Ghost Stories in Ramnagar

The Kosi in Ramnagar

The Kosi in Ramnagar

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.

Understanding Hinduism in Bali – I

[These posts are based on my conversations over three days with my Balinese tour guide, W – when I quote him, I am not endorsing his views. Please excuse any factual inaccuracies and feel free to share your experiences or opinions in the comments section. I am happy to be corrected if I’ve understood something wrong.]

Ubud temple

For some reason, I have come to think of the Hindu way of life as something unique to India – or the subcontinent, considering Nepal is right next door. Of course, I’ve known for years that large swathes of Southeast Asia were once Hindu – and I’m not thanking history textbooks from school for this knowledge, because most of India’s own colonial and exploratory past was in those days relegated to footnotes or minuscule paragraphs tucked away among detailed chapters on, mostly, the Guptas, the Mughals and the independence struggle. My knowledge of the practice of Hinduism outside India is pretty much negligible, and visiting Bali was quite an eye-opener in that sense. I had to learn to share Brahma and Saraswati, Vishnu and Lakshmi, Shiva and Parvati with a brand new country: I almost had to get to know these deities afresh, recognise the new physical forms that the Cholas or Raja Ravi Varma did not have much to do with.

That religion is very important to the Balinese is extremely evident at every step. There were two things common to most Hindu establishments we came across: one, offerings in little leaf trays left out at the doorstep, and two, the almost maniacal adoration for the Mahabharata dubbed in Bahasa on TV. Our Hindu tour guide, W, was most helpful while explaining things to us, quite amused at our eagerness to understand a culture which was so close to our own and still so mysterious.

“We have a ceremony for everything,” he said, as we drove past a few temples all decked up, yellow flags fluttering in the wind. Indeed, so they did, for most of the temples we passed seemed to be preparing for a ceremony or cleaning up after one. Every family home has a temple within its walls, explained W, pointing at the tiered structures rising out of the compounds. The Balinese obviously take their prayer very seriously, rising at dawn and allotting enough time throughout the day to their rituals. However, what impressed us most was that their faith wasn’t restricted to spending time in their sacred shrines.

Ceremony

Everywhere we went, we were greeted with smiles and gentle curiosity; Bali wasn’t opulent in the material sense, but there was enough happiness to share. When we remarked on this, our guide attributed it to the strong belief in karma and rebirth. This faith is so rigid among the Balinese that when a baby is born, the family visits an astrologer (of the tantric kind, as I understand) to find out who it was in its previous birth. They are also known to bury the placenta to ensure that the baby is reborn in the same family. I have never known what to make of rebirth, explaining it to myself in simple terms as the transfer of energy from one body to another, and I’m not quite sure how the Balinese explain the idea – but as a means to keep people on the straight and narrow, it seems to be a very useful concept. The Balinese greeting, Om Swasti Astu, translates to “May God bless you always”, perhaps in this birth and the next?

Procession

W was rather conservative about religion and evidently held it very close to his heart. When I asked him what he thought of the influx of tourists in Bali, he pointed out that though it was useful for the economy and for creating jobs, it affected local culture. “Our youngsters are getting increasingly influenced by Western culture,” – a common refrain in India as well – “and the focus on tourism is also affecting local architecture. The new buildings are boring and don’t use traditional elements much.”

The Hindus of Bali have suffered much, says W. As the years continue to go by, these memories remain fresh in their minds, and perhaps make them cling to their faith more vigorously than ever before. What is quite astonishing is that the Indonesian form of Hinduism seems to have changed little since it first arrived on the islands, and maybe owes its continued purity as much to external factors as to the determination of its people to keep it intact.

A Presentation Gone Awry

*This is a rant.*

I attended an event to mark Global Handwashing Day this morning, and when it started only three minutes late, I was quite optimistic. These are disciplined people who respect the idea of punctuality, I thought, especially because the conference was being conducted by two highly reputed organisations. However, I should have known from the agenda, which listed as many speakers as Arnab packs into one session of The Newshour, that punctuality was going to be a difficult virtue to practise.

The first three speakers together took up about 90 minutes instead of their allotted 45; naturally, this left the most articulate speaker on the panel short of time. But as this can be expected in most Indian conferences, I’ll move to the points that particularly irked me.

1. The presenters thoughtfully prepared hundreds of slides to discuss in fifteen-minute slots. This isn’t even possible.

2. Each slide resembled a page of my dissertation. Bullet points exist for a reason. If you write paragraphs on your slides, then go on to read them, and then explain them, you must consider your audience very dumb indeed.

3. Repetition. The Internet is a very large source, but somehow most presenters managed to mention the same facts and figures, and even the same comparisons. There were three mentions of how, despite having worked on missions to the moon and to Mars, we perform poorly on certain social indicators (and if this appears in a foreign newspaper, the same people will probably cry foul).

4. There was a lurid image in one of the slides. This was totally uncalled for. Talk about the work you do by all means to create an impression. You don’t have to use a disturbing image in your presentation, but if you absolutely must, warn people before you display it.

5. There was a gatecrasher at the event. One of the speakers acted pettishly when he couldn’t get the videos embedded in his slides to work, getting all irritated with a staff member who had set up the projector (!). So when a young man offered to fill in as nobody else wanted to go extempore, he was ready allowed to speak. All swagger, the young man proceeded to relate a remote “incident” to describe how much he was loved and adored by some people he knew, following which he recited a “poem” he had written. I hope he realised that he had just pulled a coup. Actually, this didn’t annoy me: it was funny.

6. If I wanted to attend endless lectures which didn’t encourage debate or discussion, I’d just go back to college. The organisers had set apart 25 minutes for a discussion, but thanks to some speakers’ ineptitude, there was no time for it.

7. Practise what you preach. If you want to tell people in what ways they should invest their time and money, you should set an example yourself. You could begin by respecting the time of those who have come to listen to you. Don’t mess with the schedule, and then condescend to take one grand question at the end as a nod to the rules.

The marathon lecture on the importance of hygiene ended at two and the party broke for lunch. And not surprisingly, everyone made a beeline for the buffet tables, effectively rendering the lessons on washing hands useless. Maybe we didn’t deserve any better.

To Bali

Blue conical hills misted in white rise from the far depths, reminding me a great deal of The Lost Horizon, except that there is no snow here, just blue land followed by blue sea. Where does land end and where does the sea begin? Where in the world, actually, are we? The Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere or right over the Equator, buying into the allure of famous imaginary lines?

I love islands: small specks on willful waters formed through dubious means, absorbed into countries in the most mysterious ways. Islands, in my head, are capricious. Who knows when the one you’re sunning yourself on will suddenly take it in its head to tip over and dump you into the very waters whose aquamarine shimmer you were admiring not too long ago? Sadly, they are all too vulnerable to the vagaries of nature – but that doesn’t stop them being attractive, maybe for that very reason.

I’m quite convinced that the green-blue endlessness underneath is Java, when the coastline of Bali comes into view, settling the debate once and for all. Stony cliffs drop into the sea and we are reminded of pictures of Gold Coast from movies: little do we know that Bali could almost pass off for Australia, thanks to the number of Australian tourists it draws owing to its proximity to Perth. We watch palm-lined roads and red-roofed establishments come into view, and as we begin landing realise that the runway juts spectacularly into the sea. However, the pilot changes his mind at the very last minute and takes off again, treating us to a sumptuous view of the island as he circles overhead. This is a ride we haven’t bargained for, but we’ll take it with pleasure, thank you very much.

***

I almost visited Indonesia five years ago when I spent a year in Singapore: the names Java and Sumatra were so magical, just the way names of distant, elusive places are. I didn’t make it; not even as far as Bintan which was less than an hour away by ferry. The reason? Someone spooked my flatmates about the harsh sun, telling them they’d come back all baked and burnt. (If you’re reading this, I still haven’t forgiven you for it.) I was never the intrepid single traveller myself, so I stayed home meekly, contenting myself with trips to the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Peranakan Museum to learn about the unknown.

***

When I read the street names and the shop names on the road from Denpasar to Kuta, a wave of familiarity washes over me. I think of the Malay directions on signboards in Singapore; of the “Berhati-hati di ruang platform” announcement every time the train stopped at a station. For a fleeting moment, it’s like being home, or going backwards in time. Will I wake up in my bed in the eighteenth-floor flat in squeaky-clean Punggol, Heidi-like, with the rain beating down on the windows?

Both of us are in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time, and it feels like a major achievement. It is perhaps silly to let man-made geographic distinctions impress you so much, but for some reason they do. The road to Kuta is generously dotted with shops and hotels. Giant statues rise from roundabouts: “Partha,” says our guide, pointing at the man on the chariot near the airport, and elsewhere, “Bheema”. Guardian deities swathed in black-and-white checked cloth stand on stone pedestals at several junctions, much like the ubiquitous Ganeshas of Indian roads. The island is mostly Hindu, as opposed to the rest of Indonesia which is largely Islamic, and as practising Hindus we are very keen to observe how Hinduism is interpreted in Indonesia.

The car drives us through streets chock-a-block with shops selling colourful things you’ll want but rarely ever need, “all the pretty superfluities which the East holds out to charm gold from the pockets of her Western visitors”, as Susan Coolidge put it, but I’d comfortably omit the adjective Western. They can wait, however: we first have to check in, eat, and poke around like two nosy squirrels dazzled by everything that is new and delightful to our unaccustomed eyes.

A Bride in Madras

I’ve finally arrived in Madras, city no. 8 in six years. I’m quite taken by this lovely place whose inhabitants seem to prefer the guillotine to moving elsewhere even for a short space of time; where proud British street names jostle for existence with the names of Tamil reformers/politicians/artistes. I’ve been here for just about a week (and a few odd weekends), and I’ve seen Mount Road, Cathedral Road, Marina Beach, Virugambakkam, Turnbulls Road and Anna Nagar: there’s a motley set of areas for you. I’ve been to Express Avenue and Phoenix Velachery. Plans to visit the Anna Centenary Library keep running into obstacles (anyone know if you can get a membership there?), but I’ll make it sooner or later. In the meantime, I have the books bargained for and bought from the tent opposite CMBT, and as I’m not in the mood for life-changing reading now, Nick Hornby will serve me well for a while.

The usual “weather-water change” effects notwithstanding, I’m determined to enjoy myself. It’s always exciting to move to a new city and study people: I’ve made friends with kindly shop-owners who grumble only a little when you choose closing time to begin shopping for supplies for a whole month, and got to know (superficially, because you don’t want deep discussions on seemantham plans) heavily powdered maamis who offer you blouse pieces, betel leaves and areca nuts, and a hundred-rupee note with a one-rupee coin to attest your newly-married status. What is really fascinating though is the universal obsession with jasmine flowers. When I went to see the house my husband lived in earlier, the elderly neighbour, a Christian widow, came up to offer her congratulations. After a couple of minutes of small talk, she went inside and emerged again with a string of jasmine flowers in her hand. “I noticed you don’t have any flowers in your hair,” she said. “My eldest son is married to a Brahmin girl.” – by way of explanation. The cleaning lady in the house we live in now said to me this afternoon, “I’ll get you some flowers in the evening. Wear them in your hair.” Little gestures, lovely people.

In the two weeks since I’ve been married, I’ve performed about a hundred namaskarams and been blessed with at least twenty sons and two daughters. Those without a specific gender bias have just recommended four or five children in general, so I’ve left them out of the count. Not quite not-so-lovely people, they have their hearts in the right place, they just don’t know what my husband and I want. I’ve seen numerous temples in Tamil Nadu, but I’ll save the interesting bits from that trip for another post.

I meet new people every day: relatives, friends, neighbours who couldn’t make it to the wedding or are just spurred on by curiosity. While I look for work, I fill in the gaps with the Chennai edition of the Times of India (don’t fret, we’re switching to The Hindu soon), learning to decipher Tamil movie names, complicated in part by atrociously elaborate fonts. I awake to bright sunshine at 6.30 am, wipe the perspiration off my brow, then roll over and go back to sleep, entirely unlike the ideal Narasu’s coffee model. Later in the day, I shake my fist at the dark clouds that gather menacingly during the day and disperse meekly at night. I look forward to the unknown.

Life has changed, but in a way that I can’t explain. For the first time in months, I’m not shopping for earrings or clothes or footwear, dreading facials and make-up sessions, or spending excruciating hours at the boutique, trying to convince them that I want my blouse to be more functional than ornamental. I am finally able to read a book without spending a whole hour on one paragraph. I’m listening to new music, using wi-fi, living by the sea (well, almost). I’m at peace again, even if it’s still early days.

For the uninitiated:

seemantham = baby shower; maami = middle-aged/elderly woman; namaskaram = saluting your elders

Rain in the Western Ghats

“Coffee time, five minutes!”

There is a scramble for the doors, even though it is only about an hour and a half since we set off on the fourteen-hour long bus journey from Pune to Bangalore. Perhaps it is the appeal of the branches swaying in the wind; who wants to be roasted inside a bus with the barely functioning AC switched off during the “break”? I get off, thinking of the phone conversation I unwittingly eavesdropped on earlier in the evening, hearing a man ask solicitous questions about Ammu’s purushan (husband). What does a grown-up Ammu look like? I have always associated the name with the little girl who saved her fisherman father from drowning in the sea in a Tinkle Holiday Special story from the early nineties, and as you probably know, little girls in stories cannot be allowed to grow up.

The five minutes stretch, inevitably, to fifteen. In this space, dark clouds from behind the hotel have come rolling over our heads and moved farther out over the Western Ghats. The jagged tops of the ranges are visible in the distance; a conical hill sticks out incongruously from amidst a cluster of settlements. A sinister blue darkness is rapidly swallowing everything in sight- everything but the vehicles hurtling down the highway, that is, a blur of colours attempting to beat the rain, silly things. I won’t be counting the stars or marvelling at the clear air of the countryside tonight, that is for sure.

As if to prove my premonition right, just when the bus begins its ascent up the twisting ghat roads, the clouds burst open with a dramatic flourish. The bus jolts through ruts connected by slender strips of road. Thunder rumbles across the mountains and lightning bares the exposed whiteness of white tree trunks, freezing them momentarily during their dervish-dance. The rain cascades down the window-panes in thick, rippling sheets; the raindrops caught in the odd beam of light are like furious, sharp arrows. Dark, hulking forms leap out of corners (eventually turning out to be battered barrels left around by construction workers), and the lightest creak inside the bus makes you jump. For all you know, the rest of the world has ceased to exist. The first signs of rain must have sent the electricity department officials scampering to turn off the lights in the city, so with the valley plunged into darkness, all that we know of now is the storm and the truck ahead of us inching its way up the road laboriously. You can’t stop on these roads, you just have to keep swimming through the rain, the wheels sending tall jets of water flying on either side.

One of the passengers is on his phone, ignoring the splendid rainstorm to give serious advice on how to choose the right MBA course. Another man digs out his film music playlist, which seemingly consists only of one half of every song. He runs from Dhak Dhak to Munbe Vaa to an unidentifiable Anuradha Paudwal song, before settling on a bhajan. An odd choice, I think: or is he suddenly feeling religious like the lady I came across on a trip to Sikkim, who, realising that our car was severely stuck in some stubborn slush, began reciting the Hanuman Chalisa frantically?

As a Vinod Rathod song comes on, the man next to me starts snapping his fingers and singing along. His rhythm is all over the place, but at least he isn’t sitting upright in his seat any longer, looking straight ahead and holding on for dear life. He is also no longer calling people in different parts of Maharashtra and asking them if they are receiving any paus, before proceeding to give them a detailed weather report with relish. It does look like the rain will never stop, though, and as we ease onto a level stretch on our way back to civilization, the bus joins a melee of other racing vehicles, all slithering and bumping home through deep puddles on undulating roads.

Update: At 2 am, the moon has struggled through the clouds and I see more stars than I have all of last month in Bangalore or Pune. And with that, the illusion of monsoon has passed.

In and out of love with the world

The sun goes down in a fiery haze as the bus inches through the traffic into the hills. At this time of the year, the Western Ghats are plain and barren. The monsoon-nurtured green carpets are only a dim memory as the rocky surface of the ancient hills glows orange-gold, catching the last faint sunrays.

I have just started reading Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s magnificent story that demands the suspension of all belief, but still doesn’t sound entirely implausible. I want to believe in the idea of Shangri-La, and even as the plane in which Conway and party are travelling approaches the stunning snow-covered peaks of the Kunlun range, my imagination persists in thinking that the next turn in the road will unfurl some sort of mystery. From the book’s blurb, I am led to believe that a kind of mysterious paradise lies in wait for the lost travellers: so why shouldn’t I find my own haven, a garden wreathed in mist perhaps, or a stray mountain peak that winter forgot to disown and the tropical latitudes declined to appropriate? The twisting roads are crowded with vehicles of all shapes and sizes, but the knowledge that these hills have stood here since the beginning of time and are more permanent than any of us lends credence to my most fanciful imaginings.

But then comes a rude shock: I’m on a public bus, and I am destined to have beside me an over-enthusiastic middle-aged man who wants to know where I work, where I live, whether I can find a job for his “cousin sister”. He tears open a packet of Lays chips as we enter a dimly-lit tunnel and holds it out to me. I decline more icily than I mean to. He turns to the little TV mounted on the seat in front, watching first a Hindi soap-opera with heavily made-up women pouting, crying and snarling at one another, then a different drama in the form of politicians’ shenanigans. He hogs the arm-rest and fidgets around when his TV stops working. No Shangri-La, this.

Night falls and the loud mother, the excited child and the giggling teenager all go to sleep, as does the man in the seat next to mine. Nobody snores, thankfully, and I slip back into Hilton’s mysterious world. What is it about the inhospitable reaches of freezing mountain-tops that is so attractive? Perhaps it is the charm of extreme cold, the pull of the unknown for someone used to hot, humid weather. There is something more appealing, for instance, about a Buddhist monastery perched on a mountain slope than on an idyllic tropical island. Just like the idea of Vespers echoing in an Orthodox cathedral in cold Russia or camping on the windswept plains of Mongolia seems tantalising. Or this could be entirely subjective, I can’t really say.

I’d tell you more about Lost Horizon but I’m afraid I’ll spoil it for you if you want to read it. I must go now and see how it ends- I must know if it will disappoint or make me rejoice or leave me with mixed feelings, the last of which seems most likely. This is because I am much too inured to the charms of the physical (or illusory) world to readily accept a cloistered existence, comfortable though it may be, but enough in love with solitude to want my own corner in the mountains. Maybe I should attribute this confusion to the changes that have taken place in my life lately, and then I’ll know it isn’t such a bad thing after all. I haven’t changed entirely, after all. I still enjoy the touch of rain on my skin, listen to birds and talk to trees. Only, there is a new invigorating sensation underlying everything, and it is one of the most pleasant things that I have ever known.

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