I was fortunate enough to grow up on a healthy dose of Thakumar Jhuli (a collection of Bengali folk and fairy tales for kids, whose title translates to “Grandma’s Bag of Stories”). But my favourite happened to be Jethimar Jhuli (“Aunt’s Bag of Stories”). The latter was by no means a published book. Its fascination lay in the fact that only we, the kids of the Sengupta family, had access to this collection of stories. The Jethima (aunt) in question is whom we call Soma.
It took strangers by surprise that we called our aunt, who was so much older than we were, by her first name. But “Soma”, despite being a popular Bengali name, wasn’t our Jethima’s name at all. “Soma” was a contraction for “Shejo Ma” (coined by my sister, who couldn’t really pronounce “Shejo Ma” when young). So that’s how our Jethima came to be known as Soma.
Soma was the kids’ favourite, not just because she was well-read and charming, but because she actually took the time to know each one of us individually. She even made us feel that she really did enjoy our company. Most of her generation dismissed us as a “collective noun” – “the kids are up to mischief again”, “the kids need to be fed”, “the kids need to be in bed now” etc. Soma made everything fun – right from pujo rituals to current affairs. But she was the best at storytelling. In fact, I haven’t met anyone who can make the ordinary sound so extraordinary, purely by the power of narration.
One of my favourite childhood memories (and I am sure many of my cousins will agree) is huddling up under a blanket, on a crisp, winter afternoon in Soma’s bedroom, while she told us ghost stories. I never questioned (and still not sure) whether these were stories she had read somewhere, or whether they were products of her own imagination. But the goose bumps were real, as we held hands and squealed in the kind of thrill only the horror genre is known to bring. The pleasurable fear going down our spine… that bone-chilling sensation of a hand reaching out to grab us from the back…that eerie feeling of someone watching us from outside the window… that constant anticipation that the person sitting next to us may suddenly turn into that we most fear…the cold hands and feet that gave us no respite, despite being under the thickest blanket….
Soma’s stories evoked all of that. It transported us to a place we all feared but loved at the same time. One such story was about a girl called Ila, who rose from her coffin. “Coffin thekey uthey elo…..Ilaaaaaaa”, Soma would say, dragging out the name in her spookiest voice. And we would scream and beg her to stop….and the very next moment, we would ask her to say that line again (as if she was a rock star performing her greatest hits). I am sure we all had our own mental picture of Ila. Mine was that of a face-less girl with the darkest of hair, white as a sheet of paper.
Another favourite story was the one in which a mother ate the flesh of her own child! Gory, I know (and in today’s context, possibly very inappropriate for being a kids’ story). But we turned out fine (mostly). The saving grace was that (as was later revealed in the story) she bit off the flesh because that was the only way to save her child, who was poisoned. But she stuck in our heads as a monster, who liked human flesh over ordinary food.
When Miss 6 came back from school chatting about her Halloween plans for tomorrow, strangely, these childhood memories came flooding back. I have never really cared much that Halloween is an “American thing” and the theories around why it “should not be celebrated”. All I know is that Miss 6 looks forward to it for most of the year. And although she may not have a cool Jethima as Soma who can take her on a thrill ride, I have decided to start our own Halloween tradition of spooky stories to celebrate the day. And while I’m no expert myself, I am going to trust these guys, and these, (and read a few more) who say that “scary stories are good for kids”. If you have any recommendations, please do share, as Soma’s Ila will have to wait a few more years.