Sunday, January 6, 2008

Journeys into other worlds

Amar and I were returning from an assignment in the old corner of the city. It was a bitterly cold December night. Must’ve been about two in the morning and the narrow roads of Old Delhi wore a deserted look. A gentle mist floated in like a shy apparition. Other than blinking traffic lights and a snoring Amar in the passenger seat, the city seemed devoid of any signs of life. Lost in thought on these unfamiliar roads, soon I was lost indeed. I drove around in circles, past shanty hovels, shuttered shops, and sleeping clusters of ‘pavement people’, bundled up in rags and blankets, but not a soul stirred; no signs to follow, no passersby to ask… And then I saw the gate – black and spiked; a shadow moved. I stopped the car; ran to the gate, hoping to find someone I could ask directions of. I knocked on the iron gates. “Koi hai?... Koi Hai??” but there was no response. I stepped back from the gates and picked the details on it. An embossed cross; above it a sign in black but rust had eaten away at the paint. Brushing aside a mild uneasiness, I tried to peer inside. Squeezing an eye and half a nose into the narrow gap between the gate and the wall, I looked inside. As my eyes got used to the darkness, I saw the shape of a cross, then another, and another; they were everywhere, scores of them, maybe more in the shadows… This was a burial ground! Spooked, I felt a slight chill run down the back of my neck. I made a conscious effort not to run back to the car in order not to look foolish and was walking towards it when I spied a man sitting next to a handcart further down the lane… Recent events having exorcised my sense of adventure, I felt it was prudent to not leave poor, unsuspecting Amar dozing in the car and so I woke him up. Together, we entered the dark narrow lane and found our man – a paranthawala. Famished, we thought of sampling his wares before asking him for directions. As we started eating, our paranthawala started talking…

“This graveyard’s very old, sahab. The oldest graves are of soldiers who died during the revolt of 1857”, said the paranthawala. “People see strange things here. A woman in flowing whites carrying a child in her arms has often been seen on the rooftops of houses in this area (called the Christian Colony). Others have seen a headless horseman cradling his head in the wee hours before dawn while some have seen a little child carrying a small coffin who disappears when called.” He was old; high cheekbones, small eyes; with just a tooth to show when he grinned. “Ever seen anything?” Amar asked. “The place where we’re standing is a part of the graveyard. There are graves all around, under your very feet. Everybody here has a story,” he said, motioning us to follow him, and we did, into a maze of lanes, up a narrow staircase, so dark that we had to feel our way through. We reached a landing but ‘one tooth’ was nowhere to be seen. “Where did he go?” asked Amar. “Dunno! Just disappeared!” “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Well, in my shoes, wouldn’t you too?

Just then we heard a voice “Ooper aajao sahib!” We looked up and wondered ‘how much ooper he had in mind’. He had hauled himself up to the roof and wanted us to join him. Once there he showed us where he’d been sleeping when he heard some noise and was woken up by the sound of footsteps. He woke up to see the same woman in white walk past him and jump off the roof. I asked what happened next. He just pointed towards the ledge. We walked up to the ledge, and there below us was the old cemetery. A low, heavy mist hung over the graves and around the gnarled old, trees. “Torn between fear and curiosity, I followed the woman to the ledge. When I looked down, I saw her again… walking along the graves. Wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.” Looking down at the graveyard that night, it did not seem all that impossible a story. We turned back from the ledge but he had disappeared. Neither of us heard him leave. Though we had our backs to him, he had just been talking to us. Where did he go? I looked back at the graveyard, half expecting to see him drift into the mist and the tombs… when he called out “Neeche hoon sahab, aap aajana…”


Final resting places of the dead are often a cause of unrest for the living. The Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois, for instance.

Abandoned now, it was put to ‘posthumous’ purpose in the 1840s and saw its last burial in 1989. In news also for large-scale vandalism, the site is believed to be one of the most haunted graveyards on the planet with reported sightings of walking houses, a two-headed man, flying lights and, of course, the staple women in white. Set to effect in the woods, the Grove is now also bedeviled by the litter left behind by visitors.

Leftovers are however welcome at a burial ground in Gaya, Bihar, where the ghost of an English soldier is reported to hold a particular fondness for tea and biscuits. The residents, claiming to have even been accosted by his apparition demanding snacks, are used to leaving cookies and cakes for the dead man at his grave.

Snacking for the living, however, is possible at a graveyard-turned-restaurant in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. At the New Lucky Cafe, tables are laid amidst painted and decorated graves, where guests make themselves comfortable over the bodies of the dead. No, there’s no flesh on the menu!


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