From a window in my 5th floor office in Qutab Institutional Area, I could see the green spread of Sanjay Van, a city forest in the heart of Delhi. The forest canopy stretched across the horizon for almost as far as the eye could see, broken only by two tall turrets that stood tall – forgotten, forlorn and proud.
These turrets are all that now remain of Lal Kot/Quila Rai Pithora – remains of the city that the Tomars established and the great Prithviraj Chauhan extended. Something about these ramparts drew me toward them. On misty winter mornings, they would seem to rise through the mist and call out my name, gently. So one empty Saturday, I strode off through the mist toward the great towers. To reach them, I had to walk a kilometre or two along a trail through the forest. Part of the Delhi Ridge, this patch of green is a world away from the busy bustle of one of the biggest, noisiest and most polluted metropolises of the world. The trail descends into a pan that is surrounded by trees and tiny hill. There isn’t a man-made structure in sight, and buffered by the trees, there isn’t a sound to intrude into the stillness either. Throw in the haunting beauty of a peacock’s call, carried along by a gentle breeze, and just yards away from civilisation, the sense of desolation is complete. The two towers, both about 30 metres tall, stood less than 20 yards apart and were connected at the top by a narrow crumbly bridge. Through thorn scrub and brambles, I finally made my way to the top of the taller of the two towers and then tried to make my way to the other over the bridge. While walking across the bridge, barely 10 inches wide, I noticed that it opened into an archway under my feet, or what must once have been a gate into the ancient city. Thick thorn scrub had blocked out the way but a yard away lay twin graves with a chadar in green and gold covering one of them. It was quite breezy that day – and yet, the wind around the graves was as still as death, as if out of respect for the dead. That was many moons ago, and I’ve walked those trails many a time since, but be it eerie or divine, physics or metaphysics, the wind continues to pay its quiet respect to the holy pir and his wife who lie there, whose graves I’m told are as old as the stones of Lal kot.
Sanjay Van is dotted in corners with forgotten graves from the time of Mohammed Ghori and Qutab-ud-din Aibak and has a couple of cremation grounds around it. It is also I’m told, an inviting dumping ground for headless and chopped up bodies, and so it was no surprise to come across a website that marks it as one of the 10 most haunted locations in India. Unlucky or not, I’ve walked across nearly every inch of this forest, from late evening to early morning, and unless a reverential breeze counts, I haven’t really seen enough of the place to vouch for it’s reputation. Honestly, I’m not complaining. The lyrical William Dalrymple, a Delhiphile if there ever was one, calls it the capital ‘The City of Djinns’. So where are the djinns?
Old Delhi, it seems is a popular haunt. Almost every old building in the neighbourhood, including the Red Fort, boasts of a resident ‘ghost who walks in anklets’. The Bhuli Bhatiyari Masjid and Salimgarh Fort have their own tales of resident spirits, while Delhi Cantonment and some South Delhi houses are also apparently home to souls that refuse to rest in peace. I’ve often wondered why, if there is a soul, would it want to while away its time spooking out people? I’m sure there is more to do after one dies than just playing ‘peek-a-boo’.
For some strange reason, ghosts and apparitions choose to become apparent only in dark and lonely corners. But why would they be bothered by the presence of light or crowds? Or is it our mind that plays tricks on us when we are on our own, hemmed in by the dark?
Perhaps, instead of fearing a paranormal experience, we should welcome the possibility as affirmation of the fact there really is a possible life after death. Religion suggests that the souls that haunt the earthly realm are a bit like the lame child from the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – laggards who couldn’t make it to paradise in time. Maybe a haunting, if there is such a thing at all is a plea from the disembodied to the bodied, to help them get across. So the next time you come across a bodyless soul, remember to ask if you could help. What I’m more likely to encounter though, are living, waking soulless bodies, and for them, my advice is – write your own column. It requires a lot of soul-searching, I assure you.