Ghost Stories from the Raj Edited by Ruskin Bond, Rupa, Rs 250
Do ghosts exist' Readers of ghost stories are, perhaps, the least bothered about the question. The logic that the most feared are the least loved certainly does not apply to ghosts. Die-hard ghost-lovers willingly suspend their disbelief for their favourite spirits.
Ruskin Bond, in the fiftieth year of his career as a writer, presents a marvellous anthology of ghost-stories. In his usual tender and informal style, Bond narrates a couple of his own supernatural experiences in his introduction to the book. Bond also offers his own explanation for the popularity of ghost-stories: “Ghost stories are meant to frighten you, but at the back of your mind you know it’s all a nightmare from which you are going to wake. In other words, it’s a ‘safe’ fear and you can enjoy the process of being frightened” Feeling safe even while being afraid, indeed, is a unique pleasure of reading ghost-stories.
The book has a specific slant in that all the 14 stories compiled here were written between 1840 and 1940, mostly by British administrators and officials and their close associates who settled in India and observed the Indian way of life. Among the authors is Lieutenant Colonel Sleeman, an administrator who in the mid-19th century played an active role in taming the thugs. Also C.A. Kincaid, a British official who wrote books and essays on Shivaji, the Rani of Jhansi and other Indian heroes. Rudyard Kipling, the poet of the Empire, and Alice Perrin, the wife of an Indian official, also grace the impressive author’s list.
Predictably enough, the stories relate supernatural experiences imbued with the typically colonial perception of this country — “haunted India”. They betray largely varying colonial attitudes ranging “from the paternalistic to the cynically indifferent”. It is not difficult to detect in the narratives traces of “the civilizing mission” of the colonizers, who portrayed the “natives” as outlandish, brutal, superstitious and vindictive. The “unnaturalness’ of the natives is often used to explain the presence of the supernatural in Indian culture, though there are notable exceptions. Alice Perrin’s “Caulfield’s Crime”, for instance, is the story of the retributive suffering of a cruel British official. H.W. Denny’s “There Are More Things” is about an eccentric Englishman who gained psychic powers, considered typically oriental and inaccessible to Western science.
The “exotic India”, with its mysterious forests and hills, and deserted bungalows, provide the ideal settings for the stories peopled by invisible spirits.
The gallery of ghosts in the stories has refreshing variety — the female ghost (“The Summoning of Arnold”), the child ghost (“Chunia, Ayah”), the ghost of British administrator (“The Return of Imray”), the Brahmin ghost (“The Munjia”) even the animal ghost (“Panther People”). The narratives blend the time-tested components of the ghost-story, suspense and horror for example, in the right proportions. Some stories, like Sleeman’s “The Men-Tigers” and “Haunted Villagers”, are more about people who believe in ghosts than the ghosts themselves.
Perhaps the ghosts of India frightened the colonizer long before its people did.