The supernatural author/film-maker sleeps with the lights on since five years.
Being Goan, stories about black magic along the Goan coastline were rife in the family – our native village has a festival every Dusshera where Gods possess priests and exorcise the local natives who have been tormented by spirits. I have seen these possessed priests dance and heard shrieks of people being exorcised.
It was during a sleepover at a friend’s place. I got spooked after a whole night of horror stories narrated by her sister who was an excellent storyteller. The stories were not macabre but she managed to creep everyone out. That’s the exact same effect that an hour-long session of ‘Stories of the Supernatural’ by Krishnarjun Bhattacharya does. These are not stories about possession or dark magic. These are encounters that he had or people he knew did.
Bhattacharya is a graduate in Film and Video Communication from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, and a post graduate in Video Editing from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. Tantrics of Old is his first novel – a dark fantasy, following a young Necromancer, a Tantric, Adri Sen, as he runs from an ancient Horseman, Death, in a city just as old.
Bhattacharya has a strange air of calmness around him. I got him to open up and reveal some of the secrets locked away in the pages of his book. He shared his experiences in vivid detail. Prepare to be spooked.
How did your obsession with horror begin?
The obsession with horror has been there since childhood. I grew up in a remote place near the Indian Institute of Coal Management in Kolkata. My father teaches there and my mom is a doctor working for Coal India. I lived in the campus kilometers away from the main city, surrounded by a thick forest. The silence gave me space to think – it was a place where anything could happen. My imagination ran wild. I had my first supernatural encounter in NID and since then, everything changed for me and I started hunting the supernatural. I started believing in ghosts.
I've had two supernatural encounters – first one during college, the second during a party at my friend's place where we heard footsteps on his roof but saw no one there. My encounters are not macabre but very subtle. I have never seen a ghost but felt it's presence through footsteps, something being amiss or such. I am a romantic, so even if there is a scientific explanation, I will ignore it.
Do you believe in God?
I am agnostic and believe in a higher power. This power has a plan and we all fit into it. There is one God and one faith and people are free to believe in whatever they do. But if there are shapes in this room and we can’t see them, then there is a higher power too.
So there are forces bigger than us?
Yes there are and planchette is one of them. My storytelling session covers it. Planchette is said to be a doorway from this realm to another. Anything can come through from the other side and whoever is closest through the door comes by. There are mediums and planchette artists who pursue this as a career and they charge heavily for it. Planchette is like a surgery, you cannot leave it mid-way and walk away. There are connections which are forged and there are rules. You cannot run away come what may. And once you call a spirit, then you must know how to send it back – it is like a maze, you should know how to get out once you get in. The best mediums know how to banish a spirit and perform exorcisms. There are mediums that can look at a photograph and tell everything about the person involved. They can see more than you or I can. Planchette is a bridge between two worlds – but it is not to be played around with unless you respect it – it is not to be done on a drunken night. Also, some places are more susceptible to haunting which is why one must avoid them.
What happens if we don’t?
I don't know. Someone would probably take offence. Would you want to offend a hundred year old entity that death couldn't kill? Doesn't sound like a good idea, hehe. No, but on a serious note, be open, be sensitive. This is really all about love and respect.
Places are more susceptible to a haunting because of their histories; sometimes the dead have had obsessive attachments to certain houses, or certain objects, and it's believed quite widely that these places still hold remnants of their former owners. Even if not avoid the place, we should remember to respect the history of a place when we visit it. Again, I'm no authority on the dead; I'm simply telling you to respect the dead, the ones that have lived before us. If someone lived somewhere before us, they loved the place, and sometimes this love carries on through. Respect that love, and you should be fine.
What has your experience with planchette been like?
I did try planchette with some friends and a medium but well, nothing happened. No spirit came and it was an unsuccessful attempt!
Are there friendly and unfriendly spirits? Can they harm us?
I look at spirits in several different understandings of the word, and I assume you're talking about the conventional ghost / specter here. See, I'm afraid the understanding of spirits is far beyond us, and I hardly think they're quantifiable in terms of friendly or unfriendly--it's rather like asking if a person is good or bad. We forget, in our arrogance of survival that spirits were once living, that they're departed, lost souls, and they're as complex as any human being, if not more. I mean, they've seen the other side, beyond the veil, and we can only begin to imagine what the lengths of their thought processes and understandings might have evolved to.
If we examine recordings and stories, I have heard of loved ones returning from beyond the grave, for a few moments perhaps, just to save someone from the brink of disaster. The dead do watch over us, and perhaps love itself is powerful enough (being the scientifically inexplicable force that it is) to carry over to the other side. I have also heard stories of revenge, of spirits harming the ones who betrayed them in life, killing their murderers. All I know is that everything happens for a reason. Spirits, if you believe in them, do not go on rampages and scare sprees for the heck of it.
Places like Bhangarh are supposed to be haunted...what's your take on that?
Again, I would connect it to the history about Bhangarh, to the fascinating tale of the tantric and the king's daughter, a story that is told there, a precursor to all the horror. Some places have bad memories; ugly, wicked things have happened at certain places. These footprints cannot ever be erased, what has happened can never be forgotten. Forces beyond our comprehension make sure we remember.
Can one get black magic done on a person? How do you get rid of the effects of this?
Hehe, I know stories about black magic, many stories of things that happened and how lives changed overnight. I also respect these forces and those who claim to command them, and I would never pretend to play doctor and actually tell you how to get rid of certain effects. This is complicated, and I'm not a practitioner, nor an expert. I'm a collector of stories, and on a personal level I would love to share some stories of black magic and hoodoo with you, should you come to listen. No offense meant, of course.
Do you think you are special or have a mission because of the experiences you have had?
I've only had a couple of brushes with what I would consider to be the supernatural. But throughout my work as a writer and a film-maker and my travels, I've met a lot of people who have had encounters too. I haven't got any kind of a God complex, and I don't think I have any 'mission' to do with the paranormal either. I'm a storyteller. I love stories, I love writing, hearing, collecting them. And the supernatural interests me, an interest bordering on obsession that has often been called unhealthy. But I like it, and I suspect that throughout my life my work will have shades of my chosen genre.
How do we know if someone has actually had a brush with the supernatural or it’s just their imagination?
I think the scariest thing is that we don't. We never do. And that's the elegance of it; the other side is something you have to believe in as a romantic, as there are too many possible theories that can dismiss it as something intangible. You never know if what you heard or saw was actually something or merely a trick of the mind / light / wind / trees / shadows. And I think we're never supposed to know for sure. The minute you have certainty, the thrill of the chase is lost.
Are the stories narrated in ‘Stories of the Supernatural’ fiction or reality?
All stories are true in their own way. I have travelled quite a bit and met a lot of people. Being a film-maker the advantage is that I get to meet new people every day. When you are at eerie, spooky places, stories tend to be shared and I remember the best ones. These are a combination of personal experiences and stories that were told to me by various people including the author Ruskin Bond who told me a delightful one.
Oh tell us.
It’s not exactly a horrific story but a rather amusing one.
This is set in a quiet place in Mussoorie. A young man was good friends with an old woman, who was his neighbor. They used to spend a lot of time together until one day the old woman passed away. The man was saddened and took over the responsibility of ensuring that all her belongings would be disposed off properly. It was decided that the dead body would be kept overnight in the house and she would be cremated the next morning. He decided to stay in the house and look after everything. It was raining heavily. He sat a few feet away from the corpse reading a book. There was a sudden sound, he looked at the corpse and saw that the old lady’s lips were parted. He ignored but after a few minutes he saw that the expression was developing into a smile. His heart started beating faster – he flipped the pages of the book but was unable to concentrate – these were just words, letters for him. He closed his eyes and decided that he must run. But when he looked at the corpse again, he froze – the smile was widening. He decided to count till 10 but before he could finish..Boom! The corpse's teeth had fallen out due to rigor motis setting in. The young man was Ruskin Bond.
Im spooked but not enough. Anything scarier?
This particular village had a panchayat, and the mukhiya was a well-respected and generous man. Tales of his generosity travelled far and wide. He was selfless to an extent that if he saw a shirtless beggar on the road, he would take off his own shirt and give it to the beggar. He would walk home bare-chested.
One night it was raining heavily and he was crossing from one end of a field to the other. Fields are square or rectangular and they have paths in the middle, called ‘aal’ in Bengali. He was crossing the ‘aal’ in the rains but somehow, he was having an unusually difficult time trying to balance himself – he was slipping, stumbling, barely able to recover his balance and was struggling to cross the field. He failed to understand what was happening – it was raining and the ‘aal’ was muddy, but he had done this before. He saw that there was a great tree in the far distance and a lot of villagers had gathered beneath it. As he carried on, the villagers began to clap very loudly. He thought it must be related to the orphanage which was inaugurated recently. He raised his hand and carried on. A month later, there was a wedding. He was introduced to another man who recognized him and said, “Oh! A month back when it was raining, we were trapped and were beneath a tree. I saw you crossing the field carrying an old man on your back! Who does that!”
Crossing the field has a lot of metaphors attached to it – it can be compared to a spirit seeking its release. Spirits are sensitive creatures; I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits for the sake of it. I think they are linked to our histories and memories. I use this example very frequently – why is a lady in white haunting a highway? Why are strange things happening in a newly built apartment? Why are hushed voices of laughter heard from that burnt down building? It’s because something happened at these places. These happenings are trapped in those places like a tape-recorder. If you go to that place at the right time, the right moment, it plays itself back for you and you can experience it. This lady in white was perhaps raped and murdered on the same highway. The apartment was probably built on a graveyard which was desecrated for the same. That burnt down house was maybe an orphanage and hence you can hear children laughing at night. It’s all linked to our history. So when I am telling a ghost story, not only am I entertaining the crowd, but I am also, in a sense, invoking our history in this age of smartphones.
What kind of people come to listen to your stories? Are they looking to get cheap thrills or is there some deeper seeking spirit?
I have told stories to all kinds of people. Some people are definitely coming just for the thrill, and there's nothing wrong with that, but there are others too, who come because they've gone through something which they're not sure about, a incident in their childhoods which they have suppressed. Then there are people like me, inquisitive hunters of the supernatural, people with an insatiable obsession which they have to keep feeding. The conversations which happen after my stories are just as important as the stories themselves. I listen to more stories, I meet like-minded people, and then occasionally, of course, there's the medium or planchette artist or tarot reader. Its always to delight to meet them and talk about the other side.
What are the key elements in writing or narrating horror?
My approach is subtle – it’s not what you can see but what you can’t. For example – there is something amiss in your room. You have come back after a nice long day and you are going to sleep. But you know something is not quite right. Did you leave your laptop on the bed or was it on the table as you see it now? That is my kind of horror - nothing blatant and macabre. But my storytelling sessions are from a scale of subtle to horrific because it’s a performance.
What are your favourite works in horror, both in film and literature?
When it comes to literature, I am a fan of the authors HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. When it comes to films, the directors John Carpenter, James Wan, James Watkins are some who I find great. I love classic horror like Nosferatu.
But I also want to look at how horror changes in new-age as a viewer of horror. For example, in the film Unfriended, there is a computer screen and the story takes place on a desktop. There are people talking on Skype since a dead girl’s Skype profile becomes active and she is typing – and there are five friends linked to her death. It is a refreshing take since horror can get stagnant. I love horror done well and people who appreciate horror for what it is and not merely as a gimmick to sell tickets.
Isn’t writing horror rather challenging as against a love story?
My book is not exactly horror; it is a dark fantasy with shades of horror. Horror is difficult to write because it throws you out of your comfort zone – wherever you are, it makes that space uncomfortable to be in. On the contrary, a love story familiarizes you with your surroundings and things you can relate to – that’s a place you want to be in. That’s not the case with horror. People deliberately throw themselves into such situations knowing that the consequences will be dire. I am scared of ghosts and I am afraid of the supernatural, yet I have this unhealthy obsession with it. I can walk into a haunted building out of curiosity and I will run out if I see something move – but, I will wait to see something move.
Tell us about your follow-up to Tantrics of the Old… how is the second book coming along?
Horsemen of Old is the second book in the Tantric triology and is releasing in January. The editing is happening right now. The first was more like a graphic novel and this is a novel. It is a connector between the first and the last book.
How do you get a good night’s sleep?
I haven’t slept peacefully ever since my first supernatural experience. Something whispered to me in the dark and I thought it was a friend. The friend heard the same voice and thought it was me. We realized that there was no one there that night except us. Everything comes at a price. I don’t know if I’ll go mad by the time I’m 50 but I will be leaving something behind. If I don’t get scared then the audience won’t. They have to see fear in my eyes.
By: Divya Naik