Salt Over Your Shoulder

Holding a broken mirror up to superstition.

At my bachelors’ graduation I am two rows from the stage, where students congregate and adjust their tassels in those fraught moments before their names ring out in the hall, and I watch as one woman points at another, whose sparkly shoes, open-toed with a pencil heel, are peeking out from beneath her gown. She gushes, ‘I love your shoes’. The woman with the shoes thanks her, beaming, and moments later when it is her turn to collect her diploma, she takes four or five steps across the stage before her right shoe completely disintegrates. As in, the heel unglues itself from the sole; as in, the dismembered part flails with every subsequent step and she is stumbling, contorting her foot and straining her toes to traverse the last few metres before she can escape the horrified stares, hundreds of students and parents gawking at their worst nightmare realised, silently anguishing, dear God, won’t someone help her?

Once it is finally over and she limps out from beneath the lights and rips off both her shoes on the stairs, my friend, whose wide eyes are transfixed on her even as she rushes barefoot to her chair (whereas I’ve looked away, I cannot bear it), leans over to me and whispers, ‘I’ve never seen nazar work so fast’.

I remember nodding sombrely at the remark. Nazar, or the ‘evil eye’, is the ancient superstition that envy, or an onslaught of praise, can curse an unsuspecting victim. Most cultures hold some version of the idea, though the specifics differ depending on who you ask. Symptoms of such a curse include, but aren’t limited to, fever, headaches, lack of appetite, fading beauty, car accidents, losing your job, filing for bankruptcy and getting a divorce.

Some Trinis will pinch you after giving you a compliment to scupper the effects of maljo. Nazar amulets, cobalt glass ornaments in the shape of an eye, are sold as protective charms across markets in Turkey. When I ask my Kyrgyz friend how people reverse koz monchok, she sounds concerned until I explain. ‘Ah, OK. I was thinking someone cursed you.’ You might know it as mal de ojo (Spanish) or al-‘ayn (Arabic) or mati (Greek). You might think it is negative energy, or a message from the universe, or an elusive case of ‘bad vibes’. If the woman with the shoes hadn’t just been complimented on them, would those very same shoes have spontaneously unravelled, right when she needed them the most? To that I say: sure, almost definitely, yes. But?

I am not a superstitious person, but to be clear, I am not entirely un-superstitious either. I grew up in a Bengali household where, next to hooks holding ladles, spatulas and whisks, my mother hung up a string of garlic cloves and dried red chillies to ward off ‘evil spirits and bad luck’. Superstitions, as I know them, transgress the laws of man and Abrahamic God; they are a special syntax used to express the uncanny, to magically think up meaning from chaos.

There are, of course, derogatory connotations to admitting you’re (even slightly) a believer. You must be gullible, feeble-minded. The kind of person that cult leaders and terrorist groups bank on. A right fucking schmuck. When I ask my mother if she’s superstitious, she waves me off, ‘I don’t believe all that’. I gently point out that whenever she suspects one of us has been afflicted by nazar, she likes to burn an odd cluster of dried chillies on an open flame as part of a healing ritual (when the chilli seeds pop loudly, it means it’s working). She retorts, indignantly, ‘well, that’s for safety’.

Most superstitious adages lay dormant in the mind. In my family, they were offered up as insights or soft guidelines, never truly enforced. An owl’s hoot heard at night is bad luck, but rain on your wedding day is good. Odd numbers are unlucky in general – whenever my cousin, Aqib, was spanked once for misbehaving as a child, he would beg to be spanked again. A saying goes in Bangla: eat in even mouthfuls otherwise you’ll drown in the Ganges. Astonishingly, this is one I’ve somewhat internalised, despite the glaring facts that I can swim and have never seen the Ganges. Don’t eat off a chipped plate. If you drop your hairbrush in the middle of brushing your hair, expect guests. I knock on wood after voicing a wish, or a fear, and urge the person I’ve said it to, to do the same. There are things that have been omitted from this essay because I don’t want to jinx them.

When leaving the house, walk out with your right foot first, never your left. In fact, quite a few have to do with braving the outside world. If you’re almost out the front door and somebody calls out your name from behind, don’t go – wait an indeterminate amount of time first. And for God’s sake, if you want to make it back home, don’t say ‘I’m going out’ as you leave; say ‘I’ll be back later’. It has always been clear to me that these are not actual doctrines, but modest appeals for protection against the unknown. If you followed them, you were merely attempting to plot safe passage from this moment to your next.

Do not misunderstand me, I think that severe preoccupation with any superstitious thought is likely a sign of brain rot. People who believe intensely in nazar tend to shirk accountability, pointing blame outwards at invisible, malevolent forces. The opposite is just as damaging. Those who take random events personally, or believe they can control everything that ever happens to them through a series of superstitious rituals (only to be plagued with guilt when they cannot), might find themselves happiest indoors, curled up into a ball on the floor.

I suppose that if there is anything religious and unspiritual people agree on, it is that superstitions are nonsensical. But what are superstitions if not prayers, or rationalisations? It is hopeful and fearful and human for us to wish desperately to control, or to at least understand. There is something unnervingly intimate about knowing what superstitions someone holds. You might as well be rifling through their innermost wants, stuffing your pockets with their anxieties. My young cousins, whose parents are currently undergoing long-needed marriage counselling, have developed an affixation with the ways their shoes are displayed. One of them tells me, ‘if they’re the wrong way up, there’ll be arguments in the house’.

My first, and only, superstitious routine began around the time of my father’s death; an ordeal which took us by surprise. I was seven. A sudden thump upstairs pealed through the house. The noise (his head striking a wall and leaving a dent) quickly became the source of a modest degree of PTSD. It was a surprise because he’d had a heart attack at just 43. There was still dirt under his fingernails from when he, just minutes before, had tended to the rose bushes in our garden. It came as a surprise to my mother, who thought he was having a seizure, and wrongly stuck a spoon in his mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue. It came as a surprise to my next-door neighbour, a nurse who opened her door to me in her dressing gown and stared, wide-eyed, as I stumbled over the words.

It was such a surprise that I thought, perhaps, if I had just expected it, it wouldn’t have happened. My logic, however flimsy, was that if I expected people to die, they wouldn’t. They couldn’t. I started whispering the names of my loved ones into the darkness before bed, expecting every single one of them to drop dead within the night. When the days went on and none of them did, I decided to continue the ritual for years. I called it ‘the list’. For a long time, I coped by thinking that I was single-handedly keeping death at bay. Eventually, things soured the night we got a call. The news was that my uncle’s wife had just died from a brain haemorrhage while at a dinner party. She had two children, a three-year-old and an eight-year-old. I was crippled with guilt about it for weeks. She wasn’t on the list.

Today, I play up any leftover superstitious instincts I have, solely because it is more fun and less parochial than my experience with religion. I’ve committed to the bit, but I’m also a little serious: what if? What if talking too often about something I desperately want will jinx my chances of getting it? The cost of being alive is that my desires are deep, and my worries are deeper still. What if throwing ‘I’ll be back later’ over my shoulder helps me in some small way to return home safely? A precautionary measure to settle my nerves, just in case. I am lucky enough to have a lot to lose. I intend to keep it that way.

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