In India, many people continue to thrive on their ability to drive out the spirits and the spectrum would include sorcerers apart from neurologists and psychologists

The medical term Complex Partial Epilepsy (CPE) may make sense only to neurologists but it is not difficult, in our country, to hear of people who get temporarily ‘possessed by spirits.’ They go into a trance and perform bizarre physical acts, including, at times, inflicting painful wounds on themselves before reverting to their senses.

We, neurologists, would explain some of these acts as a variant of epileptic disorders or CPE while psychologists studying the mind would attribute these to a form of hysteria.

In India, many people continue to thrive on their ability to drive out the spirits and the spectrum would include sorcerers apart from neurologists and psychologists. But, to my mind, there is none like Panchoo who added a whole new dimension to his disorder with the brain!

Panchoo was born in a village close to India’s southern tip Kanyakumari to Chellamal and Narayanan around the same time when the couple’s eldest daughter gave birth to Kichan (Ramakrishnan). Panchoo, being the last of her nine children, was Chellammal’s darling. He had an elephantine appetite and could eat mounds of rice with curry. (I later came to learn during my neurology training that this eating disorder had something to do with the part of the brain called ‘satiety centre’ located in the hypothalamus).

As all the children of the house ate together, seated in a row, Panchoo got the best of food from his mother. Chellammal would stealthily serve a fist of ghee to her favourite child in the guise of aiding him mix his mound of rice with curries while the rest got only a trickle of it. It was only when they reached their teens that another feature about Panchoo came to light. He was found possessed, occasionally, by deities and their spirits. It happened when a prayer was on as part of weddings or birthdays. He would shake his head in a violent frenzy and utter a few words and his torso would go into a spin around his waist. Only Kichan could decipher these utterances and he would chant “Kumari Bhagavathy, Kumari Bhagavathy,” referring the local deity at Kanyakumari.

Some 10 minutes into this, Panchoo would lapse into a deep sleep, waking up to have a jar of water and enormous amounts of delicious food. He was otherwise a gentle soul preferring prayers to outdoors and even school.

One summer day, while taking a stroll along the beach at Kanyakumari, Panchoo suddenly told, ‘Deyy, Naan Yakshiyakkam’ (Hey, I am a female spirit). Kichan laughed on hearing this and said, ‘don’t create a fuss out here, let us go home.’ Panchoo let out a mighty scream and his eyes became blood red and he started going into his usual trance. A shaken Kichan ran home.

Chellammal became furious with Kichan for having deserted her beloved son and her loud shout brought all the people at home to the kitchen as she ordered them to fetch her son home. Kichan too left the house in search of Panchoo. Kichan, by some intuition, decided to return home and he found a strange silence in there as Chellammal had become quiet. As he entered the ‘thalam’ (inner courtyard), he found Panchoo sitting on the floor and enjoying a hearty meal. Chellammal had gone to the rear side of the house to draw some water from the well. It was Kichan’s turn to become angry. “Why did you do that,” he asked. Panchoo replied with all his innocence — ‘Pasichuthoo,’ (I was hungry). An unrelenting Kichan vented all his frustration on Panchoo and screamed: Why did you return? setthu tholayaen (You should have got lost and died.) Panchoo remained silent for a minute and replied to that — again with all the innocence he could gather ‘rombha pasichuthoo, athinalae’ (I came back as I became very hungry).

Kichan’s anger melted away as he heard Panchoo’s innocent defence and he left to call back the search party.

As I heard this incident narrated to me by Kichan and his brother, another neurological phenomenon became apparent to me — extreme hunger and hypothalamus can drive out any spirit that dares to occupy the human mind!

(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Neurosurgery, Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology, Thiruvananthapuram. Email: dreaswer@gmail.com)

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