We are up to our knees in muddy water, marvelling at the roars, thick as incense in the air. ‘Ashchhe bochhor, abar hobe! Bochhor bochhor, abar hobe!’ Come next year, it will come again- year upon year it will come. The crowd, an organic, seething thing full of sequinned swaying and well-timed tears and intoxicated joy, is winding its way back from Debighat.
Their hungry grasp has released her into the river. I feel his heartbeat accelerate with the roll of the drums. Others like him have spotted her; others who covet the gentle darkened eyes, the face shaped like a betel leaf, the benevolent mouth. I yearn to be blessed by that gaze, by those lips. But Baba is waiting. We have all three of us been waiting for years. And these are the Gods of men. We have come to steal from the Gods of men.
They are moving in with their weapons, dull gasps of silver hidden, like his, beneath their dhotis. We are not proud. I watch him abandon the pretence of piety before any of the others and thrash from the same low position he holds toward his prize in the water. Her eyes are red at the corners, like his. Like mine. The brocade of her sari is swollen with petals and the forgiving waters of the Ganga. I raise my eyes toward the sky. He raises a thick sickle–brings it down on her sindhoor-smeared neck as we both murmur, jealously, guiltily, ‘Victory to the Mother Goddess.’
A clay lamp floats by, spilling molten gold into the water. I note that a stray leaf of basil clings to his chequered dhoti. I ignore it. He cradles the head of Durga in heavy palms. The dark grey where her throat has separated from the rest of her carefully crafted body is a tranquil colour.
We have just manoeuvred our way through the sinuous back alleys of Kumartuli. Gods are created here, amid the straw and the flickering bulbs. Here, divinity takes shape under wizened fingers like our father’s. The streets are redolent with the lingering musk of dhunuchi. Baba is waiting for us to return from the river, shrunken and wrinkled, but our arms wholly heavy with his salvation.
We duck under the tin roof, step over the concrete threshold. He drops the head at Baba’s feet. His hands skim the older man’s toes where they sit in his rubber sandals. ‘Shubho Bijoya, Baba.’ we greet him. Baba’s palm is a brown whiplash against his cheek. ‘These are the Gods of men, halfwit, halfwoman!’ Teasing off the false locks, he picks up the weighty face, rocking it in the crook of his elbow, which has served as both cradle and holster to years of men, women and idols.
Red cheeked, I ask him for the one thing he has sworn to give me back, after cruel months of deprivation. He does not hear me. I ask again, more loudly. ‘Do I have permission now?’ Baba nods absentmindedly. He does not look our way. This time next year, Baba will have used the shape of this head and moulded the timeless face of Rudrapal’s Durga to his own naked ten-armed Shakti, the clay still damp and pliable. Her face will be the same impossible, exquisite shape of a betel leaf. Her mouth will be the same benediction waiting to be spoken.
‘Baba, the key.’ I make sure to speak loudly, pitching my voice low. He looks up, no longer startled by my competence at thievery and desecration. He draws the tarnished key of three generations from the snowy forest of his chest and throws it at us. I fumble. The shimmering echo of the key on the floor is lost in Baba’s grunt of annoyance. Before we turn and leave, he calls out, foghorn-sure- ‘If you say another word about immersion, or if I see any of that trash hijra jewellery in your room, or if I see you being… disgusting, again…. I won’t ask any questions. I will take you and my khanda down to the altar in Hatkhola and offer your worthless life to Chandi.’ Baba turns his back on us. We follow suit, breaking into a run; I clasp the key to the master workshop so tightly it brands the mound of my thumb.
This time next year, Baba will be an artisan again. He does not need us anymore. It is a strange relief to not be needed where we are not wanted. Men, women, sons, half-sons, whole daughters in the bodies of sons, whole women silently screaming in the prison of half-bodies- what use are we? What use when Baba is a breath away from the Mother of the Gods of men?
I burn with the need to fall on my knees and blow a conch, to wash lovingly the copper plates and throw lotuses dotted with sandalwood pate at the feet of my own Goddess. We run through the workshop, empty but for one figure far in the back. One figure that my father never touched, never knew about, till a storm blew away the dark cave of tarpaulin that served as her sanctuary. The Gods of Men. Where they have left me? This Goddess is mine. This Goddess is different.
I watch him as he looks at me in the mirror. We spend so much of our time alone together, much of that time trying fruitlessly to avoid each other’s company. But the fighting has ended today. We have laid down our weapons. Today, we bid farewell.
As I watch, he softens at the edges. His posture is reverent, but relaxed now, his wrists slender. His ribcage is delicate as he exhales the lies we must grin through. I watch him shift his weight to one hip and untuck his dhoti. We stand before the looking glass, and our body is riper than before. We both bend in breathless anticipation. He unearths nine yards of red silk from beneath our bed, a faint glow about him, and I blush when we straighten, suddenly feeling like a voyeur. I expect him to give me a chiding look in the mirror, but when I am brave enough to glance at our reflection, I see only affection for simple, flustered, me. My shame evaporates. In my wonder, the outline of his body becomes even hazier.
Through force of habit, my eyes flit to the door, which I know we made sure to lock. I shoot him an apologetic grin. He says nothing, simply enwombs us in layers of the fabric, draping it so it sits over his shoulder and falls in terraced pleats along his legs. I cannot see the difference between our bodies anymore. We are one. He is me and I am him and we both are Her. We have been waiting for years, and now, in the space between words, here we are. I gaze into the eyes of the person who has dwelt inside me for decades, surfacing now and then like a drowning woman breaking through the water, like a recurring dream that must not be spoken of. I feel a strange tightness at the apex of my thighs. I cannot breathe. Is this love? Is this insanity?
I watch her as she looks at me in the mirror. We pick up a stained sable brush and paint a black eye on our forehead. Together, embalmed in the blood of the demon, the vermillion of the Goddess, and the dye of her children’s feet, we are like a fresh wound on the face of the Earth. My gaze and hers follow the same path. They meet, finally, after years of furtive peeks and refuge sought from Baba, and myself, and the many Gods of men who have grown from the dust of Kumartuli. Our eyes meet in the mirror, and I look into the face of my Goddess.
(image credit: USA Today online article)