Horror Books

Airy nothings: Review of Riksundar Banerjee’s ‘The Book of Indian Ghosts’

The Book of India Ghosts, a list of notes on ghosts that combines fiction with non-fiction, should have been fun. There are 84 kinds of ghosts listed in alphabetical order. There are the feminist ghosts (Sheekol Buri), who usually kill the men who have abused them in life; a delightful Jhapri ghost who shits on people; a classist ghost who finishes off people who wear torn clothes (Kanipishachi). Riksundar Banerjee records their characteristics with all seriousness, as if he is out to document a vanishing (pun intended) breed.

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Which begs the question: how were the stories sourced? Going by Banerjee’s explanation, he has reimagined them from stories in regional language-books and from tales narrated to him by locals in the course of his research (he holds a PhD on ghosts in literature). Yet there is no acknowledgement for individual entries. Judged as originals, not much can be said about the stories’ literary merit. Most of them are penny dreadfuls of the kind broadcast on popular radio channels on Saturdays — high-octane dramas verging on the prurient.

What is worse is that they end up confirming cringeworthy stereotypes — in the entry for Ulkamukhi (a fire-breathing female ghost), a woman is married to her moneyed assailant and looks forward to birthing the “heir”; the victim in the story on Munchowa, a ghost that steals a person’s face, is predictably a woman, a starlet proud of her looks; the Masan is described thus: “When a lower-caste person dies and their bodies are left half burnt in the charnel ground, they haunt that ground as the masan ghost.”

The only entry that shows some irony is that for Kollivai Pisaasu or the will-o’-the-wisp. After giving the “prosaic scientific explanation” for this ‘ghost’, Banerjee says, “Interestingly, thanks to our scientific-minded ancestors, the word ‘kollivayi’, or ‘kolli-vayu’, literally means ‘combustible deadly gas.’”

The contemporary urban settings of most of the stories, with their selfies, cellphones and emails, suggest that their origins are not folk. If Banerjee has imagined them, he would have done well to use irony, commentary, humour, anything to suggest that he is at one remove from his material. Ghosts, of all topics, need a pinch a salt, which is in short supply here.

The Book of Indian Ghosts; Riksundar Banerjee, Aleph, ₹599

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 6:48:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/airy-nothings-review-of-riksundar-banerjees-the-book-of-indian-ghosts/article34838825.ece

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