af Sanal Edamaruku

Another dreadful creature has been terrifying North India this summer. In May last year, it had been the Monkey Man, who harassed the villages around New Delhi and was exposed by the Indian Rationalist Association as the collective product of a mass hysteria.

Recently, a new, though very similar monster appeared and stalked like Monkey Man’s reincarnation the neighboring state Uttar Pradesh. People called it Muhnochwa , the Face-Scratcher. It would reportedly dash down through the air in the dark of the night like a s mall UFO, emitting red and green beams, and hit people’s faces with steel claws, leaving deep scratches, bleeding and burning with pain. Panic spread like wild fire and so did rumors and theories. Activists of the Indian Rationalist Association visited Sitapur, Varanasi, Mirzapur and other places in the affected area and tried to find out what was going on.

Like the old Monkey Man, the creature seemed to have as many different shapes as there were witnesses. Talking to villagers, we got descriptions of a flying cushion, a flying cat, an airplane, a giant insect, a flying saucer and much more. As different as his shapes were the theories about the monster’s origin. Some of the most popular suspects behind the spook were furious ghosts, asocial elements, the Mafia, Pakistan’s intelligence agency and a "chemically engineered" insect.. It turned out to be very difficult to find actual witnesses, though there were many people everywhere, who knew somebody, who had encountered the creature. None of our volunteers could manage to cast a glance at the flying horror. It simply did not show up in their presence. The only objective view available was a 2-minutes video spot recorded in Mizrapur. It showed a beam of light moving in circles and vanishing in the dark again, while people were screaming in fear. This did actually not reveal much of the secret and could well have been a simple torchlight also.

People employed very different strategies to protect themselves from the Face-Scratcher. In Sitapur, temples started hectically to perform special pujas to keep the harasser away, as local tantriks claimed to know that he was sent by angry ghosts and restless souls, who had to be pacified with prayer ceremonies and sacrifices. In other places, the miraculous attacker was object of emergency meetings of village security committees. People stayed awake all night, sitting alert together in front of their houses, armed with oil lamps, rods, spades and even guns. A little noise or an unexpected flash of light sometimes triggered gunshots. The simple mentioning of the word “Muhnochwa” could cause panic.

There were, however, three things, which would safely keep the monster away: water, light and rationalists. All reported attacks happened during the drought in places without water storage depots and preferably during the long hours of power cut. And wherever a rationalist volunteer would join the vigil, engaging the villagers in constructive discussions about their situation and showing concern for their daily problems and sorrows, the night would surely pass without disturbance.

It was very fast clear for us that the Face-Scratcher, like the Monkey Man, existed only in people’s fantasy. He had as many different faces as there were fearful hallucinators. But wouldn’t there be somebody or something that triggered the hallucinations? And caused the wounds?

There were allegedly more than 70 victims of the fantastic attacker, but it was hard to get some of the much spoken about wounds to see. What we were finally shown was quite disappointing: some harmless and unspecific skin-deep scratches. Physicians, called in to investigate them, found them superficial and could not see any cause for the burning, which many victims claimed to suffer. They looked quite like those wounds which the infamous Monkey Man had “produced” and which the rationalists had been able to identify in all known cases as self-inflicted with fingernails, forks and other instruments. Most of the victims had been completely unaware what they had done – a well-known psychological phenomenon.

Upon a proposal of the Indian Rationalist Association, the government asked the Air Force to search the flying creature with the radar system of a nearby base – without any result. Some scientists, called in to investigate the case, came up with different theories about the monster’s origin. Most convincing – though finally not proven – was a hypothesis from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur. IIT-scientists proposed that the fast moving light, which people would observe before an attack, was caused by a rare meteorological phenomenon known as ball lightening . This can occur during drought, when earth particles, taken up by the wind, get electrically charged and appear in darkness as fast moving luminous balls. Hitting human skin, they would cause pain and irritation because of their acidic content. This was fitting very well to the descriptions, and under the given weather conditions during the long drought in the region quite possible. Though it seemed unlikely that the phenomenon occurred so frequently as attacks were reported, there could have been one initial event of ball lightening, which kicked off the chain of rumors, fantasies and reactions, or several events, here and there re-fuelling the mass hysteria. Possibly there have been also some other unusual phenomena, which contributed locally to the myth. In Lakhimpur, an unknown three-inches long insect with six claws was caught and declared the culprit. It was sent in a bottle to the zoological garden for investigation. Another face-scratcher was confiscated and publicly exhibited by the police in Lucknow. It was a flying object, constructed with a balloon, a kite and a small torch, which had been sent out by pranksters, who wanted to use the general fear for a joke.

Ball lightening, strange insects and kite-riding torches alone don’t make dreadful monsters. There was another very real factor incensing the horror fantasies. The Face-Scratcher raged during the peek of the drought in rural Uttar Pradesh, when many farmers feared for their future and desperation tuned into anger against a government, which did not offer any help and did not even provide regular power supply. Anxiety, tension and fury suddenly found a lightening-rod in the mysterious monster that appeared from nowhere. Emotions were running high. Irate mobs attacked several police stations, vandalized, burned vehicles and threw stones at policemen. In Sitapur, they vandalized a power station, when their demand for round-the-clock power supply was not met. People go berserk because the authorities don’t protect them from the Face-Scratcher, said a section of the press. Farmers revolt because the government ignores their existential needs, said others. It seemed to be difficult to find out what had there been first: the fantastic monster or the very real existential crisis and the government failure. The authorities had anyway some reason to welcome the flying scapegoat.

May be to wipe out any suspect, they tried their level best to escape rationalist criticism this time. During the Monkey Man affair, the rationalists’ had been the lone sane voice in a sea of confusion. While the Indian Rationalist Association firmly insisted in the media that there was no monster, only an explainable mass hysteria, noisy police patrols tried to catch the phantom in narrow village lanes. Motorcycle brigades and high tech equipped police troops of up to 5000 men hunted the fantasy creature across the capital. An award was promised for its capture. The authorities had earned harsh criticism from rationalists and media for provoking a dramatic escalation of the situation.

Now they seemed to have studied their lesson. There was no hectic monster hunt and no sensationalism. It was even reported that policemen distributed leaflets, informing that the monster was nothing but a rumor, caused by some unusual weather phenomenon. Such reports about laudable efforts to enlighten the furious villagers could, however, never be confirmed. The police leaflet remained as elusive as the monster itself.

Slowly panic came down, but the horrible Face-Scratcher was reluctant to leave the drought stricken villages completely. Only when the first showers of the long awaited monsoon watered the stone-dry fields, he disappeared as swift as he had emerged.

Læs osse: Muhnochwa

Kilde: Para-nyt 2002 nr. 5. Fra: Rationalist International Bulletin # 102 (19 September 2002)