UNDER THE HOWRAH BRIDGE
If you walk your way through Howrah’s flower market, across the Zenana Bathing Ghat, you will reach a spot that’s just under the Howrah Bridge. On Monday night, the golden glow of the bridge overshadowed the moon. Gentle ripples of the river Hooghly slapped across the garbage-ridden banks and I remembered a conversation I once had with a local wrestler (the pehelwans’ practice den is just there) on whether he had ever encountered spirits of those who jumped off the bridge. He was quiet for a few seconds and then said hesitantly, “When we see flailing hands in the river, we don’t know if it’s a human being drowning or a ghost playing tricks.”
It is believed that the ghost of the wife of Lord Metcalfe roams the halls of the library. She was a stickler for putting things in place. So the story goes that when people are reading alone in the library, they feel the presence of someone breathing down their neck. Especially when they haven’t kept a book back where they took it from!
A black dog bared its fangs and growled at us as we entered Nimtala Ghat. The smell of burning flesh is known to make canines aggressive so we stepped aside and walked towards where the last rites are usually performed. Today was Bhoothnath Monday so the otherwise-dark ghat was lit up brightly, which was a relief. We called a known local aside and asked him to tell us about any unearthly sightings. “Come on the night of the dark goddess (Kali Puja),” he said, “The Aghoris will be here.”
“The who?” asked one of the three French girls from the tour.
“The A-G-H-O-R-I-S,” said our man, spelling it out because these are words best not said aloud. “They consume the leftover flesh of burning bodies and use them for occult powers.”
FIRE TEMPLE, EZRA STREET
brightly-lit shops being set up for Diwali down Canning Street was a cheerful welcome. But that didn’t last long as we entered the alley that took us to the deserted Fire Temple on Ezra Street. It was pitch dark as we climbed the steps up to the dark, decaying temple, torches in hand, banyan tree roots sending a shudder down the spine as they caressed the flesh. No one knows why the Fire Temple was abandoned in the early 1980s. The owner is a spooky-looking old Parsi man, who walks around carrying a lantern. For some reason, he hasn’t been able to give up the property — either for restoration or for sale — and it won’t be long before the temple will give way and the spirits will be homeless. Bhooter Bhobishyot…
Not far from Nimtala ghat, near the Sovabazar jetty, is an abandoned but ornate “house of dolls”. By day, the centurion with two unclothed maidens on the terrace stands out from far off. I stood near the railway tracks outside the building that rattled each time a train would pass by, to tell the group of six the story of the wealthy owners who once inhabited the building and sexually exploited the ‘nautch-girls’. Suddenly a boy on a motorbike headed for us at full speed and stopped just an inch away. Taken aback but knowing that there were four girls in this group of six, we men took a step ahead. Thankfully, he was harmless. “Can I take a photograph?” asked the inebriated boy, perhaps under the illusion that our girls were the fair maidens from Putulbari. Stifling a laugh, half out of fear and half out of relief, we ignored him and watched the dilapidated building instead. “It feels like the place is empty but there are people watching you. Do you sense a presence?” asked Thomas, the French boy. We all did. The walk to our car was faster than normal.
As we stood outside the racecourse on a slightly foggy night, I read out this story I found online. “In the mid-1930s, there was a race maniac called George Williams who loved his horses more than his family and his job at the secretariat. He had five horses, of which his favourite was a pearl white called Pride. She won races, fame and money for her master. With age, Pride slowed down and ceased to be the ‘Queen of the Tracks’. Her last was the Annual Calcutta Derby where she lost the race and Williams lost a fortune. The story goes that she was found dead the next day on the tracks. On a moonlit night, and especially if it’s a Saturday, if you pass the racecourse, you might see a beautiful white horse galloping over the stands…. She’s what the locals call William Saheb’s shada ghora.”
OTHER SPOOKY TALES OF CALCUTTA
|Outside the Scottish Church Cemetery on Monday night. Those shadows belong to the group that stepped out to be spooked three nights before Halloween. Picture by B. Halder
Bhooter Gali: There are fishy tales down some lanes in north Calcutta. The story goes that babus carrying fish from the market on their way home were chased by fish-loving ghosts, who would cry out their name in nasal tones. Those who heard their names being called out would dare not turn around, they would go home and bury the fish under the earth.
Lower Circular Road Cemetery: The story of Sir WH MacNaghten whose body was cut up in Afghanistan. His wife collected his remains, carried it back to Calcutta and he was buried at the Lower Circular Road Cemetery. The tree above his grave shakes each time someone narrates his story.
New Market: One of the stories is that people hear cries of “Save me, Save Me” and “Help Help”, believed to be the voices of three Anglo-Indian ladies who were assassinated.
Hastings House: Warren Hastings is the most popular ghost. In Hastings House, some people say they have heard or seen a figure desperately searching for a folder. It is believed to be Hastings, looking for the folder that contained papers that could have prevented him from being impeached in London.
Nagerbazar Flyover: Recently, there have been a number of motorbike accidents around the sharp bend. Some say there’s a ghost who slaps bikers at the bend so they lose control and fall off.
Behind St John’s Church: There used to be an old radio station at 1 Garstin Place where a musician committed suicide and sometimes, you could still hear the piano play...
Rabindra Sarobar Metro station: The Metro stop with the maximum number of suicides.
Tagore House: The Thakurbarir bhooter golpo goes that Tagore’s wife Mrinalini Devi appeared as a shadow behind her husband in a family picture taken two years after her death.
As told to Karo Christine Kumar