The Exorcist of Jalukbari Village
The whole night it had rained very heavily, with a steady downpour continuing into the morning. It was one of those days that nothing was going to go well. There would have been some flooding in the young tea sections, a bridge or two may have collapsed, the attendance in the plucking would be very low and a tractor would invariably slip in the mud and fall into a drain. All the carefully made plans to boost works in the nursery and check the timings of the dryer meticulously would have to be shelved in order to just pluck as much area as possible and not fall behind in the plucking round too much. To sum it all up, it was a day when one had to just grit your teeth and do the best as you can. A senior tea planter who was my mentor would always tell me that on such days there was no need to push yourself but let the field staff take charge and by evening the rain would stopp, a bright sun would peep out and the damages of the rain would all be repaired; in short, instead of the sahib shouting around in frustration he had evolved a special formula to tackle such days: to do one round of the field in your jeep to check the damages, then instruct the head staff in the field to do his best and he would retire to his bungalow and have an Irish coffee and read a book or catch up with his pending paper works. By evening normalcy would have been restored.
I did take the recipe from him for making the perfect Irish coffee – neither too strong nor too light but just a little pick-me-up. True to form the day ended much better than the dire morning trends. Except for one thing! Our best and most loyal worker, Maniram Babu, the head clerk, had suddenly developed a strange illness. He went home that day a bit early complaining of a severe headache and the onset of a fever.
The next morning he attended office and showed me the books and accounts for the weekly paybill but he did not rejoin work post the lunch break. I thought it was a touch of flu and did not worry much as his junior staff was quite capable of managing the office work on his own. However, I got a report next day that Maniram was having a lot of bad dreams of strange women and was not able to sleep a wink at night. He shouted a lot of odd gibberish and his family had requested the doctor to check him properly. But it appeared that he was having some sort of a delirium type attack. I became worried when he did not come to work for three days running which was most unlike him and I talked to the doctor about his case. He reassured me that it was a bad cold and fever which would run its course and he would recover soon. A week went by but he had not recovered. I thought it was better to refer him to the group hospital at Bargaon which was about 15 kms away. However before we could act Maniram decided to take matters into his own hands by calling for the “Bez” from the nearby Jalukbari village.
This Bez was a bit of everything rolled into one; part village doctor having some knowledge of basic use of herbal medicine, a soothsayer to clear the path of obstacles and most notoriously an exorcist who had magical powers to drive away evil spirits that took control of people. I had heard of him and also seen him a couple of times when I used to drive past his house in the village but was never inclined to trust his purported healing powers. Maniram and his family who had been staying there for at least twenty years before me had known him and did believe in him due to their ignorance or simply because of blind faith. Before long, Maniram’s house was converted into a temporary ritual home where all types of vegetables, rare flowers , stones and sticks , incense and even the killing of pigeons and ducks were being done as offerings to the evil spirit that had entered his body. Of course all the meat and vegetables like gourds and cucumbers were cooked and consumed by the exorcist and the victim’s family. But Maniram was not responding and had by then abstained from work for eighteen days when I sent the junior staff and the doctor to enquire and tell his family that he must be hospitalised. They pleaded that another week be given to them as the Bez had promised full recovery.
So I relented and next day I decided to visit Maniram myself. I was quite indebted to him as he was very good with his work and I had learnt a lot from him in the five odd years I had been there. He came out to meet me in the verandah of his quarters and I found him frail but calm and composed. He told me that he was very sorry for missing work but he would rejoin soon and make all pending work, if any, up to date. I told him not to worry but to get well soon and asked him why he was not having the medicine from the hospital. He simply smiled and told me that his problem was mental as he was continuing having those bad dreams of strange men and women disturbing him all the time and no medicine could cure him. I was quite taken aback and asked him if he wanted to see a Doctor in Tezpur to which he replied agitatedly not to send him to the asylum there. I had forgotten that Tezpur had a famous mental asylum and realising my mistake I told him that I did not mean that type of a doctor. I left soon quite worried for him.
The last straw was when I heard that the Exorcist was planning to give Maniram a cleansing bath with cold water to purify him. He had arranged to do this in the outside under the open sky for which a small raised platform was made and various ingredients like turmeric, earth from a cremation ground, cow dung and some wild flowers and fruits were ground into a paste. This was to be smeared all over his body and to the incantations by the Bez he would be washed and purified. A man running a fever, with a persistent cold if bathed in this manner could die of pneumonia. I knew that I had to stop this charade immediately. I then decided to talk to the exorcist directly and requested him to meet me in my bungalow. He came that very evening and I asked him what he thought was actually wrong with his patient Maniram. He disclosed that it was a difficult case as some evil spirits had taken control of his mind but he would get well with time. He went on to explain that Maniram had apparently cut a huge bamboo grove in his ancestral house in his village and had upset the fierce “Banshee” female spirits that dwell there. I told him politely that it was good that a lot of people had been treated successfully by him but in this particular instance I requested him to add another medicine from my side. I then gave him a bottle of Doctor’s Brandy which I always keep in stock for my camps and asked him to let Maniram have it this every night before he went to bed and prescribed to give him two tea spoons neat. This I told him would cure his nagging cold and also allow him to sleep freely. I also promised to help him monetarily if he helped to get Maniram back on his feet as the annual accounts’ time was coming up and he was needed to check all the books. Something clicked and the medicine man did accept my bottle and agreed to administer the same to the patient as suggested.
Remarkably Maniram’s condition improved and within the week he was normal, except a bit weak. He resumed his duties and continued with the daily Brandy dose till the bottle was empty. But he asked for more and the exorcist came to me for another bottle which I arranged; in fact I gave him two bottles, one for Maniram and the other for him. After that I don’t remember Maniram ever falling ill again. But once in a while he did come to me and asked me for my magic bottle, about two/three times in the year. Later on, I rationed him whisky instead of brandy and we had this little arrangement going on till the time of his retirement.
Regarding the Exorcist, I went to meet him at his house in the village and got him interested to open a small mini tea garden in his backyard. I helped him with free advice, supply of the tea plants and also our garden tractor for ploughing and preparing the land. All the costs were to be adjusted with the supply of his green leaf in due course. His land area was around three acres and his garden started producing green leaf within two years when he became more interested and wanted to expand his land under tea.
Thus, by the grace of the Almighty I was able to get Maniram back in good health and the exorcist transformed into a successful mini tea planter which was actually very good publicity for us. Soon we were able to convert many more persons into tea planting by which we were also able to increase our own production in the factory by purchasing their green tea leaves. Lucky for me also that the “Banshees” did not attack me …. maybe because I was already on the Doctor’s Brandy!