The story opens with a man and his theosophist relative boarding a train on a return trip home to Calcutta from their puja holiday. They sit near a man who they first mistake for a Muslim from Northern India on account of his style of dress, but who they quickly realize is a Bengali Babu. They are struck by his eloquence and worldliness, and can’t tear themselves away from listening to him talk. He keeps them up all night telling them a story.
The storyteller recounts a time when he took a job in the Indian Hyderabad region, collecting a cotton tax in the town of Barich. He describes the town as the most romantic place, cut through by the river Shusta. On the outskirts of the town is a towering white palace built by Shah Mahmud II, impressive to look at but long abandoned. Local townspeople tell the storyteller not to live in the temple, and it has such a bad reputation that even the thieves stay away from it.
It’s easy for the storyteller to heed the locals’ warnings while he is busy with his job, but as the pace of the cotton market slows down, he can’t help but succumb to its hard-to-place allure. He visits the temple one night and is drawn into a vision in which the temple’s festivities from 250 years ago come to life, with flowing decorations, bathing women, and a royal scene. A gust of wind shakes him from his trance.
He’s drawn back for dozens of subsequent nights, referring to these as his One Thousand and One Nights. During the day he lives his tedious life as a tax collector, but at night he goes to the temple and disappears into these elaborate hallucinations of lust for beautiful women and boundless material pleasures. In his waking life, he totally forgets his dream life in the temple, and in his dream life in the temple, his existence as a functionary seems just as much a fantasy.
One night a spirit cries to the storyteller, asking him to help her escape from the temple, and he is consumed by an urge to help her out. It’s now that the storyteller starts to wonder what the local madman means when he hollers “Keep away! Keep away! All is false! All is false!” The storyteller asks a friend at his office, Karim Khan about it, and Khan tells him that the palace used to be a site of extravagant lust, and now it’s haunted by spirits who want to consume the soul of whoever enters it. The only man who has spent more than three nights there and made it out is that very mad man, Meher Ali.
Just as the storyteller is about to tell the original pair introduced in the story—the man that boards the train and his theosophist relative—how he managed to escape the clutches of the temple, the pair gets off the train at their destination. The man and his theosophist relative begin to argue over whether the storyteller's tale was true, and their argument ends in an irreconcilable split between the two men.
“The Hungry Stones” is one of the several stories in Tagore’s oeuvre that depicts functionaries of the Indian government, which Tagore uses to draw a tension between the modernizing Indian state and the types of Indian lives that fall outside the hegemony of that British colonial order. Here, we have the tale of a tax-collector who sheds his tight-fitting Western garb—a jacket and trousers—to assume the baggy pajamas of the royal court from 250 years ago that he’s drawn deeper into during his sleeping hours.
While Tagore makes it clear at the end of the story that this royal court’s extravagance makes it a deadly trap for those who succumb to the temptation to try and indulge their lustiest desires, this supernatural explanation falls a bit short of what we may suspect the appeal of this older Indian court truly is. Under current British colonial rule, our storyteller is a functionary, but perhaps under Shah Mahmud II’s he would have been able to indulge in all manner of earthly pleasures instead. Tagore draws a keen parable of Indian yearning for a kind of past that represents something radically different than its colonized present in the late 1800s.
This story also illustrates Tagore’s sense of humor when it comes to the conventions of the narrative form. For one, the storyteller references One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, a collection of folk tales often framed as stories within stories much like “The Hungry Stones” itself. Speaking of Tagore’s narrative playfulness, he seems to have fun weaving a shaggy dog tale that lacks any real climax. Just as the story is getting really good—just as the storyteller is about to tell us how he escaped the Shah’s temple with (presumably) his sanity intact—the people who we are listening to the story must get off the train. Our pleasure as readers mirrors the storyteller’s pleasure in the fantasies: tempted, but never truly fulfilled.