As a kid, I was lucky. Ma Durga would be welcomed into my grandmother's humble abode, where all of the family would come together to string together all that goes into such a festivity. The children of the family would function on an adrenalin overdrive those five days. From zipping down the stairs to pluck flowers from the tiny garden at 5 am, to helping an aunt roll the naru (a coconut shondesh), carefully carrying a gigantic plate of offerings from the kitchen to the big room where Ma Durga would wait patiently, be the first to find the dhak sticks for the dadas, frequently yell out messages from the top floor to the ones below, and always, always refuse to nap in the afternoon. Then wait impatiently for the evening, when we would all empty talcum powder bottles onto ourselves, wear a new dress, and hop on one foot while an aunt tied our hair. And as the eldest dada struck the dhak, everybody would gather around Ma Durga, and therein began the competition of who would be the best percussionist. My youngest aunt would always win, hands down. Buoyed by her victory, she would take all of us out to the nearest park, to eat phuchkas and get onto rather dangerously feeble ferris wheels. We'd then walk to as many pandals as possible to see the very many different visions of Ma Durga. Thus would go by each day, till the last, when we had to bid goodbye to Ma. That day would herald a new competition—the one who yelled out the goodbye the loudest, walking by the cart that carried Ma, all the way from the house to the Ganga, would win. I would usually win this one.
By the time I got into college, the pujo was no longer held at my grandmother's for lack of help—many family members had now married into houses which had their own pujo, many had moved out of the city, and well, you know how it is. This opened me to new experiences of the pujo, ones that can be had only with your college buddies. The plans would be long and elaborate, which involved meeting in the evening at a designated spot, and then setting out on foot to see an insane number of pandals, chomping on rolls, phuchkas, and god's gift to mankind, the streetside spicy chowmein. We'd end up at Maddox Square, a park enormous in its popularity and size, and while away the night, sipping alcohol out of innocent Coke bottles. Some of us brave ones would then clamber onto the pirate ships, scream in sheer terror, and return wobbly-kneed for more sips. At the crack of dawn we'd wave to Ma Durga and carry on home for some deep slumber, only to be back by the evening. My mother knew what was going on, but, like all mothers during the pujo, gave me a big grin and a big cuppa tea every morning when I'd traipse in.
I moved to Bombay in 2002. Did the whole rigmarole of dressing up and going to the few pandals in this city, but it didn't feel quite right. Why, the city never came to a standstill. The newspaper offices, the banks, the entire corporate and media world—everything functioned those five days. The phuchka here tasted sweet, and there was no chowmein. How on earth can a Bengali remain sane in such circumstances? And so began an ache to go back, every year, which I have been doing successfully for the past few years. Even took along my fiancé, a Punjabi, to ensure he knew who he was in a relationship with. For in no other time but during Durga Pujo do you really get to know the madness in a Bengali—why, that's the only time of the year when our laziness vanishes! We are busy eating, feeding all and sundry, and commenting on everything without calling a strike. Suhaas Ahuja got to witness it all thanks to a pujo that takes place at my friend's place. From going groggy-eyed to Kumartuli on the back of an empty tempo, to bringing back Ma Durga with much fanfare, the chaos that followed every day with the ear-piercing uloo sounds, the dancing frantically to the dhak being played, and the generosity of all the mashis and meshomoshais. The Bengali in the Punjabi was tested; he was forced to begin the dhunuchi naach, which he did to much beaming from all the elders around. He was taken on the all-night tour of the pandals, fed every alternate hour, put aboard the pirate ship at 3 am, made to drink alcohol with various uncles and aunts of the pujo house, thrown into the tempo with Ma Durga on the ride to the Ganga. He watched us get teary-eyed while he looked on bright-eyed at the melee by the Ganga, where everyone said their goodbye to the goddess, and whispered along with everyone a wish to her, to return the next year. I guess he loved it all, because on the way back home, he happily announced to me, instead of asking, that we will be getting married. A Bengali, indeed.
Last year's pujo introduced me to yet another new experience—the married women get to whisper their special messages into Ma's ear, and then go ballistic playing with sindoor. It's Holi all over again with the red, smearing it all over every married boudi's face and then some, shrieking madly with laughter all the while, of course. The men stand fearfully away, for it is quite a sight—mad Bengali women having the time of their lives without a care in the world.
The Goddess returns faithfully every year, and has been a smiling witness to all my experiences. And I can't wait to meet her again.
Ratnabali Bhattacharjee is a theatre and film actress
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