To Believe or Not to Believe


Every time I see an ad for a Ouija board being sold as a game or toy, I am horrified. I am even more horrified when teenagers play this “game,” and talk about the planchette board moving around like it’s normal for a board game to have pieces which might be channeling spirits of the dead. “What are you DOING?” I want to say. But what do I really know? If they are just pretending, I don’t want to tell them it could be anything else, because if they really focus, could they manage to channel an evil spirit? And then what? My first, and last, experience with a Ouija board, you see, was not a game.

I have a “to believe or not to believe” relationship with the paranormal. My family comes from Bangladesh, a country we left when I was very young. This left me with a disconnect to my roots. I go there as a visitor, enjoy seeing my relatives. The ones who are more westernized than others, anyway. The rest I try to hide from because I cannot relate to their way of life at all. As I made my life in the Western world of intellect, I whole-heartedly adopted that way of thinking because it made more sense to me, and Bangladesh, being a country rich in mysticism, and mystical practices like summoning the dead, didn’t. Fakirs, or Muslim ascetics who have taken vows of poverty and renounced the material world, and who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of the spiritual, are everywhere in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. They “see,” “sense,” and “feel” things. No doubt some exaggerate their abilities for money, but there are those who will not take any kind of compensation. People visit fakirs for blessings on auspicious occasions such as the birth of a child, marriage, etc. They consult them about family members who have died, to ask about their wellbeing, and they also consult them about the fate of the country, which has been politically unstable since its conception in 1971. But this practice is not restricted to fakirs. Family members with a heightened sense of spiritual connection also practiced communicating with the dead. My maternal grandmother was one of them.

I worshipped her. She was kind, generous, warm and loving. I have memories of her holding me on her lap and washing my head when I was a baby, and remember feeling loved and secure. But she had this other mystical side to her which brought out my “believe or not to believe” emotions. She had stories. Touching the hand of a loved one no longer with us through the window. Okay, wait, ghosts are supposed to go through things, right? They are not touchable, right? Touching the hand of a spirit from behind a curtain. This one was confirmed by my father, a Harvard PhD. He had experienced it too. Okay, now my head was spinning. What was with the touching?? Surely he wouldn’t be lying. And neither would my grandmother. This was someone who was everything true and honorable in my life. I refused to then, and refuse to now, believe that she would make up such stories. So I tell myself they were true to her. That her imagination was so powerful that she conjured it up and believed it. But, again, what do I know?

Then there were stories of visions. Once when the country was in political turmoil, her car was blocked by an angry mob. The kind that had been known to pull people out of cars and attack them. Her driver was scared, so left the car (smart!) with the defenseless old lady sitting inside (nice!), and went and crouched behind it. My grandmother’s story is that she saw a white figure materialize in front of the car and beckon to them. She then told the driver to get back in the car, and that they would be all right. The driver got back in the car and they slowly drove forward. People parted to give them space and they drove through the mob, and returned home untouched. I didn’t know what to believe when I heard this story. Was it the spirit of someone she had known? Was it an angel?? I have an easier time believing that her subconscious, which knew that they would be safe, concocted this white figure. But how? How would her subconscious know this? Some say that the past, present and future all exist simultaneously, and a “déjà vu” is a message from ourselves in a different dimension. But that would be yet another theory, right? And if we’re going to believe theories, why not the paranormal?

When we were children, my grandmother and a handful of uncles and aunts would sometimes disappear in a room, lock the door and draw the curtains. My cousins and I were desperate to see what they did in there. Finally we were told that they summoned spirits to ask questions about the future. This did not make sense to me even then. Why not just be patient like us kids and wait to see what happens? Of course, now that I’m not a kid, I can sort of understand the impatience, but not enough to summon the dead. But as children we were excited and curious about the whole thing. We climbed onto windowsills and tried to sneak peeks through the curtains. We banged on the door and ran away. We listened at the door and giggled, then sat still with stoic expressions on our faces as they came out. It was all a fun game.

After being constantly pestered by us every summer to be allowed to sit in, (we went to Bangladesh during summer breaks from school and there wasn’t much else that was exciting) my grandmother finally agreed to let me watch when I turned sixteen.

The summer I turned sixteen, I was filled with doubt, fear, hesitation, and curiosity, but also excitement. I was the oldest of the cousins, and this was acknowledgement that I was now mature enough to be treated like a grown up. All that faded, however, as we started. As I lay on my belly on the bed, chin resting on my hands, and watched, my uncle, mom and grandmother sat in a circle on the floor; the Ouija board and planchette table in the center. I was not allowed to participate, just watch. They told me they were going to recite some prayers to ward off evil, then summon two separate spirits, one a friend of my father’s who had recently died, the other a political figure, who had also recently died. The purpose was to get information on whether the current political situation in Bangladesh was leading to war. Curiosity and excitement were replaced by a sense of sobriety. This was not a childhood game anymore. The gravity of what we were doing started to weigh heavily on my mind. And I also felt very sad. I felt sad that these people had to leave their loved ones behind, and I felt ashamed at the arrogance of human beings that we would think it acceptable to disrupt the peace that these souls had earned a right to. As they prayed, my mind became completely devoid of emotion, almost as if I was afraid to feel. I was just there. A spectator. I numbly watched as they put their fingers on the planchette table and asked the spirit of my father’s friend if it knew my father’s nickname, to make sure it was the right spirit. And I numbly watched as the table slowly choked its way to all the right letters and started spelling out the name. They asked their questions, prayed for the soul to find peace (wouldn’t it have been more at peace if it hadn’t been forced to come back?) and said goodbye. Then they brought the political figure. They asked questions to make sure it was really he. I don’t know when I started spacing off. The voices of my relatives were quiet, hushed and I think that made me sleepy. But I still felt sad, a sadness almost beyond my years, now that I look back on it. It felt like the sadness of the world, of all of life, the inevitability of death and loss. They inanely asked the spirit if he had been happy in life, and the table moved to spell “no.” They then asked if he was happy now, at which point I was wondering how it served their goal to make this poor man face his sadness in life and in death. The table again moved to “no.” And I felt annoyed and impatient with my relatives for wasting this poor soul’s eternal rest with stupid questions. And once again I felt ashamed. They had no right to do this. I didn’t know if I would like being forced to return after I had left this world. So lost in thought was I that I did not notice when they were finished. Then my beloved uncle did something completely infantile which I held against him for a long time. He put his hand on the table and swung it up at me with a roar, like it was a monster or something. Thinking I was being attacked, I screamed and burst into tears. Tears of sadness for the poor souls who had been disturbed, for the disrespect that had been shown them, and shame and remorse for the act of summoning the dead to satisfy our paltry curiosity. My uncle burst into laughter and admitted that the spirits had left and he was just joking. I did not see the humor in it. Instead I was furious, and thought it was incredibly stupid and insensitive of him to have done what he did. But the heaviness was gone from the room, and all was back to normal.

That experience left a mark on my stuck-between-East-and-West self. The emotions I went through made me wonder if I was picking up on the emotions of the spirits. Which made me wonder if I was imagining things. I wonder if somehow my relatives had managed to move the planchette with their collective energy and fingers, because I remember the table turning in directions in which one person’s fingers alone could not have moved it. I wonder about the sense of heaviness in the room.

When my mom passed a couple of years ago, I was desperate to sense her, but there was nothing. Sometimes I smelled a very strong smell, like that of roses, and wondered. Mom used to say a heavy flowery incense in the vicinity was a sign that a spirit was nearby. But being a child also of the West, I dismissed that idea. Plus there were roses growing all around. Now that I am older, and the West has seen a huge growth in spirituality and mysticism, though still not as much as the East, I find myself yearning to experience something again. Times have changed. In Bangladesh, nobody in the family is doing the Ouija board anymore. With my grandmother gone, no one really has any contacts that can help me. I suppose I can seek out those who could in this country: mediums, psychics, etc. But how do I know it’s not an act? I don’t. So I will just have to continue the “to believe or not believe” line of thought. For now.

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