Sunday, September 27, 2009


As a child, my most cherished and enduring Durga Pujo memory is of the face of the Goddess.

Oh, I liked wearing new dresses and rushing to the parar pandal (neighbourhood marquee where the festive celebration was organized). I liked the happy, excited crowds, and the Hindi songs blaring from the microphones, and the smell of dhoop (incense) and flowers, and the dhaak er bajna (drumbeats), and the finery of the ten-handed goddess and her brood of four children, and the sonorous Sanskrit mantras (hyms) and the busy evenings of pandal-hopping.

But most of all, I liked to sit quietly inside the pandal at Jagruti Sangha (our local neighbourhood Pujo) and gaze at the lovely, angry face of the Goddess. Because at Jagruti Sangha, the sculptor (I forget his name) would always create an idol whose eyes shone with divine wrath. Baba (my father) used to say that this was the face of the Goddess just before she killed the demon Mahishasura – that climax of fury which led to the triumph of good over evil.

All the other Durga idols I have seen (in my childhood and even now, so many many years later) depict a calm and serene Goddess. Baba would say that that is the face of Durga after she has destroyed Mahisasura – “calm of mind, all passion spent”.

And although I love to look at the calm and beautiful face of Durga almost as much, during every Pujo I feel a deep yearning for our childhood Jagruti Sangha Durga – that trinayani (three-eyed) face compellingly majestic with its blazing eyes and gaze of furious power. That terrible, mighty beauty absolutely fascinated me, and I would gaze for hours, imprinting that face on my memory-album (we did not have a camera) so that long after Bijoya Dashami and the immersion of the idol, that face would be stamped deep in my soul in all its anger and loveliness.

I just have to close my eyes to see that face of my childhood Maa Durga again. Although the contours have become elusive, the eyes are as burningly beautiful as ever.


Sunday, September 20, 2009


Durga Puja was definitely THE MOST-ANTICIPATED TIME OF THE YEAR for us as far as new clothes were concerned. A new birthday dress or a new Poila Baisakh (New Year) dress notwithstanding, it was only before the Pujo that we received a bounty of new clothes to delight over.

One from Ma-Baba (parents), one from Mamabari (maternal grandparents), one from Chhotopishi (father’s sister), one from Jethun-Barama (father’s brother). Sometimes this list would be supplemented by sudden extras, as when an elder cousin or uncle would join a new job, or a newly married cousin would gift us a new dress. The more the merrier, for us.

The trend for ready-made garments not having set in during that time, we were usually given dress material (cut-pieces) which would have to be stitched into garments. This implied a double happiness and a prolonged period of excitement. The first joy would be on seeing the dress material itself. And then the elaborate planning of what the dress-design should be (the Planning Committee consisted of my mother and Didia, my cousin, with us being extremely-interested audience). And then the measurement-taking (either by Maa or by the neighbourhood tailor). And then the impatient waiting till delivery day. And then, of course, the excited tearing away of the plain brown-paper wrapping of the tailor and taking out and putting on the newly-stitched miracle. With a lot of preening and pirouetting before the mirror. Total indulgence in narcissistic self-love.

Those were busy days leading up to the Pujas. The dress schedule had to be meticulously planned – which outfit to wear on which day. The simpler cotton ones would be reserved for Sasthi and Saptami, and the fancier silk ones for the more glamorous occasions of Ashtami and Navami. If there was an excess of newness, then we would plan something different for the mornings and evenings, and maybe even for Dashami, the final day of the celebrations. The most-loved garment was always reserved for Ashtami evening. And that incomparable thrill and fever-pitch excitement of stepping out in a nice new outfit, proud and colourful as a peacock, and strutting to the local Puja pandal amidst the beats of the Dhaak (drums) and the smoke of the dhunuchi-naach (a dance performed with burning earthen pots) and the music blaring from the loudspeakers. With the assured confidence of childhood, we never doubted that we would be the cynosure of all eyes.


Thursday, September 10, 2009


As a child I loved going with my mother (and brother) to Dr Saha’s clinic. In case you are wondering whether I was mad, let me clarify that Dr Saha (we used to call him Kakumoni – an endearment for ‘uncle’) was a qualified and practising homeopath.

I just loved to visit his small, cool-calm chamber with the green lime-washed walls, the scrubbed brown wooden benches for the patients in the outer waiting chamber, and the inner sanctum sanctorum, where the quiet, thin, reassuring-smiling doctor would sit, surrounded by glass-fronted cupboards full of thick-fat medical books and vials and glass bottles of homeopathic medicine.

Before Maa (mother) embarked on her journey through the entire family’s ailments, Bhai (my brother) and I would demand our share of ‘michhimichhi osudh’ (placebo medicine), which was basically a few dozen sugar globules that form the base (and conceal the sharpness) of most homeopathic medicines. Kakumoni always kept a bottle of these sugar globules in his desk drawer (to pacify pesky kids), and he would patiently and solemnly drop a generous dose of the sweet-nothings on our eager tongues before turning his attention to Maa.

As Maa usually came with a long list of patients (our entire family, and even long-distance patients like my aunt who lived in another city altogether) who had an even longer list of illnesses and symptoms (a very important term in homeopathy – an accurate description of symptoms can allow the doctor to treat the patient without having ever met him/her). As she began her detailed litany (with the patient doctor inserting a perceptive question at appropriate intervals), Bhai and I would wander around.

Sometimes, we went to the watch-repairing shop next door, and watched the painstaking minute craftsmanship of the watch-repairer. More often, we would go to visit the potter who had his potter’s wheel in a shed behind the doctor’s chamber. I loved to see how he would coax the clay into beautiful jars and pots on the fast-spinning wheel with his deft-gentle and always-muddy hands. His wife would take the newly-created vessels and dry them, and later put them in the oven. Some of the vessels would come out all fiery red, and some would darken further into near-black. Once the kindly potter gave Bhai and me a set of coloured clay birds (green parrots, grey pigeons, brown magpies), delighting us no end.

But we always hurried back to Dr Saha’s chamber when it was time for him to make the medicines. We would watch fascinated as he measured out different medicines from their dark glass bottles into small clear-glass phials (with cork stoppers) filled with the aforesaid sugar globules. Sometimes he would make puriyas – individual doses of medicine put in a sweet white powder (called sugar of milk - what a lovely name) and packed inside small square white papers. Each set of puriyas or phials would be carefully labeled with the name of the patient, with instructions as to when and how much medicine to take – all written in Kakumoni’s neat-minute handwriting.

And, buoyed by a final parting dose of medicine-less sugar of milk, we would happily wave goodbye to the good doctor, always looking forward to the next visit with a sweet anticipation.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Nowadays our children have their school tiffins from healthy, sanitized lunch boxes, or from dietician-supervised school canteens. But in our unhygienic and un-health-conscious childhood, we would be allowed a once-a-week (or more, if we spent judiciously) indulgence of scandalously-unhealthy treats which tempted us just outside the school gates.

There was the phuckha-churmur-wallah and the alu-kabli-wallah (both selling sour-and-spicy snacks of chick-pea, potato, onion, tamarind, chilli powder and god-only-knows-what-else) with their fiery wares which drew us in droves as we slurped, gobbled, licked our fingers, wiped our eyes, hung out our burning tongues, and rubbed our runny noses. My older cousins often teased us and said that the dirtier the phuchka-wallah, the tastier would be his wares. The dirt of his hands (and elsewhere?) was the secret ingredient behind his mouth-watering (and eyes-and-nose-watering) recipes. But being gastronomic bravehearts, we were not deterred by such trifling rumours, and gulped down the gruesome grub to our heart's content.

There was the hajmi-churanwallah selling numerous dark and dangerous looking hajmis (supposedly-digestive-aids) and aachars (pickles) of ancient pedigree. He was such a great favourite of mine that for a long time I fantasised about marrying his son (he himself was nearing seventy), and living amidst a treasure trove of unending supplies of amshi (dried mango pickle) and kuler achar (berry pickle).

And then, there was the cake-wallah who would take down the black tin trunk which he carried atop his dirty turban, squat on the ground and open it in front of our eager eyes. Inside that plain black trunk (on which his initials would be painted in white block caps), would be a magical bonanza of colourful pastries (which we called 'cakes' in those pre-Monjinis days). The colours would be dubiously lurid, and the cakes themselves were suspiciously stale, but who cared? The crayon-pink and neon-green, and the rather more expensive brittle-brown (which cost more because it was claimed to be chocolate) coated confectionary was regarded as a coveted special treat by us, reserved for celebrations like birthdays or sports-days or result-and-promotion-days or you-are-my-best-friend-from-now-on-days.

After school, we would burst out of the confining school gates, a chattering-clattering-clamouring flock, with disheveled uniforms and inky faces, gathering in noisy, demanding groups around these treat-sellers, who dispensed dirt and deliciousness in equal degree.