The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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It’s a holiday, thank the ghosts

Kusumgram (Burdwan), July 15: A high school here was closed down for four days on Friday after about a dozen students lost consciousness, fanning rumours that a spirit living in a neighbouring century-old house had cast an evil spell.

Headmaster Sheikh Abdul Rashid, who declared the holiday, was uncertain about whether classes could resume on Tuesday.

He pleaded helplessness against the stranglehold of superstition among parents and villagers at Kusumgram, 145km from Calcutta.

Also a zonal secretary of the All Bengal Teachers’ Ass-ociation, the head of Toiba High School is going house to house, trying to convince parents that there isn’t any such thing as an “evil spirit”.

Trouble started last Tuesday when Class XI student Sweety Khatoon started feeling dizzy and fainted during the morning prayer. The same day, Class XII student Sonali Khatoon fell unconscious in her classroom.

On Wednesday, four Class V students fell unconscious in their classrooms. By Thursday, 11 girls had fainted and attendance plunged.

Although the school is co-educational, the students who fainted were all girls.

Rumours that an evil spirit in the “haunted house” had cast its spell on the girls spread in no time.

“With the other teachers, I’ve tried to convince the parents that what they have heard is a rumour. But they aren’t willing to send their children to school,” the headmaster said.

He explained that most students attend private tuition before coming to school. “They are tired and might suffer from acidity. We’ll speak to the district authorities and organise a health camp in the school,” he added.

Block medical officer Kri-shnendu Mukherjee treated two of the students who fell unconscious. “One of the girls was suffering from severe indigestion. She became all right after we gave her some antacids and enzymes. Another student is a patient of chronic hysteria and we had to sedate her. Both recovered after treatment. Tension stemming from the rumour could also have led to the fainting,” the doctor said.

Kuber Sheikh, a sharecropper whose daughter Rabeya is in Class VI, said everyone in the village was aware of the presence of an evil spirit in the haunted house. “But the spirit never disturbed anyone. We don’t really know what is happening. We are scared and don’t want to send our children to school,” he added.

The sprawling house belonged to zamindar Syed Badruddoja, who died in the 1960s. Local MLA Mohammad Hidayetullah said the late zamindar’s youngest son Syed Kamruddoja — now in his seventies — is the present owner of the house and lives in Calcutta.

A couple, Natu Sheikh and Rashida Biwi, stay in the house as caretakers. “I get Rs 2,700 a month. We haven’t ever seen an evil spirit,” said Natu.

The rationalist body, Paschim Banga Vigyan Mancha, has launched a campaign in the village. “We have to rid them of superstition,” said Asutosh Pal, its zonal secretary.

Manteswar Block development officer Soumen Basu said a medical team will be sent to the village tomorrow to check the students who took ill in school.

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