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The Charm— Chandrakiran Saunriksa

Jun 3, 2023 | Fiction | 0 comments



image used for representation

Dadi, his Grandmother, was lagging a bit behind, and not hearing the sound of her footsteps, Yogeshwar stopped suddenly. The heat was sharp, and when he went to take shelter under the peepal tree nearby, he saw a ball of white threads, bits of sweet, a five paise coin, and a mound of raisins that had been marked with vermillion kept on a clean spot under the tree. Yogesh loved raisins; his mouth watered as soon as he saw them. Without any scruple, he gathered a fistful and put them in his mouth, and then putting the ball of threads and the coin inside his left pocket, he began filling his right pocket with raisins, when Dadi shouted at him, “Eh, what are you picking up, keep it all back there. Don’t you dare touch a single thing.”

Yogesh quickly gorged the raisins in his mouth down his throat, and said, “Wah, who doesn’t want this free stuff? It’s not as if I’m stealing them.”

Dadi came up to him, and yanked the raisins out of his hand, scattering them, and said in anger: “Don’t you dare have a single grain. Oh my god, these are all charmed stuff, don’t you know? Who knows which rascal kept it here? What’s this—you’ve filled your pockets too? Take them out, keep them back here.”

Dadi’s agitation appeared very odd to Yogesh. He was just fifteen. From his childhood, he had lived with his father far away in the West of the country. He had come from Delhi to his grandmother’s village to spend the summer holidays at that point of time. Seeing a village for the first time, this mischievous and playful boy found something strange in every aspect of it. The Grandmother was his father’s aunt.

He pressed his pocket and said, “But why should I not keep them? Such fresh raisins they are! Dadi, your talk of these charms and magic won’t work on me.”

But Dadi wouldn’t listen to a thing. She began taking out the raisins from his pocket with force, and emptying that pocket, she felt the other and asked, “Goodness, even the yarn?” A needle entangled with the ball of thread made a hole in Dadi’s finger: screaming ‘oi’ she dragged the needle out of the yarn and threw it on the ground. Wiping the blood off her finger, she said, agitatedly, “Look at what you’ve done, you unfortunate thing! You’ve got a mood to die, have you? Don’t you know that this needle will pierce the eyes of the person who’ll pick it up? This thread will bind every nerve of their body. The Sayyid of this holy tree is too easily irritable. Let alone five paisa, five rupees won’t pacify the spirit if he’s angry.”

Yogesh could not remain silent at this account of threads and needles and coins. “And what about the one who steals the sweet? What’s their punishment?” he asked, in a tone of mockery.

“You devil! You dare make jokes about the Pirs and Sayyids!” Dadi was filled with anger. “Come, let me send you back tomorrow. In these three or four years, you’ve become everybody’s boss, have you?”

Seeing Dadi’s temper rise, Yogesh became silent.

“You didn’t eat any raisins, did you?” she asked.

“No,” Yogesh lied to avoid her going after him for no reason.

Dadi joined her hands together and bent her head to say, “Dear Sayyid Baba, please don’t put this unknowing boy’s mistake into your head. I will submit sugar-cakes worth five paisas to you next Friday.”

Yogesh couldn’t help laughing at his grandmother’s vow, but he quickly turned away, and said, “Come on, now! The heat will drain out my strength.”

The two of them began walking again. One of Yogesh’s aunts lived at some distance, and they were on their way to ask after her condition.


* * *


Within two weeks, Yogesh was introduced to all the spots of the Sayyids, Pirs, and Bajrangs in the entire village. Dadi often offered something to these spirits on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. There was indeed a whole necklace of charms on the neck of her younger paternal grandson, and who knew how many vows had been made for him. This was because the two sons her daughter-in-law had borne before him had died at birth. Laddus worth three annas had been promised so that Yogesh could spend these two months of his vacations happily as well.

In the evening of the day Yogesh had picked raisins, he got a slight fever, perhaps due to walking in the sun, and it came down the second day.

Upon seeing his hand in the morning, Dadi said, “Don’t eat chapatti . Do you see? Merely picking up the charm led to such a punishment. What would have happened had you eaten one or two grains? Don’t flaunt your urban lifestyle here.” Yogesh snapped, upon hearing her reason for his fever: “Of course. I got a fever by walking in the sun, so you’ve pinned the blame on the charm. Great!”

“Oh, yes, indeed. It all happened because of picking up the charm.” Dadi drew a line on the floor with the stick of the fan, and said: “The priests, exorcists, and spirits of this place have strong powers. This was a magical practice advised by some sorcerer. Oh, there are sayanas of the sort here that those on whom they throw rice die without having time to beg for water.”

“Oho!” Dadi’s hyperbole made Yogesh smile. “Dadi, so the exorcists have become gods here. Everybody’s lives are in their fists.”

“This crass boy doesn’t believe me at all. It’s not as if the exorcists take someone’s life without reason. They also need to propitiate the spirits and gods and bring them under their sway. Without having their mandate, the exorcists can’t cast their spells on all and everyone, can they? Yes, some people offer some things to these exorcists to have a spell or two done for their own well-being. That’s why I tell you not to eat or drink anything, sweet or sour, from other people’s houses. What will I say if somebody does something to you?”

Before Yogesh could give an answer, the low-caste servant woman, picking up cow-dung in the courtyard, said: “Yes, my lady. Don’t let the child wander alone anywhere by himself. Even a glance of the women around here brings evil.”

“You think I don’t know that, Bhondu’s mother? But this one doesn’t follow what I say.”

“So why not do this? Ask the priest Mangal Ojha to make a charm and tie it on the child’s hand. That’s it—not a single evil eye can hurt him.”

“Of course, that’s what has to be done. What an expert sorcerer Mangal Ojha is.” Dadi said in an authoritative voice: “Some whore had placed such a charm at Parsal Shambhu’s door that nobody could figure out how to break it. The charm must have been kept in the night, and before it was dawn, his lovely, lively child was on his deathbed due to vomiting and diarrhoea. Was it merely a fatal illness that the child had diarrhoea for multiple days before? Nothing had happened, but as soon as this charm appeared, the boy had taken to the bed. This Mangal Ojha had only to look once to figure it all out and break the charm. God knows how many heads would have rolled otherwise!”

Now Yogesh was hungry for more information. “Dadi,” he eagerly asked, “What was that charm like?”

“Extremely frightening, my son. And it was made so, no less, by Shambhu’s aunt. It was she who had seen Shambhu and burned with jealousy. At any rate, Mangal had told them plainly that the charm was the work of a family member. But then she swore it wasn’t her!”

“Dadi,” Yogesh interrupted in between, “You first tell me what the charm was!”

“Listen then,” she said, and took a deep breath and continued, “There were puppets made of dough, wrapped in blue threads and covered by a plain cloth. With it were five different sweets, red lentils, a snuffed-out ghee lamp, and a knife. Not any ordinary, harmless charm, this one.”

And lo — Yogesh had got his hands on a real spectacle.


* * *


It was the period of Ganga Dussehra in the summer month of Jeth. A day after the festival was Nirjala Ekadashi , a day of fasting without water, a day on which Dadi donated cucumbers, muskmelons, melons, fans, and earthen jars. Two days before the festival, Dadi had already begun budging and badgering someone to go to the city and bring her the fans and jars.

Yogesh immediately volunteered to go. There were three or four more people going from the village, and he had persisted with his Dadi to join them, too. When he returned in the evening, he had with him a bundle in addition to his grandmother’s articles. Evading everyone’s eyes he hid it inside his suitcase.

The next day was Dussehra. He woke up well before the day broke, when everyone in the house were still sleeping. No sooner had he put his clothes on the shoulder and opened the front door in order to go to the river for a bath than he cried, suddenly and loudly, “Dadi, O Dadi!”

Dadi was a light sleeper. Such a loud shout made her wake and sit up with a start.

“What’s it, eh?” she asked from inside. “You’ve gone out in such darkness. Go, go, take a bath before everyone and steal all the grace for yourself.”

“No, no, make haste and come here,” Yogesh said, louder than the first time, “Someone has put a charm in front of our door. There are dough puppets and…”

“A charm!” Dadi’s breath stopped the minute she heard the word. Teetering and tottering, she came out in a flash.

“What, where, show me!” Dadi turned speechless upon seeing the charm. Not one, there were two puppets made of dough, covered to their neck with a white cloth. Red lentils, some sweets, vermillion, and two knives were placed nearby.

“May they die, those rascals! I hope God gives them diarrhoea. Goddess Kali will take them away…” Dadi twitched her hands and started cursing, “Not one will be able to light a lamp in their house. Lord Mahavir will destroy their family. Their kith and kin will all perish.”

“My goodness! Dadi, what excellent curses are coming out of you on the day of the festival!” Yogesh interrupted Dadi, “Who’s greater than God? All’s well in his name.” And so saying, he sat near the puppets.

But Dadi had not a grain’s worth of faith towards God at this moment. In a broken voice, she said, “Oh God, what will happen now? Tell me, who will I call, who will I ask? From which whore’s hand has this charm fallen that it’s being inauspicious in front of my door? That too on an important day like Dussehra? May Goddess Ganga take her progeny away, all of them.”

Suddenly Yogesh removed the cloth covering the puppets and said, turning it around, “Dadi, look at these blue threads — looks like someone’s taken the time to wrap it in fully from head to toe.” Dadi felt a fire beneath her feet. In one stroke she thrust the puppet out of Yogesh’s hands and threw it. “You brute! Bastard! Who told you to touch it? Wait, let me have your uncle take you to task. Oh my, what will happen now?”

Dadi’s screeches and shouts woke everyone in the house. Both her daughters-in-law carried their respective children on their waists and began moving towards their mother-in-law. The vegetable hawker next door left her vegetable arrangements halfway through and ran towards the house. Bhondu’s mother was anyway coming there to take away the cow dung.

“Take the boys inside,” Dadi said as soon as she saw the elder daughter-in-law, “And quickly. Before its shadow falls on them.”

“Yes, take the baby inside, daughter,” the vegetable hawker also added, raising her voice, “It’s all doomed here. Why on earth would anyone stay in this village now? God knows which childless whore has done this deed!”

How could Bhondu’s mother remain silent in such a conversation? “Wait till I find that whore, I’ll shave off her braids,” she said, “And if it’s a man, I’ll not leave a single strand on his moustache.”

But how would Dadi feel content with these words?

“What shall I do now? Bhondu’s mother, could you go, call and bring the priest Mangaru Ojha here, please? Take my name and he’ll come immediately, and Yogesh, why haven’t you moved…go stand away.” But Yogesh stood there firmly, and said, with the utmost composure, “Don’t you worry, Dadi. These puppets won’t be able to twist even the hair on my hands. If you ask me, I’d say that you not call any of those priests, but rather make chapattis with the dough and dal with the lentils, and serve them to me. The matter will be settled. Actually, I’ll take the sweet right away.”

It was as though the mountain had fallen on Dadi. She quickly went to grab his hand and making vain efforts to drag him inside the house, she said, weepily, “Go home right away, you black-faced devil. Cause this commotion in your house. Don’t boil my blood here!”

Seeing her so agitated, Yogesh put his hands over his face, and trying to stop his laughter, slid far away.

“My lady,” Bhondu’s mother said, coming from inside the village, “Mangaru Ojha’s gone to Mirapur, and Jagat Pandit has also gone to the town.”

“Oh no, what shall I do…it isn’t a good thing to have such a charm in front of your main door for a long time.”

“O, Bhondu’s mother,” Dadi said courteously, “Will you sweep off these bloody charms with a broom, please? Heap them to a corner. It’s right in the middle of the entrance. All the small children are playing.”

Bhondu’s mother felt her life shrivel. To sweep a charm on a festival! But she was from a lower caste: how could she contradict the words of the thakur’s wife? Thus, taking the names of all the three crore and odd gods, of Mirabai , of Hanuman, and of Sayyid, she gathered the puppets and other charms with the broom and pushed them to a corner, and flinging the broom on them, she went to wash her hands and feet.

By the afternoon, the children of the village had come round and seen the charms.

Deep in worry, Dadi hadn’t even taken a sip of water. The day of fasting without water, Nirjala Ekadashi, had arrived a day before. Moment after moment, she touched her grandsons’ foreheads to determine if they had caught any fever. Hiding himself from her, Yogesh was roaming around outside. If he looked at her, he couldn’t help laughing.

When at around three o’clock Dadi went outside to have a look at the corner, the charms along with the broom had altogether disappeared.

“Who touched it? Who threw it?” She came into the house and summoned everyone, but Yogesh was absent. Each of them denied touching the charms. God knows who had taken them.

“Dadi,” Yogesh said, dismounting his cycle, “What say, I’m just coming back after dropping that charm of yours into the river. By now it would’ve reached the bellies of the fish.”

Angry, afraid, and full of premonition, Dadi started trembling. Not a word came out of her mouth.

“Don’t be afraid, Dadi, I haven’t had a single grain. It was swept with the broom, wasn’t it, the whole kilogram of sweets was full of dust.”

Dadi didn’t even turn to look at him, and left the place in a flash.


* * *


Several days passed. Let alone catastrophic events, there were no ordinary events either. In fact, the domestic cat, which would eat its children each time, had left both of its kittens safe and secure. Neither did the elder daughter-in-law have even half a headache, nor did the baby catch cough and fever. And what to say of Yogesh: he ate full stomach, he cycled around the river bank all day, and in the night, he lay on Dadi’s cot and forced her into conversations about charms and ghosts.

For four or five days, Dadi remained worried. She kept hurling abuses at Yogesh’s mockery. Something or the other would happen: she repeated this about fifty times a day. She also offered Hanuman and Sayyid sweets for five paisas. But as ten days passed, Dadi’s worries dwindled. But a new issue disturbed her eating and sleeping: it was the issue of Yogesh’s laughter, which was burning her entire body. It would have been much better if the baby had turned ill for a few days, or if the younger daughter-in-law had dysentery, or if Yogesh hurt himself falling from the bicycle. All that would’ve quelled her, but it’s futile to list them when nothing did happen. Fifteen days passed this way.

That day Yogesh teased her again: “Dadi, what a delicious sweet it looked like. It all went to waste in a single sweep of the broom. How we could’ve sweetened our mouths for free otherwise!” And so saying, he began laughing.

Dadi was perturbed. “Keep your scholarship to yourself, Yogesh. You think that because fifteen days have passed the problem is resolved. But my life is on its last legs. Only god knows whose son will be taken away, but it will be taken away for sure. This charm can’t go away empty handed.”

Yogesh made a face and started laughing.

That night, Yogesh could not digest his food. In any case he had had complaints about indigestion in his town too. That day, the chapatis made with corn were so delicious in his distant aunt’s house that he had eaten more than many and thus spoiled his stomach. Since he often had problems with digestion, he always kept laxative medicines with him: Epsom salt and Seidlitz powder.

Right in the morning Yogesh took an entire dose of Epsom salt. As a result, not within an hour he began having motions.

When Dadi saw him go out with a water pot again and again, she froze. She struck her forehead and sat down on the floor with a bang: “The charm has finally shown its power. Oh god, what will I do now?”

Dadi moved around the whole house, turning and falling, creating a commotion. What would she not do to save her Yogesh? She took to the entire neighbourhood her hue and cry.

But Yogesh kept quiet. He didn’t reveal the real issue, and instead pretended to have a frightening pain in his stomach: “Dadi, it’s as if someone’s running a spear over my insides. Oh god, I can’t…”

Dadi turned pale. Then she took a deep breath, put on a shawl on her head, and came to Mangaru Ojha. Although she didn’t find him, an old woman who was his neighbour said: “See, I’ve heard that you can also take the illness on yourself, and then Yogesh will be saved. You’ve already seen all the joys of life, sister. Now save your grandson’s life and loot some virtue for yourself. You’ll directly reach the heavens.”

Dadi was caught in a dilemma, but a strange determination soon came over her. The old woman saw that Dadi walked towards the crippled doctor of the village.


* * *


While Yogesh’s stomach was completely fine by the evening, Dadi hadn’t taken her dinner, and wrapping up her face, had laid on the cot. Yogesh touched her hand to feel her pulsebeat, which was normal. But still he checked her temperature with a thermometer, which he had brought along with a few necessary medicines from home. She had no fever. He said, “Dadi, there’s no fever. Eat some chapatis at least.”

Dadi answered, in a nasal tone, “No way. I won’t eat anything right now. My heart feels very heavy and I feel too cold. Cover me with a quilt at least, will you?”

In the soaring heat in the month of Jeth, Dadi had lied down covered under a quilt. Not even two minutes had passed when she began sweating profusely, so she removed it and threw it afar.

Everyone slept as night fell. Around the middle of the night, Dadi started making frequent trips to the toilet, carrying her water pot. Just as the day broke, she took to the bed, having had about fifteen to twenty rounds of motions. The entire household woke up afraid. Someone went to call the doctor, another brought husks of Isabgol to ease her, and Bhondu’s mother went in search of Mangaru Ojha.

Dadi groaned: “What’s the use of calling the priest, Bhondu’s mother? He’s already clearly seen that this is the charm’s effect. Now I can’t be saved. The pain soars so much that it feels like someone’s pulling at my intestines.”

Yogesh’s hands and legs inflated. How quickly and easily he had ridiculed it all! What if his false charms killed Dadi for real?

He put together fifteen drops of the Amritadhara medicine in a bowl and brought it to Dadi.

“Dadi, at least drink this, please.”

“This is child’s talk. What good will come out of this? It’s not as if this is a disease that can be cured. Now it’s time to leave the world. Those dolls weren’t ordinary, were they? It will surely take one or two offerings.”

“You drink this first. The pain will go away immediately.” Yogesh forced the bowl to her mouth. Drinking it quickly, Dadi said, making a face, “It’s God’s grace that you’re all moving around to look after me, but it’s giving me a headache. My god, Lord Dwarkanath, you are the commander of all the three worlds! Lord Sayyid, Lord Bajrangbali, Lord Shiva, and Goddess Durga, may my sons always have your blessing!” She summoned all the gods at once in her mind and folded her hands at them in gratitude.

Yogesh began calling out to the gods in his mind. What if Dadi actually passes away…

Amritadhara began working its magic. The intervals between Dadi’s trips to the toilet increased. Yogesh gave her a dose of ten more drops. Dadi was fine by the evening. She was too weak to stand up, and separately, her intestines were shivering due to hunger. But Yogesh didn’t let her have anything except for two oranges.

He had become truly afraid.

In about ten or fifteen days, Dadi began walking around. Yogesh did not even utter the word ‘charm’ in front of her. His prank-some charm had proved to have real effects.


* * *


Yogesh’s holidays were going to end in two days. That day he would leave for Delhi by the afternoon train. Right from the morning he had been getting up everyone’s noses. “Aunty, prepare food quickly, I shouldn’t be late. And Uncle, you must come back early from the farm, or I will go alone to the town. Dadi, you quickly tell me everything I need to tell my father.”

At ten, Dadi served him a platter, and sitting near him, she began fanning him.

The son of the village’s lame doctor, all of eight years old, completely naked but for his loincloth, came and stood in front of them.

“Oh granny,” he said in the manner of an authoritative leader, “My father says that Bhondu’s mother has given us one paisa less than what you must give us according to calculations.”

“Which paisa, do you mean?” Dadi was annoyed that a Muslim had entered their house during mealtime. “I’ve sent the exact amount after making all calculations perfectly. Run along!”

“Eh, it’s that money, granny,” he said, batting his eyelids and distorting his face, “For the laxative medicines, those Jamalgota tablets which you had sent for Tuesday evening.”

It was as though the blood had drained from Dadi’s body. Her face went pale. Yogesh stopped his morsels in the middle of eating. Not a word came out of any of them for a whole minute.

“Get lost, you cursed fellow, you bastard. When did I send for any tablets? You liar! Run away, go, or else you will have to answer my broom. You black-faced boy!” Dadi pounced on him, grinding her teeth. The boy made two leaps, crossed the main door, and ran away. And Dadi went behind him, hurling expletives.

Yogesh swallowed the morsel of food stuck in his throat with the help of a sip of water and with great concentration began mixing the curd curry and rice on his plate.


Note: This translation is indebted to the corrections and suggestions of Imre Bangha, in whose class I produced this translation, and Adit Shankar, who generously helped parse all the Hindi I did not know.


Also, Read The Box, by Uday Prakash, translated from the Hindi By Rituparna Mukherjee and Published in the The Antonym.

The Box— Uday Prakash

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Chandrakiran Saunriksa

Chandrakiran Saunriksa

Chandrakiran Sonrexa (October 19, 1920 – May 18, 2009) was a writer of Hindi literature. Her writings in Hindi, spanning a period of 75 years have been published and translated in several languages including Russian, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian and English and also several Indian languages. She worked as a Script writer and Editor at All India Radio, Lucknow for over two decades (1957-1979). In 2001 she was awarded the title of Best Woman Hindi Short Story Writer of the 20th century by Hindi Academy (Delhi) and was presented the award by Sheila Dikshit, Chief Minister of Delhi.

Vighnesh Hampapura

Vighnesh Hampapura

Vighnesh Hampapura studies literature at the University of Oxford, where he is supported by a Rhodes scholarship. His translation of the Kannada writer Vasudhendra’s short stories is forthcoming from Penguin Random House.


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