17/05/2015 8:29 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

From The Lady In White To Bandage Bhoot: The Fantastic World of Urban Legends

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My friend's cousin's friend's grandmother suffered from arthritis. Someone told her about a holy pond that miraculously healed all kinds of ailments. Grandmother reached the pond to discover a crowd and a long line of people waiting to take a dip. Too exhausted from the journey, she decided to rest for a while. She noticed an empty wheelchair and sat on it. When the crowd had thinned a bit, she got up from the wheelchair, and as she did, someone yelled: "It's a miracle! She is up". A crowd of frenzied believers ran to see her from up close and to touch her. In this chaos, the grandmother fell and broke her leg. Having gone to the pond to get her arthritis cured, she returned with a broken leg.

The story, of course, is anything but true. It is an urban legend that appears in different forms all over Europe, loosely titled as "Miracle at Lourdes." I just tweaked it.

But, then, aren't urban legends usually about ghosts, and silly stories like the alligators in the sewers? Well, let me start by offering a tentative definition of urban legends. To quote About.Com's David Emery, an urban legend is "[A]n apocryphal second-hand story told as true and just plausible enough to be believed." Think about it - it sounds plausible that baby alligators flushed down the toilet eventually become full-grown alligators and roam in the sewers!

"I don't want to analyse why these tales are created. Instead, let's just appreciate these fantastic stories that have stayed with us for generations."

I don't want to analyse why these tales are created. Instead, let's just appreciate these fantastic stories that have stayed with us for generations. I should also clarify that my interest is in legends from the late 80s and 90s, an era that I have experienced. The legends from that time are quite different from the legends of today.

First of all, the event in question always happened to a friend's friend. Of course, you would never have met anyone who had a direct experience of the event. Second, urban legends had a universal appeal. While some originated in the Western world, they could easily become an Indian story, like the one I narrated in the beginning. Finally, a large chunk of them were cautionary tales that often took place within the cityscape. The story at the beginning is not your usual urban legend, but now perhaps it's time to look at some of the common themes.

In the 90s, when I was in high school, we were afraid of this handsome young guy who apparently waited on lonely alleyways. The story goes that he asked you some unimportant questions, and as you paused to answer him, he injected you with the AIDS virus. There were a few variations to this story: sometimes it was a woman, sometimes an elderly man, but at the end, they all injected unsuspecting innocent people with the AIDS virus. It goes without saying that our general ignorance about AIDS in that era made this a truly powerful story.

There were other themes. Growing up, I had heard countless stories about a friend's friend's cousin sister eloping with the milkman, or the postman and the washerman. In fact, I heard these accounts so frequently that I was convinced that they happened all the time. And then, there were stories of sexual misadventures. While stories about sexual mishaps during foreplay are commonplace in the Western world, in India they were fabricated basically to prevent sex altogether. Back then, there were so many outlandish urban legends about sex that I was totally convinced that getting it on was fatal. Climbing the Everest was surely less risky than sex. Way to go urban legends! Well done.

"If you really care about truth, then go ahead, stand in front of the mirror and say Bloody Mary thrice!"

Ghost tales and stories of serial killers were also at the top of the list. For example, the story of the phantom hitchhiker was not only common all over Europe and North America, there were many Indian versions of it as well. The one I remember well is an urban legend from Kolkata about a phantom cop who hitched a ride and then disappeared into thin air. As the story goes, he was killed in a hit and run accident, and his spirit still looks for the vehicle that killed him. Another popular story on the same theme was the "lady in a white sari" who stood on lonely highways. Again, there were many variations of this tale. Sometimes, the lady morphed into a skeleton and killed the driver, or she suddenly disappeared and the shock caused an accident. Sometimes, she asked the driver to drop her near a graveyard and vanished in front of him. This last version, of course, is a popular theme in Bollywood films, and Woh Kaun Thi immediately comes to mind. But in this case, we must also thank Wilkie Collins, whose novel Lady in White has inspired the ghost stories.

Let me now end with the story of Bandage Bhoot - a ghost that looked like a mummy, all wrapped in bandage. He hid in toilets, and when you were in a vulnerable situation, he stuck a needle in the arm and took out all your blood. I was in fifth standard then, and the scare lasted for a month. I never quite got over the story.

I can go on endlessly. To me, this is a fascinating subject. Some will argue that many of these legends are actually "true." Of course, truth is stranger than fiction. But the whole exercise is not about judging the veracity of the tales, it's really about enjoying a good campfire story.

If you really care about truth, then go ahead, stand in front of the mirror and say Bloody Mary thrice!

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