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HALLOWEEN SPECIAL

Ghosts — good, bad and gluttonous

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on October 30, 2020

Gold rush: In Satyajit Ray’s film Teen Kanya, a woman’s lust for jewellery brings her back from the dead   -  REUTERS/ KRISHNENDU HALDER

India probably has a ghost for every occasion and mood. Here’s a look at only a few

* Spirits in rural India are the ones that bring the colour and nuances to the country’s ‘ghost-o-pedia’. They nest in trees, they call out to strangers in the silken voice of a seductress, they raid fish markets in search of fresh catch, they throw themselves in the hair of women who attract them and they snatch food out of the hands of children

* The fish-loving mechho bhoot of Bengal has made quite a name for itself. It resides in trees near water bodies in villages, and calls out to fisherfolk on their way to the market and back

* The formidable nishi daak (a voice that calls at night) has no gender. It adopts the voice of a beloved and lures the victim out of the house

* Karnataka has a slightly different version of the nishi daak. It is the unknown spirit that inspired the making of the Hindi film Stree (2018), in which men of a small town are lured out of their homes by a woman who, again, takes on the voice of a beloved

Swati tiptoes down the staircase in the dead of night. She is thirsty, restless and sleep-deprived. The TV set in the corner of the spacious living room calls out to her. She decides to give in to some late-night channel surfing in the absence of sleep. As she goes through the drill of pressing buttons on the TV remote, her eyes fall on the mirror reflection of a young woman — dressed in black and with thick black curls — breathing down her slender neck.

It’s Swati’s first glimpse of the woman who gradually takes over her mind — with frequent unscheduled appearances — and body. The ghostly apparition even has a name — Manjeet — and she seeks revenge against the man who murdered her and her son, in the same house that Swati and her husband take on rent.

The story of Swati and Manjeet gathered eyeballs when, in 2003, director Ram Gopal Varma released his film Bhoot. Set in a modern high-rise duplex in Mumbai, the film rekindled the Indian audience’s interest in the paranormal with the innovative use of sound effects (eerie organ chords, clattering plates and so on) and the absence of severed heads and limbs. The ghost in question — simply referred to as ‘bhoot’, the commonly used word for the Indian demon, spirit, goblin, vampire et al — had a single-point agenda: Revenge, and a swift, bloodless one at that.

Like Manjeet, urban ghosts in India have had many moments in celluloid. They are almost always revenge seekers — jilted lovers, abandoned wives, victims of assault and, in several instances, hit-and-run. They usually like to reside in one place: An apartment, a sprawling bungalow or even a tunnel underground (in Raat, again a Varma thriller). They are serious believers in visitations and like to leave gifts behind for the humans they take a shine to: Rag dolls, deuce balls, diaries, pieces of clothing and even pets (the neighbourhood cat could be an ally).

Since urban ghosts — just like urban humans — are hard-pressed for time, they stick to business. Revenge taken, move on and, maybe, get a life.

Spirits in rural India are the ones that bring the colour and nuances to the country’s ‘ghost-o-pedia’. They nest in trees, they call out to strangers in the silken voice of a seductress, they raid fish markets in search of fresh catch, they throw themselves in the hair of women who attract them and they snatch food out of the hands of children. They are also protectors of legacies and family heirlooms. And they are equally fiercely possessive of anything or anyone they think belongs to them.

Happy go lucky: Phillauri’s loving tree ghost, played by Anushka Sharma (above), doesn’t draw comparisons with the non-conformist chudail, who resides in banyan trees

We had glimpses of this possessiveness in the way a tree ghost, portrayed by Anushka Sharma, follows her human husband in the film Phillauri (2017). She appears before him in a vision of white and gold and leaves behind a trail of glitter and a kind of old-world affirmation of love. This lovelorn woman, however, doesn’t invite comparisons with the chudail, a Punjabi term for a witch who has a strong liking for the bargad (banyan tree). Phillauri’s Shashi follows diktats of patriarchy, thereby conforming to the image of a good woman. The chudail, as we know, is widely applied to anyone who tinkers with societal norms, be it the pursuit of passion or profession.

Housewife Moni, in Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya, has only one passion. She guards her jewellery with her life — in fact, afterlife. She comes back from the dead, dressed to the nines, for the expensive necklace that her affluent husband had promised her. She lets out a theatrical laugh as the widower tries to wrest the ornament from the hands of a skeleton. The petrified husband probably followed her soon to the next world.

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Some ghosts live outside the binaries of materialism and one true love. They are happy with smaller bounties of fish, lime and sweets. The fish-loving mechho bhoot of Bengal has made quite a name for itself. It resides in trees near waterbodies in villages, and calls out to fisherfolk on their way to the market and back. People would have you believe that no sensible machhwala (fish vendor) can ignore the mechho bhoot’s demand for fish. It falls in the category of a toll fee for safe passage.

Have your fillet: Like a true Bengali, the mechho bhoot has just one weakness: Fish   -  ISTOCK.COM

The spirit that resides in the lebu gachh (lime or lemon tree) is female. She is a shakchunni or petni, a Bengali woman who probably died unmarried. She has long hair, eyes the size of fireballs and expandable arms. Anyone who plucks a fruit from her tree must pay her back in kind. Try walking away with her share of lebu. It’s probably your only chance of seeing an arm that can stretch miles to scoop the fruit out of your hands.

Assam’s puwali bhoot is an army of small ghosts that like stealing food from the hands of children. They are said to have a sweet tooth, and swoop down on their suspects from just about anywhere — the branches of a tree or a thatched roof. Far less benign is Assam’s baak, which kills a person, enters his or her body, and waits for the next victim by posing as a corpse lying unattended.

At the other end of the spectrum is the bura dangoria (an elderly holy spirit), also from Assam, who guards places of worship on horseback. He also comes to the aid of mortals, helping them find their way home and keeping evil spirits at bay.

Bura dangoria has a cousin in neighbouring Bengal.

The knowledgeable brahmadwoitto (also known as behmodotti) is usually the ghost of a Bengali brahmin, dressed in white and with the sacred thread in place. He, too, lives in a tree, preferably away from human settlements. He is the kindly spirit that guides lost travellers to safety and even offers them advice on how to deal with problems in life.

The formidable nishi daak (a voice that calls at night) has no gender. It adopts the voice of a beloved and lures the victim out of the house. What it exactly does afterwards is a matter of speculation but the person who answers a nishi daak rarely ever returns home. In a hilarious sequence from Bhrantibilas (a Bengali adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors), the average Bengali’s deep-seated fear of the nishi daak leaves one set of twins (master and employee) stranded outside their own house. As they scream themselves hoarse on the other side of the door, the women of the house lock themselves in their rooms and wait feverishly for daybreak.

Karnataka has a slightly different version of the nishi daak. It is the unknown spirit that inspired the making of the Hindi film Stree (2018), in which men of a small town are lured out of their homes by a woman who, again, takes on the voice of a beloved. If stories are to be believed, this predatorial spirit has even combed the lanes of Bengaluru in search of prey. The terror she struck in the hearts of people led them to write Naale ba (‘come tomorrow’ in Kannada) on the walls outside their houses. The film, however, uses the naale ba premise to underline the issue of women’s safety. Stree pronounced that even men should stay home at night in order to avoid crimes against them.

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In Malayalam folklore, Kanjirottu Yakshi occupies the rather unenviable position of a female vampire. She is said to have been a courtesan who, against the norms of society, fell in love with a prince. It led to heartbreak and, eventually, murder.

The courtesan’s spirit couldn’t rest in peace, so she decided to transform herself into a yakshi (a celestial being) and prey on young men. She didn’t stop at enticing them; she even sucked their blood. Who can tell if the yakshi found the peace she longed for?

The mysterious disappearance of a person, in some parts of India, is attributed to the presence of jinns. They are supernatural beings from pre-Islamic mythology, usually enslaved by magicians or the Devil. Barring the odd benevolent jinn, most are said to enter homes and spread diseases, unrest and unhappiness. But jinns also fall in love, and they pine in secret for the object of desire. And then, one fine day or night, they usher the human to their side of the universe.

As for happily ever afters, your guess is as good as mine.

Published on October 30, 2020

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