I am footloose by temperament and therefore cannot sit chair bound in an indoor office for long. As if in answer to my prayers, Providence was kind to have steered me into a career that offered ample travel opportunities (and in the process, see my amazing country). I gratefully shared wonderfully simple rural hospitality, developed amazing friendships and in the process had experiences that ranged from the ordinary to the unbelievable. During these wanderings I met people living in contented obscurity, who (if given the benefit of media) could become celebrities. I also came across some undesirable ones, who were best avoided. I sat under breathtakingly majestic cedars alongside rushing ice cold streams listening to stories that could make one alternately laugh and cry and some nights I huddled around a fire expecting something otherworldly to emerge from the darkness surrounding me.

The Subcontinent is a place with history dating back to antiquity, with a landscape littered with ruins and relics that have witnessed the cycle of life and death in all its joy and horror. It is therefore not surprising that it abounds with phenomenon that falls in the realm of the unexplained. I was born and raised in a house, where such occurrences were routine. Over a period of time we found that whatever was causing them did not mean harm, but was on the contrary was benign – even protective. It was therefore quite unsettling for friends and acquaintances, when they found us treating ‘things that go bump in the night’ rather nonchalantly.

While existence of the supernatural is acknowledged by a vast majority of people, the subject has its quota of skeptics. This skepticism stems from stories, wherein our superstitious gullibility has been exploited by pranksters and scammers. Some years ago, the workmen from an under-construction home in suburban Islamabad deserted, claiming that they had seen an entity that threatened them with retribution unless a ‘deg’ of sweet rice was distributed amongst the needy. The owner of the property, who happened to be a close friend called me up and narrated his tale of woe seeking, if nothing else, a shoulder to cry on. He was surprised when I offered to visit the site that evening with the addition that I might even stay the night on the premises. Nothing could however induce the gentleman to give me company on something that he termed needless and foolhardy. It was around midnight that I heard a shuffling sound in the half built structure and soon ‘caught’ the ‘thing’ that was causing it - one of the missing workmen. Questioning revealed that the specter story had been concocted by them as a means to extort sweet compensation for their work, after repeated requests to the (rather miserly) master of the half built home had been ignored. The story ended happily with everyone enjoying a hearty laugh over plates of delicious ‘zarda’. While this particular episode was taken in good humour, there are others where mysterious occurrences of a sinister nature cannot be treated lightly.

A colleague of mine was allotted an old pre independence bungalow on posting to Peshawar. The gentleman was excited at the prospect of pottering around the expansive garden that surrounded the house, but I found his exuberance subdued, when I spoke to him on the telephone a few weeks after he had moved in. He invited me to spend a few days with him, but insisted that I do so without my family. I arrived at his home on the following weekend and was alarmed to find him in a preoccupied state of mind. That night I noticed that lights inside the house had been deliberately left on. It was at the breakfast next morning that he asked if I had slept well and appeared surprised when informed that I had not only slumbered soundly, but had done so with my lights turned off. The story he then told me was an interesting one.

On moving into the house with his family, they began encountering strange happenings. It all began with the bolts on top of the doors opening as if by an unseen hand. They had hardly got over this, when one evening while handing over a shawl to his wife by tossing it across the room, the item disappeared in midair as if it had crossed an invisible portal. The family was so terrified that they returned to their ancestral home in a distant city. I am sure that the account given by my host was true, though my own weekend passed peacefully.

Not so peaceful was the time, when my vehicle was paced or perhaps chased by what was apparently a dog. I would have dismissed the incident as routine, but for the fact that no amount of acceleration by the driver reduced our relative distance. As we careened into the canal rest house where I was staying, the beast suddenly vanished, adding another item to my list of things that are ‘inexplicable yet true’.