It is that time of the year again. I look up – the morning sky is a brilliant sapphire, flecked with feathery, white clouds. The ivory kaash sways in the gentle breeze. My soul is imbued with the fresh, earthy whiff rising from the surrounding rain-washed greenery. I sense a moist suppleness seeping through my being. I feel pampered and rejuvenated.
As the sun ascends the sky, I hear the shuttered doors and windows of the time-worn house gradually creaking open. The red-brick façade, overgrown with weeds, speaks of neglect and decline.
The morning comes alive as I catch glimpses of aalta-lined, nimble feet running hither-thither, their dainty anklets tinkling in excitement. From my supine position, I hear female voices — a curious mix of the loud and the gentle, the decisive and the diffident. Sapnasundari, the imposing matriarch, issues crisp instructions in her gruff voice.
“Girls, stop giggling and loafing around. What a mess you all look after last night! Make sure you have showered and are in fresh clothes before Gangadhar Thakurmoshai comes with his entourage. Now run to the pool and take a dip…fast!”
Memories of a silver-haired, devout gentleman with kind eyes and an unsteady gait, flash before my eyes.
Aah, so today is the big day. One, both the girls and I look forward to, throughout the year.
Some more hustle-bustle, and the cacophony gradually fades out, as I hear loud splashing sounds in the pond behind the house.
I wait with bated breath. This is the only time when the world outside remembers us, the condemned denizens of these dark, forbidden lanes, whom society creates. And then conveniently forgets!
After a while, the auspicious hour arrives. How different Sapnasundari and her bevy of girls look today — radiant in their white-and-red saree, well-oiled hair gathered in a bun, faces bereft of all garish colour. Nolini, the 17-year-old recent inductee, steps forward to greet the holy men.
A familiar voice draws my attention.
“Ma, as you know, I’m here only to honour tradition. I beseech you to gift me some punya mati…the sacred soil…from outside your threshold, so we may use it to make the idol of Goddess Durga.”
I’m rendered speechless!
Thakurmoshai? This man?! But he’s a regular here…now feigning complete unfamiliarity! What a salacious young man – sermonising by day, and frequenting our shunned portals at night, lusting especially after Nolini!
Nolini extracts a large clod from my surface and offers it to Gangadhar.
“Gangababu, can we come down and offer prayers to DurgaMa this year?” Sapnasundari asks hopefully.
“My hands are tied. Your tribe is not allowed this privilege.” Gangadhar replies dismissively.
A collective sigh escapes the women.
I feel crushed. Gutted.
Who’s the ‘fallen’ one here – one who sells her body for a living? Or one who sells his soul for pleasure? And the real deity – is it the indifferent idol we worship in temples? Or the nondescript woman who fights real demons every day?
I look heavenwards for answers. I find none.
(Story only – 500 words)
*Kaash – tall stiff plants that grow in groups near water bodies, especially during autumn
*Thakurmoshai – priest
*Aalta – a red natural dye, used to adorn the hands and feet of Bengali women
*Puniya Mati – legend has it that a person leaves behind all his virtues before he enters a brothel. Thus, the soil outside a brothel becomes holy. The priest (or the idol-maker) has to ‘request’ the sex workers for this soil. It is then mixed with clay collected from the banks of the Ganges and used in the making of the idol.