The local school teacher, Rai Babu, who regularly visited the ghats early in the morning to while away his time, as if he could not do so in the school where no one came, laughed on hearing me command the boatman and said, “Forgive me, Ghosh Babu, but aren’t you the one who loudly proclaimed yesterday in the temple that you believe in no god and are a professed atheist? An overnight change in outlook, I presume! If not, I see no reason what work an atheist could have at a shrine.”
“Save your breath, Apurba Da. I am still an atheist as far as my religious interests are concerned. I have to write an article for the Swarnaprabha magazine on the so-called miraculous powers of that confounded Shrine. Though I always write on what I personally believe in, they are offering me a large sum of money for this article. That I believe answers your question regards why I am going to Kalighat. Now I must take your leave for I wish to return before sunset. Come, Kashinath, let’s go.”
The soft gurgling sound of the river soothed my frayed nerves to some extent. I lay back on the cushion that Kashinath gave me and drank in the beauty of the morning. The beautiful bou calling out to its mate, the sweet twittering of the sparrows and the sad calls of the wild peacock made me wonder how many more mysteries science had in store for man. The gentle lapping of the river against the surface of the boat almost lulled me to sleep.
But just then, Kashinath yelled, “Thakurda, the shrine. We are there, Thakurda.” I opened my eyes and turned to look in the direction of his outstretched hand. Even in the sparse light of the early sun, the ghat glowed with a seemingly inhuman aura. I turned to Kashinath and said, “You saw that glow?” Kashinath replied, “Yes, Thakurda. That is the Devi’s Maya. See how benevolent the Mother is. She grants a darshan even to those who do not believe in Her.” Sensing my temper, he immediately fell silent. I grunted, “Fine, fine. Come back one pahar before sunset. Don’t delay or else one anna less. Thik?” Kashinath, slightly bemured by my threat merely nodded.
As soon as I stepped off the boat, scores of mendicants swarmed around me like bees around a beehive. Seeing my predicament, Kashinath smiled and pushed away from the ghat. I swore beneath my breath to cut two annas from his fare as punishment for forsaking me in that situation. Seeing that they could not get anything out of me, the mendicants retreated. I sighed with relief and attempted to climb the steep moss-covered steps to the shrine. Even though the sun had risen a little, the threshold of the shrine was shrouded in darkness, making it difficult for me to climb the steps in my usual brisk fashion.
Slowly out of the darkness emerged the faint outline of a man. As I drew nearer, I could see clearly an old man dressed in ochre robes with the caste mark prominently displayed on his wrinkled forehead. Normally, I would have angrily dismissed the presence of a priest, but something prevented me from doing so then. Something I felt about the old celebrant. I saw an inhuman calmness on his face, which was simply gazing into the early morning sky.
Never before had I felt that way. I approached the cleric, somewhat reluctantly, and asked, “ Dada, are you the mukhya pujari here?” The old priest, without removing his gaze from the sky, replied, “Anjuman Babu, I am the only pujari here. The Mother does not seek the wavering service of scores of fake pujaris. She is content to obtain the sadhana of a true bhakta.” I asked him, “Dada, how is it you know my name despite the fact that I did not send any prior information of my coming?”
“Anjuman Babu, the Divine Mother knows everything. It is She who told me your name as also why you came to this shrine.” I was reluctant to believe this hogwash and swore to settle scores with that Kashinath at the village. I thought to myself, “ That country pumpkin must have told this man before. Divine revelations indeed!”
Sensing my scepticism, the cleric, who was called Bhabani Baba by the villagers, smiled and said, “Sometimes it is better to leave things to the Almighty’s Maya. You city-folk may not believe in it because of your education, but it holds some truth in the villages.”
He then slowly walked away and I deemed it wise to follow him. After barely a few paces, the shrine came in view. It was nothing but a cubicle enclosing the deity! Bhabani Baba, seeing my surprised countenance, smiled again in a mystic manner and said, “The Mother does not need a grand décor or large temples. Even a small room, if decorated with great devotion by the bhakta, meets the need of the Mother. Come inside.” As I entered the so-called shrine, I thought to myself, “How simple these pastoral folk are? Even their shrines are so simple.”
The deity was a beautiful one, peacock blue in colour; all her six arms beautifully decorated, in paint, but beautifully decorated nevertheless, her vahana had been painted so realistically that I felt it would leap out any second. But most of all, I felt unusually calm and composed after seeing the deity, as if all my pain and misery was absorbed by the shrine. Bhabani Baba met no resistance from me when he applied the ochre mark on my forehead, something I had never done in the past forty-nine years, ever since my father left my mother and me at the mercy of the elements.
I sat down before the deity, not in prayer, but reminiscing the events of the past. My father, Bhavani Charan Ghosh was the scion of the aristocratic house of Shaniari, the only son of the last Chaudhari of Rainagar, Abhaya Charan Ghosh, and the heir of a huge fortune. But like all other princely families, the craze for gambling was inherent in my father. My grandfather tried hard to stop his beloved son from squandering the ancestral wealth, but to no avail. My father was deep in debts and creditors were hounding him day and night. My mother grew tired of telling the same lie, that “Thakur is not at home today”, for seven weeks at a stretch.
One day, my mother had a huge fight with my father. I peeped through the keyhole and watched, as the argument grew heated by every passing minute. My mother, though uneducated, was a very principled woman, who was very uncompromising when it came to forsaking her values and ethics for saving the honour of the gharana. My father was a person with a very hot head, almost like a volcano, and it seemed that it would burst that day. My worst fears were confirmed when Father left the house, never to return.
Mother worked hard to clear the debts that my father had incurred. Only after every last debt was cleared did she sit down to rest. She persevered hard to educate me, but could not instil in me the love for God. I personally blamed God for creating the storm that tore apart my family. My mother tried to get me married when I approached a suitable age, but I brushed aside the idea saying that I had to study even further and that a wife at that stage would be nothing but a distraction which could affect my performance in the future. When I was in Calcutta for my law exams, I received a telegram from my mother saying that she was going to try and search out my father. I replied, “Ma, there is no need to search for him. When he crossed the threshold of our house, he broke all relations with us.”
But in my heart, I always wished my father would come back. Throughout my childhood, I was deprived of a fatherly figure, who would teach me the intricacies of the samsara and would guide me through the treacherous paths of the world. I, in my adolescent innocence, often prayed to God to return my Baba, but after years of pointless praying, I lost all faith in God’s ability in returning Father to the gharana. Still, there was hope that one day, my Baba will come back for me, for my mother and for the happiness of our family.
Suddenly, Bhabani Baba began the puja, which woke me from my reminiscing. I saw a strange glow around the deity, which even enveloped him. The entire shrine was filled with that glow. I felt lighter and calmer. I was absorbing this beautiful feeling, when of a sudden, I thought, “I came here a sceptic, but am returning a devotee. But what was the real reason behind my coming here? Could it be my desire to be reunited with my long-lost father or my disbelief in God and his Maya?
All of a sudden, Bhabani Baba abruptly turned. I could scarcely believe my eyes. My Baba- Bhavani Charan Ghosh- was standing in place of Bhabani Baba. Save his ochre robes and the vermilion mark, there was nothing that was different in Bhabani Baba from Father. I cried out, “Baba!” Bhabani Baba smiled and said, “Anju, my child, the Mother has reunited us. Your penance is over, my son!”
Below at the ghat, someone yelled out, “Babu, you coming?”