Jai Santoshi MaaIn the cinema hall, my mother transformed from an overworked, underappreciated mother and wife to a bawdy, full-bodied woman
In an era when walls were adorned with calendars of gods and goddesses, my mother and her siblings pasted Madhubala and Dilip Kumar cutouts from painted movie posters in their rooms, an obvious side-effect of the fact that my grandfather managed two cinema halls in Darbhanga and brought home free tickets for his wife and six children. My grandfather was a Meena Kumari admirer and a bitter love-triangle starring Meena Kumari, my grandfather and my grandmother ensued within the house, with my grandmother feeling terribly slighted because no matter how hard she tried, she could not cry as beautifully and tragically as Meena Kumari. My own mother, who my grandfather named Meena after his wonderful love, looked a little like the actress, but bloated like a pumpkin the moment she cried, and my mother, like her mother, considered her inability to cry beautifully tragic.
When Ma married and came to Sabaila, a small village on the outskirts of Janakpur, the first thing she lost from her carefree days was the movies. My father’s family—all hardworking, earnest farmers—had never heard of cinema. They hung calendars of Hanuman and Lakshmi on their walls and took near-midnight baths by the well before preparing for the day ahead, all at the ungodly hour of 4 am. The pleasure seeker in my mother suffered and I imagine life as a newlywed must have been difficult for her.
Some of this difficulty eased when she moved to Kathmandu with my father. Given her background, the city suited her better than the village and here, after dropping the ghunghat and the piety, she began a furtive and stealthy search for sinful cinema. It took her years to perfect the permutations and combinations required to enter the two cinema halls we eventually visited—Jai Nepal and Kamal—both not too far off from Maitidevi, where we lived.
My father, a product of practical morality and stringent savings, had to be kept in the dark about his family’s rare and clandestine outings to the cinema. He would not understand the ways in which Bollywood connected my mother to her pre-marital days, and later connected her four children to her. For our father, the act of going to the movies was more than just frivolous and foolish, it reeked of decadence, something his strict upbringing could not interpret in any way favourable. This my mother understood well, and so our trips to the movies too took on a movie-ish flavour. There was much planning, much plotting—an air of conspiracy and intrigue hung around our outings and turned them into adventures. But these delectable escapades came much later in my life. What came first was my nightmarish fear of the movies.
For the first few years of my life, I would rather have swallowed worms than watched a moving film. I bawled my lungs out at the very mention of cinema. My poor mother, who developed quite a thing for Dharmendra, had to miss Sholay when it first came to Kathmandu, a full six years after its release in India, all on account of her paranoid daughter. Ma tried, very desperately, to get me to into the theatre, but I howled and she never got to watch the blockbuster on the big screen. However, I was not to blame for my fear of the movies nor was my fear in any way irrational. The fault for my very rational panic lay entirely with my mother.
Two years after I was born, Rajkumar Kohli’s horror fantasy, Jaani Dushman, hit Jai Nepal. The movie was a raging hit in India and my mother had heard much high praise about the film from her sisters (plot: murdered newlywed husband turns into a ghost and avenges himself by killing newlywed brides) and so, during a week when Papa was away, Ma, excited beyond words, took her sons and daughter (already displaying some fear of the dark) to a dark room full of ghosts and screaming brides. While my mother and her sons ate carrot sticks, I wept and cowered in fear. And that was how I, a cinema lover’s daughter, became the antagonist of her life—the movie-hating toddler. And this time, my mother had no one to blame but herself.
But imagine her in Kathmandu. New to the city. New to the country. New to its language, culture, food. Young. Full of life. Confined. Too young but already a mother of four. High on life but beginning to tire. Movies were her respite. They were her links to the language and culture she had left behind. They were a manifestation of her nostalgia for home, but like so many things not allowed to women, movies—this beautiful avatar of leisure and rejuvenation—was not allowed to her.
For Ma, the fate of having to live in Kathmandu without any access to the theatre was worse than living in sincere, diligent Sabaila. And the fact that she herself had boiled the oil in which she was being fried made it worse. For the next three years, my mother watched no movie on the big screen. She spent these years trying to coax me into the theatre, but terrified by sounds and images buried deep within my subconscious, I refused. And my mother would have forever fried in the hot oil of hell had it not been for the arrival of Jai Santoshi Maa in Jai Nepal, a full three years after the ghost of Jwala Prasad (protagonist, Jaani Dushman) had sent me to my hell of terror.
I remember nothing of Jaani Dushman but I carry in me some very clear images of Jai Santoshi Maa. I remember too my mother groveling before Jeevach Uncle, our only Christian relative living with us while he trained with my father to become an accountant. He was sweet, down-to-earth and eternally thankful to my parents for allowing him shelter in the city. When Jai Santoshi Maa premiered in Kathmandu, Ma recognised a chance opening in her rapidly-closing world. If the ghosts of Jaani Dushman had crazed her daughter then perhaps the gods of Jai Santoshi Maa could exorcise them? It was a brilliant plan, definitely worth putting into action, except that I refused, and my mother, already at her wits’ end fled to Jeevach Uncle.
“Just take her, please!” she implored. “Do whatever you have to. Drag her there! Please!” She was near tears. Poor woman.
Dear Jeevach Uncle, of whom I was inordinately fond because he bought me sweets and stretchy donuts at a time when sweets and donuts were luxuries, relented before my mother’s heartfelt plea.
I, of course, had to be tricked. Bribed with extra sweets and extra donuts. Promised a ride around the market on Jeevach Uncle’s bicycle. Flattered and entertained. And I, a lovely duped child perched upon Jeevach Uncle’s cycle and pedal-pedal-pedal, trinn-trinn-trinn, we went around the market, harmlessly passing Jai Nepal a couple of times before I understood the trap set out for me (by my own mother, who was supposed to love me unconditionally!) and began a screech to rival a witch’s. I bayed. Had it been 2018, and not 1985, Jeevach Uncle would have been lynched by a mob for the suspected kidnapping of a snot-dripping child. But it was 1985 and people only scowled at me and clicked their tongues. “Behave yourself!” They scolded and gave Jeevach Uncle sympathetic nods. I was no longer fond of the man, and so when I finally bit him, I felt no remorse.
Poor Jeevach Uncle! How he fought my fear. How he dragged me into the hall. He stuffed thick donuts into my mouth when I bawled. He held me tight when I tried to run away. When the lights in the hall went off, he was truly heroic, simultaneously holding me down and stuffing donuts into my mouth. The movie began and I cried louder, but no ghosts floated out the screen, no sounds of sur-surring wind, haunting singing, disappearing brides, possessed bodies. Instead the world filled with images of sprawling skies upon which the celestials nimbly walked. On earth lived pious devotees who overcame all obstacles (and man, were there obstacles!) simply by the force of their faith. There were songs and dances. Rifts and crimes and redemptions. But mostly, there were beautiful beings, ultimately meeting beautiful fates.
Surprised and intrigued, I stopped crying. I fell in love.
Jeevach Uncle and I watched Jai Santoshi Maa eight times in all, and I watched it an additional two times with an ecstatic and deeply grateful Ma. I have watched no other movie 10 times in total. Jeevach Uncle left shortly after Santoshi Maa left the screen and I never saw him again—I heard later that he joined an NGO that cared for abandoned children and I like to think his success with me had something to do with his decision. When I think back to those days, I taste of sweets and donuts. I mouth cheesy, god-filled dialogues. I cry “Jai Santoshi Maa!” with my Christian Uncle at the end of the reel. I feel touched by the divine. I lose my fear of ghosts.
When Ma began her Friday fasts for Santoshi Maa, I was delighted. Santoshi Maa with her eccentric dislike for all things sour was my favourite god and I wholeheartedly endorsed Ma’s newfound piety. For years, Fridays were for sweets and prayers and some Saturdays, Ma packed parathas and pickles into steel tiffin boxes and we marched to Jai Nepal for three hours of fantasy. Here I saw my mother come alive in ways I never did anywhere else. She booed and clapped and wept most copiously. She laughed wholeheartedly at near inane jokes. She relaxed. She had fun. She transformed from an overworked, underappreciated mother and wife to a bawdy, full-bodied woman. From Bollywood’s thick melodrama, she gleaned the only philosophy worth practicing—to live. Through its music, she pulled poetry and through its plots, the thrill of epiphanies.
Until Ma’s death, we kept our trips to the theatre a secret from our father, who believed only in watching news on television and analysing world events. He therefore saw neither the poetry nor the philosophy that bubbled under the surface of his seemingly straight-laced family. However, once Ma died, we began to unveil her slowly to her husband. He is still learning about her and I suspect, wondering how, while he was industriously analysing national and global events, had his wife led her peculiar, underground, somewhat debauched life.