I ran into my husband’s friend, Chudi, leaving the movie theatre after we watched Black Panther. “What’s that?” I said, spotting a pink piece of paper on the ground. I bent down and stood up clutching a five Naira note. “All these people walked over it but didn’t see it,” I said, pleased.
Chudi gave me a funny look. “Oh, they saw it. Everyone knows you don’t just pick up money off the ground in Nigeria. You could be turned into a goat.”
I stared at him.
“Or a yam tuber,” he added, thoughtfully.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever—” A horrifying image filled my mind, my husband waking up in bed embracing a nightgown-clad yam.
When I let the money drift back to the ground, Chudi nodded as if he hadn’t expected anything else.
I’m not one to judge when it comes to curses and jinxes. I grew up with a number of superstitions I was forced to navigate on a daily basis. For example, if I said anything that suggested my demise like, “I’m so hot I could die,” or, “I think I’m having a heart attack,” my mother would respond with three rapid fire, unintelligible Kashmiri words that pushed the curse onto my enemies. If she failed to say these three words, she was convinced my death was imminent.
My grandmother’s go-to curse-blocker was “Varikar.” I’d like to think it meant “God willing.” If I was foolish enough to say, “Don’t be sad I’m leaving, Bibi. I’ll come visit you next summer,” she would respond with “Varikar,” which depending on her tone might also have conveyed, “How stupid are you to tempt fate by assuming you’ll do anything next summer or even tomorrow? You are an insignificant speck of dust in the grand scheme of things and now you’re forcing me to say Varikar so you don’t walk out of here and get hit by a bus.”
Nazar—our version of the evil eye—was the deadliest jinx of all because it required constant vigilance. If you were too attractive or accomplished, you were in danger. If someone made the mistake of openly acknowledging your good qualities, the only acceptable response was, “Nazar naa lagay,” the counter-curse. If you didn’t say this, terrible things would happen and you would end up dead in a gutter.
At my wedding, my mother’s sisters helped me get dressed. They yanked my petticoat closed, wrapped me in a shimmering lavender sari and pinned a jewelled pendant into my hair so it rested at the top of my forehead. After I readjusted my pleats I looked up and saw identical expressions of dismay on their faces.
“Am I hideous?” I asked.
“No, you look perfect,” Jipi Aunty said. She gave her sister a long, unhappy look. “Too perfect.”
Pimi Aunty started to root around in her handbag. She pulled out an eyebrow pencil and scribbled an ugly black mark behind my ear. “Now you’re not perfect anymore so you won’t get nazar.”
Last May I wrote my Lost in Lagos Magazine column on the theme of fitness, describing my effortless weight loss journey. I even shared photos of myself before and after losing 30kg. The subtext, in case you missed it, was that I was wonderful and adorable and everyone loved me. And just like that, nazar. You aren’t supposed to sing your own praises! I should never have bragged about my slender frame because the evil eye turned its gaze my way. As soon as that article was published I began to expand. I now look like a pork chop with legs. It is tragic to grow old and fat and ugly when you had hoped to remain young and beautiful forever.
Yes, you could blame my potato chip consumption which may singlehandedly be keeping the potato industry afloat. You could blame the way my punishing workouts have morphed into slow strolls where I sip coffee and stare at birds flying overhead. You could note that each and every meal shouldn’t be an exercise to see how much food I can cram into my chubby little body. But I would prefer if we don’t examine my bad habits because then I might be expected to change them. Let’s keep the blame where it belongs, in the spiritual realm. I am publically telling each and every curse against me to desist—I rebuke you all—and just in case anyone with supernatural powers is actually listening, I would also like to be smarter and less flabby.
There is no Plan B. I refuse to slide into obesity. If I can’t lose the weight I’ve gained in the past year, I may be forced to take the nuclear option and turn myself into a goat. Or a yam tuber.
Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She is studying for her MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.
Follow her on Instagram @mopals5
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