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SURESHBABU shuddered to think of his puja jajman (clients) forsaking him one by one. Last year, on the day of Lakshmi Puja, he hadn’t been able to finish his worship at every house in Govindanagar before the expiry of lagna, the “auspicious time” laid down in the Bengali almanac. Families had called for other priests whom they usually would not have invited to perform the puja had Sureshbabu been available. And this failure perturbed him.

Govindanagar always regarded him as the best in the land through which the Teesta ran. He was a great Sanskrit scholar and had studied grammar and religious texts under the tutelage of Nabakrishna Pandit at his renowned Sanskrit tol in Shirajganj of Purba Bangla. Sureshbabu did excellently well in both the Kavythirtha and Vyakaranthirtha examination. He was a gem in his class and Nabakrishna Pandit had said on one occasion, “My tol will not perish in my absence, Suresh will run it. He is set to become a Pandit, I am proud of him.”

Nabakrishna&’s appreciation was no sop. Suresh deserved it. His pronunciation of Sanskrit was superb, undiluted and never tinged with a Bengali accent – and Nabakrishna Pandit had noticed this. When a fellow learner once imperfectly pronounced lines from the Gita, he had told him to get the accent corrected from Suresh. “It&’s a Vedic language, my dear, that the Aryans spoke, you should be careful about the sound and phonetics,” he’d told his student.

The year was 1946. While Suresh was shining in his pandit&’s tol, when he was just blooming, being groomed to step into his teacher&’s shoes, tragedy struck. India won its long cherished independence after a year, but at a very heavy price: Bengal was divided and Sureshbabu&’s ancestral birthplace turned into a foreign land overnight. His study came to end, his dream was shattered, the disaster plagued him and he found himself standing forlorn along with his family in a midnight queue at Shirajganj to board the train bound for Lalmonihat, from where they would cross over to Jalpaiguri. He arrived at Govindanagar, on a bank of the Teesta river east of Jalpaiguri town. Within a year this nondescript terrain turned into a bustling village and streams of refugees from Purba Banga arrived in phases, settled and populated. Soon Govindanagar changed. Gone was the frightening silence and solitude that had prevailed for years, bar the murmuring of the Teesta in winter and its roar during the monsoon. Its new inhabitants held on to their customs and rituals. They performed every puja with great devotion –just like in their erstwhile homeland.

Sureshbabu was a helpless and despairing 20-year-old when he had first set foot in Govindanagar. Would the tol certificate get him a job in the “new” India? The meagre savings his mother had brought — a few gold coins stuffed into a pocket in the hem of her sari — petered out. He picked up the gauntlet to run his family and took to the priesthood. Govindanagar had got a scholar-priest in that budding Brahmin. In the three decades since, Govindanagar burgeoned into a bustling town with Sureshbabu&’s list of clients growing by the day. He was unable to take the load all by himself, so when his eldest son, Tapan&’s upanayan (thread ceremony) was held as he turned 12 in 1965, Sureshbabu got a helping hand.

Four years later, his other two sons, Dhruva and Tapas, also became “eligible” to perform puja. His sons freed him, so Sureshbabu attended to only a couple of pujas. To serve the clientele of Govindanagar better, Sureshbabu demarcated neighbourhoods to each of his sons. The youngest, Tapas, got the nichpara, the lower plane of Govindanagar abutting the riverbank. This area was relatively poorer and the inhabitants could not spend opulently on a household puja. Tapas trembled when he pictured himself seated on the asan facing a huge clay idol of Goddess Lakshmi. Pran pratishta (literally, giving the idol life) was a must in the beginning of any puja, while the chanting of hymns and rituals followed. He had seen his father place a jute stick with a white flower at its tip on the chest of Goddess Saraswati and mouth complex Sanskrit hymns for pran pratishtha. The prospect seemed quite daunting to Tapas.

In 1973, Lakshmi Puja fell in the last week of October according to the Bengali almanac and Tapas needed to conduct worship at several houses within a short window of time since the auspicious time was brief — from 11 in the morning till half-past five. After taking a dip in the river, he set out on his first day of performing puja outside his own home. Dressed in a snow-white dhuti and a saffron chaddar, his forehead smeared with sandalwood paste, he looked every inch a priest.

When he reached Ratan Das&’s home, he was exhausted — beads of perspiration dripped from his forehead as he hurriedly entered the puja room. He was on an empty stomach from the morning and every moment he thought about the end of the auspicious time. Taking his place on the asan, Tapas almost froze as he gazed up at the imposing idol of Goddess Lakshmi and a tremor rocked him. Though his voice choked and his hands trembled, he kept his wits about him. When Tapas asked, “Which gotra?”,  Ratan Das retorted, “Alimyan”. He found a crowd of women had gathered behind him, bowing towards the idol. He glanced at the jute stick lying beside him and thought he ought to begin with pran pratisthta. So he performed all the rituals: the jute stick with a flower at its tip, twisting the brass bell with his left hand and incessantly chanting hymns. The puja at an end, the family members bowed in unison and prasad was distributed. He quickly moved to his next client&’s house. By the time the lagna expired, he’d completed the puja at all the homes assigned to him and returned home after dusk.

His father was sitting in a chair in their yard and as he entered Sureshbabu felt sorry for Tapas — the load must have been too much for one day. The boy looked famished. The dim light of a lantern, dangling from the kitchen veranda, fell on his sweat-smeared face. “Oh my dear son, I am so sorry,” Sureshbabu said, almost as a mark of repentance. Without replying, Tapas darted into house and for an hour remained inside. When he emerged, washed and with a change of dress, he had a bite and sat in the yard along with his brothers, facing his father.

“How was your first day?” Sureshbabu asked his son.

Tapas replied that it went off all right.

“Did you carry the purohit darpan (abridged guidebook for worship)?” his father asked.

“Yes,” said the boy.

“But the darpan guides you for simple ghat pujo only and not for worshipping idols.”

“Yes, I know, father.”

“Then how did you worship the clay idol of Lakshmi?”

For a moment, Tapas wondered how his father knew that fact.

“In the afternoon I met Ratan&’s neighbour on my way home. Didn’t you do the puja at Ratan Das&’s home?” Sureshbabu asked.

“Yes,” Tapas replied.

“But what about pran pratishtha?”

“I did that as well.”

“You did? Really?” and his father burst into laughter. “What mantra did you chant for that?” he asked.

“It was simple, after placing the jute stick with a flower at its tip, I chanted Ratandasasya Alimyan Gotrasya Pretasya,” Tapas answered confidently.

“Oh my God. This is a disaster. You have killed Ratan Das with that mantra,” the father growled.

“What are you saying?”

“Yes. Do you know what pret means in Sanskrit? It means a departed soul. You uttered the mantra meant for a shraddha ceremony — in memory of a dead person.”

Tapas lowered his eyes. “Was it a gross mistake?” he asked.

“It&’s not only a mistake, it&’s a crime as per the scriptures,” Sureshbabu retorted in a voice that had a blend of humour, indulgence and accusation.

Tapas was in a fix. “What should I do now?” he asked meekly.

“What is done cannot be undone. Let me see if I can save him. Always remember, puja is not child&’s play.”

What would happen if Ratan Das died? Tapas was tormented by that terrible thought. After dinner, he went to bed and immediately fell into a deep slumber. He was being chased by a marauding crowd — each of them brandishing a dagger. “The murderer, Tapas, is running away, catch him,” they shouted. Tapas was running as fast as he could till the last bit of energy remained in his body. His pursuers were getting closer; it was as if the Jom, the God of Death himself, was breathing down his neck. As he ran through a jungle, he came across a bushy akashmani tree. He slid himself into a bush of creepers that almost wrapped the tree. He stood there, like a lifeless log, and held his breath. Within moments, the gang appeared and he heard their feet crunching the dry leaves strewn about. He heard one of them say, “That beastly savage, murderer of Ratan Das. Let us go and hunt him at home.”

Then he heard them departing and almost collapsed. Someone shook him with so much force that he opened his eyes. Oh! It was his mother. “Wake up, it is already eight, get ready for school,” she said in his ear. It took him a while to get his bearings right as the dream still swirled within his head. He sprang out of bed, smiled at his mother and began walking towards the river. On the way, he came face to face with Ratan Das, who was headed for the market.

“Tapas, your puja was the best I have seen. You are like your father. Just a minute, you forgot to take your dakshina (honorarium),” Ratan Das said, and fished out a packet.

Tapas got home and found a 10-rupee note inside with a small piece paper. On it was written in Bengali, “Amra khub khushi” (we are all pleased). He heaved a sigh of relief.