Apparitions of Ravi Canal
My days in Lahore are etched with memories of historic buildings, roads, good food and good company, but buried in that heap is also a horrific incident the recollection of which still wakes me up at night with a shiver. This has to do with the place where I lodged as a student and the canal that flowed nearby.
My college hostel was in Punjab University new campus, about ten miles away from the main campus in old Lahore. The new campus was a very modern building built alongside the canal that originated from river Ravi and known as BRB canal (Bambawali-Ravi-Bedian) is about 51 miles in length and was originally constructed by the Mughals but later completed in British period. Besides irrigating lands on both sides, the canal serves as a lovely site for recreation such as boating, walking, cycling as well as park sites. The architects chose the canal bank for the new campus of Punjab University with an aim to move the entire university to the site eventually.
When I joined Punjab University in mid-sixties only a few departments were located there along with two hostels for boys. A third was under construction. I was one of the first occupants of the second hostel. The hostel was rather modern compared with the residential hall where I had stayed in Dhaka University. Each boarder had a room to himself, with basic furniture and shared bathrooms. Each hostel had its own cafeteria where only one meal (dinner) was served. One was required to have breakfast and lunch in University cafeteria either at the new campus, or in the old campus.
My problem was twofold. I not only had to eat out for breakfast and but also lunch in the old campus since my department had not moved to the new campus. My alternative for breakfast was to make my own tea in my own room along with stale bread or wait till I went for my classes in the old campus riding the University shuttle. But I was later told about an alternative place for breakfast, which was a Tuck Shop near the hostels ran by a Pathan called Kalandar Khan. Now Kalandar Khan's Tuck shop was originally intended as a kind of Dhaba for the construction workers of New Campus. After the hostels opened as students came in, Kalandar Khan found a new clientele in these new boarders who became his eager and hungry customers. Khan's Tuck Shop offered toasted bread, eggs, biscuits, and heavily sugared milk tea. For morning breakfast nothing could be more welcome than this. In addition, in the afternoon and evenings he also sold a concoction of milk and Coca-Cola or 7-Up loaded with ice. Although it was an off-putting mixture for me at the beginning,I later became a fan of this drink. Of course, the Tuck Shop also had regular milk tea and syrupy jellyby in the evenings. I was a regular visitor to Khan's Tuck Shop for the duration of my stay in the new campus. I would visit the Tuck Shop late at night also since it would remain open till midnight.
Since my department was located in old Lahore, I used to take the University Shuttle that operated between the two campuses all day and evening since some classes were held in the evening. One day while returning to new campus I missed the last bus. My only alternative was to hire a taxi which I did although it cost me a tidy amount of five rupees that time. The taxi deposited me on the new campus building of Ravi Canal. My hostel was about 10-15 minutes of walk from that point. It was pretty dark when got down from the taxi. The new campus was very empty as classes had ended there long time ago. There were some lights on the corridors, but these were not enough to light my way all the way to my hostel.
As I crossed the bridge on the way to my hostel, I saw some people hovering near a woodfire. This would be about a furlong away from the path leading to my hostel. Very near the group, who I could not see very clearly, was a construction site heaped with bricks, mortars, and shovels. Since it was winter, I thought these must be construction workers warming themselves by building a fire. I did not mind the group and continued on my way.
Suddenly I heard someone calling my name, Choudhury, Choudhury. I turned back and I saw someone looking like Kalandar Khan beckoning me. Totally surprised I said, is that you Khan saab? The man wrapped in shawl from head to torso nodded and beckoned to me to follow him saying, come, have some tea. I did not know what to do. I was not expecting Kalandar Khan to be having a tea party at such an odd hour in a construction site. But I was kind of mesmerized and followed him.
But a greater surprise was awaiting me when I reached the site. The fire had disappeared but instead what I saw was a glow coming out of the ground as the whole ground was burning with ambers. In that ambient light what I saw sent down chills through my spine. There were at least a dozen figures leaning to and fro with nothing but skulls as heads. Each skull emitted a glow like the one coming from the ground. The spooky figures were wrapped in some kind of covers from head to toe (if they had any) and were holding metal pans in hand which they were jangling by hitting the pans in the hands of others. This was creating a screeching sound that pierced my ears. I turned to my side to look for Kalandar Khan. But I did not see any trace of him. Suddenly I felt a cold hand to my right side pushing me toward the ground.
I do not know how I got the courage and the strength. I pulled myself away from the force that was pushing me with all my strength that I could muster and ran. The speed with which I ran would have paralleled a world record. But I was able to reach my hostel and enter my room shivering from fear that ran through my bones. I felt I was still being followed by those bony apparitions into my hostel. I could even hear the chilling sounds they had made in the fireside near the canal bank. I collapsed into my bed and either fell into a swoon or simply passed out.
I was awakened next day by banging on my door. When I opened the door, I saw the room bearer Masih who asked me in great anxiety if I was alright because it was already midday. He said he had knocked on my door twice in the morning, but I did not respond. He was alarmed that something was wrong with me. I did not tell him about the weird incident that I had witnessed the evening because I was myself not sure if it was all a bad dream. I just told him that I was not feeling well and that I would not go my classes that day. After Masih left I reflected on the surreal happening of the night and wondered if it was real. Then I saw my shirt lying on the floor which had burn marks all over. My shoes had mud all over. Then something really happened! But did I see Kalandar Khan last night in that spooky place? The only person who could answer that was Khan himself.
I put on a clean shirt and shoes and left for Khan Tuck Shop. In any case I needed a cup of tea and something to eat.
The Tuck Shop was rather empty since few students visited the tea stall at noon time. It was also good for me as I could ask Kalandar Khan the question in private. Fortunately, Kalandar was by himself listening to his favorite Pushto radio station. He greeted me and asked if I had "chutti" (leave) from university. I managed a wry smile and replied I had a rough night previous day which he should know better. This took Khan by surprise and he asked why so. Why should he know about happened to me last night, he asked?
"Were you not at the canal bank last night with some strange people near the canal bank construction site? "I asked him.
"Are you crazy, Choudhury? Why should I be at the canal bank dead at night leaving my place here?" he replied raising his eyes to the brow. "I was attending to your friends serving tea and snacks up to midnight", he added.
Mortified again with the renewed realization that last night I was a victim of a spooky experience I narrated to Khan my last night's horrific experience emphasizing how I was deluded by an apparition in Khan's image. I narrated the whole episode including my escape from near death.
Khan beat his forehead with both hands and said, Choudhury, you are lucky you got away. The place you were led to be known as the Saya ki Asthana (abode of spirit). People are usually lured by these spirits in the shape and image of a friend they know. Once they go to the den, they are consumed by a fire there. Many a construction worker has lost their life this way. Khan added that no one knows the origin of this den, but it is believed that over a hundred years ago during British period several construction workers were killed by an accident while excavating the canal. The accident happened when water suddenly rushed through the canal in tremendous force drowning the workers many whom did not know how to swim.
But then this phenomenon of the spirits gathering is not a common phenomenon, Kalandar Khan said. It happens once or twice a year in the dark phase of the moon. I suddenly remembered that it was the dark phase of the moon last night.
The phenomenon was explained, but my fear of the paranormal remained with me for the whole year. I did not narrate this to my friends, but I cautiously avoided treading the canal path at night as long I stayed in the new campus hostel.
The writer is a former civil servant