I met her at sindoor khela. Now you’ll ask what was I doing at sindoor khela, a festival of bonhomie between married woman. I know, I know. A widowed woman cannot participate in sindoor khela.
The play of color on the last day of Durga puja was going on in the middle, and I was neither an object of perception nor the participant.
I was only an observer, a silent observer standing in one isolated corner of the festive courtyard in Safdarjung Enclave while the rest was bursting with life, colors, and laughs.
One woman seemed to be attracting particular interest from the festive crowd. She stood out in a sea of woman wearing laal para saree. Her long silver tribal necklace with red dori, pearl-studded nose ring, big red bindi on her forehead made her look like a rising sun on the beach. Her laughter sounded like the tidal waves, and her big kohled eyes were shaped like seashells.
It seemed like the ocean Goddess herself in all her beauty, and glory had come to say goodbye to the eternal mother Goddess.
The festivities were still on, but I chose to leave. It was around 10 am. I had to meet an old colleague for coffee at a nearby coffee shop. I could hear my stomach growling. A honey mustard sandwich and a cup of caramel latte on my mind, I quickly went outside the courtyard looking for my slip-on. While I was still looking for my footwear, a gentle pat on my shoulder made me turn back.
She pointed towards my kohlapuris that were flung in one corner of the alley.
She held my hand and asked me to sit on the bench near the tree. I was utterly dumbstruck by the audacity of an unknown woman holding my hand and then even telling me to sit. I tried to resist but I guess it was too mild for her to notice.
“You didn’t like sindoor khela”, she asked.
I said, “I am a non-Bengali. This is the first time I have seen this ritual. I have only seen it on TV. My friend told me about this place, so I just came to see.”
She said, “Maa is not Bengali or Gujarati. She is Mother. Mother to all. She comes to bless us all. And today, she would go back. You missed the opportunity to celebrate with maa.”
“My husband passed away two years ago. I read somewhere that this festival is only for married woman. I am a widow, how can I play with the red vermillion.”
“Who told you that red vermillion only belongs to the woman who is married. Look at me; I am single. Maa is single too. She made the man, and she made the woman. She created this earth, and she created the oceans. She is the energy that permeates all of us. She manifests herself in the form of Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh. She is the beginning of this universe, and she is the end.
She is the Shakti within you and me.
You know, sindoor khela is not about celebrating the Durga outside. It is about celebrating the Durga within in its many forms inside us. She is the wisdom, prosperity, power, knowledge, and courage. She is the epitome of kindness and forgiveness who protects us. She also symbolizes the slayer of the evil, our inner demons, fears and all the negative factors that hold us back.
So don’t hesitate. Go inside and greet maa. She will awaken your courage and strength to face any setbacks you face in life.”
She laughed and said, “And yes, your marital status doesn’t define who you are and what you are.”
I went inside, and Maa was smiling as if she was asking me to quickly as her immersion time was coming close. I had tears in my eyes when I smeared red vermillion on her forehead and smile on my lips.
By the time I came outside the pandal, my white kurta was all red.