Old Bishnu the priest dreamt each night of hurtling down through the darkness, air swishing about his ears, when a soft hand caught him about his neck and he knew it was her, the dark Kali who stood at her pedestal in the one-room temple at his courtyard. She caught him, and like any good mother, calmed him down and left him to sleep. Some mornings when he woke, he swore he could still feel the Kali’s touch on his bald pate. This usually made his four-year-old granddaughter, Titli, chuckle and clap her hands.
The thought of his Titli made Bishnu sigh. He lay stretched out on the sagging cot in his room, across from the temple steps, and tried to close his eyes. With the grand yearly celebration of the Kali Puja next week, he must focus only on the four-armed Dark Goddess and her glory so she could not deny his family, especially his Titli.
Right now, little Titli needed the Kali’s grace more than anyone else.
He could not sink into prayer, because his eyes burned from the frankincense he’d lit at the temple. After chanting prayers for the evening artee to the goddess and sending up its notes in smoke, he’d brought the dhuno to fumigate the courtyard and get rid of mosquitoes. Moonlight filtered in, as did sounds of sporadic traffic from the faraway main road. Bishnu heard dogs yapping at each other, strays sniffing about the alleys for leftovers tossed into open drains. On the cool breeze from the Ganges, the stench of smoke and chemical-filled mud, a reek familiar yet foreign.
In his childhood, the Ganges had smelled different, more like rain puddles and rotten vegetation. From his window he used to be able to see all the way across the river when he woke up. No more. His window faced a mossy, dark brick wall these days, and over the years, the once-sparse alley in a hinterland village had turned into a cramped township neighborhood. He was used to it by now, this slow strangulation of his home.
He started at the creak of the gate. Nikhil was back home. Bishnu checked the clock by his bedside: it was past eleven. He would talk to his son in the morning.
About to lie down again, Bishnu sat up as Nikhil entered the room and stumbled against the large cupboard full of books. He reeked of the local liquor, and despite trying to walk straight, hit the clothes rack, where the few dhotis and kurtas Bishnu owned hung on separate corners. Bishnu led his son to sit on the bed.
The minute the words spilled out of Bishnu's mouth, he realized how strange they sounded. Other people spoke those words to him, Bishnu. Not to Nikhil. He had never been able to make Nikhil drink; Nikhil said he could take over as temple priest without touching alcohol. The Kali wouldn't mind.
"Maybe your Kali will like me better now." Nikhil stared at the floor.
The fierce Kali's devotees needed to eat meat and drink alcohol, raise their glasses to her. Bishnu drank in order to carry off the all-night ceremonies on Kali Puja, especially the pathaboli, the sacrifice: the heft of the sickle in his hand, the drums beating their staccato, unable to drown out the harsh cries of the black goat. This was the only part of his devotion to the Kali he secretly dreaded, the twitching of the beheaded goat’s legs, the flicking of its tail as blood gushed out of its throat in the waiting bowl for the Kali. But he had never admitted this to his father, and he would not admit it to Nikhil. Nikhil had slid from the bed and on to the floor.
"The Kali loves all of us. She protects us from harm. The world runs on her grace."
"You keep saying those things, Baba.” Nikhil’s hulky frame rested against the bed. “If the Kali really cared for us, why would my daughter be like this?"
Titli, who used to flit about the household in her colorful frocks, and ribbons in her pigtails, like the butterfly she was named after, now lay in a white gown in a white bed, her arms pinned to tubes, her face in a glass mask, monitors with squiggly lines and beeps. Their Titli. Bishnu’s Titli shona. The darling golden butterfly. No cause for worry though, because Bishnu had spoken to the Kali. After the night of the Kali Puja, their cramped home surrounding the temple courtyard would once again echo with her squeals and giggles, with her unbridled laughter at being able to run away with a sweet sneaked from the plate meant for the Kali. She would once again give pecks on the cheek when asked, recover from a fall with barely a sob, insist that her grandfather, and not her mother, comb her hair.
"The doctors are treating her.” Bishnu said. “We’ll bring her back home after the Kali Puja.”
“All your goddess wants is blood.”
Forty-five goats had perished at Bishnu’s hand, in as many years of sacrifice. Until the day he died, he must wield the sickle, and then his son would take over. This was the goddess’s decree. The bowl must be filled with blood at each Kali Puja, offered to her, and washed in the Ganges.
“Don’t say that.” Bishnu patted his son’s head. “She grants boons. Why else would so many devotees throng to such a small temple?”
"Only you can save her now," Nikhil grabbed the bed for support as he stood up to leave, "She doesn't have much time."
Both of them knew that Nikhil did not mean prayers.
“Whatever the Kali wishes.” Bishnu gave the standard response he’d heard from his father in all manner of family crises.
The phrase helped put it all in the hands of the Kali. She was responsible, not him. And who was more capable of handling responsibilities than the all-powerful mother of the entire universe?
“You always say that the Kali is not going to come down to earth, she will work through us.” Nikhil said. “Talk to Bose babu. Please.”
For the last few years, one of the Kali’s devotees, Mr. Bose, had started a campaign to move her to a bigger temple by demolishing the two buildings he owned right across the street. He could spare the money needed for Titli if he wished.
Bishnu did not respond. He helped his son rise to his feet, but let him head out alone. Nikhil lumbered off. A clatter in the courtyard as a bucket fell down the steps, a muttered curse, the bang of a door as Nikhil entered his room, and then the night returned to silence. Bishnu lay back on his bed.
Sleep eluded him. Ask Bose babu for money and go against his father’s decree? Bishnu’s father had warned him never to do that no matter how dire the circumstances, because the Kali would always provide for the family, keep it safe. To ask for money was to insult her and risk the consequences.
He tossed and turned the entire night. Each time he closed his eyes, he saw his Titli alone in a dark room on a white bed, women in white uniforms flitting about. Titli had never been quiet, and often woke in the middle of the night to demand sweets or stories. But the Titli in Bishnu’s vision stayed asleep.
At dawn, he did not want to rise. His old bones ached.
He could not let lack of sleep affect the Kali’s worship, though. He made himself sit up. Grabbing his bag of essentials, he walked the five minutes needed to reach the Ganges ghat. He stripped to his underwear and took a dip in the cold water, starting his litany of prayers at dawn. It never failed to surprise him that the water that stank from a distance did not seem dirty when he gathered it in his palms for prayer. The waves hit the shore in soft laps created by the passage of a big ferryboat. On the far shore, the sky took on a pink hue, and the temples of Dakshineshwar rose on the horizon, the curved spires lightly etched against the still-dark sky. That was the Kali’s real home, a far grander place, where she was surrounded by other celestial neighbors and worshipped every day by thousands of devotees, crushing each other under feet in their eagerness to catch a glimpse of her.
Back on the steps of the ghat, Bishnu shivered in the November chill as he continued to pray, the words pouring out of his mouth not a match for his thoughts, which kept running back to his granddaughter. Titli needed him, and there he stood, bathing and praying to the distant Kali, but what else was he to do? Praying had sustained him all his life. He folded his hands and raised them to his forehead, muttering his most favorite words in the world, “Joi Ma Kali.” Victory to the Mother Kali. The morning after the Kali Puja, he would bring the Kali’s bowl of blood to wash on this very ghat and thank her for saving Titli.
Many years ago, while bathing in the Ganges, Bishnu’s father had stepped on what he thought was a smooth stone, but had turned out to be the head of a stone idol. That night the Kali appeared to Bishnu’s father in his dreams: You’ve stepped on My head, now your feet and body are mine. You and your children, and theirs will all wash My feet. Bishnu’s father had dug out the fearsome goddess from the sandy riverbed, brought her home, polished her black stone body garlanded with white stone skulls, clothed her, given her a silver sickle and a demon-head made of cloth to hold. He built her a cramped but high temple with his limited means so she could survey the courtyard from her pedestal, and that was how young Bishnu came to know the Kali, as a four-feet idol of black stone, whose all-knowing gaze never left his family except at night when the portals of her sanctum were closed.
One did not take the worship of the Kali lightly because she was a goddess of quicksilver moods, quick to anger, and just as susceptible to tears of compassion at the plight of her children. Despite her black skin, the crimson mouth, and her long bloodied tongue displayed to strike terror in the heart of demons, the Kali wore a beatific smile, and Bishnu could not think of any place safer than at her feet painted with vermillion flowers. If Bose babu was the one she chose to help Titli, that was her lookout.
Bishnu muttered a prayer to the Kali as he wiped his body, and gave special mind to his feet. The feet of the men of his family belonged to her, binding them into her service and reverence.
On the way back home, he crossed over several open drains, piles of rubbish, and returned the greetings of those who visited his temple. Some had come out for a morning walk, others stood brushing their teeth on the steps of their modest homes or lifting the shutters to their shops. Women swept their thresholds and added to the piles of rubbish on the road. At the entrance to his courtyard, Bishnu sprinkled himself with the Ganges water he’d carried in a small brass pot, needing to make himself pure again after his journey back.
He labored his way up to the terrace, chanting mantras under his breath while swinging the wet clothes on the line. He watched his daughter-in-law make arrangements for the morning worship of the Kali in the temple downstairs, dark circles under her eyes, her smile gone.
Flowers. Sandalwood paste. The water from the Ganges. Incense. Lamps. Camphor. Coconut husks. Fruits and sweets. His daughter-in-law was a quiet woman, unlike Nikhil and their daughter. She took on the arrangement of each worship because she wanted the temple to flourish. Nikhil still didn’t earn enough as an accountant. The family depended on Bishnu’s flock of Kali devotees. When Bishnu passed on, those devotees would throng to Nikhil and his wife.
“Everything is ready, Baba,” Bishnu’s daughter-in-law called up to him. “I’ll go dress up now. We have to leave for the hospital soon.”
“All right. Call me when you reach her.”
The daughter-in-law nodded and left the Kali waiting on her pedestal. The Kali seemed to gaze into the distance, and to Bishnu, her red-painted palms seemed to reach out for the morning prayers and offerings.
Until three weeks ago, Titli had helped him worship the goddess each morning. Like the Kali, his granddaughter had large eyes, a dark, curly mane of hair, and had she not been so fair, Bishnu would have thought she was Kali come to tease him, playing at being his granddaughter. As Titli tried to hand him the flowers or the bits and pieces of durba grass and coconut husk her mother had gathered, Bishnu kept his heart from bursting with joy by making garlands of red hibiscus, by clanking on cymbals and blowing on the conch shell, by showering the Kali with mantras chanted loud and sonorous, and making her offerings of sweets and incense.
He had gone to see Titli last week, her body so small on the white bed. Her blood had turned against her, the doctor said, but she was in the best hospital in the capital city of Kolkata, and with the right care, she would recover. That care needed money, lots of it, to replace her blood.
Bishnu had never doubted the Kali, not when his wife miscarried their first child, not when she almost died while giving birth to Nikhil, not five years ago when she stumbled down the stairs at the ghat and died on its steps. He told himself that the Kali knew best, that even in death, she had been kind to his wife. Dying at the Ganges would free his wife from the cycle of birth and death.
He held the banisters while on the way downstairs. Old bodies tended to break easily. Decades ago, he used to hurl himself down these very steps and land on his feet each time. He raised folded hands to the devotees who’d started trickling in with their puja baskets piled high with offerings. This part of the year saw a rise in devotees. After the biggest festival of Bengalis — the Durga Puja — Kali Puja was the next occasion to win boons, to have wishes fulfilled.
Bishnu started the morning rituals of service to the goddess, the offerings, and the prasad for dozens of devotees who thronged to the Kali, eyes closed, listening to the mantras. A few of them hung back after Bishnu had finished the artee, and he began with all the personal pujas, for these devotees who had come to the Kali seeking a boon.
“My son still doesn’t have a job, thakurmoshai,” an elderly woman said as she passed on her basket containing a box of milky sweets, two apples, sticks of incense, and a five-rupee note. They all called him thakurmoshai, out of respect for his position as a priest, and also, as he liked to think, out of regard for him as a person, as a valued adviser.
“Ma Kali does not disappoint anyone. Your son will get a job. Keep the faith.” Bishnu spoke as he offered the sweets to the goddess, muttered a mantra in her praise and handed half the packet of sweets back to the woman as her prasad. “Feed him some of this, and ask him to fast on Saturdays. Only fruits and water, no grains.”
“How’s Titli?” The elderly woman touched the prasad to her forehead. “Any news?”
“She’s getting better.” Bishnu couldn’t tell them that the Kali hadn’t yet helped his own granddaughter. He assured this woman and the other neighbors that Titli would return home soon. While distributing the prasad, he made a note to sit down with his book of mantras on each night before the Kali Puja. He knew them by heart, but on that holy night, he couldn’t afford to get a syllable wrong. His Titli’s life depended on it.
Each devotee stepped up in turn. Some spoke their wish or complaint aloud, others chose to keep their wishes private and asked Bishnu to offer a puja in the name of so-and-so.
“Don’t worry. Your husband would recover,” Bishnu said to one of the women.
To another, he said, “Ma Kali works in her own ways. Have faith in her. She will not let any harm come to you or your family.”
This was the part of his life as a priest he loved best: being an ambassador of the Kali, reassuring troubled souls that good fortune, rescue, and protection came from her. The size and grandeur of the puja offerings varied, as did the money, which he dropped into the old cast iron donation box. He took half of the daily collections as his salary, and the rest went to the Kali, the upkeep of her temple, her clothes and ornaments. His father said that was what the Kali had asked for in his dreams. Bishnu himself had never seen the Kali in his sleep, only felt the touch of her hand at his nape each night. That was enough. For all the years they had been in her service, the family had not grown rich, but they hadn’t starved either.
After the crowd thinned out, Bishnu spotted the portly Mr. Bose stepping into the courtyard. His father was friends with Mr. Bose’s father, but though Mr. Bose was younger than Bishnu, they remained formal.
“How are you, Bose babu?”
Mr. Bose launched into a long description of life as a widower, about his sons and daughters scattered across the world, who did not bother to keep in touch, and when they did, they only sent money. How no one came for the Durga Puja, and no one had planned a visit during the upcoming Kali Puja either. What good was money when he had no one to spend it on?
“I really want to move ahead with our project, thakurmoshai.”
“As the Kali wishes.” Bishnu gave the portly old man special prasad: a few sweets and fruits, a bit of vermillion smeared on a mango leaf, all of it in arranged in a cane basket one of the other devotees had left behind.
“I’ll make the announcement at the Kali Puja, ki bolen?”
Bishnu made no reply, because the “ki bolen” was rhetorical. Bose babu didn’t plan to listen to Bishnu’s opinions. He had raised funds over the past years and would go ahead with his “project” no matter what Bishnu said. This year, Bishnu could not bring up the usual words of protest.
He could not say, the Kali had asked my father to keep her at this very temple. He could not anger Mr. Bose, because who knew, maybe this man was the instrument Ma Kali would use to rescue his Titli. Mr. Bose raised his hands in an obeisance to the Kali and turned to leave.
“Bose babu,” Bishnu called after him.
“Anything you need, thakurmoshai?”
“No, nothing.” Bishnu smiled. “Just to remind you to come for the Kali Puja.”
At the very last second, he had managed to hold back the words. I need help for my granddaughter. She is dying. Save her.
Past midnight on the Kali Puja, Bishnu’s hands shook as he offered the final artee to the Kali. The portals of her sanctum were flung open tonight, and she stood resplendent in all her jewelry, her face lit up by a dozen lamps, light glinting off her silver sickle, a blood-red hibiscus garland draped all the way from her throat to her ankles. She wore vermillion in the parting of her hair, vermillion on her broad forehead, her long thirsty tongue a pale red, her eyes dark, shiny, smiling. He had decked the Dark Goddess up tonight, but he couldn’t remember doing it. It was as if the Kali had risen of her own volition from her world and awakened in this one, a vision of terror and compassion come to life.
Bishnu’s head swam. Weakness from the daylong fast, he told himself. He hadn’t taken a sip of water, not even wet his lips like in other years. This dark night, he would please the Kali. Nikhil had called to say that Titli had taken a turn for the worse. But Bishnu knew that the Kali, moved by the girl’s suffering, and pleased with his devotion, would grant him his boon tonight.
The little goat that bleated in the courtyard, its eyes fixed towards the gate as if it could see its death waiting, would be Bishnu’s offering. He would make her an oblation of blood, and She would give him Titli, cleanse the little girl’s blood of the disease.
Or maybe Bose babu would want to know why Nikhil and his wife were not at the puja, and things would move from there. Best not guess at the Kali’s ways and means, only keep in mind that she would find them.
An assistant sat oiling and whetting the long, heavy ceremonial sickle, wiping it down with the inside of the trunk of a banana sapling. The pathaboli would take place at the grassy patch at Bishnu’s backyard, under the window of his room. In years past, it used to be a garden, but the shrubs his father had planted had all died from lack of light as the surrounding buildings grew taller.
Bishnu chanted his mantras while decorating the black goat with a garland of red hibiscus and adorned its forehead with vermillion. He dwelled on each word and shloka, speaking to the Kali, invoking her, entreating her. Like each year, a crowd had gathered. The dhaak started up, the drumbeats rising in the night air along with the cleansing smoke from the dhuno. His assistants made space for him and handed him the sickle. He checked it for balance, then laid it down on a banana leaf. Sinking down on his knees, he worshipped it with flowers, letting the drumbeats and his own chants merge and become one with his limbs. He was no longer Bishnu, but an instrument of her worship.
Without alcohol in his system, he could feel pain stabbing at his elbows and knees, but tonight he had decided not to dull himself — he would need all his senses to beseech the Kali when he lifted his sickle. His heart picked up pace, and for a moment he considered disobeying his father’s instructions: the Kali would only drink the blood from a pathaboli at the hands of the eldest man of our family.
His assistants restrained the goat, a pair of strong hands holding down its head on one side of the wooden altar, its throat pinned inside the grip of the altar itself, and its body stretched on the narrow, hard bed of straw as a couple of men gripped its legs to contain its thrashing. Sweat beaded Bishnu’s forehead despite the chill in the air. He stood up, closed his eyes and pictured Titli as he picked up the heavy sickle in his hands. Spare her, he pleaded to the Kali.
A wave of dizziness washed over Bishnu, but he held his ground, closing his eyes to steady himself. He opened them to watch another assistant sprinkle the water of the Ganges on the goat’s neck, then pat it as if in affectionate greeting while feeding it in the morning. Then everyone made way for Bishnu, and inside his head a silence took over, no drumbeats other than the pulse of his own blood, no bells but the ringing inside his ears. He closed his eyes and raised the sickle, a prayer upon his breath, but when he opened them he saw Titli, her hair grabbed in the hands of one man, her little neck straining at the altar, her fair legs trembling, her feet held in veined, dark hands, but now it was too late, much too late because his own arms were coming down, and then there was blood, so much blood.
He closed his eyes, but the bubble of silence popped. No dhaak or bells but harsh, frightened cries from all around. The goat dashed into the crowd, and Bishnu wondered why everyone rushed to him instead of catching it. Then he saw the blood at his feet, only he had no feet, one stump right above the ankle gushing blood and the other, he could not see the other now because hands and cloths and people blocked his vision. He could not feel his body at all, only his head. Maybe this was how a goat felt after its head detached from its body, a profound emptiness, an exhilaration of getting rid of a great burden, of reaching further up than anyone had gone before. They would fill the bowl with blood for Kali, and Nikhil would wash it tomorrow in the Ganges. Bishnu’s feet that had bound his life to Her had gone, but She was still the mother of the universe, his mother. As the Kali wishes, he whispered, and closed his eyes. Titli would be home.
He let himself fall, spinning and hurtling into the darkness and waited for a soft hand to grab him by the neck and soothe him back to bed.