What is it about Durga Puja and Bengalis?- So many have asked me this question and without a doubt, they were all non-Bengalis. Well, because you cannot explain to them in a sentence the importance of this festival in the life of a Bengali, I respond with lame lines as-“It’s the greatest festival in
that it is incorrect; that might make you to think that Durga Puja is Bengal’s Christmas or Diwali or Again, I am not the right person to
compare from an unbiased point as to which festival is “greater”, if any at
all, as I will be tempted to sing in favor of the autumnal celebrations in Id. Bengal where I have grown up and share special sentiments
Speaking (writing actually) of Durga Puja makes me nostalgic because Durga Puja is all about homecoming. Referring to mythology, the Puja is celebrated when Maa Durga visits her home with her family. That in no way should make you think that during this festival, women return to their parent’s home, although that still remains an open choice. In fact, this festival is about togetherness and spending quality time with family and friends. This festival thus assumes greater importance for those staying away from their home. Although every homecoming is equally welcoming and refreshing, if the son/daughter doesn’t visit the family during the Durga Puja, it is extremely painful for both the parties because the very spirit of festivity is done away with and the festival becomes just another formality.
Wait is another important element. Bengalis wait for these four days in constant anticipation the entire year. So, it’s not just a four-day festival. The preparation phase is extremely important in setting up the mood for the gala annual event. It all starts with collecting the clay for the idol. It takes months to carve out an idol to perfection. Thousands of idols are created for installing them in pandals all over the state and outside. The real enthusiasm begins with the painting of the eyes of the idol on the day of the Mahalaya. Traditionally, the artists observe fast before painting the eyes of the Goddess. The non-artists, like us, wake up at 4 in the morning to listen to the Mahalaya chant in radio or television. And this is probably the only time of the year youngsters do not resent about their parents waking them up so early. I don’t remember having missed the early morning chant over radio or the dramatic rendition on television during my stay in
If I said that the real enthusiasm starts with Mahalaya, it is only with respect to the religious part of the Puja. Actually, it all begins with buying of new clothes. Irrespective of whether you are rich or poor, whether you already have clothes that would suffice the next three years, whether you earn or not- you visit the crowded stores to get a new dress- not necessarily for yourself but for your family and relatives. And in turn, you get many. As a child, I remember comparing the count of dresses acquired during the Pujas with friends. Do not faint if I say that the count ranged anywhere between 7 to 17! (This is no exaggeration)
Another inseparable part of pre-Durga Puja shopping is definitely magazines. Publishers in
Bengal do not miss this opportunity and each one of them
vouches for the best collection of novels, poems, short stories, comics and
what not! Teenagers and adults have their own choice of magazines and books but
reputed authors and publishers ensure to treat readers of all ages with the
best Sharodshankhya or Pujobarshiki during the festive season.
Finally, arriving at the actual celebrations- pandals are set up and there’s a good bit of rivalry as to which para’s (locality) pandal looks the best. Club members toil hard day and night before the event and during it to ensure that their pandal draws a huge crowd. In recent years, “themed” Pujas have been in a rage. One has seen pandals based on a potpourri of interests ranging from the ancient Harappan civilization to dictator Saddam Hussain, from
Bengal’s all-season favorite Tagore to cricket, from
cinemas to religions, from music to basically anything under the Sun. One would
definitely be taken aback by the incredible ideas which go on to the making of
the pandals. If you go out to see what goes in to their making- be prepared to
find leaves, fruits, glasses, plastic, jute, paper, bamboo, gold, bangles,
clay-cups- and this list keeps growing each year.
People flock with friends and family, untiringly hopping from one pandal to another all day and all night (no kidding!). Your ears will be used to the sound of the dhak (drum). Believe me, this part of the year, drum becomes more important than music CDs. Chaos is so integral to this activity and still no one needs to manage it. It’s the only time you’ll find people smiling in long queues. Important part is- this has got little to do with religion. Atheists and non-atheists gather for a treat with equal enthusiasm. Religion, caste and economic status take a backstage as they walk in crowded roads, awe-struck by the themed lightings all along the road, hand in hand. No wonder this festival is being deemed as the largest outdoor art festival in the world.
Pandal-hopping in Durga Puja would be incomplete without street foods. I don’t remember a day when I didn’t stuff my stomach with rolls, kebabs, pakoras, phuchhkas from those unhygienic stalls. But trust me, you won’t fall ill during the Pujas- the Goddess doesn’t allow you to! A gourmet or a gourmand?- that’s the big question but most Bengalis are- either of the two. Intertwined with all these and an inseparable part of the celebration is the adda- the gathering with friends over snacks to discuss about anything and everything- opinionated that Bengalis are!
Dashami is the last day of the celebrations when the idol is immersed. This marks the return of Maa from her father’s home to that of her husband’s. People (don’t be surprised to see more women than men) of all ages dance all along the walk from the pandal to the river-ghat, accompanying the Goddess and her children, chanting hymns in their name. The immersion is followed by hugs among contemporaries, touching the feet of elders and distributing sweets.
It’s one time of the year when we assemble to bow down before the might of the feminine in a greatly patriarchal societal structure. The spirit of this festival transcends all boundaries in the life of all Bengalis across the globe. It’s that time of the year when your heart yearns to meet that old friend who you fought with at school, the old teacher who kept you standing all through the lunch-break, the old town or the city roads you treaded to rise to the stature that you are today. Durga Puja is all about being united with the past for a few days and waiting for the next year’s celebrations with higher hopes:
“Aschhe Bochhor abar hobe” (It’ll happen again next year)
And what time could have better suited the event than when the sky is clear, sunny but not hot, cold but not shivering, half past the year but in spirit like a New Year.