The folklorist Joseph Campbell once expressed myth was in many respects truer than history, which he regarded as journalism. (“You know how reliable that is,” he added wryly.) History, after all, is a recorded sequence of events. Myth, while perhaps not true in the proper sense, nonetheless captures deeper, more socially embedded truths. Folklore articulates something quintessentially human about lived experience in a way catalogues of battles and monarchs do not. And the thing with folklore is it’s often quite dark…
For that reason, Ghosts, Monsters and Demons of India is a must-read entry in the literary search for human meaning. It’s a trek through the dark corners of India’s cultural imagination populated with nightmarish creatures, demons, dark forest stalkers and all manner of grisly entities.
It’s also a fantastic read.
Compiled, edited, and introduced by Rakesh Khanna and J. Furcifer Bhairav, Ghosts, Monsters and Demons of India (the first volume of its kind I’m aware of) isn’t so much a collection of stories as an encyclopaedia of the Indic supernatural: an alphabetical list of the dark, the uncanny, the bizarre and the unsettling.
Alvantin, for instance, are malevolent entities from Goa. They’re the spirits of those who died in childbirth and now harass other women until they are exorcised. Interestingly, male exorcists are ineffectual against them. Only women can drive them off.
The Kuli are troublemaking ghosts in southern India (for Tamils, they’re malevolent imps that cause disease) that can only be excised through a religious ceremony. In this volume, you’ll read about spirits that inhabit corpses so they can eat fish, and curious magicians that trap spirits in coconuts.
What makes this book such a pleasure to read isn’t merely the catalogue of fantastic monsters detailed in its pages (which alone is worth the read) but context developed by Khanna and Bhairav, who detail where in India each creature hails from, popular stories in which they have been featured, and other relevant historical data. The writers delineate historical reference points, often associated with epics or regional mythology cycles, as well as (when apt) linguistic relationships and modern-day referents, like voracious mythological demons who give their name to a chain of Mumbai-based all-you-can-eat buffets.
Here I should state something about what is meant by ‘India’, because Khanna and Bhairav both are at pains to describe their scope. Ghosts, Monsters and Demons of India records folklore from the Himalayan foothills to the shores of Sri Lanka and eastward all the way into the Philippines. India is traced beyond its contemporary political borders through the centuries of its cultural influence. It’s an India that dances between tensions: esoteric and exoteric, religious and secular, cultural and universal. As Khanna and Bhairav note in their introduction, superstition sits side by side with advanced technology. The book in many ways captures the rhythm and pulse of a culture (a cavalcade of cultures, actually) in flux.
Some of these tales revel in religious and cultural heritage. Others are cheap thrills, and others still are just plain strange (“People with No Anuses” is one of my favourites). But what this volume does more than anything is evoke a kind of universality: a common human obsession with cataloguing malevolent forces. Whether this tendency is rooted in human evolution (as the authors suggest) or something else, these pages speak to nothing short of the human capacity for belief in the transcendent.
Ghosts, Monsters and Demons of India is a treasury of the supernatural, and many readers will approach it with a familiarity with western horror stories. However, this volume offers a refreshing degree of nuance. Khanna and Bhairav give a layered, textured view of the supernatural world rather than the cut-and-dry good-evil binary. Some deities are treated in some traditions as demons; others worship them as gods. Reading these stories, one can’t help but see that the spiritual world is as densely populated with politics and conflict as the world of the living is.
More than anything, Khanna and Bhairav are partisans for the unifying power of scary stories: “When people of different faiths start debating the relative merits of their gods, there’s always a danger that they’ll end the conversation by drawing weapons; but if the same group sits down to compare their demons and devils, they’re more likely to break out the popcorn.”
J. Furcifer Bhairav
12 September 2023