When the rather grumpy looking air hostess asked Uma about her choice of meal for the second time, it was Uma’s husband who replied, “Non-veg. Indian.” Even the curt reply couldn’t rouse Uma from her rumination. A rectangular box, neatly wrapped in foil, arrived on her tray with a hollow thump. On other occasions she wouldn’t have wasted a second in unwrapping the foil sheet. She loved to study any new recipe with the interest of a food connoisseur. But now the box could only elicit a desultory glance. “Eat,” her husband commanded while scooping a spoonful of the cauliflower curry before mixing it with the pearly rice. “You can worry once we land in Kolkata,” he chomped.
“You cannot assess the damage that has been done,” Uma moaned again, this time keeping her eyes shut. She had a habit of stretching every word that she uttered, much like the lotus eaters. But the habit added an element of affection to her speech. “How will I bring home Ma Durga this year with all my utensils gone?”
She craned her neck and stared out the porthole. The Atlantic appeared an azure blue.
“The food is getting cold. Eat now,” he unwrapped the foil.
“I don’t feel like eating.”
“Don’t nag now,” he lectured her.
She eyed the meal box with reluctance. Divided into three compartments, it had rice, a curry that was a bland yellow and a dish of chicken.
She whiffed the box and added with a grimace, “Who adds garlic in cauliflower?”
Aware that it was yet another excuse to skip her meal, he decided not to respond. He gave her a look instead, firm enough to make Uma start eating. She dug a clumsy fork on a boneless chunk of chicken and sliced it into an asymmetric half. Uninviting with its thick, dirty green gravy, the curry had a thin film of immiscible oil floating on top. But as she bit the first morsel, the distinct flavour of mint and coriander, mixed in perfect proportions, took her by pleasant surprise. Each mouthful that she took released unique flavours, belying its insipid appearance. Salted to perfection, the chicken pieces were tender and juicy, just like the way she liked.
A food aficionado, Uma’s interest in cooking developed pretty early in life, first from her mother and then from her sister, Pratima. She took keen interest in observing the tempering that her mother added to various pulses. Nigella seeds to orange lentil, cumin to yellow; the predominance of cumin and ginger in mutton, but coriander and garlic in chicken. So she learnt the nitty- gritties. To hone her skills, she took bakery lessons, a pastime unconventional enough to raise eye brows among her friends. For bakery lessons were not in vogue in the 1970s, music and painting were.
But such was her diligence and dedication that she learnt baking, icing, frosting within a matter of few days. When it was time for her to get married in 1980, her father, instead of gifting her with a television set or refrigerator, as was the norm then, bought her an electric oven that came complete with baking and broiling features. She baked brownies, truffles, tarts, pies. With time she transformed her kitchen into a veritable patisserie.
Years later when her daughter began college and she would get bored in her empty nest, Uma started imparting cooking lessons to young girls in her tiny apartment. The girls came in batches of two or three. They would bring the ingredients and she would provide them the cooking stove. Such was the symbiosis. She taught the girls to hold kitchen knives, to sliver onions, julienne ginger, chop herbs and mince garlic with an élan that befits a professional chef. She tutored them to sauté, simmer and sear. At lunch time, her dining table would serve a spread no less opulent than a queen’s, starting from koftas and cutlets and ending with custard and pudding with fluffy bread and flavourful rice and pickled chicken thrown in between.
* * * * *
When the aircraft touched down at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport, the rain had trickled down to a drizzle. The monsoon arrived late this year and the rains have persisted. They drove down Ultadanga and E.M. Bypass before taking a right from Ruby towards Rash Behari Avenue. As their taxi navigated through the plodding traffic, Uma’s eyes lingered at the scaffoldings that had come up at Desapriya Park. In less than two months time the scaffoldings would have been transformed into a majestic pandal on whose sanctum would dwell Ma Durga and her children for five days. She fondly recalled how she had welcomed the goddess last autumn amid beats of dhak, blow of the conch and the collective ululation of women-folk.
Uma alighted the taxi as it plodded to a halt. She rushed to the ground floor room that housed the shrine. She had kept the utensils stacked inside a cupboard. Malati, the care taker’s wife hurried towards Uma and offered to take the luggage bag.
“What misfortune befell upon us Malati?”
She ran her bulbous fingers over the iron grills of the window that had been prised open. Who would have imagined that a regular visit to her daughter in the US would result in theft?
“Yes mashima,” Malati lamented. “Let Ma Durga find a solution.” She joined her hands and touched her forehead with the scaly tip of the index fingers, muttering, “Durga Durga.”
Uma opened the cupboard and stared at its emptiness. Not even a spoon or a glass or an incense stand was left.
“They could have stolen my jewellery. Why did they have to steal the utensils?” Uma couldn’t hold back her tears. With only two months to go for Durga Puja, she was at a loss to find ways to arrange for the utensils.
Three years back she had dreamt of Ma Durga urging her to feed her bhog, the food offered to the divine. It would incur a considerable expenditure and there were no helping hands either. But she had paid no heed to her husband’s concerns about holding a five day festivity. “Ma Durga wants to visit my home, don’t prevent her,” was her naive argument. Last year as she was about to cook the bhog on ashtami, she had accidentally dropped the plate of yellow lentil and aromatic rice. Relatives and guests had ordained the accident an evil omen. Uma, the gourmet, had taken it as an auspicious sign. She had argued that the Goddess, much like her, was not too fond of eating vegetarian food. So on ashtami, instead of the customary khichuri and the vegetable mish-mash offering, the Goddess was treated to an elaborate meal comprising fish and chicken. This year she had planned to replace chicken with goat meat- a savoury mutton curry that she had learned from Pratima.
Numerous phone calls were made to puja planners, caterers, relatives and acquaintances to bail her out of her predicament. Purchasing the utensils in so short a notice was not feasible. It would incur an enormous sum of money. She wanted to borrow the utensils on rent.
“Listen why don’t we borrow utensils from Geeta pishi?”
Geeta pishi was her paternal aunt. She had been worshipping the goddess for the last thirty years.
“She herself will need the utensils Uma and one year of not worshipping won’t incur the wrath of the goddess. As it is I’m too tired after overseeing the work at Beadon Street, don’t eat my head now.”
Pratima, was heir to her in-laws’ ancestral house in Beadon Street in the northern part of the city. A childless widow, she had settled in London three decades ago. With no heir to pass the property on to, she had decided to sell the century old property to a realtor. Before the house got broken down, all the antique furniture pieces, tapestry and other valuables had to be relocated elsewhere and Uma’s husband had been entrusted with this responsibility.
Used to her husband’s indifferent ways, Uma chose not to confront him. Instead she sought help in the divine.
“Durga Durga don’t talk in this way. Ma Durga will find a way out.”
“How is the work progressing in didi’s house?” Her husband did not respond.
“Here, are you listening to me?”
He had already started to snore. She put off the lights and lay down in bed. In the periwinkle hue of the night bulb, she stared at the whirring fan recalling the names of all her relatives, friends and acquaintances that she was still left to solicit for help. That night she dreamt of Ma Durga. Draped in red and gold brocade benarasi, the Goddess paid a visit to Uma at her house. She brought with her few gunny bags and gifted them to Uma.
Awestruck at such an unusual gift Uma asked, “What are these Ma?”
“Gift for you. Open them only when I leave.” Saying this she disappeared in a halo of golden light.
Uma was woken up from her sleep with a jolt. The morning sun was streaming in, bathing her room in gold. With barely a fortnight to go for the festivity, Uma had resigned to the fact that this autumn she would have to do without ushering the goddess at her home. But the dream renewed her hopes.
That evening when her husband returned from Beadon Street, even before he got off his car, he called out Malati. There was a sense of urgency in his voice that prompted Uma look down the window of her first floor bedroom. She saw Malati help her husband carry a few gunny bags from the car’s trunk. Uma scampered down the stairs. The gunny bags clanked and clattered. From one of the bags nudged out the bronze end of what appeared to be an intricate oil-lamp stand. Uma’s lips parted in awe. She stood in a bewildered amazement.
“How? Where? Who?” She could only utter monosyllables.
“Divine intervention!” her husband directed his gaze briefly at the ceiling and narrated the source of the utensils. Uma and Malati could hardly believe their ears.
Frantic preparations were made in the next few days. The pandit was informed, the caterer was commissioned, a marquee was erected in the terrace where guests would be fed to delicacies for five days. Every year when she saw off the goddess on Dashami for immersion, Uma would weep during the send-off. This year when the goddess was ushered home on Panchami, her eyes had welled up. She welcomed the deity by touching the idol’s carnation-cheeks with beetle leaves and moving the oil-lamp, thrice, in circular motion around the cherubic face.
There was a steady traffic of guests and visitors, few to pay homage to the goddess, others to savour the bhog. The beat of dhak, the blow of conch and the plaintive cry of ululation pealed around the house. The heady odour of flowers, incense sticks and camphor wafted in the festive air.
On Ashtami 108 lotuses were offered and 108 oil-lamps were lit. In the previous years, she had used earthen lamps which were discarded after the ceremony. Fresh ones were procured for the next year. This year she lit one hundred and eight brass lamps. She lit the lamps in batches of ten, creating rows and columns. Cotton wads were rolled into thin strips. Dipped in oil in the hollow of the lamps, they worked as wicks. When lit, the lambent flames created a wave of brilliance. But what outdid this brilliance was Uma’s radiance.
Like the deity’s, the border of her feet was painted in red dye. The crimson border of her cream saree matched with the vermilion parting. Her gold nose-ring was the same size and design of that of the deity’s. Both had been made to order at the local jeweller’s. With the thick stem of vermilion in her hair, the twinkle in her eyes and the effervescence in her smile, she was no less the goddess.
She had herself overseen and customised the bhog, mutton curry cooked in ginger, cumin and poppy seed paste. She called it the vegetarian mutton curry, with no onion or garlic. Rice was served in the centre of a silver dish, big enough to act as a warrior’s shield. Three types of fish cooked in mustard, yogurt and tomato each brimmed in pewter bowls. The mutton was served in a copper bowl. A tiny silver bowl contained a pinch of salt, a green pepper and a lemon wedge, the accompaniments that she loved to have on the side of her dinner plate. No opulence worth the name was disregarded. And yet nothing appeared jarring for all was offered with love and devotion.
Geeta pishi was unable to contain her curiosity. What caught her eye were the brass lamps.
“How did you manage to procure these lamps?” There was an unmistakable element of incredulity in her tone.
“Divine intervention.” Uma was facing the Goddess when she responded. So Geeta pishi couldn’t check the expression on her face.
“Look at this plate pishi,” Uma held out a large silver plate. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Geeta pishi drew the plate closer and adjusted her glasses. She squinted to check the ornate paisleys carved on its surface and ran her shrivelled fingers to feel the smooth polish.
“I always wished for a silver plate to offer the lotuses.” Uma’s eyes brimmed with joy.
While one of the living room walls was about to be broken down in the Beadon Street house, the labourer felt the surface of the wall sounded hollow. To check on the hollowness, Uma’s husband rapped his knuckles- twice, thrice. And every time the wall returned a vacant sound. He cautioned the labourer to hammer carefully. As chunks of brick, plaster and mortar crumbled, antique utensils of brass, copper, pewter and silver piled into a heap. Plate, bowl, spoon, spatula, lamp, incense and coir and camphor stands, bucket, glass, pan, and skillet- everything that Uma had yearned for was there. She did not forget to specify to Geeta pishi that the utensils were all carved in precious and semi-precious metals.
“Geeta pishi if this is not divine intervention, then what is, tell me?”
Geeta pishi could only nod her fragile head in agreement.
As the Ashtami arati was about to begin, the guests swarmed around the ten-handed goddess. The pandit moved the copper coir stand around the goddess in circular motion. In tandem his portly body too swayed to the rhythmic beat of the dhak. The guests stood with folded hands offering homage to the goddess, few had tears in their eyes. Smoke of coir and frankincense obscured the sanctum.
Uma’s husband stood at a considerable distance. A practical atheist, he rationalised any divine incident to be a mere coincidence. And yet he has never hindered Uma in fulfilling her godly duties. He has always lent a helping hand instead. This time too he lent more than a helping hand. He had promised Pratima that he would never divulge the source of the money of the utensils.
Anindita is incurably lazy. A dreamer and a habitual procrastinator, she escapes to the hills whenever she can steal time. When she is not reading, she is writing and vice versa. When she is doing neither she is travelling with her partner in crime, her husband. For her living, she teaches English to a bunch of noisy, thoroughly disinterested students. Born and brought up in Siliguri, a small town tucked in the foothills of the Himalayas, she currently lives and writes from Bangalore. She has been fortunate to have had her works published in Café Dissensus, Indian Review, Aainanagar, Elsewhere etc.