“Thik dupur byala bhootey maarey thyala.”
“At the strike of noon, ghosts will push you over.”
Back in my wonder years in Calcutta, this was the standard warning issued by the elders in the family to discourage us children from sneaking up to the terrace while they took their afternoon nap. In the queasy silence of the afternoon, these words sounded particularly ominous. My cousins and I were convinced a sneaky ghost resided on the terrace that, in its malevolence, didn’t spare even adorable kids.
My grandmother and aunts used to wield threats of ghosts with gleeful abandon, with the result that ghosts lurked on the fringes of our consciousness all the time, ever ready to scare us if we dared to transgress. There was a ghostly repercussion for every indiscretion – staying out after sunset, leaving food on the plate, refusing to eat bitters. If it wasn’t the mischievous Mamdo out to get us, it was the one-legged Ekanore or the spiteful Petni or the cackling Shakchunni. There was no running away from them and we were terrified.
When not scaring children, ghosts live a full life like corporeal humans, at least in the Bengali imagination. They reside on the mog daal (highest branch) of their favourite trees on the edges of tepantorer math (the field of three horizons) or in the shadowy recesses of derelict mansions. They perform daily chores like humans, raise families like us and socialise over dance and music, like most of us. But what makes Bengali ghosts perhaps most like flesh-and-blood humans is their soft spot for food.
Bengali folklore and literature are strewn with references to the culinary preferences of ghosts, ghouls and monsters, some of them innocuous and some downright macabre.
In Chandimangal, an important work of medieval Bengali literature, 16th-century poet Mukundaram Chakravarty renders grisly descriptions of a bazaar where ghouls, ghosts and demons buy and sell meat cakes and blood wine, ghee made with human brains and wheel-shaped bread of human paste. For the more fastidious, the market offers flat rice made with soft bones, juicy paan of human skin, and tubs of bone marrow yoghurt. And if none of this appeases the supernatural epicure, there is on offer white elephant tusks (instead of white radish), ripped fingernails (instead of water chestnut) and bananas made of tongue.
In Chakravarty’s work, everyday human food is denatured to evoke horror and disgust. But in Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakurmar Jhuli, terror is served without culinary theatricality. In his iconic collection of fairytales, armies of shapeshifting trolls – rakkhosh and rakkhoshi – polish off stables full of horses and elephants, devour humans whole and chomp on peas made of iron.
Fondness for fish
For the most part though, Bengali ghosts and supernatural beings mercifully have benign food choices and what they really like is fish, the prime source of sustenance and a cultural touchstone in Bengal. According to folklore, one ghost is such a pescatarian that it stalks fishermen who venture out in the dark and harasses them for its share of the catch. The name given to it is Mechho Bhoot from the Bengali words for fish and ghost.
But even Mechho Bhoot’s fondness for fish pales before female ghosts’ passion for it. Take, for instance, Petni, the unhappy ghost of an unmarried or widowed woman. There are numerous stories of how the dreaded Petni follows gullible men carrying fresh fish home from the bazaar. At first she entreats them to give her a portion of the fish, but if not heeded, her requests turn to sinister threats.
The Petni’s fanatical hankering for fish is a metaphor for life’s unfulfilled desires, rooted in the region’s gendered culture that in the past restricted a woman’s access to food, particularly fish. Fish was once verboten in the kitchens of Bengali widows – many of whom were widowed in their childhood – and it is this deprivation that gets represented through the story of the Petni. In the book Goynar Bakshothe, for instance, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay tells the tale of the ghost Pishima, who, when widowed in her childhood and robbed of all pleasures, craves fish in ghosthood.
Indeed, all tales of food-loving Bengali supernatural beings can be situated in the human need to mirror their condition in myths and legends. The folklore of the land tells us about Shankhachurni or Shakchunni, the fish-loving ghost of a married woman who longs to return to married life. The fish in this story is not so much about food as it is about death and intimacy. Traditionally, in Bengal, it was obligatory for a married woman to eat fish, even a morsel, to signify the health and life of her husband. A Shakchunni longing for fish suggests her longing for marital life.
What kind of fish does Shakchunni and her ilk like? The lore here is divided. Some say they prefer it raw, others say they it like it charred or fried, and yet others insist they want it rotten and rancid above all else. What determines the preference is perhaps the “caste of the ghost”.
Casteism in supernatural world
Pervasive in the corporeal world, casteism also runs through the social fabric of the supernatural terrain. Brahmadaitya, the ghost of a deceased Brahmin, often described as honorable, erudite and decorous, is at the top of the caste hierarchy in the ghost world. All other ghosts – “tall as palmyra trees, very thin and very black, who eat rice and all sorts of human food” – are spirits of departed Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras, writes Reverend Lal Behari Day in his 1874 book Govinda Samanta. “Unlike other ghosts, they [the Brahmadaitya] do not eat all sorts of food but only those which are considered religiously clean,” Day says.
In Taradas Bandyopadhyay’s Bhootera Ekhon, the order is upturned. In this story, the ghost of an underprivileged woman admonishes her ghost son for demanding rotten fish, which is a delicacy reserved for the privileged classes like the Brahmadaitya. From other stories emerge a whole list of ingredients coveted in the supernatural world: gugli (periwinkle), shamuk (snails), both associated with the poor and the marginalised in the human world.
The peculiar culinary penchants of the Bengali bhoot are also at the heart of Upendrakishore Ray Choudhury’s Kujo o Bhoot. The motley band of ghosts in this story are fond of the fetid scent of asafoetida, mouth-puckering tartness of tamarind, pungent allium notes of garlic, zest of peppers and the overpowering smell of shutki or dried fish, but are repulsed by kanchagolla, a melt-in-the-mouth sweetmeat made with fresh chhana. Seen closely, in the world created by Ray Choudhury, ghosts favour tastes often derided by humans as unsophisticated and crude (salty, tangy, sulphuric and pungent) over the classically cherished (sweet). It is this preference that represents the altered reality of the supernatural world and separates immaterial beings from the living.
In Bandopadhyay’s Bhoot Puran too, when Ramayi Bhattacharya becomes a ghost after being killed by a disembodied voice, he develops an insatiable appetite for honey from kalke flowers and glowing fireflies. Sweetmeats like mithai, malpua and manohara no longer hold his interest.
Among the most poignant stories of food-loving ghosts is narrated by Leela Majumdar in Tepantorer Paarer Bari. In this story, a desperate house owner recruits two youngsters, Notey and Guru, to spend a night at his purportedly haunted ancestral mansion so that he can convince a local organisation to buy the property and turn it into an ashram for the homeless. For their services, the house owner promises the boys Rs 15 and gives them a sumptuous tiffin of kochuri (deep-fried bread stuffed with lentils), aloo chaat, kanchkolar achaar (pickled raw bananas), jibhe goja (tongue-shaped, sugar-crusted pastries) and bottles of lemonade.
During their stay, Notey and Guru find the mansion overrun by a raucous bunch of ghosts of homeless refugee children. The ghosts snatch and hungrily devour the boys’ food, but it doesn’t truly satisfy them. What the children truly long for is garam bhaat or hot rice, just like the rural poor in Bengal. To show their gratitude for the food, the ghosts agree to vacate the mansion, but on the condition that it be turned into a shelter where garam bhaat will be cooked every day for homeless orphans, just like them.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.