The dwelling place of the household goddess had a circular thatched roof like a miniature barn. When such a roof showed signs of leaking, Jugin of Bhatshala village would be summoned to repair it. Jugin was an old hand at shrine building, long famous for his workmanship. Five years ago he had constructed the frame for the tiles on the cowshed near the shrine, using rafters made of palmyra wood. Though his eyesight had become a little dim, there was still no one to match his handiwork. It was always Jugin who created the showy crown of thatch atop the deity's humble abode. He was an artist as much as a craftsman. Who else but he could fashion such a crucial thing? People's faith in him went deeper still. The lady of the house, Shudharani, believed that Jugin's crown was so splendid that Goddess Lakshmi's auspicious owl perched on it at night. The source of her faith was her lifelong devotion to Lakshmi.
At her shrine, the puja offered to Lakshmi was straightforward. A brass pitcher full of water stood permanently by the outer step of the temple door. Every Thursday, in the evening, Shudharani in company with five other married women performed the puja: they ululated fittingly, smeared vermilion on each other's partings, and then Shudharani herself distributed to the others flowers and food offerings—the prashad. Everything was done correctly: a lamp burned, incense smouldered as the women, saris hooding their heads, prostrated themselves before the goddess. The sandalwood and vermilion marks on the mango leaves tied to the branch in the pitcher gradually dried up in the warmth; and the air lay heavy with the perfume of sprinkled Ganges water. No bell sounded, though; theirs was a silent puja, like a meditation. Neither was the image of the goddess sacrificially immersed. Each aspect of the ritual was simple, timeless, and sacred. Jugin had observed it countless times; he knew its every gesture.
As well as being a shrine builder, Jugin was a folk poet, an accomplished one. He liked to compose songs and rhymes for the boys to sing at the Paush festival in winter. Which people chose to sing them there—or at the autumn harvest festival Nabanna—had never for a moment bothered Jugin Sheikh. He saw nothing wrong in the Muslim boys of Bhatshala singing his [End Page 187] songs at a Hindu festival and collecting aubergines, pumpkins, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables from each house. Even when he was building an abode for Lakshmi in the courtyard of Shudharani's house, he never thought of the fact that though his first name was Hindu, his surname revealed him to be a Muslim. And yet today, he somehow felt everything inside him was being partitioned, all his true feelings being uprooted.
While watching him as he wove together straws, Shudharani had suddenly remarked, "Jugin, your name is not right for you, Jugin."
The remark's unexpectedness puzzled him. He said respectfully, "But Didi, which of us really has the right name? Is Bhatshala rightly named? The village is full of poor Muslims, but it hardly has a grain of bhat—and yet it has a fancy name: Bhatshala, 'full of rice.' I composed a funny song about it once, some twelve years back. 'The rice pot sounds boom-boom:/ bhat in Bhatshala—no room./Poets are out of verse,/they hang their heads and curse;/a noose is hardly worse.' Ha-ha! That's why we rely on you, Didi. With a lot of struggle, I can make ends meet by building shrines—even today, when work is scarce."
As Shudharani began to reply, a loudspeaker started up at the Brahmapada temple in nearby Shivkalitala. Despite the earliness of the hour, a shrill voice began to sing kirtan—devotional songs to Krishna—continuously. Jugin had heard something about this the night before on his way to Shudharani's. A group of kirtan singers had come from Maheshpur, led by a certain Bashab Chandra Das. Once upon a time, Jugin knew, Das had played young heroes...