Bertrand Russell once said that fear is the one of the greatest sources of cruelty. War may cause tension, violence and fear from visible agents of destruction but how is one to tackle the apparently unseen, the unheard-of, the unfathomable?
There have been times in human history where things have turned from the mysterious to the macabre, and in my time in Assam in the autumn of 2016, I came across a case that could not have been described in a better way.
It all began with a phone call.
On an evening like most others in Delhi, during the month of August, an excited man conveyed a message in between pants and sighs to my uncle, while attending a family get-together. One could see a flurry of emotions being reflected on the latter’s face, going from a calm to haste, and from desperation to a certain resignation, all in matter of moments, much like clouds and shafts of sunlight embroiled in a tussle to make their presence felt to a mist-veiled vale. After the end of the call, my uncle turned in his chair and spoke, clearly bewildered, about a most singular case.
The case of the Poltergeist of Pathacharkuchi.
Pathacharkuchi is a small town close to Guwahati, the capital of Assam. It is a beautiful borough with a fair few villages adjoining an urban centre, with lush green forests and vast farmlands skirting its periphery. The river Kaldia, a tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra, cuts across these lands. Historically, it had gained significance as an administrative centre of successive rulers. In the 19th century, a rest camp for British Government officers, and a police station was established in the town. As beautiful and famous as the town is, the surrounding villages still exist as isolated artifacts of a past era, slowly developing into pockets of modernity, enmeshed within a web of small rivulets cutting through the hinterlands. It was in such a village that the curious case unfolded: an exercise that was best taken up by the head of the family that the poltergeist had apparently tormented.
Having halted at a nearby college for some refreshments, we (a three-member Science Technology and Environment Council team) began our ride with a local college-teacher to the village. The narrow road meandered through the fields and over the small waterways, like a snake slithering into the underbrush. After about half an hour, we finally reached the house where the case had emerged. It was a typical house in those areas of Assam, with a big courtyard and tin-roofed segments. We first struck upon the side of the house, with three of its rooms facing a small jungle-trail and a pond, each with a window looking out onto the trail. It was in these three rooms that the poltergeist had apparently wreaked havoc.
The rooms looking onto the trail
When we got to the front, we were greeted by a priest who had been summoned by the household for religious ceremonies to purify the complex and rid it of the terror that had yet to be revealed to us, in its entirety. We walked through the front and were greeted by a stout man, a middle-aged lady and a teenage girl.
Entryway to the Front Yard
Schematic of the Complex
We were ushered into the living room of the house (Room A) and given water and some eatables. The room had two windows, one facing the forest trail and one facing the dung dump. The family members huddled around and the head of the household entered and sat in a sofa near the entrance door.
The case of the Pathacharkuchi Poltergeist, as narrated by the man on that warm afternoon, was eerie, to say the least. For around 15 consecutive days, objects within the household had burst into flames, apparently themselves, between noon and late afternoon! Fabric, cotton as well as synthetic fabric, in particular had been the most badly hit. It was only in the rooms adjoining the jungle trail that the objects had burned (in Rooms A, B and C). In the room we sat in, while the flustered middle-aged man spoke, had a cloth hung on the window facing the pond that was burnt right off its lower edge, in the middle. A curtain had hung a few days back there, which had caught fire all of a sudden, and caused this cloth which was lying close by to catch fire as well. The day this cloth had caught fire, both the windows were closed and the college-teacher was visiting. The lady of the house had returned from the room yelling that there was a fire, and quite a fire it was! Some of the butterflies hanging near the window had wilted in the heat. The college teacher even videotaped the burning!
The Setting in Room A
Butterfly Decoration in Room A
Burnt Fabric in Room A
The priest began speaking shortly. He mentioned how the possibility of a person lighting the fire from outside was not there since the windows were closed and there was no one in the room at the time the woman came in. While he was talking, I scanned the floor just below the cloth. The wall had burnt a little in the area where the cloth had covered it. The room had pin drop silence while we scanned the room one final time and the people huddling at the gate. We then moved further into the house. There were a couple of bedrooms (jointly shown as Room B) next, where a similar curtain had burned, and in another section a lamp had been kept burning to ward off what the household referred to as the tormenting spirit (though the head of the household was a rational man who desperately wanted to find a logical explanation to all this). Further in the house was another bedroom (Room C), where the people in the house had kept all their clothes packed in bundles. Curtains had been removed and the beds were covered with minimal cover. It was in this room that two cloth-pieces had burned: one was a bedsheet (that had caused the timber underneath it to burn as well) and a small piece of fabric lying on the dressing table.
Burnt Bedside in Room C
Place marked with the place where the fabric hung on the dressing table in Room C
Each of these had taken place when apparently no one was in the rooms and only after the fabric had burnt quite a bit. Some had a smoldering flame while others burnt more slowly and without a significant flame. One of the fires had also burnt the handle of a plastic chair! A large dry leaf had also been burnt, from a row of dry leaves, in the yard adjoining the kitchen at the back.
Chair with burnt handle on the veranda
After careful investigation, there were certain points of interest. One, the fire always began from the bottom of the fabric, as it hung from a point, which removed the possibility of an arbitrary, external agent, who it was understood should have begun the fire from any position on the fabric. Secondly, the burning fabric or objects were not always near the window(s) and so external application seemed unlikely, unless one had elaborate contraptions for launching burning projectiles into the rooms (again, unlikely given the investigation around the house, particularly along the trail). Thirdly, the temperature in the area never exceeded around 35OC in that season, and so the outlandish ideas of self-ignition of cotton and other fabrics that had been suggested had to be ruled out.
After speaking to the people in the house, extensively, the Science Council team had a round-table meeting, of sorts, in the kitchen, with the local college-teacher. We narrowed down our options to two, after deduction and removal of options that seemed unlikely. One of the team members suggested that the dung dump could lead to methane gas generation, which led to combustion by heat from the sunlight or other sources. This seemed unlikely since the conditions at the dump were not quite those of an anaerobic digester, and the dump was cleaned almost each morning. Moreover, there seemed to be no heat source that could do the job of ignition.
The second option, which seemed more likely, as I and the team went forward with the investigation, was that of the girl. She was an adopted girl. On a fair few occasions she was near the position of the burning (during the burning in Room A she was very much in the room, sent by her father to check if everything was fine; only a few seconds later her mother had gone and found the smouldering fire!). While being questioned, she seemed a bit too involved and anxious regarding the proceedings and while recounting some of the incidents. Now that I think of it, recounting the investigation, it gives me goosebumps to think of her moving about the house, right in front of us, somewhat amused, glancing around nervously.
On my way back, while leaving the house, the college school teacher nearly confirmed my suspicion with a small addition that it seemed like the girl’s handiwork. The case had to be taken to the police for a police investigation to get a confession and our team left it at that. Interestingly, all the burning incidents stopped from the day after our investigation!
In society, we often have cases of ‘supernatural’ events that need to be tackled with logic and reasoning, and possibly debunked. Superstitions persist in such cases, when the reason cannot be found. I am not precluding the possibility that there are things that science cannot explain a fair few things but where it can, it should. It was a great experience to investigate this case in Pathacharkuchi, especially since it had caught the focus of various media outlets. Television (news) channels had aired coverage of the case and further added various (oft-unnecessary) dimensions to the tale. If not for the actual catching of the culprit, who in this case seemed to be driven by psychological problems, we were happy to have narrowed the possibilities scientifically to the one that was supported logically by multiple points and elements.
A case closed.