Mahalaya marks the beginning of the festive-fortnight leading to Durga Puja. If I remember correctly, it is also the day when the Goddess Durga, accompanied by her four children – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh – leaves her mountain-home (alaya) to begin her journey down to her parents’ place on earth. If the rains have ebbed, she comes by elephant, if the monsoon spills over into autumn, she prefers the boat. Whatever the route, it’s a week-long journey, and she always manages to reach her baaper baari (father’s home) by Shasthi (the sixth day of the new moon). She’s a brave lady, making this long journey unaccompanied by her spouse (Lord Shiva – presumably glad to be rid of his militant wife and squabbling brood of children for a while, and enjoying his annual break spaced out on ganja and bhang, his usual intoxicants). Apart from her children, she is accompanied by her faithful vahana (pet), the lion and by her children’s vahanas, the owl, the swan, the peacock and the mouse. She is pestered by the evil demon Mahishasura (Buffalo-headed-demon), but the ten-armed and ten-weapon-ed Goddess is more than a match for him, and, at Shasthi we always see the demon lying vanquished at her feet.
For us Mahalaya was the official beginning of the festive season. Unofficially speaking, it was the sweet smell of the white-petalled-orange-stemmed shiuli which would remind us every morning that Pujo was round-the-corner and we would drink in the happy fragrance with uplifted noses and hearts.
The night-before-Mahalaya was one of anticipation and preparation. The alarm clocks would be set at four o’ clock or some such unearthly pre-dawn hour, and the radios and transistor sets would be set at the precise stations. Autumn chill made us curl tight under our bedclothes(I somehow remember blankets, but everybody else has laughed at the idea of blankets in September/October).
We would wake up to the sonorous, legendary voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra emanating full blast from the radio, retelling the heard-so-many-times tale of Durga and Mahishasura, dramatically taking us to the eternal battlefield of good-vs-evil. He recited in Sanskrit and in Bengali, and as Baba and Jethun (father and uncle), Maa and Barama (mother and aunt), Dadu and Didu (my grandparents), and my older cousins all sipped tea and listened and commented, Bhai and I drifted in and out of sleep on the rise and fall of the narrator’s voice, munching on Britannia Thin Arrowroot biscuits as the dawn broke over the pond-bank.
As the sun rose, Birendra Krishna Bhadra neared the end of his pre-recorded tale. With Durga slaying the demon, his stormy, martial voice calmed down to offer lyrical prayers to the peace-restoring deity. And as we opened our windows to let the sun in, the voice on our radio would mingle with the echoes of a hundred similar voices from other homes, and we would get up at this unaccustomedly early hour with a sense of newness, enjoying Mahalaya for what it was and what it heralded. Maa Durga was on her way and all was right with the world.
P.S: It is customary for all Bengali families to listen to Birendra Krishna Bhadra on Mahalaya – then on radio, thereafter on cassette, now on CDs, or is it I-pods?
DO YOU HAVE AN EAR FULL OF FESTIVE MEMORIES, TOO?