A friend here in San Francisco asked me, what Durga Puja is, and why it meant so much to me. I found it hard to put it into a simple sentence, as I felt overwhelmed by a rush of memories and associations. Durga Puja is a gathering of a community, a cultural celebration of a Goddess with ten hands, who destroyed an evil demon before he wreaked havoc across the heavens. The Goddess is primarily worshipped by Bengalis, over 5 days, when she is said to return to her "maternal home" to be pampered by her family. But to my family, friends, me and Bengalis across the world, it is a 5 day celebration of our community, filled with food, laughter, music, color and festivities.
People in Kolkata, and Bengali communities across the world, are spotted in large festival tents, or "pandals" as they are traditionally called, wearing crisp, new clothes and layers of festive spirit. Kolkata has probably scores of pandals across the city, and even in Delhi, traffic almost comes to the standstill as all roads lead to the historically bengali neighborhood, that has pandals on every street corner.
Food is an important part of any Bengali's life. We talk about food for hours, often planning the next meal while we are still savoring the last morsels of the present one. So even as other religious festivals in India focus on the principles of fasting and abstaining from lavish eating, food is an important element woven into the fabric of the Durga Pujo experience. Pujo memories for me start with the mornings, when our mothers and aunts donned crisp cotton sarees and rushed to the pandals to begin cooking delicious food, to be served to the Goddess.
The menu comprised of rice, curries made with an eclectic mix of vegetables, rice pudding with jaggery, and sweet, thick tomato chutney, flavored with raisins, dried mango and bits of ginger. Us kids were also woken up at the crack of dawn and would accompany our parents, bleary-eyed, to pack several hundred packets full of cut fruit and sweets. These packets were then served to the people streaming in and out of our pandal in the morning, as they came to pay their respect to Durga or to just participate in the festive occasion without any religious intent.
Lunch would be served for free to the visiting public, the menu being similar to what is offered to Durga, but cooked in large vats and pans to cater to the large crowds. The young people, us children of the puja organizers, would line up behind the big pots. All of us dressed in our colorful, new sarees and shirts and serve the cooked feast. What remains one of the best things about this lunch or "bhog" is that the people across communities come together to eat, in an otherwise socially stratified society that exists in Indian cities.
The crowds that visited the pandal and were served free lunch, sometimes swelled to a couple of thousand. The children in the food line, asked for larger helpings of rice pudding, speckled with raisins and cashew nuts, and the more health conscious adults accompanying them in turn asked for smaller servings of the flavored rice or "khidchi," in the token attempt to cut back on carbs. On mornings like this, sitting in my room in San Francisco, I can smell the finger-licking, steaming hot food, ladled high on plates. My favorite on the menu has always been the "labda," a medley of vegetables thrown together that was a colorful, mushy, curried mixture of purple eggplant, yellow potatoes, green beans, among others.
Nights at the pandal, came alive with bright fairy lights and rows of food stalls, that serve everything from succulent kebabs cooked in the tandoor, biryani to chinese noodles cooked with several Indian spices. There were stalls of balloons, fair rides and beverage stalls. After the evening Arati, we would pile our plates high and run for seats in front of the stage in anticipation for the evening cultural show. Evening programs include concerts by well-known songwriters and singers (each pandal competed to attract the best known names for their event, subject to their budget and organizational prowess!) Durga Puja is also a time to see and be seen.
One ran into extended family and friends that one only seemed to meet during this 5-day fiesta, and long stories and family gossip was exchanged for what seemed like endless hours. Boys that one crushed on were spotted and giggled over, and non-bengali friends were invited to participate in "pandal-hopping" or going from pandal to pandal on a food and entertainment sojourn. I have memories of running off for a couple of beers with friends in my teens, innocently reporting back to my parents; the name of another pandal being used as a euphemism for the neighborhood bar.
Pujo is what created the fondest memories with my best friends and family, where we played with balloons and wore matching flowery dresses as 9-year olds, and introduced families to our significant others many years later. Pujo is where I learnt the meaning of standing up and dancing even after a bad fall, literally. 5-year old me tripped over my saree in front of a few hundred people, during a dance performance based on one of Rabindranath Tagore's famous tunes, and then after blinking my eyes and looking around, got up and danced again in step, without another care in the world.
Each of us has our own Pujo memories. Some of my favorites include the anticipation in the days leading up to the first day of pujo, characterized by the rush of clothes shopping, rehearsing dances for a show to be staged on one of the evenings, the first sound of the "dhaak" and the first sound of the conch shell being blown. Married women circling the Mother goddess on the last of the five days, dressed in white and red sarees, smearing vermillion on each other. Dancing on the back of a truck, at the end of those five days, when the statue of the Goddess, sometimes being upto 18 feet tall, was hoisted on a truck and bid farewell to afterwards by immersing her in the holy river. (Over the years, thankfully, organizers and the city government has become more environmentally conscious and the statues and ornaments are made with pure clay and other biodegradable and compostable material.)
As I scroll down my Facebook page, I see photographs posted by friends visiting pandals in places including Kolkata and Delhi, but also in London and Singapore. Several friends (including yours truly), posted nostalgically about an isolated memory or incident or just reminisced about the sights and smells of dusk on a pujo evening. I think what we truly cherish about Pujo is the spirit of hanging out and eating together, it is the cultural and community-driven aspects woven into those 5 days.
Though the festival is a religious and spiritual event, we can be religious if we choose to be, or abstain from any religious overtone entirely. But what stands out is that it brings together families and the community, in a celebration of our music, our cultural ancestry, our love for food and fondness for "adda" (loosely translated to gossip). It is 5 days where the world outside the pandal comes to a standstill, and life inside goes on to the beat of the "dhaak."
The writer is a public policy professional currently living in San Francisco. She can be contacted at email@example.com
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