The strange incident of mind and body possession in the life of Bai Dhunmai Merwanji Katrak, nee Hathiram
Roj Sarosh Mah Tir, 1378 Yz.
The remembrance of our grandparents and family elders telling us strange and almost impossible to believe stories of the past often form the most fond memories of our childhood and days of innocence. How we used to sit at their feet and listen in awe at the most outlandish of tales and imbibe the deep lessons of morality and human decency from them! How we used to be terrified of the evil and horrible villains of these stories, making our nightly trip to the toilet an act of extreme bravery! And how we used to pester our elders to repeat the same story again and again, listening to those almost hypnotic words, in the peculiar village dialect that all Parsis of those times used!
One such story often told was of Bhulki Daakan, an evil witch and her
attempt to take possession of the body and soul of a beautiful, yet pious lady of Navsari. Years after this childhood memory, research into the archives of the old Parsi Avaz newspaper has brought out the complete story with an interesting twist – the lady in question, belonged to our Hathiram family in Navsari, who after marriage, became Bai Dhunmai Merwanji Katrak. This is the strange, and hard to believe story of her possession and ultimate freedom, as recounted by Dr. Homi R. Bana in Parsi Avaz volume 23, issue 4, dated 23rd July 1969.
This incident happened somewhere in the year 1897. Those were the years of Parsi lordship over Navsari, which was called the Vatican of the Parsis. The entire town was divided into several “wads”, where members of large and prosperous Parsi families lived together. Thus there was the famous Dastur-wad – headquarters of the Bhagaria priesthood and home to the illustrious Meherji Rana family; then there were the other prominent Parsi families in their respective corners, such as Desai-wad, Katrak-wad, Kanga-wad, Bana-wad, etc. Each of these small mohallas was self sufficient and inhabited solely by Parsis. Each independent house, often with common walls with the neighbouring house was built in a manner which allowed all the practices of our Zarathushtrian faith. The houses had many narrow, yet long rooms, a spacious kitchen where the family fire was preserved with great care and dedication, a “chokkho ordo” or pure room, where the family prayers were said and ceremonies performed, a separate room for ladies in their special times, a chowk or open area where sunlight streamed in and where the house well was located from which pure water was drawn everyday for all the family use. The well would be washed daily and a Divo lit every evening and put in a small niche carved in the inner side, such that the light of the Divo would fall on the waters during the night. The houses generally had a large open seating area or Otla facing the street, where the ladies would gather during the day, or sit out to draw the thread from the sheep wool or to weave the Kusti using the special jantar or loom. On special days, the entire mohalla would be filled with the scent of Loban or incense and the quiet chanting of the Avesta prayers. Except for a few necessary workers and the odd beggar, no non-Parsi would dare enter the Parsi mohallas.
It was in such idyllic settings, one particular day in 1897, that a young lady was seen sitting on her house Otla, dressed in the customary Ijar and Badiyan, head covered with a cotton Mathu-banu, feet in the velvet Sapat, her hands furiously working the Jantar, as she wove a Kusti for some member of her family. The beauty of this lady was highlighted by her long, lustrous hair which swirled from side to side, as she made the rhythmic passes over the loom, and her pink happy face, glowing from her innate beauty and the innocence of blooming womanhood shone with religious devotion. This was the house of late Bachubai Dhalla in Katrak-wad, opposite the house of late Hormusji Kotwal, where the famous grand old man of India, Dadabhai Nowroji was born many years ago. Bachubai had adopted Dhunmai Hathiram as her daughter, and it was Dhunmai, who sat as describe above on that day.
But as Sherlock Holmes recounts in one of his mysteries, the idyllic surroundings are often the ground for the most dangerous criminal acts, and so it was in this case too. In those times of piety and religiousness, there were also those who tread upon the wrong path and indulged in black magic and other evil sciences. This practice of witchcraft was more concentrated in the lower class of Hindus and was used with deadly effect against enemies. The practice of witchcraft is not mumbo jumbo but is based on several Sanskrit texts and traditions originating from Tantra sciences. However, it is a one way street, and the teacher extracts a very heavy price from his student as he teaches him the deeper secrets of the trade. As the final step towards achieving the mastery of this evil topic, the teacher asks the student for the ultimate sacrifice – killing his own spouse or child, extracting the liver from the dead body, and offering the sweet delicacy of cooked liver an the final instalment of the fee to the Master. Those who waver, or refuse end up as lunatics – abandoned by their own family, as well as by the teacher. Those who pass this horrible test are taught the ultimate verses to achieve mastery of the topic, and are able to wield terrible power over other humans – including the capacity to enter the body and soul of any person and take control over their mind. This is the explanation of persons who are said to be “possessed”. In ancient Sanskrit texts, several mantras for both entering the body of others, as well as remedies to “remove” such squatters is given. The mastery of these mantras and the rituals to accompany such acts is what is taught in this dismal science.
One such practitioner of this evil art was a Hindu lady of the lowest ‘mehtar’ (those who clean toilets) class, called Bhulki. This evil lady roamed the streets of Navsari, disguised as a beggar and trapped innocent people into her clutches, letting them go only after extracting a heavy price. On that fateful day in 1897, Bhulki was passing through Katrak-wad when she noticed the 16 year old Dhunmai, in her full beauty and devotion. The natural jealousy of her sex as well as a casual remark which Dhunmai made to her, greatly angered the witch and she spun her evil spell and managed to sneak into Dhunmai’s body, oppressing her soul and taking over her mind, with the ultimate objective of getting her liver to offer her master as an additional gift.
But her natural jealousy and covetousness took control over Bhulki. She saw that the house of Dhunmai was full of all types of delicacies – mouth watering Parsi dishes, good clothes, fancy jewellery – all the things a young woman would need. She therefore decided to enjoy herself – using Dhunmai’s body to take advantage of all these goodies. Thus every day, at a particular time slot, Bhulki would manifest herself in Dhunmai’s body – causing Dhunmai’s body to go madly out of control and exhibit all the signs of possession – a glazed look in the eyes, foaming mouth, shrieking and uncontrolled movements of the body, swaying from here to there. This behaviour not only took a toll on Dhunmai’s body but also caused great trouble and sadness to all those around her who loved the dear girl so much. They could not bear to see their pure and innocent maiden in this state and realised that if corrective steps were not taken, they would soon lose their beloved Dhunmai forever.
The elders of the mohalla met and discussed ways to get Dhunmai back to normalcy. It was decided to take the help of a Hindu gentleman who had some experience in these matters. The elders of the mohalla went to the Hindu gentleman, described to him the entire episode and asked for his help in saving Dhunmai from Bhulki. Just as there are evil practitioners of this witchcraft, there are also slightly advanced persons who do not take the evil road but help others who suffer from them. Such persons know the methods and mantras to free the possession of the body and mind of innocent people from such evil witches. This is of course a very dangerous job and there is always the fear that the evil power of the witch would overpower the remedies of the exorcist. The Hindu gentleman agreed to help the Parsis on one condition. If, in trying to free Dhunmai’s mind and body from the clutches of the witch, any harm were to come to him or should he die or become incapacitated, he took the solemn promise from the Parsis that they would look after his wife and family till they lived. The Parsis readily agreed to this condition. They were instructed to bring Dhunmai to his house for further action.
The elders went back to Katrak-wad and began preparations for taking Dhunmai to the Hindu exorcist. The evil Bhulki, residing in Dhunmai’s body immediately realised what they were up to. She took control of Dhunmai’s body and began to resist the elders’ efforts to get her ready and take her. She began cursing loudly and violently jerking the body, not letting anyone touch her. Seeing this situation every one backed off, but one brave elderly Parsi lady named Manekbai (Jaiji) Katrak immediately took charge of the situation. Knowing full well that Bhulki was within Dhunmai’s body she began beating up Dhunmai, loudly asking Bhulki why she had entered Dhunmai and why she was harassing them? Bhulki replied through Dhunmai’s tongue, using the uncouth vulgar language of her class, which immediately made every one realise that it was Bhulki and not Dhunmai speaking. She cried out: “Kevu haaru khaavanu, kevu haaru pivaanu, kevu haaru rehvaanu – hu to neej nikalvani. Jo Manekbai mane maarti naa, nahi to taara dilmaa bharaay javaa!” (What good food, what good drinks, what good living – I’m not leaving from here! Stop hitting me Manekbai, or I’ll enter your body too!”)
The brave Manekbai was not at all moved, and after much beating and efforts, they managed to tie up Dhunmai and threw her body in a bullock cart and took her to the house of the Hindu exorcist. There after various rituals and much bargaining and enticing, they managed to buy off Bhulki and convinced her to leave Dhunmai’s body. As part of the bargain, Bhulki was given a big box of very expensive sweets, and she also insisted on taking the left shoe of Manekbai’s husband Mobed Nowroji Katrak! As soon as she left the body, Dhunmai’s original soul was aroused and took control once again of her body and mind, childishly asking ‘who am I? where am I?’.
Many months after this incident, the same Bhulki in disguise as a beggar was once again spotted in Katrak-wad. The wise residents were waiting for her. They called her in as though they were feeding a poor beggar, and offered her food and some very hard and potent local liquor, which was laced with the water left over after tanning cow hides. This water had residues of several poisonous chemicals which are used to soften the skin of the animal to convert it into good leather. As per the guidance of the Hindu exorcist, this water has the capacity to be able to remove the knowledge of evil doing from such witches. The liquor laced with the poisonous water was fed to the witch who soon got knocked out with the potency of the liquor as well as the chemicals. When she awoke, Bhulki had forgotten all her evil knowledge and spent the rest of her life as a normal beggar, roaming the streets of Navsari.
Over a period of time Dhunmai Hathiram recovered from the ill effects of the possession and married Merwanji Katrak and went on to be the proud mother of 12 precocious children! Over the years she earned the reputation of a wise, kind and religious mother who spent her entire life weaving thousands of Kustis, lived a full and hearty life and passed away at the age of 90, on 29th June, 1969, leaving behind a huge and happy family. May the Ruvan of late Dhunmai proceed from whatever station it may be in the cosmos and may it shower her blessings on our own Hathiram family and the entire community.
Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram