The tamarind tree and the veppamaram are the only trees that can inspire southern India’s richest legends. According to popular belief, both are home to spirits and ghosts. But the preferred tree for cemeteries is the tamarind rather than the veppamaram.

Is it because the tamarind provides fruits essential for cooking? Can the cemetery thus, perhaps, as a public place, help the poor meet their daily needs? Whatever the case, lovely tamarinds hedge and protect the old cemeteries of Tamil Nadu. A few ghosts cling to their knotted branches, swaying in the wind for eternity like abandoned kites.

Nobody sees them. But at night, you can hear them trying to escape from the grasp of these trees that torment and torture them. Tamarind trees also attract suicides. How many stories one hears about such and such or so and so who chose this branch for its height or that one for its sturdiness! The branch of the departed person is inevitably cut down. A nail is driven into the tree where the branch was cut, keeping the soul of the suicide in place and preventing them from making mischief. May he not come haunting his near ones or the village.

Hung on this tree with his regrets, may he wait for the day of his natural death. On that day, the nail will fall from the tree, freeing his soul from its ties to the world. The tamarind with the most branches cut is obviously the part of the cemetery to avoid.

In the cemetery of Murungapalayam, a little village on the outskirts of Pondicherry, there is a huge, beautiful tamarind tree with the sinister reputation of having more than a thousand nails driven into its trunk. Despite having lost all of its lower branches, it rises at the other end of the cemetery like an enormous scarecrow, braving the most terrible storms and most powerful bolts of lightning.

No one dares approach this spot. No one dares sit in its shade. Still less count its nails, each of which have their story to tell. Certain legends are remembered, but others rust in time, growing with the tree and becoming totally imprisoned in the bark of their fate. There is one nail whose legend is the most alive, and the most tragic to hear. It’s at the top of the tree. From a certain angle, you can see it clearly, even from far away. Its story is one of a dare. The dare of an idle young boy. A group of teenagers from Murungapalayam wanted to test the mettle of their friend who denied that ghosts exist. Manu was ready to do anything to prove that he was the bravest. Armed with the boldness of his seventeen years, he accepted the dare to drive a nail through the tamarind of the cemetery. “Nothing easier,” he said. “I’ll nail it through the highest branch.And at midnight!” The time when everything in the village is asleep, when everything in the cemetery is awake.

When the time came, the group accompanied Manu to the cemetery’s edge. No one spoke the whole way there, from the village to the cemetery. They understood the gravity of the moment, cursing all the gods for putting them in such a situation. A heavy atmosphere enveloped and pursued them. A shared regret floated over them. Why this stupid bet? What if, somehow, something happened? Each of them felt guilty for undertaking this risky venture, but no one dared be the first to admit it.They kept walking. They followed an invisible funeral march. Silently.

At the end of the path, the cemetery appeared immense like an ocean. Like the night of a full moon. Its silvery light revealed all the undulations of the landscape. The pyres had been extinguished. The guard had gone.The moment was well chosen. Suddenly, at the last moment, his closest friend tried to dissuade him. Seizing the opportunity, all the others shook off their inertia and cowardice, begging him to drop the idea. Stop him at any price from carrying out his plan! What if, after all, all those stories were true! If ghosts really did exist! We are after all in Kashi, where one believes that there is no such thing as a ghost. The souls of those who die in Kashi go directly to heaven.

“Don’t tempt fate, Manu! After all, they have a right to exist, too, and a right to space and peace. Don’t bother them. We’re begging you! Let’s forget all this and go back home.”

“We were foolish to allow you to do this. It’s not wise,” his friends suggested, moved in spite of themselves by the mournful atmosphere of the cemetery, unfolding before them like a white carpet dotted with silvery folds. “Let’s go!”

“What? Leaving already? Admitting you’re afraid? Bunch of wimps!”

“Yes we are. We’re afraid. We’re afraid...for you. We lost the bet. We accept it. You won. There are no ghosts. Let’s go home!”

“It’s too easy that way. I’ll do it!” he said in spite of the fear that was consuming him. But he wouldn’t admit it. A final surge of bravado chased away all caution. If he could plant that nail and come back unscathed! His legend would be as tall as that rotten tree. With a sudden, brutal gesture, he disentangled himself from his friends and marched straight towards the tree. Head high, brisk step, anxious heart.

Manu’s courage shook his friends, left them motionless. Their admiration for him knew no bounds, but something made them afraid. What? They couldn’t say exactly. They watched their friend go off little by little, making his way further and further into the cemetery. The tree suddenly looked like a ghost. A huge one. It raised its mutilated branches up to the sky. You might have said that it was...waiting. A shudder ran through them all. “My god! We should have never let him go. He’ll be killed. They’re out there. I feel them.” But their fear left them completely frozen. Unable to make any movement, his closest friend shouted, “Manu, be careful!”

He walked as calmly as possible. Did he hear a voice behind him? No matter! He had only one thought: “Hammer this damn nail and get back! What a stupid idea this bet was. And what if it’s true? If spirits really are around? Why should I bother them, in their home, at midnight? Hammer this damn nail and get back!” He picked up his pace. His tree was still far off. One by one, he remembered all those legends. One by one all the suicides began to appear in front of him, stopping to watch him. They went before him. They pulled him forward. They went alongside him. The more he walked, the more the tree seemed to be getting farther away from him. The more he looked at it, the taller it seemed to grow. Its trunk was already enormous. And its arms stretched longer as he stared. “What am I doing here? Why me? Where am I?”

“What’s he doing now? Why doesn’t he go faster? What’s he waiting for? Hurry up!” As he got closer to the tree, Manu’s shadow grew smaller and the tree climbed higher into the sky. In their hearts they knew something horrible would happen. A strange feeling of fear and foreboding overwhelmed them. They were sorry they had let him go. “How can we warn him now? He’s far away. He’ll never agree to turn around. Who will go after him?” No one had the courage to follow him. An eternity passed before he came to the foot of the tree.

A few more steps. He would finally confront the tamarind that had been mocking him. He approached the tree. He prayed to his god and with a timid, trembling hand, touched the trunk. A violent emotion gripped him. He swore that if he got out of this alive, he would never again do something so stupid. But what was he to do in the meantime? The silence worried him. “Why didn’t I listen to my friends? Do I climb up? Or do I turn around and run back to my friends? If I go, will the ghosts let me leave in peace?...I never thought that climbing up a tree could be so hard. These nails are everywhere!” An old branch cracked and fell. He was barely able to grab another to carry his weight and his fear. “If I’d fallen, they’d just say the ghosts pushed me. No! There are no ghosts! And if there were any, they’d have shown up by now. Or are they waiting for something else?...What?...Let’s hammer that damn nail and get out!”

His friends’ admiration was matched only by their terror. In spite of everything, such guts that guy has! He’s really climbing. From the bottom of their hearts, they prayed to all the gods. They were all moved by one wish. Let him come back safe and sound!

“We’ll believe anything.”

“We’ll even believe you fought the ghosts to hammer your nail.”

“But come back!”

“If something happens to you, we’ll never forgive ourselves!”

“What will we tell your parents?”

“Hurry up, Manu!”

“Don’t wait for your nail to go all the way in!”

“We’ll believe anything now.”

“You won your bet. Come back!”

Their heart beat fast. You could hear them running. You could hear them thinking. You could hear them breathing. Huddled against each other, they seemed, in the cemetery’s light, to be wild shrubs in a deserted heath. They moved together. They breathed together. They froze together. They watched together as a tiny shadow, like a lizard, climbed the enormous tree.

“Is this the branch that will take me to the top?” He had already climbed quite high. Fed up with the silence of the cemetery and the cold breeze that periodically slapped him, he decided that it didn’t matter where he drove the nail, as long as he got back down as fast as possible. It took forever to get himself situated and begin. He really couldn’t fall down now! Everything struck him as fragile, treacherous and invisible. He cast a furtive glance down. Suddenly, dizziness seized him.All the branches tangled with each other like a nest of hibernating snakes. He forced himself to look forward. As far as he could see, a vast area of darkness greeted him coldly. He saw nothing. He picked his courage back up, and his nail too. He brought it close to the trunk. His heart was beating hard. His whole body was sweating. The whole tree was shaking under him. And he began to pound madly with his hammer. It was a horrible clatter, enough to wake all the corpses in the cemetery. He couldn’t tell one thing from another. There was only his nail and his hammer. The hammer pounded all by itself. He didn’t dare stop to rest. He cried. He whispered a prayer. “Forgive me,” he said. He stopped pounding to wipe his eyes. But when he tried to start again, he couldn’t find his nail. He looked for it everywhere. Had he really hammered it in? “Should I start again? That’s it! I’m coming down.”

As soon as he began to climb down, he saw, through his tears, his whole village. He thought of his relatives, of his mother. He turned around to see his friends. “Where are they? Did they all go and leave me to my fate?”

He searched in the darkness. He couldn’t see them. Shadows moved around the tombs. An immense fear sat down beside him. On the same branch. His whole body started to tremble from the shock. He felt presences around him. Warm breaths. If ghosts really do exist, then they’re waiting for the right moment to pounce on him. “Ghosts only attack people who turn around. People who are afraid...I’m not afraid. Get down as fast as possible. Don’t turn around. Whatever you do, don’t turn around!”

“Look! He nailed it in! He’s coming down.”

“That guy really has guts! I would have died a thousand times before doing that!”

“He’s so small on that tree!”

“Oh my god! Something moved behind him!”


“Look, there. Behind him. Manu, look out! Behind you!”

“Come back! Get down fast!”

“The whole tree’s moving! Get down fast! Don’t turn around!”

“Whatever you do, don’t turn around!”


“Get down!”


“It’s like they’re all coming down with him.”


“It can’t be true! We have to do something.”

“Oh my god!”

An indescribable feeling gripped him. He was trying to get down as fast as he could. “I’m alone in this cemetery! On this tree! And my friends have abandoned me! This cold surrounding me! What’s happening? Why’s this cold wind hitting my face? What’s this piercing heat on my neck?” He threw his hammer towards the ground; it bounced off several branches. He heard shouting. He climbed down from his branch. Suddenly, his heart stopped. He went completely still. All his blood froze. He felt someone or something suddenly pull his shirt from behind. “Forgive me, I beg you!” His final scream was lost in the silence of his solitude.

“Look! He’s stuck to a branch.”

“He stopped moving.”

“Something happened to him!”

“A ghost must have hit him.”

“He’s got to be dead.”

“We have to tell someone.”

“We can’t stay here like this!”

It was a mad rush to the village; they went crying all the way.

The next day, they found Manu’s body on a branch, bent in two. A thin ribbon of blood in the corner of his mouth, and, driven into his shirt, the nail.

Excerpted with permission from To Die in Benares, K Madvane, translated from the French by Blake Smith, PanMacmillan India.