Some people are born with abilities and opportunities that almost propel them to the top. Standing in a long queue at the Pune bus depot, Shripada Kamble felt that she had been propelled in a rather strange direction. Yes, the guitar strap sometimes made her shoulder ache and such long queues could be annoying. But a now 36-year-old Shripada knew that she would choose this existence a hundred times over any 9 to 5 routine.
Having finally got her ticket for Old Lhonepur, Shripada sank into the hard metallic seat in the slightly crowded waiting area. Instinctively she rechecked her equipment - Her acoustic Hobner guitar was undamaged, the speakers, amplifiers, everything seemed to be in place. But was something missing? Shripada dug into the bottom of her bag and found her only professional safety gear – a small battered image of a meditative Shiva.
In her line of work Shripada felt that if this didn’t protect her, nothing else could. Shripada was a singer, guitarist and what she liked to call SMT – Supernatural Music Therapist. But Shripada’s clients had made her popular with the much more informal ‘Bhoot Bhajanwali’.
With her round face, curly hair, bright kurta and blue jeans, Shripada certainly did not look like some bhoot bhajan tantric. Yet Shripada had added this description to her brand website. Over the last 10 years she had clearly understood one thing – Keeping things simple was crucial.
In a world where life was confusing enough, how could people understand the world of the dead? For better or worse, Shripada did understand this world too well. She never shared this with her friends because she didn’t like sharing her past with anyone, but Shripada felt that her abilities were most probably a family inheritance.
Her grandfather had worked at the cremation grounds in their village and before him the family profession had always been closely tied with death. Not as holy priests, only as something the priests considered to be not holy at all. This distinction had always troubled Shripada. But the aghoris never cared about such rules. It was they who taught Shirpada’s grandfather many secrets about the world of the dead.
Then Shripada’s father got a job with an IT company and moved the family to Pune, permanently leaving that world behind. Or at least that’s what he thought.
As she grew up, a 12-year-old Shripada had no interest in learning strange prayers from her ajoba. But ajoba noticed that whenever DDLJ was broadcast on cable TV, Shripada was quite fascinated by Shahrukh Khan playing the mandolin for Kajol.
Now the musical store in Shanivar Peth didn’t have a mandolin and the shop owner strongly felt that girls should only sing with a harmonium or sitar. But an insistent ajoba managed to purchase the next best thing – an acoustic guitar.
It was a little too big for Shripada but ajoba hoped she would grow to properly hold it. Soon a visiting tutor began Shripada’s lessons on playing the A, D and E chords. Pleased with having been given this wonderful gift, Shripada now sat every evening with her ajoba, learning those strange prayers and chants.
Over the years Shripada grew to love both the fascinating rhythms of Hey Jude and the Mahadev stotra. A quite girl with people in general and extremely talkative with her close friends, Shripada became a girl of many worlds - Chanting prayers with her grandfather, travelling to different corners of the world with her parents, working at animal shelters with her friends, and reading every kind of detective story she could find. In all these worlds Shripada felt something tugging at her. As if there was something just at the corner of her vision that revealed a deeper truth about this Universe.
Then on a college hiking trip to the hills of Uttarakhand it revealed itself.
After smoking a bit of weed for the first time with Aditi and Savio, Shripada settled into one corner of the campsite, absent-mindedly strumming her guitar. In an inspired moment she sang the Mrityu Jaap to the tune of Wish You Were Here.
By the time she finished with the first verse, the strings echoing in the dark, Shripada felt the night get cooler. Looking up she became aware of the spirits besides her. They were not pale or transparent and looked just like any other person at the camp. But they seemed to be visible through some lens that made their edges gleam.
Shripada didn’t feel afraid of them. Not then, not ever. The spirits hovered gently next to her, waiting in silence. Finally one of them spoke “Girl, finish it. Finish that song.”
Feeling a little more nervous, Shripada did finish the song. As she did, Shripada noticed how a golden light seemed to ripple across each of the spirits. Soon Shripada was again sitting by herself, feeling that she needed a lot more weed to process what she had seen.
Shripada strained to decipher the almost incoherent bus announcements. Realising that her bus would be departing in the next 5 minutes, she quickly made her way to the bus and her seat – first one to the left, by herself.
With a sudden jerk the bus made it out of the bus depot. Breathing deeply, Shirpada decided to clear her thoughts about the mission.
The whatsapp messages from Tukaram Kale were both interesting and informative. The fort of Mohinigad in Old Lhonepur was once a great tourist attraction but over the last two years, tourists seemed to almost consciously steer away from the site. They visited the tiny lake, the small sweet shop and went on to the hills of Mahabaleshwar but no one seemed to step into the fort.
Tukaram - A caretaker of the fort at first thought that this was just a result of changing trends. Perhaps tourists now preferred the swanky hotels in Mahabeleshwar to historical ruins. Then for the first time in many years, he spent a night at Mohinigad. Shripada re-read the next part of his message, written in bits of Marathi and English.
…Madam, I am the son of a superstitious cobbler. But I never believed in these ghosts or spirits. What time was there to fear all of these when I struggled to feed my new-born daughter? Maybe that’s why I was shown this…as a punishment for being unafraid.
That small well inside Mohinigad changed everything for me. Usually in the evening I would pump some water out and use it the next day for regular cleaning work. Now since I was staying overnight at the fort to make sure no animal chewed through the under-repair wiring section, I decided to pump the water in the morning.
This is what terrifies me Madam. It was not at night that I saw him. It was in the morning. His eyes burned from the bottom of the lake. He only looked at me for a moment. He harmed me in no way but the message was clear. If I valued my sanity, my life, I was to leave the fort forever.
I didn’t want to ever return but what choice did I have? Every day I worry that something will go wrong and my family will suffer without me. Now Madam the locals are spreading too many stories about the fort. If it gets shut I don’t know what I’ll do…
The messages then went on to specify Shripada’s travel arrangements and fee details. The latter was something she never worried about so much. With a few concerts and musical events for corporates Shripada managed to make what she considered a decent amount.
Such supernatural projects never paid much but they added immensely to Shripada’s brand value. After all which rockstar could boast of communing with the dead? Though that was not why she took up these missions. Shripada knew that there was something that drove her to do this. To do it was to be truly alive.
As Shripada tried to get some sleep, the bus made its way through the long winding routes in the hills. The 5-hour journey was filled with the incessant chatter of the other passengers, frequent stops for tea, selfies and other bodily functions. Then with a final dramatic rattle, the bus lurched to a halt at the Old Lhonepur bus naka.
Quickly checking over her equipment, Shripada waited for Tukaram to arrive. As per his instructions she had already whatsapped him when the bus crossed highway 57.
Soon a Honda bike accelerating at far beyond the speed limit reached the bus naka and Tukaram hurried over to Shripada. Lean and energetic as he was, Tukaram’s trimmed moustache seemed to only emphasize his youthfulness. But right now Shripada noticed that he looked quite tense and worried.
Immediately she understood that something was wrong. More specifically, Shripada seemed to instinctively understand that someone had died.
Having left her musical gear at the guest house near the bus naka, Shripada discovered just how fast Tukaram could both talk and manoeuvre the Honda through the bumpy roads of Lhonepur.
Technically speaking there was nothing spooky or unscientific about the death. An 83-year-old Manohar Dubey had come to visit Mohinigad and while walking up some stairs, had a heart attack. The ambulance had already taken him and his family to the nearest hospital where after getting a death certificate the family planned to conduct the final rites in their village.
The family hadn’t blamed anyone for the incident and seemed incredibly stoic in their grief. A few conversations with the daughter-in-law Jagdamini Dubey revealed the reasons. It turned out that the senior patriarch had quite stubbornly insisted on this trip despite being recommended bed rest. An avid fort-enthusiast, Manohar Dubey had never visited Mohinigad and would not let his blood pressure affect his travel plans.
An ashamed Tukaram informed Shripada how this made him feel a little relieved.
“See if this happened because of this ajoba’s medical conditions then how could anyone blame the fort right?” shouted Tukaram over the bike’s growling engine.
Shripada wasn’t sure if this would make any difference to the gossiping locals. After all if people applied so much logic would they ever fear any ghosts?
Finally the bike sped into Mohinigad and looking around Shripada was impressed by the fort’s fading grandeur. The stone walls, uneven staircases, ancient canons and chipped statues were all impressive. Like every other tourist, Shripada felt that she had walked into a past that could perhaps never be completely understood.
A short 30-minute ascent later, the view from the top of the fort was truly breath-taking. With the summer season at its peak, the entire landscape looked scorched and the barren mountain ranges stood impassively in a distance as if patiently waiting for the rains. With some hesitation Tukaram then led Shripada to the staircase where they found the old man. Slightly steep and battered, it otherwise seemed quite ordinary.
But Shripada felt the same thing here as she did everywhere else in the fort - Intense suffocation.
There was something about Mohinigad that gave Shripada this almost instinctive urge of taking the next bus back to Pune. This feeling made Shripada even more curious. What was going on here?
Finally Tukaram showed Shripada the well. Compared to the rest of the fort, Shripada noted that this well was somewhat modern and made with concrete. Small, neat and completely uninteresting as it was, Shripada felt waves of hatred hit her as she approached the well. She also noted that Tukaram was keeping a safe distance from it.
Peeking down into the well’s clear waters Shripada only saw her reflection but felt like something was squeezing her heart.
This was new for Shripada. In all her years she had never faced anything that could be called evil. So far spirits had only wanted to hear the right notes that could help them move on. But this entity seemed to want something else.
Trying to take deep breaths, Shripada stepped away from the well and followed Tukaram to the fort maintenance office.
In these strange circumstances an uneasy but famished Shripada was glad to know that lunch had been arranged. After a quick wash at the basin, Shripada sat cross-legged on the cool office floor. She eagerly chewed on the bhakri and spicy potatoes, trying to also listen to Tukaram.
“Madam you don’t think the ghost did this naa?” Tukara asked for the five hundredth time.
“Nothing like this has ever happened in Old Lhonepur…we might not be as hi-fi as Pune or Mumbai but more incidents like these could really hurt our reputation...”
Nodding sympathetically Shripada suddenly noticed a stack of Marathi newspapers in one corner.
“Tukaram would you have local newspapers here for the last few years?” she asked politely.
Sheepishly Tukaram replied, “Actually I do Madam. The raddiwala should have taken them away a long time ago. But as you already know, getting anyone to come here hasn’t been easy.”
After they had their lunch, Tukaram placed a sufficiently large pile of newspapers on his desk and Shripada started browsing through them. Most of the articles were about newly opened stores, marriages, movie releases and local elections. Soon Shripada noticed a pattern.
Yes, that must be it, she thought. With some effort she placed the newspapers in one corner of the office and called out to Tukaram.
“Madam do you want to bring your samaan? Shall we start with the bhoot bhajan?” He asked eagerly.
Shripada smiled. “Yes, but not yet. Could you first take me to the school?”
A wide-eyed Tukaram quickly nodded. As they made their way out of the fort, Shripada could almost sense his confusion besides the almost over-powering feeling of suffocation.
Tukaram only felt more confused over the next few days. Almost every afternoon, Shripada would visit Modern Vidyasagar High School and sit with different students and teachers.
Shripada had informed the school staff that she was here to understand the culture of Lhonepur and Maharashtra. But not everyone was thrilled with this. Kulkarni madam was stiffly polite at best while Rane sir was almost openly hostile. Who after all was this woman who dared to approach them? Shripada realised once again that her surname could still close many doors.
But there were a lot of exceptions. Proud of their local culture, various teachers and senior 10th standard students were only too eager to explain everything to Shripada.
Patiently listening to their stories, Shripada slowly gained their trust. She knew that it was extremely important to gain the approval of both Taksande madam and different students like Mohsin Qureshi who didn’t speak much but was always respectful, Amrita Jadhav who was a complete chatterbox, Atul Bhange who seemed to speak only in questions, and many others.
To Tukaram’s further astonishment Shripada was even singing old Marathi songs with the students and teachers. He was immensely fond of these melodies but he didn’t understand how any of this was related to the ghost.
But clearly many of the students and teachers enjoyed these musical sessions. On the fifth day, Shripada felt she could finally make her request to Taksande madam. With no hesitation, the friendly yet authoritative Taksande madam agreed.
After a final goodbye to the students, Shripada walked over to Tukaram catching a nap under a tree.
“I think we can finally deal with your spirit Tukaram.”
Tukaram was both thrilled and relieved.
“Great! Just tell me what you need madam. Lemons? Tulsi leaves? Prayer wood?”
Shripada didn’t need any of this. But she knew that to say so would really disappoint Tukaram.
“Yes, please arrange for all of these and also if possible, some Ganga jal. Oh and could you get two rickshaws to the school on Sunday morning?”
“Arre of course Madam!” a cheerful Tukaram replied. He wasn’t certain why she wanted the rickshaws but he was just glad that his bhoot bhajanwali was finally going to do something.
The parents of Mohsin Qureshi, Amrita Jadhav, Atul Bhange, Bhagyashree Kadam, Sandeep Watve, and Sneha Patil were quite surprised that their children wanted to go to school on Sunday. Oh so there was going to be a picnic to Mohinigad? The parents may have felt concerned about ghosts at the fort but knowing that Taksande madam had planned this trip, they immediately gave their consent.
Around 9.30 am, the 6 students and Taksande madam were waiting at the school gate. The school group and Tukaram went in one rickshaw and with her speakers, amplifiers and other musical instruments, Shripada managed to somehow fit into the other.
On arrival, the oppressive heat immediately made Shripada feel exhausted. But the school group was undeterred. Energetic and enthusiastic, Shripada felt their vibe rubbing off on her. This time she almost enjoyed the tour of Mohinigad.
Almost. She could still clearly feel that hostility emanating from the small concrete well.
With the touring done, the group settled down in the shade by the fort walls. How did Mohsin’s mother manage to make puran polis for the entire group on such short notice? And how did Sandeep lug around the large 2 litre water bottle for everyone? Shripada wasn’t sure. But these small acts of kindness made something inside her melt. She knew that their presence was also affecting someone else.
Finally well-fed and rested, the group settled for an afternoon of music. The other musical instruments that Shripada brought included a set of tablas and a harmonium, to be played by Taksande madam and Amrita respectively. Would these instruments harmonise with Shripada’s guitar? She wasn’t concerned about that so much. What was extremely important was for all of them to sing together. If they did there would be harmony in more than one sense of the word.
And there certainly was.
Following Taksande madam’s lead, the first few songs were quite proper and decorous. An ode to Ganpati, praise for all gods, abhangs of different saints like the original Tukaram, Naamdeo, Dnyaneshwar, Eknath and many more. But Shripada felt like this was just a prelude.
Soon in a playful mood, Atul began with the more filmi Dhagala lagli kala and things took a turn to the more celebratory. After a few Marathi hits, the group switched to popular Hindi songs from the 60s and 70s, all the way to the present decade. Did any of them realise when the evening came to an end and the sun began to set? Not really. The mehfil would have easily gone on well into the night if Taksande madam did not reluctantly but sternly instruct all students to prepare for the return trip. Thrilled and exhausted, most of the students would sleep soundly on the journey, waking up only when the rickshaw dropped them to their homes.
Instructing Tukaram to travel with the group, Shripada stayed behind to wait for the second rickshaw. Assuring Tukaram that nothing would happen to her wasn’t easy. Shripada had to finally remind him that she was after all a bhoot bhajanwali.
So as the darkness settled in, Shripada was the only person remaining within the walls of Mohinigad. The only living person that is.
What is it about the darkness that makes everything mysterious and menacing? Our minds can imagine every slithering shadow or disfigured rock to be something entirely different. But Shripada knew that she wasn’t imagining the dark figure walking out of the well.
Settling herself on a rock nearest to the concrete well, Shripada began lightly strumming her guitar.
Almost casually she spoke, “Like everyone else here I thought the problem was you. But I was wrong.”
The figure stepped in front of Shripada and she noticed the old bearded man was clad in rags. Other than the light strangely glinting off his edges, he looked quite ordinary.
“These things that you’re feeling, of wanting to keep the ‘outsiders’ away, these are not your feelings.” She continued.
Looking lost, the old man sat on the grass besides Shripada. She no longer felt suffocated being near him but could still sense his subdued rage.
“They are not?” His voice echoed.
Shripada smiled kindly.
“Not at all. It’s just something the people are telling each other, channelling these emotions to you. And as you saw today, it isn’t something all of them believe.”
Playing a soothing finger-style rhythm, Shripada noticed how the old man grew relaxed. She spoke gently to him.
“The younger ones love their culture. But you heard them, they are open to new things and new people too.”
“So you don’t have to protect this place from anyone. You can be free.”
The old man now seemed to be sinking into the grass. His troubled face cleared up and he smiled.
There was no rage within him anymore.
“Something makes me trust you girl…now could you please sing to me?”
She did. A golden light rippled across the old man and he gracefully sank into the soil. As he did so, his rags turned into resplendent regal armour and a crown appeared above his head.
With some surprise, Shripada realised that she had just spoken to her first royal spirit.
The next day for Tukaram’s satisfaction, Shripada conducted a proper bhajan next to the now ordinary well. Ganga jal was sprinkled, holy fires were lit and a few thousand gods were invoked. Finally when Tukaram seemed to grow tired, she ended the havan and pronounced the site to be ghost-free.
But she did assign a task to Tukaram.
He had to make sure that a group of different students would always visit the fort on a few weekends. They were to speak to the tourists and tell them about the fort’s legacy. Essentially, they were to welcome the ‘outsiders’ that the politicians seemed to warn about in every newspaper.
While not highly educated, Tukaram was no village idiot. He understood what Shripada meant by ‘different’ students. After all the newspapers didn’t just fear outsiders. They also made out many locals to be outsiders.
Then there was a long and almost tearful goodbye at the Modern Vidyasagar High School. Shripada felt embarrassed about the students wanting to touch her feet but she also felt grateful to have met these wonderful young people.
Soon enough she was back at the bus naka. This time there was no long queue for her ticket but there would be a long wait for the next bus to Pune. Carefully, Shripada began to recheck her musical gear and after some time she absent-mindedly looked up at the horizon. Mohinigad’s walls were faintly visible even from this distance.
Where earlier they looked imposing, Shripada felt that they now almost looked welcoming.
As she drifted off to sleep, Shripada thought that the fort now looked like a place where even strangers could come together and sing together.