Ya devi sarva bhuteshu shakti rupe nu samasthita.
Namastasai namastasai namastasai namo namaha
Now imagine these lines repeated again and again in a sonorous voice, gaining in momentum and intensity, until you can feel it to the tip of your toes to the top of your head. These lines along with the story of how Ma Durga defeated Mahisasura, herald the beginning of Durga Puja on Mahalaya day.
On the day of Mahalaya, they used to be a DD channel depiction of the epic war between the good and the evil. I remember Hema Malini as Ma Durga, with long flowing hair and big eyes, twirling and twirling around the Asura in her red sari and the Trishul in her hands. Later as we were in school, there used to be a mandatory stage play based on Mahalaya on ‘shashti’ or the 6th day. Even though Mahalaya starts on Day 1 of Navratri, it is only on the 6th day that the idols of Ma Durga and her kids are installed in the pandals. As A child I often dreamt of playing Ma Durga in the stage play, holding up a trishul and twirling in circles round my nemesis. That was not to be, and now I hope that someday my daughter plays Ma Durga in a stage play.
That’s the beauty of Durga Puja, It is timeless. Ask any generation of Bengali, and you would here lines like “We got new clothes for Pujo” “We ate bhog every day for lunch at the pandal” “We never missed the Maha Ashtami Anjali” “We got 10 rupees spending money to buy balloons and wooden swords” .
My parents would say that they heard the sonorous voice of birendra krishna bhadra on the radio on mahalaya day, while we totally missed out on the radio version, and our kids might watch a 3 D movie version in years to come. Also the spending money has changed over the years, and what we spent it on. As kids, I remember we used to buy a packet of the sugar cigarettes, white cylinders with red tips. If my kids were to buy toffee cigarettes, I would be mortified that they would grow up to be chain smokers. But back then we had packets upon packets of sugary ‘cigarettes’ and never once thought of them as ‘gateway drugs’. In fact we used to swallow the whole stick in one go, crunching away at the sugar binge. These days we still get ‘spending money’ from our parents. They know we earn our own living and can afford to buy sugar lollies, but it is still a fun and everlasting tradition. I save up all my spending money and buy a pair of earrings from the shopping stalls at the pandals. Over the years I have collected an envious collection of ‘pujo earrings , and I very much look forward to buying my pair this year too.
Another tradition which has seen a metamorphosis is the bhog. Maha Bhog, is served at lunch on Saptami, Ashthami and Navami. As kids we used to sit in rows and eat from dried leaf plates. the Bhog serving committee would then serve us a pinch of salt, pickle, khichuri(khichdi), laebda(vegetable sabji), papad, paesh (kheer),tomato chutney. First, the bhog is served to the Goddess Durga, and at that time the Idols are shielded from public viewing. I always wondered at the significance of it.
After the Gods have partaken of their meal, then the bhog is served to the people. It used to be a matter of pride to be serving bhog. I remember, one year they let me serve papad and beguni (brinjal fritters) the guy who handed it to me said that the prettiest girls were asked to serve papad . That was like my coming of age moment! I blushed and beamed as I served papad, as if I had been made home coming queen. It is true pretty girls used to serve the papad but now I think it’s because the plate of papad was light and easy to carry. These days the dry leaf plates are gone and in its place are disposable plates and the bhog is no more a sit down affair with batches of people eating together, it is a buffet style serving , It is easy administration, but part of the charm of eating together is gone. The Bhog nevertheless is still as tasty as ever. I still cannot fathom how they cook tones of Khichuri and it tastes yummy, and the same thing tried at home in the kitchen cooker just doesn’t have that “pujo taste”.
Another cherished memory is the shouting of ‘BOLO BOLO DURGA MAI KI … JAI!’ while eating bhog. People would all be eating quietly, savouring the brilliance of boiled spicy dal and rice along with the vegetables, when all of a sudden someone would shout out “bolo bolo Durga Mai ki “ and then the whole place resonates with every ones shouts of a unified “JAI!”
Most Indian festivals are celebrated in individual families and amongst close relatives, but in Durga Puja, it is a Sarvajanik Pujo. Where people from societies get together and everyone is invited. It is a special feeling being able to be part of a large collection of happy people celebrating together. Unknown uncles will ask if I have eaten Bhog, aunties will tell me my sari looks nice, someone will ask to pass the flower basket “fuler jhudi’ during Anjali.
This sense of togetherness is most keenly felt during the Dhunuchi naach. Clay pots filled with smoking coconut coirs are held in the hands and people sway to the beats of the drummers. The rhythmic thrum of the drums , the smoke filled atmosphere, and a dozen people dancing in circles, the atmosphere is almost surreal and trance like. It’s also the moment I most look forward to, where I get a chance to take of my sandles, hold my sari pleates up with one hand, hold the dhunuchi on the other hand, smile at all the revelers around me and give myself up to the beat of the drums. Movies have tried to recreate that moment in Devdas, and parineeta, but these are moments to be felt and cannot be captured on celluloid.
The visarjan day, on Vijaya Dashami used to be an extremely sad day, because we had to go to school from next day. After 4 days of revellery, all we wanted was the festivities to never end, but all good things generally do. So we bid adieau to Ma Durga with the chants “asche bochhor aabar hobe” meaning we shall meet again!
It’s true, most Bengalis, start planning their holiday leaves, their important works depending on the timing of that years Pujo. “I have to go to US for meeting but I want to return before pujo’, or ’ I have to plan a trip with friends but only after Pujo’.
Pujo is about coming home, being around loved ones, and about togetherness, to cherish things which never go out of fashion- relationships. It is true that the way we celebrate has changed over the years but the essence remains the same. In most Pujas there is only one God or Goddess that we pray to, but here Ma Durga along with Ma saraswati, Ma Lakshmi, Ganesha and Kartika are worshipped together.
I think that is because even though Ma Durga is a symbol of power and Shakti, but above all she is a symbol of a mother who always puts her children first and holds family close to her.