PETALS IN A CRYSTAL BOWL
By Anjana Basu
By Ipsita Roy Chakraverti
HarperCollins Rs 250
Say the word, "witch" and inevitably Macbeth's three crones materialize stirring a cauldron on a blasted heath. Pointy of chin, downturned of nose, with black cats and broomsticks thrown in for good measure. A hissy slithering of evil with newts bubbling in a hell broth to make things even nastier. For centuries witches have haunted fairy tales and history and, judging by last summer's Blair Witch Project, they still haunt our imagina-
tions as much as the vampires of Transylvania--
though with witches there is always the chance they might prove to be more real than you thought.
Of course, feminist sociology insists there is no such thing as the cone-hatted broomstick-flying purveyor of evil. Most witches were unfortunately poor, wise women, many of them healers, who were persecuted for their wisdom in a male-dominated society. Pace James I of England and his witch trials. There were marks by which, the Elizabethans believed, you could recognize a witch: by an extra teat on her body with which she suckled her paramour the Devil; by her familiar, a cat or some other animal with which she kept unnatural company and conjured up damnable spells. A witch, they claimed in a time when no one knew how to swim, could float, and so they threw suspected witches into deep water to see if they floated (meaning they were witches) or drown if they didn't.
There is a little of all this in Ipsita Roy Chak-
raverti's book. However, the book isn't a history of the socio-anthropological roots of witchcraft but the story of how a woman with the "right" back-
ground, a beautiful, intelligent arrogant woman, became a Wiccan and studied witchcraft's powers of healing and wisdom, along with its power to avenge and destroy. Her beauty and other assets, she in-
sists, are vital for a woman who aspires to become a witch in India, a place where witches--or dayans--
are otherwise victimized by jealous men.
Roy Chakraverti joined The Society for the Study of Ancient Cultures and Civilizations in Montreal, Canada, and became part of a group of women who met in a chalet in the Laurentian Mountains to pore over crumbling manuscripts that held occult secrets long forgotten and answers to questions few dared ask. She was formally initiated into Wicca by the Spanish head of the society, Carlota, of the red-gold hair, and commenced her study of what was once considered a valuable branch of learning, a cult that included Ishtar in ancient Sumer, Isis in Egypt and Mother Goddess Kali in India. She also began her study of the prophecies of Luciana, a famous noblewoman executed in the sixteenth century, and found many of them to be relevant to modern times, including one which supposedly refers to the divorce of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Luciana, she claims, was one of the bodies in which Ipsita's soul has resided over the centuries, and it was probably Luciana who guided herself to the chalet in the Laurentians and to her meeting with Carlota.
Ms Chakraverti makes no distinction between black magic and white magic--both are part of the Books of Knowledge. However, she emphasizes that the true Wiccan is a white witch whose spells are cast to benefit others.
Interspersed through her study of the ancient art are pages from her personal dairies and chapters from her autobiography. She writes about the death of her father, her uncle's attempts to take advan-
tage of her, her marriage and the birth of her daughter. However, she sees all this as a natural part of her study of witchcraft, episodes from past lives flowing into the present and giving it new meaning, though human relations, she insists, are not necessary for witches because they are set apart by their wisdom and learning. However, life is itself also the greatest of schools, the best laboratory for interesting experiments with the human species.
Time and again she encounters the mysterious X-
factor that forms part of her life, something that transcends science and reason. She describes en-
counters with Elvis and Indira Gandhi; with cor-
porates looking for quick answers and spells to solve their problems. But she also describes her work with the poor and neglected in the backward villages of India, saying, "If God forgets, the witch cannot." As proof of this she cites her clash with Jyoti Basu over the issue of the witches in Purulia. It is not, she maintains, her role to gaze into crystal balls to satisfy the vanity of those who believe the world revolves around them, those like the board director who wanted her to predict stock market trends for him or the ex-Rani who wanted a spell to prevent her daughter from marrying the family chauffeur.
She does slip in a spell or two so as not to dis-
appoint those readers looking for such. There is one, for example, to Daunt the Foe which consists of taking a fistful of clay or earth "from where no man or woman doth tread." The clay needs to be put into a copper bowl and moulded into the shape of the foe. She hastens to add that one should be careful when casting spells because what is once done cannot be undone. "My motto always has been, trouble not another until he or she troubles you."
There are moments of honest confession when the author says she has gone sceptically through life looking at everything and everyone with the analytical eyes of a hawk. To her own disadvantage, she says, she has often turned away from the extra-
ordinary, because she wants practical explanations. There are a few case histories, accounts of her work at healing souls, though these are touched upon lightly, too lightly perhaps.
She describes how she met influential women, among them the powerful Carlota in her blue dress with black fur trim at the neck and cuffs. She describes rooms lined with crystals and a large crystal bowl for scrying in. Surprisingly, much of her witch's tools consist of earth and roses and perfume. "Con-
juring, sleight of hand, ritual, magical objects, flowing robes--these were all tools of the trade at one time." A great deal of the book seems written to entertain. At any rate, the knowledge rests lightly, and there are perfumes and colours to distract the mind of the reader.
If there is a problem with the book, it is that much is left unsaid and much of it seems hurried, as if an editor said, "Don't make it too serious, people won't understand," just enough for people to chatter about at a cocktail party.
Roy Cahkraverti knows that it is unusual for well-
bred Bengali girls to become witches and acknow-
ledges her gratitude to her mother for allowing her the right to choose. After all, she says, every strong woman can be a witch in her own right, and that is perhaps the truest message that the book holds for the reader.