Spooky tales of yore
Reviewed by Amarinder Sandhu

The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales
By Rudyard Kipling.
Pages 170. Rs 199.

OLD British towns, an abandoned cottage, a silent dak bunglow and cemeteries—all have their own apparitions. A good writer can spin many a yarn around buildings and ghosts. Kipling may have enthralled us with the antics of Mowgli and introduced us to Kim, but he is at his writing best when he presents these ghost tales. In the preface the writer mentions that here is a "collection of facts that never quite explained themselves". The world of the supernatural has always been fascinating and these spooky stories take us into its very realm.

The book draws its title from the opening story The Phantom Rickshaw. Set in Simla, it is the sad story of Jack Pansay who is haunted by the ghost of his lover. The lady travels by a rickshaw and is ferried by "four jhampanies in magpie livery". The rickshaw is seen only by Pansay though the lady riding in it has long been dead.

The literary genius of the writer is evident in the other stories that follow. The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes recounts the horrors faced by the protagonist who loses his way and is forced to eat crows for survival. The character of Gunga Dass, corpses, quicksand and imminent death maintain the tempo of the story.

The other tales that follow are equally captivating. Indian native psyche and the concept of bewitchment gain clarity in The Return of Imray. A missing British official, a presence in the house, a dog who senses something amiss—the yarn has it all and makes the reader want to know more. My Own True Ghost Story is about a dak bungalow where doolie bearers bring visitors. No sounds or footsteps are heard in the room adjoining the narrator’s apart from the game of billiards in progress. The whir of a billiard ball ,the sound of the striker, an ancient khansmah, singing jackals and a hyena make the story all the more exciting.

Hummil, the assistant engineer in At the End of the Passage craves sleep but sleep eludes him. He meets a spectre similar to himself and then the inevitable happens. The Man Who Would Be King is one of the best short stories of its genre. Two men journey into Kafiristan, beyond Peshawar to be kings. In an unknown valley, one of them rules the Lost Tribes who trace their descent to Alexander the Great. The quest for a queen proves to be the downfall of the crowned king. Without Benefit of Clergy is one of the best of Kipling. It celebrates the love of the sahib for his Indian bibi and shows the pathos in losing a loved one.

The introduction to this collection of short stories is by none other than Ruskin Bond who recalls his childhood days in Simla when his father told him the story of The Phantom Rickshaw. For those readers not familiar with the works of Kipling, Bond has commented on the genius of the great writer "as a story teller and stylist". The book is a great entertainer and is a celebration of Kipling as a writer of short stories. Each story will hold the keen interest of the reader and take him into the world of fear psychosis.