Spirits of the Raj
Aruti Nayar

British Ghosts and Occult India
by K.R.N. Swamy and Meera Ravi.
Writers Workshop, Calcutta. Pages 206. Rs 350.

ALMOST anyone can recall the spine-chilling effect of ghost stories narrated in muffled tones. The well-researched book by K.R.N Swamy, edited by Meera Ravi, seeks to focus on the ghost stories that became a part of the British in India. Each of the "39 true stories of British ghosts and British occult experiences in India" are documented and authentic experiences and anecdotes, thanks to the input of the British Library London and the British association of Cemetries in South Asia. The narration in direct speech adds to the immediacy of experience and the cadence of the spoken word is more effective in recreating the atmosphere, conjuring up the apparitions and spectres. It was a chance meeting with 88-year-old Mrs Carter that triggered the writer’s search for British ghosts, a formidable task indeed because during the more than 200-year rule, about 2 million people died in the Indian subcontinent.

In the 39 episodes narrated in a matter-of-fact way, sometimes in direct speech without any flourishes and embellishments, we get a glimpse of how the British coped with the "Churel and Ghoul and Djinn and Sprite`85For we have reached Ind—the oldest land, wherein the powers of darkness range."

Whether it is the ghost of Warren Hastings that comes to the bungalow in Lucknow to look for papers that would have prevented his impeachment or Jim Corbett and Cherio’s experiences, tales of the Raj, replete with cuckolded husbands, wives and mistresses, murders and deceit, valour and triumph of spirituality are invariably intertwined with apparitions, mediums and extra sensory perceptions that were felt and experienced by many.

Many tales revolve around the Mutiny of 1857, when mothers could sense imminent deaths of their sons. Astonishingly, on comparing dates and time, it was discovered that back home the mother had either dreamt of the death or been visited by the apparition. A dead soldier even appeared before the commander and asked for his pension to be sent to his mother in England. A mother dreamt two years in advance that her daughter and her husband would be murdered in a dream, and they were in the Mutiny.

Besides ghosts and apparitions, it is also the mediums and sadhus or yogis with special powers that were documented and written about by British, thanks to their penchant for keeping meticulous records of events and chronicling daily happenings. Be it the tale of a sadhu who was interred in the ground for years before being taken out alive or the "tiger men" of the Khasi and Garo hills, who could change their shape at will, each story underlines the element of mystery that might have held in thrall the British who either witnessed it or heard about it.

Ghosts were also the projection of the native experience, the unknown powers that they could not fathom in a strange, land with equally strange traditions and social practices and beliefs totally out of the realm of their experience. The ghostly experiences, at one level, were also the coming to terms with the natives as well as with the inexplicable "forces of darkness." The British rulers had, after all, experienced a milieu that was diametrically opposed to their well-ordered, rational world.

The true ghost stories, however, lack the scare factor, so essential to a spooky tale. One wonders if it is the careful documentation that makes them lose out on the element of fear. In a ghost story it is the nebulous, is-it-true-or-not quality that keeps the reader on edge, once it has been declared that all these stories actually did happen, then the element of mystery vanishes. It is more like a well-anchored record. The writer’s effort is commendable because it is so meticulously carried out. Meera Ravi’s editing is taut but on wishes the stories did not have a standardised tone and tenor. On page 180, mentioning the North Western Province as being in India is an avoidable error.