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Spooky tales from the hills

Mohua Mitra | Updated on July 03, 2020 Published on July 03, 2020

IMAGE COURTESY: ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

A shadowy figure on the road, a knock on the door — this is the season for all that is eerie

* The driver asked us if we knew about the Bijanbari spirit

* The memory of the strange knocking at the door in the dead of night still left us curious

The car screeched to a halt at a dead end. The tipsy pudding from lunch at the Glenary’s restaurant in Darjeeling town sat heavy in our stomach when we were shaken rudely out of a post-lunch siesta in the backseat. A white sheet of swirling fog shrouded the view of the winding and narrow mountain road. It was only about half past three but the mid-afternoon darkness was overpowering; the June sun was hidden by thick clusters of dark nimbus clouds, pointing to an early monsoon.

We were headed to a roadside petrol pump in Sukhiapokhri from Darjeeling, and stranded halfway in lashing thunderstorm and fog as we approached Bijanbari. Our final destination was MIM tea estate, belonging to the Andrew Yule company, where we were guests on work a few years ago.

There was a distinct crack of thunder above the distant mountains and the sky broke into pounding rain. As the car engine leapt to life, its yellow light fell on an indistinct image of a passerby, a lone figure holding an umbrella, walking along the cliff edge of the road. It was probably a woman from one of the neighbouring Lepcha villages caught in the rain and trying to make her way home, we thought. But as unexpected as that figure was, our driver’s reaction was even more startling. He revved up the engine and tore through the rain — ignoring our panicked entreaties to slow down.

We finally stopped at a petrol pump next to a lopsided road sign marked Sukhiapokhri, a good half hour into our breathless run.

Responding to our indignant queries at this strange behaviour, the driver asked us if we knew about the Bijanbari spirit. We’d had a miraculous escape because of him, he said. Many an unsuspecting traveller had apparently been trapped by this prowling spirit of a lovelorn woman who had once upon a time taken her life at that very spot, he said. She emerged out of the mist waving out for a lift, and somehow lured the car to the edge of the cliff and then to a straight jump to certain death.

Monsoon is a loaded term in India. It brings in a lifestyle change, sometimes vicious and ruthless, inducing widespread floods and destruction. The season following a scorching summer comes not just with rejuvenating showers of rain and thunder and long-awaited relief, but also warm memories and associations. It is a special event on the country’s calendar, celebrated with a lot of adulation and gusto.

There is, however, also a surreal and otherworldly element associated with the monsoons. The dark skies and dim daylight throw up unexpected shadows, the soft pitter-patter of raindrops on foliage and grass echo untold stories, the whistling blustery wind and flashes of lightning tearing the sky apart often play hair-raising mind games. This is when long-lost legends of the past surface, of centuries-old pining hearts looking for solace, memories of departed and tortured souls, tales of unrequited love and failed romance.

 

Having survived the lure of the Bijanbari lady to a plummeting death, the bumpy jeep ride to MIM that very wet evening in the Himalayas was rather uneventful, down a steep unmetalled narrow road cutting across pine forests, and then up a steeper stretch to a rambling old but well-appointed colonial-style bungalow. The rain had finally stopped and, except for the occasional roll of distant thunder, it was a quiet night. A beautiful laminated photo of a close-up of the Khangchendzonga adorned the manager’s office. The range would be visible from the lawn next morning if we were lucky, said the manager.

The history of MIM tea estate was a colourful one, woven around a certain English lady — the then manager’s wife who lived there maybe more than half a century ago. She loved the place and the snow range, sitting out for hours staring at the Khangchendzonga. She was also very fond of the local children, whom she taught at her home school. She was called ‘Memsahib’ or ‘Mem’; hence the tea estate and bungalow came to be known as MIM tea estate and the MIM bungalow.

It was raining again and the continuous drone of a heavy downpour broke through sleep. There was also something else, the sound of someone walking up to the room. The sound of footsteps stopped at the door and was followed by distinct knocking on the door. It came not once but several times and was insistent. However, before one could answer the door, the footsteps faded away, finally dying down.

The morning dawned bright and clear. And sure enough, the pearly white expanse of the Khangchendzonga greeted us.

However, the memory of the strange knocking at the door in the dead of night still left us curious. We told the manager about it, and he replied after a pregnant pause:

“Oh that must have been Mem. She comes regularly to give a wake-up call to guests at dawn when the Khangchendzonga is out, shining and surreal.”

Mohua Mitra is a creative writer, freelance editor and translator based out of Delhi

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Published on July 03, 2020
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