Penguin Book Of Indian Ghost Stories

BOOK: Penguin Book Of Indian Ghost Stories
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The Penguin Book of Indian Ghost Stories




Ruskin Bond was born in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, in 1934, and grew up in Jamnagar (Gujarat), Dehradun and Shimla. His first novel,
The Room on the Roof,
written when he was seventeen, received the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957. In the course of a writing career spanning thirty-five years, he has written over a hundred short stories, essays, novels and more than thirty books for children. Three collections of the short stories,
The Night Train at Deoli, Time Stops at Shamli
Our Trees Still Grow in Dehra
have been published by Penguin India.

Although a prolific writer, this will be the first anthology Ruskin Bond will have edited.

Dedicated to the memory of my uncle,
James Bond,
Who was a dentist by profession and not,
As some believe, a secret agent ….
His epitaph reads:
Stranger! Approach this spot with gravity,
James Bond is filling his last cavity.


When I was ten or eleven, my stepfather took me along on one of his shikar trips into the forests near Dehra. I dreaded these excursions. The slaughter of wild animals never did appeal to me. To see cheetal being potted from the back of an elephant, or a tigress being shot while it was drinking at a water-hole, did not strike me as being particularly noble or exciting.

But during one such week in the forest, I discovered that the forest rest-house in which we were staying had a shelf full of books concealed in a dark corner of the little sitting-room. In order to avoid the next monotonous ‘beat’ in the jungle, I feigned a headache and stayed back while the adults fanned out into the forest with their weapons. One of the first books I discovered was a tome called
Ghost stories of an Antiquary
by M.R. James. I was hooked. The shikaris came and went with their plunder, while I remained shut in my room, convinced that the supernatural world had more to offer than the man-made excitement of the beat. Masterpieces such as ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, ‘The Mezzotint’ and ‘A Warning to the Curious’ influenced me in more ways than I can tell and made me an addict of this genre of writing. Over the years, I have read and collected ghost stories from many lands, not only as literature, but as an important aspect of this earth’s folklore.

But have I ever experienced the supernatural? Have I ever seen a ghost? These are questions that I am often asked.

In my childhood and youth I did not see any ghosts. But as I grew older, I found myself becoming more ‘receptive’ to the spirits of those who have left this world and may be living on another plane.

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) accounts for this in his essay, ‘A Ghost’, when he speaks of ‘the knowledge that a strange silence is ever deepening and expanding about one’s life’—an expansion of consciousness that can only grow within us as we grow older.

‘Meantime,’ he writes, ‘in the course of wanderings more or less aimless, there has slowly grown upon you a suspicion of being haunted, so frequently does a certain hazy presence intrude itself upon the visual memory. This, however, appears to gain rather than to lose in definiteness: with each return its visibility seems to increase …. And the suspicion that you may be haunted gradually develops into a certainty.’

Hearn was a traveller in the East, who spent most of his life in Japan; his essay does not strictly belong to a collection of Indian ghost stories. But his wanderlust gives his writing an international character, and his thoughts on the supernatural are very close to my own thinking on the subject. His little collection,
Karma and other stories and essays
(first published in 1921, many years after his death) is only one of many neglected but beautiful prose-poems by a writer who sought to break through the barriers between the quick and the dead.

Ghosts do not recognize our impermanent, man-made frontiers. Still, for the purposes of this anthology we have adopted the geographical approach and confined ourselves largely to ghosts and hauntings on the Indian subcontinent.

Who was John Lang, and how did he get into this book? Most of you will not have heard of him because his works lie forgotten in the archives of the British Museum and are not easily found elsewhere.

I became interested in John Lang when I came to live in Mussoorie in 1964, and learnt (from a friend in Australia) that he had died in Mussoorie exactly one hundred years earlier. Another coincidence lay in the fact that a year after his death, in 1865, Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay. But I’ll come to that later.

John Lang was, in fact, the first Australian-born novelist (
The Forger’s Wife,
1855). A barrister who fell out with the Sydney establishment, he sought his fortune in India and did well at the Calcutta bar, representing the Rani of Jhansi in her litigation against the East India Company. Later he edited
The Mofussilite,
an up-country newspaper, and became a regular contributor to Charles Dickens’ magazine,
Household Words,
spending his last years in Landour, Mussoorie. When I discovered that he had died
here, I went in search of his grave, and after several fruitless but fascinating visits to the Camel’s Back cemetery, discovered it hidden by a layer of moss, ferns and periwinkle. Years later, when I found his story about the Meerut cemetery, in ‘Wanderings in India’, published in
Household Words,
23 January 1858, I was struck by the similarity between his own experience and mine. There is no tangible ghost in his story and yet it is full of the ghosts of long-dead soldiers, and their wives and children, and the reader is left feeling quite haunted by their proximity.

Kipling’s early writing, especially in
Plain Tales from the Hills
(which headed the bestseller lists in 1890), is not dissimilar to Lang’s. Both were young men who took a rather satirical look at English society in India. Both saw everything larger than life, brighter than life. Lang poked fun at the British and became unpopular with them, one reason why his novels on India (
The Wetherbys,
etc.) fell into neglect. He died at the age of forty-seven. Kipling, as he grew older, became a champion of Empire, and met with the approval of his countrymen.

Did Lang’s spirit transmigrate into the infant Kipling? There is much similarity of style, spirit and gusto in Lang’s writing and that of Kipling as a young man. Do the spirits of dead writers sometimes enter the living, using them as mediums for the continuing expression of their personalities? Kipling himself was conscious of a ‘daemon’ at work within his subconscious, an influence over which he had little or no control:

My Daemon was with me in the
Jungle Books, Kim,
and both Puck books, and good care I took to walk delicately, lest he should withdraw. I know that he did not, because when those books were finished they said so themselves with, almost, the watch-hammer click of a tap turned off. One of the clauses in our contract was that I should never follow up a ‘success’, for by this sin fell Napoleon and a few others.
Note here.
When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait and obey.
(Something of Myself)

This is a theory that requires further exploration.

Rudyard Kipling was a pioneer of the ghost story in India, and he is represented here by two of his best tales of the supernatural: ‘The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes’ and ‘The Mark of the Beast’. There were many others.

His friend Arthur Conan Doyle was deeply interested in all aspects of the occult and would have spent more time on the subject but for the success of his Sherlock Holmes stories. He did not visit India, but in ‘The Brown Hand’ taken from Doyle’s collected
Tales of Twilight and the Unseen
he has a ghost from India visiting foggy London on a strange but compelling search.

As I have said, Kipling set the trend for the ghost story in India, and the genre became very popular in the early years of this century.
The Fourth Man,
by Hilton Brown, is a classic of its kind. It appeared in the Madras Mail Annual of 1930. Hilton Brown spent many years in India and wrote an excellent biographical appreciation of Kipling in 1945.

Over the years I have collected, among other things, old magazines, and I have a complete run of the
Indian State Railways Magazine
from 1927 to 1933. There is hardly an issue which does not carry a story of the supernatural. Among the contributors were A.C. Renny (a district collector), C.A. Kincaid (a civil servant of some distinction) and F.R. Corson, who must have served on the Railways in its pioneering days.

Nor has the ghost story been neglected by Indian writers after independence. Satyajit Ray loved writing ghost stories and mysteries. They come over very effectively in his simple, un-adorned style. Although a deodar growing in Bundi is more unlikely than a ghost, we must allow him a little cinematic or supernatural license.

R.V. Smith, who writes a column for the
called ‘Quaint Corners’, attributes his story to the ‘old shikari’, Cyril Thomas, a larger than life character who died last year, lying on a broken cot under a neem tree in the compound of St. Paul’s church at Agra. This old familiar of the U.P. jungles had been struck down by a vehicle, for the sixth time in five years! As a young man he had lived a carefree life in the jungle, often going without food for days. Once he was taken for a ghost by dacoits when found cooking
a meal in a cremation ground around midnight. Until a few years before his death he lived in an abandoned hut on the outskirts of Bainpur village, often walking the five or six kilometres into Agra to meet old friends. He did not write himself but he was a genuine teller of tales, and could keep an audience enthralled for hours.

Other contributors include writers like Jug Suraiya, O.V. Vijayan and Ravi Shankar who have made their mark in recent years; and the actor Victor Banerjee, who has chosen to live right next to the Landour cemetery, where he may sometimes be found rehearsing the gravedigger’s scene from Hamlet. The collected short stories of Jug Suraiya and O.V. Vijayan have been published by Penguin India, as have selections from R.K. Narayan’s gently ironical saga of Malgudi. Sudhir Thapliyal was for many years a
correspondent. Both he and Jaishankar Kala belong to the Garhwal Himalayas, where the spirit world is still very much a part of the experience of people living in remote areas. Jaishankar Kala, an artist, now lives in Paris.

F.W. Bain was a 19th century English writer whose somewhat romanticsed translations from the Hindu epics gained great popularity in the West. Titles such as
Bubbles of the Foam, A Digit of the Moon, The Descent of the Sun,
In the Great God’s Hair,
were all bestsellers in their time.

As for me, my contacts with the spirit world have been limited to the more ephemeral of ghosts; like that of great-aunt Lilian who, fifty years after leaving her earthly abode, returns at times to tuck me into bed late at night. I have never actually seen her at my bedside. I am a restless sleeper and my blankets often end up on the floor. Then an unseen hand recovers them and places them gently over me. I know it’s great-aunt Lilian, because she used to do this for me when I was a boy.

And then there was the occasion at the Penguin, or rather, Puffin launching party, at a five-star hotel in New Delhi, just over a year ago. Before I could even sip the evening’s first cocktail I saw, standing at the other end of the room, the outline of Mr Rudyard Kipling. Having seen so many portraits of him, I could hardly mistake him for anyone else. And I could see right through him: David Davidar of Penguin Books was approaching with two of his
guests, and they walked right through Kipling’s spectral form. For the first time in my life I fainted away completely.

Later, I found myself in the East-West Medical Centre, where I spent a peaceful night. The doctors could find nothing wrong with me. And I could hardly tell them that I had seen the ghost of Rudyard Kipling, for then they would have sent me to a different kind of hospital.

Why, I wonder, did Kipling visit me that evening. Was he annoyed because of something I had said or written about him? Or had he arrived simply to share in the success of Penguin India? Whatever the reason, it has prompted me to include
of his stories in this collection. I don’t want him turning up again in the middle of another cocktail party, or at my birthday party, this evening.

19 May 1992
Landour, Mussoorie

Ruskin Bond

BOOK: Penguin Book Of Indian Ghost Stories
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