There were pedestrians galore galumphing through the streets of Bara Bazaar in North Kolkata. The hubbub and cacophony that prevailed was inevitable. It was that time of the year when one could experience the incommensurable charisma of that divine smell of Durga Puja. Shoppers were ecstatic as they bounced from one shop to another, cavorting around and choosing the best and the latest trends of the season. Everything in the city of joy was in celebratory mode.
Amidst all this, in front of the Satyanarayan Park Market, stood Malvika inhaling nostalgia and gobbling up her puchkas at one go. Overwhelmed by the various viands that were inviting her on the streets of her hometown, Malvika pranced around enjoying each of the sumptuous delicacies that added to the festivity and fun. From jute bags to cotton kurtis, there was hardly anything that Malvika Chatterjee did not purchase that afternoon. She wore a navy blue sweatshirt with a pair of black jeans and white sneakers, looking, at twenty seven, very much like the woman, she had once claimed she would resemble. She was a Computer Engineer, who had been working at an IT firm in Bengaluru for three years now.
Malvika was exhausted as she loitered around the whole day after landing in Kolkata in the morning, without taking any rest. She wanted to take a nap before she could step out to experience the midnight majesty of the city during the Durga Puja. She took a taxi to her hotel in Park Street and was pretty excited to sit in the homely, four wheeler after a long time. As the taxi trotted down the Mahatma Gandhi Road, Malvika could see her city all adorned and embellished. No sooner did she start to reminisce the Puja days in her childhood, that the taxi driver interrupted, “Kolkata looks like a bride during Puja!”
Her face became pale and lifeless. “Bride”. Dreadful thoughts filled her as she felt disgust running through her heart, replacing the cheerfulness that occupied her till a while ago.
Six months back, in February, she was supposed to get married to Arpan Mukherjee, a thirty year old Civil Engineer settled in Hyderabad. Their parents were old acquaintances and Malvika’s father was quite contended that he had found the “perfect” groom for his daughter. Marinated in the sauce of orthodox flavours, Malvika’s would-be in laws were paranoid about letting their daughter-in-law work outside post her marriage. Arpan’s mother was disturbed by the fact that Malvika earned more than Arpan, and she was in no position to accept that the credentials of any woman could be better and superior than her beloved son.
This infuriated Malvika. She had achieved all these with great efforts, often going against her father’s wishes who did not view the independent life of his daughter favourably. Her parents were happily entertaining all the conditions and dowry demands that the Mukherjees had proposed, but Malvika could not accept herself alienating from her dreams, quitting her job, and devoting herself to a life, which would bring no happiness, only misery. She had been sent for by her parents a month before her marriage, and everything seemed so crepuscular to her during this span of thirty days. Her inability to stop the cruel hands of the clock to move, amplified her melancholy with every passing day. She fancied of a parallel universe where everything would be ideal.
“Ideal” in the way she defined it! Where women were not measured on parameters of beauty and housekeeping for marriage, or they were not expected to dress in a certain way, swayed and fashioned by parochial idiosyncrasies. She pondered whether using cotton and silk to trap her soul would restrict her from piercing the heavens or capture sunlight in the palm of her hand.
Horrified about the grave in which she was being buried, and how it would make her hopes dead, her existence unworthy, her desires incomplete and her furnished vision baseless, Malvika made up her mind to design her life the way she wanted it. Without indulging in much ratiocination, she considered it pragmatic to prevent herself from witnessing this wreckage, something which she was not prepared for. Talking to her parents did not help her in any way, and thinking about the ramifications that would follow, Malvika disappeared a night before her marriage and flew back to Bengaluru to resume her cherished job.
Her parents renounced all relations with her. Her running away was a great deal of ignominy for them.
The taxi driver beeped the horn loudly, bringing Malvika back to the present, away from the loathsome thoughts that enveloped her. She paid the taxi driver and rushed to her hotel room where she was to stay. Malvika was enervated. After a brief nap, she stepped out of the hotel wearing the dress her mother had gifted to her during the last Puja season. It was Navami, the ninth day of Durga Puja. The city presented to her different shades of emotions as she gasped the aura that environed, swirling her into the storm of memories. She recollected those sweet times when her parents took her and her younger brother to hop around, visiting pandals , eating the tempting khichudi and labra, and selecting balloons and toys of the finest hues.
As Malvika moved around the city gazing at the majestic idols of Goddess Durga, there was absolutely nothing which she could emote. In complete tranquility were her brown eyes that looked upon the world with utmost imperturbation. She seemed to possess undiscovered serenity and there was nothing on the planet that could drag her out of that halcyon she had stepped into. Those were her Utopia moments!
Next day at seven in the morning, Malvika woke up to the palaver that had gathered due to the last day of the Durga Puja. She took a quick bath and checked out of the hotel, clearing all her bills and tipping the hotel staff with some extra perks as it was the festive season. Wearing the white cotton kurta she had bought the previous day, she headed towards Tollygunge . The taxi dropped her on the edge of a road and she walked along a number of narrow streets until she reached a door whose inscription said, “CHATTERJEE KUNJ”.
It was the place where she had learned to walk and run, that abode where she celebrated her birthdays, that heaven which inspired her to soar high. She was at her home, once. The main entrance to the bungalow was open and she furtively entered inside. Malvika went up to the first floor and guessed that there was no one at home other than her brother, Arnab. She was delighted to see that nothing had changed in the house, be it the family photograph framed in silver that hung in her parents’ room or the fashion in which she had arranged her dolls and books in her own room. She got worried finding that her father had forgotten his inhaler in the study as always. When she entered her brothers’ room she saw him busy watching “Piku”, a film about a father and a daughter and the beautiful complicated relationship they shared. This aroused a tinge of regret in her heart that she could not become her fathers’ Piku.
Arnab was six years younger to Malvika and a great connoisseur of cinema. An aspiring film director and yet a slave to his fathers’ wishes, he was an engineering student now. He was the only person in the house who was secretly in contact with Malvika after the incident occurred in February.
On hearing Malvika tap on the door of his room, he turned swiftly; overwhelmed with joy, he cried “Malvika!”
He hugged his sister with happiness.
“When did you come to Kolkata? I mean…how….what….you didn’t tell ….I …”
“I just came yesterday. Nothing can keep me away from home during puja, you know that!”
“After all that happened I didn’t expect you to come. It has been quite long since you called me too!”
“Yes, I was a bit busy with work at the office. Anyway, tell me how are you?” asked Malvika with a mild smile.
“Do you expect the life of an engineering student to be peaceful?” replied Arnab.
“Oh come on! I always had a great time in college!”
“That is because you were good at it Milu, and you loved it! That is the reason why you stand successful today!”
On hearing this Malvika did not reply but smiled faintly.
“Don’t you want to know where Ma and Baba are?” Arnab probed.
“Well , Ma is at the pandal nearby, offering sindur to Maa Durga and performing the Dhunuchi Dance.” said Malvika faintly, wishing she could see her mother perform the traditional and graceful art as always.
“Correct , and baba is……………..!” Arnab hadn’t completed his sentence but Malvika was speaking again.
“And Baba is at the club pandal preparing for the immersion of the idol of Maa Durga!”
“Yes! You remember everything. Do I need to ask you to be seated in your own house?”
“I am leaving for the States tonight!” said Malvika with a sudden haste.
Arnab was bewildered at what she said and he asked shockingly, “You mean you are going to America?”
“Yes! The company has employed me at the office in San Jose, California and I’ll be working there for a while. I really don’t know how long! I have my flight from Mumbai tonight and I must leave for the airport.”
“That is really great, Milu! You must wait for Ma and Baba to come.”
“I wish I could! Anyway, I need to leave, Arnab!” She said to her little brother handing him over the packet which contained two Mysore silk sarees which she had bought for her mother on her office trip to Mysore earlier in May, hoping to give it to her whenever they met. She had bought two cotton lungis which her father loved and four shirts, two for Arnab and the rest for her father.
“Please don’t tell them about my visit or about these things. Just say that you have bought these as a puja gift for them. Take care of yourself as well as Ma and Baba. I have complete faith in you Arnab, you will definitely shine one day. I will call you once I set in.“
Saying this she turned around and hastily made her way down the staircase to the portico and then outside the Chatterjee Villa without giving it a glance back, as it would only amplify her pain. She walked with a lost yet debonair disposition wanting to burst into tears, clinging tightly in her fists all the moments she had spent in her home, the memories with her father, all that he had done for her, her mothers’ affection and everything else about the city where she grew up.
Kolkata was exotic as ever. It was Bijaya Dashami, the tenth day of the puja. With great pomp, shows and celebrations did the enthusiasts prepare for the departure of Maa Durga. Hues of red and crimson contributed to the beauty of the air that surrounded this jovial mood. The mighty idols of Goddess Durga instilled in the hearts of many, the confidence to fulfill their longings and emerge victorious in all undertakings until she arrived the next year.
The pious environment and the gorgeous city diminished into a magnificent mass of buildings with varied perspectives for Malvika, who was silent as tears rolled down her cheeks. It seemed that her silence could deafen the entire universe. There was a deep self-hatred burning inside her. She cursed herself for not meeting her parents even once to tell them how much she loved them. It seemed that she had achieved so much and yet lost everything. But now there was nothing that could stop her from chasing her dreams. She herself could not prevent her actions as she floated over the majestic oceans, barnstorming the clouds and leaving them behind, above the enormous land where people were bidding adieu to the Supreme Goddess of Strength.