Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Ghost Stories From The Raj - edited by Ruskin Bond
The subject of ghosts itself may not be of any importance as most people would perceive it, but it does attain significance when people’s belief in ghosts dictates their habits, practises, the way they handle their practical problems and certain aspects of their lifestyle.
To give you instances, in certain parts of the country, belief in spirits dictated the way legal documents were drafted. British officers had to draft them specially for these landowners in villages.
Spirits were relied upon to settle land disputes, to prevent encroachment.
Fear of spirits prevented theft of crop.
People built shrines to protect themselves from man eating tigers.
People refrained from exploiting and looting hidden treasures for they believed these were guarded by spirits.
People killed others for ‘bewitching’ their children or cattle.
People avoid going near trees that they believe are haunted. They also show preference to certain tress during planting of trees.
Mothers weep when they lose their son but weep more bitterly if he has been invested with the holy thread but not married, for they believe such boys turn into spirits and have to wait really long for reincarnation.
This book, is a collection of ghost stories, some of them based on fact, penned by British officers who lived in India during the British Raj and encountered strange experiences.
I have noted the summary of each story. This is for my own sake for I will not read the book again but would like to have some notes for easy recollection or reference.
The wondrous narration of Jon Campbell – Gunfounder to the mogul emperors (1654 - 1667) - from Indian State Railways Magazine (April 1933)
John Campbell and other officers learn of the treasure obtained by Asaf Khan, a general in the army of Jehangir, by looting and plundering Hindu places of worship that were adorned with riches such as golden cows. They dig the house for the treasure now guarded by devils and spirits. When the devils appear, they protect themselves by reading the Bible and obtain the treasure.
The Men Tigers – from Rambles and Recollections of An Indian Official by Lt. Col. WH Sleeman of the Bengal Army, Vol 1
In places central India, people faced the menace of tigers killing men and escaping all efforts to hunt them down. The common people as well as the Raja himself believed that these tigers were guided by the spirits of men who were killed by these tigers, who rode on their head and guided them away from danger and towards prey. So their reaction to the menace was offering sacrifices and building shrines to these spirits. The tigers who could not be controlled thus were of a different kind – they were men who turned to tigers by eating a certain root and turned back to men by eating one more of the root. There were others who had mastered the science and practised it, while relying upon an assistant to them the antidote to turn them back into men – by putting a necklace around the tiger’s neck etc). Sometimes these assistants, initially brave, had fled or fainted after the man had transformed into tiger and roared, leaving the tiger on the loose, creating havoc. The difference between real tigers and these men turned to tigers was that the latter had no tail!
Haunted Villages – from Rambles and Recollections of An Indian Official by Lt. Col. W H Sleeman of the Bengal Army, Vol 1
Among the agricultural and landowning classes in villages, there existed firm beliefs that lands were guarded by spirits.if these spirits were not appeased, then the landowners were liable to face trouble – their cattle or children meeting with accidents, being bitten by snakes, thrown and beaten etc. But these same spirits when appeased, also guarded lands from trespassers, theft of crop and encroachment and thus save the owners all expenses of going to court, settlement of boundary disputes etc.
In one particular instance, in a certain village, at every new settlement, the proprietor insisted upon having the name of the spirit of the old proprietor inserted in the lease instead of his own name. Mr. Fraser was requested to redraft the legal document, which after inquiry and consultation with other people, he had to do. The actual proprietor was inserted as manager or bailiff. Oncewhen Lt. Col. Sleeman of Bengal Army was in charge of Nursingpore, a cultivator ploughed beyond his boundary to add half an acre to his own land. That night, his son was bitten by a snake and his buffaloes were seized by murrain. He confessed his sin in a temple and vowed to build a shrine on the spot. Soon after, his buffaloes and his son, all recovered.
In another case, a village had been deserted though it was most fertile, for people believed it was haunted. English governors and officers undertook to disprove the belief but when they visited the place, they met with strange incidents like sightings of snakes. Once a measuring rope broke into pieces.
People used, in order to protect lands, stick up something in the field, or tie something to the tree in the name of a spirit, who from then on, took responsibility of the fields’ safekeeping. Anyone stealing crop would become ill. And only after confessing his sin to the proprietor and ask his pardon, he would be spared for the proprietor then pacified the spirit by smearing cow dung on the forehead of the sinner.
The Return of Imray – Rudyard Kipling
This is a very well told story with humour and felicity of language. The narrator visits Strickland in his bungalow which Strickland had rented after its previous occupant, Imray went missing. After sunset, there are movements in the house of someone invisible – a presence felt but not seen. Strickland’s dog too behaves strangely. It does not sleep in its own bed but in the Verandah corner. His eyes follow someone, as he stands with his body taut and all hair erect. One evening while hunting down two snakes caught in the folds of the ceiling cloth, Strickland prods at what seemed like a buffalo wrapped in cloth, resting on the beam. The bundle falls down and turns out to be Imray’s body. A tricky enquiry by Strickland of Bahadur Khan, the servant reveals that he had killed Imray because Imray had bewitched his four year old son after patting him on his head. The boy had died of fever soon. When he was about to be taken captive and handed to the police, it turned out that one of the snakes had bitten him and spared him the shame of being taken by the police. That night, the dog did not sleep in the verandah but jumped back to his bed.
An innocent act of patting on a child’s head and a coincidental fever had resulted in the killing of the English officer!
The Summoning of Arnold – Alice Perrin – from East of Suez (1926)
Arnold is burning in separation of his wife who had to return to England for a while due to poor health. She, Lilla, had said to him that if she died, she would come straight to him first aand Arnold believed it and also that she would come and fetch him. If she died. That night, Arnold screamed ‘Lilla Lilla’ and was found dead the next hour. There was strong smell of chloroform in his room. Even after thorough searching, no bootle of chloroform was found anywhere. They concluded that he had committed suicide very carefully. The next day, a telegram arrived announcing that Lilla had died under chloroform during an operation.
Had she come then, as she had promised to see Arnold and fetched him?
Chunia, Ayah – Alice Perrin – from East of Suez (1926)
An Indian Ayah insulted by her English employer kills the child who is her charge by strangling her. The English couple leave the city and the ayah finds employment elsewhere. But she hears cries of the child outside the door of the house. She stands against the doors to prevent the child from coming to her. A few days later, she becomes possessed and is confined to an asylum where she pats an imaginary baby to sleep...
Caulfield’s Crime – Alice Perrin – from East of Suez (1926)
Caulfield is known for his ill temper but he is a good shooter. One day, he takes a friend to the countryside for shooting. While they were resting in a clearing, a fakir, with sharp teeth, long matted hair, glistening eyes and ashes smeared all over his body asks for alms, he throws a stone at him and shoos him away. Then just when Caulfield is about to shoot, the Fakir disturbs the birds and they all fly away. Caulfield shoots the fakir and kills him. Since killing a local is no joke in those times, they hide the body and return to their camp to have dinner. After dinner, they return to the spot to find a jackal with a grey streaked coat and one ear missing, making a meal of the body. They shoo it away and bury the body. They return to their quarters. Caulfield begins to frequently hear the howling of a jackal around his house and when they see it, its the same jackal with one ear missing. He is convinced that the spirit of the fakir has entered the body off the jackal. Even when he spends the night in his friend’s house and not his own, the jackal follows him there too.
One fine day, he dies of hydrophobia. There are no teeth marks on his body and he has not been bitten by a dog. The servant however reports the sighting of a jackal around the house. As his friend takes his lantern to leave to his house after seeing the last of Caulfield, he sees a jackal. It has one ear. It enters Caulfield’s house but when the house is searched, there is no jackal to be found.
A Ghost in Burma (A Story Based on Fact) – Gerald T Tait - from Indian State Railways Magazine (December 1928)
a group of English officers were posted to Burma to survey the countryside. After a long and hard day of fighting the impenetrable forest they sighted a strange bungalow perched on top of a precipice overlooking the Salween river. They chose to rest there for the night after protests from the coolies who insisted they would not sleep there in the night but outside in the clearing several meters away.
A brick cube in the courtyard was the most curious feature of the place – one of the officers who knew architecture swore it was 5000 years old and belonged to the Sumerian period, indicated by the cuneiform writings on its surface and the plano convex handmade bricks. During their first night in the place, one of them, Alaistairs woke up screaming, having felt cold hands around his neck.
The next night, Peter stood at his window with his arms stretched out to get some fresh air. The window was set into a smooth bare wall that overlooked the Salween river a thousand feet below with no foothold, no support for anyone, not even a lizard to get to the window. He feels cold clammy hands pulling him out of the window. He shrieks and his two other friends pull him away and the cold hands slip. They decide to check on Alaistairs anyway. When they go out, they find him lying on the cube in the courtyard face downwards, dead, with distinct markings of two hands on his throat. Was the Sumerian cube some ancient sacrificial altar?
There are more things, A Tale of the Malabar Jungles – H W Dennys – from The Madras mail Annual (1930)
Peter visits Anderson who lives alone in seclusion in the Malabar jungles with a few tribes in villages nearby. He finds Anderson strange, in keeping with his reputation in that area – his house had domes and minarets and it was decked with Persian carpets. Nevertheless, he is a great shooter. They leave for the jungle to find some game. Just a day before their departure, strange things begin to happen. Anderson demonstrates the powers that he has acquired. He makes a stick move just by looking at it intensely. He asks peter to think of an object and then reads his mind and materializes the glass tumbler out of thin air. He says the tribes in the jungle posses these powers too but he is ahead of them. But he yet to learn how to make these objects last and not disappear after he has stopped focusing on them.
The next day, they walk back from the jungle with only their walking stick alone, having handed the rifles, guns and other heavy equipment to the coolies so they could walk fast and free. Suddenly the tall grass before them parts and a rogue elephant appears before them. Peter runs for his life but turns back when he realizes Anderson is not following him. Anderson has, by the use of his powers, turned the walking stick into a rifle and shot the elephant on its forehead. The dying elephant falls on Anderson and kills him too.
But at last, Anderson had mastered the art of making the objects of his creation last, for Peter, after narrating the story produced from his pocket the bullet that was found in the elephants forehead, though the rifle itself had turned back to a walking stick!
The Aryan Smiles – by J Warton and N Blenman - from Indian State Railways Magazine (June 1933)
Mike, an Irishman works a station master in the Punjab Delhi Railways. He is dead and in a mysterious way.
He was hot tempered and liked to use his whip. One day, he told off a mendicant in the station garden cooking food on a patch of grass. The mendicant laughed. Enraged by his insolence Mike whipped him. The mendicant put out the fire, smeared the ashes all over his smarting wounds, held up his hand heavenward and muttered curses and oaths about Almighty, Retribution, Flames and Fire...
The next day, while having his meal at his friend’s place, Mike felt very hot and removed his coat. Then he suddenly screamed that his body was on fire and immersed himself in waist high water.
The next evening during his customary walk in Roshanara Gardens, he disappeared altogether. Upon being informed by his horse cab driver who had been waiting outside the garden, his friend searched for him, lantern in hand, in all the dark patches in the garden. Reaching a dark patch under a peepal tree at the edge of a pool he asks the driver to come over but the driver refuses to go under the tree for the sake of love or money. When friend asks why, driver tells him that no Hindu in Delhi would go under that tree. The spirit of a Pir baba of the time of Aurangzeb dwells in the tree. Did the friend hear the sound of hookah? It was the Pir baba smoking. “it must be the croaking of a night bird” laughs friend of Mike. The Pir had been harassing Hindus who ccame to the sacred Peepal tree having forcefully occupied a place under that tree. The Hindus believed the tree had become cursed and kept away. When the Pir died, he was buried under that tree. But two Hindus exhumed his body and threw it into the pool. Since then, the Pir’s spirit had haunted the tree. Even as the diver narrated this story, it rained and a lightning struck the tree. Part of it fell into the tank and the remaining stood charred on the bank. Not finding Mike anywhere they began dredging operations at the tank. The clue was Mike’s whip which floated in the tank like a fishing rod. Mike’s body was found was found a vessel filled with soil and under that an old copper hookah!
Panther People – by C A Kincaid – from Indian Christmas Stories (1936)
Briggs was driving through Dharwar jungles of Kanara district when suddenly an Englishman appeared on the track. His name was Savile and Briggs offered him a lift. While having breakfast in a clearing, Savile asked Briggs if he had heard of people who had the power to turn into a panther and back to men. Savile proceeded to tell his story – he and his wife had, years ago, accepted invitation from friends to camp in the jungle. During the day they shot tigers and bears. Savile and wife had separate tents for the night as she found Savile’s snoring disturbing. In the mornings, there were excited mentions of the findings of pug marks of a panther outside the tents. One night Savile kept vigil, gun in hand. At 2 in the night he saw a panther passing by his tent and entering Travelyan’s tent. Following it, he found it standing by a horrified looking Travelyan. He shot it and upon approaching it, saw the dying creature turn into a woman that was his wife. Travelyan then spilled the story – Savile’s wife entered his tent every night in the form of a panther, then turned into the woman that she was and made love to him. Later she had turned into a panther again and returned to her tent.
By this time, the others in the camp rushed to the spot. Not believing the story they handed Savile over to the police. He spent 3 years in a prison. He had been released just then and was without money or job.
So saying he stretched himself, slowly turning into a panther. He growled at Briggs and asked him to hand over all his money. Briggs distracted him by shouting ‘Buffalo, Buffalo’, the only animal a panther is afraid of and struck Savile in his jaw and drove away. Savile recovered and followed him and tried to climb into the car but in vain. Giving up, he turned into human form, thanked Briggs for the breakfast, asked him to find him a job and disappeared into the jungle. When the records at Yeroda jail were checked the name Savile was not found. Was Savile an assumed named? Or was it really a panther that had turned into human and not a human?
The Old Graveyard at Sirur – by C A Kincaid – from Indian Christmas Stories (1936)
Not far from the officers mess at Sirur (some distance from Poona), was the old cemetery. There was a tombstone larger than the rest at the centre, and when the Indian troopers passed by it, they saluted. When Kincaid, who during one of his visits to the place saw this. When he enquired about the reason for it, Rissaldar Major Shinde told him the story of Colonel Hutchings. Several decades ago, when a 15 year old widow about to perform sati had flinched before the fires and shouted for help, colonel Hutchings passing by with his Mussalman troopers, and had saved her after a fight with the dead man’s kinsmen, killing one in the fight, and carried away the girl and married her. The Shindes whose family honour had been thus humiliated planned to kill both the Englishman and the widow, but had been unable to. After many years, they found the opportunity when Colonel Hutchings was riding in a palanquin to shoot a blackbuck or a Chinkara, men from the Shinde community attacked him and killed him. The palanquin bearers had run to the widow and informed her and she in turn informed the police. The police hanged two of the men. Before the Shinde men could kill the widow, she took opium, died and was buried beside her husband. Ever since, the colonel was found sitting on his tomb, sometimes with his wife by his side. When the troopers saw him on the tomb, they saluted him.
Kincaid having heard the story and drove to Sirur, with the Rissaldar Shinde on full moon night. There he had a Kodak camera placed on a tomb a few feet away, setting prolonged exposure. When the photographs came, surely the Colonel was there and also a hazy figure of his wife beside.
The Munjia – by C A Kincaid – from Indian Christmas Stories (1936)
Mahadev, a bright Brahmin boy from Nasik catches plague. His mother is worried, of course because he is dying, but more because he has gone through the thread ceremony but is not yet married. It is believed that if a Brahmin boy after thread ceremony dies unmarried, he will become a Munjia – a type of spirit, who is not ready for reincarnation but has to take abode in a peepal tree. Further, to be delivered from his state of suspension, he has to enter the body of a person, and when that person dies, he may be leave this world and enter the other world. Mahadev dies. Everyone in Nasik wonders where in town the Munjia will take his abode. One day when a horse cart was on its way to the railway station, soon as it passed under a peepul tree, the horses ran in a fright into the country side plunging the cart into a ravine, killing women and tree.
Mahadev had taken his abode in this peepul tree which was outside the town near the Englishmen’s quarters. Mahadev watched out for someone yawning so he could enter their body through their mouth. But people were careful and never yawned without snapping their fingers in front of their mouth, scaring munjias. But one Englishman, Colin Travers yawns without precaution and the munjia enters his body. He has the option to end his own life (Colin’s) or to kill someone and be hanged towards deliverance. Killing oneself or Atmaghat is a great sin. Mahadev had already sinned by entering the body of a beef eating Englihman and would not be born a Brahmin in his next life. So he decided to take the other option. When Colin reaches home, he takes a sword hanging on a wall in the hall and kills his wife and another woman. He goes to the police station and confesses having killed his wife out of jealousy and suspicion. The court believing no sane man would do so gave him penal servitude for life instead of death sentence. Disappointed, Mahadev, (now Colin) decide to kill in the prison to obtain a death sentence. He asks for Indian clubs for morning exercise. The authorities pleased with his good behaviour give them to him. Colin runs about killing with those clubs until a guard shoots him down. Thus Mahadev is delivered. All English officers wonder why Colin did what he did ending a promising career.
The Pool – by John Eyton
There is a dark pool in a valley formed by the foot of God. By the pool, a white temple and a holy man with three straight lines in yellow paint. One day Mohammedans plunder the temple, kill the holyman and throw him into the pool. Rushes grow on the clear pool, people fear going near it as they hear sounds of wailing and shadowy figures in the night. Years later, the area is assigned to an Englishman who turns the place into an estate and dredges the pool though it is outside his area. The villagers resent it but he heeds not. When he sees people burning their dead by the pool, he writes to authorities asking them to stop them but they interfere not as the pool is outside the boundary of the estate. One day he sees a holy man by the pool and writes to the officials warning them that a temple may be built next on the spot. He catches malaria and is bed ridden for 15 days. When he recovers he visits the poolside and finds a white temple there.