HOWSOEVER we may deny it, the fact remains that despite considerable progress in literacy our society is superstitious and it is most unfortunate that much of this superstition is directed against the women.
Birth of a girl child is considered a bad omen. The woman who gives birth to female babies only is spoken of as an inauspicious daughter in law. If any man dies young, his widow is labelled sinistrous. It may not be so now but the popular view would suggest that priests have previously acted and possibly in certain places are even now acting as catalysts to spread this superstition against women leading to untold miseries and often to crimes against them.
We are currently witnessing an ever increasingly female adverse sex ratio among the population and despite the ban on sex determination tests, female foetecide is rampant with no vociferous resistance from the society. Even the state and its institutions have failed to address the issue at hand. (I havent heard of a single person ever being charged or punished of the offence under the relevant law for the crime). However as the Kashmiri folk tale translated into English by Sadhu S L, that I am reproducing here, suggests that people have been raising awareness against this stupidity as well as exposing the mischief behind it through stories narrated and spread verbally through generations across large sections of the society. At the same time the story suggests that the evil of this superstition has been part of our daily lives since times indeterminate. Here goes the story;
THERE was a village at the foot of the mountains. It comprised a few shanties built of rough-hewn logs of wood notched together to keep them in place. The structure of shanties at once told every stranger that a forest was very close and, in fact, it was so. A stream flowed at a short distance from this habitation. The stream was neither so turbulent as to deserve the somewhat awe-inspiring name of a mountain torrent, nor so tame as to suffer being used for navigation. When the new snows melted in early summer after a pummeling from incessant rain in April, the stream was usually in spate and hundreds of logs and wooden sleepers floated down to centres of value for marketing timber. During this season there was considerable activity up and down the rivulet of people concerned with the lumbering business. They were engaged in felling, clearing away and floating down any logs that got stranded, and sometimes made a little fortune by disposing of a log to needy buyers for practically no more than a song.
When, on the other hand, the stream flowed placid, it was made use of as a means of transport. There were no roads linking the village with the rest of the world except the beaten track along the bank of the stream. Other villages were quite far away and not easily accessible.
Considering all these circumstances the habitation deserved to be known as a tiny hamlet rather than by the more imposing name of a village, and yet the lastmentioned description suited it better. The people lived in a corporate organized manner. They had a house of prayer built with voluntary effort: they could boast of a shrine dedicated to a local saint who answered prayers sincerely offered; there was a physician who also did honour to the office of shopkeeper who could sell you anything from medicinal herbs to snuff and dried fish; and there was a priest who described himself as a humble interpreter of religious law and the will of God.
The priest who actually lived in the next village down the river had many ecclesiastical and secular functions to perform. The dying could not give up the ghost safely till aided by him and the dead souls or spirits could with impunity come back to harass their survivors unless laid low by him. With his amulets and incantations he complemented and supplemented the efforts of the physician to heal the mortal bodies of the villagers. He also maintained some sort of a liaison with the petty officials in and around the village and was feared and respected on this account also. He was also the registrar and censor of marriages which were regarded valid and confirmed only after he gave his blessings. No one dared to hazard upon a matrimonial alliance without the prior approval of the local priest.
At the time to which this story pertains, the priest was a handsome young man in his early forties. He had succeeded to his office on the demise of his father. Not only had he maintained the privileges of his office without suffering any curtailment but had in fact extended them with vigour, sometimes outpacing the dignity usually associated with his status. He loved a good meal and good dress. He was fond of cheerful company, humorous anecdote and sharp repartee. He could exact respect and obedience if not voluntarily forthcoming, and was most jealous of his prestige.
Not long after he assumed the responsibilities of his office, a young man had the temerity to commit an act directly antagonizing the priest. This young man’s business frequently carried him to neighbouring villages. By profession he was an itinerant pedlar and was responsible for creating a market in these remote areas for such modern novelties as hair oil, looking glasses, glass bangles, cheap trinkets and toys. His business attracted first the children and ultimately their mothers. Fragrance, even though spurious, is one of the handmaids of Cupid. Is it not often unavoidable for a vendor to fit a glass bangle on the arms of his fair customer? In short, the pedlar fell in love with a maid. He won the approval of her parents who considered him gentle and enterprising as people in remote villages may be. The maid was willing enough to link her life with that of the young man and so were the respective parents. One day the young pedlar returned to his village with a bride.
It is glorious for any young man to be wedded to the maid he loves. In the case of the young pedlar it was heavenly bliss, for his bride was most beautiful by standards old and new. Every one admired her beauty and most young men envied the lot of the young pedlar. Tall and slim, and bright as the moon she was, and who could describe her almond-shaped eyes, or her fine nose’? Whoever saw this rustic beauty admired her. Everyone was therefore happy.
But the pedlar and his parents had committed one serious blunder. Having a bright prospect for happiness they forgot to get the approval of the village priest. The marriage formalities were actually gone through in the village where the bride’s parents lived, and this was outside the jurisdiction of the priest. There was little pomp and blare accompanying the ceremony and in fact, the pedlar’s father did not take the trouble to invite many guests to accompany the groom all the distance to the bride’s village. But when the bride came home he thought of making amends for his omission. He invited the priest to his home to grace the wedding feast with his presence and to bless the bride and bridegroom.
The news of the wedding had reached the priest even before the pedlar’s father set out from his home. The priest read in it a challenge to his authority which he and his ancestors had exercised for generations. “This might well constitute a precedent for other misguided people to undermine my prestige and to flout my authority” he thought. “A thief can rob my house but once and at night, but if they continue to transgress thus, nobody can check this mid-day robbery. I must act and act at once,” he said to his wife.
“And what will the people think of us? Our prestige and our authority will vanish; I shall be dragged down to the level of common rustic women who follow in the wake of herds of cattle and gather cowdung,” rejoined his wife.
This provoked the priest still further and he made his plan.
When the groom’s father reached his house, he was already prepared for his reception. In response to the invitation the priest made no complaint. He made, in passing, an ironical reference to his exclusion. The invitation was accepted with apparent cordiality and the two started for the house where the festivities were going on.
Neither the bridegroom nor anyone else had the shade of a doubt that the priest would readily give his approval to the bride and thus confirm the marriage in the eyes of the village community. On his arrival the priest was accorded a welcome but it lacked the usual ardour and he at once felt that he did not have the same respect that day as he otherwise had. Anyway, he was the chief guest at the feast and he said the grace.
In due course, the bride was brought to the presence of the holy father and the others withdrew in accordance with the time-honoured village custom. She sat before him with downcast eyes. He had a fair and full view of her face, her long eyelashes, her ruby lips and the dimple on her cheek with the complexion of peach flowers, and a man with a little experience could read from his face complex emotions passing through his mind. In a moment, however, he stiffened his expression and asked them to lead the bride out of the room. She did not receive the usual benediction from the holy father.
The bridegroom and the father waited for his comments. But he simply said, “I cannot congratulate you on this wedding. The bride is most inauspicious for this family. I am not able to invoke God to bless her.”
This announcement came like a thunderbolt to the bridegroom. The earth seemed to fall from under his feet. His father too felt much alarmed. He rued his negligence in not having sought the prior approval of the priest. But what had happened could not be undone and it was best to find a means to “domesticate” the bride and to ward off all evil influence. He submitted the case apologetically to the priest.
The latter was nothing if not thorough, and quite bluntly said that nothing in his opinion could attenuate the malicious portents for the whole family as long as the bride stayed under the roof. “You must take immediate steps to resolve this tangle,” said he, “otherwise great evil is going to befall this family of honest and God-fearing people.” The old man thought it possible still that the priest could devise a talisman or an amulet to afford protection to the family against any evil influence. He humbly submitted his viewpoint for the consideration of the priest. The latter was positive. “Look here, good man! I have all along looked upon my parish as my friends and well-wishers, and I shall be the veriest villain if I am anything else towards them. I have studied her physiognomy and considered it in the light of what little knowledge of the stars I have. The presence of the bride in your house is inauspicious for your wife and yourself, and much more so for your son, the worthy groom who should have been considered the most fortunate young man but for this.”
The mother-in-law who was growing fonder and fonder of the bride every minute would perhaps not mind a little sacrifice in her advanced age if it made her son happy. The old man loved life well enough but thought that he had anyhow to make his exit from the stage, and would not be unwilling to risk putting the knowledge of the priest to test. But both of them were stunned when the priest listed their son as the main target of the malicious stars. Neither of them was prepared to take any chances where it concerned the bridegroom. Inevitably they were forced to concur in his opinion that the baneful influences working against their son must be neutralized at whatever cost.
The poor groom was wringing his hands. It was so hard for him. But his mother quoted convincing instances of people who suffered for not having followed the instructions of the priest. `’My dear son, I would readily give my life for your happiness only if it could ward off the evil influence,” his mother said pitifully with much feeling.
In short, the unfortunate young man had to resign himself to the demand made upon him in the interest of his parents and of his own. But the problem was how to get rid of the bride. They consulted the priest. “It is your affair to get rid of this enchantress,” he said with apparent unconcern But the family felt much concerned and nobody could make any suggestion worth the while. After everybody seemed to be on the verge of defeat and the whole plan was in danger of being wrecked on this account, the priest said, “I can think of one simple solution. Shut her up in a wooden box and let it float on the surface of the river at dead of night. Let her meet her own fate thus.”
The plan was agreed upon and the priest took his leave after getting his dues. That night they gagged her mouth, put her in a wooden box and floated it on the river. “It is done and there is an end of the whole affair,” said the old man. “Son,” he continued, “selfwilled children are bound to suffer in the way you have. But don’t worry, before the month is out you will have really a good bride wedded to you.” The latter only shed tears silently to give vent to his grief.
The poor victim of this melodrama found a most unenviable nuptial chamber for her first night. At first she thought they would kill or smother her. But obviously she escaped that fate. Her mouth was shut but her eyes and ears were open. She floated down the river quietly, helplessly and expected to meet death, cold and hungry. She felt dizzy for a while but a heaving or a whirling motion would prick her back to consciousness. After some time, how long she did not know, she heard the hooting of an owl and then the current threw the box towards the land and it ceased to float. How this was going to affect her life she did not know. “It might prolong my life and miseries, or throw me into the hands of robbers. People gentle by appearance have used me thus. What can I expect of professed villains and cut-throats?” she thought. She again became unconscious.
When she came to herself she heard some voices outside:
“What is this box for? Perhaps kept there by some punter,” said one voice.
“Whatever it be, let us examine it; may be it contains some treasure,” rejoined another.
By this time the total darkness of the night was dispelled and a thin arc of the moon struggled up the sky, where myriads of stars were keeping watch over human actions, blurred here and there by light masses of clouds. A faint ray seemed to filter through a crevice in the lid into the box and the bride felt that the world was not totally dark. With that the two men having waded a few yards tried to lift the box which was neither very heavy nor quite light. They brought it to the river bank and raising the lid they were surprised to see a female form, gagged and bound. “What crime has this frail woman committed?” said one somewhat perplexed. “She has committed no crime but is surely the victim of one,” retorted the other while they cut the rope that bound her tightly and pulled out the cloth that filled her mouth almost to the throat. They found her pretty and delicate.
“Have no fears from us. What hard stroke of fate is it that has brought you to this end?” said the first.
“We are willing to help you if any human being is so barbarous as to treat you thus,” added the other.
At first she was dumb and mute. These reassuring words released somewhere in her mind a fountain and she burst into profuse tears. When she stopped she narrated her tale of woe that brought her to the desolate spot instead of the nuptial chamber. The two were touched deeply. They belonged to the village next to that where she lived and knew her father. They even knew her pedlar husband who, they said, was gentle and affectionate. She heaved a long drawn out sigh. They attributed the whole mischief to the priest who they said, looked harmless but was really callous. They said he was a downright villain.
The two men earned their living with the help of a bear. They had along with them a bear tamed in the usual way. The bear was required to display his tricks every now and then for a few coppers or corn. In particular the bear was much taxed after the harvesting season. The two men felt there was some promise in their trade and that their income would double if they had two such brutes, one for each. They had come to this place, on the outskirts of a forest in search of the cub of a bear who was reported to have his lair somewhere in the vicinity. The tamed bear was to act as a sort of “gobetween” or bait.
Having heard the pitiful story they decided to teach the priest a lesson. They knew that he lived in a village on the river bank a couple of miles below and by some sort of intuition expected him to be waiting for this boxed beauty. “The rascally priest is highly lascivious and if you don’t find him waiting for the box, shave off my moustache,” said one with an assurance which the other was in no need of as he also knew the priest well enough.
They hatched the plan and implemented it swiftly. They put the bear into the box, put the lid on and closed it as had been done in entombing the bride. The box was then floated again.
At the other end the priest was indeed waiting hungrily. When he saw the bride he coveted her for his own harem. His advice that the bride should be left to drift on the stream in a box had, therefore, a double motivation: to deter people from such weddings in future and secondly to get her for himself. He, therefore, kept a vigil on the river bank along with a couple of trusted confidants. He had even thrown a hint to his household that he had been commanded to take another wife to fulfill some higher purpose for which God had created him.
He felt somewhat anxious when the box did not come to him in time and he began to think what steps he might take if his first plan really failed to materialize. While he was brooding thus he felt a thrill of delight to see the box. “There is my little bride,” he said. “May I enjoy the bliss of her company!” He alerted his men, the box was stopped, pulled ashore and lifted. They carried it quietly to the house of the priest and deposited it in his room.
It was still night. The moon hid her face behind a gigantic screen of clouds. With a feeling, perhaps, that it is never too late the priest dismissed the men, lit a lamp and bolted the door. And then with something like a feeling of gratitude to his creator who had let him see this blissful hour he approached the box, undid the chain and raised the lid, ready to take to his bosom the fair inmate. Out sprang the bear with its hideous feature and took the initiative in wooing the priest. The priest had no time to think. The bear played havoc with him. No doubt, it was a tamed bear, but they say that “if a monkey falls from a height of eighty yards, he is still a monkey by breed.” The priest shrieked and cried for help. The bear’ on the other hand, had a little free play after years of bondage, and all his suppressed instinct of vengeance upon human kind was having its expression at the moment. He no doubt derived immense enjoyment from his dalliance with the priest which lasted quite a long time till the neighbourhood was alerted and a host of people came along rubbing their eyes to help the priest in fighting the “devil in the guise of a bear” who had come on a visitation in this form to have his revenge for winning people to the ways of God!
Not long after, the bear reached back to his masters who restored the “inauspicious” bride to her parents and then to her husband. They would tell the tale as far as they knew it and gave the cue to the bear to pantomime his part which he did with some vigour. Wherever the bear went after harvesting, people asked them to enact this piece and amply rewarded a good piece of acting.
*The translator has interchanged priest with holy father at one time probably to convey that superstition pervaded all religious groups or possibly it was part of the original story in Kashmiri and that the priest/ holy father would equally propagate and exploit superstition.
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