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No conical hat, no broom
Courtesy: The Hindu - February 4, 2004

Every strong woman is a witch, says one of the more famous practitioners of the art of Wicca

YOU COULD be called a matagati or a dayan and be burnt alive. Or, you could be called an enchantress and enlighten an audience on the art of Wicca. Whether you speak a coarse Bihari dialect or English with all diphthongs in place could make all the difference.

Ipsita Roy Chakraverti knows this. "I had the social and economic padding and I decided to use it," she says, talking of her decision in 1986 to "declare" herself a witch. Ipsita was investigating some cases of witch-hunts in West Bengal (at the behest of the Vivekananda Foundation) when she made the decision. That way, women would talk more freely and men wouldn't dare cross her path "because of the clout". It helps when you have a highly placed bureaucrat for a father and minor royal for a mother.
Ipsita Roy Chakraverti: `Wicca is the first feminist movement in history.' -- Photos: K. Gopinathan

But it wasn't a just a convenient and fancy title. Ipsita has been a practitioner of Wicca or witchcraft since her teens. At Montreal, Canada, she became a member of the Society for the Study of Ancient Cultures and Civilisations, and came to be "trained and disciplined in the ways of the pagan monastic".

"It started as an academic curiosity," Ipsita says. But she was more and more convinced of Wicca as she studied it deeply. "It includes both scientific facts and old lore. We studied Carol Gustav Jung because Wicca means studying various layers of the human mind," says Ipsita, pulling her black "cape of Athena" that she wears over her black sari closer to her. Black is the "colour of enigma and dignity... things a woman should always wrapped in".

Her teacher in Canada had said when she left the monastery: "Surround and protect yourself with the inscrutability of the midnight." She also told her that Wicca is a way of life: living life to the full, even while preserving a spiritual detachment from it all. "It means being both a participant and an observer of one's own life... It means ripping away social conditioning and gender limitations..." Ipsita argues that Wicca is the oldest women-oriented branch of learning and the first feminist movement in history. She points out that while a male witch doctor (ojha) is revered, a woman is burnt alive for the same reason to this day in States such as Bihar. The witch doctor decides punishment for someone accused of being a witch. Ipsita closes her eyes and says with a flourish: "Every strong woman is a witch." She has, in fact, decided to call her next book that.

But how does our society look at a strong woman, a witch at that? Despite occasional brickbats (some literally!), Ipsita has been lucky, thanks to her privileged background and the liberal attitude of her family. After initial hesitation, her parents let her be. Ipsita's husband, also a bureaucrat, who first thought it was just a "Hansel and Gretel sort of fancy", later realised that she was serious. "I don't think he regrets having a witch for a wife," laughs Ipsita, "though I never quite fit into bureaucrats' wives' kitty party circuit!"
So, Ipsita has always experimented with just about everything, from painting to politics. After graduating from college, she painted "canvases after canvases, completely on a whim". And people praised her "excellent sense of colour". She has travelled a long way from there and is now the Secretary of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee. She has contested and lost an election, and done some farming in between.

Through all this, Ipsita has kept at Wicca, writing a book or two about it. Her recent book, Sacred Evil (which she released in Bangalore), talks about her encounters with the unknown, the "X-Factor". She picks nine cases she has dealt with, describes the sequence of events in long-drawn detail, and rounds it off with some of her own observations, sometimes quasi-psychological.
The stories are the stuff of horror movies. If you have gone to sleep reading her story on the voodoo doll, your daughter's rag doll in the corner of the door might scare you when you wake up the middle of the night for a glass of water just as every innocent's child's face scared you after watching The Exorcist. What makes the voodoo doll episode scarier is that it is supposed to be "real".

Why scare people and further superstitions? Ipsita protests. She has herself fought against tantric cults that believe in human sacrifices and so on. And there is no quarrel in her own scheme of things between logic and the unknown, since she never lets either rule her life entirely. "Superstition is a vague word... If you cling too much to logic, you are robbed of the beauty and adventure of life," she argues. Logic, no doubt, can't explain all there is to life. But one wonders if hardheaded rationalists are more needed in the land of godmen, various varieties of soothsayers, Banamathi practitioners...

But Ipsita inhabits another world despite being a grassroots politician and a potato-growing farmer where experiments with the unknown do not come at the cost of daily bread or even life itself. They, in fact, take on a poetic dimension and become explorations of "the essence of us, that delicate arm of smoke at dusk which encircles in muted shades of violet."

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