My encounter with the androgynous Devi, transgenders and sex workers.
“Didi ektu side pliss…”
The Calcuttan version of “Excuse me…” came my way as I tried to find my balance in the sea of visitors in the pandal. Dare I say ‘pilgrims’, considering Puja is now less a religious festival and closer to alcohol-free Sunburn. There wasn’t much of a ‘side’ to move to, since the entry into the pandal was bursting at the seams. But I obliged a bhadralok - Calcutta-speak for the decent middle class man, who wanted a close shot of the androgynous Devi with his Nikon.
Don’t know whether to call it Devi, the right half of its body with a thin line of moustache was a man’s – Shiva. The left side being a woman’s - Durga, with her signature diaphanous lids drooping over intense eyes. It was an embodiment of the ardhnareshwar, an avatar where both Shiv and Shakti (Durga) fused into each other become one. A stroke of genius on the part of the transgender community which organized the puja to bring to light the existence of the third gender within the realm of religion.
Every year the newspapers helpfully come out with their own list of Top 20 Must Visit Pujas, and this particular one featured on the Top 5, along with the 70 foot tall Devi in Deshopriya Park. They always include one that makes a political statement. And this one has been making the headlines for being the first of its kind, its maker China Pal’s (a woman) face flashing across every daily. The journalist community of Bengal had gone all out in support of the LGBT community’s effort.
This isn’t the first time Kolkata has validated the third gender- only a few months back it had claimed to have had the first Transgender college principal. Just a couple of days ago I had gone to Kumartuli (the neighbourhood of sculptors) where the idol was still getting its finishing touches. The place was teeming with journos and photographers, the whole Puja claimed to bring on a revolution. Yes, the androgynous Durga had made a splash in all the media, but there was a question I had been asking myself, did the journalistic success of this Puja necessarily denote an acceptance of this displaced group back into the bhadralok society?
I had told my family- my cousin, his wife and little daughter, my mother and my aunt, about this, and we had excitedly ventured out, our minds and hearts open to check out this one-of-a-kind puja while puja-hopping in North. The newspapers had reported the area to be Joy Mitra Street, never specifying the exact location. So we got on to our Google Maps, asking for directions wherever we could. At one point a helpful cop pointed us to the exact lane, but also added to my brother, “Don’t take the family there now… Come back in the morning…” It was strange, because ‘now’ was 2:30 AM. The puja equivalent of 7:30 PM on a regular weekday. The traffic on the streets was bumper to bumper. The mystery deepened, the lane that we had entered into was pretty crowded, and we still couldn’t find a reason to confirm the helpful cop’s reservation. And suddenly it became clear- the puja turned out to be right in the middle of Sonagachi - Asia’s largest and the most notorious red light area.
Imagine my bhadralok family’s horror when they saw brightly bedecked sex-workers (not the term my family used to describe the women) soliciting ‘customers’ right outside the entrance, proudly decorated with the LGBT flag.
“Jodi keu dhore niye jaye?” (What if someone takes you away forcefully?), they aired their concerns in front of me. I stubbornly stomped out of the car and made my way inside, despite their protests.
I stood in queue for some 10 minutes fuming at the closed-mindedness of my family, while surrounded by women trying to make a living on Panchmi night. Ironically the entrance of the pandal is adorned with paintings of courtesans dancing in front of their patrons, symbolic visuals of a noose and a burning matchstick, the only options that the future held for these outcasts. I was reminded of a line from the film Devdas, where Madhuri Dixit, a courtesan had raised a question - why were sex-workers ostracized from a religious festival like this, when in fact ritual itself stated that the Durga idol was to be made with soil collected from a sex-worker’s courtyard?
Entrance of the pandal adorned with paintings of courtesans
The irony of it was that a Brahmin was supposed to go to a sex-worker’s doorstep and beg for a handful of soil. Punya mati (virtuous soil) it was called. The saying was that everytime one entered the doorstep of a sex-worker, they left all morals and virtues at the door. Hence the soil at their doorstep was the purest. Nobody remembers how this ritual came about, but whoever made this rule knew caught the concept of poetic justice bang on. But here we were, in twenty first century, with a certain section of society relegated to the footsteps of the place that supposedly celebrates the female avatar of divinity. Where the castaways had to fight for their place in society, for their right to worship.
As the queue moved forward, we got closer to the idol. I noticed a sari-clad figure at the head, the forehead to broad to be a woman, smiling heartily at everyone as she (he?) handed out the proshaad to everyone. A familiar wave of fear passed through me. Standing in the midst of that pandal, I was transported to a bus journey I once took with my grandmother. At a stop somewhere in the suburbs the bus had stopped and a group of transgenders (hijras, my grandmother had called them) hurled themselves at us and the other unsuspecting passengers. They had clapped their hands loudly, made leering gestures, rubbed their hands all over the cheeks of reluctant men and implored to pay them money. I saw everyone quickly throwing spare change, notes whatever they could find at them, too eager to get rid of the nuisance. I remembered asking my grandmother, why everyone was paying them money. “Because they should never be refused or angered… bad things happened to people who do…” with that she handed a coin to one of them and quickly averted her eyes.
For many years I had followed suit, quickly grabbing some money at the sight of them in a bus or train, averting my eyes so I don’t see anything I wasn’t supposed to. Or anything that would haunt me forever. I had fought with my mother and my aunt for their closed-mindedness but today I still feel the same discomfort as the sari-clad person stands there proshaad in hand, waiting for me to take it. Was I any different from them? Perhaps she (he?) has noticed my skepticism.
I folded my hands into a cup and bent forward to take the proshaad, determined not to let some misplaced memories from the past come in the way. Thankfully, blessedly, the sari-clad person threw a thousand watt smile at me. “Happy Shashti!” I thanked her and moved on.
Just then a squeaky, but clear voice burst forth. “Maa! Eyta mee na chhele???” (Is it a girl or a boy???) It was a little boy. The voice stubborn, insistent. Everyone turned to see the tiny thing in his mother’s arms pointing in the direction of the sari-clad person and the idol behind, demanding to know. It was awkward. Everyone turned to the mother curiously. I could feel the thousand watt smile of the sari-clad person merge into a sea of loud claps and leering gestures from my past.
“Eyta manush…” (It’s a person) the mother told the boy. Then she pointed at the idol, “Aar oyta bhogobaan” (And that is God).
The haze of memories cleared. The sari-clad person smiled and passed on the proshaad. The Devi from behind watched on.
By Smriti Dewan
Photography: Raunak Kshetty and Abhishek Roy