I had to make haste to the village I had lived in from the time eight members of my family died in a tractor-trailer crash on their way to the mela in the nearest town. I had heard whispers in the neighbouring village that an urgent war council (read Panchayat) meeting had been summoned. I didn’t want to be late. Panchayat meetings usually offered some reason for mirth.
Yet, there was something in air that said it was unusual. In all my years – don’t ask me how many, for I have no idea – I hadn’t heard of a Panchayat meeting being called after the crimson sun had sunk beneath the horizon. As I made my way from the farmland and got closer to the village square, I also heard muffled drum-beats and a a pack of mongrels which was howling as they fought a territorial battle.
The meeting was being held around a fire, the dry wood crackling furiously, fiery tongues leaping skywards. The tantrik, clearly out to fleece the gullible, was dancing around the fire, pretending to be possessed by some divine power. The light from the fire accentuated his matted hair and the vermilion marks on his forehead. I could see he was putting up an act – and doing a poor job of it.
Why had the village folk resorted to the mumbo-jumbo? I looked around the gathering, searching for the priest who had brought me up after the accident, even if he had earned the wrath of some powerful people in the village. None of the others would speak much with me, let alone treat me with respect. But with the priest not around, I had to ask to Mahesh the cobbler to fill me in.
“We are aware that there is a ghost lurking in our village. The tantrik is trying to drive it away.”
The baniya (trader) had incurred losses but only because he had not kept pace with competition from the neighbouring village. A malnourished couple had lost their child, born six weeks prematurely, to jaundice. Some cattle had died because of a disease. And they blamed all of that on my great-grandmother. All the wretched soul did was chant some mantras, incoherently, as she waited for her appointment with death.
I knew they all detested my great-grandmother and reserved only contempt. I must admit her disheveled hair, sunken cheeks, bent back and long, dirty finger-nails made her look weird. But that was no reason for them to revile her.
The priest was an exception, a noble soul. He would spend time with me each day, feeding me and educating me in the ways of the world. For some reason, he would neither enter the house nor meet my great-grandmother. It was almost as if even he dreaded meeting her. She had lost her whole family and, as a consequence, her balance as well.
She seemed to survive on the fruit I stole from the nearby orchards. Strangely, the priest also kept me away from the school where I could hear others recite rhymes, learn the alphabet, count the numbers and taunt the teacher for wearing a tuft.
“If there is a ghost, it seems a good one. It hasn’t harmed anyone, has it?” I attempted to tell the Panchayat. I wanted to say more but I was shouted down. I can’t tell you enough about the herd mentality that grips a village, especially when fear is the key. I had made a mistake. I had drawn the attention of the Panchayat to me – and its focus on my great-grandmother.
“It has to be her.”
“She does look like a wicked witch.”
“She must be the one.
God! They were going to kill a harmless old woman just because they though she looked like a witch. She knew no magic, let alone black magic. And, truth to tell, she was no ghost.
The cacophony was growing and I simply had to slip away from the square and head home, hoping I could do that unnoticed. A chill wind was howling across the village. I looked up the sky. Countless stars were twinkling against the dark canvas. As I closed the door of our hut behind me, panting for breath, I could see the priest stand by my great-grandmother’s body.
The monotonous beat of a dozen and more drums faded away. Now that my great-grandmother was no more, it was time for me to move on. Them mortals would never find me.
Jun 15, 2005 7:50 am