Superstitions, Myths and Black Magic
India is a land of many superstitions. Today we do not hear much about them, as education and science have played their part in a large way. Having said that I must mention that all don’t come under this education of the mind. India lives in the villages and in these villages superstitions thrive.
Grandma was a storehouse of strange stories, superstitions and myths. She was a strange mixture of cynicism and credulity. She was a firm believer in God, nevertheless she had a couple of beliefs that had nothing to do with him. At times, I wasn’t so sure if I wanted to believe her or not. However what I saw convinced me she was right about developing strong conviction, but not about the superstition per se. What I saw was not superstition...it was extreme calm in the face of danger. This courage was born of unshakable faith. When one believes implicitly in anything, it transfers immense strength to the inner self. This is what I saw and learnt. But her stories and actions based on her belief in certain superstitions were indeed very interesting, and for that moment I allowed myself to go with it. It gave me the thrill that scary movies give...goose bumps and white-in-the-face breath stopping moments.
One of her firmest beliefs was that, a snake got hypnotised or as she put it “blinded,” if the firstborn child of a family came in front of it. Since she was the firstborn child in her family, she believed that snakes couldn’t move if they encountered her. Since we lived in the country and had big fruit gardens and vegetable gardens, our home was host to many snakes; permanent residents as well as visitors. Many of these unfortunate ones met their end at her hand. Now killing a snake isn’t such a great feat, but killing a snake that stayed rooted to the spot while she picked a lathi or stood quietly watching the snake while a stick was brought to her, now that’s something I have never seen or heard of before. The snakes were swift and agile when any other member of the family tried to nail them. They usually made their escape. To explain it further, I’ll recount an incident that truly left me flummoxed .
Grandma’s kitchen retained its rural identity to the core. It was fairly spacious, with an inbuilt “Chula” occupying the right corner in the north. A chimney, over the chula, released the fumes and smoke of this typical earthen cooking place. Coal and wood were used to light it. This corner chula, stayed burning 24X7. There would always be a kettle of tea on the embers. This was also the constant feeder for their hookah fire.
The chula was on ground level. So cooking was done seated on “pidhis.” These are very low stools made of wood with woven jute ropes forming the seat. There were four or five of these around the place. In the left corner there was a table, and a comfortable armchair. The other two corners in the south were occupied by big grain-bins and a hand pump.Grandma would sit between the chula and the table, with a kerosene stove in front of her on the floor. She would cook the main meal on this stove.
One day, I was sitting in the armchair and happily chatting away, while I ate a hot, crisp “cheeni paratha” straight off the griddle. Suddenly Grandma put her finger to her lips, signalling for me to keep quiet. I looked at her quizzically, but refrained from any verbal query. She stretched her arm out and picked up the “phukni” which was lying near the chula. Then she gestured that I should lift my feet off the ground. By now I knew it had something to do with a snake, but where was the creepy crawly? Grandma got up and bending down lifted her pidhi and kept it to one side. There coiled up and petrified lay a Cobra. I gaped and the next second I felt a scream coming up. Thankfully it got frozen into silence. Grandma lifted the iron phukni and smashed it down on the snake. She hit it some more to make sure it was dead then called Grandpa to take it out and burn it. Burn it? Why? I wondered. There is another myth attached to that.
I asked her how she knew the snake was there and when had it slipped in. She admitted that she did not know when it had come in but had sensed that there was one under her! She felt sorry that she had to kill a Cobra. She had another belief connected to that. She repeated her firstborn theory again and frankly speaking, I couldn’t but believe her then. But till date, I often wonder at the power of conviction for that is what it was all about, it had nothing to do with her being a firstborn. There were many similar instances when we saw her take her time dealing with poisonous snakes that lay quietly like lambs for the slaughter. However, none of these were burned.
This was another weird belief in the villages then, that Cobras carried a picture of their slayer in their eyes, like a negative and not like a positive print. So, if it wasn’t burned, its mate would see the image and then seek revenge on the killer. In the bargain it would attack many humans, till it found the actual murderer. This was why any Cobra that was killed had to be burned! Even as a child I found this pretty unbelievable. I wonder how people could digest this absurd story so whole-heartedly. We even had quite a few Bollywood films, at my time, based on this myth.
Grandma also believed that people used black magic to get even with their enemies or to get something they wanted really badly. I loved to hear her stories, they were spooky and I used to get chills down my spine. However what actually spooked me was an incident that convinced me that people did resort to some practices that could only be termed as “black magic” because they had evil intent. Whether these practices gave the desired result is anyone’s guess.
We had a teacher living down the road. She had married rather late in life and desperately wanted to have a baby. I am talking about the year 1965. India was a very young nation and very under-developed. We had no advanced medical facilities and generally women who wanted to have babies and could not conceive visited sadhus and medicine men, who would perform rituals to help them, while others would go to ‘tantriks.’ These are people who perform black magic.
One evening Grandma told us kids and my mother not to allow the teacher to carry my baby brother the next day. We found this odd as the teacher never did show any particular interest in my brother. She was only on ‘hello’, ‘hi’ terms with us. Besides, grandma was cautioning us about the next day, which was even more unusual. I asked her what made her expect the teacher and why we shouldn’t allow the teacher to carry my brother, but she told me that sometimes it was best not to ask too many questions.
Early the next morning, I was ‘walking’ my baby brother in Grandma’s garden when the teacher leaned over the low boundary wall of Grandma’s house and asked me to carry my brother to her. The sight of her put me on guard. This was bizarre. Grandma was right as usual, she did appear and she did show an interest in the baby. I refused to give her the baby. Then she asked me to bring him closer so she could play with him. I saw no harm in that, as she wasn’t going to carry him. No sooner had I reached the wall than she leant over and grabbed him from me. I yelled at her and called out to Grandma, who came running, and took in the scene at a glance. She literally grabbed my brother from the teacher, and for the first time I heard her talk to someone in such a harsh manner. The teacher almost ran back the way she had come. She seemed terrified by my grandparent’s vehemence. Actually right then I was a bit terrified of her too, she looked awesome; like an avenging angel…eyes blazing,and wrathful face wreathed by her crown of snow-white hair.
I was next in the line of fire. I explained that I had not let the teacher carry the baby; he was snatched from my arms. This was when she sat me down and told me that, that day was particularly auspicious and used for magical rites. I don’t remember what day it was. She explained that the teacher had displayed all the signs of black magic rituals. It had something to do with her hair being freshly washed, wet, left open and uncombed. There were a few other things that she mentioned, but I can’t recall them. Any way she called my mother and told her to keep a check on the little fellow. To monitor any change in him. By then we were all highly perturbed and worried. We did not believe in these things but Grandma was so serious about it and that affected us. Within the hour my brother developed high fever. He was taken to the doctor but I don’t think that was of any help because the fever wouldn’t subside. Soon he was throwing up. Grandma came up with all her home remedies and prayers. She prayed and prayed. Finally, the fever went down and he was well. I can recall without exaggeration, that my fat little brother became a twig in those four days.
Coincidence?... Black Magic?... I still don’t know what it was. But Grandma had predicted that the teacher would come, and had warned us about it. My perfectly, hale-and-hearty brother developed a strange fever suddenly, after being carried by the woman...again something Grandma had feared would happen. No, I don’t know what to make of it even after so many years. You can draw whatever conclusions you want.
Chula.....it means oven. Coal, wood are used to light it. It is made of clay (soil)
Phukni.... a bamboo or metal blowing-tube (for a fire).
Cheeni Paratha.....cheeni means sugar. Paratha is an unleavened Indian flat-bread. It is made of layered whole wheat (atta) dough. And fried on a Tava (griddle) There are many kinds of parathas. Cheeni [paratha means sugar stuffed in the paratha.