Indigenous is all the rage these days.
Indigenous liquors like cashew feni and mahua liquor are being marketed as heritage. Heritage rice is in the news, introducing us to names like Karpurkanti and Mallifulo.
But our indigenous ghosts still seem to be out in the cold. As it is, the ghost space is shrinking rapidly in India. Old ghost-friendly mansions are being turned into boxy apartment buildings with 24-hour security cameras. Trees are being chopped and marshlands are being filled at an alarming rate in the name of development. The ghostly lights of will-o’-the-wisps found in marshlands and swamps, the aleyas and peys, can hardly compete with the blazing electric lights all around them. The hapless ghosts of India have nowhere to go, not even to a Halloween party.
Over Halloween weekend, my social media feed has been filled with buff bare-chested horned devils and winged angels, witches with conical hats, ghosts in white bedsheets and the Joker from Batman. But I didn’t see a single Mohini pey, mechhobhoot, ban jhakri or pisaach. No one invited them to the Halloween parties that are all the rage these days in swanky nightclubs, although chances are that even if they showed up, the bouncer wouldn’t let them in for being too downmarket. Our homegrown ghosts are not artisanal enough yet for our new-found Halloween cosmopolitanism.
Over the last decade, Halloween has been added to the pantheon of Indian festivals in Indian cities of all tiers. I remember being invited to a Halloween party in the US years ago. Not having grown up with Halloween, I fretted about the kind of costume I would manage to jerry-rig. An Indian friend said just wear something ethnic, like kurta-pajama. I remember staring at him, perplexed at how this could pass off as a Halloween costume. What was I supposed to be dressing up as, I wondered. An Indian? Those were the George Bush-Dick Cheney years. I stuck some leafy branches to the back of my T-shirt, my friend wrapped some silver chains around himself. And we called ourselves “Bush-Chainey”. It was not an award-winning costume by any means but at least it was not kurta-pajama.
Nowadays, Halloween and Halloween outfits are serious affairs even in India. Retailers are spamming me about Halloween sales, asking me to use the code SPOOKY for great bargains. Malls have brought down their Diwali diyas and put up flying bats and witches on broomsticks. Starbucks is offering pumpkin lattes, though we don’t have those orange jack-o-lantern pumpkins here. But the actual ghosts and monsters are still being imported wholesale from the West. Our local bhoots are still not cool enough for Halloween.
That is tragic because we have some utterly cool ghosts and monsters. There’s the zunhindawt from Mizoram which sleepwalks and drinks from puddles of urine. The otte molechi might ask you for a betel nut on a lonely road in Kerala, and, when you give her one, she will pull her single breast out of her blouse, spin like a dervish and whack you on the head with it till you shatter into pieces. The manticore described by the fifth century Greek writer Ctesias had a humanoid face, blue eyes, three rows of sharp teeth, feet and claws of a lion and a half-metre-long stinger of a scorpion attached to its tail which it could fire like harpoons. In short, the Made-in-India Halloween possibilities are endless, yet we run after Frankenstein’s monster, Harry Potter wizards and Macbeth’s witches.
I too didn’t know much about Indian ghosts beyond the few Bengali ones I grew up with. I learnt about the rest in the magnum opus Ghosts, Monsters And Demons Of India. Its editor, Rakesh Khanna, who grew up in California and now lives in Chennai, knows both desi ghosts and videshi ghosts first-hand. During a session at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet this year, he said the idea of a ghost as a “transparent, wispy thing is British, or at least European”. Perhaps Madame Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society, famous for its seances where mediums would supposedly ooze ectoplasm, imported those Westernised ghosts here. “The folkloric ghosts of older Indian tradition tend to be solid,” said Khanna. “You can touch them and they can pick things up. They can also turn into a kind of purplish smog and fit into a bottle. And they can eat.”
They certainly can! Priyadarshini Chatterjee documented the eating habits of Bengali ghosts for the online site Scroll. In the 16th century Chandimangal, ghouls would buy meat cakes, blood wine, paan made of human skin and bone marrow yogurt. Luckily, most of them are much more vanilla in their dietary preferences. The mechhobhoot, like most Bengalis, loves fish and the smell of frying fish can send it into a tizzy. The petni, the ghost of an unmarried married woman, follows people home from the fish market, querulously demanding a piece of fish. Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s ghosts like strong-smelling treats that were frowned upon by genteel society, like dried fish or asafoetida, and were repulsed by Bengali kanchagolla, a ball of pure sweetened soft chhena.
Our shuddh desi ghosts reveal a lot about our own taboos and foibles. What ghosts eat in the afterlife can be what they were deprived of in this life. In Goynar Baksho (Jewellery Box), a Bengali short story by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, the ghost of the widowed aunt, married off at 11 and widowed soon after, craves fish, something taken away from her when she lost her husband. She also wants to know what sex feels like. It’s no accident that a lot of ghosts are women, unmarried women murdered by the father of her unborn child, widows condemned as witches, unhappily married women who met a grisly end. It’s also no surprise that even in ghost-dom, caste privileges hold firm. The brahmadaitya, or the ghost of a Brahmin, lives on the top branches of the peepal or bael tree.
Indian trees and Indian ghosts make for a fascinating botanical study. The female petnis like fig trees, the bamboo ghosts haunt bamboo groves. One sleeps under a tamarind tree at one’s own risk. Our family home in Kolkata had a neem tree which was supposedly the home of myriad ghosts. For all our bravado and scientific rationality, we tried not to go under that tree at night. But when it was torn down and the house turned into an apartment building, I missed it with a pang and imagined all its ghosts suddenly rendered homeless. Veteran ghost writer Ruskin Bond informed his audience at the Kolkata Literary Meet that he had been told not to yawn under a peepal tree because a ghost would jump down his throat and ruin his digestion forever. Jamun trees were safe, he said. For some reason, ghosts don’t frequent them.
Unlike the fairly generic English ghost, then, our ghosts have dazzling regional variety—the Kashmiri rantas wears a dirty pheran, has saggy breasts and a weak spot for men with bulging muscles and premature baldness. The beri in the Lakshwadeep Sea can spend decades floating like a log of driftwood until it washes up on shore as a strapping handsome young man, a great catch for any young woman apart from his habit of digging up corpses and bringing them home to eat. The than-thin daini of Assam can detach her head, which then roams about hungrily on its own, gobbling up whatever it can find, except those sleeping inside a mosquito net—which would make for an excellent anti-malaria campaign.
As Ruskin Bond said: “You can’t run out of material in India because of the immense variety of spooks and the different ways in which they operate. Whenever I am blank and I don’t have any ideas, I’ll do a ghost story.”
In the true spirit of Make in India, it’s high time we reclaimed our own homegrown ghosts and monsters and decolonised our Halloween. I say it’s time for a nationwide contest to identify a national ghost. In keeping with the spirit of the times, we should all be rooting for one nation, one ghost.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.