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Diary | Dining With A Phantom King

Childhood reminisces of encounters with a ghost in sylvan Shillong

Illustration: Saahil

The Sixth Sense

I often wonder whether it was a figment of my over active imagination or I actually saw a ghost. But even now, several decades later, whenever I think of that vision I get goose bumps. Sometimes at night, I wonder what I would do if I saw the “maharaja” again. In my mind that ghost was nothing less than the spirit of a former member of a royal household. He was dressed in such finery with a glow all around. If that vision in white and gold appeared again, I would possibly freeze in fright, much as I did as a child. I certainly don’t want to see that maharaja again. But I worry that perhaps I have a sixth sense that enables ghost sightings. Remember M Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller Sixth Sense starring Bruce Willis?

Looking back, I realise that the place where I spent the first few years of my life was the perfect backdrop for a ghost story. This was in Shillong, a hill station in the North East that the British called the ‘Scotland of the East’ for its rolling pine-covered hills and mild climate.  

The Cabin in the Woods

We lived in Peachland, a sprawling property owned by a retired British couple. Like many others they chose to remain in independent India rather than go back to the cold dreary English weather. They had gotten used to their beautiful homes and being served by a retinue of loyal servants. Though the property was called Peachland, there were equal numbers of plum and chestnut trees. The large garden was filled with carnations, roses, sweet peas, forget-me-nots, holly, pansies, and every other flower that thrives in the mild weather of Shillong. In spring when the peach and plum trees were in bloom, it was like a canopy of white and pink. There was also a large tennis court next to the garden and a bamboo grove at the end of the lawn. There were two other huge estates adjoining peach land. One belonged to Manipur’s royal family and the other, filled with chestnut trees, was owned by a minor royalty of the North East.

The place was beautiful but by evening it became silent, sometimes almost eerie. The wind would whistle through the pines gently, but occasionally howl with a ferocity that was frightening. Peachland had pine slopes and a bamboo grove that took on a sinister appearance at night. The dining room, kitchen and the store room were away from the main house. There was a craggy lane from the bungalow leading to the kitchen and dining area. The lane was thick with undergrowth interspersed with peach and plum trees. We had to come down this lane across the tennis court for our meals. The servants had quarters near the dining area and would often talk of sighting ghosts. There was loose talk of ghosts near the bamboo grove. Our parents always pooh-poohed these stories and said that servants made them up to frighten the children.

The Haunting

One day, I was sitting down for dinner. The food had not come in from the kitchen, and my brothers went in as we usually did to see what was being cooked. I have no idea why I did not follow them as I generally did. I just sat at my place at the table and looked out, waiting for dinner. The dining room door was open and one could see the lawn outside. I suddenly saw a figure dressed in white and gold, like a maharaja glide past the open door. He was facing me, wearing a long white tunic with gold trimming, a golden sash tied around the waist, and a flowing turban of the same colour. I was transfixed, that person floated outside the dining room door in slow motion and looked at me with bloodshot eyes. He was moving sideways and the vision disappeared, having passed the length of the open doorway. I was transfixed. I could not move. I did not scream as fear choked my throat. I kept quiet and toyed with my dinner. I did not tell a soul what I had seen.

We had left Shillong several decades ago. Peachland was sold to investors and now has a massive concrete structure. I don’t know if the tennis court and the bamboo grove have also disappeared. I told my family this story only after I had graduated. I still don’t understand why I did not speak out.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Phantom Diary")

Seema Guha (Foreign editor, Outlook)