“I will return here once more, by the bank of Dhansiri, to this Bengal” Jibananda Das
Political spaces may be partitioned, but human emotions, joy, sadness, hope and aspirations, the nostalgic mind, love – can these be split asunder?
Of the mellifluent melodies thrown up by life over the years, a particular memory of a sorrowful Bijoya Dashami, (traditionally bringing Sharadiya, the autumnal festival around the worship of Goddess Durga, to a close) still evokes a strain of sadness in my mind. I recall, how as a child I once experienced the bustling excitement of my family in the run up to Pujo (the ceremonial worship) as preparations were on for a visit to desher bari ie our ancestral home, now a part of Bangladesh. In fact, visiting our home every year during Pujo was a deliberate ritual followed by my family. The episodes remain crystal clear in my mind’s eye to this day.
My maternal uncle’s house was located in Pabna town, a place which was home to me for several years after my birth. To be honest, as a child, my maternal grandmother was the only mother I knew for a long time. We used to routinely visit her home every year during the summer, the intoxicating season of mangos and jackfruits. On our way back there was a halt at Nilfamari station; there used to be checking as well as a change of coaches. It was mandatory to carry in our baggage an earthen pot filled with pantua, this sweet dessert of East Bengal, coveted all over. At the time of transfer to a new train, the container of sweetmeats was more often than not unsealed and inspected: sometimes the sweets were even broken into two. We used to feel rather agitated by the conduct of the authorities but were unable to protest. ‘Quiet, checking is on’ was the silent admonition that we were subject to. This sort of conduct baffled me then; it was only after reaching maturity did the cause for this intrusion dawn on me.
This year, the autumnal sky and the air around us uplifted and exhilarated our senses. We were proceeding towards Mohanpur village or the Lahiri Mohanpur as it was known. It was a remote rural settlement in the Pabna district of erstwhile East Pakistan now known as Bangladesh. This rather obscure place was, however, to carve out a niche for itself in the pages of history and that too, due to the spirited sacrifice of my grand uncle, my father’s uncle. He was the famed revolutionary arraigned in the Kakori Conspiracy Case, a fearless martyr and victim of death penalty, Rajendranath Lahiri1 In the aftermath of this incident the Lahiri family was subject to endless scrutiny and suspicion by the British government. Many in the family were extremely gifted students: my own father had ranked high in the examination for securing a government job but was denied a deserving position. Later he joined the RMS or Royal Mail Service, though all this took place years before I came into this world, possibly in pre partition times or immediately after.
It was on a beautiful sun-drenched autumn morning that we alighted in our tiny village railway station. We carried with us few pieces of luggage of different sizes and boxes of tea. From the diminished volume of the tea chests and the much-reduced paraphernalia of baggage as compared to our earlier travels, I realized that our sojourn would be a shorter one this time. On arrival, like every other time, the family manager (sarkar moshay) was there to receive us at the station. The moment my feet touched the railway platform, my eyes became transfixed by the heady and rapturous beauty of the surroundings. A massive water-body, adjacent to the station had assumed a riotous colour on one side, with innumerable red lotuses adorning its surface. The mellowed waves at this end allowed water hyacinths to spread their tentacles amidst which cranes stood still with eyes trained on fishes and aquatic prey. The western side of the lake was, however, a studied contrast, with its water running dark and deep even in bright sunlight. The magical image of a piece of water fired up into beautiful red by the touch of lotus petals and waves of sunlight and its gradual transformation into a sombre avatar of dark mystical waters stretching towards the horizon enthralled the senses but defeated all verbal descriptions. The child in me was curious as to what lay at the other end and even wondered whether there was an end at all.
In fact, as a younger child, I would often walk across the sand silted bank of the sun scorched Ichhamati in summer, in search of an imagined caller. I would then skip on to cultivated fields and find myself in the midst of jute saplings with swathes of jute fields abounding all around. Suddenly the paling of afternoon sun would interrupt my trance and I would run back the way I had come. Rather reckless of me, I think now!
Every year this lake witnessed boating contests. The boatman who was unsuccessful in winning any prize used to withdraw himself and row away sadly, singing dolefully, “The fortune-favoured person got his medal, but I was unable to acquire one; Oh my Supreme Boatman I was unable to get one.” For me this melody was synonymous with a sense of pain and pathos.
The centrality of the lake in rural life resurfaced when we watched the women of the village, both married and single walk down the mud paths to its banks draped in red bordered saris, with water pots balancing on their waists. They went there to complete the daily ritual of cleansing and then collecting water during weddings. A symbolic invitation to the Ganga, the sacred river of India constitutes part of this tradition. This pictorial vision remains embedded in my mind.
My father, uncles and other senior relatives also paid homage to our ancestors at this lake, as this rite too involved purification rituals with water. This lake wrapped life in the village within its protective clasp. It was a slice of rural life itself. Rivers are vital to Bangladesh, its numerous lakes and ponds, shallow and deep, big and small complement the river centric life there. Innumerable poems (kabya), songs and novels, have been inspired by and themed on the water sourced existence of the region. “Here the maidens resemble the river; the river too converses like these fair women,” words from a celebrated song reverberate as I write.
Pujo preparations were in full swing in the raised portico of the temple;2 the clay idol with dollops of paint, standing on its wooden frame was almost complete. A huge covering concealed it from general view, our regular old sculptor who we called lovingly Dadu or grandpa having gone to bathe. We were told that he would return soon, perform his daily pujo and then resume sculpting the image. I immediately experienced a deep connection with everything around me – my ancestral home, our own pujo and our own goddess. I was in thrall of the sense of all this being a part of me.
The train travel had tired me out and I soon gave in to some much needed rest. Bathed and fed, I fell into a deep slumber even before realizing how really weary I was. When I stirred awake in the late afternoon, the golden sun had slid behind the peepul tree, its rays tinted red. Anticipation ran high as the artist readied for the painting of the eyes of goddess the next day. That night, supper consisted of a light meal of flaked and puffed rice soaked in milk and fruits. I remember quite distinctly that bananas and creamy milk were that evening’s staple to the exclusion of the more enticing mangos and jackfruit. Tradition demanded that the night before the immensely symbolic act of painting the deity’s eyes, should be one of restraint, no cooking or boiling of rice within the premises. Generations had abided by these injunctions; nonetheless, the simple fare tasted grand.
Through the gaps in the wall of the shrine, the little girl in me observed the naat mandir in partial perspective. Sections of it had acquired a dark green shade due to layers of moss that had settled there, allowing banyan and peepul saplings to take root in their midst. The iridescent hues that radiated once upon a time now seemed so elusive to the child; she was unable to rekindle that illusion. Instead, she was overcome with an unknown despondency. Standing alone as she did in the faded and somewhat dilapidated zamindar bari, (landlord’s home) a relentless loneliness which she could not fathom, descended upon her. The enchanted, dusk laden landscape contrived by the descending sun, this precise twilight moment of myriad shades accentuated her desolation. Her prescient gaze absorbed the aging structure; its decaying, debilitated walls and near perishing condition created a somewhat dark yet lasting impression upon her.
The starting point of this tale was a few years after the great political divide in 1947 with the gradual emptying out of the villages in East Bengal. Several of our acquaintances, uncles and aunts, the Mullicks, the Bhuyias, the Bhaduris had left their dwellings at different stages of ruin. The dull and saline-infested brick and mortar structures emphasized the bleakness around, projecting an inanimate, bitter truth.
In a partially destroyed thatched cottage adjacent to the main house, lived our very aged maternal grandmother. She turned down all entreaties, refusing to migrate from the home that she had entered as an adolescent bride. Her invincible logic was that she had dipped her feet in milk and alta (a red cosmetic liquid applied on the feet of married women), and had been ushered in with a barandala, (a cane fibre tray – all part of the ritual of welcoming a new bride to her husband’s house) on the stone slab of the courtyard right in front of her. She was irreversibly tied to the house from that moment onwards and therefore abandoning it was not an option for her. Moreover, all her loved ones were there and that’s where she needed to remain. I remember that my father used to carry a bottle of Horlicks and a stark white borderless sari (the widows’ apparel in those times) as gifts for her. We later learnt from my mother that the old lady had passed on earlier that winter in the month of Magh (a month in the Bengali calendar roughly corresponding mid January and mid February). No, she had not been compelled to leave her beloved hearth and home! Her silver bound walking stick, a remnant of her life, she left behind for one of her progenies.
It was a time of breaching embankments as the new nation faced political division. A time for austerity. There was hardly any opulence and glitter in the ushering in of the Debi the goddess. Nevertheless, the simple handcrafted ornaments made of shola or pith with which the Debi’s image was embellished brought into sharp relief the striking beauty of the goddess. No expensive family jewelry adorned her. The daughters and daughters-in-law of the house actively participated in chores of making sweat-meats, nadu (sweets made of coconut), bori (small nuggets made of lentils). A mistir karigar (professional sweetmaker) also arrived to take orders for the supply of various sweets for the occasion. Some traditional sweets of the region had to be included in the bhog (the cooked meal of rice pilao, vegetable curry, sweat-meats and other delicacies offered during the four days of pujo) for Ma Durga. These were the customs of the adjoining Jessore, Pabna, Rajshahi districts. The bhog would have to be prepared in massive brass containers; rows of large mud ovens would be kept ready though only a few would actually be put to use. The enormous room where all this cooking, boiling and stirring took place was the temple specific kitchen, known as the paak ghar. It had a special sanctity and one could enter it only after taking a bath.
I noticed that my father, elder and younger uncles were moving around a little hesitant and distracted; this year permission for fireworks by the river during the immersion ceremony had been denied. Their voices were laced with a tone of intense regret. Formerly people from tens of villages would mill around the riverbank. Everyone spoke in hushed tones as they sat in a circle for their meals. The little girl was disconsolate, unable to comprehend why this time there was a dearth of laughter and joy, or discern the reason behind the absence of children to play with. Just a few prajas (subjects who paid revenue to the zamindar) had attended; otherwise the day long comings and goings were muted. Nevertheless, the first ceremony or sasthi pujo commenced with the few remaining children and a meager number of families participating. The time for the welcoming of the Debi (bodhan) had arrived.
That was a different time and age. Our country was experiencing a transformative process. It had been our lot to be present at this significant historical moment and perceive these ongoing changes. Thriving Bengali families belonging to aristocracy were gradually choosing to abandon their villages and towns. “One by one the lamps flickered out,” was the steady refrain in the leaves from the past. The circle of life continued inexorably. Yet every autumn the greatest festival of Bengal begins. The universal Mother, Ma descends to earth in the form of the goddess Durga. Those days, (the duration of her stay in the mortal world being five days) are steeped in disjointed conversations, in joy and laughter, Bhakti (spiritual love for the almighty) and emotion. Then arrives the hour of parting, Bijoya Dashami. The juncture for Mother to return to her heavenly abode. Pujo ends, the day of farewell ensues.
Dashami morning resonated with the light muted beat of the drum; its tone and temper now distinctly sombre. The elder women and younger married counterparts, bid the Debi farewell, symbolically giving her a send off with barandalas piled with betel leaf, sindur,(vermillion applied to the forehead of wedded women) sweets and water. An illusion of tear drops shimmering in the corner of the goddess’s eyes marked the moment. The same tears seemed to well up in the eyes of all those around; farewell embraces only provoked uncontrolled sobbing. In an instant, the atmosphere became pervaded with the heaviness of pathos. The elders seemed to be rendered voiceless, their gaze silenced. The subjects stood with teary eyes and achingly unspoken glances. This was one more instance when the mother goddess’s farewell tray was soaked in sadness and tears.
Ceremonies over, the hour of dusk saw the Debi hoisted on a bullock cart cutting across the red earth path towards the riverbank. The route traversed by Ma was heavy with the intoxicating fragrance of wild “ghetu” flowers all around. The golden twilight lit her way with a beautiful glow, the mellow shades perfect, as it was said, for a first glance at a bride to be. The drums were stilled once the banks of the Ichhamati drew near. Ma retreated to her abode in the Himalayas amidst the rhythm of the lapping waves of the river, the frenzied ululating by the women and the rapid beating of drums (which had resumed after a pause).
This was the cue for all to return home, the children first with the adults trailing behind. The sun had by then receded far into the horizon. Late autumn evenings usually disappear quickly into the night. The road back, however, seemed to be unending. Stillness and loneliness and the sensation of the goddess leaving us totally bereft, engulfed us in a kind of melancholy. The goddess had left us forlorn and feeble, abjectly depleting our thought processes. The pointed roof of the naat mandir was visible from afar. It was touched by the final rays of the setting sun; bats, the dark creatures of the night, were gradually settling back on their familiar perch in this now deserted shrine; it was to be their habitat once more. A lonely lamp fueled with castor oil flickered near the wall of the thakurbari (temple) providing a soft illume. A little further away under the brighter light of the hyajak (a non electrical lamp) the tradition of exchanging greetings and embracing by the men folk was being observed. Suddenly as I stood within the dilapidated old edifice, utter dejection and cascading tears overpowered me.
No, there were no more visits to our ancestral home ever again. The final Pujo had been held there. Even to this day amidst the vagaries of domesticity, the melancholy strains of that concluding Pujo continues to resonate in my inner being. The fearless lamp of yore ignites in the core of my heart. It’s intermittent flicker becomes a sentinel, sheltering me with both hands. Despite the turmoil and tumult of this world it imparts a radiance in me. So, this is the tale of Bijoya and our Ma Durga, disseminator of fearlessness, slayer of evil. The memories of desher bari, from the very distant past, now falter and fade. An illusion of all this being observed in rebirth occurs. The probability of returning is negligible. Not in this life at least.
“India achieved independence, but we had to forfeit our motherland,” lamented the father of the famed Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay.
Translated from Bengali by Joyshree Roy