We had all been secretly looking forward to the arrival of the hujur. All day, I had wondered if I would be allowed into the room during the procedure. Since my Bangla was so limited, it didn’t make much sense for me to attend. Still, my curiosity would not allow me to miss such a rare and important event. At around seven, each of us slipped from our activities to the stairway that led to the third floor where it had been agreed that the work could be done uninterrupted. The procedure would cost us Tk 30,000. This would be the first part of a series of clandestine rituals to rid the house of its black magic.
I watched as the hujur readied the room. He pulled at the curtains, making sure that they covered the windows, he tested the strength of a tall wooden stool that sat in the middle of the room. He fingered Munni’s well-worn phone book as he mindlessly paced the room, contemplating readiness. Then he placed the book carefully back on top of the stool. Bhaya and Munni had worked, under the instruction of the hujur, to make sure the room was completely dark. Any light would make the jinn uncomfortable. When the hujur was satisfied, he gave Harun a nod, indicating that it was time to turn out the light.
The first manifestation of the jiin was startling. I was lucky Harun had warned me that there would be a loud noise. When he arrived, he seemed extremely agitated. The hujur asked everyone to recite some surahs, and Harun, Munni, and Tipu and his mother all recited frantically. This seemed to soothe the jiin’s nerves, but only temporarily, because after a short exchange, all became quiet. Suddenly the lights came back on and the hujur was, once again, adjusting the curtains. Then, understanding, he motioned for Munni to unplug the television. The small red sensor light must have been the problem. The jiin had been complaining about a light. He would be back in five minutes.
When he came back, the jiin wasn’t quite so agitated. The room was absolutely dark. The voice was male, ageless, booming, awkward. He slammed the stool around, slapping it with what must have been the phone book. He sounded irritated, like he had been in the middle of something, and had been called away unexpectedly (and I guess he was). At one point, there were two voices, and an animated conversation took place.
After the lights had come on, and it was all over, the hujur explained to us that what we had heard was the voice of a jiin named Junayat. He had conversed with this particular jiin before. He was a very good jinn–very pious. Hujur explained that jinn know all languages, and if I liked, I could ask him any of my own questions. Next time.
The other entity that we heard was the evil jiin, which has been plaguing our house. During my entire life, I had never seen such a history of misfortune as I had seen in this family. The entire year prior to Baba’s death was consumed by the relentless, yet undiagnosed symptoms of cancer. They had evaded the local doctors, then the Indian doctors, and finally the doctors in London. Why?
Alternately, could it have been because of his heavy exposure to jute processing, or regular handling of chemicals which he inhaled as he combined compounds to make powders, creams, and cosmetics. Was it because he exposed himself to such hazards, or was it an evil wish that took his life away?
Ma’s health was yet another puzzle. It seemed that she suffered all the assorted, nagging afflictions typical for a woman twice her age: ovarian cysts, hysterectomy, arthritis, cataracts, acidity, dizziness. Her hands were constantly cracked and peeling and often raw to the point of bleeding. For a woman who found her joy in serving, what kind of curse was this?
Tipu had this rare congenital disease that restricted the flow of bile in his liver. As a result of this condition, he suffered nagging episodes of pain and uneasiness, not to mention the tendency of the bile to crystallize in pockets that formed there. Since his childhood, he had suffered countless brushes with death. And while the quality of his life tends to flirt with normalcy, it is all too often plagued with depression, lethargy, and undiagnosed pain.
Then there was the business. Even before Tipu and I had arrived in Dhaka, attempts at business began to yield nothing but obtuse failure. Tires imported from China yielded problems from L/C to packing, to customs overloading the taxes, and ultimate client cancellation. Excitement over textile production was doused when the check we received for the first huge order bounced. Manpower: another disaster. Virtually every attempt at business had not panned out, and God knows how those brothers tried. Termites ate their newly-remodeled corporate office. And that’s just what they were able to see. To some extent, then, we all believed that there was some kind of curse on the house or the family itself.
The hujur, I learned, was Munni’s long-time religious teacher. For the past month or so, he had been coming to the house daily, to teach Munni the Quran. As a young girl, she had also been his student.
On the night of the second ritual, he would try to do something to reverse our fate. Accompanying the hujur was an insignificant little youngish man, who seemed to be along for no particular reason. He sat quietly, and waited patiently for the hujur to finish his work. Should I ask my questions in English? I wondered. Without addressing the question consciously, I knew I would hold back. Why ruin it for everybody? My role in this was to witness unusual phenomenon, not discredit a huckster.
Today I had observed the hujur as he handled the Tk 6,000 before the arrival of the jiin. He had tapped it, fondled it, slapped it against the table before the lights went out. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that the money was not for him, but for the jiin. A jinn, as I understand it, is essentially another kind of being, which lives alongside men, but in another dimension. As the story goes, jiin were created before men, and didn’t live up to God’s expectations, and so God created men. And what, you may ask, does a jiin need that kind of money for? Tipu says it’s common knowledge that the jiin love mishti. When the Bengalis see a long line at the mishti vendor, they say that the jiin are getting theirs. Bangladeshi mishti is famous, all over India, in fact. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the jiin enjoy it too, and to excess. Another day, maybe tomorrow, for another Tk 2,000 per 12 more jiin, they’ll be able to perform the ritual which will prevent any more black magic on this house.
Three weeks had passed since the first of the rituals performed in our house. I was full of anticipation. We waited on the bed, me–and Ma in her borka. Then Munni joined us from the bathroom. We had all shared a round of chut-putty made by the old man who pushes his cart past our house, and Munni couldn’t keep it down. She’d eaten a lot, and being pregnant, and being Munni, meant that it would all come back up. Tipu and his brother were on the veranda with the hujur and his young companion. We were all ready for this. It was time to get on with our lives. The hujur had been over two hours late, and now they were out there, chit-chatting with Harun and Tipu. Munni had made the necessary preparations. A big bowl was needed, as were a large jug, water and matches. The blankets were draped over doors/electronics and windows, to prevent any light from entering the room. Finally, they were ready. They had painstakingly cut and shredded jute cord into a light and fluffy ball. When we gathered around the paraphernalia, we were instructed to sit close. Tipu and I held the jug on its side, its mouth over the bowl. The light was dim. Hujur recited some suras and his assistant poured water into the bowl. Then hujur lit a match, and handed it to the assistant who had stuffed the jute into the jug. The match went into the jug, lighting the jute. Quickly, we turned the jug upside down, as if to capture a spirit. A horrible sucking, whining scraping noise came from the jug, as the water was sucked up from the bowl. Munni grabbed my leg and cringed, terrified. We were instructed to go into the other room, closing the door, leaving the jug turned upside down over the bowl. No amount of tampering could get something inside the jug without releasing the water. We waited five minutes. When we all gathered around the jug once again, the hujur and his assistant put their ears up against the jug and shifted it slightly. It was still warm to the touch, and there was a scratching sound inside. “Wait,” the assistant motioned “a bit more time.” And he shook the thing a bit more. Then we all tipped the jug back upright. The assistant reached into the jug and pulled out a slimy, slightly charred wad of muddy, dripping jute fiber. We watched–completely enthralled, as the assistant pulled, from the wad, a shell. “That was what had been used to contaminate our business,” is what I understood the two to say, as they “discovered” the piece. Then one after another, tabis were drawn from the wad. So convincing were the tabis, and the mud (which was identified as having been not river mud, but the dirt from the floor of a house) transported from somewhere in Tipu’s village. Four tabis of various sizes and metals, and degrees of disintegration were retrieved in all.
Tipu had told me long ago that his family consisted of well-wishers, and the others, but unless pressed, no one really liked to recount the evil stories. Munni mentioned that after her wedding, she had visited the village for the first time. After her visit, she was a bit concerned because someone had cut off a piece of her sari. A person’s belongings, clothing, hair, fingernails, photos–these were all things used to perform acts of voodoo or black magic on unsuspecting victims. What didn’t make sense to me was the fact that Baba had done this type of “exorcism” before. If that hadn’t been able to stop the magic, why would this?
Next, we examined the tabis. I had first been introduced to a tabis in the states, because Tipu wore one on a chain around his neck along with a gold coin his father had given him. A tabis sometimes contained a sura from the Koran, written on paper, rolled tightly and stuffed into a metal sleeve, which is closed on one end. After the paper is inserted, wax is poured in the open end to close the tube completely. The tube has a loop on one side, so it can be worn around the neck or waste on a cord or chain. The function of such a tabis is to protect the wearer. These particular four specimens were obviously very old. Rusty and disintegrating, it would seem that they had been forgotten long before, by whatever evil jiin they had employed. The delicate and intriguing task of opening the tabis lay ahead of us. It was more than I could ever imagine. This was psychology, sociology, Eastern culture, language, religion and black magic all rolled into one very tense fifteen-minute period. Hujur asked if Munni had some tweezers or scissors. With a small pair of scissors, he extruded the contents of the first tabis. Wrapped in polythin, a piece of tracing paper was rolled. It looked strangely fresh–and written in red ink was an unusual script–and drawings! We all moved in closer to see. Upon closer examination, the most startling thing about the paper was the drawing of a woman. Bhabi gasped when she recognized her name. The woman in the picture was wearing a sari. The drawing, however, strangely exaggerated the woman’s breasts and hairy pubis. Some words were in Bangla. Other words were in another strange script, but the entire paper was covered with one type of writing or another. Now I was determined. When Junayat came back, I would speak up. I would ask him in English, and he would respond. The other tabis were opened. The second had mustard seed, hair and a piece of bone. A third had only coal. What was the significance? What did it mean? I wanted to know everything. The tracing paper contained messages of doom for Harun’s business. The hujur sat bent over his work like a deranged archeologist. The thoughts raced through my mind–why tracing paper? Why red pen? I remembered this type of paper at Chorto Dadi’s house in the village–perhaps because it was just available in the village–used by women for copying and transferring designs onto fabric for stitching. That would be a logical explanation–but in every case? The messages stated that Munni’s health would continuously deteriorate; that she would grow thinner and thinner and then die. It also cursed Harun’s health. Another tabis was opened and another paper was produced. Same paper, same red ink. Same style (was this style standard in the art of black magic? Must one write in this scrawling handwriting in order to summon the evil jiins to do their work?) This paper was longer. It had two figures. One represented Harun, the other Munni. It again explained in Bangla how anything that Harun attempted would come to nothing. That Harun’s health would continue to plague him. Again Munni was cursed. This paper stated that she would grow old quickly, would suffer terrible hardship. The male representation had a large dangling penis and pubic hair was very pronounced. Once again, the woman was dressed in a sari, but her private parts were clearly displayed. Harun was asking himself, “but who?” Who can write in Hindi? Who would go to such perverted lengths to keep him down? Who would target Munni like this? Why? The tabis were all opened, but hujur’s assistant said he had a feeling that there were more.
Once again, we went to the patio. Jute shredding would need to be done again. Munni and Harun cleaned the jug and the bowl, while Tipu and I shredded for all we were worth, wondering, wondering, still in awe of it all. Back to the circle we went. Once again the lights were dimmed. Once again the match was struck, the fibers placed inside the jug, but not before I inspected the jug myself, and it was wiped generously, by the hujur to make sure all the moisture was gone. The sucking, scratching noise terrified us a bit less this time. I had explained to Tipu that it was just chemistry–that fire needed oxygen, and consumed large quantities of it in order to burn. Our eyes were riveted. The truth was too important. I saw nothing.
We left the room once again, and waited. When we returned, we inverted the jug and with eagerness, waited for the assistant to produce more evidence of foul play. There it was. A cleanly wrapped cocoon of polythin with a bit of green print on it. We all wanted to know what it contained. The cocoon was opened. Hujur noted that it had been cleverly sealed with heat–in essence, shrink-wrapped. And it contained another set of tabis. These, looking quite new. As we opened them, the gears turned in my head. Each one contained a piece of paper. Same paper. Same red ink. Same scrawled mixture of Bangla and some other unidentifiable language. Most had pictures, but nothing new. The last one refused to be withdrawn, and we left it after cutting it in half with a bread knife, and extracting several shreds of white paper.
Now it was time to call Junaiyat. We went into the room. The prayer rug was placed in the center of the floor, and the money, in neat bundles, was placed on top of it–a token of our appreciation to the twelve guests. This time Ma was absent. We all thought of the important points we needed to cover: The health of Shobu (Tipu and Harun’s brother), Dubai Business, Manpower, and above all, I was now determined that I would ask my personal questions, in English. Should I have another child? Where should I look for a job/what would my career be? I would open with an obligatory request: Could you pray for my husband’s health? But the most troublesome task would be the opening. When would I direct the focus of the meeting to myself, and what would the voice sound like in English? The lights were turned off. Again we all recited suras, Harun and Munni and Tipu aloud, myself–in silence. When Junaiyat appeared, he was very active. He moved over all of us and covered the entire area of the room. This time he used the rug to flap and shake and whip around and from time to time there was a loud smack, from its impact on the floor. Aggressively, he addressed everyone except me–asking how everyone was in his booming voice. I sat quietly, waiting for my opening. Suddenly there was another voice, which belonged to a lady–high pitched and nervous. The conversation was lively, accusatory, defensive (why had she done it? –a flippant answer, perhaps). The lady’s voice subsided. The hujur asked Junaiyat about the items on our list and the answers were short: Shobu’s health was beyond his control. In its advanced stages, it could not be reversed. Of course, business would improve across the board. There would be nothing to hold us back, now. Vague and quickly announced, and then on with more rug beating, pacing and waving. I felt the air moving from his swift movements, primarily, but at one point the fringe of his garment brushed my foot. It felt like crepe paper, and I tried to recall whether the assistant was wearing a lungi, or a pajama. More voices emerged. There were at least three participants, now. Two distinctly different male voices, and the woman’s engaged in lively debate. Then one by one, each subsided, until, as I understood it, he needed to go. After an interval he would return to finish some business with us. There had been no opportunity for me to break in. The words had been waiting, but the time hadn’t been right. No matter. He would come back again. I would have another chance. The hujur commented that the evil ones wouldn’t be back. Junaiyat had sent them away. They were released from their evil duties, and we would be cursed no more. The hujur would give us a stone, after ten days, which would help prevent further evil-doing. But for now, the show was over.
When I learned that Junaiyat wasn’t planning on returning that evening, I quickly descended to see what the children were doing, and to see what the overall impact of our absence had been. Were the household staff suspecting anything? Was there an evil informant in the house who would notify the initial evil-doer? Who and why? How could there be so much hate directed at Munni and Harun? I went to talk to Ma. Soon Tipu joined us. He wasn’t excited. He’d been watching closely, too, during the tabis production. He’d watched as the assistant reached into his lungi and produced the white cocoon. His eyes had met with those of the assistant as he pushed the bundle behind his leg. From there he had drawn it, and enmeshed it with the fluffy jute, before pushing it into the jug. The assistant had avoided Tipu’s eye contact for the rest of the evening, and when the task came of opening the second group of tabis, Tipu sat alone, uninterested, wondering how he would break the news to the rest of us. Together, we decided not to tell Munni. We had pegged her as the most ardent believer, and if she could believe in the absence of the curses, maybe that was all the impact they needed. Perhaps.
Now let’s just say, for fun, that the hujur wasn’t a huckster. Let’s move back into the darkness of the room. He was calm. He addressed me in English before he addressed the others in Bengali. He told me that he knew I had some questions for him, and proceeded to answer them. About Shobu, he said that death was imminent. He wouldn’t last another three years. Regarding business, he said that if the boys wanted money, they should continue on the path that they had chosen. But if they wanted peace, they should get out of business and go into any other line of work, provided that they enjoyed it. And as far as Tipu’s health, he wouldn’t make it past forty-five if he made the same types of lifestyle decisions that his father had made. It was as simple as that.
The hujur went on to explain to me that I should not have any more children. A son would simply perpetuate the cycle of excess and imbalance in the family. I should write. And my work would take place in and around institutions. He couldn’t be any more specific than that.
He told the brothers to move out of the house because it was bad for the spirit. In this reality, the hujur was able to summon only the first set of tabis, which contained curses only for Shahjahan. And with the clearing of the curses, and relocation to a new home, the family would live, as they say, happily ever after.