Last year, when the plague entered Prayag and thousands of the poor as well as people in the homes of several merchants, zamindars, lawyers and deed writers started dying every day, the populace started abandoning their homes. Even a few of the doctors left town. In one of the mohallas, there lived a famous zamindar called Thakur Vibhav Singh. He too wanted to move back to his ancestral village, which was about five miles from Prayag. He had no family living with him save for his wife and a five-year-old son.

It was Sunday early morning when everybody started preparing for the journey. In her haste, Thakur Sahib’s wife took a bath with cold water. Soon enough, she caught a fever. Hakim Sahib was called and some medicines were administered, but they had no effect on the patient.

Towards the evening, one of her tonsils flared up, and that got Thakur Sahib and the servants very worried. Now an allopathic Doctor Sahib was summoned. He took one look at the Thakur’s wife and pronounced that it was the plague, all of you should leave the house. The doctor left the house right after his diagnosis.

Thakur Sahib was faced with a dilemma. He could neither stay nor leave. If my staying here helped Bahuji in any way, he told himself, I’d even risk my life. But when no medicine works on this disease, why should I put my life on the line by staying? Following this train of thought, he stood up, ready to go. But his son, Naval Singh, looked at his mother and began to cry, refusing to leave her side.

Thakur Vibhav Singh was the kind of the man who would have stayed back out of his love for his spouse. He was a kind man by nature. Why did he act so cruelly, then? There must have been a reason for it, but at the time, he told no one what it was. Yes, he kept saying that my wife is dying and there is no harm if I lose my life along with hers, but I want my son to be safe, so that my bloodline does not perish. But the poor child did not understand such things! He was so tied by his love for his mother that all he did was sit next to her and cry.

When Thakurainji opened her eyes next morning, teary-eyed, she looked at her son and said, “My child, Naval Singh, don’t grieve for me, go to the other house. I’ll join you there as soon as I am better.” But the child did not heed any cajoling, nor did he comprehend the consequences of staying in such a place. Bahuji lost consciousness soon after her speech, but the child continued sitting next to her and sobbing.

A little later, the Doctor, Hakim and the Vaid came, but none of their medicines made any difference; it was afternoon by then. Around dusk, Bahuji’s body had become limp and just by looking at her face from afar, the Doctor passed the verdict, “She is dead. Make preparations to take her away.”

Upon hearing this, the servants started wailing and the neighbours congregated. All that one could hear was, “Cruel Death has taken the life of even this poor woman. Did her beauty, kindness and unmatched fidelity have no effect on it? Do these qualities not affect its decisions?”

A neighbour, who was a poet, sang a couplet to express his grief about how Death spares no one. The women folk agreed. “Yes, yes, look how that child is wailing! Did Death have no mercy even after seeing his misery? How will he cope with the loss of his mother? Unlucky boy, such misfortune at such a tender age!”

In the meantime, Thakur Sahib had fallen in a faint. The servants sprinkled rose water on his face and he came to in a while. Many of Thakur Sahib’s friends were not present there at the time. His neighbours who had congregated there advised that his wife’s corpse be taken to the banks of the Ganga for last rites. But Doctor Sahib, who had returned, said the first priority should be to leave the house, the rest can be done later.

Thakur Sahib liked the doctor’s proposal because he had wanted to leave the previous night itself, but had stayed back to fulfil his son’s request. But was it possible to part the boy from his mother even at this time? No, Naval Singh refused to leave his dead mother’s side. Even as Thakur Sahib tried to pull his son away, the boy kept going back to his mother. Falling on her body and looking at her half-open eyes, he called for her, “Mata, Mata!”

His weeping made the hearts of onlookers ache and caused their eyes to well up. Finally, Thakur Sahib picked him up in his arms and left for the other house in his car. As the car was leaving, Thakur Sahib took one last look at his wife’s corpse and whispered something in English, of which I remember one word – “farewell”. All the servants left with Thakur Sahib except for an old one, who stayed behind to guard the house.

The Thakur’s neighbours also left for their homes, grieving. One of them, however, was so touched by everything that had happened that he sat down right on the spot and started asking himself what his duty as a neighbour was. In our country, he ruminated, tradition dictates that no one eats or bathes till the corpse remains in the mohalla. Only when all arrangements for the cremation have been made and the corpse has been taken away do people start going about their daily business.

But the current situation confused him, for now that Thakur Sahib had got scared and run away to his other house, what would happen to the corpse? Would the body of this pious lady be taken on a thela to the cremation ground? He expressed his concerns to the old servant, who suggested that they wait and see what Thakur Sahib’s orders were.

The neighbour, too, realised that this was the most prudent course of action and sat there quietly, mulling over the ways of the world and the transience of human relationships. He remembered dohas by Nanak and Surdas that resonated with the truth of the moment. But he couldn’t sing them, considering the sombreness of the situation, and only hummed the tunes. Just then, two of Thakur Sahib’s servants returned and informed the old servant, Satya Singh, we will be taking over guard duties and Thakur Sahib has summoned you. He is at Matan Merchant’s home, go there.

When Satya Singh reached the Merchant’s house, he found that some of Thakur Sahib’s friends – lawyers and moneylenders – present, and were advising Thakur Sahib to go to his native place. Don’t get into the hassles of cremation and last rites, the servants can take care of those things because tradition can be upheld only till there is life. When Thakur Sahib sought the priest’s advice on the matter, the holy man deemed it wise to agree. He said even the Shastras of Dharma dictated that because of the plague, anyone could cremate the body right now, and when the time was right, they could make an effigy of the departed and perform the last rites.

As soon as he heard this, Thakur Sahib said to the priest, “Here, take these thirty rupees and eight of my servants. Please get the last rites done and grant me permission to go to my ancestral home.” Bidding his friends goodbye, Thakur Sahib left for his village with his son. The priest took eight servants, including Satya Singh, to Thakur Sahib’s house.

It was evening by the time the preparations were completed. When the nayin started wrapping Bahuji in the shroud, she said, “Her body is not cold at all and her eyes are also half open. I am a little scared.”

The priest and servants dismissed her apprehensions saying, “You are mistaken! How can there be any signs of life in the dead? Now wrap her quickly, so that we can take her to the shores of the Ganga for her rites. It is getting late; do you intend to kill us along with the dead? Thakur Sahib has abandoned her body and we have been left in a pickle. Let’s wrap all of this up as soon as we can and get home. We don’t want to burn with her!”

Then Satya Singh said, “If the nayin has a doubt, we should check once. Maybe Bahuji is still alive. After all, Thakur Sahib left in a hurry and the Doctor only saw her from a distance. Given the circumstances, we should check properly.”

The servants roared in unison, “Satya Singh, you have gone senile! This is impossible! Don’t tarry, let’s go.” Saying this, they placed the corpse on the bier and balanced it on their shoulders. Making Satya Singh’s words a lie, and chanting “Ram Naam Satya” (Ram’s name is true), they left for Dashashwamedh Ghat.

On the way, one of the servant’s said, “It’s already seven in the evening, it’ll be midnight by the time the last rites are done.”

Another said, “For sure it’ll take all night for the corpse to burn.”

The third said, “It would have been better had Thakur Sahib ordered us to just abandon the body.”

The fourth one said, “I am of the opinion that those who die of plague, cholera or any epidemic should be set afloat without cremation.”

The fifth said, “If the priest is in agreement, we can do that.”

The priest, who feared going to the cremation grounds at night, said, “If that’s what the five of you suggest, I agree. Especially, since Thakur Sahib will need to perform the last rites after making an effigy in any case, it is not essential to perform them right away.”

The sixth and seventh very helpfully suggested throwing the corpse in water. “Thakur Sahib can be told that the last rites were performed,” they said.

Satya Singh, however, was true to his name – truthful and honest. He said, “I don’t think that will be the right thing to do. It is our duty to fulfil Master’s wishes and perform his wife’s last rites. If you don’t agree with me, let me go back home now. Then you will be free to do and say whatever you want to. If Master asks me, I’ll only speak the truth.”

This scared the other servants. They said, “Take as much as you want of the thirty rupees that Master has given, but don’t let him know of this”’ To this, Satya Singh said, “I am not dishonest. I can never do this. I am going back home now; you lot can do whatever it is you want.”

Saying this, the old servant turned around and headed homewards. Worried, the others started asking the priest for advice.

“What do we do? The old man will reveal all our secrets and put us all in a bind,” said one.

To which the priest replied, “Don’t worry. It’s good that he left. Now you are free to do whatever you want. I’ll tell Thakur Sahib that we performed the cremation; he has more faith in me than in that old man. I will tell him that of the thirty rupees, seven were spent on buying the bier and shroud. The seven of you can take two rupees each and give the remaining nine to me as donation. Immerse the corpse in the water and then spend some time on the road chanting Ram’s name. Go home only after that, so that the neighbours are convinced that all the rites were performed.”

The servants were pleased at this and, after dividing the twenty-three rupees amongst themselves and the priest, took the corpse to a crematorium so deserted that there was no dom asking for the shroud or maha brahmin asking for alms. They were in such a haste that they immersed the corpse along with the bier and ran up the stairs of the ghat, because the night had its dangers. Besides, they also feared getting arrested by the government guard as the government had banned the immersion of unburnt corpses. That was how the dishonest and unkind servants came back home with that unfaithful priest.

Now, hear the saga of the corpse. The sticks of the bier were as thick and light as the paddles of a boat, and the body of the woman had shrunken to such an extent that her weight didn’t drown the bier – it floated on the water like a bamboo raft.

Had it been daytime, onlookers would have been upset by such a sight, and crows would have tried to peck at the body. But as it was night, the bamboo raft kept floating – unseen and untouched – and, crossing the Triveni, went almost five miles away from where it had been immersed. This was no surprise. What was surprising though was that the waters of Ganga proved so immensely beneficial for the body – one that others had considered dead – that it stirred what little life was left in it. Bahuji gained consciousness.

She was shocked on finding herself in this situation. Even though the fever had left her, the swollen tonsils caused much pain and she kept losing consciousness. But when the omniscient god is watching out for you, your life is saved one way or the other.

Eventually, the raft floated to a spot where a gigantic karonda tree was growing on the shore, and a heavy branch dipped its fingers in the river, offering its flowers and fruits to Gangaji. The raft bumped into the branch and got entangled in it. A thorn pierced the offending tonsil like an arrow, bursting it. Pain coursed through Bahuji’s body, rousing her. She turned her face to find herself under the shade of the branch, and it gave her immense peace and happiness.

It was a new dawn. The riverside was lush with a profusion of lotuses, and there were birds chirping on the trees. The sight made Bahuji forget about the state of her body, making her wonder whether she was in heaven or dreaming, and hoping that if she had died, may god forever keep her in this state.

But happiness is momentary in this world. The birds flew away after a while and the waves crushed the lotuses. By now the bier had also started swaying more, and Bahuji was getting uncomfortable. But what could she do? Her body wasn’t strong enough for her to swim to the shore even though there was a beautiful ghat just a few yards away. She assumed that, thinking her to be dead, her husband had immersed her. But he shouldn’t have been in such a haste, she thought to herself. He should have at least got me examined thoroughly.

It is fine if he has abandoned me; he will find a number of women to marry. But what will happen to my innocent son? How will he bear the pain of being separated from me? Ah! He must be crying himself to an early grave! Where will he find a mother like me – a stepmother will only give him more grief. Oh almighty! If I am dead, then please bless my son with peace and give me a body that will free me of this state and help me meet my beloved son.

No sooner had she said this than a strong wave came, forcing large quantities of water into her mouth. Her body found some peace as soon as she drank the gangajal, and the desire to meet her son energised her to such an extent that she rowed the bier like a boat, using her hands as paddles, to the shore. All this activity sapped the energy out of her, and once again she collapsed on the ground, unconscious. When she regained consciousness, the beauty of the place made her think again that she was in heaven. The tranquil waters of the Ganga looked as divine as the Aakash Ganga galaxy, the lotuses blooming along the shores like stars.

There were long-stretching columns of ashoka, kadamb and other species of trees on the shore, and the grove near it seemed to be spring incarnate. Any onlooker would have been mesmerised by the sight. Flowers growing on trees of karonda, korayya and indrabela consecrated the place with their incense. The flower-laden branches of bela, chameli, ketaki and champa were intertwined so as to resemble young maidens in heavy garlands, embracing one another. In their midst stood the trees of dhaak, laden with red flowers, looking like renunciants surrounded by householders.

These renunciants reminded Bahuji of her own situation, and the calls of the cuckoo made her heart lurch with the grief of separation from her husband. She told herself that it was better to drown in the Ganga than in her grief, but before that, she needed to ascertain whether she could die there at all. If I am in some part of heaven, how can I possibly die here? But this doesn’t seem to be paradise either because there are no physical or mental agonies in heaven, and yet I suffer from both. I am also hungry; I must have died in this state.

If I have not become a ghost and am still human, it is my solemn duty to return to my little boy and embrace him. But I am a physically weak, poor woman, whom can I call for help in a place such as this? Where do I call him?

“Oh, merciful almighty! Please listen to me. If you have heeded the calls of Draupadi, Damyanti and other hapless women, then listen to me too!” Saying this, with her face towards the Ganga, she sat down on the ghat, admiring the grace of the waves. It was at this moment that a servant girl appeared from the south with a pot to fill water from the river. When she saw the back of a woman draped in a shroud, sitting all by herself, she became a little anxious. And then when she saw the bier meant for the dead floating in the water below, her apprehension grew.

Gripped by fear, she was convinced that a dead woman, newly turned into a chudail, was sitting on the ghat. On hearing the woman’s footsteps, Bahuji turned around and tried to speak in her piteous, feeble voice. The laboured and faint voice of the frail woman scared the servant girl further. She started screaming, “chudail, chudail”, and dropping her pot right there, ran away.

Bahuji tried her best to shout and call her back, but the girl stopped to catch her breath only once she had reached her village. When the women folk in the village enquired about the reason for her state, she narrated all that had transpired, all the while looking in the direction of the ghat to ensure that the chudail had not followed her.

At the time when the servant girl saw Bahuji, a few of the men were away harvesting crops while others had gone for a walk with Thakur Vibhav Singh. And so, there were only boys and women left in the village. None of them could muster the courage to go up to the ghat and verify the servant girl’s strange story. The very thought of a chudail near their village had scared the women enough to lock their children indoors, lest the chudail eat them.

In the meantime, Thakur Sahib’s son, Naval Singh, was walking around crying for his dead mother and didn’t feel up to playing with the other boys. When a village woman told him to hide inside his bungalow to avoid being eaten by the chudail, his interest was piqued and he wanted to know what chudails were like. Even if she were to come here, why will she catch me? I haven’t done her any harm?

While all this was going on in the village, Bahuji was lost in her own thoughts. She was quite certain that she had died, but have I been reborn? Or have I turned into that which the woman who ran away had screamed—a chudail! There must be more to the story, or else, how have I come to this strange, deserted place with this weakened body, draped only in a white shroud with my serpentine coils of hair around me?

Oh almighty! What sin did I commit for you to reincarnate me as a chudail? Is this the reward for my fidelity? Where will I find my dearest son in this state? And if I do find him, how will I embrace him? He’ll run away at the sight of my fearsome appearance! Even so, I will look for him and if he doesn’t come to me voluntarily, I’ll find a way to change him into the same state as me. Thinking this, she slowly started walking in the direction the servant girl had disappeared.

Her body trembling with weakness, moved by extreme hunger, dragging herself, the poor woman crossed the forest and found herself in a verdant garden that had trees of guavas, mandarins, berries, lychees and oranges among others, and rows of native and foreign flowers of several varieties. There is a small bungalow to the south of the garden, just the way it was in my home. Have I, by the grace of god, stepped into my own garden! Arre, this flower bough seems to be the one I used to feed my three-year-old Navalji in.

When I had come here earlier, the women in the village did tell me that the Ganga ghat was nearby. I had even asked Thakurji’s permission to bathe there, but he refused. Is this state of mine a punishment for that sin! But how was that my fault! After all, it is a woman’s duty to heed her husband’s orders. This is probably a punishment for sins committed in another lifetime.

Mulling over all these matters, Bahuji sat down under a mandarin tree after plucking a fruit to sate herself when Naval Singh appeared in front of her; all thoughts of food escaped her at his sight. She sprinted to him like a deer and hugged him, and saying his name, “Beta Navalji, Beta Navalji,” repeatedly, rained kisses on him.

Naval Singh was in a unique predicament. Bahuji’s scary appearance had made him want to run away, but then, remembering th his mother’s face, he started crying and asked her innocently, “Ma, have you come alive after dying or have you turned into a chudail? We had left you at home, how did you reach here, stumbling and falling?”

Bahuji replied, “Beta, I don’t know how I have come to this state. Even if my body has changed and I have become a chudail, my heart remains the same and I have dragged myself here looking for you.”

While this loving reunion and conversation was taking place, the village women witnessed it from afar and started shouting, “Arre, Navalji has been caught by the chudail! Run! Save him! Arre, such a calamity! How were we to know that the demoness would land in the garden? Otherwise, we would have never let Navalji go there.” They were all screaming and shouting from a distance, but no one could muster the courage to go close to the chudail. It was at this moment that Vibhav Singh and his companions returned from their walk.

They were surprised by the uproar. On receiving the news from the servant girl, Thakur Sahib said, “I don’t believe in ghosts and spirits, but the lord works in mysterious ways, and maybe this is true.”

Armed with a revolver from the bungalow, he leapt in the direction of the mandarin tree where Naval Singh was in the grips of the chudail. The villagers too ran in the same direction with their lathis. On seeing his father, the son wanted to run to him and tell him the happy news. But his mother wasn’t letting him out of her embrace. Thakur Sahib saw the fisticuffs from afar and realised that the chudail was holding his son tight and roared to him, “Don’t be scared, my son, I am coming.”

When he reached them, he wanted to shoot the chudail down but the son intervened screaming, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! It is mother.” In his fear, Thakur Sahib could not understand what his son was saying, but since he had already taken aim, he fired.

Bahuji fell down unconscious on hearing the shot and the boy sat down next to her, shocked. Thakur Sahib seated his son on his lap and said, “Don’t be scared, my son, you are safe now. Who is she? Is she really a chudail?”

Seeing Bahuji unconscious, the villagers started shouting, “The chudail is dead, the chudail is dead.” The women also came to take a closer look, and they stood around the Thakur and his family.

The servant girl said, “This is the same evil chudail who was sitting by the ghat and had come here to swallow Navalji.”

The other women said, “We have heard that dayins and chudails have long teeth and claws. She doesn’t have them. What kind of a chudail is she!”

Another said, “This one is a baby chudail. Her teeth would have grown with her.’

While the villagers fooled around, Naval Singh concluded his mother was dead and lost consciousness in his grief. This scared the villagers. They gathered around the boy and stood staring at him. One guessed that he had perhaps become scared after the gunshot, while another said that the chudail had taken control of him.

When the poor child came to, he began crying and said, “She is my mother. I told you to not shoot her!”

Surprised, Thakur Sahib said, “Your mother is dead. I received the priest’s letter last night saying that she has been cremated on the banks of the Ganga. How can this chudail be your mother?”

The child said, “Go near her and see if you can identify who she is.”

Thakur Sahib went near the chudail to take a closer look. He realised that the structure of her face was like that of his wife’s, and the mole on her head was exactly where his wife had one too. When he removed the cloth covering her bosom, she had two moles on her chest, just like Bahuji.

Thakur Sahib became very upset and said, “How strange! This does seem to be my dear wife.” Then, turning to his son he said, “Don’t worry my son, I didn’t shoot her. When you told me not to, I aimed at the sky, thinking that if it were a sprite, the sound would scare it away.”

The son said, “Look, there’s a bullet wound in her neck, and you say you haven’t shot her.” Thakur Sahib looked at it and said, “This is a tonsil wound. My bullet has become a star in the sky.” He then ordered everybody to leave and going up to the village-nayin said, “You know my wife’s body really well, go and check if it is her and not some other woman.”

The nayin went near the body hesitantly and started inspecting it, her eyes wide with fear. Bahuji had started regaining consciousness and the moment she sat up, the nayin took to her heels. Bahuji recognised her and yelled, “Arre, Badamiya, where is my son? Call Navalji, quickly! Or I’ll lose my life. Thakur Sahib wants to take my life! He abandoned me when I was sick in Prayagji. When I got myself here somehow, he tried to shoot me. I don’t understand my fault! If I have died of plague and become a chudail, even with this ghostly body I am willing to serve him. If he is disgusted by my current state, then I too can’t bear this abandonment – I’ll drown myself in the Ganga. Just call my son, so that I can embrace him one last time. How can I live without him? Oh almighty, you should take my life right at this spot.” She started wailing loudly.

Thakur Sahib couldn’t bear these words of longing brimming with true love. His heart was touched and his eyes welled up. He quickly ran up to Bahuji and, lifting her to her feet, said, “Please forgive me. I didn’t abandon you knowingly. If you are my wife, it doesn’t matter whether you are in human form or a ghost, you are acceptable in every condition, though my doubts haven’t entirely dissipated. I’ll try to come around to the idea in time, but I accept you as my dear wife at this very moment. I don’t care if I get the plague or get possessed by ghosts by being near you, I will not fear anything from now.” Thakur Sahib took Bahuji’s hands in his and led her inside the house. Then, calling Navalji, he asked her how she had got there.

At that moment, Satya Singh, the old servant, also returned from the city. When he heard the strange story from the villagers, he understood everything and going up to Thakur Sahib, said, “Maharaj! Remove all doubts from your mind. This really is Bahuji, there is no room for doubt here. When the nayin was draping her in the shroud, her body had been warm. I had asked for her to be examined, but the wicked servants turned me down and they threw her in the Ganga without cremating her. But now I think that it was providence, otherwise she would have been burnt to ashes. I am sure Bahuji never died, and by Gangaji’s grace, she reached this ghat and got resuscitated. You should praise your luck. Welcome her back and celebrate.”

On hearing the entire story, Thakur Sahib apologised to Bahuji again and embraced her whole-heartedly as he wept with joy. Overwhelmed with love, Bahuji took Navalji in her lap and putting her head on his shoulder, began to cry.

When the villagers heard the entire story, they rejoiced and started playing the mridang, manjeera and faag, and sang and danced.

The village women ran to Thakur Sahib’s house with paan and sweets and worshipped Bahuji like a goddess and asked for her forgiveness. Bahuji said, “You are not at fault. It was my misfortune that made me experience this. May god’s grace return to others their happiness, the way he has returned mine.”

“Master” Bhagwan Das was born in Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. He is known to have written short stories, novels, commentaries, biographies, travel literature, and newspaper columns. The popular story, “Plague Ki Chudail”, was first published in “Saraswati” magazine in 1902.

Priyanka Sarkar is an editor and translator and has translated Shivani’s Bhairavi recently.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.