Humorous ghost stories in Bengali literature: Connecting oral literature tradition to the modern digital age
Over the years, these relate to representations of various regions of eastern India and, at times, the extended and larger region of erstwhile Bengal, including the present country of Bangladesh. Many of these stories also help to understand how identities are constructed across time and space in folklore and in written literature.
‘Mojar bhuter golpo’, or humorous ghost stories in Bengali literature, spans more than a century. It is interesting to see how it has gradually evolved and developed to create a mark of its own and more importantly, how it expresses through the presence of a narrator in the form of a ‘sutradhar’ within the storyline. Such a pattern of these ‘mojar golpo’ has also given rise to a format of embedded narratives, a feature which directly connects it to the world of oral traditions. With many of the classics, still remaining a favourite across various digital platforms, this is an ode to the very special and much-loved genre of sutradhar and his narration of ‘mojar bhuter golpo.’
Across centuries, amidst folklore of the world, satire or comedy and tales of the supernatural have occupied two very different and distinct genres. Having an interesting appeal to people of all age groups, both genres command very distinct and unique identities and it is indeed fascinating to witness narratives where the essence of both coalesces, giving texture and form to a very unique storyline in the process.
On the other hand, the embedded narrative is a format that is often present within the folklore of the world, including our well-known epics - The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, The Panchatantra and The Jataka tales- where the main storyline follows a narrator, telling smaller stories. These smaller narratives may or may not be independent ones as sometimes they are connected through a central storyline, a feature, a perspective or a character.
Greatly influenced by the world of oral traditions, the genre of ‘mojar bhuter golpo’, or ghost stories with a touch of humour in Bengali written literature, displays a unique form and texture through the presence of a narrator or a ‘sutradhar’ as many authors have explored it for more than a century.
The genre of ‘mojar bhuter golpo’ has seen, over the years, contributions of several Bengali maestro storytellers, who were and continue to be well-known as activists, authors, illustrators, poets, raconteurs and most importantly, writers who have been admired by both young and old through decades. It is also interesting to note, how the narration through a sutradhar, specifically draws attention to features, which might seem innocuous at first, but a closer look reveals several important aspects of depictions and communications. Thus, the presence of a sutradhar within the stories reveals sub-texts, which are interesting as they represent specific socio-cultural, religious and political ‘voices’ which make the main storyline stand apart.
Over the years, these relate to representations of various regions of eastern India and, at times, the extended and larger region of erstwhile Bengal, including the present country of Bangladesh. Many of these stories also help to understand how identities are constructed across time and space in folklore and in written literature. As the haunting expressions render a more humane touch to the otherwise elusive world of ghosts or the supernatural, the facets of comedy provide an interesting blend of approaching the unknown through the known and familiar facades of humour.
Amongst some of the earliest examples of tales from Bengali written literature of a sutradhar and a ghost who has more to his character than simply being a point to be scared of is the story of ‘Betal’ and king Vikramaditya by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Though not exactly humorous in its presentation, the storyline adopts satire in a manner that was quite unique for its time. Vidyasagar adopted the 11th-century famous Sanskrit story and rewrote it as a one-frame story as ‘BetalPanchavimsati’ (Twenty-five tales of the Phantom). Published in 1847,
This is the story of the king of Ujjain, king Vikramaditya, and this set of stories also form part of the folklore of India. Though it is often said that the accounts of the king from the story are embellished ones of various famous kings, others also opine these to correspond mostly to the stories of just administration and valour of the third king of the Gupta dynasty, Chandragupta the 2nd (375-415 CE). In the storyline king Vikramaditya is narrated several stories by a ‘betal’ or a phantom. The raja was assigned a task by a tantric of bringing down a ‘betal’ from a tree to complete a Tantric ritual. The raja was, however, completely unaware of the ulterior motive of the tantric, which was to sacrifice the king at the end. The work proved to be harder than imagined as the betal agreed on the condition that he would narrate a story to the king which will have a riddle at the end. If the king successfully solved the riddle and provided a correct answer, the betal would return to his tree and if he failed to reply, then the king’s head would burst. The king had no choice, but to agree to complete his mission. In the process and through various trials, the king listens to and manages to successfully answer riddles twenty-four times and also has the ‘betal’ help him at the end, which saved the king from the hands of the evil tantric.
Food for thought
The embedded stories speak volumes of a society, a culture and the rules and regulations of a time from several centuries ago, which needed the just decisions of an administrator in various walks of life. The concepts of the ‘betal’ and the tantric, embodied specific representations, which also highlighted underlying generalised ideas and notions towards specific communities from the erstwhile times. However, each story is also a reminder that perhaps specific social niches have yet not changed and often leaves one with food for thought to question socially construed notions.
Soon after, around the first quarter of the 20th century - from the pages of Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay, a civil servant in British India, we come across the narrator Damru. This trend of a sutradhar- narrating humorous stories of the supernatural - seem to have set in motion a continuous pattern for years to come. Trailokyanath served as the curator of the Indian Museum in Kolkata and wrote in both English and Bengali and used supernatural stories always in a humorous manner with satire being the dominant tone. His pen is often credited with having created a special genre in Bengali literature, which is considered pioneering and is still admired and followed by many. Amongst his many stories, ‘Damru Charit’ (The saga of Damru) occupies a special place.
Published posthumously in 1923 this is the story of the antihero, Damrudhar, who is a dishonest man and rose to become a landowner from being a lowly shop assistant. Damru is a narrator of tall tales and his haunted experiences are often sarcastic expressions of various challenges of life. Trailokyanath also wrote and translated many haunted works from English, but all his humorous supernatural stories are strong reflections of his beliefs. Being a progressive thinker of the times, he often seems to be satirising his countrymen’s belief in ghosts and went on also mention- “I am against ghosts, live or dead, in the body or out of the body, male ghost or female ghost, child ghost or adult ghost, Brahman ghost or Islamite (sic) ghost, land ghost or water ghost, cow ghost or horse ghost, against all manner of ghosts” (Trailokyanath, ‘A Visit to Europe’, 150).
Many a time, the stories of Damru have also been looked at as being the extension of Trailokyanath’s polemics against the then-Bengali society. Ghost tales, in his writing, almost become elements to generate social criticism and humour. Also vigorously championing the need for modern education in erstwhile India, Trailokyanath’s ‘mojar bhut’ almost goes on to represent obscurantist forces and instruments of satire and ridicule.
Concept of afterlife
Speaking of a narrator reflecting upon a satirical supernatural tale, the work of noted Bengali author Rajshekhar Basu deserves special mention. Popularly known through his pen name ‘Parashuram’, one is reminded of a unique diction, closely following the pen of Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay. Though Parashuram had written many stories, novels and novellas, his ‘Bhusundir Mathey’ (In the field named Bhushundi)- published in the 1920s, remain immensely popular- having been adapted into various forms of media across a century, including cinema, theatre and radio. Uniquely presented, the narrator is the writer himself, who goes on to explain what goes on, as the title suggests, in a desolate and open field located somewhere just outside of human habitation.
This is also the place where ghosts reside. It is interesting to see the reference to the concept of the afterlife and its many trajectories at the very beginning and the end of the story, which stands as a jocular reflection as the narrator questions the deeper embedded belief structures within socio-cultural identities. Each of the ghosts in the story, even though they have crossed over to the afterlife, has carried forth their socio-cultural and religious identities from the mortal world. Thus, their likes, dislikes, confrontations, and happy moments all reflect the lives they led before they died.
The concept of the afterlife and rebirth and the ‘formation’ of many ghosts as a result of the death from each rebirth leads to a hodgepodge situation towards the end, when the story ends in total chaos across Bhushundir Mathey. The desolate field does not remain empty anymore. The chaotic cacophony of several afterlives, does leave one in splits as the ideologies, beliefs and mannerisms all clash together to leave one with a question from the narrator - if there is indeed an afterlife do we move onto afterlives along with all our vices? Or are humans indeed so enmeshed within vices that they are hard to be segregated?
New narrators awaited
Spanning across pre and post-independence times are the works of noted author and humorist Shibram Chakravarty, often mentioned as the first Bengali author to use puns as a key story vehicle. Noted also for his self-deprecating humour, he is often the narrator of most of his ‘mojar bhuter golpo’ and the protagonists from both the mortal and the netherworld often express existential conundrums- enmeshed within trajectories which they cannot escape. Out of his numerous such ‘mojar bhuter golpo’ with an effective narration of a sutradhar, some still remain a favourite across all media platforms. These include ‘Na bhuter golpo noi’ (No, this is not a haunted story), ‘Bhuter cheo odbhut’ (Stranger than the haunted), ‘Bhut na odbhut’ (Is it the haunted or something even stranger) amidst many others.
Contemporary times also witnessed the rise of sutradhars and their tall tales of humour, satire and the supernatural and it is interesting to see how many of them became symbols of recognition, just like the author himself. Thus, one can remember Ghonada of Premendra Mitra, Baroda of Saradindu Bandopadhyay and Tarini Khuro of Satyajit Ray.
Spread across a few decades, each one created its own space amidst the world of literature and the absurd stories of the unknown, often with a tinge of humour. Though the respective authors also created their space with several other humorous ghost stories, yet, the special characters which they created as a sutradhar remained distinct. They spoke as reminders of refuge within storytelling as a method to explore the unknown- working as a breather to break away from the banal and everyday social shackles of the rhythms of life.
Across the last several decades, many other authors have helped to explore the humorous side of the supernatural, namely Leela Majumdar and Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, with some of them exploring an embedded narrative structure at times. However, the lovable and much-admired saga of the sutradhars - with each one being synonymous with their respective creators - seems to have arrived at a sudden halt. The baton awaits to be picked up to continue the marathon - perhaps through the tales of a much younger sutradhar’s adventures amidst the unknown and through the uncharted routes of a dark forest one night where resided a funny little ghost who was scared of humans.
(The author is a visual anthropologist, author and columnist. Views are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)