Black cats and Zaheer Abbas’s cracked bat
The great Zaheer Abbas, “Khawaja” to all his teammates or “Z,” resembled Papa Hemingway in one respect only. Like the maestro, he was superstitious. While Papa always carried a rabbit’s foot in his pocket (not very lucky for the poor rabbit whose foot it was), Zaheer had his lucky shirts, his lucky cap and his lucky bat. Once in the middle of what looked like a marathon innings – few batsmen could slaughter spinners as he could – he realised after executing one of his deft strokes that a crack had appeared in his bat. With the utmost reluctance and a sense of foreboding, he raised it high over his head, waving it towards the pavilion. Within minutes the 12th man ran in carrying a couple of bats. Zaheer, by now looking crestfallen, selected one as if it were a slimy, slithering snake. He also whispered to the departing 12th man: “That’s the end. Bad omen.” He was right. He was out in the next over to a ball that even “Shortcut” Aziz could have lobbed into the crowd.
Is Z still superstitious? I wouldn’t know since I haven’t been within silly mid-on distance of him for years. One can assume he is and no harm in that either. How many people would not walk under a ladder if they could help it; or cross the path that a big black cat has just shot across; or not feel the approach of something untoward at the repeated twitching of the left eye; or expect money to be on its way when the right palm itches. Even those who are not superstitious try to play it safe and not invite the displeasure of the dark gods by crossing a black cat’s path. Card players and gamblers like sportsmen are superstitious. I knew someone who would begin losing while on a winning streak, the moment a fellow player asked him for a loan. “That is my end,” he would exclaim and I cannot remember an occasion when it wasn’t.
Indians and Pakistanis are by no means the world’s most superstitious people. In Scotland it is believed that it is unlucky while making a bed to leave the work before it is completed. An interruption will cause the occupant of the bed to pass a sleepless night or maybe something much worse. It was once believed in England that if a woman completes a patchwork quilt all by herself, she would never be married. Also, as long as there was an unfinished bedspread in the house, no one there would be married. May I suggest that the government make this a part of its family planning programme since nothing else has worked. On the subject of beds, there are many in Blighty who believe that if you change your bed sheets on a Friday, the devil takes control of your dreams for the rest of the week.
Next time you see a button lying on the road, pick it up, but only if it has four holes as anything less or more will not bring good luck. The itching of the eye as an indicator of something to come has been believed for more than 2,000 years. Theocritus in Idylls writes: “My right eye itches now, and shall I see my love?” In Shakespeare’s Othello we come across: “Mine eye doth itch, Doth that bode weeping?” To show how contradictory superstitious beliefs can be, at one time it was believed in parts of England that “when the right eye itches, the party affected will shortly cry; if the left, they would laugh.” And in some parts of the country it was and probably still is believed that “the right eye itching is a sign of coming laughter; the left eye, of tears.” So next time your left or right eye itches, pick the good superstition. I heard in my childhood that a girl who is fond of polishing off what sticks to the bottom of a handi will have rain on her wedding day. I am sure there are many who still believe that. And who knows, it might even be true, so ladies out there who plan to get hitched one day, do leave that handi alone if you want your wedding day to be sunny.
Take sneezing. The most common belief is that when you sneeze, it is because someone is thinking of you. The commonsense explanation that you may be catching a cold has few takers. You also hear people say when someone sneezes in their presence, “Bless you,” something dating back to antiquity because a sneeze was associated with a dread disease. In Wales it was believed that sneezing to the right is lucky, to the left unfortunate and right in front of you means that good news is on the way. Some believe that if you sneeze before breakfast, you will get a present that day. There are thousands of soothsayers, star gazers, palm readers, sorcerers, black magic breakers, divines, pirs , sadhus and sufis who operate with utter impunity in Pakistan, robbing the innocent and the credulous. So many of our people living abroad continue to be duped by them, going by advertisements that appear in community papers.
Robert Green Ingersoll, an American author, wrote a pamphlet in 1898 which remains one of the most rational treatments of the subject of superstition. This excerpt, for example: “Now no man in whose brain the torch of reason burns, no man who investigates, who really thinks, who is capable of weighing evidence, believes in signs, in lucky or unlucky days, in lucky or unlucky numbers. He knows that Fridays and Thursdays are alike; that thirteen is no more deadly than twelve. He knows that opals affect the wearer the same as rubies, diamonds or common glass. He knows that the matrimonial chances of a maiden are not increased or decreased by the number of leaves of a flower or seeds in an apple. He knows that a glance at the moon over the left shoulder is as healthful and lucky as one over the right. He does not care whether the first comer to a theatre is cross-eyed or hump-backed, bow-legged, or as well-proportioned as Apollo. He knows that a strange cat could be denied asylum without bringing any misfortune to the family. He knows that an owl does not hoot in the full of the moon because a distinguished man is about to die. He knows that comets and eclipses would come if all the folks were dead. He is not frightened by sun dogs, or the Morning of the North when the glittering lances pierce the shield of night. He knows that all these things occur without the slightest reference to the human race. He feels certain that floods would destroy and cyclones rend and earthquakes devour; that the stars would shine; that day and night would still pursue each other around the world; that flowers would give their perfume to the air, and light would paint the seven-hued arch upon the dusky bosom of the cloud if every human being was unconscious dust. A man of thought and sense does not believe in the existence of the Devil. He feels certain that imps, goblins, demons and evil spirits exist only in the imagination of the ignorant and frightened. He knows how these malevolent myths were made.”
But do still watch out for that black cat.