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Pujo in a Small Town

October 17, 2021   |   15 Minute Read

The harsh, stuffy Indian summers are past. Dark clouds of the monsoon are making their way back to the oceans after drenching, reinvigorating and flooding the lands. The dusty fields and roads are now wearing different shades of green, some were still budding, lending a noticeably greener and vibrant look to the town. The lush emeralds of the evergreens continue to bask in the golden hues of the relatively milder afternoon sun. In the less maintained corners of the Jubilee Park, beside the rocky outcrops found in Telco, one can see white flowers in long, slender stalks grow in thickets. Kash Phool. Look from afar and it feels as if clouds have descended on earth. It is October. Sharod.

My earliest memories of the month always revolved around Pujo unless it was one of the unlucky years when it was in September. The heat and stuffiness of the retreating monsoons in September lend a very wet, sloshy look to the Pujo. An early Pujo also brought with it the terrible prospects of school exams just after the holidays. The last exam before the holidays was always unlucky for me. By this time, my early excitement of the places to be in, the food to stuff always manifested itself right before I had picked up my ink pen. Nevertheless going to school in the cramped van with last minute revision notes stuffed in hands, it was exciting to look at the bamboo scaffoldings being put up on different grounds and at times watching the craftsmen at their work.

My wandering mind did not pay much attention to the questions in front of me and was busy waiting for the bell to ring or stealing nervous glances at the girl sitting diagonally across me in the next row beside the window. She had a new hairstyle. Her shoulder-length hair was now cut short with wispy bangs curling towards the bottom and often covering her ears. So engrossed she was in writing the paper, that she had had to raise a finger and put the hair behind her ears without looking up. Delicately. It was morning and the October sun streamed in gently through the translucent curtains and illuminated her desk. And Her. Would I see her at C.H. Area or Ramakrishna Mission on Asthami? I thought. She raised her hand for an extra sheet and turned towards the right looking for the teacher. Our eyes met. Briefly. She adjusted her glasses. Something held me in my place frozen – my heart beating fast, the pen held tightly, unable to look away until the teacher tapped gently on my shoulder to break the spell. She has seen and known many such young hearts fluttering to know that a tap would do. I wanted that moment to last longer.

It was Biology. The damn Biology exam.

In those days The Telegraph would come out with special editions of Graphiti just a week before Pujo. This had become a yearly ritual similar to the pujo barshiki which Maa used to buy in September itself. She bought a minimum of two magazines and never read them in October. The reading sessions began in lean afternoons of the winter months starting from November. When asked, she replied, “After Dashami, there is a general state of sadness. Don’t feel like doing any work. The magazines are my outlet for the mind.” The Pujo edition Graphiti were very modest in comparison to the thick, glossy Anandabazaars, Bartamans. I could not read Bangla well which kept me away from all the stories and travelogues and articles.

My Graphiti almost always had an article by a probashi Bangali, remembering their times and clandestine romances which bloomed during these times in the alleys and para’s pujos while hiding from the nosy kakus and kakimas. Biplab Deb brought these stories to life and the reading was a delightful experience with his cartoons and small anecdotes. Derek brought out new themes and questions for his Inquizzitive column dropping interesting trivia about Pujos, foods and traditions. Learning for the first time that the Pujo was started in celebration of Robert Clive’s victory at Plassey. There used to be one or two questions from his father, Neil O’Brien’s DI Open Quiz held the previous month. The main Sunday paper carried long-form articles on the inspiration and story of pandals of the major Pujos of Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay. A mosaic of images of unfinished decorations being completed, an artist preparing to move the protima he has worked on for months outside his workshop, potters leaving out the handis for bhog to dry in the sun filled pages when news was dry.

“Be careful while carrying the bhog, it will be hot.”, maa warned as I took out the two coupons for the Saptami bhog kept on the top of the fridge. Mistakes can’t be made today. I brought a thick piece of cloth to protect my hands from burning. I trooped out as early as noon to the para pujo to get the best handis and not the scraped ones.

The bhog is a simple affair. Khichudi, extra sweet payesh or tomato chutney, a labra of the seasonal veg cooked in extra oil, aloo phulkopi and if one is lucky a beguni or a kumro bhaja to go along with it. The placement of the elements was such that it was difficult to keep one separate from the other. By the time I reached home, the payesh had overflowed from its leafy container to the khichudi lending its sweetness to it and thus breaking the monotonous salty spell of it. The labra and the aloo phulkopi was in a better shape, its container maintained its integrity but the same could not be said for the single beguni which had become soggy. The clay handi too had infused its earthiness to the bhog making it quite remarkable. No matter whatever be the state of the bhog, we never had had a better lunch than it in the year. It was special. You only get it once and you cherish it.

The line of cars and bikes stretched as far back as St. Mary’s Senior Block. Every available inch of the sidewalk was occupied. The shaded spots under the trees were happily occupied by vendors selling ice creams and cold drinks. The bright expanse of the sky was wearing a painted look, with streaks of whites here and there and the sun shined radiantly throughout the day. There couldn’t have been a better day for Ashtami. Bouquets interspaced with carved thermocol paintings decorated the outer walls of the compound. Inside, a large, shaded courtyard with mango and gulmohur trees lining the wall, there were benches placed in neat rows bearing telltale signs of mischievous pupils scribbled on them. The Ramakrishna Mission runs a school in the compound. But the people were mostly crowded near the front, waiting to catch a glimpse of the little girl, decked in the red Benarasi saree who would be worshipped as Maa Durga. Kumari Pujo.

This ritual started by Vivekananda has continued to date across all the Missions. I would be seldom interested in the inner workings of the rituals since I had reached a stage where I could neither be carried by Baba on his shoulders nor was tall enough to see over the shoulders of others. Baba used to pick me up and let me sit on his shoulders when I was lighter and smaller, happily having an Amul ice cream and watching the rituals.

No Durga Pujo is complete and it doesn’t assume the aura without the maddening beats of the dhaks, barrel-shaped drums, with hide stretched tight over the opening, decked with bird feathers and colourful strips of cloths, hung from the shoulders of lean men wearing dhuti-panjabi and played with two wooden sticks. There is almost a frenzied mania infused among onlookers and listeners as they watch the dhakis play. The Statesman correctly describes that these enchanting beats are enough to conjure up the sights and smells of Pujo.

In the town, there used to be only a handful few pujos which still employed the services of the original dhaks. Exorbitant costs of maintaining the dhaks and the rise of pre-recorded CD’s and synthetic drums led to fewer dhakis coming to the town. Bengal Club, C.H. Area and Golmuri Club were perhaps the only ones to bring in dhakis from the hinterlands of Bengal, predominantly from Malda and Purulia. The sonorous sounds of natural dhaks were unparalleled in comparison to the synthetic, plastic drums which served as replacements. In the early years of the new millennium, there used to be a dhaki contest in Bengal Club on Ashtami just before the dhunuchi naach. People jostling for space, standing shoulder to shoulder to watch the two hours long contest. There are different rhythms for different occasions. The skilled artisans made a smooth transition from the slow to the faster rhythms, leaving the crowd with a heightened sense of euphoria.

The Pujo at Circuit House was perhaps the grandest, eloquent and most sought after, though being the simplest one. Just a long pandal, open at three sides, decorated with barely anything but plain bouquets and having food stalls all around the ground which served overpriced kebabs, rolls, fish cutlets, greasy kormas, sweet pulaos, ice creams and Indianized Chinese. The loudspeakers played some old, sweet Rabindra sangeet or the live performance of the dhakis. Unlike the other Pujos, this one did not substitute the ethos of Bengaliness in its core. Having the MD, VPs of the steel company and HOD’s of TMH as its patrons and members helped to preserve the traditions. Even the romance of it. On the other side of the town, it was Golmuri Club carrying on the echo with generous patrons and encouragement from Telco.

Known and unknown to many unsuspecting parents, the grounds of C.H. Area became the favoured meeting spot of couples and singles looking around. The sight of your crush sent the heart fluttering and perhaps one might have even mustered the courage to speak only if the other was not accompanied by their parents. Amidst the crowds, while someone’s hope rises, other’s falter. A bit saddened at the state of affairs, one can only lessen the despair of unblossomed romance with some rolls and ice creams. But indeed, she looked elegant in the oyster pink saree with pearl embroidery, wearing minimal makeup but for the eyeliner and lipstick which was the colour of a deeper shade of red. I think it was the shade of Sangria or Rosewood. I will never know. I never asked her.

After the evening arti, the open expanse in front of the mandap would be cleared away of the paraphernalia and of over-excited toddlers who came to the Pujo holding their mother’s hand but had to hold on to their maa’s anchol when they got busy during the arti. Dhunuchi Naach. Dhunuchi, earthen pots with an open flared top, held by a narrow stem were lit with dried coconut husks spattered with a generous amount of dhuno and camphor. As the fragrant smoke builds up from the row of dhunuchis, the dhakis start a slow rhythmic beat. The women line up in front of the pots billowing the sweet smoke and pick up the dhunuchi. As the beats pick up the pace, the women with a twirl of their arms offer their tribute to the Goddess. The camphor smoke stings the eye of the performers but not their hearts. Twisting their arms and body, clockwise and counter, they hold the dhunuchi straight up, not allowing the burning husks to fall. There is a change in the beat of the dhaks, the movement changes. Now, it is with two dhunuchi – one on each hand and the twirling step continues, this time with the added movement of taking a step forward and back. The dance continues until the husks burn out. The onlookers are in a state of reverie, smoke from the remaining husks continues to billow out. The entire scene looks hazy through the white, sweet smoke. Dhakis have stopped. For a few moments, there is no movement, everything is quiet. As people return to reality from the paroxysms of the sight, they know they have seen something quite extraordinary. You don’t get to experience such feverishness, such frenzy in your everyday life.

Maa is now carefully taking out the cream white saree with a red border from the wardrobe. Her pujo thali is prepared – sondesh, paan leaf and sindoor. She is wearing her gold necklace and earrings and her feet is lined with alta. The only time of the year when she wears alta. It is the last day, the bisorjon will take place in a few hours.

Committee members ask the women to hurry from the loudspeakers from the pandal. But the women pay no heed. Men can’t understand the emotions of a woman returning to her shoshur baari. Scrimmaging to touch her feet one last time and apply sindoor, the women with tears welling in their eyes move forward. Bidding her adieu, before the sadness sets in, they apply sindoor on each other, a smile here and a laugh there. Somewhere, women holding hands, group in a circle and break steps together. Their faces are graceful, their cheeks smeared with the red of sindoor. Sindoor Khaela.

As She makes her way back, melancholy and sullenness set in. All the frenzy and exuberance of the past few days leads to a sudden emptiness of the heart and soul. The silence of the surroundings that prevails is a moment of pure and true sadness. On the way to the Subarnarekha or Kharkai, from whence She sets out on her journey, someone cries out among the din of the dhaks and commotion, “Aasche bochor aabar hobe”. The crowd chants in succession. Aasche bochor aabar hobe, capturing the eagerness with which she will be welcomed the next year.

She will come home. Again.

Cover image is of Old Farm Area Durga Pujo 2014.

- Jampot. October '21.

Bangla words used -
Kash Phool - a type of grass native to South Asia, found growing after the monsoons
Sharod - autumn
Pujo Barshiki - annual magazines in Bangla which comes out just before the Pujo with special articles, stories, recipes and latest fashion
Anadabazaar, Bartaman – Bengali daily newspapers
Probashi – people who live away from their homeland
Kaku, Kakima – uncle, aunty, a term given to people with whom one is not related
Protima – the sculpture of Goddess Durga and her children
Labra – a vegetable preparation made with pumpkin, cabbage, potato, brinjal, others spiced with paanch phoron (mix of 5 spices)
Aloo Phulkopi - cube shaped potatoes and thinly cut cauliflower cooked with different spices
Payesh – a sweet dish made from rice served as dessert
Beguni – a thin piece of brinjal coated with besan and deep fried
Kumro Bhaja – a thin piece of deep fried pumpkin
Dhuti-Panjabi – dhoti and kurta worn by men
Dhuno – Indian frankincense, made from the sap of the sal tree
Aanchol – the part of the saree which hangs over the shoulder at the back
Sondesh – a sweet prepared from milk, found in the eastern part of India
Alta – red dye applied on the hands and feet (mostly feet) of women
Bisorjon – the procession which takes place from the pandal to the river where the protima is immersed
Shoshur Baari – the house of one’s in laws
Subarnarekha, Kharkai – rivers in the state of Jharkhand
Aasche Bochor Aabar Hobe – It will come again next year

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