Seen and Unseen: Some Reflections on the Surreal in Kumaon

Camille’s Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

It was late afternoon on a brilliantly crisp Saturday in November when Radha, one of my dorm-mates, knocked on my door. “There’s a jaagar tonight!” She said brightly, “The whole community will come, and there will be food and a fire. You should come with us.” I wasn’t sure what a jaagar was, but I gladly agreed anyways, pleased to have received the invitation. 

The event began, for the most part, like any other social event in this community. Gathered around a massive bonfire under towering pine trees, we sat on woolen mats and ate sumptuous platters of paneer, rice, hot roti, and vegetables. Despite the space, the women were huddled together in a tight, affectionate mass, leaning on each other’s shoulders and braiding each other’s hair.

After food was served, the singing began. Traditional Kumaoni songs, with their meandering, high-pitched melodies, reverberated through the trees, while community members came forward to light incense and pray. Then, slowly, the drumming began. One man, a local priest of some kind, began chanting rhythmically. Warmed by the fire and full from the rich dinner, I slowly began to relax as my eyes grew heavy.

Then, suddenly, the drumming became faster, and the chanting grew more frantic. Without warning, as the chanting reached a fever pitch, an elderly woman sitting next to me ripped the covering off her head and began thrashing wildly on the ground. Her eyes rolled back in her head as she moaned and grunted, her hair hanging in long, matted strands around her face. At first, I thought the woman was experiencing a seizure. I stood up, unsure of what to do. Then, another woman near me began thrashing. More followed, like dominos, each suddenly possessed by some unseen force. Soon, about 8 or 9 men and women were seizing, thrashing, and dancing frenetically. Some grabbed coals from the bonfire and smeared them on their heads, while others took plates of uncooked rice that had been offered to them and began tossing them towards the crowd, screaming and yelling. Still others remained on the ground, muttering and rocking back and forth, their long black hair swaying across their face.

I was, to be frank, utterly terrified.

After about thirty minutes, each man and woman who had been possessed went slack, then crumpled in a heap on the ground. After a few minutes of recovery, each rose, dusted themselves off, and walked home as if nothing had happened. After the ceremony, I was told that these people had been possessed by the spirits who inhabit this land. Possession, I was told, was a great honor, because only those who were the most virtuous were chosen by spirits. The intent of the entire ceremony, it seemed, was to gain the spirits’ blessings for the coming year.

Whenever I have traveled, I’ve encountered the temptation to narrow my experiences into bite-size vignettes that fit a clear, easy narrative. Yet what I saw at the jaagar refuses to be condensed. Try as I might, every time I have told and retold this story to family and friends, the telling has rung false. Maybe it’s the sheer surrealism of the event that’s so difficult to capture. Maybe it’s my own hesitation over sounding “superstitious” or overly impressionable. After all, do I really believe that people can be inhabited by spirits? Anybody who knows me, a perpetual cynic, would say no. And yet saying I don’t believe it, and thus reducing the event to nothing more than a cultural oddity, feels wrong. I don’t believe in possession, but I do. There’s no such thing as “spirits”, but I saw them clearly that night. 

Recently, Katrina Dikkers (the AIF Clinton Fellowship Program Director) sent me an article by Rebecca Klenk titled “Seeing Ghosts” about her experiences at a Kumaoni jaagar. She writes,

“It was difficult to write about, this jaagar, because for me it became a horizon where life experience danced and spun out beyond the facts and fictions of ethnography, alighting somewhere I could not imagine, assuming forms I could not contain and represent in my notebooks…None of these sentences seemed to hold much; they would stare back around my hesitating pen, as I crossed out this and rewrote that, drawing question marks in the margins, contemplating the ways in which ghost stories had intertwined in my mind.” (246)

Like Klenk, my experience at the jaagar extended beyond the realm of objective observation. And, like Klenk, this uncertainty has stayed with me, hovering in my subconscious like an itch I can’t quite scratch. I dream of those women sometimes, their hair loose and their saris askew. Compared to the normally reserved, conservative women of the foothills, these women looked so visceral, so free, and so raw. It was a terrible, terrifying kind of beauty that doesn’t seem to square with the soft, shy women I know in this community. As with so many things in India, I’m struggling to hold the contradictions equally in my mind; to both believe and doubt, to embrace and question.

It has been over a month since that night. But every once in a while, as I lie in bed under my thick woolen quilts, the faint drumbeats from a jaagar in a distant village will echo through the valley, and my skin will prickle with goosebumps. And when, late at night, I awake with a start to the sound of the wind whistling softly through the pines, I think of the spirits, seen and unseen, permeating life in these foothills like mist; shrouding and confusing the real with the imaginary, the mundane with the extraordinary.

Work Cited
Klenk, R. M. (2004). Seeing ghosts. Ethnography, 5(2): 229-277.

Camille graduated in 2015 from Vanderbilt University with a double major in Public Policy Studies and History. While at Vanderbilt, Camille's studies focused on sustainable development, development policies, and transnational history, and she had the opportunity to present her research on Laotian and Iraqi refugees as a Presidential Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Upon graduation, Camille received summa cum laude honors and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation, Camille spent time working with a children's education nonprofit in Nepal, where she taught English and assisted in their funding and reconstruction efforts in the wake of the April 2015 earthquake. She then began a role at Deloitte Consulting in Washington, D.C., where she worked on research-based program evaluation and capacity building projects in the International Development and Public Health sectors with clients such as USAID and the Defense Health Agency. Most recently, Camille returned from a client assignment in Tanzania, where she was helping Anza, a social entrepreneurship accelerator, scale and expand their operations. Although her family currently resides in Portland, Oregon, Camille spent the majority of her childhood in Singapore, where she gained her love for travel.

Camille's Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

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