Ghosts of the East and West

Namdang Factory Bungalow: courtesy Larry Brown. Larry says, “I lived here for a number of years and it had a resident ghost. I thought that I had exorcised him but he came back to annoy others. The ghost was that of a 23 year old who worked on the outgarden of Namtok in the early 1900’s He contracted Blackwater Fever and died in the factory bungalow.

Tea garden bungalows come equipped with a retinue of servants and often a resident spook (no extra charge!). Invariably the spook is a boga-sahib (white master): an old British tea planter who died on the job and who is buried somewhere in the tea garden. The bungalows themselves are creepy: drafty with echoing rooms, weak-wattage bulbs, creaky wooden floors and rattling rafters. Many are located within deep forests and surrounded by bamboobaris (FYI the spooks love bamboo as much as pandas!).  Add to that the blackest, deepest nights of Assam, lots of melancholy rain and vapors steaming off the jungle floor and voila! you have a phantom’s paradise.

John E. Bartlett, a pioneer tea planter arrived in Assam on December 30, 1866. He fell from the river steamer at Dhunseri Mookh on October 2, 1885 and drowned. His body was recovered on October 5 and buried at Numalighur on October 7, 1885. (Courtesy KOIHAI.COM)

Folks died easily back in the old days of tea. Tea gardens were far-flung and remote, the roads bad, communication poor and medical help often too little, too late. Malaria, black water fever, typhoid, tetanus, wild animals, accidental drowning, gunshot wounds…all claimed planters lives.  As a child I believed the dead turned into backward-footed entities that prowled the bamboobari shrieking their heads off. I always made it a point to check out people’s feet, just in case.

Many young Europeans fell victim to accident and disease, never to see the shores of their homeland again. Some took their own lives in desperation. There are hundreds of moss-covered graves scattered across tea plantations in Assam, mostly in wooded areas, tangled in vegetation and overrun by creepers. Many are unmarked but some have carved inscriptions that speak of the short, precarious lives of these young men in Assam.

Assam (which grows the finest tea – click the red link if you want to learn more about Assam Tea) is riddled with ghosts. Over 60 different ghosts and evil spirits have been identified in the state of Assam – that’s enough to fill a whole bus (imagine what a jolly ride that would be!) Assamese spooks have their own personality and agenda. Check out some of these  heavy-hitters:

Bura Dangoria (the old one) A good spirit dressed in white clothes and a white turban, often seen on a white horse who guards Namghars, the community places of worship where the sacred Bhagavad Gita is kept.
Baak A malevolent ugly creature that sometimes kills a person and takes on the corpse’s appearance. Often seen hanging around isolated ponds and lakes.
Ghoda Paak Has the hooves of a horse, but is otherwise human looking. Some stories show it as helpful, while others call it so deadly that you can die if it looks at you.
Bira (Poltergeist) Like all poltergeist of the world, usually believed to be unleashed on a family by an enemy to eliminate and torture them.
Bamboo Ghost This one lurks in the bamboo grove and bends down a bamboo on your path. If you try to step over it, it’ll snap back the bamboo and kill you.
Jokhini A female demon like creature that often tries to lure males and kill them.
 Bordoisila (the storm goddess) She’s the storm in April who throws a tantrum because she has to return to her husband’s house after visiting her mother for the Assamese new year which is around that time.
Puwali Bhoot (tiny ghosts) These are mischievous ghosts the size of small children who steal rice and sweets from the kitchen
Khoba-khubi  A pair of evil spirits who haunt a newly wedded couples and can be scared away by reading the hara-gauri (Shiva-Parvati) mantra on the third day of marriage
Khetar A local evil spirit that is said to harm little children
Churini Bira A female evil spirit that steals items from the house and kitchen
FYI this is a ghostly sampling of just one tiny state in India. India has 28 states so if you do the maths you will realize, we far outweigh the western world in both spirits and spirituality. The western world sure pales (pun intended) in comparison, besides Indian ghosts are more rowdy and fun.
Brown Lady of Raynham Hall ghost photograph, Captain Hubert C. Provand. First published in Country Life Magazine,  Dec 1936 issue.
Western ghosts are tame and well-behaved compared to the Indian hoolie-ghoolies. They are polite lurkers and don’t like to create a ruckus. Here are some ghostly facts courtesy of Midlands Ghost Hunters, Britain’s leading spook experts: (comments in red are mine: no disrespect intended)
  • Ghosts want to be noticed
  • Ghosts have no sense of passing time
  • Often, they do not know that they are dead
  • Ghosts can smell things and love the smell of lemons (ha ha! It’s the opposite in India people actually string up lemons–limes actually–to ward off evil spirits. Go figure!)
  • Ghosts have a sense of humor and love to hear humans laugh (maybe I should stop laughing so much –  oh hell!)
  • Sometimes ghosts get bored with their surroundings (that’s why they come snooping around)
  • Most ghosts are happy, but some still cling to an emotional pain
  • They can appear to the living in dreams
  • They can leave behind certain scents, such as perfume (or apple pie *)
  • They can make sounds that are audible
  • They use their energies and ours to move things
  • They are pranksters
  • They usually appear as intense balls of light called orbs
  • Ghosts favor night due to the decrease in daytime energy use
  • Ghosts may appear as mists or vapors
  • Ghosts can read your thoughts
  • Ghosts retain all the memories and emotions of their lives
  • Sometimes ghosts are trapped and need to be released
  • Noisy, troublesome ghosts are known as poltergeist
  • Ghosts tend to be very temperamental
  • Ghosts hang out in cliques with other ghosts
  • Ghosts make friends with other ghosts from different eras
  • Ghosts do not sleep
  • Ghosts like to climb up and down stairs at night (especially creaky ones)
  • Most ghosts can’t or won’t hurt you
  • When a ghost enters a room, the room usually gets cold
  • Animal ghosts exist and have been sighted
  • Ghosts who lived hundreds of years ago keep up with the trends (not clear about this one – like fashion? That does not sound right. Imagine a castle ghost in a tank top and Jimmy Choos!)
  • Children perceive ghosts as imaginary friends (that I know for fact)

Read my mom’s famous *APPLE PIE GHOST STORY HERE!!

If you like tea, ghosts and stories you may like my upcoming novel Teatime for the Firefly soon to be published by Mira Books in October 2013.  Check out the synopsis and first chapter HERE.  

Stretching truth into stories

A cabin in the woods. So pretty by day and so creepy by night!
Oma when she was eighty, just before she died.

I love a good ghost story, don’t you? So gather around folks and get yourself some tea because I am going to tell you one. It happened  to my mother: we call her Oma. This story got written up in a Bengali magazine and made Oma a minor celebrity. She told it over and over to an expanding circle of fans, right up to the time she died. She was eighty and almost completely blind, by then. The story is called The Apple Pie Ghost.

The historic town of Julian is located 50 miles northeast of San Diego.

Oma visited us in America in fall of ’96 from India. We took her on a road trip to California and spent a night in the tiny historic town of Julian, 50 miles northeast of San Diego. Julian is a postcard-pretty town, famous for its apple orchards. There are big pine forests and lovely lakes. We rented a cabin in the woods which we booked through the internet. The cabin looked rustic and comfy in the photos. There was a tree growing out of the floorboards and right through the roof of the front porch! It was so quaint and charming. We paid the owner (a Mrs. Fisher) with a credit card over the phone. She lived in San Diego and we could tell from her voice she was an elderly lady. “The keys are in the bar-b-que inside a coffee can, ” she said. “Put it back in the same place when you leave.”

Julian, California is famous for its apple orchards

The cabin was in a dense wooded area, rather difficult to find as the road was overrun with bushes and the marker hardly visible. It was a creaky old thing, badly in need of repair. When the wind blew the entire structure (thanks to the tree growing out of its roof) shuddered and groaned.

We had lunch in town and went for a walk. Mom got worn out and wanted to nap so we dropped her back at the cabin and hubby and me took off to fish in the lake. The sun was just sinking over the treetops when we packed up. We stopped en-route to pick up pizza before heading back to the cabin. When we arrived we found the lights blazing and Oma waiting at the door. She looked wide-eyed and anxious.

“Quick!” she said. “Something happened.”

 HERE IS OMA’S VERSION OF WHAT HAPPENED When I woke up. it was dark. I called out your names wondering if you were back. When I heard no answer, I groped my way to the living room and tried to find the light switch. Something in the living room made me feel terribly uncomfortable– like there was somebody there– a presence of sorts. Thank god I found the switch and turned on the lights. The room empty. I decided to watch some TV so I picked up the remote but when I went to sit in this big blue chair, I felt like somebody was pushing me out! I tried to sit again and I felt once more that violent resistance. It was most odd so I just went and sat down on the sofa. Suddenly I noticed a strong smell  permeating the room. It was cinnamon and apples– the smell of freshly baked apple pie! I opened the oven and peeked inside. The oven was cold and there was nothing there. The windows were closed and there were no other houses around, so the smell could not be coming from outside. I was puzzling over this, when I heard a  scratching on the kitchen screen door and saw a cat yowling outside trying to get in. It was all very bizarre. First that ‘thing’ not letting me sit the blue chair, then the smell of fresh apple pie and now the cat! To calm myself, I closed my eyes and tried to meditate. Next thing I knew you two were back.

Mom and me at the rickety cabin the morning after the apple-pie ghost incident. Nobody got much sleep that night!

Hubby and me did not know what to make of it. (FYI Oma does not believe one iota in ghosts. She’d probably smack a ghost on the nose if she saw one) But given that she was alone in a creaky old cabin in the middle of the dark woods, it was  possible her imagination went a little awry. I told her so.

“It was not my imagination,” she retorted indignantly, “And don’t treat me like an old woman.” So we left it at that.

OMA’S VERSION (continued): “The next day before we headed out to San Diego we stopped downtown for early lunch at this old-fashioned American diner. It had black and white linoleum checkered floors and antique bottles decorated the windows. The waitress was a chatty lady who urged me to try a slice of their famous apple pie. She asked where we were staying.

“Fisher Cabin,” my son-in-law replied, “up by the lake.”

“He died recently, didn’t he ? Mr Fisher?” The waitress asked.

We didn’t personally know them, we told her.

“They were a nice couple,” the waitress continued. “Regulars at this diner.  Mr. Fisher loved our apple pie. He would always take a whole pie home with him.”

(This ends Oma’s version of The Apple Pie Ghost story. Add some twilighty music here if you like!)

As The Apple Pie Ghost made its rounds, Oma’s fan base grew and the story plumped  a little. The night became moonless and foggier, the cabin creakier, a few owl hoots got thrown in and the cat turned into sinister black feline with monstrous yellow eyes. Oma’s  daughter and son-in- law (hubby and yours truly) were described as a rugged. National Geographic type of people with a penchant for extreme adventure who had gone mountaineering (not nature rambling to pick pine cones, ladies and gentleman) leaving a brave old lady alone in the cabin. The brave old lady –who did not know fear, having encountered leopards and tigers in her tea garden days– had just returned from an evening walk (not woken up from a snooze, excuse me). The story got more layered and delicious until it was practically falling off the bone. The audience was drooling. Plenty of tea was drunk in the course of this story and cups lay helter-skelter on the floor. When Oma delivered the punch line (Then the waitress said “Mr. Fisher loved our apple pie. He always took a whole one home with him) – she did it with the élan of a sous chef flipping a large omelette in a very tiny panthe fans gasped en-masse and a delicious shiver went through the group. Oh yes, Oma knew how to tell her stories. She left her audience reeling.

(Added on 5/26) Since we are talking of ghosts, I had to include this pix: “The Ghost of the Hoogly” sent in by friend Rahul Dey who writes, “May I remind you this is not photoshopped as I don’t have Adobe. It’s the real one! This  ghost often hops from boat to boat to look for the boatman who killed him and ran away with his  wife.”  Shona’s disclaimer: BELIEVE AT YOUR OWN RISK FOLKS! I can’t say I am convinced!

When I reread the story in the Bengali magazine long after she died, I thought, wait a minute, this is all too pitty-pat, too tidy. I wonder what really happened? By then I had  Oma’s version buzzing in my brain and the real facts of the case had fizzled out. I did not want to be the big killjoy and add a spoiler:  after all, The Apple Pie Ghost was Oma’s path to stardom– it made her a celebrity. All her audience really wanted was the razzle-dazzle of a magic show, not a deconstruction of the sets backstage.  But I had to find out, just to satisfy my own curiosity.

So I consulted my hubby who, if you must know, is not prone to wild imaginings like the womenfolks in my family. Here are bones of the story as verified by him.

Oma was left alone in the cabin (TRUE). She felt uneasy for some reason (TRUE). When we returned she told us about the apple pie smell and the cat at the door (TRUE).

(Flash forward to the diner scene, if you will.)

The waitress mentioned Mr. Fisher had just died (TRUE). The Fishers were regulars at the diner (TRUE). The diner was famous for its apple pie (TRUE)

(Now here is the dubious bit).

The waitress said Mr. Fisher loved their apple pie (FALSE). Mr. Fisher always took home a whole apple pie (FALSE). The truth was the waitress asked if we wanted more coffee and left and Oma pushed around the apple pie on her plate, piecing together a story.

If mom was alive she would kill me for botching The Apple Pie Ghost. Now why would I want to do that? Why would I trade so much joy, so much tea, such sweet bonhomie and such shivers of excitement for few grains of truth? Oh pleeze….

So cozy up folks, let’s get ourselves some tea and let’s share stories. Have you ever stretched truth into fiction? Please take me with you. I will happily suspend disbelief and sign up for the ride.


The very best Apple Pie recipes 
Tourism information about Julian California


If you like tea, ghosts and stories you may like my upcoming novel Teatime for the Firefly. You can read more about it HERE.  I am represented by April Eberhardt Literary.