It was a very steep slope. Even the hunters felt unsure of their steps. The thick creepers and grasses made every tread a threat since there was no way of knowing what the escapees were disturbing on the untrodden path. The deerstalkers amongst them could have been expected to feel less unsettled, but it felt strange for them to be carrying babies or half-carrying the elderly. Noi insisted on clinging to Sai. In the Asia of so long ago, much before any contact with Westerners or Christianity, ‘till death do us part’ was her own inborn resolve. Sai had no choice.
The slope, scorpions and snakes spared 13 out of the 15 shaken souls. Elderly Grandpa, whose steady days were long past, actually made it. Heun, with his sharp instincts, had time enough to hand baby Olindo to Pranee before his foot got entangled in something; and he hit his head against a giant tree trunk.
Brave, fierce Heun …how did he, of all people, lose his balance? ‘Why would Uncle Heun be the one to crack his skull and spill his blood all over an ancient bark?’ asked Tuk and Puk, who, in their few years in this world, had always thought him to be an invulnerable hero ̶ too brave and perfect to fail. Grandpa, who had not spoken since they reached and sat by a stream two hours ago, suddenly said, ‘Spirits’. ‘Spirits?’ repeated the two traumatized children. In those days what the elders said was ‘The Truth’: the gospel that younger people, in turn, would pass on to the next generation. And the belief would take on a life of its own and give birth to new, maybe unseen, actors: with powers to give and to take away.
The next time something happened that Tuk and Puk ̶ now adults ̶ had no control over, they knew it was because the spirits of the new land were angry. Insects had eaten and destroyed the rice they had so lovingly planted and tended. Tuk, even though his field was infested, felt some consolation when he peered into the sack that his wife had woven and in which he had stored some rice from the previous year. He heaved a sigh of relief when he failed to find black dots meandering over the grains. They all might just escape starvation…
At this time, when not a single kernel of life could be spared, he gathered a fistful of cereal from the gunny bag and scattered it over his favourite corner of the field by the sacred fig tree: as an offering to the spirits, to calm their anger, just as Grandfather had taught his father and him.
Those who had no stored food as insurance learned their lesson and decided that ̶ as a village and a people ̶ they would never ever leave any important thing in the future to chance. If spirits were so unpredictable and volatile ̶ happy and ready to grant blessings one moment and angry and vindictive the next ̶ only fools would want to take a risk. Didn’t they know the tragic story of courageous Hunter Heun, who never prayed to the spirits of the forest nor lighted a lamp before setting out with his bow? And so, at the bases of trees, near fields, by ponds and close to rivers and lakes appeared offerings by a people who wanted the spirits on their side in this uncertain world. With greater devotion came embellishment. What was offered had to look beautiful to please the capricious spirits who could do harm if annoyed or dissatisfied.
‘Should I be angry if a person hurriedly just places one mango for me under a tree?’ asked an immature apprentice forest spirit as her mother was rushing off to accept an offering by a huntsman in the middle of a thick jungle. ‘No, no … don’t react like that and make the trunk crash on his head! Maybe, he is just sick and poor and is doing his best. Grant him a tasty harvest. Understand the devotee’s intentions by peering into his soul!’
‘How beautiful!’ thought a father water spirit as he saw the pretty, tiny raft afloat. A rich business family had bought it enthusiastically at the market even though anyone could afford it. Made of banana stalk, it was hexagonal in shape and divided into compartments. Into this yellow-green environmentally-friendly float, the size of a big tray, were arranged all the gifts: lighted candles in one section, freshly-boiled rice in another, flowers, some kind of grilled meat and chopped fruit. It would float effortlessly on the lake for days even as the donation, and indeed its water-borne container, turned brown. ‘The family will find new customers overseas this year,’ decided the father water spirit. His teenaged son, who was still learning the ropes for a career as a spirit, could not help but notice the look of pleasure on his pho’s face.
The sacred pater’s attention soon turned to a ceramic painted serpent, a naga, with bright scarves wrapped around its raised neck; it sat by the lake with its hood upright. ‘Ah, the fisherman’s family saved enough for this holy emblem! They will be blessed with a healthy catch every time they fling their net in the waters.’ The trainee son sensed his revered father’s blessings floating in the waves. ‘Gosh, I cannot wait to grow up to see who offers me what. I could show some creativity in granting boons! So, it was with a sense of adventure and excitement that the adolescent water spirit waited to grow up so that he could accept offerings and shower blessings. And hopefully not get furious too often.
In the meantime, the world was changing…
Men learned to make artificial lakes. Then made roads encircling them. In the centre of one such lake grew a big concrete platform. ‘They will install a huge Buddha statue there,’ said one perambulating jogger. ‘No, that will be the place for a restaurant; people will be rowed to culinary delights and back,’ said his paunchy comrade sounding a little wishful. Ice-cream vendors appeared, who buzzed round and round on their motorized carts; loudspeakers attached to their mobile machines announced their presence. ‘Calories for those trying desperately to shed them,’ should have been the lyrics of their attention-grabbing advertising jingles! For the walkers and joggers were ‘healthy’ options too, such as orange juice: in convenient disposable plastic bottles. Fishing at this artificial lake was not free. Nor were the various types of packaged fish bait that the folk brought along for this hobby. Lovers appeared. Since hugging and kissing in public were unthinkable, their rendezvous turned into a series of selfie-breaks and picnics. Take-away coffee in plastic containers, carried in plastic bags, and sucked through straws was a good way to celebrate togetherness.
Soon, non-biodegradable discarded packages in all sizes and colours could be seen floating near the edges of the lake. The straws sailed off for their own rendezvous with the discarded packaging.
The young water spirit bowed to his patriarch respectfully before beginning a trial foray. Something orange attracted him within minutes. It even smelled of fresh, juicy oranges. Why, someone had floated a bottle of tasty juice in his honour! Just as his father had taught him, he approached the offering and saw the name and face of the supplicant in the water. ‘This is a first for me dear Poom. I wish you good health, loads of Vitamin C and a victory in the wrestling championship you are participating in.’ All of a sudden, he sensed a huge wave rising. It was Dad’s dramatic arrival. ‘A discarded plastic bottle, with left-over orange juice, by a wasteful over-fed teenager is not an offering to water spirits! Along with vitamin C, he is getting micro-plastic granules and preservatives in his gut. You’re right: he does need a special boon for good health in the future. But you can’t break the rules since this was no offering to you. This time it was a misunderstanding on your part; make sure you don’t unleash your fury on Poom’. And the waters became still.
It hadn’t begun well. As shiny as the scarves around the naga’s neck were the floating golden packets that had contained fish bait. They caught the sun and gleamed, pleasing the water spirit in his youthful zeal. A blessing for Lin was about to burst forth, but there were sudden ripples in the water near him. ‘Well, he is sitting right there, isn’t he?’ said Papa, who had been forced to intervene again. ‘Stop looking at his image in the water and look at him. Swaying to the music from his earphones, the young man in his stylish shorts is clearly fishing purely to relax; it’s his hobby. Seriously, did you think this hep guy would float an offering to you? Of bits of stinky stuff stuck to golden plastic? Grow up! What could you possibly grant him? A giant fish with plastic granules stuck to its insides?’ On that sarcastic note, the surface of the lake became calm.
Was there no one left who would acknowledge the dispirited novice spirit with an offering? He was losing faith. Then he spotted it: a traditional floating tray made of natural material. This time he was not going to get it wrong. Nang Champa had floated it with true devotion. She wanted good rains so that her fields would prosper and give her a good income. ‘Of course, Champa … may all your hard work be rewarded! You will never know want. What’s more, a young agricultural scientist will show up to ask for your help for his research and …’ Surely, that sudden surf could not be Dad! ‘Khun pho, there is nothing to get wrong this time.’ ‘Did I say anything about mistakes?’ replied the exalted patriarch. ‘But whatever you do, do not, and I repeat, do not eat the processed chips and drink the cola in the banana raft!’
Banner Im\age – Hindu Puja offering VasenkaPhotography, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons