“Shona! Otho shona Buduuu…!!” I was hoping she’d stop, but you know how mothers are. It must not have been a minute after four in the morning, and she kept at it till I woke up, all bleary eyed, to the strains of a mesmeric voice chanting on the radio. That happened when I was four, and it happened again today morning, 27-years later, just as it has, on this very day of the Bengali calendar for all the intervening years (and mom, you better keep at it for decades to come).
This invocation to Goddess Durga - Mahalaya, was my introduction to that grand Bong affair called ‘Durga Pujo’. And since that day to this, autumn leaves, the voice of Bhadra and the beats of the dhak, herald the coming of the Goddess, and while I’m not much of a Bengali, nor an idolater, there is a certain magic in the air that touches the core of my being when I see the ‘pandals’ go up. It is impossible to remain untouched by the festive fervour, especially if one has been brought up in that infamous Bengali ghetto in North India called Chittaranjan Park, and I, for one, rejoice in it. It is the only time of the year when I feel connected with the Bong bit in my roots, and wallow in the nostalgia of Puja shopping, pandal hopping, and seasonal community dating.
Let me explain the last bit (these are rare insights into the psyche of the ‘Probasi Bangali’, so both non Bengalis and non Probasis pay heed). You see, my parents and many of my friends’, victims of a strange Anglo-banglo colonial hangover, insisted on sending us to these terrible institutions called ‘Boys only convents’. Now in an environment where for most of the year, the only unrelated, teenaged, female you can sit next to happens to be your principal’s matronly Labrador, things do get a little desperate. So, come puja time, my friends and I would try and join one of the ‘jatra’ (theatre) or ‘orchestra’ (music bands) groups that would hold auditions and rehearsals in preparation for the stage shows during Durga Puja, in the hope of discovering the joys of conversing with at least one female teenager who wasn’t a relative or a dog. Such voyages of discovery often lasted till dashami (Dussehra) and then, thanks to a misplaced sense of propriety, hit the sand bank… till it was time for ‘rehearsals’ again.
With these and other such happy associations to celebrate, there isn’t an event in the year that I look forward to more than Durga Puja, and for the same reasons, I hate dashami and it’s sense of closure. On dashami, the idol is removed from the pandal for bhashaan (immersion) and taken in an open vehicle in a long procession, like a carnival parade, where the celebrations are perhaps wildest, and then immersed in a local waterbody, a symbolic return of Shakti to nature. But I find the sudden calm of an empty pandal absolutely heartbreaking. A Durga Puja pandal is that rare platform where long lost friends meet once a year, where families distributed over colonies and continents reunite, and for a brief period of four days, are a family again, and where socially starved boys and girls get a crash course in the lessons of life. But every dashami, the fairy tale comes to an abrupt end, and no, not everybody in this happy multitude gets to live happily ever after. I’ve seen young couples celebrate a puja together and then separate, as the romance refuses to sink deeper, and seen couples much older, wrenched apart by the Grim Reaper. And yet, after every bhashaan, the revellers return to the now barren pandal, and stand, heads bowed, as if mourning the dead, waiting for the priest to bless all with ‘Shantir jal’ (waters of peace), and hope that they could live in peace and prosperity until it is time for the Goddess to return.
But you don’t have to be Bengali to be touched by the magic and romance of Durga Puja. Ask my friend, a Columban, a Christian, who met the first non canine teenaged female of his life at one of these pandals, fell in love, and after consistently meeting the same girl for four days every year for about 15 long years, got sick of waiting the whole year and married her instead... and his is not the only story. Durga Puja, like most great celebrations of the world, is about celebrating life and love, and neither your language, nor your god, ought to stop you from joining us in this celebration… so hope to see you at a pandal this puja…
The slip stream
The chronology of mythology
Durga Puja is celebrated to worship the Goddess of power and beauty and the victory of good over evil. According to Hindu mythology, Mahishasura, the king of asuras was granted immortality, plundered the world and ruthlessly killed people. Terrorised by his tyranny, the gods sought help from Lord Shiva, Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu, the divine trinity whose combined energies gave birth to Devi Durga – the 10 armed personification of Shakti. Born in the ashram of sage Kattyana, Durga was worshipped by him for nine days after which she set forth to destroy Mahishasura on dashami when a fierce battle finally brought an end to Mahishasura and his demonic perversions. Originally, Durga Puja was celebrated in spring but according to legend, when Lord Rama invoked the Goddess in autumn before venturing out to kill Ravana, consequently, the autumnal (sharodia) Puja celebrations became more popular. Since then, Sharodia Durga Puja has become the biggest Hindu festival in Eastern and Central India while in other parts of India, the celebrations acquire their own hue.