Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Folklore: The Haunted House of Sanghar

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Wow! This must be the Addams Family home!” I said as my friend Hameed Mallah drove through the open iron gate. It was almost 10pm, one March night in 2010 or the year after. Before us lay a brick driveway bordered on the left by a hedge that hadn’t seen a topiarist’s hand and shears in ages. Spread out on the right was an open plot that could have been a perfect flower-spangled garden around a patio.

But it wasn’t.

The creepy interior of the Sindh Irrigation Department resthouse in Sanghar

The house stood at the apex of the arc of the driveway: two-storeyed with what we call a mumti in Punjabi, at the top. In front was a car porch, its pale blue tiles offsetting the general dreariness of the building. The entire grounds [spread out with plenty of potential to convert them into beautiful gardens] bore a look of aggressive abandonment as did the house itself. Such then was the resthouse of the Sindh Irrigation Department in Sanghar.

If voyeur ghosts and slamming doors don’t spook you out, the history of this place certainly will I half expected a porter if not as grim as Lurch (‘You rang’, Addams Family TV series), at least wearing a cowled gown of some coarse material, his wicked eye gleaming with a sinister look to answer Hameed’s loud calls of ‘Array, koi hai!’ The chowkidar arrived (I forget his name) and he was just an ordinary everyday bloke. He unlocked the front door and led us into the foyer. In front was the sitting room dividing the house into two halves with a bedroom in each flank. To the right of this room was a solid-looking masonry staircase leading up to the first floor with a similar plan. The chowkidar led me to the room on the left.

I remember commenting about the paint peeling off the thick walls to reveal mud-plastering and observing that at least these would keep at bay the March heat of lower Sindh. We had barely walked into the dismal building when the two-hour load shedding session got underway. Hameed gave the man some money to put petrol in the generator that he said was parked at the back. Instructing him to keep it going until electric power returned at midnight, Hameed left me for the night.

Alone in my room with the light bulb hanging from ceiling, I had this incredible feeling of another presence in the room. I shrugged it off and went about flossing and brushing my teeth. The presence, always keeping itself behind me, followed me around. Strangely, however, ‘it’ would not enter the bathroom: it would walk me halfway down the dressing room and stay there. When I came out, it resumed its unseen presence behind me. Very civil of it to be averse to see a man undressed, I thought. For a moment I considered doing a striptease to see if I could get a reaction, physical or visual.

I never like it when people read over my shoulder. Normally I give them dirty looks but if they persist, I hand over whatever I’m reading to them to have their fill. Now here was this ‘item’ reading over my shoulder and I could not even react. Giving up the settee, I lay in the bed to read. And it stood behind the headboard doing nothing other than making itself a right nuisance reading my book.
At about 11pm, I fell asleep with the light on. At midnight, the witching hour, I was roused by the sound of the chowkidar in the foyer and the loud clank of the main electric switch being thrown from the generator to mains. And then there was silence. Absolute silence because the resthouse stands on a side road away from traffic.

The unease of the presence in the room did not allow me to turn the light off. Over the next hour and a half, I woke a couple of times not by whatever it was that chose to stand guard over me, but by mosquitoes. As I lay there awake with my eyes closed I always felt that if I opened them I would see this thing right in front of me. But nothing of the sort happened. Nor too did this presence bring on a feeling of dread.

When I woke again at 1.30 am, the feeling was gone. The room was empty but for me. I walked through the dressing room to the bathroom. Nothing. Aloud I thanked the mosquitoes for chasing away my invisible visitor.

The next morning I was asked by one of Hameed’s colleagues if I had slept well. I said well enough despite this person sharing my room. She blurted out, “It happened to you too?”

The resthouse from outside seems almost Hitchcockian

And there unfolded the tale of two consultants, both young women, from Islamabad who stayed in this resthouse house. Shortly before the witching hour, both girls bolted. They asked to be shifted elsewhere. One of them, so it was reported, contracted fever. Sadly, my informant only had a vague idea of what the girls had experienced.

Hameed had another story to tell of a similar experience in the room I had used. He says he even heard footfalls behind him when he came out of the room. Two of his women colleagues in the room on the other side bravely lasted through the night to report a bizarre feeling the following morning. Now that was some seven years ago.

Recently in Jhol, just a few kilometres from Sanghar, I could not resist the temptation to check out the irrigation department resthouse in full daylight. It stands grim in its cream wash. The screens on the ground floor windows are intact, albeit caked with dust; those on the first floor are in tatters. Damp rises through the foundations to a height of about a metre and, other than the lively blue of the car porch, the house does look rather grim and uninviting. Even the wide grounds around the house have the air of an ancient graveyard. There is something unwholesome about the building.

The presence, always keeping itself behind me, followed me around. Strangely, however, ‘it’ would not enter the bathroom: it would walk me halfway down the dressing room and stay there. When I came out, it resumed its unseen presence behind me. Very civil of it to be averse to see a man undressed, I thought. For a moment I considered doing a striptease to see if I could get a reaction, physical or visual.

I went around to the back to find some men just done with harvesting wheat in one of the grounds. The chowkidar, they said, had gone into town. I was poking about the various doors to see if one was open to let me in when a man asked who I was. This was Khuda Buksh, the cook, and I told him I had stayed overnight in this house many years ago and was now back to relive a memory. He led me through a door into the corridor connecting the front of the house with the kitchen and pantry. Past the staircase into the foyer, we came to the room where I had spent that uneasy night many years ago.

Inside, the furniture was new. The old feeling of the presence was no more. We walked around the house and up the stairs as we were joined by Rizwan Ahmed, Buksh’s young assistant. In the bedroom above the one I stayed in, I was told of the time a ‘lady officer’ stayed in that room. On the first morning she laid into the staff for peeking in from the windows through the night! No assurance from the staff that they were in their quarters 50 metres from the house would put her at ease.

The next night she had two men from her staff sleep outside her room. The voyeur was not deterred, however. The lady officer bolted first thing next morning.

Khuda Buksh mentioned doors — with door closers too — that would open and close of their own volition even during a windless winter day. That was cue for young Rizwan to relate a nugget from the past.

Until about two years ago, the staff minding the resthouse would, in case there were no guests, sleep in one of the bedrooms. On a very still winter night, Rizwan was roused by the door of the upstairs room (used by the lady officer) being slammed shut. Then that of the sitting room and then of the other bedroom.

When the door of the room on the ground floor (where I had slept in) was slammed, he said he shot out of bed and leapt out of the window. I countered he couldn’t have because the windows are barred and have metal screens. We were now in the room in question and Rizwan threw open the window to show it had neither.

I am not a superstitious man. From Dalbandin to Chachro and from Thatta to Gilgit, I have spent lonely nights in a few dozen very remote and hoary resthouses. I have camped alone in very isolated places too. Though I have heard tales without end, I have never had such an experience — save one in a house in Rawalpindi.

I believe the unease comes from a disturbance in the magnetic field of a place. Physics never having been my forte, I cannot explain why the magnetic upset occurs. However, as I was leaving, Khuda Buksh said this resthouse was a torture cell under either Zia’s martial law or during ZAB’s government under Jam Sadiq Ali. Buksh wasn’t certain which.

I recall having been told about Jam Sadiq torturing Bhutto’s opponents to death in this resthouse. And that their corpses were buried unceremoniously without rites in the rambling grounds. I hear political workers of the 1970s — especially those who opposed Bhutto — were rather committed or, shall we say, ‘charged’ as newspapermen always love telling us. Seems they all carried rather strong magnetic charges. Their ossifying remains under the unkempt grounds must be responsible for upsetting the magnetic field of the ruinous old irrigation department resthouse in Sanghar.

As for the voyeuristic and door-slamming ghosts, I’ll take the yarns with a pinch of salt.

Related: Of Haunted Places, Living in a Torture Cell

Also in Dawn

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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