Ridhesh and Meghna have always been the travelling types. Any travel was an opportunity for them to move out of the program codes on their computer screens and into the real world. Both had graduated together from NIT with BTech with majors in Computer Science. Making conversations with people they meet and living the customs of where ever they visited was something they revelled. They travelled with thier reluctant teen aged daughter Ridhima.
This year the trip was to the Kanaul. A sleepy hill Station, little known on the tourist circuits, but well known on the religious tourism searches. Ridhesh had visited this town as a kid with his parents. It was somehow a nostalgic trip too.
The temple of Godess Kali was the major tourist attraction, apart from the natural beauty of the hills. The temple was tucked in midst of an array of shops selling items from audio CDs to toys. The livelyhood of the town survived on the grace of the goddess. The temple diety was known for its myths and power. The folklores were in plenty which describes the various miraculous feats of the goddess, both benovalent and ferocious.
As Ridhesh and Meghna emerged from the temple after offering thier prayers, they found Ridhima sitting in the steps across the street. Ridhima who had decided to give the temple a skip. Aarti bells were still ringing as the setting sun turned the sky into a fiery red glow. It resembelled the tilak from the Kali temple.
Ridhesh flicked open his DSLR camera to capture the beauty of the sunset contrasted by the hussle of the market place. The third click satisfied him. He noticed Ridhima Siting on the roadside steps flipping stories on Instagram. In the moving mass of the tourist she was an another contrast. Ridhesh changed his lens and altered the exposure settings to capture his Daughter in a candid frame. The first click was blurred, the second spoiled by an overfilled polyethylene carry bag of an enthusiastic photo bombing tourist. Third chance is rare and the laws of statistics were not flouted this time. Ridhima noticed her father’s irritating habit in time to hide her face.
“C’mon Ridhima, be a sport”, implored Ridhesh. ‘You will remember this moments through these pictures.”
“Dad, please!!”, protested Ridhima, “I don’t want you to post them on our family group. And, I hate it when everyone would comment on what I wear.”
“Where’s Mom?“ enquired Ridhima.
Ridhesh saw Meghna checking trinkets at the street vendor’s cart. Cheap fashion jewellery shared the space on the cart with prayer beads and holy head scarfs. The spiritual and the material, combining in a philosophical way. Meghna, in a pang of guilt dropped the trinket and picked the holy head scarf.
Meghna looked up to see where the father and daughter duo were. She saw them walking up to her quarrelling on how to click pictures. Ridhima was telling Ridhesh, just having an SLR does not make one a photographer.
She had a smile on her face as the father and daughter reached her. She piosly wrapped the scarf on her head.
“Now what?“, asked Ridhesh.
” Lets checkout some shops”, said Ridhima suggestively. Although the statement was vague, but her eyes and intentions were fixed on a Souvenir shop. And that is where the three of them headed. One resolutely and the other two in decreasing order of enthusiasm.
They had to navigate through a rush of humanity gathered around a free food stall distributing ‘prasad’ or the ‘Divine food’. Divotees thronged to get the Divine blessing on the auspicious dark night of the Goddess Kali. As the custom and belief goes, the food being distributed is first offered to the goddess, who blesses the meal and then the same food is distributed to the divotees. This was also the night when the sacrifices were performed. Although the custom was on a decline but it still was being practiced in the recesses of the homes and societies.
As they reached the shop, Meghna got busy exploring the pieces from seemingly some ancient times. At least the dust and the stacking of the artifacts gave it the ancient look. Wonderful pieces of wood carving ranging from gods to animals and guarding demons adouned the busy walls of the shops. The counter was filled with old bracelets, utencils, knives, etc.
At first glance it seemed there was no one in the shop. The old lady owner of the shop almost blended with old artifact. It seemed as if after staying for so long in midst of the timeless artifacts, she seemed to become one.
She smiled a weary smile. She had seen many customers who would loiter, click pictures and move on. Ridhesh tried to strike a conversation, but the response were monosyllabic.
The shop was not too small in comparison with other match box like shops on the street. However, the crowded artifacts made it look dingy and cramped. The door on the rear was partially hidden by the life size statue of goddess kali. The blood red tongue was in striking contrast with the deep blue body. The statue was a piece of art, except the smear crack near the eyes. Possibly the reason for the statue remain unsold.
Ridhima was visibly not enjoying the experience. Ridhesh was trying to make conversation with the lady at the counter, in his usual style, however with not much of progress.
The silence was broken by the loud arrival of the husband of the lady. The old man was pot bellied with scraggy unkempt hair. These imperfection were out shadowed by the loud exuberance. He moved in carrying the ‘prasad’, which was no mean achievement considering the hungry line of devotees, eagarly queuing up to gain the divine grace.
He filled the space with himself and his enthusiastic hospitality. He offered the ‘prasad’, which was essentially ‘Purees’ a kind of an Indian bread, Gram Dal curry and ‘Halwa’ – a sweet preparation seeped in clarified butter. The dishes were placed on a plate and bowl made of dried leaves. Old man had balanced the plates and bowls while navigating his ample presence through the crowd. His exuberant announcements of the his achievement was indeed credible. The possession was a consequence of vigorous strife among the dense mass of devotees. He handed his prized possession to Ridhesh.
Ridhesh was visibly embarrassed and feeling guilty of accepting the Holy meal which wasn’t initially meant for him, irrespective of the play of destiny. He was also starkly aware of the reluctant moan by the lady, who must have many times witnessed this infructuos hospitality. She sighed and started stacking back the artifacts on the counter with a sense of resignation, shared by Ridhesh as he was left holding the plates and bowls.
The old man looked at Ridhima and smiled. The return smile moved no urther than the lips.
“Little Doll!!, you must surely have the Halwa” instructed the old man to the visibly irritated Ridhima.
Before she could react, the old man had turned to his wife, and affiably rebuked his wife to leave the counter and make sure the ‘little doll’ was looked after.
“Baldev’s Mother” called the old man identifying his wife as a relation and not a person, “this ‘little doll’ is your responsibility. Look how famished she looks. Soon you shall have your own little grand daughter.”
With words assuring Ridhesh that he would be back with more prasad, he exited the shop in the the same abruptness as he had entered.
Ridhesh looked towards the old lady behind the counter. She was looking at his daughter, taking the instructions of her husband far too seriously. She turned and looked at Ridhesh and her lips smiled. The gaze lingered on Ridhesh a fraction longer. Silent was awkward.
to be continued…