The village residents had assembled in the courtyard in the swirling mist of the early dawn. The massive peepal branches enveloped the courtyard in an eerie shade. The glistening mustard fields, encircled by clusters of low-roofed brick houses, painted the monotonous landscape of the deserted village in hues of yellow and green. A herd of goats, sheep and buffaloes was grazing on the lush pastures near a water trough. Children hopped about on an old red rusty tractor parked under a shelter.
But the daily customary village routine was thwarted. The peasants hadn’t taken their ploughs to till the fields. The women, clad in loose-fitted shalwar kamiz with chadars pulled over their heads, appeared petrified as they mumbled to one another.
Yusuf Baba, the village head, looked stupefied, seated on a wooden slab bench. The frail-looking elderly man, dressed in a beige-coloured dhoti-kurta, restlessly ran his fingers through the scanty hair on his head. ‘I sighted the same ghost last night. We need to beware. Our village is possessed,’ he urged.
The villagers gathered close to him as he spoke about tossing and turning in bed all night after he felt he had seen a ghostly figure. ‘At half-past four, my sleep was interrupted by the faint buzzing sounds of pesky mosquitoes. I found thick layers of smoke frothing into my room, which gave me a whooping cough.’
‘I quickly got out of bed to rush towards the window and caught sight of a mysterious figure of mist roaming a few miles over the fields, in the deep darkness of the night,’ the villagers noticed Yusuf Baba’s feeble hands trembling like a leaf.
A sinking feeling of paralysing fear swept over the crowd. The children jumped off the tractor and stepped closer. Their eyes were wide open as they hung onto his words.
‘Plunging my head out of the window, I was shocked to see that the ghostly mist had turned into a hulking full-bodied ghost that disappeared into the air on the other side,’ he recounted.
Cries of horror were heard from the crowd that had been anxiously hooked to Yusuf Baba’s stories while recalling their own experiences of the ghost’s presence in the village. Gossip was heard from all corners about uncanny happenings. Residents claimed to have witnessed strange marks on mirrors, some had heard heavy appalling voices, some reported disappearing items from their homes and some talked about doors being locked on their own.
A tall, full-figured woman in her fifties began beating her chest, screaming: ‘This ghost is turning our village into a living hell, but whose ghost is it? It must be the ghost of the peasant who committed suicide last year.’
A short-statured herdsman standing near the peepal closely examined it. He scraped off a tiny piece of bark, ratifying that the tree seemed to be haunted. ‘My forefathers were nomadic shepherds and I have heard from them that strange cracks in the tree trunk are suggestive of it being possessed by a female ghost,’ he asserted, assuredly. ‘I think it is the ghost of the bride who was killed on her wedding day a few years ago,’ he added.
‘No, there is something quite different about this ghost.... I exactly remember that ghoulish ugliness on its face....it is not from among us,’ Yusuf Baba interrupted.
‘Does it really come from...?’ someone tried asking.
Yusuf Baba immediately completed his sentence in a guarded whisper ‘I have told you many times that it comes from the other side. It is a Hindu ghost.’
A terrified woman dragged her five-year-old son into the middle of the courtyard, warning him against playing under the peepal tree till late in the evening.
‘That ferocious Hindu ghost will eat you up if you don’t come home earlier,’ she commanded.
Hashim, a quaint young man clad in khaki trousers and a baggy navy-blue cotton shirt had been quietly listening to the crowd’s snivelling. Considered a hopeless dreamer, he had a long-standing liaison with unemployment. He was either seen wandering aimlessly in the village streets or hatching bizarre schemes to flee from working in the fields. And was, hence, de- moted to belittling status by the villagers.
‘The Hindu ghost is all in your imagination. I have never seen any ghost in our village,’ he stuttered, though, he suspected an outrageous response.
The villagers glanced at each other, tossing their heads in utter dismay as if they were convinced Hashim was possessed by the Hindu ghost. Yusuf Baba felt infuriated at being ridiculed thus despite for his accomplished age-old wisdom and sense of prophecies.
He jumped off his seat, clearing his throat rather loudly before he stated, ‘The Hindu ghost is putting our lives in danger and you don’t believe it. You want us to keep sitting on our hands?’
Hashim continued playing the ghost’s advocate. An argument broke out among the residents.
Meanwhile, Yusuf Baba’s gaze penetrated into the fields on the eastern side, where he would often see the ghost disappearing. An extended high-iron fence surmounted by loops of sharp barbed wire obstructed the fields. A four-kilometre muddy patch—that belonged to no one—lay ahead, enclosed by another similar high-iron fence.
The sun was, by now, loitering above the horizon, brightly illuminating the enormous panoramic fine green verdure that extended a few miles down the village on the eastern side. Some women carrying earthenware pots were heading towards the well to draw water. Some washermen were hanging laundry on the clotheslines surrounding a nearby dhobhi-ghat while others thrashed clothes against a stone slab.
A coral-coloured saree covered with spices, drying under the sun, was spread on the sloppy courtyard floor near a water pump. Ratna Devi, an ordinary-looking middle-aged woman, was seated on a charpoy, applying a home-made herbal balm on her bruised left foot. Another woman collecting dried spices for pickle enquired about Ratna’s foot.
‘I was coming downstairs from the rooftop yesterday when I felt like I was pushed by an invisible force. I lost balance and fell down, injuring my foot,’ she disclosed in a low, pain-stricken voice.
The frightening expressions on the other woman’s face could tell that her heart might be running a marathon. ‘This matter is getting serious now. Do you know something similar happened with Bhavna, a few weeks ago?’ she asserted.
‘Did she also get pushed by the creepy ghost? May God keep us safe from this ghost’s curse,’ Ratna responded.
‘I have heard she had been hearing some horrifying whispers and recently she also saw some words randomly appearing on her room’s window, which she thought resembled Urdu,’ the other woman said.
‘What? Does that mean it really is a Muslim ghost?’ questioned Ratna.
The village elder, Mohan Chacha, a cranky big-bellied man, was smoking a hookah while resting in a white metal chair. Over- hearing the conversation, he spoke up in a rather irritable tone: ‘We have been sighting the ghost for a while now, so we must be vigilant. But you should first go to see the doctor?’
‘I could barely walk, but Chandar has gone to get a prescription from the doctor for me,’ replied Ratna as she waited for her son’s return.
Chandar seemed exhaustingly frazzled when he arrived after a hasty stride down the village centre. He came with the news that the clinic had been shut since early morning. For the past two nights, the doctor had been hearing someone slamming and forcing open his door. He had been perplexed and had fallen sick.
‘I am coming straight from the village centre and people just can’t stop prattling away for hours about that ferocious Muslim ghost,’ claimed Chandar.
Mohan Chacha sucked in a deep breath, appearing nervous by the turn of events. Suspecting danger, he called in for all the villagers to assemble outside his house to decide their most suit- able course of action. The peasants were called back from the fields. The village women suspended their household chores in the middle of the day—and everyone gathered outside Mohan Chacha’s dilapidated single-roof house.
People were closely huddled together. The sounds of a heated debate started reverberating as residents plunged headlong into their stories of encountering the Muslim ghost. Everybody frantically waited for their turn for a catharsis while recalling their dreaded memories of the ghost.
A man claimed to have seen some mysterious footsteps around the border area. Another warned that the winds appeared ravenous closer to the border, as if they would blow one off their feet. Someone believed that the wrathful Muslim ghost was bloodthirsty and it intended to bring them harm. After chewing the cud for about a few hours, the residents arrived at a consensus that most people had seen the ghost toiling around the barbed wires.
‘We have enough evidence that the vengeful Muslim ghost will cross back to its own side whenever someone catches its sight,’ said Mohan Chacha.
‘And it is now in our best interest that we call upon Swamiji Dharam Raj to pay us a visit and ward off the Muslim ghost, once and for all,’ he continued.
The residents nodded their approval to Mohan Chacha’s advice. Also present in the crowd was the goat-keeper, Akash, a 22-year-old clean-shaven man who had his dull brown muffler wrapped around his head in the form of a turban. He whispered to Chandar, seated next to him, ‘Let’s go near the border area tonight to spot the Muslim ghost before it is gone.’
Chandar was shell-shocked. He instantly turned down the idea, though he was somewhat tempted to answer in the affirmative.
‘We can’t put ourselves in such a danger...it’s not an ordinary ghost.... it’s a vengeful Muslim ghost.’ he asserted, as his eyes cautiously wandered around.
‘Imagine our heroic return after confronting a Muslim ghost that has shaken the entire village. We will be considered the most daring people in the village.’ bragged Akash. ‘Sakshi will also be impressed,’ he laughed. His face flashed with a sense of pride as he revelled in his approaching achievement.
Closer to midnight, the heavy yellow moon was shining on the face of the dark star-strewn skies. Both Akash and Chandar showed up near the village’s tube well. Akash had wrapped a khaadi shawl and was carrying his long sturdy stick. Chandar’s hunchback became more visible as his half-bent body turned stiffer and colder with fear. Tightly holding a lantern in his left hand, he walked with Akash as they took to the dreary path etched between the fields.
They reached close to the barbed wire in nearly twenty minutes. They stood there stealthily; their gaze remained frozen to the other side to catch that one glimpse of the Muslim ghost crossing into their side.
‘I have heard from my grandmother that ghosts don’t reveal themselves to everyone,’ Chandar uttered timidly, as if he had already surrendered, ‘So, it might not appear tonight and we might as well go back.’
‘Half of our village has seen that Muslim ghost and so will we. Don’t try to chicken out at the very last moment like a coward,’ responded Akash.
He wasn’t finished yet when they heard some creepy high-pitched screams echoing in the night air. The screams seemed distant, but their exact source was not identifiable. Chandar squeezed his eyes shut, turned back and in a flash of a second started rushing back through the same rugged path that had brought them there. Akash’s display of utmost bravery had almost vanished. He could feel his emotions tumbling and body quivering as he ran back unsteadily after Chandar. Akash tried to persuade himself that they hadn’t heard any screams, though deep down, they both seemed convinced that the Muslim ghost was chasing them.
‘Akash, run faster. And don’t turn back,’ said Chandar. Defeated by his flaring fit of curiosity, Akash, however, did turn back. He found no one behind. But noticed some fidgeting in the houses across the border. He saw lights in some of the houses gradually switching on.
Hashim, lying on his shabby charpoy, also heard the scream. He staggered down from the rooftop through a crumbling staircase and overheard an ongoing conversation about the Hindu ghost’s screams from a house in the neighbourhood.
The next morning hadn’t only brought with it an agonizing sense of fright but had plunged the village into spirals of lamentation. Shahid, the short-statured herdsman, was mourning the loss of one of his cows—his very source of income.
‘It had not even occurred to us in our dreams that the Hindu ghost would make our cow disappear,’ murmured Shahid’s wife as tears filled up her eyes. Two other village women snuggled close to her, holding her tightly in a comforting embrace.
Yusuf Baba offered his consolation and informed them that the Peer Baba Yaqoob Din was on his way. ‘He will be here anytime soon and will destroy the Hindu ghost, you just wait and see,’ Yusuf Baba’s tone got grim and furious.
Shahid, seated at the edge of a rumbled chair as his legs paced restlessly, said, ‘Peer Baba is the only one who can capture the spiteful Hindu Ghost, but don’t you think that the police should also be informed?’
Hashim cautiously interrupted, ‘I also heard the deadly scream last night. I am quite convinced it is the Hindu ghost. Why in the world would the Hindu ghost trust us beef-eaters with a cow?’
The villagers mocked him despite his ultimate acceptance of the Hindu ghost. In the eyes of the villagers, he was a deranged man who made conscious efforts to provoke. While Hashim made preparations to leave for the city, the Peer Baba arrived.
The old man was rather tall and strong for his age. His face was luminously bright and a prayer bump was visible between his thick eyebrows, bearing testimony to his piety and religious devotion. Draped in a crisp white shalwar kurta, he donned a skullcap that partially covered his thick grey hair.
The Peer Baba received a courteous standing ovation from the village residents. Men came touching his knees to pay him respect. A finely decorated blue-coloured sofa, considered the best in the village, was brought from Yusuf Baba’s house for him to sit on. A splendid meal was laid out for him on a lustrous dastarkhwan. Not much time was lost in his pompous bragging about triumphantly hunting down ghosts before he began his exorcism rituals.
‘I have acquired the knowledge of capturing ghosts from our forefathers. We have been serving people for decades,’ he revealed.
He displayed a set of items on a wooden table beside him; his bag exhibited several distinct herbs, spices and bottles of oils that were each prepared for use against different kinds of ghosts. He pulled out and burned some exotic leaves, placing them inside an intricately carved metal plate.
Soon, the air got heavier with the smell of burning leaves. Inhaling the fumes, he began chanting and synchronically spun his head at a tremendous speed. Having fallen into supposedly a mystical trance, he spoke another language.
He revealed in his steady, raspy voice that he had an encounter with the ghost. ‘This ghost has all the sinister qualities possessed by the Hindu ghosts,’ he confirmed.
‘It is not just ghoulish to look at but can prove to be fatally threatening for the village residents if not expelled soon,’ he commanded. His face assumed an ambiguous smile, revealing warning cues to the villagers, ‘Some ghosts are easier to hunt down, but this infidel Hindu ghost might require several sessions.’
A startled child in the courtyard inquisitively asked his mother, ‘Amma, do we have to feel more scared when a ghost is a Hindu?’ ‘Yes, son, our own ghosts are innocent, god-fearing beings. Hindu ghosts are infidels and can go to any extent to cause us harm,’ explained the mother. The stunned look on the face of the child meant he’d been scarred for life.
Having half-heartedly witnessed the torturous exorcist rituals, Hashim finally set off on his journey to the city. He drifted down the village streets reminding himself of his plan for the day: he was going to pick up the hidden cow from the abandoned dirt ground, occupied by the craggy families of nomads, and then head straight to the main avenue leading to the city to sell it.
‘Now that the Hindu ghost was responsible for the cow’s disappearance, why must he feel guilty and tolerate the callousness of the villagers,’ he thought to himself.
He, however, seemed puzzled thinking of last night’s deadly screams that Akash was also still reeling from.
Akash was trying to rise from beneath the comfort of his quilt in the middle of the afternoon. The Muslim ghost’s scream gave him nausea-inducing goosebumps whenever it replayed in his ears.
Still dazed by slumber, he washed his face with the water drawn from the hand pump in the courtyard. He heard Mohan Chacha’s irritated voice from behind, ‘You could also have sought Swamiji’s blessings had you gotten up a bit earlier.’
‘Swamiji was here? Did he catch the Muslim ghost,’ Akash asked.
‘Yes, he almost captured the Muslim ghost but it’s not so simple. Organized poojas, which Swamiji will be leading, will be held in the village on specified dates, and the Muslim ghost will ultimately be cast off to where it belongs,’ responded chacha.
‘Swamiji informed us that this Muslim ghost has devoured many Hindus. The repulsive-looking ghost is cannibalistic and will continue its terror on our land until it is expelled,’ added chacha.
Ratna Devi, leaning against the wall near her doorstep, breathed out a deep sigh before saying, ‘I have been asking Chandar to recite Hanuman Chalisa but he never listened to me. Last night, he got tremors from a high fever.’
‘Yes, Chandar is possessed by the Muslim ghost. Swamiji could even see the Muslim ghost hiding behind his blood-red eyes,’ disclosed chacha.
‘The Muslim ghost still hasn’t left his body and the fear is that if it stays longer, my son might start speaking Arabic,’ cried Ratna.
Akash didn’t utter a word. He sat down on an elevated stone slab in a head-down position with his legs wide open and hands clasped in the front. Guilt trickled through him as he raised his head and glared at the remotely visible barbed wire in the fields. Recalling last night’s ordeal, he was engrossed in deep thought.
How could the fields tremble with the whooping sounds of the screams? Why were the winds so wrathful there? How could the screams engulf the entire area in their firm grip? He broke into a cold sweat as he tried to dig deeper into the mystery. He stared at the abandoned four-kilometre piece of land between the two villages.
‘That patch of land that belonged to no-one, might it, in fact, belong to someone?’ he thought.
‘No, but why would it then target us Hindus only?’ he quickly refuted himself.
The ghostly screams continued to echo in both villages, getting all the more alarming and fearful. Uncanny happenings in both the villages didn’t come to a halt. Strange footprints were captured, items were moved and disappeared, mysterious whispers were heard, petrifying shadows emerged from the fields and residents were randomly grabbed and pushed.
The fear in the villages continued to heighten. The two villages appointed their own guards to defend themselves from the menace of the ghost. Security vans were also seen patrolling to catch anything out of the ordinary at nights. But the ghost didn’t leave.
The villages sank into a deeper state of distress and panic. Many startled peasants stopped taking their tractors to the fields. An eerie silence prevailed in the deserted village streets. The fields of gold steadily turned into a desolate wasteland. The sickly bodies of the children soon became crooked as their limbs shrunk. The dark circles under the eyes grew deeper on the pale, haggard-looking faces of the villagers.
Special prayers led by Peer Baba and Swamiji continued to be held. But the ghost still didn’t leave.
As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, the ac- counts of the ghostly presence reached adjoining villages and from there, they spread deeper into smaller towns and several big cities. And that’s how, gradually, the fear of the ghost became larger than the ghost itself.
Excerpted with permission from The Other in the Mirror: Stories from India and Pakistan, edited by Sehyr Mirza, Yoda Press.