So today is “Oshtomi” or as all of you spell it, “Ashtami”. Don’t worry if you are a non-bong and hence it means nothing to you. I am a bong, and STILL it doesn’t mean anything to me. Except that I do know this is supposed to be the most important day of the five-day circus or what Bengalis call, Durga Pujo.
I don’t even remember the last time I spent this auspicious occasion in Kolkata. Ahh, the dhak, the crackers, the excitement, the décor, the waste…
But what I do remember are my childhood days when these five days would rank as THE MOST IMPORTANT OCCASION right up there with my birthday and bhaifota.
Each year, the Durga Puja event would have three distinct stages:
Stage 1: The Preparation
This would start a month or even earlier, when my parents would start working hard and shopping for the occasion. The instructions were clear. As a seven year old who was newly exposed to multiplication, the math was simple: five days of Durga Puja equals 5*2=10 instances of going out (mornings with friends and evenings with family) and no self-respecting seven-year-old would be caught dead wearing an old/same outfit on these 10 occasions. Ergo, Durga Puja DEMANDED that I should have ten NEW outfits. Ergo, my dad had to work overtime.
But they (evil parents) also did their math. I was told that my budget would be Rs. XYZ and I could choose how I wanted to spend it, i.e. divide Rs. XYZ by 10 and buy 10 NEW BUT CHEAP dresses. Alternatively, I could divide Rs. XYZ by 5 and buy 5 NICE dresses, though I would have to repeat/wear old stuff in the mornings. Unfortunately, my division was a weak link at that point (why have TWO methods of division anyway?) and I agreed to the first option without really understanding the implications (me sticking out like a sore thumb in my ankle-length, ill-fitting 50-rupee frock when the others were fashionably dressed in branded clothes).
Stage 2: The Event
The actual five days had NOTHING to do with religion or worship. It was about having a legitimate excuse to dress up and hang out with friends since morning, sing along to bad music played at the pandals, participate in all the art competitions, eat roadside puchka without having your mom looking over your shoulder and play antakshari (our contribution to the overall bad music) sitting five feet away from the place of worship.
In the evening, I would again dress up in the different set of new clothes, go out with my parents (and relatives) pandal-hopping across the city, comparing and counting. Now for those of you not familiar with the chaos that ensues in Kolkata during Durga Puja, the closest analogy I can offer is the Indian fielding team comprising Navjot Sidhu, Bishan Bedi and Saurav Ganguly. The traffic goes haywire, there is no such thing as parking and everywhere there are separate entrances for men and women. So inevitably we would lose track of one another and in an age prior to mobile phones, it wasn’t as much fun as it sounds like. Besides, being the precious little princess (I can so imagine someone commenting on this) that I was, I would refuse to walk after the first 45 minutes, thereby spending the remaining night happily perched on my dad’s shoulder.
Bijoy Doshomi (Dushera) would be the final day when there would be tears all around, the women would feed sondesh to the idols and we would swear that even Ma Durga had tears on her painted clay cheeks (I am not exaggerating). All the kids would bring their text books and place them dutifully at the feet of Saraswati (for the uninitiated, Ma Durga is always accompanied by the entourage of her children: Laxmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Karthik, each with their respective accessories/pets). I would make a last-minute dash to our third-floor apartment (we didn’t have elevators) and come down panting with whatever book was lying nearest to the door (come to think of it, it was NEVER Maths). Finally, it would be time for visarjan and this was my favourite part where we would dance on the roads as we followed the matador carrying the idols. It’s pretty much close to what happens in a Punjabi baraat (I have attended one and hopefully that will be it), only it doesn’t have the tragic ending.
Stage 3: The Depression… and The Anticipation
The next few days following Durga Pujo would cast a shadow of gloom over all of us, who had gotten used to the luxury of indiscipline. Now it was time to go back to the books, eat boring home food and wear boring old clothes. But we would soon cheer up as Durga Pujo only marked the beginning of the festive season. There would be Laxmi Puja, Kali Puja, Bhaifota, Christmas, MY BIRTHDAY and New Year punctuated by something called Half-Yearly exam which nobody bothered about.
Sighh… those were the days. It’s oshtomi today and I am at work in my ONLY new outfit, with my colleague forcing me to listen to Akon singing Chammak Challo.
But, tomorrow I am off to Kerala for the third time. Self-indulgence, here I come!