The Divine Visitor
t had been a bone chilling cold day of December. The icy winds whistled through the crevices of windows. Sleet floated like saw dust and when the night fell, the snow flakes came down in great geometrical shapes, quietly blanketing the brown earth. The weather
God was at his best displaying his might, but the pandit households throughout Kashmir were bustling with activity. Women more than men; the later having finished their job by visiting the downtown fish market.
Around this season every year this narrow alleyed mart would be teeming with fisherwomen with red faces and redder fingers – hawking for their ware of fresh, fat and glistening front still alive and jumping in clean water in big cauldrons. The men haggard with these motley females over the prices before loading their sacs with loadfuls of precious commodity.
Then would the ordeal start for women. They had to scale, slash and clean the fish in freezing water. The fresh innards were to be fried separately in delightfully pungent mustard oil. This fortnight dedicated to the Ghar Devta; the deity looking after the prosperity of Home. Once a year, a day was ordained to cook a votive meal of tangy and spicy fish curry accompanied by rosy pink rice for the deity. This was ceremonial Gaad Batt'. Thick and long sticks of matured stem of lotus, Nadru in local parlance, completed the feast, at times supplemented by creamy turnips. Poshkar Nath’s women folk (he had quite a bevy under his care) also had toiled to keep up the family tradition of acting the host to all revered and benevolent deity. He was a registrar in the High Court of Srinagar, the fact that he was the sole earner of this women majority household made his mere existence even more important. Apart from his old mother, his wife, two school going daughters, there was his elder brother’s widow and a teenaged daughter in law, whose twenty one year old husband was the only masculine numerically adding to two males in the family; he was studying law away from Kashmir. Poshkar’s eldest married daughter also kept on visiting and each visit would last for not less than a month.
Kashmir was recuperating from the malady of tribal raid people had gone through hard times. Edible salt, tea leaves and sundry household items were scarce. The feasting on Gaad Batt had been looked forward to by young and old as social occasions and celebrations were a far off dream in the days of austerity.
Poshkar Nath’s household was run on modest means; his wife Kamla and his widowed sister in law slogged day and night to strengthen the soul pair of earning arms and kept the hearth fires burning. The two women complemented each other. Kamla was an accomplished cook, out of quite plain fares she was endowed with knack to bring out haps of steaming rice with hot curries of red and green hues every morning. The other one, widowed for more than 40 years would not be more than 55, but Poshkar held her in great esteem. She winnowed and sifted the rice; ground the pulses and wheat in a hand mill. Children called her Gunai- short of Gunawati- the women with wisdom. Kamla was by and large a fond mother but not overtly indulgent. She was bringing up her daughters the way a General grooms his soldiers to face impounding bullets in the battle field. In the bottle neck society of Kashmiri Pandits, it was the solemn duty of mothers to teach self denial and restained demeanour to girls. “Feed them pulao, but provide cow’s urine to wash their hands” was the anxious Kamla followed. This was her clinched belief that girls did need only that much of food as was sufficient to keep their life breath going. Never should a Bhata female stuff herself with goodies – All nice things were meant for men, the bread winners. Her hand automatically flinched while serving to female gender. Countering this rigidity and hard talk of the mother was Gunai’s relaxed liberality. She encouraged their girlish appetites, was their playmate and continually giggled with them. A busy bee, whose day saw her, in addition to household chores, darning the socks, mending the torn tunics or sieving seers and seers of wheat flour. She had an additional verve for theatricality. She amused on weddings. No mendhiraat was complete without her enacting the episode of an anguished woman who has lost her thool kokaer (egg laying hen) and Radha Krishna raasleela.
Kamla’s fish curry with tingy aroma was her specialty. All her relations and extended family waited year round, eagerly to be invited on Gaad Batt- the votive ceremony for Ghar Devta. They would gorge on succulent portions of trout.
The frying of fish on the stipulated date would start in the afternoon after cleaning the brass vessels till they reflected light. The whole household would come alive to a fishy smoke which attacked the senses of denizens including cats. Every individual would go berserk to procure a piece while being fried in golden mustard oil. On prvious occasions when the fish was being fried, Gunai would by sly hide some pieces in the bellow of her phiren sleeve and later distribute the coveted stuff among drooling mouths. Kamla never favoured this kind of concession. “Eating while cooking is an insult to Daanraz- the hearth deity. It reduces the final quantum of the dish”. She would retort to demanding brood.
But today the prohibition to partake the steaming pieces right out of the pan, was a transgression. “Hey mother, give me a piece, I want to eat it with salt and chilly powder” pleaded the married daughter imploringly. She was speaking on behalf of her sister in law as well, who being a daughter in law had to exhibit discretion. “Have you gone out of your wits?.... don’t you realize the sanctity of this meal…. It has to be offered to the deity- the Dayatraz the deity of our home”. Kamli fumed at the girl’s absurd longing. “Let the girls have it Kamla… you know their condition”. Gunai requested as she was aware of the precious fact that both the young women were in a state of happiness- both were expectant mothers. “What has come upon you Gunawati…you are not a true batani (a pandit housewife). Where has your sense of write and wrong gone? .. Do you want to contaminate the sacred food and incur the wrath of the deity? It has to be offered to the god first. Kamla was totally scandalized but Gunai was sanguine to discern the helplessness of Kamla. Of course the goodies will be served to all only after god’s partaking. But … she had a misgiving and a genuine one.
“Will really everyone enjoy the bounty of this feast”, she thought in heart of her hearts “ all that falls into the lot of women will be slimy head pieces and boney tails. The enormous middle portions were the priviledge of the men of the family -. What about the cravings of these young expectant mothers”. These disturbing thoughts raked Gunai’s brain even when apparently she was occupied with assisting Kamla. “Oh! Dayatraz help me , the only support I fall back upon is you. How can you grudge these girls a good piece of fish. How can the gods be wrathful on petty matters? This time you will have to share the feast. Then alone your content will show on this family. As if invoked by the deity himself, she thought to act.
When the night fell and Gourmet fare was ready with scarlet gravy and huge piece of fish- the sour nadru and sweet turnip. There was a mild mutton curry to go with the spicy fish. A degchee (bronze vessel) of zag batta ( rosy rice ) all ready to start the puja. Suddenly, out of blue Gunai was seized with a bout of headache. She was prone to these occasional episodes when she would quietly retire to her room, close the shutters and apply ginger powder paste to her temples. One would see her up and about the next day ready for chores. Today her presence in the kitchen was indispensable but she could not help; the headache this time was severe, blinding and incapacitating. With closed eyes, she gave instructions to the younger women. One of the girls escorted her to her room with the prescribed ginger powder paste in a khos (bronze cup), to be left alone with her agony.
Before serving the guests the deity’s thali was decorated with dried petals of pansy, vermillion, and an uncooked raw fry. The dining space readied for the deity is usually the uppermost garret generally dark during the winter months. The assigned niche had previously been washed by Gunai.
As per the norms, the daughter in law held the earthen lamp and the tumbler of water. Kamla was with the thali, with offerings in both her hands. And Lo and Behold ! a bizarre site caught their eyes. A human shape squatting on the floor in white woolen phiran and a white turban- with back facing the door made an appalling site. The face was not visible. The apparition was enough to bring out a shriek from both the women. Their legs buckled, the lamp fell from the hand of the younger woman, the elder one conforming to her age and status exhibited courage. She held on to the sacred food in her hand meant for the deity. A ruckus followed. The whole crowd of guests and members of the family clamoured to the site. Amidst this utter commotion a deep voice emanated from the figure ordering the crowd to calm down.
“Sit down, all of you…I have come on your invitation”. The sound of the voice was an echoed rumble; the words were broken, as if some one was talking through the pipe of a tumbakhnari. Poshkar’s old mother fathomed the depth of prater natural essence of the event. “O half wits prostrate your cells and bow your heads. Our Ghar Devta has manifested and actualized himself”. She called out excitedly.
The whole household ran wild. They were watching a revelation. The trembling voice spoke again “Fetch meals for these young women- let me experience the contentment through these girls”. It was done. Two thalis full of a sumptuous feast were procured. “Descend down to your rooms and have it”. Ordered the voice. The girls devoured the meal, two big portions of fish, mutton and rice in voluptuous morsels was finished in a matter of minutes. Everyone stood with folded hands in awe. The inmates were in a state of bewilderment. Everyone talked and there was a general buzz. “Go now, let me have my share” deity said. One by one they left but almost in a stupor.
Next morning the neighborhood was agog with rumors. Kamla reported to Gunai “How could you sleep through this exciting event”? Gunai stood there almost chuckling with her tongue in cheek. “How does he look like”? Asked Gunai.
“Our Dayat Raz is rather effiminate”Kamla replied.”Why-Dayat Raz is verily a robust and sinewy personality”. Gunai expressed. “No- this one is cool as the shade of a Buney (chinar). Not a fierce fiend”.With these words Kamla looked towards the heavens and bowed.
That year proved quite ominous for Poshkar’s clan. Both the young women got healthy off-springs. Poshkar’s son returned home with a degree and got a good job. As for Gunai she was sure that she had the sanction of Ghar Devta to do whatever she had done. She compiled a panegyric in the deity’s praise which was sung in a course on all weddings that followed. Hence forth it was customary among Poshkar’s descendents that Dayat Raz had to share his thali with the pregnant women of the family.
|*Parineeta Khar nee Zutshi was brought up in an extended family where joys and sorrows, even the illness and career of a child was a shared affair. Although she is a science graduate,. the penchant for English literature stood in her stead ; She came out with an Honours in English literature. She further accomplished her Masters in the same subject from the University of Kashmir.
Her restless existence had no time to grow as she got married during her university days. Her husband’s career tossed her on to the far off lanes of Paris. Motherhood, responsibilities of a wife and a daughter-in-law and running a household with a scientist husband kept her busy for a good part of her energetic years.
When the demand for her other roles diminished – she had time to reminisce. The stored up memories gushed out in a deluge. She started writing short stories for local newspapers.Her first book “ ON THE SHORES OF THE VITASTA” was published from the Writer’s Workshop of Calcutta. The other book “ WE WERE AND WE WILL BE “ was published from Utpal Publications, Delhi. Her stories depict a celebration of life – a continuation of life. Parineeta and her family have been living in Hyderabad from the last twenty eight years.
Read another article from this author in shehjar:
The Other Side of It
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I will be thankful if I could please get the phone number of Parineeta khar as she happens to be my good friend and have not been in touch with her for long. I was delighted to know that she has penned down stories about kashmir in such a beautiful language . God bless her .... Veena wazir/ cherry Tiku
Added By Veena Wazir
Really a wonder & appropriately penned article on our ritual Gadda Batta,exoberating full confidence over the vocabullary. May God bless the writer along ewith her family Besides bestowing her with lot of energy level to churn out such wonderful articles in the times to come.,
Added By rajinder raina
Really a wonderful & plasible explination of our ritualGadda naration
Added By rajinder raina
Parineeta, Wonderfully worded and appropritely written. God bless you and keep you always happy and prosperous and grant you and your family a good health. Keep up the good work and it reminds me of our college days together that are gone by long time ago.........
Added By girja raina