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|
|PC: One of the Mukherjee clan|
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|
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.
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.