After the Partition, administrative offices of Lahore’s Punjab University (later, Panjab University, Chandigarh) were shifted to the cantonment barracks in Solan (Himachal Pradesh). Situated high on the hills, the new habitation was surrounded by dense pine trees and deep gorges. It was not long before the inhabitants started fearing that the locality was haunted by churails (witches). Local people often noticed a slow-moving flame in the forest at night. A majority of the residents stopped moving out of home after dark.
After a series of meetings, it was decided that a tantrik should be hired. There was marathon haggling with a few tantriks; finally, one was engaged for ‘guaranteed’ freedom from bhoots and churails at a price of Rs 15, that too in advance. The tantrik and his aide, draped only in a loincloth, with a vermilion mark on the forehead and ash on the body, started conducting rituals at night which were beyond anybody’s comprehension. ‘In 15 days, bad spirits will vanish forever from this place,’ the tantrik proclaimed.
However, his efforts came a cropper; even after more than one month, the movement of the flame after dark persisted. Again, there were several rounds of meetings. It was not long before a consensus emerged: a group of 10 volunteers would face the churails on Tuesday night. It was decided that the group members would keep reciting verses from Hanuman Chalisa during the daring operation in an attempt to fearlessly stay focused on the job.
On the appointed night, the intrepid volunteers started their journey into the ‘haunted’ forest. Pitch darkness and the dreadful sound of wind in the pines could not deter the mini army from its mission. Suddenly, a volunteer shouted, ‘The flame is coming closer!’ Every group member started shivering. When the flame was only a few feet away, there was a shout, ‘Any problem, gentlemen?’ It was a well-attired couple with a lantern.
Without waiting for questions from the stunned group, the man said, ‘We are Mrs and Mr John William; we reside just at the end of this forest and love strolling in the dark.’ The entire group was left speechless by this British couple that had preferred to stay back after 1947 rather than return to the UK.
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