I am in the middle of reading Ruskin Bond’s favourite ghost stories from around the world. By his own admission, my favourite writer loves seeing and writing about the supernatural world. He has seen or conjured up ghosts that range from endearing to scary, from strange to friendly. Well, with all due love and respect Mr. Bond you have missed out on one very interesting genre of a creature that dwells between being human and spirit. How could you have missed out on the scarecrow in the fields? Is it because one often misses out things that are right under one’s nose?
I have been fascinated by scarecrows in fields since I was little. The ones I remember are almost always tall, well-dressed with round heads and large black eyes. Of course, I have also seen the ones that have flat tin heads but then those were the days when we used to buy our biscuits, our cooking oil and kerosene in big square tins. (Not the same tins though). The square tins sometimes had holes punched in for eyes and rusty necks that were covered up with woollen scarves or even a necktie that had seen better days.
The most recent scarecrow I encountered was the one on the way to Keri village in Sattari. He was wearing a spotless white shirt that was obviously too big for him, with narrow blue pants that were obviously too small. His head lolled about a bit perhaps because it was stuffed with thin white muslin cloth. Tied at the waist to a coconut tree, this poor “man” had no eyes, no teeth and no ears. Yet, I am quite certain that he sees and hears everything around him. Although he has no face, I can see that he faces the road and I am quite sure that he, armless as he is, waves at passers-by in the wind. That of course, is when no one is looking.
The other most recent encounter is with the scarecrow opposite the church in Nagoa, very close to where I live. Here’s a “man” to reckon with. Slim and tall, this guy is dressed to kill. He has a military green plastic pot for a head and beautiful black eyes that look not just at you but through you. “Beware!” say these eyes. “I am impervious to sweet talking females.” He wears a smart pair of pants and a black T-shirt that has a few holes in the middle but then I believe that is the latest in making a fashion statement these days. I go around this “man” discreetly only to find that he is as nattily turned out from the back. There’s a belt that goes around his ample waist. That’s a smart little device to keep his straw pot belly in place. Dressed thus, he keeps a stern watch over the bean field. Never once does he blink.
Do scarecrows really keep away birds from the fields I have often wondered? Away on the highway going out of Goa towards Maharashtra I see bits of old saris floating on shapeless sticks. Sometimes, just bits of plastic squares in the middle of fields. From the point of view of the birds, this is nothing short of a joke. If a marsh harrier can see a mouse in the field from a great distance in the skies, if sparrows can see grains scattered on the ground in a courtyard, if pigeons can see seeds in the garden all the way from their perches on high rises who are we trying to fool? Do we really think that the birds cannot see the difference between a man and his pole counterpart? No, this word “scarecrow” doesn’t scare any crows.
Why do we have them then? Is it to ward off the evil eye from our fields? Is a scarecrow something between animal and spirit? Perhaps. Is that why most scarecrows are men and most workers in fields and farms mere women? Here too, in a realm between animal and spirit, must men play guardians and protectors? The only female scarecrow I have ever seen in all these years is the one on the CHOGM road between the village of Saligao and Calangute in North Goa. There she was, in full splendour, dressed in a complete salwar-kameez suit. The printed suit had no holes, no signs of any wear. In fact, even her dupatta flapped in the afternoon breeze in great style. Her face was fashioned from an old gunny sack and on her shredded forehead there was a red vermillion bindi the size of an old rupee coin. Her head was completely covered with the main stream of the scarf and no straw hair visible. Clearly, a scarecrow who proclaimed her marital status for the entire world to see. Proudly perched on a pole almost as high as the nearest hoarding, she was still a picture of female modesty.
The scarecrows I have seen (and collected as paintings and photographs) have ranged from the white shirt fronted farmer-like village dwellers to helmet and black T-shirt Harley Davidson rider-creatures of mystery. The first painting of a scarecrow I fell in love with was a water colour done by Goan artist Hitesh Pankar. It was simply titled “Tambdi bhaji” and was of an impossibly handsome shoeless scarecrow in a red shirt in the middle of a field of ‘tambdi bhaji”. Tall trees interrupt this synergy of plants and “man” and a few houses play sentinel in the distance. Did this guy not have any pole-feet because he wasn’t going anywhere? Well, he goes everywhere Hitesh, because he has eyes that follow you even if he has no feet!
Well, there are scarecrows and then there are scarecrows. There are scarecrows that float on thin air, fly through the skies, follow you with their eyes, and some who couldn’t care less. The scarecrow that gets the highest award so far, though, is the one that I saw once on my way to Nashik. He was tall, dark and handsome and dressed in a neat pair of pants, a clean shirt and a hat. He had been fixed up on the bow of the entrance gate to a vineyard with his back to the grapes and his eyes fixed on the road. There was a roughly painted sign at his feet that simply said, in Marathi, “Haach navra”. Roughly translated, this would be something like, “That’s the only husband”. All your scary ghosts couldn’t beat that now, Mr. Bond, could they?