‘Since 1979, we have been celebrating Kali Puja in our house. But there is a history behind this tradition. … One of my brothers was born on a new moon night on Kali Puja so he was named Kali. … We always use a small idol that Kali makes himself or at least puts some finishing touches on.’
‘I started getting this recurrent dream where I saw myself offering puja at Tarapith. … now people know and expect me to go to Kalighat every Poila Boishak’.
Mamata Banerjee, My Unforgettable Memories
Where had the ram-dao1 disappeared?
The general consensus that emerged from the tin-roofed houses was that it was all because of Shokti Haldar. He had switched to the Trinamool Congress Party. That had been a mistake. While no one asked ‘How could he …?’, since they had all voted for Didi, they were angry that he had ‘changed’ parties. It was one thing to be a voter and another to become a ‘party-man’. Where was Shokti Haldar? Had he really gone to Kolkata to seek Didi’s blessings before his first Charak puja as a TMC councillor? They laughed at the possibility – their religion had taught them that virgin women in widow’s white saris were powerless. Didi could be a Brahmin and powerful, but ‘Ma Mati Manush’ was one thing and Ma Kali quite another. So they preferred to believe Shokti Haldar’s nephew: ‘Shokti-kaka is taking swimming lessons …’.
Shibu, now an immigrant, working as a driver in Siliguri, had come with his wife and eleven month old daughter to Trimohini two days ago. Like everyone else, he too was beginning to worry: what if the ram-dao really did not emerge from the pond? The ten thousand rupees saved over the last ten months, ever since the birth of his daughter, the difficulty in getting leave from his employer, and the overnight bus journey with a bawling infant – all this would come to naught if the ram–dao was not found. Today he had planned to get his dala ready: he had already brought four kinds of fruits from Siliguri, where they were far cheaper, and a dozen lyangra mangoes from Malda, the bus having made a thirty minute halt in that town. His offerings of fruits to Ma Kali would be better than everyone else’s, even Shokti Haldar’s: that thought made him happy and proud and even nervous. The sweetest mangoes from Malda, oranges from Mirik (so what if their skins were a little shrivelled in the heat), apples from Kashmir (the Bihari fruit-seller must have cheated him, but so what?), Singapori bananas, and grapes from a place he had never heard of – who in Trimohini could offer such a basket to the goddess? Now only the earthen lamps and joysticks needed to be purchased. He didn’t worry about the flowers: there were enough in Chhoto-mama’s backyard. (Only city people bought flowers. The gods and goddesses preferred fresh flowers that came free, not those bought from the marketplace. Two things could not be bought, he was certain: flowers and ululation.)
With these thoughts, Shibu went to look for his daughter. He hadn’t heard her cry for some time now. ‘Mamata,’ he called out her name, walking out of the room that Chhoto-mami had arranged for them to stay in. There was no response. ‘Lokkhi.’ There she was, his wife, talking to a group of people near the bamboo gate.
‘Where’s Mamata?’ he asked her, pulling her by the anchal of her sari.
‘Mamata? In Kolkata, where else?’ replied an elderly woman, laughing and revealing her betel leaf stained teeth. For Shibu this had become the difference between the villager and the city-bred: he hadn’t noticed how white teeth could be – or perhaps should be – until he went to live in the city. Paan, biri, nosshi, khoini – they marked one as a villager.
He ignored the woman’s words. ‘She wasn’t with me,’ he said, looking at Lokkhi.
‘Mamata tor sotin?’ the woman asked Lokkhi now. Most of the people in the gathering laughed at her words. It embarrassed Lokkhi and made her worry about her husband. What if Shibu flew into a rage? She had suffered enough to learn how to measure her words with the man. It made her angry too. Shibu, in spite of the occasional violence, had been a good husband to her. He had been loyal, where was the question of sotin, the other woman? Also, it embarrassed her to think of Didi, a woman she liked and admired, as the other woman in her marriage.
‘Mamata aamar meye,’ she replied, walking towards the house. Though Lokkhi had initially argued with Shibu against naming their firstborn after the Chief Minister of the state, she had gradually come to like the name. Her first choice of name had been Satabdi. She had seen the actress in many Bangla films and later in the travelling jatras, and had heard that she was now a politician in Didi’s party. ‘Why not Satabdi?’ she had demanded of Shibu.
‘It’s the name of the fastest train in India,’ had been her husband’s answer. It was Shibu’s secret ambition to be a train-driver, and so he had created an inventory of second hand knowledge about trains and the railway ministry. ‘Have the Japanese built a railway line to the moon?’ he had asked his employer, Dr. Sen, when the latter had told him about Sputnik and Apollo.
Lokkhi did not want her daughter to be named after a train. She was superstitious about this: her parents had named her youngest brother ‘Saheb’, after a popular Tapas Pal film, and now her brother was in Dilli, working as a man-servant to a Punjabi family. When Fokla-da had gone to meet him in his paara, a village probably famous for gur, jaggery, because it was called Gur-gaon, he had found Saheb saying ‘Ji Saheb’ to everything that the turbaned Punjabi man told him. Lokkhi was certain she did not want her daughter to run away from her with the speed of a train.
Shibu gave her reasons. His employer, Dr. Sen, had two sons, Saurav and Amartya. They had been named after two famous Bengali men: Saurav Ganguly, the cricketer, and Amartya Sen (might be a relative of Dr. Sen, thought Shibu) who had apparently won some important prize. Shibu wanted to name his daughter after a famous Bengali woman too. And since she had been born on the 15th of May, just two days after Didi’s famous election victory, the doctor had himself suggested that she be named ‘Mamata’.
‘What about a pet name?’ Dr. Sen’s wife had asked when the couple had gone to show her the baby. ‘Isn’t “Mamata” too long to be one?’.
‘You give her one, boudi,’ replied Shibu immediately.
Mrs. Sen had looked at the ceiling for a while (Shibu had noticed that about educated people, they always looked at the ceiling when they thought deeply, the way villagers looked at the sky when calling out to god) and said, ‘Since you have already named her Mamata, just to keep parity with the wave of Poribartan that she’s brought about, let’s call her “Pori”? Pori from Poribartan, “change”’.
Lokkhi didn’t really care for these high-sounding words but was happy with the pet name. “Pori”. “Pori” for ‘fairy’. Mamata would indeed be her fairy.
All this flashed through her mind as she followed her husband into the house, looking for her daughter. There she was, sitting on Alladi-dida’s lap and smiling at her mother.
‘Cha?’ asked Lokkhi, a courtesy.
Alladi-dida declined, ‘Tea in this Chaitra heat? Mad?’.
Shibu went and sat at Alladi-dida’s feet. ‘Ram-dao ki aashibey na?’ he asked, almost in tears. Lokkhi joined him.
‘Tomorrow’s the Shawshan Khela, let’s be patient,’ replied the oldest woman in the village. ‘The tantrics have arrived. One hundred and eight masks of Ma Kali are also ready. Have you met the other bhakts? One Bholanath bhakt came to see me, I can’t remember his name. Another Shitala Ma bhakt too. Why are all of you in mourning? Be patient. The people of Chakdapot have been through this earlier.’
‘Really?’ asked Lokkhi.
‘When?’ asked Shibu.
‘Dabot Kali Mandir has many secrets …’
‘But you know everything, Alladi-dida. You have seen the British. You have seen it all,’ pleaded Shibu.
‘I can’t remember the Bengali year correctly. Himen schoolmaster will be able to tell you that, but everyone here calls it “Shatator”. 77. That year the ram-dao did not emerge from the pond at all. Had you been born then, Shibu? No, no, how long ago was that?’ Alladi-dida paused to think.
‘35,’ said Lokkhi, suddenly proud of her primary school maths. She would have taken her Madhyamik exams had her father not sent her to work in the SDO’s house.
‘You are not that old,’ said the old woman, smiling.
‘What happened that year, Alladi-dida?’ asked Shibu.
‘I think Fokla was born that year. His father – your jethu, Lokkhi – had bought a goat for the sacrifice. He had prayed for a baby boy after Tara and Tora. But the ram-dao was nowhere to be found. So Hyabla went and bought a shining ram-dao from Sushil Roy’s new shop.’
‘Who was the sarkari mukha that year, Alladi-dida?’ asked Shibu.
‘Kanu Biswas. Do you remember him, Shibu? He was the one who changed your name from Shibabrata to Angshuman when you were seven.’
‘I hated it. I left school because of that. Everyone would call me Hanuman instead of Angshuman. What does it mean even? I wonder why he did that. Do you know why, Alladi-dida?’ asked Shibu.
‘Oh, I can’t exactly say why, but I remember Himen-master telling me that Kanu Biswas had joined the CPM, and they didn’t believe in Hindu gods. Their gods were all foreigners, bearded men. I can’t remember their names. I didn’t care. I told Kanu, “So what if your new gods have beards? Our Baba Loknath also had a beard”. And he said that Baba Loknath was a man, not a god. So I asked him, “What about your bideshi gods? Were they not men?”. He said that they were supermen. God knows what that meant! When he kept on arguing with me – and you must remember that I was much younger then, so people didn’t give me the respect they give me today – I asked him, “What about goddesses? What do your goddesses look like? Do they have beards too?”. And he turned away and told me that his party did not believe in goddesses. You know that’s why I am so happy that Didi has become the mukhyo mantri. She is an incarnation of Ma Kali herself …’.
‘So there was no animal sacrifice that year, Alladi-dida?’ asked Lokkhi, nervous. What would happen to her Mamata then if they couldn’t sacrifice the young goat they had bought yesterday?
‘As I said, no ram-dao emerged from the pond of the Dabot Kali Mandir. Even the ram-dao that Hyabla had bought, it disappeared on the morning of the Charak Puja. They searched for it everywhere. Even the police joined them in the search, but it was Ma Kali’s doing, who could change that? Dulu, your jethima, even contemplated suicide, do you know that Lokkhi?’
Lokkhi shook her head, wondering whether she too would meet her aunt’s fate.
‘What happened after that, Alladi-dida?’ asked Shibu, the anxiety dry in his throat.
‘Oh, there were all kinds of rumours. Chakraborti purohit said that the sword had multiplied into a hundred and eight progenies and was now taking revenge for the deaths of Naxals all over Bengal. A few other Brahmins, following him, began calling our Dabot Kali as Naxal Kali! Such silly stories, what can I say! I am a woman. I can read another woman’s mind. I told my mother-in-law that our Ma Kali was trying to adjust to the change. How would the CPM, this new party, treat her? What if it used her ram-dao for other kinds of killings? But no one paid any heed to my words. They made poor Kanu Biswas buy more than 4000 goats.’
‘What did Kanu babu do with all those goats?’
‘No one knows. Ranjan-master says that they all became the CPM!,’ said Alladi-dida, laughing.
‘Na, tell us, what happened after that?’ pleaded Shibu, taking young Mamata from the woman and putting her on his lap.
‘Chakraborti purohit suddenly died in Boishakh that year. Some said it was a heart attack. Others said it was poisoning. How did it matter? In the end it is all the same. Death.’
‘And Kanu Biswas?’ asked Shibu again.
‘What about Kanu Biswas? Do you not see the two storeyed house he has built? He grew a beard, like his gods. He became a god, what else!’
‘No, I meant what happened after that? After 77?’ asked Shibu.
‘78, you mean? Everything went back to as it was. The ram-dao began to emerge from the heart of the pond exactly two days before Neel Puja. But something changed, you know.’
‘What?’ asked Lokkhi.
‘I can’t say exactly what changed, but something did. You know, people, especially your generation, Shibu, they no longer thought of the goddess as all powerful. Netas became more important to you all. More Zindabad Zindabad, less Joy Ma Kali. Vote puja!’
‘What if the ram-dao doesn’t arrive this year, Alladi-dida? How will I keep my maanot?’ asked Shibu.
‘At least the goat will be saved,’ said the old woman, preparing to get up.
Mamata began to cry. Lokkhi took her inside, possibly to breastfeed.
They did not sleep the entire night, waiting for daybreak, for some light to leak from the sky. To avoid talking about what they thought was the impending doom, they spoke about food: the dal was too sour, only villagers eat saag at night, did Hutum-kaka mix water with the milk he sent for Mamata, and so on. Then they complained about how difficult it was to sleep on a borrowed bed and how nights are always longer in a new place. When they ran out of conversation, they sighed and cleared their throats in preparation of saying something, but the words didn’t come. And when it seemed that they would never have words to exchange in this lifetime, Lokkhi suddenly began talking about her dreams for Mamata.
‘Let her grow up a little. I’ll take up some work in boudi’s house. I’ll tell her that I’ll do anything you want me to. I’ll wipe the shit off your bottom if you want me to, but please boudi, please help my daughter with an education,’ she said.
‘What if she doesn’t …’ said Shibu.
‘Uff, ko daak daiko na,’ the words came out of her fiercely. Why call bad times with your words? Men were such idiots, and yet they had managed to rule the world. How, she wondered.
‘I’ll make her a doctor,’ said Shibu.
‘Doctor? Like your “Sir”? Then you can drive her around to the medical college and her different clinics,’ said Lokkhi, suddenly happy with having come up with a solution.
‘Me? Why? I will employ a driver for her. I will choose the best one, someone who can run the car with the best possible mileage. Imagine, if it’s Rs. 70 a litre now, how much petrol might cost when our Mamata becomes a doctor!’
‘700?’ asked Lokkhi. And after a few moments of deep thought, she made a pronouncement: ‘I won’t get Mamata married’.
‘Huh? Why?’ asked Shibu, almost horrified at the thought.
‘I’ll make her a Didi,’ replied his wife with pride.
‘Lokkhi, what do you think, is Didi happy?’ ventured Shibu.
‘Any woman without a husband is happy!’
Shibu did not reply. He promised to himself that he would work harder in the future to make his wife change her mind about this, about him, and about happiness.
‘At least there’s no husband to beat her up,’ Lokkhi continued. ‘Does she have anything like this?’ she asked, taking her arm out from beneath the pillow. Although it was impossible to see anything in the dark, Shibu knew exactly what his wife was showing him: the scar left by a deep incision from his shaving razor. It had been two years but the mark showed no signs of disappearing.
‘But the CPM … how they have beaten up Didi, do you know that?’ That comparison relieved Shibu temporarily of his guilt.
‘The CPM is not her husband!’ Lokkhi turned towards the wall and began sobbing. Dry tears.
‘You cry like Mamata,’ said Shibu, laughing, reaching his hand out to her shoulder and pulling her. She moved farther away, closer to the wall.
‘And you hurt like the CPM,’ she retorted angrily.
And all was temporarily well. But it was still not dawn. Shibu looked at Mamata and grew jealous: how peacefully she slept.
‘One never knows until the end, Lokkhi. The ram-dao might appear today, who knows? Or I’ll go and buy one. It’s all the same. The goat must die for my daughter’s good …’. Shibu kept on saying the same thing, phrasing it differently each time so that it sounded new and important to him, all this until it woke up the young Mamata. The baby began crying, waking up her mother from what might have been the first footsteps of sleep, the miserly offerings after a white night. Lokkhi sat up on the bed and began unhooking her blouse to breastfeed her.
Suddenly there was a sound, of someone falling. Shibu unbolted the door and ran outside.
‘A kalboishakhi!’ he reported nervously.
‘Shout. Wake up everyone. We should all be prepared for the storm,’ Lokkhi instructed.
‘And Mamata?’ asked Shibu, but did not wait to catch his wife’s response.
‘Mama’, ‘Mami’, ‘Puchku’, ‘Tepi’, ‘Tota’, … the dawn filled with the sound of names, of warning, excitement and fear. Everyone woke up asking the same question, ‘Has it been found?’. Lokkhi joined them soon. Every few minutes she would look at the sky and ask, ‘What if the ram-dao rains from the sky?’. They laughed at her words though they were actually irritated.
‘Let’s wake up Alladi-dida,’ said Pawcha, Shibu’s youngest cousin. No one paid his words any attention.
‘Look,’ one of the girls shouted so suddenly, it seemed that the world had almost ended.
Mamata was walking towards them, her baby steps without control or direction. She was smiling and crying, she had become an adult. Lokkhi ran towards the little girl and lifted her up to the sky. At least there was one happy thing about the morning. It unnerved Shibu; he saw everything as a sign, especially on holy days like this one. Where was the goat? Ah, there it was, its jaws in an unceasing chewing motion, feeding on glossy jackfruit leaves which shone in the early morning light. It looked so much at peace, so indifferent to fear and death, to god and men, that it angered Shibu. He kicked it on its hind legs. The goat stood up in reflex, looked to its left and right, and then folded its legs to go back to its earlier position. It began chewing the jackfruit leaves again. Shibu, suddenly filled with the guilt of having kicked what would soon be a sacrificial scapegoat, reached out for the body of the goat with his right hand and touched it to his forehead, a late pronaam.
He sat near the well, watching the women of the house prepare the offerings to the goddess: the wicker baskets and kulos filling up with five kinds of fruits, batasha, earthen lamps, joysticks, sindoor, sandalwood paste, fine noonia rice, rice stalks saved from the Poush harvest, and several other things that only women thought necessary or could recognise. A little later, Lokkhi came near him, asking him to take care of the baby while she drew water from the well. Mamata had to be given a bath.
‘Quick,’ said Shibu suddenly, ‘I’ll go to the market to buy a ram-dao’.
‘Why?’ asked his wife.
‘The goat has to be sacrificed.’ And with those words, he pulled a shirt from the clothesline and walked out of the house.
There was not a single ram-dao to be bought in Chakdapot. The shopkeepers said that there was a ban on its sale. How could that be true? thought Shibu. He would go and ask Shokti Haldar. But where was the Trinamool councillor? The man must be preparing to wear his mask and dance at the Shawnshan Khela. Would he be able to recognise him amidst the crowd of similar Ma Kali masks? thought Shibu.
A lock hung on the gates of Shokti Haldar’s house. An old man who looked Bihari to Shibu said that everyone from the house had fled.
‘And Shokti Haldar?’ asked Shibu.
‘When I came to deliver milk two days back, the maid told me that Shokti Haldar was learning how to swim.’
Shibu decided to take the night bus to Siliguri if the ram-dao wasn’t found today. He would carry the goat with him and offer it as a gift to Dr. Sen and boudi. Let me go and check the pond myself, he thought, pulling his lungi from near his ankles to his knees. The ram-dao might have arrived by now, who could tell.
‘Jhawr aaschhey,’ shouted a passerby. But the sky, though still storm-dark, only hung like a premonition. It hadn’t rained yet.
The road had crumbled, Shibu had to be careful about not spraining his ankle. He walked in quick steps, sometimes running as if to make up for some imagined lost time.
When he reached the pond at last, he was scared. The water, reflecting the dark surprises of the sky, lay like a shroud. He had never seen its water so still. As a child, he and his friends would come to spot the pair of cheetol fish that supposedly carried the ram-dao to the shore. Where were they? Torn pieces of red shalu cloth lay scattered around it. The tantrics must have left them there last night. Shibu initially mistook them for CPM flags. Spotting the Dabot Kali Mandir in the middle of the pond, he folded his hands into a pranam. He prayed for Mamata, for Lokkhi, for himself, and though he did not know why, he also prayed for the goat. When he opened his eyes, he saw something move. It filled him with fear. What if it was Ma Kali herself? He was not prepared to meet the goddess, at least not in a lungi. He closed his eyes and opened them a little later.
Shibu was shocked. He was certain that he’d seen this man somewhere. But where?
As he began walking faster, making mental calculations of the amount of money he had with him and therefore could be robbed off, he saw the man touching the skin of the pond water with his toe. Yes, he recognised the man at last. Shokti Haldar!
Shibu tied his lungi between his legs and jumped into the pond. Shokti Haldar still hadn’t learnt to swim.
- ram-dao: the holy cleaver used for animal sacrifice.
Sumana Roy lives in Siliguri, the Chicken’s Neck region, West Bengal. Her poems, fiction and essays have been published in Guernica, Asian Cha, Pratilipi, Seminar, Biblio, Open Magazine and Himal Southasian, among others.