(Not for the real Bangali - this is more like a Pujo primer, written for Jetwings on the request of the Skeptic)
(This blog will stop feeling like a blog if I just keep posting published stuff. OK. Shall be back soon. With a Rant. Or several rants. Rants are the life-blood of blogging)
(No, I lie. Comments are the life-blood of a blog. And my readers don't bother)
(Casts accusing look before exiting left)
(Pops head back in to thank those Good Readers who HAVE commented.)
(Oh, all right. The Pujo thingy is below. Go on and read it, will you?)
Saccharum spontaneum. Kaash phool. The sudden appearance of patches of greenery topped with these swaying white plumes signals an uplifting of the spirit, a sense of expectation. It’s supposed to be a perennial grass, but for Bangalis it is associated with one season.
It happens some time in September, after the rains. Suddenly the sunshine is sharper and mellower all at the same time, the morning air smells different. Even though you can’t admit it to yourself – especially if you’re over 40 and have a duty to be respectable – you feel like standing on the balcony and singing. It has to be Robindro Shongeet remembered from many years ago, even if you usually spend your evenings with Thelonious Monk. Singing loud, full-throated, a chest full of song. Because somewhere in your mind you can hear the rhythms of the dhaak, the pandal down the road is taking shape as a lattice-work of bamboos and is that .. yes, that IS a stray banner of kaash phool in the corner of the park.
Pujo. Sharodotshob. Durga Puja. The autumn festival, the high point of the Bangali year. Browning’s Englishman may yearn for England in the spring, but for Bengalis the one time when thoughts must turn to home is during the Pujas. Learned people can expound on the religious roots, the tradition of the Mother Goddess, the difference between Navratri in the rest of India and the six days of Durga Puja. But deep down, we Bangalis know that our Pujo is only incidentally about prayer. It is in the deepest sense a celebration of our identity, a reassurance of community, an affirmation that life can be good.
Puja starts with Mahalaya. Waking at 4 in the morning to switch on the radio, then snuggling under the covers while songs and mantras and the clashing of cymbals roll around the darkened room, interspersed with the theatrical intonation of Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Unique, inimitable, the voice of Pujo, Durga’s herald long after he died in his 80s. Mahalaya is the last day of Pitru Pakksha, the fortnight when Karna was sent back to earth to appease the souls of his forefathers. The more devout will flock to the rivers before dawn to offer prayers for their ancestors, along with offerings of food for the departed souls. Mahalaya also marks the beginning of Debi Pakksha, the fortnight of worship of the Mother Goddess. It is cause for celebration – Pujo is here!
The preparations for the autumn fortnight start nearly a year in advance. Every neighbourhood has its Puja Committee, and they vie to outdo each other in the splendor of their pandals and their images of the Goddess. A pandal is a temporary structure, a bamboo framework draped with coloured cloth. This simple description cannot convey a thousandth part of the grandeur of some of these elaborate structures reaching 60 feet high or more. Some are made as copies of famous shrines, amazing in their reproduction of detail. Last year one Pujo Committee recreated an entire Garhwal village along with the Badrinath shrine. Some are more ambitious fantasies, ranging from Hogwarts School to the space shuttle launch pad complete with Titan rocket and boosters. The objective is to ensure the maximum number of visitors, the maximum coverage in the media. And it’s all a labour of love, since the visitors are not charged a penny for the view.
Once carried inside the pandal by the choking rush of visitors, one may pause to wonder at the idols. These are usually made of clay in the potters’ quarter of Kumartuli (kumor = potter, tolii = neighbourhood), whence they are sent out to Pujas not only around Bengal but around the world. The shipping schedule apparently starts 6 weeks before the actual festival, with the first batch of idols carefully crated and despatched to expatriate Pujos in Seattle, Singapore and Saigon. There has even been a regular Durga Pujo in Switzerland since 2004! Of late, there has been a demand for more durable, re-usable idols, crafted in metal or even fiberglass. But each idol starts with a handful of clay ceremonially collected from the doorstep of a brothel, the rationale being that men leave their better selves there when they enter.
The Bangali Durga Pujo is actually an aberration of sorts. The Mother Goddess was traditionally worshipped in the spring. Myth has it that Rama invoked her protection before his battle against Ravana in the autumn (the festival of Rama’s homecoming, Deepavali, follows within a fortnight). Ever since, Durga has been worshipped in autumn, hence the local term Akaal Bodhan or untimely prayer. Part of the 4 day ritual involves the lighting of 108 lamps which symbolise the lotuses offered by Rama to Durga during his invocation. (He was short of two lotuses, so he planned to pluck out his eyes and offer them instead. This may have been somewhat counter-productive, since he sought the means to defeat Ravana.) As is inevitable with the contentious Bangali, there are different views on the rituals and even the mantras for the actual puja. Personally, it doesn’t make a difference. I am not particularly religious. The rituals are comforting, nostalgic. They bring back memories of schooldays, of aunts and grandmothers in red-bordered saris of white cotton who would settle themselves at the feet of the idol to chop huge basket-loads of fruits for the votive offering, gossiping all the while and chewing on betel leaf that reddened their lips.
There are claims that the Roychoudhury family of Barisha (now a southern suburb) celebrated Durga Puja regularly from 1610. The first such Puja recorded was organised in 1757 by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Shobhabajar in Calcutta; the unspoken truth is that it was actually meant to fete the conqueror Clive. The tradition of community pujas started 4 years later, from Gooptipara in Hooghly, where 12 young men (12 friends or baro yaar, hence the term baroyaari Pujo) organised a Pujo through community subscription. 250 years on, not only every neighbourhood but every apartment block must have its own Durga Pujo, no matter how small. As they say, one Bangali is a poet, two Bangalis form a political party and 3 Bangalis means 2 Pujo Committees!
There are other conventions about Durga Puja that are cultural or traditional rather than religious, but nonetheless defended with fervor. For decades now, there have been organised competitions for the best pandal, the best lighting, the best protima (idol). Bengal’s celebs (and not a few from Bollywood) troop dutifully round the cities to make their choices, and the results are often hotly disputed. One year it even led to litigation! Every periodical brings out its Sharodiya or Pujo Shonkha, the special autumn edition. Most of the finest and most acclaimed writers of Bengal, from Satyajit Ray to Sunil Gangopadhyay and Buddhadeb Guha, have featured in these editions that celebrate the Bangali literary tradition. The most enduring tradition, of course, is common to all festivities – the chance for the would-be Romeos to look sidelong at the flocks of preening young belles, the little romances that sometimes fade with the strains of Doshomi Pujo and sometimes last. Maddox Square in south Calcutta is by way of being a legend in this context; it is almost mandatory for the 18-25 age group to meet there at least once during the 4 days of festivities. The closest parallel is Chittaranjan Park in Delhi. And then of course there is the organised gawking, especially in Calcutta. Millions of people walk around the city from one pandal to the other, gazing slack-mouthed at the lights and the decorations, bowing deeply before the idol where the deity seems to look right into their souls. Little convoys wind their way through the clogged avenues and little by-lanes from dusk to dawn. Restaurants stay open well past midnight, street food stalls close only when their larders are empty. For those 4 days, the world becomes a heady rush of sound and perfume and bright lights, of friends and festivity and a warm feeling of togetherness even with comparative strangers.
Till the evening of the 10th day of Debi Pokkho, Doshomi. When the Goddess and her children must be bade adieu, carried down to the river in ceremonious procession, there to be set adrift to return to their abode on Mount Kailash. Leaving the Bangali with an after-the-party feeling that he seeks to counter with the Bangali version of next year in Jerusalem!” – Aaschhey bochhor abaar hobe”, once again next year.