In my childhood I was privileged to study at a school in the Nilgiris hills in South India – The Lawrence School, Lovedale- an elite school located near the town of Ootacamund. The school was set up in 1857 by Sir Henry Lawrence for the children of British soldiers in a sprawling campus of about 700 acres. Apart from the huge school buildings housing about seven hundred children the campus spanned a few hills and dales, valleys and grass patches and potato fields. The school had its own lake, a reservoir and forests that hosted occasional visits by some big cats and wild boar. The school even boasts of a large church and an in – house cemetery and its own railway station. The nearby village of Lovedale is home to many generations of the support staff and their descendants and is connected to the Ooty – Coimbatore highway near Ketti by the Grant Duff Road. The Grant Duff Road is a very narrow and winding road and has forever been in a state of disrepair. Deep ruts and a sharp drop to the berm makes passing of an oncoming vehicle a test for any driver.
I studied in this school in the late nineteen-sixties by which time the school was already a hundred odd years old. With such a long history it was inevitable that there would be many stories of scandals, deaths and murders and heinous crimes. Many of these stories ended with the assertion that the protagonist of the tale was now a ghost and was still wandering around the school campus waiting for its unfulfilled desire to fructify. In those pre- internet days the stories were passed down to successive generations of students by word of mouth and the story got juicier with every subsequent narration. If any of these stories were to be believed the school campus would have more resident ghosts than students.
The two stories I recollect from my time are that of the headless mounted sergeant who rides down the road from Flagstaff to Girls School on a dark night and the senior student who died ( how – i do not remember) a day before his Senior Cambridge exams began. The sergeant in different versions had his head on or off depending on the story teller – And the Senior Cambridge student is said to come back each year during exam time ! And as with schoolboys there would always be a daring and curious one who would set out to discover the truth about the School Ghosts. One of my fellow students (whose name does not elicit a recollection) went visiting the School Cemetery to check out a resident ghost on a cold, dark , misty and wet evening – because , as it was believed , on such days the ghosts are best visible ! He came back to the dormitory with a torn sweater, all ashen faced and in a complete state of panic. He swore that he got into a tussle with a ghost who held on to him and would not let him go and in the intervening scuffle his sweater got torn. This incident further strengthened our belief in the existence of resident ghosts though in hindsight I believe it is possible that his sweater must have got caught while he was scaling the cemetery gate. One can think of many other rational explanations but a vivid schoolboy’s imagination has no place for the rational.
My own Lovedale ghost story dates back to one evening nearly thirty years after I left school. I had gone to pick up my daughter, then in class eight, for the term break. We set out from Girls School well after dark in the midst of very heavy drizzle. Our destination was the Wellington Gymkhana club for an over night stay before we headed home to Hyderabad. We drove past the Flagstaff onto Bellie Gowder bridge over Lovedale station and thence onto Grant Duff road (it still goes by the same name).
By now the rain had picked up and it was pouring in sheets. The mountain mist made visibility very low reducing our speed to almost a crawl. Somewhere near Lena school where the road was at its narrowest with deep ruts on either side of the road I saw a lady dressed in a sari walking towards the car from the opposite direction. She would have been some thirty yards away and was walking right in the middle of the road. I further reduced my speed to almost a halt and waited for the lady to get off the road. Instead she continued walking in the middle of the road towards the car in a very defiant manner and showing no signs of making way for me. I got a good look at her and noticed that she was not using an umbrella and her clothes did not look as rain soaked as they should have been that evening. As she got closer I figured she had no intentions of getting off the road and she appeared to be walking straight into the car. And when she was just a few yards from the car I got a good look at her face. I felt her large saucer like eyes piercing through me in a kind of a glare that only an angry woman can give as if to say “You are trespassing in my territory “.
And then the strangest thing happened. She took a few more steps and walked into the car and vanished or in sci-fi jargon she just dematerialised. My first instinct which I followed was to drive on as the road was now clear. As I engaged the gear started moving it dawned on me that I had seen something out of the ordinary – I turned my head around and saw nothing. By now I was sweating and my only thought was to make a quick escape before anything untoward happened- I did not know what. I made my way as quickly as I could and mercifully my mind was diverted as I had to concentrate on the difficult drive and did not stop till I reached the Ooty- Coimbatore highway .
My wife who was in the co- passenger’s seat admits that she saw the woman walking towards the car and she also confirmed the angry look but does not remember where she went or anything thereafter. She dismissed the whole incident as a figment of my imagination. My daughter claimed that she was dozing in the back seat and saw nothing. But when I told her what I saw she dismissed it and said “What’s the big deal? I have seen her before. She was an ayah in the Girls School kitchen and often visits the kitchen. She was murdered by her husband 100 years ago and is now looking to kill him !’
And so to this day I am wondering whether my wife dismissed the whole incident as a figment of my imagination to reassure me or even herself . And whether a thirteen year old school girl has the ability to so glibly spin a yarn or was she simply stating a fact. Or did my schoolboy ghost memories get the better of my imagination ? I will never know but I choose to believe that this was the closest I ever got to seeing one of the many resident ghosts of Lovedale.