The term “bungalow” originated from Bengal, implying a “house in Bengal style”. The colonial bungalow evolved by the early 18th century for accommodating the officers of the Raj. Every cantonment was dotted with numerous bungalows with their size corresponding to the ranks of the officials.
The style—which eminently suited the hot climate of India—was characterised by wraparound verandas and four to six large-size rooms built around a central gallery. The veranda and the outer and inner rooms had roofs at different heights—of 10, 15 and 20 feet, respectively—creating enough space for ventilators for sunlight and hot air elimination. The roof of older bungalows had tiles with a false ceiling inside the rooms. More recent bungalows had reinforced cement concrete roofs.
The compound varied from an acre to four-six acres, depending on the rank. Invariably, each bungalow had three to four servant quarters and a well for irrigation. Water was drawn with a 500 litre mashak (bucket of buffalo hide) pulled by a jhotta or katta (male buffalo) along a descending path, with the process being repeated after every drawl. The jhotta and the servants were handed over to the next incumbent—the former for a nominal charge. The bungalows had a huge lawn, a vegetable garden large enough to sustain the occupants, and a fair number of fruit trees.
In the 1950s-60s, it was quite common to find bungalows 100 years old or more, with tales going back to 1857. Colonial history was there to be discovered. Almost all older bungalows had a ghost tale associated with the cruelty or debauchery of the British occupants, or their deaths, and at times preceding them to times when the land was usurped or acquired. Mathura Cantonment (Cantt.), established in 1804 after the defeat of the Marathas, had five to six 100-year-old bungalows, and one of these was allotted to my father in 1957.
Mathura Cantt. was the home of 43 Lorried Brigade which was part of the 1 Armoured Division, the balance of which was located at Jhansi and Babina. The brigade had an illustrious history. Originally raised as 3 Indian Motorised Brigade, it had taken part in the battles of Mechili on April 3-8, 1941, and Ghazala, May 26-27, 1942. It was then based on three famous Indian armoured regiments—2 Lancers, then 2 Royal Lancers (Gardener’s Horse), 18 Cavalry, then 18 King Edward’s Own Cavalry (KEO) and 11 Cavalry (now with Pakistan), then 11 Prince Albert’s Own Cavalry (Frontier Force) (PAVO).
For the Battle of Mechili, they were equipped with high mobility Fordson trucks and for the Battle of Ghazala, with Indian Pattern Carrier Mk IIA ( a wheeled armoured personnel carrier). In both the battles, the brigade was routed by Rommel’s Africa Corps. In January 1943, it was reconstituted as 43 Indian Lorried Brigade with regular infantry battalions—2/8 Gorkha Rifles, 2/6 Gorkha Rifles and 2/10 Gorkha Rifles—and became popular as the Gorkha Brigade during the Italian Campaign in 1944-45.
In 1957 it had another three illustrious infantry battalions: 18 Sikh, 2 Rajputana Rifles, and 4 Guards. The units were equipped with the Dodge Power Wagon, a high mobility 1.5 ton truck, at the scale one per section. Each unit had 60 Power Wagon, and it was a treat to see the 200 vehicles of the brigade manoeuvre as a formation on the plains around Mathura. Each of these units had a number of national-level sportsmen, and competition was fierce. It was cantonment life at its best—hard training, hard play, and hard partying!
We arrived at Bungalow No. 1, Mandir Marg, on a rainy night in July 1957. There was no electricity. As I was about to settle down in the 20 by 20 feet bedroom lit by a candle, my father casually mentioned that there were silly rumours about the bungalow being haunted by the ghost of a Peer Baba (Muslim holy man), whose mazar (grave) had been demolished during the construction of the house about 100 years ago. It was alleged that he often visited the house in the shape of strange animals.
My father was an atheist and areligious, and did not believe in all this mumbo-jumbo and neither did I. Having lived in the village for prolonged periods, I had explored the wilds, been on shikar, and was at home in darkness. My father jokingly asked me, “I hope you are not afraid?” With all the arrogance an eight-and-a-half year old could muster, I replied, “I know no fear!”. Wishing my father good night, I settled down for the night.
A little before dawn, I woke up to strange noises coming from the chimney of the fireplace. A little later, there was a pitter-patter of feet on the false ceiling, and scratching on the wire mesh around the ventilator. A strange, foul smell was emanating through the chimney. Soon it was dawn, and things returned to normal. I dismissed the issue, as it was common for the old bungalows to be infested with rats.
During the day, rat traps were placed at various spots. However, my ordeal did not end. Over the next 15 days, the strange noises and the foul smell did not stop. In fact, it increased many-fold.
My room was close to a number of large trees with branches overhanging the roof. I climbed up a tree and went to the roof to investigate. I saw faint footprints that appeared to be that of a young boy, or an animal which had bear-like paws. For the first time in my carefree young life, I was afraid.
Arrogance and pride prevented me from talking to my father or anyone else. Every day my father would jokingly ask me, “Have you had an encounter with the Peer Baba?”. I would arrogantly reply, “Who is afraid of a Peer?”. Yet I would spend sleepless nights waiting for the dawn to break. I started keeping a hockey stick in my bed. Torches were a luxury, so I stole a box of matches from the kitchen and kept a candle handy to light up the room whenever the electricity went off.
I had to wait for another week before coming face to face with the avatar of the Peer Baba. It was a full moon night and the maali (gardener) had compounded my fears by mentioning that the Peer Sahib normally comes on full moon nights. With a thumping heart, I tucked my mosquito net around me and anxiously waited. I heard one of the unit’s Quarter Guard gong being sounded 12 times to announce midnight.
Suddenly, I heard footfalls on the roof, and the now familiar noises and foul smell emanating from the fireplace chimney. I tightly gripped my hockey stick and waited.
Two shadowy animals—the size of a midsize dog—emerged from the fireplace. I could see their silhouettes in the moonlight coming through the ventilators and the window. I sat up with a start and struggled to switch on the light. Noticing my sudden movement, the strange creatures with one leap were on the mosquito net, which collapsed. I was being bitten and scratched all over. Panic gripped me but by reflex, I fought back. Somehow I freed myself from the mosquito net, stood up, and swung wildly with the hockey stick. One of the creatures got a severe blow and collapsed with childlike moans. Emboldened, I shouted for my father and waited for the attack by the second creature.
My father came rushing in and switched on the light. In a jiffy, the second animal disappeared up the chimney. My bed was a gory site. I was bleeding from the bites on my legs and arms, and the dead creature was on my bed with a bashed skull. The smell emanating was overpowering. It was the strangest creature I had seen in my young life or seen by my father in his 40 years.
The ghost of the Peer Baba turned out to be the notorious Honey Badger known a “Kabar Bijju”.
The Honey Badger is a ferocious nocturnal animal. It is about a foot (30 cm) tall at the shoulders, 20-30 inches (55-77 cm) in length, and with a foot-long tail. It is generally grey to dark grey in colour with a whitish band running across the back, though some experts say it is absent in the species found in India. It has a remarkably loose skin, allowing it to turn and twist freely within it. Vocally it whines. It has bear-like paws with five toes and long nails. A legendary digger, it lives in burrows and can dig tunnels into hard ground in 10 minutes. It’s an intelligent animal, and has been recorded as the only wild animal capable of using tools in the form of sticks, logs and stones.
Honey badgers are notorious for their strength, ferocity and toughness. According to the Wikipedia link, “they have been known to savagely and fearlessly attack almost any kind of animal when escape is impossible, reportedly even repelling much larger predators such as lions.”
It is both a carnivorous and herbivorous animal. As per folklore, it allegedly digs up fresh graves to eat the copses, hence the name Kabar Bijju. It has an anal pouch to collect excreta and lets out a stink bomb when frightened. The smell is overpowering and suffocating—as I experienced over a couple of weeks.
Large Indian Civet Cat
The local name Kabar Bijju is also used for the Large Indian Civet Cat which has some similar characteristics as the Honey Badger. As per an eminent wild life expert and a dear friend, the animal I encountered was probably the Large Indian Civet Cat. However, from what I can remember after 61 years based on the characteristics observed then, I think that the animal in question was the Honey Badger as the Large Indian Civet Cat is not known to attack human beings and it does not emit stink bombs!
To cut a long story short, I had to go through a course of anti-rabies shots and became a celebrity of sorts for having killed a Kabar Bijju. The local press covered the incident. The chimney was sealed and the bungalow was rid of the Kabar Bijju by thinning out the thick trees.
Both the species were once widespread in India, but even in the 1950s, sightings were rare due its shy and nocturnal habits. Due to increasing population and urbanisation, the numbers have gone down to alarming levels. However, the animal is still spotted on the fringes of habitation where it comes to prey on domestic fowl.
In 2001, 44 years after this incident, I visited Mathura Cantt. A dear friend was staying at Bungalow No. 1. I mentioned to him that I too had stayed in the same bungalow as a child. He mentioned strange noises at night accompanied by an overpowering foul smell from the same bedroom that I had occupied. He also spoke about the legend of the ghost of the Peer Baba. A quick examination showed that the Kabar Bijjus were still around and had made their way into the false ceiling!