When there is a slight nip in the air in the evenings after the blistering heat, when the light in the skies seem to change, you know Durga Pujo is around the corner. When I lived in Kolkata, which I have done for most of my life, there was much about Durga Pujo that I just took for granted.
However, I have always loved it through whatever mixed feelings I may have harboured or displayed. Besides all you need is to take the Bengali out of their homes for the feelings of fervour and nostalgia to emerge in full force.
I live in Chittaranjan Park, New Delhi. Nothing could be more Bengali than CR Park. I moved here four years ago from Kolkata just before the pujas that year. So as far as missing Bengali fish, food, conversing with shopkeepers in Bengali is concerned, I cannot complain.
Yet, back home in Kolkata there is a build-up and anticipation in the air as you get nearer to the pujas that seems to smother you – all of this is thoroughly missing in my life now. I get homesick.
So let’s take Mahalaya. Have I ever woken up in my entire lifetime to listen to it with other family members? Uh no! However, until I moved away I didn’t realise how much I took for granted the familiar sound of Mahalaya (an invocation of the goddess telling the story of Durga which is the commencement of Durga Pujo) playing in the background from the TV, both at home and from neighbouring homes.
All is quiet and peaceful in my Delhi neighbourhood. I am not an early riser by my family’s standards. The one year I was determined to wake up to hear Mahalaya, I was so sleepy, I forgot my spectacles were lying beside me and smashed them to pieces. Listening to Mahalaya was clearly meant as a byproduct for me and I was not destined to be an active participant.
Let’s go back to four years ago and my first introduction to pujas in CR Park in Delhi. Given that unlike back home, there was no long official holiday except for the one paltry day given for Dussehra and no one else at work or otherwise was talking about the pujas, I expected that I would be coming to work like any other day.
The person I consider my godmother here, heard me out and gently told me – “That is not a good idea.” I of course wondered why. She said I would find it very hard to move around especially if I was planning to go to work and come back at the usual time. I was determined. However, my determination was soon punctured.
The drivers of the car service which picked me up from work and dropped me home said they would not enter CR Park once the pujas started. On asking why, they said blockades would be there and it would be crazy traffic. I was skeptical. So I set out in the morning of a puja day to work, it looked relatively normal and non-puja like.
Keeping in mind all warnings, I headed back by afternoon and the barricades were slowly going up and the crowds had swelled. CR Park was in shutdown mode. An island unto itself. Kolkata is in a complete carnival mode itself during the pujas, however I have never particularly cared for the fact that moving around becomes as difficult as it does during this time.
I have always loved the fact that back home I get a long, official holiday so, honestly the length of time for moving around then doesn’t matter. Besides, my enforced holidays back home are filled with the chaos, cacophony of the entire family at home as opposed to my twiddling my thumbs here.
Durga Pujo was always about food and new clothes. On the clothes front you have to give it to Delhi – they know how to dress. All those neighbourhood familiar faces and not-so-familiar ones who you see in trendy clothes at other times are in their ethnic best. You cannot miss the large bindis, bangles and starched sarees. I love the fact that “bhog” lunch is distributed to all and sundry.
There are huge queues, no differentiation of any kind is made – you queue up and you will be served – khichuri, labda, chutney and payesh. Then there are all the food festivals where home cooks put up stalls and compete for awards. The first year my unprepared Kolkata blood just keeled over and fainted looking at the prices of the items available. Now I am a strengthened person.
However, despite all the shoring up of strength that has happened over the years, I am glad to be homeward bound this year. Kolkata, here I come!