Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, India’s first ‘out’ witch, describes her first brush with the supernatural as one that didn’t make sense when it happened. “I would observe the visitors who came to my house and would be surprised to see that I could see another print on their faces,” says Chakraverti over the phone from Kolkata, “I was to realise later that I could see their past lives. I think my attunement with nature was always there.” She has grown acutely conscious of being surrounded by the supernatural since then.
Recently, she had to let go of her dog Kalu. It was suffering old-age illnesses. But even after it died, she says it continued to follow her around. “I would often see its paw prints on the floor leading to my study and smell its wet fur next to me,” in her words. “Outsiders would comment on the paw prints as well.
The dog was as attached to me as I was to it. I feel that it never really left me. It may not have been my first encounter with the supernatural, but to my mind it was one of the most touching. It also proved that just like humans, animals have spirits too.”
A Wiccan high priestess, Chakraverti is out with her third book, Spirits I Have Known, published by HarperCollins. Before this, she wrote Sacred Evil, which talks about her time as a Wiccan healer, and Beloved Witch, her autobiography. Spirits is a collection of Chakraverti’s case files: the story of an ageing actress obsessed with a mannequin replica of herself, a grieving husband trying to contact his wife’s spirit, a young woman haunting a famous hotel in Puri, among others. Many of these cases Chakraverti picked up from her travels around the country, trying to help people out, be it people who felt haunted or women ostracised on allegations of occult practices. In Beloved Witch, she talks about village women being branded ‘witches’ and burnt to death. “Most areas [in India] are male dominated, and various lobbies, including politicians, use superstition to play upon the vulnerabilities of rural people,” says Chakraverti.
Wiccans believe in pagan gods and the ritual practice of magic. At a young age, Chakraverti had sensed she was different, but didn’t let it faze her. She says she had a strong sense of selfhood, of a superiority drawn from her “background, intelligence, looks and special abilities”. Her mother was of a royal family and her father was a diplomat. It exposed her to subcultures in other parts of the world. She was drawn to the Wicca in Canada and realised that this was her calling. In 1986, she declared herself a Wiccan witch. “The Wicca taught me that my mind was more focused than others. I could align myself with natural forces, which gave me an edge over other people. I could exert an influence over a person if I so desired. At the same time, I had in me a certain detachment, which made me indifferent to things most people craved.”
Some of the stories in Spirits are as startling as they are engrossing. ‘The Spirit Machine’ is about a gadget designed to communicate with the world of spirits. “Almost a hundred years ago,” she says, “Thomas Edison had allegedly invented [this] machine. He considered it part of the natural. It reaches out to another dimension. It picks up soundwaves and voices from the other side. And no, we are not imagining it.” A few years ago in Kolkata, Chakraverti had used this machine to check if the claim was correct. More recently, she tried to recreate its components for an experiment in contacting the supernatural.
The story titled ‘Mannequin’ is especially dear to Chakraverti. In it, the ageing actress who is obsessed with staying young takes to an ancient Hebrew craft. She creates a Golem to bring her youth back. But instead, it unleashes sinister powers. “I finally had to intervene to help her ground herself and help her unleash herself from the vicious circle she had got herself into,” she says. The Golem is also present in another story, a Slavic folktale called ‘The Clay Boy’; a lonely couple fashion a child out of clay. The child does not stop growing, eats all their food, livestock, and then the parents.
In Kolkata, Chakraverti runs the Wiccan Brigade, which offers lessons on Wiccan philosophy and how to use them for larger purposes. This way, she and her students aim to eradicate superstition. “In my Wiccan Brigade, I have started a wing for psychic investigation,” Chakraverti says. “We have visited spots in the country considered haunted, including Bhangarh [a fort said to be haunted] in Rajasthan. We attempt to find out the truth behind myths. Our work is not only to investigate but also analyse and sift the truth from gimmickry. We follow the path of mystics like Sri Aurobindo as well as scientists such as Edison. I know many orthodox organisations are outraged that anything Wiccan can be so ‘scientific’. It takes the wind out of their superstitious sails.”
Chakraverti has faced flak ever since she declared herself a witch a quarter century ago. The Chief Minister of West Bengal at the time, Jyoti Basu, even led protests against her. Her second book was made into a movie starring Sarika called Sacred Evil. Before its release, a petition was filed with the Censor Board that called the certificate it was granted ‘unethical’. But according to Wikipedia, the Board let the film pass, saying, ‘We are very careful when we screen sensitive movies. But, there is nothing in the movie that is objectionable, or will hurt the sentiments of the community in question.’
Recently, Chakraverti had a spat with Ekta Kapoor over the representation of a witch in the Balaji-produced film Ek Thi Daayan. “It showed women in a superstitious and degrading light, and those women were being called witches. It was promoting superstition, which is already a bane in our country, and its initial promos were calling these ‘true life’ incidents, which was later changed to ‘fictional’. In a country where the National Crime Records show more than 800 women killed as ‘witches’ between 2008 and 2012, I felt it was irresponsible of the filmmakers to project women in [such] demeaning light… As a person who has studied and lived the true Wicca [life], I could not permit this.”
Asked if the supernatural has ever scared her, she says, “No.” It is the real world and its evils that scare her. She just wants her readers to know that the supernatural is part of our daily lives. “Spirits co-exist with us at all times. The dimensions are blending and overlapping. There may be a spirit sitting next to you right now.”