Rumors swept Kolkata this year that a runaway boy spent the night beside a 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy in the Indian Museum, a building with a reputation for being haunted.
The local media wrote it up, and a crowd, including some worried that the youngster had been besieged by ghosts, mobbed India’s oldest museum demanding better security.
With passions running high, authorities here in West Bengal state launched an investigation.
“We checked all the closed-circuit TV cameras, gave them to the police,” said Tanuja Ghosh, a museum geologist. “Sure, sometimes night guards hear something, some creaking -- it’s an old building. But this business about a small boy, it was false information.”
Everyone loves a good ghost story, but Kolkata, the former capital of British India also known as Calcutta, is particularly fertile ground for the creepy, eerie and supernatural. Magazines publish lists of haunted buildings. Planchettes, also known as seances, have a long history, enjoyed by the likes of beloved native son, poet and 1913 Nobel literature laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
“The ghost belief is stronger here than almost anywhere else in India,” said Soumen Kotal, cofounder of the Kolkata-based Paranormal Research Society of India, which investigates ghost claims. “The city is very old, and traditions come with that.”
Like the Inuits’ many terms for snow, Bengalis have at least 15 words for ghosts based on the spirit’s caste, marital status, behavior and the fate suffered in the pre-paranormal past. Some look like forest owls, others enjoy eating fish or stealing from you. Still others lure you to your death by feigning the voice of your lover, have backward-facing feet or drift past without heads.
“I’d want a rich, handsome ghost,” said Aditi Basu Roy, a reporter with the Bengali-language Sangbad Pratidin newspaper and an avid believer. “These headless ghosts are no good, although maybe they can use sign language.”
Her colleague in the windowless newsroom, reporter Debdutta Gupta, estimates that 70% of Bengalis believe in ghosts. The city’s spirits like to stay in one place, he said, such as old buildings or trees. “Most don’t travel,” Gupta said, “although a few take the train, mostly third-class.”
Residents offer various theories on why the city seems so haunted. Some cite the many decrepit buildings of this once-glorious capital of the British Raj. Others chalk it up to a large number of famines, disease and unnatural deaths in the region.
Rationalists say it’s a reflection of West Bengal state’s rich literary traditions, imagination and love of storytelling.
“Ghost myths are so prevalent because everyone told us as kids that ghosts would come if we didn’t eat our food,” said Harish Ramchandani, steward at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club.
“The only ghost walking around these parts is Johnnie Walker,” quipped general manager Robin Corner over lunch at the club’s posh dining room.
For India’s majority Hindu community, which believes in reincarnation, ghosts are seen as unfortunate souls caught between lives because of a sin committed by or against them. The Garuda Purana manuscript, believed written between 3000 BC and 1500 BC, lists 17 types of ghosts and how they became so, including the notion that many choose to lurk where “falsehood and ignominy” exist.
Adding to the Indian Museum’s infamous reputation are tales of marching-boot sounds at night attributed to the restless spirits of Indian freedom fighters detained in the administration building by the British in the early 20th century.
“People spend a lot of money to get rid of ghosts so they don’t come again,” said Chaitali Roy Chowdhury, the museum’s zoologist. “India is backwards, it’s all rubbish. I don’t believe in ghosts, although I do believe in unfulfilled spirits.”
The 200-year-old museum, with its peeling, discolored Corinthian columns, suffers as much from ghostly neglect as from ghosts. Exhibitions of Indian native cultures cite the nation’s 1961 census, six iterations ago. Once vibrantly colored stuffed birds are washed-out and gray after years of sun. A sign in an empty glass case reads: “Removed for international exhibition in China 2010-2011.”
The museum lacks the scientific equipment to fully detect those haunting its halls, ghostly or otherwise, said security head Sumonto Roy, adding that the story of the boy trapped overnight has no apparent validity. The boy reportedly left his home at 4:56 p.m. and the museum closes at 5, he said. “He can’t fly, how could the boy remain inside?” Roy added. “It’s just to sell news. If they don’t have the circulation, they have to sell somehow.”
Joining the Indian Museum on the city’s haunted-house list are several British Empire-era buildings whose distressed former occupants are said to hold eerie classical concerts, ride diaphanous coaches and attend ethereal dinner parties. Some say the 236-year-old Writers’ Building, once used by British scribes, is haunted by unhappy writers who died young. Then there’s a famous old peepul tree, whose branches Bengali ghosts are said to particularly enjoy lounging in.
Also on the list is Rabindra Sarovar metro station, also known as “Suicide Paradise,” where it is claimed that spirits can occasionally be seen riding the last train. About 75% of those who take their own lives in the subway system reportedly do so in this station.
Kolkata has been slower to modernize than Mumbai, Bangalore or New Delhi, in part because West Bengal shunned investors during 34 years of communist rule.
“Our glorious past and no future may be one reason we’re attracted to ghosts,” said Aveek Sarkar, editor of the Telegraph newspaper. “We are relics of the past, unfortunately.”
Recently, however, more shopping emporiums and condominiums have cropped up, with the city’s first luxury mall set to open within weeks. In a popular 2012 film, “Future of Ghosts,” director and screenplay writer Anik Dutta picked up on this theme, depicting besieged ghosts with nowhere left to live, forced to retreat en masse to one of the city’s last remaining old houses.
“They thought they were safe,” Dutta said, referring to the movie’s plot. “But the bulldozers are about to move in on them too, and the ghosts are left homeless. There’s no relocation package for them.”
Dutta said he’s scared of ghosts but has never met one. “And I hope I don’t have that opportunity.”
Reporter Gupta, a self-declared planchette expert, said most Calcutta ghosts are unhappy but not angry. The English ghosts tend to have duels, attend dances and live a lavish -- if discontented -- existence, he said, while Bengali ghosts are more family oriented, prefer banyan trees and other natural spots and like the smell of fish.
“Sometimes Bengali ghosts get together at a sort of convention to smell fish,” Gupta said. “They like fried fish, but not masala.”
While Bengalis and Caucasians may have different skin tones in life, they share the same color in restless death, said Roy, the reporter. “They’re all white,” she said.
Where there are ghosts, ghost-busters aren’t far behind. The paranormal society’s Kotal investigates purported sightings, including that of an “overpass ghost” reported in August 2012, who resembled a dead motorcycle driver and was said to be stopping cars late at night.
Kotal said he uses “scientific techniques,” including paranormal photography, infrared thermometers and electromagnetic field detectors, to hunt for them.
“One time we got a sound back in Bengali, but we couldn’t be sure if it was a spirit replying or not,” he said.
“So far I haven’t found ghosts,” he said, pausing. “But I’ve found some energy.”
— Los Angeles Times