Shoth Maa

by padmaja menon

Govind was excited. It was festival time and festival time was something of immense interest to the eight year old boy. Especially the festival of Durga Pujo,he loved Durga Pujo . In his village Karigars started clay modeling of ‘Maa” months before the actual ‘pujo’ He loved to run up to the Karigars and dabble in the clay. Shonkar Babu allowed him to even model his own images. Rotish Mamu also indulged him, it was wonderful really the way the nose emerged, the lips smiled and the eyes sparkled.

The murthis came alive in the Karigars loving hands. Govind also wanted to be a karigar when he grew up. Oh, he loved the wet clay feel and sometimes when no one was looking he would slap clay on to his face and arms and just enjoy the cool sensation.

His father scolded him when he sat with the Karigars. Govind had lost his mother early , his Thakur ma looked after him. He had two Kakas and Kakis and one cousin Madhobi . Madhobi was the apple of her parent’s eyes.Both the Kaki’s did everything for her, feeding, bathing, dressing her up, taking her to school, helping with homework or just sitting with her on her lap and singing lullabys to her. They did nothing for him.

Govind felt very jealous of Madhobi. Many times he would go and stand close to his Kakis but they had no time for him. They would just push him away with ,”birokto koris na ja tor ghore ja” (Don’t irritate, go to your room) Dejectedly Govind would go to Thakurma, who was always busy in the large Ranna ghar or kitchen ladling out dals, chopping fish, giving orders for moslas to be ground, preparing chutneys etc. He would be lost in the kitchen and when he at last found his way to his Thakurma she would shoo him away. He would then go to his Kaka’s, the elder one was great fun when he was drunk and Govind suspected that he drank quite often. Kaki wasn’t too happy about that and she took it out on Govind, she would scold him, even box his ears and that was that.

Baba of course loved him but Baba was the village pradhan, the village teacher and the village Vaid, so Govind could only get glimpses of Baba. A bit of hair ruffling, a hurried hug, a blown kiss and he was off.

It was during Durga Puja that the family had a get together in the large front hall or uttun. That was the day when new clothes were presented to the whole family. Govind would be seated royally on his Baba’s lap while the rest selected their clothes and dispersed. He loved that day. Thakur ma also would be in the hall out of her Ranna ghar for a change and she would hold court while the others hovered nearby. Madhobi would also try to sit in Jhetu’s lap but Govind would push her away.Today was his day. He remembered how Kaki would push him off or roll her eye at him and even pinch him. It was during these times that the poor boy yearned for a mother’s love. He did not remember Ma at all. He had been three years old when she had died. He had always wondered how, there had been talk of her having got the Bhoyankar Jor Fatal Fever)..

He wished she was there for him, he wished he could sit for hours on his mother’s lap, be fed and bathed and rocked to sleep like Madhobi. He sighed. It was not to be. In his kismet was no Ma. He could never have a Ma anyway because if his Baba married again she would only be a wife for Baba and not his Ma. Ma was the one who gave birth to him and that Ma was no more. And all his friends warned him about step mother (Shoth maa) Nathun Ma would not love him and also if she ever got another baby she would find ways and means to get rid of him

Govind shuddered. Na baba, he was happy as he was, what did it matter if he could not be held close to anyone’s heart or be kissed and loved and be made to feel wanted, like Kaki did with Madhobi. He liked Madhobi, she adored him too and loved to play with him. She smuggled delicious little biscuits and chocolates that Kaka bought from Shahar(town) and showed him any new hair bands or ear rings or bangles that she had, she also gave him scented pencils and rubbers even though disappearance of those things brought Kakis wrath on her . Oh yes, he liked Madhobi. On days when Kaki went out he and Madhobi would sit for hours on the front steps of their large house watching the banana leaves swaying in the wind….. the moon would light up their garden and Munna the mongrel would be lying at their feet. Sometimes Thakur Ma would make an unexpected appearance with Rosagollas or misty doi (sweet Yogurt). And if Baba returned home early, he would swing him up in his arms or gave him a piggy back ride. On days like this Govind’s cup of happiness would overflow and he wished all his days would be like that.

Shoth Ma’s sudden appearance in Govind’s life hit him in the solar plexus. It was a quiet ceremony in the village temple, no guests or khabar (feast) and she came home. The Kakis grimaced in disgust, they were definitely not going to buckle under a Bodo bou (elder Bahu) the Kakas were non-committal, Choto kaka had the grace to go and do pronam at her feet.

He was also asked to do the same but refused. He agreed with the Kakis on this matter at least but Madhobi did pronam. And then Shoth Ma paid obeisance at the feet of Thakur ma who held her and scrutinized her up and down while she stood with head bowed, eyes down cast. Govind interestedly looked on. Baba had gone up to his room and the others had also dispersed. He suddenly realized that Shoth ma was looking at him. She beckoned to him and smiled. To Govind her fingers resembled claws and her teeth fangs out to sink into his throat!. He turned and fled. Her face reminded him of something or somebody he couldn’t quite place it . But the thought rankled.

At Shombhu Dada’s Murthi badi he played with the clay but did not enjoy himself his mind was full of Shothma. He decided he did not like her.

The preparations for the festival were now in full swing. Mahalayaa was two days to go, pandal walas were busy, so were the electricians. The 3 major padas (areas) vied with each other to produce the best image and best cultural shows.

Their Pada Murthi would be led by the pradhan to the pandal and Govind could imagine the thrill of it all. Later when he rushed home for lunch he was bemused to find Shoth ma in the Ranna ghar with Thakur ma. Thakur ma had actually allowed someone other than herself to enter her sanctum sanctorum?!Well there might be something to this woman yet, he thought looking askance at her. As soon as she sighted him her eyes lit up. She washed her hands, took a thali and came up to him, she placed the thali before him, the aroma of begun bhaja (roundels of brinjal fried in oil) wafted upto his nostril, yum he loved it. As he turned towards the meal Shotha ma picked him up carried him across to the nalka,(tap) washed his face and hands, wiped them on her sari and carried him back across and sat him down on the chair. It all happened so unexpectedly that Govind was stupefied, then to his shock she kissed him warmly on both checks, smoothed his hair away from his brow and then broke off a piece of begun and held it to his mouth. In shock, he opened his mouth and chomped on the piece. Then realizing what he had done he pushed her away and started eating by himself. But unfazed, she sat with him tell he finished, making sure he had his fill and then smiled when he ran away from her open arms to wash by himself.

Later sitting with Madhobi on the steps he realized that he had liked the feel and smell of his Shoth ma. She was so soft like freshly churned butter and she smelt good. A lot like Thakurma but better a rose and chandan smell, not completely mosla smell, he giggled. Zzzzzzzzz, he could just drift off to sleep on that lap, he thought and shook himself back to reality. No, she was not his mother he better remember that, but all the same she reminded him of someone. Who was it?

Madhobi was always discussing Shothma, her sindur, her bangles, her sarees and her books. It seemed she read a lot and was also BA pass she was from the town and therefore intelligent.

“She will tell me a story tonight”, said Madhobi, “you want to hear, you can also come”. She offered.

“No” said Govind shortly but he badly wanted to go. Later he heard voices from Baba’s room and wished he could also be there.

The images of Ma were almost complete. Shonkar Babu and the other Karigars were always singing praises of Ma Durga while they worked hard on her Murthi. Karuna moyi (kind) Shaktishali Jonani (mother) epitome of goodness etc were adjectives used to describe her. They called her Mohishasuramardine, slayer of the demon and eulogized the triumph of good over evil.

When he returned Govind looked everywhere for Shoth Maa and wondered why he did so, did he really want to be fed by her? Thakurma said Karthyayini (was that her name) was in the Pujo ghor and would be out soon. As if he cared! But still Govind watched as she did arothi and came out with the deepak, she touched the flame and blessed him and gave him Prasad which he meekly accepted, then locking up the pujo ghor she led him to the table and proceeded to roll out rootis.

He had not eaten rootis so delicious. Thakurma seemed to have got her much deserved rest, thought Govind as he surveyed the Ranna Ghar. His Shothma was……. What was the word the Karigars had used? Han,Karunamoyi indeed he thought.

That night he crept into her room as she began her story session to Madhobi, he did not realize that he had dropped off to sleep and slept on her bed.

In the morning he found himself cuddled up next to Baba. Frantically he looked for Shothma but she was not there so he cuddled down again. He pretended to be asleep when she came with tea for Baba, she tucked him in and dropped a kiss on his forehead. ‘Lokhi chele see how he sleeps’, she said Govind grinned. Nobody had called him that yet, they were all busy shooing him away, suddenly he felt wanted. He felt good.

He was galvanized into action. There was a song on his lips as he dived in the ‘pukur’(pond). During the next few days. He found that his school satchel, pencils and rubbers had changed. They were of better quality and design too. He went to thank Madhobi but she said that Shothma was indeed dayalu (kind) and she was the one who had brought them. Madhobi also had got her share.

But Kaki did not know that Govind and Madhobi had got gifts from Shothma. When she saw them discussing and laughing she strode up to them and grabbed the goods from him. She yanked up Govind and pinched him cruelly on his cheek. She said, “if you want this ask your Ma or Baba to buy for you. Don’t take my daughters”. She also rapped him on the head when suddenly her arm was caught in a vice like grip. “Stop at once”, said a cold voice. Govind looked up and saw his Shothma, an angry Shoth maa eyes sparkling in fury.

“ How dare you hit my son”? she asked, her voice could freeze the Artic. “What he has is what his Ma brought for him” She removed Kakis hand in disgust, caught Govind up and holding him close led him to his room. What a Shaktishali Jononi, thought Govind gleefully as he watched her march out.

Suddenly Govind felt cared for…..

The pandals were up, the images installed and arothis done, prasad or bhog were distributed to all and Govind spent all his time in the pandal watching the various programmes, the dances and the dramas. He was a happy boy and when he returned home Shothma would always be there to tuck him up in bed, he also caught her massaging Thakurma’s tired old feet. Epitome of goodness he thought. He realized that he was not pushing her off so often but at the same time he was not very responsive either. He realized that she felt hurt when he was rude and he hated himself at such times.

But he was afraid.

It was Ashtami day, day of great importance. On this day, young girls are worshipped, which is called Kumari Puja. On the same day, at a particular time when Ashtami concludes and Navami begins, special sandhi puja is offered. Govind watched as Shothma did the same the sindur in the parting of her hair glowed auspiciously and she looked like somebody he knew.

His friends came up to him and pointed at her, “Govind, see your Shoth ma praying, be careful she might make you vanish. Shothmas are all evil”.

A slow anger that had begun to build up in Govind at their actions and words reached a crescendo. How dare these fools call his Ma a shrew, an evil woman? How dare they? She was his Ma who loved him, and God help those who said otherwise. He rose to his full height, pummeled the surprised boys and kicked them hard.

“My Ma is the slayer of demons, you better be careful”, he cried and as he said this it dawned on him who she resembled, of course his Ma resembled Ma Durga, the same chiseled features, the smooth marble skin, the flowing tresses, the large sindur teep, yes he gazed at her, his eyes welled up with tears and a long drawn out Maa came from his quivering lips. She turned in surprise and as he ran up to her she enveloped him in her arms kissed him, soothed him as he cried, and with an apologetic look at the public carried him away. At last Govind felt loved, wanted and cared for, he knew he had come home.


Padmaja Menon,
Shoth Maa - the pace, the length and the mood was just perfect. ...........Kakuli Nag, Bangalore

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