This is my first “shidur khela,” a ritual strictly for women, I see no reason as to why I have to go through this alone, while the amazing, tall, dark, smart partner gets to witness a different kind of red wedding in the making.
The better half is lying in bed, dressed in a white panjabi, and a frown on the face, “Everyone’s already dressed and waiting for you to be done,” he says. I scowl at him before taking one final look at myself in the mirror, it still amazes me how this all feels normal. I wish I had time to blow dry this uncontrollable mane, but this partially damp wet-hair look, with the bright red vermillion peeking from the centre of my hair parting, and matching red “teep” will suffice for the day.
As we make our way to the mandap, he looks at me, and with a smirk on his face, says, “You look like a traditional bou-maa today.” I poke his cheek and say nothing, but make a mental note to make him pay the bill for our next coffee date.
The sounds of the dhaak can be heard, even before the mandap is in sight. Once we’re out of the car, my mother-in-law hands me the thali and carefully arranges the betel nut leaves, laddus, and the box of sindur on it. She tries to feign busyness, but her excitement is too obvious. This is her first shidur khela with her daughter-in-law, if only she knew that her bou-ma had two unforgiving left feet.
She is every WOMAN
Today’s game plan was to hold onto the thali no matter what, as a defence against participating in the dhanuchi dance.
As we entered the mandap, the women went straight towards the stage where Durga awaited her departure. My eyes searched through the crowd for my father-in-law who was already supposed to be here. As I followed the women of the family making their way, someone grabbed my arm from the back— it was my father-in-law, “Maa, pass me a laddu before they’re all gone,” he says with a grin. I sneak one off as stealthily and efficiently as possible, whilst not losing sight of my mother-in-law.
An entire portion in front of the stage has been cleared off. Women dressed in white saris with red borders, flowers in their hair, and big red teeps, are seen making their way up to the stage, partaking in the dhanuchi dance, or rubbing sindur on one another’s cheeks.
The air fills with palpable excitement — the noises, laughter, intermingled into the smell and smoke from the dhup made the men and women dancing seem almost like a trance. As they sway so effortlessly to the rhythm of the dhaak, it reminded me of my childhood, when I would wonder (and still do), how they balanced the dhup in their hands, without dropping it.
“Come quick, we need to finish the Devi Boron,” said my mother-in-law, who, by this time, was already on the stairs towards the stage. Her semi-yell was just what was needed to break through my momentary daze.
As I walked up to the stage towards Maa Durga, I realised I had never been this close to her image. Truth be told, it’s quite daunting, especially if you can relate to her tenacity and ferocity heard in stories. I first touched the sindur on Durga’s feet, and then forehead, passed the betel nut leaves to the pandit as offerings for the puja, and lastly, broke off a piece of the laddu and placed it on Durga’s lips.
They say that this ritual is a celebration of Durga’s marital status as she prepares to depart for her heavenly abode, hence the name “Shidur Khela,” because sindur signifies the married status of a woman.
In some sense, this was coming full circle, to finally be part of a ritual that women in my own family had always performed; I wasn’t just bidding Durga adieu and asking for her blessings, I was paying homage to the women who had raised me too. Although, having them physically there would’ve meant the world to me, this was as close as I could have them with me today.
I sought solace in knowing I was carrying heirlooms of their marital lives with me today — clad in my thakurmuni’s red and white gorod sari, my mother’s favourite long-chained gold pendant, and my own wedding shakhas, polas, and golaap balas; a wave of emotions engulfed me as I stepped aside, allowing others to do the same.
Personally, it felt like the celebration of a union, one which could only be sealed by two individuals and a particular red tinted powder. There’s no bias or misogyny here, just a newly married woman, happy to have shared this new phase of her life, with her newfound family, and the one that had nurtured.
As I walked off the stage, distracted by my own bittersweet feelings, out of nowhere two hands smeared my cheeks with vermillion red powder. Caught off guard, I saw a beaming mother-in-law who then fed me a piece of laddu, waiting for me to do the same. I smudged some sindur on her forehead and smiled. Unfortunately, this only welcomed more women to do the same to me and others around us,
which brought in the mandatory stuffing of various sweets, blessings, and light hearted taunts that all the elderly women had to offer until my face resembled a ripe winter tomato.
From the corner of my eye, I could see the loving husband giggling with his phone out, documenting my red stained poker face that veiled my helplessly clueless self. I reassured myself thinking that if there wasn’t next year, there still were six more lifetimes to get back at him for this, in addition to half a wish that he come back as a mouse and I as a cat in the next life!
My strategy had worked — as the women of my family started gathering and dancing, I stepped away unnoticed. I looked out at the younger girls on the other side who were celebrating, no longer was I that little girl who always thought she was missing out on all the real fun of shidur khela.
Our eyes met across the mandap, and we both signalled for the exit point. As I reached the gate, my husband was already there waiting with a packet of tissue in his hand. Redemption indeed did exist, or so I thought. As I wiped off the excess sindur as much as possible, he rubbed some off of my cheek with his thumb and placed it on the centre of my hair parting, and gloatingly remarked “I’m the only man who can do this to you,” and quickly grabbed the remaining laddus before I could move the thali away from his grasp. Alas, the residuals of the sindur left on my free left hand also found its way on his cheek due to the distraction caused by his own successful attempt in stuffing all the laddus in his mouth. My father-in-law, upon seeing this, also joined in, telling off his son for not sharing what was left of the sweets with his wife, and by association, him as well. I smirked and said, “You owe me coffee and brownies.”
As we made our way out, we asked a passer-by to take a photo of this couple’s first Bijoya Dashami — this was my first shidur khela after all, but unbeknownst to the whole world, and the husband too, as we smiled for the camera, this photo inadvertently also documented yet another happily married Sarkar woman to have partaken in a shidur khela.