Humanity has, since the earliest time from which some evidence of human civilisation can be found in any part of the known world, struggled with mortality. Most religions, most myths, are centred on our struggle to understand the questions: where does life come from; where does death take us; is there no way of returning to the living world? even faiths that reject the notion of an all-seeing, all-controlling “God” must grapple with death and contemplate the ideas of reincarnation and souls seeking release from the mortal world.
Yet, evidence points towards cessation of human existence. Like any other living creature, we are born, we grow, given a chance we reproduce, and then we decay and halt. We cease.
We can be buried on land or at sea, or burnt, or left to the vultures. We can turn into dust and manure, or we can line the digestive tracts of some other species. Finally, we will return back into the elements, just as we were created from the elements through a series of magical – if scientifically explicable – processes of nature. We accept this, and still, the question remains. The “me” that was neither skeleton nor synapse, where does that go?
There was a time when I would have unequivocally said, “Nowhere!” The spirit is probably an electrical impulse. You may survive in the memory, or in the DNA, of the living. But no dead person has access to our living rooms, living habits, living bodies. If legs have decayed, on what does a spirit walk? If tongues and vocal chords have decayed, with what does the spirit speak? Dreams, failures, injustices, anger – all of it ceases. I was sure of this.
Then, I was no longer so sure.
In my final year of schooling, we lived in a small township in Rajasthan. My mother and I were alone in the house, one of the last in a row of bungalows. There was grass all around the house and almost no traffic on the street. We rarely heard anything at night, except the watchman on his rounds.
One night, I was reading quietly when I heard footsteps. It was a very distinct sound – like a pair of feet wearing house slippers, dragging slightly on a tiled floor. There were no tiles outside, only soft mud and grass. The sound had to be inside the house. Yet there was nobody in the house except me and my mother, and she was sitting beside me.
I told myself that it was just my imagination. I went back to reading. Moments later, I heard it again. Footsteps. Right outside the bedroom door. This time, I glanced at my mother. I found her looking at me, nervous.
Now i knew that she heard it too. We weren’t even reading the same book or watching the same movie, so it could not be our imaginations working in sync. There was no doubt that someone was inside the house and we were afraid. My first thought was that someone had broken in. (But there was no sound of glass shattering? Not even the click of a key turning in a lock?)
I tiptoed to the bedroom door and opened it. Nobody was there. Heart pounding, I went into the other bedroom, then the third bedroom, then all the bathrooms and the kitchen. There was nobody else in the house. So what did we hear?
To this day, I don’t have an answer. It is possible that sound mysteriously changes quality so that people cannot correctly gauge the origin or distance from the source. There may be a scientific explanation. I very desperately want to find a scientific explanation. It is hard to accept that dead people turn into ghoulish demons, but I will admit this: I am no longer certain what death means.
Until that night, I had laughed at stories of bhatakti aatma (wandering soul), though I enjoyed stories of hauntings. Late at night, friends would huddle close and tell ghost stories. I was fascinated but I didn’t believe any of it. Until the night i heard something myself.
But what did I hear? i hesitate to say that it was ex-human. Perhaps the right word is “paranormal”, which suggests something outside the realm of normal. It does not suggest ghosts or aliens or evil, although that is how paranormal activity is depicted in popular culture. It just refers to something we don’t yet know, something that’s outside our knowledge, but not outside our experience.
If that sound was a ghost, I am amused at the idea that he or she wears slippers. But then, if a ghost did not dress or talk like a human, we would not register its presence. Even for a fleshless “soul”, we conjure up a modified form of our normal selves – a woman in a flowing gown; a woman with long hair, holding a candle; a man without facial features; bathroom slippers.
We seek out encounters – séances, coin games, mediums – with the dead in an attempt to hold on to the familiar. Human beings have never been able to accept that their unfulfilled lives will be snuffed out and that’s that. We want to believe that we can reach out to our beloveds afterwards, or wreck vengeance upon tormentors. We want great power and we believe death will liberate us from powerlessness. We cannot accept that death will liberate us from all desire. We conceive of ourselves through feelings – love, rage, righteousness, guilt, grief.
The trouble with believing in one spirit is that I cannot discount the possibility of millions – billions! trillions! – of wandering spirits, since most people die unfulfilled. The idea is unappealing, which is why most people reassure themselves that a spirit finds release once an x or y condition is fulfilled.
I cannot believe in such a “release”. However, now that my mind has conceded the possibility of “something”, I am hungry for more information.
I’ve discussed my experience with others, encouraged them to tell me their stories. Most people tell variations of stories picked up from films or books. I find it hard to take seriously any story that involves women with ankles twisted back to front, tinkling anklets, or flowing white sarees. However, I do recall one woman-in-a-saree tale that left an impression on my mind.
My college friend, Gargi, said this had happened to her grandfather, when he was at Allahabad University. He was part of a group of young men on bicycles. They rode past a graveyard (or perhaps, it was a crematorium) where a young woman was sitting on the boundary wall. Some of the young men began to whistle; perhaps someone made a comment. Moments later, my friend’s grandfather said that he felt a weight descend upon his bicycle. as if someone were sitting on the carrier at the back. He was too frightened to do anything. He kept pedalling. But after a while, he found his tongue. He told the “something” that in case his friends’ behaviour had offended her, he wanted to apologise. Soon after, the weight lifted.
Did it really happen? I don’t dismiss the possibility. Maybe there was no connection between a woman on the wall and the weight on the bicycle. Maybe it was the result of coincidence, exhaustion, or an over-active imagination.
I’ve heard of people waking up in bed, feeling as if someone was sitting on their chest (which might be a symptom of lung disease, or extreme stress). Some “see” a chudail (witch) but I distrust stories associated with sleeping people. We cannot know what is real and what is dreamt.
Yet, the dream world is also a powerful unknown. Many of us dream of a doorbell ringing, only to wake up, open the door and see nobody; moments later, the doorbell does ring. When dreams come as premonitions, they freak you out just as a paranormal experience might.
Let me share one such dream. A few years ago, in Delhi, I was moving into a new place. It was early in the morning and I didn’t want to disturb my new flatmates. I pushed my suitcases into my bedroom and went to sleep. I thought I heard a knock. I raised my head from the pillow. The bedroom door opened. A woman stood there; i guessed that she was the cook. She smiled and asked if I had just moved in. I said, yes. She asked if I wanted a cup of tea. I said, yes please. She nodded, shut the door behind her. and I went back to sleep. What do you think happened next?
This: I heard a knock on the door. I raised my head. The bedroom door opened. a woman stood there. She smiled and asked if I had just moved in. I said, yes. She asked if I wanted a cup of tea. I was totally bewildered. What was this strange loop? Hadn’t this just happened? The only difference was, the woman’s face was different. Then it struck me that I had been dreaming. So i told the cook – the real one – yes, please, I would like a cup of tea. She nodded, shut the door behind her. My heart was pounding: would I go into the kitchen and find nobody there? But no, I found the cook was in the kitchen. I asked if she had knocked twice. She said no, just once.
How did I dream up an event minutes before it actually happened? Why were the words in my dream the same words the cook used? How could my brain have predicted this? It was not a pattern. My old cook had never made tea for me.
I don’t understand what happened that morning. But until I can figure out these mysterious events, I allow myself to imagine a parallel world – usually invisible, intangible... but not always. After all, horses and dogs and birds know things we don’t know. Scientists have learnt to measure our sensory powers. We know that some people can have too much of a power, and the slightest variation in chemical or physical state affects our minds. Every day, science finds new species, new galaxies, new correlations between brain and body.
Some day, scientists may find a space-time dimension where a mirror world exists. a different universe brushing against the cheek of our universe. Perhaps, once in a while, there’s a slight frisson as two planes of existence touch. Perhaps this is when we see or hear “something”. Who knows?
Excerpted with permission from What The Jaguar Knows We Don’t Know: The Kindle Biannual.
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