Thursday, March 09, 2006

The hunt for Alice

The University of Pune is a much respected institute of higher learning. Nestled in a lush verdant campus that is almost entirely covered by a canopy of trees, it is also dotted with occasional meadows and stone buildings from the colonial era. Furthermore, it is also generously endowed with a number of those nooks and crannies that are indispensable to student lovers who prefer to engage in canoodling activities away from the public eye. A note to male canoodlers : Before embarking upon your canoodling expedition, please make sure you have 500 rupees in your wallet. That is the going rate, at least it was about 10 years ago, for being discovered in the act of canoodling by a university watchman, who, after the appropriate remuneration has been made, will reciprocate your philanthropy by refraining from reporting you to your canoodlee's parents.

However, the night this particular narrative begins, very little canoodling was going on in the university campus due to the lateness of the hour. There were more serious activities afoot. Ghost hunting. It was examination time and I, along with a few of my buddies, was sitting in a car by the side of the road in an isolated wooded section of the campus on the lookout for a ghost.

During the years I attended engineering college in Pune, examination time has always been the period during every academic year that has been spent indulging in activities of the least academic nature. For one, the onset of exams allows you to spend more time with your friends under the guise of overnight study sessions. And if you have been blessed with friends such as the ones I have, study sessions have always had less to do with textbooks and more to do with making tea, scrambling eggs, cooking up homemade methods of stealing the neighbour's cable tv and inventing newer and more efficient ways of travelling to the future by murdering time in the present.

However, this study night was different. Tomorrow was the math exam. The difficulty and extreme incomprehensibility of the study material cried out for a different approach to the problem. Going ghost hunting would be a perfect solution. So we piled into the car, drove to the university and made ourselves comfortable for the long night to follow.

One of the most famous and poignant ghosts in all of Pune has to be that of Alice Richman whose mortal remains lie buried on the university campus. Alice was a British / Australian woman who lived in Pune during the colonial era. She died of cholera and was buried in the exact spot of her death and has lain there ever since. Hers is a solitary grave at the end of a clearing in the woods that has always been popular among the more studious of the university's denizens who come there to meditate upon life, love and organic chemistry. But apparently Alice's material demise wasn't immediately followed by the demise of her soul, which, as legend goes, still prowls around her grave in a gown made of the customary translucent white fabric popular among members of the spirit community, terrifying hidden lovers into premature ejaculation.

So the night crept along as we sat in our car and gazed at the exact spot inside the forest where we knew Alice's grave was. There was no sign of ghosts or apparitions. It was dark and the road was illuminated by a single lamp which suddenly died out. Far ahead along the same road we could see the characteristic bobbing light of a drunken caretaker's torch. But we weren't interested in caretakers. We continued to stare.

After a lot of staring and fruitless vigilance, our patience gave out. "Let's walk upto the grave", someone said. "Maybe she's feeling lazy tonight and isn't gonna wander". "I'll do it if one of you comes with me", said M, a member of our troupe. A word about M. If you are planning to go on a ghost hunting trip, M shouldn't be your first choice as a partner in your endeavour. He has this very disagreeable trait of of accompanying you to the spot in question, then screaming aloud, feigning terror and running away, leaving you yammering wha? who? where? as you follow his fleeing silhouette. A few weeks ago, we had been to the other supposedly haunted location in Pune called the Napier hotel, a ruined structure that sits within dilapidated grounds in the cantonment area. Our objective, no doubt to bolster our budding manhoods, was to enter the hotel premises surreptitiously and urinate on the walls of the building.

So we had walked through the brush and overgrown weeds in the hotel yard, climbed into the darkened building over its crumbling walls and realized that we were too late. Like Captain Scott in his failed bid to capture the South Pole, we had been beaten to our destination by bovine intruders. The place was covered with a whole lot of cow faeces. But hey, if nothing else, we would at least leave our own mark on this hallowed ground. Collective urination began in earnest.

That was the perfect time for M to do his thing. After waiting for the strategically opportune moment of peak urinary discharge, he emitted a loud shriek and ran out of the building. Terrified by this sudden development, struggling with our zippers, the rest of us ran around like beheaded chickens, traipsing through all the cow dung, finally making it outside the building and onto the road where M was enjoying a bout of hysterics.

So that was the reason why none of us were individually agreeing to take M up on his challenge. After a prolonged deliberation, it was agreed upon by mutual consensus that we would all go into the woods. It was also made very clear that if M were to even consider repeating a Napier, the iron fist of retribution would fall upon him with deadly consequences.

We got out of the car and made our way through the woods. We had a single torch that was used by the person first in line to choose the path least conducive for the hike, thus leading to constant demands from people further behind in the line to give them the fucking torch if he didn't know what he was doing. We wandered around but we just couldn't find the grave. We had lost our bearings. It's very easy to do that in the dark. We continued to search for it. Suddenly, the torchlight shone on marble and fencing. We realized that we were actually standing on the grave. Alice was beneath us. This realization led to confusion, terror and a mass exodus. We ran through the woods in the direction opposite to which we had entered.

Suddenly, the woods ended and we stumbled into a clearing containing a pond with lotus leaves floating on top. Behind the pond was a square stone building that shone in the moonlight. And I couldn't help asking myself where the fuck had I seen this building before? Then I realized that the oil painting that hung above my bed back in my room portrayed this very structure. I also remembered that when we had purchased the painting, the artist had informed us that the subject of his art was located in the university campus.

So we went back to the car after finding the path back to the road. We drove home, my friends not very happy due to the failure of our mission to get aquainted with Alice. I, however, found myself musing with a strange contentment. The night had been productive for me.


Michael Higgins said...

Hi Gawker
Very interesting post.

But you weren't really expecting to meet a ghost were you?

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Gawker. You took me ghost hunting with you; loved the ending.

This story gives a nice picture of who you are - a refined silly boy!

Unknown said...

Alice Richman, in her quaint green corner of Pune University. I always wondered if anybody noticed her enough to influence their memory. Looks like she's anwsered my question in the affirmative.

Anonymous said...

flashback .. memoria ..
M was always a turd and will always remain one. Were u there when he kept telling us to "go deep" at Melghat or was it Tadoba ?
I think I also used to perform the ritual of breaking the cups and glasses after we were done drinkin the tea. Think that was the time I had started to go blind.
And the night before the App Mech paper, I think we were pretty convinced on buking the exam, and drivin to Lonavla in N's new car coz "we could always give the exam next semester" haha
I attempted worth 43 and got 41 haha. soab.

shreya said...


You make me want to go back to when philosophy was rhetoric about God and Sexual Liberation. On random terraces, swatting mosquitoes, before we knew our best friend was gay...

before we knew anything.

Anonymous said...

"Tomorrow was maths exam".

you guys are God. seriously.

If I did that, the ghost of that night would return to haunt me.

— an engineering student.

gawker said...

michael : why not? we were young and the possibilities were endless

anjali : refined silly boy. i like that description. reminds me of vegetable oil for some reason.

akshay : her grave is pretty conspicious and well populated. Also, it is pretty well known around Pune.

slime : also remember the planchet we did before some paper probably math as well. i wonder how i ever made it through engineering.

shreya : thanks. yes mosquitoes were nice.

anonymous : i think its more to do with luck than anything else.

amit ranjan said...

hI Gawker
Am from delhi...had gone to pune university campus on 31st dec with a frend...and was quite enticed and intrigued by the grave...have been hunting for alice richman ever since...
who's the painter?
are there any records in pune univ lib of alice melrose richman?
what's the local myth?
nice blog. cheers

gawker said...

amit : Thanks, what do you mean by painter? I don't know about any records of her being in the library. The myth is as I recounted in this post, people seeing something wandering around her grave at night, you know, regular ghost stuff.

amit ranjan said...

the painting in your room

xyzandme said...

I was at IUCAA an year back, but had experienced spooky stuff at this place.

Sneha said...

You write really well. Thoroughly enjoyable post. Thanks for writing it!