The ghost stories of a culture say much about it.
They reflect the culture’s understanding of the borders between life and death, as a primary socio-cultural function. But possibly because of the importance of this borderland to human experience, they also reveal, illuminate or demonstrate other cultural understandings which are only peripherally related to their primary function.
So ghost stories show culturally specific understandings of love, and hate, and gender, relationship and childhood. They also use food, space, artefacts and time, and constructs of appropriate behaviour and social responses, in the manner in which a people remembering and telling these stories are likely to frame these things. Among other reasons, this is why socialisation and boundary-setting for young people is another important function of this form of story.
The revenant form is the commonest narrative of return, usually for justice, or revenge. However, ghosts seem to return for non-justice reasons as well– for love, including the protection of loved ones or objects, particularly if the loved ones are helpless or weak. This makes the emotional or relationship-based context motivations of ghostkind remarkably similar to the operational contexts of humankind. This also makes ghostship a loose bridge to godship, familiar as we are in Bengal, and other parts of South-East Asia, with the ideas of ancestor worship and propitiation.
Another interesting feature of the ghost story is one that it shares with other folk forms.This is a blurring of the edges between the verbal and the written form. Elements popularised in the telling show up regularly in the written form, and vice versa. It is difficult to tell which originated in the oral form, and which in the inscribed. Therefore the idea of authenticity, or original form is problematised. Story-cycles moving through forms, and through time, pick up what they need, and leave out other things, based on the relevance of a story to the contemporary. And it may be difficult, verging on impossible, to know where and how a particular story, or even a version of a particular story, originated.
This blog aims to engage with the vast body of oral and written ideas about ghosts in particular, and all manner of the supernatural or the occult in general (or as possible). This will include:
1. Stories, heard in the oral form, or encountered in the written
2. Commentary about ghosts, the supernatural, or the occult, from other sources
3. It aims to focus on Bengal, for reasons related to my comfort-language and geographical location. However, ideas about ghosts and haunting seem to show some interesting similarities across time and space. So I will also be looking at literature, ideas or stories from other cultures and languages (in translation), when it illuminates my central area of interest.
All this said, it is important to remember that the primary pull of the ghost story/ legend/ myth, across cultures, has historically been that of thrill to the sensation-seeking. I think it is important not to forget that.
And yes, i’m always available to hear a ghost story, if you want to tell me one.
Welcome to the Ghosts of Bengal