As Halloween approaches, the author is reminded of the many ghost tales that do the rounds of the night-time streets, rather like the denizens of unquiet graves in the city’s cemeteries are alleged to do
Halloween brings to mind spooks, goblins, hobgoblins, vampires and of course, bhoots and churails, who supposedly come out on Oct 31 night, the eve of the feast of All Hallows, as though in a show of weird annual solidarity. For those fond of ghost-hunting, the ideal place to seek the bizarre and unworldly can only be the cemetery. The Capital has many graveyards, but the ones in Old, South and North Delhi (take it with the proverbial pinch of salt) are said to “teem with spirits”. Rajpur Road, where many of those buried in the Ajmeri Gate cemetery found a new resting place after it was uprooted to make room for the railway station, is one such. It is from there that a soldier carrying his heart on a sword is said to emerge at midnight and walk up to Pant Hospital. Paharganj cemetery has a tombstone that trembles on All Saints’ Day (November 2), and Nicholson Cemetery, some say, has a whole family which haunts not only it but also the neighbouring area. The apparition includes a little boy who leads the rest. At Kashmere Gate, Brig-Gen John Nicholson is no longer spotted walking with long strides after his statue was removed.
Qudsia Garden, famous for its Masonic Lodge, allegedly has spirits, presumably of lodge members who met there for secret meetings, considered by the hoi polloi as “sessions with the devil”. Some of those buried in the St James’ Church cemetery are said to walk around the compound, in which also rests William Fraser, who was murdered in 1935. Fraser is believed to ride on a horse up to his erstwhile mansion (now housing Hindu Rao Hospital).
The Beresford family of the manager of the Lahore-Delhi Bank in Chandni Chowk, killed in 1857, is said to visit the chowk on certain nights. It must be a long trek for them as they were buried in the Lothian Road Cemetery. Delhi Gate is haunted by a young woman, the sound of whose payal (silver anklets) sometimes scares passers-by. The Red Fort lawn, believe it or not, is the scene of a procession of dead kings and queens, while the Khooni Darwaza is stated to be haunted by the Mughal princes shot there by Lt. Hodson.
The graveyard behind a newspaper office in Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg is said to be the spot from where spirits come to disturb those sleeping after night duty. One of those who recounted such an incident was Vernon Ram, a noted sports editor of the 1960s. It was the phantom of an old woman who pulled his hair and that of his friend lying near by, asking them in a nasal voice to go and rest elsewhere.
Halloween makes such memories greener, more so when one visits Mehrauli, where the first Delhi Halloween (some credit Gen. Ochterlony for it) was supposedly observed at the summer residence of Sir Thomas Metcalfe, who succeeded Fraser as British Resident at the court of Akbar Shah. But his daughter, Emily doesn’t mention it in her book, “The Golden Calm”. Subsequent Halloweens were presumably observed at Metcalfe House until the time of Sir Theophilus Metcalfe, who died in 1883.
Talking of Metcalfe House, a late DRDO scientist, Dr. S.K. Sharma, used to relate how blood-curdling cries were heard in his office at night, housed in the 19th century mansion. Sometimes it was the sound of a clanking chain as though a prisoner was being led to his execution, in the basement (once used as a torture chamber) and sometimes the eerie screams of the condemned.
Another story of Halloween at Mehrauli is about a raja who is said to have died under mysterious circumstances while his English host and hostess looked on in horror and the other guests just scampered away with their wives and children.
Now besides the foreign embassies, Halloween get-togethers are held in big hotels and are the cause of much amusement as neo-rich families in ghostly attire try to frighten each other. That reminds one of a girl migrant from Karachi who died of shock at her uncle’s doorstep in the U.S. when a boy wearing a ghoulish pumpkin-head accosted her. Maybe the Raja too died the same way, though the credulous believed that it was the devil himself (to whom he had “sold his soul”) who had come to collect his due.
In the 1970s, a foreign journalist, dressed as a wizard, gave such a fright to his girlfriend that she fainted in the dark passage of the Halloween venue. But the good news is that they got married not long after in London — which rivals New York on Halloween night. Surprisingly enough, nearly half the participants are those who do not believe in an after-life. So where does the question of spirits good or bad come in?
But, undeterred by this, what do you say of those who are convinced that an ethereal spirit plays the harmonium at the Prithviraj Road cemetery, and the War Cemetery in Brar Square sometimes reverberates to the pensive notes of a dead bugler sounding the last post!
CORRECTION: It was mentioned that All Souls’ Day precedes Halloween. The reference was to All Saints’ Day. The error is regretted.