Oakman featured a young dancer who possesses a bunch of keys belonging to her eight lovers, spread across the country. Of them, one is a mysterious man, who seems alive but is actually dead. He never sleeps or eats, his eyes agape at every hour. He is the Oakman suffering from Eiffel tower syndrome, in which a deadly fungus grows at the base of a tree and consumes it from inside. The half alive, half dead tree stands on its buttress roots, plays host to other small animals, and survives for ages in this anomalous state. The story addresses both the irrevocable damage of nature and suggests that in the age of proliferating ghosting, ghosts are the most abiding lovers!
Shehri Adamkhor, about a carnivorous man’s fantastic desire to devour people, harks back to the atavistic, untamed appetite for conquest and power, and also refers to the present malady of unscrupulous consumerism. In the narrator’s fantasy, people are tasty dishes. He makes a cookbook of friends, whose recipes include, “Iram Akhtar: Palak Ghost with pomegranate” and “Prachi Mehra: made into schnitzel, and eaten with cranberry sauce and garden salad.” In another story, a middle-aged woman, living in a railway housing cooperative in the suburbs of Bombay, describes the intimate lives of her neighbours from her balcony. In a gruesome twist at the end, we realise that the story is told by her severed head, which was slashed from her body and placed on the balcony by her male servant earlier in the day.
Banerjee is a great at layering the surface of the story. There is a textured materiality to these disquieting worlds, with rich detailing and language. You can relish these stories exploring various spectral registers without digging for any buried subtext. Simultaneously, writers and artists have often employed the metaphor of fantasy to talk about provocative, unresolved subjects. Parul Sehgal in a recent article for The New York Times titled The Ghost Story Persists in American Literature. Why? writes that “ghost stories are never just reflections. They are social critiques camouflaged with cobwebs; the past clamouring for redress.”
Banerjee uses the genre with an intent to expose the social excesses and lacunas that cannot be purged, like the dying of trees, loss and longing, perverse obsessions and dangerous borders between classes. Ghosts thrive in the recesses between desires and realities. They also stage protests against the norms of society, “In the absence of free speech, the language of protest will be spectral, surreal and speculative,” says Banerjee. “More and more we shall be expressing ourselves through ghostliness.”
The effect of disembodied voices emanating from a radio in a room arranged with empty chairs in a circle, like in a séance session, was spooky. There was a winding staircase hidden in a corner of the dim-lit room that filled you with trepidation and suspicion over an impending descent and arrival in the room. A compelling urge to leave persisted but the hypnotic stories bound and pinned you to the chair. To add to the eeriness was an assortment of strange, inanimate objects kept in a century-old showcase from the museum’s store including a clay head of a disembodied man (a ghostly presence that has no record of its appearance in the collection), a miniature doll in a bed from a strange Victorian doll-house, a machete from the armoury collection (referring to Shehri Aadamkhor) and a manuscript of Qissa-e-Hatem-Tai, a literary work of art filled with fantastical episodes. “Spectral Times is like a modern-day fairy tale, though with unexpected endings,” said Mehta. “We selected our objects to resonate with the idiosyncratic characters in Sarnath’s stories, inspired by people, the city and the uncanny. His stories are like keyholes into the lives of seemingly ordinary people – a glimpse into the secret and unusual side of their personalities!”
There were also paintings with written excerpts of these stories in the adjoining room but they seemed illustrative and were not palpable like the audio stories that unleashed phantoms that latched on to your body and followed you.