Posted by: Tanmoy Chakrabarti | October 2, 2008

When time stood still

I hardly ever remember to have hoped for the things that I have to-day as a child. Everything thing that I have to-day is in excess of whatever my mind could ever capture as a child. I have emotional comfort and assurance coupled with material sufficiency to make me satisfied. I go to bed with poise and wake up with every reason to smile towards the left side. Yet, on occasions, I end up relaxing in the nostalgic world of misses. Durga Pujo is one such eventful occasion during the year. I am missing being in Bengal during the Durga Pujo for the sixth consecutive year and though in public I prefer a straight face but to be honest, I miss the event.

I miss the event despite knowing that neither I would have walked around the crowded streets if I were in Kolkata during this time nor would I have participated in the frenzy associated with organising an event like that (since I am not good at organising events). Why I miss the event is because of the memories that I cherish from my childhood which have had lasting impressions on my mind. I like to recall the same incidents every year during Pujo and feel if I were in Kolkata perhaps I would have relived those moments in mind a bit better. Having said that, it may not be true because in Kolkata perhaps I would have ended up comparing the childhood days and present ones! Whatever, it may be reliving the beautiful past is a favourite pastime and indulgence in it is perhaps the most inexpensive tours.

So what do I recall? Well, I wrote a long series of posts in my earlier blog on Pujo. Let me paste the same pages our here. This is done for two purposes, one I want to keep these posts on record on this particular blog and two the memories remain the same.

These were written during October 2004 and I am posting them with very minor editing thus whosoever actually reads it (few people do!), please forgive me. Also, please note that the technical aspects of the actual rituals mentioned here, may not be absolutely correct as it is written based on personal observations. Please also forgive the little incoherence between the different parts because I have removed certain bits which talked about something else (like it always does with my posts).


My October Days

Part I

Those were days when we jumped in joy at the announcement of the pujo vacations in our schools- a vacation that was unique in the State of West Bengal where I grew up. Those were days, when from the month of August we used to await the new clothes that we were going to wear during the autumn festivals. Those were days when we used to look forward to the Pujo editions of the magazines that were published in Kolkata. Those were days, when friends, uncles, aunties and cousins used to be so different- it always seemed they love us so much!

This is not the foreword to any of my stories. This is just a page from my own story. The story of the month of October- my favourite month.

There were always many things about October. In October, autumn arrives after monsoon has wiped the summer off. And with it, it brings festivals. Bengal, the land of romanticism, the land of creativity, and the land of much criticized laid-back attitude towards reality- awaits the arrival of autumn with open arms.

My upbringing was in the city of Kolkata; therefore I have always read about the “Kash flower” in the pages of Bangla Literature, but I have hardly seen it. Kash flower spreads across huge fields and their arrivals are the first signs of arrival of autumn in Bengal.

Expectant people, specially the ladies throng the shops from August itself. Everyone wants one or perhaps more than one, new set of clothes for each of the Durga pujo days. Shopping spree takes a different dimension on the streets. I remember my parents used to take me to the New Market- the heritage market of Kolkata. I have heard now with the arrival of new upmarket plazas, New Market (or Hogg Sahib’s Market) has lost its charm. But then whatever one may say, we can’t ignore the heritage. And like many other places, New Market is one place, with which a resident from Kolkata will always attach a special love.

Every year I used to get my new pair of shirts and trousers during those days. Yes, there was a funny thing about trousers. Even when I was wearing shorts, as a child, somehow like all children I loved wearing trousers during the pujo days.

Literature and arts are integral part of Kolkata’s culture. And how can, the festive season be complete without them? Many new singers launch their music cassettes of fresh songs in regional Bangla language, during Pujo season. I have heard that in the days’ when our parents were young, people used to await these new releases. In fact, many of us don’t know but many of the hits of R.D.Burman, S.D.Burman or Salil Chaudhury that we all have heard in Hindi films were first Bangla Pujo records. Those songs or rather those tunes were major hits in Bangla, which were sung by the likes of Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar. Mind you, they were not part of Bangla films. They were called Bangla Modern songs.

But when I was young, the craze about the music associated with Pujo had lost some of its charm. But the literature part did not.

“Pujobarshiki”- was a term associated with the special edition of books that comes out during these times. These are publications in Bangla, brought out by the newspaper houses and magazine houses, and were used to be real fat. I know they are still released, but they are surely not the same.

Anandamela- was totally dedicated to children. And it had children fiction written by stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, Premendra Mitra, Sunil Gangopadhaya, and Moti Nandi. I was really happy recently when I saw Penguin has translated Premendra Mitra’s Ghanada stories in English. One who has not read him can’t imagine how much of research this person did to write an apparently comical story of such caliber. Ghanada is a brilliant creation and very different sort of character ever created in Indian literature and so were Premendra Mitra’s other works.

Moti Nandi was a sports journalist. His stories were mainly set on a sporting backdrop. When I was watching Laagan- a film that talked of uplifting your spirits, in times of crisis, and that too in a backdrop of a sport, I was reminded of Moti Nandi stories. I wish someone translated him too.

Earlier pujo edition of Anandamela was an asset in itself. My father’s library probably houses the editions from the 70’s decades. And they contain masterpieces. There were other children publications too. I remember three others-Shuktara, Sandesh (a magazine which was run by Ray, a history itself!), and Kishore Bharati. But the most popular in my younger days was Anandamela.

For the elders, there were pujo publications like Desh, Anandabazar and Anandolok (which was the glamorous book on the film world)

In our place, because of father’s love for literature and books, we used to get two- Desh and Anandamela. Desh is also a part of Bangla heritage now (in fact, many things are. Bengalis are possessive people, about things they love).

Later, The Statesman came out with the first English Pujo Publication called Festival. I think the stories that are published in The Statesman even today, are much better than many that we read elsewhere.

Part II

Mostly the small clubs on the streets of Kolkata, take the responsibility of organizing these pujos. Now the term ‘club’ has a very different connotation when it comes to Kolkata. Since Bengalis are talkative and big spenders (Without much disposable income though!) by nature, they socialize in a very different way. Each locality (called para) has a common room sort of a thing devoted to the people. This common room can be someone’s garage or some small room inside a park or it can just be an open verandah infront of someone’s ground floor (called Rock in colloquial Bangla). There has to be a carom board for these people to ensure that they engage themselves in some kind of sport through out the year! These are the clubs that you can find in abundance on every street of Kolkata and they are the ones who organize the Pujos. Every investment in these clubs is based on donations. Thus, the pujo fund is built largely on the money collected from the localities. And mind you the collection process is not free from arguments and fights. And the sight of the negotiation between the householder and the club volunteers is a sight in itself.

Without going to the details of the history of how this way of organizing Durga Pujo started, I would just talk of two terms that are associated with a typical Durga Pujo- ‘Sharbojanin Durgoutsav’ (which means a Durga pujo organized for all) and ‘Barowari Durgapujo’ (which means organized by twelve friends, or in other words organized by many people). These are the typical terms associated with most of the Pujos across the city of Kolkata.

There are also some descendants of erstwhile zamindars of Kolkata who have their private Pujo at their houses (if your family has its own Durga Pujo then that means you hail from a family which had or has its riches), and nowadays even some apartments organize their own Durga Pujo, but to me the actual fun was always being a part of the street Pujo.

Every Bengali kid takes pride in saying that I love the pujo in my locality! And you would see them volunteering in security work when crowd of people come to visit the pandal. It is a funny site, when you enter a pandal and you are stopped by a five year old kid, wearing a badge on his chest showing that he is volunteer, asking you to stand in a queue. But then that is the charm of the whole affair.

As soon as the fund is collected then it gets disbursed among various heads. For people who don’t belong to the club, one of the first signs that a pujo is here in the locality is to see the bamboo structure of the Pandal being made!

Everyone waits for the day when the entire pandal would be erected and that would take the form of anything from Dilwara Temple to Buckingham Palace or even the Castle of Count Dracula.

And somewhere Kumors (the potters) have already started preparing the Pratima or the idol of Goddess Durga.

During this period, as a child I mostly spent time by reading the newly acquired Pujobarshiki that I talked about in my last post. I used to read up the comics first. And then start with the science fiction written every year by Satyajit Ray. And then the detective story by Sunil Gangopadhaya, and then other stories that were there. I still remember I used to be so addicted to that book, which I used to read that one, even while eating.

Part III

Being a bookworm was not the only thing that kept me occupied, as a child during Durga Pujo vacations. There was that amazing craze to play with ‘caps’. Now cap for a Bengali kid, during Pujo days, is not really something which one wears on the head. Let me try and explain, what is it, though I am not sure if anyone outside Kolkata has ever played with it!

Caps are very small crackers that are bursted using metallic toy pistols. They used to come in two forms. One is the ‘bindi-sized’ small dot cap, and the other was like a chain of those small caps called roll caps. These caps were put inside metallic toy pistols and kids used to burst them using the trigger. Normally we preferred roll caps, as once loaded, one can play for a longer time with them. We, the gang of kids, used to play mock shoot-outs with metallic pistols, loaded with caps! Some of us even made a toy wireless, using two empty cigarette packets and a rubber band, to give our con- cop game a classy look. The sound of cap is really irritating for anyone who was not playing with it. Thus, parents and elders used to be really angry, if a cap was bursted inside the house. But then we had ample time to play outside. One of the most exciting things were that we carried money in our tiny pockets- just to buy caps! Ten sets of roll caps came for two rupees and there were two popular brands- Kuil and Lion. Some brave boys’ bursted caps by just rubbing them on the wall. But all of them carried the toy pistol and rolls of caps in their pocket wherever they went.

All these tiny-mini acts led us to the auspicious day of Mahalaya-, which is observed seven days before the actual Durga Pujo starts. This day, heralds the advent of Durga, the goddess of supreme power. It’s a kind of invocation or invitation to the mother goddess to descend on earth and this is done through the chanting of mantras and singing devotional songs. From childhood, I have seen, my father performing some sort of Pujo on the day of Mahalaya. This pujo is called “Tarpon”- where a person pays homage to his departed forefathers (usually done by people whose father was not alive!). Many people take dip in the holy Ganges to perform this pujo, but many prefer being inside the home. My role as a child was to sit with my father, and see him performing the whole act. I used to do another thing. Once he finished the pujo, I used to gleefully ring the small bell, that we had. But in the process, somehow I managed to know and remember some of the names of my great- grand -grandest of fathers and mothers.

Mahalaya is special for another reason. Since the early 1930’s, the All India Radio broadcasts an early morning program called “ Mahishasura Mardini” or “ The Annihilation of the Demon”. The program is so popular, that it is broadcasted every year on the Mahalaya day, and recently I came to know that it is still the highest selling Bangla audio record.

The story of Mahishasura Mardini is highly captivating. When the tyranny of the demon king Mahisasura becomes unbearable, the Gods come together to create the female form of supreme power- Mahamaya. Mahamaya, has ten arms, and is blessed by all the Gods. How this supreme power rides a lion and demolishes the evil is the story of Mahishasura Mardini.

Though the theme is mythological and the scripts are Vedic, this is a composition by a poet named Bani Kumar, and is recited by a person called Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Birendra Krishna Bhadra has passed away long back, but his recorded voice still charms the souls in Bengal. His voice has become a part of Durga Pujo, and it seems that it would never be wiped away from the Bengali culture.

Bhadra’s recitation of Chandi Mantra is laced with beautiful devotional songs, composed by the legend Late Punkaj Kumar Mullick. Famous singers of yesteryears like Hemant Mukherjee, Dwijen Mukherjee, sang these songs.

For more than seven decades now most of Bengal rises up at 4 am, of the Mahalaya day to hear this broadcast on the radio.

Things might have changed now, and many don’t listen to Mahalaya, but it would continue to be an integral part of Durga Pujo in the State of Bengal.

And Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s two hours recitation would always remain immortal.

I have heard Mahishasura Mardini on the radio too, and trust me; you can’t get bored with the program because it is so enchanting. It breaks all barriers of language. Can you imagine, a program that is broadcasted since 1930 and heard every year by so many people, and yet they don’t get bored with it!

In fact Doordarshan (India’s National Television) tried to replicate the program on television. I watched that too, because I still love to see, people enacting as demons and sport the usual hysterical devilish laughter. But that dance drama is nothing when compared to the radio broadcast.

Mahishasura Mardini uplifts the pujo spirit, and gives it the requisite big-push.

The whole of Bengal- old and young rise on the day of Mahalaya, and suddenly one could hear the falling of the sticks on the “dhak”- the special drum that is used during Durga Pujo.

“Ya devi sarbabhuteshu,
Shakti rupena sanksthita,
Namasteshwai Namasteshwai,
Namasteshwai Namo namaha.”

India is such a unique amalgamation of so many cultures that any journey is worth that takes us deep inside our roots.

Part IV

Shashti is the first day of Pujo followed by Shaptami, Ashthami, Nabami and Dushami. As I have been saying the pujo fever in us, used to start long before the arrival of Shashti.

All of us, the children, specially, had one set of shirt and trouser for each of these four evenings. I have seen, my cousin sisters’ having more than the usual four sets. To day I realize how tough it must have been for the householders, like my father. Not only he had to buy clothes for the family, but also there was this ritual that he had to follow of buying new clothes for the sons and daughters of close relatives. Therefore, even my wardrobe consisted of gifts in the form of new clothes received from my uncles and aunts.

Though at times it is sad to realize few things. Thus, when I grew up I soon realized most of the gifts that are exchanged between relatives are to sustain one’s social status- there is little exchange of feelings through those among most families. But then, ‘Indian relatives’ are a species in itself!

The day just before the Shashti is known as Panchami. And the well-decorated clay idols of Durga, Ganesh, Kartik, Saraswati and Lakshmi arrive at the pandals, on that evening, riding a truck. The women from the families welcome the Goddess with sound of the Conch and the Dhak beats in the background. The men who have brought the idols normally shout “Jai Durga Mai ki, Jai”- on top of their voice. The irritating kids jump here and there, shout and burst those caps! I should not say irritating, because I have done that myself.

It is an amazing cacophony comprised of the sound of Conch, Dhak, human voice, and also ‘cap’ bursting. But all these add to the excitement.

“ Dhak” is the traditional drum that is played during the Durga Pujo. The people who play the Dhak are called the ‘Dhakis’. They come from various parts of the State to Kolkata. Most of them are very poor people and await the four days of Pujo much more than any one of us. If one goes to the Howrah or Sealdah railway station, one or two days, before Shashti, one would find hundreds of Dhakis playing their Dhaks in anticipation of a contract from a club. The funniest part is, the nature of Dhak beats that are played by each Dhaki vary from district to district. Now that is India!

Without the sound of Dhak, a Durga Pujo cannot happen. Dhak dominates all four days of the Pujo, through out the city. And one of the best part of the Pujo, is when people dance with the Dhak playing in the background. One has to see it to believe it.

Every morning of the Durga Pujo day starts with ‘Pushpanjali’.

For most of us, when we became teenagers, – boys as well as girls, Pushpanjali was an excuse to get impressed with each other! This has never changed. Saree clad young girls, sitting and talking to the boys wearing kurta-pyajama in front of the Pujo pandal. Special ingredients will have to be the fruits, which is actually the Prasad, and the silly smile on their respective faces.

God knows, how many teenage love stories make and break during those four days of Durga pujo. I can just say innumerable!

Generally during the pujo days, everyone has lunch together in his or her local pujo pandal. The food is called “bhog” and this collective lunch is called “pongti-bhojan” (sitting on the ground in a line and having food). I do not enjoy it much because I don’t like Khichdi or for that matter I am very unlike a Bengali in my food habits, but of course most people love it.

The evenings are the time, when people take on the lighted streets in large numbers. It was fun during my high school and college days when I started going out with friends.

But something that I would never forget was the fun involved in walking on the city streets with my father.

Suddenly I feel so grown up today, when I cannot have those days back!

Part V

Some of the rituals in Durga Pujo have always excited me. On the Shaptami day, the image of the goddess is infused with life. This process is called Bodhon. The process is really interesting. The life that would be put inside the image is brought through the medium of a banana plant that is called ‘Kola Bou’ (Kola means Banana and Bou means bride). The Kola Bou is bathed in the river and draped in a yellow saree, and resembles a newly wed bride.

Ashtami is the accepted as the most important day of the Durga Pujo. According to mythology, Devi Durga killed Mahishasura on this day. Sandhipujo is performed at the juncture of Ashtami and Nabami. It lasts from the last 24 minutes of Ashtami till the first 24 minutes of Nabami. It requires 108 lotus flowers, a single fruit, dry rice grain for “noibiddo”, 108 earthen lamps, clothes, jewelry, hibiscus garlands and wood apple (bel) leaves.

The main attraction of Nabami is the ‘ Arati’ held in the evening. ‘Dhunuchi Naach’ accompanies this arati with Dhak beats. I have already spoken about Dhak. Dhunuchi Naach or Dance or the ‘dance of effervescent smoke’, is performed with incense sticks and other ingredients put inside a clay pot in order to create smoke. It requires special skill to carry that heavy clay pot, balance it and dance at the same time. And even some pandals organize Dhunuchi Naach competitions.

If these were the fun in rituals, there were other aspects of fun too.

Shaptami, Ashthami, Nabami are the days when the whole of Kolkata is on the streets. It is very difficult to explain the euphoria to someone who has not experienced it by being there.

Everyone is on the streets during those three days, and everyone prefers to walk. The public buses are mostly empty. Thankfully, from 1985 Kolkata is blessed with the underground Metro Railway, thus people can travel from the Southern to the Northern part much more easily than before.

As a child I had covered large distances on the days of Pujo, on feet with my father, going from one pandal to the other. In those days, I used to count the number of pujo pandals I have visited. All the children used to do that to feel proud about their respective coverage.

My father and I had great time walking. Specially, my father is always very generous about treating his son to good food. And the best thing that one relishes during durga pujo are the ones’ which are branded as ‘non-healthy junk food’ by the health conscious people trapped in routine existence.

When I was a child, we used to get ten Phuchkas for rupee one. Now I am sure prices have increased but I can still manage twenty to thirty of those Phuchkas at one go! They are delicious.

Another thing, that is different in Kolkata, are the Rolls. They are not like the ones that are sold in the other parts of India. Bengalis are mostly non-vegetarians- therefore; the rolls that are available are Egg Roll, Chicken Roll and Mutton Roll. The prices STILL range from 10-30 Rupees maximum. Along the pavements, you would find, hundreds of roll corners and Phuchkawallahs. Cheap isn’t it? I know, Kolkata is a cheap city when it comes to unadulterated fun.

We also tried out new things introduced during Durga Pujo days. I can remember Lipton’s attempt to compete with Frooti by introducing a tetra pack drink called Tree-Top. We had Tree-Top, the day it was introduced on an Ashthami evening. Lehar Pepsi was to be introduced at 12.00 a.m. on a Shaptami. How could we miss it? We searched every small shop selling soft drinks to finally find one far away from our home, that had just three Lehar Pepsi bottles left. Our purpose was served!

My father made my Pujo special. As a kid when I could not manage to see many idols properly, because of the crowd of people inside the pandals, sometimes my father used to take me on his shoulders. Even as a toddler I was never carried on my parent’s lap, but if I have ever been on my father’s shoulders, then it is during those childhood days of Durga Pujo. Since, due to health reasons, my mother was not allowed to walk that much, it was my father and I, who took on the streets and it was some experience. And though I never asked him to buy anything for me but I asked him many questions. Thankfully, he obliged because that is why I knew a lot more on many weird things than my peers in those days.

Part VI

Bijoya Dushami is the last day of the four-day long festival of Durga Pujo. After the Pujo is performed, married women engage themselves in what all call ‘ Sindur Khela’ (Playing with vermilion). It is actually something like playing holi (India’s festival of colour) with vermilion.

The Goddess is immersed in the Ganges or in a nearby river.

All of us, used to go for the immersion. When I became a bit older, I have been part of the truck that sees off Ma Durga and her children. I have even helped in carrying the idols. It is not an easy job, since one has to carry it inside the water and it is really heavy. But then, none of us could easily accept the fact, that Ma Durga is being immersed, so we wanted to do it. All shout: “ Asche Bochor abar Hobe..!! (Meaning: Next year we would again have this opportunity to bring back Ma to our homes). And even the most non-sensitive among us feels sad.

After Devi Durga is immersed then only people wish each other ‘Subho Bijoya Dushami’. In the evening of Dushami, everyone has sweets. The younger ones’ touch the feet of the elders to seek blessing. And men hug each other, which is called ‘Kolakuli’. Don’t ask me, why Men and Women don’t hug each other, because I don’t know.

I never enjoyed the Bijoya Dushami day. Felt really sad, and since ours was a huge family, and I was young, touching everyone’s feet to seek blessing was a bit taxing. But then when my grandmother was alive, I loved meeting her on that day.

The streets on the day of Bijoya Dushami look very empty. Dismantled and empty pandals, stalls that were selling so many food items suddenly empty, everything makes one come back to a different mood all together. But then there is always a next time ahead. There is festivity waiting just round the corner.

Here’s wishing everyone – Subho Bijoya.


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