Friday, April 24, 2015

OF SPIRITS AND POSSESSIONS



OF SPIRITS AND POSSESSIONS

But mother, do people get possessed by spirits of the dead?” I asked. I was eight years old then and I was frightened of the dark. Every night diligently my mother used to apply the vibhuti (holy ash) on my forehead before I went to bed, a habit which I have retained to this day and did it to my children till they grew up to ask “Papa do you really believe in all these things?” but they never objected. Even now when I visit them I repeat the procedure and they indulge me. This habit has never left me even after I had grown old enough to ask my mother “Do you really believe in all these things?” But she persisted and I never objected. Habits die hard I have learnt. On those rare occasions when I forget to do it, I would wake up in the middle of the night from a bad dream have a drink of water, pick up the vibhuti from the puja shelf, apply it on to my forehead and go back to bed and invariably to a sound sleep. To this day I have not questioned this ritual for it has become a part of my daily routine.

“Have you been listening to your grandmother’s stories about her childhood and her life in the village?”

“Yes Amma, she was telling me as to how one of her friends had been possessed by an evil spirit.”

“Oh that’s her favorite story which she keeps repeating to everyone. Well I shall tell her not to frighten you with such stories. You don’t have to be frightened of anything, just repeat all the prayers I have taught you and don’t think much about it” She replied trying to reassure me.

“But Amma” I persisted “is it true? Have you seen anything like this?”

“Well” she waited for some time as though in deep thought and then said “Yes I have, but I shall tell you about it some other time” and she ended the conversation.

My father was a man of few words and he was never really interested in any of these things, but he did tell me once “See I have been away from the village for a long time now. May be I have also heard about such occurrences from my mother. I haven’t come across such cases myself. Some people believe that there are such things and there are others who believe that these are on account of psychological disorders. I don’t give it much thought and so should you.”

What had once been a fear turned to curiosity as I grew older and may be bolder. But that does not mean ‘I did not believe in all these things’. My mother did finally relate to me some of those stories which she said she had been a witness to. Now who would question or have reasons to doubt a mother’s word and that to at that young age? I listened as I sat clasping her hand lest I be borne away by an unseen hand.

“You know I have seen my own cousin being possessed by a spirit. It stayed in her body for twelve years before it finally left her” she said.

“But mother how did you all know she had been possessed? How did it happen?” I asked.

“As usual and as was the practice she had gone to the river along with her friends in the early morning for a bath. When she came back we found her eyes were very red and she had high fever. The doctor was called for and he gave some medicines to bring down the fever. All the while she had not spoken a single word. But we knew something was wrong as her movements were not normal and restlessness was evident. It was after the doctor had left and that my aunt went to her and applied the vibhuti on her forehead she shouted in an unnatural voice and in a dialect not common in our household that the ash was burning her forehead. She knocked the container from her mother’s hand and started abusing her. It was a completely different person we were seeing. Her face had contorted and the soft lines had disappeared. My aunt was a strong lady and she had seen too many of such happenings in the village to be put off. She was sure that her daughter had been possessed. She stood there and stared at her daughter and asked ‘Who are you?’ Her daughter replied ‘Muniamma’.

Her friends said that she had slipped and fallen into the river while having her bath. Though she managed to swim back, she appeared unwell and had come back home without saying anything to them, contrary to her normal nature. It was only later that we came to know from some of the elders in the village that the place where she had fallen was exactly the same spot where years ago a woman belonging to another community had committed suicide by jumping into the river. Her name was Muniamma. My aunt was now certain that it was the spirit of that dead woman which had possessed her daughter and it fitted in with the change in personality and the dialect in which she spoke. My cousin alternated between periods of possession and normalcy. It was during one of those periods of possession, when my aunt asked why her daughter was being troubled and entreated the spirit to leave her body that she was told that the spirit had come to stay. During such times my cousin used to be as far away from the puja room as possible and used to close her ears when the chanting of prayers took place.

For twelve years she remained like that. During this period countless pujas and rituals were conducted, though the severity of the possession did not increase and no bodily harm occurred. At last a tantric from Kerala was also called for exorcising. We still do not know whether this had any effect, but at last one fine day my cousin spoke saying that the spirit was leaving her body. She returned to normalcy soon after. Of course she does not remember all that she had said and done during her periods of possession.”

It was the first of such stories related to me by my mother and of course my grandmother who had even more bizarre and older stories to relate. May be these were so deeply ingrained in my psyche that years later as an young adult I had not shaken off the possibility of such happenings, though I was convinced that these were due to psychological imbalances like schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder and similar ailments. There were instances which left me wondering whether they were dreams or a figment of my imagination but when they occurred they appeared so real. As a young adult, while residing in the college hostel I had a strange experience. Working late into the night to finish off the project on which I had been working, I got up from my chair and stretched out on the bed for a small break. I do not remember how long I lay there. I had been staring at the ceiling listening only to the sounds of the ceiling fan when I thought I felt a strange presence at the edge of the bed near my head as if someone was looking down at me. I could clearly see the contours of the room in detail and the face of my father who had long since passed away. The moment appeared frozen and I found myself totally immobilized for some time. It was with great effort that I was able to shake myself free and I sat up.  Everything was as it was in the room, but it took me some time to come back to normalcy. I drank some water and applied the vibhuti which I always carried with me, on my forehead and went back to my table to complete my work. That night I did not sleep till the early hours of the morning. Looking back I have always had mixed feelings about the incident. It could have been due to the images of my father which were always there in my mind coupled may be with the many planchette sessions which me and my friends used to indulge in, more out of curiosity then any belief. But at that time it felt so real. One thing I was sure, that I had not fallen asleep, but may be my mind was playing games. Whatever it was, it was eerie while it lasted.

Years later I saw the movie ‘The Exorcist’ and a series of such films on the paranormal, of possessions and ghosts. These were not mere grandma tales. They were much more deeply ingrained in the human psyche. The belief in manifestations of the spirits of the dead is widespread, dating back to animism or ancestor worship in pre-literate cultures. Despite all the predominance of rational thinking and advancement in human knowledge, there still exists that element of doubt on the immortality of the human soul.

I remember the time when I was returning from Rajkot to Ahmedabad by car. It was late into the night and suddenly I found my driver accelerating on a lonely stretch of road on the highway near a place called Limbdi. I asked the reason and wanted him to slow down. He said ‘Saab, there have been strange occurrences on this stretch. I was told by a fellow driver that once when he was passing this spot, he had heard someone tapping the rear window of the car asking the passenger to open the door. Can you imagine Saab, someone tapping on the window of a vehicle travelling at sixty km per hour? The passenger was in a state of shock and the driver had the sense to speed away. Such happenings have been reported by others also.” Naturally I spent the rest of my journey looking out for the unknown visitor. One does not give credence to such things. After all my rational mind said at that time of the night it is but natural that one is overcome by drowsiness and imagines things that are not there. Also that stretch of road was notorious for late night road accidents, a monotonous long stretch when drivers tend to feel the drowsiness more and lose control of the vehicle. The very fact that accidents did occur there was again attributed to paranormal activity. The mind plays games but are we ready to accept that is the case. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

THE DEATH OF A BOOKSTORE


THE DEATH OF A BOOKSTORE
In the past ten days there have been two articles of note in ‘The Times Of India’ Hyderabad edition which serve as precursors to the obituaries that would follow of the Bookstores that we have grown up with and got used to. Sadly yes, it is like the death of a dear and near one and the grief that follows. The first one on 25th March 2015 announced ‘Iconic City Bookstore To Shut Down Shutters’. Since it is reported from Hyderabad anyone familiar with the city will immediately be able to place it. “Shop in Abids to make way for swanky shopping mall” the old makes place for the new, bringing an end to a generation that found unbounded pleasure while browsing through the books stocked neatly on dust free and polished shelves, and attended to by a knowledgeable owner whose love for books seemed equal if not more than what you had prided yourself with. AA Husain and Co. had been in existence the since the mid-forties of the last century and was turned into a bookstore in 1949.
The report quotes the current owner “Since 2010, the footfalls at the bookstore have dropped drastically. I believe it is because of the spurt of online bookstores. People find it convenient to buy books at either bookstore chains or online stores. Business for independent sellers is no longer profitable.” While book lovers are obviously upset those who will be most hit are the employees of the old store. Life will no longer be the same for them.
The second which appeared on the editorial page yesterday 4th March 2015 is by Dileep Padgaonkar ‘Browse No More – Sad but inevitable aftermath of the closure of a great bookshop’. He refers to iconic bookshops – one in Pune, the International Book Service located in Deccan Gymkhana and the other La Hune that has been operating in Paris since 1949 and known for its famous clientele “This where the Surrealists led by their, guru, Andre Breton congregated. On any given day you could spot celebrated writers, painters and filmmakers – Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Picasso, Max Ernst, Truffaut, Godard etc.- intently turning the pages of a book.” I also quote below the last portion of the article by Padgaonkar that sort of sums it up –
“Some lament the ‘emasculation of culture’ and the ‘cancerous growth of commercialism. Others stress the ‘inexorable logic of the market’ and the ‘democratisation of reading’ in a digitalized universe.
What the closure of a good bookshop portends though can hardly be denied. It deprives us of one of the gentler pleasures of life; Serendipity. This allows you to browse through books at leisure in the hope of discovering quite by chance, one that captivates your fancy.”
In this context I reproduce below a page from my book ‘I Am Just An Ordinary Man’ –
“I have enjoyed browsing through the books in the bookshops, apart from buying them. Though you have your Crosswords and Odysseys now, with their stacks of books along with other items as a one stop buy, I miss the old worldly charm of a Higginbotham at Madras or a Manney’s in Poona which were dedicated to only books. But these were large stores. The books I bought in Bombay were all from the pavement shop which you can still find when you walk from Victoria Terminus to Flora Fountain. Many times I have stood there gazing at the books. If what you were searching for was not available, the shopkeeper would get it for you. I have walked those pavements any number of times when I was in Bombay; during the day, during dusk and sometimes at night while going back to the railway station to catch the train back home. But if I remember one shop with special affection it was the ‘East West Bookshop’ in Baroda situated in one of the interior roads. That is because of one kind old man. The shop was small, his heart was big and his knowledge of books immense. Though he used to deal with customers by just getting the books they wanted, for me he did that little bit extra. He used to take me to the interiors of the shop and pull out books which had been lying there untouched, but meant a lot to him. He knew I was interested for he would then launch into a brief summary of the contents of the book and recommend to me for reading. Perhaps the most valuable of my acquisitions from there was a hard bound old edition of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. When I was transferred from Baroda and made my visit to the shop before I left, he took me to the nearby hotel and bought me lunch. That was his way of showing affection. He wished me all the luck and then I left. I did visit the shop once or twice thereafter whenever I came down from Ahmedabad. Of course I never left without buying a book. Well that was a relationship and when I touched those books while cleaning them today, I thought of him. I do not know whether he is there now, but I am pretty sure he is not, for it has been nearly thirty five years since. I do not know whether the shop exists, but if it does, then I am sure it will not be the quaint old shop with a soul.”
Dileep Padgaonkar has aptly summed it up, and I have felt the same as a lover of books. I have never found myself comfortable with an e-book. Even to this day I like the book in my hand, to own it and find its rightful place in the bookshelf. But I have woken up to certain realities as an author. There are thousands of writers out there who struggle to see their book in print. Only a miniscule are successful in getting a publisher to accept their manuscript, which with any luck will be able to find its place in a bookstore. Stacking books in a bookstore involves holding inventory and this involves cost which the publisher does not want to risk for a debutant author. I have tackled the problem of ‘The Writer’s Dilemma’ in my post of 27th July 2014 at http://subbusg.blogspot.in/2014/07/the-writers-dilemma.html and earlier light hearted posts on the ‘Travails Of An Aspiring Author’. The only way out for such writers is through having their books published by way of self-publishing. There would be no rejections by publishing houses and the costs would be under control as they would be POD print on demand. Anyway I still have not understood the standards by which publishing houses accept or reject manuscripts. Many books accepted and published by the publishing houses have failed to take off, while a number of self-published authors have made it big.  So you see as a self-published author the digital online stores have become a boon. I do whatever marketing is possible through the social media and hope for the best, footfalls in a bookstore do not ensure sales.
So you see my priorities as a book lover and an author are at loggerheads. But to sum up I can only say that I would still like to see my book on the shelf of a bookstore and watch surreptitiously with glee some customer picking up the book and browsing through it