Rest, perturbed spirit...

Rest, perturbed spirit...
They may be shadows of our own demons, shades of our own grief and guilt, unlit cobwebbed spaces of our own minds. But we need to talk about them in periodic rituals of exorcism. And we have told their stories down the centuries in sacred circles, around the fire, huddled in groups — those tales of terror, revenge and cruelty, of sorrow,  love and loss — unheeded in this life but singing through many afterlives, as only souls can.

Here they are gathered once again from the Indian soil in a smart little anthology, cockily titled Boo, enticing the reader into that circle of sacred fear and magic beyond our ken. Published by Penguin, with a predictable cover which could have been more  in sync  with the sophisticated lair of  narratives waiting within, this anthology offers a tantalising glimpse into the pathways of the uncanny through which the contemporary Indian mind travels.

Edited by Shinie Antony, the platter offers a varied fare, ranging from a slight fidgeting uneasiness to utter astonishment. These short stories redefine the genre and the form, by using the conventional  gothic  devices and pushing their limits with a sustained energy and ease. The collection promises to send the proverbial “chill down your spine” and I take up the book with a delicious thrill of anticipation, hoping to let waves of fear and excitement wash over me, leaving me delirious, at the edge of a darkness from whose bourn we ‘think’ no traveller returns. But we ‘feel’, they occasionally do.

In these stories, they return through subtle signs, scrambled messages, bewildering screams, rustling curtains, yellow-eyed tomcats, apparitions, figures and shapes transmitted through generations of spookiness. The book is tellingly dedicated “to the invisible fingers that brush against ours” and the editor’s introduction oozes with love for the beloved spirits and spectres haunting us through whispering winds. Through the long pauses between raindrops down the deserted road, draped in pale moonlight beneath that lone tree by the denuded hill.

All the authors are reasonable familiar to the Indian English readership excepting perhaps K R Meera from Malayalam and Manabendra Bandyopadhyay from Bengali. It is heartening to see translations from other Indian languages here, although it leaves you wondering why there are no selections from others as well. As the very first story, K R Meera’s provocatively titled He-Ghoul (competently translated by J Devika) sets the tenor for the rest of the stories with pungent resonances of gender animosity recurring with an unnerving persistence in the stories penned by Durjoy Datta (Claws) and Kiran Manral (Birth Night). Both are soaked in maternal blood and monstrous babies laying bare the hideous manipulation of an otherwise valorised motherhood.

Ipsita Roy Chakraborthy’s The Daayan’s Curse is, as one expected, anchored in the milieu of gendered violence in the practice of witch-hunts. Sometimes, these narratives do get a little bogged down by explicit campaign against sexism and misogyny, which could have been woven in a little more artistically without losing out on the elements of suspense and wonder vital to the aesthetics of horror narratives.

Manabendra Bandyopadhyay’s The Face, translated by Arunava Sinha, plays upon the vague boundaries of sanity along with Usha K R’s Elixir. Kanishk Thakur’s Monkeys in the Onion Fields is a foray into the enchanted lives of rural India, its onion- scented fields and the simple longings of a farmer couple. It stands out from the rest as it imagines an encounter between the perceptual worlds of monkeys and the world of ‘human’ ghosts.

Shashi Deshpande’s piece of mythofiction, The Last Tryst, revisits the Mahabharata through the eyes of a forlorn Krishna who is haunted by a female apparition from his past. Who could it be? Jerry Pinto’s In a Small Room, Somewhere is a searing read as he turns the pages of reality as the best horror book ever written by we, the ordinary people,  with our simple fears and simpler hatred.Horror is no longer fiction; it is all too real and near. Nothing could beat the reams of horror you gulp down with your regular morning cuppa.

Jahnavi Barua’s Falling reminds you of the good old ghost story with its soft emotional touches of love, loss and remembered tenderness. She brings alive a picturesque village in Shillong on a rainy evening, with a little corner tea shop and the suggestion of an eerie rendezvous,  as a rainbow arcs ‘across the late afternoon sky.’ The Howling by Jaishree Misra follows a rather familiar route through which many a ghost story has travelled.

Shinie Antony’s Ghost No.1  is shot through with wit and irony as in her postlapsarian world, Eve becomes the first woman of dissent and the first ever female ghost to haunt the womankind with her rage and power for ever. What hooked me completely was Madhavi Mahadevan’s The Tigerwoman of Kabul, which expands the span of ghostly practices through centuries of conflict, war and espionage. The setting and narrative pace are compelling and relentlessly drive you on to an unsettling end.

These stories nudge us on to the possibilities of more menacing forces around us, invisible fields of energy and desire which are here to stay on and make us echo the Bard’s lines, ‘Rest, Rest, Perturbed Spirit’.


Many authors, edited by Shinie Antony


2017, Rs 299, pp 224
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