I am a Bengali. As must have been established more than a few times in my little corner of cyber space. So one of the biggest things in the life of a Bengali is an annual festival called Durga Puja. Or Pujo rather as we Bengalis tend to refer to it. The 'O' sound being our favourite, much to the amusement of the rest of the world including my husband. He often mouths out khabo (will eat), korbo (will do) and jaabo (will go) etcetera as examples of the fact that my community loves the expression 'O'.
Well, this year is our first year in the UK celebrating Durga Pujo. It is interesting. We have our invite to attend the pujo organised by Leicester's probashi (NRI Bengalis) club.
The lady in the image I have put up above is Ma Durga. She is the Goddess who I have known as Ma (mother) Durga ever since I was a wee kid. She, according to legend, defeated the evil buffalo demon called Mahishasura and ever since it has been celebrated every year by us.
No city can do justice to Durga Pujo like Calcutta. It is the city where I grew up from the age of 8 years (before which I was in Oman), the city which taught me to love shorshe ilish (mustard hilsa), showed me how a festival can be enjoyed for five days (Shashthi, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Navami and Vijayadashami)at a stretch with unparalleled pomp, gave me a pujo that has now been organised every year in the family since the last 80 years, instilled a deep love and appreciation for food.
Pujo for me has always been a time for new clothes. It is a common question that is bandied around during this time of the year among Bengalis, "Kota notun jama holo ebar (how many new clothes do you have this time)?" When I was in my teens I would be almost frantic with worry. I had to get at least five items in my wardrobe. How could I head out with friends every day to the pandals without one new salwar kameez or kurta each day? Now that I look back, I almost laugh with a little bit of derision at the vanity that prompted me to go ballistic. On the other hand, it was a childhood pleasure.
It was also the time of the year, when I would be forced to get up early -- I have never been much of a morning person -- bathe, put on my new clothes and drive off to the family pujo which would be held in rotation at three houses in the family each year. Our house is one of those three luck houses.
Every fourth year, the pujo shifts to my place in Saltlake.
Mornings during those five days were almost always to be started without food unless we had prayed and offered anjali (chants with flowers) to Ma Durga. The chant went thus:
(O, Jayanti, Mangala, Kali, Bhadrakali, Kapalini, Durga, Shiva, Khama, Dhatri, Swaha, Shwadha, my earnest dedication to you all. Ma Durga, salutation to thee).
Then the prasad (blessed food) would come in the form of pats of banana and lentils mashed together, various sweets, and my favouries: white and chocolate coloured narokler naru (traditional roundels of sweets made with coconut).
I have memories of helping my mother grate the coconut on the dau (a sharp iron instrument for chopping and cutting) and her making narus with milkmaid. The narus especially tasted delicious when made with milkmaid.
After some time spent with cousins bantering around, we would trip for lunch made by the thakur. And most usually there would be steaming platefuls of rice, accompanied by beguni (fried eggplant), jhuri bhaaja (thin juliennes of potato fried crisp), shukto, some other vegetable dish. On Ashtami or the eight day, there would be kosha mangsho (spicy mutton) with luchi as a special meal. Oh, how it makes me nostalgic.
The day that I would really cherish and at the same time feel horribly sad was the last day or the 10th day of Vijaydashami. I loved it because of the tradition we have of going on the visarjan (immersion) of the idol to the ghats of the river Hooghly. It happens usually on a truck. So the idol is hoisted onto the truck and then the family clambers in, taking their place on chairs placed within the truck or simply on rugs. It is not a very clean affair. CClothes do end up getting dirty. After all, you are in a truck. So most of us tended to wear old, worn clothes. After a beautiful drive in the truck passing by the picturesque Victoria Memorial, which looks even more beautiful at night, when we arrived at the ghats of the Hooghly the girls would chomp on bhelpuri and jhaal muri and all kinds of fried snacks. While the men would carry the idol to the water for immersion.
Last year, I got to sit atop the truck on its topmost deck above the driver's cabin. It was my high point because when I was small, only the elder brothers had the privilege.
Once back home, we would see a small fish tied to the gate as a symbol of good luck and prosperity and enter for a small puja after which we would touch the elders' feet and then hog on big, syrupy sweet amrittis (a fatter version of jalebis). Dinner followed right after when we would feast on the most sumptuous food cooked for the occasion. My favourites were always the shorshe ilish -- I would have three to four pieces of fish -- and the Durga Doi (yoghurt tempered with spices) and tauk (tamarind water). Then everyone would go home and just suddenly I would feel incredibly sad.
Here is a chant from the Durga Shloka to leave you with
Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu Matri rupena samsthita
Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu Shakti rupena samsthita
Ya Devi sarva bhutesu Shanti rupena samsthita
Namestasyai Namestasyai Namestasyai Namoh Namah
(The goddess who is omnipresent as the personification of universal mother
The goddess who is omnipresent as the embodiment of power
The goddess who is omnipresent as the symbol of peace
I bow to her, I bow to her, I bow to her)