01 January 1970

Book Review: Shivers, Shudders Or Illusions? Taranath Tantrik And Other Tales From The Supernatural

#WeekendReads

Book Review: Shivers, Shudders Or Illusions? Taranath Tantrik And Other Tales From The Supernatural

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay put his formidable skills to writing about the supernatural when he wasn’t writing about village life and making waves with Pather Panchali or adventuring in Africa in the style of Rider Haggard. 

Taranath Tantrik and other Tales of the supernatural
Taranath Tantrik and other Tales of the supernatural Getty Images

Book: Taranath Tantrik: And Other Tales from the Supernatural
Author: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
Translated by: Devalina Mookerjee
Speaking Tiger

Bengal is rich in ghosts – all kinds and types that haunt trees, graveyards, old homes and kitchens. Whether it’s the ghosts of women who died in childbirth or Brahmin ghosts looking to curse others, or others who have been eaten by tigers and others with a passion for fish. In more sceptical times some of these ghosts have been translated into women, most often widows with a longing for the fish they cleaned and cooked who came up with supernatural excuses for the disappearance of fillets.

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay put his formidable skills to writing about the supernatural when he wasn’t writing about village life and making waves with Pather Panchali or adventuring in Africa in the style of Rider Haggard. 

Taranath Tantric is part of a popular series of tales about the tantric turned astrologer who looks back on his young and daring supernatural days. Bibhutibhushan only wrote two of the stories about this tantrik – the rest were written by his son – but the two he wrote covered Taranath’s life in detail and those are the ones included in this collection.  Bibhutibhushan makes no secret of the fact that he does not advocate black magic – Taranath talks about his past life and the fact that the two guides he met both told him to return home instead of toying with meditation in cremation grounds. Dead bodies, skeletons and hallucinations are all part of the experience which contrast with Taranath’s mundane life in Mott’s Lane with his wife and daughter both of whom seem slightly sceptical about his past. They are told as stories within stories, a listener’s account of past history that seem to break off on the listener’s thought as each ends leaving the reader on tenterhooks in anticipation.

The seven stories that follow Taranath’s reminiscences are more subtle and atmospheric. They span curses, seances, getting what you deserve and having desires that have no place in ordinary human lives. Most of them are set in a rural Bengal dotted with the crumbling houses of great landowners; some utterly deserted some lived in from time to time. Like the world of ghost stories these houses are peopled with curses and things that go bump in the night – though not all of Bibhutibhushan’s ghosts are terrifying and some only haunt dreams. What one might comment on is the fact that the haunted are always men while the shades are those of women in many cases who materialise without warning at dusk. Perhaps Maya is the creepiest of the stories, while the House of His Foremothers,  the most touching in the spirit’s desire for her family to return to a deserted house and The Ghost of Spices is the most unusual in concept but also the most superficial of the stories. Feminists might point out that there are male ghosts too, but perhaps those are not as ‘haunting’.

Mookherjee’s translation keeps the old spelling of place names which adds to the atmosphere. After all, the most moving stories are about deserted spaces – bricks and mortar emptiness that continue to exist while their families have moved on with little regard for the legacy left behind or the memories that linger in the shadows. Constituting a fluid interaction between characters and the settings in which they find themselves. The fact that Mookherjee took great pains to recreate Bhibutibhushan’s ethos in a language that would evoke his original Bengali without disrupting the reader is evident, since she mentions interactions with Arunava Sinha and others over the project. She carefully captures the everyday conversational style of the stories set in the world of the Bengali middle class and it is the ordinariness of the people involved that makes the supernatural seem even more uncanny.