Kolkata wields its midnight magic

Kolkata wields its midnight magic

Ghost walks rekindle interest in city’s heritage as midnight adventurers find out why it has at least 25 kinds of ghosts

SAM Staff,
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It is midnight in the courtyard of Kolkata’s iconic Sir Stuart Hogg Market. A spot that brims with hawkers and haggling customers in the morning is being transformed into a giant communal bedroom. Locals, many of them workers at the market, grab cardboard, rugs, newspapers – whatever they can find or afford – to create a bed.

Streetlights continue to flash brightly. The only privacy here lies in anonymity.

This crowded late-night scene, while typical of a teeming Indian metropolis, is an unlikely start for a “ghost walk”, a heritage tour concept that has drawn growing interest in this eastern Indian city.

It is an idea that is inspired by Kolkata’s famed heritage buildings and, in particular, has flourished with its residents’ abiding fascination for all things paranormal.

Initiated in 2015 by Mr Anthony Khatchaturian, the descendant of a prominent colonial-era Kolkata builder, the walk covers some of the city’s key downtown landmarks, weaving in some spine-tingling ghost stories based around these monuments to widen its appeal.

The idea has clearly succeeded with locals here, who far outnumber tourists on most editions of this walk. Such tours, priced at the equivalent of about S$15 for every participant, are today offered at regular intervals by a host of private tour agencies, including Let Us Go, which held the walk this correspondent went on. It is one of the many walks Kolkata’s heritage entrepreneurs have conceived to make the city’s history more accessible.

GOING ON A GHOST WALK

Curious participants set off in the opposite direction of late-night workers returning home. Traffic by this time is down to a trickle. Couples zoom past on motorcycles, revelling in the privacy, as well as freedom, the city offers late at night. Also, on the streets are goats being herded to end up in briyani cooked in neighbourhood restaurants the day after.

While encountering a ghost would definitely be the highlight, these night-time sights are also part of the tour’s charm.

One of the prominent stops on this tour is at the art deco Statesman House, which once housed the legendary eponymous newspaper. Today, the building, much like its occupant, is a pale shadow of its former self. A story has it that inductees to the paper were sent off at midnight to the archive room, which was believed to be haunted.

The piece de resistance of the tour is Garstin Place, which once housed the office of the All India Radio. One needs to walk past the 18th-century St John’s Church on an empty street to get to this place. Arrival here is timed so that the church bell’s ring can spook the participants, some of whom are already jumpy by this stage.

The radio office building doesn’t exist but the legend of a musician who died here pining for love that was unrequited still does. A banyan tree’s aerial roots sway as if alive to the gentle breeze, adding to the eeriness of the spot. Two ponies, which pop up seemingly from nowhere, amble past the walkers.

In fact, the only “spooky” incident on this tour so far has happened here. On one of his initial tours, Mr Khatchaturian recalls, a couple of women at the back suddenly ran off, with one crying. The moment the group walked in to Garstin Place, the women claimed they could hear piano music.

“They did not know what it was or what to attribute it to until I told them the story of the musician,” he says. It may have been a prank – someone playing a tune on the phone – but the story still regales, and horrifies every group.

This colonial part of the city, which comprises mostly offices, is especially deserted at night. It is also where one of the city’s infamous spots, the Black Hole of Calcutta, is located. The nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, had imprisoned 164 British prisoners of war in this cramped dungeon in June 1756; 143 of them suffocated to death here. There’s practically nothing to remind one of the dungeon, but walkers have cited this spot as one of the more unnerving experiences of the tour.

MsDola Mitra, a city-based journalist who has been on this walk, says she, too, did feel “something” at this spot. “I don’t know if it was something actually out there or my own psyche playing out the horror of the stories I read in history,” she says. “Passing through this area and stopping to listen to the silence where the Black Hole episode took place more than 2½ centuries ago, I kept thinking that this ghost walk is really about you psyching yourself out,” she adds.

Participants sharing their personal ghost stories while on the walk is an integral part of this midnight tour’s appeal. And if you are a fierce rationalist, there is still plenty to give you the heebie-jeebies. A truck that shatters the night’s silence when it comes to an abrupt screeching halt at a traffic light. A large, scurrying rat amid rustling plastic refuse. Stray dogs that glare you down, feeling threatened to see humans challenge their nocturnal ownership of Kolkata’s streets.

SPOOKY BY DAY AS WELL

However, one doesn’t have to wait past midnight to experience the eerie side of this city. Kolkata can appear haunted even during the day.

Abandoned crumbling buildings form the leitmotif of this city that lives off the grandeur of its former glory as the capital of the British India empire, one that governed territories as far as Singapore. The city was India’s capital until 1911 and was often referred to as the “second city of the British empire”. Built suitably to match this formidable status, the city has been bequeathed a legacy of some outstanding heritage buildings like the Kolkata High Court, Raj Bhavan and the Writer’s Building.

Parts of this city today, unfortunately, can seem as if they are going back in time. It has more than its fair share of old abandoned buildings, often because owners have little money to raze them and build new ones in their place.

The dark spaces behind the wooden shutters on these buildings, known as khorkhoris (from the sound they produce), make for a lush habitat for all supernatural beings that one can imagine.

Deserted by people, many of these buildings are today occupied by “peepal” – a local term for the Sacred Fig tree that grows prolifically on these forlorn walls. Some trees even share the same decaying house with humans.

“A few of these buildings have ghost stories attached to them, but what makes it more atmospheric is the lack of maintenance of these properties,” says Mr Khatchaturian, who held the first walk on Halloween in 2015.

“They have an unshorn and a dilapidated look that lends itself beautifully to narrative storytelling,” he adds.

The notion of ghosts flourishes in the Bengali collective imagination. Obsessed – or possessed, some would argue – by bhootergolpo (ghost stories), Bengalis have names for at least 25 different kinds of ghosts. Folklore thrives with accounts of different kinds of apparitions, ranging from ghoulish to benevolent.

There’s Penchapechi – a ghost taking the form of an owl that strikes travellers when they are alone. Or BeshoBhoot, ghosts that populate bamboo groves, and Skondhokata, headless ghosts that are after heads.

A lot of this fascination for spooky stuff germinates from the profusion of this theme in Bengali literature. Children in Bangla-speaking households grow up with classics, like Thakurmar Jhuli (literally Grandmother’s Satchel), that include stories of supernatural beings.

WHY A GHOST WALK?

Mr Khatchaturian says the idea for a ghost walk is part of his efforts to find as many different ways as possible to make locals aware of the city’s history, and to get them out. “There are millionaires here who have seen many Western citiesbut they have hardly seen what Kolkata has,” he said.

It is also an opportunity to discover the city at night, something few in the city have experienced.

And it has even spawned a wider culture of exploring the city’s heritage at night, including on bus and cycle.

“Why are we restricting our heritage to daylight when it is baking hot and you are going to get run over by every other vehicle. Why don’t we get out at night when it is perfectly safe to do so?” he says.

SERIAL KILLERS, LEGENDARY DETECTIVES

Kolkata’s rich history and the love that this city has for the supernatural, and the mysterious, led Dr Tathagata Neogi and his wife Ms Chelsea McGill, co-founders of Heritage Walk Calcutta, to start a “Murder and Mayhem” walk last month. It explores the city’s history of crime going as far back as the 1850s.

One of the more gripping stories they recount is of the city’s first recorded female serial killer, Troilokya, who struck terror during the 1870s and early 1880s.

“She committed at least seven murders and several heists, frequently changing addresses. She was also a master of disguise, and had escaped arrests until 1883, when she would finally be arrested and hanged,” says Dr Neogi.

This fascination, too, he thinks, is inspired partly from the rich genre of Bengali detective stories that feature literary legends such as Byomkesh, Feluda, Shobor and Kakababu. “If you look at Byomkesh, many of his early stories are inspired by some of the heinous crimes in the 19th century that we talk about in this walk. So, there is a connection, there too,” he adds.

The ghost tour ends at the Telegraph Office, often referred to as the Dead Letters Building as it housed letters that remained undelivered because its recipients had died or were untraceable.

Taxi drivers nearby are still sleeping in the backseat of their Ambassadors – the legendary all-yellow taxis that are an innate part of the city’s iconography. The fans inside them are whirring, churning the humid monsoon air.

By this time, crows are cawing to signal daybreak and the city begins to don its familiar diurnal feel. The tea stalls are serving their first customers; walk participants trudge across to one for a well-earned rest.

Ghosts or no ghosts, one certainly returns richer, having experienced Kolkata’s little-known nocturnal character. It is not unlike discovering a hidden and pleasing side to a friend you thought you knew well.

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