Spectre of ghost tales

Spectre of ghost tales

Listening to ghost stories or reading them was a magnificent obsession during our growing up years. My brothers and I would huddle around our late parents, M N Jayaraman and Padma, and listened intently as they reeled off eerie stories about the supernatural.

In later years, we were introduced to the Reader’s Digest, which carried chilling horror tales that were guaranteed to make you squirm. Viewing movies like The Omen and The Exorcist gave us our fill of ghostly thrills. An old, abandoned graveyard that lay on the fringes of our home was also a hot topic for discussion and there were stories doing the rounds that this was a haunted spot. The bark and howls of stray dogs in the nocturnal hours only gave credence to this story.

The graveyard, though, held no terrors for us and turned into our favourite haunt during the day. We would hop, skip and jump over the graves though this meant no disrespect to the dead. We played tops, marbles, cricket, hockey and football within its confines.

A rectangle marked with chalk on the base of a tree would transform into a wicket for a game of cricket. The rules were bent and a batsman could be dismissed by a ‘pitch-catch’ — a catch taken after the ball had bounced. Since few of us could afford a good bat, it meant frequent exchange of the willow during the course of the innings. Matches were 10 overs a side and a team consisted of five players.

The few houses that lay scattered around the graveyard were the only signs of life and many thought that these residents had the nerve to live in this godforsaken place. A dilapidated temple dedicated to the legendary Indian king Harishchandra, who was famed for his truthfulness, lay at one end of the cemetery. The place also teemed with fruit bats who some among us claimed were agents of the devil. The odd manner in which these creatures hung upside down also fascinated us.

The huge trees in the graveyard meant many hours of fun and frolic. The tamarind trees laden with fruit were our favourites. We would clamber up the tall, strong branches and fill our pockets with the harvest. This done, we would seek out the nearest tombstone and proceed to make tamarind chutney garnished with salt and chilly powder which would be brought in by one of the team members.

The flat granite stones that were strewn around the site would serve as pestles. The chutney tasted delicious and we were proud of our skill. On occasions, we would bump into human skulls and bones which had managed to extricate themselves from their final resting place and wonder at the uncertainties of life.

The graveyard of yesteryears which was levelled a long time ago has today transformed into a busy residential area. The tamarind trees have disappeared and the hustle and bustle and cacophony of traffic give little evidence of a cemetery that once stood here. And while the ghosts have done the vanishing act, the ghost stories have also got a quiet burial.