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Where have all the ghosts gone?

May 14, 2012

Two friends and I had gone to interview an old lady born 90 years ago in 1922. We had hoped to jog her memory about events that she had seen unfold, and events that she had heard her parents and grandparents talk about. We were hoping to get a slice of history going back a century and a quarter, but things did not work out as well as we had thought. Nevertheless, we got lucky through Saeed-ur-Rehman, her 72 year old son. He told us much about Delhi and about a real life encounter that his maternal grandfather and uncle had with the Jinn of Ferozeshah Kotla.

 This is how he related the encounter:

 “My Nana [maternal grandfather] was a great one for fishing and his favourite spot for fishing was the Firozeshah Kotla. In those days the Jamuna used to flow right next to the Kotla wall, and my Nana would go there often. He would carry his huqqa with him, cast the line and sit puffing away at and wait for the fish to take the bait. He would spend the better part of the day there and return with a bagful of fish in the evening. One afternoon he asked our Mamu [maternal uncle] to accompany him and this is what our Mamu told us about the events of the day.

“Abbu [father] said to me, ‘You have to ensure that my huqqa is ready and fresh at all times so carry my pouch of tobacco and charcoal with you. We sat on the wall for hours, Abbu would cast the line and ask me to freshen up the Huqqa, he will take a couple of puffs and get busy with the line, the Huqqa would go cold, he will ask me to freshen it up again, I’d  take the chillum [baked clay receptacle that contains the tobacco and the burning coals] off the huqqa, fan the charcoal and place it back on. The sun was sinking rapidly but Abbu was busy, it was well past Maghrib [sunset, the time for the fourth namaz of the day, also the time “favoured by Jinns to be up and about”] when he said let’s go and he began to reel in the string. The string tightened suddenly, Abbu kept on reeling the string and a red rag emerged with the hook, Abbu shook the hook and recast it, the rag came out again. Abbu freed the hook again but the rag returned. Abbu got very angry pulled out a knife and cut the rag loose, suddenly a  loud  high pitched shriek was heard, “He is killing me! He is killing me!” Abbu began to pack up rapidly and said let us leave. By the time we climbed down the wall and began to hurry towards the gate, it was almost dark.

We rushed for two reasons. The area outside the city was not safe after dark; everyone returned to the city before Maghrib. Secondly, Ferozeshah Kotla was reputed to be the abode of Jinns. I was more than a little afraid. As we turned the corner we saw a bed in our path. A bed covered in a spotless white bed sheet!

My father stopped in mid stride and said, “What is this bed doing here?” I was now quite afraid but not Abbu, he turned to me and said, “I want to rest a bit,” and sat down on the bed, “freshen up the huqqa quickly, I’ll have a smoke and then we’ll be on our way.” I was really afraid, my heart was beating very fast and I was shivering all over. My hands seemed to have no strength left and it was becoming very difficult for me to  hold on to the chillum or to freshen the fire, somehow I managed to place a few pieces of charcoal in the chillum and began fanning them. Abbu said let me straighten my back and lie down. Suddenly the bed turned turtle and Abbu was thrown to the ground! He rose quickly, and the bed returned to its original position. Abbu sat on the bed and asked me to hurry up with the huqqa and lay down again. Once again he was thrown, the bed straightened itself and my father sat down on the bed again.

I watched all this horrified and wanted to run, but Abbu wanted to smoke the Huqqa and I had to do his bidding. I did not understand why he wanted to smoke the huqqa while sitting on the cot, why was he intent on lying down, what was going on? There were so many questions crowding my mind but I dared not open my mouth. Somehow I had the huqqa going. Abbu took a couple of puffs, bent down to inspect the chillum, picked it up and quickly upturned it on the bed, saying I’ll fix you today! The loud cry that we had heard earlier was heard again, soon it turned into a whimper and then the voice died and we returned home.”

This is what Saeed-ur-Rehman, a 73 year old gentleman told us a few days ago. He clearly believes every word of what his Mamu told him decades ago. It is possible that he heard this tale from his uncle when he was in his teens, perhaps in the 1950s  and has carried the tale with him, in the telling the tale keeps growing becoming more detailed and picturesque and gets a life of its own. Such is the innate strength of tales about Jinns.

The tale related by Saeed-ur-Rehman reminded me of the tales of ghosts and Jinns that I had grown up hearing or the ones that my older cousins told me about. There were others that were read as one began to potter about the histories of the city. From this large collection, my favourite is the story of the Ghost of Fraser.

William Fraser was the British Resident in Delhi representing the Governor General in the court of the Mughal King. Fraser and Nawab Shams-ud-Din Khan of Firozepur Jhirka and Loharu had a falling out and the Nawab felt slighted. He hired two assassins to avenge this insult. The assassins shot Fraser dead late on the night of 22 March 1835 as he was returning to his haveli near Kashmiri gate.

The two mercenaries and Nawab Shams-ud-Din Khan were eventually executed after a trial but for some reason only Fraser turned into a ghost. It was said that on moonless nights, the ghost of Fraser could be seen astride his horse going in the direction of his haveli at Kashmiri Gate. There were no reports of Fraser’s ghost bothering anyone. He kept to himself, though one does not know of anyone who stayed back to find out what the ghost would do if you stayed back to watch him.

This depiction of Fraser’s ghost as a lonely figure who kept to himself and continued travelling towards his haveli, that he was unable to reach on that fateful night, seems to have been created by the Dilliwallahs as a kind of punishment for Fraser, because in real life, Fraser was the most powerful person in Delhi, more powerful than the king and this was resented by the Dilliwallahs. James Skinner, the builder of St. James Church at Kashmiri Gate was a close friend of Fraser and he built a most impressive grave for Fraser on the grounds of his Church. Dilliwallahs on their part raised Nawab Shams-ud-Din Khan and the two mercenaries, to the status of martyrs and the grave of Fraser was vandalised and badly damaged by the rebels in 1857.

The talk of Ghosts and Jinns that grew all around Delhi and some of which survive till this day. Like the white woman who used to hang around Kashmiri Gate, the Spirits of the Goras [whites] that haunt the Lothian and Nicholson cemetery area are a natural by product of the graveyards and crematoria and there was no dearth of either in Delhi. Those who die an unnatural death are believed to haunt the sites of their death or burial/ cremation, till the end of their assigned time on earth, whereupon they are despatched to their final destination by those whose job it is to undertake permanent settlements of this nature.

An interesting aspect of the stories about Ghosts, Jinns and Spirits that haunted Delhi is the fact that Jinns normally hung around places that were connected to Muslims: ruins of forts and palaces built by Muslim rulers, ruined or deserted mosques and empty houses in Muslim Majority areas. Jinns are obviously Muslims. Ghosts could belong either to dead Hindus or Dead Christians and accordingly, either hung around near crematoria, deserted temples or Peepal trees if they had sprung from the Hindus or near Christian cemeteries or areas where the Europeans lived or frequented more often, like Kashmiri Gate, North Delhi, the Ridge, the Metcalf House etc. So Ghosts who have Parsi antecedents can be found near the Parsi Anjuman, outside Dehli Gate or the Parsi Cemetery near Khan Market and ghosts with a Jewish ancestry can only be found near the Judah Heyam Hall at Humayun Road.

Clearly, even in their ghostly or spiritual incarnations ghosts, ghouls, spirits, Jinns etc., preferred the company of their own kind or liked to scare the living daylights out of their own co-religionists. Despite being freed of the bondage of physicality they still stuck to their own areas, the ghosts of the whites did not visit Jama Masjid or Matia Mahal area and the Jinns did not go harassing the Brits on Flagstaff road. We had grown up under the impression that the Spirit, the Atma or the Rooh was free. Apparently, denominational markers not only endure beyond life, they seem to become insurmountable. Humans are certainly more sociable.

Possibly the only exception to this rule was the area immediately outside Delhi Gate, on each side of what is now known as Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. There was the graveyard, next to where the Irwin Hospital was to come up later, there was the other graveyard next to Firozeshah Kotla, behind the Indian Express building; between these two was the Khooni (or bloody) Darwaza, the site of cold blooded killing by William Hodson of two sons and a grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar, Mirza Mughal, Khizr Sultan and Mirza Abu Bakr and flanking the road were many large Peepal trees, traditionally believed to be the abode of Ghosts and witches.

The British went on a rampage after their recapture of Delhi in September 1857. The cold blooded killings of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons and grandson were not the only acts of violence that took place at the Khooni Darwaza. There were executions and hangings. Dead bodies, it is said, were not to be removed. They were left there to rot in order to terrorize the Dilliwalahs and the carcasses were the reminders of the consequences of resisting the British.

The tactics were not very effective; they had to leave within 90 years. But yes, the killings, the looming presence of the Khooni Darwaza, the ruins of Ferozeshah Kotla, the formidable walls of the Delhi District Jail (the present location of the Maulana Azad Medical college), the Peepal Trees and a virtual wilderness, for long associated with thugs and robbers, combined together to create a rather scary scenario.

A landscape, with or without the moon, that was ideally suited to spawn, and did so spawn, an army of the creatures of the night, the non-dead, the non-living and all the others in between. There were headless bodies hanging upside down from each Peepal tree, or so my cousins, now in their 60s, were all told in their childhood, there were strange robed creatures that materialised from thin air and disappeared like wisps of fog, there were ghostly creatures whose feet faced the wrong way, who could walk away from you and still keep looking at you. A bit unnerving, to say the least. And so my cousins all through their childhood and adolescence hardly, if ever, hung out along Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg beyond afternoon hours.

This was the early fifties. Gradually the newspaper offices shifted here, the graveyard shift began to get rather lively, people were coming in and leaving the newspaper offices throughout the night, tea and snack joints, shops that ran through the night arrived and stayed. Young men gradually began to stay outside the city beyond the sunset curfew hours. New cinema halls that showed newer cinema began to draw their audience from Shahjahanabad as well, initially for the matinee, then for the evening and finally for the night show. Traffic from the old Delhi station and later from the ISBT to south Delhi, forever destroyed the look and feel of the deserted and desolate road. The introduction of Mercury vapour lamps forever destroyed the magic, the awesomeness, the otherworldly and scary quality of moonlight creating strange images on the shining Peepal leaves. And suddenly there were no Ghosts, no Jinns, no apparitions, no spirits. With the disappearance of the spooky creatures  has also disappeared an entire body of memory. Not many talk of those days, of colonialism, of the injustices inflicted upon the residents of Delhi and fewer still talk of the spirited resistance of the residents of the city.  The ghosts have gone and with them have gone the memory of our histories.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Aprajita permalink
    May 14, 2012 5:10 PM

    Beautiful. Slightly unrelated, but I have often wondered about the ahistoric nature of the dry, drab and systematic DDA Flats that give way to Andheria More in Saket. I have grown up in that part of South Delhi, with Hauz Rani on one end and Mehrauli on another, watching the ramparts of unlabeled and unnamed run down forts all along those roads. However, ever since Select City Walk and the other cousins have lit up the fields stretched across the road from Hauz Rani, I see how even the DDA flats have become artefacts. It looks to me that the Jinns and ghosts of 1857 have new company, as Delhi spawns another level of urban memory of the 1950’s to 1970s, that is quickly being snowed over by another kind of living.

  2. May 14, 2012 6:00 PM

    Beautiful. Reading these essays by Mr. Hashmi on history (and histories) of Dilli always brightens up my day. And yes, people rarely talk about colonialism and associated histories these days. A recent reading of Charles Allen’s Soldier Sahibs reminded me of the brutality with which the Hodsons and Nicholsons of EICo had suppressed the rebellion of 1857.

    And everytime I, subconsciously, use the word ‘mutiny’ for 1857, I am reminded of something a Pakistani cabbie – while discussing our shared histories – once told me in the country of our former masters – “Mutiny to in logo ke liye thi. Humare liye to azaadi ki pehli ladayi thi”. All I could do was smile and reply, “Bilkul sahee kaha aapne.”

  3. May 14, 2012 6:15 PM

    Reblogged this on hangingfromthejoshuatree.

  4. admin permalink
    May 14, 2012 7:21 PM

    Very interesting, in fact recently one of my friends had narrated an incident about an encounter with a djinn, in his family and i wrote it down here http://churmur.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/the-promise-and-the-djinn/

  5. reeta skeeter permalink
    May 14, 2012 7:25 PM

    Loved these lines: Despite being freed of the bondage of physicality they still stuck to their own areas, the ghosts of the whites did not visit Jama Masjid or Matia Mahal area and the Jinns did not go harassing the Brits on Flagstaff road.

    So deep and yet straight an observation this!
    Lovely read…

  6. Osman Sher permalink
    May 15, 2012 12:00 AM

    Sohail Hashmi saheb, salam

    Very interesting, and a well-written story, indeed!

    Ghosts, Jinns, Spirits, etc., have not gone away. They live inside you. To find them, the conditions are:

    You have to have a firm belief in them

    The place must be desolate

    The place may preferably be dark

    You must be alone. They never appear before a crowd

    Even then, you generally do not see them directly yourself. You hear the story from others

    Still somebody has to be a good story teller.

    Osman Sher

  7. Ankit Agrawal permalink
    May 15, 2012 12:24 AM

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading it :)

  8. Akhtar Ali Khan permalink
    May 15, 2012 2:52 AM

    Sohail Hashmi sahib: No doubt, it is a beautiful piece of work [the language, however, needs little tightening up — for example, the 1st sentence: “…an old lady born 90 years ago in 1922,” would read better as “… an old lady born in 1922, 90 years ago.
    I sincerely hope you won’t be offended by my comments.
    Simple wording and the flow (rhythm) are key to short stories. Keep up the good work.

  9. May 15, 2012 7:57 AM

    Sohail Hashmi relives a past that is fading away in the time of the past. I had never believed in ghosts, jinns or any other spirits, but the stories keep coming to me. Recently, I came across a person from Indian Bengal, his name was Maulana Sadruddin, but we in
    San Francisco called him, “Ghost Buster.”

    He would charge $250.00 to come to your home and get rid of ghosts who were residing in your home. Lots of people believed in him and lot of people paid $250.00.

    Hypnotic powers of this man conquered a lot of people, but could not un-nerve me. I still
    believe he had a team of people who helped him to get some money of superstitious
    people. We carried this baggage of ghosts, jinns and evil spirits from Indian sub-continent
    to the Americas.

    Iftekhar Hai, San Francisco, California.

  10. Preeti Mehra permalink
    May 15, 2012 1:58 PM

    Hi Sohail,
    It’s a pleasure reading your pieces. Please keep them going….

  11. anandvt permalink
    May 15, 2012 7:27 PM

    Dear Sohail,

    Fascinating article. However, I don’t believe the jinn are disappearing at all. Rather, the political events and the quality of everyday life in Delhi are affecting theology so much that the jinn are becoming all pervasive and venerated in an unprecedented fashion. Here is a piece of mine, published a few months ago, which might be of interest

    http://www.timeoutdelhi.net/client_coverstory/client_coverstory_details.asp?code=974

  12. May 16, 2012 3:09 PM

    Dear Mr. Hashmi,

    I had a lovely time reading your article and hope to read many more in the future.

    Warm Regards

  13. Imran Hussain permalink
    May 20, 2012 11:38 PM

    1. “Jinns normally hung around places that were connected to Muslims…”
    2. “Clearly, even in their ghostly or spiritual incarnations…liked to scare the living daylights out of their own co-religionists.”

    Is it time pass or deliberate omission and commission of the story telling culture of Delhi that excites Mr. Hashmi to make such statements?! Having been and brought up in the household of Moulana Ahmed Saeed, a very popular Muslim religious scholar of Delhi, Hashmi I am sure knows the social as well as theological explanations that accompany these ‘Ghost Stories’.

    A very well known social fact about Jinns among residents of Delhi (not just Muslims plz) is that these are creations of God/Allah like humans, who can take human and animal forms ( and therefore live among humans like everyone else). That they are not all Muslims but have FREE WILL. To choose their faith…so some are Muslims, Christians and even atheists!

    Mr. Hashmi conveniently cuts these aspects of Delhi lives but the people don’t. What He chooses to not describe is the discussions after these ‘Ghost stories’ when the elders (story tellers) explain them to children. They answer children’s questions about their religion, nature, character and how to inculcate a strong will to be able to not be scared of them! All these and many more issues are ‘missing’ from this ‘narrative’ of Mr. Hashmi.

    But the question is what purpose does this article serve? The answers are hidden in the comments to this article. They are to develop an audience among those illiterate about such Lives. They are to represent an old culture from the lens of orientalism,as a ‘tribal’ and thus primitive culture mired in orientally perceived notions of religion. Such a representation coming from an insider (Mr. Hashmi) seeks to shroud what is represented with a degree of authenticity!! To be able to ‘change’ them or preserve them as showpieces in a museum (Remember Andaman Island’s Dancing Tribals?) stripped of their agency to make any political and socio-cultural impact! Ready for theorization and intervention!! Wah Kya Khoob Dukaan Chalaate Hain Aap Hashmi Saahab!

  14. May 24, 2012 3:30 PM

    Thank you, I found that both evocative and illuminating.

    We studied at SPA in the late 80s and early 90s, and our college flanked (and still does) a graveyard that we used to go past whenever we used the short-cut to the udipi and the parathe wallas on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg – which invariably happened late at night. I don’t recollect anything actually happening to us, but apparently the college was also built on part of the graveyard (or so our seniors said) and the college ghost Abdullah was definitely a presence, if only in our minds, when we were working on our design submissions in the studios late at night. The graveyard is now much hemmed in and distinguished by a large gateway; the tall grasses that ran along the wall are no longer there, and rows of cars are parked along the short-cut.

    I suppose that may be inevitable, but the transformation of the graveyard into a staid precinct, bereft of its surrounding vegetation removes yet another link and a clue to the Yamuna and its course. And that is the point finally, when the physical transformation of the natural and built landscape removes all traces of the past, it is time to ask some questions.

  15. Tapan Patnaik permalink
    May 25, 2012 6:06 PM

    Very interesting! When we were kids and would go to our native village our grandfather would tell us many ghost stories (supposed to be real life experiences). Now I wonder whatever happened to those ghosts and why there are no new ghosts now!

  16. October 6, 2012 1:52 AM

    The entire piece seems to be filled with a kind of discomfort with the content of memories that the writer is recording. Which why the trope of the ‘telling of a ghost-story’ works so well here, the writer uses it himself as an affective device with great success. But as Mr. Imran Hussain has already pointed out we must also engage with the theological meanings of these apparations. Mostly Jinns and Ghosts have been mentioned. I shall deal with them.
    1) Jinn in high theology is an elevated being, perhaps like a lower class of angels, while very powerful and having free will their intelligence however is limited, which is why accounts of them may have refrences to a fakir or wise man ovrpowering it by cunning inteligence. These beings while are a particular genus (for the lack of a better word) they are known in different languages and different traditions in different names.
    2) The Ghost is a much simpler figure, however it is big problem for scientific history, and rightly so for they are a complex; a ghost is, for all purposes, an unresolved karmik complex. By their structural fundament of their very being these apprations are trapped within an un-resolved situation. A moment of trauma. A trace. The remembering of a forgetting. The word for ghost in everyday parlance is bhoot, which literlally means “has been”, or else it means an elemental spirit ( of the natures of earth, fire, water, air, ether). The ghost of Frasier is his etherial body, forever trying to return home. So too the bloody limbs of delhi-ites hanging from people trees. These are etherial creatures, when not trapped in situations they are either afflicted by insatiable greed, without a physical body with which they can satisy their hungers, they latch on to the etherial bodies of other embodied beings and affect their behaviour parasitically. which is why cremation grounds were usually outside the village. when the regions inhabited by ghosts are populated with people, they dont need to manifst externally, rather they can comfortably occupy a host. and there you where wondering why you couldnt quit that smoking habit, nor the mid-night snack. A lot of this is coroberrrated by parapsychological research and spirit photography. However these evidences have been persistantly ignored by the bastions of modern knowlede, where all discussion of the material-emperical was relagated to science including the social sciences, as well as common rationality and all matters spiritual were relagated to religion or to the fine arts. So the historian can only write of the ghosts of Bhadur Shah Zafar Marg as a ‘ghost-story’ or perhaps as a collective rumor designed to humiliate the british through the tragic fate of Frasier or as a poetic ruse to evoke public sentiment in the wake of British creuality. But the ghosts disembodied, can never appear in history with their bodies, their stories, not the one of their bodies, but the storis of the phantasm itself, fated to suffer the dying trauma over and over until the situation resolves itself; is always under erasure in the text ( the easiest way is the decalre the source unreliable). The ghost in history is a ghost of a ghost because it can never be a ghost it can only be a rumor or a story or a psychosis. Our inability to allow them to be the single most moving testament to british cruality, is our ultimate civilisational defeat, we have disowned not only the memory of these few people killed by the british, but also the impossibility of a ghost in the mind of a middle class Delhi person, indicates the death thores of a an entire worldview, staggering in it’s scope, it is the disenchantment of India.

  17. May 21, 2013 7:13 AM

    I have been surfing online more than three hours today, yet I
    never found any interesting article like yours. It’s pretty worth enough for me. Personally, if all site owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the internet will be a lot more useful than ever before.

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