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Thumbs Up, Fingers Crossed And Touchwood

We all have days when everything seems to run smoothly and we are able to surmount all the obstacles and accomplish the toughest task with effortless ease. On such days, even the seemingly impossible feat becomes possible, prompting us to exclaim - "Wow! Today's my lucky day!!!!" But even before the sentence is over, we hastily add, "Touch wood!" Actually, almost everyday, even in most sophisticated homes people use expressions or do things that has its origin in some bewildering folk tale. Even though you may acknowledge that a habit like knocking wood is totally inconsistent with scientific reasoning, yet out of habit you continue to reach for wood every time you feel the need for warding off evil forces. You may try to dismiss off your act by saying, "Oh, it's nothing - just an old habit," but when pressed further you may come clean and admit with a slightly embarrassed smile, "Yes, I'm a bit superstitious."

Superstitions are an ancient part of our human heritage. Shaped by centuries of folk tales, superstitions continue to occupy a prominent place in our day-to-day life. Bad-luck superstitions still keep many people from walking under a ladder or boarding a plane on Friday the thirteenth. In Russia people look in the mirror and stick out their tongue if they forget something and have to return for it. Praising a Russian girl on her looks will prompt her to (passers-by beware!) spit over her left shoulder three times. The spitters and knockers do not believe that they are scaring demons away with their action. But out of habit, for fear of tempting fate or just to be on the safe side, they keep doing it.

Even in this revolutionary age of computers and Internet, there are many among us who use these high-tech devices to calculate their lucky or unlucky numbers and surf through the cyberspace to know what the stars have to say about their future. Ask Reshma George - a 19-year old student of Business Administration, who always consults books on numerology and astrology before taking any important decision. Reshma firmly believes in lucky numbers, and to corroborate her point she cites the example of her XII standard board results. "I scored good marks in all those papers that took place on my lucky days," she informs. As far as lucky numbers are concerned, Reshma goes to the examination hall with full preparation. "Oh yes, I have my lucky desk, lucky room, lucky roll number - even lucky teacher." "Lucky teacher?" you ask a tad incredulously, and she hastily explains that a lucky teacher is someone whose date of birth numerologically adds up to a lucky digit.

A year ago, Reshma bought a Nissan 2000 model for herself and chose the 18th edition of the car, because the number eighteen is supposedly her lucky number. Her father met with an accident while driving her new car, her mother too had a serious accident while riding in the same car on a separate occasion. Reshma herself recently met with an accident while driving it and yet, despite this spate of accidents she firmly maintains that the car is lucky for her. "Look, it was such a serious accident that I could've been killed. My car was totally smashed, but I survived without even getting a scratch - so don't you agree that it is a lucky car?" reasons Reshma in her bid to convince. And then, she goes on to add, "Actually I met with the accident in the first place because a black cat had crossed my path that morning."

So here it comes - another age-old superstition - the fear of black cats crossing one's path. Reshma goes out her way to avoid a path if she sees a cat - any cat, running across it. And she is in distinguished company. Napoleon too suffered from a pathological fear of black cats. Like Napoleon, Ingi too runs a mile when she spots a cat, but her fear of cats has got nothing to do with any superstitious belief. Turkish by birth, this 19-year-old has spent all her growing years in the Middle East, and hence is quite familiar with the local traditions and beliefs. According to her, all cats, including black ones, were held in high esteem among the ancient Egyptians and were revered rather than feared.

Even though Ingi is fully conversant with many local superstitions, she displays no inclination to follow them. "People say you must enter a room with your right foot foremost. Now tell me - who has got the time to pause and decide which foot to place forward before entering a room? It's simply not practical - I've neither the time nor the patience to put such ridiculous superstition into practice," states Ingi. Rachana Sharma, 17, seconds Ingi's opinion when she observes, "It is, at times, silly to follow beliefs that make no sense. Many people believe that once a person steps out of the house, you should not call him back. I, for one, will not think twice before calling the person back if it is something urgent." However, after a moment's hesitation, Rachana admits that she too, at times tends to be slightly superstitious. For instance, she has a lucky pen, which she uses exclusively for writing all her papers during examination.

Rehana Kitchilan, an 18-year-old Sri Lankan, has no compunction in admitting that back home in Sri Lanka, she has grown up in an atmosphere where superstitions prevailed. "My grandparents in Sri Lanka would not let me leave my hair loose after sunset, because according to them long tresses tends to attract the devil. They even forbade me from eating any fried stuff before venturing out, saying this would invite the devil to hit me on the back." Even though she has grown up with these beliefs, Rehana is quick to dismiss them off as unscientific and illogical. "When I'm with my grandparents, I obey their instructions out of respect and regard for them. But here in the UAE, I don't follow their impractical advice. In fact, during picnics and barbecues we even fry fish and chicken outdoors, and so far no devil has attacked us. Actually, it's all in one's mind," concludes Rehana as she shrugs her shoulders to emphasise her point.

Talking to Ingi, Rachana, and Rehana makes you realise that most youngsters these days are not overtly enthusiastic about superstitions. Girls no longer delightedly shriek "two for joy", when they spot a pair of maynah birds. Nor do they jump with fear every time they spot a black cat. Practical, pragmatic and rational, the modern-day-teens seem to have done with illogical beliefs and irrational fears that plagued the people belonging to the older generations. Shaheen Khalid, 18, puts this tendency down to the fact that more and more educated parents discourage their children from following superstitions. "I've always been discouraged by my teachers and parents to believe in superstition. The fact that I've been brought up by parents who are educated and enlightened has shaped my thought-process and influenced the way I feel about such things."

Mohammad Anis has some strong opinions on the subject. He feels that only those who do not have faith and lack education clutch onto such Stone Age, orthodox notions. He himself has no time for such irrational beliefs. Superstitions, given their irrational nature, have receded with the arrival of education and advance in the field of science and technology. With the advent of satellite channels and the Internet, things are so fast-paced these days that most youngsters have no time for following outdated beliefs that have their roots in some prehistoric folklore. Moreover, unlike their parents' generation, most teens nowadays tend to argue, debate, dispute and question things rather than meekly obey whatever they're asked to do. To a sceptical teen with a discerning mind, there seems to be no logical reason why a wishbone symbolises good-luck while a broken mirror augurs the opposite.

Torn between the scientific reasoning and the age-old beliefs, some youngsters may still cling onto superstitions, while viewing them with a great deal of scepticism at the same time. Some, on the other hand, may continue to cross their fingers, give a thumbs up sign or knock on the wood out of sheer habit, without taking these gestures very seriously or giving them more than a passing thought. However, going by what most teenagers have to say about superstitions - it seems very likely that in the coming generations, more and more people will have less and less inclination for following these age-old beliefs.

So until then - thumbs up, fingers crossed and touch wood.

Chandana Roy
Courtesy: Telelife

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