How Reason Opens Doors, Literally

  • Date / 13 June 2007

In the fourth of his series of articles “The Human Angle”, Babu Gogineni highlights Humanist work to counter superstition among Dalits in an Indian village.

Victims of Superstition
“We have tried, but despite several visits to the village we have not succeeded. Please help us, sir”, said the exasperated Mr. Pulla Reddy, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Chittoor district, to the team from Parivartana, Society for Humanism and Social Change, a newly formed Humanist organisation with its headquarters in Madanepalle town, Andhra Pradesh, India.

The high ranking police officer was referring to the unusual problem of the Dalit colony of Gaudasanipalle. Following several deaths in the colony, the Dalits summoned the local geomancer from Madanepalle town to investigate why their children were dying so frequently in accidents. The geomancer, or Vaastu pandit as these charlatans are known locally, diagnosed the problem and pronounced his verdict: the land where the colony is located is elevated in the wrong places, and the history of the land itself is inauspicious. It was bound to kill those who live there. Violation of the ancient principles of Vaastu is the cause for the deaths, along with the fact that the place was haunted by ghosts.

Reason opens doors
Paapulamma: “I too shall get back to my home. But it is scary to do that when all the other houses are abandoned”.

On hearing this, most of the Dalits fled the village in a panic, abandoning their well constructed – though badly ventilated – homes. At first, some families refused to move out, but the fear psychosis soon caught on, and living in an abandoned colony made them feel insecure – so they too followed suite. This well publicised development was reported in newspapers, and was responded to by visits from the district officials – Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO) and the Mandal Parishad Development Officer (MPDO). A team of doctors as well as representatives of the Social Welfare Department visited them – all of them trying to reassure the villagers that there was no reason to flee their homes, and that the deaths were a result of accidents and ill health, not through mysterious forces. The doctors who conducted medical tests ruled out any serious health problems in the community.

Alas, all this, to no avail.

This model Dalit colony, with 60 feet wide concrete roads, and well built pucca houses from government funds remained a ghost village for over 12 months.

Our Visit
We contacted the dictrict administration, and the officials offered their full cooperation. They also suggested a formal morning meeting with the villagers.

When our team arrived there (E.Chaindraiah, conjurer; Prof. Venkata Reddy, President Parivartana, C.V. Prasad, Secretary, Parivartana, Yamala Sudarsanam, Member Parivartana; Babu Gogineni, International Director, IHEU), some 200 villagers – mostly women – were waiting for us, gathered under a tent, in the summer heat. As soon as we arrived, the men took us to the village’s open well which they said was haunted by the ghosts responsible for the deaths.

We were all very moved when Ellamma, the mother of the first accident victim, came with a photograph of her son who had drowned in the well. She was convinced that it was the ghost which killed her son and she was the first to move out of the village.

Reason opens doors
Ellamma: “This is my son who was killed in the village well because of ghosts.”

Then we visited the other houses: most were locked and their owners were absent. Some villagers who accompanied us had lost their keys as it was over a year since they entered their homes. Houses which we did enter had kitchen stoves which were not lit for a year … We learnt that since they fled their homes some villagers left for nearby Bangalore where they are earning a good living and are unlikely to come back. The problem, however, was with the 17 families which were left behind and who were living as refugees in the homes of their relatives. Tearfully they said that they came periodically to clean up their houses in daylight, but left before evening. No one was willing to sleep there.

“On the advice of the geomancer we have also installed this stone and are soaking it in holy water so that it will acquire divine powers. We are waiting for that”, said some others.

Counselling and Demonstrating
Our team spent a good hour remonstrating one-to-one with the villagers that the causes of death could be varied. We pointed out that while the geomancer from the nearby town who caused them to leave their homes, he was living happily in his own. We asked them to ask themselves how a stone could acquire divine powers by soaking in the water? We said that there were no ghosts and in anycase would the innumerable images of Gods at the entrance of their homes allow the ghosts to enter their homes?

Reason opens doors
The entire Dalit colony is present at the Magic and Miracle exposure programme by the Parivartana team.

Then the grand show by conjurer Chandraiah began when he demonstrated to them all the tricks used by charlatans to fool the ignorant and to claim that they had supernatural powers:

– coconuts when broken yielded blood red water
– bananas peeled by the villagers contained neatly sliced pieces
– a child was encouraged to handle without any harm to itself a piece of burning camphor. The child then could even put the piece into its mouth.
– the talismans given to villagers were demystified
– things magically appeared as if from nowhere, until Chandraiah explained the trick

This went on for an hour. The audience were regaled by Chandraiah’s humour and his down-to-earth language. Some started thinking. When Chandraiah made an unusual claim some women demanded proof and evidence. When Prasad ridiculed some of their fears, they smiled. The mood of the group changed slowly but surely. Then the District sub-Collector Siva Reddy – one of the top officials for the region – joined the meeting, and assured us that he would summon the geomancer to his office to obtain an explanation.

Reason opens doors
Chandraiah’s in action. District sub Collector Siva Reddy looks on.

The Challenge
It was now time to test the efficacy of the demonstration and the counselling. The villagers were encouraged to go back to their homes, and on behalf of Parivartana, the announcement was made that the first two families which volunteered to go back to their homes would be awarded Rs. 1000 each – after completing 3 weeks of stay in their own homes. As part of the deal Parivartana assured the families that if they faced any medical problems during the next 12 months Parivartana officials would take them to Bangalore and get them checked up for correct diagnosis.

“We have been promised many things, but people come and assure us many things and then we do not see them again,” said one amongst those gathered.
“Do you think after making ths promsie in front of two hundred people we would go back on our word?” countered Prasad.

Amazingly, and to the applause of those present, Ellamma, the mother of the first victim and also the one who first fled her home stood up to accept the challenge. Soon, Paapulamma, another woman who lost a child stood up too. We would now go to their homes so that ceremonially they could enter their homes, with the press and the television cameras accompanying us. Ellamma said to me on the way with tears in her eyes: “For so many months we have been living outside our homes. We are not going back inside because of the thousand rupees you are giving. I just want to go back to my home”. And then hesitantly, “But will you really be there for us if something goes wrong? I cannot lose another child”. It was a most touching moment, and one is fileld with both sympathy and sadness.

Reason opens doors
Ellamma with her husband: “I just want to get back to my house. But you must take care of me and my husband if something happens”.

Suddenly a third woman from the crowd came rushing to us, accusing Ellamma of breaking ranks with the rest and daring to go back. Acrimonious arguments about putting the whole community in danger by going back and tempting the ghosts. Prof. Venkata Reddy took her aside and had a discussion and explained to her the benefits of coming back to her own home. She burst into tears – feeling helpless at her plight. Having lost her husband a few years ago, traumatised by her having to be a refugee in her own village while she had a fine home, and fearful at what might happen if the fears about the ghosts come true. But she gained enough courage to say that she would break open the lock – she had no hopes of going back, so had not retained the key.

We left Goudasanipalle, having assured the villagers that we would be there to help them if they had trouble and that we would bring the police with us if any of the Dalit colony’s inhabitants were threatened by fellow villagers for having returned. But that seems unnecessary because a few villagers said at the end of the programme that they did not believe anymore in ghosts; one of them had a B.Tech degree.

The two courageous women Ellamma and Paapulamma and their family members are no doubt going to be an inspiration for the others and soon enough they too will most likely return home and lead normal happy lives. Meanwhile, Parivartana needs to pursue the case of the geomancer who caused this havoc in the lives of the victims, and Parivartana also needs to follow up their support to the villagers through counselling and advice.

The event was well covered by the media, with local television broadcasting the speeches by Chandraiah, Prof. Venkata Reddy, Prasad, Babu Gogineni. ETV which is a Telugu language TV channel also carried the news nationwide as did Eenadu, Andhra Jyothy and Vaartha, the leading newspapers in the state.

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