So, it’s October – there is a decidedly nippy chill in the air and you wake up to dewy grass and moist glazing. Autumn is here in its full revelry and winter isn’t too far away, at least where I am writing this from. But, my mind wanders… I am a Bengali. If you are one or you know one, you will know all I can think of right now is Pujo… Durga Pujo or ‘Goddess Durga’s Homecoming’.
Now the idea of the Sharodiya Durgotsav is a relatively modern concept, started only in the 15-1600s; some accounts say it was started in its current format to please one of the colonial masters in the days of the Raj. Whilst it is a Pujo and it is steeped in religious undertones, it is hugely a social event for Bengalis, where families and friends gather together to eat, sing, dance, and be merry. As an adult, living in North India and later in the UK, I have never been able to make myself work during these days; I have and will be on my annual leaves at this time of the year, thank you so much!
Nostalgia, memories, food and Durga Pujo festivities are inseparable.
When I was little, the first thing we did on New Year was to mark the holidays on the calendar, and it always began with the Pujo days. Closer to date, the excitement built with the knowledge of the number of outfits I would get and how many of those might match my cousins’. The first few years of my life, Pujo was inadvertently spent in Calcutta, in our paternal home. The idea of Pujo in Calcutta is inexplicable certainly – it’s an absolute carnival and there are people who would swear by the crowds, the sweat, the food of course, and the madness of it all; and will give anything in exchange of spending a week there during Pujo. An introvert myself, I have never been a fan of huge gatherings in small spaces, so I can’t say I miss much of that, especially in the New Normal, where isolation and social distancing are the only safe bet. It could also come down to the fact that I have hardly spent a Pujo in Calcutta beyond the first decade of my life.
The major part of my life, and hence Pujo, has been spent away from the mothership that is Bengal; a few years of my childhood were spent in my maternal grandparents’ home in Shillong, away from my folks. While those were years of utmost love and extreme pampering (mamar baadir abdaar, as we Bongs lovingly say), the days leading to Pujo always made me melancholic – knowing that the Goddess was visiting her parents, staying away from my own was kind of hurtful. And so, growing up, my fondest memory of Pujo is being woken up late one night to realise my parents and kid sister had come to visit! It was in a way my mother’s homecoming to her parents’ – but I don’t know who felt happier – the daughter or the mother (and that could mean any of us).
As I sit here today, miles away from home, away from that very anchor of mine, who constantly reminds me that I need to buy new clothes for my daughter, that I need to tidy up the house before Mahalaya, that Shoshti means luchi- aloor dum- chholar daal are the food de rigueur, I feel the return of that bittersweet longing that the mythical Durga must feel every year, that my Mum must have felt each year, when she had been busy with life and us… my mind keeps wandering, looking for all the associations we make with Pujo – new clothes, plans to visit pandals, the mellifluous chants of Chandi Paath, the intoxicating fragrance of shiuli flowers early in the morning, the sway of kaash, the delicious spread of the various food items through these days, the numbing pain in your legs from all the pandal hopping, the heady, myrrh-filled smoke emanating from the dhunuchi, the reverberating beats of the dhaak; and I feel the compulsive need to chronicle and somehow recreate it all, so the little one doesn’t miss any of it.
At a time that’s as unprecedented and uncertain as now all over the world, where you could hardly see or meet friends and family or visit pandals to partake in bhog or adda, I have decided – we will still cook, eat, dress up, be merry, click pictures, post them on social media, share our joys over video calls and updates, and we will celebrate with a smile, because that is exactly what motherhood and my mum have taught me.
Durga Pujo for me is a reminder that happiness finds its way home. Every year. That on those five days, everyone looks stunning and feels like a million bucks, no matter what. That if you smile, you will get a smile back, even from strangers. That if you touch the feet of elders on Bijoya (albeit virtually this year), you get a plateful of mishti and ghugni too, maybe?
Durga Pujo means we are still breathing…
So here’s to a fun-filled, amazing and Happy Pujo, may you all be blessed with health and happiness! Have a good one!