It is often the fear of the unknown that lies at the core of a horror story. The element of horror is mostly used in order to keep the dust under the rug. This maintenance of the status quo may look like a piece of cake but believe me, it does not taste so sweet. It was this fear of the unknown, the anticipation of what or of who that looming figure might be, that had crawled its way into my psyche as a child. My elders had very craftily conjured up a monster without any head, in order to prevent me from going outside. As soon as the clock would strike 12, this headless monster would slowly creep into my imagination and spread its tentacles of fear, holding me in a mixed state of thrill, curiosity, and terror till the sun went down.
The tale of this headless monster was narrated to me during a hot summer day when I was about six or seven. Summer vacations were on and I had gone to my grandmother’s home where all my cousins had gathered. It was a really hot day, the sun was directly over my head in the clear blue sky but I really wanted to go outside and play with this cute yellow ball that my mother had given me. Since I was the youngest in the entire family, I was not allowed to be a part of the older children’s group. It is because they thought that I would get hurt playing with them and a scolding would soon follow. Most of the time, I would play by myself or with my cousin, let’s name him Ujjwal, who was just a year older than me. But due to some reason he had not come to our grandmother’s home that time. I was left all alone. And that yellow ball was the only companion throughout. I used to throw the ball against the coconut tree in front of my house, pick it up, and then throw it again. It was something I would do religiously, which had developed into a habit, Proust’s “skilful but slow moving arranger”.
I adored this game so much that even though it was really hot that day, I insisted on going outside. I think my constant pleading got into my elders’ nerves, so one of my elder cousins took me to the door and it was then and there that the tale of the headless monster was unraveled before me. She started narrating the story with the dramatic gestures and pauses which a six year old definitely fell for. She referred to this headless monster as Murkatta. According to her, Murkatta roamed during the day looking for kids my age so as to steal our heads. I was scared so I went inside and asked my other cousins about this headless monster. All of them verified the story and added their share of dramatic acts to it.
In my imagination the headless monster somewhat resembled Shaktiman’s anti-hero Tamraj Kilvish, without his head, of course. It was not until recently that I got to know that it is Tamraj Kilvish not Samrat Kilvish. I had that “my whole life was a lie” moment here. The Murkatta of my imagination resembled Kilvish probably because my cousins often mimicked Kilvish’s famous lines “Andhera kaayam rahe” (“May darkness prevail”), which scared and thrilled me at once. I, being the youngest of all children, was always the lab rat for my cousins’ mischievous tricks. So, whatever tricks they played on me never bothered me because it was one of the only ways that made me feel included in that group of so-called adults.
Basically, for me, Murkatta was this headless monster dressed in Kilvish’s black robe with a cape along with a sack in his hand containing heads of children who were ignorant enough to play in the sun.
This tale did prevent me from going outside. But being the curious child that I was, I used to look at the sky during the day from the safe space of my window to see for any signs of this headless monster, so as to take a good shot at it. A part of me knew that I might regret looking up because I was strictly told to steer clear of Murkatta’s way. But there was a loophole in my elders’ directions, they never told me to completely lock myself in and not try to find out Murkatta’s whereabouts. And obviously, I was curious for they had not provided me with enough details to ponder on. So, I started painting my own details of the headless monster and his hunts in my mind and projected it onto the clear blue sky.
For some reason I assumed that Murkatta had the power of flight and that I would be able to challenge him from my window as he could not harm me in my home. Because if the elders insisted on me staying home, then it obviously meant that it is protected by some sort of magical power that will definitely keep Murkatta at bay. But the more stronger feeling of safety came from my assumption that I would be within my family’s earshot. And even if Murkatta dared to somehow cross the boundary, I would call on my father and hide behind my mother’s pallu.
It really took me some time to come to terms with the fact that Murkatta did not exist, that it was just a narrative spun by my elders which went on to take such a significant place in my imagination. Later on, my elders would laugh the whole narrative off when I complained and questioned their mean behaviour of scaring me to the very core as a child.
Years later, even after realising the falsity of this story, my habit of looking up at the sky during the day did not go away. I still do it, obviously not looking for Murkatta anymore, maybe just to admire the sky.
While writing about my experience, I had a conversation with my elder sister regarding Murkatta. She said that she was told the same narrative of this headless monster but her imagination was slightly different from mine. It really amused me. For my sister, Murkatta was used as a ruse to make her fall asleep. When she was around six years old, we lived as a joint family in my grandmother’s home. After school, my mother would cradle my sister to sleep and then she would leave for work. Sometimes my sister would wake up before the sun went down and in order to prevent her and other children from waking up, the elders would instruct them to go back to sleep, because if they did not, then Murkatta would come and take away their heads. This very thought scared her, however, her inquisitive mind made her sneak out, up to the main gate, so as to secretly take a look at Murkatta.
The day when my sister faced Murkatta, or at least she thought she did, remained etched in her mind. She saw an old man wearing a white kurta, white lungi, and a white turban. Very swiftly, she associated all the things white with ghosts. This man was actually a vendor of puffed-rice and chips. And in order to make his sale more fun and interesting for kids, he would wear the chips on his fingers. But my sister imagined those chips to be his claws which made her run back to the safety of elders. She swore never again to leave her bed during the day. Later on, whenever someone mentioned Murkatta, she would imagine the head of that old man wearing a white turban and his hands with finger chips floating in air.
I found her version of the Murkatta story really interesting as it was in contrast with my version in so many ways. There were such stark differences, the colour of Murkatta’s robes, her imagining his floating head while I imagined his headless body in the sky. But even with these differences, the story perfectly did its job for my elders, of preventing us from going outside during the day.
And I admit that during my years as a teen, my so-called adult life, I had also used the Murkatta story to make my niece and nephew fall asleep, to maintain that status quo which my elders did all these years. Now that I am actually an adult, I realise the impact it had on me, the impact it might still have on the younger members of my family. And to some extent I do realise the meanness and absurdity of it all, of how these tricks worked well to keep the children from certain things but also how these events might remain forever with some, instilling various fears and terrors in their minds. Well, it would be an interesting venture to know about their versions of and encounters with Murkatta, the headless monster who continues to live in our imaginations, who refuses to fade away completely, arresting us still in that slight moment of terror and curiosity.
Hello, I’m Saundarya. I am presently a Junior Research Fellow, pursuing M.Phil. from Department of English, University of Delhi. My areas of interest include Dalit Literature, Women Studies and Cultural Studies.
In my spare time, I pick up my brush in an attempt to paint almost anything and everything.