There are many eccentric characters in the stories of bilingual writer Manoj Das. The faithful old caretaker at a former king’s summer palace prepares to host a conference, only to learn that the guests who are coming are called “nudists.” Abolkar, whose name means “The Disobedient,” plants himself in people’s courtyards until they feed him. The pedantic Pratap Sinha insists on lecturing strangers about their habits.
A History teacher is obsessed with the Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan and is convinced that he was one of his courtiers in a past life. The moneylender and “evil genius” Dabu Sahukar keeps an arsonist on his payroll. Vain and boastful Aunty Roopwati claims that all the political leaders of her time were in love with her. Together, they form a rich tapestry of ordinary and not so ordinary people.
But this book is really about ghosts. Stories called “The Misty Hour” and “The Dusky Horizon” bookend the collection. The titles offer a clue about the prevailing mood. On the cover of the Penguin edition published in 1994, the author Graham Greene blurbs: “Manoj Das…will certainly take a place on my shelves beside the stories of Narayan. I imagine Orissa is far from Malgudi, but there is the same quality in his stories, with perhaps an added mystery.”
In these pages, we often find ourselves in a sleepy little village on a night when the moon hangs low over the trees. But the nights are not always peaceful. As one narrator observes, “The swaying trees along the road looked like phantoms whisking us away.” Cuckoos coo at midnight, “infusing a new and disturbing element” into people’s dreams, and jackals howl after dark, making children believe that dusk is “fraught with fearful possibilities.” Always, there is a sense of spirits, benign or otherwise, watching over us.
Das, who died earlier in 2021, left behind a substantial body of literary work both in Odia and English. He wrote some of these stories in both languages. The stories are brief, only a few pages each, and some no more than a sketch. Collectively they form a montage of small towns and sleepy villages, inhabited by ogres, tree goddesses and other spirits as well as regular humans. As I read these enchanting stories, I found myself wondering: who are the real ghosts?
The obvious answer is of course those mysterious beings who are both here and not quite here. In the title story, the narrator talks about the beautiful girl who lived alone in a strange and abandoned villa in the distance – “She was so near, yet she belonged to a faraway world.” Many legends surround the girl and her home, “a phantom castle floating on an unreal sea.” Once abducted by three Englishmen and murdered by someone else, the unlucky girl turned into a ghost who is now revered by the villagers. When the government decides to abolish the old house, they must decide how to rescue her.
The natural world in Das’s fiction plays a big part in evoking the atmospheric mood for a good ghost story. Who can blame the retired old professor Ashok Bhai for his fanciful thoughts? “There were moments on such moonlit nights when he could see elves and fairies – he was surprised that they never aged – playing hide-and-seek among the silver-rimmed clouds and atop the starlit trees on the faint horizon.”
The influence of folk and fairy tales on Das’ fiction is apparent. Folklore and superstitions abound in the villages he writes about. In “The Crocodile’s Lady,” according to a local legend, an old woman who once married a crocodile, and reappeared mysteriously, now protects the village from crocodile attacks by her mere presence.
When the Western sociologist Dr Batstone visits the village, he is, naturally, fascinated. The Indian narrator, Baboo, who acts as an interpreter between Batstone and the villagers, and whose knowledge of his own village is “meagre,” is sceptical about the rumours that circulate. “Tell me, Baboo,” Batstone asks him, “do all these people believe in ghosts?”
Like Baboo, several of the narrators left their villages for towns, either to attend school or for work. Gradually, their villages became distant and covered in mist. Years later, these men recall the innocence and charm of those early days with a wistfulness that lingers long after you’ve finished reading the book.
As the narrator of the very lyrical final story says, “Although I have passed all my days since my early youth in cities where darkness means only the lights turned off, I have never forgotten the grandeur of the rural darkness, awfully alive, throbbing with impulses and emotions of its own, which, in my childhood, used to assume its most impressive and terrifying stance on the Peacock Hill.”
The entire collection is a lament for the past. The first story begins like this: “In a provincial town of the third decade of this century, dogs still barked at motor cars, spectators sat for hours gaping at silent films, and signs of love were quite different…” It sets the tone for the entire book. “The Naked” is set in Sapanpur-on-Sea, an abandoned port, which “showed no signs of modern times.”
“The Crocodile Lady” is set in a time “before our village suffered the intrusion of huge red triangles glorifying family planning, politicians preaching patriotism and billboards on the virtues of small savings and cigarettes, not to mention loudspeakers blaring from community centres.” These places are destined to become extinct, washed away by dams or demolished to make way for bungalows and offices. But for a little while, they are here, offering up their stories.
Das, who spent his own childhood in an idyllic seaside village in the state of Orissa, writes lyrically about these small, charming places, anachronisms against the rapidly developing country. They are of course, exactly the sort of places where one might find ghosts.
But some of these ghosts are simply elderly people who have been forgotten. Many are Anglo Indians, remnants of the British Raj, but the rest are no less out of place in the modern world. As they sit on their porches, reminiscing about their glory days now long gone, it’s difficult not to feel terribly sorry for them.
Take old Miss Moberly in “Miss Moberly’s Targets,” who runs a resthouse for the affluent elderly. In her youth, she was a victim of unrequited or thwarted love, not once but three times. Now in her eighties, she suddenly discovers a new skill, the ability to hurl crumbs directly into the mouths of stray dogs.
This new power thrills her and she is eager to show off to her friends that she no longer misses her targets. In “The Strategy,” Gauri, a former midwife, is now in her nineties. Once a much-needed figure in the village, she feels irrelevant and forgotten in the present. So she devises a strategy – if she tells everyone she is about to die, surely they will take note of her once more?
The settings enhance the poignancy of these tales. Miss Dunkerley, another elderly woman lives alone in a house that was once an elegant bungalow but is now reduced to “heaps of masonry and bricks.” Its surviving rooms are marked by broken glass panes, its verandahs strewn with dead leaves. The houses are ghosts too.
A little insane
I felt a deep sense of nostalgia as I read this book. Nostalgia for places I haven’t visited in decades, for people I haven’t seen in a long time and may never see again, and for a time that sometimes seems simpler even though it probably wasn’t. Former princes mourn the loss of the titles and status they once enjoyed in a “foggy, feudal past.” Old people mourn the loss of youth and lost loves. The narrators, who are often beneficiaries of Western education and city life, and therefore more rational than others, mourn their loss of innocence.
Several of the people we meet are a little insane. Ashok Bhai suffers from a “queer forgetfulness.” Miss Dunkerley talks to her cat. Bishu Jena falls into a trance in front of the Banyan Goddess. Sometimes, of course, these characters are the ones who don’t conform, or live outside conventional social structures.
Sometimes, as in the case of Raja Sahib who is diagnosed with manic depressive psychosis, they might genuinely be suffering from mental health issues. But often, it’s impossible to tell if people are hallucinating or not. There’s always that sudden call of a hyena in the might, or the hooting of an owl in the distance, to make you wonder: are we all not, perhaps, a little mad?
Like many good things, as Manoj Das would tell you, this book is no longer easily – or cheaply – available. But it may be worth the effort to acquire a copy for where it really belongs with its musty smell is on your suitably dusty bottom shelf.
Oindrila Mukherjee tweets here.