Every year, in between September and October, all Bengalis no matter where in the world they are, turn their thoughts to Pujo. Pujo as in Durga Puja or Sharadiya Utsav as it is commonly known in Bengal.
So, what is Pujo?
In India, the entire fortnight of Durga Puja is celebrated with much fanfare in whole of eastern India, with Calcutta and West Bengal being the focal points. In other parts of India, this festival is known as Dusshera and Navratri. In Bengal, Pujo as it’s commonly called starts on Mahalaya when the Goddess Durga comes down from Mount Kailash with her four sons and daughters to visit her mother’s house, and it ends on the fifteenth day when Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth is worshipped. However, communities commonly celebrate from the sixth day, ‘Shasthi’ to the tenth day, ‘Dasami’.
Traditionalists might argue about the differences between and piousness of the rituals of Durga Pujo when compared to Navratri. However, even the most religious Bengali will admit deep down in his or her heart that Pujo is only incidentally about prayers. Our Pujo is more about going home and being at home wherever ‘home’ might be. It is about being with family and friends. It is about celebrating the triumph of good over evil. And, most importantly, Pujo is not just the biggest festival of Bengalis, but their biggest socio-cultural event of the year. It signifies a time when Bengali minds tend to be flooded by nostalgia of what was left behind in an attempt to search for and celebrate their identities.
I’ve never been one for religion and tradition. And, for a long time I ran from it. But, this year, I got caught up in the midst of Pujo at home in Bangalore. And, really enjoyed it. It brought back fond memories of childhood when Mahalaya would start off with my Dad getting up at 4 AM to switch on the radio, and, then snuggling under the covers to listen to Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s unique rendition of mantras that heralded the start of Pujo. As a child, I used to fret about having to wake up early for this, but now that I look back at the same incident with a sense of warmth makes me realize that I am growing old!
Random memories also bring back clear blue skies with cotton wool like fluffy clouds, fields of kaash phool (a kind of flower that grows only in Autumn) during train rides to my Mom’s ancestral place outside Calcutta, new dresses for each day of pujo, sounds of dhaak, kala bou, giving pushpanjali wearing saree on Ashtami, and, trying very hard to pray while the eyes are busy smiling at a cute boy in the crowd, khichuri bhog, dhunuchi naach, binging on street food, shondhi pujo, watching sindoor khela, eating dodhi karma, pujo’r gaan, pujo shonkha, and all night long pandal hopping through the streets of Calcutta in new shoes that left me with sore soles, but a happy soul! Come to think about it, these four days of Pujo are an endless celebration of the senses – blinding bright lights, blaring music from loudspeakers at every street corner, a potent mix of perfume and the smell of katti rolls…the good, the bad, the ugly, you get it all!
What often astounded me and still does, though it’s been a decade and half since I left Calcutta, is how much money goes into defending traditions like building elaborate pandals as per different themes, the lighting that covers depiction of everything from Harry Potter to Paul, the Octopus. And, all this for really no commercial end in mind except in the spirit of competition and camaraderie so that at the end of four days sponsors can celebrate and rejoice in having got the ‘best pandal award’, ‘best lighting award’, etc.
Years go by, and I move further and further away from those days spent in the Calcutta of my childhood, with really very little connection back to my past. But somehow, this year during Pujo, the memories came tumbling out of some long forgotten Pandora’s Box that I had stashed away somewhere.
Every year, when bidding adieu to the Goddess during Bisarjan, we pray to her to give us strength and grace to go through another year. And, so every Pujo another year starts afresh, with the promise of the new laced with some strains of the old, much like those adolescent Pujo romances that sometimes started with a bang only to never last beyond Dasami, but to give way to something bigger and better.
So, life goes on, hope lives on, and, we chant ‘Asche bochor abar hobe’ with fervor and passion. It will happen again next year! That’s what tradition is all about…I might move away in search of evolving identities, but the comfort of tradition will always be there to envelope me with a fuzzy warmth, whenever I choose to come back.