“Once a year,” we are told by the narrator, an unnamed Education Officer, “one Englishman visits Limbo, surrounded by clouds of insecticide through which can just be discovered the Union Jack. During this visit, Limbo is a part of the British Empire in India.” Essentially, however, Limbo follows its own rules. Anything good or bad that takes place can be quite easily explained by invoking the supernatural. “The headman was perfectly satisfied with being a Limbodian. He could explain everything in Limbodian terms. He had no use for any other. His society was closed, whole and eminently satisfactory.” No one here ever tells a lie, or even contemplates it, “because there was always a witch or a magician who could talk to the dead and find out the truth in no time”.
One of the richest premises for comedy is a situation where two people discuss a very serious and urgent subject but fail to get anywhere because, for all their eagerness to understand each other, they are talking at cross-purposes. The gap between their backgrounds, beliefs and cultural reference points is so large that there is no way of finding common ground. (One might say they are suspended in limbo.)
The Prevalence of Witches contains an extraordinary passage of black humour involving just such a conversation. The participants are a Limbodian village headman and an English administrator named Catullus; the former is patiently trying to explain how a witch goes about her spiteful work, why she must be interrogated by hanging her upside down and beating her, and why she may “choose” to be either alive or dead (not that there’s much difference between these two states of being, as far as witches are concerned – they are very troublesome creatures either way). The funniness of this passage comes from the growing perplexity and frustration of both parties, and Menen’s ability to make us empathize (to a degree) with both. We are not privy to Catullus’s inner thoughts, though we can imagine what they must be. Instead, our perspective throughout is that of the headman. From the time he sits down to tell his story, he is conscious that these strange, overdressed men might not properly understand him, so he tries to anticipate their reactions and speak in terms that would be clear to them – as if he were explaining the facts of life to children.
“Our village has a witch,” he began. “She is not one of the ordinary dirty witches that you meet anywhere. She is a very clever woman and always wears as many clothes as she can. She keeps the top half of her body covered even in the hottest weather.” He was immensely pleased with this beginning, and paused to admire the way he could adapt himself to any company.And the conversation goes on, becoming more and more complicated. I wish I could transcribe the whole chapter here – it’s a masterpiece of deadpan humour. The headman is convinced his listeners will be sympathetic to the idea that he and his men had severely beaten a woman until she “got annoyed” and “decided” to die just to teach everyone a lesson (and wreak even more mischief). Or that they held another woman’s head under the river until she “abandoned” her current body and enter the body of a dog sitting nearby. These are, after all, basic concepts – why do these white men look so confused when they hear about them?
“What is her name?” Catullus asked him.
“Have you brought her with you?”
“Where is she?”
“That is not easy to say.”
“Has she run away?”
“Oh no, not run away.”
“Very well, has she gone away?”
“No, in a sense, and then, yes, in a sense,” said the headman.
“Which? Yes or no?” asked Catullus.
“Both. She has been dead three years.”
“Please begin again, and at the beginning of your story,” said Catullus.
“Our village has a witch called Gangabai,” said the headman politely.
“Has? You mean your village had a witch,” Catullus corrected him.
“You are quite right,” said the headman, “Our village had a witch and she died, and now our village has a witch.”
“The same witch,” said the headman gravely, shaking his head.
Catullus leaned back in his chair.
“Perhaps you had better tell me the story in your own words.”
The headman agreed, but he privately told himself that he had no intention of doing so. It would be much too gross for these delicate (and, he was beginning to suspect, not very keen-witted) persons. He had to make the whole thing sound whimsical and gay, although it had really been very far from that. He wished these people could face the crude facts of living, but it was so clear that they could not.
Reading this passage and others like it, one might think that Menen’s intention is to poke fun at the superstitions of “primitive” people. But The Prevalence of Witches is consistently mindful of the hypocrisies of those who think of themselves as modern or progressive, and the often-dubious building blocks of what we call civilisation. (“When you come to the durbar,” the village headman tells Catullus, using an analogy to explain that some things are simply meant to be done in a certain way, “you wear gold and all the rest of us do not wear gold. When we examine a witch, she is upside down and all the rest of us are the right way up.”) Midway through the book, there’s a strange conversation between the headman and an American missionary named Small, who tries to explain concepts like the Christian God and church chandeliers in Limbodian terms, with funny – but also moving – results, so that by the end you're not sure which of the two men is more confident about his belief system.
Later, when the villagers are told that their children must go to school to learn to read, and that the Englishmen will provide them with books to read, the response is a reasonable, “Is that not like the man who gave a village a tiger and then gave the village a gun to shoot it with?” By the time a fake Swami arrives, dressed in a flowing white blouse tucked into a pair of khaki shorts (so that “he gave the appearance of a Boy Scout carrying a stained-glass window adorned with a picture of an Old Testament prophet, in such a manner that the scout was visible only from the waist downwards”), we begin to wonder if it isn’t best to leave Limbo to its own devices.
Menen isn’t exactly quick reading – his humour demands full concentration if you really want to savour it. Also, my attention wandered during a chapter where Catullus, the narrator and a couple of others indulge in long-winded philosophizing about matters of theology, authority and art. This bit read like something out of a much-too-explicit Novel of Ideas – it reminded me of the duller stretches of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. But mostly, The Prevalence of Witches is a very pleasing reminder of the lush, literate and merciless black comedy of an earlier time.
P.S. I also enjoyed Menen’s The Fig Tree, about a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who inadvertently grows a tree bearing figs that have strongly aphrodisiacal properties. It’s set in Italy and makes fun of cardinals, dictators, ministers, and people generally. Can’t complain about that.