Do you like ghost stories? I do.
My growing-up years were full of so many of them! Right from Thamma’s (my grandmother) recollection of the native ghosts that resided in our ancestral village in Chattagram, to the bizarre tales that Papa (my father) used to cook up, that scared me right off my skin; and then graduating to the delights of Poe, Le Fanu, Rosemary Timperley, Ray Bradbury, Algernon Blackwood and the likes.
Although I generally started disliking listening to stories after I could read them myself, ghost stories were an exception. There was a delicious thrill about ‘load-shedding’ evenings (I think that was one of the Great Romantic Phenomenon that happened to Kolkata when we were kids, don’t you agree? Of course, I was not my 40+ self then, with 100 chores to take care of while groping about in the semi-darkness, so I can afford to be fondly nostalgic about it), with the flicker of a ‘hurricane’ light, long, weird shadows in the corners, and listening to someone’s recounting of ‘shotti bhuter golpo’ (true ghost stories) – with my mouth slightly agape and skin breaking into goosebumps.
The first ghost stories that I heard were from Thamma – of the village ghosts. There was one about this spectral white horse that people would sometimes see on new moon nights, and which invariably meant that there would be a death in the village within the next seven days. There was also one about a beautiful girl whose heart-breaking sobs could be heard from a bamboo grove bordering the village on stormy nights. Unsuspecting people who had gone to the grove to find out the reason, never came back. The one that I particularly liked was a story about The Echo.
Since Chattagram is a somewhat hilly area, there was this one echo point near the village. During the daytime, whatever people would shout from that point, the sound would come back like a normal echo. But at night, if you ask The Echo a question, it would retort with an answer! The way I heard it was, if you ask- ‘O sonabibi, aij bhat khaile ki diya?’ (O Sonabibi, what did you have for dinner?), the echo would reply, in a slightly nasal voice- ‘huna machher salun diya’ (with dried fish curry)! The tongue-in-cheek humour in this tale always cracked me up.
In this context, remember a priceless story that I read in ‘Shondesh’.(remember that children’s magazine?) It was written by Mahashweta Debi and was called ‘Bharengar Bhoot’. (‘Bharenga’ being the name of their native village). This one is her grandmother’s recounting. She always said - “Contrary to popular belief, never say ‘bhoot amar poot, petni amar jhi..’ when you see a ghost.” When asked why, she said - “once I was passing a lonely street at night and was having this eerie feeling. But just when I started chanting this, (and I just HAVE to quote her verbatim here!) ‘duita chhamra chhemri bhoot laf maira aisha koy ki – “jhi ashchhe, putro ashchhe, kole nyao”!” (‘Your son and daughters are here, pick us up in your lap’)
Now these were the more ‘jomati’ ghost stories. A little sardonic and weird, but suitable for kids, never spine-tingling. Those other variety of stories were my Papa’s forte. And he always used to chronicle them in first person, which made them all the more convincing and macabre! The one that I remember the most goes like this -
‘I used to travel a lot during my salesman days, and my areas were mainly Siliguri and Dooars. During that time, I often used to dream of a house. It was an old house, but not dilapidated, and it stood lonely near the bank of a river. Whenever I had that dream, I would feel a mixture of sadness and anxiety, as if I knew this house and have unfinished business there.
There was an old, rusty gate that was not locked. I would open the gate and walk towards the house, then knock on the door. The door would slowly start to open, as if someone was parting it from inside, and I would invariably wake up at that precise time, never finding out what would happen next.
Now this one time, I was assigned to go to Moinaguri for some work. I finished my business by late afternoon, and then started walking towards the station to catch my return train. And that was when I spotted The House. It was exactly the same house in my dreams, standing forlorn in the melancholy grey light of the falling dusk. My heart started racing. I almost felt like I didn’t want to go to the house, but some invisible power pulled me towards it. I opened the rusty gate just like I would in my dreams, and went walking towards the main door through the gravelly path. I knocked and waited. After a while, the door started opening and I saw an aged man, very pale and gaunt, peeping out. It seemed to me that he was probably a caretaker of sorts. I asked him, “I was just passing by, and this house somehow caught my fancy. Does anyone live here?” The man nodded his head. “No one does. The house is haunted. They say that someone comes here every night.” I was surprised. “Really, who does?” The man looked at me with his weird, vacant eyes. “Well, the one who comes...” “Yes, tell me” I said encouragingly, a peculiar dread building up within me, “who comes here every night?” “The one who comes”, said that man, “...is You!”
This story would give me the creeps every time I heard it. A lot later I discovered that it was actually a short story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.
Another source (although scantier) of ghostly tales was my grandfather. Being a lawyer, he had his own repertoire of delectable court ghost stories. My favourite one was about this clerk who had to stay back late in the Bar Library one day due to some reason. When he was about to finish his work, it was already night and the dimly-lit library was deserted. The hairs on his neck stood up suddenly when he heard a very soft, desolate sigh behind his back. He dared not turn back as a paralysing fear had gripped him. Someone spoke, in a whisper that sounded like it was made up of emptiness and ether, “khoon ta kintu ami kori ni” (but I did not really commit the murder).
I could narrate hundreds more. How a man found a little baby crying pitifully near a level crossing at night and picked it up to take it to the nearest village, and as he was carrying it, found something weird touching his feet. He lit up his torch to see if it was a snake and saw that it was the baby’s arms that became long enough to dangle and touch the ground. Bizarre, thrilling, supernatural tales that coloured my childhood imagination. It is such a pity that that ambience is lost, as well as the people who would recount these tales with such mastery.
What was your favourite haunting tale? Tell us some. We’re all ears.