Call of the Koogumari

The recent headlines in the newspapers that the historic Shimsha Power Station would be submerged by the Mekedatu project brought back some poignant memories of my childhood.

My father who was the superintending engineer of the power station was against all kinds of superstitions. As a five-year-old, I used to read many children’s books in Kannada. And I was mystified when words like “naale baa”, meaning “come tomorrow” written in bold letters with charcoal started appearing on the outer walls of some of the houses.

When I told my mother about it, she said, “It’s just foolish superstition”. Since she refused to give me an explanation, I had to ask my friends at school who told me blood-curdling tales about an evil spirit called Koogumari. This female spirit supposedly knocks at the door in the middle of the night and calls a name, and any man who answers it is whisked away to the netherworld never to be seen again. The only way to protect oneself was to trick the evil spirit by writing “come tomorrow” on the walls.

I was terrified by this new danger, but I knew it would be useless to ask my parents to write the magic words on our walls. Deciding to write the words myself, I went to the bathroom to get a piece of charcoal from the stove. Hidden behind the heap of charcoals, I saw a long, striped yellowish ‘tail’. Scared out of my wits, I ran out screaming, “Bhoota! Bhoota!”

My mother was by my side in a jiffy. I told her I had seen an evil spirit hiding by the charcoal heap. She entered the bathroom and came out laughing. She took me inside and showed the end of a hosepipe which I had mistaken to be Koogumari’s tail. “This is how superstitions spread,” she explained. I never wrote those magic words on the wall after all.

I envied my friend Vani, whose father, a surveyor, rode a horse which he stabled in his backyard. One day, the whole colony was jolted by the news that the surveyor’s horse had been killed and half eaten by a leopard. The horse had apparently been left to graze in the scrub land adjoining the colony. An air of fear engulfed the colony, and we children were strictly forbidden from going out to play in the evenings. People were scared that the next prey of the ‘cheetah’ might be a child.

It was the 1950s and the Wildlife Protection Act had not yet come into being. So a licensed wildlife hunter was brought specially from Bangalore to hunt down the erring leopard. When it was finally shot dead, the marigold bedecked ‘cheetah’ was kept on an ox cart and paraded with drum beats throughout the colony.

It was laid in our garden for the night, to be sent to the taxidermy firm of Van Ingen in Mysore the next day. In the morning, we saw that all its whiskers had been stolen during the night! Years later, I learned that the whiskers of a leopard or a tiger are supposed to give strength and courage to a man.

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Call of the Koogumari

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