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The witch of Ranichacho

There must have been at least twenty of them. None was armed. But the volley of voices was enough to shake Pratima Kispatta out of her afternoon nap. Namita Kohli tells more...

india Updated: Sep 20, 2008 22:59 IST
Namita Kohli

There must have been at least twenty of them. None was armed. But the volley of voices was enough to shake Pratima Kispatta out of her afternoon nap. The men — most of them her relatives — barged in, dragged her out, and dumped her in a tractor. “The next thing I knew was that I was being taken to a faraway place. No one listened to me,” recalls Pratima. Why would they: she had ‘devoured’ a little boy. The ‘witch’ of Ranichacho, a village on the outskirts of Ranchi, had ‘snuffed’ the life out of her own nephew — that too after ‘causing’ the death of another family member, a sister-in-law.

It happened two months back, but the 50-something Pratima still lives the agony. “They took me to the ojha (exorcist). He had a long jatta (thick, coarse locks of hair) and peering eyes. He took some rice in his hands, and a ten-rupee note, and looked at it. Then he waved the broom around my head. It was scary,” she says, rolling her kohl-lined eyes. Mercifully, that day the ojha couldn’t see the ‘witch’ in her. Had he ‘identified’ her, they would have just cut her tongue off. “Or they would have simply beaten me to death,” she says.

But this wasn’t the first time Pratima has had to prove, or disprove, her ‘identity’. A month back, the villagers again brought exorcists to her doorstep. “‘Come out you dayen,’ they shouted,” she says. But even then they gave her a clean chit. Still, her neighbours wouldn’t talk to her. To them, she remains the cause of all the misfortune that has struck their village in the past four years.

In the tribal hamlets of Jharkhand — home to tribes like the Santhals, Paharias and Oraons — there’s always a reason for a death, a calamity or an epidemic. And the reason lives somewhere among them. The Oraons of Ranichacho, too, live life by this belief system.

And so, Pratima wasn’t spared. “No one talks to my mother. Even her shadow is considered dangerous,” says Sheela, Pratima’s elder daughter, who has come to visit. Sheela has to keep checking on her frail parent and blind younger sister.

Inside their hut, there’s a bed, a table and a bicycle — all crammed into the small space that Pratima tidies before leaving at 4 am to work on her “small patch of land”. Says Sheela, “They don’t let anyone help her with the land, nor do they allow her to work on someone else’s land.” The panchayat, that’s supposed to help her with getting a ration card, has not delivered in all these years.

What had really happened? Sheela says she doesn’t know how her chachi died. Pratima insists it was a “TB and sugar problem”. But in villages like Ranichacho, where hunger and disease are constant companions, not many are ready to believe Pratima.

Some villagers say they have seen witches “sucking on the broom and flying over trees”, but also say they haven’t seen Pratima doing so. However, each time someone in the village has an unexplained ailment or a dead cow, they bang at the door of Pratima — one of several such ‘witches’ in the region.

But why her, I ask Pratima. “I don’t know,” she answers. “There was a fight between my husband’s brothers over land,” she says. “They took their share, but they wanted ours as well… Now, they have turned me into a dayen… They want me to leave this place.”

Does all this make her angry? “I feel scared, not angry,” she says. Did she complain to the police? “Yes, this January. But they said, ‘Don’t mess with the villagers, you will probably get stuck yourself’.” What about her ‘powers’ — has she ever had any? Pratima shakes her head and asks, “Please, can you do something to cure my blind daughter?”