The Ghost of Christmas Present
Moving on from my tale of spooky happenings when I was a young(er) man living in my home town, today I want to tell you a little about the nature of the supernatural in Bangladesh. As it happens, as part of my Masters Degree work, I have done quite a bit of studying about this and found both the folklore and the stories fascinating. How Bangladeshis behave – at least in the villages – is often dictated by superstition and ghostlore. Much more so than I have ever seen in the west.
Shefali sat in front of me with a mischievous grin on her face. I knew she was about to tell me something good. She’s a good friend and we enjoy many chats in Bangla about so many different subjects. My ability to understand anything at all in Bangla is due, in large part, to our conversations. She’s a quick thinker and often cheeky with it and you don’t see that too much in these parts of Bangladesh.
We had been talking about the names we give to our family members when she said: “Dada, do you know what my husband calls me for fun?”
No, I didn’t, I confessed. There was a definite twinkle in her eye now.
“Petni,” she said and gave a little giggle.
Six months ago I would not have understood what that meant; now I understood all too well. I think my jaw actually dropped.
“No way! Really?” I said in genuine surprise. “Your husband calls you a demonic ghost?”
“For fun,” Shefali repeated, “but yes, that’s what he calls me.”
In a country where respect is everything, where village people often don’t call their own spouses by their own names (again, for possible superstitious reasons) and a wife might even call her husband malik (owner) rather than shami (husband), a daknam or ‘nickname’ like this was very unusual.
Bangladesh has a lot of supernatural creatures. It makes me wonder how any of us make it out alive. Of course, that is the point: many don’t and in a land with high infant mortality, you are not going to take any chances.
The Ghosts and Ghoulies of Bangladesh
There are feresta which are angels; jinn where we get our Western idea of Genies from; Qarina which area kind of jinn which are a personal ‘twin’ but of the opposite sex; Bhut are the most famous perhaps and the word means ‘ghost’ usually of someone who died a horrible death. The horrible the death, the more power the bhut has. They are very dangerous and are particularly attracted to small children and women; Rakkhosh are monsters who have a huge appetite and love to suck blood; Pichat are demons or vampire ghosts; Bhulas are female bhut who lead people astray perhaps by calling them out of their houses in the dark by imitating the sound of a friend’s voice and leading them to fields where they can torment the unfortunate soul; Nishi are similar but may well be summoned up by a malicious neighbour. People who sleepwalk are said to be controlled by nishi; A kondhokata is a creature who swallows people whole. He lives in holes by the side of the road. Takra-takri are body-less spirits who eat babies; Danobs are demons; Pori are beautiful fairies that are especially attracted to young men. Some fall in love with the youths and may demand marriage. Woe betides anyone who crosses a pori…
…and then there are petni. These creatures are often thought to be the same as bhut and the two are often used together: Bhut-petni. They are female and linked to suicide deaths. They especially love little children and cause them to laugh, cry and throw stones. For some reason, burning chillies under the nose of someone possessed by a petni will see the demonic ghost flee from them.
I hope you’ll feel safe sleeping in your beds tonight. Personally, I don’t understand how we can move here in Bangladesh for all the supernatural creatures out there! I’ve not told you of all the creatures that roam this land – just the notable ones.
I do wonder though, if my friend Shefali might really be a petni and that is the reason Thing II is so wild: not ADHD at all! I think I may need to thrust some burning hot chillies under her nose some time and see…
The serious side is that people are genuinely scared of losing their cows, their husbands, their children, their babies to any ill circumstance and where there is a spirit, there is usually a charm, spell or amulet that will keep it at bay. Spirits are much more predictable and controllable than fate, chance or luck.
For this reason, cows are given cowries around their neck and babies are given a black spot on their foreheads – a ‘third eye’ – basically to make them look blemished or ugly. Beautiful things attract attention – including the dreaded kunojor or evil eye – and then cows stop producing milk and babies grow sick and die.
The Ghosts of Christmas Present are living and well here in Bangladesh where such fears and events are all too common and very real. Until education, health care and funding lifts millions of people out of poverty, the spirits will be here for many Christmases to come.
Tomorrow: The Ghosts of Christmas Future and I finally tell you about wifey’s ‘spooky’ moment.