By GANESH SAILI
I guess it was up until the late 1970s that Mussoorie had the dubious distinction of being called the Ghost Capital of India. In those days almost every other house had its own resident ghost. To the east lay Haunted House, which had burnt down in 1890 and for almost a hundred years it became a favourite hangout for couples seeking privacy in an overcrowded hill station. Westwards sprawled the ruins of Bellevue which had a similar reputation on account of its Nainital-pattern roof which creaked and groaned with changes of temperature.
Who can forget Bhoot Aunty? She would be dressed like a bride, waving down cars around Chunakhala. But she hasn’t been sighted recently.
There was a time when Dayal Singh, our taxi-driver, would tell us: ‘If you see her, don’t stop or look into her eyes. Keep going. Don’t even think of giving her a lift unless you want to end up as a ghost.’
Or take Rajvir Handa, an old Landour resident, who loved going out for walks along the Chukkar. At a new bed-and-breakfast bungalow, he spotted guests who were all packed and ready, hurrying to settle their bill.
‘You checked in for a week’ grumbled the Manager. ‘Why are you leaving so early?’
‘That memsahib with her wailing kids, tapping on the windows all night long, would not let us sleep a wink.’
‘There is no such memsahib with kids staying with us!’ said the Manager evenly. ‘Exactly! That’s why we are leaving!’
Though you have no need to fear the dog of non-descript descent, who attaches itself to you, following you to the top of the hill. He’s a friendly fellow who gives you company as you go past the spot where those craftsmen of the past plied their trade making belts, saddles and shoes for the Redcoats two hundred years ago. Then he vanishes, leaving behind the echo of hammers beating leather or maybe the thumping of your heart trying to jump into your throat.
Among other ethereal denizens is a playful ghost at an old school along Oak Road, who likes to make merry at night on the seesaws in the school grounds. It leaves most folks nonplussed, that is only till they too lose their nerve at the sight of empty seesaws going up and down on their own. ‘Don’t ever touch one of those swings at night!’ the night-watchman warns me. ‘I did and got this either-or gait!’
Going past the ruins of the Crown Brewery ruins in Barlowganj, you could chance upon a pretty thing dressed all in white hanging around on a dark moonless night. Nobody knows who she was, or whom she waited for. Or, for instance, on Camel’s Back– once upon a time a favourite rendezvous for lovers – there used to be a fair sprinkling of ghosts, that is only until modern God-men arrived. Wisely, the ghosts fled.
The other day a friend of mine came home from dinner at a neighbour’s place to find her front gate open.
As I climbed up the steps to the house, I noticed the side gate too was open. Then I saw her, like an apparition, all dolled up, though bare-footed, sitting on the swing that she had most painstakingly decorated with flowers plucked from my garden.’ She tells me, adding: ‘Look! I’m still getting goosebumps telling you!’
As I write, my friend is still struggling to get over the shock of coming home to a stranger on your patio, looking so relaxed and at home.
‘I asked her to leave, which, thankfully, she did. She made her way back to one of the many Air bed-n-breakfast places that have come up near our home.’ she sighs.
Uncontrolled over-tourism continues to ring the death knell of our hill stations. While we do need tourism to keep the home fires going, it has to be linked with our carrying capacity. Our narrow lanes were meant only for rickshaws, certainly not for bumper to bumper XUVs.
This is a final wake-up call. Let us not kill the goose that lays the golden egg for unlike ghosts, we cannot disappear.
Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.