ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Floating Heads

On the Interlocution of Hauntings 4,500 Miles Away

India’s already booming ghost-hunting scene saw an increase in reports of haunting and paranormal activity during the pandemic.

The author thanks Khaliq Parkar (Université Paris Diderot) and David Zeityln (University of Oxford) for their supervision and insights. All the interlocutors and organisations in this article are mentioned by their real names. This is something that they didn’t just consent to, but rather insisted on.

I’ve often thought that my academic work is inspired by a cheeky refrain by my research supervisor: Agar field par “suffer” nahi kiya … toh research ka safar nahi kiya (“If you haven’t suffered on the field, you haven’t gone on the journey of research”), where the homophonic Urdu “safar (journey) and the English “suffer” give academic masochism an edge of humour. This tendency to suffer on the field took a peculiar turn in the summer of 2021. My carefully planned research proposal collapsed into the flames of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. With the rising COVID-19 cases, fieldwork permissions were retracted by my university department’s research ethics committee. The cost to researcher safety was too high, the university concluded, and travelling to a country with so many COVID-19 cases was against the United Kingdom government guidelines. The only word I can find to describe that period of liminality is “terrifying.” As my interlocutors told me, “There were more ghosts than ever on the cityscape.”

Most of my research has traced the intersection of paranormality and modernity in Mumbai. “What does it mean to be haunted?” has been the rock I have flung towards the urban sky. In the metropolis that is constantly in a “state of decay and reconstruction,” to quote Michel de Certeau, what is the place of things that have ceased to be but not quite gone away? I have been piqued by how the urban is in the constant shadow of the past, with its deep roots in the cement coated soil and the many probable futures that are waiting to burst open. Anthropologist Anna Tsing (2017) puts this sentiment to words quite poignantly: “Every landscape is haunted by past ways of living.” My attempt to understand the anxieties of urban progress and its ephemeral character have made me chase phantoms, bhoots, spirits, the undead, and the not-quite living, making field notes on the ghostly figures, both literal and metaphorical, of my home city. It has also meant that I have fostered unexpected relationships with many of the country’s paranormal investigators.

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