Brothers Kada and Mati were abandoned as babies on the muddy banks of the river Ganges in the Shovabazar area of nostalgic North Kolkata. While some thought them to be the unwanted seeds of a prostitute from neighbouring Shonagachi, Asia’s largest flesh-market, others believed them to be Demigods, sons of the Goddess Ganges herself.
It was a wet and cold August night in 1980. Chandrabhanu Pal, a local idol-maker was on his nightly rounds collecting a special kind of glistening river clay for his unique idols. This special clay could only be found at particular spots, where Mudskippers wiggled and aired it to an ideal texture most suitable for the master’s sculptures.
On that chilly moonlit night, while searching for this very precious clay, Chandrabhanu saw something on the muddy riverside, that would change his life forever.
He spotted two creatures that looked like skippers shimmering in the lunar hue on the cold clay banks. On closer inspection, what he saw, transformed his solitary existence perpetually.
Crawling towards the water were two infants, maybe a few months old. Smeared in clay with bubbles frothing from their mouths and nostrils the twins with their freaky leathery skin looked more like Mer-babies rather than human offsprings.
Being a dedicated worshipper of Lord Hanuman, Chandrabhanu had vowed to remain a celibate forever. He had never even in the wildest of his dreams thought of starting a family. However, that night, something touched his heart, and the devout bachelor became a devoted father for life, without having to take in a wife.
He lifted the infants in his arms, as they screamed and cried, burying their faces deep in his bosom. He made up his mind to raise them as his own. It seemed like the Goddess Ganges had finally blessed him with something more than his precious clay.
It was clear from the very beginning that the brothers had some deep and mystic connection with water. They swam instantly like little fishes when Chandrabhanu had dipped them in the river for the very first time to wash away the mud from their bodies, on the night he had found them.
As time passed, the boys grew big and fast. Their slippery-skin and enormous chests gave them a freakish appearance, which most strangers found quite disturbing. However, those who knew them did not mind the bizarre looks and prankish misdeeds, but much appreciated their loving nature and large hearts.
Growing without a mother, the brothers had much more freedom than most of the other kids of their age, and they used it to the fullest. The river was their mother, it was their life.
Though Chandrabhanu got them enrolled at the local Shovabazar Anglo Vernacular school the brothers barely managed to study. Their interests, however, lay in the river and its million pursuits.
Fed up with their poor academic performance and constant wild attics, Chandrabhanu would often curse the boys to get lost in the river from where they had come and to never return again. He would loudly complain to Goddess Ganges for giving him, two worthless good-for-nothing troublemakers.
Chandarabhanu had aptly named them as Kada meaning mud and Mati meaning Earth in the Bengali tongue, as the brothers turned out to be real mud creatures spending the majority of their time either in the water or on the muddy banks, weaving strings of mischief or playing some annoying prank.
Over time the boys became masters of the river. Right from diving from a speeding ferry in mid-river only to climb on to another coming from the opposite direction, to more than ten minutes of deep river dives to salvage unique shells and conches to decorate their father’s unique idols, they had mastered it all.
At times they would simply bask on the hot iron buoys like seals of the Arctic, while at other unbelievable instances they could be seen hitching a river-ride latched on to the back of a believed-to-be-extinct blind South Asian river dolphin once commonly found in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Karnaphuli-Sangu river systems of Nepal, India, and Bangladesh.
Were they really river Gods with unique powers to summon extinct water creatures? Were they large-lunged Cambions or Demigods capable of holding their breaths underwater for inhuman durations?
No one knew for sure, as no one knew where they came from or how they survived as babies on the cold muddy banks, on the night Chandrabhanu found and took them in. They were a real mystery to even those who knew them closely.
Chandrabhanu, however, did his best to teach Kada-Mati all about making idols, the sacred and ancient art of sculpting Gods and Godessesses from raw earth.
They learnt to select their father’s signature clay, the painstaking process of seasoning it through a neverending cycle of drying, powdering, sieving, watering, and again drying. The initial process of making the wood and straw skeletal structure. Followed by incessant hours of laying and moulding the mud with one’s bare hands, to finally painting, clothing, accessorising, to the last and sacred step of drawing the eyes – Chokhu Daan. Over time they learnt it all.
Chandrabhanu and his sons lived and worked at his ancestral home, on the banks of the Ganges at Kumartuli, a traditional hub for clay idols, not only famous in Kolkata but all over the world.
Kumartuli, which meant potters village, had been in existence for more than two hundred and fifty years. The locality was around the same age as the city itself. It started as a settlement for artisans, sometime after the battle of Plassey in 1757.
It was a time when the British East India Company decided to build Fort William at the site of Gobindapur village. Later on, the villages of Gobindapur, Sutanuti and Kalikata developed to what we know as the metropolis of Calcutta.
John Zephaniah Holwell, temporary Governor of Bengal (1760), under orders from the Directors of the British East India Company, allotted separate districts to the Company’s workmen.
These neighbourhoods in the heart of the Indian quarters acquired the work-related names – Suriparah (the place of wine sellers), Collotollah (the area of oilmen), Chuttarparah (carpenters locality), Aheeritollah (cowherds quarters), and Coomartolly or Kumartuli (potters residence).
Most of the artisans living in the North Kolkata neighbourhoods dwindled in numbers or even vanished over time, as they were pushed out of the area in the late nineteenth century by the invasion from Burrabazar, or the old Sutanuti Bazar.
Besides, Marwari businessmen virtually flushed out others from many North Kolkata localities. Potters of Kumortuli, who fashioned the clay from the river beside their home into pots to sell at Sutanuti Bazar, managed to survive in the area.
Gradually over time they took to making idols of Gods and Goddesses, worshipped in large numbers in the mansions all around and later at community pujas (prayers) in the city and beyond, and Chandrabhanu’s ancestors were among the pioneer settlers.
Twenty artisans along with Chandrabhanu were in much trouble with the Marwari businessman Gouri Shanker Ghatori, whose grandfather Giriraj Ghanshayam Ghatori had acquired a lot of land from the Calcutta Cardiff Trading Corporation in 1945, two years before the independence of India.
Over the years neither Giriraj nor Gouri Shanker’s father had been able to evict Chandrabhanu or any of the 20 artisan families, whose ancestors always lived and worked on the land. Gouri Shanker, however, wanted what was legally his.
He pulled many strings and spent a lot of money to expedite the 51-year-old court case, ‘Giriraj Ghanshayam Ghatori Vs the 20 Artisan Families of Coomartolly,’ which his grandfather had started. He was determined to throw out Chandrabhanu and company from his property.
His dream nearly came to fruition on 4th October 1996 when Calcutta High Court gave its final verdict in this case of litigated property. According to the courts ruling, by 4th November – a month from the date of the verdict the artisans had to pay a sum of rupees five lakhs per family to Gouri Shanker to save their homes, or else leave the land.
Chandrabhanu’s work was the pride of Kumartuli. However, in recent years, modernisation and technological advancements had brought in many alternates. Artists like him were becoming a dying breed. Their income had dwindled. Their slow, painstaking, and meticulous art was no match for faster and cheaper industrialised factory-like idol making.
The times were challenging, and the situation was tough. Chandrabhanu was yet to find a customer this year. All his older clients were going in for cheaper alternates.
Ideally, he had to get a customer at least a year in advance, for it took him around 12 months to mould a single masterpiece, and he would not make more than one in a year, or speed up or compromise his process in any way. Making Gods and Goddesses was more of a religious ritual to him rather than a profession for survival.
For moulding his masterpieces, Chandrabhanu did not rely on the Roman Calendar. His sculpting timeline was based on the Bengali Punjika. A unique dating system, which owes its origins to Emperor Akbar, who combined the Islamic calendar, his date of coronation, the Bengali solar calendar, or Suryasiddhanta, and the Gregorian solar calendar, to facilitate easier collection of taxes in the region. And according to this sacred reference, it was time for Chandrabhanu to start casting this year’s idol, or else he would miss the deadline.
Several doubts raced through his mind, various specifications, and little details, which had to be very precise to the customers liking could not be customised without having a prior insight into the buyer’s mind. How could he build something, which no one might ultimately want? He worried about his dying livelihood, his ebbing home and Kada-Mati’s uncertain future.
Chandrabhanu twisted and turned in his bamboo charpoy. Twenty-eight days had passed since the court’s ruling. Despite all their efforts, the artisans had been unable to gather enough money to pay off Gouri Shanker’s debt. Tomorrow he and the other families would have to leave their homes, as it was impossible to get the required money by the end of the day.
The master could not sleep. Suddenly the wind seemed to have stopped. Like the calm before a storm, even the nightly sounds damped into an eery silence. Looking down from his bed he tried to check on the twins, who usually slept on the earthen floor a few feet away from their father. They were, however, not there.
With a sudden heaviness in his heart, Chandrabhanu got up from his bed. Somehow, he felt very uneasy. His throat felt very dry. Droplets of sweat trickled down his forehead. Suddenly he became disturbingly worried about the twins. It was a night very similar to the one when he had found them on the murky shores sixteen years ago.
Unable to contain his anxiety, Chandrabhanu went out looking for Kada-Mati. Treading the bank frantically, he shouted out their names. Alas, there was no response. From one location to the other, he visited all the usual spots, where the brothers hung about, but could not find them.
After two hours of inexhaustive search and out of breath the concerned father almost gave up hope and sat on a boulder on the shore. He kept on thinking where could have the children gone. Though extremely boisterous and full of mischief, the boys had never gone missing in the middle of the night.
Chandrabhanu’s mind kept on wandering till his eyes fell on two large pots like objects on the muddy banks. Curious he got up from the boulder to have a closer look. On reaching the objects he saw that they were two copper pitchers camouflaged in clay.
They lay at the same spot, where Chandrabhanu had found his sons sixteen years ago. As he removed the mud covering the mouths of the copper pitchers, his eyes dazzled from the blinding sparkle of what lay inside. He was both shocked and overwhelmed with the contents.
Glittering in the moonlight were solid gold Mohurs (coins) filling the jars to its brim. Their financial worth was unfathomable to the humble idol maker. Besides the jars were footprints going in and out of the water.
With great difficulty he carried the jars back home, and called in his neighbours at the break of dawn, telling them about what happened during the night. They were thrilled, as the coins were more than sufficient to pay off Gouri Shanker plus sustain each of their lineages for generations to come.
Though there were shouts of joy and celebrations among the artisans, somewhere deep inside they were filed with an uncertain sorrow. For no one knew what happened to Kada-Mati, however, what they knew for certain was that the brothers were responsible for the gold.
Had they found this treasure buried in the river, and drowned after salvaging two pots and going in for more, or were they really sons of Goddess Ganges, who went back to their mother in exchange of the gold to save their human friends and father. No one would ever know for sure.
Mysterious was their beginning and their end too.
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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