The alarm clock’s shrilly tune couldn’t wake me up at 5.30 am today. I’d fixed the time after negotiations with myself that 4.30 am wouldn’t be a feasible option given the fact that I traded sleeping at a decent hour last night for an engrossing read (thanks Liane Moriarty for writing Big Little Lies!). Anyway, I could finally push myself out of bed at 6 am.
But today is special and I wouldn’t let a later than expected start to the morning spoil this day’s charm! So, I made my honey lemon drink, grabbed my diary and pen and headed to the terrace. Armed with my phone and the Bluetooth speaker, I turned on the Mahalaya recitation by Birendra Krishna Bhadra.
Mahalaya is the official beginning of the countdown to Durga Puja. I do not want to launch into an explanation because this is not an educational article on Bengal’s greatest festival. You can read more about it here.
People close to me know that I’m a fuzzy ball of emotions. A video of a sad dog can make me cry buckets and so when it comes to my most cherished nostalgia, you can trust me on going overboard with it. Every Damn Year! As an aside, my emotions about Durga Puja and Mahalaya got published in this book, as well. 🙂
However, as we grow older we learn to make do with substitutes. We understand that circumstances might not always be perfect but we need to make the best of whatever we have within our grasp at the present moment. So, I catch the sun stretching out of its sleep, as if casting aside the red, pink, and orange sky which was its bed sheet for the night. The flowers bloom around me, the heady smell of champa and the morning breeze rush into my head sweeping away the remnants of sleep, my dogs bark and run around chasing each other, and the booming voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra takes me back to a time left long ago.
(Maa Durga with her children. Image Courtesy: Author’s own)
A good part of my childhood was spent in a joint family. We (that is my mother, my brother, and I) lived with our maternal uncle’s family and with our grandparents. Mahalaya meant being woken up by our grandpa, whom we called dadubhai, at 4.30 in the morning. But this was one time when we children didn’t feel annoyed at missing our early morning sleep. After all, Mahalaya marked the beginning of Durga Puja, which translated to unlimited fun and school holidays!
Our grandmother (didiama) would send us outside to pick dubbo, which was a special kind of grass that was used for Puja on that day. We had a small grassy patch of land in front of the red-bricked railway quarter where we lived at that time. I can still feel the dewy wet grass beneath my bare feet as we competed with each other to get the best strand of grass for our didiama.
The house would be filled with the smell of incense, sandalwood and camphor. The adults would be up by then, sitting in a circle surrounding the big radio that dadubhai kept at his feet on the mat. Our didiama would be busy preparing tea for all. Though we weren’t allowed tea then, that day our parents let us dip our Marie biscuits into their tea and we loved those soggy treats.
Dadubhai would pull us close to him and we’d see tears pooling around his eyes. Seeing that, our parents too would become emotional and we, the children, would wonder what they were sad about! The concept of nostalgia and fond memories would hit us much later.
Anyway, what is so special about Mahalaya that even today I love it just the way I used to as a child?
Mahalaya marks the advent of Durga Puja and the point where the phrase ‘Pujo aschey’ (or Pujo is arriving) reaches its crescendo. For a ’90’s Bengali child, that term connoted the starchy smell of new clothes, the Hindi and Bengali film songs juxtaposed by our favorite Rabindra Sangeet blasting from the neighbourhood loudspeakers, and the last minute preparations of the pandals where the bamboo framework finally took shape of an exquisite work of art where the idol would be placed eventually.
(The decorations of pandals are exquisite as you can see here. Image Source: Author’s own)
Pujo meant meeting relatives and friends, eating an unlimited supply of junk food like egg rolls, phuchkas, and ice-creams without being scolded, going for pandal hopping wearing our new clothes, and of course, the local community eating together where the bhog would be served. Bhog usually comprises of a simple mixture of rice, lentils and some vegetables that is offered to the Goddess and then distributed among the people. Till date, I haven’t come across a dish that tastes better than the Pujor bhog. 🙂
(Here, I’m discussing something important with my nephew at a community Pujo. Image Courtesy: Author’s Own)
These lovely snippets transformed into fond memories as the distance between Kolkata and myself kept growing. By now, I’ve spent quite a few Durga Pujas outside Kolkata. Sometimes, we spent the time traveling, as well. However, even if I’m on a beach in Sri Lanka or amidst the hills of Darjeeling, I cannot get over the feeling of festivities in my Kolkata during Durga Puja.
Happy Mahalaya to all. Have a lovely time during the festivals! 🙂