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“How can I explain to them that while I am a staunch atheist, I still, happily and willingly, love Durga Puja as if it’s a very part of me?” Sinjini Sengupta pens a beautiful, nostalgic and introspective piece on this magical Indian festival of homecoming.
Sometimes, strange things happen at random moments. Like when they asked you to tell them “something about yourself” at your first job interview, and you looked blank. You did not know, until then, how difficult it is to summarise your own self, in precise words and well-formed sentences, conclusively and sufficiently! You do not know where to start, what to carefully keep aside, what is just yours and not for the world to know, and what part of the reply would leave your audience engaged and pleased and still be honest and genuine.
When confronted with casual curiosity, or even courtesy calls, on something so damn close to you that you’ve grown up to belong to it, it really gets difficult. I know I am getting into too much gibberish for you to keep on reading this piece, especially in a season where you have so much to otherwise, and I duly apologise. Give me a chance to defend myself. I’m just back from a very sudden going-totally-blank-at-an-obvious-question situation at a non-Bong gathering. They casually, only with slight curiosity, asked me one simple and well-meaning question:
“What is Durga Puja?”
It got me! Talking of my immediate reaction to it, and as you must have figured out already, yes, I went blank! I fell short of words.
Thankfully, my listeners seemed to take my long silence and loss for words with empathy, although they would not know how difficult it is for an inside-out Bong to attempt to explain Durga Puja to them at one go, to give them a ready yet satisfactory answer without fumbling with words, without searching hard for which version, which story of Durga Puja she should put across to them, so that they get the essence of the festival, and how much not to say, knowing well that one would just not understand because, simply, one cannot!
How can I explain to them that despite being a staunch atheist who doesn’t believe in idol worship, in carrying a symbol of marriage, or wearing a line of vermilion to help a husband live longer, I happily and willingly, with all my might, love Durga Puja as if it’s a very part of me? How can I make them realise, to feel, to trust that Durga Puja is not a matter of just religion or custom, of social or familial order, but much beyond that? That it is sheer magic? How can I tell them, well enough, what Durga Puja is?
I smile back at them, still in loss, still in search of the right words, the right way. Someone suggested, “Bengalis wear new clothes on each day of Durga Puja, right?”
I nodded, “Yes!” I cannot tell you how, almost instantly, I went 22 years back into the past. It flashed before me like a picture, how as a kid I used to get new clothes from relatives, how we – my brother, our cousins, neighbours, school friends and I – would contest on the number of clothes we had got, unfailingly exaggerating the number a tad on the higher side to feel better. How, a month before the festival, my mom used to start drawing up her shopping lists and budgets months in advance and flag up the amount to dad every other day, with newer (and higher) quotes every time. How one fine day, dad wouldn’t go to work and we wouldn’t go to school, and instead we’d hop into a taxi and go to New Market, first shopping for the clothes with soft drinks and chicken roll breaks in between, and wrapping up in a serpentine queue before the most popular “free school street” Sree Leather’s shop for shoe shopping. How, once we were home after the long day, my brother and I put on the clothes on our very sweaty torsos, trying them out in front of the mirror, reassessing and reviewing the choice, its quality and prices. How, once I started to write and also take care of my wardrobe, I’d make lists behind the lined notebooks I carried to school; lists, scribbles, and fresh notes on what to wear on what day of the Puja, what time, and on which outing?
How can I make them realise, to feel, to trust that Durga Puja is not a matter of just religion or custom, of social or familial order, but much more beyond that?
With splitting kitchens, spreading “nuclear” germs, increasing priorities and many so-called inconveniences, the elaborate shopping trips ahead of the Puja times quickly reduced to money-gifts (“Boudi, please ask Tua to buy something of her choice!”) and then, eventually, to cancel-outs (“You know, kids are getting old. And they have such a lot of clothes already!”) Today, my little daughter, all of 4 years, gets her new clothes for Puja just from her closest kin, us, my parents, and my brother – albeit in multiples! Will she ever know what Puja clothes meant when I was her age?
Before I could gather myself to tell my listeners all about wearing new clothes for Puja, they had already given up waiting and were already at their second guess: “Raam ne Durga Puja kiya tha na, Raavan-vadh se pehle?”(Didn’t Lord Ram do Durga Puja before fighting Raavana?)
Oh yes, very true. Oh but am I not a steadfast non-believer, an atheist? But then, who cares! Didn’t I say Durga Puja is not about religion or customs, and not about logic and rationality either! It’s magic. The magic that was created around us when my grandmother would hum the stories to me, with me cuddled next to her, under the same blanket. She spoke in a soft, slow way, almost like a chant, as she lulled me to sleep every night. I remember that story, about how when Durga teasingly, playfully hid away the one of the 108 blue lotuses, Raam offered his one eye to replace the lost lotus, faced with the test of his dedication. These are some of the stories I have grown up with, during my childhood, my very own source of magic!
Today, my little daughter, all of four years, gets her new clothes for Puja just from her closest kin, us, my parents, and my brother – albeit in multiples! Will she ever know what Puja clothes meant when I was her age?
But before they take another dig, I had to blurt out something. I AM the Bong, isn’t it? “You know, the kind of money they spend on each community Puja. The idols later sell as art pieces at big museums. And I hear art college students these days make a decent living just out of Durga Puja productions. They just work towards these 4 days the whole year and it pays them off well enough.” When I tell them this, eyes of disbelief meet my gaze. Never mind! I continue, “And then, to celebrate Durga Puja, the entire city of Kolkata comes to a stop on this event, for four to five days. Offices, schools, everything, except for emergency support functions. It’s not a religious occasion anymore, you see!”
It’s true, actually! Durga Puja, as I said, is not about worshiping and seeking blessings alone. It’s not about the belief in the Almighty, it’s not about seeking mercy or granting wishes. Durga Puja is about pandal-hopping through the nights, every night. Durga Puja is about hogging on food, all kinds of food, and all five days long. It’s about nostalgia, and about sentiments. Durga Puja is all about the spirit of it, the spirit of happiness! Old friends reunite, new lovers fall in love, the older ones celebrate. Durga Puja is not just a custom! Durga Puja is about life and its many meanings. It is a festival. No, wait, not even that. It’s a carnival!
Ah. I could see my audience is fidgeting, losing engagement. But I could not leave Durga Puja at this, it’s criminal. So, after a hasty thought I add a new angle, hoping they’d like that better.
“You know,” I tell them. “Raamnavami is just one of the many tales behind Durga Puja. Actually, in the Bengali sense, we think of Durga Puja more from a homecoming point of view.”
“Homecoming?” They ask, surprised.
“Yes, homecoming.” I insist. I proceed to explain. “All said and done, it really is a 10-day-long ritual about a married daughter coming home. Mahalaya marks the day when the father, the mighty Himalaya who’s the father of Uma (that is Durga) sets out to bring the daughter home from her in-laws, upon his wife coaxing her into bringing the daughter home, because it’s been long, because she’s missing her, and because, she thinks, she must be homesick. Over the last 5 days of the 10, we celebrate the homecoming of Durga, the daughter, with her children (and pets). And then, sooner than we realise, it’s time to go back! In tears, on the day of Bijaya Dashami, she sets out on her return journey. We bid her goodbye at the Ghaat, as she slowly, very slowly, takes to the water, immerses. We wipe our eyes and come back home. So really, Durga Puja symbolises the annual homecoming of married daughters to their father’s home.” I thought I had just said enough and no more, when the inevitable had to come. In shape of a most innocent query:
“So, are you not going home?”
Image via Shutterstock.
An alumnus of Indian Statistical Institute, Sinjini Sengupta is an erstwhile Actuary turned into an
Beautiful writeup and I must add your last line actually made me home sick 🙁
Thank you, Nivedita! We’re all homesick in some way, I think… If you can, do read this as well: http://sinjinisengupta.blogspot.in/2015/10/mahalaya-homecoming.html
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