Tag Archives: annotation

White Things: An Account of Demon Possession

The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘S’. Explanations and translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 52-year-old Punjabi mother, born and raised in North India.

S: We’ve had a possession in our own family! If you talk to mama (the informant’s mother), her own sister died… she was like that. She was a very bright, bright, exceptionally bright kid. I think she was just younger than mama, the second born. She was in college, one of those typical toppers, this and that, very bright. And… now I don’t know too much, but there was a family gathering, and it was like, “kisi ne kuchh khila diya hai,” (someone has fed her something) because she was… [she acts it out, makes a face by crossing her eyes and rolling them back, making a strained noise] like, as if she was possessed at times, she was acting crazy. And, I think she got… I don’t exactly know how she went, but she went (died). She was in college when she went, so young. I don’t remember exactly how, but I remember that this whole thing, I remember as a personal thing, I was always told this, we all were, in the family, because sometimes mama would tell us she was still around because her going wasn’t peaceful, not content, she would… like, feel the spirit sometimes.

I: Was this pre-partition or post?

S: Post, post. This was mama’s younger sister. She died when she was in college, but she was born pre-partition. See, what they said to us was that one of the relatives who was jealous had fed her something, haan (yes), that’s why they told us, “Safed cheez kisi se mat lo.” (Don’t take anything white from anyone.) Even when we were little, mama always told us, be careful of things people offer you, but never accept something that is white. She specified that. Like kheer (a white staple dish, like a sweet rice pudding), so never take kheer from anyone. Jaadu tona (Urdu and Punjabi for witchery, sorcery), is what it’s called in Punjabi, where someone’s fed you something, or you’ve ingested something, you’re spelled and then you act differently like you’re possessed or cursed, under nazar (bad luck, evil). You do weird things, then, act like you’re… you know, crazy, so you dance, or tremble, or shake, sometimes make weird noises. This story became, kind of… a teaching, a lesson for us, even though nobody really knows the whole story, not even mama.


Within Indian culture, the idea of nazar is common, something you need to caution everyone about and physically ward off—a method of warding off nazar is detailed, in part, in “The Lemon-Chilli Bad Luck Repellent” (http://folklore.usc.edu/the-lemon-chilli-bad-luck-repellent), and a method used to ward off demon possession is detailed in “Don’t Kick the Watermelon!” (http://folklore.usc.edu/don’t-kick-the-watermelon!)—whenever it’s suspected to have fallen upon someone. Simultaneously, the act of “behaving weirdly” is often generalised and exaggerated, the concern can be misplaced when put down to nazar or possession. This is why I asked the question about the partition: the partition was a turbulent time, after finally gaining independence from their colonizers after centuries, having to uproot and move from one region, now in Pakistan, to another, in modern India, through all the trials and tribulations of the time… well, it would have been very traumatic for anyone, especially a child. Therefore, I wanted to ask that question to bring another idea into play: the idea of untreated and un-recognised trauma, manifesting as this “weird behaviour”, being thought of as possession or nazar, leading to an early, unexplained death… it’s a grim thought, but that sequence of events is familiar, even without the supernatural explanation and course of action. However, this woman’s story is now a lesson to the children and adults of this family, a mysterious thing, the story being exaggerated and mystified further with time, while also being a lesson to not take things, especially white things (a common superstition), from anyone, rooted in a folk belief that these invite nazar, or even witchery. The evil eye, or nazar, is also observed in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian ideology and texts, where they used incantations to ward off negative spirits and witchery, resulting in odd behaviour or sickness. [For more on this, see: “MESOPOTAMIA AND EGYPT.” Beware the Evil Eye: The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World: -Volume 1 Introduction, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, by John H. Elliot, 1st ed., The Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, 2016, pp. 77–104. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1cgf2hs.9.]

Ah, Yes, Procrastination is, in Fact, Bad: A Proverb

The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘P’. Translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 48-year-old Punjabi woman, born and raised in North India.

P: So, we say, ‘kaal kare so aaj kar, aaj kare so ab. Pal mein pralay hoyega, bahuri karega kab?’ (If you can do it tomorrow, do it today; if you can do it today, do it now. Disaster can strike at any moment, when will you do it then?), now, this is a Kabir doha. Now, this basically… what it means is, he’s talking about the meaning of time in a person’s life, and how it is about… if there’s anything you need to do, you should do it that very day. In fact, not only that particular day, if you’re doing it that day, you might as well do it right away. Because, you never know — ‘pal mein pralay hoyega’ (Disaster can strike momentarily), what happens if tragedy strikes? Then, all your unfinished work is something that remains unfinished. So the meaning of time is what he talks about, in a person’s life, and the importance of doing things as soon as you can. 

I: Do you have a hypothetical situation in which you would use this?

P: It’s pretty self-explanatory, right, like… if someone is procrastinating too much, or not managing their time well in their workplace, a colleague or a junior. You can tell them this then, and they would understand. 

Original Script: काल करे सो आज कर, आज करे सो अब। पल में प्रलय होएगी, बहुरि करेगा कब ॥

Romanisation: Kaal kare so aaj kar, aaj kare so ab. Pal mein pralay hoyega, bahuri karega kab?

Word for word: Tomorrow do then do it today, today do it now. In a moment disaster happens, again when will you do it?

Translation: If you can do it tomorrow, do it today; if you can do it today, do it now. Disaster can strike at any moment, when will you do it then? 

Comparable Proverbs in English: Tomorrow never comes, Time flies, Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.


This proverb is one that is used very commonly in India, one that rhymes and is known by pretty much everyone who grows up speaking Hindi in their family: it is sort of a paremiological minimum for Indians, believed to have been said by, as the informant stated, Kabir, an Indian poet and saint in the fifteenth century, establishing a terminus post quem for this proverb. Time, even though it is something humans gave a weight of meaning to, has always put pressure upon us, to manage it correctly and therefore earn some form of prosperity or success. Procrastination is frowned upon in every modern sphere, especially considering the influence of capitalism on productivity as a concept, but this pronoun is veritably old, from fifteenth-century India, showing that this isn’t an idea that originated with capitalism or modern ideas of productivity. A similar sentiment is echoed in an English proverb, prominent in the United States: never put off until tomorrow what you can do today [For this version, see: Predelli, Stefano. “Never Put off until Tomorrow What You Can Do Today.” Analysis, vol. 56, no. 2, 1996, pp. 85–91. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3328163.]. Both these sayings talk about time and its fleeting nature, specifically with an emphasis on the idea of the ‘tomorrow’ that never comes (another proverb, tomorrow never comes), and the ‘today’ that is fleeting and must be utilized correctly and productively.

“Between A Rock and A Hard Place” (Annotation)

My informant said he has heard his parents say this expression ever since he was little; however, he did not understand the meaning behind it until he was “probably a teenager.”  He says it refers to “being in a tough spot,” or getting caught in a predicament where either of the two outcomes are unfavorable.  The expression “between a rock and a hard place” presents a visual to this dilemma.  He also mentioned a synonymous expression: “picking the lesser of two evils.”

In 2004, Aron Ralston used this phrase for the title of his autobiography, which retells his experience while “canyoning” in the Utah desert.  For Ralston, “between a rock and a hard place” sums up the predicament he found himself in after a boulder trapped his arm.  While hiking deep into the Utah desert, away from regularly used trails, Ralston suddenly fell into a ravine and a boulder crushed his arm.  He was forced between two options: amputate his arm himself or die from thirst or starvation.  After being stuck in the ravine for over five days, he finally decided to cut his arm with a dull knife.  Therefore, “between a rock and a hard place” is a play on words and quite literal interpretation of what happened to him.  Ralston’s book also influenced the 2010 movie adaptation 127 Hours, starring James Franco.  The popularity of the movie brought even more fame to Aron Ralston’s book and continued to circulate the American saying.

127 Hours. Dir. Danny Boyle. Perf. James Franco. Fox Searchlight, 2010.
Ralston, Aron. Between a Rock and a Hard Place. New York: Atria, 2004. Print.