Storytelling is like creating a tapestry out of one's dreams, with words serving as the threads that infuse life into the imagination. Storytelling is a mystical duet between the narrator and the listener. Ordinary words become keys to unlocking hidden worlds, and the everyday becomes extraordinary in the hands of a talented storyteller. With every story told, we set out on a voyage of discovery, where the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur and the magic of language becomes a vehicle for our imaginations to soar.
From sappy romances to heart-pounding thrillers and even real-life biographies, we've all dabbled in various kinds of stories. Storytellers leave no stone unturned to make their narratives as engaging as possible.
A couple of months ago, as I was casually browsing my Instagram feed, I stumbled upon a captivating profile dedicated to micro-horror stories. The more I delved into these tales, the more engrossing they became. These stories were eerie, spine-chilling, fascinating, and, most importantly, based on real-life experiences!
After more research, I finally found the mastermind behind this intriguing Instagram handle. She is Leena Hazarika, a lawyer with a fervent passion for writing. Let's know more about her and her work in her words.
When did you first feel the pull of storytelling?
LENNA: I recall writing my first story when I was in seventh or eighth grade. Back then, I wrote a lot of stories for kids my age, and I remember that one of my classmates gave one of those stories to her mother, who was so impressed by it that she urged my mother to enrol me in a humanitarian programme in high school.
How has your background in law influenced your writing journey?
LEENA: I think law school does a lot for your creative writing. The way the English language is perceived by a student changes when you go to law school. You will learn new technical terms, and then you will learn how to write your case law in shorter but more precise ways. The same is true for stories. You will learn how to phrase your words in a way that is not only interesting to read but also clear and precise.
As a lawyer or law student, you will also be aware of all the issues that you may face as a writer or as a law student once you start to publish your book. I believe that law school also helps you be prepared for the entire process of publishing your work.
The most helpful aspect is the concept of researching a particular genre. When you are preparing for a case, there is a lot of research that needs to be done. You go through many books and journals, meet people, and read past case laws and judgments. Writing a book in a particular genre is similar in that you need to do this kind of deep research.
Your focus seems to be primarily on horror and ghost stories. Could you elaborate on what draws you to this genre of storytelling?
LEENA: I think the whole idea of a world so mysterious and bizarre is what attracts me. Also, there is a lack of writers focusing on the genre. I have seen very few writers who delve into this genre in my country or state. Mostly because of the fear of criticism. Genres like paranormal or horror divide the entire population into three parts: believers, non-believers, and those who are still on the fence about it. It's often the non-believers who start attacking once someone writes anything horror or paranormal. Also, I believe writers like Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, M. R. James, etc. were kind of an inspiration. If you see our Assamese book culture, I honestly believe that Ranju Hazarika has been the only one who has extensively focused on writing horror stories, and in my days, his books were a hit. I grew up reading them as a child and a teenager. He was also a huge inspiration for me.
Are your stories typically derived from real-life events, or do they originate entirely from your imagination?
LEENA: To be frank, I can say they fall into both categories. Some are purely fictional and created through my imagination. However, there are also a few that are peoples' shared real-world experiences. I often collect those stories with the appropriate permissions from the owner and churn them into stories based on my style of writing.
What are your personal beliefs about the existence of ghosts?
LEENA: When it comes to the paranormal, I think there needs to be an expression that is similar to "agnostic." From the beginning, my personal opinions have been very clear. I don't believe there is enough evidence to say whether or not there is anything referred to as "paranormal". If someone provides sufficient proof for either side in the future, I might eventually change my mind.
Have you explored renowned haunted locations in search of inspiration? If so, how did it feel to be in those places?
LEENA: Yes, I've been to a few spots like Bhangarh and Three Kings Chapel in Goa, among others, but the dark tourism industry has grown so rapidly in recent years that it's becoming increasingly difficult to find those locations vacant enough to feel anything.
They are frequently crowded with tourists. I never went there after dark since I adhere to the principle that everything is better enjoyed from a distance and that one should coexist with nature without causing unnecessary disruption. If there’s anything paranormal in those places, I would never disturb them personally, and I would never suggest any other person do that either.
Your stories often have a distinctive Assamese essence. Can we attribute this to your strong influence on Assamese folklore?
LEENA: Yes, of course. I grew up listening to these stories. My mother often used to tell us bedtime stories. Whenever we went to our grandparent's house or got together with our relatives, we would discuss these things. Even today, you can go to any village in Assam, and you will find mesmerising tales of Bira, Baak, etc. amidst the old folks.
From your perspective, which Assamese ghost do you consider the most menacing and, conversely, the least dangerous?
LEENA: From my perspective, the most dangerous paranormal creature is the “Bira”. Mainly because it's believed to be not something ghostly but rather demonic. Plus, their scariest characteristic is that they can be controlled by humans or misused by humans, to be specific.
The least harmful is Bura Dangoriya. They are more like the protectors of a community. In fact, in many places, they are even worshipped and shown ample respect because they protect us and our Namghors.
How did your family react when you initially ventured into the realm of horror writing?
LEENA: Surprisingly, quite supportive. My parents always knew about my love to read and write. One of my fondest childhood memories is of my father buying me one of his famous five books for every Durga Puja. So, when they found out that I was writing, they were quite happy. They are not very active on social media, so it's mostly my cousins who tell them or show them my work.
Could you detail the research process you undertake before embarking on a new story?
LEENA: I don’t do research for a story. I do research for the genre. I spend most of my day reading about the genre, and when I find something interesting or relevant enough, I write about it in my journal and use it in my stories.
Discuss the way you craft character arcs and their significance in shaping the overall narrative.
LEENA: Due to the majority of my stories being told from the first-person perspective, I believe that the reader's experience of experiencing the same emotional rollercoaster as the protagonist is what makes them feel authentic. It actually helps the story grow. If you cannot imagine the scenes in your mind, it won’t scare you.
When creating a horror story, what key aspects do you prioritise in the early stages of development?
LEENA: I usually focus on a few points:
Are there specific challenges you encounter during the story development process? If so, how do you navigate them?
LEENA: It's no secret that mental exhaustion is a real thing. With all the pressure from social media to keep creating content, it can really take a toll on my mood. Writing a good story takes a lot of time and energy, and it's hard to feel attached to your work if you don't feel connected to it from the inside. That's why I try to take breaks from social media to clear my head and not get too overwhelmed.
Does delving into themes of ghosts and horror ever give you a sense of unease or fear?
LEENA: The biggest sense of fear I get is not from the paranormal but actually from human beings in general. I have noticed a few stalkers who leave behind very abusive and sexually provocative DMs. A few even threatened me that they were going to kill me or file a police complaint against me. So, the struggle with the real world is more worrisome than the paranormal.
Tell us something about Fragments of My Home, your story from the anthology Saudade. How was it like to take a detour from your usual route?
LEENA: This story is a real eye-opener! It's heartbreaking and realistic enough to make you feel the harshness of the world and society. It was a great detour for me, and I'm looking forward to exploring more genres like this. Writing horror is exciting, but writing a story like Fragments of My Home is a real emotional rollercoaster; it really changes you. I hope I get more chances like this!
You have an interesting name for your Instagram handle. Please shed some light on the name.
LEENA: I wanted something different, yet something that says I am from Assam and I write about Assamese ghost stories, and that's how I came up with it. It's quite a simple name, if you think about it. “Bhootor Dekhor Kahini” or simply “Stories from the Nation of Ghosts”.
What are your upcoming plans and projects that you can share with us?
LEENA: I am still planning a few projects, and I hope I can share them soon enough. I am not at liberty to talk more about them. I hope you understand.
If presented with the opportunity to write a romantic story involving ghosts, would you be inclined to take on the challenge?
LEENA: Yes, unless they don't demand some cliche paranormal horror with cheesy sexual book covers. I mean, they are not bad, but they're just not my type. I like romance, but with a dark twist.
Anything else that you would like to share with our readers from your experiences.
LEENA: Yes, I am very thankful for all the kind support that my readers constantly shower on me. I am nothing without them.
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Partha Prawal (Goswami) is a Guwahati-based journalist who loves to write about entertainment, sports, and social and civic issues among others. He is also a published author.