Personal Essay


Raising Shirshendu’s Ghosts

By Ujaan Ghosh

I first encountered Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, and the world of Bengali ghost stories, on a rain-drenched afternoon at the Calcutta Book Fair around 25 years ago. His name, boldly etched in a curly gold font, wiggled out of the giant nostrils of a monster, spilling onto the book cover. The Finest Hundred Haunted Tales of the Past Hundred Years (or something oddly quantitative to that effect) brought together a hundred canonical stories of Bengali horror fiction edited by Mukhopadhyay. For reasons that elude me today, I devoured all of them with great enthusiasm, except Shirshendu’s own entry to the grand literary banquet — Gandhota Khub Sandehojanok (The Suspicious Odour). I do not recollect the reasons for my reticence, but years later when I did read it, I found it oddly unsettling.

I couldn’t really put my finger on why I found it so disturbing. I knew that the story was supposed to be hilarious. My friends, who read it with me, could appreciate its jocular intent and its irreverent take on ‘the life beyond’. So this article is a meandering— if not portentous— attempt to explain my trepidation about one of Bengali literature’s most canonical pieces.

At the Root of It

There are few writers who have left an impact like Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay. With a literary career that spanned more than five decades (1959-present), Shirshendu has traversed the boundaries of several genres. From captivating science fiction to social dramas, spicy whodunnits, and tangy horror stories—his vast repertoire has made him one of India’s most eclectic contemporary literary figures. Some of his celebrated works include: Pherighat, Gosai Baganer Bhut, Kapurush, Goyenar Baksho, Kagojer Bou, Patalghor, and ironically enough, Ujaan.

Mukhopadhyay at the 38th International Kolkata Book Fair.
Photo by Biswarup Ganguly

Often credited with reinventing Bengali ghost stories—which have their roots in gothic Victorian literature—Mukhopadhyay adapted the style, while incorporating touches that were uniquely his own. He departed from the tradition of telling tales of fog-enveloped haunted mansions, filled with cobwebs and spirits with vengeful machinations. Instead, Mukhopadhyay crafted his stories around benevolent spectral entities and goofy paranormal phenomena. Shirshendu’s ghosts lived alongside humans, barely caused harm and, more often than not, were more scared of people than the other way around. 

Of course, as renowned historian of Bengali literature,  Sukumar Sen, points out, benign ghosts did appear in earlier works by other authors—most notably in the writings of Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay—but Shirshendu’s work ensured that the sub-genre really came into its own.

So why weren’t Shirshendu’s ghosts scary? The obvious answer is narrative choice. In Mukhopadhyay’s works, ghosts were employed as humorous tropes rather than horror ones, focusing largely on comedic effect rather than being used to scare people. However, I want to explore an alternative possibility.

While Mukhopadhyay’s ghosts were more funny than fearsome, there is much that lies under this farcical surface.

In this piece,  we will take a closer look at one of Shirshendu’s canonical ghost stories, Gandhota Khub Sandehojanok (The Suspicious Odour), which is imbued with his trademark humour and peppered with friendly neighbourhood spirits. At first glance, the story seems innocuous, but the margins of this text tell an alternate tale of labour, exploitation, and caste inequality.

Meeting the Friendly Neighbourhood Ghosts

In the story, Mr. Chatterjee (it is worth taking note of his Brahmin surname), a diligent officer of the Indian railways, finds himself deeply troubled when he and his family are transferred to the quaint town of Domohani in West Bengal. And so begins one of Shirshendu’s and Bangla literature’s best-known ghost stories. As is the case in most upper caste households, the first order of business involves seeking domestic help in the new town. Serendipitously enough, a woman called Kamala approaches them for a job. Mr and Mrs Chatterjee immediately hire Kamala, who turns out to be a model employee. She works with dexterous efficiency and barely takes time off. But there is one major issue: when guests come to visit, Kamala immediately disappears. 

When Mrs. Palit (as the text identifies her), a neighbour of the Chatterjees, visits Mrs. Chatterjee, Kamala is nowhere to be found. Despite Mrs. Chatterjee repeatedly beckoning to her, Kamala refuses to show herself. Mrs Palit, however, seems to have some insider knowledge. Wisely she cautions Mrs. Chatterjee—“Be very careful. You never know who is human here and who is not.” Kamala reappears soon after Mrs. Palit leaves. When Mrs. Chatterjee scolds her, Kamala responds that she is too shy to show her countenance in front of strangers. Once the brief awkwardness passes, Kamala returns to her duties as usual. 

Mr. Chatterjee, too, experiences something out of the ordinary after the move. A train guard by profession, he regularly travels in the guard’s van for the duration of his journeys. He’s taking a quick nap, when the train suddenly comes to a halt. Troubled, Chatterjee bypasses the other railway cars to reach the engine. There, he finds the driver and fireman napping. After waking them up, he starts walking back to his carriage. However, before he reaches his destination, he spots a doppelganger, another man in the same uniform in the guard-van signalling that the train can commence its journey. Confused, as he had not spotted any other guards on duty, he wonders why anyone would take on such a thankless job.

The Chatterjees aren’t the only ones who experience these oddities. Later that year, Professor Bhattacharya (again, the surname is crucial), a magician by avocation, visits Domohani. The professor is unfortunately an extremely incompetent magician. Regardless—for reasons unknown—the town allows him to stage a show one evening. As Bhattacharya takes the stage, an invisible force aids him in crafting the most astonishing illusions. The audience roars in applause, assuming that the magical feats are part of Bhattacharya’s act, when the illusions are actually far beyond his abilities.

Later, Mr. Chatterjee’s father comes to stay with the family. A particularly religious man, the patriarch compulsively and continually invokes the name of God. Kamala deserts the Chatterjee household as soon as this outrageous man steps into it (who can blame her!). And one of Kamala’s other employers, Mrs. Samaddar, gently rebukes Mrs. Chatterjee, saying, “Kamala cannot stay if your in-law keeps chanting names of God. Don’t you know who these people in Domohani are? They serve as menial domestic labourers (Jhi-Chakor) in our houses. You can’t understand who they are from how they look. But they are they (Ora hocche Ora).” 

It becomes clear that Domohani is a largely unhealthy township plagued by illnesses of all sorts. Yet, finding domestic labour never seems to be a problem. Washing dishes, cooking, lighting smokes, sending mail—you name it and the spectral entities in the town will do it for you. An example: when the Bengali Bhadrolok decide to organise a football match with another local team, which consists of ‘santhals and adivasis’ (as the text identifies them), Domohani’s invisible presences swoop in and ensure they win. A victory won, not because of their skill, but because of their supernatural back-up. 

Unfortunately, Gandhota Khub Sandhojanok does not have a revelatory conclusion. Shirshendu’s tale ends with the residents of Domohani eventually getting used to these presences and their unusual way of life. How convenient for them!

Book cover of Goyenar Baksho, one of Mukhopadhyay’s best-known works.

When scrutinised, this is really a narrative that rejoices in making labour invisible.

The ghosts (though they are never explicitly called ghosts in the text), take on household chores for upper caste and class individuals in Domohani. These spectral entities are viewed entirely through the lens of their labour, and that defines and mediates their existence. They clean dishes, post mail, and, more often than not, cover up for the incompetence of upper caste men (such as the imbecilic magician). It is also telling that most of these men, who employ and benefit from the spectral entities, are exclusively Brahmins or those very high up on the caste ladder. The Chatterjees, Bhattacharyas, Samaddars, and Palits are the chief beneficiaries of this supernatural labour force.

The spectres are considered subhuman by their upper caste employers. This is made clear by their continual exploitation and in the way they are portrayed as having no real bodies or personhood. In fact, the story never explicitly addresses payment for these ghosts either. The plot implies that no remuneration is necessary, for surely such entities have no use for it. 

In other words, Gandhota Khub Sandehojanok may not be the introduction to this genre of Bangla literature you imagined. It is an upper caste and class fantasy, a skewed utopia filled with unending labour exploitation—and while Mukhopadhyay tries to absolve it with lighthearted humour, he doesn’t quite succeed. 

About the author

Ujaan Ghosh is an Assistant Professor at the Department of History of Art at The Ohio State University. As an avocation, Ujaan is a translator and enjoys writing about ghost stories and literary histories of colonial and pre-colonial India.