The subtle knife in the second book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a magical dagger used to cut the air to open windows into other universes. That parallel worlds co-exist, however, has been a claim made in earnest only by scientists and not writers of fantasy.
Last October, a team of American and Australian researchers put forward a theory that could explain certain irregularities in quantum mechanics. Scientists from the University of California and the Griffith University concluded that our universe is one among a “gigantic number of worlds” that co-exist by repulsing each other. Then there is scientist Robert Lanza’s theory of biocentrism, proposed in 2007, in which he argues that consciousness survives death of the body.
In her debut work of nonfiction, Bhangarh to Bedlam: Haunted Encounters, psychic investigator and corporate lawyer, Deepta Roy Chakraverti points to the existence of supernatural worlds right in the midst of the one we inhabit. She shares her run-ins with the paranormal across India and the UK while attempting to understand them through science, historical precedents, news reports, and the Wiccan philosophy. “The incidents written of in this book are my true life experiences,” she declares right at the beginning, while leaving “the discerning reader to draw his or her own conclusions.”
In ‘Bhangarh’s Trapped Souls’, the author, her mother, Wiccan priestess Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, and their team of researchers witness the spectre of Sooraj Bai, once a dancer in the court of Akbar, still trapped in the ruins of Bhangarh Fort that pulsates with black magic. Then there is the tormented spirit of Shyama Pallavi, abandoned by her son in Puri, and held back in this realm by grief, who finds deliverance in the benevolence of Lord Jagannath in ‘The Nightmarchers of Puri’. A powerful energy residing in the idol of Lord Vishnu at the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram is the subject of ‘God of the Elements’ while a childhood encounter with the spirit of the Iranian priestess of the Konark Sun Temple is repeated during a recent visit in ‘The Healing Code of Konark’. A Persian scholar with kohl-rimmed, pale grey eyes—a victim of court intrigue during the reign of Bahlol Lodhi—continues her academic pursuits at the Lodhi Gardens in ‘Tryst with a Sultan’. In ‘Pathways to Power’, Chakraverti investigates the energies that dwell in Indira Gandhi’s house on Safdarjung Road, while the invasion by haunted spirits of a gallery housing Durga idols built on the ground that was once a psychiatric hospital is analysed in ‘The Goddess Possessed’. The author narrowly escapes harm when sought out by a ghost—possibly Sweeney Todd’s associate Mrs Lovett—in London’s Bell Yard in ‘The Night of the Soul Bell’.
But the account that lingers long after being read, perhaps, is ‘Who Walks on Marine Drive?’. During a work trip to Mumbai in 2013, five years after 26/11, the author notices a peanut-seller draw a huge crowd on Marine Drive. Among the horde is a father-daughter pair. Visible on the girl’s shirt are blackened bullet wounds. As the hawker struggles to drive them away, the author realises these people, who died in sudden accidents or violently, are lost and stuck between the worlds of living and dead. They flock to the man, who like the author, can see them. This leads Chakraverti to ask, “Could consciousness survive physical death?”
Even for those unwilling to suspend disbelief, the incidents that make Chakraverti’s book would hold attention. With its taut storytelling, spooky settings, descriptive writing and the spine-tingling twists—mostly towards the end of every case—the 12 incidents narrated are written very much in the tradition of ghost stories. Chakraverti also weaves in history, philosophy, culture and recent scientific research on similar phenomenon with her own analyses, adding to the richness of the read. Though one does wish there were photographs or illustrations accompanying narratives set around historical sites.
Some would say there is no rift really between science and mysticism except in human perception. People flying en masse from one place to another, communicating across continents in nanoseconds, making new people in laboratories—what seemed like magic yesterday is science today.
Dr Michael Hall from Griffith University believes the Many-Interacting Worlds theory may one day lead to our testing for their existence.
Though conjectures can never step out dressed as facts, they do, if given a fair chance, succeed in opening our minds to other possibilities. As Russian writer Leo Tolstoy writes in his classic novel War and Peace: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”