Summary

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “The Hungry Stones” begins as the narrator and his kinsman, a theosophist, journey home to Calcutta. On the train, the pair encounter a man whose wise demeanor and breadth of knowledge on every subject amaze them, particularly the narrator’s companion, who clings to the “extraordinary man’s” every word. Eventually, their train reaches its destination. The narrator, his kinsman, and their newfound companion wait for the connecting train, which has been delayed significantly. Tired and somewhat irritated, the narrator lays out his bedroll; however, he gets no sleep, for their companion launches into a fantastic story, which the narrator relays to the audience. 

The train station fades away, and the fascinating stranger seizes the narrative. Speaking in the first person, he tells the tale of his brief stint as a collector of cotton duties in Barich. He contextualizes Barich’s climate and environment for his rapt audience, explaining that the city is a lovely place bordered by a bubbling river. Overlooking the city is an abandoned marble palace, once home to Emperor Mahmud Shah II, who lived in excess and luxury. The palace once held scores of beautiful women and babbling fountains, but it now sits empty and silent. 

The stranger explains that he once lived inside its walls but adds that his office clerk, Karim Khan, warned him never to stay the night inside the palace. Even the servants left at dark, and not even thieves dared enter. Of course, the narrator is drawn in by the mystery, and, on a slow summer’s day with little work to be done, falls prey to the palace’s intrigue. Sitting in an armchair alongside the river, he begins to hear footsteps—first one, then many. Turning, he sees a group of beautiful maidens running to the river and bathing. Although he knows the sight is little more than a figment of his imagination, he is taken in by their lovely forms, and leans closer, straining to see more. 

Just as soon as the maidens came, they were gone. Peals of shrill laughter faded into the night and shapely figures vanished as the narrator grows fearful, worried that he is cursed or possessed. Imagining himself mad, he sets out to eat a filling dinner, hopeful that a full stomach will cure him of such strange visions. The next day at work, he finds himself drawn to the palace; abandoning the work he intended to accomplish, he returns, opening the door with trepidation. As he does, he is overcome by odd sensations. He hears the fountains splashing, hears the toll of bells, and feels as if he is not alone in the house. The stranger, who reveals that his name is Srijut, explains that he began to feel as though his real life was little more than an absurd dream.

A servant disrupts Srijut in the midst of his reverie, recentering him in reality. Srijut eats dinner and heads to bed but wakes in the middle of the night, unsettled by an unseen presence: a beautiful Arab woman who beckons him to follow with lithe fingers adorned with rings. She leads him through the palace to a room of luxury, containing a bed with yet another fair woman lying atop it. Guarding the room is a dozing but fearsome eunuch with a sword, and, when Srijut attempts to bypass him, the eunuch wakes with a shout, shattering the dream and sending Srijut scrambling back to reality. 

Srijut explains the failure of this first night, saying “such was the abrupt close of one of my Arabian Nights; but there were yet a thousand nights...

(This entire section contains 1005 words.)

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left.” So begins a pattern of sleepless nights and impatient days, as the collector grows obsessed with the splendor of his nocturnal visions and the fair women and magnificent scenes he encounters. One night, when the illusions grow to an overwhelming and frantic frenzy, Srijut awakens to the cries of the half-mad servant Meher Ali, who screams “Stand back! All is false.” Srijut, fearful of the previous night’s visions, proclaims that he can no longer remain in the palace walls; however, as evening descends upon the palace on the following night, he finds himself imperceptibly drawn back and returns once more to the site of the night’s discomfiting illusions. 

Terrible weather descends on the palace; lashing wind and stinging rain assault its marble walls while the beautiful Arab woman, whose beguiling form once led Srijut through the palace, wails in agony, bleeding and cackling through the storm. The illusions, at first captivating, have become terrifying, an array of fearful sights that do not abate until Srijut wakes in the morning. Realizing that perhaps Meher Ali’s cry is informed by experience, he demands that the madman tell him of the palace’s secrets. Meher Ali repeats the warning of the morning before, so Srijut returns to work and asks Karim Khan, who first warned him of the palace’s dangers, to explain what he is experiencing. 

The clerk explains that centuries of “unrequited passions and unsatisfied longings and lurid flames of wild blazing pleasure” have left the palace ravenous, willing to consume anyone foolish enough to remain there. Desperate, Srijut asks if there is any way to break the spell the palace has cast on him; Khan replies that there is only one way, which is complex and dangerous. The clerk launches into the tragic story of a Persian girl who once lived there; however, before Srijut can finish telling his story, the connecting train arrives at the station. The original narrator and his companion board. Srijut, whose ticket is for a first-class compartment, leaves them in second-class. His story remains unfinished, but the question of its veracity divides the narrator and his companion, who believes every piece of the man’s fantastic narrative. Though the pair never learn the ending of Srijut’s adventure in the palace, the story lingers, causing a “lifelong rupture” between the two men. 

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