The Homeless Ghosts of Calcutta
Every day at dusk, I go around the house turning on the lights.
My grandmother did it. My mother still does it. It’s well-known that twilight is the perfect time for wandering ghosts to sneak into the house.
Haunted houses in India don’t have just one ghost. It could be a whole family. There are shankchunnis and petnis, ghosts of women unlucky in love who wear saris and pounce on eligible young men. Brahmodoityas are the ghosts of Brahmans, and might bless you or curse you. The skondhokatas are the headless ghosts of people who died in train accidents. They sound terrifying, but because they don’t have heads, you can trick them easily. But you have to watch out for the very dangerous nishi, who call people by name in the dead of night and lead them away, never to be seen again.
In one of my favorite movies when I was a kid, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, the king of ghosts doled out wondrous gifts — food and music and shoes that could transport you anywhere. And, of course, he sang.
Once upon a time, ghosts used to hang out in old abandoned mansions and village ponds choked with moss. As India changed, ghosts moved to middle class Calcutta neighborhoods like ours, to the trees in our backyards and driveways. Fig trees. Banyan trees. The bel tree, with its glossy green leaves and round golden fruits. Don’t break its branches, my great-grandmother would say. You don’t want to wake up the brahmodoitya.
On nights when the electricity went out and the oil lamps cast flickering shadows on the wall, we’d huddle together, swatting mosquitoes and listening to stories about graveyards and women in white saris. The hallways of the house, so nondescript by day, were suddenly eerie in the dark.
I never saw the ghosts. But sometimes, in the dead of night, I would lie in bed and watch the neem tree through the window. During the day, we plucked its tender, bitter leaves and stir-fried them. But at night, the tree was a perch for ghosts. I’d start awake, convinced there was someone in the room. Paralyzed with fear, I’d wait for the first gray light of dawn to seep through the window.
Now the ghosts are being stirred up again, all over my old neighborhood. As families break up and children move away, the old houses are being torn down, replaced by boxy apartment buildings and glitzy malls.
Ours was torn down, as well. I remember asking my mother if we could at least save the neem tree. We couldn’t. Apartments only have room for potted marigolds and money plants.
But petnis and mamdobhoots can’t haunt marigolds. In signing the death warrant of our house, we rendered the ghosts homeless.
As I vigorously turn on the lights in the San Francisco dusk, I wonder what they are doing — the homeless ghosts of Calcutta.
And, I wonder, what happens if a nishi calls out a name and there’s no one there to answer?