The Saga of the 'Haunted' Press Club
A father-daughter duo discovers the truth behind the spooky happenings.
It was a cold and wet evening in February 1993. Delhi was enveloped in fog. The visibility was poor -- we could hardly see five metres ahead of us -- and I had to drive at a dead slow pace. The way from Mayur Vihar at the eastern periphery of the mega city to the old colonial centre seemed to take ages. It was past nine o'clock when we finally passed the entrance gate of the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) premises on Mathura Road.
The chowkidar saluted. Shakeel was a lanky man seemingly in his 50s, clearly gripped by fear and immersed in the tale of a resident ghost at the FCC that had been spreading fast.When I stopped my old Maruti in front of the building, he came up. "Don't go in, sir," he pleaded in a whisper. "It's dangerous ... the Burnt One could come out again. He may kill you." The rumour of the Burnt One was the newest addition to the legend of the 'haunted' club.
Many years back, as the unverified story goes, a worker in the house had been burnt to death in his quarters, and over time, "his restless soul had developed a thirst for blood". "Don't worry, Shakeel. Nothing will happen," I laughed. "And anyway, I am not alone." He tried to peep through the foggy car window, and when the passenger door opened, Sakthy, my daughter, jumped out. She was 11 at the time -- a delicate little figure with close-cropped hair, moving about speedily, with great confidence. Greeting the puzzled chowkidar with a big smile, Sakthy bounded past us into the old Lutyens' bungalow.
Bringing her along was not my idea. She insisted on accompanying me, and, as always, I had not been able to say no. So we had equipped ourselves with woollen blankets and provisions for a long, cold night ahead and looked forward to spending some time together at the FCC.
I asked Shakeel to help me bring our luggage into the club, but he just shook his head and went back to his post. His hands were shaking, I noticed.
With her Monchhichi doll [a Japanese brand of stuffed toy monkeys] under her arm, Sakthy had, meanwhile, started inspecting the building. I joined her on the first floor. Together, we checked the locked doors, entered every open room and sussed out corners and looked behind each curtain.
Not that we expected to catch a ghost hiding anywhere. I simply wanted to make sure that no one -- some self-appointed propagator of myths involving 'evil spirits' -- was lurking there to surprise us. With the media picking up the story, and building it up with all its frills, it could well attract some psychopath or jokester keen to get involved.
But we found nobody in the building and everything seemed in fine order. We made ourselves comfortable in the huge lounge suite near the entrance hall and poured us a hot cup of tea from the thermos flask.
Sakthy did not waste time in taking me up on my promise. We had agreed that I would tell her stories from the Panchatantra. It was a wonderful evening. Sakthy was cheerful, loving that we could spend this time together. While we were immersed in the stories, chatting and laughing, drinking tea and nibbling chocolate toffees, the clock in the lobby rang 10 … 11 and then 12. Time passed without anything special happening.
It was time for Sakthy to sleep, but she would not agree to call it a day. Wrapped in our blankets, we sat quietly side by side, when all of a sudden a piercing scream broke the silence. I jumped to my feet, opened the room door and peered into the foggy darkness of the courtyard. There was nothing to be seen, but it was clear that the shriek came from the direction of the gate.
I took Sakthy by the hand and together we went over to check what was going on. Reaching the gate, we found the door of the small guardroom standing ajar. When I pushed it open, the terrible scream shrilled again -- from the person straight in front of us.
Rolling his eyes and howling hysterically, a young man with a woollen cap was crouching on the floor, gazing at us as if he had seen the devil. "What happened?" I asked him, but he was not in a position to answer. He gasped for breath. There was nobody else around. It took some time to calm the chap down and understand his problem. His name was Raman. He was the watchman of the second shift starting at midnight.
After exchanging a few words with Shakeel upon entering the premises, he sat alone in the room when he noticed the light on the ground floor of the club. As nobody had informed him about our presence, he was convinced the ghost was going about in search of a victim and had screamed in horror.
It was not easy to talk him out of his hysteria. Sakthy supported my efforts by placing her hand on his trembling arm and offering him toffees from her pocket. It was past 1 a.m. when we returned to the sofa and shared a last cup of lukewarm tea. Sakthy looked thoughtful.
"Achu! What are we actually doing here? Sitting and waiting for a creature that does not exist?!" I explained that we were the subjects in a scientific experiment that was conducted to gather evidence and make a case for what we both already knew. "This evidence would convince others. Would it?" She sounded sceptical. Obviously, the screaming guard had upset her. She wrinkled her forehead.
"Achu, why do people believe that the ghost exists in the first place? Some people even swear until they are blue in the face that they have seen it with their own eyes! How can that be possible? Isn't it crazy?!"
Of course it was. But I had some idea how this disquieting situation had developed and how it could be resolved. "Please tell me!" She looked at me with big eyes. And so I decided to share the results of my investigation with her. [He was invited by the then FCC president.]
"The barman, Rahul, is the kingpin of the story. If you recall, he was the first person who claimed he had encountered the ghost. And he was all alone in the house at that time. No witnesses." I continued, "It was only after Rahul told the story repeatedly and with all the colourful details to everybody at the club -- and later to the press -- that others also 'saw' the ghost."
"So, he made it up?" she asked.
"In a way, yes."
"Is he a bad person? Was he deliberately doing this?" Sakthy asked.
"No. He suffers from hallucinations. That means he believes that he sees and hears and feels things that are actually not there. Many people may have occasional hallucinations -- when they have high fever or are drunk or when they have enormous fears," I explained. "But Rahul seems to have hallucinations even without such reasons. He seems to be a psychopathological case ..."
"You mean he is crazy?"
"Well … I'd say it is an illness."
"OK. But what about the blue spots on his arms? Imagining a beating would not cause blue spots, would it?" Eleven-year-olds can be sharp thinkers.
"True. We cannot be sure how it happened. He could have fallen down during the imagined fight. Or he may have created the spots himself without knowing it. Sometimes, people are not aware of the strange things they do, or perhaps there are things they don't remember later."
She nodded. "So, he sees this ghost because he is ill. Did he see a doctor?"
"I don't think he did. He may find it quite normal to meet a ghost. And by the way, the press club ghost is not the first one in his life. We know that he has been troubled by non-existing creatures for many years. When I met him and asked for the details, he did not want to tell me much. Going by how he behaved and spoke confirmed that my theory about him was correct."
"How did you get to know about his other ghosts?"
"Investigation. Like a policeman."
She was burning with curiosity.
I told her how Rahul, then 26, had started encountering 'evil spirits' at the Indira Gandhi International Airport some six years ago. He was working there at a restaurant and told his colleagues he was terrified by the invisible beings walking across the lounges, leaving huge, bloody footsteps on the floor. But since nobody else could see those footsteps, his story was dismissed.Later, he worked at the Maurya Sheraton, one of Delhi's finest hotels. His former colleagues recalled that he used to tell them about monstrous creatures that hovered at night above his bed, menacing and torturing him. On two occasions, they told me, they heard him suddenly scream at work, as the 'creatures' had followed him into the hotel kitchen. Perhaps this had something to do with why the hotel did not hold on to Rahul for long.
"So many ghosts ... and nobody really cared!" Sakthy asked. "But why are things different now?" That was indeed an intriguing point.
Rahul's breakthrough as a conjurer of ghost stories held the key that could help us understand the conditions and mechanisms that make a superstition a 'bestseller'. I could see various factors accounting for his success. Perhaps his own presentation skills, powered by the psychological strain, had improved. The press club's staff could be a more receptive audience for horror stories than his former colleagues. The lone, often empty, clubhouse on a foggy winter night undoubtedly presented a far more conducive ambience than the 24/7 world of the airport or a five-star hotel. This was compounded by the fact that, in the recent years, the interest of the media and public in haunted houses had grown considerably.
Last, but not least, there was another very powerful factor at work: the business interest of Rahul's respective employers. The management of an airport or a leading hotel would always be keen to keep spooky rumours under wraps. Journalists, on the other hand, can rarely resist the temptation of a sensational story.
"OK. That's for Rahul," Sakthy said. "But what about all the other people believing his story and even seeing the ghost? Are all of them ill?"
"Most people have a tendency to see what they expect rather than what is really there," I explained to her. Take the chowkidar, for example. He did not expect us, he had only expected the ghost. Therefore, he was sure it was the ghost that had switched the light on. And even when we both entered the guardroom in person, he mistook us for ghosts and screamed for his life! Had we not been able to convince him otherwise, tomorrow he would tell everybody there was not just one ghost in the club but two -- a big one with a round beard and a tiny one with a boy's haircut and a Monchhichi under its arm. And many would believe him. Maybe some newspapers would even print creepy sketches of us ...
"Like this watchman," I explained, "many people have a vivid imagination and such a high level of fear and insecurity that all it takes is a little spark -- which makes hallucinations kind of infectious. When people of a group or community infect and reinfect each other with new fantastical sightings and claims, panic can escalate to hysterical levels. That is exactly what is happening around this press club now, and it could spread amongst more and more people and spin out of control, if it goes unchecked," I said.
"It's dangerous, isn't it?" said Sakthy, frowning.
"This infection, how can it be stopped?" she asked.
"As with all infections, the earlier it is stopped the better," I said to Sakthy, now seated on the press club sofa. "The best way is to vaccinate all children. The vaccine is 'critical thinking'. If every child was given the chance to develop it, 'evil spirits' would vanish like small pox. And this can be achieved when everybody agrees to do it: politicians, newspapers, schools, scientists. I believe it will happen one day.
But, for now, we have to neutralize the germs of ghosts wherever they spread. In our case, we will have to explain and highlight every contradiction and misinformation, collect evidence and demonstrate that the stories are imaginary. That is exactly what we both are doing here."
Sakthy's eyelids had started drooping. Quietly, she rested her head against my shoulder and dozed off. I tried hard to stay awake. But listening to her deep and constant breathing, I could not hold off sleep for long. When I woke up, it was about 5 a.m. Somebody was knocking on our door. I gently freed myself from Sakthy's arms and went to check.
It was Dara Singh, another chowkidar. Visibly eager to be the first to find out what had happened during the night, he seemed to be both relieved and disappointed when he saw me.I sent him off to buy a pot of hot tea from a nearby street stall. Later, sitting with Dara, the sweeper Vipin and the jitterbug Raman over a steaming cup of heavy, sweet morning brew, I consolidated the result of our vigil: "I have thoroughly checked the entire building and observed it all night," I informed them in a tone that did not permit any doubt.
"Result: there is not the slightest sign of any spirit residing here. I therefore certify that the press club is ghost-free and perfectly safe. The chapter of the haunting is herewith officially closed." I spoke solemnly and with absolute certainty and sealed the triumph with a smile as joyful as the early morning hour permitted.
That worked. Dara, Raman and Vipin would be named as my witnesses.
Sakthy was still sleeping peacefully, embracing the Monchhichi. Though she was 11, she would not sleep without her monkey. In her sleep, she smiled. I felt that her presence had a strong impact on the staff. Slowly, the shadows of fear and doubt on their faces started lifting and finally vanished.
Dara and Vipin started looking confident. They were quite proud to be named witnesses. Perhaps they would be quoted in the next day's newspapers and their friends and families would celebrate them as heroes. Even Raman looked relaxed. I had promised him, confidentially, that nobody would get to know about his screaming episode.
A couple of minutes later, the first local press reporter entered the club. It was business as usual.
Sanal Edamaruku is the founder-president of Rationalist International, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association and the author of 25 books. In 2012, he was charged by the Catholic Church with blasphemy for examining a "miracle" at a local church in Mumbai. Facing threats to his life in India, he moved to Finland and continues his work from there. This story appears in his upcoming book My Incredible India.
Sakthy Edamaruku is the mother of a four-year-old, and hopes to raise her daughter with a critical, scientific mind. After eight years as a TV journalist, she is now a strategic media adviser for a foreign mission in New Delhi.