Press wins its freedom from ghostly squatter: Tim McGirk, armed with rose petals, ghee and incense, attends an exorcism close to home in New Delhi

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The Independent Online
IT WAS only because the bartender threatened to quit at the Delhi Foreign Correspondents Club that we decided to get rid of the ghost. These weren't the kind of spirits that the bartender, Rohil Malik, had in mind when he accepted the job.

There are plenty of better places, atmospheric old forts and Mogul mausoleums, for a ghost to haunt than the bungalow on AB-19 Mathura Road. It is an ordinary two-storey house with a lawn, built for the upper-middle echelon of Indian civil servants, on a noisy boulevard connecting Old and New Delhi. The bungalow was vacant until the foreign press turned it into a clubhouse six months ago and put in a bar, a dartboard, a few potted palms and rattan chairs. Nobody had bothered to ask why the place had been empty for so long.

Rohil was alone one evening, closing the bar. The lights were out, and he was moving a gas cylinder when he says he was grabbed from behind. 'It felt like someone was pulling me. I put my hands back to knock him away, but there was nobody. Then I saw the ghost, from the side, as he turned away from me. He had long, white hair and a beard.' Was he scared? 'I am also a Brahmin, and I have mantras to chant against ghosts,' he replied.

After that, the ghost came out of the closet. A nightwatchman, napping inside the clubhouse, woke up with the terrible weight of the ghost on his chest. 'It was big and powerful. It tried to pull my legs off,' said Shakeel, the guard. We weren't sure whose leg was being pulled: the guard's or ours. Another watchman was pelted with stones. Lights flicked on, and shut windows blew open.

Inevitably, the ghost was the butt of many dumb jokes among the correspondents. One proposal was to make him a founder member. Other hacks suggested teaching him how to make a decent Bloody Mary or write stories to deadline. But the staff, who had to remain at the house long after the reporters staggered back to their bureaux, were less amused.

Kiran Kapur, the club manager, warned: 'The staff will all quit unless we do a puja to get rid of the ghost.' So a puja was ordered by the club president, Chris Thomas of the Times. This led to a long discussion about exorcism. Someone opined that we must first decipher the ghost's caste. An upper-caste Brahmin ghost, it appears, would require a more elaborate exorcism than a lowly Untouchable, who could be banished with a few sharp spells.

Exorcisms must be quite common in Delhi, because any number of Hindu pundits were willing to do the job, cheap. The exorcism cost 101 rupees (pounds 2.40). The priest, Kudip Samash, showed up with a fire dish under his arm and a paperback full of exorcism recipes involving lots of ghee, incense, sugar, camphor, and wood from a mango tree. The British press was represented at the exorcism by the Independent, the Times, the Guardian and the Daily Express. The pundit made us cover our heads; some pulled out handkerchiefs and one reporter made do with a tennis-racket cover. We asked the pundit why a ghost would want to haunt the club. 'Someone died an unnatural death in this house. A hanging, a suicide. Or maybe someone was murdered,' he replied, tossing the camphor on to the sacred fire.

As far as we knew, our bungalow had been inhabited by a long line of boring Indian civil servants, though we later learnt that not long before, a Nepali cook had been burnt to death - perhaps by his wife. 'Everybody needs a place to stay, even ghosts,' explained the pundit. 'This house should never have been left empty for so long.' At his instruction, we sprinkled rose petals in the four directions, and tossed ghee and sawdust on to the fire while he chanted mantras from his paperback. A coconut was smashed on the threshold, and we followed the pundit around the house, tossing petals in the air to shoo the ghost out. There were no whooshes of icy air or rattling of chains, nothing.

We wandered on to the lawn, and the pundit wrapped a banana, some sugar candy and sweets in a black satin cloth and handed it to the club's cook. The pundit was thoughtfully preparing a picnic lunch for the ghost. We watched the cook take the food outside the clubhouse gate. The pundit's words stayed with me. 'Everybody needs a place to go, even ghosts.' I wondered where the ghost would go. 'Wherever the food is left,' the pundit replied. I rather suspect that the cook heaved the ghost's picnic into a neighbour's garden.