I have always been mortally afraid of spiders. The sight of a big one, generally saucer sized, never fails to give me palpitations. My eyes dilate, I have difficulty finding my normal speaking voice, my body trembles. In fact it was quite late in life, that I found out that this is a “condition”, which has a name as well as definition and that Hollywood even has a movie named after it!
But in my childhood, growing up in an old house, hailing from a long line of tough, strong and sharp-tongued women, it was nothing but a weakness worthy of contempt.
Our house was at least a venerable seventy-five years old when my father purchased it (circa mid-1960s) and the place was rumoured to be haunted, which was probably the reason my father, an unsentimental Catholic who did not believe in God, let alone ghosts, could buy it for a song. (Nevertheless, he did take the precaution of getting the house “blessed” by the parish priest, who sprinkled holy water all around, while murmuring prayers.) As the story goes, the house had belonged to a local Nair family, whose pretty daughter committed the unforgivable crime of falling in love with a man of a different (read lower) caste. (In the Kerala of those days, this ranked quite high in the scale of stuff-that-is-taboo!) Her family took the corrective step of murdering the young man and staging it as a suicide on the huge and shady jackfruit tree on the upper slope of the property. The heartbroken girl, quite predictably for those times, committed suicide by hanging herself on the same tree. The spirits of the star-crossed lovers haunted the house and property, making life hell for the family who were then forced to sell and move away. Personally, my feeling is that it must have been their guilty consciences, rather than ghosts, since none of us were ever favoured with a visit. Either the holy water did what it was supposed to do or the determined ghosts too went away with the poor Nair family to haunt them afresh!
This house was built in what must have been the current fashion of the early 20th century. Tile roofed, cool in the hottest of summers and a verandah running all along the perimeter. A lot of wood had gone into the building, the beams of the ceiling beautifully carved with flowers, not an identical pair among them! There were two giant doors, constructed from some long ago felled jackfruit tree, somewhat like the doors of fortresses, noisily swinging on their wooden hinges, and with equally huge wooden bolts, the likes of which I have yet to see in any other place. A basement and an attic (accessed by a rickety ladder), both dumping grounds of unwanted and less used things, like the huge bell metal Urulis (taken out only during weddings feast preparations) and which could easily accommodate a decent sized child, and scary in their different ways. As a bonus, they also served as the breeding grounds of my nemesis- the spider. Located between the two, there was the “Ara” or granary, at the heart of the house, totally constructed out of wood and as I know from experience, pitch black and airless inside, once the single thick wooden door was closed. Our granary stored no grain, but pungent pepper instead, sun dried and tied up in gunny-bags, waiting to be sold and taken to the Cochin port for export. It also was the storage space for another antiquity, the huge thick walled and green-hued glass bottle, which would be filled with coconut oil once a year, extracted after sun-drying the summer coconut crop and stored.
The Urulis played an active role in frightening little children, since their doppelgängers in Hell were supposed to the vessels in which the bubbling hot oil would be waiting for disobedient little children, to be nicely fried by the devils and served up! To this day, I cannot look at the cute and bright miniature Uruli, filled with water and pretty flowers, mandatory accessory in magazine photographs of immaculate drawing rooms,, without remembering those giant vessels in that cobwebby basement (both long gone) and their purported alternative uses!
Anyway, coming back to the topic, I am a closet Buddhist.
The Government questionnaires which demand “Religion?” causes me a lot of angst just as the question “Gender?” might cause a Transgender! I am definitely not a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Jew because I was not born one and has not converted to any of them. I was born a Kerala Syrian Christian, with ancestry purportedly going all the way back to AD 56, which was when St. Thomas (perhaps accompanied by a team of men in search of adventure, since it seems unlikely that he sailed all alone all the way!) landed on the Kerala coast, but it is wishfulness at its best to imagine that this religion will look upon me with favour, since it has been decades since I have conformed to any outward observation of it. (In other words, the Pearly Gates are forever closed off to my poor soul!)
Buddhism, with its emphasis on meditation and non-violence, attracts me. When I start living in my head, spinning glorious tales and alternately, worrying about the future, or re-enacting past dramas, casting myself in a much better light, Buddhism reminds me gently, to live in the present moment.
It also teaches me that all things shall pass. And that all life is sacred!
So far so good! But I live in another ancient house now; and ancient houses have all sorts of hiding places for primitive life forms. Most door and window frames are termite infested; I even had the ignominy of the back door frame falling on my head one day [luckily light, having been almost totally eaten away by termites leaving the painted shell intact], because I had postponed the painful job of catching hold of the carpenters and extracting work out of them, a tad too late. I have made peace with the legions of noisy lizards, darting every which way, and who have worked out among themselves as to who lives where.
But yesterday evening, faced with a big, wicked-looking, black, hairy, eight legged friend and with two shocked children cowering behind the door, my Buddhist principles, unfortunately, deserted me! The phobia faded into the background, still there, but pushed back by the even stronger instinct for safety.
Later, picking up the crumbled body of the spider, (wrong place, wrong time-RIP), I could not help but wonder, what right did I have to take its life? It never harmed me or mine. Yes, the potential for causing harm was present in it, but is it not there in all of us?
As I write this, the world is still coming to terms with the news and visuals of the Malaysian flight MH 17, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which was shot down over Ukraine, killing all on board. While my heart goes out to the unfortunate passengers and their families, I cannot help but feel sympathy for those unknown faceless men, responsible for this tragedy, whose fatal error in judgement caused it. It will not be easy to carry this burden in one’s heart, of having been an unwitting Angel of Death!