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“Give me some ilish, there’s none on my plate” said Taranath searching for a piece of his favorite hilsa in the curry.
“You are worried about the maach? I don’t believe you! Spare a thought for Rudra. My poor baby is fighting for life and… ” Tears were beginning to well up in her eyes.
Tara sighed. He could sometimes be so lost in his own world that he could be oblivious to the pain of people around him. He brought her close and patted her head. “What has to be will be, Mishty. Have faith in Maa, has she ever let go of our hand?” He was aware of his wife agony and he had been numb with pain himself, but tomorrow was an important day. His duty was paramount.
Their 8 year old son Rudra, had fallen from the top floor of an under-construction building playing hide and seek with his friends. Now he was battling for life in the ICU of a local hospital. Until last year, Mohun Pal, Taranath’s father had been performing the Khuti puja, where the first set of wooden planks would be nailed together. This would become the platform on which the idol of the goddess would be erected. Due to his father’s failing health, this year the onus was on Taranath to ensure that the journey of the Mother was held as per his family’s tradition. There was no way he was going to give up his duty and be by his son’s bedside. There wasn’t much he could do anyway.
“I’m going to get puja items for the Chandi paath tomorrow”, he told her as he finished his lunch, “Do you need anything from the market for making the bhog?”
Tomorrow was a special day. It would mark the annual journey of the goddess, beginning with the Ratha Yatra. As was their family tradition, Maa Shakti would be invoked in the form of Chandi, amidst the chanting of the Chandi paath or recitations from the Chandi scriptures and artisans would seek permission from the divine mother so that they could create her out of clay.
Community pujas and market demands, including the recent demand from foreign shores had made most artisans go the mass production way, dumping the age old family traditions. It was a great way to make quick money. Indeed as Mishty had pointed out, no one in their sane mind could let go of such an offer. They needed that money for Rudra’s treatment. But Tara was adamant. For him, bringing the goddess to life in the most traditional way was far more important than making quick money.
Wiping her eyes, Mishty gave him a list of things she would need to make the bhog tomorrow. Tara smiled and touched her cheek lovingly, “Bhaalo, I will get going now.”
As the sun dawned amidst the blowing of the conches, the beating of the dhak and the recitation of the Chandi paath, Taranath bowed his head in reverence to the divine mother as he performed the ‘Khuti puja’. “Permit me to make you in clay, mother, as our scriptures specify. Come alive and watch over me, so that I commit no error in sculpting you as majestically as you should be.” He watched as Mishty laid down a grand bhog for the noibiddo or the holy offerings. He was glad she had not allowed her emotions to rule over her duty.
That evening, they received a call from Mishty’s brother, Prasanto, who was looking after little Rudra in the hospital. “Tarababu, shubho samachar,” said her brother excitedly. Rudra, who had been lying comatose for the past 3 months, had wriggled his little toes and the doctors had been excited with the development.
Mishty and Taranath wept like two little children, it was indeed miraculous that Rudra should respond on the day of the day “Khuti puja”.
Every day after that, Taranath with his team of artisans got involved in sculpting the idols of the divine mother graduating from one step to another and from one age old ritual to another. He sourced the Ganga Jal from the Hoogly, though it would have been more convenient to use tap water that was so readily available.
Mishty watched the structure being formed each day as she came to the workshop carrying food for her husband and his artisans. The headless structure of the goddess in straw and bamboo stood towering several feet above her in its entire splendor.
The straw structure was complete and it was now time for the 'ekmaati' stage, when the structure would be covered in clay. It was time for Tara to visit the house of Yashomati, the courtesan in Sonagachi, and beg for permission to collect clay from her house. He would then mix this clay with the mound that would go into making the idol. The idea was that Durga puja being an all encompassing festival everyone had a right to be a part of it in their own distinct way.
Mishty had been against Taranath’s visit to the city’s red light area, but being the head artisan, it was his duty to complete the ritual. Taranath prayed that she would understand the significance of the ritual. It was a miracle again, that made Mishty change her mind. And this time too, the miracle came from the hospital. “Mishty, we found a kidney donor for Rudra” said Prasanto. “But there’s an issue. The donor is the deceased daughter of….” he struggled with words, “umm…..her mother is from Sonagachi.”
Mishty’s eyes filled with tears as she understood what the divine mother was trying to convey to her. “Go ahead with it dada”, she said, her heart heavy with gratitude, “It is Maa’s gift to me this Durga puja.” She sat before the photo of the divine mother begging for forgiveness, tears rolling down her eyes.
She took out the new saree she had brought for herself, for the puja, and handed it over to her husband. “This is for Yashomati, give this to her and get the first handful of clay from her backyard.”
As the clay was beginning to mould the straw structure into shape, it was breathing life into little Rudra too. The Idol was almost ready. It was the day of the “mastak daan”, when the head of the goddess would be attached to the rest of body, amidst blowing of conches and pujas. The deity would come to life with that. And as Mishty had come to expect, the goddess showered her with a miracle yet again. Rudra’s body had been responding miraculously well to the treatment. His CT scans had shown that the clot in his brain had dissolved, as if on its own. Doctors at the hospital had been amazed with the progress.
Amidst tears, Mishty blew the conch over and over again that evening, throwing sindoor over the photo of the divine mother and dancing like one possessed.
“I want to go to the hospital,” she begged her husband.
“Wait until Mahalaya, it is important for me to do the ‘Chakshu daan’,” said Taranath. He had been craving to meet his child too, but the final ritual had to be completed. “Let me draw mother’s eyes and bid her goodbye. We will go to the hospital after that.”
On the day of Mahalaya, between ululations and the chanting of the Chandika stotras, Taranath drew the eyes of the divine mother even as tears streamed down his face. The divine mother looked astoundingly beautiful. His hands trembled as he brought them together in prayer.
They would bid goodbye to Maa for yet another year, while people would take her to their homes to be worshipped for the next 10 days. Taranath had completed his duty as was expected of him.
When Prasanto called that evening, Mishty knew what he would tell her even before she took his call. “Rudra has opened his eyes, isn’t it dada?” she beamed. “Yes, but how did you know?” asked Prasanto surprised. "Shubho Mahalaya, dada," she said smiling. "Shubho Mahalaya, Mishty." he replied.
Together they bowed before the idol of Maa Durga. Mishty knew she had been naïve not trusting the mother enough. The divine mother had not let go their hand. She never would.