Superstition, sense and irrationality

By Saadikah Hameed

If you’re from the subcontinent like me, or India to be specific, you’ll know the terms like ‘evil eye’, ‘inauspicious’, and ‘bad luck’ even before you learn to speak. Superstitions prevail all over India, even if you’re in its most modern city. It’s just something you are surrounded with, and slowly you start to believe in it blankly.

Statements like “Beta, don’t look in that mirror, its broken”, “Your horoscope does not match with your girlfriend, you cannot get married to her!” and the most common, “Don’t go out, a black cat crossed your path!” are spewed from our elder’s mouths left and right.

Out of respect for their concern, we tend to abide to their absurd and hysterical customs and myths. Sometimes the sense of insecurity and fear of ill-luck have such a strong grip over our minds that we have failed to emerge victorious over them. These unfounded, irrational and imaginary fears and taboos have continued to influence a majority of our activities ever since the dawn of Indian civilisation.

My mother, the eldest daughter of four children, was born and raised in a traditional and orthodox family. Back in the 60s, not many had the privilege of higher education and especially not women. My mother being one of them, stayed back home after high school. Through her years of bringing up her younger siblings, looking after the house and her mother, she attained the wisdom and demeanour of a typical South Indian woman. And yes, that includes the irrational beliefs and old traditions. Once she got married and left home to a far and unconventional place, devoid of the customs, culture and the people she was used to, my mother never got used to the culture shock.

Alas, you can take an Indian out of India, but you can never take ‘India’ out of an Indian! Among the multitude of hilarious incidents I faced being brought up by a conservative mom, one of them occurred when I was in my pre-teens. My mother, knowing I had a kaali zubaan (black spots on the tongue), would constantly chide me whenever I stated something negative or pessimistic, due the belief that whatever a person with a kaali zubaan claimed would definitely happen (somewhat like a curse). Hah. As much as being ‘bewitched’ sounds awesome, a kaali zubaan is as real as Unicorns and Dragons.

My father, Peer Mohammad Shahul Hameed, recalls a memory when he used to be a bachelor living with his parents… “Your daadi (grandmother) was a very peculiar and superstitious woman!” he said with a reminiscent smile lingering on his face. “…for some reason, she would fill an empty vessel with water and keep it outside the door on the veranda. Whenever I would leave the house to find a job or something, she would ask me to look at it before leaving. She would check left and right for any signs of widowed women on the streets. Once it was clear, she’d send me off!” My father laughed and told me that his mother strongly believed that looking at a filled vessel before leaving out for a task would bring good luck, and that widowed women bring misfortune to anyone.

These strict customs struck root in households where people were unenlightened, orthodox and sometimes dominating. And if analysed psychologically, they are born out of a sense of anxiety for safety against secret ways of omens.

It is not unusual for a reputed Hindu pundit (scholar) to staunchly object to his daughter’s marriage just because the horoscope shows it’s not the mahurat (auspicious time). Even the most rational people are apt to believe in superstitions, especially when they involve their personal emotional matters.

In India, Hindus predominantly believe in these jujus and myths. Religion fuels their ignorant conviction, as they are led to believe in the sacredness of time and old traditions of their ancestors. They are unable to overcome the traditional snag of the past.

My father continued telling me bizarre episodes about Hindu culture he witnessed during his adolescence. Once, his neighbours got a new car, which was at that time considered a luxury specially since they were living in a rural area. Before they drove the car for the first time, the family had cut a lemon and placed it under the tire of the vehicle. After that, they had taken a coconut and slammed it on the floor. Only then did they use the car. Absurd as it sounds, it’s considered very normal.

Coconut (Sriphala in Sanskrit meaning ‘God’s fruit’) smashing and the lemon practices are one of the most common sights in India. Hindus believe that by slamming coconuts, they are propitiating their Lord Ganesha, who is considered the Remover of all Obstacles.

Talking about absurdity, my mother has this super paranoid rule about going to hospitals on Wednesdays. Up to this day, she will never allow my father to take any of us to the clinic on that particular day, because she has a firm belief that the illness will then not be cured! Wonder where she got that theory from, but I never dared to question her. Desi mums, however weird their ideologies may seem, they are always right. Unquestionably.

My family once settled abroad in the Middle East, rarely went back home during holidays. On the rare occasions we did go, our sojourn lasted for less than a month. The last time I went back to my hometown was when I was 13 years old and that’s when I witnessed first hand how credulous my folks were, and how gullible I had been.

One beautiful aspect of being from the countryside is that you appreciate life more. Everything is open. People love nature. Open doors and windows replace air-cons, chai (tea) and tête-à-têtes replace TVs and smartphones. A sophisticated life is replaced by a simple and colourful one.

As kids, my siblings and I loved sleeping out in the open terraces, lying under the wide canopy of the night sky, gazing endlessly at the moon and the countless stars. On one such night, when silence prevailed against the rustling of the trees, we heard a strange sound. It was the sound of anklets, and it got louder and louder.Since then, every time after midnight, we would hear that same anklet noise, strangely frightening us all.

This continued every night until finally we discussed it with our parents one day. They, on the other hand, were totally oblivious of any such sounds at night. My grandmother however, upon overhearing, knew all about it. Or rather, about ‘him’. Apparently, the anklet sounds were from none other than this local Saibaba-like (saint) old man who goes from one house to another late at night. Yeah, i know, W-H-A-T? But wait. There’s more to it. This vagabond goes ‘house guarding’ every night in order to protect it from evil and thieves and hence, the anklets. Yes. You read that right.

The power of our elders imagination I say, is seriously underestimated! The explanations they come up with for everything, can put Science to humiliation. Not.

Reflecting on that incident, I laugh at myself for blindly believing in such an insane myth. It shows how fickle minded humans can be.

I think, deep down if we look into what gives birth to superstitions, we will realise that it’s not magic, it’s psychology. We tend to get anxious or depressed at times because we are not the masters of fate, and hence it’s this fear and ignorance that mothers superstitious beliefs. In the end, we may seek to rid ourselves of superstitions in the name of Enlightenment and Progress, but silly bits of superstitions will still linger. “Old habits die hard” as they say.

There’s a beautiful old Urdu couplet written by Allama Iqbal which couldn’t be more on point. It goes- “Ye haqeeqat khurafaat mein kho gayi, Ye Ummat rivayaat mein kho gayi”. (The truth has been lost in absurdities, this Ummah has been lost in traditions.)

Disclaimer: Not all of us Desis live in the Dark Ages of Superstition. Some of us are rather ‘charming’.)***

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