How trivial some stories are, yet how momentous they are to a story teller…this is the story of Maa Durga and me, and I sit today to spin you my yarn.
For my cousins, when I was growing up in Assam, Durga Puja meant new clothes, delectable food, toy pistols, and staying out late with friends with no deadline to meet. The dhoop-filled pandals, the aarti and the anjali, the mesmerising blast of the conches, the overwhelming visages of Maa Durga, the delicious bhog — all these were images that held them captive. They loved the khichdi bhog, willing to wait all year just to taste this delicious concoction whose taste and fragrance could never really be replicated when cooked at home. The delicious labdaa, the delectable paayosh, and the enchanting rosogollas were the highlights of their young lives.
Carried away by their enthusiasm, I too used to go with them to be greeted with the familiar smells and sounds of Durga Puja – the sound of the bells and drums, the smell of fresh flowers and incense sticks, and the cloying sweetness of the burning ghee. Our fathers and uncles looked resplendent up in dhoti-kurta, dutifully handing out lunch coupons. Our mothers and aunts were decked up to look straight out of the sets of a movie in their gorgeous saris and chador-mekhelas, vermilion-headed and kohl-smeared eyes.
Everyone used to enthusiastically discuss everything under the sun – from annual visits of in-laws to the newest store selling fish curry and chicken fry. The city pulsated with life – with the fervour of shoppers amidst crazy near-stampedes, the smell of roadside phuchka and chicken rolls, the heart beating synchronously with the rhythm of the drums. The smell of puja used to pervade the air – a smell characterized by faith as much as by happiness.
The dhaaki starts to play the dhaak at some point, ushering people to come attend the session of anjali with fistfuls of yellow and red flowers. I wake up a start, and I realize that I am no longer in Assam. In fact, I have not attended a single Durga Puja in Assam for the past 21 years. For the first 13 of these past 25 years in Delhi, Durga Puja was an alien concept, an anachronism in the season of Dussehra. Hedonistic reminiscences of chicken rolls and mutton cutlets were scandalizing thoughts in the Navratra season of strict vegetarianism. And then in 2006, I happened to move into my own flat in Chittaranjan Park in New Delhi. C. R. Park, for those who came in late, is a mini-Calcutta. A place where Bengalis outnumber North Indians 4 to 1. And therefore, a place where Durga Puja is a MAJOR BIG DEAL.
My feet stomp a staccato rhythm to match the beat of the dhaak. And a strange magic suffused with nostalgia fills me. I flip between the past and my present, casually glancing around me to look in vain for the gorgeous beauties of my youth, now settled in happy and corpulent matrimony. A sigh escapes me and I chose to focus on the calm serenity of Durga Maa’s face instead. Of all the things that have changed around me over the years, she is one of the few things that have not changed an iota. She still exudes strength and femininity. And the demon still has a six-pack abdomen.
Durga Puja in C. R. Park comes with azure skies, intoxicating fragrance of flowers, pushpanjali, hot khichuri bhog, egg rolls, mughlai parathas, ilish maash, sindur khela, mishti doi, and mutton ghugni. The smoky atmosphere of burning incense, the familiar beats of the dhaak, and soulful Rabindra Sangeet permeate the air.
For people all around me, Durga Puja is a time of celebrating one’s faith. A time of devotion; a time of communion with the divine. A time to pray, and a time to stay. But what of those who are as pathologically allergic to public displays of faith as they are to public displays of affection? And what of those who almost suffocate in the midst of too many people – whether it be a book fair or a puja? In short, what of those prematurely jaded souls such as mine?
As the years pass me by, everything else has started to lose its glamorous sheen. The old magic has vanished; celebrations have become more commercialized. The outward glitz has replaced the heartfelt piety. But the charm of those four days of Durga Puja still holds strong… a zillion miles away from home in Assam, a million miles even from the real Calcutta...the pleasures of mini Calcutta in C. R. Park still urges the mind to give up its lucidities and dive into the pleasures of the heart.
My son wants me to take him to visit the nearby pandal. He wants to eat a chicken roll there, and buy a whistle and a toy sword. Life comes back full circle.
And the mind decides to give life yet another chance…