Tuesday 13 October 2015

Durga Pujo Memoir Of A Non-Bengali

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!

_____________________________________________________________________________ [Originally published on The Huffington Post].

Friday 2 October 2015

What Really Works - A Cleanliness 'Abhiyaan' or Self-driven Cleanliness?

Cleanliness's first birthday season has arrived. One year ago when Mother India gave birth to its newest baby with a sacred mission - "Swachchh Bharat Abhiyan", dreams of a messiah mission refuelled our dying hopes to tidy up our literally grim background with delight. We joined hands together crossing all boundaries of caste, religion or creed, to unite for our common birth right - hygiene. The idea was to explain the lessons of meticulousness and etiquettes to friends, neighbours, subordinates, children. Well, actually to anyone but 'me'.
Within days of inaugurating the cleanliness drive by Mr. PM, offices, schools, institutes and homes emerged on streets with a broom stick in hand to sweep off dirt under one's feet, so what if it was tossed off in the neighbour's garden? Women association and ladies club tightened saree-pallu around their waist posing for epic photographs in groups displaying their commitment to keep their premises clean, least caring that back at home when they are off their saree and make-up, some would not even think twice before throwing away kitchen junk out of their window to add up to the already piled up garbage hoarded on public street? It was amusing to find employees cleaning up dump of office files as if it was an year end appraisal target which if not done before midnight of the D-day, would lose its significance by next morning. By the end of few hours, or few weeks for some truly sincere ones, the cleanliness love affair dissipated beneath routine habits which obviously had little concern for keeping premises clean.
In fact, the most serious ones emerging in the entire cleaning business were little children who wrote essays, made collages and spoke extempore on the topic, educating the society around. Ironically, they were also the ones who knew least about some 'policy driven mission' and yet knew most about the simple habit of cleanliness. While the elders had to be forced to go through an instruction manual pointing 'Do's and Don'ts' of keeping clean, focused around a government directive, the little ones effortlessly took care to stick to a hygiene rule-book they had never even read about. My four year old child held something tight in her hand for five jolly good hours while on a trip to Munnar until she spotted a dustbin and wanted us to stop the car. When asked why, she said she wanted to throw the toffee wrapper in the bin. Isn't it appalling to know why when a four year old can understand, appreciate and follow the simplicity of a good habit inculcated, a grown-up adult must need a mission or a drive to get reminded of the same?
The question, however is, even if the noble government attempts to play a motivating Uncle Sam, how far will a 'drive' change the habits of self-driven people who have in all these years adopted shameless display of untidiness as their way of life? Is it a wonderment any more to spot the front door of a car speeding ahead suddenly fling open, driver's head pop out of it like an action movie thriller sequence and the hero shoot a file of gargled red tobacco from his mouth in place of bullets, sometime hitting and sometimes missing the person passing by on a two wheeler? A country in which urinating in open streets in full public galore considered a much healthier option to holding it back for a couple of minutes until reaching a public utility? Blowing nose or coughing without putting hands on mouth in railways, metros and buses, quite often right on the face of the nearest neighbor sitting by, unapologetically done by even the most educated and well-employed of citizens? Littering parks with eatables, spitting at tourist places, leaving filth behind in hotels and restaurants and worst still, not caring to flush out one's own shitty remains in public toilets are few common examples from daily life. We insist cleanliness is godliness but do we really care to spare our beloved God's abode in temples from filth either?
How strange is it to know when these highly qualified individuals cross the boundary of their motherland to step in some part of America, Europe or Australia, they adopt a different avatar altogether by suddenly becoming well-mannered, sophisticated gentlemen and ladies, following rules of the land like primary school babies? Perhaps they know that pretending to be naïve in a foreign land will either have them penalized or get them behind bars, even to the extent of being shown a return visa with no-thanks slip. Exactly opposite of what happens in our dear country where despite being caught and frowned upon, one can easily get away unabashedly.
If one wants to witness a live case study of our callousness towards tidiness, consider taking one train journey on a general seat. Why just general, consider sleeper or any of the AC tiers only to find that the legendary Indian Railways is the most vulnerable victim of our heartlessness. While sixty plus is to four already an alarmingly low number of toilets provided by the, its pathetic usage by people renders it distressingly unhygienic. Who cares about reading the instruction board put in toilets, when shit and quit is the rule of the rail set by passengers themselves? Using latrines when the train is at halt is obviously far fetched and much difficult instruction to follow, let alone scribbling names on walls, tearing off seat's leather even sticking chewing-gums on ceilings or fans?
So while PM and his army do commendable work in constructing multitudes of toilets, cleaning river Ganga and sanctioning crores of money for furtherance of the cleanliness cause, little is anticipated to change unless people are ready to change themselves. Drives and dialogues get delivered only with discipline. Penalty or incentive may catalyse the need to stay well behaved, it is however either the habit that one inculcates or the concern for fellow community members around that makes the big difference.
Those who keep dogs as pets would know that with proper and timely training, even an animal with lesser white matter in the brain follows etiquette of tidiness without much fuss. Why then the ones with highest of intellect need to be driven by a top-down rule-book approach and why not concern and care for each other's right to clean space be the driving force? 'Tis time we think!

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