Monday, 27 July 2015

Book Review: Bhangarh to Bedlam - Haunted Encounters by Deepta Roy Chakraverti

For those you haven’t heard of Deepta Roy Chakraverti and her famous mother Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, here’s the plug. Ipsita is a self-proclaimed Wiccan priestess based in India. I assume there aren’t many of those around. Ipsita’s father was a diplomat and she grew up in Canada where at the age of fifteen, she commenced a five-year course studying ancient cultures, rituals, texts and mysticism. At the end of her training, Ipsita opted to practice Wicca, a pagan witchcraft religion which was revived in the UK around 60 years ago. Ipsita is married to Jayanta Roy, an Odissa royal. Ipsita’s daughter Deepta has taken after her mother – she too practices Wicca, but she is also a corporate lawyer.

Deepta Roy Chakraverti has now come up with a collection of twelve “incidents” (I consciously avoid the word “stories”), which are based on her experiences. A trained Wiccan, Chakraverti has used her logical mind, sharpened senses of perception and intuition to analyse her experiences, applying the Wiccan philosophy that there is much more to the world than what is merely seen or heard. A born skeptic, I wondered if I would be able to appreciate Chakraverti’s intuition, perception, clairvoyance and empathy as I started reading the collection. I needn’t have worried. Chakraverti is such a good narrator that she is able to take along all sorts of folks on her boat.

Chakraverti’s experiences commence at Bhangarh Fort, on the Delhi-Jaipur highway, about a hundred kilometres from Jaipur, in the district of Alwar. One of its past rulers, Jai Singh II was a believer in the mystical and he installed a young and beautiful Rani Ratnawati to work her magic and ensure the success of Jai Singh. Ratnawati was adept at the occult arts and a mistress of magic. Under Ratnawati, Bhangarh thrived and resonated with energy and vitality. Ratnawati was able to harness the streams that ran through it in the midst of the desert. Singhia, the prince of neighbouring Ajabgarh, was smitten by Ratnawati, but could not win her heart. His struggle to do so cost him his life. As he died, he cursed Bhangarh that it would become a prison of souls. All who died there would forever be trapped there. Singhia’s curse came true. In 1783, a massive famine overtook Bhangarh and ever since, it has been a deserted township, Chakraverti tells us.

When Ipsita, Deepta and gang visited Bhangarh Fort, they faced a steep climb up to the main fort on a slippery path, but when they reached the top they were rewarded with a stunning view. A set of crumbling stairs took them to the main corridor of the fort. Deepta tells us that she ‘could make out a dull whispering noise. Many presences. Tortured beings, held back in captivity. Trapped within these walls through the distorted workings which were carried on year after year. This fort was a living entity we were intruding upon. And it would not welcome us. We must make our own way.

They did proceed forward. Chakraverti’s narration is gentle, but she keeps her readers on her toes. One believes her as she says that, vibrations of past prayers and rituals seemed to emanate from the rocks and the land. ‘One corner of the courtyard seemed to shimmer and vibrate. We were all aware of the sudden shift in atmosphere and an electric feel in the air. We sat up now, alert and still. As we gazed in the direction, it was almost as if a mist was trying to coalesce and take form. A slim woman, not very tall. Spinning, as in a dance, with her skirt billowing out about her and her veil flowing with the wind. Pale blue, glowing, as if the whole image had been dusted with silver shards. Her arms were held out slightly as she slowed down and stopped. It was a fragile and delicate shadow, with deep-seated sadness within her. She seemed to be seeking something, asking for help, with her arms stretched out in front.

To cut a long story short, Ipsita managed to communicate with the spirit and found out that she was Sooraj Bai, who had been a young dancer in Akbar’s court who had fallen out of favour and banished to Bhangarh. I will not reveal more here, but will leave it to you to read this story for yourself.

For me, some of Chakraverti’s best experieces are set in places I am familiar with – Mumbai and London. The one in Mumbai titled "Who Walks On Marine Drive?” starts off when Chakraverti visits Mumbai on work (as a corporate lawyer). A walk along the Marine Drive results in meeting a peanut seller surrounded by spirits of people who had died suddenly and were looking for someone to talk to. And why would they want to do that? Please read this excellent collection to find out for yourselves.

After the ninth experience, Chakraverti suddenly takes us to London. Which shouldn’t have been a big surprise since Chakraverti studied law (as an undergraduate) at King’s College, London University. The first London “experience” is at Harrods and involves Princess Diana. As everyone knows, Diana’s lover (and the man who died with her in the tragic car crash) Dodi Fayed’s father owns Harrods, which has a small memorial to Diana, including the wine glass she drank from before setting out on her last journey. We are told that ‘She stood there, her face so close to the glass as to be pressed to it, while one palm rested on the glass, as if trying to touch the chalice within through the layers of separation. She was tall and the folds of her pale blue dress fell gracefully around her. Her sandy golden hair touched her shoulders and moved slightly as she seemed to rub her cheek against the glass of the case. Her silhouette looked so familiar.

The second London experience, The Night Of The ‘Soul Bell’ turned out to be my favourite for various reasons. For one, the settings were very familiar. Chakraverti is in the final year of her law degree at King’s College London, a place which I am very familiar with, having taken a couple of King’s College courses for my Masters Degree in Law from London University. Famous pubs such as Wig and Pen, Knights Templar, Chancery Lane, The Royal Courts of Justice, the Church of St. Mary le Strand, Bell Yard – all very familiar places! The spirit in this instance happens to be an interesting character named Mrs. Lovett, who was in love with Sweeny Todd, a serial killer. The reason why Mrs. Lovett’s pies tasted so good is revealed to us during the course of the story. No, I’m not going to give away the secret. You’ll have to read this excellent book for yourself to find out.

Ipsita Roy Chakraverti has written the Forward to this book and she explains that ‘Wicca was originally a woman-oriented craft invoking the Mother Goddess and Her powers.’ Maybe for this reason, most of the spirits with whom the Charavertis connect are women. The female spirits we are introduced to (Sooraj Bai, Shyama Pallavi, a widow who was abonded and left to die, a Persian female scholar in Lodhi’s court who was most probably poisoned to death, Princess Diana, Mrs. Lovett, Eliza Josolyne – described below) are all strong characters who are timeless and admirable even by modern day standards.

How do the Chakaverti mother-daughter duo manage to be so clairvoyant and connect with spirits? Chakraverti gives us a clue when describing her experiences at Konark when she could hear loud chattering which was not the cry of birds, Chakraverti says, ‘I closed my eyes. An old practice. When one of the senses is not enough to lift the veil, one reaches for the others, which can go beyond the tangible. I willed my consciousness to explore. Like invisible fingers, probing beyond, going past the cement and glass of the building, beyond the drooping green branches and the stillness. The elements responded, and I could feel the strength of the red gravelly soil, and the quick heartbeat of the rocks and stones, which lay scattered at every step on the path to the nearby sun temple. The moist leaves and patches of grass sagged and gave way easily to my search. But there was something just beyond the foliage which was aware of my presence. It was watchful and hesitant.

Chakraverti’s narration is not a plain vanilla description of her experiences. There is a fair amount of science and analysis thrown in. She quotes diverse authorities such as Issac Newton who toyed with the occult and the black sciences. When detailing her experience at Indira Gandhi’s house at 1, Safdarjung Road, which has been turned into a memorial, where she feels Indira Gandhi’s spirit and sees two figures from behind, a short-haired woman and a kurta-clad, heavy-set younger man, she quotes Marcel Vogel, a research scientist from IBM’s San Jose Research Centre, in order to back up her theories about crystals and their power to retain memories.

Though I call myself a rationalist, I was able to enjoy the book and at times even wished I were a teeny bit less left-brained so that I could appreciate Charaverti’s experiences better. Once I totally failed to make the final connection. This happened in the final experience which is based in Bedlam (the place where the famous old mental asylum was located), after meeting yet another spirit, Chakraverti does some limited digging around and declares that the spirit was none other than Eliza Josolyne, a domestic help who was admitted to Bedlam at the age of eighteen. Now how did Chakraverti decide that its Eliza Josolyne’s spirit that she met a few weeks earlier? There is no mention of any out of the world communication to such effect. Never mind, that was one minor hiccup. On the whole, Bhangarh to Bedlam is an excellent read irrespective of whether you are psychic or clairvoyant or clairaudient or clairsentient or something in between or none of these.

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