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HALLOWEEN SPECIAL

There’s a blue moon rising

Vishnupriya Sengupta | Updated on October 30, 2020 Published on October 30, 2020

After dark: Visitors get a fill of chills from Anthony Khatchaturian on his night-time Ghost Walk tour in Kolkata   -  IMAGES COURTESY: ANTHONY KHATCHATURIAN

Expect a disturbed spirit or two to waylay you on this Kolkata night tour

Anthony Khatchaturian’s nightly tours began on Halloween’s Day five years ago. In India, he concedes, Halloween’s is still an upmarket event restricted to heritage clubs and five-star hotels. But that didn’t deter the Kolkata writer and city guide from conceiving of a tour that weaves in ghostly tales to celebrate the occasion. “Tourism, after all, is selling stories,” he says.

With a degree in criminal science, Khatchaturian — who is of Armenian descent — spent nearly a decade working for the Metropolitan Police Service, London. Born in Kolkata, he spent his formative years in London before returning to his city of birth in 2013.

His Ghost Walk Tours turns the clock back to the colonial era with stories of those who crossed over or are perhaps caught between the worlds of the living and the dead.

The walks — or cycle tours — are peppered with spooky tales based on extensive archival research. “I remember the very first time I conducted this Ghost Walk tour we had a fairly large turnout. Kolkata Police was somewhat nervous. We walked through a route I had stitched together with eerie stories associated with the places we were to walk past,” he recalls.

That was perhaps the only time that something strange occurred. The group was walking towards All India Radio’s very first office, at 1 Garstin Place in Central Kolkata, opposite St John’s Church. This is an L-shaped lane with a dead end. When the walkers gathered around him, Khatchaturian started narrating the story of a pianist.

Those days, he recounted to the group, there would be a break every half-hour in between programmes, when an instrumentalist played western classical music on the piano. That was his source of livelihood. In 1961, when the office shifted to its present location — Akashvani Bhavan near Eden Gardens — the pianist is believed to have died of a broken heart. But the piano continued to play in the old office even after his death — or so they said.

“The moment I finished narrating the story, two middle-aged women who were right at the back started screaming. They had apparently heard a piano play. They had first thought it was someone’s cellphone ringtone,” says Khatchaturian.

Five years on, his flagship Ghost Walk Tours is still the talk of the town. But he isn’t the only one doing these tours. There are others, too, who have taken a leaf out of his ghost storybook and started similar night walks.

In fact, one of the busiest T-junctions in front of Writers Building — the former West Bengal secretariat — has the dead from the infamous Black Hole of Kolkata buried in a makeshift mass grave. Scores of people had suffocated in a dungeon after Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah’s troops imprisoned British soldiers in June 1756.

Calcutta High Court’s Gothic façade inspires many a macabre tale   -  IMAGE COURTESY: ANTHONY KHATCHATURIAN

 

The Calcutta High Court is another favourite spot for Khatchaturian. Its Gothic architecture with arched doorways and gargoyles is fascinating, he says. Court No. 13, where the highest number of death sentences has been passed, is said to be haunted. One day in the early ’70s, cleaners found bloody footprints leading to the Court. Many lawyers apparently try and reschedule their cases if a hearing is posted in Court No. 13.

Interestingly, it is during this time of the year — between late October and early November — that the entire world comes together woven by a common, underlying theme of death. From Kali Puja (celebrated on or around Deepavali) to the Day of the Dead and All Souls’ Day, there seems to be a cultural connect the world over.

“Be it good killing evil or paying a tribute to our ancestors or the dead rising, or celebrating life and death, or a celebration of the communion of saints, death is a binder and a leveller. And it’s a coincidence how, at this time of year, the celebration of death surfaces in one way or another all over the world,” he says.

Today, October 31, promised to be extra-spooky for the tour organiser, what with a blue moon rising. The second full moon of the month, Khatchaturian thought, would cast an eerie glow over the 100-odd thrill-loving cyclists who had signed up for his night tour. The moon would likely choose to hide behind a cloud just as his visitors swerved into a side lane to stop and listened to a murder mystery or a surreal story. But that was not to be. The city police put a stop to his plans, what with the pandemic raging around the country.

Clearly, fear is not just about invisible fingers on ivory and ebony. It comes in all forms, on all days, and all sizes... microscopic even.

Vishnupriya Sengupta is an independent research scholar and works for a professional services firm

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Published on October 30, 2020
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