Sat | Jun 19, 2021

Lessons in East Indian lore

Published:Sunday | June 23, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Book: Sugarcane Valley: Stories of East Indian Folklore and Superstition

Author: Vashti Bowlah

Critic: Glenville Ashby, PhD


Vashti Bowlah captures the past with chronicles that define the West Indian canepiece.

It is there that the East Indian culture thrives. It is a mesmerising milieu that steels the weak and gives meaning to a hostile, unforgiving world.

It is in these parts that the imagination runs wild and the spirit world opens its doors for all and sundry. Phantasmagoric worlds collide with reality as the East Indian is weighed down by another preoccupation in an already demanding existence.

“Yes, Sugarcane Valley was never short of adventure,” and “the world is full of spirits just as a tree is full of leaves,” we learn.

This is unsurprising, though. If the body cannot free itself from the ornery of the canepiece, the mind must, if only for its sanity. And what better way than through the medium of folklore and magic. This is classical psychology 101, well, maybe advanced psychology that teaches that we subconsciously, transform our pain into well-crafted imageries only to project them on to our environment, whatever that might be. Interestingly, these hallucinatory experiences are meaningful and consummately curative.

In the canepiece, seers are the source of spiritual and psychological sustenance. They are the village priests and psychotherapists.

The village is visited by evil and even the womb is not immune to its wiles. Some are blighted at birth. They wander, befuddled, inadvertently bringing, misfortune to the unsuspecting. In the canepiece, there are enough saapins to go around. And of this cursed woman there is no shortage of information. “It was believed that the snake was embedded in a saapin’s spine and awoke during intimacy. This was something that was understood only by those who witnessed similar incidents or knew women with the soul of a serpent’s reptile, reborn in the form of a beautiful and unsuspecting female.”


Creatures of the underworld

There are creatures of the underworld that intimidate and terrorise, for example, “[a] raakhas child does only born to a mother who do something bad”.

And some villagers have stumbled on a churile, described as “the spirit of a pregnant lady who die in childbirth and does be walking around in white clothes holding she fetus against her bosom like if is a living child. She does be making a strange wailing sound like if she always sad and crying. The spirit does be looking for big-belly women so it could possess them because they does be jealous and grieving.”

For readers keen on the mantic arts, Sugarcane Valley delivers with abandon. There are incantations to ward off the evil eye:

“Jharay ... with five bird peppers, five pieces of coconut broom sticks, a pinch of salt and garlic and onion skins wrapped either in a sheet of newspaper or a piece of paper torn from empty flour bag. [Say] a silent prayer while moving the paper around [the] body in a circular motion from head to toe five times, and then set it alight until everything [burn]to ashes.”

But tradition and long-established rituals and orations are never usurped by magic. In this canepiece, there is faith, devotion, and the power to manage earthly affairs through prayer. It is through this medium that malevolence is tempered and the devotee is at peace. “The only way for me to save you now is for me to perform a naag puja (naag = cobra, puja = prayers),” we hear. And in the Shiva Temple, “…a growing number of women …were making offerings on the auspicious day of naag panchami. Some prayed for protection from snake bites while others prayed for the long lives of their husbands.”

Still, ghostly fiends of Sugar Valley are ever-present in all but a couple of Bowlah’s offerings. They remain central to this work. By the end, we are attuned to every nuance of Sugarcane Valley.

A glossary on superstitious beliefs and traditions adds to the learning experience.

Essentially, Sugarcane Valley is more than an arcane piece of work. It is a stupendous outpouring of tradition and culture. It is invitingly pedagogic and a compelling read, especially for the student of East Indian culture.


Sugarcane Valley: Stories of East Indian Folklore and Superstition by Vashti Bowlah

Copyright © 2019 Vashti Bowlah

Publisher: Little Bridge

ISBN: 978-9-76-828070-1

Available at Amazon

Ratings: Recommended


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