* Author Riksundar Banerjee dissects the characteristics of the ghost in diverse cultures
* Some ghosts try to sexually seduce their victims. “Sexual desires have often driven ghosts into finding a way back to the mortal world”
* Banerjee’s spirited study of the subject led him to the treasure trove of oral tales and lores
Among the staple childhood stories one grows up on are often those of ghosts, beings which lingered in our world long after their deaths. Drawing from this rich repertoire of stories from across the country and corners of the world, author Riksundar Banerjee crafts an encyclopedia for contemporary times — The Book of Indian Ghosts.
Pointing out the commonalities of such stories in literature across the globe, “the Ramayana or Mahabharata; Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible; The Egyptian Book of the Dead; the Iliad; and the Odyssey, among others”, Banerjee asks: “If ghosts do exist, what happens after we die?” By cautiously adopting a narrative style that doesn’t read like something from an exaggerated conspiracy book, The Book of Indian Ghosts starts off by tracing the origin of ghosts in world literature.
“Literature, movies, drama, paintings, etc., have always played significant roles in representing social structures. Remarkably, in all of these genres, ghosts or spiritual beings have marked their presence in some way,” he notes.
Banerjee, who has an abiding interest in the subject and has authored Chhaya Sorir, a collection of ghost stories in Bengali, dissects the characteristics of the ghost in diverse cultures in his new book. “Throughout history, there have been brutal injustices perpetrated on those belonging to the marginalised sections of the society,” he says. Perhaps, why myths of “vengeful spirits” always revolve around seeking revenge from humans. Banerjee also observes how some ghosts try to sexually seduce their victims. “Sexual desires have often driven ghosts into finding a way back to the mortal world,” he says.
Banerjee’s spirited study of the subject led him to the treasure trove of oral tales and lores, and he realised that they were often a more potent material than published literature. Along with several illustrations of ghosts — graphite pencil drawings — that add a haunting character to the book, Banerjee divides it into 84 chapters, each narrating different tales. They all end with a list of the characteristics of each spirit. Though it’s non-fiction, Banerjee often banks on fiction to evoke the tales associated with a particular ghost.
The book begins with a chapter on Aacheri, a child ghost. Banerjee builds his stories in places where the ghosts are popular in local folklore. As Aacheri is believed to be found in Sikkim, the lead character in Banerjee’s story lives in a “cold grim locale”.
Some chapters, like the one on Dayani, narrate tales of ghosts that harm children and their mothers. Banerjee depicts it rather brutally: “The baby was sick. His whole body had started shrinking. His jaw muscles seemed to be locked in place, his mouth gaped wide, and his body was shriveled up as if the blood was being drained out of the body,” he writes.
The author also explores ghosts that are found globally. Take for instance the Gayal — our very own vampire. “Some sources say that Gayals are the most powerful vampiric spirits ever recorded in the history of supernatural creatures,” the author observes.
Some of the ghosts Banerjee introduces readers to are shapeless. The Gayasi, for instance, is “the ghost of dirt and shadows” and “dwells in dark garbage-strewn areas”. The author’s aim is to give a perspective on spirits. Hence, his accounts are not black-and white, and considerable attention is given to the “harmless” ghosts, one like the Samandha, believed to be a “fairly harmless spirit” which “rises when proper funeral rites are not performed”. There are ghosts that bring on a chuckle, like the Jhapri which lives on trees and “shits on people!”.
While several spirits depicted in this book are linked to Hindu mythology, Banerjee has also explored the holy scriptures and books of other faiths, such as Islam, to highlight the supernatural beings found in them. “Ifrits are the spirits of the dead, and they roam around the underworld. Islamic mythology depicts them as evil demons of the jinn family of supernatural creatures…,” Banerjee observes.
Most chapters in the book explore tales of spirits found in the North and the Northeastern parts of India. Banerjee has also made sure to include some popular ghosts of the South. “One of the most commonly sighted ghosts in Tamil Nadu is the kollivai pisaasu or kollivayup pey,” the author says.
As the reader moves to the final passages of Banerjee’s book, themes that bind different cultures emerge. One learns that literature in every culture has pondered over the afterlife. Also, we realise that the characteristics of a ghost differs from place to place. The book, importantly, offers a perspective on spirits; they have more to offer than the single strokes in which they are painted.