Of ghosts and their funny ways

Last Tuesday MiD DAY had a wickedly delightful story about a woman from north-east Ohio who claimed that there were ghosts having sex in her living room.

The story was based on a Fox News report, which quoted the woman, Dianne Carlisle, as insisting her four-year-old granddaughter, while playing with a cell phone, had recorded the ghosts, of course inadvertently so, furiously having a go. As if that were not bad enough, "You could see the lady's high heeled shoes." I wonder how Ms Carlisle missed out on the red lipstick.

Reading about Ms Carlisle's close encounter, albeit through cellphone recorded images, with beings that inhabit the ethereal world around us, reminded me of a Bengali short story I had read many years ago. I don't remember the author's name, but the sheer inventiveness of the writer made the story memorable. It was about a middle-aged woman whose husband had died in a road accident. Such was the intensity of the man's love for his wife that his ghost refused to cross over to the other side. He made himself at home in the very home where he used to live, perched on the ledge of the old-fashioned ventilator of the bedroom. But since he could not be seen and because he didn't utter a word,nobody was aware of hispresence.

The story begins with the widow, freshly bathed and draped in a fine muslin sari, lounging on the marital bed that she had shared till recently with her dearly departed, waiting for a young man whom she had taken as a lover. Unaware of the tryst, her husband's ghost, sitting on the ventilator ledge, breaks his silence and tells her how pretty she looks. Shocked and startled by her dead husband's voice the widow looks up. The ghost says, "It's me. Surely you haven't forgotten me already?" What are you doing up there, the woman asks. "Just sitting here and looking at you." Well, do me a favour, just turn around and look out of the ventilator for the next few hours, the fresh air will do you good, she snaps back at him. I can't recall the rest of the story.

Many would have been spooked out of their minds to be stared at by a ghost, even if the ghost were that of their dead spouse or lover. Yet, despite that most of us are fascinated by ghosts, or at least the idea of ghosts. Literature is littered with ghostly tales, not all of it beastly either. Banquo's ghost may have tormented Lady Macbeth and driven her insane, but we also have ghosts who take extraordinary care not to cause any harm.

Casper the Ghost is fashioned after genial spooks. Growing up wouldn't be the same without horrid stories of haunted houses and wailing banshees. Indeed, Indian literature would have been poorer without its genre of 'ghost stories' and earthy folk tales would have been dull and boring had they not been spun around bhoot, pret and pisaach, one not to be confused with the other. The comic book series titled Vikram Aur Betaal, based on Baitali Pachisi, was not only about morality tales.

Those given to rationalism and what a deracinated Jawaharlal Nehru pompously called the "scientific temper" would no doubt snigger at the very mention of ghosts and denounce the superstition of people who believe in them. But that has not stopped great writers and filmmakers from foraying into the unknown territory where plasma substitutes body and form.

Rabindranath Tagore's three remarkable short stories come to mind � The Hungry Stones, Living or Dead? and Monihara, which featured in Satyajit Ray's masterpiece, Teen Kanya. Ray's Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha), and its sequels, Hirak Raja'r Deshe (In the Land of Hirak Raja) and Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (The Return of Goopy and Bagha) were possibly his most commercially successful films that drew full houses for months. But for ghosts and their Raja, there would have been no story for these films to have been made.

There was a time when we lived in large houses with cavernous rooms and musty corridors, and could see fireflies in the inky darkness of night through large glass-paned windows. Shadows cast on moonlit nights or the swaying curtains on moonless nights made ghosts seem very real; they hovered over you, followed you or waited to pounce upon you, depending on whether they were good ghosts, timid ghosts or bad ghosts. In the cramped box-like apartments in which we live now, there's hardly any space left for hovering, following or pouncing. Ghosts need space too.

As I write this piece, my watch tells me it's three in the morning and I will have to climb down three flights of stairs in an ill-lit building and walk through a dark side lane to reach my car which is parked next to a cemetery. I have often wondered about the scratches that I discover in the most unlikely places on my car every morning. Poor things, ghosts can't trim their nails, you see, they have to just let them grow.

The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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