I can feel the chill even today when I think of that fateful night on the banks of Lake Barapani. A heady mix of adrenaline in my blood and raw fear in my mind drove me to physical feats that I can never imagine to have done on a normal day. Or night. But when you have literally seen a Ghost and have had it follow you, it is no longer Normal. Reason leaves you completely and primal survival instinct takes over.
Coming back to my narrative, there I was, knocking like a mad man at the door of that solitary hut that I had run to in order to save myself from a chasing Ghost.
No answer. Though I could see that faint light was seeping outside through the cracks in the wall, nothing inside moved. All around the wind was getting worse by the minute. I dared not look back, but I could feel it in my bones that the lady in while was standing but a few steps behind. After a while the door opened slightly and a small kerosene lamp was shoved at my face. This momentarily blinded me as I had been in pitch darkness for so long and I didn’t know who it was behind the lamp.
“Kon? Kya mangta hai?”, a rough rasping male voice asked me who I was and what I wanted.
“I am trouble. Please may I get shelter for a little while?” I stammered in Hindi with a voice shaking like a reed.
I still couldn’t see who I was talking. After a minute the voice spoke again in the same rasping voice that comes of years of smoking cheap beedis and God knows what else.
“Come inside.” I could feel the reluctance in the voice, but I was past caring and rushed inside. Once inside I saw the only other source of light in the room was an earthen stove in the room that we call chulah, fueled by firewood. It was also little smoky inside making me cough. The side of the wall close to that stove was broken to let some of the smoke out, which is how I had possibly seen the light from a distance. I closed my eyes and took great gulps of air. As oxygen reached by lungs and from it to the rest of my body I could feel life seeping back slowly into my body.
Only to rush back out again!
As I opened my eyes I saw the most grotesque face ever regarding me intently. The owner of the disembodied voice, my reluctant host had raised his small kerosene lamp to inspect me and in doing so had exposed his own hideous face. Believe me when I say that as a surgeon there’s little I haven’t see and it takes much to rattle me. But now it totally did. The fellows face seemed to have been half eaten by some strange fungus. One eye was completely clouded while the other, the seeing one was blood shot. Lips upturned on one side into a permanent snarl. Shrunken cheeks, grey hairs on a balding head, he look around sixty five to seventy years of age. An inadvertent gasp escaped my throat which appeared to anger him slightly.
To cut the tension, I asked him whether I could get some water to drink. Again the same silence for a minute as he bored into my head with his one seeing eye.
Slowly the man ambled over to a dark part of the room and returned with an earthen pot with water. The water of Shillong is very palatable even normally because of the minerals that it contains, but right then it seem nothing short of being pure nectar. I finished the pot and handed back to him with a thanks.
“Paisa lagega”, in broken Hindi he said, will cost you money.
“Rukne ka paisa lagega”. Will cost you money to take shelter here.
“Kitna”, I asked ready to pay.
“Pachas Rupiya”, 50 Rupees was a princely sum in those days but I immediately paid.
This however brought down my tension level as well. If someone was after your money, at least they were human.
After a while I asked for some water to wash myself as I was caked in mud from head to toe. He pointed at the same general direction from which he got my drinking water. Outside a low doorway I found a small tin bucket in which rain water was being collected at the back of the hut. On it was floating a pot like the one from which I had drunk water! So that’s where my water came from I thought. Well, no matter. I thoroughly washed myself and took a full bath even with my cloths on to rid myself of the mud. I was soon clean and completely wet. As I returned I found myself facing the same weird gaze. I slowly averted my eyes and kept looking at the fire burning on stove. Outside the wind howled like an angry beast and the walls of the small hut shook with each gust. The rain had eased a bit but the lighting and thunder continued.
“Chai piyega”, he asked me for tea. I knew it was a ploy to get more money but I said yes. Not only was I unwilling to make him angry but also it was true that the prospect of a cup of tea didn’t sound too bad, wet and miserable as I was. I nodded my consent. As the old man left the hut to get my cup of tea, I moved closer to the stove to warm up a bit. I was still soaked from the fully clothed bath that I had taken.
I must have dozed off a little was I sat cross legged in front stove. I woke up with a start when the main door opened behind me and a gust of cold rain soaked wind hit my back. “Ah Tea,” I thought as I shook off my slumber, got up and slowly turned out. It wasn’t one person who had entered room. About ten to twelve people had silent got in the room and were looking at me with looking at me with piercing murderous eyes.
If I had experienced panic before, this time it was sheer mind numbing terror that gripped and totally immobilized me.
Each face was as hideous to behold as my host’s if not more and around the same age as him. No words were needed to explain what they wanted, for in every hand there was a knife or a club. None in the group was even trying to hide either their murderous intent or the implements that they were planning to accomplish that with. I looked on back at them like a dumb statue, my knees shaking violently in fear of my impending death. I felt just like what a rat feels in the final moments before a snake sinks its fangs into him. My host came forward from within the group, with the promised tumbler of tea in his hand. With a quick movement he thrust it towards my face and barked.'
“Pi Le!” Drink!
With hands that were shaking I took the dirty glass tumbler but instead of drinking stared back at the old man dumbly.
“Drink”. He spat the word again in Hindi, as the rest of his fellows started closing in.
A miracle happened at that very instant.
The rickety door flew open, accompanied with a flash of lightning. There standing on the threshold was the Lady in white dress with her clear unblinking eyes fixed at the gang.
There was a collective exclamation of fear from the group as they screamed, shouted in fear.
“Ruh, Ruh! Issai Janana ki Ruh!” Ghost, Ghost. Ghost of the Christian Lady!
I noticed then a large wooden crucifix was hanging from her neck. I remember wondering - wasn’t the cross supposed to scare ghosts away, then why was this lady wearing one. The gang moved away from the open door in their fright towards the back of the room to where the water bucket was. Taking advantage of the confusion the Lady beckoned me towards her. I can’t explain why, but something in me told me that I could trust her. Breaking out of my fright induced stupor I ran out of the door.
Seeing me escape the gang also regained their senses and rush out behind us screaming and screeching. With that started perhaps the most horrific but absurd chase. A lady ghost wearing a cross and surgeon frightened out his wits, followed by a gang of hideous old men armed with knives and clubs. “Maro, Bhagne na paye, Pakdo”, Kill, Don’t Let him escape, Catch him – the air ranted with their screams as I ran for my life. Sure footed they were too. Though we had almost a 2-3 minute head start, their knowledge of the terrain and the blood lust had some them catch up with us soon enough. But all through the chase the lady demonstrated her other worldly powers as she would cause these people to slip and fall or put some obstacle in the path if they came too close causing them to shout out in anger.
There was a sudden chain of lightning flashes that lit of the area like day, clearly showing a sight that I can never forget. In front of me was the Lady, who appeared to be floating in air, eyes fixed behind me at our chasers with two arms upraised as she made nature bow to her will. Leading me where I knew not. Chasing undauntedly behind us brandishing their weapons was a gang of hideous men, their anger and blood thirst clearly visible as they ran, stumbled, and rolled behind us in the wet, slushy hilly training. Every time the Lady waved her hand making one of them fall they would get right up and jump back into the chase.
That’s when I realized that during this escape I hadn’t fallen down even once, while on my onward trip I wasn’t able to take two steps without slipping down. Was it the Lady who made this happen both times?
All of a sudden, it was all over.
I have no recollection how but I was inside the car shivering uncontrollably. I tried starting the car and it magically responding immediately. Perhaps a final gift from my saviour. Without wasting a moment I zoomed away from the accursed place. My control of my vehicle is legendary, and I used all the skills at my disposal to get away as fast as I could.
I never saw the Lady or the grotesque gang after that, but still I didn’t stop until I reached Sharmaji’s house at about 7.00 a.m. Both Sharmaji and Aparajita had been up from 3.00 a.m. waiting for me, worry clearly visible in their faces as I pull up almost 4 hours late. I don’t know what they saw in my face but both of them rushed to my side as I came out of my car and without saying much led me to a deckchair which was placed in the veranda. While Sharmaji went into get someone to take my luggage inside and get me some team. Aparajita remained by my side in a chair on my left.
As I sat there mutely looking at her, for the first time ever, she took my left hand and held my palm between hers and said, “Whatever it is, don’t worry. I am here.” The tenderness in her voice and eyes drove away all residual fear that I still had.
I fell into a long, deep sleep.
I woke up at about noon. I still was in the deck chair but a pillow had been placed under my head and a light bed sheet put on my body. Aparajita was still in the chair by my side, reading a book. As I stirred, she gave her trade mark sunny smile, “Up?” Much later, after a shower and lunch, I sat with her and Sharmaji and told them of my adventures. Sharmaji’s hand rose to his forehead and he chanted a short prayer of thanks to Lord Krishna. Both Aparajita and I joined with folded hands. “Son, you are very fortunate. It was the blessed Sister Emily who saved you.” He then proceeded to tell us the most incredible story.
The Blessed Life of Sister Emily
Emily Mary Bhattacharya was born to an English mother and Bengali father in Calcutta of 1900s. In a few years after her birth her mother took her away to London to be raised, while her father stayed back in Calcutta and remarried. At London Emily excelled in her studies. Both she and her mother would visit Calcutta every winter for vacation when London became dreadfully cold and return back at the onset of spring. Emily became one of the first graduates of Mathematics from King's College for Women at Strand and totally distinguished herself in her scholarship. At a time when everyone expected her to find a suitable husband and get married, she shocked her family and friends by declaring to devote her life to Lord Jesus as a Nun. Her father and step mother, who rushed to London and her mother all tried to dissuade her but to no avail. Soon she was Sister Emily, a novice of an Anglican religious order.
Her life as a nun in London, she found spiritually unsatisfying. And once her mother had passed away, she decided to travel back to India to spread the Lord’s message. She landed in Calcutta and spent a few months with her father, step mother and step brother and sister, who thoroughly adored her. From there she proceeded to Shillong where the church apparatus was rapidly expanding and they needed teachers for the convent schools that were springing up. The Church she belonged to had no problems finding her a position at a Convent where she joined as a senior teacher of Mathematics. Her sweet nature and piety quickly made her a favorite with students and other teachers. Even after schools she would spend long hours talking of Christ to both Christian and Hindu students.
And then one day she discovered Thakur RamakrishnaParamhansa. One of her Hindu students told the story of how Ramaskrishna had attained a vision of Lord Jesus. She of course knew who Ramakrishna was of course, since her father was a devotee and she had accompanied him to Dakshineswar a few times in her childhood, but she knew next to nothing about him, except that he had a famous disciple named Swami Vivekanada. The more she read about him, the more she became fascinated. She became frequent visitor to newly constructed Ramakrishna Mission at Laitumkhrah. Ramakrishna she realized was a Christ-like spiritual giant who had lived and preached just about fifty years earlier. In Sarada she found the wisdom of a loving mother. And in the words of Vivekananda, in her discussions with the monks with the Ramakrishna Mission on Vedanta and the Gospels, on Bhagavad Gita and Imitation of Christ, on Ma Kali and Lord Jesus, and finally on the universality of Lord Krishna the heavenly Father of us all, she finally found her answers to her spiritual quest.
The more she understood about the Sanatana Dharma, the more her adoration of Jesus also increased. Her discourses to her students and fellow teachers, to the parents of the students and visitors to her church became more engaging. She would draw not only from the life of Jesus and the Apostles, but from Mahabharata, from Gita, from Ramayana and from Ramakrishna. The crowd swelled. While until her awakening her speeches were thinly disguised messages to encourage conversion, now they because truly the words of the Divine – The one creator who is our father.
This continued for a couple of years.
Finally the church management woke up and took notice and decided that this “pagan nonsense” had no place at church and had to stop. Sister Emily was called to a hearing and asked to repent for her sinful ways. She left the meeting after a stunning speech of spirituality and its universality. “Jotho mat Tatha path”, she told the dumb-founded audience before she left.
The Mother Superior of her convent came under tremendous pressure to have her thrown out. The Mother was a staunch Christian with no time for “Hindu beliefs” and “false Gods” but stood firmly behind Emily. She had heard what Emily had been preaching and could find no blasphemy. Nothing that Ramakrishna had preached was contrary to what Jesus himself had preached. Nor was Ramakrishna’s love for his Mother, “Ma Kali”, any less intense that Lord Jesus’s love for His Father. The other nuns were also equally firm in their support, for they loved Emily and believed in her piety and Love for Jesus.
The students and the parents came out to streets in Emily’s support, which, of course, the British Government of the time didn’t take kindly. In Anglican Church circles in Shillong, Calcutta and London there were intense debates on the Hindufication of the Church. The Church of England issue a rare statement denouncing the “happenings in Shillong”. It was around that time Emily decided to leave Shillong and go back to Calcutta for some time. A few months back, her father had died and she wanted to get away from this all and spent some time with her brother and sister. She wanted to visit Dakshineswar Kali Mandir as well. She promised her tearful students, their families and fellow nuns that she would return soon.
But she never did.
On her way to Gauhati from where she was to take a train, her car met with an accident and she died. Some believe she was killed.
“What happens since can only be speculated,” Sharmaji continued. “A pious person like Sister Emily could have moved on to a heavenly abode anytime she would have wanted. Her soul was the purest and she truly was God’s own child. But in her infinite benevolence we believe that her spirit remained back in the area where her earthly body had met its demise to help anyone who was in danger. You are not the only person she help Dr. Chatterji, she has helped scores of people over the years. That’s why I said you are fortunate that she appeared in front of your eyes.”
“The travelers on the road, particularly the truckers consider her to be their Guardian Angel. In fact they have even built a shrine where she is worshiped. Make sure you stop on your way back and pay your respects.”
What of the gang that attacked me?
“They are unfortunate souls. During the closing years of British just before a vicreagal visit to Shillong by Linlithgow the local administrator rounded up all local beggers and lepers they could find and had them bundled out of the town and warned never to return. The townsfolk also supported this move. These people established a colony somewhere along the road and would terrorize wayfarers. With passage of time most of these people had perished, the ones you unfortunately met must have been the last remaining ones. They were blood thirsty lot. They would not only rob and kill their victims. Some believed that they practices cannibalism too. Govt. of Assam had made a few attempts to catch them, but the way they hid themselves their colony had never been found. In you they must have seen a feast.”
“Sister Emily must have known you were in danger, so she was with you all the way to protect you.”
While are father looked the other way for some reason, Aparajita briefly put her hand on mine. I turned to look at her and saw her smile at me with tears in her eyes.
Imly Mai Ki Mod
On my way back I stopped at Sister Emily’s shrine at Imly Mai Ki Mod. Imly means Tamarind in Hindi, and many people wrogly assume that Imly Mod (Tamarind Turn) has something to do with a Tamarind tree, while what it really means is the Turn of Mother Emily.
The shrine was a typical miniature roadside temple that you will find all over India. The presiding deity of the temple was Ma Kali in the Raksha Kali form, a form that Protects. Curiously the temple also had a Cross, a Picture of Mother Mary and Infant Jesus. Also worshipped in the temple was a faded black and white picture of a Lady. As I peered closely I could clearly make out her features. It was Sister Emily, the Lady of Barapani Lake who had saved my life that fateful night.
In the months and years to come, I have made numerous trip through that road, but never again did I ever get to see Sister Emily. But it is also true that there hasn’t been a single time that I didn’t stop and bow down at Sister Emily’s shrine.
The tides of time, landslides, road widening and finally loss of recollection has contributed to the fact at some time in the late nineties the shrine disappeared. Today a road runs through the very place where her shine used to be taking thousands upon thousands of travelers to and fro who are unware of Sister Emily’s benevolence.
But there are still a few old truckers who remember Sister Emily, and also a few like me, my Aparajita and our children, whose hands never fail to touch ever our foreheads whenever we pass through Imly Mai ki Mod.