You will see houses, ponds, fields, the works, all the signs of a rural idyll. What you won’t see are people. Welcome to Benagram, popular as ‘the haunted village’ in the surrounding areas. Situated off GT Road on the way from Niyamatpur in West Burdwan to Rupnarayanpur, this little hamlet was once home to a population of about 200. Most of the houses are made of concrete, rather than mud, and signs of past prosperity are evident. Records show that most of the former residents were either salaried professionals or engaged in business.
And yet they have stayed away for the last 15 years or so, living scattered lives, ostensibly because their village is ‘haunted’. Never mind the concrete road built by the Asansol-Durgapur Development Authority, or the electricity poles waiting to be activated as soon as there’s someone to consume that electricity, or the Asansol-Dhanbad rail tracks going right past the village. During an election, polling booths are set up in adjoining Deidi village.
Once a year though, on the day of Lakshmi Puja in October, life returns to Benagram, and the residents return for a look at their crumbling homes. The slightly eerie Lakshmi temple is in keeping with the rest of the ambience, but it is at least maintained after a fashion.
So are the ghost stories real? Where did they come from anyway? One possible source could be growing criminal activity in the region, which would lead to bodies of those killed in inter-gang battles being dumped along the rail tracks adjoining the village. Things reached a point where the police always seemed to be hanging around, asking questions about yet another body found by the tracks. Besides, wagon breakers had also begun favouring this section of the tracks for their operations, which was understandably hazardous for the villagers.
Munching on muri at a tea stall near the road leading to Benagram, a man who firmly refuses to give us his name says, “This place had become a heaven for criminals. People were used to seeing a corpse first thing in the morning. Plus there were petty thefts. And then the ghost stories began to be spread deliberately. Every night, people would hear strange noises in their homes too. So when they had had enough, they just left.”
The councillor of Asansol Municipal Corporation’s Ward 61, Adinath Putitundi, is now determined to exorcise all ghosts for good. “These stories are deliberate,” he says. “Build 100 BPL (below poverty line) homes here tomorrow, and watch the ghosts run. I’ll start the BPL homes as soon as the villagers hands over their land. A few apartments here will drive up the price of land, after which the villagers themselves will want to sell. Some of them have already got in touch with real estate agents.”
For now, though, every house stands forlorn, ruined. Sans doors and windows, hidden by dense undergrowth. Putitundi says, “Everyone said they would come back when we built a concrete road. We spent Rs 65 lakh building a road, but they didn’t come back, even though some of them live in the next village. Now, they want to sell their lands at sky high rates.”