In my formative years, stories of supernatural entities brought us cousins together. The weekend watch would be Aahat, Mano Ya Na Mano or a horror movie where all of us would sit beside our resident storyteller, my grandmother, and we would have Maggi as fear crept in.

Now that I think of it, it’s quite ironic that horror brought us together instead of family-oriented films. Bibhutibhushan (Bandyopadhyay)’s Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural, translated from the Bangla by Devalina Mookerjee, dives deep into occult practices, working along with other creepy stories to send me down memory lane.

As a young boy, Taranath had a keen interest in spirituality and tried to approach several practitioners in the hope of becoming their disciple, but despite meeting many of them on his journey, he was continuously discouraged by them. The first two short stories in the collection are about the challenges Taranath faces to become the Taranath Tantrik, the mystical beings he comes across, and the illusions that engulf him for a time being. These are followed by seven other diverse bone-chilling short stories, each of them using a unique element to frighten us.

Beyond stereotypes

In Maya, a recently unemployed man meets an elderly person who invites him to work as a caretaker of his old village home but as soon as he is left alone, he is engulfed by illusions which are incessantly trying to keep him inside forever; in Moshla Bhut or The Ghosts of Spices, it’s the sacks of spices from a ravaged ship which tries to free itself from a merchant’s storage facility; in Khola Dorjar Itihash or An Open Door, a medium gets overpowered by an entity beyond her understanding leading to the death of a sceptic and there’s The Curse where an influential zamindar family spirals into bankruptcy and mayhem because of a curse from a helpless woman.

Not limiting itself to stereotypical entities, these stories explore many myths and legends. In a genre like this, writing short stories could be challenging as the writer needs to develop the characters and situations to catch the reader unexpectedly. Bibhutibhushan’s work seems so seamless and indigenous that there’s no disconnect in the narrative and the reader is drawn towards it organically.

No such work can be appreciated if the translation isn’t equally exceptional, especially where a detailed context has to be set for the society and culture in which the story is set. Suspension of belief is crucial when one has to be immersed in the world of the supernatural. The translator achieves this through her extended introduction and the note on tantra, launching us into the space that the stories occupy. The introduction also explores the domestic nature of Indian ghosts, who do not really wish to harm someone, unlike the ones in western stories.

Why a tantric?

Tantra as a practice is a challenge to normative ideas about religion, going as it does against the Brahmanical ideas of “purity”. It is well-established in the eastern part of India, and has been popularised by Bangla books and films. Its reputation for efficacy can be measured by, among other things, the sheer proliferation of Bangali Baba advertisements in train compartments, promising to mend your relationship with your loved one or to ensure you pass an important exam.

This book tries to go beyond the demonisation and commits to demystifying the ideas around these tales that have existed for a very long time. In Bangla, ghosts are called bhut, which is also the word for “past”. Hence, this interconnection might also point towards accountability and how the past defines the present as well as the future. We know that darkness rushes in in the absence of light, and fear creeps in along with it. This fear helps to concoct the existence of the unknown.

But the stories also stress that in the kind of world that we live in, ghosts may even act as the harbingers of justice. Especially for the marginalised who live in an unjust society, such a belief could help them remain hopeful for justice. The translator says something similar: “The question, then, is not if ghosts do or do not exist. The question is, why do we tell these stories? Why do we keep telling them over and over again, until the narrative groove is worn so deep that they find their way into writing?”

One of the few things that families of “probashi Bangalis” – Bengalis who live away from Bengal – try to do is keep their children in touch with the Bengali culture. Apart from food and clothing, stories also play an important role here. The stories of Rabindranath Tagore, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Nabaneeta Dev Sen and many other writers instil a sense of belonging towards their “cultural home”. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay is an immensely versatile writer and has narrated diverse stories.

Pather Panchali can easily be termed as one of his greatest works which delved into the slow village life of Bengal and its effect on the lives of its inhabitants. Written with empathy, it caught the eye of Satyajit Ray and was immortalised as a work of brilliant cinema. Bibhutibhushan has since risen to a stature that any writer would wish for and I hope more of his work gets translated. I am also hopeful that supernatural stories across India would get the recognition they deserve.

Taranath Tantrik: And Other Tales from the Supernatural

Taranath Tantrik: And Other Tales from the Supernatural, Bibhutibhushan, translated from the Bengali by Devalina Mookerjee, Speaking Tiger Books.