Since reading that first anthology at ten, I became familiar with nearly all of his work, which, I discovered to my delight, was not meant exclusively for children at all. One of the stories from Garland that had left a lingering impression on me was Face in the Dark, an eerie account of a boy who had a face but no eyes, nose, ears, or other features. I remember my classmates and I all laughing out loud in amusement when we finished reading it. But memory is not reliable and I cannot be certain. Perhaps we were terrified.
In August 2009, Face in the Dark and Other Haunting Stories, an anthology of Bond’s paranormal tales written over five decades, was published. The title aptly suggests that the stories are not just haunted but haunting. They do not frighten but often unsettle, in a lyrical and quietly touching way. Like much of Ruskin Bond’s work, they evoke nostalgia for a place and time that seems unspoiled and romantic through idyllic descriptions, elderly English characters left behind by the Raj, and the ghosts themselves – “melancholy spirits looking for a lost love or a lost home.”
The ghost writer
In his introduction, Bond says, “You don’t have to believe in ghosts in order to enjoy a ghost story.” While many of the stories are written in a tongue-in-cheek tone, the autobiographical style sometimes blurs the distinction between truth and make believe. The narrator often plays the part of listener as other characters narrate stories about ghosts. His scepticism helps align him with us and adds credibility to his accounts. In one story, he says, “After dark we see or hear many things that seem mysterious and irrational. And then, by the clear light of day, we find that the magic and the mystery have an explanation after all.”
Yet such logic is defied again and again by the happenings in these stories. Several of them end with questions – for example, “I thought I heard voices in the wind; and perhaps I did. For isn’t the wind the voice of the undying dead?” or “Had I seen his look-alike, a double? Or had he kept his promise to come back to see me once more?” The stories thus end with a sense of ambiguity. Did this incident really happen or is he messing with readers?
As Bond points out, that is not the point at all. The purpose of ghost stories is that they “can make you ponder upon the mysteries of human existence.” And this is exactly what this compilation does. The ghosts do not appear without reason. They do so because they are unhappy. We find doomed lovers, spurned wives, children who drowned.
It is in the light of this undercurrent of restlessness and discontent that we should regard the idyllic landscape and poetic language so typical of Ruskin Bond’s writing. In his beloved hill stations and small towns in the foothills of the Himalayas, we encounter once again the silver-lined langur monkeys, deodars, nightjars, and fragrant Raat ki Raani blossoms – in short, the pastoral landscape that sets his world apart from the gritty urban settings of other Indian writers. Consider these lines from Whistling in the Dark:
“Once I dreamt that the trees could walk. That on moonlit nights like this they would uproot themselves for a while, visit each other, talk about old times – for they had seen many men and happenings, especially the older ones. And then, before dawn, they would return to the places where they had been condemned to grow. Lonely sentinels of the night.”
Bond’s setting is very different from the bustling towns or cruel cities of most of his contemporaries. His is a landscape dotted with wildflowers. The innocence of the setting evokes a longing for simpler times. Nostalgia works on many levels in this collection. In Reunion at the Regal, the narrator describes his childhood:
“Yes, we talked about old times – growing up in Simla, where we lived next door to each other, exploring our neighbors’ lichee orchards, cycling about the town in the days before the scooter had been invented, kicking a football around on the maidan, or just sitting on the compound wall.”
Many of the stories are set in hill stations in the years following India’s independence, and are peopled by English characters who have been abandoned by their relatives and left to languish, with only their loyal Indian servants for company. The characters’ names – Mr Oliver, Colonel Fanshawe, Miss Fairchild, Miss Marley, and so on – help evoke the old world charm and Anglophile culture that was once a way of life for the likes of the young Rusty.
On the other hand, in several stories, he laments the changes that have crept into his beloved countryside – “The streets were overbuilt and crowded, and the lichee gardens were fast disappearing.” Signs of modernity do not please Ruskin Bond.
One of the most divergent stories in the book, Night of the Millennium, which aptly ends the collection, is about a computer whiz-kid, a “modern knight in T-shirt and designer jeans.” It’s set on New Year’s Eve, 1999, and ends on a macabre note that vindicates Bond’s views on the changing times. This story comes as close to a political statement as we might get from him:
“Midnight would see the new millennium in. The year 2000 beckoned, full of bright prospects for well-heeled young men like Pasand. True, there were millions – soon to be over a billion – sweating it out in the heat and dust of the plains below, scraping together a meager living for themselves and their sprawling families. Not for them the advantages of a public school education, three cars in the garage, and a bank account in Bermuda… This was going to be the century in which the smart-asses would get to the top and all other varieties of asses would sink to the bottom.”
It is this new India characterised by the markers of progress that Ruskin Bond famously rejects in his work. His evocation of a simpler time, set in an unspoiled countryside, suggests a longing for his own childhood. What it also does is remind us of our own.
Along with the lovely descriptions of the hills we also find the mundane record of small town life. Characters visit the baker or the cobbler, or go to shops to buy spices, soap, matches, and other household objects. The narrator himself ventures to the bazaars to read the newspaper, deposit a check, collect mail, or drink many cups of tea.
This might all seem quite romantic and carefree. Indeed when the narrator is not in town, he goes on long walks in the woods, spends hours writing, lies bare-chested on the damp grass. In The Ghost in the Garden, he says, “As a boy I was always exploring lonely places – neglected gardens and orchards, unoccupied houses, patches of scrub or wasteland, the fields outside the town, the fringes of the forest.”
But his life is not all peaceful and joyous as he reminds us many times. He reveals many moments of loneliness and existential angst. In fact, loss and longing form an integral part of the narratives. It is not only the spirits who are seeking something. The narrator himself is looking for lost friends or family.
For instance, in Reunion at the Regal, he is briefly reunited with his childhood friend Kishen, but then learns that Kishen died a few years ago. And in The Vision, the most autobiographical story in the collection perhaps, the young narrator is questioning his life’s choices when he sees an apparition of his dead father who offers guidance.
One of my favorite stories is the poetic and eerie Whispering in the Dark, set on a proverbial dark and stormy night. The moaning wind and lashing trees create a Gothic atmosphere perfect for stumbling upon an abandoned house in the forest. The narrator’s mental condition reflects the atmosphere: “Loneliness stretched ahead of me, a loneliness of the heart as well as a physical loneliness.”
The collection is quite varied. There are romantic stories about ill-fated lovers and creepy ones where ghosts of children haunt the countryside. Some are not really ghost stories, but vignettes about unexplained occurrences and local legends. The settings are as varied as the small town of Shahganj in Uttar Pradesh, New Delhi’s Regal Cinema, Baker Street in London, and of course the author’s beloved hill stations.
The stories borrow from Indian and Western myth. Thus, in The Black Cat, we meet a traditional witch who flies away on a broomstick. Elsewhere we encounter supernatural beings from Indian folklore, such as a pret or mischievous ghost that lives in peepul trees, and a jinn who can elongate his arm to twenty or thirty feet and has an irresistible fondness for black hair. Even ghosts of celebrities such as Rudyard Kipling and Sherlock Holmes make cameo appearances.
In the past, critics have sometimes attacked Ruskin Bond’s work for being too sentimental and divorced from harsh Indian realities. It is true that occasionally his writing sound a bit twee. But these ghost stories are some of his darker work. While the prose might be pretty, it is not as sentimental as some think. The tales are all the more disturbing for being set against such picturesque backdrops.
Face In The Dark is a haunting collection alright. As the dead wander around the forests and hills, they manage to bring alive these places for us. Even as they offer some semblance of escape for readers, they also do what Bond promises in the introduction – “raise the possibility of another layer of life outside our material selves – something of the soul-force, the aura of a person that lingers on after the body is no more.” And so these stories linger on long after the last page is turned.
Oindrila Mukherjee is a writer and an Assistant Professor at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can follow her on Twitter at @oinkness.
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