Watching Rafael Nadal’s pre point wedgie picking the other day, and his obsessive alignment of water bottles, stirred memories of the irrational superstitions that I grew up with.
They were mostly harmless. Perhaps nicer ways of getting children to comply with the norms of safety and propriety of the time, as compared to my daughter’s imperious, “Because I said so!” to her children’s umpteenth “Why?”. (She claims I suffer from selective amnesia, but I don’t remember ever sounding like that!)
Then again, try telling them – today’s precocious children – why bad luck will befall them if they cut their nails at dusk, or sneeze as they leave home or leave their shoes lying upside down, without getting into a protracted debate!
Not that we were gullible either. But we never dared question, how it was at all possible our dirty nails could sully God’s milk, that he always partook of at dusk!!! And we held back our sneezes, for fear of our outings getting scrapped. We never brought a wet umbrella into the house, and concealed from them, if God forbid, one of us ever broke a mirror. We did notice though, that they always had an antidote. A way of working around the bad omens!!
I seriously suspect the old wives who thought these tales up, must have been obsessive compulsive. And looking to save themselves some labour, while ensuring their families didn’t cut off more than their nails in poor light.
Belief in magical intervention, in luck if you will, plays to people’s inherent need to find connections where none exist. The
knowledge feeling that you have somehow aligned all the forces of the universe behind you, is said to aid success. Nadal and scores of other athletes are proof!
But there are the negative claims that corrode the mind and affect one’s decision making. The dependence on astrology and auspicious times for example, the belief that certain people are impure and inauspicious. or that the way a wife dresses, or not, can affect her husband’s lifespan!!! I cannot for the life of me, imagine what good these irrational beliefs could have effected then or now.
The most traumatic memory from my early childhood, the one I remember with utmost clarity, is my fleeting brush with untouchability, in my paternal grandmother’s village. Of walking single file with a dozen or so older relatives, on a narrow embankment between paddy fields. Of leading the entourage, and accidentally brushing against a beautiful little girl walking towards us, then coming to a sudden halt as a warning shout goes up behind me, causing a collision, and thus contact between everyone in the group. The shock and horror, of the lot of us being herded to the bath house soon after, and ‘cleansed’ by being doused with cold water drawn from the well, is indelibly burned into my consciousness, as are the little girl’s scared, accusing, startlingly hazel eyes! I know my mother would have disapproved, but I also know that she would have held her silence. (That village has come a long way since. I wish I could say that about the rest of the country)
As an adult, I have always prided myself on being a rational, logical human being. Even when my daughter accused me of hypocrisy, for donning my symbols of marriage – a sari, my black beads, the sindhoor – every time I went visiting my ailing mother in law. That was respect and consideration, not belief. I know her (the daughter’s) generation will not pretend, and I respect that too. And envy them that liberation.
But when I travel, and the locals tell me it will bring me luck to circumambulate a stone scarab in Luxor, or traverse three consecutive bridges in Suzhou, or touch the Madonna’s orb at Montserrat, I ignore my husband’s smirk and just go along, for the fun of it. (I did draw the line at caressing Dalida’s boobs!).
And on the days I leave home for an important appointment, and realise I need to go back in, to pick up the car keys I have left behind in the rush, I swear I can hear my dear, departed mother-in-law’s disapproving voice, urging me to set my butt down for a few seconds, to nuetralise the bad luck that I have surely brought upon myself by turning back! On those days, depending on how desperate I am for a favourable outcome at the meeting, irrationality wins, and I do a quick curtsy atop the closest chair, before racing out, ready for battle. If it works for Nadal…….
“If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies
that the animal is going somewhere.”
~ Groucho Marx