(c) Chandrika Gadiewasam & Nadeesha Paulis
A while ago, I picked up a copy of Water in my Grave and other Horror Stories from Sri Lanka in a bookstore in Colombo. Now that I’ve read it, I’m not quite sure how I’d describe its contents. The foreword claims that it’s a collection of “stories of the paranormal based on tales gleaned from persons relating their actual experiences”, but the stories feel more assorted than that. Some appear to be fictional ones, dreamed up and put on paper by the authors. Other read like creepy folkloric stories that’ve been passed down from generation to generation. Others again have the ring of being anecdotes told by individuals who believe they’ve experienced the supernatural in real life. And there’s a few that come across as being those urban myths so beloved of school playgrounds and Internet forums.
Not that it matters, because on the whole I found Water in my Grave, which was written by the Colombo-based mother-and-daughter team of Chandrika Gadiewasam and Nadeesha Paulis, an enjoyable and informative read. The assorted tones of the stories give the book a pleasing degree of variety and they allow you to view the Sri Lankan culture that forms their backdrop from an interesting range of angles.
For instance, Tovil for Soma, Let the Dead Live and the fabulously titled The Baby Twisting Nightmare of Modera involve possessions and hauntings – not by demons or anonymous evil spirits, but by the souls of deceased family members who have axes to grind with the still-living. Family strife and conflict seem to be as common in Sri Lanka as they are everywhere else. Called in to deal with the supernatural goings-on in these stories are such Sri Lankan professionals as ‘light readers’ or fortune tellers (anjamankaraya) and ‘demon-priests’, the extremely energetic and expensive local exorcists (kattadiya) who come dressed “usually in a white sarong and red coat type costume… sacrificing chickens, dancing around the fire, breathing fire, talking in local filth to intimidate the entity from leaving the human host.”
Meanwhile, Legend of the Devil Dog is a Sri Lankan version of the Black Shuck legends that are found in East Anglia. It involves a demon called Mahosona, who “is so fearsome and powerful that his mere presence causes people to faint and then become violently sick immediately.” On the other hand, Night of the Black Buffalo is impressively inexplicable and weird – it’s like something David Lynch would write, if he was interested in south-Asian livestock.
Other stories show a less folkloric and more modern and cynical Sri Lanka. How I Bought a Haunted House is narrated by a figure who’s become a scourge of contemporary societies, Western and Eastern – an estate agent. “(T)he best thing is that in the real-estate sector,” he notes, “properties appreciate with time, whether they are haunted or not.” Restless Cadaver, set on a campus and dealing with the mistreatment of dead bodies, suggests that medical students in the Sri Lanka can be as obnoxious as they are in the West. And the major event of recent Sri Lankan history, the Civil War, overshadows both Quiet Soul and A Different Kind of Phantom. The former is a sedate but sad ghost story, the latter a tale about a lost limb that also draws on Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation for its raison d’être.
Elsewhere, Zombie Bus to Purgatory does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a gleefully schlocky story that calls to mind the American EC Comics, like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, of the 1950s. The Feud employs a neat little back-story – involving two rival shaman and a demonic assassin – to explain why a particular, desolate plot of land seems to be haunted by “what looked like a decaying body of a small child scuttling about.” And Hospital Hell manages to be both a gruesome ghost story and an indictment of healthcare in a society where corruption is common, where “the ward sister sells the pharmaceuticals and painkillers she pinches” and “the rations have been cut in half so that the kitchen staff can smuggle out the salmon tins.”
The book is a little rough-edged in its English. In places it could do with tighter punctuation and some of the idiomatic and clichéd phrases could have been pruned out – the story A Night at River Green is a particular offender with such gems as ‘thank my lucky stars’, ‘what have you’, ‘the girl of my dreams’, ‘Hell hath no fury’, ‘batten down the hatches’, ‘make our bed and lie in it’ and ‘long and hard’. Mind you, this roughness works in the book’s favour because it gives the stories an added feel of authenticity. By making them less slick, the occasional artlessness of the prose makes the stories seem more real.
At the book’s end, a handy glossary by co-author Nadeesha Paulis – who, by the way, also helps out with a Sri Lankan dog-adoption agency that had, by late 2013, found homes for about 700 stray canines – fills the foreign reader in on some demonic creatures from Sri Lankan myth and legend. These include Kalu Kumaraya (an incubus preying on young village girls); Mala Mohini (a female phantom seen eating a baby “with blood drooling down her sari and intestines drooping down her chin”); and Kinduri, an apparition who wears the guise of a pregnant women and goes around knocking on doors of houses – “If you’re a woman,” notes Paulis, “you’re safe. But if you’re a man opening the door to her knock, I’m sorry but she’ll probably kill you… She just doesn’t like men.”
When you’re in a new culture, a good way to get insight into that culture is to read a selection of traditional ghost and horror stories from the place – finding out what makes people scared and finding out how they like to scare others give you some appreciation of their psychology. Water in my Grave performs that task admirably with Sri Lanka.