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28.03.2018

Some of Bangalore's urban legends are because it is a city of the country. Ganesha drank milk copiously here, like in every other Indian city. The Vinayaka temple in Vinayaka Layout, (the temple was built after the layout was so named, incidentally) a few doors down from where I grew up in Vijayanagar saw some of its biggest crowds ever that day in 1995, to see a demonstration of capillary effect and confirmation bias.

Some other Bangalore stories are just hyperlocal versions of more universal ones. Take, for example, the legend of how the MS Ramaiah collegiate campus always had some construction work or other going on. The belief was that MS Ramaiah would die if it stopped. (I consider this Bangalore’s riff on the Winchester House legend from San Jose, itself one of half a dozen similar stories from very different parts of the world.) Funnily enough, the MS Ramaiah group continues to build even a few decades after the founder shuffled off this mortal coil.

Bangalore associates specific diseases with local “ammas”, or shakti goddesses. We have the exotic Plagueamma, who becomes relevant only once every century or so. We also have the popular Annamma, Bangalore’s official graamadevate or village goddess, the reigning deity of the ubiquitous chicken pox who demands a sacrifice of chicken in her name. Even the most vegetarian of Bangalore families keep up the tradition: who in their right mind would risk the wrath of a local deity? My only visit to the Annamma temple on Subedar Chatram Road was as a kid just cured of the chicken pox. I tried to make friends with the birds, neither of us knowing that they were about to share the same fate as their brethren in chicken shops; their cage was sized and shaped like an old temple.

Bangalore’s most famous urban legend is probably that of the koogumaari or screaming witch, more popularly known as the naaLe baa bhoota, or “come tomorrow ghost.” For a long time, pretty much every door in Bangalore bore the succinct message, “naaLe baa” often accompanied by an Iyengar naama -the forehead mark- like some desi version of the Greek letter of psi.

She was a supernatural spirit hell bent on revenge, but also very obedient and would do as told. If she saw a “come tomorrow” message on your door, she would obey, today, tomorrow, and every day after: koogumaari would never cross the threshold. (Read Weird Tales of a Bangalorean, by Jayaprakash Satyamoorthi, a book that features both koogumaari and plagueamma in starring/scarring roles.) However, neither koogumaari nor the various ammas governing poxes are uniquely Bangalorean. The former seems to be a migrant from the Kolar region, and the latter is more of a pan South India phenomenon.

My favourite urban legend is quite uniquely Bangalorean. In fact I am not sure if it spread even beyond Vijayanagar. In the early 90s, a strange panic gripped those purchasing soppu or greens in this neighbourhood. Each leaf would be carefully, agonisingly scrutinised; those who lacked the patience to do this gave up on eating soppu altogether. What they were looking for were markings caused by the larvae or maggots of the leafminer insect, but that is not how they knew it. The marks were supposed to be the curse of a snake god.

The backstory was this. There was apparently a soppu farmer who accidentally killed a snake while harvesting his crop. That snake’s lover cursed him so that anyone who ate his soppu would die of snake bite. The curse was marked by snake like patterns appearing on the leaves. It was a season when leafminer infestation was higher than usual, which meant a lot of leaves did end up with such patterns, and the demand for soppu in Vijayanagar fell drastically, as did prices. This continued for a few months until the leafminer infestation slowly reduced. But during those few months everyone “knew” someone who had succumbed to a snake bite after eating soppu. There grew parallel stories of also how to counter the curse, with a pilgrimage to Dharmasthala being the most common antidote.

I sometimes think this was an elaborate ruse by some snake lover to make sure people left snakes alone; or by someone who wanted people to pay more attention to the food they are eating, and making sure that it is properly cleaned. It has been over two decades since this urban legend died down, but every time I spot spinach or any other greens at the supermarket, to this day I find myself looking for snake patterns on the leaves.

Thejaswi Udupa is a tech entrepreneur, writer, and very Bangalorean. He's currently working on a book about the city.

Photo Source: Van Gogh Museum

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