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Opinion: Nobody ghosts are the scariest of all

  • “Nobody” knows who gave the order to pull a new Bengali film by a hit filmmaker from theatres in Kolkata a couple of days after its release
  • In India, most crimes are perpetrated by the “Nobody” ghost, so nobody can be held accountable 

A poster of ‘Bhobishyoter Bhoot’, a film that satirized political parties.
A poster of ‘Bhobishyoter Bhoot’, a film that satirized political parties.

Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.

—Stephen King

The neem tree at the back of our house in Kolkata was apparently a hang-out for ghosts. In Bengal, ghosts came in many different shapes and sizes, like characters out of a Bengali soap opera. Shaankhchunnis were married women turned into screechy ghosts, unable to escape sexist stereotypes even in death. Petnis had unfulfilled desires. Mamdobhoots were long-bearded Muslims while the Brahmin brahmodoittyo rather obnoxiously showed off his Sanskrit. The skondhokaata was searching for his head while the mechhobhoot craved fish in the afterlife. I was not sure exactly which ghost lived on our neem tree but I thought it best to avoid it after dark.

However, there is a new ghost in town these days, one outside this elaborate spectral taxonomy. This ghost is very difficult to spot though it’s active day and night, full moon or no moon. Unlike the shaankhchunni, it does not wear clinking shaankha bangles, or smell slightly fishy like the mechhobhoot or call your name three times in the dead of night like the deadly nishi. Its feet don’t point backwards and it needs no dilapidated mansion or neem tree to hide in.

It’s the Nobody Bhoot. You cannot see it but you can see its handiwork.

The other day there was a protest march in Kolkata against the latest depredations of Nobody. It turns out these days, in an ironic twist, it is going after other ghosts. Film-maker Anik Dutta had made a hit Bengali film called Bhooter Bhobishyot (The Future Of Ghosts) in 2012 about ghosts rendered homeless because their old mansion was being “promoted" into boxy modern ghost-unfriendly apartments. This year, Dutta was back with Bhobishyoter Bhoot (The Ghosts Of The Future), a political satire about the living dead. Nobody is spared in it, said a friend—outdated Communists, the Chhinnamool party and saffron types. But someone got spooked and within a couple of days the film vanished from Kolkata theatres.

But who gave the order? Nobody.

During the Padmaavat brouhaha, the Shri Rajput Karni Sena had threatened to cut off Deepika Padukone’s nose, vandalized sets, issued menacing statements. But this time there is no Karni Sena to point to, no incriminating fingerprints. Nobody is taking offence publicly. It’s all so genteel and un-messy, it leads me to suspect that Nobody must be a very bhadralok bhoot, one who loathes getting his hands dirty.

At the protest march, there were ghosts in black capes nasally chanting “Amaader chhobi keno udhao? Jobab chai jobab dao (Why has our film vanished? We need a reply, give us a reply)". Protesters sang that tired old marching favourite—We Shall Overcome. An artist drew a protest poster on the spot. I couldn’t quite tell what it represented. Probably Nobody, since he was on everybody’s mind.

Writer Kalyan Ray told me, “Nobody knows who is silencing us, which is far more dangerous than the silence itself." Theatre director Sohag Sen said: “The film has been cleared by censors. How can you do this? Nobody has given us any reason." Everyone felt the power of Nobody and his favourite hench-ghost, the uparwala, as in “we have orders from uparwala".

Bengal has a slew of MPs and MLAs from the celluloid world. But they weren’t visible in the protest for freedom of expression in their own backyard. Dadasaheb Phalke winner Soumitra Chatterjee, 84, was there alongside director-actor Aparna Sen. Chatterjee said: “A large part of the industry seems unmoved. I cannot see their protest, hear it, or even read it anywhere." Who were they scared of? Clearly, Nobody.

But what kind of 21st century ghostbuster can solve a problem Nobody is responsible for? The Supreme Court has ruled that Bhobishyoter Bhoot cannot be kept out of theatres but it is unclear when it will actually return. Perhaps after the elections.

Meanwhile, Nobody has been very busy. A special court recently acquitted Swami Aseemanand and three others in the 2007 Samjhauta Express blast case that killed 68 people, mostly Pakistanis. Swami Aseemanand once gave a 42-page confession about how “bomb ka jawab bomb se dena chahiye" which he later retracted. But that was just a red herring. Who killed those 68 people on that train? Nobody. Then there was Pehlu Khan, the dairy farmer in Rajasthan who was lynched in 2017 for transporting cows. Nobody did that either.

Nobody is a ghost for all seasons. When social worker Bhanwari Devi said she was gang raped in 1992 for trying to stop a child marriage, five people were accused but then acquitted. The judge said a middle-aged Indian man could not have been part of a gang rape alongside his own nephew, and, anyway, her husband could not have just watched passively if his wife was being gang raped. In 2018, all 22 accused in the Sohrabuddin Shaikh encounter were acquitted, indicating Nobody murdered Shaikh. Nobody molested a 13-year-old Dalit girl and pushed her off a moving bus in Moga in 2015. Nobody left 14 people dead, some charred, some hacked to pieces, in the Best Bakery carnage in Vadodara in 2002. His ghostly hand can even turn an open-and-shut case inside out. The son of a politician, Manu Sharma, fired at Jessica Lall, a model, in a crowded bar in Delhi for refusing to serve him a drink in 1999 but when it went to trial, it seemed No One Killed Jessica. The murder weapon disappeared, witnesses turned hostile, and he was acquitted until great outrage forced a new trial where he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

It’s really tricky because as the Supreme Court once quoted Jonathan Swift in response to the Best Bakery witness’ flip-flops in court, “Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through." And a shape-shifting Nobody can go through any web. Somebody is nabbed for a heinous crime and then the regime changes and files disappear, an FIR takes unconscionably long to be registered, the case plods through the courts for years and years, witnesses turn hostile, and, eventually, somebody turns into Nobody. A spectral presence since Independence, Nobody has been growing from strength to strength, feeding off a collective lack of accountability, tortuous legal processes and pliable investigations.

But rest assured, our government is trying its best. After a botched investigation, the police often catch Nobody. It’s just tricky to keep a ghost in custody. But perhaps this time he has gone too far, messing with other ghosts. Maybe this time the long-suffering victims will all rally together—the shaankhchunnis and petnis, the gechhobhoots and mechhobhoots, the mamdobhoots linking arms with the brahmodoittyos singing We Shall Overcome, a little off-key perhaps but with enough verve to raise the dead.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues that we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host

He tweets at @sandipr

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