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What you are thinking and the way you are behaving is abnormal. It is unacceptable. You are the new bride. How can you say no to religious rituals. It is a sin, and you are a being sinful!
Even if you stand at the fag end of the lane, you will still not miss the unmistaken beauty that the first house of the lane offers you. In simple words, ‘Ganguli Villa’ was a vision to behold. Glowing and beaming with exquisite light and floral decoration, it was all set to welcome their new bride.
The Gangulis were quite reputed in the area. A family of lawyers, it had the reputation of taking up only the high profile ones and turning them into sheer success in every sense. In fact, Gangulis were knows for two things – their reputation as top notch lawyers and their family Durga Pujo every year. So, considering their repute, it was a going to be a gala wedding affair too. It was after all Arindam Ganguli’s wedding, the youngest son of Mrs. Purnima and Mr. Mihir Ganguli, a retired judge now. The Ganguli’s had left no stone unturned to make this an event to remember. Because of the Durga puja that they did every year with huge fanfare, it was always expected that any wedding in the family was also on the same lines, extravagant!
The wedding had just taken place yesterday, and the new bride was all set to enter her new abode. Fancy cars lined up the street even before the dusk. The sound of the conch and ‘ullu’ ( a sound made by tongue, especially by Bengali women) filled the air. It was an indication that something auspicious was happening. The passers-by took a chance to peep in. Some halted their bikes and some raised their heels. And, some just passed by with an exasperated glace. But, no matter what one couldn’t just ignore what was happening in and around the street.
Soon, a white Mercedes arrived. Decorated with red roses, it looked resplendent. The guards were quick enough to help the driver have a clear way. A few men and women crowded around were pushed back by security men in uniform. They backed off, but did not leave. How could they let go of an opportunity to see the new Ganguli bride? It was all over- she was the best amongst all the women this family had.
Ashima was indeed one of her kind. A perfect blend of modern and traditional ways, she was a dream come true for any man. A graduate from one of the top B schools, she worked as the country head (Marketing) in a top Pharma company. The gossip mill said that it was one of those high profile cases of the company which brought together Ashima and Arindam. And then, well, the rest was history.
Arindam’s family was more than happy to have her asa daughter-in-law. Her poise and dignity were her unmistakable strengths. If she was independent on one hand, she held on to her family values with utmost respect on the other. And, many believed she was the mirror image of Purnima Ganguli, Arindam’s mother, and that Arindam couldn’t have got a better bride. She was the best, indeed the best, and Purnima believed it to the core.
The car stopped exactly at the gate where the women of the family stood with ‘kulo’(bamboo winnow) to welcome the newly weds. Purnima was dressed in her finest. The diamond and pearl studs were shining bright. It was perhaps one of the happiest days of her life.
Ashima stepped out carefully, clutching her heavy saree, eyes firmly stuck towards her toes. A collective sigh followed. Purnima reached out to her with a broad grin. Even with the smudged kohl on her dark eyes, even with a shade of visible fatigue on her face after night long rituals, and even with those frail touches of inhibition in her jittered stance, she was a vision to die for. It was rare, she was beautiful beyond words. “Purnima di is paid off well for her prayers to Maa Durga. Don’t you think Maa Durga has descended all by herself?” an onlooker was quick to blurt. She was undoubtedly the answer to years of prayers that the Ganguli family had offered to various temples. That night, it was happiness galore. Laughter saw no bounds. Ganguli household knew just one word- Joy !
The following day, Ashima was ready before everyone else. She chose a lemon yellow saree and a deep red blouse. A gold choker, and bangles to go with. She tied her hair in a loose bun, and a bit of kajal and lipstick to accessorize her glowing face. She looked simple yet exceptionally elegant.
Even though Ashima thought she was there on time before everyone, there was someone else who was up even before her. Purnima Ganguli, Ashima’s mother in law was already at the hall preparing for the ‘puja’ and other rituals of the day. She was the one who was at the helm of everything in the family. As a strong and responsible matriarch, Purnima was loved and respected for what she was by one and all. Both the ladies smiled at each other gracefully. Ashima touched her feet. The mutual bonding was palpable. Well, rather infectious.
“Did you sleep well?” Purnima asked her, stroking her hair. “Yes Maa, tell me what can I do,” Ashi replied, beaming. She tucked the loose end of her saree (pallu) to her waist and started helping out her mother in law. Purnima stared at her from the corner of her eyes, and raved at her own choice. The two beautiful women seemed to have found renewed love in each other.
Within an hour the preparations were done and the house was filled with friends and relatives. Ashima excused herself quickly to freshen up a bit. And then, they were all set for the customary Puja.
“Ashima, come, come with me. You will perform the Pujo today. It’s through your auspicious hands we all will offer prayer to Maa Durga. Come my child,” Purnima held out her hand. But, Ashima stood stoic, unmoved.
“I can’t do this Maa. I don’t do Pujo. I don’t believe in God and all this,” she said, throwing everyone else in a fix. People started gaping at each other. Some whispered, some murmured, some stood in silence. Purnima looked at Ashima, flummoxed. “Moja korcho? (You are kidding me…right?”) she whispered. “No Maa, I never pray. Believe me. I never do,” Ashima put her point across politely.
For Purnima Ganguli, this was abnormal. It was bizarre. It was a sick joke, and certainly unacceptable. How can a girl not pray and perform all the religious rituals? This was a bad omen, and what she called the beginning of the very end. Something suddenly began to fall apart.
Purnima gathered herself though. She knew and understood that a lot was at stake. She asked everyone else to wait and took Ashima to her room. Ashima was nervous. This was a difficult terrain to walk. Even though Arindam had warned her before, she still felt unprepared. But then, she knew this well, that if she bent today, she would never be able to stand erect again.
“Are you on your periods? Tell me Aashi. I am like your mother…”
“You are not like my mother Maa, you are my mother. You know I never had one.”
Purnima smiled, faintly, and grazed her back.
“Of course. Then what is the issue? Did anyone say anything to you?”
“No Maa, nothing of that sort. But, I don’t pray. I don’t believe in God. I never bow my head down in front of God. I don’t believe God exists. It has always been like that.”
“You are being childish Ashima,” Purnima scoffed and started walking away. “Praying to God is normal. There is nothing to think in it. To us God is everything. God created us. Maa Durga is our saviour. What you are thinking and the way you are behaving is abnormal. It is unacceptable. You are the new bride. You are the goddess Lakshmi of our family. How can you say no to religious rituals. It is a sin, and you are a being sinful!” she almost yelled, anger dripping her face.
Ashima could feel the sweat on her palms now. Her throat dried. But she needed to stay calm and handle this. It’s a testing time, she reminded herself.
“What is normal Maa? Something that you are used to… right? I may find that abnormal because I don’t do it. Just for example, I know you never allow non Brahmin women in the kitchen. I find that abnormal. Aren’t they humans?
Purnima cut her short. “So you are finding faults in my ways Ashima…you know…,” she yelped, throwing her arms up in exasperation.
“No I am not saying that. All I am trying to tell is, it is just the belief that we have nurtured. You have a few, and so have I.” Ashima clasped Purnima’s hand, and spoke pressing it to her lips. “Please try to understand.”
Purnima tried to shrug it off looking away. But Ashima held her firm.
“Maa, I never had a mother. She died when I was born. In the last eight months, I have found my lost mom in you. I’d rather worship you, Maa, who have bestowed all your love and care on me. Tell me that, and I will do it now. In front of everyone, daily. But, I cannot bring myself to bow in front of something I don’t believe in. It is just a sculpted stone for me.”
“Oh no Ashima don’t say that,” Purnima shrieked in dismay. But, somewhere she was coming to terms with the situation. Ashima made sense to her.
Silence floated for a while.
“Will you never participate in our Durga Puja Aashi?” Purnima asked almost choking.
“I will Maa. I will do everything possible to make it a beautiful event. But, I will not pray. You have to excuse me there. Maa, tell me something, is there a point in doing something that I don’t believe in? Just for the sake of being ”normal to others, should I fake?”
“No,” Purnima smiled. “Ashima, this is difficult for me. But I hear you. All I can request you is, sit with everyone out there.”
“ Of course Maa, of course. I promise I will not let you down,” with this she hugged her, and tears trickled down her cheeks. Purnima patted her slowly, lovingly… Holding hands, they both climbed down the stairs. There was deafening silence in the hall as they entered. Tension was looming large.
“Arindam’s dad and I will sit for the Puja,” Purnima announced with a dignified smile, still holding Ashima’s hand. “She, my daughter in law, Ashima, is definitely the bride who never prays. But, she is also the bride who stands by her beliefs in the toughest of situations. It definitely wasn’t easy for her. But, she convinced me, without demeaning. That matters. It hurt. I will not lie on that. It will take some time for me to gulp it. But, I understood, there is no point in turning beliefs. Our existence is all about what we believe in, at the end of the day,” she smiled and looked assuringly at Ashima.
The bride smiled too. Arindam smirked and winked at his love. And, the conch roared again. The Gangulis were back in celebrating their new bride, this time, with double the bang!
Editor’s note: This story had been shortlisted for the January 2018 Muse of the Month, but not among the top 5 winners.
Header image is a still from the movie Devdas