Portraits of Kali and the Family

It was my father’s birthday the other day. Time gallops for it has been a few weeks already. It was his 80th birthday and I had grand plans of hauling the entire family to a hill town. It was pared down soon to humble proportions because well most of my plans revolving around the family perish as quickly as they are hatched.

A tuck-in of monstrous proportions the night before at a grilled food restaurant made sure that everyone groaned at length with the contentment generated by an army of kebabs of prawn, fish and meat. In Calcutta, food reigns over lives. At breakfast, thoughts rally around the possibilities that lunch can offer. There is tea in the afternoon after a protracted lie-in when fish and vegetable chops (croquettes) are devoured with pots of aromatic Darjeeling tea, and there is a late dinner filled with even more possibilities because who can eat a morsel after the goodies of the early evening have settled in.

My father’s birthday on the morrow turned out clear and chilly. The sun was a honey gold and the chocolate cake laced with coffee and hazelnut praline from the local bakery delectable. Baba ate payesh, rice and milk pudding simmered in cardamon-infused milk. It is a must at all Bengali birthdays. Then he cut two beautiful dark chocolate cakes which were an instant hit with the young one in the family, my nephew.

The plan had been fixed previously that we should step out for Chinese lunch at Bar B Q at an early hour because parking dilemmas on the busy thoroughfare of Park Street assumes gargantuan proportions as the afternoon progresses. Therein stepped in my mother’s sudden and inexplicable need for a cuppa before leaving home because how can one step out of the house without tea. Time is a fluid concept in India – people will make you wait without recognition of their tardiness. I might split hairs at length but the fact does not change and there are few far and between who turn up on the dot. For instance, one school friend of mine turned up right on the decided time, another made me wait an hour and a half before turning up for a breakfast engagement.

To return to the matter of the birthday lunch, after everyone had enough tea to saturate their senses, we drove to Park Street where naturally parking spots had all been snapped up. On a weekday noon you would think people had better things to do than mooch around Park Street. Then it so happened that my brother missed out on zeroing in on two valuable parking spots. Two. My sister-in-law berated him. I piped up too. Baba’s hackles rose alongside. How could anyone gun for his dear boy? He started shushing everyone. Chaos. After about 40 minutes of circling around, we found a plum spot on Park Street itself. The traffic police on the beat mentioned that he should not be paid but quietly pocketed the notes forwarded by my brother who insisted that he is a man of the world and this is how it works. Then my mother decided that she should sit inside the car and wait for us because she was fasting. We had struck a bargain, you see. That we should attend a puja of the goddess Kali later on in the day.  I had acquiesced to it. Read: With much whinging on my part.

That was my father’s 80th. As eccentric and dramatic as the family I have been born into, concluded by listening to the priest chanting mantras at the foot of the idol of Kali, the intense avataar of the Goddess Durga as she goes about vanquishing evil from this earth for all Bengalis. Oh and yes, my ma did finally break her fast which I thought she had done anyway at Bar B Q with a fruit punch and tiny cheese puffs.

No, I had not popped a vein by the end of the evening.

Baba and I
Tweedledee Tweedledum
Nephew and sister-in-law
…trampling Shiva
Paraphernalia fit for a goddess
The goddess prefers variety. Crunchy rice, dates and fruits along with narus (coconut sweets) and rolled-up betel leaves.
The brass thali, boti (a long curved blade with a wooden platform used in Bengali kitchens to chop veggies and fish) and coconuts ready to be grated.
Betel leaf, betel nut and batasha (rice pie made with ghee and sugar syrup)
Banana leaves
An aunt as she puts together odds and ends for the priest
Nephew and coz
The feast for Kali
Brass pots and pans
The brass bell
Chants in Bengali. In case the priest forgets his lines?
The goddess as dark as the night


Hit me up, buttercup

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