The BS Column: Zombies versus Churails

(Published in the Business Standard, April 27, 2009)

Pride and Prejudice with Zombies is like Gone with the Wind with vampires—an idea so simple in its brilliance and so obvious that you wonder why no one’s thought of it before.

There isn’t—yet—an enterprising author who’s added fangs to Rhett Butler (and copyright forbids it), but Seth Grahame-Smith has been cleaning up with his P&P For Zombies. By the simple expedient of adding rival armies of the living dead to Jane Austen’s original broth of badinage, romance and family woes, Grahame-Smith neatly revs up Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett’s courtship.

Could you have an equally successful version with churails and djinns? Perhaps, but Grahame-Smith’s success is also because of the public fascination with zombies, vampires and werewolves. Werewolves come from the Old Norse vargulf, and were feared as actual threats several centuries ago. Zombies originated in Haiti, but the idea of revenants—the walking dead—was very much part of Old English folklore. Vampires, especially the Transylvanian kind, reached the peak of their popularity in the 18th century.

True zombies, vampires and werewolves have not been feared for at least two centuries. But their place in the popular imagination has maintained by horror movies and novels as well as several generations of gamers. Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series elevated the classic vampire love story to interspecies romance, with a werewolf vying for the hand of the beautiful Bella.

It’s almost unsettling to read a classic, by-the-book ghost story today, given that ghosts have been shunted firmly into the dark vaults of the horror genre or series like the Goosebumps books for children. Sarah Waters was probably well aware of this when she wrote The Little Stranger, one of the first haunted house novels in mainstream fiction in a long, long while. Today’s intelligent reading public will believe in aliens, the power of positive thinking, or creationism far more readily than they will believe in a book that features a ghost as the lead character. Ghosts, unlike vampires and assorted ghouls, are not in fashion any more.

Waters sidesteps this problem by giving her ghost a suitably anachronistic setting—an old English country house, crumbling for want of funds. At first meeting, the Ayers have far more need of a bookkeeper than an exorcist, but by degrees, Waters draws the reader into the idea that real evil might exist and leave its mark behind. Reading The Little Stranger is eerily like reading an unpublished, forgotten Wilkie Collins. Perhaps this is the only way a straightforward ghost story would work any more, as opposed to a vampire-zombie tale—as a throwback, a deliberate nod to a previous era.

The Indian churail (or pisach or djinni) faces similar problems as the Scandinavian myling or the Er Gui of China: they don’t translate well outside of their culture. (For the curious, a myling is the spirit of a murdered child; an Er Gui is the ghost of a person who died of starvation or hunger.) Among our authors, Ruskin Bond tells ghost stories with a ghoulish relish that one only finds in gentle, genial writers who live in peaceful retirement in the hills.

But few have carried on the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote some of the most chilling ghost stories of all time—Khudita Pashan (The Hungry Stones) being perhaps the best of them. It’s not for lack of talent—for instance, Tarun Tejpal and Ravi Shankar Etteth have both played around with the ghost story. Ravi Shankar wrote at least one classic, featuring a busload of highly unusual passengers in war-ravaged Kashmir.

In 1914, a Mr S Mukerji compiled a set of Indian ghost stories, and noted: “I have heard all sorts of ghost stories from my nurse and my father’s coachman, Abdullah… as well as from my friends who are Judges and Magistrates and other responsible servants of Government,and in two cases from Judges of Indian High Courts. A story told by a nurse or a coachman should certainly not be reproduced in this book.” He included the judges’ stories, which were thunderously boring, but perhaps something of the belief that ghost stories are for the masses, not for the purveyors of high literature, has rubbed off on to our authors.

That, given India’s rich heritage of dakinis, betaals, nishibhoots and other things that go bump in the night, is a sad mistake. Perhaps more Indian writers might be persuaded to go the way of Rudyard Kipling, who wrote a few ghost stories himself, and who observed: “You may treat anything, from a Viceroy to a Vernacular Paper, with levity; but you must behave reverently toward a ghost, and particularly an Indian one.” Until then, it’s zombies all the way down.





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