Last Updated on October 25, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599
“The Hungry Stones” or “Kshudhit Pashaan” in Bengali is an 1895 short story written by Bengali writer and poet Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was inspired to write the story during his stay at Shah Jahan’s Moti Shahi Mahal palace in Shahibaug, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, while visiting his brother Satyendranath; as such, the palace in the story recalls details of this real-life palace.
The story begins in a train station but soon spirals into mystery and intrigue when the narrator encounters an odd stranger who tells him of a strange experience he had while living in a cursed palace in Barich. The man, who introduces himself as Srijut, explains that he once worked as a collector of cotton duties in the small city. While there, he fell under a spell. His story is one of arrogance and folly, for he ignored the ardent warning of the concerned locals, a mistake with disastrous consequences. Moreover, his story is deeply supernatural, taking place in an environment that Srijut describes alarmingly, saying,
I felt as if the whole house was like a living organism slowly and imperceptibly digesting me by the action of some stupefying gastric juice.
This environment slowly eats away at the tax collector’s sanity, leading him to envision glamorous sights that recall the luxurious origins of its first owner, Emperor Mahmud Shah II, who occupied it over two hundred and fifty years prior. Srijut feels the presence of ghosts and hears the sounds of playful fountains, leading him to lose all sense of reality. The palace, built with “hungry stones” lures him in, determined to consume him. He explains that, once,
I came under such a spell that this intangible, inaccessible, unearthly vision appeared to be the only reality in the world—and all else a mere dream. That I, that is to say, Srijut So-and-so, the eldest son of So-and-so of blessed memory, should be drawing a monthly salary of Rs. 450 by the discharge of my duties as a collector of cotton duties, and driving in my dog-cart to my office every day in a short coat and soia hat, appeared to me to be such an astonishingly ludicrous illusion that I burst into a horse-laugh, as I stood in the gloom of that vast silent hall.
The longer he stays in the palace, the stronger its hold on him grows. He slowly meets all of the spirits of the former inhabitants of the palace who lived in the Mughal Empire, including a mysterious, beautiful woman that roams the palace at night. She, along with a cadre of other characters, leads Srijut to certain death, though he somehow escapes their undeniable pull. Although the story ends as the narrator and Srijut separate at the train station, the conclusion to his adventure untold, readers learn that,
At one time countless unrequited passions and unsatisfied longings and lurid flames of wild blazing pleasure raged within that palace, and that the curse of all the heart-aches and blasted hopes had made its every stone thirsty and hungry, eager to swallow up like a famished ogress any living man who might chance to approach. Not one of those who lived there for three consecutive nights could escape these cruel jaws.
Only one man survived, the madman Meher Ali, whose only presence in the story is his insistence to “Stand back!” for “All is false.” Though Srijut does not explain how he escaped the palace’s clutches, his presence at the train station proves that, somehow, he survived the ghostly clutches of his long-dead captors. Or, as the narrator argues, perhaps they never truly existed.