Superstitions, Myths, Black Magic

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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, yet, she had a few 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 a strong conviction, but not about the superstitions 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 has an implicit belief in anything, it transfers immense strength to the inner self. This is what I saw and learned. 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… goosebumps and white-in-the-face breath-stopping moments!

One of her firmest beliefs was that a snake got hypnotized or, as she put it, got “blinded” if the firstborn child of a family stood in front of it. Since she was the firstborn child in her family, she believed that snakes couldn’t move if they encountered her.

We lived in the country and had a big fruit garden and a vegetable garden so 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 as 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 quick and agile when any other member of the family tried to nail them. Quite often, they’d make their escape. To explain it further, I’ll recount an incident that left me flummoxed.

Grandma retained the rural identity of her kitchen to the core. It was 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. They used coal and wood to light it.

This corner Chula stayed burning or smoldering throughout the day and half the night. There would always be a kettle of tea on the embers. This was also a 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 a big grain bin and a hand pump. Grandma would sit between the Chula and the table, with a kerosene stove or an angithi, whichever suited her, on the floor. Her choice depended on what she was cooking. All the meals would be cooked this way. 

One day, I was sitting in the armchair and happily chatting while I ate a hot, crisp cheeni paratha straight off the tava. Suddenly, Grandma put her finger to her lips; signaling for me to keep quiet. I looked at her quizzically but refrained from any verbal query.

She stretched out her arm and got hold of the iron 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?

She got up, phukni in hand, 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!

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When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible, for that mind, in its maturity to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I can do it myself.”-Mark Twain

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She repeated her firstborn theory again and frankly, 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 snakes (poisonous ones too!) that lay quietly like lambs for the slaughter. However, none of these were burned.

There was another weird belief in the villages 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 until it found the actual murderer!

This was why any cobra that was killed had to be burned! Even as a child, I found this a pretty far-fetched belief or notion. I wonder how people could so whole-heartedly digest this absurd story. We even had quite a few Bollywood movies, in those days, propagating this myth.

Grandma also believed that people used black magic to get even with their enemies or to get something they wanted real bad. I loved to hear her stories. They were spooky and gave me 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 had 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 young nation then, and very under-developed. We had no advanced medical facilities and rural women who wanted to have babies and could not conceive visited sadhus and medicine men who would perform rituals to help them while others went to tantriks; the people who perform black magic.

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You never see animals going through the absurd and often horrible fooleries of magic and religion… Only man behaves with such gratuitous folly.”-Aldous Huxley

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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 showed no interest in my brother. She was only on ‘hello’, ‘hi’ terms with us. Besides, Grandma was cautioning us about the next day! This was even more unusual.

I asked her what made her expect the teacher and why we shouldn’t allow her to carry my brother. She told me that sometimes it was best not to ask too many questions.

Early, the next morning, I was with my baby brother in Grandma’s garden when the teacher leaned over the low boundary wall of Grandma’s house. The alarm bells went off in my head! She asked me to bring 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 my baby brother. 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. I was just ten years old then and quite naïve! Not like the ten-year-olds of today.

No sooner had I reached the wall than she leaned over and grabbed him from my arms. I yelled at her and called out to Grandma. She came running and took in the scene at a glance. She snatched 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. My grandparent’s vehemence terrified her. And truth be told, right then, I was 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; she snatched him from my arms. This was when she sat me down and told me that the day was particularly auspicious and used for magical rites. I don’t recall 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 freshly washed hair; wet, left open and uncombed. There were a few other things she mentioned, but I can’t remember what they were.

Anyway, 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 a 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 broke; it began to lower and he got well. I can recall, without exaggeration, that my plump 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 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 conclusion you want.

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What we don’t understand, we can make mean anything.”-Chuck Palahniuk

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Glossary
Chula…..it means oven. Coal and 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 and parathas 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.

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