As far as funny ghost stories go, perhaps Bengal’s most beloved writer was Rajshekhar Basu (1880-1960), who used the pseudonym Parashuram for his more light-hearted writing. Basu was a classical scholar — he translated the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and poems by Kalidasa from Sanskrit to Bengali — and chief chemist for a leading scientific concern, so perhaps he thought it would be a bit embarrassing to have comic stories to his name. As Parashuram, he was one of the leading humourists of his time.
Using his pseudonym, Basu wrote about 100 stories, collected in nine books. Most of them were funny, but often, underneath that veneer of comedy was some pretty serious stuff. Although only two of his stories — “Bhushondir Mathe” and “Mahesher Mahajatra” — deal directly with ghosts, they’ve acquired cult status and to most readers of Bengali fiction, these two Parashuram works are among the first that come to mind when thinking about ghost stories.
“Bhushondir Mathe” was written in the 1920s and it’s a delightful fantasy in the Trailokyanath tradition. The title of the novel refers to a field known as Bhushondir Math or Bhushondi’s field. It’s a desolate place, just outside human habitation, where ghosts of various shapes and sizes live in a commune of sorts. Although they have crossed over to the afterlife, their lives on Bhushondi’s field reflect the lives they had lived when alive. Friendship, tiffs, romance, there’s all this and more in the fabulous and hilarious hodgepodge that is the afterlife in “Bhushondir Mathe”. There have been film, television and theatrical adaptations of this short story and even though it’s almost 100 years old now, “Bhushondir Mathe” remains immensely popular because of how funny it is.
While “Bhushondir Mathe” is a madcap comedy, “Mahesher Mahajatra” (Mahesh’s final journey) has a more serious and grim thread in its tapestry. Mahesh Mitra is an absent-minded professor of mathematics and a stubborn non-believer in all things supernatural. The reason Mahesh doesn’t believe in ghosts is that he cannot fit ghosts in his calculations. He has a running feud with his friend and colleague Harinath, who teaches philosophy and is a believer. Then, one winter evening, Mahesh summons Harinath who finds Mahesh on his deathbed. Since he has no family, Mahesh asks Harinath to take charge of his affairs and then breathes his last.
It turns out that Mahesh has few friends in the world thanks to his atheism and unconventional lack of beliefs. His neighbours refuse to help Harinath with Mahesh’s last rites. Ultimately, Harinath approaches a cremation agency to do the needful for a price. Bengali society has long prided itself on its sense of community. The idea of your neighbours being like an extended family is one that was particularly prevalent. In these circumstances for a man to need to pay people in order to have his last rites is both cruel and tragic because it underscores his solitude in the world.
Mahesh Mitra’s final journey starts well past midnight on a dreary December night and troubles gather quickly. Although Mahesh was a lean and thin man, his dead body proves to be extremely heavy. It is such a burden on the men carrying the corpse (to the cremation grounds) that they soon have to pause and take a breather. At this point, a man emerges out of the winter fog and offers to help. All Harinath can tell of this newcomer is that he is swaddled in a black shawl. The funeral party accept the stranger’s help but the load of Mahesh’s body remains too much and they stop again after a bit. Now another man in a black shawl appears and volunteers to help. This keeps happening. The cortege move a little, takes a break and is joined by yet another man in a black shawl. It’s when four such men join the gathering that the original corpse bearers give up. Now the procession is able to pick up some speed, so much so that Harinath starts running but still can’t keep pace with them. Carrying Mahesh’s body, the four men go past the crematorium, ignoring Harinath shouting at them and asking them to stop.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Mahesh appears before Harinath, standing up straight and waving his hands. His voice reaches Harinath, sounding as though it’s coming from a great distance. “Harinath,” Mahesh says to him. “Everything is there, everything is true…”. Harinath faints then and there. The next morning, Harinath is found by a constable doing his rounds and arrested because the constable is convinced Harinath is a drunk who had passed out in the middle of the road. Harinath is able to get himself out of the police’s clutches but what happened to Mahesh remains a mystery. “Mahesher Mahajatra” is an accomplished piece of writing that achieves a sophisticated cocktail of intelligent humour and the macabre. I don’t think there’s been another work like “Mahesher Mahajatra” in Bengali literature.
The combination of the fearful and the funny existing like mirror reflections of one another is quite prevalent in Bengali literature. Parashuram’s ghost stories make for fabulous reading not just because they’re clever stories, but he puts across the delicious idea that rather than being a ghoulish other, ghosts are like the living mortals. They’re just a little different and what makes them fascinating is the fact that it’s difficult to pinpoint just what it is that sets the ghosts apart from us.
Both the acts of scaring and being scared have been mined for laughs by many writers. There is something both ridiculous and fascinating in the supernatural. To believe in it seems to be contrary to rational intelligence, and yet sensory experiences often defy cut and dried logic. In old folk tales, nature often contained manifestations of spirits. The howling wind, leaves shuffling in the breeze, the moving shadows — there seemed to be a certain mystery in nature that was often explained by suggesting the supernatural as an explanation for such seemingly-magical phenomena. In the modern era, on the other hand, stories of the supernatural serve to keep us on our toes and remind us that as a matter of fact, we haven’t figured everything out with our pragmatism and scientific wisdom. However, the mystery isn’t out of our reach. It’s just on the other side, waiting to be netted by our imagination.