Feeding the Spirits: Ghosts & Food in Bengali Literature

Feeding the Spirits: Ghosts & Food in Bengali Literature

If food and drink sustain us in life — why not also in death? Amrapali Saha finds that the bhoots of Bengali culture hold on to their love for mortal sustenance.

At dusk, when the light fell aslant from a departing sun, and the first of the stars scattered in the sky like luminous windblown seeds, my grandmother would draw me close and tell me stories of the bhoots (ghosts) of Bengal. Her memory was stocked with tales of an eclectic crop of ghosts, and her stories painted a picture of a changing Bengal, in the twentieth century, caught halfway between rapid modernisation and a wish to hold on to the simpler way of life. The Bengal of these stories let us hang on to those desolate corners, the towering trees and abandoned huts in which the ghosts of the past could hide comfortably. As I learned how to read, I discovered that these stories abounded in the world of Bengali fiction, published in popular children’s literary magazines like Anandamela and Shuktara Shonkolon. For a child growing up in Bengal, these bhooter golpo (ghost stories) marked a way of life, and I devoured them on long summer holidays and short winter breaks.

Later, as an M. Phil student, I would rediscover these stories, only to realize that the ghosts had a life of their own. The lives of these bhoots in Bengali ghost stories shed light on the socio-cultural factors that imagine death and the afterlife within the literary landscape of Bengal. The ghosts in these stories, such as the Gechho Bhoot, Mechho Bhoot, Mamdo Bhoot, Shankhachunni, Skondhokata, Brahmadaitya and so on, are not mere symbols or ideas drawn from the structures of lived existence, but entities shaped by socio-cultural beliefs that form the contours of the human experience in Bengal. And interestingly, food plays an important role within this ghostly topography; a way to normalize the paradox of death. Candi K. Cann, in her book Dying to Eat: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Food, Death, and the Afterlife, posits that the role of food goes beyond appearing in funeral feasts, bereavement rituals, and memorialization practices. Food in fact, is a key agent in putting death into cognizable structures of human experience by evoking a sense of comfort and familiarity. Thus, as Cann argues, if food and drink sustain us in life — why not also in death?

‘Maachhe bhaate Bangali,’ goes the popular saying: Fish and rice maketh the Bengali man. Bengali ghosts, like their human counterparts, are also gastronomically inclined. While some ghosts are believed to have an appetite for fish, others cannot let go of their weakness for sweets, both of which are well-known Bengali proclivities. Our limited understanding of death, outside of its inevitability, makes the conceptualisation of death a site for the creation of meaning, feeding into the imagination of the afterlife. In certain European peasant cultures, there was a custom of feeding the returning soul on the steam of cooked food, since it could not consume food like the living. The spirit must be fed in a primarily symbolic way, points out leading anthropologist Peter Berta, because the worldly concept of eating must be adjusted to the physiological changes induced by death. The creatures of the afterlife in Bengali ghost stories, however, pose a peculiar conundrum. Although the act of eating is symbolic of life, and that of ceasing to consume food emblematic of death, bhoots in Bengali ghost fiction continue to harbour their love for food even in the afterlife.

Humayun Ahmed, in his introduction to an anthology of ghost stories from Bengal, titled Amar Priyo Voutik Golpo (My Favourite Ghost Stories), reminisces over the normalcy of accepting the presence of ghosts in the fabric of everyday life in rural Bengal. In the villages of Bengal, the presence of ghosts was a routine occurrence, considered to be gharer manush, or part of the household (a term that usually encompassed the entire village community). Ahmed recounts an incident from his childhood, a meeting one evening between his maternal grandfather and a guest from a neighbouring village. The flow of conversation had been smoothly continuing between the two of them until the guest suddenly lamented that a petni (a colloquial term in Bengali for pretni or female ghost) had been creating a nuisance for his family of late. The nature of the disturbance was such that if one fried fish in the house, the petni would then extend her hand through the kitchen window and try to snatch away the fried fish. Upon failing to get her hands on any of the fried fish, she would entreat upon the family in a nasal voice to give her the fish. Ahmed observes that the most intriguing element of this tale was that no one in the guest’s family was either surprised by this incident or found it unusual. Ahmed writes that it was commonly reported and widely believed in Bengal that spirits preferred fried fish, and thus it was completely natural for them to disturb the living in order to procure their meat of choice.

Ilish maach, or Bengali hilsa | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Ilish maach, or Bengali hilsa | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Fish, and the pescatarian diet is so pervasive in Bengal that it has even given birth to a special kind of ghost called the Mechho Bhoot, a fish-eating ghost, that features in writer Monoj Bosu’s story, Bhooter Maachh Dhora (Ghost’s Fishing). The protagonist in the story, fisherman Ishaan, is faced with a strange predicament. His livelihood is threatened by the presence of a Mechho Bhoot, known for its insatiable appetite for fish. According to the tale, those who suffer a watery death while fishing turn into these fish-eating ghosts. Bengal’s most coveted fish, the hilsa, or ilish, as it is referred to in Bengali, also features prominently in these stories. Notably, in Samaresh Mazumdar’s story Bhootera Shatar Jaane Na (Ghosts Don’t Know How to Swim), a young boy seeks the help of two ghosts by bribing them with a pair of khoka ilish (baby hilsa) that the ghosts are known to favour. In yet another story, Bhooter Khoppore (Ghost Trap) by Robidas Saharay, a band of bhoots terrorize a young boy in order to snatch away his pot of salted hilsa. The bhooter golpo of Bengal thus reveal how the conception of the afterlife often comes across as a translation of life in the living world and society of Bengal.

The fact that each cultural system produces its own version of the world after death and its distinctive ghosts, writes historian Moo Chou-Poo, is suggestive of the fact that although the need to imagine might be similar among all societies, the actual imagined result varies according to cultural or local conditions. So it is interesting to note that elements of the mortal world also find resonance in the imagination of the afterlife. For instance, the ghost of a Brahmin, the Brahmadaitya, is accorded a higher status even in the afterlife, and feared and revered by human beings and other ghosts alike. As an illustration, in a story by Taradas Bandhopadhyay, Bhootera Ekhon (The Status of Ghosts Now), the ghost of a woman of a lower economic class in life, is found admonishing her ghost son in the afterlife for wanting to eat rotten fish. In a comical inversion of the customs and beliefs of the mortal world in the afterlife, rotten fish is considered to be a delicacy for ghosts in this story. The consumption of rotten fish is depicted as a privilege reserved for bhoots of a higher class such as the Brahmadaitya, or a treat for special occasions for lower class bhoots. As the son ghost pesters his mother for rotten fish, his harried mother replies, “Are we Brahmadaityas that we can afford such expensive foods? We are ordinary ghosts of simple households, it is not within our means to eat delicacies like rotten fish every day.” Evidently, the links of social continuity are not lost in death, and instead shape the Bengali afterlife into an almost identical social structure as found in life.

The belief that ghosts seek out nourishment can be traced to the fact that food is central to the continuation of life. Some stories offer a glimpse into unique bhoot cuisine such as delicacies like curried worms, gravy of dead rats’ meat, and kebabs made of dried dead crows served in human skulls, most stories fall back on the foods of the living world. The afterlife stems from the need for another kind of reality after death, which is still reassuring, accessible, and perceivable by human beings. And the bhooter golpo of Bengal serve an important function, posing the same difficult questions regarding life and death that have continued to haunt philosophers and theologians, but in an alleviatory mode, cloaked in the garb of entertainment. Bhoots, as my grandmother would have said, are very much like us, just a different kettle of fish.

Amrapali Saha is a PhD student at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.