Just as he parked his car on a narrow, lonely, forested road leading to Shimla’s leading boarding school, Ankur Chauhan, 28, felt a hand grip his collar from behind, even as he knew there was no one else sitting back .
“I remember the touch on my shoulder. It was a human hand, a real one. But who was it in my car? I knew there was no one else except me in the vehicle. For moments, I swear, I was numb and shivering down my legs in shock. I shouted out loud – who is in there, come out, come out!” Chauhan recalls as he narrates his horrifying encounter with a “ghost” some years back.
It had been around 11.30 pm and the night was dark. He had joyfully taken his US-returnee former schoolmate Piyush on an evening drive for a quick drink in the car - a school time nostalgia from Shimla streets and secluded meeting corners, where they used to invite their girlfriends away from everyone’s eyes.
While in the boarding school, where he and Piyush studied, Ankur had heard dozens of tales about ‘english ghosts’—the spirit of white men and women - former imperialists, haunting old Shimla schools, most of which were set up by the British.
One most frequently talked about ghost story was about an ‘english ghost’ often visiting the chemistry lab of the school, and another of a another headless man—a Prince visiting another school to offer flowers to girls. Several such scary tales of haunted Shimla buildings of colonial era have persisted in the former colonial city for decades.
But, for Ankur, an alumni of Bishop Cotton School (BCS) and now an entrepreneur in the health care sector, this was the 'supernatural' encounter. That's when he realised that the "dark world of phantoms" is very much here.
This is what Rudyard Kipling wrote about them in “My Own True Ghost Story" about the many spirits wandering around hills of Shimla, Mussoorie and Murree.
“Nearly every other station owns a ghost. There are said to be two at Simla, not counting the woman , who blows the bellows at Syree dak-bungalow on the Old Road," Kipling wrote about sundry ghosts who allegedly still haunt the erstwhile summer capital.
Veteran writer Ruskin Bond also brought-out horrifying tales of native Ghosts in his book “Ghost Stories from the Raj”--- recently adapted for a digital series titled Parchayee.
In 2005, Minakshi Chaudhry, Shimla’s own young author and former journalist, went on exploring some of the haunted settings of Shimla hills and brought out two books –a collection of 35 popular tales based on direct personal experiences of people, authentic folklores and her own spine–chilling adventures with the spirits in Shimla. Ruskin Bond wrote a foreword for her first book which became a best seller in the town.
“Whether ghosts exist or not, I can’t say. Yet, after visiting myriad 'haunted' places—even during the night, and listening to real stories of people as part of my research, I can say there is usually some iota of reality behind native folktales or legends. There is, however, no archived evidence of documentation on it,” Minakshi admits.
But ghosts, she observes, are not all bad. They have their own problems and seem to represent an aspect of human struggle that is as relevant in life as in death. With Shimla remaining under the British till 1948, the town's colonial hangover is still potent and many find it natural to believe that the spirits of the former rulers may still be wandering the streets of their former 'summer capital'. But, none of these ghosts or supernatural spirits in the living memory of Shimla residents has been known to harm anyone. What makes them scary is the fact that they were real people who once lived and walked these very streets, unlike characters of myths from fiction.
Speaking about her book, Meenakshi says, “There are enduring stories about unrequited love and the idea of spectral romance - like the story about a young girl who died in an accident, leaving her romance unfulfilled. Or the one about the ghost of Viceregal Lodge - a Prince who haunted a local school with a red rose, looking for his lady love. Then there were stories of the Angrez Churail (English witch) - a woman on a rickshaw (a common site in Shimla during colonial days) and a Nakalchi bhoot (copycat ghost) -- always trying to imitate human actions. Every story I write is an ode to the city's nostalgia and the authentic folk tales of these hills.”
While ghosts have not troubled her, Meenakshi however, has often had unpleasant experiences with humans in her quest for the macabre. Her search for untold tales of horror and the unknown have often led her to people who were either unwilling to share the anecdotes or embarrassed to admit they had seen a ghost on their property for fear of ostracisation.
“I faced a lot of public ire and unexpected angry reactions from the families and occupants of some of the private spaces believed to be frequented by ghosts. One of the families I went to interview set their ferocious dogs on me. Employees at a central government-owned British era heritage building detained me for hours till they checked my credentials with Shimla’s Deputy Commissioner, under whom my husband (an IAS officer) had worked as they mistook me for a spy talking about ghosts” she narrates.
While Kipling in his book had admitted that no native ghost has yet been authentically reported to have frightened an Englishman, both local and Desi ghosts are popular in Himachali folktales.
“There are, in this land, ghosts who take the form of fat, cold, pobby corpses, and hide in trees near the roadside till a traveler passes…They wander along the pathways at dusk, or hide in the crops near a village, and call seductively. Their feet are turned backwards that all sober men may recognize them," one of the descriptions go.
In her horror stories, Minakshi Chaudhry talks about haunted houses, schools, rivulets, cemeteries and fascinating mountains with snowy peaks and pine-covered valleys. It seems that though the British left the country after Independence, left their ghost behind.
Shimla–born retired IPS officer Balbir Thakur also recollects his two encounters with a supernatural spirit—‘Bansheera’ when his late father and former DySP was posted at Junga—a sub-urban town and headquarter of the Central Striking Reserve Force (CSRF) police battalion .
“I was returning home after watching two back-to-back films at Shimla’s Rivoli and Regal cinemas – both don't exist anymore now. It was almost nearing midnight when I reached Down-Kothi—a haunted site, little short of Junga. I had heard several local accounts from a few cops who used to frequently travel between Shimla and Junga," he recounts .
That night, Thakur spotted a tall, faceless man walking next to him. Initially, he thought it was a native, or some battalion personnel returning to the CSRF HQ from Shimla. The next moment, however, the man mysteriously disappeared, almost as if he was gobbled up by the darkness. Within seconds,it reemerged and started suspiciously walking towards him.
“Startled, I screamed, 'who are you? What the hell are you doing out here?' After this I ran almost at bullet's speed towards home, shivering and sweating. The moment I stepped inside my house, I fell unconscious to the floor. My mother who later called a local ghost-buster or some oracle and relieved me of evil spirit,” Thakur recalls.
Another most talked about haunted place in Shimla is “Chudail Baudi”, a wayside place between Chotta Shimla and St.Bedes’ college Nav Bahar on Shimla's Carter Road. Locals claim that any car or vehicle that crosses this space is automatically slowed down and an old woman with her feet turned backwards stops the cars to ask for a lift. If ignored, the woman leaps into the car anyway.
“We had heard such stories, but not any first-hand account has been reported so so far during the past three-decades of my being in Shimla” says a fruit seller at Chhota Shimla.
A few years ago, the Himachal Pradesh government rolled out a plan to compile all spooky tales of the town, based on folklore and personal experiences of the locals. The book was intended to compile these haunted attractions of the heritage town for attracting tourists. The plan never took off.
Yet the tourists visiting Shimla do pick up Meenakshi Chaudhry and Ruskin Bond books on ghost stories from a leading bookshops and the tales of the 'English ghosts' of Shimla live on.