The comic potential of ghosts is something that Bengali literature has been keenly aware of from early on. Lila Majumdar and Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s ghosts, for instance, are friendly, often benevolent and always have an impish sense of humour. In one of his little ditties, Sukumar Ray wrote about watching a baby ghost frolicking in moonlight in way that is guaranteed to leave you with giggles instead of goosebumps. But before all these writers and stories, there were the hilarious fantasies written by Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay (1847-1919). Mukhopadhyay’s works are difficult to find these days, but he’s among the first to have, in a sense, deglamorised ghosts, turning them from frightening to funny. For instance, here’s his explanation of how ghosts come into being:
As ice is formed by freezing water, accumulated darkness becomes ghost. There is a machine to make ice from water, can’t the wise Britishers invent a similar machine to manufacture ghosts? There is no dearth of darkness in our country. If this is done, then ghosts will become really cheap. A kilo of ghost will not cost more than four paise maximum. Even a poor man can afford to have his choice of ghosts.
Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay’s Kankabati was a minor classic in the nineteenth century and Mukhopadhyay’s writing drew praise even from Rabindranath Tagore. The story was a romantic fantasy about a lovesick young heroine, Kanka, who comes down with high fever. In this state, she sees an elaborate dream in which a wide range of ghosts and spirits as well as creatures like frogs and mosquitoes come together to help pave the way for her happy ending with her beloved Khetu. What makes Kankabati distinctive and particularly fun were the parts in which Kanka and Khetu analyse her dream (this is after she’s recovered).
It’s interesting how much the world of occult has fascinated us in Bengal. While ghost stories are popular everywhere, in Bengali literature it’s not a niche as much as as an abiding interest among most of our icons. For instance, Tagore (1861-1941), a towering influence on Bengali culture for about a century, was keenly interested in ghosts. From his childhood, he had witnessed the deaths of many near and dear ones, beginning with his mother when he was nine. Over the course of his long life, he would lose many people, including a sister-in-law, who haunts Tagore’s writing as his muse, and three of his children who died tragically young.
Tagore’s songs and poems deal with the subject of the afterlife from a more philosophical angle, but in his fiction, he manages to be both direct and deliberately vague. In Master Mashai, for example, his protagonist gets into a horse-drawn carriage and feels suffocated. Later it is revealed that one of the earlier passengers had committed suicide there. To appreciate Tagore’s grasp over human psychology, we just have to look at stories like Konkal (“The Skeleton”) and Nishithey (“In the Dead Of Night”).
Konkal is literally the story of a skeleton and it’s starting point was in real life. In Tagore’s study in the family home of Jorasanko, there was a skeleton that had been used to teach Tagore anatomy as a young boy (he was mostly home-schooled). This much is history, but the rest is fiction. In Konkal, Tagore writes that when he had to spend a night in that room years later, he felt that the skeleton wanted to talk to him. It turned out that when alive, the skeleton had belonged to a pretty, young widow. She was attracted to a young doctor who was her brother’s friend. She thought the attraction was mutual, but the doctor decided to marry some other girl. On the evening of his marriage, the doctor came to his friend for a celebratory drink. Playing the hostess, the widow fixed the drink, laced it with poison which she also consumed. More than the barebones of the story, it is Tagore’s style that makes Konkal memorable — the description of the spring night in which all this happens and Tagore’s sensitivity in his description of how widowhood deprived a vivacious woman of her real spirit.
In Nishithe, a wealthy zamindar who loves his ailing wife, nurses her to the best of his capacity. To restore her health, they take a trip to a place that they hope will be restorative for her. There, the couple meet a doctor and his attractive daughter. Soon after, the wife dies rather mysteriously after consuming the wrong medicine. The implication is that it was suicide because the wife realised how dissatisfying and lonely life had become for her husband. The widower marries the doctor’s daughter, but this isn’t a story of happily-ever-after. The landlord starts seeing strange visions and hearing sounds, and he takes to drinking because these disturb him so. The reader realises that all his visions are born out of his guilt (at driving his wife to suicide), but Tagore achieved a delicate balance between the eerie and the pragmatic to make you wonder if the man wasn’t actually being haunted.
However, in terms of ghost stories, Tagore’s masterpiece is Kshudhito Pashan (The Hungry Stones). It’s not an easy story to summarise because most of its power lies in Tagore’s writing rather than in the plot. He writes that this is a story that a stranger narrated to him when the two of them were sharing a compartment during a train journey. The stranger said he was a tax collector who had been sent to live in an obscure little place that has an abandoned palace. Incidentally, the inspiration for the palace in Kshudito Pashan was the Shahibag Palace in Ahmedabad, which had been the official residence of Satyendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s elder brother, when the former was was posted there as an ICS officer. Rabindranath had visited his elder brother and lived in Shahibag Palace for a few months as a teenager.
In the fictional palace in Kshudito Pashan, everything was completely normal during the day, but after sunset, it transformed. Even the hard-boiled government officer wasn’t immune to the palace’s bewitched condition. He could feel the presence of a woman — a beautiful, bejewelled woman, who wore a distinctive perfume — all around him. Although he made it a point to not stay in the palace after sunset, he was fascinated and curious about the palace’s invisible inmate. Tagore had the stranger leave the compartment at this point, leaving the ending mysterious and letting the sense of the eerie linger over the reader as they, like Tagore’s own character in the story, ponder over the curious tale they were told and its equally curious teller.
Unfortunately, in the early 1960s, director Tapan Sinha decided to turn Kshudito Pashan into a straightforward ghost film, denuding it of its mystery and introducing unnecessary elements like a reincarnation angle. Three and a half decades after that effort, Mrinal Sen in his Antareen handled the same theme with much more subtlety and finesse. Although it was not an adaptation and a very different story, he came close to the spirit of Kshudhito Pashan.
Tagore wasn’t the only one in his family who was interested in the world of spirits. Many in the Tagore household in Jorasanko dabbled in activites like planchette, but from a literary point of view, the one who deserves mention is Tagore’s nephew, Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951).
Abanindranath is better known as an artist, but his pen was not less magical than his brush. A number of the short stories in the collection titled Pathe-bipathe (On and off the main roads) have a strong occult overtone. My personal favourite, however, is his Bhutpatrir Desh. It’s fascinating read about a night-long palki ride from Puri to Konarak. Abanindranath turned into a fabulous and surreal journey with ghosts for company. Incidentally, ghosts were not the stuff of fiction as far as Abanindranath was concerned. He believed that when he was down with severe colic pain, his dead mother came down to earth, touched the affected spot and cured him.
So rather than to be feared, for these writers, ghosts were companions that were, in fact, amiable rather than threatening. They alleviated the boredom of a long journey, turned the banal into something interesting. Ironically, it’s the ghosts that liven up the everyday existence in these stories, reassuring both the writer and the reader that even in the most mundane occurrence — like a dreary, never-ending train journey — there could be more than what meets the eye.