The Book of Shadows

The Book of Shadows

It is this interplay between the real and the imaginary and the blurring of the two that makes the story more disturbing. For, the outside world, the world of Delhi, with its chattering, beautiful girls is always there, just a phone call or a dream away. By the end of the novel, what remains is a world of shadows, where nothing is distinct.

– Express Magazine, Devyani Onial, September 1999

Part ghost story, part erotic romance, The Book of Shadows is an ambitious book that investigates the nature of reality, love and faith. It is a work of startling originality by one of India’s most daring and talented writers.

‘Our kind is not nourished by the sun: it is the moon which gives us sustenance. We wax and wane with the moon, except when harnessed by a human energy, when the pull of the tides loses its grip. As dawn broke over the mountains, lighting up the still white presences of the snows, I fled to my refuge, my fated spot. This night of passion, my first, had initiated me into the sorrows of mankind; the unfaith, the terrible and tenuous link of love.’

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September-October 1999

– Nilanjana S. Roy

If ambition were the chief yardstick by which to measure the worth of a novel, The Book of Shadows would have been right up there with Henry James and Edgar Allen Poe. Beginning with a quotation from Ovid’s Metamorphoses—“My intention is to tell/Of bodies changed/To different forms”—Namita Gokhale seeks to cast her net as wide as possible. In the course of this book, she will serve up suicide and an acid attack, to be followed by a true-blue Himalayan ghost story, along with a couple of equally plangent Himalayan love stories. This fantastical feast paves the way for a discursion on Aleister Crowley, a gruesome sequence involving panthers, much eroticism, a first-person account by a resident ghost, an attempt at pastiche with the purported diary of an Englishman and metafictional reflections on poetry, literature, writing and their place in the scheme of things.

The vast and intricate paraphernalia assembled here is held together by English lecturer Rachita Tewari, scarred both by the suicide of her fiancé and by the acid his sister throws on her face subsequently, and by the house she flees to in the Himalayan foothills. This is the starting point for a chain of stories: of the English missionary who built the house, of future resident Captain Wolcott and his mistress, Dona Rosa, of the two disciples of the ‘Great Beast’ Crowley, Marcus and Munro and their dabbling in forbidden love and forbidden arts, and running through it all, the story of the ghost who is, in some senses, the house’s oldest tenant.

There is, naturally, a plenitude of ghosts jostling for space here, with mixed success. Rachita must deal with the reproachful ghost of her fiancé, and perhaps more painfully, with the many, mocking ghosts of dead ambitions and unrealised futures. Her predecessors grappled with ghosts—both the ecoplasmic and the psychological kind—of their own, each simultaneously unique and banal.

Perhaps by now the magnitude of the task that Gokhale has set herself has become clear. Despite the metafiction, the literary meanderings and the many romances that litter this novel, The Book of Shadows will rise or fall on its merits as a ghost story.

Now, “ghost story” is one of the most loaded terms in the literary lexicon. At its worst, it conjures up images of the kind of deliciously banal trading in ghost lore that was an inescapable part of school, games of Dark Room, the shiver-down-your-spine-and-little-else genre that spawned the Goosebumps series for children. We all remember the set pattern of these ghost stories. The most familiar concerned two men in a train compartment, or an empty house at night, or a locked room, exchanging desultory conversation. “Do you believe in ghosts?” says one. “No.” “Well, I do,” and the first speaker dematerialises. There were bloodier variations on the theme, and by and large, the amount of bloodshed in the story would be directly proportional to its inability to evoke any feeling more complicated than a momentary shudder. But there are ghost stories, and then there are ghost stories. “They say we sleep to let the demons out—to let our mind go raving mad, our dreams and nightmares all our logic gone awry, the dark side of our reason,” observed Edward Albee in A Delicate Balance.

And perhaps that observation comes closest to capturing one of the reasons why we are still so willing to huddle around a mental campfire and venture, preferably accompanied by a suitably sensitised companion, into the blacker realms of the human heart. Edgar Allan Poe, who included very few bona-fide ghosts in his deranged, compelling oeuvre, succeeded as a writer of truly scary fiction for this very reason. Behind the baroque, often rococo facades he built up with such care lurked all of Albee’s uncaged demons. The Pit and the Pendulum is far more than a tale about torture and the Spanish Inquisition—it makes much of an impact from delineating the slow descent into madness of a mind forced to watch its lease on human consciousness expire. More elegant, but no less devastating, is that classic of horror as much as of mainstream literature, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. It drives the reader into sweating horror not because of what it says, but because of what it says, but because of what it leaves unsaid.

That was also the secret behind the compellingly chilling quality of Edith Wharton’s best ghost stories. “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”, “The Eyes” and “Kerfol”, among others made their impact, not from the atmosphere of “ghostliness” they created, but from the sense of the all-too-human evils (lust, greed, jealousy) that combined to form little hells on earth. In fact, one of Wharton’s most effective ghost stories, “The Pomegranate Seed”, relies for effect on the complete absence of the ghost herself (presuming, of course, that ghosts retain their gender once they shed their corporeal bodies) from the story. The only sign of her presence is in the form of fading handwriting, and in Wharton’s capable hands, that is so much more effective than any beheaded, blood-dripping spectre would have been.

The hub of Gokhale’s story is the house that forms Rachita’s shelter—its presence dominates and forms the narrative line of The Book of Shadows. As haunted houses go, however, it is almost disappointingly eager to please, producing just the right atmospherics at the right time much as third-rate restaurants aim to tailor Muzak and Yanni to their customer’s moods. Though perhaps the dominant image of the haunted house in our times comes from film—Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—rather than from literature, there are prototypes that, taken together, add up to a formidable ancestry. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables is probably the best example of a house that serves as the outward expression of a twisted psyche; Stephen King (never underrate the hacks, especially not in this genre) created several haunted houses that have long claimed squatter’s rights on the imagination. Ray Bradbury offered an interesting twist in The Haunting of the New, the story of an old house with a dissolute history that was burned down and reconstructed—except that the new house firmly ejected its tenants out into the cold to prevent itself from returning to the status of a house haunted by the petty, dirty secrets of human beings.

Bengali literature of a certain period, and the ubiquitous dak bungalow ghosts that peopled my childhood, set the Indian standard for haunted houses, and by and large, it’s a standard that Gokhale pays faithful heed to. Haunted houses, by convention, were either broken-down palaces where the sheer number of ghosts in attendance would have prevented Hamlet’s father from emerging for a stroll unless he wanted to be elbowed off the ramparts; or they were desolate bungalows manned by a single, elderly and mysterious caretaker (present and accounted for in the person of Lohaniju in Gokhale’s story). That was for ghosts qua ghosts: churails and suchlike were more flexible, though they, too, preferred lonelier places to crowded cities.

Edith Wharton, writing in the ‘30s, was unsure whether the genre would survive the 20th century. She noted: “Since I first dabbled in the creating of ghost stories, I have made the depressing discovery that the faculty for their enjoyment has become almost atrophied in modern man…Ghosts, to make themselves manifest, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity.”Osbert Sitwell went a step further, assuring his colleagues that ghosts went out when electricity came in, but reports of the demise of the permanently deceased turned out to be more than somewhat premature. Sticking to the dictum that holds good from India to Scotland that a palace without a resident ghost is merely a pile of bricks, the builders of a hotel outside Calcutta called the Ffort invented a pair of star-crossed lovers who came, in the manner of these creatures, to an apparently sticky, though wholly fictional, end.
Like the spectres at the Ffort, the ghosts that Gokhale seeks to introduce to us, are, on the surface, highly interesting creatures; but scratch a little deeper and their innate conventionality begins to emerge. The second section of The Book of Shadows is packaged as “The Indian Journals of William James Cockerell, MA”—a worthy, but slightly heavy-handed, attempt at rendering a typical diary of the times that also serves to introduce the history of the house to us. Plagued by the memory of a sudden lust that resulted in the death of a “native” girl and then in the death of his wife, Cockerell comes through as a caricature of the white man depicted in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which in itself was a caricature—and that, a formidable one. An interlude follows when Rachika enacts one of the best-known legends of the Kumaon Hills, involving the king of the Nagas. The next section begins promisingly, introducing the ghost of the house—a ghost who combines an odd attraction-repulsion to the world of humans with irritating digressions about force-fields and their unfortunate tendency to peter out as though powered on fake batteries. The relationship between Captain Wolcott, a vapid, vain, two-dimensionally handsome hero, and his mistress, Dona Rosa (all too stereotypically Latin, I’m afraid) gathers interest only by virtue of being filtered through the eyes of the chief ghost in this particular machine. Their passion enthuses our disembodied narrator enough to make him attempt to participate by “entering” Wolcott—an interesting idea, except that it has been handled far more deftly, and with more humour, by Jorge Amado in his book, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.

Here’s Gokhale, with the ghost as narrator:
“I was frankly surprised and a little dismayed by the intensity of Dona Rosa’s ardour. Still I decided to transpose to the body of her partner, the well-built Captain Wolcott…A man is an idiot on two legs, with a tap of semen between the testicles; his life-force is stored in a vulnerable exterior container. I was not enamoured of Wolcott’s body, and in particular, I found his organ, engorged with blood and lust, a most inadequate vehicle to reach and penetrate my beloved Dona Rosa.”

And here, in contrast, is Amado, rendering a passage between Dona Flor and her deceased husband, Vadinho, who has made an unwanted reappearance as ghostly seducer into her life:
“Have you forgotten, Vadinho, that I am a decent married woman? The only one who can lay a hand on me is my husband…”
Vadinho winked a dissolute eye. “And what am I, sugar? I am your husband. Had you forgotten? And the first, too; I have priority.”

Vadinho, it turns out, is a persistent ghost, and moreover one with little sense of shame, turning up again when Dona Flor and her husband are sharing the marital bed:
“But the doctor had no more risen over her, like a comfortable umbrella, when Vadinho’s laugh echoed in Dona Flor’s ears, making her shiver…That hateful creature was having fun, lifting up the sheet, the better to see what was happening and make fun of it.”

Ghosts, however, have little part to play in the sexual arena except as curiosities or as obvious metaphors for the relationship between sex and death. Their real power resides in their function as a vehicle of retribution, as Toni Morrison noted in Beloved, which revolves around a dead child who returns, full-grown, to confront the mother who killed her rather than let her survive in a life of slavery. M. R. James was another writer who understood this aspect of ghostdom very, very well: his short story, “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, is more genuinely frightening than W. W. Jacobs’ somewhat overrated and over anthologized “The Monkey’s Paw”. Gokhale recognizes this too, but chooses instead to digress into the world of Aleister Crowley, the practitioner of the black arts, whose Tarot Card pack stands out as a testimonial to just how nasty the human mind can get.

The Great Beast is the connection between Captain Wolcott and Dona Rosa, and the other ill-starred pair, Marcus and Munro. Together they perform increasingly daring acts of magic until they sacrifice a human child, calling down the wrath, not of a thousand angry spirits, but that of the village. This is when the afore-mentioned panthers enter the picture in a nicely drawn sequence (if you like blood and gore, that is) which still stays well within the bounds of the conventionally Gothic. Monk Lewis could have done better, and in fact, he did.

Ultimately though, despite its witches’ cauldron of ingredients, The Book of Shadows fails because it is not startling enough, and because it has few insights to offer into either the world of ghosts or into the world of love and loss that have not been served up before, better, by other authors. The author had a potentially great character in the form, if that’s the right word, of the spirit of the house—a ghost who mourns a priest’s death in the line of duty during an exorcism because it means the lack of good conversation—is not a ghost to be taken lightly. She does succeed, like L. P. Hartley, in creating a ghost that is so plausible that not believing in him is like not believing in the postman. Having created him, alas, she runs out of ideas, excepting the most conventional use of the ghost, or shade, or lurking presence—as a reminder of one’s own mortality.

A pity, when there were so many other ways in which ghosts have enriched the literary corpus. In Bestiary, his first collection of short stories, Julio Cortazar offered a take on a rapist, brutal and murdered with an equal brutality, who returns as a vengeful spectre scattering dead leaves from his still-bloody head. More urbanely, Manuel Mujica Lainez’s “Importance” sketches the plight of a ghost who has to watch with increasing disbelief as her relatives ignore her wishes after her death, move into her house, and overturn every canon of snobbery that once constituted her life. The persistence of memory led Virgilio Pinera to write an exceedingly compressed story about a man whose inability to sleep causes him to blow out his brain. Only to find that he has a problem: “The man is dead but still he is unable to sleep. Insomnia is a very persistent thing.”

This much must be said of The Book of Shadows before it is finally laid to rest: Namita Gokhale has produced, in this perhaps the best-written book of all of her oeuvre thus far. It contains an adequate, if not particularly exciting, blend of ghosts both metaphysical and otherwise, of whispered Kumaoni stories and dark, Number of the Beast, tales. And one must reflect that it may be wisdom on her part not to have attempted to unravel the many conundrums posed by ghosts—such an endeavour has its consequences, as the following cautionary tale will show.

Guy de Maupassant, author of some of the best and most nightmarish stories ever calculated to send you into a fever dream, knew exactly where his material came from: “On certain days, I experience the horror of everything that is, to the point of longing for death…Every other time I come home, I see my double. I open my door and I see him sitting in my armchair.” Maupassant rewrote one of his best-known ghost stories, “The Horla”, twice and remained obsessed with its peculiarly terrifying theme, of a man watching his own descent into madness. On New Year’s Day, 1892, Maupassant cut his throat. He lived on for another 19 months, completely insane during all that time.