The Penguin Book of Indian Ghost Stories – A Book Review


“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” – Edgar Allan Poe

Horror is a tricky genre. While it is true that all of us have an inherent sense of fear from something or the other, reading a book and getting spooked is a different ball game altogether. One needs an immersive setting to put their readers in, a gripping way of narration, and a fantastic progress of the story to keep them hooked. As a writer, I have tried my hands on this genre many a times, and quite often than not have come away dissatisfied with what I wrote. It’s never enough – you always feel that the story can be better, the narration more crisp and darker, the climax more chilling.

When I first found this book, carefully hidden between lot of so-called bestsellers in Crossword, I was expecting a run-of-the-mill hotchpotch of stories (which apparently many publishers do). Then I saw Ruskin Bond’s name as the editor. Hook number one. I have been an ardent fan of Bond’s work for quite some time now, and my faith in him urged me to buy this book.

So after finishing the book a whole month later, how do I feel about it?

Ruskin Bond chose the stories in the book very wisely, going back to colonial times, so  a lot of previously-unheard-of tales made their way into the book. The introduction sets the pace for a reading pleasure, where Bond talks about how he chose the stories, and his own experience of ghosts and tales from the crypt. Incidentally, the bunch of stories start with Bond’s own poem Out of the Dark, a lovely piece.

F.W.Bain’s Underdone,overdone, undone! feels and reads like an old tale from the Upanishads, with its bevy of Sanskrit terms, while the Meerut Graveyard, written by the East India Company Barrister John Lang (who also published a paper in Meerut called Mofussilite and even worked as a solicitor for the Queen of Jhansi) is a tell-tale description of an old guy caretaking the graveyard. It evokes sympathy for the dead and the forgotten connection with the living – which makes you wonder about your own fate.

Where the action really kicks in is when Rudyard Kipling takes the helm. The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes and The Mark of the Beast are both brilliant write-ups, with the latter a narrative tour-De-force. I was so gripped with The Mark of the Beast that I sat down and re-read it a couple of times, just to feel the strange horror again which crept up every time I read it.

Lafcadio Hearn’s Ghost is a surprising addition. Hearn was famous for his tales of Japan, also going by the name of Koizumi Yakumo. This one is no story, but has a feeling of being produced after a lot of thorough research. With all his poignancy, Hearn delved deep into our own psyche, venturing into the world of unknown.

But all that glitters is not gold. Stories from A.C.Renny, Hilton Brown and C.A.Kincaid felt like letdowns, especially when the memories of the ones before it were still afresh. Nevertheless, they continued the flow and gave us an insight on India in eighteenth and early nineteenth century – the fair-borne sahibs, the plight of the natives, and the general indignancy of the rulers towards the ruled.

The English stories end with a bang. F.R.Corson, who would have been a prolific railway engineer and supervisor of his time, wrote many accounts of his unreal experiences while being in India. The Tale-Light is hence crisp and brilliant, and that twist in the climax keeps you gasping, asking for more.

Bond’s Indian side of the story collection contains much loved authors Satyajit Ray, R.K.Narayan, Sudhir Thapliyal amongst others. I have read some of these stories before, but getting to read them again was a nice experience. Anath Babu’s Terror is probably one of the best Indian ghost stories even written, with Ray’s sublime ability of immersion at its best. What works so well in that story is the setting and how it lures you into believing something else, while creeping up behind you and catching you off-guard. Bond’s own Topaz is also delightful, and he faithfully gives his long time friend Victor Banerjee a place in the book as well, with his rendition of The Red Hydrangea.

It’s amusing how the book ends with a tale of love, of the dead desperately seeking for those moments of care and nurture. Kala puts The Loving Soul-Atmah in a place with which we all can relate, while Vijayan, with his rural setting mixes the realm of bizarre with our own worlds.

While I felt underwhelmed, ever so slightly, with some of the story choices which Ruskin Bond made, I could see his frame of mind while he sat down and began the tough task of selecting the good ones from the bad. The continuity works like a charm in most of the cases, but in some, it feels stilted. Bond has pulled out a treasure-trove from the past, and produced stories which we have never seen or read before, but I believe this book could have been better without some of them.

So my verdict? For 200 bucks, this book is an absolute steal. The amount of fabulous writing is sheer amazing, and with someone like Ruskin Bond in the helm, you can’t go wrong choosing this one. So skip a lunch if you have to; get this gem in your collection, get a cup of coffee and barge into the world of ghost and spirits.

Rating – 4/5


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