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Welcome to Kumaon

Of wails and piercing eyes : Welcome to Kumaon

Last November, I spoke with a village elder in the hill district of Almora in the Uttarakhand Himalayas.  We were sipping tea, having a nice afternoon full of interesting anecdotes and beautiful views of the snow-capped Himalayan Mountains. Our conversation meandered into something which immediately drew my attention. The old man couldn’t have been more elusive when he, with a glint in his eyes, told me that he had heard the scream of a wailing old woman or, as many would say, A WITCH.  He had heard this many times in his life – almost always at night. He further said the sound could, “Curdle one’s blood and get one’s heart into a tizzy.”

This revelation, which initially came to me as a surprise, only reiterated my belief that superstition plays a pivotal role in these remote parts of India. I always thought myself to be a non-superstitious person and here I was in the land of superstition making my two ends meet. Shouldn’t I have been in Delhi, busy with my white collar job? Hah, that’s destiny for you!

Days passed by and I became entrenched in my present job as GM of a local resort. But the words of BUBBU, as the Kumaonis affectionately call their elders, kept ringing in my ears, almost like a premonition of things to come. Who would have known that in a few days I myself would get a taste of this medicine?

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Few of you would believe in what I will say now, but this incident happened nevertheless. One evening when there was a full moon, “Puranmasi” in local parlance, I was resting on my favourite rocking chair after a sumptuous dinner and my mind was going through a myriad of emotions when I suddenly heard a not so distant sound of a woman in distress. I hurried out of my cottage and started looking with confusion and fear towards the direction from which the sound was coming. To my utter shock, I saw no woman but a small owl with piercing eyes, sitting on an oak tree gazing at me. The bird was motionless, as if it had no life. I waited for a while to see or hear anything unusual, but nothing of the sort happened.

  Passport to Pakistan

Thinking that it was just a figment of my imagination caused by the story I heard from the village elder some days back, I started to return to the cottage. This is when I heard the wailing sound again. My heartbeat was racing as never before.  I rushed back to the place where I had seen the owl. What I saw gives me a chill down my spine even now – I saw an old woman in a white sari disappear into the dense rhododendron and oak forests.  The owl had disappeared too. I did not have the temerity to chase the woman or to go looking for the missing owl. What a night!

The next morning when I shared my experience with the local people, they said the old lady was a distressed soul of a Nepali woman who had been devoured by a leopard some years back in the village.  She had cast her eyes on a human to take revenge for her brutal death. On hearing this, I felt a churning inside me and I knew that I could no longer dismiss what I was hearing.  Did it make sense? I have no idea.  Not everything in life makes sense.

Time has passed since this incident occurred but it has left an indelible mark on my psyche and turned on its head my belief that paranormal activity is just one of those things which do not need to be taken seriously. I am a changed man who now believes in what the locals say: when in Kumaon, never take the name of a woman who has had an unnatural death, for if you do so, she is sure to appear. And I shall heed this advice.

Siddhartha Sen is a Marketing & PR consultant, avid traveller and writer.

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