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Subhodev Das

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 5/09/2014 |

THE FRINGE FESTIVAL





Author’s note: A number of recent social media posts, including those in ‘Protibaad’, lie at the origin of this story.

Durga was startled in her sleep. It had only been a few hours since her last “babu” (client) left and she dragged her overworked twenty two-year old body back to the bed, this time only to descend into her dreams. She had been busy the whole day helping the kids of her Sonagachi (Calcutta’s biggest red light area) neighborhood to decorate rickety “raths” (wooden chariots). Mamoni, her best friend Putul’s five-year old daughter, was most demanding of her favorite “mashi” (aunt). It was “Rath Yatra” (the festival of chariots). Durga had an artistic knack that she would like to put to use, particularly on such occasions. Most of the days weren’t as welcoming as this one. They were dreary.


Durga opened the window shutters slightly and peered outside. The eastern sky started to light up. In the disappearing darkness, she saw two human figures trying to scoop something off the courtyard. She was about to sound an alarm. Suddenly it dawned upon her that the day was Rath Yatra, hence the occasion of “kathamo pujo” (the structure worship). It was the day when the “patuas” (idol makers) of Kumartuli began erecting the bamboo structures for the “Durga Puja” (worship of goddess Durga) idols.
Long before it became politically incorrect to call sex workers by any other name, it was considered inauspicious to worship goddess Durga without seeking out the blessings of “ganika” (courtesans), even if they were otherwise stigmatized and ostracized by the society. Thus originated the little-known, age-old custom of collecting a handful of “ganika mrittika” (courtesan soil) from the “nishiddho pallis” (forbidden quarters) of Calcutta, where sex workers live, and adding it to the clay mixture which goes into the making of the Durga idol.
Durga smiled and closed the shutters. As she retracted to her bed, she remembered this day from the previous years. Pandit Taralochon Bhattacharya, whose family was in priesthood for four generations, would stop at Sonagachi on this auspicious day. The “purohit” (priest) would take a holy dip in the Ganga before visiting the nishiddho pallis to collect the “punya maati” (sacred soil). He would beg Durga and the other girls to gift the punya maati as an act of blessing. Initially the girls obliged, but over time they started objecting to the practice, calling it a sham. Lately, Durga would see the priest collecting the soil himself. He would chant mantras from the scriptures during the rituals and would position his fingers in a yogic mudra while scooping up the soil. That sight would amuse her.
The trespassers in her courtyard must be accomplices of the patuas, concluded Durga. She heard about the few occasions when these folks had offered cash to bribe the belligerent sex workers. One incident was even funnier. A patua was caught sneaking into one of the brothels to collect the soil while impersonating as a babu. Apparently, the patuas could not do away with the ganika mrittika. Taralochon purohit had explained the autumnal ritual to Durga: “Ma Durga will be displeased if those who worship her do not take your blessings. You are Durga too.” Lately Durga began to ask, “What are we getting out of it? They can’t make goddesses out of us once a year and then call us whores for the rest of the year. We have some respect, don’t treat us like criminals. We’re not here out of choice. Poverty has forced us to be here. Let society do something for us and then we’ll willingly give the soil.”
Durga was born in the Sunderbans delta region of West Bengal. Her father was a fisherman, eking out a meager living to feed a family of ten. However, he ensured that all of his eight children attended school. Durga was known in her village as the girl with the golden voice. Growing up, her songs were about the earth, the sky, and her village. Then, one day, she met a person who was visiting her family and felt attracted to him. He was nearly twice her age and was working in far-away places. She would listen to his tales of travels to big cities with rapt attention for hours. She was impressed by everything about him—his bicycle, his radio, his clothes. Her songs began to change into her love for him. When she became a teenager, he told her that he would marry her, and that he would make her a famous singer one day. It was not uncommon for girls of her age to be married. Many of her friends did so already. There was little incentive for families to keep their daughters in school. The older a girl got, the more her family would have to pay for her dowry.
One early morning, Durga slipped out her village with her beau and boarded a bus. It was dark when they arrived in Calcutta. She heard so many stories about the place. However, its sheer size and its din and bustle completely overwhelmed this quaint village girl. Her heart was pounding – terrified of being caught, but thrilled at the prospect of settling down with the man she loved. He introduced her to a middle-aged woman and told her that he wanted to keep her safe with his aunt until her parents stopped looking for them. He would return for her in a few days. She was reluctant to see him go, but trusted his decision. That night, in the moonlight, she saw girls in short skirts and red lipstick lining up on the street. When a man approached one of them, the girl led him into her house. The next morning, Durga asked the aunt about these girls. She spoke to her in a hollow voice devoid of emotion. Her man had sold her to this lady, and that she would have to work off her debt by joining those girls each night.
To ‘break her in’, Durga was raped several times a night for nearly a month before the madam started selling her to men for money. “You’re a flower that will be plucked over and again,” smirked the woman. Soon she was entertaining ten to twelve babus a night.
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Mahamaya Devi and her fellow ashram dwellers, about fifty of them, were meeting Bindeshwari Pathak in their Vrindavan hermitage. Ms. Pathak was the founder of Sulabh India that cares for the widows in Vrindavan and Varanasi. A month ago, the group expressed desire to visit Calcutta during the Durga Puja. These widows, all of whom were natives of West Bengal, arrived in Vrindavan at different stages of life over the past several decades. Like Mahamaya, who was nearing 80 years of age, they all had been rejected by the society. However, this meeting was in a different spirit. Ms. Pathak was there to let these hapless souls know that her organization agreed to fulfil their wish; these women would be flown to Calcutta to join the Durga Puja festivities. That news suddenly brought a rush of emotions in Mahamaya. When was the last time she partook in such fanfare? That would be nearly six decades ago! She had a husband then.
Mahamaya grew up in a small village in Comilla, Bangladesh. Her family, living off a small plot of land, could barely put her through primary school. It was more important for her brothers to pursue further education. So, she spent time developing skills in needlework and handicrafts. Her work was appreciated in her village, where Hindus and Muslims coexisted peacefully. That was before the partition of India. Then the Noakhali riots of 1946 happened. She vividly remembered that day of “Kojagari Lakshmi Puja” (autumnal worship of goddess Laxmi). She and her sisters were busy preparing for the events of that night. It was late in the afternoon. They had just finished decorating the courtyard, when her elder brother arrived home and announced that the Muslims of the village were assembling at the local mosque. He had overheard that the Muslim community was under attack from the Hindus and Sikhs in the neighboring Noakhali district. What unleashed next was a living hell!
As darkness fell, bands of Muslim men went from house to house looking for Hindus. They had cut off of the village path leading to the main road. Mahamaya’s house abutted a large tank. They were left with no option to escape. Instead, the family decided to fortify the house. The men piled up every available piece of furniture against the front door and stood guard, while the women retreated to rear of the house. Several houses were already aflame. The cry of “Allah o Akbar” (God is great) mingled with desperate pleas of help filled the air. Mahamaya’s house came under attack not long after that. At the sound of the crashing of the furniture pile, she and her younger brother and sister slipped through a window and sought refuge in the cowshed. The bloodshot moon veiled in the rising smoke beamed upon an unknown group of assailants pouncing upon her elder sister like a pack of wolves.
The first rays of a new day brought even greater misery to the family. The father’s body was recovered from the field adjacent to the house. Mahamaya’s elder sister was found in the pond, she had drowned herself. Her elder brother was missing. The village school headmaster, Mokhtar Ahmad, offered shelter to the family. His daughter, Reshma, was a close friend of Mahamaya. A week later, the family decided to move to Dhaka to live with her maternal uncle. Then, on an auspicious day, Mahamaya got married. She joined her husband on a long train ride to Calcutta.
Mahalaya’s new family was living in a refugee colony. Several of their neighbors had fled the Noakhali riots. Her husband held a floor job at a jute mill. She wholeheartedly embraced her role as a housewife lest the memories of that fateful night would came back haunting her. Over the next several years, the colony saw a huge influx of refugees driven by the partition of the Indian subcontinent. Mahamaya’s family also grew. She gave birth to a beautiful daughter, whom they named, Menaka. The colony inhabitants gradually began to pick up their lives, which they had left behind on the other side of the political divide. Eventually, they had their own Durga Puja celebrations. Mahamaya would miss her village on such occasions. She had not seen her family ever since she got married. Little did she know that her life was about to take an unexpected turn that would pale her past tragedy.
Around the time Menaka turned five, the jute mill underwent change in ownership. The new management, in a bid to improve profit margin, decided to lay off a portion of the staff. Mahamaya’s husband got the axe. The affected employees staged protests in front of the mill. The police, arriving to restore order, fired on the protestors. That led to several fatalities, including Mahamaya’s husband. Suddenly, the world she had slowly built around her came tumbling down. Her husband was the primary wage earner of the large refugee family. With her primary education and limited handicraft skills, she could not even come close to feeding herself and her daughter. Her husband’s family would no longer support her. She gave up Menaka for adoption and set off for Vrindavan to spend the rest of her life as a lonely widow.
Settling in an unknown place with women of her background proved to be challenging for Mahamaya. They were given a stipend of five rupees, which would be used to buy food and fuel. Soon life fell into despair that continued unabated for several decades. Finally, the Supreme Court intervened and asked Sulabh International to act as the Good Samaritan. The stipend received a generous boost and the women became eligible for healthcare. Now, hearing from Ms. Pathak about the trip, Mahamaya began to cry in delight, a feeling she had not experienced in a very long time.
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Durga had reasons to smile. This year the Sonagachi Ganika Samiti (the organization of sex workers of Sonagachi) had pushed hard to organize its own Durga Puja. It had approached the Burtolla police to celebrate the Puja at the crossing of Abinash Kabiraj Mistri Lane and Masjidbari Road. The police denied permission to put up a pandal at the requested location quoting traffic obstruction. So the Samiti petitioned the Calcutta High Court, which thundered in their favor and asked the Commissioner of Police to show cause. The news came that the court had ruled in favor of the sex workers. The High Court said: “We can love them… we can hate them… but we cannot deny them their fundamental right to perform religious acts…”
Ostracized from Durga Puja pandals, the sex workers of Sonagachi had for the first time broken the shackles of social prejudice to organize their own puja. They had been barred from performing “anjali” (offering) and taking part in other rituals at the “barwari” (communal) celebrations. Even their children would be shooed away from these places. Now, under the court directive, they would be erecting a 15 feet by 8 feet pandal at Nilmoni Mitra Street, not far from Sonagachi. The decision to observe the puja with all its rituals – preparations, cooking, “pushpanjali” (flower offering), “sindur khela” (vermillion fest) – was greeted heartily by all the members. The puja committee drew up a budget of Rs. 2 lakhs. Around 7000 sex workers agreed to contribute Rs. 20 each and even got their babus to pitch in.
Durga got into high gear. She was in-charge of the cultural activities. The children were organized into a group, named “Komalgandha” (the sweet-smelling ones), which would be performing the cultural programs. One of the Samiti staff, who was a Brahmin, consented to conducting the puja. They hired two “dhakis” (drummers). The patuas agreed to build a six-foot Durga idol at a nominal cost.
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Mahamaya was bewildered upon stepping inside the aircraft. The formalities involved to reach that point overwhelmed the group of widows, all of whom would be flying for the first time. An elegantly dressed lady helped Mahamaya to buckle into her seat. She learned that they were the air hostesses. Then the plane took off. As it climbed, Mahamaya could see that she was reaching for the clouds – the clouds she had seen hanging high above her village, the clouds bearing rain, the clouds reflecting the golden rays of the setting sun. About an hour later, the group reached Calcutta.

Once on the ground, the ladies were whisked away to a welcoming function organized by a youth group. The visitors were serenaded and greeted to the beating of the traditional “dhaak” (drum). There were additional felicitations at several Puja pandals in the following days. At few of those locations, the widows were asked to light the inaugural lamps. One pandal even had a replica of the famous Sri Krishna temple of Vrindavan. Mahamaya was in a trance having received so much of attention in such a short time. That was in stark contrast to her solitary life at the ashram over all these years. The social norms call for isolation of widows; even their shadows are to be avoided. Yet, in the midst of this new-found attention, her eyes would search for the life left behind in this megapolis decades ago, the one with her only daughter, Menaka.
On the night of “Ashtami” (the second of the four-day festival), the group was visiting various locations of North Calcutta under special arrangements for hassle-free pandal hopping. Mahamaya and her companions had finished the Rabindra Kanan pandal and were proceeding towards their pick up location on Jatindra Mohan Avenue. Their next stop would be the Bagbazar Pally Puja. As they crossed Nilmoni Mitra Street, Mahamaya heard a little girl’s voice over the “mike” (microphone). She was attempting to sing Kabiguru Rabindranath’s song in a halting tone. Mahamaya left her group and wandered in the direction of the song. There, on a raised platform, stood the little girl. She was about five-year old, clad in a saree that plentifully covered her small structure. Mahamaya stood among the puja revelers, mesmerized at the sight. The girl was her Menaka, or so she thought. The child was rendering the same song that Mahamaya had Menaka singing at their last Durga Puja together.
Mahamaya could not remember how long she stood transfixed. She regained her senses at the call of “didima” (grandma). A pretty young woman was holding her near the edge of the podium. She wanted to know whether Mahamaya would like to sit down. Instead, Mahamaya asked for water. All that walking had made her thirsty. The young woman introduced herself as Durga and explained how she had prepared Mamoni and the other kids to put up a memorable show. That was her moment to cherish. “For us organizing this puja is a means of empowering ourselves and ensuring that we enjoy equal rights as other citizens,” quipped Durga. Mahamaya asked if she could meet Mamoni. Durga led her to the pandal where she found the little girl in the arms of her mother. There, under the observant gaze of goddess Durga, gathered the fringe members of the society. Mahamaya extended her arms to embrace the girl and suddenly the “Sarbojanin Durgotsav” (Durga Puja Festival for All) became a lot more inclusive.


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