Good 'old' days
Remembering the simple pleasure of the extravagant ‘puja holidays’ of Eastern India in the sobering backdrop of the ongoing pandemic
It's that time of the year again. One can feel the rumblings of a giant slowly awakening and before we know it, puja, pandals and pandemonium will soon be upon us. If you grew up somewhere in Eastern India, one of your abiding memories will be of the almost two weeks of uninterrupted spiritual and hedonistic cleansing of the soul called the 'puja holidays'!
While Northern India brings out its swords and bows and arrows and goes about felling ten-headed demons with fiery fervour, the denizens of Eastern India are made of gentler stuff. They leave the hard work of dealing with the asuras to Ma Durga but ensure that she does so accompanied by the soothing war cries of conch shells and rhythmic 'dhaaks', beautiful women swaying to Puja songs and groups of harmless elders poking at the prasad thalis and telling each other that the food tasted better last year when they were in charge of the puja committee and it was expected of that wily Chatterjee to cut corners! And all the while the tsunami of devotees moves on from pandal to pandal devouring all prasad that comes in the way.
I spent my last big puja holidays in the small town of Agartala in 1980. Amitabh Bachchan was the reigning fashion icon and all young boys and men wore bell bottoms, dog collared shirts with sleeves rolled up and sported broad sideburns in a bid to look like him much to the delight of many a roadside barber and neighbourhood tailor! Come puja season and the town would be flooded with a pandemic outbreak of Bachchan clones as young males of different sizes, shapes and aesthetic attributes slipped into their 40-inch flares and oversized unbuttoned shirts and inflicted themselves on the general public. I have over a period burnt all my photos of that era but every now and then one slips through the crevices of time and even as I burn with shame and embarrassment, they do remind me of happier times sans the sartorial disaster.
One of the features of the puja season was the sudden piety that overcame the local 'paara mastaans-friendly' neighbourhood goons for the uninitiated. Normally they would be seen playing carom at the local one-room club or competing with the resident stray dogs to see who could bark louder. But with the advent of the holiday season, they would put on their coloured kurtas and starched dhotis and go about collecting donations for the puja pandal. The neighbourhood contributed without complaint, treating it as protection money so that the actual business of putting up the pandal by the local committee goes on unhindered!
For non-mastaans like me and my friends, it was the best time of the year, much looked forward to in the preceding months. Armed with hair neatly combed and slicked by a layer of fragrant oil, pointed black shoes peeping out from under the tent-like bell bottoms and a swagger, we would descend on the streets each evening like young Captain Cooks looking for new pandals to discover and conquer.
No two pandals were the same but in essence, they were all joined together by a common ambition and competitive spirit to be the loudest, the smokiest, the busiest and the most outlandish in every aspect. Each pandal was looked after by a local committee comprising largely of retired uncles and aunts and a small sprinkling of younger persons who strived to bring in a modern touch. As we peered through the smoke-filled pandals and nudged and pushed our way through the crowds, the majesty of the idols and their aesthetic qualities were the last things on our young minds. We were hounds on a mission with only two objectives — eat as much prasad as our flexible digestive system could take in and spot as many pretty girls as we could lay our roaming eyes upon. The first objective involved dexterous manoeuvring for escaping the hawk-like scrutiny of the committee members who stood guard against interlopers. The second part of the mission was however a real mind game as our feverish imagination kept pace with our heartbeats. Sightings were reported to each other with generous dollops of imaginary exchange of amorous smiles and stolen glances which called for much back-slapping and envious howls! By the time we had eaten enough to make a python sick and the bright lights started flickering, we had already convinced ourselves that our soul mates had been found. So each puja passed with hope and love always lingering around in the air just as tempting and temporary as the aromatic smoke from the 'dhunuchis' (clay vessels) held by graceful dancers.
We have come a long way from 1980. But Durga Puja comes each year with the same promise and hope for all. Young hearts beat a little faster, unemployed 'mastaans' and retired elders alike suddenly become possessed of a great sense of urgency and responsibility and the idol makers get their chance to create a goddess who will vanquish the demons of the world. But this year, Ma Durga will find a very different world waiting for her. There is a new demon in town who threatens to silence the 'dhaaks' and dim the lights before one can even say "Mahalaya"! As we approach the beginning of this year's festivities, these are sobering thoughts indeed. The new demon may well be vanquished sooner than later but there are other older demons whose shadows continue to cast a dark malignance over our society. The vaccines for these demons are perhaps waiting to be discovered in our hearts rather than in the testing labs of multinational companies. So while battles will be won, the war will continue.
And in small towns like Agartala, a discerning eye will notice a band of young schoolboys moving around the pandals with their minds focused on food, fun and a little bit of imaginary romance. Such is the magic and the legend of puja holidays!
Views expressed are personal