Durga Puja to me was never about religion.
I admit I grew up listening to the story of how the Goddess destroyed the evil force. I learnt the songs associated with the festival. I heard Birendra Krishna Bhadra's narration of the story every Mahalaya morning. I more or less knew the rituals and traditions associated with the Puja as my family in Kolkata performed this momentous occasion at home. But still, to me , Durga Puja was never about just rituals. It meant shopping, gorging on food, watching Bengali movies in the pandal, eating bhog and flaunting all my new dresses to my non- Bengali friends. In short, it was all about fun.
Those of us who grew up outside Bengal, the Puja was the only occasion to connect with our roots. The fun started almost a month before the Puja. We would get the dress materials as Puja gifts from our relatives. My mother and I would spend hours discussing the dresses. We would pour over the design books at the tailor and finally select the ones that both of us liked. In the days of no Shopper's Stops , Lifestyles and credit cards, shopping was admittedly more fun. We had to constantly watch our budget and at the same time keep an eye on fashion. It was another matter that in the eighties, fashion was more often than not, a complete disaster.
My best friend, who was from U.P., was perhaps more excited about the Puja than I was. Immediately after Puja, she would borrow all my clothes. The ones that she liked the most, she would keep permanently. If I protested, she would make an identical one for herself and then would wear it all the time. Fed up, I would stop wearing mine. She would then come and take that one also. This continued for years.
The Durga Puja was also about Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen movies. The Puja Committee would rent out the latest hits or some old classics... depending on the money collected that year for entertainment. As we were perpetually short of money, all four days of the Durga Puja, starting from the shashthi (the sixth day of the Navaratris) to navami, (the ninth day) we would sit on the dhurries ( or shotoronchi as we call it in Bengali) and watch Uttam- Suchitra scorch the 16 mm. projector screen. This was one mega movie marathon. Every night there were 3 movies screened. We never complained about the discomfort of sitting on hard ground all night. We also never complained about the heat, dust or mosquitoes.. We were too busy having fun. The lights would come on every time the projector operator changed out the reels. We would stretch out, yawn and walk a to the food stall. That was the only time we got to sample the Calcutta style rolls and mughlai parathas. And the ghugni (the Bengali version of chchole) was too good to resist. A few cups of tea to wash every thing down and we were ready for some more on screen romance. I remember once during a movie, we were left very confused when we saw a dead man walk after we saw him die just five minutes back. Later we realized the operator had by mistake shown the wrong reel first.
My friends could never understand how we could eat non-vegetarian food during the Durga Puja. For the Notrth Indians, the navaratris meant fasting and giving up on non-vegetarian fare. In our case, it was just the opposite. The more fish cutlets, the better. They would accuse me of not being spiritual during the holy days and I would just nonchalantly carry on eating. How could I explain to them that to us, eating a sumptuous plate of kosha mangsho (a kind of mutton curry) was almost as spiritual?
All four days of the Puja we ate out. The bhog , which was a simple fare, was served in the pandal every day. At night, we went pandal hopping and ate every thing the different food stalls had to offer. Dhakai paratha, luchi aloor dum, vegetable cutlets... my brother and I had to taste simply every thing. Once we also had some thing called ice cream bhaja ( fried ice cream). It was ice cream coated in a batter and deep fried. To be honest it was not as appealing once the novelty wore off.
The four days would simply fly away and on Vijaya Dashami day, we would all be a little teary eyed. I always resented my brother that day because he got to be on the truck that carried the idol for visarjan. For lesser mortals like us, there were buses. No matter how much I pleaded, I was not allowed to enter this all boys club. By evening, the banks of Yamuna would be full of idols from all parts of Delhi. The drum beats, the last aarti, the fragrance of incense... the sight was indeed magical.
In the evening, we all would meet for the Vijaya Sammelani, touched the feet of elders and sought blessings from them. We would eagerly wait for the invitations from most of them. "Come tomorrow to my house for Bijoya" actually meant" Come to my house and eat as much as you like. " Huge amount of goodies would be consumed and by night we were too tired to move.
There would be sadness in the air after the Puja but we knew we would meet again few days later for Laksmi Puja, (those yummy home made coconut laddoos) And then there was Kali Puja (Diwali) in another 20 days. My North Indian friends came home with their Diwali feast. Then Bhai phota ( bhai dooj). Although I complained bitterly that day because my mother would make my brother's favourite dishes. And some where tucked away in the middle, was Eid. Some of my friends would lovingly send some home cooked authentic Biryani. My brother and I felt like we had died and gone to heaven. And before we knew it, it would be Christmas (oh, those plum cakes and puddings!) and then New Year. The new beginning would bring some more festivals.
Life goes on. Celebrating a new festival almost every month. That is India. Aashche bochchor aabar hobey. It will happen again next year.