It was a cold and wet winter evening. Delhi was enveloped in fog.
We could hardly see five meters ahead and I had to drive dead slow. The way from Mayur Vihar at the Eastern periphery of the mega city to the old colonial centre seemed to take ages. It was past nine o’clock, when we finally passed the entrance gate of the International Press Club premises.
The chowkidar (night watchman) saluted. It was Shakheel, a lanky man in his fifties, fearful and deeply immersed in the growing tale of the ghost.
When I stopped my old Maruti car in front of the building, he came to talk to me.
“Don’t go in, sir...”, he pleaded with a whispering voice. “It’s dangerous... the Burnt One could come again. He may kill you...”.
The rumour of the ‘burnt one’ was the newest addition to the legend of the haunting.
Many years back, so the unverified story, a worker of the house had been burnt to death in the servants quarters, and over time, his restless soul had developed a thirst for blood.
“Don’t worry, nothing will happen, Shakheel!”, I laughed. “And anyway: I am not alone...”
He tried to peep through the steamy window glass of the car, when the passenger door opened and Sakthy came out. She was eleven at that time, a slim and delicate little figure with close-cropped hair, moving about with considerable speed and confidence.
Greeting the puzzled chowkidar with a wide smile, Sakthy, my daughter, jumped past us into the house.
It had not been my idea. She insisted on accompanying me, and as always, I had not been able to refuse her the wish. So we had equipped ourselves with woollen blankets and provisions for a long and cold night to come and looked forward to spending some time together.
I asked Shakheel to help me to bring our luggage into the house, but he silently shook his head and went back to his post. His hands were shaking again.
Her Monchhichi under her arm, Sakthy had meantime started to inspect the building. I joined her on the first floor. Together, we checked the locked doors, entered all open rooms and looked in every corner and behind every curtain.
We did not expect to catch a ghost. But I wanted to make sure that no self-styled material supporter of evil spirits could surprise us. As the media was going on about the story with all its frills, it could attract some psychopath or jokester keen to get involved.
But there was nobody in the whole house and everything seemed to be in fine order. We made ourselves comfortable in the huge lounge suite in the entrance hall and had a hot cup of tea from the thermos flask.
Sakthy did not waste time to in taking me up on my promise.
True, I had agreed to tell her stories from the Panchatantra. So I did.
It was a wonderful evening. Sakthy was cheerful. She enjoyed me having so much time for her. While we were telling stories, discussing, chatting and laughing, drinking tea and nibbling chocolate toffees, the clock in the lobby rang ten, eleven and twelve without anything special happening.
It was time for her to sleep, but she would not agree.
Wrapped in our huge blankets, we sat quietly side by side, when all of a sudden a piercing scream broke the silence.
It was outside the house. I jumped to my feet, opened the front door and peered into the foggy darkness of the court yard.
Nothing to be seen. But there was a noise at the gate.
I took Sakthy by the hand and together we went over to check what was going on.
Reaching the gate, we found the door of the small guard room standing ajar.
When I pushed it open, the terrible scream shrilled again – now straightly in front of us.
Rolling his eyes and squeaking hysterically, a young man with a woollen cap was crouching on the floor, gazing at us as if he saw the devil.
“What happened?”, I asked him, but he was not in a position to answer.
He gasped for breath. There was nobody else around. It took some time to calm the guy down and understand his problem. His name was Raman. He was the watchman of the second shift starting at midnight.
After exchanging some words with Shakheel, he was sitting alone in the room when he suddenly noticed the light on the ground floor of the club. As nobody had informed him about our presence, he believed the ghost was going about in search of a victim and screamed with horror.
It was not easy to talk him out of his panic. Sakthy supported my efforts by laying her hand on his shivering arm and offering him chocolate toffees from her pocket.
It was past one, when we returned to the sofa and shared a last cup of lukewarm tea. Sakthy looked very thoughtful.
“Achu! What are we actually doing here? Sitting and waiting for a creature that does not exist!?”
I explained that we were kind of test persons in a scientific experiment that was conducted to make an evidence for what we both already knew.
"This evidence would convince others. Would it?" - She was skeptical.
Obviously the screaming guard had upset her. She wrinkled her forehead.
“Achu! Why in the first place do people believe that the ghost exists?! Some people even swear till they are blue in the face that they have seen it within their own eyes ! How can that be possible?! Isn’t it crazy?!”
Of course it was. But I had some idea how this crazy situation had developed and how it could be resolved. “Please tell me!” She looked at me with big eyes. And I decided to share all results of my investigation with her.
“The barman, Rahul Malik, is the kingpin of the story”, I started my report.
“You remember: he was the first person who claimed he had encountered the ghost. And he was all alone in the house at that time. No witnesses." I continued.
"It was only after Rahul told the story repeatedly and with all the colourful details to everybody in the house - and later to the press – that others also ‘saw’ the ghost.”
“He made it up?” she asked.
“In a way, yes.”
“Is he a betrayer, a criminal?” Sakthy asked.
“No. He suffers from hallucinations. That means, he believes that he sees and hears and feels something that is actually not there. Many people have occasional hallucinations: when they have high fever or are drunk or when they have enormous fear”, I explained.
“But Rahul seems to have hallucinations even without such reasons. He seems to be a psychopathological case....”
“You mean he is crazy?”
“Something like that. It is an illness.”
“Ok. But what about the blue spots on his arms? Imagining a beating would not cause blue spots, would it?” Eleven-year-olds are sharp thinkers.
“True. We cannot be sure how it happened. He could have fallen down during the imagined fight. Or he created the spots himself without knowing. Sometimes, people are not aware what strange things they do, or they later don’t remember...”
She nodded. “So, Malik sees this ghost because he is ill. Did he go to a doctor?”
“I don’t think he did. He may find it quite normal to meet a ghost. And by the way: the press club ghost is not the first one in his life. We know that he has been troubled by non-existing creatures for many years. When I met him I asked the details. He did not want to tell me. But the way he behaved and talked confirmed that my theory about him was correct.”
“How did you get to know about his other ghosts?”
“Investigation. Like a policeman.”
She was curious.
I told her how Malik, then 26 years, started encountering evil spirits in the Indira Gandhi International Airport some six years back. He was working there in a restaurant and told his colleagues that he was terrified by invisible beings walking right in front of him across the lounges and leaving huge bloody foot steps on the floor. But since nobody else could see those foot steps, the story was not believed.
Later, Malik worked in the Maurya Sheraton, one of Delhi’s finest hotels.
His former colleagues recalled that he used to describe them monstrous creatures that were hovering at night above his bed and torturing him.
On two occasions, they told me, they heard him suddenly scream at work as the creatures had followed him right away into the hotel kitchen. Perhaps that was the reason, why the Maurya Sheraton did not keep Malik for long.
“So many ghosts... and nobody really cared!” Sakthy wondered. “But why are things different now ?” - That was indeed an intriguing point.
Malik’s breakthrough as a conjurer of ghost stories held the key that could help us to understand the conditions and mechanisms that make a superstition a ‘best seller’.
I could see various factors accounting for his success. Perhaps his own presentation skills, powered by psychological strain, had improved.
The press club staff could be a more receptive audience for horror stories than his former colleagues. The lonely empty club house was in a foggy winter night undoubtedly a far more inspiring ambience than the twenty-four-seven world of the Airport.
And obviously over the recent years, the interest of media and public in haunted houses had evolved.
Last but not least, there was certainly another very powerful factor at work: the business interest of Malik’s respective employers. The management of an Airport or of a first class hotel would always be keen to keep spooky rumours under wraps. While journalists, on the other hand, can rarely resist the temptations of a sensational story.
“Ok. That’s for Malik,” Sakthy said.
“But what about all the other people believing his story and even seeing his ghost? Are all of them ill?!”
“Most people have a tendency to see rather what they expect than what is really there." I explained to her.
Take the gate man: he did not expect us. He expected only the ghost. Therefore he was sure that it was the ghost that switched the light on.
And even when we both in person entered the watch room, he mistook us for ghosts and screamed for his life!
If we would not have been able to convince him otherwise, he would tomorrow tell everybody that there was not just one ghost in the club but two - a huge one with a round beard and a small one with a boy’s hair cut and a Monchhichi under its arm.
And many people would believe him. Maybe some newspapers would print creepy sketches of us...
"Like this watchman", I explained, "many people have a very vivid imagination and such a high level of fear and insecurity that they get incited by any little spark – which makes hallucinations kind of infectious. When people of a group or community infect and re-infect each other with ever new fantastic sightings and claims, panic can escalate to hysterical levels.
That is happening around the press club now, and it could suddenly reach out to more and more people and spin out of control, if it is not stopped." I said.
“It’s dangerous, isn’t it?” She wrinkled her forehead.
“This infection, how can it be stopped?” she wanted to know.
Back in February 1993, I had no idea that only two and a half years later, India was in for a full-fledged mass hysteria. In September1995, marble statues of the elephant faced god Ganesh would suck thousands of litres of milk out of spoons and vessels, throwing major parts of the population into a frenzy.
And six years further down the line, an aggressive Monkey Man monster, hunted unsuccessfully by three thousand policemen, would cause mass panic in the capital.
Sakthy’s little question would arise with exceptional urgency on both occasions, and I would have to find immediate and quite unconventional answers to help solve the public crisis. But that is another story ....
“As with all infections: the earlier it is stopped the better”, I said on the press club sofa. “The best would be to vaccinate all children. The vaccine is “critical thinking” .
If all children were given the chance to develop it, evil spirits would vanish like small pox. That can be achieved when everybody cooperates: politicians, newspapers, schools, scientists. One day, this will happen.
But as for now: we have to neutralise germs and ghosts where ever they spread. In our case: we have to explain, point out contradictions and wrong information, collect evidence and demonstrate that the stories are not reality.
That is exactly what we both are doing here...
Her eyelids had started drooping . Quietly, she rested her head against my shoulder and dropped off. I tried hard to stay awake. But listening to her deep and regular breathing, I could not resist for long.
When I woke up, it was about five o’clock. Somebody was knocking at the door. I carefully freed myself from Sakthy’s arms and went to open.
It was Dara Singh, another chowkidar. Obviously eager to be the first to find out what had happened during the night, he seemed to be both relieved and disappointed when he saw me.
I sent him to buy a pot of hot tea in a nearby little street shop that would open at this hour.
Sitting with Dara, the sweeper Vipin and the jitterbug Raman over a steaming cup of heavy sweet morning brew, I consolidated the result of our vigil: “I have thoroughly checked the whole building and observed it all night”, I informed them with a voice that did not permit any doubt.
“Result: there is not the slightest sign of any ghost residing here. I therefore certify that the press club is ghost-free and perfectly safe. The chapter of the haunting is herewith officially closed”. I spoke solemnly and with absolute certainty and sealed the triumph with a smile as joyfully as the early morning hour permitted.
That worked. Dara, Raman and Vipin would be named as my witnesses.
Sakthy was still peacefully sleeping, embracing the Monchhichi. Though she was already eleven, she would not sleep without it. In her sleep, she smiled.
I felt that her presence had a strong impact on my guests. Slowly, the shadows of fear and doubt on their faces lightened up and finally vanished.
Dara and Vipin started looking confident. They were quite proud to be named as witnesses. Perhaps, they would be quoted in tomorrow’s newspapers and their friends and families would celebrate them as heroes. Even Raman looked relaxed. I had promised him confidentially that nobody would get to know about his nightly screaming.
Some minutes later, the first local press reporter entered the scene.
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