trying to save me.”
“That’s what we heard too my son. So, have you decided to come back here now?”
Bholu shook his head, “I am not sure. I only know that I have some job to do here.”
“What job my son?”
“Search for some hidden treasure” Bholu smiled.
Brahmagopal chewed his brush more, “If there is a treasure, they say, you are the legal owner of it. You do know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, but that is the reason my father was killed, and perhaps I will have to die too.”
“Don’t say that, my son. But if you are looking for the trident, I can tell you, it is with me.”
“With you?” Bholu was surprised.
“Yes, my son. If you want I can get it for you.”
“Let it be, for now. I don’t know what I am supposed to do with it.”
Brahmagopal sighed, “Perhaps you won’t believe it, but I heard a divine order to remove the trident. I don’t know its purpose either. There is one more item in my possession, I don’t know if I should tell you about it.”
Bholu stared ahead for a long while, then said, “I’ve heard of a key in the middle of the pond.”
Brahmagopal sat stunned for a while, “Whatever doubt I had about you is now totally gone. Yes, you are the man. That key too is with me. I received another message to bring it out of the pond.”
Bholu smiled again, “Don’t know the use of the key either. For now, you hang on to that one also.”
“Bhabesh was like my younger brother. So you are like my own child. If you need any help, please call me. Our relationship with the Chowdhurys goes back many years. That is why I like to come here. You know, even though in ruins, this old palace still seems alive to me.”
Bholu sat in silence.
Brahmagopal stood up, “My name is Brahmagopal. Call me if you need me. My house is right in front of Pathakpara. Everyone knows.”
After Brahmagopal left, Bholu too rose slowly and walked into the courtroom. Half of the ceiling was gone. The rest was hanging dangerously. Bholu stared at it for some time. Even though in ruins, he was developing a sort of attraction towards the place. After all, it belonged to his forefathers.
He sat on the throne for a long time with his eyes shut. Auntie had told him about the trident and the key. But didn’t say what to do with them. He was aware of serious danger but didn’t feel particularly worried or afraid.
After sitting for a long time, he got up and walked around the room. He noticed the round disc stuck on the back of the throne.
Suddenly there was a roar nearby, ”Here you are, my lord. Are you planning to escape? Or do you want to keep the treasure all to yourself?
Two bandits were standing near the door.
Bholu was not startled, nor afraid. He looked in their eyes and asked, “Why? Am I your slave?”
They did not expect this reply from timid, soft Bholu. Both the goons gaped at him in surprise.
One of them told the other, “Oh my! He has changed his attitude! Hey, just because you are a king, do you think you can lord it over us? Come along with us right now. Or we will have to tie you up and drag you.”
Immediately both of them grabbed Bholu on both sides.
Bholu shook off both, “Follow me quietly, two steps behind. If you touch me again, I will break your hands.”
The goons were surprised. One of them was almost going to take up on Bholu but changed his mind and walked on behind him.
Coming home Bholu saw the other robbers standing around looking worried. Raghu came forward. “Where were you? Who gave you permission to go outside?”
Yesterday Bholu thought these guys were giant sized. Today he realized they were not all that large or scary. They looked just like ordinary folks one saw all around. Actually yesterday he was scared, and saw them through his fear. Today the fear was gone and suddenly the goons became half the size.
Bholu stared at Raghu and said in an icy voice, “ Listen closely, I don’t follow anybody’s order. You are uncouth, without manners. Next time I’ll have to teach you some manners.”
Raghu was so stunned that no word came out of his mouth. Abidyathakur came forward, Raghu said, “Did you hear him? The boy has a death wish.”
Abidyathakur said, “Why are you people yelling at him? He just went to the palace to look around. Just let him. How will he find the loot otherwise?”
“What if he finds it and runs? No way. One of us will always follow him, wherever he goes.”
Bholu also showed his temper, “Nobody is going to follow me. I will go wherever I want, whenever I want.”
Raghu was going to reply something in kind, but looking at Bholu’s eyes, he changed his mind. He told Abidyathakur, “Have you seen his eyes? They are on fire. Looks like a different person altogether.”
“Well, he is a king, after all. Has to have some temper. You can’t order him around.”
Suddenly Bholu said, “Mr. Thakur, I have a question.”
“What is it?”
“There is an old lady in the cowshed. I hear she is the original owner of this house. Your folks have forced her out. I wish you bring her back to her own room.”
Immediately Raghu and his disciples objected, “How can you do that? We don’t have enough place for ourselves, we are all crowded…”
Bholu shook his head, “I don’t care. But this is my final word. You bring her back or forget about hidden treasure. I’m not going to search for anything.”
One bald headed guy came towards Bholu, ready to punch him, “Do you think it’s your father’s property? You think you can get away with whatever you demand? Who do you think you are?”
Bholu too was not to be pushed around. He looked at the man with fire in his eyes, “I am the king, and yes, this property does belong to my father. You will have to do whatever I order you to.”
The guy threateningly stepped closer, “Say one more word and I will personally change the geography of your face!”
Abidyathakur quickly pulled him back, “Whom are you threatening? Threats are of no use here. Can’t you see he is not at all afraid of you? Now go and vacate the south facing room. Then go pick up that crone, along with her bed and dump her there. Go!”
The man was still not pacified, “Oh yea? Just like that? Where are we going to stay?”
Bholu said calmly, “Why? In the cowshed, of course.”
The man was now trembling in rage, “Me in a cowshed? You dare speak like that to me. Come, let’s settle this right now…”
Bholu had never engaged in any type of fight in his whole life. He always stayed away from any kind of altercation. But seeing Kashishwari’s sad state last night, something happened inside. When he saw the goon coming towards him like a mad elephant, he raised his right hand and landed a heavy slap on his face.
Bholu never knew that slaps could sound so loud, like a thunderclap. When the guy fell on the ground with that one slap, Bholu himself was utterly shocked.
It seemed not only Bholu, all the other goons too were stunned. No one rushed at Bholu, nobody even objected. The guy on the ground also didn’t try to get up.
After awhile Abidyathakur said, “When would you guys get some sense in your heads? Now go, get that old hag back home.”
Three or four goons immediately said, “Yes sir” and ran out.
Within fifteen minutes, Kashishwari was reinstated in the best room in the house. Nobody raised any more objections.
Bholu slowly climbed the stairs to the attic on the terrace. He clearly sensed that he wasn’t the old self anymore. It was as if something was boiling inside him. He felt the heat of it all over his body. He wondered if he could live peacefully with this new hotheaded Bholu.
Perhaps you’ve heard about ‘magic ears’? It was something like that. Sitting in the attic, Bholu could clearly hear Raghu speaking to Abidyathakur in the ground floor, “What is wrong with the kid? Has he gone mad? The kid we picked up was so quiet and simple. Never said a word in rage. And now look at him. Did you see his eyes? Red like fire. Absolutely no trace of fear. Such people are difficult to control.”
Abidyathakur said, “Didn’t I tell you? He has the royal blood in his veins. Right after coronation rites it has started to act up. Don’t provoke him anymore. Just agree to whatever he says. Let him first find the treasure. Then you can do whatever you want with him.”
“But, till then we have to take his insults? Nobody yet has dared to speak to me like that. And this puny boy…”
“Do you understand diplomacy? If you did, you wouldn’t need me to give you advice. What if you hurt him bad or kill him in your fight for revenge, then how will we ever find the treasure? There is plenty of time later for revenge. If you mess him up now, we will never see our loot.”
Suddenly the magic ear shut off. Bholu couldn’t hear anymore. Just as well, if it were on all the time he would have gone crazy listening to everyone’s yackety yacks. He heard exactly what he needed to hear. He realized that the danger was still around. But still he did not feel any fear. Somehow he felt as if he was not alone anymore. He could also feel physically stronger. So far his brain had been somewhat dull, but now he could feel much smarter and full of ideas. Yesterday the fear had taken away his appetite. Today he suddenly felt very hungry.
The original novel "Bholu Jokhon Raja Holo" (ভোলু যখন রাজা হল) by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay was first pubished in 2015 by Ananda, Kolkata.
Illustrated by Ananya Das. Author of several books and an illustrator, Ananya Das is based in Pennsylvania.