Tutor And Ghosts

Shambu Babu, my newly appointed tutor, coughed when he entered the room, fixed his tie, tried to stand upright and said, “Listen, boy, I have heard many stories about you, so I want to tell you from the very beginning that I am not a coward.” He looked here and there in case somebody might be listening and may tell his wife, and he was not aware that I was very friendly with his wife. He continuously looked from side to side.
I always think that is the way all cowards behave. Generalizations are not absolute truths, including this one, but they certainly contain some truth. Otherwise what is the need to look from side to side when there is only one child sitting there in front of you? Yet he was looking everywhere except at me: the door, the window, and yet talking to me. It was so hilarious and so pitiable that I told him, “You listen too. You are saying that you are not a coward; do you believe in ghosts?”
He said, “What?” — and he looked all around, even behind his chair. He said, “Ghosts! Where did ghosts come into this? I am introducing myself to you, and you introduce ghosts.”
I said, “I am not introducing them yet. Tonight I will see you with a ghost.”
He said, “Really?” And he looked so afraid, he started perspiring. It was a hot summer morning, and he was so tied up, even more than I am right now.
I told him, “You simply start teaching. Don’t waste time, because I have many things to do.”
He looked at me absolutely unable to believe what I was saying — that I have many things to do…? But he was not concerned with me, or the things I had to do or not do. He said, “Yes, I will start teaching, but what about the ghosts?”
I said, “Forget about them. Tonight I will introduce you.”
He now realized that I was serious. He started trembling so much I could not hear what he was saying, I could only see his long pants shaking. After one hour of teaching me nonsense, I said, “Sir, something is wrong with your long pants.”
He said, “What is wrong?” Then he looked down and saw that they were shaking, and then they started shaking even more.
I said, “I feel that there is something inside them. I cannot see from my side, but you must know. But why are you shaking? And it is not just your long pants, it is you.”
He left without finishing the lesson he had begun, saying, “I have another appointment. I will finish the lesson tomorrow.”
I said, “Tomorrow, please come in shorts because then we can be certain whether it is the pants shaking or you. It will be in the service of truth, because right now it is a mystery. I am also wondering what kind of pants these are.”
He had a beautiful pair of pants, at least it looked as if they were his, but I don’t know whether they were his or not, because that night finished everything; he never came again. That’s how my private tutor, as he was called, left. I had told my grandmother, “Do you think anybody, at any salary you are ready to give, will be able to stand me?”
She said, “Don’t disturb things. Somehow I have managed to persuade your family, and you agreed. In fact it is only because of you that I succeeded.”
“No,” I said, “I am not going to do anything, but if something happens what can I do? And I ought to tell you this because tonight will decide whether you pay him or not.”
She said, “What? Is he going to die or something? And so soon? He only started this morning, and he has only worked one hour.”
I said, “He provoked me.”
She said, “I warned him not to provoke you.”
In the courtyard of my grandmother’s old house there was a big neem tree. That house still belonged to us after my grandmother’s death. It was really a huge, ancient tree, so big that the whole house was covered by it. When it was in season, when the neem flowers came, the fragrance was everywhere.
I don’t know whether any tree like the neem exists anywhere else because it needs a very hot climate. Its flowers have a very sharp — that’s the only word I can find, “sharp” — edge to their fragrance. I should not call it fragrance because it is bitter. The moment you smell it, it is brisk and crisp, but it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It is bound to because neem tea must be the most bitter tea in the whole world. But if you start liking it, it is just like coffee. You have to practice a little, otherwise it is not such that you can like it instantly.
Although instant coffee is available on the market you still have to learn the taste. The same is true about alcohol, and a thousand other things. You have to imbibe the taste slowly. If you have lived in a neem grove, and known the fragrance from your very first breath, then it is not bitter to you, or even if bitter it is sweet too.
In India it is thought to be a religious duty that one should plant as many neem trees as possible. Very strange! — but if you know the neem tree, its crisp freshness, its purifying power, then you will not laugh at it. India is poor and cannot afford many purifying devices, but the neem tree is a natural thing and it grows easily.
This neem tree was behind my house. I used to call my Nani’s house “my” house. The other house was for everybody else, all kinds of creatures; I was not part of it. Once in a while I would go to see my father and my mother, but rush out as quickly as was humanly possible. I mean that just as soon as the formalities were over I was gone. And they knew that I did not want to come to their house. They knew I called it “that house.” So my house, with that big neem tree, was a really beautiful place, but I don’t know who created the world, nor do I know who created this story about the neem tree either.
The story was — and it made the neem tree a real beauty — the story was that the neem tree had the power to catch hold of ghosts. How the neem tree did it I don’t know, nor did my enlightenment help either. In fact the first thing that I wanted to know after enlightenment was how the neem tree did it, but no answer came. Perhaps it did not do anything at all. In India any story becomes a truth, and soon the ultimate truth.
But the story was that if any ghost has taken possession of you, just go to the neem tree, sit under neath it, take a nail with you, the bigger the better; then say to the neem tree, “I am nailing my ghost.” Also take a hammer, or use any large stone lying around, and hit the nail hard. Once the ghost is nailed, you are free of it. There were at least one thousand nails in that tree. I really still feel sorry for it, although it is no more.
Every day people were coming and a small shop had even opened on the other side of the street to sell nails, because they were in such demand. What is more significant is that the ghost almost always disappeared. The natural conclusion was that the ghost had been nailed in the tree. Nobody ever took a nail out, because if you did the ghost would be released, and perhaps finding you close by, would get possession of you.
My family was very worried about me and that tree. They told my Nani that, “It’s good that he sleeps at your place. We have nothing against it; he eats there and it too is perfectly okay. He rarely comes to see his family, that too is okay — we know he is taken care of — but remember that tree, and this boy. If he takes a nail out he will have much misery throughout his whole life.”
And the story goes on to say that once a ghost is released from the tree you can’t nail it again because it knows the trick, and it won’t be deceived twice.
So my Nani was constantly alert that I did not go near the neem tree. But she was not aware that I was removing as many nails as possible, otherwise who was supplying the shopkeeper on the other side of the street? I had a great business going. At first even the shopkeeper was very much afraid; he said to me, “What! You have brought these nails from the tree itself?”
I said, “Yes, and no ghosts. We are friendly, very friendly.” I did not want to get him disturbed because once my grandmother knew there would be trouble. So I told him, “The ghosts love me very much. We are very friendly.”
He said, “That’s very strange. I have never heard that ghosts love small children like you. But business is business….”
I was giving him nails at half the price he could get them from the market. It was a real bargain. He thought that if I could take the nails out, and the ghosts had not disturbed me at all, then they must be very friendly to me, and he thought that it is good not to antagonize the boy. The boy himself is a nuisance, and if the ghosts are helping him, then nobody is safe from him.
He used to give me money, I used to give him nails. I told my grandmother, “To tell you the truth, it’s all hocus-pocus. There are no ghosts. I have been selling nails from that tree for almost one year now.”
She could not believe it. For a moment she could not breathe, then she said, “What! Selling the nails! You are not even supposed to come close to that tree. If your mother and father find out they will take you away.”
I said, “Don’t be worried, I am friendly with the ghosts.”
She said, “Tell me the truth. What is really happening?” She was a simple woman in that way. She was utterly innocent.
I said, “The whole thing is true, and that is what is happening. But don’t be against the poor shopkeeper, because it’s a question of business. My whole business will be finished if he escapes or becomes afraid. If you really want to protect my small business you could just mention to him, just by the way, something like, ` It is strange how these ghosts somehow love this boy. I have never seen them be friendly to anybody else. Even I cannot go near the tree.’ Just tell him when you pass by.”
In India they make a small platform of bricks around a tree, just to sit on. This tree had a big platform. It was a big tree; at least one hundred people could easily manage to sit underneath it on the platform, and at least one thousand under the shade of the whole tree. It was huge.
I said to my Nani, “Don’t disturb that poor shopkeeper, he is my only source of income.”
She said, “Income? What income? What kind of thing is happening? And I am not even told about it!”
I said, “I was afraid that you would get worried, but now I can assure you that there are no ghosts. Come with me and I will take a nail out and show you.”
She said, “No. I believe you.” That’s how people believe.
I said, “No, Nani, that is not right. Come with me. I will take the nail out. If anything wrong happens it will happen to me, and I am going to take the nails out anyway, whether you come or not. I have taken out hundreds of nails already.”
She thought for a moment and then said, “Right, I will come. I would have preferred not to, but then you will always think of me as a coward, and I could not accept that association in your mind. I am coming.”
She came. Of course in the beginning she watched from a little distance. It was a big courtyard. The house had once belonged to a small estate. It had really beautiful statues beneath the neem tree, and a few in the house too. The doors were old but beautifully carved. Asheesh would have loved those doors. They made a great noise — but that is another matter. Some ancient architect must have planned the house. The reason we could get it very cheap for my grandmother was because of the ghosts. Who wanted to live in the house with so many ghosts already living there, in the tree? We got it almost free of cost, for almost nothing, just token money. The owner was happy to get rid of it.
My father had told my Nani, “You will be alone there with, at the most, this small boy who is more trouble than any ghost. With so many ghosts and this boy too, you will be in trouble. But I know you love the river, the view, and the silence of the place.”
It was almost a temple. Nobody had lived there for years except the ghosts. I told my Nani, “Don’t be worried. Come with me but remember not to disturb the poor shopkeeper. He lives off it, I live off it; in fact many poor boys in my school are supported by me because of these ghosts, so please don’t disturb it.”
But she still stood a little way away. I told her, “Come on….” That’s what I have been doing since then, telling everybody to, “Come on, come a little closer. Don’t be worried, don’t be afraid.”
Somehow she came and saw that the whole thing was all invention. She then asked, “But how does it work? — because I have seen thousands of people, not just one. They come from faraway places and their ghosts disappear. When they come they are mad; when they go, after the nail has been stuck into the poor tree, they are perfectly sane. How does it work?”
I said, “Right now I don’t know how it works, but I will find out. I’m on the way to finding out. I cannot leave the ghosts alone.”
That tree was between my house and the rest of the neighborhood, overlooking a small street. During the night, of course, nobody passed along that street. It was very good for me; there was no disturbance at night at all. In fact, just before sunset people started rushing back to their houses before it got dark. Who knows, with so many ghosts….
The poor tutor lived just a few houses behind my Nani’s house. He had to pass along that street; there was no other way for him. I arranged it that night. It was difficult because during the day everybody passed along the street, and in the daytime it was difficult for me to persuade the ghosts to do something, but at night I could arrange it.
I just sent a boy to the tutor’s house. The boy had to go because in my neighborhood, any boy who was not ready to follow my advice, or whatsoever, was going to be in constant trouble, twenty-four hours a day, day in, day out. So whatsoever I said, they did it, knowing perfectly well that it was dangerous — because they too believed in the ghosts.
I told him, “You go to the tutor’s house and tell him that his father” — who lived in another street — “is very seriously ill, and perhaps may not survive. And say it really seriously.”
Naturally, when your father is dying who thinks of ghosts? The tutor immediately rushed out; and I had made every arrangement. I was sitting in the tree. It was my tree, nobody could object. The tutor came past with his kerosene lamp — of course he must have thought he should at least take a kerosene lamp so that the ghosts won’t come too near, or if they do he would see them and escape in time.
I simply jumped out of the tree, over the tutor! What happened next was really great, just great! Something I never expected…. His pants gave way! He ran away without his pants! I can still see him….

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