My Favourite Part of Durga Puja? Remembering the Pujos of My Childhood

Culture

My Favourite Part of Durga Puja? Remembering the Pujos of My Childhood

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

L

ast week, as I listened to the glorious baritone of Birendra Krishna Bhadra on Mahalaya morning, my lungs took in a giant whiff of Durga Puja that was barely days away. Along with the lilting tunes of Mahishasur Mardini, came all the beautiful memories of Durga Pujos past.

I was reminded of the autumn of 1994, when I was a class IV student, giddy with joy. My piggy bank that I had been devotedly filling every single day of the year had just been broken and I had counted ₹80 – all in coins, save a lonely ₹10 note. If you’re a Bong, you know what this meant: One egg roll every day of Pujo. For a little kid, living under the aegis of well-meaning but strict parents, this was no mean feat. It meant that only I got to decide when I would devour that egg roll and where (in which pandal, to be more accurate) I’d buy it, with zero parental intrusion. It was the Durga Pujo (and the independence) of my dreams.

The year after this, Durga Pujo came with added aspirational responsibilities – the kind every kid willingly volunteers for. I was a part of the fruit-cutting department of the Pujo committee my family was a part of. It meant waking up at 6 am but since it wasn’t for school, I didn’t actually resent my lack of sleep. Instead I bathed willingly, proudly hung the big rectangular ID card that said “Volunteer” on my neck, and joined the group of tiny troopers who were as enthusiastic as me to cut apples and pears in neat pieces and put in transparent packets to be distributed as prasad. We giggled and felt mighty important because in a few hours, several hundreds of devotees would be munching on these fruits cut by us. Our new reputation also guaranteed that we’d brag about our volunteer clout to any neighbourhood kid by entering and exiting the Pujo pandal from a special entrance in front of them. In that moment, we were invincible.

The following Pujo season, I was bestowed the honour of choosing some of my new Pujo clothes – it’s a different story altogether that I chose incredibly unwisely. But for that one beautiful Ashtami morning, my purple corduroy pants paired by me with a yellow top, handsomely offset a boy’s red shirt with an equally red pair of trousers. Both of us were so thrilled with our wardrobe independence that we totally disregarded our elder siblings mercilessly laughing at us for looking like hybrid animal babies.

As the years passed, the great Bengali festival kept getting bigger for tiny me – every year brought along a freedom of a new kind. By the time I was a teenager, I insisted on being out all morning and noon with my friends, braving the sun as we pandal-hopped at that horrible sinus-inducing hour. I experimented with applying generous amounts of kohl in my eyes, tried the many maroon lipsticks from Ma’s cabinet, wore purple mini skirts, orange dungarees, and even a handloom saree that made me look like a Horlicks jar.

Ironically enough, what we yearned to do as teenagers every Pujo, are the things we are weary of as adults.

During the later years, Durga Pujo was the time when the foodie in me was finding its voice. I would spend all the money that I got from teaching English on the delicacies served up by mashis during “Anandamela”, a Bengali cook-off. From papda maacher jhol and ghugni to dimer devil and chowmein, I quite literally ate my heart out, realising that the five days of Pujo afforded me the leeway to get to know a part of myself, every year.

And then, it was in the early twenties that Durga Pujo became what many Calcuttans call a “love fest”. I was a part of a big friends group with love interests all around. I stopped wearing Ma-certified clothes altogether; my Pujo style wasn’t just a sub-plot of my life, it now defined me as a person. Finally allowed to stay out late, I went to legendary pandals in a friend’s broken Maruti 800 and indulged in addas till 2 am, coming home to sleep for only four hours before the next day’s rituals began.

But then age caught up with my favourite festival. I grew up, became an adult, and Durga Pujo kind of lost its sheen. It’s still a festival I celebrate, but is hardly a celebration.

Now, as I now frantically book tickets to be with my family during Pujo as a well-heeled adult, I also race against deadlines, order new clothes online and figure mentally which of these will be my #OOTD for Nobomi. Ironically enough, what we yearned to do as teenagers every Pujo, are the things we are weary of as adults. The desire to be a grown up, to have money of our own, or be acknowledged as more than just the kid of that Bengali family, are the very things that we no longer look forward to.

I’ve come to realise that adulting compromises the novelty of Pujo. We pay for most things we want because of the jobs we have, we order from food apps on all days of the week. We meet our friends at any hour of the day and no part of the city is off limits. Pub hopping, night outs, weekend getaways, we do it all. What was once only possible during Durga Pujo is now what we simply do, every day of the year. Our real permissions today are the holidays we request from our bosses to visit our hometowns, the headache of ensuring same-day deliveries of clothes bought online. And if you have kids, it’s debatable whether you’d actually end up enjoying a moment or two of this wonderful festival.

Naturally, in the last few years, I’ve found myself wondering whether it’s possible for Durga Pujo to mean so much to me as it once did. Will it ever feel less like a chore and more like a carefree gathering? It’s a no-brainer that I will always celebrate Durga and her kids coming to town. But even now, reminiscing about the Pujo of my childhood is possibly my favourite Pujo activity as an adult.

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