Bhola slapped his broom against the office wall and looked across the field at the majestic Pandal. Durga Puja was here, after a long and eager wait. It had come at the right time. The Mother’s children were distraught; they needed divine succour. As Bhola watched kids running around in the ground, raising an untrammelled stir and cracking their little metal pistols, a thrill ran down his body. He quivered with the pleasure of devotion. How much you make your children wait, Ma!
Of course, the Puja at Chaibasa was nothing compared to the riot they had in Behala, a famous locality of Calcutta. Everyone Bhola knew, and since the time he knew him, caught the Puja fever months in advance. A week before, people even seemed to lose their sense of time. They slept late and caroused till unearthly hours. Relatives thronged the locality. What they would do and wear, where they would go, how the preparations were coming along in other parts of the city –these were subjects of lively discussions. Shopkeepers, workers, drivers and office-goers abdicated their jobs as a matter of faith, and joined their womenfolk on unending shopping sprees and honest gossip. The air at the cigarette stalls was heavy with nostalgia, camaraderie and friendly hurrahs. The Pujas had come, and the sons and daughters of Bengal knew how to celebrate it.
Bhola and his four companions- they played the Dhak. On the sixth day from Mahalaya, when the Goddess was installed in her divine seat, complete with her attendant deities and her devastated buffalo-mounted victim, frenzy took over the neighbourhood. At this point Bhola would get into the show- neatly bathed and dressed in a turmeric yellow vest and white dhoti, drumming ecstatically with his friends. Their Dhaks were big and well-decorated. The beats ebbed and rose, the tempo varied its pace, Dhakis swayed and matched each other’s rhythm- but not once did they let up the intensity. The chant of hymns wafted in the air as the Goddess’ face was undraped. Vehicles on the streets slowed down to pay obeisance to the grand array of Gods, now dazzling under a bright yellow light. Colourful little bulbs shone all around the place with a soft glow, lighting up the marquee and the adjoining localities with a pretty incandescence never seen otherwise. The Dhakis- they played, without break. The festival had well and truly begun.
For the next four day too, they were busy. Without them, the aartis would not take place, without them the grand immersion on the final day was out of the question. The Puja at Behala’s Sakher Bazaar was a matter of pride, and Dhakis had to announce it, like the warrior drummers of yore.
The organizers treated them with respect; people showered them with money. The Mother blessed them with eternal happiness. These few days of community service were his lifeblood. Why else would anyone treat a lowly restaurant- help with such adulation, even for a few days, were he not blessed by the Mother?
Sumit Chatopadhyaya was the man who brought Bhola to Chaibasa. He got him hired as a maintenance employee- commonly known to the people as a sweeper. He permitted Bhola to build a little shack in the office premises.
It was he who pioneered the Puja celebrations in this part of the town. It was a rage in no time. He knew Bhola’s talent, and unleashed him on the people. For the last five years, Bhola played his instrument in honour of the Goddess. He was the only Dhaki. Sumit Da always gave him due recognition before everyone, sometimes taking his Dhak and playing it himself, and always rounding the show off with a generous reward.
This year Sumit Da was not there. He had got himself transferred to Calcutta. But the legacy he left behind was flourishing. After all, Bapi was there- only a teenaged boy-but the most enthusiastic among the organizers. He would call anytime on Bhola.
It was getting dark, so Bhola quickly moved to his hut to get dressed. Throwing the broom outside the door, he switched on the bulb which the office had provided him, but found that there was no electricity. Bhola would be last person to be dependent on such luxuries; he took a bath under the tap nearby and dressed up. His Dhak was all taut and ready to go, but he examined it again and drummed it a little.
He went to the gate of the office and peered outside in the darkness. The idols had been carted to the ground. Ma Durga had arrived- he could see her giant silhouette in the last rays of the dusk. But there was no movement around it; it was clear that people were totally disoriented in the darkness. The electricity had played spoil sport.
This wasn’t good-no electricity at such a time- Bhola twisted his right palm in dismay, at an imaginary audience. Let’s see -what was happening now? People seemed to be moving towards the Pandal. The priest was shouting vague instructions. Some people laughed without any purpose. All in all, Bhola couldn’t say what they were up to.
Without any announcement, the electricity came. The group near the idols was abuzz. Bhola could see them – they were the regular organizers. Bapi started running around prominently. It didn’t seem like he was looking for Bhola. But then, he might barge in anytime. Bhola went back behind the office into his ramshackle hut and began checking his Dhak in the light bulb.
Fidgeting aimlessly in his room, he couldn’t believe his ears when he heard the sound of Dhak coming across form the Puja ground. Unable to fathom the mystery, he ran towards the gate and stepped onto the street that separated the municipal office from the Puja ground. To his surprise, he did not see any Dhakis, and yet the proceedings were on, to the full sound of Dhak. Who was playing it? He inspected the Pandal. Of course, there they were- how could he not guess it earlier -two stereo boxes, one apiece at each side of the stage, blaring out with inhuman energy. Distasteful! The priest and other elements, evidently in complete ignorance of the high ideals of Ma Durga’s worship, carried on the rituals as if nothing had happened.
It was a charade – and would have been hilariously funny had it not been happening at the Goddess’ feet, which made it abominable.
There was just this little possibility that Bapi and others may have been so busy in organizing that they chose to expedite the matter of Dhak-playing on the first day; or it was a monetary consideration perhaps? They might have hesitated in calling for his expert services, being short on cash. They thought Bhola would ask for money, they thought everyone was the same. What nuts!
Anyway there was no point in brooding on it. The real Puja was happening the next day when everyone would gather and make a beeline for Ma Durga’s blessings, and the sound of the holy conch shall reverberate in the atmosphere. It was in such a pious atmosphere that the Dhak shall roll in its true glory.
That was a very likely scenario. But what if people did not call him tomorrow?
‘Idiot’, Bhola chided himself and even laughed a little. ‘No wonder I am a perfect fit for a sweeper. Obviously they know when to call me, what is the right time, and here I am, killing myself with worry.’
Bhola changed his clothes and went to sleep. Unusually though, the bulb remained lit through the night.
The next day, as expected, the crowds swelled by the hour. The priest was incredibly occupied- his incantations continued well after the noon. Women milled around the barricade, impatiently handing over their offerings to the subordinate priests who were running back and forth taking the stock of coconuts, flowers, coins and sweets right up to the blazing, crackling altar. Whenever required, someone would put the recorded Dhak beats on the stereo, and it would impart the requisite solemnity to the goings-on.
In the evening, people gathered again to watch a group of singers perform honest renditions of the most popular songs of the day. This was followed by short play, featuring mythical characters. Appreciative whistles and claps rent the air. Everyone seemed greatly regaled.
In such a mood of revelry, no one bothered to look across the street at the dark, dreary municipal office, in the backyard of which dejected Bhola sat within the cramped walls of his hovel, occasionally fumbling with an abnormally large drum, confounded and shaken. This was a new Pujo experience for him. Like a pariah, he was out of it all.
The following afternoon, devotees grew still more in number. The whole place was flooding with a festive urgency, and things were teetering on chaos.
As the sun came overhead, the chants from near the priests’ alcove grew shrill. A heavy smell of incense floated around, while people sweated and competitively offered their homage to the deity. The Dhak had been put on the stereo-player by a responsible looking teenager and its sound added a forceful legitimacy to the aura already brimming with piety.
All of a sudden, an earnest, emphatic and booming sound of Dhak intruded on this gathering, and everyone looked across in surprise.
A short, darkish man, taken in by some strange whim, was pounding away mercilessly at a massive Dhak slung across his neck. He was wearing a crumpled vest and a dhoti, and his red, weary, grim and purposeful eyes were riveted at the Goddess. He seemed completely possessed. He was playing the Dhak, and doing so with a vengeance. He looked defiant and resolute.
The chants turned to a murmur. There was some disturbance on the stage. Bapi, frightfully busy till then, recognized Bhola and stood gaping at him.
Other fellows had recognized him too.
‘Isn’t he the fellow who played the Dhak last year?’
‘Yes, the devil. What a trouble-maker!’
‘Should we kick him away?’
‘Wait, I have a good idea.’ the boy grinned mischievously and prepared for action.
The combined noise of Dhak from the two sources was turning the whole ambience into a farce. The one with Bhola seemed to challenge every note of the electronic other, becoming bolder and unpredictable by the minute. People watched, perplexed.
Then, so pointedly to mock him, the boys at the stage increased the volume of the loudspeaker.
It had no effect on Bhola, except he started playing louder. His hands were moving deftly. His face was taut. Nothing could shake him out of his stupor.
Undeterred, someone pushed up the volume again. Bhola replied with increased vigour. By this time, people had stopped their activities and were mirthfully watching the show.
The duet began to take fierce proportions. On one hand were the irreverent boys on stage- dogged in teaching Bhola the lesson of his life. They rarely got such a chance to show off their incredible smartness, before so many people. Their friends laughed and encouraged them from the sidelines, and made catcalls at Bhola. As sweat started trickling from Bhola’s temples, they laughed and shouted even more.
The battle of nerves continued. Bhola was on fire. He had closed his eyes and was pumping every ounce of his strength into his stick-wielding hands. His vest had become wet and stuck to his skin, his hair was in a mess, and he looked like a maniac. Women drew their children away from him. He was playing with brutal energy. Nearly a half-hour had passed. It was clear his strength would give away soon. His hands, with all the veins standing out, were quivering. He swayed and looked like he would fall soon. By this time, word had spread about his identity. Some people appreciated his devotion, while a good number laughed at his awful situation. Look at him! Like a madman, he was blasting away, hoping to win against a machine that could play till infinity, and a hundred times louder than him. A crushed ego is always a good thing. So they jeered and pointed at his troubled figure. Some had pulled chairs alongside the pandal, and were smoking and watching the drama with amusement. They expected to see him walk away defeated any time, or better still, falter badly- his devotion be damned. The puja boys were playing with him- at times they lowered the sound, and immediately increased it to a deafening tone. The fun for them was unbelievable.
And then, inexplicably, the loudspeakers stopped.
Stillness fell around the whole place, as if to felicitate Bhola’s Dhak, which kept blasting its beats, unaffected by anything. People looked around, surprised. It seemed as if someone had pulled the ears of the wayward boys, given them a tight slap, and switched off the loudspeaker.
They realized, shortly however, that only the electricity had gone.
In an instant, the mocking faces had turned sombre. Bhola, as before, kept battering his Dhak. Then, even as he did so, he slowly walked towards the Goddess’ stage. Everyone cleared his way.
A few feet away from the barricade, he lay down his Dhak, and bent on the ground before the Goddess, his forehead merging with the ground.
People looked at him surprised, as Bhola’s whole body shook with suppressed sobs.
‘Ma!’ he whispered repeatedly, and his lips quivered in humble conversation with the deity.
To the onlookers, it seemed that the Goddess- standing fearless and resplendent athwart her ferocious beast- was watching over Bhola, and no one dared disturb him.
Abhishek Jha is a Bangalore based author. He has crafted a number of short stories. The primary purpose of these to offer the reader, in a short time, an engaging and satisfying literary experience. The stories are picked from various facets of life in India. Apart from being an author, Abhishek is also a management consultant.