Deep in the heart of the ancient and mysterious jungle tableland of Ajodha Hills and reserve forest at the easternmost part of the lowest step of the Chhotanagpur Plateau and the extended regions of the Eastern Ghats mountain range, very close to the Chamtaburu mountain peak, at a distance of a day’s walk from the nearest town of Bagmundi through a scary and dangerous forest trail, lay the secluded Tribal village of Pallagram in the Purulia district of the state of West Bengal in the Indian subcontinent.
The forest people of Pallagram, though occasionally visited the neighbouring villages, towns, and other places in the region, usually liked to remain secluded. Neither did they like outsiders to visit their village nor did they like to spend much time at any other place. To conduct trade and get certain essentials, which were impossible to be acquired or made in the village some of the villagers ventured out very reluctantly whenever rarely needed.
Pallagram, however, was not totally cut off from humanity. Vehicles could reach the nearest village of Bagmundi on proper metalled roads and then it was a day’s journey on foot through the forest. There was electricity, television, and mobile service in the village. It was just that the place was too remote and a bit difficult to reach, however, not impossible to access.
Occasionally outsiders such as travelling salesmen, adventurous travellers, wandering sages, forest officials, or Government representatives did land up in the village. They were, however, shown the coldest of shoulders and made to feel very unwelcomed, which usually resulted in their early departure from the place.
Of all the things, which formed the life and very being of the Pallagram village and its people, superstitions were the most important. The place could be dubbed as the superstition capital of the entire subcontinent. You could name any Indian superstition and could bet on finding a version of it in this village.
Right from waking up from sleep, through spending the entire day, and even while sleeping at night, till waking up again the next day, and repeating the living cycle, the people of Pallagram observed strict superstitious practices in everything they did.
These people were not the common Santhal, Mundari, Kharia, or Munda Tribes found elsewhere in the region. They were neither Hindus nor Muslims or of any particular and known faith. They seemed to be a peculiar breed of mixed races taking superstitions from many other religions and belief systems. It was really hard to comprehend that how could such a set of people come into existence in such a remote place. Well, whatever their origins might be, they were very much there.
Many of the superstitions that they believed in were based on ancient scientific evidence, which was perhaps good to practice, while many were simply senseless and only possibly made life more difficult, one could say.
Superstitions like not to step out of the house during an eclipse perhaps prevented possible retinal damage. Not sleeping with one’s head facing north likely helped to prevent cardiovascular diseases. Not to go under the Peepal tree during the night was certainly devised to stop a person from breathing harmful carbon dioxide gasses. Eating curd and sugar before going out of the house, maybe helped to keep the body cool during the hot summer days. Beliefs such as these certainly seemed to have a scientific logic to them.
Then there were, however, other superstitions, which were beyond the comprehension of the logical brain. Like, keeping onions and knives under the bed would drive away bad dreams, did not simply seem to have a solid reason. A black cat crossing one’s path would bring bad luck, looked like nothing but a strong motivation to show cruelty to black-furred felines in the village.
Numbers eight and thirteen were unlucky, not to cut one’s nails on Saturdays, shaking one’s legs would cause the loss of wealth, crow droppings on the head meant good luck, flat-footed people brought bad luck, itchy left palm meant money coming in, twitching of right eye for men and the left one for women brought good luck to them, were just a few of the innumerable superstitions prevalent in the village.
The traditional ones were not just it, as now and then the villagers would come up with new superstitious beliefs to add to an already overflowing and unmanageable set. Further, they were like magnets to new superstitious beliefs, which they picked up from other places, from travellers to the village, from the radio, television and most recently from social media and the internet on the few android mobile handsets that had landed in the village.
It seemed like they could not live a life without superstitious practices. Everything they did or not did had to have a little belief attached to it. Every action had to mean something beyond the inevitable and have a possible superstitious solution to avert any undesirable consequence.
A group of twelve old men formed the village counsel and closely watched over everyone to strictly follow the superstitious practices. They were the ones to officially introduce and allow any new belief that a resident might have found about from someone or somewhere else, or through the radio, television, or the mobile handset.
To be in the good books of the twelve, many villagers would try to impress the old men by finding out a new superstitious belief and pitch it to them to be promoted and implemented in the village. The counsel was all-powerful in the hamlet and everyone’s fate depended on them. Right from settling petty feuds to giving verdict on the gravest of crimes such as even murder – the old men had the final say. The modern courts and laws of civilised society had no place in this remote village.
This is how things were. Pallagram was a village of sheep blindly following backward superstitions led by twelve patriarchs who were equally blinded by their bigoted thoughts and anti-modern concepts.
There was, however, a married couple who were different. Thirty-year-old Laban was the only teacher in the village. From a very early age, he was always interested to learn to read and write. The boy grew up without a mother who had passed away giving him birth. His father who also was no more, was supportive and got him books when he was a kid and later on, managed to send him to a missionary boarding school in the Purulia town from where Laban completed his standard twelve.
Following this, the lad managed to complete his graduation from the Bankura Christian College and during this time fell in love with the beautiful Malati who was studying to become a nurse. After completing their studies both Laban and Malati came to Pallagram, where the man started teaching the children of the village and his wife opened a small dispensary to provide basic medical treatment.
After pleading for a long time with the village elders Laban had finally managed to convince them to allow him to open the first school in the hamlet. Now, for the last five years, he was imparting education to the first batch of village children to experience learning as a group in a courtyard under a peepal tree, the closest thing to a school one could say. These kids were the first to learn things beyond the existing superstitious belief systems. In the same courtyard at one corner, his wife Malati ran her small clinic, helping out the villagers in her small way.
Laban and Malati were completely against superstitions but could not proclaim it openly. The man would try to enlighten his students about the ills of blind beliefs, while his wife would try to inculcate some non-superstitious sense into her patients.
They would also try their best to influence a villager now and then to try to be a little less superstitious than they were, but hardly ever with any success. Over time the couple’s non-superstitious ways gradually came to the notice of others and the elders and they started facing much resistance.
Then in the month of March in 2020, the respiratory illness COVID-19 caused by a novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) took the shape of a global pandemic. This resulted in a nationwide lockdown of about two months from the 25th of March to the 31st of May.
Now as every state, city, and village took up measures to fight the disease, the villagers of Pallagram too implemented certain steps. The first thing the elders did was bar the entry and exit of anyone to and from the village. The second thing they did was stop the schooling of children. Ironically on the other hand they encouraged everyone to conduct more mass prayers and religious ceremonies to keep the virus away.
Then as time progressed and news of unprecedented numbers of deaths due to the disease from various parts of the world and the country came to the village through the radio, television, and mobile handsets, the villagers started to perform various religious and superstitious practices in order to keep the pandemic from entering the village.
Over the next twelve months now and then a villager would come up to the elderly council and propose a superstitious solution to ward off any signs of the evil coronavirus from the hamlet. The approved superstitions when practised seem to bring forth good results as there was not a single case of the disease in the village, and everyone thought that their superstitious practices were keeping them safe.
Now only Laban and his wife Mitali knew this was not true. Though the disease had not reached the hamlet because they were geographically very secluded, they were certain that anytime soon it would knock at their doorsteps. Once that happened, they knew it would mean the end of things as there were hardly any medicine or adequate medical help available.
Few months after the start of the pandemic, answering the clarion call of the prime minister of the country, the villagers of Pallagram lit lamps and candles and banged utensils to stand in solidarity with the nation’s dying people. Now after a year when India became the first country to develop a vaccine and the prime minister this time called for everyone to come forward and take it, the villagers of Pallagram would simply not do it.
There was nothing auspicious or religiously attractive about a medical remedy such as a vaccine. It seemed lighting lamps and candles and banging utensils were more appealing to them.
Now Laban and his wife pleaded much with the elders to encourage and allow eligible age groups to go to the nearest health centre in Bagmundi and get vaccinated, but they would not listen. The elders had developed a superstition that piercing the skin with an injection, a foreign object would greatly anger the Gods and bring more ill fate. They ruled a complete boycott of any kind of vaccines in the village.
Perceiving that things would soon get out of hand if the people were not timely vaccinated, one day without telling anyone Laban and his wife left the village to meet Malati’s father a Government Primary Health Officer in Purulia. After much convincing her father, Malati managed to get fifty doses of the vaccine for the people of Pallagram village. Though this was done by her father out of humanity it was illegal, and the man had taken a great risk by doing it.
After two days Malati and Laban came back to the village with the vaccines anticipating that they would be able to administer them to at least some of the people. As soon as the two entered their house in the village a group of villagers armed with sticks and sickles charged towards them. They were adamant to kill them as the two had left the village, but the elders proclaimed a harsher punishment.
Malati and Laban would not be allowed to exit their house and would be starved to death inside their very homes in the village itself. No one was to touch or go near them as they had ventured out of the village and were now accused of carrying the disease. Hugh logs and planks were brought and nailed across the doors and windows of their house, while they pleaded from inside to be forgiven for committing no wrong but only thinking about the good of the people.
In the meanwhile, the elders had seen a WhatsApp video message from a group of miracle performers who claimed to put on a permanent cover of protection against COVID on anyone through a religious ceremony. Driven by their superstitious beliefs the elders called for these men, who performed elaborate mass ceremonies and left with a hefty sum of money from the village.
Within few days that the men left, many of the villagers slowly started getting sick. The elders did not want to agree that the miracle men had brought the virus with them. The elaborate ceremonies with their intense physical contact with almost every villager had ensured a good spread of the disease.
A month later Pallagram had turned into a place of death. Corpses of villagers rotted in their homes, while the few remaining survivors left for other cities and villages where they had relatives or some known people.
Laban and Malati’s lifeless bodies laid in a still embrace facing each other on their bed inside their little home, which had become their tomb, their eternal place of rest and beside them on a stool rested the unused packet of syringes and Covishield Vaccines, which could have saved the village.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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