#DesiBooksReview 3: Taking Indian horror fiction further, Chandrima Das reveals what terrifies young, urban India

#DesiBooksReview Issue 3

Young Blood: Ten Terrifying College Tales by Chandrima Das | HarperCollins India | November 30, 2021
Reviewer: P S NISSIM

The horror fiction genre can be the surest way to find out what deeply terrifies a society. And the most unsettling books and movies are those that have real life evil at their core. In the iconic English movie, Night of the Living Dead, the latent racism is more terrifying than the zombies. In the Hindi web series, Ghoul, the insidious fascism depicted gives us the startling realization that, perhaps, the human beings are the worst monsters here. And as society evolves, and our fears evolve with it, the substance of the horror fiction genre are also updated. 

Unfortunately, horror writing in India seems to be stuck in a time warp. Way too much prose fiction and other media produced here focuses on the perennial themes of the fears of the unknown and the terrors of the wild supernatural that typically used to inform rural life. But Anglophone readers are predominantly urban. Their fears are likely very different from the traditional rural ones. Small wonder, then, that the horror genre remains niche. Even translated Indian horror fiction, due to its rural emphasis, doesn’t do well. There’s the added fact that Anglophone readers form a very small part of the ecosystem, so new trends are very hard to create and sustain.

Chandrima Das’ Young Blood, therefore, is a welcome addition to the canon. On the surface, it’s a set of ten horror stories set in the college milieu. As with many places in India, school and college campuses have their own local legends of spooks and hauntings. Das takes the bare bones of these ghosts and turns them into engaging narratives. Actually, she does more than that. She picks up on the deep-seated fears that teenagers in India face today, and weaves them smoothly into her tales. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: these characters—these kids—are fearful in the very spaces that are supposed to shelter them and help them grow. This is the thing that horror as a genre can do well, and so these stories work.

Take ‘The Inner Door’, one of the best stories. This is about a pair of girls studying at Delhi University, living in paying-guest accommodation, living their life. Until they find their room is haunted. But it isn’t an “old-fashioned haunting”, if there’s such a thing. The monster preys upon the fact that one girl is suffering from unrelenting racist taunts from the neighborhood hooligans (“chini-mini”, it chants as it chases her), and that the other is dating a guy her family doesn’t like (“ruining your family name with that boy, eh?”). Initially unbelieving, as the girls struggle to understand what is going on, they realize that the “monster” is not unknown to others around them, that this specter of racism and social pressure is a part of their society.

Similarly, ‘The Colors of a Bruise’ is ostensibly about a ghost that haunts the storied Fergusson College in Pune, but it also speaks of male chauvinism and poisonous relationships. ‘Ghost of a Chance’ is as much about an urban legend at IIT, Kanpur, as it is about the fatal pressures of competitive student life.

There is the real fear in genre fiction that social messages could overpower the plot. Too much of a good thing, in this case, can weigh down on a story and flatten it into a empty sermon instead. Fortunately, Das inserts her lessons lightly so they feel fresh and lifelike. We empathize with these young characters, and know what they’re going through, because we’ve gone through these stages of life too. Das has done well to etch them with depth and layers—there’s other stuff going on in their lives besides the current ghost story, and we can imagine these incidents as part of a larger tapestry of their lives. This is harder to do than it looks. In ‘The Inner Door’, for example, we just know that the two girls, though temporarily free of their haunting, are still vulnerable and need to stay strong to face life.

The settings of the stories play a huge role here. Placing the people and the monsters in an urban locale does two important things. Firstly, it brings the stories closer to the people most likely to read them: the Anglophone readers. They are that much more impactful for this update. Secondly, it makes these places “storied”. I’ve mentioned before, on Twitter and other forums, how literature and other art adds a layer of interestingness to certain places. How, for example, ‘Rimjhim Gire Saawan’, the song in the 1979 movie, Manzil, made Mumbai beautiful in the monsoons. How various movies and books make us think of Paris as “The City of Love.” Or how New York derives its gritty image from the media as much as from the news. Think of how Switzerland honors Yash Chopra for making it look like a dream destination for generations of Indians. Where, then, are the new stories that make unique Indian locales interesting? Das’ stories are doing just that. You won’t walk around the Fergusson College campus in Pune again without thinking of who roams those gardens. We need more such grounded tales.

I have one minor quibble with the stories: the staid format. By and large, they conform to the template of the linear “first-contact” supernatural tale, where the characters—and their worlds and, by extension, the readers—don’t believe that the ghosts or spirits exist, and the story then explains how they find out that they were wrong, the ghosts are real, and they better be scared of them. Horror fiction—in fact, fiction in general—has moved on, and a lot of new work uses more experimental techniques. For example, Kiran Manral’s recent More Things in Heaven and Earth uses multiple timelines among other things. Andaleed Wajid’s House of Screams has parallel storylines that converge. Further afield, Stephen King’s Carrie and Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts use news clippings and blog posts to create their horror effects. Those are novels, yes, but short stories also have their own repertoire of craft devices. Das has mostly stayed away from them, and kept her format simple. Not exactly a drawback but, certainly, opportunities not taken.

None of this takes anything away from the hard-hitting impact of Young Blood. We know these ghosts; we’ve all studied and lived in such places. When we tried to face them, shivering in terror, no one believed us. Das has finally given them definite names and recognizable shapes and revealed them to the world. In these stories, she has taken the shadowy, distant phantasms lurking within those well-known settings and turned them into icy, glittering spears that pierce to the bone, changing our worldviews forever.

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