On the 20th of September 1995, my old Maruti car broke down. Some jumps, some jerks, and it stopped dead at the corner of nowhere. There we stood in the falling night on some lonely country road in the outskirts of Delhi. And no, we did not have mobile phones at that time.
“Ok, let’s somehow push it to the next petrol station and try to get a lift or a taxi!” said Laura and threw resolutely all of her forty something kilos against the boot. The Maruti stood like a rock. I had to laugh. The situation was inconvenient though.
There was nothing that we could do but wait for help. And in the meantime I would miss an important appointment: In a few minutes, I was expected for a confidential meeting in a reputed heart clinic some ten kilometers away. Rather hopeless. But wait – there was a car approaching...
Soon we were sitting in an old truck, scuttling full speed over bumpy roads. The friendly driver had towed my car to the next petrol station and we were now speeding to the heart clinic as if it was a matter of life and death. Perhaps he got something wrong.
We stopped in front of an old-fashioned hospital portal. On the stairs, Laura placed her finger on her lips: “No word about the car!” she warned. I did not understand. “Imagine the rumours”, she whispered, “when your car falls to pieces while you are just on way to meet a poltergeist!”
Ramdas was waiting at the reception: a man in his forties, quiet, matter of fact, he introduced himself as a rationalist and an ardent reader of my books and columns. As a senior administration officer of the hospital, he had convinced the management to call me in to solve the crisis. “The damage can run into millions, if we delay the construction!” he said, getting straight to the point. “We have to find a solution, and fast!” He showed us a model of the new clinic complex under construction on the hospital campus. The building pit had been trenched more than one year back and the work was in full swing, when the project met with an unforeseen obstacle: a poltergeist.
One night, when he appeared with great racket to the workers sleeping in the building, they ran away in panic. Those who came back would refuse to enter the building after dusk. Then one day, the ghost surprised them at noon, when they were sitting on timbers and braces of the fragile bamboo scaffold, tucking in their lunches. Tiffin boxes fell clattering to the ground. Jumping with fright, one of the workers lost balance and crashed down from the second floor. He survived. But fear gained ground and tools were laid down.
Listening to the briefing, I took a close look at the model: five floors, two internal staircases and one external, two elevator wells, two huge operation theatres, wards... About three quarters of the structural work had already been done.
Ramdas waived a list of names. There were some hundred and fifty construction workers employed, many of them migrants from Bihar, brought to Delhi by contractors. They could not just go home or look for another job. They were living in a camp now and did not have much divertissement but the rumour mill about the extraordinary events at the construction site.
Trouble was fomenting. The hospital management tried to bind the workers to secrecy, but rumours started leaking to the neighbourhood. One of the most disturbing rumours claimed that the poltergeist had once been a hospital patient, who died of a heart attack under mysterious circumstances.
Ramdas shook his head. “Imagine what that means - a Poltergeist in a heart clinic...!” he said in a low voice. “It doesn’t bear contemplating!”
Losing no time, we called a meeting at the construction site. When we reached the place, it was already half past ten. The building was lit, though the lights were not very bright. On the broad driveway, at the ramp, some thirty men had already gathered: a ragtag group, from teenagers to elderly, clad in tatty jeans, dhotis and undershirts and looking anything between sleepy and anxious.
More people were coming. I introduced myself to the crowd and told that I had come to investigate the disturbing events. I would hold a ‘durbar’ in a small room in the ground floor and anybody, who had made observations or could provide information of importance for the investigation, was requested to come and talk to me confidentially.
Through the glassless window, we observed from inside how people were lining up on the ramp. There was an excited murmuring and whispering all around. The first man to come in was a bullish boy with a red bindi on his forehead, Sahil. His shyness contrasted his body size; he seemed to be very young.
Two and a half weeks back, Sahil had witnessed the first attack of the poltergeist, when he was sleeping near the huge elevator well on the back side. Suddenly the ground was shaking under him and he heard deafening thunder coming nearer and nearer, then a terrible rumbling. He thought, it was an earthquake and the construction was collapsing.
He saw huge stones flying down the well and ran away to huddle up under the staircase. He was sure he was going to die. But after some time he understood that he was alive. Everything around him was silent.
Only later, the other workers told him that a poltergeist had attacked the building. Sahil was terrified.
Even then, he looked stressed and nervous while he was speaking to me. Thinking of the ghost brought the sweat to his brow and he wiped it off with his bindi. The next man was one Kaushal, who had seen two attacks.
The second time, he was standing outside the building and ran away. But the first time he was on the second floor of the complex.
It was just before midnight, when suddenly all lights went out and a rock fall and thunder shook the building for several minutes. Rocks crashed down from nowhere and hit the freshly cemented floor and the walls. People jumped away to save their lives.
Kaushal called a limping boy, his nephew, who had been waiting outside. Removing some dirty rags from his leg, he showed me a festering wound that urgently needed cleaning and treatment. Kaushal shook sadly his head. Wounds inflicted by a poltergeist would never heal, he whispered.
One by one, people told their stories.
However much accounts differed, there were strong consistencies. The poltergeist appeared always with rolling thunder and falling rocks and very often near the elevator well. Many people had heard him roaring or uttering a terrible scream.
Some claimed, they had also seen him, but here descriptions varied wildly. Some had seen a fire spitting monster with rolling eyes, others a powerful blazing whirlwind.
The most intimate contact was reported by a skinny young man with hysterical eyes, who claimed the ghost gripped his collar, threw him to the ground and tried to strangle him while kneeling on his chest.
Asked, to describe how the ghost looked, he burst out: “Like my elder brother!”
It was time to investigate on-site.
I met Vijay, a friendly young man from Tamil Nadu, who worked as an electrician.
He showed me the central power station outside the building, some twenty meters away. It was a metal box with an unlocked door. Anybody could open it and press the main switch – a crucial piece of information.
When we came back, there was a commotion outside in the crowd. A sturdy guy with square shoulders forged ahead to meet me.
Everybody made way for him. In came a healthy looking man in his forties, jovial and quite confident.
Aakash spoke loud and clear Hindi without Bihari accent. He was a local mason from Delhi, who had already earlier worked with the hospital, long before the new construction started. He had come to assist me with the investigation and I understood that Ramdas had sent him as our guide.
Soon he led our expedition through the building.
Followed by some twenty people, we started exploring the ground floor. Climbing up staircases and bamboo ladders, walking over loose planks and jumping over gaps, we would proceed to the first floor and slowly work our way up to the top.
Aakash provided detailed information about the work in progress as well as the history of the haunting. He led us to several spooky spots and prompted witnesses to tell their stories.
I noticed that he displayed great respect and conviction, when speaking about the poltergeist, but no fear. This struck me as strange. All in all, he had a smooth and professional way like a tourist guide.
But then, I felt an irresistible urge to counter his plans.
I had in the meantime become convinced that the apparitions were more than pure fantasies of the fearful and that stones were actually crashing down. I suspected the hand of a miscreant in this.
But who could do it in front of everybody without being caught? Were the stones thrown in from the outside?
As the elevator well seemed to play an important role in the operations, I decided to inspect the entrances on each floor and check if there were any holes or breakthroughs allowing access from the outside.
Also of special interest was the covered top of the well on the fifth floor. Moreover, we had to find the source of the mysterious stones.
They did not seem to be part of the stocked construction material.
To identify their origin, we had to collect samples from the ground. For me, all roads were now leading to the well.
But strangely the well seemed strangely not to be on Aakash’s map. He concentrated on the front side and spent much time in the side wings of the building, as if to avoid it.
I started wondering whether he wanted to mislead us. What did he want to hide?
“Aakash!” I called him and looked straightly into his eyes. “Why don’t you tell me the truth?”
He looked down and avoided eye contact. It made me feel that he was involved. But I did not yet understand what role he played.
We, that is Laura and I, decided to go slowly and discretely separate from the group. We had to find our own ways, and we did.
Laura did not leave my side. She seemed to smell trouble.
Joined by Kaushal and Vijay, we were moving down the main staircase to the ground and immediately found what we looked for: shapeless boulders of natural stone.
They looked like granite pieces cut from a quarry. From where did they come? And how were they carried up?
Or was there a secret rock depot on the upper floors?
I carefully entered the well and looked upward: all darkness.
After collecting our heavy pieces of evidence, we went up to the second floor to inspect the opening to the well.
All was silent here, and nobody around. We stood at the rim and looked down in the pit, when suddenly all lights went off and we were in thick darkness.
Rumbling from above, stones were falling down the well.
Laura pulled me back from the rim and whipped out a torch as if she had just been waiting for this moment. In fact, she had, as she later told me.
Spotlight on the falling stones, we stepped aside. It was difficult to judge their quantity, but they surely did not come down by the truck load as people had claimed. It may have been all together a wash basketful. None the less, it was quite impressive. Some stones jumped out, dashing aside us on the floor.
Then we heard a scream from above. For a second, I closed my eyes and concentrated, trying to imagine its origin.
It was undoubtedly a human voice, but it was distorted.
I felt it was not uttered in a natural pitch. We rushed up to the third, forth and finally to the roofless top floor, but there was nobody. Above us the spangled sky, under us the silent dark building, we understood that the ghost had given us the slip.
“This poltergeist is clever”, Laura sighed. She glanced on her watch. “... and punctual. It was around midnight.
We looked down. There was nobody on the ramp anymore, the workers had gone back to their camp.
“Look at that, sir!” Vijay suddenly called me to the backside and pointed down the wall. Some meters under us, there was a basket hanging from two ropes.
Vijay pulled it up. It was empty. The ropes were connected to a timber at the outside wall.
In the torch light, we discovered that they were part of a pulley with spring hooks and snatch block that could be operated from the ground to lift up goods.
A close look into the basket proved our suspicion right: its bottom was covered with granite dust and small stones. We had discovered the “poltergeist’s” stone lift!
The next step was to find the place from where the stone load was poured down. Panning the spotlight over the walls, it did not take long for us to see a huge crack on the wall of the well.
Now everything fell into place: The “poltergeist” would fill the basket on the ground and pull it up. He then would go up to the top floor, perform his act and perhaps vanish under the cover of darkness down the scaffold on the backside.
But there was still one problem: where and when would he interrupt the power circuit? This was only possible at the central power box on the ground.
There had been only some seconds between the power cut and the stone fall from the top. One person could not do it alone. Were there two poltergeists?
I looked for Kaushal and found him silently sitting on the floor. His face, touched by the torch light, looked pale and fearful.
He had not yet recovered from the poltergeist attack. Both his hands were clutching a pendant that was hanging on a string around his neck.
“What is this?” I asked him.
“It protects from the Poltergeist!” he said.
It was an amulet, made of painted cotton and red thread and filled with something like tiny granules.
I remembered that I had seen similar pieces this evening dangling from some of the men’s necks.
“From where did you get it?”
He was hesitant. “From the Master”, he then whispered.
“Who?!” I insisted.
His voice was nearly inaudible now: “Aakash!”
The dots started connecting. Aakash claimed, his talismans were especially created in a tantrik ceremony using stones dropped by the poltergeist. He promised the workers a powerful protection, without which they would fall prey to the ghost’s fury whenever they came close to the haunted construction.
They believed him. Kaushal had paid considerable money to buy his amulet. He had even bought another one for his poor nephew, unfortunately too late, as the ghost had already struck him.
What we had gotten now, was a motive! The talisman trade would be booming as long as the poltergeist spread terror.
I had to confront Aakash to completely solve the case. “Where is he now?”
Kaushal knew. And he guided us. Torch light ahead, we walked down to the ramp.
Vijay was still carrying some granite pieces. I asked him to hide them for later use.
Now, we had a more urgent mystery to solve. Kaushal lead us to the boundaries of the campus.
Under a group of big trees, we saw a tent nestled against the wall. There was light inside.
At the entrance stood a table with a huge cooking pot upside down.
“Teashop”, murmured Kaushal and vanished hastily into the darkness without saying good bye.
There was a round place with several wooden blocks, obviously seats for customers. We sat down.
This looked like a well-frequented haunt of the workers – and surely a hub of poltergeist rumours.
What an ideal place for a poltergeist tamer to reside!
Over a cup of tea, the uneducated and frightened migrants would warm up to the magic of his protection rituals and costly talismans.
The voices inside the tent were engaged in excited conversation. I could not understand their whispered words, but I could make out three persons: a man and two women.
“Could we have some tea?” I called.
Silence. Then Aakash came out.
He gazed at us. In the dim light I could not read his expression.
Finally he welcomed us and ordered tea from inside.
“Where have you been? I lost track of you!” he said.
“We have seen the poltergeist...” I retorted, “... in fact: both of them!”
I tried to find his eyes in the dark, but he turned his face aside. I noticed that he did not wear an Amulet himself, nor was there any other sign of tantrik practice.
For some time, he sat there motionless. The tea was brought by a middle aged woman in a clean kurta, her hair neatly tucked away in a bun.
She looked frightened, but had a friendly face. Suddenly, Aakash stood up and opened the entry of the tent enough for us to have a glance into the inside.
“Come!” he said with an inviting gesture of his hand.
There was a young girl in a colourful dress sitting on the floor, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. She did not look at us, seemed to be absent. But she silently moved her lips and her eyes. Her facial expressions suggested that she was in great turmoil.
“She is obsessed”, Aakash said calmly. “She and her mother need protection to survive in this world. They have nowhere to go.”
For a moment, I felt sad. I understood that the little teashop would have to vanish from here once the new clinic started working.
Till today, Aakash remained a unique case in the register of my exposures. He is the only miracle performer whom I ever encountered, who made a full confession.
He confirmed all our findings and filled the last gap in the story: it was the teashop owner, the unassuming mother of the young girl, who would, in an unobserved moment, switch off the lights in the power box.
Sitting under the trees in front of the tent in the morning hours of the 21st September of 1995, we listened to Aakash’s calm and toneless voice and knew that the story of the poltergeist in the heart clinic had come to an end.
Around three, the helpful watchman at the gate organised us a lift with a town-bound ambulance.
We did not speak on our way back. I was supposed to meet Ramdas in the morning to inform him about the results of my investigation.
But things took a different turn. Rushing with a blaring siren through the sleeping city, we did not have the faintest idea that this was the morning when the marble statues in Delhi’s Hindu temples developed an unquenchable thirst for milk….
It was already October, when I found time to meet Ramdas again. He smiled.
“What did you do that night?!” he asked curiously.
The poltergeist attacks had stopped after my visit. I asked for Aakash. He did not work there any more. The morning after our encounter, he had quitted his job to go home to his village, as he said.
I went out to the trees at the boundary wall. There was no tent and no teashop either.
(Names of some persons and the name of the famous heart clinic in Delhi are changed / withheld for privacy reasons)
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