I could hardly see through the aromatic haze which filled the room and my vision. It was an ordinary room with an extra ordinary atmosphere. There were twenty odd people seated on the floor staring with deep concentration on the wall opposite regardless of the heat or the smoke. The five gentlemen seated in front chanted incomprehensible mantras in rhythmic sing song octaves. Their chants hitting the ceiling and the walls returned to reverberate in the room with such echoing potent that the repetitive rhyme of their shlokas assumed a persona of their own and hung like a heavy rain-filled cloud with occasional bolts of lightening thundering across.
The booming voices of the priests electrified the environment no less than the deity captured in a huge floor to ceiling painting. Somebody said it was the portrait of Tibetan Kali. A few were of the opinion that it was the artiste’s own imagination. Some others said no, it was his other worldly experience which inspired him to draw the awesome and imposing figure. They elaborated that the artist had a vision of the deity in a hospital far away where he was lying in semi-consciousness recovering from an almost fatal ailment. Nevertheless these hearsay the portrait had an odd magnetism about it.
The reality was that a horde of devotees sat still in that square room with its spotless mosaic floor and stared intently at Maa’s supremely serene visage with all their hidden wishes, pains, aspirations and perhaps secrets churning inside their hearts appealing silently for mother’s indulgence or forgiveness. The beautiful countenance of the deity dazzled more and more with an ethereal brightness as the chants resonated into a crescendo. And so did the wicks of the candles and diyas placed before the deity for aarati. The dim lights of the room and the night outside could not cast gloom or despair on the devout seated therein as the darkness was dissipated by the steady glow of the candles and earthen lights becoming more and more intense by the hour.
Slowly and steadily the chants meandering through space proceeded towards its grand finale. As the Pooja ended everyone bent over and touched the floor with unfaltering devotion. The main priest, a short, unassuming, bespectacled man in a long shirt and dhoti, rose up on his feet, neared the portrait and raised his hands up above in the air and called out to Maa pleading plaintively, “Maa! Maa! Give thy blessings Maa!” Soon he stepped back and there in his mouth was a Gulab Jamun (sometimes it would be a sandesh or a rashogollah), Prashaad or blessing of the deity, in its physical form for everyone to see. One after the other the devotees in the room filed in front of the deity holding their packets of sweets trying to reach out to the unadorned hands of the deity raised up from the elbow to shower unhindered love and blessing to all her disciples. One by one they would file out carrying the visible signs that Maa had heard their prayers. Every box of sweet, opened or closed, had her thumb impression on one of the sweets, a tinge of vermilion and petals of marigold strewn inside. From where these came nobody knew but nobody present in that room questioned the veracity of the process.
Every Tuesdays and Saturdays our family religiously attended the ceremonies. We have had many such boxes of sweets with Maa’s thumb marks, sindoor and flower petals. I heard my father often saying that Sushil Babu was a Siddha Purush (a man who had attained spiritual heights). It was said that Maa came to “meet” Sushil Babu every evening. Her arrival was preceded by the chime of her anklets. Sushil Babu vehemently vouchsafed that Maa was a paragon of tranquil beauty – (she came to him as a typical Bengali Bahu in a red bordered white saree) – and was not the demon-devouring, aggressive persona as we were accustomed to seeing in pictures and sculptures. Sushil Babu had a checkered life of grief and personal tragedies. But not once did he ask anything for himself, so said my father always. Devotees who left their problems with him were discussed with Maa during their holy meetings. Some claimed to have had enormous relief as an outcome of these intimate conversations between Maa and her son.
I do not know how my father benefited by his association with Sushil Babu. But till now, even as I nostalgically reminisce over the magical realities of worship witnessed long ago, my heart or mind does not allow me to be skeptical or suspicious of the intimate communion between the Divine Mother and her Earthling Son.