Giving up the Ghosts


December 4, 2007

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Short Stories

By Farrukh Dhondy

My twenty something daughter refused to sleep in her own room the other night. She had memories of the room at the back of the house on the first floor not far from where the other bedrooms are, being haunted. I remembered the incident from when she was a child. We had attributed it at the time to an au pair, a Spanish girl who was looking after our twins, scaring them with supernatural stories.

My daughter insisted the lights used to come on spontaneously at night while she slept and then the CD player would switch itself on. I checked the circuits of the house as far as I knew how and her mother put it down to the possibility that she was sleep-walking. Now, years later, the memory had been revived by her boyfriend telling her some story from his past. He said he was maybe seven or eight and his mother and sisters were out. His father wasn’t with them. He was downstairs in their house and he heard a sawing. When he climbed the stairs he found that the doorknob to his room had been sawn off. That gave my daughter the creeps.

When she relayed his story to me the same night I said I was sure I had read that same story in one of Roald Dahl’s books, something about a sawing noise and the doorknob. Her sister butted in to say that it was extremely unlikely that the boyfriend had ever read the Roald Dahl story and even more unlikely that his mother, who corroborated the story, had. In the end she was persuaded by our contempt for ghosts to brave it out, and the lights in the room stayed unelectrified all night. The poltergeist had been, for now, exorcised.

Stories of hauntings seem to follow the same patterns and, whether fictions derive from them or they derive from fictions in a chicken-and-egg succession or even in a ghostly, ever-more-twisted spiral, they belong together in the misty realm of folk memory. As literature, the Woman in White and part of Wuthering Heights and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and H G Wells, seem to make points about life, memory, feeling, our relationship to the past and the cycle of moral cause and effect. Other ghost stories, including those of Roald Dahl concentrate on their chilling effect on the reader and are virtually meaningless.

There were of course ghosts, spirits and goblins aplenty in my Indian childhood. One of the scares that swept through the gullibility of Pune at the time was the spectre of the ‘Hakmari Bai’. This was a creature with a crow’s body and woman’s head who flew around the town in the dark, perched outside the windows of the sleeping and unwitting victim and called out to him or her in a plaintive, recognisable voice of a loved one. She could call in the voice of your mother or sister or child and when you answered the call by opening the door wondering how your sister or mother had got out into the dark, she would pounce and do something horrible. The horrors were variously reported. Hakmari Bai would kill you and eat your entrails. Thee were reports of people having been killed in this gruesome way, though they were always at the level of rumour, not of reportable crime. Much later in life did I see Egyptian deities with birds heads and human bodies and surreal pictures of evil human heads stuck on birds.

Then there was ‘Lal Deval’ the red-brick Jewish synagogue at the end of the street that branched out from our neighbourhood. Opposite this synagogue with its scrubby compound there was the ‘Parsee colony’ where lived several of my friends and acquaintances. In the compound of the synagogue was a dead well. It may have had water in its depths but wasn’t used by anyone.

Walking past the synagogue of an evening we would sometimes see dim lights emanating from the well. It was probably a candle or two that someone had lit and left on one of internally protruding stones for some ritual purpose of their own, but friends of mine insisted it was the light given off by the spiritual presences there. I never had the courage to go into the compound and check.

One of my friends, an older lad we looked up to and respected for his street-wiseness and his acquaintance with hucksters, lorry-drivers, bookies and known petty gangsters, insisted that he had seen the spirits emerge from the well when he was on his way home alone at night. The only thing one could do, he said, to scare them and stop them attacking you was to boldly open your flies and urinate in their direction.

My aunts had other ideas of scaring away evil. If evil came your way disguised as a stink (echoed again in the book/film The Exorcist) or a ghostly form, one had to say a short Zoroastrian prayer and utter the mantra ‘Shikaste, shikaste shaitain’. That would see Ahriman and his boys off.

I shan’t suggest the former remedy to my daughter but my aunt’s solution seems harmless and won’t leave a puddle on the carpet.

Original article here