That's the spirit!

Abimanyu Nagarajan goes ghost-busting — and discovers that it is not uncommon

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 31.08.14
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In the dead of night, we enter the darkened bathroom of a Calcutta businessman's house. It's pitch black inside, so much so the sudden light of a torch makes me jump.

My two companions, on the other hand, are already setting up their equipment, their motions precise and practised. They place a bunch of electronic gadgets at various points, and put an instrument they call the K2 meter behind the washbasin, right up against the mirror. After all, that's where the trouble has been reported to be coming from.

The family claims that for almost six months, they have been witnessing eerie events. Things would fall of their own accord, doors and windows would suddenly open or close and, most crucially, family members add, an "apparition" was seen in the bathroom mirror. So they sent an SOS to the Calcutta-based Paranormal Research Society of India, which looks into incidents that cannot be explained.

Soumen and Santanu — a mechanical engineer and an advocate, respectively, by day and paranormal investigators by night — are the founders of the society. They are also a part of a growing number of people who wish to explain the inexplicable. Across India, organisations such as the India Paranormal Society in Delhi, Team Pentacle in Mumbai, Bangalore Squad of Investigators on Paranormal Activities and a host of individual enthusiasts are dealing with eerie incidents.

The K2 meter, the ghostbusters say, is a device that can pick up electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Apparently, ghosts or spirits emit EMFs, which is how paranormal investigators pick up their presence. Four LEDs on the meter are expected to light up when spirits near an electric device.

The first light is already lit.

"Are you there," Soumen asks gently. "If you can understand me, light up one bulb." A few moments later, the second light flickers. It doesn't turn on, but my companions are encouraged by it nonetheless. "Are you male or female? Light two for male, and three for female." The second light flickers for a few more moments and then lights up. The third flickers for a second before it fades away. The second LED resumes its flickering. Then, quietly, the first light also goes out.

That is the end of the investigation. The investigators, who don't charge a fee, tell the homeowner that while they couldn't be sure if there was a spirit haunting their home, they could change the mirror as a solution.

In the West, belief in new age paranormal phenomena is so widespread that it has led to the creation of specialised branches — such as ufology, the study of alien visitors and unidentified flying objects, and cryptozoology, the study of strange animals like the Yeti. India too has its own share of paranormal shenanigans. Investigators here have "found" paranormal entities such as Bhoot Billi, a six-foot cat that stalks the residents of Pune on its hind legs, or a sea monster off the coast of south India. There are even claims of a spaceport in Ladakh, apparently set up as a joint venture between the Indian government and aliens.

Let's not forget that in India superstitions are deep-rooted — it is the country which sends a spacecraft to Mars, but does so on a day that astrologers approve of. Not surprisingly, bodies such as the India Paranormal Society and Team Pentacle conduct courses and training for aspiring paranormalists for a fee.

Many of the paranormal investigation groups try to use science to make sense of the bizarre occurrences. High-tech electronics and a wide variety of specialists — such as forensic experts — form the backbone of the investigations. Factors such as local temperature, humidity, and cloud cover are all put together to try and understand what's really going on.

"The difference between us and people like tantrics is that we are only interested in finding a rational explanation as to why something might seem unnatural," explains Shishir Kumar, founder, Team Pentacle. "For example, a tantric might go to someone who is mentally ill and offer to exorcise demons out of him. We, on the other hand, have a policy of not taking such cases because medical science can clearly explain what's really wrong. Roughly speaking, 99 per cent of the time there's a rational explanation, and only in one per cent is there something we genuinely cannot figure out."

Indeed, often these investigators come into conflict with local purveyors of the supernatural. "One time it got really ugly," Santanu says, recalling the case of a schoolboy in a nearby village who had been "possessed by a ghost".

Santanu went there and found a dozen men chanting around the boy. Another man repeatedly slammed the boy's forehead onto the hard ground in an effort to "exorcise" him. They had got him drunk and had also burned him with matches on his forearm as part of the ritual.

With the help of some village elders, Santanu managed to take the boy to a nearby house. It turned out that the boy's school exams were coming up, and he pretended that he had been possessed so that he would not have to sit for the exams.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof," exclaims Gaurav Tiwari, founder of the Paranormal Society of India. "When someone claims to have magic powers but doesn't provide any empirical, scientific proof that they do, why should we believe them?"

Rationalists, however, are not convinced of paranormal activities. "They are class one frauds," holds Sanal Edamaruku, president of Rationalist International. "Paranormal is attributing a supernatural phenomenon, without proof, to explain things that cannot be explained currently. They claim to use scientific methods, but in reality just toss in a lot of jargon to make it sound like they are using science."

Probir Bose, a Calcutta-based rationalist and editor of the magazine Free Thinker, agrees. "They spread incorrect information on what science is about, and how it is conducted," he says.

Bose, however, stresses that there is nothing new about such beliefs. "People have always wanted to believe in something bigger or greater or different, for their own personal reasons. Be it aliens or be it gods, it's just relying on the same explanations, only you're putting a different face on it."

But the investigators believe they're on the level. "We try and prove things using scientific methods, but we must also accept that science doesn't have the answers to everything," Tiwari says.

Objectively speaking, the end goal of both scientists and paranormal investigators seems to be to sift the truth from the lies. But as Douglas Adams wrote in his book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the universe is stranger than we can imagine. But until concrete evidence surfaces, you're as likely to be kidnapped by aliens as the earth is to be demolished to make room for an intergalactic highway.