The Boy Who Was Caught
Nothing is more common in India than seeing a ghost. Every one of us has
seen ghost at some period of his existence; and if we have not actually
seen one, some other person has, and has given us such a vivid
description that we cannot but believe to be true what we hear.
This is, however, my own experience. I am told others have observed the
When we were boys at school we used, among other things, to discuss
ghosts. Most of my fellow students asserted that they did not believe in
ghosts, but I was one of those who not only believed in their existence
but also in their power to do harm to human beings if they liked. Of
course, I was in the minority. As a matter of fact I knew that all those
who said that they did not believe in ghosts told a lie. They believed
in ghosts as much as I did, only they had not the courage to admit their
weakness and differ boldly from the sceptics. Among the lot of
unbelievers was one Ram Lal, a student of the Fifth Standard, who swore
that he did not believe in ghosts and further that he would do anything
to convince us that they did not exist.
It was, therefore, at my suggestion that he decided to go one moon-light
night and hammer down a wooden peg into the soft sandy soil of the
Hindoo Burning Ghat, it being well known that the ghosts generally put
in a visible appearance at a burning ghat on a moon-light night. (A
burning ghat is the place where dead bodies of Hindoos are cremated).
It was the warm month of April and the river had shrunk into the size of
a nullah or drain. The real pukka ghat (the bathing place, built of
bricks and lime) was about 200 yards from the water of the main stream,
with a stretch of sand between.
The ghats are only used in the morning when people come to bathe, and in
the evening they are all deserted. After a game of football on the
school grounds we sometimes used to come and sit on the pukka ghat for
an hour and return home after nightfall.
Now, it was the 23rd of April and a bright moon-light night, every one
of us (there were about a dozen) had told the people at home that there
was a function at the school and he might be late. On this night, it
was arranged that the ghost test should take place.
The boy who had challenged the ghost, Ram Lal, was to join us at the
pukka ghat at 8 P.M.; and then while we waited there he would walk
across the sand and drive the peg into the ground at the place where a
dead body had been cremated that very morning. We were to supply the peg
and the hammer. (I had to pay the school gardener two annas for the loan
of a peg and a hammer).
Well, we procured the peg and the hammer and proceeded to the pukka
ghat. If the gardener had known what we required the peg and the hammer
for, I am sure he would not have lent these to us.
Though I was a firm believer in ghosts yet I did not expect that Ram Lal
would be caught. What I hoped for was that he would not turn up at the
trysting place. But to my disappointment Ram Lal did turn up and at the
appointed hour too. He came boasting as usual, took the peg and the
hammer and started across the sand saying that he would break the head
of any ghost who might venture within the reach of the hammerhead. Well,
he went along and we waited for his return at the pukka ghat. It was a
glorious night, the whole expanse of sand was shining in the bright
On and on went Ram Lal with the peg in his left hand and the hammer in
his right. He was dressed in the usual upcountry Indian style, in a long
coat or Achkan which reached well below his knees and fluttered in the
As he went on his pace slackened. When he had gone about half the
distance he stopped and looked back. We hoped he would return. He put
down the hammer and the peg, sat down on the sand facing us, took off
his shoes. Only some sand had got in. He took up the peg and hammer and
But then we felt that his courage was oozing away. Another fifty yards
and he again stopped, and looked back at us.
Another fifty yards remained. Will he return? No! he again proceeded,
but we could clearly see that his steps were less jaunty than when he
had started. We knew that he was trembling, we knew that he would have
blessed us to call him back. But we would not yield, neither would he.
Looking in our direction at every step he proceeded and reached the
burning ghat. He reached the identical spot where the pyre had been
erected in the morning.
There was very little breeze,--not a mouse stirring. Not a soul was
within 200 yards of him and he could not expect much help from us. How
poor Ram Lal's heart must have palpitated! When we see Ram Lal now how
we feel that we should burst.
Well, Ram Lal knelt down, fixed the peg in the wet sandy soil and began
hammering. After each stroke he looked at us and at the river and in all
directions. He struck blow after blow and we counted about thirty. That
his hands had become nerveless we would understand, for otherwise a
dozen strokes should have been enough to make the peg vanish in the soft
The peg went in and only about a couple of inches remained visible above
the surface; and then Ram Lal thought of coming back. He was kneeling
still. He tried to stand up, gave out a shrill cry for help and fell
down face foremost.
It must have been his cry for help that made us forget our fear of the
ghost, and we all ran at top speed towards the ghat. It was rather
difficult to run fast on the sand but we managed it as well as we could,
and stopped only when we were about half a dozen yards from the
unconscious form of Ram Lal.
There he lay senseless as if gone to sleep. Our instinct told us that he
was not dead. We thanked God, and each one of us sent up a silent
prayer. Then we cried for help and a boatman who lived a quarter of a
mile away came up. He took up Ram Lal in his arms and as he was doing it
_tr_--_rrrrrrrrrr_--went Ram Lal's long coat. The unfortunate lad had
hammered the skirt of his long coat along with the peg into the ground.
We took Ram Lal to his house and explained to his mother that he had a
bad fall in the football field, and there we left him.
The next morning at school, one student, who was a neighbour of Ram Lal,
told us that the whole mischief had become known.
Ram Lal, it appears, got high fever immediately after we had left him
and about midnight he became delirious and in that condition he
disclosed everything in connection with his adventure at the ghat.
In the evening we went to see him. His parents were very angry with us.
The whole story reached the ears of the school authorities and we got,
what I thought I richly deserved (for having allowed any mortal being to
defy a ghost) but what I need not say.
Ram Lal is now a grown up young man. He holds a responsible government
appointment and I meet him sometimes when he comes to tour in our part
of the Province.
I always ask him if he has seen a ghost since we met last.
In this connection it will not be out of place to mention two simple
stories one from my own experience and another told by a friend.
I shall tell my friend's story first, in his own words.
"I used to go for a bath in the Ganges early every morning. I used to
start from home at 4 o'clock in the morning and walked down to the
Ganges which was about 3 miles from my house. The bath took about an
hour and then I used to come back in my carriage which went for me at
about six in the morning.
"On this eventful morning when I awoke it was brilliant moonlight and
so I thought it was dawn.
"I started from home without looking at the clock and when I was about a
mile and a half from home and about the same distance from the river I
realized that I was rather early. The policeman under the railway bridge
told me that it was only 2 o'clock. I knew that I should have to cross
the small _maidan_ through which the road ran and I remembered that
there was a rumour that a ghost had sometimes been seen in the _maidan_
and on the road. This however did not make me nervous, because I really
did not believe in ghosts; but all the same I wished I could have gone
back. But then in going back I should have to pass the policeman and he
would think that I was afraid; so I decided to go on.
"When I entered the _maidan_ a creepy sensation came over me. My first
idea was that I was being followed, but I did not dare look back, all
the same I went on with quick steps.
"My next idea was that a gust of wind swept past me, and then I thought
that a huge form was passing over the trees which lined the road.
"By this time I was in the middle of the _maidan_ about half a mile
from the nearest human being.
"And then, horror of horrors, the huge form came down from the trees and
stood in the middle of the road about a hundred yards ahead of me,
barring my way.
"I instinctively moved to the side--but did not stop. By the time I
reached the spot, I had left the metalled portion of the road and was
actually passing under the road-side trees allowing their thick trunks
to intervene between me and the huge form standing in the middle of the
road. I did not look at it, but I was sure it was extending a gigantic
arm towards me. It could not, however, catch me and I walked on with
vigorous strides. After I had passed the figure I nearly ran under the
trees, my heart beating like a sledge hammer within me.
"After a couple of minutes I saw two glaring eyes in front of me. This I
thought was the end. The eyes were advancing towards me at a rapid pace
and then I heard a shout like that of a cow in distress. I stopped where
I was. I hoped the ghost would pass along the road overlooking me. But
when the ghost was within say fifty yards of me it gave another howl
and I knew that it had seen me. A cry for help escaped my lips and I
"When I regained consciousness I found myself on the grassy foot-path by
the side of the road, about 4 or 5 human beings hovering about me and a
motor car standing near.
"Then the whole mystery became clear as day-light. The eyes that I had
seen were the headlights of the 24 H.P. Silent Knight Minerva of
Captain ----. He had gone on a pleasure-trip to the next station and was
returning home with two friends and his wife in his motor car when in
that part of the road he saw something like a man standing in the middle
of the road and sounded his horn. As the figure in the middle of the
road would not move aside he slowed down and then heard my cry.
"The rest the reader may guess. The figure that had loomed so large with
out-stretched arm was only a municipal danger signal erected in the
middle of the road. A red lamp had been placed on the top of the
erection but it had been blown out."
This was the whole story of my friend. It shows how even our prosaic but
overwrought imagination sometimes gives to airy nothings a local
habitation and a name. My own personal experience which I shall describe
now will also, I am sure, be interesting.
It was on a brilliant moon-light night in the month of June that we were
sleeping in the open court-yard of our house.
Of course, the court-yard had a wall all round with a partition in the
middle; on one side of the partition slept three girls of the family and
on the other were the younger male members, four in number.
It was our custom to have a long chat after dinner and before retiring
On this particular night the talk had been about ghosts. Of course, the
girls are always ready to believe everything and so when we left them we
knew that they would not sleep very comfortably that night. We retired
to our part of the court-yard, but we could overhear the conversation of
the girls. One was trying to convince the other two that ghosts did not
exist and if they did exist they never came into contact with human
Then we fell asleep.
How long we had slept we did not know, but a sudden cry from, one of
the girls awoke us and within three seconds we were across the low
partition wall, and with her. She was sitting up in bed pointing with
her fingers. Following the direction we saw in the clear moonlight the
figure of a short woman standing in the corner of the court-yard about
20 yards from us pointing her finger at something (not towards us).
We looked in that direction bub could see nothing peculiar there.
Our first idea was that it was one of the maid-servants, who had heard
our after-dinner conversation, playing the ghost. But this particular
ghostly lady was very short, much shorter than any servant in the
establishment. After some, hesitation all (four) of us advanced towards
the ghost. I remember how my heart throbbed as I advanced with the other
Then we laughed loud and long.
What do you think it was?
It was only the Lawn Tennis net wrapped round the pole standing against
the wall. The handle of the ratchet arrangement looked like an extending
But from a distance in the moon-light it looked exactly like a short
woman draped in white.
This story again shows what trick our imagination plays with us at
Talking of ghosts reminds me of a very funny story told by a friend of
my grand-father--a famous medical man of Calcutta.
This famous doctor was once sent for to treat a gentleman at Agra. This
gentleman was a rich Marwari who was suffering from indigestion. When
the doctor reached Agra he was lodged in very comfortable quarters and a
number of horses and carriages was placed at his disposal.
He was informed that the patient had been treated by all the local and
provincial practitioners but without any result.
The doctor who was as clever a man of the world as of medicine, at once
saw that there was really nothing the matter with the patient. He was
really suffering from a curious malady which could in a phrase be
called--"want of physical exercise."
Agra, the city after which the Province is named, abounds in old
magnificent buildings which it takes the tourist a considerable time to
see, and the Doctor, of course, was enjoying all the sights in the
He also prescribed a number of medicines which proved of no avail. The
Doctor had anticipated it, and so he had decided what medicine he would
During the sight-seeing excursions into the environs of the city the
doctor had discovered a large pukka well not far from a main street and
at a distance of 3 miles from his patient's house.
This was a very old disused well and it was generally rumoured that a
ghost dwelt in it. So nobody would go near the well at night. Of course,
there was a lot of stories as to what the ghost looked like and how he
came out at times and stood on the brink and all that,--but the doctor
really did not believe any of these. He, however, believed that this
ghost, (whether there really was any or not in that well) would cure his
So one morning when he saw his patient he said "Lalla Saheb--I have
found out the real cause of your trouble--it is a ghost whom you have
got to propitiate and unless you do that you will never get well--and
no medicine will help you and your digestion will never improve."
"A Ghost?" asked the patient.
"A Ghost!" exclaimed the people around.
"A Ghost" said the doctor sagely.
"What shall I have to do?" inquired the patient, anxiously--
"You will have to go every morning to that well (indicating the one
mentioned above), and throw a basketful of flowers in" said the doctor.
"I shall do that every day" said the patient.
"Then we shall begin from to-morrow" said the doctor.
The next morning everybody had been ready to start long before the
doctor was out of bed. He came at last and all got up to start. Then a
big landau and pair drew up to take the doctor and the patient to the
abode of the ghost in the well. Just as the patient was thinking of
getting in the doctor said "We don't require a carriage Lalla Saheb--we
shall all have to walk--and bare-footed too, and between you and me we
shall have to carry the basket of flowers also."
The patient was really troubled. Never indeed in his life had he walked
a mile--not to say of three--and that, bare-footed and carrying a
basket of flowers in his hands. However he had to do it. It was a goodly
procession. The big millionaire--the big doctor with a large number of
followers walking bare-footed--caused amazement and amusement to all who
It took them a full hour and a half to reach the well--and there the
doctor pronounced the _mantra_ in Sanskrit and the flowers were thrown
in. The _mantra_ (charm) was in Sanskrit, the doctor who knew a little
of the language had taken great pains to compose it the night before and
even then it was not grammatically quite correct.
At last the party returned, but not on foot. The journey back was
performed in the carriages that had followed the patient and his doctor.
From that day the practice was followed regularly. The patient's health
began to improve and he began to regain his power of digestion fast. In
a month he was all right; but he never discontinued the practice of
going to the well and throwing in a basketful of flowers with his own
hands. He had also learnt the _mantra_ (the mystic charm) by heart; but
the doctor had sworn him to secrecy and he told it to nobody. Shoes with
felt sole were soon procured from England (it being 40 years before any
Indian Rope Sole Shoe Factory came into existence) and thus the
inconvenience of walking this distance bare-footed was easily obviated.
After a month's further stay the doctor came away from Agra having
earned a fabulous fee, and he always received occasional letters and
presents from his patient who never discontinued the practice of
visiting the well till his death about 17 years later.
"The three-mile walk is all that he requires" said the doctor to his
friends (among whom evidently my grand-father was one) on his return
from Agra, "and since he has got used to it now he won't discontinue
even if he comes to know of the deception I have practised on him--and I
have cured his indigestion after all."
The patient, of course, never discovered the fraud. He never gave the
matter his serious consideration. His friends, who were as ignorant and
prejudiced as he himself was, believed in the _ghost_ as much as he did
himself. The medical practitioners of Agra who probably were in the
Doctor's secret never told him anything--and if they had told him
anything they would probably have heard language from _Our patient_
that could not well be described as quite parliamentary, for they had
all tried to cure him and failed.
This series of stories will prove how much "imagination" works upon the
external organs of a human being.
If a person goes about with the idea that there is a ghost somewhere
about he will probably see the ghost in everything.
But has it ever struck the reader that sometimes horses and dogs do not
quite enjoy going to a place which is reputed to be haunted?
In a village in Bengal not far from my home there is a big Jack-fruit
tree which is said to be haunted.
I visited this place once--the local zamindar had sent me his elephant.
The Gomashta (estate manager) who knew that I had come to see the
haunted tree, told me that I should probably see nothing during the day,
but the elephant would not go near the tree.
I passed the tree. It was about 3 miles from the Railway Station. There
was nothing extraordinary about it. This was about 11 o'clock in the
morning. Then I went to the Shooting Box (usually called the Cutchery or
Court house--where the zamindars and their servants put up when they
pay a visit to this part of their possessions) to have my bath and
breakfast most hospitably provided by my generous host. I ordered the
elephant to be put under this tree, and this was done though the people
there told me that the elephant would not remain there long.
At about 2 P.M. I heard an extraordinary noise from the tree.
It was only the elephant. It was wailing and was looking as bad as it
We all went there but found nothing. The elephant was not ill.
I ordered it to be taken away from under the tree. As soon as the chain
was removed from the animal's foot it rushed away like a race horse and
would not stop within 200 yards of the tree. I was vastly amused. I had
never seen an elephant running before. But under the tree we found
nothing. What made the elephant so afraid has remained a secret.
The servants told me (what I had heard before) that it was only
elephants, horses and dogs that did not stay long under that tree. No
human eyes have ever seen anything supernatural or fearful there.
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