Many years ago, when time had still not shriveled my mother, and I was still a shy little boy, I was struck by a bout of measles. The only memory of the suffering that has survived the quicksand of consciousness is the quarantine imposed upon me. It was pretty close to being jailed with a mere pair of comics, licked out a hundred times like worn lemon candies. The sleep was fitful and erratic, and for strange reasons I kept visiting a temple with blue-green bars behind which a dark Goddess stood with a foot on a hermit in my dreams.
A guardian of many rebellious kids ranging from toddlers to teens, my mother was permanently at her wits ends. She had already settled down to her terminally dour mood by then and I have more memories of finding ways to escape her ire than receiving words dipped in honey. Somehow poxes and measles qualified as divine illnesses in the community and a child recuperating from these was allowed a few indulgences. The lottery was a sweetener that befell my luck towards the end of the painful illness and I quietly swore to enjoy it to the hilt. Mother was a devout woman and was quite awestruck when told about my dreamy reconnaissance. It was naturally taken as a divine mandate and I managed to extract promises of many loaves of buns, cakes, comics and storybooks, aptly striking the iron hot.
One morning after the older ones left for their schools, mother deposited the younger ones with a neighbourhood aunt. We went to a book stall as promised and bought the month’s supply of Champak and Indrajal Comics featuring Mandrake and Phantom, and I kept them carefully in a sky-blue tote bag I had thoughtfully carried. We walked down to the bus stand close by and took a bus for Godowlia which was the closest the transport would take to the warren of temples by the bank of Ganges.
My mother was sure the temple that my living soul had repeatedly strayed to was tucked deep into the bowels of the alleys near some holy Ghat I have forgotten the name of. The pair of mother and son strutted along in unison for half a kilometer before we entered the mouth of the labyrinth. The flash sickness had left my legs weak and wobbly and I started withering out rapidly. I was past the age that would allow comfortable snuggling into one’s mother’s lap but my mother pulled me up like a leaf.
Off we went then, from alley to alley, I riding the hip of my mother to one side, my legs dangling, and mother leaning a little to the other way to balance the weight. I kept clinging to my bag; mother had her own, carrying stuff for the ritual. As we trundled past temple after temple, mother would swiftly bow her head with a jerk, her eyes briefly closed with a hurried whisper, separate for each temple. Her saree was a deep shade of green with yellow squares and borders; it smelled of detergent and talcum powder. She was walking firmly, her slippers making a flapping sound at perfect intervals. She had a pleased, determined look and I wondered what had made me dream about the temple, and how wonderful it must be. I encircled her neck with my arms and laid my head on her shoulder.
The alley rose and fell, swelled and thinned, cut sharp corners and went into extended slopes followed by steep inclines. Apart from the occasional cyclist who kept ringing the bell irritatingly at the throng of people rushing both ways, everyone was walking endlessly ahead. Cows stood still here and there, frozen except for their dully masticating mouths, and everyone had to move around them.
Eventually, we came to an uneven rectangle where another alley came up sharply. There were steep narrow stairs between two rows of houses, dipping quickly probably for the riverbank. It stood in a recess, the long narrow temple, a white structure with a gold-tipped spire, its yellow crown glistening in the sun. Its flank parallel to the road was a wall of blue-green bars and there she was, the heavily decorated Goddess standing on a fallen figure. It was probably not the temple I’d kept floating to in my sleep but the Goddess looked eerily similar. She had a gleaming sword in one of her many hands and a chopped human head in the other, the severed neck dripped with blood. A beggar with a stump of a leg sat close to the door of the temple holding on to a stick. Bells of varying sizes hung in a row, their clappers waiting to be pushed.
Removing our footwear at the entrance we entered the little sanctum. There was no priest in sight and we had to deal with the Goddess without the luxury of a bailiff. Mother bowed deeply and so did I and we sat down on our haunches. She opened up the small nylon bag and fished out a wick, an earthen lamp and a small vial containing mustard oil. Together, we filled up the lamp, carefully soaking the cotton wick but leaving its tip poised. Mother lighted up the wick with one stroke of a matchstick; she was an expert at lighting up lamps. We put the lamp gingerly near the feet of the goddess, her nails were painted red. Mother asked me to kneel on the ground and touch my forehead to the floor of the temple to express my gratefulness. She did it herself too.
Having finished the prayer I stood up with a strange breezy feeling at my side. It took me a few seconds to realize that the small bag hanging to my shoulder was missing. I cast swift eyes in every direction in sharp panic and alarm. Where could have the blue bag gone? It was there with me only a few breaths ago! I clearly remembered putting it next to me before concentrating on the lamp. Mother asked me sharply if I had dropped it on our way to the temple? As we were taking stock of the vanished bag with the unread comics, the priest entered through the door in a huff with an annoyed look at his face. He hesitated for a moment as he saw us but he seemed to have sensed our bewilderment and linked it to something he had seen a short while ago.
“Did you have a sky-blue bag?” he asked tentatively.
“Of course, I had!” I cried, “Where is it, please?”
“Oh, no!” He sighed. “I just saw the leper limping away with it at a great speed.” He paused thoughtfully. “It is his third strike within a week. I will have to speak to the local police outpost. Did you lose valuables?
“Not at all, Pundit-ji,” my mother said in a faltering voice, adjusting the tip of her saree over her head. “Just a couple of children’s magazines. Can we get it back?”
Just a couple of children’s magazines? Petty stuff, indeed! I wanted to explode into tears.
“I don’t think so! Children’s books, did you say? Be careful next time. You could have lost a lot more. The other day a man lost four thousand rupees that he was carrying for the treatment of his ailing wife.” Pandit-ji intoned.
Now that the priest had come, he tried to offer us Prasad from a pot. My mind was battling twisters. Crestfallen, I turned to begin the journey home without the bag of freshly bought comics. Mother seemed unflustered by the loss. Her face seemed serene as if a burden had been lifted, having fulfilled the divine mandate.
I could sense her vague annoyance though and the peculiar twist of her mouth was a signal of the sourness lurking close, waiting to take over. She asked me softly if I could walk along till we met a rickshaw. I was only half seeing the pavement because of the tears in my eyes but I shook my head in yes. I started following her brisk gait as we walked down a slope where the bricks seemed to have been dug out and loosely shoved back on a large patch of the road. I was trying hard to remember how the cursed beggar had looked, installed at the gate of the temple, imagining alternate punishments for him as a Mandrake or a Phantom would deem fit for the sinner. I bitterly imagined delivering the Phantom’s blow to his face, the one that left the unmistakable imprint of the skull on the foreheads of the villains, and my arm jerked as I did so, but I found myself sprawled on my belly on the jagged road instead. It happened so fast that I never realized when I was going to fall. One moment I was strutting along the road and the other I was tasting the filth on the ground. I had a stung taste in mouth, partly salty, and I knew I had cut open something inside.
I heard several raised voices and saw many feet approaching me. Suddenly, my mother was picking me up with one hand and brushing off the soot and grime wildly with the other and I knew she was frustrated now. She was muttering under her breath partly in encouragement and partly in admonishment but I found my eyes glued to a gray and white square piece of paper on the ground instead. I jerked myself free and quickly picked the enticing stuff. It turned out to be a ten rupee note folded over and over into a small square! My mother stopped in the middle of her gushing and exclaimed, ‘Oh!’
“Let’s go!” I looked up at her and she nodded and we started moving quickly.
“Is it a real one?” She said prying it out carefully from my closed fist. She examined it briefly and returned it to me. “Lucky! Put it in your pocket!”
I slipped it in the front pocket of my shirt putting both the buttons firmly in place quickly. A rickshaw pulled to our side and the man looked askance at mother.
“Three rupees!” He declared through his brown-yellow teeth.
“Two and a half!” My mother told him curtly. He stopped pedaling and nodded us to climb over.
Soon we were standing at the same book stall ordering a fresh set of Champak, Phantom, and Mandrake Comics from the startled stall-owner. I also got two shining new coins back in change. But just as I was about to put them away safely, a black curled palm appeared under my face out of nowhere! I found a half-naked boy about the same age as mine in dirty oversized knickers, his hand stretched towards me. There was a bulbous snot dangling out of his nose and mucus stuck out of his eyes. He appeared soot black but that was apparently not his complexion as his chest was fair in places. A small girl stood next to him in a dirty frock, her eyes swollen with dry tears. I never knew when my hand retracted itself from the pocket and placed the coins, one in each of their palms. The boy spun and ran away and the girl followed him bellowing hard.
I thanked the Goddess that stood with a foot on the man for the comics when I reached home. And I thanked her for the measles too, and for the trip with mother to the temple, and the fall on the road that bruised my elbows but gave me the ten rupee note with which I repurchased the comics and put those coins on the palms of the boy with snot all over his face and his whimpering beggar sister.