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Non-encounters with the Underworld Kind

I had always taken pride that I belonged to an “enlightened” family. My parents - simple folks with very little schooling but who had, through reading, become self-educated - did not subscribe to folk beliefs, especially those related to evil spirits and fairies.”Why do you choose to grope in the dark when you can walk in the light?” my father would reprimand us gently each time he overheard us talking in hushed tones about alleged encounters with the underworld kind. “It is Satan,” he would explain again and again. And he would go on to recount the biblical story of the war in heaven and how one-third of the angels were cast down to earth together with their leader, Lucifer, who eventually became the devil. “All you have to do is place yourself on God's side,” my father would say, “then Satan and his host would have no power over you.”

I took my father seriously and grew up believing with all my heart what he said. I have never been afraid of ghosts, monsters or witches and their ilk. If such creatures do exist, I have had nothing to do with them, and – thank God! they have had nothing to do with me either.

I am glad my father did not say there were no such creatures, that they existed only in the jungles of the imagination of some people. If he had, it would have been difficult to believe him, with all the stories we used to hear and read. In fact, my father himself, during lighter moments, had his own stories to share regarding his personal encounters with creatures of the dark. I remember him telling about how, as young men, he and his friends would spend the night at some wedding dance party in the next town or village; and on their way home in the wee hours of the night, they would take a shortcut through the woods, and as they came to that portion of the road which was bordered on both sides by thick clumps of bamboos, the trees would suddenly, without warning or reason, groan and bend toward them, making them run as fast as their legs could carry them even as the hairs of their body stood on end. On certain nights, my father said, there would be this great dog with eyes like fire sitting in the middle of the road, which, as they approached, would suddenly disappear. Or turn into a boar.

Had my father made the mistake of saying at one time that ghosts and their kind did not exist and of recounting at another time his personal encounters with ghosts and their kind, we would have found it impossible to believe him. In fact, everything else he had to say after would have been held suspect.

As it turned out, we children found no reason to question father's wisdom. He could dispense his ghost stories one after another without engendering fear in us, for he always ended up laughing at what he now perceived as the “ignorance” and benightedness of his youth. “We did not know any better then, but now you do,” he would say. “We were in the dark, you are in the light.” And while we grew up believing that fairies and evil spirits did exist, we did not believe that they had power over us. We had placed ourselves on God's side.

This kind of belief - or unbelief - wasn't easy to come by. It was pretense more than faith in the beginning, for how was one to be absolutely certain that he was on the correct side? I had to fake courage, to pretend that I was brave, that I could come face to face with ghosts, vampires or witches and their kind and not flinch. And it helped, too, that my father said that for all the wisdom and cunning of Satan, he could not read what was in man's heart. That meant he did not know I was afraid unless I said so or acted so. And, no, I would never give him the satisfaction of knowing what I felt deep inside. During times when I was sorely tempted to be afraid, I would scold myself aloud in the manner of my father: “Why should I be afraid of Satan when God is with me?”

It worked like magic. It always did. Soon I found out I didn't have to fake courage. Or faith. In fact, I actually came to believe we were a ghost-proof, vampire-proof, witch-proof family. I particularly remember three instances which led me to make the conclusion.

Non-encounter One

The first one happened when I was 12, when my four-year-old brother died of tetanus infection. According to relatives and friends, the soul (read: ghost) of the departed loved one was bound to visit his family on the third night after the funeral. My two elder sisters and I were terrified, but we refused to give Satan the satisfaction of knowing he could wield power over us. We pretended to be brave. That night, however, huddled on one bed, we kept our senses fine-tuned to the slightest hint of a supernatural presence. We waited to smell candles, or flowers, or formalin; there were none. We waited to hear footsteps, or sounds, or voices – our little brother's – there were none. We waited to see strange sights and shapes and shadows; there were none. We waited to feel something - anything above the ordinary - cold, heat, a blast of wind; there was none. The night passed; no ghost came. Of course we were not disappointed; we had not really looked forward to an encounter with the forces of the dark.

Non-encounter Two

The second incident happened while my sisters and I were attending college. The whole family had moved to the city, and our house in the hometown was converted into a lodge for students in the nearby high school. One day we received word that the students were threatening to abandon our house. My mother, who was commissioned to investigate, was told of a mysterious presence that stalked the house at nights, making a barrage of eerie noises: rattling the windows, shaking the doors, banging the walls, throwing pots and pans in the kitchen. It was a Decapitated demon or tree demon, they said; but when they opened the door to look, they saw nothing. It was bothering them greatly, causing them to lose sleep and peace of mind. My mother called for a pastor of the local church and gathered the group for Bible reading and prayer inside the house. She stayed during the night, upon the insistence of the residents, that she might hear or see for herself. The invisible presence did not come that night. Nor the next. Nor any night after.

Non-encounter Three

The third incident took place when I was in the dormitory. Something or someone, she claimed, would try to pull her blanket or stroke her hair or legs in the middle of the night. She had to sleep literally wrapped tight. Whatever or whoever that was, it never bothered me; I always had a refreshing night's sleep. Even when my roommate was away for the weekend - and she often was – I was left in peace.

I could only smile and silently thank my earthly father for equipping me with something more potent than any amulet or magic incantation. My cousins and many of my friends were not as fortunate. Haunted by constant dread of evil spirits, they went through life observing a lot of rituals to ward them off. Or please them. They offered food and drinks. They recited a litany of incantations and wore different kinds of amulets. They avoided setting foot on certain grounds, or climbing certain trees believed to be the habitation of evil spirits. They avoided body or eye contact with strangers, and took care to return a touch. As soon as it was dark, they refused to throw anything outside the window for fear of hitting an unseen presence. In spite of all these precautions, they were constantly plagued by witchcraft and had to undergo healing rituals by quack doctors which often included a change of name. On the contrary, my siblings and I, relatively free to wander anywhere anytime, were left in peace.

My mother-in-law, who came to live with us, was herself a staunch believer. The unborn baby, she said, was a favorite target for the pranks of evil spirits. She made me a long list of dos and don'ts, and I was alternately amused and irritated. There was a mango tree in our backyard; she made sure I did not go anywhere near it as soon as it was dark. She hang a bunch of garlic at the head of our bed. And when my baby was born, she would throw rice outside the window in the evening to appease the spirits, she said, especially at times when the baby was listless.

Not too long ago, my Aunt Nikki, a retired public school teacher who had taught in the city for 20 years, arrived at our house looking weak and wan. For the last two months, since she arrived from Chicago where she had since gone to live with her two sons, she had been in and out of the hospital for gastrointestinal problems. Now she was on her way to be confined at a faith healer's home-cum-hospital not too far from our place after a friend had diagnosed her case as witchcraft. Out of respect for a beloved aunt, my husband and I offered to drive her there. The wiry, loquacious, middle-aged faith healer confirmed the diagnosis: witchcraft. “One of your neighbors to whom you failed to give a gift,” he said. And then he rattled off, perhaps in a bid to impress or convince us of his supernatural gift of a healing touch. My cousin, also a public school teacher, who accompanied my aunt and who had herself availed of the chance to be rid of her body aches, backed up the man's claim. “You can just feel the power of his touch,” she said it just like the man said it.

After a couple of visits to see how my aunt was doing, I was ready to take the man on his terms. Bracketing my prejudices and preconceived notions, and with a mind open and ready to receive new “light,” I asked him to touch my arm. I was expecting to feel a vibration or any unusual sensation. Just like he said, and just like my aunt and my cousin said.

There was none.

Arts | Non-Fiction | Short Stories


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