Part 1: Kali Puja – From a Bengal Diary by Chinmaya Dunster from 1986
Thursday, 2nd October
There is a temptation on landing at Dum Dum airport, after nineteen hours of flight via Moscow, to congratulate oneself on arriving. I should know better (this is my third visit) that this is premature: an hour and a half of bone-crunching road lies ahead still to the city and the only means of conveyance are taxis that look as if they have survived World War Three. They may well have done, but five minutes inside one will assure you that their shock absorbers have not.
Reunion! Swami Krishnaprem (KP), pirate look-alike, re-creator of the English language and noted exponent of the billi (cat) life, and his wife Ma Anurag are at the porch of their block of flats to greet me. There is much hugging, cries of “Welcome Swamiji!”, “Jai Bhagwan!” and tears. In this emotional atmosphere nobody is inclined to dispute with the taxi driver who has seen his chance and is demanding twice the normal fee.
Three words are vital if you are to make any sense of Calcutta.
The first will be heard as a weary sigh as the fan goes off and the whole neighborhood is plunged into blackness: loadshedding, caused by the city’s chronic power shortage, leaves you fumbling for matches, bathed in sweat and a prey to every hungry mosquito for miles. It can happen for hours at a time and several times a day. I have concluded however, that in KP’s case it may be a good thing. Without it he might never find a good enough reason to move from his mattress. I have never met anyone as good at doing nothing (until I met Samarpan, that is). Loadshedding is greeted with cries of “Oree baba!” (your father), “Sa-laa!!” (wife’s brother), both of which translate as ‘fucking hell’.
The second word, bambu is roughly synonymous with English ‘stick’ (as in ‘she gave me stick for being late’). It is accompanied by a fist gesture suggesting insertion of a bamboo cane into rectum. Bamboo, as can be readily observed from the many uses the plant is put to all over Bengal, comes in a naturally nobly state, but after much use tends to become smooth and ‘oily’.
Hue pare, lastly, means ‘maybe’. We will be hearing plenty of it.
5am. Darkness. Ma Anurag is calling insistently “Cha, Chinmayaji”. I raise myself groaning – having no experience of jetlag, these people are blind to it – and force down the sickly sweet liquid. Today we are supposed to be leaving for the village house and must get away early if we are to minimize the horrors of Howrah railway station. From the bathroom great sloshing sounds are to be heard, with a lot of throat clearing and nose snorting. This will last another thirty minutes or so: KP is taking a tap bath.
I watch Anurag squatting over her kerosene stove finishing off breakfast preparations. She has probably already been up an hour or more and looks as calm and fresh at this hour as she does all day. She hands me a plate of sugared rice, Parle biscuits and choice Bengali sondesh. I make a big effort to control my stomach. Her eyes are shining with pleasure at the treat she is giving me.
6.30am. We are still here, packed, breakfasted, and I at least ready. But a subtle energy change has taken place. Ominously KP has not yet exchanged his lungi for trousers. Even more ominously he has started singing. Hue pare is in the air.
Sunday 5th evening
We tried to leave again this morning (yesterday’s failure remains a mystery), but the moment we left the door an unseasonable storm blew up from the Bay of Bengal and drenched Calcutta all day. It is still coming down now, further blackening the shabby tenement blocks we are staying in, transforming potholes into ponds and, most startling of all, almost emptying the streets of people.
Yesterday KP came with me as I re-familiarized myself with the city: its impossibly packed buses, their sides flayed into jagged metal; the simmering heat and fumes of its traffic jams; and the irrepressible courtesy and good-humour of its inhabitants.
At Kalighat, near the main temple to the goddess Kali, some of what must be the world’s most innocent-looking whores wait behind the tabla repair shops, giggling mischievously behind their hands at the sight of a foreigner. The corpse being carried on its bed of flowers towards the burning ghats is wearing spectacles. Are they going to burn those too?
A swarm of children surrounds me, whispering “Kamera, kamera..” reverently to one another as I photograph the jumble of half-finished clay images of Kali, whose festival day is coming soon and which wait beside the road outside the potters’ workshops for their coats of gaudy paint.
“A notorious place,” KP comments. “Come, Swamiji, brain will be puzzled if we stay here any longer.” On the bus heading home he tells me of the school for pickpockets at Kidderpore. Lesson One: protect your head.
At the Tourist Information I pick up the best map they have of the city and another of Darjeeling, a Hill Station popular with tourists, where I have a vague plan we might all visit. At the bottom of the (hand-drawn) Darjeeling map is written the following:
NOTE: 1. Not to scale. 2. Directions Manipulated. 3. Tourists Map Not a Legal Document. 4. Distances Elsewhere
The accompanying Guide has these pungent observations, which will, I’m sure, be of much use to us should we go:
Education: Darjeeling has the best schools for affluent class which can convert any Indian child into a brisk international fellow. Then there are schools run on public school pattern having pure Indian homey culture. A new generation of schools are on the way teaching the child to become ultra Indian. There are many ordinary schools educating the street urchin to become a good citizen.
One local peak offering “glorious views of the suburban region”, we are told, is now abandoned because of defense establishments. Readers are advised: “Don’t try to go, you won’t enjoy any thing now”. We are also told the following:
Economy: there is hardly any productive unit except for the candles and dry decorations. (Tea had been dealt with separately).
Rainfall: Fog is the most annoying object during rains.
Rail Links: Shilliguri is connected with Jalpaiguri on the broad gauze line.
Prohibition: is not in force but to create public nuisance is not tolerated.
Of course getting to Darjeeling is far from any of our thoughts right now. I’m worrying whether we will even manage to travel the fifty miles to the village.
“What to do, Swami?” I ask KP now in the soggy darkness of another loadshedding, both of us feeling for his kids, who will have been waiting eagerly in the village for us these past two days. He and Anurag and I lie on the double mattress that fills nearly half their cramped living space, limbs akimbo, tired with the effort of doing nothing this whole day long. His face contorts, displaying missing front teeth. “Time is knocking on,” he laughs. “Late-go theory. Nothing to do, Swamiji. Only to witness.”
Monday 6th noon
I write in a long hall, cluttered with junk and dust and ghosts. Pigeons clatter in and out through the barred windows. From the riot of coconut palms, jungle creepers and banana leaves that threaten to overwhelm this rambling old mansion, comes the sound of more exotic birds. None of them however, nor the slow ticking of an ancient wall clock, have the power to break the vast silence that engulfs this place.
We left Calcutta this morning in darkness in a taxi that was forced to function as a boat once we reached the lower-lying parts of the city, flooded under two feet of water, and through which another early riser was wading his way, brushing his teeth as he went. From Howrah a terminally sick train trundled us an hour and a half northwards through a countryside that couldn’t seem to make up its mind if it was land or water.
“Oily bambu only, Chinmayaji,” KP (perched with five others on a seat built for three) points out, indicating the aisles jammed with standing passengers. Anurag looks pained: “ROUGH bambu,” she dissents, looking to where my long legs are painfully contorted around piles of luggage.
Another hour or so of bus journey (luckily having escaped the fate of latecomers who, simply unable to overcrowd the bus further, had been forced to take their place on the luggage rack on the roof) plus twenty minutes on foot along a track only six inches deep in mud (KP: “Fine, Swamiji. You should have seen it last year before the villagers improved it with bricks!”) and we are there, standing before KP’s crumbling ancestral pile, unsteady on our mud-caked feet and numbed by the silence.
And there to greet us are an overjoyed Ma Nivedita (19) and Swami Provin Bharti (17), KP’s daughter and son, changed so quickly since I last saw them a year ago into young – and devastatingly attractive – adults. There too is KP’s brother, Bubu and a wizened old mother to be introduced to, who chuckles me under the chin, mutters her seal of approval and, opening her mouth, shows me from where KP inherits his riotous laugh. Plus hordes of relatives and hangers-on from far corners of the state come for the gathering of the clan that will take place at Kali puja, and who are introduced to me thus: “This is my youngest middle aunt”, “This is my second cousin-brother’, “This is Shorbojoya Ma’s sister’s brother’s son,” etc.
As soon as is decent KP and I escape to this hall upstairs, with sarod and tabla, to make music. Perhaps his company is infecting me. We have both had enough of doing something all day.
This house exists on several levels: on the ground floor womenfolk are chopping mountains of vegetables, lighting innumerable very smoky cooking fires, squabbling and calling at top pitch for the maidservant, Maya.
Maya, typically, is under several simultaneous conflicting instructions from one aunt to fetch water from the river, from another to hurry up and clean the fish, from another who wants to know why the saris have still not been hung out to dry, and so on.
Children are constantly emerging from underfoot, tugging at adults clothes for attention and chasing round and round the courtyard playing an unfathomable game called gooly dandi, which involves sticks and a lot of screaming.
On this floor too Bubu has his den beside the front door, where his visitors (for whom the door is exclusively reserved) are received and deals made. Bubu manages to accomplish a lot without actually using his own hands for doing anything at all. Apart, that is, from the delicate art of watch repair on the odd occasion that his brother KP (who’s living appears to me to consist of buying broken antique watch parts expensive and selling them cheap) brings him something worth repairing. Apart from their surprising skill in that field, whenever those massive hands do make contact with any physical body (say a back that needs a slap, or the head of a tabla) they propel further and more dramatically than hammers.
On the next floor the long hall and dusty bedrooms are inviolate the whole day long. Sparrows come and go, flitting between heaps of lumber and discoloured paintings; the uk-uk-uk of pigeons emphasizing rather than breaking the stillness.
Here might be found Nivedita, head down a book, studying for the accountancy exams she doesn’t want to take. Or singing “Bhagwan your blessings, endlessly shower….”
Or dreaming of the lonely isles of Scotland, whose pictures in a calendar I gave her last year she treasures. Or humming the Irish ballads I taught her; songs that with her lilting Bengali accent and liquid Indian rhythms she has turned into something quite unique.
Here too might be found, in some inaccessible corner or seldom-used bedroom, Swami Prem Samarpan, Anurag’s brother and Master of Sleeping Meditation, having a doze between his after-breakfast nap and his pre-lunch snooze. A saturnine presence, Samarpan, guaranteed to produce near-asphyxiation in KP whenever he appears (“Unparalleled, Chinmayaji, really!”), liable to explode without warning from his slumber into some zany character impression or manic joke. Whenever not sleeping, invariably restlessly patrolling the corridors, safely out of rain, cold, sun, heat or anything else that might upset his delicate constitution. Excellent company if you want an hour or so off the rails.
Perhaps KP and I, interrupted in our practice, will be treated to a peek from Pie, a dangerously pretty five-year old – bossy, impossible and irresistible (and believed to be the reincarnation of KPs father, the dreaded zamindar) – making a forbidden foray upstairs before her immaculately groomed mother, Nistapi Didi (whose bindi is changed hourly it seems) comes scolding up to fetch her.
Here KP and I spend hours at our music, grimacing at the hubbub coming up from below. “Tensionous types,” he comments. His misuse (or re-creation?) of the English language is highly idiosyncratic and usually ambiguous: a particularly good song is a ‘dangerous’ tune; a fine bit of playing is ‘horrible’.
On top of it all is the roof. It needs a book to itself.
The sun is setting across the river, the coconut palms thrill to the quarrels of bright yellow parakeets, while flat away to the horizon stretch the emerald paddy fields of Golden Bengal. From up here on the roof the whole village can be observed: gaily dressed girls drawing water at the well; a family of monkeys being chased out of the bananas across the rooftops by a man pointing a wooden replica of a gun; giant butterflies weaving their transcendent paths through the treetops; Jupiter and Mars ascending to take their place of supremacy beside the fireflies in the night sky. From here England begins to feel dreamily unreal to me.
At night Jupiter supreme
Chased by Mars
And other new more furious stars
Flies that dazzle and are gone
England or India
Of which am I son?
As dusk settles the sound of the conch being blown to welcome the dark drifts up from our courtyard below, to be answered in turn from all the other dwellings hidden among the foliage.
An obscure relative, Lallu, appears, numerous tantric malas around scrawny neck, and tucks himself into a hidden corner to prepare himself a chillum. Half his time is spent in a deathly speechlessness. The other half occurs unpredictably day or night, when he will harangue anyone who will abide it at peak volume. Luckily for my tranquility this evening he seems to be into the first half.
I get a prize view too of the proceedings outside the little Durga temple on the village green outside the house (the villagers, like most Bengalis, favour the goddess Durga over KP’s family deity Kali, but both festivals happen around the same time). All week the preparations have been under way – meaning chiefly that more and more male villagers have taken to hanging around there, hanging up strings of lights and taking them down again, moving large electrical items connected with a venerable generator to and fro from one place to another and back again. This morning a group of hired musicians ensconced themselves below our compound wall and all day long have given us a raucous, sinuously rhythmic and often inspired rendition on shenai, harmonium and dhol.
Other signs of the approach of tonight’s festivities have become visible too. Bubu, in his role as unofficial village bigwig (a Congressman, he will never be permitted to be voted into the official title in Communist-ruled West Bengal) and local Mr Fixit has been humping his enormous girth in and out of the house at unaccustomed speed on obscure errands, and receiving a queue of visitors who borrow things and help themselves liberally to his advice and cigarettes. Provin Bharti too has been nearly apoplectic with excitement, scooting up and down the rickety stairs, tearing back and forth to the shops on the main road on his uncle’s ancient motorbike and disappearing until late at night with his friends.
Most ominous of all the signs though, is that the first firecrackers have been exploding surreptitiously the past few nights, keeping me at least awake. The local product is designed using a kilo or more of gunpowder and with enough power to rock a house. “Oree baba,” KP snorts as we are deafened once again. “This is only snuff. Wait until the night….”
I greeted the morning somewhat surprised to be alive. Last night I thought I must be on the Western Front. It wasn’t only the noise, which resembled an artillery barrage from 10pm until 2am. The clouds of smoke and smell of cordite; the impenetrable darkness that we live in here after sunset (this whole house served by only five dim paraffin lamps) lit up by garish flashes; and the presence of so much night-time insect life (mosquitoes, giant flying cockroaches, tiny biting ‘puja flies’) conspired together to completely upset my cool. While Anurag held my hand and soothed my brow I lay on the bed and trembled.
Now it’s bedtime and I watch her ascend the stairs by the light of a tiny oil lamp. Whenever I glimpsed her today she was smiling quietly, her face glistening with sweat, surrounded by sizzling pots. All around her a storm raged, shouts and cries, women who seemed to find delight in harsh words moving at the double. She was the unshakable center of this great endeavor from long before I woke until long after dark. We fed over a hundred mouths here at the house today.
Kali is the oddest kind of goddess. Over the past week I have watched her grow from her birth in the potter’s hands as grey clay, through her layers of paint and the addition of jute hair, until her final ornamentation with tinsel and glitter. I helped carry her and her prone consort Shiva into the fluorescent glare of her dais and joined the shouts of “Jai Kali Ma!” Villagers have come to gawp and pray; a priest has made much of unguents and incantatory mumblings, Ganga water, incense and fire. Piles of food, and heaps of blossom have been laid in front of her, while family members have bumbled around beating gongs and gone through the prescribed motions in a way that seems to me to be both frantic and slightly embarrassed. Yesterday’s goings-on culminated in a ceremony in which we all, me included, had to take it in turns to sit in KP’s mother’s bony lap, after which vegetables (a recent substitute, I’m told, for the traditional goat) were beheaded ritually.
Today was the last day of puja before she is immersed and I went for a final look. Black and ugly, her long tongue dripping blood, garlanded with a necklace of human skulls, she is the object of universal affection in the household. Little children wept: “Ma is gone for another year!” Even KP looked morose and gloomy. Then, when the moment came, amidst more shouts of “Jai Kali Ma!” the whole village turned out to join the family in parading her to the waterfront where, without any ceremony at all, they chucked her in and went home.
Valika, old, shrunken, stooped, her sight glazed by cataracts, squats by a pillar in the courtyard to eat her mound of rice alone. Free for a moment from slapping dung on walls to dry, from all the chores she’s had to perform here for sixty years since she arrived in her girlhood as a maidservant to a zamindar’s household. I go to sit beside her, touched suddenly by sadness as I think of the tenuous links of memory that reel back to those vanished days. How quiet the soul that shines beneath that astonishing wrinkled skin! Such peace I touch as her hand reaches out to rest on my arm! Thank you, Valika, little girl!
A treat today: kitcheree – a hot mush of rice and clarified butter apparently requiring, judging by the hours Anurag spent at it, very careful preparation. We sit as always on the stone floor and eat off banana leaves. Our everyday diet of boiled rice, vegetables and stingingly spicy fish curry I can manage quite daintily by now, but Western fingers just aren’t up to this liquidy porridge. However, since this house is totally devoid of spoons, forks or even knives, I just have to make do.
Another problem made itself apparent soon afterwards. Bubu, who I have seen consume two kilos of rosagulla and the juice of two large coconuts without apparently pausing for breath (though admittedly perhaps a third went down his beard and onto his vast hairy chest) is the first to experience it.
“How do people fart in your country?” he asks me, having by gesture indicated the word he wished to use.
“How do you mean, Bhaya?”
“Well… openly, or gupta-gupta?”
“Oh, you mean do they hide it? Well, different people have different styles, I guess”.
“Here, with some its very hue pare,” KP interrupts pointedly, with a glance at Prem Samarpan. “With others its ‘Saala, monsoon is coming!’”
‘Oh the billi life is the life for me
All I want is to be a billi
I’m a Bengal man, do you take me for a jerk?
I just lie around, my wife does all the work!’
Avuncular Gopalji, with a kindness and humour unmatched under his thatch of grey hair. The first man I’ve seen doing kitchen work, helping make rotis tonight.
My Bangla is now good enough that I can venture out into the village alone and have three-minute conversations before it runs out, and I’m naturally enjoying being the star of the show wherever I go. Bubu has presented me to the local Cauliflower King, Fish Baron etc, where we are offered the inevitable plates of sweets and quizzed closely on the price of aubergines etc in London. My favourite pastime during such visits is to tell my hosts how a packet of beedies (India’s little leaf cigars) costing less than a rupee locally, fetches a pound in England. This sets them all working out the mark up and, in the resulting astonishment, trying to scheme up export-import businesses with me.
I’ve been told off by KP for flirting with the village women. Actually all I did was stare a bit too long at a woman whose face was an exact match for someone I knew I knew well, but couldn’t remember who! We were on one of our customary visits to some household to pay our respects, and while the conversation in Bangla babbled ahead I had time to consider just whose it could be. Before I knew it I was on some mental journey leading to the conclusion that the only possibility was that I must know that face from a past life. As we got up to leave, she gave me a knowing smile and presented me gravely with an egg. I left in great confusion.
Hither and thither I go
Bringing joy to everyone
Child, thief, fool
I clown your words, break your rules
And entrance your daughters.
Sex is a great unmentionable round here. When forced to the subject KP disparages it with a wave of his hand and a slight grimace of distaste. “How small is this thing, Chinmayaji. Only ‘sex affairs’.”
I’ve made a little rhyme about it:
Oh where, where, where is sex
Living in Bengal?
Do men have lust or women cramps?
If they do they show bugger-all!
I have fun teasing Nivedita, despite knowing nothing about her awareness of this ‘small thing’.
Me: “How tasty your ears look, Nita-Nita. I’ll eat them for breakfast!”
Nivedita: “No, no. I will not give them to you!”
Once she covers my hand innocently with hers to draw my attention to a green bird as we sit patch-patching (gossiping) on the roof at dusk. The sky blushes suddenly under its fringe of palm. I too!
To Maya’s house on the further, disreputable, side of the river, past a festival site where in spring I’m told they sacrifice four hundred goats to Sitala, the goddess of smallpox. Mud compound, thatch roof, three sisters sharing a clutch of kids.
Their father is dead, she relates, and their brother killed in an accident. Maya’s husband, together with her married sister’s husband, walked out one day and has never returned. She gave us apples, tea and honey eggs and a taste of the dark deshmol spirits her uncle illegally distills. As she spoke of her osibida – troubles – she laughed happily, proud as a peacock at our visit.
To be continued…
Baksheesh: alms and by implication also bribe
Banyan: ficus tree whose branching root system entangles anything in its path
Beta: son, used for any child, male or female
Bhagwan: Blessed One. Title given to Shree Rajneesh, later Osho
Bhaiya: older brother, used as a term of respect for familiar men
Bindi : coloured spot worn by married women on their foreheads
Darshan: being in the presence of a Master or guru
Dhol: drum used in folk music
Dynamic and Kundalini: Meditations devised by Bhagwan that use specific music in their various stages, some of which are very physically energetic
Ghats: steps leading down to the river at the burning grounds
LeMartinier: Calcutta’s oldest and snobbiest boy’s school
Lungi : light cloth wrapped around waist and loins
Mala: necklace of 108 beads worn around the neck by traditional sannyasins. Also worn (with locket containing Rajneesh’s photo) by neo-sannyasins of Bhagwan
Misti dhoi: Bengali yoghurt sweet
Sarod: stringed instrument
Shenai: Indian clarinet used at weddings etc
Ranch in Oregon: Bhagwan’s commune in the USA 1991-5
Rosagulla: Bengali milk sweet
Sondesh: Bengali milk sweet
Tabla: drum used in Hindustani classical music
Tantrik: Hindu devotees of Lord Shiva into magic and (frequently) hashish
Zamindar: Lord of the Manor under the now-defunct landowning system of the Raj
Chinmaya Dunster was born in 1954 in England. He started playing the classical guitar at 15 and took up the Hindustani classical instrument sarod in 1984. He took sannyas in 1982. He has 13 CDs released (3 of them under ‘Bhakti’ and ‘Akasha’) on which he has been joined by musicians from the world of Osho. Chinmaya is also involved with environmental / social justice issues in his adopted homeland, India, and creates awareness-raising films on these issues. He lives in Goa with Naveena and two-year old daughter Koyal. www.chinmaya-dunster.com