Nestled in the eastern bank of picturesque Connelly Canal, Kandassankadavu rests in rural complacency. The time of my childhood was spent in simple pleasures. Excitement was not the norm. But as it so happens, even the simple lives could often be shaken by anything supernatural. Kandassankadavu was no exception.
Some things were knit into the fabric of any local culture. While in the elementary shool, I heard some unbelievable stories. I was a new student in this parochial school. I was not familiar with the area even though I had many relatives in the area. Both my parents were born there.
I heard about a government built pond farther away from my house. We were not allowed to wander around. So I never saw this place. It was built for easy access to water in the neighbourhood. Everyone was not rich enough to own a private well. The pond was large and many people made use of it. There was a tiny mount next to it. The mount had a flat top and a single bush with large heart shaped leaves.
I started to hear about some strange happenings during midnight hours on this spot. People claim to have seen some unusual occurrences. Little black devils were dancing on the leaves of the bush. They carried lighted lanterns and were nimble in their steps. It sounded almost like a frolicksome gathering. They were like jolly imps dancing the night away. I never saw them. But there were eye witnesses! Even though I never saw this phenomenon, I have a vivid picture of the scene in living colors in my head.
The parish of Kandassankadavu had the Church of Our Lady of Nativity. Even though it was named for Virgin Mary, the two big parish feasts are for St. Sebastian and St. James the Great. Their feast days fell on January 13 and July 25 respectively. The former had more celebratory events. Family members and other relatives gathered for these feast days.
St. Sebastian received more reverence because he is the patron saint against small pox, a dreadful disease which was often fatal many decades ago. Having several arrow wounds, his body appeared pock-marked. Maybe that is possibly the reason why he was selected to be the hero who fights the deadly disease especially during the pre-vaccination age.
Prayers alone were deemed inefficient to fight against the viral epidemic. People reverted to local practices, very unlike the Catholic beliefs. The old, twelve inch statue was considered miraculous. The arrows were made of solid gold. Including my grandfather, several families donated these arrows. Weeks before the feast, single or multiple families arranged to take one of these arrows to process to their houses. Often pastel colored silk umbrellas with lacy metal trims were carried during the procession. The “arrow” processions are colorful and provide great spectacles. They could be carried out during the day or during the night. People crowded by the roadside to see the show. At night, there are petromax lanterns to give a festive aura and light. The common belief was that St. Sebastian protected the families who received the arrow in their homes.
The utter belief in miracles is inescapable in these practices. Apparently there were eyewitnesses. The common myth was that evil spirits in the guise of women went about casting seeds of small pox at people in the area and those who were touched started to show the marks of the epidemic. One of these stories was oft-repeated in my younger days Someone was late returning home, possibly from a bar. The streets were deserted at that hour. Possibly inebriated, the man thought that he saw two women carrying baskets, casting what appeared to be seeds. They kept proceeding till they reached the entrance to a side street. They were blocked by a man holding a big cane. The women pleaded for admission to the street. The witness heard the man say, “This street is under my protection. You cannot enter.” He chased the evil women away with his cane. Later people realized that the man was St. Sebastian and the homes in the street had welcomed the “arrow” procession against small pox.
More interesting events happened during these times. The father of one my classmates was a butcher. He became very wealthy in his trade. In general, people are jealous of other people’s prosperity. Rumours started flying about the sudden riches of this man. Again people resorted to some myths.
A local trickster deity had some followers. He was known as Chaathan. There was a small sign advertising his services in one of the country roads. According to popular belief, Chaathan will give great deal of riches to his devotees. But, one has to give full loyalty to him. It is even rumored that, in order to show good faith, a devotee implanted a little copper piece in one’s thigh and has to transfer it to the successor before death. Otherwise, the departed soul wil not receive eternal rest.
The butcher in Kandassankadavu passed away. In human history, it is normal. But, what was not normal was that there were sightings of him in many places. When night fell, people claimed to have seen him wandering listlessly in the street by his home, in the market place and in the Church yard which were all adjacent to the cemetery.
The vicar at the time was slightly intimidating. From top to bottom, he was gray. He had a gravelly voice which was not too comforting. Besides, he was always accompanied by a fierce Alsatian dog. He always carried a walking stick. He did not emanate an aura of friendliness. The rumors about the after death wanderings reached his ears too.
One evening, the vicar heard the dog barking furiously turning his face towards the cemetery gate. The priest decided to give credence to the common talk. He walked towards the cemetery accompanied by his pet. As he neared his destination, he caught sight of the dead man coming through the gate.
The vicar, who was also an exorcist, stopped in his treads and questioned the apparition, ” Why are you doing this? Why are you frightening people?”
The dead man answered with a note of desperation in his voice, “Father, I have no rest in this world. But I have no rest in the other world also”
The exorcist recognized the situation and asked mildly, “Will you let me help you?”
The apparition was doubtful about the success. Yet, he was willing to venture. He nodded his acquiescence.
The vicar collected the holy water, the crucifix, the stole, the candle and the book. He guided the dead man to his grave which was still covered with earth. Nobody saw the Rite of Exorcism.
Next morning, people saw shoe prints on the soil covering the grave. They believed that the priest stamped on the grave to compete his act of returning the spirit of the dead man. From that day onwards, nobody saw the butcher again. Hopefully, he received eternal rest.
As an impressionable child with very creative imagination, I treasured these stories. They never left me.
*A young man whose father came from Kandassankadavu urged me to write these down to share with posterity. Here is to you, Sebastian!