Every year during this time, there is a strange craving to return home. There is a need to be in that heat, dust, madness, frenzy, love and familiar faces. A voice in my heart urges me to leave everything as it is and take off for that familiar place called home. The traffic, pollution, crowd, rudeness, non-stop honking of the car horns… nothing seems to dampen this enthusiasm.
Calcutta must be looking beautiful now. Just a few more days to go for Durga Puja, all those creative pandals (temporary religious structures), beautiful idols, the brilliant evening lights, the golden sunlight, light showers, excitement on the little faces, last minute ‘pujo – bajaar’ (Shopping for the festival), fighting the crowds to get the best deals for the in-fashion sandals, arranging the clothes and accessories in order of days and nights, promises to meet up, adda’s (chat sessions) planned and the work getting shelved for the next few days. The whole city comes to a standstill and moves in a completely new direction. Tradition says, that all daughters should return home for these few days. The corporate world dictates a different story.
Today is Mahalaya. It is the beginning of journey back to earth for Bengal’s beloved daughter Ma Durga and her children. Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s “Mahisasura Mardini” must have heralded the beginning of the grand festival at 4 in the morning, waking little sleepy-heads eager to start the celebrations.
Mahalaya used to be our day off from school to finish all shopping. We would wake up early in the morning all set to go out for the whole day. It was the same routine for a long time till we were too grown up and too bored to do it anymore.
Mum would first buy the sarees for Ma Durga. That would be followed by clothes for the household help. The next stop would be clothes for cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents. We would tag along from shop to shop with disinterest, all the while waiting for our turn. Kathi-Kabab Rolls gulped down with Thums-up would be the most awaited lunch for the day followed by Phuchka and Ice-creams in the evening. Then began our wait for the school holidays.
Sasthi, the first day of the Durga Puja also the first day of the school holidays would begin by waking up early in the morning with the sound of the ‘Dhakis’ (Drummers of Bengal). Even today the rhythmic beats of the ‘dhak’ (Drum like musical instruments) gives me goose bumps and a longing to be in a different world so far away.
Usually on the sasthi evening the idol of Devi Durga arrived at the pandal. She would be the much awaited chief guest. For a long time, when friends and adda did not have much meaning, I waited for this evening the most. Eventually the excitement of a night out or an adda took its place, but now when I think back…nothing ever came close to that excitement.
Sasthi is followed by Saptami when the pandal hopping began. Asthami is the bhog and anjali day in traditional gear followed by sandhi puja to welcome Nabami, the last day of fun and frolic. We used to have a life time of fun in those five short days.
Mornings began by picking flowers for the puja and helping in stringing little garlands. Sometimes we helped decorate the flowers or Alpona (designs with rice powders on the floors). We served the fruits Prasad (offerings) after the puja. Every evening for a long time we used to be busy taking part in ‘Dhunuchi Naach’, dances and dramas and other events. Over the years though, adda, loitering and Maddox square became more interesting compared to helping at the pandal. The excitement remained as addictive as ever.
Dashami was the day of farewells among much tears. Ma Durga would leave for her heavenly abode and that meant end of all fun for us and back to studies. Mum and aunts said their goodbyes by decorating the idol with vermillion powder which they eventually smeared on each other too and the kids. We would end up covered in the red powder and stay that we till someone scrubbed it off us. In the farewell frenzy a lot of people stuffed sweets into the mouths of Ma Durga’s brave lion, Kartik’s peacock and Saraswati’s swan. Even the fearsome Mahishasur had a scared, docile look from all the sweets fed to him.
The idols depart from their home on earth on trucks amid a lot of dancing to the beat of the ‘dhak’. Immersion takes place in the ghats. With a heavy heart everyone praises the Gods and Goddesses and invites them back for the next year with a ‘Ashche bochor abar hobe’.
Every year I cried a lot when they finally immersed the idol and she floated away. I always thought it was because I would have to get back to the monotonous life of studies. Today when I cry in immersions I wonder if it was ever the books or something much deeper than I ever understood.
Bijoya Dashami was all about saying goodbye to Ma Durga, to my beloved cousins and to all the festivities. The numerous sweets and visitors meant nothing to the little me. I would pine for a long time before getting back to the mundane regular life.
Today, miles away from home and family, my heart still lies in a city coming alive with hope and joy. I keep a countdown to Durga Puja and wonder what’s happening back home. I wonder if my sons will ever know this emotion or feel so immensely sad while asking Ma Durga to come back again next year. Will they ever have Calcutta in their heart? Will little things like picking flowers early in the morning ever be the most important job for them?
The sensible little voice in my head reminds me that 1:13 in the afternoon at work, is hardly the time or place to reminisce and be emotional. But this year for me it will be puja on internet once again or one lone visit to the community puja.
Yet, so far away, in a land that doesn’t even know Ma Durga, the sky sports small tufts of cloud, there are light showers followed by a light golden sunshine. There is a spirit of festivity and the hope and joy. We continue to celebrate life!