As I sip on my lukewarm coffee on a Sunday morning and scroll through the newsfeed on Facebook, nothing out of the ordinary for a post graduate student who has an exam the next week, I realise that this would be the first year that I am not going to see a single Pandal or be a part of the festivities of the ten-day long celebration – Durga Pujo. Photograph after photographs accompanied with quotes written by Neruda, J.D Salinger and the likes, that make no sense with the visual treat that my friends have to offer, make me crave for the unique smell that the air has right before Pujo begins.
I get off my bed to fetch myself some vanilla cookies. On the way to the shelf, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror- late riser, un-bathed, clad in my night suit on the day of Ashtami. The folks I was supposed to meet for the iconic ashtami’r anjali decided to spend time in an Ashram and hence, couldn’t make it with me. I am lazy. I was in a foreign land with no cheer for the bangali pujo. All I saw everywhere, not that I went out a lot the last week, was Navratri and Garba adveretisements. Same Goddess, different celebrations. I wanted to go out for Garba this year, break into my maiden dandiya venture with the friends I have made here, but alas. Everyone has exams and no one seems to find the idea as novel as I do. The only solace I have is that my festival doesn’t require me to be vegetarian! They get starry eyed listening to my rants about Pujo back at home and I return the look when they describe their Navratri escapades.
Back at home. If I were in Kolkata right now, I’d be fresh and bathed and Mamma would be putting a sizeable number of safety pins on the saree (and blouse) that I would’ve carefully chosen the previous night. The choice of apparel had to be a perfect blend of representing my inner Bangali and outer youth. Right now, on my bed, in the opposite side of the country, I can feel the outer Bangali in me ooze out as the youth dissipates into what should be done for a future that Maa Durga would be proud of. Either way, I digressed. Once dressed, I would apply eyeliner and lipstick, Ma would force me to apply rouge (Ema, ektu toh kichu gaal e lagie ja. Put something on your cheeks!) and then, she would ask me what I’d like to accessorise the look with. She’d punch in the code to the safe and take out the all-too-worn out jewellery box, with multiple shelves of gold beauty. There’d be one shelf with traditional chains and another with just earrings, the third level would comprise of the bangles and bracelets that she had curated and collected over the years. There is a particular turquoise beaded necklace that rests along with the gold chains. It stands out like a blonde German in a Deshapriya Park pujo pandal. Every time I see it, it takes me back to the time we were posted in Bikaner, Rajasthan. Ma and I (along with a few other Army wives) would take a long, sandy drive in a Jonga (back open army jeep) to reach a jewellery bazzar of the town where Ma would design her own necklaces and earrings and I would stare at the precious stones they had lined out for her to do the same. (Years later, the owner of the tiny shop would call Mamma to tell her that they had started making her design on a regular basis and that it sells like hot cake).
I would choose the least dressy bracelet, Ma would put on one of the necklaces (much to my chagrin) and then she would dress herself up in half the time she took to make me look like her (she wasn’t successful) and we would go downstairs to assemble in the community hall at our colony. Bengali or not, everyone participated in the Ashtami’r anjali. Batches of people were formed, and purohit thakur would read out the verses on the mic for everyone to hear and falsely repeat. Flowers would be passes in a jhuri and we would each take small fistfuls of the flower and those who couldn’t get to the basket of flowers would be handed some by the ones who could (Ma, give me a leaf as well…). We would repeat the Mantra paath three times, as was custom, and then break for what we looked forward to the most- BHOG.
A sumptuous meal of khichudi, beguni, aalu’r torkari, chutney and papad for the main course alongwith paayesh for dessert awaited us. We would form a queue, wait for 10 minutes to reach the buffet counter, hand in the token we had purchased a month in advance and then, finally take our thermocol plates, dishevelling under the weight of the food we had laden it with, into the pandal. Every pandal in Kolkata has a theme. I don’t even know what it is this year in Ekta, my colony. Irrespective of the theme, the ashtami bhog remains the same- the taste of which I can still imagine if I close my eyes and concentrate for a bit. It is usually too hot to eat immediately, yet we make the same mistake every year. All the kids would either sit where there are the most number of fans attached to the bamboo skeleton of the pandal, or venture out, on the grass lawn that is there in the centre of the complex. The girls, in sarees would sit on the granite structure that outlines the lawn while the boys would stand and finish their meals, rushing for a second helping (Ei, please get some more beguni for me). Beguni is the creation of magic. Even those who don’t like brinjal will feast on it. The crunch, the exact amount of saltiness to balance the sting of the brinjal- it is a mouth-watering delicacy that one needs to be in Bengal to enjoy.
Tired after a long day’s work, we would all break for the day, but only after deciding what time we would be meeting in the evening (and what we’d be wearing). The evenings had a meticulously planned event schedule. There was something for each of the five most important days of Pujo- starting with Anadamela (where the residents would open stalls and sell chaat, an aunty would bake insanely gooey brownies, another would steam momos and someone would sell Avon makeup. There would even be stalls with games), dramas, dance shows, guest performances, a DJ night with no DJ for the kids, Dhunuchi dance and conch-shell playing competitions. We would practice for a month to put up a decent show. The evenings would comprise of us kids sneaking out to buy alcohol before the FL shops closed for the night or because some of the Pujo days were supposed to be dry ones. We would walk till Balaram Mullick and gorge two to three Malpuas, some would smoke a cigarette in the by lanes opposite to our colony while some ventured to look at the tiny pandals that the lanes held.
That’s the beauty. The size will not matter. Every housing society, Every complex, Every group of lanes will have a pandal with a beautiful idol of Maa Durga adorning it. The Jamini Roy eyes, the curly hair, a serene smile on Her face- that is all that matters, after a while. And this clutter of Pandals is what we enjoy. All of us would go out at 1 am, take a local bus till the nearest ‘big’ puja that was there, usually at Gariahat, and make our way back on foot, hopping from one pandal to the next, walking with a sea of people equally enthused by Puja, surrounded by amateur photographers, street hawkers, aunties who almost lost their children in the crowd, Uncles who would stop for Phuchka, lovers who have told their parents they are actually with friends, newlywed couples, tourists amazed at the footfall per square inch and the Police who are have the responsibility of maintaining the flow of people. The entire city gets barricaded like Eden garden before an India-Pakistan match, traffic gets streamlined to allow pedestrians the priority, much to the chagrin of those who have work to do. After reaching back, We would all sit near the swing, chit chat till 3 or 4 am and then, our mothers would start calling us frantically (Come home now, enough is enough).
Pujo is an entity in itself, not just a festival. The centrality of the Goddess with the peripheral activites that make her homecoming so special for even those who don’t believe in Her powers, is enough to sway the most strong-hearted. One cannot help but miss Pujo. I had never thought I would say this, and I am a firm believer of enjoying what the place you live in has to offer, but I miss Kolkata right now, at this very moment. I miss the thrill of clicking a hundred photographs per day, I miss dancing to dhaak beats as Mamma gets teary eyes watching Ma Durga’s face on Dashami and as the idol take a few rounds around the complex perimeter before finally leaving us for bishorjon, I realise that She smiles with a promise to return the next year.