Sunday, February 26, 2012

The legend of Ma Shasti

Goddess Shasti is said to be the goddess of fertility, the one who blesses people with children. This ritual, sacred to her, is observed in the month of Jaistha during the bright phase of the moon. It is performed by married women with children only. Unmarried girls or married women who have not had children are not allowed to do it. It is performed so that the children and their respective families may enjoy health, wealth, a long life and every happiness. Black cats are believed to be Ma Shasti’s vahana or special protégé. The legend is as follows:

Once upon a time there lived a prosperous farmer who had a nice big house, twin ponds, a big garden and paddy fields. He also had seven sons. As they grew up he got them all married to nice, pretty girls. But one of them – the wife of the youngest son – was very, very greedy. Although many delicacies were cooked every day and there was more than enough for all, Choto-bou (the youngest daughter-in-law) ate up more than her share on the sly. She would steal into the kitchen when no one was around and drink up all the milk or eat all the sweets. Since they had two big ponds of their own a lot of fish was caught and prepared each day. The youngest daughter-in law would gobble up the biggest and tastiest pieces. Although she did it day after day no was could catch her. Needless to say, everyone in the house noticed that a lot of milk, sweets and fish were missing each day. But no one had any idea as to who stole them.

One day the farmer’s wife called all her daughters-in-law.
“A lot of milk has been missing for the last few days” she told them, “have you any idea who steals it?”
“No mother” said the wives of the six elder sons.
“Do you know anything?” the farmer’s wife asked her choto-bou.
“Yes, mother, I do” she answered.
“Well, who is it?”
“It is the black cat” said choto-bou.
“Are you sure? Have you seen her drink the milk?” asked the farmer’s wife.
“Oh yes, mother, I have” answered the choto-bou again, “I’ve been seeing her drinking  milk and gobbling up all the best fish and then running away every day. She’s a sly creature!”
“We must catch the black cat” announced the farmer’s wife.
They caught the black cat the next time it came into the house and gave it a sound beating.

The next day all the biggest and best pieces of fish were missing.
“Have you any idea who has taken them?” the farmer’s wife asked again.
“It’s the black cat again” said the choto-bou glibly, “I saw her running away with a big piece of fish in her mouth.”
Again the black cat came in for a thrashing. So it went on, day after day. Choto-bou ate up the best of everything and blamed the black cat every time.

Finally the black cat went and complained to Ma Shasti.
“Mother, I can’t take any more beatings when I’m innocent” she told the goddess, “It’s all choto-bou’s fault. I’m going to pay her out when I have the chance, so please don’t blame me then.”
“She deserves to learn a lesson” said the goddess smiling at the black cat, “It is very wrong of her to steal, to tell lies and to let someone else take the blame for her actions. She’ll get her punishment some day, don’t worry.”

Some weeks later a beautiful baby boy was born to choto-bou. The entire house rejoiced as there was no other child in the house. But when they woke up the next morning they were shocked to find the child missing. Everyone searched high and low but every trace of the baby seemed to have vanished. Choto-bou cried her eyes out but there was nothing that anyone could do. You may have guesses already that it was the wrongly-accused and unjustly-beaten up black cat who had stolen the baby when everyone was asleep. She carried the child straight to Ma Shasti. “Here you are, mother” said the cat laying the child in her arms, “I had told you I’d pay out choto-bou, didn’t I? You’d better look after her now.”  

The next year choto-bou had another baby boy. This one was also stolen like the last time and no one could find out what had happened. Again the black cat carried away the baby to Ma Shasti. Eventually choto-bou had six sons and all of them were stolen. People blamed her for being careless and whispered that she must be a witch-of-sorts who could not keep her own children. Finally when she had a daughter, she made up her mind to keep awake all night and guard the child. But she grew very sleepy around dawn and was dozing when she felt someone tugging at the bedclothes. She woke up to find the black cat running away with the baby. She got up hurriedly but the cat was too fast for her. She took off the heavy bracelet from her hand and struck the cat. The bracelet touched its head and the cat started bleeding as she ran. Choto-bou followed the trail of blood and reached the house of Ma Shasti. She found her baby in the arms of Ma Shasti and the other children playing near her. The black cat was seated at her feet, licking her wound.

Choto-bou fell crying at the feet of the goddess. “Mother, this wretched black cat has been stealing all my children from me. Now I see that you have them all. Please give them back to me, I beg of you.”
“I can’t do that” said Ma Shasti, “did you not know that the black cat is an especial pet of mine, my vahana? You kept stealing things day after day and then lied and blamed my poor cat and had her beaten up. I cannot overlook such wrong doing. You don’t deserve to have your children back.”
“Please pardon me, mother, I shall never do such a thing again!” cried choto-bou, “I am very, very sorry that I lied and got your black cat beaten up.”
“It’s no use begging my pardon” said Ma Shasti, “If you want forgiveness, better beg my cat’s pardon whom you have wronged.”

So choto-bou touched the black cat’s feet and begged her pardon, swearing never to steal or tell lies ever again. The black cat felt sorry for her and decided to forgive her. Ma Shasti gave her back her children and she returned home rejoicing. On returning home she worshipped the goddess Shasti, observing every ritual carefully. Ma Shasti was pleased and soon the other daughters-in-law of the farmer had children too. Everyone worshipped Ma Shasti faithfully since that day. Even today, the brata of Ma Shasti is one of the most-observed rituals in Bengal, which mothers observe for the welfare of their children.

From "Folktales of West Bengal" published by Children's Book Trust

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