It was the morning of jyeshth ashtami, the eighth day of the lunar fortnight. The city of Srinagar had woken to a late spring after a cold May. The breeze in the early morning was cool but not biting. Radhai, the matriarch of a pandit family was busy assorting the items with feverish energy going up and down the five storey house. The things required were for the aquatic journey as well as the puja; the annual ceremonial worship was to be offered to the Devi of Tullamulla. The boatman was there having punctually arrived at 6 AM, sitting crouched at the stone steps leading to the ghat. The morning tea would be brewed in the kitchen part of the Donga ( boat ) which would sail them to Tullamulla, the abode of Goddess Raginia. No regular meal would be served till the puja was over. A large willow-basket full of knol-khol (khol-rabi), lotus stem was stocked in the boat. It would be cooked on their way.
Raginia was their eshtdevi the clan Goddess, who loved milk and sweets and abhorred meat. Radhai loved, revered and even held the deity in awe; her universe was incomplete without the Devi. If any family member of the house consumed meat or eggs the night before ashtami, it was mandatory to wash one’s body, clothes and mind too off the thoughts of meat to enter the abode of Devi. Radhai had avowed to pass on the legacy of ashtami on to her progeny.
Every year this day the family rented a donga to proceed to Tullamulla to worship the Devi. This ritual journey had to be taken to respond to the call (naad ) of their beloved Raginia. Aunts, cousins and the whole retinue of relatives had already seated themselves comfortably in one of the chambers of the boat. In the atmosphere of joviality, something plagued the senior woman’s heart. Her young daughter in law was in the ninth month of her second pregnancy, though she had the assurances of the mid wife (whom she had consulted), that the birth would take some time. With Devi’s name on her lips, the boat man lowered his oars. Women bustled in the kitchen and men talked merrily, but Shyama the expecting mother was advised to sit silently in a corner, eat less and talk less so as to keep the excitement at bay, for excitement could induce labour.
They reached the holy precincts. Radhai quickly having finished her bath in the ladies section of the river, ordered the Halwai to prepare the sacred food of halwa and luchi. The puja done , a late lunch was served. So far so good, Radhai cast worried glances at her daughter in law, the day passed without any event. In the late night the older woman felt like spending some time close to the holy spring, considered to be the symbol of Devi. She sat with folded hands, her eyes fixed at the luminous effulgence of the divine visage; she felt the Devi was smiling at her with pleasure. In that short spell of time, she was conscious that Shyama will have a daughter with features carved akin to the smiling idol. And her husband tugged at her phiran sleeve
“Come, Shyama is in labour…..I had told you”. He reprimanded with his masculine authority.
Shyama’s daughter was born in the blessed village of Devi’s abode, all pink and features chiseled like the idol. They called her Raginia. The child was blessed by Devi Raginia. She was made to fast on every ashtami and observe the Tullamula pilgrimage with a special reverence. The little girl would help her mother and grandmother clean the kitchen of all the vestiges of meat, eggs and onions, and all the stains of previous cookings. When the kitchen was freshly washed with clay and water, when pots and pans were scrubbed to sparkle, then alone it was worthy of being used for ashtami prasad. Raginia grew up listening to Devi’s stuti (praises). Radhai would sing the Panchastavi sitting amidst Shyama and her two children. The so called fast of ashtami would start with puffed up steaming hot sugared singhara purries, followed by a sumptuous vegetarian meal and a snack again for supper.
Raginia reached her teens. Now, with college educated reasoning, she would question the fasting on ashtami day. She found it ridiculous to call it fasting, when all a person did on ashtami was to eat. The simple house holder that Radhai was had a simple explanation, may be devoid of intellectual details.
“Listen dear, this day Devi manifested herself in Tullamula. She appeared in Krishanjoo Kar’s dream, instructed him to go to the confluence of Shadipur. A serpent led the way while an inverted cauldron of milk laid a trail to guide the righteous bhatta. The mulberry tree in the spring is the symbol of Devi. We celebrate Devi’s coming to Kashmir desh by singing her praises and also eating savouries . Every bhatta holds this lore dearest to heart and also vrat and utsav (fasting and celebrations) go hand in hand”.
“But no roganjosh” Raginia’s brother joked. “Hush children” Radhai placed her old finger on his lips “ never should you pollute your tongue by naming the thing on ashtami day. It is a sacrilege. Devi loves kheer and sweets. Anywhere any time your reverence should not dwindle and Devi will be benevolent.
Raginia married, marriage was a hasty affair. The wonder was that the girl born on the premises of Tullamula, met her future groom also in Tullamula. The boy who till then had been avoiding marriage, noticed Raginia when she was deep in prayer. Eyes closed and hands folded, she stood facing the sanctum. When she opened her eye lids loaded with the spiritual somnolence, her eyes met the smiling young man as if thrown from the heavens. He had been smitten; his whole bearing went through a sweet sensation. A spell had been cast by the divine mother. In mid seventies the boy could not approach the girl right there. He ran to his mother and insisted to search for the girl’s family. His mother responded by fervently scrutinizing all the dharamsalas and located the girl. This marriage was accepted and honoured as Devi’s will.
If Raginia’s grandmother Radhai existed from ashtami to ashtami and breathed Devi’s name with every breath, her new home was equally if not more reverential to Tullamula. Her mother in law took the little pilgrimage to Tullamula without a fail, every month on the eighth day of lunar fortnight in the snowy grey winters and searing summers. She would come back to eagerly waiting children with sweet halwa of semolina and delicious nadermonja (lotus stem pakoda). The old grandmother in law of Raginia would ask with bright enthusiasm,
“And how was the darshan?” “Oh, the Devi was dancing with her consort”. And further she would report how beautiful the sacred water looked like nectar of Devas. (It is believed that the colour of the water of the holy spring changes according to the moods and whims of the Devi).
On ashtami day one has to start a meal with an aachaman, then leave little portion of rice and curries for birds, dogs and other beings. One had to share the food with all living beings.
As the hues of the spring conformed with the moods of Devi, when Raginia’s son was born, the Tullamula spring seemed exceptionally blue to the adoring eyes of the two grandmothers. The visits to Tullamula continued for some more years. At the surface things looked usual yet a worrying buzz was in the air as if the demon Jalodbhav was moving underneath the placid waters of the Dal. The very breeze appeared whispering in the ears of bhattas “you are not safe”. Devi is angry, the nectar has turned murky, the old bonyas (chinars) of Tullamula aangan looked despondent. Such were the disturbing reports of the pilgrims from Tullamula.
The Magh ashtami of 1990, the winds turned icy. Shyama still wanted to go on her monthly darshan of Devi, though she was warned “no going to Tullamula this month a bomb may explode, terrorists may strike anything can happen”. But go, she must. Devi would be waiting for her devotees. They had to respond to the call. That visit proved to be Shyama’s last. She was met with a forlorn Devi. The sanctum wore a deserted look. The pundit was in a hurry to wind up. The flowers and vyen (the scented herb) were not available. She bent down to offer the customary milk, her fingers lost the grip on the tumbler; the water of the spring was reddish black. Crest fallen she reached home. Radhai’s habitual query about the darshan was replied with tears in eyes.
“The spring is actually reddish black”.
“Oh! The kalpanth is inevitable now, doom is here”.
The old woman beat her breast and wailed.
“The Devi, our mighty protector has abandoned us, the sinners that we be”.
Now onwards the old lady would keep on mumbling “oh Devi ,take me to your abode”.
The alert, agile woman suddenly bent with her years. Meanwhile pundits were on run, the way deer run helter skelter when predators are on the prowl. Bhattas left, compelled by impending warnings and threats to their faith and honour. Radhai not even once stopped praying to her eshtdevi. “Let me die here, in my own sati desh”. This prayer at least did not go unheard. She died in her sleep leaving Shyama and her husband free to move out.
When hordes of pundits ran to nearby Jammu, some little farther to Delhi or Jaipur, Raginia’s family’s destination was continents across. Her elder brother was successful in getting their immigration to Canada, where he stayed. They had the citizenship and he was insisting that her son will have a better future and her husband could use his degrees to his advantage. But they debated, how could they leave Kashmir, Raginia’s Tullamula?.They delayed the departure, though 10 year old Shubhum’s education was in doldrums and even his life was not safe. But then her husband was ready to leave following an incident of a grave nature In the August of 1990 one afternoon the boy came with a long face from the cricket field. He had been jeered at by his Muslim friends “ Shubham bhatta, why don’t you go the way other bhattas have gone”. They did not want to bring their child up among threats, murder and indignity. They succumbed to these unseen forces.
Raginia’s husband was ready to leave, she still lingered. Then one night she had a vision or perhaps a dream. She was sitting in a trance in the precincts of Tullamula when Radhai touched her shoulder and said vividly “go Raginia go, Devi hates tamas (violence). Eons ago she had requested Hanumanji to carry her out of Lanka to satidesh. But now Ravana is ruling this unfortunate land. Now go”. The vision faded. They left lock stalk and barrel. Initially they had to accommodate themselves with her brother’s family, later things fell in place.
Everything changed here, their language, attire, friends and life over all. Yet the transition was rapid, in two years they drove on the highways of Canada with dexterity and stood up to every demand of day to day life. What did not change was the devotion to Devi, they observed ashtami fast with the same élan. The culture might have gone through erosion but the adherence to Tullamula was firm.
While the old people lost the familiarity and security of home, middle aged got busy in establishing and anchoring themselves in the new land. The third generation like Shubham, being raw in physical and mental makeup moulded themselves in the attained shapes given by the adopted land. As a person Shubham was honest but impersonal in ways. His practicality sometimes took the dimensions of ruthlessness. Raginia took a degree in hospitality. During her course she met a fellow Panjabi woman and in course of time started a small business in partnership with this Panjabi friend. The weekends saw her busy in her food joint serving roganjosh, kalia etc. to hoards of customers. Life was good, actually better than back home. The financial position improved but a thorn of separation always pricked, more so at the heart of Raginia’s mother-in-law. This older woman was left alone among the four walls of a prosperous home with gadgets beeping all the time. Some kind of emptiness surrounded this lonely woman. Then they decided to anoint the Tullamula Devi in their own expansive land. They constructed a marble temple and on a jesht ashtami day consecrated a beautiful idol of Tullamula Devi. The temple was surrounded by a water canal which was pumped by an electric motor. They even sowed the saplings of maple and now the Tullamula was all in form. They were aware every inch that their creation was an imitation but all the same it reminded them of the original shrine. Now the old woman spent most of her days ruminating in her own Tullamula.
A handsome youth in his early twenties, Shubham, was fair with a crown of brown hair and eyes also brown with an aquiline nose. He mingled well with the crowds. He did very well academically with a degree in internal medicine. His general bearing was more Canadian, which was expected. However, his friendship with a girl of Jewish origin sent the family in bouts of panic. To his mother he had told “this is my girl”. They had been together in medical school, had clicked from day one and at the end of the term were quite intimate. When he brought her home, Raginia’s mother-in-law was not comfortable.
“This is Rebecca, call her Becky, the special girl for you, mom”, looking with smiling eyes at his mother. Raginia found her rather coy and surprisingly a picture of sobriety. Even the girls back home were contrastingly blatant now. She was invited to join them for a meal. Raginia’s husband proudly offered her some mutton, she hastily waved a hand “please, no red meat, the only red meat I eat is a beef steak.” When Raginia translated the declaration to the older woman, she sprang up from her seat.
“Thrahi thrahi, why! Shubham you had to choose this cow eating woman of all the girls in the world- yuck, so repulsive”. Shubham gestured not to make faces, that was out of etiquette. He later explained to Rebecca that beef was prohibited for a pandit and they abhorred even the name. However, her next visit was more disastrous. Out of a genuine curiosity she stepped inside the little Tullamula and was accosted by the grandmother by a loud yell.
“ Oh bewakoof ladki (stupid girl), don’t set your foot inside the temple, you eat cows”. The Jewish girl was lambasted by the pandit grandmother of her friend with whom she was in a serious relationship.
This family had gone through hardships and banishment from homeland but never had they known a discord within the family. As the visits of the girl increased the heated arguments between the young man and the parents also raised. One night with a heavy heart Raginia sat facing the Goddess and prayed for a solution. She muttered under her breath “ Ya Devi Sarva Bhuteshu, Budhi Rupen Samasthita, Namastase ……..( oh Goddess you reside in all beings even as the incarnation of wisdom, give me the wisdom to find a path, I bow before you)”. Her mother in law joined the prayer and said in stifled tones.
“ We left home and everything connected to home behind us. The transformation was natural. With Devi’s compassionate benevolence we are here safe and thriving. But we lost the simplicity of existence, chastity of thoughts and purity of heart. You Raginia were born so near to Raginia Devi, you have to be the beacon of the refined bhatta civilization. Keep your senses alert”.
“Amma” Raginia replied in all humility, “we may wash the temple clean of her steps, she has already occupied the threshold of your household. She lives in Shubham’s heart and he is the part of our biological frame. Let us wait and watch”.
Then followed another event of a more serious nature, One Sunday morning Rebecca appeared in a fine brocade sari, her head covered and hands folded and stood near Raginia “Raginia, I have given up beef and stopped eating flesh altogether. I will observe all the rituals of ashtami make me a part of your family”. Right behind her stood Shubham looking straight into his mother’s eyes. Raginia was dumb founded and lowered her head. The older lady was thoroughly scandalized looking at the girl coming with her own alliance.
“Rebecca, you are a wonderful girl and a conscientious child. We as a community obstinately cling to our roots”. She waited for the girl’s reaction.
“Raginia, do not talk about roots, every fresh sapling grows its roots afresh”. This was an intelligent explanation.
“Look Rebecca” Raginia continued “language, religion and race, everything is against this union. My mother in law has to resort to pantomime techniques to communicate with you”.
Shubham gently touched his mother’s shoulder and asked in his youthful voice “why mom, yesterday I heard you recite ekam sat viprah bahundah vinduti (truth is one but wise men call it in many ways), "maa , leave aside this insipid talk of religion and culture, I do not care and will not carry this unpleasant burden”. "No Shubham, not a burden, call this your legacy. Do not see the things with your lens".
“And you want to see everything through your lens” Shubham retorted back, thus ended the undecided interview.
Shubham shifted to the dorm in his hospital and saw his family only on weekends. Life continued with pace but the discontent at home was pulsating. Raginia was in touch with Rebecca. She would call her and during one of her talks she asked the Canadian girl the cause of her resilience in following her son.
“Only one cause the ties of the family which tie your family in a string. My parents treat my marriage as my personal affair. In Shubham’s case he even waits for his grandmother’s consent for our marriage”. Raginia was touched and left the decision to Devi and the Devi was at work.
The yearly food festival of Raginia’s food joint was at hand. First three days of the week they served the ethnic Panjabi food, rest of the week was stipulated for Kashmiri food. Roganjosh and kalia were the highlights of the weekend. An overwhelming crowd thronged the food joint. Business was going good, money poured. On Sunday when they were expecting a deluge of guests, happened to be the ashtami “ Raginia’s day of fasting and vegetarianism. She herself had to preside and direct the proceedings in the kitchen. She covered her nose to evade the strong aroma of mutton dishes. In this hustle one of the Mexican assistants came with the salt box.
“Stop!” Raginia shouted “ I have already added the salt”.” No madam I am sure we did not…..why don’t you taste it?” the Mexican suggested simply.
“No” Raginia screamed “Oh no, I can’t …I am…..” Then she stopped. How could this helper understand her peculiar predicament? It was already 10 O’clock in the morning. The taste of this dish is special and subtle. Her Panjabi friend insisted “Raginia, taste it yourself, this is our signature item. Quality of the taste cannot be compromised”. Raginia dipped the spoon into the bubbling vessel , brought out a chunk and little bit of gravy, demurred and then put the thing in her mouth. “Oh my God, this is awful there is no salt”. The mistake was rectified and the dish was saved and so was the day. Everything went on well but she was miserable. She held her tears in eyes, rushed home and locked herself in her room. The embankment of retrain was washed away by the tears of repentance. “ I have committed a sacrilege. What would Radhai say?
Amidst this misery- something flashed in her brain. Automatically her fingers pressed Rebecca’s number. She knew that latter was in emergency room duty.
“Rebecca…. This is an emergency”. The girl felt the agitation in Raginia’s voice. “ I have swallowed something …. I have got to get my innards washed”.
“Can you drive or should I come” asked Rebecca. “I can”.
While driving, she visualized the yogis who could rinse their intestines clean and put them back again. Radhai had claimed to have witnessed a spiritual figure do it. Rebecca made a case of accidental poisoning and Raginia got a stomach wash. Back in a recuperating room, her mother in law joined her.
“You are pale as a shava (corpse), what happened?”. “ I ate meat on ashtami.” Raginia replied sobbing.
“Accidentally ….inadvertently”? Old lady could not believe her Raginia could commit the blasphemy. “No very consciously to keep my profits unharmed. Business got the priority. The door of the room opened, Rebecca came near her and gently bared her arm. “I have to give you a shot, Raginia. The patient silently gave her arm, and with maternal pride looked at the white girl, so kind, so pure and sweet.
“Thank you Rebecca mind you we do not call our mothers in law by first name”. The girl hugged her.
“You did not swallow any poison, right? Rebecca looked straight into her eyes and asked.
Raginia bent her head. “You swallowed meat on ashtami, right?....I understand”.
“I am sure you do”. Raginia answered, then addressing her mother in law in native tongue “good, bad, superior and inferior are but human understandings. Devi staged a drama and we have accepted Rebecca. This was Devi’s plan and play, her leela.
*Parineeta Khar nee Zutshi was brought up in an extended family where joys and sorrows, even the illness and career of a child was a shared affair. Although she is a science graduate,. the penchant for English literature stood in her stead ; She came out with an Honours in English literature. She further accomplished her Masters in the same subject from the University of Kashmir.
Her restless existence had no time to grow as she got married during her university days. Her husband’s career tossed her on to the far off lanes of Paris. Motherhood, responsibilities of a wife and a daughter-in-law and running a household with a scientist husband kept her busy for a good part of her energetic years.
When the demand for her other roles diminished she had time to reminisce. The stored up memories gushed out in a deluge. She started writing short stories for local newspapers.Her first book “ ON THE SHORES OF THE VITASTA” was published from the Writer’s Workshop of Calcutta. The other book “ WE WERE AND WE WILL BE “ was published from Utpal Publications, Delhi. Her stories depict a celebration of life a continuation of life. Parineeta and her family have been living in Hyderabad from the last twenty eight years..
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