Om Sarva Mangala Mangalye Shive Sarvartha Sadhike
Sharanye Tryambake Gauri Narayani Namostu Te
Srishti Sthiti Vinashanam, Shaktibhute, Sanatani
Gunashraye, Gunamaye, Narayani, Namostu Te
Sharanagata Dinarta Paritrana Parayane
Sarvasyartihare Devi! Narayani! Namostu Te
Close to fifty pairs of hands folded in unison seeking the blessings of Ma Durga standing on the floor of the man-made puja mandap of the Chowdhury household.
Maha Ashtami was the most important day of Durga Puja for the Chowdhurys . Just like every other year, Uma and Pushpak had the program for these five days of Durga Puja planned well in advance. This affluent and aristocratic family in Murshidabad was known for the conducting the puja for seventy-four long years. This year relatives from different corners of the world were expected to make a visit to partake in the grandeur of diamond jubilee celebrations. Uma had been supervising the arrangements and decor of all the fourteen rooms in the house for the past one month. Close to sixty people were expected and ten rooms were already occupied by this day.
This year had an extra significance in the family as it marked as the first puja of their newly wed daughter-in-law Srishti. Three months ago, their Chartered Accountant son Ronit was married to Srishti who worked as a Sociology Professor in the city University. Despite staying out of the country for one and half decades, the childhood family friends had decided to return back to their roots to settle down. Uma never got along very well with her radical thinking daughter-in-law. Uma believed in traditions and rituals while Srishti chose the path to question them. Their relation had been on a downhill slope last month when the philanthropic Srishti decided to sell some of her wedding jewelry gifts to fund the school building for underprivileged girls. Despite her well-meaning intention, the conservative Uma could never forgive her.
Uma had firmly conveyed to Ronit that Srishti needed to abide by the family customs for the five days of Durga Puja. Any deviation would unnecessarily set the wagging tongues of relatives talking. Ronit had assured her of taking care of the proceedings during this period. After Vijaya Dashami that marked the end of puja, Srishti could go back to her way of living and thinking post departure of the relatives. In return Uma had decided not to get involved in their decisions unless it affected her or the family. Last two days had gone unexpectedly well. Srishti had not only taken care of all the guests but also chose to keep her outlandish ideas supporting feminism and criticizing patriarchy in check. With half day of Ashtami over, Uma only prayed that the remaining two days were equally uneventful.
After savoring the delicious bhog (prasad) of khichdi, khyaat (mixed veg), payesh (rice kheer) and rosogolla(a variety of sweet) in the afternoon, Uma went to her room to take an hours rest before starting the preparation for Sandhi puja* to be held around midnight this year. Srishti was expected to sit for the puja this evening since it marked her significance as the chosen one to bear the future heir to this family. Close to thirty years back, her mother in law Sarojbala had prepared the newly wed Uma for this role. Uma’s husband Pushpak hardly took ant interest in family functions and gatherings. Ever since he had retired, the majority of his day was spent in the sitting room playing chess with his childhood friend Paran Ghosh, She had hoped for a friend in her future daughter-in-law but Ronit’s marriage had only aggravated her existing loneliness.
Uma had come out of the room dressed in a white tasar silk sari with vermilion red borders. Her jewelry adorned frame looked elegant. Spotting her son and daughter-in-law in deep conversation on the sofa, she felt annoyed. Srishti had still not dressed up for the puja due to begin in about an hour.
“Ma, we have been waiting for you. Srishti wanted to talk to you about a complicated issue” Ronit sounded a little uneasy.
Deep within, Uma was getting mentally prepared for another confrontation. She had half expected Srishti to create a ruckus at the end moment.
“Aunty, I have just started my period. I don’t know how to handle the situation right now.” Mother in-laws were never referred to as aunty, but Ma in her family but the U.S. returned Srishti had made it clear on the first day of meeting her that she and her husband would always be aunty and uncle to her. She couldn’t imagine calling anyone else Ma – Baba other than her own parents. However much it hurt, Uma had decided not to force her against her will.
“Srishti, in that case you can’t attend the puja.”
“But Ma, how will you manage? Everyone is expecting Srishti to start the puja. If you sit instead of her, it will raise a lot of unwarranted questions now. If you tell the truth, it will only mean putting Srishti in the spotlight for reasons beyond her control. If you don’t, the obvious assumption will be an over bearing mother-in-law taking away the limelight from her daughter-in-law. I don’t want either of you to go through this.” Ronit had sounded disturbed.
“I fail to understand why you even need to be a part of this female oriented conversation. Your darling wife could have spoken to me in private instead. I would have still advised her to refrain from attending the puja. I am going to justify her absence on a sudden migraine attack since most of them are aware of Srishti suffering from it. As far as being labelled as a manipulative mother-in-law is concerned, couldn’t care any less. Now if you two are done with such trivialities, I would want to leave and start arranging for the puja.”
“But aunty, I know this day is very important for you. In fact I was hoping to make you proud.” her voice choked with emotions as Uma was surprised by this sudden outburst.
Uma rushed towards the puja mandap. Almost everyone was curious about Srishti’s sudden disappearance. Uma politely informed everyone about the migraine attack rendering it impossible for Srishti to get out of the bed. However the incessant whispering about the assumed bitter relation between her and Srishti didn’t fail to reach Uma’s ears.
The arrangements were completed in time. Uma decided to pay a visit to the restroom upstairs before sitting for the puja. It was going to be one long night. She was surprised to see the door of her son’s room half-open. At a glance, she could figure out the tall frame of her son sleeping on the left corner of the bed just like most of the other male members in her family while the women slogged it out. Srishti sat at one corner of the bed holding her white muslin silk saree with red and orange border. Uma had gifted her this saree to be worn on the auspicious occasion of puja tonight. Srishti was weeping silently. Uma’s heart skipped a beat as she felt familiarity with the same scenario many years back.
The past –
Jaya Jaya Devi
Chara Chara Share
Kucho Jogo Shobhito
The loudspeakers from the neighboring puja pandals had been playing the Saraswati puja hymns since morning. Little Ronit had just turned two and half years old and was the center of attraction today. He was to be introduced to the art of reading, writing and alphabets through the ritual of hathekhori. Uma had been running around in her crease free, new white silk saree with golden red border getting all the puja items in place before the priest arrived. The ritual demanded that Ronit sat on her lap during the puja. The mother was the one responsible for helping him transition into this new phase of learning. As she stood up to light the lamp, she felt the unexpected flow of blood just like it came every month at the beginning of her menstruation cycle. Today wasn’t even her due date. Uma rushed upstairs. Her mother-in-law Sarojbala had been observing her keenly. She went behind her silently. As Uma hurried to take out the sanitary napkin from the almirah, all hell broke loose.
That Saraswati puja was etched in the memory of every single person in the Chowdhury household. The entire household had been witness to Uma getting abused and shamed for something as normal as her monthly cycle. Sarojbala ensured that every single item that Uma had touched in her house temple was replaced by a fresh one immediately. She was not ready to take any chance with her deity. Every visitor was made aware of her inability to be a responsible daughter-in-law that day. Little Ronit was snatched away from Uma’s embrace to be plonked on the floor during the ritual. The chanting of mantras was submerged by the crying of a toddler craving for the security of his mother’s lap and love.
Uma had been too scared to even question the ritual or stand her ground that day. Till the time her mother-in-law was alive, she had carried out her duties with diligence. But she had promised to be a better mother-in-law for her future daughter-in-law. But Srishti was so difficult to handle. She had never let Uma bridge the gap in their relationship. but looking at her tearful silhouette now, Uma felt a tug in her heart.
She walked inside silently. “Why are you still awake?”
Srishti was taken aback at the sudden entry of Uma,”I was just about to go to bed.” her eyes were a shade of red from continuous sobbing.
“Do you want to go downstairs Srishti?” Uma asked her gently.
“How can I go near the mandap? I am impure as you say.”
“Do you believe that you are impure? I have heard you tell so many maids in the house that monthly period is nothing beyond a physiological change in the body. You keep encouraging them to lead a normal life even during those four to five days. So why are you lying low now? Doesn’t normalizing period instead of making it a social taboo hold good for you? I feel you should preach only what you can practice.” Uma didn’t know from where she mustered the courage to put forth such a strong opinion.
“Of course I don’t belive in such prejudices. Beyond these five days, I wouldn’t even given it a second thought. But, today it would only embarrass you further in front of the family. I know they keep taunting you for my addressing you as aunty instead of Ma. I would rather not add to your woes.” Srishti sounded tired.
“But why would they need to know? It is just a normal body function. Just as there is no need to hide, is there any need to declare it as well? There’s no rule in the vedas that states that a woman can’t be involved in rituals during her monthly cycle. I am sure you know it better than me. Come on Srishti, if you feel that there’s nothing wrong in being a part of the puja today, why are you letting the society decide your course of action?” Uma meant every single word that she spoke. Probably it was her way of trying to reclaim her own life through empowering Srishti. “Get ready fast. We will go down right away.”
Sristhi stood in awe of the bold and courageous opinion of her mother-in-law. Suddenly their past differences seemed too insignificant. She got up to drape the saree as Uma went to freshen up.
Dressed in identical sarees, Srishti walked down the stairs with Uma. A bunch of overtly curious relatives couldn’t stop themselves from asking about her sudden reappearance.
Srishti held Uma’s arm firmly – ” I guess Durga Ma has chosen me to perform the puja. That’s why she probably sent Ma upstairs to check on my health. I have slept for two hours after taking the medicine and I feel much better now. When I heard Ma’ s voice, I knew that it was time for me to partake in the puja.”
Uma have a shiver run down her spine on hearing the word Ma from Srishti’s lips. But she couldn’t just be sure yet.
“Oh, we weren’t aware that your mother is here tonight. Where is she?” one of the relatives queried Srishti.
“Not my mother, I am talking about my other Ma – the one who became my mother not just by virtue of my marriage to her son but by her love and support for me.” Srishti walked ahead with her hand refusing to let go of Uma’s arm.
As Uma picked up the conch shell to blow, Srishti sat down in front of Ma Durga.
Uma silently prayed, “Durga Ma, I am sure as a woman you would understand. Forgive me for keeping this a secret from those who would never understand menstruation doesn’t make a woman impure. “
The dhakis (traditional drummers) had arrives to start the playing of drums. It was indeed time for the rituals to begin.
*Sandhi Puja – It is done at the exact time Mahashtami ends and Mahanavami begins, with rituals performed for the last 24 minutes of Mahashtami and for the first 24 minutes of Mahanavami. The legend behind Sandhi Puja comes from when Durga was engaged in a fierce battle with Mahishasura and was attacked by the demons Chanda and Munda. Goddess Chamunda emerged from the third eye of Durga and killed Chanda and Munda at the cusp of Ashtami and Navami.