Letter from India: The Haunting


First Person

“I think this hotel is haunted,” I told my traveling companion, Clancy.

I have never said anything quite like that before. Now, I have unconventional beliefs. I believe when others tell me they have seen a ghost, particularly if they have details—say, a long nose and a tuxedo, or a suggestion from an old lady that we “touch now, dearie.” But it still sounds like crazy talk. I am aware of that.

“You’re right,” he said.


Then we were both afraid to turn out the light. We were in the Rajmata Suite, where the woman who lived in the hotel used to sleep, back when it was a home. Actually, the correct word is palace. When you turned out the light it was pitch black in the room. In that darkness, I felt—briefly—a unique dread. It was not a menace. Just a funny intimation. To put it into words is to coarsen what was fine: an intimation that one day I would die.

The Taragarh Palace Hotel was built on fifteen acres of camphor forest and tea gardens in the foothills of the Dhauladhar mountain range in Kangra, in 1937. The emir of Bhiwalpur, His Highness Alaaj Nawab Sadiq Mohammed Khan Abbasi Khamus V, had visited the area for a picnic, and envisioned a getaway, but the partition left him in Pakistan. In 1950, his palace was bought by the former magaraja of Kashmir, H. H. Dr. Karan Singh, as a home for his mother, Maharani Tara Singh Devi.

The Rajmata Suite had a tiled floor, teal brocade couches and chairs, and butter yellow walls with saffron accents. Portraits of Singhs past hung on the walls, a baby, four generals. Over the fireplace, a drawing of a beautiful flapper in profile made me wonder several times. When we first walked into the room, I looked at Clancy and said, “Now, this is how we should live.” It could have been a set from A Passage to India.

It was monsoon season. In the past, during Indian monsoons, I have experienced something more like “a lot of rain.” This was my first real monsoon. The rain was almost nonstop. It let up for maybe an hour every day, and then we’d go walking—badminton courts, portrait-lined halls, walks littered with ripe mangos. Monkeys watched us from the tiled rooftops, from stone walls, from a deck chair by the pool. When it rained, we wandered the halls: a silver peacock, an indigo chandelier, photos of Churchill and of the queen, a wing mid-renovation. It was the off-season, and we had the hotel to ourselves.

I woke up after midnight. The room was pitch black. We had our windows open, the curtains drawn, and it was raining. The air felt funny.

Clancy woke up and said, “I had a horrible dream about my father.”

He told me his father’s corpse was under a tarp, and he knew he needed to approach it. He was not frightened and he knew it needed to be done. The nightmare began there. That is not where it ended, but—a hazard of two writers dating—it’s not my story to tell.

He went back to sleep, and I lay in bed afraid in a funny way, thinking a thought unfamiliar to me, There are ghosts in this building. This place is haunted.

We ate alone in the vast dining hall, waited on by two waiters in livery. Sometimes the head waiter removed his hat. It was silent other than the sound of the rain. Sometimes one of the waiters felt too isolated and, for our sake, turned on music. It was relaxing. I said to Clancy, “This is how it must feel to be rich sometimes. No problem, but difficult not to make a problem—drink or fight—difficult to relax into the luxury and being bored.”

He was finishing a novel; I was reading. At the end of the day we watched a movie. We were going to watch a second one, but instead ended up talking. We were talking about children—Ferberizing, co-sleeping, whether or not a mother should nurse. Clancy was quiet a moment, staring off, and I said, “What are you thinking?”

“I was having a vision, or about to have one, but it went away. It was very dark, and I was glad it went away.”

This was not wholly surprising. Clancy had seen himself and his second wife with two daughters the third night they met. He has those little glimpses sometimes. Maybe vision is a heavy-handed word. Incidentally, before I knew him, I had an intimation, in the form of an image, of what he’d be like in bed.

I asked what this vision had been, and he said he didn’t want to say. I pressed him, and he said he and I were talking to a man who looked like a doctor. The man gave us some news, and our stomachs dropped into our toes. He said it was terrifying, awful, and this is when I told him I thought the hotel might be haunted. He said yes. He hadn’t thought about it, but since I mentioned it, he felt it, too, and believed it.

“Do you think you have an overactive imagination? Or do you think these things are real?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m always wondering the same thing.”

The next morning at breakfast, Clancy and I ordered coffee and poached eggs. I told him I was afraid to go to the bathroom at night, and he told me as he fell asleep he saw dozens of staring, impassive faces—faces with just the hint of a question.

“I saw a funny light,” I said. “Not the light that you see in the dark. Not a light that moves with your gaze.”

We had been told there had been a fire in the place in the 1970s, but the mention had been brief, without any detail. We spent another day in the room. Clancy wrote and I read. At lunch, the headwaiter said, “Guests.”

He adjusted his hat. He walked casually to the L-shaped circuit behind the closed-for-monsoon lunch buffet. Three minutes passed, and a large, wholesome, and wealthy Indian family appeared in the doorway.

After dinner, we went to the office of the night manager. Clancy explained our curiosity, and said, “Have you ever had any ghosts?”

The manager couldn’t have been less surprised by the question.

“Not yet,” he paused, and continued brightly, “no evil ones, sir. The good ones, we have. You can see them in the halls sometimes. The people who stay here are very religious, sir. When they see them, they go to the temple of Kali and pray. Then they feel better. This is why we have many statues of gods around the grounds. Shiva, Ganesha, others. The woman who lived here was from a royal family, sir.

We asked about the fire. “Did anyone die? Any guests?”

He said, “There was a fire. I have heard that. I am not allowed to speak about it, sir. It was in the old wing, where you are staying. Also the grounds burned.”

He looked very nervous. We were so happy with the hotel and the stay, neither of us pressed him.

I write this now from the bedroom of the woman who slept here all those nights. It is our last night at The Taragarh. We are side-by-side in bed.