Last year, on this Diwali night, I wrote a reminiscence from my beautiful days in Calcutta — with the memories of my childhood friends, firecrackers, clay lamps and all. It was a little on the sentimental side, however real and raw the emotion was. I guess, I was missing Diwali and our worship of Mother Kali the Demon Slayer — quite a bit.
Diwali (or Deepavali, in original Sanskrit) and Kali Puja are inseparable; they fall on the same day. In case you’re not familiar with it, Diwali or Festival of Lights is the cultural celebration of the harvest season. Kali Puja, or worshiping Goddess Kali of course is the religious celebration.
This year, I’m posting a short story I translated from the original Bengali. The author Sharat Chandra Chatterjee was a preeminent writer who left a mark in the world of Bengali literature with his passionate, humanitarian writing, especially his novels and short stories championing the often-forgotten place of women in the Indian society. He was also famous for his writing against feudalism and other vile forms of social and religious orthodoxy.
I hope you’ll like the story here, a story he wrote with a young audience in mind, and find out more about this great writer. Google Sharat Chandra Chatterjee, the Bengali novelist. Animal rights activists might read it too.
Brooklyn, New York
His nickname was Lalu. He must’ve had a formal name, but I couldn’t remember it now. You’d perhaps know that in Hindi, the word Lal meant the dear, the beloved. I couldn’t tell you who gave him the name; however, it was indeed the best-matching name for his character. Everybody loved him.
After graduating from high school, we entered college; Lalu said he’d get into business instead. He borrowed ten rupees from his mother and started a small contractor agency. We said to him, “Lalu, but you got ten rupees only.” Lalu said, “How much more do you need? This is more than enough.”
Everyone liked him; he found jobs quickly. On our way to college, we often saw Lalu with the sun umbrella on his head fixing street potholes employing a few laborers. He’d poke fun at us, “Run on now, scoot – don’t miss the attendance check.”
Even earlier, when we were in middle school, Lalu used to be the repairman for us all. In his school bag, he’d always carry a mortar and a pestle, an open razor, a broken knife, a little hand drill, a horseshoe, and such items. Nobody knew how he managed to collect it all, but with those trivial articles, there was practically nothing that he couldn’t do. He’d fix our broken umbrellas, put back the handheld slate board together, and even sew up our uniforms right away during a game. He’d never say no to any requests; he’d actually do a fine job. Once on some festivity, he bought some colored paper and natural foam, and worked nice-looking toys out of it; he even sold them at the banks of the Ganges and later bought us all peanut snacks with the money he made.
Gradually, we all grew up. Lalu became the best wrestler on the pit. His strength was extraordinary, and his courage was incredible. He never knew what fear was. He’d be ready for anybody’s call; he’d be present at anybody’s needs. Yet, he had a deadly flaw: he couldn’t resist himself from scaring someone. He’d do it equally to the young and old. We could never figure out where in the world did he find so many tricks to panic people. Could I tell you one such story?
In our neighborhood, Manohar Chatujje worshipped Goddess Kali in his house. One year, at the very late night hours, he must sacrifice an animal to the goddess. However, the slaughter man didn’t show up at the auspicious time. People rushed to get him out of his bed, but came back with bad news: the man was completely bedridden with a terrible stomachache. The news froze the worshippers; without an experienced slaughter man, there would be no sacrifice, and the entire process would be turned upside down, causing the gravest sin.
Someone in the assembled crowd said, “Why, Lalu can slaughter the goat; he’d done it many times before.” So, people ran again to get him.
However, Lalu woke up and said, “No.”
“What do you mean no? It’d be a terrible disaster if there’s no sacrifice.”
Lalu said, “Let it be. I done it when I was young, but won’t do it no more.”
People who came to get him started crying, “Lalu, there’s very little time left before the auspicious hour is over. Then the curse of the Goddess will kill us all.”
Finally, Lalu’s father came to the rescue. He ordered him to do it. He said, “These elderly men came to you because they had no other choice. You must do it.” Lalu yielded: he couldn’t say no to his father.
Manohar Chatujje was relieved to see Lalu. But there was no more time left. In a great hurry, the priest did the necessary ritual on the animal – he put the red vermillion and red marigold garland on it. The animal was fastened on the slaughter pin, hundreds of people in the puja compound cried out, “Holy Mother, Holy Mother,” and the enormous noise drowned out the hapless creature’s final scream. The semicircular, glittering scythe in Lalu’s hand went up and whacked down, and then blood sprang out of the severed neck of the poor animal, drenching the black soil red.
Lalu remained closed-eyed for a while. Slowly, the huge noise of drums, bells and conch shells died down. But then, it went back up again. The other goat that stood shivering in fear was brought in, smeared with vermillion and flower garland, tied on the slaughter pin, the devotees started screaming again with their “Holy Mother” chants, and the goat desperately, miserably appealed for its life to be spared. Again, Lalu’s blood-soaked scythe went up fast in the sky, and came down on the animal’s neck even faster. The severed body of the goat writhed and quivered for a few last moments, as if in complain against this terrible injustice, and lay still; the blood poured out of its neck soaked the already-stained soil of the puja ground.
The drummers insanely beat away their drums; devotees crowded up the puja courtyard, danced, and made a huge commotion. Manohar Chatujje sat on his special quilt, silently chanting his prayers.
Suddenly, Lalu made a terrifying howl. All the noise came to a screeching halt, and everyone froze in astonishment: what’s going on? They found Lalu in a trance, with his incredibly wide-open eyes rotating. Lalu screamed out, “Where’s the other goat?”
Someone from the Chatujje family replied in fear, “But we got no more goats. We always have only two goats to slaughter.”
Lalu swung his bloodstained scythe way up in the wind and roared, “No more goats? No more goats? Hell, that’s no good. I’m here to kill – bring me more goats, or I’ll kill all of you one by one. Holy Mother, Glory to Goddess Kali.” Then he made a big jump over and across the slaughter pin, with his scythe swinging around.
What happened next was indescribable. Everybody ran to the main door to escape together, lest Lalu had caught them up. It was a huge chaos. People started pushing, shoving and jostling in terror: some fell on each other, some tried to crawl on their hands underneath others’ legs, and some others got suffocated by the pressure of strangers’ arms and torsos around their necks. It all happened for a few minutes only; after that, it was all emptied – not a single soul was to be seen in the entire house.
Lalu roared again, “Where’s Manohar Chatujje? Where’s the priest?”
The priest was a scrawny man; he left early and hid behind the idol. Manohar Chatujje’s family guru was chanting from the Chandi the holy Sanskrit scripture; he quickly got up and went behind a big pillar on the courtyard. However, Manohar himself couldn’t run away with his big, bulky body. Lalu went straight up to him, held him by his hand and said, “Come on, put your neck out on the slaughter pin.”
With one hand, he held him like a death trap; his other hand wildly waved the scythe. Chatujje was out of control in fear. He wept and begged for his life, “Lalu, my son, look, I’m not a goat, I’m a man. I happen to be like your big uncle. Your father is like my younger brother.”
“I don’t care. I must sacrifice more to the Goddess. I’ll sacrifice you; Mother asked me to do it. Come on.”
Chatujje now cried out loud, “No my son, Mother could never ask for it, never. She’s the Mother of the Universe.”
Lalu said, “Mother of the Universe! You mean that? Will you ever sacrifice animals? Will you ever call me up for slaughters? Tell me now, or else.”
Chatujje cried out, “No more, my son, never. I promise here in front of the Mother – from today, animal sacrifice will stop in my house.”
“Yes my son, I swear. No more slaughter, never. Please let me go now son. I must go the bathroom.”
Lalu let him off and said, “Alright, I let you go. But what happened to the priest? Where’s that guru? Where’s he?” He then gave a howl again and jumped forward to the idol. Suddenly, two men, one from behind the goddess and one from behind the pillars simultaneously shrieked out, which created a strange, bizarre sound. It was so bizarre and hilarious that Lalu couldn’t restrain himself anymore. “Ha, ha, ha,” he broke out in loud laughter, dropped the hatched on the ground with a bang, and darted away.
Everybody now realized that he was pretending all along; his must-kill trance and everything was pure fake. Lalu was fooling around all this time. Everybody whomever had left came back in five minutes. The ritual of worship was still not fully done, it was greatly hampered already, and it made Chatujje terribly upset. In the midst of the pandemonium, he yelled, “I’ll show that rascal what I can do. Tomorrow I’m gonna make his dad whip that scoundrel a hundred times, I swear to God.”
But it didn’t really happen. The next morning, very early before dawn, Lalu ran away from home, not to return in the next week or so. When he did return, he slipped into Manohar Chatujje’s house after dark, touched his feet and apologized, to save himself from the wrath of his father.
However, because of the pledge Chatujje had made in front of Goddess Kali, from that day on, animal sacrifice was forever abolished in his home.