Punya Mitti

Someone is talking in the corridor and my mother is hushing them to be quiet. I sit on the side of the bed and listen to the sound of digging. From the window, I see the head priest of our town squatting on the ground and Ma pouring the dug soil in his lap, the sky above the color of dirt. The monsoon has blown itself out, but like Ma says, rain comes like sadness, a surge of water or a series of drops holding each other’s hand before becoming one with the ground. The priest bows his head in gratitude before he walks to the end of the narrow road. Once away from our eyes, I know, he will sprinkle holy Ganga jal on his body because he has been just outside a brothel; he has just begged a prostitute, my mother, for punya mitti to build the idol of Goddess Durga for the upcoming festival.

“Babu,” Haseena, my caretaker in Ma’s absence, says, and runs her long fingers through my hair. She’s wearing her favorite coral lipstick and salmon rouge, a round bindi between her bushy eyebrows. I bring my notebook to her, and she checks the arithmetic homework she gave me yesterday. For quite some time, she has been my teacher since no one would allow a prostitute’s daughter in their school.

“When will I start school, Haseena?”

“Soon,” she says, and marks the problems I must do again. “Let’s play chess.”

▴ ▴ ▴

A sound like a loud clap wakes me up, neck-deep in darkness. Perhaps a lizard fell from the wall to the floor. Outside, swarms of fireflies momentarily light up the jasmine vines, the bougainvillea covering the crevices of our old, condemned kotha, a house of prostitute and nachnewali, the shame of society. But from the outside it looks like any other house on the street. In another section of our home, a place I am not allowed to go, a celebration amplifies, and I hear Ma’s voice singing, the tap of her ghunghrus. Men occasionally roar like firecrackers in the stream of her soulful ghazal. From the window, the sky is a perfect square, like an ocean flecked with diamonds at night. Ma says the ocean churns and seethes, takes in all that is offered without attachment or aversion, and brings us rain. Her descriptions make me miss it even though I’ve never seen it. Closing my eyes, I imagine her hands carving elegant gestures, the chandelier on the ceiling carrying a million reflections of her charm.

When dawn comes bursting in my room, I am in the cave of my mother’s body, her palm on my forehead, her curved toes next to my leg, lightly brushing even when she is snoring. Later in the morning, when I ask her to make Macher jhol, she takes me to a spice and fish market past the railway tracks, past the mills, far away from the courtyard and the little town I have known all my life.

“What is punya mitti, Ma?” I glance at her. She is wearing a peacock-blue sari and short-sleeve blouse that complement her walnut skin, crystal earrings dangling to her shoulders like a string of raindrops.

“Sacred soil,” she says, pushing a hand against her sweaty forehead, then tucking a long, stray hair into her tight, black bun.

“Is it true that Goddess Durga’s idol is made of punya mitti?”

“It’s a part of Goddess Durga, yes,” my mother says with a frown, her perfectly arched eyebrows raised. I can see the heat is irritating her.

Ahead, a crowd, gales of high-pitched voices of hawkers and sellers. Some men curiously glance at us—sly smiles and moving lips. Even though we are surrounded by noise, I can hear their lewd remarks hitting my ears as if I’ve stepped on a fire-ant hill. Ma tightens her grip around my wrist and rushes past the crowd toward the hawker who waves and calls her name. After a brief bargaining war, Ma pulls out a wad of rupees from her blouse; she parts with it with great reluctance while I hold the fish in an old newspaper: our dinner, our treasure for the day.

▴ ▴ ▴

In the kitchen attached to our bedroom, separate from rest of the house, Ma roasts the curry powder. I crush mustard seeds and cumin. Spices fry and pots boil. The room is veiled in steam, the tendrils licking at my mother’s face, curling around her head.

“If the soil in our yard is sacred, why do men condemn you?”

Ma shakes her head in dismissal. In the background, famous singer and thumri queen Begum Akhtar continues to croon.

“Once, someone called you dirt, filth, a worm who needs to be burned and purified of her sins,” I said, the sound of my voice loud.

Ma looks at me.

“I heard it!”

“These men,” she says, “they curse me in the day, and they come to me at night. Drunk and hopeless, they swear on their children and confess their love for me. Then they joke with me, asking if I could teach their wives how to satiate them, but I know they don’t really want that. Any woman who knows, who is able to please herself and others, must be out of control, full of filth, dirt, and not worthy of matrimony.” A tear falls from the edge of her cheek and levels on the floor. “It doesn’t bother me that they call me whore because I am loose and free.”

I bring her a glass of water.

“Oh, about punya mitti—” She gulps a mouthful, her neck slender in dim light, the movement of fluid behind her translucent skin. She stares at the ceiling for so long, it makes me uncomfortable. “—it is part clay collected from river Ganga’s banks, part cow’s urine, and part soil from nishiddho palli, like this brothel. The earth from a forbidden territory is most sacred because those who visit our world leave behind their virtues at the doorstep.” Then she pauses as if preparing an argument to challenge an invisible opponent. “It’s just another idea to feed the egos of men.”

I don’t understand all of what she said, but I can see the pain moving in my mother’s body, glowing as it spreads across her limbs and torso, the skin surging with pink and bright orange hues. I hold her hand, and it’s warm, still pulsing with hurt.

“What happened to me, Babu, I won’t let it happen to you,” she says fiercely against my ear.

▴ ▴ ▴

The following evening, when it’s time for Ma to leave for the dance court, I watch her touch her makeup, the rose blooming in her cheeks, a light sparkle on her forehead and next to the inner edge of her eyes, the circles below them darker. She brushes her lips on my forehead, and I know I won’t remove the mark of her mouth until I bathe the next day.

Later, I sob in Haseena’s lap. “I made Ma cry.”

“Your Ma is tough,” Haseena says. Her deft fingers rake my scalp. “She’s Durga.”

▴ ▴ ▴

Next fall, I get admitted to a school in a nearby town, and Haseena is to accompany me. She and Ma pack my notebooks, my school uniform, my slippers and chessboard.

The night before, Ma and I sit on the patio stairs, the sky swathed in night-chilled ribbons of purple.

“I’ll miss your Macher jhol, Durga Ashtami,” I say, and place my palm in hers. “I’ll miss waiting for you, sitting outside with you.”

“Do you want to see something, Babu?” she asks, her eyes tired but sparkling.

We take a walk around the kotha, onto the road, across the fields, into a small place where half-finished Durga idols sit—some with blank faces, some only a body: round, smooth-muscled, cream-toned. Others have etched eyes that are fish-tailed and kohl-lined, their brightness about to spill. I watch my mother standing next to a full-size statue, her fingers tapping on the hardened clay as if it’s her own skin, her gaze liquid in reverence, a tender staccato conversation of the body and the divine, the breathless silence between them.

▴ ▴ ▴

In summer when school is out, Haseena is away visiting her folks and I stay with Ma. She paints my nails; I color her eyes smoky, the crow’s feet prominent, the wrinkles in her neck like slim pleats in her sari. We watch the swirling fan in her room, the curtains swaying to the monsoon poems we sing. Our thigh muscles quiver, dancing from a low squat, sweat beading on our foreheads and upper lips. Ma spins me stories of faraway villages, cycles of seasons, famines and floods, the forests and wild animals bursting at the edge of settlements where people always kept a machete and hardly slept. The sunset eyes of a man-eating Bengal tiger, the tall plants crushed under a herd of wild elephants, now and then an inky ejaculation from a red octopus in a secret river passageway, upturned turtles, the insatiable swamps that blobbed as they sank and suffocated fishermen alive. I’ve witnessed it all, she’d say—the demon who entered a young girl’s body and caused uproar in the village. A witch was summoned from Benaras, and she danced all night, spun and leapt in the air with bulging eyes, skulls around her neck. The next morning was girl was cured; she was free of the dirt that plagued her. More stories, I’d say and close my eyes. Years later, Haseena admits that the girl was my mother, and the demon was a middle-aged leader of her village who spoiled her. To avoid shame, her parents sold her to a prostitute in another town. After she was sold, Ma dreamt of a witch who cured her. That is, until I was born and she found a purpose to raise me, to love me.

On Ma’s right arm, I see a bruise—small, perhaps a nail mark, but bright. Maybe someone had hurt her, maybe it’s a mark of love. I am eighteen, she is forty, there are rooms in her heart I don’t wander into. Out of respect, out of love; to avoid hurt by staying ignorant. It feels safe not to know the people she endures, not to talk about this boy I kissed—his mouth warm and hungry, his legs pressed against my thigh, his hardness eager to plant inside my soil. It feels sanctified to stay in our cocoon of mother and daughter, sensing the grooves next to our mouths deepen when we see each other and smile. The rest of the world melts away as I rest my head on her beating heart. It’s smooth like the surface of a lake, rippling with light. I run my fingers over her bruise as if my recurring touch will heal it.

▴ ▴ ▴

I am hundreds of miles in a college in Kolkatta when Ma suffers cardiac arrest, or maybe a stroke. Possibly, she was unable to bear the distance between us for so long. No one knows. By the time I arrive, she is cremated where unclaimed corpses are burned. Haseena collects her ashes for me to disperse in the river, to relieve her from this world.

▴ ▴ ▴

In Ma’s room, I hold the earthen pot in my hand, my fingers slippery with humidity, my eyes hot and angry with tears, searching for any sign of her in the golden-brown remains. We’ve spent so much time together and yet, at this moment, all the unsaid questions rush like blood in my head—about desire, about belonging and body. About loneliness. And it seems impossible to breathe here, now, without her.

“Has the priest come in to ask for punya mitti for this year’s Durga puja?” I ask, my voice an echo in her room filled with too many memories, a blur of Ma’s presence next to the window.

“Any day now, Babu,” Haseena says, and presses her lips against my forehead, soft plumpness touching my sorrow. Now she is everything I have, to navigate the past and mourn my mother.

In the front yard, I dig the dirt with my bare hands. When the priest arrives, I fill his lap with wet lumps sprinkled with a fine dust—the sunlight reflected from them like a hundred flames from earthen lamps floating in water. The air goes still as if the entre attention of the world has descended into this this small, forbidden yard of my mother’s kotha. The hairs on my arms rise as I imagine skilled hands of artisans shaping the clay—the best Durga idol they’ve built so far, immaculate. As thousands of devotees bow to the kilowatt gaze of the Goddess and, at the end of the festival, carry her on their shoulders, bid goodbye to my Ma in the river Hooghly as she floats until she’s submerged. As I hold my palms together in prayer long after the priest has left. As rich, dark pads of punya mitti stick on my hands, their fragrance outing all other thoughts, their closeness, their tenderness like a heart muscle torn and sewn with ache.

Tara Isabel Zambrano is a writer of color and the author of Death, Desire and Other Destinations, a full-length flash collection by Okay Donkey Press. Her work has won the first prize in The Southampton Review Short Short Fiction Prize 2019, a second prize in Bath Flash Award 2020, been a finalist in Bat City Review 2018 Short Prose Contest and Mid-American Review 2018 Fineline Competition. Her flash fiction has been published in The Best Small Fictions 2019 and The Best Micro Fiction 2019 and 2020 anthologies. She lives in Texas and is the fiction editor for Waxwing.