Two friends and I had gone to interview an old lady born 90 years ago in 1922. We had hoped to jog her memory about events that she had seen unfold, and events that she had heard her parents and grandparents talk about. We were hoping to get a slice of history going back a century and a quarter, but things did not work out as well as we had thought. Nevertheless, we got lucky through Saeed-ur-Rehman, her 72 year old son. He told us much about Delhi and about a real life encounter that his maternal grandfather and uncle had with the Jinn of Ferozeshah Kotla.
This is how he related the encounter:
“My Nana [maternal grandfather] was a great one for fishing and his favourite spot for fishing was the Firozeshah Kotla. In those days the Jamuna used to flow right next to the Kotla wall, and my Nana would go there often. He would carry his huqqa with him, cast the line and sit puffing away at and wait for the fish to take the bait. He would spend the better part of the day there and return with a bagful of fish in the evening. One afternoon he asked our Mamu [maternal uncle] to accompany him and this is what our Mamu told us about the events of the day.
“Abbu [father] said to me, ‘You have to ensure that my huqqa is ready and fresh at all times so carry my pouch of tobacco and charcoal with you. We sat on the wall for hours, Abbu would cast the line and ask me to freshen up the Huqqa, he will take a couple of puffs and get busy with the line, the Huqqa would go cold, he will ask me to freshen it up again, I’d take the chillum [baked clay receptacle that contains the tobacco and the burning coals] off the huqqa, fan the charcoal and place it back on. The sun was sinking rapidly but Abbu was busy, it was well past Maghrib [sunset, the time for the fourth namaz of the day, also the time “favoured by Jinns to be up and about”] when he said let’s go and he began to reel in the string. The string tightened suddenly, Abbu kept on reeling the string and a red rag emerged with the hook, Abbu shook the hook and recast it, the rag came out again. Abbu freed the hook again but the rag returned. Abbu got very angry pulled out a knife and cut the rag loose, suddenly a loud high pitched shriek was heard, “He is killing me! He is killing me!” Abbu began to pack up rapidly and said let us leave. By the time we climbed down the wall and began to hurry towards the gate, it was almost dark.
We rushed for two reasons. The area outside the city was not safe after dark; everyone returned to the city before Maghrib. Secondly, Ferozeshah Kotla was reputed to be the abode of Jinns. I was more than a little afraid. As we turned the corner we saw a bed in our path. A bed covered in a spotless white bed sheet!
My father stopped in mid stride and said, “What is this bed doing here?” I was now quite afraid but not Abbu, he turned to me and said, “I want to rest a bit,” and sat down on the bed, “freshen up the huqqa quickly, I’ll have a smoke and then we’ll be on our way.” I was really afraid, my heart was beating very fast and I was shivering all over. My hands seemed to have no strength left and it was becoming very difficult for me to hold on to the chillum or to freshen the fire, somehow I managed to place a few pieces of charcoal in the chillum and began fanning them. Abbu said let me straighten my back and lie down. Suddenly the bed turned turtle and Abbu was thrown to the ground! He rose quickly, and the bed returned to its original position. Abbu sat on the bed and asked me to hurry up with the huqqa and lay down again. Once again he was thrown, the bed straightened itself and my father sat down on the bed again.
I watched all this horrified and wanted to run, but Abbu wanted to smoke the Huqqa and I had to do his bidding. I did not understand why he wanted to smoke the huqqa while sitting on the cot, why was he intent on lying down, what was going on? There were so many questions crowding my mind but I dared not open my mouth. Somehow I had the huqqa going. Abbu took a couple of puffs, bent down to inspect the chillum, picked it up and quickly upturned it on the bed, saying I’ll fix you today! The loud cry that we had heard earlier was heard again, soon it turned into a whimper and then the voice died and we returned home.”
This is what Saeed-ur-Rehman, a 73 year old gentleman told us a few days ago. He clearly believes every word of what his Mamu told him decades ago. It is possible that he heard this tale from his uncle when he was in his teens, perhaps in the 1950s and has carried the tale with him, in the telling the tale keeps growing becoming more detailed and picturesque and gets a life of its own. Such is the innate strength of tales about Jinns.
The tale related by Saeed-ur-Rehman reminded me of the tales of ghosts and Jinns that I had grown up hearing or the ones that my older cousins told me about. There were others that were read as one began to potter about the histories of the city. From this large collection, my favourite is the story of the Ghost of Fraser.
William Fraser was the British Resident in Delhi representing the Governor General in the court of the Mughal King. Fraser and Nawab Shams-ud-Din Khan of Firozepur Jhirka and Loharu had a falling out and the Nawab felt slighted. He hired two assassins to avenge this insult. The assassins shot Fraser dead late on the night of 22 March 1835 as he was returning to his haveli near Kashmiri gate.
The two mercenaries and Nawab Shams-ud-Din Khan were eventually executed after a trial but for some reason only Fraser turned into a ghost. It was said that on moonless nights, the ghost of Fraser could be seen astride his horse going in the direction of his haveli at Kashmiri Gate. There were no reports of Fraser’s ghost bothering anyone. He kept to himself, though one does not know of anyone who stayed back to find out what the ghost would do if you stayed back to watch him.
This depiction of Fraser’s ghost as a lonely figure who kept to himself and continued travelling towards his haveli, that he was unable to reach on that fateful night, seems to have been created by the Dilliwallahs as a kind of punishment for Fraser, because in real life, Fraser was the most powerful person in Delhi, more powerful than the king and this was resented by the Dilliwallahs. James Skinner, the builder of St. James Church at Kashmiri Gate was a close friend of Fraser and he built a most impressive grave for Fraser on the grounds of his Church. Dilliwallahs on their part raised Nawab Shams-ud-Din Khan and the two mercenaries, to the status of martyrs and the grave of Fraser was vandalised and badly damaged by the rebels in 1857.
The talk of Ghosts and Jinns that grew all around Delhi and some of which survive till this day. Like the white woman who used to hang around Kashmiri Gate, the Spirits of the Goras [whites] that haunt the Lothian and Nicholson cemetery area are a natural by product of the graveyards and crematoria and there was no dearth of either in Delhi. Those who die an unnatural death are believed to haunt the sites of their death or burial/ cremation, till the end of their assigned time on earth, whereupon they are despatched to their final destination by those whose job it is to undertake permanent settlements of this nature.
An interesting aspect of the stories about Ghosts, Jinns and Spirits that haunted Delhi is the fact that Jinns normally hung around places that were connected to Muslims: ruins of forts and palaces built by Muslim rulers, ruined or deserted mosques and empty houses in Muslim Majority areas. Jinns are obviously Muslims. Ghosts could belong either to dead Hindus or Dead Christians and accordingly, either hung around near crematoria, deserted temples or Peepal trees if they had sprung from the Hindus or near Christian cemeteries or areas where the Europeans lived or frequented more often, like Kashmiri Gate, North Delhi, the Ridge, the Metcalf House etc. So Ghosts who have Parsi antecedents can be found near the Parsi Anjuman, outside Dehli Gate or the Parsi Cemetery near Khan Market and ghosts with a Jewish ancestry can only be found near the Judah Heyam Hall at Humayun Road.
Clearly, even in their ghostly or spiritual incarnations ghosts, ghouls, spirits, Jinns etc., preferred the company of their own kind or liked to scare the living daylights out of their own co-religionists. Despite being freed of the bondage of physicality they still stuck to their own areas, the ghosts of the whites did not visit Jama Masjid or Matia Mahal area and the Jinns did not go harassing the Brits on Flagstaff road. We had grown up under the impression that the Spirit, the Atma or the Rooh was free. Apparently, denominational markers not only endure beyond life, they seem to become insurmountable. Humans are certainly more sociable.
Possibly the only exception to this rule was the area immediately outside Delhi Gate, on each side of what is now known as Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. There was the graveyard, next to where the Irwin Hospital was to come up later, there was the other graveyard next to Firozeshah Kotla, behind the Indian Express building; between these two was the Khooni (or bloody) Darwaza, the site of cold blooded killing by William Hodson of two sons and a grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar, Mirza Mughal, Khizr Sultan and Mirza Abu Bakr and flanking the road were many large Peepal trees, traditionally believed to be the abode of Ghosts and witches.
The British went on a rampage after their recapture of Delhi in September 1857. The cold blooded killings of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons and grandson were not the only acts of violence that took place at the Khooni Darwaza. There were executions and hangings. Dead bodies, it is said, were not to be removed. They were left there to rot in order to terrorize the Dilliwalahs and the carcasses were the reminders of the consequences of resisting the British.
The tactics were not very effective; they had to leave within 90 years. But yes, the killings, the looming presence of the Khooni Darwaza, the ruins of Ferozeshah Kotla, the formidable walls of the Delhi District Jail (the present location of the Maulana Azad Medical college), the Peepal Trees and a virtual wilderness, for long associated with thugs and robbers, combined together to create a rather scary scenario.
A landscape, with or without the moon, that was ideally suited to spawn, and did so spawn, an army of the creatures of the night, the non-dead, the non-living and all the others in between. There were headless bodies hanging upside down from each Peepal tree, or so my cousins, now in their 60s, were all told in their childhood, there were strange robed creatures that materialised from thin air and disappeared like wisps of fog, there were ghostly creatures whose feet faced the wrong way, who could walk away from you and still keep looking at you. A bit unnerving, to say the least. And so my cousins all through their childhood and adolescence hardly, if ever, hung out along Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg beyond afternoon hours.
This was the early fifties. Gradually the newspaper offices shifted here, the graveyard shift began to get rather lively, people were coming in and leaving the newspaper offices throughout the night, tea and snack joints, shops that ran through the night arrived and stayed. Young men gradually began to stay outside the city beyond the sunset curfew hours. New cinema halls that showed newer cinema began to draw their audience from Shahjahanabad as well, initially for the matinee, then for the evening and finally for the night show. Traffic from the old Delhi station and later from the ISBT to south Delhi, forever destroyed the look and feel of the deserted and desolate road. The introduction of Mercury vapour lamps forever destroyed the magic, the awesomeness, the otherworldly and scary quality of moonlight creating strange images on the shining Peepal leaves. And suddenly there were no Ghosts, no Jinns, no apparitions, no spirits. With the disappearance of the spooky creatures has also disappeared an entire body of memory. Not many talk of those days, of colonialism, of the injustices inflicted upon the residents of Delhi and fewer still talk of the spirited resistance of the residents of the city. The ghosts have gone and with them have gone the memory of our histories.