The Summer Of The Witch
I remember that long and hot summer of 1976 when the monsoon rains were very scattered and it was a difficult period with poor crop and a concerted attack of various tea insects especially the dreaded helopeltis or “tea mosquito” attacks. This was a fairly new pest in tea then. It had first started appearing in some tea gardens in the Jorhat area before spreading to the north bank tea gardens via North Lakhimpur areas. This insect resembled a big mosquito and ate the sap of the new green leaf by puncturing it, which made entire sections turn black with crop retarded for about a month for full recovery. Our garden was affected in around 15% of the area and in spite of spraying the new chemicals recommended by Tocklai, the spread of the pests was not being effectively arrested. I was quite perturbed and had visited some neighbouring gardens to find out their position which actually turned out to be more severe than in our garden. That was however no consolation as we were in the process of building a brand new factory with a bank loan and if the production was not there it would be more difficult to obtain this sanction.
Amidst this crisis we had a very efficient sirdar, called Sukra, who had been hit by a car near Ketela Tea garden and he was knocked unconscious. I had personally trained him for the tea nursery and new tea planting & upkeep works, and he had picked up well and was a big asset to us. It was only after three days that we got to find out about him missing from his house when his family had reported to me. So I had alerted the police about it. They had found out that an unidentified man was in the Ketela Mission Hospital and on enquiry we found that it was indeed Sukra. He seemed to have lost his memory for he could not tell the hospital authorities his name or address. He was released after about a fortnight but the problem was that he really could not remember anything much and looked vacantly at anyone talking to him. I was feeling bad for him and knew that I would now have to concentrate more on the work he was supervising in the nursery and young teas. But surprisingly, his deputy sirdars rose to the occasion and due to their diligence the work did not suffer much.
Sukra, meanwhile, had taken a long leave for about two months and slowly but steadily he was making some progress and started interacting with everyone in a more proactive manner. His movements were slower and he was not being able to ride his bicycle properly. I was getting genuinely worried about him and I decided to send him to Guwahati for a detailed check up in a hospital there. During this period his family suffered another big loss as his old father, Bhoira, suddenly left home and there was no sign of him. The man just picked up a small bag and told the family that he was going to visit an old friend in a neighbouring garden and vanished. There was no trace of him and in spite of informing the police to try and locate his whereabouts there were no further leads. However, Sukra made a good recovery at Guwahati and he returned home to learn of his missing father. In fact, a lot of elderly tea garden people, after retirement, did not like to be a burden on their children and many of them used to join up and go into the forests and occupy some land for farming. I had seen some of these settlements during my forays into the jungle areas. He accepted it as fate and slowly resumed his work in a normal manner.
About a month later, the murmurs started and he came to me one day late in the evening and asked me for advice. It appeared that a woman who was earlier working in our garden had left after the death of her husband to reside in the village and was thought to be practicing black magic on persons for money given to her by her clients. It was a practice that was prevalent then in many gardens and villages as people believed in the supernatural powers attributed to some who had learnt this craft through occult prayers and years of perseverance in devilish rituals. Her name was Sukurmoni. She was referred to as a “Daini” i.e. a witch and being so tied up in my own activities I hardly thought about her existence. Sukra told me that he suspected his neighbour, a person called Topno, of getting her to act against his family and his accident and father vanishing into the thin air was all her doing. Topno wanted to buy a portion of the land owned by their family and on being refused outright, he planned to get back at them by using the witch’s powers. I listened to him carefully and told him that I had never believed in such things but asked him what he wanted to do. Sukra confided in me that he was thinking of also going to the witch and enlisting her help against Topno and ask her to try and locate his father. For this he would of course have to pay a lot of money, which he was willing to spend. I was quite stumped at what to advise him as he had already made up his mind. So I advised him to move cautiously and also be wary of using witchcraft.
The hot days of summer were ending and soon it was November, the time when I looked forward to all my outdoor activities. I started cleaning up my fishing equipment and checking and oiling the guns. I took the reports of the nearby rivers to ascertain the prospects for the early season and established contacts with all my friends and guides in the forests. The plans for the pruning were made and all samples given on the auspicious day of Bijaya Dashami and most importantly the budgets and cash flow statement for the proposed new factory was in the final draft. I was in the factory office when Sukra came in with the news that Topno had been diagnosed with some sort of a brain ailment which caused him sudden seizures lasting for several minutes at a time. At once I remembered his plan to enlist the witch and he confirmed that indeed he had done so. How could this be a coincidence? I felt a cold shiver run down my spine. She had also told Sukra that his father was alive but in some far off place confined for some problem.
I was at a loss for words and wondered if there was actually some truth in all this witchcraft and such activities. All the happenings in Sukra’s life in the last six months were in an abnormal pattern and now Topno was having seizures. The local government hospital at Gohpur could not diagnose his problem and he was sent to the Civil Hospital at Tezpur, where they suspected him to have got carbon monoxide poisoning. On questioning, Topno revealed that he last remembered that his friend, Sukurmoni had invited him for dinner and it was after that that he got these fainting fits. The matter was informed to the local police and in their investigation it was found that Topno had been drugged and submitted to being locked up in a room where a charcoal fire was lit and he had to breathe this foul air for three nights. This must have caused the man to develop this fainting problem. The witch was then picked up from her house by the police whom she berated with severe threats and warnings of her power to cause them harm but by now her game was up and she was jailed for some years. I don’t think she ever returned to her village again as Sukra told me later that she had relocated to her relative’s place somewhere near Mangaldai.
Time went by. Our young teas were coming up well with good yields and the new factory loan was sanctioned. It was a very busy period of my tenure in the garden but I was quite happy for all the developmental works being undertaken. Then after about two years of the incident of Sukra’s father going missing, the old man suddenly turned up at our nearby police outpost. A contractor had taken him along with some other people to a remote village inside Arunachal Pradesh and had sold him off to the chief of the village to work as his vassal. As they did not have any inner line permits they were unable to return but an officer learnt about the matter and got them all released. That evening I had one large extra glass of whiskey to compose my thoughts and to exorcise the spectre of Sukurmonis ever entering my life again. So now whenever I read about witchcraft and black magic reports in the papers I am most non-committal as I realised that the line between the truth and people’s belief is very thin indeed.