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 very dear: Durga pujo! We had a Siuli tree in our backyard where I grew up. It was a nuisance the entire 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!

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 as shown here, 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 people (us), away from her husband's house (and hence accompanied by her four kids). For some weird reason, a popular activity of our elders was to quiz us on who the bahon (animal ride) was for a given god or goddess. I was very up to date with those info back then. A banana tree with its long lanky leaf was supposed to be the wife of Ganesh, the elephant god, I remember that one.

The build up to the pujo was dramatic. Ever since Mohaloya (the first of the ten day festivity), 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 right is one such construction in progress, built with excruciating 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.

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 without a wink of sleep for distraction. Shasti is the 6th day, but really the 1st day the festivities start in full swing 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 midnight snack and I would invariably pick Chole Bhature, fish fry and hot fuluri (shown in picture).

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 and was grudgingly allowed only some of the times. Later I learnt this is reserved for married women which made no sense to me, even then. She would make a plate of naibidya with softened rice and lentils, fruits and sweets to be offered to the goddess (see to the right). 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 and 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. It was always some slip up or the other, which I would simply ignore with a fast beating heart, because I did not want to admit to it and did not want to miss anjali!

Another memorable part of the pujas used to be the aarti which is a special ritual dance for the gods made with fire-lit diyas, dhunochi and incense, to the jingle of loud bells and the beats of gorgeous drums from the local dhakis. 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 everyone 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 to hold 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 freshly for the occasion. It was nice to be part of that gathering set to the backdrop of everyone looking happy and relaxed in their new clothes with their families and spending their time off in this friendly setting.

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 sort of stay away. Interestingly, I haven't attended a sindur khala ever since I became eligible some 13 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, along the way! :)

1999 was my last Durga Puja in Kolkata. It was an amazing one, having just recently fallen in love with my current husband. 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.