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.”

Ghost stories are enmeshed into India’s folklore and are often inextricable from religious belief, mythology and superstition. The canon can perhaps be sorted into two overarching categories: stories that have not been documented in written form, and those that were but could not be collated or summarised. During British rule, several records presented them as part of the “savage” nature of Indian society. The Indologist Robert Watson Frazer, for instance, writing in 1897 about the “primeval people of India,” stated: “There they remain, a strange study to the historian and anthropologist: worshippers of spirits, ghosts and demons; worshippers of snakes, trees, mountains, streams, and aught that inspires wonder, fear, or terror, but little affected by the efforts of their British rulers to inculcate the most primary elements of civilisation.” Others noted the ubiquity of ghost stories. The Sanskrit scholar Edward Washburn Hopkins, in 1901, remarked that “we cannot go back to any literary period where we do not find alongside of the worship of sky-gods, ghosts, and demons, the worship of some abstract powers.” A few decades later, the British missionary Alexander McLeish wrote, in The Frontier Peoples of India, “There are tutelary gods, mountain spirits, forest spirits, water spirits, ghosts and hobgoblins. Every event has some connection with one spirit or another.” At the crux of these is the disbelief of the outsider and the faithful veneration of the local. It is not necessary that India has imagined or created more ghosts since, but efforts at writing about ghosts and spirits have expanded in scope.