Babu Gogineni writes: Burnt houses. Abandoned homes. Dead cattle. Terrified villagers. Ruined lives. Perplexed administration. Opportunistic politicians. This was what our team of six Humanists and Rationalists encountered in Morampally village in Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh state in South India.
One would normally not even notice this small habitation of less than one hundred homes, much less visit it. It looks like one of the thousands of hamlets one sees dotting the Indian countryside: a bit aloof from the rest, but not isloated. Stray cows, wandering buffaloes, clucking chicken and badly kept, dusty, village roads. Nothing else. But then, Morampally was already known everywhere in the region: it was at the center of much media coverage for nearly a month, and indeed, what was happening there deserved everyone’s attention. Which is why we too were there.
On the very morning of our first visit, a hybrid cow worth Rs. 45,000 (USD 950) had died. The cow was healthy till the previous night; there was no evidence of any snake bite, and yet it was dead by morning – just like another which had died some days earlier, the villagers informed us. Two other milch cows were showing signs of illness that morning – these too would surely die because of the curse that has befallen the village, the villagers feared. The village was on its way to perdition, they insisted, and putting together their best thoughts and intentions, the villagers had already devised a foolproof way of tackling the problems that were stalking them for well over a month: they would build a temple and perform special rituals to stop the horrible events.
Over a Month of Horror
This, they hoped desperately, would stop the series of events that had started over a month ago. No one in the area had previously heard of or experienced such things: first, there were spontaneous flames in the village; then some hay stacks in the outskirts of the village got burnt down, then some thatched roofs too caught fire; soon a couple of houses broke into flames and got burnt down. And in early November, a calamity: at a time when there was no one was in the village, 23 houses got gutted because of a fire. Almost all the household goods in the homes were destroyed; a first estimate put the loss to the villagers at 2.3 million Indian Rupees (USD 45,000).
“Science has no explanation for the horrific developments in the village,” declared one newspaper. “Is it the work of an evil spirit?” asked another. “Villagers and administration clueless at what was happening”, declared another journalist. News spread rapidly, in several schools and colleges in the region this was a topic for discussion. Soon, people started contacting the media with reports of spontaneous fires in their villages too.
It was the beginning of an epidemic. As this mass hysteria was catching on, Prof. Venkata Reddy and Mr. MCV Prasad, President and Secretary respectively of Parivartana, a local Humanist organisation for social change, requested IHEU to help. Chandraiah, the IHEU-supported anti-superstition activist (through the Social development Foundation), and I, readily joined their group which also included the popular educationist Dr. Prabhakar Reddy in the visit. We wanted to find out what was happening and to unearth the story behind the sensational news.
A School for a Goat Shed
At the entrance to the village was an abandoned primary school – it was being used as a goat shed, even if there were 32 children in the village. Some of them were going to schools in nearby villages. What we next saw would bring tears to anyone’s eyes. Poor frightened villager after poor terrified villager showed their burnt homes. One of them brought a bunch of carefully packed half-burnt currency notes – no doubt a life time’s savings. Many lost their all, and were living in temporary shelters. The district administration promised help for rehabilitation, some estimates were being made for what it would cost. No one, of course, can put a price on the real of cost of disrupted life and the psychological trauma.
The villagers spoke:
“It seems there are two evil spirits fighting with each other and the fires are a result of this”.
“Look at these heavy logs of wood. They do not catch fire easily. And it happened when none of us was in the village. It is evil spirits. We even got holy water sprinkled all around the village. There was a small reprieve but it started again – only a temple can make things better for us”.
The Real Story
We heard with sympathy. Prof. Reddy assured them that he believed they were telling the truth, while Prasad who is a farmer himself challenged them to think why good farmers that they were, a God would punish them simply for not building a temple. Prabhakar Reddy quietly summoned Lawrence, the local government vet. Chandraiah went about looking at the village and examining the evidence. And after some discussion and friendly talk, some of the villagers opened up to us slowly.
“A local magic man came and asked us to keep the women indoors while he performed some rituals. He drew some magical figures all over the village and then claimed that if we paid him Rs.30,000 he would rid us of the scourge.
“We did not pay him the money because the young man Nagaraj who had come earlier did not ask for any money. He promised he would solve the problem of spontaneous fires in our village, but he also said his powers would last only 20 days and that we had to perform rituals he prescribed. He has been calling us and inquiring about our welfare. We gave him Rs. 2000.
“Then there was Achari who is the priest of a temple in Madanepalle. He also came and performed rituals here. He charged us Rs. 3,000.
“We were warned that it would start with hay stacks, spread to houses, then the cattle and now it would be the turn of humans. The same is happening. So we do not know which of us will die after these cows,” a quivering voice said.
Prasad whispered in my ear “We have to note this, one of them seems to have made consistently correct prophecies. That would be our man”.
Meanwhile Lawrence came – a young vet with a keen interest in animal welfare. I took him aside and asked him what he thought about the matter. “It is clearly malicious poisoning. All the cows are showing the classic symptoms of poisoning. We can save these ailing cows, but with the others it was too late, and we have no means here of performing a post mortem. Someone is poisoning them”.
“Did you tell the villagers?”
“No, I did not. If I tell them they might kill each other with suspicions they cannot prove. It would soon become a larger problem”.
We however decided to break this astonishing news to the villagers who were stunned. There may even have been some relief in some faces that this was because of a human being rather than a ghost…
We suggested to them that one of the three god men was the miscreant and that one of their villagers was an accomplice. Immediately a young man said “We have complete trust in Nagaraj. He did not even ask for a fee. He just said that he would be happy if he became popular by solving this problem”.
“What is your name,” I asked the young man. He told me.
“Would you be here in the village even tomorrow when we come back again?” I asked again. He confirmed that he would be there.
We were offered water to drink, but we politely refused and also advised the villagers that till the culprit was identified, they should not take risks with what they ate and what they drank, and that no children must be left unaccompanied. Who knew whether this was a psychopath or a criminal accomplice? A woman burst into tears saying now she understood what was happening – no one had inquired into what was causing the problem, until now. The men folk took her aside and scolded her for being so open because now the villagers would be blamed for the fires.
When we were leaving, several jeeps with political activists from the party in opposition arrived at the village – they came to promise rehabilitation to the villagers – no doubt in expectation of votes at the elections to be held 6 months from then.
Involving the District Administration
With video tapes of these testimonies we met with the top district administrative official in the area – the very cooperative Sub-Collector Mr. Siva Reddy – to present the results of the fact finding visit. That evening he summoned the Deputy Superintendent of Police who came along with a Circle Inspector and a Sub Inspector of Police. After in depth discussions we all agreed to arrange an emergency meeting in the village the next day.
Chandraiah Ignites Minds
The star of the next day was Chandraiah who demonstrated to the villagers the various tricks that magic men use to mislead and cheat them – in his pithy, rustic language he entertained and educated them. We showed the villagers the small quantity of dangerously combustible green phosphorous that we had procured (with great difficulty) and showed how with its use fires can be created even when no one was around. Place some phosphorous in a wet blanket and leave that to dry. The phosphorus will catch fire when the blanket dries up completely in a few days. Or put it in cow dung which in villages is dried and used as fuel. The dung will catch fire while being dried on some thatched roof. Chandraiah then showed how some so-called god men create fire in sand by pouring water on chemicals hidden in the sand. With a few chemicals one can wreak havoc in an ignorant populace. In Chandraiah’s show balloons inflated themselves, dolls obeyed his commands, and lifeless things came to life. He then explained the tricks he employed to create the illusion.
If you believe that the impossible cannot happen, then you will be able to find the real reasons behind the occurrences in your village, we said to them. The Deputy Superintendent of Police congratulated and thanked the Humanists for doing the job of the police by investigating and bringing to light some likely suspects. The police had been there earlier, but they were unable to make much headway. He urged the villagers and his colleagues to think that physical events had physical causes. The media came in full force, TV cameras in hand. ETV2 deputed a special correspondent, and Eenadu newspaper had a front-page coverage in the district paper in addition to another prominently displayed half-page story inside.
The Humanist and the rationalists had shown and convinced the villagers, the police, the journalists and the general public that people, and not evil spirits, were behind the ugly incidents in the village. They were able to convince the villagers that they had to introspect and look closely at their fellow villagers to find out who was behind the events. The cows got treatment from a dedicated and qualified vet and they are getting better. Prasad hosted a great dinner in his farm house for Parivartana officials, IHEU representatives and the officials involved in cracking the case, including Lawrence and the Sub Collector Siva Reddy. The district administration invited Chandraiah to tour the district schools and villages for 21 days spreading the message of science and help fight superstition. An elected official offered his own resources to facilitate this.
Meanwhile, the village youth who defended the magic man Nagaraj left the village on an ‘emergency’ work, and were unavailable for the police. The police are still trying to trace Nagaraj (the young engineering student whose prophesies came to be true and who it has been revealed is the son of a God man) – along with the other two god-men he disappeared ever since their names appeared in the newspapers. Everyone now understood what had happened in the village was a crime not a miracle.
Meanwhile, there have been no new fires even though the villagers agreed that not a temple, but the village school was their priority – the district administration will on an urgent basis revive the abandoned school.