Over the last one month and a half, I moved into a new apartment, started teaching a full course for the first time and worked on my first research paper. I spent the weekends buying stuff for my apartment and spent my free time doing some other work that I do not want to discuss here just yet. Also, a free one-month membership from Netflix hijacked my lifestyle completely and hopelessly and made me realize once more that blogging is perhaps the lowest priority work in my life. Still, I promised to write a blog post before Durga Puja to one of my half-dozen regular readers, and this festival seems a good subject to restart blogging.
But what will I write? I wrote all about my childhood memories before. I also wrote about seeing Puja in Kolkata, in Hooghly, in New Jersey and seeing idols being built in Kumortuli. Besides, some of my friends with similar childhood memories wrote beautiful blog posts and I am left struggling to find a story that is new.
When I was very small, I lived in a house that was almost across the road from the local puja pandel. As a result, I and my cousin Ananda got to spend a lot of time at the pandel, admiring the idols and bursting caps in our little silver coloured pistols. During this time, I became aware of a lot of facts about the goddess and her children by acutely observing them at that pandel and elsewhere.
For instance, Ganesha was badly in need of a workout.
It may have been the consequence of trying to satisfy his elephantine taste-buds, but it could be seen that Ganesha was not making things easy for his ride – the mouse. Okay, the mouse was sometimes the size of a small dog, but you would still clearly see the helplessness of his situation when you looked at his master. During pandel-hopping, one of the things that I watched keenly was the size of the mouse that Ganesha had there.
Then Kartik was the dandy man. Right from his choice of pet, to his wardrobe and hairstyle, everything reeked of show-off. The detail with which the peacock was made told a lot about the skill of the artist and the budget of the organizers. Sometimes, Kartik did not wear a crown to show off his hairstyle. Ganesha also did not usually wear a crown, but that was probably because no crowns fitted his head. Kartik wore ornate dresses in some places, but usually he was bare bodied. Sometimes he wore a golden fishnet shirt, just to be fashionable. A person in a glistening silk and gold dress holding a silver bow and arrow riding a peacock – no wonder the gods made him the commander of their army. No enemy can remain calm after facing such a shining adversary.
The daughters were more conservative looking, and honestly speaking, more respect-inspiring for me. I mean which child really cares about wars and armies and success in business? But even as a child I understood the basic necessities of life: money and food and marks in the exams. As a grad student, these things are still of utmost importance in my life, so I better not crack any jokes about the nice ladies and their avian pets. Only, as a child I often wondered how come the owl never ate the mouse when they came together. I also noticed that although Lakshmi and Saraswati looked almost like twins, Lakshmi had got her mother’s complexion while Saraswati seemed to have got her father’s. That conclusion wasn’t easy to reach, of course, because the father was rarely visible with the rest of the family. However, where he was visible, it was evident where Saraswati’s white complexion and Ganesha’s pot-belly came from. The Shiva I saw was such a nice amiable looking gentleman – sort of a long-haired laughing Buddha with a pair of Hercule Poirot moustaches – that it was difficult to imagine him as capable of any kind of dance, let alone being the destroyer of the universe. He appeared to be the gentle husband completely overshadowed by his wife.
His wife. Ma Durga. The destroyer of the buffalo-demon. The daughter of the house visiting her father. Hence the centre of attraction.
She was the one we children stared at for hours. Balanced atop a lion, she held weapons in her ten hands. She had already impaled the buffalo-demon Mahishasura at most pandels. A mutilated buffalo with a severed head lay at her feet. Sometimes her expression was angry, and sometimes sweet and calm. With flowing curly dark hair visible under her crown, the three-eyed goddess was the definition of unearthly beauty. Our favourite pastime was trying to identify her weapons, and matching which of the weapons were common between different idols. We got particularly excited if one weapon was a live snake that was biting Mahishasura.
I did not realize it at the time, but now when I think about it, it does not seem strange at all that a child, when told that a three-eyed, ten-handed, lion-riding woman is his (and everybody else’s) mother, believes it. The most beautiful woman in the world, protecting me from all evil and doing everything with five times the efficiency of a normal two-handed person. Sometimes angry and sometimes smiling. That’s how I would have described my mother as well. So what was so different about the goddess?
Probably that is why she always seemed so close, so beloved. That would explain the lump in my throat on the last day of the festival. That would explain what I feel like sitting here in “the Land of the Free” on Panchami evening typing out childhood memories. There are some things that do not lose their charm even when we grow up, and the festival of Durga Puja is one of those things for me. With each passing year spent outside Bengal, the desire to be part of the puja in my hometown grows more intense in my heart. I want to go and stand at Ma Durga's feet and look up into her eyes. I want to be awed by her weapons, her ornaments and her heavenly beauty, just like my childhood days.
Liberty tries to be impressive too, but she only has two hands.