By Shiuli Sural
Dialogues came out of Jaya’s mouth like an erupting volcano which had been dormant till now. The applause for her histrionics simply wouldn’t stop. Some fifteen feet away from the stage, Kali was lighting diyas and placing flowers on the altar. Strange are the ways of life.
Two weeks ago, Jaya’s friends had been fervently rehearsing for a play. Durga Pujo was around the corner and the red hibiscus tree was in full bloom. Jaya was observing the young actors with rapt attention, but inadvertently thinking about the props she would be designing. Although bound to a wheelchair, Jaya was never short of spirit. Her shy, but eager smile rarely went unnoticed. Her perfectly designed and painted props were famous all over Mitrapur Park, and who knows, maybe even beyond. She sighed with delight as she watched her friends laugh hysterically at their own antics on stage.
The atmosphere was not so lively some fifteen feet away. The adults were huddled in a group. Some were shaking their heads, some seemed to be searching for words and others frowned in deep thought. The ongoing debate was about the appointment of a new priest. Last year, in November, the priest who conducted the rituals for every Pujo had passed away almost suddenly. The one who had been finalized about a month ago had called up that morning to announce his unavailability due to his father’s illness. From the sidelines, these office bearers were being watched anxiously by a round-eyed lady in a grey blue saree. She was Kali, the late priest’s wife, who belonged to a family of priests and had studied the religious scriptures since her childhood. Every year she would assist her husband in the Pujo.
But today, she quietly wondered who she would assist this year, or whether she would be allowed to assist at all, since widows have a history of being discriminated against. As she took a deep breath, her head turned towards the stage. She looked at Jaya, petite in her green dress, perched on her brown wheelchair like a parrot who was about to fly, prompting dialogues to her friends from the script she had already learnt by heart. Kali, like everyone else, adored the little girl. The latter used to often assist her in segregating and arranging the flowers for the Pushpanjali prayers. They shared a beautiful bond which they had never thought of defining. And it was because of this love that, even from a distance, Kali could observe the longing in Jaya’s eyes to be closer to her friends. She could see Jaya’s black eyes shining with the tiny hope that one day she would get to act on stage, to be part of something which she had always been deprived of.
Standing in the wings of the stage, Jaya was looking at Kali from the corner of her eye. She had always been enamored of this woman with great knowledge and poise. Kali seemed to her an embodiment of Ma Durga herself, pristine and calm, yet strong and affirmative. She wondered whether Kali Mashima would perform the prayers this time. Jaya felt that she should. Her involvement in the ceremony would certainly reduce the void Pandit Moshai’s sudden demise had created in her life. One has to move on, isn’t it?
Meanwhile the circle of adults had broken apart. It looked like they had reached an impasse. All the priests were booked but the search had to carry on. An elderly man approached Kali with folded hands, ”Mashima, we would appreciate it if you could assist the new priest as well”.
Kali wanted to speak out what was in her heart, that she wanted to be the priestess-in-charge, but she withheld her heart’s desire. Or maybe she could not muster up enough grit to make such a proposition, one which seemed a distant dream, an improbable suggestion. With vacant eyes, she smiled and nodded. But Jaya could understand her agony. She could comprehend Kali’s desire camouflaged behind her grateful eyes and measured smile. And this was not the first time that she wanted a miracle to happen.
A week later, the October air brought with it the sad news of Anubha’s accident. The fate of the play was left hanging in mid-air. Kali ran into Anubha’s mother at the medical store, who told her that Anubha was more worried about the destiny of the play than her fractured leg. Kali comforted the anxious mother and told her that she would pray for the well-being of her friend. While going home, Kali stopped by the half-constructed pandal to see how the preparations were going. This time, it was the children who were huddled in a group, discussing who would step in for Anubha as the protagonist. They seemed worried for their friend who had been advised three weeks of bed rest. Jaya’s usual smile was absent and her brows were lined with worry as she listened to them brainstorm.
Near the altar, the Pujo President and Secretary were still discussing who would perform the pujo. When they noticed Kali, they thought of having a word with her.
“Mashima, you must be having a list of instructions and things required for the pujo. Please give them to me at the earliest. We are still trying to find a priest but we must arrange for the things required”, said Girish Sanyal, the Pujo President, for the third time in a row. Kali promised she would and absent mindedly walked out of the pandal.
As she was turning round a corner, someone shouted from behind, “Mashima, please wait!”
Jaya was rolling her wheelchair at top speed towards Kali. They met under the red hibiscus tree. Jaya took a deep breath and tried to stop panting.
“Mashima, will you pray for Anubha? Ma Durga might listen to you, since I’m sure that she loves you”.
Kali smiled at the child. “I will pray for her. But Ma Durga told me you are her favourite, so make sure you pray for her too”.
Jaya’s eyes turned bright at once and she grasped Kali’s ageing hands in her own small ones.
“And you know what would make Ma Durga happier?”
“What?” asked the eager Jaya, without wasting a moment.
“Well, she would love to see her favourite perform Anubha’s part in the play”.
Jaya’s smile vanished as she pursed her lips. “How will I play the part?” she seemed to say to herself rather than replying to the lady. The lost child looked down at her wheelchair and then up at Kali. Her eyes were sad.
Kali felt her heart rush with emotion as she spoke, ”Jaya, people say life has many rules. One is, you’re supposed to stay where you are, you stay how you’ve been. But we shouldn’t care for such rules anymore. Anybody can be a gamechanger if they want.”
Jaya looked at Kali, her innocent eyes now as vast as an ocean. Kali looked right back at her and felt a wave of love, the kind they didn’t want to define. Instead, they smiled and nodded their heads in agreement. Jaya took a deep breath, this time to hold back her tears and wheeled herself back into the pandal.
“I think I can do Anubha’s role”. There was an astonished silence in the group. Everyone looked at Jaya with disbelief. She didn’t appear timid anymore. Her eyes were burning with fierce determination.
Outside the pandal, Kali was circling the hibiscus tree. She had been thinking about her own words to Jaya. Those words of strength and motivation. Were they only meant for encouraging others? What about her own self? Her heart started to ring like a temple bell. A gust of wind filled the air with a sweet fragrance. Kali unclasped her purse and took out her phone.
Girish da picked up. “Mashima, Hello. Have you Whatsapped those lists to me?”
Kali opened her mouth but remained silent for a second. Her voice shook slightly when she finally spoke, “Girish da, has a priest been finalized?”.
There was a sigh on the other end, “Oh Mashima, what do I tell you…we are so stressed. There is no one available at this point of time.”
“I know someone who can perform the pujo, one who knows all the prayers and rituals.”
“What! Who? Why didn’t you tell us before?”
“Me. I would like to perform the pujo this year,”. Kali’s voice was steady now. So was her heart. She was determined. It was time for another astonished silence. A startled Girish da finally found his voice, “Mashima, you?”
It was the auspicious day of Mahashtami. Chants of “vidyarupe vishalakshi vidyam dehi namostute” were in the air as devotees with foreheads smeared with sandalwood tika offered fruits, flowers and sweets to the Goddess. The big black eyes of Ma Durga seemed to be watching everyone – such is her aura, such is her magnificence. The children huddled for one final group hug backstage and then took their positions for the final performance. Jaya wheeled herself towards the centre of the stage. She could hear the prayer bell ringing at a distance. She smiled to herself for a moment. And when the curtains were raised, Jaya put her heart and soul into the act, her eyes and voice brimming with emotions, all amidst the roaring accolades. Near the altar, the priestess Kali lit the last diya and started chanting the shlokas to invoke the Goddess of Victory.
Shiuli Sural is currently pursuing BA Honours in History from Hansraj College, Delhi University. Her hobbies include reading, writing short stories and articles, and researching, accompanied by cold coffee. She is also the founder of A Sanitary Gift, an initiative to increase awareness about menstrual health, especially among domestic workers in India. She can be found of Instagram