Ruskin Bond was born in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, in 1934, and grew up in Jamnagar (Gujarat), Dehradun and Shimla. His first novel, The Room on the Roof, written when he was seventeen, received the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957. In the course of writing career spanning thirty-five years, he has written over a hundred short stories, essays, novels and more than thirty books for children. Three collections of the short stories, The Night Train at Deoli, Time Stops at Shamli and Our Trees Still Grow in Dehra have been published by Penguin India. Although a prolific writer, this will be the first anthology Ruskin Bond will have edited.
When I was ten or eleven, my stepfather took me along on one of his shikar trips into the forests near Dehra. I dreaded these excursions. The slaughter of wild animals never did appeal to me. To see cheetal being potted from the back of an elephant, or a tigress being shot while it was drinking at a water-hole, did not strike me as being particularly noble or exciting.
But during one such week in the forest, I discovered that the forest rest-house in which we were staying had a shelf full of books concealed in a dark corner of the little sitting –room. In order to avoid the next monotonous ‘beat’ in the jungle, I feigned a headache and stayed back while the adults fanned out into the forest with their weapons. One of the first books I discovered was a tome called ghost stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James. I was remained shut in my room, convinced that the supernatural world had more to offer than the man-made excitement of the beat. Masterpieces such as ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ ll Come to You, My Lad’, ‘The ‘Mezzotint’ and ‘A warning to the curious’ influenced me in more ways than I can tell and made me an addict of this genre of writing. Over the years, I have read and collected ghost stories from many lands, not only as literature, but as an important aspects of this earth’s folklore.
But have I ever experienced the supernatural? Have I ever seen a ghost? These are questioned that I am often asked.
In my childhood and youth I did not see any ghosts. But as I grew older, I found myself becoming more ‘receptive’ to the spirits of those who have left this world and may be living on another plane.
Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) accounts for this in is essay, ‘A Ghost’, when he speaks of the ‘the knowledge that a strange silence is ever deepening and expanding about one’s life’- an expansion of consciousness that only grow within us as we grow older.
‘Meaning,’ he writes, ‘in course of wandering more or less aimless, there has slowly grown upon you a suspicion of being haunted so frequently does a certain hazy presence intrude itself upon the visual memory. This, however, appears to gain rather than to lose in definiteness: with each return its visibility seems to increase…….And the suspicion that you may be haunted gradually develops into a certainty.
Hearn was a traveler in the East, who spent most of his life in Japan; his essay
Doest not strictly belong to a collection of Indian ghost stories. But his wanderlust given his writing an international character, and his thoughts on the supernatural are very close to my own thinking on the subject. His little collection, Karma and other stories and essays (first published in 1921, many years after his death) is only one of many neglected but beautiful prose-poems by a writer who sought to break through the barriers between the quick and the dead.
Ghosts do not recognize our impermanent, man-made from-tiers. Still, for the purposes of this anthology we have adopted the geographical approach and confined ourselves largely to ghosts and haunting on the Indian subcontinent.
Who was John Lang, and how did he get into this book? Most of you will not have heard of him because his work lie forgotten in the archives of the British Museum and are not easily found elsewhere.
I became interested in John Lang when I came to live in Mussoorie in1964 and learnt (from a friend in Australia) that he had died in Mussorie exactly one hundred years earlier. Another coincidence lay in the fact that a year after his death, in 1965, Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay. But I’ll come to that later.
John Lang was, in fact, the first Austrian-born novelist (the Forger’s Wife, 1855). A barrister who fell out with the Sydney Calcutta bar, representing the Rani or Jhansi in her litigation against the East India Company. Later he edited the Mofussilite, an up-country newspaper, and became a regular contributor to Charles Dickens’ magazine, Household words, spending his last years in Landour, Mussorie. When I discovered that he had died here, I wentin search of his grave, and after several fruitless but fascinating visits to the camels. Back cemetery, discovered it iddenby a layerof moss, fems and perwinkle. Years later, when I found his story about the Meerutcemetery, in ‘wanderings in India’, published in Household words, 23 January 1858, I was struck by similarity between his own experience and mine. There is no tangible ghost in his story and yet it is full of the ghosts f long-dead soldiers, and their wives and children, and the reader is left feeling quite haunted y their proximity.
Kipling’s early writing, especially in plain tales from the Hills (which headed the bestseller lists in 1890), is not dissimilar to English society in India Both saw everything larger than life, brighter than life. Lang poked fun at the British and became unpopular with them, one reason why his novels on India (The Wither bys, etc.) fell into neglect. He died at the age of forty-seven. Kipling, as he grew older became a champion of empire, and met with the approval of his countrymen.
Did Lang’s spirit transmigrate into the infant Kipling? There is much similarity of style, spirit and gusto in Lang’s writing and that of Kipling as a young man. Do the spirits of dead writers something enter the living, using them as mediums for the continuing expression of their personalities? Kipling himself was conscious of a ‘daemon’ at work within his subconscious, an influence over which he had little or no control:
My Daemon was with me in the Jungle Books, Kim, and Both Puck Books, and good care I took to walk delicately, lest he should withdraw. I know that he did not, because when those books were finished they said so themselves with, almost, the watch-hammer click of a tap turned off. One of the clause in our contract was that I should never follow up a ‘success’, for by this sin fell Napoleon and a few others. Note here. When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait and obey. (Something of Myself)
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