Shades of grey on brittle newsprint: a faded picture from the archives of the Indian Rationalist Association turns the clocks back to February 1993. It shows a group of people,perched around what seems to be a witches’ picnic of bananas, chicken bones, twigs and stones, in the middle a huge vessel with leftovers of some unsavoury moonshine stuff.
They seem to just have finished a ritual supper boosting health, skills and powers of those who believe it. On the left, dressed all in white, one of the myriads of Indian godmen on duty, graciously dishing out blessings. While he touches the bare head of a man with specs who approaches him on his knees, the circle of his devotees falls into prayerful silence.
Or do they?
Well, not exactly. If you take a closer look, you notice that something is wrong here. Some of the faces are not at all prayerful. They look skeptical, to say the least. Two gentlemen sitting on chairs their heads casually covered with the hoods of their winter jackets seem to be particularly irreverent communicants.
Their body language is mocking. And yes, even the spectacled one on his knees sports a sublime grin in his face...
The picture captured my attention when I opened the newspaper on the morning of 10th February 1993. So did the story unfolding.
The Ghost in the International Press Club
Haunted houses for breakfast are a favourite diet for many Indians. They seem to add sparkle to their day. Therefore that morning, some Delhi newspapers sold therefore like hot cakes. What they had to offer was not just a haunted house. It was a ghost holding the exclusive Foreign Correspondents Club at Delhi’s Mathura Road in suspense! A true delicacy for spook lovers.
The club, meeting point for India’s most distinguished foreign media representatives, had only recently shifted to it’s elegant new building in the heart of the town, when the trouble begun.
One late evening, as the press reports claimed, when the barman was closing up for the day, he was attacked by a mysterious force. Strong, but invisible hands pushed him back through the door that seemed to be pulled open from inside. He was terrified, but resisted. After grappling more than half an hour with his powerful attacker, he finally made his escape to the garden.
Since then, there had been several sightings. The creepy new resident of the club would appear every now and then to terrify chowkidars (night watchmen) and sweepers working at late hours.
Rumour spread that he was out to kill anybody whom he could lay his invisible hands on after the clock struck ten. The staff got so hysterical that they threatened to quit their jobs.
At this point, members of the club, led by its president, London Times correspondent Chrisopher Thomas, decided to take action. They requested a godman to perform a special shanti puja (peace ritual) to exorcise the evil spirit. According to the reports, the ceremony successfully restored the peace of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
That is the stuff that Indian superstition is made of: juicy little absurdities with horror coating to be relished with the morning tea and with the evening rice. Administered regularly, they create this typical Indian casualness which has even highly educated people swallow any irrational claim without belching.
And this story made a particularly powerful impact, enhanced with all the authority and respect that foreign – and especially British - media people are enjoying in India. - I called Christopher Thomas. Two hours later, we met in his office at the Club.
Of course, he did not believe in ghosts, neither in the power of godmen. For him the puja session was very amusing. I instantly recognised him as one of the chuckling gentlemen on the snap. (The other was Tim McGirk, then correspondent of The Independent; later South Asia bureau chief of Time magazine).
Tall, jovial, in his forties, Christopher laughed heartily, when he recollected the evening. He obviously enjoyed the absurdity of it. Absurd theatre in a real life setting. Moreover, using the services of a godman to drive irrational fear out of superstitious people and bring them back to normalcy looked like a master stroke.
How else could you get a hallucinating barman, the office staff and some hopelessly superstitious chowkidars within some hours so peacefully back to their night duties? He sounded triumphant. What would you rationalists have proposed to solve the crisis?
That morning, when we sat over hot coffee in his office, the puja looked like a grand success. But two days later, things took an unexpected twist when the ghost nonchalantly returned. With a worried face, Christopher asked me to take up the case.
My investigation had already begun. It took me one day and one night to identify the forces behind the haunting and to set an end to the story.
But before going into the details, let’s imagine for a moment the puja success would have been a little more sustainable. What would have followed? - The bill. Not just for the fees the godman charged for his services. I don’t know the amount and how it was raised and accounted (perhaps as a tax deductible extra cost for club maintenance).
However, the price for normalcy was dropped straight into the offertory bag of the enemies of reason.
Bribe the mafia to protect you from local pickpockets, and they will see to it that you can never again survive without them. I had a vision of evil spirits becoming endemic in the finer quarters of the capital and a certain section of the media competing to serve the most delectable morsels from the otherworld.
And imagine our nondescript godman soon whipping out his new business card: Shri Shri This-and-that, Spiritual Adviser and Chief Exorcist to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, New Delhi. The picture, framed in gold, that shows him with his foreign “devotees” at the press club puja, would make a prestigious piece in the gallery of his references: “Shri Shri This-and-that blessing XY, senior Correspondent of Z (on his knees) in the presence of .....”'
Who would care about the little mocking on their faces! Soon other pictures would follow, showing the Holy This-and-that blessing top industrialists, Bollywood stars, ministers and Supreme Court judges...
This time, all that did not happen. I buried the press club ghost just in time – with a little help from an unexpected source.
To ward off fear of the staffers of the Foreign Correspondents' Club, I agreed a to spend a night in the haunted house.
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