Superstitions, Sweet Oranges and Stories…Of the multiple intriguing things in India, one that tops the list is the superstitions that decide the way of life here. I have seen instances of ‘life changing’ decisions being made on the basis of a belief with its roots beyond the graves of generations.
While in rural India it is mostly a way of life – the only way actually – it has a steel grip on the urban populace as well. Me – I am a bit of a non-believer but have to give in, in the face of “peer pressure” sometimes. Personal opinions aside, there is a huge advantage to all the hearsay – they bring cartloads of strange stories with them!
My help here in India, Janki Mashi, pampers me with sweet oranges on a sunny afternoon and treats me with these stories. I call her “my help” for lack of a better word to describe her. She is more like a mother to me. It was a Sunday afternoon in Gurgaon. Janki Mashi had heated some mustard oil to apply on my hair and scalp. She does these things without my asking for it and does not take nicely to my resistance ever.
So I give in for her happiness and also because at the end of her head massage, I feel like I am in some kind of paradise. Not to mention the temptation of the peeled and deveined oranges, my ready cushioned seat on a sunny spot on the balcony and the stored up tales of her village! I cannot help but feel spoiled rotten in such instances and ashamed to be cribbing about anything that I may have been sulking about moments before.
Janki Mashi has four daughters, a son and a menace of husband in her family. Each one of them has a story to tell, all different in their own ways and all out to cheat her of whatever she makes through her employment with me. This Sunday, however, she was plagued with the troubles of her middle daughter who she lovingly called Choto. Choto reminds me of Juliette Binoche’s character in the movie ‘Chocolat’. She has a wandering mind and nothing, no amount of explaining, beating or insulting has kept her anchored! She absconds from one place to the other the first chance she gets.
“How young was she when she did it first?” I asked Janki Mashi.
And so the story unfolded.
Janki Mashi’s village apparently has a clear demarcation between the Adivasis or the Santhal tribe and the rest. They do not mix. The Santhals believe in all sorts of practices including black magic. They kill wild rats, snakes, frogs, bats and other such creatures, barbecue them in an open fire and eat them. The rest of the villagers stick to food like fish, vegetables, chicken, lentils, and rice.
Choto was about eight years old when she was out playing hide and seek with her friends in the village. When it was her turn to become the den she crouched under the shade of a tree to give her friends a fair chance to hide. It was then that a man as dark as a moonless night approached her with promises of gifts and jewelry.
Now although Choto had been warned several times to stay away from strangers, all she envisioned then was herself wrapped with glittering jewels of all kinds and showing them off to her friends. She hopped and skipped behind the man, filled with hopes and dreams.
She went missing for the rest of the day after that. All the families who lived close by put their resources together to search for her, in vain. It was when Janki Mashi had lost consciousness crying that they saw a disheveled Choto walking into the house demurely. Everything seemed to be alright with her except a big patch of her hair seemed to be missing from the side of her head. She was unharmed in any other way.The only other significant thing missing was her speech. She didn’t speak for the rest of the month. Just nodded her head either in the affirmative or negative. No amount of medical intervention helped. Then, just like that, in exactly a month of the incident her speech came back. The whole village gathered and sat around her to hear what had happened on the fateful day. But lo and behold, she had now lost her memory it seemed. For her the moments after she followed the dark man never happened. The whole day after that was erased from her memory. She had no idea where she had been and how she came back!
Janki Mashi’s relief, however, took precedence over the memory lapse and she shooed away her neighbors’ concerns about the dark night, black magic and hovering Santhals. Days rolled by but nothing was the same again. Choto had started disappearing every now and then. She would go missing for a couple of days and always come back with a valid reason for her absence. Her father developed a keen sense of abhorrence towards her. Her siblings disowned her but Janki Mashi kept her faith alive. She worked on Choto, tried talking to her, explaining things. But neither her kindness nor her father’s beatings helped. She would still go missing with clockwork regularity. And so it went…Years rolled by. For two consecutive seasons the village saw no rain, the crops did not yield and Janki Mashi’s family fell into bad times. They were bankrupt and it was then that Janki Mashi along with her son and two daughters took a train to Gurgaon to look for work. As fate would have it, there was a knock on my door a month after I had moved from the US and was looking for someone to help me with chores at home.
The younger of the two women who stood at my door to be interviewed said her name was Choto. She was about eighteen. The elder sister, of about twenty two, had been employed a few days back and had accompanied her sister to make sure she did a good job answering questions. But I had already made my mind up. I wasn’t going to hire anyone that young. I asked them if they knew of anyone older, responsible enough to be a nanny when I went out to work. So the next day Janki Mashi was sent and I hired her immediately. She has been working with me since. It’s been about four years now.
It was only last month that in my mind Choto’s story reached a sort of superstitious justification. She had run away again and this time news was that she had found a Santhal to get married to. Janki Mashi was shattered as was the rest of the family. When asked what it was about the man she liked so much, she said “He understands me.” To that she added fondly, “You know Ma, he also loves my hair. He can’t stop playing with it!”
Check out Kriti and Sulekha’s site www.socialpotpourri.com