I had ghost stories on the brain for some time now. That’s not a metaphor for anything sinister; the original manuscript for my novel was based on ghost stories. After months of research and writing, followed by more research and more writing, I’m beginning to realise that ghosts aren’t necessarily about those ethereal, supernatural entities that creep us out. They could also be about the things that haunt us.
Ghost stories were historically passed down from one generation to the next through the oral tradition of story-telling. There were very few written forms that existed. Some popular examples include ‘The Thief, the Brahmin and the Raksasa’ from the Panchatantra, djinns mentioned in ‘The Arabian nights’ and a vampire-type spirit in the ‘Katha Sarit Sagara’.
It wasn’t until the development of Victorian Gothic literature that tales of the supernatural were popularised in literary form in English. Mary Shelley, Horace Walpole, M.R. James and Henry James captured the imagination of emotionally and psychologically repressed Victorians, at a time when colonialism was on the rise and empires were expanding into unknown and unstudied countries and cultures.
In 1919, Freud wrote an essay entitled ‘The Uncanny’ in which he explored the idea of irrational elements that appeared in literature. He linked these elements to manifestations of a repressed psyche onto objects, places and people.
Freud’s essay contributed to creating a platform for literary studies that looked into a person’s subconscious manifesting itself as something that was believed to be ‘supernatural.’
The wonderful thing about writing my novel is realising that almost everyone has a ghost story to tell or, at least, wishes they had one. But, the funny thing is, people are reticent to share the story until they are sure of their audience’s interest and level of scepticism. There is definitely an East-West divide as well.
In the West, talk of ghost stories will almost certainly be couched in rational and intellectual terms, wrapping the ghost in cotton wool and stripping it of any life in one’s imagination.
In India, one can still find a healthy belief and enthusiasm for a supernatural being or event.
At the very least, one questions further to gain more intimate details of the ‘ghost’ instead of dissecting it to death.
All this wondering about ghosts took me to a place I couldn’t have imagined, when I started jotting down ghost stories and came up with a fledgling novel. Now, I wonder what a ghost story is really about.
From the time-honoured tradition of producing a lesson to beware of, to the more contemporary exploration of the subconscious, ghosts today may just be figments of our imagination.
But, that wouldn’t explain what I saw in the haunted house next to ours when I was ten years old, would it?