Chickenpox Superstitions And The Burden Of Guilt That Women Bear
It was past midnight when my sister’s chickenpox became worse. Her body was very weak and she was shivering while her pox continued to itch and burn. We were all worried and our hearts skipped a beat each time she cried in pain. With no option left, we decided to see a doctor as soon as possible. But, thanks to the lockdown, there was no clinic open in the town. In this tensed situation, someone advised my mother to light incense sticks in front of goddess Durga’s photo at my home and worship my sister who now was a face of Durga. She brought a big dia lighted with camphor and started praying to my sister. Addressing her as “Ma”, my mother kept on weeping and apologising for all the mistakes she may have made.
Even now, when we have a vaccine and various medicines and ointments for treatments, the belief is still prevalent in many houses. In such houses when a person gets infected she is worshipped like a goddess
Since ages, chickenpox has been wrapped in the religious myth that it is a kind of a divine appearance of goddess Durga in a human body. Sometimes to punish the family for some mistake they committed, or for the mistake of the person who has been infected. Although these beliefs were made up in the time when there was no treatment or vaccinations for chickenpox available, to make people understand the importance of neem, sanitization and simple food to cure the disease. But even now, when we have a vaccine and various medicines and ointments for treatments, the belief is still prevalent in many houses. In such houses when a person gets infected she is worshipped like a goddess- lighting dias, singing religious songs, touching feet and conducting pujas. Any suggestions for taking medical help are often vehemently denied.
But what kind of mistake my mother or my sister could have made to deserve punishment worth so much pain and sleepless weeks? It was repeatedly being said that because my sister yelled at my parents, or my mother did not offer the home goddess a silver, the family is facing the wrath of the goddess. While the superstition and myth around chickenpox are questionable, it also makes me wonder how we have internalised the notion of divine punishment, where unacceptable conduct or practices earn you “god’s wrath”. For mistakes as small as lighting a dia on right rather than left, punishments are as worse as chickenpox. On the other hand we simply shrug when rapists, murderers and abusers walk free, without facing any wrath for the brutal crimes they have committed.
I wish I could convince my mother that such beliefs are no more relevant today. But for now, we are focussing on nourishing my sister back to good health.
This belief, I feel, is deeply patriarchal because observing most of the religious duties and rituals in most of Indian households is women’s responsibility. And if the goddess’ wrath through chickenpox affects anyone in the family, who is to be blamed? Of course, the woman who has devoted her life in setting up the puja rooms, doing all the fasts and pujas for the welfare of the family. Did my mother or my sister really deserve to bear the burden of guilt for an infection?
The deteriorating condition of my sister’s health did convince my mother that we must seek medical intervention. But because there was no hospital open and my sister felt better after taking some glucose, the superstitions that my mother is conditioned to believe in apparently were proved right. But will such good co-incidences happen always?
I wish I could convince my mother that such beliefs are no more relevant today. But for now, we are focussing on nourishing my sister back to good health. These discussions will have to wait for some other time.
The views expressed are the author’s own.