Neera Kashyap has worked as a newspaper journalist, a researcher on environment and health, and as social and health communications specialist. She has published a book for young adults with Rupa & Co. titled Daring to Dream, 2003. Her stories for children have been included in five prize-winning anthologies published by Children’s Book Trust. As a literary writer of creative essays, poems and short fiction, her work has appeared in various online and print literary journals including Out of Print & Out of Print Blog, Earthen Lamp Journal, The Bombay Literary Magazine and Indian Literature (forthcoming). She lives in Delhi.
Leave, Gentle Spirit
In this small town in the middle of the Himalayas, stillness usually stole upon me in the pitch blackness of night. Once I had shuttered my single wooden window and switched off the two bulbs that dangled from the ceiling beam, my women neighbors said I would be safe from “ghosts, thieves and bad men.” Cut off from all sources of light, I couldn’t see my own hands in the dark. But the soft cotton quilt was comforting. So was the rough shawl I wrapped around my head against the wind that whistled in through the crevices of the wooden rafters and stone walls. At this hour, I would try to shed my ethnographer’s cap, not think of the myriad jottings of the day in my steno pads or their detailed interpretations in the red bound spiral notebooks stacked in a carved wooden niche in the wall. The wind was often restless, like a ghost lurking around, creaking and rustling. The cicadas thrummed more musically, their sound broken occasionally by the sharp yelps of a barking deer. Then stillness and a deep restful sleep.
It rained heavily in the morning but cleared quickly. The clouds nestled low in the blue hill ranges, reflecting the pink of an evening sky streaked with rose. It was Neema’s song that carried from the fields below. It was early autumn and the time of paddy harvest. I had not heard her sing before, though her family and I lived on the ground floor of the same two-storied house in a couple of rented rooms each, identical and a wall apart. A thin muscular woman, she ate little, worked without rest. Her pale face was creased as much by the weather as by her smiles. Her husband was in the army and posted in distant Darjeeling, turning up once or twice a year for a fortnight. Neema alone took care of her three children, her buffalo and two cows and a few scattered fields in the terraced valley below. Neema’s song in Kumaoni rose plaintively into the sunset filling me with an unaccustomed stillness. I reached for my steno pad to jot down the words that I still could not fathom, though I knew Hindi well, thanks to years of study and conversation at home in the US. “Ghughutee na basa…aam-ey ki dai ma…ghughutee na basa.”
Neema walked up the hill track, breathing hard beneath a huge headload of pine needles that would serve as winter bedding for the cattle. Panna followed more jauntily with a similar headload, pine needles sticking to her red cheeks.
“Writing, always writing,” Neema said to me with a laugh as mother and daughter stepped into our shared verandah, having dumped their burden in the cattle shed. “Now don’t sit alone in the dark like this. Come eat with us. I have brought spinach and there are fenugreek leaves somewhere. I will make Kafuli* and we will eat it with hot rice. For you, not spicy, okay? Better than your rotis. You still can’t make them. How will they fluff up on the fire if they are not round and even!”
“No, no… Neema,” I protested, knowing full well that my protests would be in vain.
“What no, no? Always no! Say yes, yes also… yes, yes.”
Like many ethnographers, I had learnt to live like the women I researched, becoming a part of their lives and their seasons. A year and a half and I could walk long distances like them, use the sickle and carry headloads of grass like the younger girls, even a bucket of water on my head without getting splashed. I learnt to dress like them, to cook the way they did, and to joke in between chores. Early on, I felt it was my white skin that kept me from belonging, but then I saw it was my reserve. I had been ready to leave in three months, at first, but not anymore after I began to relax. Now my life in the US felt more like a chimera. And this despite the fact that there was no heating, no running water, no TV, no reliable electricity, no entertainment, and food utterly different from what I was used to.
Just as I would observe and record my target group — women — I had to submit to being observed and recorded as well. It was from our landlady Mansa Devi’s verandah upstairs that most of the laughter resonated. Sometimes, I was made to sit on a low stool so my hair could be massaged with mustard oil as it had been pronounced “too dry.” There was genuine astonishment that I wore no gold. One evening, some of the women put their own ornaments on me — necklaces of varying length, dangling earrings, bracelets, armlets, toe-rings, revealing my “beauty” to me in a cracked discoloured mirror.
Mansa Devi was struck by a thunderous thought. “But why are you not married still? Is there no one to arrange a match for you?” she asked.
“Maybe she is not marriageable,” Panna slyly suggested. Neema flew at her for her rudeness and tried to calm my ‘ruffled feathers’, but Mansa Devi came up with a solution: “Maybe we should find you a match. Not like us. Someone like you who is always writing, writing, writing… also who can talk like you in English… chutter putter chutter putter… there are men like that in our bigger towns… we will see.”
Shobha, Mansa Devi’s married daughter piped up, “But Ellen didi sleeps alone. She likes to sleep alone. How can anyone sleep alone? We all sleep together!”
No sooner was this said than a figure burst out from behind a sari on a clothesline like an apparition — Champa, dressed in a kameez that was too short and a salwar that rode up way too high, showing a lot of ankle and calf. Her hair was clipped high on her head in an untidy spout. The cloth bag on her shoulder bulged with my red spiral notebooks. It was when she began loping across the porch in long earnest strides, loudly slapping her rubber slippers to her soles that there was a burst of laughter. Neema lunged to smack her younger daughter’s behind, but fell over laughing.
“This song — Ghughutee na basa — what does it mean, Panna?” It was just after dawn. I had brought my laundry down to the covered spring on the steep terraced slopes above the valley. The water was icy, and my fingers throbbed with a cold that felt like heat.
“Didi, your fingers are so pink and pretty,” said Panna, taking a break from slapping clean a garment on the ledge where we squatted. She stared woefully at her own fingers and shivered, her breath vapory.
“It’s a nyoli — a forest song,” she finally offered. “A sad song, like when you miss somebody, no? Ghughutee is a sort of bird. She sits on the branch of a mango tree. The singer feels sad when the ghughutee sings because the singing reminds her of her husband. He is in the army and posted far away in snowy Ladakh. There is war and she worries. It is the season of chait — you know chait? Spring! She misses him more because it is spring and everything looks beautiful. She wishes she had the ghughutee’s wings to fly to him, to look at his face to her heart’s content. She knows she can’t… so she tells the ghughutee to do her a favor… to fly to her husband and tell him all that she feels for him.”
There were few men in the households, I had noted. Due to fragmented landholdings and low farm yields, most had to find jobs in other more commercial towns and cities. The women worked unceasingly from morning till night, taking care of the young and the elderly in the house, the cattle and fields of their families. It was worst for young brides whose husbands left them in households full of unknown hostile elders soon after they had married. The brides missed their parents, their brothers and sisters, their girlfriends, their villages, even hazy notions of their husbands. So they sang their woes to the ghughutees, to the wind and streams, to the clouds and trees… to anything that listened so they could carry on… caring but uncared for, tending but untended. The winds and the trees heard and called back. A restless spirit ran through everything — caressing, consoling, disturbing.
A chill ran down my spine as Panna’s wet hands gripped my arms, “Didi, didi… tomorrow is the day when we attend the jagar**. You know… the last day when unmarried women are allowed to attend. You are not in your m.c.***, didi, no? You can’t go then… it will pollute everything.”
“No Panna, I am not in my m.c. I can go… yes, yes… yes.”
The night had been a disturbed one. Mansa Devi’s husband had come home on one of his fortnightly trips from his job in the forest service in another hill district. He had been drinking and the sounds from the floor above had been angry — suppressed shouts, a bed being moved, heavy footfalls, a scream. By the time I had had a bath, it was just after dawn and I found that only Panna and Champa had waited for me. The older women had already left for the jagar.
The story behind this jagar had done the rounds, so I was familiar with it. In Mansa Devi’s natal village in the valley below, an eighteen-year-old girl, Phula, had been possessed by the spirit of an old female relative who had died even before Phula was born. For two months, Phula acted increasingly crazy. While working in the fields, she would take off into the forest and disappear for hours together, only to return home looking wild, with no memory of the events of the day. She had eating disorders and often felt that an old woman was reaching for her. When she began to babble incoherently, her mother forced Phula to articulate what she could about what was going on with her.
Phula said it was an old woman, related to them through marriage, who’d possessed her. This woman had two daughters and no son. The daughters had married and moved away. The old woman had died both a widow and alone and had been unhappy at death. By the time one of her daughters could reach the village, the deceased woman’s house and land had been appropriated by her husband’s male relatives — Phula’s ancestors. The ghost wanted justice for her daughters who were still alive. Until then, she would stay in possession of Phula’s body and mind.
From the field above Phula’s family home, we could hear the chanting and drumming. The house was a traditional one made of stone, mud walls and a slate roof. The threshold had old wooden carvings of flowers on either side of the elephant god Ganesha who raised his trunk in greeting. A collared dove peeped its head out of a wooden nestle, tilted its head to listen.
The house inside was crammed with people. Smoke rose in thick grey spirals from coal embers. Phula sat in the middle of the room across from the jagariya****. Between them was a framed photo of the Goddess Kali – blue body, several arms, a garland of skulls, and a fierce red tongue sticking out. Incense smoke rose up to her face from the cluster of other offerings — red hibiscus, raw rice and lentils, lemon, and sweets.
Phula was dressed in a grey salwar kameez, her hair loosely bound with a red band. She sat passive, a long vermilion smear marking her forehead vertically. Her stare was directed at a red thread tied to her wrist. A group of men sat around her – possibly close relatives. The rest of the room was filled with women and children and a few men. I saw Mansa Devi in the background, eyes closed and lips murmuring the chant under her breath. Though the windows were open, the smoke stayed in the room, heavy and acrid.
The jagariya’s chanting of mantras was steady, almost static, as he concentrated on sweeping the girl’s body from head to toe with bird feathers bound together with stalks of stinging nettles. After each sweep, he would shake the feathers out before Goddess Kali. The jagariya’s accompanists kept the rhythm of his chant with the beating of a large brass plate and three drums of varying sizes.
After a while, the jagariya looked to the heavens as if in awe. He would break this spell to speak to the goddess in tones that were sometimes humble and importunate, at other times, assertive and commanding. All the while, the girl was swept with the griffin’s feathers – the possessing spirit I saw was being offered in a ritual of transference to the goddess to control and absorb into her own being. The jagariya then stood up to worship all four directions, performed a ritual prayer, then chanted quite aggressively facing Phula’s direction, as if commanding the ghost to show up and leave her.
At this point, some men brought in a goat. It bleated incessantly as it was being pulled, shaking its head to under the pressure. The jagariya spoke to the goat violently, looked in the direction of the goddess several times as if to warn it of her presence. The tempo became more dynamic, the metal and drum beats now very loud. I noticed the left side of Phula’s face begin to twitch. The twitch turned into tremble and ran down the left side of her body. Her head began to move side to side. The jagariya now chanted directly to her to fully awaken the ghost spirit. The tempo became more charged. Phula’s movements changed, head now flung up, then down. Her hair came loose, falling and rising in frenzied sweeps and the feathers continued to sweep her body, following the rhythm.
In response to a signal from the jagariya, a man stood up, possibly her father, and crouched to offer Phula a plateful of uncooked rice. She stared at it, then raised her right hand to smear a handful of it onto her forehead. She then smeared a handful onto her father’s forehead, gripped the back of his neck so she could join foreheads with him. Then rocking back and forth a few seconds, she suddenly released him and flung her hands up into the air. With both hands she scooped up the remaining rice and tossed it over her head and behind her shoulders. This was repeated by every family member in the room who came to appease the ghost with an offering.
When the women came, they placed new saris on Phula’s head, each of which was removed by the priest. I recognized Phula’s mother at once as she came towards her daughter. Her head was covered and her face prematurely lined. The ghost seemed to hold onto her the longest. When she was finally released, she wept so hard she could hardly stand. This sight made all the women sob. Then babies were offered and the ghost held the babies to its chest and flung them back to be caught. Babies and women sobbed aloud to a thunderous crescendo of drum beats. Finally, Phula flung handfuls of rice around the room. Her face fell passive. The jagariya stopped sweeping the girl, offered rice grains to the goddess, placed flowers in the girl’s hands, smeared her forehead with fresh vermilion, and chanted a final mantra, declaring all was peaceful. My body felt taut as a bowstring. I had to commit everything to memory as jottings here would have been totally out of place.
It was dusk by the time we walked back along the ridges of the fields up the slope. I could take in nothing more that evening.
“The ritual will only end tomorrow,” whispered Neema as if speaking to herself. “They will return to the spot where the spirit first took hold of the girl. The goat will be sacrificed as an offering to Kali and some village men will feed on it. Women and outsiders will not be allowed. They will make sure the ghost returns to the earth, you know, through their feces.”
I only half listened. I knew the ghost had already left Phula.
The next morning, I kept to my room until I knew I could leave unobserved. I walked up the hill track which levelled off to run along a mixed forest of pine, oak, and rhododendron. A bunch of red-billed magpies alighted noisily on an oak.
“Hoi,” I heard the hill call of a young female voice.
I turned to find Panna and Neema below, outside their cattle shed, both waving.
“You are going to your women’s group, no?”
I waved and turned to climb again.
“You will leave us soon, no?” Panna shouted again.
Her voice was high pitched. “Soon you will go… to Delhi first, no? Then to your America?” She made a motion with her hand to chart the course of an airplane winging into the air. I felt glad for the distance. I waved as cheerily as I could and turned firmly around. At the next incline, I turned again. Panna was gone but Neema, now a distant figure, was still looking out for me.
It was snowing outside. From the 33rd floor of my apartment, the city appeared like a jungle of lights, buildings as tall as the hills. I felt warm, checked the heating, and turned it down. I poured myself a glass of water and dunked in some ice cubes.
I stared at my desk – a flurry of papers, clothbound notebooks, writing pads, and stacks of red spiral notebooks. I read and re-read my session with Kamla Behn whose name was underlined in my notebook in red: founder of NGO Sahaj, activist for livelihoods and health rights, my guide and mentor. At first, I had spent months with her and her staff, trying to understand the issues that affected the women.
Kamla Behn had dismissed ghost-possession as superstition, not to be encouraged. She reeled off statistics on how this increased mortality rates especially in villages, as people simply would not take the sick to scientifically trained doctors or hospitals without the express permission of the family priest. Their spirit possession theory is not limited to cases of mental illness but extends to physical illness as well, she had said, her face warm with passion.
She had studied my face when I fell silent. “Theirs is a hard life, Ellen… I know. They are virtually widows. The winters are severe. During rains, there are landslides and they are cut off from the rest of the world for weeks. Their homes, their cattle get washed away into rivers. Their land is barely fertile and their crops insufficient to even feed their families and themselves. Their own needs come last… always last. I know they need to hold onto some faith, some belief to survive, and so, they tenaciously hold onto their gods and priests.”
“If I was to ask you a personal question, Kamla Behn,” I said. “Do you believe a ghost can possess a human being and be released through magic rituals?”
She sighed. “Do people believe in ghosts in your country?”
I hesitated. “Well, yes. But like something on the outside… like something that moves but there is no one moving it.”
She said: “I believe in the faith of these women even when I fight against the irrational. If I hadn’t been exposed to the outside world, I may have had the same faith, the same beliefs.”
I turned off the lights and fell across my bed in exhaustion. The city lights kept my room restless. I clenched and unclenched my hands to relax them, and then fell into a disturbed sleep. A voice spoke to me through a dream. It said that since my return, my restless sleep was due to a spirit that had possessed me. It advised me to sing to the ghughutee – to let the ghughutee carry my song through my blood like a river that sang as it rose and fell, rose and fell — sang of my restlessness, my loss, my separation, my longing. It may leave me then.
*Kafuli is a vegetable made with spinach and fenugreek leaves
**Jagar is a form of ancestor spirit worship practiced in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand wherein gods or local deities are awakened from their dormancy and asked for favors or remedies for problems plaguing a person
****The Jagariya singer chants to god who leads the rituals assisted by two or more men who form the chorus