For months and months no one knew what was killing the children of Uttar Pradesh. The villagers couldnt imagine that a mere animal could come into their huts, grab a child, and escape into the night without a tracesometimes never even waking the parents who were holding the child as they slept.
They imagined that it had to be a supernatural being called the Mannhai, the human creature, descending from the sky and snatching children in the middle of the nightpossibly eating them or selling them for their organs to other countries.
People became more and more suspicious of strangers. Because the Mannhai was so powerful, they imagined it could change its appearance at will. So the Mannhai could be anybody. Over the course of six or seven months, some two dozen people were beaten to death by mobs that believed they were the Mannhai.
I went to a village where a beating had occurred, and the villagers confessed on camera to me that they had actually beaten a woman to death, thinking that she was the Mannhai.
As they were talking, they began looking at the car that I was riding in and telling my interpreter that the Mannhai actually had a carthe same kind of car that I was drivingand that the Mannhai was my height and weight and build, and that perhaps I was the Mannhai.
Of course, I didnt understand what they were saying, but my translator was relating the story to me as they were telling it. Until they started talking about me. Once they started talking about me the translator started talking back to them, saying, Look, this person is from the United States. Hes a filmmaker. There are many, many white Ambassador cars in India, and the Mannhai wasnt driving a white Ambassador car anyway.
It wasnt until I got back in our little white Ambassador car that the interpreter told me that they really, really thought that I was the Mannhai. They said point-blank that, had I driven into that village at the time the children were being taken, they would have beaten me to death.
It was one of those moments when you realize the power of fear and the imagination. And I realized how helpless I would have been in that situation, because there was nothing that I could have done in a village of 50 to 100 men with sticks. You face these moments and do your best and you never know what youre going to run into as a filmmaker. Myths and legends, even current ones, can be deadly.
© 1999 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.