The endearing mildness in her eyes made way for a scary wrathfulness. Her pale pink lips wore a scornful smile while the crimson tongue popped out like a snake wriggling out of its hole. The long flowing hair I drooled over till then, suddenly seemed like strings of iron. She stood there gazing around, as if she was choosing an end to start demolishing the whole building. I knew something bad was about to happen, the moment of truth had finally arrived…
“Anecdotal evidences are not evidences”
The words reverberated in my mind as it played on Youtube. I was watching a video of a celebrated atheist answering to someone’s goofy ghost experiences. The inquisitor had enthusiastically raised many tales of supposed supernatural experiences, hoping that the long list would have the speaker bow down to the pressure of plenty. But his flurry of spooky tales were all dismissed with an eloquent choice of four words.
“Anecdotal evidences are not evidences”, reiterated the speaker.
Well, they are certainly not. Science thrives on evidences, human beings thrives on science and ergo we need to respect proper scientific evidences.
In the past few years of my life, I have read, watched and admired some of the greatest minds of this century: Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Sam Harris, Kip Thorne, Michio Kaku, the list marches on. Men of science they are. Getting to know their works and picking upon their flawless brain have helped me stay in the domain of reason. But every time I banish the unlikely possibility of a supernatural existence, a force beyond human understanding, an experience from past comes seeking me. Like a kid drenched in rain and begging for a shelter, it begs me to let it in.
“It was real and you saw it in front of your eyes, why choose someone’s words over your own experiences, let me in” it begs.
“Anecdotal evidences are not evidences”, I say.
But this experience was one of a kind. Never before or after have I had an encounter like that and I would love not to be a part of anything remotely similar to it. Occasionally, it still gives me nightmares…
It was 18 years ago, but the technological advancements in these 18 years makes me wonder if a century has gone in between. No home I knew had an internet connection then, mobile phones I saw rarely had a colour screen, the 2D caterpillar was a sophisticated portable game and digital entertainment had not yet usurped the space of personal connections.
I loved spending time with my cousins and summer vacations were an opportunity to spend a good 60 days at hometown with them. On one such beautiful afternoon at hometown, my uncle proposed a friendly visit to Mr Narayanan’s house, which was a good twenty minutes walk from our home. He was our family friend. My uncle, an army officer, was on his month long vacation from the tussle at the border and he wanted to pay a visit to everyone worth spending hours with.
Mr Narayanan was the astrologer of the village. He was a scholar. An extremely pious and a well-built man in his early 60s, he was a popular figure in a few mile radius. People of the previous generation often adored his achievements- how his unlikely astrological predictions often ended up being true and how his single-minded devotion to a diety with a ritualistic routine, reflected in his face as a holy radiance. Some even claimed to have spotted a halo.
Just as the afternoon sun mitigated, me, my cousin and our uncle started wading our way through the narrow roads of our village. On our way, we met many residents of the village and none of them were unfamiliar to my uncle. He exchanged pleasantaries with all of them. My cousin, often touted as the brainiac of my extended family, doing his first year at the college, also knew a good share of the people we bumped into. Nothing felt special about their knowledge of the neighbourhood back then, but from 2020s vantage point, I realise how close knit a unit that village was. Today, I don’t know who lives next door!
Mr Narayanan’s house was a piece of South Indian traditional work. It had tiled roof and plenty of wood work. The windows and doors reminded of the age when people could rarely afford artistic carvings on them. It was all plain and functional. Even the window rails were wood, steel bars were still a thing of future when this house was built. The tangerine coloured roof tile looked like it received a recent paint job while the pale white walls were abundantly stained with sandal and kumkum, screaming for a coat of paint. As I walked in, I noticed there were many trees that I couldn’t tell but the coolness it provided on the skin was instantly felt. From his gate to the frontyard, it was just a few steps, but it felt like walking into an entirely new season. Under one such tree was Narayanan, sitting cross legged on an arm chair, perusing a book on Hindu epics. He was alarmed by the creaking of the gate, then carefully adjusted his spectacles to catch a good shot of the approaching visitors and soon his countenance shifted to a warm smile. He placed the book-marker on his current page, folded the book and walked towards us.
Mr Astrologer of the village was wearing a saffron Dhothi with no shirt. Perhaps he figured that the number of chains with beads he wore, covered a good share of his hairy chest and therefore a shirt was not called for.
He shook hands with my uncle and they both went to his drawing room. Narayanan’s wife had gone to her home for a quick visit and his only son was working in Kuwait. He was obviously enjoying his solitude but the visit did not seem to bother him as they talked about subjects that he apparently liked. I heard their topics move through temples, festivals, astrology and much more. Meanwhile my cousin and I gladly took a stroll in his well kept garden. There was a small temple in the same compound, the abode of Narayanan’s family diety. From the din and bustle of cities, every spectacle in that plot felt fresh. Suddenly we heard the gate opening.
Once again Narayanan was out of his drawing room, adjusting the focus of his glass, checking out who the visitors are. There were three of them. A man and a woman in their early 40s and a teenage girl. They shared enough facial traits to tell that they were a family. It was a father, mother and their daughter. Narayanan took a good look at the trio and his gaze shifted to the clock and then towards the temple, all the while his mein looking a little uneasy. He wasn’t pleased. It was as though he figured out the purpose of their visit and perhaps he thought it wasn’t the right time. I remember all what people used to say about his sagacity and farsightedness.
The father of the teen was wearing a pair of hazelnut coloured trousers and a cotton sky blue shirt. He was sweating profusely. Patches of sweat on his shirt looked like figures of dark cumulus clouds on a morning sky. He wore a gold chained watch, kept his wallet in the shirt’s pocket, and the moustache was a thin line of thick hairs, all fashion choices of atleast a decade before. His hair was literally soaked in oil as if a squeeze will pull enough to fry a fish. The woman’s scarlet georgette saree with floral design did not seem to agree with the colour of her peach blouse, but she seemed least bothered about it. Both of them had something to solve and getting the fashion combination up to date was the last thing on their mind.
The teen girl, wearing a long yellow skirt and white blouse was floundering along with her parents. “I don’t want to be here” was written all on her face. Her dress was totally wrinkled. It did not seem to meet an iron box since stone age. She had beautiful long flowing hair but it had gone to all places, scattered like lions bushy hair. It looked like she was sleeping with the dress on. The awkwardness in her face never left, not for a single moment, as though she was being taken to a slaughter house. The place was setting up for something big and my uncle felt it was time for him to leave Mr Narayanan with whatever business he had with the family.
“So may be I will catch you another day” ,he said.
“No You should stay” ,replied Mr Narayanan. “I might need your services” ,he added.
I stood there wondering what was going on. I couldn’t even fancy a guess. It was some weird social situation that I had not experienced and I stood there with no relevant data in my brain to process it. Only thing I could comprehend was that whatever problems the family had to find a solution for, the girl was bang at the centre of it. She was why they were there.
On her way into the house, the girl gave me an edgy look. The presence of two boys in her age group only compounded her woes. I felt bad for the girl. If I were her, I would have barely wanted people around to witness the events about to follow. Her parents were literally dragging her through to Narayanan’s drawing room. I couldn’t see what was so detestable about Mr Narayanan’s humble abode that the girl did not want to walk into. If she had any pressing problems, the calm atmosphere in his house should have only eased it. The mystery was going to unfold before me in a matter of few minutes.
“I asked you to come in the morning. This is not the best time for a ritual of this risk, certainly not close to twilight and am not prepared either” ,said a slightly annoyed Narayanan to the father of the girl.
“Am sorry, we wanted to come tomorrow, but this afternoon, it totally went out of our hands”, the father replied in an aplogetic tone.
“Bring her in”, Narayanan commanded after pausing for a second.
He tightened his dhothi around the waist, moved a few chairs aside to make a nice little square shaped space in the middle of his room. He pulled a bamboo mat out and handed it to the teen’s dad, signalling him to spread it on the floor. The guy promptly obeyed. I thought of lending a hand but felt it would be nice to stay away. This was obviously a grown ups game.
Narayanan lighted a small lamp at the middle of the room and asked the parents to make the girl sit in front of it. The girl resisted, tried to pull out of her parents clasp while my cousin and I cousin looked at each other, nodding our head. We both had cracked the case. It was obvious now. We were going to witness a live exorcism.
“This should be interesting”,I thought. A scene we had witnessed a million times in movies was about to come to life before our eyes. Malayalam movie Industry was rich with ghost stories and many tales of Yakshis in white saree, possessing the body of young girls, started flashing in my memory. It was during the scenes of exorcism in the climax of such movies, that the art director’s imagination usually took flight.
You would see all the accessories associated with hindu rituals on such sequences. Many lamps, kindi vessel, Homa kundam made of bricks, bells, huge torches, an exorcist who usually came in a fancy hair style, his multiple assistants,loud recitals of mantras and what not. Mr Narayanan’s humble make-shift space in the middle of the room cut a stark contrast to the elaborate setting I was familiar with. All he had was a small lamp and an enormous amount of grit and determination. Also noticeable was his simple appearance, which did not shout “am an exorcist”, may be because he primarily isn’t one. He was executing this like any other mundane task of his life. “Movies overdo these scenes,”I thought.
The father of the girl started explaining his plight to my uncle.
“She has been behaving odd for the past week. Sometimes she speaks in the tone of a woman and says my daughter’s body belongs to her. She goes about smashing things, gains immense power when the devil takes over. The possession state remains for half an hour or so and then she goes back as if nothing happened. It is difficult to manage” ,he said.
It was difficult to believe what he was saying. I looked at the girl, she was slim. If you played any physical sport with her, you would be careful not to make any strong contact with her body and accidentally break her bones. The body was frail to take any serious impact. It was flimsy and weak. A good firm shake hand might sprain her wrists, it was that delicate. Her eyes too were pale and lacked life.
“This fiend doesn’t choose so well. Imagine the demon possessing one of those girl’s that hit the gymnasium regularly. She would have been really unstoppable” ,I thought. Although my cousin didn’t speak anything, I felt he too was thinking about the irony of a fierce spirit in a feeble body.
The mother of the girl appeared sad that the honest reality about her daughters condition had to be shared with a few strangers but since her husband had already gone down that path, she joined.
“Yesterday, when she was possessed, I spoke to the devil in her. I asked why she is using the body of my daughter. It replied that my daughters body is pure and that’s where it would take a seat. I lost my control on hearing that. I fetched a pot of fish curry from the kitchen, poured it on her head and said “Well, there goes your purity””.
“What happened then?” asked my uncle, his words brimming with curiosity.
“She responded by smashing a drinking glass on floor. She was about to destroy more, we somehow managed to stop her. We cannot handle this torture anymore, we need our daughter back”,the mother sobbed.
I understood how grave the issue is eventhough I was standing there like waiting for my favourite soap opera to begin. The mother was about to furnish more details on their situation but Narayanan had just emerged out of his pooja room. He looked cool, chanting some hymns and sat down on the floor facing the family.
“Look at me,” Narayanan said. The parents tried to force the girl’s face towards Narayanan but she had no intention to obey.
The girl had not yet shown any signs of transformation. If she was just being herself, why is that she is not giving Mr Narayanan her face. If she is possesed now, where is all her might? This is a ghost as meek as a rabbit, I felt.
Narayanan then started chanting some mantras loudly.
“It‘s your last chance to exit the body. If you are not, am burning you. Its now or never” he issued a firm ultimatum and continued chanting his mantras. His voice grew louder and stronger, he packed a punch in the pronounciation of every syllable, it felt like crackers on ears. The tension was intensifying with every passing moment. Soon there was her sound, more tumultous than the chants of Mantra.
“Stop this”,the girl roared.
The alternate personality had come to life. The lovable meek girl disappeared before my eyes.
I looked at her arms, it was still thin but incredibly firm. Her eyes were breathing fire. The long flowing hair looked like iron strings now. She was trying to push the lamp with her feet, just when my uncle intervened with a timely grasp on her legs. She advanced as if to bite my uncle. My cousin rushed to pull her back. One girl was racing like a raging buffalo and four people were fighting like men on Jellikettu. I was the only one not involved in the action. Narayanan soon threw a handful of bhasmam at her face and she withdrew her face in pain as if someone threw acid on her.
“Plates with Narasimha Mantras are placed at four corners of this house. You cannot bring your game here”, Narayanan warned, perhaps slightly upset that the force within her was pushing the fight beyond his imagination.
“Its your fancy”, she replied. Her thunderous voice was definitely the hellhound sound I was so used to listening in movies. The sound editors these days pulls some audio filter on the character’s voice to bring that effect, but here I was, hearing it straight out of the mouth of a girl possessed by demon.
“You live in a fancy world. Nothing stops me, Nobody does”, she challenged.
“Okay that’s it, you are doomed” ,Narayanan said, apparently not wanting to extend a pointless conversation. He seemed determined to pull the plug on this spirit. He took a piece of coir rope,about 4 feet in length, kept it horizontally in front of the lamp, then placed his palm over it and started chanting mantras. He asked the parents to hold the girl tightly and not to let go at any cost.
Narayanan struggled to focus his mind on the mantras amidst the girl’s defeaning curses, multiple challenges against his spiritual prowess and ear splitting roars. The girl tried to jerk out of her parent’s grasp in every possible fashion, pushing and pulling at every angle, trying to loosen their hold on her. She frowned and snorted at her parents. To see a face full of energy for annihilation, at a range that close, even if the girl was your own daughter, must have been very scary.
No trace of the girl I observed until a few minutes ago was in that room anymore. She was every bit possessed by a mysterious force. Amidst all her attempts to foil Mr Narayanan’s focus, her pale pink lips wore a contemptuos smile while her crimson tongue popped out like a snake slithering out of its hole. If someone had told me that a tongue can extend this long, I wouldn’t have believed. The tug of war went for atleast ten minutes, I nursed a thought of exiting the room every second, but I didn’t want to be alone. If the demon decides to take a new host, I didn’t want to seem like an easy target, standing alone in park. I was going to stay where others were.
Ten minutes later, Mr Narayanan had finished up his mantras. He took the rope, tied its both ends together like a garland and kept it near the lamp. The long thin piece of coir was now a full circle. The girl started shouting more loudly as if she understood what the ploy was.
“Don’t do it, You are making a mistake. I need to live” she shouted.
For the first time in the last twenty minutes or so, her voice sounded like she was begging. The fierceness mitigated. But the demon was still working full swing, orchestrating its movements to get hold of the lamp or the rope. Both held a world of danger for it. She wanted to dismiss both from her sight. My uncle had spent a lot of calories to keep the girl in her place, the mother was virtually exhausted, getting to know how it feels to have her daughter’s sharp nails pierce through her skin. Narayanan finished his last round of Mantras with his hands at the rope. He got up, tightened his dhothi, and gently took the cord.
“Lets see what you got. Make her stand up,” he asked the parents. The already weak father and mother of the girl laboured to make the girl get up. Having got her legs free, she cycled with it, reaching for the lamp to kick it down. Narayanan saw it coming, reacted swiftly, pulling his burning lamp away from her long legs. Every move she made was accompanied by a frighful yowl that filled the room. Thankfully Mr Narayanan had a plot of almost an acre or else the nieghbours would have already been there.
I understood why the astrologer asked my uncle to stay. It was predominantly his muscles that kept the demon from fulfilling its fancies, it was his power that made the girl stand erect now. Narayanan stood face to face with the girl with the coir in his hand.
“Absolutely last chance. Leave now” ,Narayanan threatened again, raising the cable like a sword. The girl did not respond as if it felt powerless.
I rememberd that in all the scenes of exorcism I have seen in films, the exorcist stood with a cane and then beat the possessed, until it caused the demon to flee. The logic of this ritual always had me perplexed. The body belonged to the girl, the demon, if existed, was only a spirit. How can it possibly feel what the girl was undergoing physically. But Narayanan needed no cane. His methods weren’t barbaric. He didn’t lay a finger on the girl, atleast so far.
Narayanan put the rope-garland over the head of the girl, and dropped it, so that her entire body, from top to toe would pass through the circle or rope. It got stuck at her shoulders, the mother ensured it somehow went through.As the coir went down, the girl’s voice went weak and muffled. It finally reached her feet, Narayanan lifted her toes and pulled the coir out. In the exact moment, the girl fell unconscious. The parents held her in their arms and carefully laid her on the sofa.
Narayanan looked at the rope for a moment, twitched his lips and soon left the room. Everybody was sprinkling water on the girl’s face and in a few minutes she came around. As she opened her eyes, her mom wept hugging her. Her glance was enough to convince the parents that she was purged. The demon did part with its host. The girl gave an uncomfortable smile. She was tired. She could barely move. Life in her eyes were restored. It wasn’t breathing fire anymore. Everybody in the room smiled. We knew that the storm was over.
I went outside the room to get some fresh air. A few meters away, Mr Narayanan was nailing the rope on a jackfruit tree. He adjusted his specs and carefully nailed it on to the trees thick bark. I had a thousand questions in mind, I didn’t know what to ask and how to ask. Narayanan appeared unflustered. One couldn’t have said that he had come out after nailing some supernatural demon to a tree. He was collected.
“What will happen to it” ,I asked him when he came near me.
“The power of my spell will remain for a few more days. After that, the demon will be able to leave the tree” ,he replied.
“Won’t it take control of another person. What if it attacks your body”?
“It doesn’t attack the mentally strong people. It goes after the weaks. Ones who are already down. Learn to be bold. Always be courageous, nothing will affect you” ,he said, patting my back.
Another half an hour passed and we were all leaving the house. The family had left ten minutes ago. The girl did not look at anyones face. Having come to her senses, it was embarassment that bothered her.
“It wasn’t your mistake. Be mentally strong”, I wanted to tell her…
As we left the home, it was close to six o’clock in the evening. When I went outside the plot, I looked at Mr Narayanan again. He was sitting in the same arm chair, his hands carefully moving through the beads. A few steps away stood a giant jackfruit tree with a nail on it and possibly a demon fuming with vengeance. Nothing seemed to bother him. It was getting dark, but it made no difference to him. He was back to enjoying his solitude.
I never liked the idea of attending wedding functions. There were any number of people, relatives and relatives of relatives, who asked me if they knew me, and frankly I was very poor at remembering. It was tough putting on a fake smile and pretending to know everyone around. After my marriage, it has become increasingly difficult to escape these social situations. I missed the days where I could simply pick a corner seat in the hall and dive into Whatsapp or some online business on my mobile.
I looked around for some familiar faces and a few seats ahead,there was a kid of maybe 4 years old, playing with his mom. Something felt so familiar about this boy. I didn’t have to ponder much. Next to him was his mom, tall,mature and confident, looking at her mobile phone, while her son stood obstinate for screen time. It hardly took a few seconds to recognise her. A lot about her has changed, but the eyes were still the same. It was not breathing fire.
My uncle, my cousin or Mr Narayanan was not around for me to share my excitement. All of them still going strong in their game.
A few moments later, when she went past me towards the lunch hall, she smiled at me. Could she have possibly recognised me?