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Paranormal Activists

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As a death in Delhi acquires a ghostly twist, Open finds out that being haunted is very normal for some

GAURAV TIWARI DID more than just pose for magazine pictures at cemeteries and take foreigners for tours to graveyards and abandoned forts. He was India’s Ed Warren, giving ghost busting a fresh lease of life and turning it into a full-time, respectable profession for the 200-plus members he trained at his paranormal school (GRIP Academy) in Delhi. He didn’t believe in popular myths, scoffing at the notion of Bhangarh Fort in Rajasthan being the ‘most haunted spot in the country’ and made it clear in all his press interviews that ghosts were not necessarily ‘white or evil’, nor did they only come out at night. Having investigated over 400 paranormal cases, filmed a series on ghost sightings in Australia with spiritual expert Robb Demarest, appeared on Sony’s new TV series Bhoot Aaya and given a TedX talk on belief in the supernatural (where he traced his journey from a non-believer to a globally-recognised paranormal investigator), it seemed that he had dedicated his entire life to ghostly pursuits.

So when Tiwari, a pilot by training, an ordained reverend and founder of the Indian Paranormal Society (IPS), was found dead in the bathroom of his home in Dwarka, Delhi, on 7 July, many of his followers believed his family’s claim that he had been strangled to death by an angry ghost. The police, however, believe that his ongoing extra-marital affair might have had something to do with it.

“He was obsessed with the idea of helping wayward spirits and people who suffer from hauntings. Even before he started IPS, he knew this was what he wanted to spend his life pursuing,” says Georg Smith, an American who had known Tiwari when he was in Florida training to be a commercial pilot in 2007. Tiwari later told journalists in India that his new apartment in Florida was haunted and this led him to realise he had the power to ‘sense’ paranormal energies. He went on to train with Doug Kelley, founder of ParaNexus, before returning to India to set up IPS in 2009. “What Tiwari wanted to do was change the way ghosts are viewed in India—from the cliché of unwashed evil hags to a spiritual energy with a soul. His videos and media shows did not come with added suspense soundtracks or eerie lighting. He believed in ghosts, not creating ghosts,” says Smith.

But Tiwari did much more than that. There are 21 paranormal societies registered in India as NGOs since IPS started. Together they command a following of over 6,000 members, reaching people as far as Kidangoor in Kerala, Zunheboto in Nagaland and Sadpara in Jammu & Kashmir through social media. Four of them—Indian Paranormal Team in Pune, Indian Spectre Paranormal Society in Kolkata, SPS and IPS—offer certified courses in paranormal investigations. The fees range from Rs 10,000 for a three-month course to Rs 2.5 lakh for an annual course. There are also weekly, monthly and annual meetings, ghost walks, excursions and spiritual cleansing sessions (where members can absorb one another’s negative energy). And there are ghost cleansings, which can take anything between an hour to six months to complete. The prices are calculated based on the time and effort it takes for a paranormal investigator to ‘appease’ the ghost.

THE CASE OF the Ghosh family in Delhi took Jatin Sanyal, 29, a paranormal investigator and founder of the 45-member Spookie India Society (SPS), less than an hour to complete. Ishwar Ghosh was 72 when he died of a cardiac arrest two years ago. He had gone for his morning shower and the doctors later said his heart had simply stopped beating. They did, however, find a strand of long hair on his chest. Except for his wife, everyone assumed it belonged to his sister who had been visiting. Purabi Ghosh, 65, could not bring herself to use the first floor bathroom again; the room just gave her a terribly ‘bad feeling’. Then, a few days ago, while she was in the bathroom on the ground floor, she heard someone giggling and whispering behind her. She turned around and saw there was no one. As she scrambled to towel herself dry and run out, she suddenly felt cold, damp strands of hair brushing against her lower back. Purabi’s own hair barely reaches her shoulder.

Today, spirit communicators no longer need honey, gold coins or the sacrificial wild ox; they simply whip out a nifty device known as the ghost meter

Her friends and family laughed when she told them the story. But Purabi was convinced something wasn’t right. She called in Sanyal and his team. “We bought this house 40 years ago, but there had been families living here much before that,” says Purabi, a homemaker and firm believer in black magic. “As a child in Kolkata, I saw many bhoots in the surrounding villages, especially in the Sunderbans where bagha bhoots (ghosts of those killed by tigers) would roam. If a family does not perform the final ritual at pret pahar (a site in Gaya, Bihar) of the deceased, the spirit will never be able to enter heaven and will remain stuck in this world. Maybe this happened with some of the previous residents.”

Sanyal was not convinced by Purabi’s simple reasoning. Having worked with spiritual and paranormal energies for the last seven years, he says he knew there are far more tragic reasons than an unfinished ritual that keep ghosts in ‘this world’. “The natural instinct for any human spirit is to pass on to the white light; this is a place of joy, peace and tranquillity from where the soul will either be reborn or attain moksha. To remain stuck, bodiless, in this world, is extremely painful for a spirit and it usually means something really horrific has happened to them, something they first need to seek closure from,” says Sanyal, a dentist by training.

Sanyal and six members from SPS visit the Ghosh haveli in Delhi’s Chawri Bazaar. Each brings their own electromagnetic radiation (EMF) detector. They walk around the two-floor house, noting readings at various corners. Sanyal himself goes to take the reading in both bathrooms. Two members are then sent to check the surroundings for external wiring. “EMF signals can sometimes read as high if the house is close to a cellphone tower or electric post. Even the human body gives out a certain amount of radiation, but this isn’t recorded by the meter. In this case, there is no other source for radiation nearby, and yet, both bathrooms have abnormally high readings. My temperature sensor and thermal camera also detect a ‘cold spot’ here. It’s time to communicate with the energy and see if there really is a spirit,” says Sanyal.

Spirit communication or mediumship was first recorded in the Old Testament where the Witch of Endor is said to have raised the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel so that King Saul could seek his guidance for an upcoming battle. Ancient Egyptian and Roman nobility were said to have kept special ‘spirit operators’ whose sole job was to offer food, wealth and sacrifices to the dead in order to keep them happy and ward off sinister curses or hauntings. After the horror footage from The Blair Witch Project (1999) went viral online, Ouija boards and séances became the popular ‘spirit speaking’ medium of choice. But modern-day spirit operators, like Sanyal, no longer need honey, gold coins or the sacrificial wild ox; they simply whip out a nifty device known as the ghost meter. The palm-sized device with a tiny yellow light is available on eBay India and Amazon for Rs 5,000-8,000. “We ask the spirit to make the light blink in response to the questions we pose,” explains Sanyal, before kneeling on the bathroom floor, ready to communicate with whatever energy is in the room. The lights on the ghost speaker begin to blink furiously and Sanyal groans, his head swaying rapidly from side to side. Fifteen minutes later, he declares that the spirit, which had taken the form of a water-nymph, is now at “peace”.

“Water-nymph spirits belong to girls below 12 who have committed suicide. They have to live out a designated time on earth before being allowed to cross over. But they are so young that they can’t understand why no one will talk to them. Eventually, they turn sinister. These spirits have long, wet hair and use this to kill their victims—usually men they have fallen in love with and who have not reciprocated. All this particular spirit needed was someone to explain why and for how long she will be in this form,” says Sanyal. Purabi Ghosh interjects excitedly that such spirits are known as maal bhoot or chhotto bhoot in Bengal. She’s delighted with the entire investigation, and aside from the Rs 10,000 fees for the ‘house de-ghosting’, she also hands Rs 45,000 to Sanyal. SPS runs a ghost training academy, a year-long online course with an exam at the end. If Purabi scores 85 per cent or above in the test, she will become a certified paranormal investigator and member of SPS, spending the rest of her days helping “bhoots move on”.

Spooky occurrences have long been the stuff of Indian folktales and films. The first recorded paranormal sighting is said to have been in the 14th century at the Agrasen ki Baoli in Delhi, where women drawing water after sunset were mysteriously pulled into the well by an old man with a mole on his cheek and white eyes that had no iris. Rajasthan has India’s most haunted sites, a number of them being Rajput forts, patrolled by spirits of war victims and spiteful queens. Bhangarh Fort has had so many inexplicable and ominous sightings (a lion with the head of a fox, a young girl drinking blood, another young girl crying endlessly and even Mahishasura, the late adversary of Durga), that The Archaeological Survey of India has put up a board outside forbidding anyone to enter before sunrise and after sunset.

Paranormal societies also offer courses in ghost busting with an exam in the end. For Rs 45,000, anyone can be a certified spirit hunter today

Ancient arenas are not all that are said to be haunted.Last year, around 10 pilots reported seeing a lady phantom and a headless man on the runways of the swanky newBengaluru International Airport. Paranormal themes have made for popular entertainment fare as well. The thrillers Raaz (2002), Bhoot (2003) and Ragini MMS (2014) have spawned franchises that collectively earned over Rs 200 crore. But in the age of social media, ghostly legends no longer have to be limited to TV screens and literature. They can also be translated into successful blogs, apps and societies.

“Ghosts were earlier portrayed in a cheesy, tired manner in India. Look at the recent Bollywood movie, Phobia. All that blood, gore and hatred. No human spirit is automatically evil. Of course, if someone challenges them, they can turn violent,” says Akshai Sthalekar, 25, co-founder of the Indian Paranormal Team. Based in Pune, Sthalekar conducts investigations across the country. “I must have done 300-400 cases by myself. And another 500 with IPT. The first step is always to educate the client, to make them understand that contemporary ghost hunts are extremely scientific and proof-oriented. It isn’t some saadhu dancing around in a trance or a dirty-haired old woman twirling beads. We use modern technology,” he says. Having trained under paranormal expert and healer Erik Berglund, Sthalekar hopes he’ll live to see the day when paranormal work will be regarded as a science. “I’ve often received hate mail labelling me as a ‘lunatic’. A few centuries ago, many people thought the world was flat, and they turned out to be wrong. Today, several people think ghosts don’t exist. Maybe, they are wrong about this as well.”

Dr SK Khandelwal, head of psychiatry at AIIMS Delhi, disagrees with Sthalekar when it comes to the existence of paranormal occurences. “Paranormal belief always has its root in medical or psychiatric causes. For example, some people believe they are hallucinating because of a ghostly influence when in reality it is caused by excessive exposure to radiation or magnetic fields. Similarly, being ‘possessed by spirits’ or ‘sleep attacks’ can either be a sign of multiple personality disorder or sleep paralysis,” he says.

In a review of popular investigations on paranormal belief, psychologist Harvey J Irwin emphasises in The Psychology of Paranormal Belief: A Researcher’s Handbook that memory and mental standing is often discounted by researchers. He writes, ‘Although paranormal believers may be open to new experiences, they appear to be relatively reluctant to change their established beliefs, a finding that might be taken as indicative of at least rigidity or dogmatism.’

Today, paranormal believers, keen to break away from such negative labels, aren’t only registering with societies, participating in Twitter debates, voraciously befriending like-minded people on Facebook, but also going in for foreign accreditation and credentials. Govind Kumar, 25, who started the Paranormal Society of India (PSI) in 2012, received his certification from St Thomas Academy in California. Kumar says all he wants to do is “help people lead a happy life and dispel rumours surrounding the paranormal”. PSI currently has 50 members from across India. “I realised that India has a history of paranormal sightings and hundreds of ‘haunted’ sights. I found it exciting, to be able to change or understand why such myths exist. I have foreign certification, as do all my members. I never had a ‘moment’ when I decided I wanted to become a paranormal investigator. But now I’ll do whatever I can to help people and solve mysteries,” says Kumar.

Others, like 34-year-old Amrita Chatterjee, a University of Calcutta graduate and a practising criminal lawyer in the city, did have a clear ‘moment’. “I had just moved to a new apartment when I saw books flying around in my living room. I felt a cold presence in my bed and I would keep dropping objects,” says Chatterjee, who eventually teamed up with her now-husband Avijit Sarkar to start the Indian Specter Paranormal Society in 2010. Sthalekar of IPT Pune too had an epiphany of sorts. “I was four and I came across an apartment in our complex in Andheri, Mumbai. I could never walk past it. If I had to, I would close my eyes and run. It was really quite frightening and I never understood why. It was only when I grew older that I realised I had these feelings because I could ‘sense’ energies of different kinds,” he says. “Like me, some people are born with a sixth sense and they can do both spiritual and investigative work. Others can learn paranormal detection and do only investigative work. Most paranormal organisations have departments set up for both kinds. But society only recognises the latter. Anyone who can ‘feel’ something, will either be made fun of or sent to the doctor.”

Apart from social acceptance, there’s always the threat of the ghost itself. Yet, paranormal investigators seem to have virtually no fear, even after Tiwari’s much-publicised death. “The world’s first official ghost society was set up in 1862 in London, The Ghost Club, and it’s still going strong. This shows that working with spirits isn’t necessarily dangerous— in fact, demonic spirits are rare in India. They can only be conjured up by someone who speaks Hebrew and has the necessary pagan equipment,” says Avijit Chatterjee. “What we do, hunting ghosts, spirits and sometimes even aliens, isn’t for fun or money and it isn’t for ourselves— it’s for others.” He says he has handled 30-40 cases and mentored several young psychics for free. This, despite the fact that maintaining ghost busting equipment is expensive. It costs around Rs 30,000 just to repair a thermal camera. “I am happy with just a simple ‘thank you’, from either the person or the ghost.”

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