October and November used to be the most exciting time of the year. More exciting than my birthday month. Not only would we get to eat hot piping pooris and kachoris, but the house would also be dressed as a bride with a variety of flowers blooming at every level of our three-storeyed bungalow that my grandmother turned into “home”.
As soon as Navratri would start, I’d become my grandma’s tail and follow her around the house as she prepared for the goddess to arrive.
I would be up by 5:30 am (too early for a four-year-old who didn’t go to school because of a fractured hand) in the rocky Bundelkhand plateau in North India, as the weather took baby steps into autumn, almost seamlessly merging with winter.
The sparrows (hundreds of them who lived on the Jamun tree of our courtyard) were my alarm clock because my grandmother fed them rice and water in the morning. I would quickly bathe with hot water, wear my specially designed dress (to keep wearing the cast in my hand) that my grandmother stitched herself using her silayi machine (sewing machine).
My next task was to go to every floor of the house and pluck flowers for my grandmother’s pooja. I always took the cordless phone (like a walky-talky) which was connected to our intercom system because each floor had cats or monkeys waiting to greet me.
Our house-help - the amazing allrounder Pappu (Dwarika Prasad Kushwah) would be my bodyguard. The first floor had Gurhal (Hibiscus), Genda (marigold), Gulab (roses) and Champa. The top floor had used to bloom with Madhu Malti flowers that ran from the ground floor to the top floor of our house.
I would then connect with my grandma downstairs with the walky-talky and say “Over and Out” which meant I’m coming back downstairs. She would leave all her chores and wait for me to come down the stairs with flowers in one hand and a cast in the other. She’d wipe some sweat and dust off my forehead and give me breakfast.
She and I would then fill several bamboo baskets with flowers, some with grains, and decorate brass thaals (huge round plates) with 56 varieties of food before beginning to pray. She would take out a fresh plate of food for the cow who used to be outside our gate every noon without fail.
I would then rush to the prayer room of our house and start bathing the idols of gods and make them wear hand-stitched clothes coordinating their colours with the day of the week as per my grandma’s instructions. I had a personal liking towards some of the gods so I cunningly use to place my favourite flowers before them and then just throw the rest in the air to see where they fell. Pardon me, I was four.
My grandma would then put a drop of water in the red vermillion which she called ‘Sendur’ and tied a red thread (kalava) on my right wrist. As long as my grandfather was alive, grandma would dress up in a red cotton or Kota check saree. She never liked silk. She loved calling a rustic woman to our home during Navratri to apply aalta/mahavar on the feet of all women and girls in the house.
Remember, I was the tail. So while she prayed and chanted mantras using her rosaries, I would fall asleep in her lap. She would wake me up when her prayers were over and we would eat in a huge brass thaal together.
Our late afternoons were spent under the Jamun tree, where she read a few pages of Ramcharitmanas to me and I asked her questions as if she were a human Google. She never lost patience with me.
I was a jealous child. In those nine days, she would call nine girls every day and pray to them. I would take serious offence that why are nine girls being prayed to when I am there in the house. Grandma pacified me by saying that I was the goddess of the house. These were the goddesses that resided outside our home. It was easy to please me with the aroma of ghee soaked Panjeeri (a sweet powdery substance made with wheat flour and nuts), poor-sabzi and Panchamrit (raw milk mixed in curd and dry fruits with sugar).
I loved making aipan with her. A semi-liquid paste of turmeric, raw milk and soaked rice, which we used to make a rangoli like design which we called ‘chauk’ before we prayed. By the time I was 8, I mastered the art of making it. My old woman was so proud of me.
Seasons passed, I moved to another city, eventually another country and started working. The sparrows stopped coming when the woman of the house left for heavenly abode. I visited that home after a decade this year. The bowl of aalta, the aasan which she used to sit over while praying, the bird feeder, were intact. The idols I prayed to as a kid are now with me at my home to where I live now. Whenever I light a diya and start chanting the Gayatri Mantra, I look at my grandma’s Durga and sense her presence around me, beaming with joy that I still pray.
What was the need to tell this random festive tale you may ask? I think we do not recognise the privilege of growing up with our grandparents enough today. Women especially for me are the harbingers of light into any culture and the very thread that binds us together with small customs, rituals, not necessarily in the name of religion, but as a warm cushion to remind us where we come from, where our roots lie.