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.