There were bright glaring lights adorning both sides of the deserted road. Meera had her head slumped against the open side window. She could feel the cool night air ruffle her hair as the driver maneuvered the car slowly through the narrow road.
Loud, jarring music notes blasted from the speakers that were mounted at every alternate wooden pillar along side the road. Meera’s eyes were glazed, not really registering the formations that her mother and dadi were exclaiming about every few feet or so.
Every few seconds her eyes would flicker down to the nokia mobile clutched tight in her fingers.
Dadi and her mother kept pointing at the Indian flags made of glittering tunu bulbs. There was the flash of lightening that a blink later transformed into a majestic trishul. Half a block away, mice made from the outlines of red tiny bulbs scuttled up and down the road. Then, came the yellow lights resembling a fountain. Even Meera’s gaze was held captive by this. Durga puja lights were a thing to boast about in her city.
He hadn’t called. She would leave for her nani’s house tomorrow. Karan hadn’t called yet.
The dhaki was gearing up for his first performance. Heavily dressed, hassled women were up on the stage crowding in front of Durga ma. Meera has been pushed to one side, a meagre bunch of jawa leaves had been shoved into her hands. Pushpanjali would start soon.
“Did you hear the committee has spent 5 lakhs on their pandal this year. The structure resembles the Khajurao temple. I will be going there today. First had to come to the ma Durga of our colony, of course.”
The lady’s friend had appropriately ooh’ed and aah’ed at the right places.
“The Kalpanapur pandal is always undoubtedly the best. This time the artists came all the way from Kolkata.“, the friend whispered over the constant hum of chatter on stage.
Kalpanapur. Aryan’s home.
Meera had forgotten she had promised her classmate she would call him when she reached his home town. Well, not completely forgotten, truth be told. She had been eagerly waiting to reach her nani’s house, Aryan’s hometown, and then call him. What she hadn’t quite realized, that the time had finally come to make that call.
She was here now. She should call Aryan.
“These days they let any and everyone into the puja. I don’t even know that group getting onto the stage“.
“Look here, look here.. first the ladies and girls of the colony will give pushpanjali, then the gents. Please wait your turn.”
After a spirited round of shoving, Meera found herself pushed further to the edge of the stage. Her back was getting poked by an uncovered bamboo rod end. She hoped this would be over soon.
A second later her phone vibrated. She fished the phone out of her jhola. Had to stop to apologize hastily to the plump old women next to her, who was sweating profusely, and had been jabbed by Meera’s enthusiastic elbow.
An Airtel Happy Durga Puaj offer message.
She checked if there were any missed calls.
None. Karan had not called. Not yet.
“You were this much when I last saw you. Your nose is the exact shape as your bua’s“, a young aunty was peering too closely at Meera.
“Na na, her nose reminds me of her father. See, the same upwards tilt. A royal nose. You remember me, don’t you?“, another aunty, with purple lipstick that had overflown from her lips to her front incisor, was smiling alarmingly widely at Meera.
If Meera said yes, the aunty would probably have a lot more to say. And if Meera answered in the negative, equally likely, that another long tale of reminisce would follow. She was saved from the impossible task of choosing the lesser of the two evils when the lights dimmed and music started.
Phalguni Pathak’s voice crooned over the speakers on the stage to the right of Durga’s ma’s now deserted stage. There had been a lot of discussion, if it made sense to have the two stages set side by side. Durga ma and her children would not be able to see the performances, a lot of people had objected on this ground. The opposing party had, however, won, when they had laid the irrefutable claim that the goddess had eyes everywhere and saw everything.
Dhunichi naach had just ended and the evening entertainment was about to begin. The aunties took the seats Meera had been saving for her grandparents. No point in trying to look for them now. Young girls and boys were giggling away and looking industrious in the wings. On stage a giddy garba was in progress.
She wished she knew these people and could participate, but she was an outsider. This was only her vacation stop, not her everyday home. But, Meera still loved to watch the performances. The flashy dresses that magically looked alike, which years later she found was because the parents paid money to get them stitched from the same tailor.
Today, however, she was distracted.
Should she call Aryan? It didn’t feel right somehow. Not when Karan hadn’t called her yet. No connection to the two boys whatsoever. One was her boyfriend since 2 years. One a mere classmate she had met a few months at the start of her college. She hadn’t even talked to Aryan more than a few times. If she tried, she could count those instances on her fingers.
She was being unreasonable, she knew it. She stared at her blank phone screen, as if the intensity of her gaze would make the phone ring. It didn’t.
Nine thin tiny girls, dressed in their finest, sat in one line. Nav Kanya puja. Meera was older, an extra. But she loved coming every year. Aunty made her favourite food. The kala channa, puri and halwa never tasted as delicious as on this day.
The girls were from the outhouses from the neighbouring houses. Daughters of cooks, gardeners and house hold help. They sat in attention, at their best behaviour while aunty touched their feet, gave them a banana each and a ten ruppee note. Inside the kitchen their mothers were busy helping the cook prepare the food.
Meera looked towards her phone, which she had placed on the dinning table. She was certain she had left it on loud, but what if it was really on silent and she missed his call?
He hadn’t called. How long should she wait?
When her turn came, aunty thanked her for coming. Meera was touched. She should be the one thanking aunty for the food, and a few minutes of peace.
She went to the wash basin at the far end off the wall and tried to remove the big red tika aunty had put on her forehead. It had smudged all over.
This was not right. She was driving herself crazy expecting Karan to call.
Just then her phone vibrated. Without bothering to dry her hands she ran to pick up the call. Her grandmother wanted to know when was she expected home.
There was peas pulao along with the regular khichdi bhog today. Meera was sitting next to her grandfather and his friends. Long rows of wooden tables were laid out under the tent and people sat on both sides. Well intentioned, middle aged men were running around carrying huge vessels of food. Everyone seemed to be calling out for something or the other.
She had asked earlier, what Kartikaye signified? Saraswati ma was the goddess of learning, Lakshmi for money and Ganesh was auspicious beginnings. She didn’t know what Durga ma’s fourth child brought to the world. Everyone had been asked a number of undecisive answers had floated about till food had started getting served. The attention had shifted.
“Don’t start. Today the cook was instructed to use jaggery in the chatni. We have to try that.”
“And also the baiguni is exceptionally fresh. My Missus learnt this trick from Sanjeev kapoor’s food channel on TV, that the fried items should be plaed on plain tissues to soak the oil.”
“But dada our cooks have been using newspaper to soak oil since last year.”
“Arre na na dada. Newspaper print can be harmful, that is why my Missus insisted on plain tissue. You eat today’s baiguni and see how good it will be”
A very pretty girl is her mid twenties wearing a lot of sindoor and golden jewelry came upto the group and started scooping out kheer on the leaf patals.
“I can give only a little, so that there is enough for all“, she said softly. “This is from Ma Durga’s main bhog. We put almonds in it today. ”
Meera knew her by face. She was the new bride in the house across from the street. Meera smiled at her.
“Have you visited Kalpanapur, yet? The idol is made all in gold. I went there today early morning. Was very crowded, but worth it“, she said to Meera.
“Aah we wanted to avoid the crowd, so haven’t been there. Tomorrow is the last day of the puja so I don’t think there will be time to go“, Meera’s grandfather explained.
The pretty bride exchanged a few more pleasantries, before moving on with her limited supply of kheer to the next table.
Kalpanapur again… And Karan still hadn’t called. And she hadn’t called Aryan still..
“Hi Aryan. Am in town. I wanted to call you, but have been busy. How have you been?”
She clicked send and felt her heart leap in anticipation. A second later her phone beeped and she jumped up from her chair.
“I knew you wouldn’t call. That is why I hate all girls“.
Meera was aghast.
That was weird. Filmy. Silly. Childish.
She couldn’t stop thinking about this reply from Aryan.
On stage the women were playing what resembled holi, only the color used was sindoor. Before Durga ma left, married women had to apparently play this messy game. The men were busy directing the truck driver to back up at the correct angle so Ganesh’s heavy murti could be lifted and put in place for its last drive. His wife, the branch of banana tree wrapped in the white and red cotton saree was found a spot next to Ganesh.
Meera stood with her back to everything. She had placed her maths book at Saraswati ma’s feet. She hoped the blessing would get passed on to the other courses she was taking in college as well.
Next to her a group of excited kids were volunteering to ride with the idols on the truck. Since none of the parents were allowing this, finally, it was decided that the uncle with the biggest car would take the kids upto the river where the idols would be submerged.
Karan had not called. Today was dusherra.
There would be a lavish dinner at night and shanti jal would be sprinkled on all from the river where ma durga floated and disintegrated into. Ravan had been killed today. And mahishasur. A new beginning.
Meera laughed at her dramatic turn of thoughts. She smoothened the crumpled bit of paper that had a 10 digit mobile number on it. With shaking finger she dialled and held her breath.
“Hello“, an alert voice responded on the other end.
“Hi Aryan. This is Meera. See .. I called“, she added, rather anticlimatically.
“Your message was rude you know. If I was like those girls you claim to hate I probably would not have called.”
Meera couldn’t recognize her voice. And even though she was trying to keep calm there was an unmistakable tremor.
“Meera do you want flowers from Saraswati ma’s feet to put into your books?“, her nani shouted from the stage.
“Yes“, Meera shouted back, covering the phone with her hand.
“If you have finished talking to others, tell me if you will be coming towards Kalpanapur? I can show you around. The pandal’s quite nice.”
“I.. I don’t think we will be coming that side“, she stammered, suddenly wishing she could go see this beautiful pandal everyone was raving about.
“Okay“, was all Aryan said.
A few strained seconds of silence passed. Meera tried to think of something to say.
Should she ask him to apologize for his rude message? He probably would not say sorry and then Meera would have to end the call. And she didn’t really want to, which was of course silly, since they weren’t even talking. Talking, technically meant saying things, and here was just silence.
“Okay then see you around in college on Monday“, she finally said feebly.
Aryan had cut the call even before Meera could say another word. Meera was frustrated, but smiling by the time Ma Durga was lifted onto the truck amidst a range of vocal chords ululating.
She had called him.
It was the day after Durga Puja had officially ended. One day before the new semester in college was about the begin.
Meera had dressed up in her last remaining new churidar. Yellow chiffon. She loved the orange crinkled bandhani dupatta that had come with it. She even wore a tiny silver stone bindi. It made her feel conscious and grown up, at the same time.
She was following her grandparents through the maze of the Khajurao temple imitation puja pandal. They were lucky. This year the idols were gone, but the outside structure was kept for visitors for a few more days, considering the amounts of money that had been spent on erecting it in the first place.
Her phone never left her hand. Even though her grandmother had been worried that someone in the crowd might snatch it, Meera kept it hidden in her hand.
Should she call him? Aryan, was rude and abrupt and unpredictable. Aryan was only a classmate. She should not even be thinking so much. She was in his part of the city, she should stop over thinking. She should call him.
She hadn’t. Not yet.
If she delayed more, any time now, most probably, she would have to leave for home because the tour of the pandal was coming to an end.
“I want to eat the orange candy ice cream form that stall.”
She was stalling.
When even that was done and she was running out of excuses, she finally started to dial the number she had memorized since yesterday having stared at it endlessly from the piece of paper it was written on.
She had only gotten to the third digit when a firm hand placed itself on her shoulder.
“Hi, Happy dussehra!“, a familiar voice whispered close.
It was a happy dussehra. The happiest dussehra it had ever been.
Hope you enjoy this short story set during the days of Durga Puja.
More on the festive season