TIMELESS WORLD OF BENGALEE GHOST STORIES

Madhuri Chatterjee

In relieving my childhood memories, one thing I always remember is my Thama (grandmother) drawing me close and telling me stories of the Bhoots (ghosts) of Bengal. Her memory was stocked with tales of an eclectic crop of ghosts, and her stories painted a picture of a changing Bengal, in the twentieth century, caught halfway between rapid modernization and a wish to hold on to the simpler way of life. The Bengal of these stories let us hang on to those desolate corners, the towering trees and abandoned huts in which the ghosts of the past could hide comfortably. As I learned to read Bangla, I discovered that these stories abounded in the world of Bengali fiction, published in popular children’s literary magazines like Anandamela and Shuktara Shonkolon. Sukumar Roy's Abol Tabol and his many limericks shaped my childhood, but for a child growing up outside Bengal, these Bhooter Golpo (ghost stories) marked a way of life, and I devoured them on long summer holidays from my Thama.

The Bengalee adventure stories for children dates back perhaps a hundred years. The first book that comes to my mind is Chander Pahar (Mountains of Moon) by Bhibhuti Bhushan Bondophadhya.(1930) and Hanabari (The Haunted House) by Hemandra Kumar Roy. The earliest story I can recall was from the magical world of Tutu Bhutu the beloved children classic created nearly sixty years ago by genius Dhiren Pal. A cat called Bhutu, his parents, and his friends live in a picture-perfect village somewhere in Bengal. All of them have neat little houses in their neat little village, all of them wear clothes just like humans do, and when the time comes to treat his friends to a feast, Bhutu goes fishing with his duck friend Hansukhoka. Bal's brilliance as both author and illustrator have been celebrated by at least three generations of Bengali children. It was first published in March 1959 by Chandicharan Das & Company. In an age of ultra-sophisticated computer games and animation, why and how are children still drawn to the parallel universe of 'Tutu-Bhutu'? Pritha Bal believes the secret lies in the simple, everyday life which the book deals with. The touch of fantasy comes from the fact that here you have animals who live and dress like humans, cats who catch fish from the pond instead of stealing them, and birds who are actually cops. It is rooted in reality and hence timeless, because the essential nature of childhood never changes. It was also Tutu-Bhutu which fetched him the moniker of 'Walt Disney of Bengal'. It evokes both nostalgia for the past and happiness about the present. I also remember Tuntunir Boi by Upendrakishore Roychowdhury -the book that catered to every child’s imagination. But it is not just a book. It is almost like a time travel and a great companion of every child and every young adult. This classic is like a best friend of our growing up years. Be it the tiny tuntuni, or the sly fox, the foolish Brahmin or the adamant tiger, or even Pantaburi, Upendra Kishore has weaved wonderful fairy tales with these imaginative characters that have a relevance to human characters.

Another story, I love to recount is the Hand of Gadkhali. Late 19th century. A young couple are living in a village in Bengal when they hear that the girl's ancestral village has suffered a severe cholera epidemic. The girl, worried about her mother, living there alone asks her husband to go there and look her up. The man duly sets out and reaches the village at sunset. He knocks on his mother-in-law's door and is very relieved when she opens the door herself and seems totally fine. She obviously wants to give her son-in-law a good meal and soon cooks up a storm. The man duly tucks in and is really enjoying his fish when he asks for some green chilli to add a little more bite to his curry. And the mother-in-law absently puts up her hand, and it snakes out of the window, picks up the green chilli from the vegetable patch outside and deposits it on his plate. He apparently started running then, dhoti and all and did not rest till he was many miles away. They later found out that Gadkhali had become a village of ghosts, each and every villager had either run away or died of cholera. This is the version my thama told me, not sure if there are others. There is a version where she stretches her hand to get a lemon, (a squeeze of lemon juice being mandatory with the daal bhaat), but otherwise the same story. Some have lime tree (lebu gaach). Its written down by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay, creator of Byomkesh Bakshi, and also by Manoj Basu. There must be other written versions. There's a somewhat similar Japanese version in the amazing film Kwaidan by Masaki Kobayashi.

Later, I rediscovered and read more stories, only to realize that the ghosts had a life of their own. The lives of these bhoots in Bengali ghost stories shed light on the socio-cultural factors that imagine death and the afterlife within the literary landscape of Bengal. The ghosts in these stories, such as the Gechho Bhoot, Mechho Bhoot, Mamdo Bhoot, Shankhachunni, Skondhokata, Brahmadaitya and so on, are not mere symbols or ideas drawn from the structures of lived existence, but entities shaped by socio-cultural beliefs that form the contours of the human experience in Bengal. And interestingly, food plays an important role within this ghostly topography; a way to normalize the paradox of death.Infact, the role of food goes beyond appearing in funeral feasts, bereavement rituals, and memorialization practices. Food in fact, is a key agent in putting death into cognizable structures of human experience by evoking a sense of comfort and familiarity. ‘Maachhe bhaate Bengali,’ goes the popular saying: Fish and rice maketh the Bengali man. Bengali ghosts, like their human counterparts, are also gastronomically inclined. While some ghosts are believed to have an appetite for fish, others cannot let go of their weakness for sweets, both of which are well-known Bengali proclivities. Our limited understanding of death, outside of its inevitability, makes the conceptualization of death a site for the creation of meaning, feeding into the imagination of the afterlife. In certain European peasant cultures, there was a custom of feeding the returning soul on the steam of cooked food, since it could not consume food like the living. The spirit must be fed in a primarily symbolic way, points out leading anthropologist Peter Berta, because the worldly concept of eating must be adjusted to the physiological changes induced by death. The creatures of the afterlife in Bengali ghost stories, however, pose a peculiar conundrum. Although the act of eating is symbolic of life, and that of ceasing to consume food emblematic of death, bhoots in Bengali ghost fiction continue to harbour their love for food even in the afterlife.

Humayun Ahmed, in his introduction to an anthology of ghost stories from Bengal, titled Amar Priyo Voutik Golpo (My Favourite Ghost Stories), reminisces over the normalcy of accepting the presence of ghosts in the fabric of everyday life in rural Bengal. In the villages of Bengal, the presence of ghosts was a routine occurrence, considered to be ghorer manush, or part of the household (a term that usually encompassed the entire village community). Ahmed recounts an incident from his childhood, a meeting one evening between his maternal grandfather and a guest from a neighboring village. The flow of conversation had been smoothly continuing between the two of them until the guest suddenly lamented that a petni (a colloquial term in Bengali for pretni or female ghost) had been creating a nuisance for his family of late. The nature of the disturbance was such that if one fried fish in the house, the petni would then extend her hand through the kitchen window and try to snatch away the fried fish. Upon failing to get her hands on any of the fried fish, she would entreat upon the family in a nasal voice to give her the fish. Ahmed observes that the most intriguing element of this tale was that no one in the guest’s family was either surprised by this incident or found it unusual. Ahmed writes that it was commonly reported and widely believed in Bengal that spirits preferred fried fish, and thus it was completely natural for them to disturb the living in order to procure their meat of choice.

Fish, and the pescatarian diet is so pervasive in Bengal that it has even given birth to a special kind of ghost called the Mechho Bhoot, a fish-eating ghost, that features in writer Monoj Bosu’s story, Bhooter Maachh Dhora (Ghost’s Fishing). The protagonist in the story, fisherman Ishaan, is faced with a strange predicament. His livelihood is threatened by the presence of a Mechho Bhoot, known for its insatiable appetite for fish. According to the tale, those who suffer a watery death while fishing turn into these fish-eating ghosts. Bengal’s most coveted fish, the hilsa, or ilish, as it is referred to in Bengali, also features prominently in these stories. Notably, in Samaresh Mazumdar’s story Bhootera Shatar Jaane Na (Ghosts Don’t Know How to Swim), a young boy seeks the help of two ghosts by bribing them with a pair of khoka ilish (baby hilsa) that the ghosts are known to favor. In yet another story, Bhooter Khoppore (Ghost Trap) by Robidas Saharay, a band of bhoots terrorize a young boy in order to snatch away his pot of salted hilsa. The bhooter golpo of Bengal thus reveal how the conception of the afterlife often comes across as a translation of life in the living world and society of Bengal.

The fact that each cultural system produces its own version of the world after death and its distinctive ghosts is suggestive of the fact that although the need to imagine might be similar among all societies, the actual imagined result varies according to cultural or local conditions. So it is interesting to note that elements of the mortal world also find resonance in the imagination of the afterlife. For instance, the ghost of a Brahmin, the Brahmadaitya, is accorded a higher status even in the afterlife, and feared and revered by human beings and other ghosts alike. As an illustration, in a story by Taradas Bandhopadhyay, Bhootera Ekhon (The Status of Ghosts Now), the ghost of a woman of a lower economic class in life, is found admonishing her ghost son in the afterlife for wanting to eat stale fish. As the son ghost pesters his mother for rotten fish, his harried mother replies, “Are we Brahmadaityas that we can afford such expensive foods? We are ordinary ghosts of simple households, it is not within our means to eat delicacies like rotten fish every day.” Evidently, the links of social continuity are not lost in death, and instead shape the Bengali afterlife into an almost identical social structure as found in life.

Lila Majumdar is also celebrated for her detective and supernatural stories. The belief that ghosts seek out nourishment can be traced in her stories -that food is central to the continuation of life. Some stories of Mahashweta Debi published in popular children s magazine in Sandesh magazine started by Upendra Roy Choudhary offer a glimpse into unique bhoot cuisine such as delicacies like curried worms, gravy of dead rats’ meat, and kebabs made of dried dead crows served in human skulls, most stories fall back on the foods of the living world. The afterlife stems from the need for another kind of reality after death, which is still reassuring, accessible, and perceivable by human beings.

My childhood memories would be incomplete without recalling Satyajit Ray 's iconic bengalee film 'Gopi Gyne Bagha Byne' - the film I had watched innumerable times with my grandparents. It can easily be interpreted as a film addressed at children. All the features that define entertainment for children, drawn from conventional fairy tales, are used prominently, things like magic, kings, castles, princesses, war, kingdoms, even a ghost king and a ghost dance. But Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne can also be interpreted as a powerful socio-political statement focusing on hunger, conflict and its futility, greed and obsession with power leading to corruption, and the power of music to promote social change and peace.

Goopy Gyne is the son of a poor grocer and peasant in Amloki village who dreams of becoming a great singer. Sadly, he sings completely out of tune and beat. He is also naïve. When the village elders ask him to sing outside the king’s palace at dawn, he does it. The king orders his men to seat Goopy on a donkey and drive him out of the village. His father wipes a tear and goes back to his hut. On the way, Goopy meets the drummer Bagha Byne, an orphan from Hortuki village who is trying to find a livelihood. They walk into the jungle nearby. A ghost king appears in the night through a well-lit twinkling star and offers them three boons. The first thing the two wannabe musicians ask for is that they should get any kind of food and clothing they need. The second boon they seek is that they should be able to travel whenever and wherever they wish with song and drums. The ghost king gifts them a pair of magic shoes which each must wear to be able to travel anywhere they choose. For the other two boons, the two must clap together with one hand each; in today's lingo, give each other a high-five. Goopy and Bagha, with their magical music, the lovely food they now have ready access to, and the freedom to travel whenever, wherever, set out on an adventure through two kingdoms and end up solving their problems with their music and magic. In return for their help, the kings of Shundy and Halla give them their daughters Monimala and Muktamala in marriage.

Never can one forget the psychedelic ghost dance of the king of ghosts in complete darkness with twinkling lights and a different voice as if emanating from a machine. (later attempted by Steven Spielberg in his movie ET) The ghost king is a generous fellow and begins to like the two simpletons who have neither home nor hearth. The dance of the ghosts is a celluloid representation of the division of society into caste, class and economic strata since ancient times. It has political ramifications too.'Bhooter Raja dilo Bor' means the king of ghost gave us boom.The film is a fantasy, musical, a satire, a farce and a powerful political essay depending on how we read it. The film was shot in 1968 on a shoestring budget of six lakh. The film is based on the two characters, Goopy and Bagha, who first appeared in Sandesh, a magazine for children, in 1915 with illustrations by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Roy Choudhury. It was Ray's first and, perhaps, only fantasy film that used animation, surrealistic images, shadow play and special effects in its cinematography, a challenge for his cameraman Soumendu Roy. All the features that define entertainment for children, drawn from conventional fairy tales, are used prominently, things like magic, kings, castles, princesses, war, kingdoms, even a ghost king and a ghost dance. But Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne can also be interpreted as a powerful socio-political statement focusing on hunger, conflict and its futility, greed and obsession with power leading to corruption.

So the bhooter golpo of Bengal serve an important function, posing the same difficult questions regarding life and death that have continued to haunt philosophers and theologians, but in an alleviatory mode, cloaked in the garb of entertainment. Bhoots, as my grandmother would have said, are very much like us, just different kettle of fish. My childhood been these endearing stories from my grandparents which were wrapped with oral narratives, folklore, magic and a certain wonderment to leave such lasting imprints.

Context

  • Bhooter golpo-ghost stories
  • Hansokha-duck
  • Lebu gaach-lime tree
  • Hilsa/ilish types of fish
  • The names of ghosts are colloquial.
  • The anthologies,books and all journals have been mentioned in the course of the paper.
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Bio: Madhuri Chatterjee is a closet writer and art enthusiast. She is interested in creative writing, poetry, short stories, translations, and travelling. She regularly distributes her time to write for them in magazines and journals. After a thirty year long career, travelling and children stories occupy her most. Armed forces background makes her enthusiastic about adventure travels and spending time in the wild.


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