Sunday, October 01, 2006

Durga Puja Memories

Boss: Are you going somewhere over the weekend? Why can't you come and work then?

Colleague1: Why are you cribbing over not being able to go home? And isn’t Durga Puja still far away ?(said on the Panchami day)

Colleague2: Why are you wearing a new shirt?

What should I answer to these people? How can I explain what Durga Puja means to me? How can a person who has never lived in Bengal understand what it feels to be away from home on DurgaPuja?

For me, Durga Puja isn’t just a festival that has to be experienced by going to the pandals and looking at the idols. It is something that is much bigger, something that surrounds us all the time. One fine day, you wake up in the morning and feel that the sunlight streaming through your window smells of Puja. Suddenly one night in September you’ll feel chilly, and you’ll think, “Oh, the Puja is early this year, so it’s getting cold.” You see tiny green insects with black rear ends jumping under the light, and you realise that Puja is coming. The days are not ordinary any more. The presence of Ma Durga can be felt on earth. I and my sister used to point at the white clouds in the blue sky, and say, “That one looks like a lion, and there’s an elephant’s head.” It was fun discovering divine shapes in the clouds. And if it was a year when we had planned to visit Hooghly, we would start counting the days left for the trip.

I have spent most of my childhood in Allahabad where Durga Puja, though celebrated, is a festival of the Bengalis. There even Dussehra loses out in show to Diwali, the festival of lights. The changes that I mentioned occur there too. Why, they can be felt even down here in Hyderabad. But they are like rainless clouds, like all smoke and no fire. To feel the real Puja one has to go to Bengal. The Puja magic would intensify from Mahalaya. I would take out my old little radio and put in new batteries. The program would be broadcast in Hindi in Allahabad, and much of it would be lost in sleep. However, that’s the real fun of Mahishasur Mardini… you don’t enjoy it as much if you are wide awake.

The next few days would be spent in packing, and finally we would land up in Hooghly on the Chaturthi or Panchami day. The idol has already arrived in our colony pandel by then. I and my sister would go and watch people give finishing touches to the decoration. It would always seem that so much work could never be finished in a day, but they would always manage it in time. The two of us would have serious fights over the Pujabarshiki Anandamela (the Puja-special annual issue of a popular children’s magazine). And yes, I almost forgot the new clothes! Our relatives would give us new clothes that we would wear during the Puja. A new set each day. The best would be reserved for the Ashtami evening.

My father’s house is in Hooghly, and my mother’s house is in Salt Lake. So we would spend the Puja half here and half there. Usually the Shashthi-Saptami in Salt Lake, and Ashtami-Nabami in Hooghly. Then back to Salt Lake a day after Bijoya Dashami and before returning to Allahabad. We would walk around from pandel to pandel, keeping a count of how many we saw. In fact it was a competition with my sister, and whoever saw more idols won. I liked Hooghly more, simply because there you could see more idols on foot. In Hooghly the Pujas are close together. In Salt Lake there is only one Puja per block, and one can’t see too much on foot. Traveling by a taxi or rickshaw somehow didn’t give the same feeling. Once we hired a car and traveled all over Kolkata, visiting all the major Pujas. But it was tiring. Some were memorable, but some places were too crowded. In some places the pomp and show was so much that Ma Durga seemed alien.

In Hooghly we mostly traveled on foot. Sometimes with my cousins and aunt, sometimes with my parents. When we were younger my cousin and I burst “caps” in tin pistols. I was never the brave type, and so when I burst a cap the pistol was held as far from my body as humanly possible, and I usually looked the other way. But chickening out was unthinkable. When we grew up sometimes my cousin and I pandel-hopped by ourselves, or sometimes I’d have to play the grown up and escort my younger sister and cousin brother. I loved to walk along the road beside the Hooghly river, there’s a pandel every few steps. There were glamorous pujas here too; they made pandels that looked like anything from a ruined temple to the White House. They made non-conventional idols that were depicted in unusual poses. Sometimes their clothes and jewelry were also earthen, fixed to their body. They looked pretty, but then I saw that to keep the idol intact and to make the puja easier the actual puja was being done on a smaller idol kept in front. That reduced my liking to a large extent, for what was the use of making artistic idols if you worship another one? It’s not Ma Durga, it’s just another statue! The kind of idol that I like most is the traditional yellow bodied idol with large eyes, and pith decoration (daaker saaj). The idol near the haat (marketplace) used to be like that every year. And the Puja lighting needs a special mention, though to do it justice I should write another post describing it. The past year's principal events were shown in animated form through the lights in the big pandels. I’ve heard that Christmas lighting in Paris is very beautiful. I have seen photos of that. In my opinion, it comes nowhere near Kolkata lighting during Durga Puja.

Our colony Puja is very much like a home Puja. Everything is handled by the colony people. The work progresses very much like when there’s a function at home (I believe that is the case for any colony Puja). The flowers for Ma durga go from our gardens, the work is done by us. We, the colony people supply the cassettes that are played on the loudspeakers. Some kid is handed the mike and asked to make announcements,

Omuk barir kakima, apni apnar bado thalata niye chole asun, amader proyojon ache. Tomuk barir didu, apni chatpat asun, bhog rannar samay hoye gechhe. Edike amader handi bhanga competition kichhukkhoner modhyei shuru hobe. Jara angshogrohon korte ichchhuk tara chat pat chole eso.

[Lost in translation: It's a call to different people of the colony, by their names, to bring things needed at the Pandel. Also, an announcement is made about the pot-breaking competion starting soon.]

Then we would have the running commentary of the handi bhanga competition on mike by a slightly older guy. It is a game where a blindfolded person is told to walk a little and then break an earthen pot with a stick. Most people fail, of course, and end up doing hilarious things. Reproduction of that commentary here is beyond my literary abilities, I hope you have understood the situation well enough to imagine what it is like. In the evening the kids and not-so-kids would be told to perform on a stage in front of the idol. Extempore. We would see nice song, dance and poetry recitation performances.

One of the most eagerly awaited things about Durga Puja is the sound of dhaak. A dhaak is a large drum that is hung on the player’s body and played in a particular rhythm during the Puja. Again, it’s not just another musical instrument. It creates magic in the air. The atmosphere created during arati is truly electric, with the incense fumes and dhaak sound shutting out everything else from the mind.

On Nabami we would have bhog in our pandal. That is, we would eat prasad for lunch, sitting in front of Ma Durga. On Dashami we would go to my uncle’s house in Chinsurah, the neighbouring town to Hooghly. There we would spend whole day with my cousins. The house next door is owned by the Adhyas. They hold a Puja in their household that is centuries old. Their idol is different, here Ma Durga isn’t fighting the demon. She’s visiting her father’s house with her husband Shiva and children Ganesha, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati. The traditional idol is lovely (see photo). In the evening, the idols are carried out of the house one by one and arranged outside. It feels like some dear one is leaving from our house, as if their bags are being packed, everyone is running in and out, and is checking and re checking if everything has been taken. Finally She’s carried to the river to be immersed, on men’s shoulders, as was the custom in the olden days. I feel a lump in my throat. Another year before I see Her again. That is the strange thing about Durga Puja; it is four days long, which is longer than most festivals, but it still seems too short. Probably that is because we don’t see it as a festival. Suppose your mother stayed away from you and she visited you once a year for four days. Would you feel that was long enough?

After the Adhyas’ idol was carried away, our Bijoya used to start. We went to the relatives’ and neighbours’ houses and touched the feet of the elders, and got nice things to eat in return. The same thing happened once we went to Salt Lake, and a third time in Allahabad.

Today is Nabami. Another Puja is almost over. I tried to enjoy it here in Hyderabad, but that’s really not possible. I should have understood that last year. For one thing, Puja pandels are hard to come by. Then the people you see there are more interested in bragging about their children’s achievements than anything else. Young people are either discussing their job related technical stuff (much of this population works in the IT Industry like me) or filming their family in front of the idol with handycams. In both the pandels that I visited, there was a stall put up by a matrimonial site that arranges marriages for NRIs. Obviously, they expect to do good business by advertising there.

Do blog about it…”, said Greatbong, who prefers to ignore the Puja to prevent feeling depressed. I couldn’t. With so many fond memories associated with this festival, I simply couldn’t write a sad post about how miserable Durga Puja feels here in Hyderabad. So I ended up sharing my happier memories of earlier Pujas spent in Bengal.


  1. You too had to write a nostalgic post and make me feel bad :(. I guess the nostalgia comes from the missing joy when we are without our families during Pujo. I feel it all the time. It can never be the same without them but one way to kind of lessen it is probably to get involved in the puja committee in hyd, may be even as something as small as a volunteer doing very menial tasks. One would still feel a part of it if not completely. I did it once , cutting potatoes and onions for saraswati puja bhog and it was fun. Also why feel upset and spoil your pujo because of some people talking about their kids acheivements and shaadi stalls. Pujo is your personal thing with Ma Durga, it is the loveliest season of the year. Enjoy :)

    Tomake Pujor shubeccha janalaam.

  2. And great that you did. Lovely post. Pity that I could never be part of a "colony" Pujo...the place where I grew up just did not have a 'community'.

  3. Great that you did--> great that you blogged about it.

  4. pujor sharodiyo shubechha :) lovely lovely post.

  5. @shreemoyee: Guess Durga Pujo and nostalgia are inseparable when you are away from your family. Here in Hyderabad the nearest Pujo is so far away that active participation is very difficult. I hate to bring up my work into this (to show that I'm an important guy), but the fact is that I was told to attend office in these three days of holidays. I refused to come on the weekend (Ashtami-Nabami) but I have to go to office tomorrow. Incidentally, tomorrow apart from being Dussehra, is a national holiday (Gandhi Jayanti). In such a scenario I can't really become a volunteer.
    I did not feel upset because of those people talking about their kids, but I did feel that the atmosphere was more suited to a party where everyone was trying to prove themselves better. As you said, Pujo is my personal thing with Ma Durga. :)
    Ar tomakeo Pujor shubhechchha janalam.

    @greatbong: Thanks for visiting! I am indeed lucky to have my home in a colony that is small and organises a small-budget Pujo. As the budgets go higher, that sense of community goes away... Then people start competing for the awards for the best pandel, the best lighting, the best idol... More and more people from other colonies start visiting the pandel, but a lot of devotion and dedication is lost in the process. You can't have all those funny events or announcements, you always have to wear a formal mask to show to others.

    @bidi-k: Thanks! Tomadero janalam!!!

  6. @greatbong: And yes, thanks for that Mahalaya link!

  7. Oh.. nothing more irritating than being some place when you rather be some other place. So sounds like no gandhi jayanti or dusshera for you.

  8. Joy,wonderful memories.And yes, yesterday in between the Nabami celebrations in full swing and we were sitting in the pub just above the Puja halls, we all realised how sad it was to see one more Durgapuja pass by. But being first timer to the Bengali Association pujo in Singapore(last all 3 times have been spent in Kolkata or elsewhere), I was really charmed by the homeliness of the festival here. No show of I got the newest car,my son did this-or-that which was something I never was able to avoid during pujos in B'lore.And the best part is to see at 11:00 in the night kids and their fathers dancing to the RD tunes.I have now hope that the Bengali legacy will live on. Maybe the accent will be alien, but at their hearts they'll all remain the same old Opu.

  9. Really hate you. All this time I am stuck in a God forsaken place missing Durga Puja the 10th year in a row. Amid cursing bad traffic and the commercialisation of pujo in Cal, I have been trying to deny the fact of how terribly I miss my family on Durga Puja, almost succeeded in the self delusion. And on Dashami evening when Ireturn to an empty appartment, I read your blog and the heart ache return.

    You write beautifully. Thank You.

  10. @shreemoyee: Gandhi Jayanti to be celebrated Gandhi style... working. I feel like doing Satyagraha... :(

    @bishu: Nice to know that people have that kind of Bengali feelings in Singapore.

    @prometheus_unbound: Consider that a revenge for making me read about Bhapa Ilish when I am almost about to forget the taste of Ilish here in Hyderabad.

  11. I am not a Bengali, but I've enjoyed many a Durga Puja in the company of Bengalis and I can completely empathize with your sense of loss.

    A happy Dusshera to you.

  12. Nice post. And I'm glad you are not writing about being miserable which I'm sure you were. It is so much nicer to relive the days in one's memories because nothing can be sweeter than that. Hope you had a nice Pujo and Shubho Bijoya to you.

  13. started really well, I could feel the pain, and innsence of child.

    also could feel ur love for a sis.. but in the later part it lost the charm.. u could have kept it short, may be split it in 2-3 posts

  14. @km: Thanks and same to you. It's not that only Bengalis or Hindus enjoy the Durga Puja. Many big Puja committees have non-Bengalis or Muslims as important members.

    @m(tread softly upon): Thanks and Shubho Bijoya to you too.

    @ken: Yeah, it's longer than my other posts, but I had so much to write. :(

  15. i m back!!
    n itz gr8 2 c u gone a long long way ahead :-)
    a senti write-up on DurgaPujo, gr8 wrk, but the pity really is the ppl who havn't seen a DurgaPujo will nvr understand what it means 2 us.
    I got my allocations at Bangalore n my reporting was on 3rd oct,i cud hav come here directly frm Bhubaneswar but i preferred 2 go home for 25and1/2 hours so as 2 be with my family on MahaAshtami, i gave the pushpanjali with Maa, who knos whether i'll evr get a chance 2 do it again in d near future.

  16. u could have split that in to 2-3 post.. for diff days or diff things

  17. Sentimental nostalgic Reminicenses...Unfortunately my dream to see Pujo in west Bengal still remains a was good to get a glimpse of it thur u...but bangalore puja is way better than i expected...come here next pujo and hit the refresh button for the festival that means so much to u...!!

  18. ---

    Nicely written. Durga Puja really makes us nostalgic about those good old days.

    I have just uploaded my post on Durga Puja in my Blog. Please read it when you have some free time. And please write some comments there if you want to. Thank you...

    Wish you a very happy Durga Puja. May you enjoy to the fullest and have the best time of your life... :)


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