A peer, a pot and a ‘prescription’  

Problems needn’t always be tackled with force; a little common sense can go a long way

March 17, 2023 11:39 am | Updated March 20, 2023 07:56 pm IST

‘The tree can be bent without using an axe’

‘The tree can be bent without using an axe’ | Photo Credit: Illustration: Sonali Zohra

It was a cold January afternoon and it had snowed heavily for days. Outside, everything was covered in a downy white blanket.

It was around three in the afternoon, which was generally quiet in Phuphee’s house. Everyone had been fed and watered, and were now trying to nuzzle themselves into some warm corner of the house in a desperate attempt to hold onto warmth. I was sitting with Phuphee in her kitchen, in front of the daan (mud stove) warming my toes. I had been harassing her to tell me how she had become a peer (faith healer), but each time she would make an excuse and leave. But right then I knew she had nothing to do, and I knew that the hot rice and razma dal ti gogji (red kidney beans cooked with turnips) we had had for lunch had caused every member of the house, including her, to go into a mild postprandial torpor.

She rolled her eyes at me and said, “You aren’t going to let this go, are you?”

She sat back, lit two cigarettes, took a couple of deep drags, and said, “In my day, girls didn’t think about careers. We were married off at a young age and from there on you hoped for the best. You hoped your husband was a decent man who wouldn’t beat you. You hoped your in-laws wouldn’t be inhuman, and then you hoped you survived childbirth. You know, my grandmother, your great grandmother Aapa was a peer too, and I remember watching her help people with exorcisms. It was frightening to watch, so I didn’t ever think I could do something like that. Aapa was the strongest person I knew, and I say person because she was stronger than the strongest man I knew, your great grandfather.

“One day, on a winter’s day exactly like this, something happened. There was a woman in my maternal village who had been coming to see Aapa frequently. She had been given in marriage to a man in our village. We never really asked her what her name was but as is tradition, upon marriage, we christened her as Zoon. She was married to a local farmer, and they had three children. Their marriage was as reasonably unhappy as everyone else’s.

“Her problem wasn’t what we would call an emergency, but it was tricky. She had seen a copper cooking pot in a local shop and she wanted to buy it. The one she had at home was mostly fine, but it had a small sharp edge which would often catch her unawares and cut her wrist. She had asked her husband for the money and explained why she needed a new pot, but he refused. ‘What is wrong with the one you have? All you must do is be a little careful around the sharp edge,’ he had said nonchalantly. She had been unable to say anything back.

“She had sat there reeling under a multitude of emotions. She felt shame for wanting something she already had. She felt angry at having to depend on someone else for something that was expensive but not a big deal. She felt small and insignificant because even though she was half of this marriage, she was most definitely the smaller half. She felt wronged because even though she worked alongside her husband in the fields, all the money went straight to him. She felt despondent because that beautiful shiny copper cooking pot was so, so out of reach. That was why she came to Aapa. She wanted something that would convince her husband to buy the copper pot.

“Aapa told her to come back after a few days as this was not an easy task. When Zoon came back, Aapa gave her some turnips and told her to cook razma ti gogji and to make sure to add a little ghee. When he has eaten his evening meal, just before he sleeps, mention the pot casually, Aapa told Zoon. She looked a little crestfallen, as she was expecting some taaveez [a talisman] or some holy water, but she held her tongue. A few days later, Zoon reported that her husband hadn’t mentioned anything about the pot. Upon hearing this, Aapa had lit her hookah and smoked. At the last gurgle of the hookah, she had reached forward and whispered something in Zoon’s ear.

“I would keep an eye out for Zoon but after a few days I gave up hope. Perhaps Zoon was not destined to buy a new pot, I thought. One day three weeks later, when it was still snowing, I was sitting by the window with Aapa, when I saw a figure materialise out of the snow. At first, I was unable to make out who it was but as it got closer, I recognised Zoon carrying a shiny copper pot. When she entered the kitchen, she was slightly out of breath. She had brought razma ti gogji cooked in her new pot for Aapa. Aapa didn’t ask her any questions about what had transpired, but you could see the flush of triumph and happiness on both their faces.

“Later, I asked Aapa what magic prescription she had whispered in Zoon’s ear that day. ‘Zoon did not need magic, she needed a little common sense. I told her to cook as she normally did, but to change the quantities of spices she used at every single meal. She convinced her husband that the old pot was possessed. You see, until it only affected Zoon, he wasn’t bothered but when it affected him, it wasn’t so simple anymore.’

“When I saw Aapa doing that, I knew that is what I wanted to do. Aapa always said, after her it would be me. I once asked, ‘What about one of my brothers?’ and she said, ‘Men use force, and the tree can be bent without using an axe. Always remember Tahira, a man has no divinity, only a woman can ever be divine.’”

A Kashmiri living in England, the columnist spends her scant free time contemplating life’s vagaries.

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