Darna mana hai: What lies beneath our ghost stories

By Aditi Sen

Ghosts don’t exist in a vacuum. They are a culmination of numerous things – actual historical events, social oppressions, and injustice. They surround us; breathing, living entities, that are hoping we might inhale them and keep their legacy alive. Or occasionally, just offer them a piece of fish.

My father’s stories always had a colour; black was horror, pink was comedy, red was for war and tragedy. I picked a colour and the tales followed. According to him, the stories of different colours floated all around you, you had to hold and inhale, and the story settled in your head.

“Baba, where do you get so many stories from?” I asked, in awe of his endless stock. “Golper Desh (Story Land). That’s where I go every month to buy them for you.” Since my Baba did go away once a month; I believed him. It’s only later that I realised they were all office trips, but for a long time I believed Golper Desh was a real place.

My favourite story colour was black. Horror is still my favourite genre, more specifically, ghost stories. Since I am a historian by profession, I value these stories as legitimate sources of oral history. They preserve our collective memory. A story is alive, breathing, and by retelling it, we ensure its survival.

As Ruskin Bond points out, “India is full of British ghosts – the ghosts of soldiers, adventurers, engineers, magistrates, memsahibs, their children, even their dogs.” Warren Hastings still haunts his residence in Kolkata. The ghost of Major Burton, a British officer killed during the 1857 mutiny, still haunts the Brij Raj Bhavan Palace hotel in Kota, Rajasthan. In Ekbalnagar, Bihar, a British ghost regularly demands tea and cake.

British ghosts still dominate the Indian landscape. As Rudyard Kipling succinctly puts it in “My Own True Ghost Story” (1888), “There are, in India, ghosts who take the form of fat, cold, pobby corpses, and hide in trees near a roadside till a traveller passes. Then they drop upon his neck and remain. There are also terrible ghosts of women who have died in childbed. These wander along the pathways at dusk, or hide in the crops near the village, and call seductively. Their feet are turned backwards that all sober men may recognise them. There are ghosts of children who have been thrown into wells. They catch women by the wrist and beg them to be carried. These corpse ghosts, however, are only vernacular articles and do not attack sahibs. No native ghost has yet been authentically reported to have frightened an Englishman; but many English ghosts have scared the life out of both white and black.”

Ghosts are never created in a vacuum. They are a culmination of numerous things – actual historical events, social oppressions, and injustice.

From these, I realised two things: Even in death the British held higher status than Indians; and to truly scare an Indian, colonialism is a very useful thing.

But ghost stories are so much more purely thrilling. Ghosts are never created in a vacuum. They are a culmination of numerous things – actual historical events, social oppressions, and injustice. They hold a mirror to things we don’t want to see and force us to confront our deepest fears and insecurities.

In Bengal, ghosts play a major role in daily life. Bengali folklore is rich in ghost stories, and the ghosts are layered and complex. They have their special abodes, specific hours of haunting, specific ghostly activities, and so on. For example, Brahmin ghosts, known as Brahmadotti, usually haunt around noon, they live in quince trees, and you can hear them come down because their wooden slippers make a lot of noise. They remain superior even after death. Unlike the rest they can haunt in broad daylight and even make noise with their footwear. Death makes no difference to their privilege and entitlement.

Ghost stories aren’t just commentaries on class. They are commentaries on feminism too.

Female ghosts have a special place in our culture and two of the most popular are daini (witch) and petni or shankchunni. Their haunting hours are twilight, when they usually haunt ponds, marshes or bamboo groves; sometimes they even live in shayora or sandpaper fig trees.

Petni is the spirit of a dead married woman; Petni and Shankchunni are both associated with their greed for fish. There are many stories of petnis stealing fish from people who are returning home with their groceries after work. Sometimes they even follow people home and demand cooked fish. They often sit on the kitchen roof and inhale the scent of fried fish; sometimes they also hover around the larder and kitchen walls. To the surprise of nobody, female ghosts, in most stories, are associated with the kitchen. (There is another ghost called Meccho Bhoot that keeps demanding fish from fishermen. In fact, water bodies in Bengal are infested with an endless array of ghosts.)

This intense love for fish in female ghosts has a strong socio-cultural reason. Bengali widows, many of them still children, were forced to live on sattvic food, and their diet was very restricted. Since fish plays a major role in the Bengali cuisine, the loss of fish had a big impact on these women. Their intake was limited to grains and vegetables, with very little spice, and it severely lacked protein. While the rest of the family ate wholesome meals which included fish and meat, they were deprived of all of it.

Bengal had a number of child widows, mainly because of the practice of Kulinism, which allowed Brahmin men to marry many women, often as many as ten to 15. The death of one man, therefore, left many widows, many of them children. It is only natural that the craving for fish would be a constant in these widows and a major trait of their restless spirits.

Another hallmark of Bengali ghostlore is the abundance of space. Most stories have no shortage of large spaces that are completely occupied by spooks: villas, forests, marshlands, hamlets. Entire villages are haunted in folktales. One major reason for Bengali ghosts having such huge spatial benefit is simply because people died in large numbers to guarantee it.

The region was so often afflicted by epidemics that in a fortnight everyone in a village could be dead. In 1896, the plague struck Bengal. This was followed by cholera and malaria in 1906. The 1921 census revealed the average death rate to be around 30.3 per cent. In 1925, close to five lakh people died of malaria.

Looking back, I realise today that the Golper Desh is not a fictional space. It was in many ways a real land with stories of real people who died horrible deaths. There is no glory in dying of a disease or starving to death and yet people were there – they loved, they suffered, they existed, and these stories are the only way they can hold on to their humanity.

Even today they surround us; breathing, living entities, floating around us, hoping we might inhale them, transmit them, and keep their legacy alive. Or occasionally, just offer them a piece of fish.

Aditi Sen is a historian based at Queen’s University, Canada.