Monday, August 2, 2010


In Shimla last week, a good friend of mine gave me a collection of ghost stories connected with this lovely hill station: Ghost Stories of Shimla Hills by Minakshi Chaudhry. It’s more like a documentation of tales the author heard from the locals; she did not try to interpret what she heard, which is fine for a collection of ghost tales, because this way the stories are not twice removed from the original. One pleasant afternoon during my week-long stay in the city, he was kind enough to show me around some of the places associated with ghosts (most of them British, both male and female): the Ridge, Scandal Point, Lovers’ Lane, the road from Boileauganj junction to Chakkar, among others. The driver of our car was amused at what we were doing; “maybe there were ghosts in Shimla years ago (he said this more for reasons of politeness than conviction), but there are none now”, he said. I didn’t tell him that ghosts have to exist for the ghost stories to sound authentic and therefore exciting. Has anyone heard an interesting ghost story with its author saying that his story was false, and that ghosts do not exist? If one has either heard or read such a story, hasn’t he, honestly, feel cheated in the end by such a fake ghost story?

This apart, variety is always more interesting and exciting than uniformity. At least this is why a world in which bhuta, pishaca, brahma rakshasa, churail, (ghosts, ghouls, goblins, etc. in another culture, another terminology) etc. exist along with human beings has to be more interesting than the one which is inhabited by humans alone. Many ghosts in Chaudhry’s tales have their own life; at least they have their exclusive get-togethers, from which the non-white ghosts are excluded. Death has brought no attitudinal change. Interestingly, ghosts in these stories as well as in others do not always shy away from the humans; they sometimes seek to communicate with the humans or at least look for their company. But most often humans run into them by chance, which is entirely within the range of possibility, since they share the same space, and then if one is alone and the ghost is malevolent, the consequences of a chance meeting could be disastrous for the former. It is of such material that the ghost stories are made. Existence without communication or even desire for communication, gives rise to no tales; Shiva’s ghosts offer no possibilities for innovative ghost narratives.

The more malevolent the ghost, the more gripping is the story. Harmless ghosts do not always yield absorbing tales. Quite understandable; why read a ghost story if it does not give goose-pimples? Now a harmless ghost could become the subject of a fascinating tale if it left behind a colourful life while in the world of the mortals. Most of the ghosts in Chaudhry’s collection are (unfortunately) harmless. One of them in fact is so considerate that he consciously avoids his favourite haunts when humans are expected there. But if a human encountered one of these inoffensive ones and fell sick or unconscious, the poor ghost is not to blame; it is the fear of the living towards the dead and the prejudice of the former against the latter, formed, in part at least, from listening to horrifying (and unempathetic) stories about malicious ghosts, whose malice was often due to the far worse malice he had suffered from some human when alive.

As someone put it, some live as though to become example for others – what others should be or should not be. One can generalize it so as to include ghosts as well; so some ghosts exist to become examples, but “examples” of course for the living, not for their fellow ghosts. For a story teller, ghosts are the stuff of tales, not on account of themselves (remember Shiva’s ghosts?) but of their interaction with the humans. Many ghosts in Chaudhry’s collection have their home in Shimla because while alive, they were deeply attached to this quiet, scenic place, with a friendly, English climate. Unlike most, they did not leave Shimla after India’s independence, and it is because of their attachment to the house they lived in, the avenues they frequented, the Club they liked, etc. that they stayed on and continued to do so even after they slipped to another existence. When alive, they were probably simple, ordinary people who quietly and happily lived their days in that lovely hill town. When dead, they suffered the changes the city underwent after independence: filth all around, loss of greenery on account of reckless cutting down of trees to build ugly concrete houses, renaming of streets after locals and the collapse of landmark English structures because of sheer neglect, a general lack of discipline and order seen all around, etc. They moved around only in the darkness of the midnight, in the cold, the rain, and the mist, unwanted and even hated by humans, feared by humans, being the cause – sometimes unintentionally - of suffering to humans. All this because of their sick attachment to some material things when they were in the mortal world.

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