If you know a Bengali, most of them would vouch for the fact that they look forward to Durga Pujo every year. As we keep on harping, it is not entirely a religious occasion, but more of a cultural festival. In Bengal, people from every religion can visit the Durga Puja pandals and soak into the throbbing and gay ambience of the festival. There is food, adda, friends, family, cute love affairs that may or may not last long, and the sense of oneness with a huge crowd of people milling towards an inimitable goddess. Considering the promise of such fun and felicity, most of us feel awful when we can’t be at home for pujo.
I have been away from Calcutta for the last fourteen years. There have been multiple instances of a no-show during pujo and it has gradually become a norm that we spend this time elsewhere. I think our parents have accepted this by now and they wait for us to be back during longer holidays in Christmas. While they attend the Durga pujo closer to home, we have devised a better way to keep ourselves occupied. If we can’t be with our loved ones during pujo, then it’s better to go on a road trip!
“Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.” – Babs Hoffman
How does nostalgia treat you? Is it like a spouse, lingering around, making space into your psyche, or like a distant lover, appearing only in turns? Mine is mostly like the latter, fleeting sporadically with a whiff of fragrance like the Shiuli flowers.
Mahalaya for Bengalis is a huge chunk of nostalgia that hovers before the onset of autumn. Marking the termination of Pitripaksha (fortnight of the forefathers), this day has its own significance within different communities. For us, it marks the beginning of Debipaksha (fortnight of the goddess) and eventually Durga Pujo, for others, the start of Navratri. Apart from these religious and spiritual habits, Mahalaya is solely important to a lot of Bengalis for a radio programme called Mahishasurmardini. This incredible show was curated and performed first in 1932 and is enthralling millions since then. It was recorded for the first time in 1946 so that pre-independence riots do not hamper the performance at dawn (source from Twitter). The Aagomoni songs for welcome of Durga into her parents’ abode take a backstage to the brilliant chanting of stotras by the legend called Birendra Krishna Bhadra. The resonance in his voice is something one can’t miss during Mahalaya each year. It gives me goosebumps for sure.
Durga pujo is such an event in a Bengali’s life, including mine, that makes us keep gushing and never wishing to pause. It’s that time of the year when the autumn skies are bluest, fluffy white clouds are cotton candiest and most Bengalis are happiest. Every neighbourhood is lit up like it’s Diwali, people wear bright new clothes like it’s Christmas and gorge on great food like it’s Eid. The best of all festivals in India, eh? Setting aside folie de grandeur, let us concentrate on my favourite part – the food. Aided by recent controversies in India, it has probably reached even the unaware that Bengalis live to eat. Even during festivals. Some preached that we should fast. Oh, but then you don’t coach people on what they shoudn’t eat while they’re waiting to cook up a storm in their kitchens during pujo. Bengalis (pardon the generalisation), have an entire menu chalked down from Shoshthi to Dashami and then some post-pujo gluttony too. It is irrelevant digging for the origin of these urban traditions from the past century; we have already embraced them since they induce a happy food-coma and give us a reason to eat well. While you’re gearing up for the next pujo, keep these in consideration and have a balanced yet decadent menu each day.
The day pujo officially begins. It is a custom for mothers in West Bengal to observe Shoshthi for the betterment of their children. While some women fast and take only two meals a day excluding rice, others treat themselves to vegetarian delicacies like Luchi-Parota-Chholar Daal-Aloor Dom-Phulkopir Dalna-Payesh-Mishti. I used to wait for Shoshthi as my mother would make piping hot phulko Luchi along with Kumro’r Chhokka and Chholar Daal. The advent of store-bought Paneer in the late ’90s had marred the charm of Shoshthi though. As Paneer began slicing its way through the tedious Chhanar Dalna, I moved towards just the Luchi and let mother enjoy the farce called Paneer torkari.
Luchi – Begun bhaja is all we had this year on Shoshthi
Shoshthi is prevalent mostly in West Bengal and the other Bengalis from the East have their own delectable spread on this occasion. I miss Kumro’r Chhokka as it had been quite frequent while I grew up; have been trying to replicate the one mother used to make but it still lacks something. You can give it a try though.
Today was a bright sunny one – clean, smooth, flawless autumn blue sky. Not even a single spec of cloud, crisp sunshine with a little coolness in the air and trees fluttering in the wind, all green (yes green, and not the so-called “fall” colour). I could hear the wind bumping into my ears when I was walking back from the lab, walking against the wind. It played like a broken flute all along, rumpled my hair like my father would sometimes fondly do. Nevertheless, the sky attracted me more, as always. I think if I’d have to design a colour catalogue for paints, I would do really well with the blues. Just look at the sky, it’s a different shade of blue each time I’ve seen it. Right from staring through the barred windows of Barasat-Hasnabad ‘deluxe’ bus on a Nabami morning every year, to gazing at the brilliant crystal blue while standing in a queue at Belur Math on Ashtami afternoon, again each year. Times change. The un-intimidated ritual for nine years, of reaching Belur Math before the Kumari Puja at nine o’clock has long been replaced to watching the puja live on television. We prefer the change nowadays to avoid the excessive crowd, the pushing and jostling for a view of the kumari, two hours of journey from our present home, and the unstable health of my ageing parents. But we miss the ambiance and the inexplicable khichuri bhog prepared since ages by some Ghanashyam from Ghusuri. I’d trade anything, simply anything, for an earthen cup of that divine bhog. Nobody has been able to explain the reason behind such taste till now, though he makes it with no special ingredients or procedure. Somethings are better forever unexplored, I guess.