One wise saying has this for people to ponder over: you fear what you don’t know. And if there is one stage of life where fear plays a central part, it is the world of childhood where in each one of us try to make sense of the outer world. The growing up years is when we want to explore our surroundings yet scared to step out. It is also the stage when grown up people in their own beliefs of protecting us or trying to steer us out of trouble, tend to fill our ears with stories of doom and punishment. I am pretty sure that most our parents or family elders used the medium of stories to scare the living day lights out of children in the belief that they would be more obedient (with the threat of punishment with “proof” from stories).
The scare factor in my younger years was Tapta. Looking at the story now, one cannot help but be impressed by the very basic premise of Tapta: a creature that does not exist with the two main protagonists (the tiger and the thief) both believing the worst of this non-existing creature. But the narrative power of the story when the mother trying to soothe down her wailing baby says “tapta laak ae” (Tapta has come) and the immediate aftermath of the child stopping its wails immediately builds up the suspense of this “creature” and how hideous and mean it would be in its appearance. Lai khutshaangbi was another creature who made the windows in our house assume a very terrifying structure. The thought of a long stretchable arm that would swoop down on “children who do not behave” looked like a reality given my rebellious nature. Since there were no comic books then with local fables, it was our imaginations that drew our own mental pictures of the ogress with the stretchable arms. For me, she was someone with bloodshot eyes, unkempt straw like hair and hands that would go on and on. I remember a part of me trying to visualize how she would have rested her long arms when she tried to sleep. My imagination failed me but made up with the heart stopping terror of being lifted away. When my grand father told me that the “red” patch that we find in sugarcane is actually the blood of the lai khutshangbi after a father of a child cut her arms off, it bred more questions for me: would her arms grow back? No one gave me any answer and that scared me further. Thinking of an injured ogress meant conjuring the image of a very angry woman who would want revenge!
Yet, Tapta and Lai khutshaangbi sounded more mythical but with Churanthaaba, it was a different chapter altogether. Here was another entity whose features we were not told about, a being who was supposed to go about with a huge sack to collect unruly children. One major concern that occupied a lot of thought was what would happen to the children so caught. But the scariest “explanation” about what happened to the children caught by Churanthaaba was that they were being used as sacrifices while building huge bridges. The elders in the family said that Thong Nambobi (the humped bridge that connects Waheng Leikai with the bazaar area) was full of children!
I can only laugh at my naiveté then. Yet, the fear of these entities were more or less shared by many of our generation and earlier. With later generations of children bred on story-books and fables, the terror made out by fictional characters just does not stay since they would discover much earlier in life that they were make belief. With TV and cartoon shows and video games exposing them to visual imagery, they did not have their imaginations creating a greater atmosphere of fear. They have no baggage of heart stopping terror of the unknown. Rather, they come up with startling conjectures. I remember my now 6-year-old son coming back from his school about a year ago. He looked very excited as he blurted it all out in a rush, “Mama, Tapta does exist! He sings songs. One is called ‘sambru’ (mole)!” He was connecting the fictional Tapta with the singer’s artistic identity and that was his discovery for me to acknowledge.
Child psychologists may not approve of the tendency of parents and elders to tell children about scary characters or stories. Also, there is a certain feeling of being let down when we discover that our elders have often lied to us to make us behave for often, the stories were not often told as mere stories. Rather, they were used to scare us into “behaving”. Of course, it is now a different story altogether for the children we see around us now. Their world reflects the environment around them. The sad reality for them though is that their world of bandhs, blockades, murder, gun violence and more is scarier than the make belief characters our own parents told us about.