Over the past year, some unusual events have occurred at a courthouse in eastern New Delhi. Books have disappeared, strange noises have been heard. Computers and lights have seemed to switch on by themselves.
Employees at Karkardooma District Court began wondering whether the complex was haunted. Eventually, the executive committee of the local bar association called a meeting, mulled over the evidence and decided to install closed-circuit television cameras to find out what was going on.
“We were primarily concerned because we thought somebody was stealing books,” said Raman Sharma, joint secretary of the Shahdara Bar Association. But they were unsure whether the culprit was human or otherworldly.
In opening its investigation, the bar association joined a long list of authorities that have taken seriously complaints of paranormal activity in India, a country said to live in several centuries at once.
Last year, for example, a police station in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh was shuttered after a “resident spirit” terrorized the beat constable on duty, according to a report in the Times of India. A state lawmaker demanded an inquiry. Elsewhere, a primary school was closed temporarily when a boy said he saw an egg-shaped ghost emanating from a chalkboard.
Police regularly investigate complaints about alleged supernatural events. “We entertain all complaints, be it against zombies or werewolves,” a police officer told the Times earlier this year, referring to another paranormal matter.
Fantastical tales — of levitating holy men, firewalkers, conjurers, religious statues seeping saffron water — are not uncommon in India, an ancient culture in which the line between superstition and belief is often blurred.
“This is how everyone in India is brought up — listening to ghost stories,” said Sushil Sharma, a lawyer who has worked in the courthouse since 1989.
New Delhi, the country’s sprawling capital and home to 16 million people, is known as the “city of jinns,”a reference to genies from the Islamic tradition still said to inhabit the city’s shrines and graveyards. News of the courthouse haunting, thus, “will bring relief to people who feared Delhi’s age-old djinns and spirits are being driven away by the process of gentrification,” the news Web site Scroll noted drolly.
But there’s a darker side to such beliefs. In tribal areas of eastern India, women are still accused of being witches. Blamed for everything from crop failure to infertility, the accused are often beaten and sometimes killed. Villagers with little access to health care often turn to shamans, or faith healers, for help. Last year, a prominent Indian rationalist who long advocated a law against black magic was gunned down while on his morning walk in the western city of Pune.
Just a block from the courthouse in New Delhi, a billboard advertises the services of a healer who can solve a variety of vexing problems, from sour love affairs to demon possession.
“We’ve got a country with a 16th-century mindset superimposed on the 21st century,” groused Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations. “People will use their mobile phones to view ghosts, and we will do a puja [prayer ritual] before sending a spacecraft to Mars. Lots of cultures have learned to get over these things and be more rational in their approach, but we haven’t. That’s the tragedy of this country.”
The bar association’s grainy, dim surveillance video had plenty to satisfy believers — floating white orbs, flickering computer screens — and much to raise doubt.
“It was just a virus,” lawyer Madan Lal Karkar said Tuesday while sitting in the small cyber library seen in the video. Karkar was playing computer chess, but in general, the room is used infrequently now. The Internet isn’t working.
The library is in one of several concrete buildings with open-air corridors that during daylight hours are filled with witnesses, suspects, lawyers in their customary black jackets and banded collars — a holdover from the British Raj — and an occasional stray dog. To say the place is dusty would be an understatement. Piles the size of large anthills clutter stairwells. Plastic sleeves protect legal volumes.
When Sharma heard about the surveillance cameras, he felt somewhat vindicated, he said. For years he has been saying that supernatural activity is occurring at the courthouse — ever since he and a colleague were returning to their chambers late one evening and heard loud knocking and saw a padlock swinging wildly back and forth, seemingly on its own. These days, he makes sure to leave work before nightfall.
“I was fully conscious. I’m not a drug addict, I’m a lawyer,” Sharma said. “I believe something is happening here. We should talk about it.”
The bar association said it plans to leave the spirit alone for now, until the publicity dies down.
It was getting late. Darkness gathered. A curl of moon rose. It was time for Sharma to go home. No ghosts seemed to be in evidence. A colleague who had started happy hour early began singing drunkenly in his chambers. The sound echoed eerily throughout the emptying complex and floated down to the busy street.
Jalees Andrabi contributed to this report.