In literary circles, Satyajit Ray is considered to be a writer of stories primarily targeted at children and adolescents. But as with all good literature for children anywhere in the world, his books can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Ray never treated his young readers as either less intelligent or less receptive than adults. In fact, as evident from his many interviews on the subject, he always liked to believe that children have a significantly more fertile imagination than older readers, and hence, contrary to popular perception, they are far more welcoming of chills and thrills than their older counterparts.
Nothing exemplifies this better than the way Ray wrote his horror stories. Not once did he stop short of creating the most brutal shock, the ultimate horror. And yet, without exception, keeping his young readers in mind, there was always a self-imposed restraint that kept him away from explicit gore. He did the job with situational horror alone. Ray never believed in frightening the senses – he always chose to frighten the mind instead.
In his cinema, Ray dealt with horror in just one film – Monihara (The Lost Jewels) from 1961, his adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s tragic story about a lonely housewife obsessed with her jewels. His literary contributions to the genre, however, are far richer, at least by numbers. In all, Ray wrote at least 26 short stories which can be inarguably classified as horror. But the fascinating thing is that he tackled such a wide array of subgenres that you have to wonder how he could have even conceived such stories for children. It takes a lot of courage to offer such seemingly complicated subjects to young readers.
Take the subject of metamorphosis or transformation. In what is perhaps his best known horror short story – Khagam – Ray has a man killing a full-grown cobra with malicious intent, only to transform into a snake himself over a blood-chilling night that just won’t end. Let alone children, it sends shivers down the spines of adults too. In another one, titled Neel Atanka (Indigo Terror), Ray writes about a middle-aged man who is forced by a flat tyre during a thunderstorm to spend the night in an old bungalow in rural Bengal, and is transformed overnight into the British manager of an old Indigo factory nearby who lived in the bungalow many years ago, and had put a gun to his head when confronted by the oppressed peasants. The descriptions are vivid, and the tragedy in the voice of the narrator is haunting, to say the least.
Ray revisits the subject of metamorphosis in one of his later-year stories too, titled Mriganka Babur Ghotona (The Incident Concerning Mriganka Babu), in which a junior clerk in a private merchant company slowly begins to feel an undeniable affinity towards various species of primates, finally succumbing to what can best be described as a process of reverse-evolution. Although there are some comic elements in this story, the fearsome elements are just below the surface.
In the 1971 short story Ratan Babu Aar Shei Lokta (‘Ratan Babu and the Stranger’), Ray tackles the subject of doppelgangers with admirable finesse, so much so that it elevates the story to a genre that might seem highly inapt for children – psychological horror. But Ray’s treatment is so skilful, and his convictions are so beautifully and lucidly described, that the story turns out to be a thrilling read for youngsters. In the story, a quiet middle-aged loner goes to a sleepy little suburban town in search of a few weeks of solitude, only to meet a man who seems to have an astonishing number of things common with him.
In another story best read by candlelight on a rainy night with a cup of your favourite beverage in bed, Ray describes an unnamed man, referred to only as Batikbabu (Mr Idiosyncracy), who has a strange hobby. He collects seemingly insignificant objects – buttons, gloves, wallets, etc. – but it is soon revealed that each of these unrelated objects have a terrifying history of a violent death. More than the atmospherics, the pain and helplessness of the collector obsessed with these objects add significantly to the horror. An absolutely brilliant piece of writing, in any genre.
In Professor Hijibijibijbij, Ray delves into the scary depths of metamorphosis once again, but this time, he gives a different twist to it, one that has come to be known in horror circles as the crazy-surgeon subgenre. In this story, a highly skilled and yet eccentric surgeon tries to create a real life version of one of his favourite fictional characters – one that is an amalgamation of the body parts of different animals, including the face of a human. The windy beaches of Puri, the dilapidated house sans electricity, and the horrifying efforts of a man convinced of his passion for the “perfect” creature set this story apart as one of the best Ray has written in the genre.
Inert objects and haunted houses
Horror through inanimate objects is the staple diet of many writers, Ray being one of them. In his story Fritz, a man returns to the circuit house in a town in Rajasthan which he had visited as a child, and is suddenly reminded of a Swiss doll that his uncle had gifted him, which he had buried in a corner of the lawn after a dog had torn it apart. That night, Fritz comes back to life, eager to play with his long-lost friend.
In another story, titled Bhuto, an aspiring ventriloquist seeks to learn from a professional and elderly master of the art. Being refused, he avenges the insult by learning ventriloquism on his own, and then shaping his dummy in the image of the old man who had thrown him out of his house. Trouble is, the master knew much more than ventriloquism, and the dummy soon comes to life to make the young man’s existence a living nightmare.
In a third story titled Kutum Katam, a bank teller finds the branch of a tree in the shape of a dog lying in the woods and brings it home to be displayed as a showpiece. During the nights that follow, the branch comes to life, until a terrifying secret is revealed.
The haunted house is one of Ray’s favourite tropes. Anath Babur Bhoy (Anath Babu’s Fear), Conway Castle-er Pretatma (The Spirit of Conway Castle), Brown Shaheber Baari (The House of John Middleton Brown), and Dhumalgorer Hunting Lodge (The Hunting Lodge of Dhumalgarh) are some of the stories that have stayed with readers for generations, each with a mind-numbing plot twist to give the often-visited genre an interesting edge and elevating the tales above mediocrity.
It is interesting to note that quite a few of the stories in Ray’s Tarini Khuro series – Tarini Khuro being a sexagenarian man who loves telling fascinating stories from his own life to a group of six young boys – are essentially horror narratives. They deal with such varied subjects as betrayal and revenge, inanimate objects like cricket bats and skeletons coming to life, and the re-enactment of a centuries-old duel fought between two men who had fallen in love with the same woman.
When it comes to psychological horror, there are two stories that are absolute must reads. The first Mister Shasmal-er Shesh Ratri (Mr Shasmal’s Final Night). It is the story of a man who spends the night in a circuit house, only to find that every single animal, bird and insect that he had ever killed in his life has come to pay him a visit. If this isn’t terrifying enough, he soon hears footsteps outside his door – human footsteps.
In another story, Bishphool (The Poison Flower), a middle-aged man vacationing in a remote town learns of a plant, native to the region, whose flowers carry a venom so potent that even the slightest proximity to it can kill a living being. That night, the man wakes up from his sleep to realise, much to his horror, that such a plant has sprouted just outside the open window of his bedroom.
Be it vampires – Badur Bibhishika (The Terror of the Bats) – killer plants – Septopus-er Khide (The Hungry Septopus) – extinct birds (Brihochonchu (Big Bill) – ghosts – Gagan Chaudhurir Studio (Gagan Chaudhuri’s Studio) – or vengeful spirits – First Class Cabin – there’s no subgenre that Ray hasn’t covered. If the two most important aspects of a good horror story are creating an eerie atmosphere and a shocking twist, Ray’s visual style of writing and masterful storytelling took care of both. The result is a collection of some of the best modern horror stories ever written, not just in Bengali, but across the literatures of India.