Planchette: A Dying Curiosity

Sumana Roy is an author and poet. Her most recent work is a collection of poems Out of Syllabus
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An investigation of the disappearance of visiting ghosts

“Ram Ram, Ram Ram.” Mr Muhury, my neighbour, still says those words out of habit when he goes to the toilet at night. He migrated to India from Bangladesh in 1974, three years after the independence of what was East Pakistan. It’s a mantra to protect oneself from ghosts, though he makes it a point to clarify that all ghosts are dead. Planchettes are for urban sophisticates, he implies: “In Bangladesh, ghosts don’t keep appointments or send out visiting cards,” he says, breaking into laughter, “Poor people keep away from ghosts. It’s only rich city-dwellers who can think of ghosts as exotic creatures.” His son, Uttam, who’s just turned 21, shows some interest in planchettes, but after I am done with the long and rather abstract and ascetic means by which Bengalis invite ghosts, he backs off. “What if the ghost says, ‘Go, get a life’?”

Every Bengali who has been involved in a planchette offers this defence: ‘If Rabindranath Tagore could do it, why not I?’ It is a touchstone question, and, however rhetorical or amusing, offers a hook to talk about the subculture of planchettes and its groggy disappearance from the Bengali ‘spiritual’ imagination. Here is Tagore in My Reminiscences: ‘We had an old cashier, Kailash, a great wit. His humour did not desert him even after death. Once, my elders ventured to start a postal service with the other world by means of a planchette. At one of the sittings, the pencil scrawled out the name of Kailash. We wanted to know about the kind of life he led now. His reply was thus: ‘Why should you get so cheap what I had to die to learn?’’

I remember my father’s uncle telling us planchette stories, and always ending with the neo-aphorism, “All ghosts are wanderlust-filled Bengalis. Who else would take the trouble to make these long-distance return journeys?” He would always emphasise the word ‘return’. My father, if he was around, would temper the conversation with, “Ghosts, like Bengalis, love working overtime.” A dark room, a candle dripping wax, a wooden table, a sharp pencil, a paper with digits and letters of the alphabet written on it (a format that has metamorphosed into electronic Ouija boards today), a coin at the centre, and instructions—“Yes”, “No”—that made the visiting spirit answer in binary code, but not without making it plain who the visitor was and who the host: so it was either “Welcome!”, or, if the ghost seemed foul tempered, a firm but polite “Please go back!” The spirit would be invited to return “one last time” to “this earth”, there would be pleas, and if the ghost did take up the invitation (some often didn’t, perhaps because they were too old to make the journey or didn’t care too much for the pleasures of this earth), the air would turn still, the darkness would thicken, the candle wax would drip thicker, and the pen and coin would begin moving. Thus would the spirit begin writing. Perhaps it was this that endeared them most to Bengalis, who have, for centuries now, liked to think of themselves as learned creatures.

A friend, a Bengali-American, recalls being “scared for years” after his planchette experience. The first time round, while his wife and two friends called upon a spirit in the next room, he stood with his ear to the wall and heard the wailing of a baby boy. The second time, about nine years ago, he found himself part of a similar group that included his wife and close friends. “I wasn’t actively involved,” he says, “but just being there in a dark room with a coin moving and answering questions was straight out of an M Night Shyamalan movie.”

Had he watched many ghost stories before that planchette? “No, it was just the times... 9/11,” he says, “everyone seemed to be asking questions. We wanted answers. So many were losing jobs, we just wanted to know what the future held for us.” Wouldn’t asking a fortune teller have been easier? “Perhaps. But you have to employ irrational means for answers to irrational questions, right?”

And that is how a spirit called Osama bin Laden—“It’s a common Muslim name,” he offers as annotation—got invited to that meeting with five Bengalis in the American Midwest. Arin can’t remember all the questions they asked Osama, but two, he says, he won’t ever forget: “Did you ask them to blow up the Twin Towers?” (‘No’ was his answer); and “How did you die?” The ghost, mild-mannered until then, apparently flew into a rage at that, and disappeared. When I tell my husband, his response is, “Don’t ghosts file defamation suits?”

Truth be told, such adventure tourism comes with risks, and the one we feared most as children was madness. Man was sane, ghosts insane—so went one of the binaries inculcated by our parents. If the ghost decided not to leave the room—our metonymy for the planet—there would be disaster. It would stay on in our bodies, and that thought was scary. We had not yet discovered the uses of all our teenaged body parts, and the prospect of playing host to an invisible tenant seemed outrageous.

I don’t know anyone below eighteen today who has done a planchette. Perhaps this generation of Bengali children can only think of ‘spirits’ residing in Hogwarts. JK Rowling turns wizardry into a science and its practitioners into lab assistants. But Bengali childhood, a generation ago, survived on abstract ghost manuals described in the books of Saradindu Bandopadhyay, Satyajit Ray, Lila Mazumdar, Rajshekhar Basu and Tarashankar Bandopadhyay. Planchette props were mentioned casually; one had to find one’s way with them. And the trial-and-error routine associated with it made it unpredictable and fun.

The internet is far more interesting than ghosts, a niece convinces me. And then, lapsing into her generational terminology, she explains, “A planchette is only a ‘404 error’, a ‘content not found’ case, get it?” The Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay, talking about the impact of Neil Armstrong’s footstep on the moon, has shown how the woman on the moon came to be wiped out of the imagination of the Bengali child. Similarly, NASA and stories of travels to outer space, both fiction and real, have changed the way children look at the romance of distance: no one is too far away, not even the dead. That perhaps also explains the disappearance of ghost stories in Bengali today. Lives that were once indulged by the printer’s devil and student’s indolence are no longer so.

My father-in-law is a physicist, and is such a compulsive believer in dogmatic rationalism that most of his quarrels with his wife end with three words: not “I love you” but “Where’s the logic?” He is naturally embarrassed when I probe him for the planchette story that circulates as family lore. His elder brother was part of a planchette session as a schoolboy, he confesses. “This was in Bihar’s Hazaribagh. It was Gora-da, Chidananda Dasgupta’s younger brother, who was an expert at planchettes,” he begins. “I was in junior school then, and therefore was not allowed to be a part of SabujSangha, a club that Chidananda-babu had set up.” One night his ‘Mej-da’ did not return. He was eventually discovered, along with his friends, in a dark classroom in his school. This was at about 3 am, and all of them were found unconscious on the floor. “Mej-da was in a daze for days, neither speaking to us nor responding to our queries.” When probed for an explanation, this was what Gora-da offered: the spirit had been polite and friendly until they asked him that overwhelming question: “Will you please write out the History Question paper for tomorrow’s test for us?” Taking umbrage at such an unethical proposition, the ghost had turned livid, and everyone except Gora-da had fallen unconscious. “Mej-da never spoke about ghosts again, though I did try explaining to him that things move not because of the spirit but due to the ideomotor effect.”

Hostels, especially in colonial towns, or housed in old buildings, used to be great spirit-invitation centres. I have heard stories of ‘White spirits’ from friends in Darjeeling’s Loreto College, and of ‘dissected skeletons’ in a medical college in Kolkata. That unexplained link between planchettes and old buildings, and the emergence of the omniscient real estate agent, is perhaps another reason for the decline of this subculture. For, who has ever seen a ghost in a freshly painted and newly furnished ‘living’ room in a new condominium block? Why Bengali ghosts should only live in old buildings and ruins is a question that no Bengali writer--Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, his grandson Satyajit Ray, Shirsendu or Mustafa Siraj—has bothered to answer. When I put this question to my maid, a refugee from Bangladesh whose reservoir of ghost stories seems unending, she retorts, “Because only poor people become ghosts. The rich die satisfied.”

One thing that cuts across generations and cultures seems to be the desire to communicate with a dead mother. There’s not only catharsis involved in this, but, as I found out, a curiosity, a need to complete an unfinished conversation with the dead parent, ask her family and emotional secrets. We have seen it in the poetic philosophising of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, in the Bengali stories of the two Banerjees, Bibhutibhushan and Saradindu. It is there in a host of Bengali poems, as in this Buddhadeb Bose poem that I, for a long time, believed to be some kind of incantatory mantra necessary for a planchette:

Ma ... you are dead, and I am so inexperienced/and ignorant about the ways of the dead that/even imagination, there, becomes jaundiced./So if it’s possible, somehow,/ come to me once, let me see you .../ And there, over there, if you have/learnt anything by now, something that is still unknown to me,/Then, tell me that too. (My translation)

The poem is called Shondhilawgno, and the repeated pleas to the mother by the child to make herself visible just once is the impulse that I find common to those rare young people interested in planchette today. There is another marked difference: planchettes are no longer hotlines to talk to dead celebrities like my father-in-law’s friends once did. The young, if they want to call a dead spirit, will invite someone they loved.

Titas Dey lost her mother three years ago, and has been involved in two planchettes since then. In the first, she and her group ‘invited’ the filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. This gave her the courage to call her mother the next time: “I don’t care what people think of planchettes. I just wanted to know whether my mother misses me. She said she does. That thought alone makes me happy.” “I’d like to talk to my mother too,” says Suvasree, another young university student whose mother died a couple of years ago, and then asks, “Will it be wrong to do that?”

Suvasree, Titas and I don’t discuss the ethics of disturbing the dead and the right of spirits to a peaceful existence, but when I ask them if I could use their names in my story, they give me their permission. This attitude distinguishes them from the earlier generation of planchette doers, for whom this used to be a surreptitious post-box. BG, a friend in her mid-thirties, is happy to share a story about her grandmother, but would like to keep all identities secret for fear of hurting her family: “Mrs Sen, my maternal grandma, used to do it, not using the conventional method of a group of people getting together in a dark room, but all by herself. Once the spirit descended on her pen, it would just run along the paper--non-stop, no separate words, just one run-on mass of written text. She ‘spoke’ to Rabindranath (who apparently gave my name), Rishi Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi, and some of her relatives. All her planchette scripts, in Bangla, are preserved in our Delhi house. She was a writer and activist.” The ‘original’ scripts, a family secret, lie in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park.

Mr Muhury brought along an entire mythology of planchette stories when he migrated to our small town in Himalayan Bengal. There were more ghosts in Bangladesh than there were people in India: that was a refrain that filled my childhood. A few weeks ago, as I sat discussing his old ghost stories with him, he said something interesting: ghost stories were dying because people had longer lives now. Epidemics and wars were few and far between. Perhaps therein also lay a clue to the gradual disappearance of planchettes? It was, however, not only the Malthusian relationship between deaths and ghosts—one out-pacing the other--that had given birth to planchettes. They once used to be knowledge kiosks, a ‘virtual’ library that indulged curiosity of the unseen. With an all-knowing Wikipedia at one’s fingertips, it is perhaps only natural that planchettes have become a dead subject. “I made a ghost write my Chemistry Lab notebook when I was in college,” declares Dr Misra, dropping in on our conversation by the roadside. “Those days are gone, dada,” my father intervenes, “No one works for free anymore.”

“Do ghosts retain their castes?” Mr Muhury asks me suddenly one day. It takes me a few moments to realise that he does not entertain the possibility of Muslim or Christian ghosts. When I tell him that, he avoids the subject, ending the conversation in a high-pitched tone: “All planchettes are doomed to fail. No one dies any more. Do you know why ghosts would come for planchettes earlier? So many died in the Bengal famine, so many for Independence, so many died in the wars, so many Naxals. Only people who die unnatural deaths become ghosts, not those who die in hospitals.”