Diabula Did It



It must’ve taken a measure of bravery for the Portuguese to first set out on their voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century.  With the weight of the unknown, the myths of sea monsters and risk of falling off the edge of a flat world they nonetheless set forth.  By the following century they’d made it as far as the Bay of Bengal where ultimately they established a port in Chittagong and a settlement on nearby Sandwip Island.  But did they ever get lost along the way?  From time to time they must have.  And when they got lost, could it be that the Portuguese turned their sails around while at the same time cursing the very devil for having deceived them?

Kashem Bhai of Rahania village in modern-day Hatiya is not Portuguese and he certainly has little in common with Henry the Navigator or Vasco Da Gama.  Unlike any Portuguese explorer indeed, it is with considerable care that Kashem Bhai contemplates his actions, and the actions of others.  He’s someone who finds no delight in risk-taking. 

In the night sky over Hatiya, every few minutes there are the lights of planes, transcontinental, small and very high.  We’ve considered it might be the Hong Kong to Dubai route.  While watching the planes, Kashem Bhai has been known to remark, ‘How risky!  Do people really need to do that?  Why do they take such risks?’  He’s rehearsed a rather nice sound of a plane falling from the sky: durrrumm!  It’s safe to assume he belongs to my grandmother’s school of thought, that if people were meant to fly they’d have grown wings.  And it’s not the only risky behaviour Kashem Bhai has noticed among his fellow humans.

There’s also the important matter of ceiling fans.  Kashem Bhai wonders how it is that people can sleep under them, what should happen if during the night the fan were to fall.  ‘How risky!’ he says, ‘Why do people trust their lives to a single, small screw!’ He means the one holding the fan in place.  ‘Is it really necessary?’  Living in Rahania, Kashem Bhai is lucky not to have to face the threat of ceiling fans often.  On any island electricity is not a straightforward matter and what electricity there is in Hatiya seems to have got lost somewhere along the way to Kashem’s village.

It comes as a surprise, therefore, to hear of the occasion when Kashem Bhai’s careful planning and risk avoidance considerations failed him.  It was on a day that started like any other.  As with many a villager, Kashem’s hours are normally consumed with chores and duties, household this and marketing that.  But on that day Kashem Bhai decided he was in need of rest, and as he lives by the Hatiyan coastline it was little trouble to gather a few friends and propose several hours of adda at the beach.  There’s usually a welcome breeze blowing in from the Bay of Bengal there, he knew, and it’s not a place where the day’s duties could track him down.

Getting there presents few problems.  It’s simple enough to follow path-and-aisle between the rice fields and to negotiate the muddy crossings of the tidal channels in the open land they call ‘The Garden.’ Nor is it overly challenging to zigzag through gaps in the coastal shawl of the mangroves beyond.  There’s usually a patch of dry sand or a grassy clearing nearby; the local fishermen can advise as to the best place for adda on any day, in accordance with the Bay of Bengal’s latest artistry. 

But it’s also a simple scientific fact that adda is not restricted by daylight or tides, and it was well into the afternoon the small party of conversationalists thought to return.  The best way back changes as tides come in and in the darkness it’s not as simple to watch out for cobras; nor are there too many paths to choose from due to the channels and the rice fields.  But as that afternoon wore on there arose an even more pressing problem: society and that peculiar disadvantage of being a respectable member of it.

Unfortunately, on the very day Kashem Bhai determined to go to the beach was also scheduled an important shalish, a public mediation.  Even from the beach Kashem could see the distant bazaar was crowded with onlookers and participants, ready for the event.  Kashem Bhai considered his reputation: what would people think if they saw his little group of friends returning from the beach at a late hour?  Would word of their wasting time on adda reach their wives?  So they waited.

Unfortunately the mediation was a land dispute that had generated a good deal of interest.  There was much to be said and technicalities to be considered.  It’s a simple scientific fact that village mediations are not restricted by daylight or tides.  As the path to the bazaar started fading towards darkness and the water started coming in, it seemed as though the shalish would never end. 

Eventually the group could wait no longer; but if perhaps they walked apart they might yet be able to reach their homes inconspicuously.  At any rate they’d need to try.  One by one they set off: through the mangroves, jumping over muddy channels and weaving a way through The Garden.

The crowd proved to be a blessing, with each of Kashem’s friends able to enter the market from the sea side unhindered and without remark.  It was dark by then.  But unfortunately, just as Kashem Bhai’s feet found the start of the bazaar he was spotted.  ‘Kashem Miah, where have you been?’ Abdullah Member asked.

Kashem Bhai didn’t know what to say.  But fortune favoured him because after a moment a convenient skerrick of local folklore came to mind: the legendary Diabula.

Kashem embarked upon a carefully crafted tale, about how he had been walking home from the bazaar to his house as he usually might, when for some reason he found himself walking and walking, still walking, and still not seeming to cover the short distance to his home.  Finding his situation odd, Kashem Bhai explained, he started to think it was Diabula’s work. 

In Hatiya, Diabula is an invisible spirit but not a jinn or a bhoot of the ordinary sort.  Diabula has the particular trick of snatching people’s sense of direction and leading them astray; and people are at greatest risk of attack when they walk alone.

Kashem Bhai told Abdullah Member that he stopped walking and on suspicions of Diabula thought to turn his lungee upside down.  This action is the commonly understood remedy for Diabula’s handiwork.  And when he did so, just about half an hour earlier, Kashem Bhai continued, he was shocked to find himself, quite inexplicably, at the beach!

Having enjoyed the little tale, Abdullah Member could have no further questions.

It’s strange to think that the Portuguese journeys of several hundred years ago may have assisted Kashem Bhai as he entered the bazaar that day.  It’s just a theory, but is it impossible to imagine that the islanders’ Diabula was long ago derived from the Portuguese diabo, the word for the devil? 

Hatiya Island didn’t exist when the Portuguese came to the Bay of Bengal, it’s a much younger island; but many Hatiyalas have an ancestry from the older Sandwip, far to the east.  And when I mentioned Diabula to a Sandwipian friend he knew what it was immediately; he also knew to turn his lungee upside down in the case of a Diabula attack.  Meanwhile those few people I asked from inland districts of Bangladesh had never heard of Diabula.





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