Come October and arrive nine days festival and six days holidays! Getting a break as long as one full week from routine humdrums of boring daily life! I would be crazy if that wasn’t a reason good enough for me to rejoice during my schooldays! Growing up in the northern plains of Allahabad and almost having zero connection with Bengali tradition, the only enchanting part was to make the most out of Durga Puja holidays, which usually came after harrowing half-yearly examinations.
While few non-Bengali parents sat zeroing upon some exotic travel destination to hit during this rewarding week, mine wisely made it a point to make us experience every bit of the festival, year after year, in a manner no lesser than a Bengali would. My allegiance to the festival thus started.
The visuals of the Pujo times during those days stand crystal clear in memory. Our good old small city stood decked up with Puja Pandals at every second open clearance. I was told each Pandal was endorsed by a core committee of Bengalis who worked for months to bring out the best out of Pandals, embellishing it with vivid architectural styles, breathtaking creativity and scheduling daily events with fun-filled programmes comprising of contests, quizzes, Robindra-shongeet and showcasing talents that lasted entire nine days. The nag to put up the best show was driven by motivation to win the rolling trophy for 'Best Pandal' in the city.
While some Pandals were aesthetically crafted with customary Bengal motifs and designs, many were innovatively inspired from current happenings around the world. It didn't surprise me to note new additions almost every next year, like Pandal themes on ‘Tribal Welfare’ in which Devi Durga wore the Garo mini skirt, one supporting ‘Mission Go-Green’ donning Devi’s dress in leaves and shoots, a Pandal displaying life-size cut-outs of freedom fighters and one even flaunting Bollywood with Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai’s posters all over the marquee.
As night fell on the Pujo Pandal, it incarnated to a literal cultural hotspot. Full of energy, high-end fashion, food-fiesta, music, late-night fun mood, jabbering and gossips, our otherwise complacent city jostled with joy all night long. It is hard to believe that with overcrowded venue bumming with high spirited people, how a sense of discipline always took over and there was hardly any pushing or manhandling while trying to catch a glimpse of Maa Durga’s protimaa.
From my back to back visits to Durga Puja functions, I have come to deduce that food is central to a Bengali as much as dressing-sense is. Visiting a Puja Venue and coming back without having popped in paani puri or jhaal-muri or Indo-Chinese chowmein from the street vendors queuing the roadside, meant a disgrace to the Bengali tradition of ‘must-have reech phood’! Whenever I bumped into a Bengali friend who would have made her temporary home for six days in one of these Pandals, the first question she’d ask was not how fascinating did I find the Puja but whether I had tried the famous phish chop, roshogulla and bhishon bhalo coffee from one of the stalls?
Nevertheless, while most Bengalis in the Puja venue were found chatting and gossiping about their ‘Baadi’ and ‘Saree’, my eyes enduringly came to rest on the beautiful ladies and girls around. Each one glowed with the precisionist perfection of draping a sari, putting on big bindi, wearing ethnic pieces of enviable jewelry and eyes highlighted with kohl, yet the most outstanding piece of their look would be a spark of grace, punctuated with spasms of boisterous laughter. Bengali women may not be the most beautiful on earth but they are certainly endowed with hypnotic looks which usually brims over during the Puja period. Of course, all this apart from the month long preparation by them which includes an exhaustive day and night therapeutic shopping done for themselves and the whole bunch of family.
Though the occasion would be deeply religious, the Puja Pandals offered the best meeting places for would-be couples and dating pairs, sometimes even sparking matrimonial connections. Is it difficult to guess that where young girls and boys looking their best get together for nine days and nights, it will be just about the Puja part?
On the sixth day of the festival, when the public would get to see Goddess Durga get unveiled the first time, a strange excitement took over. Suddenly the frivolous fun and merry making changed to a deeply devout and gratifying experience. My favourite part of the Pujo was always eating bhog served at noon and watching the dhakis beat their drums and do dhunuchhir naach with torch lit with a frgrant dhun that filled us all with mystical aroma. The rhythmic beating that gradually rose to a high crescendo filled me with immense powerfulness, bountiful love and ecstasy. A kind of pleasure that can only be best felt! Six days slipped like sand from the hand as if we lost touch with time, immersing ourselves in joyful days, wishing it never got over.
Alas! Amidst pompous fanfare and women playing sindoor, suddenly came Doshomi, the time to let the Goddess go. When I sat on the ghats of river Ganges watching the last rites of Visarjan, my attention stopped at the beautifully sculpted face of Goddess Durga. How behind the drums beaten by dhakis, her beautiful big eyes, wavy black hair and crafted lips gradually sank under water to melt into a muddy mesh, leaving behind everyone somber in goose-flesh. There on the banks of river Ganga, were hundreds of teary-eyed worshippers half drenched in the holy mud, bonding with each other through strings of rich cultural unity, hardly caring who was a Bengali or non-Bengali!
The Huffington Post].