Whispers from Another World
in the early 60s, when I was a young boy growing up in Darbhanga, a small town in northern India, my sisters and some of their cohorts would often congregate around a table behind closed doors and get down to the business of communicating with the netherworld. With the lambent flame of a solitary candle in one corner adding a sliver of transparency in the darkened room, they would place their index fingers on a small, circular plastic piece at one edge of a square chart filled with the alphabet and numbers, close their eyes, and, in full concentration and total silence, invoke the spirit of the dead person they had decided upon earlier. Soon, the spirit would arrive, and the participants would begin to ask questions—not necessarily audibly, if the questions were of a personal nature and they did not want others to know—and the plastic piece would start to move on the chart to construct the answers.
As a boy who'd just become a teen, I was fascinated by the whole scene. We called this practice "planchette." Much later in my life, I discovered it was very similar to séance. One of my cousins, whom we called Omi, tall like a skyscraper and sturdy like a rock, who had been to Italy and fought in World War II, teased my sisters by calling this practice "Plain Cheat." The sisters, offended at his ribbing, once invited him to join them at one of these sessions and see for himself whether this was real or fake. He did. As the session progressed, contrary to the tenet of silence and reverence, he snickered and made fun of the proceedings.
"Omi, if you don't believe in this, leave the room right now," the invoked spirit communicated through the square chart.
The World War II veteran stopped making fun, slowly stood up, and, with his head hung low, walked out of the room. He never made fun of planchette again.
I was led to believe the answers my sisters and their cohorts received from this preternatural experience, especially if they were related to past or present events, were correct for the most part. I had no way to verify this, because, being too young, I was not allowed to participate in these sessions except as an observer, though this would soon change.
It was the month of June, and the summer heat bore down on the scorched earth, forcing people to seek comfort indoors. The streets were deserted. The afternoons were so quiet you could hear the chirping of the cardinals perched on trees blocks away. In the coolest room of our three-roomed house, I was working away for my upcoming school tests. My sisters were taking a nap, and the brothers were engaged in a game of Monopoly. Just when everything seemed to be going like clockwork, the stillness of the neighborhood was shattered by the scream of the lady who lived in the house behind us.
I jumped off my chair and looked out the window. Flames were darting like a snake's tongue from an oversized wooden lattice in her patio. I slipped into my sneakers and rushed out to join the crowd that had already gathered to put out the fire.
"How did it start?" someone in the crowd asked the lady.
She was alone at home at the time. Her husband was at work, and her children were in school. She said she had just finished her lunch and was resting in the living room behind the patio when she noticed a flame on the wooden lattice. At first, she thought she was dreaming; but, when she took a second look and realized it was real, she panicked. She feared she was about to lose her house. When we arrived, she was shaking like a leaf.
"I don't know," she said. "There's nothing close by to start it."
As if we did not already have enough excitement for one day, a couple of hours later, there was another fire in the same house but at a different location, this time on the wattle frame of the thatched extension beyond the patio, again without any apparent cause. The crowd gathered once again and put out the fire. For the next few minutes we huddled, trying to figure out what could have caused these fires but came up short. Needless to say, we were flummoxed.
The afternoon slowly gave way to the long shadows of the setting sun. The twilight hours that followed brought some relief from the sweltering heat. Electricity had not reached our area yet. The kerosene lamps soon began to come alive in the neighborhood houses and struggled to erase the descending darkness with their feeble light. Swarms of mosquitoes had already started to emerge for their nocturnal adventure, and the chirping of the homeward-bound birds occasionally broke the silence of the night. My mother had already set about getting the dinner ready. The afternoon fires in the neighbor's house were a thing of the past, nobody talked about them anymore. While the older siblings amused themselves with knitting or weaving or some such activities, we, the school-going children, had, as usual, sat down to do our homework. Dada, my eldest brother, had not returned from work yet. The windless quiet evening was proceeding routinely when, all on a sudden, like the reverberating thunder on a rainy night, the neighborhood resounded with the crackling sound of the cleaving branch of a tree. It appeared to come from the direction of the giant guava tree at the back of one of the houses in the neighborhood.
"What the hell was that?" I blurted out.
The sound was so loud we were all startled by it. The younger siblings were so frightened they dropped their homework and ran to congregate where the adults were. I was frightened too, but my curiosity to find out what exactly happened got the better of my fears. I rushed out to where the guava tree was and found a number of my neighbors there already. The area was quite dark, but somebody had a powerful flashlight. We used it to search the tree for a broken branch, but there weren't any, neither on the ground nor in the tree. We scoured the whole backyard but drew a blank. We did not have to look anywhere else because there was no other tree in the entire neighborhood.
"What's going on?" someone in the crowd said. "First the fires and now this."
"I don't know, but it sure is spooky," someone else chimed in.
I was thirteen at the time and felt a chill snail down my spine. It was a short walk from the guava tree to our house, but the path was dark and lonely and seemed endless. I walked as fast as I could.
"What was all that noise about?" my siblings asked.
Too petrified to answer, I mumbled a few words.
When Dada returned, we told him about the fires and the cleaving branch. We even hinted at the possibility of disembodied spirits roaming the neighborhood and playing pranks on us. Being a physicist, he laughed at the allusion. According to him, every physical phenomenon could be explained, and those that could not be right away, would be at some point in the future. Mother was nonchalant, and the older siblings did not seem to care one way or the other and went about their activities as usual, but the younger ones were terrified. Usually, we were scattered throughout the house, busy with our schoolwork, but now we huddled together at one place; we were too scared. Although in our mind, we were attributing these occurrences to invisible spirits, we lacked the courage to discuss them openly. The neighbors seldom spoke to each other about any of these events. We had no way of knowing if they were affected by them at all.
Despite whatever he might have thought or said before, something must have made Dada curious about these happenings, because the next day, unlike any other day, he returned from work much earlier than usual. The day had been free of incidents until then. As he was making his way towards the house and got close to the neighbor's picket fence, it erupted in leaping flames right in front of his eyes.
"What do you think caused this fire?" I asked, expecting him to plead ignorance.
"It must be a combination of heat and friction," he said.
"Too much physics," I muttered under my breath.
The evening was glorious. The moon, when not hidden by the scurrying strips of monsoon clouds, cast a golden spell on the earth below. The leaves in the garden glistened and fluttered in the gentle summer breeze. Mother had sat down to her daily prayers. She was a very religious person, and, no matter what the circumstances of the day were, she never missed her communion with God. She had a special prayer room where several photographs and graven images of Hindu deities hung from the wall. To her, these images were the likenesses of the manifold manifestations of the Supreme Being. They helped her focus her mind on the object of her reverence and on her meditation. While she was in the prayer room, my sisters were setting the table for dinner, which would be served after Mom finished her prayers. Dada was resting in his bed, reading a book, and we were trying to finish our schoolwork. It was quiet in the house, and, as was typical in late evenings, nothing much stirred in the neighborhood either. Just when all things seemed to be right with the world, the uneasy silence of that little universe of ours was fractured by a loud thunk that could have come only from a large piece of stone or brick or, more likely, steel, hurled at great speed on one of the tin roofs of our house. We cowered with intense fright.
"Did you hear the thunk?" we asked Dada.
"Must be some vandals trying to get us out of this neighborhood." His response was calm and quick.
We were amazed at Dada's equanimity, but the rest of us were numb with fear. Thinking whatever it was that hit the tin roof must have ricocheted off to the yard or the garden in front of the house, we scoured the whole area for clues but came up with naught. The following morning, after Dada had left for work, my younger sister, who was traumatized the most by these events, was about to enter the little hut where Dada had tutored earlier in the morning and clean the place and tidy it up. She was about to start her chores when, all of a sudden, one of the wooden chairs in the hut erupted in flames. She ran out in panic and began to cry.
"We're going to lose everything!" she wailed.
The strange episodes continued for a few days and so did our inability to do anything about them. None of the houses in the neighborhood were spared. A new day brought with it new incidents. We did not know which house was going to be hit next or how. Would our houses burn down in fire? Would we be maimed by random rocks hurled at us? We wasted too much time talking about these incidents, speculating why they were happening and who could be causing them and why. We wondered if they were the doings of some disgruntled spirits or if they were perpetrated by some pranksters who were clever enough to elude us the whole time. Frissions of fear pervaded our everyday life while we waited for the next incident to occur. Our bathroom was situated in the southeast corner of the yard. Though I was far from being a helpless child, I was so frightened I could not go anywhere close to it alone at night. I had to ask an older sibling to accompany me up to the door and wait for me outside. The younger siblings did the same. One of my older brothers, an engineer by profession, who was much like our physicist Dada in dismissing these events, one day confessed he had heard someone pumping water from our tube well in the middle of the night. It was not any of us for sure, not in the middle of the night. Even he seemed inclined to believe something spooky was going on.
Bewildered and frustrated, we scrambled for an answer to these inexplicable events; but we were nowhere close to it now than we were on the first day of these occurrences when our friend Tuhin, who was steeped in the art of the occult, suggested we could try séance. We decided to take her advice. One afternoon, my sisters and their cohorts, for whom séance was a fun way to fill their lazy summer afternoons, sat down with their Ouija board in my mother's prayer room. Though normally they did not care where they stationed themselves for such sessions, on this day they wanted to be surrounded by the pictures and images of gods and goddesses that covered the walls of the prayer room. They believed the divine presence would somehow ward off any sinister pranks the invoked spirit might play on them. Mithila, one of my sisters' friends, was called a good "medium," which meant a spirit would arrive quicker when she invoked it. In fact, I remember one late afternoon she was sitting on the steps of our veranda and had her right hand fingers on the palm of her left hand when she mumbled something to me I had hard time deciphering. On being asked to repeat, she said that some spirit was making her fingers move and that she could not stop it. It was very easy for her to communicate with these netherworld beings. Being a good medium had its problems too. I recall, once she had wondered what it would be like to have these sessions alone, so one day she shut herself up in a dark room and initiated a session all by herself. The result was disastrous. Instead of just the spirit she had invoked showing up, she had another one appear at the same time, and it would neither identify itself nor would it leave even after Mithila repeated her requests for it to do so a number of times. She was terrified. Quite a while passed before it left the room. Despite this nerve-wracking experience, she continued to be active in such sessions but never alone again.
The door and the windows of the prayer room were closed; and, in the dim light of a solitary candle, accentuated by the ambient, pregnant silence, my sisters and their friends began their session. Once the invoked spirit had arrived, they started asking questions in a round-robin manner, the beginnings and ends of questions by one being signaled by silent winks.
"Are you here?" someone started off the session.
The plastic piece under the participants' fingers started moving. First, it went to the square with 'Y' in it, and then 'E' followed by 'S.'
"What's your name?"
The plastic piece started moving again, spelling out the name of the person he was when he was alive.
"Where are you now?"
"How many levels are there?"
"Where do you go after the Seventh Level?"
He indicated either he would come back to earth as a human or go to another layer of the soul's existence. He did not know which path he would follow.
Some Hindu scriptures suggest the soul, after it leaves a physical body, following a person's death, goes through seven levels of existence during which it cycles through births and deaths until it reaches salvation.
Since I was only allowed to be an observer and not participate in this session, I could not judge for certainty if what I was witnessing was pure mumbo jumbo or if there was some truth in it. My curiosity drove me crazy.
"Who's causing these incidents in our neighborhood?" someone in the group asked.
Lata was the name of the lady whose screams were the beginning of the disquiet in the neighborhood.
"Why is she doing this?"
"Her soul is restless. Her folk never performed her last rites."
Lata's mother-in-law had passed away some years earlier; but her last rites, believed by the Hindus to be essential to put the departed soul to rest and liberate it from the temporal attachments, were never done. The woman's husband confirmed this to the worried neighbors.
"Will these incidents stop after the rites?"
"Yes," the spirit responded.
Nobody questioned the validity of the spirit's pronouncements. High degree of accuracy in such pronouncements in the past had instilled a great deal of confidence among the practitioners of séances, and their confidence had spread among the neighbors and their acquaintances like contagion.
"Are you going to do it?" one of the neighbors asked Lata's husband.
"I guess I have to."
"When?" somebody else asked.
"As soon as I can."
"Tomorrow is not soon enough for us," the neighbor said.
Next morning, he was on the train to Gaya, a midsize town in eastern India, famous for its reputation as the place where such rites, according to the Hindu scriptures, had to be carried out. Once there, he hired a couple of local priests who were among the people believed to have the skills and expertise to perform these rites. With their help, the ceremony was completed within a few hours, and he returned the following day. Though some of us were cynical about what presumably transpired during our sisters' spiritual tête-á-tête behind closed doors, the fact remains, the mysterious occurrences that had plagued the neighborhood for days stopped the day the ceremony was performed.
When I look back and reflect on the events of the past as they tumble in the corridors of my memory, the confounding episodes of that sweltering summer, eons ago, continue to baffle me. Were they the doings of some lurking vandals who wanted to eject us from the neighborhood as Dada had suggested, or were they really the doings of a disgruntled spirit as the evidence seemed to suggest? At first, I was tempted to resign myself to my belief in the inevitable limits to what or how much we humans are capable of understanding, but then something quite persuasive gave me a pause. I vividly remember the day I was allowed, for the first time, to participate in one of those preternatural sessions. It was long before the mysterious occurrences had started playing havoc with our lives. The spirit invoked was that of a giant literary figure, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in his lifetime. That session had taken a slightly different form. Instead of our fingers perched on a circular plastic piece, we, myself included, held a pencil on a blank piece of paper so the answers would be scribbled, leaving us with a record of our tête-á-tête with the spirit. The quality and beauty of writing I had seen on that piece of paper that afternoon could not have come from the unsophisticated group whose fingers were wrapped around the pencil. When asked which one was his favorite poem, the pencil started moving around and transcribed a poem in its entirety. None of us knew the poem at that time. We learned it in school years later. I wish I still had that piece of paper. Unfortunately, I have lost it through the passage of time.
Shiv Dutta came to North America from India more than 40 years ago, when such movement from third world countries was uncommon. He came here for post-graduate studies with the intention of returning at the end of his education, but he never did. He is currently writing a memoir from which "Whispers from Another World" has been adapted. Previous publications have appeared in Pilgrimage and in The Statesman, one of the premier daily newspapers in India, and in The Statesman's Festival Magazine. He has also produced forty-five technical papers and two technical books. He works for a major multi-national IT Company. By education and training, he is a physicist and a computer professional, but his interest in literary writings goes back to his middle school years.
"My first front porch was in the home where I grew up in India. I loved sitting out there, especially during the monsoon seasons. The sky would be plastered with dark clouds in a matter of minutes, followed by howling winds screeching through the trees in the front yard. As the euphonious rains pitter-pattered on the tin roof above, I wove my colorful dreams of a distant future.
"Down the years, as life took me from place to place, my dreams changed with the change of my front porches. As I sit alone on my current front porch a world away, with my morning cup of coffee in my right hand and the chrysanthemums and lilacs in full view from where I sit, I reminisce and marvel at the tale of a young man who, manipulated by some unseen magic, blundered almost penniless on a wondrous journey years ago and flirted with a kaleidoscope of experiences the unseen magic had hardly prepared him for."