The most potent concoction of fragrances that contains a zillion memories of my treasured past is the scent that fills the air in India during the start of the autumn season announcing the festival of Goddess Durga (better known as Durga Puja). The air, just rightly nippy, smells of fresh earth and paddy fields, flowers, incense sticks and camphor almost as though nature has performed its own celestial ritual of cleansing the space inside and outside all of us. Petite white flowers called the Shiuli with their sleek and slender crimson stalks and delicate lingering fragrance bloom in several parts of the country setting the stage for Goddess Durga to return home to visit her parents and family. We are her family. Like most children hers too latch on to their mother, and her four children – Lakshmi (Goddess of true wealth), Saraswati (Goddess of knowledge and arts), Ganesh (God of fortune) and her youngest son Kartik (God of valor and bravery) accompany her on her annual sojourn to her parents’ abode. Like a dutiful and beautiful wife and mother she embarks on her vacation home with her gorgeous children in tow where we welcome her with open arms.
For people of Bengal, who hail from the eastern part of India, this time of the year marks a special significance as they prepare for this festival, irrespective of which part of the country or world they live in. However, I must confess to being perennially struck down by nostalgia and thus highly unsuccessful in finding or replicating that spirit and space around me since I have moved out of India. I haven’t the slightest doubt that this is solely a matter of my own deficiencies and inabilities, but I am still to find those soul-quenching beats of the drum (dhaak) that I had heard in my childhood with my grandparents beside me. It was an explosion of energy that created a vibrato within my ribcage as every molecule and heartbeat in me resonated with that breathtaking rhythm. It was an overwhelming feeling, I recall distinctly. Since my grandfather always insisted on reaching the venue early during the evening prayers so he could hear the dhaak, I had the luxury of tagging along with him. The rest of the family joined the two of us much later after getting appropriately decked-up for the evening’s function that followed. During the prayers that my grandfather and I attended every Saptami (the seventh day of the festival) and Ashtami (the eight day) evenings the air smelt of incense sticks and fruits and flowers. The space smelled sacred.
In those days too, there used to be the ceremonial ‘dhunuchi’ dance on the eighth day of the festival (quite a stunt really!) where men and women carrying an earthenware filled with a layer of smouldering coconut husk sprinkled with incense and camphor, danced to the frenzying beats of the dhaak as they offered their prayers before the majestic idol through their dance. I have always wanted to perform that dance but my courage has always failed me at the eleventh hour. Perhaps one day I will. It was after this prayer that the crowd would begin to thicken and the air would start to smell of perfume and flowers, as the pandal (marquee) would fill up with gorgeously dressed men and women and their jubilant laughter and music. Where there are Bengalis, there must be music, arts, good non-vegetarian delicacies and of course sweets! And so these pandals were outlined by several food stalls that sold mouth-watering cuisine prepared by some of the most talented culinary-craftsmen!
Every stall was engulfed by a distinct aroma that would entice passers-by seducing and pulling them closer and closer till they succumbed completely to its hypnotic effect. Right from egg-roles, mutton roles, the inimitable moglai parotas, kebabs and cutlets, biriyani, luchi-aloor dum, delectable Bengali desserts, to tea, coffee, ice cream, mineral water and Coca-Cola…they had it all! The rankings of these stalls would soon spread through word-of-mouth by their boisterous clientele. Some stalls even ran out of food if we reached late! And there I’d be, in my gorgeous new clothes, running around with my friends far away from the jurisdiction of my parents who were only approached for money. Grandma had her own food stall that would be robbed of every morsel of grub even before we got there for a second or third helping. Grandpa played the quintessential consumer with utmost passion and humour.
On some afternoons there would be fun competitions like quiz contests, singing contests, drawing contests, among others. The most interesting among these was the ‘shankha-dhwani pratiyogita’ that tested the longest one could blow the conch shell without pausing for a breath. It was a test of one’s lung-power. The year I participated in that contest, I must have been in my eighth grade in school. Grandma would train me every afternoon and teach me the tricks and the science of the trade; she always taught me to be sincere and to honour every challenge that was tossed at me. I remember how I was introduced to the lady who had won year after year in that contest. I defeated her that year. I played the conch for over a minute, breaking even the record set in the past years!
Another specialty of these afternoons was the ‘bhog’ (a special menu of food that is cooked fresh by dedicated volunteers and cooks for offering to the Goddess) that was served to all of us on plates made of dried palm-leaves. Somehow the concept of catered food and packaged plates containing a formula-44 menu that I could easily purchase at just any restaurant seems like a disturbing and a much altered variant of the ‘bhog’. The concept of self-service rather than having volunteers running around to serve the hungry devotees seems like an unfortunate inference of ‘convenience’. In my younger days some of us eagerly volunteered to serve the piping hot khichudi or pulao that had been offered to the deity on that day. We learnt to put our own hunger aside to first feed the elderly and the children.
By the time I moved to college, we were in Baroda (a beautiful city in the western part of India) where these nine days of the Navratri festival were celebrated in a completely different style though it carried the same spirit as that of the Durga Puja! People danced in thousands, in concentric circles, to the beats of Gujarati folk music that mainly sang praises to the Lord Krishna or Goddess Durga. As though in a trance this huge wave of men and women dressed in colourful ghagra cholis and other traditional Guajarati dresses undulated in rhythmic grace for most part of the night. I would join my friends at the Garba grounds after marking my attendance at the Durga Puja pandal.
But beneath all the celebrations what few noticed was my growing faith in Goddess Durga. Every time I stood before the beautiful idol of the Goddess I felt humbled and overwhelmed as I would be consumed by a deep sense of calmness and assurance. Even today, from time to time, I have found strength and courage in those eyes. I have always known how much grit and determination lay within a woman’s heart – as a mother, as a daughter or even as a wife – and I have turned to that strength from time to time to fuel my own mind with that powerfulness and energy. However, I have never prescribed to the idea of glorifying a living woman as a goddess since I believe that the goodness and goddess resides within every human being, be it a girl or a boy. I have often found the crowds overlooking the finer (and more real) facets and honest desires of the human heart every time they have focussed their energies on putting one on a pedestal where one can be tagged as ‘selfless hence divine’.
The concept of God is personal and can be practised in a million ways but to derive a shallow corollary from that seems utterly convenience-based and therefore totally unacceptable. Goddess Durga always reminds me of the power of good over evil. I have seen a glimpse of Durga in several people beyond their basic identities and differences. During this festive season, I pray sincerely that we all imbibe the capability to notice the divinity in every human being and also respect the free human spirit, instead of being overwhelmed by the external façade.
Jai Mata Di! Joi Maa Durga!
© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013