Monday, October 19, 2015

My Durga Pujo memoirs

Azure blue skies. White fluffy clouds afloat. A handful of fragrant white Siuli blossoms on the nightstand. These are things sure to stir the Bengali heart. For they are linked to something every Bengali holds dear: Durga pujo! We had a Siuli tree in our backyard where I grew up. It was a nuisance for most of the year with its infestation of centipedes. But during this time of fall, the tree floor would be strewn with fresh batches of blooms every morning. They were gorgeous!

PC: Antara Mukherjee

Durga pujo is to honor Durga, a gold bedecked, heavily armed female goddess, with no less than ten hands. Clearly we were into heavy duty multitasking! Durga is always depicted like this, victorious, in the moment of her conquest of the evil Asura. But I am not quite sure why she is accompanied by her four children at the same time. A second storyline has that Durga is visiting her family, (us, mortals) sans husband, accompanied by her four kids. The bahon (animal rides for the deities) posed an interesting situation. I understand Durga, symbolizing valor, rides the Lion and daughter Saraswati symbolizing wisdom, the white Swan. But why should daughter Lakhsmi, symbolizing prosperity favor the owl? Or, the son Kartik, symbolizing strength, a Peacock? Certainly, most confusing was the choice of the elephant god, Ganesh, who favored the rat!

PC: Rupam Sen
The build up to the pujo was dramatic. Ever since Mohaloya (day 1 of 10), I couldn't concentrate on anything much. We had to go to school till the 5th day as it were, and it was a torture! I'd keep a close watch on the progress of the pandal construction in our community. Thousands of these pandals mushroom all over my home state this time of the year. Shown to the left is one such construction in progress, built with enormous care, just to house the deities during the few days of the festival. A world of local art, craftsmanship, and story-telling is showcased in these temporary monuments. Groups compete for recognition for being the grandest or the most thought-provoking in their conception of the pandal and the deities, all of it providing opportunity for artistic expression and interpretation.

PC: One of the Mukherjee clan
Doing the rounds of the pandals is a must do as people pick their own favorites. A bunch of us used to rent a bus and do this activity into the wee hours of the night on Shasti, with not a wink of sleep to distract us. Shasti is the 6th day, but in reality, it is the day the festivities really begin. And of course we wanted to be all caught up already. Stalls of delicious street food did booming business all night as the crowds flowed in and out of the pandals endlessly. We would always stop at Deshopriyo Park for a snack and I would invariably pick Chole Bhature, fish fry and hot fuluri.

My mother would put red color on her feet (alta) and wear red bordered white garod sarees during the actual puja. I wanted to as well. I was grudgingly permitted to do this, only some of the times. Later, I learnt this is reserved for married women which made no sense to me, even then. Why should a specific dress or color symbolize a married status? She would make a plate of naibidya with softened rice and lentils, fruits and sweets to be offered to the goddess. I was encouraged to help prepare this plate. But I would typically have only half a heart on the task. I would hear mantras being chanted into the microphone as the puja progressed outside. It made me want to run out and actually be there, instead of missing out on the action, in our puja room, cooped up with my mum. It was always anticlimactic to finally arrive at the mandap (same as pandal), suddenly self-conscious. Then, we had anjali, which is an offering of flowers you make to the god after repeating yet another set of mantras. We were supposed to not eat prior to doing this. I cant remember a single time I have been able to engage in this guilt free. I always slipped-up, one way or another, which I would simply ignore with a fast beating heart, tightly shut eyes and determined hands clasped in prayer position. I was not going to miss anjali over some silly detail such as a careless bite of a biscuit!

PC: Soumen Saha
Another memorable part of the pujas used to be the dhunochi nach, which is a special dance for the gods. The dancer carried a smoking earthen pot and did amazing tricks with it, keeping rhythm to the ferocious beat of special drums (dhak). A shrill kashor ghanta also set the hearts racing with the beats of the drums. The air would thicken with smoke and the fragrance of burning incense and menthol. My eyes would burn but I could not tear myself away from the pure spectacle of those moments. Kalidada, an old man that had been in the service of our family forever, was a pretty good drummer himself. I would watch him bedazzled as he made magic with the drums.

Our community organized a feast of khichuri bhog for one of the afternoons. I remember the long tables lined with rickety chairs. The tables would have green banana leaves cut up and laid out to be used as plates, paired with earthen containers for water. I participated in the serving of the food, typically the eggplant fry or lemon pieces. The adults would serve the real food, out of steel buckets purchased for the occasion. It was nice to be part of that gathering set to the backdrop of everyone looking happy and relaxed. Everyone wore new clothes, felt renewed in Durga puja spirit and gave themselves up to enjoying the occasion wholeheartedly.

Bodhon and sindur khala (play with vermillion) marked the last day of the puja (Dashami). The play with the vermillion is strictly for the married females. Even at that age, I never liked it that a widowed aunt, some unmarried aunts and kids would be asked to stay away. Interestingly, I haven't attended a sindur khala ever since I became eligible, years ago. Anyways, that minor irritation was soon gone in the pleasant activity of gorging oneself on LOTS of home-made and store brought sweet stuff as we celebrated Bijoya (when everyone exchanged good wishes and sweets). I can still taste the hot pantua and jeebe gaja sticky from the syrup in which it had just been dipped! My aunt would be making them and I would be her devoted helper consuming as much of the kheer and malformed units as I could!

1999 was my last Durga Puja in Kolkata. It was an amazing one, having just recently fallen in love with my current husband. I remember snuggling to the gorgeous (if inappropriate) tunes of George Michael's Last Christmas in a darkened room with multi-colored light bulbs streaming outside our verandah (this is credit to the puja lighting efforts by our community puja team that would steal electricity from home owners shamelessly). Everyone pitches in for the pujas, willing or not!! I have faltered into some community pujas abroad since, but it has never been the same. Certainly my religious engagement has severely dwindled. Here I am then, thinking back, to re-live some of the excitement from those many years ago.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

I cry, often, very much, helplessly, but I wont let it define who I am

A few days ago, I read about depression on a friend's blog and wondered at the courage it took her to write about it. I did not think that my personal struggle with depression can interest anyone. But reading about her changed my mind. If you wish to know more, read on.

A lump in your throat is not just a figure of speech. Emotional pain is real. Hopefully it does not happen to you too often. And hopefully, when it happens, the causes are well understood.

Depression is different. For me, it is a sad side of me that manifests from time to time. I do not understand the reasons for the onset of my depression. Ever so often, there are days when I feel uncontrollably, unreasonably down, weepy, dejected. It comes and goes. The only certainty is that it will come again. At one point I thought if problems A, B and C were solved in my life, I'd be cured. But that did not happen. I now have accepted that no turn of circumstance can really change it. It is not externally instigated. I have lived with it for over 20 years of my life, without major intervention. Perhaps because, I never lost control. I was somehow able to maintain my tenuous grip on sanity even at these times when I was feeling really insane. Perhaps also because where I am from, there is a huge lack of awareness of emotional excesses as being of clinical consequence.

So exactly how does it feel? When its here, it eclipses all good feelings and leaves me wondering listlessly about where I am headed. I have no will to fight. I have impotent suicidal thoughts. There's no where in particular that I want to go and no action I can get myself up to take. I just want to cease to exist. Dark and vile thoughts about myself flood my mind. The pain it evokes is soothing in the same way we feel comforted by pushing against a tooth that is already loose and aching. After a while I go numb, watching myself from some distant corner. The love that surrounds me recedes to a distance I cannot bridge. I watch it helplessly from a desolate corner of my mind. It is like light at the end of a deep well I've fallen into, with no clear path or will to return.

I have struggled hard to make my loved ones understand, they are not to blame in any way. I am beyond their help when I am suspended into this state of mind. The good thing is, of late, I am increasingly secure in the realization that this is just a phase of being, like being hungry, that happens to me. It will pass. It always passes.

And did I try meditation? Practitioners say if you can make yourself consistently watch your thoughts as they arise in your consciousness, then ugly thoughts can be chased away. I have indeed tried it and I think there is something to this idea. It could work better for me if I was more disciplined. But I am not. Often I wont have the patience and I will allow myself to be seduced into tears. And then, I just have to wait my monster out.

As I write this, the one thing I also know about my depression is that I will not let it define who I am. I will not let it kill my hope, my love of beauty, my energy and appreciation for life. Because despite this aspect of me, I also have an irrepressible enthusiasm for life. And I am aways resurrected from the ashes of my despair with renewed hope, like the freshened earth after the rains. I hope to spend the most real, intense lifetime possible, thoroughly engaged and passionately loving!

If you can relate to these feelings because of personal experience or your relationship with someone that has depression, I hope it makes a little more sense now with one more testimonial to the very real existence of depression, even in people that seem otherwise perfectly normal, successful, healthy, loving, and happy.