City of Spectres
RV Smith has spent a lifetime getting to know the many sprites who inhabit Delhi
Delhi has ghosts that live with the living. They crowd the streets, the narrow lanes and bylanes, shrines and monuments of the walled city. They are a link to the past. In his cramped living room in his house in Mayapuri, 78-year-old RV Smith has been collecting these stories for nearly half a century. Smith sits in a shirt that is a close cousin of a Cuban Guayabera. In this dull decaying room what hasn’t faded is Smith’s enthusiasm for the past or the history of the city. On being asked why he has this peculiar hobby, he says, “[It] is an escape from a materialistic existence, there is a sense of wonder, there is a sense of curiosity, a sense of the old world charm. Few ghost stories are related to the present.” Ghost stories are an oft overlooked form of ‘oral history’ about a place and its people. Places, like people, have their ghosts and Smith has been looking, collecting and penning these stories since before the Sixties.
It’s not just the unique genre of ghost stories, but the overall exercise of story-telling, finding particular nuggets, conversation (both self-initiated and walked into) that excites Smith. However, he feels now times are different, “People are different, the times are different, people don’t have the patience for stories being narrated, whatever they hear is from the radio or the TV. The personal touch is gone, we used to hear stories from our grandmothers.” While the cynic will chide a person for the unusual practice of ghost story collecting and the rationalist will say, “But there aren’t any such things called ghosts,” Smith, who is a journalist by profession and worked for The Statesman for 30 years, begs to differ. “We haven’t seen aliens and yet we believe they exist, we haven’t seen ghosts and yet they might well exist.”
What intrigues Ronald Vivian Smith aren’t ghosts as much as hauntings, “Ghosts don’t come out of graves and scare people, what we are scared of are hauntings.” Hauntings, according to Smith, are imprints left in a place – a room, a house, a corridor, a road – where someone was either murdered or killed. What is scary is the fear: “Hauntings begin only in the mind because the fear is the base emotion.” Chuckling to himself, he narrates the story of a bania seth who, on a dare, went to a graveyard at night. When he didn’t return, people went to look for him. His body was found near a gravestone, with the eyes open. “What happened was that his kurta got caught on a gravestone. He must have thought something had caught him and he died of a heart attack.”
There is a reluctance to enter history from any other perspective than empiricism – find the facts and tell the narrative. However, Smith believes history can be told through ghosts. Stories are passed on from one generation to another, from mother to offspring, and so on. However, the facts of the past are questioned and mocked in the present. “A peepal tree has a ghost, a Brahmin child’s spirit lives in peepal trees,” says Smith. We can question such facts but, he points out, our sense of wonder about the world vanishes when we examine things too closely. Such facts may not be backed by science, but they make up a belief system that belongs to a dying tradition. We can focus on the rationalists’ perspectives and look for scientific explanations, but “When something that we can’t explain happens to someone, even a rationalist, they begin to believe in the supernatural.”
On telling the story of Delhi through its ghosts, Smith says, “The Red Fort stands as a testament to how ghosts tell the story of other incidents, a murder, a stabbing or some other incident.” His eyes take on a glazed look as the mid-afternoon sun pours in through the narrow balcony door. “Azhar Ali Khan, the caretaker of the Red Fort, used to see ghosts; he would see them everywhere, he would see people get murdered, stabbed, strangled almost every night. The army declared that there are no ghosts in the Red Fort, but Khan begged to differ. How can they say there are no ghosts, he would ask me. The Hindustan Times sent a photographer, Ashok Parrikh, who spent a night clicking photos and there were spectres in some photographs, skeletons in others,” Smith narrates with an air of conclusion.
There are those who might not take Smith seriously, but there can be little doubt that the work of this journalist-cum-author is invaluable in providing an explored perspective to telling Delhi’s story. It would be a shame to overlook one of Delhi’s biggest admirers, connoisseurs, and story-tellers.