Now, strange things happen at times at most habitual moments. Like when they asked you to tell them "something about yourself" at your first job interview, and you looked blank. You did not know, until then, how difficult it could be to be asked to summarise your own self, in precise words and well-formed sentences, conclusively and sufficiently! You do not know where to start, what to carefully keep aside, what is just yours and not for the world to know, and what preciseness of the reply would fit the bill right, that is, to leave your audience engaged and pleased and to still be honest and at it. When confronted with casual curiosity, or even courtesy-calls, on something so damn close to you that you've grown up to belong to it or to be it yourself, it really gets bad. I know I am getting too gibberish for you to keep on reading this piece, especially in a season where you've so much to otherwise, and I duly apologise. Give me a chance to defend.
I'm just back from a very sudden going-total-blank-at-a-most-obvious-question situation at a non-Bong gathering. They casually, only slightly curiously, had just asked me one simple well-meaning question:
It got me!
Talking of immediate reaction to it, and as you must have figured out already, yes, I went blank! I stopped short, I fell short of words.
I smile back at them, still in loss, still in search of the right words, the right way…
Before I could gather myself back to tell them all about wearing new clothes for Puja, they had already given up waiting and were already at their second guess:
"Raam ne Durga Puja kiya tha na, Raavan-vadh se pehle?"
O yes, how true! Oh, but am I not a steadfast non-believer, an atheist? But then, who cares! Didn’t I say – Durga Puja is not about religion or customs, and not about logic and rationality either! It’s magic. The magic that created around us when my grandmother would hum the stories to me, I cuddled next to her, under the same blanket. She spoke in a soft, slow way, almost like a chant, as she lulled me to sleep every night. That story, that when Durga teasingly, playfully hid away the one of the count of hundred-and-eight blue lotuses, Raam offered his one eye to replace the lost lotus, faced with the test of his dedication... Among the stories I have grown up with, my childhood, my very own source of magic!
But before they take another dig, I had to blurt out something. I AM the Bong, isn't it?
“You know, the kind of money they spend on each community Puja.. The idols later sell as art pieces at big museums.. And I hear art college students these days make a decent living just out of Durga Puja productions... They just work towards these 4 days the whole year and it pays them off well enough. Singers bring out their albums, producers their movies… just on the Puja, for the Puja. In fact, the best of contemporary literature, all new writers, poets, publishers… the Puja magazines, at least a good dozen of them, are among the essentials of our Durga Puja!” – I tell them. Eyes of disbelief, I can see. Never mind! I continue, still.
“And then, to celebrate Durga Puja,” - I tell them – “the entire city of Kolkata comes to a stop on this event, for all four-to-five days. Offices, schools, everything, may be just other than emergency support functions. It’s not a religious occasion anymore, you see!”
Ah.. I could see my audience is fidgeting, losing engagement. But I could not leave Durga Puja at this, it's criminal. So, after a hasty thought I add a new angle, hoping they’d like that some better –
“You know,” I tell now… “Raamnavami is just one of the many tales behind Durga Puja. Actually, in the Bengali sense, we more think of Durga Puja from a home-coming point of view.”
“Home-coming…?” – They ask, surprised.
“Yes, homecoming…” – I insist. I proceed to explain.
Actually, all said and done, it is really a ten days' long ritual about a married daughter coming home. Mahalaya marks the day when the father, the mighty Himalaya who’s the father of Uma (aka Durga) sets out to bring the daughter home from her in-law's, upon his wife coaxing her into bringing the daughter home, because it’s been long, because she’s missing her, and because, she thinks, she must be home-sick. Over the last five days of the ten, we celebrate the homecoming of Durga, the daughter, with her children (and pets). And then, sooner than we realize, it’s time to go back! In tears, on the day of Bijaya Dashami, she sets out on her return journey. We bid her goodbye at the Ghaat, as she slowly, very slowly, takes to the water, immerses. We wipe our eyes and come back home.
“So really, Durga Puja symbolises the annual homecoming of married daughters to their father's home.” - I thought I had just said enough and no more, when the inevitable had to come. In shape of a most innocent query:
"And so, are you not going home?"