Flashback: Durga Puja

It’s that time of the year again. Mid-October, when the skies are finally clear from the monsoons, and schools have finished their first series of exams and everyone’s pining for a holiday. In Kolkata, stores are probably giving insane discounts and sale offers. People are buying all sorts of new things for themselves and to gift other people during the Puja. The idols of the deity are finally painted in and are about to be installed in themed canvas tents. We call those enclosures “pandals”. Always beautifully decorated, sometimes each town competes with another’s in terms of variety of theme and expression of the deity. After all, Goddess Durga is back home from her residence in the abode and she has brought her children along with her. Although the festival is for ten days, the last five are the most fun.

Durga_Puja

Image credits: Top ten Indian festivals of all time omgtoptens.com

It’s that time of the year again when my grandmother will gift me new clothes to wear for each of the five days. If she’s visiting me after a few months, she tries to estimate my growing physical dimensions from a grainy Skype video call and brings a salwar suit along with it to match. She also buys me accessories and jewelry to go along with each of those five suits. She brings sarees for all the female members of the family, and one even for the domestic help and the chauffeur’s wife. She brings t-shirts for everyone else. Every morning, there are prayers and rituals followed by breakfast. Once we’ve arranged some mode of transport, my grandmother would take me along with her to visit the different temples and pandals all over the city.

You may think that this influx of the new is exaggerated, but it’s not. In the trains and buses, every man, woman and child is decked in something new, if not downright festive. The ladies usually carry a tray of offerings to the deity and gifts for other visiting members as well. It’s a great communal activity. For large expensive pandals and fairs, a community usually sponsors the installation of a deity and all the members volunteer.

During the day, there are mostly prayers, rituals and visits from nearby members of the Bengali community. If there’s something Bengali people love doing it’s knowing how to while time away in good conversation. The Bengali word for it is “adda”, and it’s meaning extends from gossip to a report on recent events and anything in between. Friends, good food and very flexible schedules are mandatory requirements for a good adda session.

The Bengali definition of good food includes luchi (inflated cornflour flatbread), aloo dum (potato in rich gravy) or rice. A fish curry may be served as well if it’s lunch time, finished off with a rice pudding.

Bengali food in full glory
Image credits: Poribeshon.com

 Goddess Durga is considered to be our mother, because she conquered evil and she protects our homes and families and brings joy, prosperity and strength to her devotees. But in our culture, we also take to viewing her as our own daughter. She is the young bride of the family who has left the home of her husband to spend some time with us. It always seemed to me that in the morning, we would treat her to be officially a goddess. All the rites and rituals, carefully planned and performed. The offerings placed in a certain way, the right mantras chanted, the right fasts kept and broken. In the evening, when the pandal lighting has been switched on, something different happens altogether.

Morning ritual preparations

Morning ritual preparations
Image credits: Mother

Most pandals are constructed such that there are two platforms. One for where all the deities are installed and the other for public performances by people of the community who participate. Dance groups, poetry challenges and music performances dominate the evening. Add another healthy dose of adda and more food. Most of these performances have the central theme of Goddess Durga’s glorious conquest. Occasionally, there will be a parody of Bengali culture or an exhibition of Tagore’s works. Under the invocation of Goddess Durga’s blessing, rare exceptional talent takes over the second podium for five spectacular nights.

Usually, my grandmother and my mother would be my constant adda companions. I would ask her to re-narrate the epics when I felt a bit out of place or ask her to explain some ritual to me. Or we would take the opportunity to people-watch, and my grandmother always had something to say if I stared at a cute Bengali boy a little longer than necessary. But that’s part of what defines our very close relationship. My grandmother would talk about how the deities were decorated and arranged at different sites, and then we’d talk about food, life and so on. All around us everyone was updating their friends and close family about news of other relatives, who got what for the Puja, who wore what to which pandal and so on.

I’m remembering all these today because I’m very suddenly homesick. The physical distance between us feels immense. I haven’t tasted a mustard fish curry in almost a year, and I have a very weird craving for luchi right now. But more so, I miss the holidays, the bustle, the general aura of being Bengali and doing Bengali things. All through today, I’ve been listening to Bangla songs, feeling more emotional than usual.

Today is the last day of that festival. The gorgeous deity will now be immersed in water. Everyone is sad to see her go. All the married women smear themselves on with sindoor, the red powder that women use on their forehead to indicate their marital status. They will smear some on the idol too. They want Goddess Durga to bless their families and homes, and they smear this on the deity so that she carries this token back with her when she metaphorically leaves for her abode. My mother and grandmother are usually the first of the household to wish each other and put the red powder on each other. Someday, when I get married, I hope I’ll be able to continue their tradition.

The Sindoor smearing followed by the idol's immersion Image credits: festivals.iloveindia.com, hinduism.about.com

The Sindoor smearing followed by the idol’s immersion
Image credits: festivals.iloveindia.com,
hinduism.about.com

The elderly bless the young. Gifts and wishes are exchanged. Everyone is quiet towards the end of the evening, as the pandals are cleared out. The youth usually chant the slogan, “She’ll come again next year” as a reference to how the festival will be celebrated annually.

My mother called me today and said that she remembered how last year she had prayed to the deities for my academic success and for the well-being of our family. Exactly one year from now, I’m in an Ivy League institution. She called me up to say that she was very proud of me. For everything that I had done. She said that when she went to visit one of the pandals, she saw a deity that resembled me in its likeness and she was so grateful to the divine authorities for their everyday contribution in putting our big dreams to action. She said that one of the younger wives at the pandal wished her well and said that she someday aspired to become a mother like my mother. She talked about how much it touched her and how she felt that she could have been only where she is today by having a daughter like me.

I allowed myself to shed a few tears. I don’t think I deserve such high praise from a mother who has done infinitely more for me. We ended up being more sentimental than usual. I watched a few videos on Youtube about the immersion, and though I feel so removed from my grandparents and friends, I   know their best wishes are with me.

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