The hour before dawn is when the goddess rises. Hymns and evocative songs, streaming from the radio in almost every Bengali household all over the world, herald the beginning of “Debipaksha,” or the fortnight of the goddess. Waking birds and sleepy eyelids flutter in the mystical dark, as a story is told, of the creation of goddess Durga from the amassed fury of three powerful gods. These pious hymns and songs of Mahalaya, the first day of the festival, throb with the spiritual pulse of a community, at peace, in prayer, in the fading night.
The very personal tie was the same for me. As I, an expatriate Bengali away from home for more than a decade, broke into parts all year with longing for the past and the distant, I always felt, until three years back, that I was whole again, close again, because of this morning.
But then the spiritual turns to the familial. Although the hymns tell the story of the ten-handed goddess prevailing over the evil demon, the hour-long morning recital and the revelry that follows, also contain the extension of a warm welcome to the goddess who is considered the daughter of the Bengali community. Her collective "family" erupts in jubilation, as she and her four children arrive for her annual five-day-long visit from her home in the mountains to her father’s home in the fertile valley of the Ganges. The biggest festival in the state of West Bengal in India occurs around this homecoming of the mythical and immortal daughter, as she brings health, happiness and prosperity to her community. She is hailed and worshipped, from the reverent distance of a goddess, and loved and celebrated, as only a daughter in one’s arms can be.
As truth becomes one with the mythical, and symbols and metaphors suddenly assume the dominant force of reality in people’s lives, no one remembers, or speaks of, a real, mortal daughter, more distant now than an imaginary goddess. As the mythical daughter comes home every year, my Raahi never comes back to her mother’s arms or her parents' home again. Durga’s homecoming rubs it in my eyes.
During the five days of festivities, the city never sleeps, and millions of people throng the streets all night, decked in their newly-bought finery. Friends and family return from all over the world, and in many homes, the festival often occasions their own daughter’s homecoming, from a city or country thousands of miles away. The festival is about new unions, reunions, of the coming together and being one again, of dispersed loved ones. There is space for all in these festive five days—from the deeply religious to the merely fun-loving, from the believer to the cynical.
After creating and re-establishing ties, temporary and enduring, between mortals, Durga returns home in the mountains. Her farewell is an elaborate affair, as women and girls in the neighborhoods gather to wipe the face of the towering clay idols with betel leaves, push broken pieces of sweets into her painted lips, and wish her a safe journey back, while praying to her to shower them with her blessings. The daughter leaves in sadness and tears, while the blessings of the goddess linger within the believers. A parting is entwined with a promise, as only the few predictable and dependable things in life can be.
The irony, the cruelty, the sheer brutality of this festival astounds me these days. In the fall of 2013, two months after losing Raahi in sleep, I went to Calcutta with Aahir, to spend a few weeks with my parents and loved ones. I was coming home during the festival, the daughter of the family with her young son, after eight years. Everyone was happy, and ignored that I was also coming home without my daughter. As I looked here and there for shelter, like a helpless bird ravaged by a storm, all around me people ignored my plight. They could not see my broken wings or my shattered heart. I floated in the fog, I flew on in the darkness, blinded by the smiles, pierced by the joy, pretending to feel like a returning daughter, when all I wanted to be, within the shelter of my family, was a mother without her own daughter.
And then the last day of the festival arrived. I could not pretend anymore, and refused to accompany my mother to bid the goddess farewell. My mother misunderstood my disdain as tiredness, and started assuring me how simple the rituals really were, thinking perhaps that in eight years I had forgotten. As she started describing in detail that all I had to do was wipe the goddess’s face and put sweets in her mouth, I screamed. I screamed again when my father mentioned, over and over again while we were taking a walk in the evening around the neighborhood where people were preparing for the immersion of the clay idols, how saddened he was by this act of farewell, how impossible it was for him to watch as the idols were removed from the elaborate structures that housed them, to be taken for their immersion in the waters. I screamed that he was talking to someone who was not able to bid farewell to her own daughter, who was real, and is gone forever, never to return. My reaction astonished and frustrated my parents, as they failed to understand how I could no longer comprehend or take part in the communal ritualistic sorrow over the temporary departure of a mythical goddess.
My daughter’s mortality, and her permanent departure, has obliterated whatever I had left of my faith and enthusiasm. Having lost significant parts of my memory, I no longer indulge in the luxury of nostalgia, and having been destroyed by an unchangeable reality, I do not have patience for imaginary worlds. I can take part in the fun, even some of the festivity maybe. But the fanfare around the symbolism breaks me in half.
I am a mother who could not bid farewell to her daughter. After the paramedics took Raahi away that July morning in 2013, I could not muster the strength to see her, hold her, or caress her again. My husband kept me away from the hospital where her lifeless body lay, saying over and over again that that is not her, and that I had bid farewell to her the moment I lay her down to sleep that night, but I did not know that. As he drove her body to the cemetery in the new white car we had bought for her, I sat at the verandah of the funeral home, unable to move. In three years I have not been to the cemetery once.
Years have come and gone, during which the goddess has made three annual trips, the community drenched in sorrow every time she leaves. And I have not been able to enter the moment where I face the end knowingly. Her lifeless face, the ground in the cemetery. I have been scared of saying, uttering, embodying a goodbye. I have been scared that I would not be able to return from the cemetery if I went even once. That I would dig the earth with my claws. That I would lie there on the damp grass and refuse to move. That I would bring down the skies with my wail, and my living hell would break loose.
Maybe none of this will happen. I don’t know. I do not disrespect the goddess, or the sentiments of my community that worships and celebrates her. But I cannot soak in a make-believe goodbye when I have not yet looked that moment in the eye, that moment the beginning ended and the end began, for real. And so, I do not feign sadness at the imaginary and short-term departure of an immortal daughter.
It is too pretentious, ironic, and disproportionate to the grief over the real, untimely, and permanent loss of my mortal one.
We have all grown up with myths and rituals we believed in and abided by. They could be related to religion, or to a shared history, a lifestyle, a community. How have these myths and rituals been deconstructed by your loss? What has lost meaning or been reshaped in your new existence as a grieving parent?