Thursday, Feb 09, 2023

The Leaf-Shredder

According to the oral tradition of the Ao Nagas, there were some special men and women who were endowed with powers to read the future. They were called Arasentsür and the most common practice among them was to shred the leaf called ‘Aam’ (phyrinium pubescence) in order to predict futures and also to prescribe appropriate rituals as curatives for different diseases.

The Leaf-Shredder
Photograph: Chinki Sinha
The Leaf-Shredder

There is a bent old woman sitting
On a rickety bamboo platform, shooing
The village chicks away from the paddy
Spread out to dry in the winter sun

She once held court in this little cottage
Beyond the village gate
Where fierce-looking warriors received
Fear-killing potions before a dreaded fight

It was to her door women of all ages
Came with their unspeakable pains
Spilling their grief to the ageless priestess
With eager hopes for just redress

But time has finally intervened
To dispel the ambiance of that life
Through natural infirmity
And trivial domesticity

The all-seeing glint has left her eyes
And lethargy stalks her tired limbs
While the revelations of the shredded leaves
Become a web of hazy memories.

Sometimes her frazzled mind sifts
From its distant past a dream-like montage
Of a frantic wife who came to her one day
Driven wild by her husband’s threat

‘Grandmother, please help me,
My man means to turn me away
And take another wife
If I don’t give him a son’

She saw the fear in the young eyes
And asked her gently, ‘Why my child
Aren’t you his wife?
Don’t you let him touch you?

‘Yes grandmother, I have been wife to him
For three years now, and he puts
His seed in me day and night
But the monthly flood sweeps it away’

‘He calls me barren and says I’m a curse
On his clans and demands a son by next harvest
Or he’ll take another woman who will
Hold his seed and give him sons’

The old woman still remembers
How the frightened eyes concentrated
On the leaf she shredded to determine
The mystery of the young wife’s despair

When she finished divining
She looked at the hopeful wife
And whispered ‘Go home my child,
You will bear many sons’

She chuckles now in recalling
The part she left unsaid, and how
The woman bore many sons
But for another man

She remembers at times the vast forests
Where she roamed freely
Venturing into the darkest depths
Where even the bravest did not dare

It was home away from home
Where she conversed with
The spirits of the earth
To ferret the secrets of their hearts

She talked to all the creatures
Sometimes pilfering gifts
From their nests and burrows
To augment her magic hoard

She scoured the deepest forests
In search of the rare mushrooms
Ghoulish brown and malodorous
Vital for concocting potent potions

To invigorate petrified warriors
Before dreaded battles so that
They could disdain their fears
And die dreaming of promised glory

She remembers once chancing upon an ant
Enacting a strange dance with her spindly legs
In frantic communication with a smug beetle
Crying out in frightened squeaks

‘Brother, mother earth’s heart is trembling
The beasts are crazed with panic and
There is an acrid smell in the air
Some great calamity will surely befall us’

The beetle dismissed her saying
How could she, a pitiable creature
Assume to foretell what only
Diviners and leaf-shredders knew?

As she thinks of this, the old seer shudders
Recalling the horrors of the killer-quake
And marvels at the uncanny accuracy
Of the tiny creature’s instinctive prophecy

For the old woman in the rickety platform
These are ephemeral vignettes from trance-like life
Impinging on her present situation
So disengaged from her distant past

Only the matted hair and raggedy clothes
Still smelling of forests and their secrets
Darkly hint at a surreal history, beyond
The range of human computation

A she sits patiently on the rickety platform
Waiting to pass on to the great unknown
A persistent dream-like question
Impedes the pace of transition

Wondering, if anyone had ever
Read her forlorn destiny
In the shreds
Of a ravished virgin leaf.


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Temsula Ao is a poet, folklorist and memoirist from Nagaland. She won the Sahitya Akademi award for her short story collection, Laburnum for My Head. 

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