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Her voice remained stifled inside the mould of clay, as the men revered Her as Maa, yet abused and molested the likes of Tumpa. But, on that Ashtami morning, the Goddess would witness something familiar – the defeat of Mahishasur.
Trigger warning: This has child sexual abuse and may be triggering to survivors.
The favourite of every Bengali, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose on his horse remained oblivious to the cacophony around him as people risked life and limb to cross the road, while blue-coloured private buses raced crazily against each other to get as many passengers to be packed as sardines inside. If statues could speak, the great freedom fighter would have saluted Ashalata Debi. However at that moment, the sexagenarian was raging a battle with her inner demons as she simultaneously negotiated the bustling traffic at the famous Shyambazar five-point crossing.
An ordinary and discoloured one-storey house stood at the point where Shyambazar met Hathibagan. Huge windows with shutters from the British era juxtaposed with the Tata Sky dish TV antenna on the terrace. But then, the city of Kolkata has always been like that. Alluring, shocking, nostalgic, mercurial and controversial – just like its inhabitants.
Ashalata Debi checked the letterbox. Empty, as usual! Had the art of letter-writing truly vanished? Shaking her head, she opened the door. She stepped inside and her hand immediately reached for the switchboard to her right. The tube light flickered to life. Feeling a tad safer, the lady closed the door. Shivering. In the month of May!
How did it come to all this?
Her only daughter Koushiki was settled in Hyderabad with her techie husband and their 8-year-old son. Ashalata Debi had been stubborn – she would never leave her family home.
“Have you any idea that this house might come down any moment?” Koushiki had pleaded with her mother in vain.
“Your father’s memories are etched in every wall and floor. I will die here,” the old lady had declared in a matter-of-fact style. As if it were entirely acceptable to die alone while her family worried constantly in a faraway city.
But, not for nothing was Kolkata called the city with a soul. Ashalata Debi’s evenings were spent in the company of Tumpa, the 6-year-old girl from next door. Her parents allowed her to learn Bengali from the elderly widow. Not that they couldn’t afford a tutor, however they felt their only child could benefit a lot from Ashalata Debi’s infinite treasury of wisdom. Also these vernacular lessons kept both of them busy and cheerful.
Was this friendship with the innocent Tumpa proving to be fatal?
When had Ashalata Debi realized this?
After reciting ‘Abol Tabol’ for the third time, Ashalata Debi had told a story of Prof. Shonku, an eccentric scientist, created by Satyajit Ray.
“Shonku Kaku is so good,” declared Tumpa that day. “How I wish he was my uncle. Instead of Shankar Kaku.” Immediately, Tumpa had bit her tongue. As if she had let loose a dirty secret.
How could have Ashalata Debi kept quiet at that point? The innocent girl’s eyes had welled up with unshed tears and her voice had choked as she struggled to utter an unconvincing ‘I am alright’.
On hindsight, she should have ignored it. It could have been a passing remark. Kids often tend to compare adults with heroes. But then, inquisitiveness had always been Ashalata Debi’s bane. Or was it a boon this time around?
“Are you out of your mind, pishima?” That was Tumpa’s mother.
Tumpa kept quiet.
“I am serious. You should listen to Tumpa. Don’t force her. But, believe her,” requested Ashalata Debi.
“She is a child. What does she know of these things?”
“My dear! You might be surprised at the things the kids know nowadays.”
At that moment, the man of the house rang the bell. Ashalata Debi got up from the sofa.
“Discuss it with your husband after he has had his dinner. Think with a fresh mind. OK?” With that, she gave Tumpa’s hair a slight ruffle and left the house.
Tumpa didn’t turn up for her Bengali lessons again. The windows of the Guha household remained firmly shut.
The near-death experience of that evening jolted Ashalata Debi back to real life. She had gone to buy some sweetmeats from a shop nearby. As was the tradition in her family, she used to put Gopal Thakur (or Lord Krishna in His baby avatar) to sleep, after offering him a prasad of sondesh.
A passerby would have brushed it aside as an accident. But Ashalata Debi knew.
Shankar Sanyal, Tumpa’s uncle had been driving that black Toyota!!
Koushiki was pleasantly surprised. Her mother wanted to open a Facebook account. She remembered how she had managed to convince her mother to operate a smartphone and learn to send WhatsApp messages.
“I am not used to all this high-five techie stuff,” Ashalata Debi had dismissed these with her characteristic disdain.
And now, Facebook. Of all things! Was senility creeping in? Or was she getting bored of the company of the plumber who came almost every day to fix a leaking pipe or a clogged toilet? Or the electrician whose mandatory services included a trip to Ashalata Debi’s house every alternate day to repair a fuse or change a bulb?
The younger generation from Ashalata Debi’s family were delighted to receive a friend request from their favourite aunty. How they wished they had tech-savvy moms! Not only was Ashalata Debi still strikingly beautiful in her starched white taant saree, she was also extremely progressive and erudite.
Within a couple of months, Ashalata Debi had managed to garner more than 100 friends. Her maid now ventured out to buy vegetables and basic grocery items. As was the norm with Bengali widows, the elderly lady followed a frugal vegetarian diet. Her needs were simple.
Amidst all these, not a single member from Tumpa’s family came to enquire about her absence.
15th August. Patriotic songs like ‘Ae mere watan ke logo’ and ‘kadam kadam badhaye jaa’ blared from the loudspeakers. The Shyambazar crossing was relatively free of chaos. The city was in a festive mood.
Devarati, Ashalata Debi’s niece had just polished off her mutton biryani and was scrolling through her Facebook feed when a heading caught her attention. The post that followed it was long, as was evident from ‘Continue Reading’. But.. what did her aunt mean by titling her post ‘Pedophile Shanku’?
“Mashima. How are you?” began Devarati.
An hour later, Ashalata Debi said a ‘God bless you’ and disconnected the call. An ominous sense of foreboding sent a chill down her spine. But she wouldn’t give up at this stage. How could she let it go of those painstaking months of preparation and planning?!
The City of Joy woke up from its slumber. It was the time to flaunt Nari Shakti. The Goddess Durga with her children would pay a visit the earth.
It was a bright Ashtami morning. Kolkata was famous for this festivity, as clubs from every conceivable area fought to win coveted prizes in theme and originality. Not that The Goddess cared, as She eyed her devotees standing in serpentine queues and jostling with each other, just to catch a glimpse of Her. Alas, Her voice remained stifled inside the mould of clay, as the men revered Her as Maa, yet abused and molested the likes of Tumpa. But, on that Ashtami morning, The Goddess would witness something familiar – the defeat of Mahishasur.
Tumpa’s mother had just finished paying her obeisance to Maa Durga at a Baghbazar pandal. As soon as she turned back, she let out a gasp.
Ashalata Debi was standing in front of her, her beige jamdani with olive-green leaf motifs neatly pleated and pinned to her matching blouse. She seemed to have acquired a new pair of gold-rimmed glasses. Her hair was combed back tight and tied into a bun.
She brought her palms together and bowed to the Goddess in reverence.
“Mashima! It’s so nice to see you here!” Shankar Sanyal’s silky voice reverberated in the pandal amidst the sound of the dhaak and the ululating ladies.
SLAP!! The swarming crowd stopped dead in its track. The ladies let out an Oh Maa. Some of the men came near their beloved Shankar da, the president of the Puja Organizing Committee. And suddenly, the flashbulbs. Damn! The media. The villain of the hour kept mum. He knew he had to bide his time. His eyes roamed all over the place. The priest had stopped chanting and was looking at him, fear and bewilderment writ large on his face. Some passers-by had already started filming the tamasha.
And then Shankar Sanyal stumbled back. As he saw Puchua, Buchki, Rinky, Runa & other girls whose names eluded him at that moment.
The arrest of Sanyal on charges of pedophilia did make the headlines the next day, but it was Ashalata Debi who was the star. Her tireless pursuit in gathering support for her movement and her ability to pull the right strings in the form of her lawyer niece Devarati went viral in no time. However the lady shied away from the limelight.
The Goddess had smiled on that Durgashtami.
First published here.
Image source: a still from Bangla film Mukherjee Dar Bou and YouTube
I am an IT professional, lost in the monotonous world of Excel. So, I seek refuge in Word, pun intended.
I write for various literary platforms and have quite a few anthologies to my credit.
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times.
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I huffed, puffed and panted up the hill, taking many rest breaks along the way. My calf muscles pained, my heart protested, and my breathing became heavy at one stage.
“Let’s turn back,” my husband remarked. We stood at the foot of Shravanbelagola – one of the most revered Jain pilgrimage centres. “We will not climb the hill,” he continued.
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