Last Thursday I heard on the phone that she died!! For a moment I was numb.
One generation was coming to its end…and with that generation a whole world of traditions, customs, stories, myths and legends slowly reach extinction. She came every morning to our doorsteps with her kula (winnowing fan) and sat there for hours singing, laughing and weaving small flower baskets with tidy, sharp bamboo pieces. No, Jambilo did not weave those for livelihood, but just for use in the temple in their basti.
I was always shy meeting people, hardly speaking to anyone, but this lady — she was fascinating. There was something typical in her which attracted me towards her — her lilting, melodious hummings. She hummed with a passion for the “mother-goddess” – “Durga maa”– she would click her tongue and postrate a thousand times before uttering that name. While weaving the baskets, she would sing in her mellifluous voice:
Oh Maa Tarini! (a form of the mother goddess) I weave these garlands for you
With droplets from my eyes.
Oh Maa Tarini! I sing these songs for you
With the rhythm of my heart…
Oh Maa Tarini! What can I ask from you,
Save, a dot of sindoor (vermilion) and a pair of sankha (bangles) in my dark hands.
I am sorry, I have not been able to reproduce the exact translation of these line from vernacular Odiya into English. But roughly, these were some of the lines that she sang while weaving her baskets. Whenever, I went to my grandparents’ place, Jambilo would come in the early morning to see me. As a child, I was mortally afraid of her…all the kids in that locality called her “pageli” (crazy). But eventually, she was one person whom I loved and respected from the core of my heart. There was a story about her that her husband had either died or left her since a long-long time. But no one ever dared remove her sankha-sindoora. She belonged to the Dom caste and lived in the dom sahi down the lane. Jambilo earned her living by sweeping the temple premises (jamadar) of the devi temple down the road. They gave her a few rupees and food twice daily. She did the job with a passion that cannot be described in words. She would not let any other person enter the temple at early dawn (including the priest) before she had sweeped the entire temple premise to her complete satisfaction.
The neatness in her dress up and the sweetness of her voice can put to shame any so called “upper caste” female. There was another thing peculiar about her, she always giggled — like a school girl, her face burst into a hundred wrinkles with the curve widening. I don’t remember of having seen her with sad or worried eyes ever. She laughed like a young bride, the pallu of her saree covering her face with every little giggle. I spent hours listening to those unheard melodies and to her stories. Jambilo was a treasure house of a thousand tales — of gods, of black magic, of people in her locality, and she would go on endlessly until someone in my family came to the verandah to call me back for lunch. Sometimes, when she got intensely involved in a tale, she would almost act that out for you. It happened very frequently when she went to the bazaar to watch a Pala, Daskathiya (these are some typical folk dance-drama forms, very popular in Odissa because of their rich mytical and legendary content) or a Danda (Danda is an extraordinary ritual in Odissa that is performed specifically in the month of April — chaitra as we say in the honour of the Devi. Danda as a dance form is a very difficult skill that requires extraordinary expertise). Jambilo would be in the front row in the crowd if you happened to come across these performances somewhere in the marketplace. And then, once she returned, she would dance the entire performance for you, with the exact dialogues that followed each little song piece. There would be no stopping her then! She would get really angry, if you dared to interrupt in her performance — I often wondered at her memory for having been able to remember every little piece that she ever watched.
Jambilo would be present at all weddings and mournings of every family of the locality. She would sing for the brides before they went for the early morning turmeric bath ; she would cry her heart out for the old men/women who passed away as if they were members of her own family. Did she ever ask for money? The strangest thing about that lady was that she never-ever would accept a pie from anyone around her. With a pride of the peacock, she would retort if you offered her money in lieu of one of her performances, “I have enough Maa (child) to feed me for the day. I don’t think of the evening. Durga Maa takes care of my wants”. But she would be always happy for one thing — if you gave her some bangles, a little vermilion and a saree and some rice and vegetables. Sometimes, if her whim possessed her, she would not accept them without giving you a basket or a kula in return. Every bride in the family would give her some of these things and get her blessings in return. Sometimes during Durga Puja, she would come to my grandmother or to my eldest uncle’s wife, “Bada bahu! (Eldest daughter-in-law) This time you give me a saree with red embroidery. I want to wear that for Asthami (one of the sacred days during Durga Pooja) .” And no one ever dared deny her a thing, for all her desires were modest!
Such was Jambilo then for us! Last time when I went home, she came again to see me. I sat devotedly near her for sometime, but now she treated me with a respect which I was uncomfortable with. I was an alien from the big city who came for a few days to spend time during vacation. She told mother humbly but clicked her tongue and widened her eyes, “Maa (daughter in this context) is now a big babu in the city! She lives beyond seven oceans…do they wear sarees there?” I smiled and said “yes they do just as you do”. She was delighted for a moment and clapped her hands child-like and added, “can you get me a saree with golden borders from that place”…I nodded in affirmation.
I never could give that saree to her…
P.S: I exist here in the midst of academic debates on caste, non-caste and anti-caste…. But people like Jambilo are also a reality of the society from which I come. They are somewhere caught in between these worlds.