I was on a travel assignment at Nilambag Palace, Bhavnagar. Perhaps it was the non-stop hours on the road, or the near-starvation I was suffering from avoiding all the greasy food that seemed to be the only fare at most dhabas along the way. In hindsight, I am not sure what it was, but I came the closest to having a spectral encounter here, in one of the suites at Nilambag Palace. The room had high ceilings, rustling curtains, and a weird sense of hijacking someone else’s space. I made to sleep after a particularly gruelling day but, too exhausted and not sufficiently wound-down, I found myself tossing and turning and drifting uncomfortably in and out of consciousness. That’s when I saw her at the foot of the bed: a very old, diminutive woman showing uncommon strength as she lifted the foot posts of the wooden bed and banged it up and down continuously. I gripped the sides of the bed but, unable to steady myself at all, I cowardly pulled the sheets over my head and burrowed inside, praying (how the scornful fall!) desperately that she’d leave. Half an hour later, when the banging had stopped, I opened my eyes and, watching every corner of the room, turned on the lights slowly and then rang up a drowsy friend who stayed up with his foolish, frightened friend until the early hours.
I was travelling to Benares. It was close to ten o’clock on a warm night and I was shuffling restlessly on the upper berth in a three-tier compartment of the Sarnath Express, which was due to reach the holy city the next morning. Sweaty and uncomfortable, I decided to get some fresh air.
Walking to the entrance of the compartment, I unlatched and swung the main door open. The train slowed down a bit. We were going through a dense forest; the smoky smell of sal trees poured into the compartment.
“Alakh Niranjan!” Startled by the salutation, I hurriedly looked back. A young ascetic stood behind me. He had long hair and intense, friendly eyes. Unlike the usual sadhus I’ve seen, he was clean-shaven and had long, neatly combed hair that fell on the shawl around his shoulders.
“Go and sleep,” he said, unblinking, “You want to see Ganga Maiya tomorrow, don’t you?”
I am not sure what overcame me, but I silently obeyed. Closing the door, I went back up my berth. In less than a minute, there was a loud screech, and amid screams of “Accident! Accident!” the train’s lights went off. Our compartment, already tilted at a very acute angle, rolled over on its side as it toppled down the track.
We were eventually rescued. The side of the compartment where I was standing just before the accident, was totally crushed. I searched for the sadhu but could not locate him among the dead or the alive.
–Prithvi Raj Banerjee
Close to four years ago, I was behind the wheel in a car with two other friends. I used to live in Delhi then, and was visiting them briefly in Mumbai. We had set out late at night with no agenda except driving around Vile Parle and debating where we could find coffee at that hour. We turned into a residential lane lined by apartment buildings. Up ahead, I saw a middle-aged woman about to cross the road, and gently braked to allow her passage. As I watched her get off the divider and onto the road, the friend who was riding shotgun asked me why I had suddenly stopped in the middle of the stretch. I pointed at the woman and faced him for less than a second to state the obvious, “To allow her to cross.” By the time I turned around, she was gone. Because I was so convinced that I had seen her, I got off the car and looked all around: it wasn’t like there was a building around that she could have entered, or any trees where she could have been camouflaged. She had just dissolved into ether. I continue to believe that she was there and that I had seen her – although I am almost routinely asked whether I was under the influence. The answer to which is, no.
It had been a tiring drive from Binnagudi to Gangtok and darkness had fallen when we entered the Army guest room, shivering from the cold. The first thing that caught my eye was a painting on the wall: Two feet, apparently freshly cut off, since they were bleeding profusely; the red paint smudging the canvas. “Why would anyone put something this gruesome in a guest room?” I asked my husband. “Maybe they cut people’s feet off in the night,” he said, grinning.
Once inside the bedroom, I made sure that the door was bolted before I got between the warm fleece blankets, grateful to have the man with the macabre sense of humour beside me. We switched on the room heater and drifted off to sleep. Something woke me up in the night. I sensed his eyes before I saw him. Before me stood a young soldier in combat gear, bathed in the orange glow of the oil heater. Paralyzed by fear, I kept watching as he stood there, his eyes still locked with mine as he moved backwards to the French window, stepped out and disappeared into the darkness. Trembling with fear, I shook my husband awake. He rushed out to circle the block with a torch and alerted the guards on duty, but no one was found.
The next morning, we were invited for a chat with the Commanding Officers of the three units stationed there. They smiled gently at me and tried to tell me that I had an active imagination. It has been many years and I always believed there was a man in my room that night. Only recently did my husband tell me, over a drink, that when he had checked the window that night, it was bolted from inside.
–Rachna Bisht Rawat
I was in the middle of a six-month posting in Katni, Madhya Pradesh, a little over 10 years ago. I was booked at a small hotel in Jabalpur, miles away from my work site, so I occasionally stayed over in the village nearby, even though it meant surviving night temperatures of 45°C without a fan. I tried to mingle with the villagers but I didn’t quite fit in, neither in appearance nor in religious beliefs. I was skeptical of all the talk about seeing djinns – massively built, supernatural beings in Arabic and Muslim mythology who are said to walk on air. Early one morning, on our way to the site from the village, the driver of our car suddenly panicked. I looked out to see gigantic, broad-shouldered people leaving the mosque; their feet weren’t touching the ground. Fear gripped me, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing as they passed us by. I somehow got through the rest of the posting, doing everything I could to avoid being by myself in the village.
I was on assignment in Cornwall with a photographer, and when we stepped off the train at Launceston Station, it was well after sundown. The station was deserted and after waiting for a good 20 minutes, we finally managed to flag a taxi down. His reaction to our destination: “That haunted place? You folks soft in the head?” We were staying at Jamaica Inn, based on the Daphne du Maurier novel by the same name, allegedly one of the most haunted hotels in the world. Stories of people appearing and disappearing from certain rooms, the Smuggler’s Bar, were stuff of legend. Not to mention, the Bodmin moor was across the road from the hotel, where, according to the front desk, “the mist rolls over the moor in the evening, and locals swear that the Beast of Bodmin reigns over the night.” For someone who grew up on The Hound of the Baskervilles, I was delighted by this information and couldn’t wait to check it out. Over the years, the hotel had embraced its haunted title and even started making money off it, conducting ghost tours and even kept a little Ghost Book, where guests wrote down what they’d seen. I flipped through it, and the mention of the spirit of a little girl in one of the old rooms appeared more than once.
I didn’t experience any haunting at all the whole time I was there, even when we had stayed there precisely for it. So, of course, we went looking for the girl in the old rooms, which were by then, closed for business. I walked into room 4, and closed the door and sat on the bed for a bit. Minutes went by and nothing came to meet me, and while I could say I felt an overwhelming feeling of being watched, it was just my mind waiting in anticipation for something to show up.