Whatever the empirical evidence through the laws of physics, most people actually believe in ghosts.
As the ceaseless season of 30×12 cricket (for the uninitiated that means round-the-year) enters another one-day caper, my thoughts stray to a 26-year-old Pakistani player, Haris Sohail, who has just seen a ghost. It left him both shaken and stirred.
This nasty ghost did not appear in the fog of a desolate moor, or on the ramparts of a deserted castle, but in a sleek, modern hotel room in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Pakistan was on tour, preparing for the February World Cup. Sohail woke up when his bed began to move violently. A colleague found him feverish. His cricket form has collapsed. Let us hope that his career survives.
If nothing else, an episode such as this should provoke curiosity. Where do ghosts, if they exist (and there was no earthquake in Christchurch that night), disappear during the day? Why don’t they ever upturn a table at teatime? Is their earth-bound roost eternal? Did a ghost disturb a sleeping Sohail or did Sohail provoke a dormant ghost? Do ghosts get personal, or are they merely pranksters with questionable taste? Might they have a loftier purpose, to remind atheists that there is an afterlife, so better watch out? But then why chase young Sohail, who, like everyone else in the Pak team, must certainly be pretty devout? Why convert the converted?
Should one be sceptical? Given the death rate since Adam, both the ether and hotel rooms should be suffering from over-crowding rather than rarity. Even if we buy into the proposition that ghosts are restless spirits denied a safe haven in the Great Beyond, then surely there should be many more without rest? That lifelong sceptic, Voltaire, pointed out, when asked on his deathbed to denounce the devil, that this was no time to be making new enemies.
Whatever the empirical evidence through the laws of physics, most people actually believe in ghosts. They are certainly real enough in human imagination and literature, from fairytale to Shakespeare. If you belong to any faith, you believe that death is a door to another existence. Every door opens in two directions.
Where do ghosts, if they exist, disappear during the day? Why don’t they ever upturn a table at teatime? Is their earth-bound roost eternal? Do ghosts get personal, or are they merely pranksters with questionable taste?
The management of Rydges Latimer, the Christchurch hotel, closed the matter with a statement that should be top entry in the Collected Works of Safety Clauses. It made the prim announcement that it knew of “no active ghost” on the hotel premises. If the chap flew through a closed window, it was not the hotel’s fault. And if there were inactive ghosts hanging around in the cupboard, waiting for Pakistanis to appear, then all Rydges Latimer could do was shrug. Cool. And a lesson for the rest of us: beware of both ghosts and lawyers. You can never tell when a phantom or a lawsuit will descend upon you. Both are nationality-neutral.
Phantoms do not pay exclusive attention to Pak cricketers. BBC reports that last July the English fast bowler Stuart Broad changed his hotel room because the bathroom taps kept coming on for no reason whatsoever. This occurred at one of the priciest hotels in the heart of London, Langham, not in a bedsit next to Hampstead Heath. One can imagine Broad dismissing the first time as an accident, the second time as a coincidence and the third as a message: get the hell out of here. He did. If Broad was an agnostic before July, he must be a believer now. Someone should have checked the next day if all that the taps needed was a better plumber, or it was a Force From Afar making the night miserable for a humble fast bowler.
There is also the Curious Incident of the Colourful Spinner and the Castle. This story has form. No respectable English castle comes without a resident ghost, and this one was at Chester le Street in Durham. The Australian cricketer Shane Watson was staying there while on tour, when along came the castle spectre and frightened the bejesus out of him. Watson sped off to teammate Brett Lee’s room. Lee, being an unfussy Australian, gave him a pillow and told Watson to find a place on the floor. Harrowing.
Question: What happened the next morning? Did the ghosts of Christchurch, London and Durham disappear from these rooms, their work done? Are these rooms being offered to other guests? One presumes so. No hotel is going to sacrifice sacred revenue for a mere flit of a ghost.
Are ghosts as frightening as we make them out to be? Logic suggests that we should welcome them. They are, after all, proof that there is life after death, and all is not lost in the grave. Judging by the stories, ghosts seem to retain human qualities like revenge, which makes them scary. But this also means that there might be a good number of ghosts who absolutely love cricket, play it on pitches along the Milky Way, and all they have done is dropped by to check how to bowl the doosra. They can’t possibly find out if Watson or Broad or Sohail keeps sleeping, so they shake the bed, or the floor, a bit. All very simple, isn’t it?
(Originally published in The Sunday Guardian)
M J Akbar