There is no rest for some
November 8, 2008 Leave a comment
Pandiyan was the village tailor. In his high days, he used to get hot home-cooked meals from the women wanting to get their dresses stitched first. Money was not the only currency. But competition arrived in the guise of Mani. Mani was very quick with the needle and his patterns were fashionable and sought after. Ladies from even neighboring villages were sending their clothes to Mani. Pandiyan retaliated by starting a whisper about Mani, implying the clothes stitched by Mani brought the wearer bad luck. But Mani successfully countered by pointing out that he stitched all of his wife’s clothes and the going was certainly good for her. The women sided with Mani and Pandiyan’s business began to fade. Lately he was said to have hit arrack to drown his sorrows. On this occasion, he wandered into the forest. He was not very clear about his reasons. However after a little while he claimed to have seen this greenish glow emanating from a thicket by the side of a tree stump. As he went towards the light, he felt a force hitting him squarely and strongly that he was flung against the stump. He had many bruises to show for his story. By evening the story had been dissected and the consensus was an inebriated Pandiyan probably had fallen in a ditch and hit his head causing him to have delusions. That was that.
It turned out that was not that – on the next day, Perumal went missing. He read the signs and the omens for the villagers. By evening a search party was organized. They found him at the outskirts of the forest with a broken arm and unconscious. When he came around, he gave his account. He was going to the neighboring village for decoding the movements of a lizard lazing on someone’s kitchen-roof. Taking a shorter route through the forest, he came upon the tree stump and the thicket suffused with a dull greenish glow. He remembered Pandiyan’s account and could not curb his professional curiosity. When he got near the thicket, he saw a young woman weeping. When he tried to ask her solicitously if she was all right, she turned to him livid in anger. “No man shall now enter this forest”, she said in a menacing voice. Perumal was quick to recognize trouble when he saw one. As he turned around to flee, he felt this push on his back and then the lights went out for him. Perumal was a well-respected man. Marriages were fixed and alliances were broken at his word. In fact, if the rains were late, it was Perumal who was consulted for a prayer of appeasement to the Gods. His encounter of spiritual kind turned the stream of whispers into an obsessive clamor.
That day, at the shrine of the banyan, I noticed there was a large crowd. Most kids had some kind of talisman around their hands. In fact my mother too made me wear a wristband with some mantra inscribed to protect me from the evil sprits. In the village elders’ meeting of Panchayat that followed at the community square, there was a lot of commotion. Everyone tried to speak at once: “It must be an evil spirit”, “It is probably Mangaa, was there a mole below the lip on the right? The poor girl was hounded by that old hag Thaayamma”, “What do we do for firewood now?”, “What if the spirit comes into the village?”, “No body is going to attend the fair”. Finally my father took charge. He said, “Firstly, no one is to enter the forest till we come up with a solution. Is that clear to all? Now let us talk about what should we be doing”.
Pandiyan stood up, “We should enter the forest in the night with the drumbeaters and the flaming torches and drive the spirit out – sound (cadence) and fire are the two elements that we know spirits fear most.” Someone else said, “We should call upon a good spirit to fight the bad spirit.” Someone from the poosari household reminded the village of the long overdue vanadevatha pooja (a ritual to appease the goddess of the forest); there were not many takers for the pooja since the chief poosari was not around to push it through, being out on a pilgrimage to the north. Suggestions flew thick and fast. But there was no consensus. My father then interjected “Whatever we do, we must do it fast, as the fair is just a week away. And if our village gets the notoriety of being haunted by evil spirits, nobody will come to our fair”
At this point Malligai (Jasmine in Tamizh) came forward breaking the confused silence. She had been living in the village for many years in a hut at the edge of the forest; no one really knew exactly where she had come from and when. They said they had seen her in the early mornings talking to plants and trees, breaking into arguments at times (Mind you, I had never seen it). She was an attractive woman in an earthly way and had made my heart flutter a little even as an adolescent (it was a sight to see my grandfather blush as he recalled his pleasant memories). In her sweet voice she spoke out: “The spirit said that no man can enter the forest. How about a woman?” Someone in the front with a loud voice bellowed: “What would we gain by sending our women folk into the forest? And maybe the spirit just forgot to add women to its list” Malligai explained, “No, There are good spirits who guide us in our life’s journey, bad spirits who cause mischief, and then the spirits of the departed who had died quite unexpectedly. Good spirits ‘live’ in large banyan trees like the one we have in the village, while the evil ones take abode in the weak wooded drumstick or neem trees; or sometimes even in unoccupied houses or in the body of the weak minded persons (the evil sprits seemed to have a wider choice for their ‘living’ quarters). This spirit seems to be of a recently departed soul. Spirits of those departed for unnatural reasons or were severely wronged to the point of no return, roam about in uninhabited places like the woods. The roaming spirits turn bitter and evil if their problems are not attended to within reasonable time. And our Kurikkaarar (referring to Perumal as reader of signs) said that this spirit was unhappy and weeping. If we resolve its problem, then it will be liberated. I can go and talk to the spirit to find out the cause of its distress.” During this exposition it did not occur to anyone to ask her how did she know so much about the ways of the spirits or to suspect if she was one of them
My father did not approve of this idea. He liked it even less, when Malligai insisted on going alone. Something about Malligai inspired villagers’ confidence that she would pull it off without any harm. Finally it was decided that Malligai would venture into the forest before dawn next day.
(To be contd.)