The Ghostbusters of Indian Prisons

As more inmates raise alarms of haunted barracks and spirits in Indian prisons, authorities are now compelled to debunk superstitions with science and reason.

Puja Changoiwala

February 18, 2019

The Ghostbusters of Indian Prisons
Activist Vandana Shinde during an anti-superstition session at a women's prison in Maharashtra, India (from Mumbai-based NGO Sevadham)

Inmates at an Indian central prison sit stunned as 72-year-old Vandana Shinde walks into their barrack. Her right hand is tied with a rope to that of another woman: middle-aged, shabbily-dressed, waist-length hair covering her face, body swaying to inaudible notes, mouth mumbling gibberish utterances.

Taking center-stage on a platform, Shinde announces that she’s going to exorcise the woman of the evil spirit that possesses her. She lights up a camphor ball, places it on her left palm, and as she rhythmically alternates the flame between her hands, Shinde chants mantras, loud and determined. The audience sits entranced, while the possessed woman breaks into frantic wails and, after a few tense seconds, collapses.

“The ghost has been captured in this coconut,” the exorcist asserts, picking up the fruit placed on the floor. “Now, wait,” she adds, smashing the fruit in two to reveal its contents: broken pieces of green glass bangles. Dramatically, “It appears she was possessed by a woman.” A stunned silence grips the barrack, the inmates are spellbound.

Without missing a beat, Shinde quickly shifts gears and explains the science behind her “miracles.” First, she avoided getting burned by fire by constantly switching palms. As for the bangle pieces in the coconut? She’d drilled a hole through the weakest of the fruit’s three “eyes,” which lie hidden under its husk. The possessed woman, meanwhile, is just a good actor.