Writing Mahabharata is easier than penning my memory of Durga Puja that spans 40 plus years. The rains slowed down, sky was still cloudy and sombre, structures of bamboo and cheap wood would mushroom everywhere in the city, our new playgrounds. We used to climb the structures the whole day and scolded by the uncles from the neighbourhood. Not many trees were around to climb anyway.
Then it was time for the new…clothes, shoes- anything but new. Wondering about College street, Boubazar, Shyambazar; my palm clutched tightly in my mom’s and at times in my aunt’s. Sometimes quickly a detour to Kumortuli to see the hay, wood, clay lumps that were taking shapes; in about a fortnight, they will become the goddess. A year’s struggle transforming into expectations reflected in every face. The discoloured walls of the local tailor shop hid behind fabric and half-finished garments.
Slowly the colour touched the pandals and the idols. Even the city used to start looking like a rainbow with colourful lights all around. The wait used to become unbearable; in the evenings, it was more of planning for those four days than studies.
We used to go around all our relative’s homes for distributing new clothes (and of course to get some). My maternal uncle’s home was in Konnagar- in the suburbs. That was the last place we would go to give new saree to my grandmother and greet her. The sudden glimpse of the Dhaki (drummer) with his Dhak (drum) in the long que for train ticket; and then he would run to the platform with his huge drum- next day was Panchami, he must reach in time.
The yearlong wait was over, Durga Puja started with the drum rolls, sound of cymbals fading into the sound of loudspeakers. Howrah flower market suddenly is full of people bargaining loudly, shouting to find their companions lost in the crowd. The old ladies waiting for the tram to go back after a holy dip in the river. Lines of their faces replicating those of the Howrah bridge. Every nook and corner were filled with temporary food shop and hawkers selling balloons; the pungent smell from the gas cylinder filling the air as they filled balloons.
The four days used pass in an inebriated state- the smoke from the “dhunuchi (incense burner)” would envelop our senses. We used to go pandal hopping in the evenings. Pushing crowd all along, sweaty, and tired, we would rest in some unknown house’s veranda; que up for an occasional egg roll or a glass of colourful Sharbat (a liquid version of Sherbet).
Before we even winked, as if, it was time to let go, it was time for the immersion. Before sending mother Durga off, the women from the neighbourhood would offer her Sindoor (Vermilion powder), Sandesh (A Bengali Sweet) and Paan (beetle leaves). Mothers, aunts, didi (elder sister) would put vermillion on each other- each one of them would turn into the mother goddess.
When idol touched the water, everyone around resisted their tears- an unknown pain would curdle up our throats; we looked away to hide our tears. The face of the mother would float for a moment or two and then would disappear in the dark water for another year.
Every year Anisul uncle from Majher Haat would come and sell his ittar (perfume). Some additional income would keep his family afloat when his factory shut down, forever. Hardly have seen a devotee of the mother more than him- he would scold us for wearing slippers inside the pandal. Who said its celebration of the Mother Durga? It is celebration of the people.
That perhaps was something everybody saw, and every Bengali remembers. What I remember is the afternoons of those four days. The breeze from the north used to bring the sound of some long-distance train’s whistle- the kites high above would reply them. The daughter of Himalaya and the end October breeze from the North would drag my mind and throw it far from what I knew and what I saw. Like Apu in Pather Panchali I felt like extending my arm to the horizon and say…” Sister, see how far…”
Much later when I started traveling for my work, saw people carrying the mother on a narrow village path covered with Catkins, next to the water body full of lily, under a deep blue sky for the four days of celebration. That memory floats above all others.
The blog post is written by Kuntal De. All photo and text credits are his.
Kuntal De is an Industrial Designer, educator and artist who is committed to youth and community engagement, as he sees it is as the most important and perhaps only road to a sustainable future. Among others, he had been a part of the shelter redesigning team; assigned to develop sustainable shelter for the aborigines (Onges) of Andamans Islands after the tsunami. He has been associated with Commonwealth of Learning (COL) for the last 16 years as a Consultant for Lifelong learning and the Girls Inspire initiative.
Kuntal sent us his memories as part of the Durga Pujo Special initiative by ‘The Museum Memories Project’
“Soak in the 5 days of Durga Pujo without stepping outside through photos, videos, artwork and memories of past – each day, one theme. We bring to you the flowers, cuisine, textiles and music from Bengal in the safety of your home. This year Ma will come to you, to love you and nurture you. All you have to do is wear a mask and wash your hands and stay safe and take care “
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