In summer, when the school went on vacation, I would add to the team scraggy shirtless boys — cousin ‘brothers’ all — and get busy with our holiday activities. Our single biggest time consumer was a pile of story books. We weren’t a dainty lot when it came to our reading list. The pile of books was almost entirely made of stories that either thrilled us or had us in splits – simple and unpretentious.
Bengali children’s fiction’s limitless supply of ghost stories is matched by little other than its readers’ appetite for it. Even while all other stories may be clubbed together under a generic heading of “short stories”, Pujo Barshikis (annual digests) of popular children’s magazines like Shuktara have dedicated sections for ghost stories. Anthologies dedicated to ghostly thrills come out with unfailing regularity and every publishing house that does not wish to upset its child readership pays due respects to ghosts and their stories.
On any random day at Kolkata’s annual book fair — even if one walks into the stall of a lesser known, unknown even, publisher, and even if there’s no other form of fiction — the odds that a reader will lay his hands upon a children’s book of ghost stories is overwhelmingly high. Packed in covers whose art ranges from the gory and macabre to deathly comical to dark paranormal, the abundance and omnipresence of ghost stories in Bengali children’s literature is unmistakeable; from book vendors aboard local trains, credit-giving corner bookshops, libraries run by well-meaning under-resources people.
But unlike the quick judgement of contents such a cover may conjure up in an uninitiated reader’s mind, the throwaway-price books are likely to be many notches higher on the literary scale than penny dreadfuls.
In fact as I write this, I have beside me a book that goes by the comical name of Byag Bhorti Bhoot (A Bagful of Ghosts). The cover is adorned by a white chaadar -wrapped ghost with a skeletal face peeking from behind the pillar of an old mansion and is more comical than horror-inducing. The book, like innumerable others, is what is classified as shishu sahityo (children’s literature). But should you turn to the table of contents, you’ll find the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay (and Mukhopadhyay), Premendra Mitra, Sunil Gangopadhyay — the Gods of Bengal’s literary pantheon no less. Fact is ghost stories are an inalienable part of Bengal’s shishu sahityo ; adding not only a significant volume, but also significant literary merit.
Leela Majumdar, winner of Sangeet Natak Academy, Rabindra Puraskar and a host of other notable awards, is counted among the tallest of names in shishu sahityo and comes from Bengal’s first family of children’s literature: the Rays (Upendrakishore, Sukumar, Satyajit). She was a genius when it came to short ghost stories.
The otherwise unremarkable Mr. Anathbabu leads the first-person narrator of Anathbabur Bhoy (Anathbabu’s Fear) casually up the haunted house he stayed in the preceding night, only to shockingly show he’s died of fear; or the adventure of the narrator and his friends when seated on the dirty unused floor of Brown Saheber Bari (The Home of Sir Brown) in Bangalore; Satyajit Ray, in complete contrast to his intricate works as auteur, gives his young readers a string of thrilling short ghost stories with shocking O. Henry-esque endings.
But did the great literary and artistic minds simply weave these stories to scare little children instilling in them a fear of the dark? Not quite. For the stories, at least the ones by the greats are far less about the fear than about the bouquet of mystery, the atmosphere and the sense of curiosity and discovery.
I remember how in school in 1995, I was introduced to Ashapoorna Devi’s writing through a short story published in a Bengali children’s magazine a week or so after her death as an unpublished work. Telling the simple tale of three aged friends who played cards every evening to keep their loneliness at bay, Ashapoorna Devi’s remarkable understated style transported me to the fateful storm-washed summer afternoon when one of the friends drowned on his way to the game of cards. When, in the closing lines, the other two men found out that their friend had kept his date even after death, I, the reader, was left more alone than scared.
It was only after that that I read the awe-inspiring Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi awardee writer making my way through her voluminous story collections, celebrated novels including the grand trilogy Prothom Protishruti , Subarnalata and Bokul Katha .
The honest sentiments are, perhaps, best borne out by the following example. Perhaps the most prolific of horror writers for children was Hemendrakumar Roy. I say horror because he went well beyond ghosts and wrote about men transforming into bloodthirsty animals, occult practices, invisible men and such other. Born Prasad Roy, before turning a full-time children’s story writer, Hemendranath was a well-known dance and drama critic and editor of a magazine called Naachghar . Even though the lines demarcating critics from writers have always been blurred and well-known names are known to have switched sides, it is in many ways unusual for a critic of performing arts to turn to writing horror stories for children. A foreword to one of Roy’s horror anthologies, written by Dhirendralal Dhar (who apart from writing adventure stories for children like Adventure Omnibus and Desh Bidesher Rupkatha (fairy-tales from the world over), wrote serious biographies on Subhaschandra Bose, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and young B.R. Ambdekar), holds a deep insight explaining Roy’s shift.
“I had first met Roy,” says Dhar, “when I had gone to his home to make a submission for his magazine. He, the famed editor of Naachghar , was every bit a well-heeled urbane Calcuttan.” Roy had appreciated the young Dhar’s writing and obliged him by giving space in his magazine. After some years when Dhar himself had begun becoming a noteworthy name in children’s literature, he paid a visit to Roy. “What better than a certificate from the master of thrillers,” he had reasoned. But he found Roy very different from his previous get-up. A visibly impoverished Roy was found shirtless in the heat of a third floor room in a small alley of Calcutta, seated at a little table, writing.
“Write for the children,” he had advised Dhar, “but don’t set your adventures in far-flung lands like the White rulers do. Set them in our own country. Let our children be proud and mystified about their own lands. Never lose sight of the truth that the sole purpose of adventure stories is nothing but to make brave young minds for tomorrow.”
Roy himself abided by this vision and, in his stories, we find subjects of horror that are recognisably modern and what is usually associated with Western writing; yet the stories are set recognisably in the India of his times. Way back in the 1930s, he wrote about a crooked genius who using arcane knowledge had raised an army of the undead. But this wasn’t in some far flung continents but a place called Alinagar, which by its description could have been anywhere in undivided Bengal.
Writers of different genres too had to pay their tributes to the ghosts of the fiction world. Freedom fighter and humorist Sibram Chackraborty is a notable case. While when writing for children he never gave up his forte of humour, he too wrote about ghosts. In one story he derives levity from a ghost levitating with his head above the ceiling of his room and engaging in an argument about whether one should or should not believe in ghosts.
Two of my strangest finds were a story each by the great novelist Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and social reformer and educator Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, in a collection titled ‘rare ghost stories’. Intrigued by the presence of these great rationalist names in a book of this sort, I hungrily rummaged through them skipping the rest of the book. They talked about ghosts alright. But the greats stood their ground too. While the former turned out to be a prank played by a young man at a charnel ground to scare his friends, the ghost in Vidyasagar’s case turned out to be a friendly lonely dog that came in the night; a case of mistaken identity in the darkness.
While there is always the phenomenon of quantity taking a toll on quality, and a certain amount of repetitive plots, bad copies, botched up storylines are floating in the market; it is by no means an overstatement to say that minus its ghost stories, Bengali children’s literature’s literary merit doesn’t hold on.