Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Lost in a ‘spooky’ by-lane

Jyotsna Ghosh, a government employee in the 1970s, took a shortcut to her uncle’s house in a south Calcutta neighbourhood one evening. So, was she the victim of paranormal activity on a stretch, which people believed was haunted?

In the 1970s, electricity (especially alternating current or AC) was almost a scarce resource in the city of Calcutta, and so, when evening dawned, it turned into a City of Lanterns.

Rather than electric lamps, it was this kerosene lantern that illuminated the city — be it a bustling marketplace, the busy office stretch or even downtown Calcutta.

And, whatever electric bulbs there were ran on direct current or DC, owing to which even the lanterns seemed brighter than the lamps.

The lamp posts on the streets operated on DC as well. This made them no brighter than a night lamp. Adding to the woes were the frequent power cuts, which made the roads look dark and desolate.

The city had to go to bed early because people refused to step out of their homes late in the evening. Around 9 pm, most denizens would be indoors.

But many, who ventured out late in the evening, often thought that they were being followed by someone. This eerie feeling was perhaps fuelled by stories of apparitions, the paranormal and black magic that were apparently “rampant” in the city at that time.

Whatever the city may be believing, it was diametrically opposite of what Jyotsna Ghosh, an employee of the Central Excise department, felt.  

Jyotsna, who joined Central Excise in late 1971, lived with her family in a central Calcutta neighbourhood. Her husband Nihar was a journalist with a big publication house while daughter Subhra studied at La Martiniere, arguably Calcutta’s best school.

In office, Jyotsna’s colleagues had a horror story to share every day. One of them, Sobha, once told her, “Jyotsna Di, did you hear. A lady in Behala, who was absolutely normal, suddenly walked out of her home last night and drowned herself in a nearby pond.”

Hearing this, Jyotsna, in a huff, replied, “It must be a case of suicide. Perhaps she was suffering from depression. Sobha, please don’t suggest that she was possessed.”  

Life went on as usual for Jyotsna and her family. There was harmony in the family generally and the only point of friction with Nihar was when Jyotsna wanted to visit her mother’s house in Garia or uncle’s house in Jadavpur, both in South Calcutta.

Jyotsna’s uncle Jogen wasn’t keeping well for over a year, and for the last few months, he was terminally ill. She told her husband, “I am going to my uncle’s house in the evening directly from office today and will be back home by 10 pm.”

Hearing this, Nihar retorted, saying, “No, you cannot come back home so late.”

As usual, there was a heated argument, and after a while, Jyotsna took her bag, slammed the door and left for office.

After work, she took a public bus to Jadavpur, which was a dark and dingy area of the city with myriad lanes and by-lanes. Often, electric lamps on the streets, not found to be in a working condition, took several days to be replaced. So, the area was dimly lit generally while some places were pitch dark.

As the bus reached the Jadavpur bus stand, Jyotsna alighted. 

She got down to find a rickshaw but unusually, there was none on the road and even the main road was bereft of proper street lighting.

From the main road, her uncle's house was almost 3 kms away. And, there was a shortcut, too, via even narrower by-lanes, which cut the distance by almost a km.

Even though a shortcut, pedestrians seldom used the alley. Jyotsna didn’t know why. “Perhaps, people want to avoid this dark and narrow patch,” she said to herself.

But Jyotsna, who had some idea about the area, decided to take the shortcut to her uncle’s house and walked along…

… It was 11:15 pm and there was no news of Jyotsna. Nihar called up her uncle’s neighbour (apparently, even a telephone was a scarce resource and not everyone had one) and Jogen’s son Ashok took the call and informed Nihar that Jyotsna wasn’t at his house.

Worried, Nihar frantically made calls to the police while Subhra, who was in Class 1, started crying aloud, thinking that angels had taken away her mother and she was lost forever.

Putting Subhra at his mother’s house in Christopher Road, which was about 500 metres away, Nihar went to meet the deputy commissioner of police or DCP, who was also his friend.

The Jadavpur police got a call from the DCP’s office and a vigorous search was started to locate Jyotsna.

There was no trace of her, initially. After hours of search, an octogenarian by the name Faizal, who lived in one of the alleys, came up to the inspector and said, “Did you check that by-lane,” pointing to the stretch which Jyotsna had taken a few hours ago.

He further said, “There is an abandoned house inside, which is mysterious. I had seen a few strangers come out from it in the wee hours. They said they didn’t know how they landed up inside.”

On hearing this, the police team wasted no time and headed for the house. In fact, it wasn’t a house, rather a bungalow, with several spacious but dilapidated rooms inside. There was even adequate space outside.

Sambhu, a new recruit who was part of the search team, found it strange. He asked the officer-in-charge, “Sir, how come you have such a big house amid these by-lanes?”

The officer replied, “This is a 100-year-old house, and at that time, most of these by-lanes didn’t exist.”   

After a five-minute search, one of the cops stumbled upon something in the dark and fell.

On flashing their torch lights, the cops found that a woman lay on the ground. She seemed to be breathing, and upon sprinkling some water on her face, she got up surprised, saying, “Who are you all?”

The officer-in-charge said, “Ma’am, we are the police. Are you Jyotsna Ghosh?”

She said, “Yes, but how did I come here?”     

While narrating her tale to the cops, she said, “I was going to my uncle’s house last evening as he was unwell. But even though I know these by-lanes well, I was getting lost every time and something seemed to be dragging me back to this house. I came back here at least five or six times.”

She added, “When I opened the gates of this house to see what was inside, I found it well lit as if it were a new house. And, a woman in her fifties came to open the door and smiled at me. After that, I don’t remember a thing.” 

The investigation officer said, “Ma’am, this house was well lit? How come? It was abandoned over two decades ago, a few years after a man poisoned his wife.”

With a smile, Faisal said, “Officer, it is possible. You won’t understand,” and walked away.  

Jyotsna was wondering if it was the same woman she saw last night.

The police, meanwhile, dropped Jyotsna home in their Jeep and Nihar also brought back Subhra from his mother’s house. On seeing Jyotsna, Nihar said, “So, when will you visit your uncle again?”

“May be tomorrow morning,” she replied, but “never at night.”

Subhra hugged her mother saying, “Didn’t the angels like you?” 

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