BY MAYA ROSE FERNANDES
I’ve had ghost stories on the brain for some time now. That’s not a metaphor for anything sinister; my first novel Afterlife was based on ghost stories, and I continue to publish other short stories from time to time.
When I was working on that novel, after months of research and writing, followed by even more research and more writing, I learned that ghosts aren’t necessarily about those ethereal, supernatural entities that creep us out. They’re also about the things that haunt us.
Ghost stories were historically passed down from one generation to the next through the oral tradition of story-telling. There were very few written forms that existed.
Some popular examples include “The thief, the Brahmin and the raksasa” from Panchatantra, djinns mentioned in The Arabian nights and a vampire-type spirit in Katha Sarit Sagara.
It wasn’t until the development of Victorian Gothic literature that tales of the supernatural were popularised in literary form in English.
Horace Walpole, MR James, Mary Shelley and Henry James captured the imagination of emotionally and psychologically repressed Victorians at a time when colonialism was on the rise and empires were expanding into unknown and unstudied countries and cultures.
Since then, the literary Gothic form has evolved and been adapted into contemporary contexts.
Lately, I’ve come across Bangkok Gothic and Bombay Gothic (developed in cinematic script and visual form by 1950s Bollywood) and started framing my own published ghost stories as Goan Gothic, influenced as my work is by the impacts of Portuguese colonialism on Goa for 451 years.
In 1919, Freud wrote an essay entitled “The Uncanny” in which he explored the idea of irrational elements that appeared in literature. He linked these elements to manifestations of a repressed psyche onto objects, places and people.
Freud’s essay contributed to creating a platform for literary studies that looked into a person’s unconscious manifesting itself as something that was believed to be “supernatural”.
The wonderful thing about writing my novel Afterlife was realising that almost everyone had a ghost story to tell or, at least, wished that they had one.
One of the many things I learned through the process was that people are reticent about sharing their stories until they are sure of their audience’s interest and level of scepticism.
There is definitely an East-West divide as well. In the West, talk of ghost stories will almost certainly be couched in rational and intellectual terms, wrapping the ghost in cotton wool and stripping it of any life in one’s imagination.
In Goa, one can still find a healthy belief and enthusiasm for a supernatural being or paranormal event. At the very least, one questions further to gain more intimate details of the “ghost” instead of dissecting it to death.
All this wondering about ghosts took me to a place I couldn’t have imagined when I started jotting down ghost stories and came up with my first novel.
It’s been a while since I’ve published it, but I still wonder what a ghost story is really about. From the time-honoured tradition of producing a lesson to beware of to the more contemporary exploration of the unconscious, ghosts today may just be figments of our imagination.
But, that wouldn’t explain what I saw in the haunted house next to ours in Raia when I was ten years old, would it?