Purano sei diner katha, bhulbi ki re hai
O sei choker dekha praner katha sei ki bhola jai - Rabindranath Tagore
I currently live in a place in the National Capital Region – Faridabad. It has been five years since I migrated to this place from Durgapur. I don’t hail from Durgapur. My childhood was spent in the Scotland of the East – Shillong. Memories abound of the joyful times one had spent in childhood and during Durga Puja in particular, in Shillong.
Celebration is a part of our cultural compass, to demonstrate how we feel about an occasion. How does the spirit of celebration of Durga Puja compare between these two dissimilar places, one a bustling city cheek by jowl with the National Capital in North India that I currently live in, and the other where my childhood was spent, in the largest hill station of the nation, in the north-eastern part of the country? The piece attempts to underline how the writer spent his days during the festival in these two disparate cities.
We resided in a locality in Shillong that comprised a large group of Bengalis, Assamese & Nepalese, and the spirit of festivity pervaded the air during those four days. Actually, it was much longer. I remember with excitement the badminton competition that was organized each year by Jail Road Puja Committee. I loved watching a good match of this sport in the evenings, cheering the contestants though a selfish part of me longed that my brother pick up the coveted trophy. He was a regular participant in the tournament, and did manage to bag a few prizes, earning the reputation of being a good player. I loved the accompanying musical programs that followed in the evenings each day of the festival and this continued the following week. We had a difficult time deciding whether to opt for the programme at Matri Mandir Kali Bari in Polo, or the one in Jail Road. In recent years, Jail Road had managed to attract quite a few big musical talents from the Bengali music industry. Personally, I remember watching the programmes of Srikanta Acharya and Lopamudra Das in recent years, and these talented artistes enthralled the large audience with their varied songs.
During our childhood, we would eagerly await the arrival of Goddess Durga each year. The onset of Mahalaya, the invocation of Goddess Durga, which we enjoyed either listening to the radio and its modern day avatar as a TV program, was a significant occasion that heralded the celebrated festival. I had a group of friends with whom I generally used to hang out throughout the day and often till the wee hours of the night. During the three days of Saptami, Asthami & Navami, we used to hop from Pandal to Pandal, moving around the city to view the artistic Durga idols across the town, targeting all Pandals in a particular area and its vicinity. So one day it would have been Laitumkhrah with Motinagar, Dhankheti & Barik roped in alongside, while on the next day it might have been Laban & Rilbong with Police Bazar, while on the third day it could have been Garikhana & Hindu Mission with Jalupura and Nepali Mandir.
Each year the festival brought with it the joy and thrill of receiving new clothes in good numbers from parents, uncles and aunts. Draped in these new garments, we went out and enjoyed ourselves. I also distinctly remember that many of my uncles and aunts besides parents used to give us some pocket money to spend during puja days, something which didn’t happen on other days of the year. The ‘earnings’ enabled us to try out various delicacies from the stalls that were set up near the Puja Pandals selling chatpata stuff. In the evenings or late at night, it paid for our entry into the theatre screening the latest blockbuster film, most of which used to be released during the festive period. On which other day of the year can one think of not having to study at all and be able to return at midnight to the house, with no questions asked about our whereabouts?
Since we were in our teens, appreciating girls decked in all their finery constituted a core activity. When I reflect upon it now, I feel that romance & romantic aspirations of the younger generation hung heavy in the air in what was ironically a spiritual setting. Many first timers, the budding Romeos in quest of their Juliet’s, picked up this occasion as a good time to propose to their object of affection. The spiritual fervor found a deep resonance with the beat of the drums that the dhakis doled out at dusk.
Cut to the present, Durga Puja in Faridabad certainly lacks the charm of my bygone years. The offices remain open on all the three days of the festival. Dussehra, the only day of respite one gets from the workplace, often falls on a Sunday blanking out any further scope of joy and celebration. One therefore has to take French leave on these days, or if leave is unavailable, opt for the ‘without pay’ option.
In Faridabad, community Puja Pandals are visible in different sectors. Most of these have the pomp and feel of a normal Puja. Even though Bengalis comprises the majority, people from other communities are also involved among the organizers. Else if one is away from the vicinity of such pandals, one can hardly smell the fragrance of the festival. If one is close to some organizers of some of these pujas, one can easily have delicious Kichuri with Labra & Beguni for free. Another aspect that I thoroughly miss is walking great distances by foot during the festival, the way we did in Shillong. In Faridabad, like most so-called modern cities, the distances are large and the concept of walking substantial distances for visiting the next puja pandal is non-existent. A good number of people visit New Delhi from Faridabad, especially the Chittaranjan Park locality, where most of the pujas are concentrated. This is also the locality dominated by Bengalis, and the culture of the community hangs heavy in this prosperous area of Delhi. However, in some cases which happened even to us, the queue is so long that one has to spend a minimum of a couple of hours to gain entry into some of the well-known pandals of the Chittaranjan Park area. Now that is a big dampener!
Personally, I love the festival and do try and enjoy as much as I can, especially during the three days immediately preceding Dussehra. However, I feel that our festive fervor should be tempered with a degree of responsibility. During immersion of the Goddess, the toxic element that is released which contaminates the water of the river is a cause of great alarm, and steps ought to be taken to use more eco-friendly materials in the making of the idols. The festival also brings out the tremendous skills of our artisans who wait for a full year to make these awe-inspiring goddesses and gods. A second point which I feel the organizers of these pujas ought to do, as part of our social responsibility, is to feed greater number of poor people so that we learn to share our joy with the less privileged. What is the point of the rich and the middle class feeding itself with so much misery and penury around? Durga Puja is a reiteration of the good over evil. Let the joy of the season manifest the divine spirit in us, so that we can do our bit to make the world a better place.
(This piece was written in September 2010)