Of Bhootas, Pretas and Pishachis
Back in school, as exams loomed nearer and nearer, I’d realize that the only way I’d get a decent pass mark was by drawing up a strict timetable. One that I would never follow anyway. What would start as one-chapter-a-day revision would boil down to read-the-goddamn-text-book-as-fast-as-you-can. And even in that panic, other pleasures, strictly rationed, could not be forgone. Karamchand or Chitrahaar for example.
Well, I figured age would’ve added a bit more finesse in my studying methods. Age, as it turns out in my case, is just some hazy number. Even as I had to cogently discuss monoamine theories of depression, and even though I was swimming in serotonin and dopamine, I had to...just had to...catch a movie on TV...falling behind on my study schedule once again. The movie was ‘Ek thi daayan.’
What made me want to watch a movie with such a cheesy sounding title? Well...let me confess...I needed something to uplift the spirits. And nothing can do that better than Bollywood horror shows. So far, the ones I’ve seen have amused me to death. Dang...but this was a different movie. One of the best horror movies of Bollywood – sure it has its pitfalls here and there - but largely well done. Superb acting, and more importantly, loved the way the director has molded folklore into something so mainstream.
That reminded me of all the ghost stories I’d heard as a kid. So far I've never had any ghostly experience. I may have suspected the earthly origins of certain people I’d come across...and some of my teachers may have induced out-of-body experiences in me. But apart from that...no strange happenings ever.
My earliest recollection of ghost stories was from Chandamama. Usually Appa narrated them (I had to be entertained while I ate my food). The ghost stories would invariably start with ‘Long, long ago, there lived a poor priest. Or a poor woodcutter. Or a poor farmer.’ And it would so happen that this character had to cross a forest on some errand. And he’d sit under a tamarind tree or a banyan tree for lunch. Attracted by the food, a bootha, yaksha or yakshini would land on the poor fellow...and the rest of the story would be about how the ghost was outwitted.
We kids soon outgrew Chandamama stories. But many summer evenings, when the usual ‘power cut’ was in progress, we’d discuss philosophically on the matter of ghosts. Like pre-teens all over the world, we believed unequivocally that we were surrounded by bhootas and pretas. Someone vehemently said one of the decrepit houses on our road was haunted. It had a well that had a strange smell. As if that wasn't proof enough, one of the boys had seen purple flickering lights dancing up and down ...and they had finally disappeared inside the well. When I told Amma about this, she said the narrator had scored less than 5/100 in six subjects, and the whacks on his head must’ve made him see flickering lights. I had to see this light-ghost for myself...unfortunately a previous scary incident prevented me from going towards that house. You can read about it here.
But this boy was an authority on all ghostly things. He told us this light-geet ghosts are harmless. But we should watch out for the KoLLi Devva. This is the mother of all ghosts, he said in a hushed tone. For some reason, this ghost, apart from possessing the usual ghostly characteristics of being a female, having a dismantled face and feet turned inwards, also carried a fire torch. I promised to keep an eye out during nightly expeditions to the loo.
But what of the lesser order ghosts, we mused. Ah, the ghost professor knew the answer. Other ghosts wore jingles on their feet. Not the ordinary ones...but the heavy ones worn by dancers. So just in case we were stranded on a dark street, and we heard jhan jhan sounds, reciting the Hanuman chalisa would be prudent.
And then came the urban legends of Bangalore. The Majestic area had a lot of cinema halls, and the night shows, usually known as the second shows, ended way past mid-night. Apparently, there was a deserted road where one’s scooter always broke down. And one would hear a voice from behind asking for a lift. If you turned around, you are done for...you’d be possessed. So the advice was to avoid the street if possible. And should your scooter break down, never turn around. Just say ‘Go away, go away’ and recite the first shloka that comes in your mind. The scooter will start automatically. Now this ghost never asked for a ride in an auto-rickshaw. And never bothered walkers apparently. Only those on Bajaj scooters faced this problem.
In the mid-eighties, the ‘Naale Baa’ (come tomorrow) wave hit Bangalore. I believe it started in one of the slums. This wily ghost came as an old lady, and knocked on the doors of houses which had children. She stole the children’s eyes and hid it in her hair apparently. So people wrote Naale Baa in Kannada on their doors. The fearsome eye-gobbling ghost was polite it seems – it would read the message and walk away dejected.
In our high school, for some reason, a group of us decided to try out the ouja board. Only we did not have a board, so we drew it on paper. We used an inverted bottle cap to ‘capture’ the spirit. Of course it did not work...but my friend’s mum freaked out a bit and chased us out. But I’d heard an ouja board story from a good friend. He said they too were playing the fool – and were in a regular room with a proper light and all that. And one of his friends started moving the ‘cap’ to answer the questions. ‘Is there a spirit here?’ He spelt yes. ‘Who is it?’ The friend laughed and spelt S.A.T.A.N. And the bulb overhead not only fused out, but splintered open. And this friend of mine said, ‘I never make fun of such things.’ Now I don’t know if he was pulling my legs...but it’s a great story nonetheless.
The closest I’ve come to eerie happenings is having a strange sense of foreboding in certain places. You know...you don’t feel ‘good’ about certain places and people. But I put that down to instinct. And perhaps power of suggestion too. There are some places – maybe a house, a stairway, a corner in a park – that don’t feel ‘right’; I avoid them. Not that I don’t believe in unseen beings...it’s just that they’ve chosen to stay away. No one likes to haunt a blogger.
© Sumana Khan - 2013