A tryst with the possessed and the paranormal.
When I was 14 years old, I wanted to be a ghostbuster. I had consumed every R.L Stine book, binged on one too many American and Japanese horror movies and argued with enough people about conspiracy theories of the parallel universe to believe in the supernatural. After pursuing metaphysics, I wanted to join the World Paranormal Society. I had it all figured out. Well, except for a concrete method to convince my parents.
Of course, they refused and asked me to pursue something more real and positive. So I became a journalist. That’s another horror story altogether, a tale for later. But one of the assignments I did recently got me up close and personal with the very dark, forgotten dream of mine - when I visited the popular Mira Datar Dargah at Reay Road in Bombay.
Located in a narrow lane behind public shanties, the 75-year-old establishment done up in shades of green and grey with holy Urdu scriptures running across the wall, is characteristic of a typical Dargah. But what is atypical is the possessed people brought here to be rid of their demons, the ‘shaitaan’.
Releasing the evil spirit?
The demons were certainly alive and kicking when I walked into the Dargah through a colourful market selling green chadars, holy threads, rose water and books. It is early afternoon and people are sprawled all over. An aged woman is rolling on the floor. She seems to be in pain. A young girl in her twenties is rotating her head at full-speed. Her thick, long braid is no longer an object of beauty, but a powerful weapon. One man has his wrists handcuffed to a railing. He is sitting quietly with a blank expression staring into oblivion. Another man is howling, shaking himself vigorously. He is held by two other men who are visibly scared but also hopeful - the two emotions that run deep within this space. The former for having lost control and the latter for being healed by the blessings of Syyed Mira Baba at the Dargah.
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The holy thread that supposedly cures all ailments
I don’t see the Baba anywhere. Nor does anyone else. I am told that nobody needs to. “All you need to do is tie the thread, make your wish, have some holy water and get the troubled and the possessed to the dargah every Friday for 40 days. Your faith in the baba and his powers will heal your loved one,” says Kareem who has been doing odd jobs at the dargah for 10 years. He has seen almost 10,000 people coming in every day. Some come to pray for their well being, some to get healed of the usual mental, emotional and physical ailments, but most come to get rid of demons, many of them self made.
Will faith heal?
I witness this first hand when I come across Danish Khan. The 23-year-old’s body was taken over by an evil spirit last year, something he blames his dirty habits for. Danish was out drinking with his friends late one night when he suddenly felt the urge to empty his bowels. He walked unsteadily and parked himself under a huge tree. As he finished, he felt a strange sensation taking over his body. Fists clenched, he got up - powerful, violent and trembling, running across the streets, yelling and hitting out at everyone. His friends tied him up and took him to the dargah the next morning, where he suddenly collapsed. When he gained consciousness, he felt light. “I had been freed of the evil, and also my drinking habit,” he tells me.
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I see a lot of suffering at the Dargah, but also freedom from it. My thoughts resonate with Shaqib, a 65-year-old man who has been getting his sister Khusrima to the dargah every Friday since a year. After Khusrima was supposedly possessed, she withdrew and stopped talking or acknowledging anyone. She was first taken to a psychiatrist. The treatment helped a little, but she made a speedy recovery only after she was brought here.
"Why do you think it’s possession and not a mental disorder?" I ask curiously.
“We don’t know if its a demon or a disease. All we know is that it’s evil and unwanted and that we want her to be fine,” he says.
The sentiment prevails. It’s what made Prasad, a young lanky fellow, bring his brother. The brother is the same man I had seen hitting Prasad outside the Dargah. I try to speak to him, but Prasad advises me against it. I agree. His brother’s gaze is scary.
Demon or disease?
Minutes later though, something even scarier happens. As I’m about to leave, a young burkha clad woman comes running through the streets. Her body is shaking, her face fearful, she seems out of control. I don’t realise I’m in her way but she does. Pulling my hair, she pushes me to the side, runs ahead and falls down at the Dargah door. I put my hand on my head to feel my hair. It seems only a little out of place. I realise that the tug wasn't very aggressive, but the unexpectedness of the action leaves my heart pounding. I look at the woman. She is wailing and rolling on the floor. I suddenly forget about myself and think of her. She is taken in. I don’t spot any family members around.
I walk out, thinking how faith is a healer. And my lack of it. Perhaps life would have taken a different path if I had faith in my dreams.
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By Devyani Nighoskar
Cover photo credit: naukrinama.com