Witches

September 17, 2010


There was a rumor in the town. There were witches in action. Young children were dying of unknown causes, there were Sutras (small Jowar portions wrapped in a strip of cloth dipped in turmeric) strewn everywhere, particularly on the road to our school. We would also encounter rice portions with lemons filled with yellow turmeric, red turmeric and pins. An elderly person started complaining that a supernatural pelts stones on his roof during the night. It did not affect us but all the grand mothers in town were in panic. We instead had a new pastime playing with the Sutras and Rice balls.

Grandpa Anna was not much disturbed and things were normal in our house. But other children received strict instructions that they should not cross any Sutra or the rice portions, otherwise it will attract bad omen for the house and invite skin boils. The Bhanamati or stone pelting incidence was taken seriously and a group of townspeople was formed to investigate and stay on guard duty in the night. During his courtsey visit, doctor Grandpa said it is Tetanus that is causing fatalities in children and everybody should avoid injuries caused by rusted iron. Anna took a vow from me to follow doctor Grandpa’s instructions. In rainy season, it was the habit of the barbed wires, nails and tin roof sheets to hide under stagnant water or mud. How can one refrain from these while playing? But care was necessary, since a promise was a promise.

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Slowly, the needle of doubt started pointing towards three women.

To my utter surprise, one was Bhiku’s Aunt. She was elderly caring woman in her forties and used to come to our place sometimes to ask for buttermilk. She was a witch? Something was wrong. People gossiped in hushed voices that she visited the cremation grounds at odd hours.

On a Sunday, I was given responsibility for the first time to shop for vegetables. I was in the weekly wholesale market when I saw her crossing. She did not notice me. The crematorium was beyond the weekly market. I thought for a moment and started to follow her from a safe distance. She kept walking in her own thoughts, without looking around. There was not a soul on that dirt road except us and I had to take special precautions to keep myself, lest she might notice I was following her. The crematorium neared and I was in total frenzy. This was a prohibited area. But she kept walking at brisk pace and went past it. I was relieved that she did not go there. She went further to a desolate household which had a sizeable dairy farm. She went inside and came out after sometime carrying a big container. She started walking back, and caught me while I was bitten by a thorn and had to bend down to remove it.

“What are you doing here?” she said in concerned tone, “Children should not venture here. Do you know this is crematorium?…..Were you following me?”

“Yes.”

“And why?” She said, while removing the thorn in my toe.

I had to tell her the truth.

“Did you also believe in all that nonsense?”

“Of course not…..That is why I wanted to make sure where you went.” This was half truth.

Her container was without handle and must have been heavy. She had trouble holding it on her head. I offered help. She settled down in her pace and started muttering.

“These people have no sympathy for a widow, neither they have courage to charge me in public…..you will not understand the difficulties a widow living at the mercy of her relatives has to undergo….All this gossiping behind my back is killing me, really.”

“You should tell them.”

“Why should I offer justification?…..I don’t need to.”

“Then take the flak.”

“That I am very much taking….. But one doesn’t feel like carrying on for long alone, you know.” She started crying.

“What is in the container?”

“What else? Buttermilk. At least this gentleman obliges. All other households have closed their doors for me.”

We had reached the market place. I handed back the container, she thanked me and left. The market was on the verge of closure. I got a good deal on a leafy vegetable and came back with a bagful of only that. Grandma looked at the vegetables and said,

“Are we a family of buffalos or what? This is buffalo fodder, not a leafy vegetable for human consumption.” But she cooked it and everybody had to eat it. “Next time when you go to the market, take somebody knowledgeable with you.”

Then she inquired as to why I took so much time to return back. I explained. She said,

“What Bhiku’s Aunt said is so correct. Widows have no place to hide, although they want to….If you see her, ask her to collect buttermilk from our house; she does not need to go so far away…..But if I hear from you once more that you went near to the crematorium, I will teach a lesson, for sure. ”

I gave enough mouth publicity of my errand and findings within my friends. People dropped Bhiku’s Aunt from Witch-List. Grandma said that was purely because of me; although I knew that it must have been Grandma’s doing.

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Dhurpada was the second in the list. Her very young son, who was a master footballer of our school, had suddenly died. People said she was paying the price for her bad deeds. Doctor Grandpa kept telling everybody that it was Tetanus. But the rumors about her were growing day by day.

We had a playground beyond our school. It was late evening, the moon had just started shining and I was somehow left behind by my friends. Tired as I was, I was treading the path to my house, singing aloud, at a leisurely pace.

I stopped dead because of what I saw in the twilight a few feet ahead of me.

Dhurpada, and her neighbor! Both were giggling and wrestling. Dhurpada had lost sense of her clothes and it did not seem to matter to her.  Both were so engaged in each other, they did not seem to notice me at all, not even my singing. Ashamed, I took diversion and came home running.

Dhurpada was indeed a witch! Her son had expired only days before and she was giggling and wrestling with somebody. And the man was not even her husband. I publicized the account of that evening everywhere. Somehow, this news reached Anna. He summoned me, admonished me in strong words not to say anything further to anybody about this matter.

I had no mercy for Dhurpada, neither the townsfolk had any. She remained on the list.

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Keka, the third one, definitely could not be a witch! Grandma had sent me to her house last month with a message that she should come and visit us. I knew; Keka was very young, sweet, in late teens, had a rough marriage, expelled by her husband and had returned to her parents only a month ago. When the rumors of her black craft started gaining ground, I urged Grandma that we should call her.

After three or four messages, she came. No sooner than she entered the kitchen, where Grandma was, she started crying.  She kept crying for for a long time, Grandma also joining her in between. It was a rainy afternoon. I was at the front of the house with Anna and we both speechlessly listened to the sounds of her crying; loud, heart-rending in the beginning and sobs later. I could not bear anymore, went inside and sat beside her. She hugged me tightly and a new tidal wave of her sobs engulfed me. I looked at Grandma and she called Anna. I was asked to go out. After another hour or so, she was composed and went away, after hugging me again.

I overheard Grandma telling her friends that Keka’s husband had been brutal to her and she still had bruises on her body everywhere.

Her name was summarily struck out from the list after the womenfolks were convinced.

The rainy season ended and so did the rumors. The bhanamati turned out to be a miscreant’s deed and the stone pelting stopped as soon as the culprit was caught.

On Grandma’s persistence, Grandpa Anna called Keka’s husband, gave him legal scare and he agreed to take her back. But the marriage did not last, neither she was divorced. She came back, this time with a miscarriage and also disability in her leg. Anna engaged a criminal lawyer this time on her behalf, although Keka was not ready, and lodged an offence with a petition for divorce. It was a long battle to get her separated.

I waited for the next year’s rainy season and further interesting rumors.

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9 Responses to “Witches”

  1. Ranjeet Elkunchwar Says:

    Wonderful ! Brilliant start to a dreary day ! I have so much respect for Anna and Ajji. I am waiting for more stories. Once again, amazing memory and brilliant pen-man-ship.

    Small correction
    Para 1, line 3 ‘curtsey’ should be ‘courtesy’

  2. PeACEMAKER Says:

    Thanks Ranjeet.
    Thanks for the spell check. It has gone through WordPress and Word checker. Still?
    Am I becoming repeatitive?

  3. Ranjeet Elkunchwar Says:

    Repetitive? No, not at all. I think that age/era and stories from your childhood are completely unknown to us. So I don’t mind reading about it at all !

    I like you can still recall the feeling and thoughts as they ran through your mind. The one about ‘Wrestling’ is a legend !

    I would like it if you coax Ma into sharing some of her childhood memories, as she was quite an interesting kid too ! It would good for us to know ! Will allow you to take a ‘biographic’ angle 🙂

    I still maintain that you should write what you feel and not care for what others think. Sometimes (and I won’t tell you when 🙂 ) I hypothesize and tell my story in others’ voice or vice-versa on others to do justice to the story and the premise (not so much the reader); which makes the story more interesting.

    I believe you are far more knowledgeable and have read hordes of books to know what’s your preferred method, voice and narration pattern. Stick by it. Of course, being able to write in ‘day light time’ might be something to look into 🙂

    Keep em’ coming I say.

  4. PeACEMAKER Says:

    Thanks for the detailed reply.


  5. You were brought up around rational and open-hearted people, and I can vouch that in the formative years, that’s worth its weight in gold!

  6. PeACEMAKER Says:

    Thanks Nikhil for your words and continued reading.

  7. Hema P. Says:

    A very interesting and clinical look at memories from the past. You paint a picture with your words really well — I could clearly see the dusty road and feel your trepidation as you neared the burial grounds!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog!


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