the idols were lined up on the narrow ledge under the tall windows in the corner room. the ledge was designed to be a book shelf but no one remembered seeing a book on it ever; instead, dust and cobwebs gathered and had a good time on the yellow ochre lime wash, enjoying the slanting sun rays that fell through the shutters. but today, there was not a speck of dust anywhere. nor cobwebs. only eight beautiful idols.
eight pairs of hands had worked hard to clean the room thoroughly. a ninth and a tenth pair had been provided by shobita and modhu, the former the talkative young housemaid who had recently come to work, and the latter the general dogsbody and gofer who had been around since exactly when no one could recall. was modhu employed during boro bibi’s time or did mamoni bring him along from her baaper bari, her father’s home, people weren’t sure.
but to get back to the idols, they were of the goddess saraswati. the workmanship may not have been the finest but the images made of baked mud and straw looked lovely nevertheless. they were between a foot and a foot and a half tall, in tones of white, off white, ivory, and other similar shades, those were saraswati’s colours, there were touches of gold and silver paint here and there. the iconography of the idols was identical almost. saraswati, fair skinned with fine features, either stood or sat gracefully with her veena, her musical instrument; nearby was her vahan, her “vehicle”, the long necked, regal looking swan. her face had a benign expression that seemed to say all will be well; in some cases, a hand was raised in blessing, there were books in another hand, and a white lotus in yet another. being a goddess, she had four arms. her hair was parted at the centre and either left loose with its full surging waves falling together, or drawn up and tied at the back; there were hair ornaments on her head, necklaces and bangles adorned her; runa’s idol even had toe rings, runa had peered at all the idols in the shop and chosen this one. she liked toe rings.
actually, all the three girls – babli, rinty, and runa – had been particular about jewellery and make up while choosing their saraswati thakur, their goddess. the boys – brojo, tulu, babai, billy, and mintu – picked up theirs without bothering to inspect the idols too much, they were more excited about the proshad, all the food that would be offered as part of the pujo or veneration. their youngest aunt – most of them called her kakima as she was married to their father’s brother or cousin, but runa and billy called her chhoto mamima, because she was their mother’s cousin’s wife and she was the youngest too, chhoto – had said they needn’t share the proshad with the entire neighbourhood, they could have most of it. they only had to share a little with the elders in the family and the people who worked in the house, but otherwise they could eat it all. she had promised she’d make the coconut and jaggery sweets, narkel naroo, and luchi with aloo bhaja. who could resist those fluffy soft luchis made of flour and oily fried potatoes? tulu had asked, would she also make that delicious offering of cucumber, moong and coconut? kakima had pinched his cheek and said, of course, she would. and bodo bibi, their great aunt, would make chandrapuli and pantua. for sure, mamoni, their other great aunt who was also babli and babai’s grandmother, would make her crisp white khaja…
the decision to have this pujo with a saraswati thakur for each child, was taken on the way back from the picnic.
the whole thing had come about suddenly as they drove past kumortuli, where the potters made all the idols and displayed them in the little shops along the streets. you could see row upon row of images, murtis, of gods and goddesses and their vahans; some on shelves, some hanging against walls, some standing at the entrances, some even being made. it was a curious sight… the figures crafted of the blackish grey mud collected from the riverside, ganga mati, the mud of river ganga; painted or yet to be coloured; the clothes at times of bright hued silk and shiny trimmings, or simply shaped out of the pliable, smooth clay. stacked between the idols, you could also see pots and other things the potters produced and sold here. as they had done for more than two hundred years now. back in 1757, the british east india company – which had come to trade but got a bit carried away – defeated siraj ud daulah, the nawab of bengal, by means more foul than fair, and started establishing a metropolis here, where three little villages lay sleepily by the river. sutanoti, gobindopur, and kalikata had no idea what a battle at palashi, less than a hundred miles away, would do to their tranquil, soporific life. soon they would coalesce, and in time come to be the foremost city of the british empire in the east… calcutta.
to blame only the company for the ruin of the three villages’ laid back existence would be unjust. enough and more unseemly things were done by folks from around here. while settling scores, and assuaging their love of gold, these good people missed the big picture one might say, and in no time their land was under the rule of people from a small island miles and miles away.
fastidious about planning, if not about morals, the british east india company apparently asked the temporary governor of bengal, one mr john zephaniah holwell, to allot “separate districts to the company’s workmen”. the year was 1760. that’s when places like suriparah for wine sellers, colootollah for oil pressers and vendors, aheeritollah for cowherds, and kumortuli for potters came up in the north of the new metropolis.
kumor means potter. and tuli or tollah, is a way of saying den or base.
as the city grew and changed, so did most of these quarters. and now, long after the british have departed, the names remain, but the places are no longer the abode of tradesmen and artisans they were once meant for; they have merged and lost that particular character they bore at inception. yet, for some reason, kumortuli is still around, still the potter’s quarter, with its idols and images, its pots and pans, its ability to make little eyes widen with wonder as they pass by in cars, on their way back from a picnic; which, by the way, is a calcutta winter favourite, savoured almost as much as the difficult to make khaja.
it was saraswati pujo the next day, on the panchami or fifth day of the bright fortnight of the month of magh, which always falls in january-february, when winter ebbs and spring comes in. as the children looked in awe at the parade of clay images, jethima, their eldest aunt – boro mamima to runa and billy – asked, if they’d like to have their own pujo at home.
five pairs of eyes had shone. the three girls were in one of the other cars. children always did saraswati pujo. shoroshshoti was the goddess of learning, art and music, after all. plus, on that day, you put your books in front of her, and best thing of all, you didn’t study. but the children – they were cousins and siblings, who were between five and ten years of age – had never done saraswati pujo together, since all of them didn’t live in calcutta.
babli and tulu lived in delhi where their father worked in a publishing firm. runa and billy lived in gwalior, where their father had been transferred recently, he was a government officer. babli and tulu’s father and runa and billy’s mother were siblings. the rest of the family stayed in calcutta in their ancestral home. the cousins usually met during holidays in the city. this year, their visits had coincided.
the cars pulled up on the side of the narrow, dusty road. aunts and mothers got out and conferred, while uncles and fathers smoked quietly and waited in the car. mejo kakima – who was runa and billy’s mejo mamima – said the kids could each have an idol.
it worked like a charm, the decision was made instantly. yes, there would be saraswati pujo at home.
the children huddled together after they got back and determined they would collect chanda from all the grown ups. their parents, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, and great uncles and aunts. you couldn’t have pujo and not collect chanda – donations – after all. the elders would be generous, no doubt. with that money, the pujo organisers, that is, the children, would buy lots of crumbly sugary nokul dana and batasha, also sweets from radha gobindo, the neighbourhood sweet shop.
it was decided, babai would be the priest. he was short and a bit pudgy around the waist, not too athletic his built. and he had a round, eagre face. he had the right kind of look to be a priest, all agreed. that he was not brahmin as priests were supposed to be, didn’t bother the children much. they were sure, if they called babai brahmin and treated him like a priest, he’d become one.
the bigger problem was something else.
who would ask dadu for chanda? dadu was the head of the family. he had a fierce temper and he shouted at you for no reason at all. no one dare cross him. everyone quaked in fear. even kakima was careful around dadu.
satyendra nath sinha, shotto babu to his clients and colleagues and the few friends he had, had a legendary temper. a towering man, with broad shoulders and a thickset neck, he had a grim, pugnacious visage, and he was rarely known to smile. he was also extremely orthodox about religion, social class, and caste. son of one of calcutta’s most eminent jurists, he was an advocate and practised at the high court. most days, however, his extended veneration rituals at the family temple and other personal matters kept him from stirring out of the old mansion his grandfather had built; which is why his career didn’t quite flourish, but this in no way seemed to perturb him. or maybe it did.
he had set up his “chamber” in the house. as you walked in through the main door which faced the main road, the area on the left was cordoned off by a set of folding rosewood screens. if you valued your life, you wouldn’t venture in here unless you were very sure dadu wasn’t anywhere in the vicinity. shotto babu sat behind an imposing mahogany desk, covered with dark green leather on top, it was fraying in places. the three walls surrounding the desk were lined with books. there were two chairs with ornate armrests and straight back for visitors.
the house was not built to be a home in reality, it was meant to be an ashram, a retreat dedicated to shotto babu’s grandfather’s guru. however, as with the quarters set up by mr holwell, the building constructed by benud behari sinha no longer served the purpose it was conceived for. soon after benud behari sinha passed on, the family had come to live there, at first temporarily; then it became their permanent residence. it was an unusual home. with rooms placed oddly, wide verandahs enclosed and fashioned into living areas, extensions sprouting up in an unplanned way to make space for a kitchen or a bathroom, or a room for someone who’d just got married. nothing was predictable about the layout, and one could get easily lost in the labyrinth of corridors and verandahs and stairways leading here and there, sometimes nowhere. there were seven exits and entrances in all, people came and went the whole day and till late in the evening. they came to visit, to worship at the temple, to sell things, to mend things, to sing devotional kirtan, to play, to work, to beg, and sometimes, to steal. every now and then something would disappear from the house and no one had any idea who might have walked in through one of the doors and left through another, carrying whatever it is that they’d come to purloin.
“runa!” yelled brojo suddenly, he was the oldest of the lot. he had completed ten a month ago, in december.
“what? runa what?!!” chimed rinty and mintu together.
“runa will ask dadu for chanda!” brojo declared as many pairs of eyes went round, almost popping, and hands were clapped on open mouths, several breaths were hissed in dramatically as well. what was brojo da saying? had he gone mad? little five year old runa, push her straight into the lion’s mouth? no!
brojo looked around at the horrified faces. only one face was missing. runa’s. she was busy looking at her saraswati idol and mumbling to herself.
brojo smiled gleefully and nodded his head. he was not thinking straight, in fact, he wasn’t thinking at all. he only knew he was not going to be pushed into acting like the eldest and brave mortal danger. he was not going anywhere near his grandfather. he possibly had blurted out his youngest cousin’s name without even knowing what he was doing. but now that it had created enough stir and protest, he felt his declaration had to be honoured. he was ten, his word ought to be law.
runa walked passed the rosewood screens without even pausing for an instant. dadu was at the desk, bent over a massive tome. it was almost eight in the evening. the children hid behind a pillar on one side and watched with terror in their eyes. any minute now, there would be a roar and poor runa would start bawling.
when shotto babu’s wife had given birth to a daughter first, he had been disheartened. being traditional, he had wanted a son. someone who’d take his family name forward, and who’d give him a grandson one day, ensuring the illustrious sinha family would carry on without any interruption. while his wife reba had fallen in love with her firstborn the moment she laid eyes on the infant, shotto babu never really took to his daughter at all. it was on his son arghya, who arrived a couple of years later, that he showered his not too ample love, though the pride he felt at having produced a male offspring flooded his wide, deep chest.
he rarely showed any interest in his daughter anjali’s education or upbringing. she was not a good looking girl, to find a groom for her wasn’t easy, so she ended up studying much more than girls of her generation, not because she was particularly studious, mainly to avoid wasting time while she waited to get married. the years passed and it was only after anjali finished her phd in history that she met mahesh, a bright young man who had just finished his short commission in the army and joined the administrative service. mahesh belonged to a respected bengali kayastha family from patna. when the proposal came, shotto babu gave his consent with alacrity.
runa was born almost eight years after anjali’s marriage. she was a premature child, who had struggled to hold on to life. she had spent almost five weeks in an incubator at woodlands nursing home. she had survived and grown very fast after that. she was tall for her age, but thin. she was dark skinned like her mother and she had her father’s thick black hair, which fell dead straight to her shoulders. she was too thin according to her grandmother, who like all people of her generation preferred children to be plump, even fat. but unlike those of her generation, reba had no complaints about runa’s complexion or hair. so what if her hair wasn’t curly, it was jet black and thick, and besides, her youngest grandchild had a beautiful smile. her mouth was perfectly shaped and not wide at all, women shouldn’t have too large a mouth.
“dadu! dadu!” runa said in her happy clear voice. shotto babu peered over his reading glasses. the children shrank back against the pillar. brojo could hear his heart beating fast.
shotto babu straightened up slowly and frowned at the little girl. runa grinned and went running up to him. he hesitated as if he wasn’t sure what he ought to do.
runa put a hand on the desk top and with a little hop, sat on shotto babu’s lap. brojo closed his eyes. rinty ran away. the others cringed.
runa smiled cheerily at shotto babu. her sparkling, almost kohl black irises gleamed. she shook her head from side to side and said, “tell me, dadu, tell me something, why do they call this house ma’s father’s home and my uncle’s home…?”
baaper bari, father’s home; mamar bari, maternal uncle’s home; shoshur bari, father in law’s home. women have a way of disappearing in reference in many of our languages. the home is somehow more often than not a man’s, he is the one with the identity and authority.
shotto babu felt a strange tremor in his heart. the tiny infant in the incubator… a cold blue light shining on her… she had balled a fist and punched the air… he had wanted to hold that little fist in his hand. he watched her staring at him now, face tilted up, eyes looking straight into his. no one looked at him like that.
“no, tell me, dadu, why?” runa insisted, nodding her head to emphasise the point, “this is also ma’s mother’s home, isn’t it? and my aunt’s home… all my aunts’… boro mammi’s home, mejo mammi’s home…” mamima was a mouthful, runa had shortened it to mammi already.
“say, why? why? dadu?!”
the children watched dumbfounded as dadu didn’t start shouting. instead, he stroked runa’s hair lightly, and said, “didu, you are right. i had never thought of that!” he pursed his lips and grimaced to show her how seriously he was taking the matter.
didu means elder sister or it could mean grandmother even. now why should a grandfather address his granddaughter as either of those… but then didu is also an endearment, and since when have endearments made perfect sense.
runa giggled and chanted, “i’ll call this mother’s house! i’ll call this boro mammi’s house! i’ll call this grandmother’s house…! yes, dadu?”
shotto babu, laughed slightly and murmured, “do that! now didu, i have some work…”
“work?!” runa exclaimed and looked stricken, “i have some work too, ohho, that’s why i left shoshshoti and came here!” she put her hand on her forehead and made a face. she had given saraswati the same treatment she had given her mamimas.
shotto babu realised he was trying not to smile, he said, “you do? who’s shoshshoti?”
“yes!” a vigorous nod, “that’s why i came here! they said, we want chanda from you!” runa stated.
“they? who they?” shotto babu asked.
the children turned and scampered away swiftly, trying not to make any noise. that silly runa! who had told her to mention the others! now dadu would stop everything, there would be no saraswati pujo.
“ohho, dadu, you don’t understand anything!” runa scolded, “we need chanda for shoshshoti pujo! tomorrow is shoshshoti pujo, don’t you know… you must give all…” she looked around at the shelves of books, “all your books to shoshshoti! then you’ll do very well in school! yes, ma has said!”
shotto babu hunted in his pocket and took out the bit of small change he found there. he counted out ten rupees and gave it to runa.
“here, didu, here’s your chanda, now go! i have lots of work to finish, my clients will come soon!”
runa clutched the notes in both her hands and scrambled off her grandfather’s lap. she ran out of the room but the next instant she was back, panting slightly.
she stopped when she saw shotto babu look up, this time frowning quite severely. then she rushed to him and whispered, “but, dadu, how will i pray to shoshshoti, i don’t believe in god!”
“huh!” her grandfather was thunderstruck. don’t believe in god? what was this child…
runa was looking most troubled now. again that strange sensation assailed him, near his heart, perhaps in it.
shotto babu leaned down and held her hands, “i’ll tell you what, didu, there is a way. you just pray… without believing. it’s okay, god will understand!”
immediately the forlorn expression was gone, the child grinned and hurried away.
the next day, saraswati pujo went off magnificently. the girls wore their yellow sarees, the boys tied on little dhotis, runa had her haatey khori ceremony. the first time a child writes, it’s done in front of ma saraswati, her mother had explained to her. you wrote with a chalk, a khori, on a slate. runa had said, but she could write and had written many things in her red book, ma had told her, even so, this was a tradition, so she must do it. runa had thought for a while, and muttered to herself, okay, she’d do it, but she’d tell shoshshoti in her mind that she had written before. it was only fair.
babai the priest was a hit, jethima had written the prayers on a piece of paper for him. he was most concerned that reading them might be considered a dishonouring of the prohibition on studying or reading on that day, and that could have a calamitous effect on exam results. but brojo gave a verdict, since babai would be a brahmin priest at that point, it wouldn’t count; besides, brahmins were always forgiven… evvvvrything, said brojo.
since the evening before, his value as the elder, a leader, had gone up many times in the group. the neighbourhood children had been told the story of his astuteness in sending runa to dadu to collect chanda. the neighbourhood children had gaped. this was impossible. brojo da was a genius. brojo had accepted his superiority with barely any pretense at modesty.
kakima kept her word. the most wonderful proshad was offered, and in huge quantities, so the neighbourhood children could also join in. there was plenty of kool too, the sweet and sour plum that you couldn’t, just couldn’t, eat before saraswati pujo. while everyone played in the corner room later and had so many sweets their heads buzzed, runa grabbed a few narkol naroo and kool, and went to find her grandfather. when she saw him standing outside the temple, she thrust the sweets and fruit into his hand.
“take, dadu, it’s proshad, you must eat it!” she instructed, her face quite serious.
shotto babu did as he was told.
almost twenty-one years later, when runa was introduced to moy dutta by a friend at work, it never occurred to her to ask him which caste he belonged to. that was not the sort of thing she was even remotely interested in. maybe spending long holidays in a house with seven doors and had had its effect. it had opened her mind, in ways hard to fathom. or maybe she was born that way. moy told her one day that he was not upper caste, not kayastha.
they got married in chandigarh, her father was posted there now. everyone came from calcutta. at the station, runa waited till they had all alighted. she was sure dadu would be coming out soon, he must be checking to see if they’d left anything by mistake on the upper berths. she waited patiently.
it took her a little time to realise dadu had not come.
she went with moy to calcutta soon after the wedding. it was just after saraswati pujo, she told moy all about that suddenly decided on pujo and their eight idols from kumortuli. and how dadu had given her chanda, how the children had shivered behind the pillar, how brojo da had become the hero after that, how mamoni made the best khaja, how tulu had eaten so much of the cucumber and moong that he’d had stomach ache for a week, how she had mumbled to saraswati thakur that she had already written a lot, and how she had prayed even though she believed that she didn’t believe in god, because dadu had found her a way.
shobita opened the door. runa was in a hurry to see her grandfather, she wanted him to meet moy.
she walked into his chamber without pausing or knocking, as she had done many times before. a strange feeling was making her heart tremble.
shotto babu was at his desk, reading. runa stopped as he looked up. moy was walking in a few steps behind her.
she saw her grandfather had grown much older than she remembered, he looked tired. and she could see he was struggling hard, very hard, with something.
she wished she could help him out in some way. maybe she could tell him, just for a moment don’t believe in the things you believe in. let it not matter, as you’d taught me to… and i am sure, god will understand.
his eyes looked so tired. she wanted to reach out. she wanted to see him relieved of that struggle. you can inspect an idol carefully and choose exactly what you want, but not human beings. she hoped her dadu would understand some day. and she knew he never really would.
i hope you enjoyed the story. i remember a saraswati from many years ago, it was a bit like this one. hope the bengali words were not difficult to read and understand. “chandrapuli” and “pantua” are sweets, the former a delightful “d” shaped one made of slowly thickened milk (kheer) and a little coconut, the latter is made mainly with cottage cheese, a touch of cardamom in it and dried evaporated milk. pantua are deep fried till they are brown and then dipped in syrup. “khaja” is not very easy to make. again a sweet, it’s a sort of pastry with layers. experts know how to keep it white even while frying. of course, this too is rolled in syrup. i haven’t had a khaja in years. don’t think such fine delicacies are available in shops, for that you need a mamoni or a grandmother. i would love to know your thoughts on the story, do leave a note/comment. thanks for reading.
“separate districts to the company’s workmen” quoted from the wikipedia entry on kumortuli.