Toton looked at the courtyard below and saw the craftsmen from Kumartuli expertly wielding their brushes, sometimes in wide swaths, sometimes in rapid jerky strokes that miraculously transformed into colorful designs on the idols molded from the river clay. Saha Bari’s Durga Puja in Manicktala was widely known, anticipated, and respected. Unlike the community pujas in street corners the puja at Saha Bari commanded heritage and the doors were thrown open to the public only once a year to celebrate the Devi’s stay at her terrestrial abode.
The Late Nilmoni Saha was a prosperous trader, who made his fortune during the days of the Raj by supplying choicest spices and timber to Her Majesty from his mills in Andaman. His descendants were educated in the best British Boarding Schools so as to hobnob and socialize effortlessly with the elite traders, sealing and signing deals in golf courses and ballrooms.
The Saha legacy did not escape Toton, who was home on a puja break from his other residence, Dr. Graham’s Home in Darjeeling, a prestigious English Medium boarding school where he was being groomed to carry on the tradition. Life in the boarding was full of restrictions. Wake up to a morning bell, march in formation to the long rows of sinks and showers. Timed meals, scheduled bedtimes, restricted diet and the eagle eye of a Hostel Matron. Puja was a time of freedom, and Toton waited eagerly to come home. He looked at the paint brushes while resting his chin on the railings surrounding the balcony. Red, yellow, green and gold, swoosh. The artisans stood around the idols in ladders painting with great urgency. It was Mahachaturthi, with only two days left for the big day. There was Ma Durga herself in the middle, with her daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati to the right and sons Kartick and Ganesh on the left. Ma Durga looked determined and powerful, her trident piercing the pectorals of the mighty Asura emerging from a disemboweled buffalo . Wow, this was going to be more fun than painting the model planes at school.
Toton had a plan. When the artisans left that night and everybody was sound sleep upstairs he stepped out of his room, tip toeing his way down the stairs. He moved like a cat with light steps in the darkness like a fleeting shadow and was soon in the courtyard. Then he looked at the idols. They were almost complete and looked beautiful, the only finishing touches remaining were the intricate work on the faces. There lay the brushes and paint, some glue here and glitter there. Boy, this was going to be fun. He would paint Ma Durga’s face so exquisitely that the craftsmen would be surprised the next day, wondering if the Mother had performed a miracle. Thus, Toton began to paint . No, this brush was too thick; that too thin. Ah, then he found the right one. And, lo behold he began to paint. A swoosh here an outline there. Some glitter on the cheeks, a touch of red too. He stepped forward and backward, climbing up the ladder and down again as the household snored. Finally, he was satisfied with his masterpiece and retired for the night.
The rooster crowed early next morning as the artisans arrived in their creaky bicycles. Slowly they sat in the courtyard munching puffed rice while sipping their steaming chais. Soon they would remove the veil from the faces and begin the final touch.
The master craftsmen stood up, bowed reveredly and urged his men to begin. Slowly they started removing the veils with great care so as not to upset any detail. The household began gathering around the courtyard to observe the final touches. There was Mejo Mesho, Ginni Ma and Chhor Dadu. The maids rested their brooms and stopped scrubbing brass pots while they watched. One by one, the veils came off. Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartick,Ganesh and eeeeeeeeeeekk !
Everybody shrieked. What happened to Ma Durga ? Her cheeks were splattered with red with glitter smeared all over her face . The eyes looked bloodshot and fiery and the artisans moaned . It must be a curse . There was commotion in the household. Soft whispers became loud protests, requests became threats.
Chhor Dadu cleared his throat, and went upstairs “Toton !” Toton came out of his room . “ Was that you last night? I saw your door open !” Toton hung his head and stood silently. Chhor Dadu was a stern man, but had one soft spot, Toton. He then went down to the courtyard and spoke to the head artisan. “ If this is Mother’s will, this is what we have to accept . Do what you can, and if you pull it off I promise a special baksheesh for you and your crew.”
Toton stayed in his room the whole morning. Then in the afternoon there were visitors in the house . The doorbell rang, and a slender figure in festive glory stepped in the courtyard. It was Ceramic Da accompanied by two drummers, dhakis. Pallav Saha, Toton’s cousin was studying Ceramic Engineering at a nearby polytechnic and had earned that nickname. All the youngsters in the clan called him Ceramic Da. Ceramic Da escorted the dhakis from their home in Baidyabati. The younger of the dhakis looked at the Durga Protima, chuckled and immediately stopped upon meeting the disapproving gaze of the master artisan. Soon Toton narrated what happened to Ceramic Da in his room upstairs. Pallav closed his eyes and listened intently while puffing Four Square Kings cigarettes. Something had to be done. He spoke to Toton. “ Don’t worry, everything will be fine”. Toton was ecstastic, “Really ? How, Ceramic Da?” Pallav spoke with great conviction, “Leave that to me, Mother willing if all goes well this years puja will be like other years too and nobody will know the difference.” Toton was restless, “ What are you going to do ?” Pallav smiled, “I have a secret plan, just between you and me. Let’s call it Operation Kathmandu”.
Mahasasthi had arrived, the drummers were practicing their drums as the incense was burnt. The priest arrived, the doors opened and acquaintances started trickling in. Toton stood in the back with Ceramic Da avoiding Chhor Dadu and looked at the chandeliers. It was time to take off the veil. One by one they came off. The artisans removed the veils
with great trepidation. Saraswati, Lakshmi, Kartick, Ganesh, and then a hush fell over the house. The neighbors exclaimed “Wow, Ma Durga looks so divine this year.” The shopkeeper next door agreed, “The best protima ever at Saha Bari.” Toton was shocked and looked at Ceramic Da. Ma Durga indeed looked beautiful. The maids fainted, Chhor Dadu fell flat on the ground and yelled “Jai Ma, sab tomar daya.” The artisans said it was a miracle. The gossip mongers stopped chuckling and looked at the idol with great reverence while bowing guiltily.
Slowly Toton stepped back and asked Ceramic Da, “What was Operation Katmandu.” Pallav replied, “Katmandu means Kata Mundu or switching heads. I went to Kumartuli got another face made and replaced it on the murti .” Toton laughed, “You are really a Ceramic Da, where did you learn how to work with clay.” Pallav puffed his Four Square Kings, bowed to Ma Durga and replied, “That’s a secret.”