The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘N’. Explanations and translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 67-year-old Punjabi father, raised primarily in Gujarat.
N: Ghosts stay on imli (tamarind) trees. Okay? So, you never walk close to a tamarind tree, late in the night. And, also, if the ghosts follow you, they walk backwards, they don’t walk front-wards. So you have to keep that in mind, and avoid tamarind trees. Or, they stay on… vadh (banyan), what is… banyan trees. They stay on banyan trees, because banyan trees are very old trees, you know how they expand their roots. They spread, so they are large. So, if you have to sleep in the open, especially in the night, never sleep under a banyan tree, or a tamarind tree, because they both have ghosts.
I: What do you mean by them walking backward? They don’t face you?
N: No, it’s like their feet are… like, like our feet are facing forward, a ghost’s feet are generally supposed to be facing backward. So, a ghost’s face is here [he gestures to his own, where it would face normally, forward], but the feet are the other way around. So, in the night when you go out, if you feel scared of somebody, you have to check. Check, are their feet facing forward or backward. That’s what it means.
I think this is an especially interesting belief, because I’ve heard it many times — ghosts live under tamarind trees, mango trees, banyan trees, an assortment of trees, depending on who you ask, but their feet always face backwards. I think this could partially come from the fact that sleeping under a tree at night is inadvisable because of the whole taking-oxygen-giving-CO2 thing, because it would make people feel weaker. At the same time, for the feet-facing-backwards thing, I think it is extremely common to imagine ghosts are human-like but still different from us, somehow grotesque, somehow wrong. Their feet facing backward and head facing forward is, in itself, a weird image to have, it feels intrinsically wrong, ‘freaky’, because it has that almost uncanny valley effect about it, close enough to human, human-like, but still different enough in both status (ghost) and appearance (feet), to be weird, uncanny, scary.