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I. The Spirit of Chandrabai: A Study in Protective Magic

Fear reigned in the house of Vishnu the fisherman: for, but a week before, his wife Chandra had died in giving birth to a child who survived his mother but a few hours, and during those seven days all the elders and the wise women of the community came one after another unto Vishnu and, impressing upon him the malignant influence of such untimely deaths, bade him for the sake of himself and his family do all in his power to lay the spirit of his dead wife. So on a certain night early in December Vishnu called all his caste-brethren into the room where Chandra had died, having first arranged there a brass salver containing a ball of flour loosely encased in thread, a miniature cot with the legs fashioned out of the berries of the "bhendi," and several small silver rings and bangles, a coral necklace and a quaint silver chain, which were destined to be hung in due season upon the wooden peg symbolical of his dead wife's spirit in the "devaghar," or gods' room, of his house. And he called thither also Rama the "Gondhali," master of occult ceremonies, Vishram, his disciple, and Krishna the "Bhagat" or medium, who is beloved of the ghosts of the departed and often bears their messages unto the living.

When all are assembled, the women of the community raise the brass salver and head a procession to the seashore, none being left in the dead woman's room save Krishna the medium who sits motionless in the centre thereof; and on the dry shingle the women place the salver and two brass "lotas" filled with milk and water, while the company ranges itself in a semi-circle around Rama the Gondhali, squatting directly in front of the platter. For a moment he sits wrapped in thought, and then commences a weird chant of invocation to the spirit of the dead woman, during which her relations in turn drop a copper coin into the salver. "Chandrabai," he wails "take this thy husband's gift of sorrow;" and as the company echoes his lament, Vishnu rises and drops his coin into the plate. Then her four brothers drop a coin apiece; her sister-in-law, whispering "It is for food" does likewise; also her mother with the words "choli patal" or "Tis a robe and bodice for thee";--and so on until all the relatives have cast down their offerings,--one promising a fair couch, another an umbrella, a third a pair of shoes, and little Moti, the dead woman's eldest child, "a pair of bangles for my mother," until in truth all the small luxuries that the dead woman may require in the life beyond have been granted. Meanwhile the strange invocation proceeds. All the dead ancestors of the family, who are represented by the quaint ghost-pegs in the gods' room of Vishnu's home, are solemnly addressed and besought to receive the dead woman in kindly fashion; and as each copper coin tinkles in the salver, Rama cries, "Receive this, Chandrabai, and hie thee to thy last resting-place."

When the last offering has been made, the women again raise the salver and the party fares back to Vishnu's house, where a rude shrine of Satvai (the Sixth Mother) has been prepared. "For," whispers our guide, "Chandrabai died without worshipping Satvai and her spirit must perforce fulfil those rites." Close to the shrine sits a midwife keeping guard over a new gauze cloth, a sari and a bodice, purchased for the spirit of Chandrabai; and on a plate close at hand are vermilion for her brow, antimony for her eyes, a nose-ring, a comb, bangles and sweetmeats, such as she liked during her life-time. When the shrine is reached, one of the brothers steps forward with a winnowing-fan, the edge of which is plastered with ghi and supports a lighted wick; and as he steps up to the shrine, the relations and friends of the deceased again press forward and place offerings of fruit and flowers in the fan. There he stands, holding the gifts towards the amorphous simulacrum of the primeval Mother, while Rama the hierophant beseeches her to send the spirit of the dead Chandrabai into the winnowing-fan.

And lo! on a sudden the ghostly flame on the lip of the fan dies out! The spirit of Chandrabai has come! Straightway Rama seizes the fan and followed by the rest dashes into the room where Krishna the medium is still sitting. Four or five men commence a wild refrain to the accompaniment of brazen cymbals, and Rama passes the winnowing-fan, containing the dead woman's spirit, over the head of the medium. "Let the spirit appear" shrieks Rama amid the clashing of the cymbals.

"Let the spirit appear" he cries, as he blows a cloud of incense into Krishna's face. The medium quivers like an aspen leaf; the dead woman's brothers crawl forward and lay their foreheads upon his feet; he shakes more violently as the spirit takes firmer hold upon him; and then with a wild shriek he rolls upon the ground and lies, rent with paroxysms, his face stretched upwards to the winnowing-fan. Louder and louder crash the cymbals; louder rises the chant. "Who art thou?" cries Rama. "I am Chandrabai," comes the answer. "Hast thou any wish unfulfilled?" asks the midwife. "Nay, all my wishes have been met," cries the spirit through the lips of the medium, "I am in very truth Chandrabai, who was, but am not now, of this world." As the last words die away the men dash forward, twist Krishna's hair into a knot behind, dress him, as he struggles, in the female attire which the midwife has been guarding, and place in his hand a wooden slab rudely carved into the semblance of a woman and child. "Away, away to the underworld" chant the singers; and at the command Krishna wrenches himself free from the men who are holding him and dashes out with a yell into the night.

Straight as an arrow he heads for the seashore, his hands clutching the air convulsively, his 'sari' streaming in the night-breeze; and behind, like hounds on the trail of the deer, come Rama, the brethren, the sisters, and rest of the community. Over the shingle they stream and down on to the hard wet sand. Some one digs a hole; another produces a black cock; and Rama with a knife cuts its throat over the hole, imploring the spirit's departure, at the very moment that Krishna with a final shriek plunges into the sea. They follow him, carry him out of danger, and lay him, stark and speechless, upon the margin of the waves.

Thence, after a pause and a final prayer, they bear him homeward, as men bear a corpse, nor leave him until he has regained consciousness and his very self. For with that last shrill cry the ghost of Chandrabai fled across the waste waters to meet the pale ancestral dead and dwell with them for evermore: and the house of Vishnu the fisherman was freed from the curse of her vagrant and unpropitiated spirit. "She has never troubled me since that day," says Vishnu; "but at times when I am out in my fishing-boat and the wind blows softly from the west, I hear her voice calling to me across the waters. And one day, if the gods are kind, I shall sail westward to meet her!"