The witch doctor

There was a buzz down the alley where we lived that summer. The last house in that colony had been rented to a new family. They were Muslim. But that’s not the reason why the adults were so unhappy. Apparently the man who had been invited to live in our colony was a witch doctor. And they didn’t want such a character to live in our midst. Masthanjee, he was called.

Soon enough a huge billboard came up just near the bus stop ahead of the colony. It had Masthanjee written in large letters, the man’s photo, lots of information in Tamil, and the photo of a goat. Why the goat? I eventually learnt that the people who came to Masthanjee for help were usually people with mental health issues. He performed some kind of rituals and asked them to pay for an animal to be sacrificed. There were whispers that the animal was never killed and the same goat was brought back again and again for each patient.

To us kids, it was both intriguing and scary. Who was a witch doctor? What was black magic? Did he have skulls? Why were we told to stay away from that last house? Rumours floated about him. People preferred taking a roundabout route rather than crossing that house to get to the next street. My friend stayed just across that street. And every time I crossed that house, especially when it was getting dark, I could feel an eerie chill down my spine. Who was this man?

It wasn’t long before we met him. Masthanjee was a man in his late thirties, who was always dressed in a white jabba and veshti. He had curly hair which hung up to his shoulders. And the strong whiff of itr always accompanied him.

While we kids were fluent in Tamil, my Dad still hadn’t got the hang of the language. And when Masthanjee strolled over to him and spoke in chaste Urdu, my father finally had someone to talk to. He wasn’t scary at all. In fact he was quite affable and talked to all of us nicely. He had a nice family with three kids. We even got invited to his daughter Tehmina’s wedding. She was a sweet girl who had found a groom in Singapore. It was my first time at a Muslim wedding and I found all of it so fascinating. The curtains of flowers, the qubool hai, the bling and again, the strong smell of itr.

After Tehmina got married off, Masthanjee’s visits to our house increased. We were one of the earliest people in the colony to acquire a telephone. So the ‘trunk calls’, as they were called, were booked to and from Singapore. And we were often asked to call Masthanjee so that he could speak to Tehmina.

But all of this apart, the real reason I miss Masthanjee is for his awesome culinary skills. Two days in a year, the whole colony would smell of fragrant biryani. He would cook handis and handis of mutton biryani himself to feed the poor. I have never tasted better biryani in my life. I used to wait desperately for the bowl to arrive from his house.  It would invariably lead to a squabble between me and my brothers on who got the larger share. My landlord’s wife used to worry about magic spells in his biryani and talk of throwing it out. I would plead with her to give it to me instead of wasting such a delicious treat, which would cause my mother to frown at me in disgust.

Some days I feel like going back to find out if Masthanjee is still around. I need that biryani recipe from him.

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