This time on the podcast, the story of an invisible war. Shots are fired. Injuries sustained. But how do you fight an enemy you can't see — one that may not even exist?
Much of the music in this episode is from the Free Music Archive by:
Theme music: Fragilistic by Ketsa; licensed under CC BY NC ND 4.0
Kelley Lynch (00:02):
They say that travel broadens the mind. And while this is undeniably true, what they don't say is that asking your mind to reckon with a bunch of things that don't jive with your understanding of reality is not all unicorns and rainbows.
Kelley Lynch (00:19):
As I stepped off the plane in Bangladesh way back in 1995, I had no idea that packed in amongst the clothes and toothpaste and shampoo and vitamins in my suitcase was a grab bag of unconscious beliefs and assumptions about, well, pretty much everything. And unlike the toothpaste and shampoo and vitamins that I had to carry into the country again and again, over the years, the supply of these beliefs and assumptions was seemingly endless. Over the nine years we lived there. I was confronted again and again, with what I thought I knew about the world and how it works. People believed things and acted in ways that seemed crazy to me. They did things I found interesting and amazing, but also shocking baffling, frustrating, and just plain stupid. It took time, but eventually I came to understand the obvious; that there is more than one way to make sense of the world. And with curiosity, instead of self-righteousness, as my guide, I was finally able to give different people and different ways of seeing the world, the benefit of the doubt. I learned to think not just outside the box, but outside my beliefs.
Kelley Lynch (01:50):
Welcome. I'm Kelly Lynch, and this is a new normal. This time on the podcast. You guessed it. Another story from Bangladesh, this one I didn't go looking for. It found me at home where it became a matter of daily life for almost two years. And in that time, it demanded that I reckon with some of my most basic assumptions about how the world works. What's more, it asks questions, real questions, the answers to which could be a matter of life and death. Just to note, before we get started, that all the names and identifying details have been changed to respect people's privacy.
Chapter 1 (02:53):
Kelley Lynch (02:53):
Standing here at the kitchen counter. Sulata shows me the weapons that were used in the most recent attempt on her life. A scrap of threadbare cloth, a fingernail clipping along strand of hair. And then now empty metal bullet, a half inch long cylindrical container that hangs from a piece of black thread.
Kelley Lynch (03:21):
She picks it the mangy mass with a straight pin and pulls out the worst of it. A small piece of string with nine knots, painstakingly tied a few millimeters apart, balancing it on the end of the pin. She holds it out for me to see one knot equals one year. They gave me nine years to live I'm on the last one. Sulata is our maid, but more precisely she's our household manager. She's devoted and hardworking. She loves our kids like a mother and has only ever missed three days of work in more than six years. Until recently, a few weeks ago, she started complaining about a sharp pain in her right side, just under her ribs. A couple of days ago, she said that the pain had gotten so bad that she was up all night crying. So I sent her to see one of the better medical doctors in this part of town.
Kelley Lynch (04:32):
Monday, he gave her some medicine for the pain and Tuesday an ultrasound turned up a small polyp in her gallbladder, not likely to be the source of her pain, He told me over the phone and nothing to rush into action over. He suggested taking a wait and see approach. And in the meantime, taking some over the counter painkillers, but the pain continued and got so bad that late Friday night, Sulata and her husband, Joseph, who happens to also be our driver turned up on our doorstep asking for some time off. The Western medicine, wasn't having any impact whatsoever. They were going to see a traditional healer known as a Kabiraj, a few hours outside Dhaka.
Kelley Lynch (05:22):
While they were gone, Joseph called with regular updates. They had found the source of the problem. Sulata was receiving treatment and she was getting better. And this morning, just six days later, here she is walking through the kitchen door, fit and healthy as if nothing ever happened. I brought something to show you, she says. Wait, here. She disappears out the back door and returns bearing the little bundle we've just dissected. But I'm confused. I'm having a hard time understanding what this little bundle of dirty string and cloth and hair and fingernails packed inside. A rusty silver amulet that she's calling, a tabiz has to do with curing Sulata. We've been through it five times already. Sulata is becoming impatient, but trying not to show it. Somebody buried the tabiz in the dirt, she says, moving one hand under the other so I can't miss the burying part. And then with it, they shoot baans on me. Baans? I ask what are baans? Joseph steps into the kitchen. And Sulata looks to him to supply the word she's looking for. Arrows, he says, baans are like arrows. They give her name on the tabiz with the mantra, and then they shoot her. He makes a zooming sound and traces the sharp trajectory of an arrow at Sulata with his pinched fingers.
Kelley Lynch (06:59):
Now I get it. I say, we're talking about some sort of Black magic voodoo thing, Joseph and Sulata nod in unison relieved that we're finally getting somewhere. But if it was buried, I ask, who found it and where did they find it? The kabiraj found it, she says. It was buried in the ground, maybe near my house, maybe somewhere else. But then how did the kabiraj find it? I ask. Images of someone with a shovel knee deep in the dirt outside Sulata's house come to mind as do needles in haystacks. I can't understand how anyone could have possibly unearthed such a small bullet cum arrow in any sizable patch of ground, but I'm on the wrong track again.
Kelley Lynch (07:56):
She brought it, Sulata says. But how, how did she bring it? How did she know where to look? I start to explain about the shovel and the mounds of dirt and Sulata and Joseph laugh so hard they're almost crying. When Sulata can speak again, she says, no. She brought it by mantra with holy words. That's when I understand that what we're having is not just another one of our all too common language mishaps, nor is it a conversational malfunction. It's a wholesale belief system breakdown.
Kelley Lynch (08:38):
Sulata and Joseph look at me for signs of comprehension. She brought it by mantra. Sulata says again. She's exasperated with the effort of trying to make me understand, and we'e not for the intrinsic appeal of the subject. I would be exasperated with the effort of trying.
Kelley Lynch (08:57):
Joseph says something to her in Bangla and Sulata tries another tack. She explains how the kabiraj put rice in Joseph's hands. And then she put some flowers on top of that and then more rice and told him to rub the lot between his palms while she said a mantra. And then what happened? I asked. Joseph opened his hands and this was there. She says. But how could it just be there? I say. It can't have come from nowhere, but it seems that's where I'm wrong. Their world is not bound by the same laws as the Western world I grew up in. It's a world where magic still happens. Where powerful words can apparently manifest something out of nothing.
Kelley Lynch (09:48):
Now I am more prone than most to suspending disbelief in these matters. But once I understand what we're talking about, I find myself trying to work out the trick. I ask if the kabiraj told them to close their eyes, or if she touched Joseph's hands. But Sulata and Joseph are not at all burdened with my Western skepticism. We saw her bring it with our own eyes, they say. And for them that's enough.
Kelley Lynch (10:25):
When we finished picking through the contents of the tabiz, Sulata takes it outside and starts a little fire on the back steps. The kabiraj refused to tell them who was shooting the baans, but she did say that Sulata must treat the weapon with the greatest of care until it goes up in smoke. The kabiraj who made the tabiz could use his own mantras to call it back if he discovered that it was missing and then he could do some serious damage.
Kelley Lynch (10:56):
These are the kinds of beliefs those of us who tend to put our faith in the twin gods of science and Western medicine usually dismiss without so much as a second thought. But when Sulata goes out to burn the tabiz and its contents, I head straight for the bathroom, slather my hands with soap and give them an extra good scrub just in case some of its powerful magic has rubbed off on me. While I'm at it, I'll give the hairbrushes a good clean as well.
Chapter 2 (11:31):
Kelley Lynch (11:31):
This isn't my first brush with stories about the powers of black magic years ago. I knew a woman, a matronly no-nonsense American woman in her late fifties, who was definitely not the sort of person to be given to wild imaginings or magical thinking. She told me that several years before she and her husband had been living in Brazil, when he suddenly became seriously ill, they went to see a Western doctor who ordered the works - tests, X-rays scans, all of which turned up nothing. Her husband was bedridden and wasting away. More Western doctors were consulted to no effect. And yet it was clear that her husband was dying. Having exhausted every other avenue, she was so desperate that one day she found herself in the house of a voodoo practitioner. At the first consultation, she was sent away with a shopping list that included a chicken, some eggs, and a few other bits and pieces.
Kelley Lynch (12:34):
She was told to come back at the appointed hour on the following day. She returned followed orders to kill the chicken with her own hands and made the offerings as directed. The voodoo practitioner then cast the bones, which revealed that her husband was the target of somebody's black magic. The practitioner offered some ritual words and gestures and sent my friend home. When she walked through the door, about an hour later, she was shocked to find her husband sitting up in bed. Within a few weeks, he'd made a complete recovery and had been healthy ever since. I asked my friend how she thought he'd been targeted. She speculated that it could have been any of the usual culprits, fingernail clippings, a piece of cloth, a piece of hair from a hairbrush, but she had no doubt that it was the voodoo that cured him. So when I see that Salata is back to her old self and that the cure seems to have stuck, I find myself thinking that maybe there's something to this kabiraji business after all.
Kelley Lynch (13:42):
But then only a month later, Sulata is sick again. This time with an entirely different set of symptoms. Her body is swollen. Her skin getting noticeably darker, her joints aching. And she says, her limbs feel like they've been broken. It's the baans, she says. The arrows may be invisible, but the pain is real. She tells me that it's bearable when she's at our house, but it gets worse when she goes home and continues to build as the evening goes on. Her body hurts so much that she can't sleep. So she sits up all night crying and praying that God will let her die.
Kelley Lynch (14:26):
Relief comes at dawn when the call to prayer breaks over the rooftops. As Joseph later informs me, this is an important point when it comes to matters of baans and dark kabiraji. Whatever religion you follow and Sulata and Joseph happened to be Christian, this holy sound will disperse all the evils. In Sulata's case, this is the time when the curtain of pain lifts, and she's granted a few merciful hours of sleep.
Kelley Lynch (14:55):
After being sick for almost a week, she and Joseph decided to travel again to see the kabiraj. A few days before they leave. I asked Joseph, if he's taken Sue lotta to see a medical doctor again. He says that for the past two weeks, every evening after work, they've been making the rounds of the clinics doing blood tests and x-rays providing urine and stool samples - anything and everything a host of doctors suggest might help secure a diagnosis. Despite the fact that she's clearly not well, none of the tests has turned up anything and the just-in-case medicines the doctors have given her, haven't worked either. Joseph tells me that now he's more convinced than ever it is black magic they're dealing with. And that kabiraj is the only one who can help.
Chapter 3 (15:57):
Kelley Lynch (16:00):
Once again, for someone so sick, Sulata makes a miraculous recovery. After only one Saturday session with the kabiraj, she's back at work again on Monday and feeling fine. This time when she comes in the back door, she motions for me to follow her into the bathroom where she lowers the folds of her sari at the waist to reveal an extra large tabiz, one that will protect her from new baans. She whispers that I mustn't tell anyone about it or about the big news. The kabiraj has named the other party in the fight. It's no wonder she refused to tell them before, for this is dangerous knowledge indeed. It's one of their close relatives. And this time the kabiraj in meditation over a bowl of water has seen that instead of burying a tabiz in the ground to work its magic against her, their relative and the evil kabiraj that is in his employ have worked together to make a doll.
Kelley Lynch (17:02):
They've given it Sulata's name and have been smashing it bit by bit with a hammer. That's what's been causing the pain in her joints and the blackening, which of course is actually bruising of her skin. But why would a relative want to do this to you? I ask. I've met this person and they don't seem like the kind of person who would want to hurt anyone much less a member of their own family. But as with most things in this country, what I don't know and don't understand could fill another 43 volumes. Sulata explains that this is not just an isolated chapter, but only the latest in a far longer and more sinister story than I ever suspected. She starts to whisper the story. After 20 minutes, I lean back on the sink. After 45, I close the lid to the toilet and have a seat. This is going to take a while.
Kelley Lynch (18:00):
It seems the first target of their relatives banns was another family member. This man had held down good jobs in Dhaka for many years, but now found it impossible to stick with anything. However hard he tried, he would always end up doing something to get himself fired, or he would quit for what he later said was no reason at all. As a result, he was forced to move back to the village where he eked out a living as a farmer. Maybe he just doesn't want to work for somebody else. I say to Sulata. Maybe he likes being a farmer. Maybe he likes being in the village and living with his family and doing his own thing. But Sulata is adamant. It's the baans. They shot him so he can't work in Dhaka. Now he's getting poor. He's selling his land. He wants to work in Dhaka, but every time he gets a job here, he turns around and goes back home for no reason.
Kelley Lynch (19:02):
I might argue about the cause, but not the fact. The year before I had arranged a couple of job interviews for him. And while he did come to Dhaka, both times, he ended up packing his bags the next morning and returning home, without explanation, before even meeting with the prospective employer. The next person to fall victim to the baans was another close family member. Having recently started a relatively lucrative job in Dhaka. He fell sick and like Sulata repeated visits to various doctors and rigorous tests turned up nothing. He continued to lose weight until eventually he was so weak that he had to quit his job. And having spent all of his money on doctors, he too was forced to retreat to the village, to work as a farmer.
Kelley Lynch (19:56):
For both men, the baans prevented them from going anywhere near Dhaka, which was the only place they could earn some real money. All they had to do was enter the city for the bands to take effect. And so now they're shooting me, Sulata says. But I can't understand why anyone especially a relative would do that to any of you, I say. They don't want us going higher than them, she says. I'm buying land. My children are going to school. But when you do well, that helps the whole family, I say. Some people think like that, she says, but some people just care about themselves. They want to knock everybody else down so that they can be a big person while we have to stay in the village, getting poor.
Chapter 4 (20:51):
Kelley Lynch (20:53):
This is war. And as in any war, one must employ strategies for both defense and offense by way of defense, Sulata and Joseph have decided to move house. When she's in pain, it's always worse when she's at home. The kabiraj told them that during her meditations, she's seen that there are a lot of other tabiz planted in and around the house. So many that even the seven jinns or spirits that the kabiraj enlisted to look around the house, couldn't sweep them all up. But it's not all bad news. The spirits were dispatched again last night. This time they went to what will be Sulata and Joseph's new house. They uncovered a few tabiz lurking in the corners, but all of them have now been neutralized. By way of offense, Sulata and Joseph have engaged a second kabiraj to return fire. The one they've been seeing refuses to engage in dark kabiraji, but this new one has no qualms about shooting back - even if it means shooting to kill. But Sulata and Joseph don't want to go that far. They tell me they plan to start small first. They'll have the new kabiraj fire the baans that will cause their family member to break a leg.
Chapter 5 (22:12):
Kelley Lynch (22:21):
It is several weeks before the next shot in the invisible war is fired. Predictably, it's on a Saturday, which is one of the two days each week that kabirajs in Bangladesh are open for business. The other being Tuesday. Sulata tells me that on the way to work, the stone in her protective ring fell out or otherwise disappeared. She shakes her head. That means they're at the kabiraj again. On Tuesday, her pain starts up again. This time she says, it feels like someone has tied a rope around her stomach. She can't sit, can't eat. And her feet feel as if they're on ice. Sulata gets on the phone and relays a message to the kabiraj, who promises to find out what's going on. If the evil kabiraj has made another tabiz to attack her, the kabiraj will find it during her nighttime meditation.
Kelley Lynch (23:16):
The next morning I'm not at all surprised when the kabiraj calls to inform Sulata that another powerful baans had indeed been shot. She has seen the tabiz. She tells Sulata to come see her again on Saturday so that she can call it in. This is all getting more than a little bit predictable, but there's also something new. Today she has a message for Joseph. In her meditations, she saw that he's the next. He must be very careful when he's driving less the baans cause him to have a potentially fatal accident.
Kelley Lynch (23:54):
This is the moment when everything changes. Suddenly this is no longer just another strange chapter from my life in Bangladesh. It's personal to hear that our driver possibly with my children in the car, maybe in mortal danger. I mean, what do you do with that? It's tempting to dismiss this whole thing as so much Hocus Pocus or a bid for the kabiraj to rope in more paying clients. I mean, Sulata now spends almost every weekend at the kabiraj, hemorrhaging money in exchange for protection from invisible arrows, but I've seen and heard too much over these past few months to just wave it all away. My belief in the power of kabiraji or lack of belief takes its place in a mental lineup alongside some of the many traditional Bangladeshi beliefs. I've dismissed as superstitious nonsense.
Kelley Lynch (24:56):
Over the years, people have told me that it's bad luck to travel long distances on a Saturday, cautioned me against drinking water after eating fruit, because it would definitely upset my stomach and warned me that if I sneezed or stumbled on my way out of the house, I should wait a while before going out lest I get into an accident. There were other beliefs that seem more scientifically minded, like the change of seasons explanation people gave any time I got sick and injunctions to cover my head when I was out and about at night to keep the condensation off.
Kelley Lynch (25:32):
Over the eight years I've lived in Bangladesh, there have been so many times that I have righteously insisted on the absolute truth of cue the air quotes what I, as a Western educated person know to be true. And as a result of that, knowing I have lectured and insisted on doing things my way only to find myself humbled and occasionally even humiliated by the train wreck that almost inevitably followed. It was so chronic in the early years that I have now come to hold what I think of as a variant of the "when in Rome" adage except as it applies to beliefs. After all, these are the native beliefs of this land. They developed in response to what people here have seen, experienced, felt and learned over the course of thousands of years. And while that doesn't necessarily make them true, it does mean they deserve a little respect. Many people in this country, including some Western medical doctors that I've met, believe fervently in all of this. What if yet, again, everybody else knows something I don't. What if there's something to this kabiraji business after all. One thing is for sure, if any of us is ever going to ride in the car with Joseph again, I have to find out. So when Sulata and Joseph informed me that they're off to see the kabiraj again, over the weekend, I tell them that I'll be joining them and I'm hiring another driver to take us just in case.
Chapter 6 (27:19):
Kelley Lynch (27:21):
We arrive at kabiraj Niti Chanda's house at 7:00 AM on Saturday. Joseph's brother, Michael meets us there. Nobody else is waiting as we take up seats on the low stools outside her corrugated iron house. From around the corner, a bell starts up and a voice croaks, a song to the tune of a vaguely familiar Christian hymn. Niti is from a tribe known to outsiders as the Gorrow and to themselves as Mandi. It wasn't so long ago that generations of missionaries finally succeeded in subsuming the Mandi's traditional animist beliefs under a Christian umbrella. Today, the Mandi effectively live on tiny islands in a sea of Bengali Muslims that is surrounded on three sides by Hindu India. The words to her song, a mix of Bangla, Mandi, and Hindi reflect the mix of cultures. When the song pauses for a moment, Niti's husband, a thin man in a threadbare lungi wearing a white cotton tank top inclines his head in the direction of the music. You can go in now, he says. The song starts up again and we follow the music around the edge of the veranda to a small windowless room. We slip out of our shoes and duck under the curtain of red hibiscus that cascades over the roof. Without a word, we arrange ourselves on several cane mats behind Niti Chanda.
Kelley Lynch (28:53):
The only light in the room comes from three candles on a low mud alter. When my eyes adjust, I see that the kabiraj, dressed in a heavily starched red sari, is seated facing the alter. The candle light catches on a festival of tinsel decorations, hanging overhead, and the garlands of plastic flowers draped over the arms of a wooden cross below. Beneath the cross are three statues of the Virgin, Mary smothered in flower stoles. And though Nitti considers herself a Catholic, I note that pride of place is given to an amorphous black stone that sits at the foot of the cross in the exact center of the altar. Resting on a bed of red hibiscus and spotted with dabs of red powder, it is a representation of the Hindu goddess, Kali. When she finishes the song Niti, delves into a stack of old diaries. She pulls out one embossed with the legend 1994, leafs through it and recites the words written there and reading. These, I later learned, are the mantras that Kali gave her when Niti first started to receive the great goddesses powers nine years ago. When she finishes, Niti snaps the diary closed, returns it to the stack and turns to face us.
Kelley Lynch (30:24):
On the way here, we stopped to buy rice candles and incense, as Niti had instructed. Niti asks us to pour the rice into a kula or threshing tray on the floor. Meanwhile, the kabiraj rifles through a little orange box and pulls out several knotted strings and a few broken arms and legs that used to belong to a statue of Kali. She arranges these on top of the rice, covers each with a red hibiscusc, dabs red powder on the threshing tray and stabs two smoldering sticks of incense into the rice. Using a small knife, she cuts a Mandala into the mud floor, dabs it too with red powder and covers it with a cup of water that she tops with another red hibiscus. The preparations finished, Niti tells us that when she was in meditation, looking for the cause of Sulata's trouble, she saw that this time, the bad tabiz is wrapped in something sharp.
Kelley Lynch (31:25):
To bring it into anybody's hands like she did the first time Sulata came to see her might cause a prick, unleashing evils more severe than those she's attempting to undo. That's why today's tabiz must be brought into something safe, the cup of water. With that Niti turns to face the altar, ready to start the work of bringing the tabiz.
Kelley Lynch (31:53):
Eyes closed, she runs one of the knotted strings through her fingers, repeating a mantra over and over that I can't quite make out. When she's made one round of the knots, she tosses the string over the cup of water, and it's a hibiscus, picks up the small knife and taps it repeatedly on the black Kali stem. Then she picks up the cup, thrust the knife through the hibiscus and clinks it back and forth, back and forth faster and faster in the cup as she continues to repeat the mantra. Rain begins to pound the tin roof overhead the knife clinks faster and faster. The mantra is repeated faster and faster until the kabiraj runs out of breath. The first attempt to retrieve the tabiz ends in failure.
Kelley Lynch (32:38):
Niti pours herself, a glass of water and turns to face us. Breathless, she says, we'll try another way. She points at Michael, do one finger like this, she says tapping her index finger rapidly on the edge of the threshing tray. And on my signal, she says topping the cup of water with another red hibiscus, push this flower into the cup and stir. Niti takes a few deep breaths and turns again to face the altar. She taps the Kali stone with her knife then stands, takes a deep breath and this time grasps the wooden handle of a small bell with both hands. Wringing it furiously, she begins to intone the mantra. She nods to Michael. He taps his finger on the Kula.
Kelley Lynch (33:34):
She nods at him again and he plunges the knife and the hibiscus into the cup and stirs clink, clink, clink, clink. She rings the bell faster and faster. As she runs out of breath the mantra picks up pace. Michael stirs and taps faster still. Tap, tap clink clink. When suddenly Niti stops cold. She turns and looks down at Michael. Didn't, something come, she demands. Michael says he heard something hit the rice in the Kula, but since he was expecting whatever it was to come into the water, he didn't say anything. Niti, isn't interested in explanations. She pounces on what looks like a winged insect about the size and shape of a Cicada sitting on top of the rice. You should have told me, she says. Niti drops the insect thing into the cup of water. Pours the water out over her hands and lunges at Sulata.
Kelley Lynch (34:28):
She rips aside Sulata's sari and kneads the tabiz water in her hands onto the exposed flesh of Sulata's stomach blowing on it in short manic puffs. More kneading, more blowing as the water from the tabiz is massaged into Sulata's back. When the water dries Sulata pulls her sari back into place and we fall into a little circle on the cane mat. Niti rolls a cigarette. Lights it draws deep and exhales. She places a tiny oil lamp in front of us and looks into our faces with anticipation. She smiles as she unfastens the safety pin that hangs from her necklace and with its sharp end begins to dissect the tabiz.
Kelley Lynch (35:15):
What looked at first glance like wings are actually fish fins. Underneath them, the little silver bullet of the tabiz is wrapped in the black flesh of a decomposing gecko. Niti loosens the strings that bind it and then unpacks the tabiz itself, holding out each bit over the tiny lamp and giving it a name. A piece of hair, bits of an insect, some other flesh, she can't make out, a sharp thorn, and another knotted string - all stuffed into a tiny cylindrical amulet not more than two centimeters long. The gecko, Niti explains, would have been caught and then killed slowly as the bad kabiraj wound it tighter and tighter around the tabiz, and finally cinched it together with the string that held the three fish fins in place. Dangerous magic indeed, and Sulata reasons, the reason that she's been feeling squeezed, unable to eat, or even sit down comfortably.
Kelley Lynch (36:23):
Joseph, Sulata, and Niti make plans for a follow-up visit to get a new tabiz for protection. Then Sulata hands over the money for today's session and everyone is happy. Except me. I was so busy watching Niti for any slight of hand that I missed the main event. Michael tells us again and again, how out of the corner of his eye. He saw this thing fly into the rice, coming straight out of thin air. As they talk. I look around for logical explanations. Niti is wearing a sari, so she can't have had anything up her sleeve. She also had both hands on the handle of the bell, the entire time of that I'm sure. So there was no way she could have thrown it. While it was all going on. I became convinced that the tabiz must already be in the cup of water that Michael was stirring and he was just too distracted to feel it. But then it ended up coming into the rice.
Kelley Lynch (37:18):
Could someone have thrown it through a hole in the ceiling? No, the roof was entirely sealed. Perhaps Ntti had set it up so that it was poised to fall from the low rafters. But how could she have dislodged it when she never touched anything but the bell. Had she perhaps hypnotized us in some way? Definitely not. I'd been watching her closely, like I've been watching her all along and here's the thing, Niti Chanda does not act like someone who has something to hide. She's welcomed me taking photographs, recording everything, watching, asking questions. Either she's so confident in her mastery of illusion that she feels she has nothing to fear or she really does have some sort of power.
Chapter 7 (38:19):
Kelley Lynch (38:24):
When we finally emerged from Niti's chambers we're greeted by a disorderly queue of about 20 patients that winds along her veranda and spills into the courtyard. While in theory, such popularity should tip the scales in her favor, t's actually the single factor that pushes me towards greater skepticism. Because in talking with all of these people, I learned that almost every one of these patients has a story that is more or less a carbon copy of Sulata's. One father has done the rounds of the medical doctors with his 11 year old daughter, but none of them has found anything wrong. So he's come here because he's heard that Niti's good with these kinds of cases. The old man who's next in line has also seen many Western style medical doctors. They can't find anything wrong with him, but he keeps losing weight and doesn't have the strength to work. Behind him is a young man who's come to consult the kabiraj on behalf of his 63 year old mother who is so sick, that she's in the hospital. She's not responding to treatment. And the doctors have no idea what, if anything is wrong with her. And so it goes with one patient after another. By the time we've talked with most of the assembled patients, it's the young man's turn to see the kabiraj. He says, we're welcomed to come in and watch the kabiraj work on his mother's case. Joseph and I follow the young man into Niti's consultation room and melt into a corner from where we watch a repeat performance of what Sulata and Joseph described happening on their first visit. Niti talks with the young man then says a mantra and closes her eyes looking to see if there's an evil tabiz lurking, somewhere that might be causing his mother's illness.
Kelley Lynch (40:17):
I'm not at all surprised when she says she's seen one to bring it. She repeats much of what we've just seen only like Joseph and Sulata did the first time they went there, she fills the man's palms with rice and flowers and tells him to rub the lot together between his hands. After a few minutes, the man stops. He says he feels something. When he opens his hand, there sits a rusty tabiz. Niti, once again, unhooks the safety pin from her necklace and unpacks it. Inside are the usual culprits, fingernail clippings hair, a piece of cloth, a thorn and a piece of knotted string. Already, it seems far too familiar. Before he leaves the young man hands over the equivalent of almost $20, half of his monthly salary for the treatment. It's a good indication of how desperate people are, but it also makes me think that if Niti is a magician, she better be a damn good one. This is a lucrative business. One that has, after all turned this poor farmer's wife into a renown and wealthy kabiraj.
Chapter 8 (41:34):
Kelley Lynch (41:42):
When we set off for Dhaka later that afternoon, Sulata is feeling fine and the mood in the car is buoyant, but then almost an hour and a half into the journey, something goes wrong. Sulata cradles her head in her hands. She says her head is throbbing and her stomach is twisted and knots. Joseph sitting in the front seat next to the substitute driver, throws his head back against the headrest and grabs his hair with his hands. What just happened? I ask. We've just crossed into Dhaka. Joseph says. The bad kabiraj is shooting her again. His eyes brim with tears. This world, or this country can go to war, but I am all the time now having my own personal war all the time they're shooting baans. It's always worse on Tuesdays and Saturdays, Sulata says, her eyes have closed. And without another tabiz to protect me, look how fast they got me. Now I'm asking myself how I can stay here on this earth?Joseph wails, the tears staining his face, a darker shade of brown. Sulata's sick. Again, we spend all of our money treating her, but she keeps getting sick. How can I pay the rent? How can I support our four children? Soon I will have to sell my land to pay for treatment and still they're shooting baans at her more and more God, can you see me? He pleads with the roof of the car. Can you see my trouble?
Kelley Lynch (43:29):
And that's when I decide that this whole bloody kabiraji business, if not a big sham, is a complete waste of time and money. This is ridiculous, I say. We have to take Sulata back to the Western medical doctor tomorrow, but the baans Joseph says. If you keep on like this, you're going to spend all your money shooting and protecting yourselves from stupid invisible arrows, I lecture. It's a war with no end. Look at all those people. Look at yourselves. Everybody with the same story. Everybody going back and forth to the kabiraj weekend and week out. You may as well just hand over all your money to her right now. Look, I'll go with you to the doctor. I'll make sure we get to the bottom of this. At least if he finds something medically wrong, there's a good chance you can cure it and be done with it. Joseph is desperate enough that he hears me and his faith in kabiraji waivers long enough for him to agree. Tomorrow we'll take Sulata to see the doctor again.
Chapter 9 (44:37):
Kelley Lynch (44:50):
The next evening, there's a Stony silence in the car on the way to the doctor's office. The more I've thought about it, the more fed up I've become with their willingness to attribute every ache and pain Sulata has to invisible arrows. And Joseph has had enough time to think about all of this to decide that he's fed up with my insistence on attributing illnesses solely to other invisible evils called viruses, germs, and bacteria. Sitting in the doctor's busy waiting room, my white skin ensures that we're called into his orderly chamber without much of a wait. In his officious manner, the doctor rushes us through the briefest of histories of Sulata's illness. Then turns his focus on what's going on now. When I try to flesh out the picture, explaining how her illness has migrated and mutated over the last number of months from the pain in her side, for which he initially saw her to pain in her joints and discoloration of her skin, and now a pain in her stomach. To explain how it grows worse at night and how Sulata and Joseph had seen numerous doctors who did numerous tests.
Kelley Lynch (45:57):
The doctor cuts me off and demands that Sulata tell him what's wrong, which is of course as it should be. But the normally stoic Sulata, whines and moans such that even I don't want to hear it. She says there's a pain in her back. There's a pain in her stomach, but there is no mention of the host of symptoms we've been dealing with for months. And of course, none of us mentioned the kabiraj. The doctor cuts her off and demands to see the papers for all the lab tests she did several months earlier, before they went to see the kabiraj that second time.Joseph looks puzzled. Papers? The doctor ushers us out the door and tells us to come back when we've got the papers. Joseph tells Sulata and I to wait while he goes home to find them. More than an hour later, he returns with a disheveled stack of receipts, hastily, scribbled, prescriptions, and unintelligible lab results.
Kelley Lynch (47:01):
Minutes later, we're sitting in front of the doctor. Again, he flips through the stack pausing now, and then to examine a smudge carbon copy of one lab result or another. As he rifles through them, he asks, have you taken all of these medicines? Sulata nods. The doctor tosses the stack at us across the desk. Well, that's a shame because they've done all the wrong tests. The results you have here mean nothing. We'll start over with a stool test and a blood test. We'll see what, if anything they show and go from there. On the way out, I lecture Sulata and Joseph about the importance of building up a medical history and keeping their files in good order. Since doctors here don't keep anyone's records for them. They nod. I tell them they should work with one decent doctor instead of trailing around to every cheap clinic in town. They nod. I tell them they must follow up with this doctor to get to the root of the problems and I'll pay for it. They nod again. Then, knowing they will disregard every word I've just said, we part ways and go home.
Chapter 9 (48:21):
Kelley Lynch (48:21):
Driving home, I think about how, what I've just seen goes a long way towards explaining why so many patients, apparently failed by Western medical doctors, bring their mystery illnesses to Niti Chanda's door and the doors of kabirajis all over Bangladesh. The problem isn't baans and evil kabiraji. It's a medical system where both patients and doctors fail one another. And in the fallout, it's the kabiraj who benefit in Bangladesh. You can set yourself up claiming to be just about anything. How can patients tell the decent medical doctors from the masses of quacks and frauds? And if by some chance they do manage to find their way to a decent doctor and have enough money to pay for a consultation, how effective is he or she likely to be? Oversubscribed and underpaid doctors already have so little time for their patients, but then having heard two lots of talking to the doctor, I can also understand that doctors might feel it's a waste of precious time to listen to patients, complain about their aches and pains. Without a common vocabulary or even a common concept of disease, miscommunication, or a complete lack of communication is inevitable.
Kelley Lynch (49:45):
Many patients don't know what to tell the doctor or what to ask and doctors, unlike kabirajs may not have the time or the patience to or explain. And what do patients expect from these doctors? The same thing they expect from kabirajis - miracle cures that, like the tabiz at Niti Chanda's, essentially fall from the sky. Western medical treatment is expensive and it can take a significant investment of time and money before you see results. With a kabiraj, on the other hand, you might get results even on the first visit. It's the placebo effect, but it's also something more. Here most people are on the same page where baans, kabiraji, spells, and spirits are concerned. These things are part of the mental universe of most Bangladeshis. Germs, bacteria and viruses, not so much. By the time I pull into my driveway, it all makes perfect sense. I laugh at the idea of evil kabiraj. I dismiss it entirely. It's nothing more than a lot of mumbo-jumbo rooted in superstition and fed and watered by some serious kinks in the Bangladeshi application of Western medicine. There's no invisible war going on. Sulata isn't being attacked by a family member and Joseph, isn't going to be the next target. What was I thinking?
Chapter 10 (51:24):
Kelley Lynch (51:24):
A week later, Sulata is back at work. She's her usual happy self. She's cleaning the floor when I ask what the doctor's tests have turned up. She looks down at the mop in her hands. Talk to my husband, she says,.I go out to see Joseph who has his head buried deep in the troublesome engine of our Ford Orion. When I asked him about the tests, he doesn't answer. You did go back to him to do some more tests like we talked about, didn't you? I ask. There's no need, he says without looking up from the engine. You see Sulata, she's feeling fine. You went back to the kabiraj, didn't you? I say. He looks up at me. I can see that he hadn't planned to tell me, but since I've asked, he nods. We went on the weekend, he says, to get the new tabiz. But Joseph don't you think you should have followed up with the doctor like we talked about. Joseph sets his jaw. I saw with my own eyes, what happened to my wife. I saw her pain. I saw how the medical doctors all said nothing was wrong. I saw her crying every night and saying that she wanted to die. And I saw the kabiraj make her well. Come on Joseph, I say. This whole thing is nothing more than faith healing. Joseph holds up his hand for me to stop. Please, he says, you can believe in Western medicine and medical doctors, but for me, that is faith healing. Our kabiraj has great powers. I've seen it with my own eyes. He turns back to the engine and seeing that there's no point in pushing, I opened the door to go back inside. Madam. He calls after me. I pause at the top of the steps and turn to look at him. I think maybe there's something you would like to know. What's that? I asked. Somebody told me yesterday that our family member had an accident. Really? I ask what happened,? His leg, it's broken.
Kelley Lynch (53:40):
I thought I'd left my bottomless suitcase of beliefs and assumptions behind, but it seems like brought it back with me. When I came back to America, I've been back for 13 years now, but I only recognized that I still had it in my closet a few months ago. I think the reason I didn't see it sooner is that this past year was the first year in my adult life that I have spent a whole year in this country, uninterrupted. And while things definitely feel like they've been heating up around here over the last couple of years, especially when you look out at the country from inside the beltway, as I do travel, has for me been a sort of release valve on that pressure cooker. Now stuck at home in DC. I have found myself mired in a host of preconceived ideas and assumptions about how the world works or should work.
Kelley Lynch (54:54):
And this time the subject of those beliefs is my own country. People here believe things and act in ways that seem crazy to me. They do things that I find interesting and amazing, but also shocking baffling, frustrating, and just plain stupid. But here's the thing I've been here before, and I know it will be challenging and uncomfortable, but I trust that with curiosity instead of self-righteousness, as my guide, I will be able to give different people and different ways of seeing the world, the benefit of the doubt. I will learn to think not just outside the box, but outside my beliefs. And I will remember to respect the fact that there is always more than one way to see the world.
Speaker 1 (55:58):
Thank you for listening. I have really enjoyed pulling out these couple of stories, dusting them off and finding that they actually still speak to the world we live in today. Sometimes even better than I did at the time I wrote them. We're still working on rebranding. A change we will announce here when we've got everything ready to go. So when you see that short little episode in the feed, don't ignore it in the meantime, just a reminder that you can keep in touch with us by our website, which is still a new normal podcast.com. And we really appreciate your likes, subscribes and shares. None of which will be lost when we change our name and all of which you can do right from the comfort of our website. Take care, see you soon.