the-south-asian.com January 2003
JANUARY 2003 Contents
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'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'
A BRITISH RAJAH
The colonel's surgery went well, and two days later he was dismissed. During those two days, the arrogant man I had feared and disliked became one of the friendliest and most interesting men I ever met. It all started with a discussion of fakirs and yoga, and developed into something of a master-student relationship as I listened to him in hot pursuit of subjects in which I was interested but about which I knew very little. I had read a fair amount and thought I knew something about these subjects until I met him. It was a symbiotic encounter; the student had found a master and the master an eager student. He gave me book after book to read and finally, as a kind of ceremony for the initiate, he handed me a portion of the manuscript on which he was working.
Heady stuff, indeed. But the real experience came a week later when the colonel appeared as promised, having commandeered a jeep, to take Captain Jaffee and me to see, among other mysteries of India, the walking-on-hot-coals ceremony. No self-respecting person, he insisted, should leave India without having at least seen that. And since Captain Jaffee was interested in the phenomenon solely from a medical point of view, he willingly went along. His scientific mind was intent on finding some physiological Explanation for this rite, if indeed the whole thing weren't one big fakery. Other phenomena seemed of very little interest to him.
We travelled to a spot some twenty or thirty miles, through village after village, until we came to a jungle like grove of vines and banyan trees. If the place had a name, I have long since forgotten it. I remember only a sense of apartness from all else I had seen, except perhaps for the trek through the forest Fr. O'Brien had shown us. It was a glimpse at primeval India, felt here and there so often through the fabric of mundane life.
Colonel Thorne-Smythe pulled the jeep to the edge of a grove, and we went on foot only a short distance until we saw a small group of Indians, surprisingly quiet, as though engaged in some burial rite. The colonel motioned for us to stay as he went on toward the group. One of the Indians turned when he arrived and they talked, the Indian looking back at us as if to take our measure.
The Colonel returned and we followed him back to the group where immediately, a few feet away, I saw the shallow pit of smoldering coals. The Indians took no notice of us; they were intent on ritual.
"Those two over there," the Colonel said, nodding toward two Indians, stick-thin, with fixed stares. "They're initiates, ready for the test. They're in trance."
And no sooner had he said this than they were led by two other Indians to the edge of the smouldering pit, where, with a slight push on the shoulder, one of them began his journey of fire. I had expected a rapid walk, skimming if possible the surface of the hot coals, but the Indian's feet moved at a normal stride through the smouldering bed, and he was received at the other end by another Indian who guided him to his waiting brothers. Then the ritual was repeated by the second Indian.
I watched Captain Jaffee, attentive to every part of the ritual, his skepticism obviously at war with what he had witnessed. Breaking a twig from a near-by tree, he went determinedly to the edge of the pit and began raking a few coals from the bed. Wetting the tips of two fingers with his tongue, he gingerly applied them to the dying coals and as quickly withdrew them. Since this was not enough to satisfy his laboratory test, he repeated the whole process as he squatted beside the simmering pit. He remained there a while, his head bowed, as if pondering the impossible.
The Colonel smiled. "I see the good doctor is giving it all a thorough examination."
"It goes with the scientific territory." I said.
"Of course," he said, nodding toward the other side of the pit where another ritual had already begun. "I wonder what he'll make of that."
The two Indians who had walked through their baptism of fire were now being skewered with needle-like wires and hooks. In the flesh of their chests little leaden balls were fastened to the hooks, while the abdomen flesh of one, gathered roughly in the hand of a brother Indian, was skewered and then weighted down on either end with the crude balls.
Through it all Captain Jaffee, having risen from his examination of the burning coals, watched in rapt silence the ritual mutilation of flesh.
"Strange surgery," I said, wanting somehow to lighten the severity of the scene.
The Captain glanced at me oddly, as if my remark was most inappropriate for the occasion.
"I want you to examine their skin when it's over," the Colonel said, addressing Captain Jaffee. "I think you'll be surprised. No bleeding to speak of, and no scars. I've never seen any bad results in all the times I've observed it. Baburam will let you see for yourself." "I don't believe any of this," Captain Jaffee said. "Of course," the Colonel replied, "one can't believe what one sees. That's the thing about India. You learn that if you're here long enough. Things are seldom what they seem."
"It's all too cryptic for me," Captain Jaffee said.
"This isn't a spectator sport, you know," the Colonel went on, eager to instruct. "For them, it all has great spiritual significance. You don't ordinarily get to see this. It's a private affair. The training and discipline that go into it are quite remarkable."
"To what end?" Captain Jaffee said.
"I suppose such a pragmatic question would never occur to them, "the Colonel responded. "Indians don't think like that."
"Mind over matter," I offered.
"I never use that phrase." The Colonel gave me a look only a little less than contemptuous. "Empty words. I never use them. Much more complex than that. The only analogy, remote as it is, that I can find in the western world is those medieval saints and mystics who mortified the flesh to attain spiritual enlightenment. But even that analogy doesn't quite hold up." He paused a moment, reflecting on the point, and then went on. "It's a knotty problem. One of the things I'm grappling with now in the book I'm working on."
"Pathogenic, I'd say," Captain Jaffee was intently observing the continuing rite of skewered flesh. The Colonel laughed, one of the few times I had seen him do that. "Spoken like a true medical man."
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