Past is Present: From vampires to tantrics

Since we have had a break, let me make a slight detour as we return to the world of Bengali literature’s ghostly greats. The occult has fascinated many of Bengal’s brightest literary talents. I’ve mentioned Tagore in an earlier part – Tagore, incidentally, was a great séance enthusiast – and his writing contains great examples of the supernatural, but there are also those who didn’t betray their interest in the supernatural in their writing. For instance Saratchandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938), who is today best remembered for his alcoholic tragic hero Devdas, kept his fiction grounded in the real world. However according to the Bohemian Bengali author’s friends, Chattopadhyay had many supernatural experiences even though none of them made their way into his fiction. At best, the ghostly get stray references in Srikanto, Chattopadhyay’s autobiographical novel. Perhaps he felt it wouldn’t befit the literary tradition since the supernatural is traditionally considered frivolous even if it is frightening.

Such concerns didn’t affect authors like Hemendra Kumar Roy (1888-1963), whose work we encountered while discussing the Bengali detectives. Roy is noteworthy because he didn’t limit himself to ghosts when writing. Werewolves, vampires and other terrifying creatures of darkness appeared in Roy’s stories. I was about 10 years old when I read Roy’s vampire story, Mrs. Kumudini Choudhury and for days afterward, I felt a chill down my spine at the sight of any elderly woman.

In Mrs. Kumudini Choudhury, the narrator is a novelist who visits a picturesque place in present-day Jharkhand, hoping to write a novel. Over time, he makes friends with three of his neighbours: Mrs Kumudini Choudhury, an elderly widow who has settled here after her husband’s death in Peshawar; Amulya-babu, a retired college professor; and Gobindababu, a doctor employed by the Railways.

The narrator learns that Amulya-babu is obsessed with occultism.  One evening, when Amulya-babu was telling the novelist about dissatisfied spirits who use human bodies as hosts and use them to fulfill their own desires, Mrs. Choudhury walks in. The novelist notices that she looks at Amulya-babu in a rather peculiar manner.

After a few days, the novelist is enjoying his morning tea with the Amulya-babu when they see Gobinda-babu rushing past. They ask him to join them but Gobinda-babu says he can’t because he has to attend to a patient. It seems of late there has been a sudden increase in deaths due to severe anaemia. The patient Gobinda-babu is going to see is Gadadhar, Mrs. Choudhury’s gardener’s son. Amulyababu expresses surprise, saying he knows young Gadadhar to be a stout boy. How could such a boy become so weak in such a short time?

Abandoning their tea, the novelist and Amulya-babu decide to accompany Gobinda-babu to Mrs Choudhury’s house. They find the gardener’s son looking deathly pale. His situation is so dire that Gobinda-babu says he fears the boy’s days are numbered. Looking closely at the boy, Amulyababu asks the doctor about the marks on his chest. Gobinda-babu brushes the query aside, saying it must be a rat bite (which is credible considering the poor living conditions). The gardener tells the men that the boy is being nursed by Mrs. Choudhury who cares for him like he was her own.

Amulya-babu’s face becomes grave when he hears this and he says in no uncertain terms that the boy will die if he is kept here. At his behest, Gobinda-babu organises porters who take Gadadhar to Amulya-babu’s place. Just as this little procession is leaving the house, Mrs. Choudhury asks what’s going on. Amulya-babu  repeats what he had said earlier: if Gadadhar stays here, he will do. Mrs. Choudhury’s eyes flash with fury, but when she speaks, she’s calm. “Do whatever you think is best for the boy,” she tells them.

That night, there is a storm and the novelist wakes up in the middle of the night when he hears banging on his bedroom window. Switching on his torch, he sees a figure standing outside his window. The face is covered by long hair but even through that curtain of hair, he can see sparkling eyes. Mortally scared, the novelist locked his doors and windows again. When there’s a knock on his door, he’s scared to open it even though it is Amulya-babu.

Amulya-babu tells the novelist that Gadadhar is completely cured and that Amulya-babu had personally guarded the boy all the time. Had anyone sucked more of his blood, Amulya-babu tells the novelist, it would have been fatal. He also shares another chilling bit of information: “At dead of night, I heard banging on my window. Mind you, I kept Gadadhar in my first-floor bedroom, but somebody was there. I saw that person and although the face was covered by hair, I am reasonably certain it was Mrs. Choudhury. She tried to reach out through the window, I slammed it shut on her hand.”

The narrator feebly asks, “But why Mrs. Choudhury?”

“Listen. I tried to check up on her through my contacts in Peshawar,” Amulya tells the novelist. “I got a cable yesterday saying she died 15 days after her husband’s death.  The person we know is one of the living dead.”

Just then, Mrs Choudhury enters the house. One of her hands is heavily bandaged. The moment she sees Amulya-babu, her face contorts and she walks out of the house. She’s about to cross the railway tracks next to the house but is run over by a train. There’s a piercing scream and then it’s all over. Since she was Christian, Mrs. Choudhury’s corpse is buried in the local graveyard.

Except the deaths from anaemia don’t stop. Neither Gobinda-babu the doctor nor Amulya-babu can’t explain it.  After about a month and a half, the novelist is walking on a full moon night and ahead of him, he sees Mrs Choudhury. She’s walking but her feet don’t touch the ground. The petrified novelist rushes to Amulya-babu’s place who wastes no time. He picks up a shovel from his garden and rushes to the graveyard. They find Mrs Choudhury’s gravestone and hide themselves in a nearby hedge, lying in wait for her. At twilight, a cloud materializes and out of it emerges Mrs. Kumudini Choudhury. She stands on her grave, raises her hands and bursts out in diabolical laughter before slowly disappearing into the ground.

The two men, hidden by greenery, dare not come out until sunrise. In the light of day, Amulya-babu digs the grave and opens the coffin. Inside, they find not a mangled and decaying corpse, but the body of a woman who looks entirely alive. A trail of blood can be seen trickling out of the corner of her mouth. Amulya-babu plunges the shovel into her chest. There’s a shrieking noise and then everything becomes silent.

Unsurprisingly, among the works from the Western canon that Roy translated and adapted into Bengali was Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Another author who was keenly interested in the supernatural was Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay (1894-1950). His name is inseparably linked to Pather Panchali, the Satyajit Ray film based on his novel, but Bandopadhyay’s contributions to Bengali literature are much greater than being the basis of Ray’s Apu trilogy. Something of a mystic himself, Bandopadhyay was keenly interested in spirituality, ghosts, cults and Tantra, and this showed in a number of his writings. Debjan, in which a simple man suffers from a premature death, imagined what happened to the soul after a person dies. In his writing, Bandopadhyay borrowed ideas from different religious philosophy. For example, in Debjan, he incorporated ideas from Mahayana Buddism while imagining the afterlife, people as it is by divine figures like the Goddess of Love, who unites separated souls, and Grahadeb (“Lord of the Planet”), who keeps an eye on all humanity. In another novel titled Drishti-Pradeep, a young boy called Jitu has strange visions of a distant land and its people. Sometimes he’s able to look into the future accurately. Jitu has no control over this second sight that he possesses. The novel is about what effect this peculiar gift has upon Jitu’s life.

Bandopadhyay is best known for his beautiful descriptions of nature, particularly of the Bengal countryside. While his nature-inspired writings are undoubtedly memorable, he also had a real talent for writing the dark, horror-laced stories of Taranath Tantrik. Tantra, the ancient occult and religious tradition, includes bizarre practices like meditating on a corpse on a moonless night. The macabre quality of such situations were been brilliantly depicted and used by Bandopadhyay in the two Taranath Tantrik (in Bengali, a tantrik is one who practices Tantra) stories he wrote. Many years after Bandopadhyay’s death, his son, Taradas, tried to revive Taranath Tantrik by continuing his adventures.  Even though the stories were convincing enough, they lacked the finesse of the original.

EDITED TO ADD:

My favourite Hemen Roy story is Ke? (Who?). In it, the narrator and his friend Ruplal are travelling across Odisha. They go to the Khandagiri caves where the locals tell them to be careful because a maneater is on the prowl. Despite the narrator carrying a gun with him, Ruplal and he decided to not take any risks. They return to the bungalow where they’re staying — the dak bungalow — by sunset. There, the chowkidar tells them that the bungalow is not a good place and that it is haunted by the ghost of a woman. That night, there is a terrible storm. The narrator and Ruplal are forced to stay put in the bungalow. After dinner, they hear knocking on the main door and cries of distress. It’s a woman’s voice. The chowkidar begs them not to open the door, but unable to remain unmoved by the pleas for help, Ruplal opens the door. A gush of wind flings the door wide open and the candle in the room is blown out. Ruplal manages to close the door and relights the candle. The woman they have helped turns out to be a pretty, young girl. She looks about 20 years old and she’s been drenched by the rain. Ruplal finds her some dry clothes and asks her to settle into the adjacent room.
She tells the two men that she had also come to visit the caves, like them, but while she was outside, it started to rain. She took shelter in one of the caves, but when she was inside, she heard a tiger roar. Frightened, she ran away and this bungalow was the first place she found.
The two men listen to her, but once she’s gone to her room, Ruplal tells his friend, “Don’t you think her story sounds absurd? How could an unmarried girl of her age roam around alone in this secluded place? She also has a strange piercing look in her eyes.” Although the narrator tells Ruplal to go to sleep instead of worrying, he keeps his gun handy. Late at night, something wakes him and he opens his eyes to see a a huge tiger squatting between their room and that of the woman. The narrator pulls out his gun and immediately fires point blank at the tiger. The animal leaps into the other room.
Immediately a woman’s scream is heard. By this time, Ruplal has also woken up. Worrying that the young woman was being attacked by the tiger, they barged into her room, armed with their rifles and lanterns. However, the room was empty. All that remained was a trail of blood leading into the room and there were clear, bloody footprints, no pug marks. The story ends with the narrator telling his friend, “Ruplal, I shot a tiger and a woman screamed. Who was that woman who came here? Who is she?”
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