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The cacophony outside shattered my drug induced slumber. But the irritation, which like a stubborn itch accompanied most of my waking hours, failed to surface. The clang clang of the kashor, the steady dhyang dhya dhyang beat of the dhaak, and the Sanskrit shlokas created a fluffy nest of intimacy in which I snuggled briefly.
The familiar nausea, like a spoilsport, rose through my throat, scorching my ulcered mouth, and smearing itself on my lips. But I shut my eyes tight and instead imagined the little girl. In her frilly skirt and Bata shoes, she rushed to the Puja pandal with her siblings. A smile spread across her face as she bowed her head in front of Goddess Durga.
Now that girl was a grown woman, withering away in bed. And her ten year old daughter stood hesitatingly at the threshold. I sighed. Instead of gorging on phuchkas and ice creams with her friends in the Puja stalls, Mou waited with my breakfast tray.
I wanted to pull her inside my war torn chest, ravaged after battles with chemotherapy and mastectomy, and assure her that I was fine.
So, amidst the resounding protest of every organ in my body, I gathered my daughter’s love as a harness to rise up. My cracked lips broke into a smile. To an outsider, I might look like a madwoman– my frail body lost within the folds of my sleeping gown, the wrinkles on my unwashed face and my baldness creating a picture of someone far beyond my years. But for my daughter, I was still gorgeous. I’d seen love drop from her eyes. I’d felt that love planted like soft petals on my patchy cheeks.
I ushered her inside.
“Ma, look I put chocolate chips in your oatmeal porridge, now eat it up like a good girl!”
She set my breakfast tray on the bed and ran her fingers through my stubbly head.
“Mou, I feel better today. Will you take me to the Puja mandap, please?”
She looked surprised but her face lit up like the Diwali night. “Really?”
“Yes, baby. I want to see Ma Durga.” I completed the sentence with “one last time” under my breath. I didn’t want her Durga Puja to be overpowered by the stench of my illness.
She gently sponged my face, helped me wear the traditional white sari with a red border, the sight of which brought back memories of the times when I had performed dhunuchi dance in front of the Goddess.
As I brushed away my tears, Mou tugged and pulled at my wig with her little fingers, securing it firmly. Then she placed a red bindi on my forehead. I looked at my reflection in her coffee brown eyes. My baby was my mother now. As my fingers brushed across my flat chest, I felt as if all the signs of motherhood were slowly eroding from my body.
The bustle of activity froze midway as we entered the mandap. Though my neighbors promptly assumed the veil of normality, the shock and unease that they inadvertently let slip for a moment was enough to shake my confidence.
My little girl’s faith in humanity seemed to be unscathed though, as she dragged me to the women cutting fruits for the Puja.
“Mili aunty, Rita aunty, dekho Ma has come!” She gushed.
I understood Mou’s childlike euphoria was because her mother could participate in the celebrations just like everyone else. My sweet child! At that moment, I decided to kick self pity right out of my soul for the sake of my daughter whose only wish was to see her mother happy.
I smiled at the women the way I might have when I was the center of all the activities in this Puja mandap. Like nothing had changed. And then a strange thing happened. Once I opened up to them with warmth, I felt compassion being offered in return. I realized their initial unease was because of the frozen wall of silence I’d created around myself since the doctor’s verdict a few months ago. Today they witnessed the wall melt right before their eyes.
Yes, the doctor had given me just a couple more months’ time. Yes, I was worried about Mou living with her father and step mother. Yes, the prospect of such an abrupt goodbye made me feel impotent with futile rage. But even if I wrap myself in a cocoon of anxiety, can I prevent the inevitable? I took a lungful of breath. The smell of incense and kodom flowers wafting in the autumn breeze, the melody of the dhaak and dhol, my child running around with her friends, my neighbors feeding me with juicy neighbourhood gossip to take my mind off cancer, and Ma Durga beaming down on me, as if assuring me that all was well. If my vacation on this vibrant earth was destined to be short, then I needed to soak up every bit of the laughter and love before I left.
“Why don’t you ladies come over for tea, sometime?” Their enthusiastic medley of replies was enough to assure me that like Ma Durga, my stay on this planet though brief, would be memorable.