Searching ghosts in haunted houses

Searching ghosts in haunted houses

Ghosts of two women have been known to have shown up in New Market

Searching ghosts in haunted houses
The darkness of the night, interspersed with golden glow from street lamps was enough to build the ambience. The chiaroscuro of light and shade seemed to bring with them notes from an invisible piano, floating in the air like an eerie background score. On paying attention, one could probably even hear the sound of light footsteps, beyond the tinkling of old chandeliers or long suppressed sighs, trapped behind doors closed on dust-laden rooms. Welcome to the world of ghost stories and urban legends, from a time when the city was still known as Calcutta.

Belief in ghosts is a matter of faith but feeling the chilling thrills of walking through the same streets, past the houses where Warren Hastings ordered the hanging of Maharaja Nandakumar or a British judge saw his wife the time she passed away in England is an other worldly experience. Imagine taking a stroll through the old town, where stories of haunted houses abound, be it the Calcutta High Court, the National Library, the SS Hogg Market, otherwise known as New Market, and Garstin Place, which partly houses the administrative headquarters of Eastern Railway.

Kolkata has grown beyond its original limits. The urban legends, however, have held on, with more colours being added over time. Taking a leaf from similar walks in the West, Anthony Khatchaturian has come up with the idea of a ghost walk in the city. An Armenian from Kolkata, who traces his lineage to the legendary architect J C Galstaun, Anthony decided to start the walk in late 2015, with support from Dr Souvik Mukherjee, a professor at Presidency University and a few other friends.

Initial setbacks aside, the ghost walk of Kolkata has piqued the interest of not just Kolkatans but also visitors. Walking down dark lanes and alleys of the central business district of Dalhousie is thrilling in itself. A cornucopia of activities during the day, the area wears a deserted and haunted look as soon as offices shut shop.

After months of hard work and running from one table to another at the Kolkata Police headquarters of Lalbazar, itself a heritage building, Anthony managed to start the first such walk on October 3, 2015. Since many of the “haunted” houses are now government buildings and off limits to the public during after-hours, getting permission to enter these buildings was a cumbersome process. The former Scotland Yard officer, however, traversed red tapes and managed to get the green signal. The first walk took place under the watchful eyes of the police, with constables escorting the group all the way.

Same route
Since that first night, the walk’s route has remained almost the same; those interested in ghost watching would meet outside the gates of New Market at around 11.30 pm and try to coax the apparition of the market’s designer and the city’s most prominent Municipal Commissioner S S Hogg to make an appearance. Legend is that Hogg, who built the city’s first community market for its white population, continues to roam past the stalls and stores inside the market that dates back to 19th century.

Although officially named after Hogg, it found real fame as New Market and was the go-to place for all things fashionable till the days of liberalisation. Lore is that one can get anything at New Market, from needles to tiger’s milk although it is not known if anybody ever tried to obtain the latter.

Past the narrow lane next to the famous clock tower on New Market, where ghosts of two Anglo-Indian ladies have been known to have shown up from time to time, the group would head northwards, towards The Statesman house. Those who worked the graveyard shift, before putting the newspaper to bed, have sometimes shared tales of hearing clacking typewriters from the library on the third floor. A few even claimed that they had seen a British gentleman smoking a pipe and browsing the files.

The next stop is usually the Raj Bhavan, which hosted successive Governors-General of India till the capital was shifted to Delhi in 1911. Like all colonial era buildings, the mansion has its share of ghost sightings and eerie sounds although none of the Governors or other residents ever publicly shared such woes. On the way falls the St John’s Church, which houses a memorial to those killed in the infamous “Calcutta black hole”. The cemetery adjacent to the church has graves of several prominent citizens of yore, including Lady Canning and the city’s founder father, Job Charnock.

The highlight of the evening, however, is the Calcutta High Court, which is considered one of the most haunted places in the city, with some corridors avoided by people even during afternoons. Of particular interest to ghost watchers is court room 13; not just for the “unlucky” number it bears but also because this court room had the maximum number of hanging orders passed over time. Even the most seasoned legal clerks and court employees stay away from the notorious court room after the building closes down for the night at 5 pm.

What added to the court room’s notoriety were newspaper reports from the mid-1980s, which talked about how bloody footprints appeared from nowhere on the third floor stairwell and abruptly vanished into the court room, with no signs of them thereafter. What makes the Calcutta High Court further interesting for ghost watchers is the story of how a British judge spotted his wife, while working late into the night even though she was supposed to be in England. Soon, a telegram arrived to announce that his had wife died at the very time of her appearance. Hundreds of court employees, lawyers, visitors and night guards have claimed to see her move around the corridor.

Anthony’s ghost watchers, however, did not have the luck to catch a glimpse of any of the spirits. The walk covers the General Post Office and the Writers’ Buildings, the seat of administrative power in Bengal for years, before the group walks past the Mission Church for the final leg of the walk back to New Market at around 3:30 am. Anthony admits that the “ghost walk” is just an interesting  way of reviving people’s interest in the glorious heritage of the city.

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