Fiction pick: The girl who learnt to sculpt goddesses, and then disappeared

An excerpt from a novel about an ethnographer’s search for people who have been forgotten.

When she closes her eyes, the fettler reappears. He holds a brush and a small knife. His fingers are the colour of clay. The face of a Durga idol lies on a stone slab. Next to the fettler there is a row of medium-sized headless straw models pushing against each other. The models are kicking one another for space. With the back of the brush the fettler draws the hairline of the model at hand and keeps brushing along that line until the curve is distinct. No excess clay remains. He dips his thumb in a bowl of water and repeats the gesture along the hairline with his thumb.

All the while the model stares at him, its eyes without eyeballs. The back of the model’s face is dark and hollow. The fettler lifts his head to catch a glimpse of the fast graying sky. Drains will swell with the straw that the rain shears off the models and splatters of clay will chart the edges of the narrow street. Cover the models with tarpaulin, fast. A spray of water cools the fettler’s forehead. The model’s eyes glare as the droplets infuse them with sight. The black mole on the fettler’s nose glistens. His face turns toward her. His face turns into her face.

The enlivened Durga pratima continues to haunt her. She can conjure that face a million times without its brilliance diminishing; and the blue veins that swelled on the fettler’s wrist when he carved the deeper recesses around the idol’s forehead! But after school, these days, all she does is tutor the neighbourhood children. She teaches math and history, subjects she does not care for but knows just about enough to help the class five students. How will she get through the difficult board examinations?

She envies her brother who Baba let drop out of school because during the peak idol-making season, which comes right in the middle of the academic year, family members need to oversee the work in their workshop. Baba asks, what good is education doing to the young boys in this city? They have not only made their own lives difficult but also augmented trouble for others. Schools and colleges remain closed for days at a stretch because of them. Their strikes will shut down factories.

Consider how the police came up to his house even as his son had nothing to do with those rebels.

The selfishness of those boys who put his wife’s and daughter’s lives at risk to save their own irks Baba. The perpetual fear of mob massacre has not done any good to his business. Baba hopes that his son will learn something more constructive through his apprenticeship at the workshop.

If you think you can run this business without knowing how to mould the idol with your own hands, then you are mistaken. It is god’s work, the work of love. You ought to love this gift you have inherited. You cannot run the workshop from the bamboo benches of the nearest tea stall. Do you really expect your labourers to take care of everything while you comfortably sit there and sip your tea? For them it is ultimately about their daily wage. You are the one in charge of the bigger picture, accountable for it.

Besides, you will eventually need to train new boys and your own sons. Boys, who are on Baba’s payroll for years, whom he trains with plenty of love and care, abandon him when they spot greener pastures. That’s the way of the world and you need to brace yourself for it.

When she was younger, Baba did not mind her playing with clay. She could roll little clay balls between her warm palms. She could press those uneven wet orbs with her fingers to fashion swan’s beaks. And, elephants, crows, or pairs of grooms and brides. The latter was somewhat exasperating. The task of crafting the bride’s and the groom’s bodies does not present many problems. But their faces! You should be able to tell the bride and the groom apart from their faces. That is the fundamental rule. Yet how do you go about it?

Both the dolls have spherical heads – not any larger than her favorite coconut laddoos. A problem of this magnitude warrants consultation with Baba. He, at the very least, has the benefit of experience. Baba is happy to share the secrets with her. What is more, with his nimble fingers Baba gives a demonstration – creates strands of hair for the bride and a squarish head, a side-parted hair as well as a moustache for the groom. She watched his fingers move with keen eyes, replicating it proximately with her astute hands.

But now she needs a good reason to enter the workshop. Sometimes she goes on the pretext of delivering lunches or conveying some message from Ma. Nobody would mind if she touched any of the models – technically it all belonged to her family and to her, but a tacit agreement prompts her to stay away from the clay models.

Torsa Ghosal
Torsa Ghosal

A couple of years ago, when she was about to climb a stool to stick sweets between the lips of the Durga idol on the final day of the puja, Ma had stopped her.

Gods will have nothing to do with leaky and messy girls like her. She had to wait another full year before she could greet the goddess. Entering Baba’s workshop is like reliving that time of the month. What if an untimely drop of blood climbs down her thighs to soil the Durga pratima’s neat saree or Ganesha’s loincloth?

While delivering lunch, she overhears two men debate the roundness desirable of an idol’s belly. The hips of the idol ought to be motherly. But not so round to seem as though she has just devoured a full meal of hilsa and a heap of rice so high that a cat can barely leap over it. Ganesha can be chubbier. He is the beloved younger son of Durga. But the contours of the childbearing waistlines of the ladies, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali ought to be watched.

Do Baba and her brother think of the women they know – Ma and her – when they sculpt the goddesses? She remembers her younger, flat-chested body, stripped off clothes on the banks of the Hooghly, standing in her panties, watching the steamer packed with busy office-goers leave the jetty, before diving into the river – nakedness without guilt and the commonplace wonder of having the brown water, in which goddesses are routinely immersed, touch her skin while a crow gets to rest on her clothes dangling from the steps of the ghat.

Baba says the divinity of Kumartuli’s idols result from their unlikeness to the real bodies and the real faces of women. If they let real women constrain their imagination, then wouldn’t the Durga pratima end up looking like a bedecked doll? Her brother strides in, removing wax from his ear with a bunch of keys.

What is she doing here?

She has brought lunch.

Put it on the desk and go home.

Can’t she stay?

No, Baba will be annoyed. Already the workshop lacks space. Today a worker tripped into a bucket of paint while climbing down a ladder that reached up to the goddess’s shoulders. Even the idol seemed off balance for a few seconds, giving everyone a good scare. She will only add to the clutter.

But her brother can always tell Baba, whenever he returns, that she hasn’t been around for very long.

Fine but what will she do here? Her brother has to get work done.

She will quietly watch.

She asks one of the workers if she can help knead the clay. He laughs.

Excerpted with permission from Open Couplets, Torsa Ghosal, Yoda Pres.

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