Daily Times: Sunday, November 05, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: When the fairy queen came to Lahore

By A Hamid

In the dark, narrow, thickly populated back streets of old Lahore, where Muslims and Hindus once lived together, it was popularly believed that they shared their homes and neighbourhoods with spirits, both good and bad. These residents included genies, ghosts and banshees. Some jinns and ghosts were said to reside in the back rooms of old houses and dark havelis, some were believed to be Hindu, others Muslim. It was said that a Hindu jinn could be distinguished by his bodi or ponytail that orthodox Hindus and their priests wear. Hindus believed that the jinn took physical possession of those whose faith was weak or who were chronic patients. Women, who became widows at a young age and were condemned to a life of celibacy, were also believed to be easy prey for these spirits. Young Muslim widows were immune since they could marry again.

If some Muslim became possessed, an amil or spirit-master was sent for to exorcise the foreign spirit. He would arrive, say his prayers, blow into the face of the possessed man or woman several times and then order the jinn in a loud voice to depart the body he had occupied otherwise he would be burnt to a cinder. If the amil had the powers he claimed, the jinn would say in the voice of the man he had possessed, “Have mercy, I am exiting.” The amil would ask, “Leave a sign when you depart.” The jinn would answer, “This brass mug resting on that table will topple to the ground when I leave.” The next moment, the mug would come tumbling down and the possessed man would return to his normal self.

Hindus had their own ghost masters who would arrive in a group. The first thing they would do would be to tie up the possessed man and light a certain incense stick. They would also beat drums and clash cymbals. These actions would be accompanied by the recitation of sacred mantras.

Inside Kashmiri Gate, lived a Kashmiri family related to us, one of whose members, a lady in her middle years, acted as the medium for the arch fairy named Shah Purri. This queen of fairies had to be summoned and invoked only on very special occasions. At all other times, the medium, who was called Aapi Jan, behaved quite normally. The ceremony was called “chowki dena”. A day before the event, word was sent to a group of mirasans or professional women singers to ready themselves for the séance. The day chosen was either Thursday or Friday. That morning, everything in the house was washed, cleaned and dusted. The room where Aapi Jan was to summon Shah Purri was decorated with garlands of fresh flowers and clean white cotton spreads were rolled out on the carpeted floor. Early that morning, a large basket of fresh fruit was purchased from the city fruit market because Shah Purri was supposed to have a liking for fruit, which was washed, cut and placed decoratively in several serving plates. That day Aapi Jan would not eat breakfast. She would bathe, put on freshly washed and ironed clothes, let her long hair loose over her shoulders and seat herself in the middle of the room, which would be sprinkled with rose water. Aapi Jan would also dab herself generously with henna perfume. Highly aromatic incense sticks were lit. No man was allowed to enter the room.

At the appointed hour, the singers would come in and be seated close to Aapi Jan.

A couple would be holding castanet-like bells, while two would be on drums. The doors would be bolted and we children, having returned from school by then, would perch ourselves on the steps leading into the room where the séance was to taking place. The music and singing would begin and progressively reach a crescendo. We would creep up to one of the windows, push it slightly to take a peep at what was happening inside. We would find the women sitting respectfully in a semi-circle around Aapi Jan. The beat of the music would quicken and something strange would come over Aapi Jan. She would start shaking her head from side to side, at first slowly and then in a rapid to and fro motion. He face would become flushed and her eyes would appear to be bloodshot. Her changed state would induce the musicians to further quicken the beat of the drums, the ringing of the bells and their singing. They would take up some well-known Punjabi folk song, a kafi, and call on Shah Purri to honour the gathering by becoming manifest. Aapi Jan would go into a trance, then open her blood-shot eyes with her long hair playing hide and seek with her face.

Then, suddenly, everyone would fall silent sensing Shah Purri’s arrival. The lead singer would address Aapi Jan, “A million congratulations, a million welcomes, may the blessings of Allah be on Shah Purri!” Then all the women in the room would greet her in one voice, “May peace be upon you, Queen of Fairies!” The expression on Aapi Jan’s face would be such as to make it difficult for anyone to look at it for more than a few seconds. She would speak, but in a different voice. Women who had come with questions would now ask them turn by turn. “Will my son get married?” one would ask. “Yes, yes, he will, now go in peace,” Aapi Jan would answer and hand the woman a piece of fruit. The woman would accept the fruit reverentially and leave the room without turning her back to Aapi Jan or Shah Purri. When the singers would feel that Aapi Jan’s mood was changing, they would start up the music and soon its hypnotic beat would put her in an a trance.

The son of Aapi Jan’s younger sister was in love with a girl named Razia, but her father would not accept him as a son-in-law because the boy was jobless. Aapi Jan would turn towards Razia’s mother, look at her with her blood-red eyes and say, “Your daughter must marry Dari’s son (Dari was the younger sister), otherwise Razia would catch TB.” In those days, TB meant certain death. Razia’s mother would join her hands in supplication and say, “Shah Purri ji, please keep Razia safe. She will be married in obedience to your command.” It will eventually all come to an end. Shah Purri would return to her fairyland kingdom and Aapi Jan would become herself again. She would be given a glass of hot milk with a lot of cream and then put to bed. The fruit and sweets would be distributed among children. The singers would not leave empty-handed either. However, the fragrance of rose water and incense would linger in the room for the next few days.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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