The newspapers say Kumartuli is dying.
Today is Sunday. The Metro carried pictures of three old men- one barechested, another spectacled, a third reportedly ninety years of age but not looking it. The last of the great masters of Kumartuli. God makers. Men with magic fingers who live and work in the backlanes of North Calcutta, in nondescript godowns and teetering sheds. A people warren, complete with shifting bazaars, ancient shops with handlettered signs, chalk coloured houses through which cows and dogs pass freely, and a railway line running through the very heart of it all. They say the light changes in Kumartuli every six hours. I don't know the place intimately at all and hence love it as if I did. I've entered a stranger's house there, played with her baby, climbed a twisting wrought iron staircase to look down on rooftops that touch each other and touch the sky. I've felt the noonday sun there and seen naked children racing across the railway track, propelling themselves off the ghat and into green water in one liquid burst. Clay streaked children with dazzling grins who jostled for attention as I asked for a photograph. They say novels are born here every day.
Kumartuli is dying. Nobody wants their sons to become idol makers anymore. Not when there are art colleges you can send your children to. Not when Bollywood hires set designers and theme pujos demand statuary in fibreglass, plywood, plastic. Not when the government harasses you with paperwork and environmentalists lobby for lead-free paints, soluble raw materials, a cap on bishorjon in local water bodies. No one comes to the masters to be apprenticed these days. Old men with arthritic fingers squatting in the same hovel for generations with wood and straw and clay. Near-sighted eyes behind plastic-framed glasses work quietly, creating the kohl-lined gaze of the goddess one more time this year, then another year, and another, until darkness falls.
The boudi whose house I had invaded "for the view" offered me water and mishti because it was my sixteenth birthday. Her child, son or daughter I don't remember, peeked at me from behind its mother's sari as pigeons gurgled around us on the open roof. I refused the mishti but said I would return, certainly, maybe in the monsoon to see the para become a living flood, or on any evening for the lighting of the lamps. A year and a half ago that was and I haven't gone back. I was so sure then, and in the days following it, that I would return, wander the bylanes of another city and wait for the stories to come alive. This is not a story and it was a long time coming. It is all I have to offer to the artists I saw but couldn't speak to. My offering to gods I don't believe in. Gods of colour and clay who in their earthy human beauty showed me a spark of the divine.