Peek Inside Kali Sunset

Durga Puja

Raindrops wail against locked shutters, as the monotony of monsoon season pounds Meera’s dreams.  Yet something stirs her awake in the dark night.  Confused, she sits up on her bedroll and scans the room.  Ranjan is gone.  Meera is more concerned than scared.  Fear and awe have passed with his earlier episodes of sleepwalking.  Usually she discovers him changing clothes in the dark.  “What are you doing?” and her younger brother does not respond.  One night his glassy eyes try to climb out the window.  Now it is locked and Meera sleeps next to it.

She knows where to look.  The rain calls her outside.  Meera brings a shawl for Ranjan.  Barefoot, she cracks the back door.  A breeze makes the door creak, so she props it with a shoe.  She sneaks outside.  Fear is way up in her throat, deeper than the night.

The stairwell is open and she slips between the iron bars onto Bipin   Pal Road.  Humid and warm, the rain is no relief.  Two men drive on a motorcycle, flash their light once.  They see Meera and say something to each other.  A dog barks as she bypasses a tarp extended out over the sidewalk.  A man sleeps with his family there, sitting, head falling into his chest.  He rustles, stares at her with disbelief and then nods back off, while a child’s leg pokes out into the water flowing off the curb.

There is more plastic in the corners of the park, more hunger, but the rain drives most to more protected nooks of Calcutta.  Meera spots Ranjan.  He is standing in the middle of the DeshapriyaPark pitch, swinging an imaginary cricket bat with a disjointed and spacey motion.  He is off-balance, almost tripping.  Meera reaches gently for her brother, grabs his arm, and hugs him.  She covers his soaking shoulders.  Obedience is Ranjan’s only reaction.  Meera leads him home, wiping water from her face.  A man calls out from the darkness.  Someone answers, as the children pass through the night.

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Early morning is dark.  “Meera!  Ranjan!” Sona Ma yells from the kitchen, “Come here this instant.”  Meera jumps off the ground and looks for the shawl that is already draped around her shoulders.

“What is this?!”  Sona Ma exclaims, pointing at the muddy footprints on the floor, leading from the back door to their sleeping area in the living room.  “Someone please explain this to me!”  Ranjan looks utterly befuddled, like he is staring at pages of an impossible exam.  “Someone explain this!”

Surendranath hears the tone of his wife and emerges from the bedroom with his belt.  Meera bends over an ottoman and her father lashes her.  “This is not safe!”  Sona Ma declares.  “What if you are abducted?!  Do you know what could happen?!  This is not a game.  What if the neighbors find out about this?!”

Ranjan receives his lashings with pain and complete confusion.  He sits in the corner of the living room for hours, refusing to move.  After tea and toast, Father dresses for work.  He gathers his hat then speaks to Ranjan in the corner, “What’s the matter with you?  Go to school.  You will never excel like your sister.  The goddess Saraswati blesses her.  She is the top of every subject in the Fifth standard.  And you…”  Father places the hat on his head.  “You are untouched.  Go to school and work harder.  You are letting down all of the men in the family.”  Surendranath pops his umbrella against the rain and walks out the door.

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After three months of downpours drown Calcutta streets with rain, the summer monsoon breaks into new and glorious season.   The onset of October in 1945 is clear and hot, the land replenished with water.  Orchid blossoms explode, palm leaves unfold, while the grass seems to grow right before her eyes.  Even the rows of dead fish look fat and happy in the market.  Tiny yellow butterflies fill the stalls where Sona Ma inspects mountains of fresh spices, vegetables, and fruit.  Finally, she has the proper ingredients to bring her culinary specialties to full form.

The shops burst with gift items common to the Durga Puja, which Sona Ma purchases in heaps to distribute as presents to all of the village relatives in East Bengal:  new shirts for the males, bangles and fresh saris for the females.  Holiday cards also appear with drawings of glorious Durga riding atop a lion.  The same image is slowly coming to form amidst a crosshatched wood scaffold erected recently in the DeshapriyaPark.  It seems a Mother-god is near, that a feminine force is omnipresent.   This force opens Sona Ma.  She is aware that Ranjan is sleepwalking.  Before a long journey to the ancestral village for Durga Puja, the Choudhurys address this problem.  “Do not worry, Ranjan,” soothes Sona Ma.  “You will not embarrass our family.”

Surendranath and Sona Ma take Ranjan to a holy man who lives near his school.  Bejoy Gopal is the name of the kind and soft-spoken sage.  Gopal is an affluent person with large landholdings in East Bengal.  He prefers to live in Calcutta, in a four-building “garden house” complex with his daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren.  Gopal possesses a saintly nature and a vast knowledge of religion.  As a Brahmin, he is revered for his spiritual understanding.  He does not wear forehead markings, white ashes or a transcendental stare like the holy men from the villages who appear with their followers in Calcutta during religious pilgrimages.  Gopal is informal, an old friend to the Choudhurys.  They visit Gopal’s home frequently, where they chat comfortably for hours.

Gopal knows the Bhagavad-Gita inside and out, reciting applicable passages for any moral issue or problem.  He hums a soothing Tagore song and the sacred syllable of “aum.”  As a young man, Gopal met Swami Vivekananda and became inspired by the divinity of Sri Ramakrishna.  Ranjan addresses Bejoy Gopal as “Grandfather” and greets him by gathering dust off his feet.  Gopal allows the pronam from Ranjan, yet parries his parents from this gesture by a gentle hand.

“Can you believe it?” Gopal interjects.  “It appears as if Jinnah will stand for nothing but Pakistan.”  And it is true.  Within two years, a new country called East Pakistan will replace the eastern half of Bengal.  Muslims simply overtake Gopal’s entire landholding and his Hindu family accepts this.  His own dark fate does not seem possible at this moment in the drawing room.

Ranjan sits quietly while the adults discuss religion.  “The principal of sacrifice is central to Hindu spirituality,” Gopal asserts.  He punctuates his point with a Bhagavad-Gita verse, “What seems at first a cup of sorrow is found in the end immortal wine.  That pleasure is pure: it is the joy which arises from a clear vision of the Spirit.”  Sona Ma nods in agreement, yet she does not truly comprehend these words until many years later.

The problem of sleepwalking is eventually brought to the holy man’s attention.  He calls to the boy.  Ranjan approaches him.  Gopal thinks for a moment and stares at several miniature paintings of Ramayana scenes scattered around the room.  He places his hands upon Ranjan’s head.  He does not speak a word.  Gopal then removes his hands.  Ranjan looks up into his eyes.

“Is that all, Grandfather?”

“That is all.”

Ranjan offers respectful thanks, but leaves the encounter very skeptical of this cure.   Lack of faith in Gopal’s holy power is unwarranted.  For that very night, the boy sleeps peacefully, as still as a windless flame.  Effective is Gopal’s blessing and Ranjan never walks through another night in his life.  Without reservation, the Choudhurys prepare to celebrate Durga Puja with Surendranath’s extended family in the ancestral village.

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In 1945, the journey to Katakasthal takes the better part of two days.  On the first day, around noon, Surendranath, Sona Ma, Meera and Ranjan board a train at Calcutta’s Sealdah Station.  The train is bound for Khulna, a port town at the end of the eastern line.  A steam engine drives the train, fed by piles of black coal that belch soot out of a chimney throughout the five-hour ride.  Closing windows cuts down the intensity of the black dust, but then it becomes so hot that grime is a lesser of evils.

The landscape extends, lush and humid, as the Choudhurys travel across East Bengal, while the frequency of rivers grows like a swollen web.  At Khulna, there are no more bridges.  Here, boats become the most practical transport.

Everyone on the train knows the ship transfer routine, including Meera and Ranjan, but Sona Ma reviews it again.  They grip their sleeping rolls and when the train finally stops, they make a rush for the paddleboat.  Like a game of musical chairs, the passengers charge to establish a good sleeping space on the deck or face a long and uncomfortable night.

The ship at Khulna has an upper and lower deck, along with a few compartments.  Most of the deck space is covered by awning, which keeps out high sun while offering a view of the colorful evening.  At dusk, cows take their last drink from a river of sleepy crimson and turn back onto worn paths.  Open railings around the sides of the ship liberate warm night breezes that drift off the river with a reflection of stars and the occasional call of a marsh crane.  The moon rises, almost full, flooding the landscape with Her spirit.

By early morning, the boat arrives in Barisal.  Here the Choudhurys meet with Surendranath’s older brother and his family.  Oldest Uncle works as a manager at an elevator maintenance company in Barisal, living there with his wife and three daughters.  It seems that Oldest Uncle always wears a furrowed expression that cuts a distinct line straight through the third eye on his brow.  Geeta Aunt tries to make up for Uncle’s sour nature by chatting fervently, which causes a sway in the very long pony tail of black hair falling down her back.

In the presence of Oldest Uncle and Geeta Aunt, Sona Ma changes appearance.  The end of her sari is drawn over her head as a sign of respect.  Her nieces Anusha, Ajita and Mita greet Sona Ma, bending low to respectfully gather dust off of her feet.  They just say “hi” to Ranjan and Meera.  Soon the teenage girls are gossiping while the adults discuss politics, leaving Ranjan on the periphery to inspect a guava at the bus station fruit stand and play with the top saved in his pocket.

The whole group travels together. Both Choudhury families board a bus from the Barisal central terminal for the ride to the ancestral village.  Travel time is always unspecific due to the myriad of potential problems.  The most frequent is overheating, so an “assistant driver” stands on the front fender of the bus, pouring water over the radiator while the vehicle keeps moving through a lush countryside.  “The bus is fueled by water,” Meera points out to Ranjan.  But he is not sure if he believes her because of his giggling cousins.

The vibrant East Bengal landscape flows through a broken window.  Children are everywhere, outnumbering adults with their smiles and lithe movement.  Small villages of straw huts appear with mud colored men relaxing in a squat under the slopes of lean-tos.  Women, adorned in stunningly bright saris of yellow or orange, clean clothes by the banks of a creek.  They hammer out filth and set clothes to dry upon scattered rocks.

Many small rivers cut unpredictable swaths through the road.  The monsoon was generous in 1945, so the bus driver has to be careful not to get stuck or slide off course.  At many small river crossings, he drives the bus onto a pontoon that is pulled to the other bank by industrious village men.

The water level remains high once the bus reaches Katakasthal, a small clearing in a forest of mango trees.  The Choudhury ancestral home is only a few hundred yards from the bus station, but as honored guests, the families are poled to their final destination in a flat bottom boat.  The whole extended clan, close to one hundred people, greets them with warmth and awe at the dock area behind the house.  They are the special relatives from the city.  Many Aunts and Uncles, along with broods of excited cousins embrace Meera and Ranjan, both grimy from the journey.  Family of all ages roams the dock, the balcony, the roof, and the clearing by the side of the house.  Sona Ma exchanges greetings and unloads her presents, always sure to keep her head covered.

Grandmother Sumonjuri, Surendranath’s mother, comes out to the balcony ledge of the second floor of her home to speak instructions to people below.  She is used to this pulpit as she never allows lower castes, tribals, or Muslims inside the house but sometimes has orders for them.  If Grandmother Sumonjuri happens to cross the shadow of an untouchable or a Muslim, she bathes herself immediately.  At this moment, though, she raises her hand toward her visitors with a gesture that resembles a blessing more than a welcome.

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Meera and Ranjan have two duties before they are set free to play around the fishponds with the cousins: bathe and acknowledge all of the elders.  Sona Ma draws water from a well with a bucket and splashes over their heads with a ladle.  After a scrub, another rinse and a change of clothes, they are close to new.  “Be sure to address all of the elders with greetings from the family of Surendranath Choudhury,” Sona Ma says proudly.  She provides a small snack of potatoes and butter from a stash that she made earlier in the morning.  She knows the big lunch will run late in preparation.

There are no proper toilets.  This fact worries Meera and Ranjan because they are too embarrassed to do their business in the outhouse hole or the surrounding woods.  The children decide to consume only curried hardboiled eggs during the entire journey from Calcutta, which results in an effective constipation.  This plan worries Mother, but she now has other responsibilities.

Meera and Ranjan look for elders.  They do not have to go far, as six or seven uncles are sitting right on the front porch.  This is typical for village men, as their days pass simply with tending of fields, eating, sitting on the porch, puffing a hookah, and socializing.  Occasionally, a group ventures into town for a movie or trek toward another village nearby to visit relatives.  Other than that, not much happens.  As a result, little things gain enormous importance.  Furious family rows erupt over nearly meaningless matters.  Who brought the fish in from the pond?  Who did not skin the fish properly?  But the Uncles seem very content at that moment, full of holiday spirit, as they accept the pronam from Meera and Ranjan.

No one lives on the first floor of the house since lower lying areas are susceptible to flooding.  The first floor is a solid brick foundation with big, wide steps to the upper level kitchen where many of the Aunts gather.  In the evening, rooms are illuminated by hurricane lanterns whose chimneys are cleaned and restocked with fresh oil.

Passing one room, Meera and Ranjan see their Great Aunt who was blind.   Meera knows what Ranjan is thinking.  They tiptoe toward the upstairs, trying to shortcut duty while Boromashi continues her knitting.  “Who is there?!!” she calls out, just as the children pass the doorway.  “Meera!  Ranjan!  Have you finally come to greet me?”  They turn around quickly, enter the room, and bow to her feet.  Great Aunt responds with a smile more colorful that the crooked peach half-sweater in her hands.

Meera and Ranjan snoop upstairs.  The second floor of the house contains all of the living space, along with a communal kitchen.  Several families occupy different rooms on the second level. From a side room, Grandmother Sumonjuri yells instructions that echo off large vats waiting for rice.  Several monstrous vessels of lentils are already simmering, as a feast is slowly coming together.  Geeta Aunt stirs as the children pass.  She watches them carefully as they head toward the roof.

Beside the kitchen, a last set of stairs leads to a roof where many pots of spices and flowers grow.  Meera and Ranjan walk between the plants and out toward the roof ledge.  Geeta Aunt notices this and stops stirring.  Because there are no railings, the children have a clear view of the yard below.  Two stories down, carts with rubber tires are propped under bigger trees.  Short stakes for tethering water buffalo also poke out of the ground, near mounds of manure that are packed into paddies and dried for cooking fuel.  Cousins wander everywhere, some flying kites.

“Children!” Geeta Aunt snaps from the stairwell.  “Get away from that ledge!  It is dangerous!”  Meera and Ranjan are so startled that they do not immediately respond to the command.  This fact infuriates Geeta Aunt, so she dodges plants and then skillfully grabs an arm of each.  “You children have no respect!  No discipline at all!  No proper upbringing!”   She yells, dragging them down to the kitchen.  Here Sona Ma chops a mountain of vegetables while Geeta Aunt reports the misdeeds.  Sona Ma slices with greater fierceness as the accusations unfold.  She shatters a cauliflower.  Sona Ma gives Meera and Ranjan a look that could kill an elephant, a look that should guarantee proper behavior for the remaining days of the visit.

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“Are you going to take a turn?”  Ashanti Aunt asks.  Sona Ma never husks rice in Calcutta.  City rice is already clean of husk when purchased from the market, unless one wants it otherwise.  In the village, rice and husk need separation and the Aunts use a dhenki for this task.  The dhenki is a seesaw, a long wooden board mounted on a pedestal at the midpoint.  Ashanti Aunt, Surendranath’s oldest sister, presses down with her foot at one end, which lifts a pestle from a rice pile.  She releases and the hammer falls, separating grain from husk.

As Ashanti Aunt raises and lowers the hammer with her foot, Geeta Aunt feeds fresh paddy beneath the stomp and flips husks over with her hand so that all are struck evenly.  Rice eventually slides out of a little hole on the side into a shallow depression.  Sona Ma understands that physical coordination is vital to this procedure, a blessing that she has never known.  Even as a young girl, private lessons for Bharatnatyam dance are curtailed after a few weeks and changed to voice.

“Ah, Sona is not used to such work,” Geeta Aunt injects, feeding and flipping husk rhythmically.

“Especially after growing up in Rangoon with such a rich father,” Ashanti Aunt adds.  “What does your father do now?  Did he retire in Calcutta?”

Sona Ma scoops grain from the impression, filling a clay pot.  “My father traded rice for a short time during the war, but he gave up that business.  Now he sells eggs.  He built a coop in the courtyard behind our flat.”

“Do the birds speak English?” Geeta Aunt pokes.  The whole group of women bursts into laughter.  Several kites join the merriment, flashing their colors from the sky.  Sona gives a polite smile and continues to pack grain.

“How come we never hear of the dowries from your husband’s family?” Ashanti Aunt continues.  “Eh?”

Sona eyes the kites above them, as one swoops dangerously low.  “The dowry was nothing special… enough for Surendranath and I to establish a household in Calcutta.”

“I think you spend all your money on private schools for your children,” Geeta Aunt says.  “The state school is just as good.”  A green kite swoops down again.

“Not good enough for them,” Ashanti Aunt notes.  The women all laugh again.

Sona adjusts the end of her sari to cover her head completely.  “Is it my turn?” she asks, taking position at the foot pedal.   Ashanti Aunt moves to feeder, while the others stock husk and rice.

Sona Ma has never operated a dhenki, but it looks simple.  She begins well, yet the heavy pestle moves differently than she expects.  Sona Ma controls it, until the green kite swoops close to her head and distracts.  Her timing falters and the hammer slams Ashanti Aunt’s hand.

Ashanti Aunt stops feeding and cuddles her bruised finger.  “You hurt me!  Why don’t you do it correctly?!!” she shouts.  “Did your mother train you properly for this?!”

Across the yard, Ranjan desperately tries to hold the string.  He cannot control the free joy of his kite in the air.  The cousins help him, bark instructions, and then grab his strings.  It is too late.  The green kite crashes into the dhenki, shaving Geeta Aunt’s head upon decent.

Sona Ma storms into the side lot, where Meera and Ranjan are trying to untangle a knot in the kite string, surrounded by a group of cousins.  Hard words of Bengali roll from the courtyard.  The children are speechless, as Sona Ma rips a thin branch off a nearby bush.  “Do you think I have time to follow you around all day?!” Sona Ma shouts at Ranjan.  She raises the switch to whip him, but freezes.  All of the children are watching, along with a gaggle of Aunts from the courtyard.  Raising her arm pulls Sona’s gaze to the shrine of Mother Durga inside the holy area of the house.  Durga also has arms stretching outward, one with a sharp raised sickle.  Yet Durga’s dark side is balanced by symmetric limbs of forgiveness.

Sona Ma lowers the switch and points at Ranjan.  “Be more careful.  Behave!  If I have to speak to you again, Father will escort you home!”

Meera takes the tangled string from Ranjan.  “Don’t worry Mother,” Meera declares as she rolls the kite string.  “There will be no more trouble.  I promise.”  Sona Ma remains silent.  She walks back to the courtyard, as the Aunts murmur and whisper. Sona Ma changes positions and begins to feed the unhusked rice rather than operate the hammer.  She adjusts her sari so it covers her head completely.

“Is everything ready?” Grandmother Sumonjuri calls down from balcony.

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The meal is prepared and relatives fill the dining area of the house.  An overflow sits in small earthen huts outside of the main house, where ten to twelve people dine under each structure.  The Choudhury family invites the whole village to their house during the four day festival.  This allows local women a break from the routine of cooking.  Everyone enjoys the food, eating with their hands off large green banana leaves.  The Aunts eat last, after all others are served, and then they scrub the giant vessels for tomorrow.

At dusk, Meera and Ranjan hear the sound of drums, as a professional troupe walks a village road toward the house.  They run to the end of the driveway to check the path.  A curious Muslim neighbor, Dr. Akbar, waits there at a respectful distance, drawn by rare activity of the neighborhood.  Adding to the excitement, cousins light firecrackers and sparklers, or whack long sticks with a cap on the end in explosive celebration.  Lean men approach with several different types of instruments.  The deep bass drum looks like a barrel, while the small thick cymbal resembles a frying pan.  All are struck with skinny sticks made of cane.  Anticipation grows as the men enter the compound.  Extended family unifies to the pulse of Hindu celebration.  At this moment, Dr. Akbar examines the gathering from the road and hesitates.  “Why don’t you go in and watch?” Ranjan asks.

Dr. Akbar smiles.  “Well son, I am a Muslim and this is a Hindu festival.  I do not want to taint the proceedings for your Grandmother Sumonjuri.”

“But you are a neighbor.  You live in this village.”

“Do not worry,” Dr. Akbar assures.  “I am happy to watch from here.”

The musicians pulse a tribal beat.  Using syncopated patterns as transitions, part of the group splits off to a new rhythm that the other half eventually adopts with enthusiasm.  Like the dynamic of family and village, new beats spin from old, energizing the spirit of Mother Durga.

“Why do you stand way out here?”  Dr. Akbar inquires.  “Your Mother is next to the image.  Why not go closer?”

“We promised,” Meera interjects, “to stay out of sight.”

“And out of trouble,” Ranjan adds.

“Ah, I see,” mumbles Dr. Akbar, as he watches Sona Ma.  A smile almost crosses her face, he thinks, but maybe the setting sun deceives him.  A pulse quickens as light deepens.  The vivacity of drums is reminding Sona Ma of the Burmese dance ensembles that performed under the portico of her parents’ Rangoon estate.   She is remembering Taro.

A village priest sets the last rose tint upon Durga’s third eye, and with the help of rhythmic mantras and a splash of Ganges water, the image comes to life.  Durga gazes upon Mother with clear eyes.  The priest places an earthen jar before her and says appropriate prayers.  Sona Ma stands transfixed.  Durga stares at her with a benign smile, hands raised in blessing.

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On the second day of the celebration, all fast to purify their bodies.  Each then approaches the image and makes small offerings of flowers, bilva leaves, money and sweets to Mother Durga, along with silent prayers.  In the afternoon, Sona Ma and the Aunts prepare a special feast of meat and fish.  This meal is served in the evening to all Hindus in the village, as there are no other pujas in the vicinity.

At night, relatives sleep everywhere.  Surendranath rests with a gang of uncles, lounging in a boat secured to the back dock.  They fish early in the morning, like they are boys again.  One brother drinks whiskey as they troll.  Surendranath is supremely content upon the water, a place where the dawn washes all worries and regrets, where the first breath of day purifies all.

Mother and the Aunts sleep inside, while Meera and Ranjan slumber with all the cousins on coconut fiber cots between rooftop plants.  Meera wakes many times at night, terrified that Ranjan will sleepwalk.  Yet each time the humid night ruffles waxy green leaves, Ranjan resembles a dead fish—eyes closed, mouth gaping, completely still.  Deep in the dark, before the birds begin their calls, Meera wakes again.  Grandmother Sumonjuri stands very close to her cot, scanning over bodies and plants strewn upon the rooftop.  Her eyes are polished as glass.

“Grandmother,” Meera whispers.  Bent like a question, the old woman does not respond.  “Grandmother!”  She must not hear me, Meera thinks, as she watches her slowly navigate leaves and limbs.  Grandmother Sumonjuri gazes upon the landscape of the jungle, checks the courtyard, and then disappears back down the stairs to her bedroom.

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On the fourth and final day of the celebration, Mother Durga, the dutiful wife, is overwhelmed by sadness of separation.   She returns to her husband’s home.   Before Durga departs, all women visit the image one last time to bid farewell.  Curious children tag along but stand at a respectful distance from the shrine. They circle Grandmother Sumonjuri with love, while Sona Ma and the Aunts smear vermillion powder on the forehead and feet of the goddess.

“Why don’t you do that, Grandmother?” the children whisper.

Her precious offspring fill her arms. “My time has passed, darlings.  A widow’s touch will spoil the whole offering and ruin the purity of sacrifice to Mother.  This is the time for wives and mothers, for married women, for those who bear sons.”

Sona Ma marks red the scalp and third eye of Geeta Aunt and Ashanti Aunt.

“What is she doing?”

“This action protects your Aunts from the misfortune of widowhood,” Grandmother notes.  “In addition, all harsh words and jealousies are washed away.”

It is the hour when the cows return home, kicking up dust, coloring the evening sky peach and plum.  Men arrive and load Mother Durga upon a small boat.  They immerse Her in the river with mantras and renewed strikes of drum.  As splendor submerges in brown water, Sona Ma attempts to discard all ill will, hostility, and anger.  She embraces Ashanti Aunt and Geeta Aunt.  Sona Ma offers sweets to Ranjan and buries him in her sari with a hug.  This moment of reconciliation and renewal, this ritual, still feels empty.  Sona Ma feels disenchantment rather than peace.  For the first time, she glimpses the other side of her family’s nature and begins to understand that which lay beyond.

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At sunrise, Ranjan watches Sona Ma perform her daily puja.  Before an alter set inside her bedroom closet, she offers sweets and tiny cups of water to pictures and statues of Gods, pinching prayer beads along the way.  Ranjan sits quietly on a small stack of books.  After watching Sona Ma for months, he finally gathers the nerve to inquire, “Why do you worship Kali?”

“Kali is the power of woman, wife, and mother, a strength greatly respected in Bengal for centuries,” Mother answers.  “Kali, like Durga, is a destroyer of evil and a protector of good.  Many times, doing good… a divine act… requires great strength.  Sacrifice cuts through illusion, through layers of maya.  Behind these illusions, God is waiting, along with the greatest joys of life.”

“Can you see God?”  Ranjan asks.

Sona Ma looks carefully at her son and adjusts an image.  “There is a story where a boy enters a jungle and sees a beautiful red animal on a tree.  He reports this to his friend who says, ‘I saw the animal to, but it was green.’  A third boy thinks that it was yellow.  They all start to argue.”  Ranjan’s eyes are wide and rapt.  “So they return to the tree to settle the problem.  A monk is there and they ask him ‘Have you seen that beautiful animal?  What color is it?’ And the monk says, ‘Yes.  Sometimes it is red, sometimes green, sometimes yellow, sometimes a different color.  It is a chameleon.  Sometimes it has no color.  It has various forms and aspects, but it does appear to those who seek.’”

The seat of books shifts under Ranjan, yet he maintains his balance.  “I want to see the beautiful animal.”

Sona Ma hands him a small offering, which Ranjan carefully places upon the altar.

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Keshab, a driver from the Port Commissioners Office, arrives in front of St. Xavier’s School.  Ranjan, wearing a white shirt, tie and trousers, is waiting.  January’s green tropical leaves burst all around the school entrance, yet the students are subdued, coming and going faster than shadows.  “Please sit in the front seat,” Keshab orders.

Although it seems strange, Ranjan obeys.  Keshab does not speak.  He turns the radio volume slightly.  “The British Empire is finished in India”…  “Nehru has made great commitments and should be our leader”… “Jinnah is nothing but trouble”…  “Leave them to their Pakistan.”  Ranjan does not understand the politics on the radio.  He does understand something important is happening, something dangerous.  His parents warn him, “Be extremely careful.”  Usually, Ranjan rides the trolley to school and back with a small group of friends, but not this week.

Keshab adjusts the radio knob.  The angular voice of Muslim Leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah calls for “Direct Action,” yet the sidewalks and shops along Park   Street look much less crowded than usual.  “What is ‘Direct Action’?” Ranjan asks.  Keshab wobbles his head and turns down Laudon Street.

The Ambassador car slows at a congested intersection.  Motorbikes and taxis circumvent a throng of people that surround something on a street corner.  As they pass, Ranjan leans over the seat to look out the back window.  “There is a strike,” Ranjan suggests.  “Or someone passed out.”  Keshab puts his hand on Ranjan’s shoulder, pressing him back into the passenger seat.

As they near DeshapriyaPark, smoke wafts into the car with growing intensity.  “I think there is a fire,” Ranjan notes, scanning out the front window and then out the back.  Keshab grabs him fiercely, “Please stay down!”

Ranjan’s tie is cocked and his eyes are misty.  Keshab tries to calm the boy.  “A Muslim business was set on fire.”  Keshab turns off the radio.  “Or maybe a retaliation against a Hindu.  Or a retaliation for a retaliation.  It is difficult to know any more.”

Ranjan peers out the window, as one teardrop falls.  He wipes his nose, refusing to look at Keshab.  “Why is there blood all over the back seat of this car?”

Keshab fumbles images and holy charms poised on the dashboard, as a bloom of sweat lathers his armpits, forehead and chest.  He opens his mouth several times before words escape.  “There was a tragedy today.  Your parents’ friend, your holy Grandfather… Mr. Gopal was severely injured.  We transported him to the hospital, but he lost a lot of blood.”  Keshab grips the steering wheel fiercely as he navigates around the Park and into the alley of the Choudhury residence.  Sona Ma waits in the driveway and closes the steel gate, even though it is the middle of the afternoon.

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Sona Ma slices a piece of mango for Surendranath’s breakfast platter, carving an intricate flower pattern in the corner as a special touch.  She listens intently for the backdoor latch.  It finally opens.  Surendranath completes his four hour shift with the neighborhood watch.  Hindu men set up a barricade at the end of the street.  From dusk to dawn, they protect the block from Muslim attacks.

Sona Ma’s heart pounds with relief.  “Your breakfast is on the table when you are ready for it.”

Using a finger, Surendranath brushes red betel from his teeth and then cleans his hands before sitting down.  “Will the children eat?” he asks.

“They have finished,” replies Sona Ma.

Surendranath gazes at the mango flower, admires the intricacy, and then eats it.  Sona Ma spreads jelly on his toast, while he sips tea.  “Bejoy Gopal is dead.”  He clears his throat. “He lost too much blood yesterday.  They could not save him.”  Sona places a sugar caddy next to his cup and adds a spoonful to his drink.

“Mother!”  Meera screams from the front balcony.  “Mother!!”

Sona Ma and Surendranath hurry to the open front porch.  Like statues, Meera and Ranjan peer off the balcony at DeshapriyaPark.  Dawn spreads upon the open green where Meera plays on swings and Ranjan once dreamed nighttime cricket matches.  Cold eyed vultures swarm the park for an insane feast.  The Choudhurys witness horror.   The children are not sure where the dead bodies came from or why, yet several corpses are piled haphazardly.  Dark confusion presses from all directions.  Sona Ma can not explain it.  She simply drapes her arms over her children’s chests, protecting their souls with open hands.

¥

Agony gradually recedes.  Muslims and Hindus cannot agree upon parameters for one nation, so two nations are created.  The date is set for August 15, 1947.  India will officially become independent from Britain and the country of Pakistan will form.  During the month leading up to the partition, radio reports follow the transition at the Choudhury home.  Every district circling around the ancestral village is declared part of East Pakistan, yet for almost a week Katakasthal sits like a Hindu island, absent the roll call of transition.

“Do you suppose they have come to their senses and plan to leave some of the land integrated with Hindus?” Sona Ma proposes.

“Not likely,” responds Surendranath.  “Great Uncle says the family is already on its way here.  So what is the difference?  They will come and live with us.  It is our duty and our responsibility.”

Sona Ma agrees in her silent way.  She watches Meera and Ranjan march across the driveway, practicing steps for a huge Independence Celebration.  Optimism echoes through the alley drive with a clomp of heels.  Their schools contribute to the parade of Indians that will proceed down Red  Road as free citizens within the month.  Meera sings and helps Ranjan with the words.

Better than the entire world, is our Hindustan

We are its nightingales, and it is our garden abode.

That tallest mountain, that shade-sharer of the sky

Is our sentry, is our watchman.

 

In its lap frolic those thousands of rivers,

Whose vitality makes our garden the envy of Paradise.

Religion does not teach us to bear ill-will among ourselves

We are of Hind, our homeland is Hindustan.

¥

Sona Ma prepares the household for the arrival of Grandmother Sumonjuri, blind Great Aunt, Ashanti Aunt, Geeta Aunt, Oldest Uncle, Anusha, Ajita and Mita.  All of the books are removed from the living room case to make space for their clothes and sundry items.  She stacks volumes in the corners of her room, some under the bed and the overflow along her mattress.  “This will be convienent for reading at night,” she thinks.  New shelves and hooks mark the kitchen walls.  New fiber cots line the balcony.  Dust is gone and floors are washed.  An additional cook is hired.

Sona Ma escorts Meera and Ranjan to their grandparents’ flat downstairs with their bedrolls, pajamas, and neem sticks neatly tucked under their arms.  Chandan meets them at the door to the flat.  “Father,” greets Sona Ma.  “Tell them where to store their things for the night.”

Chandan Mukherji puts his hands on the heads of his grandchildren, strolling to the back of the house.

“May I feed the chickens?” Ranjan interjects.

“Yes, yes,” Chandan says.  “They like to eat.  And Meera, you can help me collect eggs.”

A caravan of Ambassador cabs and tuk-tuks arrive from the train station.  Sona Ma watches her husband escort Grandmother Sumonjuri from the car to the front door where she is waiting.  Ashanti Aunt and Geeta Aunt are close behind.  Sona Ma stands firm in the doorway, strong.  They exchange no sentiment.  Everyone understands that Sona Ma is in full command.

¥

After another month, the rainy season of 1947 ends.  Sunshine dries the floods and solidifies new forms in Calcutta.  It is the first Durga Puja in years celebrated without British rule, yet the huge gatherings in the ancestral village are finished.  Several cousins back in Katakashtal are the last to abandon the Choudhury home.  They leave East Pakistan “becase there was trouble.”

For Ranjan, trouble evaporates.  Bejoy Gopal’s blessing turns his school performance on its head.  Holy Grandfather’s sleepwalking cure lasts, along with a tangible spirit.   Little red checks mark the sides of Ranjan’s perfect tests, ticked off by the Fourth Standard techer, indicating one correct anwser after another just like Meera has always received.  Surendranath stops the abuse.  Relatives are constanly present, inside and outside of the flat.  There is no privacy, not even enough room for husbands and wives to bicker.

Grandmother Sumonjuri and blind Great Aunt sit on plastic chairs in the driveway, as Meera and Ranjan return from school.  They are knitting shawls for Anusha’s wedding trousseau.  The children wash and begin their home lessons.  With little space to work, they turn over egg baskets for desks and work by the chicken coop in the back lot.  The fabulous smell of Sona Ma’s fish balls wafts from the upper floor, working hard to distract them.

Ashanti Aunt, Geeta Aunt, and Sona Ma work together in the kitchen.  Ashanti Aunt cuts fish from skin and grinds it with a large rolling pin until bones begin to show.  Gradually, the bones separate from the meat, even in the difficult uper half of the fish.  Geeta Aunt addes ginger, garlic, and onions to the meat, rolling the whole thing into a sausage.  She boils the sasauge until it is tight and hot.  Sona Ma cuts the sasauge into pieces and exposes them to a shallow fry in oil.  She tops the medallions with mustard gravy.

The whole family gathers to eat the chitol muthiya.

“Good news and bad news,” Father says to his brother.  The crease in Oldest Uncle’s forehead intensifies, as if his whole face will implode.  “Bad news is that the receiving clerk’s job at the Port Commissioners was filled today.  Putu’s cousin got it.”  Geeta Aunt turns and looks at her husband, but for once adds nothing.  “Good news is that Ambassador Car is opening up a new plant in Calcutta.  And they will soon be posting for assembly line workers.  I can get your name on that list before it is even posted, through a friend at the port.”

Oldest Uncle nibbles at a fish ball, “I would appreciate this greatly.”

Conversation soon circulates around the table about Mita’s improved grade in the English language course, about Meera’s potential for college, and preparations for Anusha’s wedding.  In between topics, Mother even manages to chastise Ranjan, “Don’t eat the fish balls so fast!  You can’t enjoy them that way.”

At some point the usually reticent Grandmother Sumonjuri speaks up.  Everyone is respectful.  She sits up and declares flatly, “I would like to go back home.”

Oldest Uncle looks around the table and states the obvious.  “You have no home to go back to.  This is our home now.”

“No Amu!” Grandmother barks.  “Not to live there, but merely to recover some of our things.  Anusha’s wedding day will be here soon.”  This is the third or fourth time Grandmother brings up this idea.  She is intent upon recovering some house ware from the Katakasthal estate, namely the huge cooking vessels used for weddings and festivals.  She knows that her Muslim neighbor, the bearded Dr. Akbar, runs an import-export business between Calcutta and East Pakistan via a small fleet of boats.  Grandmother tries to contact Dr. Akbar, but the mail proves unreliable.  Therefore she proposes a personal visit for business.

Every adult at the table is against a trip, but Grandmother Sumonjuri insists by noting, “At least some things I can still save.”

Grandmother is used to traveling, as she takes many trips to the religious pilgrimage sites around India, on her own or with a tour group of widows.  There are hundreds of holy places and a handful of fortunate days each year where one ritual bath or offering brings salvation for a lifetime.  And salvation is what Grandmother is after in the ancestral village.

“It is too dangerous to travel to East Pakistan,” Oldest Uncle advises.

“My son, I am also fearful,” she responds.  “But I am more disturbed by this waste.”

Sona Ma understands her logic perfectly and the many other unspoken reasons for Grandmother Sumonjuri’s stance.  Like Sona Ma, Grandmother is attached to the home where she first arrived as a young bride.  Grandmother lived at the ancestral home throughout her husband’s lifetime and beyond.  Her children matured there and generations blossomed from this root.  Home is salvation and Grandmother wants to collect what is left.

Understanding this, Sona Ma’s speaks up against the others.  “I believe that she should go.”  Father and Oldest Uncle think to speak, but observing Sona Ma’s conviction, they both check their tongues.  They know it is useless to argue.  It is decided.   Grandmother Sumonjuri will travel to Katakasthal with Oldest Uncle as her escort.

¥

Sona Ma remembers it as clearly as the pandals of Durga Puja, Bejoy Gopal’s holy touch upon Ranjan’s head, the journeys to the family village, the dhenki, and the corpses piled in DeshapriyaPark.  The long dinner conversations end the night Oldest Uncle returns home from Katakasthal without Grandmother Sumonjuri.  Oldest Uncle tells the story with near fury in his voice, as if anger is the only way to prevent a full and open sobbing.

“We reached Katakasthal without incident,” reports Oldest Uncle.  “Grandmother met Dr. Akbar who agreed to send the huge cooking vessels back to Calcutta on one of his boats, free of charge.  Dr. Akbar said this was the least he could do for an old neighbor.”

Oldest Uncle looks away from the family as his eyes moisten.  “She repeated herself throughout her last days.  ‘This was the home of your father’s family where I arrived at age fifteen.  This was the place of my duty and sacrifice for the family.  Now I will leave this household and return to Calcutta, a widow in her seventies, and become free from obligation like Mother Durga in October.  My sons will take care of me.’”

“At night,” Oldest Uncle continues, “she seemed agitated.  All of those thoughts must have mixed inside her mind as she fell asleep.”  Uncle curses himself for never hearing her rise and walk toward the roof.  He was exhausted from the journey and snored through her sleepwalking.  “Unlike him,” Oldest Uncle’s voice cracks as he points at Ranjan, “She was never cured.”  As ill-fated stars held their positions in the sky, Grandmother Sumonjuri walked to the top floor of the house, sound asleep, and stepped right off the side of the roof.  “The next morning I found her,” Oldest Uncle cracks, “in a heap by the foundation.”

“In a heap by the foundation,” Uncle repeats and stares with bitterness at Sona Ma.  No one speaks.  Months of frustration about jobs, money, politics, and manhood boil resentment within him, spoiling any thoughtfulness in his heart.  “All of this is your fault,” he blurts at Sona Ma.  “You’re not so smart.”  The hard crease cuts through Oldest Uncle’s third eye like a hatchet.  “We never should have gone back there.”

Sona Ma is forlorn yet stern.  She offers only words of consolation to Oldest Uncle.  There are no apologies for her choices.  Sona Ma is neither ill at ease nor unsure, as if Kali herself directs all actions.

¥

The cooking vessels arrive along with Grandmother Sumonjuri’s body, on a special boat arranged by Dr. Akbar.  The body is cremated.  Oldest Uncle and Surendranath perform funeral rites and sprinkle her ashes into the GangesRiver, a holy duty of Bengali sons.  Within a short time Anusha marries, while Sona Ma, Geeta Aunt and Ashanti Aunt complete nuptial screenings for Ajita.  The cousins move to homes of their new husbands.  Soon after, Ambassador Car Company hires Oldest Uncle.  He and Geeta Aunt and Ashanti Aunt leave with blind Great Aunt, to live near the plant.  They pack their clothes one day, and leave their new address on a piece of paper.

Ranjan and Meera return sleeping rolls and neem sticks to their parents’ flat.  They help Sona Ma restack volumes on the living room case.  Ranjan carries a huge load of books that almost topples when he hands them to Sona Ma.  Her good humor fuels his confidence, “Why did you allow such harsh words from Oldest Uncle?”

Sona Ma sets a book and answers, “Because I respect my elders.”

“Why no proper punishments?” Meera adds.

Sona Ma rearranges two or three books, placing them in alphabetical order. “Did the Gods not serve justice?”

The children know not to ask any more questions.  Sona Ma assiduously rearranges a whole shelf before she speaks.  “Do you not remember the words of Grandfather Bejoy Gopal?”

Ranjan thinks but only remembers the holy man’s soft touch upon his head, the cure.

“Through love, one can see the true nature of things.  Behind the illusions of life, God is waiting.”  Sona Ma holds the Bhagavat-Gita in her hands for a moment, and then carefully places it on the top shelf.  “This type of understanding does not arrive quickly.  Like immortal wine, it often drips slowly from cups of sorrow.”