Phantoms of the Air

“I am extremely disappointed to have to report ill of this officer”, wrote the Magistrate of Saran in 1868 about his young Deputy Magistrate E.E. Fisher. Fisher had had a history of getting into trouble and his superior officers were tired of him. What was most vexing for them was that the lad was exceptionally intelligent. He always aced his exams and was in fact one of the first young officers to be recruited by the new, more rigorous examination system introduced after the Revolt of 1857. But he just did not seem to abide by protocol. He came to office late, worked erratically and often, in his superior’s view, without much energy. But above all he was a little too close to the ‘natives’. His immediate superior grudgingly spoke of Fisher’s fluency in the vernacular and his deep knowledge of the ‘native character’. The Commissioner, RP Jenkins, strove for a more moderate tone and said, “I don’t think Fisher is wanting in intellect in any way, but I do not admire his style”. By ‘style’, Jenkins explained, he meant the fact that Fisher tended to get “mixed up in quarrels between natives”.

Yet, thanks to the expanding post-1857 state apparatus and the fact that Fisher did get through all his departmental examinations, he remained on the job. Though not promoted as frequently as some of his peers and despite sometimes being posted to the wilderness (including one stint in the Sunderbans), he stayed on in the Bengal Civil Service. In October 1869 however, Fisher found himself appointed to the erstwhile capital of the Nawabs of Bengal in Murshidabad. He was given charge of the sub-division of Murshidabad on a temporary basis on account of the leave of absence of the actual incumbent, J.E.A. Eyre.

The Sahib and his Subordinate

In Murshidabad, Fisher once more became friendly with his Bengali subordinates. He was particularly friendly with his Second Clerk, Nobin. Fisher and Nobin would often be seen chatting away like friends sitting next to the river Ganga that flowed close to the Magistrate’s Office. Such open consorting with native subordinates most likely did not gladden the hearts of Fisher’s superior officers. Fisher, however, showed no signs of changing his ways.

The afternoon of April 10, 1870 was no different. Fisher and Nobin were sitting next to the river, chatting. When suddenly a commotion distracted them both. Both men felt they saw a fairly large creature fly into the dense foliage of the prodigious bokul (Spanish Cherry) tree that grew right in front of the Magistrate’s cutcherry. The indistinct vision caught by the corner of their eyes was supplemented by a huge noise that clearly militated against it being a mere misperception.

Fisher immediately had one of his bearers bring out his gun and began firing into the tree at will. But despite the volley of bullets, nothing emerged from the foliage. The men thought it odd, but could not do anything further. The chain of conversation was already broken and the rapidly approaching dusk made Nobin take leave of his colleague and friend. Fisher retired to the house but did not go to bed until an hour before the proverbial witching hour.

 Bokul trees abound with legends

He had not been in bed for long before he was awakened by the frantic cries of one of his servants. The said servant used to sleep out in a small straw hut in the courtyard that stood near the bokul tree. He claimed that he had just dozed off when he was suddenly jolted out of his slumber by a mysterious woman tugging at him. Knowing that no woman would come to his hut alone at that hour, he let out a sharp scream. At this, the woman disappeared. The whole thing so terrified the man that he ran breathless to his master’s bedroom.

Once Fisher heard out the story, he calmly asked the servant how he had come to wound himself. Puzzled, the servant was startled to discover blood profusely running from his nose and mouth. In his haste and shock, he had not noticed the blood before. Nor did he have any idea of what might have caused it. He had not injured himself and felt no pain anywhere. The kindly Fisher, not meaning to worry him further, took out his own handkerchief and gently wiped away the man’s blood. He then instructed the servant not to return to his hut that night and to sleep in Fisher’s own bedroom instead.

The colonial veranda

It was a particularly warm, still night. Pinning his hopes of slumber onto the slight summer breeze, Fisher had a bed made out on the balcony that promised to render the stifling night marginally bearable. As Fisher drifted into a light and uncomfortable sleep, he felt someone trying to awaken him yet again. Reluctantly opening his eyes, he beheld a man of stupendous stature sitting upon his bed and tugging at his beard and hair. Having thus succeeded in rousing Fisher’s attention, as he clearly seemed to have wanted, the man got up and gradually removed himself to an easy chair in the room. Fisher assumed, in his irked half-awakened state that a mad man – of whom Murshidabad, like most Bengali towns, had a fair share – had somehow found his way up to his second floor balcony. Annoyed beyond measure, he angrily pulled himself up and flung a pillow at the easy chair, growling “You Fool!”

It rocked back and forth …

To Fisher’s utmost incredulity, the pillow landed directly on the chair making it rock back and forth. There was no one there. Amazed, Fisher sprung out of bed to inspect the matter. But before he could take a single step forward, a sudden gust of wind coming out of nowhere shoved him back again on to his bed. As he tumbled backwards on to the bed in the throes of pain and sheer panic, he cried out sharply.

The Hellhound

Alarmed and awoken thus, all the servants rushed to his side at once. They all looked carefully everywhere, but there was no sign of the prodigious man who had appeared to Fisher. Try as they might, they found no one and nothing. It all seemed particularly implausible since the only way out of the balcony on the second floor was a door that lay behind Fisher’s bed and no one could slip out unnoticed. While the servants were searching the balcony, however, the guards keeping watch downstairs were surprised to see a massive black dog run down the stairs and straight out of the house.

Nothing further happened that night and Fisher, drained and rattled, went back to sleep a few hours before dawn. The next morning, however, was greeted by a startled household, stumped by the sight of a large, thick broken branch of the bokul tree. It had been a particularly warm and still summer night faintly stirred only by the occasional slight breeze – in other words, a night that rendered the otherwise familiar sight of the broken branch entirely strange and inexplicable. While the household futilely tried to make sense of this uncanny anomaly, Fisher awoke in considerable agony, his body oddly wracked by numerous aches and pains, not to mention the bizarre scratches that scrawled the presence of unwelcome company all over his body.

Like so many other tales from the world of gaslights, this one too disappears into the shadows at this point. Much as I have tried, I have not been able to find any further trace of this story. And so, yet again, we are left to wonder and wander through the dimly lit tale trails. Why was the tree the focus of so much activity? How did people make sense of what was seemingly utterly senseless? What kind of gossip and explanation might have circulated through the town about these curious goings-on? Were the manifestations signaling some darker, more treacherous history attached to the cutcherry building itself? Given how a number of colonial buildings in Murshidabad were housed in properties that previously belonged to the Nawabs, were the events of April 10, 1870 savage reminders of those half-forgotten accounts of those blood-soaked days? Or did the events perhaps play out the moral failings of the Raj or even the Deputy Magistrate himself?

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