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     Volume 4 Issue 42 | April 16, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Snakes Lies and Narrow Escapes

Farah Ghuznavi

There is an old Bangla proverb that goes "Pagoley kina boley, chhagoley kina khai…" which roughly translates to "What is a mad person not capable of saying? What is a goat not capable of eating?" i.e. nothing! I remember, as a child, my glee at managing to persuade my cousin to eat soap (she did so because I told it was delicious) - I guess, in that instance, that would make me the "pagol" (lunatic) and her, the "chhagol" (goat)…hmmm, there may be some truth in that, so we don't need to examine it too closely! But at least we had the excuse that we were both below the age of ten. Looking at the things that adult people sometimes say (and believe) these days, it's hard to not to think that there are either a LOT of mad people out there, or madness in the 21st century is just not all it's cracked up to be…

Let's start with a story close to home, about the Bangladeshi community in the UK. It seems that "bhooter bhoy" is alive and well in bidesh. There have been newspaper reports of a "vampire terror" in the Bangladeshi community i.e. (wild) stories have been circulating about people being attacked and bitten by vampires. Everyone has heard something about this from someone else, who knows someone, who knows someone etc etc (does this sound familiar??). While the police have been unable to find any proof or identify anyone who has bitten anyone, several Bangalis have expressed alarm, and are reluctant to let their children go out to play or go to school unescorted, for fear that they will be attacked. Clearly, you can take the Bangladeshi out of Bangladesh, but you can't take superstition out of the Bangladeshi….!

But we must not blame only the Bangladeshis, because the problem appears to be contagious, and the rest of the Brits aren't doing too well either. There are a number of stories circulating about a mysterious black beast in the suburbs, known as "the Beast of Sydenham". A man claims that he heard his cat screeching in the garden, but when he went out to find it, it had disappeared. When he ventured into the bushes to look for the cat, a large black animal reared up and scratched his face (cynics have pointed out that this is the kind of mark you could get on your face from being scratched by a rose bush)! The "victim" however insists that the attacking animal was over five and a half feet tall, black and catlike. Therefore, it has been hypothesized that this is an escaped puma (though where it has escaped from is not quite clear). Furthermore, experts from a nearby zoo have pointed out that if such a large animal was roaming around on the loose, there would surely be paw-prints or droppings to indicate its presence. No such evidence has been found, but some people in the locality claim that they are living in fear. Now, I suspect that there may well be a number of creatures roaming the streets of London who are well worth avoiding, but somehow I doubt that vampires and pumas among their number…

Some people of course are able to creatively capitalise on the superstitious beliefs of others. In Zimbabwe, it seems that mermaids are believed to have magical powers to extract revenge. Even so, it is hard to understand how one business woman in Zimbabwe actually paid £5,000 to another woman, in order to arrange to have four mermaids flown in (from where??), to cast a spell in revenge for her very expensive car being stolen. She even paid extra money to the con artist, because she was told that the mermaids had to be put up in one of the best hotels in the city - the Jameson Hotel in Harare - and that they needed mobile phones! When this gullible person finally became suspicious, and demanded to see the mermaids, she was informed that they were invisible! The case continues…

Meanwhile, South America has its own stories. Several years ago, there was an uproar when, after 30 days of incessant rain, an image began to appear on the outer wall of a building in a small village. The devout local population claimed that it was an image of Christ, and pilgrims began to descend on the area. To their great disappointment, it emerged a few days later, that the rain had simply washed away a coat of paint that was, in fact, covering an old poster of the revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara! And more recently, evidence has emerged that the American preoccupation with UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects i.e. flying saucers, alien spaceships etc) has now migrated south of the US border. In Brazil, there was great excitement after a fireball was spotted in the sky, and a small, burnt, humanoid figure was discovered nearby. The fireball was assumed to be a burning spaceship, and the figure found was therefore believed to be a dead, crisped alien. However, after being taken to the local hospital, it was subsequently identified as nothing more exciting than a rubber doll (presumably the remnant of a domestic fire). Talk about being brought down to earth!

But my favourite story has to be that featured in a recent documentary entitled "The United Snakes of America". This featured a sect of Pentecostal Fundamentalists somewhere in the Midwest, who had taken literally a biblical injunction to "take the serpent unto yourself" (more rational interpretations of this saying have taken it to refer to the serpent in the garden of Eden, and attributed the meaning to be something along the lines of "recognise the weaknesses in yourself"). The members of this sect however, have interpreted it in a way that leads them to grab hold of rattlesnakes and other poisonous reptiles, and throw them up into the air, before trying to catch them as they land (!). Unsurprisingly, a number of people have received snakebites, and a few have even died. These deaths have however, been attributed to the will of God rather than human stupidity! Maybe the proverb should be amended to "Pagoley kina korey, chhagoley kina dhorey"…

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