|Published in Wasafiri 25th Anniversary Issue, 2009|
During the hot and sultry month of October, the city of
up to a frenzy of celebration. It is the season for Durga Puja, the
worship of the Mother Goddess. People throng the streets in their fine clothes
and jewellery. Their songs of devotion and carefree laughter melt into the
incense-laden air. Each and every neighbourhood boasts of deities of Ma
Durga who strides over the vanquished demon, her ten arms brandishing
weapons, her body bedecked with jewels. For five days, it is a celebration of
good over evil.
As Ria woke, her body tingled with excitement. The sun had not risen above the horizon, yet the house was buzzing with activity. Her mother, already bathed and dressed in the traditional cream and red-bordered sari, was arranging the ingredients for Ria’s holy bath. She looked down at her daughter’s glowing face and smiled to herself. This was a special day for Ria, a special day for the Bose family.
Always, on the second to last day of the festival, a girl child, between the ages of one to sixteen, was selected to be worshipped as the earthly representative of the Mother Goddess. All the devotees would lie at her feet and worship the human incarnation of the Goddess. Today, Ria was the chosen one.
Every year, the Boses commissioned the old master sculptor to create an idol of Ma Durga in their courtyard. They watched from dawn to dusk, as he expertly moulded clay and straw into the majestic form of the Mother Goddess. The eyes of the Goddess were the last to be painted. The family waited in breathless anticipation as finally the sculptor gave the finishing touches and completed the sparkle in Ma Durga’s eyes: it was as if he breathed life into the statue, and Ma Durga emblazoned the courtyard with her power and spirit.
Her mother sang softly as she bathed her special child. At ten years of age, she radiated innocence and beauty. The priest had found all the qualities befitting the Kumari Puja, the Worship of the Child Goddess, in her little Ria.
As she was being dressed, Ria looked in amazement at her reflection. She watched her transformation from a tiny waif into a miniature reflection of the magnificent deity in the courtyard. Wrapped in a red silk sari, the golden sequins shimmering in the light, she looked every inch like the Goddess. To her delight, her mother applied lipstick and consecrated her forehead with the sacred vermilion powder. An intricately woven garland of jasmine and roses was placed around her neck. She delighted in its heady fragrance.
“You are a Child Goddess, Ria,” her mother explained, taking Ria’s hands in hers. “You must treat this auspicious day with great respect. Today all the powers of Ma Durga will be inside of you.”
Ria beamed as everybody said she was going to be the living Ma Durga. But she was not sure of how to behave. She was in awe of the Mother Goddess, with her ten arms and gleaming weapons, riding a furious lion with a bleeding monster at her feet. She peered into the mirror again and stuck out her lower lip. She did not look as impressive as the idol after all. She had only two arms, and was the shortest girl in class. She bared her teeth in a grotesque smile and shuddered at the way her braces glinted back. She made a mental note not to smile when she was on the dais, as that would remind people she was Ria, a mortal. She squared her shoulders and gulped. “Can I kill the Demon with my bare hands?”
“You can,” her mother laughed. “In between our prayers and offerings and after accepting all the gifts, you can battle it out with the Demon.”
“Will Ma Durga mind that her Child Goddess wears braces? She has such a lovely smile.”
“Silly girl, what a thing to worry about. Of course not. You are the most beautiful little Child Goddess I have seen. She will be delighted to have you by her side.” Her mother laughed and patted Ria’s cheek.
“Okay, but I will try to keep my mouth shut.” Ria’s eyes opened wide in wonder. “Mother, is it really true that I am the Child Goddess today? Will Ma Durga really come and live inside me today? And everyone will worship me today like they worship Her?”
Her mother’s eyes filled with tears as she touched Ria’s forehead. “You are Kumari today, the Child Goddess. You are the all-seeing, all encompassing Mother Goddess. We will bow down at your feet and ask for your blessing. It is such an honour for our family that you are the chosen one. Remember that, child. We are so blessed to have the Child Goddess in our home. The entire neighbourhood will come to worship you.” Ria felt better after listening to her mother. She needn’t be brave and ferocious. She only needed to bless everyone with her holy powers.
The moment arrived. The entire family gathered around the Child Goddess. Grandmother rang the prayer bell and chanted under her breath. Aunt held the holy lamp by Ria’s face and everybody showered petals on her. Ria’s father eyes sparkled when he bent down and bowed his head in reverence to the Holy Child. The drummers in the courtyard began their jubilant drum roll. The air vibrated with the electricity of their music. The neighbours, devotees and family members filed into the courtyard to worship the Child Goddess.
Ria sat on a special dais beneath the deity of the Mother. The floor in front of them was intricately decorated with rice paste and flowers. Offerings of milk, sweets, dried fruits and nuts, clothes and jewellery were spread out before her. The air was heavy with the scent of incense and jasmine. The priest chanted prayers and the devotees sang out to the Child Goddess.
Ria swayed to the rhythm, entranced by the surreal experience. She felt as though Ma Durga had stepped into her body, and taken command. Her eyes rested on them one by one, and she blessed them: Mother. Father. Grandmother. She saw Aunt, her father’s sister, crouching in front of the dais, head bent in great reverence. She did not like this aunt who always pinched her cheek a bit too hard, and said things that made her mother weep quietly in her room.
Should I bless Aunt as well? she wondered. Well, since I am the Child Goddess, I do not have a choice but to bless her… Oh look, what is Aunt doing? Through the incense smoke, Ria saw Aunt lift a gold necklace from the offertory tray in front of the Goddess. She stuffed it into the depths of her bosom. Then she looked around and slunk back into the swaying crowd.
Ria opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. She had seen too much, but was incapable of action. The priest stepped forward and sprinkled holy water on her head. The flames leapt about wildly in the oil lamps, and the drummers reached a climax in their music. Ria was lost in the devotional frenzy of her worshippers.
The Kumari worship came to an end with much cheer and veneration. But the Child Goddess slumped on her seat, suddenly drained of life. Her mother lifted her up and guided her towards the doorway. Behind them, Father and Grandmother began to collect all the offerings and gifts to be brought inside for safekeeping. Some of these gifts of gold jewellery, new clothes, fruits and sweets would be kept for the Child Goddess, while the rest would be distributed amongst the poor and needy.
Suddenly there was a sharp cry. Grandmother scrutinised the offertory tray in her hand. “The gold necklace… is gone.”
“What do you mean, Mother?” Ria’s father ran to her.
“The gold necklace I had offered to the Child Goddess … here on this tray … it is not there anymore.”
The onlookers gasped and looked around questioningly. Who would dare steal the holy offerings to the Goddess?
“The family heirloom?” cried Ria’s father.
“Yes, yes. I had saved it for Ria.” Her grandmother’s eyes brimmed with tears. She looked around frantically. “Call the police. What a thing to happen.”
“It must be the maidservant,” Aunt cried out confidently. “I saw her lurking around. She is new here, isn’t she?”
All eyes fell on the maidservant. The poor girl let out a wail and fell at her master’s feet. She grabbed his ankles and wept, “I beg of you, dada, I am innocent. I did not steal.”
“You wicked girl,” the Aunt yelled. “Lying is your second nature. You servants are all alike. Did not steal, indeed. Out with it.”
The girl wailed and beat her breasts, swearing at her innocence.
“But she did not do it,” Ria spoke out. “I am the all-seeing Child Goddess. I know she did not do it.”
Everybody turned to look at her.
“Ria,” her mother whispered. “What are you saying?”
“I saw who did it. Aunt stole the necklace.”
“Ria,” her father’s voice sliced the air. “Be careful of what you say.”
She stood, looking fearlessly into her father’s eyes. “Aunt took it in front of me, the Child Goddess. Ask her.”
The onlookers shuffled around in embarrassment. Aunt’s shrieks rent the air. “How dare she? Pointing her finger at me… no respect for her elders… shameful…”
“Please,” her mother tried to placate Aunt. “She’s only a child. She’s misunderstood things.”
“This is a police case, Ria,” her father explained to her. “They will catch the real thief. But you will not point a finger at anyone so irresponsibly. Aunt is part of our family, not a thief.”
“No, I saw Aunt,” Ria persisted. “I have the power to see the truth. I am the Child Goddess…”
“Enough.” Her father shoved her into the house, away from the curious onlookers. “You have gone too far, child. How can a respectable person like your Aunt steal family jewellery? There were hundreds of others who came up to you in that hour.”
Ria caught Aunt sneering at her, though pretending to wipe away tears. “Have you no respect for the Child Goddess? The police will know I spoke the truth, the servant is innocent,” she answered back to her father.
Her father raised his hand to strike her: the very girl he had bowed to in great reverence an hour ago. “Impudent girl, where are your manners?” he yelled.
Her mother pulled her away. “Ria, you have had enough for today. Now wash up and come down for lunch. You haven’t eaten all day. Do not interfere in this matter any more.”
“But Ma,” cried Ria. “She didn’t do it. She is innocent.” She looked at the wailing maid servant and started to sob herself.
Her mother led her to the kitchen. Ria played with her food, drawing circles in her rice and dal. Her tears dripped into the plate. No one believed in her, even though she was the Child Goddess.
Her mother left her, and she sat there, head hung low, listening to the elders arguing in the other room. She heard Aunt shouting and Mother crying about the shame of police coming to the house and ruining this special day; and then father’s voice on the phone. She heard him say ‘Inspector’. Everybody had forgotten her in the kitchen. Shaking her head, she pushed her plate away. Almost immediately, the maidservant sprang forward to clear the table.
Ria looked up at her. “I know you are innocent,” she whispered.
The maidservant’s lips trembled. “Thank you, Ria. It is very important for me that the Child Goddess knows that I am innocent. I will be protected.”
Ria looked away, knowing she was helpless to do anything else for the maidservant. She ran to her bedroom and slipped under the covers. She could hear the drums beating and sounds of merriment from the street outside. Her heart beat loudly, as if in competition to the drums outside. The police would be coming. They would surely arrest the maid. Nobody had paid any attention to the Child Goddess. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lips to stop them from trembling. She pressed her hands to her ears till finally out of sheer exhaustion she fell asleep.
Ria awoke for the second time that day to her mother’s caresses. She jumped up, confused. She was still wearing the beautiful red sari, though it was now crumpled and stained with perspiration. Mother was smiling, her eyes victorious.
“Ria,” she said. “The necklace is found.”
“Where?” Ria stuttered.
“In the courtyard. I found it hanging on the demon’s sword. The thief must have put it there.” Her mother said, simply.
“So… so the maid has not been arrested?”
Mother shook her head.
Ria’s face lit up. She shot out of the room, calling out for the maid. She bumped into her father in the courtyard. He was talking grandmother, who looked very relieved to have the necklace back in her hands. As soon as she saw Ria, she called out to her.
“Come, Ria,” she smiled. “At last I can place the necklace in its rightful place.” She adjusted the necklace around Ria’s neck and stepped back to admire it. “My grandmother had given it to me when I was a Kumari. Many, many years ago, when I was a little girl like you.”
Ria smiled, feeling very special. She fingered the heavy necklace and cast a glance towards Aunt. Aunt’s eyes were cold. “Thank goodness the maid had the sense to return the necklace. But my dear brother, you will regret keeping her on. She will not stop at this theft.”
“Enough, Lata. Not another word on this.” Her father looked sternly at his sister. “The necklace has been returned and I don’t want any more accusations that can’t be proved.
Aunt looked like she had been slapped on the face. Her cheeks turned red.
“You insulted me all for the sake of a stupid necklace…” she started. But father stopped her.
“No, Lata. No one is insulting you. But no one is blaming the maid, either. Please let us not spoil this special day by such petty fighting.” With that he turned away, leaving Aunt gaping behind him.
Ria giggled and skipped away. Her mother stretched out an arm to catch her. “Ria, Ria, get out of that sari. Wear a fresh dress now.”
But Ria dodged her, laughing. “No, Ma. The Child Goddess doesn’t want to change her sari.” She ran into the garden. Suddenly a movement from behind the bushes caught her eye. As Ria approached, the maidservant sprang forward and pressed a hibiscus flower in her hand and then ran into the house. Ria pressed it to her face. It was soft and velvety.
Maybe her outburst had helped father to eventually believe in her. Or maybe Aunt had been frightened enough to give up the necklace. Whatever it was, the maid had not been falsely accused of the theft. The necklace was safe around her shoulders. Ria tucked the flower behind her ear and raced towards her room. It was time to get out of the red sari and into her favourite new dress. It was time to become Ria once again, and she looked forward to the rest of the evening.