Djinn Mamu… & Other Strange Stories

For me, ghosts, the supernatural, unexplained events – whatever you want to call them – have had an enduring appeal. There are moments that I or others have experienced which are unusual, scary or quite comical. Like the time my oldest friend thought she witnessed my Cabbage Patch Kid, Maxine, playing the flute during a sleepover. Or the time a smell, so repugnant, filled one of the upstairs bedrooms of a farmhouse my family had rented one summer holiday. Things went missing, including my aunt’s underpants and contact lenses. My mother didn’t quite acknowledge a ghost, but she would often direct conversation around the breakfast, lunch or dinner table to the subject of djinns – supernatural creatures in Islamic and pre-Islamic mythology. As our holiday progressed, each of us confessed to hearing, or feeling, something untoward. Whether or not this was a form of mild hysteria, I don’t know, but it seemed we all relished the fact that a visitor lingered under the roof. Or, more likely, someone was telling us that our visit was perhaps less welcome – something we were less inclined to admit. One evening, as our discussion dwelled on the subject of was-there-or-wasn’t-therea-ghost, my mother proclaimed that she would rather we refer to this something as a djinn and that we should also give it a name. She said she’d feel better about it and so would the djinn. By ascribing a name, she reasoned, the djinn would feel properly acknowledged and would be less likely to play foul. What name had she in mind? Djinn Mamu…. Or, in plain English, Uncle Genie. So it was, the ghost was christened. Low and behold, the smell faded and the contact lenses reappeared (another story). The underpants, however, did not.

There are times when we feel something overpowering: my father has long claimed that he smelled the lingering scent of my grandmother’s hair oil on the day she died. He was in England at the time he learned the news of my grandmother’s death in India. The sense of losing someone so close can evoke strong memories perhaps. For me, I once sensed loss, but in a different way. Within a week of the start of my second year at Cambridge, I felt a presence in my room which came and went at will. It wasn’t necessarily something physical – like someone skulking in the corner; it was more of a mood: it was quite melancholic. Some days it was there and on others it wasn’t. This went on for a number of days until my sleep became fitful, culminating in a spate of bad dreams. I thought it would help if a good friend of mine camped in my room for a night, but it didn’t. In the middle of the night, her sleep talking – or I should say, shouting – jolted me awake and thereafter I declined her offer of staying a second night. This episode – the melancholia, the disturbing dreams – lasted about a week or so, until I came across a secret drawer in the old bureau in my room. Inside lay a letter from a student who had been killed the year before – knocked off her bicycle by a motorist. In her letter, she wrote about herself, and her ambitions. We passed it on to her parents.

In the end whether or not ghosts exist is irrelevant. It’s the stories that form around them, the thrill they provide. For me it’s the suspense, the atmosphere, the glimpse of something that makes you jump. I did find that my novel became darker as I went along. I was pregnant with my second child. As my pregnancy progressed, my story plunged into darker depths. It soon turned into an atmospheric story focused on a house, a son coming to terms with his estranged mother’s suicide, a presence and a dark secret that would mark him for life. I like to think that I was expunging all the gloom and doom so that my little one could bathe in a sea of goodness… That’s my theory at least.

The Silent Children