Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Divine Tale | Nabaneeta Dev Sen

I. Ma Durga comes to her Baper Bari

As a daughter, I have always loved how Durga appears in public in her full family regalia — a son and a daughter to her right, a son and a daughter to her left, nicely balanced, and a somewhat distant hubby stuck in the background somewhere. It’s so sweet of her to bring her children along to share her unbelievable pampering in her baper bari.

Particularly since these are grown up kids, with successful careers. Each is a deity in his or her own right, they don’t need to tag along with their mom. In fact, they all have their own fan following. Each even has a special day of the year marked for his or her worship.

Ganesh is particularly popular in Maharashtra and Gujarat (thanks to Bal Gangadhar Tilak), on Ganesh Chaturthi and the day of his immersion the traffic in all of Mumbai stands still for hours. On the Bengali New Year’s day he is the hero again. The god of new beginnings is worshipped in every nook and corner, especially in all the stores and markets of Bengal. He appears once again on Deepavali, the north Indian New Year, to bless the north Indian business houses. All this is serious business.

Yet, who knows how divine minds work? Though wise and powerful, the god of success Ganesh may actually envy Kartik who does not have a fraction of his public appeal, but is pampered by uninhibited sexy ladies in the red light areas of Bengal. He is also worshipped by desperate women hoping for a last chance to conceive. A bachelor and a dandy, Kartik is forever showing off his good looks, and that of his beautiful pet, quite unlike his learned brother and his pet. A regular visitor to the red light districts, Kartik is a hot favourite there. Ganesh can never beat him at that.

Then there is Lakshmi, with her insatiable hunger for idolatry. Although worshipped in most Bengali homes every Thursday, she is back right after the family visit, within a week of Bijoya Dashami, to make her own puja collections on the night of the Kojagaree Purnima. She is back again on Deepavali, seeking attention along with Kali in some Bengali homes, and with Ganesh in some “non-Bengali” shops...

Unlike her sister, Saraswati waits till spring to be surrounded by her doting young worshippers.But just as puja hungry as Lakshmi, she collects her dues at three levels on the very same day — in private homes, in schools and colleges, and in eye-catching public pandals.

Quite a mystery, this goddess of learning. Lakshmi has a wifely, domestic look in her nice red sari, and has a powerful consort, who is so busy protecting the universe that he can never accompany his wife. We know that story. She is a familiar case. But Saraswati? A scintillating virgin in lily white, how does she keep herself so youthful and glamourous, instead of looking like the sad spinster that she ought to be? Sitting the whole day — and possibly the whole night — reading, writing, painting and playing the veena all by herself. No consort, no gym, no Yoga, no jogging, no swimming, no beauty parlour, nothing at all, yet so fit and so sexy! How does she do it? Where does her oomph come from?

Well, she is passionate about privacy, and has a great security system. The paparazzi can’t get close. So her personal matters are still secret, and probably not fit for public consumption anyway.

But Ma Durga knows it all. You cannot hide anything from her, mortal or divine. Though the most powerful one — as information is power — she still needs to have her children around to feel at home. To feel like a mother rather than like a warrior, when she comes to visit her own mom in Bengal. She arrives dramatically with the sea-green buffalo demon bravely fighting at her feet, in spite of being attacked by a fierce yellow lion. Neither a daughterly nor a motherly moment, really. So the presence of grown up children have their magical use in a family album, they make even the strangest sight look normal.

Come to think of it, the image of Durga as worshipped in Bengal is indeed rather odd. At one level, it is a peaceful domestic scene on earth, with four kids and their pets accompanying mom; at another, it is an intensely divine scene, with the ferocious 10-armed Devi and her kill, the half-animal half-human demon, and a hungry lion — all inextricably framed together. Hardly the sight to please your mother. Why can’t she just bring the pleasant kids along and leave the bleeding demon behind?

Because there is the Sandhipuja to take care of on the Ashtami night. Where the killing of the demon is celebrated through mantras, drums and bells, and a special Sandhipuja arati is performed with the panchapradip and conch shells. Durga was born precisely for that auspicious moment of victory. So how could she leave the demon behind? It’s his day too!

II. Conversation between mother and daughter

— Hi, Ma! It’s Ashtami tonight, which sari are you going to wear?

— Do I have a choice? I am still wearing whatever the sculptor fellow had wrapped around me way back in Kumortuli.

— Same here! Didi and I are stuck in our red and white uniforms, our hands in fixed positions, mine fitted with a veena and Didi’s with her jhaanpi. We can’t get our hair styled at Habib’s, we have to wear it long and loose for four days and nights at a stretch, no combing, no brushing, no oiling, no shampooing. Perfect for a nightmare of tangles and split-ends.

— Won’t matter, really. I have been doing it for ages, literally, several ages, you know? And so have you! It is this globalisation that has put all this useless tension in your head.

— But Ma, style is important.

— And you have style.

— Our style has gone out of fashion now.

— Your favourite fan Rabindranath once wrote, style never gets outdated, only fashion does.

— Did he? He has written so much, Ma, I can’t keep track. But why did he say that?

— I suppose because fashion is created by others, it keeps changing. Style comes from your personality, it is what you create for yourself, it’s your own thing. Don’t you see, I may not be fashionable, but I do have style?

— So does Dad, riding his bull in his hip-hugging tiger skin, his tangled brown hair in a casual top-knot, so much neater than the Rastafarians, a free flowing river pinned to it, topped by a crescent moon at a rakish angle, snakes coiled round his neck and arms — I quite like his weird style, Ma. No fashion designer can copy it. Dad’s unique. And so cool!

— That’s why he is Debadideb Mahadeb. I had gone through endless trouble to get his attention, you know. But when I got it, I was terrified of those snakes hissing in our bed…

— Are the snakes poisonous?

— I don’t really know, my dear, but it wouldn’t matter to your Dad, with all the drugs he has taken he must be immune to snake poison by now.

— Hush, Ma, first you talk about bed, then about Dad doing drugs… let’s change the topic. I am so glad you got me a swan for a pet, and not an owl. Swans are so graceful, so elegant. I can’t stand owls, Ma. Ugly and pretentious — always flaunting an omniscient look…

— But Lakshmi wanted one, and she is quite attached to it. Some people are owl people you know?

— Trust Didi to have strange tastes.

— And Ganesh wanted the mouse. He caught it himself playing with his trunk when he was a baby, and so was the mouse. In fact it was a teeny-weeny little thing, jumping about, pink and delicate and cute…

— Not any more. It’s brown, fat and creepy.

— Nor is your brother the same, sonamoni. Pink he may still be but not delicate.

— But he is sweet, Ma, with his big tummy and one broken tusk. And he is so smart and wise.

— Smarter than our handsome young man with his fashion statement of a peacock. Once, many years ago, I was playing a game with my sons. I said, whoever circled the earth first would get…

— I know, I know, we all know that one Ma! Straightforward Kartikdada flew round the earth in a jiffy, yet lost the garland, because our clever old fatso knew the Shastras better and circled you instead. You were partial to Ganeshdada, Ma — I think he cheated.

— Where is your Didi, by the way? Haven’t seen her for quite a while…

— You know she can’t sit still, she must be making an unexpected round of the banks, or making the Sensex dance a tandava.

— You don’t like your Didi much, do you?

— Do you think Didi likes me a lot?

— Let’s drop the subject.

— Have you noticed something, Ma? Whenever you are in a fix you drop the subject. I wonder how you take care of the universe? No wonder nothing is functioning on this planet any more with Shakti herself being so weak-kneed…

— Honestly, Saras!

— And may I say something? I beg your pardon, Ma, but I often wonder how you managed to kill the demon. Was it your pet lion that did the trick? Or did the poor demon commit suicide for your sake? Mohini you sure are, Ma, looking not a day older than your daughters and far sexier, wearing your dazzling weapons like ornaments. You can keep people mesmerised, generation after generation, make them bow and pray for five days and nights without even changing your sari once. Call it your style or whatever, it works. Yes, it could kill a demon, I guess…

— Thank you, sonamoni, I am glad you have found an answer. I can hear the owl hooting, your sister can’t be far away, it’s time for us to get ready. Its Ashtami night, Sandhipuja is coming up soon, the drumbeats are changing. I have work to do, give me a few minutes. I need to concentrate.

(Illustrations by Debasish Deb)

I absolutely loved Nabaneeta Dev Sen's story in last Sunday's Graphiti (The Telegraph's Sunday Magazine) and had to share it - especially with those who are not in Calcutta for the Pujos! Here's the scanned copy if you please...