Sunday, September 18, 2011

Spooky Stuff

A long long time ago there lived a wizard up on a hill.  Below him, in the thriving city of Bhangarh, a stunning princess caught his fancy.  He was more than obsessed.  He had to have her.  But the sorcerer was an unsightly man, marred in spirit and physique from practicing the dark arts.  Seduction out of the question, he created a magical potion which would pull his beloved to him like a magnet draws metal.  The princess had sent her handmaiden to the market to buy some oil for her hair and skin, and, seizing on an opportune moment, the wizard tipped a few drops of his formula into the purchase.  But something went terribly wrong.  The princess was gripped by an uneasy feeling as she lifted the vial of oil, preparing to apply it.  She paused and then, trusting her gut,  threw the vial against a nearby boulder.  Better safe than sorry.  Then a sound.  The boulder began to move.  It rolled out of the town, up the hill, and straight through the doorway of the wizard's dark tower, coming to rest on top of the man to whom it was magically drawn.  As he lay dying he spit one final spell out of his bloody mouth.  The most powerful and destructive incantation of all.  Instantly the city crumbled, roofs toppling as the inhabitants who survived the crush fled, never looking back.  Now, in the heart of these ruins, I couched, gazing wide eyed into sliver moon darkness, waiting for a shadow to move.


Most of my adolescence was spent in the mid-west of America, where a diet of UFO conspiracies, Sunday school stories, and movies of demonic possession tends to mold young suburbanites into people who are quick to believe.  An upbringing devoid of the kind street hardened skepticism a New Yorker wears with aplomb.  In college the gaping hole in my ability to fact check was exposed when I became love sick over a girl who led me straight to her evangelical church.  St. Thomas Aquinas considered this kind of "missionary dating" an effective tool, one which this young beauty employed to perfection.  The next couple years were a steep climb back to reason... fearing every step of the way that the trail would lead to my eternal damnation.  An experience like that can make a man fairly sober, but also robs him of that last twinkle of childhood's fascination with the unknown.  In India, a country whose soil is rich in the minerals of mysticism, I hoped to rekindle that sensation.

What's left of the abandoned town of Bhangarh is considered so haunted even the supervising government office is set up a good kilometer away.  They say animals begin to flee as the sun falls.  They say an army unit was requested to look in to the phenomena, but not one of the battle hardened soldiers would volunteer.  Naturally no one is officially permitted to stay past dusk.  The welcome sign reads of stiff penalties and the locals claim you won't have a pulse by daybreak.   I was sold.   My cheeky companion, producer and director Sashi De formulated a quick plan, which was: "Let's get into the site and then formulate a plan."

We walked though the crumbling brown walls of the old city as the last of the sun's rays fragmented through acacias and khejri.  Grumpy bats woke up in the dark corners of toppled stone palaces and black faced monkeys jumped from tree to tree, scanning the sparse earth for something that might resemble dinner.  Akshat, our guide from Jaipur, reluctantly complicit in our scheme, was given a chance to re-live his community theater days.  His new mission:  Tell the guards, doing their final sweep of the grounds, that we had climbed up to the hills in the distance and would be hiking out the other side.  Classic misdirection.  By the time the guards came and hustled up the hill following the false lead we were tucked deep into one of the upper chambers of Bhangarh’s main temple.  A last minute plan always has it's deficiencies.  In this case they were a lack of food, no lights, and no sleeping gear.  I chose a small room located at the back end of what was once a great hall, which, with it's ceiling long gone, was now an open air field surrounded by high walls.  Only one door led into this section across the way.  The idea was that if someone, or something, entered through that door we would have two possible escape routes:  Out a small hole to one side of our room, or through a doorway to the left which lead to a stone staircase spanning to the top of the surrounding walls.  The entrance to our hiding spot was reached by climbing a small pile of shale like rubble, which ideally would create an abrasive rock on rock sliding noise if an intruder managed to get that far before catching our attention.

The first hour of the night was spent brazenly recounting ghost stories or the plots of horror movies, amping up the fear factor to the point where laughter would ensue and deflate the tension.  “Remember  that scene in The Ring when you see the girl crawl out of the well and she’s lumbering towards the camera with her hair covering her face?”
“Oh man, that freaked me out.  How about that part of Shutter Island when DiCaprio get’s into the secluded ward and there are all those madmen running around.. I mean, what if there is a lunatic or two running around here.. maybe in the day you think it’s just a beggar or a saddhu but at night he kills anyone he finds around here..  that could explain it right?”
“Or a satanic cult!  You’ve heard of the skull collecting tantrics in West Bengal, right?  Maybe something more extreme and unpublicized.”
  “All I know is if some freak walks through that doorway my fist is going in his teeth, they can publicize that.”
“Yeah right, you’d scream like a little girl.”
Rock on Rock sound.  We stopped talking, we stopped breathing, but my eyesight and hearing have never been so keen.   I could hear the cicadas in the surrounding forest, the flutter of bats in a distant nook of the ruins,  and the distant sway of a branch that had just received a monkey’s full weight.  What I couldn’t hear was anything right in front of us.  Then another sliding sound.  Pressure being given and relieved on a slab of loose stone.  Sashi and I looked at each other and weighed our options in silence.  If there was something there, it was terribly close.  A move to the side for either escape route could do little more than invite an attack from behind.  One guy might make it, the other might not.  Or do you split for separate exits, momentarily confusing your pursuer?  The hole was to my right, and unless the thing knew the room’s layout, or had excellent nightvision, it probably wouldn’t find it if I slipped through fast.  Plus I’d have the tactical advantage of stomping the creature's head if it came through the hole after I’d slithered out.  No.  The thought of being isolated, ten minutes ago a subject of humor, was now a horrifying option.  So we crouched there, frozen.  I mouthed the words “monkey?”  Sashi shook his head.  He silently picked up a small rock.  Tiny sweat beads on his brow gleamed in the slice of moon rising beyond us.  I scratched around the ground below me but came up with dust.  Then, going through the endless compartments in my cargo pants I found a pen.  I pulled the cap off and held it, countering my slick palm with an iron grip.  It turns out I was going to have to hit something in the teeth.  Screaming like a little girl might also be an option.  Speak of the devil and he appears.   Ten long minutes passed as we crouched in the dark, ready to spring like a derelict jack in the box.  Sashi nudged me and yanked his head to the side.  The staircase.  We stayed low.  Like a commando unit we climbed up the stairs crouched and constantly swiveling to the sides to cover the angles.  The top afforded a view of the entire courtyard.  It was completely empty.  We stared at it for minutes looking for a shadow to shift.  All was still.  Something though…  the cicadas.  The shrill whine of their wings had stopped.  The night dead quiet.

We’d first met Akshat on a tour of the pink city, Jaipur, a picturesque desert town packed with over 500 temples.  He expertly led us to some of the more obscure ones, moving through little known passageways which circumvented the crowds pouring in for the upcoming festival of Teej.
"Anything you need or anywhere you want to see in Rajasthan I can be of service," he cheerfully offered.
 "Great, we're going to the haunted city of Bhangarh soon.  You know it?"
"Yes, of course I know it," he said, enthusiasm leaking quick.
 "Fantastic.  Come with us."
He halfheartedly agreed as we marched through the sites.  A wonderful temple to Krishna, dancing with his ruddy cheeked milkmaidens who gazed at his blue skin with desire; small shrines to Ganesh, buggy eyed in a local twist of design; orange faced Varahi Devi, who specializes in cleansing devotees of skin diseases.  In light of these gems, our final destination, on first glance, was a bit anticlimatic.  A temple lacking the art and spendor of the others, whitewashed with small nondescript idols.
"This temple used to practice a form of tantric magic.  Black magic you say," whispered Akshat.
 “Interesting," I mumbled as I slid my shoes back on. "Wait...  Are there any temples or people who still practice black magic?”
“Actually we were in the forest last month and we did meet one lady who does this.”
 As soon as the last words slipped out of his lips I could see his expression fall.  He knew where this was going.
“Good, I want you to take us there.”
“But it’s to be honest very deep in the forest and it’s a very difficult journey.”
“It’s OK, we’ve been on some long journeys.”
“Yes, but we’re not even sure if she’d be there.  She was sick, perhaps he’s in the hospital or the village.”
“It’s OK.. we’ll take that risk.”
“Well, perhaps we can talk tomorrow as I’m not sure if can be arranged.”
“Of course it can.  We’ll just go there.  See you at say 8am?”
With a forced smile he gave a slight head bobble.

In the morning Akshat pulled me aside.  He had some ground rules. 
 "I have just one thing to request again and it's that you won't be saying the word 'witchcraft'."
"What if I do?  What will happen,"  I challenged, hoping to pry some fantastical scenarios out of instigation.
"Well there are only three of us out here in these forests and you don't know what she might do."

We were advised to stay in the jeep.  Wild animals of certain vicious varieties roamed the forest.  We were also reminded again, not to use any hot button words when around her,  including now ‘black magic’.  The jungle was thick and the slick tires struggled through deep puddles on the muddy track.  We bounced on the hard benches and squinted into the bush looking for predators.  It opened up atop a small hill, where the trees broke to accommodate the witches home and a barren patch of land in front.  The word mansion seems grandiose.  To say castle would seem cliché and entail towers I suppose.  It was somewhere between a fortress and an asylum.  A 60+ room, cellblock style building, rusty bars on chipped concrete window frames, and a huge metal gate for a front door, chained shut.  Not a sound but for the caw of crows and hoots of other unknown birds hidden in the tree canopy.  It sat in the company of two other similar buildings each about 200 meters away, all separated, surrounded, and slowly succumbing to the jungle’s dense vegetation.  In front of the gate lay a concrete slab with  a type of iron wood stove on top.  Akshat, in hushed tones, said this is where the witch’s guru was cremated upon death.  How he fit in that small thing I'm not sure.  Perhaps in pieces.
After five minutes of gate slapping and yelling it looked like we’d missed the chance.  With the others conceding and loading back into the jeep I walked back for one more spirited try.  I pried the gate back as far as the chain would allow and wedged my head in to get a slight view of an open courtyard inside.  Pigeons fluttered and for a moment I had a surge of fear that someone might grab my face, or put theirs right up to mine in horror show fashion.  “Namaste,” I shouted.  Then a shuffling of feet, way in the back.  An extremely old lady scooted up, coke bottle glasses, stooped frame, the remains of her original teeth in an mouth open with incredulity.  The gate swung open to reveal the site of two more grannies scuttling out of the different corners of the dilapidated structure.  Instantly I recognized the one.  She held an air of authority, but the face was soft and harmless.  Father time had made a long visit before us and drained the fire out of eyes that were said to make men stammer and look away.  Now those eyes spoke of resignation and acceptance.  After a life of struggle and defiance she had come to a truce with life.  We followed her into a room where she bent down with pained effort to sit on a cot.  I took a seat on the floor beside her.  She read my palms and made several guesses, a couple on the money, a few misfires.  Her prediction of my future was not as rosy as I would have liked, which I suppose lends it some credibility.. most fortune tellers stay positive, tailoring answers their clients want to hear.  I asked her some more general  questions about philosophy and kept my promise to avoid the touchy subjects.  I wasn't concerned about repercussions, but I didn't want to be the guy who hassles a bone weary, long suffering spinster.  Husband and guru passed on,  she and the other two octogenarians were waiting out there final days together in isolation.  Who was I to come into their house and press them about town rumors?
As we got up to leave, she took us through a few passageways to another tiny courtyard and opened up a door leading to a small shine for Kali, the angry goddess.  We took water in our hands and placed in on the lips and then the head.  Then it was time to leave.  Walking back towards the entrance the silent of the three intercepted us.  She wanted to show us one more room.  “This is where we practice the tantric arts,” she told Akshat, who stiffened up so fast he stopped translating, instead muttering, “We should go.. we need to go.”  On the walls were posters of Kali in much more terrific form than the simple stone idol at the shrine.  Skulls adorned her necklace, a bloody sword swung from her right hand and a decapitated head was clutched in the left.  Her outstretched tongue was dripping red.  There was a small desk with a mirror beside it.  Something about the mirror caught my attention, and I stooped down quickly to take a peek.  There staring back at me was the grinning mischevious face I'd expected.  The lines though, were deeper, and for a second, just a second, the eye contact was a little off.  Something in my eyes.  Something incongruous with the way I was moving them.  I looked harder.  "We should go," said Akshat again, standing ramrod straight just behind the room's doorway.  "Yeah, sure," I shook my head as one who stoops down and stands up too fast.  We walked out.  The gate shut behind us.
 A couple days later we walked out of Bangharh, intact but sore and worn from a night of stone seated vigilance.   I found myself in the odd state of being disappointed to see the sun rise.  We’d survived the night when legend had dictated we’d be dead.  As good as it those first rays of felt on my face, they also evaporated a little more of the mystery in this world.   No black cauldrons or flying broomsticks at the witch's retreat, no monsters in the haunted city.  What little I'd seen, well, I was probably grasping at straws, turning tricks of light, shade, and sound around in my imagination until I could squeeze out a story.  On the path to the main gate a guard moseyed out of his shack, thumbs tucked in his belt in that classic pose of authority.  He stopped just there and fixed a look on me, shaking his head slowly.  “No ghosts,” I said with a palms up shrug.  “No ghost,” he replied, “Tenua.”  Panther.