On Halloween Day last year some of us got into a conversation about ghosts, first on the blog and later via e-mail. One thing led to another and three A.B authors (Sujatha, Dean and I) ended up reading an anthology of Bengali ghost stories (Hauntings) translated into English. Each of us approached the book from different perspectives given our varied exposure to Bengali literature. I had read most of the stories in the collection in original Bengali; Sujatha, although not fluent, can read Bengali and has a pretty good understanding of the language and culture of the region; Dean is not very familiar with Indian literature in general and even less so with the superstitions and cultural aspects associated with ghost stories from that part of the world. Here is what each one of us thought of author Suchitra Samanta's attempt at translating some eerie supernatural tales from Bengali into English.
Bengali literature, rich in many ways, boasts an unusual quality that is not found in the literary tradition of many other languages. Celebrated Bengali authors of serious literature (among them, Tagore) did not consider it unworthy of their star reputations to make forays into the realm of children's literature or have occasional fun with mystery thrillers and tales of the paranormal. Consequently, Bengali kiddie lit as well as popular light reading are a treasure trove of "good" writing and Bengali children as a rule are known to become book addicts from an early age. The thirteen ghost stories in Suchitra Samanta's collection feature some of the best known literary figures in Bengali writings of early and mid 20th century.
The myths and superstitions surrounding other worldly beings used to be an art form in rural Bengal, reflecting a spirits-inhabited society rooted in earthly hierarchies. The character and the "physical" manifestations of the ghosts therefore are defined by their gender, religion, caste, age and marital status before death, as also the circumstances under which they died. Due to the commonly held belief that most ghosts are products of unexpectedly interrupted lives (accidents, murder), they are deemed unable to sever the connection to the ordinary world, their trapped existence fueled by unfulfilled desires. The frustrations are often the result of societal oppression or persecution. Not surprisingly therefore, most of the thirteen stories included in the anthology deal with the restless spirits of women of a past era who enjoyed limited autonomy over their own lives. Their actions in their afterlife are dictated by the rage, vengeance, grief, greed and sexual frustrations of their erstwhile corporeal selves.
Did the book work for me as good ghost stories should in terms of surprise, chilling effect and empathy for the supposedly imprisoned souls? Having read the stories in original Bengali where most of these qualities were captured by the writers, the English translation came across as fairly bland and even a bit silly despite the translator's extended foreword and footnotes to familiarize readers with the Bengali "ghostly" tradition. Part of the problem may be that the supernatural is intimately connected to superstitions. Superstition is essentially parochial, based on local history, geography, daily habits, prevailing power structures and religious practices that are often difficult to "explain" or interpret in a foreign milieu. As I pointed out earlier, barring a couple of them, the stories are all based in the late 19th or early 20th century harking back to times already quaint in the current day context and many unfold in obscure rural settings. That makes it harder for the translator to transmit the atmospherics in a facile manner. The underlying traditions, easily understood by those familiar with them, come across as illogical and absurd to those who have never encountered them. Samanta has taken some liberties with the language as well as some content in order to make sense of them in English. Several footnotes explain the historical and cultural contexts of events and rituals. The results are stilted, sometimes comical and not very scary. The stories that do succeed are the ones not limited by narrow cultural boundaries but instead address common human conditions - a well-off woman vaguely dissatisfied with her life at an advanced age, finding solace in the shadowy presence of an ethereal being whose sorrow she can not fathom, a paralyzed older woman envious of the sexual lives of younger women fulfilling her needs in a grisly manner, a devoted and sickly wife who sees her beloved husband's affections dwindle and dies under questionable circumstances - they all "haunt."
My almost six-year-old son has lately asked to visit a haunted house, because he wants to explore a secret passageway. I told him that even houses that aren’t haunted have secret passageways. He was intrigued, but clearly he is attracted to the prospect of fear, to the risk and mystery that give the experience of the secret aspect of a passageway its visceral effect. Haunted houses, after all, are famous for their power to tingle spines and raise hair. You visit them to experience a split of mind from body, a visceral zap produced when the imagination goes a little wild under physical circumstances in which you begin to feel you have no control.
Such is my taste for ghost stories. I tend not to read them, because I’ve learned that literature doesn’t produce such extreme physical effects. But I came to Hauntings expecting what I hoped would be a strange variety of ghost story, incorporating stock elements of the Anglo-American genre exotically arrayed in what for me would be unfamiliar trappings of Indian supernatural lore. To an extent, I got what I expected. These are stories of desperate or distraught people and troubled spirits that haunt a house, forest, or sacred site in situations involving myths, history, and social parameters that are mostly new to me. I was hoping the strangeness—admittedly, a symptom of my own Orientalist prejudices—would compound the eeriness of the stories. It didn’t. Instead, it was merely strange, and in some cases even blandly so, such as when a random explanation (of, for example, the Bengali calendar) appears in a footnote for readers like me. The effect is much like reading the ingredients of a dish on a menu from an Indian restaurant. The culinary musicality of a term like saag paneer wanes upon discovery that it’s cheese and spinach. At this point, the value of the stories must depend upon the quality of the writing and any eeriness it generates independent of the Bengali context that I’d expected to do the work.
The quality, however, is not high, and the fright factor suffers. Characteristic of much of the writing in the collection, the story "Giribala" by Banaphul commences much like Bulwer-Lytton’s infamously purple "dark and stormy night": "It was the night of the new moon. Darkness, unbroken, lay thick across the land. Nature itself seemed to tremble with an unnamed dread… A wind like the last breath bursting from millions of dying breasts, rushing like a storm." As translated, some of the authors tend to overwrite in this way, injecting bad melodrama and more than a few violations of the pathetic fallacy. Others resort only to a frank declaration of a vague scariness, such as in Tagore’s "The Hungering Stones," where we read, "And then, as the night grew increasingly dark, such remarkable events would transpire that I can hardly find words to describe them." Indeed. Other authors irritatingly telegraph the effect of the uncanny intended for the reader, naturally spoiling it. One sure way to dilute the effect of suddenness is to preface its telling with "Suddenly…." Similarly unsatisfying is frequent resort to cliché, likely here a function of translation: "gripped with fear," "mist shrouded darkness," "My hair stood on end and the blood froze in my chest when I heard this."
Many of these stories were constructed as second-order narrations. The narrator recounts a story told him on a train in Tagore’s "The Hungering Stones"; in his "At Dead of Night," the narrator is a doctor relating a story told him by a patient. A series of transcribed letters comprise Panchkari De’s "The Poet’s Lover." I imagine this technique can fuel the mystery by introducing a degree of remoteness to a tale passed on from teller to teller, alternatively by generating sympathy (or disgust) for the interlocutors and dramatizing their relationship in a way that coaxes the reader to identify with the victim of terror. But I found the device mostly a distraction, a demand to read two levels of uncompelling narrative at once.
Rabindranath Tagore has pride of place, no less than three of his stories are re-translated. Of these, the one that succeeds in sending a tiny chill up my spine is the first, "Dead of the Night" (original Nishithe). I think even that spookiness would have benefitted from a little more direct transliteration of the signature line in the story "O ke, O ke, O ke go" is more ghostly than 'Who is it, who is it, who is it, dear?'
Hungry Stones( Kshudito Pashan) and Manihara are well known to devotees of the silver screen. Manihara was part of Satyajit Ray's Teen Kanya trilogy, though added in only later releases with English subtitles. I have yet to see either.
I didn't care much for either of those stories, they seemed too rambling and descriptive for my taste. A screenwriter's delight, they may have been, but they carry with them the whiff of an earlier age, when long passages describing the visual attributes of the scene were mandatory to establish atmosphere. Plus, multiple printer's devils infested the pages of these stories, with Manihara being interrupted with scenes from the next story "Sacrifice by Fire".
The next three stories in the collection seemed rather lackluster to me, despite the pedigree of the authors. 'In Bomaiburu Jungle' was an especial disappointment- I had expected better from Bibutibhushan Bandopadhyay, the author of the novel Pather Panchali.
Tarashankar Bandopadhyay's "The Witch' was reminiscent of other similar stories in different languages- the description of the lonely cast-out woman, dispossessed and demonized, eventually fulfilling her destiny of morphing into a real 'child-killer'.
Of the 13 stories in the collection, the ones that I liked the best were 'Giribala' by Banaphul ( a startling change from his usual humorous tone, as I am finding out when reading a collection of his other short stories). 'Wedding Night' succeeds because it concentrates less on the spook factor and more on the humor of a semi-failed marriage. 'Chimaera', by Lila Majumdar (who is Satyajit Ray's aunt, tip from Ruchira) was both atmospheric and eerily tender, without being too prolix. What a relief!
'The Lady of the House' (Ginni-ma) was the opposite of the Chimaera and lived up to the promise of being 'Haunting.' The remaining stories were also-rans. I noted that several of the stories were picked out by Suchitra Samanta from the same collection (Nirbachita Bhuter Galpo), which might account for a degree of sameness and tedium. The stories I liked came from other collections. Perhaps a more careful selection of stories would have made for better reading.