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               Volume 11 |Issue 11| March 16, 2012 |


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Food for Thought

Night Frights and Culture Clashes

Farah Ghuznavi

Life is full of unanticipated situations. Some people (of questionable sanity) have at various times suggested to me that this is what makes it interesting. I have yet to be convinced of the veracity of this claim. Anyway, while such situations can originate out of any number of factors, marrying into a different culture is a guaranteed way to experience this kind of ‘bonus excitement’. Of course, intercultural marriage brings not only the expected challenges - such as, in many instances, the difficulties of navigating a new language - but also a few that you would probably never have imagined.

Photo: Courtesy

But first, let us take a look at the more predictable examples, which despite the predictability nevertheless tend to be quite amusing. Some years ago, my cousin's German husband was sent on a shopping errand to buy curtains. Once he was at the upholstery store, he forgot the word for ‘curtains’ (purdah). Certain that he was in the right neck of the woods with the word he came up as the result of an educated guess, he spent some time trying to convince the confused upholstery-wallahs that he was there to buy ‘burkha’!

Far less predictable was the experience of the French friend of a friend who was taken by her husband's family to visit their desher bari. On the first evening of their village sojourn, she managed to scandalise the family members by setting up - on the bed that she was to share with her husband - the mosquito net that was normally used to keep the family's prize cow safe from the vicious attacks of winged predators! One would have thought that the smell of a cow's moshari might have tipped her off as to the identity of its user, but presumably she was trying to be culturally sensitive and not complain, poor thing.

Mind you, the intricacies of village life can take even seasoned rural-dwellers by surprise. A girl I met recently - Sylvia - used to live in a village near Gazipur, with her father, her uncle, her grandmother and her aunt (the aunt and uncle were her father's siblings). Her parents were divorced. The house belonged to her grandmother, who shared a room with her unmarried daughter, while her two adult sons shared the other large bedroom in the house. Sylvia occupied a smaller room, where their domestic helper, Nuri, also slept at night. Her grandmother was notorious for being miserly, and would go to great lengths to save even small amounts of money.

Anyway, one night in the early summer there was a terrible storm. Awakened by the sound of the rain drumming on their tin roof, Sylvia decided to go out and use the toilet/outhouse after the storm had subsided. Nervous about venturing out alone in the early hours, she woke Nuri and asked her to accompany her. As she was finishing up inside, Nuri began whispering urgently for her to come out. Still tying her shalwar, a sleepy Sylvia emerged to find the agitated helper pointing to their neighbour's garden, where an ethereal white figure could be seen. Even as the two girls were rudely snapped out of their sleepy state by this sight, the ghost began waving its arms and advancing towards them.

Raised on a steady diet of Bangla cinema, Sylvia and Nuri began screaming, “Bachao! Bachao!” As they ran towards the safety of the house, the ghost ran after them. In the midst of all this, Sylvia's father and uncle woke up and came to the rescue, her uncle gripping a sturdy lathi that was kept by the front door for security purposes. Alas, it took them a little time to actually make it outside, because her father had a habit of overindulging in the local brew, while her startled uncle - struggling to get out of bed in response to their screams - somehow managed to get tangled up in the mosquito net (interesting how mosquito nets appear to play a recurrent role in any number of rural dramas...)!

Image: Courtesy

By the time the men of the household had reached the girls, everyone was clustered around the veranda in the front of the house. Including the "ghost" - who turned out to be Sylvia's aunt! It seems that her grandmother had woken up her aunt after the storm, with the aim of stealing the next-door neighbour's green mangoes. While the grandmother scampered around collecting the mangoes that had been dislodged by the storm, she set her daughter, unfortunately wearing a white sari at the time, to keep guard and ensure that nobody caught them pilfering the mangoes. As it turned out, not only were they well and truly caught in the act, Sylvia's intoxicated father reverted to pithy village terminology to reprimand his errant mother, asking her whether her son didn't have enough mango trees for her to collect mangoes from that she had to ransack the neighbour's property under the cover of night?! Needless to say, nobody got much sleep that night.

In any case, sleep can be hard to come by since night is clearly the time when the unexpected tends to become the spooky. As my friend Lori discovered years ago when she was woken by a terrible racket coming from the window of the bedroom that she and her husband shared. In her confused state, having just spent an evening watching films about alien invasions, Lori was convinced that there was an alien attempting to get in through the bedroom window; either that, or one of her children's stuffed toys had come to life (don't laugh too hard - I too thought this was a ridiculous concept until I accidentally watched part of "The Return of Chucky").

Terrified, she shook her husband awake, and he switched on the light before approaching the window. The blinds on the window were completely misshapen, as if something had tried to enter their room, but the noise had stopped completely as soon as they got out of bed. Neither of them could figure out what had happened. In the meantime, Lori's husband came over to her and asked if she had lost control of her bladder in the panic, because the side of her pyjamas (and part of the bed) appeared to be wet.

Lori indignantly denied that she had done anything so undignified, but was silenced in horror when her husband turned back towards the window. The entire back of his "Strawberry Fields Forever" T-shirt had somehow been shredded - it was utterly destroyed. Asked about it, her husband had no recollection as to how this could have happened. Thoroughly spooked, the pair decided to go and sleep in the guest room, picking up their two children along the way for good measure.

The following morning, Lori was getting ready to come out for breakfast when she heard her father-in-law berating their domestic helper, "I've told you to shut the front door properly, otherwise that damn cat somehow gets in. This morning I woke up and found him sitting by the front door!" It dawned on her what had actually happened the previous night, and she was finally able to piece the mysterious events together.

The wandering cat had entered their bedroom in the darkness while they were sleeping (after having earlier entered the house through the front door), and casually urinated along the side of Lori's leg, before attempting to climb out of the window. In the process, it got trapped in the blinds, and clearly had a minor meltdown. Lori herself had woken up in such a state of terror, that in the process of attempting to wake up her husband, she managed to grab the back of his shirt and actually tear it as she shook him awake. He got up and switched the light on, but by that time the errant cat had taken shelter behind some piece of furniture, perhaps sensing that it had well and truly overstepped the boundaries of any decent visitor's actions.

After the couple vacated their bedroom, totally rattled by the experience of trying to figure out what had happened, the cat sauntered out of there too, taking its customary place by the front door so that it could legitimately leave the premises the following morning! Moral of the story: do not watch films about alien encounters or possessed toys unless you have the stomach to dismiss things that go bump in the night...

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