Review: Way of the Witch by Ipsita Roy Chakraverti
Written in a conversational style, this book which presents witches as icons of women’s empowerment maligned by mainstream religions, also shares tenets to help Wiccans get ahead
Humanity’s unceasing interest in djinns and genies, witches and sorceresses peaks each year during Halloween. Every second person is dressed up as a witch – hooked noses, pointy hats, boiling cauldrons in hand. However, the first witch, Lilith, was, apparently, a beauty.
The first wife of Adam, she was a free thinker who refused to bow to her husband’s whims, and then left him. Adam defamed her, and the first witch was born, writes India’s first Wiccan priestess, Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, in her newest “witch book”, Way of the Witch: Everything You Wanted to Know about Witchcraft.
“Every strong woman is a witch,” asserts Chakraverti, who herself kicked up a storm back in 1986 when she declared herself a witch. Following the predictable backlash, she started practising and teaching Wiccan ways of healing to clear the cloud of superstition surrounding witches and witchcraft.
The author transports her readers beyond the binary of witches and fairies and states that witches have been deliberately maligned by mainstream religions because they possess supernatural powers. She argues that, as witches ushered in the age of feminism, they should be celebrated as icons of women’s empowerment instead of being feared. After all, “witch” is a derivative of the old English word wicce or wicca, which means “wise”.
Every culture has a different name for Wicca. While Egypt worshipped her as Isis, Turkey as Arina, Babylon as Ishtar, according to Chakraverti, India worshipped her as Durga and Kali. She believes Wicca flourished in this country under 64 yoginis, who were supposed to be attendants of the goddess Kali. Chakraverti has dedicated this book to them.
The Roman goddess, Diana, was worshipped by Wiccans, and Chakraverti believes the word “daayan” – liberally used in our part of the world to hunt down women with spunk aka witches – has its origins there. It is no secret that in our country, women have had to take the blame for failed crops, plagues, droughts, earthquakes, and whatnot for millennia. In many cases, these “daayans” were then burnt or hung to death.
In the West, between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, nine million witches were executed. Torturing women even became a pastime in Britain with a Matthew Hopkins being appointed “Witchfinder General”.
India’s first known witch was Khona, a twelfth century poet, astrologer and naturalist from Bengal. Since her predictions were accurate, men became jealous, and started calling her a witch. In frustration, she cut off her tongue.
On her Wiccan journey, Chakraverti reveals that she has often found herself in the world of spirits. She writes about these journeys in much detail. One such out-of-body experience was when she stepped into a parallel universe off Park Street in Kolkata. She visited a “library of souls” and met Sulekha, a young girl who had died by suicide. The gods on duty explained, “It is not the heart but the ego which is hurt. People on your plane can’t seem to let things go.”
The gods also tell her that they send out signals, and in this gadget-crazy age, people should look for signs in their broken machines, and poor networks. “(When the) Television screens go blank. The telephone rings but there is nobody at the other end,” the gods inform her.
While this may sound implausible, Chakraverti comes up with explanations such as “The truth is that we are not the only ones in the universe,” “consciousness cannot be extinguished by the molecular destruction of the brain and body”, and that “reality is a myth, and we exist in a twilight area of the tangible and the insubstantial”.
What the readers may find spookier is her presentation of translations of the prophecies of Luciana, a sixteenth century Franco-Austrian aristocrat:
“A desolate world will come to you/Dual numbers is the clue/Hold on to what is dear to you/The stars flash down/And rocks do strew.”
The dual numbers mean 2020 - the year the Covid-19 devastated the world. The rocks which “strew” the earth may refer to the galactic storm which seemed to surround the earth in these months, Chakraverti explains. According to Luciana, this plague will not end. “It is manmade with something she calls ‘synthecine.’ This remains a mystery.”
This book will come in handy for aspiring Wiccans, as the author lays down tenets and shares mantras that can help them get ahead.
Chakraverti’s conversational style makes this book an easy read. When she addresses readers as “my lovelies” and “my dearies”, older readers may be reminded of the late film journalist Devyani Chaubal’s columns.
For centuries, people have been terrified of witchcraft and punished its practitioners. Historians have delved deep into the origins of witchcraft and the many myths surrounding witches, providing enough context to help people overcome their fears. Unfortunately, this book lacks academic insight, fails to capture and convey the plight of “daayans”, and often sources historical facts to “knowledgeable” people.
Perhaps, Chakraverti’s next “witch book” should be a serious academic study of the witches of the Indian subcontinent. Given that the world is never going to lose interest in the supernatural, it is likely to fly off the shelves.
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi
The views expressed are personal