Remember Dee Baba?
by Susan Gosine
In a time long ago, in Trinidad, when sugar cane was still the major source of income for indentured immigrant families, and only the fortunate owned televisions, my grand-mother, Sukhanie, deceased 23 years back, used to tell us tales of the raakhas, a demon possessed baby and the saapin, a snake woman.
On nights when the electricity failed, we would gather in the drab hall of her old house and in the shifting gaze of the flickering flambeau she told of these scary folklore fiends. A teenager then, I believed they were just figments of her imagination, made up to scare us.
I remember too, how, she would trap a fowl cock’s wings beneath one of her foot, pluck the feathers from under the neck and slice off the head, to call on “the Dee” to protect her property. A cigarette, a drink of Puncheon rum, Crix crackers, salted butter and a candle were laid out on a banana leaf for the annual ritual. Years later, my father, also deceased, started the ritual at his home.
Back then it all seemed implausible and I never thought about it until I read Kumar Mahabir’s latest book titled, Indian Caribbean Folklore Spirits, a compilation of old time Indian folk stories that originated in a generation my grand-mother once belonged to.
The 39-page colourfully illustrated book was launched in Trinidad on Friday July 9, 2010, at the National Library, Corner Hart and Abercromby Streets, Port of Spain. It speaks of five supernatural beings associated with Indian folklore: raakhas, churile, saapin, Dee Baba and the jinn.
“Knowledge of these spirits came with Indian immigrants who migrated to the Caribbean between 1838 and 1917 to work on the sugarcane plantations after the abolition of African slavery,” Mahabir wrote in his introduction. “Altogether they contribute to our knowledge of the rich and unique folklore of the Caribbean, and highlight the diversity of peoples and cultures in the region.”
Omitted from the compilation were the bhuta (bhoot) or prayt and other spirits of Indian origin that do not take a particular physical form in the Caribbean.
The book is an easy read and can be absorbed in one sitting. A second provides greater understanding of its cultural lore. Descriptions are clear and concise, but it’s the living testimonies that are invaluable. That there are people alive who have witnessed and in some instances encountered such spirits, that most of us have heard only in tales is worth the three years of research that went into its packaging. One can only imagine the wealth of information gathered in such an exercise.
Reading the testimonies, quoted in parts in the interviewees’ own words, gives one a feeling of being transported back in time, into the footpath of our ancestors. It’s a true case of readers believe it or not.
Samdai from Penal and Kamla from Couva told of the raakhas they saw. Devika from Williamsville and Sati from Cunupia told what they knew about the churile. Lalita from Penal, Balliram from Moruga and Usha from Rio Claro told what they knew of the saapin. Ramjit from Penal told how he performed offerings to Dee Baba. Abdul from Cunupia and Sheriffa from San Juan told of the Jinn they saw.
Mahabir also referred to similar spirits in the Caribbean and other countries in the world. He listed movies based on the spirits which are know by different names in other cultures so readers could make the connection. Most would have seen Rosemary’s Baby, Children of the Corn, The Omen, Nagin, Devi, Djinn, Wishmaster, Alladin and I Dream of Jeannie.
Published by Chakra Publishing House, San Juan, Trinidad, Indian Caribbean Folklore Spirits is Mahabir’s seventh book. He is an assistant professor at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Copies can be purchased through the website http://chakrapub.wordpress.com.