The hills of the Uttarakhand Terai glow in the light of the November sun, slopes and peaks radiating a fuzzy softness in the morning, perfectly set off by the golden-tipped ripples of the Kosi. People troop out of the resort in small groups, running or walking or meditating to the gush of the river. They ride to the Corbett Tiger Reserve in open jeeps and return all excited at the sight of “fresh pug-marks”, believing that they would have spotted a tiger if only they had held their breath a moment longer or the group in the next jeep hadn’t been so noisy. What can disturb the peace and detached bliss of this still, cold morning, when winter is just beginning to gird its loins for a full-fledged attack on the Himalayan foothills?
A stench fills the air. A dead vulture, black feathers unruffled on a stiff body, lies on the river-bank. The hills have their ghosts.
Ramnagar seems to be the perfect name for a village in the legends. It is the kind of name that rolls off the tongue easily and lends itself to fictional settings for both gory wars and everyday stories of the Malgudi kind. But I’m interested only in that which cannot be seen or understood.
I ask a security guard if he knows any ghost stories. Against the surreal backdrop of games of table-tennis and badminton, he nonchalantly tells me that two spirits hover near the cabin where he keeps guard every night. “They lit a fire inside the cabin one night to keep themselves warm,” he says. “When the door was opened the next morning, they were found dead of suffocation.” How does he know they haunt the area? “I hear voices sometimes. Many people have. We also see them occasionally, walking around like ordinary people.” Is he afraid? “No. Why should I be afraid? You can be brave, or you can get frightened of your own shadow.” He is a practical man.
“You should not go to the river at night,” he warns me. “You never know what happens upstream: there might be a burning ghaat there, and a charred body might just come floating down.” Be careful of physical remains. There might be a subtext to his warning.
Twenty of us sit around a bonfire at night, telling stories of horror and possession. Higher up in the hills, some women are believed to be possessed by the spirit of a goddess when they get violent and begin throwing things around; they are respected and worshipped, but a pundit is then summoned to chase the otherworldly being away. Something doesn’t add up here.
One of our company tells the story of Bhangarh, a village in Rajasthan, which lies in ghost-like ruin, much like Pompeii. It stands still as if frozen in time, and no new settlement has sprung up at its location. Nobody is allowed to enter the ruins between dusk and dawn, according to Government orders. What kind of curse does it carry that it requires an elected Government to intervene and impose strict orders on its borders? (Let us not talk of the Sariska Tiger Reserve now – don’t put a dampener on romantic legends set in sprawling forts.)
My appetite for ghost stories isn’t satiated yet. If you’ve read MR James, Ambrose Bierce and Ruskin Bond growing up, it never will be, and you will want to turn sixty quickly so you can retire and settle in the Himalayas, with a garden full of wildflowers and a snow-capped mountain peak framed in your window. So I ask one of the kitchen staff for ghost stories. He is a little hesitant in the beginning, but warms up to the subject after just a little coaxing.
“There is a ghost that sometimes sits on people’s necks when they are lying down,” he says. “A man could be fully conscious and see things clearly, but when the ghost attacks, he is paralysed. He feels a weight on his neck and shoulders and cannot move, much as he may try.” A case of sleep paralysis, perhaps? I ask how often it happens, and to whom. “We believe that it happens generally to those with weak planetary positions in their horoscopes.” He talks further of childless women who are believed to be possessed and need to be counselled by a pundit, following which they conceive immediately.
We then segue from ghosts to gods. “We tend to believe that our gods are also spirits.” Devbhoomi - the land of the gods, where they wander free. The lines between the real and the imaginary blur effortlessly, as is obvious from the crisp reply another man at the resort gives me when I ask him what he thinks of ghosts: “What are ghosts? You can’t see the wind, but it still blows and makes the leaves sway.”
Who can tell what lurks in the dark, or even in the ribbons of sunshine that filter through the branches of tall trees in the foothills on calm, delightful mornings? The forests are full – and we do not know the names or forms of all that “lives” inside.