Mahalaya, The Grand Beginning of Durga Pujo

Shiuli/Parijaat/Nyctanthes

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.

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Life Is One Stitch At A Time

There are some things in life that come back at a later stage, like a memory or a habit and tend to give your life a new lease. It might be a hobby or a lifestyle quirk or a forgotten custom. After I’ve spent more than half of my lifespan, one of my hobbies made a huge resurgence – embroidery.

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Pattern from Indian cross-stitch book.

I think for most of us growing up in India, embroidery has been equivalent to mandatory craft classes in school that were invariably boring. I felt so, too. My mother and paternal aunts are amateur seamstresses and I used to resort to them for sewing assignments in school. I tried a few but they weren’t too satisfactory. As long as the school assignments were being made by mother/aunt, I was happy. After my high school board exams, there was a lull of three months waiting for admission into college. Something struck me, probably boredom, and I picked up a plain cotton saree, drew some motifs and began stitching. If you have any idea about sarees from Bengal, there is a novel craft called Kantha stitch and the products are amazing. It began seamlessly, although an oxymoron for a stitching habit. Once I got the hang of it, with a little tutorial from mother, I did another saree in entirety. Then came table cloths and cross stitch. I guess I fell in love for the first time in my life with cross stitch and the saga still continues.

Pattern from Indian cross stitch book

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Book Review : Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Blurb: 

* Shortlisted for the National Book Award *
* One of the New York Times‘s 10 Best Books of 2017 *
* Selected for Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf book club *

Yeongdo, Korea 1911. In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story.

Through eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.

Review:

That last sentence in the blurb became one of the reasons I picked up Pachinko. That, and the other reason being – I wanted to read more about Korean immigrants in Japan after I had read Go by Kazuki Kaneshiro. The subjects are similar but the premises of these two books are vastly apart. Pachinko, literally, is a machine game like pinball which is associated ethnically with Koreans, though the game is hugely popular in Japan. In the initial years, most Japanese blamed the Korean immigrants (called Zainichi in a derogatory way) for introducing this gambling game to Japan. This book is about Pachinko, but it is more about a family and its endless struggles.

In a nutshell, the story begins in a small fishy island in Korea called Yeongdo, a little far from Busan. Hoonie, the man with a cleft lip and a limp and Yangjin give birth to Sunja, a not-so-beautiful but hardworking and stout girl. Sunja helps Yangjin run a boardinghouse after Hoonie’s death and things get rough when she gets pregnant with a married man. A pastor from the boardinghouse marries her and they move to Osaka. Sunja gives birth to Noa and later to Mozasu, living with her brother-in-law and his wife. The events and years that follow are long and tedious. After her husband’s death, Sunja takes up peddling Kimchi, working in a restaurant, surviving the second World War and facing her old lover Koh Hansu, who turns out to be a Yakuza. Does the odd father-son duo come to terms with each other? You will definitely have to read the book to know the entire story.

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Book Review : About The Night

Blurb: 

On a hot summer day in 1947, on a grandstand overlooking Jerusalem, Elias and Lila fall deeply, irrevocably in love.

Tragically, they come from two different worlds. Elias is a Christian Arab living on the eastern side of the newly divided city, and Lila is a Jew living on the western side. A growing conflict between their cultures casts a heavy shadow over the region and their burgeoning relationship. Between them lie not only a wall of stone and barbed wire but also the bitter enmity of two nations at war.

Told in the voice of Elias as he looks back upon the long years of his life, About the Night is a timely story of how hope can nourish us, loss can devastate us, and love can carry us beyond the boundaries that hold human beings apart.

Review: 

Firstly, I had never imagined that I would ever read a book that was originally written in Hebrew! There’s a joke in Bangla that implies Hebrew is the most difficult language in the world. Nonetheless, this is a translation into English and doesn’t retain the complexities of Hebrew. I am pleasantly surprised that I discovered this beautiful book late, but all thanks to Amazon Prime Reads for promoting translation literature. There are some out of the world great books to be read in this series.

1947. The year that we Indians associate with our freedom and the struggle before and renaissance after. I, for one, had the least idea that much turmoil was happening in Jerusalem as well. Apart from a city amidst the Israel-Palestine conflict, Jerusalem was the city of birth of Jesus Christ to me. The tussle between Jews and Arabs which reached its pinnacle after the World War affected Jerusalem the most. About the Night begins with the conflict and the whirlwind that it creates for two lovers who meet by chance.

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Chicken Keema Three Ways in a Budget

Doesn’t chicken become boring after a while? Or even after years of consumption, when most of us wonder how to make innovative dishes with it? For me, it surely becomes stifling to cook and eat chicken in the form of curries, stew and roast/kebabs for weeks on stretch. If you are a student or on a budget, buy half kilo chicken mince (keema) and make three interesting recipes for lunch, snack and dinner for two people.

How to prep the keema: 

Heat oil in a wok. I use mustard oil at almost all times and it tastes fine. Add a pinch of cumin seeds and garam masala powder to the oil. Add finely chopped onions and keep frying. Add 1 tbsp of ginger-garlic paste and mix well. Throw in the keema and keep stirring until the extra water dries off. Now add the powdered spices – 1 tsp each of turmeric/red chillies/cumin/coriander/garam masala and 1 tbsp salt. Mix well, cover and let cook. Make sure the mix is cooked and there’s no extra water. Add boiled and mashed potatoes (2 large) to the keema and mix. Garnish with a little garam masala powder and let cool.

Once this mix is ready, you can try three different recipes with it, one each for lunch, snack and dinner.

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The Legend of Ilish

Ilish is the elixir of Bengali cuisine, it is the epitome of all fishes, a delicacy that is looked forward to by everyone. There are only a few rare fish haters among Bengalis spread worldwide who don’t revere Ilish – I know a few such people, can’t say I’m proud of them though. Much has been written about this enigmatic fish around the globe, and about an average Bengali’s obsessive compulsive disorder in buying the best Ilish for their family. Have you heard of people serving Ilish to goddess Saraswati to worship her on Basant Panchami? Multitudinous families in Bangladesh and West Bengal follow the tradition of serving the goddess with a pair of good stout Ilish on Saraswati Puja. Similar rituals are followed on Kojagari Laxmi Puja right after Dusshera. While rest of the country is content in worshipping Laxmi with laddoos and other sweetmeats, few Bengalis carry the legacy of serving the goddess a whole, consummate Ilish later to be cooked and consumed as bhog. A good harvest of Ilish looks somewhat like the image below, with red/purple streaks vertically along its spine and glittery silver scales.

Did you know? Ilish grows and thrives in the sea, but travels all the way to fresh water in the estuaries to lay eggs.

At Gariahat Market, Calcutta.

At Gariahat Market, Calcutta.

My earliest memories of Ilish obviously dates back to childhood when we lived in the Ministry of Defence staff quarters at Ishapore (about 25 km from Calcutta, in the suburbs) near the banks of Ganga. While my in-laws’ house is within 500 metres from the river, we lived a little away in the staff quarters. Those days, about 20 years ago, Ilish was still harvested from Ganga and it tasted better than its other river contemporaries. My father used to reach the river bank at dawn where fishermen would be ready with freshly harvested Ilish, gleaming in the rising sun. Due to global warming, water distribution issues between India-Bangladesh and heavy export, Ilish has become rare in Bengal now. They don’t flock to Ganga anymore, I believe, as the Farakka Barrage diverts the water. The availability of Ilish mostly depends on Kolaghat (Rupnarayan river) and Diamond Harbour (estuary at the Bay of Bengal). This year though, has seen quite a bit of supply from Bangladesh, probably illegally. My parents have bought some of it in Calcutta, where the seller informed them in hushed tones that his father in law sent a lot from Bangladesh though channels. We have seen an Ilish weighing 3 kg here in Pune, which looks like import from Bangladesh too, priced at Rs 1800 per kg.

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Arandhan – The Day No One Cooked

Image source: Kolkata Blog

Image source: Kolkata Blog

Tomorrow is Vishwakarma Puja in Bengal. While every other festival appears on different dates each year depending on its tithi, Vishwakarma Puja has rooted itself deeply on 17th September and never budges. It’s an enigma created many decades ago and Bengal has been following it religiously since. Vishwakarma has been considered as the divine architect, the God of Engineers and machines. If you are in Bengal on 17th September, you’ll easily spot this good looking deity being worshipped in every factory, press, manufacturing unit and even in rickshaw stands. While other idols sport some weapon or the other in their hand(s), Lord Vishwakarma is proudly flanked by a kite! His arrival brightens up the autumn sky with vibrant kites (that have a name each based on their designs) that look like confetti spread all over the canopy.

But this is not an article about Vishwakarma Puja. It’s about an age old custom associated with the festival – Arandhan (no cooking). It is celebrated in the month of Bhadra, on the auspicious day of Vishwakarma Puja. Typically, the custom involves no cooking on heat for the day. Every item was cooked the day before and stored in earthen utensils to protect them from rotting in the autumn heat. The culmination of the month of Bhadra implies the end of monsoon and onset of autumn in the next month of Ashwin. Arandhan serves the purpose of cleaning up the household after rains and offer a platter of the choicest foods from monsoon to Ma Manasa (goddess of snakes). I think this ritual originated in rural Bengal to protect people from the wrath of Manasa and her army of snakes. Until my generation came into being, our families used earthen stoves (unoon/chulha) before the advent of LPG. After cooking up a storm for Arandhan, the stoves and kitchen were cleaned to perfection. A platter was served on earthenware and offered to Ma Manasa, symbolised by a clay pot placed beside the stove.

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