It was the voice; the unassuming voice. The eerie voice that raised this collection of short stories into the genre of supernatural fiction. The same brave voice salvaged 17 stories from the accusatory rage of feminism. Set in 17 story moulds, this voice narrates one tale of many a woman in India.
Unwilling to be stored in little boxes labeled ‘feminist’ or ‘ghost’, Venita Coelho’s The Washer of the Dead: A Collection of Ghost Stories will raise your eyebrows quizzically from chapter one, if you were to pick this book up from the ‘Supernatural’ section of the bookshop. In here are stories of abuse inflicted upon women from all walks of life. ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts? begins the collection, narrating various ghost stories from around the country only to narrow down to those personal ‘wraiths of secret dolorous sorrows, intimate creaking deceptions, raw and reeking betrayals’ that make you look over your shoulder at night.
This is the author’s second collection after a children’s book called Dungeon Tales. The novelty in her approach to storytelling can also be found in real life. An artist and a poet, she wound up her busy Mumbai life as a writer for TV and films to move to an old Portuguese house in Goa with her five dogs and two cats. Domestic violence, child abuse, sexual perversity, dowry deaths, incest, honour killing and trafficking. There are voices of mothers, wives, daughters, brides, daughters-in-law, mothers-in-law, prostitutes, girls, lesbians and other versions of a woman. For once I found a blurb that lives up to its word, it is indeed impossible to label this collection. While they brim with feminism they are also laudable ghost stories.
Like a crafty artisan, Coelho uses beautiful language effortlessly to weave seamless stories. With imagery like ‘skin that bloomed like a garden of jasmine’ and ‘[about a story] It’s a stone in my gut, pulling me down to my knees, her use of language is controlled yet eloquent as plots tango from lovely to desperate to sinister in tune to the women’s experiences. The endearing feature about this book is, ‘Each of us rattles our own collection of hollow bones, awake sleepless at night’ — its identifiability. Relatable, these stories are sure to make you think about the atrocities that women face simply for having been born a woman. These stories are sure to perturb you with their familiarity.
Complete with an old aunt who can see ghosts, a woman who is possessed for four days a month, a village haunted by wind, old hauntable mansions and sinful actions worthy of other-worldly revenge, there are times when this book reads like your must-have book of ghosts. Having said that attitudes, issues, lives and roles — such womanly affairs make an appearance too and make a remarkable performance of it. My favourites are ‘The Washer of the Dead’, ‘The Ghost Next Door’ and ‘Child Crying’.
Exuding compassionate motherly affection for dead strangers as her hands ‘midwife them into another world’ is the woman who washes the dead. The ghost who lives next door is sure to scare the living daylight out of every parent. The crying child who seeks attention from an introvert academician is a whimsical story, fantastic in its implausible charm. As I read, a hazy shape hovered intangibly between the lines. Was it a thought, an unfamiliar feeling perhaps?
Finishing the book I sensed the haziness transform itself into a woolly worm of a presence nudging me to distraction. It was to be a constant presence staying with me while I told scores of people about this book.