How Sabawa Became Kali’s Oracle: A Doctor’s Account of Possession and Women’s Health

The ‘possession’ of a woman by a Goddess or a ghost is widely used in India to account for – and sadly eclipse – symptoms of depression, anxiety, epilepsy, malaise, rebelliousness or any number of psychiatric conditions. An excerpt from In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine (Profile Books, 2016), by Aarathi Prasad:

The cover of Aarathi Prasad's 'In the Bonesetter's Waiting Room', Profile Books, 2016.

The cover of Aarathi Prasad’s ‘In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room’, Profile Books, 2016.

Painted baby pink at some point in the distant past, the hospital’s five storeys tower above the mass of shops and homes that surround it. As I stood at the main entrance, the smell of disinfectant and surgical spirit was nearly as strong as the sense of foreboding. It reminded me of a few war-torn and emptied buildings I had seen in Kabul, though this one, by contrast, was by no means abandoned. Doctors and patients went about their business, paying its state of disrepair no mind.

A guard directed me down a long corridor, past rooms where babies sat on their mothers’ laps having their shots, or outpatients waited for check-ups. The busy STD clinic was decorated with a large drawing of a cartoon condom with arms, legs and a very happy face. I was surprised to see a lean white cat stride confidently along the corridor towards me, mewing loudly and looking quite at home as it passed the extensive lines of people sitting on the benches along its length, waiting to be seen. Much like the Domino’s delivery team, it seemed that Mumbai’s medical staff were also reluctant to serve Dharavi.

I made my way to the back of the building, which, apart from the wildlife, had an abandoned feel. On its main staircase, chipped cream paint and plaster had collected liberally along the edges of each step. A glance up the stairwell to the top of the building revealed thick red smears streaking the walls: not dried blood but the accumulation of years of betel nut-tinged spittle discharged from every floor, staining even the signs in place to forbid the practice.

To the right of the staircase I found the rear entrance to the hospital. A covered walkway cut through an open courtyard to a drive where a couple of atmospherically ancient ambulances were parked. It offered incoming patients some protection from the more vertical deluges of the multidirectional monsoon rains, as well as providing a waiting area for those who had come to approach Sabawa, the Goddess Oracle who sits for most of the day outside the hospital’s courtyard shrine.

When I first saw her, Sabawa was holding court with a few devotees, her son, grandson and the men who had arrived that day with bamboo scaffolding to prepare the shrine for its annual festivity which would see the courtyard turned into a bloodbath. Her ample haunches were propped comfortably on a low wall; her retinue stood or sat on the floor around her. Their conversation paused as we namasted. There was something generally formidable about Sabawa, both in the powerful charisma she exuded and in her appearance – her dark, almost doll-like face adorned with a generous smile, two silver nose-rings and a too-large red circle on her forehead; her corpulent frame topped by black and grey mottled dreadlocks that tumbled nearly to her thighs. She was wrapped in a dark green sari, a colour sacred to the Goddess Kali and auspicious for married women; she’d covered her arms nearly to the elbows in green glass bangles too. Despite her girth, she looked nowhere near her seventy years.

And yet she had good reason not to look as well as she did because, thirty-two years ago, Sabawa, it was said, had inexplicably fallen ill and died.

Her son Rayvan told me this as nonchalantly as if he were giving directions. I asked him to repeat what he had said, just to make certain I had understood correctly. At first, when he told me his mother had died at the age of thirty-eight, I imagined that Sabawa had unofficially adopted him. But that was not at all what he meant.

Rayvan, with whom she had been pregnant at the time of her death, was Sabawa’s youngest son, and when she was nearly to term she started experiencing strange and violent movements in her abdomen. Neighbours said that she had become possessed – that a devi (goddess) had entered her body. Like its gods, the goddesses of the Hindu pantheon often take on different avatars to become the spouses of their opposite-sex counterparts. This goddess – known as Kali, or Durga in her major incarnations – is the shakti (power) to the destroyer god Shiva, a forceful yin to his yang. Though a mother to the sons of gods and possessing the ability to be compassionate, she is no demure Mary nor bejewelled Lakshmi. Kali/Durga brings powerful, vengeful justice to the world.

The infiltration of this devi, or bhoot (ghost), into a person – usually a woman or a girl – is widely used across India to account for a range of symptoms that might otherwise be explained as depression, anxiety, epilepsy, malaise, rebelliousness or any number of psychiatric conditions. The treatments for possession can be incredibly brutal, and often extreme violence is inflicted on victims. Beatings and torture (including burning or rubbing chilli powder on the skin) are commonplace among believers. Sabawa was no exception, but the multiple hot irons that branded her stomach with circular burns did not cure her.

‘After my mother died,’ Rayvan continued, ‘the community tied her hands and feet and wanted to take her body.’ Sabawa’s mother, distraught, prayed to an image of the goddess she kept at home and the next day announced to the community that the devi had spoken to her, warning that if they touched Sabawa’s body they would all die. The goddess wanted this girl to care for her shrine and demanded blood. To bring Sabawa and her unborn child back from the beyond, two pregnant goats were to be slaughtered, their wombs opened and their unborn kids removed and sacrificed.

‘It started with two, but now there are one hundred and fifty goats offered every year. Hindus, Muslims, everyone comes, it doesn’t matter, they all come.’ Rayvan beamed. His enthusiasm was understandable, as without the goddess’s intervention, neither he nor Sabawa would have been there that day to tell me the story of the events that very nearly cost them both their lives.

It was sad to imagine what the young Sabawa and her family must have gone through during those difficult days. The cause of her convulsions and collapse (or possible coma) is difficult to guess at – even today, many women across India never have a thorough medical check-up during their pregnancies. Sabawa might have had epilepsy, or eclampsia seizures – symptoms which can worsen in the later stages of pregnancy. Or less scientifically, and perhaps more sinister, accusations of possession can sometimes be a cover for simply getting rid of a person, in a vendetta, for example, or a witch-hunt. Whatever the cause, Sabawa was lucky to have recovered, an outcome the family ascribes entirely to divine intervention. In those early days in that slum, as still in many parts of India, the lack of access to appropriate medical care means that the intervention of spiritual healers can seem like the only recourse, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Since her personal triumph over disease and desperation, the faith of Sabawa and her sons in the devi has been intense. The devis whose statues filled that shrine (no more than the size of a shower cubicle) seemed even more so. Her devotees, who were often also Chota Sion patients, came every day to make offerings. They brought the green glass bangles and marigolds that laced their way around the dome of the shrine; they came to ask for healing or offer thanks for prayers granted. But more than that, they came to hear the goddess speak through Sabawa’s voice, and for that they also brought goats and chickens to be sacrificed (and, rumour has it, not insubstantial offerings of gold).

‘When the goat is brought for sacrifice I ask the devi whether she accepts the sacrifice or not. If I see the goat trembling it is the sign of devi’s acceptance, it is a sign to kill her for the sacrifice.’

Sabawa says she demands no sacrificial offerings or valuables, but her devotees bring them anyway. The green glass bangles she welcomes, and the flowers are useful decoration for both the goddesses and her oracle’s stone, which she asks people to touch and make a wish.

‘It’s just a stone,’ Rayvan told me. He pointed to a rubble-strewn area across the fence, around two metres away. ‘Look there, my mother just picked it up from the other side of the courtyard. My mother could use any stone, the goddess still speaks.’

It wasn’t really just any stone: placed in front of the goddesses, directly in her eye-line, was a rock about fifty centimetres in length and twenty-five wide. Its edges were slightly jagged, as was its underside, so that it wasn’t entirely stable. When Sabawa sat before it and put her petitioners’ questions to the goddess, the rock would become the instrument of her voice.

‘When the answer is yes, stone will move to the right; if it is a no, the stone swings left,’ he explained. Rayvan bent down and pushed it to one side and then the other. ‘See, see how heavy it is … it cannot move on its own.’

As he walked off, I tried it too. It didn’t even budge. ‘It is incredibly heavy,’ I agreed. ‘Yes. And when the goddess gets angry, the stone moves fast, forward towards the shrine, like this!’ The push of Rayvan’s upturned hands indicated a violent movement and I imagined a great crash against the front wall of the shrine.

I hurried after him. ‘Does she get angry often? Why would she get angry?’ I knew that Kali and her various alter egos were no soft touch. While Lakshmi sits on a lotus and radiates loveliness and light, Kali and Durga are popularly depicted with semicrazed eyes and hair, wearing garlands of human skulls, holding swords dripping with blood, or mounted on large predatory animals. When the goddess entranced Sabawa, she too danced wildly, energetically, with the vigour of a far younger woman. ‘Even just after she had undergone a major heart operation in her late sixties,’ said Rayvan.

‘Too many questions,’ he went on. I stayed silent. ‘When there are too many people at the shrine asking the goddess questions,’ he clarified, ‘it’s too much. The goddess gets tired. She gets angry.’

Kali, the goddess Rayvan had been referring to, was personified in a stone statue, not more than thirty centimetres in height, that was housed in the shrine. Had it not been for Kali’s rage, the Chota Sion shrine would never have existed. It had not been built for the hospital, as many locals and staff believe; in fact, it appears to have been a sacred site for at least 500 years, and the hospital must therefore have been built around it.

Today Dharavi, like much of Mumbai, seems as though it has always been solid ground, but a substantial part of the coastal city was dredged from marshland by impoverished migrants. Within living memory, many parts of the now crowded metropolis were countryside, largely unchanged for hundreds of years, and when the statue of the terrible Kali was originally unearthed, what would one day be 60-Feet Road was still farmland. A farmer ploughing his field had dug up what turned out to be the image of Sabawa’s goddess. It was reminiscent of the famous twelfth-century Janganatha statues of Puri – wide-eyed, cartoon-like, naive – though this was not to be her personality. Unfortunately, the statue was damaged by the farmer’s plough, and the landowner’s carelessness was to cost him dear. His entire family died mysteriously, and he built the shrine in an effort to secure his absolution.

No one could say exactly when this had happened, but Rayvan believed it was in the fourteenth century because the goddess came to him in a dream one night and told him so. When Chota Sion was being constructed, the builders unwisely destroyed the ancient shrine. The goddess’s revenge was no slower in the 1980s than it had been in the 1300s: soon labourers started falling unconscious and unexplained calamities befell both patients and staff. The worker who had demolished it was found with an iron rod through him, vomiting blood. The shrine was swiftly reinstated and a courtyard created where there had been a hospital wing on the blueprint.

Through her oracle Sabawa, this powerful and avenging goddess continues to draw Dharavi’s women to her: women who are in abusive marriages, women who, for whatever reason, are considered by their families to be mad. ‘The devi normally enters people when they are having many problems,’ Rayvan said. Possession and a distressed state of mind are inevitably linked. Sadly, as I would later learn, many Mumbai psychiatrists are unwilling to link the same distress to a more prosaic cause: the domestic abuse suffered by Dharavi’s women.

Excerpted with permission from The Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels in Indian Medicine by Aarathi Prasad, published in India by Hachette India.