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Sunday, December 27, 1998
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Bollywood Bhelpuri


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Of good-luck signs and the evil eye

By Manohar Malgonkar

FETISH, also spelt fetiche, is a rarely used word, either in conversation or writing. It is said to have come into the English language from the Portuguese, and it means "an inanimate object worshipped by savages".

In that case the entire human race consists of savages, because every human being is a fetishist in that there is just no one who does not believe in irrational influences.

The evil eye. I thought it was a peculiarly Indian — or Hindu — superstition. That is why we take good care to put some sort of blemish on our most cherished possessions. On every new-built house you will see a black doll hanging high over the roof. And we never tell a mother how pretty her baby is, knowing it would quite shock her. But just in case someone who does not know the rules does, all mothers make sure that their infants are protected against such remarks: they put a smear of lamp-black on their cheeks — just in case — to make their babies look suitably blemished.

The Jews, too, believe in the evil eye, but among them it is the viewers of babies who make sure that the baby is protected against it. Whenever a mother proudly shows her baby to visitors, they’re expected to make spitting sounds "tfu-tfu" and say: "But how ugly!"

Meaning, of course: "Oh, what a pretty baby!"

And good-luck signs! Even the most worldly people believe in them. For instance W. Somerset Maugham, Britain’s most successful author between the two world wars.

The title pages of all Maugham’s books no matter in what language and printed in what country, bear a mystic sign which resembles a Moorish arch but with what looks like a Christian cross held within its arms. Where did Maugham first see the sign and why did he adopt it? Above all, did he himself believe that it was the mystic sign that brought him luck, success and fame?

As it did to another author, Paul Scott, whose books bear the image of Ganpati on their title pages. In 1959, Paul Scott left his job at the Literary Agency of David Higham in London, to become a full-time author. That was when he acquired a small image of Ganpati, "soul of wisdom and learning and giver of gifts and granter of boons,"and as he wrote to his American publisher, he was going to celebrate New Year’s Day, 1960, by burning joss sticks before it "so that we might have a best-seller on our hands."

Alas, Scott’s London-bought Ganpati brought him no gifts. That best-seller for which those joss-sticks had been burned remained elusive. But gods must exercise their influence in mysterious ways, and four years later, Scott may have begun to realise that the elephant god had decided to take an interest in his literary career after all.

In 1964, Scott came to India in search of material for his Raj novels. He was looking for a place to stay while in Bombay, and his friends found him lodgings in a flat overlooking the Oval which was owned by a lady whose name was, Mrs Ganapathy. Even more significantly, Mrs Ganapathy herself seems to be a believer in the gift-bearing qualities of her eponymous deity, Ganpati. For when, at the end of his stay in Bombay, Scott was leaving for Madras, Mrs Ganapathy’s farewell gift to him was a tiny silver image of Ganpati, to bring him luck.

That little Ganpati, Paul Scott kept on a shelf close to his writing table as he wrote his next novel. The Jewel in the Crown. The book was greeted by retired sahibs with wet-eyed nostalgia:This, gad, sir, is us! Anyhow, the Jewel sold a little better then its predecessors, and this Scott took to mean that his little silver Ganpati had begun to smile. He may have been right. For another three Raj books and Ganpati was positively beaming.

No wonder his image adorns the title pages of all Scott’s subsequent books.

O.K. Struggling authors, desperate for recognition but, even more, to earn a living, have every excuse to seek supernatural help.

But what about men and women born to wealth and social prominence? Surely, they’re already so secure, so handsomely provided, that they should have no need of supernatural aid.

It is just that no one, from the highest to the man-in-the-street, seems to be immune. Why, even Britain’s Royal family.

Princess Diana’s biographer, Andrew Morton tells us that, right from the days of Queen Victoria, the Royal family have always believed in "such things as seances and other investigations into the paranormal," and that princess Diana herself, for all her lack of conformity, seems to have fitted pat into the "psychic bloodlines."If anything, she was, in Morton’s words, "very open, almost too open, to belief... when she first began to investigate the possibilities of the spiritual world."

And right at the opposite side of the world from us, lived an immensely high-profile dignitary who, we’re told, was also "influenced by superstition and the supernatural. He named his dog Lucky, carried good-luck coins in his pocket every day, and threw salt over his shoulder at meals. He believed in the magical charm of the number 33."

His name: Ronald Reagan.

Fittingly enough, Ronald Reagan wife, Nancy, too, is almost equally obsessed with the supernatural and this proneness of the President and his wife to what wags in America had begun to call Black Magic became the subject of jokes.

Nancy Reagan tried hard to downplay her interest in astrology and warned her spiritual advisor, Joan Quiggley to keep their relationship a secret. Ms Quiggley did just the opposite.

She not only told people about it, but boasted about it on TV and even wrote a book on the precise subject: My Seven Years as White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan.

Kitty Kelly who has built a formidable reputation for herself as the revealer of the secrets of famous men and women has a lot to say about the superstitions that Nancy Reagn observes: She would not "put a hat on a bed",she tells us, "or put shoes on a shelf higher than her head, and that she always slept with her head and feet facing north."

How does anyone lie in bed with both the head and the feet turned in the same direction. Kitty Kelly must know. But if she means only the head, why, that superstition, too, is of Indian origin, and must have crossed the Atlantic with the Indian emigrants.

And three cheers to them! They are the traditionalists, not yet converted to the religion of science and technology. Superstitions are, after all, acknowledgements of our uncertainties. We touch wood to keep in touch with humanity. We believe that something good or bad will happen to us because of the first person we happened to see on waking up.

A cat crossing your path is a bad omen, an itch on the left palm means money coming in. These are feel-good devices that we have been handed down from the past. No matter how much you strive, you always need a nudge from the stars to succeed. And it is always good to have a Ganpati fighting up for you.

Nancy Reagan might try acquiring one and Kitty Kelly, too.

And Bill Gates? Why not?.Back

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