Bang Bang Carter

“”The camera’s light meter did not work, and so I twisted the aperture wide open: f5.6 should be right……..As I focused, I noted that the early sun was right behind the burning man,” photographer Greg Marinovich wrote how he captured the moment that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1991.


A suspected Zulu spy burned and axed. Photograph by Greg Marinovich

The Bang Bang Club (2010) is the story of four photojournalists Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, Joao Silva and Kevin Carter who risked their lives to document the the brutal struggle that oppressed society of South Africa witnessed during first free elections in the early 90s. The movie is an adaptation of autobiography- The Bang Bang Club- Snapshots from a Hidden War.  The name Bang Bang Club first appeared in a South African Magazine Living that referred to the four photographers. Though they were unknown to each other, the passion for photography and the ideals united them. They  ran across the streets, hid in the corners and escaped from the bullets to capture the tumultuous clashes that broke out between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

The above was photographed by  Greg Marinovich on an early morning when the ANC supporters burned a man alive who was suspected to be a Zulu spy from IFP. The picture depicted the extremes of hatred and brutality where in the burning man was axed on the head.  Marinovich who was fairly new to the photojournalism in 1991 said in his own words “I had been too scared to say anything to try to stop it”.

There was more. The Bang Bang club banged the world with one more Pulitzer Prize in 1994 ! Two out of four in the club hitting the highest honor of photography was something remarkable. That did happen when Kevin Carter shot the disturbing and gut wrenching scene in Sudan. “A hawk waiting for a starving child to die”. What Carter narrated in his picture was the worst of human misery. I  remember that I had restrained myself from taking a re-look at this picture during my college days while it circulated all over as a forwarded  e-mail.


A hawk waiting for a starving Sudanese child to die. Photograph by Kevin Carter

Yet another bang came when Kevin Carter committed suicide soon after he won the Pulitzer prize. He had come under intense criticism for failing to help the starving child. The movie runs on a slow pace and yet leaves you traumatized and guilty in a way. Although Kevin Carter’s achievement  and his death has been undoubtedly hyped, a serious aspect of him being a drug addict is often neglected. Kevin Carter in his suicide note writes “I am depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.” Psychoactive drugs that he was addicted to is known to alter perception, consciousness, cognition and behavior resulting in depression and mood changes. It could be that his act of death is more of a drug effect rather than the extremes of depression and guilt alone.

Nevertheless Taylor Kitsch (as Kevin Carter) is a perfect dude for being Carter in the movie. His sleepy accent is what makes you imagine Carter in a convincing way 🙂

Motivation – Part II

Return of  Narcisse from the dead stunned the world when BBC made a television documentary in early 1980s on him. BBC obtained his official death certificate and witnessed more than 200 family members ready to take oath that indeed the man is Clairvius Narcisse. It also obtained a sample of the  “zombie powder”, which according to legend was the key to turn a healthy man into a zombie. Intrigued by the story and the fake zombie powder that Nathan Kline had obtained for testing, he asked Wade Davis to investigate.

In Haitian villages  zombies are part of a traditional system- a social control that oversees individual behavior and dispenses justice. The downcast of Narcisse is a crossroad between death and misery. There is no life. Narcisse was zombified by the bokor (sorcerer) because he cheated his brother out of some land.    The bokor took the “soul” out of Narcisse as a part of severe punishment and made him work as a slave in a bucolic sugar factory. Upon the death of his master, Narcisse simply walked away from the factory and met his sister. Initially, he was given a powder that ‘killed’ him. Next day he was dug out from his coffin and was administered with another powder which turned him into zombie.

Investigation of  Wade Davis

Initial negotiations of Davis with a bokor resulted in obtaining a fake zombie powder which Davis proved by consuming the powder. However prolonged reiterations with the bokor lead  Davis to witness the preparation of the real stuff.  Davis accompanied the bokor to a grave yard where in a young girl’s decomposed body was unearthed and a few pieces of her skull were collected. The bone was charred along with pieces of two iridescent blue lizards, a large toad that Davis recognized as Bufo marinus, a highly toxic species and leaves of two plant species that do not cause any harmful or hallucinogenic effect. Finally the dried  puffer fish was added. The bokor and his helper chanted mysterious vodoun incantations while preparing the powder. It took sometime for the powder to get ready. Most zombie victims die inside the coffin due to hypoxia. But those who survive are treated as soulless slaves.

Davis sent the samples to New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia Presbyterian College for analysis. The powder was applied to shaved laboratory mice under the laboratory conditions. The mice became comatose and appeared dead. However the EKG monitors showed faint heartbeat and small brain waves appeared in EEG scanning. Presence of tetrodotoxin was confirmed in the powder. According to some sources the second powder that  was administered after his exhumation was a paste made from datura stramonium.

Puffer fish

Tetrodotoxin is a deadly neurotoxin. 0.00000065 g of tetrodotoxin is enough to kill an adult human, making it about 1000 times more toxic than cyanide. However  lower concentrations in the blood leads to paralysis state which can be mistaken for death. The victim suffers from difficulty in breathing, cyanosis, and a precipitous drop in blood pressure although he can see and hear what is going on around him. I shall not bug you further by giving details of underlying molecular mechanism. The highly prized Japanese dish fugu is prepared from the raw flesh of the puffer fish. Chefs must be specially trained and licensed to prepare fugu. Even then hundreds of fugu diners have payed the ultimate prize.



Bufo marinus

Bufotoxin that was also present in the powder probably enhanced the effect of tetrodotoxin derived from the puffer fish. The bufotenines induce hallucinogenic effects that have been used in many different cultures like the Yoruba tribesmen of Nigeria and the Mayans (1290 B.C.). The Chinese have used it as a drug for heart disease since 3500 B.C

datura stramonium





The second powder contained the extracts of datura stramonium, a plant rich in tropane alkaloids that induces psychotic state. The word datura has the Hindi origin (thorn apple) that dates back to 1662!!. Commonly found in tropics and temperate region, the amount of poison in the plant varies with geographical distribution, water, temperature and humidity. I happen to take this picture in a remote village (Salkod) of Karnataka during my recent visit to India.



The question is how come Haitian bokors knew the exact composition of the zombie powder?  The only scientific explaination would be trial and error which accounts for innumerable lives!!. But the bokors have mysterious answers.

Definition of death has been a topic of debate in the past. Scientists, philosophers and religion defined it in antithetic manner. The mid-18th century witnessed a chaotic state as there was a public upsurge in the fear of being buried alive. Thanks to advancement in medical technologies, the  status of death has been persistently re-evaluated. The investigation of Wade Davis had two important consequences. One, a nightmarish  folk legend had turned into a million dollar business for the pharmaceutical industries. Second, an ethnobotanist shaped himself as one of the world’s finest anthropologist. Davis has documented many heart-warming stories, the stories that depict the human endeavor to survive on this planet. His works have inspired many and shall continue to do so as long as one realizes that-

wide acceptance of an idea is not the proof of it’s validity. It has to be tested.

Motivation – Part I

Did you ever drop a book after reading and said “This is it! I want to become a biologist”? Did u ever tell a story to your student, son, daughter, or  a friend which motivated them to become a scientist or a historian? If not and if you wish to, then I shall suggest you one with great exhilaration. But before I begin, I must say that I owe infinite thanks to Sri T.N. Keshava, associate professor in physics from SDM College, Ujire who inspired me academically, personally and professionally.  He is the man of great wisdom and famously known as walking Encyclopedia in the college campus for his profound knowledge in all branches of academics including science, history, economics, arts and culture. However the below socioscientific exploration is equally inspiring and impressive…

This story is an intriguing true investigation of a young Harvard University graduate, an ethnobotanist, a world renown anthropologist and a real life Indiana Jones – Dr. Wade Davis. Dr. Davis was set out on a mission into the  Haitian secret society in 1982 upon the request of his mentor Richard Schultes and psychiatrist Nathan Kline, director of Rockland State Research Institute, New York in search of drugs that are of great pharmacological potential.  Dr. Davis is the author of international best seller The Serpent and The Rainbow (1985) that masterfully narrates his deep scientific and sociocultural exploration of Haitian Voodoo.

However the book also received wide criticism and anger from many scientists and anthropologists of his genre. The story was later filmed into motion picture in 1988 directed by Wes Craven. The Serpent and The Rainbow (book) is an eccentric journey of adventure, courage and quest for the veracity that takes you to the ultimate battleground of science and religion. It lets you know the terminal roots of all the Hollywood B grade zombie movies, light and dark side of the Haitian Voodoo, their beliefs and practices. However the movie fails to give the full details of the  story and borders on the absurd. Nevertheless it is one movie that deserves to be included in the science academic syllabi.

 On May 2, 1962, Clairvius Narcisse was declared dead by two medical practitioners at Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  Two of his sisters- Angelina and Marie Claire confirmed his death and signed his death certificate. Clairvius was  buried in his village, I’Estere  in the presence of his family and village men…

18 years later a vacant-eyed man walks to Angelina in the marketplace and identifies himself as her brother, Clairvius.

Let me continue this on the next post, meanwhile watch the movie if you can 🙂


The thin line

One of worst skills I have is writing. That is ONE OF THE WORST THING I CAN DO. If you still want to proceed you are at your own risk. “Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders.”  Certainly, I don’t want to become a grinder. Many things were running in my mind for quite some time with regards to blogging. One of them were movies!! A serious movie freak would usually follow the movies of best directors. Secondly actors. I belong to the second category. Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro are my favorites. I always fancy about movies based on true stories. Let me begin with Exorcism of Emily Rose.


After a long list of crappy movies, director Scott Derrickson has hit a lucky button by making Exorcism of Emily Rose which is based on a true story. The story of Anneliese Michel(Emily Rose) has rocked the world with shock and sorrow while the religious groups and scientific community have come up with their respective views. Storyline revolves around the court case that was filed by the State against Pastor Ernst Alt(Father Moore) for negligent homicide of Emily Rose after he performed “The Great Exorcism”. Self-proclaimed agnostic defense lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney in the movie) struggles to let her client free while she encounters mysterious events in her personal life. Story narration is good with frequent flipping of scenes to what actually had happened. There are some gut wrenching devilish scenes too.  Father Moore is finally found guilty but was let walk free by the judge based on jury recommendation. Anneliese Michel’s demonic possession, exorcism, followed by her death  received wide public and media attention but more so is the court drama that followed. However the movie do not give you an idea of how long she had suffered.  Michel began hearing voices and seeing demonic entities in 1968 (when she was 17) and passed away asleep on July 1st 1976. A beautiful German college going girl had turned into a  gore hellion. Can you imagine,  someone suffered from a bizarre demonic grimaces for 8 long years before succumbing to a painful death !!!


Fall, 1970,  3 a.m, Kilingenberg, Germany. It was a bone wrecking cold outside when all of a sudden devil faced Anneliese Michel rose from her bed as if some invisible hand pushed her back lifting her halfway. Her eye balls were jet black. Her hairs lye scrambled like wires on her shoulders. Mouth wide open, her gums looked blackish as if she  had drunken some grape juice a while ago. Rattling dual voice from Anneliese’s throat emerge echoing through the she started speaking in unheard dead languages. Pastor Ernst Alt and Father Arnold Renz(who was not mentioned in the movie) performed rigorous rituals of exorcism during which, she escaped through the window into the near by barn.  After repeated command by the Pastor,  demon inside Michel spit out ferociously-Ani hu sheshokhen betokh Cain! (I am the one who dwelt within CAIN), Ego sum qui (in?)habitavit in Nerone (I am the one who inhabited Nero), enoikesa paroithen en Iouda, (I dwelt before within Judas), Und ich [war] mit Legion, (And I was with Legion), Ana Belial (I am Belial). Anneliese Michel named 6 demons (from Bible) that had possessed her in Hebrew, Latin, ancient Greek, German and Aramic respectively before she went on to say in English And I am Lucifer, devil in the flesh!!


(During the exorcism, pastor recorded Michel’s voice. Here is the clipping)

(More details are available here: ; ; ; )

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               10 years ago a similar incident happened in a small village called Betthageri, Kumta Taluk of Karnataka, India. It was a common practice for brothers and cousins to stay together in a single house. However my elders stayed in different houses but all within a stone’s throw from each other. Bhaarati is a cousin of my dad, a very close relative of mine.  After conceiving two children, Bharati, during her mid 20s, started behaving strangely. She saw someone standing near the door all the time. The shadow of a devil sitting on her neck appeared only to her. Disturbed with whimsical mood changes, Bhaarati ran from corner to corner of the house. Hysteric devilish  act of hers scared the hell out of whole family! Damn hungry Bhaarati ate meals that is enough for 10 at a shot!! spoke vulgar words to the family elders. The devil inside Bhaarati claimed herself as one of the family elder’s sister who had committed suicide 60 years ago in a near by pond. Once the devil  said-“Nange kuntshingya heltitri alda? torste na yaru heli!! (you all had fun calling me “kuntshingya” right? I will show you who I am).


During their youth, the family elders eve teased the now-dead-women who was actually disabled. She used to leap while walking like a kuntshingya (must be a wild animal in western ghats of India). The spirit was spitting vengeance on the family elders through Bhaarati. What astonished over smart, non-devil believer guys like me and my sister was how come she can spell out the exact nickname that was used by the elders during their youth? No one in the family ever mentioned to Bhaarati about that woman who committed suicide many years ago. Eventually she was cured of the demon by some rituals.


Although Michel’s case was worst than Bhaarati, there was a striking commonality between the two. Both spoke something which they never heard of.  Michel never learned so many ancient languages. Bhaarati wasn’t even born when the unsatisfied women had committed suicide. Is it true that they were actually possessed? Do the demons really exist? I do not intend to disbelieve such nonsense just because it is “cool to be a non-believer”. Anneliese Michel was diagnosed with grand mal epilepsy, a condition that causes severe seizures. There was a speculation that the condition could be due to multiple personality disorder. “Some doctors have suggested that many of Michel’s symptoms are consistent with, and suggestive of, mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) section on dissociative disorders, and/or with behaviors observed in patients with these disorders, such as the temporary adoption of bizarre, rigid body postures (dystonia); the use of the first-person plural pronoun we to describe one’s self; the markedly dilated pupils not explained by any external stimuli; full or partial amnesia; the emergence of distinct personalities among the demons; Michel’s feeling as though her body was acting outside her volition (depersonalization); fear or rejection of sexuality; the persistence of these symptoms despite medical treatment, and in absence of any known medical cause; and many others” (stolen from Wikipedia).


In the case of Bhaarati, no medical diagnosis was done. Her parents were firm believers of angels and demons. What interests me is the fact  that she was cured of the demon by priests and rituals but not medication. I remember a psychological thriller Bhool Bhulaiya (remake of Manichitrathazhu), where in a psychiatrist performs an intriguing experiment to treat a multiple personality disorder patient. The movie is influenced by a tragic incident that occurred  in 19th century to a famous Travancore family. A must watch if you are into such real life thrillers. Coming back to the point, there is a very thin line between demonic possessions and mental illness.  But if you dig down deeper there is no such line at all.