Spills, chills, spooky thrills…

2 02 2009

Alright, so that’s probably not the proper way to go about learning how to rhyme, but that’s all I am capable of at the moment.  Picking up from where I left off in the Lansdowne post, we didn’t do much the first day at the Mess. 

Nervously went down to the Mess for dinner….why nervously? Simple.  It’s a Army Mess therefore, you are supposed to arrive dressed in formal clothes, which means, at the very least trousers, tucked in shirt and formal shoes for men, and a sari, dress or salwar kameez with heels for women.  Quaint? Very.

Only problem was, my husband had completely forgotten about mentioning this tiny little rule to me so we were effectively at the mercy of the Mess superviser for any victuals.  The supervisor was a very decent sort of chap though and he allowed us in despite our obvious lack of formal dress. 


At night, we slowly walked back to our cottage.  the howling wind shook the windows and made them stutter.  What would have been a terribly romantic walk in the moonlight was reduced to a kind of lumbering march uphill with our hands thrust deep in our respective pockets and chins down, so that we could walk through the freezing wind without our noses falling off our faces. 


Once inside, I can’t say that the situation improved.  The room we had was originally part of a larger room with four or five fireplaces, which were divided into smaller rooms to accommodate more people.  What they didn’t take into account was that these rooms were built to be heated by fires.  And now, that you can’t build a fire inside the room since the fireplaces were boarded up and plastered over…..the room was freezing!

Have you ever tried to sleep while a window rattles ten inches away from your ear?  It’s downright impossible.  you turn so your ear is directly perpendicular to your pillow, which is fine for about ten seconds, after which your ear is crushed and a million pins plunge head first into the side of your head in protest.  “Heaven’s sake!  Turn over woman!  Are you trying to kill me?  I’m the thing that lets you hear , you inconceivably idiotic glob of glue!”

Turn again, lie straight and the wind whistles in your ears…..swoosh swoosh…it’s no good.  So I decided to sit at the window and look outside.  I figured there wouldn’t be anybody outside, and it would be dark so eventually I’d get bored and would fall asleep.  Plus, the whole ghost-at-Lansdowne thing had been weighing on my mind and I thought that the middle of the night would be the best time to see evidence or remnants of a spooky spectre floating about. 

Ten minutes of relentless staring out the window yielded no results, I must’ve looked half out of my mind, staring into the black night.  I don’t know what I expected.  Perhaps I was hoping to see a perfectly formed ghost dragging chains about like Old Marley or maybe I even might have expected the modern, effects-enhanced Nearly Headless Nick variety.

But I sure as hell did not expect this.  Nothing was happening.  The disappointment was unnerving.  The wind swirled about in the leaves, branches swayed.  It was a perfect night for a ghost.  Perfect.  Dark, stormy (somewhat) and annoyingly cold.  The set was flawless, the light (no light)  just right and the sound was clear, but our star performer didn’t feel like making an entry. 

What tantrums. 

The next day, we trekked to Tiffin Top, from where you get a unrivalled view of the valley and the Himalayas.  The weather had cleared completely so we could see the snowladen peaks of the Great Himalayas directly in front.  Incidently, the best time to visit Lansdowne is from September to October because the weather stays clear and visibility is at a high.  chart

 So you can see for miles on end.  The Mess supervisor was kind enough to point out several peaks to us, some were names after Englishmen, others were fortunate enough to keep their vernacular names.  Some peaks visible are Badrinath, Kedarnath, Nanda devi, Nanga Parbat, Chaukhumba – which is a rhombus like peak, with three high points visible from the Mess.

The best time to see the mountains is sunrise.  As the first rays of sunlight fall upon the peaks, they seem to burst into flames and turn pink.  As the sun pushes itself out of the shadow of the mountains, the pinkish glow on the peaks fades and gives way to the brilliant reflection of sunlight – gleaming white. 


 I sought the Mess supervisor out after dinner.  I wanted to know about Roberts, the ‘presence’.  At first he seemed reluctant to tell me anything, but persistent cajoling finally brought him around and he told me that strange things happen around the Mess and especially in the cottage where we were staying – the cottage named after Brigadier Roberts, who was a decorated officer of the Regiment.  . 

The grand piano in the Mess begins to play mysteriously after everything has been shut and locked down.  The billiards table in the museum section of the Mess is another favourite.  Entry is restricted in the museum, formal dress rules apply and you form a tendency to speak in whispers once inside.  The museum is chock-a-block with Raj memorabilia.  Humoungous skins of tigers, panthers, lions and leopards adorn the wall, alongside the stuffed heads of deer, wild buffaloe and Tibetan gazelles.  Their glassy eyes stare down at you,  the fierceness of their lives reduced to a spectacle.  

The floor of one room is laid with tiny pieces of bone china.  Apparently a shipment of bone china coming from Delhi got smashed en route to Lansdowne so the officers decided that it should be put to use as flooring.  And the final room houses the billiards table.  It’s a huge 19th century affair, shipped down from London.  Brigadier Roberts was very fond of the game and the Supervisor confirms reports that the billiards balls are scattered as though after a rousing game on some mornings when they unlock the museum to air it out. 

Other instances include a benevolent sort of corporal punishment.  Guards who fall asleep on duty at night are roused by a resounding slap across the face.  When they sit up, flabbergasted and horrified, there is nobody around. 

I nodded sagely and wandered back to the cottage.  The night felt creepier today, perhaps it was because I had heard tales of a ghost from a source who seemed the picture of rationality and reason.  But ghosts don’t exist and I wasn’t about to start believing in them just because a few men left alone on a hillstation Mess believed so.  Right?

That night I couldn’t sleep again. After much tossing and turning and getting told off by my husband that I was being a nuisance, I stood and calmly pulled my sneakers and jacket on.  I crept down the stairs as nimbly as I could, taking care to walk on the tips of my toes.  Lights were out, it was pitch black outside.  I couldn’t see a thing.  I switched on the light on the porch and sat down in one of the big wicker chairs facing the mountains. 

I must have sat for about two minutes when a creeping sensation climbed up my throat.  It was scary.  I was scared, no…. terrified.  The night was quiet and black.  There was no sound, not even the sound of the wind.  I looked towards the Mess.  Nothing.  No footsteps, no birds chirping, nothing.  It felt like the silence of a graveyard.  No! I was determined to think of Oompa Loompas and Popeye the Sailor, not graves and Marley and dark, dank places. 

I don’t remember when I heard it  first.  But it was distinct.  A slow,  snarling, shrill, scratching, scraping animalistic sound.  It was like nothing I have ever heard before.  It seemed to come from all sides.  I sat straight, like a rod.  I closed my eyes and stood.  Turning towards the stairs, I ran.  I clamoured up the stairs like a fury, burst through the door and jumped into the bed, covers firmly over my head.  If  my husband was shocked, he didn’t show it, he simply held me tight and didn’t let go till morning.  I didn’t speak of it, neither did he ask, but I think he must have guessed what happened.

As we began our decent back to Delhi, out of the hills and into sanity, I looked at him and said, “Hey, you were right.  They do have a presence up here.”


The Journey to Lansdowne

28 01 2009

The probability of hearing ghost stories invariably increases as you climb higher up the mountains.  Everyone knows that.  Even the people who mistake emus for kiwis since they both can’t fly…I mean, everyone knows that.  So I know I shouldn’t have felt surprised when my husband mentioned that there was a ghost who walked about the grounds of the Garhwal Rifles Officers’Mess at Lansdowne. 

Our reasons for visiting were typical – get out of Delhi, leave the crowd of people we knew behind, pack the car with clothes and food and get going.

The scene changed slowly as the car rolled higher up into the mountains.   Colours became lush, bright and clear.  Despite the crunch of the tires on gravel and stones on the road, we could hear the sound of water clearly.  It gurgled, swooshed and rushed over pebbles and stones collected in the basin over years of travelling down from the peaks. 

I remember sticking my head out of the window.  I looked down.  The river curved lazily, echoing the movement of the road.  The water seemed to be dark green wherever the sunlight didn’t reach.  We fell in love with the beauty of the land around us.  We wanted to stop and get out of the car at every turn. 

Sitting inside a car when it is steadily and very quickly climbing higher and higher, is not pleasant.  So every chance we would get, we yelled and screamed and cribbed and whined till my husband would heave a long suffering sigh and park by the side of the road.  I leapt out waving my camera around like a wild woman and started clicking away.  There was nothing that wasn’t important enough to miss.

Trees, flowers, the bend in the road, the river, pebbles, creeping plants, the side of the mountain, shabby old signs, women carrying children (who gave me huge cheery grins for my trouble), blades of grass bent at interesting angles (for me at least), kites, goats, cows, monkeys, fat piageons, unidentifiable songbirds, fat doves, eagle wings (I never managed to get the whole eagle in one frame; they keep fidgeting about so), trucks, terrace farms, rice fields, guava trees, railroad tracks, bridges – you name it and I clicked away. 

It was evening by the time we finally reached Lansdowne.  Lansdowne is a very neat and spiffy little town.  They have a market and a Mall, and you can get almost all necessities of regular life easily.  What they don’t have in any great quantity is water, which they try and conserve responsibly.  (Give thema  big hand please!)

I mentioned that the town was clean and very pretty.  Not surprising because its run by a cantonment board and is also the base of the Garhwal Rifles regiment of the Indian Army.  We were lucky enough to get rooms at the Officers’ Mess during some connections. 

As we made our way towards our cottage, the sun slipped belowthe horizon and the orange-ish glow that lit the whole place up dimmed somewhat.  I looked up and noticed the year that the cottage was made was painted onto a plaster plaque near the crown of the cottage roof – 1908. 

“Well, what do you think?”  My husband asked.  I looked around in silence.  He’d been telling me about a ghost who walks about the Mess grounds at night and all sorts of things.  It didn’t help that the cottage we were assigned to looked like something straight out of Jane Eyre, and simply screamed “Look at me! I’m creepy!”  The stairs creaked and our voices echoed in the room.   Setting us up for some very non-subtle, and in-your-face forms of Old-colonial-house-formerly-occupied-by haunted-members-of-British-origin tendencies. 

but I wasn’t one to be put out by something so ridiculous.  I asked the Lance Naik who had accompanied us to our room.   “I hear you have a ghost on the grounds.”

He was silent, but only for a moment.  “He won’t bother you Ma’am.”

I stared at him quite deliberately.  “You do have a ghost then?”

His smile didn’t waver.  “We have a presence. ”  And he stepped out, shutting the door behind him. 

“What did you say the name of that ghost was?”  I asked my husband.  He grinned and replied, “Roberts.”

Cottages in the Garhwal Rifles Officers Mess are named for former decorated regimental officers.  Our cottage was named ‘Roberts’.

Go figure.