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   Prashanto Banerji - Features Editor - The Sunday Indian
Prashanto Banerji
Features Editor - The Sunday Indian
[06 May 2007]

The mayor of Ghost Town

Beyond the twin beams of a pair of flagging headlights, the inky blackness hung like a thick shroud. A pair of eyes, like glowing embers’ appeared, and then disappeared into the shadows of the night. I stole a glance at the man sitting next to me. Oldish, with craggy features, a long grey beard and twinkling greenish brown eyes that were not uncommon in these parts. I wondered if there was more to this mysterious stranger I had offered a ride to than what met the eye. He seemed to read my mind, for he turned and said “Main insaan nahin hun, beta!” and as he spoke, the clouds enveloped the crescent moon and all was dark again, as the car rolled along the lonely road across the forests of Kalighati, that led us away from ‘ghost-town’.

Let me start with where it all began, on an impromptu trip to a lost corner of Rajasthan – the desolate and abandoned ruins of Bhangarh – where it is said that the disembodied spirits still roam, and when the moon rises, one can still hear the strains of singing and dancing, music and laughter, like the patchy sound track of a period film, bouncing off these forgotten walls. While the sun shines, this remote deserted valley, framed against the backdrop of brown, barren hills, where great gnarled trees now rule, their roots curled up against these once formidable ramparts, exudes a sad beauty.

As dusk set in, the calls of the peafowl gave way to a deathly calm. The hills, silhouetted against the increasingly darkening blue of the Bhangarh sky, radiated an eerie gloom that seemed to seduce and threaten in the same breath. I had over stayed my welcome, for as per ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) rules, no one is allowed to stay within the precincts of this ghost town after sunset, and though a part of me was desperate to stay the night in search of the paranormal, most of the rest of me was rather glad that the decision wasn’t mine to make. Walking back along the ruins, in the young light of a new moon, on more than one occasion, my spine tingled, as if alive to the presence of a shadowy entity. Perhaps, it was just a mere over sensitive overreaction, or perhaps something a bit more real, but all I remember now is picking up the pace as I walked toward the car, looking over my shoulder, hoping to find nothing; and then stopping, daring the shadows to come to life before my stomach churned and I renewed my nervous shuffle past the now forbidding mesh of roots and remains. As I drove out of the gates that swung close with an ominous clang, secure in my car, my appetite for apparitions returned with vigour, and in good time too for the night wasn’t done with me. At a village tea stall, not too far from Bhangarh, I stopped to ask about the legend. The owner pointed toward a man in yellow robes and said, “He can tell you… he spent three years inside the Bhangarh ruins, meditating at night. The ASI tried to evict him, but couldn’t.”

“I see spirits as clearly as I see you” said the man in robes, in fluent English, “I used to be in the navy, but I became a tantric (a yogi with occult powers) because Bhangarh called me.” Incidentally, the legend of Bhangarh is inextricably intertwined with a tantric named Singhia, who had cursed the city with ruin and destruction before dying – some say crushed by a stone due to a spell gone wrong, while others claim he was executed by a jealous king. On that string cot, surrounded by farmhands and cowherds, with his matted locks and long, grey beard, he looked as far removed from a naval officer as Richard Gere is from Ram Dev. But when Baba Budhnath, (for that is what they called him) went on to explain in seven languages, including Russian and Japanese, that he could control and command spirits to do his bidding, I was more than a little intrigued. Minutes later, Baba Budhnath was sitting beside me as we headed toward his ashram deep in the forests that lay between Rajgarh and Bhangarh.

Apparently from the royal family of Alwar, and cousin of a local MLA in this (his fourth!) birth, Budhnath claimed that in his first birth, he was born as the king who ordered the execution of Singhia. Delusional? Delirious?! Stoned?!! I don’t know, but he sure did leave me with a disconcerting thought or two. “We’re not alone. My friends, the spirits… they’re here in the car with us. They like you” he said, and smiled. (I just hoped to god, they liked me enough to get off the car with their friend and master) . However, in spite of his claims to the contrary, he seemed very much a human being, and a good one at that. The locals seem to like the eccentric old man, who they say can exorcise both ghosts and disease. Friendly and kind, he refused to accept money or the gifts I offered. He even offered to help when told of a dear friend whose mother happens to be terminally ill. Wish I could tell you more, but better still, if ever in the vicinity, do seek out Baba for a chat and chai. You won’t be disappointed. As for me, he has promised to materialise in my dreams. “I’ll introduce you to your soul”, he said. Can’t wait, Babaji.

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