The Haunted Well
The yellow eye of the egg stared at me as it sizzled in my earthen pot. The faint notes of a revolving Persian wheel on a well floated from the distant fields as I prepared my breakfast. I went about my morning chores unaware that the sad events of the day would give a bizarre angle to these melodic notes.
Half-fried eggs – the only thing that I knew how to cook – were my major means of sustenance during my stay at Dholi Ghati. In 1961, I was assigned by Bapu to look after our asbestos mining operations near Jogion-ka-Guda located in Dholi Ghati. My hut was in a remote valley with no habitation around a radius of three kilometres. From there the approach to the village was through a footpath, which ran alongside a nullah. Prior to my arrival, the hut had been used by two caretakers of the mines. The mines were around five kilometres up in the hills. I used to go there in the morning and return in the afternoon for my lunch. Most of the workers belonged to the village of Jogion-ka-Guda.
That day, I had got my prospecting hammer along. I was taking one route to go, but wanted to return by another way. On my way back from the mines I walked through the hills to reach a place called Kachot. From there, I climbed another hill to reach Dholi Ghati.
As usual, I had not carried a water bottle along. Dripping in sweat, I stopped to have a drink of water in a field. The water sources, especially the wells of the region, were badly infested with guinea worms.
Whenever there was a need to drink water in the field, it was comparatively safer to drink from wells than the bawaris and I used to filter the water. By and large, I drank water from a small well near my hut and took elaborate precautions to keep it guinea worm free.
There was a large crowd around the well I had stopped to have water. I pushed my way through and saw a woman’s body being fished out from the water. The villagers told me that the woman, Vazki, fed up with the constant feuds with her sister-in-law, had run away from home and gone to her parents’ house. That day, before sunrise, Vazki’s husband Lakhma had packed his food and started towards Vazki’s village. There he had an argument with his mother-in-law but she finally agreed to send Vazki back. The couple returned to their own home during the afternoon. While Lakhma was away making arrangements for lunch, Vazki had rested near this well. Her sister-in-law had sighted Vazki and come to greet her. As Vazki saw her approaching, she fled in distress. Perhaps she was afraid that her sister-in-law was going to pick another fight with her. While trying to flee, she had possibly slipped and fallen into the well and drowned.
It was a summer night in the year 1949. We were on our way back from our Chandesara soapstone mines after a daylong trip. Bapu had taken me along to cheer me up as I had had a nasty fall a few days earlier.
As a boy, I was very fond of kite-flying. It was also the favourite sport of the city. Our house with four storeys was the tallest in the vicinity and was an ideal place for kite-flying and kite-fighting. The best time for this was on the festive day of Najla Gyaras, when the whole city came out to fly kites. Riaz bhaiya, two of my friends and I, would be up on the roof flying our kites. We had mastered the technique of flying lamps attached to the tail of a kite.
It was a windy evening and we were sitting with our kites and lamp cages on the roof. Riaz bhaiya asked me to bring gum to repair a torn kite. In my hurry to get it, I slipped on the stairs and went tumbling down the staircase. There was a head injury and I remained unconscious for two to three days. I regained consciousness after giving Ammi and Badi bi two sleepless nights. When I recovered, Bapu told me cheerfully, “Tomorrow you and I will go to the Chandesara mines!”
The next day we went to Chandesara and Riaz bhaiya and I had an enjoyable day with our father. We started back for Udaipur late in the evening.
The gates of the walled city of Udaipur closed at midnight. If one wanted to leave or enter the city after that, a written permission was needed from the government of the Maharana. It was an independent India, but our state had not merged with the republic till the early 1950s.
Bapu stopped the car outside the city wall. He called the king’s policeman posted at Delhi Gate and showed him the permission letter. This gate faced north, towards Delhi, and was never used by the Maharana. Only when the king died would his funeral procession be taken out that way. It was symbolic that they would rather die than accept the supremacy of Delhi. This was despite the fact that they had a treaty with the British and a permanent British Resident based in Udaipur. The guard opened the gate and we entered the city in the old B-model Ford.
The occupants of the vehicle were Bapu, his close friend Zakir bhai, Riaz bhaiya and myself. About hundred meters from Delhi Gate we turned towards a narrow lane, which led to our home. This was a sparsely populated area. The trembling shadows in the headlight of the car seemed like fleeing ghosts. As we took another turn, the headlight suddenly illuminated an old woman, wearing nothing but a loincloth around her waist and standing squarely in the middle of the lane. Bapu stopped the car. Wrinkles were visible all over her body and her skin looked like a water surface with frozen ripples. There were a few hair, bright white on her head. Bapu blew the horn many times. But neither did she look at the car nor budge from her position. Like the ripples on her skin, she, too, seemed frozen...
The Gliding Spirit
The ruined wall of the village cast a shadow that touched the edge of the poisonous well. Like an echo of a cry, an oblong silhouette rose from it and flew away into the night…
The year was 1979. Two years earlier, I had got married and my wife Fatema was now expecting a child. My mornings started with 5-6 cups of light tea. One morning over tea, Fatema narrated to me a legend told by an acquaintance from Dhariyawad. A city-bred person, these country legends were new for her. I had heard this tale earlier too, told over bonfires on shikar trips in the jungles of Dhariyawad, Bedawal, Sarveni and it had always intrigued me.
The story goes that there is an ancient well in the jungles of Dhariyawad around which there used to be a fertile expanse of land and a prosperous human settlement. This place was destroyed and rebuilt three times. The place is called Arampura – ironically it means the place of rest. It was hit by an epidemic, the likes of which had never been witnessed by the people of those lands. Just as the place was painfully recovering, it was struck by an outbreak of plague. The clutches of death didn’t spare a single soul. Arampura was so utterly destroyed this time that even the last shards of its glorious days became just a blurred memory. Nature took its course and the untamed wilderness stretched itself from all sides, covering the place with tangles of foliage, as if the forest had always existed there.
The well was the forlorn survivor of the tragedy and stands in the middle of the jungle, known everywhere around as the poisonous well. There have been many tales of terror associated with it. According to one of the legends, the cursed spirit of someone who died in the well resides in its depths. It assumes a beastly form and flies out in the dark hours of night. If it passes above the head of a child, the child is doomed to die. In some villages, they call it Flying Cat and, in others, it is known by the imaginary name Ravayya.
After hearing this tale time and again, and finally from my wife too, I decided to get to the crux of it. The next day, I spoke to my friend Shakti Mohan ji, who was a forest officer and in charge of Jaisamand Wildlife Sanctuary as Game Warden, about my plan. He decided to join me in the ghost hunt.
Excerpted with permission from Steed of the Jungle God, Raza H Tehsin with Arefa Tehsin, National Book Trust.
Raza H Tehsin, the initiator of a wildlife conservation movement in southern Rajasthan, has been involved in establishing wildlife sanctuaries like Phulwari-Ki-Nal, Sitamata and Sajjangarh. He has co-authored a number of books with Arefa Tehsin, who is the author of several fiction and non-fiction books on wildlife and pursues nature conservation through her writings and columns.