“These leaves are used in headache ointments,” she said, and handed me a few. They had a interesting, pleasantly medicinal smell. I asked her what the tree was called, but its name is the last thing I remember from that evening.
We were in the playground, waiting for the baby to tire herself out. The woman speaking was employed by my friend, for whom I was translating the conversation. She walked over and tore a bit of bark off the same tree. “This is used to make paper,” she said. “Where I come from, there’s nothing but these trees and maybe twenty houses, spread out far from each other.
“At night it’s pitch dark. By 6pm, my heart starts to palpitate. I can hardly sleep.”
“Didn’t you grow up there?” I asked. “How can you be so afraid? And what are you afraid of?”
“Ghosts,” she said. “I saw one when I was ten years old.”
Later, she would say that she didn’t normally tell people about these things. About how since she had seen that ghost, with its ghastly monkeylike face, she lived in nightly fear. About how some years after that, she developed the ability to channel deities, and exorcise the possessed – only in her case, it wasn’t so much an ability as an inability to resist being taken over. It always happened without her control, on two specific days of the week.
Later, I would also wonder why she had told this story at all – at 6pm on a Tuesday, no less.
It was the first her employer had heard of this side of her, and there were many questions. She carried on talking about her experience as a medium – but mostly, she talked about fear. Her fears seemed normal enough – fear of the dark, fear of spirits, fear of being in train stations at night, fears about negotiating life in this city as an unthreatening, working class woman.
At some point, she stopped me mid-translation. “I don’t want to talk now, I’m getting scared.” But it was too late. Even as we began to change the subject, she started to hyperventilate. Her slight body tensed and shuddered violently, her face contorted in anguish. I ran for the baby, thinking back on an incident from my own childhood in which a possessed woman had grabbed hold of me and flung me around like a crash test dummy. My friend put her arms around her until she calmed, sobbing. We left the playground as soon as we could.
There was only one thing about the possession that disturbed me, and disturbs me still: how a person of such power – a person who had the capacity to support her community as a healer – could have so little control over it. She was at the mercy of her own power. It had, in fact, turned on her.
And doesn’t this ring true for many of us? How easy it is to hide our own light, our own gifts, so as to get along with a hostile environment. But to get by on a mediocre life when one is meant for extraordinary things is to poison the self. On some level we are all maladjusted mediums. How many of the ghosts that besiege you are of your own killing?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.