The Witch's Mirror - A Short Story by Dr Ratan Lal Basu | Washington Bangla Radio Online Magazine

THE WITCH’S MIRROR

Dr Ratan Lal Basu

A Short Story


The storm raged through the village and demolished many houses including the hut of the old woman, allegedly a witch. It was at the farthest corner of the village where the bushy field slopes gently down to the small stream. Everybody in the village was relieved as the awe-inspiring woman was killed by natural hazard. Police came; her body was removed after clearing the debris and cremated at the sandy bank of the river. The villagers set fire on the crumbled house and it was gutted in a few minutes. All belongings of the deceased woman were now gutted by fire and the owner of the land on which the hut was erected, hired a priest to do the rituals to sanctify the plot so that no ominous effects of the soul of the woman alleged to be a witch remains. Villagers were now happy that the hidden menace of the witch was gone, but many felt morose as she had never done any harm to anybody and there was no proof that she was a witch; furthermore she used to help the villagers with her herbal medication. The village, however, reverberated with gossips about the deceased witch and her death brought some new topic to spend their idle time on in their monotonous rustic life. The tea stall gossips which had so far remained confined to the monotonous day- to-day living and back biting of the persons absent now swung to a livelier arena and stories were fabricated about the activities of the alleged witch.

The old woman had come to this village about twenty five years ago and no body could tell exactly where she had come from. She mentioned the name of a village more than two hundred kilometers from here and none of the villagers most of whom rarely went beyond the local rural town, ten kilometers away, had ever heard of that village. She was noticed first by some cultivators while she was picking up herbs from the bushes at the river bank. She was then around sixty, lean and famished out of hunger. They asked where she had come from as they had never seen her before in this locality. At this she wept and gave account of her miserable life. Her husband was a middle farmer with several acres of agricultural land and a mango garden at a village two hundred kilometers from here. She inherited the property after her husband’s untimely death and after his marriage of her son and daughter-in-law entreated her for transferring the property in the name of her son. The candid widow, being unaware of their nasty design, did the same and thereafter they started misbehaving with her. It became so intolerable tat she had left home and started traveling randomly. She had learnt herbal treatment and could barely manage to get her food by providing treatment and selling herbs. But she could not earn enough to manage two meals a day and therefore she roaming from village to village in quest of livelihood and shelter.

The son of a cultivator was suffering from cough and cold and he promptly took her to his house and the boy was fully cured in no time after she administered her herbal medicine. The news reached the ears of a well to do farmer and he requested her to treat the asthmatic problem of his daughter. She stayed in his house and in a fortnight the girl was cured considerably belying the verdict of the urban allopathic doctors that this type of asthma is incurable. The farmer gave her a plot of land and built a hut for her at his own cost. Thereafter she started living there and helping rural people by her herbal treatment. In return the poor villagers used to provide her food and clothing and she had very little demand besides the bare subsistence.

One evening a few villagers returning form the haat in the village at the other side of the river in the evening saw her uttering mantras before a mirror and thereafter the rumor spread that she is a witch. In fact, they were not sure she was uttering mantras and some of them said that she was just looking at her own image intently at the mirror, but the rumor gradually got inflating from mouth to mouth and the ojha of the village, who had some grudge against the woman as since her arrival nobody approached him for treatment, made a fuss of the matter and declared that she must be a witch and she should be driven out of the village. The villagers were divided over the issue, but those who were against him could not express their opinion openly. They too had some fear about the woman because of the fabricated rumors. However, the sacred mission of the ojha did not come to fruition. Some young boys of the village were influenced by the communist leaders of the town and they were advised to make the rural people free from superstitions which had been at the root of their poverty and sufferings according to them. So these boys immediately informed the leaders about the design of the ojha. Some leaders came to the village and delivered lecture at a public meeting emphasizing that the superstitions about witchcraft is baseless and then warned the ojha that if he does not eschew his way, they would get him arrested by the police. The fear of police silenced the ojha and the woman remained in the village. The villagers had confidence that whatever she is she would never do any harm to them and on the contrary they would always be benefited by her herbal treatment. Still people had some hidden fear in their mind and no body went to her hut alone or after evening.

A few days after cremation of the woman, Tapu, a fourteen year old son of a poor peasant was returning alone from the field to bring from home a sickle. On his way home, across the field on which the hut of the woman was situated, he noticed a glitter in the mud and getting close he saw a beautiful oval mirror gilded with a white metal. He picked up the mirror and washed it clean in a nearby ditch. He thought it had something to do with the deceased woman and could somehow escape the notice of the villagers. He had listened seriously to the lectures of the communists and was convinced of the falsity of the concept of witch and other superstitions. He knew that he would have to hide this mirror at some secret place so that it is not detected by the villagers and destroyed. Upon reaching home he at fist went to the back of their house and hid the mirror in a thick bush of ferns. That night, when everybody in the house fell asleep, he sneaked out and started watching his face in the mirror. It was a full moon night and his face appeared charming to him. Thereafter the mirror became a source of his secret pleasure and everyday, the boy sneaked out of their house and went to the bush and looked at his image in the mirror with amazement. He got immense pleasure by making grimaces and all sorts of gestures at his image in the mirror and it occurred to him that with a little bit trimming he would look more handsome than the landlord’s son of his age.

The stories about the witch continued in evening gossips in tea stalls. Many of the villagers started fabricating stories about some mischievous activities of the witch. They, however, admitted that the woman loved the people of this village as they had given her shelter and therefore never did any harm to them but did mischievous activities in other villages.

Madhab Roy, a shopkeeper and one of the best story tellers in the village, stared his story by saying that what he was going to say now was from authentic source. He had gone to visit a relative at a distant village. A relative of a school teacher at that village lived in the village from where the witch had come. The witch was preparing herself to revenge the misdeeds of her son and daughter in law and their accomplices. One full moon night she reached the village and told his son and daughter in law that she would not live long and she would hand over her hidden gold to them. At this the eyes of his son and daughter in law glistened in greed and they welcomed her into the house and begged apology for their misbehavior because of inadvertence of young age. The witch smiled and told them that a mother always forgives her children. Then she brought out the mirror packed in a paper and fastened with string and told them that her gold was inside the packet. Thereafter the son and his wife opened the packet and their vision instantly fell into the mirror and they turned into stone dolls. Thereafter she met the accomplices one by one with the same story and turned all of them into stone dolls. The relative of the teacher had seen the dolls with his own eyes. Bijan Pal asked Madhab with a dubious tone how she could move two hundred kilometers and come back within the span of one night. At this Madhab questioned the common sense of Bijan and said that even a child knows that a witch can travel any distance within a moment. Other villagers had their fantasy stories too. In all the stories the center piece was the mirror. No body, however, believed the stories, but they enjoyed them as the tellers presented them in dramatic style and with suspense. Tapu heard the stories and laughed to himself. He had already looked into the mirror in full moon and nothing had happened and he was also influenced by the lectures of the politicians against superstitions.    

After a few days, the boy was caught red handed by his father while playing with the mirror. His mother saw him sneaking into the room like a thief at night while her sleep had broken suddenly and she disclosed this to his father. The next night, his father remained awake and followed the boy silently after he had sneaked out. He reported the matter to the ojha the next day and the latter came over with some villagers and immediately wrapped the mirror in a piece of black cloth sanctified by mantra. He opined that the mirror was to be destroyed right away. While the boy reported that he had looked into it on full moon night and nothing had happened to him, the ojha gravely examined his palm and said that luckily he had a rare mark on his palm that had protected him from the mischief of the mirror, but it would not be so for others. At that very moment the political boys were returning from a meeting with the urban leaders toward the place where their car was parked. Noticing the congregation they hastened there along with the leaders. Learning about the issue, the leaders started laughing loudly, admonished the ojha and one of them snatched the mirror from his hand. They told the villagers that on the next full moon night they would look into the mirror in the presence of the villagers and disprove the superstition.

The ojha felt humiliated and after the politicians had departed he told the villagers that the leaders would learn a good lesson; in fact they would become stone dolls for sure. His close followers also strongly supported his view. Other villagers were in two minds. And till the next full moon, all gossips in the village stopped and they waited with fearful hearts for the fateful night.

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The test was decided to be held in the political office room and in the evening of the full moon, all the villagers congregated outside the office. The leaders arrived on time and the onlookers made way for them. The four leaders – Tapan Mandal, Bijan Das, Dwipen Banerjee and Kalipada Datta – had all passed from Calcutta colleges and entered politics as students’ union leaders. They were good orators but not so as students and had been graduated with painstaking efforts with the assistance of private tutors. After graduation, they joined the political party as low echelon whole time cadres and were entrusted with the task of popularizing their political party and ideology in and around the suburban town they resided in. All on a sudden, they got a golden opportunity that established all of them as trusted trade union leaders and their position in the party hierarchy rose rapidly. It was the opportunity to organize the laborers of the newly established Agrawal Fruit Products, a proprietary firm owned by the Marwari, Mahabir Agrawal. 

Mahabir, a poor Marwari youth had started his business with a small printing press which did not run well. Thereafter, at the advice of Biresh Chachan, his batch-mate at college, he took to smuggling in the Dhulabari border with Nepal and made considerable money within a short span of time. He had been blacklisted by the police and it was not safe for him to continue the illegal business. So he returned to Calcutta, bought a few acres of land near the suburban town where the four political leaders lived, and established a fruit processing factory. In the rural hinterland of the town, fruits like pineapple, guava, mango etc. grew in plenty, transport and communication facilities with Calcutta were very good and he started earning much profit from the jelly, jam, pickles and fruit squash produced in his factory. He was, however, extremely greedy and deprived the laborers of the minimum salaries and other amenities specified by the labor acts. He also exploited the producers of the fruits. They were poor cultivators and were compelled to borrow from him at exorbitant rates of interest and were also to sell their perishable produces at prices far below the prevailing market rates. The laborers could not protest as they feared him, a tough and cruel ex-smuggler, and the ruthless goons under his employ.

The four political leaders took advantage of this situation, fought hard to organize the laborers into the trade union affiliated to their party and could force him to pay the laborers fair wages and many other amenities enshrined in the labor laws. Soon, a rival political party also formed a trade union in the factory but could not win election to capture the seat of recognized trade union. They however spread rumors that off late the four leaders had connived with Mahabir and, the recent retrenchment of some laborers was due to this conspiracy between Mahabir and the bribed trade union leaders. But most of the laborers did not believe them and took it to be false propaganda. 


§§§
The four leaders first delivered lectures against superstitions and especially, witch cult and the legal provisions against the practice. Thereafter they closed the door of the office and the villagers waited outside in breathless silence. The leaders switched off the electric light and opened the two large windows at the east and in a moment the room was filled with bright moon light.

Tapan was the first to uncover the mirror and look into it. He felt a bit shaky and nervous and his hands were trembling. Whatever our education be, we cannot shake off the prejudices entrenched deeply into our subconscious in our childhood and at times, the inherent superstitions get the better of our rationality learnt at later life. But he had to preserve his image before his comrades and therefore Tapan deliberately controlled his palpitating heart and shaking hands, yanked out the cover and looked into the mirror holding his breath and then he started laughing loudly, ‘Oh my god, it’s not at all a mirror and has got nothing to do with the old woman.’

The other leaders looked at Tapan with puzzled eyes and said simultaneously, ‘What is it then?’

‘See for yourself.’ Tapan was still laughing.

Bijan, Dwipen and Kalipada looked into the mirror in turn and all of them started laughing. What they saw in the mirror was not their own image, but a picture of Mahabir, painted neatly inside the frame in such a way that it looked exactly like a mirror image. They came to the conclusion that this frame is not at all a mirror and must be planted in the field by the Marwari to frighten the superstitious rural people. He must have some wicket design in his mind. What surprised them was the hi-tech method by which the picture was painted.

People were waiting outside with fear and anxiety and their waiting ended as soon as the leaders clanked open the door and came out laughing. ‘Just see, we are not stone dolls,’ Tapan started his harangue. ‘It is not at all a mirror and nothing to do with the old woman. In fact, your superstitions and fear psychosis is taken advantage of cunning people to exploit you….”

Tapu pushed through the crowd and approached Bijan who was holding the mirror in his hand and entreated, ‘then give me back the mirror.’

Bijan returned the mirror and the boy ran off right into the field, picked out from a bush a used up black cap given to him by the son of the landlord, wore the cap and was immensely delighted to watch his smart looking image.


Dr.Ratan Lal BasuRatan Lal Basu, Ph.D. (Economics) is an ex-Reader in Economics and Teacher-in-Charge, Bhairab Ganguly College, Kolkata, India. Dr. Basu has written & edited several books on Economics. Dr Basu us a valued and regular contributor to Washington Bangla Radio.

Check out WBRi Online Bookstore Recommendatiuons on books by Dr. Ratan Lal Basu: CLICK HERE >

Apart from his passion for the field of Economics, Dr. Basu's other interests are Boxing & Small Game Hunting (gave up the nasty games during college life); Swimming in Turbulent Rivers (physically impossible now); Himalayan Treks, Adventure in Dense Forests, Singing Tagore Songs and also writing travelogues and fiction in Bengali and English.

Dr. Ratan Lal Basu can be reached at rlbasu [at] rediffmail.com.

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