In late December last year, a strange story surfaced from Telkoi village in the Keonjhar district of Odisha. Mamata Munda, a child of about seven, had been accused by her teachers of turning into a cat each night and sucking her hostel mates’ blood. The teachers wanted her out of the residential Talasahi Lower Primary School, where Mamata was a student of Class I. Her father, Birsing Munda, who works as a mason, brought the issue before the local tehesildar and the block development officer. The news attracted the attention of various local language dailies and news channels, leading to the Orissa high court taking suo motu cognizance of the matter. The chief justice asked the district magistrate and the collector to appear before the court and apprise it of the steps taken (all of this was happening after the anti-witch hunting bill had been passed on December 5, 2013). Action was swift — the collector visited the school, suspended the headmaster, transferred some of the teachers and ordered the school to take Mamata back immediately. Now Mamata has been re-instated and is staying in the same hostel. The fear of the law seems to have dissolved all fears of Mamata being a witch.
Mamata’s mother, Ruibari Munda, answers questions about her daughter by staring at the distance. The men of the household are out in the January afternoon on which we visit Mamata’s home, and so the women and the children gather around us, taking up the story by turns (Mamata’s siblings are seen in the picture). We sit with the family in a neat little courtyard, with tall saal trees on every side standing as guards. A hen with her entourage of chicks zigzags around us, beaks to the ground. Mamata’s pretty aunt, who is going to sit for her Plus II examinations this year, smiles politely, as an informed person would smile at mumbo jumbo, when we ask the family about the accusations of witchery brought against Mamata. The older relatives are cagier as they say that the allegation is absurd and they have never heard of a gunia. Birsing’s elder sister, Jamuna, wearing dark glasses, probably because of a cataract operation, says that the child might have dreamt of something in her sleep, causing her to start, and this may have been interpreted as a sign of possession by her teachers.
Then we land up in Mamata’s school to see the ‘cat’ for ourselves. The headmaster, newly appointed after the last one was suspended, denies all knowledge of what had happened. Then Mamata, a slight girl in a blue uniform with a belt and tie in tricolours, emerges barefoot from her classroom. Violet bangles tinkle on her tiny wrists as she clasps and unclasps her skirt and looks at us with sparkling, inquisitive eyes. She says she likes to study, her favourite subject being mathematics. But when she goes home, she helps with household chores, cooks curry with tomato, which she calls bilati, as some Bengalis of a bygone era did.
Looking at this quick child, I try to figure out what possibly could have prompted the teachers’ phobia. So I ask her if she feels scared at night. She sagely nods her head; her smile fades for a second. Mamata says she is scared of the dark, and feels afraid at night not only in the hostel but also at home. Does she sleep alone? No, Mamata has a best friend, Shantirani, with whom she shares her room. When she feels scared, she sits up in bed, Shantirani by her side. In my mind, Mamata merges with little Jane Eyre crouching on the hostel bed with her Helen, the only source of solace within the cold, hostile walls of Lowood school.
In the meantime, Mamata is fidgeting and looking longingly at her classroom, where a song and dance session is going on. We ask her to go and she runs back. After a while, she stands beside her teachers in the classroom and sings a song in her native Ho language in a clear, trilling voice.
When we are coming back, the children are busy at a game of musical chairs, played without chairs. The headmaster is very much a part of the gang and runs around with the giggling children. In the vivacious bevy of children in blue, I lose Mamata. The tinkling sound of their laughter creates a cocoon of warmth and I leave the school trying to assure myself that young Mamata will soon forget the perverse shadow that had blighted her life.