One of the earliest memories involving my grandfather, the late Saradindu Bandopadhyay, is about sitting crouched at his feet surrounded by my elder brother and other siblings and listening to the sonorous voice of the author narrating ghost stories to his grandchildren. Even though barely six at that time, I had a sneaking suspicion that the spook quotient of the stories was being diluted for my benefit, the youngest and only girl in the brood of boys (my sister, the only other granddaughter of the author, was born much later) and I remember feeling miffed and cheated. An added dash of goose-pimple-raising matter would have done just fine! Little did the author know that his precious granddaughter, whom he was wary of frightening too much, would grow into a woman with an insatiable hunger for the paranormal and would write her own ghost stories someday.
My grandfather, ensconced in his picturesque bungalow on the outskirts of Poona became busy writing stories about his fictional hero, detective Byomkesh Bakshi, and the mantle of family storyteller fell on my father, who had no qualms whatsoever about frightening the children silly. As most of these stories revolved around supposedly-true incidents that had occurred in the family’s ancestral home in Monghyr (now Munger), Bihar, I gradually built the entire family mansion brick by brick in my mind. The scariest stories were the ones to do with the planchette sessions held by my grandfather and my grand-uncles regularly and I learned about benevolent and malevolent spirits that were summoned in these sessions and who predicted the future with pinpoint accuracy. My grandfather, in an attempt to caution us against the practice, had told us a story where a visiting spirit had refused to leave and caused utter havoc in the family for months. Instead of being warned, I immediately decided to conduct my very own séance the day I came of age.
The settings for the stories were almost always similar — the hour of dusk, a mansion situated in semi-wilderness, a pale moon rising or better still, a night with no moon, the rustle of wind in the trees and a bough knocking against a windowpane with sinister insistence. The rustic element always loomed large, giving the stories their essential atmosphere. Though I craved to visit the seat of such great occult activities, I could manage to visit the ancestral home only in my mid-20s.
Arriving at the mansion at dusk, with bats dotting the skies, the sun dipping low and shadows lengthening, it was a homecoming made to order for a lover of the paranormal. An uncle lived there with his family now, the author and his three sons having moved to Bombay and Poona, respectively. My aunt, delighted to meet a “Bombay” niece, warned me never to stray too far from the house without an escort while my cousin had a field day trying to terrify me with stories of house guests who went to sleep facing north in a certain bedroom, and woke up facing south. Other women in the family claimed to feel an invisible hand tug at their pallus while little children over the years, informed my aunt, had had kindly ghosts patting them to sleep.
Though uneasy all through my stay, I was not destined to have any of the aforementioned experiences, but an uncanny thing did happen. On three instances I felt somebody call out to me very urgently and on turning back I saw that there was no one. “It’s nishir-daak (call of the night),” whispered my aunt in horror, “a sure sign that some kind of danger is in store for you. Hope you did not answer the call?” I hadn’t and on the strength of my lack of response, the ghostly night-caller had passed on to other potential victims. It is another matter that I have religiously used the nishir-dhaak principle when I don’t want to respond to callers!
As I traipsed through the lanes of Monghyr breathing in the forest scents and watching the sunlight fade, my cousin told me about the dangers of standing under a tamarind tree at noon or night, tamarind trees being home to ghosts of all kinds. She told me about haunted trees whose branches moved of their own accord and often strangled travelers resting under them. My aunt spoke about forest ghosts who, disguised as men or women, led lost travelers to safety or to their doom, depending on the nature of the ghost. One such friendly ghost, she said, had once saved my grandfather from stepping off a cliff while crossing a forested area on a dark night. I stored these stories in my mind as we sauntered along in the twilight hour, moving farther and farther from the house. We passed a couple of derelict mansions, unoccupied, their dark broken windows like staring eyes.
It was the month of May and stray showers had already begun. Fireflies erupted into the thickening darkness, lighting up one tree and then moving to another. It was an enchanted hour as I stood on the dividing line between civilisation and wilderness, drinking in the sights and sounds. How tricky was the human imagination, I thought, how easy a prey to the forces that lurk beyond one’s comprehension. In this narrow corridor between the rational and the improbable, the normal and the paranormal, anything could happen.
This was a country of mirages, fertile in myths, folklore and superstitions; pragmatism had no place in the scheme of things. How intensely potent were these forests and barren spaces that harbored elusive entities that could swoop down on human consciousness and yet never show up on human radars. Right there and then, with the fireflies descending on us, the winds whispering strange messages in my ears and the legacy of my grandfather’s stories burgeoning heavy within me, I knew that I would write my own bunch of ghost stories someday. I returned to Bombay hugging that knowledge close to my heart.
It was only after two novels entirely unconnected with supernatural matters that I sat down to write Lamplight: Paranormal Stories from the Hinterlands (2013), and had the blissful feeling that my life had come full circle. Near-forgotten family stories and incidents tumbled out of the dusty attic of memory and a great many of these inspired my short stories. Other than my extended family, very few readers are aware that the first story ‘The Séance’ is an incident from my grandfather’s life, something that happened to him after the 1934 Bihar earthquake. Likewise, the story of a man servant who saw the death of a house-guest in advance (‘Rosy’) is also based on a true life incident narrated to me by my father. The derelict mansions seen at dusk in Monghyr found their way into my story ‘Blood Emerald’ while my grandfather’s friendly forest ghost insisted on featuring in the story, ‘The Guide’. The rustic atmosphere was created almost entirely by using my Monghyr stay as a template.
It is uncanny but when loyal fans of Saradindu Bandopadhyay proposed to turn his Poona residence into an author’s museum after his demise, a cry went up from the neighbourhood that my grandmother’s ghost was seen stalking the lawns of her beloved gardens. A high-rise building now stands in place of the cosy bungalow. As Dadu’s creation Byomkesh Bakshi creates waves with every cinematic interpretation, I’m nostalgic for that gentle soul who had the urge to narrate ghost stories but did not want to scare his grandchildren too much. Taking a leaf from his diary, I attempted to humanise my ghosts and not terrify my readers in Lamplight. I still love dak bungalows, derelict mansions, twilit forests and long evening shadows. People from all walks of life often narrate chilling real-life incidents to me and I greedily gather fodder for my next book about the paranormal. And I still hear the nishir-daak from time to time, in Bombay, and as instructed by my aunt in Monghyr, I never answer. Do ghosts travel across states, I wonder?
Kankana Basu is a Mumbai-based author