Review: The Haunting of Delhi City by Jatin Bhasin and Suparna Chawla Bhasin
Suffused with nostalgia even for its forgotten horrors, this collection of nine short stories is an unusual homage to the Delhi of the 1990s
Reading The Haunting of Delhi City, a collection of nine short stories by true “Dilliwalas” Jatin Bhasin and Suparna Chawla Bhasin, is like being taken on a tour of the city’s eerie spots and becoming acquainted with its many tales of the supernatural. Some of these might be true in that they are the stuff of neighbourhood whispers; others might have emerged from the fertile imagination of the authors. Either way, the reader is in for some chills.
An unusual homage to the Delhi of the 1990s, these stories are suffused with nostalgia even for its forgotten horrors like the lootings and murders by the infamous Chaddi-Baniyan Gang. Take the volume’s first story, The Summer of 1995. Echoing Dickens’ famous first line of A Tale of Two Cities, it begins and ends with a single-sentence description of summer in the capital: “the worst months in Delhi, the best months in Delhi.” Here, Amit and Deepak, students of Class 10, find the somnolence of their summer holidays being interrupted by blank calls, disembodied voices screaming down the telephone line, and bodies exhumed from graveyards.
Some of the action in this now long-gone world of cable connections, landline phones, Bajaj scooters and Archie comics plays out in places that were once popular hang outs for young people like Nirula’s at Chanakya Cinema, “the finish line of aspirations for middle-class schoolboys and schoolgirls” and neighbourhoods like Sarojini Nagar market. “Life in middle-class South Delhi communities was comfortable, peaceful, unsparingly predictable and commonplace.”
But this anodyne exterior conceals the many mysteries of an ancient city. In The Gatekeeper of Mehrauli, the historic neighbourhood comes alive with its minars, tombs, baolis, masjids and graves alongside “the scent of modernity mixed with the funk of the narrow, busy gullies smelling of cow dung, Indian spices and hukkas.”Anita, a single mother with a two-year-old son, moves into a flat in an apartment complex that was once an abandoned haveli. The haveli had been uninhabited for years as it was rumoured to be haunted by djinns. Soon enough, residents of the new block begin hearing wails, smelling burning flesh and seeing mangled baby heads and hairless cats.
In Old Delhi to Anywhere, Rishabh’s column in the Delhi Noir magazine captures the city’s “hidden cabalistic identity that sprung from a history made by many.” On one nightly sojourn, the protagonist decides to write about the middlemen who, for a price, provide Delhi’s homeless population with the end-to-end service that allows them to sleep on the city’s pavements. The chilling tale, which highlights the plight of Delhi’s migrant workers, features deserted roads, spooky DTC buses, and a bus driver who is a consummate teller of ghost stories.
Lutyens’ Delhi recalls that the British colonialists had built New Delhi after evicting the residents of nearly 150 villages. In it, Divya, a successul entrepreneur, is obsessed with the idea of buying a spacious house on Aurangzeb Road. Her grandparents were from one of the farmer families whose land was used to build edifices such as the Rashtrapati Bhawan. But as soon as Divya moves into her dream home, she begins to be greeted by strange surprises. Each of her wishes start coming true but a sudden turn of events makes it clear that all is not well.
Some of these stories highlight aspects of the city that are unknown to many of its residents. Like BK Dutt Colony’s Karbala, a Shiite burial ground named after the resting place of Prophet Mohammed's grandson. In The Summer of 1995, the reader learns that “On the tenth day of Muharram every year, Shiite mourners from Old Delhi, Mehrauli and Nizamuddin gather here to commemorate the martyrdom of Husain, who was killed in a battle at Karbala, in modern-day Iraq.”
Khooni Darwaza on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg is the setting for Saturday Night about multiple murders that come to light every consecutive Saturday night. The sinister history of Khooni Darwaza, which is “painfully embroiled in a series of slaughters, massacres, and executions” has given the place a spooky air. In the story, each of the dead bodies is found with a coin. There is no sign of spilt blood.
In The Baoli of Blood, many children, who go missing from the Hanuman Mandir complex, become apparitions trapped within the famous Agrasen ki Baoli with its “dilapidated walls and boundless dark depths infiltrated by the full moon’s glum light”.
Shadipur Depot’s erstwhile Kathputli Colony, Khooni Nadi in Rohini, the gullies of Chandni Chowk, Gaffar Market and its memories of the Partition refugee traders who sold jewellery, crockery and garments there, and the 108-foot statue of Hanuman overlooking Jhandewalan all feature in this collection that infuses the shadowy corners of the capital with an air of horror.
An engrossing read, The Haunting of Delhi City combines the paranormal with the ordinary to present the capital bathed in an occult light.
A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel.