Miles and Miles of silver Kaash flowers swaying to the gentle autumn breeze; bright sunny days and cool nippy nights; mornings drenched in the fragrance of orange-stemmed shiuli, evenings serenaded in the heady scent of chatim. To a layman, these are just signs that indicate the sun’s movement from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere but to a Bengali – and sometimes to a pseudo Bengali too – it only means one thing: it’s time for Durga Puja.
Having grown up in the Hindi heartland, Durga Puja had never meant much for me. Although the smallest of towns of UP, where I was born and raised, would have Puja Pandals where the festival was celebrated with much gaiety, but the focus was always on the Ramlilas and Ravan Dahan. So I did see the Puja, but always from a distance, until the day my father decided to take us to Calcutta for the Dussehra Holidays.
I can never forget how overwhelming it was to arrive in Calcutta. After the treacherous sleeper class journey through the plains of UP and Bihar, I had expected Calcutta to be organized, quiet, and very, very posh: it was a metropolis after all. What welcomed us instead was chaos and commotion. There were more people on the roads than I had ever seen in my life and more cars than I could imagine. Then there were the buses, honking non-stop, wading through a sea of humanity and an ocean of yellow ambassadors. The roads, the bridges, the flyovers, and the buildings meanwhile seemed to be creaking under the weight of men and machine, ready to crumble and collapse any minute.
Howrah station, however, was only a trailer of the movie called Calcutta. It was on the streets of the city, in the tiniest of lanes, outside thousands of Puja Pandals, which dot the city that the true character of the Calcutta came about: serpentine queues went on for miles and traffic never moved; there were people everywhere, dressed in their Puja best, sweating through their silks and satins, limping for miles in their newly bought shoes (you have to be really lucky to find a taxi during Pujas in Calcutta), and yet happy and excited even in the middle of the night. While the Calcuttans seemed to be on a high, I struggled to breathe through those six days. Not only did I promptly announce my dislike for the city but also vowed never to return to Calcutta, especially during Durga Puja.
As luck would have it, in just a few years, I was on another train to Calcutta doing what I had vowed never to, and this time not as an outsider, but as a daughter-in-law of the Bong land (don’t they say what you fear the most, most certainly happens to you?).
It was not easy in the beginning. I was suddenly amongst the same chaos and madness that I had once run away from. I had many excited people around me talking loudly in a language I barely followed, dressing up in a new pair of clothes every evening only to go out and sit in a neighbourhood Pandal. The Pandals were a different story altogether: while most men would be busy arranging the Puja, women would scrutinize your clothes and your jewellery, either complimenting you on your newly acquired possessions, or commenting on how year on year, Mrs. X or Mrs. Y wears the same necklace and bangles.
Then there was the food. I could eat all the delicious sweets and savouries but dreaded the meals, what with the elaborate preparations of unknown flavours, the huge mounds of rice, and the smell of fish wafting through every corner of the neighbourhood. Having been a staunch vegetarian all my life, adjusting to all the meat on the table was tough. I vividly remember one Puja afternoon when I found myself at a relative’s house without husband. They were cooking husband’s favorite – the Hilsa – and I had spent the entire afternoon standing by the window, trying to breathe in fresh air, but on a shashti afternoon, the whole world seemed to be frying Hilsa. That is the one time I thought I will die but I lived, maybe to tell the tale.
Today, thirteen years later, like every other Bengali, the beginning of autumn to me means the beginning of shopping, packing and planning; the tickets have already been bought months in advance, and the leave from work has been fought for weeks before. The 24-hour train journey is no more treacherous but a pleasurable build up to festivity and togetherness.
Once at home I wake up diligently at dawn along with the beat of dhaak and help in the kitchen with elaborate meals. In the evening, I diligently dress up in new clothes, wear the gold that otherwise lays locked in bank all through the year and visit the neighbourhood Pandal to compliment mother-in-law’s friends on their saris and jewellery. Not only that, I also go Pandal hopping every morning and night jostling through the crowds and walking for miles, often all night long. And if you happen to hear me talk, I would be found blabbering in a high-pitched, high-volume tone.