I finished eating the luscious white radish which I had generously sprinkled with salt and red pepper and reached for a glass of water, when my mother’s voice stopped me. “Don’t drink water after eating a radish,” she said. Before I could ask her why, the mater pre-empted it by continuing. “Taking water after eating a white radish leads to stomach ache.” This conversation happened almost six decades ago, but as I came of age, I began to recollect dozens of such occasions when we as children were checked for doing things, which according to my mother and grandmother, would produce horrible results. There came a time in our teens when we considered such old wives’ tales to be ridiculous, but as we aged and gained knowledge, we found that though the effects described in these tales were fictitious, they were designed to teach us lessons based on experience and logic.
Take for example, the case of the water and the ‘mooli’. My medical friends tell me that in some cases taking a glass of water after eating this raw vegetable causes extreme abdominal discomfort – so thank you Mum for the precautionary wisdom.
We were often told that fairy tales could only be recounted by night and if this practice was undertaken by day, a traveling loved one was likely to get lost. I now see the logic behind the statement as stories are best told in times of leisure and there is no such time during the day, for it is then that men and women go to work.
My mother often stopped us from cutting our nails at night, as it brought bad luck, she said. And indeed, it would surely have been adverse luck for us to injure our fingertips in the poor electric lighting of the early fifties.
Another ‘no-no’ was the admonishment we received if found to be playing the role of amateur fire starters. We were told that the practice would make us wet our beds at night (a very undesirable situation in the winter). What better way to teach young children not to play with match-boxes and burning sticks, as these in tiny hands, could do much harm.
We were not supposed to climb trees at or after dusk as ‘djinns’ made them their home at night. A good story, but with pure logic behind it, as losing one’s footing in failing light would be nothing less than a disaster. I once violated this rule and suffered cuts and bruises after slipping off a branch. I was lucky that there was a hedge beneath me which broke the fall.
There was a time when as a child, I developed measles. My bed was immediately strewn with fresh ‘neem’ leaves and a small branch was given to me as a ‘scratcher’. Notwithstanding the fact that the whole procedure appeared primitive, modern science has now realized the medicinal and antibacterial effects of the ‘neem’ tree.
At midnight, when thirst woke me up, I would ask my mother to get me a glass of water. Once this was done, she would tell me to place my left hand over my head as I slaked my thirst. It was after I was married that I finally asked my mother about the logic behind this apparently ridiculous procedure. She just smiled and said that in her reckoning the act had no significance, except for the fact that her mother and grandmother did the same when she was a child.
Then there was the twin ritual of saying, “May enemies be trod underfoot” as one put on a brand new pair of shoes and a string of words (which I do not remember) when donning a spanking new set of garments. I have yet to discover the need to utter these words, while performing simple acts of everyday life, but maybe some day wisdom will come my way.
The writer is a historian.