When most Indians are celebrating Diwali and Rama’s return to Ayodhya after vanquishing the demon king Ravana, it is overshadowed by a lesser known festival, Kali Pujo when Kali, a more virulent form of Durga, is worshipped through the night with great fervor in Eastern India. As a Bengali, I was very much a part of this tradition, and we would go out late in the night, to pay our respect to beautifully decorated idols of Kali, resplendent in her garland of blood red hibiscus flowers and demonic heads. We would have bhog after midnight, the highlight of which was an oxymoron – the unusual vegetarian goat curry. If you think this curry is made out of trendy fake meat, you are very much mistaken. Kali Pujo, predates fake meat by centuries! What apparently makes this curry “vegetarian” is the lack of onions and garlic that are otherwise always used in a traditional Bengali goat curry. The goat for this curry is comes from a male goat that was sacrificed at midnight, a ritual I was witness to once as a little girl.
We were at my dida’s (maternal grandma’s) house in Purnia. My widowed grandmother, was a devotee of RamKrishna, a Bengali saint, who in turn was a devotee of Maa Kali. She would take us to the Purnia Kali Bari at least once during our stay with her. It was a trip that I enjoyed very much with its rhythmically bumping rickshaw ride as it snaked through tall palm trees that had little clay pots strung right around where their leaves ended. It looked as though the trees had necklaces around their neck. I enjoyed looking at the daring men who climbed way up high with minimal safety gear to collect the sweet sap from the pots. The sap has a nutty smoky flavor that tastes a bit like maple syrup. It is mildly processed to make yummy nolen gur that went into flavoring my favorite desserts. The sap of some other palms were used to make toddy. What that tastes like, I can’t tell, because I have never had any. Most of all I loved the serene setting of this little temple by the river amidst lush tropical greens.
This time we were in Purnia for Kali Pujo and yes, as usual, we were going to venerate Maa Kali – this time at the Purnia Kali Bari. Like before we jumped on to our parents laps, and bumped along the road as our parents hugged us tightly. Little did I know that this trip was going to be quite different, one that would be seared in my memory.
As, we disembarked on this new moon night that lay suspended between the end of Sharad and the start of Shishir, I was taken aback by the sound of prayers being offered to a male black goat. Oh, how handsome he looked with his garland of bright red hibiscus flowers shining brightly against his silky black fur as he was gently being guided towards the sacrificial altar. As the goat realized its ultimate fate, its joyful pride dissolved into trembling bleats which despite their softness, split right through this dark night. Oh, the poignancy of his bleats! I ran as far away as I could and shut my ears, waiting for that blissful serendipity of the place to return. A few short moments later, all went numbingly quiet, as the giant sword, swiftly decapitated this goat in one fell swoop. It was over – but not for me. I just couldn’t get those plaintive bleats out of my head. With my heart in shards, it became impossible to settle into the quietness of a Hemant new moon. The sight of that goat curry made me gag, and I couldn’t eat it. Even though it didn’t make me a vegetarian, and I continued to enjoy our Sunday goat curries for many years, I couldn’t forget this little goat – so happy in its veneration, so terrified of its ultimate end.
In the process of painting this, I came to realize that I had been so shaken by that event that I had forgotten what time of day this deadly ritual had taken place.
Much has changed since then. Activists have managed to highlight the cruelty of this practice and most temples now sacrifice a gourd instead of a goat.
But despite all their activism, eating meat and the number of brutal slaughterhouses have increased manifold in India. During the process of capturing this memory, I started to wonder is it really worse to occasionally eat a few small bites of meat of an animal that was raised with love, venerated, and killed with compassion and the belief that because of this great sacrifice, he shall be reborn as a human being than to stock up our freezers with mounds of beautifully butchered shapes of meat that bear no resemblance to the being that they came from?
As we ramp up to Thanksgiving, I question our activism that results in hiding from sight what we can’t stand to bear. As we gather around any festive table, perhaps what we should be most thankful for is the being that gave its life to bind us together around the table to cherish our friends and families, and nourish our bodies and souls.
When I was growing up, shashti was my most exciting day. We wore our first set of pujo clothes, and I couldn’t wait for dusk to fall, so that I could see bodhon , the unveiling of Maa Durga ’s face , as she is invited to spend time on our earth (Amantran and Adhibash ) On mahasaptami, the statue icomes alive as she steps into our mortal world to start her epic battle against evil Mahisasur who she vanquishes on Ashtami. She isn’t just brave and strong. Before vanquishing Mahisasura, she promises that despite his misdeeds, he too shall be worshipped along with her and her children. And, so, Durga pujo is not merely prayers for her, but for her children and even the misguided demon. That’s what makes Durga Pujo an epic story and makes Bengalis go crazy during this festival. Here I am with my mother and sister during the Big Reveal !
We observed my mother’s Shraddha. That day is blurry but I am sure that we blindly went through the rituals that had been codified more than two thousand years ago.
What is not blurry is the day leading up to her death.
Her sprightly chatter had fallen into near silence during the week leading up to her death.
My father had bathed and changed her, just like he had done every noon since the time she had gotten too weak to do it herself.
I had taken to brushing her thick long black hair. I liked how it felt wet, cool and heavy in my hands.
Like the past few weeks, her head rested heavy on her hand. Her eyes – sad, soft, downcast and faraway, even though we were sitting right in front of the mirror she had used to energetically adorn herself with a little gold and sindoor for about 32 years.
“কি ভাবছ, মা?” (What are you thinking about, Ma?)
“ধুত, কি আবার?” (Oof! What else?)
she replied distantly and irritably.
I loosely braided her hair even though her voice stung. Did she know that was going to die?
She ate a bit and lay down to rest.
I laid down beside her and stroked her still spotless, golden, beautiful back. I can’t think of a time in my life when I didn’t love stroking her back.
She was falling off to sleep.
Suddenly, she sprang up to sitting on the edge of her bed, her words tumbling rapidly into one another as she desperately tried to keep pace with her sudden burst of delirium.
“Can you hear them?”, she gasped.
“Hear what, Ma?”
“Those bells… the evening bells. Can’t you hear them? They have started to practice their dance. What are you doing here? Why aren’t you there, practising with them?”
“What bells? What dance, Ma?”
“There! There! Can’t you see them?” pointing to a corner of the room.
“Ma! There’s nobody there!” I was beginning to get very frightened as I looked into a pair of eyes that I could no longer recognize.
They looked manic, puzzled. Why couldn’t I see what she could see? She dropped her arm, let out a deep sigh and fell into disappointed silence.
For twelve years of my life, I had practiced dancing every evening. It was evening alright. But those practice sessions were long gone.
As my husband and brother frantically tried to get a hold of her doctor for advice, my father and I sat next to her, not knowing what was to come.
Little did we know that we would be watching death unfold.
Perhaps it was an illusion created by the emotional center of my otherwise pretty logical brain, but it wasn’t like she was alive one moment and dead the next. It felt like her life had become into its own being and was wrestling to set itself free from its physical binds.
How long did that last? A few minutes? A few hours? We weren’t scientists trying to study death with a stop clock. We were watching my mother die, and it felt like a really long time.
Strangely enough, the closest thing I can compare it to is birthing. Just as time, space and cognition collapse into one incomprehensible dimension when a baby is on its way to be born, this was no different.
Just like a baby forcefully and determinedly squirms and twists its way through the birth canal in no predictable pattern till the head, shoulders and the rest of her body slithers out into one slimy, bloody mess and a loud wail, my dying mother’s life was corkscrewing its way out through her death canal, a bit at a time to no set rhythm.
Like a baby unregrettably leaves the womb that had kept her alive for nine months, my mother’s life finally broke free from the body that had nurtured it for 51 years, leaving behind slightly parted lips, a stony blank stare, and a loud wail – my father’s, ” আর নেই রে! তোর মা চলে গেছে!” (She is no more! Your mother has left us) as he continued to stroke her limp but still warm shell of a body.
Maa has returned to her heavenly abode, as did mine, almost 20 years ago.
When we were little, the joy of pujo lay in waking up at the crack of dawn to Birendro Kishore Bhodro’s rendition of Mohaloya broadcast over All India Radio. It lay in the anticipation of more than a week off from school, wearing new clothes, eating bhog, and most of all meeting friends and family.
After I had moved to Delhi, pujo was a time to be with my parents, who had moved to Kolkata by then. Kolkata was a big change from the small town I had grown up in. The pandals of Raurkela were neither as creative as Kolkata, nor were they as crowded. The madness that grips Kolkata during pujo is not something anyone outside of Kolkata can understand or imagine.
This night was pujo’s biggest night – Ashtami. After offering our morning Anjali in the paaraar pandal, we decided not to venture out in the evening.
“Knock, knock, knock!!!” It was Monoronjon, our local rickshaw puller.
Those who are familiar with Kolkata, know that rickshaw pullers are our solution to getting to various modes of an otherwise efficient public transit system. Within every few blocks is a “rickshaw stand” marked only by a huddle of rickshaws. If you live in that neighborhood, you start using the same rickshaw puller to take you places, or to run errands. In our case, that man was Monoronjon.
“Ki Boudi, pujo dekhbeyn naa?” (Brother’s wife, don’t you want to go and see pujo?)
“Naa, eyi bheedeyr moddhey aar beyrotey bhaal laagey naa.” (No, its too crowded to be enjoyable)
“Sheyki??? Oshtomir din, protimaa dekhtey jaabeyn naa. Ey ki kothaa? Cholun. Aajkey keyu baadi boshey neyi. Cholteyi hobey.” (How can that be? Its Ashtami, Pujo’s big night. How can you not want to see Mother Goddess. No one stays home on Ashtami. I will take you through the backlanes. You have to come.)
And, so we did. Through the narrow back lanes of Selimpur to all the pujos in Jodhpur Park, Jadavpur park and even as far as Santoshpur. My sister and I hung on to our mother for dear life as Monoronjon expertly swerved his way through the winding streets and impenetrable crowds. A good three hours later – we were home.
“Eyyi jey, Monoronjon. Eyto ghoraaley. Koto holo?”(you took us around quite a bit. How much?)
“Sheyki baudi? Pujor din. Aami aapnedeyr ghora tey niyey gaychhi. Aapni to amaakey daakeyn ni.” (How can you even ask me that? Its pujo. I asked you to come with me. You didn’t ask me to take you.)
And with that, Monoronjon, our illiterate, dirt-poor rickshaw puller reminded us that pujo is so much more than new clothes, food or commerce. It is about sharing joy.
The original ‘The Bomb and the General’ is a delightfully optimistic, anti-war children’s book – written by Umberto Eco (The Name of The Rose), and brilliantly illustrated by Eugenio Carmi. It was published in 1989 –
In Italian: By Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, Bompiani, Sonzogno, Etas S.p.A.;
In English: By Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
Inspired by the original story, this version retains some of the original text (italicized), and maintains a similar naïveté to create an anti-war message for children. For adults, its a more complex tale about hegemony and insular faith.
The General of our story enjoys a life of ease and gluttony, till he is compelled to seek God, during a moment of personal crisis. This pivotal encounter awakens in him an unshakable passion for God’s word. But his myopic obsession with the minutiae of God’s message clouds its original intent, and provokes an ominous future. Will his country slumber on through the impending doom or will they arise to reclaim their right in a peaceful world?