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Ruskin Bond’s ghosts come alive on screen

The writer talks about the supernatural as four of his stories feature in a web series

Ruskin Bond at his house in Mussoorie. Photo: Mint
Ruskin Bond at his house in Mussoorie. Photo: Mint

Ruskin Bond’s stories are some of the most beloved in all of Indian literature in English. Of these, his ghost stories—either set in the Garhwal hills, where he’s lived most of his life, or in other parts of the country—are marked by the simplicity of their settings, which heighten the horror and shock of the paranormal when it appears. The OTT content platform ZEE5 will broadcast four of his ghost stories, starting 15 January, as a web series, titled Parchayee: Ghost Stories By Ruskin Bond. The stories—The Ghost In The Garden, The Wind On Haunted Hill, Wilson’s Bridge and The Overcoat—will be helmed by two award-winning directors, V.K. Prakash and Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury. In an exclusive email interview with Lounge, Bond, 84, spoke about his favourite ghost stories, his inspirations and the prospect of seeing his stories on screen. Edited excerpts:

Your ghost stories are very well known. But you wrote somewhere that you’ve never actually seen a ghost. Where does your fascination with ghost stories come from?

Well, the fascination comes from my boyhood reading, for one. I loved reading them as a boy, and I liked listening to ghost stories too. Many people told me such convincing ghost stories that I felt that there really were ghosts, though I hadn’t seen any. And though I still haven’t seen a ghost, I feel that they are all around us, we are just not aware of them being there. And that we are really outnumbered by them. In other words, if you look for a ghost, you’ll find one!

What kind of ghost stories did you read as a boy?

One of the very first ghost stories I read—and that was in a forest rest house, where it is a bit scarier—was by M.R. James. He is one of the pioneers of ghost stories. And the book was called Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary. They were set in colleges and schools and places like that…very subtle stories, they didn’t set out to scare you but they did in the end. And another writer called Algernon Blackwood. And then Walter de la Mare. These were writers who wrote, in a way, very sensitive and lyrical ghost stories, they were not just there to scare you...they probably had experiences and believed in ghosts themselves. So they were very convincing.

Indian folklore is filled with a variety of ghosts. Were you influenced by them while writing your stories?

Yes, to some extent, especially when I lived in Dehradun in the late 1950s. I had a neighbour who was a lady from a village near Agra, called Mainpuri. And she would tell me ghost stories which emanated from her village…so they were village ghosts, like bhoots and prets and peepul trees inhabited by spirits…different kinds of ghosts, ghosts in folklore. That, to some extent, also helped me write stories like The Trouble With Jinns and others.

How did you get involved in the making of ‘Parchayee’?

Well, there’s this girl in Kolkata, Samhita Chakraborty, who I call “the girl in the middle", the intermediary between me and the ghosts! She and her colleague Kaushik Ghosh from Allcap Communications came and saw me in Mussoorie and convinced me that my ghost stories would make for good viewing. They discussed with me and developed a couple of stories for the screen and took them to the producers of the show, Banijay Asia and Opus Communications. That’s how this series happened.

Have your stories for the web series been updated for the show?

Yes, because my ghost stories are short, anything between two-three pages to 10-12 pages in length. So they had to be developed further for the screen. Because my stories, especially the early ones, were written for magazines or newspapers where you had a word limit. Just like O. Henry or other writers in the past, sometimes some of their stories were also written to a specific length because they were writing for a particular medium.

You’ve worked with film-makers like Shyam Benegal and Vishal Bharadwaj for cinematic adaptations before. How has your experience been in that regard?

For the film Saat Khoon Maaf, which was adapted from my story Susanna’s Seven Husbands, I did collaborate on the screenplay. I even took a small role in the film, of a priest. For Shyam Benegal’s Junoon, which was from my novella A Flight Of Pigeons, I had certain suggestions for the screenplay, but I didn’t work on it.

Finally, is it easy to adapt short stories for the screen? What have your challenges been like?

Well, I don’t have that challenge because I write them just the way I enjoy writing them. I guess the adaptation is handled by the director and the screenwriter. Looking back at famous films on ghost stories or films where there was a supernatural or macabre element, I feel it can come off quite well, like Wuthering Heights or Rebecca. But I think it is easier for a ghost story to be more effective when they are short stories.

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