By Aditi Sen Feb. 14, 2019
Failure in love can manifest in many ways – and ghosts represent different facets of that failure. Victorian ghost stories are unusual love stories; they were seldom about angry spirits looking to punish their lovers. These spectral tales also inspired Hindi films like Woh Kaun Thi.
n cold nights as thick snow rests on the ground, the ghosts of a beautiful young woman and a little girl still haunt Furnivall Manor House. Soon, the sound of an organ fills the air, making it unbearable for the living who are forced to feel the pain of the dead, to witness the pain of a broken heart that never healed. There is a longing that they can’t understand — no one knows where that deep pain is coming from. Ghosts are not just apparitions floating through the walls; they also represent feelings of loss, unrequited love, heartbreak and intolerable pain that their death could not resolve. Their yearning continues even after they are gone. Elizabeth Gaskell, like many Victorian writers, beautifully captured a rather unique facet of horror in “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852). Her ghosts were never scary; they were rather humdrum and often pathetic figures. Only when the ghosts insisted that the living empathise with their pain, did they become agonising and invoke fear. There are two ghosts in the story. The young woman’s ghost still waits for her musician lover who never returned after secretly marrying her and fathering her child. The little girl, her daughter, who dies with her mother, simply follows her mother after death. They were thrown out of Furnivall Manor on a very cold night and freeze to death. Yet there is no hate in these ghosts, all they hope for is compassion.
Failure in love can manifest in many ways – and ghosts represent different facets of that failure. In fact, Victorian ghost stories can be seen as unusual love stories; they were seldom about angry spirits looking to punish their lovers or unleashing their anger on the world. They are embodiments of love stories where the women loved much more than the men, and they knew their love alone was not enough to sustain the relationships. Their lives were spent in longing, pain, and agony: Their lovers neglected them, the world did not notice them, and death did not take their pain away. These ghosts want to heal, and that’s why they beg for empathy. For they know, that the first step to recovery is for someone to acknowledge their pain.
In “The Cold Embrace” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a man continuously feels the cold clasp of his dead lover’s arms around his neck. He can’t see or hear anything — all he can feel are her arms clutching him. He tries to surround himself with every possible worldly pleasure, yet the hands never leave him. This again, is a story of love that isn’t finished yet. The protagonist once believed that he was in love with a girl, made promises to her and forgot all about it. She died of a broken heart, waiting for her lover to come back, desperately hoping he would respond to her letters. And after her death, she held on to him hoping he would remember her embrace. She has no intention of harming him, she just wants him to know how deeply she loved him.
She has no intention of harming him, she just wants him to know how deeply she loved him.
Victorian ghosts clearly inspired Hindi filmmakers as well. A couplet by Raja Mehedi Ali Khan from the film Woh Kaun Thi (1964) summarises this idea of unfulfilled love beautifully: “Adhoora hoon main afsana, jo yaad aaoon chale aana” (I am an incomplete story, come back when you remember me). In the film, the song is sung by a spirit haunting the protagonist. The film is based on Wilkie Collins’ “The Lady in White” and it was clear that Bollywood had embraced the Gothic backdrop and sad ghosts whole-heartedly.
Bollywood lyricists articulated this pain beautifully. Kaifi Azmi described this longing in a song from Kohraa (1964) : “Utne rahe pyase hum, jitne bhi pi humne” (I remained thirsty, the more I drank). Similarly, Shakeel Badayuni in Bees Saal Baad (1962) wrote, “Na main sapna hoon na koi raaz hoon, ek dard bhari awaz hoon” (I am not a dream or a secret, I am just a voice in pain). Nakshab wrote for the film Mahal (1949): “Maine ek khwab sa dekha tha jo pura na hua, mujhko duniya se shikayat hain na kismat se gila, aasra deke mohabbat ne mujhe lut liya, dil ne phir yaad kiya, bewafa laut bhi aa” (I have seen a dream that wasn’t fulfilled, I have no complaints against the world or my kismet, it is love that has destroyed me, the heart remembers you again, come back O faithless one).
Kaifi Azmi described this longing in a song from Kohraa (1964) : “Utne rahe pyase hum, jitne bhi pi humne” (I remained thirsty, the more I drank). Image Credits: Geetanjali Films
Kaifi Azmi described this longing in a song from Kohraa (1964) : “Utne rahe pyase hum, jitne bhi pi humne” (I remained thirsty, the more I drank).
Image Credits: Geetanjali Films
All of these songs revolve around restless spirits haunting spaces that remind them of their lovers. Ghosts allow writers to express the idea of eternity more effectively. They allow us to continue our love stories even after death. Perhaps this is the only way to show the agony of incomplete love.
Let’s face it, successful love stories have always depended on loss and pain. But there are so many ways to tell this tale. Lovers dying is the most popular trope. Another popular one is revenge of the scorned lover — which doesn’t stop at death. There are plenty of vengeful ghosts who lash out at the world in anger. Their pain and wrath destroys innocent folk. These ghosts are not looking for empathy; they want to inflict harm and pain. Although dangerous, these ghosts are easier to understand. Bollywood films like Raaz (2002) and Bhoot (2003) explore the theme of vengeful women seeking revenge on their lovers.
“She loved him. But he didn’t know how to love. He could talk about love. He could see love and feel love. But he couldn’t give love.”
But what about the ghosts whose existence revolves around unfulfilled promises, unrequited love, eternal longing? A quote from G.G. Renee Hill’s “The Beautiful Disruption” to elaborate on this: “She loved him. But he didn’t know how to love. He could talk about love. He could see love and feel love. But he couldn’t give love.” This is precisely what some ghosts experience. They are not betrayed, but the gravity of their love is neither understood nor reciprocated. We know death provides no release. These are spirits who haunt for eternity, hoping their pain will be understood.
Bollywood films like Raaz (2002) and Bhoot (2003) explore the theme of vengeful women seeking revenge on their lovers. Image Credits: Varma Corporation
Bollywood films like Raaz (2002) and Bhoot (2003) explore the theme of vengeful women seeking revenge on their lovers.
Image Credits: Varma Corporation
One has to give credit to Victorians for understanding the haunting of the mind. Empathy is not easy. Ghosts could inflict feelings of inexplicable, deep pain, and by doing this, they taught the living empathy. Bollywood lyricists, too, conjured metaphors that helped us make some sense of agony and longing. These ghosts humanise us, make us compassionate and kind. They also help us understand that love may not be the same for everyone, and we are not alone in loving someone with all our heart and not getting anything back. Incomplete love is still love. There is no shame in experiencing it and living with it. Amitabh Bhattacharya puts it beautifully in his lyrics for Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016): “Adhoora ho ke bhi hai ishq mera kaamil” (My love is incomplete but still perfect).
Aditi Sen is a historian based at Queen’s University, Canada.