How Palan became a priest

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“How Palan became a priest ?” – wouldn’t have been an interesting question at all if you hadn’t ever met Palan.

That Palan was Palan Mondal – a non-Brahmin in the low rung of the social ladder, is neither the reason enough to be alarmed. But that he was a boy of seven years with a runny nose and closely cropped hair (which no one in Anandapur, his village, had ever seen grow bigger than quarter of an inch) is perhaps a reason to sit up and take notice. Like umpteen boys of his non-descriptive village in Bengal, Palan never wore slippers and hardly ever wore a vest. His over-sized shorts most probably belonged to his father in his hey-days, had lost its elasticity at the waist and had to be secured tight with the help of a jute rope. But unlike most of the children of his village he did not go to the local school, even though it was free.

“ Boys without mothers don’t go to school “, his grandmother had reasoned with him.

“ And what about boys without fathers?”, he had asked her in turn.

To which his grandmother had given him a stern look, because his father was indeed well and alive. “ They have a worse life. They cannot go to school and then they also have to work all day long”, would be her curt reply.

That was something that gave Palan a huge relief of course! Every morning he would have a hurried breakfast of puffed rice with a wee-bit of jaggery and wiping his nose with the edge of his over-sized shorts would call out, “Sundari! Come lets go!”

Now with a name like that if you ever imagine a pretty little girl hurrying to catch up with him, then you are badly mistaken; for “Sundari” – the beautiful one, would only take a lazy step or two and wait for her little master to pick her up and squeeze her in the compartment between his upper arm and torso. And then as if out of sheer gratefulness would let out a loud “Baaaa” with her shrill voice!

Armed with Sundari, Palan would then hop and skip down the muddy road till he would reach the big Banyan tree. Using his free left arm he would pull off a handful of Banyan leaves for his pet goat and head towards the big playground round the corner. This had been his routine since he was four years and big enough to be let out alone by his widowed grandmother. Now, the Banyan tree, located at a vantage point in the village, was a spot where most of the village discussions took place or a weary traveller or two stopped to take some rest. But Palan’s daily trysts with the Banyan tree had such an effect that one side of the Banyan tree began wearing a dug-out look. So much so that the village elders began to joke that the Banyan tree now resembled a balding man!

This was Palan’s daily routine throughout the year….daily, till the white, cottony Kansa Grasses would begin to appear in the fields and the Night Jasmine flowers with their white petals and orange stalk would carpet the dew-fed muddy roads in the morning. Instinctively he would know that Durga Puja is just round the corner. The atmosphere would smell different, the wind would sing a different tune and Palan’s routine would change.

Tucking Sundari along, he would head towards the Zamindar’s (local Landlord) house and crossing the iron gates (which were anyway too broken to be able to close and were only kept as a relic of the once-existent feudal system) would perch himself on the stairs of the Thakur-Daalaan – the stage on which the idol of Goddess Durga would reside with her four children. While Nakul Pal, the idol artiste, would breathe in life into the idols – Goddess Durga slaying the demon Asura along with her children – Laxmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik and pet Lion, Palan would have hordes of questions and suggestions –

“ Nakul Kaka (uncle), can we not replace the pet lion with a tiger this year ? A tiger with stripes looks much more attractive than the pale yellow lion.”,

“ Kaka, why don’t you add two extra hands to Ma Durga ? She can use the ten hands to slay Asura and the rest two she can use to bless us, what say ?”

Most of the time Nakul would just smile at him as he had to no valid reasons to refute Palan’s suggestions. In fact no one in the Chowdhury household would mind his presence till the four days of the actual Puja when he won’t be allowed to hover anywhere around and would be allowed only to be seated with the rest of the villagers and see the Puja being conducted. And though the Zamindari system was not longer existent on paper, the Chowdhurys were still revered by the villagers and no one dared to question the system.

Only, Zamindar Radhanath Chowdhury’s sister Kamalasundari almost always had a problem with Palan. At the mere sight of Palan she would flare up and would come running towards the Thakur-Daalaan, spewing curses!

“Hey you, monkey-faced evil spirit, didn’t I warn you not to cross the iron-gates and come inside? Your only job here is to sit and disturb Nakul. Don’t you know moron that an artist requires utmost concentration ? Last year too you’d perched yourself here like a dead crow and then people complained during Puja that Durga’s eyes almost looked squinted and I had myself noticed that one of the ears of Ganesh definitely looked smaller than the other one!”

Palan would stare blankly at her face, as he would have no clue as to how his being there could contribute to the ill-shaped idols. And before making her way out, she would invariably throw an acid-look at Sundari and then scream back, “And I am warning you Palan, if I find out that your black-beauty has left any nuggets behind then I will make your grandmother come and clean those! Mark my words, if I don’t do that my name would no longer be Kamala…..”.

She would inevitably stop in her tracks there, most probably recollecting the fact that the second half of her name was the same as Palan’s pet’s!

Anyway, to cut the long story short, this would have been Palan’s Durga Puja routine till his seventh year. And on the Durga Puja coinciding with his seventh year happened the event that made his ordinary life different.

That year, Radhanath’s nephew and his friend had come from Kolkata to be a part of the Puja festivities. Radhanath’s nephew had been studying in a college in Kolkata but would never miss the Pujas. His friend was a new addition that year but that was not the main attraction for the villagers. The camera that hung from round his neck was the cynosure of all eyes. Those days cameras were not new in the city side but in a God forbidden place like Anandapur, a camera was a novelty item indeed.

As he went around clicking pictures, catching glimpses of the festival through his lens, Radhanth took the responsibility of the tour guide, explaining every item and the ritual in detail to the guest from the city.

“ And this, young man, is the Pankha-daalaan, the fan courtyard. Those days the who’s who of the society used to make a beeline to attend this Puja and there was this special place for them. A huge fan made of bamboo canes used to hand from top above. The Pankha puller used to swing the fan with the help of a rope so that the Babus below did not sweat as they waited for the Pujas to begin.” , Radhanth explained helpfully.

“And here is the life and soul of our family”, Radhanath said, pointing his fingers to a brass-lamp with a glass cover with a small light burning within.

“ This lamp is cleaned on the day of Mahalaya, seven days ahead of the Pujas. Pure ghee is then poured inside and then is lighted on the morning of Shashti. The lighting of lamp symbolises the beginning of the Pujas. And for the next five days it must stay lit twenty four hours. If ever the lamp stops burning in between the Chowdhurys would lose the right to do the Pujas anymore, the Pujas would stop forever”, he paused after the long explanation.

And as the young man clicked a close-up of the lamp, careful not to go too near it, Palan watched with wide-eyed glee, the entire process of operating the camera. For a moment he had even forgotten his limit of being confined only upto the stairs of the Thakur-Daalaan.

And then it happened. The first batch of sweets for the Puja were just being kept in front of the goddess and the fresh aroma of the coconut balls, oozing with jaggery and ghee were lending a heavenly feel to the surroundings, when it occurred. It first began as a whiff of breeze that seemed to ruffle a hair or two of the visitors from the city. Then the light breeze transformed into a really windy breeze that made the Dhotis of the priest and the Zamindar Babu look like sails of a fast moving yacht. And within minutes the crystal blue autumn sky transformed into inky blue darkness.

The trees began to sway madly at this sudden cyclonic outburst; dusts, dry leaves and twigs started to move around in a whirlwind motion. There was no rain but a tremendously powerful storm that seemed to have chosen the Chowdhury household to be the centre of all action. Accompanying the mad frenzy of the storm were thunderous clouds which seemed to clap intermittently with loud cheer, just like a child would, having spoilt the game of his friend. With a powerful storm like that people ran helter-skelter, finding it extremely difficult to keep their eyes open. No one knew why they were running or where they were heading to but the ferocity of the storm was so powerful that everyone wanted to shelter themselves from its fiery wrath.

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It probably would have been an hour and a few minutes more when the storm gradually subsided. As the hypnotic frenzy of the tree branches gradually transformed into a gentle sway, people came out of their hiding, one by one. Radhanth Chowdhury, the priest, the guests and villagers all came to the ThakurDaalaan, one by one. The sight, that the place had to offer, brought tears to many eyes. It was as if death had just passed that courtyard. Incense sticks, brass plates, cut pieces of fruits, camphor, sticks of the drum, Sindoor, jaggery and coconut balls – now reduced to a sticky brown heap of masses – all lay strewn as far and wide as possible.

Only the goddess stood smiling, calm and composed, as if no harm had ever touched her. Kamalasundari and a few women of the household, directed by the elders began gathering the things one by one with utmost care. Some of the villagers, who normally would never venture so near, lent a helping hand. The women picked up the strewn goods while the men tried to recover the torn garlands. No one directed them but they all worked in silent co-ordination and understanding. The priest stood in front of the diety, his hands folded, his eyes in near-tears as he murmured, “ What wrong did I do Maa ? Why this sudden wrath ? Have I done any mistake ?”.

Radhanath went in search of the drum players who had gone into an obsecure hiding and were probably enjoying their secure haven for a puff or two of their hand rolled cigarettes. The guest from Kolkata was busy checking the health of his camera after the momentary madness and Palan was nowhere around.

It was just then that a loud scream tore across the post-storm serenity. It was Kamalasundari! Radhanath abandoned his search for the drummers and came running to the courtyard. A small crowd gathered around Kamalasundari who had by now placed her heavy self totally on the ground, resembling a child who has spilt all her milk on the floor and did not know what to do. Making his way through the crowd, Radhanath managed to reach his sister.

“ What is it Kamala ? Did you get hurt ?”

For moments, Kamala could not speak a word, tears just flowed down her crimson cheeks. Then, wiping her tears she could only mumble a few words, “Dada…the brass lamp…its gone….it is not where it was”.

A cold shiver seemed to flow through Radhanath as he stared blankly at the floral design of rice-powder and water where the lamp was placed a few hours ago. He mustered some courage and meekly managed to say, “ It must be somewhere around….all the things are anyway strewn around…”.

“But the flame would have died down by now”, the priest sounded the death knell.

There was an icy-silence all around. Radhanath, forgot his position and status and began to weep audibly. Encouraged by her brothers tears Kamalasundari let out her loudest wails. Soon Radhanth’s wife joined the mad cacophony. It lent such heaviness to the atmosphere that the threat of yet another storm loomed large. Shuddering at the prospect of never having a Durga puja yet again in Anandapur the women joined the band of mourners. And amidst all the scale of mourning that was emerging off the courtyard that day no one heard the voice of Ramaprasad, the old servant of the family. Soft spoken and old as he was, no one heard his call. He kept calling out for his master till his suppressed voice reached Radhanath.

Babu, the lamp is here! “ Ramaprasad pointed his finger to the back of idol when Radhanath chanced to glance at him.

“The lamp ? You mean the lamp is there? “, he asked his servant.

Ramaprasad shook his head in affirmation. Radhanath picked up the edge of his fallen dhoti , gathered up his remaining courage and followed Ramaprasad to the back of the idol, accompanied by the priest, Kamalasundari and a handful of his close relatives. The sight that welcomed them, actually startled them. Huddled behind the idol of Durga was Palan, his eyes exhibiting an embarassed smile, the brass lamp right in front of him, his two rough palms cupped over the lamp. And from within  the cupped palms flickered the light of the lamp – burning bright!

As the priest observed the light of the lamp emitting a reddish diffusion through the little fingers, tears rolled down his sunken cheeks. Kamala, who was always an epitome of extreme emotions, let out a loud cry of joy. And for once, she did not even mind her namesake chewing off the yellow hay from the back of the idol!

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That evening Palan sat in front of a big plate with a wide array of sweets and snacks. He looked at them with wide-eyed wonder, unable to decide which one he should attempt first. Kamalasundari sat close to him, coaxing him to have as much as he wanted. Radhanath gave a loving glance towards him and then turned towards the priest.

“But what you say is impossible ! How can that be ?” , he questioned.

The priest shook his head, “ That is how it is ! The same tradition that says that the Pujas must stop if the lamp goes off also tells clearly that it is the duty of the priest to ensure that the lamp keeps burning for all the five days of the Puja. And what I didn’t do, he did. When the storm came I did not once think about the goddess or the lamp, I thought about myself. Whereas this little boy kept it burning!”.

“ But he is not a Brahmin, how can he become the family priest ?”, Radhanath seemed apprehensive.

“ Who is a Brahmin? The keeper of the religion, the keeper of the belief! And it was he, who in true sense was the keeper of the belief! I will take him under my guidance, teach him the books, the rituals. I will talk to his father. But it is he who will be your family priest from today onwards.”, the priest announced in his solemn but stern voice.

Oblivious to all the discussion that was going around him, Palan was enjoying his unexpected feast, taking some time off to slip a sweet or two in his pocket for Sundari, who was waiting for his master outside. This Kamalasundari wouldn’t allow.

“ One Sundari inside the house is enough, we don’t need another one”, she had laughed out loud at her own joke.

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And that is how Palan Mondal became the family priest of the Chowdhury’s at the age of seven. Having attained such a high office, he became a bit more calm, composed and serious. He spared the Banyan tree too, as his Sundari now had the luxury of fresh, green grasses lovingly fed by Ramaprasad!

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FOR YOU, HEMA

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