This is a story that hangs between dream and reality. We read it as magical fiction, even though it is a real-life account
It was a freezing January night in 2008 when my friend Jan arrived from the US. We got home from the airport well past midnight and sat down to catch up over a drink. I had first met Jan in the summer of 2003. This dynamic American woman was tall, statuesque and strikingly beautiful. A good many years older than me, she emanated a very special wisdom.
“I have a little gift for you from Mexico,” she said and handed me a small package. I opened it, peeled away the layers of delicate tissue and, then, froze. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. How was it possible? My heart was racing wildly and from a distant haze, I could hear Jan’s worried, “Are you okay? Have I given you something that is culturally insensitive?” The voice got fainter, as I moved back in time.
Spring 1982. Kolkata. I am studying for my post-graduation but since the day happens to be my birthday, I decide to skip university. Glad to have the house to myself for once, after lunch I slowly drift into a state between wakefulness and sleep. Suddenly I hear a strange whirring of a table fan, it could be the spinning of a wheel too, with a rush of air, over my right shoulder. I open my eyes and before me, suspended in mid-air is a horrifying vision—a pendulous arm, palm downwards and fingers slightly splayed, cut off at an odd angle from the elbow. I try to get up but some unseen force holds me down. At first, I think I am dreaming. So I shut my eyes tight for a while and then open them again. The vision is still suspended in mid-air. I shut my eyes again. Slowly the sound fades, I find I can move again, and then it is all gone.
I remain in bed—my heart pounding frantically—thinking about the vision. As afternoon gives way to evening and my birthday party begins, I forget about it. But, that night, it returns. The same rush of air, the same feeling of being immobilized, the same vision, a muted glow illuminating the apparition in the dark. This time I am really scared. My sister is sleeping peacefully next to me, undisturbed by the whirring, metallic sound. Once again as the sound subsides, the vision disappears. I never see it again and over the years, it joins the pantheon of family ghost stories.
I was shaken out of my reverie by Jan’s voice: “Are you okay?” I nodded vaguely and looked at the gift I was holding. It was a miniature replica modelled out of clay of the vision I had seen–an arm cut off at an odd angle from the elbow, palm downwards and splayed fingers. I asked Jan to explain what it was.
Turns out, it was a Milagro, a talisman representing prayer for a particular part of the body. Since my hands represented work—my writing—she had got it for me. And she added that while concentrating on the talisman and praying, the devotee apparently turns a spinning wheel. While Jan explained the significance, my mind was frantically trying to fit the pieces together. Was that the sound that I had heard when I saw the vision? Why and how had I seen it, at a time when I had no idea something like this even existed? We had no television, no internet, our only contact with the outside world being through books and the radio then.
I looked up Milagro online and this is what it said: The word ‘Milagro’ means miracle and refers to an ancient aspect of Hispanic folk culture in New Mexico and elsewhere. Small silver or gold, or any other material, votive offerings in the shape of arms, legs, eyes and other body parts. In the classical sense, milagros (also known as ex-votos or dijes) are offered to a favourite saint as a reminder of the petitioner’s particular need, or in thanks for a prayer answered. If a friend is about to have an eye operation, the gift of an eye milagro helps to say, “I wish you well.” A pair of lungs can say, “I hope your cold gets better.” Milagros then are part of the magical and symbolic past common to all cultures which continues to influence our lives today.
The vision has returned to haunt me in today’s traumatic COVID world, when livelihoods, including mine, are at stake. Was it sent by some greater power who knew that I would have to shape my destiny with my own two hands, reinventing myself over and over again? Did I meet Jan so she could be the bearer of the Milagro? These are questions to which I have no real answers. The answers perhaps lie within me, just the ones that I want to hear, of my hands being blessed so I can rise like the proverbial phoenix once again—beating the beast that is the virus.