In the midst of the euphoric dark night, this or that man or woman will make proclamations. Or ‘sweep away’ the curse (jhaadnaa).

There is Kafka…and then there is this. Secrets, mysteries and horror stories. Reality, imagined reality…or enforced reality to sustain systems of one kind or another? Impossible to comprehend.
For over eight years, I have known Parvati to make at least ten visits to her in-law home high up in the hills. It is a tiring, back-breaking journey lasting almost ten hours on bad roads. Nothing can make her do that visit. Except this horrific “reality” that encompasses the entire extended family. Across generations.
In a film I worked on years ago, the Muria protagonist states at the beginning of the film: “It’s a story. It’s a story…” Well, here too, it’s a story…
It begins with the younger uncle of Parvati’s father-in-law. He was married. He also brought home “some woman”. She was pregnant. With his child or someone else’s? No one knows. One day, he kills her. Chops her up. And just buries her in the ground a little away from the house.
It seems, soon after, his wife and 11 of his 12 children died at one go. The curse of the woman, referred to as “budhiyaa”, or old woman, had started.
The one child who survived was 1½ months old. Parvati’s mother-in-law breast-fed him. He grew up. Married. Then something happened. “For four years, he just sat in a corner. Not moving, not talking, not bathing. He grew a long beard,” says Parvati.
When this phase started, the family had started the practice of family jaagars, the night shamanistic vigils. When the gods visit family members who go into uncontrollable trances. There is much raving and ranting, screaming and prophecies. Deafening sounds of metal plates and all forms of small and large drums.
In the midst of the euphoric dark night, this or that man or woman will make proclamations. Or “sweep away” the curse (jhaadnaa). Who is the victim? Who is the cure doctor? It is all quite unclear. Every generation has a reality to contend with that demands jaagars.
A female relative of Parvati, who lives nearby, is quite fashionable and smart. She too is “afflicted” by the old woman’s curse. At one time, she, in her state of trance, was the one who swept away the curse from the bearded man. Now, he is okay. The curse has now gone to one of his sons. They say.
“It is all about this ‘budhiyaa’. And until one member from each extended family attends the jaagar, her curse will not go. A lot of planning…and expense…goes into each jaagar event. Alas, one or the other family member ‘cannot make it’.” The curse continues.
“First, she was afflicting the women and girls,” says Parvati. She goes on to give me “examples”. Kishen’s daughter, who would strip naked and rush far into the woods in the middle of the night. Her own daughter, who one day disappeared in the night. They hunted for her with torches for hours. Sister-in-law, who would keep fainting at the drop of a hat. Cousin brother-in-law’s daughter, who would start screaming and not stop.
In each case, there would be immediate “remedies” of the ash mark on the forehead (vibhuti) from a local shaman. And then, the family discussion. How many girls and women are being afflicted. How important it is to have the jaagar. Again.
The family now sees a change in the trend. The old woman’s curse has shifted. It has befallen the males, boys and men. One or the other male in all families is “falling ill” in some way or another.
“Unless we all get together, this curse will not stop. My father-in-law and others of his time lived well, so did those of his uncle and parents. It has befallen us, our generation. They keep calling us. So much expense. Everybody screams. But the old woman is still around.”
That’s not all.
“This is not all, you know”, continues Parvati. “If and when this is over, there is something about jewellery and something about land. I don’t even know what it is about the land. Even our elders don’t know properly. How would I or any of us know?
“About the jewellery, yes, I know a little. A neighbour was going down to the plains for a while, so he left all the gold with my father-in-law to keep safe. He kept it in a wooden box, like they used to in the olden days. There were no cupboards and all.
“His brother was a drunkard. He quietly stole off all the gold. When the neighbour returned, he asked for his gold. Father-in-law saw it was all gone. He did not have the means to pay it all back. So, that curse too is on us.
“So, there will be jaagars for that too.”
“And then for the land, huh?”, I asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
“So, it’s endless. All through life, hmm?,” spoke I.
Laughingly, Parvati retorts in her sing-song manner, “Bas, bas.” Local parlance for Exactly.
Full acceptance of the reality, imagined or enforced. Across generations.

Neelima Mathur is an India-based Executive Producer, Researcher, Writer, Mentor and Trainer for documentary and NGO films. She is also Festival Director of the Lakeside Doc Festival.