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Exorcism and the Discourse of Kerala’s Exceptionalism

Are the superstitions and cultural beliefs of Kerala at odds with its so-called exceptionalism?

On 4 May, three women in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district were attacked on suspicion of being witches, and tortured, tonsured, and paraded half-naked. As I was discussing the horrors with a friend, his initial outrage and revulsion gave way to a sense of resignation. From the lynching of Pehlu Khan to the silencing of these “deviant women,” he argued, what else could one expect from the rampaging “medieval, primitive” mobs roaming the countryside of South Asia. Like many of us, he too had conjured up a view of India with a dual identity. There was that vast swathe of the Indian “Wild West” peppered with the odd cocoons of a few rational spaces—the cities and university spaces.

Having spent most of my life in Kerala, such superstitious practices were eerily familiar, shaping a significant part of my childhood and, thereby, my very consciousness. I remember being deeply affected by Na-Hong Jin’s South Korean classic horror film The Wailing (2016). It wasn’t merely the impact of a well-made horror film. But the themes of exorcism and witchcraft in a remote village resonated with me to such a degree that the horror felt much closer to home, rather than as a mere spectacle unfolding on screen. The first exorcism that I remember ­witnessing as a child occurred in my native place of Kilimanoor, the birthplace of celebrated ­painter Raja Ravi Varma. Located just outside Trivandrum, Kilimanoor is a village with lush fields of ­paddy, ­tapioca, and rubber, criss-crossed by muddy paths and clear streams. The village temple and its festivals, the scattered kaavus (sacred groves), and the fearful myths ­associated with them were an intrinsic part of the psyche of the village.

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