The victim of a curse

I vividly remember it was the winter of 1965. I had gone to stay for a few days with my father who was at that time posted in the Bahraich district of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. That night my father was in a very jovial mood as the evening dinner he had hosted had been a great success; all guests had enjoyed the food and the ambiance.

Due to overeating that my father often indulged in when the food was to his liking, he was trying to digest it before going to sleep, by pacing up and down in his room. It was 11 pm, the lights in my father's bedroom was still in; it prompted me to see what he was doing. When I found him walking up and down, I asked him why was he still awake? My father told me the reason and asked me to sit down beside him. He said he would narrate to me an incident of his life that would keep both of us engaged, as the sleep seemed to be deluding both of us that night.

It was early November in 1950, when he had gone for a short break to our native village Bhalat Gaon. After his short vacation was over, he had to leave for Nainital where he was posted at that time. As was the normal practice in those days, he had to cover a long distance on foot to reach Ranikhet from where he would get a bus for Nainital. Keeping in view the distance and the time it would take to cover that, he left for a place called Chaura Khal at about three in the afternoon from his village. He managed to
reach Chaura Khal by about six pm, covering a distance of about 12 miles. Elaving been exhausted, he decided to spend the night at an inn before leaving for Ranikhet bus stand which still was about 10 miles away. He had an early dinner and paid the innkeeper his dues in advance as he was supposed to leave that place at four in the morning to catch the early morning bus from Ranikhet to Nainital.

In those days, my father used to wear a wristwatch with radium numbers which shone brightly in the dark. Before going to bed he took off his wrist watch and placed it by the side of his pillow on the bed so that without much bother, he could keep a track of the time at regular intervals. Being quite tired, he soon fell nto a deep slumber. He suddenly got up with a start as his watch was showing the time to be 4 am. Immediately putting his knapsack on his back that he had kept ready, he started towards the Ranikhet bus stand. After climbing the ascent for twenty minutes or so, he looked at the watch; it was showing 12.40 am! Oh god, he had been done
in by the watch, because when my father thought it was four in the morning, the time must have been 12.20 the position of the arms of the watch being exactly the same as when it would strike four, the only difference being between the short and long arms! However, now that he was already on the move, he decided to keep walking instead of returning to the inn.

After walking for about two miles, he started getting an uneasy feeling of being alone in the dead of the night. A little ahead at a sharp bend in the road, where there was a small waterfall, a common sight in the Kumaon hills, he found that an Englishman with his servant were walking ahead of him. Apparently after hearing the footsteps of my father behind them, they stopped and waited for my father to reach them. It was their dress that helped my father distinguish the officer from the servant; the English Sahib was wearing a Golf Cap, white shirt and trousers with suspenders, whilde the servant was wearing only a typical Kumaoni shirt and a churidar with waistcoat. To my faters's utter surprise, the Englishman pointed towards the wrist watch in his hand, which he vividly remembered had bloodred radium digits, thundered in a gruffly voice, "You bloody human beings, can't you distinguish between day and night? Don't you know that the night is meant for us and the day for you people?" I still remember that while narrating this, the expressions on my father's face were of a frightened man. It seemed as if he was reliving that moment. My father, being then in his early twenties, frankly and truthfully told the Sahib that he had been deluded by his wristwatch, otherwise he would never have disturbed the English Sahib at that unearthly hour. This hines reply softened the English Sahib to some extent, and then as a gesture of goodwill, he offered to see my father off till the Ranikhet bus stand, telling him jocularly that the ghosts of the Kumaoni people who could be lurking in the way still feared and respected the ghost of an English Sahib. The servant of the English gentleman surprisingly didn't utter a single word during all this, as was customary during the Raj days.

After walking for about three miles my father felt a terrible urge to smoke. The moment he took the cigarette out and wanted to light it, the Englishman at once let out his protest, that he and his servant as ghosts couldn't stand the sight of fire. Immediately thereupon, they both disappeared from sight. My father by that time had become quite bold and, therefore, went on smoking and walking towards Ranikhet all alone. However, as soon as the butt of the finished cigarette had been trampled upon to the utter
surprise of my father, the Englishman was back again by his side along with his servant. This sent a chill down his spine. The Englishman told my father admonishingly that if he wanted to walk in peace till Ranikhet, he better not smoke at all.

As they kept walking in silence, it perhaps became a trifle too boring for my father. He mustered enough courage and asked the English gentleman as to what was the cause responsible for his having become a ghost. The Sahib, after a pause, told my father a long story but made him swear an oath that he would never tell this story to anybody in his lifetime. He also warned my father that if ever he told this story to anybody, he would die a sudden death and would himself become a ghost. Saying this, the Englishman let out a laughter that reverberated in the whole valley, and the echoes of which could still be felt in my father's tone… Before departing, the Englishman foretold my father certain events that would occur in his future life. For example, he told my father that he would be blessed with seven children and that one of them, a son, during his service career would be spending more time abroad than in India. Also, that one of his other sons would settle down in his (Sahib's) motherland, England. Whatever he said did indeed come true.

It was now going to be 4 am. As soon as the lights of the Ranikhet bus stand became visible from a distance, the Englishman took his Golf cap off and bid a stylish goodbye to my father and disappeared from sight along with his servant. I was spellbound. Curiosity got the better of me and I asked my father to tell me the story of the English Sahib. He was startled. Didn't I remember the warning of the Englishman, he asked? I kept mum. My father seemed lost in his thoughts, as if he was
counting something. Then in a reverie he thought aloud: "It is now more than 35 years that I had encountered the Englishman… Maybe he is no more a ghost now… maybe his time as a ghost is up… Maybe he has been reborn somewhere." Suddenly there was a hint of finality in his tone. He said, "Okay, I think I can reveal his story, now that he must no more be a ghost. His curse too would have gone with him…"

The Englishman, he said, was Robert Bruce, the District collector of Ranikhet. A gentleman to the core, he would often be seen in the company of the natives who had developed a special liking for him for his generosity. A kindhearted man that he was, he would particularly go soft on the freedom fighters who would often hold rallies in the town against the British colonialism. Being unmarried, he had decided to devote his life for the upliftment of the poor in India. One day, his deputyone Mr. Charles came running to his bungalow seeking refuge from a rampaging mob out to kill him! As soon as he entered Mr. Bruce's bungalow, the guards shut the doors to ward off the menacing intruders. Mr. Bruce, who was having his dinner, immediately rushed out of the dining hall to see what the commotion was all about. When Charles told him that a mob was after him for no fault of his, the Englishman in Mr. Bruce instantly came to the fore and he decided to rescue his deputy, his British compatriot. Knowing full well that people held him in high esteem, he emerged on the balcony of his bungalow and urged them to be calm. But there was no letting up. Suddenly, the corpse of a woman that the people were carrying caught his eye. What is it, he shouted? She is Ramola, Ramu snapped back from amongst the protestors. She was raped by your deputy and not able to face the humiliation, she has committed suicide. We want Charles. He cannot escape from our wrath; we want eye for an eye. The death of Ramola will not go unavenged.

Bruce questioningly looked at Charles, who was almost hiding behind him. He hotly denied that he had done any wrong. In fact, he said, it was Bahadur who had a similar physique like his who had committed the crime, and that he was being falsely implicated.Charles said his only crime was that he had realized that revenue the previous day from even those who were habitual offenders, and that he was being hounded for that 'crime' only. Bruce pondered over the whole matter for a while, and then decided to act swiftly. He immediately asked the mob to clear his premises or else he would have to use force to disperse them. But the people were in no mood to listen and asked him to hand over Charles to them. When the standoff showed no sign of abating, Bruce ordered the police to lathichargethe demonstrators.

As soon as the orders were given, people became more violent and gheraoed his bungalow, weathering the lathi blows. Some of them who had come armed for any eventuality, sprinkled kerosene all over and set the bungalow ablaze. Since it was a hill town with winds blowing at a ferocious speed, and fire brigade not easy to reach, the blaze soon engulfed the whole building. Everyone inside perished. Baida, the faithful servant of Robert Bruce, tried his best to save his master and take him out from the rear of the building but the falling pillars of the wooden structure (building in hills are generally made of wood) prevented them from escaping. They were soon turned into fireballs and in no time into ashes… and ghosts!

Bruce realized, thought it was too late now, that he he had been fooled by Charles, who indeed was the culprit. But then, he could do nothing to salvage the situation now. As divine punishment, he was condemned to life of a ghost. That is why Bruce along with his faithful servant Baida roamed the hills of Ranikhet waiting for their emancipation.Bruce did not want the posterity to remember him as a 'brute' which he certainly was not; he didn't want that future generations should ever know that his unblemished name had been sullied by just one folly of his, of believing Charles, that had turned him into a ghost!

I was extremely overwhelmed by this account. An eerie silence had descended in the room by now. After a while, I looked at my father and found him staring at me as if asking, "Was I now happy to know the story of Robert Bruce?" I smiled back at him and got up to hug him to say good night. The moment I touched him, he slumped on his side …s taring into nothingness… listless… lifeless…

- H.V.S. Manral