Dida! I want to come with you!
No, it’s a cold day – you go back to sleep now. I will be back soon.
No! Please? Pleeease? Pleeeeeease Dida?
As she runs about, gathering her little basket of flowers, her little copper pot for pouring the water on her Gods, I am running with her, constantly pleading. She stops to look at me and makes up her mind. ‘Ok, go brush your teeth then.’
I dance away on happy feet ‘Yessss! Coming soon! Don’t go without me!’
To be able to go with my grandmother on her early morning trips to the temple is an unexpected and rare treat. We set off, barefoot, on the road to the Dakshineshwar KalibaRi temple. Dida rushing and I skipping alongside. She chants loudly, ‘Hare Krishna Hare Krishna,’ asking me to do the same but I am too embarrassed – ‘what will people think?’ Not that there is anyone else on the road at this time of the day.
We go past ‘Kadamtala’ where the resplendent Kadam tree stands in full glory. The yellow balls of Kadam flowers have fallen onto the ground where the boys play football every evening. Without breaking stride, I try to gather as many of the Kadam flowers as I can. ‘Come on!’
‘Coming Dida!’ I put my hand in hers and we are rushing again.
We near the large matchstick factory, its tall grimy walls humming noisily. It sounds like a live creature, a giant that may reach out and grab us any moment. Dida looks expectantly at me – ‘Now chant with me – no one can hear you.’ I chant with her, ‘Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare’ we are almost at the temple.
We pass through Ashok Vatika, the verdant garden with lush green trees, monkeys, and a pair of beautiful spotted deer with dark serene eyes. Rush past the shops now shuttered, and to our first glimpse of the tranquil brown river. Of the bridge spanning it with the occasional train rumbling past.
The Ganga is cold in the early morning but no one seems to mind as loud cries of ‘Maa, maa,’ rent the air and devotees dip in the river and pray to the rising sun.
We go down the red stone steps, soft and worn with the footsteps of thousands each day, its little cups and hollows collecting the brown muddy water. We go past the little clusters of people all along the steps, and down to the river, to take our dip. Then with the copper pot filled with water, we climb carefully back up the steps and head for the temple courtyard.
The row of little Siva temples stands apart from the main temple complex. Each room has a version of the Shiv Ling with its name on the door. Dida is humming as she goes into each and after going around the Ling; she pours a little water from her copper pot onto its head. I know the routine; I have done it many times. I run ahead, making sure I too do a quick circumambulation of each Ling and a hasty pranam before running to the next. I am also humming, but not the names of any Gods. It is a song I have heard on the microphone outside our home during the recently concluded Durga Puja. It is, I think, a song of a hero romancing his heroine. Dida, focussed on her prayers does not hear me or she would certainly request me to change my song.
Having gone through all the Shiv temples we run down the steps again and start heading for the main Kali temple complex. I am playing hopscotch on the large square tiles, soft and worn like the river steps, as I follow Dida’s raw silk sari – the colour of ghee with a deep maroon border. Can see her tall and spare frame as she walks with a lightly swaying gait to support her knees. One eye out for her, I turn around in the middle of the game to score the hopscotch point and then turning back I run again, to follow her. Today she seems to be following a different route though, heading for an area we never visit.
‘Why are we going this way today Dida?’
There is no reply. Intent on her prayers, she hasn’t heard me. I wait to pick up a beautiful red hibiscus flower from a flowering bush and run after her. Strange, I have never seen this bush before. I will throw this at the feet of the Goddess today. I hug myself and run to catch up with her.
By now we have reached a strange place. Darkened steps lead up to a room where a group of sadhus in matted locks and beards sit covered in ashes, talking loudly with one another. Behind them, through a thick wall, the sounds of temple bells resound – we have arrived just behind the main temple – it is a kind of resting room I think, for the sadhus. Why is Dida here? It is unthinkable to my mind that Dida would ever come to a place like this. She never strays out of the straight path. I run up and clutch her hand.
‘Dida, why did we come here? The temple is over there!’
She turns to look at me and my heart gives a lurch – this is not Dida at all! Suddenly I am lost. This is some other lady whose eyes scare me. I back off blindly and try to run but there are other men coming inside the room and I feel blocked off. I am choking in panic. None of them are actually looking at me – but there is an atmosphere of something not right in that room. Suddenly someone grabs me and picks me up, high above the floor, saying ‘And who is this?’ I cannot see his face but I know he is laughing, as are some of the others watching me. His hands are rough and pinch my skin. I remember the humming factory’s giant. I can now hear Dida’s voice sounding far away, ‘Rinku! Rinku!!’ She doesn’t sound worried, just wondering where I could have gone.
I cannot find my voice, I cannot cry. A part of me is idly wondering how dirty their locks are and another part thinking that Dida will now never bring me with her to KalibaRi again. And with that thought, my fear seems to dissipate a little. I shake my legs, dangling below me and say, ‘Let me go, otherwise Dadu will beat you.’
I was not thinking of Dadu, at all, but I know if Dadu hears of this he will definitely raise hell for these men. I remember when a boy in Didi’s class teased her and took away her pen, Dadu had visited his home and come close to thrashing him, leaving him with a dire warning.
But my pronouncement only makes them laugh aloud, although it was not meant to be a joke at all. Then the lady says something to them and the man sets me down, facing the door, saying ‘Go to Dadu, little girl.’
I run with all my might, tripping over the steps and the flagstones, never looking back. In that run back through the courtyard towards Dida’s voice, I can feel my fears falling off me.
Dida looks unruffled, serene.
‘Where were you?’
I give her the flower, still clutched in a now sweaty palm – ‘I had gone – to pluck this.’