It’s about 11 pm on a cold, windy night in February and Gaurav Tiwari along with three of his investigators are in the outer limits of Delhi’s north, in the neighbourhood of St Nagar, a locale comprising small concrete houses and empty plots of land straddling a busy highway. The team is setting up equipment in the single-storied house of Anurag Sharma.

Sharma, 33, who runs a convenience store, lives with his parents, wife and child in the small, cramped one bedroom house. Inside, the smell of sewerage hangs thickly in the air and turquoise paint peels off the living room walls revealing concrete underneath. The sole bedroom is windowless, there is mould in one corner and sad-looking children’s toys are scattered around. Attached to the bedroom is a storeroom with old mattresses piled high inside and a plastic doll that stares unblinkingly at whoever enters. Sharma claims that he’s being troubled by a ghost – egg trays mysteriously tumble off the counter, his mother says she has been pushed from the flight of stairs leading to the terrace, lights flicker on and off, and objects, most recently his school certificate, allegedly vanish before his eyes.

Tonight, Tiwari, a tall 28-year-old man with a bowl haircut, big eyes and the gait of a cowboy, is here to see if he can find any paranormal evidence. As the head of G.R.I.P. (Ghost Research & Investigators of Paranormal), he directs his team to install infrared cameras in six spots around the house and terrace. The cameras are hooked up to a small television, next to the living room, that projects fuzzy black and white images. Base readings for temperature, humidity, and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) have already been taken. Anything contrary that shows up could be counted as evidence of a spirit. Some orbs flash across the television screen. Tiwari dismisses them. That’s what new ghost hunters get excited about but they’re probably just dust particles, he says.

The team places other equipment inside the bedroom. There are two camcorders, one has an infrared night vision lens and the other is a full spectrum device. According to Tiwari as spirits manifest themselves at night it’s possible to capture them on camera. On the bed sits a laser pointer which projects a grid of green dots on the wall that is refracted by anything, human or otherwise, that moves in front. They also have other tools in tow, such as a K-II metre, which measures EMFs and looks like a cheap remote control with five, tiny, coloured LEDs. And there’s an EVP (electronic voice phenomena) recorder that picks up voices pitched too high for the human ear to hear. Most of their gadgets were sourced in the US. Throughout the night, they’ll continue to gauge the temperature; Tiwari says spirits leaving or entering an environment draw energy from it, which causes a sudden dip or spike in degrees.

While the investigators set up, Sharma listens attentively to Tiwari talk about spirits – he calls them the “consciousness of a dead person” – and the two main types of hauntings: those of “residual” spirits, which are only visible to some people and are wrinkles in time, like a “tape on playback mode”; and “intelligent hauntings” when a spirit makes contact with humans through noise, touch and by moving objects around.

Sharma himself seems somewhat attuned to strange activity, of which he says the neighbourhood has seen its fair share. One of his neighbours around the corner claims to have seen an old man on the street dissipate before her eyes and another one says she opened the door to a child’s voice only to see a cow that “converted” into a dog.

It’s time to start and everyone sits silently in the living room. The doors and windows are closed. Dogs growl outside. Tiwari and Ayesha Mohan, an actress from Bombay who has joined the investigation for the night, are in the bedroom. Tiwari starts to speak out loud in Hindi asking the spirit, if there is one, to show itself in any way possible. Soon after, the camera in the bedroom falls from its perch, the door to the adjoining storeroom closes; Mohan comes out. She says it’s spooky inside. But the investigators are excited that these incidents could signify a presence. Tiwari continues talking in the dark bedroom alone.

About an hour later, two investigators come down from the rooftop saying they’ve made contact with a spirit using the K-II metre. They say the spirit has answered two lights or three to questions about their sex (male) and if they want to be friends (yes). After exploring every nook and cranny, at about 4 am, the team starts winding up the inspection. Later, at their office, they’ll analyse all the footage and data they’ve gathered to figure out the cause of the alleged haunting.

Each month, Tiwari and his investigators carry out two to 20 on-site investigations. On average, they receive about 40 enquiries a month, sometimes much more, from people reporting spooky happenings in their homes. Most problems are resolved over the phone or email.

Tiwari and his team may not be the first in India to explore the paranormal, but Tiwari views himself as decidedly modern, because of his techniques – involving up-to-date gadgets – and his didactic approach to ghosts. In a country of myths and superstitions, he says he’s here to teach the public about what are “real haunting phenomena” and propagate the idea that ghosts are as harmful as a “honeybee.”

“Our mission,” he says, “is to educate people – get them rid of their fears.”

Tiwari prefers to be called a “paranormal researcher” as opposed to a “ghost hunter.” He explains: “We do not like to be called ghost hunters because we believe ghosts were human too; we would not want to hunt them down, other human beings.”

Since beginning his undertaking in 2009, Tiwari has worked hard to achieve some degree of public attention. Through the aggressive use of social media and hyping up claims about busting certain ghost myths, such as the one about Bhangarh – their investigation was televised by India’s most-watched Hindi news channel Aaj Tak – Tiwari has managed to carve out an identity as India’s modern-day paranormal investigator.

Born and raised in Lucknow, Tiwari says he met his first ghost in 2007. He was living in Deland, Florida at the time, training to be a commercial pilot when one evening while sitting alone in his shared house he heard footsteps and a voice whisper his name in his ear. That was just the beginning of a scary week: he and his housemates heard scratching on the windows and saw pebbles fall from the ceiling; one girl allegedly saw an apparition.

The events led Tiwari to reconsider his stance as a “hard-core non-believer.” To explain the experience, he embarked on a period of intense study, which included certifications in paranormal investigation with the academic arm of ParaNexus – a Florida-based association of researchers and investigators of anomalous phenomena that was established in 2008.

Tiwari brought his new skills back to India in 2009 and founded the Indian Paranormal Society (IPS) in Delhi as the first Indian chapter of ParaNexus. At the same time, Tiwari started the association’s ghost-specialist squad, G.R.I.P., which currently has nine core members including himself as the lead investigator. Thirty-four part-time researchers who carry out investigations around the country complete the network.

“India is a land of wars,” says Tiwari, “with many storybook places said to be haunted because people died there. But most of these places have a myth in the story. Few of the places have real paranormal activity.” Ninety-five percent of the team’s explorations haven’t yielded any ghostly activity, says Tiwari, including at Bhangarh Fort, the abandoned Rajasthani town long touted as the most haunted place in India. Others have proved more fruitful, such as a deserted army building in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, where Tiwari says he was pushed by an unknown force and other team members recorded strange noises and apparitions on their instruments. Some of the group were touched by spirits, he says, describing the sensation as one of extreme coldness.

People contact G.R.I.P. through their website, their active Facebook page, or after watching the YouTube videos or coming across media coverage. Based on his experiences, Tiwari says “most people in India don’t understand the difference between the natural and unnatural causes [behind hauntings].” In other words, there are often logical explanations for what are perceived to be ghostly disturbances. He cites creaking floorboards, bad wiring, rodents and gas leaks as “natural” reasons behind goings-on that lead people to believe there are ghosts in the house. Other clients show signs of mental instability and they are referred to G.R.I.P.’s resident psychologist or to a doctor.

Two days after the St Nagar investigation, Tiwari sent Sharma an email with a “thank you letter” and a link to a video showing findings from the night: an apparition, the momentary fading of the laser dots, an orb before the camera falls, and a woman singing or crying in the background – all of which are virtually impossible to discern from the grainy clip. The report states that there are two spirits, possibly of a couple, who might have died in an accident. The report further explains that the spirits are stuck in the house because of its “negative vibration and energy.” To help them leave, Tiwari prescribes establishing “harmony and order.” To do this, he advises Sharma to sell off all the old objects, “old dolls” and repaint the house.

Yet someone like Tiwari, whose reputation as a ghost expert has grown, faces a curious dilemma. He says his father still helps him financially, and most of his team members are volunteers with day jobs. He conducts investigations at the behest of people for free in keeping in line with “international protocol.” Occasionally he may ask his client to reimburse travel expenses. Since there is no direct money involved, he has diversified into various money-making methods: selling, on their e-store, t-shirts and jackets with the G.R.I.P. logo; offering online certificate courses for Rs 25 000; investigating haunted locations for TV channels.

In 2009 Tiwari was approached by MTV to play the resident paranormal expert on Girls Night Out, a 13-episode thriller reality television series that offered a five lakh rupee grand prize to the contestant who proved to be the bravest after spending the night in a haunted location.

“They knew they were going to take three girls to haunted places,” says Tiwari about the show’s producers, “but they weren’t sure where or what different risk factors were involved.”

So G.R.I.P. scouted out 40 to 50 places in India with rumoured levels of paranormal activity – abandoned jails, bungalows, forts and even a movie theatre that burned down in 1988 killing patrons inside – which producers whittled down to 14 locations featured on the show. “We investigated and then we sent in the girls to experience the haunting,” Tiwari says. The show aired in September 2010, and in early 2011 won two awards for its pilot season, including “Best Reality Show” at the Asian Television Awards, Singapore. Season two was under discussion at the time of writing.

The show gave Gaurav’s brand a boost, particularly within India’s television space. “We were flooded with offers after Girls Night Out,” he says, although most of the networks wanted to make “some spicy, horror, fabricated ghost hunting shows” that didn’t resonate with IPS’s aims.

Ayesha Mohan, 28, who was at the St Nagar investigation, is a Bollywood actress-turned-director working on a mockumentary about djinns in Delhi. Mohan believes that Girls Night Out was a good concept, but she says she found the show’s final edit baffling. “I wish they had kept it more genuine, you know? If nothing is happening in a house, fine,” she says. “You don’t have to put sound and foley [reproduced sounds such as footsteps, creaking doors and breaking glass] in every little sequence to make it more dramatic.”

She believes there’s a market for investigative shows that communicate the subject of the paranormal in a genuine way. “It’s a sellable subject,” she says. “If they make it in the right way it will work.” Mohan, who herself believes in ghosts, says: “I’m sure there is an audience out there who wants to see the way things really happen.”

Besides finding new partners and sponsors for his projects, Tiwari hopes to leverage his growing profile by setting up his own production house, so he can make exactly the shows he wants. Some of those projects are already in the works, including one with Robb Demarest, the former lead investigator of Ghost Hunter International.

Since the MTV show however, Tiwari has also ob-served the springing up of investigative groups started by college-going youths. Some of these groups have been begun by younger people, including one in Hyderabad led by a 13-year-old boy. Sometimes they get in touch with Tiwari for advice. Tiwari seems happy to see this hobby take off, but expresses concern that these new groups don’t follow G.R.I.P.’s standards and could damage the reputation of “legitimate” investigators.

But for the most part, the emergence of groups interested in the paranormal as well as the interactions he’s had with people through IPS and G.R.I.P., have led him to believe that attitudes toward ghosts are changing.

“Earlier, people used to think that spirits and ghosts were always evil, that they would always harm you,” Tiwari says.

“Now people dig it,” he says. “People go to haunted places for fun now. So the fear factor has come down.”

Annette Ekin contributed reporting to this article.

Byline: Jen Swanson
Photographs: Reshi Dev

Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

Your email address will not be published.