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"Nearly every other station (in India) owns a ghost. There are said to be two at Shimla....", Rudyard Kipling wrote in My Own True Ghost Story. But going by the legends, lore and rumours of Shimla, Kipling probably underestimated the ghosts of the city.
The Himachal government now feels that it can swing this supernatural advantage into significant tourism dividends. Among the string of new initiatives announced on World Tourism Day last month, is a compilation of spooky tales, based on the experiences of the locals. In a way, the BJP government is taking off from the previous Congress government's initiatives, where local cemeteries and haunted houses were sold off as major tourist attractions. G.S. Bali, tourism minister in the previous Congress government, says, "An interesting aspect is that most of these tales pertain to spectres of the British. It is indicative of the city's history. When I was tourism minister, we found that Shimla had more visitors from the UK than from any other country. Shimla was the capital of the Raj, so a lot of people want to know about their history." And the ghosts.
The ghosts don't disappoint. Most of them are the endearing, benevolent kind who seem to go about their business harmlessly. For example, a few minutes after midnight, a 'horse rider' makes some innocuous rounds to and fro on the road from Sanjauli to the local medical college. The rider, of course, is invisible, but people vouch for the sound of the hooves. Then there is a phantom cyclist who moves around a skating rink at night. Both these 'highway men' have never been known to harm anyone.
But the witch of Boileauganj is of a more malignant variety, who accosts people in the dead of the night and asks them to take her along with them. One such encounter with the witch is the first tale in Ghost Stories of Shimla Hills, written by Minakshi Chaudhary. The book is the most popular of all the anthologies pertaining to Shimla's ghosts and sells like proverbial hot cakes at the book stores on Mall road. "Tourists pick this book in large numbers. I think it has become a part of the whole tourist experience of visiting Shimla," says the salesman at Minerva Book Store on Mall road.