Past is Present: The Ghost Story in Bengali Literature, Part I

Since time immemorial, people have been fascinated by what is loosely described as ‘the ghost story’ –the words and deeds of dead people when they return to the earth. Ghost stories can be found in ancient texts from all over the world and all religions, from the Bible to the Upanishads (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a book of scripture approximately 1500 years old, contains one of the earliest recorded references to spirits in Indian culture). Usually in these references, ghosts are superior to ordinary mortals. They not only have more power, but also more knowledge, which is what makes them frightening. They don’t follow rules and the laws of nature as mortals understand them don’t apply to these unearthly beings. No surprise then that along with kings and queens and princes, ghosts and monsters form the basic material of children’s (and adults’) bedtime stories.

My own introduction to the tradition of ghost stories came from a volume (priced back then at a princely Rs 3) titled Advut Jato Bhuter Galpo (“The Most Bizarre Ghost Stories”). I read that book so many times that even after six decades, I not only remember all of them, but I can also tell you the names of their authors, the illustrations accompanying the stories and even the order in which the stories were arranged. The first story was “Kankaler Tongkar“(The Battle cry Of The Skeletons) written by Manilal Gangopadhyay, a promising writer who unfortunately died young. Many years later, I learnt that Manilalbabu read the same story to a wide-eyed audience in the very first broadcast of the Calcutta Radio on 24th August, 1927. Back then, it wasn’t the sarkari Akashvani of today, but a private enterprise and the radio station’s office at 1, Garstein Place was located right next to a graveyard. That building would become one of the most well-known haunted buildings of Kolkata.

As you might be able to tell, ghosts became the magnificent obsession of my life and I’m hoping that with this series of blog posts, you’ll find them as fascinating as I do.

With the passage of time and as the craft of story-telling became more sophisticated, the ancient ghost stories got a little more complex as they became increasingly modern. From the story of simple hauntings driven by love and hatred, the two basic passions supposedly motivating the undead to return to stalk the living, stylistic elements crept in. The tint of the macabre and impact of horror as well as the imaginative leaps of pure fantasy placed ghost and occult stories in a borderline territory between dreams and reality.

Bengal has a rich tradition of myths and folk tales of this variety. About 200 years ago, a modern prose style in Bengali slowly developed, thanks in large part to the pioneering efforts of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay, popularly known as Vidyasagar (1820-1891). A leading Sanskrit scholar of his times, Vidyasagar wrote the first Bengali primer, which is followed even today, and translated Aesop’s Fables in simple Bengali for children. His other important and immensely popular work is a ghost story adapted from Hindi: Betal Panchabingshoti, a collection of twenty-five adventures of the ghost-like betal and King Vikram. You might know the Hindi version by its television avatar, the 90s’ serial Vikram aur Betaal

Vidyasagar’s prose style with its complicated Sanskrit-rich words was a purist’s delight, but it was not suitable for the common man. It was Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1894) who turned Bengali fiction into something that was both erudite and accessible, which is why he is widely regarded as Bengal’s first modern author. Well-versed in English literature – he particularly liked Charles Dickens and Walter Scott — Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay gave Bengali its first fully-formed fiction about150 years ago. He was the first graduate from the University of Calcutta, a rationalist and a reformist. For a man of his nature, it was difficult to acknowledge the existence of ghosts, but perhaps he was swayed in favour of acknowledging ghosts by his personal experiences with the supernatural. He actually had started writing down one of his reali-life encounters with the ghostly kind, but he didn’t finish it. This unfinished draft, titled Nishith Rakshashir Kahini (“The story of a Nocturnal Rakshasi”), is the first specimen of occult-themed literature in Bengali.

In case you thought that Bankim, as Chattopadhyay is popularly known to readers of Bengali literature, was a ghostly trailblazer, I’m afraid I must disappoint you, dear reader. The father of modern Bengali fiction was much too shackled by his determination to be rational in his approach to give us a decent ghost story. All he penned were a few pages of a stillborn fiction that didn’t even come together as a proper draft. In it, we get a dinner table conversation between two brothers — one is a believer while the other is a sceptic as far as the existence of ghosts is concerned. The believer says he had a ghostly experience and by recounting it, he tries to convince his brother. But nothing much happens and the conversation pales in comparison to the dinner menu — roast mutton and sherry — in terms of holding the reader’s attention.

The encounter that inspired this story was, in fact, far more exciting than its fictional retelling.  Bankim, during his years as a Deputy Magistrate, often travelled in interior Bengal and was required to stay in out-of-the-way places. On one such tour in rural Bengal, he was put up in the outhouse of a zamindar’s palace and here he was accosted by a strange, beautiful woman at the dead of night. When he first saw her in his room, Bankim thought this was the zamindar trying to curry favour (‘gifts’ in kind weren’t unusual), but after a conversation with him, the woman just disappeared into thin air. Probably that is the story he wanted to write, but somehow could not get the things together. The incomplete fragment that is Nishith Rakshashir Kahini was printed in his complete works and is freely available today. However, Bankim had recollected the actual story in its entirety to his grandsons, one of whom published it in a magazine. Keep in mind that when Bankim wrote about the vengeful, wandering ghost — beautiful and sari-clad — the white sari wasn’t the established ghostly uniform that it is today.

Next week, we’ll look at Bengal’s cultural gods — Rabindranath Tagore and his family — and their relationship with ghosts.



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