The Best Fiend

Collecting Indian ghost stories

30 April 2022

IN A 1921 EDITION of the now defunct journal Occult Review, a writer under the pseudonym “Badmash” proclaims, “The whole history of India teems with tragedies.” Is it any wonder, Badmash—who, judging from the tone of the piece, is possibly a British officer—asks, “that such tragedies have filled the country with ghosts, or, at any rate, a fixed belief in them? For superstition is rife everywhere.” The colonial undertones and exoticism of this phrasing notwithstanding, it is worth examining the ways writers have considered whether the country’s history has influenced its ghost stories.

This is a notion often explored in relation to the genre. An earlier piece for this magazine looked at how the brutal history of the civil war permeated through contemporary Sri Lankan writing on horror. In a 2018 article for the New York Times, arguing that there had been a shift in the nature of the modern American ghost story, the editor and critic Parul Sehgal wrote, “The ghost story shape-shifts because ghosts themselves are so protean—they emanate from specific cultural fears and fantasies … However, ghost stories are never just reflections. They are social critiques camouflaged with cobwebs; the past clamoring for redress.”

The vastness of India’s geographic and cultural landscape has ensured, in any case, that there cannot be a singular approach to the question. Attempts to grapple with it range from analyses of regional tropes to specific incidents, such as the folklore researcher Margaret Lyngdoh’s exploration of the “vanishing hitchhiker” legend in Shillong and its connection with the murder of a pregnant woman. In a review recalling the appeal of Thakumar Jhuli, a 1907 collection of Bengali folk stories, Rasha Jameel wrote that “the genre’s biggest appeal lies in its political undercurrents. There are ghosts who reflect religious segregation—the Mamdo Bhoot and Djinn of the Muslim communities, the Shakchunni and Petni who terrorise Hindus; ghosts who illustrate the disturbing dominance of patriarchy in Bengal … Ghosts appear as spirits of vengeance from horrible tragedies of gender-based violence, notably female infanticide and forced child marriage.”

Manik Sharma writes on arts, culture, books and film.

Keywords: Indian Literature