Saturday Magazine
The Kattadiya

drawing.jpg (16572 bytes)by Upatissa Attygalle
Until recently I had little or no regard for kattadiyas and their craft. I had come to have such a sad opinion of our local necromamcers after having witnessed many a performance by a number of their ghoulish group. I had come to the conclusion that their vocation was nothing but a lot of mumbo - jumbo mixed with a generous portion of hocus - pocus and that it held not a shred of credibility or truth. The kattadiyas themselves I saw as a bunch of ‘Thakkadiyas’ or Charlatans who for pecuniary gain exploited the ignorance, the fears and the superstitiousness of unfortunate people.

Then a singularly novel case involving a member of their ungodly clan made me look upon at least at the individual concerned in this particular case, with respect even though my opinion of their practice remained unchanged. Once you know the whole story would without doubt agree that this kattadiya showed no less a degree of wisdom and shrewdness in curing his patient than did King Solomon in settling the dispute between the two women who claimed maternity of the same baby.

My wife and I had been desperately in need of an extra hand to help us with the domestic chores. My father sent us a bright and energetic lad of seventeen from the remote village of Guruluwana in the Ratnapura District. Ratna was his name and the last job he held was assistant to the Kattadi Mahatthaya of his village. It was Ratna who told me this incredible but true story.

One evening after dusk a young newly married woman went down to the latrine which was a fair distance from her house like in all village homes where no drainage system exists. A moment later her husband received the shock of his life when the door flew open and his wife rushed in with both her arms raised above her head and screaming, "I can’t put my arms down! I can’t put my arms down!..." The husband could not get any explanation from her as to what had happened nor could he bring her arms down though he used all the force he could muster. He then ran and fetched the estate apothecary who served as the village doctor too. When the Apothecary - Mahatthaya too failed to force her arms down, he explained that he had not wished to use too much pressure as it could have broken the humerous bones of her arms and advised the husband to take his wife next morning to the General Hospital in Ratnapura where he said the doctors would bring her arms down under anaesthesia.

The entire journey to Ratnapura Hospital and back began to go through the husband’s mind like a movie. He saw himself walking to the bus halt coaxing his wife who kept her arms raised high above her head and chanted loudly, "I can’t put my arms down, I can’t put my arms down..." The endless wait at the bus halt, the endless explanations to the bus conductor and every new passenger that got into the bus, the getting down at the Ratnapura main bus stand, the walk through the town to the hospital, the jeering and the hooting, the giggles and the stares - he saw it all clearly as in a nightmare. When he could bare it no longer he collapsed on to the floor sobbing heavily. By this time quite a few curious neighbours had come to find out what this commotion was all about adding to it by expressing individual opinions none of which were in the least constructive but only began arguments with each other. Just when the arguments were about to break into fisticuffs someone shouted above the cacophony’ "Let’s call the Kattadi Mahatthaya."

This suggestion worked like magic. Everyone stopped arguing and agreed unanimously that the Kattadi Mahatthaya should be sent for forthwith. This worthy accompanied by his assistant Ratna soon arrived at the scene. Once he was apprised with the details of the case he walked upto the woman and peered into each of her eyes lifting the lids with his fingers like a doctor. He then stepped back triumphantly and said, "The reason for this woman’s predicament is that she has encountered a devil on her return from the latrine in the dark. Startled she raised her arms but fear froze them in this position." Everyone shouted angrily, "Never mind the reason. Tell us whether you can get her to put her arms down or not. The Kattadi Mahatthaya smiled and replied, "Of course I can ! It will however cost fifty five rupees paid in advance to show your faith in my gurukama."

The husband who was still snivelling on the floor was hauled to his feet and asked whether he was willing to pay this amount. He quickly produced the money from his savings in a pillow case and the Kattadi - Mahathaya was ready to begin his treatment. The resourceful sorcerer then took his assistant to a corner and gave him some instructions sotto voce, after which he requested the crowd to get back as far as possible from the woman leaving her standing alone at one end of the room. Ratna went upto her and stood vis-a-vis at arms length from her. Suddenly he tilted his head back and looked up at a point right above his head. Immediately the heads of everyone in the room with the exception of the woman and one other looked up in the same direction.

At this very instant Ratna’s hands reached out and quickly jerked loose the woman’s cloth round her waist. As the cloth began to descend the woman gave a short yelp, at the same moment her arms shot down to retrieve her cloth which she managed to get hold of just before it fell down to her feet.

When the heads came down, the crowd saw the woman standing with her arms down adjusting her cloth round her waist. She had also stopped her chanting but was blushing furiously. Only one pair of eyes had witnessed the woman’s moment of cure - that of the Kattadi Mahatthaya.