The Bengali Fever called Durga Pujo

Anumita, our Managing Editor, travels back to her childhood days, in her nostalgic piece. She recalls the military-like-parade of six girls along with her Jethu and other interesting details, as part of the special feature, exclusively in Different Truths.

During late September and early October, the Bengalis, all over the world get high on one thing, Durga Pujo. All that a Bengali, now called as Bong, can think about is Pujo.

What they need to buy, what to wear, where to go, and the biggest of all issues is what they will eat, are few of the most pertaining questions that make all Bengali brain very busy.

It all starts from the New Moon of the beginning of the Devi Pokkho. Most of the Bengali bhodrolok and mohila with their entire family gathered around the radio (now television) to hear the recitation of Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s Mahalaya. This tradition is dwindling in many places, but the Bengalis worldwide make a sincere effort to hold on this tradition in whatever way possible.

Flashback a few years ago, alright many years ago, we were living near Batanagar. As most satellite townships, my little town had its own Pujos. There were about seven or eight big ones, some small ones and some at the residences of landlords. Our house consisted of fourteen family members, few maids, and household helps, two dogs, one cat, and a parrot, not counting all the fishes in the pond, and the other critters, slithers and crawlers in the acres of land around our house.

The day before Mahalaya, Dadu (grandpa) would instruct us very clearly, especially us kids that we needed to be up by 4:30 am, latest by 5:00 am. We should be in proper attire and sit in his room listening to the Mahalaya on his old radio. Most of us would nod our heads and go to our room muttering under our breath.

Next day, early morning Baba would wake us up and if we grumbled, he would carry us to Dadu’s room. Once in his room, we would cuddle against each other and drift in and out of sleep, while hearing to the mesmerising chants of Mahalaya with all its beautiful songs in between. Thakuma (Grandma) did not like that we had to wake up early and considered this treatment of Dadu as a punishment to us. She would bring in warm milk and cookies and caress hair and faces, as we acted out our martyr face. Ma and Boroma (elder aunt) would light up incense and would be blowing the conch shell from time to time.

The next few days till the Panchami (5th day of the moon), would be a flurry of motions and commotion. Getting the clothes from the tailor, and the last minute shopping for matching shoes and few dozen bangles combined with several other trips to the store. Our house had all girls. My baba and his brothers had two daughters each. That made Dadu and Thakuma proud grandparents of six Chatterjee girls. It was like holding onto Solomon’s treasure for them. The six precious souls were their pride and Dadu zealously protected his own.

On the day of Shasti (6th day of the moon), we all wore clothes bought by Thakuma and Dadu. It was a tradition. According to Thakuma, if you wear new clothing on Shasti, the rest of the days of Pujo you will have enough new clothes to flaunt. So instead of doing the simple math of counting the number of clothes to the number of days, we blindly followed Thakuma’s words. Thakuma was always right. As Shasti was her day, we went out early in the evening to few nearby pandals (decorated enclosures). It was a low-key affair that day. Thakuma bought for us cutlets, egg chops, and potato fritters.

Then came Shaptumi (7th day of the moon), it was Ma and Boroma’s turn to take us out in the evening. They both had specific pandals to visit. Once we got all decked up, they set out few instructions, the same every year, and we made our way towards the market side. Walking along the way, often, my little sister would be the one skipping in front and rest of us cousins looking at all the latest fashionable clothes others were wearing. There would be intermediate exclamations, “Oh! Look, that girl is wearing the same dress as yours,” or “oh my, look at her, her lipstick is on her teeth.” Every day would end with some kind of food bought from either the little stalls set up during the puja or from the sweetmeat. Shaptomi was the day to eat kachouri / radhaballobi or kabiraji. We often would take one each and share, so we get to eat everything and not get full on one particular dish.

Ashtami (8th day of the moon) was special. It started in the morning. Ashtami was Anjali day. We all marched with Thakuma, Boroma, and Ma to the old Landlords mansion. Incidentally, they were Chatterjee too. After the morning puja and having prasad, we would walk down the village ways along numerous ponds. My cousin and me (both of the same age) would be stopping to pick flowers from the overgrown fields and shimmy rocks over the ponds covered with green algae. Thakuma did not approve of such behaviour, but it was Pujo so everything would be okay.

The evening of Ashtami was a different story. It was Jethu’s (elder Uncle) turn to take us out. Oh no! Low tone dressing up in the evening would follow with almost barking commands to Ma and Boroma from Jethu. Our trip in the evening visiting the few pandals would put the best marching bands and soldiers to shame. Dolled-up girls walking in perfect line behind Jethu, while Ma and Boroma were our cabooses. Dare we turn our head left or right, dare we make any funny noise, and dare we breathe. Once near the pandal, left turn or right turn, bend your head and join your hands. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 face straight and on we go. Well, at least, he did end our day with food. That day it was sweets, mostly, as any fried thing was absolutely a no-no in the regime’s diet.

Navami (9th day of the moon) was the best for all of us. It was my Baba’s turn to take us out. That day we decked up in our best, so did Ma and Boroma. Baba’s route was the longest and the one filled with food at every stop. His rule was: eat anything except boot polish. We had our own food list chalked out. He took his time to wait and let us gorge on all the junk food we ever wanted to eat. By late evening, we were tired of eating and having fun. Once home, we changed and were shooed off to bed, not before Thakuma made sure we had Carbo-veg (homeopathy medicine for upset stomach).

Dashami (10th day of the moon) was a celebration at home. Thakuma, Boroma, and Ma were busy making sweets and salty snacks. That day Ma Durga would be going back home. The married ladies would go out in the evening and bade her goodbye with sweets, sindoor (vermillion) and paan (betel leaves). We would tag along with them to watch and get smeared with vermillion on the cheeks when the ladies play among themselves. The best thing would be to eat all the different sweets all the ladies brought along.

Once home, we touched the feet of all elders at home as this was Bijoya Dashami. Being a Bengali is the best thing as we get to eat, again. All those sweets and salty edibles, which were made in the morning, were now out for us.

The feasting continued for next few days, as we visited relatives and family and they visited us in return.

After all these years, I still remember the feeling of the fever of Durga Pujo. It came with the new moon and subsided with the full moon. Our lunar celebration continues but things have changed a bit to fit in the time and place of our residence.

Now, when I remember those days, I am washed with a wave of being homesick. Although I do not have any pictures of those days, the memories are so vivid. One day, I wish to be back in the home I grew up in during Pujo and live a bit of it, all over again.

©Anumita Chatterjee Roy

Photos from the Internet

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