Photo: Flickr / surajram
Photo: Flickr / surajram


FICTION: The idols of Kumartully
Photo: Flickr / surajram
Photo: Flickr / surajram

Wet clay weighs down the damp air, competing with the hard sun's sultriness. Earlier, a crow collapsed on the balcony. A coterie of mourners in black took charge of the morning's soundscape. How dare anyone interrupt their incessant cawing? If you do not like the sound you can always shut your wooden doors and hope for the best. That's what she did. Now the crow and its companions have disappeared. How far can they go? They must be in the thickets, out of sight.

As usual, the balcony rattles just a little with the whizzing Circular Rail. Behind the passing train daily bathers take another dip in the Hooghly River. The quick fingers of a fettler scrape the glaze off the arms of a Kartik idol. A neatly pleated, gold and blue-embroidered dhoti flutters impatiently next to the naked, half-painted model. Nowadays, Kartik – the pretty god – commands attention only after the larger Kali and Jagadhatri puja orders are complete.

She was in Ma's womb when a Kartik idol entered their house for the last time. It is not as if her parents did not want a daughter, they only wanted to honour the family tradition of asking Kartik to bless the pregnant mother with a son (or so they say). When they learnt that they had to make do with a daughter, they named her Pratima – an idol in the likeness of the infinite deity.

Somewhere, bamboo sticks shake as the wire corsets are tightened. What idol are they binding the straw for at this time of year? After Kartik, the next – as far as she can tell – will be Saraswati. But that is months away.

Coat the rohu fish with batter, Pratima. The pink and silver stomachs of the fish shine against the blackened brass bowl. The rohu's eyes taught her what it is to feel pity. Lingering traces of turmeric and the scent of onion-garlic paste emanate from her fingers, and yet another drop of oil darkens the green paint of the kitchen wall. Knead the dough, like it were soft clay freshly scooped from the muddy Hooghly. Will it rain on this sweltering morning? The rohu is taking on a caramel shade. Let it simmer in the mustard oil.

She leans over the balcony. The alley downstairs is emptier than it has been over the past few months. Durga, Kali and their entourage have returned to the Hooghly as clay, and have been subsequently fished out of the water as straw and bamboo skeletons. Her craned neck hurts. Collecting the end of her yellow cotton saree she turns to go inside. A pair of eyes looking up at her left shoulder startle her. In these lanes there is no respite from pairs of eyes, no matter the time or who you are.

The Dakini-Yogini models did not sell during the Kali puja season. Removed from baba's workshop for lack of space, the pair now guard the porch downstairs. Toward the wee hours of the morning on the day of Kali puja, baba was ready to sell those off for practically nothing. Of course, Dakini-Yogini should not be compared to the star gods like Durga, Kali, Shiva, or even Dhere Gopal. Even idols with a humble following, like Manasa, are in another league from the ugly blue-and-green ghosts that accompany Kali to pandals; their chief responsibility is to evoke the morbidity of cemeteries. By the time baba realised that his workshop had more Dakini-Yoginis than he could sell, it was too late. No pandals wanted these, even as free gifts. Too many Dakini-Yoginis would disturb the fine balance between cultivated morbidity and silliness. The best these models can do now is hold up until next season.

In the dark, how many times has she mistaken their eye sockets, fitted with light bulbs, for those of people! She is not afraid when the rows of blue and green bodies occupy the alleys, between Durga and Kali pujas, with their tongue sticking out and eyes glowing. This year's idols look like the last years', and last year's looked like those from the year before. More or less. If you grow up in these Kumartully lanes you learn to live with the images of gods and ghosts.

She used to make faces at the Dakini-Yogini. Their parched tongues thirsty for the blood dripping from the neatly butchered heads held in their fist and worn as garlands, mimicking Kali. Kali, the protagonist of the show, has the supplest, plumpest heads around her neck; sometimes her full breasts are sandwiched between handsome butchered heads. Why does the blood embellishing the rim of these severed heads look like frills? When heads are sliced off at the neck, where do the bones of the neck go? Do they remain with the headless body, jutting out like fish bones?

Burnt oil. Burnt fish! A crow swoops past the balcony to snatch an uncooked fish from the bowl. She feels the morning slip between her fingers and licks her palms. No one else will know the taste of raw spices mixed with her sweat. She looks over the balcony to the porch again.

Bells are ringing in the other room. Ma must have filled the little brass cups with water from Ganga for the gods to drink. She used to fancy stealing those cups to play ranna-bari. The clay toys she sculpted with her own hands required cups of exactly that size, but baba would never get them for her. The utensils she got to play with were always pink, blue and yellow plastic, as useless as Saturdays. Thick, blunt smoke from the deep skillet lacks the sharp twirls of incense rising in the prayer room, drawing shapes in the air before vanishing. The cloying sweetness of the gods' food invites her. Having touched fish, she cannot enter the prayer room without bathing. Wait for ma to bring the sweets. But first, let the air swell with the resounding vibrations of ma's conch.

The conch never sounds the same when she blows into it. During Durga puja ma competes with the other neighbourhood ladies in an event organised by the local club, in which whoever blows the conch the longest wins. Ma times herself while practising on the eve of the competition. Didn't ma win this silver-coloured plastic tray a few years back? The silver has blackened, especially at the edges, but it's still pretty. She, on her part, has never even managed to make it to the second round of the competition. In the last couple of years, she has stopped trying. This year, though, she came first in the sit-and-draw competition.

Unable to think of anything to draw, she started to sketch the face of a man hovering around where she and the other participants sat. She did not know who he was, what he was doing there, but his face was strange. He had a mole on the left side of his nose that looked like a black stud. Funny. She could not get the features of his face right, and not knowing who he was, did not want her sketch to betray the resemblance. Once this man was in the foreground, she only needed to fill the background to make sure that the face did not look like it was floating in plain yogurt. At school there used to be a drawing class in which the teacher told the students to sketch while he kept himself busy, smoking cigarettes and reading newspapers. Only now and then would he check last week's or last month's work, and even less frequently would he part with any advice on drawing or colouring. For all practical purposes, the class was a 'free period' and most girls treated it as such. She was no different, but sometimes she did doodle.

She drew one half of a tree trunk and branches in the background, shading with dark-brown and navy-blue crayons. The rest of the paper could be filled with sky blue. The pencil strokes lining the branches resembled the lines on the man's face in her portrait. She added few more similar strokes. Make sure the judges also notice that likeness. The pattern would mean something, even though she could not quite fathom what. In the evening, she found her painting hung on a nylon thread outside the local club, alongside some other paintings. These were the winners of the competition. She and ma received their prizes from a powerful person; that's all she remembers. Maybe he was the local politician who won the last election. Or was he the one who lost? She had touched his feet because he looked important.

When baba and her brother return from the workshop, will she serve them burnt fish? Does she know how expensive fish is? How did the crows manage to snatch the fish from the kitchen if she was standing guard? She is alakhshmi, a woman who, unlike the goddess Lakshmi, is detrimental to the smooth functioning of a household. Ma had suspected as much from the loud noise she makes while walking, the manner in which she scatters rice around her plate when she eats. Now there remains no doubt at all. Throughout the week she does nothing at home on the pretext of going to school, and on Saturdays, when she has the opportunity to be of some help, her only contribution is to increase ma’s work. Now what is to be done with the fish?

Thank god lunches don’t last forever. Nor do ma’s diatribes. So, she can keep her ears attuned to the calls of the cola man, just in case he happens to pass by, carrying the narrow, succulent plastic packs of orange and brown juices. The kulfi cart has stopped coming. When winter is on its way she should not crave cold desserts.

It is one of those hot days that turn into evenings when, wrapped in a shawl, you crave roasted peanuts and puffed rice daubed in mustard oil, with a slice of coconut on the side. But it is time to carry the empty buckets downstairs and queue on the street for water from the municipal corporation’s tap. If she does not take her place in the queue now she might not get water, and then at night there might be no water for washing or drinking. In any case, all she has to do is stand in the queue and wait for her brother. He will carry the full, heavy buckets upstairs.

At this queue you meet people you don’t want to meet. Stories from the neighbourhood float in the air, while windows frame rectangular images to hang in the gallery of the approaching night. Whispers and hoots collide with the metal handles of the buckets. Machines from the nearby gunjee factories never stop humming. A quarrel breaks out; of course it subsides, it always subsides. And here comes Bhola.

A brown cloth tied around his neck like a bib, Bhola shakes his head vigorously as he approaches the queue. He is taller than everyone, and older than her. She cannot think of a time when Bhola’s face looked any different from how it looks now. She cannot remember if she has ever seen Bhola without the bib that absorbs the saliva dropping from his mouth. Bhola knows everyone here, including her, but he cannot exchange pleasantries. He only makes noises that range from a deep hoom to shrill shrieks. Bhola shrieked the loudest when his father arrived on the shoulders of other men on the tenth day of the Durga puja this year. Bhola’s father was volunteering with the local club during the ritual immersion of the idol. He was holding the bamboo and clay base of the idol, along with six others. As vermillion and pink gulal coloured the slogan – “bolo durga mai ki joi – his feet slipped on the steps of the ghat. The ten-foot-tall idol landed on the ground with a thud. It was a few moments before he realised that his right foot was caught beneath the pratima. She saw it all. She always went to watch the immersion of the idols on the tenth day of the puja, before going to her aunt’s house to seek blessings on the occasion of bijoya. Coconut laddoos!

Soon, somebody else from his family will come to replace Bhola here; everybody knows that if it were left to him, his family would never get water. She counts the number of buckets ahead of her. The Chatterjees have sent thirteen tumblers with their three servants. What do the Chatterjees do with so much water? Even in the morning, when water comes to the tap, their servants stand ahead of everyone with several buckets. She knows that young maidservant of theirs. In fact, everyone knows about that maid; the girl, in the hopes of lightening her skin tone, washed her face with the bleaching powder the Chatterjees used to clean their toilet with. The maid wanted to resemble the Chatterjees’ youngest daughter, the well-known beauty whose cheeks are the colour of rose milk. Come to think of it, even the Durga idol has rose-milk cheeks. Doesn’t everyone crave rose milk cheeks? She cannot even imagine how the young girl endured the burns on her skin. The strong, obnoxious smell escaping the bleaching powder’s container induces coughing. What had it felt like to press that harsh powder on the forehead, the eyes, the nose? Now what makes Bhola laugh? One of his laughter fits has started, it seems. Years later, when Pratima will come to visit her parents from her in-laws’ house in another part of the city, she will learn of Bhola’s death. His neck will be sliced off and squashed on the Circular Rail track. Bhola stops laughing.

Ma rolls cotton balls, dips them in mustard oil and lights them, to send evening greetings to the gods. Soon ma will leave to catch up with her aunt. She will have to get some school homework done before she can join ma at her aunt’s place. She does not like her cousins as much as she likes her aunt, who is the best storyteller she knows. Much older than baba or ma, aunt has her bouquet of tales ready all day, every day. The plot could be anything: the gist of the latest film she watched, the girl next door who was talking in gestures to a guy on a terrace five houses away, the theft in the ration shop and the soaring price of kerosene, or the taste of fish and the culinary skills of women in East Bengal, from where their family came to Kumartully during Partition. Aunt’s stories about the other Bengal delight her the most. The terrain, the houses, the lives seem so familiar, only better, more well-off. She hears of how her grandparents had to leave their old house and workshops in Faridpur. The relatives who remained over there have long given up their idol-making business. The details with which her aunt embellishes this familial history keep changing. How everything worth having disappeared into thin air makes for the best stories.

She hates when aunt and ma ask her to go play ludo with the cousins. Their heart-to-heart adult conversation will discuss baba and uncle’s irresponsible dealings, their apathy towards their wives’ and families’ everyday lives. How much the men owe, and to whom, will be reiterated. Her uncle’s sholapith jewellery business, for the idols, is not doing any better than baba’s idol trade. They refuse to branch out. These days, everyone works with more than one material. Artists not only create clay idols but also make other kinds of statues with cement, plaster, fibre, bronze. The ones made of fibreglass are often bought by foreigners. But baba is stuck in clay and uncle in sholapith. Last year baba even refused commissions for huge plaster Ganesha models for a Marwari function. This is no way to conduct a business, especially when there are mouths to feed.

Her brother joins the queue for water, complaining about baba. Baba makes him stay at the workshop even when there is no real work. It’s the off-season, but baba refuses to go easy on him. Now that he is here, he is not going back to the workshop. He is also hungry, so he will go home straight away. When baba comes he will think of an explanation, which essentially means that tonight, around dinner time, there will be a tiff between her brother and baba. Baba will attempt to convince her brother of the importance of knowing the idol-making craft inside out in order to sustain the family business. Someone in the family ought to carry on what the forefathers practiced, so that the craft continues to thrive. Her brother will remind baba, without mincing words, that the craft is not really thriving. He will then rise from the dinner table dramatically and leave, having finished most of his dinner. Only a few morsels will be left on his plate, giving ma adequate cues to chide baba. No respite – even during dinner – for the only son in the house.

When baba and his son are not at loggerheads, their opinions on the state of the craft are much more aligned. For years, the city’s administrators have promised artisans and workshop owners better working and living conditions. Some even waxed eloquent about art galleries that would be built for the artisans to display permanent exhibits. Connoisseurs from the UK, Germany and the US would supposedly visit, appreciate and buy from such galleries. It would be a great opportunity for publicity – after all, the world should recognise the talent of India’s indigenous artisans. Nothing materialised. Baba says this craft is one of devotion. But who can work with devotion when surrounded by filth?

The business itself is seasonal. Baba invests in acquiring raw materials and hiring skilled labourers from rural Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, months before he can sell the idols. Some are commissioned, but in the case of smaller pujas – like Vishwakarma, Kartik or Saraswati – the models have to be prepared in advance. On the day of the puja the models are arranged in rows for customers to choose from. Baba has been lucky in that his relatives – like his sister’s husband and other second cousins – chip in whenever he requires a loan. Of course baba helps them out whenever he can, though such occasions are becoming less frequent. Though baba rarely acknowledges it, doubts crossed his mind when he let his son drop out of school to apprentice in his workshop. When the business passes on to the next generation it will be in a worse shape. He is leaving his family a legacy of impoverished survival.

Her brother will not appear anywhere near their house again before late into the night, when his friends – men closer to baba’s age than his own – will find a spot on their porch, sit on a tarpaulin and deal cards. The intolerable stench of cigarettes and liquor will announce the return of the son close to midnight. He will act up before ma, but his drunkenness will subside once he enters the bedroom he shares with his sister. From her he will learn what transpired between ma and baba once he left. The laughter of the men downstairs will remain faintly audible. They will still be at the game her brother lost.

The dew settles on the rusty window grills. She was standing right there, holding the grills, when a man – a foreigner as far as she could tell, having seen too many of them in these lanes around puja time – took her photograph. They come to see how the artisans craft the huge models in Kumartully’s small, dirty workshops. Of course, there must be great artists in their far-off countries too, but they have space and time to sculpt. Here baba sculpts models that reach the ceiling of the room in which he works. Even with his eyes closed baba can draw the eyes of the goddess. She ran downstairs to ask the photographer the name of the paper in which her photo will appear, but by the time she reached him the man was photographing children playing with marbles on the street. It felt awkward to even talk to him. Perhaps her photo was printed somewhere, in some other country. Perhaps not.

The fettler reappears when she closes her eyes. He holds a brush and a small knife. His fingers are the colour of clay. The face of a Durga idol lies on a stone slab. Next to the fettler is a row of medium-sized, headless straw models crammed against each other. They are kicking one another for space. With the back of the brush he draws the hairline on a model, brushing along the line until the curve is distinct. No excess clay remains. He dips his thumb in a bowl of water and repeats the gesture along the hairline with his thumb. All the while the model’s face stares at him, its eyes without the eyeballs. The back of the model’s face is dark and hollow. The fettler lifts his head to catch a glimpse of the fast-greying sky. Drains will swell with the straw that the rain shears from the models, and splatters of clay will chart the edges of the narrow street. Cover the models with tarpaulin, fast. A spray of water cools his forehead. The model’s eyes glare as the droplets infuse them with sight. The black mole on the fettler’s nose glistens. His face turns towards her. His face turns into her face.

The enlivened Durga pratima continues to haunt her. She can conjure that face a million times without its brilliance diminishing. But after school, these days, all she does is tutor neighbourhood children. She teaches maths and history, subjects she does not care about but knows just about enough to help the fifth-grade students. How will she get through the difficult board examinations? She envies her brother, who baba let drop out of school because during the festival season – which comes right in between the academic year – family members need to oversee the work at the workshop.

When she was younger, baba would not mind her playing with clay, but now she needs a good reason to enter the workshop. Sometimes she goes on the pretext of delivering lunch or conveying some message from ma. Nobody would mind if she touched any of the models – technically it all belonged to her family, including herself – but an unspoken agreement compels her to stay away from the clay models.

While delivering lunch she overhears two workers debating the most desirable roundness for an idol’s belly. Do baba and her brother think of the women they know, she and ma, when they sculpt the goddesses? She remembers her younger body, stripped of clothes and in just her panties, standing on the banks of the Hooghly, before diving into the river. Nakedness without guilt and the commonplace wonder of having the brown water, in which goddesses are routinely immersed, touch her skin. Baba says the divinity of Kumartully’s idols result from their dissimilarity to the real bodies and faces of women. If they let real women constrain their imagination, wouldn’t the Durga pratima end up looking like a bedecked doll? Her brother walks in.

What is she doing here?

She has brought lunch.

Put it on the desk and go home.

Can’t she stay?

No, baba will be annoyed.

The workshop already lacks space. Today, a worker tripped into a bucket of paint while descending a ladder as tall as the goddess’s shoulders. Even the idol seemed off-balance for a few seconds. An unwanted idle body, like hers, will only add to the clutter.

But her brother can always tell baba, whenever he returns, that she hasn’t been around for very long.

Fine, but what will she do here? Her brother has to get to work.

She will quietly watch.

She asks one of the workers if she can help knead the clay. He laughs.

That year baba is hospitalised for malaria. She and ma are supposed to take care of him but there isn’t much she can do beyond cooking and delivering food while baba is in the hospital. She starts attending the workshop regularly. Baba’s absence entitles her to do so. For a family whose fortune is tied to the business, it seems natural that she will help her brother while her father recovers, especially at this time of the year, the busy months leading up to the Durga puja.

She assists not so much with the business but with the actual process of sculpting, that aspect of the craft that her baba loves but rarely finds time for any more, and that her brother does not enjoy. It is the anonymous labourers paid with food, lodging and a meagre stipend who, for the most part, bind the hay, knead the clay, sculpt and deck the idols in the Kumartully workshops. She works with them, even envies them.

After three weeks baba returns home, but he is not yet fit for the workshop. She continues to have her way for a while. Whatever she sculpts in clay will eventually be immersed in the Hooghly. Her presence, her labour, will also dissolve with that clay. Nobody seems to openly discuss her activities with baba. His health is improving and soon he will take over. She wonders if he knows what she has been up to in his absence. Sometimes, while fettling layers of clay from the idol, she feels a pair of eyes looking over her shoulders. She half expects it to be baba.

It is time for the delivery of the idols; the goddess is being adorned with sholapith jewellery. An older customer, Bhakti Poddar, has come to take the idol commissioned for their pandal. The familiar Durga goddess, wrapped in a red sari with zari work, stares down at the evil muscular demon, Mahishashura. Baba offers tea to Bhakti Poddar, who attempts to negotiate the jewellery prices. Baba argues that he has hardly any margin of profit.

Bhakti Poddar keeps his eyes fixed on the idol’s face. Something about its face strikes him as different. He scans the visage. Its chin has a distinct cleft, less than an inch in length but deep, as if clay from the rounded chin has been fettled with a delicate knife. Hardly noticeable in itself, the cleft cuts into the composure of the idol’s demeanour. This face no longer belongs in calendars or petrified statues. He looks around. All the idols in the workshop have the same face, with similar cleft, each blending into the other, distinct yet diffused.

Before the next season, Pratima failed her higher-secondary board examinations and was married off to the owner of a sweet shop, away from the Kumartully lanes. Their sweet shop is well-known for the exquisite jaggery sweets, which they mould into various shapes: conches, huts, fishes, crows. This year, during the bijoya festivities, they sold a limited-edition coconut-crusted sweet moulded as a Durga pratima. You had to taste it!

~Torsa Ghosal is a doctoral student in the department of English at Ohio State University. Her poetry and fiction has appeared in Muse India, Truth About the Fact, and UnSplendid.

~More fiction by Himal Southasian.

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