A spooky yarn!

I don’t believe in ghosts when its day. At night it’s different. It’s dark and you can’t see so well, which makes it easier for them to lurk around. So I grudgingly admit their existence mostly because if they do exist I don’t want to offend their sensibilities.

Now, if you go about bandying that you don’t believe in ghosts, one of them might just take it upon himself or (more scarily) herself just to prove a point.

So I keep myself suitably scared at night to avoid provoking the hell’s angels from dropping by to say hello. I believe in peaceful co-existence with them, one that does not require crossing each other’s path.

Having said that I have some strong likes and dislikes about certain things related to them. For instance, I hate watching horror movies.

I hate myself for getting spooked by them so easily. No self-respecting man should get spooked by these phony ghosts who have disfigured faces, big teeth and gooey stuff oozing out of them.

And for god’s sake why can’t the women in these movies just stick to their rooms? It beats me why they have to go exploring the haunted villa or take a bath in the middle of the night.

The ghosts seem to love catching them in the bathroom, naked. Not that I am complaining, but I get too psyched up by here-the-ghost-appears background music to even enjoy the sight.

But I love listening to ghost stories. In fact, I know quite a few so-called (peace be upon them) real-life stories. Fortunately, I don’t have a first-hand tale of my own.

One of my favourite stories is from my college days at Banaras Hindu University. It’s an ancient tale about one of the hostels located outside the campus. If you have been to Banaras you may have noticed a haveli diagonally opposite the street that leads to the famous Sankat Mochan temple.

This majestic building known as the Mahendrawi hostel was said to be the palace of Maharaja of Dungarpur. Legend has it that the maharaja sold off this palace after his queen committed suicide in her bedroom on the second floor of the building (can’t vouch for the historical accuracy).

It was bought by the owners of a Hindi daily called Aaj in the late 20s. The newspaper’s office functioned from this building for a few years till four of its late-shift employees were found dead in the morning under mysterious circumstances.

It is said that there was no injury mark on their bodies, only their faces betrayed an expression of horror — one can only guess what they saw before dying.

After this incident the building was abandoned again and it became known as a haunted house. Some years later, the Banaras Hindu University took over the palace and turned it into a hostel. It was in the 30s and the sprawling campus had yet to come up.

The university authorities probably figured that young men living there wouldn’t give a damn about ghosts. But they took a precaution and closed the staircase to the second floor on which the maharani had killed herself and those unfortunate newspapermen who were found dead.

To give you an idea of the hostel layout, it was a square structure with a huge courtyard in the centre. The rooms were on three sides as you entered the building from the main entrance with a corridor running across on the three flanks.

Room No 10 in which the story unfolds, is right across the courtyard in the corridor facing the main entrance. It is said that every evening after dark the occupant of the room had a visitor — a young woman.

Here you must remember it is the 30s I’m talking about. A woman visitor that too after dark was an oddity (it is even now) to say the least.

But the occupant of the room for some reason did not find it odd. It is said that the woman came at an appointed time, chatted with the guy for exactly an hour and then left.

Since there was no electricity and the rooms had single occupants, it took a while for the other students to discover that their hostel had a woman visitor every evening.

They began teasing the guy, but since he was a reticent sort, the teasing was not much fun. They used to ask him doesn’t he find it strange that a woman should come to a men’s hostel late in the evening?

But he would just shrug off their queries saying what’s wrong if she comes here? We chat for a while and then she goes.

She always came and sat on the chair right next to the door on the right hand side with her dupatta hanging by the door which remained open. No one knows what they talked.

Some of his fellow students even tried to sneak up through the corridor and try to listen in but they couldn’t make out for sure what they talked. They even tried to follow her after she left the room but always lost her just after she went out of the main gate.

So one day they hatched a plan to find out where this girl comes from. One of the guys sneaked up to the door and tied a thin black thread to her dupatta that always hung by the door while she sat there. They made sure it was a big spool of thread.

After the girl left with the thread still tied they followed her but again lost her right after she went out of their sight into the dark street. There were no streetlamps then.

But this time they knew that the thread would give her away. The boys woke up at the crack of dawn to follow the thread and see where it leads.  The entire bundle of the thread had unspooled. So they followed the black thread out of the hostel.

There’s an alley that leads to the back of the building. They followed the thread patiently and finally where it led had their jaws dropping and legs shaking with fear.

The sun was about to rise and they saw the black thread going down an abandoned well.

Lore has it that the woman never came back after that.

I don’t know how authentic this story is, it could be the figment of some one’s imagination that got passed on from one generation to the other, but old-timers say there used to be a well right behind the hostel.

PS: I hear the hostel has been sold off by the university and a mall or an apartment block will come up in its place. So many of my memories and ghostly tales will get buried in the ruins of this heritage building.

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Cinema, cinema

I love watching movies. Always have, for as long as I remember. I can watch any movie and enjoy it except for the ghost movies and some stupid superhero flicks.

When I was growing up in the late eighties and early nineties, Bollywood was probably going through its worst phase. The super heroes of Hindi cinema were getting older and to hold on to their careers they were starring in senseless potboilers peppered with mind-numbing action and stupid songs with pathetic dance sequences.

But I loved them. Growing up in a small town called Mughal Sarai near Varanasi, that was all you got those days. Cable television had yet to arrive so the two standalone cinema halls in the town were the only places of entertainment.

But even that was an occasional event. For, a 12-year-old kid wouldn’t be allowed to go for a movie alone or even with friends, you had to go with someone older than you. For me and my brother our uncle, who was twice my age, used to be our only hope.

Provided, he was in the mood to tag us along for a movie. And that happened only perhaps once in two or three months. So we had no option but to for the Sunday evening movies on Doordarshan even though they played old flicks from the sixties and seventies.

The most exciting parts of course were the action sequences that unfortunately came only in the last 20 mins when the hero would beat the villain to pulp and police would come only to say “you’re under arrest” to the villain who was by then half dead.

Slowly word started spreading that there was something called cable TV and if you got connection you could see as many movies as you like. I was told that there were channels that showed only movies throughout the day. And you even had English movie channels that showed movies of Hollywood stars you had only heard or read about.

Wow! That sounded so cool. Names like Stallone, Bruce Lee and Schwarzenegger (Arnold’s name I had heard for the first time from a friend who was bragging about having seen a movie called Terminator in Calcutta. But he couldn’t catch the  last name and called him ‘Swizenberger’ ) were filtering in through the grapevine. We couldn’t wait to get the cable connection.

But my parents obviously did not share our excitement. “Cable TV? Your board exams are only six months away,” my mother said, effectively putting an end to the conversation. However, there was a silver lining when after days of pleading she said, “Let your exams get over and if you score well, then we’ll see.”

That was enough motivation to take to studies with a religious zeal. Months passed, exams came and went, I did well despite many odds (a story for another time).

Then came the day we got our cable connection. A dream was fulfilled. Now I could see as many movies as I liked. But alas the Hollywood action flicks I used to dream about were not being shown. I checked the listings in the newspapers everyday and both Hindi & English channels were churning out duds (by my standards because they were not action flicks).

Finally after a few weeks I caught my first Bruce Lee film — “Enter the Dragon”. And my idea of an action film changed forever. Now all the punches of an ageing Dharmendra or Mithun Chakraborty couldn’t hold my attention. I had seen Lee in action.

Then one after the other came Rambo, Terminator, 36 Chambers of Shaolin the list was endless. Some I caught on TV some and on video cassettes (by then the only video shop in town was beginning to stock Hollywood flicks).

Years passed and I graduated to watching serious cinema both in Indian languages and world movies, but even now I feel as excited watching the reruns of those fantastic action flicks that blew me away from watching the tame stuff dished out by Bollywood.