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.]