Artist Bio
Parthav Shergill is a student at Stanford University studying Mathematical and Computational Science. He was born in Singapore and grew up in Bangalore, India. He's passionate about using data science to solve problems that can have a social impact. He is also an avid reader, and loves to write in his spare time. 

The Ancestors (abundend) House at Kutch, Jyoti Bhatt, 1980, India, Silver gelatin print, Image: H. 22.0 cm, W. 32.8 cm; Paper: H. 26.7 cm, W.37.7 cm, PHY.00598

Our house has a ghost problem: There are too few of them. 

They come in the night, as ghosts should. They are formless clouds that knock first before they send tendrils of fog creeping through cracked doorways. They are silent houseguests who travel via shadow and congregate in designated slivers of moonlight. They transform the mundane - rustlings become whispers, shadows become veils, and silences begin to smother. These ghosts watch, and they are polite. The watching is enough to make your hair stand on end. The politeness is enough to make you sick. 

These ghosts do the things they are supposed to. They sit with your spirit and chill your bones. They exist outside the explainable and make the darkness thicker than it should be. If they didn’t, I would have exorcised them long ago. As it happens, in this blurry-lined back-and-forth between living and dead, these ghosts follow the rules. 

It is strange that their manners offend me so much because in many ways we are the same. I revelled in being a child that adults liked. I followed the script that conversations were supposed to follow, and my presence was always peripheral. I was a short child, unassuming, and I made myself so easy to digest I can barely remember at what point I was swallowed. When I see these ghosts reach out to walls but go right through them, I am filled with disgust. Beings that were once people, are reduced to creatures unable to touch the world and are untouchable by it in return. 

They began visiting when I was a little boy. In those days, they came in numbers - too many to count. Back then, ghosts were more than just mist. Each was a person if you could call them that, an almost-person with arms and legs tracing a once-living shadow. Not quite a body, but close. They were translucent and featureless, but even as a child, I knew that ghosts were supposed to be that way. Looking back, I suppose that my ghosts have always conformed to expectations. When I was younger, the wind rustling through the trees did not dissolve into whispers. It settled into a clear dialogue between the here and the almost-here. My ghosts told me their stories: In their lives, some of them were painters, musicians, and dancers. I’ve forgotten most of those stories. I remember only one. 

The architect never failed to remind me that he was an artist, although one of concrete rather than canvas. He lived for his buildings: Tall ones that channelled the complexity of straight lines (just use a ruler) into sky-grazing towers, and sprawling ones inspired by nature that were grown into existence rather than built (ever heard of a treehouse). He described himself as a man possessed (such a contrived idiom), for whom idle hands could only be remedied by the act of creation. Empty spaces in city skylines tied knots in his chest that could only be undone by labour (you

can’t be serious). In a cohort of well-mannered peers, this ghost was insufferable. He brought his friends to back him up: Those remnants of painters, musicians, and dancers for whom creativity was the religion that kept them walking the earth long after their deaths. They made an odd bunch, I thought. The painter who couldn’t use a brush, the musician unable to play an instrument, and the architect who could go right through buildings. The dancer was the only one whose form still permitted their art, but in the company of the others, he too preferred to dwell in the past. They insisted on telling me the stories of their triumphant and failed creations, as though it were the only thing tethering them to the land of the living. 

I couldn’t resist pointing out how ridiculous they sounded. It made little sense for ghosts to still care so much about such things when they could no longer create anything at all. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that ghosts could feel pain. I’m almost certain these words hurt them anew each time. These men had led a painful existence, tied by fate to a single calling, and now they were sentenced to torture unique to those who lived like them. Doomed to remember their ideas, but remain forever unable to realise them. They were like farmers, building castles of mud out of water and soil, starving all the while. But there was something noble about them - about marching on unyielding towards certain disaster. It meant they felt their motives were greater than the laws of nature. 

I still can’t remember the last time I believed in anything that much. 

How strange it was, I remember thinking, and how painful that must be, to be left powerless to do the only thing your soul burned for. I decided I wasn’t brave enough to risk their eternal punishment, nor was I brave enough to live their lives. I haven’t seen the architect since, nor have I seen the painters, the musicians, or the dancers. 

As I grew up, the number of visitors dwindled. As a teenager, there was little room for grey beings in my world of black and white. By the time I got older, I was simply too tired to believe in their stories the way I once did. With time, each one died a second death. They went from almost-people to almost-ghosts. They ceased to be silver silhouettes of a person and became more like the memory of a shadow: A figure like the ones you see in the corner of your eye in the dead of night, clouds of smoke that dissipate the moment you turn to look them in the eye. Losing each one felt like losing a friend, but it was also curiously comforting. The fewer the ghosts in the night, the easier it became to make sense of the world in the day. It is a sense of comfort, of familiarity, that sticks out to me when I think back on the last days of being haunted. The fewer ghosts that remained, the more I heard stories I already knew the endings to. 

Today, I’m not sure which sounds in the night are from things that are truly here. Most of them, I fear. The silence bothers me more than the stories did. I used to see myself in each one of my visitors. A person I could have been, then eventually become a memory of. I’m not sure what I’ll
be remembered as now. If the architect was bound to the world by the strength of his belief in his purpose, then today I am more of a ghost than he ever was. I worry that I was too quick to dismiss them. But just as my ghosts obeyed the rules, so did I. You aren’t supposed to believe in ghosts. My nights are more still and lonely than I want them to be, and it is far less interesting to sit with what you are than to be visited by what you could become. And as still and lonely as it gets, I am unable to sleep. I spend my nights searching for spectres in shadows where there are none, hoping that I wake up one day and I am haunted once again.

Artist NoteThis is an essay about being haunted: First by ghosts, and then by their absence. First, this essay explores the idea of ghosts if they were representations of what we could have become. Then, it looks at what happens when you stop believing in them. Everyone has versions of themselves they put aside as they grew up. In my case, ceasing to believe in ghosts meant I no longer believed in my ability to be creative. Ghosts are interesting because they combine the concepts of belief, childhood, fear, and memory - not unlike the process of growing up. If growing up is no longer believing in ghosts, then having too few ghosts can be a bad thing.


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