Today is Dassehra, the festival that celebrates the rescue of Lord Rama’s wife Sita by monkey-headed god Hanuman from Demon Ravana’s clutches in the Ramayana. Dassehra also marks the closure of a nine-day festival, Navratri (meaning “nine nights”) held in homage of the goddess Durga, also a celebration of unmarried girls’ purity. On the last day of Navratri a puja (worshipping ritual) in the name of Durga is performed by the head of all Hindu families, so every year Kishan has to perform the Durga Puja. This year’s was yesterday.
Unmarried girls are not allowed to attend this puja. Until last year I was unmarried in the eyes of all in the family, since our relationship was still secret, so I could not attend it. I hated this because it meant I was not allowed to be with Kishan. Until two years ago he performed the ritual with a very traditional uncle and it would take at least three hours, during which I just waited in the room upstairs, cursing Indian rules. For the last two years it has not been too bad, because I have found ways to keep myself busy during the forbidden ritual, and since Kishan and his uncle have fallen out, he has been performing it in less time. This year, I thought, I’ll be able to watch the puja, hurrah!
Durga Puja is heavy in terms of house preparation. In the afternoon of the previous day Mother and Sister make sure they clean the entire house even more thoroughly than they do everyday. I help a bit with cleaning now but before Durga Puja I don’t want to be involved. The downstairs room is dedicated to the ritual so it is thoroughly cleaned; the bed is stripped of its beddings and mattress and put to stand against the wall. The TV is brought back upstairs, and no-one is allowed to go inside the room until after the puja has been performed. Yesterday, in the morning of the puja, Amma instructed me to remove the “welcome” crochet ornament from the room door, and to put the room’s doormat away in the courtyard. She had already had her shower and I hadn’t, so she was pure and I wasn’t, so I could still touch the “dirty” things. Before the puja, everyone takes a shower early, because you have to be “pure” to attend it. Mother and Sister take longer at praying that morning too, and as the altar is kept in the kitchen, they pray in the kitchen and if you haven’t had your shower you have to be really careful not to touch them while they do! Four days ago I didn’t pay particular attention while I came to pick-up a plate and knife to eat an apple, and just a centimetre of my salvar (loose trousers) touched Sister. After her prayer she shouted at me for having touched her! I hadn’t felt anything so I got a real shock, especially as she is normally very calm and she had never spoken to me like that before. She basically made me feel like a piece of dirty shit – I am quite used to that occasional feeling when I have made a “mistake”, and I know the family don’t intend to hurt me. They’ve been living like that for as long as they’ve been alive and I too hurt them by intruding their space with my so-called impurity when they pray, but it still really hurts!
So in the morning of the Durga Puja I know to be very careful. I also know I will not see Kishan until after it is over. As soon as he gets up he has to run about to collect all the necessary items and ingredients necessary for the ritual: a banana leaf, branches of a special kind of tree (can’t remember which), an oil lamp, sandalwood, incense, turmeric, rice, red powder for tikka, flowers, water, milk… And for the prasad (food offering) coconut, sweets, and puri (deep-fried chapati) and khir (rice pudding) which the women have prepared. Then all the god statues from the kitchen altar along with a frame of the goddess Lakshmi are taken down to the puja room, all the ingredients are placed around them, and when everything is ready and everyone has had their shower, the ritual can start.
Most mornings Amma gets up the earliest, at or before 6am. She always has her shower first. Then I always let Sister go because she has to pray and cook. When it was my turn I took my clothes down to the bathroom with me, had my shower and came back upstairs. The ritual was going to start but Kishan was too busy to tell me. After a while I went back downstairs to see what was happening. Kishan was sitting in front of the Lakshmi frame and the statues with incense sticks in his hand, while his mum stood and told him what to do. I hesitated to just go in, as I had never been allowed in before and no-one had invited me to join. So I sneaked in behind the room window and looked. A few minutes later Amma came out of the room, looked at me and asked: “What are you doing here?” – “I’m looking.” I said softly. “You can’t look.” She said firmly. “But I’m married!” I protested. “But you don’t live in purity.” She said.
I suddenly felt a fire inflame my stomach and a ball grow in my throat… It was horrible. “Hey!? But I had a shower!!” I threw back at her. She saw how my face had started to decompose as she walked towards the stairs, so she added that I shouldn’t have taken my clean clothes down to the bathroom myself, because as I had touched them with impure hands (before shower) I was now wearing impure clothes! My mouth dropped. She had no idea how deeply she had plunged the knife into my belly. She went upstairs, and I followed, stomach burning with anger, pain, and frustration against her ridiculous rules. That’s exactly what it feels like to be an untouchable, I thought, and I am used to the feeling. Except, thank God, I am only untouchable occasionally, i.e. before shower when someone prays, after cleaning the toilet, and if I have forgotten to wash my feet after I’ve had a poo (yes, seriously!) So when I got back upstairs after Amma had told me I lived in impurity I felt completely angry and lost. I didn’t know what to do, so as usual when I feel like a dirty piece of shit, there’s only one thing I know I won’t do wrong and during which no-one will interrupt or speak to me: lie down and sleep. Of course I didn’t sleep: I started crying while my mind proceeded to ruminate against Hindu rules, lack of education, ignorance, the condition of Hindu women etc. I knew I wasn’t going to sleep but I wanted to run away from it all so I lied down on the bed in the upstairs room facing the wall, I took my MP3 player, put my headphones on and started to play some soothing Indian classical music.
After a few minutes I heard Kishan’s brother calling me. It took me a while to hear because of the music. I was still crying and feeling crap so I reluctantly stopped the music and ran downstairs. “What!?” I asked. Brother was arranging a small mat for me by the entrance inside the ritual room: “Here, come and sit.” He said. “I don’t want to sit!” I shouted, and went back upstairs. I lied down again facing the wall and put the earphones back on. I focused on my breath embracing my own self with comfort and love while the raga filled me with bliss. It literally felt like my heart was blossoming, opening, growing in size from the music. After I had listened and listened and listened, I needed a pee but couldn’t possibly stop the music to get up and relieve myself, because it would have been a crime. After about another hour I heard the TV and turned my head back to look. Kishan had come back upstairs and the puja was over, but I still needed some time to part from my comforting cocoon so I carried on listening. Kishan approached me with prasad (food ‘blessed’ by the ritual), but although I was feeling better, the words “I don’t want any” came out from my mouth. “I live in impurity” I retorted. I just didn’t want anything of that puja and I turned back to the wall to listen some more. Kishan was understanding. After another while the sitar started playing faster and I decided to stop the music because I really needed that pee. And I was ready to face Indian family life again.
It was after 12:30 when I put my MP3 player away and sat down with Kishan, swapping profound Indian classical music for a silly Indian comedy movie, the immature humour of which I will simply never grasp. Amma asked me if I wanted to eat. “Not now.” I said. “You’re very late today”; she said with a smile, because she knows I have a European body clock when it comes to eating. With half a smile I told her that I had eaten halwa (sweet wheat dish) in the morning. When she went back to the kitchen I quietly moaned to Kishan that I didn’t want to eat puri (deep-fried flat bread) yet again. That is another thing I don’t like about festival time: it always means really heavy food.
Later that day after I finally had some private time with Kishan, he told me that Amma had told him she had thought I had wanted to take part in performing the puja, so she hadn’t let me sit in the room. He had told her I just wanted to see it so Brother had called me to invite me in. I think this is weird, because I have never expressed the wish to take part in a puja before, and with the family I never go to temples. Perhaps my mother-in-law felt bad for upsetting me and it was her way to keep the face or something; I will never know and it doesn’t matter. Kishan also explained to me again (again, because the number of rules overwhelm me and many just go over my head) that unmarried women are always considered pure so they don’t have to care not to touch their clean clothes before shower. But married women are impure – from sex, I guessed, and that irritated me again.
Obviously everything is over and normal today, and I have even had a very pleasant chat with my mother-in-law at lunch time. Because beyond all those overwhelming rules, and although she is illiterate, she is wise and kind enough to give me the space and time I need to breathe and heal, and she does love and accept me as I am…