The streets and gullies had started looking cleaner. Sweepers were at work diligently, with vats getting cleaned once every two days. Road repairs were also on at break-neck speed, with a bid to undo the damage the rains had wreaked. Suddenly, people seemed to be working with a new enthusiasm.
Amina smiled with glee. Bamboo structures had started appearing on the roads and in parks. Soon there would be fairy lights twinkling from trees. Her favourite city, Kolkata, would get ready to be decked up like a pretty bride. Already the markets were buzzing with activity, with people rushing around with bulging carry bags in hand.
It was Durga Puja time in the city! How she loved this time of the year. The little white flowers strewn around, the heady smell in the air, the slight chill at dawn, the clear sunlight, all filled her with inexplicable peace and joy. This time her friends were planning all-night pandal hopping, and she had every intention to join them for the fun.
She skipped a little while rushing back home from school. Then something caught her attention – there was a kitten hiding among the bamboo edifice. Amina took out the remains of her lunch box and dropped them, clicking her tongue to attract the kitten that clearly looked like it was starving. As the tiny creature lapped up the remains of roti and korma, Amina’s heart filled with pleasure.
Suddenly, she heard the clock tower ring four bells. Goodness, was it four o’clock already? Her mother would give it to her, well and proper, for returning so late.
She hurried along the narrow lane, nearly stumbling on a stationary cow resting right in the middle of the road. At the door of her home, she stopped abruptly.
Her father was yelling at the top of his voice and accusing her mother Parveen of some trivial thing again. Then there was a sickening thump, then some more thuds. How Amina dreaded these horrible episodes – that surfaced with unflinching regularity, like stones in the rice that they ate. She cowered at her father’s rage, stifling a scream when her mother cried out. She detested her father at these times. What use was his reading religious texts and regular visits to the mosque, if he couldn’t behave humanly with her mother? His temper was something both mother and daughter dreaded.
Bang! With that her father left. She stepped gingerly into the dark room, and rushed to hug her mother, who was lying on the ground with a bruise on her forehead and arms. They both wept till her mother realized Amina was hungry, and left to make rotis for lunch. Amina could hear her sobs from the kitchen.
This was their daily life, the girl thought bitterly. No joy, no togetherness except for an occasional visit to the local eatery for dinner, or some new clothes during Id. They never went outstation, except for that lone journey to Kanpur two years back. She used to listen to the travel stories of her friends hungrily, knowing she would never get to live their adventures.
But Amina didn’t complain. She at least had her parents with her. Salim, her neighbour, had lost his mother to Covid a year back, and had been miserable since then. He used to cry himself to sleep at night, something Amina could hear from across the paper-thin walls dividing their homes.
The fortnight passed by quickly enough.
The holidays started with the girls excitedly planning what to wear on which day of Puja, and listing which pandals were a must-watch. Amina’s best friend Prapti gave her a cute earring set as Puja gift. She hugged her precious gift all the way home.
The kitten was missing for a few days now. Maybe, she had got shelter at one of the eateries around, Amina thought. Good for the cat, she heaved a sigh of relief and walked on.
Faint noises of raised voices near her house signaled trouble.
“No chance!” She heard her father screaming from inside. “This is not our festival that I will buy her new clothes. New salwar kurta in Puja – never heard of such nonsense! And don’t you dare allow her to roam with the boys at pandals all day. These rogues are waiting to prey on naive thirteen-year olds like Amina. If there is a scandal, we won’t be able to show our face to anyone.”
Why had her father such a negative outlook, sighed Amina. Why couldn’t he just see the innocent fun and bonding involved in pandal hopping? What was this “our” festival and “their” festival? All festivals were occasions for enjoyment, for togetherness, for heart-felt celebration, weren’t they? And a few years earlier her father himself used to accompany them in visiting a few nearby pandals. What happened all of a sudden now?
She barged in to reason with her father.
“Abbu, my friends are all going pandal hopping next Tuesday. Prapti, Ayushi, Subhojit, Rhea, everyone will go in a group. I want to go with them too. Please allow me, Abbu, I will listen to everything you say later.”
“Absolutely not!” Her father’s harsh tone startled her. “No loitering around with those kafirs anymore! This is all due to this woman’s insistence on putting you in a public school. You have become defiant and uncontrollable. I will put you in a madarasa from next year, as Rashid Miyan was suggesting.”
Amina’s eyes filled with shocked hot tears. She was stunned by her father’s rudeness. He didn’t even listen to what she had to say. And who was this Rashid uncle to decide where she studied? And her father was declaring all this without even asking her once? She stood looking at the floor till the door was banged shut.
“Ammi. Please…” She stopped.
It was then that she saw the mute plea in her mother’s eyes. Her normally supportive mother was looking at her entreatingly, as if begging her to listen to her father’s diktats. As if she couldn’t take the thrashings and mental torture any longer.
Amina’s eyes welled up and she gulped back her tears. She couldn’t burden her poor mother any more. She silently helped her mother prepare dinner.
On Sunday, Ayushi called on their landline and started to discuss their plan of visiting pandals on Tuesday. They would start at 10 at night with Ekdalia in South Kolkata, then Maddox Square and Tridhara pandals, proceed to Triangular Park, Singhi Park, then check out Bosepukur and other pandals farther south. After getting their fill of digging into various delicacies and checking out all decorations and idols, they would return by 6 in the morning. Anu was going on in full flow, when Amina stopped her.
“I, I won’t be able to go Anu. My father is not well.”
“Ohhh, what happened to Uncle? Don’t worry, he will get okay by tomorrow.”
“No, I can’t go..you please carry on without me…”Amina’s voice broke. She hurriedly hung up before tears started choking her.
Her mother overheard her from the bedroom, and heaved a silent sigh of relief. She felt terrible for Amina, but couldn’t stand up to her husband’s taunts on this issue any longer. Now at least there would be some temporary peace.
“Ali Miyan….are you in?” Their family friend Shakir Hussain was calling at the door. Hussain worked at the district ward office as assistant.
“No, Bhaijaan, he is away. Please come inside.”
“No, Bhabijaan, some other day. I came to tell you to assemble at the chowk tonight at 9 pm. Our councilor, Mumtaz Khan will address all women and children of this locality. And here, this is for you all.” He handed over a packet to Parveen.
“Ohh, but I don’t think your Bhaijaan will allow….”
“There’s no choice, Bhabijaan. She will make an important announcement and every resident has to attend. Tell Miyan that if he plans to stay on in this neighbourhood, no use irking the councilor.”
With that Hussain left. Parveen stood in silent thought for a while. She hoped her husband wouldn’t create ruckus for this now.
Ali didn’t say anything however. Maybe he too feared the wrath of politicians.
The neighbourhood chowk was bustling with people that night. Overnight, some festoons had come up and makeshift stalls selling candy floss and ice gola had appeared. In our country, politicians could do what festivities couldn’t, Amina thought wryly. She had been listless all day, moping around.
Women and children were seated on the carpet, while the men stood at the sidelines. Nobody had a clue what the councilor had up her sleeve.
She appeared an hour late, accompanied by bodyguards. Heaving her ample girth on to the dais, she started in a shrill voice.
“Brother and sisters, and my dear children, I am so happy to address you on this happy occasion. Durga puja is here, and there are festivities all around. Our neighbourhood pandal has been modeled on the famous Charminar of Hyderabad. Isn’t that wonderful? I hope you all have made plans for the next few days to visit the famous pandals around?”
There was a murmur around. Ever since religious dogmatism had reared its head a couple of years back, and the majority had suddenly started flexing its muscles, the people in this neighbourhood had started avoiding their celebrations. What use was their celebrating Hindu religious festivals, if the country in which they had lived for so many years, had suddenly started treating them as outsiders? They didn’t want any trouble, but they didn’t want to appease the saffron leaders either.
“Our honourable chief minister has personally called me to ensure my ward members join in the celebrations!” The councilor’s voice brought them back to reality. “We will join with full enthusiastic support, won’t we? Let’s show our Hindu brothers what a big heart we have!”
From the corner of their eyes, Amina and her mother eyed Ali. He was looking as if he had swallowed a frog. His bulging eyes and clenched fists suggested incredulous misgiving, and revealed his every intention to defy what was being suggested.
“And keep this in mind, my ward boys will keep a track on the activities of all households in the Puja days. If they come to know any family has not joined in the celebrations, then watch out! We want everyone to enjoy fully with our brothers and sisters of other religions. Kolkata has no place for small-minded bigots, let’s remember that. I hope you all will not disappoint me. Shabba Khair.”
With a flourish, she signed off, and swept off the stage. There was cheering and hooting all around. The children and youngsters were the happiest. They knew their elders wouldn’t dare to stop them for joining in the revelry now. Mini revolts were taking place in almost all households over pandal hopping, and the young generation knew they had won.
Amina couldn’t believe what she had heard. She knew her father was a staunch supporter of Khan, and more than that, he couldn’t risk angering her. He had too much at stake. Why even the job of Imam, he owed to her patronage. Other residents had objected to his candidature because of his irascible temper, but the councilor had made her support very clear. Since then, this place had become home to them.
Besides, if he didn’t comply with her wishes, there were plenty of his enemies in the ward office to report to Khan. Amina slipped her hand into her mother’s. They couldn’t openly rejoice, they knew. Best to keep silent, in the face of the upcoming storm brewing in Ali’s head.
Ali returned past midnight, and much to the wonder of his wife and daughter, went straight to sleep. No tantrums, no fights, no abuses.
Next morning, he called Amina and asked her gently, “Beta, you wanted to visit pandals with your friends, no? Why not call one of your girl friends and ask her to pick you up when they go visiting? And tomorrow your mother and you can check out the Charminar pandal too? I don’t think I will be able to go, but as Khan Sahiba said, we must celebrate all festivals, shouldn’t we? He, he, after all, we are children of the same God.”
With this, he quickly left the room. Amina did a quick jig and sped to call Ayushi or Prapti. She could hardly blurt out her agreement to join them tonight.
She came back to see her mother opening the packet Hussain uncle gave yesterday. More surprises were in store.
New kurta for her and a new saree for her mother! It seems Mumtaz Khan had pulled out all stops to ensure her ward residents followed her advice.
Maybe the promise of a ministerial berth was in the offing?
Whatever it was, Amina had a feeling that Eid had come early to their house. Her deep desire to admire the Goddess and her pandals would now be possible. That too in full festive wear, along with her friends! She couldn’t contain her delight. Things had worked out so beautifully!
She knew that Ma Durga had waved her magic wand to remove all obstacles in the way.
Silently thanking Allah in her heart, she rushed to get ready.
(This story was first published in Pebbles in the Sand, the author’s debut book.)
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