Sonya J. Nair
Falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon is always a bad idea. Or so said my grandmother. She told me, quite convincingly that it was at afternoon that Kutti Chaathan* (a mischievous and at times malignant spirit), snared your dreams and disturbed you. I had to believe her. She was my only source of knowledge in a village where kerosene lamps twinkled in the evening from the verandahs, possibly giggling over the absurd idea that something called electricity could ever replace them. She also told me that that the transparent floating things I sometimes saw travelling up into the heavens was actually Time. I thought this was what was meant by timepass. Also, because when I tried to hold the strands in my line of vision, they refused to stay and swam off. Much like Time. Later in life, I learnt they were called floaters and that it was something in my eye that cast these moving shadows.
But I still believe that the Kutti Chaathan comes in our dreams and takes away our sleep in a pouch tied to his hip. Why else would I wake with raging headaches and dreams of the most fevered sort, and see colours I cannot find the names of? No. it is not a migraine. On a recent afternoon, I woke dreaming of a temple I had only heard of. I dreamt of the walls, I dreamt of people and a bus that took me there. There were birds circling in the sky and I had never felt so peaceful- in a dream. And then in the psychedelic vortex that afternoons and Kutti Chaathans are supposed to whip up, I was swallowed by a dream within a dream. I dreamt that I was in my village and there were endless fields and I had to eat the grains from every standing crop.
The prospect of having to eat all that grain could be what woke me up. But it opened the mind’s eye and took me back to a day that I remember in vivid detail. It was the harvest season. It was threshing day and the workers and their oxen came to our house to thresh the crops. There were freshly harvested paddy stalks laid in a big neat ring over which, a boy of eleven, barely older than me, made the oxen walk. At some point, he would stop, scoop up a bit of hay, catch the dung and throw it out, lest it soil the grains. I too wanted to walk the oxen. I was flatly denied. And then the boy jeered at me. This unkindest cut made me decide to make a nuisance of myself and so I drove my grandfather mad with questions, refused to come down from a rather fragile tree, threw a glass against a wall and pestered my grandmother to cut my nails just when she had to get lunch ready for the workers. She grimly obliged and told me to gather the clippings and throw them out. “Why can’t I just leave them here?” I interrogated her. “Because we have Gods’ pictures here. It would be like insulting them.” “So where must I throw them?” I persisted. “Somewhere where the Gods cannot see.” She snapped at me and walked off.
Having thoroughly exhausted my stock of goodwill with the family, I walked off, went past the showboating boy and past workers running to and fro with paddy stalks-some of them clicking their tongues to get me out of the way, much like they did to their cattle. I stopped in front of my grandfather. “I am going to throw this where God cannot see.” I said, holding out nail clippings. “Ok. Good girl.” He swatted me away.
I decided to throw the clippings down the village well. I looked in. it was quite deep. I blew a raspberry that ricocheted off the walls and came back to me as a deep rumble. A frog sitting on a ledge by the water was startled and leapt in to avoid a Frog Armageddon. “Hmm, a frog in a well.” I thought. After some deliberations, I decided to go on further and find another spot. God was sure to be in the well, it was so deep and dark in there. And I could fall in.
I walked on and came to the big pond where in the afternoon, the water glittered with the intensity of diamonds. It was a huge expanse of water. No one could swim across it. My grandmother had told me that once when they drained the pond a long time ago, there were crocodiles in the water. Of course, the crocodiles lived on the other side. I thought about how had I watched with envy as other children swam effortlessly while I couldn’t. No one thought to teach me as I was rather sickly. My main job was to sit and watch over the clothes of my aunts and their friends as they swam around and chatted about God knew what. One day, my friend told me that dogs were natural swimmers and that made me want to find out if I was one too. “What if this is my secret super power? And this is why no one needs to teach me to swim, because, I already know?” To test this, I once waded into the pond and flopped around, swallowed a lot of muddy water, skinned my knee badly on the rocks just below the surface and got an earful from my aunts and others. And I realised I was not a natural swimmer.
Thinking back to that day, I decided not to go near the pond. God was bound to be in there. Who else do you think saved me that day? So, I walked on and on. Past the homes of my friends, past the old lady who offered me rice and fish curry. I came to the fields that stood bare after all the paddy had been harvested. The walkways between fields were trampled over during harvesting. Soon the earth would crack. There would be brown stubs that will hurt your feet if you walk over them. We would have to wait for the monsoons for greenery, to sow and to let weeds grow along with paddy. Then one day, the weeds will be weeded out and the paddy will live on. It used to make me sad.
I spotted a small patch of land where my neighbour was growing green gram. It was late afternoon already. And I was hungry and tired. Home was a long way off and I still had the nail clippings wrapped in a piece of newspaper. I was a child on a mission. To return would be failure. I sat down and leaned against the slope of the field and plucked a couple of pods of gram. I found it funny that green grams were housed in black pods and I wondered if the gram was called gram because it was very light. I suspect that there might have been an element of heatstroke involved in these reflections. The afternoon was positively delicious. So were the green grams. The sun hit me at just right angle and the breeze that blew across the field at that time of the day was the sweetest and the gentlest. It was blissfully quiet. I could hear the earth, the weeds and the occasional buzzing insect. Nothing else. “This would be a good place to close my eyes for a little while before I moved on.” thought the young Seeker and closed her eyes.
I opened my eyes to the purplest dusk ever. The sun was gone, the sky seemed to be standing stock still- I imagined- to not disturb my sleep. The breeze brought in smells of kerosene and camphor. And sounds of people walking around. There were burning torches and lanterns coming towards me, cutting across fields and one of the lanterns materialized into my grandfather. He wordlessly scooped me up and carried me home. The torches and lanterns all dispersed in four directions.
When I got home, the oxen had gone, the workers had gone, there was just my grandmother and aunts. I was handed over to my grandmother. I told her, ‘Ammumme, I slept off in the fields and Kutti Chaathan did not come.” She carried me in. Looking over her shoulder, I found my grandfather gazing at the crumpled piece of newspaper in his hand. That night, I was indulged to the hilt. My grandfather solemnly agreed to buy me my own ox to ride to school, my grandmother let me drink a glass of cold water. The next morning was, well, it was winnowing day. And that was that. Life went on.
I have often wondered why Kutti Chaathan did not make an appearance that day. Maybe because unlike as depicted in popular imagination, he does not come to scare you in your dreams, he comes to ask you to get away to a place you are happiest in. Kutti Chaathan is that fear that comes with knowledge. With the loss of magic and innocence. When electricity pervades the corners of our mind with blinding white light but does not cleanse or illuminate. For me, Kutti Chaathan is that kindness that the earth and its elements showed a little girl. The sleep that wakes up to a beautiful dusk and the sight of multitudes of kerosene lamps.
* Kutti Chaathan is the dark form of a powerful spirit who can be called upon to wreak havoc on people’s lives. The Chaathan is often summoned and kept within the dwellings of black magic practioners who then send him out to their bidding. But, if they fail to placate him or keep him captive without the promise of release and go on making him perform tasks for them, he will one day, seize a moment of weakness, a slip in the rituals- anything and destroy the person, their house, family and lineage. Propitiated with animal sacrifice and the best country arrack, the Kutti Chaathan is the instant dispenser of wishes and vanquisher of all ills- be it disappointment in love, losses in business, an extremely successful rival- you name it! This child-sized spirit causes immense mischief as well. Shape-shifter, impish, in a way, he appeals to children’s imagination. The name Kutti Chaathan (Little Demon) is local to Kerala, but versions of him exist all over India.
The story is bright, ethnic and therapeutic- a yellow “mukutty”, a flower that is part of the fast-vanishing Keralite ethos.
Scientific Name:Biophytum Sensitivum
Beautifully narrated with a wisdom that was unexpected but welcome.
Enjoyed reading this dear Sonia. The village and the myths that colour the rural landscape, the somnolent afternoons, the harvest, the pond – everything is so vividly brought to life!