He is the Ruskin Bond of Bengali literature and has written more than 100 stories and books for children, most of them on ghosts. But acclaimed writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay says in real life, ghosts are not as funny as in his books!
"Ghosts exist, I believe in them and am scared of them," said the 75-year-old novelist whose cult spook story The Ghost of Gosain Bagan was published as an English graphic novel this month.
However, the writer observed that "children's literature is going through a period of lull". "It is a cycle. After every productive period comes a non-productive period," Mukhopadhyay told IANS in an interview.
According to the novelist, ghost stories still hold good for children despite reality television. "A good ghost story finds takers but the stories have to be well-told. It all depends on how you write. Contemporary writers are not writing good stories," he said.
He was here for a children's book festival where he promoted his new anthology of humour and supernatural short stories "Funny and Funnier", translated from Bengali by Palash Baran Pal and Abhijit Gupta. The book has been published by Scholastic.
Mukhopadhyay's signature book The Ghost of Gosain Bagan, translated into Hindi, is a satire on ghosts narrated with humour in his trademark style.
Young Barun, who fails to make the grade in a school test, runs into a ghost, Nidhiram, in a deserted orchard. The ghost desperately tries to scare the boy, who is unfazed. The story weaves the reality of peer pressure, expectations, teenage dilemma with the supernatural, appealing to children as well as adults.
"I have written about magic realism much before Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie," said Mukhopadhyay, who is considered on par with Satyajit Ray as a practitioner of the genre of magic realism in children's stories.
The writer's ghosts are funny. "It's a deliberate attempt to create funny ghosts to remove the fear," he said.
But unlike his books, Mukhopadhyay's real life spooks are far from funny.
"In life, my ghostly encounters have been serious and fearsome. Unlike my books, they are not funny," says Mukhopadhyay, as he takes a trip down memory to recount his sightings and "inexplicable experiences".
The year was 1941. Mukhopadhyay and his family lived in Katihar in Bihar. "We lived in a bungalow. Every night I would wake up to the sound of the footsteps of a memsahib - the clickety-clack of her high heels as her spirit wandered about the house.
"My father had purchased a big dining table. The spirit was associated with the table - it walked around the table every night and left," Mukhopadhyay said.
In the 1980s, the writer was haunted by the ghost of another dead woman when he lived in a rented home in Kolkata. "The landlord's daughter had committed suicide by burning herself. Four days later, her spirit began to haunt our home. One night, we woke up when someone picked up an iron chair and brought it crashing down to the ground. We watched helplessly till the landlord told us to leave," Mukhopadhyay said.
The writer, born in Bikrampur in Bangladesh in 1935, wrote his first book Ghunpoka in the late 1950s.
"My career in writing began with magazines in the 1950s. I was inspired by the works of classical writers like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Vidyasagar and the post-modern poet Jibanananda Das," he said.
Mukhopadhyay, who has been awarded the Ananda Puraskar twice, has also been honoured with the Sahitya Akademi award.
His novel Kaagajer Bau was made into an award-winning movie in 2010 by director Bappaditya Bandopadhyay while his novel Hirer Angti (The Diamond Ring) was made into an eponymous movie Hirer Angti by Rituparno Ghosh.
The writer said Harry Potter books have regenerated reading habits among children.
"I liked Harry Potter. For the last few years, children were drifting from books but Potter has brought the focus back on books," he said.
The writer owes much of his popularity to translations. "I feel English is a language in which recognition is easy. It is difficult for regional language writers to be recognised in the mainstream. A Bengali does not read Tamil and vice-versa," he said.