The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Silent offerings to his own goddess

Durga puja is said to be the festival of kings. But in a shadowy alley in central Howrah, the Devi has descended in an unplastered room moulded and to be worshipped by a factory worker who can neither hear nor speak.

Tapas Karmakar is the name of this enterprising 26-year-old. Through the year, he saves money from his meagre earnings as a lathe machine factory hand. On Independence Day, the earthen container is broken open and the money taken out. That is also the day when work at the Bireswar Banerjee Lane residence begins.

“He will not let anyone else touch his gods. We are free to help with the chalchitra and other peripheral decorations, but the idol is his sole handiwork,” smiles younger brother Manas.

The features and the proportions in ekchala might suggest otherwise, but Tapas is a self-taught sculptor.

“From about the age of eight, he used to play with clay. Durga was always the figure of fancy for him,” mother Malati recounts, wiping the beads of sweat with her anchal.

In those days, his idols were a foot or two high, the little ill-shaped limbs held together by broom sticks. “I would separate the pebbles from the lump of soil and he would sit beside me in the kitchen, quietly creating those shapes,” adds the mother.

Tapas even made the tiny weapons himself, out of the aluminium foil caps of milk bottles collected from neighbours. The bhog offering then was water and batasha.

The Karmakar house had a tin shed and the puja was held at the doorstep, in the lane. “If it rained, the kid would stand there drenched, holding an umbrella over his Durga’s head,” recounts social worker Nishit Sarkar, who lives close by.

As Tapas grew up, the puja grew in stature. His mother bought him clay models from the Rathyatra mela, and he prepared the cast for the faces.

Now, the Bireswar Banerjee Lane puja has earned must-see status among neighbours and colleagues at the factory. “People flock to our house to see him offer puja,” says sister Rina, a student of Class X.

No one knows what mantra Tapas utters silently, but he spends hours at the neighbouring pandal watching the rituals. “Though we are not Brahmins, he even wears a paitey-like string when he sits down for puja,” his father Shibu says, adding that the bamun thakur himself comes over after his puja to encourage Tapas.

“They hold lengthy conversations in sign language which is beyond our comprehension,” laughs Manas. Another source of encouragement is local artist Moloy Ray, who teaches him drawing on Sundays.

The budget for the puja is around Rs 3,000. Tapas had started out at Rs 10 a week, cleaning machines at the factory. Recently, his earnings had gone up to Rs 300 a week. But last month, the factory in Khirodtala Gali downed shutters, for non-payment of electricity dues.

Tapas, after fixing the trident in the Goddess’ hand, shows how the power lines were snapped. Both father and son are out of work. The younger brother is talking of quitting studies. Desolation clouds Tapas’ face as he looks at his Durga and signals a smaller height.

Next year, the idol will have to be diminutive, but the spirit with which this puja is celebrated will never diminish, is the unspoken statement.

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