Soon, it will be Durga Pujo and I will go to the Hindu Temple. My mother and I will go alone because we do not have anyone else to go with us. And because if we do not go, people will talk.
I spent all last night bickering with ma, she insisted I go shopping the next morning for a new dress or dress-pant.
“Ma,” I said, “I don’t want to go, I have plenty of things to wear right here, at home.”
As I rummaged through the depths of my closet, I concluded that the spangled, neon-coloured ghagras, salwars, saris, and lahengas are too retro-Bollywood for me. And dress-pant too sterile for such a festive imported celebration as Durga Pujo, even if we are in this cold country, Canada.
Four hours later, and with a heap of clothes so high piled atop my floor we could clothe a small army of Bollywood fashionistas, we found the perfect outfit.
“Oho! This is it! Bery cute, na?” my mother interjected. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a lanky, awkward seventeen-year-old in a strikingly uncommon ensemble. I straightened my frame and squinted.
“Yes ma, I like it. I feel comfortable.”
“Sunita, it’s your phone! ” my mother yelled from the main floor.
“Who is it? ” I hollered from upstairs.
“Who else?? Durga herself.” I rushed to the basement to receive the call, far away from earshot.
“I don’t understand why you girls have to be so hush-hush secretive on the phone” I heard my mother mutter to herself in exasperation. I took a few moments to collect myself and catch my breath before speaking into the receiver.
“Hey, what did you do, run a marathon or something? I can hear you breathing on the other end.”
“Oh, no Durga, I was just running downst— ”
“Yeah, yeah, let”s get down to business.” Durga’s voice sharpened.
“Sorry” I mumbled.
“What will you wear.” Durga’s serious voice commanded through the phone. I wondered why she did not even bother to form her interrogation into a question, what allowed her to skip the fluff and get to the heart of the matter.
“The ghagra skirt I wore two years ago at Priyobroto’s wedding and the fancy tank top I bought the last time we went shopping at Holt’s.”
“You are not really going wearing that.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Can you even imagine what the aunties and uncles will say about all that skin? I mean, it is okay to wear that kind of stuff at school or at the mall, but not anywhere near the aunties and uncles! They’d have coronary infarctions just looking at your bare shoulders! ”
“But I just spent hours trying to find something,” I stammered. I did not know what else to say. A rush of disappointment flooded my chest. Sensing my distress, Durga eased out of her business mode.
“Look, Sunita,” Durga sighed, “I guess it’s not so bad. I mean, doesn’t Helen wear a bikini in Sholay? Besides, all the aunties show more rolls of flesh through the slits of their saris than that Poppin’ Fresh.” At this, we both fall into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
And so ends my telephone conversation with Durga, a person not to be confused with Durga, mother goddess of power. Durga is not like me, and she is also like me. Like me, she is not well received by the aunties and uncles, maybe because, unlike me, she is not a real Indian. Her mother is a Canadian, and we of the community do not trust Canadians, even if we ourselves were born and raised in Canada. The reason, I think, they do not like me is because I do not have pueshkar gaier-rong, or clean skin. This is because God has chosen to burden me with extra melanin. Also, maybe they do not like me because I refuse, as they expect of a girl with such repulsive colour, to ‘corrupt’ their precious sons, who, no matter how dark, are always the reapers of endless praise.
It is now Saturday and I am wearing that nice ensemble my mother and I created. I just entered the Temple and am taking off my shoes. One of the auntie’s children, I cannot tell if boy or girl, looks at me. He/she looks at me as if he/she doesn’t know whether to laugh, to smile, or to stick out a rude tongue. He/she tugs at his/her ma’s sari, as if he/she needed her opinion in order to calculate his/her gesture.
“Oh Nimu, it is only Sunita. Maybe you cannot recognize Sunita in her new dress. So pretty, ha, na? Is that what people are wearing these days? All those new filmis , you can never tell if those actresses are wearing proper Indian clothes or bra-tops. Does your mother approve of such clothing that is so risquŽ? Hai, what does it matter, it is so… ” She stops. She smiles.
Ifind Durga and we are in the handicap washroom stall together. She is helping me fix the string on my ghagra skirt. I do not understand why, even with all this button and zipper technology, Indian tailors refuse to use anything but drawstring. We pretend to take extra time in the stall until the bathroom traffic subsides. It will be empty, I’m sure, as soon as the prayer starts. Until then, Durga and I look at each other nervously because even though we have known each other since she moved to Montreal two years ago, and we have been so close, we have never touched. Not even a hug or a handshake. And so it is very awkward, you see, to engage in such intimate activity, and even more awkward to feel her skin brush in strange, unaccustomed jerks against mine.
Finally the ladies and their finicky babies have left and Durga begins to talk. “Did you see the way Bhashkar was ogling you? It’s as if he doesn’t know the answer to ‘Choli ke Peeche kya hai? “
“What a filmi song:a big bosomed auntie blaring ‘what’s under my shirt.’ It’s completely ridiculous how raunchy those stupid films are, these flicks they’ve been playing for us since we were too young to say ‘Amitabh.’ And when we bring 㣌 Days and 40 Nights’ home, our parents lock up the VCRs and complain about how filthy these engriji movies are? ” I scowl after making this last point, considering Durga’s observation with immense distaste.
I did not wish to talk about Bhashkar. He is not the type of person I find even remotely amiable. He is the type of person who calls himself ‘Bash’, ‘The Bashster’ and even ‘Bash-man.’ This is when he is among friends or at school, or talking about how he ‘bashed some ho.’ And he is the type that, when he is with the aunties and uncles, is pristinely and adorably known as ‘Bubu.’
“I hate these fucking pujos, they get me so anxious. Ah shit, I forgot my cigarettes in my purse, which, of course, I left in the car.”
“Durga, you are not going to smoke in front of the community? “
“You know, you really shouldn’t bite your nails like that. I’m sure old Bubu would like the feeling of a woman claw at his backside, if you know what I mean. And no, I’m not going to smoke in full view of the aunties and uncles. I’m going to smoke inside. This stall. With you.” Durga’s mane shakes as she tosses her head back, and we roar with laughter, and I laugh more because she is so brave and crazy I want to sweep her into my arms. But she goes out the door.
“What are you doing in here? You better get out before somebody finds you.” The smell of sweat laced with smoke fills the washroom stall as I struggle for air. I try to breathe, to say something further, to yell ‘Get away! ’ but my voice stumbles over the growing lump in my throat.
“Shh, relax, I just came in to see how you’re doing. Don’t worry, Sunita, I’ve got it covered. Everyone’s busy stuffing their faces with Prasad.” Bhashkar blew up his cheeks with air and moved his jaw as if he were a gluttonous, overfed ox as he squeezed himself into the stall.
“Hey come on, it’s me. It’s Bubu, it’s Bash, talk to me.” My head pounds. I cannot get myself to look up. My eyes rest at my feet. “Hey man, why you look like that? ”
“Like what? ” I manage to mutter.
“Like you’ve never been alone with a guy before.” And now he is touching my face and holding my shoulders and pushing me pushing me further into the stall and I can smell all his sweat. His hands move from my shoulders all the way down, and I notice he avoids the drawstring. He is holding my neck with one hand and with the other he is unzipping his pants. But before he can finish taking the thing out, there is a mess; He has come. And then he goes, rushing out of the stall, slamming it so I cannot see his crimson red face or his gland shriveling in his hands. “You say anything and I’ll fuck you up,” is what he says, but by this time I am on the floor and ready to keel into the toilet bowl.
“Yo Raj, I’m telling you, Indian sluts here are the shit. They don’t know if they’re brown or white, and theyÕ’ll fuck just about anything. I mean, did you see Sunita? That chick is so fuckin’ confused. What a coconut . All brown on the outside, white on the inside, and oh so fuckin’ sweet when you crack her open. No joke, she put out faster than that halfie Durga.”
I hear all this, just outside the washroom door and immediately identify who Bhashkar’s audience consists of from the varied pitch of guffaws: Raju/ ‘Raj’, Potol/ ‘Busy P’, and Ishi/ ‘Funk Master I’ —Bhashkar’s most willing and gullible devotees. I muster enough courage to peek through the washroom door, and see Bhashkar. I can tell he has been watching the ajar door with great interest, as Bhashkar catches me peeking at him. Despite my sheer look of terror, Bhashkar continues to gaze at me with a look of sly defeat. Luckily, his devotees do not notice this exchange, and head toward the exit with packs of cigarettes visible in their hands. As soon as they leave, I rush out and head straight to the pujo room.
In the prayer room, there is Durga, the icon. I wonder where Durga, my friend, has gone, what in the world is taking her so long, and also what was it Bhashkar had said about a ‘halfie Durga? ’ At the back of the room, I can vaguely see Nimu, the sexless matriarch’s minion, sitting idly. I turn my head and look about me with only my eyes, my head averted to the front of the room. Legions of bodies sit by the statue of Durga, a horizon of fabric and flesh teeming with spite and love and devotion and fear. Though the room is by no means spacious, not a singe body touches another, ominously respecting the inches of distance in between.
Durga sits atop her lion, her menacing red grin overpowering the feline’s fang-toothed snarl. She is ferocious, wild, unruly, faultless, and utterly beautific. In her ten arms, she holds weapons of such cruel capacities, and it is only now that I take note of what she holds, what items she grasps onto to capture such a look of fierce divinity. Shiva’s trident, Vishnu’s discus, Varma’s conch, Agni’s flaming dart, Vaya’s bow, Surya’s quiver and arrow, Yama’s iron sword, Indra’s thunderbolt, Vishwakarma’s axe and her indestructible garland of lotuses seem to writhe in the hands of the goddess. At the base of her towering frame and at the blade edge of her blood-stained sword lies the livid and thrashing body of the buffalo-demon Mahishasura, his once insolent eyes now pleading with shallow tears; his once fearless body convulsing, diminishing like the last embers of a dying flame.
Why, after all these years, had I not seen this? Why, after so many years, did I fail to realize the sheer significance of DurgaÕs fate? Why did I fail to recognize the vitality of these sacred objects, and how could I fail to realize the source of her glorious ferocity? The questions race through my mind in an unending spiral.
Suddenly, the drifting smoke of incense accosts my nostrils, stinging the back of my throat. The heat of the room burns past the hairs on my arm, penetrates through the sheet of stale sweat and skin, and sends my flesh and bones into torrential shivers. The thick, heavy sound of the conch pushes deep into my brain as the nasal mantra of the priest begins. The pulsating music of the dhak accompanies, resonates through the room, and my head is light from the dizzying effect. I attempt to open my eyes, but they fill with brackish liquid and all I can see is undulating smoke and indistinct haze. Through the layers of thick cloud, I see Durga’s three eyes, which glare with such intensity that they burn right into the depths of my skull. I am frantic, hysterical, and wild because I can now grasp what the blessed Durga sees, and it is this: the world tainted by demi-gods, surly tongues, and men devoid of fear.
Everything moves in slow motion before me. In my mind, the present becomes the past and the past becomes a blur, and I can no longer tell if bodies are before me, or meaningless shapes and colours. My head spins as I turn around to find the shadow of Bhashkar lurking beyond the room.
Just when I think I am falling, just when I feel my knees buckle and my head swoon, I feel a hand pull me up through the waves of smoky sound, pulls me right through this moment of ethereal enlightenment. It is Durga, smelling of freshly burnt cigarettes, who takes my hand and leads me past the shocked eyes of the aunties and uncles, who guides me, feral and untamed, through the door.
About the Author
Sarmista Das identifies herself as a “postcolonial feminist.” Fluent in English, Bengali and French, she is currently working towards her MA in Literature at McMaster University in Montreal, Canada. This is her second appearance in Her Circle Ezine.